Monday, March 28, 2011


Jesus healing the man born blind -- bronze bas relief on the Great Doors of St James Cathedral, Seattle

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 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.

True sightedness about ourselves, the lives we lead and the world we live in, requires light by which to see. A sinful consciousness hides from the light because it prefers that the truth should remain hidden. The full light of day forces us to acknowledge what the half-light of dusk or dawn conveniently disguises. 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 willingly embrace the truth that it reveals, even when it proves painful or uncomfortable. ‘Truth within’ is what redemption brings.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Jacopo Bassano Moses Striking Water

The Macklin Bible -- The Woman of Samaria
Images courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42
Psalm 95

Symbols are indispensable to theology and religion, because often it is only through symbols that we can talk about both the world in which we live, and the reality that transcends it. In the Bible, ‘bread’, ‘water’ and ‘light’ are used symbolically again and again. It is easy to see why. All of them are essential to biological life, and so they readily lend themselves as means by which to point beyond the biological, to the essential elements of spiritual life.

The Old Testament lesson and the Gospel for this week are linked by one of these symbols – water. Moses is tormented by yet more complaining demands on the part of those he has led out of slavery. On this occasion it is “Give us water”, and in his frustration. Moses cries out to God. God responds by aligning himself (almost literally) with a miraculous supply of water in the wilderness. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb”, he tells Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it”. Thereby, the Israelites’ biological need for water is made the means of symbolizing their dependence upon God.

The episode, however, also reveals the weakness and waywardness of the Israelites. They have taken it upon themselves to test God, and this exposes their underlying faithlessness, their failure to acknowledge his perpetual care for them. The Gospel passage offers us an interesting reversal. Here too the symbol of water plays its part, and the need for it is made the means of a test. But it is God in the Person of Jesus who needs water, and the Samaritan woman who is asked to provide it. Being Samaritan, she is not one of the ‘Chosen’ people, but part of a group regarded by Orthodox Jews as renegades.

Nevertheless, she passes the initial test by drawing water from the well. This proves her worthiness to be put to a deeper test. Does she long for ‘living’ water of a different kind, and can she see that Jesus is offering it? The woman is convinced, almost, by the extraordinary insight Jesus shows into her life and character. This gives us a clue to the nature of the ‘eternal life’ to which Jesus refers;  the realization of our inmost selves requires life in God. In the Epistle, St Paul’s description of this life also makes an implicit reference to water. “We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Annunciation -- March 25th

Annunciation -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti (C19th British)           Michael Parchment (C21st Jamaican)

Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 45 or Psalm 40:5-11 or Canticle 3 or 15Hebrews 10:4-10
Luke 1:26-38

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.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St Patrick March 17th

St Patrick's Anglican Cathedral Armagh, Ireland
Interior -- Patrick preaching

1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
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 Patty'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.

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, and consoled me as a father would his son.

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."

Monday, March 14, 2011


Abraham's Journey from Ur of the Chaldees

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

This week’s Old Testament lesson is remarkably short – just four sentences. It records God’s call to Abram to leave his home country and set off on a journey – who knows where – solely on the strength of God’s promise that his descendants would become “a great nation”.  God’s promise could hardly have been more spectacularly fulfilled. There must have been many contemporaries just like Abraham (as he is later renamed) about whom we now know nothing and who have left no discernible trace on the world they once inhabited with him. If -- as Paul insists – we include Christians amongst Abraham’s descendants, then the ‘great nation’ that grew from his obedience to God’s call numbers, in our day and age alone, well over two billion human beings.

“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God”, Paul tells us in this week’s Epistle. That he had the mind and will to set out into the unknown is something in which Abraham could rightly take pride. Its ultimate significance, however, does not flow from this strength of character, but from the power and purposes of the God in whom he put his faith. Paul’s fundamental insight is that while God and Abraham enter into a mutual relationship from which the redemption of the world ultimately springs, this does not make them co-workers who are entitled to share the credit. The outcome of Abraham’s historic decision “depends on faith”, not on ingenuity or hard work, “in order that the promise may rest on grace”.

The Gospel passage highlights one crucial aspect of this – the necessity of God’s initiative. At the heart of human sinfulness lies hubris, or spiritual pride, the belief (despite all the evidence) that we can be the instruments of our own salvation -- that sufficient good will, political organization, scientific knowledge, technological ingenuity and time will enable us, eventually, to solve the age old problems of evil, suffering, destruction and death. On the contrary, Jesus tells us, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven”. We need divine initiative -- or we are lost. And the good news on this score is this: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Icon of Jesus in the wilderness

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Psalm 32

The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of this three year ministry. In this Year A of the three year Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B.  It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin as plain as it can be. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.

The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. How are we to understand references to Satan, and the doctrine of original sin? Can we believe in a Devil anymore? And mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the idea that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?

These are important questions. The scientific world view within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Yet if there is this gap, there is common ground too. Human nature and experience remain for us pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of our lives as much as theirs. To believe in the Bible as Revelation, is to believe that it still speaks profoundly to the human condition.

So what on this occasion does it have to say? Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous --  test God’s patience and justice. That is what showed him to be Divine.