Thursday, April 28, 2022

The broken gate of hell


The Apostles’ Creed declares of Jesus that ‘he descended into hell,’ or as some traditions render it, ‘he descended to the dead.’ Several Christian traditions speak of that descent as the Harrowing of Hell. Traditional icons of the Harrowing of Hell depict Jesus standing over the broken gates of hell, which have fallen across themselves in the shape of a cross; and leading our first parents Adam and Eve out from captivity to spiritual death. Here I share Lyuba Yatskiv’s new interpretation of ‘the Descent into Hell.’ You can just make out the gates of hell beneath Jesus’ feet, and beneath them she has depicted Satan as the strong man who has been bound in order that his house may be plundered, a reference to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 12 // Mark 3 // Luke 11.

Today, as I walked between presiding at the eucharist at St Nicholas’ and presiding at the eucharist at Sunderland Minster, I came across an abandoned gate, propped up at an angle against a burnt wall, waiting to be taken away. And it put me in mind of the Harrowing of Hell.


John 21:1-19 part four


John 21:1-19 part four

Eastertide is about learning how to be human, within the new creation, through simple, persistent acts of subversive love, choosing the way of Jesus, even when we cannot yet go there. Through such death-and-resurrection lives, we may glorify God. Amen.


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

(some) Stations of the Resurrection


The Stations of the Cross, a series of images depicting Christ’s Passion, form a well-established resource for the Church as we move towards Easter. The Stations of the Resurrection, a series of images depicting the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples and, lastly, to Saul of Tarsus, are a more recent resource for the Church as we journey from the empty tomb through the Fifty Great Days of Eastertide.

There are nineteen Stations of the Resurrection in all, but here are two of them, and once again I am sharing stunning icons by sacred artists of the Lviv School.

The first is ‘The Assurance of Apostle Thomas,’ by Kateryna Shadrina, which relates to the Gospel set for the Second Sunday of Easter.

The second is ‘Conversion of Paul the Apostle,’ by Lyuba Yatskiv, which relates to the passage from the Acts of the Apostles set for the Third Sunday of Easter.

The Resurrection transforms everything. It turns our world upside-down.


John 21:1-19 part three


John 21:1-19 part three

Breakfast eaten, Jesus asks Simon Peter, ‘do you love me more than these?’ More than these what? I have often heard it taken as ‘do you love me more than you love these other disciples?’ or ‘do you love me more than these other disciples do?’ but that won’t do. Jesus insists that the generative command to ‘love God with your whole and undivided self’ begets the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’: these two commands are consubstantial and indivisible. What then? In the preceding verse, we are told that this is now the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these precious, fleeting moments? Here is the commission of Jesus, who will soon return to his Father, to the one who will pasture and shepherd his flock after and under him.

Twice, Jesus asks, do you love (agapas) me? And twice, Peter responds, Lord, you know that I love (philō) you. The third time, Jesus asks, as Peter has already twice answered, do you love (philō) me, and Peter again affirms that he does. What’s the difference? Agapas has to do with choice: with choosing that which is best for the other, whether it is our preference or not. Choosing to let them go when we would hold on to them. Choosing to lay down our life for them when we would prefer to carry on living, with them, as before. Philō has to do with emotion. We do not choose our emotional reactions, though we do choose how we will behave in response and can train our responses. Peter has an undeniable deep emotional affection for Jesus, though when overwhelmed by the emotion of fear he had repeatedly denied even knowing him.

‘Will you choose to let me go, over these times together?’ ‘You know the depth of my affection for you.’ ‘I do; but will you choose to let me go?’ ‘Lord, you know the depth of my affection.’ ‘Do you hold me in deep affection?’ ‘It hurts that you need to ask; you know that I do.’ Jesus doesn’t push the choice of love beyond where Peter is willing to go but meets him where he is. Nonetheless, whether Peter is willing or not, Jesus will return to the Father, and Simon the fisherman will need to become Peter the shepherd. And in old age he will again have no choice, will be led out to die—on a cross—and the sheep will be faced with the same dilemma, whether they are able to let go of the shepherd they hold with deep affection, or not. For now, it is enough to follow.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

St George


St George, by Ukrainian iconographer Ivanka Demchuk.

Sharing on what is St George’s Day in the Western (Catholic) stream of the Church (transferred from 23 April this year as it cannot fall in either Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, or the Octave of Easter, the week flowing from Easter) though not in the Eastern (Orthodox) stream (who keep the Julian calendar, and for whom 23 April corresponds with 6 May in the Gregorian calendar).


John 21:1-19 part two


John 21:1-19 part two

Why does Jesus tell the disciples to cast their net on the right-hand side of the boat? Well, the right-hand side is synonymous with God’s rule over all creation, and with both witnessing to and participating in that rule. So, Psalm 110—a psalm Jesus himself cites—proclaims, ‘The LORD says to my lord, “Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ And in his old age the disciple John will see a vision of Jesus holding seven stars in his right hand, the seven angels sent to carry his words to the seven churches. So, when Jesus tells these experienced fishermen to cast their net on the right-hand side of the boat, he is instructing them to act not in their own power but with the authority of heaven. When they do, not fully knowing why, perhaps trusting on a memory (Luke records that there was a miraculous catch of fish the day Jesus first called Simon Peter to follow him; Matthew, Mark, and John do not) something miraculous happens. But the miracle does not bypass the time-consuming work of turning fish into fish relish, or of mixing flour and yeast and water and oil to make bread. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus symbolically giving the Church authority over the nations; but it is a call to simple, even domestic, activities transformed by resurrection, of life where there was no evidence of life. It is small acts, done with great love, that will overthrow the empire.

Why does Simon Peter cast himself into the sea? After all, it really isn’t where he is supposed to be. He is neither a fish nor a net. On one occasion, Jesus was teaching his disciples that stumbling in faith was inevitable, but that causing your sisters and brothers to stumble was a source of woe, of pain so great that it would be better to have a millstone tied around you and be thrown into the sea. Such a one must be rebuked, and, if they repent, forgiven, restored. Why does Simon Peter cast himself into the sea, having first put on his outer garment, guaranteed to make swimming harder and sinking easier? Well, it is possible that he was overcome with remorse, at having denied knowing Jesus three times. But on another occasion, Jesus had claimed that mustard seed faith could tell Mount Zion, on which the temple stood, to throw itself into the sea, and it would. That if the religious leaders would voluntarily throw the mountain of meeting God into the midst of the surrounding nations it would stand there as solid ground; but if they refused, it would in any case be overwhelmed by the rising waves of Rome. And thus, it would turn out. But perhaps Simon Peter, Petros, the Rock on which Jesus claimed he would build his Church, chooses, voluntarily, to do what the leaders of the people would not. Again, John’s Gospel ends with Jesus symbolically giving the Church authority over the nations; not through might but by a stubborn subversive growth none could effectively root out.


Monday, April 25, 2022

John 21:1-19 part one


John 21:1-19 part one

Straight after Easter Sunday, Jo and I disappeared for several days’ break staying with some good friends down in Warwickshire. On our last night there, we went out for a curry. We don’t eat meat, so Jo had a vegetable dish, and I had a fish dish. It was delicious: an unlikely mix of cod and tuna and prawns, prepared with fenugreek and ginger and a blend of spices. In the centre of the table there was a plate of enormous naans, and we hungrily tore off piece after piece to scoop up mouthful after mouthful. We ate too much, and went to bed too soon after, and slept terribly as a result. But it was so good to be together. We had spent the previous days eating and drinking and sitting round reading books and exploring elegant towns and walking their dogs around pretty villages and catching up with one another’s news and giving one another space to not have to entertain or engage socially. The following morning, we would get up early for the first time in days, go out and run the nearest parkrun, and then spend the next several hours driving home in sweaty lycra. I can’t think of a better way to observe the Octave of Easter, the first eight of the Fifty Great Days of Eastertide.

Several of the disciples had gone out all night, fishing on the lake. And at dawn, Jesus stood on the shore and called to them, “Little children, do you have any fish relish (prosphagion)?” That is, do you have the kind of fish dish that is eaten with flatbread? And they reply, “No.” They have no fish relish with them. So Jesus calls out again, and tells them to cast their net on the right hand side of the boat, and that they will discover something, perhaps unexpected. They don’t discover any fish relish—that really would be unexpected. Instead, the net fills up with fish (ichthyōn) and what is unexpected is the sheer number of them. But then Simon Peter does something very unexpected: he pulls on his cloak and casts himself into the sea. And when they reach the shore, they find that Jesus has made a charcoal fire and prepared bread and was cooking it along with some fish he already had with him.

It is such a strange and beautiful story. Jesus, making breakfast for his friends—as my friend Andy had poached us eggs for breakfast as we sat in his kitchen. Constructing a fire—as my friend Andy had made in his firepit as we sat round, and he cooked for us on the barbeque. Simple things, with his hands. This is, surely, occupational therapy, learning how to use hands that now have holes punctured through them—how do you knead bread when the tendons of your fingers are torn in two? This is rehabilitation after the trauma of torture and death, not to mention the trauma of resurrection, just as much as the boys going fishing is rehabilitation after the trauma of seeing Jesus go to his death, and come back again. This takes time, and, it turns out, a little fish relish. That is why we take Fifty days over Easter, not just one ta-dah! day (glorious though it is).


Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter joy



The Body and Blood of Christ

Kateryna Kuziv


Easter Sunday


Easter Sunday

Supposing him to be the gardener …

John 20:15

Why does Mary Magdalene suppose Jesus to be the gardener?

Is it because, through her grief, she cannot see clearly? Or is it that because of her grief she can see more clearly than before? After all, Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ And what greater comfort than to see Jesus as he truly is?

This year, as we have prepared to celebrate Easter, I have taken opportunities to share with you the work of the Lviv School of Iconographers. And this Easter morning, I would like to introduce you to Kateryna Kuziv, an artist whose work explores the theme of the great theme of the garden.

This first image depicts the Tree of Life, one of two trees God planted in the middle of the garden of Eden. Kuziv depicts it not in literal green but symbolic blue: the tree of life. This tree, bursting with life, is cruciform.

The next image depicts the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree is also cruciform, but it introduces darkness and light. Indeed, light is bursting out from darkness: evil makes its presence felt but cannot contain goodness; and, in bursting free, good breaks evil apart.

The third image is the Creation of Adam and Eve. The gardener placed in the garden to watch over it, and the companion created as a champion to contend for the gardener. Humanity lives in harmony with the garden.

But the next image is simply called Trespass. Presented to us by a Ukrainian artist in these days when Russia has trespassed onto Ukraine, the icon takes on new layers. Yet it depicts the seemingly insatiable appetite to consume what we gaze upon, and humanity finds itself bound, constrained by the very knowledge we desire.

And following on from Trespass, we have Exile. The human family, wrapped in the shrouds of death and cut off from the harmony of creation. There is still beauty in the world, but it is spoiled by pollution, a great stain. A great sorrow, and a deadness of spirit.

And here we move on, to the Genealogy of Jesus. Again, we have a tree, blue for life, bursting with leaves and flowers and fruit, and the names of Jesus’ ancestors. Abraham at the root, and Mary Mother of God and her Son at the apex. Lives marked by deadness turned to life and despair turned to rejoicing. All of life is here, and God is at work in and through it.

The next image is Epitaphios, an icon of the shroud of the dead Christ. If you look carefully, within the shroud—which is depicted as a blue cloth, pointing to resurrection life—you will see the imprint of Christ’s halo—symbol of holiness—and of his wounds: hands folded across his chest, pierced side, his feet. And the flowering of the empty cross: the cruciform tree. This moment, the death and resurrection as one piece, is the birthing of a new creation, the planting of a new Eden. The moment of defeat is the moment of victory.

And following on, the Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena. Here is the gardener, the new Adam, the new humanity, nowhere more tangible than in his wounds. And the new Eve, the new champion who will contend for the gardener, who will carry the news of his resurrection to his disciples. And here is the life of the garden, bursting out all around.

And one final image the Throne of God. Blue for the life of heaven, and bursting with leaves, for the healing of the nations. An invisible throne, Christ made visible in the revelation of the written Word.

‘Supposing him to be the gardener…’ And, of course, Mary’s supposition was quite right. Jesus is the gardener, the one who faithfully watches over the garden. The one who kept watch and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples slept for grief. The one who watched over Mary, when Simon Peter and the other disciple had gone home leaving her behind, and who witnessed her blossoming and sent her to bear witness to his own. The One through whom, and with whom, and in whom, all creation bursts free to worship the Father. Who has restored in men and women the image of God’s glory, placed us once more in paradise, and opened to us the gate of life eternal. And today, on this Resurrection morning, he calls you by name. How will you respond?


Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Harrowing of Hell


The Apostles’ Creed affirms of this day, Holy Saturday, that ‘he [Jesus] descended into hell…’

There he liberated the captives, held long in darkness. The Church speaks of this, in hushed tones, as the Harrowing of Hell. While he outwardly sleeps, this Jesus plunders Death of every trophy.

Here I am sharing Kateryna Shadrina’s icon of the Harrowing of Hell. There is a beautiful tenderness to it that evokes her Good Friday icons, The Lament and Pieta. As Mary stretches out to cradle her son’s head in death, so, in death, he stretches out his hand to comfort the dead, and love them back to life.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Why the cross?


This is excellent, and I commend it to you.

This is very good also.

To be continued


Jesus’ last words on the cross are, ‘It is finished!’

What is finished? Nothing. Nothing is finished, not yet, not until Sunday at least.

So why does Jesus cry out, ‘It is finished!’?

He is reciting Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is a Psalm of David. God had promised to David that he would never forsake him—and God keeps God’s promises. In Psalm 22, David wrestles with circumstances that cause him to feel like God has abandoned him, and unwavering hope knowing that this is not the case. And from earliest times, the followers of Jesus understood the crucifixion to be a dramatic recital (and, at times, interpretation) of this psalm.

When Jesus cries, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ he is reciting Psalm 22:1, 2.

When the crowds mock him and the religious leaders hurl insults at him, and wait to see if God will rescue him, they are reciting Psalm 22:6-8, 17.

When Jesus entrusts his mother Mary and his disciple John to one another, he is reciting Psalm 22:9-11.

When the soldier’s spear pierces his side, the soldier is reciting Psalm 22:14.

When Jesus says that he thirsts, he is reciting Psalm 22:15.

When the soldiers divide his clothes among them and cast lots to decide which of them will take his most precious garment, they are reciting Psalm 22:18.

When Jesus commends his spirit into God’s hands, he is reciting Psalm 22:20, 21.

When Jesus asks his Father to forgive those who do not know what they are doing, that they might be restored to come before the Lord, on account of hearing his petition, he is reciting Psalm 22:23-24, 27.

When Jesus promises the penitent thief that he will be with him that day in paradise, he is reciting Psalm 22:29.

When Jesus cries out, ‘It is finished!’ he is reciting Psalm 22:30, 31, the culmination of the psalm, the resounding: future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

He has done it.

And after Psalm 22 comes Psalm 23. Jesus walks through the darkest valley fearing no evil, for the Father is with him, a comforting presence. And having passed through the darkest valley, Joseph and Nicodemus come, and take him and lay him out in the presence of his enemies—soldiers literally standing guard over them—and anoint him with embalming oil. Even so, goodness and mercy shall follow him, and life, in the house of the Lord.

It is finished.

To be continued.


Thursday, April 14, 2022

Maundy Thursday


Maundy Thursday

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:34, 35

This year through Lent I have been encountering God afresh through the Lviv School of Iconographers. And on this Maundy Thursday, I want to share three works by Ivanka Demchuk. For me, the theme running through them is feet, as an expression of how we are called to love one another.

The first image is The Still Point. This is an icon of the Holy Family, and it depicts Jesus’ first steps. He is released by his father, who is wearing his cloak and sandals, as the Israelites were instructed to do when eating the Passover meal, in readiness to head out into the night. He is making his way, on chubby infant legs, to his mother, whose arms are outstretched to receive him, to envelop him. The One through whom all things were created humbles himself to be taught how to use his body, how to move through time and space.

The second image is The Shroud. This is an icon of the Epitaphios, of the dead Christ laid out on a shroud, ready for preparation for burial. Whereas Jesus’ mother and her companions, and even the four Evangelists, one in each corner, are often depicted, here Jesus is alone. His body is taut—rigor mortis is setting in—and every sinew in his feet stands out. Feet recently anointed by Mary, in preparation for this moment, as Jesus himself would go on to wash the feet of Peter and the other disciples (presumably including Judas, who would die concurrently with him).

The third image is On the Way to Emmaus. Here we see Jesus approaching two disciples, coming alongside those who are distraught, who move through time and space as precariously as a toddler and with even less awareness. The feet in this icon are tiny, do not look as if they could carry the weight of a man, of a life. And yet once again they reveal great love, for one lost to death, for two lost and wandering sheep who need to be found and brought back to the sheepfold.

Who taught you to walk? To walk in a literal, physical sense; and to walk in the ways of the Lord? Living or dead, take a moment to thank God for them.

Who is preparing you to face the days that lie ahead? And who are you encouraging?

Who walks alongside you, through whom Christ may be revealed in fleeting moments, and gives you strength to carry on?

This is what it means to love one another. By this shall everyone know that we have been with Jesus, that we follow him on his Way.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022



This Holy Week, I am thinking about folly, and the folly of believing in the resurrection.

It is likely that I will get divorced. (I am speaking of statistics, let the reader understand.)

It is likely that my wife will die, and I will be widowed.

It is likely that I will die, and make my wife a widow.

Despite this, for over twenty-seven years now and counting, I choose love.

It is fairly likely that, should I find myself divorced or widowed, I will dare to love again.

On the other hand, it is fairly likely that I will push love away.

Among those I count as friends and as acquaintances, there are many who still choose love, many who risk loving again, and many who push love away. And they are all foolish to do so. Not wrong. Not stupid. But foolish. That is, albeit in different ways, each one acts contrary to conventional wisdom.

And, if the interaction of other friends is anything to go by, it turns out that we root for the fool who embraces folly. Even when, perhaps especially when, we dare not embrace folly ourselves. It turns out that we need fools, and folly, to help us to be humble and to help us to be brave. That is why a truly wise king employs a fool: not a jester, to entertain his court, but a fool, whose actions speak truth to power.

Fool that I am, I believe.

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.




Luke’s account of the resurrection begins with some of the women who followed Jesus discovering the empty tomb, being reminded that he had said that he would rise three days after his death, and then telling this to Jesus’ male followers: ‘But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’ (Luke 24:11).

A literal translation of the Greek would be: ‘And appeared before them like folly the words of them, and they did not believe them.’

This turn of phrase is reminiscent of that employed by Luke’s friend Paul, writing to the believers in Corinth:

‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

‘Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’

(1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

Like Paul’s audience, Luke is writing with a predominantly Greek audience in mind. And to proclaim Jesus crucified, dead and buried, and risen again on the third day, is foolishness. Such words take on the appearance of foolishness. They are dressed in the foolishness of God, which is wiser than human wisdom. This is so from the very first proclamation.

It is foolish to believe what I believe, to proclaim what I proclaim. I am a fool. And, God help me, I must embrace that foolishness, or else I am to be pitied indeed.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Palm Sunday


Today is Palm Sunday when the Church re-enacts Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem days before his death. He comes with a stream of pilgrims on their way to the temple, gathering in the City of Peace to celebrate the Passover. One of the three great national festivals, Passover recalled the time when the Lord God had delivered his people out of Egypt. But it also celebrated the barley harvest, the first harvest of the promised Land, followed fifty days (Pentecost) later by the celebration of the wheat harvest.

As pilgrims descended the Mount of Olives into the valley and then climbed up the temple mount, they sang Songs of Ascent. One (Psalm 129) takes up the imagery of the harvest, culminating in the harvest greeting by which Boaz, great-grandfather of king David, had greeted his barley harvesters and the reapers had greeted him in return (Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you.” They answered, The LORD bless you.” Ruth 2:4).

‘Often have they attacked me from my youth’
—let Israel now say—
‘often have they attacked me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
Those who plough ploughed on my back;
they made their furrows long.’
The Lord is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked.
May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned back.
Let them be like the grass on the housetops
that withers before it grows up,
with which reapers do not fill their hands
or binders of sheaves their arms,
while those who pass by do not say,
‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord!’

In this Psalm a representative individual speaks for Jerusalem and indeed for all Israel. They speak of an enemy who has ploughed furrows on their back yet has reaped no lasting harvest. No one shall bless them as Boaz and his reapers blessed one another in the name of the Lord.

Just days later Jesus’ back will have deep furrows ploughed into it by Roman cat-o-nine-tails, leather whips with pieces of bone or even metal embedded in them. And in this Jesus the prophet will enact what will befall Jerusalem with the destruction of the temple in AD70. Yet the Song of Ascent is not a psalm of lament or a cry of despair. It is a reminder: we have been here before, many times, and the Lord has always delivered his people. And so, we encourage one another to look for the Lord’s deliverance, the withering of our enemies like a harvest that fails to materialise.

This Palm Sunday we come before God as a pilgrim people, journeying with our persecuted sisters and brothers in Iran and China and Pakistan and elsewhere, with our sisters and brothers whose homes and churches are being destroyed and whose lives have been taken in towns and villages in Ukraine and elsewhere. With them we sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”


Thursday, April 07, 2022



One time Jesus was in Jerusalem, and some Judeans (Southerners) looked to pick a fight. They decided to spread fake news about him: is it not true that you are a Samaritan (Midlander) and that you are not in your right mind? In fact, this was false on every count: Jesus was a Judean by birth, and a Galilean (Northerner) by upbringing, and fully in his right mind. Jesus, however, does not correct them. He simply states, your false report concerning me is of absolutely no consequence.

Jesus continued, saying, “If anyone puts my teaching into practice, the theatre (theōreō), the whole spectacle of death will not distract them.”

The Judeans retort, “Wait, you’re claiming that anyone who puts your teaching into practice won’t die? Now we know you are out of your mind. Everyone dies. Even Abraham, and the prophets, died.”

Jesus makes a point about Abraham having been able to imagine what Jesus was speaking about, and that Abraham himself was called into being by I AM, the name by which God was revealed to Moses (long after Abraham) as the God of the living not the dead.

At this point, the Judeans decide to prove Jesus a mad man by stoning him to death, public execution, the very highest expression of the art form of the theatre of death. But while they search for stones, Jesus disappears into the crowd of worshippers and slips out of the temple, hidden in plain sight, thus demonstrating the truth of his words that the theatre of death is no distraction to his actions.

Of course, a time will come when Jesus does undergo public execution, but even then the theatre of death does not distract or derail or contain him. In fact, it is taken up within a greater theatre of life.

The theatre of death is available 24/7, on more channels than we can ever imagine. But being distracted by it is not inevitable. Taking part in it is not inevitable. We are called, instead, to enact the theatre of life, through which God is made visible in our imaginations, in our lives, and, through our lives, in the world around us.


Sunday, April 03, 2022

Let go, keep watch : part 2


At the request of our fifteen-year-old son, whose classical education has holes in it on account of having been born too recently, we are currently working our way through every episode of The West Wing. On evenings when I do not have any meetings, we might get in two or even three episodes, and last night we reached the end of the second series and my favourite episode, ‘Two Cathedrals.’

President Bartlet stays behind after the funeral of his longstanding secretary at the National Cathedral, and lets rip at God. He accuses God of cruel indifference, the injustice that nothing he has done, none of the good his administration has achieved, counts for anything. As a Catholic who believes that salvation is by faith and good works, his good works have not changed the mind of God in favour of salvation.

Returning to the Oval Office, the President has a final conversation with the ghost of his secretary, who sets him straight about God (stop projecting your father onto Our Father) and speaks into his life as only she can for one last time before he is able to let go (stop projecting me).

God, of course, can withstand the storm of our wrath while it blows over. Jed Bartlet stands firmly in the scriptural tradition of Job. But, like Job, he needs to hear God speak. And what God says, through a beloved woman, resonates with the exchange between Jesus and his friend Mary in John 12:1-8.

Until you are able to let go, of God and of our neighbour, whom we are called to love as much as ourselves; until we are able to free God and our neighbour of obligation, of any debt owed to us; we are a liability.

For as long as we need to be the protagonist, the hero, we are doomed to force the hand of history with a helping hand, as Judas tries to do; or to create the hubris that humiliates us, as Peter does. We are condemned to the existential crisis that leads Judas to take his own life, and Peter to run away before he is eventually restored to community.

But when we let go of the demand that God repay us, we are freed to watch over whatever it is that God is doing. We are trusted to be a witness, to testify in defence of a loving, self-giving God who is roundly accused of perpetrating a great deceit. We get to point beyond ourselves to something greater than we could ever imagine.

Let go.

Keep watch.


Let go, keep watch : part 1


The Gospel set for today is John 12:1-8. We hear how a friend of Jesus called Mary prepared his body for burial, before he had died. And how a disciple of Jesus called Judas took offence at her actions. And how Jesus rebuked his disciple (this is not the first time Jesus has had to rebuke one or more of his disciples) and affirmed his friend.

Jesus responds, ‘Leave her alone, so that she might watch over [what remained of the ointment] for the day of my burial.’ Leave her alone. His choice of words might be used in other contexts of freeing a slave or of writing a certificate of divorce so freeing a woman from a marriage. The point being made is that Mary owes Judas no explanation to justify her actions. She is under no obligation towards him.

But I am also struck by this: that, days earlier, Mary had not been able to leave her brother Lazarus alone. To release him to sleep with his ancestors, having died. I am not saying that she was wrong in this, simply noting it. Why note it? Because, as consequence of what Jesus said and did then, Mary shows, by her actions now, that she is able to leave Jesus alone, to release him from any obligation towards her, to allow him to die. Certainly, his disciples have not arrived at this place yet. So, what is a rebuke towards Judas is simultaneously an affirmation towards Mary.

Yet it comes with further instruction, or rather, with revelation. The friend who has given Jesus permission to depart in peace is the friend who can be trusted to keep watch over what will unfold. Why? Because they will not try to intervene, to be the protagonist, the hero who saves the day. As Judas will intervene. Instead, they will keep watch. Not abandoning Jesus, as the rest of the disciples do. But bearing witness. Testifying to what God is doing in the world, in entrusting Godself into less loving hands.

Where are you in the story?

Who, or what, do you need to let go?

What are you keeping watch over?