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Down the Rabbit Hole

Palm Sunday: 29th March, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" (When she thought it over afterwards it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
Lewis Caroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, ch. 1

Maggie Ross, in her book Silence: A User's Guide (2014) draws a dichotomy between two epistemologies, two ways of knowing and engaging with the world. One way is stuck in the world of self-consciousness, surface knowledge. Language dominates this way; language like that in Alice's sister's book (with no pictures or conversations). Alice's sister is so lost in her world of words that she misses the intriguing sight of a passing rabbit checking his pocket-watch. The alternative way is the way of silence. This way is less noisy and self-concerned, less concerned with hierarchy and power structures. It is a different sort of attentiveness; an attentiveness that notices the rabbit and is prepared to jump down the rabbit hole.

Jesus is the archetype of the silence tradition that Maggie Ross describes. His ministry begins with forty days alone in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). He first calls fishermen, not scholars or priests, to follow him; people used to waiting and watching attentively. He takes time out of the busyness of his ministry of preaching and healing to pray (Mark 1:35). He calms the storm (Mark 4:39). But it is his entry into Jerusalem, which we have enacted today, that most powerfully portrays the subversiveness and alterity of the silence tradition.

Jerusalem is a tinderbox. The Lord intentionally enters the city on a colt, evoking Zechariah's messianic prophecy (Zech. 9:9-10): "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations." The crowds go wild. He's the one, the messiah, the one to deliver us from our oppressors. Hosanna in the highest heavens!

But Jesus is silent. There are no rousing speeches or sermons this time. His way is not the way the crowds expect. In the words of another great Hebrew prophet (Isaiah 53:7): "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." He rides on in majesty, rides on in silence, rides on to die. This is our Lord's way. He jumps down the rabbit hole into the void.

It is not an easy way to follow. It is counterintuitive. Paul puts it so poignantly in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-8): "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Our conditioning would have us seize the day, take control, speak up. Our Lord would have us enter the silence of unknowing; move forward in simplicity of spirit, trusting in grace and love, not force.

And so we enter the rabbit hole of Holy Week today. It can be a dark place. Tiring. Challenging. Empty. But as we enter deeply into the silence we will find something quite remarkable. Or rather it will find us. As Johannas Tauler, the 14th century German mystic, writes: "[W]hen we have tasted this in the very depth of our souls it makes us sink down and melt away in our nothingness and littleness. The brighter and purer the light shed on us by the greatness of God, the more clearly do we see our littleness and nothingness. In fact this is how we may discern the genuineness of this illumination; for it is the Divine God shining into our very being, not through images, not through our faculties, but in the very depths of our souls; its effect will be to make us sink down more and more deeply into our own nothingness" (cited in Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pp. 116-7).


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