Thursday, December 29, 2016

Preparing for 'The Gate of the Year'

This week after Christmas is a so-called 'down-time' for a parish priest and also, though to a lesser extent, for a cathedral in this our holiday season.  No choir and a certain quietness falls; no PA and the pew sheets will be entirely prepared and assembled by the Dean; a bare string of volunteers keep the Cathedral open for visitors and pastoral care is summoned via the Dean's cellphone.  There is a strange sense of improvisation - and there are still the crib, tree and decorations to get down, sort  and store away by Epiphany.  I draft a note for the Cathedral pew sheet and am especially mindful of how the Sunday is also New Year's Day.  On New Year's Eve the Octagon will be rocking with celebrations and the Cathedral steps will be taken over as a viewing platform for the Town Hall Fireworks display; in the morning we will discover evidence of this 'occupation' and I will once again ponder how better we might use this privileged location for the gospel.  It would be nice to have some help ... but back to the pew sheet.

When I think about the new year I find myself drawn back to childhood and to remembering the quaint custom my mother had of staying up till after midnight and opening the front door to (as she put it) ‘let the New Year’ in.  More significantly, I also remember the framed text she had in the kitchen, ‘The Gate of the Year’ which read:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. 
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 

The words are quite famous, being spoken by George VI in his Christmas 1939 broadcast to the Empire, certainly striking a chord to people facing the uncertainty of war (and I suspect that my mother’s fondness for the text may date from that particular Christmas message). The text comes from a poem God Knows by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957) and her story is interesting in itself and I found good information on this from Sue Donnelly, the LSE Archivist.

We live in ‘interesting times’ and the juxtaposition of the secular ‘New Year’ alongside the sacred story of Christ’s birth always sets me thinking about the story by which we mark our lives. Haskin’s poem does not so much celebrate the New Year as enclose it within the greater narrative of our faith – and I (of course) feel comfortable with that. That, I think, keeps the so-called ‘New Year’ in its true perspective.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day: Terrible and Glorious Ironies

Christmas Day 2016

Reading Luke 2:1-14


Nearly every year there are terrible ironies at Christmas.  We speak of the season of peace and good will but we struggle with the dreadful ironies of war, terrorism and disaster.   We tell the story of how the Holy Family makes the uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem but finds itself homeless and must improvise some accommodation – and with that familiar part of the story we also recognise an aspect of our world: the plight of refugees barred from Europe; the dilemma of homeless people in our own country, unable to afford housing; the hardship experienced by those suffering from natural disasters – earthquakes and flood.  These realities stand in tension with the season.

Yet that’s not quite true is it?  The first Christmas is inseparable from these ironies.  (The peace and goodwill is the fiction, a part of the Christmas card sentimentality that we impose upon the season.) In the brief sketch Luke gives us of their circumstances, it is clear that the Holy family are at the lower end of the social scale: they are told to get registered and they comply.  They don’t plead special circumstances (Mary is pregnant); they don’t argue; they comply.   The hazards and discomforts of the journey for a young woman so close to delivery are not considered.  They don’t make a fuss.  Even the accommodation, though modest, meagre, and minimal, is at least, better than nothing.   This is a family who are transients – we could in modern terms think of them as street people and recognise them as our own marginalised people, sleeping in cars or garages.

To be like that, so poor, is to be vulnerable.  So much will depend on Joseph’s health and strength, on his ability to improvise and find employment.  The slightest accident or misfortune and they will be in trouble.  There is no social backup, so system of support.  They are vulnerable to the hazards of extortion and abuse.  How will they survive in a world where officials are corrupt and oppressive?  How will they survive the arbitrary use of power, the use of brute force?   The temple police, and the Roman soldiers are enforcers for the well off and the powerful – in this world, how can the Holy Family survive?  How is it that the great purpose of God in Jesus is entrusted to a family that is so vulnerable?

We are so used to speaking about the growing gap between rich and poor in our own society that we are almost trapped in platitudes and our moral imagination is numbed.  The bill that can’t be paid; the paralysing fear of the destitute who have nowhere to turn and no one to care: this is not just for the people in the failed economies of nations such as Zimbabwe or Venezuela but for many in a globalised economic system where wealth is controlled by the powerful.  As we contemplate the problems of our world now and the fragility of the lives many live, the vulnerability of the Holy Family shocks us.

When St John talks about the mystery of the Incarnation, how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us we can be shocked by the idea, the absolute mystery of God confined and concentrated into human flesh, our substance – that is conceptually shocking – but in Luke, when we see the circumstances into which the Christ comes, the shock is of another dimension altogether.  The great purpose of salvation is entrusted to the barest flow and flux of human contingency; entrusted to life in a family living at the edge; set into circumstances where anything could go wrong and the scope for misfortune and disaster seems utterly unfenced.  This seems a terrible gamble, a desperate wager; you could even say that it seems irresponsible and foolish!

Is this in effect the great risk of creation?  That the love of God embraces the risks of the incarnation so utterly that there is no safety net and Jesus is truly and most profoundly ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘God with us’ because he is subjected to the hazards of a disordered and dangerous world.

I talk of risks and vulnerability, of God wagering everything in a venture that seems so unprotected and uncertain, but alongside that I also find the tradition of the church and the memory it holds – as we see in various icons: I think of Mary and Joseph and their extraordinary care and protection of the infant Jesus. 

I began by speaking of the terrible ironies we confront in the Christmas season; and yet, the more we attend, the more we become aware of the glorious ironies of this season.  Against chance and probability, in the Holy Family we catch a sense of a wisdom, grace and strength beyond all expectation.  The child is in good hands.  The great purpose of God holds firm.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The light shines in the darkness

Reading: John 1: 1-14


I was in Auckland a week or so ago and had a few hours to catch up with some of my family. In the drive from the airport I was briefed about the exploits of my grandson Archie (age 6).  His parents are sending him to one of our church schools.  He starts next year.  It seems the family attended an interview and a tour of the school with the headmaster: at the end of this process they were asked if they had any questions.  Archie did.  He asked the Headmaster (1) Who made God; and (2) who made the man who made God.  It was reported that the Headmaster (clearly thinking on his feet) promptly referred Archie and these questions to the Chaplain for first term next year.   I am very proud that Archie asked such searching questions and I would love to be a fly on the wall when the chaplain has that promised discussion with him; and, to be honest, there is a part of me that is rather thankful  that Archie has not asked his grandfather those questions - yet.  These are questions that our gospel this evening engages.

I have always loved this gospel for the midnight mass at Christmas.  It is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament.  It is about the mystery of the universe and why anything exists at all.   You could say that, for a moment, it has us gazing into the vast darkness of the cosmos while the gospeller tells an old story in a new way.   He tells us of this unimaginable absolute reality that he calls The Word and that this summons the cosmos into being – forming matter, space and time – and all that is.  Only from the action of the Word can we speak of a beginning and from there on all time exists and the world is full of beginnings, full of creation, of causes, and consequences.   Where scientists have suggested ‘the big bang’ as the point of creation, time and space, John speaks of The Word and of a universe formed and sustained by purpose and (ultimately) by what we may describe as love.

We come to the Christmas midnight service for all sorts of reasons and, underlying all the reasons, my hunch is that we come because we are drawn by this light the gospeller talks of.  We are drawn by a thread of love sensed in the world and deeply embedded in our memories, traditions and intuition. We come because this is the service where despite the darkness of the world and the darkness of our minds, despite our uncertainty and questioning, there is the promise of light and understanding.  The gospeller says:  “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.”

This is a night charged with hope and promise; a night when we are invited to contemplate the awesome and outrageous proposition that the gospeller grasped: that this cosmic reality, source of all that is, the Word, is not just an abstract philosophical concept for debate, but has entered human experience and more than that, has taken on our flesh and shared our life in Jesus Christ.   This breaks all the philosophical boundaries and is such a staggering claim that we can’t conceptually quite see it – it “blows our minds.”  Yet behind this claim there stands a memory and an experience, the experience of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.    John sums it up in these words: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

This is a night when we come with our anxieties for ourselves, our loved ones and our world.  Against all those fears stands the gospel’s firm statement that in Christ is “the light of all mankind and this light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  This may be a night when we come with mixed feelings – because along with hope and joy we may miss loved and familiar faces from the table or there are issues that trouble and distract us.  Truly, the joy of the season is never quite untouched by sadness but still “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” At the heart of all there is, is a purpose and a love beyond all our imagining.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Transillumination & Theology of The Living Christ

A member of the cathedral congregation (and a medical professional) has responded to the Sunday sermon with a fascinating reflection on De la Tour's use of light.  He found another of his paintings

St Joseph the Carpenter
(Joseph the Carpenter) that illustrates the use of light and, as it happens, a  medical phenomenon.

He writes: "The imagery here is even more compelling I fancy, because the candle appears to have been recently extinguished (noting the wisp of smoke rising from the wick, rather like the snuffing of the Cathedral candles!), and the source of the light appears to be in the Christ child's left hand. Even more spectacularly, and consistent with our theology of the living Christ, is the extraordinary depiction of 'transillumination' of Christ's fingers. Medically, this phenomenon only occurs in living tissues, the circulation of oxygenated blood lending the pinkish tinge to the light from the fingers!"

That has set me thinking again.  Theology, medicine, art and scripture in an intriguing interplay that extends us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Faith in the Shadows

Thinking about Advent 4

Its the painting 'Joseph's Dream' by Georges de la Tour (c.1640) that really holds my imagination when I read Matthews account of the birth of Jesus - in the gospel for this Sunday (Mt.1:18-25).   I first encountered the painting through its use as the illustrated cover for George Steiner's Real Presences (a brilliant instance of the literary critic wagering on meaning and asserting the possibility of transcendence within the utterly immanent).

Its the sheer ordinariness, the raw domesticity, of the human dilemma that Joseph confronts and has somehow to endure, even just survive, that catches us once we allow it to touch our hearts and work in the imagination. De la Tour reinvents the moment in his own terms and time, to show a man alone at night, poring over the scriptures, weary and drowsy. The play with light (chiaroscuro) so that the source is obscure  means that the shadows are everything - this perfectly images a state of uncertainty, doubt and incomprehension. But it is also more than that, through this sense of light amidst the shadows, De la Tour also creates an impression of a mystical experience and revelation.  All of which is a way of introducing what I found myself engaging as I prepared to think about the gospel for the day ...

So our Advent readings have at last brought us to the story of Jesus birth. We have heard the story of John the Baptist (Advent 3); we have been reminded of the winnowing of the harvest at the end of time (Advent 2); we have been reminded to be ready for when the Lord comes (Advent 1); and now, at last in Advent 4, our focus changes, the gospel lens fixes on the story of Jesus – the sweep of eternity is reduced barely to this man Joseph, and his bride to be, Mary.

Except that the panorama of eternity has been reduced to a couple who are caught up in a difficult and compromising predicament: Mary is pregnant and Joseph has not had sexual relations with her. So, who is the Father? What has happened to the dreams that Mary and Joseph have shared and spoken about?

Does Joseph fear that his dreams have been a fantasy; that he has been wrong about Mary? That he has placed his hope in the wrong person? That is a tormenting thought. We can all understand that and how at this turning point of the gospel story there is this seed of doubt, fear and uncertainty -which could have blown the whole enterprise to nothing. What must Joseph do?

Well the fact is irrefutable. To labour the point: Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows that he is not the Father. There is a moment when that realisation hits so brutally that it takes his breath away. He can’t put his world back together again; still less pretend nothing has changed; yet what can he do? Can he live with a lie?  Dostoevsky brilliantly catches the anguish of betrayal when ideals and dreams seem to be lost ...

“For, after all, you do grow up, you do outgrow your ideals, which turn to dust and ashes, which are shattered into fragments; and if you have no other life, you just have to build one up out of these fragments. And all the time your soul is craving and longing for something else. And in vain does the dreamer rummage about in his old dreams, raking them over as though they were a heap of cinders, looking in these cinders for some spark, however tiny, to fan it into a flame so as to warm his chilled blood by it and revive in it all that he held so dear before, all that touched his heart, that made his blood course through his veins, that drew tears from his eyes, and that so splendidly deceived him!”

- Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821-1888
White Nights

In the coded language of scripture we are told that Joseph has a dream in which an angel of the Lord assures him that he is not to fear being mistaken and or betrayed but that this pregnancy is within the purpose of God. The Emmanuel, the Saviour, is near at hand. Well, the paraphrasing is my own, but that message which may work in a dream leaves the question of how it will appear when one awakes to the cold clear light of day?

This moment is a pivot in the story of scripture. Is the dream illusion or truth? This is an agonising dilemma. One dreams; one wakes up – and what will Joseph think and do? Is it more likely, that Mary experienced sexual relations (whether welcome or unwelcome) OR that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit? However that question is engaged, the messenger in the dream sweetens the message through a scripture passage familiar to the dreamer: (Isaiah 7:14) “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

Joseph chooses to trust his dream – the dream that draws him back into the story of Israel and the promise of the prophets, back into a story larger than himself but nonetheless his story also .

What I see in Joseph’s story is a reflection of our own story of doubt and faith: the constant dialectic played out in our lives day by day. Sometimes our faith seems so unreasonable, irrational, and it is as if we are clinging to an illusion, clinging to a story to reassure ourselves against the frightening prospect of a universe that has no meaning. Joseph, trusts the dream, the story of Israel, and chooses to take his part in the great story of God.

This may help us to see Joseph as an icon for Advent. His dream gives him the light he needs to proceed amidst the darkness of incomprehension and uncertainty. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Ahab in Advent

It is nearly always a bit of a problem quite how to tie Evensong (or Matins) readings with the liturgical season and to do so within the very limited scope of a brief reflection (approximately 400 words).  It may be argued that such linking is unnecessary, and even an imposition, but if a congregation has to endure the readings - then there seems to be some obligation to try and make sense of them.  What do you think?

Choral Evensong Advent 2 2016

Readings:  1 Kings 18:17-39;
John 1:19-28.

We are frequently told that Advent is a time of waiting; of expectancy; of getting ready for the coming of Christ.   As children some of us understood that only too well: Christmas never seemed to come.  We had waited and watched: we had seen presents carefully smuggled into the house; we knew the favourite places of concealment; we might even have shaken the box on the top of the tall wardrobe in the spare room and guessed at the contents.  But none of this made the great day come any sooner and there was always some uncertainty about what we hoped for.

Uncertainty prevails in the readings for this evening.  Each reading has elements that resonate between the texts.  So, for instance, Ahab sees Elijah and appears to check that it really is Elijah he is dealing with, though his words are more rhetorical gesture than a genuine inquiry: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”  Elijah makes it plain that the boot is on the other foot and the troubler is Ahab himself.  All of Elijah’s actions that follow show him appearing to act against his own cause: the pouring of the water is to douse any possibility of fire; and yet conversely, any fire will have to be the action of God and the irrefutable confirmation of Elijah’s status.

John the Baptist has impressed Jerusalem and the officials about the Jerusalem temple.  His character and style have stirred old cultural memories and legends of Elijah: has Elijah come again?  Who are you?  The questions are real, not rhetorical.  John flatly denies that he is in any way the one they are waiting for.  Yet his actions recall Elijah: as Elijah doused the sacrifice with water so John baptizes with water in the Jordan River: different actions but using the same element - water always being used for cleansing and to signify commitment. 

Both Ahab and the Pharisees had to manage uncertainty; had to clarify who they were dealing with; had to recognise the activity and agency of God.  Those are typically Advent questions and issues.  Similarly our preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas demands our attention and our discernment.  We see Ahab as reluctant and fearful; the Pharisees as unsure who they look for; or quite what they look for;  and we ourselves may feel puzzled at the prospect of Advent – a confusion and hope that Archbishop Rowan Williams voices in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent 2 Thinking about Chaff and Winnowing

Reflection Advent 2

How might you describe the ‘mood’ of the readings set for this Sunday?  The language of Isaiah is charged with hope – but the righteousness, faithfulness and judgement he speaks of are virtually subverted by the strangeness of his language.  We neither expect the wolf to live with the lamb; the leopard to lie down with the kid; or the calf and lion to reside together; neither do we imagine the bear to graze or the lion to eat straw.  In the natural order as we know it, these are carnivores.  Isaiah knows this of course and his language takes us into another world and another order, another way of being. He alerts us to this other world and the purpose of God beyond time.

John the Baptist refines this vision by warning of a cosmic judgement, a holocaust and at the same time speaks of a harvest that is the point of judgement where chaff is burned but the grain is preserved and stored. There is also hope here but alongside warning and judgement.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

These texts draw me to the painting we know as The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857). You may recall it shows three peasant women collecting straws of grain missed in the harvest.   This is survival agriculture, back-breaking work by people at the bottom of the social and economic order. In the far distance, in a golden light, we catch a glimpse of huge haystacks, many workers at an abundant harvest and, apart from it all, a mounted supervisor.  When exhibited, The Gleaners attracted hostile criticism from polite society because they thought it glorified workers, criticised upper classes, and was the sort of revolutionary thinking that had led many to the guillotine about 60 years earlier.   I react to the painting in that way.  It asks a social question – where is the justice in a world where so many struggle to survive and others are so privileged and indifferent? Where is the revolution?  That is of course not just a social question but a moral one and as relevant now as then.

In Matthew we see how the people of Jerusalem and Judea responded to the Baptist’s Advent challenge to set their house in order: “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”.  We hear of many going down to the Jordan to be baptised and to confess their sins.  At an hour of judgement and crisis – what does one do?   Those going to the scaffold make their peace – they prepare the way; they straighten things up; if this is the end, the critical moment when all one’s life is weighed and judged, what else can one do?

John notices the religious, social and political leaders of Judea have also heard the warning and have taken it seriously enough to head to the Jordan for baptism with everyone else.  He is not impressed.   These are leaders and role models; they hold power and influence.  What does he mean when he shouts “Bear fruit worthy of repentance?”  My guess is that he means ‘Change your life.”  Live in such a way that we all see who you are, the changed person that you are – or even the person you were created to be.

Now we know the story of Dismas, you may recall he was the repentant thief who died on the cross next to Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him.  But is repentance that simple?  Can the habits of a lifetime simply be shed?  Can a lifetime of selfishness just be walked away from; one’s formed and habitual way of thinking and acting just be disengaged?  May that not require some time, some focus and careful attention?

The Baptist speaks of the coming one as having the threshing floor cleared and his winnowing fork in hand: this is early agriculture – requiring a threshing floor (a flattened and cleared space) for the grain to be deposited and then trampled by cattle or beaten so that the husks are loosened from the kernels.  Then everything is tossed into the air with the winnowing fork and the air flow separates the chaff from the grain – blowing it away.

What is the chaff in our lives?  Are we aware of the dead stuff that it seems must take a lifetime to get past?  We should not judge too hastily.  The chaff was the husk that held the grain and brought it to ripeness; it had its purpose.  What we may call chaff and long to be rid of, may have had its part in forming us; but who are we becoming and who will the winnowing show us to be?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come ... be careful what you pray for

I have ambiguous feelings about this time of the year.

There are some famous lines in Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions where he tries to explain the nature of time.

“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend 
this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words?
Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?
We surely know what we mean when we speak of it.
We also know what is meant when we hear someone else taking about it.
What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.
If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know”
(Confessions,11.14.17, p. 230)

We start a new Church year this Advent Sunday. We mark the moment and the expectancy of the season with the Advent candle stand and the ring of candles that will count us to Christmas Day.  So this Sunday shows us all engaged with the great mystery of time: (1) we start a new church year and (2) we have a candlestand that counts us through the time of Advent to Christmas.

There is of course a practical problem – something that we really impose upon ourselves; perhaps something that we need to ask ourselves?

Is our countdown to Christmas really a preparation for Christmas or are we really rehearsing and waiting for something more?  I hope I am not going to sound like someone who puts Christmas down – I love Christmas and the intolerable wonder of the Word made flesh.  But I will admit to times on Christmas Day, after all the joy and far too much to eat and drink, that I sense that the longing of the season still lingers unsatisfied … and at the back of the mind one senses the pressure of that rather frightening and awesome prayer “your kingdom come”.  Amen, ‘Come, King Jesus.”

Of course we do prepare for Christmas: in the proper sense of heart and mind and contemplating the mystery that beggars all our thought; in the proper sense of understanding the love of God toward us and all creation as the Word takes form and substance in our matter.  There is enough in all of that to ponder and wonder at – and we need to do that or else the familiar stories can be reduced to the colourful but sentimental images too often associated with a children’s Christmas pageant.

But I will be frank, I think at Advent our preparation for the Christ event, the birth in Bethlehem, is really a rehearsal for the end of time and the return of the King.  This means that our enthusiastic preparations for the season are also threaded with our longing for the end; for the kingdom – as dreadful and as terrifying a thought as it may be.   That thought does give a certain edge to our Christmas shopping and preparations – we prepare to celebrate the day of course, but in our hearts we are looking further ahead.  The mince pies, the Christmas cake, the turkey and the ham, the endless little presents, the cards: the whole vast train of things we do at Christmas start to become a little less important at the thought of Christ’s return – and whatever that may involve.

That looking ahead aspect accounts for the edginess and the warning tone of all the Advent readings.  We are cautioned to be ready for the return of the King; to be ready for the end as the great purpose of God (we can put it no more clearly than that) is drawn to completion.  The apocalyptic language of scripture with its talk of flood and famine, wars, disasters – and of course earthquakes, of which we know something – confronts us with our mortality, our finitude, our temporality in the vast abyss of time. 

And yet, against that cosmic unease, we continue with the simple human tasks of preparation for the feast and we light our Advent candles: holding both our hopes for the day of celebration and the day of the kingdom that will come.

Further Notes

“This morning during Matins I had a ‘jolt of happiness, of fullness of life, and at the same time the thought: I will have to die! But in such a fleeting breath of happiness, time usually ‘gathers’ itself. In an instant, not only are all such breaths of happiness remembered but they are present and alive—that Holy Saturday in Paris when I was a young man—and many such ‘breaks.’ It seems to me that eternity might be not the stopping of time, but precisely its resurrection and gathering. The fragmentation of time, its division, is the fall of eternity. Maybe the words of Christ are about time when He said: ‘…not to destroy anything but will raise it all on the last day.’ The thirst for solitude, peace, freedom, is thirst for the liberation of time from cumbersome dead bodies, from hustle; thirst for the transformation of time into what it should be—the receptacle, the chalice of eternity. Liturgy is the conversion of time, its filling with eternity. There are two irreconcilable types of spirituality: one that strives to liberate man from time (Buddhism, Hinduism, Nirvana, etc.); the other that strives to liberate time. In genuine eternity, all is alive. The limit and the fullness: the whole of time, the whole of life is in each moment. But there is also the perpetual problem: What about the evil moments? Evil time? The terrible fear before dying of the drowning man, of the man falling from the tenth floor about to be crushed on the pavement? What about the tears of an abused child?”

(The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p.78)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hallelujah in the Cathedral

This is one of those reflections in a minor key for Choral Evensong where the thoughts are shaped by the occasion ...

Choral Evensong – The Cathedral Music Foundation
Christ the King 2016

The recent death of Leonard Cohen prompted me to download one of his albums and, of course, it
included his song ‘Hallelujah’: one of his great songs and incredibly popular.  When he was asked to explain its popularity – he said that it has a great chorus; indeed it has; it draws you in to sing along with it.  In Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ the first verse sets out something of what we might briefly reflect on tonight

Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

In just those two lines Cohen opens up something of the mystery of music; its origin, if you like, in God and its capacity to awake the God in us: music being a kind of bridge spanning, however tenuously, the finite and the infinite.  However, I love the way Cohen takes the vision back a peg or two and gently mocks himself and us with the sideline …

“But you don't really care for music, do you?”

I am told that music theorists understand music as a collection of sounds in and over time and that music may be explained in terms of pitch and structure.  But Cohen describes, quite literally, the harmonic progression of the verse: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift." This is an explanation of the song's structure (the basic chord progression of most pop and blues songs goes from the "one" chord, the root, up three steps to the "four," then up another to the "five," and then resolves back to the "one"), followed by a reference to the conventional contrast between a major and a minor key.

It may be judged a little incongruous that this evening we celebrate the Cathedral Music Foundation with the Dean talking about Leonard Cohen.  But I suggest it is not: Cohen ends the first verse with his reference to David, "the baffled king composing Hallelujah!" – a comment that touches on the enigmatic nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love, or both: the kind of world spanning insight that only poets and music gift us.  We are in a time when we desperately need that kind of revelation and understanding.

All our language to describe or in some way account for music breaks down in the face of the experience itself: the moment when the God breaks through and we are utterly involved in something that calls us beyond ourselves and yet also makes us aware that we are, and that we are alive and held in wonder.  Rudolph Otto described such moments of wonder as numinous and he talked of the mysterium tremendum, that otherness of the Holy – which we approach with hope and awe as it intersects our lives.   You could say that’s why we have music and why we have a Cathedral Music Foundation.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Christ the King - between faith and doubt

Christ the King 2016
20 November 2016

This is a Sunday when we need to remember where we are in the church’s story – we are at the end of the liturgical year – and next Sunday we start the story again with Advent Sunday.  So at this end of the story we celebrate with a bold statement of faith – the Feast of Christ the King; celebrating with hope and longing the rule of Christ over all creation.  It is a strange Feast – because it celebrates what we cannot yet quite discern; it inhabits the reality of the now and the not yet, the visible and the invisible, present and future – it is a feast that demands we cross dimensions of time and space.
Icon of Christ the King

We see this most obviously in the readings.  The epistle, Colossians, has a fragment from what we think was an early Christian hymn, proclaiming who Christ is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, …

A careful reader will notice the artful oxymoron – “the image of the invisible” – of course this shakes us.  It is a conceptual impossibility.    This hymn takes us beyond all we can imagine: it affirms Christ as God and as the source of all that is - from before creation and to beyond the end of time.  The hymn sings us into faith.  That is what hymns do; that is what worship does; that is what liturgy is about – we are drawn into faith; drawn into another dimension of reality.  

This is heady stuff!  This vision of the cosmic Christ beggars our imagination and our capacity to comprehend.

Contrast that vision with the gospel where Luke takes us to observe the brutality of the cross.   At the forefront of this gospel is Christ on the cross enduring the mockery of the soldiers, the ridicule of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of one of those crucified with him.  To read this, to hear it, is to be confronted by the darkness of our world and what we are capable of; our capacity to marginalise and isolate, humiliate and torture, and to kill.  We catch a glimpse of our own blindness and wilfulness; we are placed within a tableau of the darkness and abandonment we inhabit.

So, today the two readings collide: the epistle being the dazzling and mind-bending vision of the cosmic Christ, ruler of the universe; the gospel as the spectacle of suffering and death in a brutal, finite, and temporal world.

Except that this is not quite the whole story. 
Hieronymous Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross,

I have in mind a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, painted about 1480.  The painting is of Christ carrying the cross – and Bosch painted 3 very different studies on this subject.  The one I have in mind is in the Art History Museum in Vienna.  At the centre is Christ crowded about and bowed under the cross. But this is also a very tall painting with the effect that our eyes are drawn down to the lower right and left corners where we see two other figures – the thieves also about to be crucified with Jesus.  In the right corner we see one of them, kneeling and making confession to a robed friar.

Detail, the penitent thief
In this way Bosch guides our reading of this gospel.  At the place of execution, confronting the terror and pain that will mark his death, this man makes his confession.  This killing ground is his ‘ground zero’: this moment of truth allows no time for illusion or denial. Reality, raw and indescribably brutal, cannot be evaded.   Yet, despite the horror and darkness, it is also as if there is a pinpoint of light.  This is a man who sees through the horror of the cross into the Kingdom.  

Though unnamed in the gospel, we have a name for this man: by tradition the church remembers him as Dismas.  We recall that, dying on the cross, gasping for breath, he asked Jesus to remember him.   We recall Christ’s response, also gasping for breath, he said “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  

Dismas in Paradise

So, Dismas is made Christ’s own forever.

At the end of the Church year, in this untidy week before the start of Advent,  Dismas speaks for us all and for our mortality and frailty; for all of us who swing between wonder and fear, faith and doubt.   “In the chaos of life, in my sins, at my end, King Jesus, remember me.”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Remembrance Sunday Thoughts after the Election of Mr Trump

Reflections for Remembrance Sunday 2016

We are still more or less in the exam season and Remembrance Day reminds me of one of the standard exam questions for modern History students – the invitation to explain the causes of the First World War.  

I remember the headache the question seemed to induce: there was no obvious ‘bad guy’ and no rogue nation, no obvious cause or need for so many nations to get dragged into such a messy and meaningless global conflict. 

The system of alliances (Britain, France and Russia on one side, Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy on the other) worked like collapsing dominoes: one nation after another got drawn in; all tumbling into chaos.   It was hard to explain at the time, and it has got no easier over the years.  Yet, behind all the nationalism, militarism and the elaborate alliances, historians point to an underlying social unease: that in post industrial revolution Europe the old way of running things no longer quite worked and class conflict and socialism were changing things.  Was the war a distraction, a diversion from insoluble social pressures?  I think that would be a great exam question!

But that’s not a comfortable thought.  That exhibition of crosses at Queen’s Gardens brings home the horrible cost of New Zealand being sucked into a conflict that began a world away so many years ago.  It seems all the more horrible if the war was really the manifestation of a deeper problem.

To think about those crosses in Queen’s Gardens, is not just to remember and grieve, but to remember and think about our world now.  We learn from the past.  Remembrance Day is not about nostalgia but it demands our attention to the present.  If a changing world order prepared the way for the First WW, how do we make sense of the world changing events that have happened this year and even this past week?   What about that French diplomat who, responding to the election result in America, tweeted “The world is collapsing before our eyes.”?

Behind Brexit earlier this year, and behind the election of Mr Trump, there is a reality – and, disturbing as it is, it is hard to know how to change it –wealth has become concentrated into a 1% of world elite and there is a global technocracy that serves their interests. 

A journalist, Simon Jenkins, observed: “(Brexit) … was the shock given to politics in Europe when voters rejected the failure of a perceived ruling class to deliver on its duties and promises. For decades an elite of the urban, educated and self-righteous had merely made itself richer and the poor poorer. A peasants’ revolt of the sort that periodically jolts democracy out of its comfort zone was the result.” 

Remember how in recent years we have had the Global Financial Crisis of 2008; seen the banks bailed out with little reform; noted the Occupy Movement of 2011; and  in 2015 we saw Greece utterly humiliated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund; at home we have seen house prices in Auckland make home ownership impossible for many.  

Hear how one observer has summarised the experience of many:

“Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neo-liberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.”

On Remembrance Sunday, is that the legacy with which we honour our dead?  

Are we content to tolerate a privileged few alongside an underclass trapped in debt and financial insecurity?  However I think the question is bigger than that: this is not just a political or economic problem; not even an ideological one. Quietly, silently, the world changes moment by moment because we are on a roller coaster of accelerating technological change far greater than anything the world has experienced since the Industrial Revolution.  In the big picture technology is taking jobs: the future of employment, the nature of work, seems bound to change fundamentally.  In the process our society will be transformed and there is a future that we will have to help shape.

On Remembrance Sunday we don’t just remember to grieve; we remember also so that we may act with courage and insight in the challenges that we face now.  We owe our dead no less.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Future Shock at Choral Evensong

The Friday Otago Daily Times is, for me, obligatory reading.  There is always Chris Trotter’s column ‘From the Left’, almost invariably good; then there is the Faith and Reason column – at best, erratic; and there is frequently a piece of thoughtful journalism, often ‘World View’ by Gwynne Dyer.  

This last Friday all 3 columns serendipitously held together.  Trotter lamented the departure of David Cunliffe from politics, lamenting the utter inability of the party to ideologically reposition itself in the wake of the global financial crisis.  In 'Faith and Reason' Richard Dawson mourned the loss of hope in the young generation, pointing to the consequences of a society drained of spiritual vision and consequently prepared to accept the gross inequalities of wealth and opportunity we see about us.  It was Gwynne Dyer who pulled the threads together in his astute little reflection on the troubles of Uber: pointing out that the rise of driver-owner-operators in this little market will be short-lived as the development of self-driving cars will abolish almost all driving jobs in the next twenty years.  He cites research in 2013 by Oxford economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne that foresees in America about 47% of jobs will be lost to automation within 20 years.  Radical thinking is required to manage this kind of change.

Historically the great change prior to this was the huge shift in social organisation and ways of living brought about by the Industrial Revolution – and that was a messy transition, accompanied by urban uprisings and class warfare.  What the future holds now is less easy to predict.

Some folk may remember one of the influential books of the 1970s – Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.  Much in Toffler’s old essay reads very pertinently now.  He argued that back then society was already caught up in enormous structural change and was shifting from an industrial to a super-industrial society in which accelerated technological and social change left people feeling stressed, disconnected and disoriented.  Familiar institutions disappear (e.g. Churches, post offices, department stores); professions change – e.g. doctors, engineers – goods become disposable, designs outdated, e.g. rapid transition of computers and smart phones, new generations emerging before others are sold!  Jobs change, markets change and workers become migrants – moving to find new work.  This has a huge effect on communities.   People change professions because professions become outdated – may have many careers in a lifetime – we become transients/nomads!

Gwynne Dyer pointed out – I think quite accurately – that in this rapidly changing situation “the real task will be to find ways of providing a majority of our citizens with money and self-respect without the jobs they would previously have expected.  Some form of guaranteed minimum income is probably the answer”.

As a theologian, this is the area I think we need to be working in.  We are looking for a new kind of society – and I come back to Richard Dawson’s comments on vision: “Our spirits need something that helps us to live beyond ourselves, our needs, our desires - that enables us to be more selfless in some way.  This is one of
the reasons Jesus said ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ ”  Amen to that!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reductio ad absurdum in Jerusalem

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C


All the readings this morning hold the sense an ending: rightly so; the church is near the end of the liturgical year and approaching the cusp of something new.  In the wake of All Saints Day and the Feast of All Souls, we look toward the action and purpose of God in our world and in our lives across all time and space.

In the book of Haggai, a minor prophet, we catch a glimpse of the prophet speaking to the people in a difficult time.  This is a precise moment in time – the people are no longer in exile in Babylon but back in Jerusalem, but the city is a shadow of what it used to be: there are hostile neighbours and all work on rebuilding the temple has stopped.  In this climate of uncertainty, anxiety and fear, Haggai repeats the ancient promise of God that dates back to the Exodus from Egypt: “Take courage, work, for I am with you.”  We can look back and we find that Haggai’s message was heard and responded to: the work on the temple resumed and by about 515 BC the temple was completed.   Where hope and vision had been lost, where the community had become paralysed by anxiety, they are reassured by Haggai’s message and so radically refocused that they can move forward as a people.

Hundreds of years later, in the fragment from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica we also catch a glimpse of a community going through a difficult time.  This little Christian community was riddled by uncertainty as to what to believe: is the end of the world coming now or are they to wait?  There are ‘fear merchants’ predicting disaster and the end of all things: secular writers, warning of disaster and point to storms and earthquakes; religious leaders confuse them similarly.  How can one live in such times?  Paul is very clear: he takes this little church back to the God in whom we trust – we are held in God’s care and our task is to trust, to live confidently, to work confidently – and to not be shaken. 

We might all identify with the anxieties of the Thessalonians: we watch the coverage of the American elections; we ponder Trump and Clinton, we contemplate the hopelessness of the wars in Iraq and Syria – the tragedy that is Aleppo; we see the trauma of refugees, camping in the streets of Europe or risking hazardous journeys; we know a world where employment opportunities are shrinking and where financial inequity is rampant and increasing.  Yes, it is hard not to be shaken and we may feel like asking the question, how is it possible to live in such times?

In the gospel this morning our distinctively human and deepest anxiety about life and what it means is drawn to the surface.  It is focussed about the fact of our mortality.

In Jerusalem Jesus is challenged by the powerful religious establishment of the time, Pharisees and Sadducees.   These two groups had their theological differences: the Pharisees believed in a resurrection; the Sadducees did not; so they were sad, you see!

The Sadducees challenge Jesus with the question of the resurrection – is there life beyond death? –they present him with a proposition that makes the question look ridiculous.  They clearly know that the best way to discredit an idea is to have everyone laugh at it.  So, they raise the Mosaic tradition that stipulates brothers are to marry their brother’s childless widow and raise children for their brother: seven brothers die childless; then the woman who has married them all; so, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?  Philosophically this looks like the argument philosophers call reduction ad absurdum.   It’s a fine joke but the real humour and the irony rest with Jesus: the Sadducees have got it all wrong – the proposition falters because this life is not that life; this reality is not that reality.  This reality that we cling to so tenaciously now (this life) is just the threshold of another dimension entirely.

This other dimension is to where all these readings draw us: in Haggai a dispirited society has lost sight of its spiritual roots and is paralysed by fear – but they have to grasp that God is still with them and there is work for them to do – now.  In Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians, the believers are overwhelmed by uncertainty, is this the end of days and what should they do?  Paul says, get a grip – trust God; live as people of faith are meant to live.  In the gospel, the aristocratic cultivated Sadducees, sneering at the silly idea of the resurrection, try to intimidate Jesus – and in effect Jesus says you know nothing – reality is more than you can ever imagine.

I have in my mind’s eye an icon of the resurrection: it shows Christ stepping into the void and hauling men and women from their graves and drawing them into life.  Of course we don’t understand it – we can’t – but the image speaks more powerfully than any words.  This is He whom we follow.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Jeremiah - a prophet for our times

The text of a sermon delivered a few weeks ago is presented out of sequence, mainly because it is relevant to challenges the diocese faces and the questions that are being asked of us all.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C


Jeremiah is surely the prophet for our times: he looks around him at what had been the glory of Jerusalem and weeps.  He laments the dismantling of the world he had known.  He laments the departure of the temple; the passing of the great religious festivals and of the crowds that used to come.  The whole social order, the glue that bound society together, no longer exists.   Where power, influence and position had once seemed assured; where one’s place and role in society had been clear – that is no longer the case.   The world now looks strange, confusing and frightening.

Jeremiah Icon
You could truly say that we are in similar times.  The changes experienced in New Zealand over the last few decades have made the country almost unrecognisable to those who knew this country and were formed by it in, say the 1950s.  Full employment, superb social welfare and social security, world class and free education, house-ownership a genuinely common and achievable aspiration; a very even social structure with few extremes: anyone who remembers such things fondly and hankers after them still may look around our present society and wonder and weep.

Or we could take another approach – and it is just possible that some may remember the days when going to church was the norm and just about everyone did.  Some people will remember when this Cathedral was full and the Christian faith was affirmed as the norm.  We inhabit a very different time now: Christianity is on the margins of society, not at the centre; we are in a time when denominations proliferate and fragment; house churches and alternatives to church appear; new churches are planted but the numbers of committed faithful declines; it is common now to talk about the demise of institutional religion and we look toward an ever more uncertain future where there are no answers and no notion at all as to what the future church may be like.

So we may like Jeremiah lament for the good times that are past as we all try and make sense of the present and the extraordinary challenges it presents.  But the truth is that Jeremiah has been in our predicament – he has seen the order of the world change – and while he laments he know that God is in this movement of history and this upheaval of culture: while his predicament troubles him, his hope in God endures.

Lamentations 3:19-263:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!

3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

3:26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

The gospel talks about faith and the mustard seed – and I wonder how that connects with what we may learn from Jeremiah and the troubled situation of our times.  At the very heart of the gospels is that verse from John: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”   (John 12:24)

Embedded here is the principle of change and transformation so basic to the gospels   A wise man has noted how it was the life of seeds that informs our religious vision.

“What man saw in the grain, what he learnt when dealing with it, what he was taught by the example of seeds changing their form when they are in the ground, that was the decisive lesson … One of the main roots of soteriological optimism was the belief of prehistoric, agricultural mysticism that the dead, like seeds underground, can return to life in a different form.”   (Mircea Eliade   1907-1986  The Myth Of Eternal Return)

The Church has experienced much change over its nearly 2,000 years of existence. Yet somehow, it has adapted. In fact, one might say that it has reinvented itself many times over. Each of these reinventions has been, at least in part, a death and a resurrection. An American clergyman and scholar, once wrote about the Church:

Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship;
it moved to Greece and became a philosophy;
it moved to Italy and became an institution;
it moved to Europe and became a culture;
it came to America and became an enterprise.

As one scholar has expressed it: “With denominations and churches splitting at an ever-increasing rate, and as a result growing smaller and smaller, we may end up with a Church that looks more like it did in its first century state than at any time since: more diverse and less hierarchical, more faith than religion, more a movement than an institution. Indeed, it may well be that Christianity is poised to become a fellowship again. And that might not be so bad. In fact, it might not be going too far to say that by the end of this century we may have witnessed the death and resurrection of Christianity as we know it: the death of Christianity as an organized religion and its resurrection as a movement of the followers of Christ.”