Being Brave and Honest – like Thomas (John 20 v19-end)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

 

We say that so easily, don’t we?

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I said four words, and to mix my metaphors you parroted the response back.

It’s easy to do isn’t it, when we’re absolutely certain that the crucified Jesus, his body bound in cloths and laid in the tomb, rose again to life – not like Lazarus who would die again, but to a life like no-one has experienced since.

It’s easy to believe because people we trust wrote that we should believe. It’s easy to know we believe because we’ve had a profound experience or experiences of our risen Christ. It’s easy to say we believe because we simply can’t face admitting – especially in church – that it isn’t, or we don’t.

Except it isn’t, is it. Easy, that is. Believing that Jesus rose again and can meet us in our daily lives, in answered prayer, in extraordinary encounters, in another’s pain, in our own pain… None of that is easy at all. Having faith in the risen Jesus, and holding on to that faith, can be really, really tough. Especially, when we’ve not necessarily seen or encountered him for ourselves.

But we do believe don’t we. We share this thing called faith in the risen Jesus, or we are at least intrigued by the possibility of that fact, else we would not be sat here this morning. We base our hopes and/or trust in the fact that the beatitude of the risen Christ that we heard this morning is: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. We rely on the fact that Jesus responded to what we so easily assume were Thomas’s doubts, and returned to a locked room to reveal his risen self, his scars, his love.

I don’t believe the hype about Thomas, or at least about his doubts being such a bad thing. We should not be derogatory about these doubts, but rather celebrate their worth: for me he is Brave and Honest Thomas, someone we need to seek to emulate, not look down upon.

When Thomas said to his friends “Unless I see him face to face and put my fingers in the hole of his and hands and his side, I shall not believe”, he was most likely just seeking “clarity”. He needed “to get to the bottom of things”, to check whether his friends had reached a point of hysteria in their grief, or whether something significant that he really needed to get his mind round had just happened. Thomas knew he had to “find his own way to be faithful to God” that involved not simply blind faith, but his intellect, his mind and a firm grasp of the reality of the situation.**

We know that “It’s… hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and [we should recognise that] it was brave [of Thomas when he] found that he was the odd one out, not to go off, be by himself, [and give up on the last three years of following Jesus].  For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith and stories… must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around.”*

It was his honesty, and that willingness to hang around with those for whom the risen Jesus had become a reality which meant that “eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.”*

“Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced”, and finding that the people and ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. “In Judaism, according to Dr. Jonathan Sacks,… ‘To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but [suggests a] lack of depth [to our faith].’ Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, [he says], “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”*

Like Thomas, we need to risk making our ourselves look foolish among our friends, ask apparently awkward questions, confess our doubts and confusion, because even when we can’t see him, Jesus is listening.

Like Thomas, we need to hang around in the places that we are most likely to encounter Jesus. In our private devotions, our public worship and other forms of fellowship with Christians, our participation in the sacraments, in our commitment to serve others, to make time to be in holy places (both natural and man-made), we need to be doing the things that mean Jesus can show up and reveal himself to us – scars and all. That may mean we’re behind closed doors at times, though that doesn’t mean that’s where Jesus wants us to stay.

Like Thomas, we may find that when we are faced with the risen Christ, we will not need to touch or “probe” his wounds, for his presence in and of itself, the encounter with his love for us, will be enough to convince us that it is Jesus.***

Like Thomas, and the other disciples, we need to be reminded that there are many people in this world who believe in the risen Christ without having seen him, and we need to honour and encourage that faith, in ourselves as much as in others: for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Like Thomas, we are called by Jesus to be brave and honest. Jesus, appeared in the disciples hideaway the first time to commission them to go out into the world – sending them out as they were, but with the power of the Holy Spirit as their guide, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins that comes to those who believe in him as their Lord and their God. St. John’s account of these resurrection encounters gives the disciples, Thomas included, little time for hesitancy. There is no waiting around for Pentecost, no more time to struggle with doubt and uncertainty, for questions to be answered. They have to take those with them.

Acknowledging that we are both ‘Like Thomas’ in his doubts and also blessed by God whatever stage our belief in the risen Jesus has reached, means accepting our uncertainties and the questions that seem to remain un-answered, and yet STILL going out into the world to live as Jesus wants us to – as those who proclaim his name in words of forgiveness. What we watch and read on the news, shows us that there is no more time for us to remain hidden – the world needs to hear that in Jesus there is forgiveness, in that forgiveness there is reconciliation with each other and with God, and in that reconciliation, there is peace.

Lord Jesus
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
We acknowledge before you our doubts, as well as our certainties.
Help us this week to be bold in what we do,
and honest about our search to meet you;
that in thought, word and deed
we will be encouraged to
proclaim your resurrection, your forgiveness,
and the hope of peace it offers.
Amen

Sources: 

*Maggie Dawn http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2009/04/honest-thomas.html

**Rachel Mann ‘Thomas’ in “The Risen Dust” Wild Goose Publications

***Paula Gooder “Journey to the Empty Tomb” 

This is one of those sermons that was excruciatingly painful to preach, though it always is when I speak of Thomas. It has been significant for me to realise that Thomas, and the other disciples in this account, do not meet the risen Lord in the breaking of bread, but hidden behind closed doors. But that doesn’t mean that is where we should stay.

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Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Luke 23:44-46

This is the last of The Seven Last Words attributed to Jesus on Good Friday. What follows is the short reflection I wrote on it last year. This is deliberately short – and if you’ve been following through the rest, they have (largely) decreased in length, because that was the brief I was given.

The first six can be accessed via this link to the sixth until I have time to put all the links here – I have to go away now to be at the cross.

Feel free to re-use them, with attribution, but it would be lovely to know where they are used, so please use the comment facility for that.

Go well and may you have a very Holy Easter.

Seemingly abandoned,
desolate and alone,
the unbreakable bond of trust
between the Son and his Father,
finds supreme expression
in the confidence that Christ’s self-offering,
would be accepted by God.

Freedom, and a new beginning,
are located in the certainty of His death;
a death that carries us –
if we too can bring ourselves to trust,
shattered and broken as we may be –
into the presence of the Divine,
and an encounter with the abundant blessings
of the cross.

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It is finished. John 19:30

That mangled, broken body;
that unquenchable Spirit;
elevated in ridicule, and spite,
for all to scorn;
completes God’s picture of humanity.

Born as one of us,
the image of God’s ultimate creation,
is a mirror to our failure:
Deliberate suffering, and innocent blood,
the wages of human selfishness.

Christ’s full and final task,
accomplished in the detail of exquisite pain;
God’s love perfected,
poured out to the last drop,
the price of our rejection, paid in full.

Here is perfection,
the freedom of a Holy spirit,
and love which passes all understanding;
for this is the glory and reward
for all who seek God’s will.

This has been the sixth of my reflections on Jesus’ Seven Last Words at the Cross, written in 2015. The fifth is here, with a link to the first four. The seventh will follow shortly.

You are welcome to re-use these, suitably attributed, but it would be great to know where, so please use the comment facility to let me know.

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I am thirsty! John 19:28-29

The fifth of my reflections on the Seven Last Words written last year and traditionally used on Good Friday. The first four are accessible here. The last two will follow later on the Good Friday.

You are welcome to re-use these, suitably attributed, but it be great to know where, so please use the comment facility to let me know.

I

I, Jesus.
Yes, that no-good Galilean troublemaker.
I, the one they call Messiah,
Son of David,
welcomed as the Saviour of my people Israel,
proclaimed with songs of praises,
testimony falsified,
betrayed, arrested,
beaten, tortured, crucified.
I, the Son of God.

I am.

I am,
bread, that’s why I broke it;
light, that’s why all people are drawn to me.
I am
the gate;
this cross,
the gateway by which all will find rich pastures.
I am
the way,
the truth,
and in this my death, life.
I am
the true vine,
who,
now cut and bleeding,
is the rootstock of my Father in heaven,
into which you can be grafted.
I am
the good shepherd;
raised up,
I lay down my life for you.

I am thirsty.

I am thirsty,
because I have poured out all of myself.
I am thirsty,
because almost everyone I have touched in this life,
has forsaken me,
hidden, lied, and run away.
I am thirsty,
because I long,
I yearn,
like a deer that pants for the water brooks,
for you to see me here,
and turn to my love for you,
and be refreshed.

I am thirsty.
Are you?

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Enough, let us be going – John 13:1-17 and 31b-35

The brief that my training incumbent gave me was for an explanatory sermon of what the service on Maundy Thursday includes, which at St. Mary’s follows from the sermon with the foot washing, continues through the Eucharist and the ‘stripping of the altar’ to process with a single reserved ‘host’ to the ‘Garden of Repose’ set up this year in our Chapel. In the ‘Garden’ a second Gospel is read, which I anticipated being Mark 14:26-end (however, I think I got that wrong but I think the sermon still made sense of the service a bit).

 

Tonight we are remembering three significant actions of Jesus in the last day of his life, actions that are both firsts and lasts, the significance of which are summed up for us in the new commandment that he gives to his confused disciples who will form a fledgling community of those who accept him as the Son of God. “Love one another” Jesus says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The Gospel reading we have just heard, focuses largely on Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. In the dust and grime of what we now call the Holy Land, the washing of feet before meals where people reclined against each other to eat, was a hygienic necessity. Who wants their neighbour’s grimy feet near their face as they pick through the variety of dishes on offer?

Knowing that he had only a few hours of life ahead of him, it was Jesus’ last chance to feel clean before the torture that was to come. He would have been well within his rights as their “Lord and Teacher” to have asked others to wash his feet. Yet his needs are never mentioned as he himself kneels at the feet of his friends.

Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet communicates Christ’s “self-sacrificial humility” and points clearly toward his “ultimate sacrifice on the cross”*. The washing of feet was the daily action of servants and slaves, and we sense here that perhaps Jesus’ expectation was that such acts of service were to be practiced daily by his followers. Yet, as Christians today, the symbolic act has become for us, at best, an annual event on Maundy Thursday for those willing and able to bare their toes.

On this of all nights, we may feel as confused, ashamed, and uncomfortable as Jesus’ disciples in the presence of our servant-Master, but our first and hopefully overwhelming calling as Christians is to make our daily lives as near a living testament to his example as we possibly can, remembering that like Jesus, our actions – especially the unexpected or challenging ones – will often speak louder than words.

But it is the words that we will hear, ones that may be incredibly familiar to us, that speak of the second of the firsts and lasts of tonight. As we gather to receive the bread and the wine, we hear the Eucharistic Prayer, the words of institution that Jesus also asked us to repeat with actions, in remembrance of him. The Passover meal that Jesus was celebrating, was only an annual event for Jews, but he turns it, through the connection he makes to his own body broken on the cross for us, into a sacrament that for many is a weekly necessity.

We know it, particularly tonight, as the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. Yet, in many ways it is the first meal of the new community that Jesus is setting apart for self-sacrificial service to others, and that challenges us to consider its impact on how we think and act. By being reminded of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice every time we share in the Eucharist, we are fed, strengthened, and given the impetus, to do as Jesus did. But to what extent do we feel like a community bound together by that meal, expressing our love for him in our service to and love for others?

Sometimes we know that serving the needs of others means that we have to sit quietly, watch and wait, as people wrestle with the pain of some personal anguish. We cannot make their decisions for them, they have to tread their own path, but we can be a supportive and prayerful presence in the turmoil of another’s life. After the church has been stripped bare of its linen finery, this is what we are called to do as we gather in the presence of Christ, in what is often described as the Garden of Repose.

The word ‘repose’ suggests a resting place, somewhere that is a scene of beauty, a place to lay down in our weariness. To an extent, those images are helpful; there is a beauty we encounter in the presence of Jesus. We may feel able to rest our own brokenness in the presence of the one who tomorrow will be crucified bearing the pain of our weaknesses.

Yet, as we stop there and listen to our second Gospel reading, it will become all too obvious that there was nothing restful about the Mount of Olives, and the garden of Gethsemane that night.

Jesus prophesies one last time over his disciples, a prophesy of desertion. One last time, Peter will try and argue with Jesus, that he of all people, will not, could not, will never, be so unfaithful to his Master as to walk away; only to be given the most specific prophesy of them all. Whilst it will become Judas that finally hands Jesus over to the authorities, one way or another, the remaining eleven disciples will likewise betray him.*

Just as we will. We will all walk away tonight, too tired, too sore, too much in need of our beds, to stay for long and pray for and with Jesus in his “distress and agitation” at the “prospect of what he had to do”. After sharing in that Last Supper with Christ, this may feel like our first defection from the way of self-sacrifice to which he has just called us by command and example because we know our own failings and inabilities.

Yes, “like the disciples, we will stumble”* in our attempts to follow Jesus and build a community based on the principle of seeking to “love one another”. Yet, our walking away need not be a sign of failure. Jesus turns from his anguished prayer, and his frustrations with the inadequacies of his friends and says: “Enough, let us be going!” He sets his face toward the will of his Father, the kiss of Judas, and the cross. This is not failure, it is obedience.

As we walk away from Jesus tonight, let us do so as obedient servants rather than dwelling on the probability of failure. Let tonight fill us with a hope that, in the midst of our weekness and poor efforts to follow his example of true love and self-sacrifice, we will be brought to a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to live as a community of his followers and love as he loves us.

 

*With a lot of thanks to Paula Gooder and her book ‘Journey to the Empty Tomb’

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“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:33-34

The fourth in my sequence of meditations on the ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus, written in 2015 for the Three Hours at the Cross at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit.

Meditation 1 ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing’
Meditation 2 ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’
Meditation 3 ‘Woman, this is your son’

You are welcome to re-use these, suitably attributed, but it be great to know where, so please use the comment facility to let me know.

“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:33-34

Darkness.
The presence of a thorny crown.
The presence of derision,
when there is no hiding place.

Darkness.
The absence of light.
The absence of a future,
when it is most needed.

Darkness.
The presence of nails.
The presence of pain,
when there is no escape.

Darkness.
The absence of hope.
The absence of ‘Abba’ Father,
when he is needed most.

Darkness.
The presence of sin.
The presence of despair,
when the wrong is not your own.

Darkness.
The absence of love.
The absence of God,
when he is needed most.

There,
in the darkness,
is the cross,
and Christ;
God-forsaken.

Grace.

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“Woman, this is your son” John 19:25-27 – A meditation

With Mothering Sunday looming, here is my meditation written for last years Three Hours at the Cross, on the passage from John 19 that forms one of the options on Mothering Sunday readings, as well as being one of the Seven Last Words of Jesus.

If you wish to re-use this, either now or in Holy Week, please do, with suitable attribution and preferably a message via the comments box as to where you are. 

Meditation 1  ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing’
Meditation 2  ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’
(Further meditations in the sequence will be blogged as we draw closer to Holy Week.)

“Woman, this is your son” John 19:25-27

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Mary,
who gave Jesus his humanity in obedience to God,
stands in heart-breaking solidarity with her first-born,
his body,
wracked and broken by the torture of the cross.

There is a dignity about her presence,
a strength in her silence.

For this son,
Mary experienced
the strain of pre-marital disbelief;
arduous travel in the name of political statistics;
poverty and exile as the refugee of a violent, frightened dictator;
the fear and confusion of a parent who mis-places a child,
or discovers within them wisdom beyond their years;
the embarrassment of being ‘shushed’ as their offspring finds their own place in the world;
and now the terror of watching that child hijacked
by the unwillingness of leaders to face the truth and change –
the brutality of a regime that kills troublemakers.

And yet,
Mary still stands with honour,
his agony her own,
and receives a new child to care for,
a new journey of parental anguish,
the requirement to love someone
who will stand in the place of Jesus?

All who have loved and lost their own,
will be uncertain whether Jesus’ parting gift
was really the blessing popularly assigned to it.
Whilst bearing the pain of loss of one on whom all hope is built,
to be given the burden of another,
seems almost too much to bear.

And yet, is that not what Christ asks of all of us?
To stand, unbowed
at the foot of his cross,
and bear with him,
the weight of caring,
for all
for whom he died.

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“Today you will be with me in paradise!” (Luke 23:39-43) The second meditation on Jesus’ Seven Last Words

Last year, for the middle hour of our Three Hours at the Cross on Good Friday, I wrote meditations (of decreasing length) on the Seven Last Words of Jesus – scriptures relating to his final moments, often used in more catholic traditions. I posted the first ‘Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’ after Easter, but didn’t post the rest. This year, it has been suggested that I gradually blog the full set. If you would like to use them, please do, with appropriate credit. If you could say where you’re using it, please use the comment facility.

So here, is the second:

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

I had no wish to be remembered.
My life’s been hidden in the shadows,
my home the streets and alleys of violence,
the places so busy, no-one sees,
so deserted, no-one looks.
When I’ve gone inside,
I’ve either been the unwelcome guest,
or my residency enforced,
rested from my freedom
by the shackles of incompetence.

That loud-mouth mocker,
full of self-importance,
oblivious to his own shallowness,
blind to the justice of his sentence,
thinks he’s the king of the hard-done by.
In fact he’s the pauper of a quick buck,
a shady deal badly implemented,
just another bankrupt of a society
sold-out to the corruption
of it’s own ego.

 I’m pinned up here,
by the self-made sinews
of my own crimes,
the weight of my cross
purely the burden of my past.
My felonies, too numerous to see,
my sickness, visible only to me,
this paradise of pain a justice
to those I’ve fleeced of peace of mind,
cheated of a future.

We’re pegged up next to perfection,
a man whose assumed double-talk,
lies merely in the anguish of his love,
the smell of his compassion,
the authority of his mute acceptance.
Even the mocker detects the difference,
feels shaded from the lime-light,
yet recognises innocence,
if only in the hope of gain;
a prince of crass conversion.

It had to be acknowledged;
my empty nothingness,
stark contrast to his humility;
his a power that won’t be discontinued,
sold-out to by ignorance and death.
My faith, sparked by unworthiness,
suddenly cried out to be recognised,
to be remembered,
significant to me at least,
despite it’s necessarily short-lived illumination.

No fuel required, nothing temporised,
here in excruciating death,
he gratuitously shared out life,
his kingdom not of the humanity to which he’d stooped,
but the throne of the creator.
This last decision of my rotten existence,
the best by far, never to be regretted;
a happy torture to encounter freedom,
liberation from my delinquency,
and the promise of paradise.

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Lenten Array (Sarum use) at St. Mary’s Old Basing

High Altar Lent Array

The Pulpit and Altar in Lenten Array at St. Mary’s Old Basing

I was brought up with Lent being marked by church furnishings and vestments in a deep purple colour, the same as are used in Advent (and by some for funeral services).

St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit however is a church that has turned to an older tradition, as I have discovered that the purple is a relatively modern (19th century), originally Roman Catholic tradition. Instead, we use the more ancient custom of the Lenten Array where we cover the altar and decorative elements of the church in unbleached linen (or in places, it’s modern equivalent – best not look too closely!) The candles held by angels around the altar aren’t lit either.

Bolton Chapel Lent Array 2

The Bolton Chapel, St. Mary’s Old Basing, in Lenten Array

The idea (as I understand it – feel free to correct me if you know better) is that we focus on the suffering of Christ (which is why the red motifs), our need for repentance, and is a reminder perhaps of the sackcloth of the ancients for whom it showed grief when someone died (Lent being a time when we try to be dead to our sins, of omission and commission).

In our large Grade 1 listed church, the Lenten Array means that the various furnishings of the church fade into the background of the whitewashed walls, and I am aware there is much less to distract the eye than at other times of year. One of my Twitter pals (@Turkeyplucker) suggests that this was something that Percy Dearmer was aware of when he revived the Sarum rituals at the turn of the 20th century in his search for a more authentically English catholic sense of ritual in the Church of England.

Old Sarum Lenten Chasuble & Stoles

Chasuble and Stoles to be worn with our Lenten Array at St. Mary’s

Our Sacristan was wondering if we are a rarity in using the Lenten Array, but my little conversation on Twitter this morning, and this 2013 conversation at the Shop of Fools, suggests whilst not common, it’s far from being a forgotten tradition. Salisbury Cathedral unsurprisingly (given the origins of the Lenten Array) use it, as does Westminster Abbey, St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge and the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral. Closer still, but over the diocesan border, All Saints Wokingham use it, and my memory from my Reader Training placement is that just into town nearby, All Saints, Basingstoke use it too. So, perhaps we’re not so unusual.

Part of me wants to say it’s fussy covering everything up; in many of the churches I’ve worshipped in, we’ve struggled to have liturgical furnishings of any sort – in a school hall, you’re lucky if the tressle table doubling as ‘holy table’ has a covering of the correct seasonal colour! However a church like St. Mary’s is very different, and I am finding I like this particular tradition; when Easter arrives it means the sudden colour of golden vestments, floral decorations and candlelight are a much more significant echo of the Resurrection.

(When I remember to take the camera, I’ll try and get some better photos than these taken on my iPad.)

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Lifting the Veil – the only ‘ordinary’ sermon this spring

Snowdrops against the East End of St. Mary's 2

On a different note:  The snowdrops at St. Mary’s are stunning at the moment.

My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days. 

 

In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.

In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!

In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.

Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring.  But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.

Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.

St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.

It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.

So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.

Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.

This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.

We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.

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