Monday, November 23, 2015


Last Judgment Mural - Ivan Bilibin
Advent I is the start of a new Christian year. The readings are always powerfully apocalyptic – passages from Jeremiah and Luke (this year) or Isaiah and Matthew (last year) that focus on the end of time, and the Second Coming of Christ. Why do we begin the year by thinking about the Second Coming, and not the First – the birth of Jesus? The answer is that the Incarnation is NOT the start of the story of our salvation, but rather a crucial moment within it. At the start of a new spiritual year it is essential that we bring to mind the great cosmic sweep of time within which God acts – from Creation to Redemption – and thereby renew our sense of the immeasurable ‘power, might and majesty’ of the God we worship, a sense easily, and comfortably, submerged in the more homely images of Bethlehem.
At the same time, this is not simply a matter of cosmic theology. The task is to shape our own lives around the very same story, and to grasp this truth -- that for each one of us Birth is the moment of creation and Death the end of time, and that at some point in our journey from the cradle to the grave, God comes to us in Christ as our salvation.
The Last Judgment -- Limbourg Brothers (1400)
Advent I is also the Sunday on which Anglicans throughout the world use Thomas Cranmer’s most enduring Collect, a prayer that he specially composed for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is powerful testimony to Crammer’s spiritual gifts that this prayer has served its purpose for more than 460 years, and even now has been retained in all the newest versions of the Prayerbook. This is because of the incomparable way in which Cranmer uses Biblical phrases to weave together the cosmic and the personal aspects of Advent. Arguably the most beautiful of all his Collects, its words gives us the means to articulate a deep understanding of the human condition within which we must pursue our lives.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


King  David  - Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall King David
This is the closing Sunday of the Christian year, and celebrates Christ as King. In the modern lectionary the traditional description 'Feast of Christ the King' has been replaced by 'The Reign of Christ' no doubt because the image of ‘king’ does not have much resonance in the modern world where ‘democracy’ is the prevailing political ideal.  In this respect, the United States can be thought to have led the way. It was founded on the outright rejection of royalty, and an affirmation of the equality of rich and poor. We are given a choice of Old Testament readings. Choosing the passage from 2 Samuel allows us focus on David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, rather on a more general image of kingship, and since the focus on David brings to the fore the theme that Jesus is ‘of David’s line’, something that is emphasized at Christmas, we seem on more obviously religious or theological ground with that.
Christ in Judgement c.1100
But in fact, the difference is merely one of emphasis. It is David’s kingship that matters. His status in first century Judaism was like George Washington’s in American political culture – uniquely important, and in no way diminished, in either case, by any human failings they may have had. In the time of Jesus, Israel’s hopes, by and large, were still pinned on the thought that a new David would arise, and return the Jewish nation to its rightful place as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. As history turned out, it was not to be. What Christians believe is that, against this background, God acted to reveal a quite different kind of kingship – ‘not of this world’ – as Jesus expressly says in the Gospel passage for this Sunday, a ‘kingship’ revealed, strangely, in a ‘crown of thorns’. The fundamental message runs counter to the hopes people pin on all political programs, and not just those of old fashioned royalists.
So, to celebrate the Reign of Christ properly, we must be sure to avoid all hints of triumphalism, any implied suggestion that ‘our man’ won out over his enemies in the end. Rather, we need, in a spirit of wondering humility, to find a way of accepting that, as Isaiah says, God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. And yet, it is His ways that will and should prevail. The incarnation of God in the journey of Jesus from manger to cross makes it possible for us to do that. Celebrating Christ as King is our acknowledgment of this fundamental truth.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Destruction of the Temple -- Hayez (1867)
It is almost impossible for us to imagine the skyscrapers of New York or Capitol Hill in Washington DC lying in ruins in just a few years time, never to be rebuilt. If anyone predicted it, we could not take him seriously. The prediction that Jesus makes in the Gospel for this Sunday must have struck his hearers in just this way -- quite unbelievable to everyone except his fanatical disciples. Such 'large buildings' couldn't just disappear. Yet he was right. Within forty years, the massive Temple at Jerusalem, a symbol for the Jews of the enduring stability of their faith, was destroyed by Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. But, Jesus adds, the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow it are just the start. There is much worse to follow.

These apocalyptic passages from the Gospels are often thought to be embarrassing. They seem to put Jesus in the same class as those eccentric people who walk the streets with a billboard declaring ‘The End of the World is Nigh”. Still, it has to be remembered that the Roman Empire did indeed collapse. The Jewish Temple was ruined in 70 AD and never rebuilt. The imperial Capitol eventually went the same way, and by the 4th century the culture of Greece and Rome that had shaped the world for centuries came to an end.  In time, of course, other 'powers and dominions' arose to take its place -- up to and including our international ‘global village’ and the internet by which it is connected. It is both unimaginable and certain that our world too will come to an end.

Hannah Praying in the Temple - Marc Chagall
The ‘triumph’ of Jesus over sin and death stands in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Temple and the might of Rome. Jesus was a Prince of a quite different kind. Since he was executed as a criminal, his mission must have been declared a spectacular failure had he aimed at establishing more powerful and enduring political and military institutions.  Yet “by this single offering” the passage from Hebrews tells us, “he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. It all seems highly implausible. Nevertheless, and contrary to every expectation, “the bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength”, as Hannah reminds us in the Book of Samuel. When the mighty Roman Empire began to crumble, a truly different kind of institution took root  in an obscure corner of the Empire. A few humble people formed the kernal of the Church. That mystical Body is now one in which billions of people, both living and dead, are united as in Christ Jesus. Build as we might, it is here, and only here, the Gospel tells us, that we can expect to find ‘an abiding city’.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Boaz wakes to find Ruth at his feet -- Marc Chagall
It is hard to avoid the sense that this week’s combination of readings – whether in the continuous track or the thematic track – are somewhat random. Both the Old Testament lessons are about women in need of protection and support who have to make striking accommodations with the world in which they live. The Epistle continues the Hebrews theme of Christ’s priesthood, while the Gospel from Mark recounts the episode known as ‘the widow’s mite’. This is the occasion when Jesus praises a widow woman who has given a tiny sum of money to the synagogue in preference to the wealthy people he had seen give far larger sums.
All of these are interesting passages, and in three of them women figure notably. But it is hard to find any one 'message' around which they seem to coalesce.  
There is, however, an obvious lesson we can draw from the brief Gospel episode. Generosity is relative to the resources of the giver. This obvious truth makes it odd that human beings should be so impressed by ‘big bucks’. We always hear about huge philanthropic gifts – from Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates and so on – and even though we know that these have cost them very little, if anything, by way of personal sacrifice, we’re still impressed. In sharp contrast, we don’t hear much about small philanthropic gestures that constitute a real sacrifice on the part of the givers, who for the sake of something, or someone, other than themselves, have forgone things they wanted, or even needed. It is the size of a gift that always captures the headlines. And yet this never measures its generosity. 

However obvious this truth may be, it is worth repeating again and again.Yet it does not take us to the heart of the Gospel message. This impoverished woman is giving the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem all that she has to live on. Her tiny ‘mite’ demonstrates the personal depths to which faith in God can go far more powerfully than the ‘showy’ religion on which Jesus comments in the preceding verses. At the same, there is no denying that it is the hypocrites he condemns who get worldly acclaim, while the poor widow remains in her poverty. In this way her case presented Jesus’ hearer, with a real counter-cultural challenge. And so it does for us and our world also. Which, in all honesty, do we prefer – the kind of success that contemporary society undoubtedly favors (and which, sometimes, conventional church going can help along), or the spiritual sincerity and simplicity that brings us closer to God?
picture: MAFA Widows Mite

Thursday, October 29, 2015


All Saints picture - Albrecht Durer
All Saints - Durer
All Saints' Day is a 'principal feast' of the Church. So when it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it takes precedence over the usual sequence of Sundays in Pentecost. The readings differ over the three years of the lectionary, and in interestingly different ways they reflect on themes associated with 'the 'Communion of Saints' -- death, heaven, martyrdom, glory, and life in the presence of God. The readings for this year include Psalm 24 which asks a key question: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" The same Psalm supplies an answer: "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false. . . They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation." It is natural to ask, however, just how inclusive the company of saints is and will be.

In times past, and in many places still, there is a separate 'Commemoration of All Souls' one day later, on November 2nd. Thus, traditionally a distinction has been drawn between 'exceptional' Christians, and others of a more ordinary 'wayfaring' sort.

All Souls' Night - Bradley Walker Tomlin
All Souls Night -- Bradley Walker Tomlin (1947)
In recent times, especially in the United States, the practice has arisen of effectively converging the two days, and making All Saints Day an occasion for commemorating all the 'faithful departed' as well. There are a number of explanations for this change. Some are historical and have to do with Protestant anxieties about masses for the dead. But in some minds there is also a spirit of egalitarianism at work -- the idea being that our prayers and celebration ought to be inclusive, of everyone, regardless. There is something to be said for this, of course. Yet it is a loss too. Not only does it diminish the extraordinary and inspiring faithfulness that only some Christians have shown in the face of difficulty, adversity and persecution, it also leaves the ordinary wayfarer with nothing to aspire to.

St Paul, in a famous metaphor, describes the task of  Christians as 'running the race set before us'. In the actual world of athletics, we don't expect everyone to be a winner, and we admire the exceptional accomplishments of a few. Perhaps we should preserve this aspect of Paul's metaphor. Saints, we are told, are those who have been 'the lights in their generations'. To describe everyone in this way unhelpfully disguises the fact that the vast majority of Christians who are trying to be faithful need a few such lights along the way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Kneeling Beggar  Vasily Surikov (1886)
This week's readings continue a pattern they have followed for several weeks past --  passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews are set alongside passages from the Gospel of Mark. It is an interesting, but also slightly puzzling combination. For the most part Mark relates episodes in which Jesus figures as a teacher, a prophet, a leader and a healer. The extracts from Hebrews, on the other hand, insist again and again that we should see Jesus as priest. This is a label Mark never employs. The readings for this week follow the same pattern. Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar whose persistence finally wins him the attention of Jesus. His request is plain and simple – ‘I want to see again’ and his sight is indeed restored. How does this healing ministry fit with the description of Jesus in Hebrews as ‘high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled’?
Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is not as straightforward as it may appear. First, in many of the examples Mark gives us – the crazy man by the lakeside, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion -- Jesus does not seek out the sufferers in order to heal them. Rather, they push themselves forward. Second, he makes no claim to healing powers, but says ‘Your faith has made you well’. Third, when healing takes place – to the astonishment of lookers – the disciples are told not to spread the word, to keep it secret. All these are clues that however much their new found health  means to the individuals concerned, in the context of Jesus' ministry, physical healing must not be the main focus. We will, in fact, have lost its true meaning, if we do not see it pointing beyond the physical to things spiritual.

Christ Blessing -- Messina (1495)
‘Actions speak louder than words’. When say this we are generally thinking of cases in which deeds communicate a message with a force that mere words would lack. This is how it is with the actions of Jesus. Often, the healing miracles should be interpreted as spiritual ‘signs’ rather than medical ‘wonders’. Bartimaeous embodies both the sort of deep longing that has the strength to persist, and a faith founded on absolute trust. His physical blindness, and the restoration of his sight, provide Jesus with an occasion that he can use to prompt the onlookers, and Bartimaeous, and us, to a new awareness of spiritual blindness. The dark and narrow minded  paths in which our lives so often go is the  blindness from which Christ continues to free us, if only we sincerely long for him to do so. He does this, Hebrews tells us, because on the Cross he makes a sacrifice that renders every other sacrifice redundant. Priest and healer, it seems, are not so far apart after all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


At the Icon of the Savior - Boris Kustodiev (1910)

This week, somewhat unusually, the Continuous and Thematic lectionary readings have a common resonance. Both culminate in a Gospel passage from Mark, and the thread that runs through all of them is the relation between personal suffering and faith in God. The Book of Job poses the question – why do good people suffer terrible things? It is in this third extract (rather than in next week’s ‘happy ending’) that we find the answer. In response to Job’s cries, and in contrast to all the possible explanations that his human comforters have offered him, God finally answers him. The 'answer' turns out to be a series of questions in fact: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” Though the phrase ‘surely you know’ seems to have an element of ridicule about it, it underlines something important. We owe to God our ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’ (as the General Thanksgiving expresses it), so when the Lord takes away what He has given, he does us no wrong. Still, in our pain and loss we can curse Him, or we can continue to bless Him. That is the very hard choice we face, as Job does. The Psalm that accompanies this reading expressly invites us to choose the second option – ‘Bless the Lord O my soul!’

The Apostles James and John,
 Museum of Santiago Compostela

But the New Testament does not leave the matter there. The Epistle echoes Isaiah’s powerful description (in the Thematic OT reading) of the ‘suffering servant’ ‘wounded for our transgressions’. Building on the idea that we are healed by his bruises, it points to the crucial importance of God’s suffering in Jesus. ‘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’. The Gospel recounts that somewhat embarrassing occasion when James and John push themselves forward for special treatment in heaven, and thereby reveal how drastically they misunderstand what discipleship means. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ Jesus asks, and to do so without any special promise of glory. ‘We are’ they proudly reply. And so indeed James ultimately proved to be since (Acts tells us) he became the first Apostle to be killed, in a brutal persecution. But by that time, of course, he had a different assurance – Christ’s Resurrection.

The terrible sufferings we see in this world, and sometimes experience for ourselves, constitute a human problem that will not go away. For the Christian, though, suffering is not merely something inexplicable, an unfortunate by-product of evolution. There is meaning to be found in it, if we treat it as a spiritual mystery. In Jesus, God chose suffering for Himself as the way to our salvation. This is a mystery, but the Resurrection is not the happy ending that the Book of Job will offer us next week. It signals the power of love to defeat evil, not by eliminating it, or compensating us for it, but by transcending it.