Monday, February 28, 2011


Icon of the Transfiguration

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9
Psalm 2 or
Psalm 99

Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length by several weeks. But however long or short it is, the final Sunday before Lent  always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. Different Bible passages are used in each year of the three year cycle, but they are substantially the same in every year --  directly connecting this strange New Testament episode with Old Testament passages about the prophetic figures who appear in it, Moses and Elijah, as well as the post resurrection testimony of the two great Apostles, Peter and Paul.

The Transfiguration is unique in the Calendar, since 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 this Sunday, now widely known as Transfiguration Sunday. This double observation is relatively new, and is not the practice in all denominations. So what is the special relevance of the Transfiguration at this point in the Church's year?

In answering this question it is helpful to draw a distinction between ‘transfiguration’ and ‘transformation’. The former is a matter of appearance, the latter a matter of substance. On the mountain, the disciples come to view Jesus differently because they catch sight of him in the company of two key figures in the history of Israel’s relationship with God. This altered view does not last. When the awestruck disciples open their eyes, Moses and Elijah have disappeared and Jesus is standing alone.

The experience nevertheless plays a crucial role in their future, because it prepares them to encounter, and rejoice in, the transformation of Jesus into the Risen Christ. Between the two experiences, however, lies that agonizing period in which they witness his suffering and death on the Cross. Yet without this, they would be left only with a fleeting glimpse of eternity. And so it is for us. Transfiguration Sunday brings a possibility briefly into view. We need the discipline of Lent and the faithful observance of Holy Week to understand how faith in Christ’s Cross might transform us.

St David's Day

The St David window in St David's Cathedral, Wales
1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Mark 4:26-29
Psalm 16:5-11 or
Psalm 96:1-7

March 1st is the Feast day of David, Patron Saint of Wales. We know relatively little about St David, not even the precise dates of his life. Best estimates suggest that he died around 590 AD in what was, for that period, very old age. Over fourteen centuries have passed since then, yet David is far from forgotten. It is no surprise, perhaps, that he is the patron saint of Wales, since that was the land of his birth, the focus of most of his work, and is still the location of his major shrine – St David’s Cathedral in the town of St David’s on the Welsh coast of the Irish Sea.

Much more surprising is the fact that in almost every state of the United States there is at least one church dedicated to David. This is a truly remarkable fact. Modern America is very far removed from Celtic Wales, not just by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, but by huge cultural differences – so big in fact that the kind of life we live today would have been literally inconceivable to David. He could never have made even the wildest guess that in the future there would be Christians living that alien life and yet dedicating their churches to him.

There are, nonetheless, many ties that bind us to him. He read the same Bible, preached the same Gospel, celebrated the same sacraments, and put his faith in the same God. Moreover, he shared the same sense of Christian mission described in the Epistle set for this day. Like Paul, David saw himself “entrusted with the message of the gospel, not to please mortals, but to please the God who tests our hearts.” The monasteries ae established are testimony to this since the way of life they prescribed was very austere -- simple fare, no alcohol, strenuous labor. Yet their austerity attracted a large number of converts among people who wanted their faith to make a real difference to the way they led their lives.

The Gospel for St David’s Day is very short. "The kingdom of God” Jesus declares, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

David planted seeds without knowing how they would sprout and grow. God gave them the earth to grow in. All these generations later, we are part of the very large harvest that has come.  And in our turn, we have been entrusted with the Gospel and must plant its seeds in faith for a future we cannot imagine.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The 'birds of the air' at the Sea of Galilee

Isaiah 49:8-16a
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34
Psalm 131

"No one can serve two masters”, Jesus warns us in this week’s Gospel. Almost immediately he goes on to identify the two masters he has in mind – God and wealth. The message is simple to state -- you can make either spiritual integrity or material well-being the main thing in your life, not both. Because this is a truth it is easy to acknowledge, but very hard to endorse, we often end up performing an impossible juggling act -- paying lip service to Christian discipleship, while trying to ensure that we don’t lose out on a prosperous life and a successful career.

There is freedom on offer if only we could give up the juggling. Let us give our full attention to being a faithful Christian or abandon the attempt. The trouble is, to make this radical choice would mean discovering where our treasure truly lies, and there is no guarantee it would lie with God. It may turn out that in our hearts we are worshippers of Mammon.

In the Epistle, Paul offers us a different contrast. ‘Think of us in this way’, he says, ‘as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries’. On the face of it, these ought to be compatible tasks. Surely he means us to be both? Actually, one good way of reflecting on this brilliant and compelling summary of what it is to be a Christian, is to connect it with Jesus’ warning about two masters.

It is easy, especially at the present time, to think that our role as ‘servants of Christ’ is one which requires us to show people an embracing, inclusive and accepting love, regardless of who or where they are. Being ‘stewards of God’s mysteries’, though, can come in conflict with this. It places on us an awesome responsibility never to sell the Gospel short out of kindness, always to uphold God’s justice as much as his mercy, to speak of sin and call for repentance when we must, and refuse to hide from others the fact that they are ultimately accountable to God. Inclusiveness makes it very tempting for Christians to keep silent in the name of love. It is as though they want to say to the world,  'Think of us this way, as servants of Christ but not stewards of God's mystery'. Yet this is to forget one half of the task Paul assigns us.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Scourging of Christ  -- Urs Graf (c. 1485-1527)
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48
Psalm 119:33-40

The Epistle this week continues a favorite theme of St Paul’s – the foolishness of the Christian faith from the point of view of the world at large. The Gospel passage provides more evidence in its favor, as Jesus raises the bar of good conduct higher and higher. Rules like those laid down in the lesson from Leviticus – reciprocal justice, loving your neighbor, doing your duty -- are now replaced with demands that we forgo justice, submit to tyranny and do good to the people who are out to destroy us. These are contrary to every human culture that ever was. On the face of it, they make nonsense of legal systems, military forces and human rights. To declare that Jesus’ teaching looks like foolishness ‘from the point of the world’ takes the edge off a balder, more uncomfortable judgment ; it just looks like foolishness.

‘Counsels of perfection’ are standards of conduct that we can never expect people to keep. That is what makes them foolish. We know full well that human life can’t be run in accordance with them, a truth confirmed as much by the unhappy divisions and conflicts in the Church as in any other human organization. Jesus doesn’t make it any easier to avoid this conclusion when he summarizes his instructions by saying “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." How could we be? We are not God, and to think that we could be like God is spiritual pride of the worst sort, surely.

All this is true. And yet it is no less obvious that the realities that legal and military systems try to contain are serious flaws in human nature and the human condition. When we confront injustice, hatred, tyranny, and so on, and see how poorly the legal and political remedies we turn to address them, we cannot but long for a quite different world.

Here is the paradox. We long to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, and know that we can’t be. Here is the hope. The perfect God who knows our weakness, has chosen to be one of us, to become the one human being who can truly love his enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. We cannot be perfect, but we can give our lives to one who can – Jesus Christ. Of course, there will be many to whom that too looks like foolishness. The readings for these weeks in the run up to Lent can show us why it is not – and what redemption means.

Monday, February 7, 2011


El Greco's St Paul
Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20
or Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37
Psalm 119:1-8

In this week’s Epistle St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.”  “I fed you with milk”, he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offence if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural response.

Yet there is a very important lesson to be learned here. We happily concede that when it comes to medicine or law, business management, physical fitness, playing an instrument, or a host of other activities, there are beginners and there are experts. No one would commit their affairs to a wholly inexperienced lawyer, physician or financial adviser, no matter how friendly, caring, or amusing they might be. Are we to suppose that these welcome traits are enough when it comes to spiritual wisdom and guidance, that warm feelings and good intentions are enough?

In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shares Paul’s assumption that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. This development is a matter of moving on from good behavior to a deeper state of mind and heart. Of course, Moses was right. Outward actions are important – murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely are all things to be avoided. Still, observing moral rules, however socially valuable, cannot be enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship him in spirit.

The evangelical message for the Church today is plain. Schools with open admission policies are not expected to leave their students there. Similarly, 'inclusiveness' is just a start, never the last word. Welcoming all and sundry to join the church is undoubtedly Christian, but it has to be followed by setting out the spiritual challenges of real discipleship. Without continual growth we, and they, will remain pretty much as before -- ‘people of the flesh’ and at best ‘infants in Christ.’

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20
Psalm 112:1-9, (10)
For several weeks, the Sunday readings have been forging a connection between the Old Testament and the New. Now, in the Gospel for this week, Jesus himself makes the connection “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. But he adds to this, a seemingly impossible demand –“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

What should we conclude from this? Should we try to live a life of intense devotion and purity? This was the response of the Desert Fathers in North Africa – St Simon Stylites, for instance, who lived at the top of a pillar for years -- and of the Celtic hermits of Ireland – St Kevin of Glendalough, for example, who stood for hours waist deep in icy water to pray. There may be something to admire about these men, but it is not a path that many of us could follow.

And as a matter of fact, even the most ascetic monks and hermits continued to brood on their spiritual impurity – a fact from which an important lesson may be drawn. To say that the greatest possible effort will never enable us to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees sounds like a counsel of despair. Yet it points us in a crucial direction. ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us’, we say. To put your faith in Jesus Christ is, first, to believe that his perfection can overcome our imperfection, and second, in that belief to commit your inmost self to God through Christ.

It is sometimes said that this is too easy a solution, using Jesus to get us off the hook. The same Gospel passage, however, assigns us a different but no less vital role – not to be perfect, but to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. While our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude, they can still “give light to all in the house” by reflecting the light of Christ. Accepting our frailty makes us honest, and enables us to give the glory where it truly belongs -- to our Father in heaven.

‘Now you are the light of the world and salt of the earth’, abstract by  Lalo Gutierrez  – with kind permission of the artist


ancient icon of the Presentation

Feb 2nd commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, a traditional observance of faithful Jews on the birth of a first son. It has special resonance in this case, of course, since it prefigures the Eucharist in which day by day we have the opportunity to give God back the gift he gives us. So Mary and Joseph return to God that which uniquely came from God.

Commonly called Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The association with candles comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' with its description of the baby Jesus as 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'. It has also been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season, not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation. In the ceremony for Candlemas, candles for use in both church and home are blessed with this prayer:

God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon
the light of your revelation to the nations.
Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness
and come to the light that shines forever
Grant this through Christ our Lord.