Friday, August 26, 2016

Vanishing into Glory: Saint Bartholomew

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black,
from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenis.
Popular culture is filled with evidence for the persistence of heroic myths of suffering and deliverance, of dying and rising. You can take your pick even of contemporary movie franchises: The X-Men or the Avengers, Thor and Loki, Gods of the Egyptians, Superman and Batman.

But of course there is an older story, a deeper myth, that came before and that will remain after these have long been forgotten:

I refer, of course, to Harry Potter.

There are many significant moments of pathos in the Harry Potter books, not least moments of actual death. For me the most fearful and confronting of these was not Snape's death or Cedric Diggory’s death, or even Dumbledore’s death; it was the death of Sirius Black.

If you haven’t read the Order of the Phoenix book someone else may have to spell this out for you in detail afterwards, but during a battle among wizards Sirius falls or is pushed through a portal, a crumbling ancient doorway that stands by itself in a room in the Ministry of Magic with a ragged curtain hanging in it, but that seems to go nowhere. In fact that is all too true - it is a door to oblivion, through which no-one who passes can return. Falling through, Sirius has ceased to be, is annihilated.

Oblivion may be our greatest fear. Our efforts to protect or enlarge our personal empires - of family, profession, intellectual achievement, or material wealth - are efforts not merely to protect ourselves from outrageous fortune but in particular to be remembered. We may even have come to terms with death, in the straightforward sense, but we are scared of an oblivion greater than death itself.

One of the things regular users of Lesser Feasts and Fasts become used to is a phrase something like this in certain of the biographies of saints it provides: “little else is known of Saint X.” This is a strange challenge, an implicit rebuke even I suggest, to current efforts to reform the sanctoral calendar into an adequately didactic or informative and representative collection of people about whom we are supposed therefore to know enough to count them worthy of emulation. In any case, if early one morning as Morning Prayer lurches into motion in this Chapel you hear words like these through the gloom of semi-consciousness, there is one thing you can be fairly sure of about a saint so described: it is an apostle.

This is a strange thing to consider. If we asked a different question of our collection of saints, something like “which of these are the foundational figures, those to whom the Gospel was first and definitively committed, those by whose witness the faith was first commended to the world” and so forth, we would give the same answer surely: the apostles.

St Bartholomew whom we commemorate today is one of these shadowy apostles, a name in a list only, and otherwise a figure quite lost to us - and certainly no more accessible through the collection of embarrassed legends devised later by well-meaning Christians who could not abide this stark vacuum.

But the oblivion of Bartholomew, his vanishing from memory, is not or not only a failure of the historical record. It is a sign to us of the character of apostleship and how it differs from our attempts to avoid oblivion and be remembered, even in the life of faith. Jesus describes this truth in today’s Gospel clearly enough: “A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which... was the greatest. He said ‘the kings of the gentiles lord or over them and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you…'” (Luke 22: 24-26) And Paul provides a striking job description of the obscure apostolate: “hungry and thirsty…poorly clothed and beaten and homeless…the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4).

Apostleship does not seem to be about establishing name or reputation or leaving a legacy in any recognizable sense; and what we have observed about the fate of the actual apostles bears this out in a striking way. Apostleship is not about being remembered - or not, at least, about being remembered by us.

There is of course another whose memory has an altogether different character and significance. The prayer attributed to Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill is telling:

“O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not forget me."

Our truest and deepest need is not to fend off oblivion by our remembered achievements, but to be remembered by God. This is the one to whom Jesus himself, facing his own oblivion, offered his memory and who was thus called back from beyond that portal into our remembrance.

This then is the apostolic call: to abandon fear of oblivion and the false forms of achievement to which it leads, living our lives in love to be remembered by God, and thus like Bartholomew vanishing into glory.

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. After writing this I saw Jan Struther's St Bartholomew hymn for the first time:

    O Saint of Summer, what can we sing for you?
    How can we praise you, what can we bring for you?
    Lost are your words, your deeds are nameless,
    Saint without history, mute and fameless.

    Said you wise sayings? No one has hoarded them.
    Worked you great wonders? None has recorded them.
    Only your name, time’s hand defying,
    Shines with the light of your faith undying.

    So fade the words, so vanish the deeds from us
    Of each lost summer, swift as it speeds from us;
    We jest, we toil, we weep, but after
    Slip from our memories grief and laughter.

    Only the sun that cheered us and shone for us,
    All else forgotten, ever lives on for us,
    Kindling our hearts when summer’s ended –
    Soul of the summer, serene and splendid.

    Time, take our words and do what thou wilt with them;
    Death take our hands and all that we built with them;
    Only our faith, our soul’s endeavour,
    Take it, Lord, make it, Lord, shine for ever.

    Perhaps my ignorance stems from an Australian upbringing - he is no "saint of summer" there. But the sentiment resonates.

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  3. It was also only after the sermon that someone pointed this out to me: http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com/

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  4. Fame is a curious thing
    Perfect strangers call you by name
    Pay good money to hear 'Fire&Rain'
    Again and again and again

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