On meeting Christa in the kitchen

I often pray in my kitchen, and even more so during the last year when we have largely been worshiping at home. The bishop who confirmed me told us we should pray while doing the washing up (I’m sure he said lots of other wise things as well, but that’s what I remember!) and I really took that to heart. And as I have prayed in my kitchen I have thought back over the times when I have encountered God in kitchens, but would not at the time have recognised her as such. In the kitchens of my Granny, step-mum, aunties, friends, in the experience of being heard and seen, of being valued and taught and fed, in recipes passed on and struggles shared, so often I have been in the presence of God in the kitchen, and not realised it at the time.

Last year, as lockdown started, there was a certain amount of controversy in the wider church about the concept of ‘church at home’, and particularly what seemed to me a slightly snobbish dismissal of the kitchen as a site of worship. And it seemed to me that some of that dismissiveness was associated with seeing the kitchen, and the domestic sphere more generally, as ‘women’s space’, and therefore not a ‘proper’ place to encounter God. In that context, Christa seemed like the ideal companion with whom to reclaim that space as holy ground, and to explore what it means to recognise God in the kitchen.

On meeting Christa in the kitchen

Where else would she be but here,
among the everyday miracles that feed us,
the rising of daily bread?

I met her here long before I knew her name,
the body of Christa inhabiting the kitchen,
elbows planted firmly on the table, 
or leaning up against the fridge,
a mug of tea in hand – or else a glass of wine – 
moving with a grace and ease
that taught me how to take up space.

Her arms lifted me up
to stir the Christmas cake, for luck. 

Her fingers guided mine,
until the movements came as easily as breathing.

Her ears heard into speech
my deepest dreams and longings,
back turned and busy, to attend
to what could not be said face-to-face.

She passed on the wisdom 
of how to make a meal out of nothing. 

She has slipped between the pages 
of my battered recipe book,
spattered with chocolate and gravy. 
There she is, in a living litany of kitchen saints,
in Granny’s biscuits, Dora’s fruitcake,
Genny’s hot cross buns. 

Here in the kitchen, Christa wears a pinny
as holy as any vestment, 
and suited to every season.
She breaths deeply, freely, 
rolls up her sleeves,
and gets stuck in. 

Christa – the female figure of Christ – emerges from a tradition of female forms of the Divine which stretches back to the earliest days of Christian history in art and theological writing, though it has often been suppressed by a male-dominated, patriarchal church. For contemporary Christian feminists, Christa can provide a freer and more expansive way of exploring Christological concepts and doctrines, in ways which move away from the patriarchal frameworks in which these theologies have become entangled.

My own journey with Christa has been most strongly influenced by the poetry of Nicola Slee (“Seeking the Risen Christa” (SPCK, 2011)) and the art of Caroline Mackenzie (https://carolinemackenzie.co.uk/).

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Recognising Jesus – a reflection on the road to Emmaus

I wonder if you have ever had that experience of seeing someone familiar, and just not quite being able to place them. You know you know them from somewhere – but where? And what on earth is their name? I suspect it’s an experience we’ve all had, perhaps some of us more frequently than others. I know it used to happen to me all the time when I was a youth worker, working in a lot of different schools. I would see a child out of school – and, more crucially, out of school uniform – and just not quite be able to place them.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognise Jesus as he walks with them. We don’t know what they were thinking as they walked – was there something familiar about this stranger? Were they sure they knew him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put their finger on it? And we don’t know why they didn’t recognise him. Was it simply that they really didn’t expect to see him? Was his appearance changed in some way? We can only imagine

Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple still don’t recognise Jesus as they talk with him. This is, to me, perhaps more surprising. As he asks them questions – Jesus whom they have heard asking questions so many times before, big questions which must have left them pondering – they do not recognise him in his questioning. And as he teaches them about the scriptures – Jesus whom they have heard teach so many times before, from whom they have learned so much – they do not recognise him in his teaching.

When they do recognise him, it in another action they have seen him do before: “in the breaking of the bread.” And not only the breaking of the bread, but in the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. This, the disciples recognised. Not only from their very recent meal in the Upper Room, but also perhaps from the feeding of the 5,000, and from who knows how many ordinary, everyday meals with Jesus, of which we have no record. It is in this familiar action that the disciples finally recognise the risen Jesus.

And once they have recognised him, they see their encounter with him differently. With the great benefit of hindsight, they see afresh their conversation with him on the road. I wonder how many of us recognise this experience, of realising only in retrospect where and how we have encountered Jesus? I suspect quite a lot of us. And recognising Jesus’ presence with us only after the event is no failure on our part. As we see from a whole host of stories – from this one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the Roman Centurion’s belated realisation that “truly, this man was the Son of God” – it is part of a pattern of hiddenness and revelation, recognition and unveiling, which is common to the way God makes Godself known.

“Recognise” is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin roots ‘re’, meaning ‘again’, and ‘cogito’, meaning ‘to know’. To recognise is to know again. The disciples recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread know him again, perhaps know him in a new way, know him as risen. We might be reminded of the quote from T.S. Eliot which Al shared in his introduction to our Easter Sunday ‘Trees of Life’ material:

‘We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.’

This is an Easter kind of recognition. It is both a knowing again, and a knowing anew. The disciples both recognise Jesus as the friend whom they thought they had lost forever, and recognise him as the risen Christ. He is both strange and familiar to them. In some sense, even in their recognition, they are knowing him ‘for the first time’. And not only knowing Jesus afresh, but perhaps understanding afresh all that they have learned from him and experienced with him.

But this recognition is not, primarily, to do with understanding. It is a different and deeper knowing than that. This is primarily a knowing of the heart, rather than the head. Hearts are important here. “How foolish you are and slow of heart” says Jesus to the uncomprehending, unrecognising disciples. And then “were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask one another in their moment of recognition. Recognising Jesus for who he is is much more a recognition in the heart than the head (although we would be foolish to think the two can be entirely separated).

We may want to pause for a moment here and ask: when and where and how have we recognised Jesus in our own lives and experiences? When are the times that our hearts have burned within us? When are the times that we have looked back and recognised God in an experience in which we didn’t see God at the time? And where are the places and situations where we still need our eyes to be opened, to see afresh, to know again, the presence of Jesus where we least expect him?

There is something significant here about this moment of recognition occurring in the context of the disciples’ hospitality to the unrecognised Jesus. As we sometimes say in church in our eucharistic prayer: “Jesus was often a guest”. It is as a guest that the disciples receive him and recognise him. But he is also, in taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread, inhabiting the role of the host. And these disciples, perhaps shaped by all the teaching they have heard from Jesus himself over the years, are not only ready to offer hospitality to this stranger, but also receptive enough to allow him to take a hosting role which might more properly be theirs.

It is in this that Jesus is recognised: both as guest and host, both as the one who receives his friends and is received by them, in a mutuality which subverts expectations and breaks down the binary distinction between guest and host. We, the church, would do well to learn from this. Very often, the church can be concerned with playing the host, with being the ones with resources to offer, the provider, the giver. More rarely, the church is able to see ourselves as guest, receiving the hospitality of our neighbours. What Jesus shows us here, and in so many places, is that this isn’t an either/or situation.

Jesus invites us to become less concerned with who is the guest and who is the host, whose territory we are on or who is in charge. Jesus is not to be found in concerns for status, hierarchy, or proper order (which is so often a cover for power misused). Instead he is recognised in the gentle subversion of divisions and distinctions, and in the sharing of daily bread.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

Glimpses of Resurrection – an Easter sermon

If, after the pain and grief of Jesus’ passion and death, we are looking for a happy ending, then the gospel accounts of the resurrection might seem like a bit of a disappointment. There is no triumphalism here, no promise that everything will be alright now. What there is instead is a dizzying whirl of experience and emotion.

Mark’s gospel ends with terror, amazement, and fear. John describes the beautiful but bewildering encounter between Mary Magdalen and the risen Jesus in the garden. Though her tears may have turned to joy at the sound of her name from the lips of one who knows her like no other, still there is an incompleteness here. “Do not hold on to me” says Jesus. That pain of being unable to hold, to touch, the beloved is one to which we can all surely relate more closely now than ever. Resurrection, at least in these gospel accounts, is not necessarily the uncomplicated resolution to every pain and sorrow.  

As we rise to greet the dawn of this Easter day, whether we are singing triumphant Alleluias or barely daring to whisper them, the grief and lament in our own lives too is not resolved. We mourn all that we have lost in this last year, we bear the wounds and scars of this time, and our Easter joy does not take them away. Nor should we expect it to. The risen body of Jesus still bears the scars of crucifixion and we – the church, Christ’s body in the world – we too still hold within us our own woundedness even as we rise.

Resurrection is not the salve for all our ills, it does not promise unending, untroubled happiness. Not because the gift of life and love which Jesus brings into the world in his rising is too small, but because it is something greater than that, something different and more complex, deeper and more lasting, than the false hope of “it’s all going to be ok”.

The joy which is kindled on Easter morning, ‘while it was still dark’, is a joy which burns slowly and deeply, which burrows into the very depths of our being, into the very substance of the universe, and can never be extinguished. This is not the false optimism which wants to dismiss our grieving, or smooth over the hurts and injustices of the world. This is the deep-rooted hope of resurrection life which knows that death will come and grief will hurt, but still steadfastly says that death cannot have the last word. This is the light of love which burns so constantly and steadfastly that it cannot be overcome.  

And all around us we can catch glimpses of this resurrection glory. Not only in the obvious joys – the blossoming trees, the familiar faces – but also in treasure more deeply buried but there for the seeking. It is there in the resilience of communities and the love of neighbours; in resistance to injustice, and refusal to look away; in dissatisfaction with the world as it is and dreams of what it could be.

The whole creation is shot through with resurrection glory, if only we will have eyes to see it. This is the great revelation of Easter, the great truth of our faith: that a different world – different from the one which will crucify its saviour rather than bear to hear the truth of who God is, different from the one which will crucify again and again those who dare to resist destructive power and embrace another way of living – a different world is not only possible, but is already here. Underlying all our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, guilt and shame and grief, underlying all that makes us human in all our messy complexities and contradictions, underlying all that we are and all that the universe contains, is the unending, immeasurable, incomprehensible love of God – deeper and wider than our imaginations can contain, infinitely merciful, and totally freely given.

It is this that the resurrection reveals. Not the triumph of good over evil, or the end of suffering and death – even the most cursory glance at the world could tell us that that is not the case. But something both less heroic and more pervasive – a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the world, a transformed and transforming change of perspective. In his rising Jesus flings open every imprisoning gate and door to reveal the sheer, overwhelming grace in which God holds all time and space and all eternity. And once we have caught a glimpse of it, once we have seen – even in our anxiety and uncertainty – the underlying, all-encompassing love of God as the foundation on which the whole universe rests, then our way of seeing the world, our neighbours, and ourselves, is forever fundamentally altered. This is the great rupture which the resurrection brings, both in Jesus’ rising on that first Easter day, and also in every resurrection moment in which we catch sight – however fleetingly – of  that sure and steadfast joy.

Easter is not the ‘happily ever after’ of a fairy tale ending. It is so much more than that. For a start, it isn’t an ending. Resurrection is much more a beginning than an ending: far from neatly rounding off the Jesus story, it opens it up and points ahead, into a vast, expansive reality of joy and hope, love and new life. This reality, this realm of resurrection, is often hard to catch sight of, often obscured, but it is always present, ready to bubble up in new and unexpected ways, ready to invite us with the whole creation into new and abundant ways of living.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

‘Christ and Mary Magdalen’ by David Wynne, Magdalen College, Oxford

Noli Me Tangere

I wrote this poem on Easter Sunday 2020. In these times when we are having to keep our distance from each other in order to keep each other safe, Jesus’ words to Mary, “do not touch me” or “do not hold onto me”, seem to take on a new significance. In the figure of the risen Christa we meet the God who cannot be held onto or pinned down into something neat and manageable. She is more than that, and freer than that. And she invites us into the freedom of her risen life. Even as we continue to experience the constraints and limitations of the restrictions we are currently living with, we can catch glimpses of resurrection joy and hope, and allow those glimpses to open our minds and hearts to a more expansive, more liberating vision of God, our neighbours and ourselves.  

‘Noli me tangere’ (‘Do not touch me’) 

In the distance between us,
Christa is risen,
shimmering footloose and fancy-free
across the dew-damp grass,
no more contained by lockdown
than by liturgy.

She will not be
constrained, held back,
grabbed, groped, caught.

She will not be
confined to her allotted place,
made small enough to fit
the expectations of our gaze.

She will not be reduced
to what people can manage.

She takes up space,
laughs too loudly, talks too much,
is more than anyone can handle,
strides straight out of the rooms
we have prepared for her,
to gossip on street corners
with unsuitable strangers.

Stand back and watch her rise,
beyond even the furthest boundaries
of what we ever dreamt
this re-born God could be:
transformed by light which pours
from open wounds.

‘Do not touch’, but
sing, shout, laugh, dance
with all the wild delight
of her risen life in you.

Christa – the female figure of Christ – emerges from a tradition of female forms of the Divine which stretches back to the earliest days of Christian history in art and theological writing, though it has often been suppressed by a male-dominated, patriarchal church. For contemporary Christian feminists, Christa can provide a freer and more expansive way of exploring Christological concepts and doctrines, in ways which move away from the patriarchal frameworks in which these theologies have become entangled.

My own journey with Christa has been most strongly influenced by the poetry of Nicola Slee (“Seeking the Risen Christa” (SPCK, 2011)) and the art of Caroline Mackenzie (https://carolinemackenzie.co.uk/).