Friday, 27 March 2015

Lenten meditation: the liturgies of Holy Week

During the Fridays of Lent, a series of Lenten meditations will be posted. Each meditation, based on the Gospel of the coming Sunday, will reflect upon devotional practices which lead us to enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection.

The Gospel for this Palm Sunday is the Passion according to St Mark. 

Lenten meditation: the liturgies of Holy Week

"Since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of Lord's passion and resurrection" [1].

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday told us that these forty days of fasting, prayer and penitence are a preparation for this next week that lies before us ...

A week in which the Church's liturgy takes us to Jerusalem's crowded streets, to an Upper Room, a desolate hill outside the city walls, a cold, dark Tomb.

What this next week is not, however, is an ecclesiastical version of the historical re-enactments seen at grand stately homes or 17th century battlefields.

Something much more radical happens in the liturgies of Holy Week.

We glimpse this when we hear the words Mark uses to introduce his Passion narrative, the gospel reading for this Palm Sunday:

"On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed ..."

Ancient mysteries and prophecies of sacrifice and redemption, of poured out blood and liberation, are to be fulfilled in this week.

This is the week when God acts, when God is encountered, liberating and redeeming, in flesh and blood reality ...

Flesh and blood reality lived out and poured out in a context that we can too easily recognise.

Holy Week occurs in a place governed by a world-weary, cynical politician (Pilate) and a power-hungry, ambitious rival (Herod).

It includes a grubby, behind-the-scenes exchange of money to buy allegiance.

There are fundamentalist terrorists and there's torture and a public spectacle of bloody death.

And then there is the fickle crowd, one moment shouting nationalistic religious slogans, the next demanding the blood of a scape-goat.

The Church is also easily recognisable during Holy Week.

We are the disciples.

Judas, conflicted, greedy, tormented, betraying.

Peter, loud and brazen in his boasts, broken and choked with tears after his denial.

The other disciples, overtaken by fear and cowardice, fleeing from the Cross and the Crucified.

If the world of the politicians and the crowd looks uncomfortably familiar in Holy Week ...

How much more should the actions of the disciples make us, the Church, feel uncomfortable?

We see there are own uncertain, compromised, confused lives of discipleship.

And yet ... it is in this loveless world, mis-shapen by power, ambition and violence, that God acts in Holy Week.

It is in the midst of this loveless, compromised and failing Church, that God is revealed.


In the liturgies of Holy Week we experience how.

In a donkey and children waving palm leaves on Palm Sunday - not in a mighty empire, or angry insurgents, using shock and awe.

In a slave washing feet on Maundy Thursday - not in ambition or status.

In the Bread and Wine which, as darkness falls on Maundy Thursday, become the fulness of Mystery and Love - not in wealth or possessions.

In the hard, bloodied Wood of the Cross on Good Friday - not in success or achievement.

We can begin to see the radical nature of Holy Week ...

How it exposes the loveless pretensions of the world ... and of the Church.

How - through palm leaves, Bread and Wine, and the Wood of the Cross - it brings healing hope to a world lost and confused, to a Church compromised and fearful.

For in the liturgies of Holy Week, we encounter the God who, in flesh and blood, comes not to condemn but to save, not to judge but to heal.

In the midst of the deceits and failures, denials and betrayals, ambition and selfishness, God becomes the Passover Lamb ...

God gives God's Self, God bleeds and dies, for love of a loveless world, for love of a too frequently loveless Church.

In the liturgies of Holy Week, we see, touch, taste, the reality of Love ...

So that we who too easily, too often, wound ourselves and others with our lovelessness might, caught up in the Paschal Mystery of Cross and Resurrection, become bearers of this divine Love.

In the words of a great Anglican theologian of the 17th century, Lancelot Andrews:

"Christ pierced on the Cross is the very book of love laid open before us ... Which sight out to pierce us with love too" [2].


[1]  Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer 2004, 'Service for Ash Wednesday'.

[2]  Lancelot Andrewes' Good Friday sermon, 1597.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

On not taming the mystery: Richard III and Passiontide

There is something profoundly appropriate about the reinterment of Richard III occuring during Passiontide.

Here is a story of a vanquished king, shamed and disgraced, buried with haste and in fear, now received with honour.

Here is a story of a time of wrath and bitter division, of bloodshed and clashing allegiances, now giving rise to reconciliation.

Here is a story of a failure, despised and rejected, now embraced by grace.

Commenting on the events surrounding the reinterment, +Nick Baines has said:

Redemption is always on offer – even when self-righteous people resent the fact. Remember the prodigal son, the father who waits in hope for him to return, and the elder brother who resents generosity, forgiveness and new life. According to this way of seeing people and their purpose, to fail is not necessarily to be a failure. The story can never be said to have ended.

The Catheral's liturgical provision for the ceremonies surrounding the reinterment has given wonderful expression to this. These ceremonies have declared that the remains of a failed, defeated, despised king are, through the grace of baptism, prayer, absolution and eucharist, caught up in the Paschal Mystery.

In a recent letter to a theological faculty in Argentina, Pope Francis declared:

Without mercy our theology ... wants to tame the mystery.

The reinterment of Richard III during this week echoes the proclamation of Passiontide and Holy Week - the mystery cannot be tamed, for in it are caught up our experiences of failure, defeat, and shame. 

We who have passed through water, who have been anointed with oil, who offer prayer, who receive absolution, who partake in the mystery of bread and wine over which solemn thanksgiving is offered, we share in the Paschal Mystery.

We receive the abundant mercy of the Cross which brings us - as compromised, failed and shamed as Richard Plantagenet - to Resurrection.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Mary's liturgy

Mary was chosen by God for the liturgy of this mystery.

Jacob the Monk (6th century)

The Blessed Virgin, alone among us, alone among all, because she was worthy of it, was chosen in advance and consecrated above every part and priestly grace for this function: to conceive the body of the Lord through the operation of the Holy Spirit and form in herself by her own proper action, not just bread and wine, but her own virginal body and blood,.... and to engender it and touch it and envelop it with her limbs and to nourish it until finally, standing upright next to the cross ... she offered for us to God the body itself of her Son.

Engelbert of Admont (13th century)

The Priest as much represents the Church to God as God to the Church, and an over-Christological reading of the Priesthood is actually a modern deviation. In mediaeval times, it was often considered to be a Marian function with the Priest offering the Eucharistic elements as Mary bore Christ in her womb.

Catherine Pickstock

(The illustration is of an illuminated page from Gengenbach/Baden Evangelistery, Germany, dated ca. 1150.  The Blessed Virgin is vested in the chasuble of a priest.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

On the Eve of the Annunciation, in Passiontide

Had he received nothing from Mary, He would never have taken the foods which come from the earth, the foods by which the body taken from the earth is nourished.  Nor would He have felt hunger after fasting ... Nor would He have wept over Lazarus, nor would He have sweated drops of blood, nor would blood and water have flowed from His pierced side.  For these are all signs of flesh taken from the earth, the flesh which the Lord recapitulated in Himself, in order to save His own handiwork.

Irenaeus Adversus Haereses III 22, 2

(The illustration is a detail of Our Lady from Fra Angelico's The Virgin of the Annunciation, c.1450.)

A hope-filled catholic Anglican future?

The recent address by Fr Richard Peers SCP - 'Liberals in Vestments? What is the Society of Catholic Priets for?' - has been the cause of reflection and discussion both within SCP and in wider catholic Anglican circles.  In subsequent conversation on the possibility of a new devotional sodality for priests in the catholic Anglican tradition, Fr Richard noted:

I am deeply encouraged by the encouragement of a number of the catholic bishops but especially by the interest shown by ordinands at a number of theological colleges, this is our catholic future. A common phrase seems to be ‘traditionalists in favour of the ordination of women’ which just about sums me up.

This perhaps reflect something of a Ressourcement-like renewal within contemporary catholic Anglicanism.  In his comments last year on the relationship between Affirming Catholicism and Anglican Catholic Future, +Stephen Conway hinted at this:

There might be more of a preference for Francis among members of Affirming Catholicism and for St Thomas Aquinas among those associated with Anglican Catholic Future.

A more thoroughly Christocentric reading of Thomas, of course, was key to the Ressourcement project in mid-20th continental Roman Catholicism.  And Thomas looms large in the contemporary catholic Anglican Ressourcement.  In an overview of Radical Orthodoxy's first decade, John Milbank described the movement as a "return to Aquinas".  Andrew Davison's Why Sacraments? (2013) states on its opening page, "This book grows out of ... reading one of Thomas Aquinas's surveys of Christian theology".

Here, it might be suggested, is the theological context that gives rise to "traditionalists in favour of the ordination of women".  Milbank's description of his priest-theologian wife, Alison, also comes to mind: "an Anglican priest who is at least as conservative as the current Pope [then BXVI] in most ways".  Likewise, the Church Times report on +Philip North's consecration noted the response of one of the women priests present, trained in St Stephen's House: "she describes herself an Anglo-Catholic who is 'very close to traditionalists in many ways, apart from fact that I believe that women can be ordained'".

On matters of gender and sexuality, we might also note a renewed reading of the Tradition - not in support of what are usually termed 'conservative' understandings of gender and sexuality, but to ground the experience of women in the ministerial priesthood and same-sex partnerships, not in a secular account of rights, but in the sacramental, catholic vision.

That all of this finds liturgical expression in a more traditional understanding of and celebration of the liturgy is, of course, necessary.  As Catherine Pickstock has commented on the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms:

I think that the trimming away of repetition was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the very character of ritual in general, and of the theological reasons for repetition in the Mass in particular. However, I would support the aim of encouraging participation by the people, and I am quite prepared to say that even mediaeval practice was deficient in this respect. There is room for debate, however, as to whether Vatican II did not in certain respects augment the separation of laity and clergy by celebration facing the people and the practice of concelebration. The situation within Anglicanism is comparable, although some Anglo-Catholic parishes preserve celebration facing east in the context of a modernized liturgy. Even the latter sometimes seems highly compatible with a recovery of the apophatic dimension of liturgy and its mediaeval calendrical and other festical articulations.

It seems worthy of note on this point that amongst the speakers in this year's Prayer Book Society conference is Andrew Davison.

There is, in other words, significant substance to the "traditionalists in favour of the ordination of women" strain within catholic AnglicanismIt holds out the potential of a catholic Anglicanism deeply rooted in the Church's tradition of theological reflection and prayer, expressing itself in a vibrant sacramental life, and engaging a secular age with a confidence in the abundance of grace that has characterised catholic theology and teaching at its most compelling.  It is, then, the possibility of a hope-filled catholic Anglican future.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Spittle, participation and Passiontide

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread mud on the man's eyes (John 9:6).

Today, the second day of Passiontide, the CofI lectionary powerfully offers the opening of John 9 - the healing of the man born blind - as the NT reading at Matins.  The sheer physicality of this account - the mud made of saliva, spread over the eyes - profoundly orients us towards the heart of Passiontide.  We are preparing for Holy Week, the week in which the Church's liturgy brings us to see, taste and touch how the material is redeemed through the material. The office hymns of Passiontide provide beautiful reflections on this:

The royal banners forward go,
the cross shines forth in mystic glow ...
O tree of glory, tree most fair.

The story of redemption proclaimed in the liturgies of Holy Week is intrinsically physical and material - donkey, palm branches, bread, wine, water, feet, kiss, sweat, blood, wood, nakedness. What this means for the nature of our redemption and for the material order has caught the imagination over the centuries. Clerk of Oxford's extract from Aelfric's Passion Sunday homily (10th century) echoes the patristic delight in the means of our fall becoming the means of our redemption:

Through a tree came to us death, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and through a tree came to us again life and redemption, when Christ hung on the rood for our redemption.

Redemption, in other words, is not an alien force imposed upon the material order.  The material order is caught up in grace and love, becoming itself the means of grace, the means of redemption.  In the words of Irenaeus, God "did not use violence", wresting the material order from the Evil One through brute force, divine 'shock and awe':

No, he used persuasion.  It was fitting for God to use persuasion, not violence ... so that ...  God's ancient handiwork not be utterly destroyed (Adversus Haereses V 1,1).

We are not overpowered by 'shock and awe' in Holy Week.  Rather, it is a narrative of gracious persuasion - poured out in bread and wine, blood and wood, humility and sacrifice.  It approaches us not as alien demand, but as invitation from within the material order, the material order participating in the fulness of grace, beauty and love.  Perhaps we encounter this most vividly during the Veneration of the Cross on God Friday, our kiss responding to the call "This is the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world". 

In Holy Week we encounter the material order as it - we - were created to be: participating in the goodness, grace, beauty, communion of the Triune God.  Passiontide prepares us to encounter and experience afresh this revelation, the material order - no longer condemned to a meaningless, empty autonomy - restored and renewed in participation in the very life of the Holy Trinity.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Eve of Passiontide

Can you now see that how the very circumstances in which the devil conquered us have become the pattern of his own defeat?  At the foot of the tree the devil overcame Adam; at the foot of the tree Christ vanquished the devil.  As a result of the first tree humankind were consigned to Hades; now a second Adam calls back to life even those who had already descended there.  The first tree hid a man who knew himself to be have been undermined and stripped bare; the second tree displays the naked victor for all the world to see.  The first death condemned those who were born after it; but this second death gives life even to those who were born before it.  Who can describe sufficiently the mighty deeds of the Lord? For by his death we have become immortal.  Such are the glorious deeds of the Cross.

From John Chrysostom's homily 'On the burial place and the Cross'.

(The Crucifixion fresco is in the nave of the church of Sant'Angelo in Formis c. 1085 near Capua, Campania.)