The feast of the Epiphany began as an Eastern Church celebration, designed to celebrate the baptism of Christ, bu attaching to it as it did the visit of the Magi, the Western Church celebrated something of supreme importance to us – the extension of God’s salvation to the Gentiles.
There are many signs that the Gospel writers initially thought that Christ’s mission was only to the Jews: Matthew 10:5; Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27, and some of the problems which Paul had with the Judaisers stemmed from this sense possessed by some of the earliest converts that Jesus’ mission was only to the Chosen People. Paul hammers away at this in his great Epistle to the Romans, and of course his whole mission was testimony to the fact that it was not ancestry and the law which saved, but faith in the Lord Jesus.
It is interesting that it should be Matthew alone amongst the Synoptic Gospels who mentions the Magi – as scholars are agreed that the community to which he wrote was a Jewish one. The parallels between the story of Moses in Exodus and of this part of Christ’s life would have been very clear to the Jewish audience. But if parts of his Gospel look backwards to Jewish tradition, the story of the Magi looks forward to the final words of his Gospel:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
‘All the nations’ are to be evangelised, not just the Jews. The Magi, who sincerely wish to pay homage to the real ‘King of the Jews’ is contrasted with the behaviour of the actual ‘king of the Jews’; the message is plain – from the beginning Gentiles worshipped the Christ. Their acceptance prefigures the conversion of the Gentiles. As Paul told the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
That was, as it remains, a truly radical message. We are all one in Christ. The things which divide us, indeed the things we use to define ourselves, are naught to Him or to those who are in Him.
It is hard for us to recapture how radical it was to those first Jewish followers to be told that the Samaritans could be ‘saved’: the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan woman at the well both serve, as do the Magi and the Roman Centurion at the crucifixion, of the faith that would be found in the Gentiles. There have always been, and always will be, those who feel that the Gospel message is just for them and their kind, but the coming of the Magi reminds us that it is for all who will follow His star and heed the Epiphany that Jesus is Lord.
That message would get the early Christians thrown out of the Temple, it would make them outcasts in their own land – but it would pave the way for the conversion of the whole world. At this Epiphany-tide it is good to remember those Wise Men – because they prefigure us.
Like Eliot’s Magi, we cannot encounter Jesus without being changed. Our old signposts are no longer of use, and we need to follow the new ones in this new dispensation. As St Leo the Great wrote:
“the wise men do not go back the same way they had come. It was appropriate for them, now that they believed in Christ, not to walk along the paths of the former way of life, but to take a new path and refrain from the straying that had been left behind …”Sermon 33, 6 January 443
Eliot captures perfectly that change – and the unease it brings. At that time he was, himself, a convert, and knew whereof he wrote.
“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and especially a long journey in. The ways deep, rhe weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in the ‘very deal of winter’ … the these are the difficulties they overcame of a wearisome, riksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came”
Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi was written in 1927, and those first lines are straight from Andrewe’s sermon. For both men that journey was a parable of our own journey to Christ. We are, as Andrewes commented, always coming: “To Christ we cannot travel travel, but weather and way and all must be fair.”
Eliot and Andrewes capture something easily missed in our tendency to sentimentalise the Nativity; the cost of discipleship. Often, maybe too often, we write as though being a Christian is a matter of coming from unbelief to belief, and liking, as we all do, a happy ending to the story, perhaps we are happy to collude, albeit unconsciously, in such a narrative. The Magi, whose coming we celebrate at the Epiphany remind us of a different – and more difficult story.
Once, and still among those locked into an older (but self-consciously ‘modern’) reading of Scripture, it was the fashion (and doubtless still is) to cast doubt upon the story and to read it as a symbol or a sign. But it is clear that the tradition goes back a long way, and a study of the Church Fathers and of the Suriac tradition, gives us no ground for that late nineteenth, mid-twentieth century pride that somehow the “moderns” knew best. Which is not to say that the way the story is commonly portrayed is accurate, either.
Because there were three gifts, we tend, as the icon pictured above does, to assume there were three Magi. Andrewes inherited the tradition, dating back as far as Justin Martyr, that they were from what is now modern Jordan, from Petra. Justin saw them as fuflfilling the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, and he saw in the three youths in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, a foreshadowing of them. As the Psalmist (Psalm 72) said: “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” Origen, citing Numbers 24:17 saw them (hence Andrewes taking the same view) as fulfilling the prophecy of Balaam” “there shall come a Star out of Jacob.”
The evidence suggests that the Early Church attached huge importance to the story of these visitors “from the East;” it is not hard to see why.
Christ came to save the lost sheep, and the evidence that the first Christians assumed that these were the Jews is abundant. Mark quotes Jesus as saying to the Syro-Phonecian woman:
Despite a lamentable contemporary tendency to read our obessions into it (the idea that Jesus was a racist is dealt with admirable by Dr Ian Paul here), this is another sign of how St Mark shows us that while Our Lord’s mission began with the Jews, it was not confined to them. The Magi serve a similar purpose.
The story of the Magi is significant because of what is tells us, not only about the Magi, but about the Jews.
Wherever the Magi originated – and there is an ancient Syriac text, The Revelation of the Magi which identifies them as being from the land of Shir – they were not Jews. Whether they were “Persians”, or from Petra (and the two are not incompatible), or whether they were descandants of Adam’s third son Seth, they were not among the Chosen People. When Herod consults the Jewish wise men, their system, their logic, their wisdom have nothing to tell him. They believe in a Messiah, but the idea of him being born outside a royal palace has not occurred to them. They are ignorant of him, and will for the most pasrt remain so. Herod is anxious, but they have nothing to tell him.
The Magi, on the other hand, with no Scripture to guide them, and no tradition of a Messiah, show themselves open to whatever God is doing. They do not know the way, but the star guides them; the way is hard; but they take it.
In a theological system that consigned outsiders to eternal condemnation, and where a Samaritan woman could express amazement that a Jew would speak to her, Matthew shows us, as Jesus does, how the Incarnation broke down the dividing wall between cultures. As Paul told the Colossians:
Here there cannot be Greek and circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in allCol. 3:11
But there was, and is, a cost. Like the Magi, the Christian travels a long aand a hard road. And we might, with Eliot’s Magus, wonder iss it a birth or a death? “I had seen birth and death,” he writes, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Dying to the old Adam is not easy. In Andrewe’s words:
With them it was but ‘we have seen’, ‘we are come’; with us it would have been ‘but we are coming’ at most. Our fashion is to see and see again, before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year …Andrewes, Christmas Day 1622
Then of course, it will be easier. But maybe even easier in the summer?
They came, and thanks to God, so can we. But will we?
Well, it’s been a tough year, for all of us, our blogs, and our countries. I’ve lost dear friends, to death, and to internet silence, the vaccine madness, and I’ve dearly missed my friends on All along the Watchtower, so this Christmas Eve let’s join again in fellowship.
I was reminded today of Winston Churchill’s Christmas message in 1941 from the White House, to us all, Briton, American, and the rest of the Anglophone world. We were then engaged in a mighty endeavor to save our nations and our freedom. So it is again. (h/t Victory Girls)
24 December 1941
I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home. Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother’s side, or the friendships I have developed here over many years of active life, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars and, to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals, I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the centre and at the summit of the United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys.
This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field. Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.
Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”
In that same broadcast Franklin Roosevelt reminded us:
Our strongest weapon against this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies—more than any other day or any other symbol.”
He continued, “Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.”
From me, Audre, and Nicholas, and all who frequent NEO
Merry Christmas to all
with our hopes and prayers for the renewal of this, one of our favorite places on the internet.
From quiet homes and first beginning,
out to the undiscovered ends,
there’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
but laughter and the love of friendsHilaire Belloc
One of things about retiring is that it tends to invite something which life’s busy routine denies – that is reflection.
The last eighteen months have been traumatic for so many in so many ways, that it seems almost callous to suggest that it might have had any benefits, but from my own personal point of view it has aided that process of reflection. When the first “lockdown” commenced in March 2020 it meant that after four years of living away from home for at least half the year, I was confined, as it were to barracks. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and Zoom, it was possible to continue doing my job for St Mary’s from my own study at home. The loss of that “laughter and the love of friends” was a downside, as was not seeing the students and our beautiful campus at Strawberry Hill. I also missed my walks down the Thames path to Richmond and back to Teddington. If there is an occupational hazard to being a bibliophile academic, in my case it is the tendency to sit down and read books for as long as anyone will leave me undisturbed. When one’s children are younger that tendecy is held in check; mine flew the nest some years back. The Thames Path walks were a way of taking a bit of exercise. So I thought I’d do it while cribb’d, cabin’d and confin’d (to an hour a day).
I began to take what I called #norfolkexercise walks. Here in the far south of Norfolk that turned out to consist of a rich network of ancient footpaths, some of which the local farmers had actually left in a walkable condition. The timings were dictated by the demands of my timetable, but the weekends provided opportunties for a really long walk. I quickly found, as those familiar with my Twitter feed will confirm, that my steps tended toward the Church pictured above – St Mary’s, Redenhall. The tower is quite spectacular, built by the powerful de la Pole family in the fifteenth century as an example of their wealth, it is a local landmark much beloved, I am told, by pilots; it is a thing of beauty.
One of the things about long walks is that it gives one time to reflect – and pray. For the first part of every walk I pray my daily Rosary, which gets me in the right frame of mind to contemplate what I see all around me, which is the wonder of the created world. Psalm 8 came frequently to mind:
4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
What indeed? As the Pandemic reminded all of us of the fragility of human life and our powerlessness, the Churches decided, for perfectly obvious reasons, to close their doors. We were soon able to discover the wonder of Zoom church, and watch on-line services all over the world if we had access to a computer and the internet. But we were deprived of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Communion of fellowship was gone, and with it the Blessed Eucharist. It was a fast which went way beyond Lent and which drove me, at least, further into the resources of prayer. I had long before adopted the practice of praying the Offices of the Church at the week-end, and I extended this into a daily routine. Anyone getting the message I like my routines will be reading me aright. But without them, at such times, I wonder how I should have managed?
It has been an interesting discipline. The easy habits are to pray when one is joyful or sorrowful, happiness and sorrow tend to remind me of God. The daily routine has been interesting. There have been times when press of business – the ever-demanding Zoom – has made it hard to find the time. There have been times when the “mood” does not seem right. Yet this is, I have discovered, the whole point of regular daily prayer. It has ceased to be about “me” and has become about “Him”. I have found in that both a discipline and a liberation. However I “felt” when I started, I have always felt better when I finished. It has been similar with the walking and the Rosary. I have surprised myself at the extent to which it is possible to pray mindfully while walking. One falls into a rythmn, and it becomes as natural as breathing.
That “destiny” of which Newman spoke, and to which I referred in my last post, may be known only to God, but increasingly I have come to realise that Cavafy had the right of it in his great poem, Ithaka when he concluded that it was the journey, and not the destination which mattered:
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
And yes, as Ithaka approaches, Cavafy was right. The ends, in this world, may remain undiscovered, but it is the journey, and what it adds to what you brought to it that matters.
When I started at St Mary’s University in Twickenham in September 2016 I more or less gave up this blog. It was clear to me that participating in the Catholic Culture wars, even inadvertently, was incompatible with my new responsibilities – and anyway, I had a chance to actually do something – that is to help make a Catholic University a strong presence in the Higher Education sector – rather than simply write about these things.
As I retire, after forty-three years in Higher Education, five of them at St Mary’s, it is time to take up the reins again, not to participate in any culture wars – as my more recent posts here should have made clear, I long ago tired of that, but rather to reflect on Christianity in the public square. But first, and here, some reflections as I say “hail and farewell”.
I entered the world of Higher Education, as it then was not generally called, in September 1979 as a lecturer in the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglian in Norwich. I was even more blessed than I thought at the time. I knew jobs were going to become scarce, but none of us had any idea they would become so scarce that by 1983 even Mrs Thatcher’s Government, not well-disposed to the sector, would pump some money into what were called “new blood” posts, just to stop the situation becoming impossible. So many of my contemporaries who have jobs, got them then. The Thatcher Government distrusted Universities. It distrusted our claims of professionalism and self-governance, seeing in them little more than self-interested excuses for doing what we wanted rather than what we should be doing. The problem with this was that the Government was not terribly sure what that was, a problem shared by successive administrations, whose interventions would, but for the profesisonalism and resilience of the Sector, have totally wrecked things.
As it is, what successive Governments have managed to do is to load the Sector with a regulatory system which the old USSR would have envied, where the question “quis cusodiet ipsos cusdodes?” (who guards the guardians themselves?) is answered by the creation of ever more guardians; if this was a deliberate job-creation scheme for graduates, it would almost be admirable. As it is, even the present Government (surely in an unhappy catalogue the worst in living memory?) has realised it needs to cut back on the number of guardians. But it still has no idea what Higher Education is for. It seems, if one is to believe its rhetoric (itself an interesting philosophical question, can one believe a word that the Prime Minister utters when he so obviously has no conception of the distiction between truth and whatever suits his purpose?), it would seem that it wants “value for money degrees” and “useful knowledge.” Mr Gradgrind is back; in truth her never went away.
And yet, how ignorant this view of Higher Education is, as the University from which I am retiring has shown. With an Employability rate in the 90% range, in a university which takes more than 60% of its students from backgrounds where no one in the family has been to university, no one could accuse St Mary’s of not caring about getting good career prospects for its students. My academic colleagues put in longer hours than anyone would pay them for before they believe in the real mission of the university; they know our real Mission.
It is that mission which brought me to St Mary’s and it is that mission which took me into Higher Education, and it is a mission with a heavy religious dimension. It is best expressed in St John Henry Newman’s words:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between personsNewman
And that, in a nutshell, is what we do in Higher Education. Our job is simple but complex, it is to help every student who is capable of studying and wants to study, to become the best “them” they can be. It’s not our job to say how many scientists, lawyers etc. the country is going to need. No one can know that. Jobs which the Government might say are essential today, may not exist in twenty years time, and jobs no one ever thought of will exist. What is needed are people who know how to think and people who are rounded individuals. Newman got it right in his Idea of a University and it is that mission which St Mary’s has continued.
St Mary’s is a special place because embedded in its DNA is a commitment to teaching. It was founded in 1850 to provide teachers for “Catholic Poor Schools.” It was not founded by any Government, it was founded by the Catholic Church to help train teachers for the Irish immigrants and other Catholics in London. That great and much-understimated man, Cardinal Manning, would not allow the construction of a cathedral in London until every parish had a school. Education pulled men and women out of poverty – and poverty took, and takes many forms.
After the Pandemic, no one can doubt that communities in this country are still blighted by material poverty, and the Churches, Anglican and Catholic, have played a noble part in helping alleviate the suffering it causes. But there is spiritual poverty, there is cultural poverty, there is the poverty of a life lived simply for work, where the riches of family and friends take second-place to the “toad work” as Larkin put it:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?Philip Larkin: Toads
One of the purposes of a University education is to help each invidual find that destiny for which God has selected them, and to equip them with the wherewithal to achieve it. But that destiny has never been just to get rich. We can see what God thinks of such people not only by those to whom he gives riches, but by what he has to say about them in Scripture. Life is a gift, and teaching at any level is a privilege because we get the chance to help others become what is in them – education is about that “leading out” process.
It ws with this faith that I entered Higher Education forty-three years ago and as I retire from my Provostship I can say as St Paul did
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
I now hand on that torch, with confidence, to my successors. There is a very great deal of rubbish talked about what goes on in our universities most of it from people who are not in them. For sure, as we are fallen creatures, not all is Eden, but I thought, as I looked out with pride at my last graduation ceremony as Provost, that of all the ways of spending the life given to me by God, this was one of the better ones. My teachers made a difference to me they could never have imagined, and if by God’s Grace I have been able to do likewise, that is sufficient.
I’m not going to comment my opinions on this article, although I suspect you all know them, but I do want to bring it to your attention. It deals with the Catholic Church in the United States. I expect many Americans of other churches and other nationalities of almost all churches will see something familiar in it. By George Neumayr in The American Spectator.
The post-Vatican II Church has bred many of her own destroyers. Joe Biden is the premier example of this phenomenon. He is the anti-Catholic “Catholic” who persecutes his own church. He represents a political class of bad Catholics that grows larger with each passing year. […]
The U.S. bishops, as a whole, lack the will to withhold Communion from Biden, even though canon law says that they not only have the right but the duty to do so. Canon 915 “obliges the minister of Holy Communion to refuse the Sacrament” to those in “manifest grave sin.” If Biden’s direct facilitation of the killing of unborn children doesn’t fall into that category, what does?
For decades, dust has gathered on the unused canon law books of the bishops. We are not Eucharistic gatekeepers, they have said over the years, explaining why they don’t enforce canon law against enemies of Church teaching. Such a claim would have come as a surprise to the Church’s first bishops. Jesus Christ told the apostles that the good shepherd watches the gate, lest his flock be eaten. […]
Of course, no such dialogue ever happens. This is the so-called “pastoral” approach that has emptied out the pastures of the Church and exposed the flock to wolves. Future historians may find it perplexing that the most pro-abortion administration ever was headed up by a “Catholic,” but it is not. This scandal was a long time coming. Through laxity and heterodoxy, the bishops allowed a class of pro-abortion nominal Catholics to crop up, from Mario Cuomo to Joe Biden. And even at this late date, even as Biden takes direct aim at the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholics, the bishops still won’t take decisive action against him.
Do read it and comment here, this is something that matters to all orthodox Christians.
And so, today and tonight the story moves to the Last Supper, a Seder meal remembering that God had set the Jews free from the Eqyptian Captivity, and for us, that is not unconnected, for that tradition moved into Christianity, and has led to the unparalleled freedom we have enjoyed and defended against all others. That freedom is one of the fruits of Christianity, it has never existed except where Judaism and Christianity ruled, and it still doesn’t.
From the time when Christians were the wonder of the ancient world as they disregarded the all but universal practice of leaving unwanted infants to die of exposure to this very day as we fight against the horrors of infanticide whose proponents use the euphemism of abortion to hide their crime. It is all down to Judeao-Christians honoring God’s promise.
But tonight Jesus will go to Gethsemene to camp one last time (in the flesh) with His disciples. There Judas will find his chance to betray the Lord and will take it.
In 2013 Jessica published an excellent meditation on Judas here on her blog. It starts like this.
Even the first time he appears, Judas’ name is associated with the betrayal which makes him infamous and immortal in history. We have two accounts of how he met his end: St Matthew tells us he hanged himself in a fit of shame and remorse; in Acts, Luke tells us ‘Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.’ He has become the epitome of the false friend. Why did he do it?
The Synoptic Gospels agree that Judas was bribed. Greed then, 30 pieces of silver; was it for this that the Saviour of the World was handed over to the torturers? John goes further, telling us that Judas ‘was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.’ He objected to Mary using expensive, scented oil to anoint the feet of the Lord, giving us one of the few other insights we have into his behaviour.
I heartily recommend it, Jess does these better than almost anyone ever has. On that same day, on my blog, she was also speaking of Judas, and while you would do well to read the whole post, I’ll give you some of her conclusions.
Judas had clearly had enough. Though the Synoptic Gospels tell us he betrayed Jesus for silver, John gives us the clue that it was Mary’s use of expensive oil to anoint Jesus’ feet which pushed him over the edge. It might, of course, be, as John said, that he had been tipping into the till and helping himself to money, but his taking offence was clear enough evidence of what type of man he was. He was a zealot, a puritan – how dare Jesus allow people to waste oil which could have been spent to help the poor. He, Judas, knew what was right, and he had lost patience with Jesus.
Simon Peter was headstrong, and didn’t always get it right. After supper, when Jesus had said He was going to wash the feet of the disciples, Peter protested and said He wouldn’t allow it. But when Jesus told him that if he didn’t, he couldn’t be with Him, Peter didn’t ask for an explanation, he told Jesus he wanted to be washed all over.
Caiaphas and Judas reasoned their way through to a conclusion based on their own insights, and they saw, as we all do, only so far. Peter also reasoned his way to what seemed to him a sensible conclusion, but the love he felt for Jesus opened his heart and he saw further than he had with his intellect. Jesus warned him that he had been handed over to Satan to be ‘sifted’. Peter declared he never would deny Jesus – but Christ knew what was coming.
As the disciples slept and the Romans and the Jewish guard came closer, the silence of that dark night was broken only by the anguish of Jesus. His time had come.
And so it was foretold, and so it happened.
Today was a relatively quiet day in Jerusalem all those years ago – the major event we still recognize was that Judas Iscariot met with the Jewish leaders and received his 30 pieces of silver. But why? We’ll look at that tomorrow.
Today on Neo, there is a new post by Jessica, one of her series of historical fiction speculating about the life of Mary Magdalene. She wrote it last fall ane I saved it for Holy Week. It is, I think, one of the best posts she ever wrote, so I’m going to cheat a bit and post it here as well. Do reflect carefully on what she says ere, an excellent guide for us all. Here, from my dearest friend.
A Harlot’s Way: 5 The Cross
I have tried three times to write this.I can’t. I told Luke what he wanted to know. I am told Matthew and Mark have written an account of that awful day. If John would write it then maybe, in his hands, it could lift you up – of us all, he is the true mystic. But John is long gone, I heard of him last in Ephesus, and the Romans have killed so many of us. Here, where I am, on the very outskirts of Empire, we may be safe, but one never knows – and if it be His will that we should die for him, we shall. None of which helps me with what happened after I anointed the feet of Jesus.
If this is ever read it will be by people who know the story: the entry into Jerusalem; that last supper; the agony in Gethsemane; the farce of a trial; the cruel death; the blackest despair. All made bearable by what happened next. Indeed, only what happened next makes sense of it, but in that making sense, we risk losing something – that is the sacrifice Jesus made. It isn’t as though he did not have a choice. He need not have gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He need not have done what he did in the Temple. At that last supper, he could have slipped out as Judas did. There were those at Gethsemane who would have fought to keep him safe. It is the fact that there were those options – and that he did not take them – which bear witness to his definition of love. It is easy (which is why men do it so often) to talk of love when what is really meant is a longing for something or someone to please us; but the love that took him to that awful place on Golgotha – that is something else.
It was John Mark running back to the upper room which alerted us to what had happened. Nearly naked, we could see from that, and from the horror in his voice that something awful had occurred. I gave him some wine and calmed him down. He told us what had happened in the garden. Mary of Bethany said, bless her, that they would realise there had been a mistake and he would be released; mother Mary looked as though her heart was breaking, and shook her head. She knew, I knew, we all knew in our hearts that this was that sacrifice of which he had spoken. I knew, mother Mary and others knew, that he had rebuked Peter for saying it should not be so. But not all the knowing it was his will and destiny could stop our tears and fears. We put a look-out at the window, and we were ready to decamp at a moment’s notice. We need not have worried, it was him they wanted; they had him.
It was the worst attempt at a night’s sleep any of us ever made. Every step on the street outside caused alarm, and in the end, I made us a very early breakfast. It must have been towards dawn that the men began to return. John was in tears, Philip and Andrew in shock. But it was Peter whose appearance shocked me most. He looked as though he had aged ten years in as many hours. His hair seemed whiter, his eyes tired and tearful. When Andrew asked him what had happened he shook off his comforting hand, swore, and went into a corner where he muttered angrily at himself. It was dear John who brought him round. Then Matthew came and said that a crowd was gathering near the Governor’s palace. I offered to go with Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Salome the doula.
When we got there we found a huge mob. From the balcony, Pilate was talking – offering to release Jesus or Bar-Abbas, the robber. The crowd, stirred on by the Pharisees demanded the latter. Mary and I gripped each other tight as Jesus appeared on the balcony. He looked tired and drawn. When Pilate announced he would release the robber, he asked what he should do with Jesus? The cry went up: “Crucify him!” Mary clung to me and wept. A man next to us turned on us:
“Are you one of his supporters?”
I looked him in the eye with the stare I had always used on men of his sort:
“Yes, what of it? Were you not there the other say hailing him as king of the Jews?”
The man blenched and turned away. I had guessed right. How many of those blowhards who now cried for his death had celebrated him only days before?
We returned to the house.
Mother Mary asked us for news, so we gave it straight. We knew what we had to do. He would be crucified on Golgotha, we needed to get there so we could be with him at the last. Peter looked at me as though I was crazy:
“They will take you and Mary, what are you thinking, woman!”
“I am thinking, Peter, that if you want to stay here and hide, do so, I am not ashamed or afraid. They are not going to strip me naked and hang me on a tree!”
John said he would come with us.
So it was we watched that sad last walk as, battered and bruised almost beyond recognition, he tried to drag that cross up the hill. But his strength failed, and Alexander and Rufus’ father carried it for him. We got close enough for mother Mary to mop his brow. I told the soldiers who we were and the centurion, who seemed to admire my courage, allowed us to stand at the foot of the cross.
We watched as they mocked him. We heard his words. He commended mother Mary of John’s tender care – and how marvelously he fulfilled that charge. Then he gave up his spirit and we cried as though tears had no end. The sky grew black. When those soldiers came to check whether the three men on the crosses were dead, there was no doubt about him. We asked for his body; they gave it to us.
Oh, oh, oh of that I cannot write. To see that life whose entry into the world I had seen thirty-three years earlier now broken, battered and lifeless is more that I can bear. I kissed that bloody brow and washed him with the water brought by Joseph’s men. Joseph’s men told us we could use his tomb and showed us where.
As we got there, it was almost time for the Passover. We finished washing him. We anointed him with herbs. I took the winding cloth which I had brought back with me from Babylon and we wrapped him in it, with a cloth to cover that battered face. Then, we each kissed him and headed for the exit. The soldiers rolled a great stone across the entrance and stood guard. We went back home in silence. What could be said? He had gone. He had said he would return. Deep, deep inside me that small flame burned bright.
Crossposted from: Nebraska Energy Observer
As we work our way into the second year of lockdown to flatten the curve, many of us remain more or less forcibly unchurched. Well, I was that way in college, since there was no local church of my denomination, nor did I have a car available. So it was time to improvise, adapt, and overcome, as it is now for people of faith.
Our forebearers had their passion plays to act out parts of the story of the Bible, most especially the Passion of Christ. And in fact, there is a modern one that was my mainstay in college. It’s certainly not as good as the services we normally would attend this week, but it is much better than nothing, or perhaps for some of us, even reading the words and being unable to visualize what this sacrifice the God himself made to save us was like.
I hope and yes, pray, that this will remind some of you, as it did me years ago, about how much God loves us all, no matter how we have behaved. Oh, and enjoy as well, for it came out of a burst of creativity rarely seen.