I spent the first 19 years of my life in a country ruled by the communist party; a country with crippling economy, rubbish currency and very limited social liberties. Nobody could legally go abroad without governmental permission; passports were kept locked at police stations. Letters were censored and phone calls eavesdropped on. When people wanted to save money they bought foreign currency, mostly US dollars or German marks – which was illegal. Local currency was just rubbish. But I remember I could buy an ice cream, or a doughnut, or other treats children like. For me a little coin was a passport to a moment of happiness. I started realising the real value of the communist currency – or rather a lack of it – when as teenager I wanted to buy something more than an ice cream – I spent my monthly part-time job wage to buy an album of Sting.
It was the summer examination session of my second last year in the seminary. My colleagues and I were exhausted with the intensive mental effort required to pass the exams. We needed to do something different just for a break. I got an idea for a simple, pretty mindless, but useful physical activity. I’d climbed many times to the top of the tower in the seminary church, and had noticed that the stairs were covered with a two-inch thick layer of pigeon droppings. I suggested to my colleagues that we should clean up the tower; it looked like it would take a couple of hours’ work. We started keenly, although the cramped space, the heat and limited ventilation, the spiral stairs up a deep shaft and poor light made us feel like miners. Shovelling the pigeon poo into sacks and lowering it on a rope to the bottom was agonisingly slow. At one point the conditions became so unbearable that we decided to chuck the droppings directly down the shaft and then remove them from the bottom of the tower. We unleashed sheer hell. A fine choking and blinding dust filled the air and lungs. It wasn’t a wise solution – but it was very effective!
Last week we heard of the sickening story of Kristy Bamu, a 15 year-old boy savagely tortured to death by his sister and her partner in a religiously motivated act. Somehow this story came into my head when I read today’s first reading about Abraham making a religious sacrifice of his only child. The original purpose of that story was to convey the absolute obedience and trust in God displayed by the patriarch. Many believers throughout generations have tried to copy that faith, sadly some of them literally. Not many have wondered about the boy’s feelings and horror. Abraham and Isaac’s story finished luckily for the latter; sadly Kristy Bamu’s story ended on Christmas Day when he drowned in a bath.
Every Lent starts with the story of Jesus tempted in the desert by the devil. Saint Mark’s version is very short; in contrast to St Matthew and St Luke, he doesn’t present many details about the temptations or methods of the devil. Although Jesus spent more than a month in the desert, St Mark’s gospel barely mentions it. For him, much important news is that Jesus preached the gospel. Does it mean that Jesus’ Lent made a little sense in St Mark’s eyes?
In a couple of days Lent will kick off. Many people, even non-believers, will start it in the traditional way by consuming pancakes on Tuesday. Polish people actually followed their traditions and started last Thursday, eating piles of doughnuts – the ones I had were delicious. Combining those two traditions gives me two excuses to devour a lot of savoury food. This is what I like in a multicultural society.
Last Sunday in my sermon I claimed that Jesus’ main job wasn’t healing people of their sicknesses. It seems that today’s gospel is contrary to that statement of mine, as we can see a leper cured by the Lord. Perhaps you know that the last person in the whole universe to own up his own mistake is a clergyman. So because I am a clergyman you now know what’s going to happen: I will try to convince you I was right, against the facts.
In recent weeks a book has been published: the writer declares himself to be an atheist but, unlike his militant ‘brothers in arms’, he can see many useful aspects that religion as a whole provides to the life of an individual or the life of a community. He proposes the adoption of many religious elements like sacraments, assemblies and so forth, but the rejection of – as he calls it – superstitious and irrational ideas of God himself. The book has been hailed as a new, fresh idea. But it is not. In communist countries their people were ideologically deprived of religious beliefs; but to fill the void communist rulers introduced personality cult, party meetings, huge parades and rallies, indoctrination and so on. These are elements of religion, but without God. Latterly we saw the idea in action when ‘the Great and Beloved Leader’ of North Korea died.