Discipleship in Difficult Days 17 : ‘This enemy, the virus’?

Over the last weeks and months I have sought to draw together and share prayers, poems and other reflections relating to these ‘difficult days’ in which the Covid-19 virus has so dominated and changed our personal – and church – lives. As we seem now to be moving into a new stage, what some people are calling a ‘new normal’ it is perhaps appropriate to draw this use for my ongoing http://faithineurope.net  blog towards a conclusion.

So this ‘issue’ of the blog is, I think, the last that will go out under the title ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, and the blog will eventually revert to its original focus – offering reflections on the lectionary readings for the forthcoming Sunday, with a ‘Europe’ focus in mind. I am going to give myself a couple of weeks ‘holiday’ (at home!) and then hopefully turn to exploring the lectionary. I would be very grateful for contributors, whether familiar or new, who would be willing to offer a reflection on the lectionary readings – I am trying to draw together a list now to take us up till the end of October, so please be in touch if you can offer. I enjoy writing and theological thinking myself, but am very conscious that there are other voices around our diocese whose insights can and should be shared.

This ultimate ‘edition’ of ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, offers more of the splendid Haiku poems composed by Jean Mayer of the Anglican chaplaincy of La Cote with our current experience in mind. It draws attention to a lovely song written for these days by John Bell of the Wild Goose Worship Group, which some of you may wish to use in your churches. My husband Alan has contributed a couple of the poems he has been writing in ‘lockdown’ – which resonate with the overall theme for this edition. My own latest thinking was stimulated by a reflection by an ordinand of Westcott House Cambridge which I refer to below – and which I think raises a question that will not go away. I link this exploration to some passages from the Book of Genesis, which are appearing as one of the Old Testament alternatives in the lectionary during recent and forthcoming weeks.

One final point: in the United Kingdom, where I have been living since late February, the term that has been drawn on to describe the government instructions to the population to stay at home is ‘lockdown’. But in continental Europe, especially in French-speaking countries, the normal term used is ‘confinement’.

As one of my colleagues in the Ministry Experience Scheme programme of the diocese has commented, ‘confinement’ does not have the simply negative resonances that the word ‘lockdown’ does. For ‘confinement’ is a term also used to describe a woman’s experience during the late stages of pregnancy and during the period of giving birth. As many around the world continue to suffer from this death-dealing pandemic, human beings – especially people of faith – need to explore what are the ‘new’ things – ways of life, priorities? – that need to come to birth after these difficult days.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

IMG_20200629_130502

A witty display of book titles, chosen with ‘difficult days’ in mind, found in the window of our local bookshop. 

 

A couple of months ago I included in the blog (Discipleship in Difficult Days 10) a collection of seven Haiku poems written by Jean Mayer, of La Cote chaplaincy, reflecting on her then experience. Several of them were linked to Holy Week and Easter. The following poems, written more recently, portray her ongoing experience, in Switzerland,  during recent weeks.  The last Haiku offers a very fitting conclusion, to which indeed we could all say ‘Amen’.

 

Social distancing
two metres a world apart
yearn for warm embrace

Care homes ban visits
fearful and lonely they sit
nurses’ hands console

Yoga, pilates
tai chi, skip, dance or just stretch
keep fit while locked in

Trump wants rapid cure
inject or drink bleach says he
experts shriek ‘no way’!

Thousands queue for food
jobs lost – ends no longer meet
shock to Swiss system

To mask or not mask
that is the question – unsolved!
virus mocks our plight

Scarecrow hair needs care
cut, colour, brushing and more
Figaro sings hope

Waiting for vaccine
striving to live with constraints
pray lessons were learnt!
AMEN

*****

Rev John Bell, of the Wild Goose Worship Group and the Iona Community, well known for many years for his creative contribution to the life of the churches (I first had the pleasure of meeting John more than 30 years ago!) has written a powerful new hymn/song for these days,’ We will meet when the danger is over, we will meet when the sad days are done…’.  The words and music score, and a video recording, are available here:

https://www.urcmerseysynod.org.uk/ahymnforcoronatime.htm

With characteristic generosity John is allowing his composition to be freely available, provided proper crediting of authorship is acknowledged. Churches and others in the diocese may want to make use of this song.

*****

I am grateful to my husband Canon Alan Amos for allowing me to draw on for this blog the poems he has written over the last weeks and months. Here are two more: the first in particular links well with the theme of the reflection below, the second feels appropriate to use as this current form of the blog draws to a close:

Declaration of war, the virus responds

 All across the world
your leaders have declared war
against poor little me!
Enough to give me a big head
as I jump like a flea
from one resting place
to the next.
Pity your leaders
never thought
to declare war
on my ugly sister poverty –
well they did actually,
without really
meaning it.

 

Looking forward…

We stand at the threshold of a brave new world
or will it be one of bravado
masking ineptitude?
Can we muster the courage
to enter a world where we share resources
with equity,
give space for others
so the voice of their needs
may be heard?

*****

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a prayer that could be used by people of different faiths who wished to come together to pray about the Covid-19 situation. With the help of my husband I rose to the challenge. One of Alan’s proposed amendments to my first draft text was to suggest that the virus should explicitly be labelled as ‘enemy’. I accepted that suggestion and the final published version of the prayer included the phrase ‘this enemy, the virus’. But I have wondered ever since about the words. The idea that we need to ‘love our enemy’ is embedded pretty deep within my Christian psyche! Is it ‘nice’ to refer to the virus in such a hostile form? I genuinely am still wrestling with this question, and what I offer below is intended to be a basis to encourage discussion rather than offer a definitive answer.

So this concluding blog of the series looks at the question of ‘enmity’. I was prompted to take it forward at this time partly because I came across an interesting reflection written a few weeks ago by Pippa White, an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, on ‘Covid-19 and the language of war’. https://westcottblog.com/2020/06/11/covid-19-the-language-of-war/   Do take a look at it. Pippa makes clear her hesitation about such language.

And then, since this blog also seeks to pay some attention to the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday – I have been struck by how frequently the current lectionary readings, especially from the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Romans and the Old Testament ‘continuous’ sequence from Genesis 21.8-21 are very ‘binary’ in their focuses, in which a sense of ‘enemy’ is not far away, even if the word itself is not necessarily used.

A couple of weeks ago the selected lectionary Gospel spoke of Jesus apparently proclaiming ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10.34) and then goes on to speak about setting family members against each other.

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading draws attention to the ‘contrary’ nature of those who listened to Jesus’ message (Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end). The coming Sunday also offers us that passage from Romans in which Paul describes the turmoil going on inside himself using the idiom of ‘war’ (Romans 7.15-25a).

As regards Genesis, the coming Sunday’s reading is the beautiful story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca – but this is a brief interlude of light relief in between several weeks that have and will offer tales of fraternal strife and competition. Two weeks ago Genesis recounted the horrific story of the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother Hagar into the wilderness by Abraham, to apparent death. It is a story on which I have reflected long, not least because a number of years ago I wrote a commentary on Genesis, in which I tried to take account of modern Middle Eastern and interreligious concerns. It is horrendous – a father deliberately sending his son out to die.

It is no accident that it is placed immediately in Genesis before the near sacrifice of Isaac which was last Sunday’s lectionary passage, and that the two stories are probably intended to be read alongside each other. Tellingly, we tend to be much more conscious of the horror of Isaac’s near death in Genesis 22 than we are of Ishmael’s in Genesis 21. Does Ishmael’s life matter to us as much? I believe the saving grace of the story as it is recounted in Genesis is that the writer of the Book of Genesis actually intends us to find both stories and their interplay deeply disturbing and ask ourselves some pertinent questions.  After our ‘interlude’ with Isaac and Rebecca, in which the word ‘love’ is used for the second time in Genesis (the first time it appears is in Genesis 22, to refer to Abraham’s love for Isaac), we will return again for several weeks to the theme of fraternal strife with tales from the story of Jacob and Esau.

It is an overarching theme of Genesis that human beings are placed in a ‘binary’ world, tasked by God with eventually drawing it into a sense of unity. This is somehow played out through these stories of family relationships. I hope to return to this theme when I return to the blog in a couple of weeks’ time.  But what might that mean for our relationship with the virus? Perhaps, as one of my husband’s poems suggests it is our ‘enemy’ which we want to distance from ourselves partly because it dares to make more apparent than we like to acknowledge those things about ourselves or our world that we are uncomfortable with – the glaring realities of poverty and injustice in much of our world, and the acknowledgement of our own mortality.

Yet the fundamental Christian rite of initiation, baptism, speaks deeply, as indeed does the reading from Romans 6.1-11, used as the lectionary Epistle the Sunday before last, of how in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death, so that ultimately we can also be united with him in his resurrection. The one is not possible without the other. I leave you with the following thoughtful comment:

‘Sometimes I wonder, in most of our celebrations of baptism, if we reduce the waters of baptism to a mere sprinkle, and cover it up with rosebuds and lace and talk about cute babies and “God loves you” because we dare not speak about the strange and wonderful work which is beginning in this child on this day. You know how we always try to avoid death. Baptism is death which leads to life.’  (William H Willimon, Remember who you are: Baptism, a model for Christian life, Nashville: 1980)

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 16: One Body, in God

The strange circumstances of this year have enabled me to reflect in a way that I had never quite done previously on the threads that draw together Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and the feast that is widely called ‘Corpus Christi.’

I have been helped particularly by the Common Worship liturgy for Pentecost, which includes some powerful symbolic actions that perhaps speak more loudly when, as recently, they are taking place in one’s own home. At Pentecost, as the Paschal Candle is extinguished, to mark the end of the 50 days of the Easter season, each of us is invited to light our own candle – a visual statement that it is now up to us to follow through the work of Christ and be in our turn ‘lights of the world’ reflecting God’s love. The following week, on Trinity Sunday, we discover that the essential nature of this divine love which we are required to emulate is to hold together diversity and unity. Corpus Christi – as it is widely known in many countries of our diocese – follows swiftly on after Trinity.

Perhaps one way of thinking about the connection is to suggest that Holy Communion, itself speaking of both unity and diversity, constitutes nourishment enabling us to live out the life of the Trinity. I have to confess that the ‘official title of the day in the Common Worship lectionary ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ doesn’t quite ‘cut’ it for me… I would rather think of it as a Day of Thanksgiving for the privilege of living out our role as part of the Body of Christ.

As our various contributions, prayer, theological reflection and poetry this week make clear, this fundamental sequence within the Christian year cannot but have implications for our response as individual Christians and as a diocese to the killing of George Floyd. I am especially grateful to my colleagues on the diocesan Ministry Team for their input.

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

mafa supper

 

Prayer for Lives That Matter

God of Abel and Cain, the one who was slain
and the one who denied complicity or responsibility:
visit those who can’t breathe because of the virus
or because of oppression at the hands of another.
Raise up leaders who offer their people vision and hope;

empower any who dwell in the midst of violence
or live in the face of prejudice;
and make your people a rainbow
that promises plenty at the end of the storm.
In the name of Christ, our brown-skinned Lord,
in the power of the Spirit, who speaks in every tongue. Amen.
(Sam Wells, St Martin-in-the-Fields)

*****

Prayer used at diocesan service for Racial Justice, 12 June 2020

God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception.
Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being.
Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family.
Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviours, and speech which demean others.
Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history.
And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds,
build bridges, forgive and be forgiven,
and establish peace and equality for all in our communities.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

*****

Prayer linked to Romans 8 initially used in national UK ‘Set All Free’ campaign 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

Abba,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
You have graced us with the spirit of freedom,
And the privilege of calling upon you by name.
May we use this precious freedom
To give a voice to all who are enslaved
By poverty or persecution,
Held captive by discrimination or disease.
Grant us courage to name injustice wherever it appears,
And to speak your Word of truth,
Sure that the love of God in Christ Jesus has power
To set all people free,
Enabling them to live in glorious liberty,
As your cherished sons and daughters. Amen.

.*****

 

Today I will pray…

I am glad to incorporate several more of the powerful prayers written by Paul Wignall, Chaplain in Las Palmas and Director of Reader Training. I have included them in the order that Paul wrote them – so they conclude with his prayer for Corpus Christi, which clearly alludes to current events. To read them sequentially in this way gives them a particular power. Paul’s penultimate prayer was written a week ago, with the Feast of St Boniface in mind. The life of this 8th century saint, who travelled from England to continental Europe to share the Christian gospel, also has wisdom for our current age.

 

Today I will thank God for my dreams –                                                                                            the silent healers of my mind and body as I sleep.                                                                          And I will thank God too for my waking dreams,                                                                           my imagination, my longings and my hopes.                                                                                   As I thank God for making dreams part of life,
I will above all give thanks for dreamers                                                                                          who find a way of making their dreams into reality
and changing the world into a better place.
I ask God to give me the grace to make me one of their company. Amen.

 

Today I will thank God for people with imagination.
I will thank God for those who dream                                                                                               of better worlds and ways of doing things.                                                                                       I will dig deep into myself to find                                                                                                       the foundations on which life is built –
the life we share, the life                                                                                                                       which moves us and makes us.                                                                                                            And I will pray for the courage and humility                                                                                  to be changed by what I find there. Amen.

 

I will pray today for all who speak.                                                                                                     For those who use their voices and find words                                                                                to bring calm and truth, hope and confidence                                                                                 for those who are struggling with life,                                                                                               I will call down God’s blessing.                                                                                                            For those who use words to sow discontent,                                                                                   tell lies or manipulate truth,                                                                                                                I will call down God’s mercy.                                                                                                                And for those who speak for the voiceless,                                                                                      the despairing and the forgotten,                                                                                                        I will call down God’s creative love.                                                                                                    Teach me O Lord, that when I must speak,                                                                          to speak with care. Amen.

 

St Boniface:

Today I will pray for everyone                                                                                                             who is living in a country where they were not born.                                                                   For migrants by choice and for those                                                                                                 escaping destruction, hunger and fear.                                                                                             For young and old together                                                                                                               finding new lives and opportunities.                                                                                                 For those who still endure marginal,                                                                                                 excluded and poverty-stricken lives in their lands of promise.                                                    I pray for generosity between all people.                                                                                          For imagination and curiosity.                                                                                                             But above all I pray that all will be welcomed and feel welcomed. Amen

 

 ‘Corpus Christi’:

I will give thanks today for the presence of Jesus Christ
in the midst of a scared and broken world.
I will give thanks that he stands among us, quietly,
to heal anger and despair, brokenness and loss.
And I will give thanks that he calms my fears
as he shows me his wounded hands and feet,
the marks of torture;
and his eyes smile encouragement to go on,
even in the hardest times. Amen.

 

 

*****

Breaking open the locks

Today is traditionally known as ‘Corpus Christi’ – the feast day of Christ’s Body; a day of thanksgiving for the institution of our common Christian meal, the Eucharist. It started as a city feast, a feast of ordinary people, to celebrate their common life. It was marked by processions, by joy, and by plays – it’s a starting point for the tradition of public theatre across Europe.

Above all it was an affirmation that the common meal of Christians – sharing in bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ – is a wonderful public event, open to all. The Christian meal may have begun among fearful friends in a locked room as a way of healing the pain of the loss of their teacher and master, Jesus. But the fear turned to wonder, joy, hope and new life. It broke open the locks, smashed down the doors, and became a meal to which the whole world was invited.

Over the past weeks it’s been a meal we haven’t really been able to share in the ways we were used to. And now that we can come together once more let’s not forget: it’s not ‘our’ meal, it is for the world. We gather to eat (and soon, I hope, to drink) but not for ourselves alone. It is well said that the eucharist has four actions: taking, breaking, blessing and sharing. We can take and break and bless as much as we like, but unless we also share with the world not only the meal but the freedom and hope it stands for – what we do has very little value. (Paul Wignall)

*****

‘Bending the knee’

bending the knee

The celebration of ‘Corpus Christi’’, which was inspired by the thought and devotion of St Thomas Aquinas in the mediaeval period, gives the Church a renewed opportunity to remind itself of the origins of our worship and to ‘bow the knee’ or genuflect, in celebration at Our Lord’s presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

This gesture of bowing the knee, which many across the world adopted in the midst of impassioned marches and protests, following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, has a new and powerfully political currency… At Corpus Christi we reflect on the meal which Jesus gave us, which is our ultimate sustenance and our means of calling ourselves the Body of Christ and knowing God’s love.

In the Eucharist, our central act of worship, we bow the knee, in humility, against the oppressive forces in our society and towards the one who took the form of a servant and lived amongst us incarnate. He was not white or European. His ancestry was that of a people who had been oppressed and enslaved. His action at the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday prefigured a renewed flight from the oppression of slavery. The Passover meal which Jesus centres his actions within both at table and on the cross, was the Jewish celebration of the end of slavery, the passing over the Angel of Death, the movement from bondage, out of Egypt and through the Red Sea towards a new and promised land of freedom.

That journey was appropriated and made new in the taking of bread and wine at the Last Supper. Jesus’s Body and Blood, are his and ours. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. Slavery is ended, oppression is shown for the monster it is, and new life and new hope are ours, now and forever. (William Gulliford)

*****

‘Crucified love’

The Christian concept of the Trinity reveals that God is not the chief commander or the chief avenger – but the crucified love. Not unit, but unity. God is not just personal, but interpersonal God. He is dialogical. Within Him there is a timeless dialogue of infinite and untiring love, and we have been taken up into this dialogue.

roublev trinity

We refer to ourselves as the body of Christ, because we are incorporated in Christ through our baptism. Since we are incorporated in Christ, we are also incorporated in the Holy Trinity. We can imagine ourselves sitting at the table with the three angels and sharing the chalice with them. … The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18.1-15) by Andrei Rublev is one of the most mesmerizing works of art. As you try to understand how do the angels relate to each other, you get caught up in the dynamic that is going on between them, the circular, even spiral movement of their gestures.

Each angel refers to another, echoes another, but what gives this hypnotizing effect is that their gazes never meet. The first one is watching the second one, but the second one doesn’t look back – he is watching the third one. The third one doesn’t look back, but he is tilting his head. They do not meet each other’s eyes. Their relationship is completely opened.

Why is that? If two would exchange looks, the third one would be left outside, excluded. But their relationship is not exclusive. None of the angels, none of the persons of the Trinity is caught up in binary relation. What the icon tells us is that the nature of the Trinity is to embrace everything, to be opened.

Trinity represents the very idea of the possibility to go out of yourself. Three persons, but there is no domination. There is not one person that usurps all the attention….. There is no play of power… Trinitarian persons are not searching to receive their own reflection back, as we are often tempted to do. We want to see in the other only what is familiar to us, only what we like. We create our own ideal and see this ideal reflected in others. We want to see our own ideas being confirmed. We think that this is our comfort zone, but is it really? Does it make us free? Does it make us happier? Does it make us progress? … (Ksenia Smyk)

*****

Corpus Christi

Love’s feast is come again
this year we celebrate online
the ardent lines
that reach out to infinity;
parameters of love that know no end
and where we are
becomes the place of grace.
(Alan Amos)

Discipleship in Difficult Days 15: I am with you…

Among the many useless and largely since forgotten pieces of information which I had to ‘mug up’ before taking my 11 plus exam (many years ago) were ‘collective nouns’. What do you call a group of bishops? Or jellyfish? Or asteroids? I was reminded of this as I prepared to incorporate the short reflection by Canon Jack McDonald into this week’s blog. Jack is one of our two Canons Theologian, and last week we had an offering from Canon Robin Gill, our other Canon Theologian. What I wondered briefly, is the collective noun for Canons Theologian? (Answers on a metaphorical postcard please!) Indeed as a ‘bonus’ we also include this week a response by Robin to Jack’s reflection.

As well as the contributions by Jack and Robin there is a recent prayer offered by Canon Sam Wells of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a poem ‘The Great Pause’ written by my husband, Alan Amos, a few weeks ago – which I find particularly powerful – and a biblical reflection on the lectionary Gospel with the coming feast of the Holy Trinity in mind, which draws on material I wrote earlier this week for Roots on the Web. We close by including some comments written by Bishop Tom Wright about 20 years ago on what it means to speak of God as Trinity. This blog began of course, about 18 months ago initially seeking to offer a ‘European’ perspective on the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, and over the coming few weeks it will probably move back towards holding this as its main focus. Realistically, of course, since the virus and its aftermath will be with us for a long while yet, ‘incarnational’ reflection on scripture is likely to continue to include discussion of the impact of the current ‘difficult days’ on individuals and communities. When the blog was initially established I assiduously sought to find other people to write for it as much as possible – ‘success’ in my book was marked by my writing as little as possible for it! I would like to get back towards that model – so this is an invitation to readers, both from the Diocese in Europe and elsewhere, laity and clergy, to offer to take responsibility for the ‘main’ item (the lectionary reflection) in the blog during one of the weeks from the beginning of July onwards. Please do contact me if you are willing to do this.

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

viens saint esprit

Preparing a church for ‘socially distanced’ worship for Pentecost, monastery chapel of Mont Voirons, Haute-Savoie.

Prayer for Pentecost
God of rushing wind and tongues of fire,
in your Holy Spirit you turn the world upside-down.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
set our hearts on fire with joy and wonder.
Transform the sadness of many and the bewilderment of most and make this virus season a time of renewal,
rediscovery, solidarity and discovery.
Show us your son’s face
in the face of the stranger, the hungry, and the lost,
that your church on its birthday
may resemble its crucified and risen Lord.
In whose name we pray. Amen.
(Canon Sam Wells)

*****

The Great Pause

‘The Great Pause’ is a name which, since March, has been given by many to the time we are currently living through. It has generated creativity, both visual and written. I particularly appreciate https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijRxAw_5Kdk   Alan’s poem starts from this term, and draws out some interesting observations. I especially appreciate the link he makes to the announcement of ‘silence in heaven’ (Revelation 8.1). Given the approach of Trinity Sunday it is worth observing that though it does not use later trinitarian terminology, the Book of Revelation offers one of the most trinitarian visions in the entire New Testament, especially as it speaks of the God who ‘was and is, and is to come’ (Revelation 1.8). Reflecting on this reminded me of the prayer ‘Lord of Time’ which I originally included in the blog on Remembrance Sunday 2019, which also offers a perspective on Trinity and time. You may want to look through ‘back issues’ of the blog to find the prayer.

‘The Great Pause’ –
this phrase
now dignifies our virus time;
giving us pause for thought…
reminding us perhaps
how western Christians
have let slip
any idea of pausing;
sabbath, Lord’s day
elided into
the confines of
a shopping trolley.
In the East they do better
with their fasts and observances
while Ramadan and Yom Kippur
remind us that for the faithful
life is subject to divine interruptions.

And so here we are with this disruption
interruption, episode;
ephemeral it may be
within the greater shape of things
and yet it calls a halt
on the way to greater consumption
and all-encompassing activity,
posing the question ‘for why’, ‘for what?’
probing the measure of our existence.

‘And there was silence in heaven
for half of an hour’
why was this required?
because what comes next
lies beyond a veil
behind which all creation
yearns and strains;
none can see a future
yet to be disclosed;
hellish or heavenly
that is the question;
and we, poor scraps of
weary humanity
shape in our breathing
in our being
something of the answer
as we expend our thirty minutes
of virus time.
(Canon Alan Amos)

*****

zoom chapter meeting

A ‘mural’ of the Zoom chapter meeting during which Jack’s and Robin’s papers were originally presented.

Tolstoy and fraternité – lessons for Covid-19

One of my promises to myself during the pandemic lockdown was to re-read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ve read it before many moons ago, egged on my my brainbox older brother Simon, while I was supposed to be preparing for my O levels. As a boy, I instinctively felt drawn to Andrei Bolkonsky, the dashing, athletic, clever but tortured hero of the book, but felt crawling dislike for Pierre Bezukhov, its idle, unstable, dissolute and tortured antihero. I recall being infuriated that Bolkonsky dies, whereas Bezukhov not only survives but gets to marry Boklonsky’s pretty, charming, bubbly but tortured fiancée Natasha Rostova. Age has taught me that maybe Tolstoy was encouraging us to see that at some times in our lives we need to be a Bolkonsky and at others a Bezukhov, and maybe at others a Rostova too. If you can’t stomach the full book, which is both massive and a little indigestible, try Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 unsurpassed seven-hour epic film version. Failing that, Tom Harper’s 2016 BBC series is pretty good, although not much shorter than Bondarchuk.

I read an article by Jean-Michel Dauriac recently, ‘L’exigence de fraternité chez Léon Tolstoï’, which introduced me more than reading War and Peace did to the texture of Tolstoy’s religious beliefs. Much of his literary output was devoted to faith, not just his great novel Resurrection, but philosophical works like A Confession and The Kingdom of God is Within You. Rebellion against injustice, stupidity and oppression is characteristic of Tolstoy, but this revolt is always placed inside a clear account of what fraternity is for men and women. Fraternity involves non-resistance to evil, a Christian anarchism and a dream of social and political utopia. Fraternity goes way beyond the insincere category of fraternité in the French Revolution, which even debated whether fraternité (Robespierre) or propriété (Lafayette) was the more appropriate term. For Tolstoy, fraternité must show a limitless solidarity which sees all men and women as brothers and sisters. A simple example from St Paul is the question of table fellowship in Galatians 2.11f: if people see themselves as followers of the Messiah Jesus, they have no option other than to subordinate their cultural and religious scruples about diet to the over-riding command to share open table fellowship, both eucharistic and conventional, with their brothers and sisters.

It is this solidarity-fraternity in Paul, reflected in Tolstoy, which motivated my reply to my dear fellow canon theologian Robin Gill at the Zoom diocesan chapter on 28 May. Robin, in his typical forensic and gracious way, outlined a theory of virtuous living by the faithful elderly in which they might voluntarily choose to emulate Simeon and Anna in Luke 2 by foregoing the right to receive medical treatment in order to benefit someone of less venerable years. My reply to this noble altruism is to say with Tolstoy: thanks but no thanks! Your gesture is selfless and noble, but the Christian response must be one of fraternity, in which we cannot allow you to make this sacrifice and in which we all struggle together to ensure that none is left behind.

How we share the limited medical resources available to make this fraternity possible is a difficult political question, but the Christian championing of fraternity must be dogged and defiant. At a time of pandemic when we cannot share table fellowship with groups vulnerable to Covid-19 like the elderly, we nonetheless share a real virtual table fellowship by fighting their corner as their sisters and brothers – as indeed Robin himself suggests.

May God bless and protect us all at this difficult time.
(Canon Jack McDonald)

*****

Response to the Responder

I have much enjoyed this response by Jack. He may well be right that I have underestimated ‘fraternity’ (or sobornost in Russian). However, tellingly, while he was busy reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I was reading Fydor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Ever more theologically nuanced than Tolstoy, Dostoevsky concludes that each of the characters in his novel has real moral worth and a considerable amount of selfishness. Even when we attempt to be altruistic, we may well fall into the twin traps of pride and selfishness. I must include myself in that.

Nevertheless, in a spirit of friendly blog-banter, I am not fully persuaded by Jack’s critique, since I do not believe that specifically in the context of triage there can possibly be a ‘right to receive medical treatment’ (as he claims). The point about triage is that, when deployed ethically, it should only be used in a crisis situation when the demand for a life-saving intervention exceeds supply. This lack of a suitable intervention might result from human folly (as in war), from science still being developed (as in the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine), from political failure (as in not stocking up on PPEs) or from a lack of highly specialized medical staff (as in ICUs). We simply cannot all have ‘rights’ to things that are scarce.

So, what I am suggesting is that elderly people such as myself might think twice before demanding scarce treatment for themselves and thereby depriving younger people of that treatment. In a genuine triage situation (and only in a triage situation) some people (and, in the case of heart transplants, most people) will sadly be deprived of life-saving treatment. I would feel very selfish indeed for demanding that treatment for myself.

But, of course, following Dostoevsky’s shrewd observations, I may be fooling myself.(Canon Robin Gill)

*****

A reflection on Matthew 28.16-20: I am with you…

Years ago I remember listening to the great American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann preach at the theological college where I was on the staff. It was, as you might expect, brilliant, although in all honesty I cannot remember most of what he said that evening. But what I do recall was Professor Brueggemann saying, with a ‘wicked’ smile on his face, – ‘The Bible is subversive’. He was right: one of the glories – and challenges – of our scripture is the way that from time to time the biblical writers throw a spanner in the works, confounding our perceptions of what is right and proper.

For many of us the Gospel of Matthew is often seen as the ‘proper’ Gospel, concerned with such niceties as proper respect being paid to the apostles, and for the ordered life of the Church. So I find it a joy when we discover that there are times when Matthew can be as ‘subversive’ as the other Gospel writers in the challenges that he offers us. It is as though Matthew pricks some of the balloons that he himself has inflated! One good example of this is when Matthew ‘subverts’ the ordered and structured nature of the genealogy with which his Gospel opens by mentioning five rather scandalous women within it to break the pattern. Then immediately after the genealogy Matthew introduces Mary’s ‘scandalous’ pregnancy with Jesus – who will be ‘Emmanuel’. And Matthew’s stresses the importance of this by then explaining that the title ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us’. ‘God with us’ is of course the frame within which the whole Gospel of Matthew is structured. There is of course a clear ‘echo’ of the phrase in Jesus’ final words to his disciples which form part of our Gospel reading this coming Trinity Sunday. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20) Enclosed within this beginning and end in the life and ministry of Jesus Matthew is sharing with us just what it means to speak of ‘God with us’. That theme can perhaps speak to many of us in new ways in the current ‘difficult days’ in which loneliness and ‘self isolation’ are the experience of quite a number of people.

But it is also fascinating to discover some of the ‘trails’ that Matthew takes us on in his exploration. It involves quite a lot of mountain climbing: it doesn’t take much to realise that Matthew is rather fond of mountains – indeed of course here in Matthew 28 the climactic end to the Gospel takes place on a mountain-top. As someone who spends time living in the Haute-Savoie region of France I resonate with Matthew’s love of mountains. There’s the mount of temptation, Sermon on the Mount, mountain of healing and feeding (Matthew 15.29), transfiguration, Mount of Olives – the eschatological mountain, and finally here at the conclusion of the Gospel the mountain where Jesus commissions his disciples for mission. The mountains seem to ‘yodel’ their messages across the valleys between them. Just one example: there are some key words and ideas, ‘all’, ‘authority’, ‘worship’ which link this mountain (Matthew 28) with the mountain of temptation (Matthew 4). Briefly, it seems to suggest that even the resurrected Christ is not seeking to reign ‘from above’ – for that was the temptation which he dismissed all those chapters before. Rather he, and his disciples that he sends out on mission, are to be ‘among’ and ‘with’ those to whom they are sent. And the final ‘twist’ in Matthew’s subversive tale – where is it that we will see Jesus ‘with’ humanity. Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, offers the unexpected and ‘scandalous’ (?) answer. ‘“Lord when was it that we saw you hungry… or thirsty… or a stranger… or naked… or in prison?” “Just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me”.’

Loving Father in heaven
Emmanuel, God with us,
Of your goodness
you have given us yourself,
The richest gift of all.
You invite us to seek for you,
In the face of your Son,
Where you have imprinted your likeness,
Made glorious with the wounds
Of suffering and passion.
Grant us a spirit of generosity,
So that we may be enabled also to discern your features
In the changing kaleidoscope of this world’s need.

*****

What does it mean to celebrate God as Trinity? The following comments by Tom Wright originally published about 20 years ago offer a fascinating – and subversive? – insight into what it means to speak of God as Trinity, which perhaps speaks particularly acutely into the present time. It is also helpful to draw attention to Bishop Tom’s short book ‘God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath’, published just over a week ago.

In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’

You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted…. the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe’ … The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.(Tom Wright, ‘For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church)

 

 

.

Discipleship in Difficult Days 14: May your communion be fulfilled in us

There are three items in this week’s blog offering. The major contribution is a fascinating theological reflection on COVID-19 by one of the two Canon Theologians in our diocese, Revd Professor Robin Gill. It is based on a presentation which he offered yesterday (28 May) to a Zoom meeting of the Chapter. Revd Professor Jack McDonald, our other Canon Theologian, will have his opportunity to reflect next week!

This is complemented by a poem my husband Canon Alan Amos has just written. The virus has somehow encouraged the poet in Alan that has been a key part of him all our married life! This poem is written with Pentecost in mind.

And we begin with sharing a prayer that could be described as co-written between Alan and myself, with input also from Bishop David Hamid. When about two months ago, Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, started to hold services that were Eucharists celebrated by priests in their own homes, with the worship shared by Zoom with the congregation, it became important to find and include a prayer that expressed the desire of those who could not receive the physical elements of Communion to make their ‘spiritual communion.’ Perhaps partly because it was such an innovation within Anglican practice, we opted then for quite a ‘traditional’ prayer – that of St Alphonsus Liguori to underpin this practice, and we are grateful to those who drew it to our attention. But St Alphonsus’ prayer is quite ‘Italianate’ and perhaps jars a bit on some Anglican sacramental sensibilities. However we could not find satisfactory alternatives on the Church of England website so St Alphonsus has been quite widely used in the last couple of months. Nonetheless, nudged by a friend in Geneva who is not a fan of St Alphonsus’ offering, we finally composed a prayer for the purpose of ‘spiritual communion’ that we feel is better reflective of mainstream Anglican spirituality and offer it below. Our understanding is that because there is not currently a formally authorised prayer for this purpose offered in Common Worship it is canonically permissible to use such a prayer, said by a member of the congregation before participants partake in the act of ‘spiritual communion.’ We would welcome further discussion and reflection on this theme, which is likely to be with us for a while yet.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 *****

A Prayer for the Act of Spiritual Communion/ Uniting in Communion

We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ… [ short pause ]

… Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; (* as we unite with one another from the places where we are // may we unite ourselves with you and embrace you with our hearts, souls and minds). May your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.

*the alternatives offered in the brackets above are still under discussion!

(Two interesting reflections, ‘tracts’, on the theme of the Eucharist and Communion in these ‘difficult days’ are offered by Rev Christopher Craig Brittan of the Anglican Church of Canada, where he is Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, Toronto, and are available here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/the-eucharist-and-coming-out-of-lockdown-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times/   and here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/on-virtual-communion-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times-ii/)

 

The well known prayer, Anima Christi, found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, also works well in this context:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malignant enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That with Thy Saints I may praise Thee
Forever and ever. Amen.

*****

flowers in garden

 ‘May the scent of beauty’s flowers…’

 

 A poem for Pentecost

Gracious Spirit enter your home

anoint our senses one by one;

restore our sight when inly blind

we tread dark corridors of the mind,

restore our taste for things divine

most surely found in bread and wine,

restore our sharing in these things

of holiness, may angel wings

hover above, around us still

defeating every thought of ill.

May the scent of beauty’s flowers

bring joy into the passing hours;

we look ahead to love’s embrace

to greet each other, face to face

and hear the voices that we love

no longer heard at one remove.

Comfort we pray those in pain

of mourning and bring hope again.

In all these things be our sure guide,

your healing presence at our side.

Alan Amos

 *****

Recent Theological Reflections on Covid-19

Recently I have read two outstanding theological reflections on Covid-19, one by the veteran Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and the other by the Goldingays.

Walter Brueggemann’s short paperback book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief and Uncertainty (Eugene, ON: Cascade Books, 2020, 80pp.: 978–1-7252–7673-4. $14) is readily available on Amazon and a very good buy.

It opens with an extremely important distinction between three different ‘interpretive options’ in the Old Testament concerning the onslaught of a ‘plague’ (while recognising frankly that ‘plague’ is not to be equated simplistically with Covid-19):

  1. A transactional quid pro quo that issues in punishment for violators
  2. A purposeful mobilization of negative force in order to effect God’s own intent
  3. A raw holiness that refuses and defies our best explanations, so that God’s force is an irreducible reality in the world.

The first of these options is most evident in parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and, then, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – signalling that ‘God’s creation is ordered according to a reliable moral intention that is non-negotiable’. The second features in Exodus, Isaiah and some of the Psalms — signalling ‘that the terror of YHWH is mobilized in order to preserve and enhance the rule of YHWH against usurpatious pride’. Whereas the third is most evident in the final chapters of Job and ‘concerns the sheer holiness of God that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all’. Brueggemann finds resonance in each, arguing that they go beyond a purely rational and scientific understanding of Covid-19 (as necessary as that still is). His own preference is clearly for the third option, pointing to a growing awareness of our current ecological fragility resulting from human technological exploitation of God’s creation. Subsequent chapters apply this crucial insight to particular Psalms (especially 77), 2 Samuel 24, 1 Kings 8, and Isaiah 42 and 43. In each of these chapters he pays particular attention to the Hebrew concepts of ‘compassion’, ‘justice’ and ‘solidarity’, while weaving in criticisms of scientism (a form of ‘magic’), escapist consumerism and the simplicities of Donald Trump (Brueggemann is American) in the context of Covid-19.

John Goldingay and Kathleen Scott Goldingay’s article ‘Thinking with the Old Testament about the pandemic’ is available in the current issue of the journal that I edit, Theology (May/June 2020, Vol.123.3, pp.198-203) which is widely available in on-line Sage packages that all good libraries hold. Their reflections are largely consonant with those of Brueggemann (unsurprisingly, since some of his chapters are re-publications of earlier work), but they do add some intriguing observations. For example, on Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, they note that there are crucial differences between 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6: ‘Samuel-Kings knows that in its day Judah is undergoing Yahweh’s chastisement and needs to think in those terms; Chronicles knows that in its day Judah needs encouragement about Yahweh’s grace rather than rebuke.’ They also note that: ‘In Jeremiah and Ezekiel Yahweh threatens epidemic twenty-nine times, as an aspect of the disaster menacing Jerusalem that they sought to prepare people for, or preferably to obviate. But there are no accounts of Yahweh fulfilling that threat when Jerusalem fell, as there are of death by sword and famine.’ And they finish their article with this poignant observation: ‘Alongside what the Torah does not say about epidemic and famine, Leviticus 19.13-18 would imply that such an event requires us to give concrete expression to loving our neighbour. We have been touched by a student offer to us as vulnerable oldies to do shopping for us, and we ourselves have been thinking about the needs of some friends whose academic gig-economy income has disappeared along with their work, and about how we can help them put food on the table’.

My own work is within Christian ethics and focuses more often upon the New Testament. In an article that I have road-tested on fellow members of the Diocesan Chapter, on Bishop Robert’s suggestion, I have been exploring the theme ‘Virtuous Living for the Faithful Elderly During Covid-19’ (this article will appear either in the September issue of Theology or in a journal of medical ethics). As someone over 70, I have found particular stimulus from St Luke’s story of Simeon and Anna greeting the baby Jesus in the temple.

Anna’s age is given as eighty-four and Simeon is often portrayed as being elderly, although Luke only implies that he is near to ‘seeing death’. Both are evidently devout and Simeon is also depicted as ‘righteous’. In Christopher Evan’s wonderful commentary Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 1990) – published when he was eighty himself, albeit still with another twenty-three years to live – Simeon is depicted as ‘a godly and inspired layman’ rather than the ‘priest’ of later tradition. Anna says nothing in the story, but Simeon echoes the canticles of Mary and Zechariah in the previous chapter of Luke:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2.29-32)

Evans explains that this canticle is, like the other two, ‘a psalm of praise with the motive of praise for an action of God. It differs from them in being not diffuse but compact in form and content. It is a poetical construction of three closely knit couplets, each with lines of the same length, and the last with synonymous parallelism’ (pp.215-6). He also adds that the Greek of the final couplet is ‘ambiguous’ and ‘not immediately intelligible’, as this clunky NRSV translation suggests!

Be that as it may, it is worth noting in the present context, what Simeon is not saying. Holding the baby Jesus, he is not asking God to extend his life now that he has seen ‘your salvation’ and ‘the Lord’s Messiah’. Rather he is accepting his own ‘dismissal’, that is death, albeit ‘in peace’. Appropriately we now regularly use this canticle at funerals. A life is now complete and, hopefully, fulfilled. Ever observant and wise, Evans apparently commented later that, as a centenarian, he felt he should no longer be around to eavesdrop on people so much younger than himself. Perhaps he too thought that he should simply be handing-on – after all, his life’s work, Saint Luke, had now been handed on (I was one his students a quarter-of-a-century before its publication who thought it was near to completion even then).

A sense of handing-on is common among many of us who are now grandparents. So it is perhaps not difficult for us to identify with Simeon and Anna. We have been through the time when we might have identified more with the parable of the compassionate father faced with a prodigal child and, then, with sibling jealousy. We have shared Jairus’ terror at the thought — and for some poor parents the reality – of losing a child when ours was young. We have come through all of that and, now, we have the privilege of loving our grandchildren without feeling responsible for them and, as the cliché goes, being able to hand them back. In addition, many of us unhesitatingly prioritise their lives over ours and would, tellingly, regard their death as tragic but our own death as, at most, sad and perhaps not sad at all. We even tell our grandchildren that we hope to die long, long before them and that the world would horribly crowded if the old did not die. If we are faithful, we also tell them that when we die we hope to be with God.

None of this implies that we should neglect the elderly. On the contrary, the Pentateuch/Torah has frequent commands to care for widows, just as Ruth cares for Naomi. Anna and Simeon (if he was indeed old) are clearly treated with respect by Luke. And there are features of our care, or rather lack of care, for the elderly in Britain today that are deeply disturbing. When the full threat of Covid-19 passes, I believe that questions will need to be asked about the quality of care given in now largely privatised care homes. The rates of viral infection within them suggest to me that something is badly amiss. Considerable attention has been given to safe-guarding procedures for the elderly, but perhaps not enough for virus-guarding procedures.

Virtuous compassion and prudential governance for the elderly should surely go hand-in-hand. And, in turn, we who are elderly should, I believe, respond with compassionate and considered restraint – not, for example, demanding ventilators or, eventually, vaccines, that are in short supply, but asking for them to be given first to the young. Covid-19, unwelcome though it is, has much to teach us all about virtuous living and perhaps it reminds us of the importance of mature wisdom.

The theme of wisdom is one that keeps recurring within the Bible. This wisdom is really not about accumulating factual knowledge. In many areas of knowledge – especially mathematics and languages — we are rather better at that when we are young. It is much more to do with seeing things through a much greater perspective – sub specie aeternitatis – in the light of eternity. Tom McLeish’s astonishingly good book Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford: OUP, 2014) depicts this so well in his meditation upon Job:

The message of Job is that chaos is part of the fruitfulness of creation; we cannot hope to control it any more than we can bridle Leviathan, but by understanding we might channel it. Indeed new structures can arise when we do – the ‘beginning of wisdom’ is not to double-lock the casket of our ignorance, but to ‘seek the fear of the Lord’, where this is understood to be a participation in a creator’s deep insight into the structure of what he has made… situating our science and technology within a story of participative healing (p.256).

Covid-19 – whether it is a product of human carelessness or simply a spontaneous by-product of a fecund world that evolves through bacteria and, perhaps, even viruses – has undoubtedly created world-wide chaos in 2020 and maybe beyond. Yet our elderly responses to Covid-19 can indeed be virtuous, altruistic and a part of participative healing. The wisdom of the mature Job, especially in chapters 28 and 38 following, still resonates, concluding with the declaration: ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’ (42.3). Being faithful in a context of (Covid-19) chaos and uncertainty might just be the most virtuous and helpful way that the elderly can live.

Robin Gill

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

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

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

ascension day at Mont voirons

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

A Prayer on Easing of Lockdown

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

 *****

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

 *****

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

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

 *****

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

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

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

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

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

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

wcc tapestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 12: A worshipping community?

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

flower in shroton garden

 

A Blessing for a Meeting on Zoom

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Worship in the Time of COVID19

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

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

COVID19 or Christianity, the Easter faith?

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

angela fall leading service

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

 

A poignant and powerful reflection and prayer/poem

Julia Bell

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

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

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

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

Faces in Worship

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

 

 

 

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 11: Love is his meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

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

durham quilt 1

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

lachapelle des bergers a novel

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

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

*****

Haiku

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

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

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

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

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

Grandpa whisked away
Intensive care cannot save
At home Grandma weeps

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

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

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

*****

 

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

Today I will pray…

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

 *****

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

Lockdown

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Ameixial_-_sheep_fold_(13532252844)

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

 

The Sunday Gospel: Abundant living?

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 9: Our Journey to Emmaus

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

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

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

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

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

emmaus imwas 1

The ruins of the Byzantine church of Emmaus/Imwas

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Visiting the Crusader church of Abu Ghosh/Emmaus

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 *****

 And I will raise them up…

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

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

 ***** 

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

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

 

frances walk photo wed of easter week

*****

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

A Prayer for Easter

Prayer for when we’re supposed to be happy

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

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

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

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

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

 

Easter 2020

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Today I will pray…

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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