Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EASTER IV 2015

Henry Ossawa Tanner The Good Shepherd (1903)
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It gets this name partly from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – but chiefly because, in each of the three years of the lectionary, the Gospel for the day is taken from John Chapter 10, in which Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.

The three passages all have a slightly different emphasis. Verses 11-18 provide the reading in Year B (this year). In these verses Jesus dwells on the contrast between a shepherd tending his own sheep, and a hired hand who is merely looking after some else’s. When danger threatens the flock, the hired hand flees; the true shepherd stays to defend them – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

Good Shepherd mosaic
This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds are  unlikely to die in defense of their sheep? Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but it serves to make a powerful point. Applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd' most importantly draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but to the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete isolation, abandoned by his followers. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his 'sheep' to scatter. He is left alone, crushed by pain and surrounded by hatred.

Yet, amazingly, it is for these very 'sheep' that he has given his life, and accordingly, it is his feeble followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. Sheep they may be, but they are his, and as we now know, this love transforms them. 

The Epistle draws the obvious moral lesson – ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. The love embodied in the Risen Christ returning to gather his sheep together again both demands and inspires this response.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

EASTER III 2015


St Peter Preaching -- Massacio

If there is a single idea that unites the readings for this Sunday it is ‘astonishment’. Astonishment has two sides. While we often describe something that astonishes us as ‘unbelievable’, we also explain the fact that some things fail to astonish us by saying that they are not 'believable'. That's how the Resurrection is for many modern people; they aren’t astonished by it, precisely because it's unbelievable.

Luke's Gospel shows that, despite our modern self-image, in this respect the disciples were not so very different from people today. They too were skeptical, and they thought that the Jesus who seemed to appear among them was more likely to be a ghost than a resurrected person – hence the physical touching and eating that Jesus uses to convince them otherwise. Since there is no body for us to 'touch', we can either accept the written record of their testimony, or we can say that the disciples must have been subject to some strange delusion or imaginative flight of fancy. Still, even if a 'bodily' resurrection were proven, this would not be sufficient to prove other ‘astonishing’ elements that, spiritually speaking, are in many ways far more important.

Dali -- Christ St John of the Cross
First, the Gospels proclaim that a crucified non-entity turns out be the Messiah the Children of Israel had long yearned for. This is no less 'unbelievable'. Equally, it is hard to believe that Jesus’ 'victory' meant forgiveness, not vengeance, for the very people who had demanded his death and preferred the release of a proven murderer. And can it also be (as the Epistle holds) that the most ordinary people -- like them and us -- can look forward to a Christ-like future? These are among the no less truly astonishing claims that the passage from Acts tells us Peter made when he preached in the market place.

There is a preconceived idea, widely held, that people in past times were able to believe things that a modern, scientific culture like ours cannot. The Gospel passage for this Sunday shows that Christians have good reason to combat this assumption. Despite enormous economic, cultural and technological changes, people then were not so radically different to people now. We should be open to their having truly witnessed a bodily Resurrection. At the same time, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the fact that it is the religiously, and not merely the scientifically astonishing that it is essential for our world to recover.

Monday, April 6, 2015

EASTER II 2015

Jesus appears to the Disciples -- National Cathedral mosaic
The Gospel readings for the ‘octave’ of Easter -- the eight days immediately following Easter Day -- recount the post-Resurrection appearances of a bodily Jesus. They conclude with the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas, which provides the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter in all three years of the Lectionary. Shortly thereafter, though, the readings return to pre-Resurrection episodes, and even to occasions when Jesus is anticipating his crucifixion.

This pattern might suggest that as Easter recedes, so does the message of resurrection. Obviously that is not right, but the return to pre-Resurrection episodes does serve as a helpful reminder that the bodily appearances of Jesus proved to be a special gift, to a very few disciples, for a very short time. Moreover, it was only after these appearances ceased, that the strange fact of the Resurrection, and the significance of its redeeming power, really took hold on the followers of Jesus. It was following Christ's Ascension that they were led to start proclaiming (in the words of the Epistle) that “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” has a far wider implication than a miraculous event. The Resurrection is “the word of life” – which is to say, it is about how we should live.  

Christ and nails
One aspect of the way that early Christians revolutionized their lives is especially striking. They abandoned “private ownership of any possessions”, Acts tells us, sharing their material possessions so that “there was not a needy person among them”. Something like this admirable arrangement is extolled in the very short Psalm that follows. But it did not persist, and given human beings as they are, it could not have been expected to last. The heady days of the early Church, as Paul's letters confirm, were soon displaced by the emergence of a 'human, all too human' institution. Yet, the fragility of the kind of life that the first Christians embraced, does not render the Gospel they proclaimed empty. On the contrary, it points to its vital double sidedness  -- reality constantly renewed by hope. However mundane the Church temporal, Christians cannot relinquish the hope of the Church triumphant -- that deep unity waiting to be discovered in the Risen and Ascended Christ. And when, again and again, they fail to realize it, their task is to turn repeatedly to the reality that grounds it --  “Jesus Christ the righteous”, since is he is “. . . the atoning sacrifice for sins”.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MAUNDY THURSDAY - HOLY SATURDAY 2015

'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week, and the final preparation for Easter Day. Each year the readings for these three days are the same, and in turn the traditional liturgies reflect the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb.

MAUNDY THURSDAY

The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of  the Latin 'mandatum novum', the 'new commandment' that Jesus gives his disciples to 'love one another'. The tradition of foot washing that takes place on this day is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, and a reflection of what happened in the Upper Room. But the main focus is on the gift of the Eucharist, which is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack. There is a reflection and link to the readings at Maundy Thursday 

 



GOOD FRIDAY
Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross.
Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express  their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday. There is a reflection and link to the readings at Good Friday


HOLY SATURDAY
Although nowadays Holy Saturday is often used for children's Easter egg hunts, it ought really to be a day of quiet reflection and prayerful waiting, ending in the Great Vigil of Easter, possibly the most ancient of all Christian festivals.
There is a reflection and link to the readings at Holy Saturday



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

PASSION and PALM SUNDAY 2015

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem -- Wihelm Morgner (1891-1917)

Liturgy of the Palms
    Liturgy of the Passion
    In line with modern practice, the Sunday universally known as Palm Sunday now has two names. Strictly, it is called ‘The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday’. This is because, uniquely, there are two Gospel readings on one day. The first – in the Liturgy of the Palms – recounts Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, that bright moment when children waving palm branches led him – fleetingly -- to be hailed as king. The second, the long Gospel usually read or sung by several voices, recounts the dark sequence of events that followed – betrayal, abandonment, intense physical pain, humiliation and finally death. Holy Week is framed by this narrative. It is taken from Matthew, Mark or Luke (this year is Mark), and then repeated on Good Friday (always in John’s version). The days in between are set aside for sustained meditation on the meaning of Christ’s passion, an opportunity to help us understand the full significance of the Resurrection properly.

    Grunewald's Mocking of Christ
    The Palm Sunday readings are unusual in another respect too. The Old Testament (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) are the same every year. In different ways they both underline an important fact. The significance of death on the Cross is not to be found primarily in the terrible suffering it involved. History tells of many heroes who died painful deaths struggling gloriously for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion. Indeed, it is the precise opposite of a heroic death. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise, and did nothing to defend himself.

    Isaiah makes this the ultimate test of faith. ‘I shall not be put to shame’ because ‘it is the Lord GOD who helps me’. Paul finds still deeper theological significance in the ignominy of it all. It is precisely because Jesus ‘humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ that God so ‘highly exalted him’ and gave him ‘the name that is above every name’. This might seem like some horrible sadism on God’s part, until we remember that ‘God was in Christ’ reconciling Himself to the world. Here is the spectacular, and perplexing, truth that the Resurrection confirms. It is in the figure of the humiliated, unheroic Jesus that the Source of Life, and hence the sacred, is to be seen most clearly.
    Heads of Judas and Peter - Leonardo da Vinci
    Leonardo Da Vinci -- Judas and Peter

    Astride the colt and claimed as King
    that Sunday morning in the spring,
    He passed a thornbush flowering red
    that one would plait to crown his head.

    He passed a vineyard where the wine
    was grown for one of royal line,
    and where the dregs were also brewed
    into a gall for Calvary’s rood.

    A purple robe was cast his way,
    then caught, and kept until that day
    when, with its use, a trial would be
    profaned into a mockery.

    His entourage was forced to wait
    to let a timber through the gate,
    a shaft that all there might have known
    would be an altar and a throne.
    Marie J Post (American hymn writer 1919-1990)



    Tuesday, March 17, 2015

    St PATRICK'S DAY

    St Patrick's Day - Child Hassam (1919)
    1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
    Matthew 28:16-20
    Psalm 97:1-2,7-12 or
    Psalm 96:1-7

    Patrick (387- 493 or c. 460 AD), the Patron Saint of Ireland, is one of the best known and most widely celebrated Christian saints. Unhappily for him, however, much of this celebration is the result of political, national and cultural associations, as well as commerical opportunities, that have little to do with his life and work. Often, indeed, they serve to divert attention completely away from what was in fact his driving passion -- the great commission Jesus gives to his disciples in the Gospel passage for St Patrick's Day -- "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". Patrick's special commission was to the 'nation' made up of the tribes that populated 5th century Ireland, to which, at the age of sixteen, he had been taken in captivity as a slave.
     

    Many of the associations that 'St Patrick's Day' aims to evoke arose hundreds of years after his death. But legends of all sorts have surrounded this remarkable man almost since the beginning. Fortunately, some authentic documents survive. One is Patrick's own Confessio. Written towards the end of his life, its opening paragraphs read as follows.

    "I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners. Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favors and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven."
    A Legend of St Patrick - Briton Riviere (1877)
    And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me.

    Monday, March 16, 2015

    LENT V 2015

    Michaelangelo -- The Prophet Jeremiah (1512)
    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. 
     
     
      
    Salvador Dali -- Christ of St John of the Cross
    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 be let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of Christ lifted up on the Cross. The mystery lies in the fact that the only way the perfection of our humanity can be attained is in this 'dying with Christ'.