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'.

    Monday, March 9, 2015

    LENT IV 2015

    William Blake -- Moses and the serpent (1803)
    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, with a connection that is less familiar – a curious episode from the Book of Numbers where Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.

    The Lectionary chooses this episode as the Old testament lesson. But the God depicted in it is hardly a God of love. Sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites for complaining about the lack of food and water in the wilderness speaks more of spiteful irritation than fatherly care. Moses, by admitting to sinfulness on the part of the people, effectively concurs with the implication that God is justified when he punishes them in this horrible way. Given such a God, though, it is the pragmatic thing to do, because the admission of fault does elicit a cure of sorts – the bronze serpent.

    Endre Bartos - Salvation (1979)
    Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes with Jesus is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’, like the snake, is lifted up. But unlike the snake, this is God incarnate -- which means that in place of poisonous punishment, we encounter pure love. In Jesus, God offers himself so that the world may not be condemned, but saved.

    At the same time, the risk of condemnation has not entirely disappeared. Humanity is still subject to judgment. And “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 following the way of the world.

    Monday, March 2, 2015

    LENT III 2015

    The Ten Commandments  Lucas Crannach the Elder (1472-1553)


    At first sight the readings for this Sunday appear to be largely unconnected. What does listing the Ten Commandments have to do with Jesus overturning the tables in the temple? This is a good question, because there is no one clear theme running through them. Even so, they are nevertheless importantly related. Taken together these readings present us once more with a truth that is central to the teachings of Jesus, and to the Christian faith. It lies 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 just what that Law is, as embodied in the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The relationship between God and his Chosen people these commandments created was a covenantal one. God would honor and protect those who kept his Law, and punish those who did not. That is partly why, as St Paul writes in the Epistle, the Cross must be something of a stumbling block to serious Jews. If Jesus, as Paul claims, is the very embodiment of God’s Law -- the Law to which Paul remained faithful -- how could he have ended up like a common criminal?


    Christ Overturning the Money Changer's Table -- Stanley Spencer (1921)
    In this week’s Gospel John provides an answer when 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 in fact that it needed radical renewal. Strange though it must sound, by his 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, and able, to enter the company of God’s chosen people.


    Monday, February 23, 2015

    LENT II 2015

    'Get thee behind me Satan' J J Tissot (1836-1902)
    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.

    A human life, if we believe in God, is not a lucky chance, but a gracious gift. As with any gift, the recipient can hoard it possessively -- or spend in a spirit that mirrors the grace that gave it. There are times when this fundamental choice about how to live becomes critical. Clinging possessively to the life I have been given, including its talents and accomplishments, is a powerful temptation, but it rests on the false supposition that it is what we get out of life that matters most. 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’.

    Faith Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929)
    We might put the paradox another way. The human soul finds fulfillment only when it abandons its deepest inclinations. Humanity's perfection requires us to leave our humanity behind. That is the truth behind Jesus' stern rebuke to Peter: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’.

    The Old Testament passage about Abraham, and Paul’s reflection on it in the Epistle, embody the same message. God declares Abraham’s life righteous (a life lived rightly) not because of the moral laws and prudent calculations by which it was governed, but because it sprang from a trusting faith in the promise of God. 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 Psalm captures the point 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’. It then declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2015

    LENT I 2015

    Rainbow -- William Turner (1775-1851)
    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.
     
    Temptation of Jesus Christ -- Ilya Repin (1901-1903)
    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.
     
    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.