MAUNDY THURSDAY

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MAUNDY THURSDAY

As Dido Queen of Carthage, the eponymous heroine of Purcell’s opera faces death, she cries “Remember me but ah forget my fate.”  Dido has pledged herself to newly-found lover, Aeneas, but at the height of their joy, he is summoned back to war. It presents him with an agonising decision. Should he obey the gods and fulfil his military duty or should he follow his heart and stay with Dido? “Offend the gods and love obey” he sings to the queen but ultimately she urges him to follow Jove’s command. He sets sail, abandoning the heartbroken Dido to her fate as she stands before her own funeral pyre. The tragedy is that in fact through an act of treachery and deceit, it was the wicked Sorceress and her crones who summoned away the unsuspecting hero, rather than the gods.
 
When people die, one of their fondest hopes is to be remembered by friends and family, eclipsing the memories of any pain or suffering.  Another dying wish may be that loved ones will go on to enjoy life, experience good fortune and prosperity and learn from their example. “Look after yourselves” says ancient Greek philosopher Socrates to his friends as he prepares to drink the cup of poison, the punishment meted out to him by the city of Athens for corrupting the youth of the city. “Keep your spirits up. Tell yourself it’s only my body you are burying.” When all this proves too much and one of his followers cannot control his grief, Socrates says. “Really, my friends, what a way to behave. That’s why I sent the women away to avoid this sort of disturbance. We should approach our end in a tranquil frame of mind.
 
What of Jesus’ hopes on the night he was betrayed and faced his own death? Like Dido he wished to be remembered, but for him, the nature of his earthly demise was an integral part of the legacy of his life and teachings. This explains why Christians take the opportunity in Holy Week, to recall and reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus. A third of the gospel story is taken up with the passion narrative.
 
In the Garden of Gesthsemane Jesus faced an agonising decision of his own, but unlike Aeneas, in his story as portrayed in the gospel, Jesus’ obedience to death is a response to the call of love. Jesus, like Socrates met with his disciples before his death and urged them to live by his teaching, but not with a “Calm yourself” and “Send the women away”. The women  closest to Jesus are in fact the ones who watch at the foot of cross and attend to his body for burial. Jesus invites his disciples to share his fate, to take up their cross, almost as if Socrates had taken the cup of poison and passed it around his followers. In this way Jesus, with remarkable creativity and daring takes the thousand year old ritual of the Passover meal, traditionally a celebration of the Israelites’s freedom from slavery in Egypt and says “do this in remembrance of me”.
We need to appreciate what a remarkable and unique human story this is before exploring any theological significance.

SACRIFICE

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SACRIFICE

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused an uproar at its first performance in 1913, with witnesses reporting that blows were exchanged, objects thrown at the stage and one person at least challenged to a dual. The subject of the ballet was even more shocking, with its depiction of ritual abduction and a young girl dancing herself to death in the presence of old men.

Most ancient societies practised human sacrifice, later abandoning it in favour of the offering of animals. The story of Abraham climbing the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be interrupted by God with the order to substitute a ram, originates in this moment of change in human history. However, animal sacrifice might be perceived as no less barbaric: according to the First Book of Kings, at the dedication of the Temple in the space of one day,

“Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats.”

In 2016, after a break of two millennia, a Paschal Lamb was again sacrificed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in an effort by right-wing activists to lay greater claim on the site.

At this time of year Christians prepare to retell the story of Jesus’ passion, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world and brings to an end the need for further human or animal sacrifice. So what place has the notion of sacrifice in our time? We still talk of self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives for our freedom, giving their today for our tomorrow.

During Holy Week we could ask ourselves two questions. Is there anything for which we would sacrifice our lives? Most of us could imagine a context in which we might at least hope for the courage to lay down our lives; to protect our children, defend the freedoms of our society, or in an attempt to prevent abuse and slavery.

The second question follows. If we think there are situations in which we should be prepared to risk our lives, then are we physically and mentally prepared? Part of our Lenten discipline and the following of Jesus’ passion should be to strengthen our resolve and take up our cross if called.

 

FORGIVENESS

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FORGIVENESS
 
Before I was accepted for training as a priest, I had to attend a selection conference where I was interviewed by half a dozen men and women from different walks of life. I knocked on the door for the first interview and waited. It was suddenly opened by a man in a very smart suit who shook my hand, greeting me with the words “The trouble with you lot is that you’re all too polite. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I was glad of the walk into the room while I contemplated the options —  making up a “sinner to saint story”, persuading him of my godliness, or confessing all. 
 
I’ve never had the nerve to put that question to people within the context of an interview, but it is challenging to ask it of oneself.  Sometimes I would pose it rhetorically, in school assemblies, then turning the question around: “What is the worst thing that has been done to you?” Recognising the hurt and pain inflicted by us and on us can be a way of accepting ourselves and others.
 
Forgiveness is often said to be central to Jesus’ teaching and the Christian message. “Turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – all supersede the Old Testament “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.  Many sermons are devoted to the subject, and it’s argued by some psychologists that forgiveness is good for our health. As I get older, I think more emphasis should be put on forgiveness as a process rather than something to be completed, a commitment rather than a command, and certainly not something to be asked of everyone.
 
One modern version of the Lord’s Prayer contains the line “Forgive us our debts …” but forgiving someone isn’t like settling a debt; it involves a change in our feelings, attitude and behaviour towards offence and offender alike. This may may be a lengthy process and one which is not always completed. We have a legal duty to repay debts of a financial nature, but forgiveness is about our relationships with each other, and like love cannot be demanded of us. 
 
Although God is said to be all-forgiving, the gospels include the rather baffling and apparently contradictory verse “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemies will be forgiven….., except those against the Holy Spirit.” If there are things which God will not forgive, then surely we cannot expect more of our fellow human beings. Those who have suffered dreadful abuse, or been robbed of their ability to enjoy the trust and love of others are sufficiently challenged to lead a normal life, without having the demands of forgiveness placed upon them.

SECRETS

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“Keep the secrets”, the Harry Potter fandom is urged as they leave the theatre, much as an earlier generation was bidden not to disclose the secret of whodunnit in The Mousestrap. Whereas to facilitate a pleasant surprise may involve some elements of secrecy in the short term, the conspiratorial “It will be our little secret” has taken on more sinister and potentially abusive connotations in recent times.
 
The opening prayer of the Communion Service speaks of the God “from whom no secrets are hidden”, suggesting that one way to an understanding of God is to explore the nature of openness and honesty.
 
In an early episode of Netflix TV drama The Crown, George VI’s doctors decide not to reveal the true extent of his illness either to him or his family, as many other well-intentioned families hide a negative diagnosis from their loved ones. The justification is often that the full picture will deprive them of hope and possibly worsen their condition. This makes a comforting distinction between telling a blatant lie on the one hand, which many would find distasteful, dishonest and against their conscience, and simply  withholding information on the other.
 
However, the Old Testament command “Thou shalt not lie” is superseded in the New Testament by Paul’s more demanding dictum to the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love”. This is particularly challenging within the public and political sphere, but there are three areas of our personal life in which we can practise and find ways of speaking the truth in love. 
 
The first is in dealing with self-understanding; it is so tempting to hide the truth from ourselves, hard sometimes to love the person we have become. Another is within our closest friendships, where learning to receive and offer truth in loving reciprocation can enable its telling.
 
For ministers and believers, there is a crucial third area, the church community, in which too often preaching and actions belie true belief, as we fail to be transparent about centuries of biblical scholarship and try to protect congregations from the force of contemporary criticism. There is no room for secrecy in love and faith or with God as described in the same communion prayer; the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known”.

BELIEF

One of the characters in Aidan Chambers’ novel Now I Know offers a definition of belief by separating the word into two parts “be and “lief”. “Be” is to exist, to live, to have a presence in the world. “Lief” relates to an Old English word for love and means gladly and willingly.

“So belief means: that you will give all your attention to living with loving gladness in the world you think really exists.”

The etymology is a little more complicated than the 17 year old Nik describes and the word belief in English has a variety of meanings, ranging from the conviction that something is true, to having faith and trust in a person’s character. However, Aidan Chambers reminds us that neither definition paints the full picture.

When English-speaking Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God”, what do they mean?

God exists?

God is to be trusted?

God is the means by which they embrace and embark on a meaningful life?

In Latin, each of these has a different construction corresponding to the above:

credo deum

credo deo

credo in deum

Surprisingly perhaps, it is the third option that we find in the original version used in Christian worship dating back to the fourth century. In his Commentary on John’s Gospel, St Augustine writes

“What is it therefore to believe in him? It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body.”

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis also makes much of the distinction between credere in Deum and credere Deum. “in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum” as it leads to a loving, dynamic faith, one that doesn’t stop at only marking out the limits of what we believe, but leads to a faith that changes our lives.”

CHANGING THE CHURCH’S TEACHING

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I was browsing through a book at a friend’s house over Christmas which had been recommended to him by his Baptist minister. Brian D. McLaren’s,  A New Kind of Christianity was an enlightening read; right across the spectrum of the church – from evangelicals to liberals – a new strategy for changing the church is being adopted.

Times change along with our thinking and the church’s teaching needs to respond accordingly. That’s not straightforward, especially in a church where its leader’s declarations are said to be infallible. Some have likened it to altering the course of an ocean liner, so the hope of a new strategy for change is welcome and overdue.

One approach has been to examine. For example, most people no longer believe in the devil but to make a lasting difference this has to be written into the formal beliefs and liturgies of the church. Within the context of infant baptism, parents and priests are required publically to declare their commitment to “fight against sin, the world and the devil” yet privately most will feel the concept is outmoded and inconceivable.

A second strategy is to leave the credal statements as they are and reinterpret them. If there is little hope of getting the church to say “We don’t believe in hell any longer” then ministers can say “I do believe in hell but it’s here, now, among us in the midst of war and famine.” Sooner or later, though, they will be challenged – “So you don’t really believe in hell, do you?”

A third strategy which I proposed in Agenda for Faith, is to say that the faith of the church hasn’t changed but philosophy has. Our understanding of meaning, truth and the self is radically different from that of the ancient Greeks upon whose philosophy most credal statements and doctrines are based. However not many congregations are prepared to tolerate sermons on 21st century philosophy.

Another strategy I adopted in God in the Bath is to show that classical orthodox theology is far more radical than it appears. Thomas Aquinas, for example, who is often regarded as a model of church teaching wrote that “God is not a thing that exists but existence itself”. Whatever “existence itself” might mean, it exposed the metaphorical nature of all religious language.

More recently a new strategy has emerged and has been adopted by radicals and evangelicals alike. Raimon Panikkar, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and scholar, put forward the view that the history of the Christian tradition can be divided into three periods. In the first, Christendom, culture, faith, political life and territory coincided. People centred around a single ideological world-view and anyone who disagreed was locked up or burnt.

With European exploration and the discovery of the New World, Africa and India, Christendom gave way to Christianity, an integrated system of beliefs which stood in contrast to “-isms” such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism – words coined by the Christian West. With the wane of imperialistic ambitions and the intellectual challenge to systems of belief, Christianity, argued Panikkar, has come to an end. Christianity has given way to Christianness. Jesus, didn’t have a system of belief and his followers were described in the bible as followers of “The Way” . “To be Christian”, writes Panikkar (in Christianity: Opera Omnia Vol. III.2, A Christophany) “can be understood as the confession of a personal faith that adopts an attitude analogous to that of Christ.” Here’s a chance for the church to return to its roots without entangling itself in the doctrinal squabbles.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

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Happy Christmas to readers of Canonfodder and thank you for your comments, “likes” and encouragement and to those who have shared the blogs.

As a retired vicar I miss the Christmas Day services when reunited families with visiting grandparents and children home from college would show off, with some embarrassment new scarves, socks and cuddly animals.

One of my favourite traditional Christmas legends is that of the poinsettia brought back from Southern Mexico by Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to that country in the nineteenth century. Poor Pepita is walking with her cousin Pedro to the Christmas Eve service with no gift to present at the crib. Picking some roadside flowers she makes a little bouquet and with some embarrassment lays them before the nativity scene in the village church. “The most humble of gifts given in love are acceptable” Pedro had said and suddenly the weeds are transformed into blooms of brilliant red.

The message is simple and needs no explanation; may love transform your Christmas.

NO ROOM AT THE INN

In hundreds of Christmas Nativity plays across the land innkeepers and innkeepers’ wives are turning away a dejected holy family with the familiar words “No room at the inn”.

Many of my readers will know as well as I do that in the gospels, in fact no such inhospitable publican exists. In the tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, there is an inn and an innkeeper but when he tells the Christmas story he doesn’t use that word for inn. The word he uses means more simply room, guest room or place.

Mary and Joseph travel to their family home for the census and stay with relatives. As they are betrothed they are given the guest room – most houses had one. However when the baby is due, there isn’t enough space in the guest room for all the midwives and women to help with the birth, so they would have been moved into the larger downstairs family room. As in most dwellings at the time, this would be where the animals and the manger were kept.

All this, by the way, is not a modern discovery; it was known at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when one hapless Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas was brought before the Inquisitors for teaching it to his students!

Every year some newspaper columnist would tell us that the real Christmas story isn’t like it is in the nativity plays, and every year a well-meaning parishioner would draw my attention to such an article with indignation; do journalists think Christians to be naive and deluded? Do they think we don’t take our biblical studies seriously?

The reality is – in religious terms it’s all of little consequence.

We don’t live and die by the historical accuracy of the Christmas story but by the truths about human life written into it and by the spirit it imbues into our lives. Unless the telling of the Christmas story, the singing of the carols and the coming out in the dead of night for a midnight mass make some difference to our understanding of who we are, it counts for nothing.

If there is one thing that the Christmas story teaches us it’s that the things of God – love, life, happiness – come to us like tiny babies that have to be swaddled and cherished, nurtured and disciplined. Such is the way we should cherish every little bit of love and life and happiness that comes our way.

ADVENT

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Did anyone ever make a Blue Peter Advent crown out of coat hangers? When one caught light in the studio, it was certainly very tempting! How Advent calendars have changed over the last 50 years; in fact it’s possible to spend more on an Advent Calendar than the Christmas presents themselves. Villery and Bosch have one with 24 miniature ornaments for just £350 but for the Scottish Whiskey connoisseur a mere £9,999.95 will give you a collection of very old and rare tasters. Be quick, though, there were only two left when I looked.

The countdown to Christmas has begun and churches invite us to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Curiously the message of Advent is not about getting ready for a particular known and expected date. Just the opposite in fact; it’s being prepared for the unexpected. The parables read in church during Advent talk of a thief coming in the night, about bridesmaids unprepared for the bridegroom’s sudden and unannounced arrival.

The Advent challenge is to step aside from the business and stress of the seasonal rush and relax in the present. It urges us to celebrate the best that surrounds us now and respond to the needs of others. How we react to the unexpected demands on us is, according to the Advent parable of the sheep and goats, a matter of the uttermost significance. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?” ask the doomed animals of Christ. “Because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me” comes the reply. The countdown to Christmas may have begun but it isn’t only the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago that should preoccupy us; it’s the coming of Christ unexpectedly in the call of our neighbour.

HEAVEN

One subject generally perceived to divide Christians from non-Christians is that of heaven, and the notion of an afterlife. I would challenge this perception, and take the view that there is more common ground than might at first be realised.

Interestingly, belief in heaven and an afterlife is not universal amongst Christians. According to “A Theory of Us”, 13% of American Christians do not believe in an afterlife. In Britain, according to YouGov.co.uk, the number of professed Christians who definitely believe in an afterlife is just under 50%, and even fewer believe in heaven. We can either draw the conclusion that the church is littered with heretics or that the nature of this aspect of Christian faith is seriously misunderstood.

Traditional, orthodox faith does not assert that we have a soul destined automatically to go on to another life, but it does propound the concept of resurrection. I once contributed a chapter to a book called “God and Reality” whose editor challenged this idea, referring it to Lambeth Palace. I was gratified that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office backed me up!

Many pictures of heaven are a distortion of Christian belief. There are no detailed descriptions of heaven in the gospels; our final destiny is said to be “in God”, which is precisely how we should be living our whole lives. As Paul says, “We live and move and have our being in God”. Similarly, the kingdom of heaven/God is amongst us and within us; something to experience here and now, a desire expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.

The whole point of this teaching is to focus our attention on our present lives and to look for God and the goodness of heaven among us.

Many ministers, in the hope of bringing comfort to the dying and bereaved, will talk of being reunited with friends and family, and living a life of unending happiness. The obvious questions are put to one side: What would it be like to meet former acquaintances? What would an unending life be like? What age would we be? Would it not become increasingly perplexing and tedious? The difficulties arise from thinking that heaven represents the next chapter in our life whereas in fact it is the end; its completion and fulfilment. Death brings our life to an end and the very word “after” is therefore necessarily metaphorical.

Christians cannot escape these questions and in collaboration with their non-believing friends must work to ensure that goodness is enjoyed and celebrated now, and that people are enabled to live worthwhile and fulfilling lives surrounded by loving and supportive friends.