SERMON FOR SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
When I visited Lebanon in the springtime, a few years ago, I remember being in the Bekaa Valley, and looking southeast to the mountains, and seeing Mount Hermon there with snow on its peak. Well, Mount Hermon is traditionally the mount of the Transfiguration, the scene of today’s Gospel story. Now we can wonder whether it’s very likely that Jesus and his companions would have chosen to go up to the snowiest place that they’d have known, but, leaving that question aside, if we put the story into the context of a snow-covered landscape it certainly feels very different, doesn’t it? We just don’t envisage the Gospel stories in that way, well, with the exception of the Christmas story and we know that’s a sort of lumping together of imaginary Christmas scenes. Generally we never think of snow in the Holy Land, but it does exist; there are ski resorts in the Lebanon mountains, and as I say Mount Hermon has snow pretty much all year round, so if it really was the site of the Transfiguration then we should picture today’s Gospel scene in the snow. And actually, that makes sense of Peter’s desire to erect a shelter in the story; you’re on a mountain top in the snow, your leader seems to be hanging around, so building a shelter seems like a good idea.
Now you might object that the text in front of you says that Peter wants to “make three dwellings” which doesn’t sound much like building a shelter on a mountainside. Fair enough, it doesn’t, but I’m afraid that’s a failure of the translators, because the word St.Luke reports Peter as using really doesn’t mean “dwellings”; I think I can understand why they have chosen to give that translation, but that’s not actually what the word means. The Greek word that Luke uses is “skene”, which if you wrote it in English letters would read “scene”, like a scene in a play, and that’s no coincidence, because theatrical scenery is one of the meanings of skene, and that tells you what it’s all about; it means something temporary. In fact its normal meaning is a tent, or some sort of temporary structure. The cover-all English word for that used to be a booth, but the thing itself is so rare nowadays that the word seems to have dropped out of use. I don’t know whether you remember the Greenham Common women, protesting against American nuclear weapons at Greenham Common airbase in Berkshire in the 1980s, but they lived in the woods around the base and constructed themselves shelters by bending over saplings and putting plastic sheeting over them, shelters which they called “benders”; but those benders were what in another age would have been called booths. I remember being a bit baffled, years ago, when learning about the Jewish feast of tabernacles, when the books tell you that Jews to this day construct booths for themselves, in their house or garden, in which to spend the night. I understood what was meant, but the word booth just didn’t do it for me. You just don’t meet booths very often; I suppose the fairground boxing booth is the most common, but that’s a historical curiosity, though the point is, that everything at a traditional fairground that wasn’t a ride was housed in a booth. And it was precisely temporary.
So what Peter proposes is to build temporary shelters. These are not dwellings in which anyone is going to remain for any significant amount of time, but booths, temporary structures. Now I mentioned the Jewish feast of Tabernacles a moment ago, and the old King James Bible uses the word “tabernacle” here, as the translation for skene, and that’s not stupid, because skene is exactly the word used in the Greek Old Testament for the Tent of Meeting where Moses met with God during the Exodus, and which the King James Bible calls the tabernacle. So in Old Testament usage, the tabernacle is a temporary structure where God is present, which fits pretty accurately what Peter is proposing. It’s no accident that St.Luke uses that Old Testament word, because he wants us to remember the whole idea of the tabernacle. In a church we call the little structure in which we keep the consecrated Eucharistic bread a tabernacle, on the basis that Christ’s body is kept there, and so in some sense God is present there; and traditionally a tabernacle is often covered with a veil, a sort of tent, or curtains, reminding us of the biblical tent. But today’s story is full of Old Testament echoes. Most obviously, Jesus meets Moses and Elijah, Old Testament figures, but people who are obviously meant to stand for the Law and the Prophets, the two central strands of ancient Israelite religion (and the two major divisions of the Hebrew Bible). Our first reading provides us with another connection, the idea that Jesus’s transfiguration is like the appearance of Moses after he met with God, in the book of Exodus, with his face shining from the contact, so much so that he has to wear a veil for the sake of the people. Interestingly, Islamic art uses a very similar idea to depict the Prophet Mohammed, who of course famously talks to God; he is often depicted with his face covered by a veil and with a halo of bright light around his head. Light is of course a prime property of God, and that’s very clear in lots of Old Testament texts. As I said, Luke quite deliberately uses the word skene which is the technical term for the tabernacle or booth from the feast of Tabernacles, and that should alert us to what that feast is all about, because although it’s become a sort of harvest festival, its original meaning is to commemorate the Exodus, when the ancient Israelites will have lived under temporary shelters as they travelled through the wilderness on their journey from Egypt to the promised land. It wasn’t just God who dwelt in a tent on the Exodus, they all did. And the final clue to the Exodus connection is one that’s hidden in English, but is very obvious in the original Greek.
Now Matthew and Mark also tell the story of the Transfiguration, but it’s only St.Luke, who we read today, who tells us what Jesus talks about to Moses and Elijah. According to our translation, they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. Now there are loads of other words that Luke might have used for “departure”, but just this once, here, he uses the word “exodus”. They were speaking of Jesus’s exodus. That’s just hugely important. Jesus’s exodus. Exodus is a completely Old Testament word; obviously it’s the title of the second book of the Old Testament, but that’s named as it is because it tells the story of the event which is called the Exodus. That is, the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, a journey that takes in the crossing of the Red Sea and forty years’ wandering in the wilderness. Now the Exodus is the absolutely defining experience of the ancient Israelites, it’s what makes them who they are (and in fact that remains true of Jews to this day). For the Israelites the Exodus is what makes them a nation, it transforms them from slaves into free people, it takes them to the promised land. So for Jesus what will happen at Jerusalem takes on the same complexion; this is what will define him, indeed reveal him as he truly is. Yes, it’s a departure (and the commentators who say Jesus just means his death are of course right, as far as that goes, because clearly the departure in question is his death) but it’s not simply a going away, anything but, it’s a departure which allows coming to life.
That’s how it was with the ancient exodus, the Israelites needed to leave Egypt in order that they should come to life as a people, and that’s how it is with Jesus as well. Of course we should remember that the festival commemorating the escape from Egypt, the first act of the exodus, for Jews, was the feast of Passover, and when was Jesus killed? At the time of the Passover festival. Easter is the Christian Passover, not only do we celebrate it at the same time, but it is for us the time that Jesus passed over from death to life. Just as the Israelites felt vindicated by God’s mighty acts of power in rescuing them from the Egyptians at the passage of the Red Sea, so Christians believe that God’s power is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where the Israelites celebrated Passover as a festival of new life, that is abundantly true of Easter. Jesus’s exodus is the start of new life for the whole world, it’s a sign of the kingdom. Calling death an exodus, as St.Luke does here, means that death is not the end of God’s plan in Jesus, but instead a major turning point in the story. For whatever else we may think of St.Luke’s work, it’s clear that he has a very well-developed sense of God’s plan working through time, which he shares with us in his Gospel and Acts.
So, if we’re looking forward to Jesus’s death and resurrection as his exodus, which both defines us and changes the world for us, we can perhaps see the Transfiguration in a different light. Because it’s all about change. Yes, Jesus goes back down the mountain with them the same as he went up, but Peter and James and John know that things have changed, and they will have to change even more. I suppose we sometimes think of the Exodus being about the Israelites preserving their heritage, and that’s partly true, but much more important is the tremendous change that it brings, it’s a journey into the unknown, with incalculable rewards. And as God’s people here and now we should be ready for exodus, ready for change. Jesus constantly calls his followers to transformation of life, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise, but God doesn’t just offer us reassurance and comfort, he challenges us to undertake a transformative journey. We are called to proclaim God’s kingdom, a kingdom of life that encompasses every aspect of human existence, but that isn’t simply to sanctify our existing way of life, rather we are to accept God’s challenge. His kingdom implies an exodus for us, a potentially painful wilderness journey, a departure from everything that prevents us from living in full communion with God and with others. Peter’s shelters, his booths, might look like an attempt to escape the rigours of the journey, but they might just show that he sees that the journey has to be made, with only temporary resting places on the way. That’s all pretty alarming, but in the end it’s a journey home, to our promised land, our home with God. And that means we can’t expect God to be constantly endorsing the status quo for us, or to give us reassurance where we are, but to lead us out through the familiar to the wilderness, and thence to our freedom in the promised land.
SERMON FOR LENT 1
What I want to do in these sermons during Lent is to talk about some of the traditional ways of keeping the season. I hope that we have all adopted some sort of rule for Lent already, but if we haven’t then something I may say may spark something off for you. In the end, the important thing to say is that Lent is a way of preparing for Easter, it’s not an end in itself, and so what we do, or refrain from doing, ought to be getting us ready for Easter in some way, even if just generally by making us better people. That’s one of the many ways in which Lent is not like Ramadan; yes, there’s an ostensible similarity, but in fact they are very different. And the most basic difference is precisely that; Lent is only a preparation, whereas the fast of Ramadan is an end in itself, part of Prophet Mohammed’s revelation. A Muslim doesn’t fast in Ramadan to get ready for the festival of Eid at the end, quite the reverse, the festival of Eid only developed to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The Ramadan fast is, Muslims believe, commanded by God, and no other justification for it is necessary; it doesn’t have to mean anything, or symbolise anything (though commentators have long offered interpretations of what it does mean) it just is, the will of God, and that’s it.
Now some Christians have treated Lent a bit like that; as an end in itself. Perhaps it’s a particularly Anglican thing, but the tradition has been for parishes to put on extra activities during Lent, special sermons from visiting preachers, extra services, study groups, Lent courses, and so on. There’s been a tendency to think the clergy should put on more stuff for the people to do, and so “doing Lent properly” has been something pious Anglicans have talked about. All that encourages us to feel that Lent is an important part of the Christian year that should be observed with piety, whereas the truth is that it is not that at all, but simply a time of preparation for observing the fundamental festival, the festival of the resurrection of Our Lord at Easter. We keep Lent in the ways that we do in order to be better prepared to celebrate the Easter festival.
We’ve already mentioned Ramadan, so that brings to mind our first traditional aspect of Lent, fasting. Now there is a good case for saying that the earliest fast at this time of the year was precisely an imitation of Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness, about which we heard in this morning’s gospel. That seems to have been what Egyptian Christians at Alexandria were doing in the early fourth century, though their fast was following on from the celebration of the baptism of Jesus at Epiphany, rather than leading up to Easter, so not strictly Lent. You can see the logic of that, the gospels say that after Jesus was baptized by John he went out into the wilderness for forty days. In fact, St.Mark’s gospel, which was particularly revered at Alexandria, where the church was supposed to have been founded by St.Mark, says that Jesus went into the wilderness straight away after his baptism; the immediacy is emphasised. So, if you’re taking the liturgy as giving you a sort of historical tour of the life and work of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense for the imitation of Jesus’s fast in the wilderness to follow on from the celebration of his baptism. So that’s what happened at Alexandria, but quite soon, after the great Council of Nicea in fact, the fast was established for churches everywhere as the six weeks before Easter, and so then the idea of imitating Jesus became just one of the themes of Lent.
But whatever it was about, the early Lent always involved fasting. In fact our Christian ancestors were really very keen on fasting, and it was a normal part of the Christian life in the early centuries. If you were really concerned about something you would approach God with prayer and fasting, and whenever you were getting ready for a big occasion, you would prepare by fasting. Now there’s perhaps just a slight hangover from the ancient Israelite notion of ritual purity there, so you need to get yourself into a pure and holy state before coming into the presence of God. And alongside that is a rather unchristian idea of the impurity of the body, of the dangerous nature of material things, so that the material has to be fought against if you’re to be a spiritual person (which isn’t at all the teaching of Jesus) but, for whatever reason, fasting was quite normal.
So what do we mean by fasting? Well, what it meant to early Christians was pretty much what it means to Muslims now, no food or drink at all during a portion of the day (most simply, during the daylight hours). It shouldn’t surprise us that Islam has preserved something from early Christianity, because there’s a good deal in its practice that the Prophet Mohammed clearly took from the largely Christian environment in which he lived in the early 7th century, and because of the very prescriptive nature of the faith Islam has preserved some very ancient practices. So the modern Ramadan looks a lot like early Christian fasting. Now when the Lenten fast first began to be practised in Christianity, it was just two days before Easter, and obviously that could be two whole days and a night without any eating at all, ending with the joyful experience of the Easter Vigil, where you’d break your fast with the body of Christ. You were probably pretty light-headed from going without food for two days, so the impact of the Easter liturgy must have been terrific. But when the fast was extended to forty days, it clearly couldn’t be kept as one long fast, so it was forty daily fasts, like the twenty-eight daily fasts of Ramadan. One difference will have been that Muslim families have a celebratory meal every time they break their Ramadan fast, which is a joyous occasion, whereas the early Christians will never have adopted a celebratory tone in Lent. The whole mood of Lent is quite different from Ramadan.
But that total fasting at some point ceased to be the usual practice for Christians, and a much more varied picture emerged, where instead of taking nothing at all for a single day, people would abstain from particular foods for the whole of Lent. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church this has had the effect of creating a whole cuisine, because they have about 150 fast days in the year, so if you go into an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant you can ask for fasting food and they’ll know what you want; it’s vegan basically. Because Ethiopian Orthodox abstain from meat, fish and dairy products in all their fasts. The whole idea of having fish on Fridays, which many of our institutions still preserve, is from modern Roman Catholic practice of treating all Fridays as fast days on which meat is to be avoided. Historically, meat was usually avoided in Lent, but remember, until the twentieth century the poor would have had virtually no meat in their diet anyway. The modern Roman Catholic practice is to avoid meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, and to eat only moderately through the rest of Lent.
The keynote is simplicity. Fasting should mean eating simply. It’s curiously inappropriate to eat a cream tea in Lent for instance; technically it’s okay but its spirit is just wrong. Vegetarian, or indeed vegan food looks appropriate. We don’t have to do it every day, and you really shouldn’t fast on Sundays (because Sunday, being the day of resurrection, is always a celebration), but some simple meals, on a regular basis, will constitute fasting.
But why do we do it? Well, we’re not at war with our bodies and their desires, but as our Eastern Orthodox brethren know well, our bodies and souls are intimately linked, and so our souls are affected by what happens to our bodies. Therefore, the physical discipline of eating simply contributes to spiritual discipline. Living more simply, less self-indulgently, is spiritually good for us, and is obviously something that it is good for Christians to aspire to in a hugely self-indulgent society. It is good for the planet, but it’s also good for our fellow human beings, because if we’re less greedy and wasteful then there’s more to go around, and the world’s extraordinary bounty can benefit more people. The fact is that gluttony and greed are very effective at separating us from God, and so spiritually it’s a really good idea to try to deal with them. Fasting helps in that.
A more rigorous fast should also bring us into some sort of solidarity with those who are habitually hungry in the world. If we feel the pangs of hunger during Lent it is simply easier for us to empathise with those who feel them involuntarily every day. And a modern take on fasting is to suggest that you give the money you would have spent on eating more to some charity feeding the poor. You could actually give it to the St Peter’s Lunch Club, for instance, but obviously Oxfam would also be appropriate. But fasting should at least help us understand the plight of the poor, both close at hand, and in the wider world. That’s just spiritually good for us. In the end we absolutely don’t fast because we want to lose weight or look better, but because it’s the right thing to do. Fasting is not dieting, or a regime, it’s a way of exercising a bit of self-discipline with a view to being spiritually better in readiness for Easter. Fasting recognises the fact that our souls and bodies are intimately linked, so the way we live obviously affects our soul. And fasting is an act of solidarity with the hungry of the world, when developing our solidarity is a pressing need in an individualistic world. If we can feel the plight of the poor better, then we shall better appreciate Christ’s victory over death and evil, which is a victory for all humanity, but which is particularly sweet for the poor, the hungry, the outcast and the marginalised.
SERMON FOR LENT 2 : PRAYER
So last week we thought about fasting, and what that might actually look like in our context, which was rather prompted by the Gospel account of Jesus spending forty days fasting in the desert. Now today we don’t have nearly as neat a connection with our Gospel reading, but I hope you’ll forgive me, because today I want to talk about prayer, which is not just important in Lent, but is frankly fundamental to the Christian life. Actually we might find more about prayer in today’s readings than is immediately obvious, but more of that later.
Today’s opening prayer asked that “by the prayer and discipline of Lent we may enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings”, and that emphasises the centrality of prayer to what we are doing in Lent. If we do nothing else, we ought to pray a bit more, or a bit better, in Lent. The opening prayer says that we do that so that we enter better into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings, but it’s really more basic than that, we should pray more because that’s actually what Christians should do.
I don’t know whether you noticed, but the Church of England was at the centre of a minor Twitter-storm a week or so ago, because after it became known that Dr Richard Dawkins had suffered a stroke, a message was put up on the Church of England website asking people to pray for him. Dawkins’s supporters were offended and outraged, because they thought either that this was a sarcastic message, or that it was an unwanted intrusion; that somehow Dawkins was being “trolled” in internet terms. Well the C of E’s communications spokesman, Fr Arun Arora, went on the radio to talk about this, and patiently explained that no this was not a snide or sarcastic message, but entirely serious, and then gently said that, sorry, praying is what Christians do. Nobody is trying to convert anybody or win any arguments by doing this, it is simply that Christians pray. When faced by misfortune happening to ourselves, or those whom we love, or to people whom we happen to know, or to people whom we don’t know, but have heard about, the natural thing for us to do as Christians is to pray. I was really impressed by Fr Arora’s steadiness under fire, but it was very obvious that the interviewer wanted to try and see prayer in mechanistic terms. If the Church hadn’t wanted this to have the effect of annoying Dawkins, then what was it meant to achieve? There was the suggestion that perhaps the Church was wishing for a particular result from this episode; no-one on the radio was vulgar enough to suggest that we meant that Dawkins should become aware of his creaturely dependence on God through this episode, but that was hanging in the air. The interviewer wanted the prayer to have a purpose. Fr Arora didn’t mention Jesus’s command to pray for those who persecute you, (very wisely because he would have then been diverted onto a debate over whether what Dawkins does to Christians is indeed persecution) but the point is very clear; our Lord doesn’t expect us merely to pray for the people we love, or even the people we like. We are to pray not only for those whom we dislike, but for those who are actively unkind to us; after all, he prayed for the men who were crucifying him. And we aren’t to pray that they stop being mean to us, or to pray that bad things happen to them. That’s not it. Our prayer is not to be used to achieve some result, it’s just prayer, offered out of concern for the person or situation. It’s curious that some people might be offended by the idea that you are praying for them, offended by the idea that you might just wish them well, but that’s what we do as Christians.
I thought that episode was a rather timely reminder. It was a reminder that the world doesn’t really understand prayer, but then neither do we a lot of the time. If we’re honest, a lot of Christians tend to think of prayer first of all as asking for stuff, trying to get things to happen or not happen, which is to think in exactly the same mechanistic terms as the man on the radio. Yes, sometimes it is that, but not always, and not principally. Because of course we can never pray to change God’s mind, he’s omniscient, so he knows what is best, for us and for the whole of his creation. And frankly, he doesn’t intervene arbitrarily in the world anyway, that’s not the sort of God he is. He is precisely consistent and reliable, and so arbitrary intervention would be out of character. Mostly, what happens in the world is a consequence of the way the world is, the way God has set it up. What scientists call the laws of physics are the internal consistency of God’s creation, and he doesn’t just set them aside, because he respects the integrity of the universe that he has created. We don’t always understand the way things happen in the world, and of course not everything is predictable, but much of what concerns us is in the end just the way the world is. Sometimes of course what we are praying for is to do with the actions of human beings, and that’s a different case, perhaps our prayer may sway them in some way that’s not clear. There is definitely a sense in which prayer for an individual makes a difference if that person knows that they are being prayed for. Many people who have been ill, Helen among them, have said to me how much it meant to know that they were encircled by prayer, and how helpful that was. Now they may not have been cured, but the cloud of prayer that surrounded them may very well have made them feel better; that has certainly been my experience.
Often, though, our prayer is about aligning ourselves with the will of God, and creating in ourselves the will for good. Because if we pray for something that is really unlikely to happen, the corollary of our prayer is a prayer that we may be prepared to accept the result that we don’t want. And if we simply pray about something, in an open-ended way, then what we are hoping for is precisely that we should find our way to God’s answer. It should be clear that open-ended prayer is the way to go in many cases, and in fact it’s how we naturally pray around matters that don’t concern us directly. Yes, obviously we pray for peace in Syria, for instance, but that’s a very general prayer, and we don’t pray for specific things to happen to bring in that result. Most of us, I guess, realise that we don’t understand enough about the situation to know what to pray for. We often simply pray for Syria and Iraq, with no more detail than that, and as we do that we are leaving ourselves open to begin to understand through prayer what might actually be God’s will for that situation. Prayer is exactly aligning ourselves with God’s will. The whole business of asking for things in prayer is what we call intercessory prayer, and we do it at every Mass, and I dare say most of us do it on other occasions as well, in our private prayers.
And that’s worth stressing, because of course the intercessions we make (or which are made on our behalf) in church on a Sunday morning are by no means the sum total of our prayers, or even of our intercessions. Because our Sunday worship is precisely that, worship, which is in the Christian tradition a collective activity, engaged in alongside others, in the name of the Church, with an ordained or authorized person leading it. It is an activity based on prayer, but worship is not merely prayer, and we have plenty of other occasions for prayer that are better and more congenial than collective worship on Sunday. Most of us were brought up to say some sort of prayer when we get to our place in church before the service starts, and to say another prayer when the clergy have left at the end of the service. Those are occasions of pure prayer, either side of our collective worship, and that rather points up the difference, because before and after worship we are bringing ourselves into the presence of God, and we’re doing it on our own, it’s you and God.
And of course it’s important to remember that intercession is not at all the only sort of prayer, and that prayer before and after worship helps us to remember that because it isn’t normally intercession, we’re not asking for things from God. Obviously I can’t talk at length about the different sorts of prayer right now, as we’d be here all day, but let me just say a little. Look for instance in today’s Gospel; Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children” and so on. That’s a prayer, yes it ‘s formally addressed to the city rather than to God, but it is obviously actually spoken in the presence of God, and is a lament over the city before God. A lament is a perfectly valid sort of prayer, and frankly one that the urban Christian probably ought to be quite familiar with. Laments are quite appropriate for Lent. So, of course, is confession, saying sorry to God for things that we have done wrong. Yes, we do that in worship, but it’s also a profoundly personal thing which we should do more frequently. We should also thank God in prayer during Lent as well as at other times; thanksgiving is a correct attitude for us to adopt before God because if we say thanks to God we are remembering our dependence on him and that’s really important.
That’s a little about the content of prayer, but obviously there are different methods as well, which we can’t go into now. I’d just say that it’s all about finding your way into the presence of God, which is what our first reading today was about. Abraham was given a frightening, awe-inspiring glimpse of the presence of God as he slept. Now it doesn’t have to be as terrifying as that, but the deeper we get into prayer, the more serious it gets. God is after all a tremendous mystery, infinite and vastly beyond us, and yet deeply within us, and coming into that presence is never going to be trivial. Wise people have said that ninety per cent of the time we spend in prayer is actually spent in getting ready for real prayer, and that’s certainly true. We can use meditation, or contemplation, to approach God, we can use formal methods, and set patterns, or we can just use silence; but however we do it, it’s the most valuable time we ever spend, it’s the most worthwhile thing we do. Because prayer is simply what we do as Christians, talking with God, or rather trying to listen to him, and Lent is a good time to check up on what we’re doing and try to do a bit more or a bit better.
SERMON FOR LENT 3
We’ve thought about fasting and prayer over the past two weeks, and I hope that has been some help. Now I want to turn to the third traditional element in Lenten discipline, study. In the liturgy we talk about “study of your holy word”, and certainly the study of the scriptures is part of it, but it’s wider than that, study in general is a valuable activity, and like the others, it’s worthwhile at any time, but it’s particularly good to remind ourselves of that in Lent.
This is quite a challenge for me because I’m one of those people for whom study is just natural. I like to find things out, to look things up, to chase down meanings and to analyse things. That’s my natural disposition, I’ll read something and it’ll send me off to check some fact, or try to work out some influence or antecedent. For instance, the other day I was suddenly struck by how similar the basic concept of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” is to Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, well, more than the basic concept, they have several features in common. But I started chasing it, and looking things up; I suppose the striking thing is that Daphne Du Maurier didn’t think it was so similar. Anyway, not important, just an example. Another, I met a man the other day who had written a book about Victorian Gothic architecture in Bombay; a subject I’m really interested in, but know nothing about; I had to find his book, and buy it, and will read it when it comes. That’s how I am. All of which is just to explain that I find it hard to commend study, because it seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world, but I’ve spent most of my adult life being told that I’m strange, which I accept readily.
Now, as I said, I want to emphasize that it isn’t only studying the scriptures that is valuable, in Lent, or whenever. There is an attitude that you sometimes meet among Muslims that holds that only the holy Quran is worth studying, because it contains in itself all truth, and anything in any other book that isn’t represented in the Quran can’t be true, and so isn’t worth knowing, or even worse is actively wrong. You can see the logic, that the scriptures are divinely inspired and God is himself the source of all truth and knowledge, but Christians haven’t often had so absolutist a view that would exclude all other knowledge, because Christianity inherited a civilisation that was itself full of learning, and absorbed it, and proceeded to develop learning and study. We should always remember that scientific method is entirely a product of Christian culture; so rigorous scholarship and intellectual enquiry are not just compatible with Christianity, they are actually bound up with Christian civilisation. There is a minority tradition in Christianity that says nothing can be learnt of God outside of the scriptures, but that is not the Anglican way, nor indeed the way of most of the Christian world, across most of Christian history. Thirty years ago a friend of mine was involved in editing a book called “Part III; the Christian Testament Since the Bible” which didn’t have the success it deserved, but which illustrates the point. It was just an anthology of great Christian writings, but there is no doubt that people will have learnt more about God from reading one or other of those extracts. Someone will have got something from Martin Luther King, someone else will have got something from C.S.Lewis. Different people will have got illumination from Therese of Lisieux as from Teresa of Avila.
It was all worth reading, and indeed studying. Because of course all reading is not necessarily study, and study is not necessarily reading. We can study works of art, without any words being involved, as in the fascinating series of artworks making up a set of Stations of the Cross in London just now. I’d recommend that (more details in the notices) but I’d also recommend just going and spending time in front of great works of art; we are incredibly lucky here, we have free galleries, so you can just walk in to the National Gallery or the Tate, and just spend some time there without it costing you a penny. You can learn about God, about the world, about humanity, about yourself, from a work of art. And that’s the point. I’m an enthusiast, so I was happy to pay for an exhibition of pictures by Frank Auerbach the other day that I didn’t know whether I’d like or not, but actually you don’t have to do that. You can just walk in and sit down in front of a great picture and let it work its magic. If you go to the Wallace Collection, behind Selfridges, there are hundreds of pretty things, but there are also some stunning, moving, works of art, like Rembrandt’s tender portrait of his son, or Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time, or Velazquez’s ravishing portrait of a lady, all in the same room. They don’t all speak to everyone, but if you give it a bit of time one of them might just say something to you. That’s study. And it’s perfectly legitimate as part of our Christian life.
I suppose I want to say that study involves a bit more engagement with something than just having experienced it, so some thought or contemplation needs to be involved, but I also want to say that the experience in itself is valuable and the beginning of learning. With music, for instance, there’s not so much for most of us to think about, but the experience itself can begin to open doors for us, engage our emotions, lift our spirits. And perhaps dance is the same, you see it, you hear the music, it arouses your emotions, and you begin to think, to wonder, to contemplate. In that we begin to learn, about life, about humanity, perhaps about God. I think we get more out of those experiences the more we know, and that’s where the study comes in; the longer you spend on a work of art, the more rewarding it’s likely to be. Simply thinking about it, looking at it for longer, listening to it a second or third time, and learning a bit more about it. We don’t have to get all geeky and know the details of Beethoven’s life or Dylan’s discography, but actually some of those details may illuminate things we didn’t notice for ourselves, and so help the art to speak to us.
But to return to God’s holy word, the crucial thing is to remember that we are to engage our brains. Yes, it’s great just picturing a scene from the gospels, and praying deeply about that, that’s what we call contemplative prayer, but that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the gospel. We can learn so much more by taking some time to think about the text, maybe work out some of the difficult bits, read what the Christian tradition has said about it, or what contemporary commentators think it might be saying today. So, let’s just look at today’s Gospel. It’s not actually a passage that is completely easy to grasp at first hearing; it’s a bit hard to see what it’s about, particularly when it’s divorced from its context.
So, context first. We don’t absolutely need to know this, because there is something to be gained from the passage anyway, but knowing the context helps us to get more out of it. So, the conversation occurs when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s just spoken about interpreting the signs of the times. That makes the story of the Galileans being killed on Pilate’s orders when they were worshipping in the Temple rather pertinent to a group of Galileans who were heading for the Temple. They say that tourism in Paris has fallen by 40% since the attacks last year; well you wouldn’t blame a Galilean rabbi for putting off a visit to the Temple when the occupying forces had just killed Galileans worshipping there. So the context helps us to understand how menacing this news is. A bit of study also reminds us that the phrase “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” is meant to be deeply shocking; the Temple worked on a system of blood-sacrifices, but it was a location of the most profound holiness and would be defiled by human blood; the Temple is desecrated by this outrage. So there is a shocking desecration of the Temple, and a natural disaster, the fatal collapse of the tower at Siloam, which since our knowledge of the context tells us that Jesus has just been talking about interpreting the signs of the times, awakens thoughts of the end of the world, but that’s not what Jesus means at all. He’s talking about recognising the crisis in Israel’s affairs. That much is made clear by the rather sinister parable of the fig tree which doesn’t bear fruit, but is given one last chance. Jesus is the gardener giving God’s ancient people their last chance; how do we know that? Look again, the fig tree is planted in a vineyard! It’s a commonplace of the Old Testament that Israel is like God’s vineyard. They’ve not borne the fruit that God requires, and we all know what that means, lives of mercy and justice, doing good deeds, and so Jesus going to Jerusalem is to give them one last chance to repent and bear fruit. But of course the dramatic tension of the story is somewhat reduced by the fact that we know that they will reject Jesus, and of course St.Luke, and his audience, knew more than that; for them, the glaring truth which is not so obvious to us, but is revealed by a little study, was that in AD 70, after the great Jewish Revolt, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and indeed Jerusalem was completely laid waste, and all semblance of Jewish nationhood was extinguished. Only a generation after Jesus’s words the crisis in Israel’s affairs is complete, and their destruction follows. Scholarship has demonstrated that Luke wrote after AD 70, and so his knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem informs what he writes.
Now obviously there are things in that Gospel passage that reveal themselves to us without much effort, like Jesus’s pointing out that the victims of those disasters weren’t being punished, and that’s an important message for us to grasp. Terrible things can happen to innocent people, because that’s just the way the world is, you don’t get what you deserve. That’s an important, and straightforward, thing to take away from this Gospel. But I hope we’ve seen that just a bit of research, and a bit of thought, a bit of study, in short, can illuminate far more. Study helps us to see more, and I hope helps us to see that there are always multiple meanings to take from a sacred text; it’s not so much that study helps us to see what it “really” means, as that it helps us to see the richness and complexity of meanings, and that helps us to get more out of the scripture ourselves. For finding what scripture says to us, in our context, here and now, is the crucial point; just as studying art or literature enables us to sense something of God, so that’s a personal response, a part of our personal journey through the wilderness towards God.
Fr. Henry Everett