Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Easter Tuesday

Taking the image from the Turin Shroud – the cloth said to have covered Christ’s body in the tomb - computer artists have been busy for six months reconstructing an image of what they consider to be as close as possible to the real face of Jesus. . The results have been broadcast in a documentary on The History Channel in the US. The project's lead computer artist Ray Downing said: "If you want to recreate the face of Jesus, you have only one object and that's the Shroud. It is the only object that can purport to be the actual image of Jesus with any kind of credibility." The artists had to take into account the fact the cloth wrapped the body and the face rather than lay flat. “By imitating those distortions,’ he said ‘we could take the image and put it back into that shape and figure out what the face looked like.’ Two million people are expected to visit the Shroud when it goes on display at Turin Cathedral next month.

In the gospel reading today we have the familiar story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb failing to recognise Jesus. What was her problem? She was, after all, a close follower and friend, devoted and diligent in her discipleship. Maybe it was because it was very early in the morning while it was still dark. Perhaps it was because the tears were pouring from her eyes. Maybe it was because she was distraught, beside herself, an emotional wreck. Whatever the reason, Mary fails to recognise Jesus, even when he speaks to her. She mistakes him for the gardener. It is not until he speaks her name that she finally recognises him as her Risen Lord. There is, understandably, much confusion as the good news of Christ’s resurrection reaches the ears of his disciples. It takes time for the reality of his resurrection to sink in. This is unfamiliar territory for his friends and followers. Despite the number of occasions that Jesus had spoken to them about his dying and rising they still somewhat missed the point. It takes time for them to recognise him, takes time for everything to sink in.

The Resurrection of Christ is not so much like a light bulb that instantly fills a room with light. It is more akin, perhaps, to the rising of the sun, a gradual emergence in people’s lives as their lives are turned away from death to the new life of Christ, a gradual yet determined dispersion of darkness and despondency as Jesus fills their lives with light and life. For us, as for Mary, it does not matter what Jesus looks like. He is, after all, unrecognisable in so many different ways. Later in the day two disciples will walk to Emmaus with Jesus at their side and they too will not recognise him until they reach their journey’s end. Our Faith is not fixed by the physical and familiar. Our Faith is not simply a looking back to some historical figure, to some person from the past. Risen from the dead, Jesus goes beyond the physical. In fact, he tells Mary not to hold onto him. The Risen Lord transcends all boundaries, fills us within and without. Jesus’ resurrection is not a return to the old ways. He has gone beyond death, he has moved forward – and he invites us, and makes it possible for us, to move on to.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Easter Monday

The problem of potholes has placed a plumber from Kent in a spot of bother. Incensed by what he saw as his local authorities inability to patch up the potholes in his road he placed a homemade sign above the pavement to warn drivers of the dangers below. The police didn’t take too kindly to his initiative. Responding to a complaint they called on Ted the Plumber and instructed him to take his homemade sign away. It was, they said, a distraction to motorists. Ted did as he was told but pointed to the potholes and said that they were the real distraction.

The gospel reading today deals with distractions. The women are rushing away from the tomb to share their discovery with the disciples and there, coming to meet them, is Jesus. It seems as though they almost stumble across him. He greets them, reassures them and arms them with instructions for the disciples for them to move on to Galilee. They will see him there. It’s time for the disciples to get up, get on. It’s time for another journey, another road. Watch out for potholes! Meanwhile the soldiers are on their way, too – in another direction to set about their distraction techniques. They come up with a story to distract people from the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. They concoct an ingenious plan. ‘Let’s say Jesus disciples stole the body during the night while we were asleep.’ They are willing to put their reputation as soldiers and guards on the line in order to cover up what has happened: so much for security. Yet they are paid a pretty price to keep their silence.

Many people, of course, (including ourselves) are distracted by so many things: distracted away from the truth of the Risen Lord, distracted away from the good news, distracted away from the message of God in Christ. Sometimes, there are just so many other signs and potholes, distractions and disturbances. So, too, does the Church, in its own clumsy and clown-like way distract people away from the gospel rather than, as you would expect, draw people closer to Christ. But to concentrate only on those things would do us a disservice and it would fail to acknowledge the wonderful ways in which God’s grace triumphs in the lives of so many people. To dwell only on the things that have been a distraction does not acknowledge the power and majesty of God whose love overcomes all things. Sometimes, of course, it’s while we are distracted away from following Jesus that we can be suddenly over awed by his presence: we can be surprised by God who is in all things and above all things. He is never distracted from the world he has created. So, like the disciples it’s time to get up and get on, to move on and move forward. We need, of course, to watch out for the signs and the potholes and keep our eyes on the road ahead because there, coming to meet us, is Jesus the Risen Lord.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Good Friday

‘As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.’

Last year a church caused controversy by removing a crucifix from the outside of its building. It was, said the priest, an unwelcoming image that was, said many who passed by, ugly and scary. And so, following public opinion, the gruesome image was removed. It was, indeed, a rather hideous and horrendous representation of the crucifixion of Christ although, it could be said, it would be difficult to over emphasise or exaggerate the crucifixion. It is, after all, a scene of a dying man but more than that, a man who has been publicly executed, intentionally tortured. But it is, perhaps, surprising really that it apparently disturbed so many for the Crucifix is often such an over familiar, overlooked image that we can fail to appreciate the pain and suffering it actually represents. In fact, on so many occasions, we overlook so many images of suffering and pain in the world, we easily look away from or ignore the disturbing, detestable scenes and images that bombard us every day. We become immune to them. We become untouched by them. We become hardened to them. Pain and suffering is all around us and yet we can, in one swift click of the remote control, turn away from ugliness and pain and find something more comfortable and comforting, less challenging, less distasteful, less disturbing, something to cheer us up and protect us from pain.

‘As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.’

Today, at this liturgy, we are given the opportunity to venerate the cross. To look at it rather objectively this is a rather bizarre thing to do. Why on earth would we venerate, revere, something that is, in itself, a tool of execution, a symbol of suffering, an image of immense pain. Surely, we would have to be somewhat warped to welcome pain. Surely, we would be somewhat unbalanced to glory in an ugly, gruelling, gross and indecent image. And in the days and years after Christ’s death and resurrection as the church began to grow many people found the cross of Jesus an obstacle to believing, pure folly. ‘For the message of the cross,’ said St Paul, ‘is foolishness to those who are perishing but for us who are being saved it is the power of God.’

In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer says, ‘During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him our of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal life.’

The cross of Jesus is, of course, a scandalous and disturbing image: scandalous to think that in order to win us over, in order to prove his love to us, in order to change the way we live, in order to save us from all that we have allowed to spoil our friendship with God, he offers himself into our hands and experiences suffering and death.

His death on the cross has changed the way we view pain and suffering, removed our fear of death and even, indeed, our fear of living. That’s not to say that pain and suffering is belittled or explained away. It’s not to say that pain and suffering is not and cannot be destructive. But we know that through Christ’s suffering and death God has creatively and lovingly, powerfully yet humbly, changed us and made it possible for us to be free from all that holds us back and destroys us and open up new possibilities for us.

We are called, like Jesus, to stand alongside those who are in pain. And yes, we can and do cry out in doubt and desolation, in frustration and hopelessness, to God who has the power to save us from all that hurts and harms. The cross of Jesus, the image of crucifixion, expresses the pain we often experience and the pain of the world in which we live. And there in the cross we get no easy answers, to glib and tidy response, no neat solution: only the outstretched arms of our God.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Maundy Thursday

Hundreds of people are huddled indoors. Prisoners in their own homes. They have been prisoners for years. Generations have been born into captivity and slave labour. Children who have never known freedom. This is a Concentration Camp thousands of years before the atrocities of World War II came to light, before Aushwitz and Birkenhau became synonymous with evil.

The prisoners have been busy – in secret. A meal has been prepared according to strict guidelines. The recipe is set out, portion control is in place, there is no resting or reclining, no meandering through the meal, no time to savour the moment. They are to eat this meal standing, ready for the off, with packed bags, ready for a journey, with sandals on their feet and staff in their hand.

There is silence.

There is danger too. And there is tension. Soon there is a silent exodus of people as families leave their homes, one by one, and slip out into the night, acknowledging one another with a nod of the head or some other silent gesture. There is hope in their eyes. But there is fear too. The moon is high in the sky, a full moon, their only light.

There is silence.

Death hangs in the air. Their unsuspecting Captors will wake in the morning to find that death has touched their households. There will be mourning and crying coming from every house, as one by one the Captors are picked off. Their first-born are dead. And they will wake, too, to find their Captives’ homes empty.

Filled with anger and panic they will make the chase.

This is the Great Escape, and it is dangerous and deadly. There can be no room for mistakes, no backing out at the last minute, no panic. Just follow the plans that have been made. And so with fluttering stomachs, quickly beating hearts, missed breaths they make their escape.

This is the Passover of the Lord.

It is this Passover of the Lord that has coloured the lives of the Jewish People ever since, defining them, making them who they are: a pivotal event in their history, an essential event to remember. The Passover Festival, celebrated year after year, is the freedom meal of the Jews: God rescues them, leads them out from slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey. This is a day of festival for ever.

And so when Jesus keeps the Passover - as he does year in year out - it is filled with emotion and meaning, filled with tenderness and tearfulness and a corporate memory of all that God has done for his people in leading them to freedom. And there is much joy.

The writer of the gospel of John changes things a bit. He places this last meal of Jesus and his death on the cross in the days before the Passover, the day on which the Passover Lamb was slaughtered. It is a fine and fanciful twisting of the story to bring out another meaning.

Jesus is the one who hands himself over, gives himself up, places himself at the heart of the Passover. He is the one who feeds and nourishes, the one who gives himself up, the one who is sacrificed. As the blood above the doors offered a sign of salvation to the Jewish people, so it is Jesus’ blood which brings freedom from death and allows us to journey to the promised land, to be free: free to love, free to be loved.

At this meal, a meal that defines who we are and what we are, Jesus gives us himself.

He rises from table, takes a towel, ties it round his waist and stoops down to wash his disciples’ feet. His disciples are disturbed. Deeply disturbed. The tables have been turned. What is he doing, squandering at their feet? They are embarrassed: embarrassed by the smell of their feet? Embarrassed above all that Jesus is waiting on them. He is their Master and Teacher, their Lord and their Leader and yet here he is messing with the mundane. Everything is being turned on its head, as their lives are, once again, turned upside down. They aren’t sure of anything any more. All they know is that they are confused. Jesus’ talk of death is too much for them to take. Even his talk of love is disturbing them. Yes, they are disturbed by Love.

And here we are, huddled together. The food is prepared, and we are ready for a journey, the journey to the cross and beyond. We are filled with many different emotions, and each of us brings so much to the table. We bring to the table different gifts and grievances, weaknesses and worries, failures and fragilities, questions and concerns. We bring them all to the table. Indeed, we bring our whole lives to the table: to be transformed, to be comforted, challenged, humbled and raised. And we bring so much joy, so much love, so much need of love, and so much need to love.

This Eucharist defines us. It has defined the church ever since Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Ever since the church began to grow and gather together they broke bread to proclaim the Lord’s death. Yes, the Eucharist, this Supper, this meal, this Mass defines who we are. It is pivotal and essential. It is our freedom food. Our food for the journey. Our food of Salvation.

Another distinctive characteristic of the church is tied up with this meal, part and parcel of everything it is, for another defining characteristic of the Church is Love. ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ said Jesus. A commandment, a order, a mandate.

Every Eucharist is a gesture of love, an eloquent expression of how much Jesus loves us. For on this night Jesus gave himself to his disciples and so to us, on this night he gave himself into the hands of his enemies: willingly, but not without pain, all for the sake of love.

And in case we miss the point altogether we are given a further expression of love. He washes his disciples feet. His disciples are disturbed by Love.

Tonight and throughout these Holy Days and beyond, disturbed by love. Be transformed by Love. When you find someone difficult or distasteful be disturbed by love. When you find someone annoying or argumentative be disturbed by love. When you find someone frustrating or when you find the thought of washing someone’s feet an ugly act or when you find the thought of having your own feet washed, be disturbed by love. When you wonder what the church is all about or what God wants from us and from you, be disturbed by love. When faced by atrocity and disaster, when left to wonder what it’s all about, be disturbed by love. When you are scared or uncertain, be disturbed by love.

Tonight, we have an eloquent expression of love, a call to love, a call to be loved: in this Eucharist as Jesus hands himself to us in bread and wine, as he hands himself to his enemies, as he washes our feet, he disturbs the world with his love, he disturbs us with his love.

“I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.”

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Wednesday of Holy Week

Changing Rooms, DIYSOS, Real Rooms, Housecall, Home Front and other similar TV programmes have all placed DIY Home Improvement back on the map. Over the years, the like of Laurence Llewellyn Bowen have fingered many a fine fabric, and Hand Andy (and other hammer loving men) have drilled many a piece of MDF to the wall of some sad victim’s home – usually whilst they are away on holidays, and who return home to find their house transformed from dependable magnolia to See Breeze Blue, swirling turquoise and fake velvet wall coverings. Taste isn’t always the order of the day but time is. They are working against the clock!

In the gospel reading today we have a case of Changing Rooms. It looks like Jesus has already made some secret preparations. He already has his eye on a suitable room in which he will celebrate the Passover with his friends and followers. Everything has to be prepared and finalised, right down to the last detail. And so he sends his disciples away to some anonymous, unnamed person who has some suitable upstairs accommodation. ‘The Master says, “My time is near. It is at your house that I am keeping Passover with my disciples.”’ There is much to do. The Passover is at hand. They are working against the clock.

Jesus’ time has come – in fact his tie seems up. Judas Iscariot has already done his dirty work. His perilous preparations will take the Passover to a plane that the apostles had never imagined. There is intrigue in the room, and mush distaste, as Jesus predicts the unimaginable. One of his closest friends and followers will betray him. What bad taste! Within this room things are beginning to change. The disciples are distressed: disturbed by the thought that they could be the one to betray Jesus. Time is ticking by. The final moment is almost here.

They spend some time more with Jesus in the comfort - and discomfort - of this room, in this room where they are beginning to change and where their future dreams are changing too. They cannot, do not, stay there. At some stage, after supper, when all the talking is done, when they can stay no longer, they go out into darkness, following Jesus and then, in the confusion and chaos of Gethsemane, they disperse, disappear, scurry away like frightened mice. They cannot set their eyes on the unsightly sight before them. The cross is too much for them to take. But it is to this Changing Room that they return: back to the pots and pans and mess of a Passover Party, to try to pick up the pieces left after Jesus’ death. They are empty, broken, not half the men they used to be. The door is locked. Time stands still.

It is in this room, where so much has happened, where they have experienced so much change, that they will be changed further still, as news begins to reach them that Christ is risen from the dead. Confused even further by this message that slips under the door, they soon discover for themselves the risen presence of Jesus. Locked Doors cannot keep him out. Death does not do him in. His time has come.

Time is ticking by. The Passover is almost here. The holy three days, The Easter Triduum, is almost upon us. The Evening Mass of Maundy Thursday is almost here, as is the staggering, disturbing, ugly image of the cross on Good Friday. How will it change you? Do you dare to be changed? Time is ticking by. It is almost here. Salvation is upon us.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tuesday in Holy Week

The job of bringing joy to the world is up for grabs as a newly-formed charity seeks a Director of Happiness. The successful applicant to the Movement for Happiness must have a vision of society in which people are motivated by more than just money - although, to be on the safe side, the job is ironically offering a salary of £80,000 a year.

In the Gospel reading today, Judas Iscariot seems to be motivated by money. After all, the thirty pieces of silver, which he was promised by the Chief Priests, has become a common and well known image of the cost of betrayal. Even as he leaves the gathering and slips through the door and is embraced by the darkness the other disciples think that Judas’ exit is motivated by money – or rather to use his position as treasurer of the common fund to buy all that was needed to be bought for the festival. Judas the Happy Shopper? Shopping is far from his mind.

And yet who really knows the motives of Judas? Many people have speculated about what was going through his mind, what the driving force was to his betraying Jesus. What we do know is that, ever since, his name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason. ‘It would have been better,’ said Jesus in another gospel account, ‘that he had never been born.’ Happiness escapes Iscariot.

And yet we can’t exactly say that there is a sense of happiness and joy in the room as Jesus settles down for the night with his apostles. There is much confusion and misunderstanding. Even Simon Peter receives some harsh words from Jesus. His confidence is quashed in one quick prophecy: ‘Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ No one seems to be certain of themselves. No one feels really settled. Happiness seems to be slipping away from them. Even Jesus is talking about going away to a place where they cannot follow. There is something in the air. Meanwhile Judas Iscariot is about his business.

There is much about this Holy Week that does not, cannot, fill us with happiness. Yet, all of the experiences of these holy days express so much of where we are in life at times. We are often misguided, misled, misunderstood or miss the point altogether. We are unsettled, uncertain, unsure. Sometimes we seek happiness and it evades us, or we look for happiness in things that do not bring happiness at all. True happiness for us comes in accepting God's will, no matter what we have to endure. As the psalm says todays: the Lord is our refuge and strength. He is our rock and stronghold. This Eucharist then is our happy meal! Macdonalds has nothing on us!

Monday in Holy Week

You may have seen it. Five contestants, who have never met one another, take it in turns to host a dinner party on five consecutive nights. They are competing for one thousand pounds, the winner determined by a series of anonymous scores given by the other contestants who have been entertained. On the final day, the winner is announced. The dinner party contestants are probably carefully chosen, thrown together by the producers, to create a bizarre and interesting mix of personalities to provide us with entertainment. The commentator is probably the most entertaining part of the show: casting snide remarks and comments about the food and the final outcome. Yes, this is Come Dine With Me: another Reality TV programme.

In the gospel reading, Jesus has been invited to dinner. Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, have invited Jesus to ‘come dine’ with them. There is an interesting mix of personalities (Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas Iscariot – amongst many other disciples – and even towards the end of the dinner party a large number of Jews who, on hearing that Jesus is being entertained, gatecrash the party. In time honoured fashion, as you may expect from such a dinner party, there are some strange goings on! This dinner party isn’t all it seems to be on the surface.

During dinner, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume, and wipes them with her hair. This disjointed, deranged gesture is rather disturbing for those who are left to look on. There is surprise and disgust as the aroma fills the room. ‘What a waste! This money could have been used for the poor.’ Jesus responds to the Fagin-like musings of Judas Iscariot and takes the conversation to another level. He expresses what Mary meant in offering such a mad and carefree gesture: she is, says Jesus, preparing him for his burial. Suddenly, the dinner party atmosphere is disturbed. The smell of death fills the room.

Jesus, it seems, had been the life and soul of the party, a welcome guest, a longed for guest. Alongside him at table is Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead: a living sign of Jesus’ power to overcome death and bring life to the darkest and most deathly of situations. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more joyful. And now, suddenly, there is talk, not of life, but of dying and death and burial. Things are yet more sinister. The Chief Priests have death on their breath. They are determined to kill not only Jesus but also this Lazarus figure in whom so many people are interested and whose raising from the dead was causing too many people to follow Jesus. This just will not do. The smell of death fills the room.

There is controversy and danger, there is misunderstanding and intrigue, there is plotting and planning for death. At this Eucharist, Jesus invites us to come and dine with him. Expect to be comforted and cherished, expect to feel at home, expect to be able to get your feet under the table, and to be fed with finest food. But expect, too, to be disturbed and challenged and moved beyond all telling, as the death of Jesus is proclaimed. And yet there is more than just death here. Jesus takes the conversation to another level. He fills the air with sweetness. In all this talk of death there is confidence and trust in God. As the psalm today declares: ‘I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord!’ So, let the aroma of Jesus fill this place, as we move closer to the cross, preparing to celebrate Christ’s death and glorious resurrection. Here we dine with the Lord, here we proclaim his death and resurrection, here we are comforted and challenged. There are, as the gospel reading reminds us, six days before the Passover. So, eat up! There is much to do and a long way to travel. You’ll need all the strength you can get.