Monday, March 26, 2018


Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, make up the 'Triduum Sacrum' ('the three holy days') that are the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies for which they are used, they invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb.  These liturgical observances are the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Christian year -- 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 to underline the supreme giving of Christ's boy and blood that took place on the Cross. 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. They may then participate once more in the previous evening's 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 19, 2018


Christ's Entry into Jerusalem -- Morgner
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, which can be longer or shorter, is usually read or sung by several voices. It recounts the dark sequence of events that followed Christ's fleeting 'triumph' – first betrayal, then abandonment, intense physical pain followed by humiliation, and finally death. Holy Week is framed by this narrative. It is taken from Matthew, Mark or Luke (this year is Mark), and then repeated on Good Friday (invariably John’s version nowadays). The days in between Palm Sunday and Good Friday are set aside for sustained meditation on the meaning of Christ’s passion. They provide an opportunity to understand the full significance of the Resurrection that is to come.

The Mocking of Christ -- Terbrugghen
The Palm Sunday readings are unusual in another respect too. The Old Testament (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) are the same every year. In different ways they serve to underline an important fact. The significance of death by crucifixion is not to be found primarily in the terrible suffering it involved. History tells of many heroes who died horribly painful deaths as they struggled gloriously for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion. Indeed, it is the precise opposite of a heroic death. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise. But he did not struggle with his persecutors, and did nothing to defend himself.

Isaiah makes the ultimate test of faith to lie in this affirmation: ‘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 remember that ‘God was in Christ’ reconciling Himself to the world. Here is the spectacular, and perplexing, truth that the Resurrection confirms. It is in the figure of the humiliated, unheroic Jesus that the Source of Life, and hence the sacred, is to be seen most clearly.

Heads of Judas and Peter - Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci -- Judas and Peter
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 13, 2018

LENT V 2018

Michelangelo's Jeremiah
The name of the prophet Jeremiah is synonymous with someone who is forever predicting doom and destruction. Now while it is true that much of the book of Jeremiah is given over to dire warnings, in the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Jeremiah’s tone is much brighter. In fact, he offers an optimistic vision of God’s relation with his forgiven people, foretelling a ‘new covenant’ when the law of God is no longer just an external set of rules, but something ‘written on our hearts’. Despite this optimism, however, the subsequent history of Israel continued to be one of spiritual failure followed by material disaster, a pattern that called forth new generations of Jeremiahs. 
Christians believe that Jeremiah's prophecy of a new covenant only became a reality with the advent of Jesus Christ. Even then, it did not take the form that the prophets expected.The author of Hebrews tells us that when “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, he was heard because of his reverent submission”. But why does he say that Jesus was heard, when God did NOT save him from death on the Cross? The Gospel passage highlights this paradox. Jesus confesses that his “soul is troubled’ and that the prayer “Save me from this hour” springs to his lips. Yet, immediately he acknowledges that the hour in which he undergoes unimaginably painful death is the very reason that he came. It is through the brutal ignominy of criminal crucifixion that he is to be “glorified”.

How can this be? What sort of glory is it to be “raised up” in this ghastly way? Hebrews provides the answer. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Contra Jeremiah, the law of God will never be written on our hearts; we are too selfish and sinful to learn obedience through what we suffer. Yet, salvation is nevertheless at hand if, as we approach Good Friday, we are willing to let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of Christ lifted up on the Cross. The mystery lies in the fact that here we encounter something completely contrary to any normal conception of what a 'glorious' ending to his ministry would be. In this way we are called to acknowledge a closely related mystery: the only way the perfection of our own humanity can be attained is in 'dying with Christ' --which is to say, the commitment of our egos to the honor of his name.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

LENT IV 2018

Moses and the Brazen Serpent -- Augustus John
The Gospel for this Sunday contains what is possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible – John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. John begins, however, by connecting this with something less familiar – that curious episode from the Book of Numbers in which Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.

For obvious reasons, the Lectionary makes this episode the accompanying Old Testament lesson. But the God depicted in it is hardly a God of love. Sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites because they have complained about the lack of food and water in the wilderness, speaks more of spiteful irritation than fatherly care. Moses, by admitting that this is sinfulness on the part of his people, effectively concurs with a justifying implication -- God is right to punish people in this horrible way. Given such a God, going along with Him is the pragmatic thing to do, because the admission of fault produces a cure  – the bronze serpent. Somehow, this averts the punishment.

Christ on the Cross -- van der Goes
Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes between Jesus and the serpent is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’, just like the snake, is lifted up. But unlike the snake, this is God himself being lifted up. In place of poisonous punishment, sinfulness encounters pure love.  Jesus on the Cross is God's self-offering, expressly made so that the world is not condemned, but saved.

Still, the risk of condemnation has not entirely disappeared. Just as the Israelites had to look up at the bronze serpent, so sinful humanity has to look up at Jesus. It sounds like a simple task, and yet not everyone will do it.  “This is the judgment", the Gospel tells us, that "the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”. The Israelites in the wilderness lived in a kind of darkness. They looked to God primarily as a means of satisfying what Paul in the passage from Ephesians calls “the desires of flesh and senses”, and they then complained when they did not get enough of them. With the bronze snake, Moses was able to give them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. By contrast, to look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, Paul says, is to be “raised up with him in the heavenly places”. With our eyes on Christ, we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. Alternatively, of course, we can just go on -- with our heads down and following the normal course of this world.