This week’s reflection on the lectionary Gospel, John 1.43-51 appropriately follows on from last week’s exploration of heavens torn open in the Gospel of Mark. I hope to return to the image of the ‘tree of life’ with which it concludes in further reflections during the coming months.
I am however, very much on the lookout for possible contributors, both lay and clergy, to this blog. If you are interested to take responsibility for a week, I would be very grateful to hear from you.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,
It is fascinating to compare the Gospels of Mark and John both of which appear in our lectionary in different weeks during this season. I think that John’s Gospel tends to get more used in this ‘filler fashion’ during the Year of Mark, than in the other two lectionary years, partly because Mark itself is so much shorter and sparser. The comparison tells us something important about both Gospels.
When I taught New Testament to ordinands and university students in a structured way I would often use the first chapter of John’s Gospel as my primary tool to introduce what is called the ‘Christology’ of John (ie what the Gospel writer thinks about who Jesus was and what he did). In this chapter there is an amazing plethora of titles bestowed upon Jesus, some of which appear more than once, and some of which are implied partly because they are ‘refused’ by John the Baptist. I list them here with verse references:
Word (Logos) (1, 14) Jesus Christ (17) Only Son/Son of God (14, 18, 49) God (18) Messiah (20, 41) Elijah (21) The Prophet (21) Lamb of God (29, 36) Rabbi (38, 49) Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth (45) King of Israel (49) Son of Man. (51)
What I find intriguing, and what tells us something important about the nature and purpose of the Gospel of John, is that by verse 41 of this chapter, one of his disciples (Andrew) is already naming Jesus as the Messiah, ‘We have found the Messiah’, a discovery which it takes eight painful chapters of the Gospel of Mark for the disciples to arrive at (Peter answered him ‘You are the Messiah’, Mark 8.29). In effect we can say that John’s Gospel takes up its story about the meaning of Jesus from a point that is halfway through the Gospel of Mark. Indeed a careful reading of the Gospel of John makes it clear that though it is ‘correct’ to name Jesus as ‘Messiah’ that title by itself is not fully adequate – Jesus is that, but also much more besides, a reality that the Gospel of John will explore as Jesus’ story continues to be told.
The lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday is the last 9 verses of John 1, John 1.43-51. Within these short 9 verses the Gospel sparkles with John’s characteristic allusiveness and irony. To discover the import of what the Evangelist is sharing we need to ‘read’ it alongside other parts of the Gospel, and indeed other parts of the Bible. I work through a few examples of this from beginning to end of the passage. The ‘high point’ (literally!) comes at the end.
First, the intriguing note that ‘Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter’ (1.44). On the whole, when John’s Gospel offers a note of time or place, there is a reason for it. It is fascinating that Peter (and Andrew) should be linked in this way to ‘Bethsaida’. Our normal assumption (on the basis of the Synoptic Gospels e.g. Mark 1.29) is that the brothers lived in Capernaum. Now as it happens the town of Bethsaida is not that far away from Capernaum – further round the Sea of Galilee in an easterly direction. It was a thriving city: recently excavated Biblical village of Bethsaida where Jesus walked on water is finally identified by archaeologists | Daily Mail Online.
There is a mention of Bethsaida however in the Gospel of Mark (8.22-26), as the location of the healing of a blind man. Partly because this story comes ‘immediately’ before Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as ‘Messiah’, there has been a long-standing Christian tradition (going back to the patristic period) that Peter, in some symbolic way, can be identified with ‘the blind man of Bethsaida’. Given that in John chapter 1 Peter, unlike Andrew and Nathanael, is not told, ‘Come and see’ – is he, from the perspective of the Gospel of John, still personifying in some sense ‘the blind man of Bethsaida’ – in fact until chapter 21 of the Gospel?
Second, that expression ‘Come and see’. It is interesting to notice that it appears twice in John 1. It is first addressed by Jesus himself to two disciples, Andrew and another. Later on however the same words are used by Philip to Nathanael. By its repeated use in this way the Gospel quietly suggests that the role of a follower of Jesus is both to ‘Come and see’ for themselves, and then to be the encourager of others to do so. As we in the Diocese explore our understanding of discipleship, this invitation of our role in enabling others to ‘Come and see’ is surely something to bear in mind.
Third – the Gospel makes it clear that not all titles or descriptions given to Jesus are adequate. For example, though it is correct to refer to Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ (verses 18, 49) that is certainly not all that can or should be said about him, and the Gospel writer wants us to realise this. But there is a point in these verses where one of the ways in which Jesus is described is so inadequate that it is wrong! For Philip refers to him as ‘Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth’ (1.45) Undoubtedly for the Gospel of John Jesus is ‘Son of God’, not of Joseph. So I find it fascinating, and an example of John’s theological artistry that in the Farewell Discourses there is a discussion between Jesus and non other than Philip about the relationship between Jesus and the Father:
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (John 14.8-10)
Poor old Philip – even 14 chapters down the line the one who described Jesus as ‘son of Joseph’ is ‘still’ uncomprehending of Jesus’ true filial nature and role!
And finally, and for me, the ‘jewel’ in our Gospel reading this week, there are the allusions to the Old Testament story of Jacob, used to interpret both the role of Jesus, and that of Nathanael.
This is apparent in the final verse of the chapter where the reference to ‘the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1.51) clearly recalls the ladder between earth and heaven with angels upon it that Jacob saw at Bethel (Genesis 28.12). But now of course it is the ‘Son of Man’, identified with Jesus himself, not a holy place or a sanctuary, that becomes the space where God can be present on earth. Less obvious however is the delicious description of Nathanael as ‘Truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ (John 1.47). For Nathanael is being compared and contrasted with Jacob, who was of course eventually renamed ‘Israel’ (Genesis 32.28) but who was notorious for his guile and deceit. These allusions give the final verses of this chapter a climactic feel, and it is interesting that the climactic description given to Jesus after such a wealth of honorific titles should be ‘Son of Man’. What might this say to us about the relationship between humanity and divinity in the new creation which Jesus will inaugurate?
Last week, as we looked at the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark, we heard about heavens torn open. (Mark 1.9-11). Once again here in John the biblical account speaks of ‘opened heavens’ (John 1.51). But John’s Gospel takes us one further step, for the image of the ladder here makes clear that in his own person Jesus becomes the bridge that links heaven and earth, a bridge that will be finally opened when Jesus is ‘lifted up’ on his Cross, which has become the ‘Tree of Life’. This is powerfully depicted in the painting at the top by the Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery, which was originally commissioned by Misereor in Germany. On this ‘Tree’ the Son of Man is stretched out, taking into himself the darkness of the depths, and opening up for us a new heaven. (For a detailed description of the ‘meaning’ of each part of the picture see ArtWay.eu)
This blog is being written on 6 January – the Feast of the Epiphany. Tonight the church that I am linked to in the Diocese in Europe – Holy Trinity Geneva – will be celebrating Epiphany. We will be reading the account of the visit of the three wise men to Jesus told in Matthew 2.1-12. However as I am aware, especially from my years living in the Middle East, in the Orthodox Christian world the focus at ‘Epiphany’ is on the baptism of Christ. Indeed one of the joys of working at the World Council of Churches was that at Epiphany, or as near to it as possible, one’s office would be ‘sprinkled’ with water by one of our Orthodox colleagues. What both the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Christ (which Western Christianity tends to mark on the Sunday following the Epiphany) have in common is that they are moments when the divine and human meet in a special way, and when earth and heaven touch each other. The reflections below (which are drawn from a meditation I offered at the diocesan service at the end of November) explore the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Mark 1.4-11, which does tell of Jesus’ baptism.
The picture immediately above was drawn to my attention by a friend. We are not aware of its provenance (though I expect it comes from historical Europe), but I find it fascinating that it links together the themes of the wise men and the baptism (though in this case of the magi themselves). I would be very grateful to hear if anyone knows more details about it.
One of the most powerful and dramatic sentences in the Gospel of Mark comes when, at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus breathes out his last breath. It is at that moment, we are told in Mark 15.37, that the veil of the Temple is torn in two from top to bottom. The Greek verb translated as ‘torn’ is a form of the verb ‘schizo’ – from which we get our English scissors.
But it is not always realised that this use of the word ‘schizo’ near the end of the Gospel, echoes its use here at the beginning, when during Jesus’ baptism he, Jesus, sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him. It is a wonderful image of the skies being ‘scissored’ open. My mother used to have a pair of what were called ‘pinking’ scissors, and my mental picture of the scene is of such pinking scissors cutting a dramatic line across the sky to enable God and creation, heaven and earth, God and humanity to interweave with each other.
The repeated use of this word ‘torn’ ‘schizo’ is not accidental. It is fundamental to Mark’s interpretation of the life and work of Jesus. The Gospel is telling us that in the ministry and death of Jesus the ancient and fundamental separation between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane has been definitively overcome. This is made transparently obvious by what happens at Jesus’ death, but in reality, for those who have eyes to see, and certainly in Jesus’ own understanding, this has been enacted in his ministry from its very beginning.
The picture of the original creation portrayed in Genesis 1 is a story of separation and division. The verb ‘divide’ appears several times in its telling. I have wondered whether by beginning his Gospel with Genesis’ word ‘beginning’ Mark is deliberately reminding us of this but then will shortly affirm that with the Advent of Jesus, a new creation will be inaugurated in the waters of his baptism, a creation which speaks instead of divisions being overcome.
What do these heavens torn open mean for us today and the life of the church? Certainly I believe that the picture raises questions about the way that Christian tradition has all too easily divided the sacred from the secular, often to the disregard of the latter. For the open heavens which signal the start of Jesus’ public ministry affirm that God refuses to be kept apart from the whole of human life, in all its murkiness as well as its joys. It is telling that the tearing of the skies coincides with the moment of Jesus’ baptism as he is immersed in the dark waters of the river. This has been called Jesus’ ‘solidarity dip’ – when he signals his willingness to share the pain and the problems of humanity. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons of the baptism.
The deep dark centre surrounded by heights on either side, is curiously but deliberately reminiscent of those icons of the resurrection which focus on figures rising up out of the depths of Hades.. Being baptised, for Jesus himself as well as for us, is being baptised into the death of Christ. ‘Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with…?’ is a challenge that later in this Gospel Jesus will throw at the brothers James and John.
The moment of this solidarity dip with humanity of course is also the time when the voice speaking out of those opened heavens, affirms Jesus, ‘You are my beloved Son’. Whatever else may be meant by the title ‘Son of God’ which the Gospel of Mark uses to describe Jesus at crucial points in his ministry and passion, it certainly affirms the reality that in this man the normal boundaries between the divine and human have been broken down, the word has become incarnate in flesh, and that in him the material is uniquely sacramental of the spiritual. What however does the epithet ‘beloved’ add to the title of ‘Son’? When Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries heard of a ‘beloved son’ their thoughts would almost certainly turn to Isaac, the son of Abraham, the one who was so nearly sacrificed to death. So when Jesus is addressed in this way, his destiny as the one who will need to travel even farther along the road of suffering than Isaac was required to do is surely being spelled out. It is often noted that the Gospel of Mark is dominated by the story of Jesus’ passion, which, I believe, with the title ‘beloved son’ actually extends its reach to these first few verses of the Gospel.
Life can feel so much easier and more secure when it is separated into neat and tidy segments, when good can keep its safe distance from evil, when the holy preserves itself from the profane. But from the instant of opened heavens and immersion in deep waters, that was not the path which Jesus chose. The Episcopalian theologian Tom Troeger, one of whose wonderful hymns describes God as a ‘spendthrift lover’, was almost shattered by the senseless murder of a friend. Eventually he reflected:
‘Then in the silence of my heart I see as never before that incarnation means a refusal to keep a safe distance between heaven and earth, between eternal good and mortal evil. If we are to be godly people we will have to follow the pattern of the incarnation, risking all for love, refusing to keep our distance from the brutality of this world.’
Compared with what we are told by Matthew and Luke, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation will very brief (Mark 1.12-13) , but it says all that needs to be said. ‘Immediately’ – we hear that urgent word again – the Spirit ‘drove out’ – an extraordinary choice of verb, since it is elsewhere used in this Gospel of demons – Jesus into the wilderness, not as a place of refuge and withdrawal, but as a place where good could recklessly risk all to confront the challenge of evil. That is the straight path that Jesus went straightway into the wilderness to walk. It will be the beginning of the journey that he will take throughout the rest of the Gospel.
This first post-Christmas blog takes as its starting point the Gospel reading John 1.10-18, appointed in Common Worship as the Sunday Gospel for 3 January. Whether accidentally or deliberately I have not focused directly on the historic changes in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union which will come into force at midnight on 31 December. However the positive way I refer to the word ‘widening’ (see below) perhaps offers a clue to my personal view about this development.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Christmas for me would not be Christmas without hearing in worship – at least once – the great ‘Christmas Gospel’, John1.1-14. This year I heard it twice, first at the online carol service held by Holy Trinity, Geneva, where it was read, initially in French and then in English as the final lesson, and then at the online celebration of the Eucharist with Spiritual Communion held on Christmas Day. It also formed the basis of the Christmas Day sermon.
However I do feel a bit sorry for preachers, that after the rightful appearance of John’s Prologue on Christmas Day, part of the Prologue also appears as the lectionary Gospel (in Common Worship, based in turn upon the Revised Common Lectionary) for the Second Sunday of Christmas – in all three lectionary years. Although as it happens, depending on the day of the week that Christmas falls, there is not always such a ‘Second Sunday’. There is however such a Sunday this year. It feels tough that having given this stunning biblical passage one’s all, on Christmas Day, one should be expected to return so closely to it so soon afterwards, with new inspiration and fresh insight.
There are of course ways round the problem, for those who seek them. I note that a clerical friend of mine is fervently observing this coming Sunday as the commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket and the biblical readings will presumably be chosen with that in mind. Nevertheless that feels to me a bit like ‘cheating’ – though undoubtedly with the best and worthiest of intentions. (I note also that The Episcopal Church diverges pragmatically from the Revised Common Lectionary on this Sunday, so our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Convocation in Europe are likely to be reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ flight in Egypt or Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey as a boy of twelve to Jerusalem.)
Of course the verses from John 1 selected for the two days are not identical. On Christmas Day John 1.1-14 is read; on the Second Sunday of Christmas the text suggested is John 1.10-18 (though in fact it might be better to begin with verse 9), with the possibility also offered of beginning with verse 1 again if one wishes.
Whichever starting point one chooses, the key difference between the Gospel reading for Christmas Day and this coming Sunday is that this Sunday we will also be exploring verses 15-18. What do these verses add to our understanding of John’s Prologue, and its understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ?
It is interesting that though the Prologue clearly begins by alluding to the Book of Genesis – with an ‘echo’ both of Genesis’ first words ‘In the beginning’, and a focus on light’s primordial role in the story of creation, it seems to end instead by alluding to the Book of Exodus. That is explicit in the remark ‘The law was given through Moses’ (John 1.17), but it is also implicit in the comment, ‘No one has ever seen God,’ (1.18) which almost certainly alludes to the intriguing and puzzling 33rd chapter of the Book of Exodus. The theme of this chapter is the quest for the presence of God, primarily with Moses, but through him also with the wandering people of Israel in the wilderness. Moses pleads with God for him to accompany them, ‘If your presence (Hebr. = ‘face’) will not go [with us], do not carry us up from here.’ (Exodus 33.15)
What is fascinating about the chapter is that within the space of a very few verses we are offered two apparently contradictory views as to whether it is possible for Moses to see God or not. So Exodus 33.11 states, ‘Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend’, but later in the chapter Moses is told by God, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live, ’ (Exodus 33.20)… ‘my face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33.23). This discrepancy may be partly explained by the likelihood that different sources have been amalgamated together in this chapter, but since I tend to work on the basis that the biblical editors were not stupid or careless, if they allowed such an apparent ‘contradiction’ to remain in the text, it is likely to be for a good reason.
There is much more that I could say about this (and perhaps sometime I will have a chance to come back to it), but briefly I think that posing the question ‘can human beings, even Moses, see God?’ and offering two apparently different answers to it, is a way of inviting us to wrestle with the central paradox and dilemma of biblical and Christian faith, namely, how can God allow Godself to be present with human beings – yet also avoid becoming our talisman or puppet? This conundrum is one with which both the Book of Exodus and the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, profoundly engage with.
The question of ‘presence’ is closely linked to the word ‘glory’, itself a word that is (rightly) difficult to pin down but seems to encapsulate a vision of visible divine presence alongside a sense of mystery. God’s refusal to allow Moses to see his face (though allowing him to see his ‘back’, Exodus 33.18) comes in response to the stark and specific request from Moses, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’
It is telling that the initial climax of John’s Prologue (1.14) uses the word ‘glory’ twice, ‘The Word became flesh… and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son’. It is, I think, the use of this word at this point, and its obvious link to Moses’ plea ‘Show me your glory’, that triggers the following brief reflection on Exodus 33 in verses 17-18. ‘The Word become flesh’ thus constitutes the answer to this plea of Moses, but it also profoundly differentiates the figures of Moses and Christ.
I enjoyed very much my seven years as a member of the tutorial and academic staff of Westcott House theological college in Cambridge. One of my regrets however (due partly to the fact that theological college staff are very busy!) is that I did not take the time while I was there to engage deeply with the writings and ideas of Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, the college’s founder and after whom it was named. Bishop Westcott was a shining example of the Anglican theological, spiritual and pastoral tradition at its best. Certainly I consider him an exemplar for what it means to study the Bible in a way that is both academically rigorous but also grounded in the life of faith. It is of course well known that Westcott especially cherished the Gospel of John. He also penned a wonderful comment about scripture that I treasure:
‘The whole record of revelation is a record of the manifestation of God’s glory. The Bible is one widening answer to the prayer of Moses, Show me thy glory, which is the natural cry of the soul made for God.’
It is obvious why writing this reflection has reminded me of Westcott’s words – quoting from Exodus 33. It is a lovely description of the Bible to speak of it as a ‘widening answer’ to our human plea to be shown God’s glory. That word ‘widening’ is important – suggesting, as I think Westcott intended to, that our encounter with scripture as both individuals and as part of the Christian community, is to be cherished precisely because there are always more and greater truths about God that we are being invited to discover.
And there is of course a guide on this road. In verse 18 we learn more about him… the ‘only Son’ who is as close to the Father’s heart as the beloved disciple will be to the Son’s own at the Last Supper.
The last word of John 1.18 is ἐξηγήσατο. In transliterated Greek it reads exēgēsato, which is a clue to what I am about to say. It is not completely clear what the English translation of this word should be – though the NRSV chooses ‘has made him (the Father) known’. It has been suggested that ‘has opened the way (to the Father)’ would be an alternative possibility. But if you look at the transliterated Greek a couple of lines above you may see in the letters the word ‘exegesis’ – and you would not be wrong to do so. Because, quite literally, one credible translation of this word in this verse which forms the climax to the Prologue of John is that Christ is described as ‘exegeting’ the Father. ‘Exegesis’ is of course normally understood as the art of interpreting Scripture – or other written texts. It invites us to explore in detail the factors that brought them into being, the art of the words that make them up, and what they might be saying to us in our contemporary situation. To reflect on Jesus Christ as the ‘exegete’ of the Father opens up to us insights that may be both creative and profound.
Above I referred to Bishop Westcott as an exemplar of the best of the Anglican tradition. There is also another Anglican bishop that I would place in this bracket, though the difference is that in his case I was privileged to know him personally. It is Bishop Kenneth Cragg, whom my husband and myself were proud to be able to call a family friend. Kenneth is best known for his important role in Christian-Muslim engagement. But he was also a poet and a wordsmith, and one of the privileges of being on his Christmas card list was that each December we received a card, typed on an increasingly wonky typewriter, with a poem that Kenneth had written for that Christmas. Eventually many were collected together and published in a lovely book The Lowly Lintel, of which I have a copy. But it is the wonky originals that are my real treasure! One Christmas Kenneth wrote a poem The Exegete (subtitled – naturally! – in Greek and Latin ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο …. ipse enarravit). Drawing on John 1.18, it explores the idea I have raised above that the life of Jesus Christ, exegetes for us the ‘text’ of God and the ‘text’ of our world. It is (like many of Kenneth’s later writings!) quite demanding to read, but I invite you to take the time to look at it carefully and discover its half-hidden treasures, which are exploring what it means to speak of Jesus Christ as exegete:
The text of our perplexity Life’s heavy score of scars, The puzzle of identity Intention in the stars.
Vast depths of far elusive space, The human comedy, Long centuries of earth’s disgrace, Their toll of tragedy.
What exegesis could suffice These riddles to explain Or must the necessary price Unpayable remain?
Eternal drama did enact Through finite birth to show The infinitely gentle fact Our yearning souls should know.
The fact a Father’s Son-like deed That seeks our low estate. Consents our motherhood to need, All mothers consecrate.
With text of self-expending grace In far redemptive reach The Name, the narrative, the Face His Galilee did teach.
The final paradox of truth, Gethsemane by night Where wrong and hate made wilful proof, Of darkness over light.
Divine compassion legible In manger-majesty, The sovereignty proved credible With nail-torn honesty.
This school of faith, this blessed sign Of love’s veracity, Perpetuate in bread and wine God’s hospitality.
Of these insignia possessed, Doubt’s ministries refined, Be Christ-discipleship confessed, Significance defined.
 B.F.Westcott, The Revelation of the Father, London; Macmillan, 1884, p.164
There are two main offerings in the blog this week; the first relates to the Advent antiphons, which traditionally are used from today and on each of the coming seven days; the second focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Luke 1.26-38, the annunciation to Mary. I am responsible for the first; I am grateful to Natacha Tinteroff for her reflection on Mary.
I am planning not to produce a blog next week, but to resume in time for a reflection to be offered relating to the readings for Sunday 3 January. Happy and Holy Christmas to all blog readers!
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
The following was originally delivered as an address during a Zoom Eucharist on December 17 celebrating O Sapientia organised by Holy Trinity Geneva.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence(Advent antiphon for O Sapientia)
If you take a look at the calendar that comes in the Book of Common Prayer, near the beginning, you will find on the December page, on December 16 the words O Sapientia – with no other explanation. It is intriguing that in a prayer book in which many of the pre-Reformation high days and holy days were culled, that the memory of this date as ‘O Sapientia’ ‘O Wisdom’ should be preserved. It is also interesting that the day chosen was December 16th – rather than 17th – but we will come to that in a moment.
It is a reminder that the hallowing of the week before Christmas through a series of special antiphons which were originally used to accompany the Magnificat is an ancient and cherished tradition of the Church. The ‘Advent antiphons’ as they were called, sometimes popularly referred to as the Great Os, can be dated at least as far back as the 8th century, though it is possible that they are even older. ‘O Sapientia’ the antiphon sung in praise of Wisdom was always the first of them. Originally there were seven, which were used consecutively or a daily basis between the 17th and the 23rd December. But a tradition grew up linked to the Sarum rite in medieval England of adding an 8th antiphon, which had the effect of pushing each of the other seven back by a day, although this practice never caught on in continental Europe. But hence the BCP’s choice of 16 December to mark O Sapientia. In order the antiphons celebrate Sapientia – Wisdom; Adonai – the Lord; Radix Jesse – the Root of Jesse; Clavis David – the Key of David; Oriens – the Dayspring; Rex Gentium – King of the Nations; Emmanuel – God is with us all as figurative symbols and precursors drawing ever closer to Christ. If you added the 8th antiphon that one honoured the Virgo virginum – the virgin of virgins.
In 1710 the antiphons, or most of them, five to be exact, were turned into Latin metrical verse by Jesuits in Cologne. A century and a half later it was this Latin metrical version that provided the basis for JM Neale’s English translation, famous today as ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, without which no Advent would be complete. So at two removes so to speak, whenever we sing that hymn we are drawing on these ancient antiphons. Until very recently that was how they were largely known in most parts of the Anglican church. Perhaps though one of the interesting fruits of recent Anglican liturgical revision has been the increased use of the antiphons in their original form. Which is good for several reasons.
One of them is that in fact I suspect that you will have rarely, if ever, sung a verse of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ that celebrates Wisdom. There is a verse, which begins with the line ‘O come, thou Wisdom from on high’ but it has a checkered history. The antiphon O Sapientia was one of the two left out antiphons not included in the 1710 Jesuit Latin metrical version. Since in turn it was this Jesuit version which provided the basis for Neale’s English translation he did not include a verse about Wisdom in what he produced. Though there was a Latin metrical version produced for O Sapientia in the late 19th century and this was later translated into English in the early 20th century, by then Neale’s version had cornered the field and so the ‘new’ verses did not find much of a welcome.
All this of course begs the question as to why O Sapientia did not appear in the original 1710 metrical version. Though I cannot be sure, I have a strong suspicion that the feminine nature of Wisdom must have played a part in this. In all the biblical languages Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word ‘wisdom’ is construed as feminine; Hokhma; Sophia; Sapientia, and whenever in the biblical texts, Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha, Wisdom is personified she is always personified as a woman. As for example in the final verse of today’s Gospel reading (Luke 7.24-28, 31-35). Sapientia is in fact the only ‘feminine’ figure in the list of the original seven antiphons; all the others are either directly or indirectly linked with a male figure, or are at least grammatically male. So can or should a feminine figure somehow be a precursor of the male Jesus Christ? In fact in the New Testament itself and in early Christian literature this did not seem to be a problem. The identification of Jesus with Wisdom, in terms that seem to intended to link to the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 can be found even in the New Testament, and certainly the early theologians of the Christian East did not find the link between Christ and Wisdom problematic, and employed creative ways of exploring it in iconography, such as is expressed through the icon that is used on the cover of today’s service sheet. But perhaps it was more of an issue for those 18th century Jesuits.
There is however also another reason why I believe that O Sapientia should appear in this list of Advent prefigurings. And it is linked to the special place that Wisdom has within the biblical, and especially, Old Testament literature, and the unique role she plays within the story of salvation.
There are a variety of genres in the Bible. These include Law or Torah, prophecy, history, psalms, and what are called the ‘wisdom writings’, focused on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. When I did my university studies in theology the wisdom writings were somehow the odd-man, or should one say odd-woman, out.
One of the interests of Old Testament studies back in the 1970s was to explore what was the central core and focus of the Old Testament. It was a rather Germanic thing to do and various different German Old Testament professors each had their own idea what that ‘focus’ consisted of. Eichrodt for example thought it was the idea of ‘covenant’ while Von Rad believed it was the idea of God working in history.
But whatever idea was the preferred one, wisdom tended to spoil the nice neat pattern that the professor wanted to construct. Because, for example, unlike all the other parts of the Old Testament, the wisdom writings don’t mention the covenant, and they don’t seem to be remotely interested in the idea of God working in history. Indeed all three key Old Testament wisdom books feel strangely ahistorical. What in fact marks them out from most of the rest of the Old Testament corpus is their sense of universalism, their understanding that God relates to all humanity, and requires from all humanity ‘wisdom’ and ‘wise behaviour’. They stand as a challenge to the rest of the Old Testament in which divine revelation is normally linked to the particularity of God’s relationship with one people and their particular history and story. By contrast the Old Testament wisdom literature builds bridges to other cultures and peoples of the ancient Middle East where the quest for wisdom was also pursued assiduously. Indeed the Old Testament itself acknowledges that Israel owed a lot to both Egypt and the people of the east when it came to exploring wisdom, and there is even a section of the Book of Proverbs which many scholars believe uses an Egyptian wisdom text, the Wisdom of Amenope as a direct literary source.
It is however interesting – and telling – to follow the fate of wisdom in later writings – in what we call the Apocrypha. There are also at least two major Wisdom books in the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Sirach was probably written about 200 BC, the Wisdom of Solomon somewhat later. What one discovers is that in both cases, and especially Sirach, wisdom is no longer simply universal as something shared among all humanity, but rather has been nationalised or domesticated. Although Sirach contains quite a number of passages that would have fitted in with the ideas of the older wisdom tradition, the end of the day Sirach makes it clear that he considers that the most perfect wisdom is to be found in Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, which Wisdom describes as her home, and that the completion of wisdom is to be discovered in Israel’s revealed Law and Covenant. There is quite a contrast between Sirach 24’s presentation of Wisdom which eventually sums up Wisdom as ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us’, and Job’s earlier longing question ‘Where shall wisdom be found’. And it is no accident that I asked for Job rather than Sirach to be read today (Job 28.12-28).
What has all this got to do with O Sapientia and the Advent Antiphons? It is this. The antiphons take us on a journey in which we encounter a variety of key Old Testament passages, images, events and personalities somehow foreshadowing the coming of Christ and gradually helping us to draw closer to him. We hear of David and Jesse, of Adonai the divine lawgiver at Sinai, of the coming of a ruler of the nations, of a mysterious Dayspring, and of the pledge of ‘Emmanuel’ the one prophesied by Isaiah to be ‘God with us’. All of these images spring from the particularities of the Old Testament story of God’s engagement with a particular people, in particular places and times. It is good and right that we do see the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of all these particular hopes and longings. But to begin the sequence with O Sapientia, Wisdom, sets the coming of Christ in a still wider compass, relating this to God’s dealings with all humanity, and the universal human quest for wisdom, ‘Where, indeed, shall wisdom be found?’ And I think that is important, because it reminds us that the Christian faith is rooted not only in our shared heritage with the Jewish people, but even more widely still in the aspirations of human beings of other religious traditions – or indeed of those who do not think of themselves as overtly religious. As someone who is professionally interested in both the biblical tradition and in interreligious dialogue I think there is probably an important task, which has I think been begun but not completed, to explore the biblical ‘wisdom tradition’ as a resource for interreligious engagement.
Linked to this there is one other thing it is important to say. As you may have already noticed the order of the original antiphons is quite different from the order in which the images appear in the metrical version of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. In the original antiphons ‘Emmanuel’ comes last and is the culmination of the sequence. In the Jesuit and Neale metrical adaptation it has been transferred to the beginning. Whether intentionally or not I think that negatively undermines the Old Testament images and symbols that follow in the second and following verses. It is almost as though having introduced ‘Emmanuel’ at the beginning we need somehow to fast-forward to the end of the Old Testament story without pausing appropriately to explore God’s coming at Sinai, coming in the Davidic royal theology, coming in the biblical hopes of justice for all people, taking account of the centuries of God working in and through a particular people. I think it weakens the sense of a constructive relationship both between the Old Testament and the New, and in fact between Christians and Jews. I think this somehow links with the fact that the metrical version contains language which has been faulted for the derogatory tones with which it seems to refer to the Jewish people of post-biblical times. That plea of the first verse:
‘O come, O come Emmanuel redeem thy captive Israel, that into exile drear is gone, far from the face of God’s dear son’
Plays very readily into the idea of the ‘wandering Jew’, popular throughout out most of Christian history, which understood the dispersion of Jewish people, especially after 70AD, as a ‘punishment’ for their ‘rejection’ of their Messiah, and is widely believed to have exacerbated antisemitism in the Christian world. The tone of the original Emmanuel antiphon – which normally comes last in the sequence is quite different – O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour:Come and save us, O Lord our God, and in fact throughout the whole sequence of the antiphons there is no negative reference to ‘Israel’ or the Jewish people. Of course we are touching upon a vast subject, which we can’t really get into here – but the difference in feel between the original 8th century antiphons and the well known version we so often sing is remarkable and it is a salutary reminder of the way that language and social realities can impact upon and shape each other.
And there is one final delight which O Sapientia and the original Advent antiphons of which she is first in the sequence offers us. Whether or not it is accidental, but it is certainly providential, the first letters of each of the antiphons fit together to make an acrostic. You need to start at the end and work back to the beginning:
Emmanuel E Rex – King R Oriens O Clavis – Key C Radix – Root R Adonai – A Sapientia – Wisdom S
And you come up with ‘Ero Cras’, a Latin phrase which translates into English as ‘Tomorrow I will be there’. It is God’s promise to us. So with an exquisite and punning irony, this week of beautiful short and allusive prayers which speak of our longing for God’s presence and which begin today with our invocation to ‘Wisdom’ contain their own answer. ‘Tomorrow I will be there’.
The poet Malcolm Guite initially became known by the wider public due to his exquisite sonnets exploring each of the Advent antiphons. Malcolm generously makes his work available on the web and his sonnets can be accessed via Advent Antiphons | Malcolm Guite (wordpress.com)
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.‘ (Luke 1.26-38)
Throughout the generations, few women have been more significant than Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Widely represented by artists, sung by musicians, glorified by poets, for some Christians, she incarnates a compassionate and holy intercessor embodying the paradigm of motherhood. For others, she symbolizes an over-mythologized and erroneous model of womanhood.
While Mary is the most popular patron of English parish churches and while since the 16th century there has been within the Church of England a continuous reference to her culminating in the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong each day, she has not been a central figure in the lives of most mainstream and evangelical Anglicans for years. For some people, Mary is closely associated with superstition as is sometimes also the event of the Annunciation, which can be controversial. Yet as we are close to completing our journey through the contrasted landscapes of Advent, the experience of Mary can be quite enlightening and uplifting to us in those troubled times.
If usually the season of Advent is a time of joyful expectation during which we long for the glimpses of the light to come, this year, many of us walk in the darkness without seeing any thinning. The darkness of COVID 19, the darkness of lockdown, the darkness of loneliness, the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of evil, the darkness of Brexit, the darkness of faith, which tends to blacken everything.
Like us today, when Mary assented to the Angel Gabriel, she had to exercise a wholly dark faith, believing the certainty of God’s gift without anything to support or interpret it. God came to her, a young peasant hidden from the lights of Jerusalem, invisible in the darkness from Galilee, lost in the middle of God’s chosen people of Israel. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there ? ” (Jn 1, 46) were often asking the Jews. That is God made himself visible to someone of no apparent significance. Thus, the « God of surprises », by the words of the Jesuit Gerald Hughes (G. Hughes, God of Surprises, London : Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 2008) comes where he is logically not expected.
For various reasons, some justified, some less so, the issue of Mary’s virginity is often avoided or approached from a physiological point of view. Yet in the Old Testament, virginity is primarily understood in terms of novelty as a new inception, a renewed relationship…..The visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary marks a new beginning. God creates something completely extraordinary through a most ordinary person, surpassing human rationale. This paradox characterizes the life of Jesus and will culminate with the Resurrection when life comes out of death.
Despite the current crisis, Advent is still a season of surprises. Like for Mary, God is at hand for us, trying to surprise us in the middle of our daily lives, where we are now. Although pursuing a circuitous way to avoid the darkness can seem to be a very attractive option, we can be pretty sure such a tortuous path will lead us to a dead end. On the contrary, if we accept to walk in the shadows, to cross the boaders of the night and to navigate on the rough waters of its raging sea, then we may be able to discern the glimmer of dawn climbing slowly. Actually, the Spirit may very well be guiding us individually as Christians and corporately as the church to birthing something completely new.
The course of history has been determined by life-changing episodes among which the current outbreak of the Coronavirus will inevitably find a place on the charts of historians to come. There will be a before and after. The pandemic is not behind us yet but the world has already changed, socially and economically. Interviewed for the BBC Andrew Marr Show, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented : “once this epidemic is conquered we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all was normal….”. In the words of Pope Francis a few years ago, we are not living through an era of change but a change of era. Then how shall the church respond to that evolution ? Is mere survival simply our aim or are we willing to engage with the God of surprises through the darkness to be true to our vocation ?
During the lockdowns, being prevented from “going to church” in our usual church buildings brought lots of suffering to many worshippers. However, those same buildings can be temples to the past hindering our calling, not only keeping us emprisoned in our certitudes but preventing us from “ building the house” (HG 1, 8) as well. Archbishop William Temple is commonly acknowledged to have said that “ the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”.
As Christians, whether we like it or not, we have to admit the evidence for secularization, or at least for the decline of Christianity. In the UK, Christian affiliation fell from 66 percent to 38 percent over 25 years. Before the pandemic, only 12 percent of the national population (1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds ) identified themselves as belonging to the Church of England. Weekly attendance at Anglican services had also fallen down to an average of 57 people. In comparison, a study at the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University has found that during the first lockdown one in four people across the UK have regularly engaged in some form of online worship. In real term figures, 19 millions of people attended church online each Sunday, with a record set in London where 46 % of the population went to online church every week. Another key finding is that half of 18-34 years indicated that they regularly engaged in online faith-related activity.
Those findings reveal among other things a strong belief in the power of prayer to bring positive change. They also lay bare the thirst for God of many explorers. In the night of COVID 19, there is light and an opportunity for the church to grow that shall not be missed. Those statistics about online worship show God calls us beyond our church buildings and the familiar, so that all barriers that prevent all those who aspire to find God and to be a part of His earthly community can be removed. As Paul noticed, “ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (GA 3, 28). In other words, the Christian community, also called the mystical body of Christ, is intended to serve the whole and firstly those who do not belong yet or are at the margins. Covid 19 has cleared a space for us to embrace a renewed way of being church, creating an incredible chance for us to liberate oursleves from our prisons, despite the temptation of many to go back to “ the good olden days”.
As Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, the church is a body whose life depends on its members who contribute to its good heath (Eph. 4, 16). Each baptised Christian is deemed and called to be a living stone of God’s house. Consequently, the renewal depends of our free consent to God’s calling following the example of Mary. The answer she gives to the angel Gabriel is a very specific act by which she accepts to open herself to the full action of God the Word to receive within her a reality independent of her, in the blindness of an unsupported faith.
Because of the darkness of the present time, of the increased fragmentation of our societies, we may very well be in the process of becoming frightened creatures that intent to assure their own security by trying to make themselves invulnerable both individually and collectively through the illusion of self autonomy. But as a result, we may not able to see God at work within us and around us. What is supposed to bring us security makes us more insecure than ever ! When our human self are distorted by such illusions, the Word is not free to enter within us. Indeed, true security enables us to journey through the chaos and help to spot God’s presence in uncertainty.
The angel Gabriel came to Mary “in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy”. In the Bible, only one other text mentions this length of time. In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, through Haggai’s voice, speaking of the reconstruction of the temple, the Lord of hosts asks : “ Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? ” (Hg 1, 4). It is during the sixth month that God underlines that our minds are being kept busy by our own houses while his is failing apart. It is in the sixth month that Mary welcomes God within her house and begins a work of edification. It is just xhat we are called to do now, for the first Christmas of the Covid era.
The spanish mystics Teresa of Avila memorably spoke of what that means : “Christ has no body but yours/ No hands, no feet on earth but yours/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/Compassion on this world” (quoted by Fr. Richard Fermer on Monday 26th October 2020 at Grosvenor Chapel, London).Of course only God can incarnate Himself, which he did “once and for all” (Heb 10,10). This incarnating of Christ in us comes from the Spirit who makes Christ present in us, like he did with Mary. This power of the spirit will form us in holiness, as an acceptance of and a willingness to further what we already are in Christ. In order to do so, in the depth of the greatest intimacy of our inner being, we constantly need “to let it be with us according to the word“, so that our own growing will contribute to the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Eph. 4, 16).
On Christmas Eve, we will remember that the light is full of surprises and often unexpected, even if the night seems to be endless. Like Mary, we will look forward to love in darkness, finding our way through the ordinariness of our lives while being suffused by Christ so that our world can be saturated with his Gospel, permeated with his presence and his House reshaped, more glorious than ever.
May the God of Surprises delight you, inviting you to accept gifts not yet imagined.
May the God of Transformation call you, opening you to continual renewal.
May the God of Justice confront you, daring you to see the world through God’s eyes.
May the God of Abundance affirm you, nudging you towards deeper trust.
May the God of Embrace hold you, encircling you in the hearth of God’s home.
May the God of Hopefulness bless you, encouraging you with the fruits of faith.
May the God of Welcoming invite you, drawing you nearer to the fullness of God’s expression in you.
May God Who is Present be with you, awakening you to God in all things, all people, and all moments.
May God be with you.
Natacha Tinteroff is a theologian with special interests in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy. She lives in Paris and worships in Anglican churches in Paris and London.
The title for this week comes from a modern hymn, written by Brian Wren in celebration of John the Baptist. The words of the hymn can be found at Welcome the Wild One – Hope Publishing Company. The 12th century icon from Cyprus immediately below offers an image of John the Baptist in his ‘wildness’. This image certainly contrasts with the painting of the Baptist further down the blog. Alongside the figure of John, who features in this week’s lectionary Gospel, we refer to two modern Christian figures, both of whom perhaps offered ‘elements’ of John, the wild one, in their contribution to the life of the church. The blog draws on both this week’s lectionary Gospel (John 1.6-8; 19-28) and Epistle (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) as well as alluding back to the Gospel used last Sunday.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, firstname.lastname@example.org
,On December 10 1968 two globally known Christian figures died, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton on the very same day. Their deaths occurred in very different circumstances. Barth died ‘full of years’ at his home in Basle, Switzerland; Merton’s death by electrocution happened as the result of a mysterious accident in Thailand as he was attending a monastic conference thousands of miles away from his Abbey of Gethsemani. Two years ago in 2018 the 50th anniversary of their deaths was marked by many. I found it intriguing that about half of my professional Christian colleagues were commemorating Karl Barth, while the other half focused on remembering Thomas Merton. It made me wonder whose legacy – Barth’s or Merton’s – would prove to be the most enduring, in say, another fifty years’ time?
Both of these two men gained admirers from outside their natural Christian constituency. As regards Barth who was a leading Protestant from the Reformed tradition, Pope Pius XII is reputed to have called him the greatest theologian since Aquinas. The Roman Catholic Merton was valued, both during and after his life, by liberal Protestants and others, from many faith traditions, including non-Christian, who learned from his insights about contemplative prayer. I myself have been an avid reader of Merton’s writings. Wryly perhaps, both Barth’s and Merton’s lives also shared another feature, what might be called ‘complicated’ personal relationships with others, known about to some during their lives, but publicised more widely in the years since. I think in both cases their relationships raise for me the question of how spirituality and sexuality interface with each other. This is an area that has intrigued me since I myself lived for a year in a monastery in my early twenties. It is also an area that I think the Church is really still afraid to explore.
There is another subject that Barth and Merton have in common, however. Perhaps, appropriately, since their deaths actually occurred in the Advent season, they both have some interesting insights about the importance of Advent in the life of the church and in the lives of individual Christians. Both, it seems, deeply cherished the weeks of Advent.
I quoted this remark of Barth from the Church Dogmatics in this blog a couple of weeks ago, but it is worth repeating it: ‘Whatever season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?’
In his 1965 book Seasons of Celebration Merton wrote: ‘The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.’
Both comments, and especially that of Merton, resonate for me with this week’s lectionary Gospel, John 1.6-8; 19-28.
It is interesting how, in the Common Worship/Revised Common Lectionary John the Baptist appears as a central figure in the Gospel reading for two consecutive weeks, Advent 2 and Advent 3. That happens in each of the lectionary years, but in Years A and C, both readings are taken from Matthew and Luke respectively. But when Year B comes round (as it is currently) the first reading (last Sunday) comes from Mark 1.1-8, and the second reading (the lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday) is taken from the Gospel of John. The centrality of John the Baptist at the heart of Advent feels significant – somehow he could be described as Advent’s patron saint, somehow bridging the two ‘comings’ of Christ that we recall in Advent.
But the picture that we gain of John in the different Gospel readings selected for the two Sundays is different, certainly this year. In Mark’s Gospel he is introduced as ‘John the baptizer’; but in the Gospel of John his role as ‘baptizer’ is largely subsumed into a primary role of ‘witness’ (verse 6, 7). Indeed a careful reading of John 1.29ff suggests that he did not actually ‘baptise’ Jesus himself. Another intriguing difference is that in Mark 1 the description of John’s clothing is deliberately reminiscent of Elijah (see 2 Kings 1.8), and it is clear from Mark 9.13 ‘But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased…’ that the Gospel of Mark does identify John the Baptist with Elijah. By contrast however in John 1.21, when questioned by the ‘priests and Levites’ as to whether he is ‘Elijah’ his response is an explicit ‘I am not’. That comment is part of a sequence of three questions addressed to him are you the Messiah/Elijah/the prophet – with his negative reply getting more and more terse each time. What is interesting and undoubtedly significant is that John’s negative replies offer a deliberate contrast to the language that Jesus will repeatedly and iconically use of himself later in this Gospel, beginning with 4.26 ‘I am…’
For the author of John’s Gospel understood there to be a fundamental difference between Jesus (‘I am’) and John (‘I am not’) which can be expressed through the metaphor of ‘light’. John is ‘not the light’ (1.8), but rather a ‘burning and shining lamp’ (5.35). I understand the difference here between ‘lamp’ and ‘light’ to be that a ‘lamp’ is a secondary source of light, which needs to be lit or kindled by another, and is not spontaneous and self-originating. (Incidentally I think that the prayer offered by Common Worship for lighting the Advent Wreath on Advent 3 which speaks of ‘Your prophet John the Baptist was witness to the truth as a burning and shining light. May we your servants rejoice in his light…’ is misleading and wrong! Advent | The Church of England)
The role of John the Baptist is essentially therefore to point beyond himself to the one who is truth and who is the source of all truth, or as our Nicene Creed expresses it, ‘light of light’, lumen de lumine. This is intriguingly captured by Da Vinci’s portrait of John. The corollary is the acknowledgement that John is a figure who speaks to us of what is ‘not yet’ and ‘more than’ and in that respect it seems to me expresses the Advent spirit of longing and hoping: ‘Our lives, then, are an Advent. The liturgical season of Advent is a sacrament of Everyman’s longing, and this is true for believers no less than for everyone else. A believer who is consciously aware of the season, who stands within the sacramental Advent and thus within the light that is meant for all nations, is deeply conscious of the darkness in himself [sic].’ (Maria Boulding, ‘The Coming of God’)
I sense that both Barth and Merton understood the truth of this.
It has been noted that gradually as Advent progresses the biblical readings shift from focusing on judgement and longing, to a joy which is beginning to be fulfilled. That is certainly true with our Epistle this week, which comes from the very end of 1 Thessalonians in which Paul shifts from speaking about judgement to encouraging his readers to ‘Rejoice always’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16). The passage moves on to a verse which, for personal reasons, is very dear to my heart. ’The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ (I Thessalonians 5.24). The Greek of the first half of this verse is inscribed on the chapel bell at Westcott House theological college where I was privileged to be
lecturer and tutor for seven years. An appropriate inscription of course, for a bell which called ordinands and staff to worship on a daily basis. But I wonder if the NRSV translation of those Greek words on the bell πιστὸς ὁ καλῶν : pistos o kalon , ‘the one who calls you is faithful…’ expresses all that they can encapsulate? For the verb in this phrase is actually a present participle, and as such could, and perhaps should, be translated as ‘faithful is the calling one’. Such a translation emphasises, to the ordinands of Westcott, and to Christians, both lay and clergy alike, that God’s call is not a one-off, once and for all. God is ‘the calling one’ who continually invites us, in the time of Advent and always, to discover new and deeper insights as we in turn make our response.
I have unashamedly ‘cheated’ with this week’s blog. What is offered below is an adaptation of one of the meditations I offered that the diocesan Advent service on Monday 30 November. The meditation (and others I gave then) drew its starting point from the prayer just below. The lovely ‘wilderness’ prayer at the end of the reflection was written by Francis Brienen. It is a helpful tool for meditation in Advent.
Clare Amos Director of Lay Discipleship
An ancient Romano-Byzantine road in north Syria
God of passion and power, Insistent, immediate, Challenging, compelling us with your story’s breathless beginning. Walk us into the wilderness To hear your voice where silence reigns. Give us insight, the vision beyond all seeing, So we may look upon heavens torn open And know that the time of good news for all creation Is always now. Amen
‘Such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive’. The Jesus we meet in this first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, personifies, or could we say ‘incarnates’?, that ‘such a fast God’ whom the Welsh poet RS Thomas celebrates.
The very form of the opening of the Gospel itself helps to shape that vision for us. Mark throws us straight into his story. There is no time for nativity stories, no space for genealogies, and certainly nothing like the Gospel of John’s majestic prose poem which sets Christ within the roomy confines of eternity and infinity. Though perhaps Mark is closer to John than we might initially realise. But what we are greeted with are words in a hurry, with not even the time for a verb in the Gospel’s opening line, and if you look carefully at the Greek original not even a definite article, a ‘the’, accompanying that word ‘beginning’ with which the Gospel starts. One effect of this is that this beginning feels not a finite point in time but rather the start of a process which is still ongoing. That is probably exactly what Mark thought. ‘Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ The good news, the gospel was continuing, growing ever richer as it encountered new times and places, and even when it was being reshaped by Mark and those who came after him, into the form of a written text, that form we now often associate with the word ‘Gospel’. The fact that these are words in a hurry does not make them transitory or less important, but rather opens up that sense of urgency which is such a characteristic feature of the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark.
Incidentally as I am sure many of you are aware, Mark’s Gospel also does not have a conclusive ending, as its final words of chapter 16 are themselves an unfinished sentence, ‘They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…’. Yet somehow this hasty beginning and uncompleted end encourages us too, as readers and listeners, to place ourselves within Mark’s ongoing story of good news.
‘On the way’. If you want to find the key to open a Gospel, the best place to start is probably at its beginning. That is true for all the Gospels, and most certainly for Mark. The biblical quotation from Isaiah there in verses 2 and 3 offers us the first full sentence of the Gospel. What insights does it unlock for us?
But … is this indeed a quotation from Isaiah, in spite of what it suggests? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. For the second half of the quotation – about the voice crying in the wilderness is indeed from Isaiah chapter 40, but the first half – which refers to the messenger who is sent – comes from the Book of Malachi. Why then did Mark attribute it simply to Isaiah? Indeed some later scribes seem to have made a change to ‘in the prophets’ to be more strictly correct.
I wonder though whether this apparent inaccuracy is deliberate and it is a sign that Mark is wanting to encourage us to take a careful look at the passage. And if we do we will find that the one Greek word that is repeated in both halves of the quotation, the part from Malachi and the part from Isaiah is odos, which means ‘way’ or road or journey. Is this repeated word then the key that will open the Gospel of Mark, reappearing as it does at critical moments as the Gospel unfolds, especially in its core middle section (8.22-10.52)
e.g. Jesus…and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (8.27); They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem (10.32); Bartimaeus…followed him on the way (10.52). ‘Way’ is a fundamental image for this Gospel. It was of course an early title for the followers of Jesus (Acts 9.1). I suspect that, initially, it was linked to the ‘way Jesus taught’. And I think that it may have been due to the genius of the writer of Mark’s Gospel that ‘the way Jesus taught’ shifted into exploring ‘the way Jesus walked’. The word ‘way’ then eventually came to describe not only the physical paths that Jesus trod, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, but also in a profound metaphor of his ‘path’ of self-giving, first in ministry and then eventually in his passion..
In his Gospel Mark is taking his first readers, and us, on a journey, a way, with Jesus himself as the centre of the pilgrim party. John the Baptist will be his forerunner on this way in both life and death, and those whom Jesus will shortly call to be disciples will quite literally be told to ‘follow’ him on this road. The picture above is of a Romano-Byzantine road in North Syria. This ancient road in this arid wilderness corner of the Middle East has long symbolised for me the ‘road, the way’ that is so central a thread running through the Gospel of Mark. The image has spoken to me even more powerfully in the last decade as the suffering and persecution of Christians in this region has resonated so closely with the experience of Jesus himself and his followers on the way.
This ‘way’, both for John and for Jesus, begins in the wilderness (1.4,12). The wilderness is above all a place of ‘stripping’. Stripping us down from excess, from pretensions, stripping us naked of the subterfuges we so often use to hide from God and from ourselves. Neville Ward in his classic book The Use of Praying wrote the telling words ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality’. The wilderness is a place where we may be asked to bear more reality than we feel comfortable with.
Sometimes the wilderness we encounter is an actual physical place. I can well remember leading groups of students on long treks through the Judaean wilderness near Jerusalem. It was an awesome experience, not simply because of the beauty of our surrounds. A large measure of its significance came from the awareness that (quite literally) a few water bottles, a map, (and hopefully my sense of direction!) might well stand between life and death for us all. Life itself was thus given a new importance and clarity.
More often perhaps we have metaphorical ‘wildernesses’ that we are all called to spend time in at different points of our lives. They are periods of time when circumstances leave us bare so that we have to wrestle with ourselves – and perhaps also with God. Our only companion may seem to be our shadow – whose acquaintance we would often prefer not to make. There is a tremendous painting of Christ himself in the wilderness, in which the figure of Satan is actually painted in as Christ’s shadow.
There is a sense in which our experience as nations, as communities, as churches and as individuals since March this year has felt to many of us like ‘a wilderness’. We have in many ways been metaphorically ‘stripped’ and deprived of distractions and thus forced to bear far more reality than is normally the case. Churches too, because of the restrictions they are required to follow, have also needed to ask themselves questions about what is essential – and what is not.
But, of course, the air in the wilderness is normally (except in the days of a khamsin wind) beautifully clear – enabling us to see life in a purer light. Near the beginning of CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, Aslan meets Jill on a mountain-top and says to her, ‘Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.’ A wilderness is like that mountain-top! That is why at times in Christian history men and women have chosen to live as monks or nuns in the wilderness, to ‘see’ in a clearer light.
And it is in the wilderness that this journey of Jesus will shortly begin, that traditional biblical place of preparation, the wilderness that the season of Advent itself encourages us to explore. Come, let us walk into the wilderness. Come, Emmanuel.
Wilderness is the place of Moses, a place no longer captive and not yet free, of letting go and learning new living.
Wilderness is the place of Elijah, a place of silence and loneliness, of awaiting the voice of God and finding clarity.
Wilderness is the place of John, a place of repenting, of taking first steps on the path of peace.
Wilderness is the place of Jesus, a place of preparation, of getting ready for the reckless life of faith.
This week’s lectionary blog for Advent Sunday begins to explore the Gospel of Mark, which, with the start of lectionary Year B, will become the focus Gospel for the coming church year. It will include remarks related specifically to Mark 13.24-37, the portion selected for Advent Sunday, as well as offering a brief comment linked to the week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 64.1-9.
During these days which are darker, both because of the season of the year and the ongoing prevalence of the COVID pandemic, I am also hoping, during this Advent season, to offer a second weekly ‘blog’ to come out each weekend, which will help people make a ‘virtual spiritual’ pilgrimage during these weeks, journeying in ‘heart and mind even unto Bethlehem’. We will stop at various ‘Stations on the Way to Bethlehem’ and as ourselves what each place has to say to us, beginning with Jerusalem itself in the offering to appear on Advent Sunday.
(An Australian skyscape, photographed by Nick Meyer)
‘And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake!’
There is a challenging remark that is worth holding up as we approach Advent Sunday, the beginning of the church’s calendar, and the beginning of the new lectionary year, in which for the next 12 months a key focus will be on the Gospel of Mark. ‘In the end, there are two ways of dealing with the Gospel according to Mark: either we throw the book away and opt for a gentler religion, or we act on it and attempt to follow this man (Jesus) through glory and through terror.’ (Chris Burdon, ‘Stumbling on God’)
Burdon’s comment gives me a sense of frisson, as well as reminding me why I love the Gospel of Mark. I do cherish and am challenged by its glory and its terror. I am grateful that by the time I started exploring the New Testament in depth, Mark’s Gospel was already somehow coming into its own in the life of church and academy. It had been side-lined for centuries in favour of the Gospel of Matthew, of which it was seen by many as a poor abbreviation. However first the recognition, in the early years of the 20th century, that Mark was probably the earliest of the Gospels, as well as the way that the vision it offers of glory and terror felt resonant with the catastrophes that scarred that century, helped this Gospel receive the appreciation that it deserves. I think that over the last 40 years or so, the increasing interest in how the Gospels work as ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ has further worked to the benefit of Mark: its sense of of secrecy and paradox entices the reader to become an active participant in the ‘mystery story’ that Mark is quite literally (see Mark 4.11) offering to his readers.
Who were Mark’s first intended readers? I am not sure where they were located, quite probably Rome, though Antioch, Alexandria or even Jerusalem itself have also been mentioned. I do think that Mark was writing for a Christian community experiencing considerable difficulties and probably persecution. The time of Nero’s attack on the Christian community of Rome c.65AD, or shortly afterwards, makes a lot of sense to me. I also pick up within the pages of the Gospel an awareness of the political tensions in Judaea and Galilee which were to explode into the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Palestine beginning in 66AD, and which would culminate ‘apocalyptically’ with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. So I think it quite probable that the Gospel was written 65-70AD.
What comes across to me particularly strongly though in the Gospel of Mark, as he retells the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion, is that the Gospel writer is inviting his readers to share with the earliest disciples of all – Peter and the original followers of Jesus – in following the ‘way’ and joining the journey that Jesus and those first followers had made first in Galilee, and then in Jerusalem, about 35 years before Mark wrote his Gospel. We are not an ‘audience’: rather we are invited to become ‘participants’ in this journey. I have this sense about Mark’s Gospel much more strongly than I do about Matthew or Luke. And though I am reading Mark’s story almost 2000 years after it was first written down, and though my own current context is not one of persecution, I too still find myself treading ‘in heart and mind’ that journey of Jesus which Mark sketched out so vividly for his very first readers.
But, I think, there is one point where Mark seems to break off briefly from telling the story of the ‘original’ ministry of Jesus, and somehow addresses his readers directly, in their own time and context. It is in Mark 13, part of which forms the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for Advent Sunday (Mark 13.24-37). Without necessarily denying that ideas expressed in this chapter may well go back to the earthly Jesus, I also ‘hear’ clearly expressed in this chapter the anxieties of Mark’s own contemporaries, his readers who may have found themselves standing ‘before governors and kings,’ and have been brought to trial because of their faithfulness to Jesus (Mark 13.9-11). The tension over the fate of the Temple – its destruction by the Roman army of Titus – whether this was still to happen at the time Mark wrote, or whether it had recently occurred also seems to be alluded to (Mark 13.1. 14).
For those who experienced such anxieties, in this chapter, though not minimizing their suffering, Mark speaks a word of ultimate hope. He affirms that as in the Book of Daniel (7.13) the ‘Son of Man’ would come to inaugurate the time when evil empires would be overthrown and the rule of God would be fully established (Mark 13.26-27).
Yet there is an intriguing detail at the end of the chapter. It is the words of the injunction that are addressed – in the first instance I think to Mark’s own contemporaries – to remain faithful and alert and watching for the signs of this coming, this ‘Advent’. He urges them twice, to ‘keep awake’, (Mark 13.35-37) indeed, ‘keep awake’ are the very final words of this chapter – before Mark turns back once again to focus on the earthly passion of Jesus which will shortly move to its inexorable conclusion.
And in that passion narrative the same phrase ‘Keep awake’ will feature prominently again, during Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane ‘Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial’ (Mark 14.38). That same phrase, appearing in both places, in close proximity, has the effect of ‘bridging’ the thirty or so years between the experience of Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane, and the experience of Mark’s contemporary readers. Their suffering becomes in a sense a ‘new Gethsemane’. Yet of course the fact that Jesus’ own Gethsemane experience ultimately leads to life through death can in turn offer hope for Mark’s own contemporaries.
This coalescing of these two times, perhaps suggests that time itself therefore is no longer constrained by usual linear boundaries. That is a message that is offered from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism the heavens are split open (Mark 1.9-11). This seems to be a fulfilment of the prayer expressed in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64.1). The new creation inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus breaks down the normal boundaries of both space and time. There is the crux relating to Mark 1.15 made famous by the work of CH Dodd, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…’. Does this mean that the kingdom has already arrived, or is it almost here but still just around the corner? Can it be that in this new dispensation both are somehow possible and true?
That, it seems to me, seems to link quite deeply with the church’s understanding of the nature of Advent, that we cannot quite pin down whether the ‘coming’ to which it refers is past, present or future?. Advent draws our attention to the first coming – of Jesus as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; yet it encourages us to also to look forward with hope and longing to the final coming of Christ in glory. What is the relationship between the two, and does the season of Advent, properly draw on that first coming to act as a sacrament of the final one?
However there is one further coming which is also part of the story of Advent, which Christian tradition has cherished:
As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first…Between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time. He comes to us now to make sure that his first coming shall not have been wasted, and that his last coming may not have to be in anger. (Guerric of Igny, 12th century)
A similar tension about the nature of Advent is noted by J. Neil Alexander, in an article tellingly entitled, ‘A Sacred Time in Tension’ (Liturgy vol. 13, no. 3):
Is Advent really the beginning of the annual cycle or does Advent bring the year to a conclusion? The fact is that… [such] ‘either/ors’ are really ‘both/ands’. And it is precisely because we cannot eliminate one or the other but must hold them in tension that we have inherited ‘a season under stress’ [Richard Hoefler}… shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgement and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning.
Perhaps Karl Barth, that great Swiss theologian whose thinking still dominates European theology even more than 50 years after his death, summed up for us in his Church Dogmatics what is both the gift and challenge of the Advent season: ‘Whatever season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?’
With ‘time’ in mind, if you are not already aware of it, it is well worth knowing – and perhaps drawing on – the poem Advent Calendar by Rowan Williams. A stunning musical setting of the poem can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_CNtjIud8A
As you will realise if you read on, I think the Feast of Christ the King, offers us some challenges – but they are ones that are worthwhile to address! This reflection ended up being longer than normal, or perhaps even desirable, but I wanted to tease out (not least for myself) some insights linked to the themes and readings for the Last Sunday before Advent. It is not a particularly easy read! But I would particularly welcome feedback, and discussion about what I have explored below.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe; Clare.email@example.com
Christ the King in the Anglican Cathedral in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. The ‘cruciform’ shape of the figure is important.
I still (just) remember from my childhood the tradition of ‘Stir up Sunday’, the last Sunday before Advent. As many of you will already know it was called by this name due to the Book of Common Prayer Collect for the day, which read:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
This was of course also the time that diligent housewives also made their Christmas cakes and puddings, ‘stirring up’ and mixing the flour with the various goodies, including ‘fruit’ (see prayer above) that got included in the mix.
The BCP lectionary readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 23.5-8 (‘for the Epistle’) and John 6.5-14 (part of John’s account of the Feeding of the multitude). At first glance I wondered why that reading from the Gospel of John had been selected, as most of the passage doesn’t have an obvious coming-up-to-Advent feel about it. It was however clearly the final sentence that led to it being chosen, ‘This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world’. (John 6.14)
It is not always realised how varied was the ‘messianic expectation’ in Judaism around the time of the New Testament period. There was of course the hope that there would come a messianic king (a ‘new’ David) who would personify the kingly ideal, acting as a true king, both in terms of the execution of power and the administration of justice. Normally when you read the word ‘Messiah’ in the New Testament it is probably this kind of kingly figure that is being thought of. But there were also alternative, or overlapping ideas, for example of a messianic priest, ‘a Messiah of Aaron’. There was also the view, held particularly by groups with Samaritan links, that the coming messianic figure would have the character of a prophet, a sort of new Moses, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 18.15, apparently spoken by Moses, ‘The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people’. It is clearly this figure that is being referred to in John 6.14 as ‘The Prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6.14) It is an appropriate acclamation, given that Jesus had just fed a multitude, reminiscent of the way that in the time of Moses the people had been fed with manna in the wilderness (see also John 6.31-32). For the New Testament writers Jesus fulfilled all three messianic expectations of king, priest and prophet – and as Advent approaches we look forward to his ‘coming’ in all three roles. (In parenthesis the BCP selection from Jeremiah emphasises the ‘kingly’ messianic expectation).
There is in fact one additional form of the ‘messianic expectation’ that is important for the Gospel writers, perhaps in fact the most important of all. But you will have to read on to find out more about that…
During my adult life I have experienced several different lectionary patterns: first the BCP, then the two year structure introduced to accompany the Alternative Service Book (1980) and now the Common Worship lectionary which is closely based on the international and ecumenical three Year Revised Common Lectionary. (As it happens, since I was editing an ecumenical UK based worship publication in the late 1990s I also became familiar with a ‘four year lectionary’ proposed by the UK Joint Liturgical Group briefly used in some of the Free Churches but which never quite caught on. Sometimes, especially as a biblical scholar, I think that is a pity.)
One of the points in the liturgical year that lectionary writers have clearly had to wrestle with is those November weeks in the run up to Advent. Do we see these weeks as the ‘end’, fulfilment culmination of all that has been experienced earlier of the story of God’s work in creation and redemption, or are they the anticipation of the story beginning once again?
The lectionary used in the ASB clearly took its stand on the ‘beginning’. In effect it shifted the beginning of the church year to the start of November, and its use of the Old Testament in November and December makes transparent that it views this period as a time for retelling the whole story of creation from ‘Genesis’ to the birth of Christ. The Sunday before Advent found itself called ‘Thanksgiving Sunday’, but it really did not stand out from the preceding weeks, and there was certainly no strongly messianic/kingly or endtime themes in the biblical readings which were suggested.
As we know this ASB lectionary pattern did not really ‘stick’. One of the reasons that I think it failed is the particular character of November in wider culture, and even the seasonal pattern of the year, certainly in the northern hemisphere. The importance given by society to November as the time for remembrance of those who have died in conflict, and the reality that in this month we experience the darkening of days and the dying of nature, means that it feels a period which liturgically naturally speaks of eschatological culmination rather than new beginnings. Certainly by 1990, the publication of The Promise of his Glory, the first of a set of Church of England seasonal resources, people were already exploring different patterns of readings and themes for the days of November time. The description of ‘the Sundays of the Kingdom’ which The Promise of his Glory
Window at Christ Church, Vienna, depicting Christ the King. (Photo Ben O’Neill)
uses for most of the Sundays in November was clearly influenced by the suggestions offered in the then recently developed ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary, which itself owed much to the Roman Catholic lectionary authorised by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Alongside this and linked to this lectionary the Pope also changed the date of the Feast of Christ the King, which had been inaugurated by Pope Pius XI and originally observed at the end of October, but which was shifted in 1969 to the last Sunday before Advent.
So the path was prepared for the developments linked to the launch of Common Worship at Advent 2000. Partly because the Common Worship lectionary is so closely linked to the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary in which the Feast of Christ the King was already reflected in the lectionary, the celebration of this Feast was quickly adopted. by Church of England Anglicans. The current Church of England website refers to the Feast as follows.
‘The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty. The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven, and final judgement is one of his proper kingly purposes. The Feast of Christ the King returns us to the Advent theme of judgement, with which the cycle once more begins.’
It is interesting that (as far as Anglicans are concerned) this could be described as an example of when a lectionary has been influential in developing church practice and custom, rather than vice-versa.
I think I have taken this amount of time and space to get to this point, partly because I am conscious that I personally am uncomfortable about the Feast of Christ the King, particularly being celebrated in the Anglican tradition, and if I am going to ‘stir things up’ (see this week’s title!) then I feel that I also need to take seriously how and why we now celebrate it.
Why I am uncomfortable? And what does this mean for our ‘reading’ of this week’s lectionary Gospel, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.31-46, especially within the wider context of the Gospel of Matthew.
I think that my main questionmark about the Feast stems from two factors – which interlock in my own mind.
My first qualm is the context in which the Feast was initially developed in the Roman Catholic Church. It is widely, and probably accurately, said that Pope Pius XI established the Feast in 1925 partly as a counter-balance to the growing secularism and nationalism and political movements of the age, and because, at that time, the question of the political role of the Popes, especially in relation to the Kingdom of Italy was still unresolved.
So far, so good. But I cannot help feeling that even while seeking to offer a challenge to movements such as fascism, in fact the celebration of the Kingship of Christ has itself ‘shades’ that take itself rather too close to a quasi-fascist presentation of Christ. I find myself really quite uncomfortable when I see pictures of those gigantic statues of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) which decorate many hilltops in Spanish and Portuguese speaking territories, whether in Europe or Latin America,, most of which were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. And it is all too easy to move from this to the situation in which Christians make assumptions that the natural (indeed only possible) political position for Christians to be in, whether nationally or globally, is one of power and dominance. (To be both topical and blunt we are seeing something of this among ‘Christian’ supporters of Trump in the USA in these post-election days.)
Statue of Christ-Roi, Les Houches, near Chamonix, France
My second qualm is due to insights that I have gained particularly from the well-known hymnwriter Brian Wren. Wren has wrestled for decades with the way that language can influence reality, whether positively or negatively. His 1989 book What Language shall I borrow? explores the way that the metaphors that we use in worship are immensely powerful for our thinking about the world around us. Wren offers a particular challenge to what we might call ‘patriarchal’ metaphors. The acronym that he uses to gather these together (and challenge them) is KINGAFAP. That is an abbreviation for ‘King, Almighty Father, All Powerful’. As many of you will be aware a characteristic of Wren’s hymnwriting is to seek to provide alternative metaphors that move us away from these images to ones that are rather different, acknowledge vulnerability, and which are not so obviously linked to the male gender. With Brian Wren’s strictures in mind I do find it ‘ambiguous’ to focus too readily on the ‘Kingship’ of Christ.
But next Sunday is, in the Church of England calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. And this year’s lectionary Gospel is Matthew 25.31-46. I want to honour both these realities, so what, bearing my earlier caveats in mind have I got to say about their intertwining?
Well (to tantalise you once again before I offer you my final response!), it is important to explore this in the overall context of Matthew’s Gospel. Over the last few weeks the lectionary Gospel has been in turn one of a series of episodes from Matthew 21 – 25. It will probably not come as a surprise to those of you who are regular readers of this blog that I have found several of these passages quite ‘difficult’, partly because as someone who has worked professionally in the sphere of Jewish-Christian relationships I know how actually dangerous these texts can be in the wrong hands. Looking over them again as a whole one of the things that strikes me about several of them is how they focus on an authority figure who (by our standards) behaves in a way that can seem unfair or unjust, but who seems somehow to represent ‘God’ in the story. Is this the way that Matthew really thinks about God? It is certainly true that many modern Christian theologians find Matthew ‘difficult’. My friend Angela Tilby once did a brilliant ‘demolition’ job on Matthew which ended with the comment that, ‘Matthew lays the foundations for a Church sanctioned morality which has been enormously influential, creative and damaging.’ And then she pithily summed up Matthew by describing it as ‘an authoritative gospel, a gospel for popes, prelates and priests.’
But… perhaps that is not quite all that can be said. Perhaps, just perhaps, Matthew himself can occasionally be subversive of what we might assume he would think.
When you are seeking to work out the priorities of each of the Gospels, a key starting point is to look at the beginning and the end. And at the beginning and the end of the Gospel of Matthew there is a key motif, which will also be at the heart of our celebration of Christmas.
According to the angelic voice in Matthew 1.23 we are told,
The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, And they shall name him Emmanuel’ which means, ‘God with us’.
So the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew proclaims the ‘withness’ of God. And this is then re-echoed in the final sentence of the Gospel. Matthew offers a majestic picture of a powerful risen Christ on a mountain-top who is worshipped by his disciples (Matthew 28.16-28). A depiction of Christ the King we might say! But the very final words of the Gospel proclaim him also as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age’. And it is in between these two book ends that we should be reading Matthew’s story of Jesus, the story of the one who graciously promises to be ‘with’ humanity throughout all time ‘until the end of the age’.
So where can we find and see him today? Indeed Matthew himself directly and explicitly provides the startling – and shocking? – answer. For I believe that we are intended to read our lectionary Gospel, the story of the Sheep and the Goats in the context of this pledge of the ‘withness’ of God. And when we do so we discover that we are being offered the opportunity to see Jesus in some very unlikely places – in the faces of the sick, the strangers, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned whom the disciples of Jesus may choose – or refuse – to honour or minister to. ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or naked or a stranger or in prison? ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did to the least of my brothers and sisters – so you did it to me.’
So this is one aspect of Matthew’s subversiveness – to discover that we can find Christ is somehow identified with the most powerless representatives of humanity.
I wonder if a second subversive aspect though is linked to the place that the story of the Sheep and the Goats has as the culmination of those other stories prior to it in the Gospel in which the exercise of authority can make us feel very uneasy? It sits, so to speak, on judgement, on them as well. The ‘sting’ of the harsh master of the Parable of the Talents (25.14-30) or the king who expelled the improperly dressed wedding guest into the outer darkness (22.11-14) is thus challenged by the royal figure who offers true justice to the very least of society and humanity in this very last parable of the Gospel, located just before the beginning of the passion narrative. This is therefore the Gospel’s final word on authority.
And one final thought. Near the beginning of what I wrote today I noted that there were several ‘models’ of messianic expectation current in New Testament times: messianic king, priest and prophet. And I said that there was one more model still to reveal. It comes in the opening sentence of this Parable, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory…’ (25.31) Who is this mysterious Son of Man who features in all four of the Gospels but then virtually disappears from the rest of the New Testament? Clearly it is linked in some way to the figure ‘one like a son of man’ who appears in Daniel 7.13 and who, after initial suffering is given ‘dominion and glory and kingship… that shall never be destroyed’.
The term ‘Son of Man’ therefore reflects an important further strand of Jewish (and early Christian) messianic ideology. There is a great deal that can be written on this topic, but one thread that I believe should not be ignored is the reality that the Hebrew phrase ‘son of man’ can mean simply ‘a human being’. (The NRSV translation of Daniel 7.13 actually refers to ‘one like a human being’). So is this Matthew’s ultimate subversive paradox, that he offers us a ‘true human being’: that he tentatively identifies the ‘Son of Man’ who will be named as king and judge in this parable (Matthew 25.34) with all humanity, at least in anticipation, who will judge themselves, positively or negatively, by their response to the ‘little ones’ (who are closely linked with Christ himself)? If that is indeed the case are we being offered a paradoxical inversion of the language of kingship? So does the Feast of Christ the King invite us to celebrate the kingship of Christ shown not in ultimate power but in solidarity with vulnerable humanity?
The Son who ‘sits upon his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him’ is the same one who, at the very apex of his cosmic power, reveals that the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the littlest ones in his name. (Fleming Rutledge)
This week’s lectionary blog looks at both Matthew 25.14-30 (the Parable of the Talents) and the selected lectionary psalm, Psalm 90, for this coming Sunday, 15 November.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Talents We need to catch fire before we are gone that is the message of the parable of the talents; we have lumbered long enough now to slough off the sleep to take a kingfisher swoop let God’s light illuminate us hold us for an instant us in the twinkling of his eye that will be enough, enough… (Anon)
I would be very grateful if anyone knows who wrote the above poem, so that I can credit them correctly.
I don’t know about you, but I have always found the Parable of the Talents, especially as it is set out in the Gospel of Matthew, one of the parts of the New Testament that I dislike the most.
In truth I think I always have, for as long as I can remember. When I first heard it as a child it seemed so basically unfair. Quite apart from the master’s eventual revenge, there was the question as to why the different slaves were given such different amount of ‘talents’ to start with.
There is no doubt of course that the parable has been influential, at least in western Christian history. That is shown not least by the way that the ‘talent’, the unit of weight or money that the story revolves around, has been used, since the 13th century, to describe someone who is ‘talented’ – people such as in the case of the parable those two slaves who used their skills with apparent great success. It is worth pointing out of course that what the slaves had been entrusted with was no small piddling amount. One solitary talent was apparently worth more than 15 years of wages for a labourer.
I think that the parable has played an ambiguous role in Protestant history. On the one hand it seems to be the antithesis of the Reformation Protestant vision that prioritised ‘faith’ over against ‘works’. For it would seem that the eventual fate of the slaves is determined primarily by their success in ‘works’. On the other hand it feels to be a biblical exposition of the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic.’
I did in fact wonder about concentrating this week on one of the other lectionary passages. But it felt that would be a bit of a ‘cop out’. So, although I will eventually draw attention to the selected Psalm for this week – Psalm 90, which is genuinely one of the most important psalms in the whole Psalter – I will initially explore some ways of looking at Matthew 25.14-30.
I am glad to say that I am clearly not the only Christian biblical scholar or teacher who finds this parable problematic. e.g.
If the parable of the talents is not ironical, then the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is about a strict system of earning rewards, and there’s not much room for grace or forgiveness or mercy. (Alan Brehm)
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount instructs us to not return violence for violence; instead we should be like God, who offers boundless, gratuitous love to all. But in the same Gospel Jesus tells eight parables in which God deals violently with evildoers. Which of the divine ways are we to imitate? (Barbara E. Reid OP)
This parable scares me more than all the other parables and Biblical admonitions put together. It makes me curl into a ball on the couch with a blanket over my head. (Suzanne Guthrie)
One way forward for interpreting the parable that has become quite popular in recent years has been to suggest that the parable might be being deliberately subversive of the political and social realities of Jesus’ day, in which the oppression of the Roman Empire loomed large. This often involves suggesting that we should not identify God with the ‘master’ of the story, but rather instead with the ‘worthless servant’. So:
It is a descriptive parable of someone who refused to participate in that process, in a situation where absentee landowners and their lackeys were the primary interface between Jewish peasantry and the Roman Empire. That servant—deemed ‘lazy’ and unfaithful by the Empire—pays an awful price for refusing to play along. (Mark Davis)
The Master is one of the Robber Barons of an economic system which places 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the world’s population. Read Jesus as the servant who was of no use to this Master, the one who exposes the master’s ethics who gathers where he does not sow, (sounds like thievery to me). Matthew places this text on the eve of Holy Week, when Jesus will indeed be found to useless to Empire and will be thrown out of the city and wail while he is crucified. Jesus, our rather useless servant, does not cooperate with the economic system dictated to him. He is not afraid to speak truth to power. (Peter Cruchley)
However, though I might personally appreciate that interpretation, if I am honest, I don’t think this way of looking at the story was the original understanding of the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
Perhaps it is the current context in which we are living, in these virus days, but I have become more aware of the importance of ‘hope’ as a vital theological theme. It is interesting how frequently the word appears in Paul’s letters, and how central a motif it is for him. Jurgen Moltmann’s breakthrough book, written in the 1960s and influential ever since, offers a Theology of Hope.
Indeed was the tragedy that the third slave had given up on ‘hope’ – and that his sense of hopelessness dominated his life and dictated his dealings? As Moltmann put it, ‘Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God.’ Two comments on the parable from this perspective:
The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God. (William Loader)
[Take account of] the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment… The major themes of the Christian faith – caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping – cannot be understood or lived without risk. (Fred Craddock)
It has been a strange, and momentous, week on the world stage. But hope – or the lack of it – feels like an undercurrent running through what has happened:
The elections in the USA, and the hope for change in the future felt not only by a majority of American voters, but also, significantly, by many in other parts of the world
The elation at the news that a vaccine for COVID may soon become widely available and the hopes placed in this.
I love the phrase ‘a restless hope’ which I have used as the title for this week’s blog. It is actually drawn from a Prayer Handbook of the United Reformed Church, produced in the 1990s. It sums up for me the way that I believe that our Christian faith calls us to both ‘hope’ and ‘restlessness’ in relation to the world in which we have been set.
And there are also two other expressions of hope that I also want to recall, even if on a very different scale. Strangely they are linked to the deaths of two people during the last few days. One was internationally well known – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – the other, less so – Professor Ataullah Siddiqui, who was nevertheless appreciated by many (including myself) for his deep commitment to interreligious engagement and desire to train Muslim leaders who could engage with British culture. One was a Jewish religious leader, the other a Muslim. One important thing they shared in common was a deep commitment to their respective faiths playing constructive and important roles in secular British society. Through their lives, and their work, and their ‘talents’ (to use this week’s loaded word) they managed to express hope. They are both a reminder that hope is stronger than death.
For me, Psalm 90, the ‘set’ lectionary Psalm for this coming Sunday, expresses in its lines, such an understanding of hope.
It is one of the most important psalms in the entire psalter. Its importance is indicted by its location, at the beginning of Book Four of the Book of Psalms, and by the way that it is ascribed to Moses (it is the only psalm to be so). I don’t know the date that it was originally written, but I do think that its current placing within the Psalter is intended to allow it to speak as a word of hope in difficult times for the people of the Old Testament. It is no accident that it comes directly after Psalm 89 – the latter half of which seems to bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exile of a significant group of the people in Babylon. (See e.g. Psalm 89.38-51). Psalm 89 throws questions and challenges at God, and finally seems to sink into hopelessness.
Psalm 90 is the response. It starts from the premise of the majesty and eternity of God, with which it then contrasts the frailty and transience of humanity, For its first 10 verses it may also seem almost ‘hopeless’, especially given God’s apparent anger with humanity. But then in verse 11 the mood changes as God is directly addressed with his personal name, normally translated into English as LORD. God’s compassion and lovingkindness become the ground of hope. Not to enable human beings to ‘become like gods’, and live for ever. However God’s graciousness to human beings will give meaning to their lives, finite though they may be. Indeed the fact that they are finite, in the eyes of the psalmist, reinforces that meaning. For it is when we are required to ‘count our days’, that we may ‘gain a wise heart’(verse 12). That is the Psalmist’s message of hope, initially to the Babylonian exiles, yet also to us today.
Psalm 90, either as a psalm or in its metrical version ‘O God our help in ages past’, is regularly used at funerals and gatherings for individual and communal memorial. It ‘is not a prayer for fame or greatness, not a prayer that we may see the fulfilment, the consequence, the outcome of our work, but that it may be established, that is, that God may bring whatever work we do into being and give it enduring value. We may or may not see the shape and outcome of our work, but we may ask God to bring it to fruition and so place the work of our hands’ in God’s hands.’ (Patrick D. Miller, ‘Interpreting the Psalms’)
Through their talents, their lives and their visions of hope both Jonathan Sacks and Ataullah Siddiqui prayed the song of Psalm 90.
This week’s lectionary blog explores the Sunday reading from the Gospel of Matthew 25.1-13.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, firstname.lastname@example.org
One Christmas, it must have been about 30 years ago, when I was visiting my parents in Dorset, I went to a pre-Christmas service in the local village church.
The organist had chosen to play the Nicolai/Bach organ chorale, ‘Wachet Auf’ (BWV 645). That is a piece of music that I have long loved. I appreciate the way that the music begins with Bach’s accompaniment, then Nicolai’s chorale enters the frame, while Bach continues to weave his threads around the melody, and they both end together in a resonant conclusion. (Listen, for example, to the work played on an organ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cas1jTPU7Cw)
However, on that particular occasion, though we had the accompaniment – all of it, from beginning to end – Nicolai’s chorale melody never made an appearance. I sat there in anticipation, but it never appeared and eventually I realised that it wasn’t going to. I suspect that coordinating the two was beyond the capabilities of the organist, valiant though he was, and so he had decided in advance to omit the chorale. Ever since I have thought of the experience as being ‘Wachet Auf’ without the ‘Auf’.
When the melody of ‘Wachet Auf’ is vocalised, the words are drawn from the parable in Matthew 25.1-13, that is the Gospel for this Sunday. It tells the story of the ten virgins (updated, slightly questionably I feel, by modern biblical translations to ‘bridesmaids’) who are waiting for a delayed bridegroom to appear. One of the fascinating – and mysterious – aspects of the tale is that the bride herself is never actually mentioned, which incidentally is also the case for another Gospel story about a wedding – John’s account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-12).
The original German text of ‘Wachet Auf’ composed by Phillip Nicolai has been widely translated into English. Perhaps the best known version is by F.C. Burkitt. The chorale text does identify a bride, who is Jerusalem or Zion personified:
Wake, O wake! With tidings thrilling the watchmen all the air are filling, arise, Jerusalem, arise! Midnight strikes! No more delaying, ‘The hour has come!’ we hear them saying, ‘where are ye all, ye virgins wise? The Bridegroom comes in sight, raise high your torches bright!’ Alleluia! The wedding song swells loud and strong: Go forth and join the festal throng.
Zion hears the watchmen shouting, her heart leaps up with joy undoubting, she stands and waits with eager eyes; see her Friend from heaven descending, adorned with truth and grace unending! Her light burns clear, her star doth rise. Now come, thou precious Crown, Lord Jesus, God’s own Son! Alleluia! Let us prepare to follow there, where in thy supper we may share.
It is interesting that this parable from Matthew 25.1-13 should be chosen as the Gospel reading for 8 November, still in the first half of the month. In earlier centuries it tended to be held over either till the beginning of Advent, or (in the Lutheran tradition) used on the Last Sunday before Advent (Bach’s Wachet Auf was originally composed with that Sunday in mind). The parable does clearly have an ‘Advent’ flavour – quite literally as it is a story about waiting for the ‘coming’ of the bridegroom. Indeed there is a wonderful poem by Christina Rossetti which takes this Gospel reading as its focus which is actually called ‘Advent Sunday’. Since Rossetti’s poem is not particularly well known (and also it is out of copyright) I include the full text here:
BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out With lighted lamps and garlands round about To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.
It may be at the midnight, black as pitch, Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.
It may be at the crowing of the cock Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.
For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride: His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.
Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place, Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.
Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing, She triumphs in the Presence of her King.
His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed; He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.
He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love, And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out With lamps ablaze and garlands round about To meet Him in a rapture with a shout. (Christina Rossetti)
I am not quite sure whether the ‘bride’ in this poem is intended to be the Church, or humanity as a whole? Perhaps in fact it veers, not inappropriately, between the two?
But it is interesting to reflect on this parable in the context in which we now use it. What does it mean to read it in this month that we might call ‘the Advent of Advent’? What does it mean also to read it on what is widely kept as Remembrance Sunday? And in a week in which the ambiguity of the US electoral process is clearly dominating the news headlines (I write this on the morning of Wednesday 4 November – and whatever the ultimate outcome ‘ambiguity’ will be an accurate word to use!) During COVID times? And in the days following some brutal examples of religiously motivated violence occurring in major cities of Europe?
The poet Malcolm Guite has written thoughtfully about the meaning of Advent. Malcolm notes:
‘Advent is a season for stillness, for quiet, for discernment. It is a season of active waiting, straining forward, listening, attentive and finely tuned.’ Elsewhere he suggests that Advent is ‘a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting itself is strangely rich and fulfilling.’
I think that Malcolm’s remarks about ‘active waiting, straining forward’… are important for us at the present time. Somehow (and I don’t think I speak only for myself) the challenge that many of us are undergoing in different parts of Europe to live with and through the ‘second wave’ of the COVID virus feels even more difficult than the first. Perhaps it is partly because we are now moving into winter, rather than as previously, into spring? Perhaps because it somehow feels just a little bit harder to see an end to it all in view than it did the first time round? I think that this year we are going to be living in and through Advent more profoundly than we have often been able to in the past, and indeed the current social realities will also mean, I suspect, that it won’t be so easy for Christmas to trespass back into Advent in the way that it so often does. So this year offers us the opportunity to explore Advent more deeply… and perhaps this week’s parable encourages us to think in advance about what this might mean.
The Roman Catholic nun Maria Boulding’s classic book, The Coming of God is one I myself have turned to again and again over the years to explore the meaning of Advent. Its opening lines may initially appear bleak, but they are worth pausing on and inwardly digesting, ‘If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes.’ It is a good thought to bear in mind in our Diocese whose motto is ‘Walking Together in Faith’. I will save Boulding’s delicious conclusion to the book to quote as my final words this week.
To return to my experience of Wachet Auf without the ‘Auf’, with which I began, the essential problem was I guess that without the chorale melody there was no sense of ‘straining forward’ nor did the waiting feel really ‘rich and fulfilling’! That sense of looking forward with joy and anticipation which is so much a part of Phillip Nicolai’s text and melody was completely lost.
Of course there are ambiguities in the biblical parable, and in the writings like Nicolai and Rossetti which draw upon it. That missing bride, and that particular naming of female virginity, which so reflect Middle Eastern culture even these days, do make me uneasy. So I cherish the song written by Kathy Galloway, deliberately set to the melody ‘Wachet Auf’, which explores the meeting between Love and human beings but ‘inverting’ the metaphor of gender as it had been employed in earlier days. I quote the whole song:
Seas roll back, and mountains tremble and rain will dance upon the desert the rose will grow in splendour bright. Dawn is born of darkness’ labour and shadowed sorrow long in waiting no more may fear the tender night. For Love has left her throne and comes to claim her own her beloved. All living things in joy embrace to see the glory of her face.
Every hate and every hunger will flee before her holy anger and healing every hurt will find. Every wrong with justice mending she walks abroad in pity tending the aching heart of humankind. For love has come to earth inviting us to birth new creation Both men and women, flesh and flower are split with her emerging power.
Come and dance, come shout with gladness Come leave your shame, shake off your sadness And make your peace with all that’s past. We may rightly know each other And rightly live as sister, brother, In freedom reaching out at last. For Love is moving through, Her spirit draws us to True communion. To shake and shatter every bond And find our holy common ground. (Words, copyright Kathy Galloway, melody ‘Wachet Auf’, reproduced with permission)
They are perhaps good words to quote in the days before the long awaited Church of England report ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is due to appear (9 November). (I genuinely have absolutely NO idea what that report is going to say.)
The final chapter of Maria Boulding’s book is called ‘the Sacrament of Advent’. An interesting thought for these days in which many are forced to live with the lack of sacramental worship. In this context how can we make the waiting ‘rich and fulfilling’? Perhaps by listening both with physical, and spiritual, ears to the interweaving of melody and accompaniment in Wachet Auf, and looking forward to its final resolution: ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting. Before the final wedding of God with humanity the lovers meet many times… the ‘Come’ theme from whichever end we view it is about the advance of lovers…The gift is certain, because God is already pledged, already in our world, already Emmanuel. We are irrevocably, unconditionally, loved.’ (Maria Boulding, The Coming of God).