Monday, April 25, 2011


Caravaggio --  Doubting Thomas (1602-3)
Acts 2:14a,22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

During the six weeks of the Easter season, all the Sunday readings come from the New Testament. This is because the place normally occupied by an Old Testament lesson, is given over to a reading from the Book of Acts. Throughout Easter, then, we have the opportunity to follow the story of a second Resurrection. We see how a tiny band of disciples, desolated by the Crucifixion, can be so transformed by their experience of the Risen Christ that they become the nucleus of the most populous and widespread religion the world has ever known.

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.

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 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.

These notes can also be accessed through my webpage

Monday, April 18, 2011


In the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, one day tends to get neglected -- Holy Saturday. It is easy to fall into the way of thinking that alongside the solemn liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Saturday's special service is the Great Easter Vigil. This inclination is reinforced whenever the Vigil is celebrated early in the evening, as it quite often is nowadays. The Easter Vigil, however, is really the first service of Easter Day. Strictly, it should be observed sufficiently late at night for the first communion of Easter to be made after midnight, and thus fall within the season of Easter.

For many Christians the time between Good Friday and Easter is one of busy activity -- preparing special food to mark the end of Lent,  for example, decorating the church with flowers, or organizing children into an Easter egg hunt. Yet there is a great deal to be said for a different focus that gives  far more attention to the readings set for this day. These give Holy Saturday its special character as a time of waiting. Even if there is no church service to attend, we can still capture this character by setting aside time to read the lessons for ourselves, and instead of simply passing the time in preparation, create space for spiritual anticipation.

The Collect for Holy Saturday begins "o God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him . . ."  The poet Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99), a notable figure in the Episcopal women's 'Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross' wrote two poems that expand upon this spiritual waiting brilliantly. One of them reads as follows

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Giotto --  Jesus Entry into Jerusalem (1304-6)

The Liturgy of the Palms



The Liturgy of the Word

Willhelm Morgner -- Entry into Jerusalem (1912)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or
Matthew 27-11-54

Psalm 31:9-16

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 Gospel passages, 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 the days that follow in Holy Week reflect the rising tension, and contention, that surrounds Jesus. It culminates, finally, in his betrayal, trial and death.

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.
The Donkey
 by G. K. Chesterton

In his poem 'The Donkey', G K Chesterton brilliantly uses the image of the donkey that bore Jesus on Palm Sunday as a compelling demonstration of the reversal of values that lies at the heart of faith in the Resurrection

When forests walked and fishes flew
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then, surely, I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening bray
And ears like errant wings—
The devil's walking parody
Of all four-footed things:

The battered outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will;
Scourge, beat, deride me—I am dumb—
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour—
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout around my head
And palms about my feet.

Wihelm Morgner's 'Entry of Christ into Jerusalem' is reproduced from the Jean and Alexander Heard Art Collection of Vanderbild Divinity School. Morgner was 21 years of age when he painted this picture. He was killed fighting in World War I.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Raising of Lazarus by John Reilly
from the Methodist Collection of Christian Modern Art
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45
Psalm 130

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.

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, ironically, to warn us against clinging desperately to this mortal life.