Rising above it

You get a lovely view over Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives.  It’s a watershed, not a metaphorical one, just an actual one.  On one side you have the comparatively lush Jerusalem, on the other side Bethany and beyond it the wilderness.  On the one side you have the city with its domes and towers and walls and on the other side you have a barren landscape reaching down to the Dead Sea.  It was a good place for Jesus to take the disciples and it is always a good place to take any group of pilgrims to the Holy Land.  You stand on this spot and you see all before you.

Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. (Luke 24.50-51)


The London Eye, the top of the Shard, even the tower of Southwark Cathedral are all wonderful vantage points from which to get a bigger picture.  They are all, even the cathedral tower, locked down to us at the moment (you can’t socially distance on our one spiral staircase!).  So on Ascension Day we were unable to do what we would normally do, climb the tower to sing the Ascension Day hymn and read the reading from Acts from the top, with the city spread out around us.  For centuries the tower of the Priory of St Mary Overie, then the parish church and now the Cathedral, was the highest point around.  The famous views of London by Claes Visscher in 1600 and Wenceslas Holler in 1647 and the like (reflected in the opening titles of each episode of ‘Upstart Crow’ – have you noticed the cathedral?) shows this wonderfully.  The tower on the south bank and the towers and steeples on the north bank punctuate the skyline and raise the eye to heaven.  Now we have to rely on many hideous tall buildings to do that in an entirely secular and, in the main, less elegant way.

So I was sorry not to get my early morning ascent of the tower this year.  It provides another view.  I was delighted to receive in my inbox a few days ago this amazing picture taken from an aircraft flying over a pollution free London.  What moved me, looking at it, was seeing the curve of the horizon in the distance.  It places London in context, it places Southwark in context, it places me in context.


The challenge of lockdown is that our world contracts to the space that we are in.  So many people live in small flats or houses, no outside space, a world closing in on them.  And as week rolls into week that must be hard to cope with.  But the ascension of the Lord takes us out of that, takes Jesus out of those confines.  He could have ascended from anywhere, he didn’t need some kind of launchpad.  So he took them to the hill for another reason rather than just getting a good lift off.  And I think that reason was so that they could understand that you, we, he needs the bigger picture, the larger perspective than the view from the locked in, locked down room that they were inhabiting.

There was an amusing joke circulating on Twitter over Ascension, that it was the day when Jesus began ‘working from home’. But for me the ascension is so much more than Jesus somehow returning home, it is more about Jesus being not in the particular place, but in every place, Jesus not being here, there, but everywhere, Jesus being the universal King that we celebrate towards the end of the year, Jesus encouraging us to look , out, above, beyond the immediate.

Those words of Jesus to his disciples must have been baffling

‘I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away.’ (John 16.7)

But perhaps from the top of the hill they began to make sense.  We also need that wider, bigger perspective as this lockdown continues.  That is why we have been inviting our friends from across the Anglican Communion to send us messages.  We have heard from Jerusalem and Kenya, Madagascar and Canada, Texas and San Francisco, all different perspectives, different views to widen our view.  You can view them all here.  This Wednesday the next ‘Message’ will come from Zimbabwe.

John Donne’s seventh and final Sacred Poem, ‘Ascension’, helped me make sense of it all, a bigger view.

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th’ uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild Lamb which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

‘That I the way may see’. A bigger picture than the locked down room.

Jesus, raise my eyes,
the immediate,
that I may see
as you


In the garden

It seems to me one of the very big divides that has been exposed by the times we are living in – these days of lockdown as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic – is that there is a section of the population who have access to a garden and a lot of people who simply don’t.  One of the joys of living in London is the sheer number of parks and public squares that we can enjoy.  These are places where people meet and gather and exercise, the places where children run around with their dogs, where you can sit alongside a stretch of water and feed the wildfowl, the places where you can admire the planting of flowers and breathe fresh air.  The open spaces are part of what makes it possible to live in London, the parks, as well as all the other public places that people can enjoy, the galleries and museums, the shops, and pubs and bars and restaurants.  London is the living room for lots and lots of people who will sleep in their studio flat but never envisaged being locked down in it.  It must be tough when we know that we should stay in to ‘stay home, protect the NHS and save lives’ but feeling that the walls are closing in on us.

Italian School; Noli me tangere

‘Noli me tangere’

The disciples were in lockdown.  They were in the Upper Room for fear, as St John constantly reminds us, of what lay outside.  They sat there waiting, but unclear of how long that wait would be.  But as dawn breaks Mary Magdalene leaves the safety of the room and steps outside.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. (John 20.1)

She makes her way to the garden where, just a few hours earlier, they had buried the dead body of Jesus, hurriedly.  Now she goes to complete the task and to weep, to be alone, but in the fresh dawn air, out of the stifling atmosphere of the locked room.

Whatever is true about Mary Magdalene, and a great deal is loaded on to her by the tradition, I always think that there is something strong and courageous about her.  There has to be a reason why she was chosen to be the ‘Apostle of the Apostles’, the first witness to the resurrection.  She must have had qualities that the others simply didn’t display.  So, regardless of all the conventions of the day, it is a woman, this woman who is chosen to be the principle messenger to the waiting, locked-down world of what God had done for humanity.  History shows us that she, with all her sisters were subsequently sidelined by a male, patriarchal church and that it would take two millennia for the voice from the garden to be heard. But we hear her voice today.

‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20.18)

In what have become regular visits for me to the Holy Land I have been trying to discover new places, the ‘Hidden and Holy’ as I have been calling them.  Obviously, they aren’t new and I haven’t discovered them.  But they are places that are new to me and, I suspect, less often visited by busy pilgrims.  One such place is St Jacob’s Orthodox Cathedral. It is set on the courtyard that is in front of the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  As you are looking at the entrance, the doorway to the Cathedral is on your left.

To be honest I hadn’t noticed the door until recently and I don’t know what the opening hours are.  But on the last two occasions it has been open and I have gone in.  What is amazing is that as you enter you come first to an ‘outside’ sanctuary.  The iconostasis is covered but the rest of the space is open to the elements.

Outside sanctuary

The beautiful ‘outside’ sanctuary

There are some doors which then take you to the ‘inner’ sanctuary, a lovely space, one or two people there, saying their prayers, an ancient font, lovely icons.

Inner sanctuary

The ‘inner’ sanctuary

But what is very special is the shrine that is in the outside sanctuary.  It stands where the sun can shine on it and the rain can fall upon it.  It stands on the spot where Mary met the gardener, met Jesus.  We are just a few meters away from the Edicule which enshrines Christ’s tomb.  Where St Jacob’s now stands was in that same garden, just a stone’s throw away where Mary wept and was found by the stranger who called her by name.  I found the place deeply powerful.


The place of encounter

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in a garden where God walked alongside them – and then, through sin, they were barred from it.  An angel with a flaming sword stood at the entrance and none could enter.  Jesus is raised to new life in another garden; another angel is there with a caring question, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ (John 20.13) and an invitation to see.  Mary is in the life-giving place where the one who has set free from her sins, encounters her and names her.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). (John 20.15-16)

This year we are locked out of our churches as we are locked down in our homes.  But in those moments when you can emerge, get out, breathe fresh air, find that ‘garden’ space and meet the Lord there.  As the poet Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

May we too meet the Lord and hear his voice, naming us, in the garden of his delight.

Jesus, risen Lord,
meet us where we are,
name us and bless us.

Living God in Jerusalem – Speakers’ Corner

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


A speaker mounts his soapbox

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


The rather empty and unimpressive south-east corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Remains of what was there are being exposed

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

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

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

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

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

Living God in Jerusalem – Watch where you walk

It’s good advice, wherever you are, and especially in these days when many of us are texting as we walk or engrossed in that other world that is being delivered through our headphones – watch where you walk! Distracted as we so often are nowadays we can easily miss where we’re putting our feet or what we’re walking past.

No street in the old city of Jerusalem is without its treasures.  Today we took a walk from Herod’s Gate to the Pools of Bethesda. That basically involves walking down one street, Herod’s Gate Ascent as it is called, before turning left and heading down what we know as the Via Dolorosa but in the direction of the Lion (St Stephen’s) Gate. Those who have been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem are used to competing with small tractors pulling carts behind them, with coaches and minibuses and cars negotiating the far too narrow streets that people drive along.  Now there is a more recent phenomenon and one with much greater stealth – the electric bike!  These are ridden at speed and arrive behind you silently.  You have to have your wits about you as you manage the age-polished limestone pavement, steps and slopes as you head down this ascent.


Symbols stenciled on houses 

But as we walked we kept stopping to look what was painted on the walls.  This street is part of the Muslim Quarter and the images on the houses were put there by proud Muslims and especially those who have been on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.  This pilgrimage to circle the Kaaba and to perform other associated rites, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  If you have done it then you proudly proclaim this to the community by putting on your home a symbol of the Kaaba itself.  It really is fantastic when you, a pilgrim yourself, see the symbols of others pilgrimage so clearly displayed.


Celebrating the Hajj

But the walls you pass by contain other wonders as well.  Turning the corner we stopped to look at a portion of wall.  Just examining it you could easily see the remains of one bricked up arch, the remains of an arch that once sprung out across the road from this wall.  And at the base the unmistakable stones from Herod’s temple, destroyed in AD 70 and here reused by some canny builder.  The wall told its own story of change and reuse and of the passing of time and purpose.  Yet there it was, a wall, doing its job as a changing world passed by and pilgrims paused to look and wonder.


A wall that tells a story all of its own

The reuse of stones is as old as the hills from which they are quarried.  In the account of the battle between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal we read this

‘First [Elijah] repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord.’  (1 Kings 18. 30b-32a)

The welsh poet has a lovely phrase about stones in his poem ‘In Church’

It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.

The stones in his imagination are more animate, than inanimate and framing something of a mystery, holding a mystery.


An old British Mandate post box!

We walked back along El Wad and there at the corner was something else in the wall, which I had never seen before, a reminder of former times, just sitting there, ready to tell its stories.  Watch where you walk – you could easily miss something!

Lord, may I walk through life
taking notice of what is around me
because if I don’t
I might just walk past you.

Living God in Jerusalem – Setting off

Having just returned from Romania I’m now off to the Holy Land. You may question the sanity of this. As I sit waiting for my flight I’m inclined to question it as well. But I’m looking forward to being back in Jerusalem and at St George’s College and excited about helping to lead a course over the next two weeks, helping people discover the land that Jesus knew, the land in which he walked, the land in which he rose to new life, the land in which the church came to birth.

I promise not to blog all the time. You have enough ‘stuff’ to deal with. But I will share anything I think you’d be interested in. Please keep me in your prayers, and the people at the College and the participants on the course. And pray with the psalmist, as we did in Morning Prayer today, for the peace of Jerusalem.

Let there be peace upon Israel.‘ Ps 125.5

Navel gazing

Belly buttons are odd things aren’t they. We don’t talk a lot about them but we all have one, a birthmark in many ways.  It’s such a visible reminder of our birth, of the process of growing in the womb, supported by, feeding from our mother.  And they’re a reminder of that act of separation in that traumatic moment of birth when we are physically separated from the one to whom we owe our life.  The cord is cut and we are left with this fascinating scar.

The Greeks had a word for it, why wouldn’t they, the omphalos, and whilst that word refers to the physical navel, the belly button, it also refers to a stone that marked a place of real significance.  The most famous was in Delphi, a beautiful stone marking the navel of the world.  But many places claim to be that navel, the place where the earth was formed out of divine love – and Jerusalem is one such place.

Mappa Mundi

The Mappa Mundi


The old maps, such as the wonderful Mappa Mundi, placed the Holy City in this pivotal spot.  You knew where you were in relation to that place, just as distance in London is measured from the statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square.  That is point zero for London; Jerusalem is point zero for much of the world and especially for Jews, Christians and, to a large extent, Muslims.

It’s a year now since my sabbatical came to an end.  You will find in the side bar a link through to the blog I kept during those three months, which I called ‘Sabbatical Thoughts’. The bulk of the time I spent living in Jerusalem, in east Jerusalem to be exact, at St George’s College which is on the Nablus Road just a short distance from the Damascus Gate.  The College is located next to St George’s Cathedral, the home of Anglicanism in in this great city and interestingly the place (in fact in the Bishop’s House) where the Balfour Declaration was signed 100 years ago.

I’d been to the Holy Land on about 25 occasions, leading groups of pilgrims on what was for many the journey of a lifetime.  In fact we are off again in February, almost 90 of us from the Diocese of Southwark, with the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Christopher and me in leadership roles.  I’m looking forward to being back; I always look forward to being back.

St George’s College hosts many visitors and groups from across the Anglican Communion and every day in the refectory I would sit with one group or another hearing what they were getting up to and sharing in their delight in being in this life-giving city.  Many of those visitors were from the USA.  It was just before the Presidential Elections and, as these were obviously part of that small proportion of citizens of that great country who have a passport and were willing to travel, you can imagine that they were not great Trump supporters.  I can remember one of them telling me about a hare-brained plan he had for declaring Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel and moving the American Embassy from the actual capital, Tel Aviv, to the Holy City. ‘No!’ we all cried out in amazement, those of us for whom this was news.  But we thought a) he would never be elected and b) he would never do it.

Well he was and he has.

Wandering around this ‘navel of the world’ as I did every day for those six weeks I began to understand more and more just what a delicate balance existed which kept the place relatively peaceful.  There were moments of violence, there was heavy Israeli police and military presence, entering the Damascus Gate was always an intimidating experience even for me who was clearly not Palestinian but was going in and out all the time.  But people were getting on with their lives.  But you could spot provocative acts.


The navel of the world?


The road from Damascus Gate to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) which we know as the Temple Mount, is the route taken by thousands of Palestinian Muslims on route to Friday Prayers.  Some settlers have moved into the area and huge Israeli flags now fly above the street in the Muslim Quarter, provocatively. But people just get on with it, get on with their lives, until something happens which tips the balance. But when we tip the balance, deliberately, mistakenly, accidentally in such a delicate place, politically, socially, theologically, we cannot be sure what the consequences will be.

When I’m leading pilgrims around the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem I use the Psalms of Ascent with them.  These are a group of fifteen Psalms – 120-134 – which were written with pilgrims in mind, so called because in Israel/Palestine you are always going up to Jerusalem, it’s always an ascent. Just as now people made their way to gaze at the navel and encounter God at the zero point of creation.  And as they made their way to the Holy City they prayed for it’s peace.

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’
For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.
(Psalm 122.6-9)

That has been my prayer since President Trump put his promise into effect.  That delicate balance of east and west Jerusalem, of the Old City with it’s four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian – is at serious risk.  We gaze at the navel of the earth, our Mother city and weep for what might be.

we pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
may they prosper who love you.

The waiting game

It used to be the case – and I’m talking some years ago now – that during the Eucharist for Ascension Day a server would solemnly approach the Paschal Candle with a long candle snuffer and put it out.  That could have been during the reading of the account of the ascension from the Acts of the Apostles or after the Gospel or when in the Creed we said ‘and ascended into heaven.’ But wherever it happened in this dramatic act, the point was made that Jesus was gone.

The Paschal Candle, first lit from the new fire at the Easter Vigil, inscribed with the year, marked with the symbols of the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, and ‘wounded’ in five places, becomes from that point onwards a representation of the presence of the Risen Lord, who in his incarnation enters time – the year; as Christ encompasses time – the Alpha and Omega; bears the marks of his passion – the wounds; and yet is alive as the flame denotes.  But in fact Ascension Day, the fortieth day after the resurrection, if you follow St Luke’s chronology, is not about the absence of Jesus from that point onwards but his continuing presence.  So the flame is not extinguished but continues to burn until the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, when that one flame is then ignited as a myriad of flames, on the heads, in the hearts of the disciples, the apostles, the church, us.

So the candle stays and the server has no job to do!

Before Jesus is taken from their sight on that holy mountain he says to his friends gathered around him,

‘stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (Luke 24.49)

and in the Acts of the Apostles we hear how they responded to this command

‘When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, … constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ (Acts 1.13, 14)

Like so many things that Jesus asks of them, asks of us, it was a tough call.  They were already outside of the city which had proved to be a hostile and dangerous place.  Ok, they had some friends there but lots of enemies, people who had a vested interest in making sure that the story about Jesus did not get out. They were already on the road that led them back to Galilee and their homes and their families and their nets and their seat of custom. After all, it was via this mountain that they had first arrived to triumphant shouts and much excitement just 48 days before.  They could leave and have a life! But Jesus asks them to go back, through those walls, through those gates and into that room, to stay, to play the waiting game.


Parson James


There’s just this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway
Yes, there’s this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway.

Those are lyrics by the American singer-songwriter, Parson James, and they speak of a young gay man from an inter-racial background wanting to escape but knowing he has to wait.

Staying with it, staying there, not knowing how to play it, not sure if you have the ‘fight’ in you, it’s a tough call.  But this is what Jesus asks of those eleven and his mother, Mary. ‘Stay here in the city’. And that room that they went back to was packed full of emotion and memory.  It may well have been the room they used for the Last Supper, the room they retreated to after the crucifixion, the room Mary Magdalene left early in the morning to go to the tomb, the room she came back to with unbelievable news, the room in which Jesus appeared, without and then with Thomas.  Now it became the church, the first church of the Church, where the body of Christ gathered in prayer. It would be the room into which wind and flame would break, from which they would be expelled and from where they would be sent to live out their apostleship, their ‘sentness’.

Last week was another that began and ended with horror.  The events in Manchester were a manifestation of unbelievable evil and distorted religion and there is no other way to describe it. The images we woke to on Tuesday morning and since have been heart-rending.  Then on Friday the news from Egypt of twenty eight Coptic Christians slaughtered and another thirty-odd injured, on a pilgrimage to a monastery, was another tragedy being faced by the members of that ancient and holy church.


Staying in the city


But alongside the terrible images were ones that I found strengthening. The crowds out in the centre of Manchester, lighting the flame, standing in solidarity, being brave, being united, in the city, was my encouragement.  ‘Stay in the city’ says Jesus to us, keep the flame burning and don’t extinguish it, for as St Matthew tells us in his account of the Ascension

‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28.20)

The Alpha and Omega God, who bears the wounds, who is the light in the darkness, even when the clouds obscure our sight, doesn’t send us back to the city alone but is there with us, in the square, in the arena, on that bus, in that crowd, with the dying, with the wounded, with the compassionate, holding the afraid and wiping every tear from our eyes. Jesus knows he is asking a huge thing when he sends us back to play the waiting game, when he asks us to stay, but in asking he doesn’t leave us but stays with us – and that is why we never extinguish the flame.

Stay with us Lord,
as we stay with you,
in Manchester,
in Egypt,
in every place of pain,
of terror, of distress,
for we know that even in the darkness
your flame of life
gives light.

Triduum – The tomb

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

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

The wraps coming off the restored Aedicule

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

Mark tells us all about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned .. empty

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

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

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

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

Triduum – The tree

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

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

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

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

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


The Monastery of the Cross

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


The tree is watered and blooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It hardly seems possible but there months have gone since the ‘last post’ on this Living God blog.  But it is.  Time passes very quickly and seems to concertina until it seems no time at all since I embarked on three months of sabbatical leave.  But today I was back at Southwark Cathedral as we celebrated Advent Sunday and the beginning of another Christian year and this season of preparation for Christmas.  It has been a fantastic three months and those who have been following my sabbatical blog will know some of the things that I got up to.  For those who didn’t get a chance to read it you can see all the blogs here.

One of the final things that I did in Jerusalem, where I spent half of the sabbatical, was to attend an Act of Remembrance at the Commonwealth War Cemetery on Mount Scopos.  In the early heat of the day we sat amongst the beautifully kept war graves and the Last Post and Reveille sounded out across the Jerusalem hills. This Advent Sunday is something of a reveille call for me, waking me up, bringing me back, alerting me to the things I have to do, reengaging me with the ministry at the Cathedral.


Bugler and piper on Mount Scopus


That was really the thrust of my first sermon back at the Cathedral and so I post the text here.  I’m looking forward to resuming this blog and my Twitter prayers.  The sabbatical has been energizing and renewing and so, woken up and alert, I look forward to what lies ahead.

The readings for this Sunday are as follows: Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44

Do you wake up naturally or do you need an alarm clock to get you up, someone shaking you, the smell of tea or coffee by your bed, or the sound of the ‘Today’ programme easing you out of your slumbers and into the harsh reality of the world? We all wake up differently – some are blessed to be able to leap from their beds with enthusiasm, new every morning, and some need dragging from their pit.

The poet Dylan Thomas in his play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, paints for us pictures in words of the getting up routines of the people in the village of Llareggub.

The Reverend Eli Jenkins, in Bethesda House, gropes out of bed into his preacher’s black, combs back his bard’s white hair, forgets to wash, pads barefoot downstairs, opens the front door, stands in the doorway and, looking out at the day and up at the eternal hill, and hearing the sea break and the gab of birds, remembers his own verses and tells them softly to empty Coronation Street that is rising and raising its blinds.


Mary Ann Sailors, opening her bedroom window above the taproom calls out to the heavens
‘I’m eighty-five years three months and a day!’

It’s Advent Sunday and I can’t believe it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Jerusalem and it felt like summer. I come back to London and the streets are full of lights and the windows full of trees and it feels like winter and it looks like Christmas.

One of the last things I did before I left Jerusalem was to sit on the Mount of Olives and look at the view that Jesus and his disciples were looking at when he gave them the dire warning that we heard in the gospel. Well, it wasn’t the same view of course – no Dome of the Rock, no mosque, no Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jesus’ day, but some of it was the same.

What Jesus was saying to the disciples, what St Paul was saying to the Romans, is the call of the alarm clock, ‘Wake up’.

‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.

We begin a new Christian year today and what a year the last one was. To be honest I felt I must have been sleep walking, deluding myself about the nature of our society, about what the values were that define us, what the values were that motivate us, what kind of communities and societies we wanted to build for the whole of our society. In our Mayoral election I saw a glimpse of an affirmation of that but everything that’s happened subsequently has suggested to me that I was deluded.

The first part of my sabbatical I spent in Canada, perhaps the most liberal, accepting, inclusive and polite society I’ve ever encountered. That was in September and everyone we met was looking south across the border with the States and wondering what on earth was going on – but imagining, from their urbane liberal perspective, that the right thing would happen, that common sense and common values would prevail.

In Jerusalem at the Anglican Cathedral with its guest house and college loads of people from the States were coming and going. By October they were beginning to be anxious but it was going to be alright.

But the shock of Brexit became the shock of Trump and the image of the anti-elitists, Farage and Trump, standing by the gold-plated lift in Trump Tower said it all.


No comment


‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.

I’ve been reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fantastic biography of ‘Jerusalem’. When Jesus was predicting the destruction of the city it wasn’t, to be honest, something unusual that he was talking about – Jerusalem, as Montefiore describes in his book, is a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt in almost every generation. Something, somewhere as iconic and wonderful and central and holy, the city of God on earth, is supremely vulnerable. The stones and the structures make no difference – things are vulnerable and tomorrow not one stone can be left standing on another. I think that we all now recognise the fragility of so much that we’ve trusted was stable and lasting and had the touch of the eternal about it. But there’s been a wakeup call and we have to respond.

Isaiah of course gives us a vision, not of desolation, not of destruction, not of the negative but of the positive, of building, establishing something good. The city will be built, something to look up to, the weapons for killing will become tools for planting. People will come to the mountain eager that God ‘may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

His is a fantastic word for us today as we embark on this new year of grace, as we wake up and realise that each new day and each new season and each New Year is laden with possibility. The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is that it was never really left a desolate heap of ruins for long, people came back, time and time again, Jews, Christians, Muslims, to rebuild it because it mattered, because it’s an icon in itself and more than humankind can imagine, it’s the City of Peace.


Jerusalem – city of peace


The wakeup call that we’ve all had – and that’s regardless of the way in which we’ve voted, or the way that we’d have voted in the States – is that we need to work together on what the values are, the values that drive our society, the values that undergird the vision of what and who we want to be.

We’ve been clear what they are in this cathedral and I’m delighted to be back to continue with you and my colleagues to pursue them. Remember what we’ve said and committed ourselves to.

Southwark Cathedral an inclusive Christian community growing in orthodox faith and radical love.

We’re still inclusive and we need to be so even more than ever before. The fear of the other has been given a new legitimacy and is being articulated all around us. We have a better, God-given vision of the mountain to which all head, equally, as sisters and brothers.

We’re still committed to the faith that we’ve received and which is the ground in which we grow. Our faith in God is the bedrock on which we build this house of the Lord.

The love that we express and live, the embracing of one another, is even more radical. We’ve always been a community unafraid to challenge the zeitgeist now we have to be even more challenging and even less afraid to be the prophetic community that we know God calls us to be.

This is no time for sleeping, my brothers and sisters. This new year is God-given and in a few weeks’ time we’ll see how God gives, as in a manger we see a baby and recognise God with us. He will be rejected, cut down, destroyed, but his life and his words will not be defeated and out of the rubble he builds us, his living stones, into a true temple to glorify God.

This is no time for sleeping, it’s the time for rising and eating and breaking the fast and in the strength of the food that God gives, his own flesh, his own blood, this Eucharistic banquet, we can be the people that he’s called us to be, in the church he wants us to be, for the people that he calls us to serve, in such a time as this.

Wake us, Lord, from our sleep,
alert us to the world around us,
that with your passion
we may include those others would exclude,
love those others may hate
and witness to our faith
in a faithless world,
for Jesus’ sake.

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