Rev Dr Simon Perry
18th January 2015
This term we continue from last term, our theme of Olympian deities, and at the beginning of Lent term we kick off with Demeter. The Meter part of her name, comes from the Greek word for mother, and the de part, nobody really knows. She is one of the older Olympians, most of whom were the sky gods of the invading peoples who swept through the lands we now know as Greece. But Demeter is one of the fewer, older gods not of the sky but of the land, or the underworld. In particular, she is a fertility goddess, responsible for the growth of crops. When the Romans pitch up several centuries later, they adopt Demeter into their Pantheon, giving her the name Ceres, from where we get our word, Cereal.
But there is a tragic story associated with Demeter, one that tries to account for the miserable time of year between Christmas and Easter. Demeter had a daughter called Persephone, and we have to picture her as a young Maiden in the loving embrace of her mother in a television advert for fabric softener. And when she gets a little older, she wanders off from her mother, through the fresh summer meadows and into her teens, playing with her fragrant hair and wondering why she ever used a separate shampoo and conditioner. And Hades suddenly springs up from the underworld like a subterranean Peter Stringfellow, grabs this poor 14 year old and drags her off to his underground club somewhere east of Soho. – Now, before we get on the hotline to the Daily Mail to report Hades as a Paedophile, it probably is worth remembering that we’ve just been celebrating Christmas, when Mary the mother of God gave birth to Jesus at around 14 years of age. It was commonplace, in these cultures, for these girls in their early teens to be married off to middle aged men – and it’s no wonder that the Mother, de-Meter, is left moping and grieving and sulking.
Except that when Demeter mopes and grieves and sulks, it has disastrous consequences: the ground stops yielding crops, there are no breakfast cereals, and therefore as someone pointed out to me yesterday, no cheerios – everything is miserable. Now in the cosmic order of the universe, this is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs, requiring Zeus to intervene. The human race is dying off – and Zeus must stop it. Not, we might add, because Zeus is a great father, but because he rather likes the sacrifices offered to him by mortals, and if there are not crops and no animals and no mortals, there are no sacrifices, and these gods need their sacrifices – so it’s in his best interest to intervene. He does this by drawing up a contract, where for a few months a year Persephone stays with her mother Demeter somewhere in the Cotswolds, and for the remainder of the year, she stays at Hades seedy underground lair, in Stringfellows. And that is why, for several months a year, the crops don’t grow.
So Demeter is the mother, but what kind of mother is this? One that cares little about the starvation of humanity, so long as her own family is alright, looking after her peers with no care for lowlier beings. And what kind of father is this? One that only cares about humanity because he needs their worship. Still, at least there is no pretence that these are caring and loving deities – and for this reason many people today find Olympian theology more realistic than anything that emerged from ecclesiastical nincompoopery that was Western Christendom with all its pretence of a loving Father who also happens to be an omnipotent supernaturally judgemental mind-reading cosmic manifestation of judge-jeffries. Surely, the Greek picture of gods is more true to life…
Well, take the huge assault on Western Democracy that we are apparently witnessing at present. I don’t mean the heightened terror alert state that requires every uk citizen to exchange their pyjamas for bullet proof body armour. I refer to a threat which, according the left wing press marks the end of democracy and according to the right wing press, is nothing for mere mortals to worry our little heads about. Yes, I’m talking about the headline-grabbing TTIP – the transatlantic trade and investment partnership which will be debated in parliament on Wednesday.
Some say, it’s just a trade deal to remove red tape between EU and US trade – others say that red tape are health regulations, safety regulations, financial regulations that have been set up to defend mere mortals from giant businesses and that will effect us at the deepest level. If you’ve not heard of it, says one journalist, it’s because you’re not meant to – its not reported to us, and when it is, the language is incomprehensible. According to one leading political philosopher, it is ‘post democracy in its purest form’, where we don’t get to vote on it because it’s a deal done by political elites and corporate lawyers, in kangaroo courts with no public scrutiny and no right of appeal.
Bizarre though it may seem, if this alarmist portrait we are given is true, it is a perfect example of Demeter in action. Mere mortals are of no consequence, in her attempt to care for her own kind. The cosmic hierarchy of Olympus is once again, perfectly expressed. In the interests of the powerful entities growing in their global omnipotence, the interests of mortal humans can be sacrificed, ignored – it’s inconsequential. The results foretold by political philosophers are that everything required for basic human sustenance is seriously threatened: our health service will finally disappear, our food rapidly degenerates into factory food, our jobs rapidly given over to those in nations with fewer worker-rights, our governments helpless to do anything about it. If this were the Game of Thrones – we would say, Winter is coming. Why? Because Demeter is sulking, its all doom and gloom for human beings lose their basic rights.
Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, is described by Homer, as one who brings into effect the curses laid upon human beings. How can Demeter be placated through losing Persephone? What happens if a democratic government decides it people should not be cursed? Under Ttip, if a government decides to protect its own citizens, it can be sued by a corporation to compensate for its lack of profit. It’s already happened in Ecuador, where there government were sued billions of dollars by a US oil company. The oil company had not stuck to the terms of the contract, not abided by ecaudorian law, so the government closed their concession down, and that government was sued 2.3 billion dollars.
That’s the Olympian worldview – life is hard, and the gods and elites care little for you. And if the left wing press are right, this does seem to be how the world works. Does the bible offer any kind of alternative? As we enter the doom and gloom of Lent term, the short days and dark evenings and miserable weather… how does scripture deal with this dark plight of human experience?
Well, Lent – even in its name – comes from the number 40, and traces the story of Jesus backwards forty days from Easter Sunday. At the centre of the Christian life and the Christian year, is the resurrection of the Son of God. But during Lent, that is, from Ash Wednesday onwards, Christians have traditionally used the miserable season to try to identify themselves with Christ as he approached his own torture and death. That’s why on Ash Wednesday, many will have their forehead sprinkled with Ash. It’s why people give things up for Lent, a practice which has its roots in fasting. It’s why the liturgy police insists that throughout Lent we don’t utter upbeat words like Gloria or Allelujah. It is a dark and gloomy period – which Christians embrace as such.
The point, however, is that throughout scripture Israel as a whole, and Jesus in particular, endures a path marked by suffering and vindication – ultimately, death and resurrection. That is the point of the reading from Isaiah, not written as a preview of Jesus, but as the fate of Israel that Jesus came to embody. And most significantly, when Jesus endures this path as Son of God, he does so not simply as a divine being. The only people of consequence in archaic Greek literature, are the offspring of the gods. In Jesus’ own day, the phrase Son of God, had multiple levels of meaning. It meant you were a king, Caesar himself was the Son of God – as was written on the coins Jews carried around in their pockets. A Son of God was a holy person, or one annointed by God. But in Jesus’ day, one thing that the Son of God did not and absolutely did not mean, is that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. Son of God is a title Jesus never used of himself, although it was constantly used of him. And in Jesus this title is radically redefined.
If, for the Greeks, a son of God was part of the elite ruling class, for Jesus – every human being was descended from Adam who himself was a Son of God. That is part of the point of the geneaology from Luke’s gospel – that the Son of God is not simply Israel as a whole, or individual Jews, or emperors or kings or saints. No – everyone descended from Adam, every human being is a Son of God. Every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being is therefore invested with divine dignity. Every human being including sinners, prostitutes and outcasts, including Sadducees and Scribes and Pharisees, including Peasants and Emperors and pagans and lepers. Jesus, as pictured by the Gospels, is the human being in all history most worthy of the title Son of God, and yet in radical solidarity with all humanity, he prefers the title Son of Man. He enters into humanity’s dark experience of privation and suffering and despair. As one theologian put it (albeit in a patriarchal pre-feminist context), the Son of God became the Son of man in order that sons of men mights become sons of God.
Which is more true to life? The presence of an almighty and all-loving God incarnate in the lowliest human being? Or the Olympian picture of a divine mother and favourites up there and the rest of us down here? In this light, the Gospels can simply be read as an invitation to follow this Jesus through Lent so you can find out for yourself.