The courage of our convictions

It seems a very long time ago since the commemoration of the First World War began.  Amazingly, when the display of poppies was installed around the Tower of London the referendum on Scottish independence had yet to happen and we hadn’t really heard the word ‘Brexit’ or understood what ‘backstop’ means (I’m not sure I know now to be honest) as we had yet to go through the agony of that referendum.  These four years see us in a very different place from when we first saw Her Majesty walk through those poppies and we wondered if we would get remembrance fatigue, if we could maintain such a long period of remembering.

But arriving this weekend at the anniversary of the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the war, it is simply amazing to see what enthusiasm still remains for remembering what happened. No one is now around to tell us their own story, we are doing it on behalf of a generation which has passed away.  It is a staggering piece of community, national, calling to mind.


The wave of poppies in the new Remembrance Gallery at City Hall

Some people have been knitting poppies, poppies are cascading from buildings, surrounding churches, adorning streets. They are projected, they appear in lights at the top of a tower block in the City of London, cover the inside of cathedrals.  They are made out of paper, ceramic, glass.  Poppies, poppies, poppies.  But its not all poppies.  There are the eerie figures of those who died in the war, in our churches, in public buildings – the there and yet not there, still missed.  There’s music, soundscapes, the names of those who died being read out.  People have been queuing once more at the Tower of London to see the moat no longer filled with poppies but with torches, burning in the darkness, bright sparks of hope. All this wonderful flow of creativity is helping us in this collective act of remembering.

John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ ends like this

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poppy has become the enduring image and the millions that are being worn and which decorate our nation are testimony that we have kept faith with those who died – and with those who continue to die through the tragedy and the scandal of war.

But what other symbols might speak to us and what might they help us to articulate about this commemoration? That was the challenge presented at Southwark Cathedral as 300 children filled the nave on Friday.  They were there to remember the war but also to think about that work of making, building peace.  This was one of the many INSPIRE events being held with Oasis across the country.  Those who came to Southwark Cathedral were each given an envelope containing three ‘tokens’ and during the service the children took each out in turn.

The first was a coin. In fact it was a penny but it represented the ‘King’s Shilling’.  There was a recruiting song in the First World War that played in a cheeky way with this old idea of the shilling given to a new recruit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But on Saturday I’m willing if you’ll only take the shilling
To make a man of any one of you.

A boy would take the shilling and become a man by entering the war on behalf of King and country. It was a symbol of courage but it was also a reminder that many of those young lads had no idea what they were getting into. They became a man as they took the shilling but they were still lads as they went over the top, heroes yes but innocent ones.

The second token was a real challenge to all this talk of heroism because it was a white feather.  As we know during the war it became a symbol of cowardice and women were encouraged to hand these out to men who were not in uniform. Conscientious objectors could be locked up and certainly bullied and demonised, seen as unmanly, certainly not playing their part.  Yet these were also people of principle and people of courage – and so what was created as a symbol of derision could also be seen as a symbol of courage.

The final token in the envelope was a Lego brick.  It was there to encourage us to think of ourselves as peace makers, peace builders in our own generation and in our own situations.  Peace doesn’t just come from nowhere, it has to be worked at, worked for, built and defended.  And it takes lots of bricks and lots of courage to do it.

It was so imaginative, drawing out courage, the courage of our convictions, in different ways by different people and allowing the children to think what it means to work for peace – to fight for it, to stand up for it, to build it – and what it means for each of us to have the courage of our convictions.

In the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus the writer reflects on choice and says this

He has placed before you fire and water;
   stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. (Ecclesiasticus 15.16)

Heart in Fire and Water

Fire and water

Those we remember this weekend made some massive choices, life changing, life ending, between the extremes, like fire and water, of war or peace, of shilling or feather.  I remain humbled by the choices that people, who I can never know, made on my behalf not just in the First World War, but in the Second and in subsequent conflicts.  Choices made though not just in the extreme situation of war but in other places too, courage to do the costly but right thing, and sometimes that was not to fight but to stand for peace. The choice is always ours to make, as is the choice to now work for a lasting peace, to make the present the real commemoration of the Armistice.

God places before us fire and water and we choose as those who have gone before us chose.

God, give us the courage of our convictions
and the wisdom to make the right choice.



Followers of this blog know well that I have recently come back from a pilgrimage to Romania followed almost immediately by two weeks in the Holy Land, principally in Jerusalem.  Re-entry has been hectic so I hope you’ll excuse this blog being the text of the homily I delivered at one of the Choral Requiems celebrated in Southwark Cathedral on All Souls’ Day.  The readings for the service were Lamentations 3. 17–26, 31–33; Romans 5. 5–11; and John 5. 19–25.

A group of us from the Cathedral were recently on pilgrimage in Romania.  The reason for us going there was to visit something that’s very particular in the churches in the north of the country.  A tradition developed there of not just decorating the interiors of the monastic churches but decorating the outsides as well.  Over hanging wooden roofs give some protection to the beautiful frescoes that extend from below the roof to the ground.  There are angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, there are patriarchs and prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints, there are the pagan philosophers who were seen as feeling their way towards God, and there’s us, people climbing the ladder towards heaven, struggling to keep a grip on the rungs as the little devils try to unbalance us and send us tumbling towards the fires of hell.  It’s simply wonderful, beautiful, and an achievement of art and theology that’s staggering.


The ladder

The same continues inside.  Frescoes and icons cover the walls – not an inch is left uncovered – many of them telling the gospel stories, showing the events of the ministry, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.  But there amongst all these beautiful icons was one very beautiful image.

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Jerusalem, another place full of icons.  In the shop at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Sion I found though a very small hand painted version of the icon I’d first seen in Romania.  It’s too small for you to see but what it shows is the death, the falling asleep, the dormition of the Virgin Mary.  She lies on her bed, the apostles are around her.  But behind her, standing behind her, is Jesus and in his arms is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.


The Dormition icon

Just as in a statue of Mary with Jesus she holds her child to her, so Jesus cradles this child.  But it’s not a child as we might imagine, it’s in fact the soul of Mary, as a child, as pure and as innocent and in need of cradling as any child may be.  But in a reverse of the nativity image Jesus holds Mary as once Mary held Jesus – but she held the new born baby and he holds the soul of the mother.

It’s a beautiful and tender representation of death.

The reading from the Book of Lamentations feels like a song of despair but there amongst the desolate lines it says this

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. (Lamentations 3.25)

And as our gospel concluded

‘The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ (John 5.25)

This day of the dead, this All Souls’ Day, is a day for remembering and for commending, a day when we name the names of those who’ve died recently and hold before God those who’ve died in years past but who we never forget.  Bereavement is terrible and we’re never ever the same after we’ve lost someone we love.  But remembering remains important, forgetting would be dreadful, we never abandon our dead, we remember them.  And we commend them, again and again, place them into the love and care of Jesus, place their souls into his cradling.


The cradling

Like a child in the arms of the one who loves them, listening to the soft familiar voice of the one they know, this little icon is a reminder to me of a great truth that’s affirmed by the resurrection of Jesus.  The dead are never lost, but are held, cradled, in the arms of another.  Jesus holds us in life and in death, those stretched out arms are always ready to embrace us – we commend our loved ones to his cradling – until he frees each one of us to walk with him in resurrection life.

Lord Jesus,
you hold us in life and in death;
cradle into eternity
the souls of the departed.

Living God in Jerusalem – Abram’s gate

I was very much looking forward to discovering new places on this visit to the Holy Land and I was able to do so when we visited Nablus in the West Bank.  It is always an exciting visit whenever you go.  A church stands over the well, Jacob’s Well, the one well that served the town and so it would have been the place known by Jacob and, most importantly for Christians, the well at which Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman in John 4.

But when we arrived the church was closed and wasn’t going to be open for a short while.  So rather than waste the time the coach took us around the corner (almost literally) to Tell Balata.  This is what remains of  the ancient city of Shechem.  Founded in the 19th century BC, so before the Iron Age, it is a monumental structure, huge walls, a temple mount and the remains of other buildings.  But this was the place that Abram arrived at according to the Book of Genesis.

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12.4-7)

I was imagining this patriarch, this nomad, having left the splendours of Ur and then travelling as the Lord had instructed and coming to this place.  We walked through the remains of the massive gatehouse and I wondered if Abram had walked that way. Did they let this stranger through those gates?


The massive gate and wall of Shechem

But the significant thing that Genesis tells us that it was here, somewhere, that Abram built an altar and named God.  This was a pagan city, they weren’t worshiping the God of Israel, that God who was known to Abram and under whose direction the patriarch and his family were travelling.  But here God was worshiped and an offering was made.

It is remarkable what treasures lie just around the corner in this Holy Land, timeless and sacred places.

Loving God,
nameless and named,
formless and formed,
may we know you
and worship you
in Jesus. Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – ‘Lord, we came’

Today was the day when we got up early and headed down to the Via Dolorosa to walk the Stations of the Cross, the Way of the Cross. It was a good move, we were on our own when we began, the shops along the way were not quite open and as we got to the Coptic monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there were just the monks sitting there, reading their daily office.  It was lovely and peaceful … until we got into the church itself.  The now restored Edicule (or Aedicule), the tomb of Jesus that stands beneath the great rotunda, was already encircled by pilgrims waiting for their 20 seconds in the tomb at the place where the body was laid, at the place where only the linen wrappings were found on that first Easter Day.


The squint into the Edicule

When I was staying at St George’s College back in 2016 some of the work of restoration was ongoing and I remember the closure of the whole church as the slab above the stone on which Jesus was laid was removed after 500 years and the church leaders and the experts could see what was there.  Then it was all replaced.  The rather ugly, but effective, scaffolding that the British had put up around the tomb to stabilize it during the Mandate period, had been removed and the stones all cleaned.  Now it looks amazing.

In truth it doesn’t matter how long you wait in line in this church.  This is the most important holy site in the whole of Christendom.  But as you stand there, especially on the first occasion, especially if you have had no one to explain it all to you, you wonder – so where is Calvary, where did the ‘green hill’ of our hymns go, where is the garden, where is the rock hewn tomb? You can see nothing, at first sight, of any of these things.

Behind the Edicule (the posh name for the tomb) is a Coptic chapel and you can begin your discovery there.  Enter the little chapel and kneel down and get under the altar – reach out and you can touch the rock of the tomb.  First contact.  As you continue round look through the spy hole that exists, a squint such as found in many of our medieval churches and you catch a first glimpse inside. Second contact.  Then enter, first the outer chamber where the body was prepared and the inner chamber where the body was laid, kneel and kiss the stone.  Third contact.

All these people from all around the world.  There was a Roman Catholic sister from near Michigan in front of us, there was a Nigerian group behind us, Filipinos next to them.  It was wonderful.  But on pilgrimage we only ever tread where others have trod.

What is remarkable is that something has been discovered in the lower parts of the church that tells us that Christian pilgrims were coming to this place in the 2nd century AD when on the site where the church now stands stood a huge temple built by Emperor Hadrian, who had rebuilt the city after its destruction in AD 70.  Some Christians came there long before there was a church because they had heard that this now pagan site was where Jesus was buried.  Indeed, when St Helena, the mother of Constantine arrived in 326 and asked the Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Macarius, where Jesus was buried he took her to the site of the Roman temple.  The community knew it was there and pilgrims had already come there.


Lord, we came

One group left their mark, on a stone that was just reused in Constantine’s amazing church, an image of a 1st or 2nd century boat and the simple message in Latin, “Domine, Ivimus” which may be translated as, “Lord, we came.” It’s a powerful message, simple and true for every pilgrim since “Lord, we came.” You don’t need to say more than that.

Lord, we came.

Living God in Jerusalem – In the scriptorium

We were on the top of Masada. We left Jerusalem early both to avoid the crowds and avoid the heat. We were successful on both counts! It is the most amazing place echoing with the stories of the past, of heroic action. It echos with the splendour of Herod’s court.


Yet when the palace was empty and the zealots had fled there from Jerusalem they established a synagogue and we sat and prayed there. We remembered the speech of Eleazar exhorting the people not to allow themselves to be captured and enslaved by the Romans.

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favour that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”

We read Psalm 59

Even now they lie in wait for my life;
    the mighty stir up strife against me.

In the corner of the space was the room where the scrolls would have been kept. And there was a rabbi there at work. He was writing out a scroll of the Pentateuch. He had been working in this ancient space, like a monastic scriptorium, for a year and had a lot more to do. ‘What is your name?’ he asked me. I told him. He took his pen with which he had been copying the sacred text and wrote my name in Hebrew and sealed it with love. It was an unexpected blessing in an unexpected place. I don’t know his name.

It reads ‘Andrew’

Lord, for unexpected blessings in unexpected places, thank you. Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – Disputed territory

It has not been an easy day, but then entering into anyone’s disputes is never easy or comfortable.  We began with a visit to the Dheisheh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.  We then moved on to the Efrata Israeli Settlement which is just outside Bethlehem.  Then we concluded the day by visiting the National Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Yad Vashem.  It is almost impossible to take in all of that.


Martyrs of the Dheisheh Camp

In both the Refugee Camp and the Settlement we met passionate men who told us the truth from their perspectives.  The displaced Palestinians had a right to their land even though it was a full seventy years since they were forced to move as the State of Israel was first created.  They were waiting for the restitution of what is rightly theirs.  The settlers, on the other hand, knew that it was their God given right to be on this land.  The international community may condemn them for their illegal act but they do not care.  This land belonged to no one but them.  They are here and here to stay we were told very clearly.


The calm beauty of the synagogue at Efrata Settlement

Then we saw what can happen when antisemitism becomes part of a distortion of a national psyche, becomes part of a political agenda.  The horrors of the Holocaust are never diminished however many times you listen to the testimonies, however many times you see the piles of discarded shoes and the yellow stars waiting to be sewn on to clothing.  It seems impossible that this happened in such recent history – yet it did.

Some one commented to me that it was like putting a frog in a kettle.  Put the frog into boiling water and it will leap out; put it in tepid water and bring it slowly to the boil … it’s a famous metaphor for how we are sometimes unaware of what is creeping up on us, incrementally destroying, until you wake up and find that it is too late. Was that what it was like under the Nazi regime?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that whilst people speak about wanting peace their passions do not allow them to make peace, because peace will involve talking and ultimately compromise and recognising in some ways the rights of the other person, not just to have what they need, but to have a right to exist.

The Psalmist describes the problem so clearly.

Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace. 
I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war. (Psalm 120.6-7)

There were no winners among those we met today – but there were a great many losers.  Standing in the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem I was overwhelmed by the images in the dome that surrounded me – all those lovely, innocent faces, and among them all those children.  One and a half million Jewish children died as part of the six million Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  Each of them was innocent.  Palestinian children suffer every day and experience deprivations that they should never have to suffer.  Each of them is innocent.


The faces of the innocent in the Hall of Names

The land may be disputed but our children must never be the victims of our disputes – yet all too often they are, and they pay the price for the rest of their lives.

Lord, may this Holy Land be truly holy,
for all its children.

Living God in Jerusalem – By the fire

It’s not something I need to think about here where it’s very warm and very humid but normally at this time of the year I’m thinking about keeping warm – and there’s nothing like a real fire for that.  To be honest I don’t have one.  I could – the Deanery has two lovely fireplaces and my predecessor often had a real fire.  But I remember too well my mum getting up early when we were children in order to get the fire lit before we got dressed in front of it to go off to school, covering the fireplace with sheets of newspaper (when newspapers were a proper size that enabled them to be used to do this job) so that the fire would draw.  She would hang our clothes on a clothes horse so that the chill would go off them.  Jack Frost would have played on the inside of the windows overnight but as the fire warmed the living room his traces disappeared.  Then at the end of the day she would have to clean out the grate, getting the ash swept up, build a fire, or ‘bank up’ one that was burning slowly so that it would last.  It was hard work – but it was lovely.

We have spent today on Mount Zion visiting first of all the Dormition Abbey and then the Cenacle, the Upper Room, the Room of the Last Supper.  We then went to Oskar Schindler’s grave and remembered this righteous man.  Finally, we went to the Church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu.  It is the church which stands on the traditional site of the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas, and the place to which Jesus was brought after his arrest for questioning before the Sanhedrin before being imprisoned overnight.  It was the place where the cock crowed twice (hence the name Gallicantu) and Peter denied Jesus three times.

The church is on a number of levels but in the lower church, which you can easily pass on your way down to see ‘Jesus’ cell’, are three amazing icons which deserve careful examination.  It is these that I wish to share with you – because they are wonderful.


The first shows Peter, on the left, Jesus on the right. Jesus’ hands are bound.  He is a prisoner.  He is looking at Peter but his feet are turned from him as though he is heading away from him.  His face does not show the gentle look, the compassionate look we so often associate with the Lord’s face.  This is a face of anger, of disappointment, not a face we want to be familiar with.  Peter is looking back at Jesus, he stands upright, still, but we need to look at his hands.  The right hand, the hand of blessing and friendship hangs down limply, useless.  It is his left hand which is held up in a gesture of disdain.  Then as now in this culture the left hand was used for the toilet, for filthy jobs.  You would never eat with your left hand and to turn it on someone, palm turned towards them, is a gesture of real rejection.  Between them a fire burns.  Others are keeping warm around it, those who will challenge Peter and provoke his denials.  At the top of the icon a cock stands on the pillar, it crows.  The Lord’s prophecy has come true.

‘Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’  (Mark 14.72)

Lord Jesus, for the many times I have denied you.  Lord, have mercy.


In the second icon, Peter sits alone in isolation.  The city walls can be spotted in the distance, but he is outside, in a place of wilderness and abandonment. Behind him an abyss has opened up, ready to swallow him.  He sits on a rock, but Jesus had said that he, Simon, was Peter, the rock on which the church would be built.  But he lacked the stability, the dependability of a rock, he gave way at the first testing.  One side of the rock is red, as though lit by the fires of Hades, ready to consume him. The fire that had warmed them in the courtyard is ready to consume him.  Jesus had once told a story about a poor man called Lazarus and a rich man at whose gate the poor man had sat.

‘The rich man died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”’ (Luke 16.22-24)

Peter too looks for consolation – but there is no one to offer any, for at this moment his Lord is in chains.

‘And he broke down and wept.’ (Mark 14.72)

Lord Jesus, for those times I have lost all hope. Christ, have mercy.


In the third icon there is another fire burning.  This is not a fire to warm, nor to consume, but a fire from which to be fed, a fire that speaks of the presence of God, as in the bush that burned, which attracted Moses in the wilderness.  Peter and Jesus are facing each other again but Peter, rather than standing rigid and upright as in the first icon, is bent and inclined towards Jesus.  His left hand is covered, his right hand open and ready to receive.  Jesus is looking with tenderness towards him. For each of those denials around another fire Jesus has asked three times for an affirmation of Peter’s love and commissioned him on each of these three times.  He holds out towards him a shepherd’s crook, for he is to care for the sheep.  In his other hand he holds a scroll, the new law of love that his death and resurrection have brought into being.  Behind them the apostles are on the Sea of Galilee.  They are fishing and we can just make out a mighty catch – 153 fish, someone counted – representing all the peoples of the earth.  They had had an apostolic commission at their first calling on this shore and it is reinforced now as they haul in the catch

‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ (Matthew 4.19)

And between Jesus and Peter we see the breakfast prepared.  There is bread and there is fish and enough and more than enough for all.

Lord, for the many times I have not loved you. Lord, have mercy.

Lord, kindle the fire of your love deep within me;
may it purge away my sin.

Living God in Galilee – Up north

I’ve been ‘up north’ for a couple of days and as I had very limited WiFi where we were staying which is why you have heard nothing really from me.  Though most of my time here in the Holy Land is focused in Jerusalem and its neighbourhoods this was an opportunity for the course members to see something of Galilee.  Whenever I’m here with a group of pilgrims its always great to escape the intensity of Jerusalem, even for a short while, and to breathe the good air and experience the calmer feel of Galilee, the home region of Jesus.


Part of the remains of Capernaum

Whilst Nazareth is wonderful and the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee moving and memorable it is the visit to Capernaum that is for me the most important thing.  It becomes a pilgrimage within the pilgrimage.  Once you start looking for the place in the gospels you discover that there are so many occasions when Jesus is in this town and that it is the focus of so much healing and teaching.  As I often say to people, ‘This was Jesus’ parish’, this was the place where he really knew the people and ministered to them.  This was the town in which he cured the Centurion’s slave.  This was where he cured in the synagogue the man possessed by an evil spirit.  This was where he cured Peter’s mother-in-law.  This was where he taught about himself being the ‘bread of life’.  This is where the people felt that he acted ‘with authority and power’ (Luke 4.37). This is where he came with his mother, Mary and his disciples after they had been to the wedding in Cana. This was a place that knew what a blessing it was to be alongside Jesus.

So what startles me, and it struck me particularly as we read the passage I always get people to read just before we leave the town, what startles me is what Jesus says to the people of the town.

‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’ (Matthew 11.23-24)

All of these amazing things had happened here; Jesus had lived as part of the community, and yet he said that it would be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgement than this place. What on earth is going on?

It calls for honesty.  It’s hard to break into the human heart, it’s hard to convert the deep places of our selves, we’re better at putting up barriers than taking them down.  It happened to Jesus, it will happen to us. There are no easy solutions in ministry.  What we are called to be is faithful and not to give up when the seed seems to be falling on the stony ground that surrounds this town – and perhaps it was that that Jesus was thinking of when he told that parable.

God, bless those going through hard times in ministry;
give them the strength to remain committed and faithful.

Living God in Jerusalem – ‘and there were shepherds’

Believe it or not we are gearing up for Christmas! It is only a couple of months away and as soon as December begins at Southwark Cathedral we will begin welcoming the thousands of people who will want to join us to sing the carols and hear the readings about what happened in that little town of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. I was thinking about that as we drove into the Judean wilderness today.  Our goal was three-fold – the beautiful Wadi Qelt on the side of which is St George’s Monastery, the baptismal site at the Jordan River and Jordan, the oldest continually inhabited city on the face of the earth and the lowest.


The barren beauty of the Judean wilderness

To get there meant driving down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Either side of the road can be seen Bedouin camps and in the early morning coolness flocks of sheep and goats were being led out to find pasture amongst the scrub.  Often the one leading them, however, is not some wizened old man but a young child.  It is often the case that, just like David, the shepherd is nothing more than a child.  David went out armed with his wit, a sling and a bag of pebbles to keep his father’s flock safe from harm.  These young people equally head out into what appears to us a harsh and challenging environment but which to them is home.

At many performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ this Christmas a treble will sing out the recitative

There were shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2.8)

It’s appropriate that a child sings it, not to remind us of the sound of the angels but of the reality of the shepherds.  And perhaps those who heard the angels and headed down the hill into the town were not a bunch of rough tough men who had seen it all before but some young children who were eager to see a new-born baby, just like children often are.

One of my favourite John Rutter carols is the ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’.  This was Rutter’s first carol, written when he was just 18 and it retains a freshness as we hear it – and perhaps a great deal of truth that we still see in a Bedouin flock in the early morning light.

Going through the hills on a night all starry
On the way to Bethlehem
Far away I heard a shepherd boy piping
On the way to Bethlehem

Angels in the sky brought this message nigh:
“Dance and sing for joy that Christ the newborn King
Is come to bring us peace on earth
And He’s lying cradled there at Bethlehem.”

“Tell me, shepherd boy piping tunes so merrily
On the way to Bethlehem
Who will hear your tunes on these hills so lonely
On the way to Bethlehem?

Angels in the sky brought this message nigh:
“Dance and sing for the joy that Christ the newborn King
Is come to bring peace on earth
And He’s lying cradled there at Bethlehem.”

“None may hear my pipes on these hills so lonely
On the way to Bethlehem;
But a King will hear me play sweet lullabies
When I get to Bethlehem.”

Angels in the sky came down from on high
Hovered over the manger where the babe was lying
Cradled in the arms of his mother Mary
Sleeping now at Bethlehem.

Lord Jesus,
however old or young I am,
may I welcome you with equal
awe and wonder.

Living God in Jerusalem – Speakers’ Corner

Wander along to Hyde Park in London and its northeast corner and on many days and especially at the weekend you will find plenty of people standing on a soapbox at what is know as Speakers’ Corner.  You can hear reasonable and unreasonable, likely and unlikely opinions, acceptable and unacceptable being aired.  The audience join in, heckling the speaker or warmly applauding some expression of common sense that they hear.  It is a bit on an institution, a place from which you are free to speak and express your views.


A speaker mounts his soapbox

Today we have been to the Temple Mount otherwise known as Haram esh-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.  We dressed modestly out of respect for those who worship there and, entering from the western side had a fantastic visit.  I said that I would share with you what were new experiences.  Well we had a good amount of time and so we were taken to the eastern wall of the Haram, the side which faces the Mount of Olives and to the south-east corner, on first sight rather empty and unimpressive but now, I have finally discovered, unmissable.  This was part of the extension to the platform that Herod the Great had built for his grand reconstruction of the Temple.  But on this side was located the Portico of Solomon.  I am ashamed to say that in all my visits to this holy site this fact had eluded me.  But here in a colonnaded area people would sit and would listen to teachers.  And it was here that they sat and listened to a rabbi who had come down from Nazareth, Jesus.  He would have been one of many rabbis who were teaching in what was the equivalent of our Speakers’ Corner in London, a place of debate, of argument, of challenge, and in the gospels we encounter all of that.


The rather empty and unimpressive south-east corner

It is St John who tells us that Jesus was there.

‘At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe.’ (John 10.22-15)

It was winter, the wind was blowing and they were keeping warm and this dispute begins.  But they gather around him because this is what happened in this portico.  We can imagine that the same happened at other times in this same place, this place of debate.  Gentiles were welcome in this part of the Temple complex, it was the Temple itself that they couldn’t enter but they too could wander the portico, the colonnade and listen to these wandering teachers, these itinerant preachers and this Jesus, this northern guy, with his rag-bag collection of disciples and followers seemed always to gather a big crowd.

The apostles had listened to Jesus speaking here and so it was natural that they adopted it as a place from which to teach.  We hear of the Portico again in the Acts of Apostles.  Following the healing of the paralysed man at the Beautiful Gate we read

‘While [the man] clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3.11-13)

Then, according to Acts again, it became the place where the whole Christian community gathered, the church that came together in the Portico.

‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.’ (Acts 10.12)

So this ‘Speakers’ Corner’ became the place where the church was rooted in debate and teaching, in signs and wonders.  What an amazing part of the Haram, the Temple Mount – and why hadn’t I visited it before?


Remains of what was there are being exposed

But then I wondered whether Jesus was there before.  Was this where his parents found him when he was lost all those years before?

‘After three days [his parents] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.’ (Luke 2.46)

Perhaps, maybe.  Did Jesus return to this place of debate 20 years later and continue the discussion.  It’s an intriguing idea. The debates of course go on, and they need to.  I certainly won’t be missing this part of the Haram again – it was the ‘nursery slopes’ of the church. But just to lighten the mood a poem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, more famous for his argumentative detective.  The poem is called ‘A Parable’.

The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
Not one of them thought of a cow.

God of wisdom,
may we know when and where to speak,
when to stop arguing
and when to simply listen.

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