Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Jeremiah -- MIchaelangelo
There are weeks when the lectionary readings are so full of subtleties that it is hard to distill any single theme on which they invite us to reflect. This is one of those weeks. The lessons seem random, and yet there is a theme -- the cost of prophecy.

In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah recounts his deep reluctance to accept the awesome prophetic role that God has in mind for him. Here we get a glimpse of a paradox that runs through  much of the Bible. To be ‘chosen’ by God as one of his special witnesses is the most momentous and significant thing that can happen to any human being. From one perspective, it offers the individual a more distinguished role in human life than anyone could ordinarily hope for. From another it is foolishness, because unlike high office in other spheres – politics, business, science, the military for example – where we can expect acclamation, popularity and reward, prophetic greatness is very likely to bring ridicule, rejection and persecution.

Christ in the Synagogue -- Nicholai Ge (1868)
This was true in Jeremiah’s case. His example, though striking, fades to relative insignificance in comparison with Jesus, however. Jesus is far more than a prophetic witness. The lessons throughout Epiphany underline again and again that he has been uniquely chosen by God as God’s own incarnation – Son of God in a very special sense. In Jesus, divinity, motivated by pure love,  takes on the limitations of humanity. This week’s Gospel, shows, strangely, that such love can be met with deep resentment, hatred and even violence. It is this reaction that finally leads Jesus to Crucifixion.
 With this in the background, the famous passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians serves wonderfully to remind us of what love is like. It is easy to sit comfortably and let these familiar and beautiful words flow over us. But we should make no mistake. As Paul himself knew only too well, church people can be like the resentful people in the synagogue at Nazareth far more often than they model the love Paul so powerfully describes. Set against this fact, there is this Good News: Christian hope and faith are pinned on God’s love for humanity, not on humanity’s love for one another.

Monday, January 18, 2016


This week’s Old Testament lesson offers us a glimpse of what must have been a profoundly moving occasion. After decades of exile in Babylon, the Israelites have returned to the Promised Land. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, the ancient gates are functioning again, and the people gather in celebration at the Water Gate, itself a symbol of new life. Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law of Moses. It takes a whole morning, but these are the Laws that have made the Israelites the people they are, and to which they now re-dedicate themselves.
Jesus unrolls the Scriptures James J Tissot (1886)
So moved are they, the people weep. But Nehemiah bids them be joyful. The beautiful  words of Psalm 19 (prescribed for this Sunday) echo his sentiments. “The law of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart”.
Both passages serve to underline the immense cultural and religious significance the Scriptures held for the Jews. We need a sense of this if we are to appreciate just how extraordinary the episode recounted in the Gospel is. Jesus reads the Scriptures in his local synagogue, to people who have known him all his life. Suddenly he announces, referring to himself it seems, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." It is little wonder that the people are stunned into silence, and then -- as next week’s continuation of the same passage shows – moved to anger and violence. The modern reader’s task over these two weeks is to read imaginatively, so that it becomes possible both to sympathize with them for their profound religious loyalty, and yet to understand how they went wrong in their rejection of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Traditionally, three events in the life of Christ have been taken to be interconnected elements in his 'Epiphany' or 'Manifestation'  -- the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the Baptism of Jesus by John, and the Wedding at Cana. In this year of the 3-year lectionary cycle (Year C) they are recounted consecutively. Accordingly, following the Feast of Epiphany itself, and the Baptism of the Lord, the Gospel for the second Sunday after the Epiphany is John's account of the wedding at Cana. He identifies it as the first sign that Jesus did, and ends his account of what happened by making it the 'sign' that confirmed the disciples in their belief that Jesus was indeed the Messiah long awaited by the Jews.

On the surface it is a rather puzzling episode, and one that appears only in the fourth Gospel. As is characteristic of that Gospel, it is replete with allusions and symbolic references. In fact, it would be hard to find another eleven Bible verses that are as densely symbolic as these. Understanding them, and thus the episode itself, requires us to hear resonances beyond John's Gospel, not only with the other three Gospels, but with the books of the Old Testament that provide an indispensable backdrop. One critically important allusion is the concept of marriage itself, because this is used in several other places with the aim of capturing something deep and important about the intimate relationship of God to Israel; God is the bridegroom and Israel the bride. 

Wedding at Cana - He Qi
In this ordinary village wedding at Cana, however, appearances are deceptive. Jesus is not the bridegroom, just a guest. But he becomes the central figure at the wedding, because it is his action that wholly transforms the occasion. This transformation is symbolically depicted. The celebration is not at an end, but the wine runs out. The only thing left is the partially used water provided by the host for guests to ritually 'purify' themselves before the celebration began. It is this water that Jesus transforms, not only into the best wine, in what John's readers would have recognized to be vast quantities.

It is reading this 'sign' for what it said about Jesus, and not what it did to salvage a faltering wedding ceremony, that led the disciples truly to believe. Probably early readers of John could 'read' this passage more easily than the modern reader can. But the truth that the evangelist means to convey remains the same.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Russian icon of the Baptism of Christ

    The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates one of the relatively few events that  are recorded in all four Gospels. The Gospel for this year is Luke, the shortest of the four accounts – ‘when Jesus had also been baptized’ is all it says about the event itself – and it combines two seemingly very different ideas, a ferocious warning about ‘unquenchable fire’ with the appearance of a dove, traditionally the symbol of peace. 

    In a justly celebrated poem, T S Eliot powerfully connects the two.

    The dove descending breaks the air 
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    Baptism Jean-Michel Basquiat
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
     To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar Name
    Behind the hands that wove

    The intolerable shirt of flame

    Which human power cannot remove.
     We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire.

    Eliot here gives expression to the choice with which Christianity confronts us. We can live by our own lights and struggle through the existential problems that ‘human power cannot remove’, or we can transcend them by letting the love of God in Christ consume us. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

    Jean-Michel Basquiat began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.