Let him easter

Appearing to disciples at table, Duccio 1308-11

This coming Sunday’s lectionary readings include Acts 3.12-19; 1 John 3.1-7 and Luke 24.36b-48. I am grateful to Canon Alan Amos for writing this reflection  which focuses on the Gospel reading, and also draws in words from I John.  

Clare Amos

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

*****

As I approach the Gospel for the coming Sunday, first of all I remember that Easter is not over. It is a season, yes –  but it is also an experience. I think of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.’

I love that phrase ‘the dimness of us.’ How accurate it seems at times! I think perhaps after the energy we have put into the actual liturgical celebration of Easter, a little ‘dimness’ may be what we are feeling. Not cheered up perhaps by a Sunday reading coming along where the focus seems to be on the risen Lord eating a piece of fish. Difficult to avoid a certain bathos seeming to set in, after the radiant account of the Emmaus experience. So to come to terms with that piece of fish,

In order to do this, I ask myself two questions: what is the evangelist seeking to say to us? And then what is the risen Christ seeking to say to us through the evangelist?

First Luke. He wants us to see the reality of the risen Jesus, and to rejoice with him. He wants us to join him an in experience of resurrection-life, of which the focus is Jesus in all his bodily actuality.

Luke will not let us get away with a kind of spiritualised belief in a bloodless resurrection. Jesus is fully present in the upper room. As present as you and me are in our immediate physical surroundings, handling the objects of our daily existence. He is not a ghost wafted in from outside. He is with us. The first followers of Jesus were astounded by this experience. They were shaken to the core by it. Luke expects us to be shaken by his account as well. It is not ‘normal’; and yet the paradox is that it is normal, because it is the life of the Jesus who walks and talks and eats fish that is present among them.

What about Jesus himself. What is the risen Lord seeking to say to us through the evangelist?

First of all, I think Jesus does not want us to be so glum and serious about things. There is a life-giving joy, even a light-heartedness, about Resurrection. OK, if I have to eat a piece of fish in order to get you to believe, just hand it over! The picture that we often have of Jesus takes him away from the truly human, and the truly human has to include a sense of humour and light-heartedness, as a counterpart to the agony which also belongs to being human. There are those awful wounds recalling the agony – and then there is the piece of fish. All the depths and the inconsequentiality of life are here in a bundle. Life transcending this life, radiant beyond this life, and the mundanity of the here and now. For the piece of fish, read ‘bread and wine.’ Presence, life-giving, mysterious, grace-full. God in ordinary. We are being shown that we do not live in a mechanistic universe where everything is pre-determined. We live in a universe where signs are as real as concrete. And love is as real as crucifixion.

Palestinian (Armenian) pottery plate depicting the mosaic at the Church of Tabgha, Galilee

The mystery of Jesus in human form will shortly leave the company of his friends. Luke moves on almost immediately to tell us about that. What remains is the love which is both indestructible and transformative, transfiguring. The reading appointed from St John’s first epistle points us towards this. Having talked about the love which the Father has towards us as his children, the writer continues, ‘We are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’

What was disclosed in the upper room, in its human form was to pass beyond sight. But the power of love which was part of the same disclosure experience will never pass away, and we travel on in our lives drawing on the strength that this gives us, towards a destination which is both beyond ourselves and the knowledge we have of ourselves. In God, we are more than we know ourselves to be.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fish-detail.jpg

Walls. Jesus travels through walls, does not bother to acknowledge them. We are in a time when we also experience that Jesus travels through all kinds of walls and barriers, even those erected by the virus. This is a special time, and it is worth pausing to reflect on it.

It is also a time, sadly, when in Europe we see walls being erected where they had been removed; a time when ‘each to his own’ seems to rule the day. Perhaps the virus will be the means of restoring a global vision and concern; for the virus surely defeats an ‘each to his own’ way of dealing with human problems. If all are not safeguarded against the virus, ultimately none will be safeguarded.

Just at this time when we are being shown so clearly the value of science and its application, the sharing of scientific expertise and knowledge across Europe is being made much more difficult as a consequence of political actions reflecting an upsurge in populism. And the sharing of joys of life in art and music are also being constrained by new boundaries and processes.

Easter is a time when we celebrate the gifts of Christ to us all, and among those gifts is the will to live in freedom as human beings restored by grace, rejoicing, and caring for all in the world around us without discrimination.

The Gospel of the third and fourth generations

The West Window, Holy Trinity Church Geneva

This week’s blog looks at a Gospel text that appears in the lectionary every year – Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ, and its consequences. I also include (with permission) a hymn linked to Thomas by the Episcopal hymnwriter Professor Thomas Troeger. I especially enjoy Troeger hymns because of their theological perceptiveness as well as literary qualities. The illustration depicts the West Window of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, which effectively conveys the sense of Christ of as Lord of all time and space. It was photographed by Emma Charles.

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

Over my years of studying and teaching the Bible there have been a number of books which at one time or another I have thought to write but which have not, so far at least, seen the light of day. In some cases that was probably a wise decision.

I started early. My first aspiration in this area came when I was studying A Level Religious Studies. Our Old Testament paper focused on the Prophets and I was fascinated (I still am) by the Book of Hosea, and the ‘story’ of his life (and marriage) which was constructed out of the biblical book given his name. It was also around the time that I had discovered ‘religious historical novels’ in a big way – having read Taylor Caldwell’s, Dear and Glorious Physician (subtitled ‘a mighty novel of St Luke’) and Lloyd Douglas The Robe (about the centurion who receives the garment of the crucified Christ). I would still say that the first of these two is definitely worth reading: I am less sure about the literary qualities of the other. But they had prompted me to think of writing my own potential contribution in this field – which I intended to focus on the marriage of Hosea and his wife Gomer and was going to be called, ‘For I desire steadfast love’, a quote from Hosea 6.6. By the time I got to university my friends had convinced me that the title at least was a bit of a hostage to fortune, and I cooled on the concept. I have never quite warmed up on it again.

However my next idea for a so-far unwritten book was one that I still think would be worth pursuing, and one day, when other books (that are currently in the pipeline) have been written, and I am less busy with my various retirement honorary roles including in this Diocese, I might like to take it forward. It came out of my experience of teaching at St George’s College in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and once again I already have a title for it, The Third and Fourth Generations In this case I think I would definitely want to stick with my chosen name. Though the wisdom of years mean I appreciate the complexities and pitfalls of the topic in a way that I didn’t in my mid-20s, I still think this would address a key question that both the Church and individual Christians need to engage with.

The theme I would hope to explore in this book is linked to the Gospel reading which the Common Worship lectionary suggests for the coming Sunday, John 20.19-31. Checking the lectionary I have recently realised that this Gospel is suggested for the Sunday after Easter Sunday in each of the three lectionary years. In one sense that feels a bit strange and repetitive, on the other hand it does suggest that the questions raised in these verses are seen as fundamental to the life of the Christian community. And I think they are. 

There are three interconnected elements. First the story of Thomas’ initial scepticism and eventual faith in Jesus, expressed in his words ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28). Secondly the short comment that Jesus makes in response to Thomas, especially the concluding sentence, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!’ (John 20.29) And finally the following two verses in which the purpose of this Gospel is clearly set out, ‘These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.31) Whateverthe precise history of the literary relationship between chapter 21 and the rest of the Gospel these verses at the end of chapter 20 have the feel of being intended to function as a conclusion for the Gospel of John.

Chapter 21 however does make more explicit something that is lurking in the rest of the Gospel. The discussion about the potential death of the beloved disciple (John 21.23) suggests strongly that the Gospel (at least the version that included chapter 21) was written as the original apostolic eyewitnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus were themselves ageing and dying. No longer would direct apostolic testimony therefore be possible. Those who came to faith in Jesus would no longer be able to draw on this as a channel to faith. I think that the story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas is also reflecting these concerns, as Jesus specifically blesses those who will not (unlike Thomas) ever be able to see him bodily in the flesh. My so-far unwritten book would suggest that the Gospel of John was deliberately written (to a degree far more than the three Synoptic Gospels) to respond to the needs of this constituency who had (to paraphrase Jesus’ words) ‘to believe without seeing’. If the ‘first generation’ consisted of the apostolic eyewitnesses, and the ‘second generation’ those who physically met these eyewitnesses, the ‘third and fourth generation’ are those whose faith in Jesus as life-giver had to discover other starting-points from which it could develop.

Hence the proposed title for the book.  There would be several linked threads I would want to explore. The first would be that we, even in the twenty-first century, are still part of this third and fourth generation. The second that part of the reason that this Gospel is so beloved and so important in the life of the Church is precisely because it was overtly written to meet the needs and challenges of later generations. Indeed one can argue that the lectionary is right to repeat John 20.19-31 in all three lectionary years because this is exactly the point in John’s Gospel when the question of how the story of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, can speak to us today is being explored.

The third thread – which also relates to the other two – would then go on to engage with the question, ‘What does this mean for John’s – and our – understanding of the nature of Scripture?’ This would probably constitute the bulk of the book. I think it is a vital question both for the interpretation of the Gospel of John and for our contemporary understanding of the role of scripture in the life of the church. For once you reach the third and fourth generation and the testimony of eyewitnesses is no longer available to link you to the risen Christ, then we increasingly need to rely on written texts to create a link to the ‘earthly’ Jesus.

It is clear that the Gospel of John itself has some hesitations about ‘scriptures’ – whatever John may mean by this word. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…’ (John 5.39).  I find it telling that the first and fundamental title that is given to Jesus in this Gospel is that of ‘Word’ (John 1.1). Any early reader of the Gospel who read this ‘word’ would undoubtedly be drawn to think about a comparison and contrast with the written ‘Word’ of scripture of his or her day – what we today would call the Old Testament, which interestingly had probably just itself been canonised (at the Jewish Council of Yavneh/Jamnia) shortly before John’s Gospel appeared.  

It might be convenient for us at this point if we could think that John’s strictures about ‘Scripture’ applied only to the Old Testament, to what Christians sometimes disparagingly refer to as ‘the Jewish Law’. But I think there are clues within the Gospel of John that suggest that one of the evangelist’s concerns was precisely to ensure that in this ‘third and fourth generation’ the necessary written records of Jesus’ life (and the records of the story of the early Church) did not themselves become a ‘new Law’.  I believe that the evangelist’s great assertion that ‘the Word became flesh’ has implications for his understanding of the role that New Testament, as well as Old Testament, Scripture has in the life of the Church. What does it therefore mean to read scripture in the light of the incarnation? Part of the answer this Gospel offers us is its rich appreciation of symbolism and sacramentality. Another part of the answer must surely be the role of the Paraclete (Counsellor/Advocate) as the Spirit of truth who leads the disciples into ‘all truth’ (John 15.12). There is one further pointer that I will offer in my concluding sentences.

I am glad that I did not actually write that book 40 years ago. One of my learnings over the years has been of the richness of Jewish interpretations of scripture , and of ways of allowing scripture and context to converse with each other. Writing it now I would want to be considerably more nuanced about Jewish scriptural interpretation than I was when I was living in Jerusalem.  In fact the concerns of both Christianity and Judaism in this respect are not dissimilar. But I do think that the Gospel of John – as well as highlighting the issue for us, offers us some vital tools to engage with the challenge.

Underlying so many of the concerns and perplexities that the contemporary Christian community is presented with is the issue of the authority of Christian scripture. It is often said that we all work with a ‘hermeneutical’ starting point for our biblical interpretation. It is clear what is the starting point  of the Gospel of John. It is ‘life’. ‘These things are written … that you may have life in his name’ (John 20.31). Intriguingly the great Anglican Reformation divine Richard Hooker came to exactly that conclusion four centuries or so ago, ‘The main drift of the whole New Testament is that which St John setteth down as the purpose of his own history. ‘These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 1.xiv.4)

*****

“These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

(Thomas Troeger, copyright Oxford University Press, 1994, permission pending)

Not an idle tale!

I have pulled together the blog for this week, linking my two roles of Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and Coordinator of the Diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme. There are some rich treasures to discover below. Do explore!

Clare Amos

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Image
‘An Idle Tale’, Michael R Cook, reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Michael’s website is http://www.hallowed-art.co.uk

‘An Idle Tale’ (Luke 24.11) is the initial response of the apostles to the news of Jesus’ resurrection brought to them by the women after their visit to the tomb.  History since suggests that was ‘not such an idle tale’.

‘Not such an idle tale’ is also not a bad description for the ‘story’ of this year’s (September 2020-June 2021) Ministry Experience Scheme. Against all the hurdles that COVID has presented us with, we have been working with seven young women, currently situated in various locations in the diocese and beyond, who have in the course of the year been exploring what their longer-term Christian vocation might be. I am perhaps slightly biased (I am the honorary coordinator of the Scheme!) but our experience as a Scheme over the last year feels much more like a ‘good news story’ than an ‘idle tale’.

Those on the Scheme keep in contact in a variety of ways. One of them is a regular Wednesday afternoon Zoom meeting which provides an opportunity for both educational input and sharing of insights. In our meeting yesterday afternoon (31 March) participants and mentors were invited to share something related to Holy Week and Easter that spoke to them. What was offered turned into a rich feast – and I am taking the opportunity of sharing at least some of these insights in this week’s blog. (I apologise to those who contributed that in a couple of cases I have not been able to include ALL they shared.)

*****

First – An Idle Tale. That is actually the title of a vivid, fascinating and challenging painting, the creation of the Derby artist Michael R Cook. It is used as the ‘heading picture’ for this week’s blog and reproduced with Michael’s permission. I am grateful to Anna Richardson, a participant in the Scheme who has been working with the chaplaincy in Lyon, though COVID restrictions mean she is currently in Cornwall, for drawing it to our attention.

*****

Mary Kilikidi, working currently in Moscow, and herself a Russian national, shared with us in words and pictures, ‘How Russians prepare for Easter and celebrate it in small towns as exemplified by my family’. Mary says:

 My mother and I lived in a small town near Ukrainian boarder with a population of 17 thousand. We had only one church, which was almost full every Sunday and overcrowded during big celebrations. I still remember how we used to prepare for celebrating Easter. The beginning of the preparation starts with Maslenitsa – a whole week of celebration commonly associated with making and eating pancakes. We ate all types of pancakes – the Russian word blini – with jam and condensed milk.

The figure of Maslenitsa which is usually burnt during the festival

After Maslenitsa is over it is forbidden to eat anything with meat or milk. Even fish is allowed only on particular dates…. During the first week of Lent, we went to church every day in the evening. It is the time when, in semi-darkness with a faint glow of candles, the words of St. Andrew of Crete acquire a special meaning.

The Canon of St Andrew of Crete

On the fifth week of Lent, also in the evening, an unusual service is conducted. It is called “The Standing of St. Mary” and it unites the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with a story of St. Mary of Egypt. It lasts from five to seven hours with people kneeling. I had a lot of time to think during the service and I imagined myself praying alone in the wilderness, like Mary did, fighting with hunger, heat and many-many sins. Contrary to St. Mary, I had hearty dinner afterwards. My family was not rich but we had a particular ritual on Lazarus Saturday – the day before Palm Sunday. We went to the food store and bought a can of red caviar. It is allowed to eat fish and fish products on that day and we made it our tradition to celebrate it.

  The Holy week – the last week before Easter – was truly special for us. We were preparing for the celebration, painting eggs in red, buying Easter cakes – kulich – and cleaning the house. I was a member of the Sunday school and every Easter we would prepare a big skit with costumes, music and poetry. We met regularly to rehearse and the main rehearsal was usually during the Holy week too. Maundy Thursday is called Sheer Thursday in Russia and it is usually a day for cleaning the house, washing clothes and bathing. In the evening, people gather in church, carrying lanterns with candles. Twelve Gospels are read to remind people about the Passion of Christ. During each Gospel reading, people hold burning candles. By the end of the service, they put them in the lanterns and take them home. The candles are required to make a sign of the cross over the window holes and doorways. The soot cross remains until next Sheer Thursday and serves as protection from demonic attacks. For a long time I thought that all the Russian Orthodox were doing it but it turned out to be a local tradition probably with Pagan roots.

 On Good Friday, people come to church in afternoon. In Orthodox churches there is a shroud with the image of Christ embroidered on it….

The shroud of Christ in the centre of the Church

 The Easter service usually starts at 11 pm and finishes at 4 or 5 in the morning. In fact, there are two of them and the evening service smoothly flows into the morning service. At the beginning of the morning service, people go around the church one last time and then everyone stands in front of the closed church doors. The priest says special Easter prayers with the words ‘Christ is risen’ in between. Every time people respond with the words of affirmation. Then the doors which represent the entrance to the tomb, are opened. Christ is no longer there. He is risen indeed!

*****

Daleen Bakker, from the Netherlands and currently working with the church in Barcelona, has shared this personal story about a Holy week in the Netherlands: Locked up in a church on Good Friday.

Three years ago, I found myself to be locked up in a church on what is my most memorable Good Friday. To go a bit back to explain how it happened. I was invited to spend Holy Week in a Monastery and arrived on Thursday evening into a beautiful vigil. The next day we went on a walk going through the Stations of the Cross in the forest, ended with another beautiful service. It was the eve of what in Dutch we call ‘Silent Saturday’ and the entire Monastery had gone into an intriguing silence, mourning over our Lord and anticipating His glorious rising. I had discovered a door that led into the cloisters around the monastery garden and gave access to the parish church in which I was baptised not so long before. Keen to have some worship there, I went through the door and put something in between the door and the wall to prevent it from closing. And so it happened that after a great time, I tried to go back and found myself to be locked up! Someone had closed the door. ‘Well there are worse places to be locked up!’ – went through my mind. I looked around in the kitchen of the church for a key and when I didn’t find one, went through the options: spending the night in the church, escaping by climbing on the roof to ring the front door, or to check if someone left a window open when outside… In the end I decided to try my luck by sitting in the garden hoping that someone would pass in the late hours who could open the door. And yes! After a while I saw a small light and a sister hurrying past. I knocked on the window. ‘Sister, Sister!’ – feeling ashamed to break the silence. Immediately she looked up to the ceiling. I knocked again. She looked around, astonished, until she saw me which made her face shout of disappointment. (Which I understand if you think to see Jesus but then it’s me). She led me in and also broke the silence by whispering: ‘What were you doing there! …

*****

Ksenia Smykova, from Russia, currently working with the church in Copenhagen, (though at this moment in Estonia, due to a combination of visa and COVID reasons!) shared with us some fascinating pictures, depicting Passion related themes in an unusual way. The easiest way of sharing this is to offer the slides Ksenia showed to us:

*****

Janet Sayers, a pastoral mentor on the Scheme who is based in Brussels, and who has been involved with the diocesan Scheme since its outset, movingly spoke about George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter Wings’ and why it spoke so powerfully to her:

I first heard words by George Herbert a very long time ago when singing hymns at school. Much later in life I discovered some more of his poems, including ‘Easter Wings’ which I heard recited by Canon Theologian Jack McDonald, during a service at Holy Trinity Brussels. This poem intrigued me.   Only recently did I learn that it was originally written in a pattern on the page representing two sets of wings. 

‘Easter WIngs’ as set out in the original 1633 edition of The Temple

To be honest, in the past I have often found the triumphalism of Easter Sunday perplexing rather than exhilarating.  I can more readily identify with Christ’s suffering than with his resurrection.  I find the crucifixion more credible than the mystery of the resurrection. 

I understand that the content of the poem is a meditation focusing on the atonement of Jesus Christ drawing its theme from I Corinthians 15.51-56. Reflecting more deeply on this poem has opened things up and broadened my understanding.  I find it amazing that so few words can mean so much.  It is fascinating that the shape in which the words were originally written imitates the meaning of the words, and that the varying length of the poem’s lines creates a visual pattern or shape making it becomes a picture or representation of the poem’s theme, rather than simply seeing it as a poem on the page.

So why did this poem become so meaningful to me? 

I am the mother of two children – a daughter Eleanor and a son Jonathan, two years her junior.  Sadly, Eleanor died at the age of 23 – in the springtime of her life – from an aggressive kind of cancer.  My struggle to understand and take on board the Easter message became greater and my questions more urgent.  How could I possibly make any sense of this?  Only by submitting my narrative to the light of God’s Gospel narrative.  In my immediate grief, consolation in my desolation came from listening over and over again to a particularly beautiful rendition of Handel’s Messiah. The questions it sings from 1 Corinthians 15.55-56 became my own. 

‘Where O death is your victory?  Where O death is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God.  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’

The sublime music carried me as the words challenged and inspired me.

As I further contemplated Herbert’s poem the word ‘imp’ in the next to last line intrigued me, until I learned that it was associated with the reparation of an injured bird’s wing by way of grafting a new feather onto the damaged wing, thus enabling the bird to rise and fly again.

Thinking more about the imagery in this poem during Lent has taken me on to further stepping out and living more fully into this great mystery of Christ’s resurrection and what it really means. For, and I quote the last two lines of the poem:

‘If I imp my wing on thine,

Affliction shall advance the flight in me.’

I am looking forward to a happier and more joyful Easter this year. Thanks be to God.

*****

For myself (Clare Amos) I shared with the group something about reflecting on the events of Holy Week in the context of the Holy Land past and present. I won’t take space to include here exactly what I said yesterday – but they overlap with some biblical reflections for Holy Week which I was honoured to be invited to write by the World Council of Churches which are available here: WCC-EAPPI Easter Initiative 2021 | World Council of Churches (oikoumene.org) (You will find my bible studies near the bottom of the page.)

Christ is risen!

Truly he is risen!

The Palm Sunday puzzle

The ‘Golden Gate’, now sealed, in the east city wall of Jerusalem

There’s a story that goes as follows: In the early 7th century Persian armies attacked Jerusalem and stole part of the True Cross. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the fragment of the Cross and was proudly riding into Jerusalem on his warhorse to replace it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But each time he approached the city gate it shut firmly in his face and he could not get through. Eventually he ‘twigged’ – if Jesus had entered Jerusalem seated merely on a donkey, it was not appropriate for him, Heraclius, to seek to enter on a horse. So he dismounted and walked through the gate. But ever since that gate (the ‘Golden Gate’) has remained sealed, as a visible reminder of the need for humility, even on the part of human kings and emperors.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

I have never quite got used to the tradition, which in my experience has become much more prevalent in Anglican Churches during the last 30 years, of having two Gospel readings on Palm Sunday. The first of course is the story of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, told in one of the four Gospels; the second is the account of his Passion, told through the lens of whichever of the  Synoptic Gospels is the lectionary Gospel for the year. (The Gospel of John is normally ‘saved up’ for Good Friday).

I know the good practical reasons for the custom: it is sometimes said that at least it ensures that people who do not attend church on Good Friday hear the complete reading of the passion narrative. But I still find it jarring – not least as a biblical scholar. Somehow having the two Gospel readings in such proximity and during the same service seems to elide the account of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life – after he had entered Jerusalem. It also means that if, as here, one is trying to write a blog on the lectionary Gospel for the day, it is not immediately obvious where we should focus!

I wonder if the tradition will happen this year, certainly in services which are ‘on line’?  In my experience the need for online worship to be shorter and simpler than worship in ‘normal’ times, might encourage some churches this year to opt for either the palms or the passion.

All the same, the tradition of the ‘two’ Gospels got me thinking. What is it that they specifically have in common? Other than both being about Jesus of course!  The answer (or one of them) seems to be that both the Palm Sunday Gospels and the accounts of Jesus’ passion explicitly focus on the meaning of kingship. Both in ways that may be quite subversive.

Although the four Gospels differ slightly in their wording, in each case the Palm Sunday reading alludes to Jesus’ kingship:

  • Tell the daughter of Zion,
  • Look your king is coming to you (Matthew 21.5)
  • Hosanna to the Son of David (Matthew 21.9)
  • Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David (Mark 11.10)
  • Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord (Luke 19.38)
  • Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel (John 12-13)
  • Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt! (John 12-15)

In three of the Gospels the word ‘king’ is used; Mark refers to ‘Son of David’, but this is a clear allusion to the tradition of a coming king from the royal line of David. Explicitly in the Gospels of Matthew and John, and implicitly in the other two there is an allusion to the text of Zechariah 9.9-10, which foretells the coming of a king who will bring ‘peace to the nations’.

 It is often suggested that by choosing to ride on a ‘donkey’ rather than a ‘horse’ – an animal used frequently in warfare – Jesus is unexpectedly subverting earlier conventions about the arrival of a messianic king. However the subversion of referring to a donkey is found also in the text of Zechariah, and even in the Blessing of Judah in Genesis 49.8-11 to which the text of Zechariah itself may allude.

The other clear Old Testament reference in the Gospels is to Psalm 118.26, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. It is not quite clear who the psalm intends to refer to by this ‘one’ though it is possible it is a royal figure: it is however interesting to note that the following line in the psalm is ‘We bless you from the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26) which  make the implications of  Jesus’ actions after his entry to the city – his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ even more telling.

A homemade ‘palm cross’ from bamboo in our garden, for Palm Sunday 2020

In all four Gospels the passion narratives refer to Jesus as ‘king’. In Luke one of the charges brought against him before Pilate states in detail, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ (Luke 23.2). In all the Gospels the charge ‘King of the Jews’ is placed as a mocking inscription on his cross (Matthew 27.29; Mark 15.18; Luke 23.38; John 19.19). For all the Gospel writers these words, though intended as a mocking parody, are ultimately and ironically correct. This perhaps comes out most strongly in the Gospel of John; in this Gospel the cross itself is pictured as a throne, ‘lifting up’ the King it bears.

So in the Gospels, both at the time of the palms and the passion, Jesus’ kingship is important. Albeit kingship with a twist.

What however does this mean for us today? How can the biblical language of kingship speak into our context? It is interesting to reflect on it in light of our situation in Europe. Most of the countries in our continent and our diocese no longer have a king or monarch as head of state. Even those that do, such as the United Kingdom, understand ‘kingship’ in a very different way to how it was perceived in ‘biblical’ times. Autocratic monarchy, in which life or death could depend on the whim of a royal personage, has gone out of fashion in Europe, certainly after the first couple of decades of the 20th century.  There are still a few corners of the world where it can be found – but they are hardly places that I would want to emulate.

How far does biblical imagery and theology depend on an understanding of ‘kingship’? It is certainly true that ‘President’ or ‘Prime Minister’ does not have the same kind of ring! What are we seeking to say when we describe Jesus as ‘king’? What is it important not to lose? There is also the question that a number of Christian theologians and writers are unhappy with the hierarchical overtones of Christian ‘kingship’ language and argue that it is not appropriate to use in our time. The hymnwriter Brian Wren, for example, challenges what he calls KINGAFAP (King, Almighty Father, All Powerful) images in theology and hymnody. (See Brian Wren, ‘What language shall we borrow?’) I myself have something of an internal battle each year when we get near the Feast of Christ the King.

I would genuinely be interested to hear what readers of this blog might want to say on this. It is not an issue where I have a worked-out theological position of my own. I do however think it is a challenge that Christian theology in our day needs to engage with. There are two strands of the biblical understanding of kingship that I think are intrinsic and essential to our Christian faith.

The first is the deep understanding of the king as the mediator between the divine and human realms. Linked to the ‘Davidic covenant’ tradition, and alluded to frequently in the psalms, this role is two- directional – mediating the blessings of God to the wider nation, and interceding before God for the well-being of the people. This may, and often does, involve the king in a sacrificial role.

The second is closely linked to it – the sense of the king as a corporate personality, so that the boundaries between king and people, king and nation, begin to blur. The life of the one, and the life of the many are interwoven.

Both these aspects can be found in Psalm 22, certainly if understood as a ‘Psalm of David’. I do not think it is an accident that this particular psalm has been so influential in our interpretation of Jesus’ passion.

We wish to see Jesus… (John 12.20-21)

This week’s lectionary reflection draws on the Gospel reading of John 12.20-33 to take us on a journey that includes both the Temple in Jerusalem and Canterbury Cathedral.

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

I have grown to appreciate Canterbury Cathedral over the years. In fact when my husband Alan and I lived in Canterbury for five years I didn’t particularly enjoy the atmosphere of the Cathedral. There was a starchiness and a stuffiness about the place then, and I often felt rather fraught when I went to services there, caught between the expectation that as the wife of the Principal of the Canterbury School of Ministry there were certain events I needed to attend, and the fact that I also had  a baby who became a lively toddler in tow.  In those days children were expected by some of the Cathedral staff not to be heard, and perhaps not even to be seen. It was definitely stress making.

The Compass Rose symbol of the Anglican Communion engraved into the floor of the Cathedral. The Greek words in the inscription read ‘The truth will set you free.’

But as I have visited there over more recent years I have begun to treasure much of what it has to offer. When I was working for the Anglican Communion Office in London I came to realise how much the Cathedral  is loved by Anglicans from so many parts of the world, and what it meant to them to visit Canterbury as pilgrims. There’s the great symbol of the Anglican Communion, the Compass Rose, engraved into the floor in the centre of the building, with its wonderful motto, ‘The truth will set you free’ that speaks powerfully to me, and of which the Anglican Communion should be proud, even though I am not sure it always quite lives up to the vision.

But the unforgettable spine chilling moment above all for me came at the end of the  last Lambeth Conference in 2008 in which I was privileged to participate as a member of staff of the Anglican Communion Office. At the end of the final service of the conference held in semi darkness in the Cathedral, representatives of the Anglican Church of Melanesia carried a canoe in procession through the cathedral, singing a haunting traditional south pacific lament as they did so.  They – and we – were remembering the members of the Anglican Melanesian religious brotherhood who had been murdered five years earlier as they had sought to mediate and make peace in one of the Solomon Islands intermittent civil or tribal wars.  They have become known as the Melanesian Martyrs. Ever since whenever I think about Canterbury Cathedral that is what comes to my mind – as a place where modern martyrs, as well as medieval ones, are remembered.

Icon of the Melanesian Martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral

I am quite sure that one of the reasons that the Cathedral has become more welcoming over the years is due to the current Dean, Robert Willis. He is the personification of a diffident, yet competent graciousness that is a mark of the Anglican tradition at its very best. One of the things that Robert wanted to do when he became Dean, about 20 years ago was to create a mission statement for the Cathedral. As he told me the story once, there were discussions about it in cathedral chapter, and sub-groups set up to decide what should be in the statement – which was apparently potentially getting longer and more complicated by the week. And then one day during the daily worship, part of the biblical passage that is this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel was read, and suddenly Robert saw what was needed.

As John’s Gospel puts it, ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip and said to him, ‘Sir we wish to see Jesus’.  (John 12.20-21) And hearing these words Robert was inspired to suggest that the mission statement of the Cathedral should simply be ‘To show people Jesus’.  And that is exactly what happened and if you go onto Canterbury Cathedral’s website to this day you will find that statement set out at the bottom of the page. What it is trying to say, I think, is that the whole life of the Cathedral, from the beauty of its architecture and worship, to the quality of the intellectual engagement and enquiry it facilitates, to the sense of warmth and hospitality with which visitors are greeted, to the way that it functions for those who work  and live there as a place of authentic Christian community, needs to point people  towards Jesus Christ, to enable them to draw nearer to him and through him to God. If any church ever finds itself looking for a mission statement in the future – it is not a bad one to consider.

Dean Willis inadvertently became an internet sensation during lockdown last year, when his cat interrupted Morning Prayer to steal the milk!

Canterbury Cathedral cat snatches vicar’s milk during morning prayer – YouTube

But back to the Gospel reading. Why were those Greeks wanting to see Jesus? Rowan Williams once asked, ‘Were they, I wonder, like the tourists who turn up in Dharamsala in India saying, I want to see the Dalai Lama? ‘There’s a famous charismatic religious figure around. I’d like to catch a glimpse of him. I might even be interested in listening to what he says, a bit … and then its back to the hotel.’

Perhaps that was indeed what those Greeks were thinking – but for Jesus, and maybe eventually for them too, it turned into so much more. Let’s briefly re-tread our steps through the last couple of chapters of John’s Gospel in which we are being pivoted towards Jesus’ passion. First there was the account of Jesus’ life-giving ministry to his beloved friend Lazarus, putting himself in danger to do so, especially because Lazarus’ recovery from death causes such a stir that Caiaphas, the ultimate example of a pragmatic religious official, worries about its dangerous effect on their Roman political overlords, ‘It is better that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50) That is followed by the account of Jesus’ anointing by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, an act which foreshadows Jesus’ death (John 12.1-7). Although with a double entendre that is characteristic of John, since kings in Israel were anointed in order to inaugurate their rule – the anointing is not just a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death but also a proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship. But then,  there is a sort of double double entendre, or should one say triple entendre, since for John’s Gospel the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment when he is crowned as king are actually one and the same.

And now it seems to be this meeting with the Greeks that edges that destiny ever closer. For Jesus’ initial response to their request, is to speak of the dying of the seed – himself – to lead to a fruitful harvest. At first sight it is not obvious why their request leads him to make such a response. I think it is something like this. One of the great visions of the Old Testament – you find it in the psalms and in the prophets – is of a pilgrimage of the nations that would be made up to Jerusalem which would inaugurate God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace.

Think for example of the great passage from Isaiah, ‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and many people shall come to it…’ (Isaiah 2.2-3) Jerusalem and its Temple was the destiny for this pilgrimage, because it was  seen as the dwelling place of God, a place of squeezing, where God’s glory could be seen and God could be visibly present with human beings. But for the New Testament, that dwelling place of God, that space of God’s glory among human beings is now squeezed into the person of Jesus Christ – so he becomes the goal of such a pilgrimage, and those Greek visitors both foreshadow it and are its first fruits. They are bringing about those ‘latter days’, and just as the mountainous height of Jerusalem facilitated its role as the goal of pilgrims, so also it will mean that Christ himself as pilgrimage’s new goal will need to be lifted up.

It is striking to read John’s account of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane later on in the Gospel. There is there no agony such as you find in the other Gospels. But there is no agony there – because it is here, now earlier in the story that you find it. ‘Now is my soul troubled’ says Jesus at this point (John 12.27). It is now that he needs to decide whether to embrace or to refuse the destiny that the coming of those Greek visitors asking to see him has forced into his present  …to allow his own body to be squeezed into the space  where God and human beings can meet each other. Three of John’s key words which reverberate again and again through his Gospel, make their appearance in this passage, to indicate its crucial role in the story.

Hour: This is the moment that time has been waiting for through the earlier chapters of the gospel when we have been told that Jesus’ hour has not yet come. Now eternity is squeezed into this moment of decision and judgement.

Glory: This is that biblical word that John’s Gospel delights in turning upside down in its meaning. It refers to the ‘visible presence’ of God. In the pages of the Old Testament such visible presence is shown through manifestations of power and splendour. But in the Gospel of John the word ‘glorified’ is used to describe the moment that Jesus hangs on the cross. In a radical inversion the visible presence of God is now to be seen in a moment of apparent supreme weakness and defeat.

Lifted up: One word in Greek. It speaks, and it is intended to speak, at several levels. At one level it refers simply to Jesus being physically ‘lifted up’ on to the beams of the cross. But the word in Greek also carries the metaphorical sense of ‘exalt’  – be raised up in honour.

All three words therefore point us to the cross, which for the Gospel of John is the moment, the hour when the seed that has been sown in the earth, has sprouted into the tree of life, to become the bridge between earth and heaven.

Back finally once again to those Greeks and their request, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’.

As Archbishop Rowan once put it: Jesus’ response to this request seems to be, There is only one way in which you can really see: and that is, when you see the Christ lifted up in the pain and the defeat of the cross, and find the glory of the Father radiating there.’ You can’t just be a tourist. You can’t simply wander around hoping to capture a glimpse of an interesting person if you’re really concerned to see Jesus. You have to go where the cross is because, of course, where Jesus is, there will his friends be also.

That is what those seven Melanesian brothers, who were martyred as they travelled to make peace discovered.

(This is a lightly edited version of an address I gave during Holy Week 2020 for Holy Trinity Church, Geneva)

God so loved…

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel for Lent 4, John 3.14-21

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

‘The Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame which illumineth all the world. The flame is love.’ (Thomas Traherne). The picture above is one of the beautiful stained glass windows created in Hereford Cathedral in honour of the 17th century Anglican mystical writer Thomas Traherne. The window was designed and created by Tom Denny. For more examples of Denny’s exquisite work see http://www.thomasdenny.co.uk

Prayer of thanksgiving linked to John 3.1-16
Holy One, we hear your music in the roar of the sea,
In the song of a people,
In the quiet breeze rustling through the trees.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we sense your power in the flickering of fire,
In the yearning of our spirits,
In the dispelling of shadows.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we feel your caress in the gift of our humanity,
In our desire to be whole,
In the blessing of peace.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Normally, when the Fourth Sunday of Lent arrives our progress through the Lenten season – and the Lenten lectionary – loses out to Mothering Sunday. I wonder if that will be the case in quite the same way this year? – ‘lockdown’ or its lesser equivalents do seem to mean that the traditional rites of ‘saying it with flowers’ probably won’t be able to take place as usual next Sunday.

In any case, for the coming Sunday, I decided to focus this reflection on the lectionary selection for Lent 4, rather than the Mothering Sunday alternatives, which I have looked at often in the past, and will probably do so again in the future. I will look in particular at the lectionary Gospel John 3.14-21. Interestingly, given that it has displaced a reading for Mothering Sunday, it has however something important to say about the fatherhood of God.

This of course includes the iconic verse, John 3.16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

In my mind this is for ever pigeonholed as ‘the bus verse’. When I went to my secondary school I had to travel there by bus, and I remember that for quite a number of months this verse (accompanied probably by a bit of comment or explanation the detail of which I have long forgotten) had a prime place among the ‘adverts’ with which the inside of the bus was decorated. I would read it every day. My 11 year old self was both fascinated and fearful. I don’t think I was silly to feel fearful, I am sure the general tenor of the ‘advert’ intended to convey the negative impression that only a few select would be ‘saved’, while the destiny of most was to ‘perish’.  It took me a very long time before I could think about John 3.16 in positive terms. Indeed part of my personal purpose in writing the prayer above based on this verse (back c.1998) was to compel myself to dig deeper into its gentle graciousness.

Over the last 25 years or so, I have found myself coming back to explore the Gospel of John many times from different facets: its reflection on the comparative roles of women and men, its glorious sacramentality and symbolism, its sometimes very ‘difficult’ role in terms of Christian-Jewish relations. I have truly found it a biblical book which, to quote St Augustine of Hippo, ‘Is deep enough for a elephant to swim in, and a child not to drown.’

Given that quite a lot of my other biblical exploration during this same period has focused on the Book of Genesis it is perhaps not surprising that I have found myself drawing comparisons between the Gospel of John and Genesis. I see John as ‘A New Genesis’, sharing with us the glory of a new creation, made possible by the ‘Son of Man’ (e.g. John 3.14) who spans the chasm between earth and heaven. Jesus then is fully inaugurated as the ‘new Adam’ at the precise point in the story when he stands before Pilate as a chained prisoner (John 19.5) wearing a crown of thorns and purple robes of mockery and is greeted with the jibe, ‘Behold the Man.’

One intriguing link between John and Genesis that I have only recently explored more deeply is however linked to John 3.16. In the second half of this Gospel we hear a great deal about love. In the first half of the Gospel comparatively little. In fact the first time that the verb ‘love’ is used in this Gospel is here, in John 3.16, ‘God so loved…’ After this ‘love’ only appears on a few more occasions, until we meet it in the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). That seems to open the floodgates, and especially in the Farewell speech of Jesus (John 13-17) the Gospel text is then soaked profoundly with ‘love’.

In view of my interest in the relationship between John and Genesis, what however intrigued me is that the first time the verb ‘love’ occurs is in Genesis 22.2, at the beginning of the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go, sacrifice him…’ Though by contrast with John’s Gospel following on this instance the word ‘love’ appears only a few more times in Genesis – largely describing either the love for a parent for a child, or the love of a man for a woman.

However I find it either a powerful coincidence, or perhaps a deliberate intention, that the first time that ‘love’ appears in both books, it is in relation to the ‘giving up’ of an ‘only Son’.  I think there is a connection. It is reinforced by the way that the Greek word monogenes, translated as ‘only’ in the NRSV and ‘one and only’ in the NIV (John 3.16, 18) , is regularly also used in biblical and Christian texts to describe Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son (see e.g. Hebrews 11.17).

The story of the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac became a rich seam which has been extensively mined over the centuries by both Jews and Christians. Indeed our mutual reflection on this theme influenced one another, see e.g. the painting of The Sacrifice of Isaac by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall hinting at Jewish and Christian dialogue on the theme.

Jewish tradition increasingly viewed Isaac as intentionally offering himself as a sacrifice, for the ultimate benefit of his descendants. It was referred to as the Aqedah (the ‘Binding of Isaac’). As far as Christians were concerned, traces of allusions to the ‘theme’ can certainly be found in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8.32) and were more completely developed in later theology. In Christian reflection on the topic, of course, what happened was that the story of Abraham and Isaac was used as an analogy to describe the Father’s offering of the Son in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  God the Father ‘plays’ two roles in this analogy: he reflects both the figure of ‘father Abraham’, but also the role of the deity to whom Abraham is offering Isaac. This both transforms the story, and affects our understanding of the very nature of God.

What I think is also interesting is that the object of the Father’s love in John 3.16 is not (at this point) ‘the Son’ – but the ‘world’. If one thinks about the analogy with Genesis, in which Abraham’s love for his son is mentioned, to find the word ‘world’ replacing ‘son’, as John 3.16 does, potentially takes our breath away. Later on in John’s Gospel of course, the mutual love of the Father and the Son is referred to again and again (especially in John 13-17), and their ‘oneness’ is stressed, but perhaps it is telling that the very first time the word is used in the Gospel it is the ‘world’ that is privileged as being its object.

There is quite a lot else I could say on this topic – I have just had published a 6000+ word article on the subject God So Loved the World – Amos – 2020 – The Ecumenical Review – Wiley Online Library! (I think it is available still via this link) One of the insights I explore there is the way that in the Gospel of John words linked to the root agap- (love) seem to lead us in the direction of willing suffering.

But for now, as I draw this reflection to a close, I want to mention briefly a Zoom Bible study session I led on Saturday for about 65 participants. It was called ‘Christ crucified! Why?’ and offered a whistle-stop tour of theories of the atonement. As often when I offer such sessions I am never sure quite where they are going to end up. Frequently, not exactly where I expected – but that can be all to the good! In this case, towards the end I found myself responding to a query about the relationship between the Father and Son in the crucifixion of Christ. Was God the Father presiding juridically and impartially at a distance over Christ’s death? I told the group what is the case, that my own reflection on this topic had been worked out in the furnace of living in Beirut during some years of its civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. In the context of the human suffering I witnessed during those years I have felt since that it is vital that when we say ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.18) God is profoundly affected by the suffering of this world. To draw a comparison, as I have done here, between the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Father’s giving of his Son, does, I believe make it clear that the ‘wounding of God’s love, and marring of God’s image in us’, and God’s response to it, is a pain which is felt in the very heart of God.

Churches without walls?

This week’s blog draws on the lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22, set for Lent 3, to reflect on a question which our experience of the past 12 months has confronted us with quite acutely.

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

Jesus drives out the merchants – John 2:13-16, Vie de Jesus Mafa

(I am leading a Zoom Bible Study titled Christ crucified! Why? hosted by Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, this coming Saturday morning, 10.00am – 12.30pm CET. The Zoom connection will allow additional visitors to join. Please contact me for the link and notes if you are interested.)

Several times in sermons he has preached in recent weeks via Zoom, my husband (Alan Amos) has spoken of how these days we are discovering ‘temples without walls’ or ‘churches without walls’.

In ways that we would never have imagined at the beginning of 2020, in the last year we have had to learn new things about the nature of Church. We have all had a bit of a crash course in the New Testament understanding that ‘Church’ primarily refers to the ‘Christian community’ rather than the building that in normal times is the place where we meet.

Christianity – right from its start – has always been a bit ambiguous about whether or not special places are important.

It is a core point which is being made by this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22,  which tells of what is often described as Jesus’ ‘cleansing of the Temple’. All four Gospels recount Jesus taking dramatic action against those who bought and sold in the Temple. In the three Synoptic Gospels the episode takes place just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city at the beginning of what these days we call ‘Holy Week’. In the Gospel of John, by contrast, it is actually located as the first action of his public ministry.

Of course, this may raise questions for us as to what exactly happened, why and when. I acknowledge that there is scope for different opinions on this, but speaking personally I don’t believe that Jesus ‘cleansed’ the Temple twice, once at the beginning and once near the end of his earthly ministry. ‘Historically’ speaking I think that the timing suggested by Matthew, Mark and Luke is correct, viz Jesus’ action took place in the last few days before his passion. I would go further and assert that it was in fact probably this action that set the wheels in motion which led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. What he did in the Temple was seen as such a challenge to the status quo that it could not be tolerated by the religious and political leadership, and so he had to be ‘dealt’ with. Indeed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (though interestingly not in Luke) one of the charges laid against Jesus in his ‘trial’ before the High Priest and echoed in the mockery he received on the cross was that he wanted to destroy the Temple (Matthew 26.61; 27.40; Mark 14.58; 15.29). It is easy to see how his actions in the Temple a few days earlier could be interpreted in this light.

Which then ‘begs’ the question, why then does the Gospel of John transfer his account of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple from the end of Jesus’ public ministry to its beginning? I think that the answer is linked to the nature of the Gospel of John itself. Going right back to the time of Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd century AD, John has been contrasted with the Synoptics as, ‘a spiritual Gospel’. The exact quote from Clement reads, ‘John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel’. What Clement is trying to say is that John’s Gospel seeks to give us ‘the inner meaning’ of what we read in the Synoptic Gospels, and that John’s transfer of the account of Jesus’ ‘cleansing’ of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a prime example of such inner meaning. It is placed at this point, to indicate that it is a fundamental starting-point to enable us to understand the significance of Jesus’ actions and words throughout most of the rest of the Gospel.

You may have noticed that each time I have referred to the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple I have put the word ‘cleansing’ in apostrophes.  This is because I am not sure that John is in fact recounting a story of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple. By the word ‘cleansing’ I understand a process of returning to a better condition something that is intrinsically ‘good’. But I don’t think that that is necessarily  John’s perspective on what Jesus did in John 2.13-22. Rather his actions, particularly as interpreted through the evangelist’s comments in v21-22, suggest that what he was doing was declaring the Temple ‘redundant’.  A hint to this lies in the detail of the target of Jesus’ physical actions. In John’s Gospel, as well as the money-changers and the human beings who are selling and buying, Jesus drives out ‘the sheep and the cattle’ (verse 15) and the doves (verse 16). In other words Jesus ‘drove out’ (harsh words, used elsewhere in the Gospels against demonic forces), the animals that were essential for the Temple’s sacrificial cult. Effectively he was declaring that cult, and the building which housed it, redundant. It wasn’t simply that he was opposing the corruption of those who sought to make a living by selling ‘Holy Hamburgers’ as over-priced snacks to poor pilgrims, but he was challenging the Temple’s very raison d’etre.

The open area of the Haram esh-Sherif (Noble Sanctuary) surrounding the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock marks out the extent of the Temple and its courtyards in New Testament times

We have been effectively ‘forewarned’ of this in the climax to the Prologue, ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) The particular Greek verb translated here as ‘dwelt’ (eskenosen), is used often in Greek versions of the Old Testament to describe the Temple or the wilderness tabernacle as the place where God ‘dwelt’. Now however that ‘dwelling’ is most perfectly to be found in the person of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Does that not mean that this core function of the Temple is no longer needed? That is I think exactly what John 2.13-22 is suggesting and that is precisely why it is placed at this point, so near to the beginning of the story. And it will be a theme that will recur over and over again in the following chapters of the Gospel as Jesus somehow subsumes into himself a wealth of images and symbols both linked to of the Temple, and to the great feasts (Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication) that are so closely associated with it. What is the implication for us, today of this central theme of the Gospel of John?

Sometime I want to write a book on ‘important passages of scripture that don’t make it into the Sunday lectionary’! One of my prime candidates for inclusion in that book would be Zechariah 14.20-21, a passage that I have long found fascinating, and I am sure offers a significant clue to what John 2.13-22 is seeking to share. Interestingly although other Old Testament passages are alluded to in the Gospel accounts of the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ (Jeremiah 7.11 in the case of the Synoptics; Psalm 69.9 in the case of John) the Zechariah passage is not mentioned at this point.  It is short enough to quote in full here (NRSV translation):

On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking-pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

It’s that throwaway line with which the chapter, and indeed the whole book of Zechariah, ends. The prophet is looking forward to that future time when traders will no longer be needed in the house (Temple) because there would no longer be any physical distinction between the ‘holy’ and the ‘ordinary’ (the technical term is ‘profane’ – but in modern English that word has an unhelpful ring). Everything, the whole of creation, will be ‘holy’.  Indeed the primary reason for the Temple traders was to underpin that system in which the ‘holy’ was separated from the ‘ordinary/profane’ – to enable people to buy ‘clean’ animals for sacrifice, and change ‘secular’ money (containing pagan images) into coinage that was appropriate for use in that holy place.

For the Gospel of John, with the advent of Jesus ‘that day’ of which Zechariah speaks has now arrived! The incarnation of Jesus Christ has hallowed (made holy) the whole of creation.

As a (reasonably) faithful Anglican I cherish the places where the Christian communities I am associated with have worshipped over several, or many, generations. They are, in their different ways special to me. I affirm TS Eliot’s line from Little Gidding, ‘You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid’. And yet, at the same time I need to hold that love in a tension with the insight offered by the Gospel of John that the incarnation of Christ has transformed our understanding of ‘holy places’. It is an ongoing tension to which there is no easy answer. But I am sure that our experiences as Christian communities over the last year, in the Diocese in Europe and elsewhere, have indeed, as my husband suggested, compelled us to reflect on what it means to be ‘churches without walls’.

Proclaiming deliverance to a people yet unborn (Psalm 22.31)

I am (sometimes!) grateful for the discipline of having to write this blog piece fairly regularly, because the need to reflect on the lectionary readings, encourages me to see connections that I might not otherwise have spotted. That is the case here when my exploration of the lectionary Gospel passage Mark 8.31-38, led me into discovering interesting connections with Genesis 17.1-7,15,16; Psalm 22.23-31 and Romans 4.13-25. I would however be very grateful to hear from laity and clergy who might be interested in ‘offering’ a contribution for a week. One feature that ideally should be reflected (and I have to confess, is not really reflected in this posting), is to link specifically with our context in the Diocese in Europe.

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

The Whalton Christ

I don’t often begin a reflection on the weekly lectionary readings by starting with the selected psalm – but on this occasion I want to do that, because I believe it offers a ‘clue’ to the interpretation of the other selected readings, and especially to this week’s Gospel, Mark 8.31-38.

The Psalm chosen is Psalm 22.22-31. We are much more familiar with the first two-thirds of this psalm, than we are with this, its latter part. The first two-thirds of the psalm constitute probably the most well-known ‘psalm of lament’ in the Psalter, beginning with the powerful evocation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, which according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew was a cry echoed by Jesus as he hung on the cross. This final third – which is hardly alluded in the New Testament – is an ever expanding hymn of praise. The ‘switch’ between the two ‘modes’ which comes in the middle of verse 21, initially appears startling and unexpected, although in fact if you look closely at the text of the psalm the ‘way’ is prepared for this shift.

It is fascinating to follow the flow of the psalm as a whole. It begins with an almost absolute sense of desolation on the part of the psalmist -who feels deserted both by God, and other human beings. It seems as though we are alone in a long dark tunnel, in which the only pin-prick of light at the end is the fact that the psalmist feels able to address God as ‘my’ God. On this fragile, but personal, relationship the rest of the psalm will depend and will unfold. It is interesting to see how the phrases ‘my God’, ‘far’, ‘helping’ which are introduced in verses 1 and 2, then reappear first in verses 10 and 11 and then again in verses 19 and 20. With each of these reappearances the language subtly shifts so that God and the palmist draw closer to each other. I explored Psalm 22 in more detail in a blog posting for last Good Friday (you can find it under ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days 7’ – it forms part of https://faithineurope.net/page/4/)

But in terms of our reflection this week, what I find immensely powerful is how the absolute isolation of the beginning of the Psalm so contrasts with the increasing numbers of fellow human beings whom the psalmist,  beginning with verse 22, calls upon to share in the ever-widening circles of praise. Just take a look: the apparently low-key ‘brothers and sisters’ (verse 22), ‘congregation’ (verse 22), begins to widen out to ‘you who fear the Lord’ (verse 23), ‘offspring (literally ‘seed’) of Jacob’ (verse 23) ‘offspring (seed) of Israel’ (verse 24), ‘great congregation’ (verse 25),  and eventually includes ‘all the ends of the earth’ (verse 27), ‘all the families of the nations’ (verse 27) ‘all who sleep in the earth’ (verse 29), ‘posterity’/ ‘a people yet unborn’ (verse 30-31).

The psalm is truly the song of the one become the many. Indeed to pick up an image from the psalm those many are the ‘seed’ (verses 23-4) of the lonely singer.

That sense of one spiralling into many is also clearly present in both the week’s Old Testament reading and linked Epistle. Genesis 17.1-7,15,16 focuses on the ‘multitude’ of ‘offspring’ (seed) that will spring up from the apparently childless Abraham and Sarah (see verses 4, 5, 6, 16). The theme is reiterated in Romans 4.13-25 which recalls the title given to Abraham of ‘father of many nations’ (verse18). In this passage too, the word used for ‘descendants’ (verse 13, 16), is literally the Greek word for ‘seed’.

This movement of the one into the many is I think an important clue to the interpretation of our Gospel passage, Mark 8.31-38. It comes immediately after Peter’s ‘confession of faith’, his realization that Jesus is the Messiah (verse 29). That discovery seems to prompt Jesus into further teaching – not about triumph, but about suffering.  It also involves a harsh exchange between Jesus and Peter in which the word ‘rebuke’ (Greek epitimao) appears twice, first spoken by Peter to Jesus and then thrown back at Peter by Jesus. It is important to realise just how ‘loaded’ a word ‘rebuke’ is – it is used elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus rebukes the demons who cause illness (Mark 1.25), or the demonic forces of the storm (Mark 4.39). Jesus’ sharp use of this in his exchange with Peter at this point, perhaps ‘hints’ at the temptation that must have dogged him throughout his ministry – to seek a messiahship that did  not involve him in personal and painful suffering, a temptation which of course he finally and conclusively rejected in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36).

But what is also important, is that when Jesus refers to this suffering, he does not in fact say ‘the Messiah must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…’. Given that the ‘discovery’ that Peter has just made is of Jesus’ Messiahship – this is intriguing. Rather Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man*’ must suffer… The question ‘Who is this Son of Man?’ has been around a long time in Christian history – since John 12.34 in fact! Of course in some senses the answer is clearly (or at least partially) ‘Jesus’, but then the question really becomes, ‘What exactly does this title mean, and why does Jesus use it at this point?’

I am certain (along with many others who study and teach the Bible!) that the vision in Daniel 7.13 of ‘the one like a son of man’ who suffers and then is glorified is part of the picture. Jesus is identifying himself with this trajectory of suffering and persecution, which will eventually be transcended by glory. But I don’t think that this is the whole of the story. In Hebrew idiom the phrase ‘son of…’ is a way of saying ‘member of the group of’. This can be seen, for example, in a ‘traditional’ translation of Psalm 8.4:‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou madest him’. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry here makes clear that ‘son of man’ is more or less synonymous with ‘man’ or perhaps with ‘humanity’.

This is I think therefore the ‘clue’ to the use of the phrase Son of Man in Mark 8.31. In switching from the word ‘Messiah’ to ‘Son of Man’ at this point Jesus is suggesting that the role of suffering followed by glory is not a role simply to be played by him alone. Potentially it involves others – first of course his immediate disciples but eventually all humanity. They – we! – are being offered the challenge, responsibility and privilege of becoming part of the ‘Son of Man’. It was of course a challenge and role that in the first instance none of Jesus’ disciples were willing to accept, as Jesus’ ‘aloneness’ on the cross marked out the first Good Friday. Yet correspondingly Jesus’ willingness to play the role of ‘Son of Man’ is the starting-point of a process that will mean that he will have many ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ (to recall the expression used in this week’s other lectionary readings). There is of course the clear suggestion that Jesus’ suffering will also mean that his followers are called to ‘take up their cross’ (Mark 8.34)in the second half of this week’s Gospel passage.

I find it interesting that the letters of Paul do not use the expression ‘Son of Man’. I think however that Paul’s phrase ‘Body of Christ’ (which in turn does not appear in the Gospels) functions as Paul’s equivalent of the Gospel expression ‘Son of Man’. And just as we are potentially (or actually?) the Body of Christ, so we are also the ‘Son of Man’. As with Psalm 22 – the lonely one has indeed become the many.

There is a wonderful pictoral depiction of this in the Whalton Christ – which I have used as the illustration for this week’s blog and draw on often to illustrate my vision of ‘the Body of Christ’. This is a picture of the face of Christ created through the use of many photographs of people and scenes of the village of Whalton in Northumberland. It was created as a millennium project. I gather from something I have read recently that the new Archbishop of York appreciates the Whalton Christ as well – so I am in good company!

One final point – which explains the title for this week’s blog. There are several good theological reasons for Christians to care passionately about creation and the environment.  I explored some of them in a couple of blog postings a few weeks ago. But one additional reason is that our loyalty and commitment to ‘the Body of Christ’ requires us to care about the welfare and ‘good’ of generations who come after us. The Christian understanding of ‘the Body of Christ’ is that it transcends and draws together space and time. We need to care for our world not least so that Christ’s deliverance is proclaimed and enjoyed by a people yet unborn. (Psalm 22.29-31)

The Whalton Christ, detail

The asterisk * above is intended as an acknowledgement that I am uncomfortable with the gender specific language that is implied in words and phrases like ‘man’ and ‘son of man’. Some modern translations seek to get round the issue by using words like ‘mortals’ – but that would not work precisely for the point I am seeking to make here.

Love changes everything

This week’s blog explores what it means to call Jesus, God’s ‘Beloved Son’, and how ‘Love’ is an appropriate theme to delve into at the beginning of Lent.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Stanley Spencer: Christ in the Wilderness – The Scorpion

On my computer system I have a collection of about 50 quotes on ‘love’. Some of them are from the Bible and  explicit Christian tradition, but many of them are not – such  as the title for this week’s blog ‘Love changes everything’ which comes from the musical Aspects of Love (beautifully sung by Michael Ball at Michael Ball – Love Changes Everything – YouTube). Most of them I agree with – though some are part of the collection precisely because I disagree with them e.g. Love Story’s line ‘Love never has to say it’s sorry’. (Absolutely not true!)

I have used the ‘love collection’ on a number of occasions when I have been leading a retreat or quiet day. I scatter them (writ large) around a room and invite people to wander around and choose their favourite and say ‘why’ they like it. (And in some contexts also to select those they disagree with!).  The idea would also work (perhaps in a slightly adapted way) in an all age worship service.  If any of the readers of this blog would like or find it useful to have my ‘love collection’ – drop me an email and I will gladly send you the list of quotes.

I am writing this blog on Ash Wednesday – so Lent is very much in my mind. The focus of the blog is of course the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, Lent 1, and particularly the Gospel, Mark 1.9-15. In the space of these few verses we hear of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s account of his time in the wilderness, and the announcement of the beginning of his public ministry. It is interesting how in this lectionary year (Year B), various permutations of verses from Mark 1.1-15 appear several times over the course of the year (in a similar way as also do verses from John 1.1-18). It may be a challenge to the preacher to think of something ‘new’ to say on each occasion when Mark 1 crops up!

The word I myself want to focus on for now is ‘Love’.  It is drawn from those words addressed to Jesus at his baptism, ‘You are my beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11).  Lent and Love belong together. I believe that profoundly. I have to confess (appropriately of course on Ash Wednesday) that some traditional Lenten hymns leave me cold. The first hymn marked ‘Lent’ in my school hymnbook (Songs of Praise) was Forty Days and Forty Nights. We used to sing it again… and again… and again. Ever since my school days I associate it with Lent. It has got the word ‘dreary’ in it, and that was also my reaction to that particular hymn. It is ‘just about’ redeemed by the final verse with its ‘good’ line speaking of ‘the eternal Eastertide’. But there is nothing, directly at least, about ‘love’ in that particular hymn. The second hymn in the Songs of Praise Lenten collection though is the Percy Dearmer song Now quit your care… which was set to the beautiful French carol melody Quittez Pasteurs. Sometimes we got to sing that one instead, and I always enjoyed it when we did. Love is mentioned in both its first verse – and its last. The first verse encourages us, ‘Come buy with love the love most high’ and the final verse assures us that ‘love shall be the prize’. I particularly cherish its third verse, which sums up for me the goal of Lent:

To bow the head,
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes
His beauty to come nigh.
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

Back to that baptismal acclamation of Jesus as ‘the Beloved Son’. The same phrase is used of Jesus at his transfiguration (Mark 9.7), and, by implication in the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mark 12.6). Its three-fold repetition at the beginning, middle and near the end of Mark’s Gospel suggests its importance for the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was.  It is possible, even likely, that several Old Testament themes are intended to resonate through the phrase, but I think that the primary resonance that we are intended to see in these words is the story of  Isaac, the Old Testament’s archetypal ‘beloved son’ (Genesis 22.2). Isaac was almost sacrificed precisely because he was so loved. There are quite a few hints, in various books of the New Testament, that the early Christians drew on the story of Isaac when they were reflecting on the meaning of the death of Christ. Jesus was the ‘beloved Son’ who was called to travel one stage further than Isaac had been required to go. There would be no ‘ram caught in the thicket’ as a last-minute ‘let out’ for him: rather he was both Son, and Lamb. (I have written elsewhere at much greater length on the ‘Isaac’ motif in the New Testament which I find fascinating: I think for example it underlies the iconic verse John 3.16 ‘God so loved the world’…)

For now though, in this context, what I think is important to say, is that Jesus’ identity as ‘beloved’ somehow enables his ministry, and his relationships, both with human beings and more widely with creation. We have become increasingly aware over the years of the way that a child’s early sense of being loved (or not) can influence the rest of their life, and the possibility of making healthy relationships with others. It is the fact that he is the Beloved Son, which enables Jesus’ deep trust in his father and allows those words in Gethsemane, ‘Abba, Father… not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14.36) eventually to be said.

And it also somehow undergirds his experience in the wilderness. I enjoy the brevity of Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, and resist reading it through the eyes of Luke or Matthew. Jesus is ‘driven out’ (strong word) into the wilderness to mark the beginning of the New Exodus that he had come to inaugurate. The ‘wild beasts’ remind me of the ‘peaceable kingdom’ of Isaiah 11.6-9, which speaks of harmony within creation, though I have to say that I do think that lions, wolves and leopards may get a bit of a raw deal in that process.  I expect that many of you are aware of at least some of the pictures in the series painted by Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness. Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s lovely book Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings by Stanley Spencer has made the collection even better known. I think that Mark’s note about Jesus’ time in the wilderness ‘with the wild beasts’ (Mark 1.13) underlies several of the paintings, especially perhaps the painting of Christ with the Scorpion (see above). Is it not because of his own experience of being ‘beloved’ that the figure of Christ in the painting can treat this small but fearsome creature with such care and compassion? Love changes everything!

Living by vision: the biblical summons to transfiguration

The Sunday before Lent is now frequently referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’ as we read each year one of the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. This year the lectionary readings for this Sunday are 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9. We focus below particularly on the Gospel reading from Mark as, following on from last week’s blog reflections, we continue to explore New Testament insights into human responsibility for the wellbeing of creation.

Given the focus of these two blogs I am glad to be able to offer the contact details of the diocesan environment officer, Revd Elizabeth Bussmann (mebussmann-morton@bluewin.ch) and to mention at Elizabeth’s request that on Saturday 17th April 2021 (10am – 12 CET) the Revd Dr Dave Bookless will reflect on: Christianity & the Environment: The Mission of God and the Mission of God’s People’. Details will shortly be available on the diocesan website about how to register for the event.

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

The apse mosaic of the transfiguration of Christ in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. The named figures of Moses and Elijah situated either side of the Cross assure us that the mosaic is depicting this biblical scene.

‘Transfiguration is living by vision; standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.(Walter Wink)

This is a stunning comment by the American theologian Walter Wink which I have returned to again and again, ever since I first came across it – probably about 25 years ago now. It is a reminder if I needed it that not only is the biblical motif of ‘transfiguration’ absolutely core to our Christian faith, but also that it has profound contemporary relevance. I am aware that in some circles the transfiguration – and the biblical narratives associated with it – are seen as a bit airy-fairy or ‘irrelevant’. Not only is this view deeply wrong, but it seems oblivious to the fact that ideas linked to the transfiguration have been drawn on by several Christian theologians who worked out their theology in situations that were profoundly challenging and personally dangerous. The martyred Roman Catholic bishop Oscar Romero is a prime example.  In his published sermons Romero frequently returns to the motif of the Transfiguration, and draws a parallel with the need for the transfiguration of El Salvador, its society and its political life.  

There is a beautiful  quotation by Archbishop Michael Ramsey about the centrality of the transfiguration:

The transfiguration: ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.(The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ)

Ramsey wrote this in 1949. Nearly twenty years later in 1967,  J.W.C Wand, formerly Bishop of London, offered a view of the transfiguration that was even more comprehensive:

‘It is actually possible to regard transfiguration as the fundamental idea in the Christian religion and as placing in a nutshell the whole story of the individual Christian life as well indeed as that of society as a whole.’

As I suggested towards the end of the blog last week, one way that the transfiguration has been drawn on in recent years in relation to ‘society as a whole’, is to explore what it has to say about the relationship between humanity, creation and the environment. This is especially important at the moment. For even if we cannot precisely place all the threads we are obliquely aware that there is somehow a connection between our human exploitation of creation and our environment and the spread of the virus that is responsible for our present pandemic.

Peter’s words, confronted with the transfiguration of his master and friend were, ‘It is good for us to be here.’ (Mark 9.5) I think it is right to hear in this language a resonance of God’s own repeated affirmation as creation proceeds through Genesis 1, ‘And God saw that it was good.’ As Wink suggests, the transfiguration holds before our eyes the possibility of the dawning of a new creation.

I mentioned in what I wrote last week that the connection between transfiguration and the environment has been an insight which we owe especially to Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has engaged with ecological concerns particularly deeply: he is often referred to as ‘the Green Patriarch’.  The theme has also been explored powerfully by the Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware (who began his Christian life as an Anglican). ‘Within the Gospel story, the Transfiguration of Christ stands out as the ecological event par excellence.’ See

Safeguarding the Creation for Future Generations – Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (orth-transfiguration.org)

The following comments are drawn in a slightly edited form from Bishop Kallistos’ lecture. The full text is available via the link given.

  • The Transfiguration reveals the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things.
  • Christ, so the event on Mount Tabor makes clear, came to save not our souls alone, but also our bodies. Moreover, we human beings are not saved from but with the world. In and through Christ – and, by virtue of Christ’s grace, in and through each one of us – the whole material creation, as Saint Paul expresses it, ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21). We human beings, in other words, are called to continue and to extend the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain

Bishop Kallistos draws attention to the wonderful mosaic of the transfiguration at a church in Ravenna (St Apollinare in Classe) in which creation motifs appears strongly. The complete mosaic is portrayed at the beginning of the blog. The detail from it below draws attention to the cross at the heart of the mosaic:

The Apse Mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in Classe, detail: The Cross with the face of Christ at its centre
  • … let us recall the Cross which dominates the Transfiguration mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare. What is it, we ask, that links Paradise in the past (Genesis 1-2) with Paradise in the future (Revelation 21-22)? There is but one answer: the Cross. Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration. Without sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying) after the example of Jesus Christ crucified, there can be no ecological renewal.
  • All this needs to be applied to our ecological work, whether for our own or for future generations. There can be no transformation of the environment without self-denial, no fundamental renewal of the cosmos without voluntary sacrifice. In Christ’s words, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). Gain comes through loss, life through death, transfiguration through cross-bearing.
  • We cannot save what we do not love. There can be… no true wisdom, without love; and equally there can be no cosmic transfiguration without love.

Love is, of course, very present in the story of the transfiguration through the proclamation of Christ as ‘Beloved Son’, It  is a sign that, as with earlier biblical beloved sons (think of Isaac in Genesis 22), suffering awaits him, and if we are to be caught up in his transfiguration, it is a vocation that may indeed (as Kallistos Ware suggests) require us to identify with his suffering too.

The placing of the story of Christ’s transfiguration in the middle of the Gospel is deeply suggestive of the way that in this mountain-top event are woven together the all threads of the Christian story: The ‘epiphany’ of Christ at the baptism, the ‘incarnation’ portrayed in his Galilean journeys, the crucifixion and resurrection.

In the Gospel of Mark, the account that we are reading this year, the transfiguration is at the literal heart of the Gospel (the beginning of chapter 9 in a Gospel of 16 chapters).  Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, the transfiguration on the mountain-top is an event which ‘bridges’ together two events that take place in the ‘depths’. The first of these is the baptism of Christ, in the ‘deep’ waters. The verbal link ‘beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11; 9.7) between the baptism and transfiguration is obvious. But there is also a ‘contrasting’ link between the bright mountain-top of the transfiguration, and the deep and dark valley of Gethsemane, when the one proclaimed as Son on the mountain-top prays to his father using the word ‘Abba’ (Mark 14.36).

It is interesting that the Common Worship lectionary has in each of its three years set the reading of the Gospel account of the transfiguration for the Sunday before Lent. For those of us who have long memories of previous lectionaries this is far more satisfactory than the place allotted to it in the ASB lectionary when its positioning on the Fourth Sunday in Lent was unhelpful – not least because of its ‘clash’ with Mothering Sunday! 

In fact I think placing this story on the Sunday before Lent is also more satisfactory than the Sunday allotted to it in the current Roman Catholic version of the Revised Common Lectionary (where it appears on the Second Sunday of Lent). There is such a powerful sense in all three Synoptic Gospels that as soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain of transfiguration he deliberately ‘sets his face’ to turn towards Jerusalem and the passion and suffering that awaits him there. Reading, as we now do, the transfiguration story at this precise point in the Christian year the light on the mountain-top catches up the brightness of the Epiphany season, yet also enables us to illumine our way as we turn our faces sharply towards Jerusalem, and to the Cross: ‘Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration.’ ‘The beyond shines in our midst on the way to the cross.’