Saturday, 31 March 2018

Holy Saturday: Jesus is taken down from the cross: Heather Andrews

I have never given this ‘deposition’ - any thought before.  Scripture tells this part of the ‘Stations of the Cross’  as stark and practical – a thing to be done –John 20 31-42.  It is dark with casual violence.  The bodies, including the body of Jesus, were like trash, offensive and of no value.

V. 31 – The Jewish leaders didn’t want the victims hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath… so they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken.  Then their bodies could be taken down… when they came to Jesus they saw he was dead already, so they didn’t break his legs.  One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear and blood and water flowed out.  This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account;  it is presented so that you also can believe… 
Afterwards Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus… asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body down… then… he came and took the body away.  He enlisted the help of Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night.  He came bringing 75 lbs of embalming ointment made from myrrh and aloes.  Together they wrapped Jesus’ body in a long linen cloth with the spices as is the Jewish custom of burial. 
The place of crucifixion was near a garden where there was a new tomb, never used before.  And so, because it was the day of preparation before the Passover, and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Matthew adds that they rolled a great stone across the entrance.  And he adds that Mary, Jesus’ Mother was there.

Joseph of Arimathea took responsibility for the body of Jesus – I think of the phrase from a poem by Robert Hayden – this is indeed one of ‘Love’s austere and lonely offices’.  With Nicodemus, who brought the heavy weight of spices with him, they cleaned and sweetened and covered the body of their Lord.  They veiled him in linen, swaddled as he had been as a babe, and offered him to the earth in a freshly carved-out tomb.

The picture shows Mary, clad in the traditional blue, and I think of Christmas card pictures, the young woman, devout and committed, travelling to give birth.  By now she will have been a mature woman, with all the responsibilities of family life, motherhood and widowhood as part of her experience.  Now she is bereft of her first-born son, the one promised by an Angel, the one brought into being by the Overshadowing of the Spirit.

Her face lined, eyes sad, hair probably grey… she is unlikely still to be wearing the innocent blue of her maiden days.  She has watched the terrible brutality, held up by her friends as her legs buckle beneath her with the agony.  She has screamed.  Maybe she even held her precious Son on her lap for a moment as the men lifted him down, in a ‘pieta’ that would have been far from beautiful.

The two men, no longer secret disciples, but openly proclaiming their allegiance to the new movement, even as it seems to have been beaten down for ever, step up to the mark.  Mary takes John under her wing as a surrogate son…  they go to their homes…

The sun sets and the day of waiting deepens their sense of mourning and their unbearable grief.

And yet…     and yet…  God is at work…    a new day dawns…

Friday, 23 March 2018

Palm Sunday: Jesus dies on the Cross: Tim Mountain

Perhaps it’s the scientist or literalist in me that finds it difficult to appreciate pictures and icons like this in the way that some of my friends do. I’ve been watching Portrait Artist of the Year recently. I tend to prefer those paintings that actually look like the subject, rather than a series of suggestive, allusive brushstrokes.

This image, ‘Jesus dies’ is not what a crucifixion actually looks like. This is not a body beaten and bruised, suffocating slowly as it tries to support its own weight, nails tearing flesh, wracked in excruciating pain. To me it looks as if Jesus is saying, rather dispassionately, with wrists bent and hands spread, “Hey. Look what they’ve done to me.” One could berate the artist for creating something that isn’t accurate. Unrealistic. Unmoving.

Yet I know, of course, that this isn’t intended to be a picture that captures the horrors of crucifixion. The artist is not trying to replicate the scene or paint a photograph. Rather, I think he wants me, the viewer, to sit with his picture for a while and to reflect on different features of the painting; to follow the various trains of thought prompted in me by the scene. How do I interpret it? How does this picture draw me towards God and prayer, love and service?

Let me note just one thing. It seems to me that the body of Jesus is out of proportion to the cross. This Roman instrument of torture and death, does not dominate. Jesus does. Even at his death. The Empire’s might, represented in this, a most brutal and cruel mode of execution, isn’t the last word. Jesus is. The authorities may have thought it was all over with Jesus’ death ... but we know differently.

In our world where empires of a different kind play out their conflicts through savage violence in Syria or Myanmar or even the streets of Salisbury, in self-interested and national-centric competition through words and trade in Europe and America, we remember that theirs is not the last word or the last action. Standing by Jesus they are, relatively speaking, small. Today’s politicians and their policies are not the decisive authority. God is.

The death of Christ, a cruel political-religious execution is not the last word or the last action. Jesus’ words, ‘It is finished’ denote the ending of his earthly life; but not the end of the story – for another day will soon dawn. Resurrection trumps crucifixion.

Lord, help us to remember when life is bleak and appears hopeless, when it seems that wickedness thrives and death is commonplace, that the final words and acts are yours and that we are held secure, bounded by their promise, confident in new-life-resurrection.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Lent 5: Jesus Falls: Christine Hutt

Jesus falls:  bowed down with the crushing burden of the cross

Jesus falls:  the weight of the world’s woes on his shoulders

Jesus falls:  as his final act of self-emptying comes closer.

He has already been on his knees – washing the disciples’ feet

Three times he has fallen with his face to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane,

Pleading with his Father for the cup of suffering to be taken from him,

His disciples unable to keep awake,

 unable to watch and pray with him.

Baptists do not traditionally pray before the Stations of the Cross, or use a crucifix to aid their devotions.  Once I was at a Catholic retreat centre in Leeds where I found the large wooden crucifix with the women at the foot of it really helpful.  I was going through a very difficult time and I found the crucifix beneficial to my prayer life: to learn to identify with Jesus, to feel his pain and to recognise our sorrows in the light of His sorrow.  I found this prayer on the internet which expresses some of my thoughts about ‘Jesus falls’.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, you have borne all our burdens and you continue to carry us. Our weight has made you fall.

Lift us up, for by ourselves we cannot rise from the dust. Free us from the bonds of frailty and sin. In place of a heart of stone, give us a heart of flesh, a heart capable of seeing. Make us aware of your presence. Keep us sober and vigilant, capable of resisting the forces of evil. Help us to recognise the spiritual and material needs of others, and to give them the help they need.

Lift us up, so that we may lift others up. Give us hope at every moment of darkness, so that we may bring your hope to the world.’ 
And a hymn that we do not often sing in churches today:
‘Take up your cross, let nots its weight
Pervade your soul with vain alarm
His strength shall bear your spirit up,
Sustain your heart and nerve your arm’

Meditate on the picture of ‘Jesus falls – ‘Is it nothing to you all you that pass by?’

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Lent 4: Mothering Sunday Reflection: Ian Green

Thursday was International Women’s Day and tomorrow we celebrate Mothering Sunday.

We are looking at the story of Moses in the Bulrushes at my church and in preparing for this I’ve noticed afresh just how many women figure in that story.

There are the brave midwives who go against King Pharaoh’s orders and end up saving Israelite babies rather than destroying them.  Love wins!

There is Miriam, the elder sister of baby Moses who watches him sale down the Nile in his basket and then suddenly appears the moment he is picked up and suggests that she finds an Israelite woman to wet nurse him – and so, actually, brings him back home straight away to be looked after by their own mother.  Miriam shows such clever cunning!

Of course Moses’ mother is there in the story – in fact she might even have been one of the midwives, the one called Puah, a nickname meaning ‘Bubbles’ because she was famous for keeping the babies quiet by blowing bubbles to them!  The mother of Moses did everything in her power to protect children.

Lastly there is the Princess of Egypt who ends up fishing Moses out of the water and adopting him.  Such a plucky rebel!  Her father the King had issued a decree that such babies should be got rid of but this woman speaks truth to power, adopts one and brings him home to the palace to be brought up in the Royal Family. 

I think all these inspirational women are heroes in the early story of Moses – each one lived with the courage of their convictions and took risks in the name of love.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Lent 3: Simon carries the cross: Gill Roberts

Mark 15.21: A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.

It was during my IGR at Glastonbury that Simon of Cyrene really attracted my attention.  The Stations of the Cross in the garden are nearly all simply titles on plaques.  Nevertheless, as I walked around the garden reading them, I halted and focused my thoughts on Simon.  What did I know of him?  So very little.  But I couldn’t help but sympathise with this visitor – up from the country to take part in the Passover celebrations.  Little did he know how things would turn out for him.

And here he is!  

Don’t you just love his blue trainers!  Obviously bought specially for his trip to Jerusalem!  Were they designer ones?  This was a special occasion.  He probably expected to meet up with Jewish relatives and friends and see the sights. 
Caught up in the crowds, experiencing the noise, the bustle and excitement of being here in Jerusalem, it was a dream come true!  And watching the crucifixion procession – there was nothing unusual about that.  But then, the procession halts.  The convicted man has fallen.  It’s a poignant moment.  What will happen?  Will there be beatings?  But no!  There’s a finger pointing, beckoning - a Roman soldier’s finger.  You can imagine Simon’s first instinct is to look around to see if it was someone else being beckoned - and then to back away.  But there could be no escape.  He’s in the thick of it…
What does his expression say to you?
What’s going through his mind?
This isn’t fair.
I’ve been picked on again – just because of my skin.
Isn’t it the lot of us outsiders?  Just because we look different…
Who is this man anyway?  I know he’s a dead weight.

Look at the contrasts between the two men -
Simon strong and youthful looking, alert to what’s going on, responsive to insult and injury.  All dressed up and everywhere to go – but compelled to go the way of the cross.

Jesus, weary, exhausted, barely able to lean on the cross, let alone carry it.  He’s not saying a word – just going the way of the cross – the way He’s always known He would have to go …  
He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

Look how the plant in the background echoes His demeanour.
Do you hear the echo of Palm Sunday?  “I tell you, if these (people) were silent, the very stones would cry out.”…. But here the plants cannot even hold up their heads.  Have they come out in sympathy?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

And yet we cry - “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Were you, Simon, like us, changed by the proximity of Jesus?  Where did you go in your new, blue trainers?  What did you do?  Where am I going?  What am I doing?