Tuesday, February 28, 2012

LENT II 2012

 Get thee behind me, Satan James J J Tissot (1836-1902)

The passage from Mark that is the principal Gospel for this Sunday gives us a glimpse of someone quite different from the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ of Victorian pictures. The simple, impulsive, faithful Peter is fiercely rebuked as a voice of satanic temptation. The severity of the tone, though, serves to show that in the proclamation of the Gospel there is something of the greatest importance at stake.

A human life, if we believe in God, is not a lucky chance, but a gracious gift. As with any gift, the recipient can hoard it possessively -- or spend in a spirit that mirrors the grace that gave it. There are times when this fundamental choice about how to live becomes critical. Clinging possessively to the life I have been given, including its talents and accomplishments, is a powerful temptation, but it rests on the false supposition that it is what we get out of life that matters most. Yet, how could it profit me to gain the whole world, the Gospel asks, if to do so I have to forfeit the spirit of life itself? There is a paradox here; ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel, will save it’.

We might put the paradox another way. The human soul finds fulfillment only when it abandons its deepest inclinations. Humanity's perfection requires us to leave our humanity behind. That is the truth behind Jesus' stern rebuke to Peter: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’.

The Old Testament passage about Abraham, and Paul’s reflection on it in the Epistle, embody the same message. God declares Abraham’s life righteous (a life lived rightly) not because of the moral laws and prudent calculations by which it was governed, but because it sprang from a trusting faith in the promise of God. The Psalm expresses the point with brilliant succinctness. The life of faith is one which first accepts that ‘dominion belongs to the LORD, and . . . before him shall bow all who go down to the dust’, and then declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.

Monday, February 27, 2012

St David's Day 2012

Icon of St David of Wales

1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Mark 4:26-29
Psalm 16:5-11 or
Psalm 96:1-7

March 1st is the commemoration of St David, Patron Saint of Wales, who lived in the second half of the sixth century, and died around 601 AD. Relatively little is known about him, except that he was Welsh, a missionary bishop, and instrumental in founding a dozen monasteries.

The Gospel appointed for his feast day is remarkably short and contains this important sentence: "The kingdom of God 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 image is a very fitting for the commemoration of St David since, given the unsettled nature of his times, he must have planted the seed of the Gospel in precisely this spirit, faithfully leaving later generations -- perhaps as many as five centuries on, which is when his biography was first written -- to "go in with the sickle, because the harvest has come".

Legend paints David as rather austere, demanding a great deal of himself as well as others. If so, the lesson from Thessalonians is appropriate too. David could say with Paul: "just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.". There is a valuable lesson here. The cult of marketing encourages us to look for a speedy response to the initiatives we undertake. In business and politics, for example, we think it essential to know that people actually want what we have to offer. But the same approach in matters of faith or education brings the wrong influences to bear. What is attractive and acceptable overshadows what is true and important, and sometimes excludes it altogether. In sharp contrast, David represents a view from which the missionary task is just to sow the seed. Because it is the Gospel of God, we can have complete faith that the seeds we plant will sprout and grow, but the time scale, it is essential to see, is God's, not ours.

To believe this is wonderfully liberating. It relieves us of all sorts of stressful pressures. Nor is there any reason to dismiss this as escapism borne of wishful thinking. What other figure from medieval Wales is being commemorated around the world fourteen centuries on?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Salvation in the sign of the rainbow

The Revised Common Lectionary works through the first three Gospels over a three year cycle, with John woven in during the Easter season and other special times. This year (Year B)  it is the turn of Mark, and that makes for a slightly odd Gospel on the first Sunday in Lent.

The season of Lent is modeled on the period of time during which Jesus withdrew to the wilderness in preparation for his three year ministry. For him it was a time of both reflection and temptation, reflecting on his divinely appointed task, and testing his ability to reject attractive but erroneous ways of trying to accomplish it. For us, Lent is a time of study, prayer, and self-denial, whose aim is to help us confront the things that tempt us away from the service of God.

Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at length. This year we have to make do with a mere mention – a sentence squeezed in between his Baptism and the arrest of John. Yet the lessons for this Sunday have a link that the lessons in other years lack – namely their focus on water. How is the water of Noah’s flood connected to the water of Baptism? We might think of it this way. In the story of Noah, God deals with sin by washing away all the sinful people in a frightful deluge. As subsequent history shows, however, human sin doesn’t become a thing of the past. With the sign of the rainbow, God declares his promise that such a thing will never happen again. Rather, though he uses water again, he does so in a far more subtle and spiritual way. The waters of Baptism mean death to the sinful nature of each one of us. Traditionally, Lent is a time for newcomers to prepare for this death, and for baptized Christians to reaffirm it.


Icon of Jesus Tempted in the Desert

Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, is a very ancient observance . Originally it was a period of preparation for catechumens -- people who wish to be baptized into the Christian church. Participation in the life of the Church was strictly limited for those who had not been baptized, and the weeks of Lent were set aside for a rigorous program of study, prayer and fasting that would conclude with Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and while a more open inclusive spirit is to be welcomed, no doubt, it is arguable that the Church has swung too much the other way, requiring very little indeed of those who would attend its services. Accordingly it is worth focusing with greater concentration on the discipline of Lent.

The readings for Ash Wednesday point us firmly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in the way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning", adding immediately the warning that we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not?  Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on  Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit  instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition, though, it not meant as a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible as well as visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto to dust thou shalt return" is the traditional version of the solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.

We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The trouble is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ.

Monday, February 13, 2012


The Transfiguration of Christ (1511) Lorenzo Lotto
  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Mark 9:2-9 

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 in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Mark; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Matthew and Luke. There is, however, an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across the different Gospels.

This is enough to indicate how significant an episode the Evangelists thought it to be, chiefly, no doubt, because of the way it so directly connects Jesus with two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah. One aspect of its meaning, though, lies in a repeated motif – a ‘veil’ that obscures an overwhelmingly bright light.

The reference to a ‘veil’ appears in a number of the readings in the cycle. This year it is to be found in Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. Paul contrasts those from whom the light of the Gospel is ‘veiled” by “the god of this world”, with believers in whose hearts the Gospel has shone sufficiently “ to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.

It is a fact that we very easily become devoted to “the god of this world” as pressures of many kinds – internal as well as external – lead us to an all consuming concern with the health, prosperity, success and personal happiness of ourselves, our families and our friends. The season of Lent provides a spiritually vital opportunity for re-orientation in this regard, a chance to remove the veil that prevents us from seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. Perhaps that is why the lectionary always makes Transfiguration the theme of the Sunday before Lent begins.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Elisha refusing the gifts of Naaman, Pieter de Grebber (1600-52)
The ‘Markan secret’ is a notable feature of Mark’s Gospel. Whenever Mark recounts a miracle – usually of healing – Jesus almost always tells the beneficiaries to keep it secret. Inevitably they don’t obey him, with the result that great crowds gather. This week’s Gospel provides a perfect example. “See that you say nothing to anyone”, Jesus tells the leper whom he has just healed, “but he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly”.

Why does Jesus do this? Is it just to escape the pressure of being in constant demand? A deeper interpretation lies in the thought that he does not want his mission to be misunderstood. If people have the idea that he is first and foremost a miracle worker, they will fail to get the real message of ‘Good News’.

There are several reasons to resist this. First, raising the hopes of ordinary people that their ailments, diseases and poverty could be a thing of the past, is to give them false hope. No matter how many people Jesus cures, there will always be countless others in need of help. ‘The poor are always with you’ he tells his disciples at another point. He might as easily have said ‘the sick.

Secondly, if people look to Jesus for an end to the problems of sickness and poverty – either personally or politically – this means accepting him on their terms, not God’s. This message chimes in well with the Old Testament lesson for this week. It tells the story of Naaman, ‘a mighty warrior’, who nonetheless suffered from leprosy. He wants a cure, but then is angry when Elisha offers him one. It might be effective, but it’s too simple to mark his elevated status. His attendants rightly remark on how perverse it is to prefer a difficult task when there is an easy way of accomplishing the same thing.

Both lessons reflect something true about all of us. Sometimes we resist the way of the Cross, not because it is too hard, but because it doesn’t fit in with our ideas of how it should be. In short, we think we know our needs, and the means of their satisfaction, better than God does.