Monday, April 21, 2014


The Apostles going forth to preach -- Limbourg brothers

This story from Acts starts with an extract of the speech that Peter made in the market place shortly after the disciples’ explosive experience on the Day of Pentecost. His speech is widely regarded as the earliest and definitive statement of the Christian ‘kerygma’ -- the essential Gospel, or Good News of redemption in Christ. This extract leaves out the context – that people had dismissed the disciples’ enthusiasm as drunkenness, a charge which Peter is anxious to rebut – in order to highlight the point Peter is most anxious to make – that Jesus stood in King David’s line, but brought the Messiahship of God to a fulfillment far surpassing even David’s greatness. Since, as most in his audience would have known, Jesus had recently been crucified as a criminal, this is quite a claim, and powerful evidence of the dramatic difference that the Resurrection had made to both the theology and the psychology of the disciples.

St Peter -- Durer

The Epistle may or may not have been written by Peter himself, but it conveys the same vibrant message to a fledgling church, this time in the form of a song of praise rather than a sermon. In these few beautiful sentences we witness a transition from theology to liturgy – and indeed, thanks to the 19th century English cathedral composer S S Wesley, this text has become one of the most widely sung choral anthems for Easter.

The Incredulity of St Thomas -- Caravaggio
The Gospel passage for this Sunday has also stimulated great art – Caravaggio’s famous painting of ‘doubting’ Thomas examining the wound in Jesus’ side. Its slightly chilling realism is a powerful reminder of how, taken past a certain point, doubt can shut us off from wonder. Thomas insists that he must see the bodily evidence with his own eyes. The post-Resurrection appearances of a bodily Jesus, however, proved to be a special gift to a very few disciples. The strange fact of the Resurrection, and the significance of its redeeming power – in short, the ‘mystery of faith’ that Christians proclaim Sunday by Sunday – is waiting to be experienced in the Body of Christ that is given to us sacramentally, and available to all who will receive it in penitence, trust and adoration.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Lent and Holy Week culminate in the 'Triduum Sacrum', the three holy days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The intensity of the Triduum offers those who observe it the best possible spiritual preparation for Easter Day. The readings for each of the days are the same every year, and  traditional liturgies reflect the events that figure in those readings -- the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb.

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. READ MORE

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. READ MORE

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. See also READ MORE

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


    Palm Sunday -- Octavio Ocampo

    LITURGY of the PALMS


    Though still commonly called Palm Sunday, in modern liturgical practice the Sunday before Easter Day is referred to as ‘The Sunday of the Passion’. This is because it is the first liturgical observance in the season of Holy Week and Easter when a Gospel narrative of the sufferings (passion) of Jesus is read.  The older title is not lost, however. This Sunday is unique in the Lectionary because it prescribes two Gospels, and the first of these -- for the Liturgy of the Palms – tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover. Riding on a donkey, and greeted with enthusiasm by a crowd waving palm branches, it is traditionally described as his ‘triumphal entry’.

    It is only once modern worshippers have re-enacted this scene, and taken part in their own procession, that they listen to the Passion narrative – usually read or sung in a dramatic form by a number of different voices. Though this second Gospel, whether in the full or the abbreviated form, is much longer, the first is crucial in establishing the shape of our journey to Easter. On Palm Sunday we begin with triumph, but it is short lived – and hollow. The Bible readings for days that follow in Holy Week reflect the rising tension, and contention, that surrounds Jesus. It culminates, finally, in his betrayal, trial and death.

    Jesus Christ -- Octavio Ocampo
    It is vitally important to see that in this intervening period, his enemies not merely gain the upper hand; in the world’s terms they are also victorious. What better outcome for those who see Jesus as a radical traitor to their faith, and a threat to their political security, than that he should be killed in the brutal way reserved for the worst of criminals? And what greater evidence of his missionary failure, than that his most loyal disciples abandon him in fear and wretchedness, and even deny that they ever knew him?

    It is only when we grasp the depth of the degradation, pain and failure, to which Jesus is subjected, together with the strength of his unwavering obedience to God, that we can understand both the shallowness of his ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday, and the significance of his Resurrection on Easter Day. By this mighty act God shows where true victory is to be found. It remains, of course, for us to find the grace to long for it.

    Octavio Ocampo (b. 1943) is one of Mexico's most prolific painters.

    Monday, March 31, 2014

    LENT V 2014

    Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt  Vincent van Gogh

    In Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary the Gospel readings for Sundays in Lent include three lengthy episodes from John’s Gospel. They all relate personal encounters with Jesus, through which a deep theological point is revealed. On the third Sunday, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. On the fourth, it is the man born blind. On this, the fifth Sunday in Lent, it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an encounter not just with an individual, but with the whole household at Bethany – Mary, Martha, Lazarus -- all special friends of Jesus.

    In each of these stories there is a miraculous element, and the dramatic nature of the miracle intensifies from one episode to the next. Jesus, somehow, knows the Samaritan woman’s personal history without asking. This impresses her greatly, but it pales in comparison with the miraculous gift of sightedness to a man who had never been able to see. The restoration of Lazarus from death to life is more dramatic still, and the Gospel writer goes into slightly unpleasant detail in order to banish any suggestion that this was mere resuscitation.

    Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones Gustave Dore
    In considering miracles like these, it is easy to be deflected into wondering whether they happened quite as they are described, and whether there is some ‘naturalistic’ explanation. This is understandable, given contemporary ways of thinking, but it is of the first importance to see that these are ‘signs’, and not merely ‘wonders’. That is to say, this is one of these occasions when we should remember that ‘actions speak louder than words’. What these miracles have to say -- to everyone -- is more significant than the undoubted benefits they brought to particular individuals.

    What do they say? The lessons that surround them give us a clue, especially this week. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones into which the Spirit of God breathes life, places Jesus’ raising of Lazarus beyond mere revival and into the context of redemption. Paul’s commentary in Romans invites us, indeed challenges us, to look past physical health and strength. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. . . . If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness”. Lazarus’s corrupting body is not the only form of death. Nor is it the worst. Jesus displays God’s creative power in a spectacular act of reversing the normal processes of nature. But the point is not to give Lazarus a few extra years. It is to show that a quite different life-giving transformation is on offer and, paradoxically, to warn us against clinging desperately to this mortal life.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2014

    LENT IV 2014

     The Blind Man Albert Bloch (1943)

    The Gospel for this Sunday is a miracle story that turns into a perplexing parable. A man who is literally blind is given sight for the first time in his life. The Pharisees, who are highly suspicious of Jesus, look for ways to discredit this miraculous deed, and at the same time dispel any idea that he might be the Messiah. They first doubt if the man was really blind, and then try to get him to admit that since Jesus committed a sin by healing on the Sabbath, his miracle cure is no reason to put Jesus on a religious pedestal. The man makes a memorable response "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see."

    When finally the Pharisees engage with Jesus himself, it appears that the whole episode is not primarily a healing miracle at all, but a parable in action, one about spiritual sight and spiritual blindness. Puzzlingly, Jesus says that those who are blind will be able to see, and that those who can see will prove blind. How are we to understand this? An important clue comes right at the start of the passage. The blind man is not blind because he is a sinner. Though it looks like a curse, his blindness is in reality a very special attribute, since through it Jesus will reveal the works of God. What is revealed is that Jesus is the one true light. That is to say, it is by close attention to the works and words of Jesus, not by scrupulous attention to religious regulations, that we can discern God’s will for us. By refusing to acknowledge this, the sighted Pharisees show themselves to be purblind. By acknowledging it, the blind man shows himself to have insight.

    Light Conquers Darkness Nicholas Roerich (1933)
    True sightedness about ourselves, the lives we lead, and the world we live in requires light by which to see. Sinfulness flees from the light because it prefers that the truth should remain hidden. The short Epistle reflects this dichotomy and turns it into a choice with which we are confronted. “Christ will shine on you” it roundly declares. For those who want the truth, these words represent a liberating promise. For those engaged in “works of darkness”, these very same words constitute a threat. The choice is clear, and real. We can continue to act according to our own light, and inevitably stumble around in darkness. Or we can subject ourselves to the light of Christ, and gladly embrace the truth that it reveals, however painful or uncomfortable that might be.


    The Feast of the Annunciation -- March 25th -- is celebrated exactly nine months before the Nativity of Our Lord. It is, we might say, the first feast of Christmas. This brief encounter between girl and angel is pivotal to the Christian religion. It is the point at which God chooses to make His astonishing initiative to humanity depend, yet more astonishingly, upon a human response. Moreover, the mystery is intensified by the fact that the human being in question is a very young woman living in circumstances of exceptional political obscurity and social simplicity. That is why Mary cannot be just like anyone else in the faith of Christians.

    The Annunciation is notable for the extent to which it has stimulated artistic creativity. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of paintings of this biblical episode in indefinitely many styles. Mary's hymn of response -- The Magnificat  -- has been set to music by composers in every period. Poets, too, have found themselves driven to verse in the attempt to capture its intriguing 'feel'.

    One of those was the Orkney poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). His poem is entitled simply "The Angel and the Girl"

    The angel and the girl are met
    Earth was the only meeting place.
    For the embodied never yet
    Travelled beyond the shore of space.
    The eternal spirits in freedom go.

    See, they have come together, see,
    While the destroying minutes flow,
    Each reflects the other's face
    Till heaven in hers and earth in his
    Shine steady there.

    He's come to her
    From far beyond the farthest star,
    Feathered through time. Immediacy
    Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
    That from their limbs all movement takes.

    Yet the increasing rapture brings
    So great a wonder that it makes
    Each feather tremble on his wings

    Outside the window footsteps fall
    Into the ordinary day
    And with the sun along the wall
    Pursue their unreturning way
    Sound's perpetual roundabout
    Rolls its numbered octaves out
    And hoarsely grinds its battered tune

    But through the endless afternoon
    These neither speak nor movement make.
    But stare into their deepening trance
    As if their grace would never break.

    The Annunciation (Study 2) Sorin Dumitresco, Romanian (b. 1946)
    Angel of the Annunciation, Gerard David (1506)
    Annunciation, Maria, Tintoretto (1594)