Good Friday 2020: Notable and Quotable (1)

Sometimes just as we have come to accept “the withering away of the Cross,” a silence falls…darkness,…and it strikes us how mortal we are and that before three decades have passed, or four, our very names will be unremembered and all we strive for as if it had never been.

Yes, and it is here [at the foot of the cross] where at last we find the courage to address [Jesus] with the same desperate familiarity with which a man just beyond his reach [the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus]–yet not beyond his reach–dares to plead, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” Remember me! For if you do not remember me, I shall go down to the dust bereft and unremembered of all.

—The Rev’d Dr Wheaton Phillips Webb, The Dramatic Silences of His Last Week, 50

Good Friday 2020: N.T. Wright on the Seven Signs in St. John’s Gospel

From John for Everyone, Part 2. Simply Beautiful.

The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.

As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.

The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)

Good Friday 2020: N.T. Wright Muses on the Cross

Read St. Matthew 27.33-56

As you stand there [before the cross] in this strange, powerful mixture of recognition and horror, bring bit by bit into the picture the stories on which you have lived. Bring the hopes you had when you were young. Bring the bright vision of family life, of success in sport or work or art, the dreams of exciting adventures in far-off places. Bring the joy of seeing a new baby, full of promise and possibility. Bring the longings of your heart. They are all fulfilled here, though not in the way you imagined. This is the way God fulfilled the dreams of his people. This is how the coming king would overcome all his enemies.

Or bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young. The terror of violence, perhaps at home. The shame of failure at school, of rejection by friends. The nasty comments that hurt you then and hurt you still. The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end. The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much. They are all fulfilled here, too. God has taken them upon himself, in the person of his Son. This is the earthquake moment, the darkness-at-noon moment, the moment of terror and sudden faith, as even the hard-boiled Roman soldier blurts out at the end. (Don’t forget that ‘Son of God’ was a regular title claimed by Caesar, his boss.)

But then bring the hopes and sorrows of the world. Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine. Bring the children orphaned by AIDS or war. Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes. Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live. Think of God’s dreams for his creation, and God’s sorrow at its ruin.

—Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (pp. 137–138). London: SPCK.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father,
look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2020: N.T. Wright Muses on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Here is an exquisite devotional piece on Jesus as he prayed in Gethsemane. See what you think (and pick up the book).

Read Mark 14.32-52

Two generations ago, J. B. Phillips (best known for his translation of the New Testament) published a little book called Your God Is Too Small. It was a moving appeal for ordinary Christians to lift up their eyes and imaginations, and to realize that God is not simply a therapist, concerned with the humdrum, day-to-day matters of their personal lives and problems, but is the glorious sovereign of heaven and earth. We all need that kind of reminder on a regular basis.

But there is, perhaps, a more subtle point which needs to be made as well. When people start to get the point about the sovereignty, majesty and glory of the one true God, it is often difficult for them at the same time to glimpse and grasp the real divine greatness which the gospel stories reveal. But if we don’t get this point, as well as the larger one, we will fall back once more into the mistake of James and John, celebrating the greatness of God and hoping that some of that greatness will rub off on us in the usual, worldly sense.

All along in Mark’s book we have seen that Jesus is described as the one who, however surprisingly, is fulfilling the promises that Israel’s God will come back to his people at last, rescuing them and filling the world with his glory. Think back to the opening scene. Here is the preparatory messenger, here is the voice in the wilderness, and now here is the Coming One: my son, my beloved one, the one who makes me glad. Somehow, already, we have to get our heads around what Mark is saying: God promised that he would come back, but the one who’s come is Jesus, and Jesus is hailed by God himself as his beloved son.

Mark offers no theory about how this makes sense. The earliest Christians didn’t theorize: they worshipped. They remained firmly monotheistic: Jesus wasn’t a ‘second god’ added to the one they’d already got. But, somehow, they found that worshipping Jesus and worshipping the one whom Jesus called ‘father’ went together.

We might, as I say, just about be getting our heads and our hearts around this. But the scene we now witness strains this picture in a new way. It offers a whole new dimension of the word ‘God’ itself. Gethsemane stands at the heart of the whole early Christian picture of who God is, and hence of who we ourselves (bearing God’s image) are meant to be. And at the heart of Gethsemane there stands the unforgettable prayer that shows what love really means, the love that passes between father and son, the love that reaches out to this day into the dark places of the world: ‘Abba, father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible for you! Take this cup away from me! But—not what I want, but what you want.’

Not long ago, I heard a church leader declare that with this passage we actually see ‘conflict’ within the Trinity itself. (He was using this idea to justify continuing conflict within the church.) But Gethsemane is not about conflict. It is about love. This is the full, honest interchange of love in which the son lays before the father the true condition of his God-reflecting humanity, caught now in the necessary work of bearing the utter pain and sorrow of the world.

But, people might say, doesn’t this prayer show that Jesus and his father are, as it were, on opposite sides of the equation? Doesn’t it appear that Jesus wants to be released from his obligation, but knows that the father wills it anyway?

Not so fast. What Jesus’ prayer shows is the proper, right, natural reaction of any human being, and particularly the human being who completely reflected the life-giving God, to the dark forces of corruption and death. It shows that as Jesus went to the cross he was not doing it out of a distorted death-wish, a kind of crazy suicide mission. He continued, as one would expect from the life-restoring son of the life-giving father, to resist death with every fibre of his being. His very prayer to be rescued from it displays not a resistance to the father’s will, but a resistance to the forces of evil which result in death. There is no conflict here; only the deepest affirmation of the father’s will in all its aspects.

And now we ask again: is your God this big? Big enough to come and take on the forces of evil and death by dying under their weight and power? There’s a hymn which has a verse beginning, ‘Jesus is Lord! Yet from his throne eternal, in flesh he came to die in shame on Calvary’s tree.’ There is one word there that is wrong. It shouldn’t be ‘yet’. It should be ‘so’. Jesus is Lord, and so, and therefore, he came into the world, came to his own people, came to the place of fear and horror and shame and guilt and evil and darkness and death itself. He came out of love, love for the father, love for the world. That is what Mark’s story is telling us. All the theologians down the centuries have produced formulae to explain this. But it’s all here, in a nutshell, within this astonishing story.

And of course the disciples didn’t get it. First they fall asleep. Then they make a half-baked attempt to defend Jesus. And then—many people think this is Mark’s own signature, a shocking and shaming personal memory—one young man is grabbed by the tunic, so leaves the tunic and runs away naked. That says it all. Humankind, naked and ashamed in the garden, while the snake closes in for the kill. The son of man has arrived at the place where the problem began, to take its full force upon himself.

Today
Lord Jesus, King and Master, help us to watch with you, to stay with you, to learn from your anguish the lessons of love.

—Wright, T. (2012). Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (pp. 151-155). London: SPCK.

Maundy Thursday 2020: St. Thomas Offers a Reflection on the Eucharist

The happy commemoration of today’s feast with its immense concourse of people invites us to prolong fervently our praises of the Most Holy Body of Christ. What could be sweeter, what more pleasing to the heart of the faithful than to exalt the abyss of his divine charity, and to glorify the overflowing torrent of his love! At the table of the new grace the hand of the priest distributes ceaselessly his Flesh as food and his precious Blood as drink, to those who are his children and heirs of the kingdom promised by God to those who love him.

O endless Emanation of the goodness of God and of his immense love for us, admirable and worthy of all praise! In this sacrament, where all former sacrifices are done away with, he remains with us to the end of the world; he feeds the children of adoption with the bread of angels and inebriates them with filial love.

This is the food and drink for the elect, living bread and spiritual nourishment, remedy for daily weaknesses! It is the table which Christ has prepared for his friends and guests, like the one the father prepared for his son on the day of his return, to replace the symbolic lamb. This is the Passover in which the victim immolated is Christ; 0 Christ our Passover, you want us too to pass over from vice to virtue; as once you delivered the Jews, so now you set us free in spirit. You are the food that satisfies all but the most hardened; food that is eaten by faith, tasted by fervor, assimilated by charity. 0 viaticum of our pilgrimage, you lead travelers to the height of virtue. Confirm my heart in good, assure it in the paths of life, give joy to my soul, purify my thoughts.

The Eucharist is bread, real bread; we eat it without consuming or dividing it; it converts butitself is not changed; it gives strength without ever losing it; it gives perfection and suffices for salvation; it gives life, it confers grace, it remits sins. It is the food of souls, a food which enlightens the intelligence of the faithful, inflames their hearts, purifies them from their shortcomings, elevates their desires.

O chalice that holy souls love to drink of, chalice of fervor, chalice changed into the Blood of Christ, to seal the new Alliance, withdraw us the old leaven, fill our souls with yourself, that we may become a new paste and that we may go to the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. For the Lamb without spot, who knows no touch or stain of any sin, ought to be eaten with unleavened bread. We should not approach without being cleansed by confession, without having a solid foundation of faith, without being in charity.

Come to the Lord’s supper, if you wish to come to the nuptials of the Lamb; there, we shall be inebriated with the riches of the house of God we shall see the King of glory and the God of hosts in all his beauty, shall eat this bread in the kingdom of the Father.

Thomas Aquinas, Lectionary and Martyrology, 288-289

Palm Sunday 2020

He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us to himself, we are told in Scripture: “above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named,” now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He came without pomp or ostentation. Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.

—Andrew of Crete, Bishop, Sermon 9 for Palm Sunday

Lent 2020: Prayer, Fasting, Mercy

There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

—Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 43

Lent 2020: Fasting as a Lenten Discipline

The season of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter is quickly approaching. One of the Lenten disciplines I commend to you this year is fasting. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about fasting and so I offer you some great insights from Dr. Scot McKnight’s excellent book, Fasting: The Ancient Practices. Hear him now:

Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments (p. xii).

St. Athanasius, one of the architects of Christian orthodoxy, knew the formative powers of the sacred rhythms of the church calendar. That calendar weaved in and out of mourning over sin (fasting) and celebrating the good grace of God (feasting). “Sometimes,” he says of the church calendar, “the call is made to fasting, and sometimes to a feast [like every Sunday when we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection].”

…St. Augustine took fasting into a another area of formation. One way for Christians to find victory over temptation, St. Augustine reminded his readers, was to fast. Why? Because it is sometimes necessary to check the delight of the flesh in respect to licit [not forbidden or lawful] pleasures in order to keep it from yielding to illicit pleasures.

These two themes—fasting as a sacred rhythm in the church calendar and fasting as a discipline against sinful desires—are perhaps the most important themes of fasting in the history of Christian thinking (p. xv).

Dr. McKnight offers his own excellent definition of fasting:

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life (e.g., death, sin, fear, threats, needs, sickness). Does it bring results? Yes, but that’s not the point of fasting. Those who fasted in response to grievous sacred moments frequently—but not always!—received results, like answered prayer. But focusing on the results causes us to misunderstand fasting entirely.

Which leads us now to see fasting in an A —> B —> C framework. If one wants to see the full Christian understanding of fasting, one must begin with A, the grievous sacred moment (e.g., death, sin, fear, threats, needs, sickness). That sacred moment generates a response (B), in this case fasting. Only then, only when the sacred moment is given its full power, does the response of fasting generate the results (C)—and then not always, if truth be told. [So, e.g., in response to sin we fast and can receive forgiveness.]

What we are getting at here is very important: fasting isn’t a manipulative tool that guarantees results. The focus in our deepest Christian tradition is not moving from column B to column C but the A —> B movement. Fasting is a response to a sacred moment, not an instrument designed to get desired results. The focus in the Christian tradition is not “if you fast you will get,” but “when this happens, God’s people fast [emphasis added] (pp. xviii-xix).

Dr. McKnight develops these ideas in the subsequent chapters of his book and I wholeheartedly commend it to you for your edification. As always, it is critically important for us as Christians to know why we do what we do. This pertains to worship and the various spiritual disciplines, fasting included. Therefore, this Lent I encourage you to fast regularly as a means to help you become a more Christ-oriented person and to live a cruciform (cross-shaped) life.

To purchase Dr. McKnight’s book on fasting, click this link.

Father Carlo Carretto Muses on His Relationship with the Church

This will resonate with anyone who has had remotely any experience with the Church. It offers compelling reasons why we should not abandon Church, despite the wounds we receive from her. Please read it for what it is, not what you want it to be.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! 

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! 

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. 

You have given me so much scandal  and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. 

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely. 

And where should I go? 

From The God Who Comes by Fr. Carlo Carretto

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2020 (3)

Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh-endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery for ever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became one of us? Faith alone grasps these mysteries.

—Maximus the Confessor, Five Hundred Chapters 1, 8-13

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2020 (2)

Matthew 2:1-12

Let us now observe how glorious was the dignity that attended the King after his birth, after the magi in their journey remained obedient to the star. For immediately the magi fell to their knees and adored the one born as Lord. There in his very cradle they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the body he assumed was discerned, but the glory of his divinity was now made manifest. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of this divine honor! The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of the flesh on our behalf. The Son of God, who is God of the universe, is born a human being in the flesh. He permits himself to be placed in a manger, and the heavens are within the manger. He is kept in a cradle, a cradle the world cannot hold. He is heard in the voice of a crying infant. This is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion. Thus he is the One, the God of glory and the Lord of majesty, whom as a tiny infant the magi would recognize. It is he who while a child was truly God and King eternal. To him Isaiah pointed, saying, “For a boy has been born to you; a son has been given to you, a son whose empire has been forged on his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).

—Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 5.1

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2020

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

—Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

In this way marvel was linked to marvel: the magi were worshiping, the star was going before them. All this is enough to captivate a heart made of stone. If it had been only the wise men or only the prophets or only the angels who had said these things, they might have been disbelieved. But now with all this confluence of varied evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped.

Moreover, the star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled. He who was born was divine. They recognized this in their worship.

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7.4