Chaplain’s Page

Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Gospel reading for 21st September – St Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Reflection:

It didn’t really make much difference whether you worked for the Romans or for one of the borderline-Jewish puppet rulers for whom the occupying forces had carved out a patch of territory after the death of Herod the Great. If you collected taxes or customs dues from your fellow-countrymen on their behalf, you were hated and despised in roughly equal measure – not least because Roman tax-collection had rather more in common with a mafia protection racket than with the bureaucracy of the Agenzia dell’Entrate. In such an atmosphere, for Jesus to invite a man from the local tax-office to join the company of his disciples was bad enough. For him to go for a meal with such a person and his equally unsavoury friends was even worse. In the world-view of first-century Jews, tax-collectors are up there with herdsmen, leather-workers and professional gamblers on the list of “despised trades,” so far up there, in fact, that they were regarded as outcast from the people of God.

So the Pharisees, as guardians of the purity of God’s people, were outraged. The late Henri Persoz, of the Protestant Church in France, commented on this passage: “Just as they are today meals, whether small or great, were the moment for sharing among friends. Sharing bread, but also words, friendships, solidarities, mutual support. It is sharing that creates community. A gathering that in a way prefigures the kingdom of God, which is often depicted as a great banquet… Good reason, said the Pharisees, for not eating with sinners who certainly won’t be invited into the Kingdom, these strangers who come from no one knows where and who above all don’t live in the way our fathers taught us. What are they coming to do here? Who has invited them? Solidarity among ourselves, of course. But you have to know where to stop.”

But Jesus never does know when to stop. He turns the Pharisees’ argument upside down with his reminder that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” As Henri Persoz also remarks on his commentary on this passage, “The most important thing in these meals is to welcome the others, too, the people who aren’t well integrated into Jewishness, the sinners, and those unbearable people, the tax-collectors. [The Pharisees] don’t need looking after. But those who come from elsewhere, who don’t necessarily believe what [Pharisees] believe, those people who are stigmatised, ill, vulnerable because they do not easily fit into a traditional view of Jewishness, they are the ones who need to be welcomed, to be allowed into the community.”

Those words are important for us, too, in this time of great upheaval when people from many lands are fleeing repressive regimes or collapsing states. What matters to Jesus, and to us who claim to follow him, is not whether they are “the right kind of refugee” but the reality of their need – and especially their need, like Matthew and his friends, for acceptance and integration, integration not into a sharply defined community of the like-minded but into the fuzzy borders of the kingdom into which Jesus welcomes all those whom he has called.


Gospel reading for 15th September – St Cyprian (Luke 9:23-26)

Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Reflection:

Like Dante Alighieri, whom we remembered yesterday, Cyprian died on 14th September. Because of the clash with Holy Cross Day, the Western Church has long commemorated him on 13th or 15th (and in the Roman Calendar on 16th in order to avoid the ending of that Church’s celebration of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Although the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer appointed 26th September as his feast day, because of confusion with another holy Cyprian (of Antioch), the more usual date for his commemoration now is 15th September.

Cyprian was a late-comer to Christian faith. Born around AD200, until his mid-forties he was a pagan, a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric in North Africa. Converted to Christ, he gave away all his legal and rhetorical text-books and devoted himself to studying the Hebrew and Christian scriptures with the same energy and intelligence that he had previously devoted to the law, to such effect that within a couple of years he was chosen by popular acclaim as the new bishop of Carthage.

Cyprian was a wise and discerning bishop, whose pastoral heart was sometimes tempered by strictness in dealing with the various divisions which occurred in the North African Church during the middle of the third century. He was merciful to those who had fallen away from faith during the times of persecution, but he was a stern opponent of those who brought division into the body of Christ. Driven out of Carthage once by persecution, he continued to care for the communities in his charge by letter and his letters, and the various books that he wrote about topical issues and controversies in the Church, are an important source of information about developments in during this period. When persecution arose a second time, he initially went into hiding, but later returned, was arrested and, on his refusal to offer sacrifice to the official gods of the Roman empire, executed on 14th September 258. His courage in the face of persecution and willingness to lose his life for Jesus’ sake makes today’s gospel reading particularly appropriate.


Gospel reading for 14th September – Holy Cross Day (John 3.13-17)

Jesus told Nicodemus ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Reflection:

It was 700 years ago today that the poet, politician, philosopher and theologian Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna of malaria contracted while he was on a diplomatic mission to Venice. He was an exile from Florence, his native city. His property had been confiscated. He and his sons were under sentence of death if they ever returned. By the 500th anniversary of his death the authorities in Florence had come to the conclusion that their hard line against the family might have been a mistake (though they didn’t revoke the sentence against him until thirteen years ago) and they prepared a magnificent tomb in the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce – appropriately for someone who had died on Holy Cross Day and who had strong links with the Franciscan movement. They had everything ready and waiting to receive the poet’s earthly remains when they were returned from Ravenna. Sadly for them, they are still waiting. The people of Ravenna decided that as the people of Florence had rejected Dante while he was alive, it was not right that they should possess his bones after his death. So they remain in the mausoleum built for them in 1781 next door to Ravenna’smain Franciscan church.

Now today is not only a coincidence of dates. Today we celebrate the power of God’s love to overcome every evil, to make, in the words of the collect for Holy Cross Day, “an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and peace”. Today we rejoice that ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ So Dante, whose great poem begins with him lost in a dark wood on the evening of Maundy Thursday 1300, is saved by God’s love from the beasts which threaten him, and from the fear which almost overwhelms him. That poetic summing-up of a mid-life crisis, a crisis compounded in real life by the political and financial ruin which overtook him and his family less than two years later, marks the beginning of a journey into the depths which is the way by which Dante comes to attain the vision of God with which his poem ends.

So, too, Jesus, “the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”, journeys into the depths of human betrayal, cruelty and rejection, until he is lifted up on the cross, that stark emblem of the misuse of power in the service of the destructive forces of this world. Jesus is lifted up so that human beings may find in him their healing, as centuries before the Israelites had found healing by gazing on the serpent, the image of the poisonous snakes which had caused their suffering.

On this Holy Cross Day, then, let us not be afraid to confront the evil that lies in the depths as we turn our eyes to the image of Christ crucified and find in him our healing and a renewed hope and trust in the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Gospel reading for 8th September – Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Matthew 1:1-16,18-23)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

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.’

Reflection:

We don’t know what moved the Church, about 1200 years ago, to keep this day as the celebration of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of the few feasts of Our Lady which unites the Eastern and Western Churches and which avoids theological controversy – unlike the feast of her conception in December, not to mention Ferragosto. But today, and particularly the gospel for today, is not without its subversive sharp edges. The second part is familiar from other holy days. The first part is hidden in the depths of the daily lectionary. This poem by the English scholar Michael Goulder might explain why.

Exceedingly odd, 
Is the means by which God
Has provided our path to the heavenly shore:
Of the girls from whose line 
The true light was to shine
There was one an adulteress, one was a whore.
There was Tamar who bore – 
What we all should deplore –
A fine pair of twins to her father-in-law;
And Rahab the harlot, 
her sins were as scarlet,
As red as the thread which she hung from the door;
Yet alone of her nation 
She came to salvation,
And lived to be mother of Boaz of yore;
And he married Ruth, 
A Gentile uncouth,
In a manner quite counter to biblical law;
And of her there did spring 
Blessed David the King
who walked on his palace one evening, and saw
The wife of Uriah, 
From whom he did sire
A baby that died, oh, and princes a score.
And a mother unmarried 
It was too that carried
God’s son, and him laid in a cradle of straw;
That the moral might wait 
At the heavenly gate
While the sinners and publicans go in before,
Who have not earned their place 
But received it by grace,
And have found them a righteousness not of the law.

Those lines remind us, as the last line of today’s Gospel reminds us, that in Mary’s son God is with us: not the powerful, not the perfect, but us, ordinary human beings in all our moral and spiritual messiness. And on this her official birthday we give thanks that the woman whom Eastern Christians honour as “Mother of God” and Western Christians crown as “Queen of Heaven” is not set apart from our common humanity but takes her place in that interestingly messy lineage which Matthew sets out at the beginning of his Gospel, as he traces the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Gospel reading for 1st September – St Giles (Luke 4:38-end)

After leaving the synagogue Jesus entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.

Immediately she got up and began to serve them. As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Reflection:

I don’t know what it will be like this year (or what it was like twelve months ago), but pre-pandemic you could guarantee that central Oxford would be heaving on the Monday and Tuesday after the first September. One street in particular would be packed with fairground rides, sideshows and stalls of every kind, and that was St Giles’ Street, full to bursting with people enjoying St Giles’s fair.

Which is a bit strange, because Giles of Provence, in whose honour the fair is held, and has been held since at least the reign of King James VI/I, was not a man who cared for crowds. The details are vague, but it seems that at some time in the eighth century, he, like Jesus in this gospel reading, “departed and went into a deserted place”, where he spent his time in prayer and befriending, as many of those early hermit saints did, the local wildlife. He also acquired a reputation as a healer and came to be regarded in later times as patron saint of the disabled.

The reputation of St Giles, like the opening of this gospel passage, is a reminder that healing is as much part of the work of the Church as is the proclamation of God’s kingdom. Which makes it difficult to square with the action of the authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on Sunday, when a group of Christians made, at the end of the Sunday Eucharist, what is reported to have been a dignified and orderly plea for the healing of the earth. They called the police and had the group arrested. As a teenager attending a Christian summer camp in England many years ago noted, “We are the body of Christ. Unfortunately the left hand keeps hammering nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing.”

According to tradition, Giles knew about that, too. One of the animals he befriended was a deer, which became almost like a rather large household pet. One day it was discovered by a royal hunting party, which chased it into the woods where Giles had his hermitage. One of the hunters loosed off an arrow at random into the undergrowth in the direction which the deer had taken. When they followed up, they found themselves in the clearing outside Giles’s hermitage, face to face with the saint, who held the deer protectively, despite the arrow which had pierced his arm.

So on this St Giles’ Day, as we give thanks for “all the fun of the fair”, let us also pray for those who seek to protect the earth, and all God’s creatures, and those who work for healing and reconciliation. Among them let us remember especially the community which bears the Italian version of Giles’s name, the Communità di Sant’Egidio, giving thanks for their work, not only in feeding people in this city who are marginalised, but in bringing hope and healing to situations of conflict and danger in many countries around the world, casting out the demons of injustice, bitterness and violence in the name of Jesus our Lord.


Gospel reading for 25th August (Matthew 23:27-32)

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.’

Reflection:

The twenty-third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel ought to make uncomfortable reading for anyone who is, as I am, professionally religious. Sadly, down the centuries too many people have been too busy scoring points against the scribes and Pharisees, and their spiritual descendants in Orthodox Judaism, to notice that they are aiming at the wrong target. Yes, this chapter, which begins the last solid block of Jesus’ teaching, does begin with a set of “woes” to match the blessings which began the first block of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, those woes are clearly aimed at the fore-runners of the rabbis. However, they apply just as pointedly and as forcefully, to the religious leaders of any faith and any age.

They apply just as forcefully because, when you look at them closely, those woes aren’t about the details of first-century Jewish observance. They are about the yawning gap which can open up between pious appearance and sordid human reality, about the human tendency to “play-acting”, which is the basic meaning behind the word “hypocrite”. In the ancient world a “hupokrites” was a play-actor, someone who performed for the public, often at a religious festival, someone who appeared on stage in a mask and a wig and clothing not his own in order to appear to be someone he was not.

So the “woes” which Jesus proclaims against the scribes and Pharisees have a much wider application. What Jesus says in this chapter applies with equal force (to pick a few examples from recent reports in the religious press) to Catholic cardinals, Anglican bishops and prominent Evangelical laymen, people whose mask has either slipped or been removed by courageous whistle-blowers, people who have been caught out, usually far too late, behaving in a way which demolishes their reputation for holiness.

They apply, too, to people whose first response is to try to manage the reputation of the institution, who turn a blind eye to abuse of one kind or another, who look on while good people have their lives destroyed by the malice of their enemies. They overlook the pollution, the spiritual damage, that such activity is causing. Instead they slap another coat of whitewash on the structure which hides “the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”.

They silence the critics. They cosy up to the enablers. They delay justice for the victims. In the meantime other people’s reputations are ruined and their lives, and their families’ lives, are wrecked. No doubt in years to come they too will say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” But like “the descendants of those who murdered the prophets” their actions are directed towards silencing the voice of Jesus who takes his stand alongside all victims of those who wield power to gratify their own desires or manipulate their own reputations. So as we ponder these “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, let us look to the gap between appearance and reality in our own lives and lay aside our masks and borrowed costumes as we turn to God.


Gospel reading for 24th August – St Bartholomew (Luke 22:24-30)

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Reflection:

There is a grim irony that the Gospel for St Bartholomew’s day should begin with Jesus at the Last Supper warning the twelve against power struggles and emphasising that authority in the church is based on service. Because this day, nearly 450 years ago, marked the beginning of one of the most violent and vicious episodes in a forty-year power struggle for mastery over Church and state in France.

In August 1572 the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in France had been going on for ten years. An uneasy peace had been negotiated two years earlier and it was to be sealed by the marriage of the king’s sister, Marguerite de Valois, to the young Huguenot leader Henri de Navarre. The marriage was celebrated on 18th August, 1572, in Paris, and many Protestant leaders were in attendance, despite the hostility of Catholic ultras, who included most of the city’s population.

There was a great deal of tension, heightened by the attempted murder on 22nd August of the widely revered Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny. The king, Charles IX, and his mother, Caterina de’ Medici, became increasingly worried about possible revenge attacks. They appear to have decided to forestall that possibility by eliminating the Protestant leadership still in Paris, and their entourages. The king’s Swiss mercenaries were tasked with this action, which was to be carried out in the early morning of 24th, when the church bells rang for the early service.

Coligny, still recovering from the attempt on his life two days earlier, was one of the first to be murdered, by a group headed by the leader of the Catholic ultras, the Duc de Guise. He met his death with a dignity and calmness which impressed even his murderers, and his body was dumped out of the window of his sick-room. It was after that that the tension which had been building in Paris for nearly two years reached breaking point, and what was intended as a “surgical strike” against the Huguenot leadership exploded into an outbreak of mob violence against ordinary Protestants which lasted for several days, and then spread to the provinces, where it continued until the early autumn. It is reckoned that anything up to 20,000 Protestants were killed. And the war flared up again and continued for another quarter-century, until Henri de Navarre, by now Henry IV of France, brought the conflict to an end by becoming a Catholic and issuing the Edict of Nantes, which enforced mutual toleration of both Catholics and Protestants.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre remains one of the deepest wounds self-inflicted on the body of Christ, so it’s perhaps appropriate that the saint’s symbol is a butcher’s knife, recalling the tradition that he was flayed alive in Armenia. It’s a worryingly topical warning, too, about what can happen when Christian faith becomes co-opted by those who wish to “lord it” over others. The rulers of France in 1572 were so far from being “benefactors” that in their willingness to countenance mass murder they lost control of the nation to mob violence. So, I will leave the last word with a former colleague Fr Robin Gibbons, a Greek-Catholic priest based in Oxford, in a prayer specially composed for today:

O Christ, you desire that we form one body in You. Forgive us for any attitude or prejudice that divides Christians. Take from us all cruelty in action and word about others and remove any semblance of misguided fervour, that we may live in love.


Gospel reading for 18th August (Matthew 20:1-16)

Jesus said to the 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.’

Reflection:

Today’s parable of the kingdom is one that we might find a little uncomfortable. It offends against our notions of fairness. Like the workers who had borne “the burden of the day and the scorching heat”, we tend to believe that those who put in the most effort deserve the biggest reward, though we might not go quite so far as the possibly mythical church council in the industrial North of England a century ago which is said to have instructed the church’s Sunday School superintendent not to use this passage from Matthew’s Gospel because it ran counter to “sound trade union principles.”

But this parable isn’t about good employment practice – “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. The landowner has, after all, agreed with the people he hired at sunrise to pay them “the usual daily wage”. What they are grumbling about is that he doesn’t pay those who came later “pro rata” but pays them as if they too had worked a full shift. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and a reminder that although we often pray for “the coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice”, the kingdom is actually a kingdom of grace and mercy at the heart of which is the love which we cannot “earn” but which is God’s free gift, the love which embraces the greatest sinners with the same generosity as it embraces the greatest saints.

It’s a parable with a pointed application, too. That last line, ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’, points us back to what Jesus tells Peter at the end of the previous chapter when, after watching the discomfiture of the rich young man, Peter asks what will be the reward for those who have left everything and followed Jesus. Jesus tells him that “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 then he adds “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In a sense, this parable is an explanation of how. It’s also, perhaps, a reminder, looking back not only to chapter 19 but also to the ongoing debates between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees, that human rankings based on wealth, power, and piety, are irrelevant in the sight of God, what matters is that all human beings are God’s children, infinitely loved by their Father in heaven.


Gospel reading for 11th August—Clare of Assisi and John Henry Newman (John 15:4-10)

Jesus said to the disciples, “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. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

Reflection:

Christians often take these words of Jesus to be friendly and comforting. Vicars regularly use them to encourage regular habits of church-going, prayer and Bible-reading as sure-fire ways of abiding in Christ. I know, I’ve done it myself. But what happens when “abiding in Christ”, and letting his words abide in us, means turning our backs on the life that we have been used to, the life with which we might, perhaps, have become over-comfortable?

That happened to both the people we remember today. For both Clare of Assisi and John Henry Newman abiding in Christ meant separating themselves from the relationships and networks in which they had grown up and letting go of the expectations and hopes which had grown up around them. It was the impact of St Francis’ preaching and example which decided Chiara degli Offreducci, the daughter of a prominent family in Assisi, to reject the idea of making a “good marriage” with a young man of equivalent status and devoting herself, as her mother Ortolana did, to bringing up a family, to regular attendance at church and accompanying “good works”, with the occasional escape on pilgrimage which seems to have provided Ortolana with a safety valve. In Newman’s case it was the official response to his contributions to the “Tracts for the Times” and growing doubts arising from his academic researches which led him to resign as Vicar of the University Church in Oxford and, two years later, to be received into the Catholic Church.

But for both of them that painful process led them to bear rich fruit for God. Clare became, not only the faithful disciple of St Francis, but also his trusted adviser and support – although on some matters they did not see eye to eye. After Francis’s death she, and the community of women (including her mother and one of her sisters) which had gathered around her, continued to develop a distinct style of life together, abiding in the love, and the poverty, of Christ in a way which was unprecedented among women religious. John Henry Newman, having cast himself adrift from the Anglican Church in which he had grown up and of which he had been for fifteen years one of the leading lights as a preacher and writer, found shelter in another community, the Oratory founded by St Philip Neri in Rome in the mid-sixteenth century, and newly founded in Birmingham. There he continued his work of preaching and writing, sometimes in favour with Rome, and sometimes not.

What is, perhaps, more remarkable is the fruit which both of them continue to bear long after their death. Communities which embody Clare’s vision of a life combining prayer and radical poverty continue to attract women more than seven and a half centuries after her death, both in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. Newman’s understanding of the tradition of Christian faith as a living, growing reality that speaks powerfully to the world in each generation rather than a fossilised structure of thought and practice to be handed down unchanged from age to age may have made him unpopular at the time of the First Vatican Council, but it bore fruit in the work of the Second Vatican Council, whose insights are still being applied and interpreted half a century later. In his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” Newman wrote “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Paradoxically it is in their commitment to a discipleship marked by growth and change that both he and Clare bear powerful witness to the unchanging God of love.


Gospel reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord (Luke 9.28-36)

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Reflection:

In Luke’s Gospel, as in Matthew’s and Mark’s, the story of the Transfiguration is the theological centre of the Gospel. For Mark, it’s the physical centre, too, coming at the very beginning of chapter 9. For Luke it comes more or less immediately before Jesus leaves Galilee on the journey to Jerusalem which will lead to his death, the “departure” of which Moses and Elijah spoke. So the “Majestic Glory” to which the second letter of Peter testifies is offering the inner circle of disciples, and us with them, a foretaste of resurrection splendour before the shadows of betrayal, trial and execution close in. Here is a revelation of who Jesus really is that is, in the words of one of John Bell’s songs, “sealed by sign and word”, by the dazzling light and the voice from the cloud.

Today, as we reflect on that dazzling light, we also remember another light, “brighter than a thousand suns”, the light that broke over the Japanese city of Hiroshima 76 years ago today, destroying the heart of the city by blast and firestorm, killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people immediately by incineration and many thousands more through radiation poisoning during the months and years that followed. There were also, during the post-war decades, innumerable deaths from cancer and many children born with birth defects.

So today we remember not only transfiguration but also disfiguration. We are reminded of the human potential both for glory and for unutterable destructiveness – and of the need to decide which we will choose. I don’t think that choice has ever been so urgently and starkly set before humankind in my lifetime as it is being set in these days. The Cuban missile crisis sixty years ago is probably the nearest parallel, but that required a positive decision for destruction. Today we are in danger of drifting into the obliteration, not of one city, but of life on this planet. What is not an option is Peter’s desire to stay in the moment: ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. As the voice from the cloud makes clear, our calling is to listen to Jesus, to follow him, however unwillingly, down from the mountain.

As Peter and John and James will discover, that return from the mountain-top will bring them face-to-face with the suffering of the world and with the failure of the disciples. It will also renew their awareness of the power of Jesus to heal and make whole. As we face the repeated failure of the Churches at so many levels of their life, and as we watch footage of the wildfires and the floods, the temptation to stay in our “shelter” is strong. But the voice from the cloud leaves us no alternative: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ – and to listen to him means to follow him into the valley of the shadow, sharing in his work of healing until eternal day finally dawns and Christ the morning star rises for ever in our hearts.


Gospel reading for 4th August – Jean-Baptiste Vianney (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.

Reflection:

This was clearly not what Jesus was expecting. Gentile territory like the district of Tyre and Sidon was safe space, somewhere he could hope to go and remain incognito, as St Mark’s version of this story makes clear. But not this time. “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.’” Now for Matthew to describe her as “a Canaanite woman” is quite strange. The word is used nowhere else in the New Testament, which is hardly surprising because no Canaanites had inhabited the district of Tyre and Sidon for centuries. Mark, more accurately, calls the woman “a Greek-speaker, a Syrophoenician” As the American writer Brian Mclaren has pointed out “To call someone in Jesus’ day a Canaanite would be … like calling a contemporary Norwegian a Viking….”

But the word is there, reminding Matthew’s earliest readers what happened to the original Canaanites, and reminding modern readers of some uncomfortable parallels between ancient Israel’s violent conquest of Canaan and modern Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians… This account also points up a few other parallels within Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus’ reminder to himself, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ echoes his earlier instructions to the Twelve ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And nearly three hundred kilometres from Tyre and Sidon, when Jesus leaves Jericho in on his final journey to Jerusalem, two blind beggars by the roadside shout out ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ And those following Jesus try to shut them up, too. “The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet.“

What is happening here, it seems, is that Jesus is working his way towards deconstructing the story of conquest told in the Hebrew Scriptures. To quote Brian McLaren again, “The reversals are striking. Jesus does not follow Deuteronomy’s “no mercy to Canaanites” policy, but rather shows mercy to this Canaanite woman and her daughter… Jesus, an Israelite son, sees a Canaanite daughter not as a danger, but as a person in need, and heals her.” The boundaries, the “othering” that sees Jews as “the children” and gentiles as “dogs”, are done away. Jesus opens the way to a mission that goes way beyond “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

And that is a lesson for us to learn today as we remember another outsider whose life broke through conventional boundaries and opened the gate of God’s mercy. Jean-Baptiste Vianney nearly didn’t make it to ordination because of his inability to learn Latin – a fairly essential requirement in the Catholic Church 200 years ago. Fortunately, his bishop saw, not the incompetent Latinist, but the young man with a sense of devotion and a potential for real holiness. Three years after his priesting Jean-Baptiste was sent as curé to the remote village of Ars-en-Dombes, where he stayed for the rest of his life and where he won such a reputation as a preacher and spiritual guide that it seemed as if the whole of France came to sit at his feet. In his later years he would spend up to 18 hours a day in the confessional, healing souls through the depth of his insight and the power of God’s love at work in him.


Gospel reading for 28th July (Matthew 13:44-46)

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.’

Reflection:

Last Wednesday we heard the first, and probably best-known, of the parables of the kingdom which Matthew collects in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel. Today we hear two more, which, unlike the parable of the sower, are found only in Matthew’s Gospel. They are much shorter than the parable of the sower, but just as vivid in their imagery. The first one, in particular, resonates in this age of the metal-detector, when a swing across a random field might just turn up a treasure hidden long ago in a time of crisis and never retrieved. I doubt, though, whether current laws governing such finds would allow a modern detectorist to be quite as single-minded in his pursuit of that treasure as a first-century peasant who got lucky.

However, to worry about the unscrupulous action of the peasant is to miss the point of the parable: which is that the kingdom of heaven requires a total response – irrespective of the wealth or status of the person to whom it has been revealed, peasant farmer or pearl merchant. Bishop Richard Harries, now Lord Harries of Pentregarth, used to worry whether God’s “preferential option for the poor” inevitably excluded those who were well-off. He even wrote a book on the subject, with the title “Is there a Gospel for the Rich?”. To judge by the second of this pair of parables the answer is clearly “yes”, but with the proviso that responding to the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is going to cost the rich person just as much as it costs the poor: in other words, everything that they have – irrespective of whether they stumble across it by accident or go out looking for it.

Now, both these parables, when you look at them closely, are quite uncomfortable reading, because they remind us that we can’t sign up for the kingdom of heaven on a part-time basis – not that it stops us from trying. The number of times I have caught myself trying to bargain with God about my use of God’s time is really quite shaming. Either we follow Jesus, or we don’t. The same is true about the cost. There are no cut-price deals. The only “special offer” is the kingdom of heaven itself, but that, as these two parables remind us, is worth all that we are and all that we have, because ultimately the kingdom of heaven is God’s own self, the true goal of all life and the source of all our joy.


Gospel reading for the feast of Mary Magdalen (John 20:1-2,11-18)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’

But 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.

Reflection:

There is something about Mary of Magdala that tends to send grown men (and it is usually men) slightly loopy. Down the centuries she has led a rich and varied fantasy life not only in the writings of people like Dan Brown of “Da Vinci Code” fame, and in such weird and wonderful gnostic texts as the “Gospel of Thomas” and “Pistis Sophia”, but also in the sermons of otherwise sober and sensible preachers, in commentaries on the New Testament, and in more or less official “Lives of the Saints” – not least the “Golden Legend” of our own Archbishop Jacopo da Varazze. She has been confused with Mary of Bethany and with the unnamed “woman who was a sinner” in Luke’s Gospel – the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and wiped them with her hair. She has been given a fairly spicy back-story and a spectacular sequel which takes her from where the gospels leave her, in Jerusalem on the first Easter morning, via Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, to her final resting-place in the great Burgundian basilica at Vézélay.

Her actual story, as told in the Gospels, is rather less spectacular and much more significant. Luke gives her a bit of a back-story, which doesn’t bear much resemblance to the tale told by Archbishop Jacopo. Luke tells us that she was part of Jesus’ circle, travelling round with him and the twelve in the company of other women who had been healed by Jesus, including the wife of one of Herod Antipas’s senior officials. The women, incidentally, “provided for them out of their resources”, so they can’t have been short of a denarius or two. Luke also adds the detail that Mary was someone “from whom seven demons had gone out“, which suggests serious mental illness but not necessarily erotomania. She then disappears from sight until the very end. Mark, Matthew, and John all report her presence at the crucifixion. All four gospels describe her, either alone or as one of a small group of women, going at dawn on the first day of the week to the tomb where the corpse of Jesus had been laid two days previously and finding it empty. In Mark that’s the end of the story apart from the young man in white whose words send them running off in terror. In Matthew that terror is mixed with great joy, and they run to tell the disciples, as they also do in Luke’s version – except that Matthew includes an encounter with the risen Jesus on the way.

But it’s in John’s account of the resurrection, and particularly in today’s Gospel reading, that Mary plays such an important part that the Church has for centuries called her “The Apostle to the Apostles”, the one who is sent with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to those who are to carry that news to the ends of the earth. She is not only the one who finds the tomb empty. She is also the first to encounter the risen Lord. That is the woman for whom we give thanks today: not the repentant prostitute of popular imagination; not the “wife of Christ” dreamed up by conspiracy theorists and popular novelists; not even the “woman of substance” who helped to fund Jesus’ mission in Galilee. What matters about Mary Magdalen is her encounter with the risen Christ and her obedience to his command. She “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’”.


Gospel reading for 21st July – (Matthew 13:1-9)

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

Reflection:

Today’s gospel begins at the end of a busy day – which is a bit paradoxical, because the last indication of time that Matthew gives us before the words which begin chapter 13 is that it was a sabbath, the one day out of seven when Jews were – and still are – supposed to rest, whether as a reflection of God’s rest at the end of the six days of creation (as in Exodus) or in thanksgiving for release from slavery in Egypt (as in Deuteronomy).

But Jesus has not rested. At the opening of the 12th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, he has defended the disciples against accusations of Sabbath-breaking, and then he himself has broken the Sabbath by healing, he has taught, he has engaged in argument with the Pharisees, then with the scribes, and finally, perhaps, with his own family. And all the time people have been thronging after him, in search of wisdom and healing. “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them.”

And still they follow. No restful half-hour watching the waves for Jesus. “ Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” So he tells them a story, a story which reads as if it comes straight out of the experience reported in chapter 12. For every four seeds the sower scatters on the land only one brings forth grain. It’s not quite the same as the old rhyme I quoted a couple of weeks ago, “One for the rat, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow”, but the effect is the same. The ground packed solid by people’s passing feet, the ground where there’s no depth of soil covering the rock, the ground already occupied by thorns – they are just as effective bars to growth as the vermin, or the birds or the mould. Or, indeed, the Pharisees and the scribes (both solidly resisting change and growth) and the family members who tried to entangle Jesus in their everyday worries.

So, don’t bet the farm on a bumper harvest! And yet…

Jesus tells the crowds that there is good soil, and that the seed that lands there bears abundant fruit. And he uses the kind of story-teller’s exaggeration which probably got a huge belly-laugh from the peasant farmers in his audience – and that would have been most of them. Even with modern agro-technology a yield of thirty-fold is going it some. In first-century Palestine seven-fold, or if you were lucky ten-fold, would have been the limit. “A hundred-fold” – he’s got to be joking! “Sixty-fold” – he’s having a laugh! “Thirty-fold” – by now tears of laughter are streaming down each farmer’s face!

But those who have ears, those who listen, they realise that Jesus isn’t telling them “an everyday story of country-folk”. They recognise that the widely-scattered seed represents God’s generosity, the love which is shared with the whole of humanity, regardless, and that the different types of ground represent our human response to that generosity, that love. That, I think, gives us a clue how to respond to the crisis of confidence which is currently affecting the Church – and not just the Church of England. Our task, clergy and laity alike, is very simple. It’s not to be trapped in a religious cage, like the scribes and Pharisees. Nor is it to get caught by slogans, or the latest management gimmick, the latest sure-fire programme for bringing people to Christ. Our task is simply to open our hearts to God’s love and generosity until they overflow into the lives of others, to let God push us out of our comfort zone and into the kingdom of heaven.


Gospel reading for 14th July – John Keble (Matthew 5:1-8)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’

Reflection:

It was a hundred and eighty-eight years ago today that the Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford climbed the steep flight of stairs to the pulpit of the University Church to preach a sermon to the judges, barristers and other legal personnel gathered in the city for the Assizes. It was not perhaps the sort of sermon that they were expecting to hear. It had little to do with justice or the law. Instead it focused on Church-state relations and what the preacher saw as a dangerous and increasing trend toward what he called “national apostasy”, typified by the then government’s plans to reduce the number of Anglican bishoprics in Ireland from 22 to twelve. What he would have made of the present situation of the Church of England, I shudder to think.

The preacher was John Keble, a brilliant academic (he was elected a Fellow of Oriel College at the age of nineteen), a much admired poet (we still sing some of his poems as hymns, including the one whose first line is the last line of today’s gospel), and a wise, gifted and self-effacing priest. His 1833 Assize Sermon, with its impassioned plea to “let the Church be the Church” – and not simply the state in its religious aspect – was regarded by many as the beginning of the Oxford Movement, that quest to rediscover the source of the Church of England in the main stream of Western Christianity rather than in the whirlpools and rapids of the Reformation.

The sermon caused quite a stir and was followed up by Keble and his friends, including John Henry Newman, E.B. Pusey, Isaac Williams and Hurrell Froude, with a series of “Tracts for the Times”, reflections on contemporary issues in the Church which gave their movement its other name, “Tractarianism”. As part of the theological underpinning of their work, they also began a series of translations into English of writings by the early Fathers of the Church.

Meanwhile in 1836 John Keble had turned his back on the world of the University and become the vicar of a country parish in Hampshire, where he was to remain for the rest of his life, preaching and teaching, a faithful pastor, caring for his flock, offering (usually with great diffidence) spiritual guidance to those who sought it, and still writing poetry and pursuing his academic interests. His translation of the writings of St Irenaeus for “The Library of the Fathers” was published some years after his death.

But what matters about John Keble is neither his academic work nor his poetry, some of which has not aged well. What matters about Keble is the beauty of his character, his faithfulness to Christ and his loyalty to the Church in which he had been raised. When Newman and his disciples turned to Rome in 1845, Keble and Pusey remained firmly in the Church of England and kept the majority of the Tractarians within the Anglican fold, to the great enrichment of the spiritual and intellectual life of the Church, as well as to Christian art and architecture. Many of the greatest Victorian architects, including our own G.E. Street, were part of that movement whose beginning is reckoned to be the sermon John Keble preached on this day in 1833 and his plea that the Church should above all be guided by God.


Gospel reading for 7th July (Matthew 10:1-7)

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”’

Reflection:

Anyone who follows Anglican Twitter, or who has a few Church of England clergy among their Facebook friends, will probably be aware that the latest grand strategy for the Church is about to be launched – or at least to be discussed at General Synod. It aims at producing 10,000 new, lay-led, house-based congregations by 2030. Which means, as a colleague in Buckinghamshire has pointed out, that what is needed from this point onwards is 3 ‘successful’ new churches to be launched every day (including weekends) for the next 9 years! Or, given the usual ‘success’ rate of planting seeds, with “one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow”, to get to the 10,000 new churches, we would need to seed 40,000 – in other words, 12 every day, including weekends, for the next 9 years.

Leaving aside all the problems this project is likely to create in terms of leadership training and safeguarding, it all seems rather different from the strategy that Jesus adopts when he commissions his twelve disciples and sends them out. That strategy is not about numbers (except the number twelve, which we’ll come back to in a minute) – and certainly not about large round numbers apparently plucked out of the air. It is about proclaiming the kingdom of heaven in word and in action. Nor is it about recruiting new members to a religious organisation – with an underlying and unspoken assumption that they will be “people like us”. It is about healing and making whole. It is about reviving and renewing the people of God – which is why the number twelve is rather important. The twelve apostles, the twelve sent out, are, in a sense, the counterparts of the twelve sons of Jacob. As they were the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel, so the apostles will be the core of a new Israel, built out of the debris of the old. That is why Jesus is so insistent that, at this stage, the twelve should not go further than seeking “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

So, let’s ponder an alternative “grand strategy” for the Church of England, one based on seeking out the “lost sheep” in our own communities, the families who presented children for baptism and then vanished, the confirmation candidates who dropped out, the couple who had a row with the last vicar but three and haven’t darkened the church’s door since. And let’s do it in a way that is about hope and healing, not condemnation and control. Above all, let’s do it in a way which affirms the gifts and resources that the Church has already, in all its members, lay or ordained, in its buildings, ancient or modern, in small congregations as well as in large ones, and which doesn’t regard expensively trained clergy or ageing buildings as “limiting factors”. Jesus sends his people into the world as it is, not the world as they would like it to be, as flawed human beings among other flawed human begins, not as representatives of an organisation trying to make a sale. And all that we do is done under the authority, and in the strength, of Jesus the Christ.


Gospel reading for 30th June (Matthew 8:28-end)

When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.

Reflection:

This is one of those gospel passages where Matthew doesn’t so much take a pruning knife as a pair of lopping shears to a story which he shares with Mark and Luke. Mark takes twenty verses to tell how Jesus healed one man possessed by a multitude of demons and Luke takes fourteen. Despite doubling the number of demoniacs to be healed, Matthew strips the whole story, from Jesus’ arrival in “the country of the Gadarenes” to his somewhat involuntary departure back across the lake, down to seven.

A number of reasons have been suggested for Matthew’s heavy use of the editor’s blue pencil at this point. The obvious one is that he needs to make room in his Gospel for the material which he doesn’t share with Mark – so out comes most of Mark’s telling detail. A second reason is that Matthew’s agenda as an evangelist is markedly less radical than Mark’s. It’s difficult to imagine the main theme of Matthew’s Gospel being described as “a call to revolutionary patience” as Mark’s has been by one contemporary New Testament scholar. And a third reason is that, in this section of his Gospel, Matthew seems to be shaping his material to provide a series of examples of “what the Messiah was doing”, leading up to the encounter with the disciples of John the Baptist in chapter 11.

But the most important thing about this story, whether it is told at length by Mark and Luke or briskly summarised here by Matthew, is that it answers the question which was asked by the disciples at the end of our gospel reading two Sundays ago. Then, you may remember, after Jesus had calmed the storm the disciples “were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’.” Today, from the mouth of the “two demoniacs coming out of the tombs”, we get the answer. “Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God?’” As we were reminded at the Eucharist yesterday, it’s going to take Simon Peter another eight chapters and a journey to the far north before he gets to that divinely inspired point of recognition.

After that revelation the rest of the story is something of an anticlimax. We learn about the fate of the pigs. It seems that demons, like viruses, need a host body to invade, even if their invasion leads to that host body’s death. That aspect of the story, for animal-loving Brits at least, is sad – as well as being a reminder that Gadara is one of the non-Jewish “Ten Towns”, on the Greek-speaking side of the lake, where the rules of kashrut don’t apply. We are never told explicitly what happened to the men who had been demon-possessed when once the demons had left them. But we do learn that “the whole town” found the presence of Jesus so disturbing that its people asked him to leave. So perhaps Matthew is, for once, being as challenging as Mark, asking his readers whether we find Jesus simply disturbing and would prefer him to leave us, or whether we recognise him as in truth the “Son of God” who brings peace and healing when the forces of chaos have been unleashed, whether in the natural world or in the human psyche.


Gospel reading for 29th June – St Peter and St Paul (Matthew 16:13-19)

Now when he came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

Reflection:

At first sight the Common Worship Calendar seems a bit unfair. Why should Peter have to share his feast day with Paul? Paul has his day in January, why should he muscle his way into Petertide? Looking at the choice of readings for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul we might imagine that the compilers of the Lectionary felt the same. The Gospel gives us Matthew’s account of what happened at Caesarea Philippi. The other readings from the New Testament are balanced two to one in Peter’s favour, and the “one” is almost certainly not genuine Paul.

And the two are so different: the Aramaic-speaking fisherman from Galilee, coupled with a Greek-speaking rabbi from one of the great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: the man who was one of the inner circle around Jesus of Nazareth, paired with a man who had never met Jesus during his earthly life: the man who tried to defend his teacher by force of arms when the authorities came to arrest him, linked to a man who was a self-confessed persecutor of the first Christians. You wouldn’t expect their relationship to be an easy one – and we know from Paul’s letters that it wasn’t. In Galatians he recalls a blazing row. In his correspondence with the church in Corinth he makes it clear that he is not a huge fan of “team Peter”.

But what Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles make clear is that they needed one another – and that the Church needs both. It was Peter who replied to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” by blurting out “You are the Messiah” – and by his very next words made it clear that he did not understand what that meant. It was Paul who clarified what it meant to speak of a crucified Messiah and provided the foundation for nearly two thousand years of Christian worship and theology. It was Peter who took the first step across the abyss separating Jews and non-Jews when he baptised the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household and enjoyed their hospitality for several days. It was Paul who worked out that this crossing of boundaries was not a “one-off”, but a pattern of mission and ministry which must be followed up. His row with Peter (and Barnabas) in Antioch was the result of Peter drawing back, under pressure from conservative Christians from Jerusalem, from the precedent which he had established in Caesarea.

They are, in the words of the late Jo Cox, the fifth anniversary of whose murder fell earlier this month, “better together”. And what united them was certainly greater than the things which divided them: their awareness of God’s presence in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus; their commitment to sharing with all people the good news that through him the world had changed; and their death – traditionally on this day – at the height of Nero’s scapegoating of Christians after the fire which devastated Rome in AD 64. We still need to hear both the declaration of Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and the words of Paul, exploring what that declaration means, in terms of both our understanding of God and our engagement in God’s mission.


Gospel reading for 24th June – Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1.57-66,80)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Reflection:

“What then will this child become?” The question that was asked by the kinsfolk and neighbours of Elizabeth and Zechariah is one that is regularly asked when a baby is born. Whether or not we are closely involved in the life of the family, we can allow ourselves to wonder, as the people of the hill country of Judaea did when John was born, “What will this child become?” In John’s case, of course, the circumstances surrounding the birth would be enough to make anyone wonder. A father who can’t say a word during his wife’s pregnancy and a post-menopausal mother are not normally part of the run-up to childbirth. They point us, as St Luke intends that they should, to the realisation that this child is special, that “indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

John is special, because it will be his task as an adult to point Israel to the coming of Jesus. He is the voice crying out “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” He is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the herald of God’s good tidings, lifting up his voice with strength, to announce the coming of God.

Nowadays, if we think of heralds at all, we tend to think of them as rather stuffy courtiers – a bit like the white rabbit in the Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland”. In former times it was not so. Heralds were people who carried urgent and important messages – people like Sir Robert Carey, pounding on horseback along the Great North Road, at great risk to his own life and safety, to be the first to bear from London news of Queen Elizabeth’s death to King James VI of Scotland in Edinburgh. John was that kind of herald. All the Gospels stress the urgency of his message, preparing the people for God’s decisive intervention in human history, a message that was addressed to the wealthy and powerful as much as it was to the poor people of the land – a message that made uncomfortable hearing for some and one that was delivered, like Sir Robert’s, at great risk to John’s own life and safety.

Countless Christians down the centuries have shared John’s experience. They have proclaimed the coming of Jesus at the cost of their own life and safety. They have proclaimed the need for changed hearts, changed lives, changed standards of behaviour in society, and they have met their death. From John the Baptist to Oscar Romero and on into this century, the fate of God’s heralds has been to proclaim, to be handed over to worldly powers and to die. As today’s collect puts it their task has been “constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake”.

Their story, like the story of John the Baptist, is a call to us to repent, to change the way we look at the world, to change our attitudes. In our awareness of the casualties of pandemic here in Italy, let us not lose sight of the myriad other casualties – victims of the violence caused by everyday human pride, foolishness and greed, in Africa and Asia and across the Middle East. Many of them are Christian brothers and sisters, part, like us, of the living body of Christ.


Gospel reading for 23rd June – Etheldreda of Ely (Matthew 25:1-13)

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’

Reflection:

It’s tempting to begin where we left off as our tour of English cathedral cities continues, from Chichester and Durham last week, to Ely this week, but it might be more appropriate to go back a week further. My breakfast reading for the past few weeks has been the hymns of St Ephrem, whom we remembered on 9th June. This week I’m reading the hymns which have as their theme “the Symbols of the Lord”, and particularly the symbol of oil. One hymn focused on oil as the source of light. It included these words:

“Oil enriches the light of the lamps symbolically. 
The Anointed one [Christ, in other words] enriches the lamps of the virgins espoused to him... 
Small is the light of a lamp whose supply of oil is small. 
Since the time of the Bridegroom is not revealed to us, you virgins have become our Watchers [roughly, “guardian angels”]
so that your lamps might gladden and your hosannas might glorify.”

The link between Ephrem’s words and the parable in the gospel is clear. They pick up a regular theme in his poetry: the key role of women, and especially consecrated virgins, in the grand scheme of things. That might seem strange to us, living in a culture which is so heavily sexualised. In fourth-century Syria things were rather different. As they were in seventh-century England, when holy women played a hugely important part in spreading the Christian faith. Hilda of Whitby and Ebba of Coldingham were significant figures among the second generation of English Christians. So, a generation after them, was Etheldreda, whom we remember today. Unlike Ebba and Hilda she was not a Northumbrian. Also unlike them, she had been married – twice. She was a daughter of the East Anglian royal house and, like most royal daughters in the mid-seventh century, she became a pawn in Anglo-Saxon politics, married first to the chief of a neighbouring clan and then, when he died within three years of their marriage, to the son of the king of Northumbria. Which was tough on both parties because Etheldreda wished to commit her life to prayer, rather than running the domestic side of a royal household, and her first husband, possibly, and Ecgfrith her second husband, certainly, were told firmly that the marriage would not be consummated.

After much anguish, Ecgfrith reluctantly agreed to release his wife and she entered the monastery of which Ebba (Ecgfrith’s aunt) was abbess. Not long afterwards she returned to East Anglia, to found a double monastery on the isle of Ely, where Ely cathedral now stands, and where she took on the role of abbess until her death, on this day in the year 679. Bede tells us that she was carried off by an outbreak of plague, whose coming she had foretold, as she also foretold how many members of the community would succumb to the same sickness. She was revered in her lifetime as a wise and holy woman, and after her death many healings reportedly took place at her shrine.

So today we praise God for one of the most revered Anglo-Saxon women saints, remembering the simplicity and austerity of her life and the power of her prayer. We remember one who was blessed for watching over her people, in life and in death, and give thanks that the lamps of her community, gleaming across the marshes around Ely, gladdened her generation and that their hosannas, continuing in the cathedral to this day, have glorified God through fourteen centuries.


Gospel reading for 16th June – Richard of Chichester and Joseph Butler (John 21:15-19)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Reflection:

Jesus said to Peter “Feed my sheep.“ Today the Church of England commemorates two men who did that, in very different ways, in their own generation. Richard de Wych was born in Droitwich in the English midlands in the closing years of the 12th century. He studied at Oxford and then in Paris and Bologna before returning to Oxford in his late thirties to be the University’s Chancellor. He wasn’t there for long, though, because he was headhunted by Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury, to be the chancellor of his diocese. Richard was clearly a high-flier, so it’s probably no surprise that within a few years of Archbishop Edmund’s death he was appointed Bishop of Chichester – at which point he found himself caught up in one of those spats between the King of England and the Pope which punctuate the history of the Middle Ages. After a stand-off lasting about a year, Richard was confirmed as bishop and for the remaining eight years of his life he proved to be one of the great pastoral bishops, encouraging his clergy and raising their standards, eliminating corruption, meeting the ordinary people of the diocese wherever and whenever he could. It is said that he always travelled round his diocese on foot as one way of achieving this. He died in Dover on 3rd April 1253 while on a preaching tour which took him outside his diocese. We remember him on this day because 16th June 1276 was the day on which his remains were returned to Chichester Cathedral. The famous “Prayer of St Richard”, fragments of which form part of today’s collect – and the basis of the song “Day by Day” in “Godspell” – was put together from his dying words, recorded by Richard’s friend and confessor, Ralph Bocking.

If Richard of Chichester is remembered, rightly, for the prayer he uttered on his deathbed, Joseph Butler is remembered, rather unfairly, for the series of difficult interviews he had with John Wesley, the Father of Methodism, in the summer of 1739, not long after Butler’s appointment as Bishop of Bristol, in the course of which he warned Wesley that “the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” Which makes Butler sound like the sort of reactionary bishop whom the Victorians caricatured and criticised a century later.

And that would be unfair, because Butler’s spiritual journey is a complex and interesting one. He began life as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, but became an Anglican in his early twenties, moving from Samuel Jones’s dissenting academy in Gloucester to Oriel College, Oxford, graduating in 1718 and being ordained deacon, and then priest, later the same year. Like Richard, five centuries earlier, he was academically gifted and an excellent preacher, feeding the Lord’s sheep by both word and example. In the 1720s he was appointed to two parishes in County Durham, the second of which, Stanhope, up in the fells but a very wealthy living, provided the leisure for him to produce the work for which he became famous, and which is still regarded as one of the most important pieces of Anglican theology, “The Analogy of Religion”, a defence of orthodox Christian faith against the theology of the Deists, the morality advocated by Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”, and the theory of personal identity put forward by John Locke. It was hugely influential. Even John Wesley was a fan, as in later times was John Henry Newman. After Stanhope, and with his reputation growing, Butler was appointed as chaplain to George II’s queen and then, in 1738, Bishop of Bristol, moving on (or should that be back?) to the more important see of Durham in 1750.

Today, then, we give thanks for two men, from different backgrounds in different ages, who fed Christ’s sheep, pastorally, intellectually, spiritually and we give thanks for all those whose understanding and faith has been enriched by their faithful following of Christ.

Gospel reading for 16th June – Richard of Chichester and Joseph Butler (John 21:15-19)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Reflection:

Jesus said to Peter “Feed my sheep.“ Today the Church of England commemorates two men who did that, in very different ways, in their own generation. Richard de Wych was born in Droitwich in the English midlands in the closing years of the 12th century. He studied at Oxford and then in Paris and Bologna before returning to Oxford in his late thirties to be the University’s Chancellor. He wasn’t there for long, though, because he was headhunted by Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury, to be the chancellor of his diocese. Richard was clearly a high-flier, so it’s probably no surprise that within a few years of Archbishop Edmund’s death he was appointed Bishop of Chichester – at which point he found himself caught up in one of those spats between the King of England and the Pope which punctuate the history of the Middle Ages. After a stand-off lasting about a year, Richard was confirmed as bishop and for the remaining eight years of his life he proved to be one of the great pastoral bishops, encouraging his clergy and raising their standards, eliminating corruption, meeting the ordinary people of the diocese wherever and whenever he could. It is said that he always travelled round his diocese on foot as one way of achieving this. He died in Dover on 3rd April 1253 while on a preaching tour which took him outside his diocese. We remember him on this day because 16th June 1276 was the day on which his remains were returned to Chichester Cathedral. The famous “Prayer of St Richard”, fragments of which form part of today’s collect – and the basis of the song “Day by Day” in “Godspell” – was put together from his dying words, recorded by Richard’s friend and confessor, Ralph Bocking.

If Richard of Chichester is remembered, rightly, for the prayer he uttered on his deathbed, Joseph Butler is remembered, rather unfairly, for the series of difficult interviews he had with John Wesley, the Father of Methodism, in the summer of 1739, not long after Butler’s appointment as Bishop of Bristol, in the course of which he warned Wesley that “the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” Which makes Butler sound like the sort of reactionary bishop whom the Victorians caricatured and criticised a century later.

And that would be unfair, because Butler’s spiritual journey is a complex and interesting one. He began life as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, but became an Anglican in his early twenties, moving from Samuel Jones’s dissenting academy in Gloucester to Oriel College, Oxford, graduating in 1718 and being ordained deacon, and then priest, later the same year. Like Richard, five centuries earlier, he was academically gifted and an excellent preacher, feeding the Lord’s sheep by both word and example. In the 1720s he was appointed to two parishes in County Durham, the second of which, Stanhope, up in the fells but a very wealthy living, provided the leisure for him to produce the work for which he became famous, and which is still regarded as one of the most important pieces of Anglican theology, “The Analogy of Religion”, a defence of orthodox Christian faith against the theology of the Deists, the morality advocated by Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”, and the theory of personal identity put forward by John Locke. It was hugely influential. Even John Wesley was a fan, as in later times was John Henry Newman. After Stanhope, and with his reputation growing, Butler was appointed as chaplain to George II’s queen and then, in 1738, Bishop of Bristol, moving on (or should that be back?) to the more important see of Durham in 1750.

Today, then, we give thanks for two men, from different backgrounds in different ages, who fed Christ’s sheep, pastorally, intellectually, spiritually and we give thanks for all those whose understanding and faith has been enriched by their faithful following of Christ.


Gospel reading for St Barnabas (John 15:12-17)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. ’

Reflection:

Leaving aside a few later Cypriot traditions, almost all that we know about Barnabas comes from two sources: the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St Paul. On his first appearance in Acts we learn that his real name was Joseph (Barnabas was the nickname given him by the apostles), that he came from Cyprus, that he belonged to the tribe of Levi and that he was a man of property. Later on Luke tells us that Barnabas was the man who vouched to the church in Jerusalem for the genuineness of Saul’s conversion and that he seems to have been regarded by the community there as a safe pair of hands, becoming, effectively, their agent in Antioch. But at the heart of what Luke tells us about Barnabas is his partnership with Paul, spreading the good news of Jesus beyond the Jewish communities of the Levant, beginning with Cyprus and penetrating to the heart of Asia Minor. It was not always an easy relationship, as St Paul’s letter to the Galatians makes clear, and it ended with what must have been a fairly spectacular bust-up. Even Luke, who is inclined to smooth over difficulties in the life of the primitive church, describes it as a “sharp” disagreement, after which Barnabas returned to Cyprus while Paul headed back to Asia Minor, and eventually Europe.

What happened then to Barnabas we don’t know. He was still active in mission when Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth and there is a tradition that he died as a martyr at Salamis in Cyprus. In the fifth century someone in Cyprus wrote “The Acts of Barnabas”, which may contain genuine traditions about the saint but which was less concerned with historical fact than it was with establishing the independence of the Church in Cyprus from the Patriarch of Antioch.

The importance of Barnabas for us today lies in that apostolic nickname, “Son of Encouragement”. The world in which we live is under stress on so many sides, political and military conflict, collapsing states, the whole social and economic order breaking down in many places, looming environmental catastrophe, the ever-present pandemic. The whole planet is in distress. There are doom-sayers on every side. People need hope. People need encouragement – and not the glib “I’m all right, so you suck it up” that we find so often on social media.

We need the encouragement that comes from closeness to God, the friendship and trust which Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, the insight into what is really happening – an insight which penetrates the truth behind the news headlines but does not become mired in the dark fantasy of conspiracy theories. And we need the courage to love, even though love is costly. Without that commitment, to God, to one another, we can bear no fruit. The story of Barnabas, as it is told by St Luke, reflects that commitment. In his openness to new opportunities, in his generosity to those in need and to those who had failed (which was the cause of his row with St Paul), Barnabas bore rich fruit. Living up to his nickname he encourages us to do the same.


Gospel reading for 9th June – Columba and Ephrem of Syria (Luke 12:32-37)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’

Reflection:

This reading is regularly used when we commemorate members of religious communities and their founders. It fits well with the later of the saints whom we commemorate today on the anniversary of their death, two centuries apart. Columba embarked on a great adventure with his “little flock” of twelve monks who formed the core of that first community on Iona. It might not, at first sight, fit so well with the earlier saint, who was not a monk, setting out on a new venture of faith in the Western Isles, but a deacon serving in the firmly-established church of Nisibis, the modern Nusaybin on the border between Turkey and Syria, then an important city of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Deacon Ephrem was a poet and a teacher, a man who wrote hymns to be sung on the great festivals of the Christian year. Like his contemporary Ambrose of Milan, like Martin Luther a dozen centuries later, and the Wesleys two hundred years after that, he recognised that the most effective way of teaching Christian faith is to get people singing it. Unlike the Western tradition embodied by Ambrose, Luther and the Wesleys, the Syrian Church didn’t go in for congregational singing. Their church music seems to have been more like a modern responsorial psalm. Frustratingly, we have the names of the melodies to which Ephrem set his poems, but not the notes.

Now, Ephrem’s situation may have looked more settled than that of Columba and his companions, but it turned out to be just as precarious. Nisibis was an important city because it guarded the frontier between the two regional super-powers of the fourth century, Rome and Persia. The Persians had lost Nisibis in the reign of the Sassanian King Narses and they wanted it back. In 363, when Ephrem was in his mid-fifties they achieved that aim, as the Roman Emperor Jovian, trapped by the armies of King Shapur, saved his soldiers by surrendering several cities, including Nisibis, to Sassanian rule. Ephrem, like all the Christian community there, shared Columba’s fate of exile, finding refuge in the city of Edessa, where he continued writing hymns for the Church and ministering to the poor and the sick, until his death on this day in 373 during an outbreak of plague.

Like Columba Ephrem had set his heart on that treasure in heaven, the treasure he endeavoured to share in his hymns, which are rich in their mixture of serious theology and political comment – Ephrem was definitely NOT one of those Christians who are “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use”. Some of his poetry on the surrender of Nisibis and the arrogant folly of the pagan emperor Julian which contributed to it has a prophetic character that echoes the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Ephrem combines daring imagery, dazzling word-play and profundity of thought to bring home the truths of Christian faith. So let us leave the last word with Ephrem, part of a hymn that links the wonder of the Incarnation with the seven days of Creation:

Let the third day weave with hymns
for the birth of him who made flowers and blossoms grow on the third day
a crown of psalms and offer it with one voice.
But now he who makes all things grow,
came down and became a holy blossom.
From the thirsty earth he sprouted, and he went up
to adorn and crown the victorious.

Gospel reading for 9th June – Columba and Ephrem of Syria (Luke 12:32-37)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’

Reflection:

This reading is regularly used when we commemorate members of religious communities and their founders. It fits well with the later of the saints whom we commemorate today on the anniversary of their death, two centuries apart. Columba embarked on a great adventure with his “little flock” of twelve monks who formed the core of that first community on Iona. It might not, at first sight, fit so well with the earlier saint, who was not a monk, setting out on a new venture of faith in the Western Isles, but a deacon serving in the firmly-established church of Nisibis, the modern Nusaybin on the border between Turkey and Syria, then an important city of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Deacon Ephrem was a poet and a teacher, a man who wrote hymns to be sung on the great festivals of the Christian year. Like his contemporary Ambrose of Milan, like Martin Luther a dozen centuries later, and the Wesleys two hundred years after that, he recognised that the most effective way of teaching Christian faith is to get people singing it. Unlike the Western tradition embodied by Ambrose, Luther and the Wesleys, the Syrian Church didn’t go in for congregational singing. Their church music seems to have been more like a modern responsorial psalm. Frustratingly, we have the names of the melodies to which Ephrem set his poems, but not the notes.

Now, Ephrem’s situation may have looked more settled than that of Columba and his companions, but it turned out to be just as precarious. Nisibis was an important city because it guarded the frontier between the two regional super-powers of the fourth century, Rome and Persia. The Persians had lost Nisibis in the reign of the Sassanian King Narses and they wanted it back. In 363, when Ephrem was in his mid-fifties they achieved that aim, as the Roman Emperor Jovian, trapped by the armies of King Shapur, saved his soldiers by surrendering several cities, including Nisibis, to Sassanian rule. Ephrem, like all the Christian community there, shared Columba’s fate of exile, finding refuge in the city of Edessa, where he continued writing hymns for the Church and ministering to the poor and the sick, until his death on this day in 373 during an outbreak of plague.

Like Columba Ephrem had set his heart on that treasure in heaven, the treasure he endeavoured to share in his hymns, which are rich in their mixture of serious theology and political comment – Ephrem was definitely NOT one of those Christians who are “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use”. Some of his poetry on the surrender of Nisibis and the arrogant folly of the pagan emperor Julian which contributed to it has a prophetic character that echoes the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Ephrem combines daring imagery, dazzling word-play and profundity of thought to bring home the truths of Christian faith. So let us leave the last word with Ephrem, part of a hymn that links the wonder of the Incarnation with the seven days of Creation:

Let the third day weave with hymns
for the birth of him who made flowers and blossoms grow on the third day
a crown of psalms and offer it with one voice.
But now he who makes all things grow,
came down and became a holy blossom.
From the thirsty earth he sprouted, and he went up
to adorn and crown the victorious.

Gospel reading for 2nd June (Mark 12: 18-27)

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’

Reflection:

Let’s begin by putting this passage in context. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph. He has been teaching in the temple. He has been involved in a confrontation with the Jewish authorities, leaving them wanting to arrest him, but unable to do so because Jesus has so much popular support. So they try to trap him.

First up (in yesterday’s gospel reading) was an unholy alliance of Herodians and Pharisees, with their catch question about paying the hated poll-tax. Now it’s the turn of the Sadducees. They, you may remember, were the Jerusalem establishment. Their families provided the chief priests. They ran the temple. They were rich. As Mark’s near-contemporary, the Jewish writer Josephus, remarked in his classic book about the Jewish people “The Sadducees have the confidence of the wealthy alone, but no following among the populace.” They were conservative, politically, socially, and theologically.

The question which the Sadducees asked Jesus reflects their conservatism. Most obviously it shows their theological conservatism. They stood by the letter of the Torah and, in contrast with the Pharisees, regarded talk about resurrection as an innovative heresy. So they attack it with the folksy little story we heard just now, based on their reading of a passage in Deuteronomy. But that story also shows their social and political conservatism. First, the law which they quote is about inheritance. It’s about keeping property in the family. Second, it’s about patriarchy. The poor woman has no say in the matter. She is treated as a piece of property bequeathed by one brother to the next.

So, ultimately, it isn’t a question about possible marital confusion caused by resurrection. It’s a question about maintaining social and economic dominance. As one commentator on Mark’s Gospel has written “The Sadducees… have a vested interest in denying any other “world” except the present one, which they control.”

Which means that the first part of Jesus’ response, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage”, is not about there being no sex in heaven, but about women and men being equal in God’s sight – in which context I remember this passage being used nearly 40 years ago as an argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood. It also means that the second part of Jesus’ response, “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” – that second part is not a knock-down assertion of the reality of resurrection. Rather it is an affirmation that the people of God are maintained in being not through particular social structures of dominance and dependence, but through the faithfulness of the God who encountered Moses as promise and blessing. This is why the Sadducees are “quite wrong”. They prefer a God of the dead, a God who operates through privilege and dominance – their dominance. Jesus proclaims instead a God of the living, in whom we, and every human being, can live like the angels in freedom, equality and hope.

Gospel reading for 2nd June (Mark 12: 18-27)

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’

Reflection:

Let’s begin by putting this passage in context. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph. He has been teaching in the temple. He has been involved in a confrontation with the Jewish authorities, leaving them wanting to arrest him, but unable to do so because Jesus has so much popular support. So they try to trap him.

First up (in yesterday’s gospel reading) was an unholy alliance of Herodians and Pharisees, with their catch question about paying the hated poll-tax. Now it’s the turn of the Sadducees. They, you may remember, were the Jerusalem establishment. Their families provided the chief priests. They ran the temple. They were rich. As Mark’s near-contemporary, the Jewish writer Josephus, remarked in his classic book about the Jewish people “The Sadducees have the confidence of the wealthy alone, but no following among the populace.” They were conservative, politically, socially, and theologically.

The question which the Sadducees asked Jesus reflects their conservatism. Most obviously it shows their theological conservatism. They stood by the letter of the Torah and, in contrast with the Pharisees, regarded talk about resurrection as an innovative heresy. So they attack it with the folksy little story we heard just now, based on their reading of a passage in Deuteronomy. But that story also shows their social and political conservatism. First, the law which they quote is about inheritance. It’s about keeping property in the family. Second, it’s about patriarchy. The poor woman has no say in the matter. She is treated as a piece of property bequeathed by one brother to the next.

So, ultimately, it isn’t a question about possible marital confusion caused by resurrection. It’s a question about maintaining social and economic dominance. As one commentator on Mark’s Gospel has written “The Sadducees… have a vested interest in denying any other “world” except the present one, which they control.”

Which means that the first part of Jesus’ response, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage”, is not about there being no sex in heaven, but about women and men being equal in God’s sight – in which context I remember this passage being used nearly 40 years ago as an argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood. It also means that the second part of Jesus’ response, “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” – that second part is not a knock-down assertion of the reality of resurrection. Rather it is an affirmation that the people of God are maintained in being not through particular social structures of dominance and dependence, but through the faithfulness of the God who encountered Moses as promise and blessing. This is why the Sadducees are “quite wrong”. They prefer a God of the dead, a God who operates through privilege and dominance – their dominance. Jesus proclaims instead a God of the living, in whom we, and every human being, can live like the angels in freedom, equality and hope.


Text of a short address at the Ecumenical Encounter for Prayer in the Cathedral Church of San Lorenzo, Genova (1.6.2021)

La domanda è stata posta: quale significato assume la Pentecoste per la Chiesa Anglicana di Genova?

Per la congregazione della chiesa anglicana a Piazza Marsala la festa di Pentecoste è molto importante. Sono due ragione particolari perché celebriamo questo giorno con grande gioia:

In primo luogo, la chiesa anglicana a Genova è stato dedicata come “the Church of the Holy Ghost”, la chiesa dello Spirito Santo. Quindi alla Pentecoste celebriamo la nostra festa patronale. Ci ricordiamo che questo è il giorno quando i discepoli di Gesù “furono riempiti di Spirito Santo” affinché potessero parlare di Gesù non solo ai Giudei da Galilea o da Gerusalemme ma anche ai Giudei della diaspora, “uomini religiosi di ogni nazione che è sotto il cielo” – e poi agli stranieri, “uomini non circoncisi”, come il centurione romano Cornelio.

Ed ecco la ragione seconda perché la festa di Pentecoste ha tanta importanza per noi: nella nostra chiesa anglicana non siamo tutti inglesi. Siamo invece “uomini religiosi di (quasi) ogni nazione che è sotto il cielo”. Dal mio arrivo a Genova tre anni fa curo una congregazione tra cui sono cinesi, ghanesi, giapponesi, indiani, italiani, keniani, nigeriani (molti nigeriani), nordamericani, norvegesi, rumeni, sudafricani, svedesi, svizzeri, tedeschi, ugandesi, ungheresi… e ci sono anche alcuni inglesi, scozzesi , gallesi e irlandesi. Siamo davvero una assemblea di Pentecoste, riuniti dallo Spirito Santo.

Ciò che noi è comune, nonché la fede cristiana ovviamente, è la lingua inglese: però l’inglese che parla un nigeriano, per esempio, è molto diverso dall’inglese che parla una persona nordamericana. Riconosciamo dunque che abbiamo bisogno dello Spirito che ci aiuta a interpretare le parole, e particolarmente le esperienze, l’uno all’altro.

Come a Pentecoste in Gerusalemme duemila anni fa, è lo Spirito Santo che ci rende capaci non solo di parlare ai cristiani da diverse culture, comprese culture ecclesiastiche, sia cattolica, ortodossa, protestante, anglicana, pentecostale, ma anche di ascoltarli e comprenderli e poi di parlare insieme delle grandi cose di Dio a questo mondo che ha tanto amato.

English Translation:

The question was asked: what significance does Pentecost assume for the Anglican Church of Genoa?

For the congregation of the Anglican church in Piazza Marsala, the feast of Pentecost is very important. There are two particular reasons why we celebrate this day with great joy:

First, the Anglican church in Genoa was dedicated as “the Church of the Holy Ghost”, the church of the Holy Spirit. So at Pentecost we celebrate our patronal festival. We remember that this is the day when Jesus’ disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit” so that they could speak of Jesus not only to Jews from Galilee or Jerusalem but also to Jews of the diaspora, “devout men of every nation under heaven ”- and then to foreigners,“ uncircumcised men ”, like the Roman centurion Cornelius.

And here is the second reason why the feast of Pentecost is so important to us: in our Anglican church we are not all English. We are instead “devout men of (almost) every nation under heaven”. Since my arrival in Genoa three years ago I have been ministering to a congregation including Chinese, Ghanaians, Japanese, Indians, Italians, Kenyans, Nigerians (many Nigerians), North Americans, Norwegians, Romanians, South Africans, Swedes, Swiss, Germans, Ugandans, Hungarians … and there are also some English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. We are truly a Pentecost assembly, brought together by the Holy Spirit.

What is common to us, as well as Christian faith obviously, is the English language: however the English that a Nigerian speaks, for example, is very different from the English that a North American person speaks. We therefore recognize that we need the Spirit who helps us to interpret words, and especially experiences, to each other.

As at Pentecost in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, it is the Holy Spirit who enables us not only to speak to Christians from different cultures, including ecclesiastical cultures, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, Pentecostal, but also to listen to them and understand them and then to speak together of the great things of God to this world that God has loved so much.


Gospel reading for the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39-49)

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.’

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’

Reflection:

We are so used to thinking of St John as the “deep” evangelist, the writer of the “spiritual” Gospel that we tend to underestimate the depth and complexity of the other three. Luke, for example, is loved for his stories, not only those parables which are found only in his Gospel, but also that overarching framework which has shaped so much of the Christian year, like our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus a fortnight ago – and our celebration today of the visit which a newly pregnant Mary made to her six-months pregnant kinswoman, Elizabeth.

It is, in itself, a lovely little story of sisterly, or cousinly, solidarity, Mary being supportive of Elizabeth in her unexpected dolce attesa, all the more dolce because Elizabeth and Zechariah had given up hope of a child. But it is rather more than that. As has been said, Luke uses the story he tells as a pack-horse to carry his theology: and that is precisely what he does here. He tells us something significant about the child that Mary is carrying in her womb, and about his relationship with the child that Elizabeth is carrying in her womb. He uses language that reminds us how God has used unconventional pregnancies, unexpected pregnancies, in the past, blessing the barren in order to to bring hope to God’s people. Think Sarah: think Hannah: think Manoah’s wife, or Rachel.

Now, we are looking here at two very unconventional pregnancies, brought together not only by ties of kinship, but, as Luke makes clear in the way he tells the story, by divine providence. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the child in her womb kicks – perfectly normal at six months, we might think. But in Luke’s telling, divine inspiration reveals to Elizabeth that this particular kick is the child in her womb leaping for joy at a visit from “the mother of [Elizabeth’s] Lord.”

So here we have a double testimony to what will follow in the rest of Luke’s Gospel. We have John the Baptist, as yet unborn, pointing God’s faithful people (in the person of his mother) to the significance of Mary’s child, as he will thirty years later in adult life. We also have Elizabeth recognising the significance of that child, even though she can have, in human terms, no knowledge that Mary is pregnant. We know, because we know about Gabriel’s visit to Nazareth.

Elizabeth has no such acquaintance with what we might call “the back-story”. So Luke is playing up the role of the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth’s double blessing, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, words familiar to anyone who prays the Angelus. There is no human way that Elizabeth could know at this point even that Mary is pregnant, so that lovely carving of Mary and Elizabeth on the west portal of San Lorenzo, which shows two very pregnant women greeting one another, might get marks for theological accuracy but loses them for overplaying the physicality. Elizabeth’s words remind us that women are numbered among the prophets, despite the best efforts of men to airbrush them from the record. They remind us, too, that Mary is the “figure” of the Church, “the first Christian believer”, as she has been called. And with her we rejoice and magnify God’s holy name.

Elizabeth greets the Blessed Virgin Mary
(detail from the west portal of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Genova)

Gospel reading for 26th May – Philip Neri, John Calvin, Augustine of Canterbury (Matthew 13:31-33)

Jesus put before his disciples another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Reflection:

Today we remember, in chronological order, a Roman worry-guts, a French theologian, and one of his Italian contemporaries of whom it was said that he “laughed his way into heaven”. All three, in very different ways, had a profound influence on the English Church. The Roman worry-guts was Augustine, the monk from St Andrew’s monastery on the Caelian Hill who was sent, rather against his will, by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelise the heathen English in 596. The French theologian was John Calvin. The man who “laughed his way into heaven” was Philip Neri, who re-evangelised Rome around the same time that Calvin was imposing his idea of “the good society” on Geneva.

Today’s gospel, like our collect, focuses on the first of them, but it applies to all three. We know from Bede that Augustine did not relish the idea of going to what would have seemed like the end of the earth to preach the good news of Jesus to a pagan court, even if the queen was a Christian and had a tame Frankish bishop as her personal chaplain. He and his fellow-missionaries, monks from the same convent, seem to have felt very inadequate – and Augustine was constantly asking advice from Rome – but the seed that they sowed turned, over centuries, into the Church which was the spiritual home of the majority of people in England.

John Calvin was a lawyer from Noyon in Picardy, exiled from his native France, who became the unchallenged spiritual and political leader of Geneva, turning the city into a hugely influential experiment in theocracy, and, through his welcome to the English Church leaders who fled persecution by Mary Tudor in the 1550s, setting the course of the Church of England for the century after Mary’s death.

The young Philip Neri arrived from Florence in a Rome that was still experiencing a kind of collective PTSD after its prolonged plundering by the armies of Emperor Charles V ten years before. The people of the city had lost their way and their faith. Philip Neri, by his humility, by his generosity, and by his good humour, restored both. Like St Francis of Assisi, he saw himself as a “new kind of fool” for Christ’s sake. He lived simply. He didn’t organise missions or make systematic plans for “outreach”, he simply went where people were. He talked to them. He joked with them. He listened to them. Like St Aldhelm in 7th-century England, he used music and laughter to reveal the attractiveness of Jesus. He had a huge pastoral heart and great spiritual wisdom – in later years, after he was finally persuaded to accept ordination, he became a highly-regarded confessor and spiritual director. After ten years of this holy “loitering with intent”, he gathered a small group of lay people around him, to pray together and to care for the poor. His favourite question was “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?” That lay fraternity, in time, developed into the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory (named after the chapel where Philip prayed) – the congregation of which John Henry Newman became a member after his departure from the Church of England. G.K. Chesterton, who also knew the value of laughter in communicating the Gospel, once wrote that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Philip Neri also took himself lightly and so was able to open his heart to all those he encountered – and to God.

Gospel reading for 26th May – Philip Neri, John Calvin, Augustine of Canterbury (Matthew 13:31-33)

Jesus put before his disciples another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Reflection:

Today we remember, in chronological order, a Roman worry-guts, a French theologian, and one of his Italian contemporaries of whom it was said that he “laughed his way into heaven”. All three, in very different ways, had a profound influence on the English Church. The Roman worry-guts was Augustine, the monk from St Andrew’s monastery on the Caelian Hill who was sent, rather against his will, by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelise the heathen English in 596. The French theologian was John Calvin. The man who “laughed his way into heaven” was Philip Neri, who re-evangelised Rome around the same time that Calvin was imposing his idea of “the good society” on Geneva.

Today’s gospel, like our collect, focuses on the first of them, but it applies to all three. We know from Bede that Augustine did not relish the idea of going to what would have seemed like the end of the earth to preach the good news of Jesus to a pagan court, even if the queen was a Christian and had a tame Frankish bishop as her personal chaplain. He and his fellow-missionaries, monks from the same convent, seem to have felt very inadequate – and Augustine was constantly asking advice from Rome – but the seed that they sowed turned, over centuries, into the Church which was the spiritual home of the majority of people in England.

John Calvin was a lawyer from Noyon in Picardy, exiled from his native France, who became the unchallenged spiritual and political leader of Geneva, turning the city into a hugely influential experiment in theocracy, and, through his welcome to the English Church leaders who fled persecution by Mary Tudor in the 1550s, setting the course of the Church of England for the century after Mary’s death.

The young Philip Neri arrived from Florence in a Rome that was still experiencing a kind of collective PTSD after its prolonged plundering by the armies of Emperor Charles V ten years before. The people of the city had lost their way and their faith. Philip Neri, by his humility, by his generosity, and by his good humour, restored both. Like St Francis of Assisi, he saw himself as a “new kind of fool” for Christ’s sake. He lived simply. He didn’t organise missions or make systematic plans for “outreach”, he simply went where people were. He talked to them. He joked with them. He listened to them. Like St Aldhelm in 7th-century England, he used music and laughter to reveal the attractiveness of Jesus. He had a huge pastoral heart and great spiritual wisdom – in later years, after he was finally persuaded to accept ordination, he became a highly-regarded confessor and spiritual director. After ten years of this holy “loitering with intent”, he gathered a small group of lay people around him, to pray together and to care for the poor. His favourite question was “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?” That lay fraternity, in time, developed into the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory (named after the chapel where Philip prayed) – the congregation of which John Henry Newman became a member after his departure from the Church of England. G.K. Chesterton, who also knew the value of laughter in communicating the Gospel, once wrote that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Philip Neri also took himself lightly and so was able to open his heart to all those he encountered – and to God.


Two more quotations about Philip Neri. The first from the most famous English member of the congregation which he founded:

“He contemplated as the idea of his mission, not the propagation of the faith, nor the exposition of doctrine, nor the catechetical schools; whatever was exact and systematic pleased him not; he put from him monastic rule and authoritative speech, as David refused the armour of his king…. He came to the Eternal City and he sat himself down there, and his home and his family gradually grew up around him, by the spontaneous accession of materials from without. He did not so much seek his own as draw them to him. He sat in his small room, and they in their gay, worldly dresses, the rich and the well-born, as well as the simple and the illiterate, crowded into it. In the mid-heats of summer, in the frosts of winter still was he in that low and narrow cell at San Girolamo, reading the hearts of those who came to him, and curing their souls’ maladies by the very touch of his hand…. And they who came remained gazing and listening till, at length, first one and then another threw off their bravery, and took his poor cassock and girdle instead; or, if they kept it, it was to put haircloth under it, or to take on them a rule of life, while to the world they looked as before.”

The second, from the 20th-century American poet Phillis McGinley:

When Philip Neri walked abroad
Beside the Tiber, praising God,
They say he was attended home
By half the younger set of Rome.

Knight, novice, scholar, boisterous boy,
They followed after him with joy.
To nurse his poor and break his bread
And hear the funny things he said.

For Philip Neri (by his birth
A Florentine) believed in mirth,
Holding that virtues took no harm
Which went with laughter arm in arm.

Two books he read with most affection - 
The Gospels and a joke collection;
And sang hosannas set to fiddles
And fed the sick on soup and riddles.

So when the grave rebuke the merry,
Let them remember Philip Neri
(Fifteen-fifteen to ninety-five),
Who was the merriest man alive,
Then, dying at eighty and a bit,
Became a saint by Holy Wit. 

The Gospel reading for 19th May – St Dunstan (Matthew 24:42-46)

Jesus warned the disciples, ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.’

Reflection:

By the end of the ninth century the English Church knew only too well when the thief was coming. As soon as the sailing season opened, there would be raids. Churches, monasteries, any kind of human settlement, would be plundered of their possessions and have their life seriously disrupted if not destroyed. In eastern England, I’m told, there is a community which still holds a deep grudge against its neighbours nearer the coast because “They didn’t tell us that the Vikings were coming.” Monastic life, and church life generally, was in a poor way, even after Alfred the Great’s political successes in the closing years of the century.

One of the monastic houses which survived was Glastonbury, deep in the heart of Alfred’s kingdom, Wessex, and half a century after Alfred’s death a monk of Glastonbury played a huge part in the restoration of Church life across England. Dunstan was not intended for the religious life. He came from an influential family in Wessex and was set on a career at court until serious illness caused him to question the direction of his life. He became a monk and made such an impression that when the abbot died, Dunstan, still in his mid-thirties, was chosen to succeed him. By example, and, I suspect, by force of personality, he brought about a transformation of the life of his own abbey, and sparked a transformation in other religious houses.

Discipline, study and learning were the hallmarks of Dunstan’s reforms. It probably helped that he led by example. He was a gifted craftsman, an artist and a musician with, it was said, such a fine voice that when he sang the service it seemed as if he was talking to God face to face. Increasingly he began to be consulted by kings – but not everyone appreciated the abbot’s involvement in government. In 955 a new king, Eadwig, a randy teenager resentful of being called to order by an austere forty-something religious, drove him into exile in Flanders, but Eadwig’s brother Edgar, sometimes called “the Peaceful”, who ruled Mercia and Northumbria, recalled Dunstan two years later and made him, in rapid succession, Bishop of Worcester and London, and then Archbishop of Canterbury.

During those two years in exile, Dunstan had learned a great deal about the Church reforms which were being brought in on mainland Europe and he used his position as bishop, and then archbishop, to introduce them into England, by now reunited under Edgar. His reforms affected not only monasteries and cathedrals, which he opened out to the communities in which they were set, but also parishes. He put an end to corruption and “jobs for the boys” and he insisted that parish clergy were qualified by their holiness and their ability, and not just their relationship to a powerful patron. He also drew up the order of service for Edgar’s coronation – and that order remains the basis of the English coronation service over a thousand years later.

Edgar died in 975 and was succeeded by his son Edward. Dunstan continued to serve the new king as an adviser, and tried to help him steer a path through the turbulent times which followed the death of Edgar the Peaceful, but Edward was murdered three years later, possibly on the orders of his stepmother Ælfthryth, who wanted her own son Æthelred to reign – which he did, fairly disastrously, on and off for the next four decades. Dunstan again withdrew from active participation in government, but this time no further than his own cathedral monastery in Canterbury, where some of his happiest hours were spent teaching the boys of the cathedral school, until his death on this day in 988. So today, let us thank God for Dunstan, the “faithful and wise servant” who was given charge of the household of faith in some very difficult times and who served both God and England’s kings faithfully and wisely.


The Gospel reading for 14th May – St Matthias (John 15.9-17)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

Reflection:

It was the great Italian-American baseball player, Yogi Berra, who is said to have uttered the memorable words “It’s déjà vu all over again.” He might well have said it about this passage from John’s Gospel, which we heard last Sunday and which we will hear again in June and at the end of October. It seems to be something of a favourite for the feasts of apostles who don’t appear in the gospels except in a list of the Twelve (like Simon and Jude), or who don’t come into the picture until we reach the Acts of the Apostles, like Barnabas – or Matthias, whose only appearance in Scripture is the one recorded in today’s first reading. All a bit generic, you might be thinking.

However, there is one sentence in this passage which fits Matthias perfectly. The words of Jesus, “You did not choose me but I chose you” match exactly with what St Luke tells us about the way in which Matthias was chosen to fill the place in the Twelve left empty by Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). For us, filling a vacancy by casting lots seems a very strange way of proceeding. It would not have seemed so in the Ancient World. In Athens, five centuries before Christ, that was how the chief magistrates were chosen. The Hebrew Scriptures offer several examples of important decisions being taken by casting lots, as far back as the division of the promised land among the twelve tribes. And even today, the head of the Coptic Church, the Patriarch of Alexandria, is chosen by lot from a shortlist of three. It is understood as a way of making sure that the final choice is guided by God, rather than by human considerations. As it is written in the book of Proverbs: “Casting the lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders.“

So Matthias finds himself with the liberating awareness that his new status, as a member of the Twelve, has been affirmed by God, while at the same time he finds himself with the awesome responsibility of having been chosen by God. The one tells him that he cannot fail. The other tells him that he dare not fail. And, as the collect for St Matthias reminds us, the example of Judas his predecessor sets before him the reality of failure – and its consequences. But overriding any fear of failure is the three-fold promise of Jesus to those who abide in his love. First: that his joy will be in them and their joy will be complete. Second: that those who obey his commandments are no longer servants, but friends. And third: that those whom Jesus has chosen are chosen for a purpose: to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. That promise is not limited to the first generation of disciples. It applies to all who follow the way of Christ and witness to his resurrection. It applies to us as we prepare to celebrate our patronal festival and the coming of God’s Holy Spirit.


Today I had the immense privilege of presiding at the first Eucharist celebrated in the chapel at Bordighera since October last year. We decided that a celebration of the Ascension would not be out of place. Here, in place of the usual midweek reflection, are the Gospel for Ascension Day and a brief homily:

Gospel reading for Ascension Day – (Luke 24:44-53)

The risen Jesus said to the disciples, ‘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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Reflection:

You might think we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves, having the readings and prayers for Ascension Day on the day before. In that reading from the first chapter of Acts, St Luke is quite specific. “After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive… by many convincing proofs, appearing to [the disciples] over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Except that he might not be. Luke is doing here something that he does very well: presenting his story in the style of the Hebrew Scriptures – and in the Hebrew Scriptures “forty days” is a shorthand way of saying “a significant length of time, but not one that stretches out for months or years”, so St Luke’s “forty days” could be any length of time in the period between Passover and Pentecost.

There’s the added complication that Matthew and John – and indeed Luke himself in the Gospel passage we have just heard – link the Ascension much more closely with the Resurrection, while the resurrection appearances which St Paul lists in his first letter to the Church in Corinth would certainly have needed most of those “forty days”. The important thing is that, whichever way you look at it, the first Christians were intensely aware of the presence of the risen Christ in their midst but that there came a point when that intensity faded and was replaced by a sense that he had returned to the Father, “carried up into heaven” as Elijah had been, and that in the place of his physical presence, there came the dynamic inner presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, that is where the theologians can get quite excited: because what Luke and Matthew and John are telling us is that in returning to the Father Jesus takes our humanity into the Godhead. So that Bishop Christopher Wordsworth could write 150 years ago “Thou hast raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand; there we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand; Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man [and, we might want to add, “woman”] with God is on the throne; Mighty Lord, in thine ascension we by faith behold our own.”

At the same time this is where the mystics and the contemplatives and the charismatics also become excited: because the descent of the Spirit means that God is actively present in human lives. It’s a bit like one of those funicular railways that we have in Genova, where the weight of the railcar coming down the hill helps to haul the railcar going up. Only in this case it’s the other way round. It’s Jesus’ return to the Father which releases the promised “power from on high”, enabling the disciples to “be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” and allowing St Paul to speak of the Church in terms of “the body of Christ”, inhabited and animated by his Spirit.

So today we celebrate in presenza not only the Ascension, but also, in a way, the Resurrection, because we too are the body of Christ and today, after nearly eight months, we rejoice that God has released this community from the tomb of lock-down so that we can come together to share the Lord’s supper as the Lord’s body around the Lord’s table. As St Augustine told his congregation in North Africa, “It is the mystery of yourselves that is laid on the Lord’s table; it is the mystery of yourselves that you receive… Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”

It’s when we grasp that mind-blowing truth that we are able fully to play our part as “witnesses of these things”, living the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, because we have experienced both, and sharing that “great joy” of the disciples in a daily prayer which overflows in blessing God.


The Gospel reading for 5th May – (John 15:1-8)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘‘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.’

Reflection:

John’s Gospel is so rich in meaning that scholars can spend a lifetime unpacking the different levels of that meaning and still feel that they are only scratching the surface. That’s certainly the case with this passage, which we have heard very recently – it was Sunday’s gospel.

To begin with, there’s a sort-of parable – and one with very ancient roots. The vine and the vineyard appear in the Psalms, in the prophecies of Isaiah, and in the other Gospels, as a symbol of Israel. So when Jesus says “I am the true vine” he is saying, among other things, “I am the one who embodies the people of God”.

Then there’s the word-play – impossible to reproduce in English, where the word “remove” doesn’t rhyme with the word “prune” and the word “prune” and where there is no one word which combines the ideas of “pruning” and “cleansing”.

On top of that there are the echoes of other writings in the New Testament. We’ve already looked at the imagery of the vine and the vineyard. There’s also the imagery of bearing fruit, which also occurs in the other Gospels: in the preaching of John the Baptist, who also uses the image of burning what is unfruitful – an image echoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: in Jesus’ own preaching as reported by Matthew and Luke: in the letters of St Paul, especially in Romans, where Paul writes about “bearing fruit for God”, and in Galatians (“the fruit of the Spirit”) and Colossians (“bearing fruit in every good work”).

But above all there one of John’s most characteristic images: that of abiding, sometimes translated as “remaining” or “staying”. That idea makes its first appearance in the very first chapter of John’s Gospel. It reappears when Jesus talks about “abiding” in those who eat his flesh and drink his blood. And it and is given its fullest expression here in what scholars call the “Farewell Discourses”. In chapter 14 Jesus has promised that the Spirit of truth will abide in his disciples. Here he looks forward to a mutual indwelling which will reflect his own mutual indwelling with the Father. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” he tells the disciples. That means living in a love for God which is reflected in our love for those around us. It means living in what that most lovable Puritan divine Richard Baxter called “a serious seeking after [God], and in an affectionate walking with [God], every day of our lives.” We do that through waiting on God in prayer and through attending to the words of Scripture, especially those cleansing, life-giving words of Jesus who gives himself to us in the sacrament of his body and blood.


The Gospel reading for 1st May – SS Philip and James (John 14:1-14)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’

Reflection:

Philip and James are one of the odder pairings in the church’s Calendar. James hardly gets a mention in any of the Gospels. Philip has an equally low profile in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but, as we were reminded in that gospel passage, he plays quite a prominent part in the Gospel according to John – usually, although not here, linked with his fellow-townsman Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. They are the two who, in John’s Gospel, are usually patrolling the boundaries, bringing others to encounter Jesus, Simon and Nathanael in the very first chapter, the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish which provide a lakeside banquet for five thousand, and, as the skies begin to cloud over and the shadows gather around Jesus, those Greek-speaking pilgrims to Jerusalem who wanted to see Jesus. That’s appropriate for someone from Bethsaida, which was part of Galilee, but on the edge of gentile territory – and for someone who, like Andrew, bore a distinctive, and distinguished, Greek name, a name associated with kings, like the five Philips who ruled Macedonia between the seventh and second centuries BC – and the son of King Herod who inherited that part of his father’s realm which included Bethsaida and ruled it, by all accounts, wisely and well for nearly forty years. Was our Philip, perhaps, named after him?

Of James we know next to nothing. He’s listed as one of the Twelve. His father’s name was Alphaeus. If he is the same James as the “little Jim” who is mentioned in Mark 15 and 16, his mother’s name was Mary and she was one of the women who watched and wept at the foot of Jesus’ cross, but there is no certainty about that. The name James, Ιακωβος, possibly signified a family focused on the traditions of the Jewish patriarchs as Philip’s may not have been, and was about as common a name for men in first-century Palestine as Mary was for women. The earliest Christian community in Jerusalem included not only this James, the son of Alphaeus, but also James son of Zebedee, one of the inner circle around Jesus, and James the Lord’s brother, who played a significant role in the Acts of the Apostles – and in one or two letters of St Paul.

So why are Philip and James remembered together? The answer is very simple. They are remembered together because their bones were rescued from earthquake and invasion in the Middle East and brought, eventually, to Rome, where they were buried, together, in the church which is now known as Santi Apostoli, much in the same way that the earthly remains of Simon and Jude were buried together around a hundred years later.

For now, though, our focus is not on that complicated history. Today’s Gospel takes us from the fringes of the community to the heart of our faith and to that meal which Jesus shared with his disciples on the evening of his arrest. The supper is over. Jesus has given the disciples a lesson in servant leadership. Judas has gone out into the night. Now Jesus is about to prepare those who remain for what is about to follow. That preparation begins with a deeper revelation of who Jesus is: first in response to a blunt question from Thomas, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ when Jesus reveals himself as the way to the Father. And then in reply to a request from Philip, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’, when Jesus reaffirms that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father“, in other words, that Jesus is the expression of who God is in human terms and that we can read off God’s nature of creative, sacrificial, self-giving love from the life which they have witnessed and the death which is to come. That is the central reality to which we bear witness, whether, like Philip, we are out patrolling the boundaries or, like James, holding firm to the tradition of faith which we have received.


The Gospel reading for 28th April – Peter Chanel (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.’

Reflection:

Those words of Jesus mark the end of a chapter. They are the completion of his public ministry. From now on, until his arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus will be talking to his disciples and no longer to the world. So what we have here is a kind of summing up, an epilogue to balance the prologue set out in the first fourteen verses of chapter 1. Here Jesus echoes the themes of that prologue: light coming into the world, acceptance and rejection, salvation and judgement, eternal life. And at the heart of them all his unity with the Father: “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me”.

Now, the word that John uses for “see” is the word from which we get the English “theory” or “theorise”. It means “look at carefully”, “observe”, “contemplate”. It is to look beyond first impressions, to look into the heart of things, so that believing in Jesus is not simply putting our trust in a particular human being, it is putting our trust in the love that is at the heart of all things, the love which Jesus has embodied in his ministry to date and the love to which he will give supreme expression in his dying.

That love is the content of the Father’s commandment – which is why Jesus says that “his commandment is eternal life” rather than it leads to eternal life – and today we remember a man who lived that commandment. Peter Chanel was a parish priest in rural France during the period of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. In 1831 he offered for work overseas with one of the new missionary orders, the Marists, founded fifteen years earlier, and after five years he was sent out, to the South Pacific, which was just being opened up to Christian missions. He and two lay brothers of the order were stationed on Futuna, one of the islands in the Fiji group. They were well received, not least because they came as medical missionaries, bringing healing as well as the light of Christ, but they made little progress at the beginning. However, as they learned the local language and gained the people’s confidence, they began to receive requests for baptism, including one from the son of the local king, Niuliki, who had at first welcomed them but who increasingly saw them as a threat to his authority. His son’s decision to become a Christian was the last straw. Niuliki sent a group of heavies with instructions to kill Fr Peter, which they did, on this day 180 years ago.

The effect of Fr Peter’s murder was quite the opposite of what Niuliki intended. Far from rooting out Christianity from the island, it spread it, so that with a year the whole population had become Christian. When asked why, one of those who had been prepared for baptism by Fr Peter said “He loves us; he does what he teaches; he forgives his enemies. His teaching is good.”

Today Peter Chanel is honoured as the first martyr of the Pacific Islands. His memory is revered throughout the islands and across the whole of Australasia, whose patron he is. Like Jesus his Lord, Fr Peter lived and died in the Father’s love. His example of Christian integrity encourages us, too, to receive the word of Christ and live as light in the world.


The Gospel reading for 26th April – St Mark (Mark 13:5-13)

Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’

Reflection:

Those words of Jesus, recorded by Mark, are ominous and threatening and mysterious. He is letting us know that there is something in the air, something which will involve pain and judgement. All the way through his Gospel Mark portrays the words and the actions of Jesus in a way that presents a challenge. They are a challenge to the original onlookers, the scribes and the Pharisees, the Romans, the disciples. They are a challenge to the reader. Mark challenges us by what Jesus says and does, as well as by his silences and by what is done to him. After the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, all of Jesus’s sayings become warnings about things that will happen to him, to the disciples, and to the rest of Judaea and Jerusalem. This reflects the pattern that is set in the first half of the Gospel, where John the Baptist appears, and preaches, and is delivered up to death. In the same way Jesus appears, and preaches and is delivered up to death.

The implication (spelled out by the words of Jesus in today’s gospel) is that those who follow Jesus can expect the same sort of treatment. This perhaps strengthens the suggestion that Mark was writing his Gospel in Rome during the 60s, at the time of the first important persecution of Christians, after the great fire which swept through central Rome in AD 64. The description of Mark’s Gospel as “the martyr Gospel” ties in well with that situation. If Mark was Peter’s interpreter, as an early Christian writer claims, he may well have begun writing down Peter’s memories because he wanted the story of Jesus to survive the arrest and execution of that first generation of Christian leaders during the persecution under Nero. In Mark’s Gospel the motif of suffering for the sake of the good news is a strong one.

Mark makes it plain that suffering is part of the expectation of every disciple of Jesus. The message is stark: ‘Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.’ His Gospel is “a manifesto of radical discipleship”, a call to non-violent resistance against social, economic and political domination, whether that domination is exercised by Rome or by a compliant Jerusalem establishment. As a contemporary American writer has said, “The empire’s ‘good news’ is a framing story of peace through domination, peace through redemptive violence, peace through centralised power and control, peace through elimination of enemies. It involves the gods legitimizing those in power so that resistance to their sacred regime becomes not only treason but also heresy… The empire uses crosses to punish rebels and to instil fear and submission in the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instil hope and confidence in the oppressed.” And that critique applies to contemporary “empires” just as powerfully as to first-century Rome.

So for Mark the good news which he proclaims in the opening words of his Gospel is often hidden. Jesus constantly warns those who are cured by him, and those who recognise him as the Messiah, “Don’t tell anyone”: and almost all of the parables in Mark are about the hiddenness of the kingdom of God and about the way in which great things come from small and unpromising beginnings.

Even at the end the “good news” is hidden. Mark’s Gospel ends untidily, with the women running away in terror from the tomb. There isn’t so much as a single appearance of the risen Christ. There is only the empty tomb, and the challenge to the women to “Go and tell the disciples…”, to begin the process by which “good news must… be proclaimed to all nations”. That ending is, like so much else in Mark’s Gospel, a challenge to the reader. When confronted with the person of Jesus, as we have been all through this Gospel, how do we respond? When confronted with the fact that he is not there, where we expect him to be, how do we respond? Do we run away in silent terror, because of our failure to understand? Or have we the faith to endure to the end?

17th-century carving of St Mark in the chapel of Lincoln College, Oxford

The Gospel reading for 23rd April – St George (John 15:18-21)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘‘‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.’

Reflection:

Today we owe a debt of gratitude to Giacomo da Varazze, otherwise known as Jacobus de Voragine, a thirteenth-century Dominican friar, preacher, chronicler, Archbishop of Genova and the compiler of that collection of lives of the saints which is known as “Legenda Aurea”, in English “The Golden Legend”. He is the man whose writing shaped the story of St George as most people know it today, dragon and all.

The trouble is that not only the story of George and the dragon but almost the whole of Archbishop Giacomo’s life of St George has no basis in fact, despite all the obvious care that the archbishop took over putting it together. He spends a whole paragraph explaining why “George” is a fitting name for a martyr. Pope Gelasius I at the end of the fifth century got it more or less right when he described George as one of those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.” What we can say about George is that he was probably a soldier, based in what is now Lod in Israel, and almost certainly put to death as a Christian during the last great persecution in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who thought that Christians were the chief source of a moral rottenness infecting his empire.

So today’s gospel reading fits George very well – and it reminds us, as “The Golden Legend” with its dragons and its sequence of improbably faith-affirming miracles no longer reminds us, that being a Christian sometimes requires difficult and costly choices about where ultimate loyalties lie. When the crunch comes, do we belong to Christ or do we belong to the world? That is the question which was faced by the real St George seventeen centuries ago. It’s a question which faces Christians in many parts of the world today. Sometimes it’s the kind of stark, literally life-or-death choice which has been faced in recent years by many Christians in the Middle East, and in South Asia and parts of Africa (including Nigeria, as we were reminded on Sunday). Sometimes it’s the subtler choice between signing up for a sense of identity which depends on race and birth and language (and which excludes those who don’t share those things), and a sense of identity which is based on who we are in Christ, who has chosen us out of the world – in my case the world of what is sometimes known as “white privilege” – in order to serve him wherever, and in whomever, we may encounter him. That, too, can involve us in difficult and painful confrontations with the world we have left behind.

So today, as we remember St George, we remember all those who are faced with the choice which faced him, all whose Christian faith involves them in a conflict of loyalties. We remember, too, the people of England and Georgia, Malta and Catalunya, and the people of this city, who for nearly a thousand years have claimed George as one of their patrons, not least among them the many who “fell for liberty” eighty years ago in the struggle against a regime which, like George’s emperor, demanded their total loyalty – even above their loyalty to God. And we give thanks for Archbishop Giacomo, who tried, on the basis of the information he had, to put together a life of his city’s patron saint that would do honour to George’s faith and courage and glorify the saving power of God.


St George and the Dragon – Barcelona

The Gospel reading for 21st April – St Anselm (Luke 21:9-15)

In the hearing of all the people Jesus told the disciples, ‘‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’

Reflection:

What links an estate in Aosta, an abbey in Normandy and the Twitter handle @No1Cathedral?

Well, the answer is hidden in this morning’s collect, which it was not the one we used on Sunday. It was, instead, the collect for the saint we remember today, a Lombard by the name of Anselmo, who was born to a land-owning family in Aosta about thirty years before Duke William’s invasion of England, and who, after a fairly rackety life in his teens and early 20s, settled down as a monk of the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy. The Twitter handle? That belongs to Canterbury cathedral, another Benedictine abbey, where Anselmo ended his life on this day, nine hundred and twelve years ago, as Archbishop.

Anselmo, or Anselm as he is usually known in English, was one of the most influential figures of the early mediaeval church: not just in England, but across the whole of Europe, and his teaching about the meaning of the cross as an expression of God’s justice, is still influential today. He was a man of outstanding intellect and a person of deep prayer, with a sensitive mind and a generous heart to which his collected prayers and meditations bear abundant witness. The call to prayer with which his “Proslogion” begins is beautiful: “Come now, little man, turn aside for a while from your daily employment, escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside your weighty cares, let your burdensome distractions wait. free yourself awhile for God and rest awhile in him.”

Anselm’s cares and distractions were, indeed, burdensome. That is why our Gospel reading focuses on the trials and tribulations which await someone who seeks to follow Jesus faithfully. For nearly half of the sixteen years that he was Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm was in exile, driven out of England by kings to whom he had spoken “words and a wisdom” more freely and more powerfully than they liked. William of Normandy’s sons, William Rufus and Henry Beauclerc, were keen on enforcing royal authority over the English Church, as their father had. Anselm, encouraged by a reform-minded Pope, resisted. So from 1097, four years after his appointment as archbishop, until 1100, when William II died, Anselm was in Rome, working on the books that made him such a powerful influence on later generations, and working to reconcile Christians of East and West who had formally split nearly half a century before.

Anselm returned to England when King Henry succeeded his brother, who had died in mysterious circumstances while hunting in the New Forest, but that budding relationship between archbishop and king also withered because of differences of interpretation over the extent of royal authority. Anselm spent another four years in Rome, until the king did a deal with the Pope (behind Anselm’s back) and he was able to return.

But today, rather than remember an unsuccessful Church politician, let us give thanks for Anselm as a man of prayer, a pastor and teacher, an opponent of slavery, a man who sought to bring about reconciliation in a divided Church, and who sought to proclaim the reconciliation achieved by the cross of Christ in ways that made sense to the age in which he lived. “I want,” Anselm wrote, “to understand something of the truth which my heart believes and loves. I do not seek thus to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.” He invites us to follow the same path, of faith seeking understanding, that leads toward the heart of God.


The Gospel reading for 14th April (John 3:16-21)

Jesus told Nicodemus, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Reflection:

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (of which this passage is the climax) sets out, clearly and succinctly, some of the major themes of John’s Gospel: the importance of belief; the conflict between darkness and light; the nature of judgement; and the tension between the world as the object of God’s love and saving activity in sending the Son and the world as the arena in which that love is opposed, because the light has come into the world and people prefer to retreat into the shadows “because their deeds were evil”.

It is very easy for Christians to become hooked on that shadow side of the world. To take one slightly shaming personal example: my ancient copy of Dante’s “Inferno” is much more heavily thumbed than my equally ancient copy of either the “Purgatorio” or the “Paradiso”. To take another example, this time public rather than personal, Christians are commonly better known for what they are against than for what they are for. Their image is that of people who are in the world precisely “to condemn the world” rather than to proclaim its salvation through Christ. But at this time of year we rejoice that the light has won the decisive victory over the shadow that threatened to engulf it. As the Orthodox Church proclaims at Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” And that doesn’t mean only physical death, but anything that destroys or diminishes life. “The tombs” can equally be the prisons of poverty and oppression that are built for us, or the gaols of fear, greed, resentment that we build for ourselves. The risen Christ summons us to enter the freedom of his risen life.

This is the good news. This is salvation. God’s love, revealed in Christ crucified and risen, is our message of hope for the world which God so loves. In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


The Gospel reading for 9th 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.

Reflection:

One of the things about the last Savoy Operas is the way in which Gilbert (and to a lesser degree Sullivan) kept dropping in reminiscences of their earlier work. It’s particularly obvious in “Utopia Limited”, where the hero is a military man (though “First Life Guards” rather than “Heavy Dragoons”), the comedian is an executioner (though he uses dynamite rather than “a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block”), the heroine (a princess) has been through a university-level education at an all-female college, and one of the “Flowers of Progress”, tasked with introducing British ways into the languorous South Sea paradise, is a certain Captain Corcoran, resurrected from their first major success, “HMS Pinafore”.

There’s something of that feel about the final chapter of John’s Gospel where the “intertextuality”, to use the critics’ jargon, lies fairly heavy on the ground. The unsuccessful all-night fishing expedition points us to St Luke (chapter 5), as does the instruction to try again and the resultant huge catch. Peter jumping into the water might be a reminiscence, albeit a rather less fraught one, of Matthew 14. The lakeside meal of bread and fish certainly recalls the miraculous feeding earlier in John’s gospel and the feedings in chapters 6 and 8 of Mark’s with their parallels in Matthew and Luke. The charcoal fire, too, has associations, but rather less happy ones (particularly for Peter) of that recent, uncomfortable night dodging awkward questions in the High Priest’s courtyard.

So why? Well, for starters, most scholars agree that chapter 21 isn’t part of John’s original gospel, which ends very nicely at the end of chapter 20. Some think that it was written to say something about the relationship between Peter and the beloved disciple which perhaps couldn’t be said while the beloved disciple was still alive – especially not if the beloved disciple was the author of the gospel. Others have pointed out the way in which it begins in Galilee, with the disciples working again at their old trade of fishing. It’s as if Jesus had never been. So perhaps, on this account, the whole thrust of this appearance is as a reminder of their, and especially Peter’s, first call (with the miraculous catch), of their shared experience as disciples (the leap into the sea and the shared meal of loaves and fishes), and of their, and especially Peter’s, failure (the charcoal fire). But the ending is not rejection and judgement, but the renewal of fellowship in that shared breakfast by the lake and, although it comes after the end of the passage set for today, the commissioning of Peter to feed the Lord’s sheep.

And there, perhaps, is this passage’s message for us: that whenever we are tempted to go back to “the way things were”, before our first encounter with Christ, the risen Lord recalls us to fellowship with him and renews our commission to share by word and action in his work of healing the world.


The Gospel reading for 8th April – Thursday in Easter Week (Luke 24:35-48)

The two disciples told what had happened on the road to Emmaus, 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.’

Reflection:

Today’s gospel offers probably the most “physical” description of any of the resurrection appearances, with Jesus encouraging the disciples to “Touch and see”, then asking for something to eat – and eating what he is given “in their presence”. The other gospels are rather more reticent. Mark’s Gospel, until later editors got hold of it, had no description of a resurrection appearance. Matthew, in passing, mentions the women taking hold of Jesus’ feet. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalen, as we heard on Tuesday, was warned off physical contact and Thomas in the end never does put his finger into the holes made by the nails. Paul, too, whose account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest of them all, makes it very clear that when he writes about the resurrection he is writing about a spiritual and not a physical body.

So why does Luke go down this particular route? Some have suggested that it was to combat the “docetic” heresy, which claimed that Christ only “appeared” to have a human body, More likely, perhaps, is the suggestion that Luke stresses the physicality of the resurrection for the benefit of the people for whom he was writing. Most scholars think that his intended readership was people like himself, native Greek-speakers who lived in the great cities of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, people whose thought-world didn’t include “spiritual bodies” but did include all kinds of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night.” So they would naturally have assumed that if a dead person appeared among the living, it would be as a ghost – and that is an assumption which Luke is very keen to knock on the head. His message is that Christ is not a spook. Christ is risen, and risen indeed – “Touch and see”!

And then, as he did to the two on the road to Emmaus, the risen Lord spells out why it was inevitable that he should suffer and die. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” And again, as he had on the way to Emmaus, he “opened their mind to understand the scriptures”, equipping his disciples for the task that lies ahead, two thousand years ago for them, here and now for us. That task is to ensure that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is… proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”. The primary task is to enable people to reframe the way they see the world (that is what repentance means) and to re-evaluate their place in it (which is what the forgiveness of sins is all about), recognising the damage done by human fear and arrogance and greed, and breaking out of the cycles of failure, guilt and self-loathing which fuel so much that is wrong in this world.

The task of the Church is not to deliver judgement. Not is it to act as an agent of social control. Though sadly both of those negative approaches have loomed large in the Church’s self-understanding down the ages. The task of the Church is to bear witness. “You are witnesses of these things” are Jesus’ last words in today’s passage, to the little crowd gathered in the upper room, and also to us. We bear witness not only by what we say, but by how we behave, by lives which reflect (or not) the presence of the risen Christ.


The Gospel reading for 7th 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.

Reflection:

There’s an old Latin tag, sometimes attributed to St Augustine of Hippo, “solvitur ambulando” (it is solved by walking). Has it ever, I wonder, been applied as powerfully as here in St Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus? It begins with Cleopas and his companion (Mrs Cleopas, perhaps?) as they walk home going over the grim events of the previous few days in Jerusalem and trying desperately to work out what they meant – or whether, indeed, they had any meaning. It continues with the arrival of a mysterious stranger who comes alongside and, despite the rather rude welcome he receives, walks with them, listening to the story that they have to tell and reflecting it back to them with an interpretation drawn from the holy writings of Israel. They reach their home. The stranger makes as if to go on, but it’s late afternoon, maybe early evening, and the other two pressure him into staying the night with them. Then, when they sit down for an early supper, or possibly a very late lunch, their guest takes upon himself the role of the host and says grace as he breaks the bread – and at that moment they suddenly realise that their guest is the risen Jesus! And at that moment, just as suddenly, he disappears.

Now Cleopas and his companion could have simply settled down for the night with a warm glow, but what they had seen and heard was much too important for that. Instead, they got up and hurried back, in the gathering darkness, to Jerusalem. That’s about as far as from here to Nervi, or maybe Bolzaneto – or Sestri if you take the scenic route via Granarolo and Forte Tenaglia. Anyone fancy doing that in the dark with no torch and no street lights? But they can’t help themselves. What they have seen and heard is something so important that it must be shared with the others – and the others have news to share with them! “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

Now that, you may be thinking, is all very interesting, but what’s the take-away, the application as preachers used to call it? First: we need to remember that the journey is important. We mustn’t expect to have everything laid out neatly for us in advance. Stepping out in faith isn’t always easy. Sometimes we set out, like those two disciples, with many more questions than answers. Sometimes we stagger under burdens of sorrow, anger, fear. Either way it’s a case of “solvitur ambulando”. Second: don’t ignore those you encounter on the journey. The risen Christ comes to us in many guises and we don’t always recognise him. We nonetheless learn wisdom from the most unlikely people. Third: pay attention to the scriptures. For us that means Paul and the Gospels as well as the law and the prophets. Read your Bible regularly – and be prepared to be startled. And finally: be aware of the Christ who still makes himself known in the breaking of bread – and don’t panic if you can’t hold on to a vivid sense of his presence. Remember that Cleopas and his companion couldn’t either; but that didn’t stop them sharing their experience with their fellow-disciples and finding mutual strengthening, mutual encouragement, as they exchanged the news of their encounter with the risen Christ and how it had impacted their lives.


The Gospel reading for 6th 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.’

Reflection:

This passage from John’s Gospel was the inspiration for two remarkable British works of art, one from the last century, the other from the reign of James VI/I. The twentieth-century work is a painting by Graham Sutherland. It hangs in the Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral, the place for which it was commissioned by the then Dean, Walter Hussey, in 1961. It shows Mary, half-kneeling in the garden, reaching out to touch the figure of the risen Christ, who is wearing a gardener’s straw hat and climbing a somewhat enigmatic stairway. He extends his right hand towards her, with palm open, half blessing, half warding off, while his left arm is stretched out along the handrail of the staircase with the index finger pointing upward. It is both ‘Do not hold on to me,’ and ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ It is a picture of great human tenderness and profound symbolism.

The Jacobean work of art is a masterpiece of painting with words, a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, who also has connections with Chichester, having been bishop of that diocese from 1605 to 1609. This sermon, though, is from the last decade of his life, when he was Bishop of Winchester, and it was preached not in Winchester but at Whitehall, before King James and his court on Easter Day 1620.

Andrewes, as was his custom, takes the text to pieces, verse by verse, and shows how it fits together both internally and in relationship to the rest of Scripture, ranging through the law, the prophets and the psalms as well as plundering the rest of the New Testament. Like Graham Sutherland, he is not afraid to employ some strikingly vivid imagery, pointing out, for example, that Mary Magdalen’s role announcing Christ’s resurrection to the Apostles is like that of the angel who had announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. “As he, to the shepherds; so she, to the Apostles, the Pastors of Christ’s flock; by them to be spread abroad to the ends of the world.” He also offers some profound insights, as when he reminds us that “To stay while others do so, while company stays, that is the world’s love: but Peter is gone, and John too: all are gone, and we are left alone; then to stay, is love, and constant love, Love that when others shrink and give over, holds out still.” And he notes in his comment on the angels’ question that “If she find an angel, if she find not her Lord, it will not serve. She had rather find his dead body, than them in all their glory.”

But perhaps the most striking passages in the sermon come in the extended riff on Christ as the gardener, “who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day, as the like was never seen before, a dead body, to shoot forth alive out of the grave” and who will one day “turn land and sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them, as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.” As Andrewes says at the climax of this sermon, “You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and so you do. But, not to his alone, but even to Mary Magdalen’s resurrection, too. For, in very deed, a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her, revived, as it were, and raised from a dead and drooping, to a lively and cheerful state. The Gardener had done his part, made her all green, on the sudden.”


The Gospel reading for 5th 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.’

Reflection:

Mark’s Gospel, as we heard yesterday, ends with the women running in terror and amazement from the empty tomb. Matthew, like Luke and John, offers an account of what happened next. Unlike Luke and John, he tells the story from the side of the Jewish authorities and the Roman governor, as well as from the side of those who followed Jesus. And on both sides he brings the story full circle.

For the priests and the elders, it’s a small circle. The morning after Jesus’ crucifixion they had asked the governor to set a guard on the tomb and so prevent the disciples from stealing the body and claiming that Jesus had risen from death. But despite their precautions God had raised Jesus, so that the Jewish authorities now had to save face by invoking the very deception that they had taken steps to prevent – and potentially getting the soldiers of the guard into serious trouble with their commanders. To fall asleep while on watch was a serious dereliction of duty, punishable, in some cases at least, by death.

For the women, their role is to bring the whole Gospel full circle. Commentators have pointed out how the end of Matthew’s Gospel, with its account of the actions of Jesus’ friends intercut with the activity of those who had brought him to the cross, is a kind of mirror-image of the structure of its beginning, where episodes involving the holy family, and particularly Joseph, alternate with episodes set in the hostile environment of King Herod’s court. The role of the women at the end of the gospel echoes that of the wise men at the beginning. They had travelled far to meet the new-born “king of the Jews”, arrived in Bethlehem “with great joy”, and worshipped the child they had come so far to see. The women, similarly go away from the tomb “with great joy” and worship the risen Jesus when he meets them. It is a reminder that from beginning to end of the gospel story Jesus of Nazareth meets opposition from the powers of this earth but that no action of theirs can thwart God’s purpose of reconciling the world through the death and resurrection of God’s Son.


Sunday, 4th April – Easter Day

Although the life of the 20th-century American poet e.e. cummings was in some ways as chaotic as the language and imagery of his poems, it was underpinned by a sense of the transcendental and the presence of “le bon Dieu”. He wrote on one occasion ‘may I be I is the only prayer—not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong’. His poem “i thank you God for most this amazing day” catches an Easter sense of resurrection and renewal which bubbles off the page. This final poem in our sequence which began on Ash Wednesday with another American-born poet is read here by its author.


Saturday, 3rd April – Holy Saturday/Easter Eve

George Herbert’s poem ‘Sepulchre,’ is the last in a sequence (including Thursday’s poem, “The Agonie”) which focus on the suffering and death of Jesus and comes immediately before the two poems, “Easter” and “Easter Wings”, which celebrate the resurrection. Like many of Herbert’s poems, “Sepulchre” is built on a conceit: in this case, the contrast between the rock-cut tomb which received the body of the dead Jesus and the stony human hearts in which he can find no place


Friday, 2nd April – Good Friday

John Donne provides our poem for today. It is, appropriately, ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ which describes a journey which the poet made into Wales on business, two years before his ordination, and contrasts the immensity of the day’s events with his own mundane concerns.


Thursday, 1st April – Maundy Thursday

George Herbert sets today’s poem, “The Agony“, in the context of the scientific discoveries of the early 17th century and relates them to Christ’s anguished prayer in Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, and to his crucifixion, focusing on the detail, recorded in St John’s Gospel, of the spear-thrust into the side of the dead Jesus “and at once blood and water came out” (John 19:34).


Wednesday, 31st March – Wednesday in Holy Week

The final Holy Week Address about Dante’s Divine Comedy as a Spiritual Journey can be accessed here.

Today’s poem, ‘I see His Blood Upon the Rose,’ marks a return to the Irish poet, journalist and revolutionary Joseph Mary Plunkett. It reflects the poet’s vivid awareness of the presence of Christ in all creation.


Tuesday, 30th March – Tuesday in Holy Week

The second Holy Week address about Dante’s Divine Comedy as a Spiritual Journey can be found here.

Although Emily Bronte is best known as the author of the novel “Wuthering Heights”, she was also, like her younger sister Anne, a gifted poet. ‘No coward soul is mine’ was written, it is thought, in the mid-1840s, a couple of years before her death , aged 30, from tuberculosis. It is a powerful affirmation of her radical trust in God, whatever disasters may strike.


Monday, 29th March – Monday in Holy Week

The Holy Week addresses in Genova this year are part of the commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. The first of three talks about “La Commedia” as a Spiritual Journey can be found here.

We continue our journey through Holy Week with a poem that brings us very close to home. It is ‘Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa’ by Oscar Wilde, who visited the city on his way to Greece as a young student of the Classics in 1877. Twenty-two years later, after his release from prison, he returned to visit the grave of his estranged wife Constance, who had died the previous year and who is buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery at Staglieno.


Sunday, 28th March – Palm Sunday

The Donkey’ is probably the poem by G.K. Chesterton which has been included most often in collections of 20th-century poetry. It takes a sideways look at the humble beast of burden on which the King of Peace entered the holy city on the first Palm Sunday for his decisive conflict with all the powers of evil.


Saturday, 27th March

On the eve of Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, as the shadows deepen around Jesus and the cross looms ever larger on the horizon, we return to the poems of George Herbert. This one is called ‘Affliction‘ and is the fourth poem (out of five) to which he gave that title. It is, like many of Herbert’s poems, a record of what the poet described as “the many spiritual conflicts which have passed betwixt God and my soul”. It is read here by the Canadian poet and novelist Diane Tucker.


Friday, 26th March

What the Thunder said’ is the final section of T.S. Eliot’s early masterpiece ‘The Waste Land’, written in 1922, five years before Eliot’s baptism and reception into the Church of England. It draws on imagery from the Bible (especially the Passion and the story of the Road to Emmaus), from Arthurian legend and from the Hindu teaching crystallised in the Upanishads, all of which are interwoven with quotations from (among others) English drama from the reign of Elizabeth I and James VI/I and Dante’s “Commedia”. It is read here by the poet.


Thursday, 25th March

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the yearly remembering of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary with the message that she was to become the mother of God’s Son. This is the second of two poems with the title “The Annunciation” written by the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir. It comes from the collection “One Foot in Eden”, which was published toward the end of his life. It is read by one of the undergraduate students of King’s College Cambridge at the Festival of Nine Lessons on Christmas Eve, 2013.

The chaplain’s reflection on the Feast of the Annunciation can be found here

Annunciation wall-painting in the church of San Francesco, Brescia

Wednesday 24th March

The raising of Lazarus, in John’s Gospel (chapter 11), is the last “sign” which Jesus performs before his entry into Jerusalem. This poem, by the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke, was written during one of his visits to Spain before the First World War. It was never published in his lifetime. The translation read here is by the American poet Edward A. Snow.


The Gospel reading for 24th March – Walter Hilton, Paul Couturier and Oscar Romero (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.’

Reflection:

Today’s gospel asks some searching questions about what it means to be a disciple. As so often in John’s Gospel, the key issues are truth, trust, and obedience. Today we remember three very different men, living in very different situations, two different continents and with the earliest and the latest separated in time by nearly six centuries, but each of them was energised by the truth that they found in Jesus.

The earliest in time was a fourteenth-century English priest, part of that remarkable flowering of the spiritual life of the English Church which also produced Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing”. The priest’s name was Walter Hilton, first a Cambridge-trained canon lawyer, then a hermit, and finally, in his mid-forties, a member of the community of Augustinian canons at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire. Here he gained a considerable reputation as a spiritual guide and wrote the books for which he is still remembered. Of these the longest and most important is “The Ladder of Perfection”, with its vivid image of the spiritual life as a journey to Jerusalem best undertaken with the minimum of baggage and sustained by the use of the mantra “I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire only one thing.” These, says Hilton, will help the pilgrim grow in humility and love: “Humility says, I am nothing; I have nothing. Love says, I desire only one thing, and that is Jesus.” For Walter Hilton the way of discipleship was the way of the mystic.

The second was a French priest and scientist. Paul Couturier was born in Lyon in 1871 and died there on this day in 1953. He was ordained priest in his mid-twenties as a member of a teaching order and remained a teacher of physical sciences at its college in Lyon until his retirement. Lyon was the city where, in 1274, the Christian Churches of East and West had briefly kissed and made up their centuries-old quarrel. It was also, at the time when Paul Couturier began teaching there, the home of a large community of Russian refugees and he found himself working among them, learning about the Orthodox tradition of prayer and spirituality. He became increasingly aware that divisions between the Churches were a block to the credibility of Christian faith, but took heart from the saying of a 19th-century Russian bishop that “the walls of division do not rise as far as heaven.” Couturier began to work with Christians of other traditions, Protestant as well as Orthodox. Unlike some fellow-Catholics for whom Christian unity meant a return to Rome, he realised that prayer could bring about a spiritual unity across barriers of doctrine and ritual. More than anyone else he was the person who made the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity what it is today. For Paul Couturier the way of discipleship was the way of a bridge-builder, so it’s fitting that when the city of Lyon wished to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, it renamed an elegant footbridge across the River Saône as the passerelle Paul-Couturier.

Paul Couturier was already established as a teacher when the third of our disciples was born in El Salvador. Oscar Romero was intended by his father to train as a carpenter, and he began an apprenticeship, but even as a teenager he knew that God was calling him to be a priest. He studied in Rome and was ordained there in spring 1942. For most of his ministerial career as priest and bishop he was known as conscientious, sometimes over-scrupulous, and conservative, not in sympathy with brother priests who had been caught up in the excitement of liberation theology in the 1960s. So there was no great enthusiasm when he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador. Then, less than three weeks after his appointment Oscar Romero’s life changed completely. A close friend, Rutilio Grande, was a Jesuit priest working with poor communities to build up self-reliance. On 12th March he was murdered. This brought home to the new archbishop the realities of the Church’s situation. As he said later, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’ And for the next three years he did, speaking truth fearlessly to power, even when in 1979 power took the form of a military junta supported by right-wing paramilitary death squads. And so they killed him, too. Oscar Romero was shot dead as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel on this day 41 years ago. For him the way of discipleship was the way of a martyr. His statue stands, between Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among the 20th-century martyrs commemorated on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

Mysticism, bridge-building and martyrdom: three ways of continuing in the word of Christ, three ways in which the truth has made, and still is making, his servants free. And if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed.


Tuesday, 23rd March

Our poem today is another of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”, the fourteenth in the sequence, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. As with much of Donne’s poetry there is a focus on the divided self, but here the divided self knows what it’s ultimate good and goal is. The imagery is a powerful mixture of the martial and the marital, and the poem ends with a quite astonishing play on the two meanings of the word “ravish”.


Monday, 22nd March

Today’s poem is ‘And Still I Rise” by the contemporary American poet, essayist and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou


Lent 5: Sunday, 21st March

On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, was led out to the stake in Broad Street, Oxford, and burned to death as a heretic. Two of his brother bishops, Hugh Latimer (formerly of of Worcester) and Nicholas Ridley of London, had met the same fate there the previous October. Today’s poem by Stevie Smith praises him not only for his courage in the face of the death which he had dreaded but also for his scholarship and, above all, his authorship of the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. “Admire Cranmer” she says, and means it!


Saturday, 20th March

We end this week, as we began it, with a poem by the Welsh priest-poet, R.S. Thomas. It’s called “In Church“. As so often with Thomas, it’s a poem whose striking imagery leaves more questions than it provides answers.


Friday, 19th March

It is time for another poem by John Donne. His “Hymn to God the Father” reflects his own struggles against sin, marked by the play on his surname which ends each stanza, and expresses his recognition of the need for God’s forgiveness, but it applies to any Christian making a serious examination of their life. The poem is read here by the actor Simon Russell Beale


The Gospel reading for 19th March – St Joseph (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.

Reflection:

While Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the birth of Jesus largely from the point of view of Mary and her kinsfolk, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Matthew offers Joseph’s take on it all. In doing so he makes us realise just how difficult the situation would have been for all concerned in the patriarchal culture of Palestine in the closing years of King Herod’s long reign. As in many largely rural societies, ownership and inheritance mattered, and therefore parentage mattered. In addition, and particularly important in a devoutly Jewish setting, which is what Matthew’s description of Joseph as “a righteous man” implies, there are the Law’s strict prohibitions on extra-marital shenanigans, with death by stoning prescribed in cases of serious misbehaviour – including misbehaviour by one of the partners in a betrothal.

In such a setting Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary quietly represents a sense that the Law’s demands are to be tempered with mercy and, therefore, aligns him with that strand in Jewish tradition which emphasises above all God’s compassion and loving-kindness. What it doesn’t prepare him for is the realisation that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is about to manifest itself in dramatically human terms and in a way that will have a direct impact on him – that “God is with us” indeed. That realisation is expressed, as happens at other significant points in Matthew’s Gospel, through a dream, in response to which Joseph has to move from being obedient to what his tradition has taught him to being obedient to a direct word from the Lord.

That’s what makes Joseph such an interesting and important figure in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. He is a reminder that faithfulness to tradition does not mean shutting our ears to messages from God which appear to cut across that tradition or even run counter to it. To do that would be to turn the tradition into an idol – something for which Jesus, later in this Gospel, will frequently rebuke the scribes and Pharisees. Joseph points us toward a different approach, an openness to the compassion of God, and to that challenge of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect“. Perfect in obedience, not to the patriarchal tradition of inheritance and the preservation of ownership, but to the inner call of the God who is with us to loving-kindness and compassion.


Thursday, 18th March

Today’s poem is William Blake’s “A Poison Tree“, illustrated by one of his original engravings from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.


Wednesday, 17th March

Our choice of poems for St Patrick’s day failed to dodge the blindingly obvious. It is the ancient Irish prayer-poem, long attributed to the saint himself, and known as St Patrick’s Breastplate. Modern Gaelic scholars are inclined to date it two or three centuries after the saint’s time, and to dismiss the story which says that it was sung by Patrick to ask God’s protection from ambush as he journeyed to challenge the pagan High King Loegaire on his home territory, but it remains a powerful prayer for God’s protection against all that can harm.


The Gospel reading for 17th March – St Patrick (Matthew 10:16-23)

Jesus said to the twelve: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’

Reflection:

In view of the most famous action attributed to St Patrick, it’s more than slightly ironic that in the Gospel appointed for his feast-day Jesus commends the wisdom of snakes. The rest of this extract from Jesus’ instructions to the twelve, on the other hand, fits what we know of Patrick’s life quite closely – particularly the account which he left in the document known as the “Confession”. Born into a Christian family during the turbulent years of the late fourth century as Roman rule in Britain began to crumble, kidnapped by Irish raiders as a teenager and sold as a slave, he made a dramatic escape from slavery, discovered a new depth to the faith in which he had been brought up, followed God’s calling to return to Ireland as a missionary bishop, proclaimed the gospel fearlessly in front of hostile, pagan rulers, brought women and men in every part of the island, even the most remote areas, to faith in Christ – and probably didn’t expel all the reptiles.

As the saint himself recalled, toward the end of his life, “It was the overwhelming grace of God at work in me, and no virtue of my own, which enabled all these things. I came to the Irish heathen to preach the gospel. I have had to endure insults from unbelievers; I have heard my mission ridiculed; I have experienced persecution to the point of imprisonment; I have given up my free-born status for the good of others. Should I be worthy, I am even ready to surrender my life, promptly and gladly, for his name; and it is here in Ireland that I wish to spend my remaining days, if the Lord permits me.”

As we reflect today on Patrick’s part in God’s mission, we recognise that there are parts of his experience which are, congregationally speaking, ours also. We too are far from homeland and family, as he was; some by free choice, others among us through deception, or being trafficked. Some have experienced insults and ridicule. Some have, like Patrick, discovered a deeper faith in our exile: “the wonderful and rewarding gift”, as he described it, “of knowing and loving God”. All of us are called, as he was, to offer sacrifice, “the living sacrifice of our life to Christ our Lord, who sustains us in all our difficulties”.


Tuesday, 16th March

Today’s poem “Carrion Comfort” comes from the pen of the 19th-century Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is one of his so-called “Terrible Sonnets”, a bleak but ultimately (just) hopeful account of the poet’s wrestling with God during a period of deep depression and anguished spiritual struggle.


Monday, 15th March

Joseph Mary Plunkett was an Irish poet, journalist and revolutionary, executed in May 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. His sonnet, ‘I saw the Sun at Midnight,’ reflects his deep Christian faith.


Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday): Sunday, 14th March

The English tradition of presenting posies to mothers on Mothering Sunday goes back to the days when young people were hired out as farm labourers and domestic servants at the great hiring fairs each autumn. In mid-Lent they were allowed a visit home and, on their way, many would pluck a posy of wild-flowers from the road-side to give their mother when they reached home. It was a moment of brightness in what might otherwise be a time of drudgery. R.S. Thomas’s well-known poem, “The Bright Field“, takes a similar heart-lifting moment as the starting point for a parable of God’s self-revelation.


Saturday, 13th March

Today’s poem is ‘The Snowdrop Monument (in Lichfield Cathedral)’ by the 19th-century Lincolnshire poet and novelist Jean Ingelow. It drew inspiration from the tragic story of the Robinson family, whose two daughters are commemorated in this monument which stands in the south-east corner of Lichfield Cathedral. Their father, William Robinson, had been a canon of the cathedral until his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1812. The following year his elder daughter Ellen-Jane died of the burns she received when her night-dress caught fire while on a trip to Bath with her mother, and the year after that her younger sister Marianne became ill during a visit to London and died. Their grieving mother commissioned the sculptor Francis Chantrey to create a memorial to her daughters, based on the way in which she had seen them fall asleep in each other’s arms. It is known as “The Snowdrop Monument”, because of the bunch of flowers in Marianne’s right hand. Jean Ingelow’s poem, which draws on the imagery of the monument for a meditation on grief and the Christian hope of resurrection, offers a reflection for the eve of Mothering Sunday.


Friday, 12th March

The poem “Friday’s Child” by W.H. Auden bears the dedication “In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945”. Written about ten years after his death, it deals, at times playfully, with some of the themes of Bonhoeffer’s theological writing. And the title, with its echo of the old rhyme, “Friday’s child is loving and giving”, reminds us that the radical theologian was a man who took great delight in family and friendships and a member of the anti-Nazi resistance who recognised that his activity might well lead, as it did, to his giving his life in the cause of truth and freedom.


Thursday, 11th March

Today’s poem, “One Foot in Eden” by the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir, is the title poem of Muir’s 1956 collection, the last one published in his life-time. The first part of the collection deals mainly with religious and mythological themes. This poem picks up the parable of the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) and relates it to the experience of 20th-century humanity.

For Muir his childhood on Orkney was “Eden”. His family’s move to Glasgow, which was followed by the early death of both his parents, was the most traumatic event of his life.


Wednesday, 10th March

Charles Causley’s poem, “The Ballad of the Bread Man“, takes the life of Christ and relocates it in 20th-century England. Despite the comic and colloquial tone of much of the writing, well brought out in Tony Price’s deadpan reading, the poem’s ending has echoes of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s “Indifference”, which was our featured poem on the first Friday of Lent.


The Gospel reading for 10th March (Matthew 5:17-19)

Jesus said: ‘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.’

Reflection:

Matthew rarely leaves his readers in much doubt where he is coming from. He is a Jew, probably the kind of “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus describes in Matthew 13:52, and he is writing for a community which is predominantly Jewish about a Jewish rabbi who just happens to be the Son of God. Matthew’s Jesus is noticeably less radical than Mark’s. In some places his teaching is, even by the standards of first-century Palestinian Judaism, quite conservative. And with good reason.

Most scholars think that Matthew’s Gospel was written in the years after the failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple. It was a time when Jewish Christians, of whom there were many, were under attack by surviving nationalists as traitors to their ancestral faith. In recent years we have had many vivid examples of the way in which religious divisions within the same faith community can lead to violence and death.

So Matthew defends the Jewishness of Jesus – and this saying about the law and the prophets is part of that defence. But it is rather more than a historical curiosity. It reminds us, as St Paul reminds us in the climactic chapters of his letter to Rome, that God has not cast off what the Good Friday collects call “God’s ancient people, the Jews, the first to hear his word.” They are still part of God’s purposes, despite the continuing hostility of many Christians, and others, over twenty centuries and they will continue to be part of God’s purposes. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”. In the past Christians would take the end of that statement and claim that all had been accomplished in Jesus, but if it is taken with the opening words, it might well mean “until the end of time”.

Yesterday evening at a Zoomed meeting of CCE, my Lutheran colleague Elisabeth Kruse made a serious plea for interfaith dialogue as part of our Christian witness. Dialogue requires a respect for the position of the other person and for the traditions which guide them, not an attempt to prove that they are wrong and we are right. The enduring validity of “the law and the prophets” matters to our Jewish neighbours in this city as much as the grace and truth that come through Jesus our Lord matter to us.


Tuesday, 9th March

Our poem today, “Animula” by T.S. Eliot, was inspired by a passage from the “Commedia” of Dante Alighieri (Purgatorio 16:85-90). Its opening line is a mash-up of the first part of line 85 and the first part of line 88, which returns, subtly altered, later in the poem, leading us to reflect on the failure to live life fully.


Monday, 8th March

Today’s poem is by John Betjeman and in this recording it is introduced by the poet. He calls it “The Last of her Order“. It is perhaps better known as “Felixstowe”.


Lent 3: Sunday, 7th March

On this Third Sunday of Lent we return to the poetry of George Herbert, and this time to his poem “Redemption”, which sets the drama of salvation in a setting that would have been only too familiar to some of his parishioners, the need to renegotiate a tenancy in the face of agricultural crisis. Here it is read by the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft.


Saturday, 6th March

We end this second full week of Lent with the poem ‘Autobiography,’ by Louis MacNeice. Born in Northern Ireland to an Anglican family (his father went on to become a bishop in the Church of Ireland), MacNeice studied at Oxford, graduating with a First-class Honours degree. He worked as a university lecturer in Birmingham and London before joining the BBC during the Second World War. Despite its title the subject of this poem is not his colourful private life but the impact of his mother’s illness and death on him as a young boy.


Friday, 5th March

George Herbert ended his days as parish priest of the village of Bemerton, now a suburb of the English cathedral city of Salisbury. The career of his older contemporary (and family friend) John Donne was rather more spectacular. Born into a “Recusant” family, he studied at Oxford and Cambridge, spent his inheritance on the 16th-century equivalent of “cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women”, and served as a soldier in the Earl of Essex’s expedition to Cadiz, before finding a post in government service from which he could move on to higher things. Unfortunately, he lost that job when it became known that he had secretly married his employer’s niece and he and a growing family lived in extreme financial insecurity for the next few years, until he found employment with a new patron and, after the death of Elizabeth I, attracted the attention of King James VI/I. By this time Donne had gained a reputation both as a poet and as a writer on religious matters. He had moved away from the Catholicism in which he had been brought up and was a noted defender of the Church of England. King James bullied Donne into taking holy orders and appointed him to a number of significant posts, the last of which was the Deanship of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he proved to be a great preacher. While much of his poetry, especially the poems which he wrote as a young man, deal with secular matters (satires and love poetry established his reputation), he wrote in later life a number of profoundly Christian poems, including the sequence of nineteen “Holy Sonnets”, among which today’s poem, “Death be not proud”, stands at the halfway mark.


Thursday, 4th March

Today’s poem, “Love”, is probably the best known of George Herbert’s poems with the possible exception of those which are used as hymns. It is the last poem in “The Temple”, the collection of poems which Herbert passed to his friend Nicolas Ferrar of Little Gidding shortly before his death. In placing it right at the end of that collection, after a sequence of poems which focus on three of the traditional “Four Last Things”, George Herbert is making a firm theological statement. This is what lies beyond death and doomsday. When the dusty traveller arrives at his final destination, he discovers that this is the essence of heaven.


Wednesday, 3rd March

Robert Frost was an American poet of the first half of the 20th century, although he first achieved recognition during the time he and his family spent in Britain in the years immediately before the First World War. His poem, ‘Desert Places,’ is typical of much of his output, developing profound insights from his observation of the New England countryside.


The Gospel reading for 3rd 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.’

Reflection:

When Matthew changes the storyline he inherited from Mark, it is usually to make a point, as we saw earlier today, but it’s hard to see what point Matthew was making in the change he made to the storyline in this morning’s Gospel reading. Mark reports that it was the two sons of Zebedee themselves who asked Jesus that favour – a favour which makes you wonder how carefully they had been listening to anything that Jesus had said during the time that they had been with him. It’s not as if it was the first time that Jesus had warned the twelve that “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.” In fact, today’s warning is the third.

Luke’s Gospel also skates over this episode, but Luke does it by separating Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death from the argument about greatness, setting the argument in the context of the Last Supper, and leaving out any specific mention of James and John. He doesn’t try to reassign the blame for the brothers’ question as Matthew does. So why does Matthew do that? Some commentators think that it’s an attempt to tone down Mark’s criticism of the sons of Zebedee in the light of what happened later. By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, James had died a martyr’s death and direct criticism of him might not have been well received in some quarters: but, at least to 21st-century eyes, it isn’t a good look to try to shift the responsibility for such an ill-conceived request from the brothers to their old mum.

But that, as they say, is history; as is the other disciples’ anger at James and John. They clearly recognised where the request had come from, as did Jesus. His answer is directed to the two sons of Zebedee, not their mother – although the lack of a distinct second person plural in modern English rather muddies the waters at that point – and that answer must have made uncomfortable listening: first, because it showed that the brothers had been, as we used to say, rumbled; second, because where they had asked for glory, Jesus promises them suffering. As a motif in the Hebrew Scriptures, “the cup” sometimes contains something good. More usually, though, it contains something very unpleasant, especially in the writings of the prophets: “shame”, says Habakkuk: “horror and desolation” says Ezekiel – and he adds “scorn and derision” for good measure: “wrath”, say Jeremiah and Isaiah: “punishment” says the Psalmist.

What matters in this passage, and matters for us two thousand years later just as much as it did for the disciples, is what Jesus says to cool their anger against the brothers. He warns those who follow him against reflecting in his community the patterns of authority modelled by Gentile rulers – a coded way of naming the Roman Empire. He reminds them that the true way up is the way down, the way of humility and self-forgetting, the way which he will reveal to them after their arrival in Jerusalem, the way which he reveals to us as we follow him along the way of the cross.


Tuesday, 2nd March

John Betjeman had the reputation of being the poet of a certain kind of middle-class Englishness, jaunty, observant, obsessed with life’s little niceties, the chronicler of a particular age and sub-culture. That reputation ignores the depth of melancholy and sense of loss which underlies many of his poems. In “Before the Anaesthetic” it breaks out into the open.


Monday, 1st March

On St David’s Day it’s appropriate that we should hear the voice of a Welsh poet, the Anglican priest RS Thomas. Thomas’s relationship with God was complex. It would be too easy to make the comparison with his namesake among the apostles and call him a poet of doubt. Archbishop Barry Morgan, preaching the sermon at a service of thanksgiving for Thomas’s life, said that “… he stood in a long tradition of those who had wrestled with God back to Jacob, Isaiah, St John of the Cross, Master Eckhart and Luther who, echoing Isaiah, said ‘Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself’’. RS knew that God is ultimately unknowable in himself – He is a mystery to which our human words point only by analogy.” So in Thomas’s poetry we find hints and inklings and moments of insight, but no blazing theophanies. As in this poem, “Kneeling“.


Lent 2, Sunday, 28th February

Charles Causley lived almost the whole of his life, apart from wartime service in the Royal Navy, in Cornwall. For much of that time he was a teacher in Launceston, at the school where he had been a pupil, taking early retirement in 1976 to devote more time to writing. His poems deal with faith, folklore, memory, his wartime experience and its later impact, landscape, travel, friends and family. He has been described in Cornwall as “the greatest Poet Laureate we never had” and fellow-poets such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney held him in high regard. This poem “I am the Great Sun” was inspired by the inscription on a 17th-century crucifix in Normandy.


Saturday, 27th February

Our final poem in this first full week of Lent is “The Collar” by the priest and poet George Herbert, who is remembered in the Church of England’s calendar on this day. It comes from “The Temple”, the collection of his poems which was published after Herbert’s death by his friend Nicolas Ferrar of the Little Gidding community. The title plays on the similarity between the word “collar”, meaning a restraint, and “choler”, meaning anger. It is, until the final line, a very angry poem.


Friday, 26th February

Today’s poem is “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, a reflection on the way in which everyday life goes on around events which shake the world and shatter lives. It takes its inspiration from the painting “The Fall of Icarus”, attributed to Pieter Breughel the Elder.


Thursday, 25th February

Like Robert Graves, Philip Larkin was an avowed unbeliever, but there are moments at which his poetry seems to push him closer to faith. Today’s poem, “An Arundel Tomb“, provides one of those moments.


Wednesday 24th February

Today’s poem is “To Keep a True Lent” by Robert Herrick, the 17th-century poet-parson of Dean Prior in Devon. Herrick is sometimes, though wrongly, associated with the “Cavalier Poets” of the early 17th century. Although his earlier poems, with their delight in human sensuality, share some of the themes of the “Cavaliers”, he looks backward to the Elizabethans, and especially to Ben Jonson, and his direct style makes him different from the “metaphysical poets” when he deals, as he does here, with what used to be called “sacred subjects”


The Gospel reading for 24th February (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!’

Reflection:

The eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel is, to be honest, a bit of a rag-bag. It begins with Jesus teaching about prayer and includes St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. It continues with an exorcism – and a controversy, because some of the crowd say that Jesus is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons. Then Jesus sets out the danger of an exorcism which is not followed by a change of direction on the part of the one who has been exorcised and he replies to a woman in the crowd who goes over the top with her praises.

That’s the point at which we come in – except we don’t, because Jesus actually goes back to something that was said during the row about the exorcism. “Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.” And here they get their response, which, effectively, tells them that if they can’t see what Jesus is doing as a “sign from heaven”, then there is no point in asking for anything else. In a sense, what lies behind the crowd’s demand for a sign is the same attitude that Jesus faced in the wilderness. “If you are the Son of God…” do something spectacular. And Jesus says “No” to them, as he had said “No” to the tempter.

In the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel Jesus simply leaves it at that, gets into the boat, and sails off across the lake with the disciples. In Luke’s Gospel, though, as in Matthew’s, he offers what sounds like a kind of get-out clause. Jesus tells those who are questioning him that “no sign will be given” – but then he adds, “except the sign of Jonah”.

Now what that “sign of Jonah” may be has been a puzzle for nearly two thousand years. Matthew, who uses this incident twice, links it, at the first time of telling, to 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 doesn’t offer any explanation, but there is perhaps a clue to what he means in the way he rounds off his version of the story, with Jesus telling his listeners “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!”

So, perhaps the “sign of Jonah” is that prophet’s proclamation of God’s judgement on a political system which had grown great on violence and oppression. Perhaps it is a sign that a political system which is based on self-seeking and party advantage, rather than on fulfilling God’s requirement of peace with justice, is under God’s judgement. That would make sense of the sudden appearance of “the queen of the South”, who “came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon”, the king who built his power not on his skill as a warrior, like his father David, but on the wisdom which avoided war and sought prosperity for his kingdom.

And what we have here is greater than Solomon’s wisdom, for he was seduced by the success of his diplomacy into turning aside from worshipping the God of Israel. And what we have here is greater than Jonah’s preaching, for he was offended by God’s refusal to destroy the people of Nineveh. What we have here is Jesus, who is Son of Man and Son of God.


Tuesday 23rd February

Robert Graves was a poet, novelist, critic and classical scholar, best known for his two historical novels about the Roman emperor, Claudius. He was also the last survivor of the poets of the 1914-1918 War and had known both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. For much of his life he renounced any religious belief, but some of his early poems strike a different note, among them “In the Wilderness“, which was written in 1915 and published three years later in the collection “Fairies and Fusiliers”.


Monday 22nd February

The first full week of Lent continues with this poem by the 17th-century Welsh metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan, known as “the Silurist”. ‘The Retreat’, which was published in his 1650 collection of sacred poems “Silex Scintillans”, is a meditation on loss, inspired, it is thought, by the death of a younger brother.


Lent 1, Sunday 21st February

To begin the first full week of Lent, we have a Shakespeare Sonnet, number 146. It stands out from the other poems in the sequence because of its turn away from the complicated human relationships which they describe and its turning toward a renewal of the soul’s relationship with God.


Saturday, 20th February

“Norfolk”, today’s “Poem for Lent”, was written, and is here read, by John Betjeman. Like many of his poems, it is a meditation on childhood and the loss of innocence.


Friday, 19th February

The third day of our “Poems for Lent” project brings us back into the 20th century, with a poem by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the pioneering military chaplain known to thousands of British soldiers during the First World War as “Woodbine Willie”, because of his habit of handing out that particular brand of cigarette to the men among whom he ministered. This short poem is not, however, about his wartime experiences. It is called “Indifference“.


Thursday, 18th February

A couple of technical problems delayed upload of today’s poem. It’s “Lent” by Christina Rossetti.


Ash Wednesday, 17th February

Our series of “Poems in Lent” begins, appropriately, with T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday“, read by the poet himself. It was one of the first poems he published after the decisive move away from his family’s Unitarian faith and his own unbelief which led to his baptism as a Christian in June 1927 at the age of 38.

The chaplain’s sermon for Ash Wednesday can be found here, and then by searching for “Ash Wednesday”.


A short trailer for our “Poems in Lent” project which will, we hope, produce a recorded poem for each of the forty days. It’s Christina Rossetti’s poem “Shrove Tuesday” (and, by the way, we do not recommend using the bare hands to catch a pancake. The pan is much safer!).


The Gospel reading for 10th February – St Scholastica (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.’

Reflection:

These words of Jesus are part of his response to an accusation from leading Pharisees that he and his disciples were sitting far too light to the Law of Moses, in particular the regulations about ritual cleanliness, where the Pharisees wanted to introduce into everyday living the strict rules which applied to the temple.

That could be seen as slightly ironic in our present circumstances, where handwashing is up there with mask-wearing and social distancing as central elements in our efforts to bring the virus under some sort of control. There is, however, the difference that our concern in these days is not so much for our own ritual purity as for the well-being of our neighbour. Maintaining good hygiene is a manifestation of sisterly or brotherly love. In our situation, a failure to do so could be seen not so much as an expression of “freedom in the Spirit”, but as a sign of those “evil intentions” that come from within the human heart, a “menefreghismo” putting personal convenience or political propaganda ahead of wider public safety. The wisest spiritual teachers encourage the following of rules – and the development of an awareness of when it is appropriate to bend or even break them.

Today the Church remembers St Scholastica, the sister of St Benedict, who is revered by many as the model for Western monasticism. Scholastica, like her brother, also lived a life dedicated to prayer and they would meet, we are told, once a year to talk about the spiritual life and to sing the praises of God. Now, because Benedict lived in a men-only community, they couldn’t meet inside the monastery, so they would spend the day together in a building nearby. One day in particular they had spent a really happy time together and, over their evening meal they carried on talking about the things of God until it was quite late. At that point Benedict realised that he would have to go back to his community, but Scholastica was very reluctant to let him go. “Please do not leave me tonight”, she said; “let us keep on talking about the joys of heaven until morning.”

Benedict was quite shocked by this and reminded his sister that according to the rule that he had drawn up he had to be back inside the monastery. At which point Scholastica stopped arguing and started praying.

As she came to the end of her prayer, there was a sudden flash of lightning followed by a huge peal of thunder. And it began to rain. Not just a shower, but a storm even heavier than the one we had here on Sunday morning. It was such a downpour that Benedict and those who had come with him from the monastery couldn’t set foot outside the door. Realising that he was stuck, Benedict turned accusingly on his sister. “What have you done?” he asked. Scholastica replied “When I appealed to you, you would not listen to me. So I turned to God and he heard my prayer.” So, rather grumpily, Benedict had to stay. And they talked together about the interior life until the sun came up next morning and Benedict and his companions were able to return to the monastery and Scholastica returned to her own place a few miles away.

Three days later Scholastica was dead. Benedict, we are told, had a vision of her entering heaven and sent men from his community to bring her body for burial in the tomb he had prepared for himself. When he died, some years later, his body was laid beside hers. But the events of those 24 hours that they spent in one another’s company, talking about the life of the spirit, is a reminder that, while rules are important, they do not override every other consideration, especially not when keeping them over-scrupulously prevents us from acting in brotherly (or sisterly) love, sharing, from the abundance of a good heart, the blessings of God.


The Gospel reading for 3rd February St Anskar (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.

Reflection:

It was an aristocratic Frenchwoman in the reign of Louis XIV who made the memorable observation that “No man is a hero to his valet.” And it’s a sad fact that those who know us best often have the lowest opinion of us. So, in this passage, Jesus is written off by the people among whom he had grown up. They know him, they think, and they clearly think that he ought to know his place: and that place is working with his hands, not teaching in the local synagogue. No man is a hero to the people who know his old mum – and his brothers and sisters. Because they “knew” the messenger, they were not open to his message. They could not look beyond horizons that were limited by home-town, trade and kinship.

Today, by contrast, we remember a man who looked a long way beyond horizons of the world that he knew. Anskar was born in what is now northern France at the beginning of the 9th century, a time when the people who lived in that region were Franks rather than Frenchmen. Which accounts for his very un-French name.

Anskar was orphaned in early childhood and handed over to the care of the great abbey of Corbie, near Amiens, where, in due time, he became a monk. He was in his mid-twenties when the exciting news came that the king of Denmark had become a Christian during a period of exile in Germany and Anskar was sent north with the king to evangelise the Danish people and teach them the way of Christ. When Anskar arrived, however, he discovered that, while the king might have become a Christian, his people very definitely hadn’t and Anskar was driven out.

Now at this point Anskar might have returned south, but he didn’t. He took ship across the Skagerrak and started preaching the Gospel in southern Sweden, building, it is said, the first Christian church on Swedish soil. After about five years, his work was recognised and he was consecrated as bishop of Hamburg, on the understanding that he would continue to develop missionary work in Scandinavia. Again, the Scandinavians had other ideas. Hamburg was destroyed in a Viking raid about fifteen years after Anskar’s arrival, and he had to move to Bremen, in less than ideal circumstances. So he returned to Sweden, where he had more success than in his earlier visit, and to Denmark, again with rather greater success than at his first attempt.

But then in 865, nearly forty years after his first arrival in the north, Anskar died and the work of evangelising Scandinavia died with him. It was nearly two centuries before the evangelisation of Denmark and Sweden came to fruition. Despite that long gap, the faithfulness and fortitude of Anskar provided a model for missionaries in Northern Europe, and he was declared a saint within a few years of his death – a move which might have surprised him. When Anskar was confronted with claims which others were making on his behalf as a miracle-worker, he is said to have replied: “Were God to choose me to do such things, I would ask him for one miracle only – that by his grace he would make me a good human being.” To which I think all of us might happily say “Amen.”


The Gospel reading for 27th January (Mark 4:1-20)

Again Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’

And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’

Reflection:

When I was young I was taught that a parable was “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. You just had to squeeze the text, like an orange, and the juice of that heavenly meaning would come trickling out. Happily, New Testament scholarship has moved on a bit since then. Archaeology and a greater awareness of the world in which the Gospels, and the letters of Paul and others, were written have broadened and deepened our understanding of what is going on in and underneath the texts that we study. The world in which Jesus lived and taught and healed and suffered has become much more vivid, thanks to the insights of modern scholarship and the parable of the sower is no exception.

We’ve begun to realise, for example, how important parables were as a way of teaching those who were part of Jesus’ circle and as a way of keeping the message hidden from those who were hostile to him and his followers. Hence that quotation from the prophecies of Isaiah about looking but not perceiving which Jesus uses when the disciples ask him to explain.

We’ve also begun to realise just how radical the teaching of Jesus was in the circumstances of first-century Palestine. To quote from a controversial Church publicity campaign a few years ago, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? As if!” The parable of the sower was told to peasant farmers, most of whom were deeply in hock to wealthy land-owners, and whose land was doing well if the grain harvest produced seven-fold and exceptionally well if it produced tenfold. For such listeners the possibility of a harvest producing thirty-fold – never mind 60- or 100-fold – such a possibility would have meant freedom from the burden of their landlords’ demands for a share of the crop. It would even have offered them the chance of buying the land on which they worked. “The word” for them is a message of hope and liberation.

“The word” is also a warning to those who are already part of the Jesus movement. It’s a reminder how many blocks there are to becoming a true disciple. The powers of this world, lumped together here as “Satan”, the adversary, do their best to stop anyone hearing the message of Jesus. Those who do hear, fall into three categories. “The rocky ground” stands for those who drop out when being a follower of Jesus attracts hostility. “The thorns” – they’re the ambitious, the go-getters, the ones who make a mark in this world, who focus on status, financial success, and other distractions. And finally “The good soil”: those who receive and hear the word and bear the fruit that is liberation from the oppressive relationships which deafen people to the voice of God.


The Gospel reading for The Conversion of St Paul: 25th January (Matthew 19.27-30)

Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘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.’

Reflection:

The call of Jesus is always a summons to leave our comfort zone behind, and with it any form of human security. That security is described here by Jesus in terms of property, kinship and land; three things which then, as now, were the basis of a stable, safe existence and whose lack, or removal, can still send people over the precipice into poverty and destitution. But there are other bases for security: racial, cultural, educational, religious. St Paul had all of these, as he was to acknowledge to the Christians of Philippi, who had their own basis for security in the shape of Roman citizenship. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh [remembering that for Paul “the flesh” means every aspect of his unredeemed humanity], I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

That is a solid basis, you might have thought, for a sense of security – not to say superiority – as indeed it was until that dramatic experience on the Damascus road which turned Paul’s life upside down and sent him far beyond the comfort zone of Pharisaic piety. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi continues: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ….For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” That “faith” of which Paul writes is not, as is sometimes assumed, the mind’s assent to a set of statements about Jesus and about God. The faith of which Paul writes is the same attitude of total – if sometimes bewildered – trust which led Peter and the rest of the Twelve to leave their comfort zone in Galilee and follow Jesus of Nazareth into a strange and sometimes hostile world.

Today, for many people of faith, the world is just as strange and hostile as it was for the first followers of Jesus. Migration, pandemic, conflict are pretty well universal factors, and in many places government is viewed as an enemy – sometimes rightly. Being a Christian (or a Muslim) in Narendra Modi’s India or Xi Jinping’s China can be as dangerous as being a Christian was in Nero’s Rome. But, as Paul came to understand from the depths of his being, the God who called him on the Damascus road, the God who has called us into relationship with his Son – God is utterly trustworthy, whatever happens.

As we realise that, and as we sit more and more lightly to the security on which we have relied, we find ourselves discovering, with Paul, “the power of Christ’s resurrection” and we look forward with Paul, and with Peter and the others, to “the renewal of all things” and the gift of the fullness of eternal life as we share in the resurrection of Jesus our Lord.


This was the Anglican “message” at the service of Prayer for Unity in the Co-Cathedral of San Siro in San Remo on 23rd January, 2021. It draws on the three readings at the service (John 15:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, Revelation 7:9-12). The English translation can be found after the Italian original.

Sorelle e fratelli, abbiamo ascoltato le parole dell’Apocalisse, che descrivono “una grande folla di persone di ogni nazione, popolo, tribù e lingua” che stavano di fronte al trono e all’Agnello. Questa folla è sicuramente il popolo di Dio finalmente unito. Come dice uno degli anziani, “Sono quelli che vengono dalla grande tribolazione”.

Questo pone la questione: Dovremo dunque aspettare l’unità di tutti cristiani fino alla fine del mondo presente?

No di certo! Però nel mondo presente noi cristiani siamo impigliati ancora negli stessi problemi che San Paolo riconosce quando scrive ai Corinzi “alcuni della famiglia di Cloe mi hanno fatto sapere che vi sono litigi tra voi.” Ma invece de Paolo e Apollo, uno di noi potrebbe dire: “Io sono di Martino”, un altro “Io sono di Giovanni (sia Crisostomo, sia Calvino, sia Wesley)”, mentre un terzo sostiene: “Io sono di Pietro” (o dei suoi successori) e un quarto afferma: “Io sono di Tommaso”. E questi litigi si sono radicati nel corso dei secoli.

Comunque, possiamo rallegrarci in questi giorni che non vediamo più le differenze tra le tradizioni come fonte di tribolazioni e litigi, ma come manifestazione della ricchezza dei frutti abbondanti che Cristo la vera vite dà ai tralci che rimangono uniti a lui. Pertanto preghiamo che ciascuno di noi sia più radicato, più radicata, in Cristo che ama tutti i suoi amici, ortodossi ed anglicani, cattolici, luterani e valdesi, con lo stesso amore, amore infinito ed incondizionato, e che dice anche a noi: “Questo io vi comando: amatevi gli uni gli altri”.

English translation:

Sisters and brothers, we have heard the words of the Apocalypse, describing ′′a large crowd of people from every nation, people, tribes and language′′ standing before the throne and the Lamb. This crowd is surely God’s people finally united. As one of the elders says, ′′They are the ones who come from the great tribulation”.

This raises the question: will we have to wait for the unity of all Christians until the end of the present world?

By no means! But in the present world we Christians are still caught up in the same problems that Saint Paul recognizes when he writes to the Corinthians ′′some of Chloe’s people have told me that there are quarrels among you.” But instead of Paul and Apollos, one of us might say: ′′ I belong to Martin”, another ′′ I belong to John (whether Chrysostom, Calvin, or Wesley)”, while a third says: ′′ I belong to Peter ′′ (or his successors) and a fourth says: ′′ I belong to Thomas*”. And these quarrels have become rooted over the centuries.

However, we can rejoice in these days that we no longer see the differences between traditions as a source of tribulations and quarrels, but as a manifestation of the richness of abundant fruits that Christ, the true vine, gives to the branches that remain united with him. Therefore let us pray that each of us will be more rooted in Christ who loves all his friends, Orthodox and Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans and Waldensians, with the same love, infinite and unconditional love, and who also says to us: ′′ This I command you: love one another “.

*Cranmer, if you hadn’t guessed!


The Gospel reading for Richard Rolle: 20th January (Mark 3:1-6)

Jesus 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.

Reflection:

The questions which are raised by Jesus’ action in healing the man with the withered hand are still very much alive. Maybe not the question about the Sabbath law, but the “hardness of heart” displayed by those with authority or influence, their willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others rather than move out of their own libertarian comfort zone. The whole “anti-mask” and “anti-vaccination” movement in the current pandemic is a reflection of this. Some would argue that the preference of the Churches for remaining open for public worship also falls into this category – and Bishop Robert and Bishop David have taken that on board by asking every congregation in this diocese to consider what its policy ought to be given the situation in which it finds itself, as the church council here did at its meeting on Sunday. We decided to stay open – at least for the present.

What is striking about the story that Mark tells is the anger of Jesus at the silence of the people in the synagogue, their unwillingness to speak up for justice and compassion and against “the system”. What is also striking is the immediate reaction of the dominant religious and political groups, normally at odds with each other, who come together in a plot to kill him. They recognise Jesus as a threat to their own power. Such a threat that he must be done away with.

Today, as we reflect on the healing work of Jesus and the role of the Churches in a time of pandemic, we remember a man who lived in the time of the great pandemic of the 14th century, the Black Death and who may perhaps have died from it. Richard Rolle, a Yorkshireman from a farming family, was born around the turn of the 13th/14th century. He was a bright lad and came to the attention of a senior churchman, who sent him off to study at Oxford. While he was there, Richard had a profound experience of God’s presence, a warming of the heart like John Wesley four centuries later, and found himself drawn to a deeper relationship with Christ. He dropped out of university to become a hermit, first on the estate of a family friend, then, after a series of wanderings which may possibly have included study at the Sorbonne in Paris, he settled back in Yorkshire, in a hermitage near the Cistercian Convent at Hampole, where he became a spiritual adviser to the nuns – and where he wrote. He wrote in English for his friends and in Latin for the learned. He wrote poems of devotion and serious essays on the spiritual life. He is, I think, the only writer to have work in both the Oxford Book of Mediaeval Latin Verse and the Cambridge Book of Lesser [English] Poets.

He wrote about what is sometimes called “affective piety”, about the fire of love, about the amendment of life. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, especially the Psalms and the book of Job. He gained a great reputation – and not only in Yorkshire – although some of his contemporaries in that great flowering of spiritual writing in 14th-century England were inclined to criticise as “superficial”, his stress on the physical manifestation of God’s presence, as warmth, sweetness and song. Nevertheless, he spoke to many and after his death on Michaelmas Day, 1349, there was a strong movement to have him declared a saint, and his books were being copied and read not only in England, but across Europe three hundred years after his death.

So today, as we remember the life and writings of Richard Rolle, and as we reflect on the healing work of Jesus in the synagogue, we remember that God’s love and compassion take priority over human rules and regulations, even in a time of pandemic, and we entrust ourselves to God in faith and hope.


The Psalm which the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary provides for the Wednesday after the Third Sunday of Epiphany is Psalm 110, which has inspired composers as different in time and place as Tomás Luis de Victoria at the court of King Philip II of Spain, Heinrich Schütz in 17th-century Dresden and his Venetian contemporary Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi (who set it three times), Mozart (who set it twice), Michael Haydn (brother of Josef), and Richard Rodgers (who set verses from Psalm 110 at the beginning of “The Sound of Music”). Perhaps the best -known setting is the monumental version which the young Georg Friedrich Händel wrote in 1707 during his time studying music in Rome. With a performance time of 30-40 minutes it is around ten times the length of the versions by Victoria and Schütz.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18th-25th January. The prayer this year has been prepared by the sisters of the Grandchamp Community, which has long-established links with Taizé. If you would like to join the daily prayer, please follow the link here and choose which of the resources you wish to download. There is a full-colour brochure and a plain text version of the material as well as a simplified form of the service held in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo on 18th January which can be used at home.


The Gospel reading for St Hilary of Poitiers: 13th January (John 8:25-32)

The Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Then 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.’

Reflection:

Questions about truth and reality have been prominent in recent months, particularly in North American politics but also in other countries, in debates about the pandemic. So the closing words of today’s passage from John’s Gospel could hardly be more relevant. They are also very appropriate for the three very different men whom the Church of England remembers today. Each of those we commemorate was, like Jesus, engaged in debates about the truth – and about the God, who is truth. Each of them experienced opposition and rejection for the sake of truth. And each of them found that the truth did indeed make them free.

Hilary of Poitiers, one of the greatest teachers of the Western Church, was born a few years after the Emperor Constantine’s ending the persecution of Christians. Hilary came from a pagan family, but study convinced him of the truth of Christian faith and he was baptised. A few years later Hilary was elected Bishop of Poitiers, and immediately found himself involved in the arguments about the person of Jesus associated with the Egyptian priest Arius, who taught that the Christ was not fully God but some kind of semi-divine being. Hilary threw himself into the controversy on the side of Orthodox belief and was such an effective preacher and teacher that the authorities, who supported Arius, sent him into exile at the other end of the Mediterranean. That didn’t stop him. Hilary knew that in Christ he had discovered the truth, and that truth had made him free. He used his time in exile to study what Greek-speaking defenders of orthodox Christian faith were saying and writing. As a result, he was very soon sent back to Gaul as a “mischief-maker”.

Two centuries or so after Hilary, and a long way from Poitiers, another bishop was striving to proclaim the truth that is in Jesus. Kentigern was a third-generation Christian from Lothian, the region around Edinburgh, who was sent as a missionary bishop to the neighbouring kingdom of Strathclyde. He is said to have made many converts, but he also made enemies, including a pagan chief who drove him out into Cumbria and from there to North Wales. The next king, however, was a Christian, who sent for Kentigern and asked him to continue his work. Kentigern evangelised much of what is now south-west Scotland, including Glasgow, where he is buried.

Our third valiant seeker after truth would, I think, be amused to find himself remembered in the company of two bishops. Growing up amid the religious turmoil of England in the 1630s and 40s, George Fox felt himself called in early adulthood to commit himself to a search for the truth that would make him free. In 1646 he had an experience of enlightenment which led him to reject the conflicting interpretations of Scripture which were fuelling the English Civil War and to seek truth in the Inner Light of the living Christ. He gave up on the Church of his day and began to preach about the voice of God speaking directly to the soul. This put him at odds with both Royalist Anglicans and Parliamentary Presbyterians and he suffered at the hands of both, but the power of his preaching and his example drew increasing numbers, and he set about organising them into a society of “Friends of the Truth”, guided by that light of Christ which Fox had discovered within himself. Despite the abuse and the sometimes vicious persecution which he and his followers endured, Fox’s “Friends” survived the restoration of the monarchy and, out of all the radical religious groups which sprang up in England in the 1640s and 50s, they alone survive and thrive, not as an English sect, but as a worldwide movement with a heroic track record in promoting justice and peace, and still affirming that the truth to be found in that experience of the Inner Light will make all people truly free.

Picking up on the last of those three seekers after truth, here is a song which Sydney Carter wrote in 1964. It is inspired by the life and teaching of George Fox. In his introduction to the song in the collection “In the Present Tense”, Carter wrote that it “[needs] a chorus to give it variety, shout insults, hurl carrots. George sings on steadily… Give it a dancing sound, or even dance it.” The tune, incidentally, is based on a morris dance, “Monck’s March”. The title refers to one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals, who smoothed the way for the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 and was rewarded with the Dukedom of Albemarle.


10th January 2021

Here is a statement about the events in Washington on 6th January from our dear friend Fr Douglas Greenaway of St Paul’s, Rock Creek, in his professional capacity as CEO of the National WIC Association (used by permission).

Statement of the Rev. Fr. Douglas A. Greenaway President & CEO of the National WIC Association On the Invasion of the US Capitol Building

Yesterday, we witnessed a shocking act of domestic terrorism that should shake every one of us to our core.

At this moment, we can be nothing less than honest about what we saw. A conspiracy-crazed mob, incited by lies championed by the 45th President of the United States — at a rally organized to disrupt the solemn last step in the constitutional process of validating the federal election — invaded our sacred seat of American democracy, the People’s House – the United States Capitol building.

They smashed windows, rummaged through desks on the Senate floor, climbed over the Senate balcony to occupy the seat of the Senate’s presiding officer, vandalized offices, smashed glass in the doors to the House of Representatives to break into a furniture-blockaded chamber. They violated, with swagger and arrogant pride, the sanctity and the heart of our democratic institutions. The irony in their actions is that they view themselves as patriots.

Their insurrection was fanned by the President’s enablers — senators, senators-elect, and members of the House of Representatives — all set to protest lawful election results certified by election officials, governors, and judges in every state in the nation — on the floor of the House and the Senate.

Many of us in our WIC family know the corridors of the Capitol intimately. We have walked them headed to meetings with our representatives and senators – the very corridors that were violently occupied yesterday. We walked them proud of the opportunity to give voice, to speak up and speak out, in an empowering act of democracy on behalf of WIC and the millions of mothers, babies, and young children we serve. And our gift in those demonstrations of democracy was that we acted in peace and with respect, honored to be in those hallowed spaces.

While yesterday’s violent acts were acts of domestic terrorism, make no mistake my friends, the world was watching us. Our shame was dismaying to all who revere this nation as a beacon of freedom and stability in a broken world. Our reputation as the citadel of democracy is now sullied. The hope of millions has been shattered.

The internationally acclaimed journalist and writer, Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times offered this critique, “this is his [President Trump’s] legacy: he has successfully led a vast number of voters along the path from hatred of government to contempt for rational deliberation to the inevitable endpoint: disdain for the electoral process itself. In this end is his new beginning. Stripped of direct power, he will face enormous legal and financial jeopardy. He will have every reason to keep drawing on his greatest asset: his ability to unleash the demons that have always haunted the American experiment – racism, nativism, fear of ‘the government.’”

To put a finer point on this, for those of us who have been othered by the President and the mob that he inspires, we find it hard to believe otherwise, that were these invaders Black, or Muslim, or Queer, or another visible minority, they would have been met with carnage. Rather than being peacefully dispersed, their bodies would have littered the Capitol grounds. If you have doubts, think back a few months to Washington’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations when peaceful demonstrators were gassed, beaten, arrested, and shackled to accommodate a media moment for the President in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Our nation’s Capital was under a mandated 6 pm Wednesday – 6 am Thursday curfew. We wonder if what we have witnessed is the end — the last gasps of an administration that has violated every norm of decent governance — or if this is the beginning of yet more violence, as promised by many of the President’s marauding fanatics, not only in Washington, DC, but across the nation.

Our elected leaders are professing that what we witnessed is not America. That we are better than this. At the same time, some are still wedded to overthrowing the election outcome and the will of the American people.

But to get to that place — of being better than what we witnessed — requires that we own and take responsibility for our all too obvious shortcomings. We must confess our brokenness. We must repent of our willful misrepresentations, our thirst for power, our rewriting of history, our extraordinary greed and selfishness, our disavowal of the needs of our neighbors near and far, our blaming and shaming of those who are denied the pathways and access to success, and our keenness for othering. We must make amends for decades of systemic and institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia; our abuse of sacred land, water, and air; for the extraordinary income disparities that leave all to many living hand to mouth and paycheck to paycheck; and the designed inequities built into our healthcare, education, financial, and housing systems.

Despite the weight of this moment, there is hope in the witness of thousands of our neighbors who are appalled by what we witnessed.

There is hope in their selfless commitment to caring for and serving their neighbors and the needs of others.

There is hope in the apparent willingness of communities, institutions, corporations, and faith communities to wrestle with the scourge of our original sin — enslavement — and its continued consequences for the lives of Black Americans and for our nation.

There was hope in the clearing of the Capitol Grounds and the return of the Senate and House to their respective chambers to finish their Constitutional duty to certify the election of our 46th President. There is hope that despite the denials and delays, that with vaccines we will overcome the fear of COVID and restore much of our civic life.

There is hope that in Georgia, two Senators were elected without incident. There is hope that in 13 days we will witness the peaceful transition of power from one administration to another.

For us in WIC, there is hope witnessed every day in the eyes and hearts of the mothers, babies, and young children we serve.

And there is hope in the words of the prophet Amos, spoken more than 2,900 years ago, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


The Gospel reading for 6th 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.

Reflection:

Why did Jesus force the disciples to get into the boat and cross the sea while he went up the mountain to pray? One suggestion is that they were still shaken by their earlier experience of nearly being sunk in a storm on the lake. Another suggestion is that we need to read this story, which takes place immediately after Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, in the light of John’s version of that feeding, which also links with Jesus walking on the water. John doesn’t mention Jesus forcing the disciples to get in the boat, but he does say that Jesus realised that the crowd was planning to seize him and proclaim him king. Was Jesus, perhaps, concerned that the disciples might get caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm and decided to remove them from that situation?

So why doesn’t Mark mention that detail? Possibly it wasn’t in the version of the story that he knew. Possibly he edited it out for what we might call reasons of security. If Mark’s Gospel was, as most people think, written some time in the late sixties AD, that was not a good time to acknowledge that some of the people who followed Jesus wanted to put him on the throne of Israel. The Roman authorities had already turned the city’s Christian communities into scapegoats for the devastating fire in AD 64 – and at the end of the decade there was a war going on in Judea as Jewish nationalist groups like the Zealots tried to push the Romans into the sea. So any thought that Jesus might have been linked to a possible Jewish revolt would have been, as they say, unhelpful. John, on the other hand, was probably writing some years after the revolt had been ruthlessly crushed and Jewish independence was no longer an issue.

However we understand this episode and the way in which the stories interlock, it reminds us that the disciples, like later generations of Christians, had to navigate some very stormy political waters – not always happily – and that their only security was the presence of Jesus in their midst. So perhaps we might leave the last word to Julian of Norwich, writing from the stormy waters of England in the years after the great pandemic we call the Black Death. As her “showings” were drawing to an end Julian had a vivid experience of being under attack by the forces of evil. When they vanished she received a final vision of Jesus who told her, “You will not be overcome”. These words she took to apply to every Christian and she interpreted them in this words which echo the thrust of this passage from Mark’s Gospel: “He did not say, ‘You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable,’ but he did say, ‘You will never be overcome.’… For God loves us, and delights in us; so he wills that we should love and delight in him in return, and trust him with all our strength.”

Note: The above gospel is the one provided for use when the Epiphany of Our Lord is celebrated on the preceding Sunday. It is one of a series, taken from each of the four gospels in turn, describing incidents in which the glory of Jesus is revealed.


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