Monday, January 30, 2017


Duccio - The Prophet Isaiah
For several weeks, the Sunday readings have been forging a connection between the Old Testament and the New. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus himself makes the connection. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. But then he adds a seemingly impossible demand –“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution.  It ridicules ‘bowing down the head like a bulrush’ and ‘lying in sackcloth and ashes’, and instead praises ‘sharing your bread with the hungry’, and ‘bringing the homeless poor into your house’. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose’ God declares ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’
This ethical version of ‘righteousness’ sounds far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of, say, the Desert Fathers or the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are no more likely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, than we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand praying in icy water. The greatest possible effort will not enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness any more than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in short, still reads unhappily close to a council of despair.

Yet this very fact can serve to point us in a different direction. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul openly acknowledges his ‘weakness and fear’. This acknowledgement is an essential first step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome his own imperfection. It is sometimes suggested that emphasizing our imperfection is just using Jesus to get us off the moral hook. The Gospel passage, however, still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. The reality is that our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ by reflecting what St Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. Accepting the truth about our frailty makes us honest, and in so doing enables us to give the glory where it truly belongs -- to our Father in heaven.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Madonna of Humility - Masaccio
God says through the prophet Isaiah 'My ways are not yours, or my thoughts your thoughts'. All the readings for this week make the same point either explicitly or by implication. Through the prophet Micah, God rejects the costly and elaborate practices of animal sacrifice that are undertaken as 'worship', and replaces them with a simple demand - that worshipers 'do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God'. How can there be any problem about preferring this instruction? The answer is that human beings find it far easier to give money and materials, even in large amounts, than to walk justly, kindly and humbly. That is because such a manner of life flies in the face of our most obvious goals and aspirations -- to live in prosperity, achieve things we can be proud of, defend our rights, and control our own lives.

It is with assumptions like these in mind that Paul acknowledges just how 'foolish' the Christian Gospel can sound. He reminds the Christians at Corinth that 'God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God'. Most of the people he was addressing were poor and socially insignificant, and for them this implies encouragement. 'Consider your own call, brothers and sisters', Paul says: 'not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong'.

Sermon on the Mount - James Tissot
Jesus in the Gospel passage from Matthew goes even further and calls such people 'Blessed'. Indeed the rhetorical force of this list of 'Beatitudes' lies precisely in its systematic reversal of the values we commonly uphold and subscribe to. This cannot but raise a critical issue. What encouragement can we who are relatively rich, successful and powerful find in these passages?

It is a fact of experience that poverty can brutalize as well as liberate. It is thus possible for prosperity to be a blessing -- but only insofar as it enables the the well-to-do to care about justice and to act in kindlier ways more easily than people bowed down by poverty, illness or grief. Far greater difficulty lies in 'walking humbly', which is to say, giving up on pride. Yet as the verses from Psalm 15 make plain, humility is key to dwelling on God's holy hill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


He Qi 'Calling Disciples' (2001)
A little oddly, perhaps, the appearance of the disciples Andrew and Peter, which John's Gospel recounted last week, is repeated this week in Matthew's version.  There are some important differences between the two, however. The fourth evangelist tells the story in connection with John the Baptist. Matthew makes only a brief mention of John, and links the story more directly with with the prophet Isaiah. Jesus, he declares, is the light that Isaiah prophesied would eventually dawn on those who sit 'in the region and shadow of death'. 
It is with this alternative context in mind that Matthew introduces Andrew and Peter. But there is a further subtle and important difference. In John’s version, Andrew and Peter take the initiative in seeking Jesus out. In Matthew’s version, it is Jesus who encounters them fishing and calls them , as he does James and John. What is more, he calls them to leave not only the work they are engaged in, but everything that they have. Their response is usually held up as exemplary. 'Immediately they left their nets and followed him'. But what about Zebedee who is left sitting in the boat?  Has he no claim on the sons he has raised, and on whose labor he will depend in old age?

 Matthew’s version of the call to the disciples is echoed in many other parts of the Gospel. Following Jesus is repeatedly spoken of as being all consuming, even to the point of abandoning family responsibilities. Doesn’t this mean that Christian discipleship requires a kind of fanaticism? How could we answer such a call ourselves, given our love for parents and children, our belief in the value of what we do, and our obligations to the wider community?

Vassily Polenv James and John (1904)
Elsewhere, confronted with questions like these, Jesus allows that for many people wholesale commitment of this kind is just not possible, but he promises that God can work with less than this. It is enough to start with simple penitence, seek more and more ways in which ordinary life puts Christ first, and relinquish rival claimants to our most fundamental allegiance. The Epistle for this Sunday illustrates just how easy it is to fall into subsidiary loyalties. The loyalties for which St Paul chastises the Corinthian Christians mean nothing to us now. But we have our own rivals for Christ’s headship – family, nation, profession, ethnic group, sports team. If few of us can respond as immediately as the twelve disciples did, we can at least resolve to take more steps in their direction. What matters, is where the heart is, and whether we can truly say with the Psalmist, ‘One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life’.

Monday, January 9, 2017


 Baptism of Jesus (Ende c. 937)

Over the Christmas season and into the first weeks of Epiphany, the Lectionary readings bring to our attention a deep connection between Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. The readings for this week continue to build this bridge between Old and New Testaments. The passage from Isaiah sets out a much larger divine plan than previous prophets proclaimed. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. God’s love is no longer to be confined to the Children of Israel. He has called Isaiah to a far more ambitious prophecy, so that “My salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Apostle Andrew -- De Zurbaran
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and declares “Here is the Lamb of God”. The expression 'Lamb of God' is now so well-worn, it is easy to miss the religious implications of this extraordinary metaphor. It too forges a connection between past, present and future, and it does so by means of two powerful resonances deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Jews.  One is the memory of the Passover Lamb, the sprinkling of whose blood on the doorposts played a key part in the Israelites' liberation from slavery. The other is the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, who is led like a Lamb to the slaughter. Thus with the use of this single image, John the Evangelist conveys the spiritual intensity that enables John the Baptist to penetrate the true significance of Jesus long before others manage to do so.

This Gospel passage takes the bridge building a step further, however. Among the first to hear John’s metaphor are Andrew and Simon. It is given to the otherwise undistinguished Andrew to grasp the truth and tell his subsequently much more distinguished brother “We have seen the Messiah” – the “Anointed” for whom, as devout Jews, they have been taught to yearn since infancy. Together they take the first hesitant steps on a new spiritual journey. It is a journey that will bring them first to the disillusionment of Passiontide before the total transformation of Easter that equips them both for martyrdom.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

BAPTISM of the LORD 2017

El Greco - Baptism of Christ
The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates an event that is recorded in all four Gospels. Outside of the Passion narrative, relatively few episodes in the life of Jesus appear in all the Gospels, so this degree of Scriptural warrant is special. 
The Gospel for this year is Matthew, but in fact, though the four Gospels record the baptism slightly differently, they all lay special emphasis on three aspects. First, they affirm a theological link between John the Baptist and the preparatory, prophetic ‘voice’ that Isaiah describes as ‘crying in the wilderness’. Secondly, they all speak of the highly charismatic John as nonetheless secondary to Jesus. Thirdly, they make the baptismal event a “manifestation”, that is to say, one of those very special occasions – like the Transfiguration – when Jesus’ divine nature and commission shone out unmistakably to all who were present. 
The Dove -- Fernand Leger 1951
These three aspects are importantly connected. The prophet is a notable feature of Judaism, and as the reference to Isaiah implies, John stands out in this long and continuing line. Yet, with the appearance of Jesus, there is, so to speak, a change of gear. In the First Coming we move beyond the level of even the most distinguished prophets, and encounter not just another valuable source of spiritual insight and passionate human integrity, but a revelation of the Holy Spirit itself.
Written in retrospect, the Gospels struggle with this question – Just who was Jesus? Eventually they tentatively arrive at an answer which the Church has sought to refine ever since – Jesus is the Christ, the one human being in whom God is made fully manifest. 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.


Magi -- Filonov (1914)

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian year when the Bible readings, including the Gospel, are always the same. The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition --  only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based.  Tradition has filled out Matthew's account of the arrival at the stable of strangers from some far off  place, notably by holding that there were three travellers, identifying them as 'kings', and even giving them names. The Bible does not provide any basis for this. In some modern translations the description 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', and in fact 'magicians' may be the most accurate-- which reduces their status considerably for a modern audience.
So why has this brief and mysterious episode attracted so much attention for so long? The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, but then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context in which Jesus was born -- the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people hoped for or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a king, but myrrh also presages death. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, foreigners. This is the most important aspect. Although the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus must remain firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long expected Messiah if it is to be understood properly, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike. This is St Paul's great insight, an insight that leads him, at intense personal cost, to take on the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world. It is this special call that he explicitly acknowledges, appropriately, in the Epistle for Epiphany.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the moment, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.