Dagmar Winter is Bishop of Huntingdon in the diocese of Ely. This is an edited version of her Presidential Address at the Ely Diocesan Synod on 5 March 2022.
The images on our screen are awful, reminding us of World War II.
There is a religious dimension to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which may in some quarters give rise to that old chestnut that religion is the cause of all wars. (John Lennon: “Imagine … and no religion, too.”) Religion is closely tied up with expressions of identity and what we hold most precious. Given human nature with its hunger for power, taking institutional religion away will not cause the end to all war.
The central question in the current war is whether the church and people of Ukraine are or are not part of the church and people of Russia. Some history will help.
In the tenth century a pagan Slavic people known as the Kievan Rus’ lived in present day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In c 988 St Vladimir, the ruler of the Rus’, converted to Christianity, was baptised and brought the rest of the people to baptism also. This event is known as the ‘Baptism of Rus’ and occurred in or near Kyiv. This is seen to the present day as a watershed moment in Russian history and one which, in the minds of some, unites the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as the successors of the Kievan Rus’ and as a single, Orthodox Christian Russian people. Such is the importance of Vladimir that he is given the epithet ‘Equal to the Apostles’. (Note Putin’s Christian name!) Also, as Kyiv was the centre of the lands of the Rus’, it has a special status in Russian self-identity.
Over the next few hundred years empires came and went, peoples moved around and borders changed. In the sixteenth century a part of the church in modern-day western Ukraine came into communion with Rome.
The next important date is 1686 and there are two different understandings and interpretations of what happened. (Disputes over what happened at this time formed the basis of the arguments in 2018 about the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.)
One side of the story is that, with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire the Ecumenical Patriarch was not able to get to Kyiv for the consecration of a new Metropolitan and so asked the Patriarch of Moscow (the Moscow Patriarchate had been granted autocephaly — that is self-government — in 1589) to do so, but without the assumption that the church in Ukraine would become dependent on Moscow. The other side of the story is that, for whatever reason, the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1689 transferred authority over the Ukrainian Church to Moscow. Practically speaking, Kyiv did begin to look ecclesiastically to Russia and the difficulty of communication with Constantinople in Ottoman times to some extent forced this.
In more recent history the territory currently covered by Ukraine has, like much of central and eastern Europe, been controlled by different powers, not least the Soviet Union under which the church was oppressed. There were moves in the early 1990s to set up an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine (the Kyiv Patriarchate), which led to one split with Moscow.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 President Poroshenko of Ukraine was instrumental in pushing for a decisive break with Moscow and the establishment of a self-governing (autocephalous) Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This happened in 2018 when the Holy Synod of Constantinople decided that the Ecumenical Patriarch should grant a ‘tomos’ (decree) of autocephaly and erect the new church under the leadership of Metropolitan Epiphany of Kyiv. This move caused a new schism between Moscow and Constantinople.
We see in Ukraine and Russia a clash of two world views in which statehood, nation and church are united.
In the Russian view as expressed (pretty much directly) by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, Russia is seen to include Ukraine as one people in one church and, as essentially one nation, the descendants of Rus’, who naturally look to Moscow for civil and religious leadership.
Ukraine of course sees itself as a sovereign state with territory, borders and a distinct national identity and view of history. For example, Moscow was not even founded until nearly two centuries after the Baptism of Rus’. The independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from Moscow is part of the evidence for this wider independence and natural, given that most (if not all) sovereign nations in the traditional orthodox territories have their autocephalous churches.
Meanwhile the Moscow Patriarchate is heightening further conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. By ignoring the rule that you should not trespass on another’s jurisdiction, Moscow is setting up in Africa and offering material rewards to churches of the Patriarchate of Alexandria (which comes under the Constantinople Patriarchate) if they join Moscow. This is a significant flexing and expanding of Russian muscle, an ecclesiological echo of the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian Church does not have a tradition of speaking truth to power. A particularly unpalatable aspect is the way that the Moscow Patriarch Kirill appears to be literally in Putin’s pay. He, Kirill, has been quoted urging Russian soldiers to fight, to use more high-tech equipment to protect the Fatherland while he himself has been shown to display and then attempt to hide the wearing of very high-end luxury items.
This is what happens when a church loses its critical distance from statehood and nationhood and conflates them with church and faith. There is here a literally hopeless tangle: of faith and historic ethno-nationalist identity, of theological/ecclesiological issues and acquisitive desire for influence, land, resources and people.
We should applaud those courageous Russian Orthodox priests who have voiced their protest against the war and their Church’s support of it.
Historical comparisons are always problematic and bound to be wrong at some level, nonetheless, the example of German Christians springs to mind, who under Hitler totally bought into the idea of a new dawn under German Christianity, a vile religious version of fascism.
Various important theological statements have been made, including the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934, but today I would like to quote from the Darmstädter Wort issued in 1947 in the post-war ruins. Despite some of its shortcomings, I believe it still has a poignant message for us about the church’s social and political mission, not least for our day where society is plagued both by political apathy and significant polarization.
Through Jesus Christ joyous liberation befalls us, liberation from the godless ties of this world in order to liberate us for free and grateful service to his creatures.
Do not let despair overwhelm you for Christ is Lord.
Say goodbye to all faithless indifference, do not allow yourselves to be seduced by dreams of a better past …, but in your freedom and in great sobriety be aware of your responsibility which all of us have for the building up of a better polity which serves the rule of law, welfare, peace and reconciliation of the peoples.
Seek first the Kingdom of God.2
The situation in Ukraine makes us feel so helpless. What can we do?
There is so much anxiety around: the pandemic, climate change, migration, the economy, and now the nightmare in Ukraine.
While applauding and appreciating the flow of information and the work of brave journalists who bring us the news, I don’t think it’s helpful for us or indeed for our children to expose ourselves to the endless torturous images of the wall-to-wall coverage. It will only either desensitize us or suck us into some black mental hole or both. I am concerned what this is doing to the mental health of our community, including especially children, where many have already suffered with lockdown isolation and pandemic fears.
Seek first the kingdom of God.
Following the tenets of the Christian faith, we hold to the truth of the ultimate weakness of the display of aggression.
I think it is not a distraction but essential that we should focus and refocus on the teaching of the Christian faith (Mt 28:16-20), on the values that have eternal quality: truth, freedom, justice, compassion, human dignity, respect, faith, hope and love.
This Lent, I would suggest to you, is a time in which to discover or rediscover how the church can be a school for discipleship, or a school of virtue.
And this Lent might just challenge us how serious we are about the fruits of our faith, indeed, its virtues.
Although Ukraine is a fair distance away, the conflict will undoubtedly affect us over the next few years, even if warfare is contained within the current region. We are interconnected through the international markets for goods from energy to arables, and the UNHCR estimates there could be 4 million refugees, maybe more. We cannot allow Ukraine’s neighbours to shoulder that alone.
Will we share supplies, accept restrictions and losses, offer hospitality directly or indirectly, will we encourage our politicians that we’re up for it — without the burdens only being born by those who are weakest in our midst, already battered by the current economic crisis?
We feel powerless but powerlessness is where the Christian story begins. Remember the story of the passion, the cruel torture?
And because we have a Lord who was caught up in simmering and often violent conflict between his people and an occupying force, we know that hope is mostly not a victory march but a small, whispered Hallelujah. Sustained by the love divine we encounter in Christ, a love that does not waiver. The journey is from Lent to Easter.
Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting and working for the evidence to change.
This includes listening for the voices of hope in our midst and encouraging them, the faithful committed work of people happening in parishes and projects, networks and communities.
When we pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ, can we pray this Lent to learn to be a non-anxious and hopeful presence in this troubled world, because we know that what we hold dear, truth, freedom, justice, compassion, human dignity, respect, faith, hope and love, have an eternal quality that evil acts like brutal invasions and indiscriminate bombings will never have?
Of course we must keep ourselves informed of what is happening. But our focus should be:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)
It is our job to promote this in everything we do and say, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
Pray — keep an eye on the website of the Diocese in Europe.
As I understand, the most effective way at the moment of supporting refugees and displaced people from Ukraine is by donating money to one of the experienced relief agencies.
Local capacity for effective logistics has well reached its limit in the difficult circumstances, and loads of generous uncoordinated trucks arriving is not as helpful as it may seem to us.
We all want to help personally and tangibly, but for the time being, the best and most effective help we can provide is by donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee (note this is how the Red Cross asks for donations), or the Joint Emergency Appeal by the Church of England Diocese in Europe and USPG.
Note that the UK Government have said they will match public donations (pound for pound up to £20 million) to the Disasters Emergency Committee.
Write to your MP about visa flexibility for refugees.
Finally, we do well to remember the unspeakable suffering of so many peoples, in Yemen or Sudan, the Uigur in China, Syrians — the list, sadly, is very long.
Let us pray for ourselves as with and for all those caught up in horrific violence and warfare around the world:
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Today is the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the hands of four of King Henry II’s knights. To mark the date we republish a piece that we originally published on this day in 2007.
‘Since Christmas a day:
and the day of St Stephen, First Martyr.
‘Since St Stephen a day:
and the day of St John the Apostle.
‘Since St John the Apostle a day:
and the day of the Holy Innocents.
‘Since the Holy Innocents a day:
the fourth day from Christmas.
‘To-day, what is to-day?’
So wrote T S Eliot at the start of the second act of his play Murder in the Cathedral, written for the 1935 Canterbury Festival, and first performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury, just a few yards from where, on this day in 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was killed.
The murder, or assassination, of Thomas Becket within his cathedral church shocked the whole of western Christendom. Within three years he had been canonized, his name added to the roll of saints of the Church, and King Henry II forced to do penance for his role in Becket’s death. From Iceland to Italy there are churches dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and relics, statues and images from just a few years after 1170.
The cause for which Becket died, however, is not one that today we necessarily regard as unambiguously right. As Eliot has the assassins remind his audience, the rule of law that we treasure as a great protection was begun by the reforms of Henry II that Becket stood against. ‘Remember,’ says the Second Knight in his speech to the audience, ‘remember that it is we who took the first step. We have been instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that you approve.’ On the other hand, the rule of law that Henry II was introducing was harsh, whereas the rule of the Church, which Becket wanted to encompass as many people as possible, was more lenient.
And yet we cannot easily regard the murder of Becket as justified, even if we can agree with some of the sentiments Eliot has the knights express. The end does not justify the means. The powerful cannot go around murdering those they disagree with, whether they be political rivals or obstacles (as Becket had become to Henry II), or the weak and impoverished (as the boys of Bethlehem were to Herod, or indeed today). The prophets of the Old Testament remind us of this too: we see David brought to book by Nathan for arranging the death of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11, 12); and Elijah foretells disaster on the house of Ahab for his complicity in bearing false witness against Naboth and causing him to be executed (1 Kings 21); and there are plenty of other examples.
The very rule of law that Henry II wanted to introduce requires that arbitrary exercise of power is not allowed. The murder of Thomas Becket reminds us still that the rule of law (tempered by equity and mercy) is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that it applies as much if not more to the rich and powerful and to the rulers as it does to the dispossessed, the powerless and the ruled. Those in power must always be held to account for their treatment of those who are in their power.
‘To-day, what is to-day?’
‘Let our thanks ascend
To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.’
‘Blessed Thomas, pray for us.’
Simon Kershaw is Lay Chair of the Ely diocesan synod and a lay canon of Ely Cathedral. He was also a founder member of the TS Eliot Society in 2006.8 Comments
Image of sheep and goats from Bucheit Agri.
What is it about sheep and goats? Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 25.31-46) for the feast of Christ the King portrays the Son of Man, Jesus himself, coming in glory and seated on his throne, taking up his kingship, separating the people into two groups: the sheep who are to enjoy eternal life, and the goats consigned to eternal punishment.
I’ve come to see this story as part of a commentary on, or explanation of, the Summary of the Law. In the famous passage in another gospel, Luke 10.25-37, Jesus gives the Summary (essentially: love God, love neighbour) but is asked in response Who is my neighbour? He answers with the story of the Good Samaritan: our neighbour is whoever helps us, and by implication whomever we help. In today’s passage from Matthew, on the other hand, Jesus turns to the implied other question: What does it means to love God?
Jesus’s answer is that we love God when we love our neighbour. We take God’s name in vain when we say we love God, but don’t feed the hungry, don’t house the homeless, don’t nurse the sick, don’t visit the prisoner, and so on. That’s taking God’s name in vain because it is saying we love God, but not actually doing so, because loving God is doing those things. And those things are the things that happen in God’s kingdom, so when we do those things we live in the kingdom – the kingdom is truly at hand. When we do this then our allegiance is truly to God and God’s principles, rather than those of this world. When we don’t do them then we are not dwelling in the kingdom, and instead are far from God, condemning ourselves to live apart from God. That’s the scenario, in highly rhetorical and apocalyptic language, that Jesus presents us with in this passage.
And when does this judgement happen? In the apocalyptic language of the passage it happens when the Son of Man comes in glory – at the end of the age. A friend once pointed out to me, however, that the story does not have to be interpreted as about a final judgement. That is Jesus’s rhetoric of hyperbole, catching the attention of his hearers and getting them to think, to remember and to act. Instead we can see it as judgement here and now on each act that we do or do not undertake. At each moment, each act or non-act, when we do these things we are close to God, participating in the kingdom, and when we do not then we are far from God.
The same theme can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s name is hallowed when his will is done here on earth as it is in the heavens. And what does that mean? It means when the hungry each day have bread to eat (and by association, or the rhetoric of synecdoche, the other needs are met too – sheltering the homeless, protecting the oppressed, and the like) and when we live at peace with each other, forgiving and being forgiven. That is when we dwell in the kingdom, and we pray that we will not be tempted away from it by the glamour of worldly evil.
That is when Christ reigns. That is when Christ is king.16 Comments
It was Sunday morning in Jerusalem and the staff at Temple House, administrative headquarters for Religious Affairs, were making their way back to their desks after the short Passover break. They were doing so with some reluctance; last week had been particularly tough across all departments.
It had started in Finance; temple money changers had demanded compensation after someone had been allowed to run amok, overturning their tables. Next, Stewardship had complained that queues of impoverished widows carefully placing single small coins in the treasury were putting off the more prestigious High Value Donors; important men who appreciated neither the wait nor the smell. Around midweek, HR got wind that a man called Lazarus, whose sisters had just claimed welfare payments following his death, was apparently alive and well and walking the streets of Bethany.
Across the corridor, Safeguarding were investigating rumours that an unknown rabbi had been, in the words of a reliable informant, “suffering the little children to come unto him”. There was no documentary evidence of him completing the necessary training. Legal had spent half the week looking into what powers they had to restrict him.
Communications had faced their own problems, when local media published a survey claiming an alarmingly high proportion of Sadducees did not believe in a physical resurrection of the dead. Getting out their rebuttals wasn’t helped by a meltdown in IT. Half the messenger pigeons had come down with bird flu and Maintenance couldn’t promise spares until after the holiday. To top it all, the secretary to the Buildings Committee had spent hours refuting claims that somebody had submitted an application to tear down the Temple and replace it in just three days. “Does nobody realise how many months it takes to approve moving a candlestick, let alone throw up an entire new building, and with unconventional construction techniques?”, she’d exclaimed.
Anyway, today was the start of a new week. Much of the trouble had been traced back to a single maverick preacher. With some help from the Romans, he had been appropriately dealt with. After that the Passover had been fairly quiet.
Actually, like most Passovers they could remember, it had been a bit of a let down. Every year, in the build up to the festival, there was at least a frisson of hope that this would be the time when God would act to save his people. Maybe this Passover would not simply be a remembrance of long ago but the moment when a new deliverance would be accomplished. It never happened, but the annual tinge of post-festival disappointment could not quite be expunged.
And the new week wasn’t shaping up well. Reports coming in suggested unauthorised removal of a body from a grave; was it a matter for Faculty administration? Some witnesses implied there had been violence against the troops guarding the tomb; did this make it a Discipline matter? A woman now claimed to have seen the deceased; perhaps it was a ghost, as he hadn’t allowed her to touch him. Maybe Deliverance were the people to handle it. Still, in every office there’s a place where the complex and difficult problems nobody wants to deal with get dumped, and Religious Affairs was no different. After all, if somebody was wandering around the city carrying a three-day old corpse that had lost its burial wrappings, it just had to be a case for Health and Safety.
David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester.13 Comments
“It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.” So wrote Sydney Carter, in a song which will be sung across the country today. (It’s also the fifth most popular copyrighted song in school assemblies according to CCLI.)
Carter himself called it “pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian,” and expected opposition. There’s some truth in his comments — it could be variously labelled as syncretist, universalist, Platonist and several other -ist’s as well — but the numbers tell their own story.
A lot of that is down to the catchy Shaker tune, but the gentle cynicism about the establishment and expansive cosmic vista catch the mood of the times too. What it nearly misses is the agony. “No real people were hurt during the writing of this song.” Nearly — if it wasn’t for the line I began with, where the real struggle shudders through.
And on Good Friday, it must. We’ll sing “Lift High the Cross”, but be careful to balance it with “it causes me to tremble.” We cannot sustain the pretence that Easter has not already happened that the liturgy properly invites; but we dare not pretend that Easter was and is without cost.
For me this Easter some of that cost and contradiction is personal — my father died just a few weeks ago. But it is also ecclesiastical. Strong feelings are swirling around us. Ten bishops out of ten would like to tidy them up. But the lesson of a certain un-noted report was that feelings like these are not to be tidied or managed but lived alongside. We will find God’s good future for us with them, through them, not by burying them and thinking they’re gone. The bench too will have to learn new ways of modelling and leading unity which do not bury its own diversity: something I’ve seen beginning in my days in the House and College, but something we still have to explore further and very tenderly together.
What this mustn’t be, though, is a surrender to the short-cuts of post-truth politics or populist power. If the dance of God is to go on, the choreography of the Kingdom requires all of us to be on the floor, sharing in the exacting task of listening, looking, learning, following, leading — in a pattern that will look very broken if part of it is missing. We will actually need each other to make it work.
As well as doing plenty of personal processing today, then, I’ll also be bringing some very different sorts of friends with me in my mind to the Cross, each of whom has a piece of my heart, acknowledging their hopes and their hurts, sensing the limb-breaking tensions, feeling the weight of the devil on all our backs that would seek to pull us apart: but feeling too the unstoppable rhythm of the dance that will go on.
David Thomson is Bishop of Huntingdon in the diocese of Ely.2 Comments
When we offer the elements at the Eucharist, in the person of the priest, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and shares out his Body. At the same time Jesus accepts and sanctifies our sacrifice of thanks and praise. He takes each of us and blesses us. We are broken, too, as we share his suffering for the sake of the world.
And we are shared out as well. Some of us get caught up in lively debates with people who are vehemently opposed to living a life of faith, sometimes with very good reason after a bad experience of the Church. A person said to me that the Church was full of hypocrites, so I told him there was always room for one more. He came back for more and said, “Do you think you’re Jesus or something”? I told him, “In a sense, yes”. I believe it was Austen Farrar who wrote that as Jesus knew his death was drawing near and that he would be taken out of this world, he took not only bread and wine to be his body and blood; he also took those disciples to embody the continuing power of his Incarnation in the world. For if we, the Body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, are not living out what Jesus made us at the Last Supper, the expression of his Incarnation in the world today, who else is it going to be? The world has a desperate need for his presence, in the Gospel, in the Eucharist, and in each of us. Somewhere in the complexity of their lives people are invited to discover the living God in the quality of the hospitality which we both offer and receive. If you will, it is the kind of foot washing to which we are all called. Someone has to embody God alongside everyone so that everyone can open up to the God within and around them. It takes the poor in spirit to touch and heal the poverty of the world’s fear and hopelessness. This is a job for us.
So the Eucharist which Christ instituted on the night he was betrayed is not just a memorial of the Last Supper celebrated once a year. It is not just the particular sacramental moment of our regular worship. It is the whole of our life lived in thanksgiving to God. And before we start to back out of the deal because we are unworthy, let us remember that Jesus included Judas in the foot washing and the breaking of bread. No one is left out who does not choose to absent themselves. Give thanks to the God who takes us, who loves us now, and who loves us into becoming that beautiful and holy people whom God already sees. Living as the Body of Christ, the Mass of the Last Supper reminds us, is always about being a guest before ever we are the host. That’s an important lesson about how we engage in God’s mission in God’s world.
Stephen Conway is the Bishop of Ely.8 Comments
Anglicans of a certain age may remember the ‘Pink Book’, a collection of traditional hymns set to new melodies. I have it on moderately unreliable information that some of the perpetrators never seriously intended their forced marriage of the words of ‘Vexilla Regis’ to the tune of ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’ to have any currency beyond an intimate, if misguided, circle, but, as they say, the rest is history. Nevertheless, they would welcome into their circle whoever it was who decided that a jolly good wheeze for Palm Sunday would be to set a rhyme about the Triumphal Entry to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’. But my unease about Palm Sunday’s proliferation of donkeys goes beyond the æsthetic.
Two aspects of the donkey ritual in particular strike me. First, is it not curious that, although we willingly cast people as Christ in various forms of Passion play up and down the land, the Palm Sunday donkey is usually unburdened. What are we looking at? And, perhaps more to the point for those for whom the Palm-Sunday-with-a-donkey is a profound act of witness, what is the onlooker supposed to see? Something’s missing.
And my second concern starts in a conversation some years ago when the Palm Sunday liturgy started once more to incorporate the reading of the Passion. An indignant parishioner demanded to know why we were spoiling Palm Sunday with a long Passion reading? Did it not detract from the Triumphal Entry, and also make the service far too long? Should not the Passion reading be left for Good Friday, so we could therefore enjoy the Palm Sunday story unclouded? And, as it happened, they never attended the Holy Week services, so they would bound effortlessly from the cries of ‘Hosanna’ to those of ‘He is risen’.
A riderless donkey and a sanitised liturgy conspire to bypass the messy reality of the Gospel. Attention falls not on the Christ, riding to his doom, but on the anonymous animal, for there is no human figure there to cause us to ask, ‘And what happens next?’ The band of enthusiastic, palm-waving followers may well find unpalatable a fifteen minute reading of the Passion in all its darkness. What bystanders there may be at 09.30 on Sunday will look on with a mixture of bewilderment, amusement and even a little ridicule at this peculiar spectacle.
Yet somehow, in this there is a faithful encounter with the Gospel narrative. Between the lines of the Palm Sunday story we see the enraptured followers, all shouting ‘Hosanna’ and preferring not to think about where this might all be leading. We hear the crowd, puzzled, uncomprehending, asking what all the fuss is about. The donkey in the Gospels might just as well be riderless for all the serious attention being paid to its rider and what he might signify by the locals, by the tourists, and even by the disciples themselves, still reluctant to take to heart Jesus’ dark warnings of what must be. And in Sunday morning’s damp and half-deserted streets there is a genuine echo of Jerusalem’s confused, ambivalent mosaic.
‘We have a king who rides a donkey’ these days might well produce the response, ‘So? The house of Windsor has ridden elephants.’ But the very incoherence of this much-loved Palm Sunday spectacle brings us closer than we could expect to the real Triumphal Entry. In all this tangle of uncomprehending denial, with its over-optimistic disciples, its uncomprehending crowd and its all-but-invisible rider journeying towards a cross about which no-one really wants to think, we find our participant selves.
David Rowett is a priest in the diocese of Lincoln2 Comments
Forgiveness takes some making sense of. For a long time I really saw forgiveness as something I was called upon to do. And I did do it, to the best of my ability. Then the long slow agony of my marriage ground to its death, and I was left with a burden of guilt, although it was not I alone who was responsible for its sad withering, nor I who dealt the wretched remnants their coup de grace.
Ten years later, and in a totally unexpected way, I found I was in the flowering of a new relationship. As I moved towards the second marriage I had never expected, I realised I was experiencing being forgiven. Not so much intellectually as practically and spiritually. It was as sweet in my mouth as honey and as refreshing as oranges. It was dawn. It was birth.
I have been trying to make sense of the link between death and forgiveness. The gospels sense it, that is for sure. Jesus forgives, and he heals. People are glad of the healing, shocked at the forgiveness. ‘Which is easier to say?’ he asks the crowd around the paralysed, ‘You are forgiven, or get up and walk?’ He can prove he can do one. But while they can believe a man has the right to heal, only God can forgive. And in John, finally, Jesus forgives Lazarus out of the tomb. And in gratitude for that forgiveness, his sister anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her unbound hair. An act the synoptics keep for a whore, who (they feel) has been forgiven more.
So Jesus, in all four gospels, shocks the authorities into coming after him. By claiming authority which can never really belong to a mere human. (Though, to be fair, he does other things as well in the synoptics to show he arrogates an authority nobody on earth gives him.)
Forgiveness is shocking. It is shocking because of the magnitude of hurt it sets behind itself. Here, I think, lies its inextricable link with death. The burdens of guilt we carry are real, or are usually real. We have done terrible things. People starve because of unfair trade. People die from ‘benefit sanctions’. Girls in British schools bleed into sports socks because nobody can afford sanitary towels or tampons for them. We scream at those we love. We look at our phones and not our children.
These things are bitter and cruel, and they spring out of damage and create more damage. Even when they do not end in an actual death, they all create dark. Even in saying that, we fool ourselves, because often enough real people die. This is less than a tithe of the damage we do, which we are asked to see, and to repent of.
We never see (on this earth anyhow) the full extent of the damage we do. Our repentance is, I think, only capable of being truly fulfilled in the assurance offered by love. It is in the arms of God that we are best able to see the harm we do, and repent of it. To seek a new mind and therefore a new life.
This is, in a way, really unfair, for we are asked to forgive at a higher cost than that at which we receive forgiveness. We are asked to forgive others, who are apparently heedless of the hurt they cause, and who do not repent. It is a hard demand.
We, ourselves, are asked to take a gulp, and it is that same gulp which Jesus took. We are asked to swallow pain and grief. To take our part in the forgiving of things. To offer honey and oranges to those who have really truly hurt us. To let ourselves forget, and where we cannot forget, to let the pain be, to occupy no more of our lives than it has to claim. And where the hurt is new or especially grievous, we cannot forget. There, I believe, the command is to let the wrong be ringed by other, and good, things. To accept death, the death of hopes, and joys, and peace, and to recognise what is left, and what is still good in life, and so not be bound by the evil, but instead to look to a new birth.
That much I knew, but what I have learned is this: in return Forgiveness offers us the same. ‘The past is buried for me,’ she says, ‘Move ahead. Fill your mouth with honey and oranges. Lift your eyes, see the dawn. There is a wholly new, clean birth for you.’ I have come to believe that only when we see our own dawn can we learn how to offer that dawn to others. I think we can have a benign circle, a circle of grace to enjoy as we rise towards joy instead of a spiral into death.
These are, I know, Easter words, unseasonable. But forgiving and forgiven are inextricably linked. The Lenten command to forgive, and the Easter command to be forgiven. This is the very enormity of the offer, which we take with us into Passiontide.
Rosemary Hannah is a historian and author. She lives in Scotland.2 Comments
This is the point in the Lenten season when the vista changes, the vision of the desert yields to the anticipation of passiontide, and the inevitability of the clash between Jesus’s Kingdom of God movement and the religious and colonial authorities of his day.
This opposition will be starkly drawn on Palm Sunday. Around the time that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, or within a few days, the imperial Procurator will have decamped from his official residence on the coast at Caesarea Maritima and set off for Jerusalem. His name was Pontius Pilate. Every year he would move into Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover with enough soldiers to make sure the peace was maintained. Passover contained all the elements for an uprising. It was an annual rehearsal of the moment in history when the national god of the subjugated Judeans overcame the imperial might of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It is the re-telling of a time when these downtrodden people were liberated from imperial power. It was Pilate’s job to ensure that the festival passed peaceably and without incident, and his column of soldiers and horses would arrive in Jerusalem amidst dust, the glint of metal, the smell of leather and imperial banners flying through the western gate.
On or around the same day, another procession will enter the city from the east, a parody of the imperial procession, not military horses but a donkey, not imperial banners but palms. Crowds of people will line the streets and praise their god for their anticipated liberation. Their cries will invoke a former national king who had ruled in their nation’s finest hour, and the central character of this procession, Jesus of Nazareth, will be named as his heir.
The outcome of the opposition of these two processions will be played out in the week that follows. This resistance would form the seed of a movement which will follow the inevitable death of Jesus, in the years which follow, and will find its way to the imperial capital, Rome itself.
The path to enlist in this movement will quickly crystallise into a particular initiation ritual, a ritual which will combine the acceptance of death and the promise of new life in a higher authority than imperial power. Immersion in water will symbolise transition from living under imperial power to the freedom of life under divine power. It will be called baptism.
Baptism will symbolise both dying to being subject to the empire of Caesar, and the new life under the rule or the Kingdom of God. As this resistance movement spreads, so the forces of empire will inevitably move to eradicate it, and the loyalty of the movement will be tested by the threat of death, even as it had been for Jesus. While the signature prayer of the movement prays that followers will be spared the ‘time of trial’, many will be executed in the cause of asserting imperial sovereignty.
When the accounts of Jesus’s life come to be written, many years after the original members of the movement had been martyred, the significance of baptism as an declaration of resistance will be incorporated into his story.
In the accounts which survive, Jesus speaks of his baptism twice. In Mark 10:38 Jesus responds to two followers who want status in this new rule of God by asking them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Baptism, the passing into death with the promise of new life is a dark path. The promise alone of new life is what will enable him to resist, even at the cost of his life. Baptism will empower him to go down into the dark places of human conflict, even into his own deep fears and anxieties, as will become apparent in the hours before his arrest. Baptism will enable him to go into his own interior darkness, as it will for those who will follow him.
Again, in Luke 12:50 his baptism carries the vocation that, to assert the rule of God over the rule of Caesar, will be both a catastrophic and divisive one, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Although the church will rightly assert baptism to new life as it celebrates resurrection, it does us well to remember, as we draw near to the last days, the days of that head-on collision, that it is baptism which empowers us, as we are faced with the cost of being part of that Kingdom of God movement. The hope is resurrection and acceptance of death to self is held in baptism.
Andrew Spurr is the Vicar of Evesham in the Diocese of Worcester.5 Comments
Every Sunday we are praying that ‘… through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again.’
We are, more or less, half way through Lent, and if we are to take that prayer seriously, we live in the hope that this is indeed a time of growth and learning. But what are we learning?
This year, more than before, it has struck me that this is a time when the disconnect between a church with a deep commitment to the liturgical seasons and the communities in which we live is profoundly evident. We have become used to a conversation about the changing character of Advent: there are laments for the lost solemnity of the weeks of preparation for Christmas, and the way in which the season of celebration seems to move earlier and earlier. The focus of those weeks, though, is shared by regular churchgoers, occasional attenders, and those way beyond the church walls: all are getting ready for one particular occasion, still largely shaped by one particular story.
Easter, the great destination of our Lenten pilgrimage, has far less traction on our culture. True, in the shops there are Easter eggs and a plentiful supply of decorations for cards and cakes involving spring flowers and fluffy chicks, and the shadow of an older Lent survives in occasional conversations about ‘giving something up’, but these weeks do not have a single point of reference in the way that December will.
Against that background, we endeavour to sustain a distinctive character to these forty days. Like any worthwhile pilgrimage, this is not an easy one, and as always, I am struggling to hold on to the possibilities of the season. Our usual practice, like many another parish, is to provide more ‘church’: discussion groups, additional services, times of prayer, all good in themselves. The other demands on time and attention from those beyond our church communities do not stop, however, and if we seek to withdraw from them we are in danger of creating new barriers between church and not church, losing sight of the image of God in the many for whom Lent has little meaning, while nurturing the few(er) for whom it is a profound experience.
Maybe, though, those beyond our churches who still speak of ‘giving something up’ have preserved a profound truth that we, within the churches with our Lenten encouragement to ‘taking something up’, have missed. Maybe we should be listening to those voices, and recognise that the time has come to return to that older practice. As we very slowly and unwillingly begin to understand the need to limit our demands on the earth, as we count the practical and emotional cost of constant connectivity, perhaps we can offer and model the long Christian tradition of abstinence, of learning to flourish through restraint and self-denial; for our time, our place, that perhaps would be being salt and light, a way of becoming ‘your people once again’.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.3 Comments
Lent is not only a season for reflecting on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, it is also traditionally a time to consider one’s own life and faith. The practice of giving something up for Lent is a sign and intention of our commitment to God, placing God before our own earthly desires and opening all of our life to God. By consciously denying ourselves things that make our lives easier, sweeter and more pleasurable, we focus more on the sacrifice Jesus made for the world. We become more aware of what we go through when we deny ourselves simple pleasures and what Jesus must have gone through during his resolute walk towards Jerusalem and the cross.
One of the most difficult things to give up is how we use time, how we typically cram a great deal of energetic activity and spinning, speeding thought into each waking moment. Today, as we pause for a few minutes, let us think about offering back to God the time God has graciously given to us.
A Meditation on Time
We are here today, sharing our lives, our time, with every other living creature on earth.
We live in time, and, to a large extent are ruled and governed by time, and yet, we worship a God who is outside of time, and we know ourselves to be citizens of eternity.
Sometimes, we experience time in a linear way: we live day by day, we have a past, we exist in the present and we look ahead to the future.
At other times, time seems to bend and curve, slow down, speed up, turn back: and it can feel as if we live more in the past, or we are so caught up in preparing for the future that we ignore the time we are given now.
We own time in different ways, with time for family and friends, time for work and time for ourselves, and sometimes we set time aside for God.
We allow ourselves time off.
At times we call ‘time out!’
Today, let us rejoice in the knowledge that the God who knows we live in time is able to be with us all the time.
This is the God who has seen our beginnings, who understands our present existence and who knows our endings.
With this God, our endings in time signal a new stage in our eternal life, where there is no ending.
And now we ask our God of grace to bless this time we have in time.
We pray for your world and all that you have made.
We pray for all people and all those who do the work of Christ.
We pray for your Church, for wisdom, guidance, courage and mercy.
We pray for all those who suffer and who are in need, especially those known to us.
We pray for all those who grieve.
We pray for our work today, for any decisions we will need to take.
We pray for all those we love, that you would protect them and give them peace.
We pray that as individuals and with others we might further your kingdom on earth.
And we pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples:
Our Father …
May the God who created us and loved us even before we were in our mother’s womb, surround us with arms of love, give us a calm mind and breathe into our hearts and souls the peace that passes understanding.
Meditation on Time, original prayers and blessing by Christina Rees 2017
Christina Rees CBE was a member of General Synod for 25 years, and a founder member of Archbishops’ Council. She is a writer, broadcaster, communications consultant, and advocate for gender justice.2 Comments
As we kneel on Ash Wednesday to allow a cross to be traced on our foreheads in the ashes of last year’s palm crosses, Isaiah uncomfortably reminds us that we could be missing the point of Lenten observance.
Percy Dearmer’s paraphrase in his carol ‘White Lent’ brings the message home.
To bow the head, in sackcloth or in ashes, or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come nigh,
to fly where truth and light do lie.
Lent is a time to draw closer to God and be transformed by the experience, discerning, as Dearmer puts it, God’s beauty. Dearmer is of course most remembered for his delight in beauty: beauty in worship, through The Parson’s Handbook, and in music, through The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. But he was also a lifelong socialist who gave up his parish during the First World War to be a chaplain to the Red Cross in Serbia, where his wife, who had gone to work with their ambulance unit, died of fever. For the next 15 years he had no church appointment, but after being made a canon of Westminster in 1931 he used the position to open a canteen for the unemployed.
The socialist Dearmer would have appreciated Isaiah’s charge against the people of God (38.3) ‘Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.’ And the prophet’s warnings appear designed for today when he calls us to ‘share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’. Isaiah has a firm conviction that we come closer to God through social action than through any act of piety.
The mood Dearmer’s carol creates fits perfectly with Jesus’s advice ‘Do not look dismal’. However sombre a mood we try to create by removing displays of flowers from our churches and veiling anything which might delight the eye, nature will not be denied. Successive waves of spring bulbs assure us that the darkness of winter is over, and new life is emerging. It calls us to thankfulness, and with it, the response of our love in action.
I wish you a joyful and blessed Lent.
Tom Ambrose is a priest in the diocese of Ely.7 Comments
Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and tonight at evening prayer the Church begins the celebration of the Epiphany. The Christmas story in Matthew tells how the Magi, wise men, came from the east to visit the infant Jesus, and this has long been interpreted as showing the Christ-child to the wider world of non-Jews near the start of his human life, as well as a recognition by them of his birth. During the next few weeks of the Church’s year there is a continuing focus on the story of how Jesus first came to public attention and how he began to teach his message or good news.
Many of us, perhaps all of us, can look around at our lives, at our relationships, at the state of the world, and wish it were better — whether for ourselves or for others. We can all dream of living in a place where it is good to live. A place where everyone has security and shelter and enough to eat, where everyone has value and is treated fairly, where no one holds grudges against other individuals or groups. In short, a society that is not “broken” and that lives at peace with itself and its neighbours.
Jesus’s message is that this place can exist, and that we have it within ourselves to choose to live there, at least in part. Each one of us can make the choice to live in that place of reconciliation and trust, peace and social justice. If we choose to live our lives in that way then we will be citizens of that place.
In Jesus’s language this place is the “kingdom of God”, because it is the place where God’s will is done, and that will ultimately is “love”. Jesus’s good news is that this kingdom, this “living in love”, is already at hand, here and now — it has already begun. All that we have to do is open our eyes and see the simplicity of it.
Opting in is entirely voluntary, and even those who have opted in will get it wrong, perhaps more often than not. So it won’t be perfect, because it is a place inhabited by fallible human beings in a world where not everyone has opted in and where mistakes and natural disasters also happen. Living this way is vulnerable. Jesus’s followers have long said that the kingdom will come at the end of time — and this is a recognition of the fact that the whole world isn’t going to accept the message for a very long while, if ever. So though the kingdom in all its fullness is not yet here, that makes it all the more important to choose to live in it now, and to share the good news and to encourage others to join in. We can still live partly in the kingdom, glimpsing the possibilities of its fullness.
What then is the role of religion in this, and what is the role of the Church? These are good questions. They highlight the problem with institutional religion.
Jesus, in the gospel stories, doesn’t have a lot of time for organized religion, and those who considered themselves holy and religious. He criticised the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom we might see as typical of local religious leaders and the religious establishment, types that existed then and still exist today. Many in both groups understood Jesus’s concept of God’s rule, God’s kingdom, but (like many others down the ages, and still today) they were caught up in their own concepts of spirituality and nationality and their own priorities, and either failed to grasp what Jesus was saying, or failed to act on it.
Where does this leave the Church? As people used to ask, do you have to go to church to be a good Christian? Certainly the Church has a lot to answer for. Over many hundreds of years it has helped to suppress and control individuals and populations, and allowed itself to be used by states to achieve their aims, or indeed has corrupted states to achieve institutional goals. It has allowed itself to be limited to a “spiritual” life, teaching a personal piety and obedience, and the promise that things will get better, sometime. It has sacrificed individuals and groups to its own ends. And it’s easy for its members to get caught up in its institutional life, serving on its boards and commissions and councils, even carving out a career in church politics. It’s easy too to get caught up in its “religiosity”: in personal piety, personal devotion and personal belief as ends in themselves.
The Church, however, has also preserved the teaching of Jesus, and other great figures, and never lost sight of the centrality of his message, even when it has largely failed to understand or implement it. Individual Christians have led some of the great reform movements, such as the abolition of slavery, moves to racial equality and sexual equality, mass education and healthcare, humane working conditions, prison reform and so on.
The Church, for all its many and profound failings, is the group of people who follow Jesus, and stand in line with him: the community of his followers down the ages, even if a divided community.
The Church is also the primary place where those who commit to trying to live in the kingdom can interact with each other. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where social justice and compassion are preached and practised. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where the hungry are fed, both literally and figuratively, and the homeless and destitute cared for. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where people forgive each other for the wrongs they have done to each other, and are reconciled. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where Jesus’s good news is proclaimed and human beings welcomed to participate in it.
Where does that leave the believer and the unbeliever? No mention has yet been made of belief in God, belief in heaven, belief in the infallibility of this or that, or the special nature of someone or something. The story of the arrival of the Magi shows that Jesus is for Jew and Gentile alike: in today’s language, Jesus and his message are for the believer and also for the non-believer. The gospels do not record that Jesus required belief in any dogma or religious doctrine — only trust in what he was teaching, trust to begin to do it. There is no test of belief to be a citizen of this kingdom. There is no religious creed, no statement of religious belief.
Rather, what is required is to start again: to be willing to recognize (without unnecessarily beating ourselves up about it) that we don’t always get things right; to be willing to both give and receive forgiveness; to act to bring about reconciliation and social justice to all our neighbours, where Jesus’s definition of “neighbour” is “someone who needs our help”; to join with those who are trying to do the same; and to share this good news with others. The kingdom of God is built one person at a time — it is here, it is now, it is indeed at hand; and one day it will exist in its fullness.
What about God? Everyone must come to their own conclusions on that, and about the literal existence of God, because God’s kingdom — the place where the rules are love and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and social justice for all — is a concept that exists whether you believe in God or not. Just as the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story indicates that this baby is significant to Jews and non-Jews, so too he, and the kingdom he announced, are significant to believers and non-believers.
God’s kingdom is for all. And it’s there, in part, right here and now. Just open the door, and let the kingdom in.
Simon Kershaw is a founder and editor of Thinking Anglicans.
We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.29 Comments
We have come to the end of Advent: the time of waiting is over. Tomorrow is Christmas. The night Jesus was born, the world seemed like an unsafe place for a baby, especially a baby born to a couple far away from the security of their own home and unable to find suitable lodging, vulnerable to the elements and to the rough characters living on the margins of society.
Today, with images of Aleppo and refugees dancing in our heads, how can we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace? At the end of a year of so much tragedy, evil and violence, further shaken by the uncertainty of Brexit and of a President Trump, who can feel safe, who can feel joyful? Even on a more intimate level, many people I know have been bereaved or have been battling illness or, at the very least, dealing with upset and disappointment. Is it worth celebrating Christmas at all?
It all depends on what we believe about God and our world, and about ourselves and other people. If our God is impotent or distant or disdainful or angry, then we are in trouble. But if our God is as present with us as a new-born baby gasping for air, as compassionate as a mother cradling a terrified child or as faithful as a rescue worker, digging resolutely through piles of rubble, then there is hope.
In the opening passage of the Gospel of John comes the pronouncement, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Further on in the same Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The baby who became the man who took on all that life could throw at him — all the evil, sin, hurt, hopelessness, grief and fear of the world — tells his friends not to be frightened, that even though he will soon be leaving them, not to be troubled. He tells them to be at peace, that in him they have peace, that his peace is present in the midst of all the challenges of life.
Do we believe the light is still shining in the darkness? Do we believe there is no darkness that can ever extinguish the light of Christ? Do we believe we have a peace that has been given to us as part of the gift of the Holy Spirit? Do we believe in the ultimate triumph of the Prince of Peace?
If we believe these things, then we can wake up tomorrow and dare to open ourselves to the joy of Christmas. For some, even though they believe, this year joy may elude them, but for those of us who can embrace the day, we must celebrate, not forgetting those who are suffering, but standing in solidarity with them by proclaiming the truth and reality and presence of Christ. Whether taking a service, serving a meal or visiting those in prison, in hospital or out on the streets — or simply safely curled up in a cosy room with our loved ones — we must let our hearts shout out — Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Christina Rees CBE was a member of General Synod for 25 years, and a founder member of Archbishops’ Council. She is a writer, broadcaster, communications consultant, and advocate for gender justice.
We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.0 Comments
So goes an old and rarely sung carol.
In the ten days before Christmas, a group of very elderly, frail, forgetful people, sitting in a conservatory, are taking time every morning to sing about a baby. Arriving to take our monthly ‘service’ in a local care home, I was greeted by the activities co-ordinator (church input is an ‘activity’), proudly waving copies of ‘Away in a manger’ and announcing that it had become part of the day’s routine. So, we sang it again, before we did anything else. Fred had already been singing along to ‘Hark the herald’ on a CD playing gently beside him: he was a boy chorister, now too blind to see the words on a sheet, and today more focussed on his military service in North Africa than past carol services. Iris reminded me, as she always does, that she is in the Baptist church every Sunday: it has been so much part of her life that she keeps it there, even if doesn’t really happen. Liz joined in with prayers and carols with great enthusiasm, just one beat behind all the time, because somehow her deafness is creating a delay in receiving sound. Maggie was cross: she used to delight in our visits but now resents them, says pointedly that she doesn’t believe any of it, and loudly that we should shut up. She’s placated by Mary, the saintly Reader Emeritus, who has lived in the care home for five years since her stroke and maintains an extraordinary calm and patience.
Every month a service, prayers and the old familiar hymns; every month some, at least, of the residents tell us how grateful they are for our presence, every month staff are relieved to see them engaged and involved: and every month I leave with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. It’s a good care home, small, privately run, many of the staff are long-serving. But it feels as though there is little honour here for those whose lives will be lived out within its walls; for their contemporaries, still in their own homes and dependent on visiting carers, rushing from appointment to appointment, there is even less.
In a few days time we will celebrate the birth of that baby, marvelling at the God among us as child, utterly dependent on those around him for all that sustains life. Month by month, among the home’s residents, I see faculties, both physical and mental, diminished; dependence and need increased. These are no longer productive members of society, and all too often the debate about their care speaks of a burden. Even in church circles, I have heard care for the elderly disparaged, because they will not add to our numbers or contribute to the parish share. But if we are to tell a story of God coming among us, helpless, vulnerable, needing to be fed, cleaned, nursed, sheltered, loved, then surely these are among those of our neighbours who most vividly bear his image.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford
We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.11 Comments
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)
To speak of God being with us might be good news, or bad news, depending on what we believe God’s character is like.
When Nazi troops marched into Paris in 1940, their regulation belt buckle bore the legend ‘Gott mit Uns’, God with us, and I wonder how the French felt about what that God was visiting on them? The badge of the English Defence League bears a cross, below which the Latin inscriptions translates: ‘In this sign you will conquer‘ invoking the militant power of an Anglo-Saxon warrior God.
Even people who do not espouse a political or military cause find themselves readily imagining a vengeful God. When someone encounters personal tragedy or misfortune, I find them looking for what they might have done wrong, for which this devastation is punishment, a retribution for a past sin. Or they may simply see their pain as a sign that God has brutally inflicted a tragedy or, at the very least, been asleep on the job allowing catastrophe to befall them.
The ‘Son of God’ in the world of the Christmas stories is a title for Caesar, presiding over the brutal imperial army occupying Jesus’s homeland. The Roman God-with-us means domination by brute force — a fearful God-with-us.
The stories of Christmas were written to challenge and subvert this dark idea of God’s character. Matthew’s God-with-us is hunted by a king, one who has to leave his country. Luke’s God-with-us is visited by the poorest in the neighbourhood. This is not a brutal God, this is a God alongside people who are powerless, people who have been done to, people who feel forgotten. This is the character of the God of the Christian Gospels.
Andrew Spurr is Vicar of Evesham with Norton and Lenchwick in the diocese of Worcester.
Isaiah says ‘the desert shall rejoice and blossom’. The new series of ‘Planet Earth’ programmes makes us keenly aware of how close desert and fertile land can be. Through time-lapse photography we have seen the transformation of dry land by rainfall, shortening the time taken for the flourishing of greenery into a few seconds. Grasses grow on flooded plains and can produce seeds in days.
But the biblical miracle can fail. We observe that deserts are advancing everywhere. Last year’s water hole has dried up. The spring that was once fresh is now brackish. The programmes have also featured numerous scenes where the carnivorous hunter misses its prey, and might eventually be just one meal away from dying of starvation. ‘Planet Earth’ illustrates the fragility and precarious nature of life.
The biblical prophets, living on the margins of fertile Lebanon with its celebrated Cedar trees, and the treeless Negev Desert, were well placed to appreciate how unreliable the fertile lands can be. In a broadcast this week about endangered giraffes the researcher mentioned that the biblical pattern of lean years and good years never goes away.
December brings a lean time of year close to us with the re-opening of the Cambridge Churches (and Synagogue) homelessness project, where a hearty supper, and a warm bed for the night in a place of safety are provided for men who would otherwise be sleeping rough. As we share a meal together we become aware of how similar our lives are. Perhaps only a single misfortune has pushed someone over the edge to the point where he loses everything. It is as though the seasonal rain failed to materialise. The lean year proved too much to bear. All there harshness of the desert and the fragility of lives on the edge are set before us.
Once everything is lost, rebuilding is a lengthy business, and it can be difficult to maintain the long term support which is needed if homeless people are to regain the stability and support which a home would provide. The routine of having a place to stay every night instead of sleeping rough helps to break the cycle. And the regular contact through having accommodation provided every night in the winter months can provide the basis for rebuilding lives and moving towards a safer and more stable future.
Paradoxically, it may be in the harshest time of year that the most effective support can be given. Isaiah’s vision may be realised and lives can blossom once more.
Tom Ambrose is a priest in the diocese of Ely.
And there she was, in my face again. I was having a quiet chat with Jim, and she was there shouting at me again. It was a dispute over a house, and frankly she was not being realistic. That of course is the trouble with these people. They don’t accept reality. Which was that Jud needed a bigger plot to make the development he had on worthwhile, and her house got in the way. That is how it is. I was the judge and she needed to accept that.
But she didn’t accept it, and there she was, in my face at every turn. I was furious. Jim was laughing of course. ‘It’s not like she can DO anything, is it?’ he said. The trouble was that to ignore her was one thing, but to take action against her would cause the wrong kind of talk.
First, she caught me at the gates, where I sat with the other elders. She stood there crying out about the Law – and what it said about widows and justice. And I made a joke of it. I turned to Jim and said: ‘She got a right good education, didn’t she?’ and that turned it off.
Then I was in the market place and it was the prophets. I got Amos, and his comments on selling the needy for a pair of shoes. I got Micah, and the Lord requiring justice and mercy. I raged inside. But I said: ‘I’ll prophesy then, that you will lose your voice shouting.’ And that again made a joke, and John thought it quite funny.
I mean, I wasn’t selling her into slavery was I? Or beating her up? All I was doing was ensuring that a much-needed development went through, and that those who ought to benefit from enterprise did.
And then in an alley way, I was alone, except for the nonentities around me. Her eyes held mine and I saw the anger, and time and place swung away. Her face, the sexless ageless face of a woman past child bearing, was now crowned with gold, and light and fire played in the gold. She grew, and now she was three, four times my size, and she moved back, and I saw robes flowing around her, embroidered, coloured. I was no longer sure if she was man or woman. This regal figure stood on the warm fiery backs of two immense creatures, like female sphinxes, whose wings bore the monarch aloft. Around the figure were others. Those who looked like angels. Then there were wheels on fire, dragons, a monstrous bull, an eagle. There were dark figures which filled me with fear, and bright ones even more terrible.
Then I saw the figures of men and women. They were dressed in rags, and robes, and clothes I cannot describe. They all turned to the throne, which now filled the whole of the sky and they cried out, ‘How long, O Lord, how long? We hunger and thirst to see right prevail. Fill the hungry with good things!’ I could not count them, and I could never describe the longing and the anger of their voices.
The figure on the throne turned to me, and still with the face and the voice of the widow thundered: ‘Grant me justice!’
I wet myself.
I was suddenly standing in a dark alley, and I stumbled home and the slaves got me to bed.
The next morning, I went to the gate. Jud was there. I sat down. The widow came forward. She did not say anything. She looked at me. I gave her justice. I heard the disgusted comments of Jud, Jim, John. I cared. Oh, yes, I still cared. But caring or not, well … it is an easy thing to say you do not care for God or humankind, isn’t it? It is different when you meet them.
Luke 18: 1-8
Rosemary Hannah is a historian and author of The Grand Designer a biography of the third Marquess of Bute.
For a long while they sat opposite each other, gently holding hands. She with her head bent, her body racked with sobs; the Angel calm, still, waiting for the word that would have to be spoken. At last the woman lifted her head, pushed her hair away from tear stained cheeks, and said, simply, “I can’t”. Silence followed. She was gathering her energies to offer a reason, a rationale for why her courage had failed her; why she, who had always been obedient to God’s will and law, was now withholding her consent. “Don’t be afraid”, said the Angel. He’d used those words before, at the very beginning of the meeting, when his sudden presence, and the light that quietly emanated from him, had so clearly scared her. Now half-formed sentences began to tumble from her: about her place within this close knit community; the shame that the inevitable gossip and accusations would bring both on her and her family; the loneliness of a life as a tainted woman, one no man would take as wife; the pull towards prostitution, in the struggle to sustain herself and the child she would bear. It was too much. Please let this cup pass from her.
The Angel still held on to her as tightly as ever. Only when she had emptied herself of both her words and her tears did he respond. “Fear not”, he said, for a third time. “God loves you. He loves you as deeply as ever. This was never a command, always an invitation to come on a particular journey with him. Go in peace. Marry. Have children, and bring them up in that same love of The Lord which you yourself know. And teach them this; that God, in their generation, will do this great thing. Tell them to be alert, to watch for the signs that the Promised One is coming among them. Live long, do not regret your decision today; but of your mercy, when you hear of Him, pray for His mother.”
He stood up, passed out of the house, walked perhaps a stone’s throw away from the building, then stopped to wipe a hand across his eyes. He gazed back at the woman’s home for some minutes. Silently, he held her and all that she was before the One who had sent him. From somewhere within his robes he pulled out a scroll and unfurled it. It was a list of names, women’s names. Many had already been crossed through, and now there was another to strike out. He looked at the details for his next assignment. Another unpromising village, another pious but conventional upbringing. Another dispiritingly traditional name. Mary.
David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester
As a bagger of Wainwrights’s summits and occasional gully-scrambler I’ve always been faintly depressed by the vision in Isaiah 40 of every valley being raised up and every mountain lowered: perhaps it’s living in Lincolnshire which makes mountains something to be longed for rather than obliterated as the mind’s eye conjures up a landscape rather like Salisbury Plain (but without the archæology) spray-painted beige and with a café every half mile or so. Some years ago, coming down off a snow-covered Lakeland ridge, we met a group who wanted to know where the path went and whether they’d find a tea room at the end of it: we couldn’t help but feel that they were missing something.
There is a fascinating dialogue to be encountered between those passages where God prepares the way for returning exiles and those where the pathway is prepared for God himself to come — rich soil for the exegete and the poet. But it was a recent study day which changed my own take on the taming of the wilderness, as it became apparent that the clearing of the ground was not about making the journey easy and effortless. It was about making the journey possible.
This fed my understanding of what it is to be (in any sense) a spiritual accompanier. We know that we can’t make the journey for another person, for that would be hubristic and inauthentic. All we can try and do is to clear enough obstructions out of the path to make undertaking the journey feasible.
It’s essential, though, that ‘spiritual accompanier’ shouldn’t be cramped into the space marked ‘spirituality’: the Gospel of our accompanying of someone also touches the emotional and the material. When John urges people to clear the way, we may note how he tells the soldier, for example, not to place obstacles in the way of other people through extortion. And this is where the Advent preparation of the way touches on our own society and its treatment of the vulnerable and the marginalised.
An acquaintance with ‘inside knowledge’ told me of the way in which those working with the unemployed and other vulnerable groups are pressured to place as many obstacles in their path as possible to deny them their legal entitlements. Perhaps in order to provide the tabloids with red meat for the readership, the safety net has been removed to provided edifyingly hard landings for those feckless enough to lose job or health or home. Far from clearing the way, every effort is being made to ensure that, for vulnerable groups, the journey is impossible, the demands superhuman.
In the interplay between the two Advent themes of restoring homeless and of making the path straight for God we may find a mirror-image of the scapegoating and the deliberate impeding of the vulnerable which seems to play so well in Europe and the US. A faith which takes the Advent message seriously may have hard questions to ask of a society which keeps its exiles at a distance, which makes the rough places rougher and the crooked more bewildering, which ensures that the route home is as harsh and as daunting as it possibly can.
David Rowett is a priest in the diocese of Lincoln