Yesterday I was supposed to be doing nothing but keeping my leg up, to try to force down the swelling from a spider bite. Mostly it worked, and I used the enforced inactivity to do more than 50% of my sermon preparation for next week – so how’s that! Halfway towards Sunday by Monday avo! I was also supposed to be soaking the bite in hot water for 15 minutes three times a day. I managed twice. And given that this spider bite is on my… upper leg, I needed to be actually seated in the bath to do so. Which sort of precludes using the lap-top to further my sermon prep. So I had to resort to good old-fashioned books for my bath times.
I read Everyman.
Everyman is a medieval morality play, published in English in the early 1500’s and probably translated from a Dutch play that is practically identical. In it an ‘everyman’ figure, neither particularly rotten nor particularly good, is confronted by death and told he has to take his final journey and to give an account of his life before God. He’s not especially thrilled by this prospect, thinking that his moral accounts are rather a long way into the red (an early instance of triple-bottom-lining?), and looks around for someone to accompany him to the Judgement Seat. Fellowship, Family, and Wealth all refuse him in turn – in the first two cases only after promising to go with him to Hell itself – and then discovering that it might be necessary after all, and so swiftly recanting. Wealth not only refuses, saying that Everyman is a fool if he believed that riches could ever be always his, but points out that the use Everyman has made of his goods has in fact been partially responsible for his present parlous state.
Finally Everyman turns to his Good Works – but these are moribund, able to do little but lie there and suggest that Everyman look to Knowledge instead for help. Knowledge appears, and gives the quote that is burned into my brain from seeing it in the frontispiece of so many editions of “Everyman” classics as a boy: “Everyman I will go with thee, and be thy guide in thy most need to go by thy side.” From this point Everyman’s fortunes turn. Knowledge brings along Everyman’s other allies; his Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and Five senses. These together point out to him the need for confession and penance, and so he is shriven, allowing his good works to stand up for him after all. Finally Everyman comes to his tomb, and here, to his disappointment he is abandoned in the end by all his erstwhile allies excepting Good works. These alone go into the grave with him, and they only by God’s grace that has removed (via confession and penance) the burden of sin that previously prevented them from being of any account at all.
It was written in Medieval English, and so wasn’t always easy to read (they tended to use ‘u’s for ‘v’s and vice versa – but not consistently) and it was dogged by Roman Catholic theology (with a very heavy emphasis upon the role of the church and the sacraments and therefore a substantially reduced role for Christ and his work of redemption) but I found the little drama deeply moving, In a naive, simple, plain way it told the simple truth about the certainty of death and the necessity of preparing for it. If I could preach as effectively as that Sunday by Sunday I would be very happy (and our congregation, I think, would be very different!).
I liked, too the way in which the story arc maintained its integrity – Everyman’s journey was a hard one in the beginning, and that never changed. Friends and familiy might desert a man in his dying, but a mans five wits will also desert him when he’s actually in the grave. Though there was a moment of redemption, the story of abandonment didn’t simplistically stop or reverse. Death remained implacable.
Finally, I was intrigued by the notion of death as a journey. The only other place I’ve come across that in a Christian work is in JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. And Tolkien, of course, being a scholar of ancient languages, would have been more than familiar with such a recent work as Everyman. Interestingly, Tolkien’s story really takes off at the point where Everyman ceases – the grave. His is a thoroughly Roman Catholic (and very winsome) story about the real meaning of purgatory as the process of healing redeemed souls – and his church is practically invisible but his Christ is very audible!
Conclusion? Today as I discussed the material for this week’s sermon with my elders and a member of our Community Ministries staff one commented that she had been struck recently by the need to keep short accounts with God. With our recent Christchurch earthquake, and the huge quake off Japan, we’ve been reminded that death can come without warning. Are we ready? And while I might have theological niggles about the Catholic neglect of Christ in favour of the church, they surely had the right idea that the church has some work to do in offering God’s grace! Let’s get out there…