Triduum – The tomb

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

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

The wraps coming off the restored Aedicule

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

Mark tells us all about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned .. empty

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

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

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

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

Triduum – The tree

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

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

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

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

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

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The Monastery of the Cross

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

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The tree is watered and blooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triduum

All over the country people having being begging or borrowing a donkey from a local farm, organising the palm branches and praying for decent weather so that the Palm Sunday procession can take place as both planned and looked forward to.  For many churches this is the only occasion when they take their liturgy out of the church and into the street.  If you haven’t tried it I thoroughly recommend it.

Many years ago now I was Parish Priest in the Parish of Richmond Hill, Leeds and our three churches, All Saints, St Hilda’s and St Saviour’s loved to take religion out of the church and into the community.  Whether it was our May Festival with a bobbing around statue of Our Lady on the shoulders of some of the parish lads, Corpus Christi with the monstrance, or Palm Sunday and then a procession with the cross between the three churches on Good Friday, as well as carol singing in the streets and in the pubs in the run-up to Christmas, we all loved it.  This was witness, this was mission.  People scratched their heads wondering what we were up to or shouting ‘What’re you up to, Father?’ And that gave us the opportunity to tell them and to invite them to join us.

So I’m delighted that each year the congregation of Southwark Cathedral begins Palm Sunday not inside, but outside the building and in the Borough Market.  The liturgy begins, the Palm Sunday gospel is read and the choir sings their hosannas.  With holy water and with incense the palms are blessed and then we all process into the Cathedral through the streets.  And people in the open-topped tourist buses look down, and some may recognise what we are up to and others may wonder, but everyone notices and the pictures go up on Twitter and Facebook.

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Palm Sunday in the Borough Market

 

This blog is titled ‘Triduum’ and before you send me a message telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I do know that Palm Sunday is not part of the Great Three Days, which is precisely what the word Triduum means.  But you can’t get to Maundy Thursday when those three days that changed the world began without passing through Palm Sunday. Jesus had to enter Jerusalem if he was to be expelled from it, carrying his cross outside the city wall to those places of death and burial.

For the past few years I have done a special blog for Holy Week – ‘Passion in Real time’ and ‘Calvary Bound’ and you can still read those.  So this year I thought I would just put onto this blog some meditations for the Triduum itself.  The reason I wanted to be able to set down some thoughts is because, as some of you will know, I was on sabbatical last year and for six weeks of that I was living in Jerusalem.  Each day I was out discovering new places and walking old paths.  I know that as we go through each of the days of this Holy Week and as we celebrate Easter, I will be reliving some of the experiences that I had there.  So I invite you in joining me in some of those reflections.

Almost all pilgrims to Jerusalem will begin their visit looking down from the Mount of Olives and seeing spread out in front of them the fabulous view of the Old City with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground and in the middle distance the grey dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It is an amazing view, breath-taking and though in the distance you can see the towers and tall buildings of modern west Jerusalem, you know that it is something, something like the view that Jesus saw that made him weep.  You walk the steep path down the side of the mount knowing that the triumphal Palm Sunday procession passed this way, knowing that countless generations of worshippers, like the pilgrim of the 4th century, Egeria, have followed the same path, doing the same things, hearing the same gospel, singing the same hosannas.

But I suppose that for me when of the particular memories of being in Jerusalem was being taken to Bethphage.  This little village is just over the crest of the Mount of Olives and is halfway down the eastern slope before you get to Bethany.  That town was of course the home of the friends of Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  He may have begun his Palm Sunday journey from their home but it was when he got to Bethphage that he mounted the donkey and rode the rest of the way.

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The mounting black at Bethphage

 

As a result of the construction of the wall that divides Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories in the West bank it is now impossible to follow the journey that Jesus made.  He would have been stopped by the wall if he tried it now.  But close to the wall is a lovely Franciscan church which commemorates that first day of Holy Week in the frescos around the wall.  But close to the sanctuary is something more beautiful.  Enclosed now in glass is the ‘mounting block’ that Jesus is supposed to have used when mounting the donkey.  He didn’t use it of course, it’s a Byzantine invention, but it is beautiful.  On each of the four sides are the most lovely paintings of the events of that day, reminders of the powerful nature of the events that we have been remembering.

Many congregations will have been singing the traditional Palm Sunday hymn as they made their way from start to finish.  ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’ was written in 1827 by Greenwich educated Henry Hart Milman

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, your triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.

That second verse captures something so important about this entry, the ‘lowly pomp’ that will be reflected on a number of occasions as we enter those Great Three Days, that Triduum as the triumphs now begin.

Almighty God,
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Home grown

We all seem to love a farmers’ market nowadays, the place where we have the chance to buy some really fresh food, to meet the person who grew it, raised the livestock, made the cheese, bottled the milk. That’s one of the reasons that the Borough Market that surrounds Southwark Cathedral and that’s constantly full of people is so popular. That’s also why go to any Church Fete or any sale run by the Women’s Institute or any Mothers’ Union cake stall and you’ll find people queuing up to buy the home-made produce.  It was lovely to read this week, for instance, about the woman from Scotland who has just won the best marmalade award.  It must taste home made at its very best, because it is home made.

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Home grown in Borough Market

 

But when we are using that phrase ‘home grown’ in relation to terrorism it evokes another reaction completely.

The events of last Wednesday were shocking, just as every terrorist act shocks and sickens us to the core. For those of us who have been around London for a while we’ve experienced a number of such incidents, fortunately few in number, but each one stays imprinted on our memory – the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf, 7/7 – we will remember how each of them affected us, even if we weren’t any where near what happened.  The senseless and depraved attack on innocent pedestrians crossing one of the best known bridges in the world – Westminster Bridge – packed with visitors to London trying to get that precious selfie with Big Ben – and then the attack on the very heart of our democracy, the Mother of Parliaments and the murder of PC Keith Palmer, an officer doing his duty on our behalf, has left us all stunned.

Then we learnt that this wasn’t done by someone who’d arrived in this country from elsewhere, not a refugee from some notorious and dangerous country, not an immigrant who’d recently arrived here but someone born and raised not far from London, someone who’d been living in the Garden of England, the real ‘home grown area’, living in Birmingham, a convert to Islam, not a young man, headstrong, but slightly older than we would expect in acts like this.  Like so many of the perpetrators of atrocities in the USA this was a ‘home grown terrorist’.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how are these terrorists grown?

What I do know is that all the travel banns that President Trump and others want to impose, all the suspicion directed towards refugees who others imagine are like Trojan Horses waiting to be rolled into our communities is meaningless.  No travel ban, no ring of steel round a country, no walls built to exclude are effective when we grow people inclined to think the unthinkable and commit acts that are against the standards of basic humanity.

The seedbed for growing people with these attitudes and desires is much more subtle, much more dangerous and much more familiar.  It has to be around the ability we now have to do as I am doing now, sharing my thoughts and putting them out there for the world to read.  And this platform, like any platform, can be used for good or evil.  But regulating it when the very place that the attacker was directing his hatred towards, the Palace of Westminster, stands for, is built on, the concept of free speech that is at the heart, the core of our democratic values, is very difficult.

During these days leading up to Holy Week we will at some stage hear read these words of Jesus from St John

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12.24)

It’s true for the farmer, its true for the martyr, it true in the secular and in the sacred worlds.  In the musical ‘Les Miserables’ the students, manning the barricades, sing a rousing song which includes the lines

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

It picks up on the words of Jesus to us but it also reflects something that must go on in the heads of those who choose to commit horrendous acts of terrifying violence against their neighbours, against, as in this instance, their fellow countrymen.

We are not afraid

I have no answers, only thoughts.  All I do know is that, though shocked, London and Londoners are always defiant.  The slogan ‘We are not afraid’ is a powerful one.  Once we are afraid then those who would terrorise us have won.  And Jesus, the planted seed, bears much fruit in the resurrection and to his startled friends, as he walks across the stormy waters, says

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 14.27)

We have to say the same to each other.

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A candle burns for Westminster in Southwark Cathedral

 

Since the attack a candle has been burning in Southwark Cathedral and this prayer has been offered to people to pray.  please pray it with us.

God of peace,
God of healing,
on all caught up in the incident in Westminster
send both peace and healing.
Give to those who protect us
courage and commitment;
to those who govern us
wisdom and insight;
to those who are afraid
peace and assurance;
and to those who died
life eternal in your presence.
We ask this in the name
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Respect

I have a feeling that Her Majesty The Queen does not ordinarily wear a mantilla when she goes to church.  But, of course, on those occasions when she has met the Pope at the Vatican there she is, dressed in black, mantilla on her head.  She dresses respectfully as is expected in those circumstances.

The Queen and Pope John Paul

The Queen and Pope John Paul

So why would Marine Le Pen refuse to cover her head when she was to meet the Grand Mufti last week in the Lebanon? We can only assume that it was a deliberate publicity stunt to make her point about people of the Muslim faith. Her supporters will be gleeful but the rest of us, I assume, only saw someone lacking in respect, unwilling to accommodate the traditions and teachings of another brother or sister.

When I was on sabbatical in Jerusalem I had the real privilege, with clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and the dioceses with which we are linked in Zimbabwe, to visit the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount.  The Arabic name for that ancient and deeply holy site means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’ and as any visitor there knows there is a real nobility about the place.  We went, however, as guests of the Waqf which is the religious trust in which is invested the care of religious and other property on behalf of the Islamic community.  But before we went there we were clearly told how to behave, so that we were appropriately respectful.  The women in the group would have to ‘cover up’ and we would all have to remove our shoes when we went into the Mosque.  We would talk quietly, not shout like tourists and respect those who were praying or reading their scriptures.

It was a wonderful visit, we respected our hosts, they respected their guests.

There is one of the Ten Commandments that stands out from all the rest.  Nine of the ten tell us what not to do but the fifth is different

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20.12)

Having respect for our parents, honouring our father and our mother leads to the promise of a blessing, that life will be long and good.  Good things flow out of respect, we are being told; the opposite must be true.

This constant battering of the Muslim community, constant finger-pointing, disrespect, criticism, denunciation, vilification that we see not just in Trump’s USA but elsewhere is an utter disgrace to the whole of our society.  I was reading a blog by the only hijab wearing member of the White House staff.  She had worked for President Obama, she lasted only 8 days in the Trump west wing.  She wrote that she had to go because she could not stay where her people were being singled out in such aggressive ways.

In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brain’ the members of The People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front) sit around asking the question ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and they come up with a long list.  We can ask ourselves the same question about Islam and the Muslim community and, if we do so, we end up with a list that includes mathematics, algebra, medicine, architecture, the preservation of libraries of thinking and philosophy otherwise destroyed in the western world, the most beautiful roses and sublime poetry.  Just as with the dominant Christian culture in the west they have been responsible for some horrors and we see some of them being played out by sects of Islam today.  But that is not the real story just as the Crusades are not the only story to tell about Christians.

The poet Rumi

The poet Rumi

The Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic beautifully writes in one of his mystical poems

Others call you love, I call you the king of love;
O you who are higher than the imagination of this and that,
go not without me.

God, who is love, God who is the king of love, calls us to the honouring of those in our family, blessings will flow from it.  Covering our heads, removing our shoes is the least we can do, it doesn’t dishonour the God we know in Jesus Christ, it celebrates the love that all people of faith know is at the heart of the divine, the structure of the Noble Sanctuary in which God invites us to dwell, at ease with each other.

God of love,
I stand before you
on holy ground
with all my sisters and brothers.
Amen.

The echo of a vision

It was a hard week, last week.  If you haven’t read my various blogs from the General Synod then you can find a link through on the sidebar.  But no doubt you will have heard about the debate on Wednesday in response to the report from the House of Bishops on sexuality and same-sex marriage.  Since then a number of things have happened.  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a statement – you can read that here – and various bishops have issued Pastoral Letters, including one by the Bishop of Southwark which you can read here.

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A silent vigil at the start of Wednesday

 

Other groups will be preparing their statements, making their assessments of what was said, reflecting on the vote, lauding or criticising the House of Clergy, suggesting its the best outcome or the worst.

One thing that encouraged me, however, was hearing Archbishop Justin’s speech, the last one in the Take Note debate on the report, much of which found its way into the Archbishops’ Pastoral Letter.

The letter says

‘We need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church …. The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’

There was something of an echo of a vision in this.  I know that makes no sense, but bear with me, please.  You may remember that at Southwark Cathedral we’ve been working on new vision and priorities for the next season of our life.  The vision statement that we finally arrived at is this

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

That is the vision and in what the Archbishop said there were clear echoes of what the community at the Cathedral has pledged itself to be and pledged itself to working together to be more perfectly.  So I was delighted.  It means though that we really have to move forward and to get on with the work and the witness to which we believe God is directing us.

However, that will not be easy because there will be many in the Diocese for whom we have care and concern, for whom we are the Mother Church, who will not agree with us, who will have serious disagreements with us.  At the end of the day this all boils down to how you regard Scripture and what authority it has in the life of the church.  The Archdeacon of Southwark, Dr Jane Steen, in her first speech in Synod, compared the way in which the Church of England coped with the remarriage of those previously married who have a former partner still alive, even though Jesus is very explicit in his teaching on the subject.  Nevertheless, in 1992 the House of Bishops issued guidelines to help the clergy make a decision about whether such a marriage could take place in church and those same clergy were given latitude in their decision on the grounds of their own conscience based on the reading of Scripture.  Why can’t the same apply in deciding whether or not to bless a same-gender relationship?

Well, talking to some who do take a different position they suggest that Scripture envisages and allows for the fact that relationships fail but that the issue of committed relationships is part of the created order, because there it is in Genesis 2

‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ (Genesis 2.24)

This critical verse is then repeated in Matthew 19.5, Mark 10.7 and Ephesians 5.31.  That really does make this an authoritative text for many.  It’s interesting that the debate has moved on to focus on the issue of marriage rather than the issue of homosexuality.  Perhaps people are beginning to accept that LGBTI people really do exist but cannot accept that they can live in blessed relationships because such a relationship is contrary to scripture, contrary to creation, and thereby is sinful and what is sinful cannot be called holy by blessing it.

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With this ring …

 

So that is where we seem to be and its going to take some radical love within the church to move that one forward.  But the end point of the discussions seems to have been identified and that is the really good thing that has come out of the Synod debate – that ‘we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church.’ That is the task and that is the goal.

I was at Premier Radio’s studios on Friday recording some ‘thoughts for the day’ but also being interviewed for another programme.  That involved, in ‘Desert Island Discs’ style, choosing three favourite pieces of music.  I won’t give it all away but one of them was a hymn written by Fr Faber.  Frederick William Faber was ordained a priest of the Church of England before converting to Roman Catholicism.  He was a Victorian and a friend of John Henry Newman.  But he’s best known for his hymns.  The one that I chose is ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.’

It was written in 1862 but it seems so modern and relevant and its sentiments seem to echo the vision that we have in Southwark and that we now have in the Church of England as a consequence of last week. One verse says

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

It’s a fantastic expression of the vision, an echo from another age into ours.  We now need the grace and the guts to get on with the task.

Lord,
direct your church
as we seek to embrace the vision
and sing songs that echo with your love.
Amen.

The smoke that thunders

It’s hard to describe just how fantastic the Victoria Falls are.  They are massive yet you seem to be able to get so close to the water pouring over the edge as the Zambezi drops a distance of some 355 feet down into the gorge below.  A cloud of water droplets is thrown into the air and rises constantly from the falls.  One ‘factoid’ you may like is that the quantity of water needed by Johannesburg for two days descends over the falls in just one minute.  The real name of the waterfall is Mosi-oa-Tunya which means, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ and the falls live up to their traditional name – the smoke rising and the thunderous noise sounding.

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Our first sight of the thunderous smoke

 

At the present time the waters are swollen as a result of much higher rainfall than is usual.  The irony is that Zimbabwe was suffering as a result of drought, now she suffers as a result of the floods.  As we say ‘It never rains but it pours.’

I was reminded of the psalmist, who obviously knew a thing or two about the grandeur of waterfalls,

Deep calls to deep
   at the thunder of your waterfalls.
(Psalm 42.7)

It could have been written of this place. It is said by some to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and standing there, transfixed by the sight of so much water and overawed by the sound it makes you give thanks for the sheer wonder of creation. Deep truly does call to deep – you never escape the sound of the waters in this place.

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The statue of Livingstone

 

So this is where this journey through Zimbabwe has begun for us.  Victoria Falls lies on the boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia and the Zambezi Bridge spans the divide, built in 1905 under the direction of Cecil Rhodes. And it was here that David Livingstone came on 17 November 1855, perhaps the first European to see the falls.  His statue still looks out over them.  But we are here not to do sightseeing, though this first day has been wonderful, but to visit the dioceses, their cathedrals, parishes and their many projects with which we in the Diocese of Southwark and at the Cathedral are linked.  So there will be plenty to see and tell you about.

But here where the smoke thunders we glimpsed something of the awesome nature of God.

Creator God,
in a single drop of water,
in a mighty waterfall,
we glimpse the delicacy
and the awesomeness
of all that you have made.
Amen.

Step by step

The Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, is powerfully true. I thought about that when I was listening to a survivor of the Holocaust speak on Monday to the packed Chamber at City Hall in London, people gathered to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day later in the week. We heard from two people, one a Jewish lady who had miraculously survived a concentration camp as a child and the other, a man from Cambodia, who had survived Pol Pot’s ‘Killing Fields’. It was powerful listening to them, their courage and their apparent lack of bitterness but instead the tremendous courage they had to tell their story, so that we could learn the lessons.

Piles of shoes at Auschwitz where so many journeys ended

Piles of shoes at Auschwitz where so many journeys ended

That was on Monday of last week, in preparation for Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday. But Monday was the first full day ‘at work’ for the new President of the United States, Donald Trump. Now, I apologise. If you follow this blog you don’t want me just moaning on about Trump and Brexit. But after writing hopefully and positively last week about how Trump might be a new Cyrus I have to say that I have been left reeling and feeling deeply disturbed by what we have seen over this last week and by the end of the week I just felt sick. The thing is that there is another ‘proverb’, not Chinese but in fact a quote from the 18th century British parliamentarian, Edmund Burke.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In 1775 in a debate in the House of Commons on reconciliation with the people of the American colonies, Burke said

‘The people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen…. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles.’

He went on to say that the values and principles by which they lived came from the Christian, protestant roots that we share. This last week however has seen the values and the principles, the liberty which we thought that we shared coming under attack.

The one thing that you can say about President Trump is that he is true to his word. The news footage of him each day, with glee, surrounded by his apparatchiks, signing these Executive Orders, has been shocking. It has coincided with the release of the film ‘La La Land’ (I haven’t seen it yet but can’t wait to) but that, at least the title, seems to describe what sometimes seems to go on in my liberal head. I thought ‘Well…that was all for the campaign, to win the votes; he won’t do it.’ La, la, la. In just a few days we have seen him sign the orders to build a wall, build oil pipelines through First Nation lands, dismantle Obamacare, remove support from NGOs who work with women needing an abortion, from the UN, from development agencies, reintroducing the possibility of torture and finally as the coup de gras closing the  borders of the USA to refugees from Syria and people coming form seven Muslim majority nations. As someone said, there are tears down the face of the statue of Liberty.

Decriminalisation, demonization, repression and worst happen, not usually in a single decisive act but step by step, by the slow chipping away at the values of a society and at human rights. We ignore the first step and then suddenly realise we have travelled a long way into a very frightening place. If we don’t cry out when things are wrong, if we keep silent, do nothing then the consequences of inaction are terrible, if not evil.

In these past days with all these things happening I’ve been praying through something the prophet Micah says

What does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6.8)

This is the journey that we should be on, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly alongside God who is always journeying.  Step by step, action by action, we reveal more and more of the kingdom. We build bridges and not walls.  We fight fire not with fire but with love. We seek the needs of the other before our own needs and we realise that God’s option is always for the poor and the marginalised and the weakest and those seeking a place of safety.

Walk humbly with your God

Walk humbly with your God

In 1964, during the Sterling crisis, Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister is remembered as saying

‘A week is a long time in politics’

Let’s see where next week takes us but if we are walking it in humility with God there is a chance it may take us somewhere better.

God,
may I do justice,
love kindness,
walk in humility,
and never
turn a blind eye to
what is going on.
Amen.

God moves in mysterious ways

In the 6th century BC Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquered Babylon.  At that stage the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, their Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and they wept ‘by the rivers of Babylon’ (Psalm 137) to be restored to their homeland. This pagan king enters the scene and instead of becoming another oppressor of the Jews becomes their surprising champion and liberator.  The Prophet Isaiah, or at least the writer of what is commonly known as Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), is a fan of Cyrus and his name crops up numerous times.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

He is celebrated, he is praised in words like this

Thus says the Lord .. who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose’;
and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt’,
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed.
(Isaiah 44.28-45.1)

The reason I mention all of this is that I, with lots of other ‘liberals’, have been ringing my hands in anguish as the Obama’s moved out of the White House and the Trumps moved in. But, I have to stop it, well, at least for a moment. The democratic process rolled into action and, with or without the help of Russia, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America.  People saw in him something that they thought they needed, they heard something from him that they responded to and, in doing so, rejected what had gone before.  That is their democratic right.

But re-reading Deutero-Isaiah has reminded me that God uses for good what is there.  Cyrus is recorded, not just in the Bible but in contemporary records, as the liberator of the Jews and the one who allowed the Temple to be rebuilt.  He also treated other captive peoples in a similar way.  He was a much bigger and wiser man than people might have feared.

We sometimes sing the hymn ‘God moves..’ the first verse of which says

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

The author of the hymn was William Cowper and it was the last hymn he wrote.  There is an unsubstantiated story that goes along with it.  Cow­per oft­en strug­gled with de­press­ion and doubt. One night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide by drown­ing him­self. He called a cab and told the driv­er to take him to the River Thames. How­ev­er, thick fog came down and pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the riv­er. After driv­ing around for a while, the cab­by fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step: God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self.

Even the fog can be a blessing

Even the fog can be a blessing

Even in our dark­est mo­ments, God watch­es over us.  Who knows what President Trump will actually do and actually achieve? Who knows what will emerge from the Brexit process that will be positive for us and for Europe? I just can’t wring my hands for the next however many years lie ahead of us.  As a democrat and as a liberal I have to accept that not everything can go the way I would want it to go.  I have to accept that there can be a Cyrus and that the fog can deliver me.  But that is tough to accept.

What we do have to do however is to keep watchful.  Isaiah goes on in Chapter 45 to write this

I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness,
   and I will make all his paths straight;
he shall build my city
   and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,
   says the Lord of hosts.
(Isaiah 45.13)

We look for the good works that show the hand of God and we look for the one who will act selflessly, ‘not for price or reward’. That will be a hard deal for Trump who knows ‘The Art of the Deal’, but that is the deal God offer’s, in God’s wonderful and mysterious way.

I must have the courage to pray the prayer I have used in this blog before, by former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld.

For all that has been,
Thanks.
To all that shall be,
Yes.
Amen.

Frozen

Winter is a time for telling tales, a time for listening to stories. I’ve been playing catch-up recently.  A few months ago I bought the DVD of the Disney film ‘Frozen’. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  I’d seen the array of school bags, thermos flasks, games, cards, books, pencil cases, and costumes, plus much, much more that the shops were all selling and people had told me how lovely the film was.  But after putting it into my shopping trolley I hadn’t got round to putting the disc into the player and sitting down and watching it. So I did.

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen

You know, I thought it was lovely.  But I knew I would.  It’s no secret that I’m an old romantic, that I love a musical and a good cry.  So it had all the ingredients that I like.  But it had something else as well. If you were to do an exegesis on the film you would discover, like ‘Q’ in the background of the gospels, that the Hans Christian Andersen story of ‘The Snow Queen’ was one of the inspirations for ‘Frozen’. Ok, so there’s no talking snowman in Andersen’s story but the hearts are frozen by the touch of the Snow Queen.

 

Like many story tellers, like Dickens who was  writing at a similar time, Andersen reflected on the social issues of the day, examined contemporary morality and through his stories continues to make us think about deeper things. One of my favourite short stories that he tells is of ‘The Little Match Girl’. This week I’m going next door to the Deanery into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre to see their production of Match Girl and some happier stories.  The truth is that this little story about this little girl is heart rending on the page and, I’m sure, on the stage.

It’s the story of a poverty stricken family, of a little girl who will be beaten by her father if she goes back home without selling the little bundle of matches she has carried into the winter street in her apron to sell.  Andersen writes

In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money.

It’s a tragic story and at the end the child is found

‘frozen to death on the last evening of the old year.’

Andersen was reflecting on the levels of child poverty in his own day in his own society and through this story, aimed at children, will have touched the hearts of the adults reading it to them as they tucked their more middle class and fortunate children in bed beneath a fluffy eiderdown.

This weekend we celebrated at Southwark Cathedral the tenth anniversary of the ROBES Project.  This is a cold weather shelter run by churches of all denominations in the north Southwark and north Lambeth areas.  It aims to reach out to those without a home who with just a little support and security can find their way back into mainstream society, back into accommodation and back into work.  It is a very successful project and over the years many people, men and women, have been helped off the streets and back into a more stable, safer life.  I have been pleased to have played a small part in that by sleeping out each year to raise money for the project.  After the sleep-out last November we have raised almost £100k and the money is still coming in.

But it is a sad indictment of our society that a story published back in 1845 in Denmark is still of relevance today.  There are still people frozen on our streets and there are still hearts frozen to the needs of the homeless.

Jesus identifies himself with those frozen out of home and out of society when he says

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8.20)

homeless-jesus

‘Homeless Jesus’

 

Recently Manchester Council agreed to put a statue called ‘Homeless Jesus’ designed by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor, into their public space.  It shows Jesus on a bench, asleep.  It’s the Jesus who challenges each of us in Matthew 25 with those arresting words

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

and

“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The truth is it’s not just the homeless who are frozen, it is those of us who simply walk by the little Match Girl and never notice.

Spirit of God,
thaw my cold heart
with your divine flame,
that I may bring your warmth
to those who are frozen.
Amen.

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