Tuesday, March 26, 2013


'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week, and the final preparation for Easter Day. Each year the readings for these three days are the same, and in turn the traditional liturgies reflect the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb.

The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of  the Latin 'mandatum novum', the 'new commandment' that Jesus gives his disciples to 'love one another'. The tradition of foot washing that takes place on this day is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, and a reflection of what happened in the Upper Room. But the main focus is on the gift of the Eucharist, which is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack. See also Maundy Thursday

Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross. Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express  their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday. See also Good Friday

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Although nowadays Holy Saturday is often used for children's Easter egg hunts, it ought really to be a day of quiet reflection and prayerful waiting, ending in the Great Vigil of Easter, possibly the most ancient of all Christian festivals. See also Holy Saturday,

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The Entry -- sketch on leather 1386
Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion
In line with modern practice, the Sunday universally known as Palm Sunday now has two names. Strictly, it is called ‘The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday’. This is because, uniquely, there are two Gospel readings on one day. The first – in the Liturgy of the Palms – recounts Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, that bright moment when children waving palm branches led him – fleetingly -- to be hailed as king. The second, the long Gospel usually read or sung by several voices, recounts the dark sequence of events that followed – betrayal, abandonment, intense physical pain, humiliation and finally death.

Holy Week is framed by this narrative. It is taken from Matthew, Mark or Luke (this year is Luke), and then repeated on Good Friday (always in John’s version). The days in between are set aside for sustained meditation on the meaning of Christ’s passion, an opportunity to help us understand the full significance of the Resurrection properly.

Grunewald's Mocking of Christ
The Palm Sunday readings are unusual in another respect too. The Old Testament (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) are the same every year. In different ways they both underline an important fact. The significance of death on the Cross is not to be found primarily in the terrible suffering it involved. History tells of many heroes who died painful deaths struggling gloriously for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion. Indeed, it is the precise opposite of a heroic death. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise, and did nothing to defend himself.

Isaiah makes this the ultimate test of faith. ‘I shall not be put to shame’ because ‘it is the Lord GOD who helps me’. Paul finds still deeper theological significance in the ignominy of it all. It is precisely because Jesus ‘humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ that God so ‘highly exalted him’ and gave him ‘the name that is above every name’. This might seem like some horrible sadism on God’s part, until we remember that ‘God was in Christ’ reconciling Himself to the world. Here is the spectacular, and perplexing, truth that the Resurrection confirms. It is in the figure of the humiliated, unheroic Jesus that the Source of Life, and hence the sacred, is to be seen most clearly.

See also: Passion and Palm Sunday 2012
and Passion and Palm Sunday 2011

Monday, March 11, 2013

LENT V 2013

Spikenard plant

A key element in efficient time management, everyone agrees, is the establishment of priorities – allocating your time to the most important matters and leaving the least important to be dealt with when -- and if -- time permits. This is a truth about life as a whole, and not just daily diaries or business appointments. A ‘wasted’ life is one in which things that aren’t really important regularly and consistently displace things that are. It can't but be a central concern, therefore, to ensure that over the course of our ‘three score years and ten’, we give priority to what truly matters, and do not fritter our lives away on trivialities. 

This seems obvious. It doesn’t actually tell us what to do, however, unless and until we decide where our priorities should lie. What should we value above all else?

In this week’s Epistle, Paul tells the Philippians what his priority is. With the extravagant language characteristic of the Middle East, he declares that compared with ‘the value of knowing Christ’, everything else is ‘rubbish’! He includes in this category his personal possessions, his health, safety and social standing – all of which he has sacrificed. We can admire Paul for his discipleship, but it has to be remembered that he was both unmarried and itinerant. Unlike him, most of us have homes, jobs, families and friends. Even the most ardent Christian cannot seriously regard these as ‘rubbish’, or countenance the implication that they could just as well be thrown away.

Mary anoints Jesus' feet from The Macklin Bible (1798)
Still, if Christian life is to mean anything, it must extend beyond the conventional Sunday morning. So we do need to ask what priority we give to discipleship in the daily round, and what it must take priority over. The Gospel this week poses an especially telling challenge on this score. By anointing Jesus with a rare and very expensive oil made from the roots of the spikenard plant, Mary of Bethany unmistakeably gives her devotion to Jesus a higher priority than she gives to helping the many poor people with whom her world was filled. Judas criticizes her for this, and whatever his motives may have been, lots of people would say he was right. Yet, in contrast to a common assumption in contemporary Christian ethics, Jesus commends Mary. In so doing he relegates the needs of the poor, and thereby makes this Gospel passage, and the episode it records, one that challenges us to think a lot harder than we normally do about our priorities as Christians.

Monday, March 4, 2013

LENT IV 2013

The Prodigal Son Georgio di Chirico (1965)
Joshua 5:9-12 •   Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 •  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 This week’s Gospel -- the story of the Prodigal Son -- is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Literally millions of sermons have been based on it,  which make it hard to find anything that has not been said a hundred times already. So perhaps we are best advised to start with the accompanying Epistle.

‘From now on’ St Paul tells the Corinthians ‘we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way’. What does it mean to regard Christ from a human point of view? It means (among other things) seeing in Jesus of Nazareth an inspiring example of service to others, or a great moral teacher who exposed the hypocrisy of his times, or even (though there is no much Biblical warrant for this) a social revolutionary who fought for the poor and oppressed.

 All these images of Jesus have proved attractive over the centuries – but St Paul rightly sees that they cannot adequately capture the uniqueness that makes Jesus the Christ. To grasp this, is to understand that the mind of Jesus is not just that of an exemplary human being. It is the mind of the God who made us, redeems us , and will pass final judgment upon us. So, in the parables of Jesus it is really God who is talking to us.

Rembrandt The Prodigal
The story of the Prodigal Son ends, not with the sinner’s return to a loving welcome, but with his brother’s resentment. What is the meaning of this little tailpiece? Is the elder brother at fault because he goes on seeing things from a human point of view, instead of God’s?  That cannot be quite right. After all, his father does not rebuke him for this. On the contrary, his honesty and decency is powerfully affirmed when, even in the face of his anger, his father tells him: ‘You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’.

Even true repentance like the Prodigal’s cannot wipe out the past. Nor does it put everyone back on an equal footing, it seems. What it does do is bring sinners back to God. From Christ’s point of view – the one that as ‘ambassadors for Christ’ we are called to share -- that is an occasion for such joy, that understandable complaint and necessary retribution must take second place.