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

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Thomas our Twin

Thomas – not Becket but Doubting, you understand. Only St. John has much to say about Thomas.  The first time he’s mentioned, it’s when Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Judaea.  They don’t believe him: after all, isn’t it in Judaea that they want to stone him to death?  Thomas speaks for them all when he says: ‘let us also go, that we may die with him’.  You can hear the resignation in his voice, the philosophical acceptance that what must be must be.  But you can also hear his bravery, his dogged loyalty that says, as Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, where you die I will die.  May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you!’  That fits with the next episode, where Jesus is in the upper room telling the disciples he must go away.  It’s Thomas who asks candidly, if in a somewhat panicky way, what the others are too afraid to utter: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’ 

The last occasion and the best known is the story we heard this morning.  Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to the eleven on the first Easter Day.  Stubbornly, for it is his way, he insists on the evidence of his senses before he will believe in the resurrection.  When Jesus shows him his hands and side, Thomas rises to the occasion magnificently. It’s the supreme confession of faith in the entire gospel. ‘My Lord and my God!’ Only Mary Magdalen embraces Jesus as ardently when she clings on to him in the garden and he calls her by her name.  For St John, Thomas is so significant because it’s this doubter who is the first to recognise explicitly what John has been telling us since the very first words of the gospel: that in Jesus, the Word of the Father himself has come down to us and we have seen his glory, ‘full of grace and truth’. St John puts it this way in his tender letter that we also heard today: ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life – we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.’ This is Thomas’s Easter.

There is, however, one question left open by the gospels.  ‘Thomas’ or Didymus means ‘the twin’.  But whose twin is he?  Who is the other brother or sister?  In some versions of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, it’s startling to find him as the twin brother of Jesus himself, though most of them call him one of Jesus’s slaves.  But if we discount that, it’s a tantalising question without an answer. We’d love to know, but no-one does.  It’s no use speculating.

So why ask then?  Maybe there’s a different kind of answer we can give.  If Thomas is nobody’s twin, perhaps Thomas is everyone’s twin.  I mean that there is in him something we all have in common as Christians, something in the bloodstream, so to speak, of all of us who follow Jesus.  His weaknesses are familiar to us, for they are ours too: the tired sigh that says ‘so what - who cares?’, the stubbornness that ignores danger, the lack of insight that can’t see what stares us in the eyes.  We know all too well the worries and anxieties that haunt our path: ‘fightings without and fears within’.  They may not be likeable qualities, but they are human ones.  In that respect, Thomas is our twin, our flesh and blood. We recognise him only too well: no use pretending otherwise. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! says Voltaire, taunting his readers to be honest about themselves.

But recognise Thomas’s strengths too.  Strength and weakness belong together: our weaknesses are usually the shadow side of our strengths.  What are his strengths?  His courage, his loyalty, his reliability, his persistence, his willingness to go anywhere with Jesus; above all, his ability to summon up faith out of despair.  Against all the odds of temperament and history and circumstance, he of all the disciples makes that great confession of faith when he realises that the person in front of him is none other than the risen Lord, his Lord. Not Peter who went inside the tomb first, not John who saw and believed, but the careful, cautious, evidence-led, risk-averse Thomas. 

What I see in Thomas is a man much more like me than either the heroic Peter, the devoted John or the passionate Mary.  I wish I were a Peter, a John or a Mary, but I am really a Thomas: preferring to live in Lent rather than Easter, more at home with the cross than the resurrection.  And yet in Thomas, the transformation of reluctant foot-dragging obedience into radiant joy is complete.  So if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, to you, to any of us – can’t it? Shouldn’t it?  I hope we can see the signs of that transformation in us, in one another, and give thanks for the work of God within us.  I hope we’re finding our faith taking wings this Easter.  I hope there’s not just duty in our worshipping God and following Jesus, but much joy. I hope we are open in new ways to God’s capacity to surprise us. Whenever encounters light up our lives on our Easter journey, in whatever ways we see Jesus ‘Eastering’ in our own experience, wherever we ‘greet him the days we meet him and bless when we understand’, it makes us his twin.  We should be thankful.

Perhaps with St John, we are meant to read back from that Easter confession of faith new layers of meaning in those earlier utterances of his.  Take away the world-weariness and they are filled with hope and trust.  ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ – Yes, dust we are and to dust we shall return; nevertheless let us turn away from sin and follow Christ, we who bear the name of Christian, faithful unto death, so that we may be raised with him and receive the crown of life.  And to imagine Thomas with the disciples in the upper room, this time after the resurrection, asking the question of the upper room, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’  Isn’t this to hope against hope that the risen Jesus will reveal himself as the true and living way?  Isn’t it to look for him to go before us as God went before Abraham who did not know where he was being led on the long, risky journey of faith, trusting only that if he followed loyally, the path would rise upwards and lead to the fulfilment of long-promised blessing? 

It all looks different from across the chasm of death and burial.  It becomes possible to begin to live out of faith rather than fear, trust rather than despair, freedom rather than enslavement.  Doubt and faith will always walk hand in hand this side of the grave.  But at the portal of the empty tomb stands the Architect of the new heaven and the new earth, the Man whom another woman of faith in John’s Gospel called the Resurrection and the Life.  He invites us this Easter time not to be afraid but to have courage, place our hands in his side, and let him be the wounded healer that touches our brokenness and pain and makes us whole again. 

So my wish and my prayer for us all on this first day of the week, this reprise of Easter Day, is simply that we should be risen with him, and he in us; that the day may break upon us and the shadows flee away; that the bud of resurrection may unfold and flower within us; that the light and truth of God may be poured out upon us, and upon our world and all its injustices and pain; that so many who are without freedom or hope may live again. I long for our joy in the risen Lord to last for ever; and that we should walk together in hope until it is time to rest, and travelling days are done.

Durham Cathedral, 12 April 2015, Easter 2.
1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20: 19-end


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Life Can Begin Again: a sermon on Easter Day

On Easter Monday 1917, in northern France, the British and Commonwealth forces launched the Easter Offensive against the German line. The Battle of Arras cost over 160,000 British. One of them was a soldier who was serving in the Artists’ Rifles. He was one of the great poets of his generation. Among his closest friends was Eleanor Farjeon who wrote the song ‘Morning has Broken’, a woman who was more than a little in love with him. As Holy Week began Edward, holed up in his trench, received an Easter gift. Eleanor’s poem tells the story. 

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You like to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said. 'I will praise Easter Monday now -
It was such a lovely morning'. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, 'This is the eve.
'Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon'.

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve,
There are three letters that you will not get.

Deceptively simple, it charms us until we get to the last line and realise what it conceals. That painted Easter egg (or was it chocolate?), kept for a week with such anticipation was possibly the last thing he ever ate. A few hours later on that Easter Monday Edward Thomas would be dead, struck down by a rogue shell as he was lighting his pipe.

There are three letters that you will not get. Think of the millions of letters those who fell in battle would never get. This is the first Easter of this Great War centenary that began last summer. I doubt if you came here wanting to be reminded of war on Easter morning. It was such a lovely morning Edward had written. Perhaps on a beautiful spring day in Picardy where, even in the desert of the front line a daffodil or two might dare to raise its head, perhaps Edward could forget the war for an instant. Maybe it’s possible as we keep this beautiful and holy feast in the Cathedral to forget the conflicts of our own time for an hour.  

Or so we think. But we must not leave those worries outside the church door. ‘Lest we forget’ matters just as as much on Easter Day as it does on Remembrance Sunday. Let me say why. Like the poem, St John’s Gospel takes us back to a garden. Peter and John come running to Jesus’ tomb. They find the stone rolled away, the cave empty. But someone else has been there all along, ever since before dawn: Mary Magdalen, the woman who had loved Jesus so intensely. When the two men go back she stays there, ‘weeping outside the tomb’. On that first Easter morning there are tears, just as there are tears today for so many in our world. But then comes the wonderful moment of recognition. She thinks the stranger is the gardener, wants to know where he has taken the body. ‘And Jesus said to her…’ But how do you possibly put into a word all that is conveyed as he calls her by her name. At that instant she understands, and believes. After the terrible ordeal of God Friday when she had stood close to the cross watching Jesus die, she has a rush of conviction, a surge of hope. Rabbouni! she exclaims.

This Easter garden is full of symbolism. Go and visit ours in the Galilee Chapel of this Cathedral. In one way it’s the beauty of spring time, the yearly marvel of nature’s renewal. ‘The winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.’ But it’s much more than that. This garden takes us back to creation when, said the ancient story, God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there to look after it. St John is saying to us: here is a new paradise, indeed, a new world, a new creation. And yes, Jesus is indeed the gardener, just as Adam was, for this Last Adam comes into his garden on the first day of the week to begin his great work of re-making the world as God wants it to be. Morning has broken, like the first day. The day after Jesus has finished what he came to do, and has kept the Sabbath and rested in the tomb, the week begins all over again with a sunrise of wonder that heralds a new dawn for the world. It brings a new hope to raise up broken spirits. And with it the promise that the risen Christ will one day make all things new.

At Easter in 1917, like first century Judaea and our own 21st century, there are tears. They may be tears of personal grief and loss like Mary’s, like the bereaved who have lost cherished loved ones, with memories of Easters past that come flooding back this morning. This morning I am grieving a good colleague and friend I suddenly lost a week ago and trying to share the heartache his wife and children are going through. I am thinking of Jewish people keeping Passover this week like our ancestors, in fear of the future; thinking too of Christians under the iron fist of Islamic State who will celebrate Easter in terror; and Christian refugees far from home in Turkey and Jordan, and the families of the students in Kenya shot without mercy last week because they were Christians and not Muslims. Is it possible that human beings can be so cruel? If we have any feeling for humanity, our hearts break for the pain of the world. Just as God’s heart must break too as he weeps over us.

Yet Easter says to you, to me, to all of us, to the entire human family if only it would listen: do not lose heart. Do not be afraid. Reawaken the hope you once had. Or if you never had it, if hope has eluded you for a lifetime, go to the garden. Go to the empty tomb, go to the very place where it seems he is absent, and find that he is alive and present and among us. Find that as then, so now, he calls us by our name and invites us to step out of the shadows of the tomb into the marvellous light of resurrection.

Edward Thomas’s world was not very different from ours. Even on a beautiful spring day in Eastertime, death can stalk us as it did him. His widow’s memoir tells how he went to France deeply afraid, with an awful sense of foreboding. Yet his last letter to Eleanor recalling a hidden Easter egg still rises to the conviction that he will keep a day for praise. Like her poem, we sow seeds today, seeds of faith, of hope, and of overflowing love. What are they when the world is so dark and we protest ‘O God, why?’, when events baffle us and make us afraid, when our burdens and our planet’s feel just too heavy to bear? Faith and hope and love are everything. They give us back our disintegrated lives, put back together by the crucified and risen Lord. We glimpse how we can learn to trust once more, how life can begin again. The good news of Easter is that even at the grave, even when everything seems hopeless and we feel at our most helpless, we sing alleluia. Morning has broken! This is the day that the Lord has made. It’s a day for praise. He is risen.

Durham Cathedral, Easter Day 2015. John 20: 1-18

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bach's St John Passion: a short introduction

Does the St John Passion need any introduction?  Isn’t it one of those universal works of art that speak for themselves?

Let me speak personally for a moment.  The St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since come to appreciate is that in the long history of biblical interpretation, Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a theologian of the first order.  Albert Schweitzer, scholar both of Bach and Bible, said that ‘if we have once absorbed a biblical verse in Bach’s setting of it, we can never again conceive it in any other rhythm’.

To appreciate any of Bach’s religious works – cantatas, motets, masses, passions - we need to understand their libretti.  In Bach, the relationship between text and music is as inextricable as it is in Schubert’s Lieder or Wagner’s music dramas.  In the case of Bach’s two surviving Passions, it is clear that Bach had carefully studied the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and reflected their distinctive insights in his music.  The difference between the St John Passion and St Matthew is not principally Bach’s musical and artistic growth as a composer, as if the St John were merely a sketch for the later, larger and greater St Matthew: for only three years separate the two works.  No, the difference lies primarily in the kind of texts Bach was engaging with.  The passion accounts of St John and St Matthew are entirely different both as literature and as theology and spirituality.  So they naturally drew out of a composer finely attuned to the sensitivities of texts settings that are equally different and true to their unique sources. 

While both passions were written for the same liturgical context, they do evoke a different aesthetic and religious response.  St Matthew, focusing on the lonely agonised suffering of Jesus paints a tragic figure to whom we respond with a sense of keen sadness; we feel the tears in things, as Virgil put it.  His narrative with its changes of scene and pace allows for frequent pauses for reflection, and Bach takes full advantage of them in the chorales and arias.  St John, however, wants us to see in the cross the victorious consummation of divine love; his sufferer, while humiliated, is always majestic and noble, and this quality suffuses Bach’s setting throughout.  The narrative is faster and more relentless than Matthew’s with fewer opportunities for meditation – so there are only eight true arias; but on the other hand there is more scope in John for exploiting the dramatic possibilities of dialogue and the tension between the individual protagonists and the ever present malevolent crowd.  (We should however acknowledge that in two respects Bach filled out John’s narrative with episodes from St Matthew: the repentance of Peter after denying Jesus, and the rending of the temple veil and the earthquake after the crucifixion.  It is interesting that both of these Matthew episodes segue into exquisite arias that are reminiscent of the great contemplative arias of the St Matthew Passion, Ach mein Sinn and Zerfliesse mein Herze.) 

Let me try to illustrate how well Bach understood his text.  The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  In all four gospels, great emphasis is laid on the passion, so much so that they have been described as passion narratives with introductions.  In John’s case, the passion story proper begins not with the betrayal scene in chapter 18 but with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in chapter 12.  This means that more than one third of the book, 8 out of 21 chapters, is given to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The St John Passion is a musical setting of only the last part of this story.  This follows the medieval tradition in which those chapters, culminating in the death and burial of Jesus, were sung to plainchant in the Good Friday liturgy.  But this has to be understood in the light of the central themes of St John set out in what has gone before, particularly in chapters 12 to 17.  These are: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion will make it clear how Bach the theologian informs Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus, ‘Herr unser Herrscher’.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  It is important to recognise that this text is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’, with its cognates Herrscher, ‘sovereign’ and verherrlicht, ‘glorified’.  This threefold reference to glory in two brief sentences is the clue both to the music of the chorus and to the work as a whole.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive idea.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ he says at the beginning: Herrlichkeit in Luther’s Bible, a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus. 

So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the orchestral bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion.  It is telling that this was not Bach’s first choice of opening chorus.  He originally placed here his great setting of the Lutheran chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde grosse: ‘O man, they grievous sin bemoan’ which concludes part 1 of the St Matthew Passion.  Bach decided that this hymn text, focusing on sin and repentance, did not sufficiently reflect the principal theme of John’s passion narrative.  The chorus he replaced it with, that we now have, is entirely right for the work it has to do in the St John Passion. 

My second example is the work’s climactic event, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  Bach’s setting of those words in the St Matthew Passion is perhaps the most agonised music he ever wrote.  In Luke, Jesus dies the serene death of the obedient martyr: ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias which Bach excelled at, where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant 12/8 D major aria for bass and chorus, Mein teurer Heiland. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of contented release joy.  All this is entirely different from the way Bach treats the equivalent scene in St Matthew, but only because those gospels depict the scene in sharply contrasting ways.   For John, Golgotha is a not only a place of pain but – and pre-eminently – a place of transfiguration.  This is what Bach so marvellously captures. 

Let me offer one final comment on the work as a whole.  The artistry with which the recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales are worked into a coherent whole is Bach’s great achievement.  He recognises how John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action oscillates between personal encounters on the one hand, and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay in the passion between private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts and souls is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for pause and meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us for the engagement not only of mind but heart.  When the citizens of Leipzig came to church on Good Friday 1724, and heard the first, extraordinary notes of the opening chorus, did they realise that music had crossed a new threshold in its power to turn spectators into participants?  It is in that spirit that I invite us to listen to the St John Passion tonight. 

The Sage, Gateshead, Easter Eve 2011