Dr Colin Fairweather, Ordinand of Ridley Hall and Graduate of Robinson College
1st February, 2015
1 Samuel 19:18-24
- Everything about Dionysus says ‘energy’
- Sometimes it’s a creative energy – Dioynsus was god of the theatre, and the earliest Greek plays we have were originally performed at festivals in his honour
- Sometimes it’s a natural energy – Dioynsus is god of the grape harvest, the god of wine, and also the god of fertility
- Or it may be a frenzied, dangerous energy, and this is what I’d like to focus on this evening – in ancient Greece and later in Rome, there was a cult of Dioynsus which, as far as we can tell, involved participants gathering in the woods at night time and throwing off the constraints of civilised behaviour – we’re not entirely sure what went on, but by all accounts there were no holds barred – ritualised wine-drinking, singing, dancing, howling and screaming, nakedness, orgies – you name it, it was one wild party.
- What was being offered at these occasions was an experience of ecstasy. ‘Ecstasy’ comes from the Greek ‘ex stasis’, and it literally means standing outside of oneself. If you participated in the cult of Dionysus, you could get really out of it – out of it in the sense of having copious amounts of alcohol, but also out of it in the sense of stepping outside the normal boundaries of social existence, and tapping into the raw and primordial energy of being alive.
- It seems that the cult was particularly attractive to the people who were most limited by their societies. It was popular with women and with slaves, neither of whom got much of a look-in in the patriarchal ancient world. The cult of Dionysus offered a collective experience – you did it together; it was also egalitarian – everyone tapped into the same fundamental impulses, and the normal social distinctions didn’t apply.
- The best known story about the cult of Dionysus is a fictional one, but it demonstrates both the appeal and the dangers of this god. In The Bacchae, a play by the Greek playwright Euripides, Pentheus, king of Thebes, is disgusted by the Dionysaic revelry that’s going on and wants to close it down. The move to suppress it, however, only makes it worse, and so you get these rampaging hordes of frenzied women ripping animals to shreds with their bare hands, tearing up villages, maraudering and pillaging. Pentheus goes to spy on the women in disguise, but they end up tearing him to pieces after his identity is blown by Dionysus himself. Pentheus’ mother even gets hold of her son’s severed head, and she’s so discombobulated that she thinks it’s the head of a mountain lion.
- One of the messages of Euripides’ play is that we all possess this animalistic energy, and the very worst thing you can do is to try and suppress it completely, because then you turn it from something containable to something highly destructive. Indeed, before it all gets out of hand, there’s actually something rather seductive about the Dionysiac cult – it’s joyous, life-affirming, exuberant – all the things the prim, buttoned-up Pentheus isn’t.
- So, that’s ecstasy in an ancient Greek context. Of course, ecstasy has lots of other contexts, and one of them is that of the Old Testament. Here, it’s most commonly associated with bands or schools or prophets. In our Old Testament passage tonight, we read of a group of prophets who go into an ecstatic trance when the spirit of God comes upon them. The future king David has taken refuge with them, and when Saul sends his messengers to have David arrested, they all end up in ecstatic trances themsleves. Eventually, Saul tries to arrest David himself, but ends up in the just same state.
- This is a subversive little story about the power of ecstasy to overcome the institutional power of the world. Imagine a series of porters going to J8 to close down a party that’s been going on too long, and instead of kicking everyone out, they end up singing and dancing themselves when they see how irresistible that partying spirit is. That’s the closest analogy I can think of in a Robinson context.
- What power there is in collective energy! The power of the ecstatic prophets is the power of togetherness, just as it is in the cult of Dionysus, or at any really good party. We know from other passages in 1 Samuel, that the ecstatic state of the prophets could be accompanied by music and dancing – again, something that reminds us of the exuberant festivity of the Dionysiac spirit.
- There is, however, a difference. For the Old Testament prophets, the frenzy is brought on not by wine or intoxicants, but by an onrush of the Spirit of God. The impetus here is not to destroy, but to absorb the power of an opponent. The messengers who go to arrest David aren’t ripped limb from limb, like poor old Pentheus is – rather, they’re so overcome by the spirit of ecstasy that they end up joining the party – and this is how Saul is defeated.
- Of course, what God is doing in the 1 Samuel passage is protecting David His anointed – but it really says something, I think, about the contagious power of God’s Spirit – it catches like fire, and there’s no resisting its energy. It’s a little premonition of how the Holy Spirit acts in the New Testament – in the book of Acts, for example, we see the Spirit’s power spreading like wildfire throughout the known world. You can’t lock it up, you can’t oppose it, the Spirit is on the march, and the best piece of advice would be to just go with its energy.
- If we turn to Paul’s talk about the Spirit, we can see that some of these themes emerge again. Again there’s this emphasis on shared experience – Paul says we must ‘speak to one another’, and indeed, it’s the power of the Holy Spirit to unite and bind together. Theologically speaking, the Holy Spirit is the bond of love uniting God the Father and God the Son – it’s the bond of love connecting God to humanity – and it’s also the bond uniting us as brothers and sisters in community. You remember the grace that we say at the end of the service every Tuesday? ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.’ The Holy Spirit is the power of fellowship – of togetherness – and that’s why it doesn’t make any sense to say, ‘Oh, I don’t belong to a church, I just have my own private spiritual experiences.’ How you can experience the full power of the Holy Spirit if you don’t know His power to draw you into something bigger than yourself? It makes about as much sense as having a one-person choir – or indeed a one-person college fellowship. It’s no fun being on high table by yourself – togetherness is everything – and that’s where the harmony of the Spirit is felt.
- Paul mentions music – again, there’s a superficial similarity with the cult of Dionysus. Paul doesn’t imagine anyone singing psalms or hymns by themselves – music-making is an expression of the collective identity of the people of God. And indeed, God Himself participates in that collective experience – He’s there witnessing it, and perhaps even revealing His glory through it.
- The Holy Spirit is often described in the Bible as something liquid. There are several references to the Holy Spirit being poured out onto people. There’s a suggestion of that here too – being filled with the Holy Spirit is like being an empty vessel which the Holy Spirit is pouring Himself into.
- So, does the liquid metaphor again put us in mind of Dionysus and his wine-drinking? Is what’s being offered in Paul a kind of holy intoxication? I don’t think it is. Paul says ‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.’ In other words, what happens when you’d had too much wine, and what happens when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit are two very different things. People sometimes half-remember this passage and think Paul is talking figuratively about being drunk in the Spirit – that’s not the case, despite the superficial similarities – so I’d like to end by thinking about what the Holy Spirit offers that Dionysus doesn’t.
- Well, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, and for this reason, it’s genuinely empowering. In the first book of Acts, just before Pentecost, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.’ Throughout scripture, we see the Holy Spirit conferring on people the power to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be capable of – prophesying, healing, performing miracles, and preaching too – speaking words of astonishing truth and power, as both Peter and Paul do.
- Now, you may feel a sense of empowerment when you’ve had one too many, but chances are that sense of empowerment is delusional. The danger of Dionysiac experience is that, in stepping out of the normal realm of things, you’re aligned not with a higher divine power, but with a lower, animalistic one. Look at the devotees of Dionysus in Euripides’ play who hunt down and kill Pentheus like they’re a pack of animals. Of course, human beings are animals, with all kinds of animal instincts, but what the Holy Spirit reveals to us is that we are more than this, and are capable of going beyond our limits when God allows us to do so.
- The second major difference is that Dionysus can ultimately offer us only a world of darkness. And I don’t just mean moral or spiritual darkness – though again, to reference Euripides, if you kill your own son and then wave his severed head about, noone’s going to particularly take you for a model of virtue. But there’s other kind of darkness – that of the mysterious and unknown. Ultimately, we don’t really know what the devotees of Dionysus got up in their ecstatic rites. We’ve got a fictionalised account in Euripides, and we’ve got some descriptions from the enemies of the cult, but first hand accounts, as far as we know, don’t exist. After all, the Dionysiac rites took place at nighttime, in dark woods, far from prying eyes – it wasn’t a civic religion, it was a cult, that is, an organisation performing secret rituals that were known only to initiates. Dionysus offers entrance into a dark concealed world, and from the outside, we can only peer in with a combination of fascination and fear.
- Paul in the Ephesians passage writes that ‘it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done in secret.’ These things he describes as ‘the unfruitful works of darkness’ – and they might very well include the dark goings-on of the Dionysus cult.
- The Holy Spirit, in contrast, brings us out from the darkness and into the light. And by ‘light’, I mean not just moral or spiritual purity, but a realm of openness and knowledge. The Holy Spirit, Paul says, brings understanding in what the will of the Lord is. Unlike Dionysus, who is a self-concealing god, the Christian God has revealed Himself, through His Son and through His Spirit, to the whole world. We can see this, again, in the book of Acts, where knowledge of the good news spreads, through the power of the Spirit, from Jerusalem, and then outwards to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We also see it in one of the Anglican creeds, which asks, ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ known in the world.’ The news that Christ has conquered the power of darkness is such good news that nobody should be prevented from hearing about it. Dionysus might offer a feeling of liberation to initiates who sneak off into the woods to perform their dark deeds; but what the Christian God is offering is liberation for the entire world, and a message of forgiveness and redemption that’s addressed to everyone.
- What incredible openness and generosity there is here – and how mean-spirited and defensively self-protecting even the most abandoned Dioynsiac orgy looks in comparison!
- It leaves me with some final questions. Where are the false freedoms in our own lives, that appear to offer us something new and exciting, but in fact only plunge us further into a world of darkness? And how can we best embrace that irresistible Spirit of communal life and open sharing that connects us to each other, and makes us feel whole in a way that nothing else can? We’re all capable of acting in spirited ways – but how can we tap into the Spirit that comprehends us all? If we can find an answer to that question, then genuine ecstasy may be within our grasp.