My mother is saying ‘Now’

Con pan y vino
The beginning of a beautiful friendship

St Oswald’s Ashbourne, Friday 30 May 2014 (service and lunch for retired clergy), on these readings 

A matter of questions about words and names, says Gallio in the first reading, and he isn’t interested in questions like that. Nonetheless I would like to preach about words, two in particular. The word Now, because in this service of thanksgiving for ministry I want to recall how much of what is done in ministry – in the church and in many other forms of ministry – is done now, often with some urgency, and we never know what happens to it later, what the outcome is, just as we don’t know all that led up to the request or the phone call or the urgent need. So much happens now, and we don’t know what happens to it later. But I don’t want to start with the word Now. I want to start with the word So.

Currently the word ‘So’ is having a bit of a moment. Irritating young people start all their sentences with it. It used to be ‘like’, now it’s ‘so’. It’s a considering word, a word to use while we think, a word to get into position for what we’re going to say.
Language is full of words like that. Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem, begins ‘Hwaet!’. It’s the same word as What. But it’s being used, most people think, at the start of the poem to call people’s attention. The poem’s about to be sung in a noisy hall full of people drinking and talking, and it needs an announcement. Hwaet gets translated as Listen, Attend, Indeed, Hark, Behold, and once, in the late nineteenth century, as What Ho! Perhaps, in some alternative universe with a different history of Biblical translation, What Ho! would have made it into the Scriptures, and we would have What Ho, the Herald Angels Sing. When Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf, he looked at Hwaet, and he remembered the way his relations talked, what they said when they needed a considering word, a word to draw breath, to mark a beginning. He translated it as So. He writes:

‘The particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.’

To come back to the word ‘Now’, that is also very often used as ‘an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time … as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.’ Now has a meaning in its own right, and yet it’s a meaning that it’s difficult to deal with. Now is now, the present moment. It is impossible, of course, to pin that meaning down. The minute you’ve pinned it down, it’s not now. It’s then. Or if you’ve got ahead of yourself, it’s not yet. We live in a now, a constantly-flowing stream of now. And as we swim along in the stream, every so often we come up for breath, and look around, and feel the need to say something that marks out this moment from all previous discourse and narrative, that calls immediate attention to this moment. So we say ‘Now!’ I have brought you today a poem that says Now – not a great epic poem, but a small-scale domestic one, happening in the sort of small-scale domestic scene where so much ministry also happens. It’s by Hugo Williams, and it’s called ‘Dinner with my mother’.

My mother is saying ‘Now’.
‘Now,’ she says, taking down a saucepan,
putting it on the stove.
She doesn’t say anything else for a while,

so that time passes slowly, on the simmer,
until it is ‘Now’ again
as she hammers out our steaks
for Steak Diane.

The domestic process, getting dinner ready, is punctuated by ‘now’. His mother says ‘Now’ to herself, as she begins a new thing. So does mine. My mother would be likely to say quite a lot in between, unlike his, but that Now keeps recalling us to something immediate, something new, something beginning.

We have to say ‘Now’ like that, to come up for air, because it is so difficult to live in the pure now. Our now is overlaid with memories, imaginings, expectations, the past, the future, and all the countless alternative presents running along beside us. Every so often we have to recall ourselves to the actual Now.

For the disciples Jesus is talking to in John 16, their Now is painful. Jesus sets alongside it a day when there will be joy. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. The whole passage, the whole of the Farewell Discourse, is a traffic between their now and God’s day, between his absence and the Spirit’s presence, between confusion and fulfilment. ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ What does he mean by that, they say?

They want it to be clear. Either Jesus is there or he isn’t there. Either he’s going away or he isn’t. If God has purposes, we tend to think, those should be aligned with ours. We expect the day of God to be present in the timespans of our own small lives. We want to assert our Now.

The poet is still hanging around in the kitchen with his mother, and dinner hasn’t appeared yet.

I have to be on hand at times like this
for table-laying,
drink replenishment
and general conversational encouragement,

I rather like this as a description of ministry. Table-laying, drink replenishment, and general conversational encouragement.

but I am getting hungry
and there is nowhere to sit down.
‘Now,’ I say, making a point
of opening a bottle of wine.

An exclamation calling for immediate attention.

My mother isn’t listening.
She’s miles away,
testing the sauce with a spoon,
narrowing her eyes through the steam.

We stand on the tiny pinnacle of our Now. And around us, in the immensity – the unmeasurableness – of God’s Now, the past we commemorate and the future we look to are present, and what was before there was any beginning, and what will be when time is rolled up like a scroll. Miles away. Ages ago. The long now, the deep past, and what we sometimes apprehend as the purposes of God. Jesus speaks about it here as a birth. The pain now, the anguish now, the joy now, all belong together. The forces and patterns and decisions that have led up to this moment, this birth, can be traced back further and deeper than we could follow; the way ahead is the same, but mistier to us; and there comes a point of urgency where it just has to happen. We have to live in the now. It may be a tiny pinnacle but we have to stand on something. We can’t get away from its urgency, its limitedness, its particularity, by narrowing our eyes and looking thoughtful because we’re contemplating Eternity. Eternity is now and with us, now in the time of this mortal life.

Actually, in the poem, the poet’s mother is not contemplating Eternity, but particularity.

My mother isn’t listening.
She’s miles away,
testing the sauce with a spoon,
narrowing her eyes through the steam.

‘Now,’ she says very slowly, meaning
which is it to be,
the rosemary or the tarragon vinegar
for the salad dressing?

The hour is coming, says Jesus to his disciples, and he tries to get across to them what brings the hour, what this traffic is between our moment and God’s eternity, what depths are in this now. The hour has now come, he says: and the Farewell Discourse ends at last, and he and his disciples step out into the dark.

Most of the moments of decision we reach, most of the time, when we actually grip the particularity we live in, it is not that step into the dark. It is something much more trivial in the kitchen. And yet all of it matters. Our particularity matters to God. The day of God is present in our lives; not the plot for our entertainment, not a sort of running commentary, not at our disposal: but we take part in it. We are not alone in this Now. I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

We are here at this Eucharist at the intersection of our Now with God’s. As we always are. Our Father is saying ‘Now’. And it’s time we finished the poem.

I hold my breath, lest anything
should go wrong at the last minute.
But now it is really ‘Now’,
our time to sit and eat.


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