Death Fruit and Stoney Bread

For me, like many, Mother’s Day is not a day in which I can celebrate motherhood all too easily – as in my mind it is first and foremost a day which heightens my sense of loss.

Mother’s day is quite a difficult one I think. It can hold a lot of hurt for people. For Mothers and their children, where there has been death, or antagonism, or just worry and uncertainty. So it makes today pretty odd for me. On one hand I feel a heightened sense of my loss, and on the other I feel the immense privilege in what I have gained; the privilege of taking up this post, and becoming your minister. So here at this new beginning I am reminded of death. Could anything be more appropriate? ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ We are confronted with death, confronted with our own mortality, and yet this should not lead us to despair, but rather compel us to be more alive!

I came across an essay last week by Barbara Kingsolver in which she captures this sentiment perfectly. She writes ‘In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colourless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.’

This is a kind of Easter story, from the wilderness we enter into the calling upon our lives. From coming face to face with death we are propelled into life. From the darkness we come into the light.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, the fruit they are told leads to death. In the Temptation of Jesus, that we had read to us, Satan is again up to his old tricks, trying to get Jesus to eat - this time bread. Let’s put the passage in context. Before Jesus ends up in the wilderness, he goes to seek out the greatest Jewish teacher alive: John the Baptist. John the Baptist then baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan, and we are told that the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove, and the heavens declare “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” And then that same Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness… Cheers.

Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov

Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov

We, as good rational Unitarians, are clearly going to take issue with a number of things which happen in this story: fasting for 40 days, conversing with Satan, being teleported to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. We are tempted ourselves, to fit the narrative into a mould of how we think the world really is: maybe this is some kind of psychosis brought on by denying the body the food and water it needs… Or on the other hand we are tempted to simply deny the story entirely: it’s not true so what value can it have? Perhaps both approaches are missing something.

So, Adam and Eve eat that evil fruit. Now, why there was an evil fruit to hand is anyone’s guess… But ignoring obvious plot holes, I think the allegory or myth must be pointing to something bigger, something about our human nature, or human condition. In the wilderness according to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is tempted three times. The temptations relate to material things, then power, then worship: a pattern of corruption discernable throughout history amongst people ensnared by the lure of power. The Stalins, the Hitlers, and the Pol Pots of our world… 

As that famous expression goes: ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Enlightenment, purpose of spirit, a sense of divine clarity unleashes a power within us: leadership, vision, passion, creativity. Yours to use or abuse, yours for good or ill. As soon as one is exposed to the heights of the human condition, the darkest corners of our souls show themselves:

'You are nothing'. 'O yes I am, at least now, right here'. 'Then enjoy! Indulge in the pleasures of life'. 'I have a deeper purpose'. 'Then starve yourself for the sake of others. Die, you’ll get there sooner'. 'Get thee behind me'. In fact this mythology is echoed very closely in the Buddhist tradition also. Gautama, ‘The awakened one’, meditating under the Bodhi Tree encounters the Evil One immediately after reaching enlightenment.

In other words, the experience of Gautama or Jesus speaks to the human condition, the human capacity to choose the way of life, to choose life in all its fullness, just as Adam and Eve point to our human capacity to choose the way of death: not so much physical death, but spiritual death, a lack of love, of empathy, or perspective. This leads us to a prayer, the prayer that we may follow the way of Jesus, or the way of Gautama, the way of enlightenment and fullness of life, the way of Love; that we may not be embittered by any loss, that we may not be made hopeless by frustration, nor isolated and made alone by our sorrow, but rather might find connections, and strive to be more loving throughout all our days.

This is Not an Apple by  Ren é Magritte

This is Not an Apple by René Magritte

So returning to that first temptation: it begins with the shallow ‘want’. ‘Command these stones to become loaves of bread’. Surely you of all people can fulfill a material want! The temptation concerns our relationship with the material world, our primal connection to the world, the mother and child union, which in some sense we all long to return to. How easily corrupted that is. How easily our identity can get wrapped up in sensations or stuff, or greed can drive us towards endless acquisition. Our souls become embittered, and the beauty of nature is reduced to simply being another commodity to be traded and sold. In the Muslim tradition, Muhammad (May Peace be upon him) says “If I had two loaves of bread, I would sell one to buy flowers to feed my soul.” Our relationship to nature, to the material world, is as it were the first step towards spiritual maturity, the first step which Adam and Eve stumbled upon, and upon which humanity at large continues to fall foul. One way to think about Mother’s Day more broadly is to think about this world which brought us forth: Mother Nature, or Gaia. Here is something to be celebrated, and considered.

In the Second temptation Jesus flirts with divine power, flirts with the idea of being God. Can you imagine? Surely the heavens and earth will move to your bidding! Angels will bear you up, so that you will not be dashed against a rock. A self-justification in the face of others. Who are you to question me? How easily the ethically sensitive become puritanical, judgmental, self-righteous… It is one thing to appreciate the beauty of nature around us, but it is quite another to let that beauty in, to allow it to work upon our souls.

The third and final Temptation concerns Worship: ‘All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me'. Here is the temptation to orientate one’s entire purpose and life in opposition to the sacred, in opposition to the way of love; a turning away from that which is humanly edifying, going down the way of hatred, ignorance, isolation, and destruction. Here we must strive to unite the various dimensions of our lives, the beauty of the world, with the knowledge that we will die - that ethical imperative to live an existence which is greater than the transient brief span of life we are allotted, by the realisation that we can never settle once and for all the tension between the possible and the necessary.

Perhaps this unification of the beautiful, the ethical, and the religious, is best captured in a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition. Gautama gave a sermon in which he did not speak. He simply smiled, and held up a single flower. In so doing he wordlessly transmitted more wisdom than the very best of sermons.

That we may not be embittered by any loss, that we may not be made hopeless by frustration, nor isolated and made alone by our sorrow, but rather might find connections, and strive to be more loving throughout all our days…