From that place of death

High in the apse at St Mary’s Church, awash with angels who hold symbols of the passion of Christ

It was an episode of Silent Witness I think, the BBC drama series which investigates crimes using the science of forensics. There is discovered the remains of a dead body, incarcerated in a prison beneath the concrete floors of a discarded factory. The body was naked, his torn clothes next to him. The psychological diagnosis was that he had stripped himself of his clothing as a desire and need to be free from that place of death.

The place of death before Mary of Magdala and two of the apostles who run to investigate, seems to be a tidy affair. There is no corpse but an empty tomb. There are no ripped clothes but a rolled up cloth in a place by itself. Jesus has left behind the death shroud, the garments for burial, as he emerges from the tomb’s prison, risen from the dead. In all the encounters with Jesus which follows during the next forty day (and portrayed by the four gospel writers in different ways) there is the recognition that he is both the same Jesus but now somehow also different. At first, his followers don’t always recognise him. Mary only recognises Jesus when he says her name. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognise Jesus later in the day when he breaks bread. When Jesus appears to them in the upper room, and says ‘Peace be with you,’ they think they are seeing a ghost and so he asks for something to eat. When he calls from the shore of Galilee to those who returned fishing they only recognise him after they pull in the great haul of fish, found at his direction. Things have not returned to how they were. There is no going back – only a moving forward. He tells his disciples that they must head to Galilee when he will see them there, for Jesus will continue moving on, moving up, as he ascends to the Father and, according to his promise, the Spirit is poured out upon them, the fulfilment and climax of the Resurrection of Christ who has been freed from that place of death.

Those who encounter the risen Lord are no silent witnesses. Mary of Magadala cannot keep silent. The disciples who see Jesus at Emmaus make the return journey to tell the others. When Jesus appears to the disciples and Thomas is absent, they can’t wait to tell him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ There are times in our own lives when our encounter with Jesus is strong and vivid, and other times when we fail to recognise him. For Peter and John it is enough for them to see the empty tomb and the discarded death clothes, the desire and need for Jesus to rise from the dead, to be free from death, and so liberate us all from its clutches. Our witness must never be silent, although words may not always be used, as we live out our faith alive in Christ Jesus our Lord who has raised us up in the light of life through his desire and need to be free from that place of death.

Exultant with paschal gladness, O Lord, we offer the sacrifice by which your Church is wondrously reborn and nourished. (Prayer over the Offering at Mass, Easter Sunday)

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, therefore let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of purity and truth, alleluia, alleluia!

Bad Days and Happy Sailing

[A 3 minute read for Holy Saturday]

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I’d had a bad day, needed some cheering up. So someone who cared said, ‘Come on, let’s go to the cinema, that will make you feel happier.’   Three hours later, I emerged from seeing the movie Titanic, and jokingly thanked my friend for cheering me up by showing me a movie whose climax was hundreds of people plunging to their death, with the tragic love story of Rose and Jack intertwined. Actually, the climax of the tale is rather richer. As the centenarian Rose looks back over her life and of her falling in love which ended in death, she says of her dead love, “You see, he saved me in every way possible that a person can be saved.”

And so to the great water adventure of the Exodus which colours and interprets so much of what we celebrate on this holy night. As the Israelites are led through safety and freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, those who pursue them plunge into the waters and are drowned. This Exodus forms the heart of the Jewish Passover, and gives meaning to our Easter celebrations and our life with Christ. On this night, the liturgical celebrations draw us to fire and water. These are such human inclinations – to gather around the warmth of a flame or to be drawn to the water’s edge. Tonight, around the fire, we tell stories, the story of our Salvation, beginning at the creation of the world when God hovers over the waters of chaos bringing life and order. Then there is the great flood of Noah’s time when he and his family are saved, and the Exodus story at the heart of proceedings. The invitation in Isaiah to ‘Come to the water all who are thirsty,” and the staggering words from St Paul’s letter to the Romans which declares that “when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.’  Tonight, we celebrate the power of God’s love and his desire to save us. We return to the waters of baptism to reaffirm the promises made at our own baptism when we were buried with Christ so that we may walk with him in newness of life.

Throughout time, God has called a people to himself and, in so many and different ways, reached out to them, continued to call them back to him, to save them. Finally, he has sent his Son whose death has torn the curtain which divides us. Having been raised from the dead, Christ will never die again. Pope John Paul II once addressed a large group of young people in Manilla for World Youth Day. Faced by so many young people with all their plans and dreams and ambitions for the future, he said, “Remember you have been made to live with God for ever.” This is our hope. This is our destiny. This is what we celebrate on this holy night. Perhaps of Jesus, then, we can most perfectly say, “You see, he saved us in every way possible that a person can be saved.” Happy Sailing!

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“May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” An image from Easter 2019 as the priest blesses the Easter fire, marks and lights the Easter candle.



This is the wood of the Cross…

The Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is stark and sombre yet full of rich beauty in all its simplicity, made starker today maybe by our inability to gather together.  Since lockdown, the liturgical celebrations have occurred in solitary fashion in the smaller Lady Chapel.  However, today it seemed apt to return to the nave altar.  Perhaps the following words and images will enable you to be drawn in some small way into the celebrations of these days.

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“Remember your mercies, O Lord, and with your eternal protection sanctify your servants, for whom Christ your Son, by the shedding of his Blood, established the Paschal Mystery.”

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“Almighty, ever-living God, comfort of mourners, strength to all who toil, may the prayers of those who cry out in any tribulation come before you, that all may rejoice, because in their hour of need your mercy was at hand.”

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 “This is the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.  Come let us adore.”

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“I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar”

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“I fed you with manna in the desert, and one me your rained blows and lashes.”

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“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed”

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“We adore your cross, O lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world.”

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“My people, what have I done to you? Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!”


Fruitful with his love

[A 3 minute read for Good Friday]

Two years ago, when snow hit the ground, I found myself attempting to climb a rather tall and thick evergreen tree in my garden to rescue a stray cat I was trying to care for. It turned out to be impossible, with its tightly growing branches there was no way up, and as I tried to squeeze past the sharp branches and pointed twigs which scratched my face and arms, I watched the cat climb higher. I gave up for the time being and gave the cat chance to find a solution to his own predicament. A few hours later, after leaving the cat to his own devices, he sprightly appeared at my door for his afternoon feed. A few months later, he moved in.

Trees feature strongly in the story of our salvation. The first is that tree rooted in Eden’s Paradise, the tree which lured Adam and Eve to the fruits of its branches, an easy tree to climb. ‘The serpent said to the woman, “You will not die;  for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5). And so, in reaching high, Adam and Eve experience a great fall. They fail to live according to God’s plan, reach for a perfection beyond them, try to make themselves equal to God, their lives now fruitless.

Whilst other trees make an appearance in Scripture, it is the tree of the Cross which stands tall and changes things, that tree so difficult and painful to climb, and yet Jesus ‘accepts death, death on a cross.’ On Good Friday, in more usual times, people draw close to ‘The wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.’ They make a gesture of veneration, lean forward to touch or kiss the cross, the deep expression of God’s love for us. One traditional Good Friday hymn for the Veneration is ‘Faithful Cross the saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare.’ One of the verses goes: Lofty timber, smooth your roughness, Flex your boughs for blossoming; Let your fibres lose their toughness, Gently let your tendril cling. Lay aside your native gruffness, Clasp the body of your king. Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, Sweet the burden that they bear.”

And so Jesus is raised high on the scaffold of the cross. The branches bear his body, its boughs are soaked in blood. And yet the cross for us is the tree which blossoms with love and flowers with forgiveness making it possible for us to live with God for ever. Through his death, Christ has uprooted the power of death, he has driven a wedge between us and our sins. He has restored us to God so that we may reach for the perfection once beyond us, our lives fruitful with his love.

Good Friday 2020

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Jesus is condemned to death

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Jesus receives his cross

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Jesus falls for the first time

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Jesus meets his mother

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Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross

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Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

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Jesus falls for the second time

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Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem

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Jesus falls for the third time

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Jesus is stripped of his garments

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Jesus is nailed to the cross

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Jesus dies on the cross

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Jesus is taken down from the cross

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Jesus is laid in the tomb

The Power of his love

[a 3 minute read]

For some, although not for those front line workers whose jobs are so essential, life seems to have slowed down. Some, of course, are left spinning or climbing the walls at home, and for those whose home isn’t always a safe or pleasant place to be, their sadness and difficulties are deepened. For most of us, we have temporarily lost so much of what we took for granted. Such simple things are asked of us now: stay home, save lives. Everything else seems to be out of our control.

In Alan Bennet’s film and stage play ‘The Madness of King George’ there is a sad and moving scene when the King is chased around his home by a bunch of heavies and all at the direction of his doctor. The king has lost his mind, you see, and with his lost mind has gone his dignity too. They tie him to a chair as he pitifully whimpers, ‘But I am the King.’ ‘No Sir,’ replies the doctor, ‘You are the patient.’ As we begin these days in a very different way this year, and move more deeply into the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, we see Jesus our King, the one through whom the world was made, appearing to become the patient, the one who has things done to him.

And yet the Jesus portrayed in the gospel according to John is a Jesus very much in control of what’s happening. When he is arrested in the garden, he tells Peter to put his sword away, ‘Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ When he is questioned by Pilate, he tells him ‘You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.’ And here, as the night kicks off, he hosts a meal of momentous proportions. He gives the gift of himself, and a means through which today we receive the benefits of his saving death. He rises from table to wash his disciples feet, much to Peter’s objection. He gives an example of how to serve, how to live, how to love. In the garden, he struggles with what is to come, wishes it away, but all the time he follows the will of the Father.  The difference for our King and the madness of his love is that he has not lost his mind. He hands himself over to death, bravely, willingly, lovingly. ‘The Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,’ says St Paul, ‘but for those of us who are saved it is the power of God.’   So, wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however all of this is playing out for you, may you draw close to the cross of Christ, and experience afresh the power of his love.

The price is right

[A 3 minute read]

She was embarrassed, at first, just to be there, had never been to a Foodbank before. She had recently started two part time jobs and was now earning less than she had once received on benefits and was finding it difficult to provide for her children. She was feeling the pinch. Her predicament is replicated across the country and throughout the world. So many people are paid less than a living wage, they aren’t paid enough to live. There will even be some employers somewhere who treat their workers simply as commodities, a means through which they can make and amass much wealth, their eyes firmly on the money.

In the gospel reading today (Matthew 26:1-4,25), Judas’ eyes seem to be on the money. He has access to Jesus, can lead the authorities to him. He can guide them to the garden where in secret, in seclusion, Jesus has slipped away to pray. But how much can he get from them? What do they think Jesus is worth – and what is Judas willing to take? It turns out that thirty pieces of silver is enough to comfort the linings of his purse. For him, of course, the story ends in disaster. Burdened with guilt, ravaged by regret, he tries to lighten his purse and lighten the load he now carries but they refuse the refund. He takes to a tree and hangs himself. He has lost everything.

As we spend more time at home, unable to meet with family and friends, unable to go freely about our business or gather as the church, perhaps there is a fresh appreciation of what is important, and what is necessary to life. In a world which so often measures us by what we have rather than what we are, Pope Francis once described consumerism as “a virus that attacks the faith at the roots” for it makes us believe that life depends on what we have, leaving us with no need for God.

As we take a move closer to the Triduum, those three holy days beginning with Maundy Thursday, may we enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ and create for ourselves a time of turning away from what we want and think rather about what we need. In doing so, we can grow in a spirit of generosity, sharing what we have with others, entering into the their poverty, and bringing the riches of the good news of Jesus and the fruits of his love. And how much is his love worth? Its cost can be seen in his outstretched arms on the cross where the only thing consumed is sin and death.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf

(The Kingdom by R.S Thomas)


It’s no joke

[A 3 minute read]

Thank God for those who make us laugh! In the depths of difficult times, as people struggle with unusual circumstances, with sickness and anxiety, social media is awash with funny videos and cheery clips to make us smile. I once heard a comedian say that people laughed more eagerly not in the brightly lit room of a club but in the dim light, in a darkened room. People, he said, laugh more freely and in a less self-conscious way when they are somehow hidden, unable to be seen or stand out, in the dim light, in the dark.

During the performance of today’s gospel reading (John 13:21-33,36-38) as Judas leaves the scene, steps out of that upper room to do what he has to do and to ‘do it quickly’, the gospel writer describes the scene in a stark and sombre way. ‘Night had fallen’. Perhaps, as Judas steps into darkness, he is, for once, more sure of himself , less self-conscious, more able to do what he feels to be the right thing. But there is no laughter.

Laughter will follow as the Roman soldiers mock Christ with a purple robe and crown of thorns, hailing him king, adorning him with spit. Laughter will come later as people mock Jesus, nailed to the cross, ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself.’ Perhaps there is something darkly humorous, too, in the kiss of Judas, an irony too much to take, a sick joke. But for now, there is no laughter

Jesus, as it happens, is deadly serious. Perhaps, now, they need to dim the lights for Peter, prior to Judas’ departure, had shown how self-conscious he was, embarrassed at the thought that Jesus should dare to wash his feet. When Jesus tells him that unless he washes their feet they can have no part in him, he loses his sense of embarrassment, and causes an embarrassing scene by insisting that Jesus washes all of him. And now he is lost again, hurt by the accusation that he will desert Jesus. In the dim light he feels so self-assured, heckles him across the table, ‘I will lay down my life for you,” he declares. Jesus is ready for a put down. ‘Lay down your life for me?’ asks Jesus. ‘Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ Peter is stunned into silence.

As Peter is drawn deeper into the mystery of Christ he is also discovering more about himself. Slowly, he becomes more self-aware, more alert to his shortcomings, more conscious of who and what he is called to be. The closer we are drawn to Jesus, the more we become aware of ourselves, who we really are, and what we can be. In the dark hours of the Prayer of the Church – Night Prayer or Compline – there is a time for self-examination, to review the day, to reflect on what we’ve done and who we’ve been – an invitation to be free and easy with the Lord, as we lie on our bed ‘through the watches of the night, in the shadow of your wings (Ps 63:7)

Love is in the air

[A 3 minute read]

“You can always tell when it’s one of the monk’s birthdays,” said the Abbot as he began one of his addresses. We were ordinands from St Stephen’s House, taking a retreat at Alton Abbey, a few dozen of us coping with cold rooms and faulty plumbing! The Abbot continued, “Yes, you can always tell, there’s the definite aroma of aftershave in the air!” Having taken a vow of poverty, the birthday celebrating monk in question, perhaps, valued the gift more than many would. He splashed out, or rather splashed on, a rare luxury. It was at the same Abbey, some years later, as a priest, that I returned for a retreat on my own. On one of these days I made my confession to one of the brothers. At the end, his penance was something strange, perhaps, but well received. “When you go home, I want you to go shopping, and I want you to buy something for you, something for yourself. Maybe a jumper or an item of clothing. Something for you.” It’s only now, twenty five years later, that I have connected the two in my mind.

It’s almost Passover, and Jesus is back in Bethany, at home with Mary and Martha (John 12:1-11).  During dinner, she pours out perfume upon the feet of Jesus, splashes out, splashes on, a rare luxury. The gift is costly, expensive and, to the objective observer, a waste of money, a pointless effort. Suddenly, the dinnertime atmosphere has changed as antagonism and anger meet the sweet aroma of Mary’s action which gets up the nose of Judas Iscariot. Soon, Jesus is talking about death and dying, about the burial of his own body. This is not the kind of after dinner talk any of them expected but Mary’s love has filled the room, and it is only love that drives Jesus to death, to his outstretched arms on the cross. In just a few days’ time, his body is dropped from the cross, given a rushed burial. It is only later, as dawn breaks, that the women return with perfumed oils and, there, discover the empty tomb and the power of love.

There may be occasions when we or others are misunderstood, maybe overlooked or undermined, when gifts go unnoticed, or they are derided, belittled, left to no use, given no worth. There are times, too, when we or others may need to be indulged, affirmed, have something for ourselves, be reminded of our worth, our value, our uniqueness. Mary has dug deep, she has given to Jesus a gratuitous gift, and in prophetically pouring the perfume upon his feet has declared her love for him. What a wonderful waster, Mary is! She has totally splashed out. Love is in the air.