I thirst. The Last Supper and the Cross.

In the refectory, beneath the Corpus on the west wall, is carved the word SITIO. “I thirst” (Vulgate of John 19:28). It is the fifth ‘Last Word’ from the Cross. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus refuses drugged wine, but is offered a sponge dipped in oxos or posca – wine vinegar, sour wine. It is a popular drink with Roman soldiers, because it was cheap, and considered more thirst-quenching than water alone. It killed some harmful bacteria in water and often made foul-smelling water more palatable. A sponge was part of Roman soldiers’ accessories, used to pad to the helmet as well as serving as a drinking aid.

In agony and humiliation, the king of the innocent, the king of Israel, the king of the Gentiles, the eternal king of glory, in his authentic agony inspires an outsider, a soldier, who was not in the least required to share his drink with the criminals under his power. But Jesus truly reigns from the tree for that unnamed gentile. Watching his slow death – one among so very many in Roman-occupied Palestine – we see the power of Christ made perfect in our human weakness. ‘I thirst’ evokes the offering of posca on his sponge – an extraordinary act of mercy, in a scene of unimaginable brutality. Hanging there, after a flogging, bleeding from head, back, hands, and feet – no doubt covered with dirt and faeces: this scene is met with an act of mercy to him, to him who is at that moment bringing the Father’s mercy to the whole universe.

And Jesus received the drink (John 19:30 – ‘ After he had received the vinegar, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’.) In that naked, bloody, and foul public disgrace, Grace, tenderness, and compassion are kindled.

On the eve of that agony there is tonight’s intimate heartbreak upon heartbreak. In the sharing of the Passover meal, the disciples are warned and prepared for the coming darkness and multiple failures, denials, and betrayals that are ahead. Eating together, with Christ in our midst, also banishes self-delusion, as Love confronts falsehood and fear of every kind. In your refectory, as around this altar, there are many perturbations and there is a strange comfort that truth and tenderness alone bring in the midst of conflict.

In our day, binary judgments abound. We are always asked to choose for ourselves, to self-identify, and to sell ourselves by producing résumés and CVs which tend to define ourselves in terms only of the very best things that we have done: our highest achievements, our most impressive qualifications and experiences. But Christ comes to eat with us, day by day, so that together in community and in fellowship, our delusory self-projections may be stayed, encountered by that for which Christ thirsts – truth, and love, and righteousness. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied’. Sitio – thirsting for righteousness is the very opposite of a vindictive exposure, as it is poles apart from the tyranny of ego. The Lord does not ‘buy into’ a demonized evaluation of others or of ourselves. Tonight, at supper with him, we cannot but consider Judas, whose dreadful choice determined that he would be for ever remembered only for the very worst thing that he could have done. Which of us could survive the everlasting agony of being judged solely for the very worst thing imaginable – something which defines us completely and forever? ‘It would, surely, have been better had we not been born.’ The great liturgical texts provide a feast not of our making, but even in the Lenten Triodion which has seeped into each of our Lenten celebrations this year, there are agonizing references to Judas, e.g.:

Iniquitous Iscariot, forgetful of the Law of friendship, hastened to the betrayal, on the feet which thou hadst washed. Eating thy bread, the divine body, he lifted up his heel against thee. Lacking all conscience… he was not ashamed to drink what he had sold for money. [1]

Forgetting the Law of friendship’ is a poignant and painful description. Whatever it was that prompted Judas – and endless speculation about that will not get us very far – the law of friendship he forgot. And this we so readily also forget. So we are beckoned, together, to eat with the Lord and one another: to cry, to become angry, to bear disillusionment, to know despair, to laugh, to hold one another tenderly as we lean on him at supper, to be healed together, to forgive one another, to grow up and to grow old together, and never to be forgetful of the law of friendship. This is the meal which the Lord has longed to eat with his disciples – this is that for which he hungers, you are those for whom he thirsts; that word – sitio – inscribed in your refectory is spoken over you.

Tomorrow, publicly, when the day is dark and wet, with the wood of the Cross drenched with the Lord’s own blood, he will say ‘I thirst’. Then he will take the vinegared water, but tonight he drinks his last of wine, wine deeply and eternally changed so that, little by little, we too can be changed from tribal judgments of ourselves and others, to see how he sees, to long as he longs, and to thirst for love and truth in everyone. We become one with the Lord, one with the beloved disciple, and by Grace, also, we know ourselves one with Judas as we are renewed by Christ’s love.

He who made the lakes and springs and seas, wishing to teach us the surpassing value of humility, girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of the disciples, humbling Himself in the abundance of his great compassion, and raising us from the depths of wickedness, for he alone loves humanity. The Wisdom of God that restrains the untamed fury of the waters that are above the firmament, that sets a bridal on the deep, and keeps back the seas, now pours water into a basin; and the Master washes the feet of his servants… He who wraps the heaven in clouds girds himself with a towel; and He, in whose hand is the life of all things, kneels down to wash the feet of his servants. [2]

The community at which he is the centre, and of which is the focus, cannot but – despite itself – fulfill his longing to restore all the creation in his own body. His life will change all our sickness, obsession, and sin, into Love. It takes time for this Grace to sink in.

“God will punish all atheists,” a hermit once said to Staretz Silouan, “they will burn in everlasting fire!”

Obviously upset, Silouan said:

“Tell me, supposing you went to Paradise, and there, you looked down and saw someone burning in hell fire – would you feel happy?”

“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault!” said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with sorrowful countenance: “Love could not bear that,” he said. “We must pray for all.”[3]

Even in our intimate shelter of this Last Supper, we pray for all in any kind of hell – and ask even for the unspeakable grace to pray in our own hells for others in theirs, too. Tonight, we bathe in the intimate light of the Lord at supper, before tomorrow, bloody and dirty and naked, rough wood and cold iron will hold him aloft, until, crushed and broken, his Mother embraces him again, tenderly, in an agonizing Pietà. He who hold all souls in his mind and Sacred Heart, will be caressed in the lap of his brokenhearted Mother. And yet she, after his burial, would still have us love and forgive: she fulfills his longing and thirst, as is imaginatively and intuitively grasped in this poem:

 

In Mary’s house the mourners gather.

Sorrow pierces them like a nail.

Where’s Mary herself meanwhile?

Gone to comfort Judas’s mother.[4]

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Notes:

[1] Lenten Triodion, p 533.

[2] Lenten Triodion pp. 549, 541.

[3] Sophrony Sakarov, Saint Silouan, p.48.

[4] Norma Farber,Compassion’ in H. J. Richards A Worship Anthology for Lent and Easter. London: Mayhew 1994, p.33.

Palm Sunday and the Great and Holy Week, 2018

This is intended to be a resource for Holy Week for any who would like to integrate English parts of the Lenten Triodion (and Festal Menaion), by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos. The clumsy abbreviation is mine, anything of worth is theirs. Thanks also to the Sisters of the Love of God for indulging this enthusiasm of their warden!

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PALM SUNDAY ( integrated into Lent, Holy Week, and Easter)

Choir: Hosanna in the highest.

V/: The Lord be with you.

R/: And also with you.

Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together, and we all take up Thy Cross and say, ‘Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the LORD. Hosanna in the highest.

Today, the Word and co-eternal Son of God the Father, whose throne is in heaven, and whose footstool is the earth, humbles Himself and comes to Bethany, seated on a dumb beast, on a foal. Then the children of the Hebrews, holding branches in their hands, praise him saying: ‘Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that comes, the king of Israel.

Let us also come today, all the new Israel, the Church of the Gentiles, and let us cry with the prophet “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; for behold, Thy King comes unto Thee: he is meek and brings salvation, and he rides upon the colt of an ass, the foal of a beast of burden.” Keep the feast with the children, and holding branches in your hands sing His praises. Hosanna to the highest: blessed is He that comes, the King of the whole earth.

Prefiguring for us Thy holy Resurrection, loving Lord, by Thy command, Thou hast raised up from death Lazarus, Thy friend, who was without the breath of life; and after four days in the tomb, he had begun to stink. Six days before Passover, O Lord, Thy voice was heard in the depths of hell, and from it Thou hast raised up Lazarus, Thou King of life eternal. Today, the grace of the Holy Spirit has raised us up, and gathered us together, and we all take up Thy cross and say: ‘Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord, the eternal King. Hosanna in the highest.’

Dear friends in Christ, during Lent we have been preparing, by works of love and self-sacrifice, for this celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection. Today, we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with that Church throughout the world. Christ enters His own city to complete his work as our Saviour: to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Let us go with Him in faith and in love, so that, united with Him in his sufferings, we may share his risen life.

The faithful hold up their palms.

These palms are blessed by the grace of the All-Holy Spirit, through sprinkling with this holy water: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The priest sprinkles the congregation, and then says this Collect:

God our Saviour, whose Son, Jesus Christ, entered Jerusalem as Messiah to suffer and to die, let these palms be for us signs of His victory; and grant that we who bear them in His name may ever hail Him as our King, and follow Him in the way that He leads, to eternal life; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the Ages of Ages. Amen.

PREFACE TO COMMUNITY ANOINTING IN MONDAY OF HOLY WEEK

Today the Holy Passion shines forth upon the world with the light of salvation. For Christ in his love hastens to his sufferings. He who holds all things in the hollow of His hand consents to be hung upon the Tree, that He might save all humanity; and today He himself is anointed by St Mary of Bethany.

Moved by your tender mercy, O Christ our benefactor, You of Your own will go forth to meet Your Passion, wishing to deliver us from the passions, from sickness unto death, from divided heart and mind, and from condemnation. We all sing the praises of Your holy sufferings, and we glorify Your deep self abasement, O Saviour. Amen.

Then follows the anointing as locally practiced, including the Gospel of the anointing at Bethany. 

In Spirit, let us go with Christ to the Mount of Olives, and joining the Apostles, let us lodge with Him for the night. May the All-Holy Spirit humble your heart, and make you watchful as you long for Christ. Prepare yourself for your departure, for near at hand is the coming of the Judge, who favours no one’s person, but loves and heals all souls. Amen.

The priesthood of humanity and the cleansing of the temple of our heart.

Lent 3 (year B), 4 March 2018, Fairacres Convent.

I have a new College laptop, which is very lovely, but as a computer and operator we haven’t quite learnt each others’ ways yet. It comes with AutoCorrect, which tries to change words it thinks are mis-spelt usually into an American spelling, but it make some changes quite creatively along the way. I tried to type deification this week, and it swapped it for desertification. Actually, although it didn’t make sense in the context, I was quite pleased because it had made a new link this lent. If we are searching for deification, we had better go down to the desert, and embrace the searing mystery of God. For some reason which I can’t really explain, it’s led me to ponder what some of those who have inhabited the desert came to understand. St Macarios of Egypt, for example, came to see who we are as humans as being profoundly an agent of connection in the universe – standing between God and the material world, between heaven and earth: all things in creation have a meeting place in the human being. So, rather than depersonalizing and exploiting nature and other people, and desiring to possess the spiritual realm, we are, in reality, priests. Our life participates in the harmony and reciprocity of the Word who creates and redeems. Going into the desert doesn’t mean displacing ourselves from nature, but entering deeply into our truest character by participating in the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.

The outcome of this priesthood that we all share, whether we recognize it or not, is that the world may fulfill its destiny and be transfigured in the light and presence of God. Our prayer, and love, and our being in God, offers the world to God in our praise and worship. Things of the earth, in the Eucharist, and in them all earthly things, become part of an overflowing transaction. We offer, and simultaneously at that moment, God bestows divine Love and beauty on the creation of which we are stewards. It is of course far too much for us to think of all that! That our little lives enclosed together in this pleasant part of Oxford, marked by squabbles, forgiveness, Love, compromises, and ordinariness, are actually part of the cosmic Word – Christ reconciling all things. God to creation; heaven to earth; supernatural to natural; sacred to profane; sinless to sinner: the walls of separation do not reach to heaven, but are dissolved in the living Sacrament of God’s and presence in the sacrifice of this priesthood.

Perhaps our lives don’t feel that elevated! But the God who made us without our cooperation, does not save us without our involvement. Our priesthood has to proclaim to all people “Every day the door is open to you”. But, by revealing to creation the beauty hidden within, also means to reveal the essential destiny and identity of all creatures – that is, to assent freely and joyfully to this reconciliation, by welcoming Love into in the sanctuary of our hearts. This sounds very pious! St Paul, in the Epistle this morning, warns us about human wisdom being thwarted, & signs being demanded. God’s folly is wisdom indeed. I began to reflect what this means for someone exploring theology for a living, and wondered what is the most profound theological wisdom of recent decades has been. There are some very wonderfully clever theologians of course, but I sense that the most pertinent and profound insight of the 20th century was something that emerged from the darkness and devastating desert of the First World War. A centuries ago, three peasant shepherd children in Portugal, Lúcia dos Santos, and Francisco & Jacinta Merto, had an experience in Fátima. It is indeed problematic in many ways: and was exploited by the fascist government, and deeply associated with traditionalist, conservative Catholicism. But despite – or even perhaps because of – this, it strikes me that the prayers that emerged from that encounter are a leitmotif for the 20th and 21st centuries, because they embody and give to us a simple pathway to exercising that true priesthood which is our nature. One of the prayers is very familiar to any who say the rosary:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell; lead all souls to heaven especially those most in need of thy mercy. 

Other prayers also plead for pardon, for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope, and who do not love.

Prayer is expanded here to include the fiery hells of trench warfare, the hatred and greed of Nations and competing races, and our reparation and priesthood (rather than it being their problem) is prompted. The thought in these simple prayers is shockingly strong – they steal into the temple of our hearts, and challenge us not to look out to others, but to bring them in – thereby exposing our self-obsession, and giving us the opportunity to lose it in love and service.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry – after being pushed to interfere at the wedding in Cana of Galilee by his mother! – by entering the very holiest place on earth, the Jerusalem Temple, to re-establish it as the house of God, a place of prayer, an open door to heaven at the feast of the Passover. That is, of course, a very dangerous time for demonstration or objection in occupied Israel – this purging of corruption in the synoptic accounts is indeed the things that triggers the authorities to seek to destroy Jesus. But John’s Gospel has a different plan. This is to be the tenor of Jesus’s ministry. The intersection between heaven and earth was no longer to be here or any place else, but in the one who is Spirit, and truth. Still, the story is shocking. Jesus is a scary figure – we would no doubt label him as an out-of-control troublemaker. He’s just not reasonable, but dangerous. When our adversaries “lose it”, we can rejoice deepdown, because it makes us feel reasonable and justified. We are in the right, because we are mature; they are difficult people, and naïve – they are irrational, and foolish, and we can surround ourselves with familiar and comfortable words which make us feel wise because they are the out-of-control ones.

But this Lent, might not our High Priest seek to gain access to the temple of our deepest hearts to come in? Will we welcome him in the light of this gospel, knowing that he will likely need to turn the tables? His presence alone can take us out of the distorting things that we have constructed to make us feel supported, into the desert. For he would show us his presence and beauty in those we think of as our adversaries and enemies. He is there in those who do not share our view of things, those we enjoy to see provoked or rebuked. That’s where He is, too, and if we are going to grow up, then all falsehood, all tribalism, all clannishness must be overturned and exposed as corruption in the temple of our hearts.

That’s why every day we are, in the words of St Benedict, to begin again: to repent and believe, to learn mercy rather than to sacrifice others in the temple of our hearts. He desires mercy, not violence. It doesn’t happen all at once. We will seek again to destroy other people’s reputations and dignity; but if we invite him, Jesus will be a guest again, to turn the tables that we have moved into the temple of hearts for our own advantage.

In the meantime, during our Lenten fast, we are invited to abstain from a world with our a greedy, needy, broken, and breaking Self at the centre, and to learn mercy. In the simplest terms, like the words of Fátima, this means:

  • Feeding the hungry;
  • Giving drink to thirsty;
  • Clothing the naked;
  • Welcoming the stranger;
  • Healing the sick;
  • Visiting the imprisoned;
  • Caring for the dead.

And thankfully, even though we are enclosed, that can and does happen in this community – even if the spiritual acts of mercy on closer to your vacation:

  • to feed the doubtful with loving counsel;
  • to showing the ignorant the beauty of Christ and the life of faith;
  • to name set and to unpick it, by loving sinners;
  • to forgive offences;
  • to bear patiently with those who do us ill;
  • to pray, to really pray, for the living and the dead;
  • and to care for our cosmos, our shared planet, with all its communities of humans and of creatures, because we are creation’s priests.

Just see that we do this! Commit to these priorities of mercy above all other obsessions and distractions, so that Christ may come into the deepest silence of the temple of our hearts, without having to move all the furniture first!

The Raising of Lazarus. January 2018

AKG1586890Welcome back to College, and if you’re new to College or to Oxford, a sincere and affectionate welcome to this chapel. Liturgically, we are still in great 40 days of Christmas, at this point celebrating specifically Epiphany – meaning ‘showing forth’ or disclosure. A celebration rooted in the Christian conviction of the revelation of the most fruitful picture, that of the greatest scope, for human being, in the incarnation. And so, tonight’s readings attempt to lead us to an appreciation of the dignity and destiny of humanity.

I mentioned last term a memory which, since then, if anything has become more vivid. About seven years ago I was asked to celebrate at a Sung Eucharist for All Souls Day in New College here in Oxford. If you have never visited New College, please do. The chapel and its cloisters are freely visited, and in there usually is hung an El Greco painting, some extraordinary sepia coloured painted Windows at the west end, under which is the sculpture of the raising of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein, an image of which is above.

Altogether it’s quite overwhelming, the visitor and the congregation look eastwards towards the altar, and behind this is an imposing Wall of Saints, each in their proper, ordered place. The impact is very authoritative – no wonder Richard Dawkins with whom I ate afterwards, is intimidated by it, and rails against the religious certainty it communicates.

But, for the celebrant, it’s a very different series of images – less coherent and connected, more juxtaposed then integrated. And as a model of faith, I cannot but think this is a better path. For faith is a way of looking and listening: and in contrast to the ordered edifice the congregation look at, the priest has the privilege of glimpsing in all the diversity of vision and sound, something of the systematic incompleteness of creation. There is the robed choir, the assortment of parents, students, fellows, visitors of every walk of life: there was the dying light through the stained glass windows, and at the back of chapel in the distant dusk, Epstein’s extraordinary statue of Lazarus.

I must admit thinking as I was listening to the agitated, fearful, and almost at times angry Requiem of Mozart – interspersed with moments of real tenderness, but never ‘solved’ or ‘sorted’, and certainly not smoothed-out like Fauré’s.

‘What is Lazarus and doing in the dusk at the back?’. I think the only place the statue can really be seen is from behind the altar: so he’s certainly not getting in the way. And there certainly does not seem to be any of the usual apparatus of Christian worship around it – no candles or kneelers, no encouragement to stand and contemplate or pray there. He stands alone in the dusk. Is he pulling himself together, bringing himself back with pain from happy unconsciousness? Is there a reluctance in his being called back into life from non-being again?

Or is he trying to struggle away? Is he human being come of age – taking leave of God, walking away with agony and some regret from the sentimental familiarity of religion, the things that have been swaddling bands in our infancy now to be cast aside like the bonds which bind Lazarus? From pious childish comfort to unsentimental adult life confronting the painful light of scientific and philosophical truth? Is he looking back, with one long lingering glance, before stepping forward, casting off the grave-clothes and stepping out through that western door into the free light and open air of day? Could this be a secular statue, similar to Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral?

If so, there is a powerful message in this sculpture. There are things from which we must turn away in the familiar presentation of religion, in the violence of religious history, in the appeal to the cultic rather than truthful. There are moments when we must question very deeply assumptions that are unaddressed. I like football matches, sometimes. But there are moments when I feel as if I am completely in the wrong place. When the crowd starts singing chants, which caricature protected characteristics, and undermine human dignity, I want to walk, and I get agitated and angry. What does it matter if bad referee happens to be ginger, or overweight? There is sometimes homophobic, or inappropriate use of the word ‘gypsy’, even though I have never heard racist language about black players. It’s as if somehow it is acceptable to revert to a completely inappropriate value-system when part of a tribe. I seriously thought about not renewing my season ticket, because it’s just so uncomfortable. I felt like a Lazarus looking back with some sentiment to something that no longer really fits. But on Saturday there was also a long conversation with a woman who had supported her team for 60 years, and whose sister had died that week, it was an opportunity of encounter and support; one which may not have happened had I not been there. Here was a dark epiphany: faith is another way of looking – of seeing problems, feeling pain, and knowing contradictions: yet remaining committed, if not to an institution with its bad practices and habits, then to the people.

At the beginning of last term, as some of you may know, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer. Perhaps rather naïvely, I was quite suprised to see her so instantly depressed, a woman full of confidence and humour suddenly gripped with fear, and embodying a sense of giving up. There was no putting on a happy face to pretend it’s alright. But, due in large part to the devotion of her husband, she is gradually hearing in the facts of the diagnosis, not just the worst, but also with that perhaps opportunity and life. Quite clearly, that doesn’t take away the anxiety, that awareness will not stop the pain, and there will inevitably be moments of fear again. But it is almost as if this dark epiphany, this unwelcome disclosure, comes also with a truthful dynamic. A little like Lazarus, this calling into the state of almost death, makes us capable of feeling nothing but that which immediately confronts us. There is also reawakening. I understood why people used to pray not to die unprepared or suddenly, perhaps less for the self-interest of saving one’s own soul, than preparing those who we love, parents, children, partner, friends, to prepare to keep on loving in difficult circumstances.

Our second reading tonight reflects on the coming of the Word: the Light of the World breaking through the twilight, to reach even Lazarus in the realm of the dead. This Word rings in his bound ears, this Light filters through closed eyelids. Epstein has captured something wonderful about stone coming to life, about our material world being animated, and about light and life being restored. As we look at this statue we must be Lazarus, bound by moribundity, weakness, and death: yet called to return to life. And like Lazarus, we are placed in the direction of struggling out of chapel, out of the culture and faith which has formed us in so many ways, in pursuit of freedom, to enjoy the sun even if it is setting in the west, because it is sweet, it is brilliant light, it is tender, the truth of a dying world. Mozart’s agitated peace fits this image well – because for all the joy of science and nature and philosophy expanding the universe’s discourse, will have no currency when tongues are tied and heads bound in death.

Perhaps then, Lazarus is looking back into the sanctuary towards the East, not to the familiar certainty to be taken leave of, but to truly disconcerting Mystery – looking towards the East and the breaking dawn, light shining from an altar, where bread and wine recall the slain sacrifice which beings life, the cross and sepulchre, the Dawning Light that will, like the Morning Star, never set, and outshine the world – the light to which our painful eyes must strain – as Mozart’s Requiem puts it:

Lacrymosa dies illa

Qua resurget ex favilla

Judicandus homo reus. 

Huic ergo parce, Deus,

Pie Jesu Domine,

dona eis requiem.

 

[Tearful will be that day

when from the ashes we shall arise

all humanity to be judged.

 Spare us by your mercy, Lord,

Gentle Lord Jesus, (and)

Grant them eternal rest.][1]

The disclosure and the call come to us, bound as Lazarus was, and we rise from dust to judgement and, may it be, find mercy. In that call, this epiphany, what have we been given? The power to consent to His omnipotent and universal predestination, and not content with that alone, God would also woo our consent with ‘truth in its beauty, and love in its tenderness’ and sacrificial Love.

To that Word made Flesh, and Him Crucified, be ascribed no less than to the Father and the Holy Spirit, all might, dominion, majesty and power, now and for ever. Amen.

[1] From the text of W. A. Mozart Requiem K626. In the recording notes by Edward Hickinbottom of the CD by the Choir of New College Oxford, and the Orchestra of the age of Enlightenment, under the direction of Edward Hickinbottom. Novum label, 2010.