Monday, February 22, 2016


Fig Trees, Antibes Guy Rose (1867-1925)

The Gospel this week addresses a question that has troubled human beings at all times and places. Why do terrible things -- both human cruelties and natural disasters -- happen to some people and not others? Jesus is asked about both kinds of case – the innocent people who were the victims of Roman ruthlessness under Pilate, and the hapless people who were in the wrong place when a stone tower collapsed. In an ideal world, surely, bad people would suffer and good people thrive. Jesus expressly denies this. The victims in these instances were not any worse than anyone else, he tells his inquirers. But then he tells a parable about a fig tree. What could be the relevance of this?

It is this parable that connects the Gospel with the other readings, which, in one way or another, all have to do with food and drink. The emphasis, though, is on true nourishment and refreshment, contrasted with what might better suit our tastes.'Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy'. Isaiah asks. 'Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price'

Still life with jug and bread - Pablo Picasso
Picasso - Still Life
'Without money and without price' is the key phrase. We do not need money for the deepest source of life, because it is a gift, and we could not buy it because it is priceless. This is a truth that is easily neglected. That is the point of the parable of the fig tree. The people ask Jesus about the victims of brutality and disaster as though in losing life they have lost everything. But 'real' life is of a different order. It is to be found, the Psalmist tells us, in the worship of God. ‘I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself’. The parable of the fig tree tells us that nourished in the right way, our spiritual nature can flourish, and bring us to the point where the love of God’s goodness is sufficient, however life goes. To neglect this life, conversely, is to lose everything. As the familiar passage from Isaiah says: 'Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near'.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

LENT II 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18  •Psalm 27  •Philippians 3:17-4:1   •Luke 13:31-35

Abraham and three Angels - Marc Chagall
Abraham and the three angels - Marc Chagall
The Gospel for this Sunday is short and puzzling, just seven sentences without any immediately obvious connection between them. Perhaps the most perplexing of them is this:  “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”. What can this mean? Is Jesus saying that faced with threats from Herod, he will be safe if he avoids Jerusalem? That is a natural way to read it, until we remember that Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem, and rejecting those who want to warn him off. A different translation renders the meaning more clearly. “It is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem”. In other words, Jesus knows his death is approaching and that it has to take place in Jerusalem. So sooner or later he must press on there. But why?
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, for Jews at the time of Jesus. For Muslims, Mecca figures in something like the same way. Christians, on the other hand, have no equivalent. At the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, God’s own dwelling place, a place to be entered very occasionally, only by specially appointed people, and with the utmost awe. Now it is about this exceptionally sacred place that Jesus says “Your house is left to you”, or in another translation, “There is your temple, forsaken by God”. It does not take much imagination to feel the deep outrage that such a declaration would cause among the devout and faithful.
Return of Christ to Jerusalem -- Giotto (1320)
The point is this. The religion of the Jews was founded in Abraham's great faith in God's promises recounted in this weeks reading from Genesis. But it  has become ossified and dissipated in an unhappy mix of ritualism, political compromise and nationalistic fervor, further distorted by a profoundly mistaken conception of the Messiah who is expected to put it right. Renewal and redemption will come only through the death of yet another  prophet in the heart of the holy City. But this time, the 'seed of Abraham' will cease to be ethnically defined, and reconceived to include all those who can put their faith in Christ.
Christian faith too, of course, is easily ossified. Like the Phillipians whom Paul addresses, we tailor it to our requirements, adjust it to our convenience and smother it with familiarity. No less than the Pharisees, we need a redeeming sacrifice to renew and restore us. That is why the events of Holy Week and Easter have to happen again for us, and why it is so important to make Lent a period of preparation for their happening.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

LENT I 2016

The forty days of Lent are patterned on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Luke’s account in the Gospel for this Sunday makes an explicit connection with Psalm 91, which is thus the appointed Psalm.
Satan is the source of these temptations, a difficulty for modern readers since talk of ‘the devil’ often seems very alien -- not only strange but unwelcome. The way the Gospel tells the story, however, is quite compatible with thinking of these temptations primarily as thoughts and visions that come unbidden to Jesus in his solitude, thoughts that it takes a very deep resolve to resist. However many days exactly, and whatever the precise form of the temptations, the Gospel writer shows great spiritual insight into the mind of someone poised for a divinely appointed mission that may well prove, not just demanding, but disastrous, at least from a human point of view.
The temptations are of three kinds – simple (easy bread when Jesus is famished), grandiose (personal power and glory as a prophet), and spiritual (dramatic and compelling proof of God’s sovereignty). In many ways it is the last that is most important. That is because from time to time all sincerely religious people face the temptation of doing God’s work in their own way rather than in God’s. Moreover the source of this temptation may itself be Scriptural.
The Second Temptation William Blake
This is precisely the challenge Jesus confronts. After all, Satan is quoting Scripture (Psalm 91) when he says ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’. But to rely on this is to test God, and that is what is absolutely forbidden. Those who want to live in the shelter of the Most High, will first say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust’.
The same temptation recurs still more critically with the reality of death by crucifixion. The closing sentence of the Gospel powerfully makes this connection. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time”. That opportune time comes on Calvary. There, though, Satan jeers with the voices of ordinary people --  ‘Let him come down from the cross, and then we shall believe him’. This last temptation Jesus also resists because of a deep mystery -- that the ‘Most High’ has chosen the Way of the Cross for our redemption.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Moses Receives the Tablets - Marc Chagall

That strange New Testament episode known as ‘The Transfiguration’ is unique in the Church Calendar. It is the only event in the life of Christ that is observed twice – on the traditional ‘Feast of the Transfiguration’ (Aug 6th) and on the Sunday before Lent, now widely referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’. The lessons for this year are unusually integrated. The Old Testament tells the story of Moses on Sinai that Paul then refers to in the Epistle. It is the very same story that occurs immediately to the disciples, when they see what happens to Jesus on the mountain top.
It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When he descends his face is shining with a brightness so unnatural that it unnerves the Israelites. And so, after subsequent visits to the Holy of Holies, he covers his face with a veil. The message, Paul tells us, is that the Israelites were unprepared or unwilling to encounter God’s glory. Now, thanks to Christ, we are enabled to do so. But our ability to do so does not arise from the Transfiguration that Peter, James and John witness. Rather, that experience prepares them to witness the Resurrection. It removes the veil that would otherwise prevent them from seeing God in a crucified criminal.
Transfiguration - Fra Angelica (1440)
The season of Lent just approaching is an opportunity to put aside the various ‘veils’ of selfishness and sin that can hide Easter. Despite the familiarity of the phrase, very few people can expect to have ‘mountain top’ experiences. Yet something much less dramatic can serve the same end. In his hymn ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart’ the 19thC Irish Anglican priest George Croly (1780-1860) beautifully encapsulated this thought.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay
No angel visitant, no opening skies.
But take the dimness of my soul away