“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.

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.)

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.