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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Moses receives the Tablets -- Chagall
At first sight the readings for this Sunday do not appear to be connected. What does listing the Ten Commandments have to do with Jesus overturning the tables in the temple? It is true that there is no one clear theme running through these readings, yet they are nevertheless importantly related. Read together they present us once again with a truth that is central to the teachings of Jesus, and to Christian faith in him. The link is to be found in something Jesus himself declared: that he came neither to overturn nor to replace the Jewish Law, but to bring it to its fulfillment. 

The Old Testament reading from Exodus reminds us of that Law as embodied in the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. These commandments create a covenantal relationship between God and his Chosen people. God, for His part, would honor and protect those who kept his Law, but those who did not keep their part of the covenant could expect grief and tribulation. However, as St Paul writes in the Epistle, belief in such a covenant must make the Cross something of a stumbling block to serious Jews. How could Jesus be the complete embodiment of God’s Law -- the Law to which Paul himself remained faithful -- if he ends up executed like a common criminal?

Christ Overturns the Tables -- Spencer
In this week’s Gospel John provides an answer. He places the story of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple in Jerusalem right at the start of his ministry, rather than immediately before the story of his suffering and death, which is where the other Evangelists locate it. By this device John  declares Jesus' action in the Temple to be key to the meaning of the Incarnation. 
For the Jews of the New Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of their worship, and the monument to their faith in God. It had, however,  become degraded, so degraded indeed that it desperately needed radical renewal. Strange though it must sound, by this action Jesus declares himself to be its renewal. The Body of Christ is the new temple, and his death on the Cross replaces the daily round of animal sacrifices that took place there. In that death, the whole idea of sacrifice is transformed. The Crucifixion (as the Book of Common Prayer says) is the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins, not of the Jewish people only, but for the whole world.

The message is evident. In Christ, everyone everywhere, irrespective of ethnic background and geographical location, is called to enter the company of God’s chosen people, and are able to do so -- if, of course, they choose the path of penitence and faith.

Friday, February 23, 2018

St David's Day 2018

Anthem for St  David
A voice resounds
and seas and mountains echo here and there
prophetic tidings
blowing, like the wind
Dewi Sant!  Dewi Sant! 
    A towering figure strides
    his every step is marking out a path
    whose steady purpose
    is to lead beyond the hills
   Dewi Sant! Dewi Sant!

With all his strength he bends,
and binds his soul to one
whose Principality
is founded on a Cross
Salvator mundi, Salvator mundi

March 1st is the Feast day of David, Patron Saint of Wales. We know relatively little about St David, not even the precise dates of his life. Best estimates suggest that he died around 590 AD in what was, for that period, very old age. Over fourteen centuries have passed since then, yet David is far from forgotten. It is no surprise, perhaps, that he is the patron saint of Wales, since Wales was the land of his birth, the focus of most of his work, and even yet the home of his major shrine – St David’s Cathedral in the town of St David’s on the Welsh coast of the Irish Sea.

Much more surprising is the fact that in almost every state of the United States there is at least one church dedicated to David. This is a truly remarkable fact. Modern America is very far removed from Celtic Wales, not just by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, but by huge cultural differences – so big in fact that the kind of life Americans live today would have been literally inconceivable to David. He could never have made even the wildest guess that in the far distant future Christians with a radically different life-style would nevertheless be dedicating their churches to him.

St David's Cathedral, Wales
Yet, there are many ties that bind us to him still. He read the same Bible, preached the same Gospel, celebrated the same sacraments, and put his faith in the same God. Moreover, he shared the same sense of Christian mission described in the Epistle set for this day. Like Paul, David saw himself “entrusted with the message of the gospel, not to please mortals, but to please the God who tests our hearts.” The monasteries he established are testimony to this, since the way of life they prescribed was very austere -- simple fare, no alcohol, strenuous labor. It was this austerity, nonetheless, that attracted a large number of converts among people who wanted their faith to make a real difference to the way they led their lives.

The Gospel for St David’s Day is very short. "The kingdom of God” Jesus declares, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

David planted seeds without knowing how they would sprout and grow. God gave them the earth to grow in. All these generations later, we are part of the very large harvest that has come.  It is impossible to envisage a world fourteen centuries in the future, as remote from us as ours is from St David's. But we know that we have also been entrusted with the Gospel in our time, precisely to plant seeds for a future only God can imagine.