This beginning of signs…

This first lectionary blog for 2022 appropriately draws attention to the word ‘beginning’ which appears in the Sunday Gospel reading John 2.1-11.

Clare Amos, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One of a pair of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

I have become increasingly drawn to the way how ‘Epiphany’ is a season which has several aspects to it, rather than ‘just’ Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men to Jesus (if you are a western Christian) or the Baptism of Christ (if you are a Christian of the Orthodox tradition). In church tradition the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee has been seen as one of the mysteries of Epiphany, ‘Jesus did this… and revealed his glory’ (John 2.11). It is good that (for example) the Common Worship Extended Eucharistic preface for the Epiphany season now includes the sign of water become wine. Ultimately Epiphany leads us towards Jesus’ passion and crucifixion which is, certainly in John’s Gospel, the moment when his glory was most fully revealed.

Two words sum up Epiphany for me: ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ – and along with the visit of the magi and Christ’s baptism, ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ seem aptly to describe this episode, which is deliberately placed by John as opening the public ministry of Jesus.

There is a prayer written by the United Reformed Church minister and poet, Kate McIlhagga, who I was proud to call a friend, that somehow catches the light of Epiphany:

Epiphany is a jewel,

multi-faceted,

flashing colour and light.

Epiphany embraces

the nations of the world,

kneeling on a bare floor

before a child.

Epiphany shows

a man

kneeling in the waters of baptism.

Epiphany reveals

the best is kept for last,

as water becomes wine

at the wedding feast.

O Holy One

to whom was given

the gifts of power and prayer,

the gift of suffering;

help us to use 

these same gifts

in your way 

and in your name.

All the same, unlike the magi and the baptism, the wedding at Cana does not get into the Sunday lectionary in Epiphanytide every year – it manages it one in three. I reckon that means that when, as this year, it does show up, it deserves a bit of attention.  When it last appeared three years ago, the reflection on this Gospel passage for this blog was written by Venerable Colin Williams, then an Archdeacon in the Diocese in Europe. Colin wrote about how the account, which speaks so powerfully about the generosity of God, should act as a prompt to us (especially as Christians in Europe) to seek to reflect such divine generosity. It was a brilliant reflection, as relevant in our context now as it was then, and I would encourage you to take a look at it. You can find it in the back pages of this blog here: https://faithineurope.net/2019/01/16/epiphany-3-the-generosity-of-god/

The other in the set of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

For myself, on this occasion I would fairly briefly like to add two additional threads. The first is a theme that has long intrigued me. The Gospel of John is, I believe, intending to present the ministry of Jesus as a new Genesis, a new creation. Given the way that the Gospel opens ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1.1)  – that is hardly rocket science. But I believe that the motif of new creation, new world, new humanity, is profoundly embedded in John’s retelling of the whole story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. And as a key part of this new creation John is wanting to suggest to us that in this ‘new creation’ the imbalance in the relationship between men and women which had marked human relationships since the ‘Fall’ (Genesis 3.16) is going to be revisited and redeemed.  The story of a wedding feast in John 2.1-11 is the first in the series of narratives in which this thread will be explored until it culminates in the meeting of Jesus with Mary in the garden (John 20.1-18), in terms that also are intended to remind us of Eden’s garden. In which case of course it is intriguing that neither groom nor bride explicitly appear in the wedding story of John 2. It is however telling that in the following chapter, John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, explicitly describes him as the ‘bridegroom’ (John 3.29). But where is the bride?  I have written more extensively on this in other places – the most immediately accessible location is Love’s Labour Unlost https://www.theway.org.uk/back/s072Amos.pdf

It is interesting that the story concludes by referring to this as ‘the first of [Jesus’] signs’ (John 2.11). Actually the NRSV translation here is not quite precise. In Greek the word translated as ‘first’ is arche. The word basically means ‘beginning’ and by extension ‘ruling principle of’. So what we are beginning told is that this sign is the beginning of a process and establishes the principle for the process. In other words the sheer overflowing life-giving creativity of this sign at the wedding feast marks out the pattern of Jesus’ later signs in this Gospel. Arche, of course, is also the first word of John’s Gospel. ‘in the beginning’… so it also reinforces the link between this sign at the wedding and that theme of new creation which is so clear in the Prologue to the Gospel.

The other comment relates to something that I have much more recently become aware of. The wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11) comes directly after Jesus’ call of Nathanael and discussion with him (John 1.45-51). In John 1 it nowhere spells out where Nathanael is from. However in the only other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named (John 21.2) he is explicitly described as ‘Nathanael of Cana in Galilee’. Which then raises some intriguing questions. What exactly was Nathanael’s role at this wedding? And is the sign that Jesus offers during it the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to Nathanael in 1.50 ‘You will see greater things than these’?  And is it also telling that John 21 – that other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named is also a story about Jesus’ miraculous – almost excessive – provision: in that case a feast of fish.

It is fascinating that the historic Armenian pottery tiles in Jerusalem that depict the wedding are a pair – with one showing the vessels of wine, and the other the banquet of fish! Reproductions of the original tiles are used to illustrate this blog. See above. The groom at the wedding is portrayed in one of them – but where is the bride?

Renewed in the Likeness of Christ

I apologise for the fact that due to other pressures of work there was no blog last week. I would be very grateful if anyone is willing to write for this in future… please drop me an email.

It felt important that there was a blog posting this week. Perhaps counter-intuitively however – it will focus on the theme for the coming Sunday rather than for Christmas Day. December 26, St Stephen’s Day is of course an important festival in the Diocese in Europe, for we know that in the lands that have become the Czech Republic King Wenceslaus once looked out upon it.  So some hopefully helpful (and slightly subversive) thoughts on St Stephen, which originally formed part of a Compline address which I first preached at Westcott House, Cambridge (so it is rather longer than a blog should ideally be).  The suggested Common Worship lectionary readings for St Stephen’s Day are 2 Chronicles 24.20-22; Acts 7.51-60; Matthew 10.17-22. Perhaps it will be of use to those of you who have to ‘gird your loins’ to preach again on Sunday after the previous day’s festivities!

The statue of St Stephen in the courtyard of the Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem
(see underneath the blog for further comment)

Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

There are some saints who seem to have as hard a time of it in death as in life. Take poor St. Stephen: not only was he the first martyr, but he has the continuing misfortune to have his feast fall on the 26 December. The result is that by and large people only remember that Good King Wenceslaus looked out upon it. That however was not the case in the place where I did my biblical studies: for I had the good fortune to study in Jerusalem at the very place where according to tradition Stephen met his martyrdom. It was called ‘the Ecole Biblique’, a place where learned French Dominicans who had dedicated their lives to the study of the history and geography of the Holy Land lived and taught. I am grateful to this day for the many insights they gave me.

At the Ecole Biblique we celebrated St. Stephen’s Day in style, with the cook working overtime. No sooner had he finished serving 50 or more hungry people on Christmas Day, than he had to turn his hand to producing an even more sumptuous repast in honour of our patron saint, St. Stephen. It was the gastronomic highlight of our year. Ever since those days the figure of Stephen has been one that has intrigued me, even though I sometimes now wonder whether Stephen was a particularly appropriate patron saint for my Dominicans. They were dedicated to the archaeological and historical study of Jerusalem, because it was a holy city, Stephen, on the other hand, was more than a little critical of such things as temples and holy places and paid for it with his life.

Why is it that Stephen is commemorated on December 26? Well, I think I know or can guess the answer- and as you read on perhaps you will too …. and you may find it helpful to have the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6 and 7 open in front of you.

Stephen, the first ‘deacon’

Who and what exactly was Stephen? He is called a ‘Hellenist’ probably meaning that he was a Jew whose family originally lived in the Greek Diaspora away from Palestine. Traditionally he has been regarded as one of the first ‘deacons’, though Luke doesn’t actually use the word diakonos  to describe Stephen in this passage. He does however use words that come from the same Greek stem, diakonia and diakoneo, to describe what Stephen was commissioned to do, namely wait at tables. Luke sometimes seems to sit astride a fairly uneasy fence: he is keen on order and hierarchy, on things done properly, with the apostles firmly in command and all other forms of ministry deriving from them. So he would like to fit Stephen into a nice unified pattern of ministry, a ‘deacon’ appointed by and subject to, the apostles. Yet Luke is also honest enough to let us see that this wasn’t altogether how it was in the early church: it was all much more messy, and disorganised, and there was about as much bickering around as any spirit of unity.

In fact it must have been a really good bicker that led to Stephen’s commissioning, because the split between the Hellenists and Hebraists may have been focused on food but was actually about something much deeper – the differing attitudes to the temple held by the two parties. So often an apparently trivial matter can act as a catalyst for more deep-seated feelings. Luke is probably intending to suggest to us that Stephen was a deacon –  yet he then makes it clear that Stephen notably didn’t only deal with the domestic details like deacons were supposed to. Rather he also spent his time preaching and doing signs and wonders – performing the very jobs that the apostles considered their own – only perhaps rather more effectively!.

Stephen, a radical saint?

Stephen then seems to have extended the boundaries of his job as a ‘deacon’, and perhaps he may provide a useful role model for those who wish to work creatively within the boundaries of the roles that the church allots to them. His story suggests the possibility of using the structures of the church responsibly to develop a ministry that is apostolic as well as that traditionally allotted to a deacon. In some sense Stephen might even be described as subversive, but if this is so then for people to be subversive like Stephen is very important – for it seems clear that he was the first to preach the gospel to groups well beyond the small inner circle of the Jerusalem Church. Yet to be subversive is also dangerous: not only can you offend those outside the Christian community, but you risk courting unpopularity from those within. Luke betrays a certain embarrassed reticence as regards the apostolic lack of support for Stephen in his eventual predicament: I really do doubt if Stephen was particularly persona grata to Peter or James.

There is also another hazard in subversion: it can sometimes turn into destruction, not least of the soul of the individual concerned. Bitterness and anger can become a self-consuming fire. But the ultimate pattern for Stephen’s subversiveness is none other than Christ himself. One cannot sound much more subversive of the ordering of traditional society than the words of Jesus: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them: and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you …. rather the grestest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?’Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves …. (Luke 22.25-26). Once again words from the same Greek stem as diakonos (translated as ‘serve’) appear, in fact three times in this passage. In other words the model for those who would seek to exercise a Christian ministry that does not totally conform to the expected norms is no longer merely Stephen, but Christ himself.

In the image of Christ

But can you really separate the two? One of the intriguing features of Luke’s presentation of the passion of Stephen is that again and again resonances of the passion of Christ appear. Both commit up their spirit, both pray for their persecutors to be forgiven. And the charge brought by false witnesses against Stephen – that he never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law – is almost verbatim the accusation with which Jesus himself is arraigned in Mark and Matthew, though fascinatingly not in Luke. It is as though Luke is saying that the clash of God’s love and forgiveness and passion for justice with the self-seeking and enmity of the world which had been seen in such a sharp focus in the suffering and death of Christ, is now being given a new prism through which it is refracted in the person of Stephen. The injunction to disciples to be imitators of Christ is not just a pious metaphor, but has become a matter of life – and death.

 I use the language of sight and vision quite deliberately, for I have long been intrigued by the final words of chapter 6; ‘And gazing at Stephen all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel’ (Acts 6.15). Surely a very curious thing for such a hostile group to see? Somehow it must belong together with the report that Stephen himself as he was being stoned, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God. It seems that the word ‘gaze’ is a particular favourite of St. Luke: for other than in  Luke’s writings it only appears twice in the New Testament in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians. And Luke likes to use the word to describe situations where the normal boundaries between heaven and earth are breached, and humanity and divinity become strangely intermingled.

The more one studies the Acts of the Apostles, the more one realises how extraordinarily rich the book is in resonances from the Old Testament and the life of Christ: I am sure that Stephen’s angelic face is intended to recall for us both the transfiguration of the face of Christ on the mountain, and through that lead us back towards the famous Old Testament story of the shining light on Moses’ face seen by the Israelites after he had talked with God (Exodus 34.29-35). And if Moses and Christ are indeed the model it has some very important things to say to us about the work and ministry of Stephen.

Reflecting the presence of God

Why was it that Moses’ ‘face shone’? It happened because the Israelites had committed the great sin of the golden calf and God had wanted to destroy them: Moses pleaded for his people, taking on an angry God, even at the threat of his own life. He won a reprieve but then there came the question as to whether God could remain present with such a sinful people: would they not be consumed since humanity cannot easily see God and live. Once again Moses pleads their cause – and the shining on his face as he comes down the mountain is the answer. He has so lost himself in his concern for those to whom he ministers that he is now the answer to his own prayer and has become the means by which God is enabled to be present with them. So with Stephen: in his shining face we experience a ministry in which God is present, a life in which with unveiled face he has gazed upon and begun to reflect the glory of the Lord. The vision of God which he has seen and will see has already begun to renew and transform him into the likeness of Moses and Christ, into a figure who loses himself that he may be refashioned to share in the suffering of the Son of Man. Surely an awesome model for all of us: and yet it is true that unless our glimpse of the vision of God can begin to change us and through us the world it is a vision too dangerous for us to behold. There is  perhaps a certain irony, in the fact that it is Stephen, a mere ‘deacon’, who is presented in the New Testament as the truest reflection of the likeness of Christ. Yet that is clearly how it is.

The transfiguration mosaic at St Katherine’s monastery, Sinai, showing both Christ and Moses

The face of God

Several strands have helped to shape my Christian theology and spirituality: but  a core theme for me is that of the face of God, a face not merely to be seen in a mystical vision, but which we ourselves must seek to reflect and which is elusively present in so many of the human faces that we encounter. And if like Stephen we begin to reflect something of God, we may begin to be amazed by its power to transform not only our own lives, but also those of others. Perhaps the words with which Jesus greeted Paul on the Damascus Road suggest something of this: for Paul, who had never met the earthly Jesus in his lifetime, was questioned: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?’ (Acts 9.4) – and at that moment he must suddenly have realised that in slaying Stephen he, Paul, had shared in the slaying of Christ himself So somehow Stephen’s identification with Christ has become complete, and because it is so Paul is converted and through him ultimately the Gentile world: a deacon has died and so many others will have life.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the most important conversion that Stephen effects is not of the Gentiles, but of the Church itself. Why was it that Stephen and the others were chosen? Because, said the apostles, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait at tables’ (Acts 6.2). Don’t you think that Luke was wryly aware of those earlier words of Jesus: ‘Which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am with you as one who serves.’ Is it not possible that he was telling us that once again Peter was putting his foot in it, once again those apostles had something to learn, something that Stephen and those other deacons had to teach them? Somehow the heavens that Stephen sees open as he dies lead the way to the open heaven that Peter glimpses in his vision at Joppa as he has to fight to overcome his traditional prejudices and meet with Gentiles. One of those, who once could not wait at tables, has now become hungry, and as a result of his hunger finally shares food, eats and drinks, not only with Christ, but also with Cornelius and the family of a Roman soldier. Is it then only as the church learns about humanity and service that it can share the vision of God and become truly apostolic?

*****

When I studied at the Ecole Biblique in the 1970s the column was there – but not the statue. That had been badly damaged in the fighting in Jerusalem in 1947-48, and had been ‘buried’ in the grounds. It has only been in recent years that the statue has been restored and replaced on the column. I believe that the picture may be showing the occasion when it was rededicated.

Justice, Peace… and Joy

The remains of the city centre of ancient Philippi in northern Greece

As we approach the third Sunday in Advent we explore briefly all the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday.

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

I think there must have been something very special about the Church at Philippi. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Christian community there how generous they were and how much he appreciated them. He quite literally ‘rejoiced’ in them. Given its comparatively short length the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ appear proportionately more in the Letter to the Philippians than in any other of his epistles.  I think that we in the Diocese in Europe need to give thanks in a special way for the church in Philippi: according to the book of Acts (Acts 16.11-40) it was the first city actually in the continent of Europe where Paul preached the good news.

‘Rejoice’ is the key note offered in this week’s short lectionary reading from Philippians, Philippians 4.4-7 ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. ‘Joy’ and ‘rejoicing’ is also a theme present in this week’s Old Testament reading, Zephaniah 3.14-20, and in fact also in the suggested canticle, the beautiful Isaiah 12.2-6;

  • Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord… will rejoice over you with gladness (Zephaniah 3.14,  17)
  • With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation… Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion (Isaiah 12.3, 6)

Given this, the Gospel lectionary passage, John 3.7-18, seems initially to offer a jarring contrast. It largely comprises John the Baptist’s strong and stark call for repentance – giving detailed examples of what repentance should mean for his listeners in practical terms, and offering grim warnings of what would happen if they failed to do so. In reading it I was reminded again of the comment by Fleming Routledge, that I drew on in the blog last week, that John the Baptist was in many ways the foremost figure of Advent – but she had never seen a picture of him on any Advent calendar.

But there is one fascinating – yet rarely remarked on – note in these verses from Luke 3. The passage ends with verse 18 which reads, ‘So with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.’ Good news? A an intriguing, and perhaps rather unexpected, description of what we have just been told about John’s message. I will return to this in a moment.

One of the Taize chants that I have got to know and cherish in recent years is

‘The kingdom of God is justice and peace. And joy in the Holy Spirit.
Come, Lord and open in us the gates of your kingdom’.

You can hear it sung here. The Kingdom Of God (Taize) – YouTube 

It was I think first published in 2001, so it is perhaps not one of the most familiar of Taize chants. It is a marginally adapted quotation of Romans 14.17 – though its completely legitimate choice of the word ‘justice’ rather than ‘righteousness’ for the Greek dikaiosune,  means that it is not always  immediately recognised as such. I remember when I had the privilege of working at the World Council of Churches thinking to myself that the WCC was very good at the ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ aspect of the chant, but perhaps it still had a little way to go with ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’!

But maybe I needed to ask myself what is meant by ‘joy’ – that concept which is present (certainly as a verb) in three of this week’s readings?  It is certainly not about being ‘happy’ in a simplistic sort of way. I think the best short description I have read of ‘joy’ is that offered by Bishop Nick Baines, ‘Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched.’

Joy isn’t a facile sense of happiness, but it is being able to see something shining out there – beyond  obvious gloom and despondency and becoming excited and hopeful at the vision which lies before us. Sometimes we are not even sure what that something is, but we trust that it continues to shine.  In that sense  ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ is exactly the right partner for the Kingdom of God as ‘justice and peace’.

Joy is also exactly the right accompaniment for the weeks of Advent: we don’t need to save up ‘joy’ until Christ is born at Christmas. We can rightly be joyful on this Third Sunday of Advent! Joy is the more intense partly due to the darkness that is still around us which means that the hope of the promise has to shine still more strongly .

Back to the Gospel reading and that ‘good news’ which the Baptist brought. This is the man over whom the ‘good news’ of the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) was sung as an infant (Luke 1.68-79), a song which concludes with the pledge that through him our feet will be guided into the way of peace, and who preached a kingdom that demanded justice and integrity (Luke 3.13-14; 7.29). Certainly he did not offer a facile happiness to his listeners, but as he encouraged them to wait expectantly for God to act he stretched their minds, inflamed their curiosity, and challenged them to a living faith. He offered them joy.

The following hymn was written recently for this season of joy by Very Revd Frankie Ward and is reproduced with her permission:

Time… and… time

‘Welcome the wild one’: John the Baptist

This week’s lectionary blog reflects first on ‘time’ and then draws attention to the way that John the Baptist offers a ‘timely word’ in the season of Advent. The focal Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One day,  fifty years ago,  I shall never forget.  It was when I was sitting my university entrance exam,  a General Paper where questions ranged widely.  One of the choice of subjects listed for the day was ‘Time.’  I felt as if all my Christmases must have come at once: for I had just received at school a good grade for an essay on ‘Time’ where I had drawn upon John Robinson’s (then) recently published book In the End God which reflected on the difference between time as chronos (a period of time) and time as kairos (a moment in time). Occasionally I wonder if my life would have taken a different trajectory if the topic of ‘Time’ had not come up on that particular day.

I am still fascinated by ‘Time’. And in particular the question of the relationship between chronos and kairos. When we use phrases like ‘Time lags’ or ‘Time passes’ we are thinking of time in terms of chronos. When we say ‘It’s time’, we are thinking of time as kairos. It has often been said, and I think there is certainly a degree of truth in it, that the biblical understanding of time is much more closely allied to kairos than it is to chronos. That was (as I remember it) the basic thesis of In the End God. These days I would probably put it slightly differently however – namely that the Bible encourages us to take seriously the jarring dissonance between chronos and kairos, these two different aspects of time. Somehow the Bible is encouraging us to be prepared to live in and with this dissonance.

And if we are thinking about the uncomfortable nature of biblical time the season of Advent is surely a prime exemplar of it. Karl Barth once strikingly said, ‘Whatever time or season can the church ever have but that of Advent?’  For Advent seeks to hold together three ‘times’, which are both deeply separated in chronos terms, but are intricately bound together as all part of one immense kairos moment. Christian tradition has spoken of the distinct three ‘comings’ of Advent. The challenge for us is to appreciate how they belong together. This is what the writer Guerric of Igny said in the 12th century:

              As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first… between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time.’  

Perhaps with more of a sense of poetry is also this note found in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures,

There is a birth from God before the ages and a birth from a virgin at the fulness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.’

Advent requires us to live in the uncomfortable ‘time’ of preparing for Christmas while being also acutely aware that Christmas is not the story’s end.

This week’s lectionary Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6 in which the ministry of John the Baptist is announced. (Next week’s lectionary Gospel will be Luke 3.7-18 in which more detail will be given to fill out John’s call to repentance in practical terms.) It is interesting that in the current Common Worship/Revised Common Lectionary John the Baptist features in the Gospel readings for both Advent 2 and Advent 3 in all three lectionary years. The Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge comments slightly caustically that John the Baptist is the ‘foremost figure of Advent’ – but that she has never seen a picture of John on any Advent calendar. It is a valid point she makes. She also notes ‘Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches uncomfortably upon us, making us feel some degree of dissonance…’

There’s a striking Advent song about John the Baptist by the hymn writer Brian Wren that reflects on this deep uncomfortableness Welcome the Wild One – Hope Publishing Company, ‘Welcome the wild one, the desert declaimer… camel hair coated, unkempt and unbending… outspoken, uncensored’. The song then continues by ‘welcoming God’s love-child’ (Jesus Christ) but makes it clear that this second welcome cannot take place until we have ‘welcomed’ John first.

If we look carefully at the six verses of this week’s lectionary Gospel we can note Luke’s distinctive touches – which also offer clues about the dissonance between different understandings of ‘time’.

It is interesting to note the time-frame in which the episode is set, ranging from the global to the local, and the secular to the ‘religious’. As Luke does also when referring to the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.1-2), he mentions first of all the Roman emperor of the day, ‘The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius’ (Luke 3.1). Luke then goes on to refer to the local client rulers of the Romans , and finally the Jewish high priests. All these details are part of the world of chronos.   But then Luke sets alongside then the kairos moment in which John is summoned to preach and baptise. Uniquely to Luke it is introduced by the remark, ‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’ (Luke 3.2) That phrase ‘The word of God/the Lord came to…’ appears again and again in the Old Testament to describe the call of a prophet (e.g. Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah) and its use here places John the Baptist firmly in the line of such as these (probably especially Elijah).

John is not living by the timescale of chronos but, like his prophetic forbears, by the time of God’s kairos. Past, present and future are (as is the case with Advent itself) somehow held together in the person and message of John. It is interesting that the quotation from Isaiah 40 here in Luke’s Gospel extends for extra verses (beyond what appear in the other Gospels) and ends with the assertion ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’ (Luke 3.6).  With these words John himself seems to be being pulled into the future – to be the herald of that kairos moment when finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, God’s salvation will be offered well beyond traditional boundaries of time or space or religious tradition – to all people and for all times.

Kingship… not from this world

Rylands Papyrus 52 recto
Rylands Papyrus 52 verso.

This week’s lectionary reflection is based on the Gospel, John 18.33-37, which is read on this coming Sunday, the commemoration of Christ the King

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Though I very much appreciate Bishop Tom Wright as a biblical theologian, I don’t always agree with all his views in detail. I do however think that his critique of the recent adoption of the Feast of Christ the King into the Anglican calendar on the Sunday before Advent has some justification. Bishop Tom argues that there was and is already a Feast of the kingship of Christ in the Christian church – namely the Ascension – and that to focus on Christ’s kingship in this additional way, at this particular time, detracts from the kingly focus of the Feast of the Ascension. And on the whole I think Bishop Tom is right. Just think about the hymns sung at Ascensiontide: ‘Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne’  etc. 

And, as I have commented myself in this blog a year ago (though it doesn’t seem that long!) in a piece titled ‘Stirring it up! The challenging kingship of Christ’ (which can still be viewed if you cycle back through the blog) I am uneasy at gut level about the way that the Feast was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  My point was that even though the Feast was apparently introduced to counter-act some of the problematic political movements developing at that time in Europe, the ’theme’ of Christ as King, whether intentionally or not, (certainly in the terms in which it was understood at that time) had itself shades of a Christian quasi-fascism about it. This is reflected for me in the monumental statues of ‘Christ the King’ that were erected in those years, both in Europe and Latin America. A good example of what I mean is the statue at Les Houches near Chamonix below. As I reflect on this, it is perhaps partly my own experience of living in Lebanon during a period in which the Christian Phalangist movement (which has its roots in political movements in 1920s and 1930s Europe) was powerful that makes me so uncomfortable.

Christ Roi statue near Chamonix in France

However if one is going to keep this Feast, then I heartily applaud the choice of this year’s lectionary Gospel from John as the key text for grappling with its meaning. For a primary feature of the Gospel of John (compared with the Synoptic Gospels) is its use of irony and paradox. That is certainly true in this brief discussion in John 18.33-37 about the kingship of Christ. Jesus Christ is King, but he gives a new meaning to the concept of kingship which challenges rather than reflects the ‘kingdoms of this world’ (John 18.36). Indeed in this Gospel Christ actually turns the meaning of kingship upside down.

One of the most powerful verbal motifs which runs through the Gospel of John is the description of Christ being ‘lifted up’. It comes e.g. at John 3.14; 8.28; 12.32; 12.34. There is a deliberate double entendre in the words. They are intended to speak of physical ‘lifting up’, but the verb also means metaphorically ‘to exalt’ – to be given the kind of position that a king would expect to have. Of course the moment when Christ is ‘lifted up’ is precisely when he is raised from the ground to hang on the Cross.  So in the vision of the Gospel of John there is a profound interrelationship between Christ’s kingship and that moment of supreme powerlessness, which turns conventional motions of kingship upside down. Kingship and Cross are inseparable.  The paradox is reinforced by John’s description of the time of Christ’s death as his moment of ‘glorification’. ‘Glory’ was also a word associated with kings – and indeed the divine presence.  So once again there is an ironic paradox that Jesus reveals his divinity most clearly when appearances seem to indicate the complete opposite. That is the ultimate ‘truth’ that Christ came to bring, yet those with apparent earthly power, like Pilate himself, can only fumble around asking ‘What is truth?’ To return to Tom Wright’s comments about the kingship of Christ and the Ascension – perhaps the challenge of the Feast of Christ the King requires us to hold on to paradox and irony in a way that is not really an aspect of Christ’s Ascension and that might be the distinction between the two feasts?

The picture at the head of the blog this week is Rylands Papyrus 52. It can be seen in the John Rylands library in Manchester. It is a fragment of John 18.34-38 (i.e. part of this week’s lectionary Gospel). It comes originally from Egypt and it probably dates from the second century AD. It used to be suggested that it came from the first half of that century – now there is less certainty about this, and it may have been copied in the latter part of the century. However it is still either the oldest or one of the oldest fragments of a Gospel in existence today. Is there something quite ‘powerful’ about the fact that this tiny and vulnerable scrap of material is sharing with us the meaning of the kingship of Christ?

What mean these stones?

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Advent, Mark 13.1-8 though it also draws attention to the fact that many churches will keep this coming Sunday as Remembrance Sunday.

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

*****

Whenever I think of Jerusalem, a city in which I was privileged to live for five years,  in my mind’s eye I find myself thinking of rocks and stones. Stones and Jerusalem somehow belong together. There are the hard rocky outcrops on which the city itself is built or of the Mount of Olives just to its east. The aridity of the terrain – in a land in which rainfall is hardly adequate and there is only one natural spring (the Gihon) in the proximity – means that the bare stony ground is little covered by vegetation.  Walking around in the rough ground outside the city this is very obvious – and hard on one’s feet.

Then there are the buildings in the city. Traditionally, and now I believe also legally, all buildings are erected with ‘Jerusalem stone’ – which has the capacity to glow golden in the light of the Jerusalem sun.

There are the stone walls of the city themselves – the present day walls dating back to the early 16th century but which in many places have been built on the foundations of earlier ones. Sometimes that continuity is obvious – as for example in the vestiges of the Golden Gate of the city, which can be seen in its eastern wall.

There is of course the Rock that sits there embedded in the present day eponymous Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock. This seems also to have played a role also in the Jewish holy places that have been built on that site before it – Solomon’s Temple, the post-exilic Temple and Herod’s Temple – and perhaps also to have encouraged the description of God as ‘my Rock’ e.g. Psalm 18.2 ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer’.

So it is not surprising, that in reading the lectionary for this week, Mark 13.1-8, the opening section of what is called Mark’s ‘Little Apocalypse’ ,  it is the note about rocks and stones that ‘shouts out’ to me.

Jesus has previously been teaching in the Temple, in a series of episodes that tellingly end with the story of a widow ‘offering her all’ to help the support of this building (Mark 12.41-44).

In response to his disciples’ comment about the ‘large stones’ in the Temple Jesus  responds ‘not one stone will be left upon another: all will be thrown down.’ It seems to refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which happened in 70 AD in the war between the Romans and the Jews. Although there was a brief attempt to reuse and even possibly rebuild the Temple during what is known as the Second Jewish Revolt (132-35AD), the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD really marked the end of Judaism as a temple based religion, but also its birth as a religion in which the rabbinic writings would become increasingly influential.

The disciples’ awe at the size of the stones is appropriate. One of the features of the Herodian Temple (newly built in Jesus’ lifetime) was the enormous stones used in its construction, distinctly edged with a margin. Some of them can still be seen to this day – in the western wall of the Haram esh Sherif (Temple Mount). These have long been visible to the naked eye: many more can now be seen due to the recent excavations in the area, which have created a series of tunnels in which visitors can walk. (In parenthesis I am very ambiguous about these excavations which are illegal under international law.)

A stone in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount/Haram esh Sherif

In fact of course, ironically, Jesus’ words were not fully fulfilled. The stones were so large, and therefore so difficult to move, that though the Temple building itself may have been destroyed, many of the stones that made up the outer retaining walls of the complex have been left in place for over 2000 years. One stone has been left upon another.

Jerusalem’s stones though, for me, symbolise something telling about the city. Jerusalem is a hard place, like stones are hard. It is a hard place to live and a hard place in which to build peace, partly in fact because of the possessiveness with which people cling to its stones. Its stones can be dangerous. It is also symptomatic that the capital punishment which seems to be referred to most frequently in our scriptures involves putting people to death by throwing stones at them.

Stones are often linked to memory. This is true in many cultures, where for example a ‘cairn’ of stones marks an event or an achievement. The title I have used his week ‘what mean these stones’ is taken from the Book of Joshua (Joshua 4.21), where after the people have crossed the river Jordan Joshua commands the setting up of a circle of 12 stones in Gilgal, to remind future generations of God’s care for and protection of the people as he led them from Egypt through the wilderness into the desert.

Memory itself however can be difficult and dangerous. The story of the Holy Land is that its history has been plagued by the competing memories of different people, each jostling for their place in the strange mosaic of that ‘wall’ of stones. Somehow we need to help each other to smooth the rough edges off each other’s stones so that we can build a wall of shared peace. It is at least a wonderful vision to aspire for!

I do have an instinct that there is a contribution that Christianity ought to be able to make to all this due to the understanding of ‘memory’ that is a vital part of our scripture. Memory – yet also its power to be transformed and to transform human life is at the heart of our story of faith, it is also profoundly symbolised in the central sacrament of the Christian Church. I say we ‘ought’ to be able to make: I am of course well aware, at least as a person who has worked in the field of interreligious relations, that we have all too often failed to do so, frequently abjectly.

It is of course interesting to be writing about this in a week in which we in Europe (and in many other parts of the world) focus on remembering both those who died in the great wars of the last century, and the wars themselves. Memory – and its dangerous features –  has all too often contributed to the history and the lack of peace in Europe. I believe that it has played a negative role in shaping recent developments in the continent.

It would be interesting to further reflect on the link between ‘stones’ and the genre of apocalyptic (in which this week’s Gospel is couched). I have an instinct that apocalyptic is itself a rather dangerous and ‘stony’ biblical genre. Time and space does not allow for further comment here – but I invite anyone interested in taking forward the discussion to drop me a note…

So I conclude by returning in mind and heart even unto the Holy Land, and sharing with you the beautiful and evocative prayer of Gerald Butt, which I am sure, at least at the sub-conscious level, influenced what I have written this week:

O Lord soften the stone hearts

of those who preach and practise

intolerance and bigotry;

as the sun’s setting glow

softens the stone walls

of your Holy City, Jerusalem.

Lord, the rocky hills, the valleys,

the deserts and the sea shores

are filled with the echoes of centuries of pain.

Lord, bring peace to house and village.

Comfort the mothers who fret

and those who mourn.

Lord, keep strong the twisted old root

of the olive tree,

and protect the young vine.

Lord of water and stone,

of bread and wine,

Lord of the resurrection,

feed hope, and bring peace

to the wracked but beautiful holy land.

(Gerald Butt)

Over… and over again

Jonah , the great fish and the city of Ninevah. Herrad of Landsberg  c. 1180.

This week’s lectionary blog looks at the meaning of repentance, with a focus both on Jonah 3.1-5,10 and Mark 1.14-20

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

I appreciate the physicality of the Hebrew language. The way, for example that when you want to speak about someone standing ‘before’ you, you literally say that they are standing ‘to your face’. Or the fact that the word for ‘glory’ ultimately derives from a verbal root that means ‘heavy’.

The way that the Hebrew language speaks of ‘repentance’ is another example. The most common Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is teshuvah.  This derives from the verb shuv  whose basic meaning is ‘return’. So ‘repentance’ is not about fixing a mathematical puzzle that has gone wrong, or making up something that has fallen short. It is rather about returning to a relationship with God that had been fractured or grown tired. It is about going on a journey, long or short, to find God again.

There’s a lovely chant by the Roman Catholic Benedictine monks of Weston Priory that exactly captures this – even though the chant is linked to the Book of Hosea rather than the Book of Jonah!

Hosea (Come Back To Me) – YouTube

One of the questions that the book of Jonah poses to me is ‘who needs repentance’? Is it the inhabitants of Ninevah, a city renowned in the ancient world both for its size and its cruelty, or is it Jonah himself because he is so oblivious to God’s grace? Or is it both? It has been astutely pointed out by Trevor Dennis that the equivalent of God sending Jonah to Ninevah would be a Jewish rabbi being sent to Berlin to preach publicly during the Nazi era.

In one sense Jonah is the most successful biblical prophet of all time. He only says a short sentence (in Hebrew just five words) ‘Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3.4) and the whole of the city – including its animal population – repented. Had Jeremiah been around at the time we could imagine that he might have been very envious of Jonah’s remarkable  success! Like many other readers I do think that the mention of the repentant cattle with their sackcloth (and the fishy story in chapters 1 and 2) is intended as a hint that we are not supposed to take the Book of Jonah as literal history. Jonah is often thought to have been a book written in the post-exilic period to challenge the hardening of attitudes to the Gentile world which was a development in Judah at this time.

Pope Benedict XVI has written on this (his words date to 2003 before he was elected as Pope):

The book of Jonah is not narrating events that took place in the distant past; it is a parable. In the mirror of this parable-story both the future and the present become visible. The present is explained over and over again to different generations, and it is only the light of the future – ultimately in that light that comes from God – that the present can be understood and lived correctly. This parable is consequently a prophecy. It sheds God’s light on time and thereby clarifies for us the direction we must take so that the present may unfold into the future and not go to ruin.

I think Pope Benedict’s description of Jonah as a parable ‘shedding God’s light on time’ is astute. Encouraging all manner and sorts of people to ‘return’ to him is just what God does. He always has and he always will.  It is an essential part of his job description. One of the intriguing features of the section of the Book of Jonah is that it ends with the comment, ‘God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them and did not do it’. (Jonah 3.10) Older translations often used the expression ‘God repented about the calamity…’ which was, and is, a challenging idea for some. But can we really speak of God himself ‘repenting’? it is certainly true that the Hebrew word here is not shuv – but a form of the verbal root nhm. (A word which also appears to describe God’s ultimate graciousness after the episode with the golden calf in Exodus 32.14).The root nhm however has a wide and intriguing range of meanings – for example it lies behind the evocative call of Isaiah 40.1 ‘Comfort (nhmu), O comfort (nhmu) my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ There is I think something profoundly significant in this link between God as comforter and God as the one who is ready to change his own mind when he receives a people’s repentance.

‘Repent’ is of course also one of the key words in this week’s short Gospel reading which begins by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel’ and then moves into his call of his disciples (Mark 1.14-15).

There is just one thing that I want to draw to your attention, that for me offers a further insight into the meaning of ‘repentance’. In Mark’s Gospel (and the other synoptic Gospels) Peter is summoned ‘Follow me’ here at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus.  But in John’s Gospel this call to ‘Follow me’ is not addressed to Peter till near the very end of the story, when in John 21 Peter is once again fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and once again he meets Jesus on the lake shore. John 21 is a story both about Peter’s repentance for his denial and his enduring relationship with and love for Jesus, and how the two belong together. And in light of our brief exploration of the Book of Jonah it is intriguing to realise just how Peter is addressed, ‘Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?’ (John 21.15).  

Sowing in tears

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept.” Oil on canvas, 34 x 46 in. Tags: Lazarus

This week’s lectionary blog relates to the readings for All Saints’ Day which this year is likely to be celebrated in many churches on this coming Sunday, October 31st. We explore the suggested Gospel, John 11.32-44 and give briefer attention to the New Testament reading Revelation 21.1-6.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Traditionally (and certainly etched into my own mind) the Gospel reading for All Saints is the Beatitudes – the stellar opening of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.1-12 in the Gospel of Matthew.  I certainly feel that in some form or other the Beatitudes rightfully have a place in the worship on All Saints Day. I especially cherish their setting as the so-called Russian Beatitudes, in which as a refrain between each couplet is inserted ‘Amen! Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise’. There is an excellent recording of this by St David’s Church, Exeter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaZozkVRiHI . (In parenthesis it is worth saying that St David’s choir has done youtube recordings of quite a wide range of interesting songs, hymns, chants, and that their choirmaster is generously willing to allow other churches to make use of their recordings.)

Since our use of the Common Worship (Revised Common) lectionary there have however been three different sets of readings suggested for All Saints, depending on whether one is in Year A, B or C. Year A (‘the year of Matthew’) makes use of the traditional reading of Matthew’s Beatitudes. Year C (‘the year of Luke’) draws on Luke’s equivalent passage of beatitudes and woes, Luke 6.20ff. Year B, the current year, normally draws on Mark’s Gospel as much as possible. But there are no beatitudes in Mark! So, for whatever reason, the decision was taken by the lectionary compilers to suggest that in this Year B, the suggested Gospel for All Saints should be John 11.32-44. This is part of the account of Jesus’ raising from the dead, Lazarus of Bethany. It feels quite a ‘jarring’ biblical text to link with All Saints, very different in focus and style from the ‘beatitudes’ in Matthew and Luke which appear in the other years. One of the notable features of the story is that unlike ‘all’ the saints who are described as ‘blessed’ in Matthew and Luke, the raising of Lazarus from the dead as described in the Gospel of John is clearly presented as an exceptional and unique experience which happened to one particular individual. There is a link from the story of Lazarus to a wider picture – but it goes in perhaps another direction. Namely in the Gospel of John we can see a clear and intentional link between Jesus’ giving of life to Lazarus and the way that Jesus’ own death is a direct result of these life-giving actions. The picture (below) by Caravaggio actually depicts the raising of Lazarus, but it would also (deliberately) be possible to view it as the taking down of the body of Jesus from the cross.

Caravaggio, The raising of Lazarus

It would be very interesting to see into the minds of the lectionary compilers and discover why this passage from the Gospel of John was chosen as a reading for All Saints!  But since that is beyond my immediate capabilities let me share some thoughts that I hope may provide useful directions for preachers and others.

This is one of the comparatively few passages in the Gospel of John where Jesus shows what we might call deep human emotions.

The words used in these verses are fascinating. Verse 33 says of Jesus that ‘he was greatly disturbed (enebrimesato) in spirit and deeply moved (etaraxen)’. Verse 38 repeats a form of the Greek word enebrimesato when it says ‘Jesus, again greatly disturbed’ (embrimomenos)

Both Greek verbs referred to here are quite rare – especially embrimaomai . Other than the two occurrences of the verb in this passage in the Gospel of John, it only appears (in the New Testament) twice in the Gospel of Mark and once in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s example, and in one of the passages in Mark it is translated ‘sternly charged’ and it is used when Jesus tells two recipients of miraculous healings to make sure they don’t tell anyone about what has happened to them! (Although they then disobey these instructions). The other instance in Mark’s Gospel comes in Mark 14.5 when the disciples ‘scold’ the woman who has poured expensive ointment over Jesus. I remember reading (though I haven’t immediately double checked this) that the verb embrimaomai is linked ultimately to the snorting sound a war-horse makes as it is gearing up for battle!  But it is fascinating to ponder what is the link between these three examples in which people are speaking fiercely to others, and to those two instances in the Gospel of John  when it is used about Jesus himself. It gives me the sense, which I don’t think is entirely mistaken, that Jesus is having an internal battle  with himself – is speaking fiercely to himself – about what he is going to do and its consequences  for himself.  The battle lies ahead!  

Tarasso is slightly more common in the New Testament. But it is intriguing to notice the other examples of this verb in the Gospel of John . With the sole exception of ‘disturbing’ or ‘troubling’  the waters of the Pool of Bethzatha in John 5.7 they come in chapters 12, 13 and 14 – and I don’t think it is accidental that this cluster of uses falls fairly closely together. It is I believe a signal that we are intended to read the instances of this word as a sequence, with one leading to the other.

So we get:

  • Jesus was… deeply moved/troubled (11.33)
  • Now is my soul troubled (12.27)
  • After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit (13.21)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled … in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places (14.1)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (14.27)

I think the connections we are intended to make are that the ‘troubling’ that Jesus himself felt over the death of his friend, led in turn to the deep troubling that John’s Gospel allows us to see here in chapters 12 and 13, that Jesus, humanly speaking, experienced as his own passion approaches. Yet his own ‘troubling’ in this way means that in turn he can promise and assure his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ for  this passion leads in turn to hospitality for humanity in ‘his father’s house’, to the gift of the Holy Spirit  and  of peace (the antithesis of ‘troubling’).

The emotional depth of both these verbs embrimaomai and tarasso in turn draw us close to that profoundly ‘gut’ word compassion. Compassion does indeed seem to be the primary emotion of Jesus in John 11.

[Compassion expresses] ‘such a deep and central emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of love broke open, and the abyss of God’s inexhaustible and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself’ (Donald McNeill et al, Compassion, DLT, 1982)

And the visible and physical expression of that compassion comes as, in the shortest verse in the New Testament we are told, ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

One of the great treasures offered to us by the Orthodox Christian East is the importance given to the spiritual value of tears and weeping.  The seventh century St Jacob of Sarug (a city in southern Turkey ) powerfully reflected:

‘You have no tears? Buy tears from the poor. You have no sadness? Call the poor man to moan with you. If your heart is hard and has neither sadness nor tears, with alms invite the needy to weep with you…provide yourself with the water of tears, and may the poor come to help you put out the fire in which you are perishing.’

So tears become an essential element of our call to become more fully human, more truly how God would have us be.

Throughout the Bible tears are the seeds of transformation – and perhaps even resurrection. The Old Testament tells us that ‘those who sow in tears shall reap in joy’ (Psalm 126.5). In the New Testament that link also holds true,  here in John 11 where there seems to be a close link between the tears of the crowd, the tears of Mary, Jesus’ own tears and the resurrection of Lazarus. It is intriguing that in John 20 there also seems to be a similar connection being made between the weeping of Mary and the presence of the risen Jesus who stands before her. Jesus himself gives us permission to weep about the ‘tears of things’ (lacrimae rerum) and models such weeping on our behalf.

What though has weeping and tears to do with All Saints? Perhaps the Gospel is a powerful reminder that it is Jesus’ ability both to share and to transform the depths of human emotions and human grief which has enabled the wonderful vision of the new creation, the new earth, the new heaven, populated by the saints of the Most High. It is indeed appropriate that this year the lectionary ‘matches’ John 11.32-44 with Revelation 21.1-6.    One of the promises offered to these citizens of the ‘holy city’ is that God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 21.4). But have you realised that that is a promise that even God himself cannot keep unless people have first learned how to weep?

Casting off the cloak

The powerful sculpture by Gurdon Brewster dramatically indicates how Bartimaeus casts off his coak. http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/gbbartimaeus.html

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel Mark 10.46-52

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

There’s a real appropriateness that Mark 10.46-52 – the giving of sight to Bartimaeus – should be the lectionary Gospel reading for the last Sunday in the church’s year before there is a shift in direction as the lectionary reorientates itself and turns to prepare for Advent. For these verses mark the final culmination of Jesus’ public ministry before he enters Jerusalem (which happens at the beginning of chapter 11), and they are clearly presented as something of a ‘finale’.

It is telling, and undoubtedly significant that the last word in the passage is a form of the noun odos  = ‘way’.  ‘Way’ is a fundamental word in the Gospel of Mark: it is of course used twice in the biblical quotation with which the Gospel opens, ‘my messenger who shall prepare your way… make ready the way of the Lord’ (Mark 1.2-3). It then reappears in a ‘loaded’ way at some key points in Mark’s story, ‘What were you discussing on the way? But they were silent for on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest?’ (Mark 9.33-34), ‘They were on the way going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going ahead of them, and those who followed were afraid.’ (Mark 10.32).

When ‘way’, therefore appears in Mark 10.52 it may indeed refer to the literal road that Jesus and his disciples would need to take from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it is also clearly loaded with the resonances of discipleship, which will involve those who ‘follow’ Jesus also being prepared to travel on ‘the way of the cross’. It is a deliberate marker of what will await Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Notice the echo of the word ‘David’ in Bartimaeus’s cry, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10.48) in the words with which the crowds greet Jesus at his triumphal entry, ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’ (Mark 11.10). Yet as Jesus will later point out (Mark 12.35-37) can the Messiah really be described simply as ‘son of David’ – perhaps not least due to all the political resonances of the title? It would be such ambiguities that would lead Jesus on ‘the way’ from Palm Sunday so shortly to Good Friday.

One of the reasons that I especially enjoy the Gospel of Mark is that this Gospel seems to cherish what I call ‘the little people’ – those who demonstrate the antithesis of the ‘biggist’ attitudes of the inner core of Jesus’ disciples, displayed for example in last week’s Gospel reading (Mark 10.35-45). Bartimaeus is an example of these ‘little people’ and it is significant that his encounter with Jesus is given such a pride of place in Mark’s story.

There is a powerful short meditation on Bartimaeus and his encounter with Jesus by Jan Sutch Pickard as one of the six voices she offers in a short reflection ‘Follow me’:

‘Come,’

He said – and I did,

Following his voice

Through the crowd on the edge of town.

I needed wait no longer:

My voice had been heard

Calling for change,

Crying out for a fresh start –

Even though it meant

Casting off old ways,

No longer the needy person everybody knew.

‘Come,’ he said

And I saw what God could do.

‘Your faith has healed you,’

He told me, ‘Now go.’

He never said, ‘Follow me’ –

But, as I could see, there was no other way.

(from Dandelions and Thistles: biblical meditations from the Iona Community,edited by Jan Sutch Pickard, 1999)

One other significant aspect of Bartimaeus’ story is his cast off cloak. In several biblical books clothing, or the lack of it, becomes a vital symbol carrying the story, and visually demonstrating the attitudes of those who are involved. Genesis is certainly an example of this. The Gospel of Mark is another with its references to the garb of John the Baptist (Mark 1.6), Jesus’ own attire on the mountain of transfiguration (Mark 9.3), the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) and then sits clad in a white garment on the right side at the tomb (Mark 16.5).  Indeed it is interesting to explore how the visual symbol of clothing can be used in a number of ways throughout the worship and liturgies of Holy Week.

Bartimaeus’ gesture with his now no-longer needed beggar’s cloak (onto which alms had been  thrown)  is a part of this tale of clothes, and his willingness to cast off his probably sole possession was, for Mark, a visible symbol, and example for others, of the ‘way’ of discipleship.

Cast off the cloaks that cling so heavily upon you,

Open your eyes and look upon the world with new vision,

and follow Jesus in the way of God, rejoicing in faith and hope and love.

Money, money, money!

The oldest surviving image of Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century heard these words of Jeuss in Mark 10.17ff as addressed to him personally. The image is found at the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco and is thought to have been painted c 1228/9.

Money’ (the excess of it, or the lack of it) is the common thread running through this week’s lectionary blog which has three short sections. It is based on the Gospel passage Mark 10.17-31.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

‘Jesus looked on him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I find it absolutely fascinating and immensely powerful that the one and only individual of whom it is recounted in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus loved them, is this person who apparently refuses – albeit regretfully – Jesus’ personal challenge to him. It is I think also important that Jesus does not argue with him, or try to cajole him. An aspect of Jesus’ ‘love’ for this man is the freedom he gives him to make his own decision.

The verb ‘looked at’ (which in its Greek form is actually quite rare in the New Testament) though has itself a certain power. Intriguingly it is repeated a few verses below when Jesus ‘looks at’ his astounded disciples after telling them how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The same verb  also appears in Luke’s (though not in Mark’s) account of Peter’s denial of Jesus during his trial, ‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61) after Peter’s third denial. The intensity of Jesus’ gaze could itself be life-changing. It was for Peter on that occasion.

Which brings me to another point (which I admit is speculative but which has been intriguing me since I thought about it). We commonly refer to the man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff as ‘the rich young ruler’. But in Mark the account of the incident nowhere describes him as ‘young’.  Indeed the fact that he says to Jesus ‘I have kept all these (laws) since my youth (Mark 10.20) rather hints that he is at least middle-aged.  The reason the person is described as ‘young’ is because the corresponding episode in the Gospel of Matthew describes him as so (Matthew 19.16-22).  (The word ‘ruler’ is only found in the parallel episode in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18.18-23).)  The word used for ‘young man’ appears twice in Matthew’s account, in verses 20 and 22. In Greek it is neaniskos.

Now neaniskos does come twice in the Gospel of Mark – but not here. It is used to speak of the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) in the garden of Gethsemane, and the young man who is dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb (Mark 16.5). Going back to biblical scholarship in the 1970s, but also building on patristic interpretations, it has been noted that the word neaniskos was sometimes used for those who were catechumens and newly baptised. And the description of the ‘young man’ who is naked in Mark 14 and clothed in white in Mark 16 reflects the sartorial process of early Christian baptism. Does the neaniskos therefore represent in some way  a newly baptised person, baptised into Christ in a process that is only made possible by Jesus’ own death and resurrection?  And if so, is there any chance that (with the help of Matthew’s Gospel) we should make a connection so that this rich man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff has had his life so turned upside down by Jesus’ gaze and Jesus’ love that he does eventually become a follower of Jesus – symbolised by the neaniskos whom we meet later in Mark’s story? It would be a wonderful conclusion to this encounter if that were so!

*****

I am probably on surer grounds with my comment about the camel and the eye of the needle. As the prayer-poem below I wrote 20 years ago suggests I think that when he spoke about camels going through the eye of a needle Jesus was here using jesting hyperbole. He was actually telling a joke!  I am glad to see that my view is confirmed by most modern commentators, see for example  What Is The Eye Of The Needle (Matthew 19:23-24 / Mark 10:25)? – Dust Off The Bible

I believe that the quest by some of looking for a narrow gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were off-loaded betrays an unhelpful literalism, and misunderstands Jesus’ words. His point is precisely that it is impossible – yet God (and God alone) can make the impossible possible!

We thank you God that you enjoy the company of your human playmates.
Sometimes the games you play seem a bit one sided and unfair.
It’s that one where ‘The first will be last and the last will be first’ that really gets me.
I’m frightened of it and I don’t want to play it too often.
Yet thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you delight in games of hide-and-seek.
I do too, just as long as I can be the one who hides.
I know you will search for me wherever I am, but am I as eager to seek for you?
Sometimes it feels all too easy to want to give up the quest.
So thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you simply have never been any good at Monopoly.
You want to be on our side all the time, rather than play against us.
You would rather bankrupt yourself, and people get annoyed because you don’t want to own Mayfair.
But the extravagance of your love means that there are never any losers.
I will thank you God.  You look upon me and love me.

We have always puzzled at your teasing riddles, God. You know some great posers!
That one about the camel going through the eye of a needle really got the learned scholars going.
They started looking all over Jerusalem for a narrow gate,
The idea that Jesus might be telling a joke. Well, that’s simply awesome!
Wow, thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

But I know your favourite game, God, it’s treasure hunting.
I enjoy it too, but your idea of treasure feels so different to mine.
You tell me of treasure that is going to be stored up for me in heaven.
I will have to solve so many clues before I discover that hoard.
Yet I know you will always look upon me and love me.
Thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

*****

I pity preachers having to preach on this passage to communities of Christians in many places in Europe, including the church where my husband will be preaching on Sunday. How can we listen to and wrestle with the meaning of Jesus’ words about poverty and riches in our contemporary contexts in which many of us are wealthy in a way that would have been unthinkable to those who first listened to Jesus’ words? How can we be faithful followers of Jesus in our time? What does discipleship mean for us today? There are no easy answers.

It is of course interesting that this Gospel reading appears in the lectionary 6 days after the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, who heard Jesus’ challenge to ‘the rich young ruler’ as directly addressed to himself and who turned his own life upside down as a result.  But if we are not all going to respond in the same way as Francis, what do Jesus words mean for us in 21st century Europe? Genuinely it would be interesting to hear from readers how you engage with this question for yourself.