Tuesday, April 17, 2018

EASTER IV 2018

The Good Shepherd (MAFA)
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 Easter IV 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’.

This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds in Jesus' time were unlikely to die in defense of their sheep. Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but the exaggeration serves to make a powerful point. When applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd'  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. Crushed by pain and injury, surrounded by hatred and contempt, he is left completely alone.
A Shepherd -- Marc Chagall (1931)

Yet, amazingly, as these very 'sheep' soon learn, he has given his life, for them. It is his faithless, 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 11, 2018

EASTER III 2018

Resurrection
The message of the Resurrection of Jesus in the light of his Crucifixion lies in an assurance that, in some mysterious way, the sin and suffering that so obviously mark and mar human life have been overcome. Despite appearances, evil does not triumph and death is not the end. But how? Those troubling appearances are no less common than they were. Can we really accept that their reality is ultimately temporary?

People have often found it tempting to seek reassurance in the hope of life in a world other than this one, where there is neither pain nor grief. From this perspective, the resurrected Christ is a prototype (so to speak) of our own heavenly existence,  Yet a striking sentence from the Epistle for this Sunday suggests otherwise."Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." Whatever may be true about our future, the author says, the Resurrection assurance is that we are God's children now, and in the light of that assurance, we are enabled to live comfortably while still in ignorance of what we will be. What we do know is that, when all is revealed, we will not remain the same, but be transformed. We will become like Christ, by willingly sacrificing our egos to him when we are finally able see him as he really is.

Peter Preaching
This is a different and more inspiring vision of heaven, than the common idea of a continuation of this world minus its troubles. Importantly, it resonates better with the fears and doubts of the first disciples recorded in this week's passage from Luke. Jesus gives them tangible evidence of his reality, but only enough to satisfy them that he is not a ghostly apparition. The aim is to make them better enable to recognize the Messiah in him.

The passage from Acts is part of Peter's Pentecostal proclamation in the market place. Here too, however, the emphasis is on his present experience, not on speculation about the future. Faith in Jesus, he tells his audience, has made the ordinary Peter they "see and know" to be "strong" and "given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you". A remarkable transformation is what he has become now. It is what he is now that will enable him to face evil and death in the future when he confronts his own martyrdom. He has been reborn with a spiritual confidence in the present that is the gift of God in Christ.

Monday, April 2, 2018

EASTER II 2018

Incredulity of St Thomas -- Matthias Stom
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. It is, so to speak, the 'proof' text of the Resurrection. Yet, as is well known, the episode ends with Jesus suggesting that faith does not need empirical proof, and even that we are better off without it.



On succeeding Sundays, the Gospel passages return to pre-Resurrection episodes. This serves as  a helpful reminder that the bodily appearances of Jesus were a special gift to a very few disciples for a very short time. Moreover, it was only after these appearances ceased, that the followers of Jesus, even those who had personally witnessed his Resurrection, came to understand the full significance of the Resurrection, and all that preceded it. It was when Christ had disappeared from their sight (at the Ascension) that they were able to proclaim the Gospel. In the words of this week's Epistle, “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” has a far wider implication than a merely miraculous event. The Resurrection is “the word of life”. It is about how we should live.  



The Apostles Receive their Mission
One aspect of the way that early Christians revolutionized their lives is especially striking. The lesson from Acts recounts that they abandoned “private ownership of any possessions”, sharing their material goods 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 do so. 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 show the Gospel they proclaimed to be empty. On the contrary, it points to its vital double nature -- reality constantly renewed by hope. "If we say that we have no sin," John's Epistle tell us, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Yet this is not a counsel of despair, because "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." However mundane the Church temporal, Christians cannot relinquish the hope of the Church triumphant. There is a deep unity waiting to be discovered in the Risen and the Ascended Christ. When, Christians fail to realize it, as they inevitably will, their task is to return repeatedly to the reality that grounds it --  “Jesus Christ the righteous”, since is he is “. . . the atoning sacrifice for sins”.

Monday, March 26, 2018

MAUNDY THURSDAY, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY SATURDAY

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, make up the 'Triduum Sacrum' ('the three holy days') that are the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies for which they are used, they invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb.  These liturgical observances are the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Christian year -- the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.

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.

GOOD FRIDAY

Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist to underline the supreme giving of Christ's boy and blood that took place on the Cross. 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. They may then participate once more in the previous evening's Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.

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.
A curiously empty day,
As if the world's life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming the dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Anger
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness and sorrow. Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99)

Monday, March 19, 2018

PALM SUNDAY 2018


Christ's Entry into Jerusalem -- Morgner
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, which can be longer or shorter, is usually read or sung by several voices. It recounts the dark sequence of events that followed Christ's fleeting 'triumph' – first betrayal, then abandonment, intense physical pain followed by 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 (invariably John’s version nowadays). The days in between Palm Sunday and Good Friday are set aside for sustained meditation on the meaning of Christ’s passion. They provide an opportunity to understand the full significance of the Resurrection that is to come.

The Mocking of Christ -- Terbrugghen
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 serve to underline an important fact. The significance of death by crucifixion is not to be found primarily in the terrible suffering it involved. History tells of many heroes who died horribly painful deaths as they struggled 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. But he did not struggle with his persecutors, and did nothing to defend himself.

Isaiah makes the ultimate test of faith to lie in this affirmation: ‘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 13, 2018

LENT V 2018



Michelangelo's Jeremiah
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. 
 
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 let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of Christ lifted up on the Cross. The mystery lies in the fact that here we encounter something completely contrary to any normal conception of what a 'glorious' ending to his ministry would be. In this way we are called to acknowledge a closely related mystery: the only way the perfection of our own humanity can be attained is in 'dying with Christ' --which is to say, the commitment of our egos to the honor of his name.