Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Day

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death
and to those in the tomb he has given life! Alleluia!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Lent day 40 - Holy Saturday

"On the sabbath, they rested according to the commandment." (Luke 24:56b)

Not even an image of a grave or a tomb suffices to signify this day of emptiness, desolation and grief.

The last day of the Lenten season is treated as a day of preparation, time for spring cleaning in church decorating and making them ready for the celebration of Easter. It's quite understandable that people want to do this, yet it contrasts with the sheer emptiness of the day following the burial of Jesus, of which scripture says so little, and for obvious reasons.

One of the key tenets of God's law and commandments for the Hebrew people was the reservation of one day each week for rest recreation and spiritual renewal. It was understood as essential for health in personal and social relationships, and it applied equally in a analogous way to cultivated land.

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exod 20:8)

"Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed." (Exod 23:12)

The fact that the Gospels report arguments about what constituted a breach of sabbath keeping law and regulation between Jesus and the religious authorities tends to emphasise detailed prohibitions that were characteristic of later stricter Judaism. 

"The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are your disciiples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:24 & 27-8)

"The leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?  This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” " (Luke 13:14-16)

Sabbath observance was positive in its intention, as Jesus was quick to remind his critics.

Jesus was buried hastily without completion the customary funeral rites. The women who wanted to do this duty as an act of closure, setting them free to mourn him properly, could do nothing on the sabbath. They wouldn't seek to do anything that would express contempt for the faith which Jesus had so richly shared with them. Besides, they were still in a state of shock at what happened to him so quickly, so beyond their control. All that was left to them was to wait the long agonising wait until the sabbath was over. If the tomb was more than a sabbath day's journey from the place where they were staying, they wouldn't even have been able to visit and keep watch nearby, and there was that guard mounted at the tomb entrance to maintain security.

This was hardly a day of rest, recreation and renewal for any of those who had witnessed Jesus' suffering and death. We can only reflect on our own response to traumatic events and how the memories replay themselves time and time again in our minds, as we wonder if there was any missed alternative to whatever we were helpless to prevent. For the men who had forsaken him and fled into hiding, there was the added shame of knowing their failure to stand by Jesus. On top of this, the sheer pain for all of them, losing their most beloved teacher, leader and advocate.

This day was unlike any other sabbath day observance before or since. Yet, the sudden wounding experience of death and bereavement is known to many if not most human beings at some time in their lives.

In retrospect, in the light of the healing and transforming encounters with the resurrected Jesus that occurred in following days, Peter, followed by other early Christian writers, felt free to imagine Jesus at work this day in the realm of the dead, taking the message of salvation to preceding generations who would not be excluded from the divine plan, but liberated from bondage to sin and death to take the place prepared for them in God's eternal realm.

"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient..." (1 Pet 3:18-19)

In the perception of their law compliant contemporaries, this could considered the ultimate sabbath restriction breaking initiative. But Jesus himself, early on in his ministry issued this challenge.

"He asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. " (Mark 3:4) 

This day, in the minds of his followers is when Jesus took the offer of life to the most unimaginable of places, before returning to reveal the resurrection to those in deepest grief and shock. It was spoken of in mediaeval Europe as 'the Harrowing of Hell'. The Eastern Orthodox second Troparion of Holy Saturday, from much earlier says this

"When thou didst descend into death, O Life Immortal, then didst thou annihilate Hell with the radiance of thy divinity. And when thou hadst raised up the dead from the nethermost regions, all the powers of heaven cried aloud: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory to thee!"

There is little mention of this in scripture. It is a glimmer of light in a dark and empty day of waiting, however, and there are Psalm verses that anticipate to this future, oft quoted in the earliest Christian preaching.

"Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever." (Ps 16:9-11)

As finite mortal human beings, we do not see the whole picture of God's creation and providence, let alone the full meaning of the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet, with St Paul, and with the poet of the Song of Songs we can declare 'Love is stronger than Death'

"For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge .… " (2 Cor 5:4-5)

Friday, 3 April 2015

Good Friday

The arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, reported in St Mark's Gospel, uniquely contains this passage

"A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked." (Mark 14:51-2)

This has often been regarded as a guarded self reference on the part of the evangelist to a point in the story at which he was there in person. Mark is said to have been Peter's scribe when the latter was recording for posterity what Jesus said and did. Was this his un-ostentatious signature?

Exposure of complete nakedness was considered shameful in Hebrew culture, in a way it wasn't in Greek society where men stripped naked to take part in athletics, and the human form in its entirety was the subject of admiration and artistic representation.

The Genesis stories account for the abhorrence of complete nakedness. It wasn't like that to start with.

"Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." (Gen  2:25)

After their act of disobedience to God, however, they behave altogether differently. The origin of shameful feelings is thus explained.

"Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?" (Genesis 3:7-11) 

The couple, once they are aware that they have done something they were warned against, have the impulse to cover, not the whole of themselves, but the part of their bodies associated with desire and pleasure they don't know how to control. They don't know how to give an account of themselves and this feeling is stronger than any sense of defiance or mischief they may have entertained.

Shaming is associated with humiliation, revelation of fault and transgression in a broader sense.

"They will be put to shame and even humiliated, all of them; The manufacturers of idols will go away together in humiliation." (Is 45:16)

"Men will come to Him, And all who were angry at Him will be put to shame." (Is 45:24)

"I said, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens." " (Ezra 9:6)

It carries the sense of being totally exposed and vulnerable to attack, punishment or condemnation.

The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane escapes by being stripped naked to his own shame, and causing offence to anyone who might catch sight of him running for his life.

Before Jesus was crucified he was stripped of his garments. The Gospels don't mention that he was stripped naked however. Christ crucified is generally portrayed wearing only a loin cloth, not naked.
It isn't necessary to presume that iconographers down the centuries have done this out of respect for Jesus' modesty. Publically displaying an condemned criminal naked would have caused great offence to the Jewish populace, and incite a protest riot. For Jesus to be accused of blasphemy, and abused so cruelly was shame enough. There was nowhere he could hide, no way to protect himself. This was the risk which he had freely and willingly undertaken to accomplish his Father's will. as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says:

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Heb 12:2)

The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane represents something more than an ephemeral anecdote in the Gospels. He is confronted with the violence of a 'religious' police force, and with Peter's violent response confrontation. He is witness to Judas' act of betrayal, whose motives he might not have had any reason to doubt previously. His instinct is to flee and tell the tale, and the shock of these events leaves him stripped bare, exposed, vulnerable, ashamed in more senses than one.

Do we not feel shame as well as horror at atrocities we learn of, almost on a daily basis, revealing man's inhumanity to man? The story of Christ's passion has the same effect, stripping us bare of our defences, our excuses, and pretences reminding us of our weakness and unhealed wounds, our need for shameful selves to be covered by God's compassion and healing grace. There is only one prayer left that any of us can say.

"Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13)

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Maundy Thursday

Jesus had a keen sense of what is essential about a life of faith in God, and in discussion with the guardians of orthodox Jewish teaching his summary of what is most important about God's law is not on his own words, but in direct quotations from the Torah - Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18b.

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." " (Mark 21:28-31)

His choice of texts reflects the priority of the Good News about God's kingdom which he believes he must convey to the world, that it is a kingdom where love reigns, first and last.

On this unique day in the Christian calendar, we hear how Jesus re-iterates and develops this teaching for the intimate circle of his companions, though not this time by means of quoting scripture, but by actions he employs to show them what he is talking about.

He follows Jewish tradition in the way he prays before, during and after meals, thanking God the creator and provider of all for the gift of food and drink, and for making his people who they are, in recalling their God given liberation from slavery and journey into the freedom of the Promised Land. He augments the received tradition of prayer however identifying himself with the broken bread and wine out-poured that they share with him.
"While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them." (Mark 14:22-4)

In the light of what happens to him in the next few days, we learn to understand that this action with these words points to his self-sacrificial death, whilst pointing beyond it to his resurrection presence with them, as they continue to repeat his words and actions and remember him.

Before Jesus made this change to their traditional table prayers, this moment of each meal shared was one of pure worship, a wonderfully mundane expression of loving gratitude to God, fulfilling the first Commandment. Associating the prayer with his death and resurrection, takes this act of worship to another higher level altogether, in which the domestic and the cosmic are made one.

Then, after the supper, Jesus washes the disciples' feet, insisting that any and every person entrusted with responsibility and power over others must be able to serve them in the humblest of things, and make themselves as dependent and vulnerable as a slave in respect of their real needs, always seeking to put the needs of others first. 
“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." (John 13:14-17)

Loving your neighbour as yourself, the second greatest commandment is a noble, if general statement. Jesus makes it concrete not by talking but by serving them, with no thought for his status. Is he perhaps already aware that he is soon going to lose every shred of human dignity? His concern is simply to show his friends that love is never a matter of mere words, but of words and deeds together. Divine truth is not a matter of ideas expressed, but something that is lived, something done, right action. His last supper is then, the occasion for his most memorable teaching.

It is noteworthy that the first three Gospels record the changes Jesus makes to the prayers, but not the foot washing. John records the foot-washing after the meal without mentioning the prayers. If indeed Mark is the first to record an account of this innovation in traditional Jewish prayer, he is mentioning something which groups of disciples have been doing regularly over the previous thirty years based on recollections of eyewitnesses passed on. He makes a written account of an oral tradition. 

For John this is so much a given practice that his intended audience doesn't need such a record. He is keen to remind them of what they may well be prone to forget - that Jesus was among them as 'one who serves', and that they should remember to do likewise in their ministries, as those who love God and love their neighbours as themselves.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Holy Week - Wednesday

Today's Eucharist Gospel readings in both the Roman (Matt 26:14-25) and Common Ecumenical (John 13:21-32) lectionaries speak about the role Judas plays in precipitating the succession of events that led to the death of Jesus. Introducing his account of the Last Supper, John says:

"The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot to betray him." (John 13:3)

Matthew and John state that Judas makes his offer to the religious authorities to tell them where Jesus can be found before the meal takes place.

"Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said [unto them], What will you give me, if deliver him to you? And they agreed to give him thirty pieces of silver. From that time he sought opportunity to betray him." (Matt 26:14-16)

Then, at the conclusion of the meal

"After he received the piece of bread Satan entered into him." (John 13:27)
First, the devil is described as motivating Judas to act, then Satan. Both words in Jewish tradition are used to refer to heaven's adversary, but there is a distinction between them. The devil is 'diabolos', a power or a person sowing division and chaos, un-doing the created order, if one thinks of God as the One who brings order from chaos at the beginning. Satan on the other hand, is originally a Persian juridical word, equivalent to prosecuting attorney - the Accuser - a more personal role, rather than the more general idea of a divider. 

Either way it's a hostile interpretation of the role of Judas that is reflected in the New Testament, but not in all ancient religious thought. Judas is considered by some Gnostic Christian writers as one without whom the work of divine redemption could not have been completed, that it was his destiny of necessity more than it was his choice. He is the one who triggers the inevitable course of action.

"So after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night." (John 13:30)

Judas knows that Jesus and the disciples will go to the Garden of Gethsemane to relax and pray after the meal in the cooler night air. He will lead the religious authorities there. John perceives his actions throughout as evil and corrupt, he doesn't trust him, but it doesn't follow that John has interpreted his intentions aright.

"Jesus said to him: "Do quickly what you are going to do." (John 13:27b)

Had Judas told him a lie? Did Jesus know what he was considering? Did they discuss an initiative Judas was keen to pursue. His secret visit to the religious authorities might have been an effort to arrange a meeting with Jesus for them away from the public eye, where he could in private prove to them he was the Messiah. 

For someone ambitious enough to see himself as a deal-maker on behalf of the coming Messiah, Judas may have naively disregarded the ill-will towards Jesus,. The religious authorities took his lead as an opportunity to make an arrest. Judas' possibly well intended plan went terribly wrong. Then he was seized with suicidal remorse, and earned universal anger and condemnation for his perceived act of betrayal. His certainly can be described as a diabolical act, considering the way Jesus' arrest scatters the disciples into hiding. 

Judas greets and betrays Jesus with a kiss, perhaps thinking until this moment that things will now start to be different. He gets no opportunity to exercise any role in this situation. He is nothing like a 'Satan', has no part to play in the fake juridical proceedings which follow, not even as a witness. He has been duped, played by the religious authorities and discarded, totally underestimating the malice they have towards his master.

Scripture is silent on these matters. It just reports the reaction that everyone feels betrayed, regardless of the reason or process behind it. There is no doubt about the murderous ill-will of the religious authorities, threatened as they were by inability to consider the integrity of their own position.

Whether Jesus knew exactly what Judas intended or not, we can never know, but on the basis of the little Jesus is actually reported as saying, he didn't attempt to control him or persuade him to act in some other way. All of the disciples must learn from their own successes and failures. The tragedy of Judas is that he cannot reach out and seek forgiveness. He is the unmerciful judge and jury of his own catastrophic error, and his own executioner. All this adds to the burden of sadness that falls upon Jesus on his last most painful day among us.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Holy Week - Tuesday

The Gospel for Mass in the Roman Lectionary today (John 13:21-33 & 36-38) focuses, as does tomorrow's Gospel from Matthew on the part played by Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. Not infrequently Judas is portrayed differently from the other disciples, making him seem sinister, villainous, but there is no evidence to support this in the stories scripture tells. At the least, iconography makes him out to be left-handed and in the ancient world this could be enough to lead to someone being regarded with suspicion. 
"See, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table." (Luke 22:21) 

Judas is shown to occupy an important position at the table, reaching out with his left hand towards  the same dish as Jesus in Giampetrino's copy of Leonardo's original Last Supper, and knocking over the salt with his right, as he does. His face is impassive, whereas most of the others are gesturing with astonishment - "Lord, is it I?" John, on the right of Jesus is being asked by Peter "Ask, who it is he means." Nobody is named, but Jesus responds to John's enquiry by saying that it is the one to whom he gives a piece of bread that he has dipped in the supper dish.

John identifies the recipient as Judas, but it's hardly likely that he was the only disciple to be favoured this during a meal. Jesus however, then gives Judas leave to go and attend to other duties as treasurer of the common fund. Was there something understood between them? An unfinished argument about the way forward, leading to Judas taking an initiative nobody else has agreed to? 

There is another Jude or Judas among them, described as Judas (not Iscariot). The man himself is never mentioned without being referred to as Jesus' betrayer. John also speaks of Judas Iscariot as a thief because of his abuse of the common fund. He is the target of communal anger for what he does in bringing Jesus to the attention of the religious authorities. Yet, without his vain disastrous attempt to force Jesus to demonstrate his power and reveal his true nature, the circumstances in which God's infinite mercy and compassion could be revealed, would not have occurred. This paradox is beyond our comprehension, but as St Paul says:

"At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:6)

On the face of it Judas acts on his own, over and against the group. His story is an illustration for all disciples in every generation that warns of the fatal risk attached to doing this. We are as Paul says:

"Members of one another." (Eph 4:25)

We would do well never to forget this.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Holy Week - Monday

Today's Eucharist Gospel reading from John 12:1-8 recounts the other supper Jesus and his disciples took part in, the week before Passover, with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary scandalises Judas by anointing the feet of Jesus with precious ointment. He interprets this for those present as a significant gift in advance of his burial. None of them are aware of just how great are the threats he faces, or the dangerous crisis that overshadows them all. It's the last reported gesture of loving kindness he accepts before violence breaks out upon him, and his Passion begins.

Speaking of the ointment and Mary's action Jesus says

"Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial." (John 12:7)

There are many and varied artistic representations of this moment, but this story revives the memory of St John's City Parish Church in Cardiff, which has two fine Victorian stained glass windows which portray this story, both made and installed in the last years of the nineteenth century. No explanation has ever been offered for this co-incidence. But it seems this story caught the imagination of some wealthy people in that era when the city was growing rapidly due to the coal export boom. It was perhaps a way of encouraging self effacing generosity in relation to God and his church.
Variations of this story appear in all four Gospels. Mark (Mk 14:3-9) and Matthew (Matt 26:6-13) relate that it's Jesus' head that gets anointed. Luke and John relate that his feet are anointed. The setting of the story is different in Luke's version, which comes earlier, in a section of teaching about forgiveness and love, in Galilee, perhaps Capernaum.

"And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." (Luke 7:37-39)  

Matthew and Mark's version is set in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. John's version is also set in Bethany, but among familiar friends at the house of Lazarus and his sisters. plus the disciples. All three state that this anointing is to be understood as a prophetic sign of Jesus' impending death. 

Anointing the head was a common gesture of hospitality (cf Psalm 23:5b), along with washing the feet (cf John 13:5). Anointing the feet of the sick for healing, and of the dead, as part of the mourning ritual before burial was also common custom. It may be understood as a gesture of healing towards a body that is tired and in need of soothing at the end of life's rough journey. Jesus here is near the end of his journey with the Good News of God's reign.

Neither of the windows in St John's church depict the anointing, but both depict the offering of the 'alabaster jar' Luke speaks of.  In one of the windows is inscribed a modest tribute to the one in whose memory the window was installed: "She did what she could."

Jesus did not rebuke anyone for paying such loving attention to himself, but what he did say poses a challenge to anyone who has to give an account of themselves as his disciple.

"Inasmuch as you did/didn't do this to the least of my little ones, you did/didn't do it to me." (Matt 25:40 & 45)