Sunday, 3 April 2016

Taste and see

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." (John 20:25)

Was Thomas the Twin temperamentally unwilling to rely on what others told him? A natural skeptic? Or did he learn confidence to seek the truth and test the reported evidence from being with Jesus, who encouraged others to find out and decide for themselves?

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I in the Father."  (John 10:36-38)

It is all too easy to regard the doubt of Thomas as a weakness, a failure to take anything on trust, but it for him to want to see Jesus again and look at the wounds inflicted on him was an act of courage in seeking the truth of what had happened.

When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends a message to Jesus to ask if he is the promised Messiah, he received this reply;

"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor." (Luke 7:22) 

John's messengers are invited to consider the evidence and make their own decision on what to report. 

Belief in God and God's saving works must be based on what rings true in our understanding and experience. This enables us to go beyond what is knowable and enter into a relationship of trust in God's love and providence knowing that we have a secure foundation. 

'Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.' (Hebrews 11:1)

'So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.' (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Faith develops by living with an attitude of trust in God above all else, something that prayer nurtures, as we review the whole of our experience in God's presence, express our gratitude and offer up all our concerns to the Author of our existence.

'Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you.' (1 Peter 5:7)

The reality of these statements can be put to the test through desire and determination to 

'Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing'  (1 Thessalonians 5:17) 

'Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who trust in him.' (Psalm 34:8)

Saturday, 2 April 2016

With us always

The experience of being with the resurrected Jesus changed the disciples utterly. Their fearfulness and lack of understanding about Jesus and the depths of his message was transformed into a confident grasp of the truth and an ability to express themselves in a way that astonished others, given they were uneducated peasants without social sophistication. 

They were men and women who learned by being with Jesus and doing things with him. Learning happens with and without the benefit of structured or designed schemes, in every area of life. Learning a spiritual path relies only on being accompanied by another person. They may have wisdom and understanding to share, but they too may have much to share with others, and will learn more, simply by having to 

'... give an account of the hope that is in you.' (1 Peter 3:15) 

Jesus sends out his disciples to continue proclaiming the Good News to all creation (Mark 16:15), and the more they tell others what they know, the more they will learn and deepen their understanding. He remains present with them always, in and through the relationships they have and the relationships they make, with others and with God in prayer. The love they share is love God continues to pour into the world, through Jesus, through the ages. His passage from the realms of time and place remains an incomprehensible mystery, yet the experience of his living presence with us always has never gone away. Our lack of awareness, our self absorption is what blinds us to greater reality.

No matter how we bring ourselves to stillness and seek to open our hearts to God in prayer, the sense of his love enfolding us will return, heal and restore us, in a way that God alone knows best meets our true need. Sometimes, when we find it desperately hard start praying, it can be enough to be in a place where other people are praying, alone or together. God never leaves us without witnesses to his presence. The love their devotion releases can reach out and touch us, and inspire us to pray despite our weakness and failure to persist.

"Wherever two are three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)

Friday, 1 April 2016


The disciples of Jesus returned to Galilee, to a place of safety away from the controversy surrounding his death, just as he had told them, and returned to work as fishermen, with no idea of what the future would hold for them. He comes to meet them at work, and at first they do not recognise him in the early light of day, but they hear his voice across the water, suggesting to them where their efforts at catching fish might be fruitful. Perhaps because this is not the first time he has made this kind of intervention, Peter realises it's not any bystander calling out advice, but the Lord. They trust and act upon the advice and yield an impressive catch. When they come ashore, they find he has prepared a meal for them.

In Jerusalem he came to them when they were hiding behind locked doors, but here he comes to them in the open, where they live and work. The experience of meeting the risen Jesus is not restricted to one kind of place or another. It can happen while blessing God for their bread, while talking about life as his disciples, in places of work, in places of sorrow and joy. And when he finally takes his leave he says:

"Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages."   (Matthew 28:20)

The importance of remembering, and especially remembering and praising the works of God as part of the story people tell about themselves is deeply embedded in Hebrew spirituality:

'O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make know his deeds to all the peoples.
Sing praises to him sing praises, tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name, let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgements he uttered.'
(Psalm 105:1-5)

St Paul recalls being told of all the appearances of the risen Jesus

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." (1 Cor 15:1-7)

He doesn't elaborate on any of them, however, apart from that of his own conversion 

"Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" (1 Cor 15:8)

His story appears twice in the Acts of the Apostles, once as narrative (Acts 9:1-30), then in his own voice as personal testimony (Acts 22:1-16), and again in Galatians 1:11-16. 

"I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being."  

Paul's story gets so much coverage not just because he is such a key figure in the emergence of the Gospel of Christ as Good News for the whole world, but because his encounter with the risen Jesus comes despite his rejection of the story proclaimed by the Apostles. There are instances of early public preaching meeting a response, with many being converted at one time, where the revelation follows the hearing of the message. As Paul himself asserts.

'So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.'  (Romans 10:17)

Paul's experience causes him to reassess what he had rejected. He has to re-interpret his own Jewish faith anew before he has anything to say to the world. This is decisive for the development of Christianity, and apart from the opening chapter of the book of Revelation where John the Divine speaks of hearing and seeing the risen Lord, there is little else to compare with it in the New Testament. Yet, such unbidden experiences have continued to shape the life of some Christian converts down the centuries since.

One may pray for a lifetime and never have such a life changing decisive experience. It is given by God where it is most needed, so it is not necessary to crave for it or to seek it in order to grow in faith. Those to whom such experience is not given need only to learn how to follow, just like the rest of the disciples, trusting and obeying the message received and understood.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Word of life

The risen Jesus appears to his disciples as they are discussing all that has happened and wondering what it means for them. When he appears he has to reassure them by re-engaging with them in a normal way, showing them his wounds, eating with them, demonstrating that he is truly with them and not just a figment of fearful imagination. He also teaches them to look back again at the scriptures which they have often heard read and pondered upon, and understand them in a different light.

"Everything written about me in the law of Moses in the prophets and the Psalms has to be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44)

The way the story of Jesus is told in the Gospels relies on references to Jewish scripture, both directly and indirectly through images and metaphors used about Jesus. Succeeding generations of people who hear the story of Jesus learn to make sense of it by getting to know the Jewish scripture and understand how it points beyond its own frame of reference to One who comes whose existence will be relevant to the whole of humankind.

In addressing the questions of doubting Thomas, Jesus declares;

"Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe." (John 20:29)

The fact that others come to believe who weren't there relies upon their ability to enter into the story and experience it and identify with it through the power of the imagination. In different ways reading and thinking about the stories in the Gospel opens heart and mind to work at a deeper level, leading to prayer that connects with our own real life experience, and inspires wonder and thanksgiving for the graciousness of God made known to us.

The meditative reading of scripture is not an end to itself however, at points us in the direction where our hearts can truly be lifted up to God. It has its roots in Judaism where deep reflection on stories of heroes of faith is also a prominent feature of spiritual tradition.

"Lord what love have I for thy law; all day long is my study in it." (Psalm 119:97

Christians also draw inspiration from the exemplary lives of the saints, whose stories are told in ways that point back to the Lord Jesus, above and beyond all else.

"If you are risen with Christ then, seek those things which are above, where Christ is." (Colossions 3:1)

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

In spirit and in truth

Two disciples leaving Jerusalem start discussing the events of the last few days. As they are walking, a stranger joins them and is told about the what has most recently happened that the men have heard about the empty tomb and the rumours about Jesus being alive. They cannot make sense of these reports, and are surprised when the stranger directs them to thinking about the message of the prophets relating to the fate of the Messiah. When they stop for the night they invite the stranger to join them, and say grace at their meal together.  Only then do they realise it is Jesus with them, and before they can respond he's gone again. It leaves them astonished, yet full of encouragement and hope, so they return to Jerusalem that same night, despite travel risks to tell other disciples what happened. 

It's yet another story of how the risen Lord is made known when his followers begin to talk about him, try to work out what has happened and what it all means. Thinking about the meaning of scripture in relation to Jesus, remembering him and breaking bread together, are all bound together here, and in this the seeds are sown for all acts of Christian worship and fellowship that will evolve as time passes. There is no elaborate ritual prescription as with Passover and Temple worship under the Jewish Torah.

Speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says;

"The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him."  (John 4:23)

In his teaching about God's kingdom, he explains his own position;

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)

The fulfilment of all kinds of ritual words and actions prescribed for worship is found 'in spirit and in truth' - the inward disposition of the heart, the sense of purpose and purity of intention towards God that flows from genuine spiritual freedom. It doesn't matter in the end what outward forms worship may take, what matters is the free openness of the heart to give God due honour and praise. The source of this motivation is sharing the story of Jesus, remembering him and what it all means for us and for the world, embedding this in everyday life following him. 

The prescriptions of religious tradition aren't abolished, nor are they irrelevant. They are simply no longer binding or restricting, but a foundation that secures the culture of religious worship in its history, with full permission to develop differently in the future. Although the diversity of forms of Christian worship seems very different from those of Judaism, it is not difficult to identify many elements in common - use of Psalms of praise and penitence, the blessing (=giving thanks for) and sharing food (especially bread and wine) and many other gifts of God, public scripture reading, prayer of intercession.

Doing these things together provide a frame of reference, a context in which the risen Jesus continues to reveal his presence to those who continue to commit themselves to worshipping 'in spirit and in truth'.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A revelation shared

For St John (John 20:11-18) the discovery of the empty tomb sets the stage for Mary Magdalene to meet Jesus. She doesn't recognise Jesus because in her inconsolable grief, she doesn't expect to see him at all. Only when she hears him speak her name does she realise that it is in fact Jesus, not a gardener. 

There are times when the painful intensity of human emotions can prevent us from recognising God's presence. This may seem to make it impossible to focus on God in prayer. Mary's experience here may suggest that the effort to 'listen' in some way for the familiar voice of love is what breaks the enclosing cycle of sorrow. This voice from beyond can reach us through the words of scripture, memorised or heard, or the words of some other person reaching out in compassion towards us. 

Sharing in the resurrection experience begins with a breakthrough from beyond ourselves into that dark place where we turn in on ourselves in pain. For the disciples this starts with receiving the disruptive news of the empty tomb, which prompts them to come out of their misery of shame, and talk to each other, if only out of bewilderment and disbelief. Only then does Jesus come to them, unannounced, bearing words of forgiveness and peace. 

Already it is the evening of a new day when he appears, and appears to disciples - gathered in one place, scattered to another - appears once they have begun to share their experiences with each other. His whole ministry has taught them how to share and when they start to share again in earnest, he reveals himself to them.

Personal prayer and communion with God sustains our spiritual lives, but God gives us so much more to enable us to grow into 'the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ'. He gives us each other to share in prayer together. Sharing not just in the formal ritual acts of common worship, but in intimate and personal trust, when hearts are open to each other as well as to God.

No matter how powerful experiences of God may be through personal prayer, experiences that are shared are more powerful still because they can be witnessed to with confirmation from others. Having appeared first to Mary Magdalene, he appears to the eleven disciples and breaks bread with two, travelling on the road to Emmaus. St Paul reports that he also appears to five hundred at one time. Although the detail is scant, the experience conveyed is enough to convince others and lead to the expansion of the church far beyond Palestine. The experience of the individual is confirmed in the experience shared by a group.

The blessings of personal prayer find confirmation or challenge, when shared with others - 

"Where two or three are gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt 18:20)


Monday, 28 March 2016

Sense of place

The discovery of the empty tomb was so contrary to anyone's expectations that the accounts of what happened to the disciples immediately afterwards are confusingly mixed. It is difficult to establish a coherent time-line, as each evangelist recounts the story slightly differently, although each intends to state with confident certainty that Jesus has returned to life from certain death. 

In each of the accounts the women disciples of Jesus play a prominent part in relaying the good news to the men. They come out of the background of a story which has been told largely from a male point of view. Without the women the message would not have been conveyed to the world the way it has been. The angel at the empty tomb says;

'Go quickly and tell his disciple that he has been raised from the dead and indeed is going ahead of you into Galilee.' (Matthew 28:7)

And a few sentences later

' Then Jesus said to them "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." ' (Matthew 28:10)
Jesus also meets with them in Jerusalem was well before they can travel home. To go to Galilee will mean putting behind them the horrors of the last few days, detaching themselves from the empty tomb discovery and facing a different kind of future together.

The religious authorities are already conspiring to spread a false story of conspiracy on the part of the disciples to steal his body, in order the counter the risk that the rumours about his return to life will cause trouble for them with Pilate, and maybe with Jerusalemites hearing these strange stories. They need to put a distance between themselves and dangerous controversy. They need some time and space together to strengthen their grasp on the truth which has caught hold of them so unexpectedly. Matthew is suggesting here that the risen Lord is at work guiding them to a place of safety.

There may often be occasions in the life of prayer when there is no alternative to being exposed to risk and danger, and the Psalms so often contain the pleas of people threatened and under pressure, making a conscious effort to trust in God. There are also other occasions when there is a choice or opportunity presented to quit an exposed position, to withdraw from confrontation and seek God in safe seclusion, where it is possible to relax and let go, and be strengthened by the peace of God's presence. Learning to discern the right moment comes from asking is this right for now? Am I in the right place?

An essential component of realising any vocation on life's path is knowing where you are called to be in order to flourish and be blessed. Sometimes it is not always clear what you're meant to do or how you're meant to act when you're there, but this becomes apparent when the inner impulse to go to a  new right place has been obeyed.

'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying "Whom shall I send, who will go for us?" And I said; "Here I am; send me!" ' (Isaiah 6:8)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Living in the revelation

The discovery of Jesus' tomb empty, and all that follows occurs 'very early in the morning', as dawn is breaking. The time of waiting from the start of the third day at sunset until then, is of key significance for the prayer life for the church. It is an occasion when biblical texts are read which cover the entire story of God's dealing with humankind from the creation of the world onwards. Candidates for baptism and confirmation meet and make their solemn vows before the whole church membership, and with dawn, the Eucharist of the resurrection is celebrated joyfully.

Keeping vigil in this way resembles the Jewish Passover, when the Exodus people gather at supper to tell the story of their liberation and remember their covenant with God. It is the Passover of Jesus, from death to life, so this occasion is called the Paschal Vigil. The angelic messenger says to the mourners visiting the tomb of Jesus; 

'Why do you look for the living among the dead, he is not here but is risen.' (Luke 24:5)

Reflecting later on the meaning of God's work of salvation through Jesus, St Paul says;

" .. even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way... If anyone is in Christ, there a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything is become new." (2 Cor 5:16) 

Although many people may have suspected or wondered if Jesus was God's Anointed, and he himself hinted at this or even privately declared it, the resurrection experience, so unique and unexpected, reveals decisively what was hidden. The nature of resurrection appearances show in St Peter's words, preaching six weeks later, on the day of Pentecost that;

"This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Messiah" (=Christ in Greek) (Acts 2:36)

The words 'son of God' take on a different meaning in the light of the resurrection. Jesus is proclaimed to be the Son of God in an unique way, and it will take years, centuries in fact before this revelation is understood with any clarity. Disciples of Jesus have to devise new ways of expressing what his death and resurrection mean to them. Just starting to realise who this man Jesus is, enables them to see the shame and horror of his suffering and death in a different perspective. They start to understand how his undeserved suffering in total trust of vindication by God the Father is healing and liberating for the whole world and humankind.

Venturing into the depths of relationship with God through a Christian way of prayer takes us from getting to know the words and work of Jesus, the man of Nazareth, as one of the most remarkable exemplary human beings who has ever lived, right through his Passion to the resurrection revelation that he is the Christ, the Son of God and Lord. This disclosure calls for different understanding of what it means to be human, a child of God, destined for a relationship with God not bounded by mortal existence. 

By entering into this experience, dwelling with it and letting it change our hearts and minds, and the way we live, a gradual relearning takes place. Through baptism we identify our lives, our humanity with that of Jesus. Each Easter celebration offers an opportunity to renew our self dedication to life in God, pledged by the renewal of our baptismal promises.

"If you are risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is..." (Colossians 3:1)

Participating in resurrection celebrations opens up for us in prayer a dimension of joy and peace, hope and love above and beyond other experience. Acknowledgement of the heart of this message releases afresh in us the life of the Holy Spirit, who helps us to pray as God intends. It opens us to the life of intimate communion with God that is inexhaustible in its richness, beyond imagination, beyond words.

'He is risen indeed, Alleluia!'

Saturday, 26 March 2016


The tradition of Christian prayer follows the Judaic practise of counting a day as the period from sunset to sunset. Jesus is killed on the day before the Passover Sabbath, and is laid to rest in haste to avoid violating, the day of rest commanded in the Torah. 

'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.' (Exodus 20:8-10)

Even those closest to Jesus would not have wanted to break the Sabbath rest by continuing the rituals associated with death and mourning. They suspend everyday activity naturally, and simply stop until they can resume what they'd started. This Sabbath is a day of waiting, waiting inertly with all the dark heavy pain of undischarged grief on their hearts, not knowing what will be revealed in the dawning of the third day after Jesus was betrayed and condemned to death. 

This day is unlike any other in the year, as the church lives, knowing how the story turns out, yet waiting for what will be revealed, busy with making everything ready to celebrate the coming Day of the Lord. It is a day for spring cleaning places of worship, of preparation for the forty days of celebration to come. Yet, everything is conducted in humble quietness, mindful of what Jesus accomplished by his obedience to death, even on a cross.

One vivid image sheds light upon this day of prayer, threaded through with expressions of penitence and trust - the harrowing of hell.

'After being made alive, he (Jesus) went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits'  
(1 Peter 3:19-20)

This passage has long been interpreted as referring to what happened to Jesus after he died, before he made himself known again to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. It appears in that phrase of the creeds which states 'He descended into hell', where 'Hell', refers to the place of the dead - Sheol, in Hebrew thinking. The good news proclaimed by the church is that the work of Jesus goes beyond the boundaries of time, and reaches backwards and forwards in our understanding of history. 

The church proclaims that nobody who ever lived is beyond reach of God's generous mercy. Not only is this a day for making peace with the living, but also remembering the dead, those who have gone before us, whose lives may have been less than exemplary, but for good or ill, touched our lives in some way. Through Jesus, all who have looked beyond themselves find their place in God's grace.

There is so much we cannot know about the mystery of God's grace and how it works. This is, in a way, a day of unknowing, in the life of prayer, as we wait for the dawn of a new day. Waiting in darkness and silence is far from comfortable, whether we follow the church's liturgical rhythm of prayer, or simply try to meditate on the mystery of descent into hell. It is however, a training in humble patience, unable to anticipate anything.  We can make ready to celebrate, but without being free to celebrate until the time of waiting is over.

This is a position many people encounter as patients undergoing medical procedures, as victims or as the accused in judicial procedures. It can feel very lonely, yet we are not alone. So many like us have gone before, but the promise of hope revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus never departs. In prayer we can only cling to this.

'Wait for the Lord, his day is near; wait for the Lord, be strong take heart' (Psalm 27:14)

Friday, 25 March 2016

Stop, look and listen

Churches that emerged from the sixteenth century protestant reformation regard this day dedicated to the hearing of the story of the passion of Jesus as one occasion in the year when the Lord's Supper should be celebrated, citing support from St Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:24 'As often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes'. Yet, since early on in the Christian era, there were two days in the year when the Lord's Supper was not celebrated, as the whole church in different ways not simply remembered but relived the story from Thursday evening to Saturday evening. 

This is a day of quiet attention to the story of Jesus' suffering and death. Each detail of the narrative, from any of the Gospels, can permit a glimpse into the nature of the sinful and evil deeds which caused this injustice. The truth of the story holds a mirror to ourselves, so this becomes a day of expressing sorrow for sin, in ourselves and in our world. It is a day of return to the infinite compassion and mercy of God in as full a way as possible. Not simply in our thoughts, and efforts to pray, but with our whole being. The practise of walking and praying the Way of the Cross originated in Jerusalem and spread throughout the world. It enables worshippers to imagine what happened as if it occurred wherever they are. Active participation of this kind brings home the story's relevance to the whole of humankind. 

The reading of St John's Passion during the liturgical celebration of the Word, takes place during the three hours when Jesus suffered on the cross. The first three Gospels tell the story in a way that invites us to think about who this man is, who sacrifices his life for the sake of divine truth, who'd save others rather than saving himself. It invites us to confess this is the Son of God. St John, on the other hand, announces at the outset of his Gospel that Jesus uniquely is God's Son and eternal Word. He tells the same story in ways that reveal the splendour of divinity in his human existence, above all in the way he offers his life and accepts suffering so completely for God's sake.   

The dramatization of the reading of the Passion Gospel has happened for the past fifteen hundred years in the public life of Christian faith and worship, as a way of enabling believers to identify with the story. Creative imagination and reflection on the passion has resulted in it being represented in visual art, music, poetry and drama, aiming to take worshippers more deeply into its rich depths of meaning. Artistic endeavour by anyone, however simple or sophisticated, is a pathway to deep silent communion at the heart of prayer.

The greatest of the Suffering Servant Songs (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is read before the Passion is proclaimed. It gives an insight into how Jesus may have understood his own mission, and how the first Christians soon came to understand it, after initial dismay and bewilderment at the shame and horror of his unjust death, and their failure to prevent it.

For all or any part of this day, making time to stop and dwell with thoughts of what it means and commemorates in whatever way we choose to do it, is a conscious effort to look at Jesus look at ourselves, and listen to what God's Spirit has to tell us about mercy and pardon. It is a day for reconciliation, a day for forgiveness, a day of letting go of all that separates us from God, allowing his love to free, strengthen and heal us. A day for re-shaping, re-aligning our future.

'Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.'

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Remember and proclaim

Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin 'novum mandatum', meaning a new commandment. Two quite different eucharistic gatherings take place on this day. The first is with the Bishop in the Cathedral, when the focus of the celebration is the healing ministry of the church, featuring the blessing of Holy Oils used in baptism, confirmation and ministry to the sick. The Servant's missionary declaration of purpose from Isaiah 61 sets the tone - 'The Spirit of the lord is upon me.' read first, then re-read in the Gospel from Luke 4:16-21 where Jesus reads the passage during synagogue worship and speaks to the congregation about it representing his vocation to offer healing, liberation, and good news of hope from God.

It is an occasion for priests to rededicate themselves to ministry, following the example of Christ the servant. It is an occasion when all God's people can share in taking ownership of the church's ministry, as part of preparation to renew baptismal vows together on Easter Eve at the climax of this three days of re-living the Saviour's passion and passover from death to resurrection. 

This is also the time of the Jewish Passover celebration. This evening's Eucharist has a passover theme, opening with a reading from Exodus about remembering the events with a special meal. St Paul speaks of the commandment received by his followers from Jesus of remembering him by sharing bread and wine together in thanksgiving, but not only for the liberation of the Israelites at the first passover, but in thanksgiving for the self-sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of the world's sin, and reconciliation with God.

'Do this ... in remembrance of me. Whenever you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.' (1 Corinthians 11:25b-26)

All those accompanying Jesus would have grown up sharing this special meal, remembering the Exodus and Passover to affirm their Jewish identity. The introduction by Jesus of the words 'This is my body ... this is my blood' over the broken bread and cup, change the meaning of the action forever. They provide a unique point of reference for Christian prayer and worship in relation to Jesus.

The Gospel read this night doesn't repeat the story Paul tells, or repeat what the first three Gospels report about Jesus' words at this meal. Instead, John's Gospel tells how Jesus washed the disciples' feet after supper and gave them the 'new commandment' - "Love one another, as I have loved you." Love, expressed in the humblest acts of service and in his own self sacrifice. Eating and praying together, bonded by love and mutual care are foundations of the personal relationship each person can make with God in the intimacy of their hearts. Jesus also says

'I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.' (John 13:15)

Each person who would serve others, must also let themselves be ministered to. Jesus showed this in accepting Mary's anointing of him a few days earlier. Whenever we pray, this is not just an occasion for us to offer something to God. God is already offering himself, his life for us, and this is cause for thanksgiving and praise. Words from a Psalm rejoicing in deliverance from peril and enemies, have long been linked by the church to the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

'What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.' (Psalm 116:12-13)

After the meal and conversation, Jesus and the disciples end with a hymn of thanksgiving and retire to the Garden of Gethsemane to enjoy the silence of night under the passover moon in personal prayer. The church imitates them by moving away from the main worship area to a place where worshippers can keep a prayer vigil as long as they wish during the night hours. It is a time to recall the agonising of Jesus over his ultimate surrender in total trust and obedience to God, even to death. 

'Not my will, but thy will be done.'  (Luke 22:42)

In recalling his betrayal, interrogation and abuse, also the disciples' flight and Peter's denial, we reflect on our own steadfastness of faith: 'Lord, is it I? Psalms of Lament and penitence can be read. Despite their grim intensity, they will be found ultimately to express trust in the One who vindicates His Suffering Servant.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Prayer and struggle

Today's Gospel (Matt 26:14-25) lets us glimpse Judas negotiating a fee to arrange for Jesus to meet the religious authorities face to face. It also recounts the secret preparations made to allow Jesus and his disciples to eat a Passover meal together well away from public demands made upon them. On what may have been another occasion while eating together, Jesus warns of what is about to happen. All are in distress about this. Even Judas seems to be in denial, and doesn't regard what he is doing as an act of betrayal, as does the evangelist. He is the victim of his own short sighted opportunism, as we all can be on times.

In anticipation of the violence about to break out against Jesus, today's Servant Song poem (Isaiah 50:4-9) speaks of a disciple as one who listens to God, and listens before speaking to encourage others. In the face of aggression, a disciple is steadfast, resisting passively, not reacting to the offender. The disciple trusts in God's justice as defence and challenges accusers to take part in a proper hearing to establish the truth of their allegations. Retaining such a strong moral position requires great courage. Any unjust allegation arouses indignation, shame, anxiety, loneliness, as Psalm 69 expresses, in appeal to God:

'For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonour has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother's sons.
For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach.
When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.
You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonour; my foes are all known to you.
Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.'

(Ps 69:7-12)

Whatever help can be found to achieve justice in human affairs, endurance and persistence in pursuing the cause comes from appealing to God.

'But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.' (Psalm 68:13)

Strength is to be found in praising God, even more than any material offering which could be made.

'I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.
When the humble see it they will be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.
Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah, and people shall dwell there and possess it; the offspring of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall dwell in it.' (Psalm 68:30-35)

Learning this by direct personal experience in prayer and struggle is what has enabled many champions of truth and justice to survive, down the ages.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Self recognition

In today's portion of the Servant Songs, the calling of the one who God calls to be servant of his Word is declared to reach back before his birth. But there is more. The Servant's calling is not just to serve the children of Israel but all people everywhere. The prophecy of Simeon over the infant Jesus in the Temple acclaims him to be 'The light to lighten the Gentiles'. (Luke 2:32) Clearly Simeon was familiar with the oracles of Isaiah.

'I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.' (Isaiah 42:6)

In many ways the story of Jesus' passion sheds light on human behaviour that is relevant far beyond its historical and cultural context. Everyone can find different aspects of themselves reflected in the participants of those events. Identifying ourselves with the traitor Judas is less than easy, uncomfortable in fact. When Jesus said "One of you will betray me.(John 13:21)  those present responded with bewilderment. "Lord is it I?" (Matt 26:22). Hearing the warning of Jesus about the imminent crisis, Peter was quick to assert that he would defend and protect Jesus, yet he flees, and then lies about his association with Jesus.

"Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times."  (John 13:33)

To betray is to hand someone over to their enemies. Peter doesn't do this, but his denials betray his weakness and fear, his inability to keep his word. Having warned his disciples, Jesus lets Judas go about his business. Although aware that Judas is up to no good, Jesus will give no more warnings, he simply lets everything happen.

Judas is responsible for the disciples' common purse. John regards him as a thief. He asks for money from the chief priests for leading them to arrest Jesus. Love of money is thought to be the motivation for his action by many ancient interpreters. But, in way love, of power is just as likely. Judas wants to engineer a confrontation with religious authorities that will pressurise Jesus into revealing himself and his true authority. Judas wants to set the agenda for others, wants everyone to interpret things his way, as he sought to when he  reproached Mary's generosity after her anointing of Jesus.

When Judas leaves the supper table to inform the chief priests, the others assume he is going away on some charitable errand. They do not question. Are they in awe of this capable and confident man? The relationship between Judas and the other disciples also merits consideration. Do they trust him? Do they put up with him without really liking him because Jesus does?

How to interpret the declaration Jesus makes "Now the Son of Man has been glorified." (John 13:31). 'Glory' is a word used to convey the true nature of divine splendour. Its Greek original can also be used to denote 'opinion', what we think of something or someone. In this statement it refers to that elusive phrase Jesus uses to speak of himself as a human being. It suggests he's saying to his disciples that in the story so far (particularly in the 'signs') they have seen what true humanity is. The revelation of the divine in him is yet to come. 

Despite Peter's protestations of loyalty, nobody can follow Jesus where he has to go. None of the disciples are aware of how things will turn out. Betrayal, denial, rejection, come as unexpectedly as his untimely and unjust death. 

At this time we take into our prayer the disciples' words: 'Lord, is it I', and try to remain as conscious of we can of our vulnerability to fall short of our own hopes and convictions in the face of unforeseen events that out us to the test, for the truth is, if we had been there at the time, our reactions might have been similar.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Facing up to toxic feelings

From Monday to Friday this week, readings from the Servant Songs of the Prophet Isaiah accompany the Gospel stories of leading up to the Passion of Jesus. These poems were an important part of his spiritual inheritance. It is unclear whether the subject of the poems is meant to be an individual whom God appoints as his envoy, his Messiah; or whether it refers collectively to the whole people of Israel; or to the remnant of the people of Israel surviving the Babylonian exile, returning to their homeland. 

Jesus takes the message of the poems to heart personally in his understanding of prophetic ministry to which he believes the Father calls him. He realises that it can lead to a cruel fate with undeserved suffering, that must be endured patiently, as part of God's plan to redeem the world from sin. He doesn't broadcast this, but does share it with this disciples as he prepares to make his last journey to Jerusalem.

'He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day".' (Luke 9:22)

There is a certain lack of clarity about whether Jesus did regard himself as God's Messiah. He doesn't proclaim himself publicly to be Messiah as such, and if people acclaim him as Messiah in response to a healing, he tells them to keep quiet about it. When asked under interrogation about allegations of messiahship, his response is ambiguous. 

Jesus prefers to speak of himself as Son of (the) Man, a phrase with overtones of 'everyman' about it. It can, however, also refer to a heavenly archetype of the human being, sometimes this is equated with the concept of Messiah, though not exclusively. There are occasions, such as the story of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:25-26), when he speaks of himself as Messiah, on a one to one basis, and to someone whose status would lead to her evidence being considered unreliable. 

Jesus' self understanding is in many ways presented in the Gospels as a tantalising mystery. This is deliberate. The evangelists aims to let the hearer or reader decide who Jesus is on the evidence provided.  As John states in the final verse of his Gospel

'Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (=Messiah), the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.' (John 21:31)

Isaiah 42:1-7, today's, reading speaks of the character, qualities and divine vocation of this servant, called to reveal true justice - quietly, steadfastly, courageously, gently. By this most gentle means, without violence, will sight, healing, freedom from captivity will bring light to the nations of the world. 

The Gospel passage from John 12 again recounts the anointing of Jesus by Mary, sister of Lazarus whom he raised to life from the grave. Her act of loving gratitude is interpreted by Jesus as an unknowingly prescient anticipation of his coming death and burial. The traitor Judas is portrayed as expressing resentment at the waste of a valued resource. His personal dishonesty is denounced by the evangelist. All part of setting the scene for Jesus' betrayal.

Resentment harboured by friends and enemies alike contributes to fate of Jesus. It is a stark reminder of the need to search our hearts and deal with our own resentments before during and after we pray. 

'See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.' (Hebrews 12:15)

'Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.' (Eph 4:31)

It is so important in prayer, even when we feel defenceless, to let go and leave God to deal with those we feel have wronged us, and cannot yet feel good about

'You O God, who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.... My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.' 
(Psalm 71:20-21, 23-24)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Active Remembering

After Jesus has been warned of the threat Herod poses on his life and dismisses it, he states

"I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem." (Luke 13:33)

Holy Week is the final stage of Lent, what the journey so far has been preparing for. From today's commemoration of Jesus' public entry into Jerusalem to cheering crowds, onwards day by day, the events are recalled that lead up to his betrayal, condemnation, execution and burial, then the discovery of his empty tomb, and his first resurrection appearances. 

The timing of this week each year is linked to the Jewish festival of passover, the occasion when the passion of Jesus occurred. The tradition of active remembrance, imagining and dramatising the story as each day passes, is derived from the way Jews keep the Passover; re-living the story, as if it was happening now and they were participants. 

The whole week, taken like this forms an initiation into an immersive kind of prayer. With good reason, this is central to the process of bringing candidates to baptism. One of the first acts in celebrating Christ's resurrection is the  the baptism of adult candidates and collective renewal of baptismal vows by all the faithful.

During Holy Week services and outside of them in personal prayer, participants seek to imagine unfolding events, and can do so as an observer, surveying and trying to understand the entire scenario, or by taking the point of view of someone taking part in the events. The tradition of Passiontide pageants, tableaux and plays is a way of making concrete this imaginative process.

When he arrives with his disciples, Jesus rides a donkey into the city. To those with a sense of history, this reminds them of a royal entry into the city in a previous millennium, when Solomon receives the throne from his aged father David.

'And the king (David) said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel.' (1 Kings 1:33-34)

It also resonates with a prophetic oracle from the period of the return from exile in Babylon and the re-building of the Temple five hundred years earlier. It looks forward to the Messiah's arrival in Jerusalem. The evangelist cites this as an interpretation of the event.

'Behold, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.' (Zech 9:9)

Jesus is already known in Jerusalem and has a popular reputation, so he is acclaimed as one who belongs to the city, David's city, and its people, though not actually hailed as Messiah, even if many may wonder if this is so.

'Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!' (Matthew 21:9)

He is identified as the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, and when he visits the Temple he acts as a prophet might be expected to, expelling money changers, declaring they do not belong in holy precincts, and challenging religious leaders who are outraged by his action and demanding an explanation.

In hearing the story, with whom do we identify among its many participants? Can we see it all from several different people's perspectives?

In order to exercise compassion and act lovingly in any situation, our prayer needs to allow us to put ourselves in the position of others in seeking God's guidance. The rehearsal of the Passion of Jesus, annually and in regular reading can teach us to exercise imagination and find compassion in our prayer for others in our locality and in the wider world.

'Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.' (Phil 4:6)