Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Peter Preaching in Jerusalem
In the six weeks of Easter, the Lectionary fills the place normally occupied by an Old Testament lesson with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  This gives special prominence to the dramatic difference the Resurrection made to the lives of the disciples, and gives us a feel for the radical change they underwent. Life with the historical Jesus had itself been powerfully transforming, yet it now turns out that this was only a pale reflection of what life in the spirit of the Risen Christ was to be.
Today’s short passage from Acts reveals that a marked feature of this ‘new life in Christ’ is a special kind of fearlessness. Peter is in conflict with the Temple police and the High Priest once more. But how very different is this Peter from the one who denied Jesus out of fear, and then burst into tears as he acknowledged his own wretched fearfulness. Now he speaks out boldly, even though he knows the risks that he runs by doing so. The important point for us is that the Resurrection has not put an end to persecution and oppression. These things continue, and intensify even; tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified in the end. But the Resurrection gave him, as it gives us, the Spirit with which to overcome fear.
Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom (1620)
By taking us back to the theme of Advent, the lesson from Revelation makes the same point. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”. This is the passage that provided Charles Wesley with the words of his great Advent hymn. In the light of the Resurrection, we can now read them differently. It is God, not human institutions like the Roman Empire or the Temple police, who will be our ultimate Judge.
It is against this background we should understand the famous 'Doubting Thomas' episode that this week's Gospel of John records. Thomas is granted his demand for empirical evidence. But his declaration 'My Lord and My God' goes far beyond anything that his eyes or fingers might be called upon to confirm. Perhaps this is why John notes, but does not recount all the other Resurrection signs. Faith in the risen Christ is not simply a belief about an historical event. It is something that sets us free to live with the confidence that the love of God alone can give.

Monday, March 21, 2016


'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies, invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb -- the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.

The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of  the Latin 'mandatum novum', the 'new commandment' that Jesus gives his disciples to 'love one another'. The tradition of foot washing that takes place on this day is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, and a reflection of what happened in the Upper Room. But the main focus is on the gift of the Eucharist, which is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack.


Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross. Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express  their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.

Although nowadays Holy Saturday is often used for children's Easter egg hunts, it ought really to be a day of quiet reflection and prayerful waiting, ending in the Great Vigil of Easter, possibly the most ancient of all Christian festivals.

A curiously empty day,
As if the world's life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming the dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness and sorrow. Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99)

Monday, March 14, 2016


Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion
In line with modern practice, the Sunday universally known as Palm Sunday now has two names. Strictly, it is called ‘The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday’. This is because, uniquely, there are two Gospel readings on one day. The first – in the Liturgy of the Palms – recounts Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, that bright moment when children waving palm branches led him – fleetingly -- to be hailed as king. The second, the long Gospel usually read or sung by several voices, recounts the dark sequence of events that followed – betrayal, abandonment, intense physical pain, humiliation and finally death.

This combination of readings frames Holy Week which is, we might say, a story of two processions. The first is triumphant – the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by cheering crowds; the second, a slow, immensely painful journey to Golgotha and crucifixion, accompanied by shouts of condemnation. These two processions are polar opposites of each other, and it is in their sharply contrasting character that their meaning is to be found. The popular acclamation of the first procession reveals how false and fickle the human attribution of royalty is. The second procession, with its ironic ‘crown’ of thorns, reveals how radically different the reign of divine love is.

In different ways, the Old Testament lesson (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) both underline the fact that the ultimate significance of the Crucifixion is not to be found in the terrible suffering it involved. Many famous historical figures have died painful deaths struggling heroically for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion, which has nothing heroic about it. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise, and did nothing to defend himself.

Isaiah makes this the ultimate test of faith. ‘I shall not be put to shame’ because ‘it is the Lord GOD who helps me’. Paul finds still deeper theological significance in the ignominy of it all. It is precisely because Jesus ‘humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ that God so ‘highly exalted him’ and gave him ‘the name that is above every name’. This might seem like some horrible sadism on God’s part, until we connect it with the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.  ‘God was in Christ’, reconciling Himself to the world.
Astride the colt and claimed as King
that Sunday morning in the spring,
He passed a thornbush flowering red
that one would plait to crown his head.

He passed a vineyard where the wine
was grown for one of royal line,
and where the dregs were also brewed
into a gall for Calvary’s rood.

A purple robe was cast his way,
then caught, and kept until that day
when, with its use, a trial would be
profaned into a mockery.

His entourage was forced to wait
to let a timber through the gate,
a shaft that all there might have known
would be an altar and a throne.      Marie J Post (American hymn writer 1919-1990)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

LENT V 2016

Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet -- 16th century anonymous
'Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?' So says God through the mouth of Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson. God's work and our perception of it go hand in hand, because to see what God has done, is at the same time  to see ordinary life in a different way.
In this week’s Epistle, Paul makes this point to the Philippians in the extravagant language characteristic of the Middle East. Compared with ‘the value of knowing Christ’, everything else is ‘rubbish’! He includes in this category his personal possessions, his health, safety and social standing – all of which he has sacrificed in his determination to 'press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus'. We can admire Paul for his discipleship, but he was both unmarried and itinerant. Most Christians have homes, jobs, families and friends, and it would be inhuman for even the most ardent Christian to seriously regard these as ‘rubbish’ that could just as well be thrown away.
Group of Poor People -- Picasso (1903)
Still, if Christian life is to mean anything, it must extend beyond the conventional Sunday morning. The question is whether our  discipleship of Christ is actually given priority in the daily round, and if so, what it takes priority over. The Gospel this week poses an especially telling challenge on this score. By anointing Jesus with a rare and very expensive oil made from the roots of the spikenard plant, Mary of Bethany unmistakably gives devotion to Jesus a higher priority than she gives to helping the many poor people with whom her world was filled. Judas criticizes her for this, and though John attributes unworthy motives to him, with respect to the criticism itself, lots of people would say he was right. What  a waste of money in a needy world!  Yet, contrary to a common assumption in contemporary Christian ethics, Jesus commends Mary. In so doing he effectively gives the needs of the poor a lower priority than the worship of God. The result is to make this Gospel passage, and the episode it records, a challenge to think a lot harder than we normally do about Christian priorities.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

LENT IV 2016

Christ in Silence
‘From now on’ St Paul tells the Corinthians in this week's Epistle,  ‘we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way’. What does he mean that we no longer know Christ from a human point of view?
Prominent among the many ways that people have seen Jesus, are these three -- as an inspiring example of service to others,as a great moral teacher who exposed the hypocrisy of his times, and  as a social revolutionary who fought for the poor and oppressed.
Though there is not much Biblical warrant for the third, over the centuries all these images of Jesus have proved attractive.  In writing to the Corinthians, though, Paul rightly sees that thinking of Jesus in this way is importantly limited because it sees him from a strictly human point of view, and not as the Christ -- God Incarnate. Jesus was indeed an exemplary human being, but far more than that, he was One with the God who made us, redeems us, and will pass final judgment upon us. So, in the parables of Jesus it is really God who is talking to us.

Colchester Prodigal
The Gospel for this week is possibly the most famous of those parables -- the story of the Prodigal Son. Interestingly, although it is a story of sin, repentance and forgiveness, it does not end with the prodigal's embrace, but with his brother’s resentment. What is the significance of this little tailpiece? Is the elder brother at fault just because he still thinks badly of the prodigal's behavior? That cannot be quite right. As Jesus tells the story, the father does not rebuke him for this. On the contrary, his own contrasting honesty and decency is powerfully affirmed when, in the face of his anger, his father tells him: ‘You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’. Even true repentance like the Prodigal’s cannot wipe out the past, and it does not put everything to rights. The inheritance has still been squandered.
Still, these understandable judgments are made from a human point of view whereas 'from now on', Paul has told us 'we regard no one from a human point of view'. That is because 'if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation . . . everything has become new'. It is certainly hard to move beyond regarding others from a human point of view. Yet, at the heart of the Gospel is the belief that Christ's redeeming love has the power, in any human life, to make the image of God evident again.