Monday, February 23, 2015

LENT II 2015

'Get thee behind me Satan' 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’.

Faith Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929)
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. Paul repeats the message. Abraham's relationship with God is two sided. It 'depends on faith' --Abraham's faith -- 'in order that the promise' -- God's promise -- 'may rest on grace'. The Psalm captures the point with brilliant succinctness. The life of faith is one that first accepts ‘dominion belongs to the LORD, and . . . before him shall bow all who go down to the dust’. It then declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LENT I 2015

Rainbow -- William Turner (1775-1851)
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, which makes for a slightly odd Gospel on the first Sunday in Lent.

The season of Lent is modeled on Jesus' retreat to the wilderness in preparation for his three year ministry, and the 'forty days' the Gospels say he spent there. For him it was a time of both reflection and temptation -- reflection on his divinely appointed task, and the temptation to prefer attractive but inadequate ways of trying to accomplish it. For us, accordingly, Lent is a time of study, prayer, and self-denial, whose aim is to help us reflect on, and confront, all the things that tempt us away from the service of God.
Temptation of Jesus Christ -- Ilya Repin (1901-1903)
Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at length. In this year, however, we have to make do with a mere mention – a sentence Mark squeezes 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. The Old Testament lesson points us to the water of Noah’s flood, while the Epistle expressly connects this with the water of Baptism that figures in the Gospel.
But precisely what is the connection? We might think of it this way. In the story of Noah, God deals with sin by a frightful deluge that  washes away all the sinful people . As subsequent history shows, however, human sin doesn’t thereby become a thing of the past. Yet, with the sign of the rainbow, God nevertheless  promises that such a thing will never happen again. At the Jordan, God uses water again, but in a more subtle and spiritual way. The waters of Baptism signify death to the sinful nature of each one of us. But it is a death, paradoxically, that we must live into. Traditionally, Lent is a time for newcomers to accept this death, and for baptized Christians to reaffirm it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


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 clearly 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", but
immediately adds a 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.

Ash Wednesday -- Carl Spitzweg (1860)
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 and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is 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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Elijah in the desert - Alexander Ivanov (1806-58)
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 – the idea of a ‘veil’ that obscures an overwhelmingly bright light.

The Transfiguration -- Carl Bloch (1834-90)
Reference to 'a veil' appears in a number of the readings in the cycle. In Year B (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 approaching season of Lent provides a spiritually vital opportunity for re-orientation in this regard. In fact, Lent is perhaps best viewed as an extended opportunity to remove the veil that prevents us from seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. That maybe why the lectionary always makes Transfiguration the theme of the Sunday before Lent begins.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Demons Isenheim Altarpiece Grunewald (1512)
What is a modern reader to make of the extended references to ‘demons’ in the Gospel for this Sunday? Does such a passage not reveal just how far we have moved away from New Testament times in our understanding of both physical and mental disease? Let us suppose that it does. What implications should we draw from this?

One inference that seems obvious to many people is that the miracles attributed to Jesus didn’t actually happen, and that this is either a record of human credulity, or fanciful embroidery after the fact. But this is too hasty. There is no doubt that modern understanding and treatment of physical illness is vastly advanced on what it was even one hundred years ago. At the same time, there is much that remains mysterious to medical science. Furthermore the effectiveness of modern drug therapies is not as well established as it is often made out to be. And, when it comes to mental illness, our understanding has advanced surprisingly little, with effective treatments few and far between.

So a measure of humility is in order before we too quickly discount the understanding and experience of people in times past (as well as in other non-Western parts of the contemporary world), and relegate them all to superstitious ignorance. Humility, in fact, is the message that the wonderfully poetic passage from Isaiah invites. ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. . . . his understanding is unsearchable.’

Jesus Preaching Rembrandt (1652)
If, as Christians believe, this God whose understanding is unsearchable was uniquely incarnate in Jesus, there is no very great puzzle in claims that he had a dramatic effect on both the physical and mental well being of the people he encountered. It is only to be expected. We should not overlook this further important fact, however. On the occasion that Mark recounts, as on many other occasions, Jesus quietly moves on elsewhere, lest the people come to see him primarily as a miracle worker who can fix things. His first call is not to heal, but to “proclaim the message” of salvation  “for that is what I came out to do.”