Tuesday, February 9, 2016

LENT I 2016

The forty days of Lent are patterned on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Luke’s account in the Gospel for this Sunday makes an explicit connection with Psalm 91, which is thus the appointed Psalm.
Satan is the source of these temptations, a difficulty for modern readers since talk of ‘the devil’ often seems very alien -- not only strange but unwelcome. The way the Gospel tells the story, however, is quite compatible with thinking of these temptations primarily as thoughts and visions that come unbidden to Jesus in his solitude, thoughts that it takes a very deep resolve to resist. However many days exactly, and whatever the precise form of the temptations, the Gospel writer shows great spiritual insight into the mind of someone poised for a divinely appointed mission that may well prove, not just demanding, but disastrous, at least from a human point of view.
The temptations are of three kinds – simple (easy bread when Jesus is famished), grandiose (personal power and glory as a prophet), and spiritual (dramatic and compelling proof of God’s sovereignty). In many ways it is the last that is most important. That is because from time to time all sincerely religious people face the temptation of doing God’s work in their own way rather than in God’s. Moreover the source of this temptation may itself be Scriptural.
The Second Temptation William Blake
This is precisely the challenge Jesus confronts. After all, Satan is quoting Scripture (Psalm 91) when he says ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’. But to rely on this is to test God, and that is what is absolutely forbidden. Those who want to live in the shelter of the Most High, will first say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust’.
The same temptation recurs still more critically with the reality of death by crucifixion. The closing sentence of the Gospel powerfully makes this connection. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time”. That opportune time comes on Calvary. There, though, Satan jeers with the voices of ordinary people --  ‘Let him come down from the cross, and then we shall believe him’. This last temptation Jesus also resists because of a deep mystery -- that the ‘Most High’ has chosen the Way of the Cross for our redemption.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Moses Receives the Tablets - Marc Chagall

That strange New Testament episode known as ‘The Transfiguration’ is unique in the Church Calendar. It is the only event in the life of Christ that is observed twice – on the traditional ‘Feast of the Transfiguration’ (Aug 6th) and on the Sunday before Lent, now widely referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’. The lessons for this year are unusually integrated. The Old Testament tells the story of Moses on Sinai that Paul then refers to in the Epistle. It is the very same story that occurs immediately to the disciples, when they see what happens to Jesus on the mountain top.
It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When he descends his face is shining with a brightness so unnatural that it unnerves the Israelites. And so, after subsequent visits to the Holy of Holies, he covers his face with a veil. The message, Paul tells us, is that the Israelites were unprepared or unwilling to encounter God’s glory. Now, thanks to Christ, we are enabled to do so. But our ability to do so does not arise from the Transfiguration that Peter, James and John witness. Rather, that experience prepares them to witness the Resurrection. It removes the veil that would otherwise prevent them from seeing God in a crucified criminal.
Transfiguration - Fra Angelica (1440)
The season of Lent just approaching is an opportunity to put aside the various ‘veils’ of selfishness and sin that can hide Easter. Despite the familiarity of the phrase, very few people can expect to have ‘mountain top’ experiences. Yet something much less dramatic can serve the same end. In his hymn ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart’ the 19thC Irish Anglican priest George Croly (1780-1860) beautifully encapsulated this thought.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay
No angel visitant, no opening skies.
But take the dimness of my soul away

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Jeremiah -- MIchaelangelo
There are weeks when the lectionary readings are so full of subtleties that it is hard to distill any single theme on which they invite us to reflect. This is one of those weeks. The lessons seem random, and yet there is a theme -- the cost of prophecy.

In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah recounts his deep reluctance to accept the awesome prophetic role that God has in mind for him. Here we get a glimpse of a paradox that runs through  much of the Bible. To be ‘chosen’ by God as one of his special witnesses is the most momentous and significant thing that can happen to any human being. From one perspective, it offers the individual a more distinguished role in human life than anyone could ordinarily hope for. From another it is foolishness, because unlike high office in other spheres – politics, business, science, the military for example – where we can expect acclamation, popularity and reward, prophetic greatness is very likely to bring ridicule, rejection and persecution.

Christ in the Synagogue -- Nicholai Ge (1868)
This was true in Jeremiah’s case. His example, though striking, fades to relative insignificance in comparison with Jesus, however. Jesus is far more than a prophetic witness. The lessons throughout Epiphany underline again and again that he has been uniquely chosen by God as God’s own incarnation – Son of God in a very special sense. In Jesus, divinity, motivated by pure love,  takes on the limitations of humanity. This week’s Gospel, shows, strangely, that such love can be met with deep resentment, hatred and even violence. It is this reaction that finally leads Jesus to Crucifixion.
 With this in the background, the famous passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians serves wonderfully to remind us of what love is like. It is easy to sit comfortably and let these familiar and beautiful words flow over us. But we should make no mistake. As Paul himself knew only too well, church people can be like the resentful people in the synagogue at Nazareth far more often than they model the love Paul so powerfully describes. Set against this fact, there is this Good News: Christian hope and faith are pinned on God’s love for humanity, not on humanity’s love for one another.

Monday, January 18, 2016


This week’s Old Testament lesson offers us a glimpse of what must have been a profoundly moving occasion. After decades of exile in Babylon, the Israelites have returned to the Promised Land. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, the ancient gates are functioning again, and the people gather in celebration at the Water Gate, itself a symbol of new life. Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law of Moses. It takes a whole morning, but these are the Laws that have made the Israelites the people they are, and to which they now re-dedicate themselves.
Jesus unrolls the Scriptures James J Tissot (1886)
So moved are they, the people weep. But Nehemiah bids them be joyful. The beautiful  words of Psalm 19 (prescribed for this Sunday) echo his sentiments. “The law of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart”.
Both passages serve to underline the immense cultural and religious significance the Scriptures held for the Jews. We need a sense of this if we are to appreciate just how extraordinary the episode recounted in the Gospel is. Jesus reads the Scriptures in his local synagogue, to people who have known him all his life. Suddenly he announces, referring to himself it seems, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." It is little wonder that the people are stunned into silence, and then -- as next week’s continuation of the same passage shows – moved to anger and violence. The modern reader’s task over these two weeks is to read imaginatively, so that it becomes possible both to sympathize with them for their profound religious loyalty, and yet to understand how they went wrong in their rejection of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Traditionally, three events in the life of Christ have been taken to be interconnected elements in his 'Epiphany' or 'Manifestation'  -- the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the Baptism of Jesus by John, and the Wedding at Cana. In this year of the 3-year lectionary cycle (Year C) they are recounted consecutively. Accordingly, following the Feast of Epiphany itself, and the Baptism of the Lord, the Gospel for the second Sunday after the Epiphany is John's account of the wedding at Cana. He identifies it as the first sign that Jesus did, and ends his account of what happened by making it the 'sign' that confirmed the disciples in their belief that Jesus was indeed the Messiah long awaited by the Jews.

On the surface it is a rather puzzling episode, and one that appears only in the fourth Gospel. As is characteristic of that Gospel, it is replete with allusions and symbolic references. In fact, it would be hard to find another eleven Bible verses that are as densely symbolic as these. Understanding them, and thus the episode itself, requires us to hear resonances beyond John's Gospel, not only with the other three Gospels, but with the books of the Old Testament that provide an indispensable backdrop. One critically important allusion is the concept of marriage itself, because this is used in several other places with the aim of capturing something deep and important about the intimate relationship of God to Israel; God is the bridegroom and Israel the bride. 

Wedding at Cana - He Qi
In this ordinary village wedding at Cana, however, appearances are deceptive. Jesus is not the bridegroom, just a guest. But he becomes the central figure at the wedding, because it is his action that wholly transforms the occasion. This transformation is symbolically depicted. The celebration is not at an end, but the wine runs out. The only thing left is the partially used water provided by the host for guests to ritually 'purify' themselves before the celebration began. It is this water that Jesus transforms, not only into the best wine, in what John's readers would have recognized to be vast quantities.

It is reading this 'sign' for what it said about Jesus, and not what it did to salvage a faltering wedding ceremony, that led the disciples truly to believe. Probably early readers of John could 'read' this passage more easily than the modern reader can. But the truth that the evangelist means to convey remains the same.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Russian icon of the Baptism of Christ

    The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates one of the relatively few events that  are recorded in all four Gospels. The Gospel for this year is Luke, the shortest of the four accounts – ‘when Jesus had also been baptized’ is all it says about the event itself – and it combines two seemingly very different ideas, a ferocious warning about ‘unquenchable fire’ with the appearance of a dove, traditionally the symbol of peace. 

    In a justly celebrated poem, T S Eliot powerfully connects the two.

    The dove descending breaks the air 
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    Baptism Jean-Michel Basquiat
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
     To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar Name
    Behind the hands that wove

    The intolerable shirt of flame

    Which human power cannot remove.
     We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire.

    Eliot here gives expression to the choice with which Christianity confronts us. We can live by our own lights and struggle through the existential problems that ‘human power cannot remove’, or we can transcend them by letting the love of God in Christ consume us. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

    Jean-Michel Basquiat began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015

    ADVENT IV 2015

    Rather unusually, on this Sunday one of the lectionary readings can be repeated. ‘The Magnificat’ is a rapturous song of praise that Mary offers to God when she realizes she is to be the Mother of Jesus – ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’. It can be used in place of the Psalm, and then heard for a second time as the centerpiece of the Gospel reading.
    The Visitation -- Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)
    Mary has walked to a distant village to visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is from Elizabeth that she receives final confirmation of how remarkable her position is: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Like the Magnificat itself, these words have also become a widely used and long established prayer in the worship of the Church.
    The Magnificat, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel, has been said and sung innumerably many times over many centuries. This is powerful testimony to its deep spiritual significance for Christian believers in every time and place.

    Oddly, though, sheer familiarity can actually deafen us to the mysterious story it reflects. God’s mighty work of redemption, the point and purpose of the whole created cosmos, begins in a remote part of the Roman Empire with the unexpected pregnancy of a teenage girl from a tiny village. It is Mary’s acceptance of what might well bring her shame and degradation that inaugurates the spiritual transformation of human kind through the life and death of Jesus.
    Roman ruins
    ‘From now on all generations will call me blessed’. This is such an unlikely scenario that Mary’s words seem absurd. The world in which she lived was a man's world dominated by one of the greatest and most enduring empires in human history. And yet she was right. The Roman Empire has vanished so completely, only a few archeological traces remain, while at Christmas billions of people, to whom Caesar and Herod are literally ancient history, will nevertheless give thanks for Mary’s role in their redemption, and call her ‘blessed’. What plainer evidence could there be that God has indeed ‘brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’?