Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LENT IV 2017

Family of the Blind Man -- Picasso
The Gospel for this Sunday is a miracle story that turns into a perplexing parable. A man who is literally blind is given sight for the first time in his life. The Pharisees are highly suspicious of Jesus. So they look for ways to discredit this miraculous deed, while at the same time dispelling any idea that he might be the Messiah. First they doubt if the man really was blind, and then they try to get him to admit that Jesus is religiously at fault, since he has committed a sin by healing on the Sabbath. The miracle cure, then,  is no reason to praise him. The man makes a memorable response "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see."

When finally the Pharisees engage with Jesus himself, it appears that the whole episode is not primarily a healing miracle at all, but a parable in action, one about spiritual sight and spiritual blindness. Puzzlingly, Jesus says that those who are blind will be able to see, and that those who can see will prove blind. How are we to understand this? An important clue comes right at the start of the passage. The blind man is not blind because he is a sinner. Though it looks like a curse, his blindness is in reality a very special attribute, since through it Jesus will reveal the works of God. The content of that revelation is that Jesus is the one true light. That is to say, it is by close attention to the works and words of Jesus, not by scrupulous attention to religious regulations, that we can discern God’s will for us. By refusing to acknowledge this, the sighted Pharisees show themselves to be purblind, unwilling to see. By acknowledging it, the blind man, paradoxically, shows himself to have spiritual insight that the physically sighted lack.

Sketch for Light Conquers Darkness - Roerich
Spiritual sightedness, no less than physical sightedness, concerns reality -- the truth about ourselves, the lives we lead, and the world we live in. Like ordinary eyesight, it requires light by which to see. Yet sinfulness flees from the light, because it prefers that the truth should remain hidden. The short passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians reflects this dichotomy, and turns it into a choice with which we are confronted. “Christ will shine on you” verse 14 declares. For those who want the truth, these words represent a liberating promise. For those engaged in “works of darkness”, however, these very same words constitute a threat. The choice is clear, and real. We can continue to act according to our own light, and inevitably stumble around in darkness. Or we can avail ourselves of the light of Christ, and gladly embrace the truth that it reveals, however painful or uncomfortable that might be for us.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Chagall -- Moses and the Striking Rock
Symbols are indispensable to theology and religion, because often it is only through symbols that we can talk about both the world in which we live, and the reality that transcends it. In the Bible, ‘bread’, ‘water’, and ‘light’ are used symbolically again and again. It is easy to see why. All of them are essential to biological life, and so they readily lend themselves as means by which to point beyond the biological, to the essential elements of spiritual life.
The Old Testament lesson and the Gospel for this week are linked by one of these symbols – water. Moses, tormented by yet more complaining demands on the part of those he has led out of slavery – on this occasion it is “Give us water” -- cries out to God in his frustration. God responds by aligning himself (almost literally) with a miraculous supply of water in the wilderness. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb”, he tells Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it”. Thereby, the Israelites’ biological need for water is satisfied, but also made the means of demonstrating their dependence upon God.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman -- Duccio
The episode reveals both God's providential generosity  and the weakness and waywardness of the Israelites. They have taken it upon themselves to test God, and thus expose their underlying faithlessness. The Gospel passage offers us an interesting reversal. Here too the symbol of water plays its part, and the need for it is made the means of a test. But it is God in the Person of Jesus who needs water, and the humble Samaritan woman who is asked to provide it. Being Samaritan, she is not one of the ‘Chosen’ people, but part of a group regarded by Orthodox Jews as renegades. 
Nevertheless, she passes the initial test by drawing water from the well. This proves her worthiness to be put to a deeper test. Does she long for ‘living’ water of a different kind, and can she see that Jesus is offering it? The woman is convinced, almost, by the extraordinary insight Jesus shows into her life and character. This gives us a clue to the nature of the ‘eternal life’ to which Jesus refers --  life in God. In the Epistle, St Paul’s description of this life also makes an implicit reference to water. “We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.

Monday, March 6, 2017

LENT II 2017

Abraham and the Angels -- Marc Chagall (1966)

This week’s Old Testament lesson is remarkably short – just four sentences. It records God’s call to Abram to leave his home country and set off on a journey – who knows where – solely on the strength of God’s promise that his descendants would become “a great nation”.  God’s promise could hardly have been more spectacularly fulfilled. Abraham (as he is later renamed) must have had many contemporaries who were also leading figures in their day. But we know nothing about them because they left no discernible trace on the world they once inhabited. If -- as Paul insists – we include Christians among Abraham’s descendants, then the ‘great nation’ that grew from his obedience to God’s call, amounts, in our day and age alone, to well over two billion human beings in every country of the world.

“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God”, Paul writes in this week’s Epistle. Abraham could rightly take pride in the fact that he had the strength of mind and will to set out into the unknown. But it is the ultimate significance of this decision in which Paul is interest, and the key to this is not strength of character, but the power and purposes of God. The outcome of Abraham’s historic decision “depends on faith”, not on ingenuity or hard work. The humanly momentous decision to leave his homeland home only matters “in order that the promise may rest on grace”.
Christ and Nicodemus  - Ilya Repin (1887)
Paul is confident, of course, that the ultimate embodiment of faith and hence of grace is Jesus. In the the Gospel passage we encounter another figure, Nicodemus. No less well versed in Judaism than Paul, he is much less confident about Jesus. He is still wondering what to make of him, and that explains, no doubt, why as a devourt and learned Jew, he decides to seek him out at night. 

Nicodemus makes two further appearances in John's Gospel, and in each one, he steps a little closer to discipleship -- though never completely or unreservedly. On this first occasion Jesus asks him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" The implication  is clear. Anyone who wants to penetrates the faith of Israel must be driven on to find its fulfillment in Jesus. The heart of the transformation is this: fear of judgment is turned into hope of salvation. As John puts it: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”.

Monday, February 27, 2017

LENT I 2017

Christ in the Desert  - Ivan Kramskoi (1872)
The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of this three year ministry. In this Year A of the three year Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B.  It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin as plain as it can be. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul though to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
Satanic Self-Portrait -- Felicien Rops (1860)
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite the obvious gap, there is common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did, and we deceive ourselves if we think that the undoubted success of science and medicine has done very much to change that. 
To believe in the Bible as Revelation, is to believe that, however much interpretation they may need, the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what on this occasion does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous --  put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.


Salvador Dali - Blow the Trumpet in Zion
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 word 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 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.

Durer - The Penitent
In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those 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.
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 of 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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Transfiguration - Carl Bloch
Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length. Easter being late this year, Epiphany is three weeks longer than last. But regardless of length, the final Sunday in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Matthew; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Mark and Luke. But there is an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three, a key connection  between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah -- is revealed to the disciples. It is the connection with Moses that this year's Old Testament lesson picks up, recounting from Exodus the episode in which Moses is given the tablets of  law.
Raphael's Studies for the Transfiguration
The prophetic connection lends the event much of its significance. For the first time, perhaps, the disciples accompanying Jesus understand his uniqueness among the multitude of other ‘teachers’ of the law that were a common sight in Palestine.  And this is powerfully confirmed by a second feature all three accounts share -- the reference to dazzling light, a sign that the revelation that has been given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, but when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the resulting light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. So too, it is dazzling light that transfigures Jesus in the eyes of Peter, James and John.
There is one point, however, on which the accounts differ slightly. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Like Mark, but even more emphatically, Matthew is clear that Jesus ordered them “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is at best preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The passage from the second Epistle of Peter puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Holding on to this thought gives the approaching season of Lent a special coherence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017