Announcement of the new Bishop of Lewes
Posted on the 29th April 2020 in the category Announcements
Announcement of the new Bishop of Lewes
I am delighted at the appointment of Prebendary Will Hazlewood to be Bishop Suffragan of Lewes, and offer my congratulations to him – and to his new colleague, the Revd Ruth Bushyager, the new Bishop Suffragan of Horsham.
I have had the privilege of working closely with Will on many occasions, not least as one of my representatives in the Diocese of Exeter, and I have always been enriched and encouraged by the experience. He brings to the episcopate a wonderful range of skills, and is a person of grace, patience, wisdom, and humour. He will bring to his new ministry, and to his working relationships across the diocese and the wider episcopate, a rich pastoral experience and a deep desire to see the Church open up to its full calling.
Conscious of the challenges which accompany the spiritual and pastoral ministry that he is about to undertake, I have assured Bishop Will of my fraternal affection and personal good wishes, and my prayer that he – together with Sophie and their children – may feel the huge tide of unmerited love and prayer which comes the way of any new bishop. I hope that the Diocese of Chichester and the Church of England will share my pleasure at this appointment and support Will and his family with prayer and love.
St Catherine of Siena, 2020
Easter 3: Emmaus
Posted on the 25th April 2020 in the category Resources
Gospel: St Luke 24.13-35
Now on that same day [the day of his resurrection] two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ (Lk 24.21)
Today’s Gospel reading (which I hope you have just read), the famous episode of the disciples of Emmaus, never ceases to astonish and move us. That is no less true at this moment than at other times, because it enables us, when half the world is in lockdown, on our life as a whole and the new life that Christ offers us. It reminds us that the resurrection reveals how indestructible is the essential love that has been at work all through the story of Jesus. It uncovers the reality of who and what Jesus is, how he enters our lives, and how we encounter him; what he teaches us, and how he teaches it. But it also reveals much about us: about our direction of travel in life, and our conversion; about our journey from despondency to hope – from life as a burden to living by faith in communion with the Lord. Once we grasp, like the disciples, in the full light of the resurrection, who it is that this story is all about, then we see exactly what those Emmaus disciples on the road saw – that the suffering and the death of Christ were indeed essential, and his story and ours belong together. And when we know that, we, like them, want to turn to other disciples to share with them the life-transforming hope, joy and love in what we have discovered. As any pilgrim to the Holy Land knows, there are all sorts of theories as to where the biblical site of Emmaus is. That in itself seems to tell us that wherever and whenever we each discover Jesus, the road that leads to that discovery is a unique road that each Christian, each person, takes, with the unseen, unknown saviour as our travelling companion.
The story begins in the past tense: ‘we had hoped’ they said to the stranger (Lk 24.21); we had followed him, we had believed. But their hopes had been deeply, shockingly, disappointed. Even Jesus, who had shown himself to be a powerful prophet, had apparently failed. It is not hard to see in the drama of this story a reflection of many Christians of our time: it seems that the light of faith has failed in the minds and hearts of many would-be disciples of Jesus. Negative experiences in our lives leave us feeling bereft, abandoned, exposed, and may be embittered. It is not difficult to feel disillusioned and betrayed by a Lord who was meant to change everything: ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ Such a Jesus becomes for those who lose faith, as for those two disciples, a mere object of discussion or even argument but no longer the foundation of life, or hope, or joy. It is no accident that the two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the community of the other disciples.
When Jesus approaches them, St Luke tells us that they are engaged in a dispute (syzeteîn: 24.15; see also 22.23, Acts 6.9, 9.29), and Jesus asks (v.17) what are the ideas they are literally ‘hurling at each other’ (antiballein). There is a current violence implied in St Luke’s choice of words. Perhaps the Emmaus disciples had fallen into a disagreement with one another, or with the disciples who they had left behind in Jerusalem, with whom until recently they had shared the company of Jesus.
But the illusive presence of Jesus makes it possible for such an attitude to mature, to change, and become one of discovery, reconciliation, and peace. It is possible for us to be drawn away from futile argument about all the disappointments and vulnerabilities of our lives into a dialogue with Jesus, into a dialogue with the Living One, to experience him as the word of life and the food of life. At no point in our lives is such a dialogue with Jesus impossible or unfruitful, even in the turmoil thrown up by a deadly pandemic. In our encounter with Christ faith becomes deeper and more genuine because it is refined in the fires of bitter experience; and it becomes resilient because it is nourished not by human thoughts but by the revelation of Jesus in our midst.
This is all food for our reflection as Christians, and as church communities, caught up in a global situation which we simply cannot escape: worried for the future, defensive about events we cannot control, and uncertain of a God whose ways seem as inscrutable as they are powerful.
Pope Francis’s recent analogy between the Church today and the disciples in the storm-tossed boat with Jesus (Mk 4.35–41) is a very good one.
The storm exposes our vulnerability, and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. … The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots, and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
Like the Emmaus disciples then, ‘we had hoped’ that the Lord would save us from evil, from the sorrow, suffering, fear, and unprepared death which our adversity has brought. But we have not been spared; and while we journey through this crisis, deprived as we are of the Eucharist as food for our journey, it is essential for each one of us to be taught by Jesus, to listen daily to the word of God read in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to foster our desire not only to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body, but also to desire to be united and reconciled with ‘the fellowship of his Body’. Very uncomfortably we’re not being let beyond that point at this moment.
‘If you want to be a pray-er’, Mother Mary Clare SLG used to say, ‘you must pray’. There is no getting round it: no shortcut. You can’t have faith or prayer or love second hand. You cannot have the peace, or any other gift that comes from above, without prayer. There is no avoiding staying with Jesus, who stayed with us and embraced our suffering. There is also no alternative to conversion: to assimilating his lifestyle to ours, to choosing his invitation to live our lives in his ‘eucharistic logic’ of death-to-self as the path to communion with God and solidarity with others.
When we slowly emerge from our current pandemic, the Church (throughout the world) will have a real opportunity to highlight and address the spiritual questions of our age. But our ability to do so then depends entirely on our willingness to learn from Christ now – in our homes. So I want to encourage you be holy! Be reconciled to God, and to one another! Rediscover the grace of a transforming encounter with the Risen Lord. Let him be the centre of your lives. Build your life on him! In Jesus you will find the strength to open yourselves to others and to make yourselves, after his example, a gift for the whole world. Be confident because the risen Christ is walking with you, as he was yesterday, and will do for ever. Amen.
Almighty Father, your risen Son appeared to his disheartened disciples on the Emmaus road. He explained them how the messiah had to suffer before entering his glory, and revealed himself in the broken bread. Open our eyes to his resurrection, so that today we may know him in all his redeeming work; through the same Jesus Christ, our risen saviour. Amen.
(Image detail is Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319): Arrival at Emmaus, detail (c1308): Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena)
Easter 2: The Crucified comes to meet us
Posted on the 19th April 2020 in the category Resources
As the global coronavirus death toll approaches 150,000 souls, and the number of mourners grows incalculably larger, many people are facing the strains of lockdown, isolation, and loss, unable to find solace in conventional prayer or devotion. In this situation we read this Sunday of Christ coming behind locked doors to transform his disciples’ lives.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ But Thomas (who was called ‘the Twin’), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The Crucified comes to meet us
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Alleluya, Christ is risen!
Sometimes the Gospel speaks with a directness that makes us gasp. Suddenly we feel that we are simply part of its story. With what feels like the whole world in lockdown, Sunday’s Gospel is one such moment.
The first Easter day began with the visit of the women to a tomb they found empty, and the subsequent dash of two disciples to verify the women’s outlandish story (which, if true, was rather frightening). The evening of the same day is the scene for the opening of today’s gospel. In the morning the disciples had gone to the grave to find Jesus; but that evening Jesus came to the upper Room to find them. He is free of his tomb; but they are holed up in fear. Fear of others, the gospel tells us. News travels fast, and there may be soldiers on the streets. But we can imagine they were also anxious and felt ill-prepared for what might happen next with Jesus. Even if they had been recollecting what Jesus had said about his rising on the third day, it would not have been enough to give them confidence. They were symbolically entombed, paralyzed, confused.
So it is for us. In this week of Easter – ‘bright week’ the Orthodox call it – when our faith enables us to experience the new life that streams from the risen Lord, this year because of the virus, as the death-count continues to rise, thoughts of pain and fear continue to crowd in, making it near-impossible for us to associate ourselves with Easter joy. But today’s gospel passage can help to reconcile these two contradictory experiences. It helps us understand if we cannot go to him – and we literally cannot gather together to celebrate the Eucharist – he can and does come to us in our confinement and fear. He comes to teach us that the tomb is not a place of sadness and despair: it is the space in which we can make a decisive discovery about Christ, be changed, and become capable of proclaiming the our Master’s resurrection.
There are three frames in this passage:
The first frame (vv19-20) shows the disciples segregated behind the closed doors, as if it were the sepulchre of all their hopes. Jesus enters, and meets the atmosphere of fear and death with the greeting of peace, the forgiveness of sins that is the hallmark both of the cross and the resurrection. He offers a way out of their unforeseen isolation, but he does not offer a miracle. He shows them instead the signs of his own suffering, the wounds that will forever be the assurance of his compassion to those who suffer. They are tangible reminder that the resurrection Christ invites us to share does not take away the reality of suffering and death, or the daily death-to-self, but instead gives it meaning.
In the second frame (vv.21-23) Jesus gives two signs to translate his new life into the disciples’ lives. First he gives them his Spirit, a gesture of creation (cf Gen 2.7; Wis 15.11); and second he makes them witnesses to his resurrection by giving them power to forgive sins. Among the early Christians the remission of sins becomes a distinctive sign of Christian witness to the resurrection, central especially to the Eucharist, which Pope Francis wonderfully reminded us is ‘not a prize for the good, but is strength for the weak, for sinners. It is forgiveness, it is the viaticum that helps us to move forward, to walk.’ These two signs are strong enough to change the disciples backward-looking fear to joy and responsibility for the future. The gifts of the Risen Lord freed them from imprisonment in memories of past pain and mutual accusation, and opened up the journey into abundant new life. But someone was missing.
The third frame (vv 26-29) is a week later, when Thomas, who had been absent when Jesus appeared the first time, was now with them. Being Thomas, a reflective half-empty sort of person (not for nothing was is nickname ‘the twin’, or perhaps better the ‘double’) he wanted reassurance. He wanted to know that the resurrection was trustworthy; that it was what it said it was – the new life of Jesus crucified; and that it would be reliable even in the dark experiences that the disciples may yet go through. And so he wanted to feel those wounds. They are the place he would hide himself in, the assurances he would need, when, in the future, times would be dark and challenging. In the event it is not clear from the Gospel whether he did touch them. But here, behind closed doors again, not alone but together with the whole group, Thomas gives the fullest profession of faith anywhere in the gospel: ‘My Lord and my God!’
Thus far we’ve noticed similarities between the fear and isolation we are experiencing and what’s in the gospel reading. But for a moment we need also to note a difference, though it serves the same point. Thomas’s experience reveals that the Christian faith is not livable individually, as a solitary adventure; nor is any truly human life, as the pandemic is starkly laying bare. Thomas makes his discovery and confession among his brothers, not in a private audience with Jesus. It is in their midst that he is reconciled to Jesus, and to the fellowship and shared calling of his brothers. Wherever such reconciliation happens, Jesus promises to be in the midst (Matt 18.20), as he is here, behind locked doors. The disciples had become isolated as a group, and Jesus had restored their confidence as a group. By contrast, we have not been isolated in our homes as a group, but scattered by the unseen ravages of a deadly disease into something much more like solitary confinement. Yes, the early church met secretly in homes to worship (sometimes the even met in graveyards, which is how St Peter’s in Rome began) because theirs was not a public religion. But they met as a fellowship; they celebrated the Eucharist, they shared their goods, they prayed together. We are obliged to meet virtually – in other words, ‘not really’ – and out of painful and frightening necessity. And we pray to the Lord to increase our desire once again to experience at the Eucharist communion with the Lord and his apostles.
Nonetheless the central message of today’s gospel holds. God in Christ knows our isolation, and our fear of loss and death, and as always he comes to us. Again and again, as with Mary Magdalene, the voice of Jesus breaks through our tears of sorrow and despair; again and again, as with Thomas, the voice of Jesus breaks through our hesitation and indecision; again and again, as with Peter, the voice of Jesus breaks through our failure and unreliability. His presence and gifts change us, and enable us to share his new life. Not just the relief that life can return to normal; but the joy and certainty of a new life which will be new eternally.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us contemplate the things that are above: Alleluya.
Where our life is hidden with Christ in God: Alleluya.
R. Glory to you, O Crucified and Risen!
Son of God, came to the lowest part of our need,
And like a seed your life fell into the earth and died;
So that you may rise and draw all humanity to your love.
R. Glory to you, O Crucified and Risen!
You have known the pain of distance from God.
And were burdened with all our sins and sorrows,
So that you could carry us back to the Father’s house.
R. Glory to you, O Crucified and Risen!
You have filled the universe with light,
And yet are not ashamed to call us your brothers and sisters;
But have brought us, like lost sheep, back to the Father’s heart.
R. Glory to you, O Crucified and Risen!
Holy Father, in the humility of our human condition
your son Jesus Christ revealed your glory:
transfigure our weakness, our misery and our suffering,
by the light of his resurrection,
so we shall become your children,
and co-heirs to eternal life with him;
through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Posted on the 12th April 2020 in the category Resources
Gospel: John 20:1-8
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.
ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN.
Easter morning brings news that, however ancient it is, is always good. When Mary Magdalene was sent to the other disciples by the risen Jesus, she breathlessly announced the news ‘Brothers, I have seen the Lord!’ (Jn 20.18). Or, in her words from the Easter Sequence (the great hymn before the Gospel on Easter morning) ‘Christ, my hope, has risen!’ The early Christians never considered their faith a religion like the hundreds of cults of the kind that washed around the ancient world. It was news – good news, a joyful annunciation – which it was their purpose in the world to spread, to proclaim, to invite others to share: news of the goodness of God, of the victory of Christ, of the reconciliation of man to God. The good news itself was the source of a powerfully transfigured life, which lasted beyond death, even beyond the end of the known world. To believe in the resurrection was to believe that God’s new age had finally begun. God had done something so stupendous, it could only be thought of as a new creation. St Peter, years after his race with St John to the empty tomb on the first Easter morning, put it this way:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for by his mercy, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, he has given us a second birth into a living hope. … In this we rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Pet 1.3-7)
Even now, at Easter 2020, in the midst of hugely threatening pandemic which challenges every aspect of our common life, the faith of Christians is based on that same news, on the testimony of those sisters and brothers who heard the mysterious messengers at the empty tomb testify that Jesus crucified was now Jesus risen, and who saw his wounded hands and side.
That is the first thing that I want to underline. Why? Because the resurrection has come to be spoken of by many, sometimes even within the church, as a metaphor. It is paired-off with death, like darkness is paired with light, exile with return. It is deployed as a pattern or a model to help organize and colour our thoughts and experiences. For example, some (even some secular commentators) will say about our present situation – in which the power of death has been unleashed upon us (real and degrading death of the kind that Jesus saw in the face of his friend Lazarus, and which he himself suffered) – that the pandemic will in course ‘give way’ to resurrection.
That way of speaking is not what this feast is about. The death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God were not—according to the apostles’ witness at least—metaphorical. Nor were they speculations or mystical experiences. The resurrection was anything but the restoration of normality. They were events, willed by God, which occurred both in history and beyond it, and have made an irreversible impact in both. The light that shines from the cross of Christ, and his empty tomb, is, to the eye of faith, a divine light, that has torn open the darkness of sin and death, and revealed the splendour of God’s truth and goodness. It was truly the same Jesus who descended to meet us at the very lowest part of our need, and died there, who has now been delivered, transfigured, and taken up into the unlimited aliveness of God.
And the reasons why that should matter so much to us are the consequences. The first, as St Peter mentions, is the living hope that the resurrection gives each Christian, and the Church as a body. The resurrection of Christ ‘is the chief article of our faith’, said Luther, ‘For if there were no resurrection, we would have no consolation or hope, and everything else that Christ did and suffered would be futile’ (The Catholic Epistles). All those who are joined to Christ’s risen body by baptism and the eucharist, are born to a living hope, active within them.
And the second consequence of faith in the resurrection of Jesus is that it motivates us to share hope with the world. Christians can bring hope to the world, but only to the extent to which it is real for themselves – only if you or I have died to the past and live Christ’s new life. St Augustine said: ‘You have believed, you have been baptized: your old life is dead, it was killed on the cross, buried in baptism. May the new life arise.’ (cf Sermone Guelf, ix). It a life of self-less love, of prayer, of forgiveness, of service, of non-violence. In other words, only if, like Christ, Christians live not of this world, can Christians be signs of hope in the world and for the world.
The sense of hope is at a very low ebb at present, and will be much needed when we are in a position to reflect and reconstruct our common life, nationally and internationally. It is clear that politics, science, technology, economics and material resources will not themselves provide the great hope which people need to live, and to create just and sustainable future. It is also already clear that our shared challenge will be to understand quite how thoroughly our individual well-being is bound up with the well-being of all our fellow human beings not just those closest to us.
When Paul found himself immersed in difficulties and trials of various kinds, he wrote to his faithful disciple Timothy: ‘We have set our hope on the living God’ (1 Tim 4.10), the risen Christ present in our world. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.’ (Rom 15.13).
Eternal God, who made this feast to shine
with the brightness of your Son’s risen glory:
may our hearts and minds be renewed with paschal joy,
and guided by the living hope that flows from his resurrection.
Through Christ our Passover. Amen.
Good Friday 2020
Posted on the 11th April 2020 in the category Resources
This painting by Matthias Grünewald, was painted between 1512 and 1516 for a hospital in Colmar in Alsace. The patients of the hospital had a terrible, incurable skin disease, caused by poisoned rye, and their suffering was agonising. As they looked from where they lay toward the great reredos behind the altar they saw a crucified Christ, not robed in glory, not in priestly vestments, but a scarecrow figure, hanging in appalling pain from nailed hands, his head lolling down bleeding from the crown of thorns, his whole body marked with the same scars and boils that mark the sick of the hospital. Grünewald’s picture (which we know as the Isenheim altarpiece) speaks of a God who in the costliness of his love and forgiveness does indeed come down to the lowest part of our need.
Today’s Gospel is the Passion according to St John 18.1—19.42
Homily (this is also available as a sound file)
Unsurprisingly, the moments that stand out against the inevitable background wash of 24-hr coronavirus news, are the most human. Surely there are none more so than the testimony of spouses and children that as the person they love struggled in the suffocating grip of the virus to catch their last breaths they could not be there, either to give or to receive the last promises of love, the tokens of joy, and the assurance of undying memory? Or so I thought, but last night I caught the testimony of a medic who ached inconsolably at the lonely fate of those dying in intensive care without the support of their loved ones, and that he alone could be close enough to offer his love and consolation—his humanity—in those last moments.
Such testimony would be shocking at the best of times, but our experience of isolation, and our knowledge that it is the experience for all of us, amplifies it. From prison cell to monastic cell, from small apartments in the anonymity of cities to the houses and farms of the country, from the palaces of the rich to the makeshift tents of refugees, we may not all suffer from the virus, but we are all suffering from a solitude – a lonely, anxious, fragile solitude – that does not belong to the human vocation. Our sense of anguish for those who die in such circumstances, in the midst of much business, occasionally the centre of someone’s attention, but personally intensely alone, paralyses us.
The last hours of life were such as this for Jesus. ‘Now’, say the gospels (Matt 27.45, Mk 15.33, Lk 23.44) ‘from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.’ The world became dark when the Son of God suffered unto death. Jesus prays Psalm 22, which begins with the words: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Ps 22: 2). He has willingly drawn to himself the violence and sin of mankind; he has taken on himself all the sorrows and griefs of humanity; and in his last three hours he exposes himself in his silence and his lament to the utter loneliness and darkness of losing God. ‘He emptied himself’ (Phil 2.7), ‘loving to the very limit’ (Jn 13.1). He who had full equality with God freely chose, in the words of Lady Julian of Norwich (Revelations of Divine Love ch.6) ‘to come down to the lowest part of our need.’
In anguish, terrifyingly alone in a sea of activity, Jesus silently revealed and expressed in his last hours the loving presence of God precisely where God seems to be definitively defeated and absent. It confuses our hearts and minds. But the early Church understood that it was a truth; and they fought hard to insist that the God of Jesus Christ is not a God who stands aside or above his creation, but, in those wonderful words of Lady Julian, ‘comes down to the very lowest part of our need’, our lonely, anxious, fragile solitude.
What the early Christians insisted upon was that, if you cling on to a mental picture of God as a ‘Someone’ who struggles alongside all the other things in the midst of our lives, hungry for space and recognition; or conversely, you cling to a picture of a God who is above our concerns unable to know and empathize with the creation he has made, then God’s ‘availability’ to our suffering will always confound us. But what Jesus reveals – and reveals from the cross more clearly and profoundly than he could in a sermon, or even in his teaching at the Last Supper – is that the availability of divine love is entirely bound up with his vulnerability to human suffering.
God has nothing and no one to compete with. His unchanging power and total freedom, mean that God can humanly speaking be vulnerable to the very lowest part of human need. To say that God is immune to change and suffering is not the opposite of the suffering of Jesus. They are bound up together. It is because God needs no defence – he is God – that Jesus can be totally defenceless, ‘obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Phil 2.8).
When Lady Julian speaks of God in his goodness coming to down to the lowest part of our need she says this is ‘our highest prayer’. She does not mean our most exalted, joyous, or even contemplative prayer. She means our most honest, truthful, and urgent prayer: a prayer that is fully, even mystically, aware of human dependence on God’s goodness. ‘For’, she adds, ‘as the body is clad in cloth, and the flesh in its skin, and the bones in their flesh, and the heart in the ribs, so are we – soul and body – clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Even more the soul than the body, which may decay and wear away.’
At the utter limit of Jesus’s capacity to show love – love for God and love for humanity – he experienced his most profound isolation. Some of those who are dying in these days, especially those who for fear of infection cannot die surrounded by their loved ones, share that experience with him, their lives ending in a way that no human being wants to imagine. Let us support their ‘highest prayer’ with ours, that they may know that they can never be isolated, or cut off from the goodness of the Lord, which encloses them even more in the soul than in the body.
BY GRACIOUS POWERS so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.
2 Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
3 And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
4 Yet when again, in this same world, you give us
The joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be yours alone.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906—45)
translated by Fred Pratt Green © Hope Publishing Company