Our theme over the Lent has been that of ‘mediocrity’: the temptation from within to give up to bland uniformity or the pressure from without from political and religious powers to reduce the individual to the inconsequential or, as we’ve seen this morning so awfully on the news, to erase the individual entirely. Over-against these powers we’ve been led to consider the transforming power of the imagination: the way imagination can cause us to question the status quo and to make space for life to be different. Most notably in the first of the Lent films, The Breadwinner, it was the Afghan girl Parvana’s imagination that not only sustained her family but also inspired her own subversive exercise in passing herself off as a boy as she challenged the brutal control of the Taliban. On Palm Sunday Jeremy took up the theme by reminding us of Jesus’s subversive imagination in choosing the donkey as his ride – a creative up-side-downing (if I may coin a phrase) of the normal imagery of the horse-riding leader to remind us of the idea that the leader should be the servant and that we will be looking for this quality in our new vicar. In a similar way on Maundy Thursday Christine invited us to reflect on Jesus’s restoration of the disciple’s imaginations by drawing their attention to the ordinary but over-looked things: the washing of feet and the sharing of food. *And on Good Friday Gary led us in a meditation on the stations of the cross asking us to imagine the ways in which the various parts of that story, Jesus’ aloneness in Gethsemane, for example, might intersect with and modify our own lives.
And, I might add, each of those who’ve crafted these events have been using their own powers of imagination – Gary’s use of sound and placement and choice of objects; Christine’s use of painting, particularly that of Craigie Aitchison whose own imagination kept on being drawn back to the crucifixion; Jeremy’s memory of his aunt. And so, if I may, I’d like to continue to explore the theme of the subversive imagination in my own way (in what may turn out to be one of the odder Easter sermons…).
As many of you may know both Jo and I are historians. I’d like to play a game of historical re-imagination with you this Easter morning. It’s an imaginative exercise that grew up among historians in the 1990s called counter-factual history. The fashion for counter-factual history briefly spawned a series of books entitled What if? You may be most conversant with one particular variation of the ‘what if’ question: what if Britain had lost the Second World War? This imaginative question has spilt over into popular novels like Robert Harris’ Fatherland (also filmed) and In the High Castle. The point of counter-factual history is to add contrast or depth to what actually happened by showing us what might have occurred instead. And in this way imagination can move us from treating the world as an automatic given, to revaluing it as important and precious, often hard-won and unique. To look at how things might have been different can remind us of the power of individuals, communities and the ideas that inspire them.
The imaginative game we will play in a moment is one I’ve been running in my head for some months. For me it started when I first saw this plan of a Roman building. For those who can’t see it it’s a long rectangular structure with aisles on either side and an apse at one end. Can anyone tell me what it is? It’s called a basilica and for many centuries it was of course the standard form of a church – there would be an altar in the apse, and the congregation would be in nave. It’s a building shape based on a standard Roman model used for law courts. The apse is the place the judge or emperor would sit. The rounded apse not only serves as a visual focus but also acts as an acoustic dome – what is said here bounces out and is heard more loudly in the main body of the room. Basilica were used in many ways and the one I showed you was actually used as a temple for a religion called Mithraism. Perhaps it originally looked something like this. It survives underground in London.
Mithraism was a religion that flourished about the same time that Christianity began to take off in the Roman empire. It’s estimated that at one time there may have been as many as six hundred mithraea in Rome. But ultimately (obviously) it lost out to Christianity. Our imaginative game of ‘what if’ will be based on asking the question: what if things had gone the other way and Mithraism had survived and Christianity had not? And our aim in playing this imagination game is to make us re-value what we might otherwise take for granted this Easter.
In order to play it, let me tell you some more details about Mithraism, and in particular about the image that they placed in the apse of their building. *It was this image. Like Christianity’s crucifix the Mithraic focus of attention shows a sacrifice. Many of these images survive: all show the god Mithras in a position of dominance straddling a bull. Mithras pushes the bull’s back down with his left knee, whilst using his right foot to trap the bull’s hind leg. Mithras’ left hand holds the bull’s nose, pulling up the head, in order to plunge a dagger into the bull’s neck. From the wound flows blood, and a dog and a snake lap up the blood. In other versions the god Mithras is shown looking up and back over his shoulder to the Sun god who shines benevolently down upon him, sending a ray of light in a kind of blessing down to Mithras.
Of course, the image doesn’t show an historical event, it represents a cosmic one. *The animals below (a dog, a snake and a scorpion) together with the bull, represent the signs of the zodiac. This image shows the mythical creation of order and life out of the slaying of a powerful being. The one who does the slaying is the Sun god’s actor, Mithras. To either side of the sacrifice two figures are usually shown holding flaming torches. The flame of one is pointed down, the other up. These torches probably hint at the human cycle of life and death. In other words, this image says that human life takes place in the midst of a creation brought about by the Sun’s representative, Mithras, slaying a powerful beast.
Like the cross, this was an image that the Mithraic congregation gathered around; there would have been rituals in front of it led by a priest; there would have been a shared meal. As far as we can reconstruct Sundays – the festival of the Sun god who shines benevolently down on Mithras – were particularly holy; one of the major feasts was held on 25 December. *Mithraism was a male-only religion. It was particularly favoured by soldiers and the fairly well-off. There was probably something of an air of secrecy about it. Those who joined seem to have been gradually initiated through various levels of membership. There were seven levels which probably mapped on to the then seven-known planets. The second most senior seems to be linked to Mithras himself, and the one above that to the Sun. If you reached the highest level you earned the title of ‘Father’. The aim of this religion was to allow the story of Mithras’s overcoming of the bull to increasingly shape a man’s identity so that he ultimately became like the god Mithras.
When I first saw these images I was remined of certain echoes of Christianity. Clearly, there are shared ideas about placing an image of a sacrifice in the apse of a building and gathering around it for a meal; but even the smaller details of the image struck me as recognisable: the blood flowing from the bull’s wound that feeds others finds its echo in images of the crucifixion (like this one where two angels catch the blood in chalices); and like the Mithras images, images of the sacrifice of Christ often have a sun and moon in the background to show the cosmic significance of the story (again this one). Of course, there are some key differences between these two different sacrifices and the religions they gave birth to. But exploring that further is the point of the exercise. So, I’d like to invite you to use your imagination by considering some questions in pairs, and as you do so, to see if the exercise causes you to refresh your imagination about the meaning of Easter…
What ideas are being worshipped?
What human values might this image reinforce?
What might be the most important human institutions in a Mithraic society?
What would be said in a sermon on a ‘Mithraic Easter’?
When I play this imaginative game it makes me see some things afresh that I had forgotten: first, I recognise how close one way of doing Christianity could be to this religion. When I think of all the bad that our faith has done, I think of how it looks like someone in a powerful position feeling that he or she has the divine blessing to control and subdue others – I see that in the treatment of women; in the abuse of children and the vulnerable; in the treatment of the earth as something to be exploited. (And, though it is too soon to be sure, it would seem that that same malevolent way of doing religion lay behind this morning’s violence in Sri Lanka). But, this exercise also makes me see afresh all the good Christianity can achieve when it gets it right: when we recognise that central to an authentic Christian faith is not a dominator but an innocent victim. It reminds me that when Christians do use an image of an animal in representations of Christ’s death, it is not someone slaying a powerful beast: it is Christ himself taking the place of the lamb.
On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection – the standing up again – of the vulnerable victim. And when that idea enters our imaginations and permeates into our behaviour it can make remarkable things occur. I think of how in the early church it was the imagination of the risen victim that led Christians to look after the poor and abandoned children in ways that astonished Roman society; I think of how the imagination of the risen lamb led those same early communities to include women and slaves in their meals whilst they rehearsed stories about a kingdom in which it was the lamb and not Caesar was occupied the throne; I think of how that same imagination later led Christians to found institutions called monasteries where people were allowed to step outside of the normal productive order of society to form communities focused on prayer and service; and it was these communities, holding onto the imagination of the-lamb-that-was-slain that gave rise to hospitals for the sick and which held up a vision of a common good to temper the worst of feudalism. *I think of how when monasticism became stale, it was reformers like Francis, himself literally marked by the wounds of the victim, who revitalised the Christian imagination by placing the leper centre stage and rejecting the temptations of wealth by adopting the clothes of the beggar. I think about how it was the imagination of the holy victim that was carried over to America by small numbers of Spanish Dominicans and Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to question the treatment of natives, *and how that same imagination lived in groups of British evangelicals in the eighteenth century causing them to campaign to end the control and sale of humans as slaves. I think of how in the nineteenth century it was the Christian imagination that led to campaigns about the safety of factory workers, protection for children, and for animals – because those Christians believed that the risen lamb was central to life not the powerful factory owner. I think of how that imagination inspired Anglo-Catholic Christians to make common cause with socialists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to agitate for the voice and the wellbeing of the working class, for redistributive taxation, for nationalised medicine accessible to all not just to elites.
This exercise reminds me, lest I should forget, that when the image of the risen lamb enters into the imagination of faithful Christians throughout history and around the world, and to this day and in this place, a refuge is sought for the homeless, a welcome for the excluded, justice for the powerless, and for the environment to be placed centre-stage as a precious vulnerable gift. Today, even in the face of violence, we celebrate that Christ the lamb is risen. May that good news so fill our imaginations that you and I, and Christians around the world, may ourselves be raised up to live new kinds of lives and to play our part in the coming of God’s peaceable kingdom.