Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Landscape with Miracles -- Andre Bresson (1935)
A little unusually, the Gospel for this Sunday continues directly from the week before. It tells of many more cures, and more cases of "casting out of demons". Modern ways of thinking do not easily accommodate such language, and this passage serves to underline just how far we have moved away from New Testament times in our understanding of both physical and mental disease. 

There is no doubt that the modern understanding and treatment of physical illness is vastly improved on what it was even one hundred years ago. At the same time, there is much that remains mysterious to medical science. Furthermore the effectiveness of modern drug therapies is not as well established as it is often made out to be. And, when it comes to mental illness, our understanding has advanced surprisingly little, with effective treatments few and far between.
So a measure of intellectual humility is in order before we too quickly discount the ways that people in times past (as well as people in other non-Western parts of the contemporary world), have dealt with disease, regarding them as practices born of superstitious ignorance. Humility, in fact, is the message that the wonderfully poetic passage from Isaiah invites.  The world in which we live is complex and mysterious. ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. . . . his understanding is unsearchable.’
Jesus heals Peter's Mother-in-law

More importantly, perhaps, we should not assume that "casting out demons" refers to healing psychological illness. An intriguing aspect of this Gospel is that when the sick gather to be healed, Jesus does not, as he might, set up some sort of clinic to deal with all the illness in the village. After a time, he goes off alone to pray, and then when the disciples tell him everyone (understandably) is looking for him, he resumes his journey to other places, leaving them disappointed presumably. Healing, it seems, is not part of his primary mission.  "Casting out demons", on the other hand, does appear to be part of what proclaiming the Gospel involves, because this is what he continues to do elsewhere. 
The freedom the Gospel offers, there is reason to surmise, is not freedom from sickness, physical or mental, but something quite different.

CANDLEMAS (Presentation of Christ in the Temple)

Presentation - Carpaccio
Feb 2nd commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, a traditional observance of faithful Jews on the birth of a first son. It has special resonance in this case, of course. Since the child presented is Christ, this observance prefigures the Eucharist in which, week by week, there is the opportunity to give God back the gift He has given. So Mary and Joseph return to God that which uniquely came from God.

Commonly called Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The readings are the same each year, and identify Jesus with ‘the Lord whom you seek’ whose unexpected appearance ‘in the temple’ is predicted by the prophet Malachi. The appointed Psalm, appropriately, extols the beauty and wonder of God’s ‘dwelling place’ and the joy of being there. The association with candles comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode recorded in the Gospel for the day is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' with its description of the baby Jesus as 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'. 

Candlemas comes forty days after the nativity, and has long been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season. This is not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation. In the ceremony for Candlemas, candles for use in both church and home are blessed with a prayer:

God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon the light of your revelation to the nations.
Bless these candles (+) and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever. Grant this through Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Two Prophets -- John Singer Sargent

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. So says St Paul in this week’s Epistle. We could interpret this in a way that seems to endorse a widely held belief:  when it comes to Christian faith, feelings are much more important than theological doctrines. Clearly, Paul puts love first (here as elsewhere) and yet, in the very next paragraph, he emphasizes how important it is not to mistake pagan idols for the one true God. This knowledge of the truth, which not everyone has he says, a makes a crucial difference. Love is not enough in just this sense. If it is not to be misdirected, we need real knowledge of the God we ought to love? 

Moment of Truth -- Gauguin
On the surface, the other two readings don't seem much connected with the Epistle, but they do throw some light on this important issue. The Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy makes it as plain as it could be that God uses people of special insight to reveal his Word -- prophets -- and that one such prophet will stand out from all the rest.  The Gospel passage casts Jesus in just this light. Like all the prophets, he is someone who teaches, but who does so with an authority far greater than all the rest. Where is the evidence of this special prophetic authority? The second last verse of this short episode provides the answer. The significance of his extraordinary power does not lie so much in the act of healing, but in what it reveals about his spiritual authority.

Theological speculation can undoubtedly be a kind of knowledge that puffs up. Moreover, it is possible to attain impressive expertise in a highly sophisticated theological enterprise that, in reality, has very little to do with knowing how to live a life of faith.  At the same time, the truth of this is no license for anti-intellectualism, abandoning reason in favor of feeling, all in the name of faith. Faith has to fix on that which is true and real. John’s Gospel explicitly describes Jesus as ‘the Truth’, and elsewhere Paul tells us that ‘the Truth’ will set us free. It can only do so, however, if we know what the truth is. The first great commandment tells us to love God with mind as well as heart. This is precisely the task that quite literally, we have God-given  minds to work on.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018



Duccio - Calling the Disciples (c.1314)
This week’s readings are remarkably short-- three readings and a Psalm totaling just 24 verses. The Gospel continues the story of Jesus’ early ministry. The times were turbulent, and dangerous ones for Jewish prophets and teachers, who were easily branded political rebels or dissidents. John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal for Jesus to leave his home in Nazareth and establish himself on the shores of Galilee, the familiar location of so many Gospel stories. It is here that he finds and calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John who were to be his ‘core’ disciples and, after his death and resurrection, his apostles.

The Prophet Jonah -- Tissot
Mark’s account of this episode, which provides this week's Gospel, is rather briefer than the one given by Matthew, who links the Galilean context to the prophecies of Isaiah. The lectionary's choice of readings, however, establishes another important Biblical resonance that underlines the connection with John the Baptist -- the story of Jonah, who is sent to call Nineveh to repentance, and does so successfully.  
Interspersed between the readings from Jonah and Mark, though, is one of those awkward passages that seem inextricably tied to a belief that the world will end very soon. Paul tells the Corinthians to abandon their normal way of life completely, even to the point of ignoring familial obligations to both the living and the dead. We know, of course, that ‘the appointed time’ had not ‘grown short’, since the world is still here almost two thousand years later. Paul’s apocalyptic tone, however, is not without purpose even yet. Repentance does require us to see our normal life in a quite different light, and to radically review our priorities. This implies a certain sort of detachment from the plans and projects in which we are engaged. Spiritual detachment may not arise, as it did for Paul, from a belief that time is running out, but in the absence of an attitude something like his, discipleship loses its spiritual edge and is at risk of degenerating into conventional piety. Religious observance becomes a matter of going through familiar motions as nothing more than an ordinary part of ordinary life. Among the early Christians, a lively belief in the immanence of the Second Coming served as a powerful antidote to spiritual laziness, and the Epistle serves to remind us that this is the kind of antidote we still need.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


Samuel and Eli -- John Singleton Copley

Vocation, and what it implies, is the unmistakable theme that unifies this week’s readings. The Old Testament lesson tells the compelling story of the boy Samuel wakened in the night by a voice. Understandably, he takes it to be his aging master Eli calling for assistance. What else could it be? God is unlikely to call a mere boy in preference to a priest of wisdom and experience. Rather poignantly, it is Eli himself who helps Samuel to understand that this truly is God’s voice, even though by calling Samuel to be the priest and prophet of the Chosen People, God is thereby signaling not only the end of Eli's own religious role but the disntegration of his family.

In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus calls two disciples, Philip and his friend Nathanael. Philip’s call is brief and to the point, Nathanael’s rather less so. Both accept the call. The New Testament has more to tell us about Philip, but almost nothing further about Nathanael. Nevertheless, the question he asks in this brief episode is deeply resonant with meaning -- “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Such immediate skepticism -- rooted in prejudice perhaps -- makes him an unlikely candidate for discipleship. Yet Jesus sees honesty in his skepticism -- "truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" -- and this is the perception underlying Nathanael's call.

The Apostle Philip --Durer

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer, strangely, is a very powerful 'Yes'. Nothing less than the redemption of the world came from this undistinguished village -- not from a great cultural center like Athens, an imperial capital like Rome, or a place of religious pilgrimage like Jerusalem. The story of Samuel and the insignificance of Nazareth are both reminders of a profound truth: the first step to discipleship is openness to the possibility of God's preferring places and people that from a human point of view seem very unlikely or unpromising. It is a truth that the beautiful Psalm for this Sunday underlines. ‘LORD, you have searched me out and known me . . . you discern my thoughts from afar”. Divine vocation is not a matter of chance, but based on God's intimate knowledge of us, a ‘knowledge  . . . so high that I cannot attain to it’.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

EPIPHANY I 2018 (Baptism of the Lord)

John Baptizes Jesus -- MAFA (Cameroon)
This year we move from the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6th) to the Baptism of Christ (Jan 7th) in a single day, and at the same time fast forward through the life of Christ by nearly three decades. Yet, though these events are separated by a considerable stretch of historical time, both celebrations can be said to fall appropriately into a single liturgical season -- 'Epiphany'. This is because the visit of the Magi to the stable and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, along with the wedding at Cana, are ‘epiphanic moments’. That is to say, they are occasions when it is made manifest that those who encounter the person of the historical Jesus are in the same moment encountering the eternal Christ. 
Leonardo da Vinci's Baptism of Christ
Only Matthew's Gospel tells the story of the Magi. Only John's Gospel relates the wedding at Cana. By contrast, the one time that Jesus and John the Baptist encounter each other -- when John baptizes Jesus -- is recounted in all four Gospels. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John the Baptist makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this 'washing' with a wholesale spiritual transformation.The reading from Acts shows that John's placing himself in a secondary, preparatory position to Jesus, was one that the early Christians believed and affirmed.
There is a theological puzzle here, however. If baptism is 'washing away of sin', the sinless Jesus cannot need it. Why then does he submit to it? By this action, we should conclude, Jesus declares his identification with humanity. He thereby shows repentance to be a precondition of a transformation that is possible even for sinful human beings. The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ in this story, and a notable feature of Leonardo's image of it. Quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us -- that divinity can perfect humanity.