Advent 2: Walk us into the wilderness

I have unashamedly ‘cheated’ with this week’s blog. What is offered below is an adaptation of one of the meditations I offered that the diocesan Advent service on Monday 30 November.  The meditation (and others I gave then) drew its starting point from the prayer just below.  The lovely ‘wilderness’ prayer at the end of the reflection was written by Francis Brienen. It is a helpful tool for meditation in Advent.

Clare Amos Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org 

roman road in north syria

An ancient Romano-Byzantine road in north Syria

God of passion and power,
Insistent, immediate,
Challenging, compelling us with your story’s breathless beginning.
Walk us into the wilderness
To hear your voice where silence reigns.
Give us insight, the vision beyond all seeing,
So we may look upon heavens torn open
And know that the time of good news for all creation
Is always now. Amen

‘Such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive’. The Jesus we meet in this first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, personifies, or could we say ‘incarnates’?, that ‘such a fast God’ whom the Welsh poet RS Thomas celebrates.

The very form of the opening of the Gospel itself helps to shape that vision for us. Mark throws us straight into his story. There is no time for nativity stories, no space for genealogies, and certainly nothing like the Gospel of John’s majestic prose poem which sets Christ within the roomy confines of eternity and infinity. Though perhaps Mark is closer to John than we might initially realise. But what we are greeted with are words in a hurry, with not even the time for a verb in the Gospel’s opening line, and if you look carefully at the Greek original not even a definite article, a ‘the’, accompanying that word ‘beginning’ with which the Gospel starts. One effect of this is that this beginning feels not a finite point in time but rather the start of a process which is still ongoing. That is probably exactly what Mark thought. ‘Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ The good news, the gospel was continuing, growing ever richer as it encountered new times and places, and even when it was being reshaped by Mark and those who came after him, into the form of a written text, that form we now often associate with the word ‘Gospel’. The fact that these are words in a hurry does not make them transitory or less important, but rather opens up that sense of urgency which is such a characteristic feature of the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark.

Incidentally as I am sure many of you are aware, Mark’s Gospel also does not have a conclusive ending, as its final words of chapter 16 are themselves an unfinished sentence, ‘They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…’. Yet somehow this hasty beginning and uncompleted end encourages us too, as readers and listeners, to place ourselves within Mark’s ongoing story of good news.

‘On the way’. If you want to find the key to open a Gospel, the best place to start is probably at its beginning. That is true for all the Gospels, and most certainly for Mark. The biblical quotation from Isaiah there in verses 2 and 3 offers us the first full sentence of the Gospel. What insights does it unlock for us?

But … is this indeed a quotation from Isaiah, in spite of what it suggests? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. For the second half of the quotation – about the voice crying in the wilderness is indeed from Isaiah chapter 40, but the first half – which refers to the messenger who is sent – comes from the Book of Malachi. Why then did Mark attribute it simply to Isaiah?  Indeed some later scribes seem to have made a change to ‘in the prophets’ to be more strictly correct.

I wonder though whether this apparent inaccuracy is deliberate and it is a sign that Mark is wanting to encourage us to take a careful look at the passage. And if we do we will find that the one Greek word that is repeated in both halves of the quotation, the part from Malachi and the part from Isaiah is odos, which means ‘way’ or road or journey. Is this repeated word then the key that will open the Gospel of Mark, reappearing as it does at critical moments as the Gospel unfolds, especially in its core middle section (8.22-10.52)

e.g. Jesus…and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (8.27); They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem (10.32); Bartimaeus…followed him on the way (10.52). ‘Way’ is a fundamental image for this Gospel. It was of course an early title for the followers of Jesus (Acts 9.1). I suspect that, initially, it was linked to the ‘way Jesus taught’. And I think that it may have been due to the genius of the writer of Mark’s Gospel that ‘the way Jesus taught’ shifted into exploring ‘the way Jesus walked’. The word ‘way’ then eventually came to describe not only the physical paths that Jesus trod, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, but also in a profound metaphor of his ‘path’ of self-giving, first in ministry and then eventually in his passion..

 In his Gospel Mark is taking his first readers, and us, on a journey, a way, with Jesus himself as the centre of the pilgrim party. John the Baptist will be his forerunner on this way in both life and death, and those whom Jesus will shortly call to be disciples will quite literally be told to ‘follow’ him on this road.  The picture above is of a Romano-Byzantine road in North Syria. This ancient road in this arid wilderness corner of the Middle East has long symbolised for me the ‘road, the way’ that is so central a thread running through the Gospel of Mark. The image has spoken to me even more powerfully in the last decade as the suffering  and persecution of Christians in this region has resonated so closely with the experience of Jesus himself and his followers on the way.

This ‘way’, both for John and for Jesus, begins in the wilderness (1.4,12). The wilderness is above all a place of ‘stripping’. Stripping us down from excess, from pretensions, stripping us naked of the subterfuges we so often use to hide from God and from ourselves. Neville Ward in his classic book The Use of Praying wrote the telling words ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality’. The wilderness is a place where we may be asked to bear more reality than we feel comfortable with.

Sometimes the wilderness we encounter is an actual physical place. I can well remember leading groups of students on long treks through the Judaean wilderness near Jerusalem. It was an awesome experience, not simply because of the beauty of our surrounds. A large measure of its significance came from the awareness that (quite literally) a few water bottles, a map, (and hopefully my sense of direction!) might well stand between life and death for us all. Life itself was thus given a new importance and clarity.

More often perhaps we have metaphorical ‘wildernesses’ that we are all called to spend time in at different points of our lives. They are periods of time when circumstances leave us bare so that we have to wrestle with ourselves – and perhaps also with God. Our only companion may seem to be our shadow – whose acquaintance we would often prefer not to make. There is a tremendous painting of Christ himself in the wilderness, in which the figure of Satan is actually painted in as Christ’s shadow.

There is a sense in which our experience as nations, as communities, as churches and as individuals since March this year has felt to many of us like ‘a wilderness’. We have in many ways been metaphorically ‘stripped’ and deprived of distractions and thus forced to bear far more reality than is normally the case. Churches too, because of the restrictions they are required to follow, have also needed to ask themselves questions about what is essential – and what is not.

But, of course, the air in the wilderness is normally (except in the days of a khamsin wind) beautifully clear – enabling us to see life in a purer light. Near the beginning of CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, Aslan meets Jill on a mountain-top and says to her, ‘Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.’ A wilderness is like that mountain-top! That is why at times in Christian history men and women have chosen to live as monks or nuns in the wilderness, to ‘see’ in a clearer light.

And it is in the wilderness that this journey of Jesus will shortly begin, that traditional biblical place of preparation, the wilderness that the season of Advent itself encourages us to explore. Come, let us walk into the wilderness.  Come, Emmanuel.

Wilderness is the place of Moses,
a place no longer captive and not yet free,
of letting go and learning new living.

Wilderness is the place of Elijah,
a place of silence and loneliness,
of awaiting the voice of God and finding clarity.

Wilderness is the place of John,
a place of repenting,
of taking first steps on the path of peace.

Wilderness is the place of Jesus,
a place of preparation,
of getting ready for the reckless life of faith.

We thank you, God, for the wilderness.
Wilderness is our place.
As we wait for the land of promise,
teach us the ways of new living,
lead us to where we hear your word most clearly,
renew us and clear out the wastelands of our lives,
prepare us for life in the awareness of Christ’s coming
where the desert will sing
and the wilderness will blossom as the rose.
(© Francis Brienen, ‘A Restless Hope’, URC Prayer Handbook 1995, used with permission)

Advent:  time of glory, days of longing

 

 This week’s lectionary blog for Advent Sunday begins to explore the Gospel of Mark, which, with the start of lectionary Year B, will become the focus Gospel for the coming church year. It will include remarks related specifically to Mark 13.24-37, the portion selected for Advent Sunday, as well as offering a brief comment linked to the week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 64.1-9.

 During these days which are darker, both because of the season of the year and the ongoing prevalence of the COVID pandemic, I am also hoping, during this Advent season, to offer a second weekly ‘blog’ to come out each weekend, which will help people make a ‘virtual spiritual’ pilgrimage during these weeks, journeying in ‘heart and mind even unto Bethlehem’. We will stop at various ‘Stations on the Way to Bethlehem’ and as ourselves what each place has to say to us, beginning with Jerusalem itself in the offering to appear on Advent Sunday.

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

nick meyer pic

(An Australian skyscape, photographed by Nick Meyer)

‘And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake!’

There is a challenging remark that is worth holding up as we approach Advent Sunday, the beginning of the church’s calendar, and the beginning of the new lectionary year, in which for the next 12 months a key focus will be on the Gospel of Mark. ‘In the end, there are two ways of dealing with the Gospel according to Mark: either we throw the book away and opt for a gentler religion, or we act on it and attempt to follow this man (Jesus) through glory and through terror.’ (Chris Burdon, ‘Stumbling on God’)

Burdon’s comment gives me a sense of frisson, as well as reminding me why I love the Gospel of Mark.  I do cherish and am challenged by its glory and its terror. I am grateful that by the time I started exploring the New Testament in depth, Mark’s Gospel was already somehow coming into its own in the life of church and academy. It had been side-lined for centuries in favour of the Gospel of Matthew, of which it was seen by many as a poor abbreviation. However first the recognition, in the early years of the 20th century, that Mark was probably the earliest of the Gospels, as well as the way that the vision it offers of glory and terror felt resonant with the catastrophes that scarred that  century, helped this Gospel receive the appreciation that it deserves. I think that over the last 40 years or so, the increasing interest in how the Gospels work as ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ has further worked to the benefit of Mark: its sense of of secrecy and paradox entices the reader to become an active participant in the ‘mystery story’ that Mark is quite literally (see Mark 4.11) offering to his readers.

Who were Mark’s first intended readers? I am not sure where they were located, quite probably Rome, though Antioch, Alexandria or even Jerusalem itself have also been mentioned. I do think that Mark was writing for a Christian community experiencing considerable difficulties and probably persecution. The time of Nero’s attack on the Christian community of Rome c.65AD, or shortly afterwards, makes a lot of sense to me. I also pick up within the pages of the Gospel an awareness of the political tensions in Judaea and Galilee which were to explode into the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Palestine beginning in 66AD, and which would  culminate ‘apocalyptically’ with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. So I think it quite probable that the Gospel was written 65-70AD.

What comes across to me particularly strongly though in the Gospel of Mark, as he retells the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion, is that the Gospel writer is inviting his readers to share with the earliest disciples of all – Peter and the original followers of Jesus – in following the ‘way’ and joining the journey that Jesus and those first followers had made first in Galilee, and then in Jerusalem, about 35 years before Mark wrote his Gospel. We are not an ‘audience’: rather we are invited to become ‘participants’ in this journey. I have this sense about Mark’s Gospel much more strongly than I do about Matthew or Luke. And though I am reading Mark’s story almost 2000 years after it was first written down, and though my own current context is not one of persecution, I too still find myself treading ‘in heart and mind’ that journey of Jesus which Mark sketched out so vividly for his very first readers.

But, I think, there is one point where Mark seems to break off briefly from telling the story of the ‘original’ ministry of Jesus, and somehow addresses his readers directly, in their own time and context. It is in Mark 13, part of which forms the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for Advent Sunday (Mark 13.24-37). Without necessarily denying that ideas expressed in this chapter may well go back to the earthly Jesus, I also ‘hear’ clearly expressed in this chapter the anxieties of Mark’s own contemporaries, his readers who may have found themselves standing ‘before governors and kings,’ and have been brought to trial because of their faithfulness to Jesus (Mark 13.9-11). The tension over the fate of the Temple – its destruction by the Roman army of Titus – whether this was still to happen at the time Mark wrote, or whether it had recently occurred also seems to be alluded to (Mark 13.1. 14).

For those who experienced such anxieties, in this chapter, though not minimizing their suffering, Mark speaks a word of ultimate hope. He affirms that as in the Book of Daniel (7.13) the ‘Son of Man’ would come to inaugurate the time when evil empires would be overthrown and the rule of God would be fully established (Mark 13.26-27).

Yet there is an intriguing detail at the end of the chapter. It is the words of the injunction that are addressed – in the first instance I think to Mark’s own contemporaries – to remain faithful and alert and watching for the signs of this coming, this ‘Advent’. He urges them twice, to ‘keep awake’, (Mark 13.35-37) indeed, ‘keep awake’ are the very final words of this chapter – before Mark turns back once again to focus on the earthly passion of Jesus which will shortly move to its inexorable conclusion.

And in that passion narrative the same phrase ‘Keep awake’ will feature prominently again, during Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane ‘Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial’ (Mark 14.38). That same phrase, appearing in both places, in close proximity, has the effect of ‘bridging’ the thirty or so years between the experience of Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane, and the experience of Mark’s contemporary readers.  Their suffering becomes in a sense a ‘new Gethsemane’.  Yet of course the fact that Jesus’ own Gethsemane experience ultimately leads to life through death can in turn offer hope for Mark’s own contemporaries.

This coalescing of these two times, perhaps suggests that time itself therefore is no longer constrained by usual linear boundaries. That is a message that is offered from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism the heavens are split open (Mark 1.9-11). This seems to be a fulfilment of the prayer expressed in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64.1). The new creation inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus breaks down the normal boundaries of both space and time. There is the crux relating to Mark 1.15 made famous by the work of CH Dodd, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…’. Does this mean that the kingdom has already arrived, or is it almost here but still just around the corner? Can it be that in this new dispensation both are somehow possible and true?

That, it seems to me, seems to link quite deeply with the church’s understanding of the nature of Advent, that we cannot quite pin down whether the ‘coming’ to which it refers is past, present or future?.  Advent draws our attention to the first coming – of Jesus as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; yet it encourages us to also to look forward with hope and longing to the final coming of Christ in glory.  What is the relationship between the two, and does the season of Advent, properly draw on that first coming to act as a sacrament of the final one?

 However there is one further coming which is also part of the story of Advent, which Christian tradition has cherished:

As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first…Between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time. He comes to us now to make sure that his first coming shall not have been wasted, and that his last coming may not have to be in anger. (Guerric of Igny, 12th century)

A similar tension about the nature of Advent is noted by J. Neil Alexander, in an article tellingly entitled, ‘A Sacred Time in Tension’ (Liturgy vol. 13, no. 3):

Is Advent really the beginning of the annual cycle or does Advent bring the year to a conclusion? The fact is that… [such] ‘either/ors’ are really ‘both/ands’. And it is precisely because we cannot eliminate one or the other but must hold them in tension that we have inherited ‘a season under stress’ [Richard Hoefler}… shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgement and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning.

Perhaps Karl Barth, that great Swiss theologian whose thinking still dominates European theology even more than 50 years after his death,  summed up for us in his Church Dogmatics what is both the gift and challenge of the Advent season: ‘Whatever season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?’

*****

With ‘time’ in mind, if you are not already aware of it, it is well worth knowing – and perhaps drawing on – the poem Advent Calendar by Rowan Williams. A stunning musical setting of the poem can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_CNtjIud8A

 

Stirring it up! The challenging kingship of Christ

As you will realise if you read on, I think the Feast of Christ the King, offers us some challenges – but they are ones that are worthwhile to address! This reflection ended up being longer than normal, or perhaps even desirable, but I wanted to tease out (not least for myself) some insights linked to the themes and readings for the Last Sunday before Advent. It is not a particularly easy read! But I would particularly welcome feedback, and discussion about what I have explored below.

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

sri-lanka-christ-the-king-cropped-1

 Christ the King in the Anglican Cathedral in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka.
The ‘cruciform’ shape of the figure is important.

I still (just) remember from my childhood the tradition of ‘Stir up Sunday’, the last Sunday before Advent. As many of you will already know it was called by this name due to the Book of Common Prayer Collect for the day, which read:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

This was of course also the time that diligent housewives also made their Christmas cakes and puddings, ‘stirring up’ and mixing the flour with the various goodies, including ‘fruit’ (see prayer above) that got included in the mix.

The BCP lectionary readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 23.5-8 (‘for the Epistle’) and John 6.5-14 (part of John’s account of the Feeding of the multitude). At first glance I wondered why that reading from the Gospel of John had been selected, as most of the passage doesn’t have an obvious coming-up-to-Advent feel about it. It was however clearly the final sentence that led to it being chosen, ‘This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world’. (John 6.14)

It is not always realised how varied was the ‘messianic expectation’ in Judaism around the time of the New Testament period. There was of course the hope that there would come a messianic king (a ‘new’ David) who would personify the kingly ideal, acting as a true king, both in terms of the execution of power and the administration of justice.  Normally when you read the word ‘Messiah’ in the New Testament it is probably this kind of kingly figure that is being thought of.  But there were also alternative, or overlapping ideas, for example of a messianic priest, ‘a Messiah of Aaron’. There was also the view, held particularly by groups with Samaritan links, that the coming messianic figure would have the character of a prophet, a sort of new Moses, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 18.15, apparently spoken by Moses, ‘The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people’. It is clearly this figure that is being referred to in John 6.14 as ‘The Prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6.14)  It is an appropriate acclamation, given that Jesus had just fed a multitude, reminiscent of the way that in the time of Moses the people had been fed with manna in the wilderness (see also John 6.31-32). For the New Testament writers Jesus fulfilled all three messianic expectations of king, priest and prophet – and as Advent approaches we look forward to his ‘coming’ in all three roles. (In parenthesis the BCP selection from Jeremiah emphasises the ‘kingly’ messianic expectation).

There is in fact one additional form of the ‘messianic expectation’ that is important for the Gospel writers, perhaps in fact the most important of all. But you will have to read on to find out more about that…

During my adult life I have experienced several different lectionary patterns: first the BCP, then the two year structure introduced to accompany the Alternative Service Book (1980) and now the Common Worship lectionary which is closely based on the international and ecumenical three Year Revised Common Lectionary. (As it happens, since I was editing an ecumenical UK based worship publication in the late 1990s I also became familiar with a ‘four year lectionary’ proposed by the UK Joint Liturgical Group briefly used in some of the Free Churches but which never quite caught on. Sometimes, especially as a biblical scholar, I think that is a pity.)

One of the points in the liturgical year that lectionary writers have clearly had to wrestle with is those November weeks in the run up to Advent. Do we see these weeks as the ‘end’, fulfilment culmination of all that has been experienced earlier of the story of God’s work in creation and redemption, or are they the anticipation of the story beginning once again?

The lectionary used in the ASB clearly took its stand on the ‘beginning’. In effect it shifted the beginning of the church year to the start of November, and its use of the Old Testament in November and December makes transparent that it views this period as a time for retelling the whole story of creation from ‘Genesis’ to the birth of Christ. The Sunday before Advent found itself called ‘Thanksgiving Sunday’, but it really did not stand out from the preceding weeks, and there was certainly no strongly messianic/kingly or endtime themes in the biblical readings which were suggested.

As we know this ASB lectionary pattern did not really ‘stick’. One of the reasons that I think it failed is the particular character of November in wider culture, and even the seasonal pattern of the year, certainly in the northern hemisphere. The importance given by society to November as the time for remembrance of those who have died in conflict, and the reality that in this month we experience the darkening of days and the dying of nature, means that it feels a period which liturgically naturally speaks of eschatological culmination rather than new beginnings. Certainly by 1990, the publication of The Promise of his Glory, the first of a set of Church of England seasonal resources, people were already exploring different patterns of readings and themes for the days of November time. The description of ‘the Sundays of the Kingdom’ which The Promise of his Glorychrist church vienna cropped

Window at Christ Church, Vienna, depicting Christ the King. (Photo Ben O’Neill)

uses for most of the Sundays in November was clearly influenced by the suggestions offered in the then recently developed ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary, which itself owed much to the Roman Catholic lectionary authorised by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Alongside this and linked to this lectionary the Pope also changed the date of the Feast of Christ the King, which had been inaugurated by Pope Pius XI  and originally observed at the end of October, but which was shifted in 1969 to the last Sunday before Advent.

So the path was prepared for the developments linked to the launch of Common Worship at Advent 2000. Partly because the Common Worship lectionary is so closely linked to the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary in which the Feast of Christ the King was already reflected in the lectionary, the celebration of this Feast was quickly adopted. by Church of England Anglicans. The current Church of England website refers to the Feast as follows.

‘The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty. The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven, and final judgement is one of his proper kingly purposes. The Feast of Christ the King returns us to the Advent theme of judgement, with which the cycle once more begins.’

It is interesting that (as far as Anglicans are concerned) this could be described as an example of when a lectionary has been influential in developing church practice and custom, rather than vice-versa.

I think I have taken this amount of time and space to get to this point, partly because I am conscious that I personally am uncomfortable about the Feast of Christ the King, particularly being celebrated  in the Anglican tradition, and if I am going to ‘stir things up’ (see this week’s title!) then I feel that I also need to take seriously how and why we now celebrate it.

Why I am uncomfortable?  And what does this mean for our ‘reading’ of this week’s lectionary Gospel, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.31-46, especially within the wider context of the Gospel of Matthew.

I think that my main questionmark about the Feast stems from two factors – which interlock in my own mind.

My first qualm is the context in which the Feast was initially developed in the Roman Catholic Church. It is widely, and probably accurately, said that Pope Pius XI established the Feast in 1925 partly as a counter-balance to the growing secularism and nationalism and political movements of the age, and because, at that time, the question of the political role of the Popes, especially in relation to the Kingdom of Italy was still unresolved.

So far, so good. But I cannot help feeling that even while seeking to offer a challenge to movements such as fascism, in fact the celebration of the Kingship of Christ has itself ‘shades’ that take itself rather too close to a quasi-fascist presentation of Christ. I find myself really quite uncomfortable when I see pictures of those gigantic statues of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) which decorate many hilltops in Spanish and Portuguese speaking territories, whether in Europe or Latin America,, most of which were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. And it is all too easy to move from this to the situation in which Christians make assumptions that the natural (indeed only possible) political position for Christians to be in, whether nationally or globally, is one of power and dominance. (To be both topical and blunt we are seeing something of this among ‘Christian’ supporters of Trump in the USA in these post-election days.)

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Statue of Christ-Roi, Les Houches, near Chamonix, France

My second qualm is due to insights that I have gained particularly from the well-known hymnwriter Brian Wren. Wren has wrestled for decades with the way that language can influence reality, whether positively or negatively. His 1989 book What Language shall I borrow? explores the way that the metaphors that we use in worship are immensely powerful for our thinking about the world around us. Wren offers a particular challenge to what we might call ‘patriarchal’ metaphors. The acronym that he uses to gather these together (and challenge them) is KINGAFAP. That is an abbreviation for ‘King, Almighty Father, All Powerful’. As many of you will be aware a characteristic of Wren’s hymnwriting is to seek to provide alternative metaphors that move us away from these images to ones that are rather different, acknowledge vulnerability, and which are not so obviously linked to the male gender. With Brian Wren’s strictures in mind I do find it ‘ambiguous’ to focus too readily on the ‘Kingship’ of Christ.

But next Sunday is, in the Church of England calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. And this year’s lectionary Gospel is Matthew 25.31-46. I want to honour both these realities, so what, bearing my earlier caveats in mind have I got to say about their intertwining?

Well (to tantalise you once again before I offer you my final response!), it is important to explore this in the overall context of Matthew’s Gospel. Over the last few weeks the lectionary Gospel has been in turn one of a series of episodes from Matthew 21 – 25. It will probably not come as a surprise to those of you who are regular readers of this blog that I have found several of these passages quite ‘difficult’, partly because as someone  who has worked professionally in the sphere of Jewish-Christian relationships I know how actually dangerous these texts can be in the wrong hands. Looking over them again as a whole one of the things that strikes me about several of them is how they focus on an authority figure who (by our standards) behaves in a way that can seem unfair or unjust, but who seems somehow to represent ‘God’ in the story. Is this the way that Matthew really thinks about God? It is certainly true that many modern Christian theologians find Matthew ‘difficult’. My friend Angela Tilby once did a brilliant ‘demolition’ job on Matthew which ended with the comment that, ‘Matthew lays the foundations for a Church sanctioned morality which has been enormously influential, creative and damaging.’ And then she pithily summed up Matthew by describing it as ‘an authoritative gospel, a gospel for popes, prelates and priests.’

But… perhaps that is not quite all that can be said. Perhaps, just perhaps, Matthew himself can occasionally be subversive of what we might assume he would think.

When you are seeking to work out the priorities of each of the Gospels, a key starting point is to look at the beginning and the end. And at the beginning and the end of the Gospel of Matthew there is a key motif, which will also be at the heart of our celebration of Christmas.

According to the angelic voice in Matthew 1.23 we are told,

The virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
And they shall name him Emmanuel’ which means, ‘God with us’.

So the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew proclaims the ‘withness’ of God. And this is then re-echoed in the final sentence of the Gospel. Matthew offers a majestic picture of a powerful risen Christ on a  mountain-top who is worshipped by his disciples (Matthew 28.16-28). A depiction of Christ the King we might say! But the very final words of the Gospel proclaim him also as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age’.  And it is in between these two book ends that we should be reading Matthew’s story of Jesus, the story of the one who graciously promises to be ‘with’ humanity throughout all time ‘until the end of the age’.

So where can we find and see him today? Indeed Matthew himself directly and explicitly provides the startling – and shocking? – answer. For I believe that we are intended to read our lectionary Gospel, the story of the Sheep and the Goats in the context of this pledge of the ‘withness’ of God. And when we do so we discover that we are being offered the opportunity to see Jesus in some very unlikely places – in the faces of the sick, the strangers, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned whom the disciples of Jesus may choose – or refuse – to honour or minister to.  ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or naked or a stranger or in prison? ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did to the least of my brothers and sisters – so you did it to me.’

So this is one aspect of Matthew’s subversiveness – to discover that we can find Christ is somehow identified with the most powerless representatives of humanity.

I wonder if a second subversive aspect though is linked to the place that the story of the Sheep and the Goats has as the culmination of those other stories prior to it in the Gospel in which the exercise of authority can make us feel very uneasy? It sits, so to speak, on judgement, on them as well. The ‘sting’ of the harsh master of the Parable of the Talents (25.14-30) or the king who expelled the improperly dressed wedding guest into the outer darkness (22.11-14) is thus challenged by the royal figure who offers true justice to the very least of society and humanity in this very last parable of the Gospel, located just before the beginning of the passion narrative. This is therefore the Gospel’s final word on authority.

And one final thought. Near the beginning of what I wrote today I noted that there were several ‘models’ of messianic expectation current in New Testament times: messianic king, priest and prophet. And I said that there was one more model still to reveal. It comes in the opening sentence of this Parable, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory…’ (25.31) Who is this mysterious Son of Man who features in all four of the Gospels but then virtually disappears from the rest of the New Testament?  Clearly it is linked in some way to the figure ‘one like a son of man’ who appears in Daniel 7.13 and who, after initial suffering is given ‘dominion and glory and kingship… that shall never be destroyed’.

The term ‘Son of Man’ therefore reflects an important further strand of Jewish (and early Christian) messianic ideology.  There is a great deal that can be written on this topic, but one thread that I believe should not be ignored is the reality that the Hebrew phrase ‘son of man’ can mean simply ‘a human being’. (The NRSV translation of Daniel 7.13 actually refers to ‘one like a human being’). So is this Matthew’s ultimate subversive paradox, that he offers us a ‘true human being’: that he tentatively identifies the ‘Son of Man’ who will be named as king and judge in this parable (Matthew 25.34) with all humanity, at least in anticipation, who will judge themselves, positively or negatively, by their response to the ‘little ones’ (who are closely linked with Christ himself)? If that is indeed the case are we being offered a paradoxical inversion of the language of kingship? So does the Feast of Christ the King invite us to celebrate the kingship of Christ shown not in ultimate power but in solidarity with vulnerable humanity?

 

 

 

A restless hope…

This week’s lectionary blog looks at both Matthew 25.14-30 (the Parable of the Talents) and the selected lectionary psalm, Psalm 90, for this coming Sunday, 15 November.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

‘Catching fire’, autumnal colours in my garden

Talents
We need to catch fire
before we are gone
that is the message
of the parable of the talents;
we have lumbered long enough
now to slough off the sleep
to take a kingfisher swoop
let God’s light illuminate us
hold us for an instant
us in the twinkling of his eye
that will be enough,
enough… (Anon)

I would be very grateful if anyone knows who wrote the above poem, so that I can credit them correctly.

I don’t know about you, but I have always found the Parable of the Talents, especially as it is set out in the Gospel of Matthew, one of the parts of the New Testament that I dislike the most.

In truth I think I always have, for as long as I can remember. When I first heard it as a child it seemed so basically unfair. Quite apart from the master’s eventual revenge, there was the question as to why the different slaves were given such different amount of ‘talents’ to start with.

There is no doubt of course that the parable has been influential, at least in western Christian history. That is shown not least by the way that the ‘talent’, the unit of weight or money that the story revolves around, has been used, since the 13th century,  to describe someone who is ‘talented’ –  people such as in the case of the parable those two slaves who used their skills with apparent great success. It is worth pointing out of course that what the slaves had been entrusted with was no small piddling amount. One solitary talent was apparently worth more than 15 years of wages for a labourer.

I think that the parable has played an ambiguous role in Protestant history. On the one hand it seems to be the antithesis of the Reformation Protestant vision that prioritised ‘faith’ over against ‘works’. For it would seem that the eventual fate of the slaves is determined primarily by their success in ‘works’. On the other hand it feels to be a biblical exposition of the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic.’

I did in fact wonder about concentrating this week on one of the other lectionary passages. But it felt that would be a bit of a ‘cop out’. So, although I will eventually draw attention to the selected Psalm for this week – Psalm 90, which is genuinely one of the most important psalms in the whole Psalter – I will initially explore some ways of looking at Matthew 25.14-30.

I am glad to say that I am clearly not the only Christian biblical scholar or teacher who finds this parable problematic. e.g.

  • If the parable of the talents is not ironical, then the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is about a strict system of earning rewards, and there’s not much room for grace or forgiveness or mercy.  (Alan Brehm)
  • Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount instructs us to not return violence for violence; instead we should be like God, who offers boundless, gratuitous love to all. But in the same Gospel Jesus tells eight parables in which God deals violently with evildoers. Which of the divine ways are we to imitate? (Barbara E. Reid OP)
  • This parable scares me more than all the other parables and Biblical admonitions put together. It makes me curl into a ball on the couch with a blanket over my head. (Suzanne Guthrie)

One way forward for interpreting the parable that has become quite popular in recent years has been to suggest that the parable might be being deliberately subversive of the political and social realities of Jesus’ day, in which the oppression of the Roman Empire loomed large.  This often involves suggesting that we should not identify God with the ‘master’ of the story, but rather instead with the ‘worthless servant’. So:

  •  It is a descriptive parable of someone who refused to participate in that process, in a situation where absentee landowners and their lackeys were the primary interface between Jewish peasantry and the Roman Empire. That servant—deemed ‘lazy’ and unfaithful by the Empire—pays an awful price for refusing to play along. (Mark Davis)
  • The Master is one of the Robber Barons of an economic system which places 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the world’s population. Read Jesus as the servant who was of no use to this Master, the one who exposes the master’s ethics who gathers where he does not sow, (sounds like thievery to me). Matthew places this text on the eve of Holy Week, when Jesus will indeed be found to useless to Empire and will be thrown out of the city and wail while he is crucified. Jesus, our rather useless servant, does not cooperate with the economic system dictated to him. He is not afraid to speak truth to power. (Peter Cruchley)

However, though I might personally appreciate that interpretation, if I am honest, I don’t think this way of looking at the story was the original understanding of the author of the Gospel of Matthew.

Perhaps it is the current context in which we are living, in these virus days, but I have become more aware of the importance of ‘hope’ as a vital theological theme. It is interesting how frequently the word appears in Paul’s letters, and how central a motif it is for him. Jurgen Moltmann’s breakthrough book, written in the 1960s and influential ever since, offers a Theology of Hope.

Indeed was the tragedy that the third slave had given up on ‘hope’ – and that his sense of hopelessness dominated his life and dictated his dealings? As Moltmann put it, ‘Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God.’  Two comments on the parable from this perspective:

‘Hope’ window at Holy Trinity Geneva
  • The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God. (William Loader)
  • [Take account of] the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment… The major themes of the Christian faith – caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping – cannot be understood or lived without risk. (Fred Craddock)

It has been a strange, and momentous, week on the world stage. But hope – or the lack of it – feels like an undercurrent running through what has happened:

  • The elections in the USA, and the hope for change in the future felt not only by a majority of American voters, but also, significantly, by many in other parts of the world
  • The elation at the news that a vaccine for COVID may soon become widely available and the hopes placed in this.

I love the phrase ‘a restless hope’ which I have used as the title for this week’s blog. It is actually drawn from a Prayer Handbook of the United Reformed Church, produced in the 1990s. It sums up for me the way that I believe that our Christian faith calls us to both ‘hope’ and ‘restlessness’ in relation to the world in which we have been set.

And there are also two other expressions of hope that I also want to recall, even if on a very different scale. Strangely they are linked to the deaths of two people during the last few days. One was internationally well known – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – the other, less so – Professor Ataullah Siddiqui, who was nevertheless appreciated by many (including myself) for his deep commitment to interreligious engagement and desire to train Muslim leaders who could engage with British culture. One was a Jewish religious leader, the other a Muslim. One important thing they shared in common was a deep commitment to their respective faiths playing constructive and important roles in secular British society. Through their lives, and their work, and their ‘talents’ (to use this week’s loaded word) they managed to express hope. They are both a reminder that hope is stronger than death.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Archbishop Rowan Williams at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

For me, Psalm 90, the ‘set’ lectionary Psalm for this coming Sunday, expresses in its lines, such an understanding of hope.

It is one of the most important psalms in the entire psalter. Its importance is indicted by its location, at the beginning of Book Four of the Book of Psalms, and by the way that it is ascribed to Moses (it is the only psalm to be so). I don’t know the date that it was originally written, but I do think that its current placing within the Psalter is intended to allow it to speak as a word of hope in difficult times for the people of the Old Testament. It is no accident that it comes directly after Psalm 89 – the latter half of which seems to bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exile of a significant group of the people in Babylon. (See e.g. Psalm 89.38-51). Psalm 89 throws questions and challenges at God, and finally seems to sink into hopelessness.

Psalm 90 is the response. It starts from the premise of the majesty and eternity of God, with which it then contrasts the frailty and transience of humanity, For its first 10 verses it may also  seem almost ‘hopeless’, especially given God’s apparent anger with humanity. But then in verse 11 the mood changes as God is directly addressed with his personal name, normally translated into English as LORD. God’s compassion and lovingkindness become the ground of hope. Not to enable human beings to ‘become like gods’, and live for ever. However God’s graciousness to human beings will give meaning to their lives, finite though they may be. Indeed the fact that they are finite, in the eyes of the psalmist, reinforces that meaning. For it is when we are required to ‘count our days’, that we may ‘gain a wise heart’(verse 12). That is the Psalmist’s message of hope, initially to the Babylonian exiles, yet also to us today. 

Psalm 90, either as a psalm or in its metrical version ‘O God our help in ages past’, is regularly used at funerals and gatherings for individual and communal memorial. It ‘is not a prayer for fame or greatness, not a prayer that we may see the fulfilment, the consequence, the outcome of our work, but that it may be established, that is, that God may bring whatever work we do into being and give it enduring value. We may or may not see the shape and outcome of our work, but we may ask God to bring it to fruition and so place the work of our hands’ in God’s hands.’ (Patrick D. Miller, ‘Interpreting the Psalms’)

Through their talents, their lives and their visions of hope both Jonathan Sacks and Ataullah Siddiqui prayed the song of Psalm 90.

Clare Amos

Walking with the God who Comes

Vie de Jesus Mafa, the story of the ten girls

This week’s lectionary blog explores the Sunday reading from the Gospel of Matthew 25.1-13.

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

One Christmas, it must have been about 30 years ago, when I was visiting my parents in Dorset, I went to a pre-Christmas service in the local village church.

The organist had chosen to play the Nicolai/Bach organ chorale, ‘Wachet Auf’ (BWV 645). That is a piece of music that I have long loved. I appreciate the way that the music begins with Bach’s accompaniment, then Nicolai’s chorale enters the frame, while Bach continues to weave his threads around the melody, and they both end together in a resonant conclusion. (Listen, for example, to the work played on an organ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cas1jTPU7Cw) 

However, on that particular occasion, though we had the accompaniment – all of it, from beginning to end – Nicolai’s chorale melody never made an appearance. I sat there in anticipation, but it never appeared and eventually I realised that it wasn’t going to. I suspect that coordinating the two was beyond the capabilities of the organist, valiant though he was, and so he had decided in advance to omit the chorale. Ever since I have thought of the experience as being ‘Wachet Auf’ without the ‘Auf’.

When the melody of ‘Wachet Auf’ is vocalised, the words are drawn from the parable in Matthew 25.1-13, that is the Gospel for this Sunday. It tells the story of the ten virgins (updated, slightly questionably I feel, by modern biblical translations to ‘bridesmaids’) who are waiting for a delayed bridegroom to appear. One of the fascinating – and mysterious – aspects of the tale is that the bride herself is never actually mentioned, which incidentally is also the case for another Gospel story about a wedding – John’s account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-12).

The original German text of ‘Wachet Auf’ composed by Phillip Nicolai has been widely translated into English. Perhaps the best known version is by F.C. Burkitt. The chorale text does identify a bride, who is Jerusalem or Zion personified:

Wake, O wake! With tidings thrilling
the watchmen all the air are filling,
arise, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
‘The hour has come!’ we hear them saying,
‘where are ye all, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight,
raise high your torches bright!’
Alleluia!
The wedding song swells loud and strong:
Go forth and join the festal throng.

Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
her heart leaps up with joy undoubting,
she stands and waits with eager eyes;
see her Friend from heaven descending,
adorned with truth and grace unending!
Her light burns clear, her star doth rise.
Now come, thou precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son!
Alleluia!
Let us prepare to follow there,
where in thy supper we may share.

It is interesting that this parable from Matthew 25.1-13 should be chosen as the Gospel reading for 8 November, still in the first half of the month. In earlier centuries it tended to be held over either till the beginning of Advent, or (in the Lutheran tradition) used on the Last Sunday before Advent (Bach’s Wachet Auf was originally composed with that Sunday in mind). The parable does clearly have an ‘Advent’ flavour – quite literally as it is a story about waiting for the ‘coming’ of the bridegroom. Indeed there is a wonderful poem by Christina Rossetti which takes this Gospel reading as its focus which is actually called ‘Advent Sunday’. Since Rossetti’s poem is not particularly well known (and also it is out of copyright) I include the full text here:

Advent Sunday

BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out
With lighted lamps and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,
Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock
Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:
His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,
Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,
She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;
He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,
And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout. (Christina Rossetti)

I am not quite sure whether the ‘bride’ in this poem is intended to be the Church, or humanity as a whole?  Perhaps in fact it veers, not inappropriately, between the two?

But it is interesting to reflect on this parable in the context in which we now use it. What does it mean to read it in this month that we might call ‘the Advent of Advent’? What does it mean also to read it on what is widely kept as Remembrance Sunday? And in a week in which the ambiguity of the US electoral process is clearly dominating the news headlines (I write this on the morning of Wednesday 4 November – and whatever the ultimate outcome ‘ambiguity’ will be an accurate word to use!) During COVID times?  And in the days following some brutal examples of religiously motivated violence occurring in major cities of Europe?

The poet Malcolm Guite has written thoughtfully about the meaning of Advent. Malcolm notes:

‘Advent is a season for stillness, for quiet, for discernment. It is a season of active waiting, straining forward, listening, attentive and finely tuned.’ Elsewhere he suggests that Advent is ‘a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting itself is strangely rich and fulfilling.’

I think that Malcolm’s remarks about ‘active waiting, straining forward’… are important for us at the present time. Somehow (and I don’t think I speak only for myself) the challenge that many of us are undergoing in different parts of Europe to live with and through the ‘second wave’ of the COVID virus feels even more difficult than the first. Perhaps it is partly because we are now moving into winter, rather than as previously, into spring? Perhaps because it somehow feels just a little bit harder to see an end to it all in view than it did the first time round? I think that this year we are going to be living in and through Advent more profoundly than we have often been able to in the past, and indeed the current social realities will also mean, I suspect, that it won’t be so easy for Christmas to trespass back into Advent in the way that it so often does. So this year offers us the opportunity to explore Advent more deeply…  and perhaps this week’s parable encourages us to think in advance about what this might mean.

The Roman Catholic nun Maria Boulding’s classic book, The Coming of God is one I myself have turned to again and again over the years to explore the meaning of Advent. Its opening lines  may initially appear bleak, but they are worth pausing on and inwardly digesting, ‘If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes.’ It is a good thought to bear in mind in our Diocese whose motto is ‘Walking Together in Faith’. I will save Boulding’s delicious conclusion to the book to quote as my final words this week.

To return to my experience of Wachet Auf without the ‘Auf’, with which I began, the essential problem was I guess that without the chorale melody there was no sense of ‘straining forward’ nor did the waiting feel really ‘rich and fulfilling’! That sense of looking forward with joy and anticipation which is so much a part of Phillip Nicolai’s text and melody was completely lost.

Of course there are ambiguities in the biblical parable, and in the writings like Nicolai and Rossetti which draw upon it. That missing bride, and that particular naming of female virginity, which so reflect Middle Eastern culture even these days, do make me uneasy. So I cherish the song written by Kathy Galloway, deliberately set to the melody ‘Wachet Auf’, which explores the meeting between Love and human beings but ‘inverting’ the metaphor of gender as it had been employed in earlier days. I quote the whole song:

Seas roll back, and mountains tremble
and rain will dance upon the desert
the rose will grow in splendour bright.
Dawn is born of darkness’ labour
and shadowed sorrow long in waiting
no more may fear the tender night.
For Love has left her throne
and comes to claim her own
her beloved.
All living things in joy embrace
to see the glory of her face.

Every hate and every hunger
will flee before her holy anger
and healing every hurt will find.
Every wrong with justice mending
she walks abroad in pity tending
the aching heart of humankind.
For love has come to earth
inviting us to birth
new creation
Both men and women, flesh and flower
are split with her emerging power.

Come and dance, come shout with gladness
Come leave your shame, shake off your sadness
And make your peace with all that’s past.
We may rightly know each other
And rightly live as sister, brother,
In freedom reaching out at last.
For Love is moving through,
Her spirit draws us to
True communion.
To shake and shatter every bond
And find our holy common ground.
(Words, copyright Kathy Galloway, melody ‘Wachet Auf’, reproduced with permission)

They are perhaps good words to quote in the days before the long awaited Church of England report ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is due to appear (9 November). (I genuinely have absolutely NO idea what that report is going to say.)

The final chapter of Maria Boulding’s book is called ‘the Sacrament of Advent’. An interesting thought for these days in which many are forced to live with the lack of sacramental worship. In this context how can we make the waiting ‘rich and fulfilling’? Perhaps by listening both with physical, and spiritual, ears to the interweaving of melody and accompaniment in Wachet Auf, and looking forward to its final resolution: ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting. Before the final wedding of God with humanity the lovers meet many times… the ‘Come’ theme from whichever end we view it is about the advance of lovers…The gift is certain, because God is already pledged, already in our world, already Emmanuel. We are irrevocably, unconditionally, loved.’ (Maria Boulding, The Coming of God).

Clare Amos

4.11.20

The Feast of All Saints: the celebration of holy paradox

This week’s blog draws on two of the lectionary readings for All Saints Day, Matthew 5.1-12 and Revelation 7.9-17 to dig into the meaning of this great feast in the church’s year. This year, in these difficult days, it seems more important than ever to celebrate All Saints with joy.

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

A woman from the last Christian family living in Nisibis, southern Turkey, standing by the tomb of St Jacob of Nisibis

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12), especially as they are presented in the Gospel of Matthew, have a special place in Christian hearts and imaginations. Placed as they are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount they are clearly intended to be seen as a fundamental marker for Christian faith and life. It is right that they are selected on a regular basis as the lectionary Gospel for All Saints, the festival that in many ways acts as the culmination of the Christian liturgical year. I find the musical setting of the Beatitudes to a Russian Orthodox chant powerful: it is especially appropriate for All Saints given its repeated refrain, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise’. The chant is sung very well by the choir of St David’s Church, Exeter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaZozkVRiHI&feature=youtu.be

Even looking quickly for resources and comments on the Beatitudes you soon come across the word ‘paradox’. The wisdom they contain is regularly described as ‘paradoxical’. That the meek should inherit the earth, or the poor gain the Kingdom of Heaven, or that those who are persecuted should be called ‘blessed’ runs counter to the ‘received wisdom’ of secular human society.

I don’t think that we take seriously enough these days the intrinsically paradoxical nature of our faith. Paradox, I believe, is at the heart of the Christian story. Previous generations were much more aware of this than we are. It is interesting, in fact, that there is another specific example of ‘paradox’ in the lectionary reading from Revelation 7.9-17, ‘the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their (the saints’) shepherd’.  We are so familiar with scripture, that we don’t necessarily appreciate the jarring and paradoxical nature of what is being proclaimed – that a Lamb should be a shepherd.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly fascinated by the Book of Revelation – after many years of wanting to keep it at a distance. Within the New Testament it seems to me to have a special place in that, far more than any other New Testament text, and certainly far more than any of Paul’s letters, it invites us to explore a profoundly semitic theological thought-world. Revelation may have been actually written in Greek, though many scholars are  impolite about the ‘quality’ of the author’s use of the language! – but one has a strong sense that the author was really far more at home in the semitic tongues and idioms of Hebrew and Aramaic (Syriac).

Certainly a celebration of paradox is characteristic of the Syriac strand of Christian theology. All too often our appreciation for the influence of theologians who thought and wrote in Latin and Greek upon the development of Christian theology – figures like Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo for example – has meant that we have not paid adequate attention to the contribution offered by a third strand, the Syriac and semitic thought-world. Probably the greatest, and certainly the best known, exponent of theology written in Syriac was the fourth century St Ephrem of Nisibis. Ephrem’s most characteristic theological mode involves paradox. A couple of examples:

Glory to that Hidden One, whose Son was made manifest!
Glory to that Living One, whose Son was made to die!
Glory to that Great One, whose Son descended and was small!

Whenever I see (or think of) the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with its entrance door so low that one has to stoop down to pass through it, I remember these lines of Ephrem about the Great One becoming small.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I found myself reflecting on Ephrem partly because in another of his writings he himself closely echoes that Lamb/Shepherd paradox of Revelation:

Blessed be the Shepherd, who became the Lamb for our atonement!
Blessed be the Vineshoot, which became the Chalice for our salvation!
Blessed also be the Farmer, who became the wheat which was sown and the sheaf which was harvested!
Blessed be the Architect, who became the Tower for our house of refuge… 

I think it is vital for us to celebrate ‘paradox’ as intrinsic to our faith. It is, I think, linked somehow to the very nature of grace.

When I worked for the World Council of Churches, one of the tasks I most enjoyed each year was participating in an interreligious summer school that took place at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. Young people from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths gathered together for a period of three weeks and learned – not least from each other.  One of my tasks each year was to ‘introduce’ Christianity in a couple of lectures over a morning. It was an interesting challenge, seeking to encapsulate the ‘heart’ of my faith in a way that was both comprehensible to those of ‘other faiths’ (who might not know very much about it) and yet also could offer some new insights to the young Christians who were also present.  I found myself suggesting that what was characteristic of Christianity was the attempt to hold together what I called ‘binary polarities’ in a sort of creative tension. Things for example like:

  • Holy/Secular
  • Perfection/Failure
  • Vision/Reality
  • Exclusive/Inclusive
  • Worship/Action
  • Present/Future

Those are simply examples – my actual list was much longer. Though I referred to them then as ‘binary polarities’, I could also have described them in terms of ‘paradox’. As I explored these examples with the class I found myself suggesting that it was the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God becoming a human being  that was the ultimate paradox at the heart of Christianity – it was the paradox which validated all the others.

It was therefore interesting to me to re-read a year or so ago, that great theological classic by the Scottish theologian Donald Baillie, God was in Christ.  I had first come across it and cherished it years ago when I was studying theology at university, but over the years I had probably forgotten much of what Baillie had written.

Here are some of Baillie’s treasures (with, where necessary, brief notes by me to contextualise them)

  • ‘Paradox comes into all religious thought … because God cannot be comprehended in any human words or in any of the categories of our finite thought.’
  • ‘It is a commonplace to say that most of the great heresies arose from an undue desire for simplification, an undue impatience with mystery and paradox, and an endeavor after a common-sense theology’
  • The only way to a true knowledge of God lies through the veil of paradox, ‘A healthy faith will always be acknowledging the antinomy, yet always also struggling against it, striving for a fuller light and a deeper experience in which the paradox will be less acute.’
  • The incarnation is ‘the supreme paradox’ which is central to Christian theology and is the climax of all the subsidiary paradoxes. If we seek to eliminate the element of paradox we find ourselves losing the essential truth of the incarnation and we do not fully understand the love of God in Christ.

All Saints Day is actually the celebration of the ridiculous paradox that WE are ‘all saints’, at least potentially, even if honesty forces us to admit that it doesn’t always seem like that in the present. In fact if we (mistakenly) put our focus on ‘All Saints Day’ on the great and traditional saints of the church’s history – we miss the meaning of the Feast.   

It is of course remembering that Paul’s characteristic address in his letters to different Christian communities, was to refer to them as ‘saints’ – however quarrelsome and imperfect they clearly were at times. (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 1.2 ). We should take a leaf out of Paul’s writings!

A picture taken of a diocesan Zoom service in gallery view. A contemporary way of conveying ‘All Saints’ – though ideally there should also be more lay people in view!

There is of course, much more that could be said, and I hint at some further ideas via the quotations and pictures I offer or refer to below.

But I conclude by drawing attention to the picture which stands at the head of this piece. It was taken 40 years ago in Nisibis (in Turkey, a town today on the border between Turkey and Syria). Nisibis in physically in the Diocese in Europe (that is a paradox in itself!). Nisibis was the home-city of St Ephrem of those great Syriac hymns. The woman was at that time a member of the only Christian family left in Nisibis: today there are no Christians left in the city. It has become impossible for them to remain. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.10) She is showing us the tomb of St Jacob of Nisibis – another of the Syriac saints linked to that particular town. So it is a picture of two people that we could rightly call ‘saints’, St Jacob and the woman. On All Saints day we rightly honour both.  Clare Amos

*****

All Saints/the Beatitudes in art and writing:

On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own. (Frederick Buechner, ‘The Sacred Journey’)

*****

The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already in the midst of our not-yet (Tim Beach-Verhey)

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A Last Beatitude

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.  (Malcolm Guite)

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The ‘Haywood St Fresco’ at Haywood St Church, Asheville, North Carolina, painted by  Christopher Holt (who holds the copyright), illustrates the Beatitudes with scenes and people from local life

For more details see: https://visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org/

…’with all your mind’

I am very grateful to Natacha Tinteroff who has written this week’s lectionary blog. Natacha is a theologian with special interests in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy.  She lives in Paris and worships in Anglican churches in Paris and London. 

Natacha takes the lectionary Gospel , Matthew 22.34-46 for this coming Sunday (October 25) as her starting point for an exploration of the role that ‘the mind’ has in Anglican tradition and theology, and leads from this to reflect on the contribution that Anglicans can make to Christian unity.

After Natacha’s reflection a couple of web references are given to articles and sites of interest.

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

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22, 37)

With my grateful thanks to Revd Dr. Richard Fermer, incumbent of Grosvenor Chapel, London and and to Revd Dr Alan Piggot, assistant priest, Grosvenor Chapel, London

In a scene of Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, meeting with Catherine of Aragon,  Henry’s first wife, tries to engage with her in Latin. She interrupts him quickly: ‘O, good my lord, no Latin; I am not such a truant since my coming, As not to know the language I have lived in’ (Henry VIII, Act 3, scene 1).  The language I have lived in, the language we have lived in: in the context of today’s Gospel, the language we have lived in sends us back to the meaning of the commandment given to us by Jesus, in the particular setting of mainland Europe, where we live and worship while belonging to the Church of England.

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This commandment, also recorded by Luke 10.27 and Mark 12.30, has come to us from the Book of  Deuteronomy though with a most important difference. While Deuteronomy mentions that ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’  (Deuteronomy 6.5), ‘the mind’ is found in the version given by the Evangelists. This new addition confers a distinctive Christian outlook and perspective to the first commandment. In Hebraic culture, In Hebraic culture, most notably in the Old Testament, the heart and the soul were not deemed to be the seat of feelings or mind. The heart was where humans made their decisions in relationship with God, while the soul was the animating dynamic brought by God within humans, which made them alive. By incorporating the mind with the heart and the soul, Jesus expected humans to live and decide mindfully, under the guidance of His Father, constantly looking and discerning for His will and love. This approach of Christian  discipleship has been received in a particular way by the Anglican tradition.

Indeed, we Anglicans ‘are held together in communion by the characteristic way in we use Scripture, tradition and reason in discerning afresh the mind of Christ for the Church in each generation’ (1997 Virginia Report of the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, London, Anglican Consultative Council, 1997, III, 1, 3.5). This balanced approach contrasts with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant doctrines. If, since the 17th century, the Church of England has traditionally considered Scripture to contain all things necessary to salvation and to constitute the ultimate standard of faith, it also has held that the reading and understanding of the scriptural text comes through the lenses of tradition and reason. Those three sources are never taken separately. They combine in a dynamic way to make the truth of God constantly emerging afresh in each and every context. Within that way of living the Christian faith, our comprehension of the Gospel‘s truth can never be absolute. It forbids at the same time a hazardous formulation of an irrevocable doctrine as well as an unquestioning submission of the faithful to the teaching of a terrestial authority supposed to interpret authenticallythe Word of God. 

Consequently, each one of us and every Anglican is invested with the responsibility of bearing witness to the truth resulting from our ‘quest for the divine through the use of human reason’ (Michael Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit, Cambridge, MA, Cowley Publications, 1992,  p. 31), which can be defined as ‘the divine gift in virtue of which human persons respond and act with awareness in relation to their world and to God, and are opened up to that which is true for every time and every place’ (1997 Virginia Report, supra,  3, III, 1.9). As it was emphasized by biblical scholar and former bishop of Durham, Brooke Foss Westcott, commenting on our commandment, ‘those who are “in Christ” are bound to serve God with their whole being, with their intellect no less than their heart and their strength and their substance’  ( B.F.Westcott, Christian Aspects of Life, London, Macmillan and Co., 1897, p. 32).

Serving God with and through our intellect, always in connexion with the the heart and the soul, is certainly not a task just for a brainy elite or academic theologians. It is the duty of every Christian seeking to answer to Jesus’ first commandment. As it was emphasised by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, ‘any Christian beginning to reflect on herself or himself within the body of Christ is in that act doing theology’ (R. Williams, ‘Theological Education is for everyone’, Christianity today, 19 August 2020).  That is why theological education is of utmost importance for the Christian formation of all, including children or people with learning difficulties. It is not about accumulating knowledge but about growing with and through our minds in the love of God, ‘learning more about the world that faith creates, or the world that faith trains us to inhabit’ (R. Williams, ‘Theological Education is for everyone’). As Anglicans, it is perhaps our specific vocation to be continuously engaged in doing theology, in the true sense of reflecting on the things of God in the light of scripture, tradition and reason, individually and corporately. What can seem very theoretical is actually very practical. 

Some of us may describe themselves as Bible-centred while others may regard themselves as traditionalists or liberals more shaped by tradition and reason respectively. However, like it or not, things are not that simple. Many of those for whom scripture is the sole acknowledged authority may be led by tradition and reason more than they are willing to acknowledge. Meanwhile, those for whom tradition and reason are most important may rely more on the Bible than they commonly affirm. Beyond our own individual sensitivities, it is a fact that reading the Scriptures in our individual Christian lives and hearing the word proclaimed in corporate worship is an essential part of our Anglican belonging. Yet it is also a fact that in our tradition we respond dynamically to the Gospel by constantly discerning what the Word of God has to say to us afresh, where we are now, in our own context. Whether we are looking at the large tragedies or the small questions of life, according to the ‘Anglican Way’, we refer to the Scriptures while grasping what they mean to us in our present situation, in the light and in dialogue with the “mind of the Church” borne by its life, worship and teaching as well as of what seems reasonable to us. This approach nurtures and feeds the mind by which we love God and by extension the way we witness to the Word Incarnate.  Nobody has a monopoly on the truth of the Gospel;  each mind is equally important and  contributes to the discernment of the ‘mind of Christ’ for the Church. 

This unique approach involves our very own Anglican language, which we have indwelt in our diocese since 1842. It fosters our religious experience outside the geographical limits of England and transcends our linguistic differences – English being a second language for many of us. In a continent where Anglicans constitute a small minority and whose ecclesiological model is little known, how can the ‘Anglican way’ of loving the Lord enrich the one church so that it can serve Christ better? 

Since its beginnings, Anglicanism has been characterized by its lack of self-consciousness, if compared to other Christian traditions.  During the course of history and especially during the last two centuries, Anglicans have tended to understand themselves as non-denominational Christians.  Yet Anglicanism has also been described as being ‘a provisional prototype of the reunited Ecumene [the one and unified Church], the world-christianity of the future’ (W.H. Van de Pol, Anglicanism in Ecumenical Perspective, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1965, p. 34). We have seen that in Anglicanism the three main sources of authority namely Scripture, Tradition and Reason live together in tension and that no authority or no individual is empowered with a privilege of interpreting exclusively the truth of the Gospel. This model comes to us from 16th England where an historic process of contextualization saw a local-modelling of the one Church.

The British experience of this time was marked by a will of balancing within one structure the plurality of factions ranging from the catholic traditionalists to formerly exiled Protestants. This inclusivity generally involved a rejection of the catholic and protestant elements as exclusive systems and relied on the assumption that the wholeness of the Christian truth could be achieved only by the reconciliation of opposites that when held in tension become complementary rather than contrary. As we know, the reality on the ground can differ greatly from the theory. What we may encounter now  is a reluctant and broken co-habitation, which actually in some places has become  exclusive of the other. However, our paradigm of reconciliation still supplies a unique framework that could open new paths for us if we are willing to rediscover it as well as in our journey towards Christian unity, and even for all, in our aggressively secularized world that constantly looks for reconciliation, especially in these troubled times.

Natacha Tinteroff

Gracious God, As you call us to love you with our souls, hearts and minds, nurture us to be good ground into which your seeds of love can grow.  Help us to embrace opportunities for theological and spiritual formation. Allow us to be transformed afresh by your living Word and to discern your presence in our lives and your mind for us. We give you thanks for the gift of the Anglican Communion of churches. You have called us in the Body of your Son Jesus Christ to continue his work of reconciliation and reveal you to the world: forgive us the sins which tear us apart; give us the courage to overcome our fears and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Amen

(Prayers partly inspired by Common Worship, Times & Seasons, Epiphany, Collect for Unity, Unity F1 (https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/times-and-seasons/epiphany#mmm89)

*****

The article on Theological Education for Everyone that Natacha refers to, in which Rowan Williams speaks of his vision can be found at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/august-web-only/rowan-williams-theological-education-for-everyone.html

The Anglican Communion Office, while I worked there as Director of Theological Education, produced a succinct, but helpful definition of ‘the Anglican Way’ which can be found at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/theology/theological-education/the-anglican-way.aspx

I have always, personally, cherished the following comment by Archbishop Michael Ramsey setting out his vision of a key contribution that the Anglican tradition can make towards Christian unity. It connects with the remark of W.H.Van de Pol above:

‘While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.’

The beloved physician

A depiction of the seal of the Anglican mission agency USPG, quoting words from Acts 16.9

The first ‘biblical novel’ that I ever read – as a teenager of about 15 – was Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician. It was sub-titled, ‘A mighty novel of St Luke’. I still have my copy. I continue to think the book is one of the best examples of the genre of ‘biblical novel’. It set me off on the trail of a few others of the genre, such as The Robe, but though The Robe depicts the central Christian story of Christ’s crucifixion, I don’t think, in literary terms it is actually as good as Caldwell’s tale of Luke. Indeed reading Caldwell’s book for a while fired my ambition to write my own ‘biblical novel’. It was going to be on Hosea and his errant wife Gomer, and I even had a title in mind for it, ‘For I desire steadfast love’. I think it was some of my university friends who convinced me that it was perhaps a bit of a hostage to fortune. At any rate that particular book has never ultimately seen the light of day!

In Caldwell’s book Luke comes across as a sensitive, complex character who loves deeply and sometimes very painfully. He also echoes in his life-story the complexities of life in the Mediterranean world of the first century, in which the civilisations of Rome, Greece, and the semitic East, including the world of Judaism, interface and interact with each other in ways that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Luke is presented as deeply cultured, as I think the writer of the Gospel of Luke certainly was. He cares deeply about the poor, but perhaps from the perspective of never having been really poor himself. He is a bit of an outsider looking in, albeit with great compassion, when it comes to responding to the grinding poverty that was the lot of the majority of those who lived in those places and those times. In that respect I sometimes think (perhaps a bit wryly and self-critically) that he was quite ‘Anglican’. In many parts of the world Anglican churches may well be churches that care for the poor – but they are perhaps not always churches of the poor. There are of course exceptions – I was profoundly moved when I met Christians of the Anglican tradition at Peshawar in Pakistan, who lived in abject poverty and were at the bottom of the social heap. But the link between Anglicanism and the British Empire has, in a number of countries, meant that there is often a relationship between being Anglican and being middle class.

There is a challenge I sometimes throw at people which is to ask them what Christian denomination each of the Gospel writers would be if they were alive today. It is fun to see what people come up with. Personally, though, I am fairly convinced that if he were around now Luke would be an Anglican! It’s linked to his appreciation of history, of the beauty of language, of order and dignity, especially in worship, appreciation of ‘place’ and his interest in the complexities of the political world in which he was situated. He is I think the evangelist that most requires us to explore the relationship between church and state, which is certainly an issue that the Church of England has had to engage with over the years – and is likely to continue to be revisited.

It is interesting but actually the thought of Luke as a medical doctor is not normally the first thing that springs to my mind when I reflect on Luke. Perhaps though this year, in which so many of us feel awed by the commitment that doctors and nurses have shown through the months of COVID, it is especially good to be reminded of his medical profession. I hope and expect that churches will draw the connection between celebrating St Luke and the sacrificial work of so many in the medical profession in recent months. In fact the link between Luke and medicine is fairly tenuous in the two New Testament books linked to the name of Luke – his Gospel and Acts. His identification as a physician comes primarily from the reference in Colossians 4.14, when Paul describes Luke, apparently one of his companions during his time in prison as ‘the beloved physician’. Then on the basis of this reference it has been noted that in the account of the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage, Luke (Luke 8.43-48)  does not include the note given by Mark’s Gospel that the woman ‘had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse’. (Mark 5.26) It has often been suggested that Luke omits this because of the disparaging way it refers to doctors.

The Gospel reading for St Luke’s Day – naturally from the Gospel of Luke – is presumably chosen because it mentions Jesus sending seventy (or seventy-two) disciples on a mission. The number 70/72 is suggestively looking forward to the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles that Luke in Acts will later tell us of (In Genesis 10 the list of the nations adds up to 70). It also significantly suggests that as well as preaching, those sent out on this mission were commissioned for a ministry of healing. In fact the biblical reading for today which speaks to me most powerfully is that from Acts 16.6-12a. It is the first moment in Acts when Luke’s account uses the word ‘we’ to suggest that Luke himself had joined the group of travellers accompanying Paul. I particularly appreciate the fact that this is literally the moment when the path of the Gospel ‘jumps’ from Asia to Europe. ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16.9). I think that this verse feels almost like a foundation document for us as Christians in Europe.  We need to be aware of this passage and celebrate it much more than we do. One important note it suggests to me is that authentic mission needs to be multi-vocal, and involve a conversation between two (or more) parties – which must involve the one who ‘receives’ as well as the one who is ‘sent’. The Anglican mission agency USPG for which I worked for a number of years, has the words ‘Come over and help us’ on its historic seal and, certainly in recent decades, has taken very seriously the priority of the receiving partner in its understanding of its role in mission. Perhaps in the Diocese in Europe this verse would be an interesting starting point for an exploration of our own mission and vocation. (There is much more to say than I have space for here – including its fascinating references to the Holy Spirit in this short passage).

Clare Amos

The God I do not want: a mangled parable

When I first looked at the lectionary Gospel for this week (Matthew 22.1-14) – my immediate reaction was to reflect that , underlying it, was a very similar issue to that which seemed to be reflected in the lectionary Gospel for last week: namely the puzzle in the early Christian church – and certainly in the part of the church which provided the Gospel of Matthew’s own immediate context – over why so many of those from Matthew’s original Jewish religious tradition had failed to become disciples of Jesus Christ. I was (for a brief moment!) tempted simply to write for this week’s blog ‘See last week!’ So I am grateful to my husband Alan Amos for taking up the challenge of exploring this passage for us. I am also grateful to Canon John Newsome for sending me a photo he took some years ago of a plaque at the cathedral in Magdeburg which depicts sorrow and repentance for the widespread hostility towards Judaism in many places and times over the last 2000 years. We use this photo as an illustration below.

As Alan suggests, our ‘joy’ this week is prompted not by the Gospel, but by the other readings, especially Philippians 4.1-9. One of my personal ongoing theological quests is to explore ‘What is Joy’. So after Alan’s reflection I offer a number of ‘definitions’ of joy. (Though in truth I suspect joy may be undefinable!).

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Spurned sister synagogue, forgive our blindness which has brought so much death. God’s promises remain valid for you in all eternity as they do for us’ (Plaque placed at Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, near to traditional Ecclesia/Synagoga statues)

Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US have won the Nobel Physics Prize for their research into black holes.  (Ghez, it’s worth noting, is only the fourth woman to receive the honour in nearly 120 years of Nobel history.)

Despite sometimes describing himself as an atheist,   in the 1991 film A Brief History of Time Roger Penrose said, ‘I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.’

‘Something much deeper about it’:  this phrase can draw us into a conversation where human awareness of beauty  and harmony in creation and in music open up questions about the purpose of our existence,  and as Christians this phrase reminds us that wonder is an essential part of our response to the divine.  

I not only regret that so many of our scientists are atheists,   but that our churches have been so unsuccessful in pointing towards  ‘a God who is believable.’   Sometimes I think that a slavish and uncritical use of Scripture plays its part in this.   I do wish that this Sunday’s Gospel reading was a help,  but in my view it is not.   This mangled parable probably is linked to the one we find in Luke 14. 16 – 24,  the invitation to a great feast.   Unfortunately the version we find in Matthew   can most easily be interpreted in terms which portray the God that none of us wants (It is interesting to compare and contrast the different feel of the parable in the two Gospels).  The parable seems to have been reshaped by the intense pressures on the Gospel writer’s home community and the divisions between church and synagogue that Clare referred to in last week’s blog.    A writer whom I much admire,  Debie Thomas,  has made a brave effort to turn the parable upside down,  and her attempt is well worth a read :  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2777

I cannot travel with her to her conclusion,  but it was a journey worth taking!

Icon of the Parable of the Wedding Feast – which includes the portrayal of the man without the wedding garment.

So this Sunday I shall turn for spiritual refreshment to our other readings.   However,  I feel sorry for the members of our congregations if the Gospel is read to them without any further comment on it.   I leave you to think out what comment you might make !  

By contrast,  the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 25.1 -9) is a refreshment to the soul.   The feast is a universal one provided for all people,  and  salvation is proclaimed to all the nations;  the tears on all faces will be wiped away,  and the love of God for Israel is set within the context of the love of God for all humanity.  

And then,  turning to  the reading from Philippians (Philippians 4.1 -9),  we find the words  we treasure :  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,  and again I say rejoice!’   and  the reference to the peace of God that passes all understanding.  

It is that holy nugget of scripture that I rest in from this Sunday’s readings.  I might rephrase it,  “’he peace of God which by-passes my understanding.’  In other words,  in a wonderful way the presence and peace of God is known beyond our inner arguments and strivings,   beyond even our wrestlings over the meaning of scripture …. having thought both our best and our worst,  we are invited to lay aside the strivings of our minds,   and rest in the God who loves and cares for us,  yes and for all people,   all those whom he invites to the great feast of love.

Some definitions of joy

  • There is no aspect of human life and emotion where God is not present. Yet God’s way of being present often confounds our expectations and our preconceived notions. Moments of joy, of intimacy, of confusion and despair can be the opportunity for a deeper awareness of God’s presence. (Gemma Simmonds)
  • Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched (Nick Baines)
  • 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 not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence. (Eugene Peterson)
  • Joy is the great enemy of narcissism. (Stanley Hauerwas)

The contested vineyard

This week’s blog explores a very difficult issue, but one dear to my own heart that I have wrestled with – probably in fact for all my adult life! The thoughts are prompted by the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday: Isaiah 5.1-7 ; Philippians 3.4b-14 ; Matthew 21.33-46. I am grateful to my husband, Canon Alan Amos, the most gracious (yet challenging!) of theological conversation partners, for being prompted to compose a poem/prayer which sums up what I have tried to express in prose.

Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Ecclesia, ‘Church’ and blinded Synagoga, ‘Synagogue’ depicted at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris c. 1240

I suspect that quite a few churches may be choosing to keep the coming Sunday (4 October) as either the Feast of St Francis, or Harvest Festival. The two naturally work well together of course. In fact the ‘normal’ lectionary readings for this Sunday (described in the lectionary as the Sunday between 2 and 8 October) are sufficiently perplexing to address that they perhaps encourage a shift in the creation-tide direction! However having in fact explored a creationtide motif in last week’s blog (via a short exploration of the Epistle Philippians 2.4-9) I have decided to accept the challenge and engage with the ‘Sunday’ readings. For I think they do force us to address an issue that Christians in Europe simply cannot duck, namely the relationship, both theologically and practically, between Christianity and Judaism. In fact at the present time we are in the most significant part of the Jewish year, what are called the ‘High Holy Days’, in which our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate first Rosh ha-shana (New Year), then Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and culminating in Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).

The lectionary Gospel (Matthew 21.33-46) is Matthew’s version of what is generally called ‘the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard’. It also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but if anything the version in Matthew feels harsher, in particular because of the comment, ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom’ (Matthew 21.43) which does not appear in either of the other Gospels. The ‘you’, in that sentence appears to be the chief priests and Pharisees, in other words, key representatives of the institutional Judaism of Jesus’ day.

You cannot read the New Testament without realising that a key ‘puzzle’ in the minds of many Christian disciples in the half century following on the earthly life of Jesus was the question as to why many, indeed most, of Jesus’ fellow Jews had not also seen him as their Messiah and Saviour. The earliest disciples were themselves Jews of course, and for them that ‘puzzle’ was mixed up with their own loyalty and love for their Jewish heritage. Paul, in fact, seems to be wrestling with this issue, in the passage from Philippians selected for this week (Philippians 3.4b-14) – seeking to hold together his Jewish identity, of which he was clearly proud, alongside his knowledge of Jesus Christ. In Romans 9 – 11 he addresses the issue more extensively. Even though, fairly quickly, the majority of the Christian church became people of Gentile origin that fundamental question did not go away, though perhaps that earliest sense of acute personal wrestling and angst became less pronounced among Gentile Christians.

By the end of the first century AD what is often called ‘the parting of the ways’ between Christianity and Judaism was well in train. After the war between the Jews of Palestine and the Romans c 70 AD which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism too was seeking a renewed sense of self-understanding. The dating of the various Gospels is a matter of (considered) conjecture, but at least some of them probably date from the period after 70 AD when the attitudes of both the Jewish and Christianity communities towards each other seemed to be hardening.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard, at least as it is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, seems to reflect this context.  It is easy to read it, and it may well be that the author of the Gospel intends us to, as suggesting that the role that ‘official’ Judaism had had in God’s purposes had been taken away from it, or ‘superseded’. Perhaps it was sometimes too easily forgotten that, as is implied in Isaiah 5.1-7, ‘the Song of the Vineyard’, one of the Old Testament selections for this Sunday, God most chastises those whom God most loves.   But the idea that Christianity had replaced Judaism, formally known as ‘supersessionism’ or sometimes ‘replacement theology’ became very wide-spread in Christian history, especially after the establishment of the Christian Empire under Constantine. For many – perhaps most – Christians until very recently, their affirmation that God had chosen the ‘Church’ for his purposes, became one side of a coin of which the other side was the assertion that the ‘Synagogue’ and the Jewish faith had no longer any part to play – it had been ‘superseded’.

In medieval Europe this was sometimes depicted in art by contrasting pictures or statues of a triumphant Ecclesia (Church) and a downcast Synagoga (Synagogue).  Such depictions hint at the dangerous practical consequence of this teaching of ‘supersessionism’, which proactively encouraged discrimination, mistreatment and all too often violence against individual Jews and particular Jewish communities. In many of our lands of Europe there are notorious examples of such attacks in the Middle Ages. But of course, as we know only too well, anti-Judaism and antisemitism in Europe did not die out several centuries ago. It deeply and horrifically scarred the twentieth century. In fact it still continues today. There have recently been examples of antisemitic lies on social media which suggest that Jews bear some responsibility for the spread of COVID-19. https://cst.org.uk/data/file/d/9/Coronavirus%20and%20the%20plague%20of%20antisemitism.1586276450.pdf

Over the last 20 years the focus of my own professional work has been in the area of interreligious engagement. I have enjoyed engaging with Jewish friends and colleagues both professionally and personally. I have been privileged to be part of the working group that produced a recent Church of England report ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ on Christian relations with Jews and Judaism https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/godsunfailingwordweb.pdf and I have been consulted about other reports, some still in the pipeline. I know that many Jews with whom I engage in dialogue believe that it is vital that the Christians disown ‘supersessionism’, and indeed some churches have formally done so, although I suspect the ‘official’ view at the top may not always filter down all throughout all the membership.

I have to say that I find myself torn. I am very aware that the question of Christian ‘supersessionism’ isn’t just an ‘academic’ one, either for Jews or for Christians. It does have practical consequences for how Christians behave towards their Jewish neighbours and fellow citizens.  But equally I think that Jews need to acknowledge that asking Christians to disown supersessionism is a ‘big ask’. It is not easy because it is written very deeply into the DNA of our Christian theological structure and it has been the default Christian position for nearly 2000 years. So I react against a glib assumption that ‘ordinary’ Christians can easily jettison such attitudes towards Judaism, partly because I doubt that many of them really have. I see it for example whenever a congregation unthinkingly chooses ‘Lord of the Dance’ as a regular Sunday hymn! (Think about some of its words…!)

Synagoga and Ecclesia in our time – as equal and loving sisters, modern sculpture at St Joseph’s University, PA, USA

I believe that there are ways forward, and Jewish dialogue partners can help Christians discover a changed theological attitude towards Judaism, but they are not easy and they cannot be facile. One way that I myself am still exploring is to ask the question whether ‘fulfil’ means the same as ‘supersede’: I don’t actually think that it does.  That has implications for the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The motif of siblings wrestling is also one that I have often ‘wrestled’ with myself. Based on the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33 it encourages me to say that we can only discover our own identity, our truest self, when we are willing and able to see the face of God in the other.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard is not an easy Gospel to read!

*****

Lord,  you are our gracious landlord
we the tenants of your land-holding the earth
there is room for all of us as those
who care for your creation.
We like to think we own the plot,
as Christians we can dispense your salvation
to the world
and yet we cannot;
we can point in your direction
and then to our surprise
see many others,  from here and there
showing us their signs of faith;
The vineyard is yours, and ever shall be;
you have not turfed out others to bring us in;
for you are the generous host
and at the end of the day
the feast of plenty will provide for all
who wish to come. (Alan Amos)