Seeking the Holy Grail

 

Seeking the Holy Grail:

Bulgakov on Christ, his blood, and the world.

 Lent Talk, Elshieshields Tower, Lochmaben, 15th March 2014

 

1 What is the Holy Grail?

 

  • It is a legend commencing in late 12th C created by French and German poets

  • It takes various forms:

    • a plate or bowl containing the bread of Holy Communion for the Fisher King

    • a stone cast down from heaven on which the abstaining angels stood for sanctuary when Lucifer rebelled against God

    • a cup in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood on the cross

    • modern interpretations include Mary Magdalene as the receptacle of Jesus’ seed

  • The chalice is most popular today, doubling as the same cup used by Jesus in the Last Supper

  • Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Grail to England, which then became an important part of the Arthurian myths.

  • But this is a Lent talk, so what has all this medieval romanticism to do with a serious spirituality?

  • In itself, nothing.

  • I want to focus on the significance the great Russian theologian, Bulgakov, makes of its contents, as it is these that define its meaning: the blood of Christ on the cross.

 

2 Sergei Bulgakov

 

  • 1871-1944. From family of a long line of priests. Rejecting his childhood faith while in seminary, he turned to Marxism. Playing an important part in Russian revolution of 1905, he was one of the most influential thinkers in Russia for a number of years.

  • After conversations with Tolstoy, and under the influence of the writings of Dostoevsky and Solovyov, and the tragic death of his young son, he returned to his Orthodox faith

  • He was ordained priest in 1918, exiled from Russia 1923, and eventually ended up in Paris in 1925.

  • Here he remained for the rest of his life, teaching theology as dean of the St Sergius Russian Orthodox Theological Institute, which he helped found, and acting as priest in the Russian Orthodox emigré community in Paris.

  • He was at the centre of the sophiology controversy in 1931-37, which was as much political as theological. It has left a lingering mark over his legacy for some, even today.

  • His great vision was of the comprehensiveness of the significance of the incarnation of Christ.

  • In this he follows in the footsteps of 7th C Maximus the Confessor – arguably greatest of all Eastern theologians.

  • That nothing less than the entire cosmos is included in Christ since, in his humanity, he took the stuff of creation and united it to God as the 2nd person of the Trinity.

 

3 Blood and Water

 

  • So we return to Jesus’ death on the cross.

  • Read Jn 19:32-38, esp v34. Note the extraordinary hiatus John introduces into the narrative at this point. Clearly he wants us to note something of supreme importance

  • The legend is that Joseph caught some of this blood and water in the chalice used for the last supper.

  • That is not Bulgakov’s interest. His interest lies in the significance of the outpouring of the blood and water itself from Christ’s body.

  • Note there are two elements – blood and water. Bulgakov explores each of them in turn.

  • Blood:

    • In the OT it is the substance of life.

    • Temple worship revolves around outpouring of blood, and sprinkling of blood

    • Is taken in to the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat on Day of Atonement (Lev 16)

    • Blood atones for sin and makes holy

    • It is the seat of the spirit within the body.

    • But it is also the animatedness, the life-force, of the body

    • Is that which contains, as it were, the soul of the body

    • The blood of Christ at Holy Communion gives new life and deifies

    • But that blood is wine transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

    • Wine is the blood of the earth, ‘fruit of the vine and work of human hands’.

    • This blood is Christ’s actual blood.

    • So the outpouring of Christ’s blood on the cross is the outpouring of his very life – the soul of the Son of God.

  • Water:

    • This is the OT symbol of creation

    • In Genesis 1 the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep at the onset of creation

    • Water signifies the chaotic, untamed and unformed material of creation

    • It is the proto-element out of which all creation, the whole cosmos, including humanity, is ultimately made (Gen 1:2, 6; Ps 29:3)

    • So crossing the waters of the great Flood, the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan, and the waters of baptism are the re-creating and re-newing waters of creation

    • Likewise priests must bathe in water before entering Holy of Holies on day of Atonement

    • Similarly with the Sea of Glass in Rev 15:2, beside which those who have defeated the beast are standing, singing the song of Moses

    • Water,” Bulgakov says, is the “unifying, all-dissolving, all-containing protoelement of the earth”

  • Blood and water together therefore signify the fullness of humanity – material body and animating soul – the sacrificed body and blood of our Lord.

  • So Jesus says to Nicodemus “you must be born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5)

  • The outpouring on the cross is Christ’s own humanity, not just humanity in general, being poured out.

  • In 1 Jn 5:6 John writes “This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ…there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood”

  • We need to pause for a moment to reflect on this:

    • the incarnated Son of God took our humanity upon himself

    • this humanity, united to the Second Person of the Trinity, is literally poured out from his side upon the cross

    • this body and blood is NOT the same as the body and blood of communion, although they are clearly related.

    • The bread and wine of Holy Communion are the substance and blood of the earth, transfigured by the Spirit of God to become our spiritual food and drink.

  • But what is the significance of all this for us?

 

4 The Holy Grail

 

  • Now we return to the issue of the Holy Grail

  • Bulgakov sees, in the legends of the Holy Grail, something of the importance of its contents reflected in its ideals of holiness – only those who are pure of heart can find it.

  • But the chalice is not the real Holy Grail – that is simply romantic myth.

  • The real Holy Grail is the very ground onto which this blood and water sprinkled.

  • The earth itself received the body and soul of Christ in his death.

  • This is the blood and water of his sacrifice, rather than the blood and body of communion, although again, clearly the two are related.

  • The bread and wine of communion – Christ’s body and blood – rather than being consumed by us to become part of our body, performs a spiritual function, transforming us into the body of Christ

  • Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread”

  • Thus consuming Christ’s body and blood transforms us into itself.

  • Likewise with Christ’s blood and body outpoured on the cross – it transforms the whole of creation into Christ’s body.

  • Christ’s physical presence, Bulgakov says, although hidden, still abides throughout the very fabric of the universe.

  • His humanity, which is our humanity, abides in creation, even today, transforming it and making it holy.

  • The great “Pan”, as he calls the demonic possession of nature, has been unseated by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

  • The sprinkling of his blood on the earth, prefigured in the OT by the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial bull and goat in the Holy of Holies, has made the world the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God, signified by the rending of the veil in the Temple.

  • Yet it remains hidden, invisible and unknown, until the day that the new heaven and new earth are revealed when Christ comes again in glory

  • Just like the hiddenness of the glory of God, momentarily revealed in the burning bush, or on the Mount of Transfiguration.

  • In that day we will see that ‘in him we live and move and have our being’

 

5 For us today

 

  • This physical re-reading of the Holy Grail has astounding implications for the way we live today

  • It requires of us to see the holiness of God all around.

  • To notice the world in which we live. This is beautifully put in a quotation from the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie I came across recently. Speaking of her husband’s illness she writes

    Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

  • This attention is closely related to the recognition that the world around us is part of the Church – the body of Christ, taken from his side and made into his bride

  • The world is an extension of Christ’s own body, as it is of each of us.

  • The material world around us is part of us – we are continually exchange atoms and molecules with the world around us every time we bite, or sip, or take a breath.

  • The Bride of Christ is nothing less than redeemed humanity with the cosmos

  • This integrity of creation is at the centre of the story of Noah, where we remember the enormous, 150yd long boat built not principally for its 8 human occupants, but for a myriad of animals.

  • And on the Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses, the inclusion of animals inside the vine that represents Christ and his Church declares the same message.

  • At the Bewcastle House of Prayer we are attempting to ‘pay attention’, to notice Christ’s presence in creation, and imbue our work on the land with prayer.

  • But we are just beginning, there is so much to learn – and we have lost so much of the wisdom the Church once had in the last 500 years.

  • Perhaps we need to look further afield, and learn from those who still know how to listen to the Spirit of God, revealing Christ to us in the world around.

  • Finish with quotation from Young Chief of the Cayuses in 1855:

    I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, It is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them aright. The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on. The water says the same thing. The Great Spirit directs me, Feed the Indians well. The grass says the same thing. Feed the Indians well. The ground, water and grass say, The Great Spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold these names. The ground says, The Great Spirit has placed me here to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit. The same way the ground says, It was from me man was made. The Great Spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm… (Touch the Earth, p8)

 

Seeking the Holy Grail: Bulgakov on Christ, his blood, and the world.

Lent Talk, Elshieshields, 15th March 2014

1What is the Holy Grail?

  • It is a legend commencing in late 12th C created by French and German poets

  • It takes various forms:

    • a plate or bowl containing the bread of Holy Communion for the Fisher King

    • a stone cast down from heaven on which the abstaining angels stood for sanctuary when Lucifer rebelled against God

    • a cup in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood on the cross

    • modern interpretations include Mary Magdalene as the receptacle of Jesus’ seed

  • The chalice is most popular today, doubling as the same cup used by Jesus in the Last Supper

  • Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Grail to England, which then became an important part of the Arthurian myths.

  • But this is a Lent talk, so what has all this medieval romanticism to do with a serious spirituality?

  • In itself, nothing.

  • I want to focus on the significance the great Russian theologian, Bulgakov, makes of its contents, as it is these that define its meaning: the blood of Christ on the cross.

2Sergei Bulgakov

  • 1871-1944. From family of a long line of priests. Rejecting his childhood faith while in seminary, he turned to Marxism. Playing an important part in Russian revolution of 1905, he was one of the most influential thinkers in Russia for a number of years.

  • After conversations with Tolstoy, and under the influence of the writings of Dostoevsky and Solovyov, and the tragic death of his young son, he returned to his Orthodox faith

  • He was ordained priest in 1918, exiled from Russia 1923, and eventually ended up in Paris in 1925.

  • Here he remained for the rest of his life, teaching theology as dean of the St Sergius Russian Orthodox Theological Institute, which he helped found, and acting as priest in the Russian Orthodox emigré community in Paris.

  • He was at the centre of the sophiology controversy in 1931-37, which was as much political as theological. It has left a lingering mark over his legacy for some, even today.

  • His great vision was of the comprehensiveness of the significance of the incarnation of Christ.

  • In this he follows in the footsteps of 7th C Maximus the Confessor – arguably greatest of all Eastern theologians.

  • That nothing less than the entire cosmos is included in Christ since, in his humanity, he took the stuff of creation and united it to God as the 2nd person of the Trinity.

3Blood and Water

  • So we return to Jesus’ death on the cross.

  • Read Jn 19:32-38, esp v34. Note the extraordinary hiatus John introduces into the narrative at this point. Clearly he wants us to note something of supreme importance

  • The legend is that Joseph caught some of this blood and water in the chalice used for the last supper.

  • That is not Bulgakov’s interest. His interest lies in the significance of the outpouring of the blood and water itself from Christ’s body.

  • Note there are two elements – blood and water. Bulgakov explores each of them in turn.

  • Blood:

    • In the OT it is the substance of life.

    • Temple worship revolves around outpouring of blood, and sprinkling of blood

    • Is taken in to the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat on Day of Atonement (Lev 16)

    • Blood atones for sin and makes holy

    • It is the seat of the spirit within the body.

    • But it is also the animatedness, the life-force, of the body

    • Is that which contains, as it were, the soul of the body

    • The blood of Christ at Holy Communion gives new life and deifies

    • But that blood is wine transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

    • Wine is the blood of the earth, ‘fruit of the vine and work of human hands’.

    • This blood is Christ’s actual blood.

    • So the outpouring of Christ’s blood on the cross is the outpouring of his very life – the soul of the Son of God.

  • Water:

    • This is the OT symbol of creation

    • In Genesis 1 the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep at the onset of creation

    • Water signifies the chaotic, untamed and unformed material of creation

    • It is the proto-element out of which all creation, the whole cosmos, including humanity, is ultimately made (Gen 1:2, 6; Ps 29:3)

    • So crossing the waters of the great Flood, the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan, and the waters of baptism are the re-creating and re-newing waters of creation

    • Likewise priests must bathe in water before entering Holy of Holies on day of Atonement

    • Similarly with the Sea of Glass in Rev 15:2, beside which those who have defeated the beast are standing, singing the song of Moses

    • Water,” Bulgakov says, is the “unifying, all-dissolving, all-containing protoelement of the earth”

  • Blood and water together therefore signify the fullness of humanity – material body and animating soul – the sacrificed body and blood of our Lord.

  • So Jesus says to Nicodemus “you must be born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5)

  • The outpouring on the cross is Christ’s own humanity, not just humanity in general, being poured out.

  • In 1 Jn 5:6 John writes “This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ…there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood”

  • We need to pause for a moment to reflect on this:

    • the incarnated Son of God took our humanity upon himself

    • this humanity, united to the Second Person of the Trinity, is literally poured out from his side upon the cross

    • this body and blood is NOT the same as the body and blood of communion, although they are clearly related.

    • The bread and wine of Holy Communion are the substance and blood of the earth, transfigured by the Spirit of God to become our spiritual food and drink.

  • But what is the significance of all this for us?

4The Holy Grail

  • Now we return to the issue of the Holy Grail

  • Bulgakov sees, in the legends of the Holy Grail, something of the importance of its contents reflected in its ideals of holiness – only those who are pure of heart can find it.

  • But the chalice is not the real Holy Grail – that is simply romantic myth.

  • The real Holy Grail is the very ground onto which this blood and water sprinkled.

  • The earth itself received the body and soul of Christ in his death.

  • This is the blood and water of his sacrifice, rather than the blood and body of communion, although again, clearly the two are related.

  • The bread and wine of communion – Christ’s body and blood – rather than being consumed by us to become part of our body, performs a spiritual function, transforming us into the body of Christ

  • Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread”

  • Thus consuming Christ’s body and blood transforms us into itself.

  • Likewise with Christ’s blood and body outpoured on the cross – it transforms the whole of creation into Christ’s body.

  • Christ’s physical presence, Bulgakov says, although hidden, still abides throughout the very fabric of the universe.

  • His humanity, which is our humanity, abides in creation, even today, transforming it and making it holy.

  • The great “Pan”, as he calls the demonic possession of nature, has been unseated by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

  • The sprinkling of his blood on the earth, prefigured in the OT by the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial bull and goat in the Holy of Holies, has made the world the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God, signified by the rending of the veil in the Temple.

  • Yet it remains hidden, invisible and unknown, until the day that the new heaven and new earth are revealed when Christ comes again in glory

  • Just like the hiddenness of the glory of God, momentarily revealed in the burning bush, or on the Mount of Transfiguration.

  • In that day we will see that ‘in him we live and move and have our being’

5For us today

  • This physical re-reading of the Holy Grail has astounding implications for the way we live today

  • It requires of us to see the holiness of God all around.

  • To notice the world in which we live. This is beautifully put in a quotation from the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie I came across recently. Speaking of her husband’s illness she writes

    • Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

  • This attention is closely related to the recognition that the world around us is part of the Church – the body of Christ, taken from his side and made into his bride

  • The world is an extension of Christ’s own body, as it is of each of us.

  • The material world around us is part of us – we are continually exchange atoms and molecules with the world around us every time we bite, or sip, or take a breath.

  • The Bride of Christ is nothing less than redeemed humanity with the cosmos

  • This integrity of creation is at the centre of the story of Noah, where we remember the enormous, 150yd long boat built not principally for its 8 human occupants, but for a myriad of animals.

  • And on the Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses, the inclusion of animals inside the vine that represents Christ and his Church declares the same message.

  • At the Bewcastle House of Prayer we are attempting to ‘pay attention’, to notice Christ’s presence in creation, and imbue our work on the land with prayer.

  • But we are just beginning, there is so much to learn – and we have lost so much of the wisdom the Church once had in the last 500 years.

  • Perhaps we need to look further afield, and learn from those who still know how to listen to the Spirit of God, revealing Christ to us in the world around.

  • Finish with quotation from Young Chief of the Cayuses in 1855:

    • I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, It is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them aright. The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on. The water says the same thing. The Great Spirit directs me, Feed the Indians well. The grass says the same thing. Feed the Indians well. The ground, water and grass say, The Great Spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold these names. The ground says, The Great Spirit has placed me here to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit. The same way the ground says, It was from me man was made. The Great Spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm… (Touch the Earth, p8)

So what do you think?