A Lenten Journey 1
It’s ironic isn’t it how the events of the past few weeks have left us housebound, and in many ways cut off from the outside world. One minute the incessant flow of life is swirling around and driving us along as normal, and the next, we are on or own, cast adrift.
How ironic that this has happened during the season of Lent. Lent, a time for reflection, honest appraisal and spiritual discipline has seen us caught up in the largest pandemic that we can remember. In these 40 days leading up to Easter, we follow our Lord on his path to Jerusalem. Step by step, we know that his journey there with his disciples will ultimately lead to the Cross at Calvary. But we also know that following the suffering on Good Friday, the bleak aftermath on Easter Saturday, we are thrown joyously into the mystery of Easter Day itself. The pain and anguish of the previous two days is released and we emerge into the light of the Resurrection. We have the privilege of knowing what lies ahead.
This ability to look ahead, to project ourselves into the future, is surely one of the great gifts of the Christian faith. Death itself holds no fear for us. We see the death of our physical body as a release from the constraints of this life; a marker, if you like, of the end of one form of existence and the beginning of another. Much as a caterpillar changes into a chrysalis and then emerges as a butterfly. Death is part of the process of life, and the process continues; we keep travelling on our path after having passed through death’s portal.
The season of Lent makes us confront our mortality as does living in the midst of a pandemic. It makes us discard the comforts of life and focuses our attention on the fundamental truths of our existence. Although sociable beings, born and living among families and friends if we are lucky, we have to accept the stubborn reality that we came into the world on our own and we leave on our own. Regardless of wealth, education, race, gender, we all, like school children before the head teacher have to stand on our own as we pass from this world to the next.
The image of so many people lying on hospital beds fighting for their lives is a reminder of how precious life is to all of us. In the same way as we look up at the figure of Christ crucified that we have starkly displayed before us in our churches here in Andalucia, we are chastened by its brutality, but something within us sparks us to action; to live as Christian a life as possible; to live although in so many ways we may be surrounded by death. As Christians we do have a unique ability to look past and through the morbid brutality of the cross. In the street people wear the cross (if they know what they are wearing) as a sign of faith and it becomes a symbol of hope and strength. This horrific artefact of death and torture is seen as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. We travel through the cross to the Resurrection of Christ.
Our enforced isolation this year is a timely reminder of the solitary nature of the soul. It gives us time to leave the hurly burly of life and go deeper into the depths of our own being. We close our eyes to the superficial, to everything that distracts and distorts our life, until we begin to feel the spaces within, and the silence and the peace of our own steady heartbeat. The clamour of the world without lessens and within the will to touch once again the very essence of our being grows.
During Lent we learn to listen to the jostling crowds surrounding Jesus, we see their faces of expectation and suffering. And we see how our Lord understands and instinctively knows how to release their pain. Today we meet the man who has been blind since his birth and little by little we see how difficult it is, not for him, but for those around him to accept what has happened to him. John, the evangelist, plays heavily on the theme of sight and blindness. Jesus states…he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Later he says… as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. As the crowd begins to debate what has actually happened to him and whether he in fact was the blind man anyway, he is taken to the Pharisees. They in a scene reminiscent of a court case question and re-question him, until unsatisfied with his answers they… drove him out. The man who has defended himself well when confronted by these academics has no doubts…If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. And later on, when he meets our Lord once again, he clearly knows who Jesus is… He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. This simple man came to faith through seeing what our Lord had done. Many of his neighbours who had been witnesses and the Pharisees themselves did not believe. Christ then qualifies this surprising blindness by saying… I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.
In a world that is so often blind let us bring light…let us listen to the question and answer when ready. And as we tread the pilgrim path this Lent let us look to our own lives and try to see where our own blind spots lie in wait to trip us up. Let us be faithful, let us be strong at this difficult time…
In the words of today’s psalm,… Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
A Lenten Journey 2
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. hear my voice!
Today we are approaching the end of our Lenten pilgrimage. The distant city of Jerusalem is shimmering in the spring heat on the horizon. There is still strength in our pilgrims’ legs but our thoughts are far removed from the beauty of the scene before us.
These thoughts are in the no man’s land between life and death. They are wrestling in the depths beside the psalmist, they are struggling with the pain that we can see on the faces of Mary and Martha, and they are challenged and reassured by the profound insight of the words of Paul… you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
As we watch the news flooding in from the Corona-virus pandemic that is taking the lives from so many around us, the hand of death is ever present. It casts its shadow over all of us in one way or another. At these times, the psalms are so reassuring. So many of them are written in and from this physical, spiritual, no man’s land, lodged between the land of the living and… the depths… often referred to in the psalms as Sheol (OERD – the Hebrew underworld, abode of the dead).
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. hear my voice!
Poignantly, at this time of reflection for us Christians, we are living scenes of doctors, nurses and hospital staff crying out in despair. Their voice echoes that of the psalmist we read today…their cry also rises to God although they might not be aware it. We are all dressed in sackcloth and the ash is marked on each and every one of us.
At Bethany they were also dressed in sackcloth. At the beginning of today’s reading… a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany. How impersonal this sounds. It reads like a journalist’s report in an evening paper. We know that this family in Bethany are among our Lord’s best friends. Why then this distant, factual recording of the events by John, the evangelist? And why does our Lord do the exact opposite of what any other friend would do when he hears of Lazarus’ serious illness?… after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was…then after this he said, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The poor disciples must have been at their wits end trying to understand what he was thinking. Their Rabbi’s great friend was on the point of dying and here he was suggesting that they retraced their steps to Judea, where he had narrowly escaped from being stoned. This must have seemed madness to them. And then, when Jesus finally tells them of his friend’s death, what does he say?… ‘Lazarus is dead… for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ The disciples must have been scratching their heads searching for an answer to his behaviour..
For us it is so much easier as we know the story. But as with all good stories once you know the ending, when you reread it, it is so easy to ignore the detail. As I mentioned last week, so much of John’s gospel is theatrical in its structure. In this chapter (11) he builds the mood layer by small layer. Our Lord receives a message from the sisters in Bethany to say their brother is seriously ill. He does not go. He delays by a couple of days. He then suggests they go to Judea but decides not to go. He then finally informs the disciples of Lazarus’ death and off he goes. John is building the tension verse by verse.
And then, when Jesus is arriving at Bethany we have the two moving short cameos with the sisters, and both of them separately say the same thing… Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. These words from the heart cut into the raw emotion of the scene but they also hang heavy with hurt… why has it taken you so long to get here?…Why didn’t you respond to the message? He may be their Rabbi, but he is also their close friend…Why this indifference, this distance? The tension builds until our Lord weeps. His crying surely acknowledges the unintentional hurt he has caused and in his own way he also weeps for his lost friend.
The rest we know. He goes with Mary and Martha and the mourners to the place where he has been buried. And it is there that he prays and by so doing he reveals the reason for his behaviour up until this point… Father…I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me. And the scene ends with Lazarus coming out of the cave wrapped in his burial clothes. The tension that has gradually built up over the preceding verses ends with the dead Lazarus coming to life. At this moment everything that has preceded it makes sense and falls into place. John gives us this miracle as a conclusive proof of Christ’s divinity.
As we read this rollercoaster of a story it fascinates us on so many different levels,
We see Christ in charge of the situation and with a clear vision of what he is about to do, but we also see him hesitate and importantly reveal his humanity to those close to him. John usually presents a Christ who knows he is the Son of God, a man who is confident with a clear vision of his destiny. Here we see some of the cracks and we are made aware of his humanity.
We empathise with the mourning sisters and understand their confusion. And we sympathise with the patient disciples and admire the courage shown by Thomas when he says… Let us also go, that we may die with him.
As we continue our journey, let us consider this last of the miracles in John’s account; the miracle of giving life itself to a dead man. We could call it the resurrection before the Resurrection. Our lot on this earth, of course, is to move from life to death; in that respect we ourselves are in that no man’s land of the psalmist forever crying out to God. We belong to this world but we are for ever leaning towards the world to come, in the words that we have heard this morning from Romans… But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
We must move on. The sun is now high in the sky and shines brightly on the distant city of Jerusalem. We continue our pilgrimage there is still a fair distance to travel…
Lenten Journey 3 – Palm Sunday
The pilgrims only have half a mile or so to go now. The city wall is clearly visible and the road to Jerusalem is busy. Laden donkeys, assorted travellers, beggars and the inevitable patrol of Roman soldiers pass us by as we prepare to enter the dusty city.
We stop at the nearest gate and rest for a while in the shade. It is almost midday and surprisingly there are large numbers of people coming out of the city. It is hot and the sun is unforgiving at this time of the year. As we drink from our water bottles, we see a large group of people approaching the same city gate a few hundred yards away. In their midst are two donkeys, one a colt much smaller than the other, and sitting on this first donkey is a man of striking features who is smiling and talking to those around him. As they draw nearer we can clearly hear the shouts of the crowd surrounding this imposing figure, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ The excited crowd has now caught up with us. They are throwing branches onto the ground in front of the two frightened animals; branches torn from the few parched trees struggling to survive outside the city walls. One or two cloaks are also thrown haphazardly in their path. Then they are gone, and all we are left with is the echo of the hooves and the jubilant shouting as the joyous mob disappears under the arch into the now riotous city. Who was he? Where were they going? And why was his face so familiar?
All these years later we follow this familiar scene into the city itself. We go with Christ to the Temple in Matthew’s account, where he overturns the money-changers tables, and then follow him back to Bethany that evening. As the story slowly unfolds before us, like Christ himself, we feel ourselves being weighed down and finally submerged by the events of Holy Week, until we enter the darkness and despair of Good Friday. But today on Palm Sunday we stand at the city gate and welcome Christ joyfully into his city. There is light and laughter around us as we watch this Son of David go in through the archway and join the happy crowds there.
However, as we approach Holy Week this year we do so in a sombre mood. The society in which we live is being tested to the limit. As well as the daily death count because of Coronavirus, the very structure and mesh of Spain is being tested. The assurance of jobs, social security, the basic cornerstones of society, schools, universities, hospitals are all being challenged and changed. In so many different ways will never be the same when we emerge finally from the ‘crisis’. And with this dark backcloth, we are now just about to enter Semana Santa, with no processions, no saetas, those mournful couplets sung from the balconies to the stationary paso below, no crowds, no penitents. Just silence.
That is why all of us today who as pilgrims have travelled together through these past 40 days of Lent, must be joyful when we read of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We have all in one way or another been near death; in the words of today’s psalm… For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and we have come through. The knowledge that we have been there and that we have come through must give us strength, as does the knowledge that Christ’s entry into Jerusalem itself is an echo of our eventual entry into the Celestial City. He entered into Jerusalem in the knowledge of what awaited him, but importantly he also knew the final outcome.
So, it is important that as we see the coffins mount up here, and back in our home countries, we do not lose sight of our final destination. God will always be with us and he will guide us, in the words of today’s reading from Isaiah… Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me… We must take strength from those words as we go out into an ever more brittle world. We must realise that we are never on our own.
As pilgrims we are bound together in fellowship. We have had the good days and the bad days on the road. We have squabbled among ourselves, we have sworn at our neighbour, and we have despaired at our physical weakness; the blisters, the aching calves and the continual chaffing of the backpack. But here at the gate to the city, we have arrived at last, and our aches and pains have disappeared for the moment. We refresh ourselves, remember the odd anecdote of our journey and laugh. But we know that this moment of achievement will not last forever, and we tie our boots, pick up our packs and head for the narrow streets beyond the city gate. Now where had those crowds gone with the imposing figure on the donkey? We disappear among the excited people thronging the streets,
Our pilgrimage, our lives continue. Instinctively, of course, we follow the crowds into the city but today we stop to reflect at the city gate. We see how the people of Jerusalem spontaneously greet Jesus and in their simple way treat him as a king. This is a scene reminiscent of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem all those centuries ago. And here we are watching this Son of David make his grand entrance, not as a king the world would easily recognize but as someone much less and yet much more. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians,… though Christ Jesus was in the form of God. he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Let us stand back then and welcome him, not only into Jerusalem but also into our lives. And let us acknowledge him as our king,… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Sermon – Easter Day
As I was trying to think of how to shape this morning’s sermon a couple of scenes from my publishing days suddenly came to mind. I remember them vividly as they were so out of kilter with the normal flow of a day’s work in a large London publishing house.
One morning, I had a telephone call from the MD. He wanted to see me. This was infrequent but not unusual; he had also worked in Export Sales and occasionally he would grill me on a particular overseas account or agent. He seemed to know most of them well, and these informal meetings went well. I went up to his office on the 11th floor, and went in, his door was open. He smiled from behind the desk and pointed at a photograph album in front of him,… I’ve just been in northern Spain and I took these photos…. The fields where we stayed were exquisite. I hadn’t seen such a variety of wild flowers since I was a lad back in Wales. I think he quite liked me because we shared a Welsh background. But the telephone went and I politely left him to his conversation and collection of colourful photographs.
A few days later, after a meeting, he turned to me and said… Why don’t you grab a coffee and come up to the office? So, I duly obeyed and 10 minutes later there I was once again looking through his holiday photographs. But this time it was not the flora of northern Spain…it was the shapes, forms and colour of the water of the Bay of Biscay as the ferry’s keel cut through the water. He had taken a whole series of photos with his Nikon camera as far as I could see perched dangerously over the handrail as the boat made its way through the turbulent waters off the Spanish coast. I never saw Michael again…two months later he had died.
I mention these meetings as I am sure in hindsight that something within Michael knew he was leaving this world. His appreciation and sensitivity towards the beauty of this world was heightened during this, his last holiday in Spain.
Why do I mention this on Easter Day? I do so because I believe all those years ago I was with a man who was leaving this world; whose soul realized that his time on earth was coming to an end. Part of him knew intuitively that he was about to die and that the journey, his true journey, was about to begin.
Christ similarly knew that his life in the material world would brutally come to an end on the cross, and that he would return, he would be ‘born again’. He had repeatedly prophesied this in the presence of his disciples, and in today’s gospel reading from John, here he is 3 days after the crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemane with Mary Magdalene.
Jesus appears to Mary in an intense, moving scene in the early morning. He is of this world and yet in another sense he is not… Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father… It is evident to the reader that he appears to her as a spirit, and not in human form. In our Lord’s next two appearances to the disciples in this chapter he appears in their midst even though… the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…
The difference in reaction between the two men and Mary when they see what has happened in the tomb is very revealing. The other disciple whom we assume is John went in, and he saw and believed… We do not know what Simon Peter’s reaction was. The evangelist, in almost journalistic style states…for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead… The important detail for the evangelist is the fact that Simon Peter’s companion believed.
In contrast, the dramatic encounter between Jesus, whom Mary (Magdalene) wrongly assumed was the gardener and Mary crying by herself is theatrical in comparison. It’s almost Shakespearean in its use of mistaken identity and self-revelation, and all the more dramatic for it. Also, there is a wonderful symmetry to the simple fact that Christ’s true identity was first revealed to his mother Mary (by the Angel Gabriel) and the identity of his resurrected persona was again revealed to another Mary. Women in John’s gospel are given great importance, and it is Mary Magdalene we see again at the end of this episode relating what she has just seen… 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.
These are words that have brought comfort to generations of Christians. Little by little, we, the readers, can almost feel the excitement running like electricity through those who were there. This excitement is passed on by word of mouth to the small group of Jesus’ followers cowering behind locked doors. Quickly the good news is passed on to friends and neighbours, those who had perhaps seen or heard Jesus teach and heal in the Temple or in Galilee. And eventually the joy of Easter with its message of salvation is taken by Paul and his companions into the Gentile world where it is received and passed on from generation to generation until the present day. The message is as fresh as it was on that first morning; it is life changing and brings light to a world in darkness. The words of Simon Peter that we heard in the reading from Acts are as true today as they were when he spoke them to Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian cohort, and his family in Caesarea…. everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
We must be thankful that we have heard Christ’s message and that we have taken him into our hearts. Be joyful brothers and sisters. Light is streaming into our lives. Let us not be afraid, even in these difficult times.
I return to my story of Michael and the photographs of his Spanish holiday. I remember the light reflected delicately in the wild Cantabrian flowers, and the almost blinding rainbows of light as the splashing water caught the sunlight as the ferry made its way through the oncoming waves. Let us share these images in our imagination of light streaming into the final days of a man’s life. May it be a symbol for us of hope, of life itself, of the life of the world to come. May the light of Christ shine into our lives…This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Sermon – 2nd Sunday of Easter
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses
I have always had a soft spot for Thomas.
In the chaotic mixed ability class formed by the twelve disciples, Thomas comes across as being someone you could rely on for being honest; at times obstinately honest. Of course, we know so little about him, but the short cameos we have of him in John’s gospel give us some clues for us to reflect on. After our Lord has told the disciples that they know the way to the place where (he is) going… it is Thomas who says… Lord, we do not know where you are going…and asks,… How can we know the way? In the circumstances this seems to be a very reasonable question to ask. It certainly does not deserve the ‘doubting’ tag that is often attached to him. Honesty at times can be interpreted in a very negative way, and that has certainly been the case with Thomas.
In a previous chapter, Thomas again makes a comment that is frequently quoted. After Jesus finally decides to visit Martha, Mary and the dead Lazarus in Bethany, he is the disciple who turns round and… says to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ I do not interpret these words as coming from the mouth of a doubter. Rather, they come from the lips of a decision maker; someone who could not easily sit on the fence.
And finally, today’s well known reading immediately raises a very simple question regarding Thomas. Where had he been on the evening of the first day of the week? From John’s account while the disciples were together indoors locked for fear of the Jews, Thomas was elsewhere. Was he cowering somewhere else? Did he have a disagreement with the other disciples? Or had he been on a special errand? Again, we do not know. All we can gather is that he was very sceptical about the visit from the resurrected Jesus and he told them so in no mean terms. But the feeling we do grasp from these few verses is that there has been a difference of opinion and that Thomas has distanced himself from the group. There is definite emotion and feeling when he utters the well-known words… Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails…I will not believe.
However, does this outburst deserve the public humiliation that takes place when Christ appears in their midst for the second time? I would say, no.
My interpretation of this highly emotional scene between Thomas and our Lord is that John, the evangelist, uses it (and Thomas) as an example of how difficult it is for many to come to faith. In other words, there will be those who will only believe after they have been given physical, irrefutable evidence. And on the other hand,… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. The message at the end of the gospel is that the road ahead for the disciples is going to be tough…not impossible, but tough.
Thomas became an important figure in the early Church. He was both blamed for his lack of faith, and thanked for his scepticism which became the occasion for reassuring future generations of believers by his confession of Christ’s divinity. After Pentecost, there is much uncertainty about his missionary work, but what we do know for certain is the tradition which later places him on the Malabar coastline in Southern India where he supposedly evangelized the locals. He was later killed there and buried at Mylapore, near Madras. The great Anglican cathedral in the city of Madras is dedicated to him.
I like this idea of Thomas, the supposed ‘doubter’ taking the gospel message all the way to India. It would be more than sufficient proof of his independence of thought and might well explain the apparent difficulties he might have had with other members of the twelve (or eleven by the time we are at the end of John’s gospel). He was a man on a mission. And his mission was to follow our Lord to the end of this world, if necessary, and beyond…
What we feel, of course, from today’s reading is the energy that is already emanating from this small, disparate group of believers. And we know that from this darkened inner room the seeds of the very early church are already germinating. Soon, they will be free. They will leave the confines of this house where they have been shuttered away and each one of them will receive the sign of the tongue of fire. The Holy Spirit will descend on them at Pentecost and the shoots of this new community will emerge. In these last verses of John’s gospel and the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles we live the first early stirrings of the Church. And all these years later the excitement and breathlessness of the Easter message is still palpable.
We see Simon Peter who only a few days before had been hiding behind closed doors speaking confidently in front of large crowds… But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them… ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem…listen to what I say.’ As we look on from our vantage point all these years into the future we cannot but shake our heads in disbelief as we watch this humble fisherman confidently address a very mixed, and potentially aggressive crowd. Where was the man who had denied he knew Christ three times on the night before the Crucifixion? What had happened in these few days that had elapsed? All eleven were now united, and were standing beside Peter. Thomas, chastened perhaps, was there amongst them, but what was evident was a total lack of fear. They knew as a man what they had to do, they knew where they were destined, and they were going there with joy in their hearts. In the words of Peter himself,… even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
vHe is risen indeed. Alleluia.