In memoriam

I was just writing my blog when the news reported the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh. That rather put a stop to the blog I had planned. Our plans at Southwark Cathedral for ‘Forth Bridge’ began to be rolled out and I headed in from the Deanery to do what I needed to do. It became clear that I should preach in the Cathedral on the Sunday and so when I got back home I had to write a sermon instead. So, apologies, but this is the sermon. The lections were Acts 4.32-35, 1 John 1.1-2.2 and John 20.19-31.

It was 160 years ago, in 1861, that Prince Albert, the beloved husband and consort of Queen Victoria died at Windsor Castle.  They’d only been married for 21 years – but he was her life.  When Prince Philip died on Friday all these years later, but in the same place, he and the Queen had been married for 73 years.  In the statement put out by the Palace he was described as the Queen’s beloved husband.  We can only imagine how Her Majesty is feeling.

A few year’s before Prince Albert died, the then Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had published a poem entitled ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’. It’s reported that in her loss the Queen found it a great comfort.  The poem includes those well known lines

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Each of us who have loved someone and lost someone know that that is true. Death is so painful for the ones that are left, separation is such a blow that we might ask ourselves why on earth we would love someone only to be left, only to be hurt by their leaving us. And then we remember, and Tennyson’s words ring so true for us

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

‘To love and to cherish till death us do part’– it doesn’t matter whether your a monarch or a commoner, a prince or a pauper in this country, the words are the same.  Whatever happens in reality to marriages, to relationships, the intention at that point of beginning is the same, ‘till death us do part’.  As often as I’ve led couples in those vows I’ve never ceased to be struck by the enormity of what we promise to one another, and the pain we’re therefore committing ourselves to. 

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Today is the Octave Day of Easter, the eighth day, the great recapitulation of the joy we felt and shared a week ago.  The disciples had been bereft.  They’d left everything, homes and jobs, their nets, their boats, their seat at the place of custom, their dreams, their loves, they’d left everything as they responded to the call to ‘follow me’ and had embarked on a turbulent love affair with Jesus.  This was an all or nothing way of life, an all or nothing relationship.  He asked for everything and they gave it to him.

So when on Good Friday they watched in horror – from a distance – as he was nailed like a common criminal to the wood of the cross and his life blood ebbed away, they were heart broken.  As Mary would say through her tears in the garden

‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’

The pain and the passion are raw.

And then, on this roller-coaster ride of emotions, the news was brought to them that he was alive.  But as we heard in the Gospel for today, not all of them believed, not all of them saw, not all of them could get beyond the horror of loss.  Thomas had yet to be convinced.

In fact it’s here, in the place of doubt, that Tennyson begins his poem ‘In Memoriam’, here in the Upper Room with the disciple who has the courage to give voice to his doubts, the courage to demand to see, and touch, the courage to demand to know. Tennyson begins

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

It was on this day, eight days later, on this Octave day of Easter, that Thomas saw and believed and made that greatest of professions of faith and love ‘‘My Lord and my God!’

Many of us have the courage to give voice to our doubts.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith; the opposite of faith is certainty.  ‘By faith, and faith alone, embrace, Believing where we cannot prove’ writes Tennyson.  Faith is so powerful; it is what drives the church forward. 

In the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard a description of something of the life of the early church, of the way in which those first people of faith, those first believers in the resurrection of Jesus began to model, to shape their lives.  They became people of testimony, testifying to the resurrection of Jesus in what they said but also testifying in what they did, how they lived, how they had everything in common and how there was no one needy among them.  ‘A beam in darkness’ the light of Christ shining into the world.

It was not Prince Philip’s way to want us to canonize him in death.  His mother may be regarded as a modern day saint and celebrated as such in parts of the church, but he would not want that for himself.  As a nation we’ll be marking his death as he wanted, with quiet dignity.  But what we can say of him is that his actions and his passions, his enthusiasm and his honesty could be a light in the darkness. 

To live out of the love that we have for Jesus is what each of us is called to do, to be salt and light, to live by faith and not by sight, to be disciples who are prepared to leave all things behind and to follow Christ, that is our calling as much as it was the calling of those first disciples. 

In a moment three of our young people, Albert, Carla and Cecilia, are going to be admitted to Communion with us, to be part of our community, at the table, at the altar, sharing the bread, sharing the life of Jesus. But before they are they will be invited to say yes to this statement

You love God, you follow Jesus, and you live the Christian life.

We might add ‘till death us do part’.  They make that commitment and we today can reaffirm it for ourselves.

It’s the way we live, the way we love, a path that will bring pain, a path that will know loss.  It’s the life that sustains the greatest and the least, for in the kingdom of God we are all children, all equal, prince and pauper, for Jesus is Lord of all and brother of all, and with one bread he feeds us now, young and old, male and female, black and white, gay and straight and every non-binary way that makes us who we are, and with one equal love he will receive is into his eternity to live his life for ever.

God of majesty, give rest to your servant Philip who, having served his Queen and Country, has passed from this life, full of years yet strong in spirit. As we give thanks for his life, as Prince and husband, as Consort and family man, we pray that all that he has done may continue to bear fruit in the lives of individuals and the life of this nation and the Commonwealth, to your honour and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘While it was still dark’

Happy Easter. We have had a very good Holy Week at Southwark Cathedral. It was a joy to get into the church and a real joy to have Dr Paula Gooder as our guide through the week. This is the sermon I preached early on Easter Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 25.6-9, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

As this slow unlocking of life continues I realise that there’s so much that I’m looking forward to – something of that freedom that we used to enjoy, to do what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it, to go where we wanted to go when we wanted to go there.  I miss the theatre, and I miss restaurants, and, believe it or not, I miss hotels.  I really enjoy staying in hotels, it’s a guilty pleasure!  Airbnb is fine but there’s nothing quite like being in a hotel as far as I’m concerned.  But one thing that always frustrates us and that’s when there are insufficient plug sockets next to the bed.  We’ve resorted to always travelling with one of those multi plug extension leads in the luggage and when we’ve forgotten to take it we have to search out a hardware store wherever we are to buy one!

The reason?  Well it’s simply that there are so many things nowadays that you have to charge overnight.  There’s the phone, my watch, the iPad, maybe the Kindle if I’ve had a day of reading, my shaver, all those kinds of things.  And some of them do need to be on charge overnight and linked to the Wi-Fi so that they can update themselves and put things into the cloud and do all the work they seem to do when we’re asleep so that we can pick up our lives and our gadgets in the morning, fully charged and ready to go.

St John’s account of the resurrection begins with these words

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So often when I’ve been thinking about Easter and Mary Magdalene in the garden I’ve been thinking about the second half of this wonderful Gospel reading.  Mary is on her own in the dawn light when she encounters Jesus, but mistakes him for the gardener, when he calls her name and she doesn’t quite realise who she’s meeting – until it all becomes clear.  And I’ve often thought about what things look like in that half-light at the beginning of the day and made that connection, which we so often do with our Easter hymns, that resurrection comes with the dawn, that life begins as the sun rises.

But Mary in fact comes to the tomb, to the garden, in the dark.  Unable to sleep, she’d picked her way through the still sleeping disciples and their companions, quietly closing behind her the door of the room where they were staying, not wanting to disturb anyone whilst they were sleeping, not wanting to have to explain to anyone what she was doing, what she was feeling or to express her raw grief to anyone else but wanting the cloak and the anonymity of the darkness to help her come to terms with what’d happened to Jesus.

And so through the dark, silent, abandoned streets she makes her way to the garden and the tomb, the cave in which she, with the other women, had left him as the sun had sunk behind the horizon and the Sabbath had begun.

‘While it was still dark’, John tells us, ‘while it was still dark’ the work of God had taken place, while the world was sleeping God was active, in the dark rather than in the dawn resurrection took place.  Even the stone had been rolled away ‘while it was still dark’, there was nothing to be done by anyone, all the work had been completed, overnight, while everyone rested, ‘while it was still dark’. God is active in the darkness, God is at work even when we are unaware that divine work is being done.

In one of his Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’ the poet T S Eliot writes this

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

It was ‘all in the waiting’. Mary was waiting, but she was waiting not as we waited for this Easter Day but waiting to complete the work of burial that she’d begun.  She could wait no longer and so she entered the darkness and discovered that in God

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

One of the images that has long been used for the resurrection is the butterfly.  If you go into the retrochoir and look at Comper’s reredos in St Christopher’s chapel you were see painted there beautiful butterflies to remind us of the new life that Jesus brings.  How can that caterpillar become the lovely butterfly, but through the tomb of the chrysalis.  Hidden away, in the darkness, out of sight the work takes place and from the darkness something amazing, something beautiful emerges.

We’ve lived through a year of waiting, of loss, of false starts, of dashed hopes, of postponed joy, of grief, of sickness.  For all of us it’s been hard, for some it has been unbearable.  And now we’re gradually emerging, looking forward to different things happening, picking up our life, embracing, loving, laughing.

But what this Easter Day reminds us is that God has been at work even in the lockdown, even in the darkness, even in our isolation, even when God has seemed very absent, even when we have felt at our most alone.  God does not have to wait for the dawn to do the work that needs to be done.  Jesus steps from the darkness of the tomb into the darkness of the world that

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

And we emerge too, daring to step into the unknown, daring to test the water of the world, daring to pick up where we left off, daring to embrace, to love, to laugh.  We’ve waited a long time for this but in Jesus, in the resurrected, butterfly-beautiful Jesus we know that

‘the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.’

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading reassures us of the truth of all of this

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
   This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
   let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

My friends, the night has passed, the new day has dawned, the Lord is risen and God’s work has been done.  Bread has been broken, wine has been poured, the table is set and all is ready.

We’re simply invited to step into the future and to leave the stillness behind, to join in the dance that has already begun.

God, draw us from the darkness into the light and to the banquet and the dance you have prepared for us. Amen.

Entering Jerusalem

There are many wonderful things in the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral – but I want to share one with you on this Palm Sunday. It’s an icon, an icon of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and it is that icon that I want us to look at.

I don’t know the history of the icon.  But I do know that as with many icons you have to read it closely to get everything that the writer, yes the writer of the icon, intended.  Icons are written, not painted and written I suppose because they make theological statements about what it is that they depict, be that a person or an event, as in the case of the icon I want us to look at.  Icons are after all not things that we simply look at as with other Christian art, they are undoubtedly art but they are much more than that, they are, as Metropolitan Kalllistos Ware says in his introduction to Rowan Williams book on icons of the virgin called ‘Ponder these things’, ‘part of an act of worship  … for we pray with them.. we don’t so much study an icon as see in it an invitation to prayer’.

I want to begin by reminding you of the passage that we hear today in our churches.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11.1-11)

Egeria was a Spanish nun who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381 and 384.  During her time spent with the Christian communities throughout the Middle East – she wasn’t just in Palestine she even made it to the top of Mount Sinai – she kept a journal and noted down in it everything that she experienced and that has provided us with a huge amount of material about the early Christian liturgies in Jerusalem and they have provided liturgists with a wonderful way of studying the DNA of what we do and why we do it.

This is what Egeria records about Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.

Procession with Palms on the Mount of Olives.

XXXI Accordingly at the seventh hour all the people go up to the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. And when the ninth hour approaches they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit down, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present; the deacons alone always stand. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers.

And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.

And all the children in the neighbourhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old.

For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the people should be wearied; and thus they arrive at the Anastasis at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late, lucernare takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which the people are dismissed.

It is a wonderful description of what happened then and as you walk down that same road today with any group of pilgrims you know that you are not just treading where Jesus trod but where generations of faithful Christians have walked.  This really is holy ground.

So I want us to enter into the experience now and travel that road with Jesus.  So let us begin by praying.

True and humble king, hailed by the crowd as Messiah: grant us the faith to know you and love you, that we may be found beside you on the way of the cross, which is the path of glory. Amen.

The first thing I notice when I look at this icon as a whole is that it is divided into two sections – left and right.  On the left we have a natural scene – there is a mountain, a very rocky severe mountain and alongside it green trees.  This is the Mount of Olives but it could be any mountain.  On the right hand side it is a mass of roofs and buildings – the built environment, mankind’s creation.  This is Jerusalem but it could be any city. There is a complete divide here in the icon and Jesus is moving between the two.

Let’s listen to the voice of the mountain.

From the very beginning I have been the place where you have met with God.  I was the place where the bush burned and was not consumed, the place where God revealed as much of his nature as you could bear.  I was the place where Moses came and received the law from the hand of God, the place where he talked with God as a person would talk to a friend.  It was on me that the ark had rested when creation was saved.  It was on me that Elijah took refuge, on me that he fought with the priests of a god who was no god and revealed the one true God.  I am the place where God makes himself known to you.

I have seen it all.  When the earth was newly born I was created.  Before the mantle of the earth was cold and firm I was thrust up, I was formed, the pressures on me were great and inside me were created the gemstones that you prize, the minerals that you seek.  I am like a treasure chest for you, the mountain to which you come not just to find your God but to find your wealth.

I am the place to which Jesus comes.  I am the mountain where he struggled with the devil those forty days and forty nights.  From my summit he gazed over the whole of creation and saw all that would be available to him.  But he would not submit to the temptation and I saw him strong.  I am the mountain to which he brought his friends, the mountain they climbed together, the mountain where they met two others, the ones who had climbed me before – Moses and Elijah.  I was veiled like a bride that day as the mists swirled around me, as the cloud descended and I entered.  I was like a bride adorned for her bridegroom, resplendent in the veil that God provided.  And the bridegroom was beautiful, dressed in white, the purest white and in light that the earth had not seen since that moment of creation when I too was born.  I am the mountain to which Jesus came and prayed, when he had to escape the attention of the crowds, when he needed the space.  I was his place of refuge and I would be again, the place where he would pray and weep and wait.

And now he comes down from my summit.  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.  And my stones shout out with the crowd.  For we know God and we have known God for our life and the very stones of which I am made cannot keep silence – my stones shout out – for I know God and this is God. ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.’

But Jesus has never been able to stay on the top of the mountain.  Remember that moment of transfiguration?  His disciples wanted to stay on the summit, to preserve the experience but Jesus knew that they couldn’t.  It was down where the community was that Jesus had to be – whatever awaited him in that place.

Christianity has always moved between the two places.  It has always been both a desert experience and an urban experience; the saints have made their home in both places, on the mountains and in the streets. And now Jesus is moving from the mountain to the city.

Let us listen to the voice of the city.

I was built in the heat of the day, in the sweat of human brows, by their hands, to their design as the place where they would settle, as the place where they would worship.  I am for them a place of safety and a place of refuge.  There is nothing bad about me; in fact people say that I am beautiful.  Look at my roofs and my spires, look at my domes and my columns.  I am the envy of the world.  The Queen of Sheba travelled across the world to see me, to see my beauty and she brought gifts to adorn me.  But others envied me, they came and they destroyed me, they broke down my walls and they burned my gates, they stole my people and they left me for dead.  But God was my true builder.  It was not just the mountain that he created, he also created me, as the place in which he would dwell, the mirror, the reflection of the city that he built in heaven, an earthly city and a heavenly city.

And to me my people returned and they rebuilt my streets and the rebuilt my temple and they dressed me in cedar and in gold and I was beautiful once more.  But I have never looked more beautiful than the day a star passed over me.  It appeared to halt as a caravan of men from far away drew near but they were destined for another city, another town and the light passed away and I was eclipsed as the bright star shone on the little town in the valley beneath me.

But there are crowds now at my gate and they are adorning my streets with a carpet of their own making and another light approaches and once more I am bathed in beauty.  I am to host the light, the light of the world and people will know me forever, and people will be in awe of me forever, and everyone will want part of me forever and everyone will fight over me … forever.  What is it that this man is bringing to me?  They call me the city of peace but can I be?  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

Beside the mountain there is a tree, presumably an olive tree because this is meant to be the Mount of Olives.  In the icon it acts like a buffer between the harshness of the rock and the naturalness of the created environment and the city itself.  This is not just a tree but a cultivated tree, a tree on whose fruit people rely for so much, for lighting their rooms, for cooking their food, for anointing their face.  To have an olive tree was to have an income; to have a grove of olive trees was to have a large income.

But it’s not especially the tree that I’m interested in but the men that have climbed into the tree and are wielding their axes in order to chop branches off the tree to spread it at the feet of Jesus, to help make for him this triumphal carpet.  I’m reminded of Corpus Christi processions that I have been to.  The tradition on the continent on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the day on which we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord, is to make a processional carpet of blossoms and flowers on the street or on the church floor, wherever the procession of the Blessed Sacrament is going to go.

In England there is a different tradition.  Perhaps we don’t have quite as many exotic blooms around to provide a carpet and so instead what people did and still do is to make a carpet of herbs, any herbs cut from the gardens and spread across the floor and as the feet of the priests carrying the sacrament tread on the herbs they are crushed and the air is filled with a sweet perfume.

And this is what these men were helping with, making a Corpus Christi route for the body of Christ to cross, a route from the mountain to the city.

Let us listen to the voice of one of the men.

I heard that Jesus was on his way and I had to drop everything to see him.  I had seen him before; I had seen him in Jericho, the city that is my home.  But I had come to do business in Jerusalem.  It isn’t far, I just followed the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho, the route on which so many robbers and brigands lurk to catch the lone traveller.  But I wasn’t on my own.  Crowds were heading up to Jerusalem, not for Jesus but for the Passover.  The priest and Levites were walking with me from their summer homes in Jericho back to the place where worship was offered and the sacrifice would be made.  I was going to do business and to do my duty by God, but then I heard that Jesus was on his way and I made haste to be there, cutting up through Bethany and over the top of the Mount of Olives so that I could see him as he approached.

I had seen him before; I’d seen him in Jericho.  I heard that he was coming then and to gain a vantage point I climbed a tree, a sycamore tree in the middle of the town and I had a grandstand view.  And he saw me and called me down and shocked everyone by asking for a meal in my house.  And as he broke bread at my table he changed my life.  Then he left, on his way to somewhere else, to someone else.  But in truth he never left me.  And I have to see him now.

And once more there is a huge crowd and again I do my old trick, I climb a tree.  And I can see him coming, not walking this time but on the back of a donkey, coming as a man of peace, coming as a king of peace into the city of peace.  And the crowd are shouting and clapping and singing and they begin to throw their coats on the ground and pull branches from the palms around.  And I am in the tree and I take a knife and I cut some branches from the tree and throw them down to the people to spread before this king.  And he looks up and sees me and smiles.  He must think, ‘Why is this man always in a tree?’

There will be another tree.  Looking back on this day I know this now but I didn’t know it then as I looked down and his mount trod on the sweet fruit of the branch I had thrown down and the air was filled with perfume.  There would be another tree but it would not be me that would climb it.  The king would climb it, Jesus would climb that tree.  It would no longer be me that would be the man in the tree, it would be him, eternally.  And as I looked on him on that tree I knew that I was there with him, that he had climbed that tree for me.  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

In the icon Jesus is surrounded by people behind and before him.  And I presume that those behind him are his disciples, literally his followers.  Jesus is leading them.  They helped make the preparations for this day and for this entry into Jerusalem.  This was not accidental entry, it was planned, it was engineered.  Jesus knew what he was doing and he knew what the effect would be.  And as they arrived at Bethany, where they were staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Jesus sent a couple of them to find him a donkey to ride in on.  Three years they had been with him and he had walked everywhere, never ridden, only ever been in a boat, and even then he had to walk!  But he wanted this donkey and they had found the beast and brought it to him and now he rides into the city.

Let us listen to the voice of the donkey.

Why are you amused at having to listen to the voice of a donkey?  The thing is I often talk to you but you refuse to listen, I bray and you turn away.  You think I’m stupid, you think I’m lazy.  But I have spoken before, at least an ancestor of mine did.  He was carrying a prophet, on a mission and they got stuck in a pass and it was my ancestor that saw the angel.  That prophet didn’t.  Now who’s stupid?  And when my ancestor had had enough abuse he spoke and the man listened.  So don’t imagine this is unusual.

And why do you think that we are lazy?

I had another ancestor.  He worked in the north, in a town called Nazareth and belonged to a carpenter.  I met him some years later and he told me all about it.  His owner’s betrothed wife was expecting a child, but then the Romans required everyone to go to their own town to be registered.  There was no way that this girl could walk and so my ancestor carried her, he carried Mary, for that was her name.  It was a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from the lush pastures of Galilee to the harsher Judean hillsides.  But my ancestor said that it was easy, it was such a joy to carry her.  And when they arrived my ancestor expected to be stabled alone but as luck would have it the man and his wife had to stay in the stable as well because all the rooms were full. So my ancestor was one of the first to see the new baby; Joseph, then my ancestor, a donkey, they were the first to greet the child.

But the story didn’t end there.  For some reason this child was wanted by the police and so the family had to flee and my ancestor carried them, the woman and the child all the way to Egypt.  Can you imagine – and they call us lazy – and when the coast was clear the family made the journey back from Egypt to Nazareth.  The tales my ancestor told.

And then I was just minding my own business, tied up outside my owners house when some people I didn’t know came and untied me and led me away.  And a man I did not know came and mounted me and I was led towards Jerusalem.  And I didn’t resist.  I was proud.  I felt like a stallion in a triumphal procession, the ones I had watched with envy being ridden by the Romans.  I felt envy no longer.

And the men beside me were talking about the man who was riding me and reminding each other of the things he had said ‘My yoke is easy, my burden is light’.  And I thought, ‘it is true’.  And as we approached the city the crowds were out in force and they were shouting and throwing down coats and branches for me to walk on – and it was amazing.  And I bowed my head in humility.  I was proud but in a different way.  And as I bowed a little child fed me.  Life has never been this good.

And the man dismounted, patted my head and he was gone.  I was talking to a friend some days later and they said that they had been outside the city walls with their master and seen the man I had carried killed.  The crowds were out again but this time shouting and frightening and there was no carpet to walk on, just hard stone and dust.  And the man was nailed to a cross.

I have a cross on my back, in fact we all do, all donkeys do.  And some people say it is because I carried the man Jesus.  I don’t know if it’s true but I like to think that whoever rides me now sits upon the cross, where Jesus sat.  So don’t call me stupid or lazy.  If you want to call me anything call me Christopher because I have carried Christ.  And I shout out with the rest of them ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

Standing in the gates of the city, just like a reception committee, there is the crowd.  They have come out to greet Jesus and his disciples.  News of him has travelled round the country.  The things he has said, but mostly things he has done, signs and wonders.  And so the crowd has come out to see for themselves.  And of course there are a lot of people about.  They are already gathering for the celebration of the Passover and like tourists everywhere they’re kicking their heels until the main event and so when news comes that there is something worth seeing they gather. 

In the icon we see that these are well dressed people, men and women, leaders of the city perhaps, leaders of the temple, perhaps.  Who knows?  It looks like everyone is here – curious to see what’s going on.

Let us listen to the voice of the crowd.

We came simply to see.  But you know what it’s like; you’ve been in a crowd.  You come as an individual and soon you become part of a crowd.  And the crowd has its own personality, its own humour, its own mind.  When we are in a crowd we behave in a different way, more like a flock of birds or a shoal of fish, moving together, in unison, guided by instinct, guided by something.  We came as individuals but we became a crowd.

Then the lookouts in the trees shouted that he was coming and the rejoicing began.  A roar went up from the crowd.  And we all joined in.  It became a party and people began taking off rich coats and cloaks and spreading them on the path.  It was as though the king was riding into town and we partied.  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

We came together later in the week, we, the crowd.  But when does a crowd become a mob?  We came together that next time as a crowd because we heard he had been arrested, the man we had welcomed like a king, and we crowded onto the Pavement to witness what was going on.  But the crowd became a mob and there was no singing, just chanting, ugly chanting.  We had been a beautiful crowd, we became an ugly mob.  And we could see him when he entered the Pavement with the guards either side of him, looking nothing like the man on the donkey of a few days ago – smaller, more pathetic, not dangerous.  But others said he was.  ‘Ignore what he looks like, this man is dangerous, this man is trouble, this man is a blasphemer and he is going to bring everything down around our heads.  He’s going to destroy the Temple and bring the wrath of the Romans down on us.  He’s no king of peace, this man is danger’.

And suddenly the crowd knew what to shout for.  Like a flock wheeling in the sky, suddenly changing direction, like a shoal in the sea moving instantaneously somewhere else, we knew what to shout for ‘Crucify him, crucify him.  Give us Barabbas’.  And we shouted till we were hoarse.  And we knew that we would get what we wanted.  We were beautiful at the gate, we were ugly now.  And as he was led away, so we the crowd followed.  Not like disciples – we weren’t disciples, we followed.  So were we disciples?  I don’t know.

I was part of that crowd; I was part of that mob.  I went home, back to my family, disturbed.  Rumours were flying around Jerusalem when I left.  They said the man that I had shouted for to be killed was alive, that he had come back to life.  I can’t believe it – but I wish it were true.  I wish it were true that I hadn’t killed him.  The only true words I shouted in those days were the first ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

And in the centre of the icon is Jesus at the mid point – the mountain to one side, the city to the other, his disciples behind him, the crowd in front of him, the man in the tree above him, the donkey beneath him.  Jesus is the focal point of the icon, because he is the focal point of our lives.  He cuts a dignified figure, a regal figure.  This really is a triumphal entry.

Let us listen to his voice.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17.25-26)

True and humble king, hailed by the crowd as Messiah: grant us the faith to know you and love you, that we may be found beside you on the way of the cross, which is the path of glory. Amen.

Mind the gap!

One of the things that I really loved about coming down to London, before I was ever fortunate enough to live here, was the experience of going on the Tube. I think born and bred Londoners can forget just how exciting that can be. As a schoolboy it had everything, the smell, the bustle, the tallest escalators I had ever seen, the speed that the trains seem to go at through the tunnels, the noise and the wind and then the lights as they enter a station, and that broadcast warning ‘Mind the gap.’

In some stations you really need to heed the warning, that disconcerting chasm that can seem to open up before you as you struggle on to a crowded train with your shopping bags (remember those days?) or slightly worse for wear after a night out on the town!.

There has been so much happening lately and I have avoided expressing opinions about most of it. It isn’t really the purpose of this blog to get embroiled in all the controversies – though looking back I had plenty to say about Brexit – but rather to try to do some theology ‘out loud’ in the kind of style that suits my way of thinking.

But I think that all of us have noticed that there are a number of gaps opening up that we really need to be aware of and, as Christians, as the church, have a concern for.

I didn’t watch the interview with Meghan and Harry. We talked about it – would we, wouldn’t we? In the end we chose to watch the latest episode of the ‘Pottery Throw Down’ or that great interior design programme with Alan Carr, instead. But of course one couldn’t escape the breath taking moments – the news and Gogglebox filled in the gaps in my knowledge. I am a great supporter of the Royal Family and, following the events of the 3 June 2017 and the terrorist attack on our community, it was an amazing privilege to meet Prince Harry when he came to meet the market traders. He was brilliant, doing what ‘The Firm’ do so well and doing it with such ease that everyone he met was simply encouraged.

However, reading around the interview in the last few weeks there seems to be a gap we need to mind. It seems to be a generational one. This is all generalisation of course but people younger than me seem to have huge sympathy for the plight of the Sussex’s and those of my age and older less sympathy. In the gap is a couple, a family, and a wider family whose pain is being played out in public.

A similar division seemed to develop around the events of last weekend on Clapham Common. There are those who think it a right to be able to express all their emotions, in public, when they need to, whatever the circumstances, to feel their pain and tell their truth and there are those who can’t bear to witness it. What worried me then and worries me now is that in the gap is a young woman, Sarah Everard, who before this I didn’t know, who was abducted on the streets not so far from where I live and was horribly murdered, there is a family who are grieving, there are real people with real emotions who have almost disappeared as their daughter, their loved one has become the icon of a movement. I agree with everything said – well almost everything – about the behaviour of men and the lack of safety for women not only on our streets, but in their homes and workplaces and social places and wherever else they choose to go. A gap in my own understanding was exposed, but a gap, also, in how we seem to think we should respond.

Then the events around the vaccine and vaccinations have exposed the most troubling gaps. The English Channel has seemed to become wider recently. The response of European politicians over the last week is, I think, disgraceful. To feed the vaccine sceptics, deniers and simply the fearful, with opinions dressed up as facts about the efficacy and risks of vaccination has undone so much good work that has been achieved. It is not too sensationalist to say that lives have been put at risk. But a gap has also been exposed about our understanding of risk. I tend to throw away the bit of paper that you get in every packet of medicine which has all the possible risks and side effects printed on it in Bible sized lettering. There are always risks, even with taking a simple painkiller and I have to live with that risk, the same as the risk I expose myself to in leaving the Deanery or even staying in it. Nothing is risk free and never will be, but is there now a gap between those who think there is a risk free life and those who think there isn’t such a thing?.

Finally, as we begin to emerge from this last and, what we hope will be, the final lockdown, the gaps of inequality in our society are becoming more and more apparent. If each of us wrote the story of our own lockdown what we wrote would be very different. For me, to be perfectly honest, it has been frustrating but not that bad. I live in a lovely house, with a garden, have been on full pay with fewer things to spend that money on, I have lots of rooms to find space in, I have digital connectivity, and lots of friends to call and Zoom with and I have someone to share all of this with – and I haven’t been ill. Contrast that with stories of people around the country and not so far from the privileged place in which I exist! The gaps are far too wide and they were always there but we had simply papered over them in many many ways and for far too long – and into those gaps real people, real families and whole communities are falling.

Today is Passion Sunday, the day when the church moves its attention away from the wilderness to the cross and the crucifixion. The Jesus we remember is the one who comes to bridge the gaps, who came to make ‘peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1.20) to make shalom, salaam, wholeness. He is the reconciler who draws heaven and earth into one, the incarnation who takes humanity into the godhead, the love which finds the loveless. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers we use so often it says this

He opened wide his arms on the cross.

These are powerful words that conjure up a powerful, reconciling image. Like the figure of Christ the Redeemer stretching his arms out across Rio de Janeiro, Jesus’ arms bridge the gap, every gap, pulling us together, drawing us together. We need to mind the gaps, heed the warnings. There are far too many of them opening up and they will fragment us if we don’t do some urgent gap-crossing, shalom, salaam building now.

Jesus, draw us to you, draw us together. Amen.

Stand up and be counted

I’m the kind of person who quite enjoys completing questionnaires. I think it goes back to the days when my sister used to get a copy of ‘Jackie’ delivered every week with the papers – I can’t quite remember what comic I was receiving at that stage – and I used to grab it to complete the questionnaire in it. There seemed to be one every week, the kind of thing about what kind of friend you were, or who you would fall in love with, three options, select one and then add up the score to find out about yourself. I loved it.

So opening an envelope with the details of this year’s Census was quite exciting. I’m looking forward to next Sunday and actually filling it all in for our household.

But I was just thinking about the rather chequered relationship that we have with the whole idea of a census. The Anglo-Saxon treasures exhibition at the British Library a couple, of years ago was the first time that I had actually seen in the flesh, so to speak, a copy of the Domesday Book. There it was at the end of the trail though all those wonderful objects and manuscripts as almost a holy object. We were proud where I was brought up in Wigston Magna that our ‘village’ was named in the Domesday Book, that you could discover who was there and who owned what and what the village looked like at that particular moment of history. Writing about it in the 12th century, Richard FitzNeal said

‘as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skillful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to … its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book “the Book of Judgement” … because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable.’

There are a number of times in the Bible that someone has decided to do a count of everyone, for various reasons, and often without a good outcome. The first census was conducted by Moses under instruction from God.

The Lord spoke to Moses: When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. (Exodus 30.11-12)

The purpose was basically taxation, count the people so that you can be sure of how many half-shekels you can expect to receive and the benefit to them was they wouldn’t catch the plague! This census, though, was at the bidding of God unlike the one that King David orders. We read about that one in 1 Chronicles 21. Here the idea was not from God but from Satan as it clearly says

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 21.1)

Joab though, who is commissioned like an early Office of National Statistics to get on with the job has a wise word for the King.

David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, ‘Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, so that I may know their number.’ But Joab said, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundredfold! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?’ But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. (1 Chronicles 21.2-4)

God wasn’t pleased. As a consequence and after a little bit of dealing between David and God this happened

So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel. (1 Chronicles 21.14)

The reason for God’s reaction? It was all about David and his sense of power and position. David had to learn that God was in charge and no amount of counting of potential troops was going to do the king any good.

But perhaps the most famous census of them all is the one that St Luke tells us about.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2.1-4)

Households, as it were, had to re-gather from all the places to which they had been dispersed and so, as a consequence, Jesus would be born in the City of David, a child of the census, the one who really would stand up and be counted, not for taxes, not for power but so that

Since … the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2.14-15)

or as Isaiah so powerfully put it ‘was numbered with the transgressors;’ (Isaiah 53.12), he was counted as one of us.

So I will enjoy completing the form online conscious also of how much we need the information that it produces to help in God’s mission and our ministry. We need to know just who we are, just what we need, just where we live, just what we face, not for power, not for taxes, but so that we can best serve one another in Christ’s name.

Jesus, counted amongst, bless each one of us as we stand up to be counted. Amen.

Please believe …

One of the features of Lent at Southwark Cathedral over the last decade has been the arrival of a major art installation which has then accompanied us through the season. The arrival of the art and the artist on the Monday before Ash Wednesday and then the dismantling of the installation on Holy Saturday has served to ‘book-end’ the season. In many ways some of the best experiences that we have had have been in relation to the art which we have welcomed. Each of them has provided the opportunity for us to do some theology, some reflection and to be able to welcome people who have found that the art has in some way spoken to them at the particular stage of their own journey.

‘Die harder’, ‘Christ rests’ were substantial pieces. ‘Earthworks’ more discrete. Last years’ pilgrimage candles arrived and within a couple of weeks were abandoned, left on their own, keeping a silent vigil in a very empty church. The installation and the process of the making of the candles and the ‘Measuring of the Saints’ that Michelle Rumney undertook was exciting and involving. It was such a shame that the outbreak of the pandemic meant that we couldn’t really experience fully what they had to give to us. That was why it was amazing to be able to receive back two of those candles – the one representing St Thomas Becket and the one representing our dear friend Marion Marples, a pilgrim par-excellence, for the service to mark the preaching in the Priory of St Mary Overie by Becket 850 years ago on his way to Canterbury and his martyrdom. They stood in the Cathedral as sentinels.

It was a hard decision to make this year not to have an installation for the usual period. But we were all clear that there was little point bringing something in when people were not going to be able to come in to enjoy it and benefit from it. We had though been working with the artist Mark Titchner who had already agreed to be our ‘Lent artist’ for this year. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use the image of his art now, in our online worship and publicity, and to plan to have the actual installation later in the year when, God willing, people will be able to get into the Cathedral to engage with it.

Mark’s work reminds me in some ways of the artist Banksy. He has created public art in public spaces which give wonderful and clear messages. A year ago we were in the Holy Land, literally keeping just ahead of the spread of the virus. It did mean that we couldn’t go into Bethlehem as the borders of the Palestinian Authority had closed. So our pilgrims were unable to see the wonderful work that Banksy has done on the separation wall. The ‘Walled-Off Hotel’ next to the wall itself contains a real archive of Banksy’s work and is testament to the power of that street art. But street art of all kinds is a powerful thing.

Some street art we found in Hebron

Mark Titchner’s billboard art has become a feature of this pandemic – clear statements to people, bold design, enlivening colours. What will arrive in Southwark Cathedral in June will be a huge hanging behind the High Altar with that message which I suspect we will still be needing to hear

Please believe these days will pass

Jesus sits on the Mount of Olives with his friends looking across the Kidron Valley towards the glory that was the Temple.

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’  (Matthew 24.3)

It was a powerful moment as Jesus responded, talking about a new age to come, disturbing for his followers, disturbing for us. Last week I was writing about ‘normal’ and the talk of a ‘new normal’. So as I anticipate looking at Mark Titchner’s work in the Cathedral I wonder what I will be imagining will pass? It could be comforting, it could equally be disturbing. But I need also to remember those words that Jesus says will still looking at what would pass

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ (Matthew 24.35)

The poet W B Yeats at the end of his elegiac poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ writes this

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

‘Past, or passing, or to come’ and yet all time is held by God, even these times.

God, you are the constant in our lives. While other things pass remain with us. Amen.


It’s not a word I like at all – normal. That may be because of my mother saying to me when I was quite young, and it must have been in a loving concerned way rather than a devastating putdown – ‘Why can’t you be more normal?’ I can’t remember what had provoked that maternal outburst. Perhaps it was that I didn’t like sport; or maybe that I did like cooking. Maybe it was that I didn’t like going to parties; or maybe that I was buying records of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas! Anyway whatever had caused it to be said I thought it was a bit unnecessary. And I wasn’t quite sure where to look for what normal really was. Was normal being like the boy always being sent to the headmaster’s study? Was it normal to smoke behind the bike shed, or refuse to go to church, or sneak into concerts at the De Montfort Hall, or be caught by the police for underage drinking in The Crown opposite our church? If they were normal it wasn’t for me to be perfectly honest.

Not that I want to compare myself with Jesus but he also had a bit of a run in with his mother and the rest of the family. Jesus was building himself the reputation as a teacher and a miracle worker and he was the talk of the area. Understandably his family are concerned.

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ (Mark 3.21)

He’d had a good job, developed skills working alongside his father, the business would be his, he would be secure for life and could settle down with a nice girl and have a family and it would all be lovely. Instead here is hanging about with a bunch of no-hopers with no where to lay his head, talking to the wrong kind of people and liable to get into trouble. It just wasn’t normal.

But I don’t want to be normal I want to be me.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
(Psalm 139.13-14)

That psalm, Psalm 139, is an amazing hymn to the enfolding love of God who knows us and loves us, for who we are, who knew us in the womb and will follow us to grave and beyond, the God who doesn’t look for our normality but that we are being who we are created to be in all its quirky loveliness.

The reason I’m thinking about this at this time is because it seems that we are now on ‘the long road to normality’. The Prime Minister’s recent presentation of a roadmap out of the lockdown, out of the restrictions under which we have been living for almost a year in one way or another could we viewed as the route back to normal life. I know that we are being driven not by dates but data but it feels good to have some dates in mind even if I am a bit confused about what I can do and when I can do it. But the assumption that I want to get back to normal is a big one to be honest. I don’t think we should just assume that we want life to be just as it was before 23 March 2020 and simply look to restoring it.

Now, obviously, the experience of the last year has been different for every one of us, we have all had a very individual experience of lockdown and I know that for many people just reengaging with life is all that they look for. I get that. But what about how we live, our priorities, our focus, the pace of life, the quality of our relationships, how we live better as community? I have learnt to live differently, to work differently. I’ve found space to go for walks, and read the newspaper and read books. I’ve discovered that I do quite like watching films, that listening to music with someone else is good, that cooking is a joy. I’ve learnt that you don’t have to be in church to engage with a Christian community, that shared prayer is as feeding as shared bread. I’ve learnt that I don’t need to shop all the time, or go to restaurants, or travel every few months. I’ve learnt that life can be simpler and more nourishing. But I am afraid that I will simply be pulled back into the ‘normal’ or even buy into a yet undefined ‘New Normal’ that people speak of. I need to be brave enough to listen to the poem ‘Leisure’ by William Henry Davies.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Standing and staring may not be normal for me, but, you know what, I think I’d like to try it.

God, enable me to be who I am, who you created me to be. Amen.

Into the wilderness

I had to prepare a meditation for the Bishop’s Staff Meeting on Ash Wednesday. So having done it for them I thought I would share it with you. You can read it here or listen to and watch it by clicking here.

The Chancellor of the Diocese of Southwark was called upon some twenty years ago to judge on an application that had been made by the PCC of the Cathedral’s sister church of St Hugh’s Bermondsey.  They had applied for a Faculty to install in the church a set of five panels depicting the tradition of wilderness spirituality as found in the five main world faiths.  These had been commissioned from the artist Adam Boulter who has subsequently been ordained. You can see more of Adam’s work here.

What Adam had decided to do was to paint a panel depicting wilderness spirituality in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, each having something important to say to us.

The reason of course for the Chancellor being involved was the depiction of these other faith traditions in consecrated Christian worship space.  But permission was granted and, though the church they were made for was demolished, there they are in the new St Hugh’s and looking, in my opinion, better and more at home than ever.

We decided to focus on them at the Cathedral at the beginning of Lent.  Like many things you put on the wall people just get used to them and in many ways no longer see them.  And because the hoo-ha was a long time ago people may not realise what they depict nor why that should still be controversial.

In this meditation I want to draw out just a few themes from the panels and the traditions that they seek to describe which might assist us in our own spiritual journeying and wandering.  But first let us pray.

God of the wilderness,
God of our wilderness,
guide us through the harsh places,
sit with us in the dry places,
shield us when the heat burns,
feed us when hunger bites,
warm us when the cold chills,
and lead us on the path
to your oasis of love.


The fist panel is called ‘Pana Yathra’ which means foot pilgrimage.

The pilgrimages that we embark on tend to be about destination.  That’s certainly the case for us in this diocese with our history of being the starting point of one of the great pilgrimages in this country – Southwark to Canterbury.  But what if we’re just travelling, journeying without a purpose.  Can we even bear to think about that?  Most people like to know where they are heading, what the end point is, what a completed task would look like.  And we are easily frustrated when the destination for anything cannot be clearly described – when we can’t answer the question ‘but what is it you hope to achieve?’

But is there something arrogant and in the end ultimately disappointing about living and working like this?  How often have our plans failed, our destinations not been arrived at? How often have we been disappointed that we have not arrived at the destination we had imagined, desired?

We are told in the Letter to the Hebrews 11.8-9

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 

Abraham would have been comfortable with this Hindu tradition.

In the film version of Rumer Godden’s amazing book ‘Black Narcissus’ which you may have read or seen as the classic film or the more recent TV adaptation, Sister Philippa, contemplating leaving the convent, says to Sister Clodagh 

‘I daren’t stay. I think there are only two ways of living in this place. Either you must live like Mr. Dean, or, or like the holy man. Either ignore it, or give yourself up to it.’

Dare we be purposeless in our journey through this wilderness, giving ourselves like the Holy Man, giving ourselves up to it?


The second panel is called ‘Moses ascending the mountain’. 

I suppose of all the things I’ve ever done climbing Mount Sinai is what I hope I remember just before I die.  Presiding at the Eucharist has been wonderful and being given the opportunity to preach incredible.  But walking all the way from St Catherine’s Monastery up to the top of the mountain, as night became day, was the most powerful.

When you’re halfway up, at the staging post where the track ends on which the donkeys can walk and all of you are forced to climb, you begin to see the vastness of the wilderness that surrounds you.  It’s as though you’re at sea and the waves have been petrified.  At the summit that feeling was even more powerful.  In all directions, nothing, just these rocks, very little colour, until, that is, the sun rises and begins to add gold to the grey.

I don’t know what happened there – of course I know what it says in the Bible, but as I stood there and prayed there and sat in silence there I knew that one of the most important encounters between the reality of the awesomeness of God and the reality of the meagreness of humanity had taken place here – and that, whatever had happened, it had changed the world. 

There is something in the rich tradition of the Hebrew scriptures of simply being overwhelmed by God.  In a different place Jacob sums that up for us when he says

‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28.16-17)

I hang on to that, the awesomeness of it all.  Am I too familiar with the bread in my hands?  Lion tamers die when they forget they are taming a lion.  I have to remember that it’s a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. 

We are Gods people, part of the priesthood of all believers and our call is to respond to God in awe and wonder, to journey into the terrifying and the wonderful, people who know the dangerous God and that the wilderness is where the divine lion lurks.

But are we brave enough to go there ourselves?


The third panel is called ‘The Temptation of Christ’.

I’m interested that Adam has depicted Jesus against the colour of sand.  One of the surprises for me about the Judean wilderness is in fact the lack of sand!  Instead, you get stones and none of the beauty of the shifting sands of the Sahara.  But what Adam’s picture does is to give a very clear shadow that falls across the canvas.  The scene, like the environment it describes, is stark and, as he said to us, everything is stripped away.

So far in life – since being ordained I’ve been able to live in houses much larger than I have actually needed.  That means that I have been able to build up quite a collection of stuff.  It’s not that I’m a hoarder, far from it.  We regularly have a clearing out session and a trip to the charity shops on the local High Street.  But I realise that in all probability I won’t be living in a house as large as the Deanery all my life and especially not when the day comes for me to retire and pack up my life in boxes.  As one member of the Community of the Resurrection described where his sister was living in Bradford, the accommodation was ‘none too commodious’.  As students we laughed at his archaic turn of phrase – but it’s my future.

So I will need to get rid of most things – the CDS and the DVDS – that’s easy Netflix and Spotify have it all.  I will need to get rid of all my books – well nearly all – and that’s ok with the internet and a Kindle and the Daily Prayer app.  But what about the other stuff, the stuff that holds memories, the handed down stuff.  How much of that is who I am?  And will I know the answer to that until it’s all stripped away?

It’s not so much this wilderness moment for Jesus but the wilderness of the cross that makes me shudder.  The tenth station ‘Jesus is stripped of his clothing’ is the wilderness I dread.

Can you bear to have only the shadow to call your own?


The fourth panel is called ‘Buddha under the tree’.

There’s a story of the Cure d’Ars, St John Vianney, that you will probably know.  A man from the town would arrive in church every day and sit at the back of the Blessed Sacrament chapel.  The Cure was always there of course having devoted himself to hearing confessions, giving his life to that particular priestly task! But he was intrigued by the man who would come in and sit for a while, and then go.  So one day the saint approached the man and said “Monsieur, every day I see you come into church and just sit.  Might I ask what is it that you do?” And the man said simply, “Cure, I look at him and he looks at me.”

Jesus in the house of his friends is an important story for us.  Those of us who are preachers may well have asked the congregation we are preaching to – ‘so, are you a Mary or a Martha?’, with a twinkle in our eye – and if you are normally in the congregation listening to a preacher you may well have been asked the question yourself.  But dare we ask ourselves the question now or really hear what Jesus is saying to us? 

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10.41-42)

The Buddha touches the ground and ignores the distractions, refuses to budge until he is enlightened.  It might feel like a luxury until I sing that verse from the hymn by Charles Wesley ‘O Love Divine How Sweet thou art’

O that I could for ever sit
With Mary at the Master’s feet!
Be this my happy choice:
My only care, delight, and bliss,
My joy, my heaven on earth, be this,
To hear the Bridegroom’s voice!

I’ve avoided R S Thomas so far but I must remind you of this poem ‘The Bright Field’.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Is it possible that for once we could ignore the distractions and simply touch the holy ground and wait there?


The final panel Adam calls ‘Mohammed’s Cave’.

This panel stands out amongst the rest. It is the only abstract painting amongst the five.  The artist felt that it was important to be respectful of the Islamic tradition of not depicting the sacred form, not describing in image what is essentially and powerfully indescribable.  As I get older I’m drawn more and more to the apophatic tradition of theology and spirituality which is strange given that I preach more and more about the touchability of Jesus and am deeply sacramental and incarnational in the theology that is closest to my heart.  But we’re all a bit messed up – but me maybe more than you.

But, as I get older, I know less and realise I know less and, to be honest, I’m more than comfortable with that.  I think it’s telling that Adam has in the centre of this panel a black hole.  I’ve tried to understand matter and anti-matter and what black holes are in the galaxies but that’s all too big for me who managed to fail my Physics at school.  But I do think we need to arrive at that place where we stop describing and simply end up knowing, where all that matters is drawn into the depths of the heart of God, the matter of God.  And that for me is when the wilderness will blossom.

The last time I was helping to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was just a year ago, ahead of the pandemic, but only just. There’d been a lot of rain before we arrived and so as the coach we were travelling in emerged through the road tunnel cut through Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem through to the Bethany side we were met with the sight of beautiful fresh green hills.  The seed had been waiting all the time, we just couldn’t see it, we didn’t know it was there.  But the wilderness had blossomed – it was beautiful.

I want to read you Isaiah 35.1-10 – from the translation called ‘The Message’

Wilderness and desert will sing joyously, the badlands will celebrate and flower – bursting into blossom, a symphony of song and colour. Mountain glories of Lebanon – a gift. Awesome Carmel, stunning Sharon – gifts. God’s resplendent glory, fully on display. God awesome, God majestic. 

Energize the limp hands, strengthen the rubbery knees.  Tell fearful souls, “Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” 

Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped, lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song. Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert.  Hot sands will become a cool oasis, thirsty ground a splashing fountain. Even lowly jackals will have water to drink, and barren grasslands flourish richly. 

There will be a highway called the Holy Road. No one rude or rebellious is permitted on this road. It’s for God’s people exclusively – impossible to get lost on this road. Not even fools can get lost on it. No lions on this road, no dangerous wild animals – Nothing and no one dangerous or threatening. Only the redeemed will walk on it. 

The people God his ransomed will come back on this road. They’ll sing as they make their way home to Zion, unfading halos of joy encircling their heads, Welcomed home with gifts of joy and gladness as all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night.

It doesn’t get better than that.

God of the wilderness,
God of our wilderness,
guide us through the harsh places,
sit with us in the dry places,
shield us when the heat burns,
feed us when hunger bites,
warm us when the cold chills,
and lead us on the path
to your oasis of love.

Sept, Sex, Quin and Quad

I simply can’t believe that we are about to begin Lent. Given that it was during Lent last year that we began all this lockdown business and that we thought we would be out of it by the summer, by Christmas, it is hard to imagine that we are contemplating much of Lent and maybe even Holy Week and Easter still in this state of suspended animation.

But you may be wondering what the title of this blog is all about. For those who thought that I might be talking about sex – after all I am an Anglican clergyman and we seem to be obsessed by it in one way or another – I am very sorry to disappoint you.

One of the joys of this particular time of the year when I was a little choir boy in our parish church in Wigston Magna – and we are talking now about the early sixties – was trying to understand how to pronounce three incredible words that appear in the Book of Common Prayer. The three Sundays that lead up to Ash Wednesday are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and, as on this Sunday, Quinquagesima. How incredible are those for the names of Sundays? It’s a lot more imaginative than the rather prosaic place we are nowadays – the ‘Third Sunday before Lent’, etc, or even the more boring ‘Sunday in Ordinary Time’. As a child Quinquagesima sounded anything but ordinary!

The church is in fact obsessed not so much with sex but with counting. The Christian year is all about counting backwards and forwards from and to a number of fixed points. So, and I hope you are interested in this, there are two principal fixed points in the Calendar and they are both, obviously fixed on Jesus.

The principal fixed point is Easter and the second one is obviously Christmas. The difference between these is that Christmas is on a set date, not day, whereas Easter is on a Sunday in relation to the phases of the moon. This all means that Advent Sunday is four Sundays away from 25 December which means that in theory Christmas Day can be anything between a full week after or a single day after the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Feast of the Epiphany is always on 6 January, twelve days after Christmas and Candlemas is always on 2 February, forty days after Christmas.

There is a wonderful carol, traditional words from Derbyshire, which Vaughn Williams set to music and which is basically calendrical and helpful with all of this.

It was on Christmas day,
And all in the morning,
Our Saviour was born,
And our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on New Year’s Day
And all in the morning,
They circumcised our Saviour
And our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Twelfth Day
And all in the morning,
The Wise Men were led
To our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Twentieth Day
And all in the morning,
The Wise Men returned
From our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Candlemas Day
And all in the morning,
They visited the Temple
With our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

Easter Day, however, has to be a Sunday, the date of which is established according to a fiendishly complicated process called in the Prayer Book, the Golden Number. Because it is based on the lunar cycle, as is Passover, the date moves about. March 22 is the earliest Easter can occur on any given year, and April 25 is the latest. Incredible isn’t it. Then, in relation to this you can work backwards to Ash Wednesday because there are six Sundays in Lent and then forward from Easter, first forty days to the Ascension, which will always fall on a Thursday and ten days after that, so fifty days, to Pentecost, which will always fall on a Sunday. When you have those dates then you know that Trinity Sunday will be a week after Pentecost and that Corpus Christi will be on the Thursday after Trinity. Simple isn’t it!

So back to Sept, Sex and Quin and Quad which we don’t really use any longer. The best explanation for all of this is as follows.

Septuagesima comes from the Latin word for “seventieth.” In the same way Sexagesima, Quinquagesima and the additional Quadragesima mean “sixtieth,” “fiftieth,” and “fortieth” respectively. Septuagesima Sunday is so called because it falls within seventy days but more than sixty days before Easter. The next Sunday is within sixty, Sexagesima, and the next within fifty, Quinquagesima. Falling within forty days of Easter (excluding Sundays) the next Sunday is Quadragesima. Because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, they are considered “little Easters” and not treated as days of penance.

But does any of this matter? Well only in the sense that God enters time to redeem those who are subject to time. As Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law. (Galatians 4.4)

Part of that submission to law is the submission to time but as with everything else God in Christ brings it to perfection ‘the fullness of time’, the right moment, God’s moment. So these rather quirky names for these Sundays are a good reminder to us that counting time is not a waste of time but are actually a means of engaging with time, the fullness of time that our God chooses to enter and sanctify.

God of time, bless this time, bless our time, as we count the days until we meet with you. Amen.

A door into the past

I think I need help; I think I’m developing a front door fetish. I’m sure I could find a support group somewhere, or is my fetish very particular to me. Who knows! The thing is I have a lovely front door at the Deanery and being on Bankside thousands of people walk past it all the time, millions in fact and I know, because I see them, that many people take photos of themselves in front of it. On occasions I have opened the door to find a bride and groom in front of it having a photo taken and there am I in the midst of them! Sometimes it has been models, on a shoot, the bright yellow paintwork forming a lovely backdrop to what they have been dressed in. But you are wondering how my fetish manifests itself. Well, I find myself continuously buying door wreaths – and I can’t bear it when my door is undressed, unadorned with another wreath. So as Candlemas approached and I knew that I had to remove the Christmas wreath that had hung there during the season I felt myself typing into the search tool on Amazon ‘Winter Door Wreaths’ and clicking ‘Buy Now’. I can relax the door is looking lovely. But what will I do for Lent???

Doors are lovely though. I do love those posters that you can now find in lots of tourist destinations, if you are on a city break, in which a whole load of front doors are featured. There is a lovely one that you can buy in Jerusalem, doors of every shape, size, finish and age, each telling their own story and each providing their own welcome.

In the Book of Revelation we find this lovely passage

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3.20)

It is so beautifully depicted in Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ that you can see in the chapel at Keble College, Oxford or in St Paul’s Cathedral across the river from me, here in London. Jesus stands at the door, old, rusted, the only handle on the inside, the ivy taking hold of it, and knocks, waiting for me, for you, to answer.

The reason I am mentioning all of this, apart from the therapeutic value of owning up to my fetish, is that we have some exciting work going on in the Cathedral at the moment. As part of the Government’s response to the pandemic, and as an initiative to get people working again, money was made available to places like churches to apply for funding that would aid our reopening. We received a grant to help with three projects which have to be completed by the end of March. Two are well underway, the third, repairs to the heating in one section of the building has yet to start.

One project is to replace the step between the nave and the north transept with a gentle slope. This will increase accessibility in the building and at an important junction point. The other project though is being undertaken near to where that step was.

Those who know the church may be familiar with the door into the Vestry (or the Sacristy). There are some heavy Victorian oak doors that are usually folded back to allow people to get to the inner door and through them into the vestry. It’s the place from which many processions emerge, a really busy place for coming and going. But if you look behind the opened doors, if you dare to push them closed, there are real treasures to be discovered.

This is the largest portion of what remains of the original Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie that was built in 1106, so just 40 years after the Norman invasion. What happened was that just 106 years later, in 1212, there was the devastating Great Fire of Southwark which engulfed the community at the end of London Bridge, resulting in much loss and many fatalities. The Priory was consumed by the flames and was subsequently rebuilt in the most modern Gothic style. Not much of the original Norman building remained, some arcading, the apse that emerges in the Link and the Harvard Chapel and this doorway, the Prior’s Doorway.

This was the way that the Prior would take from the monastic buildings on the northside of the church when he arrived for the Offices and the Mass. The other friars would probably have used another entrance.

Most people do not know that the remains are there, the doors hide the real splendours. The work being undertaken is to clean and conserve what is there, to document it thoroughly, to learn more about it and then, ultimately, to make it available to visitors. So I just wanted to share with you the news that we are already discovering wonderful things.

The pillars alongside the doorway are coloured red in places. This is evidence of the intense fire that would have changed the colour of the stone. The Holy Water Stoop is being revealed as being made of a different and special kind of stone, yet to be determined. The Consecration Crosses are becoming visible. The whole thing is coming back to life. It really is a door from the past into the present, the place for entering and leaving sacred place, the testimony to a rich and fire-scarred history.

When we reopen we look forward to showing you what we have done so far, a treat at the end of the lockdown and another piece of the rich history that makes Southwark Cathedral the southbank jewel that it is.

God of our comings and goings, bless the doors of our homes and our churches, that each may be a place of welcome to all who would enter. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark