Bethlehem Bound – And the Word was made flesh

This is the final of the three addresses I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’. Have a very happy Christmas. There won’t be a Living God blog until Sunday 8 January.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

We have set off and we have arrived. But what did we come for, why were we Bethlehem Bound? There are still people travelling after Mary and Joseph had arrived at the inn, still people heading in this direction and they have all yet to arrive. But what have we come for?

The amazing church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a riot of imagery and astonishing in its design. The original architect Antonio Gaudi was eccentric, revolutionary and fiercely faithful to the catholic tradition in which he was raised and in which he lived and so tragically died. His church would be a sermon in stone, a creedal statement for all to see. What he designed amongst the incredible towers and spires were three main facades only two of which have been completed. But these two facades are the most important as far as I’m concerned – although it will be amazing to see the Glory façade if I’m still alive when that is finally done.

But visitors today are met by an eastern façade, the first to be completed, dedicated to the incarnation and the western façade dedicated to the passion. These are the fulcrums of our faith, the two doctrines that shape all that we believe and all that we do as Christians – the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of redemption, of our salvation. The crib and the cross as much as the empty tomb are what we are about.

In the year 325 the first Ecumenical Council of the church was called. It met in a place called Nicaea, but whilst that city no longer exists as it then did and whilst it happened such a long long time ago the name of that Council lives on in the creed which is attributed to it – the Nicene Creed – that we most often say and especially when we are gathering to celebrate the Eucharist.

As a little chorister I learnt to sing the Creed to the Merbecke setting- Merbecke himself was tried for heresy in the retrochoir of the Cathedral and was found guilty – as one of the first things that I did. If I say the version of the Nicene Creed that we find in the Book of Common Prayer, then it is accompanied by a tune in my head.

The Nicene Creed that flowed out of the Council of Nicaea, called to answer the challenges that Arianism was creating, something that was declared a heresy by the decisions of the Council, decided on our understanding of the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is both truly and fully divine, and truly and fully human, that just as his death would be declared to be a real death, as our death will be, so the birth of Jesus was a real birth, just as our birth was. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

The ‘he’ in this verse is Jesus, who the writer says, can call us sisters and brothers because he fully shares our nature. And this is why I love Christmas, this is why I am Bethlehem Bound each year, this is why I travel to the manger with so many others, it is because in those incredible words of St John in his Preface to his gospel

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

In such profound simplicity John describes the enormity of what we believe. As the Council of Nicaea asked us to say and as we say every Sunday, together, as the people of God, as the sisters and brothers of Jesus, who share the same flesh and blood

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

And on Christmas Day, in those places where we do such things, at the words of the incarnatus we fall to our knees. There is nothing else we can do in the face of this magnum mysterium, this great mystery of the faith, that the godhead could be located in a baby, in a manger, within the created order and a tiny child could speak with the voice of God.

This is what Gaudi attempts to do in his great façade. At the heart of the wall of the incarnation is the Holy family but around it are all those who travel to Bethlehem to see this great thing, the shepherds and the wise men, the sheep and the other animals and the angels, so many of them, singing and blowing their trumpets. It is simply glorious because it is simply glorious.

I have been tantalising you with the poem ‘Little Gidding’ by T S Eliot. The poem is much longer than the section that I have been quoting from, but let me just add a bit more to what I have already read to you.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Those words are so powerful and these for me particularly so as we reflect on the incarnation

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel

We kneel at the incarnatus because what else can we do? The principal response we make as we lift the latch and enter through that door, the place of our arrival, the end of the journey, is to kneel and adore him. We are drawn into the heart of mystery and into the heart of worship at the manger and at the altar.

I also promised you that I would return to Frances Chesterton’s beautiful poem which Howell sets with such gentleness.

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold.
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

Bend low about His bed,
For each He has a gift;
See how His eyes awake,
Lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, He gives a keen-edged sword.
(Defend with it thy little Lord!)
For incense, smoke of battle red,
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.

We need not wander more … bend low about his bed.

People are surprised when they come to this cathedral that it is not like other cathedrals. ‘Why did you build it next to a railway line?’ asked one trans-Atlantic visitor of one of our cathedral guides. The place is cheek by jowl with life. The market has been here a thousand years, the traders selling their wares. The bridge has been delivering visitors to the City since the Romans had their settlement there. The river has been carrying people and things, discharging merry makers and cargo. The theatres were performing the plays and scandalising the church with their cross-dressing naughtiness. All life was here and all life is here, around the churchyard, pressing in from every side and disturbing and disrupting life. And that is how it should be. For me, as Dean, it is a sheer joy that the church is in this deeply incarnational setting, that we should be disturbed and disrupted by life. Because this is why ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, both to experience and to add to the disruption.

‘God became man so that man might become god.’ These words of St Athanasius sum up the mystery of the Incarnation. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, and it is the source of our great joy. The Incarnation changes everything, because God is love and it is love that we find at the end of the journey, pure love incarnated, made flesh, for you and for me.

We have come a long way, together, with God, who also was Bethlehem Bound, entering into the human story in a way which changes each of our stories, fundamentally changes our understanding of the nature of God.

As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in his famous book ‘The Orthodox Way’

Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is. … Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition.

He shares our poverty, laid in the straw of a manger, so that we can share the glory of his heaven. This is the self-emptying, kenotic God, who lies in the arms of Mary and needs her tender touch and warm milk, even though by his single breath all things came into being. As John Donne so beautifully put it in one of his Holy Sonnets, speaking of Mary

Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.

This is why we travel, Bethlehem bound for this purpose, to kneel and adore the God who is one with us.

Incarnate God,
as you share our humanity
may we share your divinity;
as you share our poverty
may we share your riches;
as you emptied yourself
so fill us with your grace,
now and for all eternity.


Bethlehem Bound – Arriving

This is the second of the talks I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ at Southwark Cathedral. I hope that you enjoy it.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

One of the most amazing places in the world, in my opinion, must be the Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the west end of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The twin towers loom over you, the flights of steps up to the main doors weave in front of you and the exotic nature of the design, unlike anything else in the world, Santiago Baroque as it is called, with a slight green tinge on the stone from the moss that grows on it – well it does rain a great deal – is stunning. There is a lot of space in which you can just sit and wait – and it’s worth finding somewhere to perch and just spend a bit of time. Why? Well, on the north side of the cathedral is a tunnel which leads people from the main street in the town along the side of the cathedral and to this west end. It’s a busy tunnel and the reason is that this is where the Camino ends, this is where ‘The Way’ ends, this is where so many journeys end.

You sit there and watch the walkers and the riders arriving. They are all carrying a rucksack and most of them have a shell or two dangling from it. They will have a stick of some kind in one hand, water bottles dangling from their backpack, shoes that have the dust clinging to them testifying to many miles walked – or a bike that shows the wear and tear of a long off-road ride.

But what is so incredible is seeing these people, these new arrivals, fall to their knees, in joy, in exhaustion, in a state of heightened and sheer emotion, tears flowing, laughter breaking out, cheers from friends who are there to welcome them. It is the most wonderful arrivals hall in the world.

But the journey doesn’t end quite there. They must summon up the strength to climb the steps, enter the cathedral and walk to the east end where the bones of St James are enshrined and embrace the one they have walked to see.

It’s a similar if less spiritual experience in the arrivals hall of an airport. The cab drivers are all there, the drivers of the limos collecting someone important, names written on a scrap of paper, or, as I now often see, on an iPad, being held up as the automatic doors leading from customs disgorge the newly arrived travellers into this place of arrival and embrace.

Amongst the drivers are the families, the friends, the lovers, the parents, the colleagues, all craning to get a first glimpse of the person they are there to greet. And then they emerge pushing the luggage trolley, dragging their case behind them and the screams of delight are heard, and people run forward and embrace and laugh and kiss and cry. ‘She’s arrived’ is written on a text and sent to the person waiting at home, ‘and she looks wonderful. Get the kettle on.’

The point of the journey is the destination, the place that you were always aiming for. It might have been the hotel in Torquay that Mum and Dad had booked for us – choosing from a brochure that you used to get from the local tourist board in the place that you wanted to stay – long before Teletext and the internet, when it was done by exchanges of letter – Bed & Breakfast, half board, full board, shared facilities, cruet provided. Dad pulled up outside ‘The Dorchester Guest House’ Torquay, whatever it was grandly called, to find something resembling Fawlty Towers. ‘I don’t think much of the nets’ says Mum. ‘Let’s see what the rooms are like’ says Dad. We just want to get out of the car; as far we kids were concerned we had arrived and were desperate to embrace the sea.

Abram arrives in the land to which God had directed him.

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. (Genesis 13.14-18)

He had arrived and as he pitched his tent by the oaks little did he know that that would be the place of encounter with the reality of God, the place of hospitality.

People were arriving in Bethlehem from all over the country. They had crisscrossed the paths of many others, some heading back home in the north, others to the coastal plains, some down to the rich, sweet lands around Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The nation had been on the move. But some had come to the city of David, this little town of Bethlehem set in the hills, the place of barley growth, the place where sheep safely grazed, the place where bread was baked – after all that is what the name of the town actually meant ‘House of Bread’ and the smell of the baking barley loaves was like a warm embrace. ‘I remember that smell when I used to live here’ one would say to the other.

I quoted part of T S Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ to you earlier and I want to return to that poem.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

The line that speaks to me as I think about this whole notion of arriving is this

what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.

Eliot picks up a similar theme at the end of the poem that will be read at many carol services and concerts over Christmas, ‘The Journey of the Magi’. Eliot was inspired in writing this poem by a sermon that Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached to King James and the court at Whitehall on Christmas Day in 1622. ‘A cold coming we had of it’ was a line that the saintly bishop, now buried just behind us, wrote. But towards the end of the poem Eliot’s magi say this

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;

What had they travelled for, what did arrival mean for them? For Harold Fry, on his unlikely pilgrimage, his arrival with Queenie is when she is at the point of death, unable to speak, yet the journey and the arrival turned out to be much more about his relationship with his wife Maureen. They were the ones truly reconciled by the journey. He, she, neither of them, had expected this. He thought his arrival would be about a tearful farewell with an old flame, but instead it was an encounter with his own life and a renewal of the love that he had for his wife.

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

For most people arriving in Bethlehem there was a straightforward task to be done, be counted by the Romans, tick that box and enjoy some time back amongst the hills and the barley loaves and watch the stars that always shone so brightly after you made your way home from the inn, slightly worse for wear, after the old and the new wine had been consumed.

Frances Chesterton, the wife of G K, wrote a beautiful poem called ‘Here is the little door’. It was set to music by Herbert Howells and this is how it begins

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;

I will return to that poem in our last session. But we are at the door. For amongst all the arrivals are Mary and Joseph and it is their Bethlehem Bound journey that we are most interested in. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the journey, we can only imagine it. And all we know of the arrival is this

‘there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2.7)

When they arrived there was no greeting party, no one holding a sign up so that they knew that they were expected, nothing on a booking app to assure them they had a room all ready. Instead, through the crowded streets they made their way, man, girl, donkey until they saw a door and perhaps a light, something gently glowing that drew them nearer, and an innkeeper who had no room, but a place where they could get out of the cold.

It was not what they were expecting, not what Joseph had hoped for his arrival, for his wife, so close to giving birth. But it was warm and it was welcoming and they had arrived.

what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

Fulfilling the census requirements was just the shell, the husk of the meaning of the journey. At the dead of night life would break forth and the true meaning of all that travelling would be revealed.

W B Yeats writes a beautiful poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ with its intriguing first line ‘That is no country for old men.’ But this is the second stanza.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Arriving in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul, must have been like arriving in heaven. For Yeats it seems to represent a past glory that old men seek, and maybe old women too.

What are you hoping for when you arrive, where is it that you imagine you are travelling to? I say imagine because we may think we are travelling to one place when in reality we will arrive somewhere quite different and find ourselves surprised, or maybe disappointed – sailing the seas and arriving in the holy city – but for birth or death – to say goodbye or to welcome in a fresh life? What are you expecting as you fall on your knees at the end of the journey?

God, be at the beginning
and at the end of all our travels
and open our eyes
and our hearts to the meaning of the journey.

Taking a breath

There were a lot of blogs during the pilgrimage to Bulgaria that ended on Wednesday. I hope you enjoyed them. I also hope that you’ll forgive me if I just take a breath this weekend. If you didn’t get a chance to read about the journey through Bulgaria I hope you can do that. I’ll get back to you next Sunday.

The beautiful Golgotha Chapel at the monastery at Troyan

Loving God, bless us in our working, bless us in our resting. Amen.

You need hands

100 years ago – 16 October 1922 – Max Bygraves was born on Paradise Street in Rotherhithe, just down the road from Southwark Cathedral. But being born a Roman Catholic he was a chorister not at Southwark but at Westminster Cathedral. He went on to be one of those all-round entertainers, the real stars of the 20th century. One of the songs he made popular was ‘You need hands’ and that came to mind today, the last full day of our pilgrimage in Bulgaria.

You may have never heard the lyrics but this is how the song begins

You need hands to hold someone you care for
You need hands to show that you’re sincere
When you feel nobody wants to know you
You need hands to brush away the tears

When you hold a brand new baby
You need tender hands to guide them on their way

The beauty of Troyan Monastery

We were visiting Troyan Monastery, set in lovely mountains and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of a copy of a miracle working icon, the original is in one of the monasteries on Mount Athos. A monk was carrying it and the story goes that Our Lady made it very clear, by not allowing him to continue his journey, that this was the place where the icon was to reside. The particular thing about the icon is that Mary appears to have three hands. The reason for that is another long story about a saint who had his hand chopped off because of what he wrote. But after asking for Mary’s help his hand was restored overnight and so he had an extra hand placed on the icon.

The miraculous icon – count the silver hands

Whatever the stories, the monastery is a beautiful place, peaceful, long wooden corridors off which all the monks cells are to be found, cared for gardens, geraniums hanging from the balconies that surround the central courtyard in which the church stands. Behind the main buildings is a little chapel that houses a spring of water.

The chapel of the spring

But it is the hands that will stay with me, especially as this pilgrimage ends. One of the things that I notice about pilgrim groups is the way in which people care for one another, giving a hand, supporting, caring, consoling, all the things that we use our hands for.

Lunch in the sun at the end of the journey

At the end of St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus meets the disciples at the Mount of Olives. This part of their journey, their pilgrimage was over, and so Jesus sends them off with his blessing and Luke says this

[Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. (Luke 24.50)

As Max Bygraves sang , ‘You need hands to thank the Lord for living
And for giving us this day.’ It is with thanksgiving that we return home tomorrow, to continue our pilgrimage and to reach out to others, for as St Therea of Avila so powerfully said ‘Christ has no other hands but yours.’

Lord Jesus, whose nail pierced hands continue to bless, may our hands be your hands. Amen.

A kingdom divided against itself

We have had two nights in a rather wonderful city. Veliko Tarnovo is set within a whole series of hills. It has lovely old streets as well as some more contemporary shopping areas, but all very beautiful. This was for a period of time the mediaeval capital of Bulgaria and is dominated by the remains of that regal past.

A city set on a hill

Just as in Durham a meandering river creates something of a defensible ‘island’ on which a castle and cathedral could be built, so here in this town. The river snakes through the mountains and creates not just one but a whole series of ‘islands’. One of these became the religious centre of the nation. Seventeen churches were built on it, and the body of St Ivan Rilski – remember him – was transferred here – and in the process was discovered to be incorrupt – until he was moved back to Rila Monastery. On another ‘island’ the merchants had their homes; in the places beyond the walls the ordinary people lived. But on the ‘royal hill’, called Tsarevets the King lived, as did the Patriarch and the other leaders. It must have been incredible – it still is.

A regal sight

You approach up a steep cobbled road, though gate houses, where there were once drawbridges and a portcullis. There were buildings for all the purposes of the state, a palace and on the summit a Patriarchal Church which has been rebuilt. The other buildings, destroyed by the conquering Ottomans, have been restored above ground level and they give you a good idea of what the place was like.

The rebuilt Patriarchal Church

But it wasn’t just the Ottomans who were to blame for the downfall of the place. The fact was that the royal family became divided, with rival claims on the crown. I was reminded of what Jesus said

‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.’ Matthew 12.25

Looking at politics at the moment the warnings in the Gospels and of history can’t be ignored!

Modern frescos

When the Patriarchal Church was rebuilt the country was dominated not by Ottomans but by the Soviet Union. It was decided not to have the church decorated with conventional orthodox icons, but with murals that reflected the brutalist style in favour at the time. They are startling and a bit ‘Marmite’. Some of the pilgrims thought them dark and menacing; some thought them powerful and exciting. I loved them and particularly the image of the mother and child at the east end. The artist depicted the gospel stories as his icon painting predecessors had done but in a new way which managed to be allowed by an atheist governing regime.

The Last Supper

Contrast this with the Church of St Peter and Paul in the valley. Even the dedication tells you that this place is different and has a different story to tell. Whereas disunity led to the royal house up the hill falling, here the church witnesses to unity. A relationship had been developed with the local Orthodox church and the western Catholic church. The Pope at the time declared a Uniate statement and so formalised the relationship – hence this ‘western’ dedication. Inside amongst the frescos is one of St Christopher, a saint revered in the west, not in the east. Above a side altar is an image of the pieta, again, not part of the traditional orthodox iconography. An amazing witness in complex ecclesiastical times.

Christ with Our Lady and St John the Baptist

We then travelled to the top of the surrounding hills and to the village of Arbanassi, the Church of the Nativity – amazing frescos but no photos allowed – and a fine merchant’s house with what we now recognise, elegance, divans, lovely ceilings and a level of sophistication in living that witnesses to a remarkable people in what has always been a Christian village.

The exterior of the Church of the Nativity

It was a half day tour with time for exploring for those who wanted to see more of the old streets of the town. This followed a delightful lunch in the home of twin sisters – vegetable soup, stuffed peppers and baked vermicelli with honey and lemon rind – absolutely delicious. They were living a family life different to that on the royal hill, for as the psalmist wrote

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
(Psalm 133.1)

Our delightful hosts

Amen to that!

Roses grow on you

I remember a black and white TV commercial for Cadbury’s Roses that was on in the sixties. Roses was a selection of chocolates that at Christmas used to come in a lovely tin that your grandma would use forever for holding a cake she’d baked. Anyway, the advert starred a comedian at the time, Norman Vaughan, who sits on a chair and takes a chocolate from a box of Roses on a table. He talks about the various flavours and roses appear on his suit. He gives a thumbs up and a rose appears on his thumb. The memorable line of the advert was ‘Roses grow on you’.

Beautiful decorations in the rose oil distillery

Roses grown in abundance in a valley that lies between two mountain ranges here in Bulgaria. The fields are full of Damask roses bushes – now harvested of their blooms – but ready for next year’s precious crop. They call it ‘liquid gold’, the oil that is distilled from the roses. The roses themselves, as their name suggests, arrived in the country from Syria, many centuries ago. We went to a distillery where they showed us the process of producing the oil and then we tasted something of what was produced – I tried a gorgeous rose honey that tasted just like liquid Turkish Delight.

Looking across the valleys

I wish I’d known how you really produce rose oil when I was a child. We used to make ‘perfume’ for our mum, picking roses petals and putting them in water and presenting the concoction to her. I think I missed out a few vital stages in the process! She’d put a dab of the brown water behind her ears to make us feel happy. I love it when I’m at a city dinner where a rose water bowl is often passed around the table after the meal and before the speeches, a large bowl, with iced water and rose petals. You touch with the cool, fragrant water with your napkin and dab your wrists, behind your ears, and cool down.

On the coach I read from the Song of Songs

I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. (Song of Songs 2.1)

Inside the cultic shrine

Before and after the roses we visited remains of the Thracian past of this lovely country. In the morning it was an incredible pagan cultic shrine, with its beehive shaped roof and amazing pilasters and carving, all 4th century BC. In the afternoon it was a tomb, an entrance just like the eye of the needle and about as challenging to pass through and murals adorning the ceiling of the inner chamber.

Through the eye of the needle

A pilgrimage journey is always special; this day certainly was and we literally emerged from it smelling of roses!

God of beauty, may the fragrance of your love fill the whole world. Amen.

Elegance and holiness

The city of Plovdiv is an amazing place. It has been inhabited since prehistoric times but then since the 5th century BC, first by the Thracians, then by the Macedonians, then by the Romans, through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, eras of independent rule, through Soviet times to its current life as a recent City of Culture. It really is a lovely place to visit and in which to spend time.

One of the Roman gates

The day began for us walking through one of the original Roman gates and then visiting some of the elegant 18th and 19th century merchants’ dwellings. The homes they built have an undeniable elegance, a modest opulence. These were well travelled people who brought together traditions from the Ottoman Empire, from the growing influence of Vienna, from their own Bulgarian culture and what was created is simply lovely. The painted rooms contain frescos showing how well travelled these people were – it’s a bit like we might put photos under fridge magnets – they had their rooms decorated with reminders of the places they had been to, the communities with which they had trade relationships. All of this is set in rooms painted in colours that should be adopted by Farrow and Ball, earthy, natural, a perfect backdrop to their lives.

Plovdiv elegance

Among all of this and scattered everywhere throughout the city are extensive Roman remains – a wonderful amphitheatre, the remains of a Circus, walls and pillars at street corners, in the parks, amongst the modern stores – this city called Philippoplis by the Greeks and Trimontium by the Romans.

Lunch for a few of us was in a really local restaurant. I treated myself to Tripe Soup, not something I would normally choose, but served with garlic in vinegar just to spice it up a bit – delicious. Then it was coffee in one of the big squares, fountains playing and crowds of people enjoying themselves in the autumn sunshine.

You can get Tripe Soup here

From there we travelled into the hills to the lovely Bachkovo Monastery. It was founded in 1083 but what you see are the churches and monastic buildings which were the result of rebuilding in the 17th century following attacks by the Ottoman rulers. The narthex of the oldest church is stunning. The ceiling is made into something that is reminiscent of the evening sky. I was reminded of the song ‘Starry starry night’ by Don McLean about the paintings of Van Gogh. The stars shone down on us as we looked up in awe and wonder.

Part of a Jesse tree ceiling

There was elegance all around, in the houses in the old city, in the buildings built to the glory of God, in the hills surrounding us now dressed in the reds and golds of autumn. As the psalmist wrote

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom.
(Psalm 145.10-11)

Bulgarian hospitality

We like to think of ourselves as hospitable. It’s a principle that comes through strongly in scripture from the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah towards their three visitors, to the meal which Jesus shared with his disciples in the Upper Room and the hospitality he himself received in the homes and at the tables of so many others.

There was a standout moment for the pilgrims yesterday. But I’ll come to that in a moment. It was in fact a day of a long journey, from Bansko, what is now a ski resort near the border with Greece, to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country, just off the main road across the Thracian plain on the way to the Black Sea.

The centre of Bansko with the mountains behind

In Bansko we saw both a lovely nineteenth century church, built during the Ottoman period, decorated beautifully and set within defensive walls – the walls were built before the church – and a large merchant’s house, with its carved ceilings and divans, and a strange squat loo over a drop, reminiscent of a mediaeval castle, but I suppose effective unless you were downstairs in the garden!

Beautiful decorations in the merchant’s house

We left that town and travelled into the countryside for lunch. Afterwards we would go to a small village of Dobarsko with another lovely church, small, mostly below street level, a jewel box of iconography. Sadly you can’t take pictures in most of the churches so I can’t share images of the images – but believe me it was stunning.

But it was lunch that was the ‘highlight’ of the day. We pulled up at a corner house which was in fact a small guest house, to be greeted by four ladies dressed in national costume, singing and smiling. We got off the coach and were summoned inside. It was a bit like a living out of the children’s TV programme of years ago – ‘Mr Ben’. Mr Ben went into a costumiers each day, bowler hat and suit on and went behind a curtain and emerged as … well something different every day.

Greeted by a gnome

In this house a side room contained national costume, for women, men and children and these smiling ladies made us all put on the outfits, in fact they dressed us in the outfits. The women emerged wearing headscarfs, beautifully embroidered blouses and skirts, with aprons; we men emerged with decorated shirts, waistcoats and hats. There was a pact that I couln’t put an image of us out on social media!!

The only photo I’m allowed to post

Then they suggested we all went into the road and danced with them. As huge lorries careered past the house a group of brave souls did as bidden; I hid under an outside staircase – I would not be a ‘Strictly’ contestant. There was much laughter – mostly from our hosts, who were having a great time. Then the costumes were off and the meal was served, very nice too. But then the ladies – they were still in their national dress – emerged with an accordion and serenaded us throughout the meal. What they were singing about I have absolutely no idea.

It was like ‘Come Dine with Me’ where, for some unknown reason, the host lays on some friends in a garage who perform some rock numbers for their inebriated guests … I forgot to mention that before the food we were served shot glasses filled with some kind of homemade and lethal schnapps!

It was incredible. Our hosts were delightful. We were all laughing, even those like me who would rather not be ‘entertained’, and we left there well fed and happy – and that must be the definition of hospitality.

God, you welcome us to your table and feed with us with the bread of life. May we welcome others with equal generosity. Amen.

Where were you when ….?

We can often remember where we were when we heard some news – where we were when Kennedy was assassinated, where we were when men landed on the moon, where we were when we heard of the death of the Queen. Well, we will certainly remember where we were when we heard that Liz Truss had resigned as our Prime Minister. When we left on pilgrimage on Monday we joked about whether we would have a new PM by the time we go back – it looks like it was no joke!

In fact we were visiting the beautiful Monastery of Our Lady on the mountain above the little village of Rozhen. We had just been looking around the ancient refectory with its amazing table for the community to gather around for its meals. Then our devices started buzzing with the news from London.

Walking into the monastery

This little, ancient monastery, isolated amongst the trees, an outpost of Mount Athos – this is only just over the border from northern Greece – is full of the most lovely icons and frescos. Nothing escapes being painted, nothing is without a purpose and a message of God’s love, freedom, justice and peace.

Beautiful frescos

This was the final visit of the day before the coach took us to the town of Bansko, a ski resort in the mountains where we would spend the night. But we began the day in Sandanski whose claim to fame is the birthplace of the Thracian rebel, Spartacus. Many of you will have seen Kirk Douglas in the title role of a film that is something of a classic, the story of a gladiator, a slave, who led a revolt of slaves against their Roman overlords and the unity he created among his fellow slaves, with their communal cry ‘I am Spartacus’ when they were asked to identify him.

The remains of the 4th century basilica

I hadn’t realised to be honest that we would see so much of the Thracian past in this region. But it was great to see amazing archaeological remains in what is essentially a spa town. Amongst those remains was a three-naved Christian basilica church from the 4th century. There were many in this place who would name themselves not as followers of Spartacus but as slaves who had been made free by Christ. As Paul wrote to the Galatians

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

From there we went to the beautiful tiny town of Melnik, once a large centre for vineyards and the production of rich red wine, now still a wine centre but with a much smaller population. But the place is stunning and the large house we visited with its huge cellars which looks out across the town was beautiful.

Beautiful Melnik

So a fascinating day, beautiful countryside, lovely towns and great hospitality with some significant history and real faithfulness on the way whilst, back home, history was again being made.

Loving God, for the freedom we enjoy in your love, we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

From the sublime to the surprising

One of the few places in Bulgaria that I have spent time in is the capital Sofia. So it was good to spend the morning walking around the centre of the city looking at the sights in the historic heart of the capital. The place where we began was the building at the centre of the city and at its highest point. The Cathedral of St Alexander Nevski is a beautiful building, a mass of copper domes crowned by a beautiful golden dome. As it was the feast of st Ivan Rilska, the protector of Bulgaria as our guide, Raina, describes him, the liturgy was in full swing when we arrived.

Experiencing the sacred liturgy

It was a sublime experience, standing in the darkness of the building experiencing all that was happening, the Royal Gates to the sanctuary open and the priest and the deacons moving between those two worlds, earth and heaven, with the choir singing from the gallery above the west doors. We stood, or sat, or wandered and just absorbed it, allowed ourselves to be drawn into the mystery.

The pilgrim group

But the time came when we had to move off and get back to the tour, which took us around some of the streets and past some of the fine buildings in central Sofia. As a consequence of its turbulent history there is a real mixture of buildings. But that history stretches back long before the arrival of the gospel in these lands.

The archaeological museum had a special exhibition on which we were able to visit. They were displaying a whole collection of Thracian military artefacts. I’m normally not that interested in militaria to be honest, but this was incredible. Helmets that had the form of phrygian caps, body armour, the ornate coverings for the shins, swords, and amongst it all the golden death mask of an unnamed king. His face looked out at us, incredible, reaching out from the grave to us who were looking on from the present. It was a weird moment – two worlds colliding, as in that sacred liturgy.

Looking out from the past

The last surprise? Well opposite the museum is the President’s headquarters. There were the ceremonial guards on duty, plumed helmets and Nutcracker doll uniforms, and the usual security personal, but all of a sudden more of them. Then the President with his entourage walked into the square and past us. He stopped, seeing this bunch of older (yes we are all older) people. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked. We told him. ‘You are very welcome’ he said, smiling, then walking on. It was a moment we won’t forget, nor will our guide. A surprising morning in many ways.

Meeting the President of Bulgaria

God of surprises, touch our lives with your presence, that we may find heaven on earth. Amen.

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