Holy Saturday Vigil

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres 

Readings: Romans VI.3-11; Matthew XXVIII.1-10

“IF we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This is a night of contrasts. In the traditional ceremonies for this night, we assemble in the darkness outside the locked doors of the church, which symbolises the tomb of Jesus Christ. The new fire is struck from the flint, and the Easter light is kindled. The doors of the church are flung open, and we follow the Easter candle into the dim interior as the Exultet is sung.

This year, of course, the doors of the church will remain closed as we stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. We can still meditate on the ancient words of the hymn of joy, which has resounded through the centuries on this night of nights:

“This is the night when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

“This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

“This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.”

In the early church, this was the only night on which new members of the body of Christ — who had been preparing throughout the forty days of Lent — could finally be incorporated by water and the Spirit into the Church as living members of Christ’s own body.

Alas, as the poet Auden sadly acknowledged, the fervour cooled and the early Christians saw “their agape decline/into a late lunch with Constantine”. Perhaps this year, as we really begin in the gloom of the lockdown, we have a chance to revisit the way in which our Christian forebears saw the reality of human life.

We have to acknowledge that do not always make a very good job of living as human beings in all the splendour and freedom of a fully human life. But to move into the light we have first to see the darkness. To throw off the chains, we must first feel them. We are fond of believing that slavery and darkness are things that other people suffer from, whereas we stand on an enlightened eminence from which we can see and judge all other times and cultures. The Roman authorities and the religious authorities of Jesus’s own day thought very much the same.

Jesus Christ turns our view of light and darkness upside down. He reveals how our “enlightened” world is in reality “endarkened”. It is full of hidden persuaders — little gods, if you like — which teach us from our earliest years that we must look after number one, and that we can be happy if we accumulate more and more things.

Before long, these possessions can come to possess us. We cannot conceive of life without them, which is why a period of fasting and retreat could be so valuable if it is accompanied by prayer.

There is no possibility of escaping from the chains forged by our own desires simply by our own efforts. The void, if we leave our comfort zone, is simply too terrifying.

But God is at work, labouring to give us freedom and to initiate us into a fully human life. Far from being self-made men and women, in reality we are given our identity by others. We are given our names; our mother’s face broods over us — like the Spirit at the dawn of earth’s history — drawing out a response from the infant. We are recognised; we are loved into loving; we are given status, and worth – or, tragically, we are overlooked and condemned, and made to feel like dirt. We are given our identity by others.

It must also be true that we have been given the power to shape the identity of our neighbours, for good or ill. God first names our ancestor Adam –- which in Hebrew literally means “the earth man” — and Adam is charged with giving other creatures their names. We are all involved in this giving and receiving of names and identities.

In the springtime of the church, tonight was the night in which the newly baptised and confirmed entered the community of those who have been reborn in the Spirit; who have been caught up into the life of God, where this giving and receiving leads to freedom.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son into the hands of sinful men. We have seen that, on the Cross, the Son gives himself to the Father. The Father is the Father because the Son who answers his call has given him his name. The Spirit enables creation to participate in this dynamic of giving and receiving.

This is God the Holy Trinity’s way of being: calling, responding, giving up myself to the other, participating in the mutual offering of identity and freedom.

Humanity is one of the languages which the persons of the Trinity use in communicating with one another and, by our initiation into the life of the Trinity, we are taught how to grow into our full humanity.

Every Holy Saturday we are called by name to deepen our commitment to a community in which we are involved in this work of giving and receiving freedom. We are to regard one another as “our work of art”, as St Hildegard of Bingen once said.

The community of the church is the work of God in which he is building the full stature of humanity. If we do not, together with God, make one another our work of art then much of each one of us remains missing and never comes to be. We are all in debt to one another. Each of us is commissioned to speak the other into being.

In the early church, the Lord’s Prayer — which begins with “Our Father” and asks for the forgiveness of our debts — was only given to those who had undergone preparation through Lent. The Lord’s Prayer was not, as it is in our day, the prayer known by nominal Christians, but was rather a precious gift, handed over on this night to those who had become fully initiated.

 

Good Friday

The Rt. Revd Richard Chartres

A meditation on the Cross from the Gospel of St Mark

Humanity brought to life by the humanity of God.
“IS it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because he demands it or feels some need of it, but in order to carry out his own plans? Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God. . . We had to be called back to him by his Son. Let the rest be adored in silence.” [St Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 45 for Easter]
Prayer
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this thy family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with Thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

Reading: Mark 14.53-72

Meditation: Introduction and the New Community.

ST Peter was given the gift of tears, and the gift to see himself as he was, without illusion. As we watch and pray together in our homes this Good Friday, in this strange year when life seems to be on hold, what is required is simple attention to the events which unfolded in Jerusalem that first Good Friday.
Let us follow the story as it is recorded by St Mark, whose gospel was probably the first of the four in the New Testament to be written down.
The events he describes have a firm anchorage in history, but revelation leads not so much to the acquisition of new facts as to the dawning of spiritual light. Revelation is enacted in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit as we encounter Jesus Christ; as his story illuminates, and becomes a part of, our own story.
The bystanders in the High Priest’s court could not bear this revelation; they could not bear to look at Jesus, so they covered his face. Peter, in his frailty and betrayal, called to mind Jesus’s words, and he wept and saw himself straight.
Before the trial in the High Priest’s Court, while Jesus was enduring the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are pictured heavy with sleep and Jesus says, to them and to us, Watch and Pray.

To be truly spiritual is like waking up and becoming more and more aware. Remain here and Pray — that is the request of Jesus. We are to be really present so that, if it is His will, the Spirit of God may touch us and disclose the word he has for us at this particular stage of our spiritual journey.

In our first scene, Jesus stands alone before the chief priests and their supporters in the Sanhedrin; later, he is alone before Pilate and the crowds. His followers have fled, and the chief apostle — Peter, the Rock – has three times denied knowing him. Jesus is alone.

All through the gospel of St Mark, we see Jesus in the midst of his friends and teaching the crowds who had turned out to hear him. He had gathered a band of men and women around him who were learning a new kind of life together in a community; they were his disciples — his pupils.

A mark of the community being assembled by Jesus was that its members were to share their resources, as they had done in the miracle of the five thousand. It was recognized that it would be hard for those “who trust in riches” [10.24] to enter the Kingdom.

Another feature of the new community which Jesus was bringing into being was that, although it had been foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was to embrace both Jews and Gentiles. It was to bridge one of the most profound divides in the ancient world. The five thousand who were fed remind us of the five books of the law of Moses, while the miracle which (in St Mark’s gospel) follows hard after — the feeding of the four thousand in Gentile territory — suggests a community which was called to extend to the four corners of the earth.

In our own day, with the growing inter-connectedness of all things with a global economy and communications system, we are searching for just such a community, knowing that the penalty for failure is that humankind will sooner or later unleash the mushroom-cloud we have conjured up and destroy ourselves. The call to this generation is to work urgently for one world, or face the possibility of no world.

We have been given two signs, revealed to this generation and no other one before us. Those signs are the mushroom-cloud, and the earth seen for the first time from outer space: a single globe, sapphire-blue and beautiful. That is the choice which confronts us –- the cloud, or the globe.

The new human solidarity which, according to Mark, Jesus begins to assemble does not only welcome into the community Gentile outsiders but also women and children as full members. At the same time, the leadership of the community was not to be of the familiar kind where rulers lord it over their subjects but “if any man would be first he shall be last of all and a servant [deacon] of all”.

All this would amount to little more than daydreams of utopia without the transforming energy which flows from a new intimacy with God. He taught his pupils to put aside the identities created by defining ourselves over and against other people. He lived close to the heart of the Father, and opened a door so that his pupils were equipped to pray “Our Father”.

At the heart of the community was to be a spiritual life centred on being attentive and doing the work of prayer. Watch and pray. It is Christ’s word to us this afternoon. And “when you stand praying, forgive” [11.25]. Let go of anger and disappointment. These are the pre-conditions for being built up in the great command to love God and our neighbours as ourselves [12.28].

But for the moment it all seems to have been in vain. The new community has disintegrated and fled. There is a dramatic and significant defection as Jesus is being taken to the High Priest’s house: “And a certain young man followed with him having a linen cloth cast about him over his naked body, and they lay hold on him but he left the linen cloth and fled naked” [14.51]. We shall see the young man and the linen cloth again before this story is ended. But for the moment let us accept that anyone who has not been tempted to run away from this scene, from this crucifixion, has never understood it, nor stood steadfastly beneath it.
Reading Mark 15.1-15

Meditation: The Powers

IN the last scene, Jesus stood alone. The community he had been building had disintegrated. They all forsook him and fled. Peter the Rock denied knowing hm. Now he is left alone with the powers that rule this present age.

Those who were responsible for Jesus hanging there upon the Cross were not spectacularly wicked. The chief priests and the scribes were the guardians of a highly developed moral tradition and a noble national story. Pilate was the representative of a system of government which united the whole Mediterranean world, and which guaranteed throughout the region a standard of peace and prosperity which was not attained again until the nineteenth century.

Both the Jewish Establishment and the Roman Procurator were playing the political game as it has existed since the beginnings of civilisation. They were disposing of a disturber of the status quo, without being too delicate about the means, while fobbing off the crowd with Barabbas (which literally means “Son of the Father”) — a chip off the old block; a real murderer, but one who, like revolutionaries through the ages, worked for a reversal of political roles but no profound change in the system of control and domination. We have learned the hard way throughout the 20th century that new Commissar is just old Czar writ large and even more ruthless.

Then the crowd, with their cries, recall the cries of the demoniacs in the first half of the gospel. The crowd is possessed by their experience of disappointment, economic hardship, and foreign rule. Out of their pain, manipulated by the priests and whipped up by Pilate, they cry out against their own hope in cynicism and disgust: “Crucify him!”

It is all so credible. This is the world we know; this is our world. There are areas of relative peace and plenty — like ours — preserved by a superiority of force which excludes the other world of need and insecurity. This is a world in which we have enough food to ensure that everyone is fed but we do not have the political will to do it. This is a world of huge achievements, and certainly preferable to a state of disorder and chaos. But this is also a world maintained at a cost to the poor, and repression of their attempts to revise their status.

This is the world, so familiar to us, that Our Lord entered. The Word of God coming into the world did not merely go about telling people to be nice to one another. Jesus Christ gave people an inkling of their true nature, and began to gather around him a new community. It was non-violent and inclusive; a community in which human beings would see and serve their deepest selves in one another because they had been caught up by Jesus to his level of awareness, close to the heart of the Father.

This truly revolutionary social enterprise amounted to a new creation, and the Powers which dominate the world as we know it recognised the threat which Jesus and his Kingdom posed.

St Mark continually points out that it was the demons who knew who Jesus really was while his disciples were in the dark. Our world is dominated by Powers, a word used frequently in the epistles of St Paul to designate the world rulers of this present age — not so much individuals but spirits, the cravings and fears which operate in the sphere of the false self which we have built between our true selves and God.

Ironically, Mark shows us Jesus identified as Messiah by the High Priest; proclaimed to the people by Pilate; saluted as King by the soldiers, and enthroned on a cross beneath a placard bearing his proper title, with two thieves occupying the seats of honour for which James and John had contended, one on his right hand and one on his left. The Powers proclaim Jesus even while destroying him and, as we shall see, their cynical frankness about Jesus hints at a mysterious pattern in the world where even evil is compelled to serve the Creator’s purposes.
Reading: Mark 15.16-37

Meditation: The Cross

JESUS Christ was not crucified between two candlesticks on an altar but tortured to death in the way that Romans reserved for rebels. Even the ancient world, which had a stronger stomach for public horrors than ours, regarded crucifixion as a peculiarly terrible punishment.

The sixth hour was, in Roman reckoning, noon. There was darkness at noon, just as when Jesus was born there was brightness at midnight. The sun, so often the symbol of imperial power, was eclipsed.

The condemned man was commonly beaten up and stripped. Notice how many clothings and unclothings there are in this story. It is a profound theme in scripture from the time when our first parents recognised that they were naked and were covered with shame. Victims of crucifixion were then nailed to a cross about seven feet tall so that wild animals could leap up to the body. It was also easy, as we can see from the narrative, for passers-by to mock the figure hanging on the cross only just above their heads. Death was often a long time in coming, and usually occurred by gradual asphyxiation.

He was mocked: “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself.” This echoes the charges made at his trial. The temple was the central symbol of the old order. It was not only a place of worship but the pinnacle of a system of social and economic organisation which benefited some but by no means all. Jesus had wryly observed this while sitting “over against the treasury”, when he noted that the widow had to contribute all her living.

The new community was not to be centred on this great institution constructed on its mountain but on the body of Jesus Christ.

There is no lack of realism in the teaching of Jesus about the difficulties to be overcome in building the new human community, the new Israel. Above all, he taught that the obstacle to entry into this new reality is attachment to the surface self — the clothed self — that we have manufactured as our way of negotiating with the world around us.

Modern people often call this surface self the ego. It is the self which is organised over against other selves, and regards and negotiates with the others as with objects to be managed. The manufacture of this self is part of the human condition, and every one of us has to do this work to survive and function; but spiritual growth, at a certain point in life, demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the ego so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish.

The surface self, however necessary its construction, once achieved is a barrier between our deepest selves and God; a barrier which in the end prevents growth, and interrupts the healthful and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.

Adam and Eve hid themselves from the Lord God in the Garden of Eden, clothing themselves to hide from God, but Jesus is transparent to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. William Blake, the great prophet of London, said “We are put upon this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” Alas, from our earliest years we are hard at work to build beam-proof shelters, and from this position no man hath quickened his own soul.

The soul is the full expression of our deepest self, which was created for communion with God and all other beings created by God. The soul thrives in connection and communion. The ego is oriented towards self-preservation by domination.

The ego regards the world around as composed of objects of its thought or desire. The deepest self — the spiritual heart — sees other subjects. That is why, in what he says and what he does, in how he lives and in how he dies, Our Lord teaches that “whosoever would save his life shall lose it and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (8.35).

If we dwell in our surface self, building our castle walls to defend ourself against the others and constructing a position from which we can control the surrounding landscape, then we are cut off from the freely given and received exchange of love and worth which is the source of the profoundest energy in life, and we shrink. In the end, our defence becomes our undoing.

We enter eternal life by coming to our senses; by staying here, today; by becoming aware — not least of death. So much about the way we live now — the hectic pace which seems to be based on the logic that the faster we live, the more we will get out of this short life — flows from a repressed fear of death which stalks this civilisation. The Cross stands for the truth that we can only enter life in all its fullness by embracing our own death. Christians through the ages have discovered that this is not a morbid path but the very opposite. To accept and be aware of our own death is a liberation which enables us to stand beside others in a deeper way.

The message is, of course, even deeper than that. We are summoned to enter into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation.

Our contemplation includes the cost. In so many ways, we discover that real love lies in the letting go. This is an agonising experience for many parents, and indeed for anyone who has loved deeply. We also discover that, with non-possessive love, you make a gift of power to the other person which exposes you to deep injury and wounds. Jesus Christ teaches us this truth as he hangs silently on the Cross.

The gospel began with the voice of one crying in the wilderness — the prophet John the Baptist, whose end was to be killed by Herod. Now, at what seems to be the end, there is one last cry; a terrible cry, using words from the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus feels the full weight of the God-forsakenness which there is in the world in thrall to the Powers.

Some among the bystanders, like people throughout the history of the Church, have not given up hope of a happy ending — the arrival of some celestial Fifth Cavalry — so that we might be shielded from the dreadful truth that the passage to new life lies through suffering and by accepting death.

“Some of them stood by and said, ‘Behold he calleth Elijah’.” But we know from Jesus himself that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist, and has been spurned (9.13). “Once again Jesus uttered a loud voice and gave up the ghost.”

The way opened up by Our Lord discloses that, if you do set out to make your neighbour your work of art in the new human community which Jesus came to inaugurate, then you will be exposed to hurt and unimaginable pain. But, as you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awake and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and imagining. Jesus Christ lifted up upon the Cross is the mirror in which we can glimpse our true, God-created selves. Jesus Christ is the true self of the human race.

But for the moment, that body hangs upon the Cross. It appears that the Powers have won, and that there will be no new spring for the world. “Let Christ the King of Israel now come down from the cross that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him, reproached him.”
Reading Mark 15.38-47

Meditation: Death and Beyond

IT appears that the Powers have had the last word. The body which was to have been the heart of the new community falls silent. But immediately (Mark’s favourite word) the veil before the Holy of Holies in the Temple — the great symbol of the old order — is split from top to bottom; torn like the wineskins when the new patch is applied, or like the garments of the High Priest when he was confronted by Jesus. The fury of the Powers has brought their world to the edge of destruction.

Jesus hangs on the Cross in silence and a great tempest of hate and violence rages around him. It is a revelation of the true nature of the Powers, and an explosion which brings them closer to exhaustion and bankruptcy. Jesus takes upon himself all this pain and anger without reinvigorating it by returning railing for railing and cursing for cursing. Instead, he takes it into himself although the cost is terrible – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

For the moment, however, the Powers seem to remain in occupation of the field. The centurion which “stood by over against him”, named him: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The Powers, operating through the demons, had always recognised Jesus for who he was, and pronouncing the true name of someone was believed to give you power over that person.

But there are those women — still there, unlike the men, because they had not only followed him but served him in Galilee. We wait and watch with them a little while, to contemplate the form taken by perfect love when it enters this world of ours.

Christ on the Cross reveals the face of perfect love in this world. If we are quiet enough — like those life-bearing women in the gospel story, waiting afar off — then Christ on the Cross will send shockwaves through the crust to stimulate our spiritual heart.

Sometimes he sends the gift of tears, so that the heart of stone can become once more the heart of flesh. Then we shall know the reality of the pictures given to us in Exodus: how the water gushes out of the heart of the flinty rock, and how the bush burns with fire but is not consumed.

You enter the realm of eternal life and you pass through to a new awareness by coming to your senses; by remaining under the Cross; by becoming aware, not least of death; by entering into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation. As you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awaken and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and our imagining.

All they that go down into the dust shall kneel before him; and no man hath quickened his own soul.
The heavens shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, whom the Lord hath made. [Psalm 22]

Life-bearing women are signs of hope in the Passion according to St Mark, but their vigil does not last very long because Joseph of Arimathaea — a rich man, and a member of the Council which had condemned Jesus — came and begged his body from Pilate and hastily wound him in the linen cloth. This is the second use of this word — “sindon” — in the gospel. You will remember that the linen cloth was taken from the young man, the disciple, as he fled. Jesus was wrapped in the linen cloth without any of the usual rites, and laid in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathaea caused a stone to be rolled across the door.

Maybe Joseph was a secret disciple doing what little honour he could to the crucified Son of Man, but the effect of the scene is to despatch Jesus with as little ceremony as possible. In 5.29, John’s own disciples — not a hidden sympathizer — took up the Baptist’s body and laid it in a tomb.

The stone is rolled over the entry. The realm of the Powers is intact; the tragedy is ended. The story of Jesus and his New Israel is apparently finished.

Our presence this afternoon; each in our own individual home; is a sign that this is not true. Whether we read St Mark’s account of Jesus’ last hours as believers or as those who want to believe, we come in hope for some glimpse of a way through to life in all its fullness.

The women come back to perform the customary rites. They are a potent sign of the reversals involved in the new human community inaugurated by Jesus. In Jewish law, you needed two male witnesses to establish the truth of anything; but Jesus taught that women were to be full partners in the new community, and indeed it was the women who had kept him company during his final hours, albeit “afar off”.

They discover that stone rolled away and a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe. This recalls the robe of dazzling light which Jesus himself wore at the Transfiguration. The young man sitting in the tomb is a potent symbol of fresh insight and energy. But the white clothes are those of a martyr. Here is the second appearance of the young man who fled when Jesus was arrested.

He says unto them, “Be not amazed, ye seek Jesus the Nazarene which hath been crucified; he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, he goeth before you into Galilee, there ye shall see him as he said unto you.”

Losing his life, the true self of the human race and the human face of God has passed through the false surface-self, the sphere of the Powers. He has been raised by God, and is able to recall others to their deepest selves, which they can see in him and regain by following his way. There is the young man, full of life and no longer naked but clothed like Jesus in a robe of white. But these are the robes, not of purity but of martyrdom; another pointer to the way of gaining life by surrendering life.

The women at this point (there are three, to match the three disciples who sleep in unawareness in the Garden of Gethsamene) are told to tell his disciples and then Peter — for the first shall be last — that he is risen, and that “he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him as he said unto you.”

The young man invites us to go back to the beginning of the story, and perhaps to understand it all for the first time. Galilee is where Jesus first called his disciples in the everyday life and work of their home country. This time, we have the clue and, having watched by the Cross, we shall know him for who he is.

The gospel is revealed, not so much to spectators and commentators but to followers, learners, disciples in the new community which Jesus the true self of the human race inaugurates. Mark’s good news has as its climax the command to go back to everyday reality and transform it by living out life as a follower of Jesus. We are to become the body of Jesus in the world – Jesus, who himself embodies the life for others which is the true vocation of human beings made in the image of God. Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God . . .we had to be called back to him by his Son [St Gregory Nazianzen].

We contemplate the cross of Jesus Christ this afternoon in the light of the responsibility which the climax of the story, as St Mark presents it, places upon us. A splendid reversal of the victory claimed by the exhausted and discredited Powers would have been one thing, but this insistence that the person awakened by the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ can only begin again, wherever we are, to follow him as a servant, offering life so as to enter into life more profoundly — no wonder that these tidings profoundly disturbed the women. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”

That is where the ancient texts of St Mark’s gospel ended. Mark leaves us, as we contemplate this scene, with the question that reverberates through his gospel. It is for each one of us to answer this question in the silence of our own hearts. “Who do men say that I am?”

Maundy Thursday

The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres

Readings: Luke 22.7-23; 1 Corinthians 11:.23-26

WE are prevented by the lockdown from being in church this Maundy Thursday. We therefore cannot in person participate in communion, but we can nevertheless recall the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends before his betrayal and arrest. It is an opportunity to renew our sense of the Eucharistic life as we reflect on one of the very few commandments that Jesus gave us: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The shadow of betrayal and imminent suffering hung heavily over that night. Yet, instead of looking back with regret and asking how all those early hopes had been disappointed, Jesus looks forward and confides his future in the world to his friends.
We, like the first disciples, are called to re-member him in a dynamic sense. We do not merely recall his teaching and his appearing, which is for us long ago and far away. We re-member him among us, amidst the dis-membering forces of our world. We become “very members” of the body of Christ, and members one of another. It would actually be more accurate to say that Christ “re-members” us, as a community in which all the distinctions which keep us apart are transcended by our new life in Christ.
Sometimes the word “eucharist” is used for our re-enactment of the Last Supper. It is simply the Greek word for “thanksgiving” –- the prayer at the heart of the communion service, as we rehearse what has been done for us.
Another word which is often used is “liturgy”. It is again a Greek word, meaning a “public work” — typically used of building a road or a temple by collective effort. In this case, the liturgy is the action of a community in building the Church.
The Eucharist does not merely illustrate but transforms. As Richard Hooker said, it “is performative”. The Holy Communion is not something the church “puts on” to cater for our “religious” needs and feelings. It is the way appointed by Christ in which the world itself is to be “re-membered” through the growth of his body.
Christians have in the past argued about precisely how this happens. In the 16th century, polemics centred on various attempts to explain how the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was communicated.
When questioned about her beliefs on the Eucharist during the reign of her sister Mary, the Princess Elizabeth simply replied:
“Christ was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it:
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.”
A very Church of England affirmation.
Our liturgy is one which arises from the command of Jesus Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me” — not in order to build a temple made with hands, but to build his body which, the gospel-writers say, has taken the place of the physical temple in Jerusalem.
In our own day, as we wander in the flatland of what Bishop Hilary of Poitiers described as “gormandizing and killing time”, the Church is being called to re-imagine herself in the Spirit as the Eucharistic community — the transforming community of the future.
The church is not constituted simply by clinging to apostolic teaching translated into a set of abstract ideas. Eucharist is the work through which the Church becomes what she is called to be. St Irenaeus says that “our teaching is in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist confirms our teaching”. Eucharist is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the mystical life of the Kingdom in which the desire which wastes itself in impulses to “gormandize and kill time” is restored to its true end.

“Gormandizing”
The nineteenth-century atheist Ludwig Feuerbach attempted to relegate the concept of the “spiritual” to the dustbin of history with the simple assertion that “man is what he eats”. It sounds better in German, because there is a play on words — “Der Mensch ist was er isst”.
It is obviously true that human beings must take the world into themselves to transform it into flesh and blood, and Feuerbach’s criticism arises from a false dichotomy between sacred and secular.
The whole creation depends on food. As David Hockney has recently said, “the important things in life are food and love, in that order”. Human beings alone have been created — and called — to bless God for the food and life we receive. God blesses the world; fills it with love and goodness. Human beings bless God, and see the world as He does. The human being is the priest of Creation, receiving the world from God and unifying it in his act of blessing.
The world was created as matter; material for one all-embracing eucharist. Human beings are priests of the cosmic sacrament.
Ordinary bread and wine quickly go stale and sour. But, if we offer them up to God in our thanksgiving, we can see them in their true colours as gifts of the Divine Love. After the offertory is when we can receive back the gifts, charged with a new significance and potency.
In recent years, the church has been much pre-occupied with mission and evangelism. It is obviously right that we should be caught up in God’s overflowing love for the world, and not turned in upon our own churchy concerns. But to what exactly we are calling men and women today? It cannot be that we are trying to sell our contemporaries an ideological package of some theories about God and life, and inviting them to join our gang.
The historical reality of Christ is, of course, the undisputed ground of the Christian faith; yet we do not so much remember him as a teacher of long ago and far away with a timeless message as know that he is with us as the Word made flesh. In him is the end of “religion”, because he himself is the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God; in him, the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for, in religion -– was restored to us.
All too often, of course, the church simply reflects the same old world: no eucharist and no joy, because there has been no real repentance and conversion; no real leaving home to follow Abraham in leaving his household gods to set out on the journey to the Promised Land; no authentic ascension (despite the injunction to “Lift up your hearts”); and no real mission.
As the transforming community of the future — the temple of Christ’s presence – the Church should overflow with love, expectation, and joy. We are waiting for the bridegroom. That is why we wear our party clothes. We are to love the Kingdom, not just talk about it as if the Church were simply a federation of discussion groups.
A true eucharist should be characterized by action and movement, seriousness and joy. It is not an audio-visual aid or an instruction course in “correct” doctrine. We are to re-member Christ in our assembly, not dismember him, or merely recall him.
The transformation of the bread and the wine is effected by the prayer for the blessing of the Holy Spirit — which has been restored, in our new liturgies, alongside his words at the Last Supper, the words of institution, because the Spirit manifests and brings into being the life of the world to come. Eucharist is not so much other-worldly or this- worldly; it is more next-worldly.
There are many ways of apprehending the transforming character of the eucharistic liturgy. One way of appreciating the eucharistic transformation is particularly salient in our own time, as we begin to count the cost of the wreckage of our world when it is treated as mere matter, to be transformed by human willing into material for further gormandizing and killing time.
Just as in the story of the marriage feast at Cana, there is in the eucharist a dramatic reversal of roles. We may enter the liturgy believing ourselves to be masters of the feast (you will remember that the master of the feast did not know where the good wine had come from) but, as we “put on” — as St Paul says — the Lord Jesus, we discover that we are not after all “masters and possessors of the earth” (Descartes) but guests; participants in a wedding, not just ignorant quaffers.
The transformation, of course, is such a reversal of all worldly wisdom and calculation that the passage into God’s future in Christ is by way of the Cross — the way of stripping and loss. The setting out from home to join the eucharistic assembly is a symbol of the many small deaths we must die, and crosses we must bear, in order to break out of the confining matrix of a life turned in upon itself and enter into “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. But that is a story for Good Friday.

Wednesday in Holy Week

The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres

Reading: Psalm 19 — The Heavens declare the Glory of God

WE are so fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country where Spring glimpsed though our windows can alleviate the oppression of the current lockdown.
One of the priests of our English Church, the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne declared that “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars … Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.”
Genuine religion arises from Annunciation — being addressed from beyond oneself.
So often, of course, we make an idol of some projection of our cravings or fantasies. Even those who profess to be atheists constantly refer themselves to some idea or ambition which they find attractive or fearsome — the perfect body; riches; or power. It’s just part of being human. At worst, when bruised, the ego surreptitiously re-ascends by worshipping some projection of its rage or lust for power. Idolatry of this kind is only too visible, in a lethal form, in the conflicts in the Middle East.
In the Bible, as well as constant denunciations of the danger of making gods in our own image, there are a series of annunciations.
In the Paradise Garden, God calls “Adam, where are you?” Then Abraham is instructed to “leave your household gods and begin your journey to a land you do not know.” Moses is commanded to put off his shoes, for “this is holy ground.” He was addressed from the bush which burned but was not consumed. The boy Samuel was called when he was sleeping in the Temple, at a time when the rumour of God was very faint. Then – supremely — the Angel of the Lord addressed the Blessed Virgin, “Hail, Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee.”
The bible is full of annunciations, and God speaks through His Word and through His Book of Nature. Almost every day we are being addressed by the glory and the distress of the earth.
The Bible sets the human story and the sacrifice of Christ against a huge cosmic canvas. In our generation, we have been given a vivid account of the cosmic drama by contemporary science. The drama seems to have five acts.
In a series of irreversible transformations, the history of the universe has unfolded from its beginnings about 13.7 billion years ago. Act I is the galactic story. Act II is the formation of planet Earth, just far enough away from our sun to avoid frying but not so far as to become a sterile rock. Act III is the story of the birth of life on Earth, with Act IV concerned with the story of homo sapiens as we emerged, some 160,000 years ago, from Africa to colonise the globe.
The evolutionary story has a material and physical aspect but also a psycho-spiritual aspect. We are, as the Bible and Darwin agree, creatures of the dust –- star dust, in fact; we are participants in a web of life.
The problem is that the apprehension of knowledge, as it has developed in the Western world — a knowledge which has delivered such great power over the earth — has been generated from an “objective” way of observing the world which has tended to divorce us from a sense of our inner connectedness with nature. Dominance has been substituted for interconnectedness, and we have come to see the earth in a God-forsaken way, as a mere theatre for human desire and exploitation, with a diminished awareness that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of the earth.
The consequences of this way of relating to the world around us are brilliantly described in one of the most important — and neglected –books of the first decade of this century, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.
Act V of our five act drama is just beginning, and it will decide whether humanity is yet another dead end in the unfolding story of life or whether promise will predominate and peril will be surmounted. The President of the Royal Society recently published a book about the prospects for the human race worryingly entitled Our Final Century –- without a question mark (although he has ascribed the omission to a publisher’s error).
Shall we develop the wisdom to channel the power we have acquired from the scientific knowledge and discoveries of the 20th century? Where indeed, to quote T.S. Eliot, is “the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and the knowledge we have lost in information”?
In the Book of Revelation, great multitudes — from all nations and kindreds, people and tongues — stand before the throne and cry out “Salvation and Deliverance belong to God!”. Too often, we have seen salvation exclusively in terms of individuals. That is, of course, vital but the Bible shows us the individual person realistically as someone always involved in relationships with other human beings and with the world of nature. We can perish in a world and a human community that are atomised, but we are saved together.
At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante describes his vision of divine reality: “all the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume by love”.
Holy Week reveals the plot-line of Act 5 as the old order of selfishness, sin, and death is overcome in an act of self-sacrificing love on the Cross.

Monday in Holy Week

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres

I John 4.7-21
Love
THE new community which Jesus came to inaugurate is built up by love. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” [I Corinthians 8.1].
But in modern English “love” is a somewhat shop-soiled and sentimentalised word, and it is often confused with an emotional state. In his book A Month of Sundays, the American novelist John Updike says, “Love, you old whore of word — we’ll let you in this once, but only fumigated with quotation marks.”
Love for God is not some emotion which comes and goes but self-giving. God so loved the world that he was generous and gave his very self to us in the person of Jesus Christ [St John 3.16], who is our teacher about authentic love.
There are three obvious marks of Christ-like love.
1. [Luke 10.25-37] Jesus tells the familiar story of the Good Samaritan in response to a question about the limits on love. We should always be at work pushing back the limits on love, and, in a joined-up world, our capacity to show Samaritan-like generosity now extends far beyond our town, but it should nevertheless begin there, and in our own families.
2. The love of the self-giving God is not coercive. In Holy Week, we are shown the tragic extent to which we are free to reject the love of God. Authentic Christian love should not involve the blackmail of “Think how much I have done for you”. Parents have to make the discovery—painful though it is — that “love lies in the letting go”.
3. Authentic love involves a gift of power. Jesus is at the mercy of the crowds, the priests, the Roman soldiers; and he died out of love for those who spend their time passing judgement, inflicting punishment, and building tombs. The hymn My song is love unknown is a wonderful meditation for Holy Week and speaks of the love of Christ as “Love to the loveless shown That they might lovely be”.
I remember confirming a teenage girl who told me that she meant so little to her father that she could never make him angry. She understood that authentic love involves a gift of power, and entails suffering.
All this could add up to a self-lacerating style of life, far from the joy we see in Jesus in the company of his friends, in talking with them and sharing food. The teaching of St Bernard on the Love of God gets the balance right. He says that we all begin life by loving self for self’s sake. We are programmed to survive in this way.
Sometimes we get religion, and treat God as an asset in achieving our own ambitions –- loving God for self’s sake.
Then the way is open for the Copernican revolution, when the centre shifts from ourselves to God himself, and we begin to love God for God’s sake.
But that is not the end of the story because, if we have followed Jesus Christ the human face of God through his Passion in which he loves his enemies into love, we can acquire a love of self for God’s sake.
Love of Self for Self’s sake
Love of God for Self’s sake
Love of God for God’s sake
Love of Self for God’s sake

“Beloved, if God so loved us we ought also to love one another” [I John 4.11].

Holy Week Reflections

Holy Week in Wilton

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres

HOLY Week begins with cheering crowds on Palm Sunday, but the applause soon turns to cries of “Crucify him!”. As the week goes on, Jesus is betrayed by a friend and deserted by the community which he had gathered around him. Finally, he faces Pilate – alone, but not entirely alone. The Passion story shows him all the time closely in touch in prayer with God his Father, until that last haunting cry from the Cross at the ninth hour, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”
There are so many resonances in the story of Holy Week as many of us experience a compulsory retreat. Looking at the story of our own lives and reflecting on the story of Jesus Christ can uncover some of those questions about the meaning and direction of our lives which we are usually “too busy” to face.
There is much to encourage us, even in a time of real crisis. We are rightly encouraged by the upsurge of volunteering. Those who just think of looking after Number One shrink. As Jesus said, “whosoever will save his life will lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake will find it”. Holy Week takes us to the profound depths of this truth, which makes sense of our lives and which animates the universe.

Matthew 21.1-14
ON Palm Sunday, Jesus the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee, makes his entry into Jerusalem. Salvation comes from the provinces, but the final act of the drama is played out in the capital. It is as the prophet Zechariah foretold, “Shout O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold thy king cometh unto thee, righteous and victorious and riding upon a colt, the foal of a donkey” [Zechariah 9.9].
Even in the present crisis, people cry out for a saviour and are savagely disappointed when the quick fix does not materialise. Then the blame game begins.
The prophet Zechariah expected that the appearance of the “king” would bring about the rout of Israel’s enemies. “I will stir up thy sons O Zion against thy sons O Greece and will make thee as the sword of a mighty man” [Zechariah 9.13].
The crowds in Jerusalem hail Jesus as a liberator. “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Using a phrase from the Psalms [Psalm 118], they look back to the glory days of King David and the monarchy; days when Israel was strong and defeated her enemies. Such memories made a painful contrast with the situation of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus: an occupied city, with a garrison of Roman soldiers in a fortress overlooking the temple. No wonder, as the gospel says, “all the city was stirred”.
The crowds were, however, soon disillusioned. The triumphal entry to Jerusalem is described in chapter 21 of St Matthew’s Gospel, but already by chapter 22 we are shown a scene which explains why the crowds were disappointed. Some of the learned élite, hoping to collect evidence to convict Jesus as a threat to the imperial government, show him a coin and ask whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The coin in question probably bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius with the legend “Son of the divine Augustus”. Jewish ultra-nationalists refused to handle such coins, but Jesus took the coin and said, “Render to Caesar the thing that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
In the ancient world, Caesar was treated as divine; but Jesus refuses to identify the Imperial Regime – or, in our case, the Government — with the will of God. He does, however, acknowledge a proper place for the government of Caesar. There is a secular sphere in which people of different beliefs can co-operate under the rule of law without putting into question our ultimate loyalty — as Christians — to God, as we see him in Jesus Christ. The Christian faith does not make God into Caesar, and we can with a good conscience pay our taxes and follow government instructions as the crisis unfolds.
But the crowds with their memories of the warrior King David were expecting a rather different kind of liberator, and their hosannas were short-lived. By the end of the week the hosannas had turned into a chant of “Crucify him!”
As we view these events from the other side of the Cross and Resurrection, we can hail him as the true king for whom the human race is longing. As he comes on an ordinary beast of burden, we can see him as king of a new style of kingdom. By welcoming his advent, we are called to responsibility for building this kingdom, and for building together the church as a foretaste of the kingdom; a community of trust and celebration which can be seen and experienced as an authentic vision of the realm of King Jesus. This responsibility is still one to be exercised in our restricted circumstances.
Our cries of Hosanna, and our recognition of Jesus as the King who comes in the name of the Lord, commit us to praying down this kingdom and to living it out in the here and now: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

THERE are many ways of describing what the kingdom would look like if it arrived in Wilton. Here are just three themes especially relevant to our current crisis.
There is nothing wrong with loving one’s own country, but the backward-looking vision of the crowd on the first Palm Sunday had divided the world into “us” and “our enemies”. In Jesus Christ, however, there is no East or West. “In one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free: and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
We are called to build a kingdom in which there is a wider and wider “us”. That is even relevant for a community like Wilton. I pray that the upsurge of neighbourliness which we have witnessed may deepen the channels of communication and increase mutual respect as we grow together as members of one body. As Christians, we must be at work day by day extending the boundaries of the kingdom by loving and serving our neighbours indefatigably, and especially — like the Good Samaritan — when our neighbour does not belong to our tribe and has no way of repaying us.
A wider “us” but also a deeper “now”. The crowds were looking back to the glory days of the independent kingdom. Their memories were of triumph and conquest. The arrival of the king, not on a white horse but on a donkey, like a magnet draws out of the biblical narrative a different pattern of memories. Humility and self-giving involve sacrifice and suffering, but in the light of Christ’s cross and resurrection we can see them as the way to build the kingdom that endures. The kingdoms and empires of the earth are established in blood taken. The coming kingdom of heaven is founded on blood given. It will be a kingdom of justice and well-being for all, which does not depend on the violent domination of one group by another, and which does not lead to the unequal exploitation of the fruits of the earth by the rich.
Sometimes it feels as if we are too busy looking back with nostalgia to a remembered golden age to look forward with any expectancy. Any church in which the Spirit of Jesus Christ is lively always has a sense of the coming kingdom. We are not called to drop out into some other “spiritual” world. We are not called to be at ease in this passing dispensation. We are to anticipate the world to come.
The Christian “now” is nourished by remembering the Cross and the suffering of Jesus Christ at the beginning of this week of his Passion, but our “now” is also marked by a longing for the kingdom of God of such intensity that our expectancy exerts a gravitational pull on the present. Ours is not a fantasy faith. Holy Week reveals the cost of entry into the kingdom, but its climax is in the joy and new life of the Day of Resurrection. If we want to experience that joy then every day we must seek to pattern our own life on the life of God, “who so loved the world that He was generous and gave Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ”. Jesus embodies God’s plan for the spiritual evolution of the whole human race.
A wider “us”, a deeper “now”, and, lastly, a better “good life”. Jesus Christ borrowed the donkey on which he made his entry into Jerusalem. He ate his last supper with his friends in a borrowed room. As it says in scripture, “foxes have holes but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
We all need food, clothing and shelter. One of the most promising things about own time is the way in which millions of people have been lifted out of poverty (as defined by the UN in the Millennium Development Goals). But, beyond a certain point, we are being sold the idea that having things is the recipe for happiness. At every turn we are presented with alluring pictures of the good life that will be ours if we have more things to live with. I remember a witty trader inviting me to step into his shop with the words “Come in and buy what you know you don’t need”.
Some people are compelled to live a simple life. I remember a Church Army sister who had devoted her life to the service of homeless women. She didn’t see the point of Lent because she lived lean all the time, but for some of us the present restrictions are an opportunity to review our pattern of consumption.
The open secret of the good life is not more and more things to live with but more and more to live for. As a priest, I have often had the privilege of accompanying people as they die. Very few are full of regret that they did not spend more time in the office. The regrets are most often about neglected and broken relationships. The Christian vision of the good life is not having more but being more.
In Holy Week, as Jesus Christ hands over his life to the Father; as he prays for his enemies and says “Father forgive them”; as he commends his mother to the protection of the Beloved Disciple, he offers us a pattern of life which is a blessing to others. It is a life which contains the promise which Jesus holds out to us in the gospel of St John, of “life in all its fullness”.
A wider “us”; a deeper “now”; a better “good life”: aspects of the kingdom which Jesus Christ this day rode into Jerusalem to inaugurate. Our hosannas hail his advent as king, but we know that his is a throne which is not occupied until he suffers death upon the Cross. Please pray for me as I pray for you as, together, we look again at our lives through the glass of his Passion.

Holy Week Resources

A musical meditation for Holy Week

Ailsa Dixon’s Variations on Love Divine is a set of 19 short pieces for string quartet, woven around Stainer’s familiar hymn, exploring the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a final vision of heavenly joy.  In an essay on the use of hymn tunes in classical music, likening the work to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, Simon Brackenborough writes, ‘There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground… the message of this work seems to be that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means.’  The titles given to each movement (spoken on this recording) suggest that the composer intended the sequence of variations to be followed by the listener in a kind of musical meditation, from the opening of John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, through the entire span of the Christian theological scheme.  This spiritual journey takes the listener through a sound-world that is by turns mysterious, lyrical, dramatic, poignant, and finally exultant in ‘The Song of Praise and the Dance of Joy’.

 

The following is an extended meditation on the 14 Stations of the Cross (c. 45 minutes)

Please note: you will need to adjust the volume UP for this video.