I am (sometimes!) grateful for the discipline of having to write this blog piece fairly regularly, because the need to reflect on the lectionary readings, encourages me to see connections that I might not otherwise have spotted. That is the case here when my exploration of the lectionary Gospel passage Mark 8.31-38, led me into discovering interesting connections with Genesis 17.1-7,15,16; Psalm 22.23-31 and Romans 4.13-25. I would however be very grateful to hear from laity and clergy who might be interested in ‘offering’ a contribution for a week. One feature that ideally should be reflected (and I have to confess, is not really reflected in this posting), is to link specifically with our context in the Diocese in Europe.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe email@example.com
I don’t often begin a reflection on the weekly lectionary readings by starting with the selected psalm – but on this occasion I want to do that, because I believe it offers a ‘clue’ to the interpretation of the other selected readings, and especially to this week’s Gospel, Mark 8.31-38.
The Psalm chosen is Psalm 22.22-31. We are much more familiar with the first two-thirds of this psalm, than we are with this, its latter part. The first two-thirds of the psalm constitute probably the most well-known ‘psalm of lament’ in the Psalter, beginning with the powerful evocation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, which according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew was a cry echoed by Jesus as he hung on the cross. This final third – which is hardly alluded in the New Testament – is an ever expanding hymn of praise. The ‘switch’ between the two ‘modes’ which comes in the middle of verse 21, initially appears startling and unexpected, although in fact if you look closely at the text of the psalm the ‘way’ is prepared for this shift.
It is fascinating to follow the flow of the psalm as a whole. It begins with an almost absolute sense of desolation on the part of the psalmist -who feels deserted both by God, and other human beings. It seems as though we are alone in a long dark tunnel, in which the only pin-prick of light at the end is the fact that the psalmist feels able to address God as ‘my’ God. On this fragile, but personal, relationship the rest of the psalm will depend and will unfold. It is interesting to see how the phrases ‘my God’, ‘far’, ‘helping’ which are introduced in verses 1 and 2, then reappear first in verses 10 and 11 and then again in verses 19 and 20. With each of these reappearances the language subtly shifts so that God and the palmist draw closer to each other. I explored Psalm 22 in more detail in a blog posting for last Good Friday (you can find it under ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days 7’ – it forms part of https://faithineurope.net/page/4/)
But in terms of our reflection this week, what I find immensely powerful is how the absolute isolation of the beginning of the Psalm so contrasts with the increasing numbers of fellow human beings whom the psalmist, beginning with verse 22, calls upon to share in the ever-widening circles of praise. Just take a look: the apparently low-key ‘brothers and sisters’ (verse 22), ‘congregation’ (verse 22), begins to widen out to ‘you who fear the Lord’ (verse 23), ‘offspring (literally ‘seed’) of Jacob’ (verse 23) ‘offspring (seed) of Israel’ (verse 24), ‘great congregation’ (verse 25), and eventually includes ‘all the ends of the earth’ (verse 27), ‘all the families of the nations’ (verse 27) ‘all who sleep in the earth’ (verse 29), ‘posterity’/ ‘a people yet unborn’ (verse 30-31).
The psalm is truly the song of the one become the many. Indeed to pick up an image from the psalm those many are the ‘seed’ (verses 23-4) of the lonely singer.
That sense of one spiralling into many is also clearly present in both the week’s Old Testament reading and linked Epistle. Genesis 17.1-7,15,16 focuses on the ‘multitude’ of ‘offspring’ (seed) that will spring up from the apparently childless Abraham and Sarah (see verses 4, 5, 6, 16). The theme is reiterated in Romans 4.13-25 which recalls the title given to Abraham of ‘father of many nations’ (verse18). In this passage too, the word used for ‘descendants’ (verse 13, 16), is literally the Greek word for ‘seed’.
This movement of the one into the many is I think an important clue to the interpretation of our Gospel passage, Mark 8.31-38. It comes immediately after Peter’s ‘confession of faith’, his realization that Jesus is the Messiah (verse 29). That discovery seems to prompt Jesus into further teaching – not about triumph, but about suffering. It also involves a harsh exchange between Jesus and Peter in which the word ‘rebuke’ (Greek epitimao) appears twice, first spoken by Peter to Jesus and then thrown back at Peter by Jesus. It is important to realise just how ‘loaded’ a word ‘rebuke’ is – it is used elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus rebukes the demons who cause illness (Mark 1.25), or the demonic forces of the storm (Mark 4.39). Jesus’ sharp use of this in his exchange with Peter at this point, perhaps ‘hints’ at the temptation that must have dogged him throughout his ministry – to seek a messiahship that did not involve him in personal and painful suffering, a temptation which of course he finally and conclusively rejected in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36).
But what is also important, is that when Jesus refers to this suffering, he does not in fact say ‘the Messiah must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…’. Given that the ‘discovery’ that Peter has just made is of Jesus’ Messiahship – this is intriguing. Rather Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man*’ must suffer… The question ‘Who is this Son of Man?’ has been around a long time in Christian history – since John 12.34 in fact! Of course in some senses the answer is clearly (or at least partially) ‘Jesus’, but then the question really becomes, ‘What exactly does this title mean, and why does Jesus use it at this point?’
I am certain (along with many others who study and teach the Bible!) that the vision in Daniel 7.13 of ‘the one like a son of man’ who suffers and then is glorified is part of the picture. Jesus is identifying himself with this trajectory of suffering and persecution, which will eventually be transcended by glory. But I don’t think that this is the whole of the story. In Hebrew idiom the phrase ‘son of…’ is a way of saying ‘member of the group of’. This can be seen, for example, in a ‘traditional’ translation of Psalm 8.4:‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou madest him’. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry here makes clear that ‘son of man’ is more or less synonymous with ‘man’ or perhaps with ‘humanity’.
This is I think therefore the ‘clue’ to the use of the phrase Son of Man in Mark 8.31. In switching from the word ‘Messiah’ to ‘Son of Man’ at this point Jesus is suggesting that the role of suffering followed by glory is not a role simply to be played by him alone. Potentially it involves others – first of course his immediate disciples but eventually all humanity. They – we! – are being offered the challenge, responsibility and privilege of becoming part of the ‘Son of Man’. It was of course a challenge and role that in the first instance none of Jesus’ disciples were willing to accept, as Jesus’ ‘aloneness’ on the cross marked out the first Good Friday. Yet correspondingly Jesus’ willingness to play the role of ‘Son of Man’ is the starting-point of a process that will mean that he will have many ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ (to recall the expression used in this week’s other lectionary readings). There is of course the clear suggestion that Jesus’ suffering will also mean that his followers are called to ‘take up their cross’ (Mark 8.34)in the second half of this week’s Gospel passage.
I find it interesting that the letters of Paul do not use the expression ‘Son of Man’. I think however that Paul’s phrase ‘Body of Christ’ (which in turn does not appear in the Gospels) functions as Paul’s equivalent of the Gospel expression ‘Son of Man’. And just as we are potentially (or actually?) the Body of Christ, so we are also the ‘Son of Man’. As with Psalm 22 – the lonely one has indeed become the many.
There is a wonderful pictoral depiction of this in the Whalton Christ – which I have used as the illustration for this week’s blog and draw on often to illustrate my vision of ‘the Body of Christ’. This is a picture of the face of Christ created through the use of many photographs of people and scenes of the village of Whalton in Northumberland. It was created as a millennium project. I gather from something I have read recently that the new Archbishop of York appreciates the Whalton Christ as well – so I am in good company!
One final point – which explains the title for this week’s blog. There are several good theological reasons for Christians to care passionately about creation and the environment. I explored some of them in a couple of blog postings a few weeks ago. But one additional reason is that our loyalty and commitment to ‘the Body of Christ’ requires us to care about the welfare and ‘good’ of generations who come after us. The Christian understanding of ‘the Body of Christ’ is that it transcends and draws together space and time. We need to care for our world not least so that Christ’s deliverance is proclaimed and enjoyed by a people yet unborn. (Psalm 22.29-31)
The asterisk * above is intended as an acknowledgement that I am uncomfortable with the gender specific language that is implied in words and phrases like ‘man’ and ‘son of man’. Some modern translations seek to get round the issue by using words like ‘mortals’ – but that would not work precisely for the point I am seeking to make here.
This week’s blog explores what it means to call Jesus, God’s ‘Beloved Son’, and how ‘Love’ is an appropriate theme to delve into at the beginning of Lent.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
On my computer system I have a collection of about 50 quotes on ‘love’. Some of them are from the Bible and explicit Christian tradition, but many of them are not – such as the title for this week’s blog ‘Love changes everything’ which comes from the musical Aspects of Love (beautifully sung by Michael Ball at Michael Ball – Love Changes Everything – YouTube). Most of them I agree with – though some are part of the collection precisely because I disagree with them e.g. Love Story’s line ‘Love never has to say it’s sorry’. (Absolutely not true!)
I have used the ‘love collection’ on a number of occasions when I have been leading a retreat or quiet day. I scatter them (writ large) around a room and invite people to wander around and choose their favourite and say ‘why’ they like it. (And in some contexts also to select those they disagree with!). The idea would also work (perhaps in a slightly adapted way) in an all age worship service. If any of the readers of this blog would like or find it useful to have my ‘love collection’ – drop me an email and I will gladly send you the list of quotes.
I am writing this blog on Ash Wednesday – so Lent is very much in my mind. The focus of the blog is of course the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, Lent 1, and particularly the Gospel, Mark 1.9-15. In the space of these few verses we hear of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s account of his time in the wilderness, and the announcement of the beginning of his public ministry. It is interesting how in this lectionary year (Year B), various permutations of verses from Mark 1.1-15 appear several times over the course of the year (in a similar way as also do verses from John 1.1-18). It may be a challenge to the preacher to think of something ‘new’ to say on each occasion when Mark 1 crops up!
The word I myself want to focus on for now is ‘Love’. It is drawn from those words addressed to Jesus at his baptism, ‘You are my beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11). Lent and Love belong together. I believe that profoundly. I have to confess (appropriately of course on Ash Wednesday) that some traditional Lenten hymns leave me cold. The first hymn marked ‘Lent’ in my school hymnbook (Songs of Praise) was Forty Days and Forty Nights. We used to sing it again… and again… and again. Ever since my school days I associate it with Lent. It has got the word ‘dreary’ in it, and that was also my reaction to that particular hymn. It is ‘just about’ redeemed by the final verse with its ‘good’ line speaking of ‘the eternal Eastertide’. But there is nothing, directly at least, about ‘love’ in that particular hymn. The second hymn in the Songs of Praise Lenten collection though is the Percy Dearmer song Now quit your care… which was set to the beautiful French carol melody Quittez Pasteurs. Sometimes we got to sing that one instead, and I always enjoyed it when we did. Love is mentioned in both its first verse – and its last. The first verse encourages us, ‘Come buy with love the love most high’ and the final verse assures us that ‘love shall be the prize’. I particularly cherish its third verse, which sums up for me the goal of Lent:
To bow the head, In sackcloth and in ashes, Or rend the soul, Such grief is not Lent’s goal; But to be led To where God’s glory flashes His beauty to come nigh. To fly, to fly, To fly where truth and light do lie.
Back to that baptismal acclamation of Jesus as ‘the Beloved Son’. The same phrase is used of Jesus at his transfiguration (Mark 9.7), and, by implication in the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mark 12.6). Its three-fold repetition at the beginning, middle and near the end of Mark’s Gospel suggests its importance for the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was. It is possible, even likely, that several Old Testament themes are intended to resonate through the phrase, but I think that the primary resonance that we are intended to see in these words is the story of Isaac, the Old Testament’s archetypal ‘beloved son’ (Genesis 22.2). Isaac was almost sacrificed precisely because he was so loved. There are quite a few hints, in various books of the New Testament, that the early Christians drew on the story of Isaac when they were reflecting on the meaning of the death of Christ. Jesus was the ‘beloved Son’ who was called to travel one stage further than Isaac had been required to go. There would be no ‘ram caught in the thicket’ as a last-minute ‘let out’ for him: rather he was both Son, and Lamb. (I have written elsewhere at much greater length on the ‘Isaac’ motif in the New Testament which I find fascinating: I think for example it underlies the iconic verse John 3.16 ‘God so loved the world’…)
For now though, in this context, what I think is important to say, is that Jesus’ identity as ‘beloved’ somehow enables his ministry, and his relationships, both with human beings and more widely with creation. We have become increasingly aware over the years of the way that a child’s early sense of being loved (or not) can influence the rest of their life, and the possibility of making healthy relationships with others. It is the fact that he is the Beloved Son, which enables Jesus’ deep trust in his father and allows those words in Gethsemane, ‘Abba, Father… not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14.36) eventually to be said.
And it also somehow undergirds his experience in the wilderness. I enjoy the brevity of Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, and resist reading it through the eyes of Luke or Matthew. Jesus is ‘driven out’ (strong word) into the wilderness to mark the beginning of the New Exodus that he had come to inaugurate. The ‘wild beasts’ remind me of the ‘peaceable kingdom’ of Isaiah 11.6-9, which speaks of harmony within creation, though I have to say that I do think that lions, wolves and leopards may get a bit of a raw deal in that process. I expect that many of you are aware of at least some of the pictures in the series painted by Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness. Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s lovely book Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings by Stanley Spencer has made the collection even better known. I think that Mark’s note about Jesus’ time in the wilderness ‘with the wild beasts’ (Mark 1.13) underlies several of the paintings, especially perhaps the painting of Christ with the Scorpion (see above). Is it not because of his own experience of being ‘beloved’ that the figure of Christ in the painting can treat this small but fearsome creature with such care and compassion? Love changes everything!
The Sunday before Lent is now frequently referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’ as we read each year one of the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. This year the lectionary readings for this Sunday are 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9. We focus below particularly on the Gospel reading from Mark as, following on from last week’s blog reflections, we continue to explore New Testament insights into human responsibility for the wellbeing of creation.
Given the focus of these two blogs I am glad to be able to offer the contact details of the diocesan environment officer, Revd Elizabeth Bussmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to mention at Elizabeth’s request that on Saturday 17th April 2021 (10am – 12 CET) the Revd Dr Dave Bookless will reflect on: Christianity & the Environment: The Mission of God and the Mission of God’s People’. Details will shortly be available on the diocesan website about how to register for the event.
Clare Amos Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe Clare.email@example.com
‘Transfiguration is living by vision; standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.’ (Walter Wink)
This is a stunning comment by the American theologian Walter Wink which I have returned to again and again, ever since I first came across it – probably about 25 years ago now. It is a reminder if I needed it that not only is the biblical motif of ‘transfiguration’ absolutely core to our Christian faith, but also that it has profound contemporary relevance. I am aware that in some circles the transfiguration – and the biblical narratives associated with it – are seen as a bit airy-fairy or ‘irrelevant’. Not only is this view deeply wrong, but it seems oblivious to the fact that ideas linked to the transfiguration have been drawn on by several Christian theologians who worked out their theology in situations that were profoundly challenging and personally dangerous. The martyred Roman Catholic bishop Oscar Romero is a prime example. In his published sermons Romero frequently returns to the motif of the Transfiguration, and draws a parallel with the need for the transfiguration of El Salvador, its society and its political life.
There is a beautiful quotation by Archbishop Michael Ramsey about the centrality of the transfiguration:
The transfiguration: ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.’ (The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ)
Ramsey wrote this in 1949. Nearly twenty years later in 1967, J.W.C Wand, formerly Bishop of London, offered a view of the transfiguration that was even more comprehensive:
‘It is actually possible to regard transfiguration as the fundamental idea in the Christian religion and as placing in a nutshell the whole story of the individual Christian life as well indeed as that of society as a whole.’
As I suggested towards the end of the blog last week, one way that the transfiguration has been drawn on in recent years in relation to ‘society as a whole’, is to explore what it has to say about the relationship between humanity, creation and the environment. This is especially important at the moment. For even if we cannot precisely place all the threads we are obliquely aware that there is somehow a connection between our human exploitation of creation and our environment and the spread of the virus that is responsible for our present pandemic.
Peter’s words, confronted with the transfiguration of his master and friend were, ‘It is good for us to be here.’ (Mark 9.5) I think it is right to hear in this language a resonance of God’s own repeated affirmation as creation proceeds through Genesis 1, ‘And God saw that it was good.’ As Wink suggests, the transfiguration holds before our eyes the possibility of the dawning of a new creation.
I mentioned in what I wrote last week that the connection between transfiguration and the environment has been an insight which we owe especially to Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has engaged with ecological concerns particularly deeply: he is often referred to as ‘the Green Patriarch’. The theme has also been explored powerfully by the Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware (who began his Christian life as an Anglican). ‘Within the Gospel story, the Transfiguration of Christ stands out as the ecological event par excellence.’ See
The following comments are drawn in a slightly edited form from Bishop Kallistos’ lecture. The full text is available via the link given.
The Transfiguration reveals the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things.
Christ, so the event on Mount Tabor makes clear, came to save not our souls alone, but also our bodies. Moreover, we human beings are not saved from but with the world. In and through Christ – and, by virtue of Christ’s grace, in and through each one of us – the whole material creation, as Saint Paul expresses it, ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21). We human beings, in other words, are called to continue and to extend the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain
Bishop Kallistos draws attention to the wonderful mosaic of the transfiguration at a church in Ravenna (St Apollinare in Classe) in which creation motifs appears strongly. The complete mosaic is portrayed at the beginning of the blog. The detail from it below draws attention to the cross at the heart of the mosaic:
… let us recall the Cross which dominates the Transfiguration mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare. What is it, we ask, that links Paradise in the past (Genesis 1-2) with Paradise in the future (Revelation 21-22)? There is but one answer: the Cross. Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration. Without sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying) after the example of Jesus Christ crucified, there can be no ecological renewal.
All this needs to be applied to our ecological work, whether for our own or for future generations. There can be no transformation of the environment without self-denial, no fundamental renewal of the cosmos without voluntary sacrifice. In Christ’s words, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). Gain comes through loss, life through death, transfiguration through cross-bearing.
We cannot save what we do not love. There can be… no true wisdom, without love; and equally there can be no cosmic transfiguration without love.
Love is, of course, very present in the story of the transfiguration through the proclamation of Christ as ‘Beloved Son’, It is a sign that, as with earlier biblical beloved sons (think of Isaac in Genesis 22), suffering awaits him, and if we are to be caught up in his transfiguration, it is a vocation that may indeed (as Kallistos Ware suggests) require us to identify with his suffering too.
The placing of the story of Christ’s transfiguration in the middle of the Gospel is deeply suggestive of the way that in this mountain-top event are woven together the all threads of the Christian story: The ‘epiphany’ of Christ at the baptism, the ‘incarnation’ portrayed in his Galilean journeys, the crucifixion and resurrection.
In the Gospel of Mark, the account that we are reading this year, the transfiguration is at the literal heart of the Gospel (the beginning of chapter 9 in a Gospel of 16 chapters). Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, the transfiguration on the mountain-top is an event which ‘bridges’ together two events that take place in the ‘depths’. The first of these is the baptism of Christ, in the ‘deep’ waters. The verbal link ‘beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11; 9.7) between the baptism and transfiguration is obvious. But there is also a ‘contrasting’ link between the bright mountain-top of the transfiguration, and the deep and dark valley of Gethsemane, when the one proclaimed as Son on the mountain-top prays to his father using the word ‘Abba’ (Mark 14.36).
It is interesting that the Common Worship lectionary has in each of its three years set the reading of the Gospel account of the transfiguration for the Sunday before Lent. For those of us who have long memories of previous lectionaries this is far more satisfactory than the place allotted to it in the ASB lectionary when its positioning on the Fourth Sunday in Lent was unhelpful – not least because of its ‘clash’ with Mothering Sunday!
In fact I think placing this story on the Sunday before Lent is also more satisfactory than the Sunday allotted to it in the current Roman Catholic version of the Revised Common Lectionary (where it appears on the Second Sunday of Lent). There is such a powerful sense in all three Synoptic Gospels that as soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain of transfiguration he deliberately ‘sets his face’ to turn towards Jerusalem and the passion and suffering that awaits him there. Reading, as we now do, the transfiguration story at this precise point in the Christian year the light on the mountain-top catches up the brightness of the Epiphany season, yet also enables us to illumine our way as we turn our faces sharply towards Jerusalem, and to the Cross: ‘Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration.’ ‘The beyond shines in our midst on the way to the cross.’
This week’s lectionary blog is produced with gratitude to the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar, who, by inviting me to lead Bible studies for them a year ago, led me down some interesting and important pathways in exploring the biblical understanding of the relationship between human beings and creation. The comments draw on this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, Proverbs 8.22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,
Almost exactly a year ago I was speaking to the Archdeaconry Synod of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar, which took place in Alicante. Yes, there really was a time, in what seems these days like a parallel universe, when meetings happened in person! There was a very good feel to the Synod; I particularly remember the efficient yet friendly way it was organised by Archdeacon David Waller and Joan Berry, and enjoying the unmerciful fashion I was teased by the quiz master, Paul Strudwick, one evening, when my team tied joint bottom in the Synod ‘quiz’ (which is an established tradition of such events).
I had been invited to come and lead the Bible studies for the Synod. Because the particular topic being explored at the meeting was ecology and the environment I was asked to take this into account when choosing the texts for the two Bible studies I was being asked to offer. It was slightly daunting, as the keynote speaker at the Synod was Dave Bookless of A Rocha, with wide credentials in this particular area, and of course I was offering my studies in his presence. In the end all was well, Dave was very gracious and I think our contributions complemented each other.
I am (particularly in retrospect) very grateful for the invitation to offer those studies on that topic. Like many others who enjoy teaching, I often discover that the work involved in pulling things together to present them (reasonably) coherently, leads to new discoveries and new learning for myself. So it was in this case.
Before the preparation I needed to do for those Bible studies a year ago I, like many other people, had partially fallen into the trap that is identified by John Gatta in his excellent book The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation :
‘To a surprising degree, exegetical discussion of Christianity’s relationship to environmental ethics and practice has been confined within a narrow band of Old Testament texts. In fact the scriptural site of this debate rarely extends beyond the creation stories and ‘dominion over the earth’ language clustered in those first two chapters of Genesis. Even fewer New Testament passages have attracted serious reflection on the topic.’
To be fair to myself, I could say that I hadn’t completely fallen into Gatta’s trap. I have long been fascinated by the celebration of the wildness of creation in the Book of Job, especially chapters 38-42, and have read Job’s insights as offering a sharp challenge to the view, based on Genesis 1.26-28, that human beings have been given unfettered ‘dominion’ over the earth.
But what I certainly had not done previously is to look at any depth into New Testament perspectives on the subject. The Old Testament is of course important to us as Christians, as part of a heritage we share with Jewish people. We can certainly draw from it perspectives, rooted in the theology of creation, that are significant as part of our exploration as Christians of creation and the environment. But what does the New Testament, in which the specificities of the story of Christ, after whom our faith is named, have to say about the human role in creation and the environment? Until I found myself having to dig deep to prepare for the Gibraltar Synod last year, like many other people, my primary New Testament reference point for the subject was the verse in Romans 8 which speaks of ‘the whole creation … groaning in labour pains until now’ (Romans 8.22). That is indeed important – but I think it needs also to be set in a wider context. I will begin to explore that context in a moment…
But first a diversion. Although there is a degree of serendipity in that I am writing this in the same week as this year’s Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod, which is of course happening ‘virtually’ this year, I was not aware of this date link when I first decided to explore this topic now. What led me here is in fact the Common Worship lectionary readings for this coming Sunday: Proverbs 8.1,22-31; Psalm 104.26-37; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14. These are the readings for the Second Sunday before Lent, and each lectionary year, A, B and C there is a clear focus in the readings on creation.[i] It is interesting to note that this year, Year B, in which there is frequently a focus on the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel passage selected for this coming Sunday is actually John 1.1-14. I can see why that is the case, and as it happens it is helpful for the comments I want to offer, but it is worth noting that just as John’s first word ‘beginning’ clearly echoes Genesis 1.1, so also, in fact, does the first word of the Gospel of Mark, which is also ‘beginning’. In parenthesis, much though I personally cherish John 1.1-14, I suspect the appearance of these verses three times in the lectionary in quick succession (Christmas Day; the Second Sunday of Christmas and now the Second Sunday before Lent) provides a bit of a challenge to preachers. In which case I hope the thoughts I share below are useful!
So back to creation. I want to begin with the description of human beings as created in the ‘image’ of God, as suggested in Genesis 1.26. It is because we have been created with the divine ‘image’ that we have also been granted dominion over creation. So what does it mean for us as humanity to be in the ‘image’ of God? A bit of a clue may be offered by the Greek version of Genesis 1, which translates the word ‘image’ as ‘icon’ (eikon). If you know something about ‘icons’ you will have heard that they can be described as offering a visible and physical ‘window’ into the invisible and immaterial divine world. That therefore is what we human beings are called to be: ‘windows’ to enable God to be ‘seen’ on earth. Do we live up to this vocation? It is certain a challenging one!
Although the actual word ‘image’ does not appear in John 1.1-14, it is widely accepted that when these verses speak of the Word becoming flesh and our seeing ‘his glory’, this description is rooted in the understanding of ‘image’ derived from Genesis 1. Glory is ‘the visible presence of God’, and so in the person of Jesus Christ, humanity has at last come into its birthright – to be a ‘window’ making God visibly present in the created world. (Hebrews 1.3 which speaks of Jesus Christ as the ‘reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ makes the connection between the ideas still clearer.)
Of course Genesis’ language of ‘image’ is clearly picked up on Colossians 1.15-20, this week’s Epistle. It begins with this concept. ‘He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). But Colossians then continues by suggesting, not simply that Christ has dominion over creation (that is implied though not explicitly stated), but that creation has come into being through him.
It is fascinating to explore how the writer of this Epistle arrived at this conclusion – not least because it is a brilliant example of traditional Jewish exegesis which has found its way into the New Testament. It also draws in this week’s Old Testament reading, Proverbs 8.22-31. In this text Wisdom is speaking and reflects, ‘The Lord created me at/as the beginning of his work’ (Proverbs 8.22). The word beginning used here (in Hebrew reshith) is the same as the first noun of the Bible in Genesis 1.1 ‘In the beginning… One popular method of traditional exegesis was to take a word that was repeated in different parts of Scripture and ‘read’ both examples alongside each other, using each to interpret the other. The double instance of reshith, in both Genesis 1.1 and Proverbs 8.22 offered plenty of scope. The exegesis was further developed by drawing in both the different possible meanings of a word, and its root linguistic relationships. Here Genesis 1.1 offers a field day! For the phrase, with which of course the entire corpus of Holy Scripture begins, is BReshith, which we usually translate as ‘in (the)beginning’.
But… as well as meaning ‘in’ the Hebrew preposition B can mean ‘by means of’ or ‘with’. So… using this traditional methodology, it would be legitimate to understand Genesis 1.1 as suggesting, ‘By means of reshith God created the heavens and the earth’. And since we are told in Proverbs 8.22 that Wisdom states, ‘The Lord created me as the reshith of his works’, it becomes possible to understand that as, ‘By means of Wisdom God created the heavens and the earth’. Then given that at least as early as the writing of I Corinthians 1.24 Jesus Christ is explicitly described as ‘the wisdom of God’ – we arrive at this powerful proclamation of the Epistle to the Colossians, namely that, ‘By means of Christ God created the heavens and the earth.’
Additionally, as I mentioned above, this method of exegesis sought to exploit the range of meanings linked to the Hebrew root of key words. Reshith, ‘beginning’ derives ultimately from the Hebrew word Rosh, which means ‘head’. (You can work out the link for yourselves!). And those amazing verses of Colossians 1.15-20 then also exploit every possible interpretation of the word Rosh ‘head’:
15, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
All the italicised words in the above quotation from Colossians can be linked in some way to the Hebrew word Rosh. And the bold words can be linked in some way to the Hebrew preposition B.
The purpose in pointing all this out is not primarily that it is a brilliant example of biblical literary gymnastics, but that the connections create a profound relationship between our own humanity and that of Jesus Christ. In a deep sense the understanding of what it is to be human derives from of Jesus, and our humanity is incorporated in his. He offers the grounding bass of what it means for human beings to be created in the ‘image’ of God, and invites (or requires?) us to be caught up in his intimate relationship with the whole of creation.
This in turn raises two fundamental questions, What does or should a Christ-like creation look like? And how do we human beings relate to it?
If we read Colossians 1.15-20 alongside the beloved Song of Christ’s Glory of Philippians 2.5-8 we are offered a profound answer to those questions. We don’t get the word ‘image’ in Philippians but we do get the very similar word ‘form’ used to describe Christ both in his relationship to God and humanity. The passage also seems to allude to the creation stories of Genesis, in particular Genesis 3.22… in which God speaks of humanity’s desire to become ‘like’, ‘equal to’ God. Christ however did not take the path followed by the first Adam… instead he chose the path of self-emptying, (kenosis)obedience and death on a cross. So we can put Colossians and Philippians together to suggest that once we begin to think of Christ as representing the ideal understanding of humanity as created in the image of God it must affect also how we understand humanity’s dominion over creation. It is a ‘dominion’ that is shaped by the cross!
I was, and am, grateful to a very thoughtful article by Román Guridi SJ: Imago Dei as Kenosis: Re-imagining Humanity in an Ecological Era 151482074.pdf (core.ac.uk) which helped me to draw these ideas together. ‘… kenosis must come to the fore in theological reflection on humanity before the current ecological crisis. It is a meaningful, sound, and timely interpretation of the imago Dei… It is Jesus’ own kenosis that reveals the true face of divine power – power in love – which decidedly aims at the wellbeing and fulfillment of creation. This twofold movement of self-limitation and self-giving love can certainly inspire the desirable renovation in theological anthropology.’
So yes, that long-standing tradition of starting Christian reflection on human responsibility for creation by looking the ‘image of God’ language of Genesis 1.26 is legitimate, indeed profoundly so, but only if one takes account also of the way that the New Testament reshapes the language of ‘image’ and ‘dominion’.
There is more that could be said, particularly drawing in the insights offered by Eastern Orthodox Christians, that link human care for creation to the biblical story of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Fortuitously, however, the Gospel lectionary reading for the coming Sunday after this one, February 14, is Mark’s account of the transfiguration, Mark 9.2-9, so I can reasonably conclude at this point by saying ‘To be continued…’
[i] It is perhaps worth noting, to avoid any confusion, that this is one of the weeks when the Church of England’s Common Worship lectionary diverges from the wider Revised Common Lectionary, which keeps next Sunday as ‘the Sunday between the 4th and the 10th February’ and offers a very different set of readings. But I suspect most readers of this blog will be following the Common Worship lectionary!
Loving Creator, You made humanity for yourself With hearts that are restless till they rest in you. Male and female, You made us as your glory, To reflect and fulfil your longings for our world. In the life of Jesus Christ, You offered us a vision of yourself, A pattern of your generous and profligate love. Entice us by your Spirit, The kiss of God renewing all creation, So that we become more fully human, More truly what you would have us be, And discover our beginning, continuing and ending in you. Amen.
I am very grateful to Revd Julia Lacey for picking up the invitation I offered last week to encourage people to write for this blog. Let Julia inspire others! I am particularly grateful as Julia has so clearly offered a ‘European dimension’ to the theme. As Julia mentions in her reflection, she is German by origin and then lived for many years in Annemasse, France. Long associated with the life and worship of Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, and presented as an ordinand by this Church, Julia is now serving her curacy in Chelmsford, UK.The formal date of ‘Candlemas’ or the Feast of the Presentation of Christ is of course February 2. Falling as it does this year midweek, in many churches it is being commemorated this coming Sunday, 31 January. Julia therefore explores the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Presentation, Luke 2.22-40.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
Reflection on the celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple Luke 2.22-40.
Before moving to France I hadn’t given much thought to the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is probably most widely known.
Rather than a feast it had always seemed to me the end of all things Christmas. In my home in Germany, on this day the Christmas tree and with it all decorations would be taken down and put away. I vaguely remember going once or twice to Mass where new candles would be blessed. But in essence, this day was tinged with sadness. Now the real winter would begin with its interminable run of cloudy and rainy days and spring seemed to be light-years away. The fun as it were lay in the past.
My perception changed when I came to know my friend Isabelle in France who was also our daughter’s nanny for a number of years. No “chandeleur” could go by without Isabelle’s famous pancake feast for all her little charges. And, as Isabelle’s generous nature insisted, parents and grandparents would prolong the feast when they arrived to pick up the children. It was a wonderfully joyous occasion with Isabelle expertly tossing pancakes and smothering them with homemade jams, lots of laughter and shared stories.
When I told Isabelle about my take on Candlemas she was absolutely taken aback: “But… this is the day we celebrate the revelation of Christ to all people! How can you not celebrate?”
Indeed, how could I not? I realized that I had managed to see this moment in the liturgical year in only one dimension, that of looking back. I had completely missed the joyful note of hope that is also part of Candlemas – not to mention the amazing moment it depicts.
It was much like looking at a tree in winter and only seeing bare branches, dead leaves and last year’s decaying fruit, disregarding completely the strength and life in its roots. Or indeed much like what society often thinks of the “elderly”, people like Anna and Simeon in the Gospel reading, merely waiting for the end of their lives.
But of course the Gospel is the Good News because it challenges us to a holistic outlook on all life.
In that holistic view, Candlemas becomes a crucial moment in its most literal sense – a kind of crossroads to which all roads lead and from which all roads depart. So looking back is actually not such a bad thing to do on Candlemas.
After all Jesus was taken to the Temple by his parents to fulfil the ancient requirement of “redeeming” the first-born son who otherwise would have been dedicated to the Lord. This tradition points us straight back to the time of exile in Egypt and is intrinsically linked with the Exodus, the event that enduringly shaped the identity of the Jewish people. It is important for Christians not to forget the roots of our faith and to remember that we continue on a journey with God that began far back in time. However, while the Jewish custom of Pidyon ha’Ben might be understood as looking backwards remembering the saving grace of God, this particular moment when Mary and Joseph arrive in the Temple with Jesus holds an urgent forward movement.
Both Simeon and Anna, despite their age, are agents of the forward movement.
Simeon is a tzaddik, a righteous man who is fully committed to all requirements for a good Jewish life, and he has been promised to see the Messiah before he dies. Simeon has been living his life with one foot firmly rooted in history and with the other pointing forward – not to a distant or utopian future but to a very real arrival of the Saviour within his earthly life.
When he meets Jesus he recognizes that the ancient promise has finally become reality and that this means peace, not only for him but for all people.
Simeon has been set free. He can let go of his life-long task reminding others of the promised coming of the Messiah.
Anna comes from a different direction. Her personal journey has led her to continuous prayer in the Temple, prayer that most certainly was inspired through Scripture – another way of being rooted in the history of God with His people.
She is a real connoisseur of God’s word, one might say an aficionado. So much so that she has become a prophetess, an interpreter of God’s word who speaks of things to come.
It is no surprise then that it is Anna who speaks about the child Jesus to everyone.
She takes Simeon’s very personal, almost intimate recognition and carries it out to all people.
Simeon and Anna complement each other, despite their visible differences. Simeon is presumably well respected for his righteousness, he has standing. Anna is a widow, therefore on the margins of society, and probably seen as rather eccentric in all her praying and fasting. Obviously they represent different genders and with that different roles in society. They do however have in common that they are old. And this being old is more than anecdotal. It drives home the importance of rootedness in the past, the importance of their journeys to this crossroads moment in the Temple.
Two different journeys that have been made looking forward in certain hope and their paths cross here at this crucial point in time. Although two different and distinctive people they come together and become thus a metaphor for God’s promise that all people, women and men, rich and poor, respected and marginalised, will come together to worship the one God. This journey is still to be made.
Anna and Simeon have carried the baton so far, now they are handing it on to all who look for salvation – to all believers – to us.
How indeed could we not celebrate this wonderful moment when that Olympic torch of faith is being handed over to us to be carried out for all the world to see God’s bountiful goodness and His everlasting covenant with us?
Let’s be like Simeon and Anna, trees of righteousness, with roots firmly grown so that we can overcome winters and grow fresh leaves and this year’s as well as next year’s fruits. Let us take up the challenge of becoming light-bearers in a world that might not understand but still needs firm hope, starting out from the crossroads of recognition at Candlemas ever deeper into the Kingdom of God.
And, as a clin d’oeil to this blog’s location, this might well include carrying a torch (pun intended) for this old-fashioned idea of a united Europe where people can move freely and can prosper in an inclusive society.
Candlemas is sometimes spoken of as the day when the Church’s year changes direction. We stop looking back to Christmas, and begin to look forward to Lent and Good Friday and Easter. It’s the growing time of the year, a season that will offer us plenty of opportunity to practise and grow in wisdom, so that, like Anna and Simeon, we recognize the moments of God’s coming and rejoice in God’s love every day.(Anne Lewin)
Back last March, I was asked by our bishops to enable this blog to be used as a vehicle for reflections on what we have been living through over much of the past year. So from April- June last year the blog was temporarily renamed ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’ and it was very good to have a wide range of contributions from a considerable number of different people in our diocese on their experiences of living with and through the crisis of the moment. When we got to July I thought it was about time to shift back to the focus on the lectionary, which had been the original idea for the blog when it started in December 2018.
Perhaps now – though I intend that a contribution should continue be offered each week linked to the lectionary – we need also to go back again in these ongoing ‘difficult days’ and publish further thoughts that are linked directly or indirectly to our COVID experiences, especially in the Diocese in Europe. If you have something you would like to share, please do be in touch.
To set the ball rolling again, I offer a delicious short poem that my husband Alan Amos wrote at the end of last year. To understand it you need to be aware of the Jet d’Eau, the iconic symbol of Geneva, which springs up from Lake Geneva (Leman) and which used to be visible (just) from an apartment Alan and I lived in in France voisine. The poem is called Living Water, and it complements in some interesting ways the biblical reflection linked to next Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, John 2.1-11, which I have called Flowing Wine. I hope that both the poem and the biblical reflection offer you some joy in these continuing days of difficulty. We also include a link to a powerful reflection on COVID and Communion (understood in a broad sense) offered by Revd Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields which is well worth exploring.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
A friend said ‘all this Zoom, reminds me of my doom!’ I added. ‘rhymes with gloom and tomb.’ And then I thought of happier rhymes Maybe ‘neum’ a music note to bring us cheer as we approach the ending of the year; but then, a-sudden, broke in that plume of life, the jet’d’eau! the bursting energy, living water Zooming up from Leman’s depths on high calling us to hope, in lake and sky to read the signs of life’s continuing joy and mystery. Alan Amos
I was very grateful to Bishop David Hamid for drawing my attention a couple of weeks ago to the ancient Latin antiphon on the Benedictus at Lauds on the Feast of Epiphany which, as Bishop David, rightly said, has always fascinated him (and me too, now that I have made its acquaintance!).
‘Today the Church has been joined to her heavenly bridegroom, since Christ has purified her of her sins in the river Jordan; the Magi hasten to the royal wedding and offer gifts; the wedding guests rejoice since Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.’
In this antiphon are listed all three of the great Epiphany themes of the journey of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and the wedding at Cana – all Gospel narratives which ‘make manifest’ the incarnate divinity of Jesus Christ. But as Bishop David pondered in his note to me, what is intriguing and perhaps strange about the antiphon is the way that it uses wedding imagery to link the three Gospel stories together.
Well, I didn’t have the time to respond to Bishop David a couple of weeks ago, but in effect my reflections in this blog, which focus particularly on the story of the wedding at Cana, John 2.1-11, the lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday, are my answer to him.
I have written elsewhere, both in a short book Beginning over again: through Lent with Genesis and the Gospels, and in various articles, of my view that all four of the Gospels invite us to ‘re-read’ the story of Genesis in the light of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is most obvious with the Gospel of John.
It is in fact impossible to read John’s Gospel without being immediately aware of the resonances within it of Genesis. Even a quick glance at the first few verses of the Gospel (John 1.1-18) shout out the deliberate echoes of Gen. 1. Both of course begin with the same three words, ‘In the beginning’, both are reflecting on how life came into being, both remind us of the fundamental place of light in the story of creation. The Gospel tells us that creation came into being through the ‘Word’, and according to Genesis it was by the act of speaking that God’s work of creation proceeded.
But we also find the echo of Genesis continuing to the conclusion of the Prologue in verses 14 and 18. For as we hear of the ‘glory’ of God that is revealed in the Word become flesh (verse 14) there is, half hidden, an allusion to the concept of ‘image’ that introduced humanity’s vocation in Genesis 1. The best understanding of what the word ‘glory’ meant to the biblical writers – and certainly to the writer of John’s Gospel – is to describe it as ‘the visible presence of God’. In the Word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, and showing God’s glory, humanity has at last come into its birthright as the image or icon of God: what human beings were always meant to be. This cannot be said too strongly. So often we see the fact that we are ‘human’ as something negative – the opposite, if you like, of divinity. Yet our problem may be not that we are too human – but that we are not human enough. As the glory of God, Christ is humanity’s perfection – and its goal. In this Gospel, whose stated purpose is to help us have life (John 20.32) we are going to have enfleshed for us the statement of Irenaeus, ‘The glory of God is humanity alive – and the life of humanity is the vision of God.’
But if Genesis clearly shines through the beginning of John’s Gospel it is also etched into the final chapters. As Jesus breathes the Spirit into his disciples after his resurrection (John 20.22) he reiterates the action of God in Gen. 2.7 when life was first breathed into humanity. In doing so, of course he reminds us that that a Gospel which has up till now focused almost entirely on Jesus, will only reach its ultimate goal when all human beings can fully reflect the ‘glory’, can image God in such a way that the ripples spin out to entice and excite others with the transforming vision.
And the story of the Gospel between its beginning and its end treads out the path that makes this possible. It is a story in which Genesis’ themes of life and death are revisited, as we discover that in fact life comes through death. It is a tale to which knowledge will be the key – but not knowledge sought for power, independence and control as was the case in Genesis 3. Rather it is the truth, and Jesus who is the truth, who is to be the goal of this knowledge. Above all it a love story, which will re-tread the original vision of creation, of man and woman both made in the image and likeness of God, and will encourage the full maturity of ‘becoming’, of a relationship between men and women which will go beyond the imbalance and the distortion of love which the ‘fall’ of Genesis 3 leaves us with. Let us get the love story right this time, John seems to be saying. For it is only love that is as strong as death.
What does this mean? I believe that the Gospel of John is choosing to take us on a journey … Not just a geographical journey traveling from Jordan, Cana, Samaria, Bethany, Jerusalem, but a journey in which women will play a central part, for it is a journey about women, about their capacity for love, for being the agents of new birth and life. It is a journey which is not afraid of sexuality, for love in all its forms is what will make possible the gift of life which is the treasure offered by this Gospel.
John’s Gospel makes crystal clear that Christ is the bridegroom of humanity (John 3.29), and it is as men and women both respond to his love from the depths of their being that the life and love lost in Eden can be regained. That of course is actually the message that our Epiphany antiphon is singing aloud.
The ministry of Jesus in the Gospel begins with a marriage at Cana (John 2.1-11) – something significant in itself, especially if Christ is indeed the bridegroom. But if Christ is the bridegroom, where is his bride? She is strangely absent from this tale: The Gospel never mentions her, perhaps the ultimate statement of the invisibility of women in a world, where, as in the New Testament era, men dominated and a woman’s marriage was seen as little more than the moment when, as a chattel, she passed from the custody of father to husband. When my husband and I lived in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s Alan took several weddings. He recalls how the wedding registers that had to be signed had no space for the bride’s signature – it was the bridegroom and bride’s father who were required to witness together to the ‘transaction’.
The hour of change has not yet come. There is a woman playing a part in the drama, but she is mother, not wife, and addressed curtly by the title ‘Woman’ reminiscent perhaps of the title the first Adam used for his first Eve as she was taken from his side. ‘What have you to do with me?’ Jesus demands harshly (John 2.4, literal translation), in a phrase that is elsewhere only used when he has conversations with the demons – for the old secure relationships are a temptation to hold on to – and yet if this bridegroom wishes to enjoy with his bride the wine of new life, those old patterns must be superseded. One cannot enter into one’s mother’s womb and be born again, certainly not at one’s wedding feast! Such an attitude would be characteristic of a refusal to accept new and adult relationships, relationships where men and women exist in equality and true agape with each other. To enable the good wine of marriage to flow Jesus needs both to hearken to yet distance himself from the maternal symbol of the old ways and attitudes.
The way is change, The truth unchanging leads to life through change Or else the water never would be ready for the feast, Nor we ourselves be present as the guests…
Perhaps, over the crisis and challenges of the past year we have come to learn this truth in in new and different ways.
I find the painting of the Wedding at Cana by the Chinese He Qi (see above), which has become increasingly well known, a fascinating commentary on this Gospel passage. There are in fact some alternative interpretations of the picture, but I would suggest that the mysterious figure shrouded completely in red (the traditional Chinese colour for weddings and celebration) is what I refer to as ‘the blanked-out bride’, invisible in the story, and hidden in this way in He Qi’s picture. She is framed by figures that I believe represent Jesus and his mother – though the depiction of Jesus in some sense also reflects the bridegroom. Do take a close look at He Qi’s picture and reflect on the other insights it offers into the story.
The account of the wedding ends with the brief note: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…’ (John 2.11). ‘The first of his signs’ is the usual English translation, but a more literal rendering of the Greek would be ‘this beginning of signs’. It is useful to note this because it reminds us of two important ‘clues’ to the meaning of the story of the wedding. First, the words ‘glory’ and ‘beginning’ both appear in this episode as well as John’s Prologue (John 1.1-18) , and this suggests, I think, that the account of the wedding is the conclusion of the opening section of the Gospel which has begun with the Prologue. I think the Christian liturgical year has instinctively understood this as it locates the account of the wedding as a highlight towards the end of the Epiphany section.
But secondly, and perhaps even more important, the phrase ‘this beginning of signs’ reminds us that the sign which has just taken place is not simply the first one in a chronological list, but rather the ‘key’ or ‘archetype’ which opens the door to understanding all the other signs that John will tell us of later in his Gospel. It is the sign which undergirds all the others. This vivid and dramatic image of transformation, of water become wine, is actually a ‘sign’ of the meaning of the whole work of Jesus Christ which the Gospel writer will lovingly unfold for us in the following chapters of the Gospel.
Back to the bride. If the Gospel refuses to let us meet her at Cana, with exquisite artistry – and irony – we are introduced to her in the shape of the raddled old woman that Jesus will meet in Samaria (John 4.5-42). But that is, as they say, another story, or at least the next episode in this one…
This week’s reflection on the lectionary Gospel, John 1.43-51 appropriately follows on from last week’s exploration of heavens torn open in the Gospel of Mark. I hope to return to the image of the ‘tree of life’ with which it concludes in further reflections during the coming months.
I am however, very much on the lookout for possible contributors, both lay and clergy, to this blog. If you are interested to take responsibility for a week, I would be very grateful to hear from you.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,
It is fascinating to compare the Gospels of Mark and John both of which appear in our lectionary in different weeks during this season. I think that John’s Gospel tends to get more used in this ‘filler fashion’ during the Year of Mark, than in the other two lectionary years, partly because Mark itself is so much shorter and sparser. The comparison tells us something important about both Gospels.
When I taught New Testament to ordinands and university students in a structured way I would often use the first chapter of John’s Gospel as my primary tool to introduce what is called the ‘Christology’ of John (ie what the Gospel writer thinks about who Jesus was and what he did). In this chapter there is an amazing plethora of titles bestowed upon Jesus, some of which appear more than once, and some of which are implied partly because they are ‘refused’ by John the Baptist. I list them here with verse references:
Word (Logos) (1, 14) Jesus Christ (17) Only Son/Son of God (14, 18, 49) God (18) Messiah (20, 41) Elijah (21) The Prophet (21) Lamb of God (29, 36) Rabbi (38, 49) Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth (45) King of Israel (49) Son of Man. (51)
What I find intriguing, and what tells us something important about the nature and purpose of the Gospel of John, is that by verse 41 of this chapter, one of his disciples (Andrew) is already naming Jesus as the Messiah, ‘We have found the Messiah’, a discovery which it takes eight painful chapters of the Gospel of Mark for the disciples to arrive at (Peter answered him ‘You are the Messiah’, Mark 8.29). In effect we can say that John’s Gospel takes up its story about the meaning of Jesus from a point that is halfway through the Gospel of Mark. Indeed a careful reading of the Gospel of John makes it clear that though it is ‘correct’ to name Jesus as ‘Messiah’ that title by itself is not fully adequate – Jesus is that, but also much more besides, a reality that the Gospel of John will explore as Jesus’ story continues to be told.
The lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday is the last 9 verses of John 1, John 1.43-51. Within these short 9 verses the Gospel sparkles with John’s characteristic allusiveness and irony. To discover the import of what the Evangelist is sharing we need to ‘read’ it alongside other parts of the Gospel, and indeed other parts of the Bible. I work through a few examples of this from beginning to end of the passage. The ‘high point’ (literally!) comes at the end.
First, the intriguing note that ‘Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter’ (1.44). On the whole, when John’s Gospel offers a note of time or place, there is a reason for it. It is fascinating that Peter (and Andrew) should be linked in this way to ‘Bethsaida’. Our normal assumption (on the basis of the Synoptic Gospels e.g. Mark 1.29) is that the brothers lived in Capernaum. Now as it happens the town of Bethsaida is not that far away from Capernaum – further round the Sea of Galilee in an easterly direction. It was a thriving city: recently excavated Biblical village of Bethsaida where Jesus walked on water is finally identified by archaeologists | Daily Mail Online.
There is a mention of Bethsaida however in the Gospel of Mark (8.22-26), as the location of the healing of a blind man. Partly because this story comes ‘immediately’ before Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as ‘Messiah’, there has been a long-standing Christian tradition (going back to the patristic period) that Peter, in some symbolic way, can be identified with ‘the blind man of Bethsaida’. Given that in John chapter 1 Peter, unlike Andrew and Nathanael, is not told, ‘Come and see’ – is he, from the perspective of the Gospel of John, still personifying in some sense ‘the blind man of Bethsaida’ – in fact until chapter 21 of the Gospel?
Second, that expression ‘Come and see’. It is interesting to notice that it appears twice in John 1. It is first addressed by Jesus himself to two disciples, Andrew and another. Later on however the same words are used by Philip to Nathanael. By its repeated use in this way the Gospel quietly suggests that the role of a follower of Jesus is both to ‘Come and see’ for themselves, and then to be the encourager of others to do so. As we in the Diocese explore our understanding of discipleship, this invitation of our role in enabling others to ‘Come and see’ is surely something to bear in mind.
Third – the Gospel makes it clear that not all titles or descriptions given to Jesus are adequate. For example, though it is correct to refer to Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ (verses 18, 49) that is certainly not all that can or should be said about him, and the Gospel writer wants us to realise this. But there is a point in these verses where one of the ways in which Jesus is described is so inadequate that it is wrong! For Philip refers to him as ‘Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth’ (1.45) Undoubtedly for the Gospel of John Jesus is ‘Son of God’, not of Joseph. So I find it fascinating, and an example of John’s theological artistry that in the Farewell Discourses there is a discussion between Jesus and non other than Philip about the relationship between Jesus and the Father:
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (John 14.8-10)
Poor old Philip – even 14 chapters down the line the one who described Jesus as ‘son of Joseph’ is ‘still’ uncomprehending of Jesus’ true filial nature and role!
And finally, and for me, the ‘jewel’ in our Gospel reading this week, there are the allusions to the Old Testament story of Jacob, used to interpret both the role of Jesus, and that of Nathanael.
This is apparent in the final verse of the chapter where the reference to ‘the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1.51) clearly recalls the ladder between earth and heaven with angels upon it that Jacob saw at Bethel (Genesis 28.12). But now of course it is the ‘Son of Man’, identified with Jesus himself, not a holy place or a sanctuary, that becomes the space where God can be present on earth. Less obvious however is the delicious description of Nathanael as ‘Truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ (John 1.47). For Nathanael is being compared and contrasted with Jacob, who was of course eventually renamed ‘Israel’ (Genesis 32.28) but who was notorious for his guile and deceit. These allusions give the final verses of this chapter a climactic feel, and it is interesting that the climactic description given to Jesus after such a wealth of honorific titles should be ‘Son of Man’. What might this say to us about the relationship between humanity and divinity in the new creation which Jesus will inaugurate?
Last week, as we looked at the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark, we heard about heavens torn open. (Mark 1.9-11). Once again here in John the biblical account speaks of ‘opened heavens’ (John 1.51). But John’s Gospel takes us one further step, for the image of the ladder here makes clear that in his own person Jesus becomes the bridge that links heaven and earth, a bridge that will be finally opened when Jesus is ‘lifted up’ on his Cross, which has become the ‘Tree of Life’. This is powerfully depicted in the painting at the top by the Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery, which was originally commissioned by Misereor in Germany. On this ‘Tree’ the Son of Man is stretched out, taking into himself the darkness of the depths, and opening up for us a new heaven. (For a detailed description of the ‘meaning’ of each part of the picture see ArtWay.eu)
This blog is being written on 6 January – the Feast of the Epiphany. Tonight the church that I am linked to in the Diocese in Europe – Holy Trinity Geneva – will be celebrating Epiphany. We will be reading the account of the visit of the three wise men to Jesus told in Matthew 2.1-12. However as I am aware, especially from my years living in the Middle East, in the Orthodox Christian world the focus at ‘Epiphany’ is on the baptism of Christ. Indeed one of the joys of working at the World Council of Churches was that at Epiphany, or as near to it as possible, one’s office would be ‘sprinkled’ with water by one of our Orthodox colleagues. What both the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Christ (which Western Christianity tends to mark on the Sunday following the Epiphany) have in common is that they are moments when the divine and human meet in a special way, and when earth and heaven touch each other. The reflections below (which are drawn from a meditation I offered at the diocesan service at the end of November) explore the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Mark 1.4-11, which does tell of Jesus’ baptism.
The picture immediately above was drawn to my attention by a friend. We are not aware of its provenance (though I expect it comes from historical Europe), but I find it fascinating that it links together the themes of the wise men and the baptism (though in this case of the magi themselves). I would be very grateful to hear if anyone knows more details about it.
One of the most powerful and dramatic sentences in the Gospel of Mark comes when, at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus breathes out his last breath. It is at that moment, we are told in Mark 15.37, that the veil of the Temple is torn in two from top to bottom. The Greek verb translated as ‘torn’ is a form of the verb ‘schizo’ – from which we get our English scissors.
But it is not always realised that this use of the word ‘schizo’ near the end of the Gospel, echoes its use here at the beginning, when during Jesus’ baptism he, Jesus, sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him. It is a wonderful image of the skies being ‘scissored’ open. My mother used to have a pair of what were called ‘pinking’ scissors, and my mental picture of the scene is of such pinking scissors cutting a dramatic line across the sky to enable God and creation, heaven and earth, God and humanity to interweave with each other.
The repeated use of this word ‘torn’ ‘schizo’ is not accidental. It is fundamental to Mark’s interpretation of the life and work of Jesus. The Gospel is telling us that in the ministry and death of Jesus the ancient and fundamental separation between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane has been definitively overcome. This is made transparently obvious by what happens at Jesus’ death, but in reality, for those who have eyes to see, and certainly in Jesus’ own understanding, this has been enacted in his ministry from its very beginning.
The picture of the original creation portrayed in Genesis 1 is a story of separation and division. The verb ‘divide’ appears several times in its telling. I have wondered whether by beginning his Gospel with Genesis’ word ‘beginning’ Mark is deliberately reminding us of this but then will shortly affirm that with the Advent of Jesus, a new creation will be inaugurated in the waters of his baptism, a creation which speaks instead of divisions being overcome.
What do these heavens torn open mean for us today and the life of the church? Certainly I believe that the picture raises questions about the way that Christian tradition has all too easily divided the sacred from the secular, often to the disregard of the latter. For the open heavens which signal the start of Jesus’ public ministry affirm that God refuses to be kept apart from the whole of human life, in all its murkiness as well as its joys. It is telling that the tearing of the skies coincides with the moment of Jesus’ baptism as he is immersed in the dark waters of the river. This has been called Jesus’ ‘solidarity dip’ – when he signals his willingness to share the pain and the problems of humanity. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons of the baptism.
The deep dark centre surrounded by heights on either side, is curiously but deliberately reminiscent of those icons of the resurrection which focus on figures rising up out of the depths of Hades.. Being baptised, for Jesus himself as well as for us, is being baptised into the death of Christ. ‘Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with…?’ is a challenge that later in this Gospel Jesus will throw at the brothers James and John.
The moment of this solidarity dip with humanity of course is also the time when the voice speaking out of those opened heavens, affirms Jesus, ‘You are my beloved Son’. Whatever else may be meant by the title ‘Son of God’ which the Gospel of Mark uses to describe Jesus at crucial points in his ministry and passion, it certainly affirms the reality that in this man the normal boundaries between the divine and human have been broken down, the word has become incarnate in flesh, and that in him the material is uniquely sacramental of the spiritual. What however does the epithet ‘beloved’ add to the title of ‘Son’? When Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries heard of a ‘beloved son’ their thoughts would almost certainly turn to Isaac, the son of Abraham, the one who was so nearly sacrificed to death. So when Jesus is addressed in this way, his destiny as the one who will need to travel even farther along the road of suffering than Isaac was required to do is surely being spelled out. It is often noted that the Gospel of Mark is dominated by the story of Jesus’ passion, which, I believe, with the title ‘beloved son’ actually extends its reach to these first few verses of the Gospel.
Life can feel so much easier and more secure when it is separated into neat and tidy segments, when good can keep its safe distance from evil, when the holy preserves itself from the profane. But from the instant of opened heavens and immersion in deep waters, that was not the path which Jesus chose. The Episcopalian theologian Tom Troeger, one of whose wonderful hymns describes God as a ‘spendthrift lover’, was almost shattered by the senseless murder of a friend. Eventually he reflected:
‘Then in the silence of my heart I see as never before that incarnation means a refusal to keep a safe distance between heaven and earth, between eternal good and mortal evil. If we are to be godly people we will have to follow the pattern of the incarnation, risking all for love, refusing to keep our distance from the brutality of this world.’
Compared with what we are told by Matthew and Luke, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation will very brief (Mark 1.12-13) , but it says all that needs to be said. ‘Immediately’ – we hear that urgent word again – the Spirit ‘drove out’ – an extraordinary choice of verb, since it is elsewhere used in this Gospel of demons – Jesus into the wilderness, not as a place of refuge and withdrawal, but as a place where good could recklessly risk all to confront the challenge of evil. That is the straight path that Jesus went straightway into the wilderness to walk. It will be the beginning of the journey that he will take throughout the rest of the Gospel.
This first post-Christmas blog takes as its starting point the Gospel reading John 1.10-18, appointed in Common Worship as the Sunday Gospel for 3 January. Whether accidentally or deliberately I have not focused directly on the historic changes in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union which will come into force at midnight on 31 December. However the positive way I refer to the word ‘widening’ (see below) perhaps offers a clue to my personal view about this development.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Christmas for me would not be Christmas without hearing in worship – at least once – the great ‘Christmas Gospel’, John1.1-14. This year I heard it twice, first at the online carol service held by Holy Trinity, Geneva, where it was read, initially in French and then in English as the final lesson, and then at the online celebration of the Eucharist with Spiritual Communion held on Christmas Day. It also formed the basis of the Christmas Day sermon.
However I do feel a bit sorry for preachers, that after the rightful appearance of John’s Prologue on Christmas Day, part of the Prologue also appears as the lectionary Gospel (in Common Worship, based in turn upon the Revised Common Lectionary) for the Second Sunday of Christmas – in all three lectionary years. Although as it happens, depending on the day of the week that Christmas falls, there is not always such a ‘Second Sunday’. There is however such a Sunday this year. It feels tough that having given this stunning biblical passage one’s all, on Christmas Day, one should be expected to return so closely to it so soon afterwards, with new inspiration and fresh insight.
There are of course ways round the problem, for those who seek them. I note that a clerical friend of mine is fervently observing this coming Sunday as the commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket and the biblical readings will presumably be chosen with that in mind. Nevertheless that feels to me a bit like ‘cheating’ – though undoubtedly with the best and worthiest of intentions. (I note also that The Episcopal Church diverges pragmatically from the Revised Common Lectionary on this Sunday, so our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Convocation in Europe are likely to be reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ flight in Egypt or Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey as a boy of twelve to Jerusalem.)
Of course the verses from John 1 selected for the two days are not identical. On Christmas Day John 1.1-14 is read; on the Second Sunday of Christmas the text suggested is John 1.10-18 (though in fact it might be better to begin with verse 9), with the possibility also offered of beginning with verse 1 again if one wishes.
Whichever starting point one chooses, the key difference between the Gospel reading for Christmas Day and this coming Sunday is that this Sunday we will also be exploring verses 15-18. What do these verses add to our understanding of John’s Prologue, and its understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ?
It is interesting that though the Prologue clearly begins by alluding to the Book of Genesis – with an ‘echo’ both of Genesis’ first words ‘In the beginning’, and a focus on light’s primordial role in the story of creation, it seems to end instead by alluding to the Book of Exodus. That is explicit in the remark ‘The law was given through Moses’ (John 1.17), but it is also implicit in the comment, ‘No one has ever seen God,’ (1.18) which almost certainly alludes to the intriguing and puzzling 33rd chapter of the Book of Exodus. The theme of this chapter is the quest for the presence of God, primarily with Moses, but through him also with the wandering people of Israel in the wilderness. Moses pleads with God for him to accompany them, ‘If your presence (Hebr. = ‘face’) will not go [with us], do not carry us up from here.’ (Exodus 33.15)
What is fascinating about the chapter is that within the space of a very few verses we are offered two apparently contradictory views as to whether it is possible for Moses to see God or not. So Exodus 33.11 states, ‘Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend’, but later in the chapter Moses is told by God, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live, ’ (Exodus 33.20)… ‘my face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33.23). This discrepancy may be partly explained by the likelihood that different sources have been amalgamated together in this chapter, but since I tend to work on the basis that the biblical editors were not stupid or careless, if they allowed such an apparent ‘contradiction’ to remain in the text, it is likely to be for a good reason.
There is much more that I could say about this (and perhaps sometime I will have a chance to come back to it), but briefly I think that posing the question ‘can human beings, even Moses, see God?’ and offering two apparently different answers to it, is a way of inviting us to wrestle with the central paradox and dilemma of biblical and Christian faith, namely, how can God allow Godself to be present with human beings – yet also avoid becoming our talisman or puppet? This conundrum is one with which both the Book of Exodus and the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, profoundly engage with.
The question of ‘presence’ is closely linked to the word ‘glory’, itself a word that is (rightly) difficult to pin down but seems to encapsulate a vision of visible divine presence alongside a sense of mystery. God’s refusal to allow Moses to see his face (though allowing him to see his ‘back’, Exodus 33.18) comes in response to the stark and specific request from Moses, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’
It is telling that the initial climax of John’s Prologue (1.14) uses the word ‘glory’ twice, ‘The Word became flesh… and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son’. It is, I think, the use of this word at this point, and its obvious link to Moses’ plea ‘Show me your glory’, that triggers the following brief reflection on Exodus 33 in verses 17-18. ‘The Word become flesh’ thus constitutes the answer to this plea of Moses, but it also profoundly differentiates the figures of Moses and Christ.
I enjoyed very much my seven years as a member of the tutorial and academic staff of Westcott House theological college in Cambridge. One of my regrets however (due partly to the fact that theological college staff are very busy!) is that I did not take the time while I was there to engage deeply with the writings and ideas of Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, the college’s founder and after whom it was named. Bishop Westcott was a shining example of the Anglican theological, spiritual and pastoral tradition at its best. Certainly I consider him an exemplar for what it means to study the Bible in a way that is both academically rigorous but also grounded in the life of faith. It is of course well known that Westcott especially cherished the Gospel of John. He also penned a wonderful comment about scripture that I treasure:
‘The whole record of revelation is a record of the manifestation of God’s glory. The Bible is one widening answer to the prayer of Moses, Show me thy glory, which is the natural cry of the soul made for God.’
It is obvious why writing this reflection has reminded me of Westcott’s words – quoting from Exodus 33. It is a lovely description of the Bible to speak of it as a ‘widening answer’ to our human plea to be shown God’s glory. That word ‘widening’ is important – suggesting, as I think Westcott intended to, that our encounter with scripture as both individuals and as part of the Christian community, is to be cherished precisely because there are always more and greater truths about God that we are being invited to discover.
And there is of course a guide on this road. In verse 18 we learn more about him… the ‘only Son’ who is as close to the Father’s heart as the beloved disciple will be to the Son’s own at the Last Supper.
The last word of John 1.18 is ἐξηγήσατο. In transliterated Greek it reads exēgēsato, which is a clue to what I am about to say. It is not completely clear what the English translation of this word should be – though the NRSV chooses ‘has made him (the Father) known’. It has been suggested that ‘has opened the way (to the Father)’ would be an alternative possibility. But if you look at the transliterated Greek a couple of lines above you may see in the letters the word ‘exegesis’ – and you would not be wrong to do so. Because, quite literally, one credible translation of this word in this verse which forms the climax to the Prologue of John is that Christ is described as ‘exegeting’ the Father. ‘Exegesis’ is of course normally understood as the art of interpreting Scripture – or other written texts. It invites us to explore in detail the factors that brought them into being, the art of the words that make them up, and what they might be saying to us in our contemporary situation. To reflect on Jesus Christ as the ‘exegete’ of the Father opens up to us insights that may be both creative and profound.
Above I referred to Bishop Westcott as an exemplar of the best of the Anglican tradition. There is also another Anglican bishop that I would place in this bracket, though the difference is that in his case I was privileged to know him personally. It is Bishop Kenneth Cragg, whom my husband and myself were proud to be able to call a family friend. Kenneth is best known for his important role in Christian-Muslim engagement. But he was also a poet and a wordsmith, and one of the privileges of being on his Christmas card list was that each December we received a card, typed on an increasingly wonky typewriter, with a poem that Kenneth had written for that Christmas. Eventually many were collected together and published in a lovely book The Lowly Lintel, of which I have a copy. But it is the wonky originals that are my real treasure! One Christmas Kenneth wrote a poem The Exegete (subtitled – naturally! – in Greek and Latin ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο …. ipse enarravit). Drawing on John 1.18, it explores the idea I have raised above that the life of Jesus Christ, exegetes for us the ‘text’ of God and the ‘text’ of our world. It is (like many of Kenneth’s later writings!) quite demanding to read, but I invite you to take the time to look at it carefully and discover its half-hidden treasures, which are exploring what it means to speak of Jesus Christ as exegete:
The text of our perplexity Life’s heavy score of scars, The puzzle of identity Intention in the stars.
Vast depths of far elusive space, The human comedy, Long centuries of earth’s disgrace, Their toll of tragedy.
What exegesis could suffice These riddles to explain Or must the necessary price Unpayable remain?
Eternal drama did enact Through finite birth to show The infinitely gentle fact Our yearning souls should know.
The fact a Father’s Son-like deed That seeks our low estate. Consents our motherhood to need, All mothers consecrate.
With text of self-expending grace In far redemptive reach The Name, the narrative, the Face His Galilee did teach.
The final paradox of truth, Gethsemane by night Where wrong and hate made wilful proof, Of darkness over light.
Divine compassion legible In manger-majesty, The sovereignty proved credible With nail-torn honesty.
This school of faith, this blessed sign Of love’s veracity, Perpetuate in bread and wine God’s hospitality.
Of these insignia possessed, Doubt’s ministries refined, Be Christ-discipleship confessed, Significance defined.
 B.F.Westcott, The Revelation of the Father, London; Macmillan, 1884, p.164
There are two main offerings in the blog this week; the first relates to the Advent antiphons, which traditionally are used from today and on each of the coming seven days; the second focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Luke 1.26-38, the annunciation to Mary. I am responsible for the first; I am grateful to Natacha Tinteroff for her reflection on Mary.
I am planning not to produce a blog next week, but to resume in time for a reflection to be offered relating to the readings for Sunday 3 January. Happy and Holy Christmas to all blog readers!
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
The following was originally delivered as an address during a Zoom Eucharist on December 17 celebrating O Sapientia organised by Holy Trinity Geneva.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence(Advent antiphon for O Sapientia)
If you take a look at the calendar that comes in the Book of Common Prayer, near the beginning, you will find on the December page, on December 16 the words O Sapientia – with no other explanation. It is intriguing that in a prayer book in which many of the pre-Reformation high days and holy days were culled, that the memory of this date as ‘O Sapientia’ ‘O Wisdom’ should be preserved. It is also interesting that the day chosen was December 16th – rather than 17th – but we will come to that in a moment.
It is a reminder that the hallowing of the week before Christmas through a series of special antiphons which were originally used to accompany the Magnificat is an ancient and cherished tradition of the Church. The ‘Advent antiphons’ as they were called, sometimes popularly referred to as the Great Os, can be dated at least as far back as the 8th century, though it is possible that they are even older. ‘O Sapientia’ the antiphon sung in praise of Wisdom was always the first of them. Originally there were seven, which were used consecutively or a daily basis between the 17th and the 23rd December. But a tradition grew up linked to the Sarum rite in medieval England of adding an 8th antiphon, which had the effect of pushing each of the other seven back by a day, although this practice never caught on in continental Europe. But hence the BCP’s choice of 16 December to mark O Sapientia. In order the antiphons celebrate Sapientia – Wisdom; Adonai – the Lord; Radix Jesse – the Root of Jesse; Clavis David – the Key of David; Oriens – the Dayspring; Rex Gentium – King of the Nations; Emmanuel – God is with us all as figurative symbols and precursors drawing ever closer to Christ. If you added the 8th antiphon that one honoured the Virgo virginum – the virgin of virgins.
In 1710 the antiphons, or most of them, five to be exact, were turned into Latin metrical verse by Jesuits in Cologne. A century and a half later it was this Latin metrical version that provided the basis for JM Neale’s English translation, famous today as ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, without which no Advent would be complete. So at two removes so to speak, whenever we sing that hymn we are drawing on these ancient antiphons. Until very recently that was how they were largely known in most parts of the Anglican church. Perhaps though one of the interesting fruits of recent Anglican liturgical revision has been the increased use of the antiphons in their original form. Which is good for several reasons.
One of them is that in fact I suspect that you will have rarely, if ever, sung a verse of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ that celebrates Wisdom. There is a verse, which begins with the line ‘O come, thou Wisdom from on high’ but it has a checkered history. The antiphon O Sapientia was one of the two left out antiphons not included in the 1710 Jesuit Latin metrical version. Since in turn it was this Jesuit version which provided the basis for Neale’s English translation he did not include a verse about Wisdom in what he produced. Though there was a Latin metrical version produced for O Sapientia in the late 19th century and this was later translated into English in the early 20th century, by then Neale’s version had cornered the field and so the ‘new’ verses did not find much of a welcome.
All this of course begs the question as to why O Sapientia did not appear in the original 1710 metrical version. Though I cannot be sure, I have a strong suspicion that the feminine nature of Wisdom must have played a part in this. In all the biblical languages Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word ‘wisdom’ is construed as feminine; Hokhma; Sophia; Sapientia, and whenever in the biblical texts, Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha, Wisdom is personified she is always personified as a woman. As for example in the final verse of today’s Gospel reading (Luke 7.24-28, 31-35). Sapientia is in fact the only ‘feminine’ figure in the list of the original seven antiphons; all the others are either directly or indirectly linked with a male figure, or are at least grammatically male. So can or should a feminine figure somehow be a precursor of the male Jesus Christ? In fact in the New Testament itself and in early Christian literature this did not seem to be a problem. The identification of Jesus with Wisdom, in terms that seem to intended to link to the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 can be found even in the New Testament, and certainly the early theologians of the Christian East did not find the link between Christ and Wisdom problematic, and employed creative ways of exploring it in iconography, such as is expressed through the icon that is used on the cover of today’s service sheet. But perhaps it was more of an issue for those 18th century Jesuits.
There is however also another reason why I believe that O Sapientia should appear in this list of Advent prefigurings. And it is linked to the special place that Wisdom has within the biblical, and especially, Old Testament literature, and the unique role she plays within the story of salvation.
There are a variety of genres in the Bible. These include Law or Torah, prophecy, history, psalms, and what are called the ‘wisdom writings’, focused on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. When I did my university studies in theology the wisdom writings were somehow the odd-man, or should one say odd-woman, out.
One of the interests of Old Testament studies back in the 1970s was to explore what was the central core and focus of the Old Testament. It was a rather Germanic thing to do and various different German Old Testament professors each had their own idea what that ‘focus’ consisted of. Eichrodt for example thought it was the idea of ‘covenant’ while Von Rad believed it was the idea of God working in history.
But whatever idea was the preferred one, wisdom tended to spoil the nice neat pattern that the professor wanted to construct. Because, for example, unlike all the other parts of the Old Testament, the wisdom writings don’t mention the covenant, and they don’t seem to be remotely interested in the idea of God working in history. Indeed all three key Old Testament wisdom books feel strangely ahistorical. What in fact marks them out from most of the rest of the Old Testament corpus is their sense of universalism, their understanding that God relates to all humanity, and requires from all humanity ‘wisdom’ and ‘wise behaviour’. They stand as a challenge to the rest of the Old Testament in which divine revelation is normally linked to the particularity of God’s relationship with one people and their particular history and story. By contrast the Old Testament wisdom literature builds bridges to other cultures and peoples of the ancient Middle East where the quest for wisdom was also pursued assiduously. Indeed the Old Testament itself acknowledges that Israel owed a lot to both Egypt and the people of the east when it came to exploring wisdom, and there is even a section of the Book of Proverbs which many scholars believe uses an Egyptian wisdom text, the Wisdom of Amenope as a direct literary source.
It is however interesting – and telling – to follow the fate of wisdom in later writings – in what we call the Apocrypha. There are also at least two major Wisdom books in the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Sirach was probably written about 200 BC, the Wisdom of Solomon somewhat later. What one discovers is that in both cases, and especially Sirach, wisdom is no longer simply universal as something shared among all humanity, but rather has been nationalised or domesticated. Although Sirach contains quite a number of passages that would have fitted in with the ideas of the older wisdom tradition, the end of the day Sirach makes it clear that he considers that the most perfect wisdom is to be found in Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, which Wisdom describes as her home, and that the completion of wisdom is to be discovered in Israel’s revealed Law and Covenant. There is quite a contrast between Sirach 24’s presentation of Wisdom which eventually sums up Wisdom as ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us’, and Job’s earlier longing question ‘Where shall wisdom be found’. And it is no accident that I asked for Job rather than Sirach to be read today (Job 28.12-28).
What has all this got to do with O Sapientia and the Advent Antiphons? It is this. The antiphons take us on a journey in which we encounter a variety of key Old Testament passages, images, events and personalities somehow foreshadowing the coming of Christ and gradually helping us to draw closer to him. We hear of David and Jesse, of Adonai the divine lawgiver at Sinai, of the coming of a ruler of the nations, of a mysterious Dayspring, and of the pledge of ‘Emmanuel’ the one prophesied by Isaiah to be ‘God with us’. All of these images spring from the particularities of the Old Testament story of God’s engagement with a particular people, in particular places and times. It is good and right that we do see the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of all these particular hopes and longings. But to begin the sequence with O Sapientia, Wisdom, sets the coming of Christ in a still wider compass, relating this to God’s dealings with all humanity, and the universal human quest for wisdom, ‘Where, indeed, shall wisdom be found?’ And I think that is important, because it reminds us that the Christian faith is rooted not only in our shared heritage with the Jewish people, but even more widely still in the aspirations of human beings of other religious traditions – or indeed of those who do not think of themselves as overtly religious. As someone who is professionally interested in both the biblical tradition and in interreligious dialogue I think there is probably an important task, which has I think been begun but not completed, to explore the biblical ‘wisdom tradition’ as a resource for interreligious engagement.
Linked to this there is one other thing it is important to say. As you may have already noticed the order of the original antiphons is quite different from the order in which the images appear in the metrical version of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. In the original antiphons ‘Emmanuel’ comes last and is the culmination of the sequence. In the Jesuit and Neale metrical adaptation it has been transferred to the beginning. Whether intentionally or not I think that negatively undermines the Old Testament images and symbols that follow in the second and following verses. It is almost as though having introduced ‘Emmanuel’ at the beginning we need somehow to fast-forward to the end of the Old Testament story without pausing appropriately to explore God’s coming at Sinai, coming in the Davidic royal theology, coming in the biblical hopes of justice for all people, taking account of the centuries of God working in and through a particular people. I think it weakens the sense of a constructive relationship both between the Old Testament and the New, and in fact between Christians and Jews. I think this somehow links with the fact that the metrical version contains language which has been faulted for the derogatory tones with which it seems to refer to the Jewish people of post-biblical times. That plea of the first verse:
‘O come, O come Emmanuel redeem thy captive Israel, that into exile drear is gone, far from the face of God’s dear son’
Plays very readily into the idea of the ‘wandering Jew’, popular throughout out most of Christian history, which understood the dispersion of Jewish people, especially after 70AD, as a ‘punishment’ for their ‘rejection’ of their Messiah, and is widely believed to have exacerbated antisemitism in the Christian world. The tone of the original Emmanuel antiphon – which normally comes last in the sequence is quite different – O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour:Come and save us, O Lord our God, and in fact throughout the whole sequence of the antiphons there is no negative reference to ‘Israel’ or the Jewish people. Of course we are touching upon a vast subject, which we can’t really get into here – but the difference in feel between the original 8th century antiphons and the well known version we so often sing is remarkable and it is a salutary reminder of the way that language and social realities can impact upon and shape each other.
And there is one final delight which O Sapientia and the original Advent antiphons of which she is first in the sequence offers us. Whether or not it is accidental, but it is certainly providential, the first letters of each of the antiphons fit together to make an acrostic. You need to start at the end and work back to the beginning:
Emmanuel E Rex – King R Oriens O Clavis – Key C Radix – Root R Adonai – A Sapientia – Wisdom S
And you come up with ‘Ero Cras’, a Latin phrase which translates into English as ‘Tomorrow I will be there’. It is God’s promise to us. So with an exquisite and punning irony, this week of beautiful short and allusive prayers which speak of our longing for God’s presence and which begin today with our invocation to ‘Wisdom’ contain their own answer. ‘Tomorrow I will be there’.
The poet Malcolm Guite initially became known by the wider public due to his exquisite sonnets exploring each of the Advent antiphons. Malcolm generously makes his work available on the web and his sonnets can be accessed via Advent Antiphons | Malcolm Guite (wordpress.com)
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.‘ (Luke 1.26-38)
Throughout the generations, few women have been more significant than Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Widely represented by artists, sung by musicians, glorified by poets, for some Christians, she incarnates a compassionate and holy intercessor embodying the paradigm of motherhood. For others, she symbolizes an over-mythologized and erroneous model of womanhood.
While Mary is the most popular patron of English parish churches and while since the 16th century there has been within the Church of England a continuous reference to her culminating in the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong each day, she has not been a central figure in the lives of most mainstream and evangelical Anglicans for years. For some people, Mary is closely associated with superstition as is sometimes also the event of the Annunciation, which can be controversial. Yet as we are close to completing our journey through the contrasted landscapes of Advent, the experience of Mary can be quite enlightening and uplifting to us in those troubled times.
If usually the season of Advent is a time of joyful expectation during which we long for the glimpses of the light to come, this year, many of us walk in the darkness without seeing any thinning. The darkness of COVID 19, the darkness of lockdown, the darkness of loneliness, the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of evil, the darkness of Brexit, the darkness of faith, which tends to blacken everything.
Like us today, when Mary assented to the Angel Gabriel, she had to exercise a wholly dark faith, believing the certainty of God’s gift without anything to support or interpret it. God came to her, a young peasant hidden from the lights of Jerusalem, invisible in the darkness from Galilee, lost in the middle of God’s chosen people of Israel. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there ? ” (Jn 1, 46) were often asking the Jews. That is God made himself visible to someone of no apparent significance. Thus, the « God of surprises », by the words of the Jesuit Gerald Hughes (G. Hughes, God of Surprises, London : Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 2008) comes where he is logically not expected.
For various reasons, some justified, some less so, the issue of Mary’s virginity is often avoided or approached from a physiological point of view. Yet in the Old Testament, virginity is primarily understood in terms of novelty as a new inception, a renewed relationship…..The visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary marks a new beginning. God creates something completely extraordinary through a most ordinary person, surpassing human rationale. This paradox characterizes the life of Jesus and will culminate with the Resurrection when life comes out of death.
Despite the current crisis, Advent is still a season of surprises. Like for Mary, God is at hand for us, trying to surprise us in the middle of our daily lives, where we are now. Although pursuing a circuitous way to avoid the darkness can seem to be a very attractive option, we can be pretty sure such a tortuous path will lead us to a dead end. On the contrary, if we accept to walk in the shadows, to cross the boaders of the night and to navigate on the rough waters of its raging sea, then we may be able to discern the glimmer of dawn climbing slowly. Actually, the Spirit may very well be guiding us individually as Christians and corporately as the church to birthing something completely new.
The course of history has been determined by life-changing episodes among which the current outbreak of the Coronavirus will inevitably find a place on the charts of historians to come. There will be a before and after. The pandemic is not behind us yet but the world has already changed, socially and economically. Interviewed for the BBC Andrew Marr Show, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented : “once this epidemic is conquered we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all was normal….”. In the words of Pope Francis a few years ago, we are not living through an era of change but a change of era. Then how shall the church respond to that evolution ? Is mere survival simply our aim or are we willing to engage with the God of surprises through the darkness to be true to our vocation ?
During the lockdowns, being prevented from “going to church” in our usual church buildings brought lots of suffering to many worshippers. However, those same buildings can be temples to the past hindering our calling, not only keeping us emprisoned in our certitudes but preventing us from “ building the house” (HG 1, 8) as well. Archbishop William Temple is commonly acknowledged to have said that “ the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”.
As Christians, whether we like it or not, we have to admit the evidence for secularization, or at least for the decline of Christianity. In the UK, Christian affiliation fell from 66 percent to 38 percent over 25 years. Before the pandemic, only 12 percent of the national population (1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds ) identified themselves as belonging to the Church of England. Weekly attendance at Anglican services had also fallen down to an average of 57 people. In comparison, a study at the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University has found that during the first lockdown one in four people across the UK have regularly engaged in some form of online worship. In real term figures, 19 millions of people attended church online each Sunday, with a record set in London where 46 % of the population went to online church every week. Another key finding is that half of 18-34 years indicated that they regularly engaged in online faith-related activity.
Those findings reveal among other things a strong belief in the power of prayer to bring positive change. They also lay bare the thirst for God of many explorers. In the night of COVID 19, there is light and an opportunity for the church to grow that shall not be missed. Those statistics about online worship show God calls us beyond our church buildings and the familiar, so that all barriers that prevent all those who aspire to find God and to be a part of His earthly community can be removed. As Paul noticed, “ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (GA 3, 28). In other words, the Christian community, also called the mystical body of Christ, is intended to serve the whole and firstly those who do not belong yet or are at the margins. Covid 19 has cleared a space for us to embrace a renewed way of being church, creating an incredible chance for us to liberate oursleves from our prisons, despite the temptation of many to go back to “ the good olden days”.
As Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, the church is a body whose life depends on its members who contribute to its good heath (Eph. 4, 16). Each baptised Christian is deemed and called to be a living stone of God’s house. Consequently, the renewal depends of our free consent to God’s calling following the example of Mary. The answer she gives to the angel Gabriel is a very specific act by which she accepts to open herself to the full action of God the Word to receive within her a reality independent of her, in the blindness of an unsupported faith.
Because of the darkness of the present time, of the increased fragmentation of our societies, we may very well be in the process of becoming frightened creatures that intent to assure their own security by trying to make themselves invulnerable both individually and collectively through the illusion of self autonomy. But as a result, we may not able to see God at work within us and around us. What is supposed to bring us security makes us more insecure than ever ! When our human self are distorted by such illusions, the Word is not free to enter within us. Indeed, true security enables us to journey through the chaos and help to spot God’s presence in uncertainty.
The angel Gabriel came to Mary “in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy”. In the Bible, only one other text mentions this length of time. In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, through Haggai’s voice, speaking of the reconstruction of the temple, the Lord of hosts asks : “ Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? ” (Hg 1, 4). It is during the sixth month that God underlines that our minds are being kept busy by our own houses while his is failing apart. It is in the sixth month that Mary welcomes God within her house and begins a work of edification. It is just xhat we are called to do now, for the first Christmas of the Covid era.
The spanish mystics Teresa of Avila memorably spoke of what that means : “Christ has no body but yours/ No hands, no feet on earth but yours/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/Compassion on this world” (quoted by Fr. Richard Fermer on Monday 26th October 2020 at Grosvenor Chapel, London).Of course only God can incarnate Himself, which he did “once and for all” (Heb 10,10). This incarnating of Christ in us comes from the Spirit who makes Christ present in us, like he did with Mary. This power of the spirit will form us in holiness, as an acceptance of and a willingness to further what we already are in Christ. In order to do so, in the depth of the greatest intimacy of our inner being, we constantly need “to let it be with us according to the word“, so that our own growing will contribute to the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Eph. 4, 16).
On Christmas Eve, we will remember that the light is full of surprises and often unexpected, even if the night seems to be endless. Like Mary, we will look forward to love in darkness, finding our way through the ordinariness of our lives while being suffused by Christ so that our world can be saturated with his Gospel, permeated with his presence and his House reshaped, more glorious than ever.
May the God of Surprises delight you, inviting you to accept gifts not yet imagined.
May the God of Transformation call you, opening you to continual renewal.
May the God of Justice confront you, daring you to see the world through God’s eyes.
May the God of Abundance affirm you, nudging you towards deeper trust.
May the God of Embrace hold you, encircling you in the hearth of God’s home.
May the God of Hopefulness bless you, encouraging you with the fruits of faith.
May the God of Welcoming invite you, drawing you nearer to the fullness of God’s expression in you.
May God Who is Present be with you, awakening you to God in all things, all people, and all moments.
May God be with you.
Natacha Tinteroff is a theologian with special interests in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy. She lives in Paris and worships in Anglican churches in Paris and London.