Monday, February 27, 2017

LENT I 2017

Christ in the Desert  - Ivan Kramskoi (1872)
The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of this three year ministry. In this Year A of the three year Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B.  It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin as plain as it can be. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul though to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
Satanic Self-Portrait -- Felicien Rops (1860)
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite the obvious gap, there is common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did, and we deceive ourselves if we think that the undoubted success of science and medicine has done very much to change that. 
To believe in the Bible as Revelation, is to believe that, however much interpretation they may need, the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what on this occasion does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous --  put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.


Salvador Dali - Blow the Trumpet in Zion
Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, can be dated as far back as the fourth century. Originally it had  two purposes --  a period of preparation for catechumens -- people who wish to be baptized as  Christians  and so participate fully in the life of the Church -- and the reconciliation of  Christians who had committed very serious sins -- murder, adultery and so on. For the first group, the weeks of Lent were set aside for a rigorous program of study, prayer and fasting that would conclude with Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. For the second, it was an opportunity, in the word of St Augustine, "to come forth from a hidden and dark place",  be re-admitted to communion and restored to "the light of Christ". The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and Easter. Yet, while open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and judgmentalism is something we want to avoid, we have also lost something that previous ages found to be important -- the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.

The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in the way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning", but immediately adds a warning that we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not?  Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.

Durer - The Penitent
In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on  Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit  instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition, though, is not meant as a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the  solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem of our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Transfiguration - Carl Bloch
Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length. Easter being late this year, Epiphany is three weeks longer than last. But regardless of length, the final Sunday in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Matthew; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Mark and Luke. But there is an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three, a key connection  between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah -- is revealed to the disciples. It is the connection with Moses that this year's Old Testament lesson picks up, recounting from Exodus the episode in which Moses is given the tablets of  law.
Raphael's Studies for the Transfiguration
The prophetic connection lends the event much of its significance. For the first time, perhaps, the disciples accompanying Jesus understand his uniqueness among the multitude of other ‘teachers’ of the law that were a common sight in Palestine.  And this is powerfully confirmed by a second feature all three accounts share -- the reference to dazzling light, a sign that the revelation that has been given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, but when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the resulting light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. So too, it is dazzling light that transfigures Jesus in the eyes of Peter, James and John.
There is one point, however, on which the accounts differ slightly. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Like Mark, but even more emphatically, Matthew is clear that Jesus ordered them “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is at best preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The passage from the second Epistle of Peter puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Holding on to this thought gives the approaching season of Lent a special coherence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017