Child’s play? The Trinity: a reflection

A reflection given as part of Choral Evening Prayer at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. May 30th, 2018.

Isa. 6.1-8

John 3.1-10, 14-16

Last Sunday, while I was preaching in a village church near Harrogate I noticed that a junior member of the congregation was working hard with some Lego (much more fun, I thought that listening to a sermon!) When it got to the part of the service where we exchange the peace I went to have a closer look. It turned out that young Noah was building a car which was part of a box containing bricks that could be used to make three different objects with the same combination of bricks. In bold print on the top right-hand corner of the box was the phrase ‘3 in 1’! This seemed thoroughly appropriate for Trinity Sunday. While I was attempting theological gymnastics in the pulpit, there was Noah wrestling with the same concepts in the form of plastic bricks! It would be unwise to rush to a conclusion in saying that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t mere child’s play, because it is, just a bit.

Understanding the Trinity brings together two themes: mystery and revelation. God is mysterious and unattainable, yet at the same time God is revealed in Jesus Christ and active in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Children have a natural capacity for wonder, you only have to watch a baby’s face and eyes to see its response to everyday objects we take for granted. Even as adults, our facial expressions can be transformed when we witness something amazing, or find ourselves in a landscape that is truly beautiful. Perhaps you can think of a place you have been when you have had that reaction, when there are no words to express what we see, when words aren’t even necessary or possible. John Berger in his book ‘Seeing Things’ writes that ‘it is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’

And so we have revelation. Those moments when things do make sense; when the penny drops and we finally understand. Such moments fuel University life: in the lecture hall, the tutorial room, the lab, the library, the practice room; in all number of places. But revelation and mystery are intertwined, not separate. There’s a well-known saying ‘the more you learn, the less you know’! This doesn’t mean that learning itself is fruitless, but that we should never be so arrogant to think we know it all. We don’t, and we never will.

This theme of mystery and revelation lies at the heart of the Gospel, and of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. It is present too in that strange and terrifying reading from Isaiah.

Both speak of human capacity to be touched by mystery and transformed with fresh understanding through a revelation: lightbulb moments! Things that seem unreal and unworldly in fact exist and emerge in the mundane: God over us in creation; God in us through incarnation; God with us through the Holy Spirit.

From his series of poems Squarings, Seamus Heaney offers these words which seem (to me at least) to capture perfectly that experience of mystery and revelation that exists at the heart of human experience, and at the heart of the mystery and the certainly that is God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,

Convert to things foreknown;

And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.

Seventh heaven may be

The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me

The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine

Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver-lamé shivered on the Bann

Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,

That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

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Gifted? A sermon for Pentecost

University Sermon preached at Matins in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

May 20th, 2018.

Isaiah 11.1-9

1 Cor. 12.4-13

Some ask for the world

and are diminished

in the receiving

of it. You gave me

only this small pool

that the more I drink

from, the more overflows

me with sourceless light.

The words of RS Thomas’ poem Gift give us a lens through which to view both our readings this morning, and this feast Pentecost that we celebrate today. The coming of the Holy Spirit marked a new and dramatic season for the early church. We tend to think of this event in ways that are characterised by noise and colour: a great celebration akin to the scenes witnessed yesterday during the Royal Wedding. But even in that most wonderful of celebrations, there was a stillness, a mystery and the beauty of love, a moment when time stood still and we all got a sense of the mystery that surrounds us. When Sir Peter Maxwell Davies composed his 8th symphony entitled The Antarctic Symphony he travelled to that vast icy continent and noted an ‘extraordinary sound experience…(a) gentle avalanche of snow from cliffs towering high on either side of the narrow channel through which the ship was passing – the chilling powder enveloped us all on the deck, with a whisper and hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence; no-one could speak for minutes afterwards.’ It was this experience among others that in his words ‘determined there and then that I use a Pentecost plainsong, associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, in this palpably most un-Christian symphony.’ Less noise, more silence.

Any reflection on gifts and giftedness is entirely appropriate in a University setting such as this. Universities in many ways both thrive and survive on gifts: gifts of financial endowment, gifts of intellect and wisdom, gifts of achievement and success (albeit hard-earned; I have met very few people who haven’t described academic work as easy). But those gifts can be a burden too. I speak from this Cathedral pulpit located in a place of power, privilege, and immense wealth; a world away from the people and places I encounter in the Yorkshire Dales on a daily basis. It has been a long and hard winter for farmers. The ‘chocolate-box’ exteriors of rural villages belie the experience of anxiety and poverty, the lack of affordable housing, the challenge of small schools and even in places the lack of connectedness through poor broadband coverage. It is what you do with wealth that matters, and uniquely being both College and Cathedral this building and its witness stands for more than just riches and privilege, and thank God for that!

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul provides a summary of the spiritual gifts, a kind of shopping list of what is available. When you read it you have to wonder about its ordering. It has the potential for chaos. Nicholas King asks, in the context of these verses: ‘how do you prioritise the gifts, and how do you prevent the Christian liturgy from becoming a zoo, if all these gifts are on offer?’ Certainly if Isaiah is anything to go by, with a wolf living with a lamb, a leopard lying down with a kid, and a calf, lion and falling together all being led by a little child, this is a very interesting zoo indeed! But nature of course with all its rawness, hardship and violence, can also be a wise and gentle teacher. Both our readings show capacity for human beings to dream of a better world, one in which both the work restoration and the proclamation of hope are abiding principles to govern how we live. Paul’s response to potential liturgical confusion is to return to the Spirit, the source of all gifts and the driver of unity in the Christian Church. This is the same Spirit that Isaiah speaks of: the Spirit that can sustain and enliven in the most desperate of circumstances, a people in exile. But it is also a warning that both the Spirit and the gifts it provides often come from the most unlikeliest of places, and in the most surprising of circumstances.

It’s easy sometimes to see church as yet another consumerist activity; we can (in theory at least) choose where to go; we can offer various services, gatherings, Bible study groups, and whatever else we can think of. We can also choose to leave and branch out on our own in the belief that that will be better, but Christ’s body is wounded in fragmentation. The list on offer can be endless, and there is pressure on churches to market themselves, and find creative ways of using space to appeal to the apparent ‘popular market’.

But the danger is that in all of this, we forget not just who we are but whose we are. The drive to consumerism even when it promises to help a worthy cause is, as a friend pointed out to me recently really just about buying more stuff; it doesn’t save the planet or removing global poverty! We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, so writes Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In the drama of Acts, at the time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Paul had yet to realise that, we know those words and yet so often we forget them. Not just who we are, but whose we are. Innovation, by all means, but introspective navel gazing by all means not! When we remember whose we are, then we can respond in humility and not arrogance.

Through the Holy Spirit, by proclaiming the Gospel, as one commentator observes, we still attend to the words of Jesus; in the church and in the world, we still attend to the acts of Jesus in his body. We attend to the word of God that calls upon us still; but to do any of that effectively, we need to be able to notice the things that surround us, and do that, we also need to slow down sometimes…and that…is not easy. For all its exuberance and obvious energy, the Holy Spirit isn’t about a trolley dash through the aisles, it’s about attending to the still small voice, and noticing the signs on the road. Too often the church becomes fixed on its own glory and ignores the profound reality that following Jesus was not, is not, and never shall be about power and glory; quite the opposite.

Last week, I visited one of the church schools in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds. I met a young woman who is taking her GCSEs. I listened into a conversation she was having with a career’s advisor about a work placement that she wants to do after her exams are over: at a local radio station. She will have responsibility for producing her own programme, and she was very excited at the prospect this would offer her of enlivening and growing her gifts in the world of media studies. The fact that she is confined to a wheelchair following a freak accident as a 5 year-old would not prevent her from fulfilling her dreams. I was deeply humbled by my encounter with her, by her positivity and joy in a life that some would no doubt find unbearable and without hope.

Our lives are far more about navigating our way through mist than they are about enjoying the views from the top of the mountain. Whereas other revelations of God take place at height, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes in a down-to-earth level place where the followers of Jesus were gathered together. ‘I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple’ (so writes John Henry Newman), ‘but God declared: Go down again – I dwell among the people.’ God became one of us, dwelt among us, died on the cross for us, and rose again. We don’t spend all our days on mountain tops, we need to come down and when we do, we might indeed discover that the small pools from which we sometimes drink offer us the overflowing and sourceless light of God’s wisdom, grace and mercy.

Amen.

Friction?

A reflection shared with the Wensley Chapter during a Eucharist in Middleham, May 17th 2018.

Acts 22.30, 23.6-11; John 17.20-end

Yesterday afternoon, I was driving from a school visit in Harrogate to a meeting Leeds (or rather arguing with my SatNav which was giving me inaccurate [that’s my interpretation] directions requiring me to twice do a U-turn loop around the one-way system, adding about 15 minutes onto my already slightly pressured commute!). In-between the Sat-Nav’s polite but insistent voice, I caught a trailer on Radio 4 for a forthcoming programme in their ‘The Digital Human’ series called ‘Friction.’

I checked it on online yesterday evening when I was back home, and the blurb says this:

‘It’s the life we’re told we want, where we just shout at a device and our needs are met as quickly as the supply chain allows. Aleks Krotoski (that’s the presenter) explores frictionless digital living. But is there value in friction? Aleks hears from someone who’s life depends on it, mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick. He has a reputation for stacking the odds against himself as much as possible; long routes, often climbed alone in the worst of conditions. Back on the ground Andy also needs friction to not get complacent, accept others views without question, to keep moving forward. Without friction we risk falling prey to what economist Umair Hague describes as the infantilisation economy. One where we are diminished but being able to have our every need met by Amazon’s Alexa…Ultimately, Aleks will ask what we’re saving all this time and effort for and do we ever reap the benefits? Or does it just keep us where the digital world wants us, consuming in ever more efficient ways.’

Now, you’re probably wondering what does this have to do with us, and specifically how does it shed light on what the Spirit might be saying to the church in our readings?

Imagine a frictionless early church?

Imagine a frictionless current church?

Of course not! Doesn’t exist, and thank God for that!

The entire story of God’s dealings with our world and with human beings only works because of friction. Why? Friction produces growth; it may not always be pretty; it may at times be incredibly hard work, but as a friend of mine often tells me ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’! Rather like the mountaineer in the Radio programme, we should not become complacent because complacency breeds apathy and inertia, and before you know it, everything has ground to a halt and we don’t know why?!

Religious debates were part and parcel of the contexts within which Jesus and Paul lived and ministered. What is both interesting and significant about our reading from Acts is the information it gives us about the variety of Judaism in the First century; so much so that some scholars even talk about Judaisms (plural) not Judaism, as if it were a monolithic whole with everyone thinking and believing the same thing. This must be the lens through which we understand Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel: unity is not the same as uniformity. Friction is a place of creative energy, if only we could see it positively. When we encounter obstacles, they make us stop, pause, and reevaluate. Imagine if we threw ourselves into absolutely everything with no care or regard?

Whatever we might think, the message of Acts is clear: that it is God who is in charge!

That night to Lord stood near him and said: ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’

At the start of this week, during our Ripon Episcopal Area Staff residential, I shared a reflection that cited the words borne by the new statue in Parliament Square. When you look at the statue you aren’t drawn immediately to the person: the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, more the words in the banner she carries which say: Courage calls to courage everywhere.

A compelling statement if ever there was one!

The word for courage doesn’t appear very often in the New Testament, only 7 times in fact. What is significant is that when it does appear it is always in the form of a command. Have courage is a more accurate translation of Acts 23.11. It is interesting that courage which can result in the boldest of acts comes hand in hand with vulnerability, that point when we seem to be at our weakest.

We are all bound up in the narrative of discipleship, whether we agree or disagree, whether we are walking on a smooth path or a path beset by obstacles. It’s only in the fullness that we can get a clear sense of our terrain, the land we can work, sow, and reap so that we might grow the Kingdom of God.

I’m holding all of this in my mind at the moment as I continue to get to know the people and places of this episcopal Area as part of this whole Diocese of Leeds. That is the task of discernment and discipleship that I have been called to in this season, and I rejoice that you are companions with me on the road.

Courage calls to courage everywhere.

Amen! Thanks be to God.

Easter fool

My Easter sermon from Ripon Cathedral.

John 20.1-18

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that Holy Week this year began with a bit of (what can be described in Dr Who terms as) ‘wibbly, wobbly, timey wimey stuff’: in other words, the clocks went forward an hour. A glance at the calendar tells us that this day (as well as being Easter Day) also happens to be the first day of a particular month. One newspaper yesterday helpfully suggested that today is (and I quote) ‘a once in a lifetime chance to play corny and obvious-Easter themed pranks on your friends’, such as: replace chocolate eggs on the Easter egg hunt with altogether more healthy carrots (the rationale being that the Easter bunny has in fact eaten all the eggs); or buy a packet of mini-eggs with foil, unwrap them carefully, eat the chocolate yourself and replace the mini-eggs with grapes; finally, the invisible Easter egg hunt – which really explains itself. I hasten to add that none of these will be the case in this Cathedral for the Easter egg hunt that follows this Eucharist!

Today is April 1st, April fools’ day, and Easter Day. A first century headline could well have been ‘Jesus is risen,’ because nobody thought that would happen. But it did. Fact. We join with Christians the world over this day in rejoicing in this wondrous news.

In our Gospel reading from John, we listen to what was quite a chaotic Easter morning: the stone is rolled away, the body has gone. Everyone starts running (so one commentator points out); linen cloths are strewn about. This is no grave-robbery; something else has happened here. And yet, the disciples go back home. For a cup of tea and a lie-down? Or perhaps out of fear to consider what to do next? Mary remains, weeping. And then she encounters the risen Jesus, but only recognises him when he says her name. And then, with an echo of the beginning of the Gospel where Jesus says ‘come and you will see…’ Mary proclaims the resurrection with the words: ‘I have seen the Lord!’

But here’s the thing: Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him. She must let go of him, and in the letting go become the person who proclaims. To hold on to the Word incarnate, the risen Christ, is not what Mary does; she lets go of his physical body so that she, and we, can become the agents of growing God’s kingdom. Jesus has risen, but this is not simply a return to how things were before the resurrection; it is a confirmation and an affirmation of what being a disciple is about. You have to get out there and tell the story; you have show in words and in actions, that the love of God knows no bounds; that death does not have the final word, and that in his resurrection,

Jesus showed us the fullness of God’s power, a power made perfect in weakness.

The resurrection of Jesus does not however begin or end in economic transaction: with shoppers competing to secure the chocolate egg of choice from the rapidly clearing shelves. Our understanding of the resurrection is grounded in a faith context that is over 2000 years old, and carries a deep connection to the Jewish observation of the festival of Passover: the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It was likely the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his friends, the disciples, the night of his betrayal. All those events happened a long time ago, in a context very different from our own. So where and how do we begin to understand and articulate a radical belief in God who raised Jesus from the dead? What difference does it make to our city, to our region? In our world of deep scientific exploration and the need for certainty, there is little room for mystery, wonder and events that turn everything upside down. But perhaps the challenge lies ahead rather than a focus on the mechanics of the empty tomb: there was no 24-hr news coverage after all. It’s what we do with it now that really matters. As we leave this place, we begin again.

‘Beginning’ is a good place to start, because although the resurrection might be viewed as the triumphal end to the story of Jesus, in actual fact, it marks more of a beginning than an ending. The Christian theologian Alistair McGrath describes how the need to see things afresh, from the beginning, has been an important theme throughout history. In order to appreciate something for how it really is, we need to empty our minds and remove memories of things we already know. If we can do that, then we can allow ourselves to be taken by surprise when a beginning takes place, especially when that is something routine that we would otherwise take for granted.

That I think is the point of Jesus’ instruction to go and tell; he doesn’t say ‘hello’ or ‘how’s it going Mary?’ he instills a deep sense that God has done something alarmingly new.

The power of the resurrection lies not only in the fact of it having happened, but in its reaffirmation of life in a world where God is now set loose and everything is turned upside down. Through Jesus’ birth, God enabled a connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary – something far more profound that the display of objects from the past alone can ever hope to express.

Through the cross and resurrection, God affirmed a hope in humanity that brought us through the shadow of death into an eternal light. That message has remained crucial at every stage of human history. This year as we commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War; this current climate of global anxiety, war, terror, fake-news; national and local challenges caused by Brexit; challenges that we personally might be facing.

If we take hold of the rejoicing, then we have good news for the journey. If we allow the joy to enfold every fibre of our being, then we have strength to hold and to share when the road becomes difficult.

This is no April fool – it is the stunning and joy-filled reality of God’s love and mercy freely given to us all.

The liturgist and craftsman of words and prayers Jim Cotter, says this about joy:

A Presence,

the Living Mysterious One:

a joyful presence,

running to meet us like a welcoming friend,

laughing with us in the merriment of heaven,

feasting with us at the great banquet,

Clown of clowns,

Fool of fools,

the only Entertainer of jesters.

In the presence of the Joyful One,

we rejoice.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed, alleluia!

Easter fool

A sermon preached on Easter Day in Ripon Cathedral.

John 20.1-18

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that Holy Week this year began with a bit of (what can be described in Dr Who terms as) ‘wibbly, wobbly, timey wimey stuff’: in other words, the clocks went forward an hour. At the other end of the week, a glance at the calendar tells us that this day (as well as being Easter Day) also happens to be the first day of a particular month. One newspaper yesterday helpfully suggested that today is (and I quote) ‘a once in a lifetime chance to play corny and obvious-Easter themed pranks on your friends’, such as: replace chocolate eggs on the Easter egg hunt with altogether more healthy carrots (the rationale being that the Easter bunny has in fact eaten all the eggs); or buy a packet of mini-eggs with foil, unwrap them carefully, eat the chocolate yourself and replace the mini-eggs with grapes; finally, the invisible Easter egg hunt – which really explains itself. I hasten to add that none of these will be the case in this Cathedral for the Easter egg hunt that follows this Eucharist!

Today is April 1st, April fools’ day, and Easter Day. A first century headline could well have been ‘Jesus is risen,’ because nobody thought that would happen. But it did. Fact. We join with Christians the world over this day in rejoicing in this wondrous news.

In our Gospel reading from John, we listen to what was quite a chaotic Easter morning: the stone is rolled away, the body has gone. Everyone starts running (so one commentator points out); linen cloths are strewn about. This is no grave-robbery; something else has happened here. And yet, the disciples go back home. For a cup of tea and a lie-down? Or perhaps out of fear to consider what to do next? Mary remains, weeping. And then she encounters the risen Jesus, but only recognises him when he says her name. And then, with an echo of the beginning of the Gospel where Jesus says ‘come and you will see…’ Mary proclaims the resurrection with the words: ‘I have seen the Lord!’

But here’s the thing: Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him. She must let go of him, and in the letting go become the person who proclaims. To hold on to the Word incarnate, the risen Christ, is not what Mary does; she lets go of his physical body so that she, and we, can become the agents of growing God’s kingdom. Jesus has risen, but this is not simply a return to how things were before the resurrection; it is a confirmation and an affirmation of what being a disciple is about. You have to get out there and tell the story; you have show in words and in actions, that the love of God knows no bounds; that death does not have the final word, and that in his resurrection,

Jesus showed us the fullness of God’s power, a power made perfect in weakness.

The resurrection of Jesus does not however begin or end in economic transaction: with shoppers competing to secure the chocolate egg of choice from the rapidly clearing shelves. Our understanding of the resurrection is grounded in a faith context that is over 2000 years old, and carries a deep connection to the Jewish observation of the festival of Passover: the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It was likely the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his friends, the disciples, the night of his betrayal. All those events happened a long time ago, in a context very different from our own. So where and how do we begin to understand and articulate a radical belief in God who raised Jesus from the dead? What difference does it make to our city, to our region? In our world of deep scientific exploration and the need for certainty, there is little room for mystery, wonder and events that turn everything upside down. But perhaps the challenge lies ahead rather than a focus on the mechanics of the empty tomb: there was no 24-hr news coverage after all. It’s what we do with it now that really matters. As we leave this place, we begin again.

‘Beginning’ is a good place to start, because although the resurrection might be viewed as the triumphal end to the story of Jesus, in actual fact, it marks more of a beginning than an ending. The Christian theologian Alistair McGrath describes how the need to see things afresh, from the beginning, has been an important theme throughout history. In order to appreciate something for how it really is, we need to empty our minds and remove memories of things we already know. If we can do that, then we can allow ourselves to be taken by surprise when a beginning takes place, especially when that is something routine that we would otherwise take for granted.

That I think is the point of Jesus’ instruction to go and tell; he doesn’t say ‘hello’ or ‘how’s it going Mary?’ he instills a deep sense that God has done something alarmingly new. The power of the resurrection lies not only in the fact of it having happened, but in its reaffirmation of life in a world where God is now set loose and everything is turned upside down. Through Jesus’ birth, God enabled a connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary – something far more profound that the display of objects from the past alone can ever hope to express.

Through the cross and resurrection, God affirmed a hope in humanity that brought us through the shadow of death into an eternal light. That message has remained crucial at every stage of human history. This year as we commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War; this current climate of global anxiety, war, terror, fake-news; national and local challenges caused by Brexit; challenges that we personally might be facing.

If we take hold of the rejoicing, then we have good news for the journey. If we allow the joy to enfold every fibre of our being, then we have strength to hold and to share when the road becomes difficult.

This is no April fool – it is the stunning and joy-filled reality of God’s love and mercy freely given to us all.

The liturgist and craftsman of words and prayers Jim Cotter, says this about joy:

A Presence,

the Living Mysterious One:

a joyful presence,

running to meet us like a welcoming friend,

laughing with us in the merriment of heaven,

feasting with us at the great banquet,

Clown of clowns,

Fool of fools,

the only Entertainer of jesters.

In the presence of the Joyful One,

we rejoice.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed, alleluia!

Good Friday – What is truth?

A sermon preached in Ripon Cathedral during the Good Friday liturgy.

Good Friday sermon

John 18-19

‘What is truth?’ asks Pilate, failing to recognise that the question should in fact have been ‘who is Truth?’. The answer to that was standing right in front of him.

I am sure we have all been in that place, of posing a question not realising that the answer is staring us in the face?

The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice

With which he speaks in judgement, all his

powers

Of perception and discrimination, choice,

Decision, all his years, his days and hours,

His consciousness of self, his every sense,

Are given by this prisoner, freely given.

The man who stands there making no defence,

Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.

And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels

That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts

It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.

He gives himself again with all his gifts

Into our hands. As Pilate turns away

A door swings open. This is judgement day.

Words of the poet Malcolm Guite.

We live in a time of ‘Post-truth’ and ‘fake news.’ ‘Post-truth’ (according to the Oxford Dictionary) is defined as ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals. It was particularly prevalent following the 2016 Brexit vote, and the 2017 US presidential election’. In other words, we ignore the plain facts and take our lead purely from emotional appeals.

It’s easy to see how this happens, and maybe we even can relate to it. Sometimes you might know something to be true, or likely to be so, but your head is overruled by your heart.

Pilate’s question to Jesus is deeply ironic, he fails to recognise that Jesus is the Truth. There is a fundamental Johnannine theme at work here: Jesus is Wisdom Incarnate: sent by God into the world with the message of life and truth. This in turn is picked up by us today: as Jesus’ disciples we are charged with bringing that message of life and truth into our communities and our world.

If post-truth politics is the new normal, then the church has an obligation to speak out. Emotional appeals that fuel hatred and mistrust run counter to the Gospel message of love, hope, justice and mercy. One commentator writes: ‘Post-truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness. It erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization. When enough of us peddle fantasy as fact, society loses its grounding in reality. Society would crumble altogether if we assumed others were as likely to dissemble as tell the truth. We are perilously close to that point’ (Ralph Keyes).

The Holy Week journey offers us an opportunity to correct this post-truth with a declaration that the one crucified on this day is the way, the truth and the life. If we fashion ourselves after Jesus then we become bearers of truth. If we follow the way of Jesus then we become bringers of compassion and justice. Power made perfect in weakness, not strength.

While we participate in the particular story of Jesus, we do so knowing the promised revelation of the Holy Spirit will bring us into new encounters with the divine. Truth is never final, never absolute, because each one of us is being constantly brought into a deeper communion with God. So let this moment be for you an opportunity to journey deeper into the mystery of God. For truth also lies in the beyondness of things, we constantly reach for it. Glimpses, when they come reveal that truth to us, often in surprising and unexpected ways.

It is finished.

But not quite.

A final breath.

An end, so it seemed.

Dead, body broken, limbs wasted, spirit gone.

Just the dreadful howling wind of nothingness.

Just this cross of wood.

Stained with blood.

Colour drained.

Body pained.

Where to now?

We do not know.

We might as well go.

He has gone.

Was it all for nothing?

God, where are you now.

Are you still there, God?

Are you still there,

Are you still

Are you

Are

Only silence remains…

Silence held in God’s embrace.

Meditations for Good Friday – sensing the cross

My reflections from this afternoon’s guided meditation by the cross in Ripon Cathedral.

Introduction

For our meditations this Good Friday, I will be reflecting on aspects of Jesus’ Passion as told in Mark’s Gospel. The translation that I shall use is that by Nicholas King, a Jesuit priest who is based in Oxford; a former colleague of mine, and a good friend. Nick’s translation of the whole Bible is remarkable for its capacity to make you sit up and take notice of words and narratives that are, for many, so familiar. As I reflected one evening before Compline this week, part of the challenge of entering into the drama and journey of this week is not being complacent about the events this week describes and holds.

Mark’s Gospel is written with a very clear sense of the present. The Greek is not in the past tense so much as in the present continuous. This has the effect of making it seem as though we are actually with Jesus and his disciples. This is not just something that happened in the historical past, but is something that is happening now. As we sit in this sacred space, we join the prayers and voices of Christians over hundreds of years, who have made this Holy Week journey in faith year after year; through joys and sorrows. Christ on the cross bore our sins; Christ in agony died for us that in our living we might recognise the plight of the poor and marginalised in our midst, and might have the capacity to examine our own lives to see if this is how God is purposing us to be?

Something that struck me yesterday evening during the Maundy Thursday liturgy, was the way in which my senses were engaged: we heard the words of Jesus as he instituted the Eucharist; we witnessed the washing of the feet that Canon Barry enacted; we touched the bread in our hands; we tasted the wine in our mouths; we were lifted by the aroma of the incense offered up to heaven.

So in these meditations, and in the silence that follows, I invite you to focus on the senses. What do you hear, see, touch, taste and smell? Not just in the words from Scripture, but all around us. God is present in this place, the heaviness of death hangs over us. Only then does the overwhelming sense of absence bear down upon us. It is finished.

And yet, we keep on breathing…

Reflection 1

Hearing

Mark 15.1-5

Pilate interrogates Jesus. Our ears are tuned to the drama. Imagine it played out. But first, a consultation: the high priests with the elders and scribes and the whole Sanhedrin. Imagine the noise! Was it polite discussion, or an angry mess of confusion and fear? Jesus is handed over to Pilate, and in answering Jesus says only this: ‘You say so…’.

You say.

You. You Pilate, puppet governor of the Romans. The Romans don’t really care about this Judaean outpost do they? Out here on the edge of the world, the Empire is fading by the day. We know the Romans will surely not prevail. But fear takes over. Political insurrection cannot be tolerated. This man Jesus must be dealt with.

‘You say so…’

And then what do we hear? Silence, broken only by Pilate’s frustration and mounting anger.

If this happened in a secluded area, then maybe we can also hear the crowds outside? Muted shouts and cries; something is happening…what’s it like to be in a crowd? Exciting, terrifying? So much noise. Tension is in the air.

What do you hear?

Do you hear the silence of Jesus? Do you hear Pilate’s angry voice? Do you hear the crowds jeering for something to happen? We thought Jesus was a great man, but he’s a bit of a disappointment isn’t he? Do you hear the weight of God’s presence, moving in this place?

What do you hear?

God take our ears and open them to your word.

May we listen to the taunts uttered towards your Son Jesus Christ.

In our listening we acknowledge the shame of our complicity.

Help us, we pray to listen to the cries of your world.

Listen to our cries, O Lord we pray.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

(Hymn)

Reflection 2

Sight

Mark 15.16-20

A courtyard. More people. The colour purple. A wreath made of thorns. Jesus’ head is beaten, people spit at him, and mock him. The purple is removed, ha, what fun! Too good for this idiot. Jesus’ own clothes, dirty and torn. And he is led out to be crucified.

Our eyes behold this scene in horror and distress. Watching someone being tortured is horrendous. We can see his pain. We can see the laughter on the faces of those who taunt him. But what do we see if we look at ourselves? Are we standing by complicit in all of this? What do we see in the faces of those standing with us? Fear? Fun?

In the midst of the dust, the sweat, the tears, the blood, the colour purple is a vivid breaking in of the palate of royalty. Gold may have been too much, but purple? Purple dye was an item of great luxury, highly prized. Extracted from sea-snails, it was a labour-intensive process and, as a result was expensive. Only those with money and power would have access to purple. Jesus is given a purple robe. His claim to royalty? Ha! Not so. We see him mocked and teased. To beat his head brought great shame upon him. You don’t beat someone’s head unless you have no regard for them, worse than that, you wish them dead. Not long now, Jesus!

What do you see? Look around you now…imagine the scene that unfolds before us? Can you see it here, in this place? Look upon the cross…see Jesus as he journeys towards it…see his face, looking with pity and compassion upon our world.

God by your grace gaze upon us with love.

Though our eyes see only pain and hatred,

Open them afresh that we might look upon our homes and communities

With the eyes of Christ.

Where we see pain, help us to reach out in support,

Where we see joy, help us to share in celebration.

Where we struggle to see, give us deeper insight

That by your wisdom we may discern your purpose in our lives.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

(Hymn)

Reflection 3

Touch

Mark 15.21-26

Simon was only a passer-by. Going about his business, when somehow he got caught up in a scene that was unfolding in his transitory presence. What happened, changed his life. We know that, because his sons are mentioned too: Alexander and Rufus. All three of them turned their lives to Jesus that day, because of what happened. Simon carried Jesus’ cross. What does it feel like to touch wood? Is it rough, smooth? Is that a splinter in my finger? How annoying; I must get it out. It hurts. Wood, the substance Jesus’ earthy father Joseph had taught his son to craft. A good trade, carpentry. People always need a carpenter! Look at the skill of working with wood, run your hand along its edge. Perhaps flecks of dust disperse into the air? Touch the cross. The tree upon which Jesus hung.

The Dream of the Rood can be found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross, an 18 feet Anglo-Saxon cross. It is a poem articulating the voice of the cross.

That was very long ago, I remember it still,

That I was cut down from the edge of the wood,

Ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies,

Made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to raise up their criminals…

…They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds still visible, the open wounds of malice…I have experienced on that hillside many cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts

Violently stretched out…’

The cross feels the pain of humanity poured out upon it; the weight of divinity it must hold.

What does that feel like? Can we imagine?

God of love, we feel the rough edges of the cross upon which your son Jesus Christ died for us.

Help us to feel the edges of the communities to which we belong?

Strengthen us to perceive our feelings, and our failings.

May we have courage to feel the contours of our world,

The rough and smooth terrain of our journey in life,

And the journeys of those for whom we pray this day.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

(Hymn)

Reflection 4

Taste

Mark 15.33-37

Cake. I love a slice of good cake. Tasty! Chocolate, perhaps? Apparently there’s lots promised for Sunday. Other treats too. Can’t wait!

A sponge with vinegar. What does that taste like? Sour.

Tempted to try it, we immediately spit it out in disgust.

But if we were on the cross; if we were on the cross (we dare to contemplate even that?); our dehydration and pain caused by a slow suffocating death would mean that we would take it. Desperation prevails. The sour wine is cheap plonk, not of value. Wouldn’t serve that to guests!

Jesus cries out on the cross. God has abandoned him. God has abandoned Gods-self. Can we comprehend that? In that moment of fracture, God bears all of humanity’s pain.

‘Taste and see that the LORD is good!’ The Psalmist writes. ‘Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.’

What do we taste at this moment? The dry air; the dust of tragedy and betrayal. Death itself. It is finished. Nothing to see here. It is time to move on. The taste of nothingness; what was sweet only a memory now. The feasts we shared with Jesus! The laughter, the loaves and fishes he miraculously shared with 5000; the bread and good wine of that meal last night.

Taste. And See.

God of grace, we hold a bitter taste in our mouths.

Help us to share the sweetness of your mercy with all whom we meet.

We give thanks that we can taste and see your love on this day.

Where our senses are numb, restore in us your likeness,

That with bread and wine we may bring hope to our fractured world.

Nourish and sustain us this day, and all days.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

(Hymn)

Reflection 5

Smell

Mark 15.42-47

What is left? As we breathe, our nose becomes sensitive to what is around us. Is that a whiff of perfume; of alabaster oil? Or incense perhaps? The stench of death. A corpse. That is Jesus, who only a few hours ago was alive. But now he is no more.

Life goes on, for us. But for Jesus. No, he is no more.

God gave us senses that we might appreciate the world around us.

As we breathe in the sacred space, may we sense the air, and it’s life-giving properties. May be advocate for those who do not have fresh air to breathe.

May the offering of our own lives be an acceptable aroma to our God.

The tomb contains the dead body, the smell of decomposition will be enveloped in that place. Women will come to anoint of course. But what they will find there, we dare not imagine. Death. Life. Hope?

For now, it is ended. Death has it seemed had the last word, or…?

God whose only son our saviour Jesus Christ went to the cross for our sakes.

Bore in his body the sins of our world.

Give us grace to deny ourselves, to reach out to others around us,

Those whose lives do not hold give out a pleasing aroma.

The dirty, the down-trodden, the homeless, the lost.

In the cross set us free Lord, to be renewed in hope.

Lost in wonder, love and praise.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

Amen.