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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Winter Light at Easter

It's a wintry Easter we are celebrating this year, for all of us cold and for some, very white. It’s no comfort to be told that a March Easter is more likely to be white than Christmas Day. The psychological and emotional effect of this equinoctial cold is all the more potent because we do not expect it and were not prepared for it when the days became longer than the nights. Fierce has this unseasonal winter’s grip been in upland Britain which begins not 20 miles west of here. Ask the elderly. Ask the farmers.

Lent is an old English word for spring. We have ached for spring, for its luminous duck-egg skies, its birdsong, its fresh colours and flowers. We would love to see cumulus bubble up again borne on a southerly zephyr letting loose sharp showers to wash the landscape. We would love to feel the gentle warmth of the strengthening sun as it climbs towards the zenith. When spring comes, it will never be more welcomed. 

Of course whether it is white or green, Easter is always a bursting forth of light and colour and life. In this Cathedral and in every church in the land, and in the hearts of all who feel the slightest pull of spiritual reality, it is springtime today. Rise heart, thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
(George Herbert, 'Easter')

But perhaps this prolonged winter brings a gift with it: to help us to enter into an aspect of the Easter story that we might not have felt in quite this way before. I mean the complex emotions of those who loved Jesus and who on Good Friday experienced the most terrible sense of bafflement, confusion and loss. For them, the aftermath of Golgotha would have been nothing less than a winter of the soul

           when a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

(R.S. Thomas, 'The Belfry')

In her cycle of radio plays about gospel story, The Man Born to be King, Dorothy Sayers has John discover a pair of old sandals that Jesus had worn. He hides them from Peter because of what memories charged with sight and feel and smell would do to him ‘like a sick animal that has crawled home to die. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep.' One of the normal symptoms of bereavement is aching for the presence of the loved-one, and an instinct to search that will not go away. Who is to say what brought the women to the garden at dawn on Easter morning? They went to anoint a body with spices, but what else drove them there? Surely the need to see him again, feel the tender skin, remember his voice, his touch, his scent. Perhaps this year we have glimpsed this in an attenuated way by our sense of the cold, our own wintry longing for Easter, for springtime, for warmth. 

Easter answers our longings and desires. It does this by both changing how things were, and transforming our view of them. We would not be here if we didn’t believe that something infinitely life-changing took place on Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the grave space empty. There is no getting away from this singularity in history. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here’ say the two men in the garden. A real absence, indeed, but a vacuum that gives the women what they most need: to dare to entertain the possibility that all was not as it seemed, that they were in the presence of the most profound of mysteries that nevertheless had the capacity to turn round despair. ‘He is risen. Remember how he told you.’ Here is where fantasy meets reality, where longing is transmuted into hope. The women begin to see reality differently. We begin to. The world is a different place. The garden has flowers. There is blue sky above our heads. The earth begins to warm. At last it is spring. Everything changes.

Of course, all this is to collapse a long disclosure and its realisation into a few moments. Luke himself keeps us in suspense here: the disciples did not believe the women at first. The two who walked the Emmaus Road with the unknown stranger did not recognise him: there was a journey to make, not simply along a dusty cratered near-eastern cart track but an inward journey of the soul to bring springtime to their bleakness, coax their frozen spirits back into life. The important thing is: there is disclosure. There is recognition. There is a new world. Winter has fled, and with it its gloomy shadows and oppressive captivity. He is risen. 

St Augustine has a beautiful passage in a commentary on the feeding of the crowd where he speaks about our human longings and hungers. ‘Give me a lover: a lover will feel what I am speaking of; give me one who longs, who hungers, who is a thirsty pilgrim in this wilderness, sighing for the springs of his eternal homeland; give me such a person, for they will know what I mean.’ He might have added: give me one who is longing for spring, yearning to be rid of burdens, tired of this endless Narnian winter, weary in themselves, weary for our globe that strives to find some hope as it struggles under the weight of unhealed conflict, sorrow and pain.

If this echoes your experience, then come to the risen Lord today. Sit down at his Easter feast. Eat bread and drink wine. Find your healing and refreshment in him; be glad that he is among us as our beloved brother who was lost in his death but found in his resurrection, who opens up the way home for all people and welcomes us to celebrate here in his Father’s house. For here, at least, the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come. Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral, Easter Day, 2013
Luke 24. 1-12

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Anointing Jesus' Feet

On the Sunday before a new Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Pope are anointed for their ministry, the gospel tells how Jesus is anointed at the house of Lazarus.  The timing is suggestive: just as Jesus is anointed for burial, so two new Christian leaders embrace the vocation to take up the cross.  When Donald Coggan was installed as Archbishop, a secretary mistyped ‘enthronement’ as ‘enthornment’ in the draft service order. She typed more wisely than she knew, said Coggan. Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis will be in all our prayers this week. 

Back to Bethany, where Jesus loved to go. There a woman spontaneously does what prophets and priests do in the Old Testament: anoint a king for a royal vocation.  This is what Christ literally is, the mashiah or anointed one who has come into the world, says St John, to bring a kingdom that is not of this world. What prompts this extraordinary, extravagant gesture, so disapproved of by tut-tutting Judas, emptying a pot of scented oil almost above price over the feet of Jesus? It’s worth a king’s ransom indeed, and that is what it is, for this is a King above price, at least to Mary for whom her anointing symbolises all the passionate devotion she feels for him.  

Tim Rice in Jesus Christ Superstar assigns to a different character (how confusing all these Marys are in the New Testament!) the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. But her precious ointment shows that she does know in her heart of hearts.  She knows how to love in a way few of us ever have.  And Jesus knows it too. That touch of hers, so physical, so erotic that it cannot fail to shock; the perfumed scent that fills the house like incense: both freight this story with powerful, sensual images.  Of all the senses, touch and smell are the most pervasive and long-lasting.  The sense of smell is the last to leave a dying person; it has the capacity to evoke long-forgotten landscapes, recall long-dead people, reawaken long-lost memories. So it is not surprising that this aromatic episode is associated in St Mark with an act of memory: ‘wherever this gospel is proclaimed, what this woman has done will be told in memory of her’, anamnesis, the same word that Jesus uses when he commands us to take bread and wine ‘in memory of me’. 

In St John, this episode opens the passion narrative, and sets the scene for what he will go on to tell us in the following chapters about the suffering and death of Jesus. It is six days before the Passover, Jesus’ last Sunday. So this is a last Sunday meal, perhaps meant as a pre-echo of the last supper in the upper room on the coming Thursday just as the bathing of Jesus’ feet with oil also looks forward to the upper room where he himself will wash his disciples’ feet. The previous chapter has ended ominously with the threat of Jesus’ arrest. Now, says Jesus, Mary has anointed him with oil for the day of his burial. From now on, St John will be concerned with one thing above all else: how Jesus will be lifted up on a cross so that all humanity may be drawn to him.  For in the Fourth Gospel Golgotha is not tragedy but triumph. Jesus’ life is poured out on the cross just like precious oil so that the aroma of divine self-giving and grace may fill the world that God so loves.

Maybe Mary intuited this in her act of anointing, maybe not.  For her, it may simply have been the offering of her devoted service and passionate love; or an extreme act of courtesy to honour a guest in her home; or else the recognition of a royal presence on the part of a loyal subject. It is Jesus who turns it into preparation for his death and burial. John tells us that after his death, women bring spices to anoint Jesus’ body before laying it in the tomb.  We are in the realm of the symbolic: this is more than simply an anticipation of what will happen in six days’ time.  What does it mean?

The word I want to use is ‘consecration’.  This little drama at Bethany is nothing less than Jesus’ consecration for the work he has to do: to achieve the salvation of the world. The idea of a set purpose and of accomplishment is strong in the Fourth Gospel.  Early on, Jesus says that his food is to do the will of the one who sent him and to accomplish his work. And his last word from the cross will be the triumphant cry of accomplishment that all is now done: tetelestai, ‘it is finished!’. So Mary consecrates Jesus by anointing him for this awful but glorious task.

On Passion Sunday, I want to suggest that we too must consecrate Jesus in our hearts as we prepare to celebrate the coming days of awe, the Passover of our crucified and risen Lord. In the next chapter of St John, it is Jesus himself who washes the feet of his disciples, consecrating them for service and commanding his disciples in every time and place to wash and anoint one another’s feet. But just as we do this for one another and for the world, we also need to do it for Jesus, come to him with all the love we can find in our hearts to break open the container of our heart and pour at his feet all its wealth and treasure.   

Perhaps something like this lies behind the puzzling saying about always having the poor with us, but not always having Jesus. Judas’ angry outburst about waste, and how the money saved could have been given to the poor misunderstands the gesture.  For it is precisely as we pour out all that we have and anoint the Messiah’s feet that we begin to grasp what our obligation to the world truly is.  The Torah says in Deuteronomy that we always have the poor with us, so we must open our hand to our neighbour in need. In a sense this is precisely what Mary does for the poor Christ who has nowhere to lay his head, who has to rely on the kindness and generosity of those like her who receive him into their homes. What we do for Christ, we do for one another, just as St Matthew says: what we do for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner, we do for him. We wash Jesus’ feet and we wash him in his poor companions.  

As I approach the threshold of Holy Week, I ask myself: how have I consecrated Christ in my heart for this celebration of his passion and resurrection? How will I honour him, love him, serve him as he goes to the cross for my salvation?  Will it be by doing the works of mercy to the poor who bear his image and who are always with us? Will it be by some act of generous giving to the church which is his body that we love and care about?  Will it be by time spent in prayer and reflection in this holiest of seasons?  Might it be in all three ways: consecrating Christ by serving the poor, giving to the church, growing as disciples as we walk the via dolorosa with him?

We have six days to think about it before Holy Week begins and we sing about the love that is so amazing, so divine.  For love is the issue today: loving Jesus and not being afraid of extravagance in the treasure we open up and lay at his feet. The question we face is simple: if he has so loved us, how will we show our love for him?  How will we consecrate him within our own selves for the work of love he comes to do? And how will we become ‘as Christ’ to a world that needs him so much?

 Durham Cathedral, Passion Sunday, 17 March 2013 (John 12.1-8)

In the Wilderness

Our Old Testament reading took us into the wilderness in words which Samuel Sebastian Wesley set to music in tonight’s anthem.  The desert is a rich theme in the scriptures.  One aspect of this is that it is a place of truth. If you have been in the desert for even an hour, you realise what a profoundly discomfiting place it is. But to biblical writers it can become not an enemy but a friend.  The desert fathers heard the voice of prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah, who said that all Israel’s problems stemmed from their having abandoned the faith of the desert.  So they turned their back on the cities and went into the desert to seek God.  Our beloved St Cuthbert whom we celebrate this week followed this same way of life when he went as a hermit to the Inner Farne. He went to face the hunger, the thirst, the silence, the loneliness, the exposure, the cravings the wilderness throws at you, live with the wild beasts, face the demons in the depths of the soul, and find God. 

We need a place of truth to teach us who we are and who God is. Jesus too goes into the wild places where, like Israel in the desert, he undergoes ordeals, not so much temptation as testing, the time of trial that portends the last things.  The test for Jesus is the same as it is in the story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. To whom do I owe allegiance?  Will I choose to have no other gods but the Lord?  The desert teaches us the difference between illusion and truth. It purifies our vision, helps us regain clarity about what our lives are really for.  So we keep Lent to strip the spirit bare like trees in winter so that we pay proper attention to what matters ultimately.  It invites us to a table spread with prayer and fasting and silence and simplicity and acts of charity: our teachers and soul mates for forty days to help us make space for God.

When we do this, we find something remarkable happens. The wilderness becomes a place of blossoming and joy.  When we give ourselves to him, God comes to us, relieves our fears, makes us strong, gives us back our lives. Waters break out, streams in the desert in the imagery of Isaiah. There is a highway, a holy way which turns out to be nothing less than the way home, the way out of exile, the way back to God. And as we journey through Lent, this wilderness way offers the promise of redemption, reconciliation, healing. We glimpse how life can begin again: for our broken world, for our damaged communities, for everyone who has lost hope, for ourselves. We sense that things could blossom and flower for us, even when life is at its most deserted, desperate and dry

The Sunday sheet charmingly announces that at this service I am offering ‘medication’ on Isaiah chapter 35. Well, the Prayer Book Collect for St Luke speaks about the wholesome medicine of the gospel and this is what we celebrate in Passiontide.  That medicine is the cross of Jesus: by his wounds we are healed.  The eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leap like deer and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  These healing images in Isaiah are metaphors of what will become true for all humanity when the wilderness becomes a paradise.  The cross is no longer a symbol of shame but of victory.  The final hymn invites us to ‘sing my tongue the glorious battle’. In this hostile, destructive wilderness there blossoms a tree that, in the hymn’s imagery frees the world from death. Its fruits are for the healing of the nations.  Christ is the victim who has won the day.  We make our boast in the cross.  Sorrow and sighing flee away.

Durham Cathedral, Passion Sunday 2013 (Isaiah 35)