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Hallo again to all.

We're waving to all our friends in the southern latitudes from the frozen northern hemisphere, thinking about ice, water, fire — and the taxonomy of sin. (We'll get to sin in a moment.)

The season of Epiphany seems in a way to lengthen Christmastide, those 12 days of unstinting revelry — if we do it right — in the things of this world and our enfleshed life. But the Church in her wisdom keeps us focussed on the incarnate world a while longer, with all those camels, magi, silks and spices and strangeness. PrideAnd then on to John, the wild baptizer, who also focusses us on Tangible Things. (Stop any Sunday school child and ask what she knows about John the Baptist and we suspect you'll be told 'locusts and wild honey and animal skins'. In other words: Stuff.) And then there are, well, shoes! John emphasizes his insignificance by saying he's not worthy to unstrap Our Lord's sandal. Where else in the Bible are there items all through this liturgical seasons that wouldn't be out of place in Harrod's?

The Baptism of Our Lord, observed by many provinces of the Anglican Communion today, features water in a starring role — flowing, sinuous, and, most likely, rather dirty. Water adds its elemental nature to the season of Epiphany, with its stars and gold and myrrh to frankincense. But we race through the season of Epiphany, for in short order we're bang up against the season of Lent. We leave behind the world of the exotic, the fragrant, the glinting, and the organic to enter for 40 days the world of dust and ashes, the grey and the gritty. In Lent we shed all our finery and come up against own designer brand of sin — yes, we're the designers! — created from the portfolio of the seven deadly sins, monogrammed with our own initials.

The Seven Deadly Sins. We've all heard about them. (And we know which one seems to grab all the media attention.) The Church has a long tradition of monitoring, categorising, and describing sins, devising taxonomies that rival Linnæus. The sins have names, numbers, categories, opposites, remedies, symbols, calories, animals, biblical bases, and their own punishments in hell.

In mediæval times, tradition divided the seven deadly sins into 'cold' and 'warm'. The cold sins are pride (superbia), envy (invidia), anger (ira), and sloth (acedia). The 'warm sins' are avarice (avaritia), gluttony (gula), and lust (luxuria). Redoute rose indicaThe warm sins, the sins of the body, are the ones that today seem to get all of the publicity and attention. And that's all topsy-turvy. The cold sins, the sins of the heart, were traditionally far more roundly condemned. Pride was seen as a colder, harsher, more dangerous sin than any of the others, with anger following closely. The cold sins were the ones you really really wanted to avoid.

The notion of seven deadly sins, and their names, originated in the monastic communities of the early church in the 5th century. Geoffrey Chaucer took the sins to Canterbury in the 14th century, where the Archbishop, Thomas Arundel, is said to have required preaching about the seven deadly sins four times each year. It's a fair guess that over the centuries there have been more sermons about sin than all other topics combined. And yet, despite centuries of preaching, we humans remain sinners. We admit it every week in church. And we are forgiven every week. We rise from our knees and stumble on.

So here we are, in the frozen coldness of the north. We'll do our best to keep warmth and generosity and openness in our hearts and lives and let the light of Epiphany guide us through its few short weeks to the gates of Lent and the time of ashes.

An ancient mystical tradition holds that a rose, if burnt to ashes, could — given the right person at the right time — be re-formed from those ashes and become the fresh dew-dappled bloom that once it was. Imagine: the deadest of dead things, a pile of dusty grey cinder, slowly rising in a small cloud-like waft of smoke, idly shaping itself into the stem, thorns, and blossom of a rose — and then becoming a very rose itself:

It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When halfspent was the night.

See you next week, in the space between the rose and the ashes.

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Last updated: 10 January 2010


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