Tuesday, February 26, 2013


James J Tissot -- The Tower of Siloam
The Gospel this week addresses a question that has troubled human beings at all times and places. Why do terrible things -- both human cruelties and natural disasters -- happen to some people and not others? Jesus is asked about both kinds of case – the innocent people who were the victims of Roman ruthlessness under Pilate, and the hapless people who were in the wrong place when a stone tower collapsed. In an ideal world, surely, bad people would suffer and good people thrive. Jesus expressly denies this. The victims in these instances were not any worse than anyone else, he tells his inquirers. But then he immediately adds that everyone is under God’s judgment. How do we put these two thoughts together?

The Jewish and Christian religions teach that the world in which we live is under the final judgment and absolute control of a God whose goodness and love has been shown time and again, ever since the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. So many of the things that happen in this world, however, make this very hard to accept. Where is the love of God in the Nazi Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, or in the earthquake in Haiti?

Fig Trees, Antibes Guy Rose (1867-1925)
The other lessons for this week give us some pointers. But they do so by underlining what real faith in God means. The lesson from Exodus tells us that though God is indeed a deliverer, He is not some sort of super-cosmos manager putting things right at our request, but the spiritual source on whom our very existence depends – the great ‘I AM’. The Israelites’ inclination, especially in the wilderness, to complain about God’s providence, is why St Paul in the Epistle says that ‘they were all under a cloud’. He then gives us this assurance. Though God tests your faith, he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but also provide the way to endure it.

What is that way? The Psalmist beautifully expresses the only possible answer – the way of worship: ‘I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself’. The parable of the fig tree tells us that nourished in the right way, our spiritual nature can flourish, and bring us to the point where the love of God’s goodness is sufficient, however life goes.

St David's Day 2013

Welsh Sea Coast -- Alfred Sisley

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

March 1st is the commemoration of 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 most famous of these was known as Menevia. Positioned on the coast of West Wales, it amounted to no more than a simple collection of wattle and daub huts, surrounding a stone Cross. Today this is the site of Britain's smallest city, named, along with its Cathedral, St David's.

Celtic Stone Cross
The Gospel appointed for David's 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".

Welsh Tribes at the time of St David
David's life and witness is set within a faith that contrasts very sharply with the modern tendency to judge success by tangible results. For him, as for those of his time,  the missionary task was just to sow the seed. Since it is the Gospel of God that is being sown, 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 good time, not our own.

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?

Monday, February 18, 2013

LENT II 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18  •Psalm 27  •Philippians 3:17-4:1   •Luke 13:31-35

Return of Christ to Jerusalem -- Giotto (1320)

The Gospel for this Sunday is short and puzzling, just seven sentences with no very obvious connection between them. Perhaps the most perplexing of them is this:  “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”. What can this mean? Is Jesus saying that faced with threats from Herod, he will be safe if he avoids Jerusalem? That is a natural way to read it, until we remember that Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem, and rejecting those who want to warn him off. A different translation renders the meaning more clearly. “It is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem”. In other words, Jesus knows his death is approaching and that it has to take place in Jerusalem. So sooner or later he must press on there. But why?

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, for Jews at the time of Jesus. For Muslims, Mecca figures in something like the same way. Christians, on the other hand, have no equivalent. At the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, God’s own dwelling place, a place to be entered very occasionally, only by specially appointed people, and with the utmost awe. Now it is about this exceptionally sacred place that Jesus says “Your house is left to you”, or in another translation, “There is your temple, forsaken by God”. It does not take much imagination to feel the deep outrage that such a declaration would cause among the devout and faithful.

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem -- Nicholas Poussin (1637)
His point is this. The religion of the Jews has become ossified. Their faith in the one true God has been dissipated in an unhappy mix of ritualism, political compromise and nationalistic fervor, and distorted by a profoundly mistaken conception of the Messiah who is expected to put it right. Renewal and redemption will come only through the death of a prophet in the heart of the holy City.

Our faith too, of course, is easily ossified. We tailor it to our requirements, adjust it to our convenience and smother it with familiarity. No less than the Pharisees, we need a redeeming sacrifice to renew and restore us. That is why the events of Holy Week and Easter have to happen again for us, and why it is so important to make Lent a period of preparation for their happening.

Monday, February 11, 2013

LENT I 2013

The forty days of Lent are patterned on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Luke’s account in the Gospel for this Sunday makes an explicit connection with Psalm 91, which is thus the appointed Psalm.
Satan is the source of these temptations, a difficulty for modern readers since talk of ‘the devil’ often seems very alien -- not only strange but unwelcome. The way the Gospel tells the story, however, is quite compatible with thinking of these temptations primarily as thoughts and visions that come unbidden to Jesus in his solitude, thoughts that it takes a very deep resolve to resist. However many days exactly, and whatever the precise form of the temptations, the Gospel writer shows great spiritual insight into the mind of someone poised for a divinely appointed mission that may well prove, not just demanding, but disastrous, at least from a human point of view.

The temptations are of three kinds – simple (easy bread when Jesus is famished), grandiose (personal power and glory as a prophet), and spiritual (dramatic and compelling proof of God’s sovereignty). In many ways it is the last that is most important. That is because from time to time all sincerely religious people face the temptation of doing God’s work in their own way rather than in God’s. Moreover the source of this temptation may itself be Scriptural.

The Second Temptation William Blake
This is precisely the challenge Jesus confronts. After all, Satan is quoting Scripture (Psalm 91) when he says ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’. But to rely on this is to test God, and that is what is absolutely forbidden. Those who want to live in the shelter of the Most High, will first say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust’.

The same temptation recurs still more critically with the reality of death by crucifixion. The closing sentence of the Gospel powerfully makes this connection. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time”. That opportune time comes on Calvary. There, though, Satan jeers with the voices of ordinary people --  ‘Let him come down from the cross, and then we shall believe him’. This last temptation Jesus also resists because of a deep mystery -- that the ‘Most High’ has chosen the Way of the Cross for our redemption.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Ash Wednesday Karl Spitzberg (1808-85)
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.

The Prophet Joel, Sistine Chapel -- Michaelangelo
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, is 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 4, 2013


Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai -- Marc Chagall (1934)

That strange New Testament episode known as ‘The Transfiguration’ is unique in our Calendar. It is the only event in the life of Christ that we observe twice – on the traditional ‘Feast of the Transfiguration’ (Aug 6th) and on the Sunday before Lent, now widely referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’. The lessons for this year are unusually integrated. The Old Testament tells the story of Moses on Sinai that Paul then refers to in the Epistle. It is the very same story that occurs immediately to the disciples, when they see what happens to Jesus on the mountain top.

The Transfiguration -- Duccio (1310)
It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When he descends his face is shining with a brightness so unnatural that it unnerves the Israelites. And so, after subsequent visits to the Holy of Holies, he covers his face with a veil. The message, Paul tells us, is that the Israelites were unprepared or unwilling to encounter God’s glory. Now, thanks to Christ, we are enabled to do so. But our ability to do so does not arise from the Transfiguration that Peter, James and John witness. Rather, that experience prepares them to witness the Resurrection. It removes the veil that would otherwise prevent them from seeing God in a crucified criminal.

The season of Lent just approaching is our opportunity to put aside the various ‘veils’ of selfishness and sin that can hide Easter. Few of us can expect to have ‘mountain top’ experiences, of course. Yet something much less dramatic can serve the same end. In his hymn ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart’ the 19thC Irish Anglican priest George Croly (1780-1860) beautifully encapsulated this thought.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay
No angel visitant, no opening skies.
But take the dimness of my soul away