Friday, 23 June 2017

Farewell to St Chad's: the Rector's Last Supper

This is my last Rector's Feast after eight years in this office. It's a time for farewells and above all, for saying thank you.
 
What I want to say comes from the heart. You've made me so welcome here in this wonderful college community. As Rector, I've wanted to be a good friend and champion of St Chad's in the University, the city, the church and beyond. It's been a huge privilege. But more than that, it's been enormous fun. As I often say, in this honorary role you get all the nice bits to do while the Principal, governors and staff bear the burden and the heart of the day. They deserve our recognition.

Jenny and I have loved being part of the College for almost the whole of our time in Durham, first as Visitor, then as Rector and, to my surprise when Joe Cassidy thrust a college hood over my head on his last College Day, as a Fellow. I'm so grateful that the green St Chad's hood means that I can continue to enjoy this precious relationship with St Chad's after today when I become superannuated.

Being a friend means sharing dark times as well as light. All of us who knew and loved Father Joe still miss his loss very keenly. It was Joe who invited me to become the College's first Rector. He gave everything he had to this college that he loved. He was to all of us an inspiration, a truly transformative leader who took the long view and worked incredibly hard to make it a reality. We could not have wished for a better successor in Dr Margaret Masson who prized the aims and values for which St Chad's has stood in recent times, but who has put her own imprint on them as we move into the future. I loved working with Joe and I've loved working with Margaret. I've loved working with their colleagues, both staff and governors, people of exceptional ability and calibre.

And I've loved getting to know students too. Sadly, not enough of you, and not as deeply as I'd have wanted, though I was always heartened to get many a cheery wave when we passed one another in the Bailey. This college has always emphasised the importance of being a good community that prizes friendship. I've always felt that I was among friends in this college, and that means more than I can say. Your excellence not only academically but also in the arts, sport, volunteering and promoting social justice in the wider community has been truly inspiring. Durham University is rightly proud of you. We all are.

I'd like to wish Dean Andrew Tremlett well as he follows me in this role. It's good to know that as my successor at Durham Cathedral, he now has his feet well installed under the table with so many exciting developments to celebrate, not least the completion of the cloister project Open Treasure which I hope you will visit when the treasures of St Cuthbert are installed in their final resting place next month. I hope Andrew enjoys being Rector of St Chad's as much as I have.

So I shall follow the fortunes of the College from across the hills, in the Tyne Valley where we now live. It goes without saying that we shall miss our regular trips to Durham. However, we shall be back from time to time, knowing that behind the green front door on the Bailey, there is warmth and friendship and the stimulus of good conversation and a generosity of spirit that has no equal in Durham. Thank you for all of it.

Finally, let me anticipate and congratulate you on the dazzling results I'm sure St Chad's will have achieved** in final exams this year. Indeed, congratulations on all the success you have enjoyed as members of this college. If you are coming back in October, or your work is keeping you here, have a very good summer. And if this summer is a time for farewells, well, you and I have that much in common. There's no denying that it's poignant to say goodbye. So go with my very best wishes and prayers for the future, wherever it will take you. You and I know that we shall always prize the fact that we belong to the St Chad's family.
 
This isn't the parting of friends, but an opportunity to discover how friendship enters a new dimension; not adieu but au revoir. Thank you again. God bless you. God bless St Chad's.

**Abundantly fulfilled when the results were published the following week, the best ever for St Chad's.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

At a Service of Thanksgiving for Bob and Ruth Jeffery

I can hear Bob’s advice to me as his curate ordained just a few weeks. “At funerals and memorials, don’t preach about the person who’s died. Preach about God.” He was right of course. And yet…. Isnt a person’s life – yours, mine, Ruth’s, Bob’s - the primary place where we read the traces of love’s work, where we discern God to have been present in the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of being a woman, a man, where we learn how to speak about God out of our own lived experience?

I think Bob would say so. It was how he had been formed as a Christian and how he had learned the art and the craft of Christian ministry. You could call it “being real” though Bob would have hated the cliché like he hated all the easy speeches and hackneyed phrases that fall unexamined off too many tongues. Being authentic as a priest, a Christian and as a human being was Bob’s life task right up to the moment he died. His faith and the language with which he spoke about it were characteristically his own. They owed a great deal to the people who had inspired him and he never tired of acknowledging the debt. But the experience was his, and the words were his. He wouldn’t perhaps have owned the word artistry to describe this. Yet I believe that under God we are called to be artists, or co-artists, of our own lives and to do this means living in a state not only of awareness but of being true to who we are in God.

Being present, paying attention, living reflectively, truth-seeking were basic to Bob’s way of understanding the world and God’s involvement in it. He didn’t have much time for theological speculation and none at all for simpliste slogans and what they usually gave birth to, well-meaning but ill-considered strategies and programmes that would sort out the church’s problems. One of his great spiritual guides, the eighteenth century French Jesuit writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade, taught him to be humble before the providence of God and not claim to know too much about the divine plan for the world. Bob conscientiously refused to speak of things he did not know about, things none of us can know about. What mattered was the offering of life to God. To him, reticence was a virtue that went with the modesty proper to a created being. And the complexity of life, and the unknowability of so much of it, was part of its glory that God embraced in the incarnation. He insisted that it had to be understood “from below”, inside the experience of being living and sentient with mind and conscience and the capacity to be aware and articulate the wonder of our own being. He believed with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that in this respect, religious faith, the God-given “examination” of life should make us more human, not less.

As David Thomas says in his tribute in today’s service sheet, metaphor and poetry were everything in this quest to interpret the human condition from the perspective of the divine. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” said Emily Dickinson. Faced with the task of finding words to express the inexpressible, there is no alternative. I once preached a sermon at Headington, mercifully long-forgotten, that Bob felt did not quite capture the spirit of the text. “The trouble is” he said in the nicest possible way “there’s too much prose in your preaching, not enough poetry and not enough paradox”. It was one of those moments that made me stop and change course, not just as a preacher but as a theologian too. It’s among many insights for which I have to thank a tolerant, cherished and wise mentor.

But if he valued reticence when it came to speaking about God, his practice of faith was confident, joyful and large-hearted. He liked Bishop Ian Ramsey’s saying about being “tentative in theology but sure in religion”. He proclaimed a God who in Jesus, as the Fourth Gospel puts it, “loves us to the end”. In the words of our reading from St Paul, God’s is a love from which nothing can ever separate us, not height nor depth, not evil or disaster, not anything in all creation. I guess there were times when that faith had to be fought for, most of all here at Worcester that terrible morning when he found that his beloved Ruth had died suddenly. Bob had always believed that if religion has nothing to say about suffering and loss, then it has nothing to say. Such circumstances are the severest test not only of the human being but of whether the faith he or she professes can carry such a burden. Bob found that it could, because the bridge to which he entrusted himself to carry him across the abyss was scaffolded with love. That is what it means to be “sure in religion.

To Bob, the capacity to hold belief and doubt together, to explore, probe, debate, ask questions was all part of having a mature faith. He reckoned that religion that infantilised grown-ups into tribal submission and uncritical obedience was not worthy of the name. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith had taught him, as had Bonhoeffer before him, that faith must “come of age” and it is the responsibility of a Christian leader to help people discover religious adulthood for themselves. It takes courage to do that. On the last page of his book Anima Christi he wrote: “Our pilgrimage is itself an act of faith and an act of worship. We are moving towards the greater mystery of God which envelops us all. Pilgrims live only by the mercy and grace of God. This means that we can let go of security and certainties because we realise that God is in control. We need nothing but to offer everything to God with willingness.” His children say that even in his last illness, there was a curiosity about what he called the “end game”, how to die as authentically as he had tried to live. His favourite Psalm 139 was sung at his funeral: “O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me”. He wanted to be as alert and present to the truth of this in dying as much as in living, and to discover how God would be “about his path and about his bed” in his last Nunc Dimittis.

We are here today to honour Bob and Ruth’s memory cherished not only in Worcester but also in Sunderland, Barnes, Oxford and Tong, not to mention the British Council of Churches and the General Synod. As Dean here, he worked tirelessly to save the tower and conserve this great building. He and Ruth made their Deanery a place not only of hospitality and welcome, but of jollity, stimulus, good conversation about books and theology, church politics and the state of the world.  But he would have wanted these tangible memories to be a metaphor of a lifelong investment as priest and pastor whose generous vision of life touched the fabric of so many people. If I learned one thing from Bob in the forty years I knew him, it was how to try to understand and live just such a Christianity that is capable of reaching out to the lives of others and of making a real difference in the world.

So what is Bob and Ruth’s lasting memorial? I think we can see it in the faces of all of us who are here today, and many more who are not,  whom they loved and cared for because they prized the most precious gifts life can bestow: integrity, generosity, community, a sense of place, kindness, laughter and the knowledge of God. What unites us today is that our lives were touched by Bob and Ruth in the name of the One who in Christ has himself touched us, searched us out and known us. In his death and resurrection we are given back our lives once more, strengthened by the promise that our hope was not in vain. For love was his meaning, and always will be in both this world and the next.

Worcester Cathedral, 21 June 2017
At the memorial service for The Very Reverend Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery
Romans 8.31-39

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 10 (Easter Eve): "Ye choirs of new Jerusalem"

Tonight is the climax of Holy Week and the climax of the whole year. This is the night we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the night that heralds a dawn for all creation, when sin, death and hell, everything that would destroy us is defeated for ever. As the hymn puts it so powerfully, For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead

It takes poetry to give us the words when cold prose can’t bear the weight of glory that the Easter gospel demands. “He rose again according to the scriptures” – how much is compressed in that brief line of the creed! So you turn to hymns like Ye Choirs of new Jerusalem to fill out the meaning, to be reminded how life-changing this festival is, full of joy and gratitude and hope. If only we could live out our days by the light of this paschal candle and the song called exultet, and the echoing praise of our alleluias, and the Easter greeting “peace be with you”!

It’s one of our most vibrant and energetic Easter hymns, this song that comes to us out of the middle ages. It takes up a single, ancient image of resurrection and plays with it throughout its six stanzas. It’s a picture we have met earlier this Holy Week where the Redeemer offers himself as the ransom by dying on the cross, descending to the place of the dead and rescuing all who were enchained in darkness. And then follows a victory procession. Who is at the head? The Lion of Judah, the mighty warrior who devours the depths of hell, overcomes death, and bursts out of the grave in victory. Behind, his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. This great procession will not end until it gathers up the whole of creation, and “God has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things” as Ephesians puts it. Triumphant in his glory now, to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven

This weekend we are troubled by events on the world stage, when huge bombs are dropped in theatres of war, and a fearful parade of weaponry is on show to a world that watches with alarm. In this Holy Week of the cross and resurrection, it feels all the more pointed an insult, a gesture of contempt for the just and gentle rule of Jesus our Saviour. And this Easter liturgy seems like an impossible dream. We long to hear the word of comfort that says to us: "do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid".

Yet tonight we do the impossible and imagine ourselves into God's time of resurrection where our hells are finally harrowed, and deaths the last enemy is defeated, and sorrow and sighing flee away, and all things acknowledge the reign of our crucified and risen Lord. For Christianity is about impossible dreams because it teaches us to “hope against hope”, as the New Testament says of Abraham. For now, the grand vision of our hymn is just that, a vision of how things will be when our prayer "thy kingdom come!" is realised and at last, Christ takes the power and reigns. That day - will it be far off or near? Who can say? 

But in a way, it is never closer to us than here at the Easter liturgy. For our celebration tonight pulls that day of triumph forward into our present experience where it meets the story we tell about the man who came among us from God, and lived and died and was raised on the third day. That was where the Christian story began. It won’t end until all things are gathered up in Christ. But in between, we live out our ordinary days in the light of the past and the future. We bear the marks of this crucified and risen Lord in our baptism. But now he has eastered in us and is alive in our very midst, among us and in us and in all who celebrate this feast across the world. We travel on as the Easter people whose song is alleluia. Our hearts sing and play and dance. We find a new courage to persevere in faith and bear witness to it because we are sustained by our living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

What else can we do but celebrate? While joyful thus his praise we sing says the hymn. At the end, we sing the doxology, praising God the eternal Trinity for this resurrection that changes everything, changes all of us for ever, heralds a new creation. And even when our alleluias fall silent, they go on in our hearts as we live the truth of Easter and take our place in the springtime triumphal procession of the ransomed hosts on the way where Jesus goes before us into the kingdom of God.

Wakefield Cathedral, Easter Eve 2017
********

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem,
your sweetest notes employ,
the Paschal victory to hymn
in strains of holy joy.

For Judah's Lion bursts his chains,
crushing the serpent's head;
and cries aloud through death's domains
to wake the imprisoned dead.

Devouring depths of hell their prey
at his command restore;
his ransomed hosts pursue their way
where Jesus goes before.

Triumphant in his glory now
to him all power is given;
to him in one communion bow
all saints in earth and heaven.

While we, his soldiers, praise our King,
his mercy we implore,
within his palace bright to bring
and keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
while endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen


Fulbert of Chartres c960-1028

Friday, 14 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 9 (Good Friday): "When I survey the wondrous cross"

“They stood at a distance watching these things.” We’ve already explored that theme of watching, looking, contemplating, seeing into the mystery of the cross. And now we find it continued into our final hymn. Here is another contemplative who can only gaze on the cross in utter wonderment and gratitude, and write about it in an exquisitely beautiful poem. When I survey the wondrous cross.

Some would say it’s the greatest passion hymn ever written. Charles Wesley would have given a thousand of his hymns if only he could have written this one. Isaac Watts wrote it for his collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs that he published in 1707. A nonconformist, it is remarkable that this hymn was originally written as a devotion to be sung at the eucharist. What the poet is surveying is the mystery of bread broken and wine poured out on the table of the Lord where the worshipper sees the visible words of grace spoken from the wondrous cross where from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down.

The text Isaac Watts has in mind is a saying of St Paul near the end of his letter to the Galatians. He is discussing things people find it worth boasting about. It brings out of him one of the noblest declarations in all his writings: “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” To Paul, to the hymn writer, the cross is the pearl of great price you would sell everything to gain. It is a treasure of infinite worth. Nothing can be compared to it. You might as well hold up a candle to look at the sun. My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

One of the psalms reflects on what we human beings tend to envy in others: their names and achievements, their wisdom, wealth or honour. But, says the psalm, don’t make yourself miserable by dwelling on those who boast of such things. In the face of our own mortality, we stand as equals because in the end we can’t take any of them with us. “Human beings cannot abide in their pomp: they are like the beasts that perish.” And St Paul, in a brilliant inversion of that psalm, says yes, death is the great leveller, and in particular, the death of Jesus. Whoever, whatever we are, when we survey the wondrous cross, all that we are proud of is put into the perspective of eternity, God’s perspective. There is nothing worth boasting about any more except this. Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

The next two stanzas explore why the green hill of Golgotha is at the very centre of Christian faith and life. Where else do sorrow and love meet and mingle and flow down together like this? Those two words go to the heart of the paradox of Good Friday. Sorrow would be a natural enough response to this pain and suffering that we survey ­our sorrow for the innocent victim, his sorrow as “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief”: “behold and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow” – words that are familiar to us from the music of Handel’s Messiah.

But linked to the word love, sorrow takes on a more profound meaning. For if the love we see on the cross is nothing less than God’s, then so must the sorrow be too. Perhaps there is a clue in Jesus’s drawing near to Jerusalem when, say the gospels (and how striking this is), he looks down at the city and weeps over it. “if you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” So we imagine the cross as the everlasting sign of God’s sorrow for his world, the grief that pierces his heart of love, where divine tears are always shed because human beings have so signally turned away from the paths of goodness and truth, of reconciliation, healing and flourishing. Jesus is the archetypal innocent on whom cruel men have turned in their hatred of all that is beautiful and good. But he is also the sign of the heartbreak of God himself at our ignorance, destructiveness and folly.

Which is why the hymn needs to boast of the love that it sees flowing down from the cross. For when sorrow and love are joined together, sorrow is never desperate or hopeless. It has a redeeming aspect that speaks of God’s intent that this world should be remade, and within it, our own broken lives. Isaac Watts reminds us who is king here at Golgotha. The signs of royalty are in the thorns that press cruelly into the fragile flesh of this Man of Sorrows and compose so rich a crown, and in his dying crimson like a robe.  They tell of a suffering that is intended and is purposeful, and which, far from subverting the kingship of Jesus proclaim its inner nature.

The kingdom of God is not about the panoply of the powerful and proud before which subjects cower in trembling and fear. The fear and trembling we feel at the cross is altogether different. For God’s kingship is both infinitely more humble and infinitely more strong. It announces the power of love and this is what draws us here and makes us to look. The spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And it answers that question by speaking of what goes through us when we say our yes: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.

The hymn writer draws the only possible conclusion. He goes back to St Paul: then am I dead to all the globe, and all the globe is dead to me. What is there to live for if not for the Lord of glory who is crucified before us? And his final verse captures what our response will be, can only be, on this Good Friday when we survey the wondrous cross. Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. So what do we do in the light of Golgotha where we see love so amazing, so divine?

I think the answer is both nothing and everything. The “nothing” is to recognise that we cannot add to what Jesus has done there. When, in our reading from the Passion, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, you hear not agonised despair but the trustful affirmation that Jesus’s living and dying have come to a good end, a resolution, and Jesus can offer himself to God as the servant and son who has been obedient to the suffering he was called to undergo. It is his work of redemption, not ours. And because this is a gift without price, nothing can possible equal it, not anything we can offer, not even the whole realm of nature – it would be an offering far too small in the face of God’s infinite sorrow and love.

But there is something we must do. We must say our wholehearted yes to the cross. We must be thankful. We must submit to this kingdom of love, embrace it, live it, give ourselves to it, recognise how it changes everything, for Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. On this Good Friday, there is nothing we would not do for the Love that has searched us out and known us, offered itself for us so that we might live again and find our hope once more.

So this solemn day is not for mourning. It is a time for profound thankfulness, a time to be glad. We who walked in the darkness of Golgotha have seen a great light. It is a good day.

Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.44-49

********
When I survey the wondrous Cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Isaac Watts 1674-1748   

Holy Week in Hymns 8 (Good Friday): "O sacred head"

Earlier in the passion story, St Luke tells us that when Jesus had been crucified, “the people stood by, watching”. The leaders “scoffed” and the soldiers “mocked”, but the people just “watched”. I wonder what Luke intends us to see in this crowd of onlookers. Some of them will have shouted Hosanna! on Palm Sunday and others Crucify! a few hours earlier. And no doubt there will have been people who cried both with the same conviction. Crowds are notoriously wayward. Never trust them.
But what if there were those, possibly only a few, who “watched” for a different reason, who wondered why this innocent man was being strung up on a cross, what crime he had committed. What if among the crowd were those who had followed him, who loved him, who were devoted to him? What would they read in the features of the agonised, pain-bearing, crucified Christ at the Place of the Skull? And the criminals being executed on either side of Jesus when there was nothing left to do but gaze around and think their own thoughts: what did they see in this man who shared the final hours of their lives on that green hill?
Our next Good Friday hymn imagines us on that hill of Calvary and asks us the same question: what do we see? O Sacred Head is one the most famous of all the passion hymns. The version we know is a translation of a German hymn that itself draws on a medieval Latin text. Paul Gerhardt, the German author, was a seventeenth century hymn writer, probably the greatest in the Lutheran tradition apart from Martin Luther himself. So well known was the tune that it simply went by the name of the “Passion Chorale”. Many of us learned it not through singing it in church but by hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion where it features no fewer than five times. 
Gerhardt was famed for the intense devotion of his hymns and the vividness with which they made Christian experience real and alive to the worshipper. If ever congregations learned theology through hymn-singing, it was as true of Reformation Germany as it was of eighteenth century Methodism. And the skill of this hymn is to get us to see what is in front of us as we come to the cross on this holy day. Like There is a green hill, the Passion Chorale doesn’t speculate about the crucifixion. It isn’t interested in metaphysical questions about how God could die, and how this death makes a difference in the cosmic scheme of things. It is concerned simply with faith, trust, gratitude and adoration. Indeed, of all the hymns we sing at this season, this is the most personal and direct. There is a burning, passionate intimacy in Gerhardt’s words. There are only two people who matter: the believer, and the crucified Lord.
Like the people in Luke’s account, Gerhardt watches. But this is more than just looking. This is gazing with a contemplative eye that is fully present to everything that the crucifixion means. He takes it all in and meditates on it: the crown of thorns, the bleeding head, the pallid hue as the colour drains from his features as death draws near. If you have ever waited by the bedside of someone who is dying, you will recognise the language. But this is more than the brilliant depiction of how a life subsides into nothing. In his devotion, the poet sees into what is of eternal importance here. Yet angel hosts adore thee, and tremble as they gaze ­just like this poet, this follower, this lover does.
The middle stanza develops this image of the dying Jesus. Like Grünewald’s Crucifixion on the Issenheim altarpiece at Colmar, or Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ you are not spared the detail. Nor should you be, says the poet. Thy comeliness and vigour is withered up and gone, and in thy wasted figure I see death drawing on. Because of the immensity of this death, because of the love it demonstrates, the least we can do on Good Friday is to gaze on the Saving Victim for a while, learn to love and serve him in his disfiguring, unlovely dying as well as in the beauty we remember.
Here at last is Isaiah’s suffering servant for all to see. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” says the prophet; there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account”. Except we did; we do; we always shall. O agony and dying! O love to sinners free! Was ever love like this? In his very disfigurement, says the hymn, we can see the form and the majesty of God, and through them, the extent of love poured out to bring us back to ourselves, to remake us as new people, to reawaken us to a vision of life as his followers and friends, and who we could be in the service of this Jesus whom we resolve to love and serve till our lives’ end.
The last verse is a prayer. In this thy bitter passion, good Shepherd, think of me with thy most sweet compassion, unworthy though I be. In the passage from St Luke that we read just now, we hear about the man who made just such a plea to the crucified Jesus. The two criminals on either side of him stand for the two ways with in which we see him. One is to deride him, taunt him or (what comes to the same thing), ignore him, turn our face away. The other is to find ourselves strangely drawn to him.
We may not know why he attracts us so, but we know that only in him shall we find the resolution of all that is conflicted and chaotic in our lives. Listen to the voice of the criminal: “we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then we imagine him turning to Jesus and looking at him – if such a movement is possible in the terrible pain of crucifixion - and pleading: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. And he replies in words generations of believers have treasured down the ages, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.
This is the music I hear in this last verse of Paul Gerhardt’s wonderful hymn. Beneath thy cross abiding, for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest. The place Jesus welcomes the penitent thief to is Paradise, that is, a garden. It is where the story of humankind began, and it is where it begins again, in the garden where his body is laid, and where the risen Lord will greet another penitent early on Easter Day, and call her by her name.
Those rhyming words at the end of the hymn – abiding, confiding, rest, blest – yes, I know they are in the English translation, but they sum up so well the sense of trustful resolution and fulfilment that Good Friday and Easter Eve are all about. When the ordeals of this dreadful day are over, the darkness begins to lighten a little. Jesus breathes his last, a peaceful goodnight prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. In the restfulness and peace with which this hymn closes, we know that something has shifted. It will soon be the time when earth’s morning breaks and shadows flee away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.39-43
********
O sacred head, surrounded
  By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
  So shamed and put to scorn!
Death's pallid hue comes o'er thee,
  The glow of life decays;
Yet angel-hosts adore thee,
  And tremble as they gaze.
Thy comeliness and vigour
  Is withered up and gone,
And in thy wasted figure
  I see death drawing on.
O agony and dying!
  O love to sinners free!
Jesu, all grace supplying,
  Turn thou thy face on me.
In this thy bitter passion,
  Good Shepherd, think of me
With thy most sweet compassion,
  Unworthy though I be:
Beneath thy cross abiding
  For ever would I rest,
In thy dear love confiding,
  And with thy presence blest.
Paul Gerhardt 1607-76 (translated H W Baker 1821-1877)                        
From a 14th century Latin hymn                 


 

Holy Week in Hymns 7 (Good Friday): "There is a green hill far away"

This Holy Week we are looking to some of our best-known, best-loved hymns to help us enter into the meaning of the cross. In this hour on Good Friday, we shall be singing three of the most famous. And where else to begin but with a hymn that once upon a time you could assume every child had learned at their mother’s knee. There is a green hill far away.
Mrs Alexander was the hymn writer for children par excellence. Her book Hymns for Little Children was published in 1848 and as well as this hymn included Once in Royal David’s City. What would Christmas and Good Friday be without them? She had the gift of writing with the kind of simplicity that speaks directly to the heart. Perhaps we adults love them not just for the way they make so personal the events of Jesus’ life and death, but also because they evoke our own upbringing, those remembered childhood Christmases and Easters that have helped show us how to believe and how to love.
We are reading from St Luke’s account of the crucifixion in this next hour. And in the first of these passages we hear how Jesus comes to the green hill far away, without a city wall – outside the city, of course, where criminals would be put to death without defiling the precincts of the temple. “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” We mustn’t be seduced by the hymn’s green hill. The Skull, Calvary, Golgotha is a brutal place of torment, and the hymn requires us not to evade it but to try to imagine. We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear. And if St Luke can be believed, maybe what hurt Jesus most were the mocking insults of the crowd and those who crucified him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one!”
But this is not to indulge morbidly in a tale of suffering: that would be cruel in a hymn intended for children. Nor is it that we should feel sorry for Jesus in his agony: the hymn is remarkably free of the kind of piety that is based on sympathy.  No, Mrs Alexander wants us to see into the paradox of Good Friday, that in the pains he had to bear, there is a gift held out to us who look on and believe. It looks dreadful, or at best absurd, without point. Yet there is meaning there, though it takes faith to see it. But we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.
How can it be “for us”, this death outside a city wall? Theologians have spilled ink over theories of the atonement for a thousand years or more. In this week’s addresses we hinted at some of them. But Mrs Alexander wisely steers clear of over-explaining. And not simply because she was writing for the young: for her there is a proper reticence we should keep in the face of mystery, a respect for what can never be put into words. We contemplate the green hill where the Son of God hangs. How could it be that the Lord of glory should not simply die a criminal’s death, but do so willingly, voluntarily, out of deliberate, conscious choice, and for us? That is the true mystery of this holiest day of the year.
The writer goes on to explain, as far as she can, or any of us can. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good; that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. How the cross effects that change in us is left unexplained. But that the cross is the source of forgiveness for all who know how far we fall short, how broken we are, how we have marred the beauty of life by the collusions of this world and our own propensity for self-love - this is what Christians have always believed. “He died for our sins according to the scriptures” says the creed; “he suffered and was buried”. In this language, heaven stands not only for our ultimate destiny but for the hope that has been given back to us in Christ. And saved by his precious blood is not to speculate about some divine transaction between Father and Son but to focus on the infinite cost of our reconciliation. The blood that flowed from the side of the Crucified is not any blood, but his precious blood, the divine gift that washes, feeds and nourishes us, that gives us back our lives, the gift of being remade that only God can give. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
In one sense, Jesus dies like any common criminal in a world where life is cheap. That by itself suggests how we might read the cross in the light of the human suffering today, so many crucifixions, so many Calvaries. Where people suffer and die as nobodies, they follow in the steps of Jesus, for that is how he died too. And yet, no-one is a nobody. Every life is of infinite worth because each child of God is cherished for ever, loved to the end. And this is what the cross affirms: it gives value to every death by neutralising its power to hurt us. So when Jesus is led out to be crucified, when the Creator submits to our mortality and faces his end at the hands of cruel men, we say of him that only he could die like this, only perfect love could undergo this death that redeems our human life.
And let’s make no mistake. In this laying down of his life, what another hymn calls “love’s endeavour, love’s expense”, there is a transformation that is real and lasting. We are not the same as we were before we came to this green hill. His perfect giving of himself turns around, re-orientates our distorted hunger and desires, breaks destructive patterns of behaviour arising from our innate love for ourselves above all else, our endless capacity to hurt, damage and destroy. Whoever is forgiven much, loves much says Jesus in the gospel. So by paying the price of sin, by unlocking the gate of heaven, by holding it wide to let us all go in, a whole new world of wonderful possibilities is opened up for us. There is a new creation. Life can begin again.
What do we do when a great love is held out to us? There is only one possible response. It’s there in the last verse. O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. This is what Good Friday is for: to expose us once more to this love that is so dear to us that it passes understanding. And as we allow ourselves to be drawn into it we find that a strange work is happening within us. We are learning to live not out of fear but more at ease with ourselves because perfect love casts out fear. We are becoming those who look beyond ourselves, trusting not in our own resources and powers but in his redeeming blood. To come to the cross and venerate the paschal victim changes everything. It opens up a new and better way to live. We try his works to do, not as a burden but as a joy motivated by thankfulness for Love’s work on that green hill far away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.32-38



********

There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains he had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.


Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 6 (Maundy Thursday): "Soul of my Saviour"

On this night of Maundy Thursday, we gather at the table of the Lord to do what he has commanded in memory of him. In bread and wine, we enter into the movement of God’s tender love for the world with which he loves us to the end. And because the upper room has taught us that love is his meaning, we act out at the Maundy eucharist love’s visible signs, the washing of feet, the kiss of peace and the breaking of bread. For the God who comes to us in Jesus, the God who pours out his very life for us, is the God who is both among us as one who serves and at the same time counts us his intimate friends. He bids us love one another as he has loved us.

Our hymn tonight breathes this spirit of intimate tenderness. “Soul of my Saviour” is a version of a famous fourteenth century prayer known as Anima Christi. Here it is in a translation by last night’s hymn writer, John Henry Newman who treasured this prayer:

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification; Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins; Water of Christ's side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be; O good Jesu, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide; Ne'er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me; Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above, With thy saints to sing thy love, World without end. Amen.
What is it about this prayer that is so lovable, that draws us to make it our own especially in Passiontide? I think it is what T. S. Eliot called the “condition of complete simplicity”. It is utterly artless, unpretentious, childlike, without any sense of self-importance. It does not set out to make grand statements. It does not fall into the trap of flattering God in elaborate, courtly language. It is the naked, unadorned plea of a human soul kneeling before the crucified Jesus. It is written out of a deep personal realisation of our dependence on God's love. You feel it would be wonderful to pray like this, honestly, directly, wonderful to find it in us to cling to the cross with our hearts overflowing with love.

And this is why we observe Holy Week with such devotion. To walk with Jesus in the way of the cross is not meant to be an act of self-flagellation. The via dolorosa should deepen our love. It’s as simple as that. To contemplate the Passion is to be drawn ever deeper into the Soul of our Saviour first and foremost in thankful recognition of Christ’s work of redemption and grace, and then to offer ourselves to him as people who love him in return, who find safety and protection in the cross for this life and the next.

The themes of the first verse suggest the spirit of Maundy Thursday in the intimacy of its images. The soul of the worshipper comes face to face with the soul of the Saviour as if the author were present in the upper room, as close to Jesus as it is possible to be as words of love are spoken, and feet are washed, and bread is broken and wine is poured and hearts are sanctified and strengthened for the ordeals that lie ahead. Always the cross is in view, even as Jesus gathers with his followers and friends to celebrate a joyful Passover feast. The theme of this stanza is simply stated: that the love we glimpse in the Passion should embrace us, overcome us, purge out of us all that would pull us away from the Crucified One who is our life and our salvation. This highly physical, sacramental, almost erotic language may not be our usual register as Church of England people but the mystics of every age recognise it. They tell us that in the face of an overpowering vision of grace and truth, ordinary words run out.

The second verse introduces the idea of the cross as the source of strength and protection. Here the prayer becomes needier, as if the writer were trembling before some awful threat. “Strength and protection” - from what? We don’t know, but we can sense the fragility of life in the middle ages, ambushed by ever-present threats of war, famine, disease and death. Maundy Thursday is just such a day when we sit and eat under the awful shadow of the coming cruelty, suffering, darkness and death. You can hear the desperation in the cry for help: O blessed Jesu, hear and answer me. And then the lovely paradoxical image of the gaping wound as a good place because it offers shelter and safety. From a terrible injury that breaks open a precious body, life-giving blood and water flow. Deliverance brings healing, and healing a perfect union of heart and soul. So shall I never, never part from thee. As Peter said to Jesus when others forsook him and fled, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign enlarges this sense of threat. The dangers we sense in this prayer are not only physical, but spiritual. Eternity is at stake here, not just the moments of each day we are alive. And so the prayer turns to the last things we must all face one day. In death’s dread moments make me only thine. Death hangs over this Last Supper of the Lord as I’ve said. So we could read the prayer as asking that we may die as we have tried to live, in imitation of Jesus in his living and dying, knowing his tender love, never never parted from thee. And it ends on a truly eucharistic note, that is, in thankfulness and praise with the whole company of heaven: Call me and bid me come to thee on high, where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay. Even in Holy Week, in this Maundy eucharist, we do not lose sight of the saints triumphant who are with us as we sing the praise of him who died.

I’ve spoken about the Anima Christi in personal way because that reflects how it was written all those centuries ago. But I want to end by suggesting another way of praying it and of singing the hymn that’s based on it. Tonight we recall how, after supper, Jesus and his disciples went out to Gethsemane to watch and pray. St John depicts that high-priestly prayer as a majestic act of intercession for people of all times and places who trusted and hoped in God. I think that on this day, and the next, we should place the world and all its peoples under the strength and protection of Christ and his Passion. In our imagination, could we, so to speak, shelter this broken world in the broken side of Christ where the eternal source of its help and healing lie?

We come to this altar keenly aware of the tears that are being shed in many places through suffering and pain of different kinds. God’s tears, I am sure, mingle with ours as we break the bread and share the cup. What better than to offer this mass for a hurting world with the intention that all the human family should be guarded and defended from its foes? In the fervent hope, and longing, and prayer for the day when it will never, never be parted from the Friend of all humanity who loves us to the end.

Wakefield Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2017
 
Soul of my Saviour sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death's dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.


Latin, 14th century