Sunday, 24 May 2015

Veni Creator: the seven gifts of the Spirit

At the end of this service, we shall sing one of the best known of all Whitsunday hymns, our own Bishop Cosin’s Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. It has the distinction of being the only hymn, in the modern sense, to be included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer where it invokes the Spirit at the start of the ordination prayer for priests and bishops.

            Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
            And lighten with celestial fire;
            Thou the anointing Spirit art,
            Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart
Cosin drew on a 9th century Latin hymn of Pentecost when he wrote it in 1625. But the event he composed it for was not an ordination but a coronation, that of King Charles I. And in this his instinct was faithful to the biblical origins of this opening stanza. Its reference to the ‘sevenfold gifts’ takes us back to the lesson from Isaiah that we heard earlier. There, the prophet is looking forward to a new and glorious reign of the coming king who will emerge from the root of Jesse, the line of David. What kind of ruler will he be? Isaiah tells us. ‘The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. That makes six gifts. What about the seventh? That was added by the Greek translators of the Septuagint who included the spirit of piety or reverence.
In catholic moral theology, these seven gifts came to be seen as among the God-given lists that offer compass-bearings for the faithful as they navigate the spiritual life: seven deadly sins to avoid, seven virtues to embrace and live by, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer. So on this Whit Sunday, let’s reflect briefly on these beautiful qualities as gifts of the anointing Spirit to the Messiah, to the church and to us. And although they have moved some way from their original setting in the prophecies of Isaiah, John Cosin, an accomplished moral theologian who had read St Thomas Aquinas, would have understood this way of speaking about them.
Wisdom, sapientia, embraces all the other gifts; it means having the insight and capacity to place the spiritual above the material and transient and to see into the life of things. Understanding, intellectus, suggests the disciplined training of a Christian mind to think as God thinks, pursue truth as it is taught us by the Spirit of Truth, see through falsehood and illusion. Counsel, consilium, is right judgment or discernment to know right from wrong and make and follow the choice to live by what is good and true. Courage, fortitudo, is the overcoming of fear and evil and embracing risk to follow the way of Jesus Christ and publicly stand up for it. It is the virtue that emanates from a mind that is single-focused, set only on doing the will of the Father as Jesus obeyed him in his life and death. Knowledge, scientia, is one outcome of the second gift of understanding as the believer begins to grasp the meaning of God, not as the accumulation of information or doctrinal grasp, but as an aspect of Christian formation whereby we make the good choices of loving God and our neighbour.
Piety, pietas, is not simply ‘spirituality’, but rather the respecting and honouring the sources of our life and health: our parents, teachers and the church who together have shaped us, the public institutions to which we owe gratitude and loyalty, above all God himself whom we reverence as the author and giver of all good things. Finally, the fear of the Lord, timor Domini, stands for the gift of wonderment and adoration as we become ever more aware of the glory and majesty of God. The fear of the Lord teaches us that God is the perfection of all we long for: perfect knowledge, goodness, power, and love. Thomas Aquinas says this is not being afraid of punishment but rather a child’s fear of displeasing the parent they love. The Hebrew Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, so it brings us full circle to that first and all-embracing gift of wisdom.
All this, says Isaiah, is true of the promised anointed king, the messianic ruler who will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, in whose days the lion will lie down with the lamb, and children will play safely over an adder’s den, when nothing will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We cherish these promises and live by the hope they set before us, and are right to think of the reign of Jesus our risen and glorious Lord whose kingship we have celebrated in the days of Ascension and whose just and gentle rule we long for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come!’ And come it will, be it soon, be it late. We wait for it, we long for it, and because of it, we are always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.
Whitsunday invites us, not indeed to lose that long view but also to set our sights on the tasks and obligations of Christian living in the present. This, says Jesus to his disciples in the upper room, must be our daily concern when he is gone. It is for this that the Spirit of Truth comes, to lead us into truth, to give us a right judgment in all things, to impart the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit the hymn teaches us about. For in Christ, these are not the prerogatives of anointed messiah alone, but are for all who are anointed in baptism and sealed by the Spirit, for all of us whom Christian faith has made into the royal companions of the King of Glory. In St John, Paraclete is a word that glitters with expectation and is bright with promise: the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Encourager, the Advocate who both teaches and puts into our hearts the blazing fire and rushing wind and living water of God’s eternal love. Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love. What would life be without the Spirit among us, between us and within us? What use would we be without the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts to make us fully human and perfect in us the image of Jesus? How can the church be a transforming influence in the world unless the Spirit’s gifts animate and inspire every breath we breathe?
Which is why I want to urge on the church the need to meditate on these sevenfold gifts. I see a church today that is at risk of panicking as it watches itself diminish in numbers and influence, as it wonders whether even Christian faith itself could be at risk of eclipse and a lingering, painful, sclerotic death. It’s understandable that our church is tempted to become busy and excitable, embark on great outreach projects with relentless energy, invest vast sums of money to try to turn this stately galleon Christianity round before it is too late. It is understandable. Like climate change, we can either pretend it isn’t happening, or engage seriously in mitigating its inevitable effects.
But the texts of Pentecost tell us that all the best-intentioned endeavour in the world will count for nothing without the Spirit of God and the seven gifts of an anointed people: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord. They give us a ‘values statement’ for the imitation of Christ. But they call for a deep and spiritual intelligence – ‘mindfulness’ - if we are to become life-changing agents of mission. These are gifts to make us into reflective practitioners, as they say, to foster wisdom before they are impulses to activity. The question at Pentecost must be: how do we cultivate the vocation of the church to practise mission with this kind of contemplative wise biblical insight? How do we make sure that in what we do and the way we do it, we are truly emulating our anointed King, and listening to what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

Durham Cathedral, Whitsunday 2015. Isaiah 11.1-9, John 16.1-15

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Lion Hunt: farewell to school-leavers

In Iraq and Syria, Isis has been destroying priceless remains from the ancient world. The legendary site at Palmyra is only the latest threat. A few weeks ago we learned about the ancient site at Nimrud where Isis has hacked down marvellous buildings and sculptures that were irreplaceable. Human life is cheap at the hand of radical Islamists, whether it is flesh and blood men, women and children, or the memories and heritage previous generations have left behind.

However, all is not lost. If you go to the British Museum, you can see some of the reliefs from Nimrud that were taken away by archaeologists in the 19th century. My favourite is a 9th century lion hunt from Ashurnasirpal’s palace. Lion-hunting was the sport of kings in the ancient world. Ashurnasirpal claimed he had killed 450. The king is standing in his horse-drawn chariot. One poor lion is being trampled underneath, while another is rearing up behind the king who is firing arrows at him. But don’t be taken in. These iron age lions were not wild. They were reared especially for the king’s entertainment, stabled and then released like greyhounds let out on to the track. It was entirely staged.

Maybe leaving school feels a bit like being a captive lion let out of the trap in order to be hunted for the sport of others. Not for you I’m sure: Dunelmians have the prospect of excellent results this summer, and university, college or a promising job to go to. That’s not true of other, less privileged students whose future may be a lot less promising. When my Jewish mother came out of Nazi Germany as a refugee, she was much the same age as you. But it meant the end of her education. This was among many things she could never forgive the Nazis for. She made sure that her own children had nothing but the best when it came to school and university. How much I owe to that!  

At leavers’ services I’m usually the one who stays behind while everyone else heads off for new horizons. Not this year. I am in the odd position of being a leaver too. When School reassembles in September, I shall be retiring. This is my last school sermon here. So what I say to you I’m saying to myself too.  For you and me, what lies ahead of us is a threshold we must cross into another life beyond. It may not seem real just yet. After all these years of schooling, what is life going to be like for you? After all these years of taking services and preaching sermons, what will it be like for me? It is edgy, facing a future that we can’t know yet. Yes, life should always be opening up ahead of us, full of possibility and promise. But like E. M. Forster’s past, the future is another country. They do things differently there. It’s a landscape we need to get to know. It will take time.
So how so we say goodbye? First, with thankfulness. My schooldays weren’t the happiest time of my life: I’ve found that life goes on getting better. But education is such a formative period in our lives. There will have been difficult or uncertain times when we have been under pressure, or wondering why we are here, or feeling anxious or fearful or alone. But I hope that while still being true to those experiences, we can all celebrate this rich period in our lives. In our second reading, St Paul asks us to think about what is true and honourable and commendable: ‘if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ This isn’t just the popular wisdom of the old song ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with mister in between’. It’s seeing how all of life is a great gift. At these thresholds it’s important to take stock, reflect on the ways God has been good to us and has led us on our journey to this point. And this should make us thankful. Gratitude lies at the heart of a contented and fulfilled life.

Second, we should say goodbye in a spirit of hope. Looking ahead is as important as looking behind. Yes, so much is unknown to us. How can we predict where we shall be even a year ahead, let alone a lifetime? But life has begun well for you. I remember as a five year old seeing a huge advert in the tube for Start-Rite shoes. It showed a child holding the hand of a parent, brave but not quite certain yet, taking tentative steps down a long straight road towards a sunrise. ‘Start right and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ I used to wonder what lay beyond, how far these little shoes of mine would carry me. The journeys you make, your life’s work, the friendships and the loves that shape your lives: it is all part of the sunrise that lies ahead. And school has given you the foundation of lifelong learning which is not simply gaining knowledge and skills, but about knowing yourself, about emotional and spiritual intelligence, about becoming good citizens, about forming sound values and growing into mature wisdom. Even in dark times, we can grasp the future confidently, for God walks with us at the best and worst of times. He promises never to leave or abandon us; he is the focus of our best hopes and expectations.

 ‘For all that has been: thanks! To all that shall be: yes!’ said a great UN statesman Dag Hammarskjold. So we pause on this threshold today, being aware of what is happening to us. I am finding out that ‘mindfulness’, stopping to think and reflect rather than rushing headlong from one phase of life into the next, is making a big difference to how I feel about leaving here and retiring. But let’s end where our readings do. From the Old Testament: ‘you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace.’ And St Paul: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ He goes on: ‘do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.’ I should love to promise you a future free of anxiety and care, and would be glad if someone offered it to me. That’s not reality, of course. But this is: something that was said by a great woman of the middle ages, Julian of Norwich. ‘God did not say We shall not be troubled, we shall not be travailed, we shall not be dis-eased; but he said, we shalt not be overcome.’ Isaiah and Paul would have liked that. It makes all the difference to how we navigate the challenges and complexities of life.  

Paul says finally, ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ That is the truth by which I have tried to live and hope to die. He will not let us down. So have wonderful lives. Make a difference to the world. Flourish and be happy. Trust in God. Go well. And God be with you all.

Durham School Leavers’ Service, 22 May 2015 Isaiah 55, Philippians 4.4-9

Sunday, 10 May 2015

70 Years after the End of the War in Europe

‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Those words we heard in today’s gospel are familiar to us from thousands of wartime graves and memorials from both world wars of the twentieth century. Our thoughts have been much occupied with the Great War for the past year. But 2015 marks the seventy years that have passed since the end of the war in Europe.  We must not forget that in the Far East the war did not end until August 1945 with the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But here in Europe, on the 8 May seventy years ago, the bells rang out to announce the long awaited end of hostilities. We observed the silence here on Friday to remember the fallen, and yesterday the bells rang out at 1100 as they did in cathedrals across the country.

Today we can be thankful that since then our continent has been spared armed conflict on this scale.  We must not be complacent about this. The Balkans and Ukraine showed that war can erupt along forgotten fault-lines without warning.  Global terror poses new threats to peace and stability.  Our democracies must be vigilant in the face of far-right neo-fascist movements that reawaken old hatreds.  We must keep alive the vision of our common European home where our peoples are learning to live together as a community and heal past memories.  This vision ought forever to have laid to rest any thought that we could ever be at war again.  You cannot stand in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, or in the Frauenkirche in Dresden, or in the Marienkirche in our partner city of Lübeck where the shattered bells still lie where they fell during the allied bombing raids of 1942 without recognising this.  Each human life that was lost in the war on either side was unique and precious.  We do not forget that today.  Because of this attrition, our nations have invested in peace.  The memory of sacrifice demands it of us.  The work of reconciliation is how we best honour the fallen.  

What is a Christian take on today as we look back to the 8 May 1945? In our church, the same day is kept as the festival of one of our most remarkable saints.  Her name was Julian, and she lived in the fourteenth century.  She devoted her life to prayer walled up in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. You can see a rare example of a surviving anchorite cell just up the road at the beautiful church of Chester-le-Street. Many people came to her for spiritual guidance.  She was famous for the visions she received, her ‘showings’. Julian wrote them down in her book Revelations of Divine Love, to this day one of the most treasured classics of English spiritual writing.  She said, you might almost think for VE Day: ‘He did not say, you shall not be troubled, you shall thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, you shall not be overcome.’ It came out of the profound assurance that whatever life’s circumstances, whatever the trouble or difficulty or pain, whatever the hardships and sufferings, nevertheless God’s nature and God’s name is love.  So she wrote: ‘all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.’

It is a promising saying for this day. On 8 May 1945, the message was that despite all that war had inflicted, people dared to look forward.  They dared to hope once more, dared to believe that all might ‘be well’.  After the pain, there was the prospect of healing; after the conflict, reconciliation; after the passion, resurrection; after death and destruction, life and love. No doubt it felt hard to say this out of the ashes of war. No doubt it was hard to say it in Julian’s time: the middle ages were a cruel and dangerous era for most ordinary people. There are times for all of us when it is still hard to say, and harder still to believe.  Yet Easter requires us to take this massive step of faith.  For the first dawning of Easter faith was a hoping against hope that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead.  Easter faith dares to believe that God’s purposes of love can never be thwarted: all shall be well. 

This is our faith in this eucharist as we gather together on the first day of the week to give thanks once more that God raised Jesus from death and that he is alive forever in our midst and in the life of our world.  Thursday is Ascension Day when we acclaim that he is Lord of all things.  He fills heaven and earth with his presence, for as the psalm says of the Son of Man, ‘God has put all things under his feet’.  That means all nations and rulers, the world empires, every human family and institution, even, in the New Testament, the demonic powers of the air.  His reign gives us the strength to do his work on earth.  He is the Prince of Peace, so we make peace in his name.  He is the righteous Servant, so we establish justice in his name.  He is King of creation, so we care for the environment in his name.  He is King of kings, so we bring hope in his name.  And because this Lord of glory bears the wounds of the passion, we stand with all who suffer, in his name.

Our world is more broken than ever: the reign of the risen and exalted Christ is not realised yet.  That is to come in God’s time, be it soon, be it late. But the resurrection invites us into the movement of God’s eternal love for the world to play our part in embodying and living it in our own love for the world and our service of humanity. It is as clear as the day in this morning’s gospel: ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ The greater love of a friend for a friend, of a comrade for a comrade, of one human being for another is the love of the Saviour for his people, of an incarnate Son for those whose lives he comes into our world to share. The laying down of our lives for our friends delineates the cross-shaped character of our humanity as the Spirit of Jesus is re-making it in his own image. It is the self-emptying, self-giving sacrificial character of God himself. It is how love manifests itself in the myriad ways whose truth and beauty we see all around us when people are good, and merciful, just, and kind, that is to say, when they act out of their true God-given humanity and recognise, with Julian, that in all things, ‘love was his meaning’. 

We have just emerged from an election. Our freedoms to speak, debate and vote are central to VE Day, because the war was fought precisely to resist the tyranny that overwhelmed Europe in the 1930s. Now our politicians must turn their thoughts to building a society where people flourish, the common good is honoured, and all are treated with justice and compassion. Peace-making and the quest for a better world order, about which we have heard far too little in the campaign, require that the voice of the weak is heard, refugees are cared for, the despairing are given hope and the poor are not forgotten. But the lesson of the last war is that nationhood, like patriotism, is not enough. Our flourishing happens as we play our part in the family of nations to whom it falls to care for the world and for humanity. This was the vision that sustained those who fought and fell in the war, and the architects of the peace that followed seventy years ago.

Mother Julian gives us the inspiration to turn our hope into the prayer that all may be well because ‘love is his meaning’. She says: ‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’. This is what we see with our own eyes at Golgotha in the greater love God shows us as he lays down his life for his friends. 

Durham Cathedral, 10 May 2015.  1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17

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



Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Dark and Dreadful Death

This is the sixth in our series of sermons on St Mark’s passion narrative. Throughout Lent we have walked the via dolorosa with Jesus. Today we have arrived at its awful destination: Golgotha, crucifixion, darkness, desolation and pain. It is a world away from Palm Sunday with its hosanna acclamations and royal expectations. If ever you needed a reason not to trust a crowd, it is Palm Sunday. For look what has become of this king! The mob has bellowed for his crucifixion. He cannot, will not, save himself from this destiny, St Mark’s three fateful ‘musts’ that have pointed to this journey’s end. Today, on this Sunday of the Passion, we contemplate him as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

If we are honest, part of us does not know what to make of him hanging there. The trouble is, we know this story too well. We know, or think we know, what lies beyond the end of it, which is next Sunday’s theme. We also know how the other three evangelists tell it and they colour our reading of St Mark. If we only had this first among the gospels, it would both appal and baffle us. We would be baffled because Mark does not explain why the innocent Son of Man should undergo such suffering. We would be appalled because Mark does not spare us the agony: the darkness that falls on the scene, the desperation of this man’s last cry, the hopelessness of this death. And worst of all perhaps, he endures all this alone, taunted and mocked on every side, deserted by his friends, abandoned by God. This is a narrative of dread. We should tremble to read it.

Let me explore some of the themes in this part of the story. The first is the darkness. Forget about eclipses, even though they are recent memory this year. Mark’s darkness is altogether deeper than a mere shadow. It’s the darkness of judgment in our lesson from Amos which Mark quotes earlier in the gospel in a famous apocalyptic passage. ‘In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and that stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken’ (13.24-5). Jesus is speaking just before the passion narrative begins. He says that the kingdom of God cannot come until there is an utter collapse of the present world order: the great stones of the temple will be toppled, human communities and relationships will disintegrate, the entire cosmos will fall in an instant like a house of cards. Mark expects us to remember that saying, so that when we hear of the sun’s light failing in the middle of the day, we recognise what it represents. It is the end of the world, and it is the end of Jesus’s world. He must be extinguished like the sun. He must collapse and die as everything dies round him.

That is dreadful enough. But my second theme is darker still: Jesus’s last word from the cross. Was ever a cry more desperate and more desolate than this awful cry with which he dies? Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? We must tread carefully here, for we are on holy ground. Our Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle captures something of it: the figure of Jesus whittled down to its bare essentials like the skeleton of a dead tree, his back arched in agonising pain. ‘Was ever grief like mine’ he seems to say to us. But this is more than physical suffering. There is a godforsakenness of the soul as the world ends for him and his existence is snuffed out. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The quotation is of course from Psalm 22, one of the psalms like 69 that so profoundly influenced the way in which the evangelists shaped their passion stories. These psalms end on a note of hope that God does not forget his suffering children and will bring them to a place of deliverance and thankfulness. Does Jesus anticipate the rest of the psalm when he cries out in its opening words, as if he can envisage his own resurrection? I doubt it. I believe that as the abyss opens up beneath him, he takes to his lips the words no doubt learned from childhood that so aptly echo his despair. God has handed him over, betrayed him. He has turned his face away. He may cry, but there is no answer. Elijah will not come to save him.

At the instant of his death, an extraordinary event takes place not far away from Golgotha. This is my third theme: ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’. For the evangelists, this was remembered as deeply significant on that terrible Friday afternoon. But what did it represent to them? The ‘veil’ hid the holiest part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year on the Day of Atonement. Does this violent tearing symbolise the passing of the old religion with its worn-out dependence on rituals and ceremonies? For now a new and living way to God is opened up through the blood of Jesus.

And Mark sees this as another scene in the apocalyptic drama acted out on the cross. Like the darkness at noon, like Jesus’ wrecking of the money-changers’ tables in the temple precinct, the rent veil stands for judgment on Jerusalem and its religious institutions. The old must be swept away before the new comes. When Mark wrote, probably in the 60s of the first century, the temple was about to be destroyed by the Romans. The unthinkable would happen. Was this not a sign of the end of days? In his description of the tearing of the temple veil, Mark uses a word he has already used early in his Gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, he says that the sky is ‘torn open’ as the dove descends and the voice from heaven speaks, and Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The rending of sky and curtain is linked to a new world order we call the kingdom. But this can only happen if he drinks the cup we heard about early on in this series, this cup that will not pass from him. He must drink from the pressed grapes of the vine-press of the wrath of God. If he is to save the world, he must be utterly crushed.

What strange work is set before us in Holy Week at Golgotha! But what do we need to do as we watch these events unfold? Mark answers his own question. Forget the crowds shouting hosanna one day and crucify the next; forget the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled, forget the cynics who hail him as king, or the thieves and soldiers who mock him. There is an individual who stands out from the crowd and sees differently: the centurion. Maybe he is in charge of the soldiers who have crucified Jesus. Watching, this gentile Roman, this Jew-hater, this military man whose trade is power and cruelty, has an epiphany. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’ Not just innocent, not just a good man, but the Son of God. The centurion isn’t a bystander now. He has become a participant whose words form the climax of the entire Gospel in one of the Bible’s great recognition-scenes. Mark sees this not just as one man’s confession of faith but as speaking for all humanity, for us as we acknowledge the majesty of this crucified Messiah. Bach took it this way when he gave these immortal words to the full chorus in his St Matthew Passion, the two greatest bars of music ever written. The only reason Mark is writing his Gospel is to make believers out of us, to draw us from being bystanders to participants as we become subjects of God’s kingdom and follow the crucified Lord. In last week’s preacher’s words, God renounces all power but the power of love, yet faith is possible in the teeth of suffering and ridicule. In the darkness, we can still believe.

Which means that we cannot simply watch him hanging there, but must summon up an act of faith that acclaims him as our Lord, and puts right our perspective on the world as God’s, with ourselves as loyal followers and subjects. To mould the church’s faith and our own in this cross-shaped way is the only reason we observe Holy Week with such care and devotion. By remembering in this way, we place the cross at the very centre of our lives, this everlasting sign of God’s ‘tender love towards mankind’, this saving death that sets us free to live again, this life freely poured out for us. Yes, indeed. ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.

Durham Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2015
Amos 8.9-12, Mark 15.33-41