The life-long journey

Today at Southwark Cathedral is one of our ‘baptism Sundays’. We have about five a year, when perhaps three or four children are brought by parents and godparents and the rest of their family and friends to the Cathedral for the Choral Eucharist during which baptisms take place.  You’d imagine that, taking a lead from the Acts of the Apostles which we always read during the Easter season, there would be universal rejoicing that ‘the Lord is adding to our number’. But as with many churches the fact that the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the two dominical sacraments amongst the seven, are celebrated together, is not met with unalloyed joy.  Some people are displaced from their ‘normal’ seat; there are a lot of people who ‘don’t know what they are doing’ and of course the babies tend to cry during the quieter parts of the service.  It’s all very disruptive!

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A well behaved baby!

 

Of course, when I was a curate, those unreformed days, we did baptisms on a Sunday afternoon, the church packed with people and the congregation conveniently at home enjoying their Sunday lunch whilst new members of the Body of Christ were being welcomed by the harassed curate.

Last week I went to Ireland to meet members of the Society of Catholic Priests working there, both north and south of the border. It was great to meet other members of the Society working in a very different church environment and facing different issues to those of us in the Church of England including how they will work as one church in a post-Brexit environment when the border between north and south may be very real.  After the meeting had finished my host drove me out to see one of the more ancient churches in the area.  St Doulagh’s Church – Clochar Dúiligh – stands just outside the town of Malahide.  This was part of the Norwegian Kingdom in Ireland and there was thought at one time that St Doulagh never existed but was a manifestation of Olave.  But now it’s thought that the saint did exist, a hermit, maybe living in a cell on this site. The small medieval church dates from the 12th century and is the only church with a solid stone roof still to be in use in Ireland.  It is beautiful.  Alongside the ancient church is a Victorian nave and sanctuary constructed by the father of ‘Woodbine Willie’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whose Great-Granddaughter was visiting the church at the same time as I was (what a small world it is).

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The baptistery at St Doulagh’s

 

However, what was most fascinating was that in the grounds around the church is a separate baptistery.  It’s the only one in Ireland.  The sunken octagonal structure covers a water channel into which those to be baptised were taken.  A pool by the side may have been for baptism by total immersion.  As a result of various bits of work to the land and the nearby road the water source has been diverted and the baptistery is now dry.  But it is a deeply wonderful, evocative place.  The main baptistery is dedicated to St Doulagh, the small pool to St Catherine.  It is said that St Patrick operated in this area, that a small community lived here.  It is certainly a place of deep and resonant history.

In between the ‘font’ and the pool a hawthorn grows.  My guide suggested that it was the descendent of a pagan hawthorn on the spot that the Christians ‘baptised’, adopted in the way that the early missionaries did, to take the local pagan population with them.  Whatever the truth it was amazing to see.  It took me to other places were baptisteries are separate and not least to northern Syria, to the complex of church and monastic buildings from the 5th century dedicated to St Simon Stylites that is a few miles northwest of Aleppo.  There too is an octagonal baptistery at the end of what would have been a triumphal processional route that the newly baptised would take into the church.  The baptistery and route to the church outside of Malahide are more modest but the principal is the same.

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The baptistery of St Simon near Aleppo

 

It reminded me of one of the texts in the Common Worship Baptismal Rite.  After the baptism, as part of the prayers, the priest can use these words

In baptism God invites you on a life-long journey.
Together with all God’s people
you must explore the way of Jesus.

The early builders in Ireland and Syria knew this to be true.  The deep and flowing waters through which the child, the adult, was brought was a kind of Red Sea experience.  Then the journey began, from the baptistery into the church, from that Sacrament into the Christian life, ‘exploring the way of Jesus’. Perhaps we should build some more external baptisteries!

This prayer is also from Common Worship.

Eternal God, our beginning and our end,
preserve in your people the new life of baptism;
as Christ receives us on earth,
so may he guide us through the trials of this world,
and enfold us in the joy of heaven,
where you live and reign,
one God for ever and ever.
Amen.

Under attack

The saying goes, and I apologise for the gender exclusive language, that ”An Englishman’s home is his castle’. It appears that the saying goes back to Sir Edward Coke, in The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628 where he wrote

“For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].”

Home

Makes you feel safe doesn’t it.  It reminds me of a TV commercial for an insurance company, way back, way back, in which the father figure, providing security for his family, through the said insurance company, draws them into some crenelated walls.  They were safe, secure, no one could attack them.

I have one of those phones, smart they call them, ok it’s an iPhone, that now controls my life.  I can control the TV, the heating, my music, my banking, my life, as well as my diary, social media contacts, friendships and everything else from it and it also, occasionally, can get a signal to effectively call someone.  If I temporarily mislay it I’m lost, it contains everything; if I were to lose it, well, that would be a crisis.  And I only give it access to everything about me because I have to believe that it is as secure as my home, a little castle in my pocket.

So the cyber attack on Friday that so affected the NHS, but so many other places, in so many countries, is a wake-up call to me and I suppose to others. The castle is easily breached and we are in a world in which we can be open to attack in new and very damaging ways.

At the same time Jeremy Corbyn was speaking about his own attitude to military intervention, seeking to assure others that he isn’t a pacifist and would use a military response in a crisis as a last resort. As someone who is essentially a pacifist I can appreciate his position. My problem is that, in reality, I’m just not sure what the last resort is. When do you decide that all other options have been exhausted? And what is an attack like nowadays, and how does this cyber warfare fit into our other concepts of war and aggression.

If the loss or hacking of my phone would devastate the running of every aspect of my life what can it do on a national scale? Well, we have seen something of what it means – hospitals unable to respond to patients needs, people being sent home, appointments cancelled, data inaccessible.  We are totally dependent on the digital world in which we now exist.

My Sunday treat is to go along to the local pizza restaurant with some friends.  Until a couple of weeks ago the waiters took your order on a pad of paper with a pen.  Now they have an electronic gizmo that enables them to do it, well, I suppose in theory more efficiently.  But last week in the end the guy looking after us resorted to his pad and pen – it was quicker.

But the thing that all this has made me aware of again is our vulnerability.  We like to imagine otherwise, that the castle is secure, that we have systems in place to protect us, but it is a fantasy that we construct to make ourselves feel ok.  And God enters into this vulnerability in which we live and, in Jesus, gives himself to it.  All the power language that we might use in relation to God, those big titles, those huge descriptors – omniscient, omnipotent – as well as the usual ‘Almighty’ so beloved in Anglican liturgy, is as nothing when we look at the cross.

Was the cross the last resort, the ultimate intervention in the war in which humankind was engaged, the conflict of good and evil, of love and hate, of dark and light.  In many ways it was.  Had God run out of options and the only final option was to be at the most vulnerable, to be not the God we had supposed God to be.  Surprisingly, that truth makes me feel more secure.

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The vulnerable God

 

The painting by Hieronymus Bosch ‘Christ crowned with thorns’ shows Jesus under of attack from a variety of fiendish individuals.  But he looks at us from the midst of it with an enigmatic gaze that reminds me that nothing can defeat him.

Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.6-8)

The kenosis, self-emptying of Christ, is the amazing response to the conflict that humanity was caught up in. Wherever the attacks come from, whatever form they take, the God who embraces our vulnerability stands in solidarity with us.

Vulnerable God,
whose weakness makes me strong,
whose death brings me to life
save me from the fear of what might be
with the knowledge that you are
in Jesus
victorious.
Amen.

Post-Easter

You may be familiar with the out of office message or the recording that you hear on the ‘phone ‘The Vicar is on their post-Easter break.’ Frustrating I know if you want an answer there and then, book a wedding, arrange a baptism, use the hall but we all need a break. That’s what I’ve been doing this week. So I hope you’ll excuse there being no proper Living God post today. All I’ll say is that the break was great and I look forward to being back. And I always give thanks that Jesus gave us a good model of taking time out. 

Jesus rests


Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6.31)

He and the disciples needed a break, to eat, to rest. So do we. Normal service will be resumed as there is a great deal going on to reflect on.

Living God, bless our working, bless our resting. Amen. 

More tea, Vicar?

Whilst ‘Asparagus-gate’ continued to rattle on in Worcester Cathedral I was getting ready to bless in Southwark Cathedral the First Flush Darjeeling tea for one of the stall holders in the Borough Market.  Would I face the same criticism? I read the reports of the service held in Worcester.  It seemed that the objection was to the ‘pantomime’ of having someone in the procession dressed as an asparagus shoot.  I’ve actually seen more bizarre forms of dress in Cathedral processions than that but, well, there you go! But I was ok.  It seemed that it wasn’t the fact that asparagus was being blessed, or God was being thanked for (though someone asked about a similar liturgy for Sprouts) but that it looked as though God, through the liturgy, was being ridiculed. I breathed a sigh of relief.  No one was going to be dressed as a tea leaf or a teabag and the liturgy that I had written for the occasion was as orthodox as I could make it.

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‘More tea, Vicar?’

 

Obviously the challenge was the reading – the Bible is light on hot drinks – but it is clear that we are to bring the first fruits of the harvest to God, to make an offering and to give thanks. So we read this.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the LORD, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

It was a lovely occasion and Ratan, the stallholder of Tea2You in the Borough Market, who had been out into the hills where tea grows in northern India to select the best of the harvest spoke eloquently about it.  I quoted another cleric, the Revd Sydney Smith, who wrote in his memoir in the early years of the 19th century

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

Hear, hear, Reverend Sir! Lots to give thanks for and especially for we clerics who get plied with gallons of the hot brown liquid as we make our pastoral visits, or at least that was the case when I was in the parish.  Developing a strong bladder to see you through an afternoon’s pastoral visiting, which is what we did every day when I was first ordained, was a necessary stage in proper clerical formation. ‘Never refuse a cup of tea’, I was told ‘and never ask to use the bathroom in someone’s house!’ Conceding to both rules was a physical impossibility for me.  But as Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

‘Tea is the only simple pleasure left to us.’

And so when I was presented with the newly harvested tea in the Cathedral I prayed that all who drank it might be

‘calmed, strengthened
and comforted.’

A simple prayer for a simple pleasure.

Whilst all of this was going on we had been hosting the annual residential meeting of the Deans’ Conference. This gathering of the English Anglican Deans moves around the country year-on-year and this time it was the privilege of St Paul’s and Southwark to co-host it.  Moving around gives us the opportunity to see what ministry in our different cathedrals looks like.  This is important always but especially when the ministry and especially the governance and finances of all the English Cathedrals are under some measure of scrutiny and consideration as the Archbishops’ Working Party begins its deliberations. Some in the press put 2 and 2 together and, with a display of worse numerical dexterity than some Deans are being accused of, came up with 5! The Deans were holding a crisis meeting to talk about failing finances. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Of course, the Working Party and the issues around it were discussed but not in some febrile atmosphere. Instead we all look forward to seeing what positive findings the members of the Working Party come up with.

So most of our time was spent looking at the world in which St Paul’s and Southwark seek to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and minister to all his people – London, north and south of the river. To do that we visited what we called the ‘Five Estates’ taken from the famous ‘three estates’ of France’s Ancien Régime. We began with finance by visiting Canary Wharf and the offices of J P Morgan.  That involved a fascinating visit to the trading floor as well as a conversation about Brexit, the markets and the ethics of global finance.  Then to the Corporation of the City of London that ancient and unique local authority.  We had a session with a team from the London Borough of Southwark including both the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council to talk about physical and social regeneration and wellbeing as part of that.  Then we moved to the offices of NewsUK located alongside Southwark Cathedral and spent a fascinating time with members of the editorial, reporting and commentating team of the Times.  What is news? What is truth? What is fact? were our topics of conversation.  And in all of that we talked about how our two cathedrals respond in this fast-paced, fast changing world.

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London

 

The Dean of St Paul’s invited me to preach at the final Eucharist of the Conference celebrated at the high altar in St Paul’s.  It was the (transferred) Feast of St Mellitus, the first Bishop of London.  I concluded my sermon in this way, speaking of what I see the role of the Dean to be, pondering on the question suggested by the readings for the Mass as to whether we were to be builders or shepherds.

‘We have to be what the time and the place need, what Jesus needs of us. And he needs us first and foremost to be disciples, he needs us first and foremost to be priests. It’s our discipleship which helps us to walk with others, it’s our priesthood that enables our ministry to others. What will make a difference is not how high the tower gets but what happens in the pulpit and what happens at the altar, that’s what’ll make a difference, the difference, a place buzzing with theology, a people encountering God in the most sublime worship, a community meeting the risen Jesus in broken bread.

That’s the real Christian project and I believe Cathedrals have to be flagships of that, champions, exemplars of that in a church crying out for confident, radical, inclusive Christian commitment that’s life changing, faith enhancing. We can build it and shepherd it but it will be in people’s lives that we see our real priestly work bearing fruit, fruit that will last.

Whatever we take away from this time we’ve had together in London and Southwark I hope and pray that we’ll take away a renewed commitment and confidence in the task, wherever we are and whatever that particular task is, but knowing that we can only build on one set of foundations, those of Jesus Christ and shepherd only one flock, his.’

That may include blessing asparagus or tea; it may involve walking the City trading floors, debating truth with journalists or looking to the wellbeing of communities undergoing regeneration.  It will involve being the Body of Christ, visibly and passionately and welcoming the faithful and the yet to be faithful, through ever open doors.

God of the Church,
bless our cathedrals
and the communities
they serve,
welcome,
and bless
in your name.
Amen.

Running the race

I may have admitted this before, but if not, I was terrible at PE.  There, I’ve admitted it to the world; I was appalling. When teams were being chosen in a PE lesson I was always the last to be selected, it was like a constant re-run of those heart-rending scenes from Ken Loache’s film, ‘Kes’. So looking out from the Deanery every day, walking to and from the Cathedral, every day, I’m passed by so many runners, in their Lycra, putting themselves through their paces and I’m reminded of my physical inadequacies.  Many of those runners at this time of the year will be getting themselves race-ready for the London Marathon.  All  credit to them.

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The memory is all too real!

 

In fact, however, I was happier doing a long distance run when I was at school than playing a team sport.  The prescribed route took us from the playing fields at the rear of our school, across the railway bridge, along a length of the Grand Union Canal and then back through a housing estate to the school.  I’ve always assumed that as we disappeared over the horizon the staff went and had a coffee and awaited our return.  That was the premise I worked on which allowed me to walk the rest of the route until we were back in sight of the school.  That was why I enjoyed it.  So no Marathon for me!

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, however, is keen on running as a metaphor for the Christian life.

‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ (Hebrews 12.1-2)

and St Paul uses similar ideas in his First Letter to the Corinthians

‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.’ (1 Corinthians 9.24-17)

But with every race there’s a start and finishing line just as there is in the Christian life, something to which we look, a place from which we start, a leader who sets the pace.  Which is what made the announcement by the Prime Minister on Tuesday such a surprise.  We were all expecting an easing back into the parliamentary summer term as they, like our schools, returned after the Easter break. We were assuming that all energy and concentration would be on the urgent negotiations following the triggering of Article 50.  And anyway, there was a Fixed Term Parliament Act in place so that politics could not be manoeuvred and engineered at the whim of a PM! We should never assume anything. So the starting pistol was fired (even before the debate the following day in the Commons) and the race was on towards the finishing line on 8 June.

Though Brenda from Bristol (the surprise star of social media since her honest and disbelieving response to the news of another election) may represent the views of many of us, in fact many people seeming to be saying ‘bring it on’. Politicians need to be able to respond with freedom to the events of the last two years in this country and we all need to register our feelings on a number of issues, not just Brexit.

Christians need to be there, in the race, standing for election and engaging with the issues.  The care of the elderly, the NHS, prisons, the farming community, the rural and urban poor, the environment, overseas aid, defence, schools, immigration, you name it, people of faith have a view on it because God has a view on it.  Mary makes that clear when she sings the Magnificat to her cousin Elizabeth; Jesus makes that clear when he reads Isaiah to his family and neighbours; Paul makes that clear when he tells the Council of Jerusalem that he’ll concentrate on the poor.

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A preacher of Gospel justice

 

One of the heroes of the modern church and a saint of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, got it exactly right when he said

‘I am puzzled by which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don’t mix.’

And speaking about the Millennium Development Goals back in 2006 he said

‘I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.’

Tutu is a marathon runner for Gospel justice. As Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, who knew all about the Games, ‘Run in such a way that you may win it.’ Witness to that in the race that is set before us – even I will be running and that’s saying something!

God of justice,
God of peace,
God of the poor
and of the rich,
empower and inspire us
in the race set before us
and keep our eye on the goal
of your kingdom.
Amen.

Southwark Gloria

As an Easter gift I received a poem from a friend, the Revd Elaine Dando. I first met Elaine in 1980 when her husband and I began training at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Since then Elaine herself was ordained. Both her and her husband, Stephen, have a deep love for Southwark Cathedral and this poem, written by Elaine, comes out of that. I asked if I could share it with you and she kindly said yes.

‘Gloria in the space of silence’

Southwark Gloria

Gloria in excelsis:
Gloria in trains trundling
Past cathedral windows,
In tall shoots, stretching skywards
Over rumbling viaducts, high.
Gloria in the space of silence
In waiting Harvard
And the retro choir.
Gloria in our multi coloured,
Multi gendered revelation,
Of blessed incarnation
Inside this womb of consolation
and without.
Gloria in lonely isolation,
Gloria in blessed congregation:
In Bishop, priest and people dressed
For splendid celebration.
Gloria, as wafts of spicy food
and traffic fumes
Invade our nostrils,
As people lap our borders
With their gastronomic buys.
We sing our Gloria
To the glorious,
To the hopeful
And the suffering;
To the present moment
In all it’s deep fecundity,
In all it’s sweet theophany
From Earth to heaven, high.
Gloria, Gloria, Gloria
We worship and adore you
Our dear and suffering servant
Our endless life-filled spirit
The source of all our being
Gloria in excelsis Deo
Et in terra pax hominibus.
Glory to you, most high!

Triduum – The tomb

The tomb of Jesus has been in the news recently.  Whilst I was in Jerusalem on sabbatical the unheard of thing happened.  The tomb was closed to visitors for two days.  Not in recent history had this happened and it came after a long period of negotiation between the various denominations that have rights and vested interests in this most sacred place.  The tomb itself is located in what is called the Aedicule which is the free standing chapel under the rotunda.  I can’t say that it’s my favourite structure.  But what made it even more ugly than I think it is was the metalwork cage that seemed to surround it, to keep it together.  That was put in place during the period of the British Mandate in order to keep the structure in one piece.  But even that, for all its ugliness, was beginning to fail.  The Aedicule had been rebuilt in 1809-10 in the style described as Ottomon Baroque but it surrounded the original tomb which had become isolated from the mountain of which it was originally part.  The place where the body of Jesus was laid had been clad in marble to protect it from holy souvenir hunters.  But when the cladding was removed on 26 October and the material that lay beneath it removed, it was found by nightfall on 28 October that the original limestone burial bed was intact. This suggested to the archaeologists working on the project that the tomb location has not changed through time and confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the Aedicule.

The tomb was then sealed up and, when I went in as soon as it was open to pilgrims again, all I could see was fresh mortar between the marble panels.  But now, all the restoration work has been completed and the Aedicule is in a sound state to welcome millions more across its threshold, into the first chamber and then the burial place itself. It will be from this restored Aedicule that the Holy Fire will emerge for the first time this Easter.

The wraps coming off the restored Aedicule

But, to be honest, it still is a mammoth task of the imagination to imagine that this chapel, freestanding, under the dome was part of a cave in a rock into which had been carved a tomb.

Mark tells us all about it.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mark 15.46)

Matthew tells us exactly the same thing as does Luke.  It’s John who adds a few more details

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. (John 19.41)

But whether it was in a garden or not it’s clear that the tomb was hewn into the rock but the pilgrim can feel very disconnected with that.  But behind the Aedicule in the wall of the rotunda, close to the Coptic altar that clings to the back of the tomb is a little doorway that leads to somewhere more hidden and holy.

If you go through you find a kokhim complex, a series of passages cut into the rock in which are tombs (there is fantastic example alongside the road down the Mount of Olives which is signposted as the Tomb of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).  Pilgrims clamber through the small opening and with a torch can make out the chambers, cold empty holes cut into the rock.  Some say that this was where Joseph of Arimathea, the same Joseph you gave his tomb to Jesus, was buried.  We don’t know that.  But what this place does help us do is to make a bit of a connection with what the original tomb of Jesus might have been like.

The emptiness of these tombs, the sense of abandonment that surrounds them is, of course, important.  The tomb is just the tomb, the place of resurrection, but abandoned, vacated, left behind. The very emptiness is a challenge to death and you get a sense of that in this great poem by John Donne called ‘DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee’, one of his Holy Sonnets.

DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It’s a really, aggressive, almost cheeky, confident response to death, with that final cry of victory ‘Death, thou shalt die’. What could be stronger. So, however good the Aedicule now looks, it has to be an empty experience for the pilgrims who enter it if it is to speak properly of the resurrection to which it testifies. Those who bow and enter through its door must leave almost disappointed – there is nothing in it.

Abandoned .. empty

The stark ending to St Mark’s Gospel always has the ring of authenticity about it. The angel says to the women who have entered the tomb

‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16.6-8)

We won’t find Jesus in the tomb – we must always meet him in the ‘Galilee’ of the world.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Triduum – The tree

Whilst the cross is being venerated (in places where this sort of thing goes on) during the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday the choir may be singing the traditional hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ (Sing my tongue) with the refrain known as ‘Crux Fidelis’

FAITHFUL Cross!
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
 none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

So often in hymns and readings for this season the cross is referred to as a tree.  It’s a useful way to refer to the cross when you want to be able to make a connection between Adam and Jesus. If the first man, Adam, fell from grace because of the fruit of a tree then the new Adam will himself be the fruit of the tree that will restore grace.  Jesus is that Second Adam and so the tree connection makes the connection. The fruit of one tree brought death, the fruit of a second tree brought life. ‘None in fruit thy peers may be’, we sing as we ‘behold the wood of the cross’.

It was therefore wonderful for me in my quest for the ‘hidden and holy’ in Jerusalem whilst there on sabbatical last year, that I came across a monastery set right at the heart of modern Jerusalem but off the beaten track as far as pilgrims are concerned.

The Monastery of the Cross is in Emek Hamatzlevah, the Valley of the Cross which is now part of west Jerusalem, just below the Knesset, the Parliament of Israel. The place was founded around the 4th – 5th century on a site venerated by the early Christians as being where the wood was obtained from which the cross was made.  But the story that surrounds it is amazing.

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The Monastery of the Cross

It goes back to the hospitality of Abraham and his three visitors, three angels, an experience of the Trinity.  The tradition is that before they left after they had been fed by Abraham and Sarah, they gave their staffs, made of different woods, to him.  The story then moves on to after the events concerning Lot and his sinful acts that we read of in Genesis.  Lot comes to Abraham and asks how he can be forgiven.  The Patriarch tells him to take the three staffs left by the angels and plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was then to water them with water from the River Jordan.  If they blossomed it would be a sign that God had forgiven him.  Lot takes the staffs and despite the attempts of the Devil to prevent him, waters them with Jordan water.  They blossom and grow into one tree composed of three woods, pine, cypress and cedar. The story then moves forward to the trial of Jesus.  Pilate orders that this cursed tree (as he sees it) made up of three woods of different heights, be felled and brought for use in the crucifixion.  That is what happened.

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The tree is watered and blooms

The monastery that you find today is peaceful and beautiful.  The frescos in the main church are stunning and seldom seen as there are few visitors.  Behind the main sanctuary is a chapel in which, beneath the altar, is a hole from where the tree was removed.  Whatever the truth of the story it was a beautiful and holy place and it put me in touch with the tree, with the wood.  I was reminded of that wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, and a passage from it

I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots.”

I traced the journey of that tree from that valley across to where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands which was itself at that time ‘without a city wall’ as Mrs Alexander’s hymn describes it. I climbed the steps up to Golgotha and to that other hole beneath the altar into which this tree was replanted. I had placed my hand in that first hole from which the tree had been ‘ripped up by my roots’ to us the Rood’s own words, and now placed my hands in this second hole, cut into lifeless rock in which the tree would bear fruit.  Then I went down the stairs that led to the quarry in which St Helena’s workers found the discarded wood, the discarded tree.

The carol ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ a setting by Elizabeth Poston of a poem by an unknown author dating back to the 18th century, begins like this

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

The tree we venerate is the tree of life and the fruit of that tree is what gives us life.  Planted, replanted, it continues to bear fruit.

Jesus Christ,
fruit of the tree that gives life,
may I too be
a fruit-bearer
and
a life-giver
as I follow you.
Amen.

Triduum – Across the valley

Many churches will have set up an altar of repose ready for the end of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper at which feet will have been washed as a reminder of the ‘mandatum’ the ‘new commandment’ to love.  After communion the priest will carry the Sacrament through the church to the place where it will be reserved ready for the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday.  It’s a solemn procession – well, depending on where you go to church. It’s the opportunity to have two thuribles, (if you have two and two people able to swing them), lost of taperers with their candles and three sacred ministers dressed in white vestments.  It’s a rich moment in the liturgy before the extreme austerity which follows as the altars are stripped and the candles extinguished and everything removed that can be removed from the liturgical space.  This is the drama of Holy Week, the drama of the Triduum, these Great Three Days that begin on the evening of Maundy Thursday.

In the garden of Gethsemane

So, a chapel or space may have been set aside where a little Gethsemane has been created.  We have a tradition at Southwark Cathedral that after the liturgy a group of our younger adults go on a walking pilgrimage around the City of London and the local churches on the south bank seeking out the Altars of Repose and spending time before each of them in prayer.  Because this is the evening of the ‘Watch’.

All the gospels tell us something about what happened in the garden after Judas had left the Upper Room to do what he had to do and Jesus with his remaining friends left the city, went through the gate in the wall and crossed the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane.  They were all exhausted.  Since the entry into Jerusalem just four days before they had been on an emotional roller-coaster ride.  Jesus had been unequivocal in his challenge to the authorities, overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple, scattering the animals and birds being sold for sacrifice, disturbing everyone who had a vested interest in the way things were.  He was clearly not there to make friends.

But, thank goodness, there were friends around who understood what he was doing.  Mary, Martha and Lazarus who lived on the other side of the Mount of Olives knew.  They stayed faithful unlike so many ‘fair-weather’ friends who had been happy to shout and sing as he entered the city but who now melted away when things were getting tougher.

And then, what should have been a familiar meal was turned into an unfamiliar experience as Jesus took the bread and took the wine and gave it to them – ‘My body’, ‘My blood’.  They ate and drank but without understanding.  Then the row with Judas happened and here they were, crossing the Kidron, exhausted, just wanting to sleep in the cool night air away from the heat and clamour, the oppressive atmosphere of the city.

They settled among the old olive trees and Jesus said to them

‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ (Matthew 26.36)

But every time he returns they’re asleep.

‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matthew 26.40-41)

So, in our churches, in the little Gethsemane’s we create, amongst the daffodils or lilies, the branches of Pussy Willow, or fresh leaves, amongst the candles that have been arranged to create a sense of place, a sense of holiness, the only bright pool in a dark church, we sit and watch and pray and wait with Jesus, tired, disciples, just like then, but now.  And until ten, or midnight, or dawn or until the Liturgy of Good Friday begins we keep the watch and try to do better.

At Southwark Cathedral we keep the Watch until midnight and as the clock chimes I always kneel before the sacrament and say

See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. (Matthew 26.45)

We then scatter.

While I was spending six weeks in Jerusalem last autumn I spent a few hours sitting around the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is a great place to people watch.  The ‘one-way system’ around the ‘garden’ by the side of the Church of All Nations which enshrines the rock against which Jesus is supposed to have prayed, is necessary because of the sheer number of people trying to see the place for themselves.  Inside, the church is dark and atmospheric and the mumbles of pilgrims and worshippers mingle in the gloom. But I was on the quest of what I was calling ‘the hidden and holy’. And I found it.

Just across the road from the Garden and the crowds is the tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Many pilgrims will never notice it because to get to the entrance involves going down a series of steps which are arrived at after making your way through an unofficial taxi park and a gathering of souvenir sellers who are ready to make a quick getaway as soon as a police car appears.  But if  you get down the steps you find yourself in the forecourt of the church.  It’s well worth visiting the church but not on this occasion.  Instead, go right of the church.  There is a little alley between the wall of the church and a stone retaining wall.  At the end you can see a doorway and on the lintel is carved ‘Grotto of Gethsemane’.

The entrance to the grotto – hidden and holy

You may be the only one in there if you venture down the alley and through the door.  What you discover is a little chapel inside a cave.  The rood of the cave is painted with beautiful Byzantine flowers – it is a place in which Christians have worshipped for a long time.  The tradition is that this was a place to which Jesus came when he needed space, to pray.  But it is also said that here was where he met Nicodemus who ‘came to Jesus by night’ (John 3.1). That same Pharisee would turn up again during the passion and speak for Jesus, but with no effect. But was it to this significant and known space, this place of prayer, that Jesus came with his closest friends, Peter, James and John before his arrest? In the middle of one of the busiest spots on the pilgrim trail this hidden and holy place becomes the place of Watch.

Whilst we are still commemorating the centenary of the First World War it’s good to remember a poem by Rudyard Kipling called, simply, ‘Gethsemane’.

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass-
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

Whether amongst the trees or in this known cave, Jesus prayed that the cup would pass.  But like that soldier in another Gethsemane the cup would not pass from him and Jesus finally prayed

‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Matthew 26.42)

Today, the first of these Three Great Days, we watch and pray.

Lord Jesus,
my spirit is willing,
but my flesh is weak,
yet not what I will
but what you will.
May I have the courage
to watch
and pray
and drink
with you.
Amen.

The clocks stopped

Yesterday I had the privilege to officiate at the funeral of PC Keith Palmer, a service which was held in Southwark Cathedral. Surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues tribute was paid to a man, doing his duty but in an exemplary way. The readings in the service, which was not broadcast to protect the privacy of his family, were John 15. 12–17 and the poem ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden. This is the sermon that I preached.

The helmet and the rose

In the shadow of one of the world’s best known clocks, in the shadow of a tower from which the chimes announce the passing of the hours and the days and the years, bells which herald news and mark new beginnings, Keith died, doing his duty and it was as if in that moment the clocks stopped.

In moments as terrible as that it’s as though time stops as we try to catch up mentally with what’s just happened. It’s impossible to take in the full horror in a moment, the events of less than two minutes, two movements of those hands in which the injured lay and people were dying.

Keith’s death has affected all of us, in different ways and to different degrees. But for you, his family, that stopped moment in time took away your husband, your daddy. It took away a son, a brother, it took away a colleague and a friend and the friendly face of a friendly policemen at those gates with whom someone had just had a photo taken. A moment, the passing of the hands on the clock stole life and stole so much that we’d valued and thought was safe and secure, so much that’s at the heart of who we are as a nation.

The poet W H Auden describes so well the feeling of grief, of loss, ‘Stop all the clocks’. We don’t want time to move on, how can it when time has taken from us what we love. Grief is an agony deep in the heart of us, deep where love lies, that love we thought ‘would last forever’, that timeless love, killed in time.

Auden ends his poem with a cry of despair

‘nothing now can ever come to any good’

But we can’t allow that to be true, even though every instinct we have, the pain we bear, tells us that that is how it is, now that the clock moves on, we cannot allow it to be true that ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’.

Jesus is speaking to his friends. Time for them is moving on and they’re approaching the events that we’re remembering this week, the week when Christians remember the death of Jesus, the day we call Good Friday. In an Upper Room away from the crowds he washed their feet, the Master became the servant, to teach them how to love and then into their shock and amazement he gives them a new commandment

‘love one another as I have loved you.’

He then says something extraordinary.

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Keith was doing his duty, doing what he always did. Then what happened happened. My instinct would’ve been to run away to save myself, to distance myself from the danger. Keith’s instinct was to run towards his assailant and in that act to lay down his life, for his friends, but for more than that, for much more than that.

Keith laid down his life for each one of us here, and each one of you who’ve lined the streets and filled the bridges of this city today, who kept vigil last night, who gathered in the Abbey last week, who laid flowers on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square, who’ve posted messages on social media, all who cried in front of their TVs, who listened in disbelief to their radios – we are those friends, known and unknown. He died for the politicians who represent us, he died for the democracy he was protecting, he died for the freedom we treasure. In a split second he made a decision, not to flee but to confront, and it cost him everything – and none of us will be the same again.

There is no greater love than this.

This week we’ll remember Jesus being led to the place of crucifixion, a seemingly broken man. But our Anglo-Saxon forbears thought of him, pictured him, differently. A poem was written a thousand years ago, as if the cross itself were telling its story and in it the cross says

‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me. There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord, bow or break, when I saw the corners of the earth tremble.’

Not a reluctant victim but a warrior saviour, ready to lay down his life for his friends, a heroic act like a person, like Keith, doing his duty in the split second when he could have saved himself.

‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ says Auden and it must have seemed the same to Mary the mother of Jesus and his friends standing by the cross, watching, as time stopped and the corners of the earth trembled. ‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ is something you may have thought, or may be feeling.

Auden has the answer though, except he skips over it in his grief

‘I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’

He wasn’t wrong, love does last forever. Your love for Keith will last forever and the act of supreme love that Keith performed in that split second before the clocks stopped, will last forever and it will bear fruit, fruit, as Jesus said to his friends, ‘fruit that will last’.

The Christian message and the message of Easter is timeless because it’s about eternity, the forever of God in which love and life and truth and hope and goodness and peace are always victorious. They tried to kill it all as they nailed him to the cross, there are those who wish to kill what we treasure and they think they can with random acts of terror and violence, here on our streets and in Paris, Nice, Munich, Stockholm, yesterday in Egypt and in so many places, but they can’t. Because love is stronger than hate and peace is mightier than war and life is the conqueror of death. That’s why we are Christians, because Jesus rose from the dead so that we might rise as well. The fruit of Easter is eternal life, beyond time, the forever love that we’re never wrong about.

And though we may not see it now, that supreme act of love that, in a split second, led Keith to act as he did, for each of us here, will bear fruit, fruit that will last. For evil to succeed all it takes is for a good man to do nothing. This good man did something, gave everything. Evil will not succeed – it has already been defeated.

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