Saturday, 18 August 2018

The lectionary

Papyrus scroll of the Prophecy of Isaiah
dating from about 600
Its content is identical to that in our Bibles today.

Many people have at some time come away from a service asking, why was that passage of the Bible read today? Who on earth chose it?
         In each service, we generally have three Bible readings: one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters (the ‘epistles’), and one from the Gospels. (Some other churches have a fourth reading, from the psalms.)
     These three readings follow this particular order because (a) this way, they occur in increasing order of importance, but also (b) it reflects the order in which these parts of the Bible were first written.
     The actual choice of the readings comes from the Lectionary. The word itself comes from a Latin word, meaning ‘to read’. There have always been lectionaries: the lectionary we use dates from 1994, when a group of scholars from all the major Christian denominations were appointed to compile a list of readings to be used during church services.
      The lectionary runs in a three-year cycle. In the first year (Year A), the gospel readings for the Sunday Eucharist all come from Matthew, those in the second year (Year B) from Mark’s Gospel, and in the third year (or Year C), they come from Luke. We read portions of John’s Gospel throughout the Easter season, and liturgical seasons such as Advent, Christmastide, and Lent, where appropriate.
      By using the lectionary in this way, all the Gospels and all the epistles will have been covered at least once during an entire cycle. About a third of the Old Testament will also have been covered. Anyone who attends Morning Prayer each day over three consecutive years will have heard the entire Old Testament.
      Sometimes the lectionary readings are themed, which means they are similar. By means of these similarities, the Bible readings interpret one another: each represents one component part of a topic, but only when read together do the jigsaw pieces come together to form a larger picture. At other times, the readings aren’t compiled thematically, although placing the readings one after another can still shed light on the wider picture of how God works in the world and in our lives.


The Bible mentions angels fairly often. In the Middle East when the Bible was being written, it was thought that God was so holy that he chose not to let himself be ‘tainted’ by physical things such as our physical world. He therefore created angels tact them as go-betweens. That’s why the word ‘angel’ is actually Greek for ‘messenger’.

       A second common theme in the Bible is the way angels act as God’s representatives, offering help and protection. There are vast numbers of references of this type. Perhaps the classic New Testament verse here involves Jesus warning us not to harm children; he says, “See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you that their angels in Heaven always see the face of My Father in Heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
       Thirdly, God made many different kinds (or ‘orders’) of angels just as an army has different grades of officer from Lieutenant through to General. St Paul points to this idea in his letter to the Greek Church in Colossi, in
which he says, “In him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him’ (Colossians 1:16) or again, Christ is raised up ‘above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion’ (Ephesians 1:21).
      In this thinking, there were nine different grades of angel. The least important of these angels were called just ‘angels’. Next were the archangels, of which there are four in the Bible and Apocrypha: Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael. (The actual term archangel itself only occurs in St Jude and 1 Thessalonians 4:15.)
      Contrary to popular conceptions, the Bible never mentions an angel having wings. The classical image of a heavenly being with wings
occurs in Isaiah 6, when a seraph flies before the prophet:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1–4).

The mixed chalice

Next time you attend a Eucharistic service, look closely when the bread and wine are brought up to the Altar. A small jug of water is also pres ented. Now look more closely still: after the wine is poured into the chalice, a small amount of water is also added. We call this practice the ‘mixed chalice.’
     The mixed chalice derives from an ancient Jewish custom and was most probably observed by Jesus himself at the Last Supper.
      The mixed chalice has been used in communion ser vices since then. The Anglican Church followed the practice before the Reformation, but only in 1926 did it became legal again in modern England.
      In the very earliest Jewish times, wine was always drunk undiluted; wine mixed with water was said to be ‘ruined’ (see Isaiah 1:22). But by the second century BC, the Greek custom of diluting wine had become so widely acc epted that the writer of 2 Macc a bees could refer to diluted wine as ‘sweet and delicious,’ and undiluted wine as ‘harmful’ (2 Mac 15:39).
In the following centuries, this dilution became so normal that ancient Jewish commentaries took it for granted; indeed, in some cases, it was forbidden to say the traditional table-blessing over wine that was not diluted. In this context, the wine of the Last Supper was almost certainly a sweet red wine and highly diluted.
     The early and mediaeval church attached allegorical meanings to the mixed chalice. It reflects the two natures of Christ: he was both divine and human, the wine was understood to represent his divine nature and the water his human nature.
     The mixed chalice was the invariable practice of the early church. It was rejected by Luther at the Reformation and not practised in the Calvinist tradition. The first version of the Book of Common Prayer (published in 1549) directed the continuance of this usage, but the instruction was dropped in the 1552 edition. Its revival in the Church of England during the nineteenth century became a matter of dispute between the Anglo-Catholics and their opponents. It is now very widely practised.
     The mixed chalice has been described as a sign of union of Christ with his people, a sign of the flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side at the crucifixion (John 19:34), and a sign of the union of Christ’s divine and human natures.
      In the eastern Churches, the water added to the chalice is hot, and is only added after the breaking of the bread. This aspect is meant to symbolise the descent of the Holy Spirit and the vibrant energy of faith. 

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The book of Habakkuk

Habakkuk is the eighth of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament.

The author Habakkuk’s name only appears twice in the Bible: in Hb 1:1 and 3:1. The author calls himself a prophet in Hb 1:1. The highly liturgical nature of Habakkuk suggests the author was a Temple prophet. Such a profession required lyres, harps and cymbals during worship (e.g. see 1 Chronicles 25:1), which seems to echo Hb 3:19b.
      We know almost nothing about Habakkuk as a person: we don’t know his home town, secular occupation, or any facts concerning his parents or tribe, although it is possible that Habakkuk was a Levite as well as a Temple singer.
      Although his name does not appear in any other part of the Bible, one ancient tradition suggests Habakkuk was the son of the Shunammite woman whom Elisha restored to life, as recorded in 2 Kings 4:16. Another idea says he was the sentinel set by Isaiah to watch for the fall of Babylon (compare Hb 2:1 with Isaiah 21:6).
      Although we do not know where Habakkuk was born, the subject matter of the book makes it safe to conclude that he lived in Jerusalem at the time he wrote his prophecy.

Content The book’s author had literary talent, and he writes with a colourful palate of image and metaphor
      Unlike other prophetic books in the Old Testament, Habakkuk does not accuse Israel of its sin. Rather, his book comprises five oracles about the Chaldeans (who were also known as the Babylonians). In addition to the five oracles, Habakkuk includes a song of praise to God which takes the literary form of a psalm.
     Habakkuk is also unusual in that he openly questions the wisdom of God (Hb 1:3a, 1:13b). For example, early in the second chapter, the Prophet notes the injustice among his people and asks why God does not take action: ‘God, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and will you not save?’ (Hb 1:2).

Date of composition The prose implies the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598 bc), which is reasonable insofar as it was during this king’s reign that the Babylonians first grew in power. The Babylonians marched against Jerusalem in 598 bc. Jehoiakim died as the Babylonians approached, so his eighteen-year-old son Jehoiachin took the throne. Jehoiachin surrendered Jer us alem a short time later, which was followed by rep risals. Hb 1:12–17 implies Habakkuk was a first-hand witness of Babylonian brutality.
      The Babylonian rise to power started in 612 bc, so some think Habakkuk was active at about that time, making him an early contemporary of Jeremiah and Zephaniah. But Jewish sources never group him with these two other prophets, who are often placed together, so it is possible that he was earlier still.

The message of the book Of the three chapters in the book, the first two describe a dialogue between God and the prophet. The central message is ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Hb 2:4).
      This message informs all genuine Christian thought. For example, St Paul uses it in both his Epistle to the Romans (Rom 1:17), and his Epistle to the Galatians (Gal 3:11); and the idea also appears in the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38) as the starting point of the concept of faith. Habakkuk chapter 3 may be an independent (and later?) addition. It is now recognised as a liturgical piece, but its literary style suggests it was written by the same author as chapters 1 and 2.

Mary Sumner

Mary Sumner was born in 1828, in Swinton near Salford into a wealthy and cultured family. She was the third of four children. Her father was a banker and keen amateur historian while her mother was a woman of great personal piety who saw her calling as bringing up her children according to Scripture.
     The family moved to Colwall near Ledbury, Herefordshire, in 1832. Her mother was soon leading Scripture meetings for local mothers. The latest member of the family died about a year after they arrived in Herefordshire aged only six weeks, which made a lasting impression on Mary.
Mary was educated privately at home, where she became an accomplished singer and learned three foreign languages. Years later, she said that what she valued most about her family home was its Christian atmosphere.
      To complete her musical learning, she travelled with her mother and elder sister to Rome. While there, Mary met her future husband, George Sumner, the son of the Bishop of Winchester and a relative of William Wilberforce. They wed in 1848 and completed 61 years of married life.
George became an Anglican Vicar 18 months after the wedding and became a Vicar in Hampshire in 1851. Mary followed her mother’s example by dedicating herself to raising her children and helping her husband in his ministry by providing music and Bible classes.
      Years later in 1876, Mary’s eldest daughter Margaret gave birth, which brought back memories of her own sense of burden when becoming a mother. Mary decided that a new organisation was needed in the parish so she organised a meeting of local mothers to offer mutual support — and the first branch of the Mothers’ Union had begun. This plan was deemed quite radical as it involved calling women of all social classes to support one another and to see motherhood as a profession as important as those of men, if not more so.
      The first meeting was held in the Rectory, but Mary was so nervous that her husband had to speak for her and invite the women to return next week. Mary gathered sufficient courage to speak at this second meeting.
      This first incarnation of the Mothers’ Union was limited to her family’s parish and it might have remained merely a local experiment except that a few years later, in 1885, Mary was part of a Church audience at the nearby Portsmouth Church Congress. The Bishop of Newcastle had been asked to address the women churchgoers but felt that he had very little to say to women and invited Mary to speak in his place. Although she was again nervous, she gave a passionate address about national morality and ‘the importance of women’s vocation as mothers to change the nation for the better’. She declared the Mothers’ Union (then) motto, ‘Those that rock the cradle rule the world’. She also called for a Mothers’ Union prayer. A number of the women present went back to their parishes to found their own mothers’ meetings following Mary’s pattern. Soon afterwards, the Bishop of Winchester made the Mothers’ Union a diocesan organisation. The idea caught took hold: by 1909, the Mothers’ Union was Britain’s largest voluntary organisation for women.
      Mary died on 11 August 1921 at the age of 92 and was buried with her husband (who died 12 years before) outside Winchester Cathedral.
      Mary Sumner was a woman of deep faith with a heart for prayer and a quiet determination to make a difference in the lives of others. Her faith and resolve to follow God’s call to make a difference to families and society, laid the foundations for today’s worldwide movement. One of its most endearing features was the way its membership cut across all social classes. God’s love is for all.

Monday, 23 July 2018


It’s raining gently outside. A moment ago it was pouring down in torrents. The water from the sky is forming large puddles on the road and in my garden. When it last rained properly, in the spring, the rain quickly sank into the earth but today the ground has been baked so hard by months of hot, sunny weather that it’s become as impervious as stone. I need the water to sink deep but it can’t.
         We hear the word of God from many sources: we hear the Bible as it’s read in Church and we study its ancient pages at home. We may have texts on the walls of our homes. But like the rain, it can either enter our soul or it can flow over us and collect elsewhere. It needs to sink deep if it’s to nourish and help the dry areas of a spiritual life, and help the seed of faith to come alive … but can it do so?
      Using the principle of water on my garden, the best way to promote the word of God sinking deeply into a human soul is frequent immersion, to avoid any period of spiritual drought. A sudden experience of God followed by a long time away from Him has the same effect as the rain in my garden today. It does not penetrate and the soul remains arid.
We all need God, and we need Him deep down in the inner recesses of our spiritual lives. We need Him often. We therefore need to immerse ourselves in God as often and as fully as possible.