Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Meeting: The Presentation in the Temple

The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple

Readings: Luke 2: 22-40.

Part of the discipline of the Church is that we take scripture very seriously and we read it, ponder it, argue with it and are shaped by it. There is a pattern to our reading, it is systematic and it is comprehensive – we are not free to pick and choose, to be selective over what we will read and what we will conveniently ignore. This inevitably has a consequence for the preacher – one has to deal with texts that are either difficult or even downright disagreeable and try to make some sense of them. Something similar may be said of Feast of The Presentation in the Temple – that it seems a little obscure to us and wonder how it speaks to us.

The story of the Presentation in the Temple has been observed by the church in Jerusalem since at least the 4th Century. It was not called the Presentation then but simply the 40th day after Epiphany with a procession and a homily on the same gospel that we read today. The term Candlemas came much later and (as the name suggests) is associated with the blessing of candles at this time.

It is I suggest most truly understood as a Feast of Epiphany because it recalls the patient waiting and hoping of two figures associated with the Jerusalem temple, Simeon and Anna; and the moment when they met the infant Lord Jesus and recognised in him the promised one of God. In a word, this is a moment of revelation and insight.

In Luke the story begins with Mary observing the ritual of purification stipulated in Jewish law after childbirth: she and Joseph also bring to the temple the ritual offering required of the poor for this occasion –two doves or pigeons. Jesus is also with them, as their first born male child, to be presented for blessing and thanksgiving. So far, so good: this is the scaffolding of the narrative but from this point onwards the story radically changes.

First, the focus is no longer on Mary but on this elderly devout man Simeon who is waiting for the Messiah. Do we need to know more about this man? He is important to the Church – at least to the Catholic tradition - for his recognition of the Christ, remembered through his prayer (that we know as the Nunc Dimittis) which is daily said by the Church in its offices of Evensong, Compline and Vespers.

Legends and tradition cluster about Simeon. Luke merely says that Simeon had been told “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”. That is perhaps enough to arouse our curiosity, but much more has been claimed for him. Some authors have suggested Simeon was a priest of the temple; others a Doctor of the Law – a son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel, master of St Paul. Others have seen him to be a translator of the Bible, one of the Seventy, and even that God had preserved him in life during 350 years. Various liturgical texts exalt him as the greatest of the prophets: even more than Moses, it has been said Simeon deserves the title of “He who has seen God”, for to Moses God appeared enveloped in darkness, whilst Simeon carried in his arms the eternal incarnate Word.

To give attention to this tradition behind Simeon takes us further than the bare text of the gospel makes us start to see the gospel in a brighter and more luminous light. The figure of Simeon and the events associated with him begin to move from the margins and the footnotes of our interest. We start to realise that what is happening here in the gospel has significance beyond our culture and context. This becomes clearer to us if we look at the icons of the Presentation: there we see Simeon receiving the Christ child who is seated in the old man’s arms, as if on a throne and in an Orthodox Matins liturgy the Christ is made to say “I am not held by the old man: it is I Who hold him, for he asks me forgiveness.”

At this point you could say ‘the penny drops’ and we recover the vital insight that this is indeed a Feast of the Epiphany, for here is the moment when the church celebrates Christ’s encounter with humanity. In this moment we glimpse a memory of the meeting of man and God; the old name in Greek for this Feast, the Hypapante, simply means ‘The Meeting’. Christ comes as the Lord of scripture, the Old and New Testaments, to the temple where he is awaited by Simeon and Anna. One could say that Simeon and Anna represent Judaism, the Old Covenant and even that they stand for Adam and Eve, humanity itself. At this meeting, the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled and what must come is foreseen.

You could say that in this meeting Epiphany is completed, the Christmas season now closed - and we now prepare for Lent.

Friday, January 29, 2016

"The Banality of Evil" - Auschwitz is still with us

An article in The Guardian by the splendid former Canon of St Paul's, London, Giles Fraser, has prodded me into thinking again about a previous post where I commented on Ulrich Simon's A Theoloy of Auschwitz and concluded that the evil he identified is still with us - by pointing to Syria and also the global inequity of the 1% holding nearly all the world's wealth.

Giles Fraser took a different but nonetheless similar tack, referring to the trial of Eichmann and his determination to present himself as a very ordinary man just following orders; an ordinary man who did terrible things.  Fraser picks up Hannah Arendt's memorable phrase 'the banality of evil' to illustrate the point and concludes:  "He (Eichmann) was personally responsible, a responsibility he blindly denied right to the end. Which is precisely why the moral message of his story remains profoundly unsettling: if ordinary people were capable of such great evil, then, given the right circumstances, so are the rest of us."

The Fraser article can be found at:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Prayer from Auschwitz

At Evensong tonight I offered this prayer from Auschwitz, a prayer by Etty Hillesum.

"You have made me so rich, O God; please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in bed and rest in You, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer. Amen."

In the congregation were a young American couple on their honeymoon, deeply struck by the prayer and eager to learn more of her story.

An Auschwitz anniversary

Already my thoughts are turning to Good Friday and the Three Hours - such a major and demanding liturgical task.  Various options have run through my mind but today a grim anniversary has struck a chord: it is the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by Russian soldiers (27 January 1945).

I have ranged along my bookshelves and found the marvellous piece by my (long ago) mentor, the late Ulrich Simon, A Theology of Auschwitz. No mere academic work but written with the most disciplined passion. To pick it up again is to be transported briefly back past the noise of the Strand and the quiet of King's courtyard to the long high ceilinged room lined (of course) with books where he'd say "Read me what you have written for today."

Ulrich Simon
Simon's assessment of Auschwitz is still timely.  When we contemplate the horrors of the war in Syria and the obscenity that 62 individuals own as much as 3.5 billion of the poor, the evil that underlies that emblem of the holocaust is clearly still present.  As he says in his opening remarks: "Auschwitz belongs to the past, thank God.  But its multi-dimensional range of evil extends to the present and throws its shadow over the future.  It is for our purpose the comprehensive and realistic symbol of the greatest possible evil which still threatens mankind."

To contemplate Auschwitz must be to contemplate who we are and question equally the abstractions that theology can hide behind and the metaphysical void so typical of contemporary thought and life.  Choral Evensong must cut short these musings.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Remembering the Damascus Road

Feast: The Conversion of St Paul

Readings: Galatians 1:11-16; Matthew 19: 27-30

The expression ‘a Damascus Road experience’ is part of the currency of our language.  Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion is so embedded in our cultural inheritance that the phrase lends itself to anyone who might speak of how someone has abruptly changed their mind on some important issue.

The story is told most fully in Acts (where it appears 3 times, with some slight variations of detail) and is alluded to by Paul in key epistles (1Cor.15:3-8; Galatians 1:11-16;) especially in that passage from Galatians  set as a reading for this feast.  The experience is something Paul keeps returning to and my suggestion this morning is that this tells us something about Paul and, quite likely, something about ourselves and our experience of faith.

One of the things that struck me about the lectionary readings for the feast is that (at first glance) the gospel has nothing to do with Paul or the story of his conversion – but of course Paul is not one of the inner circle of the Twelve and his part in the story is outside the gospels.  

Matthew’s account of Peter’s question “We have left everything … what will we have?” is a literal question about the place and privilege of the apostles – and Paul is not one of them, unless we speculate outrageously and dare to question whether the saying “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ might extend to him, however obliquely.  Is he, though the last, really the first?  (That may sound bizarre but reversals occur through the gospels and, remember, Paul’s authority in the church was not immediately obvious and had to be won.)

Paul repeatedly claims that he is an apostle and, to justify that claim, constantly goes back to that experience on the Damascus road where (as Luke tells it in Acts) he saw the Lord Jesus.  We can only speculate at the reasons for Paul’s persistence and even anxiety on this matter.  He comes into the church as an ‘outsider’: as a notorious persecutor of the Church and as one who had no claim to have known the Lord in his lifetime.  

Despite all this, Paul energetically presses his claim to place, privilege and authority by his encounter on the Damascus Road. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

One can feel for Paul: he is protesting and arguing on his own behalf and using his own personal experience as evidence for his claims.  That is the sort of case that would be problematic for any advocate.  Nonetheless he won his case!  The early church accepted the story of the Damascus Road and recognised the special apostleship of Paul.  Tensions there certainly were, but Paul the outsider, persecutor turned evangelist, became the leader for the expansion of the gospel.

What did Paul make possible? I immediately think of the way he helped the church evolve beyond its Jewish origins to embrace the gentile world.  One might also note that the inclusion of Paul among the Apostles might have opened the way for an enhanced understanding of church leadership – if he could be included, why not others?  For instance, the account of Jeremiah’s calling has its echoes in Paul’s story and in the lives of countless faithful who have responded to God’s call on their lives:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
… for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.” 

I think Paul’s story also tells us something about ourselves and the journey of faith.  Paul looked back to the experience on the Damascus Road as the great theophany, the revelation that transformed him.  But however much Paul might look back to that defining experience, it was not the end of the journey and we see Paul’s thinking and faith developing.

Looking back on our faith journey can be helpful, but we are ill advised to keep looking back at some point where our faith seemed so fresh and strong by comparison with whatever our present may seem like.  We may have had our equivalent of a Damascus Road experience, our experience of conversion or the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the way is forward and not some nostalgia for that moment.  In the Narnia story, ‘The Last Battle’, the lion Aslan declares to the children that they are to keep moving ‘further up and further in’ – go deeper and further and so arrive in Aslan’s (Christ’s) country.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

When the wine gives out

Reflection for Epiphany 2, 2016

Reading: John 2:1-11

The first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel, a glorious prologue summarising the theme of the whole Gospel, close with these words:

“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.”

Hear the passion; hear the wonder in those words. The writer of the gospel has a vision of the purpose of God and what was being done in Christ.

A few verses later the demonstration of that glory of the Word made flesh unfolds at the wedding in Cana where the water is turned into wine – which brings to where we are now in this season of Epiphany when we try to understand the mystery of Christmas and awaken to Jesus as God with us and among us.  We think we know the story; we think we grasp the concept; but really, as John shows us, we barely scratch the surface. 

First, just one detail might be noted.  The amount of wine produced by this miracle is stupendous: it is calculated to be 120 gallons or 500 litres.  That is surely such an excessive amount that it might provoke us to wonder what is going on here; it sounds especially odd today against the dire warnings we regular hear about our student drinking culture.   But, and this is merely a possibility, is the excess really the point? Is it a way of John saying that once you tap into God (forgive the pun) be prepared for more than you can imagine?  Is it a way of John preparing us for the flood of grace pouring into the world by the Incarnation?  

As we start to consider this, are we also being prepared for John’s particular theological style where narrative always holds more than is declared?

I want to approach this (over) familiar text through two phrases and see if this oblique approach may be helpful.

The first phrase connects to the sequential arrangement for events early in the gospel and it is the reference to ‘on the third day.’  There are various ways that commentaries have explained that phrase but I want to suggest to you that for the early Christian community the third day was the day of the resurrection and John’s reference to the third day flags his reading of events and his shaping of the narrative in the light of that defining experience of the risen Christ.  I am suggesting that he is not giving us chronology but theology; he is revealing to us the turning-point of the glory of God in Christ.  Christ’s ministry is just begun, but already the story is formed by the resurrection that is still to come.

The second phrase that has caught my attention is the narrative catalyst ‘when the wine gave out’.  This phrase offers us the trigger for divine action (mediated through the intervention/action of Mary): in the shape of the narrative this is the social crisis that invokes divine grace to remedy the situation.  Again, like the ‘Third Day’ it anticipates events that are still to happen – particularly when Jesus says ‘my hour is not yet come’ – and we immediately remember Christ’s blood shed on the cross and  also recall the well-established associations with the Last Supper and the Eucharist.

At the literal level of the narrative the lack of wine is a social embarrassment. Is that adequate cause for divine grace to act? One may argue that it seems a trivial occasion for Jesus to provide a miracle and rather calls to mind the testimonies of pious souls who have declared God to have answered prayer when a parking space was urgently needed!  Divine action here seems so accidental rather than providential (i.e. “by the way they’ve run out of wine; will you do something about it?”).  There are questions worth asking about this.

If we imaginatively reach through the literal surface we might think of many ways in which ‘the wine gives out’ in our lives.  We may think of the times when we or communities have lost hope, experienced disaster or in some way come to what we may think of as the end of our tether.  The experience of the early Christians was that they lost all hope with the death of Jesus on the cross, but from the resurrection on the Third Day hope was unexpectedly, wonderfully and overwhelmingly restored.

To reflect on this story of the wedding at Cana is to catch a deeper sense of the passion of the gospeller himself: here is one with a passionate awareness that to be in the presence of Jesus is to be in touch with glory, light and life – life in abundance.  For you and I, in those times when ‘the wine gives out’, he recalls us to the One who is the source of life and joy.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Epiphany & Reading Icons

Epiphany 1: The Baptism of the Lord

Gospel Reading

Luke 3:15-17,21-22

What sort of stories do you like, or, rather, how do you like your stories told? Do you like a story that begins at the end, or the middle, and then goes back in time to explain how this all happened? Or, might you like me, be someone who appreciates a tale told in proper order and no messing about with the sequence of events? The art of story-telling has many forms, far beyond those that I have just touched on and yet there is something to be said for a clear order and sequence – we enjoy it.

And that is why I find this first Sunday of Epiphany, The Baptism of the Lord, a little confusing. We have only just celebrated Christmas, the nativity, and suddenly we are presented with John the Baptist and an adult Jesus. The narrator in me wants to have some information about what has gone on in between. Luke tells something of it but the liturgical year races ahead allowing no time for that, so we, still recovering from the Christmas celebrations, have to try and make sense of the mature Jesus appearing for baptism by John.

The liturgical year presents the Baptism of the Lord so quickly because the Epiphany season is about the wonder, the glory and the mystery of what has begun in Bethlehem at the Nativity. In a liturgical wink, time telescopes, decades pass until amidst the speculative and curious multitude gathered at the Jordan to see John the Baptist we see Jesus who joins the throng for baptism. It is only after all this has been accomplished that we hear of the heavens opening and the manifestation of the Father and the Spirit to the Son. You could say that the liturgical year has accelerated the narrative pace to get us to this point so that we can begin the story proper – the ministry of Jesus – with this statement of divine verification as to who Jesus is.

For the Eastern Church this Feast of the Baptism is more important than the Nativity because it is understood as a great theophany, a full manifestation of Christ’s divinity as he publically begins His service to redeem the world. St John Chrysostom made the point in these words: “It is not the day when Christ was born that should be called Epiphany, but the day when he was baptised. Not through his birth did he become known to all, but through his Baptism. Before the day of Baptism he was not known to the people.” (Discourse 37 – On the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany.)

That is a very different way of understanding the Epiphany and this Feast of the Baptism. It tilts our thinking away from the mystery of the Incarnation and focuses our attention instead on the actual service and ministry of Christ. But this is also charged with mystery: we hear the declaration of the Trinity of the Godhead, here made manifest; while Christ, by performing the act of ablutions established by the prophets and administered by John, establishes the New Testament sacrament of Baptism.

This different way of thinking can be seen in the traditional Eastern Orthodox icons of the Baptism. We see Jesus naked or just wearing a loin cloth, in the waters of the Jordan – but the design of the icon represents the baptismal waters ambiguously: the waters look also like a tomb. One quickly starts to realise that the icon is taking us into multiple worlds: the naked Christ is the new Adam; the waters are tomb and womb, pre-figuring crucifixion and resurrection; the chasm of the Waters can also be read as the descent into hell. The attendant angels in the icons look as if they are holding towels to receive and wrap the naked Christ when he emerges from the waters; other readers of icons will suggest that the attendant angels have their hands veiled as if to receive the Eucharist.

So if we are looking for a clear sequential narrative in Epiphany, not only does the liturgical year deny it, but Orthodox icons draw us into multiple and interconnecting narratives. No one reading will suffice; no single understanding of the mystery can exhaust what is happening. When we speak of Epiphany as bringing something to light or giving us a revelation, we realise that we are speaking metaphorically and from contemplation of the mystery we are drawn further in. Epiphany presents us with complex narratives and the season demands our passionate and imaginative engagement – it calls us to ‘travel with the Magi’, engage the mystery with all our being.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Epiphany: 'To discover how to be human now'

Christmas 2 / Epiphany

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Of the Christmas stories, it is the story of the Magi that most intrigues me.  Only Matthew tells their story and then, their mission accomplished, they disappear back into the desert and we hear of them no more in the Scriptures.  Are they a literary construction by Matthew to serve the larger purposes of his gospel (presaging Christ’s glory; anticipating the universal great commission at the end of the gospel and its mission to all lands and peoples)?  Or, is there an historical thread that holds the story of these Magi, even if we have to endure the silence as to what followed when they returned to their own lands?

One way of thinking about the Magi is to compare their story with that of the Shepherds in Luke’s gospel.  The shepherds are gifted with the vision of the angel, hear the message and instinctually respond with wonder.  You could say they move at the behest of the heart rather than the mind.  They are awestruck, overwhelmed and their kneejerk response is to simply go and see.  Some of us can live and work that way – our heart responds to need or wonder and we act.  That is a great gift.

Adoration of the Magi. Gentile da Fabriano
The Magi are, I suggest quite different.  Their response is driven by the mind, the reason.  They are students of astronomy and astrology; we may imagine them as concerned with charts of the heavens; with detailed observations; with codes, cyphers, symbols and a vast range of esoteric knowledge.  For them the journey to Bethlehem has begun long before the revelation to the shepherds.   They have observed the appearance of a star; then they have begun to track it; and then speculated as to what it might mean.  Then they have actually followed the star – which means all the planning for a long journey and the hazards and difficulties that might well involve. 

This is all the work of the mind: the adventure of thought; drawing us to see and explore, to test and to wonder.  The mind is the way many of us are most accustomed to live and work and our faith may be mind-driven. That is not to say that the heart has no place in our faith but that the life of the mind is incredibly important for questioning faith and thereby growing it.  Our thinking explores our faith, and the adventures of thought and faith work together, informing one the other, to remind us that our calling is no mere impulse but a life-long work.

This life-long work is at the very heart of Epiphany. The work Epiphany comes from the Greek phainein ‘to bring to light’ – and - while the church has seen in the story of the (non-Jewish) Magi a revelation that God’s saving purpose is to encompass all humanity – the elements of discovery, of insight and our search for understanding are crucial to the word and how we understand it.   The Magi model the concept!

Of course none of this answers the questions of historical verification for the Magi and maybe this is beyond the reach of history.  Yet the rumours and legends abound.  More than that, the Magi have become an integral part of how we understand this Christmas story and how we live it.
For instance T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is one of the great poems that connects the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem with our contemporary journey to faith.  Eliot shows how the experience of conversion may deeply unsettle us and our capacity to be content with the world as it is.  To experience what we call conversion and to embrace the wonder of the Christ child is to be changed and to see the world, our values and our things very differently.  In his poem the Magi remembers the great journey and the discovery they made: he also remembers the return home, except home no longer felt like home; he returned to his own people, except they now  seemed as if they were aliens.  As he says:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods,
I should be glad of another death,"

In a much more light-hearted but utterly serious way, Auden in his Christmas Oratorio ‘For the Time Being’ has the Magi exclaim:
At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners.
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.”

And that brings the story of the Magi into our time and moment; that is the gospel calling to discover who we are and how to be human.  That’s really and most truly why we are here this morning.