Monday, February 24, 2014


Raphael The Transfiguration

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 an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts, however. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three accounts, a key connection is revealed to the disciples between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah. It is this revelation that gives the event much of its significance. For the first time, perhaps, they understand the uniqueness of Jesus amongst the multitude of other ‘teachers’ of the law that were a common sight in Palestine.  

Another shared feature is the reference to dazzling light –a sign that the revelation that has been given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, but when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. So too, it is dazzling light that transfigures Jesus in the eyes of Peter, James and John.

Salvador Dali Angel of Light

There is one point, however, on which the accounts differ slightly. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Like Mark, but even more emphatically, Matthew is clear that Jesus ordered them “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is at best preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The Epistle puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Van Gogh Churchyard in the Rain
The Epistle this week continues a favorite theme of St Paul’s – the foolishness of the Christian faith from the point of view of the world at large. The Gospel passage provides more evidence in its favor, as Jesus raises the bar of good conduct higher and higher. Rules like those laid down in the lesson from Leviticus – reciprocal justice, loving your neighbor, doing your duty -- are now replaced with demands that we forgo justice, submit to tyranny and do good to the people who are out to destroy us. These are contrary to every human culture that ever was. On the face of it, they make nonsense of legal systems, military forces and human rights. To declare that Jesus’ teaching looks like foolishness ‘from the point of the world’ takes the edge off a balder, more uncomfortable judgment ; it just looks like foolishness.

‘Counsels of perfection’ are standards of conduct that we can never expect people to keep. That is what makes them foolish. We know full well that human life can’t be run in accordance with them, a truth confirmed as much by the unhappy divisions and conflicts in the Church as in any other human organization. Jesus doesn’t make it any easier to avoid this conclusion when he summarizes his instructions by saying “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." How could we be? We are not God, and to think that we could be like God is spiritual pride of the worst sort, surely.

Marc Chagall The Sacrifice
All this is true. And yet it is no less obvious that the realities legal and military systems try to contain are deep flaws in human nature, and fault lines in the human condition. When we confront injustice, hatred, tyranny, and so on, and see how poorly the legal and political remedies we turn to deal with them, we cannot but long for a wholly different world, one in which that which is evidently good and right prevails.

Here is the paradox. We long to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, and at the same time we know that we can’t be. Here is the hope. The perfect God who knows our weakness, has chosen to be one of us, to be the one human being who can truly love his enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. We cannot be perfect, but we can dedicate (i.e. give) our lives to one who can – Jesus Christ. Of course, there will be many to whom this too looks like foolishness. It is the role of the readings for these weeks in the run up to Lent to show us why it is not – and what redemption truly means.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Rembrandt St Paul at his writing desk

In this week’s Epistle St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them, he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.”  “I fed you with milk” he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offence if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural reaction.

Yet, though such a response is understandable, there is a very important lesson to be learned here. We happily concede that when it comes to medicine or law, business management, physical fitness, or playing an instrument, there are beginners and there are experts. No one would commit their affairs to a lawyer, physician or financial adviser who wasn’t an expert, no matter how friendly, caring, or amusing they might be. Are we to suppose that these, undoubtedly welcome, personality traits are enough when it comes to spiritual guidance? Can religious experience not lead to spiritual wisdom too?

The Ten Commandments Lucas Cranach the Elder 1472-1553
In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shares Paul’s assumption that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. This kind of development is a matter of moving on from the level of behaving decently and performing the right actions, to a deeper state of mind and heart. Moses (in the Ten Commandments) was right. Outward actions are important – murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely are all things to be avoided. Still, simply observing the rules, however valuable, cannot be enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit, and those who worship God must worship God in spirit.

The evangelical message for the Church today is plain. The ‘inclusiveness’ of which so much is made is essential, but it is just a start, and never the last word. Welcoming people of ‘all sorts and conditions’ to the church has to be followed by setting out the spiritual challenges of Christian discipleship. Without continual growth we, and they, will remain pretty much as before -- ‘people of the flesh’ and at best ‘infants in Christ.’

Monday, February 3, 2014


For several weeks, the Sunday readings have been forging a connection between the Old Testament and the New. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus himself makes the connection. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. But then he adds a seemingly impossible demand –“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

     How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution.  It ridicules ‘bowing down the head like a bulrush’ and ‘lying in sackcloth and ashes’, and instead praises ‘sharing your bread with the hungry’, and ‘bringing the homeless poor into your house’. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose’ God declares ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’

     This ‘ethical version of ‘righteousness’ is likely to prove far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of the Desert Fathers or the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are as unlikely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, as we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand in icy water to say our prayers. The greatest possible effort will no more enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in short, still reads like a council of despair.

Yet this very fact can serve to point us in a different direction. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul openly acknowledges his ‘weakness and fear’. It is in fact a first essential step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome his imperfection. It is sometimes suggested that this is just using Jesus to get us off the hook. The Gospel passage, however, still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. The reality is that our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ by reflecting what St Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. By making us honest, accepting our frailty enables us to give the glory where it truly belongs -- to our Father in heaven.
Pictures 'Moses delivering the Tablets of the Law to the Elders -- Marc Chagall, and ‘Now you are the light of the world and salt of the earth’, abstract by  Lalo Gutierrez