We wish to see Jesus… (John 12.20-21)

This week’s lectionary reflection draws on the Gospel reading of John 12.20-33 to take us on a journey that includes both the Temple in Jerusalem and Canterbury Cathedral.

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

I have grown to appreciate Canterbury Cathedral over the years. In fact when my husband Alan and I lived in Canterbury for five years I didn’t particularly enjoy the atmosphere of the Cathedral. There was a starchiness and a stuffiness about the place then, and I often felt rather fraught when I went to services there, caught between the expectation that as the wife of the Principal of the Canterbury School of Ministry there were certain events I needed to attend, and the fact that I also had  a baby who became a lively toddler in tow.  In those days children were expected by some of the Cathedral staff not to be heard, and perhaps not even to be seen. It was definitely stress making.

The Compass Rose symbol of the Anglican Communion engraved into the floor of the Cathedral. The Greek words in the inscription read ‘The truth will set you free.’

But as I have visited there over more recent years I have begun to treasure much of what it has to offer. When I was working for the Anglican Communion Office in London I came to realise how much the Cathedral  is loved by Anglicans from so many parts of the world, and what it meant to them to visit Canterbury as pilgrims. There’s the great symbol of the Anglican Communion, the Compass Rose, engraved into the floor in the centre of the building, with its wonderful motto, ‘The truth will set you free’ that speaks powerfully to me, and of which the Anglican Communion should be proud, even though I am not sure it always quite lives up to the vision.

But the unforgettable spine chilling moment above all for me came at the end of the  last Lambeth Conference in 2008 in which I was privileged to participate as a member of staff of the Anglican Communion Office. At the end of the final service of the conference held in semi darkness in the Cathedral, representatives of the Anglican Church of Melanesia carried a canoe in procession through the cathedral, singing a haunting traditional south pacific lament as they did so.  They – and we – were remembering the members of the Anglican Melanesian religious brotherhood who had been murdered five years earlier as they had sought to mediate and make peace in one of the Solomon Islands intermittent civil or tribal wars.  They have become known as the Melanesian Martyrs. Ever since whenever I think about Canterbury Cathedral that is what comes to my mind – as a place where modern martyrs, as well as medieval ones, are remembered.

Icon of the Melanesian Martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral

I am quite sure that one of the reasons that the Cathedral has become more welcoming over the years is due to the current Dean, Robert Willis. He is the personification of a diffident, yet competent graciousness that is a mark of the Anglican tradition at its very best. One of the things that Robert wanted to do when he became Dean, about 20 years ago was to create a mission statement for the Cathedral. As he told me the story once, there were discussions about it in cathedral chapter, and sub-groups set up to decide what should be in the statement – which was apparently potentially getting longer and more complicated by the week. And then one day during the daily worship, part of the biblical passage that is this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel was read, and suddenly Robert saw what was needed.

As John’s Gospel puts it, ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip and said to him, ‘Sir we wish to see Jesus’.  (John 12.20-21) And hearing these words Robert was inspired to suggest that the mission statement of the Cathedral should simply be ‘To show people Jesus’.  And that is exactly what happened and if you go onto Canterbury Cathedral’s website to this day you will find that statement set out at the bottom of the page. What it is trying to say, I think, is that the whole life of the Cathedral, from the beauty of its architecture and worship, to the quality of the intellectual engagement and enquiry it facilitates, to the sense of warmth and hospitality with which visitors are greeted, to the way that it functions for those who work  and live there as a place of authentic Christian community, needs to point people  towards Jesus Christ, to enable them to draw nearer to him and through him to God. If any church ever finds itself looking for a mission statement in the future – it is not a bad one to consider.

Dean Willis inadvertently became an internet sensation during lockdown last year, when his cat interrupted Morning Prayer to steal the milk!

Canterbury Cathedral cat snatches vicar’s milk during morning prayer – YouTube

But back to the Gospel reading. Why were those Greeks wanting to see Jesus? Rowan Williams once asked, ‘Were they, I wonder, like the tourists who turn up in Dharamsala in India saying, I want to see the Dalai Lama? ‘There’s a famous charismatic religious figure around. I’d like to catch a glimpse of him. I might even be interested in listening to what he says, a bit … and then its back to the hotel.’

Perhaps that was indeed what those Greeks were thinking – but for Jesus, and maybe eventually for them too, it turned into so much more. Let’s briefly re-tread our steps through the last couple of chapters of John’s Gospel in which we are being pivoted towards Jesus’ passion. First there was the account of Jesus’ life-giving ministry to his beloved friend Lazarus, putting himself in danger to do so, especially because Lazarus’ recovery from death causes such a stir that Caiaphas, the ultimate example of a pragmatic religious official, worries about its dangerous effect on their Roman political overlords, ‘It is better that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50) That is followed by the account of Jesus’ anointing by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, an act which foreshadows Jesus’ death (John 12.1-7). Although with a double entendre that is characteristic of John, since kings in Israel were anointed in order to inaugurate their rule – the anointing is not just a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death but also a proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship. But then,  there is a sort of double double entendre, or should one say triple entendre, since for John’s Gospel the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment when he is crowned as king are actually one and the same.

And now it seems to be this meeting with the Greeks that edges that destiny ever closer. For Jesus’ initial response to their request, is to speak of the dying of the seed – himself – to lead to a fruitful harvest. At first sight it is not obvious why their request leads him to make such a response. I think it is something like this. One of the great visions of the Old Testament – you find it in the psalms and in the prophets – is of a pilgrimage of the nations that would be made up to Jerusalem which would inaugurate God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace.

Think for example of the great passage from Isaiah, ‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and many people shall come to it…’ (Isaiah 2.2-3) Jerusalem and its Temple was the destiny for this pilgrimage, because it was  seen as the dwelling place of God, a place of squeezing, where God’s glory could be seen and God could be visibly present with human beings. But for the New Testament, that dwelling place of God, that space of God’s glory among human beings is now squeezed into the person of Jesus Christ – so he becomes the goal of such a pilgrimage, and those Greek visitors both foreshadow it and are its first fruits. They are bringing about those ‘latter days’, and just as the mountainous height of Jerusalem facilitated its role as the goal of pilgrims, so also it will mean that Christ himself as pilgrimage’s new goal will need to be lifted up.

It is striking to read John’s account of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane later on in the Gospel. There is there no agony such as you find in the other Gospels. But there is no agony there – because it is here, now earlier in the story that you find it. ‘Now is my soul troubled’ says Jesus at this point (John 12.27). It is now that he needs to decide whether to embrace or to refuse the destiny that the coming of those Greek visitors asking to see him has forced into his present  …to allow his own body to be squeezed into the space  where God and human beings can meet each other. Three of John’s key words which reverberate again and again through his Gospel, make their appearance in this passage, to indicate its crucial role in the story.

Hour: This is the moment that time has been waiting for through the earlier chapters of the gospel when we have been told that Jesus’ hour has not yet come. Now eternity is squeezed into this moment of decision and judgement.

Glory: This is that biblical word that John’s Gospel delights in turning upside down in its meaning. It refers to the ‘visible presence’ of God. In the pages of the Old Testament such visible presence is shown through manifestations of power and splendour. But in the Gospel of John the word ‘glorified’ is used to describe the moment that Jesus hangs on the cross. In a radical inversion the visible presence of God is now to be seen in a moment of apparent supreme weakness and defeat.

Lifted up: One word in Greek. It speaks, and it is intended to speak, at several levels. At one level it refers simply to Jesus being physically ‘lifted up’ on to the beams of the cross. But the word in Greek also carries the metaphorical sense of ‘exalt’  – be raised up in honour.

All three words therefore point us to the cross, which for the Gospel of John is the moment, the hour when the seed that has been sown in the earth, has sprouted into the tree of life, to become the bridge between earth and heaven.

Back finally once again to those Greeks and their request, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’.

As Archbishop Rowan once put it: Jesus’ response to this request seems to be, There is only one way in which you can really see: and that is, when you see the Christ lifted up in the pain and the defeat of the cross, and find the glory of the Father radiating there.’ You can’t just be a tourist. You can’t simply wander around hoping to capture a glimpse of an interesting person if you’re really concerned to see Jesus. You have to go where the cross is because, of course, where Jesus is, there will his friends be also.

That is what those seven Melanesian brothers, who were martyred as they travelled to make peace discovered.

(This is a lightly edited version of an address I gave during Holy Week 2020 for Holy Trinity Church, Geneva)

God so loved…

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel for Lent 4, John 3.14-21

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

‘The Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame which illumineth all the world. The flame is love.’ (Thomas Traherne). The picture above is one of the beautiful stained glass windows created in Hereford Cathedral in honour of the 17th century Anglican mystical writer Thomas Traherne. The window was designed and created by Tom Denny. For more examples of Denny’s exquisite work see http://www.thomasdenny.co.uk

Prayer of thanksgiving linked to John 3.1-16
Holy One, we hear your music in the roar of the sea,
In the song of a people,
In the quiet breeze rustling through the trees.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we sense your power in the flickering of fire,
In the yearning of our spirits,
In the dispelling of shadows.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we feel your caress in the gift of our humanity,
In our desire to be whole,
In the blessing of peace.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Normally, when the Fourth Sunday of Lent arrives our progress through the Lenten season – and the Lenten lectionary – loses out to Mothering Sunday. I wonder if that will be the case in quite the same way this year? – ‘lockdown’ or its lesser equivalents do seem to mean that the traditional rites of ‘saying it with flowers’ probably won’t be able to take place as usual next Sunday.

In any case, for the coming Sunday, I decided to focus this reflection on the lectionary selection for Lent 4, rather than the Mothering Sunday alternatives, which I have looked at often in the past, and will probably do so again in the future. I will look in particular at the lectionary Gospel John 3.14-21. Interestingly, given that it has displaced a reading for Mothering Sunday, it has however something important to say about the fatherhood of God.

This of course includes the iconic verse, John 3.16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

In my mind this is for ever pigeonholed as ‘the bus verse’. When I went to my secondary school I had to travel there by bus, and I remember that for quite a number of months this verse (accompanied probably by a bit of comment or explanation the detail of which I have long forgotten) had a prime place among the ‘adverts’ with which the inside of the bus was decorated. I would read it every day. My 11 year old self was both fascinated and fearful. I don’t think I was silly to feel fearful, I am sure the general tenor of the ‘advert’ intended to convey the negative impression that only a few select would be ‘saved’, while the destiny of most was to ‘perish’.  It took me a very long time before I could think about John 3.16 in positive terms. Indeed part of my personal purpose in writing the prayer above based on this verse (back c.1998) was to compel myself to dig deeper into its gentle graciousness.

Over the last 25 years or so, I have found myself coming back to explore the Gospel of John many times from different facets: its reflection on the comparative roles of women and men, its glorious sacramentality and symbolism, its sometimes very ‘difficult’ role in terms of Christian-Jewish relations. I have truly found it a biblical book which, to quote St Augustine of Hippo, ‘Is deep enough for a elephant to swim in, and a child not to drown.’

Given that quite a lot of my other biblical exploration during this same period has focused on the Book of Genesis it is perhaps not surprising that I have found myself drawing comparisons between the Gospel of John and Genesis. I see John as ‘A New Genesis’, sharing with us the glory of a new creation, made possible by the ‘Son of Man’ (e.g. John 3.14) who spans the chasm between earth and heaven. Jesus then is fully inaugurated as the ‘new Adam’ at the precise point in the story when he stands before Pilate as a chained prisoner (John 19.5) wearing a crown of thorns and purple robes of mockery and is greeted with the jibe, ‘Behold the Man.’

One intriguing link between John and Genesis that I have only recently explored more deeply is however linked to John 3.16. In the second half of this Gospel we hear a great deal about love. In the first half of the Gospel comparatively little. In fact the first time that the verb ‘love’ is used in this Gospel is here, in John 3.16, ‘God so loved…’ After this ‘love’ only appears on a few more occasions, until we meet it in the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). That seems to open the floodgates, and especially in the Farewell speech of Jesus (John 13-17) the Gospel text is then soaked profoundly with ‘love’.

In view of my interest in the relationship between John and Genesis, what however intrigued me is that the first time the verb ‘love’ occurs is in Genesis 22.2, at the beginning of the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go, sacrifice him…’ Though by contrast with John’s Gospel following on this instance the word ‘love’ appears only a few more times in Genesis – largely describing either the love for a parent for a child, or the love of a man for a woman.

However I find it either a powerful coincidence, or perhaps a deliberate intention, that the first time that ‘love’ appears in both books, it is in relation to the ‘giving up’ of an ‘only Son’.  I think there is a connection. It is reinforced by the way that the Greek word monogenes, translated as ‘only’ in the NRSV and ‘one and only’ in the NIV (John 3.16, 18) , is regularly also used in biblical and Christian texts to describe Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son (see e.g. Hebrews 11.17).

The story of the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac became a rich seam which has been extensively mined over the centuries by both Jews and Christians. Indeed our mutual reflection on this theme influenced one another, see e.g. the painting of The Sacrifice of Isaac by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall hinting at Jewish and Christian dialogue on the theme.

Jewish tradition increasingly viewed Isaac as intentionally offering himself as a sacrifice, for the ultimate benefit of his descendants. It was referred to as the Aqedah (the ‘Binding of Isaac’). As far as Christians were concerned, traces of allusions to the ‘theme’ can certainly be found in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8.32) and were more completely developed in later theology. In Christian reflection on the topic, of course, what happened was that the story of Abraham and Isaac was used as an analogy to describe the Father’s offering of the Son in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  God the Father ‘plays’ two roles in this analogy: he reflects both the figure of ‘father Abraham’, but also the role of the deity to whom Abraham is offering Isaac. This both transforms the story, and affects our understanding of the very nature of God.

What I think is also interesting is that the object of the Father’s love in John 3.16 is not (at this point) ‘the Son’ – but the ‘world’. If one thinks about the analogy with Genesis, in which Abraham’s love for his son is mentioned, to find the word ‘world’ replacing ‘son’, as John 3.16 does, potentially takes our breath away. Later on in John’s Gospel of course, the mutual love of the Father and the Son is referred to again and again (especially in John 13-17), and their ‘oneness’ is stressed, but perhaps it is telling that the very first time the word is used in the Gospel it is the ‘world’ that is privileged as being its object.

There is quite a lot else I could say on this topic – I have just had published a 6000+ word article on the subject God So Loved the World – Amos – 2020 – The Ecumenical Review – Wiley Online Library! (I think it is available still via this link) One of the insights I explore there is the way that in the Gospel of John words linked to the root agap- (love) seem to lead us in the direction of willing suffering.

But for now, as I draw this reflection to a close, I want to mention briefly a Zoom Bible study session I led on Saturday for about 65 participants. It was called ‘Christ crucified! Why?’ and offered a whistle-stop tour of theories of the atonement. As often when I offer such sessions I am never sure quite where they are going to end up. Frequently, not exactly where I expected – but that can be all to the good! In this case, towards the end I found myself responding to a query about the relationship between the Father and Son in the crucifixion of Christ. Was God the Father presiding juridically and impartially at a distance over Christ’s death? I told the group what is the case, that my own reflection on this topic had been worked out in the furnace of living in Beirut during some years of its civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. In the context of the human suffering I witnessed during those years I have felt since that it is vital that when we say ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.18) God is profoundly affected by the suffering of this world. To draw a comparison, as I have done here, between the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Father’s giving of his Son, does, I believe make it clear that the ‘wounding of God’s love, and marring of God’s image in us’, and God’s response to it, is a pain which is felt in the very heart of God.

Churches without walls?

This week’s blog draws on the lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22, set for Lent 3, to reflect on a question which our experience of the past 12 months has confronted us with quite acutely.

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

Jesus drives out the merchants – John 2:13-16, Vie de Jesus Mafa

(I am leading a Zoom Bible Study titled Christ crucified! Why? hosted by Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, this coming Saturday morning, 10.00am – 12.30pm CET. The Zoom connection will allow additional visitors to join. Please contact me for the link and notes if you are interested.)

Several times in sermons he has preached in recent weeks via Zoom, my husband (Alan Amos) has spoken of how these days we are discovering ‘temples without walls’ or ‘churches without walls’.

In ways that we would never have imagined at the beginning of 2020, in the last year we have had to learn new things about the nature of Church. We have all had a bit of a crash course in the New Testament understanding that ‘Church’ primarily refers to the ‘Christian community’ rather than the building that in normal times is the place where we meet.

Christianity – right from its start – has always been a bit ambiguous about whether or not special places are important.

It is a core point which is being made by this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22,  which tells of what is often described as Jesus’ ‘cleansing of the Temple’. All four Gospels recount Jesus taking dramatic action against those who bought and sold in the Temple. In the three Synoptic Gospels the episode takes place just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city at the beginning of what these days we call ‘Holy Week’. In the Gospel of John, by contrast, it is actually located as the first action of his public ministry.

Of course, this may raise questions for us as to what exactly happened, why and when. I acknowledge that there is scope for different opinions on this, but speaking personally I don’t believe that Jesus ‘cleansed’ the Temple twice, once at the beginning and once near the end of his earthly ministry. ‘Historically’ speaking I think that the timing suggested by Matthew, Mark and Luke is correct, viz Jesus’ action took place in the last few days before his passion. I would go further and assert that it was in fact probably this action that set the wheels in motion which led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. What he did in the Temple was seen as such a challenge to the status quo that it could not be tolerated by the religious and political leadership, and so he had to be ‘dealt’ with. Indeed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (though interestingly not in Luke) one of the charges laid against Jesus in his ‘trial’ before the High Priest and echoed in the mockery he received on the cross was that he wanted to destroy the Temple (Matthew 26.61; 27.40; Mark 14.58; 15.29). It is easy to see how his actions in the Temple a few days earlier could be interpreted in this light.

Which then ‘begs’ the question, why then does the Gospel of John transfer his account of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple from the end of Jesus’ public ministry to its beginning? I think that the answer is linked to the nature of the Gospel of John itself. Going right back to the time of Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd century AD, John has been contrasted with the Synoptics as, ‘a spiritual Gospel’. The exact quote from Clement reads, ‘John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel’. What Clement is trying to say is that John’s Gospel seeks to give us ‘the inner meaning’ of what we read in the Synoptic Gospels, and that John’s transfer of the account of Jesus’ ‘cleansing’ of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a prime example of such inner meaning. It is placed at this point, to indicate that it is a fundamental starting-point to enable us to understand the significance of Jesus’ actions and words throughout most of the rest of the Gospel.

You may have noticed that each time I have referred to the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple I have put the word ‘cleansing’ in apostrophes.  This is because I am not sure that John is in fact recounting a story of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple. By the word ‘cleansing’ I understand a process of returning to a better condition something that is intrinsically ‘good’. But I don’t think that that is necessarily  John’s perspective on what Jesus did in John 2.13-22. Rather his actions, particularly as interpreted through the evangelist’s comments in v21-22, suggest that what he was doing was declaring the Temple ‘redundant’.  A hint to this lies in the detail of the target of Jesus’ physical actions. In John’s Gospel, as well as the money-changers and the human beings who are selling and buying, Jesus drives out ‘the sheep and the cattle’ (verse 15) and the doves (verse 16). In other words Jesus ‘drove out’ (harsh words, used elsewhere in the Gospels against demonic forces), the animals that were essential for the Temple’s sacrificial cult. Effectively he was declaring that cult, and the building which housed it, redundant. It wasn’t simply that he was opposing the corruption of those who sought to make a living by selling ‘Holy Hamburgers’ as over-priced snacks to poor pilgrims, but he was challenging the Temple’s very raison d’etre.

The open area of the Haram esh-Sherif (Noble Sanctuary) surrounding the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock marks out the extent of the Temple and its courtyards in New Testament times

We have been effectively ‘forewarned’ of this in the climax to the Prologue, ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) The particular Greek verb translated here as ‘dwelt’ (eskenosen), is used often in Greek versions of the Old Testament to describe the Temple or the wilderness tabernacle as the place where God ‘dwelt’. Now however that ‘dwelling’ is most perfectly to be found in the person of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Does that not mean that this core function of the Temple is no longer needed? That is I think exactly what John 2.13-22 is suggesting and that is precisely why it is placed at this point, so near to the beginning of the story. And it will be a theme that will recur over and over again in the following chapters of the Gospel as Jesus somehow subsumes into himself a wealth of images and symbols both linked to of the Temple, and to the great feasts (Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication) that are so closely associated with it. What is the implication for us, today of this central theme of the Gospel of John?

Sometime I want to write a book on ‘important passages of scripture that don’t make it into the Sunday lectionary’! One of my prime candidates for inclusion in that book would be Zechariah 14.20-21, a passage that I have long found fascinating, and I am sure offers a significant clue to what John 2.13-22 is seeking to share. Interestingly although other Old Testament passages are alluded to in the Gospel accounts of the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ (Jeremiah 7.11 in the case of the Synoptics; Psalm 69.9 in the case of John) the Zechariah passage is not mentioned at this point.  It is short enough to quote in full here (NRSV translation):

On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking-pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

It’s that throwaway line with which the chapter, and indeed the whole book of Zechariah, ends. The prophet is looking forward to that future time when traders will no longer be needed in the house (Temple) because there would no longer be any physical distinction between the ‘holy’ and the ‘ordinary’ (the technical term is ‘profane’ – but in modern English that word has an unhelpful ring). Everything, the whole of creation, will be ‘holy’.  Indeed the primary reason for the Temple traders was to underpin that system in which the ‘holy’ was separated from the ‘ordinary/profane’ – to enable people to buy ‘clean’ animals for sacrifice, and change ‘secular’ money (containing pagan images) into coinage that was appropriate for use in that holy place.

For the Gospel of John, with the advent of Jesus ‘that day’ of which Zechariah speaks has now arrived! The incarnation of Jesus Christ has hallowed (made holy) the whole of creation.

As a (reasonably) faithful Anglican I cherish the places where the Christian communities I am associated with have worshipped over several, or many, generations. They are, in their different ways special to me. I affirm TS Eliot’s line from Little Gidding, ‘You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid’. And yet, at the same time I need to hold that love in a tension with the insight offered by the Gospel of John that the incarnation of Christ has transformed our understanding of ‘holy places’. It is an ongoing tension to which there is no easy answer. But I am sure that our experiences as Christian communities over the last year, in the Diocese in Europe and elsewhere, have indeed, as my husband suggested, compelled us to reflect on what it means to be ‘churches without walls’.

Proclaiming deliverance to a people yet unborn (Psalm 22.31)

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
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

The Whalton Christ

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 Whalton Christ, detail

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.

Love changes everything

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

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Stanley Spencer: Christ in the Wilderness – The Scorpion

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!

Living by vision: the biblical summons to transfiguration

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 (mebussmann-morton@bluewin.ch) 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.amos@europe.anglican.org

The apse mosaic of the transfiguration of Christ in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. The named figures of Moses and Elijah situated either side of the Cross assure us that the mosaic is depicting this biblical scene.

‘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

Safeguarding the Creation for Future Generations – Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (orth-transfiguration.org)

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:

The Apse Mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in Classe, detail: The Cross with the face of Christ at its centre
  • … 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.’

Christ, fount and source of creation…

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,

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Sculpture of politicians discussing global warming (in Berlin). They have left it a bit late!

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.’  

Icon of Christ as Holy Wisdom, with the ‘world’ as the semicircle at the bottom of the picture

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…’

Clare Amos


[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.

Candlemas: The growing time

A wintering tree near Chelmsford, UK

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

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

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.

Julia Lacey

Julia in her garden last autumn

*****

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)

Living water, flowing wine

The Jet d’Eau in Lac Leman

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

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

Living Water

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

*****

Do take a look at Real Communion in Online Community a sermon preached by Revd Dr Sam Wells the Sunday before last (10 January) at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London: https://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/real-communion-in-online-community/

*****

Flowing wine

Picture
He Qi, ‘The Wedding at Cana’ uploaded from ‘Art and Religion’ Art & Religion – World Religions Resources & Lessons (weebly.com)

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…

(to be continued…)

The ladder between heaven and earth

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,

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

‘The Tree of Life’, Misereor Hunger Cloth from Haiti, Jacques-Richard Chery

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.

Excavations at the possible site of Bethsaida.

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)