Sunday, March 25, 2012


James Tissot Procession in the streets of Jerusalem
Astride the colt and claimed as King
that Sunday morning in the spring,
He passed a thornbush flowering red
that one would plait to crown his head.

He passed a vineyard where the wine
was grown for one of royal line,
and where the dregs were also brewed
into a gall for Calvary’s rood.

A purple robe was cast his way,
then caught, and kept until that day
when, with its use, a trial would be
profaned into a mockery.

His entourage was forced to wait
to let a timber through the gate,
a shaft that all there might have known
would be an altar and a throne.
Marie J Post (American hymn writer 1919-1990)
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

Liturgy of the Word 

Aert de Gerder (1645-1727) On the road to Golgotha

Holy Week, we might say, is the story of two processions. The one with which it begins is triumphant – the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem accompanied by cheering crowds; the other a slow, immensely painful journey to Golgotha and crucifixion, accompanied by shouts of condemnation. Uniquely on this Sunday, two Gospels are read, and their juxtaposition reminds us that these two processions are polar opposites of each other. It is in this sharp contrast that their meaning lies. The first procession, marked by popular acclamation, reveals how false and fickle the human attribution of royalty is. The second procession, with its ironic ‘crown’ of thorns, reveals how radically different the reign of divine love is.

Traversing the path from sin to salvation requires us to accompany Christ with heart and mind, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Marie J Post's poem eloquently captures the way in which the second is inextricably entwined with the first.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


The Annunciation of Our Lord
(Since March 25th, 2012 is a Sunday, the feast is transferred to Monday 26th)
The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates a moment that we might call the first stirrings of the Incarnation. Mary learns (if she scarcely understands) that she is to be the Mother of God. It is key to the significance of the event, that she accepts this role with deep humility -- "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.". From the start, God aligns his saving power with human freedom.

The date of the Annunciation exactly nine months before Christmas reveals that it has long been taken to be the moment of conception, and this, in a sense, makes it the first feast of Christmas. The connection is simply assumed in 'Gabriel's Message', a carol from the Basque country in Spain, now sung across the world. This has led to its being widely regarded as a Christmas carol, whereas in fact, it is really a song of the Annunciation. 

The familiar English translation was made by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, a 19th century Anglican clergyman, now known as a hymn writer, but better known in his own day as a collector of English folk songs and medieval myths. Baring-Gould's personal experience may have given the carol he translated so successfully a special resonance for him. An aristocrat by birth, and a graduate of Cambridge University,  he met and fell in love with a mill worker's daughter while working as a Curate in a Yorkshire parish,. Over the next two years, he carefully prepared the ground so that they could nevertheless proceed with this socially 'unsuitable' marriage. It lasted 48 years, and when Grace died, the stone he erected in her memory said (in Latin) 'Half my heart'.

Gabriel's Message
Antonello da Messina (1430?-79) Mary - the Annunciation
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
With wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame:
"All hail to thee, O lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady." Gloria! 

"For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee;
Thy son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
Most highly favored lady." Gloria! 

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head;
"To me be as it pleaseth God," she said.
"My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name."
Most highly favored lady." Gloria! 

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
In Bethlehem all on a Christmas morn,
And Christian folk through-out the world will ever say: "Most highly favored lady." Gloria!

Monday, March 19, 2012


Salvador Dali 'Christ of St John' (1951)

The name of the prophet Jeremiah is synonymous with someone who is forever predicting doom and destruction. It is true that much of the book of Jeremiah is given over to dire warnings, but in the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Jeremiah’s tone is optimistic, and he offers a brighter vision of God’s relation with his forgiven people, a ‘new covenant’ when the law of God is no longer an external set of rules, but ‘written on our hearts’. Despite this optimism, the subsequent history of Israel continued to be one of spiritual failures and material disasters, and called forth new generations of Jeremiahs. Christians believe that the new covenant Jeremiah prophesies here was finally made real in Jesus Christ – but not in the way that the prophets expected.

 The author of Hebrews tells us that when “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, he was heard because of his reverent submission”. But why does it say that he was heard, when God did NOT save him from death on the Cross? The Gospel passage highlights this paradox. Jesus confesses that his “soul is troubled’ and that the prayer “Save me from this hour” springs to his lips. Yet, immediately he acknowledges that the hour in which he undergoes unimaginably painful death is the very reason that he came. It is through the brutal ignominy of criminal crucifixion that he is to be “glorified”.

How can this be? What sort of glory is it to be “raised up” in this ghastly way? Hebrews provides the answer. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. The law of God will never be written on our hearts; we are too selfish and sinful to learn obedience through what we suffer. Yet, salvation is at hand if, as we approach Good Friday, we are willing to be let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of Christ lifted up on the Cross, and so enfolded in the perfection of our humanity that he alone secured. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Scott Erickson  St Patrick (2011) by kind permission of the artist

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

St Patrick's Breastplate

1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 97:1-2,7-12 or
Psalm 96:1-7

 "We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but 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 an irony in the fact that this passage from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians should be appointed for St Patrick's Day. Far from Patrick meeting "opposition" today, he has been almost wholly commandeered by nationalistic, commercial and cultural causes whose aim precisely is "to please mortals' and which, not infrequently, spring from "impure motives". A google image search provides copious confirmation of this.

Yet to those who have ears to hear past this popular din, Patrick the disciple of Christ still speaks powerfully across the centuries. At the request of an Irish Anglican priest, the most familiar English versification of his 'Breastplate' -- in Gaelic Lorca -- was made in just a few days by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, more famous as the author of 'Once in Royal David's City'. Scholars say that the Gaelic text probably does not date from the time of Patrick (c. 387-460 AD), but however this may be, its spirit unquestionably reflects what we know of him -- and brings alive each year his faith in the sentence that ends the Gospel for the day -- "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age".

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


William Blake Moses and the Serpent (1800-3) MFA Boston

The Gospel for this Sunday contains what is possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible – John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. The Lectionary, however, places it in a context that is less familiar – its connection with a curious episode from the Book of Numbers where Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.

The God depicted in Numbers is hardly a God of love – sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites for complaining about the lack of food and water in the wilderness. By admitting sinfulness on the part of the people, Moses concurs in the supposition that God is justified when he punishes them in this horrible way. Still, the admission elicits a cure of sorts – the bronze serpent.

Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes with Jesus is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’ who is lifted up like the snake is God incarnate. In place of poisonous punishment, pure love. God offers himself so that the world is not condemned, but saved.

Yet, all risk of condemnation has not disappeared. We are still subject to judgment. And “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”. The Israelites in the wilderness lived in a kind of darkness. They looked to God primarily as a means of satisfying what Paul in the passage from Ephesians calls “the desires of flesh and senses”, and they then complained when they did not get enough of them. The bronze snake gave them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. To look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, by contrast, is to be “raised us up with him in the heavenly places”. Now we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” -- or we can go on following the course of the world.

Monday, March 5, 2012


El Greco  The Cleansing of the Temple (1600)

At first sight the readings for this Sunday appear somewhat disconnected, and it is true that there is no one theme running through them. Nevertheless, they are importantly related. Taken together they present once again an idea that is central to the teachings of Jesus, and to the Christian faith. This is the doctrine that Jesus came, not to overturn or to displace the Jewish Law, but to bring it to its fulfillment.

The Old Testament reading reminds us of just what that Law is – the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The relationship thereby created between God and his Chosen people was covenantal -- God would honor and protect those who kept this Law and punish those who did not. That is partly why, as St Paul writes in the Epistle, the Cross is a stumbling block to serious Jews. If Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s Law, how could he have ended up like a common criminal?

In this week’s Gospel Jesus himself provides the answer when he ‘cleanses’ the temple in Jerusalem. John places this episode, not just before the story of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection as the other Evangelists do, but right at the start of his ministry. He thereby declares it to be key to the meaning of the Incarnation. The Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of faith in God, but it had become degraded, so degraded in fact that it needed radical renewal. Strange though it must sound, Jesus himself is its renewal. The Body of Christ is the new temple, and his death on the Cross replaces the daily round of animal sacrifices that took place there. The Crucifixion (as the Book of Common Prayer says) is the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins, not of the Jewish people only, but for the whole world.

In Christ, everyone, irrespective of ethnic background, can enter the company of God’s chosen people.