Lift high the cross – The Rock

This is the final one of my Holy week addresses for this year. Thank you for journeying with me from Palm Sunday to the evening of Easter Day.

Catch up TV has revolutionised my life. In the past I was never able to watch series, I could never guarantee to be in and even when you were able to set the video recorder the tapes used to fill up and I could never seem to find the time to watch what I’d hoped to watch. Now those days are over and I can simply look forward to binging on the third series of ‘Happy Valley’ and see what finally happens to Sergeant Catherine Cawood and very bad boy, Tommy Lee Royce. As with anything you have to watch ‘Happy Valley’ from beginning to end!

‘The Awakening Slave’

It’s absolutely pointless to see the first and last episodes of anything – you know where the story began and you know where the story finishes – but all that stuff in between that you don’t know, that links the beginning with the ending – well, you’ll never know it.

So, I hope that there’s no one here who came last Sunday and has only come back on this Sunday – because if you have you’ve missed a heck of a lot. A great deal went on, happened to Jesus between his entry into Jerusalem and his resurrection. The shocking thing I have to tell you is that he died – he really died. It was no pretence, it was no trick.

There was a real death and there was real grief around. We were there. We witnessed it. We witnessed his final days when he was with his disciples and they cared for him. We witnessed the final evening that he shared with them, the meal he gave to them and to us, the way in which he washed their feet.

We waited in the garden whilst he prayed and we saw the act of treachery take place, that kiss that marked him out as the man they wanted.

We stood among the mob as they bayed for his blood and we watched with Mary and with John as the nails were hammered home and he was lifted high, wearing his thorn crown like a mighty king. We saw him die and we were there as his lifeless body was brought down from the cross and carried away – carried towards the rocks close by.

He died and he was buried. He was buried in the rock and the rock was sealed as his final resting place.

For me the rock itself was important and I want to include it amongst the instruments of the passion, though it isn’t usually there, among the ‘Arma Christi’, those things which were employed to bring about his death, the palms and the ladder and the nails and the cross and all the other things that we see represented in Christian art and iconography and that we’ve been thinking together about over these last eight days.

Rock has this incredible force and presence, this is what the earth is made of, this is the stuff of our planet, the rock is the base of everything, beneath everything – all else, the soil, the sand is simply derived from it, broken down from it. The rock is the ground of our being.

And someone had broken into the rock, broken into mother earth and created a room, a place, a womb in which to lay a dead person, someone somewhere had broken into the rock and made a place in which to lay God. The creator was laid in the very heart of his creation, one with all that is. The rock is hard and harsh and unforgiving – but those same qualities made it a secure and safe place to entrust the precious remains of God-among-us, Emmanuel.

The Jews had a deep sense of relationship with the rock – perhaps because there was so much of it around but also perhaps because it seemed so unchanging.

For the early Hebrews rocks were used as a witness. I love the story in Genesis when the covenant with God is sealed and a rock is set aside as a continuous witness to what’s been said and done. The rock is anointed and stands there as a perpetual reminder and witness against the people if needs be. Life is lived beside the rock and life itself is laid inside the rock until the time when it will re-emerge. ‘I am about to do a new thing;’ says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’

T S Eliot writes the following in his epic poem ‘Choruses from the Rock’.

‘The soul of man must quicken to the soul of creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist unites himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the soul of stone.’

Life springing forth, the new thing that God does through the passion and death of his son. Our new life springing forth, bursting from a rock like a stream of living water cascading from a dry rock in the desert. And as St Paul says in his First letter to the Christians in Corinth, ‘that rock was Christ’ (1 Cor.10.4)

Michelangelo’s fantastic sculpture ‘The Awakening Slave’ is perhaps the best image of the truth that Eliot is hinting at. Michelangelo’s figure is seen to be struggling to life out of the rock itself. The man is stretching as though waking to life, sensual as if coming to terms with his new body, in the ecstasy of birth, in the ecstasy of life.

Jesus laid in the rock, is Jesus risen from the rock. His death has to be contemplated and confronted, the reality of his death, the implications of a universe in which God is dead, if we’re really going to be able to feel the force of the new life that comes through resurrection. Avoid the death and we avoid the life.

St Paul is quite clear about this in his Letter to the Colossians (3.1-4). We have to die if we are to live and that death might be the death to old self and old ways that we can, through the grace of God achieve now, or the death that will ultimately and in God’s time be ours that will lead to eternal life. Our own death is bound to Christ’s death and our own life is bound to Christ’s life.

We are wrong when we try to avoid the death of Jesus, when we’re seduced into thinking it didn’t happen. It did happen and our own death will happen.

This Holy Week has been about participation in the events of the passion and resurrection of the Lord, about, to some extent, seeing ourselves amongst those instruments of the passion, recognising that it was in response to our disobedient and sinful nature that God sought to save us, to redeem us. And the week has also been about recognising more about ourselves about seeing ourselves in the things that happened to Jesus.

Those who miss the death and celebrate only the resurrection will never be able to share in the stunned amazement of the disciples in the Upper Room on this evening of Easter Day. And perhaps our avoidance of the hard part of the story, the painful episode in the series has marks of what so often goes on in contemporary society in which so many avoid thinking about their own mortality.

It’s a hard thing to think about – as hard as rock, as uncompromising as granite. Yet Christ the Corner Stone, the rock on which we build for all eternity, is the one who gives us the confidence to look not just at our life but also at our dying.

The great seventeenth century Anglican bishop and theologian Jeremy Taylor wrote this in his book ‘Holy Living: Holy Dying’,

‘And how, if you were to die yourself? You know you must. Only be ready for it by the preparation of a good life, and then it is the greatest good that ever happened to thee’.

God has done a new thing. From the rock new life has burst free and no tomb will ever keep us either. ‘Do you not perceive it?’ Life, our life this week has changed and God has used the instruments that we made and chose to end life, to make life, new life, for all people, for all time. This is why we rejoice.

In the joy of this place, in the joy of this evening, as the light of a new day and a new world begins to fade we ask God to help us to live well that we might die well and that from the rock we too may rise.

Christ our rock, on the firm foundation of your passion, death and resurrection we build our lives. May we know you to be the ground of all being on which we can trust. Amen.


Lift high the cross – Easter morning

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the second Mass of Easter. The readings were: Acts 10.34-43; Colossians 3.1-4, John 20.1-18.

It was such a matter-of-fact way of sharing some of the most important news that one person has delivered to another. Sometimes, when we’re so excited about something, its really hard to get the words out, to make it clear to those who are listening just what it is that we’re trying to say, trying to tell them. Sometimes our breathless state makes the words almost impossible to form – but not with Mary.

After all the emotion in the first light of the garden, the weeping, the shock, the lack of recognition, the hearing of a name spoken again against all the odds, against all expectations, Mary then calmly, it seems, says to the eleven, hiding behind their locked door, in their locked room

‘I have seen the Lord’.

Peter and John had been there with her, initially, but they’d seen nothing, an empty tomb, a stone rolled away, grave clothes neatly folded, no evidence of anything except absence, a profound and disturbing absence. No angel was there to tell them what’d happened, there was nothing but shock to share with their friends – but Mary didn’t go with them. She didn’t leave the place but stayed with that absence, that emptiness – until the sound of a voice, until the sense of a presence, began to fill the void. So, she turns to see who is speaking, but she doesn’t really see, she can’t really see who is standing in front of her, the one speaking to her, until he says her name.

Novels are full of cases of mistaken identity; Shakespeare thrives on the amusement and the distress that non-recognition can create. But Mary in the garden, thinking that the person speaking to her is the gardener, rather than the one she is seeking, the one she is missing, the one for whom she’s searching, must be the greatest and most profound case of mistaken identity. Yet when she arrives back at the place where the eleven are staying she is clear

‘I have seen the Lord.’

David Adams has written many lovely poems and prayers and many in the Celtic tradition. In one of them he writes this

Where the sun awakens the day
Where the road winds on its way
Where the fields are sweet with hay,
I have seen the Lord.

Peter, speaking to Cornelius and his household, in our First Reading testifies that he too has seen the Lord.

‘We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.’

Mary was a witness, Peter was a witness, we too are witnesses, for we too have seen the Lord. But what is it that we have seen? This week, in fact, we have seen so much, witnessed to so much. We have seen
A humble king who washes feet
A betrayed lover kissed and abused
A tortured prisoner who does not shout out
A political pawn manipulated by others
A lamb once slain who lives forever
The crucified man, our risen Lord.

We have seen the Lord, and we have seen the Lord as a child laid in a wooden manger and a man nailed to a wooden cross, a child held in the arms of a loving mother, a man whom a sealed tomb could not hold. We have seen the Lord.

We have seen him in humanity raised to the godhead and divinity confronting the evil that is around. We have seen it all and in seeing the Lord, we like Mary, have seen ourselves.

Mary had to hear her name before she could really see what was before her eyes. Though she knew the stranger so well she couldn’t recognise him until his voice allowed her to recognise herself, who she was and therefore who he is.

Where the sun awakens the day
Where the road winds on its way
Where the fields are sweet with hay,
I have seen the Lord.

It was with the awakening sun, in the garden, off the well trodden path, with the sweet smell of spring that recognition came. It was by lingering with the uncertainty, staying with the absence, holding on to that sense of unknowing, resting with the questions that Mary came to the point where she could say ‘I have seen the Lord.’ The men had long gone but she had stayed.

The journey through Holy Week is a hard one. We’re forced to grapple with so much and not just about Jesus but also about ourselves. The instruments of the passion that I’ve been talking about all week, each one of them makes us confront something of our own nature and it can be uncomfortable, challenging.

But where we arrive in the end, when the thorns and the nails and the oil and the water and the palms and the wood have been set aside, is that these things are exposed for what they are, man made objects, used and misused, and instead we are left with emptiness, the absence, a cave which became a tomb which is now a cave again, empty, abandoned.

Yet the God who we discover on Easter Day, who discovers us, who calls us by name, is the God who occupies space and time, our space and time in a way that makes sense of all things. The tomb is empty but the world is shot through with the grandeur of God. Gerard Manly Hopkins describes it so well in his famous poem ‘God’s Grandeur’.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

And now we see the Lord, here, in real presence, in bread and wine, the Maundy Thursday stuff that speaks to us of the reality of God, the presence of the risen Lord, each day, each Sunday, each every-week celebration of the resurrection, ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’.

And as we see the bread raised we can say with Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord’, and in discovering Jesus, we discover ourselves, our true being, our true nature, ‘Where the sun awakens the day’, I have seen the Lord.

Alleluia. Amen.

Lift high the cross – Good Friday

I preached four addresses during the first hour and a half of the Three Hours. the readings were Judges 9.8-15, Genesis 28.10-17, Sirach 38.24-34, and Genesis 22.1-12.

The thorns

In our churches, in works of art across the centuries, a series of images have been used that serve as shorthand for the events that we’ve been remembering during this week but especially today. They’re known as instruments of the passion or ‘Arma Christi’, the arms of Christ, arms as in the sense of symbols as in coat of arms. They’re the things, mostly inanimate objects but sometimes animals and people who in one way or another contributed to or were used in achieving Christ’s passion.

In our Harvard Chapel we have a wonderful example of what’s called a vexillum. A vexillum was a banner, a standard, carried by Roman legionnaires and is what’s referred to in the great hymn for Passiontide ‘Vexilla regis’ ‘The royal banners forward go’. In Christian use it’s the display of these symbols, the lance, the sponge on a stick, the crown of thorns, the proclamation nailed to the cross and the cross itself all arranged together.

It was made in the 1970’s when new furnishings for the Cathedral were being designed by George Pace the then Cathedral architect. As with all of Pace’s work it has the familiar stark, jagged edges, a simple, severe form and is made of his favoured materials of black wrought iron and limed oak. Well, this vexillum, crafted in metal is a sizeable piece of work. It was intended to be bolted to the back of the presidential chair so that during the Eucharist the tower space, where the liturgy is celebrated, would be dominated by the cross and the instruments of the passion.

It was a good idea but as with many ideas it needed just a little extra working through. The problem is that although the presidential chair is no lightweight thing in itself, the vexillum is heavier and it was discovered that whilst the president of the Eucharist was seated all was well but whenever the priest stood up, as we are wont to do during a service from time to time, the whole thing toppled over.

So the poor vexillum was sidelined to a wall but eventually found its way into the Harvard Chapel alongside the altar.

I know George Pace’s work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I love this particular piece. And I love it because it keeps in my mind the nature of the suffering of Christ and the way in which we, humankind, are so good at devising more and more dreadful ways of humiliating, torturing, defiling and ultimately killing each other. And I need to be reminded of just how mechanistic we can be about it because I could easily forget.

A few years ago I was on a city break in Poland and we were staying in Cracow. It was a lovely few days in the week between Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday. The main square in the centre of Cracow was filled with a special fair at which all manner of wonderful religious goods were on sale – things to decorate the home with on Palm Sunday, things to carry to church, and of course acres of wonderfully painted eggs, special Easter gifts and decorations. It was absolutely lovely.

But we took time out from the splendour of the fair to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’d been a number of times to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the great holocaust memorial and museum there and I’d wept at what I’d seen and wept particularly in the children’s memorial with its sea of faces and constant background of the names of the victims being read out. I’d been to the holocaust exhibition down the road from here at the Imperial War Museum and been touched particularly by the recorded interviews with survivors that are played there – snatches of memories, things that can never be forgotten, things that can hardly be rendered into words.

But I was still unprepared for the experience of visiting those two camps and such familiar sights – the entrance gateway to Auschwitz and the railway entrance at Birkenau. I knew them before I saw them, but seeing them stunned me. These places, these killing places were reality, part of my reality.

Our visit finished near to the place where the trains entered Birkenau and our guide took us to some of the accommodation sheds that’ve been reconstructed. What was driven home to me during the visit was the extent to which this was the industrialisation of killing, that the very techniques that had made German industry so wonderful and so successful had been harnessed by the Nazis to create an efficient killing machine.

The sheds, our guide explained, where actually prefabricated stable blocks which were adapted for the purpose. They were readily available and easy to construct. And then she told me what I found most chilling of all – why I found it the most chilling I don’t know – I think it was because it was so calculated, so deliberate that I couldn’t believe it. She said that in order to increase capacity in the sheds the bunks were slanted, one towards the other, like a mountain range through the length of the shed. You can get a lot more people in the space if you build the bunks in that way. I looked at the reconstructed bunks and the photographs confirming it, all at this angle, to get more victims in. And my heart broke.

‘Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.’ (John 19.1-2)

I suppose they were bored, I suppose that they just needed to entertain themselves. It was a difficult place to be a soldier; it was a difficult place to be the Governor. These people with their religious obsessions, their rules and regulations, their petty squabbles and their zealous fanatics were almost ungovernable. And why were they there – another piece of land when they already had control of so much.

They’d heard the accusations and they’d laughed amongst themselves. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate had asked the prisoner and his answer really told them nothing either way. But if you asked them he didn’t look like a king – thin, poor, weak – none of the things that would suggest he was a king – and if he was a king where was his army, where were his followers. And if he were their king why was the crowd so eager to dispatch him and save the life of a bandit. They’d seen kings and this was no king like they’d ever seen.

So they did what they wanted to do. So he thinks he’s a king well we’ll make him look like one – with a crown – but of thorns – and with a purple robe and a reed in his right hand and then they would bow the knee – a king!

The thorns were to hand and it couldn’t have been an easy job to twist them into a makeshift crown but they were determined to do it. There’s that most amazing painting that hangs in the National Gallery by Hieronymus Bosch entitled ‘The Crowning with Thorns’. Bosch has captured the moment just before the crown is forced onto Jesus’ head. Jesus looks at us the viewer with serenity. His face is pale and Bosch chooses to dress him in a white robe not a purple one as in the gospels. And he’s surrounded by four men, one on each corner of the picture – contemporary men to when the picture was painted, yet deeply grotesque in their ordinariness, and one holds the crown above Jesus’ head, captured in a moment before the cruel thorns are pressed into the flesh.

Investigations have shown that Bosch painted the men originally with much more evil, vicious looks on their faces. Now they look calm, enjoying what they’re doing, one almost smiling at the thought of what was going to happen. It’s much more powerful.

Our ability to humiliate, to injure, to attack and even kill our fellow human beings is unimaginably frightening and our constant ingenuity in finding more and more efficient ways of doing so causes us shame.

And Jesus stands there, passive, waiting for the worst to be done, and as he waits he represents in himself all those who will follow him to gallows and gas chambers and detention centres, on to barges to hold refugees, on planes destined for Rwanda, dressed in the garb that makes us feel better, the clothes of the victim, the garb of the oppressed, the crown of thorns for a king. And the fire comes out of the bramble, the fire of God’s all consuming love surmounted by a crown.

‘Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son.’

Jesus is the lamb caught in the thicket of thorns, the son offered up, to save us, who continue to humiliate and kill.

Lord Jesus, you faced the torment of barbaric punishment and mocking tongue: be with those who cry out in physical agony and emotional distress. You endured unbearable abuse: be with those who face torture and mockery in our world today. To you, Jesus, the King crowned with thorns, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

The ladder

Amongst the objects, the instruments of the passion, the ‘Arma Christi’ on the vexillum there’s a ladder, just an ordinary ladder, the sort of thing that I’d gingerly climb at home if I needed to reach higher than I normally can. It was part of the tools of those whose job it was to look after the place where the crucifixions took place. I don’t know who these people were, were they Roman soldiers on duty that day for this grisly task, were they slaves that had been captured somewhere else who were made to do the job that no one else wanted to do? Were they proud professionals who did this as their job, as their service to society?

One of the last and certainly most well known public hangmen in Britain, Albert Pierrepoint, was proud of the way in which he did his job on behalf of the nation. He felt that he’d nothing to be ashamed of – and I suppose why should he have been. It was legal, the due process of law had been followed and these men and women had been sentenced to death. As someone opposed to the death penalty wherever it’s practiced I can’t quite understand how someone could go to work and do the job of an executioner. But people manage to do the most amazing things.

In his book ‘The Reader’, Bernhard Schlink tells the story of Michael who falls in love with a woman who it turns out worked in a Nazi concentration camp sending women to their death in Auschwitz. In conversation with a man about the camp he’s told, ‘An executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening him, or attacking him. They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.’

In the film ‘The Green Mile’ we see through the horrors and the trauma of death row, through that indifference to the goodness that can manage to survive even in such a grizzly place.

So on that green hill far way – or rather not so green a hill, perhaps a quarry, perhaps a rubbish tip, certainly outside the walls, but not far from the walls on the roadside – there was a ladder waiting to be erected to aid those who had a job to do. It wasn’t to assist the condemned man – the more pain that could be inflicted, the more strain placed on the body, on the lungs and the heart at this stage, the faster the job would be done – it was there for the use of others.

The exact manner in which crucifixion took place is always debated. Certainly the images that we have in the Stations of the Cross, of Jesus dragging a fully formed cross behind him are completely wrong. What he would’ve been carrying across his shoulders was the cross beam that he would eventually be attached to. The vertical beam was probably always in position, awaiting the next victim. Or it may have been that the vertical beam was laid flat on the ground waiting for the cross member to be attached to it with the condemned person and the whole thing raised in one go.

However it was used, the ladder was there and it would certainly have come into use when the crucified man was dead. In order to get a dead weight down would take a lot of strength and a ladder would enable one of the executioners to get high enough to detach the corpse and using the winding sheet, lower it down to those below. Those of us who went to Oberammergau to see the delayed passion play this year will have seen that re-enacted in the most beautiful way, almost balletic in its gentleness.

Jacob had by stealth stolen his brother Esau’s blessing, his birthright and there was nothing that his father Isaac could do about it. Jacob was blessed and that was the end of the matter. Jacob though, eager to marry and armed with the blessing, leaves his home to find a wife and on his way to his mother’s relatives at some distance he stops when night falls and sleeps on the ground. It’s then that he has the dream of the ladder, the ladder that links heaven and earth, the ladder on which angels of God ascend and descend.

This ladder in many ways prefigures for us the ladder that we see lying at the foot of the cross waiting to be used. In many ways as well, it prefigures the cross itself. The cross is also a ladder linking earth with heaven, pointing from earth to heaven and raising Jesus to that intermediary point between the two.

In some reflections on the crucifixion, of course. Jesus is in no need of a ladder to get onto the cross. I love the way in which in every generation and in every society the cross is seen in a particular way. There’s a great Stanley Spencer painting called ‘The Crucifixion’. Like many of Spencer’s paintings the event is set in Cookham in Berkshire. It’s taking place in the High Street and there on either side of the cross are familiar buildings, red brick, tiles and clapper board. And everyone is in contemporary clothing including Our Lady who’s spread-eagled at the foot of the cross which is set into a huge pile of rubble.

The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald is famous for the agony of the depiction of the crucifixion. Grunewald painted it at the time of the Peasant’s revolt when the world was expected to come to an end in 1500. The world from the perspective of the painter was in turmoil and coupled with this it had been commissioned by the Order of Saint Anthony who cared for the sick and especially those suffering from what was known as St Anthony’s Fire, a disease that caused horrific lesions and eruptions in the skin. Christ in his torments looks like one of those who would be looking at the picture. They saw themselves in him – his passion was their passion.

The Anglo-Saxons had their own agenda and for them it was the hero that they saw in Jesus. Here was a crucified saviour who would need no ladder to scale the cross. Here was a vigorous hero eager to embrace suffering in order to secure victory. And so in the wonderful poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ we see depicted not in paint but in words a Christ for them.

This is the Rood, the Holy Cross, speaking

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. I might have
felled all the enemies; even so, I stood fast.
He stripped himself then, young hero – that was God almighty –
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when the warrior embraced me; even then I did not
dare to bow to earth,
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King, the Lord of heaven.

This is a much more active, dynamic way of seeing what happened and no ladder was required by a Christ like this.

But however it was achieved, Jesus was raised up above the earth for all to see, for all who gathered there, or passed by, those who hid in the shadows for fear of their own life, those who stood near the front to jeer and taunt and make his life hell, those who, still in fear, needed to be close, Mary, John and a few other brave women who looked up at him.

Not all the religious leaders were against Jesus. We know of three members of the Sanhedrin who were definitely supporters – Joseph of Arimathea who would give the tomb; Gamaliel who would argue on behalf of the early church; and of course Nicodemus. And it’s when at night, earlier in St John’s Gospel, that Nicodemus searches out Jesus to speak to him that we get a hint of the ladder and the cross.

Jesus says ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ (John 3.13-15)

The language of ascending and descending takes us back to that earlier ladder, the one that Jacob sees in his dreams but Jesus is also referring to another event, an event associated with the Exodus. You’ll remember the story of the plague of serpents that God sends to bite the people in the wilderness. To cure them Moses makes a bronze serpent and sets it on a pole and when anyone was bitten by a serpent they would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Jesus likens himself to that serpent on the pole who will save his people, who will cure them of their sickness and disease, who in dying will save them from death. And as Jesus says later in St Johns Gospel ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12.32)

Our incarnate God hangs in the space between earth and heaven raising our eyes to heaven, drawing heaven’s gaze to earth and on that ladder, that ladder of perfection our souls continue to climb. ‘Climb that gracious ladder O Christian soul, climb me’ says the Holy Rood ‘for this is the gate of heaven’.

And then the ladder is brought out again and men take down the body and hand it to his mother. She stands at the foot of the ladder where it is planted on the earth because to the earth she must return her heavenly son.

Lord Jesus, you were lifted high upon the cross that you might draw each one of us to you; be with those who cannot lift their eyes to look at you. Your body was racked with pain as they lifted you; be with those who are suffering terribly from incurable, untreatable pain. To you, Jesus, lifted between heaven and earth, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

The nails

For those who are familiar with the Stations of the Cross the eleventh station is perhaps the most painful to contemplate. As you’ll know, those fourteen traditional stations were first established along the route of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem from the Ecce Homo Convent which is built over the site of the Antonio Fortress where the trial of Jesus took place, right through to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by Constantine at the instruction of his mother Helena over the site where she discovered the true cross. Helena excavated on a hillside that had been outside of the city at the time of Christ and a place that was revered by the early Christians.

Modern pilgrims find it almost impossible to believe that there was ever a hill there. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre completely obliterates any sign of a hill, except that to get to the final series of stations you have to mount the foot-worn steps which take you to the site of Calvary where you keep the 11th and the 12th stations.

They’re next to one another on top of the remains of a rock in which there’s a rift, a crack, as though caused by the earthquake that St Matthew refers to in his gospel. This is Calvary and it’s here that you remember that Jesus was nailed to the cross, the eleventh station and that Jesus dies on the cross, the twelfth.

Interestingly, tradition has it that at the base of that fissure in the rock are the skull and the bones of Adam and that’s why on many icons of the crucifixion you’ll see that the foot of the cross is on a skull and cross bones. The story of humankind has come full circle as Jesus is nailed to the wood of the cross on which he’ll be raised for all to see, on the grave of the one who fell through the fruit of another tree.

I remember when ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ came out as a film. We went along to watch it and there was one bit that stayed with me and always has. At the crucifixion as Jesus is placed on the cross, Lloyd Webber’s music dies away and all you can hear are the hammer blows and the laughter, the hammer blows and the laughter as one by one the nails are driven home and Jesus, in agony, is fixed to the cross.

‘They pierced me with dark nails;
on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice’

says the Holy Cross, the Holy Rood in the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ from which I quoted earlier. The nails pierce the body and they pierce the wood, the open wounds of malice.

We’re thinking about the instruments of the passion, those objects and sometimes people we find on the vexillum, the collection of things we associate with the passion – the lance, the ladder, the dice, the sponge on a reed, the crown of thorns – and amongst them will be some nails. Traditionally there are three, one for either hand, or more properly for each wrist and one to go through both of the feet. But scholars suggest that it’s more likely that there would be four nails, one not through both feet together as on a standard crucifix but through each of the ankles. But three or four, there would’ve been nails.

As we began thinking about these things on Palm Sunday I said that none of these things is inherently bad, just as none of us is inherently bad. The reading from Ecclesiasticus, the book of Sirach as it’s sometimes called, celebrates many things and amongst them celebrates the work of the Smith. ‘He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork’ says the writer without any value judgement. And of course, there can be none. We need the nails the Smith produces to build our homes, to build our implements of the field, to hold together the everyday objects that we require to live. He has fashioned his nails in good faith not thinking that they will hold God to a cross.

He fashions the head of a lance in good faith, it might go to a farmer to protect his sheep from the wolves, it might go to a hunter to get a supply of fresh meat for his family. He fashions the lance not thinking that it will spear the side of Christ.

It’s what we do with everything that creates the problem. I was listening to a programme about the Austrian physicist Lisa Meitner who was one of those closely bound up with the research into the splitting of the atom. Meitner, a pacifist, was of course horrified when her peaceful studies were then used for a terrible end when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end the war in the Pacific. Like the Smith she had stood back to admire her handiwork only to discover that it was used to kill her brothers and sisters. We cannot blame the nails but those who wield the hammers that drive them home.

The nails, however, can become a powerful symbol in their own right. At the heart of Coventry Cathedral stands a cross, made of three nails, taken from the devastation of the Cathedral following the night that it was bombed. The medieval nails that had held the roof together now hold together to make a cross – and we have a copy of it here.

But instead of it representing the bitterness of war, the horror of destruction, the nails plucked from the rubble represent the very opposite, reconciliation, peace, a new beginning, hope, all of those things that churches like this one, part of that great Community of the Cross of Nails, stand for and pray for.

The nails are reimagined, and they become even more powerful in their repurposed life.

I was asked to take my favourite book to a school assembly in our Cathedral Primary School so I took Oscar Wilde’s short stories ‘A House of Pomegranates’ a book that I’ve always returned to again and again. And the story that I highlighted for the children was that of the Selfish Giant. You’ll remember the story – the giant has a beautiful garden but he’s too selfish to allow the local children to play in it and so the flowers stop blooming and the birds never visit and winter never leaves his garden. Then one day he finds a small child crying, he has no one to play with. The giant for once moved, places him in the tree and the local children return and so does spring and growth and life but the little boy never returns. Then one winter’s day the giant wakes up and looks out and sees a marvellous light. In the midst of the snow a tree is full of blossom and there is the little boy he had loved.

The story continues

Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close his face grew red with anger, and he said, ‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ For on the palms of the child’s hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet. ‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the Giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’ ‘Nay!’ answered the child; ‘but these are the wounds of Love.’
‘Who art thou?’ said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child. And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.’
And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

Wilde, whether he knew it or not, picked up on a verse from the prophet Zechariah ‘I received these [wounds]in the house of my friends’.

The nails harshly hammered home make marks that reveal the love of God to us. ‘How much do I love you’ says God? Jesus shows us his hands and side. ‘My Lord and my God’ we say with Thomas. Now we know how much God loves us. We make the nails, he bears the wounds and we live in his love.

Lord Jesus, you bled in pain as the nails were driven into your flesh: transform through the mystery of your love the pain of those who suffer. You bear on your body the marks of your love; may we always know the depth of your love for us. To you, Jesus, nailed to the cross, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

The wood

‘Ecce lignum crucis’ ‘Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the saviour of the world’ will be sung shortly, ‘Come, let us worship’. And the cross will be shown to us. And we’ll look and we’ll see the wood and we’ll look and we’ll see Jesus, crucified man, crucified God.

Not that we’re claiming that this is the true cross, but this is the wood and on wood was hung Jesus, the Saviour of the World.

There are some things in Anglican circles that sort the sheep from the goats. One of them is incense, another is the Hail Mary and another is the veneration of the cross. Perhaps it’s just too much for our English sceptical nature that we should approach the cross and kneel before it, even less that we should kiss it. It can make us feel uncomfortable.

The greatest trade in relics of course focused on the cross on which Jesus died. St Helena was supposed to have found it and from there the story developed as the cross was taken and chopped up and distributed so that by the time of the Reformation Calvin said in this Treatise on Relics about the true cross

“There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Of course, there was wood, there was a tree, felled, sawn, used, to make a cross. On the outskirts of west Jerusalem, just close to where the Knesset now stands, is a fortress like monastery. It’s the Monastery of the Cross, now Greek, once Armenian. But at its heart is the most magnificent spot.

The whole complex is built around a small, but now silver adorned hole, where a tree once grew. It was the tree that was felled to make the cross. I walked from there on my own, having knelt beside the hole and then travelled the few miles that wood would have travelled, from the forest to the place of execution, where the tree was once more raised, a noble tree, now a throne, for a king.

Who knows whether that was the place where the tree was felled. But what I do know is that that the little pilgrimage I made was wonderful and that in the 4th century when Egeria, a Spanish nun on a three year pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was in the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday she did what we’ll be doing in just a few moments. She writes that after the bishop hasd exposed the cross to the eyes of the congregation ‘all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it.’

For me the Liturgy of Good Friday is one of the most important and to preside at it one of the greatest privileges that a priest has. To stand there as people come forward to pray before the cross to venerate it in their own way, in their own time, is simply wonderful and moving and profound.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

wrote Issac Watts.

We were unable to stand under the cross with Mary, we were unable to stand there alongside John, we were not there, but we are here and in this place and on this day the wood is the wood of the cross and we can be there with the Lord, we can be there recognising what God has done for you, for me, for us.

I simply cannot understand the gracious and magnificent love of God for fallen humanity; I cannot come to terms with the magnitude and generosity of love that finds its perfect expression on the wood of the cross. I cannot comprehend how much God loves me, how much he loves us, who simply do not deserve it.

God’s commitment to humanity seems to know no bounds; accepting human nature in the incarnation, living a patient hidden life in the carpenter’s shop until the time was right; calling, teaching, healing and making through signs and wonders, through transfiguration, the reality of God among us known. And then with his face turned to Jerusalem making his way towards the inevitable.

We’ve witnessed the adulation of the crowds as people in the branches of the trees pulled them down to make for him a triumphal carpet; we’ve seen the love of his followers for him as oil was poured and at the supper table he was prepared for burial; we saw a kiss so different from his mother’s, the sign of betrayal that brought the troops; we were washed by the servant king who taught us how to love and to serve, and the journey has brought us here where a crown of thorns is placed on him in mockery, where a ladder raises him on high, where nails secure him to the wood of the cross. And all this we’ve seen because God loves us so much, ‘that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ as St John so clearly, so profoundly puts it.

This is the simple staggering truth that God became man for this moment, to save you, to save me, to die for you, to die for me, to embrace this tree, this wood so that we might embrace eternal life. The fruit of the tree in the garden had brought us condemnation, now the fruit of this tree on this barren, blasted hillside, will bring us life.

Come let us worship.

Lord Jesus, you died on the cross for us and for our salvation: give courage to the dying, comfort to the bereaved, peace to the departed. In death you entered into the darkest place of all: bring us out of our darkness to the light of your glorious presence. To you, Jesus, your lifeless body hanging on the tree of shame, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Lift high the cross – Maundy Thursday

The readings for the Evening Celebration of the Lord’s Supper were Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 and John 13.1-17,31b-35.

TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, not to mention the TV with all its apps and catch up facilities – we’re a generation who’ve become obsessed with watching, watching what other people are doing, what they’re eating, what they’re wearing, where they are, how they’re feeling. We’re more and more living in spectator mode, on the sidelines, watching rather than participating, witnessing the lives of others rather than living our own.

So, are you a spectator or are you a participant? Are you always on the sidelines looking in or are you always in with the action, taking part, playing the game? It may be, of course, that you’re in fact a bit of both, but I think that we can often fall into one or the other category.

In that beautiful book by Salley Vicker’s, ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’, set in Venice and paralleling the biblical tale of Tobit, the eponymous hero, Miss Garnet, discovers the joy of moving from being a spectator in life, standing meekly on the edge and watching what’s going on, to being a participant and finding that she loves it. That awakening to the joy of participation is, I suppose, part of what it means to become truly alive.

This Holy Week could be a chance to be spectators, to watch from the edge, to see what’s going on but to keep well back. Certainly, when the events took place there were many people – the majority I suppose – who took that role. But is that what we’re doing this week, are we simply spectators or are we more than that?

This evening’s liturgy and all that it commemorates is perhaps one of the most powerful in the Christian calendar. And the liturgy invites us into the action, to be players. In fact, liturgy always invites us into the action.

I know that some people seem to think otherwise but church, even Cathedral, is not a spectator sport. At times it can seem like it especially when we’re often passive members of a congregation as things are being done for us so well by professionals – but that’s a misunderstanding. Liturgy always draws us into a deeper reality and the liturgy this week even more so than usual.

On Sunday we carried our palms and walked in procession to commemorate, but more than commemorate, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; tomorrow we’ll come to the cross and experience the profound love of God for us, not in a distant but in an intimate way as though this holy place in which we meet is the hill of Calvary itself. On Saturday we’ll wait, with nothing to do, but wait with Mary and the disciples, waiting for God to act and in the evening and on Sunday we’ll gather at the empty tomb and experience, as if for the first time, the truth of the resurrection.

And now, this evening we enter the Upper Room, the cenacle, that prepared place on Mount Zion where the Lord met with the twelve to share that final meal and that final time. We’re not spectators this evening, we’re there, we’re at the table and part of the action. And we’ll be part of the action as the watch is kept and as the act of betrayal occurs. We’re there, we’re here and as with every Eucharistic act, remembering brings the past into present reality.

There are no more powerful words that the president at this Eucharist says and we, as celebrants with them, hear, than those dominical words, ‘On the same night that he was betrayed’, those deeply known, daily said, so familiar words, and realise as we say them, as we hear them, that this is the night, this IS the night, and we are in that place as time and space fold, and this table becomes the table and the once and future liturgy becomes our own experience.

Sister Wendy Beckett reflecting on Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ says that if Christians received this Holy Communion just once in their lives, ‘with what awed reverence they would prepare for that unimaginable moment.’ She then goes on to say,

‘Yet, because the gift is offered at every Mass, we can miss the transforming power of this most holy sacrament.’

The truth is that every Eucharist is the transformative experience – it’s about our participation in the passion of the Lord. St Paul referred to this in our Second Reading ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’.

We’re thinking this week about the instruments of the passion and to be honest the bread and the wine of the Eucharist don’t exactly fit. They were not things used to bring about the death of Jesus; they aren’t like the thorns and the nails and the cross. But they do bring the reality of that passion to us every time we participate in the Eucharist. Every time we eat the bread, every time we drink the cup we’re remembering what God has done for us, what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Draw near with faith. Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you, and his blood which he said for you. Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

That invitation to communion makes it so clear. On this night, this night that he was betrayed, this night when he washed feet, this night when he broke bread, this night when he shared the cup, Jesus becomes the new Passover meal for us, the meal that constantly takes us from death to life, the meal of exodus, the meal of our new freedom, our new reality in God.

And in a short while we’ll come forward, watchers no longer but intimately involved, no longer on the sidelines but in the action and into our empty hands the very being of God will be placed – the God who gives God’s self to us, the God who gives God’s self to you, out of sheer love, then, now, yesterday, today, forever.

And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we’ll know yet again the reality of the passion, the true nature of the God whom we adore, the God who adores you so much will give you, in Jesus, his body now in bread and in the morning his life to you, for you, on the cross. Take, eat, live.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruits of your redemption;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Lift high the Cross – Wednesday in Holy Week

The reading for the reflection today was John 13.1-14.

Our weather is so unpredictable nowadays, but I want you just to think for a moment of hot summer’s days, days when you were a child and your parents got the paddling pool out and set it up on the back lawn and you played for hours with your friends in the water.

Some years ago, quite a long time ago now to be honest, I was working in the States, in New Jersey, South Jersey in fact where the tough north shore of the Delaware stands opposite the opulent tower blocks of Philadelphia. It was a hot summer when I was there, with little relief from the relentless heat. And then one evening in the street where I was living the people had had enough and they let off one of the fire hydrants and the kids and everyone was in the fountain of water, rejoicing, dancing, laughing for that simple refreshment, that simple cooling from the heat.

It may seem strange to think about water this evening when the events around the foot washing are part of what we’ll be celebrating tomorrow – but there’s so much to think about tomorrow, on Maundy Thursday, that I wanted us to be able to take time to think about everything that took place, everything that played its part in the passion of Jesus. Water may not be quite an instrument of the passion but it was certainly important, significant, on the way.

The shock of course was palpable in that Upper Room, that cenacle where the disciples had gathered with Jesus. Tension had been mounting during the week, since they’d entered Jerusalem and the crowd had come out to meet and greet them. But the Pharisees and the other leaders were even more determined than before to put a stop to what Jesus was doing – and the disciples knew this. They had their contacts in Jerusalem, they had a good idea what was going on. After all there was Nicodemus, himself a Pharisee but a secret follower of Jesus, who was concerned about what might be the consequence of Jesus’ actions and his words.

So, as they gathered in that Upper Room with Jesus they were already on edge. But they weren’t prepared for what happened there. The supper had begun, the food had appeared on the table and in the middle of the meal Jesus got up, took off the outer garment he was wearing, took a towel, a jug of water and a bowl and began to wash their feet – he began to wash their feet. And they were shocked and amazed.

When they’d gone to the house of Simon the Pharisee for dinner and when Simon was critical of the actions of one of the women who’d been following Jesus as she bathed and kissed the feet of Jesus whilst he was at the table, Jesus rounded on him. ‘When I arrived you did not wash my feet, you gave me no kiss, you did not anoint me’. The oil, the kiss, the water – the very three things we’ve been thinking about. The good host would have offered all three that now appear in the events of this Holy Week.

And Jesus appears to offer the perfect challenge to Simon. Here’s something unknown, the teacher, the master assuming the servant’s role, taking the water, taking the towel and washing the dirt and the grime, the dust off the feet of his guests, of his friends. It was too shocking, too much to bear, that Jesus would be their servant, that he could overturn social conventions in such a shocking, subversive way.

The fact was, of course, that this group of poor disciples would probably not have had servants. This would have been a ‘do-it-yourself’ occasion. It was the duty of servants to wash the feet of guests as they arrived at the house. At the door there would be water and a bowl and a towel to dry the feet after the grime of the streets. But if there were no servants who would do it? Clearly as they arrived at the Upper Room no one did it. Even after being with Jesus these three years no one felt that it was their duty, their job to serve each other. There were disputes among them as to which of them was the greatest but even Jesus’ response to that was not enough to get them over their own pride. Why should they wash feet when someone else should do it? So, they begin the meal with unwashed feet.

It reminds me of communal kitchens, at work, in student accommodation – yes, even here at the Cathedral – when we just dump our dirty mugs and walk off, throw the teaspoon into the sink, as though it’s nothing to do with them. Are some people too posh to wash? Does no one think it’s their job? Who do they imagine will wash their cup up for them?

Maybe the disciples thought they were too posh to wash. And so it’s Jesus then in the middle of the meal who shames everyone of them around the table by doing what they should’ve done.

But there’s more going on than this. There’s more to it than simply that Jesus models humility and service in such a dramatic and disturbing and attitude shifting way.

In his great commentary on St John’s Gospel, William Temple says this of this passage ‘He whom we worship is humility itself incarnate’. Jesus in this simple act reveals something of the staggering nature of God. His action changes our understanding of the nature of God, it illuminates the concept of the Servant King and out of all of this flows the mandatum, the new commandment that we’ll be celebrating tomorrow as the Triduum, the great three days leading up to Easter, begin.

It’s no surprise to us that it’s Peter who voices everyone’s concerns, everyone’s anger with Jesus – the anger that comes when you find that your own lack of humility, your own arrogance has been exposed for what it is – pride.

Peter was of course simply seeing Jesus taking the servant role and that was too much for him. That made him react with characteristic aggression and determination – ‘You will never wash my feet’. But Jesus’ response to Peter is interesting and gives us the hint that something much more important is going on here – much more than simply correcting the lack of hospitality that Simon had shown to them when they were dining with him, the lack of humility that each showed towards the other when they arrived with dirty feet in the Upper Room and walked straight past the water jar.

‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ says Jesus.

We talk a lot about inclusion and in fact we were the first Cathedral to sign up to Inclusive Church when it was established after my predecessor preached at the launch service at All Saints Putney. But inclusion is a challenging concept and there are always boundaries to it. Over the years people have, and I have to say, rightly, challenged me. ‘Are you really inclusive? Would you have me or so-and-so, preaching?’ Like a politician I have tried not to give a straight answer.

Jesus is all embracing and we talk about him as being a model of inclusion, but the water is a defining element. ‘Unless I wash you’ … there is no place for the unwashed.

It seems to me that there’s a great challenge here to those of us who in our own context might still use the ‘liberal’ label without too much trouble, those of us who come from an inclusive, affirming, progressive catholic background to know how far we’re really willing to go with making the edges fuzzy, with expanding the boundaries to include those who might be excluded. And do Jesus’ words help or complicate the issue or both?

The decisions of the church – and here I’m thinking about the Church of England rather than the universal church – have often created boundaries and barriers. The provisions and the exceptions and the protections we put in place – for those who can’t accept ordained women, for those who want a different bishop, and now, potentially, in relation to same-sex blessings create a less inclusive church – the Church of England post LLF debates in February’s General Synod, is a much more fractious place than it as even before. You only have to look across the river from here to see clear evidence of this in the schismatic new City of London deanery set up just a few days ago. We may use phrases like ‘mutual flourishing’ but we flourish in separate walled gardens, we don’t blossom together.

I think it’s undeniable that Jesus in the Upper Room as he challenges Peter, and therefore challenges the church, is talking about much more than foot washing or even that servant humility that he’s modelled for us. Jesus is talking about incorporation into his own self. ‘You have no share with me’ is often translated as ‘you have no part with me’.

Baptism which is an integral part of Easter for us, as we’ll be reminded at the Vigil and on Easter Day as we reaffirm our baptismal promises, is about our share in the nature of Christ, our part in Christ, in his death and in his resurrection. It’s the fact that we’re washed in those refreshing life giving waters – the water that flowed from the rock in the desert, the water that streamed from the side of Christ on the cross, the water which flows from the temple, from the throne of the Lamb and gives life to the city and its people – it’s the fact that we’re washed in those waters that makes us a sharer both in the passion of Christ and a partaker of his resurrection. In the waters we both die and rise and we belong to Christ, are incorporate with Christ in a new way.

Believing and belonging, as it’s often referred to, are part of what it is to be a Christian, it’s our entry into the church – believing what the church believes, living as part of Christ and that will mean living differently. And for those who cannot be washed – well the love of Christ never fails them and we have to have the confidence to make sure that’s known by all and also bring people to Christ that they may fully know what it means to be a Christian and the freedom that flows from that. We exclude no one, only those who exclude themselves, we include all people who wish to be part of Christ.

The people dancing in the water from the fire hydrant on that hot summer evening in South Jersey knew the refreshment that the water can bring. Water was poured out in that Upper Room by Jesus, it flowed from him the day after. Through this instrument of the passion we are washed into his death and into his resurrection and in the water we dance with the joy of new life, his life into which we have been incorporated into him and we seek to bring others to the fountain that they too may have a part in Christ.

Lord Jesus, you knelt at the feet of your disciples and washed them clean. Forgive our lack of humility, take away the arrogance that holds us back from being a servant. As you were a servant of all, deepen our sense of belonging. To you Jesus, from whom blood and water flowed, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Lift high the cross – Tuesday in Holy Week

This is the third of my Holy Week addresses for Southwark Cathedral. The reading was Mark 14.41-50.

It’s the moment we wait for in any romance, the kiss that’ll seal it all, that will mean that all is well, that the guy has got his girl, that the girl has got the girl, that the guy has got the guy, and that all will live happily ever after.

I can remember the first time that I saw Rodin’s amazing sculpture ‘The kiss’ in the Tate. As a rather innocent young boy I thought it was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen – and having been brought up on a diet of Blue Peter I think it probably was. It’s interesting that although Rodin produced three full size versions of it he didn’t really rate his own work. He said of it that it was ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’ Well, it’s some knick-knack!

Sadly, although that might have been the usual formula for Rodin – and obviously this is only my own opinion – kisses aren’t always as strong and sensuous as his sculpture suggests.

My grandmother’s sister was in service for all of her life to a posh lady. In the end my great Aunt became a companion to this lady rather than a maid as she began. But my mother used to tell us stories of having to visit Aunt Emily in this big house. There would be a newly baked cake to eat – probably seed cake – and a fresh pot of tea to be drunk and my grandmother and her sister would gossip away about things. Then the time for the visit came to an end and my mother knew what horrors awaited her. The party was escorted to Mrs Reynolds’s parlour where she was always reclining on a sofa, elderly, dressed in black, like a Victorian lady. And the moment came ‘Go on Jill. Do kiss dear Mrs Reynolds’ said Aunt Emily to my mother. And my mother would have to dutifully trot over to this wizened old lady who smelt of wintergreen ointment and kiss her.

This Holy Week we’re looking together at what are called the instruments of the passion, those things which we associate with the passion of Christ and which have found their way into iconography and Christian art, becoming in themselves almost metaphors for aspects of the passion.

The instruments of the passion, the ladder, the spear, the dice, the nails, those kinds of things became very popular in the mediaeval period when people’s primers and other devotional books would be decorated with them. And at that stage of course there was fierce rivalry between holy places about who’d got what, the shroud, the veil – what we call the mandylion – and the cross itself or at least bits of it.

But what I want us to think about today might seem to fit strangely with these objects because what I’m focusing on is the kiss, that kiss of betrayal which Judas employs as the sign to those who wanted to arrest Jesus that this was the man. How can a kiss be one of the instruments, you might wonder.

In fact, in medieval tradition the instruments were properly called the ‘Arma Christi’, the arms of Christ, as in coat of arms, the symbols that represented Christ and they were more extensive, more inclusive than merely a group of objects. In one devotional book from Westphalia which was created in 1330 there’s depicted Judas delivering the shameful kiss. So there is good precedent for including him and it among the instruments of the passion.

Betrayal of any kind is always such a dreadful thing. And when we’re betrayed by someone we’ve trusted, someone we’ve loved, then the pain, the sense of that injury that we’ve received is even more acute. As the psalmist says in Psalm 41 verse 9

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

It was his own familiar friend, his own bosom friend, who emerged from amongst the trees and performed the cowardly act – or was it actually cowardly or supremely brave yet supremely wrong – act of planting a kiss on Jesus’ cheek and then stepping back and letting what would happen, happen.

And to choose a kiss of all things, the very sign of love, the very sign of intimacy, of closeness, used, to condemn someone to death. It’s a betrayal of trust that always hits us each year, each time we hear it.

I used to have my annual retreat at the mother house of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage. In the main chapel there’s a beautiful statue of Our Lady and child carved by Mother Maribel in the 1930’s. It’s a simple statue in many ways, just stone without colour, and realistic – the mother looks like a mother and the child like a child. But what’s most moving is that Mother Maribel carved the figure to show Mary gently kissing the forehead of her child – a tender, beautiful, lingering kiss of love and on that same place there would be a kiss of betrayal.

There’s a wide variety of people on the way that Jesus travels but of all the people in the story it’s Judas whose role seems most clear to us. He was the betrayer. If it weren’t for that kiss it wouldn’t have happened. We know that he was no good, that as John put in parentheses in yesterdays reading that he was a thief, that he’d been helping himself to money from the common purse, that he was wicked. If the passion were depicted as a western movie Judas would most definitely be the one who rides into town dressed in black to face up to our hero Jesus, the man in white!

But of course, it’s nothing like that at all. And if we think it’s as clear as that then perhaps we ought to think again. For a start off Jesus had chosen Judas to follow him. Judas had been there as Jesus taught and healed and prayed, as he performed his miracles and as he shared with his disciples the most intimate things about his life and about his ministry. Judas isn’t some kind of infiltrator, like the MI5 officer who we heard of last week who got inside the IRA high command, someone who managed to get inside the group by devious means. Jesus chose him to follow him. He wanted him to be part of that small band of people, the twelve who would form the core of the new Israel.

So did he choose him because he needed someone to betray him? Was Judas someone who was untouched by what he saw and heard? I don’t think either of those things is true. The disciples were genuinely shocked by what happened. Though Jesus suggests that he knows what Judas is planning the others seemed to have no idea. They thought of Judas as just one of them, one with them. They didn’t see him as someone suspicious, anything of an outsider.

Yet Jesus had clearly noticed something. Perhaps he’d noticed as they drew near to Jerusalem that Judas was wanting him to be someone different to the person he was turning out to be. In calling the twelve, Jesus had chosen a disparate band of men – there were working men, there were administrators, there were political animals and there were enthusiasts.

As we know, Judas was probably part of a fanatical grouping, part of the zealots. His surname, Iscariot, gives that away to some extent. As you’ll be well aware the name comes from the small dagger that many of the zealots carried. Perhaps Jesus hoped that seeing his way of non-violent but strong resistance, to evil in all its forms, not just evil as represented by the occupying foreign power – the Romans – that Judas would learn another way of achieving God’s will for the people of Israel.

As they entered Jerusalem it became clear that this was not the case. Jesus entered in humility; he came in peace on a donkey, not as a warrior on a war-horse. He was fast becoming a disappointment – and a disappointment to some of his friends, his close friends.

Perhaps Judas thought he could change Jesus’ mind by acting as a catalyst, making something happen, something that Jesus and the others would have to resist – hence the plan, hence the kiss – but it didn’t work. For a moment it looked as though it would do as a sword was drawn and someone was injured – a proper fight, proper resistance could have happened, was on the brink of happening. But Jesus quickly put a stop to that and allowed himself to be arrested, to be bound and to be taken away. And the darkness fell about them, the darkness fell about Judas.

The rest is history. Once something is set in motion it’s very hard to stop and Judas found that what he’d set in motion was impossible to halt. As he saw it all unfolding he knew that he had only one option and he took it – took his own life.

Judas was on a journey just as we are. But he lost the way. He thought he knew a better route, a better way to follow, a way that would get them where he wanted to be. But the path he chose was not the one that God wanted, was not the path to life – but even in his mistakenness he served God.

Whatever Judas did there was an inevitability about what happened. Judas may have speeded up the process but what happened would have happened, it had to happen. And whether it was with a kiss, or a word, or a gesture, the deed would have been done by someone at sometime and Jesus would have been arrested. And Jesus knew that. That was why his prayer in the garden was so desperate. He knew that what had to happen was going to happen.

But there was something more to it than just this. Tertullian is reputed to have said ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ But equally we know that there is often no one as vicious towards us as the person who will call us brother or sister and share the kiss of peace with us. In the Book of the prophet Zechariah it says ‘if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’ (Zechariah 13.6)

Too many people have had a bad experience of church and not just those of us who are ordained, not just women, or people of colour, or the members of the LGBTQI+ community, or survivors of abuse, physical, sexual, mental, spiritual. Over my years here I’ve met many people who have arrived as refugees from bad church experience where the kiss has been planted and the knife has been turned at one and the same time. There’s something deeply disturbing about this.

So before we get too high and mighty with Judas we need to look at ourselves, individually and collectively. Judas had personal choice, he had personal freedom. He chose to do what he did. And we have the same freedom, we have the same opportunity to be open and honest and not hide behind a kiss, a forced smile, the veneer of Christianity.

Before you share the peace think seriously next time. One of the father’s at Mirfield, a rather crotchety individual when approached at the Peace with an open hand and a hearty smile would always respond ‘no thank you’. But at least his response was honest.

Lord Jesus, you were betrayed by the kiss of a friend: be with those who are betrayed and slandered and falsely accused. You knew the experience of having your love thrown back in your face for mere silver: be with families which are torn apart by mistrust or temptation. To you, Jesus, who offered your face to your betrayer, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Lift high the cross – Monday in Holy Week

The reading for the Eucharist today was John 12.1-11. This address was a reflection on that.

I went to the Ideal Home Show at Olympia on Saturday. It was full of stuff I didn’t need – a huge number of massage chairs, the size of a Smart car, hot tubs, crystals and other well-being products that were designed to make life ideal. Amongst them, of course, were huge ranges of things to make your ideal home smell nice – candles, oils, diffusers and the like.

I don’t know whether it’s to do with this continually growing interest in all things smelly nowadays or that people are getting more catholic in their practice in our church, if not always in their theology, or because of the increase in interest in healing ministry but whatever the reason, there’s a lot more oil being used in our churches today than when I was a lad or even twenty or thirty years ago.

One basket of the Southwark Oils

I was ordained in Ripon and served my title in Leeds and it quickly became clear to the bishop that I had what might be called a charism for organising people. This was no surprise to me as I’d always been the one who’d organised my friends when we were playing out. I could never play the game but I could at least organise it and some refreshments as well.

Anyway, that was how I began to be involved in planning big liturgies; the bishop identified the bossy strand in me and put it to good use – there is nothing in our nature that God cannot use! And one of the tasks that I had, apart from organising concelebrated Eucharists on showgrounds with the help of soldiers from Catterick Barracks – but that’s a completely different story – was producing the oils for the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday.

For some reason a number of dioceses including Ripon – now of course called Leeds – and Southwark had gone down the multi-grade route – you know, one oil does all jobs, that kind of liturgical understanding or rather mis-understanding. So I was brought in to sort it out. Fortunately here our Head Verger, Paul, is a master at creating the oils – he’s been engaged in doing it for the last week and consequently the sacristy smells more ideal than the Ideal Home Show!

Anyway, I tried to find the recipes for the oils but they seem to be closely guarded secrets so I set about it myself. I knew that the oil of baptism was plain virgin olive oil, so that was easy and I knew that the oil for the sick was plain oil into which was mixed the oil of lavender, so that too was relatively easy. But the chrism was another matter. It said in the sacramentary that the bishop mixes the balsam into the olive oil. So I tried that. I bought oil of balsam heated it to make it easier to mix into the olive oil and produced the most amazing looking gunk I’ve ever seen in a sacristy. A number of attempts were no better.

I went back to my suppliers – Id Aromatics they’re called and a lot of English cathedrals now do business with them on my recommendations. They’re in a backstreet behind Leeds City Station – and I explained my dilemma. The rather new age assistant came to my help. She’d mix me something that would go into olive oil. What did it need to smell like? And I thought of the reading that we’ve just heard and the anointing of Jesus by Mary and I said to the woman – ‘it needs to fill the house with fragrance… it needs to be full of eastern promise’. And that’s what we’ve used.

I wanted us to think this week about what we call the instruments of the passion, those things that we find used around the death and the resurrection of Jesus, and to think more broadly than simply the things we see trophied on the vexillum. Yesterday we began on the road to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and the palms and olive branches being torn from the trees to create that festal carpet over which Jesus would ride. But each day there are things that play their part in the passion, tools that were used, often misused, to bring about the death of Jesus.

And today we’re in the place in which Jesus constantly took refuge – his go-to safe place, the place where he could take time out, be with friends, relax to some extent and be away from the demanding crowds, his ideal home. And in these last days of his life that sense of safety must have been even more important than it’d been at other stages of his ministry.

It was a dinner party. There was a lot to celebrate. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary had died and Jesus had arrived too late to save him. So his sisters had done what the tradition demanded; they had washed and anointed and then wrapped his body. They’d bought the best perfumed oil in order to do it. They loved their brother and they wanted to do the best they could for him.

Then Jesus arrived and they took him to the tomb and … well … the miracle was performed. They knew that Jesus could have saved him from dying; now their faith in Jesus as Messiah, as resurrection and life, had seen their brother walk from the tomb and live again. To say they were overjoyed trivialises what they’d been through. The family were in shock, as were their friends but Martha and Mary and Lazarus want to celebrate and they want to celebrate with Jesus and they and he must have known that time was running out.

I’m a great TV watcher and over the years I’ve watched more episodes of ‘Come Dine with Me’ than I care to remember. You probably know the format – but if you don’t it’s quite simple. Five contestants, strangers to each other, throw a dinner party on each of five consecutive evenings and each of the contestants then mark the others on food, hosting and entertainment, that kind of thing. And at the end of the week the one with the highest score wins a thousand pounds. It’s very simple but what makes it worth watching, apart from the wonderful commentary, is the fact that people at dinner parties are simply amazing. The things people do and say to each other, well, it makes you wonder.

Jesus was a great dinner party person. On so many of the occasions when we hear about him he’s at someone’s house for dinner and often eating with company that other people disapprove of. This is the man who sits down with the tax collectors and sinners; this is the man who challenges social conventions and acceptability. Yet people keep inviting him to dine with them.

And at those meals the most surprising things happen.

The oil that Mary has was the same as she would have used to anoint the body of her brother before his burial – but maybe, maybe, she didn’t have time to use the oil she had, so she still had it.

Nard, often called spikenard, was one of the costliest perfumes coming from the foothills of the Himalayas and transported by Persian traders to the Mediterranean countries. It was so costly that the term nard could be used for any perfume. So valued was it that Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a phial of nard. And pure nard was of course the costliest and this is what Mary was using. Matthew, in his gospel, speaks of it being in an alabaster jar – another indication of just how valuable this commodity was.

If you want to know what it smelt like, well someone has described it as ‘intense, warm, fragrant, musky notes, similar to the aromas of humus’. I think that must mean rotting garden matter rather than that Mediterranean dip we love so much! Of course, that kind of earthy smell wasn’t thought quite as bad as we think it might be now. Remember Isaac being deceived by Jacob for his brother Esau’s blessing and his blind father’s declaration of delight ‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the lord has blessed’ (Genesis 27.27).

But this wasn’t just about the costliness of the gift. It was an extravagant gesture but it was so much more than that. What Mary was doing was pointing to what would be happening at the end of the week. Whether she knew it or not she was preparing Jesus for his burial. What she’d done for her brother she now did for her Lord. But what she does, this great act of love and kindness and devotion as the men are eating their meal together, in full sight of them all, is the most intimate act that we witness in the gospels.

Mary took the oil and anointed Jesus’ feet with it, she will have massaged the oil into the feet and then she let down her hair and wiped the excess oil off with it – she dried the feet with her hair. It’s not just extravagant, it’s intimate, it’s not just prophetic, it’s provocative.

It caused a scene – it was bound to cause a scene – but it’s Judas’ protestations that are recorded and maybe to put him in a bad light. But we can imagine the reaction of the others gathered there.

This week we’ll see just how much God loves us, just how much God loves you. We’ll see just how far God will go to save you, to save me as he embraces the cross and dies. The challenge of Mary and the oil to us is not about making extravagant gestures of faith, it’s about making loving, personal almost intimate gestures of faith.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Christiana Rossetti’s tremendous Christmas poem brings it home to us. Do we love Jesus enough to give him all we are; do we love Jesus as much as Mary did to risk the extravagant, intimate act of love? Jesus you give yourself to me; can I, dare I give myself to you.

Lord Jesus, you were anointed with the costliest oil as a sign of love. Pour upon the poverty of our love
and the weakness of our praise, your anointing spirit. To you, Jesus, anointed one, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Lift high the cross – Palm Sunday

This is the first of my series of Holy Week Addresses for Southwark Cathedral.

In the Harvard Chapel to the right of the altar is a cross.  If you step forward and look closely at it you’ll see that it’s more than a cross, it’s a complex interweaving of a number of things.  Stand there long enough, follow the lines and you’ll gradually see a number of them appear – nails, a robe, some dice, a whip, a ladder.  It’s an amazing piece of work, produced by George Pace’s studio when he was architect here.

The Southwark vexillum

It was designed not to go on the wall but on the back of the chair the president sits in at the Eucharist.  In the back of the chair are large fixings for this cross.  The problem was that no one quite worked out the practicalities – the cross weighs so much that when the president stood up the chair fell backwards.  So, it’s on the wall.

But what it’s properly called is the vexillum. It harks back to Roman times.  At the end of a campaign, as the troops with their commanders returned victorious, there was a parade and the trophies of war were carried for all to see.  If you go to Rome and head up into the Forum from the Colosseum you come to the Arch of Titus and if you look at that you will see a vexillum being carried along with the plundered treasures, including the objects taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, the great Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, amongst them. 

For Christians the trophies are what we call the instruments of the passion.  You’ll find them in many churches and you can find them in other places here, on the shields above the two gateways from the choir aisles into the choir itself, at the high altar.  In the church where I was brought up the medieval church building had been enriched by the Victorians, by the Tractarians and by their successors, with lovely bits and pieces and many of those bits and pieces were decorated with ladders and hammers and sponges and nails and cockerels and whips.  As a child it meant nothing to me, all these carvings in the screens, all this engraving on the chalices, all these things embroidered onto the vestments.

It all meant nothing until we were at confirmation classes in our vicar’s study and then we were able to ask the questions that we’d always wanted to ask and had never dared to.  What are all those things, why are they there, why is our church decorated with ladders and hammers and nails.  And the priest told us that these are the instruments of the passion, those things that were used in the killing of Jesus.  To us they seemed strange things to us to be decorating a church with.  But we were only eleven so what did we know!

But Christians have always revered these things.  After the events of the first Holy Week and Easter, Christians sought out the things associated with Jesus in order to possess them, Veronica’s cloth, the crown of thorns, the shroud the body was laid in and of course, above anything else, the cross on which Jesus died.

In his book ‘Helena’ Evelyn Waugh gives a fictionalised version of the story of this English woman who becomes one of the principal people involved in seeking out, not just the holy sites but the holy things and above all the true cross.  In the book Helena says

‘Where is the cross anyway? The only one.  The real one.  It must be somewhere.  Wood doesn’t just melt like snow’.

And through a dream and a miraculous healing she eventually finds it – the real, the true cross.

But why bother with things?  Aren’t they just distractions from the truth?  Haven’t they just provided opportunities to ridicule the church, to make us look stupid and ignorant?  Haven’t they too often become objects of idolatry, of false devotion that have distracted us from God, the equivalent of the golden calf for the Hebrews.  As King Louis IXth mounted the steps behind the altar in Sainte Chappelle on the Isle de la Citie in Paris in order to expose to his court the crown of the thorns, he was doing that not just out of deep piety, which I’m sure was there, but also as a sign of the power of his own kingship and position.  This crown he had in his hands was more powerful than the crown he wore on his head.

And the same was true for communities that owned the shroud, the veil, or anything else that was associated with Jesus.

Why do we bother with things?  I suppose that the simple answer is that these things provide the closest contact in that physical sense that we can have with Jesus.  Yes, of course, in relationship we are closer to Jesus than any thing could bring us, any object, any instrument of his passion.  And yet there’s something about the physical, about what we can see and touch that remains immensely powerful.

In the final scene of that amazing and controversial film ‘Brokeback Mountain’, Ennis, one of the two main characters, opens the door of his wardrobe and hanging on the back of the door is Jack’s check shirt.  Ennis had taken it from Jack’s room in his parents’ house when he paid them a visit after Jack had been killed in a homophobic attack.  Now he takes the shirt from the door and smells it and hugs it and weeps over it.  It is the closest that he can get in that physical way to the man he loved.  He has nothing more of Jack to cling to – just the memories and the shirt – and the shirt is tangible.

And we are just the same.  We’re physical beings and ours is an incarnational faith.  The fact of the matter is that in Jesus, God engages with the physical world, God enters the physical world, God takes flesh and lives as one of us.  And as God raises our status to that of divinity – ‘God became man that man might become God’ to paraphrase St Athanasius on his work on ‘The Incarnation’ – so in a sense the material also becomes imbued with the possibility of God, of the divine and that’s where our sacramental theology comes into play.

You see the thing is that nothing is inherently bad.  The things that we’ll be thinking about together this week, the things that were used to kill Jesus, they weren’t bad in themselves.  A ladder isn’t bad, neither are nails, neither is wood.  But the purpose to which they’re put can be bad.

They’re just like you and me.  No one is inherently bad despite what some Christians would have us believe.  Your gender, your colour, your sexuality don’t make you any better or any worse than anyone else.  They’re givens, they just are, that’s who you are.  What you do with that nature of yours, that God given nature of yours, that God loved nature of yours, is what makes the difference.

Take today’s instrument – the palm, the branch of palm, the branch of olive.  Some of my more liberal friends when they were having children decided on a clear toy policy – no gender specific toys and no violent toys.  But it was interesting to see their children getting a stick and using it as a weapon, or pretending they had a gun in their hand.  How many choristers have I seen using the palm cross they’ve just been given and angelically walked with in procession, a few moments later used as a sword in the vestry in some great pretence at a game of fencing.

The problem is with us, not with the things themselves.

As the news got out that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem the crowds began to head out of the city to greet him on the road.  There was a sense of excitement about the place.  News travelled fast and people were anxious to see this much talked of teacher and healer and so they crowded the streets and the gates in order to get the best vantage place.

And as he approached the excitement became such that palm fronds were cut from trees and olive branches gathered and strewn before him and coats and cloaks cast on the ground to create a triumphal carpet for Jesus to ride over.

His entry into Jerusalem was truly as a king of peace, riding on a donkey, not on a horse, not coming as a warrior but as one who would bring peace and the branches and the clothes provided a wonderful affirmation of who this was.  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ shout the crowd in St John’s version of the story of Palm Sunday. 

This week won’t just be about things though.  They are only starting points because what is never carved or engraved in our churches are you and me and there’s a sense in which we too are playing our role as instruments of the passion.  What part do I play in this drama, this life changing, world changing drama that we will see re-enacted, represented before us this week?  Well, the answer to that may emerge as we engage with what happens to Jesus.

Today though it’s for us to simply welcome the one who comes, and to take what we have to hand to make that arrival, to make that entry as wonderful as it can possibly be – and as the Lord passes by we sense his presence and know that the peace he will bring will change our lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, triumphant king, crucified king, you point us to your kingdom as these days unfold. Give us, who are instruments of your passion, the vision to be instruments of your kingdom that we may make known the good news of your love for all people. Amen.

Lift high the cross

It’s one of the powerful hymns that we can sing at any time of the year, ‘Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim’. If we are in procession it is even more wonderful, taking the people of God on a journey, walking behind the cross lifted high before them.

This year, it being my last Holy Week at Southwark Cathedral, it is my privilege to be the Holy Week preacher. It is always something of a daunting task especially when you follow people who have given wonderful series of addresses that have taken us through this most momentous of weeks. But I will do my best, by the grace of God. I have taken as my theme those opening words of the hymn, ‘Lift high the cross’ and my inspiration has been the vexillum that you can see in the Harvard Chapel of the Cathedral. I will be explaining more about that in my addresses. However, I was delighted to see an example in the Church of St John the Baptist in Ein Karem, in the Judean hills just outside Jerusalem, when we were there a few weeks ago as part of the Diocesan Pilgrimage.

This is the little town, set amongst hills reminiscent in some ways of alpine areas, to which Mary cam when she was pregnant to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was herself expecting a child. Mary came to this little town and the women greeted one another and their unborn children recognised each other. It is a beautiful story and the setting is perfect for it.

The vexillum at Ein Karem. How many ‘instruments’ can you see?

The interior of the church is covered in blue and white tiles but little of that could be seen when we arrived as the place is being restored and is full of scaffolding. We headed through the forest created by the poles and headed to the grotto where the birth of John is commemorated. But at the chancel step stood a vexillum, quite an elaborate one. We spent some time as a pilgrim group looking at it and all the objects, the instruments of the passion, displayed on it. My photo doesn’t do it justice as it was hard to get a good image which wasn’t full of scaffolding! But I suppose there was something honest and workmanlike about this simple wooden cross with its hammer and nails and the rest, in a place of construction.

This blog is simply to alert you to my plan to post the Holy Week addresses after I have preached them. So look out for the posts throughout the week so that you can share in the journey and follow as we follow the cross.

Lord Jesus, lifted high before us, draw us to yourself, that in your death we may find our life, and in your resurrection, our eternity. Amen.

Bringing Nazareth home

I didn’t bring any souvenirs home with me this time from the Holy land. To be honest I have bought a great amount of stuff over the years and in almost every one of my cupboards there are things from the Holy Land – many lovely things. But as we now think about moving from Southwark and the Deanery – the advert for Dean of Southwark will be in the Church Times next Friday – we know that we are going to have to offload a great many of our possessions. So there was no point in buying more. I was given something that I will treasure. It was from L’Arche in Bethlehem. There the members of that community use local wool to create felt and out of that felt they make the most beautiful things, including some very cute nativity scenes. As we left, having visited the project and seen some of the members of the community making felt, I was given a soft, felt crib. Absolutely charming.

You don’t need to bring physical things home when you have been on pilgrimage, although over the centuries that is what pilgrims have done. On this, as on every occasion, I have brought home memories and impressions, happy memories and powerful impressions. One of the places that I always love visiting is the basilica at Nazareth. With its downturned lily roof over the centre of the church and the remains of Mary’s House at the lowest of three levels in the church it is absolutely lovely. There is a sense of stillness in the place as pilgrims enter into quite a dark ground floor level, the walls punctuated with windows made of coloured abstract glass. Above is the main church, below are the remains. There is always a queue of people waiting to file past, to see the place where, perhaps, maybe, Gabriel visited Mary, and the most wonderful ‘Yes’ was heard to God’s gracious invitation.

The image of Our Lady from the people of Japan

Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation, a moment of joy poking into the austerity of Lent and giving a chance for a celebration before the veiling for Passiontide took place. We had a Choral Eucharist on the eve of the feast and that gave me an opportunity to preach, not on the day but looking forward to the day. But it took me straight to Nazareth and what I had experienced with the pilgrims, what I had really brought home with me. These were the readings for the Mass, Isaiah 7.10-14 and
Luke 1.26-38 and this is what I said.

It was evening; the day was almost over. Just an ordinary day, just an ordinary evening like any other. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow would be another ordinary day, doing what every day involved, collecting water, preparing food, mending clothes, learning to be a woman, learning to be a woman who would soon be a bride. Today and tomorrow and the next day she would be alongside her mother, watching how she lived, cared for her husband, lived according to the law as women were required to do. Tomorrow would be another day.

But as we know, gathered as we are on this eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, tomorrow would be no ordinary day for Mary, or her mother, or the man to whom she was betrothed, or their neighbours, or the other women at the well, or you, or me, or the world. Into Mary’s tomorrow God’s angel steps with good news for every day and all time. Her tomorrow would be the day to which the prophets had looked, as we heard in our First Reading, her tomorrow would be the day for which humanity, creation waited, with breath-holding anticipation.

Look at the image of Mary on the cover of the order of service. There are so many images of Mary, this is just one of countless depictions of her.

A couple of weeks ago seventy of us where in Nazareth at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The great church stands over the remains of Mary’s House but in the cloister around the church, and on the walls within it, are depictions of Mary from around the world. From Japan, to Nigeria, from Mexico to Ukraine, from Spain to England, Mary has been shown as a woman from that tradition, from that heritage, representing in herself womanhood, motherhood, the second Eve, the mother of all that is.

But in our picture the artist has caught her in a moment of surprise. Whilst the western church thinks of Mary at home, in private, in her room, encountering the angel as intruder into her space, the orthodox tradition is that she was at the well, collecting water, with the other women, when the angel appeared when the annunciation occured. In the midst of the everyday Mary is surprised by God.

But her look is not one of fear but of gentle, benign acceptance, ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ – ‘and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, the word spoken to her became the Word which was born of her.

In his sonnet for the Feast of the Annunciation, Malcolm Guite says this

But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.

She was open to the surprise of God, which would take her from the ordinary routine into an extraordinary place. That moment as she looks at the kneeling angel, by the well, in her home, passing stranger or unannounced intruder, is when time stops and all creation waits for her yes.

But for this evening she simply blows out the lamp and lays down to sleep and maybe hears in the distance the flutter of angel’s wings. Be ready to be surprised by God.

This time last year I was promoting my book for Passiontide and Holy Week – ‘The Hour is Come’. It is still available and is as applicable to your keeping of this season now as then. So if you haven’t read it, please do. We have copies in the Cathedral Shop and you can buy it online here

I will be preaching Holy Week at the Cathedral – my last opportunity to do so – so please do join us in person or online, every day from Palm Sunday onwards and ‘Lift High the Cross’ with me.

We beseech you, O Lord,
pour your grace into our hearts,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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