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
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.
‘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.
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.
(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)
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.
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.
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.