Thursday, October 29, 2015


All Saints picture - Albrecht Durer
All Saints - Durer
All Saints' Day is a 'principal feast' of the Church. So when it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it takes precedence over the usual sequence of Sundays in Pentecost. The readings differ over the three years of the lectionary, and in interestingly different ways they reflect on themes associated with 'the 'Communion of Saints' -- death, heaven, martyrdom, glory, and life in the presence of God. The readings for this year include Psalm 24 which asks a key question: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" The same Psalm supplies an answer: "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false. . . They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation." It is natural to ask, however, just how inclusive the company of saints is and will be.

In times past, and in many places still, there is a separate 'Commemoration of All Souls' one day later, on November 2nd. Thus, traditionally a distinction has been drawn between 'exceptional' Christians, and others of a more ordinary 'wayfaring' sort.

All Souls' Night - Bradley Walker Tomlin
All Souls Night -- Bradley Walker Tomlin (1947)
In recent times, especially in the United States, the practice has arisen of effectively converging the two days, and making All Saints Day an occasion for commemorating all the 'faithful departed' as well. There are a number of explanations for this change. Some are historical and have to do with Protestant anxieties about masses for the dead. But in some minds there is also a spirit of egalitarianism at work -- the idea being that our prayers and celebration ought to be inclusive, of everyone, regardless. There is something to be said for this, of course. Yet it is a loss too. Not only does it diminish the extraordinary and inspiring faithfulness that only some Christians have shown in the face of difficulty, adversity and persecution, it also leaves the ordinary wayfarer with nothing to aspire to.

St Paul, in a famous metaphor, describes the task of  Christians as 'running the race set before us'. In the actual world of athletics, we don't expect everyone to be a winner, and we admire the exceptional accomplishments of a few. Perhaps we should preserve this aspect of Paul's metaphor. Saints, we are told, are those who have been 'the lights in their generations'. To describe everyone in this way unhelpfully disguises the fact that the vast majority of Christians who are trying to be faithful need a few such lights along the way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Kneeling Beggar  Vasily Surikov (1886)
This week's readings continue a pattern they have followed for several weeks past --  passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews are set alongside passages from the Gospel of Mark. It is an interesting, but also slightly puzzling combination. For the most part Mark relates episodes in which Jesus figures as a teacher, a prophet, a leader and a healer. The extracts from Hebrews, on the other hand, insist again and again that we should see Jesus as priest. This is a label Mark never employs. The readings for this week follow the same pattern. Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar whose persistence finally wins him the attention of Jesus. His request is plain and simple – ‘I want to see again’ and his sight is indeed restored. How does this healing ministry fit with the description of Jesus in Hebrews as ‘high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled’?
Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is not as straightforward as it may appear. First, in many of the examples Mark gives us – the crazy man by the lakeside, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion -- Jesus does not seek out the sufferers in order to heal them. Rather, they push themselves forward. Second, he makes no claim to healing powers, but says ‘Your faith has made you well’. Third, when healing takes place – to the astonishment of lookers – the disciples are told not to spread the word, to keep it secret. All these are clues that however much their new found health  means to the individuals concerned, in the context of Jesus' ministry, physical healing must not be the main focus. We will, in fact, have lost its true meaning, if we do not see it pointing beyond the physical to things spiritual.

Christ Blessing -- Messina (1495)
‘Actions speak louder than words’. When say this we are generally thinking of cases in which deeds communicate a message with a force that mere words would lack. This is how it is with the actions of Jesus. Often, the healing miracles should be interpreted as spiritual ‘signs’ rather than medical ‘wonders’. Bartimaeous embodies both the sort of deep longing that has the strength to persist, and a faith founded on absolute trust. His physical blindness, and the restoration of his sight, provide Jesus with an occasion that he can use to prompt the onlookers, and Bartimaeous, and us, to a new awareness of spiritual blindness. The dark and narrow minded  paths in which our lives so often go is the  blindness from which Christ continues to free us, if only we sincerely long for him to do so. He does this, Hebrews tells us, because on the Cross he makes a sacrifice that renders every other sacrifice redundant. Priest and healer, it seems, are not so far apart after all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


At the Icon of the Savior - Boris Kustodiev (1910)

This week, somewhat unusually, the Continuous and Thematic lectionary readings have a common resonance. Both culminate in a Gospel passage from Mark, and the thread that runs through all of them is the relation between personal suffering and faith in God. The Book of Job poses the question – why do good people suffer terrible things? It is in this third extract (rather than in next week’s ‘happy ending’) that we find the answer. In response to Job’s cries, and in contrast to all the possible explanations that his human comforters have offered him, God finally answers him. The 'answer' turns out to be a series of questions in fact: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” Though the phrase ‘surely you know’ seems to have an element of ridicule about it, it underlines something important. We owe to God our ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’ (as the General Thanksgiving expresses it), so when the Lord takes away what He has given, he does us no wrong. Still, in our pain and loss we can curse Him, or we can continue to bless Him. That is the very hard choice we face, as Job does. The Psalm that accompanies this reading expressly invites us to choose the second option – ‘Bless the Lord O my soul!’

The Apostles James and John,
 Museum of Santiago Compostela

But the New Testament does not leave the matter there. The Epistle echoes Isaiah’s powerful description (in the Thematic OT reading) of the ‘suffering servant’ ‘wounded for our transgressions’. Building on the idea that we are healed by his bruises, it points to the crucial importance of God’s suffering in Jesus. ‘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 Gospel recounts that somewhat embarrassing occasion when James and John push themselves forward for special treatment in heaven, and thereby reveal how drastically they misunderstand what discipleship means. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ Jesus asks, and to do so without any special promise of glory. ‘We are’ they proudly reply. And so indeed James ultimately proved to be since (Acts tells us) he became the first Apostle to be killed, in a brutal persecution. But by that time, of course, he had a different assurance – Christ’s Resurrection.

The terrible sufferings we see in this world, and sometimes experience for ourselves, constitute a human problem that will not go away. For the Christian, though, suffering is not merely something inexplicable, an unfortunate by-product of evolution. There is meaning to be found in it, if we treat it as a spiritual mystery. In Jesus, God chose suffering for Himself as the way to our salvation. This is a mystery, but the Resurrection is not the happy ending that the Book of Job will offer us next week. It signals the power of love to defeat evil, not by eliminating it, or compensating us for it, but by transcending it.

Monday, October 5, 2015


St. Francis - Nicholas Roerich
St Francis Nicholas Roerich (1931)
Christianity has always been somewhat ambivalent about poverty. On the one hand, from the earliest times the relief of poverty has been seen as a sacred Christian duty, and it continues to be an indispensable part of the Church’s work at home and abroad. On the other hand, poverty has also been held out as a Christian ideal. St Francis, whose feast day is celebrated in October, famously made ‘Lady Poverty’ his spiritual companion. But if poverty is such a good thing, why are Christians trying to relieve it? 
The Gospel for this Sunday makes this question even more pressing. In a striking (and original) image Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. That seems to mean that prosperity is a bad thing. If this is the true, then are we wrong to look and work for a world in which economic prosperity puts an end to poverty.  If that truly is the Christian message, it can't expect to receive much of hearing. Of course, it's always possible to fudge the issue by confining the description ‘rich’ to the phenomenally wealthy few --millionaires or billionaires. But that really does not work. By historical standards and in comparison with many other parts of the world today, huge numbers of people in developed countries count as ‘rich’. Compared to us, the 'rich young ruler' who walked sadly away was not so very rich. 
The rich - Remedios Varo
The Rich Remedios Varo (1958)
So what are we to think about wealth and poverty? It’s important to see that in this passage from Mark Jesus is addressing a particular young man, someone with sincere spiritual longings. Jesus doesn’t criticize or condemn him, but ‘looking at him, loved him’. Yet when, out of love, he points to the thing that stands in the way of these longings, the young man is shocked and grieved. In this reaction he reveals that his wealth is a serious spiritual obstacleThis is the perspective from which we need to examine ourselves. Taking faith in Jesus seriously, obliges us to admit that being as wealthy as we are means running a great spiritual risk. The pursuit of worldly goods, even at a relatively modest level can become everything, and our 'spiritual' quest not much more challenging than a personal hobby. At the same time, though, poverty can be an obstacle to grace – a condition of life so grinding that the human spirit cannot rise above the level of mere survival. In reality, then, the two ideals -- eschewing wealth and relieving poverty -- can and should be brought together.  
Jesus, the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, is one 'who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Christians in the wealthy Western world are often spiritually encumbered by their wealth. Their need is to get rid of that encumbrance. By freely giving it away, they open themselves up again to the things of eternal life. In very same act, these gifts, if thoughtfully directed, can alleviate the needs of others. To free people from grinding poverty is open a door to their spiritual liberty.