The Gospel for 22nd March (John 5:17-30)
Jesus answered the Jewish authorities, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.’
In this passage Jesus repeats many of the catchwords which occur again and again in John’s Gospel. Life, judgement, honour, hearing, believing – those are words which turn up time and again, woven into the sayings and discourses of Jesus and into the narrative framework of the story that John tells. Life is God’s gift and God’s essence. Judgement is the task God has handed to the Son, but that judgement is the judgement of love, and results in honour being given to the Son and to the Father. Hearing the words of Jesus, “the voice of the Son of God”, leads to life, even for those who are already in their grave. Despite all the horrors which uncontrolled human activity inflicts on it, God’s creation is good.
But on top of these catchwords, so familiar from other parts of this Gospel, we find something which is almost unheard of in John. We find a parable. John is notoriously parable-averse, unlike Mark or, even more so, Matthew and Luke, whose chapters are full of stories, similitudes, riddles, even full-blown allegory. John, in their place, offers only the sheep- and shepherd-related parables of chapter ten: and the parable of the father and son which Jesus sets before the hostile Jewish authorities here, in the middle of chapter five.
They are furious because in calling God his Father, Jesus was blasphemously “making himself equal to God.” Jesus responds with this parable, which builds on the idea of fatherhood, but puts his own relationship with God into a slightly different perspective. Starting from the premise that “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing”, he takes us into the world of a craftsman passing his skills down to the next generation. On Monday we talked about the possibility that Jesus might have learned his ideas about fatherhood by observing Joseph. Today there’s a hint that Joseph’s workshop, too, may have helped Jesus in his self-understanding, providing an example of the way in which “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” Where there are no instruction manuals and no power-point presentations or whiteboards, a boy would learn by observing how his father worked and imitating him, under supervision. The same applied to girls and mothers in a world without cookery-books, dress patterns or gardening manuals. As a Chinese sage summed up the process of learning, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
So, Jesus does what he sees the Father doing. He “gives life to whomsoever he wishes”, continuing the Father’s creative, healing work. And he invites human beings, with increasing urgency in these days of climate crisis, to share in that work as he shows us what is happening in his world, summoning us out of the tombs of greed and exploitation to share his work of giving life and hope and healing.
We continue our exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey along the Way of the Cross, picking the story up from the failure of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20th July, 1944. Here is the text of today’s talk:
Last week we focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter of 21st July 1944 to his friend Eberhard Bethge, on active service in Italy. As that letter hints, Bonhoeffer was becoming increasingly aware of the reality of the suffering God. I mentioned last week how Edwin Robertson, in his book “Bonhoeffer’s Heritage”, makes a telling comparison with the episode in Helen Waddell’s novel “Peter Abelard” where Abelard and Thibault, his companion in exile, come across a rabbit which has been mortally injured by a snare, and find a sudden understanding of what the cross means in terms of Christ’s suffering with his creatures now. Adrian Plass, in one of his books, reminds his readers that in accepting the cross Jesus offers the clearest demonstration that “he’s in it with us”. This awareness of God’s participation in human suffering is developed further, albeit rather sketchily, in his “Outline for a Book” and in the poem “Christians and Pagans”.
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.
There is a self-emptying in God (we might compare the Christological hymn in Philippians 2 – or Charles Wesley’s hymn “And can it be?”), which Bonhoeffer saw as speaking more powerfully to contemporary humanity than the traditional appeal of the Churches to a “God of the gaps”.
By contrast, Bonhoeffer saw the Church in Germany in the 1940s, even the Confessing Church, as too much concerned with self-preservation, with hacking out a “religious” space from everyday life and maintaining its existence, “entrenching ourselves”, Bonhoeffer wrote, “behind the ‘faith of the church’”. The result of that preoccupation, even then, was a Church whose appeal was mainly to “the upper and lower middle classes” with “no effect on the masses”. That is something which Bonhoeffer had discovered for himself in 1932, not long after his ordination as a pastor. In those early months he was working in Berlin as a chaplain to students at the University, where he also lectured in the Theology Faculty, when he accepted an additional assignment from the local Church authorities. They instructed him to take over a confirmation group of working-class boys which had “got out of control” at Zion Church in Wedding, known since the turn of the 19th century as “Red Wedding”, because of its radical politics. As Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend “It’s about the worst area of Berlin with the most difficult social and political conditions.” On May Day three years before it had been the scene of a violent police operation against traditional left-wing celebrations which left more than 30 people dead and 250 injured. Despite Bonhoeffer’s privileged background, his rapport with the young people living in such desperate conditions was immediate, helped by the fact that when he took on the task he rented a flat nearby, and those he had prepared for confirmation were still talking sixty years later about Pastor Bonhoeffer’s impact on their lives.
“The decisive factor”, in the Church’s withdrawal from engagement with the major challenges facing Germany – and the wider world – as Bonhoeffer identified it in his outline for a book, was “the church on the defensive. No taking risks for others.” Its faith had become the kind of faith described in the first stanza of the poem, one in which “Men go to God when they are sore bestead”: in other words when they want something, “Praying for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead.” That’s part of the human condition. As Bonhoeffer says, “All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.” They want the “deus ex machina” of Greek and Roman tragedy, the problem-solving god swung onto the stage at the critical point in the drama. But that, as Bonhoeffer makes clear, is not the true and living God.
In the second stanza of the poem Bonhoeffer’s answer to such a superficial “this-worldly” view of God as no more than the provider of answers, the one who meets our needs, is to reaffirm God’s self-emptying in Jesus, “poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead.” A pre-echo of Adrian Plass’s words, “he’s in it with us”. Instead of men “going to God when they are sore bestead”, Christians “go to God when he is sore bestead” and “stand by God in his hour of grieving.” This isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. This is, as Eberhard Bethge said in a comment on this poem, “a total transformation of human existence…given in the fact that Jesus is there for others.”
That definition of Jesus as “the man for others” is central to Bonhoeffer’s thinking during this final stage of his life. In his “Outline for a Book”, he explains that “It is only this ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus.” Bonhoeffer summarises “this being” as “incarnation, cross and resurrection”. He goes on to say that “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation.” That “neighbour” includes, as we saw last week, both Bonhoeffer’s guards and his fellow-prisoners.
Then, after setting out the argument, in the first stanza of this poem, and the counter-argument, in the second, Bonhoeffer offers resolution in the third. And he does so by putting the direction of travel into sharp reverse. The first two stanzas begin with men going to God. This stanza begins with God going to “every man when sore bestead”; but unlike the preceding stanzas, which depict human need “for succour, for [God’s] peace, for bread, For mercy” on man’s part and the divine reality of being “poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead”, here Bonhoeffer offers no analysis but the bald statement:
God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.
Jesus, the man for others, reveals God as the God for others, for every “man” – and the word that Bonhoeffer uses throughout this poem is “Mensch” or “Menschen”, which mean human beings irrespective of gender, so that his words do not have the sexist overtones (to modern ears) which they are given by the English translation. The consequence of this change of direction is a need to rethink the nature of faith as a personal connection to Jesus the man for others and to reassess the role of the church. Bonhoeffer spells this out in some detail in his précis of the conclusions of that projected “book of not more than 100 pages” which he was destined never to write. In the light of our context and our history here in Genova, it’s worth quoting at length:
The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example… it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.
That is how “God goes to every man when sore bestead”. It is not in slick evangelistic campaigns, or slogans, but in presence and in the provision of physical and spiritual comfort and nourishment. God “feeds body and spirit with his bread”, and “his bread” is not only the “daily bread” for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, nor the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, but also the bread of God’s Word in Scripture.
I have talked at some length about the importance of the Bible to Bonhoeffer and about his vision of the good life as a life lived “under God’s Word”. Theologically he stands firmly in the tradition of the Reformation, however congenial he may have found the liturgy and ecclesiology of the Catholic and Anglican traditions. He respected (though he did not always agree with) the great Protestant biblical scholars of the preceding generation, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. His view of the centrality of Scripture informed his emphasis on biblical meditation. The lectio divina which he practised himself and in which he encouraged his students at the Preachers’ Seminary was a listening to God in order to speak to God.
Both in his reflection on life at Finkenwalde and what it meant as a model for the coming Church, which he published in 1939 as “Life Together”, and in his little book on the Psalms (the last work of his to be published before the Gestapo banned his writings) Bonhoeffer writes of “the need to repeat the words of God to God”. He emphasises the Psalms as the core “prayerbook of the Bible”, the prayerbook of Christ. Psalm 119, with its twenty-two variations on a theme, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was a particular favourite, but he insisted on using the whole Psalter, as he did on reading the whole of Scripture – not just edited highlights. We have to pray through the laments, the songs of suffering, the cursing Psalms, and pray them through the understanding of Christ, who took into himself all the hostility and hatred of the world and nailed it to the cross.
“For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving.”
The Gospel for 20th March – St Joseph of Nazareth [transferred] (Matthew 1:18-25)
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Poor Joseph! Once again he gets the short straw. His feast day should have been yesterday, but Sundays in Lent outrank every other celebration. So we keep his feast today. Unless, that is, you are living in the north of England and your church is dedicated to St Cuthbert, who died on this day in AD 687; in which case you are probably keeping today as your patronal festival and turning Joseph, for this year at least, into an unperson. But then, Joseph has been something of an unperson for much of the past two millennia, mostly for reasons of theological dogma. The sheer attractiveness of Luke’s account of the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus has led to the devaluing of Matthew’s account, and the prominence of Mary in Luke’s account has led to a corresponding devaluation of Joseph.
Now at this point, I probably ought to declare an interest, in that nearly seventy years ago I was cast as Joseph in the school nativity play; but it seems to me that eagerness to preserve the perpetual virginity of Mary has had some unfortunate consequences for our understanding of Joseph’s role. The commentators who accounted for the various references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Gospels by turning Joseph into a widower with an existing family have not helped our understanding of what Matthew is trying to say in today’s Gospel. Joseph becomes, instead, the clichéd figure of an older husband portrayed in, to take one example, the “Cherry Tree Carol”; a grumpy old curmudgeon, distant cousin to Chaucer’s “January” in the “Merchant’s Tale”.
If we stop fixating on Joseph’s age, and Mary’s virginity, and instead reflect on Matthew’s words, we notice first that Joseph is “a righteous man”, in other words someone who was scrupulous in his keeping of the Law of Moses. Second, we notice that he is a dreamer. In those first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, from the end of the genealogy with which the Gospel opens to the account of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt, every time Joseph is mentioned we are told that he had a dream in which God’s messengers passed on instructions. On each of those occasions Joseph acts on his dream, and the vulnerable are protected and lives are saved.
So Joseph is a righteous man, a dreamer and a man of action. He knows the rules, but he is not afraid to override them when occasion demands. He knows the demands of the Law but he also realises that being attentive to the demands of the Divine compassion comes first, and with that comes an attentiveness to the safety and well-being of those in his care which we find also in Jesus. For some New Testament scholars that has raised an interesting question: did Joseph model human fatherhood for Jesus in a way that enabled him to relate that model to his understanding of God’s fatherhood? For God’s fatherhood is also a balance between justice, or judgement, and compassion, or mercy. On this St Joseph’s day, let us pray for that balance in our own lives also – and let us be unafraid to act in accordance with the dreams that God sends us.
The Gospel for 15th March (Matthew 5:17-19)
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.‘
When I was on study leave in Romania fourteen years ago, I became very aware of the tensions within the Romanian Orthodox Church between the liberal “westernisers” and the conservative “Athonite tendency”, as they were known after the ultra-traditionalist monks on that Holy Mountain. You could tell immediately which clergy belonged to which group. The “westernisers” wore ordinary street clothes and had their beards neatly trimmed – or even went clean-shaven. The “Athonites” wore black cassocks, stovepipe hats, and let their hair grow.
There’s a similar tension in the Gospels. It doesn’t show itself in clothing and hairstyle, but in the sayings of Jesus. This passage from Matthew’s Gospel, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, with its emphasis on keeping the Jewish Law down to the last letter and stroke of a letter “until all is accomplished”, sets the evangelist among the “Athonites”. Mark, when he reports the attitude of Jesus towards the laws regulating ritual cleanliness and keeping the Sabbath, is locating himself very much among the liberals – or rather, the radicals.
So why the difference? And does it matter? Well, yes, it does, because the tensions which surfaced in the first century are still visible today – and not only in Romania.
In the first place it’s important to get the context right. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking as a Jew to Jews. Jewish identity was – and for Orthodox Jewry still is – defined by keeping the Law of Moses faithfully. Matthew was writing his Gospel as a Jewish Christian, probably writing in Syria or Palestine, writing for a community which contained a high proportion of Jewish Christians, and writing at about the time of the great catastrophe of the Jewish revolt against Rome, when Jewish Christians were increasingly seen by other Jews as a kind of “fifth column”. In that context Matthew needed to affirm the solidarity of Christian Jews with the rest of the Jewish people in Syria and Palestine, and that entailed emphasising their Jewish credentials, their adherence to the Law. So he highlighted those sayings of Jesus about the Law which were positive.
In the second place, it’s important to recognise that Matthew leaves it an open question whether those sayings are also meant to apply to Gentile Christians. The evidence of much of the rest of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the other Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, is that they aren’t. Paul’s letters, in particular, express firm opposition to the idea that Gentile Christians have to be tied into the kind of Jewish nationalism which would impose observance of the Law on those Christians who are not part of “Israel after the flesh”. So, too, does the story that Luke tells in the Acts of the Apostles.
Finally, it’s important to note what Jesus says about those who are, let us say, less zealous for the Law. They are not to be excluded from the Kingdom of heaven. They may not be counted among those who are “great in the kingdom of heaven”, but they are there. So, too, are we, despite those who take their stand on a rigorist interpretation of the Gospel, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. As we have been reminded sharply during the past couple of weeks, what matters in the end, when heaven and earth have passed away, is our faithfulness to the Lord who tells us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for him.
21st July, 1944 (Wednesday, 15th March, 2023)
We have now reached the half-way point of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey along the Way of the Cross, with the failure of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20th July, 1944:
Twenty-eight years ago, at the 26th German Protestant Kirchentag in Hamburg, Albrecht Schönherr, whom I mentioned in the first of these talks, took part with Eberhard Bethge in a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Each of them focused his memories on a document from the same climactic period of Bonhoeffer’s life: the letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge, by then serving with the Abwehr in Northern Italy, dated 21st July, 1944, and the poem “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. Both were written in the same period, the days and weeks immediately after the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life which took place on 20th July that year.
We will look at “Stations on the Road to Freedom” in the last of these talks. Today our focus is on the letter, which was written the day after the assassination plot against Hitler failed, a day when the airwaves and the press (including the Church press) were full of hysterical thanksgiving for the Führer’s deliverance from the “most dreadful crime” attempted by “a handful of despicable officers driven on by ambition”. There is an amazing serenity about it, despite the fact that, as Bethge pointed out in his reflections on the letter, it was written in the full realisation that “all personal hopes for a fulfilled love [with Maria von Wedemeyer, to whom he had become engaged in early 1943] were destroyed, a reunion with his beloved family was ruled out, the renewal of the Church in Germany had receded into the distance, the liberation of Germany was even further away.” In that Hamburg talk, Bethge identified these words as the key sentence in this moving letter: “I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them.” Fifty years on, Bethge was still amazed that Bonhoeffer should include in his thanksgiving what must have been an utterly disheartening and disastrous time.
What were the inner resources that made such serenity possible? Some of them are mentioned, or hinted at, in the letter which Bonhoeffer wrote on that traumatic day:
All I want to do today is to send you a short greeting. I expect you are often with us here in your thoughts and are always glad of a sign of life, even if the theological discussion stops for a moment. These theological thoughts are, in fact, always occupying my mind; but there are times when I am just content to live the life of faith without worrying about its problems. At those times I simply take pleasure in the day’s readings – in particular those of yesterday and today; and I’m always glad to go back to Paul Gerhardt’s beautiful hymns.
During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more than profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man – in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterised by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense.
I remember conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realise the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.
I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?
I think you see what I mean, even though I put it so briefly. I’m glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled. So I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them.
You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but if for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it? Perhaps the time will come one day when I can talk to Maria like this; I very much hope so. But I can’t expect it of her yet.
May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.
I was delighted to hear from you, and am glad you’re not finding it too hot. There must be a good many letters from me on the way. Didn’t we go more or less along that way in 1936?
Goodbye. Keep well, and don’t lose hope that we shall all meet again soon. I always think of you in faithfulness and gratitude.
First, the Bible: the day’s readings, by which Bonhoeffer meant “Die Losungen”, published by the Moravians of Herrnhut since 1731 and still going strong. The readings for 20th July 1944 were from Psalm 20 — “Some boast of chariots and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God.” — and Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”. Those for 21st July were the opening verse of Psalm 23 and John 10:14 — “I am the Good Shepherd: I know my own and my own know me.”
The Bible, as we noted last week, was central to Bonhoeffer’s Christian discipleship.
He also drew strength from that network of family and friends of which Eberhard Bethge was such an important part. The “Letters and Papers from Prison” make us aware how much Bonhoeffer was sustained by them and by the other networks of community to which he belonged. Not least among them was the network of ecumenical friendships: with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the Anglican bishop George Bell of Chichester, and Jean Lasserre, the “young French pastor” mentioned in the letter. Both Bell and Lasserre had been participants, alongside Bonhoeffer, in the conference of the “World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches” held in Fanö, Denmark, in August, 1934. This was at the height of the Church Struggle between the Confessing Church and the “German Christians” in the mid-1930s, but despite support from such allies Bonhoeffer could never persuade the leadership of the various ecumenical networks which coalesced after 1945 into the World Council of Churches to withdraw recognition from the “official” Nazi-backed churches and to recognise the Confessing Church as the true representative of Protestant Christianity in Germany.
Bonhoeffer also found support, naturally, in the network of former students from the Preachers’ Seminary at Finkenwalde and (after that was shut down by the Gestapo) from the “team curacy” or “collective pastorate” in Pomerania, which I mentioned last week. He was also sustained by the patrons of that enterprise, members of the anti-Nazi aristocratic families in East Prussia, including the widowed Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, Maria von Wedemeyer’s grandmother, who had provided Bonhoeffer with an occasional refuge on her estate at Klein-Krössin.
Undergirding all of these was Bonhoeffer’s profound awareness of the presence of God, the God who, above all, speaks to us in Scripture. Bonhoeffer sought to live a life under God’s Word. As head of the Preacher’s Seminar at Finkenwalde he insisted on a time of daily biblical meditation. This was unheard of among Lutheran pastors in training. Their whole formation to that point, as theological students, had prepared them to engage with the Word of God on the level of words, but they had no experience of letting the Word speak to them out of the silence of lectio divina – and when Bonhoeffer first introduced compulsory silent meditation, sometimes on the same passage every day for a week, it nearly provoked a riot. But through this experience experience at Finkenwalde, with its stress on aloneness in community, he was to some extent preparing himself, albeit unawares, for the experience of aloneness in another community, that of the prison in Tegel. Some have doubted whether he would have survived the pressures of imprisonment and interrogation without the preparation of the Preachers’ Seminary.
It was during his imprisonment that Bonhoeffer also became increasingly aware, as his letter of 21st July 1944 hints, of the reality of the suffering God, and of the importance of “watching with Christ in Gethsemane”. The late Edwin Robertson, in his book “Bonhoeffer’s Heritage”, makes a telling comparison with the episode in Helen Waddell’s novel “Peter Abelard” where Abelard and his companion in exile rescue a rabbit which has been mortally injured by a snare, and suddenly come to understand what the cross means not only in terms of Christ’s historic suffering, but also in terms of God’s eternal participation in the agony of his creatures.
That awareness of the involvement of Christ in the suffering of creation, I think, helps to explain Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany from the USA in 1939 and his commitment to the Resistance. It was part of his commitment to “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities… [throwing himself] completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.” That commitment was deepened by everything that he experienced during the years of wartime, as his later comment makes plain: “I’m glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled.” That road, as we are discovering, is his via dolorosa, his “way of the cross”.
On the evening of the second Sunday of each month (except August) there is a gathering for Taizé-style prayer at San Marco al Molo, one of Genoa’s most interesting and outward-looking churches – and the only one in Genoa (apart from the Church of the Holy Ghost, obviously) where you might find worship offered in English. On 12th March, there were three chants with English words. French, Italian, Latin and liturgical Greek were the other languages used.
The psalm was Psalm 23 and the scripture reading Genesis 22:1-18:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’
These are the points for reflection on the reading which were printed on the service-sheet (translated from the original Italian):
This is a complicated episode, in places disturbing, which has gathered many interpretations. The first, and most immediate from a historical point of view, concerns the ban on human sacrifice in favour of animal sacrifices.
Equally remarkable is the way in which here God breaks the ancestral link between fathers and sons. Even today we hold on to cumbersome ethical and social paradigms (father/authority/divinity/power/law) which the Word resoundingly contradicts on several occasions: Jesus himself will suggest leaving “brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children” (Matthew 19). In the father-son link here there is no longer the ownership which was taken for granted: from this moment Isaac belongs to God and he will be able to enter into relationship with God without any more need of Abraham as his intermediary.
Ultimately we arrive at the heart of this episode: the testing of Abraham. For one part of the rabbinic tradition it is up to Satan to convince God to act in order to see whether Abraham will remain faithful to him as he had been in good fortune. For Judaism actually this episode is called “the binding of Isaac” because the sacrifice was not part of God’s real intention. But why put Abraham to the test? And how do we hold together this blood-thirsty God who orders Abraham to kill his own son with the God revealed by Jesus?
Without claiming to find answers, let us try a change of perspective and put at the centre of the story not so much God who puts Abraham to the test, or otherwise, as the experience of Abraham in re-acquainting himself with God. Until that moment, God was for Abraham self-evidently a partner, trustworthy and generous: in such cases there is a risk of entering into an idolatrous approach, where what is at the centre is the direct knowledge of God and his gifts rather than God’s own self. Here, instead, Abraham experiences the presence of a God about whom he understands nothing, a God who is mysterious, unpredictable and distant in his otherness. He will have to wait before understanding that God does not actually want the death of Isaac (so that Isaac indeed does not die!).
The story of Abraham is everyone’s story, when we experience something which puts us to the test: suffering, loneliness, loss of meaning. These dark moments happen, they are part of the mystery of life, even though God does not will the suffering of anyone. And they are situations in which God can seem far off and incomprehensible: even Jesus in Gethsemane began “to feel sadness and anguish” (Matthew 26). In the Christian reading of this passage, indeed, the “binding” of Isaac prefigures the death of Jesus.
In drawing near to the senselessness of Easter, of a God who himself suffers and dies, we too experience letting go of a “God who is reliable, who is available” (C.M. Martini) in order to experience trust in a God whom we cannot contain, measure, measure, explain fully. And who precisely because of this “immeasurability” has gone beyond death, and has overcome it.
The Gospel for 8th March – Edward King (Matthew 5:10-12)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.‘
“Do they always send an angel from heaven to confirm you?” was one child’s awed reaction on encountering the saintly Bishop Edward King of Lincoln some time around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. By that stage in his ministry, King, one of the most loveable figures in the history of the English Church, had been through the fire, reviled and persecuted by people who could not see beyond their own prejudices to the holiness of their victim. His crimes?
- He celebrated the Eucharist facing East, rather than standing on the north side of the Holy Table as prescribed by the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.
- He had lighted candles on the altar.
- He mixed water with the wine in the chalice.
- He allowed the Agnus Dei to be sung after the prayer of consecration.
- He absolved and blessed the people using the sign of the cross.
- He took the ablutions of the chalice and paten.
He stood trial before Archbishop Benson of Canterbury and six of his brother-bishops in the Southern Province and proceedings dragged on for four years, from 1888, when the first accusations were made against King, until 1892, when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council rejected an appeal against the Archbishop’s ruling, which was largely in King’s favour. And finally Edward King could breathe again and get back to doing the things to which God had called him: being alongside people, sharing with them something of the love of God and encouraging them on the way of Christian discipleship.
He had done that as a curate in the Oxfordshire village of Wheatley. He had done it as the Chaplain, and then Principal, of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s training college in Cuddesdon. He had done it as Prime Minister Gladstone’s surprise choice for the Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford. He was doing it, and doing it superbly, as Bishop of Lincoln, when a Cleethorpes solicitor, Ernest de Lacy Read, took it upon himself, with the backing of the ultra-Protestant Church Association, to bring charges against him under the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874.
The stories about King’s 25 years in Lincoln were still doing the rounds when I trained there in the early 1980s – and there were still one or two very elderly people around with childhood memories of the bishop (he died in 1910). The direct and simple preaching in village churches which caused country folk to exclaim “He’s nowt but an owd Methody!”; the concern for his clergy, which caused him to move from the Bishop’s Palace at Riseholme into the city centre because “It wasn’t every poor parson who had a half-crown for a cab”; the pastoral care for the prisoners on death row in Lincoln Gaol, sparked by his intervention in the case of a young fisherman who had murdered his girl-friend in a lovers’ quarrel and who had been so brutalised that the prison chaplain, not long in post, was unable to cope. King took over, tamed the young man, visited him daily, prepared him for confirmation, celebrated Communion with him in the condemned cell, and stood by him on the gallows until the end.
Today we give thanks for all of that: for King’s wisdom and insight, for his sense of fun, for his love of all the people God sent him, for his courage in adversity, and for his unfailing trust in God.
Who am I? (Wednesday, 8th March)
This is the second of five talks about the Way of the Cross, as illustrated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s arrest, imprisonment and execution by the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany and by some of the writings which make up the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, first published in English in 1953.
What we are concerned with in these talks is the spiritual resources which sustained Bonhoeffer on his way of the cross from Marienburger-allee in the spring of 1943 to his death on the gallows at Flossenbürg just over two years later. What was it that made him the man who apparently left such a vivid impression on the concentration-camp doctor there? And how do we relate that impression to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts—and doubts—expressed in the poem “Who am I?”?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
The poem offers us three descriptions of Bonhoeffer. The short eight-syllable lines with which the poem opens describe the outward Bonhoeffer, a member of the Berlin professional haut bourgeoisie with aristocratic connections. Although the rest of Bonhoeffer’s family barely gave a nod to the official Protestant faith of Prussia, his mother Paula von Hase was the daughter and grand-daughter of eminent theologians and preachers. Her father had been, briefly, preacher to the imperial court at Potsdam. The description of Bonhoeffer stepping from his cell “Like a Squire from his country house” reminds us that family members and their acquaintances were senior legal or military figures and that he was connected to land-owners in the German-speaking territories beyond the river Oder, where Bonhoeffer had spent his earliest years. Particularly important in the later 1930s were the landed families in Pomerania who supported Bonhoeffer’s work with the Confessing Church at the seminary at Finkenwalde, near Stettin, until it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937, and later in the “Collective Pastorates” of Köslin and Groß-Schlönwitz. It was in that setting that Bonhoeffer met the girl who was to become his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, the daughter of an officer killed during the battle for Stalingrad.
The first part of the poem also alludes to the impression which Bonhoeffer made on the men guarding him. One guard arranged the 1944 equivalent of a “selfie” with Bonhoeffer and three captured Italian airmen – this was after the Italian state had signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943. A few others were happy to smuggle letters and other messages out of the prison in Tegel to family members and friends. One of them, Staff-Sergeant Knobloch, even arranged in autumn 1944 to spirit Bonhoeffer out of the prison, disguised as a workman, and to “disappear” with him, but the plan was cancelled after Dietrich’s brother Klaus was arrested on 1st October. Earlier, Bonhoeffer had taken advantage of the fact that his mother’s brother, Lt-General Paul von Hase (another member of the Resistance), was City Commandant of Berlin, to write a report on the ill-treatment of prisoners, high-lighting the brutality of several of the warders, the poor quality of the food, the lack of care during air raids. Bonhoeffer’s time in prison was a steep learning curve. As he wrote: “There remains an experience of incomparable value that we have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the scorned, the ill-treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised, in short, those who suffer.” It was in that context that he wrote up the complaints of his fellow-prisoners for onward transmission and arranged, through his father, for psychiatric reports on some to be sent to the lawyers acting in their defence. He also prayed for the prisoners who had been condemned to death as they went to their execution.
The second part of the poem takes us beyond the facade of Bonhoeffer “in command”, into his inner feelings. It abandons the three steady beats per line of the first part for an agitated, sometimes syncopated, dactylic rhythm, and longer lines of verse. It reflects the inner turmoil and self-questioning which Bonhoeffer experienced during his time in Tegel, “Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,” hating the brutality of the guards, appalled by the conditions under which prisoners were kept, isolated from family and friends, fearful of giving way under interrogation or of making a slip in his responses to questioning that would implicate family members and friends, most of whom were active in the Resistance. In the end his brother Klaus and two of his brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, would also be among those executed by the Nazis in April 1945. His uncle, Paul von Hase, one of the few senior military members of the Resistance who took action on 20th July 1944, on the assumption that Hitler had been killed, was arrested, tried and executed within three weeks of the attempt. Eberhard Bethge, who was Rüdiger Schleicher’s son-in-law as well as Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, was in prison awaiting execution when Berlin fell to the Russians at the beginning of May 1945. In these circumstances,
“Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all,”
Bonhoeffer can find no resolution. The words of self-reproach tumble out: “hypocrite”, “contemptible woebegone weakling”, “like a beaten army Fleeing in disorder”. In accepting Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation to America in June 1939, he had recognised his own danger, but he quickly decided that to accept this exile would be a mistake and returned after barely a month. As he wrote to Niebuhr, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christians of Germany. I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.” In joining the Resistance he had abandoned the pacifist principles set out seven years before in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” – unlike the Berlin-based peace activist Hermann Stöhr, who had gone to his death in 1940 rather than swear the oath of allegiance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s self-questioning continues until the very last line, when he gives his final answer to the question.”Who am I?”:
“Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”
“Thine” in the sense of accepting the cross. “Thine” in the sense of accepting his complicity in the plot against Hitler and the guilt which that entailed. “Thine” in his readiness to follow his course to the bitter end. “Thine” in an awareness that God’s love, and the demands of that love, stretched far beyond the comfortable pieties which had been so easily distorted and perverted by the Nazi-sponsored German Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood solidly in the Lutheran tradition of serious engagement with Scripture and rejected the German Christians’ rewriting of Christian texts, including the Gospels, in line with Nazi ideology. Lutheran, too, was his awareness of the formative power of hymns. Again and again in his books and his letters he quotes from, or alludes to, the hymns of the Church, with the 17th-century hymn-writer Paul Gerhardt a particular favourite. Gerhardt’s hymns also come out of a time of great testing and tribulation, the Thirty Years War which devastated many of the German states, including his native Saxony. Even that most radiant of all 17th-century Lutheran hymns of praise, “Die güldne Sonne” (the golden sun), parts of which exist in English translation as “The golden sunbeams” and as “Evening and morning”, was written at a time of career disappointment, personal tragedy and national struggle.
However, it was not only engagement with his own tradition which enabled Bonhoeffer to say “I am thine”. His faith was deepened by experience of the wider Christian community. His first visit to Rome as a student had opened his eyes to the universality of the Church and the glory of liturgical worship. His contact with the Anglo-Catholic monastic tradition which he encountered at Kelham, Mirfield and Cowley during the two years when he was pastor of two German congregations in South London was significant in shaping his work at Finkenwalde. The spiritual discipline which he encountered among the Community of the Resurrection and the Cowley Fathers during his time in England was, as he recognised, an essential ingredient in the formation of pastors who would be ministering under a profoundly anti-Christian regime. His experience of African-American Christianity in Harlem in 1930 while he was studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York was also an important factor, both in the expansion of his understanding of the Church and in opening up a vision of the world from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.
The Bible was central to Bonhoeffer’s Christian discipleship. That is why the daily meditation which he introduced, against much opposition, at Finkenwalde – and especially meditation on the Psalms as the prayer of Christ – was so important to him. He came, in the light of his English experience, to understand silence in the sense not of passivity but of active listening. Bonhoeffer told Bethge in 1936 that his prayer life had deepened so much that he did not regard what he had been doing before as real praying – even though prayer had been important to him from his childhood, when he would bang, at night, on the wall between his bedroom and that of his sisters Sabine (Dietrich’s twin) and Susanne, to remind them to turn to God before they went to sleep.
So it seems appropriate that one of Bonheffer’s last recorded actions was to lead a service on Low Sunday for fellow-prisoners of different traditions in the school at Schönberg where they stopped on the journey to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg in Bavaria. He preached on the passages for the day: Isaiah 53 (“With his stripes we are healed”) and 1 Peter 1 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”). The act of worship had not long ended when he was summoned to begin the final stage of his journey. Before he set off under escort, Bonhoeffer managed to leave behind a book with his name and address hastily written in it, as a sign that he had passed that way. He was also able to give one of the British prisoners a message for Bishop George Bell: “This is the end – for me the beginning of Life.” They are Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words.
1st March, 2023
Today is the 390th anniversary of the death of George Herbert and in the light of my recent book on half a dozen of his poems, I was asked to give a talk to half a dozen “Ministry Experience Scheme” interns in the Diocese in Europe. Here’s what I shared:
It was on this day 390 years ago that George Herbert finally succumbed to the pulmonary disease that had haunted most of his adult life. He was a man who “lived and… died like a saint, unspotted of the world. Full of alms-deeds, full of humility, and all the examples of a virtuous life”. That, at least, was the opinion of his first biographer, Izaak Walton, who knew many of George Herbert’s friends and recorded many of their memories of his life as a country parson at Bemerton in Wiltshire.
I’ve been asked to say something about George Herbert’s life and, in particular, about the poetry which was the fruit of that life and which is George Herbert’s memorial – a living memorial – today. That poetry has been a source of inspiration to English-speaking Christians in the four centuries since his death, and it has caused George Herbert to be regarded as one of the chief glories of what many would judge to be the Golden Age of the English Church. So, let us begin with what I think is one of Herbert’s finest poems, “The Agonie”:
Philosophers have measur’d mountains, Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings, Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains: But there are two vast, spacious things, The which to measure it doth more behove: Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love. Who would know Sinne, let him repair Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair, His skinne, his garments bloudie be. Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein. Who knows not Love, let him assay And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike Did set again abroach; then let him say If ever he did taste the like. Love in that liquour sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.
That poem is, in many ways, one that sums up Herbert’s poetry. It weaves together some of the most important strands in his understanding of Christian faith and of the Christian life:
- A recognition of the glory and diversity of God’s creation, and of the ingenuity of human beings in their attempts to map and control that creation;
- An acute awareness of human frailty and sinfulness, of how far each one of us falls short of the divine glory;
- And an awed realisation of the infinite love of God, displayed most fully in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and made freely available to all through the sacrament of the Holy Communion.
These great themes – relevant as much to the 21st century as to the 17th – are expressed in language which appears, for the most part, direct and simple, but whose simplicity often conceals a depth and density of meaning that few writers can match.
George Herbert was born in 1593 and died, a month short of his fortieth birthday, in 1633. He lived at a time of great changes – in religion, in political life, in the human view of the world in which we live. More and more was being discovered about the physical universe.
“Nothing” (he wrote in one poem which he titled “Man”) “hath got so far but man hath caught and kept it as his prey. His eyes dismount the highest star: He is in little all the sphere: Herbs gladly cure our flesh; because that they Find their acquaintance there.”
Herbert clearly shared in the excitement of these discoveries. He was as aware as anyone of the pleasures that the world could offer. His family was very well connected, socially and politically. One branch of the family held (and still holds) the Earldom of Pembroke. George had been a courtier, and a prominent figure in the life of the University at Cambridge. He was especially fond of music, and was a skilled performer and composer. Izaak Walton records that “his chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol; and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, that his time spent in prayer and cathedral music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth. But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music meeting…”
But all these things – the triumphs of the human mind, the things that delight the intellect and the senses, all were, for him, secondary in the end to the two great facts of Christian experience, Sin and Love – human sin, and God’s love which cancelled that sin through the death of Jesus Christ.
Human frailty and God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness are the subjects which dominate Herbert’s poetry. Indeed towards the end of his life he described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.”
And they were serious conflicts. Walton alludes to the long delays and doubts which went before George Herbert’s decision to take holy orders. Herbert knew himself thoroughly. Few have conveyed so succinctly the sheer tedious repetitiveness of sin as he does in the poem “Sin’s Round”. Our constant cycle of failure is reflected in the structure of the poem where the last line of each stanza is the first line of the next and the very last line of the whole poem is the same as the very first, so that the whole thing appears to be going round and round in circles.
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am, That my offences course it in a ring. My thoughts are working like a busy flame, Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring: And when they once have perfected their draughts, My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts, Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill. They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults, And by their breathing ventilate the ill. But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions: My hands do join to finish the inventions.
My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning: wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.
But there is a way out from this treadmill, or, to use an image in another of Herbert’s poems, “The Pearl”, a way out from this labyrinth.
“Through the labyrinths, not my grovelling wit But thy silk twist let down from heaven to me Did both conduct and teach me, how by it To climb to thee.”
The “silk twist” is God’s self-revelation to us in Jesus Christ. Even in the midst of our most determined efforts to ignore him, God gently but insistently, calls us to love and serve him.
In his poem, “The Collar”, which puns on the word “collar” as a restraint – like a horse-collar (or even a dog-collar) – and “choler” as anger, Herbert pictures himself in furious rebellion against the God whose love makes demands on him that he would rather ignore. The rhythms, the rhyme-scheme, both fling order and regularity to the winds. This is a furious, explosive poem. And yet… and yet…
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more. I will abroad. What? shall I ever sigh and pine? My lines and life are free; free as the road, Loose as the winde, as large as store. Shall I be still in suit? Have I no harvest but a thorn To let me blood, and not restore What I have lost with cordial fruit? Sure there was wine Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn Before my tears did drown it. Is the year only lost to me? Have I no bays to crown it? No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted? All wasted? Not so, my heart: but there is fruit, And thou hast hands. Recover all thy sigh-blown age On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage, Thy rope of sands, Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee Good cable, to enforce and draw, And be thy law, While thou didst wink and wouldst not see. Away; take heed: I will abroad. Call in thy death’s head there: tie up thy fears. He that forbears To suit and serve his need, Deserves his load. But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild At every word, Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child: And I replied, My Lord.
“Me thoughts I heard one calling ‘Child’, And I replied ‘My Lord!’”
There is the God whom Herbert serves, not “battering his heart” (like his godfather and mentor John Donne’s), but calling from afar, a still, small voice to which the only response possible is self-surrender in love to Love, as the creature turns from absorption in itself to adore the God who made it. As he lay dying, Herbert reflected that “his life could not be better spent than in the service of his master Jesus, who had done and suffered so much for him.” Jesus was for Herbert, as for us, the most complete, living expression of God’s love. His name is “deeply carved” on the heart of those who respond to that love, love poured out to the uttermost, freely and for all, the love which, as we heard in our first poem, “my God feels as blood, but I as wine.”
In “The Country Parson”, the notes which he wrote for his own guidance as parish priest at Bemerton, and which were published nearly 20 years after his death, George Herbert uses the love of God for his creation as a powerful argument against those who, in the Calvinist-majority Church of England of those times, doubted that they were among the elect and were tempted to despair:
“If he sees [any of his flock] nearer desperation than atheism, not so much doubting a God as that he is theirs, then he dives into the boundless ocean of God’s love, and the unspeakable riches of his loving-kindness. He hath one argument unanswerable. If God hate them, either he doth it as they are creatures, dust and ashes, or as they are sinful. As creatures, he must needs love them; for no perfect artist ever yet hated his own work. As sinful, he must much more love them; because notwithstanding his infinite hate of sin, his love overcame that hate; and with an exceeding great victory, which in the creation needed not, gave them love for love, even the Son of his love out of his bosom of love; so that man, which way soever he turns, hath two pledges of God’s love, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established: the one in his being, the other in his sinful being; and this as the more faulty in him, so the more glorious in God. And all may certainly conclude, that God loves them, till either they despise that love, or despair of his mercy; not any sin else but is within his love; but the despising of love must needs be without it. The thrusting away of his arm makes us only not embraced.”
But Herbert never presumes on God’s love. His poems are both love-poems and prayers. Like any lover, he is conscious of his own unworthiness of the object of his love – only infinitely more so, because the object of his love is God, the God whom every English clergyman of that age knew to be “the one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions: of infinite power, wisdom and goodness: the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible”; for that was how God is described in the first of the XXXIX Articles of Religion to which every clergyman of that age had to subscribe.
But in spite of his unworthiness, in spite of his sin and failure, in spite of the immense distance between the lover and the object of his love, George Herbert knew that he was loved in return, indeed, that his being loved was the only thing that made it possible for him to love. The initiative, the marvellous, mysterious, unutterable initiative, is all on God’s side. God searches us out. He seeks continually to draw us to himself, to welcome us as guests at his own table. We may know our unfitness for such an honour, but that is no obstacle to God. Here, to end, is one of the finest of all Herbert’s poems, one of which a colleague once said to me “That’s my desert island poem”. It’s a poem which expresses George Herbert’s, and our, response to the divine initiative. It is called, quite simply, “Love”.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guiltie of dust and sinne. But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame? My deare, then I will serve. You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
The Gospel for 1st March – St David (Matthew 16:24-27)
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.
David has always been something of a Lenten saint. There are only seven years between now and the end of the current half-century in which Ash Wednesday falls after his feast day. His nickname, Glastwr (waterman or “water-drinker”), and his long association with that humble vegetable the leek suggest a simplicity of life. So do his reported links with the Desert Fathers of Egypt, with their emphasis on prayer, hard physical work, abstention from alcohol, and refraining from unnecessary speech. Rhigyfarch the Wise, who wrote the earliest life of David that has come down to us, tells many stories, about a wonderful child, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the foundation of many monasteries, and his choice as primate of the Church in Wales by acclamation when a small earthquake (or was it a very large mole?) raised the flat ground on which he was standing as he preached to a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi, and turned it into a small hill.
The only problem is that Rhigyfarch lived about as far distant in time from David as we are from the Borgias. And Rhigyfarch was a man with an agenda. He wanted to assert the independence of the Welsh Church from the Archbishops of Canterbury, and particularly the independence of the diocese of Mynyw, better known to English-speakers as St David’s. David, after all, had been Archbishop in Wales four decades before Augustine and his monks arrived in Canterbury, and Dyfrig had been Archbishop before him. But the stories which are told in any life of a saint usually reflect folk memories of the person behind them, whatever the author’s motive – and the stories which are told about David reflect a man who lived a gospel life, certainly if we measure a gospel life according to the standard set by Jesus in the passage that we have just heard. He was hard on himself, physically, but gentle and compassionate with others, suggesting perhaps that those reports about links with the monks of Egypt are true.
According to tradition, for the week before David died the monastic buildings and the surrounding valley of Glyn Rhosyn were filled with angels, and on the day appointed for his death the Lord himself came to repay his faithful servant and receive him into heaven. His last recorded words are those he spoke to the faithful in a sermon the previous Sunday: “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” Those are words for us to ponder as we walk the path which winds through this season of Lent. “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things” is good advice for all who seek to take up their cross and follow Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s Way of the Cross (Wednesday, 1st March)
This is the first of five talks about the Way of the Cross, as illustrated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s arrest, imprisonment and execution by the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany and by some of the writings which make up the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, first published in English in 1953.
Almost eighty years ago, on 31st March, 1943, the eminent German neurologist and psychiatrist, Karl Bonhoeffer, celebrated his 75th birthday surrounded by his children and grandchildren. For his pioneering work at Berlin’s university hospital, the Charité, where he had been Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1912 to 1938, he was presented with the Goethe Medal and a testimonial from Adolf Hitler. Five days later, one of the children who had taken part in those celebrations, his 37-year-old son Dietrich, a theologian and pastor, was arrested at his parents’ house and imprisoned on suspicion of anti-regime activity, and for the next two years a complicated game of cat-and-mouse was played out between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the state secret police, the Gestapo, first in the military interrogation prison in Tegel, then in the Gestapo headquarters in Prinz-Albrechtstraße in central Berlin, until it was ended, by express order of Adolf Hitler, on the gallows of the concentration camp at Flossenbürg in Bavaria on 9th April, 1945.
Ten months before his arrest, in mid-June 1942 Bonhoeffer had been in Italy, travelling to Rome in his role as an agent of the Abwehr, the German counter-intelligence agency. This was an unusual role for a Protestant Pastor, but Bonhoeffer had been recruited by the Abwehr, because of his known anti-Nazi views. Many of the agency’s senior officers were active in the anti-Nazi resistance, including its head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and his deputy General Hans Oster. Membership of the Abwehr also kept Bonhoeffer from being conscripted as a military chaplain. The official reason for Bonhoeffer’s becoming an agent was that his ecumenical contacts across Europe would provide links to potential sources of intelligence from Churches in other countries. A more pressing reason, for the resistance at least, was that those contacts could, and did, provide an important back-channel between the resistance and the Allies. Bonhoeffer, for example, used a visit to neutral Sweden to pass on important information to Bishop George Bell of Chichester.
The trip to Italy was to be Bonhoeffer’s last journey outside Germany. Eighty-one years after that visit, and nearly a century after Bonhoeffer’s first visit to this country as an 18-year-old student of theology in the 1920s, I hope to explore some of the stages in the spiritual journey which links that first visit, and especially his time in Rome, to the circumstances of his second visit and to that further journey to imprisonment in Berlin and ultimately death on the scaffold at Flossenburg in April, 1945, Dietrich Bonoeffer’s own “Way of the Cross”.
The reality of the cross is the toughest thing that Christian spirituality has to cope with. Although we usually try not to think about it in concrete terms, it lies at the heart of Christian faith. We’re happy to talk about the idea of the cross, the theological significance of the cross as the symbol or the “mechanism” of human redemption (however each of us may understand that). We tend to become nervous when faced with its reality in the life of Christians. Preachers often try to skate over those uncomfortable words of Jesus about taking up the cross and following him. Even for the New Testament writers the starkness of this saying seems to have been something of a problem. We find, for example, St Luke toning down the words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (and St Matthew’s which we shall hear later) by somehow spiritualising the cross as a part of our daily discipline.
When we look at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, we find the cross as reality right at the heart of his thinking and his action. The journey from the cultured and comfortable academic setting of his early life in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), and later in Berlin, to the gallows at Flossenbürg is an outstanding example of the imitatio Christi in the last century. He not only wrote about the cost of discipleship, he lived it: in his opposition to the Hitler regime from the very beginning; in his willingness to speak out for the Jews; and, paradoxically, in his abandonment of earlier pacifist convictions in favour of joining the conspiracy against Hitler known as “the July Plot”. And through his later writings, and especially the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, incomplete though this is, we have the immense privilege of following his development and growth towards that point of final crisis and towards martyrdom: not simply thinking, but doing theology in the light of all that he had experienced as a student in Tübingen and Berlin, as a young pastor in Barcelona, and later in London, as a graduate student in New York, where he discovered the vibrant Christianity of the black churches in Harlem, and as a trainer of pastors for the Confessing Church, which broke away from the Nazi-sponsored “German Christians” in 1934.
In these talks we will consider a few of the most significant writings from Bonhoeffer’s time in the prison at Tegel, the poems, “Who am I?”, “Christians and Pagans”, and “Stations on the Road to Freedom”, and the letter which he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge the day after the failure of the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, a plot in which Bonheoffer and Bethge were deeply implicated. A collection of later material, smuggled out from prison to Bethge while he was was serving with German forces in Italy, had to be burned hastily in October 1944 when Bethge discovered orders for his own arrest and transfer under heavy guard to Berlin for interrogation.
One thing that should, perhaps, be stressed from the outset is that Bonhoeffer did not seek martyrdom. His Christian faith was not life-denying. Albrecht Schönherr was one of Bonhoeffer’s students at the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde in the mid-1930s and later a distinguished and courageous Protestant bishop in Berlin during the Communist era. In a talk given in Hamburg in June 1995 as part of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death, Schönherr spoke about his memories of Bonhoeffer. In the course of that talk he remarked that ‘For Bonhoeffer it went without saying that conversation, singing, playing, swimming, and walking were all part of the Christian life”, adding a little later that “Bonhoeffer was no ascetic. He loved life in all its fullness.” Opel cars and asparagus were on his list of God’s blessings.
Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany from the safety of America at the end of summer of 1939 was inspired by an awareness that if he was not among his people, sharing their sufferings in war, he would have no right to share in the reconstruction which he firmly believed would follow. The “Outline for a Book” which he sent to Eberhard Bethge in summer 1944 sketched some of his later thoughts about the way in which that reconstruction should proceed in a world where, as Bonhoeffer saw it, humankind had “come of age” and the Churches’ former policy of coping with the advance of science and technology by turning God into a “stopgap for our embarrassments” had shown its bankruptcy.
In his introduction to a collection of daily readings from Bonhoeffer published some years ago by Darton, Longman and Todd under the title “The Narrow Path”, the late Edwin Robertson, a Baptist minister who was one of Bonhoeffer’s earliest English advocates and interpreters, quoted from the poem “The Death of Moses”, first published in English in 1977 in the collection of Bonhoeffer’s “Prayers from Prison”. Edwin, whom I was privileged to know toward the end of his long life, saw in this a reflection of Bonhoeffer’s own struggle to come to terms with the increasingly strong probability that he would not live to see the liberation of his country and the reconstruction of the Church in Germany for which he had worked so hard and prayed so earnestly, and at such risk to himself, during the preceding decade. I’m going to end with it now:
Upon the mountain’s summit stands at last
Moses, the prophet and the man of God.
Unwavering his eyes look on the view,
survey the promised scene, the holy land.
Now, Lord, thy promises have been fulfilled,
to me thy word has been for ever sure.
Deliverance and salvation are thy gifts,
thy anger chastens, casts away, consumes.
Eternal faithful Lord, thy faithless slave
knows well – at all times righteous is thy will.
So now, today, inflict my punishment,
enfold me in the long dark sleep of death.
Rich grow the vineyards in the holy land;
faith only knows the promise of their wine.
Pour for the doubter, then, his bitter draught,
and let his faith proclaim thy thanks and praise.
Wondrous the works which thou hast done by me,
changing my cup from gall to sweet delight.
Grant me to witness through the veil of death
my people at their high triumphant feast.
I fail, and sink in thine eternity,
but see my people marching forward, free.
God quick to punish sin or to forgive,
thou knowest how this people has my love.
Enough that I have borne its shame and sin
and seen salvation—now I need not live.
Stay, hold my nerveless hands, let fall my staff;
thou faithful God, prepare me for my grave.
The Gospel for 15th February – Sigfrid, Thomas Bray (Mark 8:22-26)
Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’
Today’s Gospel is something of a one-off. The healing of the blind man is the only one which doesn’t “take”, so to speak, first time. The people the blind man sees when Jesus takes his hands away “look like trees, walking”, blurred and indistinct. So Jesus has to lay hands on him again. It has been suggested that this is a reflection of the conversation which Jesus and the disciples have just had in the boat coming across the lake after the feeding of the four thousand, where it became clear that they, too, were not seeing clearly and had a very blurred idea of what Jesus is about.
Which is a bit of a contrast with the two Englishmen whom we commemorate today. For all that they lived six centuries apart, in worlds that were utterly different, Sigfrid and Thomas Bray did see clearly what Jesus is about. Sigfrid, a monk of YorkMinster, is revered in Scandinavia as the Apostle of Sweden. In a way he represents the second laying on of Jesus’ hands, because he was not the first Christian missionary to proclaim Christ to the peoples of the North. That honour goes to the Frankish monk Anskar two centuries before; but Anskar’s sphere of operations was much broader, covering Denmark, and northern Germany where he was based – and his work more or less stopped with his death. Sigfrid’s ministry was much more geographically focused, mainly in the lakes and forests of Småland and Västergötland in southern Sweden, and operating out of Växjö, today the chief city of Småland and even then a place with good communications, both by road and by water. There Sigfrid and his team are reported to have made their base, building their first wooden church on land given in reparation for the murder of members of his team by a pagan magnate, and there Sigfrid is said to be buried.
Shropshire lad Thomas Bray was born in 1656. After university and ordination he returned to Shropshire, working as a parish priest and as domestic chaplain to one of the county’s leading families. His reputation as a hard-working and organised priest drew him to the attention of Bishop Compton of London, who was faced with reorganising the Church in one of the American colonies and wanted a reliable and diligent man to oversee that work. In 1696 he appointed Thomas Bray as his commissary, although it wasn’t until three years later that Bray finally headed across the Atlantic. In that time, though, he had been able to develop ideas about how best to enable ministry in the colonies – and to try them out. A firm believer in the power of the written word, when he set up new parishes, Bray also set up libraries to resource the ministers and the people. Libraries, however, need books. Bray used his organisational skills, and his formidable list of contacts, to set up the Church of England’s first mission agency, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), to provide books and pamphlets suitable for those libraries, and for wider use – including prisons. He also, on his return to England, set up another society, for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), with the twofold aim of providing ministry to English people living overseas and of preaching the good news of Jesus among non-Christians, including slaves and native peoples. He had spoken out against slavery and the oppression of Native Americans while he was in the colonies and he wanted to see them fully included in the body of Christ. Both SPCK and SPG (now USPG) are still active agents of mission – and later today in London members of both societies will join together on this “Bray Day” to remember the man, and to share their plans for continuing his work of bringing people to Jesus so that they may see the world clearly in the light of the good news of God.
The Gospel for 8th February (Mark 7:14-23)
Then Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
This passage is the climax of yet another row between Jesus and a group of Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem, presumably in response to reports that had reached them about this strange wonder-working rabbi up north in Galilee. A couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus was getting into trouble over his attitude to the sabbath. This time it’s the rules about ritual purity. We might have expected that washing hands, and washing food, was to do with food hygiene. It wasn’t. It was another way of defining who kept the Law sufficiently strictly and who didn’t: who was “in”, in other words, and who was “out”.
In an earlier part of this passage Jesus has laid down the reasons for his rejection of these rules. Now, he gathers the crowd and gives them his take on them. And, as so often, he does it in the form of a riddle, a parable. And, as so often, the disciples fail to get the message. You get the impression that if social media had been around in first-century Palestine, Jesus would have been making frequent use of the face-palm emoji. Then he explains: what defiles a person, what makes them ritually impure and sets them outside the community, isn’t what they eat or how they eat it.
Food, Jesus tells the disciples, can’t hurt you in that sense, because it by-passes the heart – which, in the ancient Jewish understanding was the part of the body where thinking, and especially moral decision-making, was centred. Food goes straight into the stomach and then passes out through the bowel into the sewer. Gentiles would have understood that. So what’s your problem? The problem is what comes out of the heart, the thoughts, the evil intentions, that long list of actions – and attitudes – which do harm to others. Jesus, in other words, is telling the disciples that outward observance is neutral and no guide to where the boundaries are. What defines the community is the inward disposition of the heart, the “moral compass”, as people sometimes call it.
Let’s look again at the list of contaminating behaviours: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Some of them (theft, murder, adultery, for example) come straight from the Ten Commandments. Pretty well all of the others (fornication, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly) you will find in the letters of Paul and other New Testament writers when they’re discussing the sort of behaviour to be avoided by Christians. And some of them are really rather political, looking back to the behaviour of ancient Israel and Judah – and to the behaviour of those who wield power now.
Most of those “evil intentions” which Jesus lists still mark the way that rich and powerful people behave when they regard themselves as entitled and unaccountable. That’s true in the Church as much as in the state, in the family as much as in public and commercial life. This week, as the General Synod of the Church of England meets in Westminster, let us pray for all who, in their sense of entitlement, are tempted to judge others as “defiled”, and let us pray for all those who find themselves classed among the unclean, the outsiders, rejected by the official guardians of that community of believers whose faith they share.
The Gospel for 1st Febuary – Brigid of Kildare (Mark 6:1-6a)
Jesus left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Today the Church remembers the first woman reported to have been ordained as bishop. Bride, or Brigid, the Abbess of a community of women in Kildare, in Ireland fifteen centuries ago, is said to have been consecrated by Bishop Ibor because he saw in her a holiness, a compassion and a joy like that of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and, in fact, Brigid, who is Ireland’s co-patron along with St Patrick, is sometimes known as “the Mary of the Gael”.
So it’s ironic that, on this day when we remember the honour paid to Brigid on account of her resemblance to Mary, we should be confronted by a gospel reading which implies a fairly massive slur. When Jesus is described by the people of Nazareth as “the carpenter, the son of Mary”, with no mention of Joseph, it could mean either that Joseph is dead, or that Jesus was born, as people used to say, “out of wedlock”. Some commentators incline to this view. Others think that Joseph was indeed dead and that the “offence” which the people of Nazareth took against Jesus was that he had abandoned his duty, as the eldest son, to support his widowed mother, leaving her to the care of his four brothers (and, presumably, the unnamed and unnumbered sisters).
In either case, Nazareth as a whole seems to have been suffering from what is sometimes called “tall poppy syndrome”. This man has got above himself: ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” So, he needs to be cut down to size, reminded where he comes from and who his people are, reminded of his family responsibilities. It isn’t quite Monty Python’s “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” But it comes very close.
And so, effectively, they shut themselves out of the kingdom. They can’t hear the message of good news, because they know the messenger “too well”. And, as Mark makes clear in the closing words of the passage, if they can’t hear the good news, then they can’t receive the blessings of the kingdom – except for those “few sick people” on whom Jesus laid hands to cure them. They, perhaps, had that faith which comes from desperation. Otherwise, as Morna Hooker writes in her short study of “The Message of Mark”. “There is clearly a link between the refusal of the people to believe that Jesus is anything but an ordinary local boy risen above himself and his inability to do mighty works.” What they were missing was any sense that the power of God was at work in him.
That’s where they differ from Bishop Ibor in his treatment of Abbess Brigid. Despite her humble origins, he could see the power of God at work in her. Although her story was not written down until two centuries or so after her death at the beginning of the sixth century, the stories that are told about her reflect a similar pattern of intercession, of compassionate care, of closeness to God’s other creatures – even pigs and wildfowl. Brigid modelled the kingdom of God in her own life, and in the life of her community. As one of her early biographers, the monk Cogitosus put it, “she praised God the creator of all living things, to whom all life is subject, and for the service of whom all life is gift.”
27th January, 2023
It was a great privilege to stand in for the British Consul (called away to Milan on official business) at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in the Palazzo Ducale earlier today. After the official greetings and speeches, including a formal oration from Ariel dello Strologo, a leading figure in Genoa’s Jewish community, there was a prize-giving for schools from across the Region who had produced the best work on the Shoah, and why we must remember. The winning juniors produced a traditional junior-school type frieze, telling the story of a Holocaust survivor and his family. Older groups created a mocked-up newspaper telling the story of the Shoah, a film which focused on a message found in an old violin previously owned by one of the deportees, a Klezmer concert of traditional Yiddish songs, an animation focused on the memories of another survivor, and a silent act of witness, paying tribute to two Italians who survived deportation in 1944-45 and bore testimony in the postwar decades to all that they had experienced. The final, deeply moving act was the distribution of the special “medal of honour” struck by the Italian government to honour those who were deported and interned during the second World War, or (if the intended beneficiaries had died) their families. One survivor was fit enough to collect his own. Most, however, were received by children or grandchildren from the hands of the Prefect, Renato Franceschelli, and the sindaco of their local comune. Tears were shed by a number of the recipients and many moist eyes were visible by the end, including Signor Franceschelli’s (and mine).
26th January, 2023
Today the Waldensian Church sponsored a conference in Genova on climate change and migration. There were some excellent presentations on the theological, technical, and social aspects of these interwoven crises, concluding with an excellent presentation by a young Afghan climate scientist, now resident in Italy. The extracts below reflect the presentation given by Professor Maurizio Ambrosini from Milan, who deftly skewered many of the myths surrounding migration in an Italian context.
The Representation of Immigration and its Reality
- Immigration on the rise dramatically (until the “closure of the ports”)
- Asylum is the main reason
- Migrants come from Africa and the Middle East
- Migrants are mainly male
- Their religion is Muslim
- Immigration is stationary (around 5.5 million)
- Work and family are the main reasons, asylum is marginal (270,000)
- About half of all migrants are European
- The majority are women
- Their religion is Christian
Are Migrations a consequence of Poverty?
- Migration has to do with inequalities, but:
- There are around 282 million international migrants, equivalent to 3.6% of the world’s population (in 2000 there were 175 million, but the percentage is more or less constant): poor people are much fewer.
- Migrants do not come from the poorest countries on the planet, except for a very small proportion. In Italy the main countries are: Romania, Albania, Morocco, China, Ukraine and the Philippines.
- The migrants are not the poorest people in their country: resources are required.
- Migrants who arrive from further away are more highly selected than those who arrive from nearby.
- In many cases, emigration is an extreme strategy of middle class people for defending a life-style.
Are Migrations forced by environmental reasons?
- There is no institutional definition, nor any established legal category: do they not exist or are they not recognised?
- Some refugees were admitted following the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Who talks about it and why?
- Institutions or researchers do in fact meet people who have tell their own stories and explain the motivation which led them to leave.
- Usually it is students of the natural sciences working on predictive models who talk about migration for environmental reasons.
Three Types of Migration for environmental reasons
- Government projects which change the living environment of the local population.
- Natural disasters (flooding, earthquakes)
- Long-term changes to the natural environment (desertification, thaw, rising sea levels)
Migrations are selective
- Research in the Sahel reveals that those who migrate have more resources
- Those who have more resources have a greater choice whether to leave or stay.
- Migration is a phenomenon with many causes: environmental deterioration can contribute to bringing to a head the decision to leave.
- Environmental problems can act as a multiplier for pre-existent conflicts.
Environmental causes and internal migration
- There is more evidence of a connection between problems
- The last Global Report on Internal Displacement (2021) reckons that 30 million movements are caused by “natural disasters”: 12 million in East Asia and the Pacific , 9.2 million in South Asia, 4.3 million in sub_Saharan Africa, 4.5 million in the Americas, 2 Middle East and North Africa, 85,000 in Europe.
- The report, from its title, confirms indirectly that environmental migration almost always happens within national borders.
Environmental causes and urbanisation
- The most relevant phenomenon, in terms of mobility, is the urbanisation of populations, who are moving towards the mega-cities of the Third World.
- Levels of rural population equivalent to 70-80% would not in any way be sustainable.
- Even in that case it is necessary to take account of the multiple causes and interweaving of motivations: for example, the introduction of innovations in agriculture, the growth of education, the action of social networks.
- Even internal migration is migration, and pose social and political problems.
- Exasperating conflicts, they can cause armed confrontations and provoke the departure of refugees in need of protection.
- Migration to mega-cities can be the first step in a “career of mobility”, which in a subsequent phase can produce aspirations towards international migration.
Will they cross the frontiers?
- Developed countries are showing that they will defend themselves resolutely, and without too many qualms, against migration by poor people from the Global South.
- The category of environmental migration has some success in politics and the media, because it links two commonly felt concerns,
- It has performative effects, sensitisation and mobilisation, who go beyond their scientific substance. It can be a way of enhancing the opportunities for acceptance.
- The debate about migration for environmental reasons causes a problem of international social inequality: the stratification of the right to move across borders.
- Some can move freely, others on certain conditions, others are blocked.
- Environmental deterioration exacerbates these imbalances
- The solution is to be sought in the enhancement of possibilities for emigration.
The Gospel for 25th January – Conversion of St Paul (Matthew 19:27-end)
Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Luke’s blinding light and voice from heaven* have shaped the way Christians understand and interpret the conversion of Saul of Tarsus for nearly two millennia, but it’s this short passage from Matthew’s gospel which does the important job of explaining the consequences of that conversion in the light of the fragments of autobiography which Saul, now Paul, provides in his letters to Corinth, to Galatia, and to Philippi. Psychologists and others can, and often do, have a great deal of fun trying to analyse what happened on the way to Damascus and they make all kinds of more or less educated guesses at the process which led to the house of Judas in Straight Street.
However, what matters is not what led up to that incident, but what followed on: and what followed on was a world turned upside down. Instead of a comfortable, steady professional life centred on Jerusalem, training up disciples “in the sect of the Pharisees” as the great Rabbi Gamaliel had trained him, Paul found himself on the road. Like Peter and the rest of the Twelve he had “left everything and followed [Jesus].” He had left the safety of Pharisaism for the extreme uncertainty and physical danger of what Luke describes as “the Way”. In place of handing on, and perhaps adding to, the accumulated wisdom of the scholars who had preserved an understanding of the Jewish Law through times of crisis and adapted it to the changing circumstances of the Jewish people, Paul’s life was now focused on interpreting the stories about Jesus of Nazareth – especially on making sense of his death and resurrection, and making sense of it not only for fellow-Jews but for the rest of humanity, in places as far apart geographically and culturally as the Anatolian plateau and the seven hills of Rome.
The story of Rabbi Saul’s conversion is a story of loss. He says as much in the third chapter of his letter to the church in Philippi. Everything that gave him status and security, everything that fed his self-image, his sense of worth, was taken away from him once he realised that Jesus of Nazareth had not been a deceiver of the people, but somehow God’s own self revealed in a human life – and dying a human death, a death which, according to the Law, made Jesus an outcast, a man under God’s curse. This is a much more dramatic turn-around (which is what conversion means) than the experience of someone who finds God through, say, an Alpha Course and then goes back to their well-paid job the next day. Paul’s life, after his encounter with the risen Jesus, has rather more in common with the life of someone who has survived the journey from West Africa to Italy than it does with the life of a “born-again” lawyer or hedge-fund manager.
Paul has, like Peter and the others, “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for [Jesus’] sake”. Not in the hope of earthly reward. Like most people with a genuinely profound experience of God, Paul is utterly realistic about the likely spin-offs from such a dramatic “turn-around”. But, as Paul’s letters make plain, all the trouble is worth it. All the insult, the rejection, the hardship, the hostility, are far outweighed by what he calls in his letter to Philippi “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. That has something important to say to us on this day when we both celebrate his “turn-around” and mark the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Paul challenges us, and Christians everywhere, to identify the things in our lives, and in our Christian traditions, which hinder us from a real encounter with Christ and to lay them aside, however painful that may be, for the sake of God’s coming kingdom.
21st January, 2023
The main event of this year’s Week of Prayer for Unity in San Remo – or Sanremo if you’re looking for the railway station on a travel website – was held in the Lutheran Church there this afternoon. The congregation is still without a minister, but there are reports that Elisabeth Kruse’s successor, who will also minister to the congregation in Genova, has been appointed and will be arriving in April. Each of the ministers present (Catholic, Valdese, Romanian Orthodox and Anglican) was asked to say a few words on the week’s theme. This is the Anglican contribution, translated from the Italian:
The second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is one of the classic texts of the Ecumenical Movement. It speaks of peace and reconciliation, of the death of Jesus which breaks down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile as a sledgehammer breaks down the walls of a property “in need of modernisation”, as the estate agents say. Through the cross, this chapter tells us, Jesus creates a single new humanity in which race and culture have become irrelevant. All are reconciled to one another. All are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, comes to preach peace, peace to those who were far off and to those who were near.
And yet we still have to confess, in the words of the prophet, that our hands are full of blood; that we have not learned to do good; that we have failed to seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, to defend the orphan, to plead for the widow. Too often Christians have lined up alongside the oppressors, and not the oppressed. Too often they have sought power for themselves instead of defending the powerless. Too often we have entrenched division instead of breaking down the walls that divide.
As Churches we have said “Peace, peace” where there is no peace. As Churches we have treated God’s free gifts as if they were our personal possession, to be given or withheld as we decide – even from those who are Christian brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters for whom Christ died as he died for us. Half a century ago a young person taking part in a Christian youth camp in England wrote these despairing words: “We are the body of Christ, but the left hand still hammers nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing.”
Sadly, that remains true fifty years on. The left hand may be Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, or any of the one thousand and one varieties of Evangelical. All traditions do it, at every level, and until they acknowledge that they do it, until they recognise the damage that is done by the need to be the person (or the tradition) wielding power, the need to be right: until they recognise that and repent, there will be no unity, there will be no justice, there will be no peace. And, as St Paul warned, the name of God will be blasphemed among unbelievers because of us.
So, dear brothers and sisters, let us commit ourselves again to be part of Christ’s new people, to recognise those whose skin colour is different, whose sexual orientation is different, whose Church allegiance is different – recognise them as equal with us: once far off, but now brought near and united in Christ’s body through his death on the cross. And alongside them let us learn to do good; to seek justice in the name of God who builds us into his dwelling-place.
The Gospel for 18th January (Mark 3:1-6)
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Much prayer has been going up across the UK during the past couple of days, particularly in the LGBTQI+ community. The object of that prayer has been this week’s meeting of the Bishops of the Church of England, including Bishop Robert and Bishop David, as they have sought to discern a way forward for the Church as the “Living in Love and Faith” process comes to an end. Much of the Church of England, though not this chaplaincy, has been agonising over that process for the past few years. The Bishops are meeting to draw up recommendations to set before General Synod next month. I live in hope that when they break cover at the press conference scheduled for a couple of days from now they might have good news for our LGBT sisters and brothers, but I am not holding my breath – and reports in the media today are not promising.
The reason for my mentioning that process is that it seems to me to have a number of points of contact with St Mark’s account of what Jesus did in the synagogue in Capernaum. As far as LGBT Christians are concerned, the Church is being asked the same question which Jesus asked the synagogue leadership: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm… to save life or to kill?’ Their hope is that Church leaders will no longer take refuge in the same silence which greeted Jesus, but that they will have the courage to affirm all that is good and life-giving in committed long-term relationships between people of the same sex. Their fear is that those who, like the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading, seek to live according to the letter of Scripture will have blocked any affirmation of same-sex relationships – and especially any hope that the Synod might be encouraged to ask the British Parliament to change the law which bans clergy of the Church of England from solemnising or celebrating any formal commitment between two people of the same sex to “live faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy”.
So, to quote a wristband fashionable among young Christians a few years ago, what would Jesus do? Would he side with the people in the College of Bishops and in General Synod who are prepared to block any change in the name of faithfulness to Scriptural teaching? Or would he look around at them with anger, as he did at those community leaders in Capernaum who saw the healing of a withered arm as yet another transgression of the Sabbath law by Jesus and his disciples? We don’t have much evidence to go on. The Lord’s comments on human relationships are few and sometimes enigmatic. And they were made in a world where same-sex relationships were usually either paid-for or exploitative, with no assumption of a permanent bond, or anything that could be called love existing between the parties. They were about the satisfaction of an appetite, or the fulfilment of a cultic ritual, or an assertion of power. Slaves of either sex were at their owners’ mercy.
So we’re driven back to that question which Jesus asked in the synagogue at Capernaum: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm… to save life or to kill?’ Linked with that is are two other questions: Is seeking a change to English law a life-giving initiative or a capitulation to the spirit of the age? And what is the point at which faithfulness to tradition, as embodied, sometimes heroically, by the Pharisees, becomes petrified into a destructive hardness of heart? Those are questions with a wider application than human sexuality, not least in relation to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today. Many of the divisions between Christians have their origin in disputes about worship and tradition and power to enforce “the rules” – and very little to do with the live-giving love of God.
The Gospel for 4th January (John 1.35-42)
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
The first chapter of John’s Gospel is a banquet for the interpreter of Scripture. It’s the gift that, as the saying is, “keeps on giving”. It begins with John’s outrageous pre-empting of the opening of the other three Gospels. Beginning – not with John the Baptist, as Mark does, nor with John’s parentage, like Luke, nor with a pedigree going back to Abraham along the lines of Matthew – but, like Genesis, before the beginning of creation. It continues with a series of vivid vignettes: establishing the place of John the Baptist in the great scheme of salvation; setting out the relationship between John and Jesus; outlining how a community of disciples began to gather around Jesus; and ending with another astounding image: of Jesus as the meeting point where heaven and earthtouch and the angels of God go up and down upon the Son of Man.
Today’s gospel belongs in the middle of that sequence. It marks the transition from John’s appearance and proclamation and baptising to the beginnings of that community gathered around Jesus, and it tells a story rather different from Mark’s and Matthew’s and Luke’s. John does that, I think, for a reason. In Mark’s Gospel, and in Matthew’s, it is the encounter with Jesus which is decisive for discipleship. There the call to discipleship comes almost literally “out of the blue” – the blue in question being the Sea of Galilee. John reminds us that the process of becoming a disciple is not always that direct. The Baptist points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”. Two of his disciples are intrigued and want to know more. So they follow, out of curiosity, it seems from the way John tells the story – and from the question Jesus asks them. “What are you looking for?” What is any would-be disciple of any guru looking for? Meaning? Direction in life? Reassurance? Hope? Forgiveness?
I suspect they don’t know, because they answer his question with another: “Where are you staying?” And in John’s Gospel that is a question which is heavy with meaning, because the Greek word translated here as “stay” is translated in other parts of John’s Gospel as “abide” – and where Jesus is staying, or abiding is, as we eventually discover, in the Father’s love. So the reply of Jesus, “Come and see”, is rather more than an invitation to tea in his lodgings. It’s an invitation to Andrew and his companion to experience for themselves who Jesus is and where he abides, where he is, as we might say, rooted. It’s an invitation to experience Love in action.
Now, the power of that experience is such that Andrew, at least, wants to share it. “He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’.” And he brought him to Jesus. That’s a reminder that family and friends are the most effective evangelists: not by having all the arguments at their fingertips and knowing all the answers, but by the depth of their experience and the quality of their life – the extent to which they have, like Andrew and his unnamed companion, “remained with [Jesus]”, abiding in his love.
The Gospel for 21st December (Luke 1:39-45)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Luke’s Gospel is full of touching, warmly human episodes and insights. This is one of them. It moved the sculptors who worked on the figures surrounding the great west door of San Lorenzo. It moved Dante Alighieri. It moved Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal in seventeenth-century France. It has moved feminist scholars and theologians in our own day.
But this isn’t simply a story about “sisterly solidarity”, or a text to spur on the slothful in their ascent of the mountain of purification. Nor is it just an encouragement to women religious. As so often in Luke’s Gospel, the story carries some heavy-duty theology. In this case it performs the dual role of proclaiming the lordship of Jesus and defining the role of John, son of Zechariah, in relation to that lordship.
Even in the womb John’s active response, leaping in the womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting, points to Jesus as the one who is to come, anticipating as a foetus his adult words to the crowds in chapter 3. ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’ Elizabeth, too, points forward; in her case to chapter 11. Her inspired prophetic blessing of Mary and “the fruit of [her] womb” chimes with the words of that other, unnamed, woman who cries out from the crowd to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ Elizabeth even manages to anticipate Jesus‘ response, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’, in her final words to Mary, the final words of today’s Gospel: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
So this touching and warmly human episode acts as a trailer for the story that is to follow, the great story of our salvation. Already Mary is portrayed as the archetypal Christian believer, in the late Fr Max Thurian’s telling phrase: “mother of God, figure of the Church”. Already John is revealed in his role as the Christ’s “fore-runner”. And already, above all, Jesus is revealed as Lord: Elizabeth’s Lord, John’s Lord, Mary’s Lord, our Lord: the Lord who has come to his people to set them free, the Lord whose presence, even as an embryo, brings joy and a blessing to all humankind, from the unborn to the post-menopausal.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols this evening was introduced by this poem from the pen of Swedish hymn-writer (and former rock-chick) Py Bäckman:
Here there’s stillness and silence; now the ground is coloured white. From the safe, old church the song is still ringing. I stopped by the road to rest for a while and was trapped in the borderland where night is joined to day; and a gleam of light behind the window’s arched frame has joined together the souls who are with us here and now.
And I know that those who have left us
understand that we are
like flames that flicker as long as we are here.
There among the twinkling stars which are fading one by one life comes very close like a glimpse of the truth. We are prisoners of time, like the imprint of a hand on an old frosty window granted mercy by the ravages of time. For one second I am eternal and then I know nothing else bar this: that I am alive as fully as any other.
I’m here and in the middle of a frozen road
it’s still warm,
though the snow begins to fall and the sky is grey.
Here there’s stillness and silence
now the hymn has died away;
but I carry the old words
in my heart as before.
I am singing to heaven;
maybe someone else is listening;
“Hosanna in the highest”.
Then I begin to walk;
I am going to the others.
I want to feel the peace of Christmas.
I want to believe He was born
and is with us here and now.
It’s Christmas and there’s a child in me
who wants to believe it happened,
and who lights a candle every Sunday in Advent.
It serves as a reminder that all are welcome to join our Christmas services at the Church of the Holy Ghost, Genova’s English-speaking church, 150 years old this year. That welcome is extended to those of firm faith, those of faltering faith, and those who, like Py Bäckman, have come out on a December evening into “the borderland where night is joined to day” because they “want to believe it happened”, want to believe that Christ was born “and is with us here and now” and that the great festival of Christmas is much more than a sticking-plaster for the soul in these cold, dark and difficult days. Wherever the place may be from which we set out, it is possible to come together at Christmas as the family of God, in our Father’s presence, to hear and receive good news, the good news about the birth of the Christ who shares with us in the mess and fragility of being human, flickering momentary flames in the light of eternity, and to offer to God our thanksgiving, our hopes and prayers for the world Christ came to save:
- for the Church, that it may be enabled in our generation to surrender anew to God’s holy Wisdom, and bear the good news of God’s love to a needy world;
- for the world, which is already Christ’s, that all its peoples may recognize their responsibility for its future, and may be inspired by the message of Christmas to work together for the establishment of justice, freedom and peace everywhere;
- for all in special need, the sick, the anxious, the lonely, the fearful and the bereaved, that the peace and light of the Christ-child may bring hope and healing to all who sit in darkness.
On 14th November, I was in Bordighera, leading the annual Service of Remembrance in the CWGC section of the British Cemetery, with Catholic and Waldensian colleagues and representatives of the comune. These reflections led those present from the readings to the prayers:
For nearly a century the days around 11th November have been a time when British people remember the dead of first one, then two World Wars and, in more recent years, of other conflicts since 1945. 11th November 1918 was the day on which the guns fell silent in France and Belgium as the military leaders of France, Britain and Germany signed an armistice in a railway carriage outside Compiègne. The armistice between Italy and the Austrian Empire had been signed a week before – which is why Italy’s commemorations are a week ahead.
The purpose of these commemorations was to remind people in Britain, and in Italy, of the horror of 20th-century war and to repeat the message: “Never again”. Never again must human lives be sacrificed in such numbers to the pride, foolishness and greed for power of their political leaders. And yet here we are again, more than a hundred years after the signing of that armistice, in the midst of another European war, faced again with the destruction and death brought about by the same pride, foolishness and greed for power.
So what are we to do in the face of war? What are we to do when human memory seems so short-lived and politicians so willing to achieve their goals at the cost of countless lives – of their own people as well as of others? What are we to do when, wherever we look, we are faced with betrayal, hostility, violence? Christians might turn to Jesus’ promise of a peace, “not as the world gives”, a peace won at the cost of an agonising and shameful death on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.
In accepting that cross Jesus identified with the poor and the powerless, with those stranded, wounded and helpless, in no man’s land. He took upon himself the totality of human suffering in every age and bore it up into the Godhead. As we remember his death, we re-affirm that it has power to give meaning and value to all those other deaths which we remember today. We affirm, too, that the God of compassion, made human flesh and bone in Jesus, is still to be found in no man’s land, between Russian and Ukrainian, Arab and Israeli, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and that his sacrifice is made for all.
21st October, 2022: “Redeemed from Fire”
Canon Tony Dickinson writes about his new history of the Anglican presence in Genoa since the early 19th century. Copies are available from the church at €20,00 [See below].
When I first planned this book, under a certain amount of pressure from the church council, I was thinking rather in terms of one of the short books of mine on spirituality which SLG Press has published recently. Forty pages, perhaps; fifty or sixty if I was lucky. That I would be producing a book 200 pages long never crossed my mind.
But as I started my researches into the story of the church building, and of the community which brought it into being 150 years ago and brought it back to life after the destruction of eighty years ago, I realised that this was a terrific story, that I was in it for the long haul, and that the dead-line of June 2022 which had originally been set for publication would have to be extended. The fact that my research started during the first and most vicious stages of the pandemic, when international travel was impossible and most archives were closed, didn’t make the task any easier. So, here we are, at the end of our anniversary celebrations rather than the beginning, with a book which, I hope, explains to anyone who reads it what (and why) we’re celebrating.
What I want to do here is to draw out some of the threads which became visible when I started looking for “the story”, rather than simply listing all the things I found in my trawl through the archives, on-line at first and then, increasingly, in person. And at this point I would like to say a huge “thank you” to the people who have helped me, wittingly or unwittingly, in the work of research. To Isabella Rhode and Alessandro Bartoli, whose research into the British community in Genova and along the whole of the Italian Riviera, provided essential background reading. To Marco Cazzulo, whose work on key English figures in the early 19th century, whether visitors like Charles Dickens, or residents like the Brown and Granet families, both provided vital information and suggested fruitful leads to follow. To Ed Hanson, who provided enormous help in establishing the list of chaplains from the very beginnings of the community which met in the residence of the British Consul, and who is himself a significant part of the story. Ed also looked through the manuscript at a late stage and pointed out several errors and infelicities which neither I nor the other folk who had looked through the text as it progressed had spotted. But above all, I have to thank the members of the congregation of the church, who shared their memories, and their photographs, and who listened to early drafts as I tried them out.
But to return, as the French say, to these sheep.
Among the threads which became visible in the course of research, I’d like to draw out three in particular.
- The Anglican community in Genova has never been an inward-looking community. From the very first days of Thomas Trevor’s ten-month stay in Genova in 1818-19 to the present, the Anglican Church has been engaged with people in poverty and distress, whoever they may be and wherever they may come from – not just a church for British “expats”. Dr Biber, reporting on the situation across the newly created diocese of Gibraltar in the 1840s, noted that in Genova “There are no resident English poor; the Communion Alms are appropriated chiefly to the relief of distressed strangers.” And today we have the “Neighbours in Need” fund, the clothing cupboard, and the food bank, which are open to all.
- The church community in Genova has always worked closely with the British Consulate. The first Church of England meetings for worship took place in the residence of James Sterling, who was consul from the year of Waterloo until his death in 1840. Montagu Yeats-Brown’s partnership with the Revd Alfred Strettell was an important factor in the completion of the church building. In the years immediately after the Second World War it was the succession of British Consuls, from Harold Swan to David Balfour who provided the link between the local church, the diocesan headquarters in London, and the chaplain in Milan who had, in theory, pastoral responsibility for the congregation in Genoa at that time. They also chaired the church committee in the absence of a resident chaplain. It came as a major shock in 1960 when David Balfour was replaced by John May, a Catholic, and it took about three years for the church and the consulate to work out how to deal with this unprecedented situation.
- The final thread is the chronic shortage of funds. The first chaplain to be appointed officially at Genova left within a year because his stipend was inadequate. Half a century later, Montagu Yeats Brown forwarded to the British Foreign Office an impassioned plea from the Church Committee for the restoration of the FO’s grant to the chaplaincy. Cuts in overseas aid are nothing new! Through the past 150 years the congregation has normally consisted of a core of more or less comfortably-off people surrounded by a broader circle of people with fewer resources, sometimes considerably fewer, and often needing support. 150 years ago they would have been the families of seafarers on ships whose home port was Genova. Today they are more likely to be migrants from Africa. And beyond them come the visitors, staying for a longer or shorter period, but not often contributing much to the church beyond their presence on a Sunday. So, the work which is needed to keep the building safe and weatherproof is postponed and postponed (hence the “150 for 150” Appeal described here).
On a happier note: working on the story of this church has introduced me to a cast of heroes and villains – though, I am glad to say, not many of the latter.
Among the heroes, I would name three of my Victorian predecessors, each greatly gifted in their different ways, John Irvine, Alfred Strettell and Edward Bayly, and the dynamic duo of the 1940s, the Consul-General Harold Swan and Archdeacon Alfred Bailey, whose inspired “scrounging” from churches that did not reopen after 1945 provided many of the furnishings in the church today, including the marble altar, the brass eagle lectern and the oaken pulpit. Swan and Bailey were ably supported by our principal heroine, Nellie Rhode, whose spikily elegant, handwritten correspondence cards reflect the energy which, in the words of one of her children, “relaunched this church on a tide of alcohol.” I ought also to mention the much-loved Church of Scotland minister Alex MacVicar, who provided pastoral care for English-speakers, irrespective of denominational allegiance, through the 1950s and 1960s, and whose gentle diplomacy helped to hold together the Ospedale Evangelico Internazionale during difficult times.
And the villains? Well, principally Air Marshall Arthur Harris, whose Lancaster bombers flattened the Scottish church in 1942 and nearly did the same to the Church of the Holy Ghost; the unidentified burglars who ransacked the church’s Seamen’s Institute in the 1920s: and the German commander whose unfortunately placed demolition charges destroyed the Institute, and most of Via Milano with it, in October 1944.
And finally there are the tragic figures: among them Martin Stow, unhappy in love and dying just as his fortunes seemed to be turning; the Irvines’ little boy, buried in San Benigno; Edward Bayly, burned out by his work among the seafarers; Horace Coles, drowned when the ship in which he was returning home was torpedoed; the nameless Genovesi who were killed in the explosion which demolished the Seamen’s Institute, and the women and men who perished in the wreck of the SS London Valour.
But, as Howard Sanderson was fond of saying, “It’s all in the book!” There are copies on sale from the church at €20,00. Please contact us here to order. You can pay
- by sterling cheque or bank transfer in favour of the Diocese in Europe at 14 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QZ,
- by bank transfer in euros direct to the church’s Italian account,
- or by making a donation through the Diocese in Europe’s “Just Giving” page
If you pay via the Diocese in Europe, either directly or through “Just Giving”, please make sure that you state clearly that your payment is to be credited to the account of the Church of the Holy Ghost Genoa, and that it is for a copy (or copies) of “Redeemed by Fire”.
Each month (unless I forget) the weekly notices contain a plug for the monthly Taizé prayer at San Marco al Molo, one of Genoa’s oldest churches. If you have not heard of the ecumenical Taizé Community, whose base is a tiny hill-top village in Burgundy but whose reach is world-wide, you might be interested in looking up the community’s website here.
Each month the prayer at San Marco contains the same elements:
- Simple repeated chants, often based on texts from the Bible or the liturgy, with words which may be Latin, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, French, German, or even English.
- The reading of a Psalm, alternating verses between women and men, and afterwards sharing the words from the Psalm which spoke most deeply (this is optional).
- The lighting of lamps.
- the reading of a passage of Scripture, with space for silent reflection, usually with the help of a short commentary.
- Prayers of intercession, written by members of the congregation and left in the basket at the entrance to be read by one of the worship leaders.
- The Lord’s Prayer.
The whole thing usually lasts about an hour. The people who take part are of all ages, from late teens/early twenties to people in their seventies, and both sexes. Most wear casual clothes. Occasionally clergy are present (we even had a visit from Archbishop Marco Tasca earlier in the year) and very occasionally brothers from Taizé visit.
At this month’s prayer, those present were invited to reflect on a passage from St Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-15) in relation to the call to Christian unity and in the light of the following reflection from the Prior of Taizé, Brother Alois, who has led the community ever since the murder of Brother Roger, the founder and first Prior of the community, in August 2005.
“The search for unity is a major challenge for Christians. How can we be a
ferment of brother‐ and sisterhood if we maintain our divisions? In Christ we
find a unique source of unity ﴾John 17:20‐21; Ephesians 2:14﴿. By giving his life
on the cross, he went to the furthest extent of a love that destroys hatred and
the barriers between human beings.
“The Gospel calls us to go beyond divisions and to bear witness that unity is
possible in a great diversity. Is that not a particularly important contribution that
Christians are invited to offer so that the human family may live together as
brothers and sisters? This kind of witness speaks louder than words.
“The Gospel impels us to cultivate the art of creating unity. We can all be creators
of unity by forging links of listening and friendship wherever we are.
“In the dialogue between Christian denominations, the differences that remain
must be taken seriously and theological research is indispensable. But dialogue
by itself does not lead to visible unity.
“To go forward, we should come together more oﬅen between baptised
members of different Churches, in a common prayer centred on the Word of
God. Who knows? The Holy Spirit could surprise us. We may discover that Jesus
is the one who brings us together and that the love of Christ can shine out far
more clearly when we recognise humbly what we are lacking and when we open
ourselves to what we can receive from others.”
The next Taizé prayer will be at 21:00 on Sunday, 13th November. If you like what you have heard or read here, why not put the date in your diary now?
The Gospel for 5th October (Luke 11:1-4)
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
When we use the Lord’s prayer, whether in public worship or in our private prayers and whether the language we use is traditional or contemporary, we invariably use the version set out by St Matthew as part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the mount. St Luke’s version therefore comes as something of a shock as he offers us a very different context and a very much briefer prayer.
In Luke’s Gospel it comes in the long central section describing Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, the section which scholars call “the travel narrative” and it is introduced, as we heard, as Jesus’ response to a request from one of the disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray”. So it provides, so to speak, a template for praying. Which may be why it is so much shorter than Matthew’s version.
Scholars are divided about which version came first. Is Matthew’s text an expansion of Luke’s or is Luke’s an abbreviation of Matthew’s? Are both versions independent “takes” on a form they found in “Q”, the hypothetical source of the material which Luke and Matthew share with one another but not with Mark? Or do Matthew and Luke simply reflect the form of the prayer that they found in their own community of believers, not as a written text but as something learned by repetition and remembered?
We don’t know. What we do know is that this prayer was important to both Matthew and Luke and that Luke’s version focuses on the central bullet points of the prayer, with none of the additions or qualifications we find in Matthew’s. It’s a prayer with a sense of urgency. Jesus tells his disciples, in effect: Praise God, but keep it short. Pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but keep that short, too. Then ask for what you need: food, forgiveness, and faithfulness. The traditional English version talks about “temptation”, which we have turned into something which has to do mainly with sex or chocolate. The Greek, reflecting the thought-world of first century Palestine, is about the time of trial, of testing and tribulation, that was expected before the dawn of the new age in which God’s kingly rule would be made manifest. So the final request is to be spared that testing. Or perhaps, by implication, to withstand it.
So it’s a prayer which has sustained Christians through times of persecution. It’s telling, I think, that the first major commentaries on this prayer came from North Africa, at a time when Christians there regularly found the state bearing down on them with all the power at its disposal, including the power of life and death.
It’s also a prayer which looks forward to the end of the present age. After the address to God, as Jesus’ Father and our Father, the first request is for the coming of God’s kingdom – and the rest, as we have seen, are to do with all that we need in order to get there. It’s very much, then, a prayer for this age, in which the stability and certainty which has been the mark of most of the eight decades since the end of the Second World War have crumbled, in which “post-truth” and self-seeking have become the hallmark of governments around the world, and in which “the time of trial” has overtaken nations which regarded themselves as above the daily struggle for existence.
The Gospel for 28th September (Luke 9:57-end)
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Today is one of those days, the “Ember Days”, when we are asked to pray for “the increase of the sacred ministry” (more vicars, in other words – irrespective of whether the Church can afford to pay them). These days, in fact, this period is usually treated as a time of more general prayer, for those who are about to be ordained as deacons or priests, for those who are in training for ordained ministry in the Church, as well as for those who are exploring whether God might be calling them to minister.
So today’s short passage from Luke’s Gospel is very much to the point as it focuses on the cost of discipleship. Here we have three would-be disciples, two of them volunteers, one summoned by Jesus. All of them are faced with the challenges of discipleship: the lack of any permanent base; the sense that this call trumps every other call, even the most sacred of family duties: and the requirement of a commitment that is total.
We have, of course, toned all of them down over the centuries. Most Church of England clergy, even today, have somewhere to lay their head, even if they don’t have a place they can call their own – not while they are in active ministry, at any rate – and for some of my colleagues that causes real problems when they reach the age of retirement.
Similarly we don’t always give proclaiming the kingdom of God absolute priority. When my mother died, a thoughtful colleague in the parish next door offered to take the next week’s services for me while I came to terms with the immediate shock of bereavement and made arrangements for her funeral in Southampton, which was interesting when one of the chief mourners was a heavily pregnant (indeed overdue) daughter-in-law.
And, as the third decision reminds us, family ties can mean an entanglement with the living, as much as with the dead. Saying “goodbye” can be tricky at the best of times. The sense that God wants someone to follow a particular path doesn’t always match up with their family’s ambitions for them. When I talk to religious in the UK, I am struck by how often their calling has been followed against the wishes of a family who wanted their son or daughter to have a career, get married and have children, rather than “shut themselves away” in a religious community. Two friends of mine were a huge exception to this. When one of their daughters shared with them that she felt called to join a community of contemplative nuns in the depths of rural Monmouthshire, they rejoiced with her, instead of trying to dissuade her; but then as partners in an inter-church marriage, they knew from their own experience how tough following God’s call can be.
But for all that the church has sometimes tried to soften the edges, the sharpness of God’s calling is always there, summoning us out of our comfort zone, challenging us to throw it all away (whatever “it” may be) for the sake of the kingdom of God and to place our lives fully at God’s disposal.
Gospel for 17th August (Matthew 20:1-16)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
This parable is a tricky one. It offends our sense of fairness. Why should those who have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” receive no more than the workers hired only an hour before sunset? Anyone who believes in “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” ought to be outraged. Or ought they? The landowner agreed with the first group of workers that he hired that he would pay them “the usual daily wage”. And at the end of the day his manager gave them “the usual daily wage.” So what’s the problem? As the Dodo says at the end of the caucus-race in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, `Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ Or, in the words of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
It’s a question which ties many commentators in knots. They want to set this story, like much of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, in a free-standing moral context, to remove it from its setting as the follow-up to Jesus’ reply to Peter’s question at the end of chapter 19, “‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ A reply which ends with the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Even as perceptive a New Testament scholar as the late John Fenton tries to place it in a moralising framework and comes away baffled, because he can’t see how it fits in to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom. He does get that this parable is somehow about grace, but he still seems to want to fit it into a view of Matthew as the great “moraliser” of Jesus’ teaching, so he suggests that it isn’t really about the kingdom at all, but about Jesus arguments with the scribes and the Pharisees.
But Matthew’s Jesus is not always the great moral teacher. Sometimes he is the one who, as in Mark’s gospel, proclaims the kingdom of heaven – the one in whom the kingdom of heaven takes human flesh and blood. And here he is expressing a fundamental truth about the kingdom of heaven in reply to Peter’s question. That the kingdom of heaven is where “the last will be first, and the first will be last”, because the kingdom is where we experience God’s presence in its fullness, and in that there can be, as Dante also realised when he wrote the final section of his “Comedy”, no distinctions and differentials. The gift of God’s self is the reward for labour in God’s vineyard, whether we come to it in the early morning of our life, or whether, for whatever reason, we don’t turn up until an hour before sunset. So, in the end, this parable isn’t about “the usual daily wage”; it’s about the free gift of infinite, unconditional Love, to the last as much as to the first.
Gospel for 3rd August (Matthew 15:21-28)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
News from the Lambeth conference, both in the mainstream media and on social media, seems to be focused mainly on the shenanigans over the Churches’ divergent approaches to sexuality and the related questions of “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?”, “Who’s acceptable?” and “Who isn’t?” A number of the bishops present seem to have made their decision – and have moved on to include anyone who disagrees with their decision among the out group.
In today’s gospel we find Jesus wrestling with a very similar problem, but one focused in terms of ethnicity rather than sexual orientation. What is to be done about that persistent Canaanite woman? The disciples, like those bishops, are pretty confident that they know. “send her away…”, they tell Jesus. Jesus is confident, too. The “target group for his mission is “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and he is pretty blunt about that when he finally speaks to the woman.
But the woman turns Jesus’ own words back on him, and Jesus has the wisdom and the humility to recognise the force of her argument. He gives way in the face of her need, her persistence and her faith, and he heals her daughter, even though she was in Matthew’s eyes, the ultimate outsider. Strictly she seems to have been, as Mark tells us, a Greek-speaking Syrian. Canaanites had long died out, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite because historically the Canaanites had been the people with whom, according to the books of the Law, the descendants of Israel were to have absolutely no dealings. Nevertheless this ultimate outsider, like so many others, is brought into the circle of Jesus’ compassion and her daughter is healed.
There might, I think, be a message there for the Bishops gathered in Canterbury, and especially for those who are busy cutting themselves off from communion with their fellow-bishops and shutting out from fellowship with the Church as they define it anyone who does not share their hard line on human sexuality.
As we have seen, such exclusivity is not the way of Jesus, who recognised that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” and who healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. Let us pray that they, and we, and all of God’s people, may reflect in our lives and our attitudes the same compassionate acceptance shown by our Lord.
Occasionally I try to offer a reflection which isn’t related to the gospel reading on saints’ days and at midweek. This is one of them. It’s based on my “few words” at a recent funeral in Taggia: a reflection on death in general, and particularly on a sudden death.
When somebody we love dies suddenly and unexpectedly, there is often no opportunity to say the things we’d always meant to say: not even the simplest words: “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “I love you”. And when that unexpected death comes at the beginning of what should have been a new chapter in a life lived in partnership, the sense of seriously unfinished business twists the knife in the wound of bereavement, leaving a sense of sharp, aching loss that may be almost overwhelming.
Coping with loss is an important aspect of the funeral service. The words from Scripture and the prayers give us permission to grieve, to weep, to be angry, to ask “Why?”, why should people be parted in this way from those they love, just as they were moving into a new stage of their life together?
But a funeral service is not only about the recognition of loss and heartache. It is also about the celebration of memories. So that while we mourn the loss of one we love, we rejoice in the legacy that they have left behind them.
Memory plays an important part in the healing process during the weeks and months after a bereavement, as those who mourn realise that while they may no longer have the physical presence of their loved one, that loved one has not vanished from their thoughts, or from their hearts. Their life continues in the memories of those who knew and loved them.
Their life continues, too, in the love of God, the love which makes all things new, and which has prepared for human beings a destiny which is not limited by the bounds of our life on this earth. A Christian funeral goes beyond grief and memory. It speaks of hope, of the wiping away of tears, of the renewal of the whole of creation in God’s love, so that we can, with the Psalmist, “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and fear no evil. We can walk through the valley of the shadow, confident that God is with us, that “Christ leads us through no darker rooms than he went through before.”
So we look forward in hope to a world renewed, to life restored, to the wedding-banquet which is so often an image of the joy of the kingdom of heaven. And it is to that joy, to a love and a peace beyond the power of human words to express, that we entrust those whom we love but see no longer with our thoughts and our memories and our prayers.
Gospel for 13th July (Matthew 11:25-27)
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
After a run of nearly two months in which we have been celebrating the holy ones of God at our midweek Eucharists in a sequence that has taken us from Palestine just BC to wartime London, via apostolic Cyprus, first- and second-century Rome and then Britain from the third (probably) century to the seventeenth, we come back to Galilee with a bump, following the steps of Jesus and listening to his words without those later disciples to distract us.
But it’s not quite Galilee as we are used to it. The words of today’s Gospel are, as somebody once said, “a Johannine thunderbolt out of a clear synoptic sky.” Jesus has been talking to the crowds about John the Baptist. He has been mocking the “cancel culture” of his day: the people who won’t listen to John because he is too much the ascetic loner, but who won’t listen to Jesus because he enjoys company – and isn’t too fussed about the “suitability” of that company. And he has been having a crack at the cities who heard his preaching, who saw his miracles, and who carried on their own sweet way regardless. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’
And then this.
The kind of language in this passage you would expect to find in John’s Gospel – or even in the letters of St Paul. He had a few things to say about the way in which God hides things from the wise and the intelligent and reveals them to infants. But it is John who stresses that all Jesus has is given him by the Father, and that we can come to knowledge of God as Father only through the Son, who reveals in word and action what God is like: the Son who is the fulfilment of the Baptist’s preaching; who heals and restores those who are sick in body or spirit; who is the friend of tax-collectors and sinners; who proclaims repentance because the kingdom of heaven is near. You don’t need a first-class degree in theology to “get” that. You need, instead, the attitude of a child.
Some years ago the Iona community produced a collection of two-person sketches under the general title “Eh… Jesus? Yes, Peter?” (because those were the words with which most of the sketches began). In one of them, Peter asks Jesus what he meant when he told the disciples that they wouldn’t get into the Kingdom unless they became like little children. Jesus answers by asking Peter how he thinks of children. “Naive… innocent… harmless”, is the reply. “Hmm”, says Jesus, ”They’re not innocent, naive or harmless. Anyone who thinks that has never been in a nursery.”
So between them Jesus and Peter think back to some of the children they have met on their travels and tot up their characteristics: the enthusiasm of the children in the temple, the trust of Jairus’s daughter, the generosity of the boy with the loaves and fishes, and finally, they remember a little girl with jam on her face who interrupted a crowd of men asking Jesus some “serious” questions* – and what her mother said when she came to fetch her back. “I’m sorry, mister, she’s awful curious.” So Peter asks, “Is curiosity one of the things we should learn from children?” “Yes”, says Jesus. “And in that department, Peter, you get ten out of ten.”
*NB Unlike the other children, this little girl does not feature in the pages of Scripture!
by compassion; for the poor, for refugees, for those caught up in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Like St Paul, he did not proclaim himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as a slave for Jesus’ sake. Preaching to Charles II’s court in Lent 1685, on a verse from Daniel 10, Ken offers an agenda for anyone called, then or now, to a life of public service. “Be loyal to those whom you serve, seek the good of those over whom you have authority, but above all things love God and seek God’s glory”.
4th June 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the church’s consecration in 1872 by Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar. A number of former locum chaplains have sent us anniversary greetings.
You can find greetings from Fr David Emmott and Fr Clifford Owen on our Facebook page here.
Fr Michael Bullock OGS shares some memories:
THE CHAPLAINCY OF LIGURIA 1999-2000
On Easter Monday 1999 I put myself and my belongings into a hired car in Naples and drove to Sanremo to take up the post of Chaplain of Liguria. I had been Chaplain of Naples for almost ten years, and was excited at the prospect of bringing together the elements of Anglican activity in that part of Italy into a new Chaplaincy of Liguria. I lived in a very agreeable flat up the hill from the then station in Sanremo. There were worshipping communities at the Church of All Saints in Sanremo and the Church of the Holy Ghost (we weren’t quite sure whether it should be Holy Spirit, but I hope we sought his guidance), Genoa. Funding, as far as I remember, came from the Diocese, the historical resources of both churches, and the cemetery in Bordighera. The fine Tractarian church in Sanremo, where I used to go to say my offices, was used by a non-parochial Roman Catholic religious society, who had agreed to allow Anglicans to use it on Sundays as long as we could provide a priest, whose accommodation they would also underwrite.
For Sunday worship a quart could not be put into a pint pot, and we settled into a routine of alternating between the two churches. Perhaps we could have been more imaginative. There was one day in the week, I think Wednesday, when I always travelled by train to Genoa, leaving Sanremo just after seven and arriving in Genoa some two hours later. I went into the “office” in the church, the room on the right at the west entrance, and went through the post: I was not to venture into emails until the very end of my time in Liguria. There was a computer of its time in the office and I may have used it for sermon-writing, and general administrative chores, until a celebration of the Eucharist at mid-day. In the afternoon after lunch there were pastoral visits and contacts to make in Genoa, there was at least one joint church council meeting in a language school. For recreation I explored the city and visited bookshops. When I travelled back in the evening I tried to get on the Swiss train.
Of course there were other times I had to be in Genoa, and the room on the left at the west entrance had been rigged up as a bedroom, with a bathroom at the opposite corner of the building. A night-time visit to the bathroom required genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the church, and the same more comfortably on the way back. I was given a short-wave radio on which I could receive the BBC Overseas Service, the latest in information technology in those far-off days. But sleeping in the church was not entirely satisfactory. Members of the congregation found me a flat at the top of a high building in the old city, and I made some unsuccessful approaches to the Diocese that they might help to buy it.
There were pastoral visits to make throughout the area, generally to the west of Genoa. I had no car, but after nearly ten years of negotiating the traffic of Naples, I did not for the most part regret the lack. I made an attempt to cycle from Sanremo to Genoa: I failed, but at least I tried; I was younger then. It was important to make connections with people who had had links with the Anglican church in the past. I recall visiting some Protestant church leaders in Turin, who congregations contained Anglicans, some from Sri Lanka. I did feel supported by the Diocese as I tried to discern the viability of the Chaplaincy of Liguria.
There were contacts with long-established English-speaking organisations, with the British honorary consul, the library in the old (1929, I think) Anglican church in Alassio, and with groups who met for morning coffee and afternoon tea, but we were all dimly ware that the nature of expatriate life was changing, with easier electronic communications, cheaper flights and different patterns of work and family. We were aware of the effects of both Italy and the UK being in the EU. We were beginning, just beginning, to be aware of the valued presence of English-speaking Anglicans from outside Europe, whose stories were very different from those of previous waves of expatriates.
There were enough Roman Catholic priests around who had been inspired by the Second Vatican Council to a passion for ecumenism, and I had to mark off in my diary the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January. Perhaps by the turn of the millennium the content of the services had become a little tired, but it was a vision worth holding to. I realised that the winds of secularism were blowing, but perhaps not quite how strong and cold and persistent they were going to be.
As one brought up on islands, Britain and Singapore, I never lost the sense of novelty that I lived so near to an international frontier. Often on my day off (Monday) I went on the train to Nice. I can still remember my first sight of the skyscrapers of Monte Carlo. Menton was looked after by a non-stipendiary priest, Nice and Monaco were stipendiary posts with a full parish life. All of those priests gave me great support and friendship. One of my last ventures in May 2000 was to take part in a pilgrimage to the island of Lérins, with its links to the founding of western monasticism and with the visit of St Augustine of Canterbury the conversion of my ancestors.
I left Liguria and was instituted as Chaplain of Lisbon on Pentecost Sunday 2000. I remember how different the flat in Sanremo looked after members of the congregation stripped it of its furniture, as we were required to do by the landlord. I was of course sad that I had not been able to achieve what I had wanted to achieve, but it was good to come back twenty years later to see what the Chaplaincy has achieved without me. At the very least you no longer get a mild electric shock when you turn on in the light switch in the vestry after it has been raining in Genoa.
People were enormously kind to me. I have deliberately mentioned no names, because when I start putting names in, I start leaving names out. I have to mention the late Peter Jones, the Reader at Genoa, who maintained a strong commitment to the church through a time of serious personal sickness. Peter really was one of the great characters the Diocese in Europe fosters. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. I came back to Genoa as locum tenens in the summer of 2017, and it was good to see so many people from almost two decades earlier, looking in most cases well and remarkably unchanged, with a very definite sense of renewed purpose in the Chaplaincy.
Michael Bullock OGS
As a treat for Ascension Day here are Voces8 singing “O clap your hands together”, Orlando Gibbons’ setting of Psalm 47. You can find the sermon for Ascension Day here.
Gospel for 18th May – (John 15.1-8)
Jesus said: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’
When I was a child in Liverpool, I used to love visiting Arthur and Ethel Scott, my father’s old boss and his wife, in their retirement. Being experienced grandparents, they kept their house supplied with toys, books and children’s comics, and they had a back garden which put to shame our square of lawn surrounded by flower-beds. They had a summerhouse, and a pergola, and on that pergola there was a vine, a long, straggly vine which provided shade every summer – and occasionally produced a bunch or two of rather acid grapes.
So it came as something of a shock when, twenty years later, I took my first holiday in a wine-growing district of France and discovered that the vines there were not long and straggly but pruned within the proverbial “inch of their life” in order to maximise the amount of energy that went into producing grapes and minimise the amount that went into lengthening and strengthening the stem of the vine. Each vine was allowed fifty, occasionally eighty centimetres, of woody stem: and then the vine-grower went to work with his, or her, secateurs.
That, rather than the Scotts’ leafy pergola, is the kind of vine that Jesus has in mind when he speaks to the disciples. He doesn’t want decorative foliage. He wants fruit! And to obtain that fruit two things are needed: first a relationship between the branches and the stem; then a willingness to cut out all the things that produce growth but not fruit. In other words, a living relationship between Jesus and those who claim to follow him and a readiness to give up everything that distracts us from that relationship, everything that strengthens self at the expense of service.
The monks who spread across the Egyptian desert seventeen centuries ago understood this. The whole of their life was based on strengthening what built up relationship with God and submitting to the discipline which enabled them to do that. We may not be monks, but we can follow a pattern of life that is similar to theirs, a pattern rooted in prayer and marked by self-discipline – which doesn’t necessarily mean being a total kill-joy. The great Abba Moses the Black, an escaped Sudanese slave who before his conversion had been a violent criminal, was one of the holiest of the “Desert Fathers”. He was also one of those who was the most fun to be with.
The story is told of a young brother who set out to learn from two of the Desert Fathers. The first was Abba Arsenius, once an important member of the court of the Roman emperor, who sat with the young man in complete silence. Not a word was said. Soon the young man felt quite ill at ease and left. The other was Abba Moses, who welcomed the young man warmly, sharing food and drink and talking freely about the life of the Spirit. The story ends with a vision of two large boats floating on a river. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in utter peace. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.
Jesus, in other words, calls us to bear fruit as the people we are. But we won’t unless we abide in him.
Gospel for 11th May – (John 12.44-end)
Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’
Considering how many times Jesus protests that he “came not to judge the world but to save the world”, it’s amazing how many of those who claim to follow him have been eager to say – and do – the exact opposite. They don’t seem to realise that by their readiness to, in the words of a former British Prime Minister, “condemn a little more and understand a little less” (and sometimes a lot less) they are crucifying the Son of God afresh.
The other thing that amazes me is how selective their condemnation can be. Men and women who fall in love with members of their own sex are, it seems, more deserving targets for a Church leader’s denunciation than national leaders who order their armed forces to invade a neighbouring state. Pastors who offer support to a colleague at the centre of a witch-hunt are ostracised by those who should also be offering support. Women for whom pregnancy represents a serious threat to their physical or mental well-being, rather than the promise of a new life to be cherished, are criminalised by mainly male law-makers who will never experience their anguish. Poor black teenagers attending a loud party find themselves with a criminal record. Privileged white youths trashing a restaurant suffer no punishment and their parents foot the bill for repairs.
Judgement is selective. People are happier to remain in the darkness, because it allows them not to see quite how selective their judgement is – and how often what they judge most severely is actually the reflection of an aspect of their own self which they try to keep hidden. “Not remaining in the darkness” means bringing those hidden aspects of the self into the light of Christ, acknowledging them and finding that they are, to our amazement, forgiven by the Father who sent Jesus “not to judge the world, but to save the world”.
In the course of my researches into the history of the Church of the Holy Ghost, I found this prayer, included in the annual report for the year to 31st December, 1913. It needs slight adaptation, since the community from which the congregation of the Church of the Holy Ghost is drawn is no longer entirely “British” (and I’m not sure it was even then, judging by the names of some of the church’s “subscribers”): however, I encourage members of the congregation, and others who read these posts, to include it regularly in their prayers:
“Almighty and Everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth; mercifully hear our prayers, and grant to the British Community and Chaplain at Genoa all things that are needful for their spiritual welfare. Strengthen and confirm the faithful; visit and relieve the sick; turn and soften the wicked; arouse the careless; recover the fallen; restore the penitent; remove all hindrances to the advancement of Thy truth; and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of Thy Holy Church; to the honour and glory of Thy ever-blessed Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Gospel for 23rd April, Saturday in Easter Week – (Mark 16:9-15)
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’
Each year we come to the Saturday of Easter Week and I ask myself the same question: Why on earth did the people who put together the readings for this week choose this passage to round things off? It doesn’t appear in the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. It doesn’t match the rest of the Gospel in language and tone. Even more than the beginning of John 21 which we heard yesterday, it reads like the scriptural equivalent of a “greatest hits” compilation album, or a DJ’s mash-up, with snippets from John and Matthew and Luke remixed to form a coherent story.
And that, I suppose, is the reason for the inclusion of these verses from what scholars call “the longer ending” of Mark’s Gospel. They draw together the threads of the different accounts of what followed Jesus’ resurrection that we have heard during the past six days, and using them enables the Church to finish the Easter jigsaw without having to reuse one of the Gospel readings set for Easter Day. So that’s a positive.
But using this passage ducks the challenge set by Mark’s original ending – and Matthew’s and Luke’s and John’s. It turns the call to commitment into a demand for obedience, pushing those who follow Jesus from “belief in” to “belief that”, and making faith a matter of assenting to a series of statements rather than trusting in a person. One result of that is the loss of any sense that Christian faith is something open-ended. It becomes a closed system, turned in on itself. And that is a serious loss, because the resurrection, as the first Christians discovered, opens up all sorts of possibilities in a world marked by fear, conflict and oppression. When Jesus rose on the first day of the week, it was not the completion of a jigsaw, but rather the beginning of a new creation which he invites us to enter.
Gospel for 22nd April, Friday in Easter Week – (John 21:1-14)
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Today’s Gospel reading is a strange one. Not half as strange as tomorrow’s, perhaps, but that, as they say, is another story. It’s strange for a number of reasons.
First, because the ending of the previous chapter reads very much as if it was intended to be the ending of the whole Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It sends the reader out, as Matthew and Mark (and arguably Luke), in their very different ways, send the reader out to become part of the story which they have told.
Second, because in John’s original Greek there is a significant number of words in this one chapter which aren’t found anywhere in the other twenty. Kingsley Barrett’s commentary counts 28.
Third, because it mixes together half a dozen disciples who don’t otherwise appear together – and two of whom (the sons of Zebedee) are never named elsewhere in John’s Gospel.
And finally (for our purposes, anyway) this passage picks up a number of themes from other passages in the Gospels. There’s the failure to catch anything during a whole night’s work, followed by an abundant haul when they follow instructions from the shore. That’s in Luke 5. Then there’s Simon Peter jumping into the sea to reach the Lord. Not quite the attempted walk on water in Matthew 14, but close enough. That’s followed by the slightly wince-making reference to a charcoal fire. Remember the one John describes in the courtyard of the high priest’s house? The one where Peter was trying to warm himself on the night of Jesus’ arrest? And there’s another lakeside meal involving Jesus sharing out bread and fish. That one is mentioned in all four of the Gospels.
So what are we to make of this passage? As it stands there doesn’t seem to be any real point to it – although there is to the verses which follow; verses which we won’t hear until we get to St Peter and St Paul at the end of June, or St John the Evangelist a couple of days after Christmas. But perhaps it’s that link between Peter and John – or, more accurately, Peter and the Beloved Disciple – which shows, as other episodes in John’s Gospel do, the way in which Peter’s readiness to act and the Beloved Disciple’s quickness and depth of perception work together to complement each other. The Church needs its actives and its contemplatives working together, not fighting one another. But perhaps the key point is the need to recognise Jesus when he comes to us, apparently as a stranger, to challenge us, and to set us on a new path, when we, like those seven disciples, are quite happy to return to the way of life we led before we first encountered him.
Gospel for 21st April, Thursday in Easter Week – (Luke 24:35-46)
Cleopas and his companion told the eleven and their companions what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’
A great deal of ink – and, sadly, a lot of blood – has been spilt over the question of the real presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, receptionism, even “mere memorial” have all been put forward as explanations by different branches of the Western Church. The Eastern Church, more wisely, has simply declared that it is a mystery, which doesn’t mean a puzzle to be worked out à la Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew, but a secret hidden in the depths of God’s being. In the words of the English priest, school-master and hymn-writer G.H. Bourne, “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
What is clear from St Luke’s account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus is that he links them closely with meals. At Emmaus yesterday, and in Jerusalem today, we read how the risen Lord is manifested to the disciples as they prepare to eat (Emmaus), or just as they have eaten (Jerusalem). In a pre-refrigerator world it is unlikely that “a piece of broiled fish” would have been left around for long.
However, in this passage from his Gospel Luke’s purpose is not to defend a particular Eucharistic doctrine. It is to affirm the reality of the resurrection against those who suggested (then as now) that what the disciples experienced was a mass hallucination, or an encounter with a ghost or other “spirit manifestation”. People in the ancient world, even the educated classes, were very aware of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night.” But none of those “spirit manifestations” were able to consume food, so when Jesus takes that piece of broiled fish and eats it in the disciples’ presence he is proving conclusively to Luke’s first readers that he is not a spook, making them witnesses to the reality of the resurrection.
They are witnesses. We, too, are witnesses: not to the physical presence of Christ in the upper room, but to his presence with us now. Increasingly Christians have begun to understand that the real presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist is not limited to the “Eucharistic Elements”, the bread and wine which become the sacramental signs of his body and blood. There has been a growing realisation across the Churches that Christ the living Word is also present in the written words of Scripture, and in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the community of believers. It is in that power, to whose honour this church is dedicated, that we are enabled to show in our daily lives the transforming reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
Gospel for 20th April, Wednesday in Easter Week – (Luke 24:13-35)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In the early 1980s, when I was a pale, not-so-young curate, I preached an Easter sermon pointing out some differences between European and Antipodean celebrations of Easter. “Had you realised”, I asked the congregation, “that Easter in Australia takes place in the autumn, and not the in the spring?” That, I went on to explain, makes quite a difference to the imagery used in proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection. In the northern hemisphere we keep the feast against a backdrop of new life bursting naturally out of the earth. “Down under” the resurrection is celebrated as the natural world prepares for its winter sleep, so that chicks and spring flowers don’t figure in the same way and preachers focus on the power of God overturning the natural order in Jesus’ resurrection.
The following day, a group from the parish took part in the annual Easter pilgrimage to St Albans Abbey, about five miles away across the fields – and a couple of motorways. We had not long set out when one of the other pilgrims, Pat, the leader of our young people’s drama group, pitched up alongside me. “Why,“ she asked, “does the Church have to keep changing things? Why can’t they leave Easter in the spring where it has always been?” The early 1980s, you may remember, was the time when the Alternative Service Book and worship in contemporary language was bringing about massive change in the Church’s life, and I think she had found the process a bit disorienting.
Anyway, as we walked along, I tried to explain that it was not the Church but the realities of geography and astronomy which were responsible for the difference in the season at which Easter is celebrated in Australia and New Zealand, their winter months being our summer months as the tilt of the earth’s axis brought the other hemisphere nearer to, or further from, the sun. Of course, Pat knew all of that. She just hadn’t realised that it made a difference to the life of the Church. I think there’s something of that in the reaction of Cleopas and his companion (probably his wife), as the stranger walking alongside them explained “all that the prophets have declared” about the necessity “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory”. They knew the theory, but hadn’t worked out its practical implications. And it wasn’t until they reached their destination and the stranger said grace before the evening meal that the lightbulb finally clicked on and they realised that they person to whom they had been talking was the person about whom they had been talking, and that someone whose cruel death they were grieving was very much alive – and sharing a meal in their home.
So, as we gather in these days of Easter to share the meal which Jesus left to those who follow him, we pray that we, like Cleopas and his companion, may recognise Jesus our risen Lord in the breaking of the bread and go from here to share the good news of his resurrection with those who share our daily life.
Gospel for 19th April, Tuesday in Easter Week – (John 20:11-18)
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary of Magdala wasn’t expecting to find Jesus alive. She had watched him die and she had looked on as he was buried. So it’s hardly surprising that she didn’t recognise him until he called her by name. Then immediately she knew who it was who was talking to her. She reconnected.
But things were different. We can grasp that from the way St John tells us what happened. Mary was so happy; she wanted to hold on to Jesus. But he wouldn’t let her. Things weren’t quite the same as they had been before. Death couldn’t hold him prisoner, but neither could his former life. He was on his way back to where he had come from. This is what he meant when he told her to tell his disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Things had changed for Jesus: and because they had changed for Jesus they had changed for everyone, for his friends, his followers, those who loved him.
Because he had loved his friends right to the end, because he had loved them so much that he gave up his life for them, even though they had abandoned him, even though one of them had betrayed him and one had denied that he knew him – because of all that, and despite all of that, they could now draw near to God in the same way that he had. God was now “their Father” as well as his Father. God was now “their God”, as well as his God.
That’s true for us as well. Because Jesus died and was raised, we can approach God with the same confident trust that Jesus had. We can approach him knowing that he loves us – and that he loves us enough to die for us, to give up his life, so that we might have life, and have it richly, abundantly. He loves us even when we are foolish, or frightened, or cruel, or downright nasty.
God doesn’t love us because we are good, but because he is good, because he sees in each one of us the person he made us to be, the sister, the brother for whom his Son died, all the children whom God our Father calls by name as Jesus called Mary by name.
Now when Jesus called Mary by name, he told her not to do one thing, “Do not hold on to me”: but he told her to do two things “Go to my brothers… and say to them…” Go and tell them what has happened. That’s his message to each one of us today. Jesus calls us by name and invites us to go to our families, our friends, our neighbours, and to share with them the same truth that Mary did:
“Alleluia. Christ is risen!”
Gospel for 18th April, Monday in Easter Week – (Matthew 28:8-15)
The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Perhaps that’s why Matthew’s account of the resurrection is so much fuller than Mark’s, which ends (in what most scholars think is its original form) with the women running away from the tomb in terror and telling nobody what they had seen. Matthew’s account, like Luke’s which we heard yesterday, portrays the women obeying the angel’s command. Unlike Luke, who describes no appearance of the risen Jesus before the evening of the first Easter Day, Matthew describes how the women met the risen Jesus as they were hurrying away to tell the disciples but, like Luke (albeit less elaborately), he stresses the physicality of the resurrection. “They came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” This is no ghost, no vision, not even the kind of encounter between the living and the dead which the Roman poet Virgil pictures in his description of Aeneas, in the realm of the dead, vainly attempting to embrace the insubstantial shade of his father Anchises. Matthew’s account of the resurrection links it firmly to first-century realities.
He also links it to 21st-century realities, with his depiction of the temple authorities’ sordid attempts at what we would call “news management” or, perhaps more accurately, “manipulation”. In his study of “The Matthew Passion”, John Fenton notes that this is the second time that their careful planning has back-fired. After failing to meet their original objective of arresting Jesus outside the heightened tensions of the Passover festival, the chief priests again find their plans going badly awry, as the soldiers from the Roman garrison whom they have borrowed to guard the tomb fail to carry out their allotted task – and instead become additional witnesses to the reality of the resurrection. And, like Judas, the soldiers end up costing the authorities “a large sum of money”. They would certainly have needed a serious inducement to tell a story that would incriminate themselves on a charge of gross dereliction of duty. Falling asleep while on watch was likely to result in a death sentence, so the Jewish authorities’ promise to “keep [them] out of trouble” with the Governor was essential.
But Matthew’s main interest is not in the fate of a squad of soldiers from the army of occupation. Matthew’s interest is in affirming the reality of Jesus’ resurrection against those who denied it, but who couldn’t produce the ultimate evidence against it – a body bearing the marks of crucifixion. Matthew’s concern is to counter the stories which members of his community might hear and which might weaken their faith. A woman’s evidence, in first-century Palestine, counted for nothing. The word of the soldiers would carry much more weight. So, perhaps the mystery is not so much why so many refused to believe as why so many believed what the women told them. But then, if God has vindicated a crucified man, despite the provision of the divine Law that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”, why should God not give greater credibility to those whose evidence was, and in many cultures still is, discounted under human law?
Gospel for 13th April, Wednesday in Holy Week – (John 13:21-32)
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
We need, I think, to be clear about one thing in relation to Judas Iscariot. In none of the Gospels is he described as betraying Jesus. Greek has a word for betrayal, and it’s not the one John uses here. Nor is it used by any of the other Evangelists to describe what Judas did. The Greek word which all of them use means to “hand over” or “hand on”. It’s the same word which St Paul uses when he writes to the Corinthians about the teaching he handed on to them, teaching about the Lord’s Supper, teaching about the appearances of the risen Christ.
What Judas did is also part of a pattern. John the Baptiser appeared, and preached, and was handed over to imprisonment and death. Jesus has appeared, and preached and is about to be handed over to suffering and death. Those who follow Jesus can expect the same to happen to them.
Now this is not to say that what Judas did was, humanly speaking, a good, or even a neutral, thing. It was a colossal betrayal of friendship. But it was part of a pattern, part even, some might say, of a divine plan. Some theologians, especially in the Franciscan tradition, have long put forward the view that “incarnation is already redemption”; that the cross, in a sense, wasn’t necessary because by coming among us as a human being, God had sanctified the whole of human life from birth to death, in all its mess and incoherence. But in another sense, it is the messiness and incoherence of human life which means that the cross was inevitable. It’s only when human beings show the worst depths of which they are capable that God can show the infinite glory of his love.
That, I think, is why the first words of Jesus after Judas has gone out into the night speak of God’s glory. In yesterday’s gospel, we heard how Jesus overcame that moment of doubt which Matthew Mark and Luke locate in his agonised prayer in Gethsemane by praying “Father, glorify your name”. Here, in a sense, is the answer to that prayer. Judas’s departure means that the stage has been set for the revelation of God’s glory in the obedience of Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”.
Gospel for 12th April, Tuesday in Holy Week – (John 12:20-36)
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
This isn’t the first time in John’s Gospel that Philip and Andrew have worked together to bring people on the edge of things to Jesus, but a group of Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover might seem a bit more significant than a Galilean lad with five barley loaves and two fish – though probably not if you were part of the hungry crowd by the lakeside. There’s some debate whether the “Greeks” were gentiles or Jews from the diaspora – people like Saul of Tarsus, in other words – but it doesn’t really matter. In either case they come from outside the society and culture in which Jesus’ ministry has been spent. And they want to see him. Why, we don’t know. They vanish from the story immediately, but they provide the starting point for a further revelation of who Jesus is, a revelation which echoes another revelation at the beginning of his ministry when a voice came from heaven.
But this episode doesn’t only look back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It also looks forward to the end, picking up a saying which appears in the other gospels about losing one’s life to save it, and echoing other sayings about the relationship between serving and following, and about the seed from which abundant new life springs.
And then we come to the strange moment which seems to be John’s version of the agony in the garden, as Jesus says: ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ When John’s version of events reaches Gethsemane there is no time between Jesus’ arrival and that of Judas and the snatch squad sent by the authorities. So here, uniquely, is that moment of doubt – and the same resolution which we find in the other gospels, even if it is expressed in terms of the Father glorifying his name, rather than the divine will being done.
And now, now – the word is repeated for emphasis – Jesus pronounces God’s judgement on the world, and announces the expulsion of the ruler of this world, taking us back to that cosmic dimension of the struggle which was noted in passing yesterday. Once again we are taken back to an earlier point in John’s Gospel, and the double-edged assertion that when Jesus is lifted up all will look to him, be drawn to him, and find in him their life. It’s double-edged, because it refers at the same time to Jesus’ exaltation and to his crucifixion, reminding us that for St John “the cross is a throne”.
The crowd, of course, is baffled. So Jesus takes them, and us, right back to the beginning of the Gospel, right to the beginning of creation, with this reminder that the Son of man is the light who gives light to everyone, and inviting them, and us, to walk in his light, to become light. And with those words he ends his public ministry and is hidden from them. From this point onward Jesus’ teaching will be shared only with the disciples, as we shall see tomorrow.
Gospel for 11th April, Monday in Holy Week – (John 12:1-11)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The struggle that goes on in Holy Week is often portrayed as the cosmic struggle between good and evil, a struggle in which ordinary human beings are in danger of being trampled underfoot, like the grass in the African proverb. But that cosmic struggle is also the human struggle reflected in this passage from John’s Gospel, where Mary’s extravagantly fragrant gesture of love runs into the profit-and-loss mentality of Judas, who calculates that this “perfume made of pure nard” is worth nearly a year’s wages, so somewhere around €25,000-30,000 in terms of Italy today. We might say that it’s the struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion”, with Mary’s willingness not to count the cost set against Judas’s certainty about the price of the perfume and total inability to understand its value in the setting in which Mary uses it. It’s the struggle between the mind-set which asks “How much can I give?” and the attitude which asks “How little can I get away with?”
There’s another example of that struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion” in the contrast between the opening and closing sentences. We begin with the reminder that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. We end with the chief priests, who are already plotting Jesus’s death, planning to put Lazarus to death as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” The contrast is between, on the one hand, an action which is, quite literally, liberating and life-giving, bringing hope and joy out of a situation of grief and hopelessness, and, on the other hand, an attitude ruled by fear, the fear of someone who is seen as a rival, the fear of losing control.
We recognise that fear, that struggle to maintain control, lying behind many of the actions and decisions of the Jerusalem authorities which are recorded in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. We recognise it today, in many different Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions. We recognise it in the history of the Church, from the time of the early Fathers, through the Reformation, to the various scandals and conflicts besetting the Churches in our day. We can see it now, with a horrific clarity, in the conflict in Ukraine, which is not just about the power of the Russian state attempting to assert itself against a smaller, less powerful neighbour. It’s also about the power of the Patriarch of Moscow, attempting to assert his right to control all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and therefore colluding in many thousands of deaths, including the deaths of Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians, rather than condemn the slaughter and abandon his claim to that control.
But the Christ whose footsteps we follow in this Holy Week does not seek such control, although many have tried to do so in his name. Even as the hour of his death approaches, he shares the hospitality of those whom he has blessed by his presence, accepting them, and freeing them to be who they are in him.
Gospel for Wednesday, 6th April – (John 8:31-42)
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’
They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.’
Who is a descendant of Abraham? That was a question which clearly bothered St Paul. He tackles it in his letter to Rome, and in the letter to the Galatians. Judging by this passage, it was a question which bothered St John, too. The Jews in this passage are adamant that they are descendants of Abraham. Jesus challenges them to prove it by “doing what Abraham did”. And what Abraham did, both in Jewish tradition and according to St Paul, was this: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
In fact, the whole of this passage is very close, in some ways, to ideas which St Paul explores, and it suggests that John knew at least some of Paul’s letters. There are echoes of Paul’s thinking about slavery to sin, the difference between a slave and a son, the nature of freedom – and all this is focused on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the one who sets free: and the freedom which Jesus gives is for those who continue, or remain or abide, in his word. One translation says ‘make my word your home”. Those who do will indeed be his disciples, knowing the truth.
Now, that raises the same question raised by Pontius Pilate in the Passion Gospel we shall hear on Good Friday: “What is truth?” The response of Jesus to the comments of his critics shows us that the truth which he is talking about is a truth discovered not in statements of fact but in relationship – and supremely in relationship to the Father through him. His Jewish critics focus on their DNA, if you like; on the verifiability of their genealogy. Jesus keeps pushing back at this attitude in order to take them deeper – and “deeper”, in this context, means into that relationship of love and trust with the God Jesus calls Father”.
This exchange is not about slogans and slick formulae: “Abraham is our father”, even “we have one father, God.” It is about being real, about continuing in Jesus’ word, reflecting on it, dwelling on it – or even in it. It’s about finding that truth which is love, the love which brought everything that there is into being and which maintains that “everything” in existence, despite human beings’ best efforts to destroy it in order to affirm their own superiority, over the rest of creation, over other human beings. Which raises the question: are those who do such things, however exalted they may be, truly disciples of Jesus? Have those who do such things created an idol, rather than found the living God?
Going against the Crowd (6.4.2022)
We end our survey of the “faces in the crowd” – or rather the crowds – around Jesus by considering one man who is going against the crowd. Simon of Cyrene, “coming in from the country”, as everyone else is on their way out of town, is a classic case of the person caught up in events that are nothing to do with him and forced against his will to play a central part.
Simon appears in just one verse in each of the first three Gospels, and neither Matthew not Luke add anything to what is recorded by Mark: but from that one verse we are able to deduce quite a lot about him.
First, he was from North Africa. Cyrene was one of the old-established Greek cities on the coast of Libya, founded by settlers from the islands and the Peloponnese six centuries before. It was an important centre for trade. There’s a famous picture on a Greek cup in the Louvre of one of the early rulers of Cyrene supervising the loading of a ship with bales of cargo. By the time of Jesus most of the people of Cyrene were of mixed Greek and Berber descent. There was also a sizeable Jewish community there, with members sufficiently well-off to travel to Jerusalem for the great festivals, and to provide at least some kind of resident presence in the city.
Simon’s name suggests strongly that he belonged to that community, although the name “Simon” wasn’t exclusively Jewish. It isn’t impossible that he was a gentile with a snub nose (which is what “Simon” means in Greek). His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, certainly bear non-Jewish names – but then, so did a couple of Jesus’s disciples, and there’s no doubt that they were “kosher”. And at least two Jewish Alexanders are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, one of them a member of the high-priestly family.
We also know, from the way that Mark mentions Simon’s sons, that they belonged to (or were known to) the Christian community for which he wrote his Gospel. Their names were, perhaps, put forward by Mark as witnesses to the truth of what he was writing. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that, while some of the Cyrenaic community in Jerusalem were violently opposed to the first followers of Jesus, others had become Christians early on. They were, Luke tells us, among the group in Antioch who were the first to take the initiative of telling non-Jews about Jesus.
All that, of course, is a very long way from Simon, coming in from the country, as Jesus was being led out to execution. The wrong man, as he was to discover, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and going in the wrong direction. He was turned round by the soldiers, loaded with Jesus’s cross and made an honorary member of the execution squad.
Scholars don’t know why Simon was press-ganged into carrying the cross. John’s statement that “Jesus went out carrying his own cross” reflects the usual practice – although, as is often the case, it is likely that John says that for theological reasons rather than in the cause of strict historical accuracy. It was, however, normally part of the punishment for a man sentenced to crucifixion that he had to carry his own cross-beam (not the whole cross, despite the traditional depiction of this in Christian art down the centuries). The condemned man would bear the cross-beam on his back to the place of execution, where it (and he) would be fastened to the upright, which was a permanent fixture there – probably one of many. There is the ancient tradition of Jesus’s three falls, which are part of the traditional “Stations of the Cross”. Some have suggested that after his rough handling by the Jewish and Roman authorities, culminating in the flogging ordered by Pilate, Jesus was too weak to bear the weight on his own.
The American commentator, Ched Myers, points out the ironies in this brief episode. Jesus had entered Jerusalem accompanied willingly by joyful crowds of country people from Galilee and Judaea, waving branches and throwing their cloaks in his path. He leaves it in a Roman procession, accompanied by one press-ganged North African who bears the instrument of a painful and humiliating death rather than an emblem of rejoicing. The name, Simon, too, is not without its ironic overtones. Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross and goes with Jesus, however unwillingly, to the place of death. Simon Peter, who had vowed the night before to go with Jesus to prison and to death, becomes a deserter, denying his Lord three times before cockcrow. Simon of Cyrene, the outsider, becomes the model disciple, responding, albeit unwittingly, to the call to discipleship which Jesus had issued in chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel. Simon Peter (like the rest of the twelve) is nowhere to be seen.
Christopher Evans, in his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, notes at this point that the picture of Simon of Cyrene as the “model disciple” is flawed, because Simon is compelled, while the disciple (ideally) acts of his own free will when he answers the call to “take up his cross and deny himself”. But I’m not sure how far that is a valid point. It is by no means unknown for Christians to find their discipleship deepened, or their initial call occurring, in situations where they cannot exercise free will, bereavement, perhaps, or some other major life crisis. How many people have come to a deeper Christian commitment because other doors have been shut and there is no other way out that they can take with integrity? How many people have found (in James Montgomery’s words) “Patience to watch, and wait, and weep, Though mercy long delay, Courage our fainting souls to keep, And trust thee though thou slay,” in circumstances where, like Simon of Cyrene, they had, in truth, no realistic alternative?
So today, as we look at the last of our “Faces in the Crowd”, we recognise, perhaps, our own face in the face of this frustrated, angry, frightened man, forced to turn aside from his chosen path, compelled to take his place in humiliation alongside a man on his way to a shameful, agonising death. And we recognise the power of that condemned man, mocked, tortured, abandoned by his friends, to challenge and to transform those whose lives touch his, in whatever circumstances. We recognise his death as the point from which life truly begins.
Gospel for Wednesday, 30th March – (John 5:17-30)
Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.’
John’s Gospel is different from the other three in many ways. John tells the stories about Jesus which the first Christians remembered in a different order from Matthew, Mark and Luke. He includes stories not found in their Gospels, and many that are found in their gospels he omits. He gives different dates for the events of Holy Week, adjusting them so that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is crucified at the very time when the Passover lamb is sacrificed.
That applies even more to Jesus’ teaching. In the other Gospels, until that last week in Jerusalem, Jesus wraps up most of his teaching in parables. Think of Matthew’s three parables of judgement in chapter 25, or Luke’s vivid stories about the Samaritan and the lost son. Then there’s the parable of the sower which Mark shares with the other two, and the parables of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed. How does John wrap up the teaching of Jesus? The answer is, he doesn’t. There are no parables in John’s Gospel – unless you count the teaching in chapter ten. The teaching comes neat, so to speak, in the form of the great discourses, usually linked to one of the seven “I am” sayings or else, as here, to one of the healing miracles, and reaching their climax in the “Farewell Discourses” which fill that last evening in Jerusalem until the time comes for Jesus to meet Judas and the armed snatch squad in Gethsemane.
But if we listen closely to what Jesus tells the Jews in this passage, we find something that sounds very much as if it just might be a parable. ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.’ Think for a minute about how people learn. It isn’t just about sitting and listening. The teachers here probably know the old saying: “I hear and forget: I see and I remember: I do and I understand.” That is the model of learning Jesus is offering here. How did he learn his trade as a carpenter or small builder in Nazareth? How does any apprentice learn? By watching a skilled craftsman (or woman) and then doing. In a small family firm, that usually means the son (or sons) watching the father.
As we are reminded in this passage Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man. As Son of God, he gives life “to whomsoever he wishes”, continuing the creative work which he has watched the Father do since the beginning of creation. As Son of Man, he is entrusted with that judgement which brings healing to the world, and life to the dead, because he himself (like Joseph, perhaps?) will have passed through death. But because Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man his acceptance of death empowers him to soak up all human violence and hostility and subject it to the judgement of unbounded, endless love.
The Women in the Crowd (30.3.2022)
Today we continue our reflection on the role of the crowd in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. By comparison with last three weeks our focus has narrowed quite markedly. Today, we shall consider the women in the crowds.
On the whole, women do not figure prominently in the first part of the Passion story, which is, perhaps, not surprising when we remember that most of what happens after Jesus enters Jerusalem happens within the precincts of the temple. And women were excluded from almost the whole of that area. They were allowed further into the precincts than non-Jews, but not much further. The “Court of the Women” was the outermost courtyard of the temple complex, inside the huge shopping mall and market-place which was the “Court of the Gentiles”. The only woman who is noticed during those first few days in Jerusalem is the poor widow pictured by Mark and Luke dropping her tiny contribution into the temple’s alms-chest and receiving praise from Jesus for the depth of her generosity.
Women, of course, play no part in the events of Maundy Thursday night. The arrest of Jesus is “man’s work”. On the other hand, we see a slave-girl (Matthew says two) play a significant part in the humiliation of Peter as he waits nervously in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. And the governor’s wife has a dramatic off-stage role with her message to her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him,” an intervention that has gained her canonisation in parts of the Eastern Church, but which had no effect on the stand-off, except possibly to increase Pilate’s discomfort. It would take a very strong character to decide a capital case on the strength of his wife’s dreams – particularly when such a decision would probably send what was already a very tense political situation over the edge into a complete breakdown of civil order.
So, the men have their way. Jesus is condemned to death. And from this point women begin to have a higher profile. In his account of the march to the gallows, Luke tells us that “a great crowd of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him”. Perhaps they too had been among the crowds who “listened to him with delight.”
But Jesus has no time for their sympathy. He warns them not to weep for him, but to save their tears for themselves, because disaster is coming on Jerusalem – so great a disaster that the childless will be counted happy, because they will not see their sons and daughters perish. Some scholars have understood his words in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The late Bishop John V. Taylor, giving the Holy Week addresses to an ecumenical audience in Geneva nearly forty years ago, took them to be Jesus saying no to “the easy spontaneous emotion, the quick release of tension”: saying no, because such emotional release “is misdirected and because it is dangerous.” This is not time to “have a good cry”. It is time to weep for our sins, to weep for the love of the Son of God who dies, in St Francis’s words, “for love of our love”. The warning of impending disaster is also a call to repentance.
Perhaps, in this context, we need to reconsider Veronica. She was the daughter of Jerusalem who did not only lament over Jesus as he walked the way of the cross, she took off her head-cloth and applied it to his bruised and bleeding face. And, so the legend goes, she was rewarded by a likeness of the Saviour’s face imprinted miraculously on the cloth. The story, of course, is a mediaeval invention – or rather, the elaboration of an episode found in one of the apocryphal writings.
However, it has some interesting undercurrents. Scholars have long pointed out that the name “Veronica” (which seems originally to have been applied to the cloth rather than the lady) can be interpreted as an anagram of two words, the Latin “vera”, meaning true, and the Greek “icon”, meaning an image. Veronica is, then, the “true image” of Christ, not in the sense that some once claimed for the Turin Shroud, but in the sense that her act of kindness to a condemned man, her daring to get involved in the fate of a man rejected by the leaders of his people and handed over to death, is a true image of Christ’s own concern for the helpless, the voiceless, the despised and marginalised. Her gesture of love and compassion holds the true image of Jesus.
But the grim procession moves on, and we move on, to the final act in the drama of Jesus’s suffering and death. Cheap pity is out. So are the devout ladies who offer the condemned a cup of wine laced with pain-killer (are they, I wonder, Mark’s and Matthew’s version of Luke’s wailing women?). We pass over the mockery of the passers-by, the satirical thrusts of the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the abuse of the other condemned criminals, the hardened unconcern of the execution squad, and we come to three o’clock in the afternoon.
Jesus breathes his last. Matthew and Mark depict him as utterly abandoned – even, it seems, by God. His last words echo the Psalmist’s cry of desolation, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” The only people near him are the squaddies, dicing for his effects, and their officer.
But beyond the military cordon, there are others. Luke says “crowds had gathered there for this spectacle” – a theme which he will pick up in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew and Mark agree with him that there were “women … looking on from a distance”, women who had come down with him from Galilee. Some of them are named, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.
These had been Jesus’s support group when he was alive. They are now the witnesses of his death and burial. Some of them will go to his tomb after the Sabbath to pay the final tribute of friendship by anointing his corpse. John locates some of them, with the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple, at the foot of Jesus’s cross – which is, perhaps, unlikely (at least not without heavy bribery or a serious lapse in security). The important thing about the women’s presence, in all four Gospels, is that they were there to bear witness to the reality of Jesus’s death – and that some of their number will be the first witnesses to the reality of the resurrection.
Gospel for Wednesday, 23rd March (Matthew 5:17-19)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.‘
This passage is a difficult one for Christian anti-Semites – and for anyone who finds it hard, for whatever reason, to accept that Jesus was a Jew. It forces them into all sorts of linguistic and theological contortions, relating Jesus’ words “until all is accomplished”, not to “until heaven and earth pass away”, but to his death and resurrection; and interpreting “the least of these commandments” as applying to the sayings of Jesus that follow, rather than to the Law of Moses.
This passage is difficult because it is impossible to understand it without accepting that the first and most important thing about it is that the words we have just heard were first spoken by a Jew to Jews and that in their present form they were recorded by a Jew. Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for Jewish Christians, somewhere in Syria, or possibly in Palestine, writing at a time when all Jews, including those who had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah, were intensely aware of their identity and of the threats against it, from within the community as well as from outside. So Matthew makes much of Jesus as a “teacher of the law”, but depicts him as “one who taught with authority, and not as one of their [meaning the Pharisees’] scribes”.
Now that does not mean that Jesus accepted the Law without criticism. Even Matthew, who is much more conservative than Mark or Luke, recognises that, although he tends to tone down the criticisms of the law – or of its interpretation – that Mark highlights. Again and again in the Gospels we find that Jesus attacks not the Law itself but the way in which the scribes and Pharisees interpreted it, as a means of separation, a way of setting up boundaries between one group of people and another, or as a way of keeping people “in their place”.
So, what Jesus says here is to do with the importance of Jews keeping the Jewish Law. That is a long way from saying that it is impossible for a believer to become a Christian without first becoming a Jew – although, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles and from the letters of St Paul, there were many Jewish Christians, especially those in Palestine, who were very firmly of that opinion and who had a very jaundiced view of Paul’s relaxed attitude to the issue, which seems to have been the attitude of other Jews living outside Palestine. Live as a Christian in the culture into which you were born, or the state of life in which you were called, seems to have been their message. Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 7.
And what is their message to us? What is Jesus’ message in this short passage? I’d suggest a three-fold take-away. First: accept that there is difference and live with that in Christian integrity – authenticity if you prefer. Second: recognise that God’s covenant with Abraham, renewed with Moses, is augmented, not abolished, by the covenant sealed in Jesus’ death. There is no room for “dispensationalism”. Finally, and particularly in these days when synagogues and other Jewish centres are again coming under violent attack: remember and honour the Jewish roots of our faith, and respect and honour those who have kept that faith for three and a half millennia, remembering that when Frederick the Great asked Johann Geog Zimmermann, his personal physician, for one proof of the existence of God, Zimmermann replied, “Your Majesty, the Jews”.
The Jerusalem Crowd (23.3.2022)
When we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see large numbers of people gathered in the city, forming themselves into different groups with very different agendas. In the first of these talks we looked at the crowds of pilgrims, mainly Galilean, who thronged the roadside as Jesus entered the city. Last week we threaded our way through the diverse crowds in the temple, skirting both those who were plotting the death of Jesus and those who were “listening to him with delight” or “astounded at his teaching”. Today we come to the crowds in the darkness, armed with swords and clubs, and the crowds who, when morning broke next day, threatened to turn over the Roman Governor’s residence.
As we saw last week, those whose livelihood and those whose power and status depended on the Temple, either directly or indirectly, would have been either ambivalent about Jesus or, more probably, hostile – especially after he drove out the traders and the money-changers. We also recognised that the occupying forces would have seen Jesus as a potential threat to public order, and therefore someone to be watched. We saw too that, because of the support which Jesus had among the ordinary people, the Jerusalem authorities had no opportunity to arrest him without serious risk of causing causing a riot and provoking Roman intervention at one of the most sensitive times of the year. John catches the mood well when he describes the Council’s anxiety that “if we let him go on like this… the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” It was only when one of the Twelve came forward to the chief priests, offering to hand Jesus over to them, that the authorities finally felt that they were free to take action.
And that is the point at which a very different crowd enters the story. The Jerusalem establishment takes its revenge on Jesus by sending out an armed posse “with swords and clubs”. The gospels differ as to who made up the posse. Matthew and Mark mention a crowd sent by the chief priests and the elders. Luke says that the chief priests, the temple police and the elders actually accompanied them. St John describes “a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests” – language which suggests that it was a military or paramilitary force. If John’s information is correct, the soldiers might possibly have come from the Governor’s garrison, but they are more likely to have been part of King Herod’s entourage. The police were the men who kept order in the temple. They turn up in Luke’s account of Jesus’ arrest, as well as in John’s, and they appear again in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. They arrive at one of Jesus’ regular meeting-places to arrest him by night, after the Passover meal (if we follow the timing of the first three Gospels), or on the evening before Passover (if we follow St John). Either way, it was a time when the great majority of those who might have supported Jesus are scattered and pre-occupied with other things. There are no crowds here to be afraid of – only the disciples, and one of them has been “turned”. Everyone else is on the payroll.
And this, presumably, is the core of the crowd who make it so difficult for Pilate to retain control of the situation when Jesus is brought before him early the next morning. Presumably, too, the word would have gone around: to the people who made their living from the Temple, the people whose stalls had been trashed by Jesus, the people who had been stung by his criticism of their ostentatious piety and lack of concern for people who didn’t meet their high standards. This isn’t “the crowd” that shouted “Hosanna” outside the city, nor “the crowd” who hung on Jesus’ every word. This is “rent-a-mob”, as genuine an expression of popular feeling as the crowds of government employees who were coerced into providing the backdrop to President Putin’s speech in the Luzhniki Stadium last Friday. Many of them may have been people who would love to see Barabbas, the nationalist bandit, out of jail and Jesus out of the way. Barabbas might have been dangerous, but he was predictable. Mark tells us that he was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.” As a nationalist hard man, he would have had his supporters and safe houses, but they would have been a known quantity, to the Jerusalem authorities, if not to the Romans. Once Barabbas was released he could be traced and picked up again if need be. “Crucify Jesus” looks a much more attractive option.
So the high-priestly families and their supporters get their man – at the cost of their integrity, and of their future survival. They play the Romans’ game (John’s Gospel spells out with great clarity why and how they play the Romans’ game) and they bet their future on it. When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?”, they make a fateful decision. “The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’” And Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified. In Matthew’s Gospel the crowd’s last word to Pilate is, “His blood be on us and on our children!”, a word that was fulfilled nearly forty years later when the high-priestly Sadducees finally lost control of Judaean politics to the heirs of Barabbas and Titus’s vengeful legions stormed and flattened Jerusalem.
By now the sun is getting higher, and the news is spreading. Other crowds are gathering. The crowds who had listened, spell-bound, to Jesus when he preached in the Temple, the crowds who had followed their wonder-working rabbi all the way from Galilee, are out on the streets again – but it’s too late for them to prevent judicial murder. They have nothing that can be opposed to the Romans’ military power. Some of them turn to follow the procession to the place of execution. Some of them turn on Jesus. No one loves a loser – and, besides, the Jerusalemites among them had to carry on living in the city. No point in making enemies unnecessarily. Others follow simply to see the end of hope and to mourn. We shall think about them in rather more detail next Wednesday.
Gospel for Wednesday, 16th March (Matthew 20:17-28)
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. He knows it. He tries to make sure that the disciples also know it. The words that open this passage mark the third time that he tells them. Like John the Baptist, like many of the ancient prophets of Israel (according to tradition), like others down the ages who have spoken truth to power, he will be handed over, mocked and tortured and killed.
But the message doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Twelve. James and John, according to Matthew’s version of the story, get their mother to ask Jesus for a favour: to arrange for her sons to have the highest places of honour when Jesus comes into his kingdom. “You do not know what you are asking”, Jesus replies – and the fact that the “you” in Matthew’s original Greek is plural shows that Jesus knows perfectly well where the request comes from. So, too, do the other disciples. “When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.” And I suspect that their anger doesn’t come from an awareness that the sons of Zebedee are wrong, but that they have, so to speak, tried to grab the best seats at the party.
So Jesus lays out, once again, the meaning of discipleship. It isn’t about power and privilege. It isn’t about status. It’s about service and self-forgetting. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” In saying this, Jesus is picking up an important thread from the episodes which come before that prediction of suffering and death which begins this passage. Immediately before Matthew sets before us the picture of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, he recounts the story of the workers in the vineyard – a parable about the rewards of discipleship.
But immediately before that, Matthew places the story of the rich young man, who could not bear the cost of discipleship and whose sorrowful about-turn prompts Peter’s question about the place of the disciples in the kingdom. ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Perhaps it’s Jesus reply to that question, “‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” – perhaps it’s Jesus reply to that question which plants the seed of their question in the mind of James and John. If Jesus is promising thrones to all of the twelve, why shouldn’t they try to bag the best ones? Jesus asks if they are ready for the severe testing that comes before the full revealing of God’s kingdom.
As many Christians have realised, down the centuries, it’s the dark times that prepare us for the glory to come. It was the 17th-century Quaker William Penn’ imprisonment in the Tower of London which is said to have inspired him to write the often-quoted words: “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.” The stark simplicity of Lent, the gathering shadows of Holy Week, and the horror of Good Friday are stages on the way to Easter. They symbolise for us each year the ultimate triumph of life over darkness, hope over chaos and despair. They remind us that, however bleak the world may seem, ultimate victory is ours in Christ our Lord.
The Crowd in the Temple (16th March)
When we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see different groups with different agendas – all of them capable of taking to the streets or making their presence felt in other ways. Last week we looked at the crowds by the roadside as Jesus entered the city. This week we are focusing on the crowds in the temple, “listening to him with delight”, or “astounded at his teaching”.
The Passover pilgrims, obviously, were additional to the 25,000 or so people who then lived in Jerusalem. Many of those residents were people whose living depended on the Temple and its worship. At their head came the priests, the Levites, the temple police, those who were learned in the Law. They also included the traders who sold the birds and animals for sacrifice, those who changed money into the right currency for paying the temple tax, the various types of craftsmen (and women) who kept the building and its furnishings in repair, stonemasons, carpenters, carvers in wood and stone, workers in metal, those who made and repaired vestments, those who supplied incense and other spices used in worship, and those who baked the special “bread of the presence”.
On top of these specialised trades, there were the sort of workers who might be found in any city of the period, the first-century equivalent of “the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker”. Documents mention doctors, barbers, traders and merchants of various kinds, workers in cloth and leather, inn-keepers, stable-boys, fullers, even road-sweepers. And, of course, there were the soldiers of the Roman garrison and the members of the Governor’s staff – at least for part of the year – with their dependants, their administrative and secretarial staff and their household slaves.
Those whose livelihood and those whose power and status depended on the Temple, either directly or indirectly, would have been, at best, ambivalent about Jesus or, more probably, hostile – especially after he drove out the traders and the money-changers (an act which suggested a radical challenge to the status quo and the existing authorities). But that would not have been the view of many who worshipped in the Temple, the “people of the land”, the poor, the disabled people who survived by begging from worshippers. Any who felt themselves excluded or who resented the power and privilege of the high-priestly Sadducee families and the self-importance of the scribes and Pharisees, would have been among the crowds who “listened to him with delight”, and whose clear approval of Jesus’s teaching held the authorities back from openly taking action against him.
The occupying forces (like the Jewish authorities) would have seen Jesus as a potential threat to public order, and therefore someone to be watched very carefully. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record how the main religious and political “parties” in the city, establishment, radical, or pro-Roman, tried in turn to lure Jesus into making a rash comment which could be used in evidence against him in a Roman court, or which could be “spun” against him among the people, and all failed.
The nationalists, too, (the Zealots and the Dagger-men) would have been interested in what Jesus said, but for very different reasons. They wanted a figurehead who could be used to raise the people against the Romans and drive them into the sea. They were hard men who wanted a Messiah who could be used as a front. That is why the authorities were panic-stricken when they heard the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David”, echoing the cries of the crowds as Jesus had entered the city. David was the emblem of an independent, militarily strong Israel. David was the nationalists’ hero – not a name to mention in the hearing of Rome!
The crowds who listened to Jesus in the Temple would have included members of all these groups, some praying for the kingdom, some waiting for the revolution, some looking for an opportunity to silence him. But because of the eager interest with which Jesus was heard by the crowds who regarded him as a prophet, it was not until one of the Twelve came forward with the offer to hand him over that the authorities could make any headway.
So, what was the teaching that made such an impact on the crowds? John tells us nothing, but Matthew, Mark and Luke offer their varied summaries of what Jesus said during those days in Jerusalem, agreeing that the crowds were spell-bound (Matthew says “astounded”) by his words. They agree, too, that there were confrontations with the temple authorities after Jesus evicted those who were making money out of the pilgrims. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked him. ‘Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus answers them, as he so often does in such situations, with a question of his own. Here it’s a question about the authority of John the Baptist – one which again points up the contrast between the religious leaders and the ordinary people, “the people of the land”, who saw John, and see Jesus, as a prophet – and Jesus follows it up, in all three Gospels, with the parable of the vineyard, a story which puts in question the legitimacy of the temple authorities.
At this point that Matthew inserts the parable of the marriage feast, again aimed at the Jerusalem establishment – and probably revised in the telling to take account of the horrific end to the Jewish Revolt of the late 60s AD. Mark and Luke go straight into the three attempts, by the political and religious elite, the Jerusalem “establishment”, and a religious professional, to trap Jesus into making a statement which can be used against him and Matthew follows them, noting, after Jesus dismisses the Sadducees, that “when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching”.
These encounters with the Jerusalem authorities end with Jesus’ question about the Messiah, which silences their hostile interrogation. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” At this point Jesus goes on the offensive with, in all three Gospels, some sharp public criticism of the scribes, given to the disciples, but “in the hearing of all the people”. In Mark’s Gospel, as in Luke’s, these are short and to the point. In Matthew’s account they become half a dozen full-blown “woes”, addressed to the Pharisees as well as to the scribes: for locking people out of the kingdom of heaven; for nit-picking interpretations of scripture and tradition; for a lack of personal integrity, play-acting the role of the upright and holy while remaining slaves to their own appetites: and ending with a spectacular denunciation of their complicity in shedding the blood of the righteous. It’s a powerful indictment of religion gone to the bad in its desire to preserve the powerful and to exclude and oppress the powerless.
No wonder “all the people”, so Luke tells us, “would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.” And no wonder the temple authorities were plotting his death. Jesus was putting into words the people’s sense of alienation from “organised religion” and laying the blame for that alienation firmly at the door of the “professionals”. It’s a message which is as relevant today in Genova (and everywhere else, for that matter), as it was two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
Gospel for Wednesday, 9th March (Luke 11:29-32)
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’
What kind of a sign did people want, I wonder? The demand for a sign is a challenge to Jesus which happens in every gospel – even John’s. When it happens, it usually comes from people who claim some sort of authority, and what they are really asking for is that Jesus should provide some knock-down proof of his status and authority. Sometimes it’s the Pharisees, with or without the scribes. Sometimes it’s the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Occasionally, it’s the crowds, as it was earlier in the chapter from which this passage was taken. Always it’s symptomatic of a lack of faith. And never does Jesus give his questioners what they are asking for.
In Mark’s Gospel the answer is a flat “no”, followed immediately by Jesus’ departure across the lake. In Matthew and Luke there’s that blanket refusal with one puzzling exception: “the sign of Jonah”. Even in the early Church people weren’t sure what Jesus meant. In Matthew’s gospel it is explained in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Luke just leaves Jesus’ answer hanging there, as Jesus issues a counter-challenge of his own. “For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” And then, for good measure he adds in the queen of Sheba: “The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!”
This being Luke, of course, the challenges come in strict chronological order, breaking the sequence of thought between Jonah becoming a sign to the people of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh rising up at the judgement. The message, however, is clear: the queen of the South and the people of Nineveh both recognised a deeper reality when they encountered it or, in the case of the queen, when reports of it reached her. And both the queen and the people acted. The queen came to hear Solomon’s wisdom for herself and establish the truth of those reports. The people repented and saved their city from destruction.
The challenge to the Pharisees, the challenge to us, is to recognise that in Jesus we encounter the ultimate reality which lies at the heart of the universe; that in him we encounter not human wisdom but the holy wisdom of God: and that if this encounter is to bear any fruit it requires a response in action. During these days many thousands, if not millions, of people are travelling in search not of wisdom, but of peace and physical safety, leaving behind cities that have been destroyed, not by the wrath of God, but by one man’s craving for power and status. Perhaps they too will rise up at the judgement, to condemn those of this generation whose concern to preserve their own authority has blinded them to reality and truth.
This is the first talk in our Lenten series: “Faces in the Crowd”, given at midday on Wednesday 9th March.
The Crowds by the Roadside
On Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion Gospel at the Eucharist, members of the congregation will, I hope, threw themselves into the role of the crowd baying for Jesus’s blood outside the Governor’s lodgings in Jerusalem. “Away with this fellow!” we will shout. “Release Barabbas for us!” And, when the governor shows signs of softening, “Crucify, crucify him!”
Today, and throughout Lent, we’re going to reflect on the role of the crowd in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. In each of the Gospel accounts of the period from his entry into Jerusalem to his arrest and death, the crowd is a significant presence in the drama – and sometimes (as in that dramatic scene at the Governor’s headquarters) a principal actor.
But it isn’t necessarily helpful – or indeed true – to talk of “the crowd” as if it were a single entity. “The crowd” who accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is almost certainly not the same as “the crowd” who threaten a riot on Pilate’s doorstep a few days later, despite the generations of commentators, preachers and hymn-writers who have assumed, down the centuries that they are identical and who have reflected on the fickleness of the mob. So perhaps it might be more accurate to give these talks a slightly different title, not so much “Faces in the Crowd” as “Faces in the Crowds”.
With that in mind, it might be helpful to begin by trying to distinguish who are “the crowd”, or “the crowds”, in Jerusalem at Passover. In doing so, we will have to bear in mind that, in any place where large numbers of people come together, people will not always stay in the same group or groups – and that even those who are in the same group do not always share the same objective, or objectives.
You may remember a massive demonstration that took place in Rome, almost exactly twenty years ago. It drew about three million people into the Circus Maximus and the surrounding area. It had been called by the trades unions in protest against new labour laws proposed by the Berlusconi government. But between the announcement and the event the man who drafted those laws was murdered by terrorists and the unions’ demo turned into a national protest against violent terrorism of every kind. Many of those three million would have been in the Circus Maximus to protest against terrorism. Equally, many would have been there with the demonstration’s original purpose in view, firing a warning shot across their government’s bows.
So, when we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see different groups with different agendas – all of them capable of taking to the streets or making their presence felt in other ways. There are the crowds on the street as Jesus entered the city. There are the crowds in the temple, “listening to him with delight”, or “astounded at his teaching”. There are the crowds in the darkness, armed with swords and clubs; the crowds threatening to turn over the Governor’s residence, and the crowds who were there on Golgotha to witness the execution, the silent watchers, kept at a distance by Roman troops. As we look at each of those crowds, we can see something, at least, of their make-up and, perhaps, something of their mood and their motive, remembering that they will have come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
All of these groups (pilgrims, residents, occupying forces) could, and probably did, provide some of the faces in the crowds who surrounded Jesus during that last week. But each of these groups would have had very different attitudes toward him and today and on the next two Wednesdays we shall look at those in some detail, beginning today with the crowds with their branches, standing along the roadside.
Most of them will have been pilgrims. Pilgrims formed one of the largest groups making up the crowds which thronged Jerusalem at Passover time. They had come to Jerusalem for the festival, in the same way that Roman Catholics might visit Rome for Holy Week and Easter or devout Muslims travel to Mecca at the time of the hajj. Among them, some would be fairly local, arriving after a few days’ journey from other parts of Palestine or Syria. Others would be visitors from further afield.
These would include not only the descendants of those exiled to Babylon or Egypt six centuries before, but also Jews from the communities which had spread across the Mediterranean since the time of Alexander the Great and his successors, establishing themselves in most of the major towns and cities in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, like Saul’s home town of Tarsus. In addition, there were visitors from many other parts of Europe and the Near East. Some of them are listed in Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost in Acts, chapter 2. Others, we know from non-biblical sources, came from far away Germany and Gaul. Though they were less likely to be pilgrims.
Many of the more local pilgrims will have come south from Galilee and would have been well disposed towards Jesus, knowing him as a wonder-working rabbi – or maybe something greater. Most scholars think that the Galilean contingent formed the majority of the crowd which applauded Jesus as he made his entry into the city. Luke’s account, and Matthew’s, in their different ways, suggest this strongly. Matthew tells us that “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Luke describes the crowd as “the whole multitude of the disciples”. John, writing later, tells us that it was “the great crowd that had come to the festival” – and who were already in Jerusalem – who came out of the city to meet him, so definitely pilgrims but probably not, in his view, Galileans.
But what about Mark? His account, the earliest of the four, offers the image of peasants cutting foliage from the fields as they cheer Jesus into the city with the cry of “Hosanna”, “Save now!” A royal acclamation in 2 Samuel and 2 Kings. A reference back to a psalm used at the pilgrim feasts of Tabernacles and Passover. They seem quite hyped up – but were they expecting a Messiah? Their chant has a future, not a present reference. It’s “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” which excites them, not its present fulfilment.
However, as many New Testament scholars since Albert Schweitzer have pointed out, Jesus seems to set up some kind of expectation, with what one modern scholar has called his “street theatre” using the donkey, with its clear nod to Zechariah 9:9
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
It’s a nod to the messianic prophecies, which Jesus then immediately undercuts it by his action, or rather inaction, when he enters the city. After that theatrical entry he doesn’t proclaim the coming kingdom, or anything like that. He simply goes to the temple, has a look round, and then, “as it was already late”, returns to his lodging in Bethany, as any modern tourist might do. All very anticlimactic. But what happens after that brings him into conflict with another crowd, and we shall look at them next Wednesday.
There was no weekly reflection for 2nd March. The day being Ash Wednesday there is instead a full-blown sermon, which you can find here.
Gospel for Wednesday, 16th February (Mark 8:22-26)
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’ ’
And so it is with this passage, which begins the second half of Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus and the Twelve come to Bethsaida after their journey back from Gentile territory on the far side of the lake, they are about to leave Galilee behind and set out on the journey that will take Jesus first to the far north, and Caesarea Philippi; then south to Jerusalem and his death. That final sea journey had been fraught. Jesus had rebuked the Twelve harshly for their lack of understanding, their failure to grasp what had been going on. So what confronts them when they reach the shore? A blind man, whose kinsfolk and friends beg Jesus to touch him and restore his sight.
There are two things to notice here: first, that Jesus “led him out of the village”. In fact, Bethsaida wasn’t a village: it had been upgraded by Herod the Great into a shiny Hellenistic city – in much the same way as the Brits who came to Liguria in the 19th century upgraded the fishing villages along the coast into smart holiday destinations for wealthy over-winterers. And Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel at least, prefers to avoid such places, possibly, it has been suggested, because the people who lived in them were doing well out of the status quo and were disturbed and angered by Jesus’ preaching about God’s Kingdom. The second thing to notice is that when Jesus first touches the man’s eyes the healing he experiences is only partial. He can’t see clearly. The people look like trees, walking.” So that Jesus has to lay hands on him again.
There, I think, we have a foretaste of what is to follow. As Jesus and the Twelve draw nearer to Jerusalem, Jesus explains three times what is going to happen when they get there; but the disciples don’t, or won’t, see it clearly. First Peter, then the Twelve as a group, and finally James and John, all reveal that they cannot see what Jesus is plainly telling them about his coming suffering and death. It’s only when they find themselves caught up in the swirling nightmare which is Mark’s account of the Passion and Crucifixion that they finally see clearly the truth of what Jesus has been telling them. So, as we prepare to enter the season of Lent in two weeks’ time, we pray that Jesus will touch our eyes so that we can see everything clearly as we commit ourselves again to following him along the way that leads to the cross.
Gospel for Wednesday, 9th February (Mark 7:14-23)
Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
A little back-story might help to make sense of this passage: the local Pharisees and a group of scribes from Jerusalem had turned up to check on Jesus and his followers. They were horrified to discover that the disciples were, to put it mildly, a bit lax when it came to keeping the hygiene rules before meals and challenged Jesus. Jesus exploded. This wasn’t the first time the Pharisees and their chums had criticised the disciples’ failure to follow the tradition of the elders – or indeed the Law of Moses – when it came to food. So Jesus gives them a good talking-to about their tendency to give tradition precedence over compassion. It’s after that talking-to that Jesus calls the crowds together and sets out his position in a sort of riddle (which is one of the meanings of “parable”). He tells them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Mark says nothing about the crowd’s reaction to this, but, as usual, the disciples fail to understand, so Jesus spells it out for them. The Pharisees are keen on maintaining boundaries, including the boundary between what is ritually pure and what is impure. Jesus tells the disciples that what matters is not maintaining ritual purity: “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile.” What matters is purity of heart – integrity, if you like. “It is from within, from the human heart. That evil intentions come…” And Jesus lists them, sins of the tongue and of the mind, as well as the more obvious sins of the body and crimes against property. “They”, he tells the disciples, “defile a person.” And perhaps it’s a pity that the Church, down the centuries, hasn’t focused more sharply on those sins of tongue and mind and rather less, perhaps, on the sins of the body.
But there’s more to this conflict than Jesus putting one over on those nit-picking scribes and Pharisees. It has been argued that what is at stake here is the very nature of the community. The Pharisees wanted the people of God to be clearly marked out as different from the surrounding culture. That is why they focus so powerfully on the purity laws. Keeping them shows very clearly who belongs and who doesn’t. Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t like these external “markers”. His community is inclusive, not exclusive, a community where the intention of the heart is more important than the keeping of rules, a community whose boundaries are fuzzy.
Sadly, not all those who claim allegiance to Jesus are prepared to live with that fuzziness. Boundaries are still drawn tightly around some Christian communities. Ritual purity for present-day Pharisees can be located in the line people take on politics, or abortion, or sexuality. In the Catholic church, especially in the USA, it seems to be increasingly about devotion to the Latin Mass. In many countries recently it has taken the alarming form of attitudes to the pandemic, especially in relation to mask-wearing and vaccination, where the “tradition of the elders” which Jesus criticised is replaced by social media platforms which promote conspiracy theories. In the face of these new Pharisees, it’s refreshing to remember the words of the American poet and campaigner Edward Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”
5th February, 2022
Yesterday we launched my slim volume about “Dante’s Spiritual Journey”. Here is a slightly edited version of the talk which accompanied the launch:
For an Anglican from the UK to condense his response to the thirty-three canti of the greatest poem of the greatest Italian poet into an essay of around thirty pages probably appears on the spectrum of chutzpah somewhere between James Boswell’s “great fortitude of mind” and Samuel Johnson’s “stark insensibility”. However, we are where we are, so I had better enter my plea in mitigation now, in the hope that it may encourage at least some of my audience to buy copies!
The poetry of Dante Alighieri has been an enthusiasm of mine since my school-days – mainly in English translation, but more recently in the original Tuscan of the Trecento. Curiously, while the sonnets of Francesco Petrarca’s Canzoniere, and his longer poem I Trionfi, have been circulating in English translation at least since the reign of Henry VIII, and the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione had a huge influence on English political and literary life in the Tudor and Stuart eras, Dante was largely ignored by English-speakers. Individual episodes were translated, notably the story of Archbishop Ruggieri and Count Ugolino in Canto XXXIII of “Inferno”, which appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as part of the “Monk’s Tale” and which was translated four centuries later by Thomas Gray of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” fame. However, it wasn’t until 1782 that Charles Rogers, better known as an art collector and critic, published, anonymously, a blank verse translation of the whole of “Inferno”; and no English versions of the whole of Dante’s Commedia are known before Henry Boyd’s translation of 1802.
So, why the long gap between Chaucer and Henry Boyd? One factor is the impact of the English Reformation. While Dante’s poem is savagely critical of the Papacy and Pope Boniface VIII in particular, it reflects a strongly Catholic world-view, whereas the world-view of Anglican clergy from the 16th century to the 19th was largely formed by the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the 22nd of which states very firmly that “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Which undermines somewhat the theological thrust of the central section of Dante’s journey. Then there’s John Milton, whose “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” pretty well cornered the British market in religious epic poetry, and who articulates that sense of intellectual and spiritual exceptionalism which still lurks in the English sub-conscious when he writes in his pamphlet “Areopagitica” that: “Now once again by all concurrence of signs, and by the generall instinct of holy and devout men, as they daily and solemnly expresse their thoughts, God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in his Church, ev’n to the reforming of Reformation it self: what does he then but reveal Himself to his servants, and as his manner is, first to his English-men…” How can a self-deprecating Florentine exile compete with the assurance of the blind bard of Chalfont St Giles?
However, with the first stirrings of the Romantic movement there came a re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, including the poetry of Dante. Painters and engravers began to mine the text of the Inferno, particularly, for picturesque scenes that would satisfy a taste for “Gothic” horror. Some were drawn to the story of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice. Others, like William Blake, found in Dante (who was possibly a Third-Order Franciscan) a contempt for materialism and for the ways in which power warps moral decision-making which resonated, at least in part, with their own critique of the growing industrialisation and imperialism of 19th-century Britain. Blake’s last great project, unfinished at his death in 1827, was a set of illustrations for the Comedy, which you can find online. Following Blake the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and artists as varied as Gustave Doré, Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dalì, also responded to the Comedy in their own way – but that is a subject for a different talk entirely.
In the two centuries following Henry Boyd’s pioneering version of the Divine Comedy, many more translations into English have been published: more, it is said, than into any other language. The classic 19th-century translation is that of the Anglo-Irish clergyman, H.F. Cary, who turned the Comedy into Miltonian-style blank verse, which was often accompanied, in its later editions, by Gustave Doré’s engravings. This translation was first published, one cantica at a time, during the decade from 1805 to 1814 and it was followed by a succession of other versions, some like Cary’s in blank verse, some in imitation of Dante’s own terza rima form, others in a variety of metres.
English interest in the Comedy was further heightened by the Oxford Movement’s desire to reconnect with the English Church’s pre-Reformation roots and to the mainstream of Western Christianity. In 1850 Richard Church, the historian of the Oxford Movement who became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote a substantial essay on Dante which hails the Commedia as “More than a magnificent poem, more than the beginning of a language and the opening of a national literature, more than the inspirer of art, and the glory of a great people.” That essay was reprinted in 1888 alongside essays on William Wordsworth and on Robert Browning’s poem “Sordello” and is nearly three times as long as both of these put together. Church quotes extensively from Dante’s other writings as well as from the Divine Comedy. Helpfully, alongside the original languages, he uses Ichabod Wright’s 1830s translation of the Comedy into English terza rima.
This enthusiasm for Dante crossed the Atlantic, alongside the growing numbers of migrants from Italy, some of whom carried with them the poet’s works and his reputation. One result of this cross-fertilisation was the publication of two distinguished American translations, that of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867 and the 1891-2 prose version by Charles Eliot Norton, who had the reputation of being the most cultured man in the USA and who sparked a distinguished tradition of American Dante scholarship which has continued until the present day.
In the 20th century the English poet Laurence Binyon (of “For the Fallen” fame) published the whole Commedia translated into terza rima over a ten-year period from 1933. The novelist, playwright and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers was reportedly inspired to begin her translation in an air raid shelter during the latter stages of the Second World War. In the essay which she contributed to the collection of “Essays Presented to Charles Williams”, the memorial volume edited by C.S. Lewis and published two years after Williams’s sudden death in 1945, Miss Sayers described that initial encounter in these words:
“Coming to him, as I did, for the first time rather late in life, the impact of Dante on my unprepared mind was not in the least what I had expected… Neither the world, nor the theologians, nor even Charles Williams had told me the one great, obvious, glaring fact about Dante Alighieri of Florence – that he was simply the most incomparable story-teller who ever set pen to paper… [and] I discovered three other things about Dante; first, that his diction was not, as I had imagined, uniformly in the grand manner, but homely, lucid, and fluent; secondly, that he himself was not, as tradition painted him, grim and austere, but sweet and companionable, and, if an archangel in stature, a very “affable archangel”; thirdly, that he was a very great comic writer – which was quite the last thing one would ever have inferred from the things people say in their books.”
The first volume of the Sayers version, Inferno, was published under the new “Penguin Classics” imprint in 1949. Purgatorio followed in 1955 and Paradiso, unfinished at her death in 1957, was completed by her friend and god-daughter, the Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds, in 1962. It is regarded these days as rather dated (I’ve even seen it described as “baroque”) but in his 2003 book “Dire quasi la stessa cosa. Esperienze di traduzione” (translated into English as “Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation”), the late Umberto Eco claimed that, of the various English translations, Sayers “does the best in at least partially preserving the hendecasyllables and the rhyme.”
More recent translations have included those by Mark Musa, a translation into blank verse which replaced the Sayers version in the “Penguin Classics” series and which has itself been replaced by a new blank verse translation by Robert Kirkpatrick, the poet C.H. Sisson, for the OUP “World’s Classics” series, Geoffrey L. Bickersteth’s translation into terza rima, in parallel with the Italian text, and the late Clive James’s version in rhyming quatrains. James, incidentally, takes the bold step of incorporating into the text of his translation background information about the people Dante meets – something that Dorothy L. Sayers and other translators tend to leave in explanatory notes.
I mentioned earlier the poet, publisher and novelist Charles Williams, who was a friend and collaborator of both Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis and from 1939 until his death a member of “the Inklings”, that circle of Oxford-based Christian intellectuals which included Lewis, his brother Warnie, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Williams’s 1943 study entitled “The Figure of Beatrice” is still read and invoked with awe by Dante scholars. Fourteen years earlier T.S. Eliot, whose poetry often contains echoes of or direct quotes from Dante, had offered his response as both a poet and an Anglo-Catholic Christian to a close reading of the Inferno, of the Purgatorio and Paradiso, and of the Vita Nuova, that collection of poems with linking commentary in which Dante first attempted to explore the meaning of his encounter with Beatrice. Eliot’s concern in each of the three chapters is with language, but also with feeling, and with the sheer foreignness of Dante’s world to an early 20th-century understanding. As he points out toward the end of the chapter on La Vita Nuova, “The English reader needs to remember that even had Dante not been a good Catholic, even had he treated Aristotle or Thomas [Aquinas] with sceptical indifference, his mind would still be no easier to understand; the forms of imagination, phantasmagoria, and sensibility would be just as strange to us.”
So who am I to add my centesimo-worth to all these riches? Nobody, of course – which is why I described this book-launch as an exercise in chutzpah: but, as I was led to discover Dante by reading Dorothy L. Sayers, and as she was led to discover Dante by reading, and corresponding with, Charles Williams, it is my hope that someone, somewhere, maybe even someone here this evening, may be led to discover, or re-discover, the treasure-house of history, theology, philosophy, scientific thought, political theory and, above all, poetry which is the Divina Commedia. And beyond that, it is my hope that others will be encouraged, as I was nearly sixty years ago, to embark, with Dante as their guide and companion, on that spiritual journey which is the beating heart of this great poem and which begins in the dark wood and ends in the vision of God.
22nd January, 2022
The chaplain has been busy in this Week of Prayer for Unity. Yesterday he was at the Cathedral here in Genova, reading a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. Today he was in Sanremo, at the Co-cathedral of San Siro, as the clergy representative of the Anglican Church in Italy. At the end of the service, each of the ministers present was asked to deliver a short message, based on the theme of the Week, the coming of the wise men to Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus. This is his message, in Italian more or less as it was given, with an English translation following:
Novanta cinque anni fa, nel anno mille novecento venti sette, il poeta Americano Thomas Stearns Eliot è battezzato, diventa cittadino britannico, e scrive la poesia “Il viaggio dei Magi”, una meditazione sullo stesso testo del vangelo di Matteo che abbiamo udito stasera. Ispirato da un’omelia dello studioso e vescovo inglese Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot descrive, dal punto di vista di uno dei magi, la difficoltà del viaggio ed i problemi che hanno confrontato i viaggiatori, “le vie fangose e la stagione rigida, nel cuore dell’inverno”.
Comunque, dice il mago, “arrivati a sera non solo un momento troppo prestotrovammo il posto: cosa soddisfacente (voi direte).”
E poi Eliot scrive queste parole (la traduzione italiana è quella di Roberto Sanesi):
“Tutto questo fu molto tempo fa, ricordo, e lo farei di nuovo, ma considerate questo considerate questo: ci trascinammo per tutta quella strada per una Nascita o una Morte? Vi fu una Nascita, certo, ne avemmo prova e non avemmo dubbio. Avevo visto nascita e morte, ma le avevo pensate differenti; per noi questa Nascita fu come un’aspra ed amara sofferenza, come la Morte, la nostra morte. Tornammo ai nostri luoghi, ai nostri Regni, ma ormai non più tranquilli, nelle antiche leggi, fra un popolo straniero che è rimasto aggrappato ai propri idoli. Io sarei lieto di un’altra morte”.
Per i magi la nascita di Gesù fu la morte delle “antiche leggi” di Zoroastrismo. Per Eliot stesso, nel anno quando ha scritto questa poesia, la morte fu la rinuncia della fede unitariana della sua famiglia e la rinuncia della sua propria cittadinanza americana. Per noi, se cerchiamo veramente l’unità dei cristiani per la quale preghiamo in questa settimana, ci potrebbe essere “un’aspra ed amara sofferenza” nella rinuncia delle “antiche leggi” che ci hanno nutriti ma che fanno inciampare nostri fratelli e nostre sorelle formati e formate da altre tradizioni cristiane.
Però, se cerchiamo veramente l’unità dei cristiani, troveremo che, come il battesimo, ciò che si sente come sofferenza o perfino morte è in realtà una nascita che da vita nuova alla chiesa una, santa, universale e apostolica nella quale tutti abbiamo stasera professato la fede e per la quale preghiamo durante tutta questa settimana.
Ninety-five years ago, in 1927, the American poet Thomas Stearns Eliot was baptised, became a British citizen, and wrote the poem “The Journey of the Magi”, a meditation on the same text from the Gospel of Matthew that we have heard tonight. Inspired by a sermon of the seventeenth-century English scholar and bishop Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot describes, from the point of view of one of the Magi, the difficulty of the journey and the problems faced by the travellers, ‘The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter ‘.
However, says the magus, "arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory."
And then Eliot writes these words:
"All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death."
For the Magi, the birth of Jesus was the death of the “the old dispensation” of Zoroastrianism. For Eliot himself, in the year when he wrote this poem, death was the renunciation of his family’s Unitarian faith and the renunciation of his own American citizenship. For us, if we truly seek the Christian unity for which we are praying this week, there may be “hard and bitter agony” in the renunciation of the “old dispensation” that has nurtured us but that causes our brothers and sisters formed by other Christian traditions to stumble.
However, if we truly seek Christian unity, we will find that, like baptism, what feels like agony or even death is in reality a birth that gives new life to the one, holy, universal and apostolic church in which we have all professed faith this evening and for which we are praying throughout this week.
Gospel for Wednesday, 5th January (Mark 6:45-52)
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Jesus has just fed five thousand men, plus assorted women and children. He packs the disciples off ahead of him across the lake and sends the crowd home. Then Jesus goes up into the hills, as he often does, to reconnect with the Father in prayer. Meanwhile, the disciples are having, in every sense, a rough time as they try to cross the water, “straining at the oars against an adverse wind”. It’s all rather like the storm-tossed trip to Gerasa in chapter 4 – but on that occasion they had Jesus in the boat with them. This time they’re on their own as they try to battle their way against a strong headwind.
It’s a shame, by the way, that our translation of this passage uses the word “lake” to describe Galilee. The Greek word that Mark uses here is θαλασσα [thalassa], which means “sea”, and in ancient Hebrew thought the sea was the home of chaos, disorder and monsters. No wonder the disciples were terrified. Even the sight of Jesus coming towards them across the water doesn’t reassure them. They think that he is a ghost.
But he isn’t a ghost – and the way Mark tells this story hints at who he is, with a nod towards what happened to Moses and Elijah up the mountain when God passed them by (as Jesus makes as if to pass by the disciples), and with another nod to the divine name when Jesus greets the disciples. The words translated “It is I“ are the words which are used in Greek versions of the Hebrew scriptures to translate the mysterious name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. This is not the appearance of a ghost. It is a manifestation of God, who brings order and peace out of chaos.
Some commentators have suggested that the chaos here is specific. Lake Galilee marked part of the border between Jewish and Gentile territory in northern Palestine, with the western shore being predominantly Jewish and the eastern shore mainly, but not exclusively, gentile in population. So some have argued that the storms against which the disciples find themselves struggling on more than one occasion as they cross the sea is a symbol of powerful pushback against the insight that for Christians the Jew-Gentile divide belongs to the past, because in Christ’s present there is neither Jew nor Greek. Those who live on both shores of the sea are equally part of God’s people.
But to live that vision of integration, whether between Jew and Gentile or between black and white, still requires courage and commitment and there are still stormy passages to be negotiated, especially in places where racial difference is enshrined in institutions and in the wider culture. There are horror stories to be told about the Church of England fifty years ago; in the USA Sunday morning is still reckoned to be the most segregated time of the week: and during his lifetime Desmond Tutu had to endure the hatred of many white Christians in South Africa in his search for justice and reconciliation between the races. But the presence of Jesus to keep those who follow him from being overwhelmed by the storms of social hostility is an encouragement to us as we seek to give flesh and bones to the insight that all are one in Christ Jesus.