My eyes have seen thy salvation

Reflection for 4rd Sunday of Lent

John 9;1-42

This Sunday is the midpoint of Lent and the Gospel reading is the sixth of St John’s signs. A man who is born blind is healed by Jesus. This is not merely a miracle of messianic healing but a sign that all humanity from birth, is in a fallen condition suffering a spiritual blindness requiring the healing by God. In the Prologue of this gospel we are told that “life and light” are the primary attributes, Jesus “the Word of God” brings. As the Lord increasingly meets conflict on his way to Jerusalem, it is becoming clearer that his message is that He is the light that enables the eyes of the soul to see.

Eustache Le Sueur, Christ Healing the Blind Man, 1645
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Thinking of Jesus the “light of the world,” I am always amused how in many TV dramas, church buildings are frequently festooned with lighted candles even when the building is empty! It seems that the familiar use of candle light is misunderstood as a decoration rather than a sign of Christ’s presence with us in the liturgy, being set on the Altar, or flanking the Gospel procession or at the Font and so on. In worship, the flaming candle signifies the light of Christ shinning out in the darkness of the world, while the gospel reminds us, “the darkness comprehends it not” [John 1;5].

In Lent we are being drawn into the dark struggle that would surround Jesus as he enters his passion and death. So that we can understand just a little the struggle between light and darkness as it attacks everyone, but is focused as it grips Judas the disciple who sold his master for pieces of silver. The mind of Ciaphas, the High priest who uses every wicked means to falsely convict Jesus with dishonest witnesses at the trial, and the volatile crowd who at first hail the Lord with their Hosannas and then condemn him with their shouts of crucify, crucify. Before all this takes place the man born blind is a sign of dark hearts and dead souls closed to divine illumination, deluded and confused unable to “see salvation” with the eyes of the holy man Simeon.

Tragically today the enemy of faith is a militant anti Christian propaganda sweeping through the heart of the Christian communities in the way that it had once swept through the Soviet Union causing Alexander Solzhenitsyn to warn his countrymen not to live by lies that cause people to become blind to truth and death to their souls. Jesus signalled this conflict many times, in familiar passages, “what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” [Matthew 16;26].

An even greater clue comes in the sixth Beatitude, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” [Matthew 5;8]. Having the light that overcomes blindness requires a pure heart, like pure water or a room that is swept clean. Impurity contaminates and causes a loss of any ability to see truth; it distorts self understanding, being blind to the beauty of God’s creation of men and women, or to the wonderful variety and history linking cultures that make up the human world. So as we descend into the madness and meaninglessness, a hell on earth without common sense, we can remind ourselves of [Proverbs 1;7], “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and only fools despise wisdom and instruction”.

Moreover, it is the Word of God himself who says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matthew 10;29]. Thus illumination of human blindness is a process of accepting that impurity that ends up destroying humanity, requiring healing by Christ the Light of the world. This teaching is repeated by the Apostle Paul whose mission is to enable his own converts to see God’s salvation with their own eyes, ending his most pastoral letters saying: “finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things” [Philippians 4;8].

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

My soul gasps for thee as a thirsty land [Ps.143;6]

Reflection for 3rd Sunday of Lent

John 4;5-42 and Revelation 7;17ff.

Few of us will experience chronic physical thirst. We only see at times of earthquakes, wars and famines, our fellow human beings gasping for water in a way that was a common experience in earlier ages when water could be a rare commodity.

The theme of thirsting is present in the scriptures where events take place in the arid wilderness of the Middle East Moses gifting water to the stranded Hebrew people, or Elijah craving water in the desert, in the same way Jesus too, in the reflection for this week, travelling through Samaria meeting a local woman at Jacob’s well, ignores conventions saying, “give me a drink”. Every episode in the gospel is given for meditation, as in this case not only is the Lord dealing with a Samaritan woman’s life at a very deep and personal level, he is given a chance to discourse on his own understanding that he is the giver of life giving water for everyone including this Samaritan woman. The incident must have been well known In Christian tradition, for she was given the name “Photina” at her baptism and her feast day is at this time of the year, commemorating her martyrdom on March 20th.

Manuel Panselinos, Photina the Samaritan in Protata, 1290-1310,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Only after the meeting with Photina, do the disciples arrive with food and the Lord says to them and of course to us, “I have food to eat of which you do not know (…). My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work”. [John 4;32-34] All of this points in the direction of two other passages. First, this meeting at Jacobs Well, anticipates the last words of Jesus from the cross, where he has revealed the utmost extent of his physical suffering, which some may have a little experience of in a care home or hospice when the task of moistening the lips of a dying relative is required. “I thirst” speaks also from the depths of the Lord’s exhausted soul and outpouring of divine love that had featured in the High priestly prayer [John 17]; for all who follow him in the arid world in which the devil prowls around. In this pain Jesus fulfilling the scriptures cries again, “I thirst.” The thirst is of a body and soul yearning for truth, wholeness, peace and love.

Christian devotion during Lent is a journey into the mystery of this suffering love and death of the Son of God. What does it mean that we are lead beside “still waters” that we shall “no longer hunger or thirst”? Why was this suffering required? But above all to arose in our own souls the thirst for the life of God in the dryness of our own lives. It is by looking into the madness and disfigurement of our godless world and how we participate in its disorder, by sleep walking avoiding confrontation thereby dulling the soul’s thirst for God’s kingdom. We turn to Christ because He has turned to us. He invites us to participate in his life for the world and to become that great multitude for whom he prayed.

The encounter at Jacob’s Well leads us to the second passage of life beyond the cross written by the mystic theologian in the last book of the New Testament. The vision of the faithful, “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches, crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” [Revelation 7;9–11] This hope and vision is the cause of the deep longing and thirst of our souls for the baptismal promise that we shall “neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. [Revelation 7;17]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Renew a Right Spirit Within Me

Reflection for 2nd Sunday of Lent

John 3;1-17 and Matthew 15;21-28

March arrives and the beginning of a new spring. Blossom is about to appear with spring flowers and the sound of garden machinery. Yet last year was not easy with heat and lack of water, pests and diseases, but most gardeners, hoping for a good outcome, are ready for battle to commence again. If only the same determination would drive Christians to get to grips with the afflictions that assault the human soul! We observe Lent, the springtime of the soul, determined to make spiritual progress, identifying with the persistence of the Canaanite woman who knew her need for help, never gave up in obtaining it [Matthew 15;21]. Her aim and ours is summed up in familiar words “create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me” [Psalm 51;10].

Jean Germain Drouais: The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ (1764),
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We are taught in the book of Genesis that mankind is made in the image and likeness of God – not because we have eyes and legs but because we have souls in which the image of God can take root. A right spirit requires an active soul to enable our humanity to respond to the Spirit. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3;6.].

Nicodemus is an important figure, who although a leader of the Jews and a thinking man, comes to the Lord, also asking for spiritual guidance. He had always thought that it was possible to achieve godliness by keeping religious rules and regulations. But some doubts must have entered his mind, forcing him to come secretly at night asking the teacher from God for guidance. He is given an answer that sounded ridiculous. Nicodemus, Jesus said, “You must be born again!” He departs thinking that a second physical birth is nonsense. Others will also misunderstand this challenge to be reborn, so Jesus begins to give instruction that will become the way forward for the early church. Renewal or rebirth is by the water of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the start of the religious life preached by the Apostles with the promise that the journey will end in a full relationship with the Holy Trinity and the restoration of humanity united in Christ.

Throughout Lent we will constantly be reminded that rebirth is a constant focus of every Christian soul, the goal of faith and a continual process of personal transfiguration. In baptism we drown the life that does not seek God and receive the gift of the Spirit that makes possible the regeneration of the “new heart” and “steadfast spirit”.

At the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, John the Baptist recognises that Jesus is the “lamb of God” promised to Abraham. The Apostles come to see this too when their eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was by then one of the Jerusalem disciples, who had taken a long time to disperse his mental dilemmas. Finally he is forced into the open, attempting at first to defend Jesus at the trial before the Jewish Council. His efforts fail but he has shown his convictions and his rebirth had begun and was bearing fruit as he joined Joseph of Arimathea in taking responsibility for the burial of Jesus. Nicodemus would soon be baptised by St. Peter, thrown out of the Jewish Council, expelled from the Holy City and his former friends to become a new person born again within the Church as an heir of eternal salvation.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Lay Up Treasures in Heaven

Reflection for Lent

Matthew 6;19–21

Lent is our opportunity to renew our lives, starting with an inner transformation, or in traditional language – our souls.Lent invites us to self examination, to see where our treasure really lies.

Angelos AkotantosTzim78, CC BY-SA 4.0​

Our Lord firmly teaches “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And although recent events – Covid pandemic – the conflict in Ukraine – have highlighted the shallowness and fragility of the Western cultures of consumption, and affluence, for many that has revealed that our treasure lies in material things, in the knowledge that we have the money to buy a new car long before the present one begins to rust. We eat well, with food on the table, and, as often as not, wine to accompany it, that our finances will not be unduly strained! Advertising in this season invites us to fly out to the States or Australia to visit friends and relatives, or take a bargain holiday in the sun. Yet this life style brings grave risks with it – broken marriages, stress-related illnesses, dependence on alcohol and smoking, people who wake up in the morning and reach for the gin bottle to start the day, because they need a prop even to start the day – and the sheer emptiness and waste of it all.

I have heard more than once, comments such as – “when my husband lost his job, I lost most of my friends” – that reveals something of the sheer nastiness of so many lives dedicated to the acquisition of money, and the power that is perceived to go with it.

It is so hard for the Christian message to take any root in lives given up to materialism. People who knock on doors collecting for the charity Christian Aid and other charities all too often come back with the same story – it’s the poor who give generously, it’s the rich who slam the door in their faces. Beneath the surface of materialism lurks meanness of spirit, pride, greed and selfishness. And the problem for us western Christians is that it doesn’t take much for us too to be sucked into this way of life, and, for all our protestations, for materialism, possessions, and the things of this world, to become our gods, because it is all around us, promoted in the media as the mark of successful human living penetrating the mindset within our own families.

But this is all nonsense for the Christian. We have to stop colluding with the way of the world. Jesus our Lord was born an outcast, lived an outcast, consorted with the dregs of society, died an outcast, but rose victorious and lives in glory forever. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter a scrap whether you die with one pound or a million in the bank; it does matter where you’re going to spend eternity, in the presence of God, or, in a vivid image from the Gospels, looking in at the feast (Matthew 25;1-13) and knowing there’s no way you’re ever going to be allowed in, because you simply weren’t prepared.

Lent is a time to take stock in the gospel words – “where is your treasure”? It is the supreme season of the Christian Year where we should stop running away, and stop deluding ourselves that everything is fine. To adapt what Saint Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, make these things your way of life.” [Phil 4;8]

The trap is to succumb to the false gods of this world, whispering in your ear that you’ll never live up to this standard, so you might as well carry on as before. Lent is not simply a time to take stock, it is a time to turn away from the way of the world, from the emptiness of materialism and greed and the complacency that says “I’m doing my best” and turn again to Christ, a time to “rend your hearts” and ask God to make them clean again. This he can, and he will do, but each of us have to want it. Do you?

Fr. Edward Bryant


Reflection for Quinquagesima Sunday

Luke 8;31-43 and Matthew 17;1-9

We sense today the sadness and uncertainty of many ordinary Christians who seem to be vaguely aware that their faith is marginalized and that almost everything is so human focused that a blindness exists about the deep Judeo/Christian tradition and collective wisdom upon which we once relied, resulting in a massive poverty in understanding the religious mind and a boredom with ideas about prayer and worship.

A century ago, T. E. Hulme observed, “we have been penetrated by our enemies.” This past month we have an example of this as the governing body of the Church of England has been attempting to gender neutralise “God the Father” saying it is offensive to modern people, most of whom already know nothing about the prayer that Jesus Christ, who called God “my Father,” graciously gave to his disciples. At the heart of our Christian faith is the search for union with God, called the doctrine of Deification. This has a long history and deep roots from earliest times, but has been forgotten or neglected in our day but as we see in the gospel passages will lead our journey in the weeks before Easter.

Reflecting on Jesus Christ in this human world, the fundamental question for us is, what is the meaning of my life and what does Jesus Christ bring to me? For many today the purpose of life is to attain the maximum happiness, health or wealth, frequently resulting in blindness to almost everything else. But St Peter gave another answer, it was “to become partakers of the divine nature [2 Peter 1:4]. That belief we call “deification” is repeated throughout the New Testament.

El Greco, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Entering the weeks of Lent, preparing for the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, we first face the issue of human blindness and misunderstanding afflicting us all, just as it had the apostles. In Luke’s gospel they are taken aside by Jesus to explain his going to Jerusalem, “those things written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. He will be delivered to the Gentiles, will be mocked and insulted, spat upon, scourged and killed; and the third day He will rise again. But they understood none of these things”. [Luke 18;31–43] Then immediately follows the miracle of a blind man whose faith opens his eyes, “he received his sight, and followed Jesus, glorifying God”. [Luke 18;43]

St Peter was well aware of this blindness that veiled the vision of those closest to the Lord, and wrote about it in his second letter. “Divine power to the life of goodness and knowledge of God’s glory has made possible the precious promise of being “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1–4]. This is probably the most important passage for Christians to grasp, together with the experience Peter and the others had on the mount of transfiguration. It was the key to everything the New Testament set out to reveal. Why had Jesus been born as a man, why his conflicts with authorities and his terrible death? What does it mean to be part of this, “one in him and he in us”? [John 17;20-21] Witnessing the divine glory of the Transfiguration was for the Apostles finally, a key after receiving the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, when their eyes were opened to what the Fathers called the experience of Deification.

Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration is the background [Matthew 17;1–9]. “Lord, it is good for us to be here” says Peter, but they are overwhelmed with fear and still blind to the meaning of the glory they had witnessed and the future glory they would only understand after the resurrection when their eyes were opened. It is the task of Christian spirituality to understand the doctrine of Deification and to live by it. In fact it is the main goal of the Christian life to live in union with the God who is the source and meaning of all creation. St Paul used this same language when writing to the Ephesians, “God has made known his purpose which he set forth to unite all things in Christ” [1:9-10].

Or again in the author of Hebrews, “we have become partakers of Christ if we hold confidence, steadfast to the end”.[3;14] This mystery of Union with God was a constant theme of the Apostles Peter, Paul and John and it became for the earliest centuries the essence of the Christian spiritual life. This search for union with God has a long history and deep roots from earliest times, but has been forgotten or neglected in our day and needs to be at the heart of these next weeks.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

“What is received depends upon the mode of the receiver.” Thomas Aquinas

Reflection for Sexagesima Sunday

Luke 8;4-15 and Matthew 6;25-34

The pre-Lent season is a conditioning time for Christians. It is preparing hearts and understanding as Thomas Aquinas said: to receive the unique mind of Christ. This is exactly the purpose of the parable of the Sower given to the disciples by Christ, teaching that he is the one who sows, and they who receive the Word are the soil. We may call this the parable of the soil, in which the receivers respond to the word in many different ways.

Fikos, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Some are deaf and cannot discern the wisdom of God; others are blind and cannot see the illumination that Christ brings to souls and some overwhelmed. The Lord said; “Only some know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that seeing they may not see”. [Luke 8;10] This teaching especially today, takes aim at the condition that preoccupies us all who become “choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, bringing no fruit to maturity” [verse 14]. There are many good and honest hearts and minds that are already prepared to become the good ground for the sower to cast his seed and we hope to participate in this discipline. But how can men and women get so choked up with the needs of their own welfare and rights and with such a preoccupation with personal health to just fall away?

Hardly a day passes without a news bulletin in which obsession with healthcare is not mentioned. Yet in the other gospel reading from Matthew [6;25] Jesus tells his disciples “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” There can be few sayings that are more difficult to receive, in these times of hardship. Financial and social concerns for the poor, military threats and political incompetence surround us all and the ordinary person feels anxious and unable to know what to do. We Christians remember that the Lord did not minimize the suffering of ordinary people, and gave this teaching to his small band of disciples because he knew they were living among many enemies and to survive they needed to have trust in the face of anxiety.

This is why he said “blessed are the pure in heart” for these would, by trust in God, be uncontaminated by the world. “The pure in heart” cannot be simultaneously attached to two masters, the earthly and the heavenly for that is the root of severe anxiety and will cause them to fall away. Whatever the people of faith have to deal with, they must not try to survive alone. It is increasingly important not to live in isolation, but to seek each other out and to build the unique fellowship of Christ, sharing individual gifts. Today we have the tools to keep together no matter how far we are away from each other; we must keep the mind of Christ and his teaching clearly formed within us if we are to be disciples.

The key to these dilemmas was seen by a second century unknown writer in a beautiful letter to Diognetus, well worth reading in full. He describes how Christians are called to a unique communion, living pure and ethical lives, in the world but not of the world. Being Christians in the world is like the soul is to the body. “They are not distinguished from the rest of mankind. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, yet are condemned. Put to death, and yet they are endued with life….”. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded in the body which is visible: so Christians are recognised as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible. These are quotations from chapters 5 and 6 but the rest can be found at: Diognetus.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

What will a man give in exchange for his soul?

Reflection for Septuagesima Sunday

Matthew 20;1–6 and Matthew 5;13–20.

This reflection was provoked by a message from my National Health Service. “Take care of your mental health with free therapy.” Mindfulness and mental health are a preoccupation today along with keeping exercised and eating the right food! Important as these are, it no longer recognises any concept of the soul. Jesus warns us to be concerned for, “what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul”? [Matt; 16;26] If we did not already know, it must now be obvious that Christians are surrounded by an altogether different anthropology with only the thinnest layer of Christian understanding, covering our national landscapes, and people believing the goal of life is only health and happiness. Within such cultures it is increasingly difficult not to be overwhelmed by attitudes that surround us. This year, the London School of Economics in the University of London, announced that it no longer tolerates the idea of Lent or Easter, reason enough for setting aside a time of separation in which like gardeners we prepare the ground for the planting of spiritual seed that nourishes the soul.

A degree of detachment from the surrounding culture is part of our preparation because too much involvement with the world’s thinking only converts us into greater worldliness. Christian anthropology underlines the entire Bible affirming that because we are made in the image of God, every person is more than just mind and body but also is endowed with the soul and it is the soul that regulates our interior disjointedness, and engages with the divine. The human soul and body are so interdependent, that by dissolving the soul as our cultures are happily engaged in, is destroying the mind and body and life with it. We must not ignore our higher spiritual nature, but respond to the call of Jesus, “blessed are those who thirst for righteousness,” and we do it this Sunday called Septuagesima by preparing the ground to sow the food for the soul.

Phillip Medhurst, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Our Church provides two passages to test our own ability to be disciples. Matthew 20;1–6 is part of the teaching Jesus gives to his disciples about the Kingdom of heaven in which they are co-workers in God’s vineyard. In the Kingdom life is not like life in the world with rewards and perks. Such things are irrelevant just as status and privilege have no place. Bonhoeffer in his book “Life together,” draws this out by discussing the Fellowship of Christ in which there is no status or strife, no discord which arise from the over activity of the ego. The Kingdom is enabled to escape the self-centredness of the ego by becoming the Body of Christ and his co-workers.

The other Gospel passage is from Matthew 5;13–20. This follows the Beatitudes, the great summary at the heart of the Lord’s own spiritual wisdom. Jesus says to his disciples, “you are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing,”[5;13] and “you are the light of the world” [14]. God’s gifts to his people of salt and light are like the gifts of the vineyard workers not just for themselves but for the growth and illumination of the Kingdom reflecting Christ’s light to illuminate others. This image was especially important when Jesus was making his way to his trial in Jerusalem, a city that no longer shone as a beacon of holiness but a sign of human weakness and tragedy.

Both passages are challenging our model as disciples of the Kingdom, essential steps prepare for the Lenten journey with our Lord that will follow during Lent. St. Thomas Aquinas whose feast was only a few days ago wrote “that which is received depends upon the mode of the receiver.”

In other words to participate in the journey with Christ will depend upon the condition each individual is in and what ability we will have to cope with the preconceptions that have taken root within us.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The “Gesimas”

Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness

Matthew 5;6
Reflections at the end of January

The atmosphere of Christian worship changes from January to February. It begins with the feast of “Candlemas” or the Meeting of the holy family and the child Jesus with Simeon and Anna in the Temple is one of the most dramatic liturgies. It is spectacular in the setting of the larger of our Church buildings with music and symbols, turning worshippers from the Nativity with new life to the sorrow and grief of the Cross. However it also signals a special pre-Lent season that begins with a Sunday called Septuagesima. In many traditions today, as a result of Roman Catholic revisions of 1969 this special season has been discontinued. It is thankfully preserved in the Nordic Catholic Church and it is my belief, that more and more who reflect on the troubles of the present times, should restore this special time and used again positively, if not if not already in use.

In England before the 1960’s, children although at first reduced to head scratching, were fascinated by Sundays called “the Gesimas”. They were excited to pronounce – Septuagesima Sunday, the seventy days before Easter, or Sexagesima, sixty days with Quinquagesima fifty days and even Quadragesima, the Sunday that followed Ash Wednesday and marked the first Sunday of Lent.

Apparently these special Sundays have their origin in 6th century Rome at a most difficult time for Pope Gregory the Great [590–604]. The city of Rome itself had been under siege from savage Barbarians and Goths, famine, earthquakes, pillage and corruption, all made this a really bad time. Pope Gregory knew the Eastern Churches already observed an eight week lent fast and believed that the Western Church and especially the clergy, needed to adopt a greater self discipline to cope with the difficulties. Four special Sundays were established; the Pope himself created and presided in each of the principal cathedrals of Rome. Masses were held, in order of status, in the four principal cathedrals; St. Lawrence, St’ Paul’s, St. Peters and last the Bishop of Rome’s Cathedral of St. John Lateran.

From missal originating from East Anglia, around 1320 [National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]

This pre-Lent season became part of the first English Book of Common Prayer created by the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549 after the Reformation. The calendar readings and prayers were based upon the prayers and readings of the ancient “Sarum Missal” which seems to have come to Canterbury with Pope Gregory’s mission led by St Augustine [AD 596-597].Those who still use the English Book of Common Prayer, especially in the United States will be very familiar with these Sundays and be pleased that Anglicans, who were received by Rome into the Ordinariate, have returned to using this pre-Lent tradition.

Apart from returning to the ancient usage that belongs to the experience of the Western Church, these special weeks can be revived in recognition of our struggle to keep a focused faith in the present world in what Bishop Roald Flemestad calls “life in the trenches”. Our Church is aware that our duty is to avoid sleepwalking through our present difficulties as many mainstream Churches are. By adopting again a set time before Lent using the liturgical colour blue as used by the NCC, could hopefully be a constant reminder of the challenges we Christians now face, not only in the western world but for our friends in Africa who today face even greater persecution.

The reasons given for the 1960 revisions were apparently that this pre-Lent period diminished the unity of Lent which focuses on the journey Christ made to the cross. I think the restoring the Gesima Sundays could become a special time before Lent in our own journey, focusing on ourselves as disciples and labourers of Christ’s vineyard, highlighting the requirements to be alert and wary, to have self control, fortitude and the defences against our spiritual and physical adversaries, in a way that Pope Gregory had wished in his own day. Not a bad theme for our present predicament and preparation for Lent itself.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

John 17;20-23

Does Christian Unity matter? It was William Temple, one of the more helpful Archbishop’s of Canterbury who said, “I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and regret that it does not exist.” If the Christian faith is about wholeness, about breaking down barriers, about the eradication of sin, then certainly Christian Unity matters, for divided churches give all the wrong signals to an indifferent or hostile world – how can people profess to serve the Prince of Peace, when they cannot make peace among themselves? Of course I am not saying that if there were but one Church in England, or any other country, then the unbelievers would flock to it, but I am saying that because we have all grown up to accept division as normal, then we can easily fail to see the damage it causes to the Gospel proclamation.

To be fair, a lot has been accomplished, maybe more than our grandfathers would have ever believed possible. The old hatreds have gone; many of the old suspicions have vanished. Yet, to be honest, most people are content with their local Church and would not want to have some other label attached to it. Groups like Churches Together, have done a lot to bring the divided Christians together, and to enabling groups of different traditions to understand and get to know more of each other. And there is nothing wrong with diversity, at least in this context – clearly in the New Testament – even in the early days, different local churches did things differently. What united them was a common faith in Jesus as the divine Lord and Saviour – in a sense everything else was secondary to that.

Mosaic, Monreale Cathedral [Sibeaster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In our generation we have come close once again to that situation, though with one significant difference, that intercommunion – sharing communion at the altar in other churches – remains a problem.

So the challenge as we again approach a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is this: Let us be passionate about Christian Unity – it really does matter – not least in days like the present when Christians face the greatest persecution in our history all over the world and when at home we are facing greater hostility.

Our Lord prayed that his followers would be one – and we affront him if we accept disunity as natural or inevitable. True Christian Unity is going to recognise diversity in worship, and also, perhaps more challenging, in ethical belief – yet some things like the creeds are essential for an orthodox Christians to believe lest they start to make things up for themselves. There are some things to be left in charity, to the individual conscience. Saint Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some”.

True Christian Unity is not going to ask Anglicans to worship like Baptists or Roman Catholics like Methodists. True Christian Unity is going to start from the point that we are all sinners, that it is humanity which has caused so many of the divisions in Christ’s Body, that it is displeasing to God, and it is going to require of us to whom so much has been given by our bountiful God a recognition that Christians of many different complexions are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it is going to require of us hearts that are open to learn and understand more of other traditions, it is going to require of us a commitment to God’s Kingdom in which all division is banished forever. Commitment to the cause of unity is laid upon us all, and it is a direct call from God himself to be doing all we can to break down the barriers that sin erects to divide the children God one from another.

Fr. Edward Bryant

My Soul Is Thirsty For God [Ps. 42; 2]

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

John 1;29-34

Psalm 42 speaks of a soul thirsting for God which may help our thinking as we journey with the themes of the Epiphany season. Very few people have ever experienced real thirst, but our ancestors certainly did not take water for granted. This year however, gardeners and farmers have reached the same conclusion that all life without water becomes thirsty because we have all struggled to keep our plants and crops alive during a hot year.

This year, the Feast of Epiphany falling on a weekday, the local Church may transfer the celebration to the nearest Sunday and then Sunday 8th or 15th.January they may observe the Lord’s baptism which in many ways is the crucial epiphany event starting the whole ministry of Jesus on earth.

Mural from the John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River
[David Bjorgen, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons]

How special it must be in the Holy Orthodox Churches to begin each New Year with the blessing of water, proclaiming water as the precondition of life itself. This not only is a reminder of the gift of water in creation, without which life on earth cannot exist, it also is a theme that underlines so much of what the Lord Jesus did and spoke about as he set about manifesting God’s purpose in his taking human flesh. The Baptism is importantly the gateway to the incarnate ministry of Jesus as he gathers his followers. The baptism manifests who Jesus was in signs, the traditional truths of the faith. For example that Jesus is the “lamb of God and Messiah” anticipated by the Hebrew Prophets, he “upon whom you see the Spirit descending… heaven like a dove” revealing the Trinity. “He baptises with the Holy Spirit …. is the Son of God.” [John 1;37-38] All these are manifestations of the incarnation, and with the first disciples we are invited to “Come and see.”

This theme of thirst for living water we see in events that follow in the gospel narratives themselves, (especially St. John), and the Sundays before Lent, water is ever present. At the wedding in Cana [John 2], so that the guests do not thirst, Jesus changes water into wine. Meeting Nicodemus [John 3], Jesus tells him to “be born of water and Spirit” without which he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. In [John 4;7ff] the Samaritan woman at the well asks for “the living water”. The disciples are called from the waters of Lake Tiberias to be “fishers of men”, and a healing takes place in the pool at the sheep gate in Jerusalem. This cannot be accidental because the implications for us who receive the Lord as Our Saviour, water and the Spirit are the agents of our own rebirth. We hear these gospel passages are like Nicodemus, thirsty for connection with the source of true life responding to their thirst for God and beginning the journey of rebirth by water and the Spirit. Our baptism and adoption as children of God is our beginning.

When the priest blesses the Baptismal water, he recalls “the gift of water to cleanse, nourish and sustain,” how God “leads the people of Israel through the Red Sea to freedom”. These are all signs of life that links us back to the gift of water in Creation itself, for that is the point at which we humans became disconnected from God and need to return by a re-birth. The Baptism of Jesus manifests the return to the purpose of life at Creation and to our own baptism, by which we become incorporated into the new Creation brought about by the incarnate Jesus Christ.

The world does not see how unconnected it really is to the source of true life. The prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 64;5] was well aware of the need for thirsting for participation and communion with the divine, describing disconnected people, like leaves “that fall from the branch to be carried away by the wind and lost”. Jesus uses similar images, saying, “Abide in me, I am the vine and you are the branches”. Maybe a modern and alternative non horticultural image could be the electric plug while inserted into the socket, is connected to the power supply. Yet in view of the problems with electricity at this present time, the water image and it’s recognition of thirst may still be a more serviceable and long term symbol!

“My soul is thirsty for God” is the yearning voice of the Psalmist but it becomes our voice too during the coming weeks of the Epiphany season as we think about the descent and self emptying of Jesus the Christ whom we call Saviour of the human race, and who says, “If anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink”.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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