Where Earth & Heaven Meet

Where Earth and Heaven Meet: an experiment in prayerful living

Lent Talk, Elshieshields Tower, Lochmaben, 16th March 2013

  • Where do earth and heaven meet?

  • For much of the history of Christianity they meet at the cross.

  • Although the cross was central to St Paul’s teaching, it only became an important symbol in Christianity from 4thC onwards.

  • During 6th – 7thC the cross became ubiquitous throughout England.

  • It was “associated with the paradox of shameful death and glorious resurrection;” death and life. It linked “the physical and spiritual, the temporal and eternal, earth and heaven in the Anglo-Saxon cultural landscape.”

  • So the cross at Bewcastle, which dates from the first half of the 8thC, and which we will spend some time thinking about today, is a representation of the true cross of Christ. That is, it represents the place where earth and heaven meet.

  • We need to understand that, for the Anglo-Saxon, the actual place in which the cross stands becomes hallowed by its presence. They are places of holiness, often associated with death, always with prayer.

  • So the cross acts in very much the same way as an orthodox icon – it brings heaven into our midst.

  • The iconography of the cross needs to be understood in this context. It is nothing to do with decoration. Its task is to make visible and present the invisible and eternal.

  • With this in mind let’s look at the East face of the Bewcastle cross.
Reproduction of the four faces of the Bewcastle Cross in the order W-S-E-N

Reproduction of the four faces of the Bewcastle Cross in the order W-S-E-N

  • Firstly we need to note that it faces east.

  • Each of the four points of the compass has a liturgical significance, but east is the most important one. It faces the rising sun, second coming of Christ and is why we face east in our worship.

  • So the east face represents the new creation that will be brought about at Christ’s return. That is, it represents the eschaton.

  • Why is the eschaton, new creation, so important? Surely what will be will be, and we don’t need to worry too much about it. Do we?

  • Well it was during these centuries of the so-called Dark Ages that the Church was working out the implications, not only of Jesus’ death on the cross, but also his incarnation and resurrection.

  • For example in the 7thC one of the most important Orthodox theologians, Maximus the Confessor, realised that, because Jesus had assumed the material of creation in becoming human, the whole of creation was included in both his death and resurrection.

  • That meant that the fate of the whole cosmos was actually included in his sacrifice.

  • Everything that is will be transformed at Christ’s second coming, which is why St Paul talks about the whole of creation groaning as if in the pangs of childbirth in Romans 8

  • So present reality is defined by its end, by what it will become, by its eschatology.

  • But quite what this end will look like is not a foregone conclusion. Like the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side that he still bears even after resurrection, what happens now shapes what will be.

  • That means everything that we do matters in eternity; our actions directly affect the new creation.

  • The east face of the cross visualises what will be and because what we do affects the future, it effectively becomes our ‘mission statement’.

 

  • So what do we find on the east face?

  • Our first glance shows a number of animals and birds inside the coils of a plant. Technically this is known as ‘inhabited vinescroll’. It is a relatively common feature of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation.

East face of the Bewcastle Cross

East face of the Bewcastle Cross

Re-coloured interpretation of the East face of the Bewcastle Cross by Manchester University

Re-coloured interpretation of the East face of the Bewcastle Cross by Manchester University

  • The plant is, of course, a vine, and if you look carefully you will see that within each coil or scroll is a cluster of fruit, or bunch of grapes, on which the animals are feasting.

  • The vine and its fruit are a direct reference to John 15 where Jesus describes himself as the vine and us, his Church, as the branches. If we abide in him, and he in us, we will bear much fruit.

  • This vine has its roots at the base and stretches all the way to the top, that is, all the way up the side of the cross.

  • But the fruit of the vine also represents the blood of our Lord – this is a reference to the Eucharist. In the context of the Second Coming, of the eschaton, it is a reference to the wedding banquet of heaven – as we proclaim, ‘until he comes’.

  • This is the only food we eat that, instead of being changed into our bodies, changes us into itself, the body of Christ – we become part of the vine.

  • The beasts and the birds, then, are gorging themselves on the blood of Christ, and on the fruit of the Church – that is, the fruit of our lives. And notice how, in the coloured version, the tails of the two mythical creatures towards the bottom change colour into the green of the vine.

  • If we look a little closer we will notice that there are 7 animals present. 7, of course, is the number of perfection and completion in the Bible.

  • This 7 comprises three pairs plus one left over. The top pair is two squirrels, two birds in the middle, and two mythical creatures below, which are actually part animal and part fish. Is the 7th a wolf, the terror of the land?

  • The pairing of creatures leads us into the story of Noah and his ark – which is one of the great images of baptism in the OT. Remember in that story how central animals were to the purpose of the ark? Noah had to build the great ship to save not only his family, but the entire animal kingdom.

  • But if you notice, there is also an 8th scroll right at the top, devoid of any creature, but that bursts into two flowers. Since the 2nd century the day of resurrection had been called the 8th day of creation and the first day of new creation. It is linked to the day of circumcision, the 8th day of life – of entry into the covenant of God. The 8th scroll represents the flowering of all God’s work at its transformation at the eschaton.

    The 'hidden' chi-symbol at the centre of the vinescroll

    The ‘hidden’ chi-symbol at the centre of the vinescroll

  • And hidden, right in the centre between the two birds (remember that the Anglo-Saxons loved riddles), is a Χ, chi symbol made from a pair of crossed branches, the first Greek letter of ‘Christ’.

  • So all the creatures of the world, the whole of creation, is included in the transformation envisioned in this cross. Baptism and Eucharist, the two great sacraments that create and feed the Church, are portrayed as for the whole of creation.

  • But notice that the Church is the intrinsic bearer of this gift – in the sacraments, and in the fruit she bears. She is the one who offers Christ to the world – she is central to the transformation of creation.

  • Why is this so? Why the Church? Why redeemed humanity?

  • To answer this we need to briefly recapitulate the central aspects of the biblical narrative.

  • In the Genesis 1 creation story humanity, male and female together, is made in the image of God, who is the triune fellowship of love.

  • In the Genesis 2 story, the man is made from the soil and the breath of God.

  • The Hebrew for man is ‘adam’. The Hebrew for soil is ‘adamah’. Adam from adamah. The closest we can get to this linguistic dependence is ‘human’ from ‘humus’.

  • That dependence is not coincidental. It is a profound insight into our biological relation with the earth.

  • Created from the soil beneath, but then breathed into by the Spirit of God from above.

  • In this story humanity is made from both earth and heaven. The great Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov calls us ‘personalised soil’.

  • Each one of us, then, is where earth and heaven meet. Each of us is created to be a cosmic ‘thin place.’

  • Adam and Eve were given the task of tending the soil, watching over the garden, naming and befriending the animals.

  • This vision of the ancient Hebrews is extraordinary! It is the story that answers the question: why did God make us?

  • The answer: He made us to be his presence in creation, and bring creation into his presence. We are where earth and heaven meet.

  • Of course, we know how this part of the story ends: the abuse and exploitation of creation by stealing from the tree that lead to their expulsion, and the great curse that severed their intimate relation with the soil – ‘cursed is the ground because of you…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.’

  • And notice it is the soil, the adamah, that bears the curse of adam’s sin.
  • From there the story moves on, through the flood, to Abraham and the promise of a restored relationship with the land – a promised land, flowing with milk and honey, cows and bees! But what a sorry story it turns out to be.

  • Until eventually the Son of God comes, taking human flesh, made from the cursed soil, to himself in the Incarnation.

  • He hangs on the tree of cursing (Deut 21:23, Gal 3:13), taking the curse of all sin into himself. This tree of cursing that has now become the tree of salvation – the stone tree of Bewcastle.

  • He is laid in the tomb, the womb of the earth, as the Orthodox Easter liturgy describes it, where he is, as it were, recreated from the earth and brought back to life by the Spirit, transformed, renewed.

  • And in John’s gospel the first person who sees him is Mary Magdalene. And who does she think he is?

  • That’s right, Adam, The Gardener! Why do you think Paul describes Jesus as the Second Adam?

  • Jesus then breathes his Spirit into us, recreating us in both baptism and eucharist.

  • The story of the Bible is the story of our relation both with God AND with creation.

  • And we are the mediator between the two.

  • This, then, is the Church – renewed humanity in God’s image, restored soil and spirit, charged with the task of bringing the whole of creation to rebirth through the presence of Christ and the Spirit, called to bring creation into the dance of the Trinity as the Bride of Christ.

 

  • So where does that leave us today?

  • We think of our relation with creation, particularly in the industrialised countries, and it is almost a cause for despair.

  • There is nurture and care, investigation, exploration, understanding, taking place, and there are movements to try and protect certain vulnerable areas.

  • But these are vastly outweighed by the exploitation, manipulation, destruction, pollution and mechanisation that takes place in every continent.

  • Issues of catastrophic scale are affecting the planet right now, but our governments and large business corporations not only do nothing, but pursue policies and developments that actively exacerbate the disaster.

  • Our current negative impact on the world is almost beyond belief and our only coping mechanism is to ignore or deny it.

  • Climate change; global warming; loss of biological diversity; species extinction on an unprecedented scale; glacial retreat and sea level rise; rain forest destruction; government and company land purchasing and compulsory displacement of local communities; melting ice caps. This list goes on and on.

  • Just this week in the Tearfund prayer guide we have been praying for the poor communities in Zambia who are having to find new ways of growing food to keep from starvation due to the impacts of climate change.

  • But also in the news this week we hear of £80bn worth of new shale gas deposits in NI, and a major new source of fire-ice methane gas for Japan.

  • The industrial world continues its relentless journey towards destruction with no concept of remorse or responsibility either for the poor or for the future.

  • All of these become spiritual issues in the context of our mediatorial relationship between God’s ‘good’ creation and God.

  • So what are we to do?

  • Returning to the Bewcastle Cross, the animals feast on the fruit of the vine.

Detail of E face showing animals and birds feasting on the fruit of the vine

Detail of E face showing animals and birds feasting on the fruit of the vine

  • What does that mean for us?

  • It means care, nurture, protection, consideration, enabling, working in harmony, respecting integrity, taking responsibility, all of those things that ‘markets’ are not very good at, and for which there is little financial incentive.

  • In short it means being creation’s blessing, not its curse.

  • But how?

  • Sundial on S face of Bewcastle Cross - the earliest example in northern Europe

    Sundial on S face of Bewcastle Cross – the earliest example in northern Europe

    On the S face of the Bewcastle Cross is the earliest sundial in northern Europe. It marks the times of daily prayer.

  • If you look carefully, you can see it is actually part of the vine, even bearing a cluster of fruit. Prayer is part of the fruit of the vine.

  • Situated between the W face, that looks towards the world, and the E face, that gazes towards heaven, the S face is the time of the praying Church.

 

 

  • Christ is the foundation, at the base in the shape of a cross in the knotwork with the Greek X, chi, above and below.

Knotwork at base of S face of Bewcastle Cross with the cross in the centre and two chi-symbols above and below

Knotwork at base of S face of Bewcastle Cross with the cross in the centre and two chi-symbols above and below

  • The Trinity is above in the interlacing at the top.

The interweaving Trinity at the top of the S face

The interweaving Trinity at the top of the S face

  • So it begs the question: how then shall we live?

  • Nikolai Berdyaev, the great Russian philosopher and friend of Bulgakov said ‘At each moment of one’s living, what is needed is to put an end to the old world and to begin the new.’

  • The eschatological vision of heaven is the Bride joined to the Bridegroom, with the wine of the wedding banquet from the fruit of the vine

  • The call of the Church, on the E face of the cross, is to be the bearer of cosmic renewal and harmony through the Spirit and in Christ.

  • Because the eternal Holy Spirit lives in us, we are drawn into life and living now.

  • Each moment is one of new life and possibility in the grace of Christ through the cross.

  • This awakening to the reality of who we are, who God is in us, and our reconciliation with him and creation is what it means to come into his light.

  • It is not only being in his presence, although that is everything, it is also seeing all in his presence – seeing aright.

  • So, because the Spirit is in us, every action is a potential revelation of the coming Kingdom of God.

 

  • All this is a long pre-amble explaining the reason why we have bought a 6-acre piece of land near Bewcastle Cross.

  • Our desire is establish a small praying community with one or more clergy on the site that prays the daily offices, studies, worships, shares hospitality, celebrates the Eucharist, and works gently with the soil.

  • We are seeking to live lightly, reducing our fossil energy usage, growing food and fuel by working with creation, rather that trying to force it into submission.

  • There is a large polytunnel and 12 raised beds for food growing already established, as well as an orchard and soft fruit garden.

  • We want to see the land honoured and respected, being made to flourish, not in the way that formal gardens are constrained to geometrical shapes, but recognising the extraordinary beauty of wild diversity and creative exuberance.

  • We are using the principles of Permaculture to enable plants, people and animals to live well, to minimise our impact and develop resilience into our design for the site.

  • We aim to re-establish ponds with wetlands in which to grow fish and let wildlife find a home.

  • We want to study the land and its ecosystems, to grow in knowledge and our ability to care for it, as well as to yield us its fruits to live, while at the same time enabling it to sing God’s praise, as we proclaim in the Bendicite.

  • One aspect of this is that the Met Office will be setting up a climate station at Greenholme, and we will be official observers, reporting measurements every day.

  • We also have 300 yds of a beautiful stretch of the river White Lyne whose flow we will be monitoring on a daily basis and sharing the information with the Environment Agency.

  • We are hoping to build a barn from straw bales this summer as a centre for hospitality and study.

  • We want people, especially young people, to find a home here for a while, slowing down and rediscovering the gentle rhythm of work and prayer, of caring for creation and each other and singing God’s praise.

  • Mike and Harriet Schofield are the first to join us, and it is inspirational to have them – a young Christian couple, newly married, wanting to make sense of their faith in the context of creation.

  • Both the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Carlisle have given us some financial support to encourage others to join in, but otherwise we are financially and institutionally independent.

  • We hope this will be an offering of the Church reflecting back to the world a vision for a different way of life, inspired by the Bewcastle Cross, that enables those who care to look to see the destructive madness of modern life.

  • So to leave you with a question as we approach Good Friday: if Christ clothed himself in the cursed adamah, the soil, of our humanity on the tree in order to renew it, how do we shop in such a way as to be creation’s blessing, not its curse?

So what do you think?