Between the hamlet where I live and Great Bedwyn, the nearest village with a shop and a school and a post office, is a wooded spur of downland known locally as the brail. A path runs through the brail which at one point crosses open ground.
One summer holidays back in the 1980s my then teenaged brother-in-law worked on an archaeological dig up on the brail, just north of the path. A team from Indiana University was excavating the site of a Roman villa. On preliminary ‘walks’ across the area, they’d found tesserae, coins, roof tiles, buttons, glass medicine bottles. The findings from the subsequent dig were published a decade later by Indiana University Press as The Romano-British Villa at Castle Copse, Great Bedwyn. In the Introduction, the writers refer to ‘village elders’ who could recall how rubble from the villa was used in the building of roads at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Another decade on, a friend of mine bought a copy of the Indiana University book and a group of us went up onto the brail to try to find the site. Our children – young then – were expecting a romantic heap of marble columns and crumbling arches and rusting swords. They were disappointed by the undulating and soggy patch of clearing in the forest. It was a place we’d all walked past many times before. But what disappointed the children fascinated the adults. How can something as massive and solid as a Roman villa just vanish? How can the past pass from sight so completely?
But then eight year old Maisie found something. A sort of tongue-sized and tongue-shaped terracotta fragment. We passed it round between us. Could it be the rim of a bowl or jar? What particularly drew our attention was a clear thumb print in the pottery. Was this the print of a Roman artisan left in the clay as it was drying?
The past leaves a mark, a print. If I asked you to remember the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, you’d probably all recall:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph…
But actually that’s not the beginning of the gospel. That is verse eighteen. The first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel are a genealogy, tracing the lineage of Jesus back forty two generations. Names crop up in the list that don’t often get a mention: Jechoniah and Salathiel and Zerubbabel, for example. Remember them? I didn’t think so. They’re thumbprints, left in the ground. Traces, all but effaced from history. (For the record, all three were kings of Judah: 1 Chronicles 3)
We leave out the first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel because we think they don’t really matter. Instead, we cut to the chase: ‘she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’ And we’re off… It’s hard to make a nativity play out of a family tree.
But Matthew’s right; the thumbprints are vital. The past is much closer than we think. It can touch us, thumb to thumb. The opening track of The Streets’ 2002 debut album, Original Pirate Material is ‘Turn the Page’ on which Mike Skinner raps: ‘I’m forty-fifth generation Roman.’ And he’s probably pretty much bang on.
Paradoxically, we are heirs of the Enlightenment which deliberately set out to disinherit us. Enlightenment thinking’s emphasis on the singular power of human reason unfettered by tradition and doctrine has left us somehow past-less, uprooted, bereft. It left us with… museums.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love museums. But they can make us feel we’re only able to visit the past. Matthew’s point in opening his gospel with a genealogy, is not that we can go back to the past but that the past lives on in the present, in our veins. We are museums.
The first name on Matthew’s list is Abraham. When God takes Abram out of his tent and tells him to look up into the night sky He says:
‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’Genesis 15:5
God goes on to describe a history of these descendants – slavery, freedom, a promised land – that has not yet happened. It’s not so much a case of God knowing the future as there being no difference for God between future and past. The whole of creation is spread out before Him like the stars. God sees it all.
If God sees the future in the same way He sees the past, doesn’t that mean the future is fixed in the way the past is fixed? No, says Boethius, a Roman Christian writing from prison in the sixth century:
We see many things before our eyes as they happen, like the actions we see charioteers performing in order to control and drive their chariots, and other things of this sort. But no necessity forces any of them to happen in this way, does it?Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book V
God’s knowledge of the future, Boethius says, is just God’s knowledge of things as they happen, an eternal NOW. It’s all present to God – chariot races and coronaviruses, Roman villas being built and their ruins being used for roads . All of it happening now.
Eternal life doesn’t mean living forever, on and on; it means living in God’s NOW which is also an always.
When Maisie’s find was taken to the museum in Devizes, they confirmed it was a section of Roman piping, part of a hypocaust heating system. And so the thumbprint was certainly Roman. We slid our thumbs into his thumbprint.
Touching distance. And it’s all touching distance.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.James 4:8
Vic Chestnutt died ten years ago. He was the most marvellous songwriter of his generation. Injured in a car crash in 1983, he performed from a wheelchair. His writing and his music are shot through with a funny, haunting mysticism. I adore him.
This is ‘Rambunctious Cloud’ which is about rain, but also isn’t. It includes the lines:
The same water that the dinosaurs drank
is the same water that the Persian fleets sank in;
the very water that moistened the primordial ooze
is now hammering on my metal porch roof.
So beautiful it makes me cry every time.
hear us, the descendants of Abraham:
open our eyes
to the revelation of your truth
open our hearts
to the glory of your boundless love,
open our lives
to the riches of your grace,
draw near to us, Lord,
as we draw near to Him, your Son,
our Saviour, Jesus Christ,
the same yesterday, today, and forever.