Fifth Sunday in Lent 2021

March 20, 2021

Collect

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross, we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10

5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’;  6as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus* offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Gospel: John 12:20

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Preface

Through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who, for the redemption of the world, humbled himself to death on the cross; that, being lifted up from the earth, he might draw all people to himself:

Post Communion

God of hope, in this eucharist we have tasted the promise of your heavenly banquet and the richness of eternal life. May we who bear witness to the death of your Son, also proclaim the glory of his resurrection, for he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.

Blessing

Christ crucified draw you to himself and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope, and the assurance of sins forgiven:

Reflection

PRAYER V: Through him, with him, in him

This is the last of our little Lent series of reflections on prayer. We have frequently mentioned that we pray as part of the Body of Christ, and that Body has a Head, namely Jesus himself. We do not pray apart from Jesus: the formula is “Through him, with him, in him”. Jesus is the High Priest who intercedes for us (through him); he is our partner and mentor (with him); it is as his Body that the Church prays (in him).

Today’s reading from Hebrews reminds us: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus* offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”. The Gospels show Jesus as one who prayed, who taught his disciples to pray, and put into practice what he taught. Our praying continues that aspect of Jesus’ life: his example encourages us and his instruction informs us. The Lord’s Prayer shows what it means to pray in the name of Jesus.

Hebrews reflects upon Jesus as “our great High Priest”, who ever lives to make intercession for us. Michael Ramsey described intercession as “being with God with the people on your heart”. Our praying is more than following a past example; it is sharing in an eternal and continuing work of Christ. When the Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, not only is our worship a sharing in the worship of heaven, it is a sharing in Jesus’ self-offering to the Father.

Perhaps the most profound and tantalising aspect of prayer, is that it is more God’s action than ours, and that it is part of God’s life, part of the endless loving conversation of the Holy Trinity. Jesus’ praying to his Father “in the days of his flesh” is the incarnate manifestation of the eternal dynamic of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we are invited to listen to that eternal conversation, to join in, to be swept up into that flood of light and love and holy joy.

When I started these reflections, I spoke of reluctance to pray. Perhaps there is something helpful in the idea that prayer is more about God than us, an invitation to join in, to allow the spirit to pray in us, to lift up our hearts to the Lord, to take the place graciously prepared for us in the praise-song of creation, reflection of the life of the Holy Trinity.

Through him, with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory are yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.


Fourth Sunday in Lent 2021 – Mothering Sunday

March 12, 2021

Collect

God of compassion, whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary, shared the life of a home in Nazareth, and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself: Strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and in sorrow we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

2You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Gospel: John 3:14-21

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.*

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*

Preface

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin; by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion

Loving God, as a mother feeds her children at the breast, you feed us in this sacrament with spiritual food and drink. Help us who have tasted your goodness to grow in grace within the household of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen.

Blessing

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourselves, and to take up your cross and follow him:

Reflection

PRAYER IV: Rattling and Sizzling

I belong to a Facebook Group called “We Aten’t Dead” – for fans of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. One of the Group rules is that we mustn’t discuss either religion or politics. But religion is harder to avoid that you might imagine. Naturally we are allowed discuss Discworld, and in that imaginary universe there are many gods. One is Offler, the crocodile god, whose favourite sacrifice is the sausage. Offlerian theology says that when the sausage is sizzled on the pan, the essence of the sausage arises unto Offler as a sweet-smelling savour, while his priests consume the remains. Presumably at breakfast. Another deity is the goddess Anoia, patron of things that get stuck in drawers: whisks and potato mashers and the like. If one wishes to attract the goddess’s attention, one “rattles the drawers” of the kitchen cupboard. Why I am telling you all this nonsense? Because in our Group, people in need or who are anxious about something regularly ask the other members to “sizzle a sausage” or “rattle a drawer” for them. Even in an explicitly non-religious context, the deep human need to ask for prayer makes itself felt.

Why ask for prayer, even in this whimsical form? Clearly the petitioners find it helpful to articulate their anxieties and needs; clearly they derive comfort and encouragement from the other members of the group, who post responses to say “rattling and sizzling”. There is, perhaps, an underlying sense that life is rather random, chancy, possibly even hostile: this is a superstitious gesture to placate negative powers and gather whatever good luck is going.

Is this what Christians are up to, when they ask for prayer, or undertake to pray for someone else? Is there a genuine difference between praying to the Father of Jesus, and sizzling a sausage for Offler? It won’t be enough, I think, to assert that God is real and Offler imaginary. The humanist might well say that all deities are creations of the human imagination; that all praying, however it is expressed, is wishful thinking. A crutch for lame minds; in essentials pointless. But that will not satisfy the believer.

The starting point for our prayer is God himself. We believe in God: so what does that imply? God is mystery, beyond our understanding; so we recognise limits to our ability to make sense of things, and to control events. God is righteous: there is a moral order in things, a general sense of actions and consequences, even if the connection is not as direct and immediate as we might expect. And God is loving; he is not neutral, certainly not hostile, towards his creation; in the complex of circumstances, good and bad, he has a purpose of love for all his creatures. Praying involves aligning ourselves with God’s order; becoming responsive to God’s loving purpose. We are not trying to persuade God to do things our way: his wisdom and benevolence exceed our own. We are certainly not trying to change events by the power of our wishing or believing; although we are possibly trying to change how we respond to our circumstances. With Jesus, we pray that God’s good and perfect will may be done on earth as in heaven, for us, in us, and through us. What more can we ask, for ourselves or for anyone else?

There’s nothing like praying for other people – faithful, sensitive, loving, thought about others – entering imaginatively into their circumstances – to become aware of being part of the Body of Christ, part of the human race, part of the whole creation. Nothing like prayer to make us aware of our responsibilities towards others, and the opportunities given us to serve them. And the starting point of all our praying is our trust in the loving purpose of God. Maybe this offers a way of understanding the idea that if we pray for something, believing we already have it, then we will receive what we ask for. If what we pray for is the doing of God’s will, trusting in his loving purpose, willing to perceive his gracious hand in the unfolding of events, then we may indeed expect our prayer to be fulfilled.

When I get back to Facebook, maybe I should take those requests for rattles and sizzles more seriously. However expressed, whatever is intended, they are requests for prayer. As the Prayer Book says: “Remember for good all those that love us, and those that hate us, and those that have desired us, unworthy as we are, to pray for them”.


Third Sunday in Lent 2021

March 6, 2021

Collect

Merciful Lord, Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 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. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where 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? 21For 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. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Gospel: John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Preface

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin; by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion

Lord our God, you feed us in this life with bread from heaven, the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory. Grant that the working of this sacrament within us may bear fruit in our daily lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourselves, and to take up your cross and follow him:

Reflection

PRAYER III: Partners in Prayer

As o’er each continent and island

The dawn leads on another day,

The voice of prayer is never silent

Nor dies the strain of praise away.

Familiar words from a well-loved hymn, which I always associate with such occasions as the Womens’ World Day of Prayer, or Mothers’ Union services: evoking a sense of a worldwide partnership in prayer and praise. Last week I was speaking about the way even solitary prayer takes place within the context of the Body of Christ. Today I want to explore that a little further: to put flesh on the Body, so to speak.

There’s a passage in Ecclesiastes (4:9-12) “Two are better than one… if they fall, one will lift the other up.. a threefold cord is not quickly broken”. Having partners in prayer expresses this insight. It might be as simple as asking someone else to pray for you. It might mean membership of a prayer group committed to a simple discipline of praying for common intentions – such as the Mothers’ Union Wave of Prayer, or some of the prayer lists of the missionary societies. Some of the religious orders encourage associated groups of lay-people who form an extension of the community in the outside world: for example, there are various members of the Church of Ireland who belong to what is called the “Third Order” of the Society of St Francis.

We see another aspect of prayer partnership when we use scriptural texts and traditional worship forms. In using, as we do, the words of the Psalms, and the scriptural songs called Canticles, we form a partnership with the earliest Christians, maybe even with Jesus and the disciples. When we pray using the patterns and words of the generations before us, we get linked into a continuity which enriches our private praying. These words resonate, because they have been found to express important things in a memorable way.

Besides the official liturgies of the Prayer Book, there are various anthologies, which often include the private devotions of famous Christians, and some of these prayers may well work for us as well. Another valuable resource is the hymn-book; where many of the lyrics can be used for reflection. They are not simply useful or good words: they link us in partnership with other fellow-Christians.

Some Christian denominations have no qualms about addressing the departed saints directly and seeking their intercession. The Church of Ireland is not generally one of these. We have sensitivities about “asking for their prayers”, let alone “praying to” anyone but God himself. Perhaps a more nuanced approach would involve “praying with” the saints in heaven: partners more than patrons. In the Eucharist we acknowledge this when we praise God “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”.

A familiar example which places our worship in the context of saints and angels is Richard Baxter’s hymn “Ye holy angels bright”. In it he calls on the angels, the faithful souls at rest, and the saints who toil below, to join him in praise. It is a poetic and imaginative form, but it evokes a sound sense of prayer partnership between heaven and earth.

When we remember that Christians pray in the context of the Body of Christ, then we can be solitary but not alone; personal but not self-centred. Our private conversation with our heavenly Father has a wider and more inclusive meaning.


Second Sunday in Lent 2021

February 27, 2021

Collect

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth that they may return to the way of righteousness: Grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

First Reading: Romans 4:13-25

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already* as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith* ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ 23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

31 Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Preface

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin; by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion

Creator of heaven and earth, we thank you for these holy mysteries given us by our Lord Jesus Christ, by which we receive your grace and are assured of your love, which is through him now and for ever. Amen.

Blessing

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourselves, and to take up your cross and follow him:

PRAYER II: PRAYING VICARIOUSLY

One of my colleagues in the Grammar School always greets me with “Good morning Vicar”, so I got a face-mask which reads “More tea, vicar?” It evokes the avuncular if ineffective English clergyman, straight out of Agatha Christie. But what is a vicar? It is, simply, a deputy – someone who stands in for someone else. Pre-Disestablishment this parish of Finglas belonged to the Chancellor of St Patrick’s, who took the tithe income and arranged for a vicar to do the parochial work. As he also had a vicar to do his cathedral duties, one might wonder what was left for the Chancellor himself to do!

Cathedrals are full of vicars, both clerical and lay – who provide the singing. More generally, such foundations were established to perform the Divine Service on behalf of the donors and of society in general. Whether or not a congregation attended was beside the point. The choir of canons and vicars, or of monks, in conventual churches, were there to pray and praise on behalf of the communities that supported them. During the early medieval period, abbeys were established as communities of experts, who could read the texts (when many were illiterate), perform the plainchant, and whose dedicated lives gave power and efficacy to their prayer. Just as the knights had the expertise and calling to defend the community in arms, so the monks had the expertise and calling to defend the community by their prayers. That efficacy did not depend on whether the lay community were personally present in church.

This is vicarious worship: specialists provided for who perform the rites on behalf of others. Those who have perhaps neither time or inclination to worship provide for others to do so in their stead. A particular form, which became very common, was the establishment of “chantries” where a priest was provided for to say Mass daily of behalf of the departed.

At the Reformation such vicarious praying was called into question. Any suggestion of buying one’s salvation, or of earning Heaven by one’s good works, let alone those of others, was rejected. In particular there was an emphasis on the Word of God, read and preached; and how can anyone hear and receive the word on behalf of someone else? Hearing and understanding is inescapably personal. Similarly the Eucharist was only to be available where there were communicants to receive: no point otherwise.

One can affirm the importance of personal faith; the individual opening of the heart and soul to God; the personal relationship with Christ initiated in baptism. One should also affirm the importance of the integration of prayer and life: if our prayer does not result in our doing social justice then it is worthless. Nonetheless our personal prayer and faith are in the context of community: we believe and pray as members of the Body of Christ. Whether in a crowd of thousands, or in the “two or three gathered”, or on our own, we pray as part of the whole Body, being upheld by the prayer of others, and upholding them in our turn.

The present lockdown reaffirms the place of vicarious praying. The individual priests, the socially distanced choirs, all providing a variety of acts of worship to be broadcast on social media, are offering worship on behalf of their communities, whether or not anyone watches or listens. And when we find ourselves unable or unwilling to pray, sometimes it is enough to let ourselves be carried along and lifted up by the prayers of others.


First Sunday in Lent 2021

February 20, 2021

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: Give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

18For Christ also suffered* for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you* to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for* a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’

Preface

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin; by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion

Lord God, you renew us with the living bread from heaven. Nourish our faith, increase our hope, strengthen our love, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourselves, and to take up your cross and follow him:

LENTEN REFLECTION ON PRAYER

OVERCOMING RELUCTANCE

One would think that with lockdown, and nowhere to go, if not quite nothing to do, it would be the perfect opportunity for praying more regularly and frequently. That has not been my experience. I find it hard to concentrate on anything at present. I don’t seem to have the mental space to think. And for those of us whose praying is normally done in a certain building and in the communal gathering for worship, there is real deprivation. One of the Collects begins by describing God as “more ready to hear than we to pray”: clearly this experience of reluctance or inability to pray is recognised.

Why am I reluctant to pray?

Boredom is a factor. Whether one uses a formal set of words or makes it up as you go along, sometimes it feels like “here we go again”. If I read another psalm verse I shall scream. If I read another devotional passage by some old saint whose world and beliefs are utterly different from my own I shall give up.  It is, I suppose, like exercise. If you want to have the perfect biceps and pecs, you have to persevere with all those repetitive routines. It helps to have a clear goal, a desire and longing.

Perhaps I feel that prayer is a waste of time: an exercise in self-delusion.  In part that’s a personal reaction against the idea that if you believe hard enough you will get what you ask for.  That’s simply not true. And indeed it would be dangerous if it were. Prayer has to function as a kind of refining of our heart’s desires.

And here is another reason for my reluctance. Because I know that real praying brings me up against reality and truth, and I don’t always want to face that. Do you find that when you have done something wrong that you are reluctant to pray? Sin always tries to cut us off from God; making prayer unattractive is a sure way to separate us from him.

If we are to pray we need some sense of a goal: to contemplate the glory of God, and to become the child of God that he calls us to be. The hymns of praise, and the descriptions of holiness, so far from our everyday reality, nonetheless help to keep the goal, the desire, before us.

To give ourselves over to pray is an act of faith. Not in the sense of “if I believe hard enough it will happen” – that is the Peter Pan idea “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do”. But to attend to what is not seen, trusting than our thoughts and words are heard and valued by the source of everything: that is faith.

Almighty and everlasting God,

you are always more ready to hear than we to pray

and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:

Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,

forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,

and giving us those good things

which we are not worthy to ask

save through the merits and mediation

of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.


Step outside the everyday – Sunday before Lent 2021

February 13, 2021

Collect

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: Give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

First Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one* on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Post Communion

Holy God we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. May we who are partakers at his table reflect his life in word and deed, that all the world may know his power to change and save. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Reflection

Most of the time in the Gospels we are in what is recognisably the everyday real world. It is true that some of the stories are imaginative to the point of folktale and fantasy, and the healing miracles are beyond us to explain. Nonetheless the setting is the everyday world where people get sick and often recover, sometimes unexpectedly.

Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration is different. As Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the high mountain, they step out of the ordinary world. It is a common assumption in the New Testament that there is more to the world than what we usually see, and that sometimes it is possible to experience another dimension of reality. This is an account of a vision, and there is a dream-like quality about it. As in dreams, feelings may be more vivid than words: gladness – “It is good for us to be here”; terror – as the divine cloud covers them; that characteristic dream-feeling of trying to grasp and retain an elusive moment – “let us make three dwellings”; and that feeling that nothing quite makes sense,” not knowing what to say”. This is an experience for which we don’t have the words, which goes beyond words.

As in all dreams, the images are made up of elements already in the mind and the memory. The image of a person in dazzling white with a glowing face occurs in several places as an expression of the divine glory. Moses and Elijah are two biblical characters who encountered God on the holy mountain Sinai or Horeb. How do the disciples know who they are? Apparently they just do – another dream-like element, I think. And once again we have the motif of the voice from heaven, which occurs both in the New Testament and in some of the tales of the rabbis.

Then suddenly the vision or dream is over, and they are back in the everyday world. “When they looked around, they saw no-one with them anymore, only Jesus”. Down the mountain they return, no doubt pondering mightily on this strange experience, which perhaps would only make sense for them after the resurrection.

Hints of this vision come up in various places in the New Testament. In Hebrews we read; “The Son is the reflection of God’s glory, and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. In Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God… in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. The Revelation to John opens with a vision of a transfigured Christ, in the white garb of the Ancient of Days, and “his face was like the sun shining with full force”. And in today’s epistle, St Paul writes; “God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.

Lent approaches: a second Lent in lockdown: and as ever we are invited to step out of the everyday, to climb the mountain of prayer with Jesus, and perhaps to encounter the glory of God.  We are invited to seek the face of God in stillness; and perhaps we will find, with St Peter, that “it is good for us to be here”.


Eating with tax-collectors and sinners – Second Sunday before Lent 2021

February 6, 2021

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: Teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever. Amen.

First Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

3Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our* hearts, to be known and read by all; 3and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. 5Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Gospel: Mark 2:13-22

13 Jesus* went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

15 And as he sat at dinner* in Levi’s* house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting* with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of* the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat* with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people* came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

21 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

Post Communion

God our creator, by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise, and the Bread of life at the heart of your Church. May we who have been nourished at your table on earth be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s Cross and enjoy the delights of eternity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Reflection

My mother always warned me against bad girls but I never thought I’d be lucky enough to meet one.  Or that poem by Stephen Spender: “My parents kept me from children who were rough”.  Parents are naturally concerned about the people their children encounter and mix with. Sometimes their concerns are a bit narrow-minded.  When I was growing up in the Liberties, we were kept rather apart from our neighbours. We were Protestants; and we mixed with our own. We were Protestants; naturally a bit superior. It sounds horribly sectarian – but it was really insecurity wearing a mask of self-delusion.  But parents rightly are concerned for whom their children mix with. There are unpleasant people in the world who exploit and abuse and corrupt the innocent. Sometimes, of course,  they disguise themselves as the respectable – and then they are truly dangerous. Nonetheless, part of growing up is the ability to mix beyond the known; to dare the exciting adventure of meeting strangers.

In both the Gospels and the early rabbinic writings of the Talmud, Pharisees and tax-collectors appear as opposites. For the Rabbis, the Pharisees are examples of properly observant Jews, unlike the tax-collectors who are morally suspect and incapable of true repentance. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are self-righteous prigs who think themselves superior to everyone else. They would be very careful not to mix with tax-collectors and sinners. It would look bad. And the sinners might be a bad influence on the Pharisees.

Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about how it looks or what respectable people think. He seems to be able to see past the objectionable occupation or the questionable behaviour to the person capable of responding to God’s call. He has a purity of heart that means he can mix with all sorts without being tarnished or corrupted.

Today’s Gospel offers us a consolation and a challenge. A consolation, for we are the sinners with whom the Lord delights to sit and eat, and to befriend us into God’s kingdom. A challenge, for we somehow have to follow his example of getting alongside all sorts and conditions of men and women, including those who are very different from us, whom we might expect to be hostile to us. But perhaps it is there, among the other sinners, that we will find Jesus. “Follow me,” he says, and we know that will take us into unexpected places among all sorts of people.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,

Will you let my life be grown in you, and you in me?

John Bell and Graham Maule


The Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2021

January 29, 2021

Collect

Almighty and everliving God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our mortal nature: May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: Hebrews 2:14-18

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters* in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Gospel: Luke 2: 22-40

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;* this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.* 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon* came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon* took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant* in peace,   according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon* blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna* the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Reflection

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  (Hebrews 2)

For about a year now those words “the fear of death” have taken on a new and personal meaning. Those of us who are advanced in years, or who have underlying health conditions, have had to prepare ourselves for the possibility of death with Covid-19, likely to involve considerable suffering endured in isolation. The nightly figures for new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, indicate that nightmare scenario becoming reality for too many people. We do our best to keep safe and well and not allow the anxiety, the fear, to overwhelm us.

The Bible, by and large, is under no illusion about death: it is an enemy; the last enemy to be destroyed, says St Paul. Our reading from Hebrews describes it as belonging to the devil; it is his power, to frustrate God’s purpose of life. It breaks communication between people, and between humanity and God. All are subject to it, held in slavery under this cruel master; and the fear is that death spells the end of all God’s plans – that sin and death are the true masters of the universe.

The writer of Hebrews understands that Jesus’ work is to turn the tables on this diabolic power of death. To destroy this power, to break down the doors of the underworld and set the dead free – as in the Eastern icon of the resurrection. Indeed this is the purpose of the incarnation: Christ shares flesh and blood with the rest of the human race, so that he may be mortal, so that he may taste death, and through his obedient death destroy the power of death. No longer can it be said that death spells the end of God’s life-giving purpose; no longer does death cut us off from God, for there Christ is gone before us and for us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

We see this illustrated in the person of righteous Simeon. He is shortly to die, and he departs in peace, because he seen all that the Master has promised. He has seen for himself, he has embraced, the child who is the embodiment of God’s life-giving purpose, the one who has taken flesh and blood to destroy the one who has the power of death. The Nunc Dimittis draws on the image of master and slave, and death is treated as a final act of grace and faithfulness, the setting free of a faithful servant. It is God who is the Master, not the devil, not sin and death, and his service is perfect freedom. We could do worse than to recite Nunc Dimittis in our bedtime prayers, to entrust ourselves and one another to the goodness of God, to rejoice in the light that reveals God to the nations, the glory of his people Israel; the light that will never be quenched.


The time is getting short – Third Sunday after the Epiphany 2021

January 23, 2021

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: Renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

29I mean, brothers and sisters,* the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’*

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Someone sent me an inspirational quote last Christmas. “Forget the past, it’s over. Forget the future, it hasn’t happened. Forget the present, I didn’t get you one.”

But we’re not going to forget the present. In our Gospel reading, Jesus begins to announce, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near” – now is the moment to repent and believe the good news. And in the Epistle, St Paul reminds the Corinthians, “The time has grown short”.

The late Dean Salmon of Christ Church – “Uncle Tom” behind his back – was a godly man and a ferocious scholar who told us young clergy that he reckoned two hours of Greek study every day was sufficient. One of his lessons concerned the two Greek words for “time”: chronos and kairos. Chronos is time in general, Old Father Time; kairos is time as opportunity, a moment of possibility, quality rather than duration. Kairos is the word in our readings: Jesus announcing the moment of opportunity of hearing the gospel and grasping the kingdom. Paul describing the present moment as a window of opportunity that is beginning to close: the kairos is growing short. Paul may well have expected time to have shortly come to an end – if any time-bound mortal can begin to make sense of such a thing – but here he is talking about quality rather than duration. However many days or weeks or years or centuries are left, the present moment has the character of an opportunity not to be missed.

He says. “The form of this world is passing away”. One of the things that only becomes clear as you get to a certain age is the transience of the world. Change and decay in all around I see. Well, it’s not always decay – some change is for the better. But fashions, issues, ways of thinking, ways of doing, have their little moment, and then they fade away as something else takes their place.

And sometimes it goes round in circles: those of us who remember record players, 78s, 45s and 33s, exchanged for cassettes and CDs, MP3s… and now back to vinyl for the retro-conscious.

St Paul recommends us to sit lightly to these transient things and this passing world: “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” All those things that are so important to us: love-life, sorrows and joys, possessions and ambitions – it is not so much that we should renounce them (if that is even possible), as that we should cultivate  a certain detachment in them. They demand so much of us, of our time and effort and energy, but none is a secure resting place for our heart. Relationships come to an end, our delight in possessions fades, and no-one is indispensable. What is not transient and passing is God, his love, his kingdom, and his call.

Those first disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John; abandoned their boats and nets and fish and fathers, wives and children and lands and homes, to traipse around Galilee after Jesus, listening and learning and observing with joy and wonder the truth of his message: “the kingdom of God has come near”. Like them, we are called to sit lightly to all those things that demand our attention and energy, and to deliberately put our heart and soul, to invest ourselves, in that which has eternal significance: the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

In our joys and in our sorrows,

Days of toil and hours of ease,

Still he calls, in cares and pleasures,

“Christian, love me more than these.”


Temples of the Holy Spirit – Second Sunday after the Epiphany 2021

January 16, 2021

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

First Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

12 ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. 13‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’,* and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple* of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Gospel: John 1:43-51 (HC only: Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ)

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

(HC only: This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ)

Reflection

In our first reading we hear St Paul dealing with some problems that have arisen in his wayward community of Corinth. Ancient Corinth had a reputation as a “good time city”; Temple Bar meets Ibiza or whatever. So problems with sexual license are no surprise. In the chapter before today’s passage, Paul deals with a church member involved in a scandalous relationship.  Paul’s response is to expel him from the community, and speaks of “handing him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved”. Paul is anxious that Christianity should not be a mere social club or even an exotic spiritual experience. Fundamentally, it is about holiness: we are called to live holy lives, individually and communally. Hence his severe dealing with this offender. But one can see how his words might have led to the idea of the sexual offender (if that’s the right phrase) as being a person to be shunned, hidden, sent away: a problem to be got rid of. We might see here the seed of an idea, that temporal punishment for sin might save the soul, which in due course would bear a rather bitter fruit in cruelty. No amount of allowance for misguided good intentions does much to mitigate the harshness and cruelty experienced by those unfortunate enough to find themselves pregnant and unmarried in much of 20th century Ireland. Too little education, too much exploitation: those obliged to enter “Mother and Baby Homes” were more victims than offenders, and our Christian society failed in understanding and analysis, in justice and compassion.

The Corinthian Christians seem to have mistaken Christian liberty for licence to do whatever they fancied. St Paul’s insight about being released from the constraints of the old Law, as children come of age, or as slaves become freemen, clearly could be misunderstood to mean “Do whatever you like, God will forgive you”. So he explores some of the limitations on our freedom. To those who say “All things are lawful for me – I can do what I like”, he says, But not everything is good for you – we are not given freedom in order to damage or destroy ourselves. In particular, some things lead to enslavement, addiction, destructive habits of behaviour: we are not set free so that we may hand ourselves over as slaves again. Christian freedom and holiness of life belong together. As it says in the Benedictus: “Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”

Some of the Corinthians seem to have believed that religion is a matter for mind or spirit alone. The physical aspect of our existence has no moral significance. In what appears to be a proverb, “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food”, we see an attitude that physical appetites are there to be satisfied, as need and opportunity allow. No big deal. “When Ah itches, Ah scratches” It sounds delightfully natural; but in practice it is a charter for exploitation.

Paul counters by asserting the most profound moral significance of our bodies, and how we use them. The hope of resurrection itself affirms the importance of the body, destined not for destruction but transformation. Christian holiness is not a matter of mind or spirit, it also applies to our bodies. He gives a particularly concrete turn to the concept of being members of the Body of Christ: our hands, and legs, and mouths – are, almost literally, the hands, and legs, and so on of Christ himself. We cannot misuse them without damaging our connection with Christ. Our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” – therefore not to be desecrated. Our bodies are no longer our own, to do what we like with, for we have been “bought with a price”. Perhaps the tragedy is that we read these verses to apply to some parts of our bodies rather than to others. The hands that denied comfort and inflicted suffering are as much a desecration of the temple as the parts that snatched at forbidden pleasures.

Integrating our physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions in holiness is the challenge of Christian discipleship. It need not be an exercise in puritanism and self-righteousness. But it requires honesty and maturity. And for all our sense of knowing better now than the generations before us, there remain many gaps in education and understanding, and no shortage of exploitation of the vulnerable.