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Heliopher: A Story For Candlemas by Maxim Gorky

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Once upon a time there was a race which was lost in a great, dark forest. The trees stood so close together that the light of the sun could not penetrate the thickly entwined branches. There were also numerous wild animals which fell upon the people, especially the children, when they wandered too far from their parents while they were playing. So everyone lived in a constant state of fear of death and destruction, and a hopeless despair took hold of the hearts of the folk.

Continuous black darkness had strangled all the light in their hearts. They could not love one another any more. They even hated and murdered one another in their rage. Yet they were forced to remain together, for it was impossible for any single man to defend himself against the attacks of the wild beasts. They had lost all hope of ever finding their way out of the forest. Many of the young people did not believe in the light they had never seen, and they mocked their elders, when, with a last weak light gleaming in their dim eyes, they recounted tales of the festive, sunny days of their youth.

Among the people however, there was a young man called Heliopher. He was very much alone, grieving over the misery of his people, and seeking a way of salvation. He bore in his heart an endless longing for light and love in the desolation which surrounded him. Heliopher left his people to seek the sun. For many months and years he wandered through the dangers of the forest and of his own soul, and often, very often, nearly lost all hope and confidence. But Heliopher bravely withstood his enemies, whether within himself or around him, and at last he reached the edge of the forest and saw the light of the sun. In terrible amazement he fell into a swoon, and when he awoke he saw in the twilight that he was watched over in his slumber by beautiful people. In the green meadows stood the simple huts of the sun-people, and Heliopher lived with them in peace and endless joy as the most beloved amongst living men.

Then Heliopher went back to the forest to seek his people. “Come, brothers and sisters,” he said to them, “I will lead you to the light.” At this there was murmuring and frowning, wavering and hesitation, wonder and questioning, incredulous laughter, and finally a jubilant “Yes!” And then, at last, the longed-for departure.

Then the light of the sun shone in Heliopher’s eyes, but the way was long and difficult, and demanded much suffering and sacrifice, and murmuring arose among the people. Some spoke and said, “Let us murder him, the betrayer of the people!” And the dark glow of hatred was in their eyes. Others were wiser and said, “No! let us judge him in the presence of all, for it is dangerous to give the people a martyr.” And Heliopher spoke to his people, and talked about light and love. But the wise ones answered, “You lie! There is no light, there is no sun, there is no love. Let us be darker than the forest and more cruel than the wild beasts. Then we shall be masters of the forest!”

Heliopher answered in great pain, “O believe not, ye wise men, that ye can be victorious over darkness by being more dark, that ye can overcome the wild beasts by being more beastly. Only love is stronger. Only the light of the sun can drive away darkness.”

“Be silent!” said the wise men. “There is no light, there is no sun!” And the people shouted, flinging their arms about in raging despair, “There is no light, there is no sun!” But Heliopher called out, “Follow me!” Then, with his nails, he tore open his breast, and his heart burned with love, and it glowed and shed its beams through the dark forest. He took it in both hands, held it high over his head, and strode forth in front of the people.

In reverent wonder and silence the multitude followed the burning heart.

As they came out of the forest, the people ran in jubilation towards the sun, dancing in its loving rays, and loving one another. But Heliopher knelt down at the edge of the forest, and with the last strength of his outstretched arms he held up his loving, pulsing heart to the light of heaven, and gave his last smile to his people.

 

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel, Nascetur Pro Te, Israel!

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The Incarnation of Christ: Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522), also known as Piero di Lorenzo

 

Holy and incarnate one,
at whose unexpected touch
the ordinary world
is charged with God:

we pray for those
whose hardship is overwhelming, who cannot find you;
who live in poverty, anxiety, and hunger;
whose lives are fearful or lonely;
who are exploited, exhausted or ill.

For the Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

We pray for those
whose ambition is overwhelming, who do not want to find you;
whose lives are choked with overwork or consumption;
who have chosen an unreal path;
who have hardened their hearts.

For the Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

We pray for those who have begun to find you, and are overwhelmed;
for whom the risk of healing is too painful;
who are afraid of your embrace,
and fear your energetic power to reconstitute the world.

For the Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

John 1.14

From ‘All Desires Known’, by Janet Morley, p. 80

 

 

Thought for the week: am I pointing towards God? – Taylor Carey

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Throughout his writing life, one painting hung above the desk of the famous theologian Karl Barth. It was Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, which, in its original form, made up part of the great Isenheim Altarpiece built for a monastery in Alsace. The Crucifixion is a shocking and intensely moving masterpiece. Christ’s body is pitted with lacerations and sores. His fingers are splayed in agony, whilst his ribbed chest heaves against the onslaught of his violent demise. It is impossible to contemplate Grünewald’s masterpiece without absorbing a crucial message: here is a God who speaks to the suffering, because here is a God who suffers.

But there is more to the Crucifixion than mere morbidity. Standing beneath the Cross, pointing towards his Master, is the figure of John the Baptist. This is clearly anachronistic, since John was executed, upon the orders of Herod, in 29 AD. Yet Grünewald isn’t making an historical mistake; on the contrary, Karl Barth, for one, took the interaction between Jesus and John in this painting as deeply symbolic of the basic model for Christian life, witness, and worship.

Behind the figure of John are the words given to the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). For Barth, this disclosed an essential truth about the vocation of the Church. Christians must become ‘signs’ that point to God. We must be that ‘pointing hand’ which directs everything beyond ourselves, to the One who has already turned towards us. Only when it does this is the Church fulfilling its purpose and mission. In a quite different context, this idea can be found amongst the sayings of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, who maintained that ‘Our life and death are with our neighbour’. Our lives must be liberated from the constraints of our own ego, to be made into signs that, like the Baptist’s pointing hand, lead our gaze to God.

But this is not just a God ‘above’, a God who is distant from earthly woe. Our gazing at God brings us into the deepest reality of this world, since that is where God is to be found, in stillness, silence, and prayer. Far from forgetting the troubles, injustices, and joys we face on a daily basis, by becoming a pointing hand, we bring a little of God’s freedom into them, and we inhabit them in a radically new way.

This week, many will participate in a prayer vigil for Gaza. Our prayers for all those in that region, whose plight can be so easily forgotten, are not simply naïve requests for a convenient celestial solution. Rather, they are responses to an urgency of suffering, made by women and men who seek to place themselves as an interface between a dire need and the constant activity of a loving and creative God. The Christian who prays about Gaza seeks to make themselves into a sign, or a pointing hand, in order to bring about a transformation of humanity, and to bring something of God’s creative freedom to bear upon situations of tragedy. They seek, in the words of a well-known prayer, to be made into ‘instruments’ of God’s peace. This undoubtedly involves facing up to the terrible depths of human sin and error, but, as Grünewald’s suffering Christ shows us, these are depths already endured and overcome by God’s love.

So, are we living up to the Baptist’s model as ‘pointers’ to God? Do we, in our daily lives, stand before the Cross, and commit ourselves to dispossession and embrace? Christ’s body might be ugly and distressing – more so with every death and bereavement in Gaza – because this is a body totally transparent to the reality and suffering of the world. And yet, like Grünewald’s masterpiece, it is also surely beautiful, because it speaks of hope, and of God’s presence here and now. And so it speaks of a world of peace, of swords beaten into ploughshares, and the Church at last singing the very music of God.


Editor’s Note

I find this piece by  Taylor very moving, as I expect our readers will too. As a footnote I add a picture of the Crucifixion hanging above Barth’s modest desk.170px-Karl_Barth_Desk

 

 

Can You Be An Anarchist Christian?

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What does it mean to be a Christian? After sixty-five years of trying to be one, I thought I had got the general idea. In particular, I thought I had got what it meant to be a member of the Church of England. I had thought that the point of Anglicanism is that you don’t need to be a theologian to be one. For those who think like me, Jesus offered an executive summary:

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Mark 12.29-31 KJV

For all these years, I had taken it as read that the Church of England encompasses such a wide spectrum of theology and ecclesiology that, whereas all would presumably go along with this ‘rule’, any further detailed prescription would result in schism. After all, we have always teased priests that buttons could be left undone on cassocks to indicate which of the Thirty Nine Articles caused them problems. And it is apparently even possible to be an atheist priest, though I am not advocating this.

And then the diocese in which I happen to live decides to impose a few rules on the rest of us.

Strategic Priorities

Under God, delighting in His grace and rooted in the Diocesan rule of life, we will be a Diocese in which:

  1. We grow authentic disciples, going out as individuals passionately, confidently and courageously sharing their faith, and coming together as creative church communities of prayer and worship that live out Kingdom values.
  2. We re-imagine the Church intentionally connecting and engaging with our local communities in culturally relevant ways. We will rejoice in the richness of the “mixed economy” of all ministry and proactively promote vibrant parochial and breathtaking pioneering ministries amongst ‘missing’ generations, eg children, young people, under 35s.
  3. We are agents of social transformation using our influence as a Diocese to transform public and personal life. We will demonstrate loving faith at work in local communities and across the globe bringing healing, restoration and reconciliation, eg through education, social enterprise, health care, spiritual care teams.
  4. We belong together in Christ, practicing sacrificial living and good stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us. We will combine radical generosity, care and capacity building with a clear focus on directing finance into the mission of Jesus. Sharing and multiplying local good practice, using people, buildings and other resources wisely, we will seek to boldly prune, plant and invest in building for the Kingdom.

All right, it is the spelling and style of the above which offends me as much as anything else. If someone targets advertising at you which is illiterate, do you not simply dismiss it?

But the chilling part of this document – apart from the fact that it has a whole page to itself on the diocesan website – is the expression ‘Diocesan rule of life’. What on earth is this? Not in my name, at least. I gather it is based on the Benedictine Rule, a splendid document. However, I am not a Benedictine. Nor do I aspire to be one. And if I did, it would be my own business, emphatically not that of the diocese. I might choose to be a Franciscan, Ignatian, Augustinian, Thomistic…., by what right does the diocese I happen to live in aspire to dictate the characteristics of my spirituality?

I find it disconcerting, to say the least, that my bishop and I have completely different understandings of what it means to be a member of the Church of England. But a shepherd’s crook is meant to guide the sheep, not to be a set of handcuffs supplemented by a prod. I am pretty sure that the bishop cannot impose his rule of life on me, not in this sceptred isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

So I reassert my life as a pew-sitting Anglican in the parish of my choice, free to classify myself as a liberal catholic if I choose.

And then my friend, and occasional sparring partner, Peter Ould, puts a teasing message on his Facebook page:

 

Steps to break through a liberal’s theological nonsense.

1) Ask the question “Do you want to live a life that is surrendered to the will of God for you?”
2) Ask the question “Do you think it’s unfair that God would permit you to have a sexual desire you shouldn’t act out on?”
3) Repeat asking questions 1 and 2 until the penny clicks.

 

I try this for several days. The penny does not click. I think my problem is that Peter assumes that if you are a Christian you will have to answer his first question in the affirmative. Whereas my answer is more like ‘sometimes, yes, sometimes no’.

But for me, this is the wrong question about the nature of my relationship with God. Perhaps because I am a cradle Anglican, even my confirmation was an affirmation of everything that had gone before and a hope for things to come rather than any road to Tarsus.  I know there are ten commandments and thirty-nine articles and many other suggestions for our lives, but I do not wake up in the morning filled with a desire to learn and obey all the rules. It is rather like good manners and etiquette. If you understand that good manners is consideration of other people, you do not need the rules of etiquette, they flow from the understanding of the general principle.

For me, Christianity is like that. It matters not whether you know or care about the finer points of theology – so long as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might, and your neighbour as yourself, all else flows from this. Or, as Jesus put it, ‘On this hang all the law and the prophets’  (Matthew 22.40).

There are many hymns which make the same point. What about ‘Immortal love’?

Immortal love, forever full,
Forever flowing free,
Forever shared, forever whole,
A never ebbing sea!

Our outward lips confess the name
All other names above;
Love only knoweth whence it came,
And comprehendeth love.

Blow, winds of God, awake and blow
The mists of earth away:
Shine out, O Light divine, and show
How wide and far we stray…

But warm, sweet, tender, even yet,
A present help is He;
And faith still has its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.

The healing of His seamless dress
Is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole again.

Through Him the first fond prayers are said
Our lips of childhood frame,
The last low whispers of our dead
Are burdened with His Name.

O Lord and Master of us all,
Whate’er our name or sign,
We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,
We test our lives by Thine.

The letter fails, the systems fall,
And every symbol wanes;
The Spirit over brooding all,
Eternal Love remains.

Easter Sunday: A World Electric With The Presence Of God – Jane Williams

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The Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus suggest that when people encounter him they do not immediately know him. On the whole, they are not terrified…they recognise what is in front of them as a living human being, but not a familiar one. Even the people closest to him need help to connect the risen Jesus with the man they loved. In today’s reading from John’s gospel, you can, if you like, think of all kinds of reasons why Mary does not immediately see who Jesus is as he stands beside her in the garden….the simple explanation must be the true one – that real life is something we are poorly equipped to understand. So Jesus gives Mary the gift of sight, the gift of being able to connect the new life with the old. He says her name, and makes a bridge for her to see who he is, in all his extraordinary life.

By ourselves we do not have the power to see or understand God’s vitality. By ourselves, we plod on, trying to be satisfied with the poor imitation that we call ‘life’, which is all about separation and death. But Jesus gives the gift of connection to the only true life, the life of the creator, which is about unity and sharing in the utterly real life of God…life is not ‘natural’ to us, but is a gift, reflecting the giver. Jeremiah puts into God’s mouth the words ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you’ (v.3), and that is the heart of it.

…But for the moment we must be content with the sudden and fleeting reminders of God’s eternal life that are available to us day by day. We have always before us the vision of the risen Christ, which helps us to recognise God’s life where we see it. We have his voice, calling us by name so that, like Mary, we suddenly look up and see the Lord of life, standing beside us.

And then, like Mary, we have to turn back to a world, utterly changed, yet devastatingly the same. We know this world now to be electric with the presence of god; we know our own lives now to be zinging with the resurrection life, and yet all of this is tantalisingly ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3).

We are not called to cling to the presence of the risen Christ. Instead, like Mary, we are sent to shout out what we have seen We are God’s spies, now, searching for evidence of him in the robes of the gardener, listening for the familiar sound of the beloved voice of the Lord in the unrecognised strangers around us, helping to build the bridges of love that will enable others, too, to hear Jesus’s voice and recognise the vast, free, unchanging, faithful love of God.


This is an extract from my favourite readings on the lectionary, by Jane Williams. (pages 58-59)

Alleluia, he is risen!

He is risen indeed!

A very happy Easter to you all!

The Cross, The Crucifix, And The Tree Of Life

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‘Processional cross depicting Our Lord at the center of the vine which depends on Him for life.’

I am the vine, you are the branches (John 15:5)

 

In the dim morning light

A simple brass cross stands on the altar,

Flanked by the minimum two candles,

In this otherwise austere Norman church.

 

The congregation slowly assembles.

The lights go up ready for the ‘performance’,

Transmuting the base metal into glistening gold.

 

In a trick of the light the flat surface of the cross

Becomes a bas relief of Our Lord, a crucifix.

This happens most weeks,

Nothing unusual.

Forcing your eyes to focus can make it disappear.

 

I look away, talk to a friend.

When I return, the cross is transformed once again,

This time to become a living thing –

Cross and vine and tree and Saviour

All indissolubly intertwined,

With arms as branches, torso as trunk,

And ripe grapes fruiting extravagantly.

 

Shocked at this hallucination, I blink and rub my eyes.

I invoke the minor gods of normalcy and routine

(We have reached the second hymn)

But they refuse to answer my call.

The Arcimboldo crucifix is apparently a reality, at least to me.

 

Later, I walk up to the aisle to test my eyesight.

The image remains intact until I reach the communion rail.

A month goes by, but the impact does not fade.

My conscious mind can neither absorb it, nor dismiss it.

At the moment of his death, the cosmic Green Man breaks

The laws of physics to become Dionysus?

 

I try to recreate the moment

But of course it will not happen again –

That door is closed for now.

Gradually the image becomes part of me

(But demands I attempt to share it).

 

Good Friday and Easter Day are one to the Lord of life?


“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.”

So said Aldous Huxley in “Heaven and Hell” (1954).

I am very conscious of the difficulty of communicating experiences of this sort, and I have of course failed. But sometimes it is impossible to resist the urge to try.

The Man with the Hammer: A Reflection for Holy Week by Dr Wendy Dackson

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[Jesus’] enemies were not the notorious sinners whom society casts out…it was not the gross sins such as shock respectable people which sent Jesus to the Cross: it was the respectable sins which are in the hearts of all of us.

(William Temple, ‘Palm Sunday to Easter’, pp. 15-16)

I think we all benefit from at least one blood-curdling liturgical moment in our lives. We are particularly blessed if that moment falls during one of the major liturgies of Holy Week.  It is even better if it is something that could not be scripted, planned, or rehearsed.  Finally, it may have the most profound impact if it is a moment that strikes the individual, but goes unremarked by others.

My moment was on Maundy Thursday of 1996, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in River Hills, an upmarket  north suburb of Milwaukee.  We had completed our elegantly austere agape meal, observed our orderly liturgy of redundant foot-washing (of course, nobody arrives at these things un-pedicured), and duly observed the Holy Eucharist.  At this point, clergy and lay assistants, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Altar Guild, began to strip the altar bare for the prayer vigil that would occur between Thursday evening and the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy.  During this, the congregation recited the 22nd Psalm, as bit by bit, the sanctuary became darker and more sinister.

Notably absent from the congregation was the critical mass of adolescent members of St. Christopher’s.  They had a different job—to assemble the wooden cross that would be a prominent feature of the following day’s dramatization of the crucifixion. It was something that needed to be done, and giving the task to the young people was seen as a way of involving them in the work of the church. As we read aloud the psalmist’s words of agony and despair, I heard hammers striking wood and metal as the youth of the parish undertook their work.

I also heard laughter.

Laughter is a fine thing in the workplace—it both helps people bond over their common purpose, and at the same time demonstrates that they are indeed bonding.  It helps relieve tedium, releases creativity, reduces stress, and makes people want to go to work.  Whole corporate cultures are being built around making workplaces enjoyable.

But there is something chilling about young people laughing while they are nailing together an instrument of torture and death, as the congregation pretends to ignore the laughter while piously reciting the great psalm of the crucifixion.

I never want to forget this.  It is the essence of Good Friday for me.  It is the heart of what the Crucifixion means.  We, each of us individually, and all of us together, are the ‘man with the hammer’.  As the quote from Archbishop Temple, with which I opened this reflection, indicates, it is not the ‘big’ sins,  not the conscious sins, not the ones that make ‘respectable’ people turn away in shock and horror, that actually brought Jesus to Calvary.  It’s nice, in an individualist society, to think that what I personally and by-myself did, was why Jesus died.  Individual sin leads to individual salvation—that’s the key to a lot of evangelical preaching and proselytizing, like the Buffalo City Mission’s Easter address tells us:

Let me be clear—I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine.  And if Jesus died for my sin, in my place, that sin has to be cosmically damaging enough to warrant the death of the Son of God who is himself God.  And nothing I could do by myself is that damaging.  So, I don’t buy the kinds of petty, individual sins that are being confessed in the Buffalo City Mission video.  An extramarital affair, excess drinking, boosting a sports drink from the local convenience store—they’re not innocent, they’re damaging to others, but that is not anything close to enough to send the Son of God to a painful, shameful, violent death.

It’s bigger than that. It’s the stuff we can’t see about ourselves, how we are a part of larger, more damaging systems, sometimes beyond our control, that are our really damaging sins.  It’s the “just following orders”, so often cited by those obeying the commands of those higher up the economic and political food chain, that is really damaging.  And sometimes, we do not have a choice in whether we commit heinous sins or not.

Over the summer, I read Oliver Pӧtzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter series.  As fiction, they are a bit silly, but Pӧtzsch’s research was interesting.  He himself was the descendant of a hangman’s family in Bavaria.  Pӧtzsch explained how the torturer/executioner was an ambiguous member of society.  His work was seen as necessary to social order, and thus well compensated.  But it was also ‘dishonorable’, because the essence of the work was to cause and prolong suffering, and to take human life.  As a result, the hangman’s children could not be baptized, could not marry into an ‘honorable’ family or pursue an ‘honorable’ occupation.  They were subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse by the ‘respectable’ people. Yet, because of their knowledge of human anatomy, herbal remedies (they had to keep people alive through the course of torture), they were also often sought, under cover of night, as healers, often more trusted than ‘real’ physicians.  So, although marginalized, they also benefited at some level from their marginalization.

I don’t know what it was like for an executioner in Roman-dominated Palestine at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  But it is entirely possible that the man standing on the hill did not have a choice in his occupation, could not refuse to execute whoever was sent to him.  The character of the actual person who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands is so repugnant to us that none of the Gospels acknowledge him as a person—we only guess that he must have existed because a crucifixion could not occur without him.

It’s hubris to think that any one of our petty, individual sins is enough to warrant the death of God’s Son who is himself God.  But whether or not we are the one who ultimately drives the nails, we are all part of systems that pierce the heart of the One who was, and is, and is to come.

The man who shed the blood of Jesus was also the first (literally) to be washed by that blood.  But it is a shower that stains as much as cleanses.  And we are the man with the hammer.

 

Good Friday

I am
The man
Who stands
On the hill
With the nails in his hands.
And I watch
And wait
For another

Because I must

Take the nails

From my hands

And put them into his.

—Wendy Dackson

 

Naming Jesus: Chris Fewings

 

NAMING JESUS

Dear name! The rock on which I build
My shield and hiding place,
My never failing treasury filled
With boundless store of grace!

John Newton

Today is the Naming of Jesus in the church’s calendar. Many of our hymns specificially celebrate this name, the ‘name above every name’. Our own names and nicknames are an important part of who we are and how we relate to other people. A change of name can be highly significant. Jesus (Yeshua in Aramaic, his own language) is the same name as Joshua, God saves (Yehoshua in Hebrew). In our liturgy we rarely address Jesus – we pray to his Abba in his spirit, with his breath – but private devotions are different.

In the Christian East, the habit of invoking the name of Jesus merged with St Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’. This is sometimes traced back to the cry of blind Bartimaeus in the gospel story: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. The cry for help, for healing, is an essential part of this tradition (‘mercy’ is said to be a poor translation of the Greek eleison – perhaps ‘grace’ comes nearer): it undermines our illusion of self-sufficiency and reminds we are contingent beings.

Byzantine monks in the middle ages developed a meditation technique around this prayer, which they aspired to have always on their lips or in their hearts when they were not speaking or praying in some other way. In the nineteenth century, the book The Way of the Pilgrim popularised the prayer for Russian lay people. The revival of interest in contemplative prayer in the last fifty years in western Europe (and the Orthodox diaspora) has brought it to our attention too.

The prayer of the name is not unique to Christianity. Repeating a simple sentence or mantra in meditation, usually including a divine name, is found in Hinduism, Sufism, and Pure Land Buddhism for example. The closing lines of John Newton’s hymn

And may the music of that name
Refresh my soul in death

remind me of a Hindu practice of urging the dying to die with the God’s name on their lips, as Gandhi-ji did.

The traditional Orthodox form of the prayer is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I used this in daily meditation for a few years in my twenties, although for me it gradually became Lord Jesus Christ, give us your grace (which also fitted the rhythm of my walking). I would sit on a prayer stool in front of a candle and an ikon – well, a photo of a mosaic in the dome of Cefalu Cathedral in an art book borrowed from my parents. With varying degrees of distraction, I would repeat the prayer mentally, vocally, or just moving my lips.

I continued to think of new variants of the words, which has its down side as the traditional form is given – it’s just there – and there’s no need to think about whether it makes perfect sense. Occasionally I use the form Yeshua bar Miriam, breathe in us. Although it may seem a highly privatised practice, I’ve witnessed the CWSG Anglican contemplative community saying the prayer together daily, using a traditional prayer rope.

In late 1987, my safe little world shook up by falling in love and a week-long Ignatian retreat, I tried something new: lying on my back, hand on heart or rather aorta, the word Jesus ticking with my pulse. The following year I moved abroad, no longer lived alone, and stopped meditating, but the prayer never quite left me. Sometimes at night I think the two syllables Je-sus with my rising and falling breath (it goes well with the Eastern practice of paying attention to the air passing over your nostrils). Often I listen to the radio at the same time, and if I fall asleep, so much the better.

These are very personal details and in a way I’d rather keep them to myself and write in more general terms, but I mention them in case something in my own story gives someone a way in to a useful practice of their own.

One thing that fascinated me in my twenties was that I seemed to have finally found a way to ‘let Jesus into my heart’. This phrase had been central to my evangelical childhood, and I thought I’d done just that at the age of eight, using the sort of prayer of invitation I’d been taught. It was my own initiative, but If I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have quite belonged in a very Evangelical family. I was puzzled that nothing much changed. However, I grew used to thinking of myself as a born-again Christian, which was reinforced by more emotional Charismatic gatherings I took part in early adolescence.

At the age of 21, after years of searching, I felt a sense of liberation from the need to find the ‘true’ set of Christian beliefs among conflicting claims. A couple of years later I started using the Jesus Prayer regularly. It breathed new life in all the Jesus-talk and Jesus-songs and Jesus-think of my childhood. While still using it daily, I wrote this poem:

O King of the world!
This world, this mottle
Of sordid little sins and
Unexpected acts of human kindness
Is this your kingdom?
Do the deadends also belong to you?

Come on, King!
Get off your throne
And make us see.
Come on, Jesus of Nazareth!
Get out of your holy book
And show us who you really are.
Come on, Kingdom!

 

The main illustration is Christus Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù. Edited from Image:Cefalu Christus Pantokrator.jpg. This was by  by Andreas Wahra in 2006, edited by Entheta. Via Wikimedia. The second illustration is a small eastern orthodox prayer rope (50 knots) dated February 2008 by Nesusvet, also via Wikimedia

 


An Alabaster Potful of Essence of Spikenard

Today’s gospel reading from Mark tells us about a woman who anointed the head of Christ with balm made from the essence of spikenard, a plant illustrated  above (Nardostachys grandiflora). The version in Matthew’s gospel, like Mark’s, emphasises that this ointment was very expensive, but for Luke, the gesture was also physically extravagant as the woman first wet the feet of Jesus  with her tears and then dried them with her hair.  And John tells us that the woman was Mary Magdalen and that the scent filled the whole house. 1

 

So, what is the message here? Well, it has been said that:

This story tells us that whatever one Christian does in the service of God, another Christian is bound to come along and criticize it. 2

This sounds heartfelt: Emily Dickinson sounded equally heartfelt when she focused on the physical and emotional cost of producing essential oils such as the spikenard:

Essential Oils are wrung:
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns alone
It is the gift of Screws.

The same can be said of much great art. As Bill Nighy’s character said of Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of Dr. Who:

He transformed the pain of his life into ecstatic beauty.

Vincent himself said:

When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion, then I go out and paint the stars.

If there are sermons in stones, there are many more in plants:

Hildegaard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic, composer, and author of a theology that knitted together nature and spirit, cosmos and soul. She described the Holy Spirit as the Greening Power of God. Just as plants are greened, so we are as well. As we grow up, our spark of life continually shines forth. If we ignore this spark, this greening power, we become thirsty and shrivelled. And if we respond to the spark, we flower. Our task is to flower, to come into full blossom before our time comes to an end.
Lauren Artress,‘Walking a Sacred Path’

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.

 

Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christians truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. Vigen Guroian‘Inheriting Paradise’

God and Man together produce all that is in nature – God provides the seed, the earth, the light & warmth, and the rain. Man provides the cultivation – weeding and pruning, harvesting and -here- distilling into essential oil. It is a symbiotic relationship which forms a virtuous circle:


What does it all mean? Well, for Julian of Norwich it was all about God’s love:

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.

And so we return to the story we began with, of the extravagance of Mary Magdalen’s gesture. Her response to the love of God was not to measure out her balm in careful teaspoonfuls but to pour out the whole contents , echoing the words of Isaac Watts in one of his best-known hymns: ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an off’ring far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

1 Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-11, Luke 7:36-8:3 and John 12.1-11

2. Esmeralda in ‘The Ship of Fools’

‘Glorious Christianity’ by Dr Cally Hammond

Cally Hammond attempts the very difficult task in this book, as her publishers’ blurb says, of helping the reader ‘to make sense of the stresses of human living and dying, to explore what it means to believe in the hidden glories of heaven and to live more positively by faith in the life to come’

The extraordinary thing, in my case, is that she has come close to succeeding. Others of you further on the path will not need to make this qualification, but I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which I was drawn in to her theology and understanding. She writes from a ‘top of the candle’ perspective (usual Anglican inference from her use of the rosary and interest in Mary) which I do not share, though I do agree with her on the Revised Standard Version of the bible. By the time I finished her book, I was wondering whether I should try to use a rosary as an aid to prayer, something I had never imagined myself doing, but I can see it as an aid to concentration and – useful for a failing memory- a reminder of where you have got to!

The structure of the book is based around the ‘glorious mysteries‘: the resurrection, the Ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, falling asleep and crowning (pxiv).  I was speaking with someone recently from another tradition: for him Christianity begins with the crucifixion, hence the ubiquitous symbol of the cross. But for Dr Hammond (and me):

we have to go backwards to where it all began: to the belief in which all Christian beliefs, even atonement and Incarnation, are rooted – namely the resurrection. It is usually imagined as a scene of blazing glory – light bursting forth…but it should not be. Not yet, anyway. The mystery of the resurrection does not begin with the splendour of revelation but within the utter darkness of the sealed tomb

 

Her English is not at all abstruse – occasionally it is delightfully schoolgirlish, such as the description of death as ‘always unsettling and can be dreadfully upsetting’ (p.9)- but do not be lulled into thinking this is Goldilocks theology – it is not. The intellect behind this book is razor sharp and will challenge you at every step of the way. The book is only 77 pages long, but it is not an easy read because it is not a text which you can simply skim and get the drift.

 

It is full of insight, some by Dr Hammond herself, but she is also not afraid to show her sources of inspiration. Two which inspired me in particular are St Augustine and Rabbi Lionel Blue. First St Augustine on how to judge whether we have understood the biblical text aright:

Whatever is not consistent with love of God and neighbour cannot be a right interpretation of Scripture (p44)

 

What an intelligent chap he was – in these days of nitpicking over the minutiae of Leviticus to hurl accusations at different sections of the Anglican Communion with wearying self-righteousness, it would do no harm to remember these wise words.

And secondly, Lionel Blue:

Righteous people are those who look after their own souls and other people’s bodies, while hypocrites are those who look after their own body and other people’s souls.


Dr Hammond envisages this book being used for a post-Easter discussion or prayer goup. As she says:

Perhaps you are thinking it’s a bit late to start wondering now what a Christian is. But it is exactly now, in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection, that the friends and followers of the man Jesus began to see themselves as new, different, set apart, called and chosen. They began to explore a new way of relating to God, and to discover God’s universal message of love for all the peoples of the world.

 

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You may also like to read Richard Littledale’s review of Dr Hammonds book, which he calls ‘Glorious Surprises’; in particular, he says that despite his non-conformist background: The thing is, this little book draws the reader in.

 

Published by SPCK on 16 February 2012, it is available from amazon , where it has already attracted a 5-star review.

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