Discipleship in Difficult Days 13: Ascensiontide – the days of dialectic

This week we offer another of Sam Wells evocative prayers, a poem written for and used on Ascension Day this year, a fascinating quote about the Ascension that I recently discovered, and two meditations from me – one focusing particularly on ‘Ascension’ and the period between Ascension and Pentecost and one linked specifically to the Gospel reading for the Sunday after Ascension. Next week’s blog will feature a short article by Canon Robin Gill, one of the two Canon Theologians in the diocese, exploring ethical issues relevant to these ‘difficult days’.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

ascension day at Mont voirons

Monts Voirons, Haut-Savoie, France, where in previous years Holy Trinity Geneva have celebrated the Feast of the Ascension

A Prayer on Easing of Lockdown

O God, the light of the minds that know you,
life of the souls that love you,
and strength of the hearts that serve you:
meet us when our minds seem stuck in confusion, our souls stand lost in despair and our hearts are plunged in desolation.
Give our hands good work to do,
that in serving the needs of others
we may rediscover ourselves while finding you  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Canon Sam Wells, Vicar, St Martin in the Fields, London)

 *****

Ascension in virus times
What can the Ascension mean
In these our virus times?
It can become our sursum corda,
to lift up our hearts to the heavenly realm
to see Christ enthroned above,
beyond the transient, ephemeral world
of plagues and torments,
famine and wars.
But if, for a moment,
we can ascend in heart and mind with Christ
in his glorious home-coming
still we are timebound,
clothed in the garments of mortality.
Like disciples at the glory on the mount,
we have to make our way back down again,
face old problems,
confront new reality.
And so I call Ascension a sure promise,
a glimpse of the beyond,
that where Christ is, we will be too,
raised up in our transfigured humanity,
partakers in his life of love;
for now Lord, we are here
just where we are with all its dangers
mindful of many others in their sadness,
thankful for your words
‘I will be with you always,
even to the end.’
(Canon Alan Amos)

 *****

I happened upon this comment via one of the blogs that I myself regularly read, and think it offers an important insight into the meaning of Christ’s ascension.

The Ascension: Christ’s continuing incarnation
‘The ascension is so central [to Christianity] because it assures us that the Incarnation continues. Christ didn’t just come among us for thirty-three years, slumming, as it were, and then when his work was done, say, “Phew! I’m glad that’s over! I’m going to unzip this skin suit and get back to heavenly living,” leaving us here on our own. He went into heaven with a pledge of all that we are going to become. Tertullian, I think, was the first one to put it that way. The Spirit, in scripture, is the pledge of Christ’s presence in us, but Christ’s continuing body is the pledge of what we’re going to have in heaven. So the ascension tells us that Christ has not let go of our humanity. He truly wants to take human beings where we’ve never gone before: into the very life of the triune God.’
(Gerrit Scott Dawson)

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Ascensiontide: the days of waiting
I expect it is heretical on my part (but that is part of the joy of being a lay theologian – one has more freedom to be heretical than do the clergy!) but I have always preferred the understanding of the Ascension that is offered in the Gospel of John to that which appears in the writings of Luke, especially in Acts. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say – how the Ascension has been interpreted in Christian history based on the writings of Luke. Often the celebration of the Ascension has been linked to a certain rather crass kind of triumphalism – with ‘crowns’ featuring largely in the music, and with the celebration of Christ’s kingship being enacted in such a way that risks forgetting that the New Testament itself (1 Corinthians 15.24) makes it clear that Christ ultimately hands over the kingship to his father.

 The Ascension in the Gospel of John feels rather different. The reference to it comes during the meeting between Jesus and Mary in the garden and Jesus’ words, ‘Do not keep holding on to me, for I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God’ (John 20.17). It speaks to me of the tension of presence and absence which for me is an essential aspect of biblical and Christian faith, an encouragement to hope and a longing for the ultimate vision of God. Ascension is a celebration of absence, but an absence that calls us on to renewed vision, to the ministry of the kingdom, to Jerusalem and eventually to the ends of the earth.

In my years spent reflecting on the Bible one of the themes that has always spoken powerfully to me is that of a God who is both present and absent, ‘an elusive presence’ as Samuel Terrien put it, a God who sometimes saves his people by hiding himself. It is a theme that runs through the Old Testament but which is also true for the New. Sight and quest for vision, holding on and letting go, Jesus leaving the disciples to ascend into heaven, yet as the end of the Gospel of Matthew makes clear (Matthew 28.16-20), Jesus promising to be with his disciples till the end of the age. These are the elements that make up the dialectic of our faith. St Augustine of Hippo summed it up splendidly: ‘If there is no joy there is defect in us: if we feel wholly safe, we exult wrongly’.

One feature of these current ‘difficult days’ of the virus is that in so many ways, and not just physical, we have learned that we cannot feel ‘wholly safe’. However we are still called to be people of ‘joy’. Such a dialectic is also part of the ‘learning’ of the days between Ascension and Pentecost, the days that we are currently living in the course of the Church’s year. Jesus has left us to return to his father. But things are not as they were, for we are in the time of yearning and longing for the Holy Spirit which we have assured will shortly be shared among Jesus’ followers. Things are indeed not as they were. In the midst of absence there is the promise of presence. This year that promise can perhaps speak to us in new and unexpected ways.

The unity of love
‘Love changes us, but we remain who we are. This is one of the great mysteries of being alive.’ I am grateful to Canon William Gulliford, my colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team for this comment which appeared in his sermon for last Sunday. It has set me reflecting all week. It has linked in my mind with the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday – even though actually the word ‘love’ does not appear in the portion of John 17 which is selected by the lectionary for tomorrow.

St Augustine of Hippo (who I have quoted already in this week’s blog!) memorably describes the Gospel of John as a place where children can paddle and elephants swim. That has certainly been true in my own experience. I have been engaging ‘academically’ with this Gospel for 50 years now, but I still find myself discovering new treasures contained within it.

wcc tapestry

One of the glories of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva where I had the privilege of working for seven years, is the tapestry in the Visser t’Hooft hall, which along with the chapel is the centrepiece of the building. It depicts a range of church buildings of all shapes and sizes, reflecting the diversity of world Christianity, surrounding a depiction of the Ascended Christ. Underneath the figure of Christ are words in Greek taken from John 17, which can be translated into English as ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17.21, also see verse 11). The words are the underpinning of the ecumenical movement. As John 17 makes clear, this potential unity of Jesus’ disciples is fundamentally grounded in the existing unity of the Father and the Son.

One ‘theme’ that I have enjoyed exploring more deeply in the last year or so, has been the links between the Gospel of John and the story, told in Genesis 22, of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. It has long been realised that many early Christians saw in the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac a sort of prototype for the actual sacrifice of Jesus, the Son, on the Cross. It is fairly widely recognised that this motif is present in the Gospel of John. But there is, I believe, quite a profound link between this ‘theme’ and John’s exploration of the nature of love.

The first time that the word ‘love’ appears in the Old Testament is in Genesis 22, at the point where Abraham is apparently being asked to offer his son, ‘Take your son, your only Son, whom you love, even Isaac…’ (Genesis 22.2). So it is interesting, and not, I think, coincidental, that the first time the word ‘love’ appears in the Gospel of John is precisely at one of the points where the description of Jesus as the ‘only son’ makes a link to the story of Abraham and Isaac very likely, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ (John 3.16).

Now there is much else that could be explored in relation to John’s use of the ‘sacrifice of Isaac’ motif. But for my immediate purposes what is fascinating is that one of the powerful motifs present in the story of Genesis 22 is an emphasis on the unity of Abraham and Isaac (see for example Genesis 22.6, 8 which speak of the father and the son walking ‘together’). This is somehow reinforced by the fact that in Hebrew (and other semitic languages) the words translated ‘together’ and ‘only’ (son) are very similar.

Does the deep emphasis in John 17 on the unity of the divine Father and only Son somehow draw on the ‘unity’ of the father and the son in the story of Genesis 22? I suspect that may be the case. And if so what does that imply – not least for Jesus’ disciples who are also to be caught up in this unity? First, I do think that it helps to underscore the fact unity and love are profoundly interconnected. Although the word ‘love’ does not actually appear in this precise part of John 17 it is notable how the chapter (and indeed the entire Farewell Discourses) culminates with a reflection on unity as a marker of love (see especially verse 23). But beyond that – if we connect the theme of unity in John 17 with Genesis 22 it offers a hint of the profoundly sacrificial nature of both unity and love… which is I think very true to this Gospel’s understanding. The unity of the Father and the Son, and the unity of Jesus’ disciples in his name demand sacrifice, and a willingness to be changed on the part of the participants. They are not possible without it. This is something that the ecumenical movement continually has to learn and re-learn.

But the question of the relationship between unity, love and sacrifice cannot be far away from any of us in these difficult days, in which our theology is having to be re-explored to help us to meet the challenges with which we are all presently being confronted.

 

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 12: A worshipping community?

Two of the talented ordinands in our diocese, Jeremy Heuslein in Belgium and Julia Bell in the Netherlands are responsible for the bulk of the content in this edition of the blog. In their different ways they both address the relationship between worship and community in these difficult days. We begin with a delicious prayer by Martin Wroe – which many of us need to pray only TOO often at the moment. There is also another prayer written for interreligious contexts, a few ‘seditious’ thoughts from me, and the link to a delightful and life-enhancing short video. Clare Amos

flower in shroton garden

 

A Blessing for a Meeting on Zoom

In the place where eye contact is impossible
The silent lexicon of non-verbal cues extinct
May this not be the crowd without the wisdom
Despite our isolation, our social distance.

May we give thanks for this awkward digital blessing
May we be admitted, may we not be muted
May our distorted sound and scrambled words
Finally align, may they catch up with our pixelated vision.

May travelling this unfamiliar landscape
Neither lose us, nor completely exhaust us
And may our bandwidth always find room
For patience, gentleness and the peace
that bypasses misunderstanding.

May every meeting open and close with a poem,
A joke or a steadying moment of silence
Some brief transfiguration in time, to remind us
Of who we were, before all this
And who we may be again

May our agenda always be kindness,
The waving hand, our ecstatic benediction
And may there never be any other business,
For ever and ever. Amen
(Revd Martin Wroe, reproduced with permission)

*****

Worship in the Time of COVID19

A reflection by Dr Jeremy Heuslein, Brussels, exploring some of the implications of our current digital worship:

The world has changed. From one single place, from a single person, something spread, and in its wake governments have brought forth new and unparalleled measures, economies have been turned upside down, and people live radically differently.

COVID19 or Christianity, the Easter faith?

There is probably room for an undergraduate thesis tracing the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire and modelling it alongside the spread of a pandemic. In Acts 17, the Thessalonians proclaim, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!’ in an attempt to get the church leaders arrested. From that time to today, Christians have met and worshipped together all across the world. There isn’t a country or continent where the Body of Christ doesn’t have a presence, even if hidden. In the nearly 2000 years after the uproar in Thessalonica, there have also been times that the Church has had to worship during pandemics and plague. In some ways for the Church, this is nothing new.

But what is new to many gatherings and communities of the universal church is the opportunity to take their common worship online. Being forced into a digital ministry and gathering has been an illuminating experience. There is a narrowing and a focusing that necessarily occurs. In what follows, I would like to highlight two of the essential structures of a church service that have raised in importance in my own mind and experience, both in leading gatherings as well as participating in them, in this time.

  • Liturgy is performative. Liturgy is not some fancy, high-languaged text written in books that carry the smell of mildew and the hundreds of human hands that have touched them. Liturgy is the work of the people; it is the recognisable pattern of gathering and worship that communities form. In this way, one could claim that every church, every congregation is liturgical, whether formally or informally. And this liturgy is performative. Having shifted to an online and digital gathering, one in which participants watch a screen — the same screen that they use to watch Netflix or work or attend virtual school — the performative aspect of the liturgy goes to the front. Does it engage people? This is not about and should not be about entertainment. That is performance. Being performative means that people become engaged and integrate the service into their own lives and narratives. Indeed, the best television programmes are performative as well. What does the liturgy perform? Our gathering as Christians is to tell the stories about God, to highlight the narrative of God that weaves through the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus, in the lives of the saints, in the work of the Church, and in the coming of the Kingdom. If these stories are performatively given in the liturgy, they enter into the lives of those gathered. They form habits of grace, thoughts of joy, and works of hope. The church service, digital or otherwise, is to invite the people of God into the stories of God in ways that transform them and send them out to transform the world.
  • The Church is fundamentally, foundationally, and eternally a community. The gatherings of churches in services are meant to build up that community, to allow the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to be present among those gathered. The radical nature of this community is that none are excluded. In antiquity, there were no divisions too great for someone to be excluded from the community: Gentile or Jewish, slave or free, men or women. And as Paul reminds and urges the Ephesians, so are we who meet in Christ’s name reminded urged to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The hard work of being community, though, happens when people ‘rub shoulders,’ that is, interact. Usually, this is before or after a service, and sometimes during. As we meet digitally, there are ways to offer this and encourage this among the people of God. Without this element of Christians living together and living out their faith, we risk losing our understanding of being a part of the Body of Christ. This risk is especially evident in those communities who have regularly shared in Communion and cannot any longer, but because this risk is evident there is increased motivation to mitigate it as we wait in hope and see toward the day when we all can meet again and break bread together.

The Body of Christ will continue to worship and praise God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Healer, and our coming King. Whether physically apart or huddled together, our prayers and praises will join together. As we tell and retell and convey the stories of God, weaving them into ours and seeing our story as a part of the story of God, and as we weave our stories together with each other, we will continue to be the Body of Christ, sent by Jesus into the world to show love, to give hope, and to express joy. This was true in Thessalonica and Ephesus and Jerusalem, and it remains true in every city, in every place today.

*****

Jeremy’s comments encourage me to give a mention to a short reflection by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, which was offered on 31 March, shortly after the ‘virus’ had begun to affect so drastically the worshipping life of our churches. https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-michael-currys-word-church-our-theology-worship

It is a sensitive meditation on the meaning of sacraments, especially in the Anglican tradition. It is well worth reading in full. But I was particularly struck by his final two paragraphs, which I quote:

‘Richard Hooker described the corporate prayer of Christians as having a spiritual significance far greater than the sum of the individual prayers of the individual members of the body. Through corporate prayer, he said, Christians participate in communion with Christ himself, “joined … to that visible, mystical body which is his Church.” Hooker did not have in mind just the Eucharist, which might have taken place only quarterly or, at best, monthly in his day. He had very much in mind the assembly of faithful Christians gathered for the Daily Office.

While not exclusively the case, online worship may be better suited to ways of praying represented by the forms of the Daily Office than by the physical and material dimensions required by the Eucharist. And under our present circumstances, in making greater use of the Office there may be an opportunity to recover aspects of our tradition that point to the sacramentality of the scriptures, the efficacy of prayer itself, the holiness of the household as the “domestic church,” and the reassurance that the baptized are already and forever marked as Christ’s own. We are living limbs and members of the Body of Christ, wherever and however we gather. The questions being posed to Bishops around these matters are invitations to a deeper engagement with what we mean by the word “sacrament” and how much we are prepared for the Church itself — with or without our accustomed celebrations of the Eucharist — to signify about the presence of God with us.’

Here’s my ‘seditious’ bit (with the usual caveat that it is my personal view, which cannot be ascribed in any way to the Diocese in Europe!). I think that Bishop Curry hints here at something important about ‘our tradition’ (the Anglican tradition). Take a close look at those marks that he suggests are characteristic of it. Yet over the course of my own adult life public worship in the Church of England has increasingly shifted from focusing on the ‘Office’ (Matins and Evensong) to focusing on Holy Communion/Eucharist. There are now churches, including some I know well, in which there may be several celebrations of the Eucharist on a Sunday, but there is no regular public act of worship based on either Matins or Evensong. And there are many Anglican lay people for whom the only act of prayer they participate in, whether publicly or privately, is a Communion service. And I think that in such circumstances, whether as individuals or church communities we have lost something that is an important charism of the Anglican tradition. It is not that I don’t think that Communion/Eucharist is the rightful ‘centre’ of Christian worship. I most certainly do. Rather if anything (though I am sure that it is not what is intended) I feel that the importance of Communion can be devalued when it becomes the only regular expression of corporate Anglican worship. It is the goal and culmination of our worship, but it cannot be that if it is our only expression of it. For me, part of the grace of Anglicanism is its paradoxical, elusive quality – that celebrates both the presence and the absence of God (most characteristically in our traditional Anglican use of the psalms) – and an almost total replacement of the Offices by Communion/Eucharist as the only regular expression of public worship feels as though it somehow ‘domesticates’ God in a way that can feel rather cosy. Certainly the challenges of the present time offer an opportune moment to reflect on such issues, so I am grateful to Bishop Curry for raising the question. I would welcome any responses from readers – it would be good to get a gracious conversation going on this topic. Clare Amos

*****

angela fall leading service

Digital Sunday worship led by Reader Angela Fall in Lausanne 10 May

 

A poignant and powerful reflection and prayer/poem

Julia Bell

Sometimes I can almost forget the times we are in. I often worked from home before lockdown and so I had a computer and desk set up already. Although I travel as part of my role, we always had the option of switching to online meetings if that travel wasn’t justified. So sometimes you can forget that the online meeting is now enforced. In my other life as an ordinand, my study is mostly online and part-time alongside my ‘day job’. So, there too I can log in as normal and continue the same routine. However, this last weekend was different. We were supposed to be on a residential training weekend with fellow ordinands and readers in training. We still had our classes. We still did the preparation. We still had the discussions and catch up times. We had our online worship on Saturday evening and we even had a bar session planned.

But then came the moment when we all felt the times we are in. At the end of worship, we were invited to listen to the final piece of music and then leave. We didn’t. All the little boxes on Zoom stayed. We remained sitting in our bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms but we didn’t leave. We sat and stared at all the faces looking back at us on our screens in quiet. And we cried.

Those pictures on a screen are more than pixels. They represent people that we love and cherish, that are part of the body of Christ and made in the image of God.

And it was the beautiful and uplifting worship offered to God that also brought us all closer to each other even as we worshipped physically further apart than ever before.

Faces in Worship

 Small boxes on a screen
Dozens of squares
In neat ordered rows
Eyes closed in prayer
Mouths open in muted song
Not real faces
Real people

God is here
We are his body
We are one body
Far away
Pictures on a screen
Image of God
Each face bearing the mark of its maker

We come together
In virtual space
Community separated
But together
Connected by www
Connected by the Spirit
Connected in love

*****

Encouraged by his previous interreligious work, especially in the Middle East, Pope Francis invited people to keep 14 May as a day for people of all faiths to pray together in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The Vatican produced a great short video to encourage this process viewable at https://youtu.be/Z8JhiYqzjgU, and I was grateful to friends in Geneva who suggested that I wrote a prayer to be used on that or other subsequent interreligious times of prayer:

God of life, Creator of all
Your reach stretches beyond the farthest stars that we can see,
Yet you are nearer to us than our own soul.
In this time of crisis may your love draw human beings together,
Bridging the distance of place, of nationality, of ideology and religion.
Unite us as one in prayer to face together this enemy, the virus.
Free us from fear,
Grant us courage and compassion,
Make us generous in acts of charity,
And bring to effect our longing for the healing of this world. Amen.

*****

There have now been some wonderful performances of great music by virtual choirs. This video isn’t a great performance – the Hallelujah Chorus was clearly prerecorded! But it shows families in lock-down having fun and enjoying themselves. Hallelujah!   That is the message it clearly conveys https://vimeo.com/411011801?ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR05kOXU1_SPqAvfLvr71bh1E_8LmbuZtGSI7MeQ696QGnHYrqwd-19A–w

 

 

 

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 11: Love is his meaning

 Dr Gabriel Byng is spending the year as a Ministry Experience Scheme intern working with the Anglican chaplaincy in Vienna. A historian who has specialised in the late medieval period, he preached the following homily at a Communion service celebrated on 7 May 2020, held under the auspices of Holy Trinity Church, Geneva. The president of the Eucharist was physically in Dorset, the preacher in Vienna, the majority of the congregation were located in Geneva and ‘France voisine’, although there were also guests present in Rome and Marseilles. We were connected by ‘Zoom’. Can Julian’s wisdom speak into our contemporary situation?

julian quilt 1The illustration above is a panel commemorating Julian of Norwich which forms part of ‘The Durham Quilt’.  This Quilt was created by the women of North-East England and presented in a service held in Durham Cathedral 25 January 1992. The panels of the Quilt  celebrate European Christian Women who over the centuries, past and present, have expressed our Christian faith in and to the world. A picture which shows the entire Quilt can be found below Gabriel’s homily. 

On the 8th May the Church of England commemorates the life of the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich. For many Christians, and I suspect for some of you, she is still an important, and much-loved, writer.

It seems pertinent that we read and think about Julian during a time of trial. Her Revelations, a series of 16 visions, came when she believed herself to be about to die, in the midst of terrible sickness and pain, when the curate had already come to give her the Last Rites and her body was half-paralysed and blinded.

Of course, she did not die. But this was not a straightforward recovery, back to the way things were. She was forever changed. The visions she would have that day would come to guide the rest of her life, spent walled into a tiny room by the church of St Julian in Norwich, after which she is named, praying and reflecting on the revelations she had received.

Those visions would sustain the rest of Julian’s life: they did not merely fill up those many solitary hours, they would demand them, and then they would overflow them. A lifetime of meditation and reflection was her courageous and necessary response, as was her decision to break with the conventions of medieval female behaviour and to record them to paper. Hers is the earliest female writing in English that we know of.

*****

It would be glib, I think, to draw any parallel between her confinement, so long, so severe and so entirely voluntary, and our own – but at all times, in and out of lockdown, what I find so extraordinarily hopeful about Julian is that of all people, locked away, isolated, hidden, trapped, alone, she would produce a theology so over-brimming with love and comfort.

When I was still a teenager and just beginning my life as a convinced and practicing Christian, I went on a chapel trip to peer through the tiny window into Julian’s cell (or, in truth, a much later reconstruction of it). And while I looked, I tried to imagine a whole life spent in this narrow space, the way it would turn the mind back upon itself and its memories, the way it could force those brave and brilliant enough to be consumed in a different kind of spaciousness.

It was as if only an anchorage, a tiny, lonely cell, was small enough to contain the vastness of God’s love as it had been revealed to Julian.

Indeed, one of her most famous, and surely most beautiful, observations describes exactly the kind of enormity that can exist, can only exist perhaps, in the smallest, most fragile of objects, the way God can make us feel at once so slight and so protected.

It was rendered especially beautifully into poetry by William Blake. But I’m going to read Julian, and to read this most famous of passages with a little more of its context than we usually hear:

He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered […] thus: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it.

*****

I do not want to suggest that the transformative potential of sickness or confinement will, or even could, be the same for us as it was for Julian – tempting as it is. For many people around the world, this is a time of terrible struggle, in which economic, physical and mental survival is far from certain. There will be positive transformations – but many negative ones too.

Rather, our blessing is that, even if we are not called to be like Julian, we can still be comforted by her and her teachings. Even if we do not find solace in our isolation or transformation in our anxieties, we can be consoled that she did.

Julian entered further into the darkness than most of us will have to – and there, in the most unlikely of places, she found love, enough love to sustain a lifetime. Love is there, she tells us, even if not all of us find it. Few us will be blessed with her spiritual fortitude, her tenacious joy, her simple poetry – but all of us can find assurance in what she told us about the most threatening, desperate moments of human experience.

And so I will risk cliché by ending with the most moving, astonishing, reassuring words that Julian wrote, after fifteen years living in her anchorage, words that, to my mind at least, 600 years after they were written, light up the Christian message with all its energy and beauty:

Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. [Why] shewed it He? For Love. […] Thus was I [taught] that Love was our Lord’s meaning.

Thanks be to God.

The square depicting Julian is in the third row, on the left hand side.

durham quilt 1

 

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 10 : A gate for the locked-in

I am grateful to those who have contributed and given permission for their work to be included in this edition of the blog. There is a beautiful Eastertide prayer for our difficult days written by the brothers and sisters of the ecumenical monastic community of Bose; a wonderful series of Haiku poems written by Jean Mayer, of La Cote, Switzerland, and drawn to my attention by Peta Tracey; further contributions of prayer poems by both Paul Wignall and Alan Amos, and a personal reflection on what it means to be church in the time of lock-down by Sarah-Jane King, an ordinand of our diocese. The blog concludes with a brief comment on the lectionary reading for this Sunday. Please do continue to offer your creative contributions. Such creativity is an example of the abundant life (John 10.10) of which Sunday’s Gospel speaks, and feels like a defiance of the virus!

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

lachapelle des bergers a novel

A painting by our friend Marie-France of La Chapelle des Bergers (the shepherds’ chapel) in the village of Novel, Haute-Savoie

God our Father,
with the resurrection of Jesus your Son,
you destined creation for transfiguration
in new heavens and new earth,
look upon mankind suffering
in the hour of the pandemic,
and pour forth your Spirit
of compassion and mercy,
so that all may find hope and work together
in charity and solidarity,
awaiting to be together in You in eternal life.
(The brothers and sisters of Bose, Italy)

*****

Haiku

 Jean Mayer who wrote these poems, and her husband, have a long cherished link with Japan. In giving me permission to include the poems Jean suggested that it might be helpful to include her brief note of introduction:

‘Haiku is probably the most well-known form of traditional Japanese poetry.  Its short structure and concise nature has inspired countless people to put pen to paper.  There are three basic requirements for traditional haiku:  the 5-7-5 form, the meeting of two images and a reference to a particular season or nature.  The most commonly known aspect of a haiku is its form:  there are just 17 syllables divided into three lines of five, seven and then five syllables again.  In modern haiku the other two requirements are not necessarily taken into account.  The art of haiku is to paint a picture, conveying much while saying very little!’  I would just note that the Japanese language does not use definite or indefinite articles so that is probably why these are often left out when writing haiku in English.’

Lone birds own Spring sky
Grounded planes silently wait
Deadly virus lurks

Bright daffodils dance
Unseen by a locked-in world
When will we dance anew?

Easter hymns confined
Proud world crouches crucified
Rise up and sing again!

Grandpa whisked away
Intensive care cannot save
At home Grandma weeps

Sad city children
Dream of see-saws, slides and swings
Bored with indoor things

Draped in masks and gowns
Ten thousands lovingly strive
Not all will survive

Jesus crucified
Pure white lily for our sins
Arms outstretched to save

*****

 

I am grateful to my colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team, Canon Paul Wignall, for another in the series of his powerful prayer poems:

Today I will pray…

Today I will pray for those who are alone:
locked in despair, depression, doubt.
I will pray for those who are isolated,
through illness, work or circumstance.
I will pray for those who do their best to stay in touch,
through phone calls, messages and emails,
and I will pray for a new world
where no one will feel isolated or alone
because we all look out for one another,
with care, respect and love for Jesus’ sake. Amen
(Paul Wignall, Gran Canaria)

 *****

And a reflection from someone who has to ‘survive’ lockdown with me:

Lockdown

In the middle of our lockdown
you are the great Transgressor
O Christ.
First you disobey
the guards on your tomb;
next you startle your followers
by refusing to recognise
that a wall is a wall,
and now you continue to transgress
by refusing to observe
the limits of our sceptical minds;
just when we least expect it
you break through
with an Easter Alleluia!
(Alan Amos)

*****

What does it mean to be the Church in times of lockdown?

The ordinands of our diocese are in a particular way needing to reflect on the current issues which will undoubtedly affect and shape their future ministries. I am grateful for this contribution from Sarah-Jane King, ordinand based in St Paul’s Tervuren and studying at St Mellitus’ College, London:

We find ourselves unable to meet together. Churches are offering online services and pastoral care by phone. What does it mean to be the Church, the Body of Christ, at this time? Some have drawn parallels with times of wilderness, or exile. For many of us there is uncertainty, stress, or grief. And part of the mystery of the Passion is that Jesus is with us in our sorrows; holds us in his nail-scarred hands; weeps with us; comforts us; helps us to comfort others.

Yet we are also people of the resurrection, and this is Eastertide. The celebration of the greatest day in history, as God says a resounding “Yes” to his decision to be this particular God, the God who dies for the ungodly and is raised from death to life, raising us with him in the life of the Spirit in which he and his Father share.

We have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1.13-14). This is Christian hope, the hope that we are called to live and share at all times, but especially now.

Our calling is to point to Christ and make him known. But what does this look like, without the usual means and places of gathering we are used to? How can we know God, grow in Christ, build community and live beyond ourselves?

Acts 2.42-47 tells us about the fellowship of the early church. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They were filled with awe at signs and wonders. They shared what they had and gave to anyone in need. They met, broke bread in their homes, and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Like the first Christians, our churches can also be faithful witnesses to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. We can do this through our worship, our teaching, and our online presences that explain who we are, and what (or rather who) we are about. We continue to meet, online. We try to help those who need support or encouragement to join in too.

We need to worship and meet together online, because expressing our relationship with God and one another is part of being authentically, fully human. We miss and long for Holy Communion, but we too can pray to be filled with awe at signs and wonders. Locked doors are no barrier to the risen Jesus, as the first disciples discovered to their joy.

We can also eat our food with glad and sincere hearts, praise God, and enjoy goodwill. We can share what we have – money, service, gifts, talents, time – while resisting the temptation to be busy for the sake of it. Let us give to those in need, and take up the call for justice for the poor and most vulnerable. Coronavirus has exposed and threatens to entrench all kinds of inequalities; let us be the prophetic agents of transformation that God’s people have always been called to be.

And, just as in the early days of the Church, the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved. Because witness is attractive, just as it was then, when it speaks of the transformation of lives by the life we have in Christ – life in all its fullness, as we read in John’s Gospel.

Evidence, even anecdotal at this stage, is that more people are tuning in to online services, Alpha, Marriage Courses – including people who wouldn’t normally go into a church or follow a course. God is drawing hearts at this time, and we can join in, speaking life and hope into a hurting and confused world.

How can we be Church in times of lockdown? Three things stand out:
First, seek the Lord, call upon him. Pray to the Father, as Jesus did.
Secondly, witness to the resurrection. Worship in Spirit and truth.
Thirdly, reflect on what the early church did. Keep meeting online, keep sharing. And keep listening. As the Gospel tells us, the Good Shepherd has called us by name, we are his sheep, and we know his voice. What is he inviting us to be and do for him at this time, that we may continue to grow into the people he has called us to be?

May the risen Lord Jesus bless us with all confidence in him. May we know his presence with us, and those we love, very clearly in these days. (Sarah-Jane King)

*****

Ameixial_-_sheep_fold_(13532252844)

(Photograph by Muffinn, Worcester, UK, http://mwfphotos.blogspot.co.uk/)

 

The Sunday Gospel: Abundant living?

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (John 10.10) It is an interesting reading to be directed to in these difficult days when life, for most of us, seems to have narrowed down, become constricted, rather than ‘abundant’. And when we are forced to recognise that present realities are likely to mean that people and institutions whom we hold dear will have to live with diminished resources and possibilities over the coming years.

I have to confess to wanting to challenge the way that these words sometimes get used in certain Christian circles – circles in fact that I know quite well. It is a favourite, almost throw-away, line that regularly gets used by a number of Christian charities, to underpin their mission and work. I have a sense that it is chosen precisely because it doesn’t sound ‘too’ Christian, too off-putting, for the wider population that the charities concerned are wanting to encourage to support them. We can all subscribe to the desire for ‘abundant living’ for all, without asking too many difficult theological questions. It is a great line! The only problem is that I believe that individual lines and verses of scripture need not to be taken in isolation but to be interpreted in the context in which they appear – in this case the words about the sheepfold and the shepherd, who is prepared to die for the sheep. There is indeed a profound relationship between that sacrificial love and the gift of ‘abundance’. Throughout the entirety of scripture love and sacrifice belong together.

My second quibble about the sentence is that I am not quite satisfied with the translation that is offered in most English versions of the Bible. I think that the Greek word perisson which is normally translated as ‘abundant’ doesn’t mean simply ‘a lot’, but also contains the idea within it of ‘more than one might expect’. And I wish that we could somehow convey this sense of ‘surprise’ in our reading of this passage. As the Roman Catholic Jesuit priest Gerry Hughes famously said God is a God of ‘surprises’.

But I also want to draw attention to something that has come to me precisely because of the situation in which so many of us find ourselves. Lock-down creates the mental image of closed doors. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday after Easter spoke of how Jesus came to his disciples through locked doors (John 20.19; 26). This year that was widely noted by many preachers. Perhaps it was that focus two weeks ago on ‘doors’ that made me realise that we have the same Greek word thura appearing several times (10.1, 2, 7, 9) in this passage as well – only of course it is usually translated here as ‘gate’. It is however the identical word that is translated as ‘door’ in John 20. Does that mean that we should read each of these two passages in the light of the other? Perhaps. What is the relationship between the resurrected one who comes through locked doors to greet his friends, and the one who in this passage has made himself to be the ‘door’ or ‘gate’ of the sheepfold, lying across the open entrance (see picture above) as protector and saviour?

*****

Revd Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the Fields is one of the most creative and stimulating theologians of our day. His Chalmers Lectures, given last autumn in Edinburgh, and now published in a book, A Future that’s Bigger than the Past explore the idea of ‘abundant life.’ A recent review of the book comments, ‘Wells … defines discipleship as our inhabiting that abundant life. Ministry is building up the Church to embody that abundant life, and mission names the ways abundant life is practised, shared and discovered in the world at large. Sin is impeding that wonderful life…’ (review by Jeremy Harvey in current issue of Transforming Ministry). You can hear Wells delivering the Chalmers Lectures at https://stream1.churchofscotland.org.uk/chalmers-lecture It is quite a marathon to listen to them all – but certainly worth getting a flavour!

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 9: Our Journey to Emmaus

This edition of the blog focuses on the biblical story of the road to Emmaus. It is such a rich narrative that it felt appropriate to devote the blog to it, bearing in mind the current realities. Next week we will revert to collecting a wide variety of prayers, poems and reflections.

Clare Amos
Director of Lay Discipleship
Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading is the story of an unknown Jesus travelling with two of his disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus and making himself known in the breaking of bread.

It is a story that I have cherished for as long as I can remember. It leads us deep into the elusiveness which for me is one of the glories of our Christian faith. The tale of that mysterious figure who accompanies two grieving travellers can, and does, address Christ’s later disciples at so many levels, and certainly speaks to us in these difficult days. As Jesus Christ is for Christians a prism through which the mystery of God’s gracious encounter with humanity can be viewed with a particular intensity, so in turn the road to Emmaus becomes a prism through which to view the story of Christ himself.

The story is deeply sacramental. The risen Jesus is finally revealed to his friends when he blesses and breaks bread for them. The incarnation and the resurrection interpret each other. Yet I cherish the fact that no sooner have the disciples realised who he is that Jesus disappears from their sight. I may be slightly biased here (!) but I find this deeply congruous with what I believe to be an Anglican understanding of the sacramental tradition which sets alongside the reality of the transfiguration of material elements a deep acceptance of transience and anticipation.

emmaus imwas 1

The ruins of the Byzantine church of Emmaus/Imwas

That understanding is reinforced for me by my experience of living in the Holy Land for five years. By their very nature holy places are not on the whole good symbols of what is transitory, They reflect the church’s attempts over the centuries to create permanent places where we can hold on to God at our leisure, and not allow him to disappear inconveniently half way through a meal. So I appreciate the fact that in the Holy Land today there are four sites which claim the title of ‘Emmaus’ – but none of which can indisputably claim to be ‘the’ place! The very multiplicity of Emmauses (Qubeibeh, Abu Ghosh, Motza, Imwas) somehow helps to preserve them to stand as appropriate witnesses to the Risen Jesus who comes so elusively to those two grief stricken travellers. On one unforgettable Easter Monday years ago, I walked with a group of friends to all four Emmauses – a journey which the current realities in Israel and Palestine would now make impossible.

Perhaps appropriately ‘Emmaus’ has featured prominently in a piece of writing that I have been involved with over the past year. I was honoured to be invited by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to write their Lent course for 2020. I was asked to offer a course which focuses on the Bible (partly because the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is keeping 2020 as ‘the Year of the Word’). But other than that I was given free-rein as to what to offer. Sometimes such freedom can be difficult. I found myself ‘faffing’ around for several months trying to decide on my starting point! But then one day just over a year ago I was having a conversation with a young man to whom I was acting as a theological mentor on our diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme – which allows young people who are exploring the possibility of ordination to spend a year in one of the chaplaincies of our diocese. This particular person was working in the Anglican chaplaincy in Lyon. We were having a discussion about a study group that he was organising for the young people of the chaplaincy that took the story of the Road to Emmaus as a starting point. He had based the study group around significant sentences in that story of Jesus … their eyes were kept from recognising him… they stood there looking sad… we had hoped that he was to be the one to redeem Israel… were not our hearts burning within us… while he was opening the scriptures to us. And when he mentioned those last two… I knew that I had found my inspiration. I had been asked to write a Lent course that engaged with the Bible – what better way of engaging with scripture could there be than by asking everyone ‘what passage of scripture makes your heart burn within you’!  The title of the course comes from that musing of the Emmaus road disciples who had marvelled about how their hearts burned when Jesus ‘opened the scriptures’ to them. As I commented in the course material there is clearly intended to be a connection between Jesus opening the scriptures and the opening of their own eyes to see at last who their travelling companion really was.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Visiting the Crusader church of Abu Ghosh/Emmaus

So, from the starting point of inviting participants to reflect on what biblical passages makes THEIR heart burn within them, the course explored what I call the great biblical themes of God’s presence, God’s absence, ‘face to face’, joy, sorrow, weeping and laughter, love and sacrifice. Of course over the weeks of this Lent we, in western Europe, have found our lives increasingly being dominated by the virus, and groups such as Lent groups have had to meet virtually rather than physically. Fortunately the course material was available on line on the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website. And it has become apparent that such reflection on those profound biblical strands has been helpful to people at this particular time. So although the course was not designed with the current realities in mind, it may be a useful resource for people to explore, as Lent moves into Easter. It ends in fact with a short post-Easter reflection on the Road to Emmaus. The material will still be available for the foreseeable future on the CTBI website. https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Lent-2020-study-for-website.pdf.pagespeed.ce.0WLRTuDR8q.pdf   You might like to look particularly at the post-Easter reflection it contains on the encounter at Emmaus.

It is interesting that for most of us these days, worship is happening in our ‘dining rooms’ rather than church buildings. Was it not perhaps Cleopas’ own dining room where he recognised the risen Jesus? And for many of us the elusiveness of Emmaus resonates deeply with the ambiguities our own current sacramental experience, which seem in a profound way to be holding together both sorrow and joy. In God’s providence Emmaus may be the resurrection story for these difficult days.

  • ‘Their eyes were kept from recognising him’
  • ‘ They stood still, looking sad’
  • ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’
  • ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer?’
  • ‘He interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures’
  • ‘Stay with us’
  • ‘He took bread, blessed and broke it’
  • ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’

 

Diocesan Prayer linked to Rule of Life (which alludes to Emmaus)

Jesus our Way, Lord of the journey,
Surprising stranger of the Emmaus Road,
Guide to the spacious welcome of your Father’s home,
Companion both of our sorrows and our joys.
We thank you for these lands in which we are both guests and hosts.
Walk together with us,
Enabling us to be true signs of your presence.
Stretch our hearts and minds and spirits,
Open our eyes and set our hearts on fire with love for you,
To share with you in transfiguring this cherished world,
For your honour and glory. Amen

 

Reflection on the Rule of Life linked to the biblical story of Emmaus https://europe.anglican.org/downloads/ministry-and-vocations/a-diocesan-rule-of-life—journeying-to-emmaus—dr-clare-amos.pdf

Discipleship in Difficult Days 8 My Joy, Christ is Risen!

This week’s edition of the blog, is appearing on the Friday during Easter week. It includes two splendid prayers which have both prompted short reflective comments from me; the latest – and exquisite – poem of the priest-poet Malcolm Guite; and some thoughts on the lectionary Gospel for Sunday, written very much with the current context in mind. It begins with the explosive joy of the ‘virtual choir’ of Emmanuel Church, the ‘sister church’ of Holy Trinity Geneva (my own church in the Diocese) affirming their nature as resurrection people.

Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 *****

 And I will raise them up…

It was a joy to discover, on Easter Monday, this wonderful video put together by Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Geneva, one of the churches of the Episcopal Convocation in Europe. It is a presentation made by Emmanuel’s ‘virtual choir’ singing the well known song, ‘I am the Bread of Life’, with its rousing chorus ‘I will raise them up’. What I found especially powerful was the way in which during the last two verses of the song, we were taken into the homes of members of the congregation, who one after another made the simple gesture of ‘standing up’. In Greek and Hebrew the words we translate into English as ‘resurrect’ and ‘stand up’ come from the same verbal root. So this simple act of ‘standing up’ is a visual proclamation that we are Easter people, and an act of defiance of the death-dealing powers of the virus.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99FEyfdLikM&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR34GcgrHwrcBz5w5sEveJkD5gco4J-cZmlSP98Waj89kRKZz-g7oayH2Ic

 ***** 

‘Our lines have fallen in pleasant places’ (Psalm 16.6)

During her solitary walks while in self isolation, Deacon Frances Hiller, chaplain to Bishop David Hamid, has been taking some especially lovely photographs of the nature that she is able to see in London. This picture, taken two days ago, called to mind for me those wonderful words in Psalm 16, the psalm set for this coming Sunday. 

 

frances walk photo wed of easter week

*****

I am grateful to our diocesan secretary, Andrew Caspari for regularly pointing me in the direction of the powerful prayers being written at the present time by Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London – Andrew’s own church.

A Prayer for Easter

Prayer for when we’re supposed to be happy

God of today and forever, at Easter you show us love is stronger than death
Inscribe in our lives glimpses of resurrection;
bring to the weary heart strains of zestful rejuvenation;
breathe into dry bones the limbering pulse of new beginning.
Teach us the discipline of joy,
that even when all around us seems dishevelled and discouraged,
your Spirit may lift our hearts as yeast enlivens dough.
In sure and certain hope that, whatever happens, you will be with us always;
through Christ your son our risen Lord.
Amen
(Revd Dr Sam Wells)

A thought on this prayer from me (Clare Amos): In the wealth of starting-points for reflection that this prayer offers, one phrase particularly stands out to me, ‘Teach us the discipline of joy’. It is a powerful, almost paradoxical, instruction. Somehow we don’t often link ‘joy’ and ‘discipline’ together. Perhaps it is part of the learning of these difficult days to explore how this can be. One of my personal theological quests over the last few years has been to try and pin down exactly what ‘joy’ is. It is a challenging quest – perhaps because ‘joy’ is in some ways undefinable! We know it when we experience it, but we are not always sure how we got there.

When I was working for the World Council of Churches in Geneva a few years ago, in 2014 there was a staff meeting in which we were exploring together Pope Francis’ then recent Encyclical, ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ = ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. I ‘enjoyed’ making myself a bit notorious in the meeting by drawing attention to the wonderful Taize chant, ‘The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, ’ and commenting that I thought that the WCC was pretty good on the ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ angles, and deserved praise for that, but perhaps had a little further to travel as regards the ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’. I think that it was that experience that started me on my ‘what is joy?’ quest. I very much like the following definition of joy: Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched, offered by Bishop Nick Baines of Leeds. In the 1980s Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, described joy as being the holding together in faith elements of human life that seem to be contrasting and paradoxical – discovering indeed that life can come through death – a real stretching of the mind and heart in faith. It is Runcie’s words about the paradoxical quality of joy that particularly speak to me in these difficult days. (I touch briefly again on ‘joy/rejoice’ in my reflection on this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel below).

Here are a few more short notes about joy. As one reads that offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is perhaps worth remembering that it was penned in dark days when he was in prison in Germany. His execution for his opposition to the Nazi regime – on April 9 1945, in the dying days of the Second World War, was a pointless act of pure vindictiveness. The seventy-fifth anniversary of his execution fell on Maundy Thursday this year.

  • Gratitude transforms the torment of memory of good things now gone into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • Joy is a not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence. (Eugene Peterson)
  • Joy is the great enemy of narcissism (Stanley Hauerwas). See also the video at https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/joy
  • My joy, Christ is risen (the greeting of St Seraphim of Sarov to all who visited his monastic cell)

 

Easter 2020

The poet-priest Malcolm Guite has penned a powerful new poem as part of his response to these days. I am grateful to Malcolm for allowing it to be reproduced here. Malcolm asked me also to include the link to his own blog, where you can see alongside the poem the picture of a collage made in response to his poem by Bruce Harman.

https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/easter-2020-a-new-poem/?fbclid=IwAR3qhnZ6LpE8opiTqm3DArh6VGJAYP_v8eqUmlZX5J5LjsMFi9UsF2ALDoY

And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?
Not lost in our locked churches, anymore
Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.
The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away,
And he is up and risen, long before,
Alive, at large, and making his strong way
Into the world he gave his life to save,
No need to seek him in his empty grave.

He might have been a wafer in the hands
Of priests this day, or music from the lips
Of red-robed choristers, instead he slips
Away from church, shakes off our linen bands
To don his apron with a nurse: he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.

On Thursday we applauded, for he came
And served us in a thousand names and faces
Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces
Of that virus which was death to him:
Good Friday happened in a thousand places
Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them
That they might share his Easter in their need,
Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.

*****

Today I will pray…

I am honoured to include another prayer written by Canon Paul Wignall, my colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team. It was written on and for Holy Saturday – the day before Easter Sunday. As many have suggested, this year, Holy Saturday, silent Saturday – which marks the day that Christ lay in the tomb, is, in some ways, still shedding its quiet into the joy of Easter.

Dear Lord,
there are moments when words fail,
and all we have left is listening,
where there is only the soft heartbeat
of your love in the depths of life.
I don’t do patience very well, Lord,
But, as best I can, I wait for you. Amen.

*****

Then were they glad when they saw the Lord (John 20.20)

The lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday is John 20.19-31. It tells initially of an appearance to Jesus to most of his disciples on the evening of Easter Day, then another appearance the following Sunday to the disciples, including Thomas, who had apparently been absent on the earlier occasion, and finally concludes with a short comment directed explicitly to the readers of the Gospel – those who ‘have not seen, and yet believe’ i.e. you and me!

Perhaps it is especially appropriate to read, during these days of ‘lockdown’ that the disciples were meeting in a ‘locked room’, though the explanatory remark that this was ‘for fear of the Jews’ is difficult and problematic these days to read given the past history of Christian attacks on Jewish communities – often prompted by scriptural texts such as these. A year or so ago when my husband was presiding at a Eucharist and this text was the Gospel, the person allotted to read it asked his permission to leave out this phrase as it made him, the reader, so uncomfortable. In some situations that may well be the right way forward.

What is interesting is the explicit link made between the rejoicing of the disciples and the fact that they have just seen Jesus’ wounded hands and side. It seems that the disciples rejoiced because of, not in spite of, the wounds. Although the word ‘joy/rejoice’ does not appear in the later episode involving Thomas, it is interesting that Thomas’ focus too is not simply on the risen Jesus, but the risen Jesus who continues to bear his wounds.

The word ‘joy/rejoice’ does not actually appear very often in the resurrection narratives. Other than here I think it appears once in Luke and once in Matthew. It is worth noting that when it appears in Luke, ‘Jesus showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy…’ (Luke 24.40-41) there too the word joy comes in close proximity to seeing the wounds of Jesus’ passion. In Matthew 28.8 the ‘great joy’ of the women is set alongside ‘fear’.

Perhaps the particular pain and anguish of our lives this year can give us at least a glimmer of the way in which resurrection joy comes not, in spite of suffering, but through and in the midst of it.

The final couple of verses of our Gospel reading (John 20.30-31) are often overshadowed by what has come just before. That is a pity – for they give us a central clue to the purpose of the Gospel – that ‘you may have life in his name’, and remind us of the thread of the life-giving Jesus whose story has been portrayed from the first few verses of the Prologue. But there is another reason why these final verses also demand our attention – namely that they offer us one of the most important examples of a ‘disputed reading’ in the New Testament. Like many disputed readings it depends on a very small uncertainty in the Greek text, in this case whether or not the Greek letter sigma, ‘s’ is present in the middle of the verb pisteu- ‘believe’. Some early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament include the ‘s’, others omit it. But it affects how we understand the meaning of the verb. With the ‘s’ it would best be translated as ‘you may come to believe’; without the ‘s’ a better translation would be ‘you may continue to believe’.

In the first case that suggests that the Gospel writer’s intended audience were non-Christians whom he was hoping to encourage to adopt the Christian faith; in the second case the intended audience would be existing Christians, fellow disciples of the Gospel writer, whom he was hoping to encourage to develop and deepen their faith. Personally I am attracted by this second possibility – for the Gospel feels throughout as though it is intending to enable its readers, who may well already have been adherents to the Jesus movement, to explore at greater and greater depths the meaning of the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, within the overall framework of God’s sacrificial love for our world. And indeed one point where we may be being encouraged to plunge more deeply into the story and its meaning is precisely as we wrestle with the joy of the resurrection, which comes not in spite of the wounds but because of them.

Discipleship in Difficult Days 7

It feels especially appropriate to bring out an edition of this blog on Good Friday. Many of us had the experience earlier today of worshipping in new and different ways. Sometimes this made our worship especially beautiful. Today’s edition contains a prayer written in response to the zoomed Good Friday worship at Holy Trinity Geneva, some more of the beautiful prayers offered by Canon Paul Wignall in Gran Canaria and Revd Dr Sam Wells in London, a reflection by one of the ordinands of the diocese, a link to the powerful sermon preached by Bishop David Hamid at yesterday’s service for the renewal of ordination vows, and to the very helpful booklet offered by Revd Louis Darrant. It ends by offering some thoughts on reading Psalm 22 these difficult days. The next edition will come out towards the end of Easter week.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

From our isolation
we zoom to the Cross,
see one another’s faces,
smiles,  tears not far away,
joining Christ in his isolation,
finding ourselves reduced to silence
by the exposed anatomy of love.
(Alan Amos)

*****

butterfly frances

A butterfly photographed by Deacon Frances Hiller while on her daily walk during her time of social isolation.

 

Today I will pray…
Today I will pray for those who are dying alone, afraid, too soon.
I will pray for their families and friends, who have to stay away,
and grieve in ways they never expected.
And I will pray for those friendly strangers
who accompany the dying
in their last hours and minutes and seconds:
paramedics, doctors and nurses.
And I will pray for those whose business is life
as they make decisions about death.
Lord God, be with them all,
surround them with your loving strength,
fold them in your arms of love,
take away fear, wipe away tears and,
at the right time, bring back hope. Amen

I will thank God today for singers and for songs.
I will thank God for songs of celebration and lament,
for singers who pour out their souls in joy
and their tears in grief.
I will thank God, too, for birds, wheeling in flight,
croaking ravens and ascending larks,
shrill curlews of the marsh
and the honeydew of a blackbird’s song.
And I will join my voice to theirs
in praise of the God who sings
our world into daily being. Amen
(Paul Wignall, Gran Canaria)

*****

Though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths and of none are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect in prayer or meditation. (Queen Elizabeth II, speech on April 5 2020)

*****

Two good resource links

https://europe.anglican.org/downloads/praying-at-home-in-holy-week-2020.pdf contains very helpful suggestions of worship for Holy Week and Easter that has been put together by Revd Louis Darrant on the Costa Azahar

https://europe.anglican.org/downloads/200407-coronavirus-renewal-of-vows.pdf takes you to the text of the sermon preached by Bishop David Hamid at the Maundy Thursday service for renewing of vows.

*****

A Prayer as Things Get Harder:
God of gentle presence,
you knew the ultimate separation
when on the cross Christ felt he was forsaken;
be with all who feel their Good Friday has come today.
Comfort those who have the virus.
Empower all who care for those in distress,
through medicine, acts of kindness or imaginative communication.
Be present to any who feel utterly alone,
without companion or health or hope.
Show us your face amid grief and bewilderment.
Inspire us to find new ways to be one with one another and with you.
And bring this time of trial to an end.
In Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Rev’d Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London)

*****

 ‘His compassions fail not; they are new every morning’ (Lamentations 3.22-23)

This short reflection was prompted by the commemoration of John Keble, on 29 March, and the choice of his hymn ‘New every morning is the love’ at a service recorded in Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral in Brussels.

How does Keble’s hymn speak to me? Well, there is the elegant simplicity in the first line: it is our rising each day which proves that God’s love, or mercy, endures. This is something to be particularly grateful for in present times.

The first line is something of a paraphrase of the verses from the book of Lamentations, quoted at the start of John Keble’s book The Christian Year. Its publication in 1822 was a phenomenal success and it became an essential part of a devout Anglican family’s library. Two verses are worth mentioning here in our situation of “enforced retreat”:

We need not bid, for cloistered cell,
Our neighbour and our work farewell,
Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
For sinful man beneath the sky:

The trivial round, the common task,
Would furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God.

It is this expression of faith as the total response of our being and the promise that we can find all our spiritual resources in daily living, which we must call to mind in our current cloistered (!) situation. In much the same spirit as the Caroline Divines, Keble seems to be saying that we don’t require the religious or academic life to come closer to God, but rather the ‘trivial round, the daily task’ will suffice. This may be especially true in the current situation if we are struggling to get through the day. But perhaps it is recognition of the diurnal rhythm which allows us to see more clearly that our Lord’s mercies fail not but are new every morning.  Keble was true to his word here, since for all his academic brilliance demonstrated in his poetry and as founding father of the Oxford Movement, he followed the calling of the parish priest and to support his father and two sisters at Fairford, Gloucestershire. And as the motto of the Oxford college founded in his name in 1870 remembers him, ‘Plain living and high thinking’.
(Jonathan Halliwell, ordinand, Brussels)

*****

Reading Psalm 22 in these difficult days

I find the book of Psalms an inexhaustible treasure. Though I have lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, I doubt that I would agree with John Calvin on all aspects of his theology, but I am certainly willing to affirm his comments on the Psalms: They are ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul’; ‘There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror’. In spite of many of its benefits, one of my regrets about the liturgical renewal that has seen Holy Communion frequently displace Matins and Evensong as the most regular act of common worship participated in by lay people, is that use of the entire book of Psalms in Sunday worship is now less and less common. Although a ‘snippet’ of a Psalm is sometimes used in Holy Communion (generally between the Old Testament lesson and the Epistle) the psalms used in this way do not seem to reflect the whole repertoire of the Book of Psalms. In particular the psalms of lament end up being considerably underrepresented among those which make a regular liturgical appearance.

One of the reasons I value the psalms is because they make me grapple with the question of the nature of the inspiration of scripture. Most of the psalms probably began as our human words to God, but through their inclusion in our canonical Bible, they have also become God’s words to us. Perhaps one day that will lead me down some interesting channels to explore further with you, but for today…

Today, Good Friday, is the day when one, almost certainly the most well known psalm of lament, Psalm 22, is included in the liturgical worship of many Anglican churches. Its special place is secured by its association with the crucifixion of Christ. According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew the last words of Jesus Christ before his death were a quotation from Psalm 22. One of the problems that this close association with the cross can mean is that we jump too readily to the use of the Psalm in the New Testament without spending enough time first exploring its original Old Testament context. Who originally wrote Psalm 22? When did they write it? What was the reason for their anguish? I have been reflecting over the last few days that perhaps this year we perhaps find it easier to identify with the original voice of the suffering psalmist of the Old Testament than we may have done often in the past.

In a short blog there is not space to share even a fraction of the glories of this psalm. But six short thoughts.

  1. One of the features of the psalm is the way it starts off with the voice of the psalmist expressing a sense of complete isolation and loneliness, cut off from everyone and everything – even almost from God. The only word that ‘saves’ him (and us) from a situation of complete separation is ‘my’. The fact that the psalmist can say the words ‘my God’ is the starting point from which the movement of the whole of the rest of the psalm springs.
  2. As one reads through the first 21 verses of the psalm, God who in the psalmist’s anguish is initially challenged with the words ‘why are you so far from helping me’ seems to draw nearer, so that by verse 19 the writer feels able to say, ‘But you, O Lord, do not be far away’.
  3. There is an extraordinary shift between the sense of complete human isolation of verse 1, and the way that from verse 22 onwards, the psalmist seeks to call an ever widening group of people to join him in a his circle of praise. We move from … my brothers and sisters… you who fear the Lord…you offspring of Israel… the great congregation… the ends of the earth… until by verse 29-31 the past and the future generations are also invited to join in. Often on Good Friday we only read the psalm up to verse 21. Perhaps this year we need to intentionally read verses 22-31 in Eastertide, in the days of the resurrection.
  4. Psalm 22 is a lament. One of the features of the lament psalms of the Old Testament is that they don’t believe that there are easy answers. That is perhaps why they are a helpful spiritual resource for our difficult days when it is also a mistake to think that the answers will be easy.
  5. It has been noted that Psalm 22 is primarily a psalm about human suffering. There are other psalms which explore human sin – but not this one. The fact that it was this psalm that Jesus spoke on his cross perhaps suggests that it is helpful to remember that somehow the cross of Jesus is God’s response to the problem of suffering – at least as much as it is to the problem of sin.
  6. Psalm 23 comes after Psalm 22. The ‘ordering’ of the psalter is unlikely to be totally haphazard. The placing of the gentle ‘Lord is my shepherd’ immediately after Psalm 22 may well be a hint that before we can reach the quiet acceptance of Psalm 23 we need first to journey through the agony – and then the ecstasy – of Psalm 22.

At Holy Trinity Geneva we have been using ‘zoom’ to enable us to keep Holy Week and Easter as much as possible. The professionalism and commitment of the group working together to enable this has been a source of joy in these difficult days. We have been doing our best. Occasionally things don’t go quite as planned. Last night, Maundy Thursday, a recording of Psalm 22 was played at the end of the worship to mark Jesus’ departure from his Last Supper towards his passion.. It was intended that while it was playing a picture of a cross would be shown on the screen. But that didn’t happen. Instead the zoom service seemed to pan round from face to face of our people, living in their isolation, listening intently to the music in their different and solitary dwellings, yet through that shared listening somehow helping to create the community that the latter part of Psalm 22 celebrates. In those faces we saw, experienced and perhaps contributed to the sharing of the cross.