Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Growing up a spiral staircase

Holy Week beckons with its promise of beauty and depth, and its bombardment of Scriptures and ideas, emotion-laden services and preparation. Sometimes, behind it lies a different but insistent question, “Is it really a year since the last Holy Week?”
         It is indeed a year since this time a year ago, so it can feel like
Groundhog Day — a humorous film about a man destined to endlessly relive the same day — but it isn’t. Much has also changed.
      We can think of the Church Year as being like a loop that starts in Advent and goes via Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, through Trinity, to Kingdom season. We repeat and return like going round a closed circle. A better analogy is a spiral or spring. Each time we complete a circuit of the year, we return but have climbed a little higher than before. Like climbing a spiral staircase, we are holier than this time last year, closer to God than this time last year, more experienced in the ways of faith, and more ready to face the challenges of loving an infinite, holy God.
That’s the theory. The practice depends on Easter. We grow in faith in proportion that we live Easter lives of resurrection. The yearly cycle of the Church Year assists that growth and sponsors our spiritual renewal.
      So as we approach Easter, try not to treat it as only an annual reminder of Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, ask God to help us die to self and thence resurrect as a new creation, a child of the living God and more Christlike.

Signing with the Cross

From ancient times, Christians have signed themselves with the cross during a service. The practice probably goes back as far as the end of the second century.
     Sometimes it’s only the forehead that is signed, in which case a finger may be dipped into a stoop of holy water first. Sometimes it’s holy oil instead.
     More often, the sign of the cross involves the whole upper torso as well as the head. The sign starts by touching the forehead with the fingers of the right hand, bringing the hand down to the heart, touching the left shoulder and then bringing the hand across the chest to the right shoulder. This movement describes a cross shape. In the Orthodox Churches of the east, Christians also sign with the cross, but move the hand from the right shoulder to the left.
      While signing, many Christians says (aloud or silently) ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ or other Trinitarian words. In churches of a more catholic persuasion, the cross is also signed at the sacraments, during a blessing, and as a sign of penance.
The positions of the four points of the cross are significant:

  • Behind the forehead lies the brain, from whence all thoughts derive. They need to be pure and clean. The mind therefore requires continual re-direction toward the cross: we must think more often of God.
  • The heart is traditionally seen as the seat of the emotions. Therefore, the desires of our heart need continual irrigation in the love shown on the cross: we must direct our love back toward God.
  • Until remarkably recently, the left-hand side of a person was thought to be inferior or more wicked than the right. For example, the Latin word for ‘left handed’ is ‘sinister.’ By contrast, the right-hand side was supposed to be good. (This helps explain why some left-handed people were forced to write with their right hands when at school.) When a Christian draws their hand from left to right, the action symbolises a movement from wickedness to goodness, from rebellion against God to compliance.

The triple signing of the forehead, lips and breast when reading the Gospel derives from the eleventh century at the earliest. Symbolically, it denotes a cleansing by the cross of thought, word and deed.
The frequency of signing oneself can vary from church to church, but the number is
certainly fewer than in years
past: the Sarum Rite (from which much of the Book of Common Prayer derives) required a worshipper to sign themselves as many as twenty-six times during a Eucharistic service!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Brother Roger of Taizé

Brother Roger was born in Provence, Switzerland, in 1915.
       He was born Roger Louis Schütz-Marsauche, the ninth and youngest child of a Protestant pastor. His mother was French. He studied theology was a leader in the Swiss Student Christian Movement; and seemed fated for a glittering career in the Church. He nearly died of tuberculosis and, during a long convalescence, began to feel drawn to a monastic way of life.
Brother Roger at prayer
      In 1940, at the start of World War II, he felt called to help those suffering the conflict. He rode a bicycle from Geneva to Taizé, which was then a tiny town about 240 miles south-east of Paris. The town was then located within unoccupied France. He bought an empty house. There for two years he and his sister hid refugees, both Christian and Jewish. He fled the Gestapo but returned in 1944 to Taizé to create a new Christian Community.
      Brother Roger’s community was initially a small monastic community of men living together in poverty and obedience, but soon developed into a place of pilgrimage, of prayer and reflection. It was open to all Christians regardless of denomination.
      The influence of Taizé grew strongly and steadily. Towards the end of his life, the Community had become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, with a focus on youth. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages there each year for prayer, Bible study, communal work and sharing. The Community encourage them to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.
      Brother Roger always kept a low profile as Community leader, and refused to permit any cult to grow up around himself. Like all saintly people, he was a mixture: humble and stubborn, childlike and wise, mystical and realistic. He became a prized author and wrote widely on prayer, Christian spirituality and reflection, asking young people to be confident in God and committed to their local church community and to humanity. He was recognised as a pioneer in the ecumenical field and never wavered in his self-imposed lifelong mission: to work towards the reconciliation of Christians.
      Brother Roger was murdered during the evening prayer service in Taizé in 2005. He was 90. In the few minutes between the attack and his death, he forgave the mentally-ill woman who attacked him, and asked that she be forgiven.
      Perhaps his most important legacy is the music of Taizé, which is instantly recognisable, usually melodic and enormously powerful. Its songs are sung in many languages and commonly comprise chants and simple phrases—usually lines from Psalms or other pieces of Scripture — repeated almost endlessly, like the praise in Heaven, as described in Revelation.

Baker's dozen

Bread ! We need it. We knead it, bake it, slice it, toast it
Empty the shelves against an impending crisis.
We give it to the ducks, (though we really shouldn’t),
And put out crumbs for the birds.
Then there were those other crumbs, two thousand years ago;
Under His table. Too good for us, really,
And twelve baskets of fragments when He fed a multitude.
He always provides more than we can ask.
And then in that upper room, He broke the bread –
More crumbs!
“This is My body which is given for you."
Twelve bewildered, devoted companions,
Working men with fishermen’s hands.
They must have looked at one another and wondered.
“What does He mean, it’s His body? It’s bread.
Our Miriam baked it this morning.”
“Remember Him when we eat it. Where is he going?”
“Oh, well, might as well do as he says. It’s good.”
Nourishing, universal, timeless, bread you have always with you.
Think on!

Sheila Kingham 6.3.2018

Deciphering the resurrection story

St John in his Gospel relays the story of Jesus’ resurrection with precision and clarity, and displays a lovely eye for detail. And he gives us a story of detail and incident. But some of those details needs a little unpacking.
     Firstly, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who mistakes him for a gardener. Maybe she doesn't expect to see Jesus and struggles to explain why a man should be there at such a time. Jesus says to her, ‘Do not touch me’ — a phrase that has confounded scholars for millennia. There’s a simple explanation: the Bible was first written in Greek, and the slightest difference in the shape of one letter transforms the phrase into Jesus’ trademark, ‘Do not be afraid’. So, even after the trauma of crucifixion and resurrection, his first thought is for Mary and her fear.

Peter and John run toward the tomb, by Eugène Burnand
      Next, Peter and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (presumably St John himself) run toward the tomb. Peter sets off first but John gets there first. John is a young man and Peter is middle-aged if not older. So John is faster. Finally Peter reaches the tomb and enters it before John does. The Gospels and traditions alike all paint a picture of Peter as a hasty, impulsive man so, true to form, he lunges forward without thought of safety or even etiquette. He wants to see into the tomb, see its secrets and meaning.
      So Peter and John enter the tomb, and see a pile of abandoned grave-clothes ‘as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, apart from the linen’ like an afterthought.
      But it’s no afterthought. To this day a Palestinian craftsman shows his satisfaction with a completed work by taking a cloth and wiping his brow with it. He then places that cloth before the work. And Jesus the master carpenter placed a face-cloth in front of a task he thought satisfactory.
      But what is the task? To answer that question, consider the plinth on which Jesus’ body lay, a catafalque hewn from the bare rock. On it, the disciples saw two angels. The image reminds us of the ark of the covenant, a gold-plated box made to contain the two stone tablets of the Law that God gave to Moses. On its lid were two angels: God was thought to dwell in the space enclosed by their outstretched wings.
      As we combine these images, the Scriptures invite us to see that Jesus was pure God again, for our sins had distilled from his body at the moment of his resurrection.


The word ‘Amen’ is generally used in Christian worship to conclude a prayer or hymn, and to express strong agreement. The word comes from a Hebrew verb aman ‘to strengthen’ or ‘to confirm’, and is one of a small number of Hebrew words imported unchanged into Christianity.
    The first recorded use of Amen during Christian worship dates from 150 ad when a congregation used the word after a communion blessing, as today.
Most Christians use the word to affirm a prayer though it can express something between ‘I agree’ and ‘The prayer is finished: over and out’. It can also be used colloquially to express strong agreement as in, for instance, ‘Amen to that’.
The word occurs in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) 30 times. It first appears in Numbers 5:22 when a Priest addresses a suspected adulteress. She responds ‘Amen, Amen’ implying that she admits to the offence.
     In the New Testament, Jesus says most of the spoken instances of ‘Amen’, and only then in Matthew’s and John’s Gospels. He uses the word in two ways. In Matthew, he simply affirms or confirms what someone else says, or concludes a prayer, such as the end of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:13, ‘… and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Amen’.
     Jesus’ usage as reported in John’s Gospel differs because he always says Amen twice. And he also says the words before the statement he’s highlighting. This usage is generally translated as ‘verily’ or ‘truly’, for example in John 12:24, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ His actual words were,
‘Amen, Amen, I say to you …’
    In Islam, a Muslim says the Arabic equivalent ʾĀmīn to conclude a prayer, especially after a prayer request or to agree with someone else’s prayer. Indeed, many people think the general Christian use of Amen in this sense may come ultimately from Islam

Brother Roger of Taize