Tuesday, March 13, 2018

LENT V 2018

Michelangelo's Jeremiah
The name of the prophet Jeremiah is synonymous with someone who is forever predicting doom and destruction. Now while it is true that much of the book of Jeremiah is given over to dire warnings, in the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Jeremiah’s tone is much brighter. In fact, he offers an optimistic vision of God’s relation with his forgiven people, foretelling a ‘new covenant’ when the law of God is no longer just an external set of rules, but something ‘written on our hearts’. Despite this optimism, however, the subsequent history of Israel continued to be one of spiritual failure followed by material disaster, a pattern that called forth new generations of Jeremiahs. 
Christians believe that Jeremiah's prophecy of a new covenant only became a reality with the advent of Jesus Christ. Even then, it did not take the form that the prophets expected.The author of Hebrews tells us that when “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, he was heard because of his reverent submission”. But why does he say that Jesus was heard, when God did NOT save him from death on the Cross? The Gospel passage highlights this paradox. Jesus confesses that his “soul is troubled’ and that the prayer “Save me from this hour” springs to his lips. Yet, immediately he acknowledges that the hour in which he undergoes unimaginably painful death is the very reason that he came. It is through the brutal ignominy of criminal crucifixion that he is to be “glorified”.

How can this be? What sort of glory is it to be “raised up” in this ghastly way? Hebrews provides the answer. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Contra Jeremiah, the law of God will never be written on our hearts; we are too selfish and sinful to learn obedience through what we suffer. Yet, salvation is nevertheless at hand if, as we approach Good Friday, we are willing to let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of Christ lifted up on the Cross. The mystery lies in the fact that here we encounter something completely contrary to any normal conception of what a 'glorious' ending to his ministry would be. In this way we are called to acknowledge a closely related mystery: the only way the perfection of our own humanity can be attained is in 'dying with Christ' --which is to say, the commitment of our egos to the honor of his name.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

LENT IV 2018

Moses and the Brazen Serpent -- Augustus John
The Gospel for this Sunday contains what is possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible – John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. John begins, however, by connecting this with something less familiar – that curious episode from the Book of Numbers in which Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.

For obvious reasons, the Lectionary makes this episode the accompanying Old Testament lesson. But the God depicted in it is hardly a God of love. Sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites because they have complained about the lack of food and water in the wilderness, speaks more of spiteful irritation than fatherly care. Moses, by admitting that this is sinfulness on the part of his people, effectively concurs with a justifying implication -- God is right to punish people in this horrible way. Given such a God, going along with Him is the pragmatic thing to do, because the admission of fault produces a cure  – the bronze serpent. Somehow, this averts the punishment.

Christ on the Cross -- van der Goes
Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes between Jesus and the serpent is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’, just like the snake, is lifted up. But unlike the snake, this is God himself being lifted up. In place of poisonous punishment, sinfulness encounters pure love.  Jesus on the Cross is God's self-offering, expressly made so that the world is not condemned, but saved.

Still, the risk of condemnation has not entirely disappeared. Just as the Israelites had to look up at the bronze serpent, so sinful humanity has to look up at Jesus. It sounds like a simple task, and yet not everyone will do it.  “This is the judgment", the Gospel tells us, that "the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”. The Israelites in the wilderness lived in a kind of darkness. They looked to God primarily as a means of satisfying what Paul in the passage from Ephesians calls “the desires of flesh and senses”, and they then complained when they did not get enough of them. With the bronze snake, Moses was able to give them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. By contrast, to look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, Paul says, is to be “raised up with him in the heavenly places”. With our eyes on Christ, we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. Alternatively, of course, we can just go on -- with our heads down and following the normal course of this world.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Moses receives the Tablets -- Chagall
At first sight the readings for this Sunday do not appear to be connected. What does listing the Ten Commandments have to do with Jesus overturning the tables in the temple? It is true that there is no one clear theme running through these readings, yet they are nevertheless importantly related. Read together they present us once again with a truth that is central to the teachings of Jesus, and to Christian faith in him. The link is to be found in something Jesus himself declared: that he came neither to overturn nor to replace the Jewish Law, but to bring it to its fulfillment. 

The Old Testament reading from Exodus reminds us of that Law as embodied in the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. These commandments create a covenantal relationship between God and his Chosen people. God, for His part, would honor and protect those who kept his Law, but those who did not keep their part of the covenant could expect grief and tribulation. However, as St Paul writes in the Epistle, belief in such a covenant must make the Cross something of a stumbling block to serious Jews. How could Jesus be the complete embodiment of God’s Law -- the Law to which Paul himself remained faithful -- if he ends up executed like a common criminal?

Christ Overturns the Tables -- Spencer
In this week’s Gospel John provides an answer. He places the story of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple in Jerusalem right at the start of his ministry, rather than immediately before the story of his suffering and death, which is where the other Evangelists locate it. By this device John  declares Jesus' action in the Temple to be key to the meaning of the Incarnation. 
For the Jews of the New Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of their worship, and the monument to their faith in God. It had, however,  become degraded, so degraded indeed that it desperately needed radical renewal. Strange though it must sound, by this action Jesus declares himself to be its renewal. The Body of Christ is the new temple, and his death on the Cross replaces the daily round of animal sacrifices that took place there. In that death, the whole idea of sacrifice is transformed. The Crucifixion (as the Book of Common Prayer says) is the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins, not of the Jewish people only, but for the whole world.

The message is evident. In Christ, everyone everywhere, irrespective of ethnic background and geographical location, is called to enter the company of God’s chosen people, and are able to do so -- if, of course, they choose the path of penitence and faith.

Friday, February 23, 2018

St David's Day 2018

Anthem for St  David
A voice resounds
and seas and mountains echo here and there
prophetic tidings
blowing, like the wind
Dewi Sant!  Dewi Sant! 
    A towering figure strides
    his every step is marking out a path
    whose steady purpose
    is to lead beyond the hills
   Dewi Sant! Dewi Sant!

With all his strength he bends,
and binds his soul to one
whose Principality
is founded on a Cross
Salvator mundi, Salvator mundi

March 1st is the Feast day of David, Patron Saint of Wales. We know relatively little about St David, not even the precise dates of his life. Best estimates suggest that he died around 590 AD in what was, for that period, very old age. Over fourteen centuries have passed since then, yet David is far from forgotten. It is no surprise, perhaps, that he is the patron saint of Wales, since Wales was the land of his birth, the focus of most of his work, and even yet the home of his major shrine – St David’s Cathedral in the town of St David’s on the Welsh coast of the Irish Sea.

Much more surprising is the fact that in almost every state of the United States there is at least one church dedicated to David. This is a truly remarkable fact. Modern America is very far removed from Celtic Wales, not just by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, but by huge cultural differences – so big in fact that the kind of life Americans live today would have been literally inconceivable to David. He could never have made even the wildest guess that in the far distant future Christians with a radically different life-style would nevertheless be dedicating their churches to him.

St David's Cathedral, Wales
Yet, there are many ties that bind us to him still. He read the same Bible, preached the same Gospel, celebrated the same sacraments, and put his faith in the same God. Moreover, he shared the same sense of Christian mission described in the Epistle set for this day. Like Paul, David saw himself “entrusted with the message of the gospel, not to please mortals, but to please the God who tests our hearts.” The monasteries he established are testimony to this, since the way of life they prescribed was very austere -- simple fare, no alcohol, strenuous labor. It was this austerity, nonetheless, that attracted a large number of converts among people who wanted their faith to make a real difference to the way they led their lives.

The Gospel for St David’s Day is very short. "The kingdom of God” Jesus declares, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

David planted seeds without knowing how they would sprout and grow. God gave them the earth to grow in. All these generations later, we are part of the very large harvest that has come.  It is impossible to envisage a world fourteen centuries in the future, as remote from us as ours is from St David's. But we know that we have also been entrusted with the Gospel in our time, precisely to plant seeds for a future only God can imagine.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

LENT II 2018

The Apostle Peter -- van Dyke (1617)
The passage from Mark that is the principal Gospel for this Sunday gives us a glimpse of someone quite different from the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ of Victorian pictures. The simple, impulsive, faithful Peter is fiercely rebuked as a voice of satanic temptation. The severity of the tone, though, serves to show that in the proclamation of the Gospel there is something of the greatest importance at stake. Faithful Peter, we might say, needs to learn the full meaning of faithfulness.

A human life, if we believe in God, is not a lucky chance, a happy bi-product of evolution. It is a gracious gift, and as with any gift, it can meet with differing responses. The recipient can hoard it possessively, or squander it carelessly, or use in a spirit that mirrors the grace that gave it. At times, this fundamental choice about how to respond to the gift of life -- how to live -- becomes critical. Perhaps it is obvious that wasting my gifts is lamentable. On the other hand, though clinging possessively to the life I have been given, including its talents and accomplishments is a powerful temptation, it too rests on the false supposition -- the conviction that what matters most it what we get out of life. Yet, how could it profit me to gain the whole world, the Gospel asks, if to do so I have to forfeit the spirit of life itself? There is a paradox here; "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel, will save it".

We might put the paradox another way. The human soul finds fulfillment only when it abandons its deepest inclinations. Humanity's perfection, strangely, requires us to leave much of our humanity behind. That is the truth beneath Jesus' stern rebuke to Peter: "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things".

Abraham, Servant of God - Nesterov (1914)
The Old Testament passage about Abraham, and Paul’s reflection on it in the Epistle, both embody the same message. God declares Abraham’s life righteous (which is to say, a life lived rightly) not because of the moral laws and prudent calculations by which it was governed (though for the most part it was), but because it sprang from a trusting faith in God's promise. Paul repeats the message. Abraham's relationship with God is two sided. It 'depends on faith' --Abraham's faith -- 'in order that the promise' -- God's promise -- 'may rest on grace'. The appointed Psalm captures the thought with brilliant succinctness. The life of faith is one that first accepts ‘dominion belongs to the LORD, and . . . before him shall bow all who go down to the dust’. And then it declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

LENT I 2018

The Temptation of Christ -- Surikov
The Revised Common Lectionary works through the first three Gospels over a three year cycle, with John woven in during the Easter season and other special times. This year (Year B)  it is the turn of Mark, which makes for a slightly odd Gospel on the first Sunday in Lent.

The season of Lent is modeled on Jesus' retreat to the wilderness in preparation for his three year ministry, and the 'forty days' the Gospels say he spent there. For him it was a time of both reflection and temptation -- reflection on his divinely appointed task, and the temptation to prefer attractive but inadequate ways of trying to accomplish it. For us, accordingly, Lent is a time of study, prayer, and self-denial, whose aim is to help us reflect on, and confront, all the things that tempt us away from the service of God.
Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at length. In this year, however, we have to make do with a mere mention – a sentence Mark squeezes in between his Baptism and the arrest of John. Yet the lessons for this Sunday have a link that the lessons in other years lack – namely their focus on water. The Old Testament lesson points us to the water of Noah’s flood, while the Epistle expressly connects this with the water of Baptism that figures in the Gospel.
Rainbow -- Turner
But precisely what is the connection? We might think of it this way. In the story of Noah, God deals with sin by a frightful deluge that  washes away all the sinful people . As subsequent history shows, however, human sin doesn’t thereby become a thing of the past. Yet, with the sign of the rainbow, God nevertheless  promises that such a thing will never happen again. At the Jordan, God uses water again, but in a more subtle and spiritual way. The waters of Baptism signify death to the sinful nature of each one of us. But it is a death, paradoxically, that we must live into. Traditionally, Lent is a time for newcomers to accept this death, and for baptized Christians to reaffirm it.


Ash Wednesday - Carl Spitzweg
Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, can be dated as far back as the fourth century. Originally it had  two purposes --  a period of preparation for catechumens -- people who wish to be baptized as  Christians  and so participate fully in the life of the Church -- and the reconciliation of  Christians who had committed very serious sins -- murder, adultery and so on. For the first group, the weeks of Lent were set aside for a rigorous program of study, prayer and fasting that would conclude with Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. For the second, it was an opportunity, in the words of St Augustine, "to come forth from a hidden and dark place",  be re-admitted to communion and restored to "the light of Christ". The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and Easter. Yet, while an open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and judgmentalism is something we want to avoid, we have also lost something that previous ages found to be important -- the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.

The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in the way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning", but immediately adds a warning that we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not?  Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress the passers by who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on  Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit  instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition, though, is not meant as a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the  solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.

Dali - Blow the Trumpet in Zion
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem with our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ, and we can leave it to God to determine what form, post mortem, that life takes.