The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of the Latin mandatum novum, the 'new commandment' to 'love one another' that Jesus gives his disciples in the Gospel passage assigned for this day. The tradition of foot washing that usually takes place in the course of the liturgy is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, as well as a commemoration of what happened in the Upper Room. To call this a 'third' commandment, as Jesus does, is immediately to rank it alongside, and equal to, the two 'great' commandments that elsewhere he identifies as central to faith -- love of God and love of neighbour. With this third commandment, Christians are invited (instructed, actually) to regard their fellow Christians in a special light, and to exhibit towards them a Christ-like love.
Unhappily, the history of the Church is littered with episodes and occasions when precisely the opposite appears to have been the case. The Roman theologian and Church Father Tertullian famously imagined pagans saying -- with awe and admiration -- 'See how these Christians love one another'. In later centuries, the critics of Christianity used that very same phrase ironically, as they witnessed the ferocity of the battles between Catholics and Protestants.
Nowadays Christians are far more often the victims than the perpetrators of religious violence, and very rarely persecute or penalize other followers of Christ. Even so, despite many ecumenical initiatives, divisions remain, and uncharitable attitudes to other Christians persist. So Maundy Thursday presents an opportunity both to acknowledge the gross errors of the past, lament the continuing failure to manifest true unity, and affirm again that Jesus gave us THREE great commandments.
Important though this is, the main focus on Maundy Thursday is the gift of the Eucharist. That is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack, reflected in the fact that the liturgical colour is neither violet as in Lent, nor red as in Passiontide, but white as at Christmas and Easter. Yet, the Gospel passage set for today omits the twelve verses that expressly refer to the Passover meal Jesus and his disciples shared. This may be because the omitted verses are focussed on Judas's betrayal and tell us nothing about the institution of the Eucharist. This gap is filled by the other two readings, however. The Old Testament lesson is from Exodus, and recounts the instructions Moses received for the preparation of the original Passover meal, to be eaten in haste as the Israelites prepared to flee slavery in Egypt. The Epistle is Paul's instruction (or reminder) to recent converts at Corinth of Christ's institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. Sheer familiarity often leads us to overlook a truly remarkable fact. These few words have been repeated by faithful Christians for over twenty centuries, millions upon millions of times. This in itself indicates the depth of meaning that has been found within them, and the juxtaposition of these two passages reveals what that meaning is. As John's Gospel elsewhere emphasizes, Jesus is the paschal lamb now made manifest in a wholly new way, and the bringer of freedom from slavery to sin and self-centredness.
Of course, for the reality of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God to be fulfilled, we must wait for Good Friday.
Seven Last Words, Relationship:
John 19:26–27: ‘Woman, behold your son’.
(To a disciple) ‘Behold your mother’.
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
This scene at the Cross has long caught the special attention of Christians, and is famously commemorated in the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater, set to music again and again over many centuries, often by celebrated composers. Why does it have this deep and enduring appeal? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the intensity of Mary’s pain is so easily imagined. We readily understand just how much she has been compelled to repress her maternal instincts of care and protection in order to honour the divine, but dangerous, mission of her eldest son. Luke tells us in his account of the Nativity that after the shepherds visited the stable and the angels sang, Mary ‘pondered these things in her heart’. No pondering, it seems plausible to think, could have prepared her, three decades on, for the grotesque culmination of her baby condemned and dying.
Yet, there she is, ever faithful, at the foot of the Cross, the sole person to be a presence in the life of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. Small wonder, then, that Mary has drawn a degree of veneration second only Jesus himself. Her special place is underlined by the fact that the third Word Jesus speaks before he dies is addressed to her. Mary's importance for us flows from this Word, since it reveals her importance for him. Even in the throes of death, she remains at the centre of his concern.
What is to happen to her now? Like a dutiful son, Jesus is making provision for his mother, entrusting her to the disciple with whom he is especially close (traditionally identified as John). Reciprocally, Jesus is bestowing on that disciple the maternal love and care that he himself has known. This, then, is more than a last Word from the Cross; it is an action. As the traditional attribution emphasizes, Jesus by this active Word, signals the supreme value of human ‘Relationship’, and even his dying breaths seek to affirm it.
There is a yet deeper theological dimension to be found in this, however. One way of uncovering it is to rephrase the third Word in same language as the final Word, addressed to God. To the disciple, this rephrased Word would be: ‘Into your hands I commend my mother’, and to Mary it would be, ‘Into your hands I commend a son’. This rephrasing reveals that while for Mary and John, there remains the possibility of a new, restorative and sustaining human relationship, this is no longer possible for Jesus. That is why he must, and can only, commend himself to God. Here, his belonging to humanity – a key Christian affirmation – has reached its limit. Human love can comfort Mary. Human love can strengthen John. Jesus is now beyond the resources of human love. That is why he relinquishes his mother to his friend, and his friend to his mother. It is to God alone that he can turn.
The doctrine of the Incarnation – that God was born into our humanity – is held up for celebration at Christmas. On Good Friday, the focus, usually, is the the divine self-sacrifice expressed in the doctrine of Atonement. Now we see the point at which the humanity and the divinity of Christ meet in the extremity of the Cross.
The Second Word from the Cross, Salvation:
Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus’ second Word from the Cross is addressed not to God, but to another, very lowly, human being. What Jesus says has often been found puzzling and troubling. All four Gospels tell us that ‘two others’ were crucified alongside him, calling them variously ‘robbers’, ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals’. Matthew says they joined in the hectoring to which the crowd subjected Jesus. Only Luke records a verbal exchange, first between the two criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Tradition knows him as the ‘penitent’ thief, though even in Luke’s more detailed account, he expresses no repentance, only an acknowledgement that he is guilty where Jesus is innocent.
What should we conclude from Jesus telling this criminal “Today you will be with me in paradise”? It seems natural to read this as giving him a fast track to heaven, but this raises a question as to why he should be so favoured. If Jesus can fast track people to heaven, why does he not extend this privilege to his disciples, or his mother at the foot of the Cross? Why this man, an acknowledged wrong-doer who has not, as far as the Gospels tell us, expressed any sorrow or remorse for whatever it is he has done?
However natural this way of thinking, and the puzzling questions to which it leads, closer attention to what Jesus actually says points us in a different direction. To begin with, Jesus says ‘Today you will be with me’. This cannot directly refer to Good Friday, or to straightforward presence, because Jesus himself will still be on the Cross, and then in the tomb, until after the Sabbath. ‘Today’ means ‘at this moment’, but it cannot be a moment in human time. Rather it is ‘today’ in the eternity that is God’s time.
Similarly, while ‘paradise’ is easily taken to mean ‘heaven’ this cannot be quite right either. According to the Gospels, Jesus remains ‘earthbound’ for a significant period between the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The Creeds declare that, as an aspect of his Incarnation, when taken down from the Cross, Jesus was “dead and buried”, just like any other human being who has died. Indeed, older versions of the Apostles’ Creed go even further and expressly declare that from the Cross he ‘descended into Hell’, meaning the place where all the dead are to be found. Nor is his Easter Resurrection a translation from earth to heaven. It is, rather, a transformation of his still earthly presence, enabling him to meet and greet and eat with his disciples as before. It is not until the Ascension, forty days after Easter, that Jesus is ‘taken up’ into heaven.
So what then of the paradise that he seems to promise the thief? The term is of Persian origin and it means a garden. It ought to remind us of the Garden of Eden, a place unspoiled by sin. By his exchange with Jesus, the thief, though a sinner, is restored to innocence. Why? Because of his sudden, profound insight into who Jesus is. ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Familiarity with this biblical sentence often leads us to forget how truly astonishing it is that he makes this request. It requires him, in the midst of his own agony, to see past the appearances by which everyone else has been persuaded. When Pilate orders the sign ‘King of the Jews’ to be pinned to the Cross, his action is part taunt and part mockery. Matthew says this prompted the chief priests, scribes and elders to join in the mockery. Luke tells us the soldiers did likewise, and even another victim of their brutal treatment found some solace in hurling abuse as well. Only the penitent thief sees that the attribution of kingship is not mockery, or irony, at all, but the ultimate truth. The Cross, with all its blood and pain, is indeed a throne, the thorns are indeed a crown, and the Victim, somehow, is the Victor.
Christians affirm this truth and sing many fine hymns that proclaim it. Yet we know, if we are honest, how easy it is to slide into lip service. Comfort, security, prosperity are not our helpers here; often they are the obstacles. We hardly ever really see the truth as the thief in his wretchedness saw it. Jesus’ second Word reveals that the thief’s agonized request can give us a glimpse of what it means to enter paradise.
The First Word from the Cross, Forgiveness:
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
It is not surprising that Jesus’ first Word on the Cross is a prayer addressed to God. More striking is the fact that it is a prayer on behalf of those who have put him there. In a truly remarkable way this simple sentence, uttered in this context, perfectly integrates the two ‘great’ commandments – love God and love your neighbour. In the midst of intense humiliation, extreme pain and the prospect of death, Jesus turns to God in love for his ‘neighbours’. The ‘neighbours’ for whom he prays on this occasion are those who have humiliated and tortured him, so his words recall the question that prompts the story of the Good Samaritan -- Who is my neighbour? -- and thereby signals the rejection of those limits that the category of ‘neighbour’ so easily implies. In the light of the Cross, we come to see that the command to love my neighbour, and the seemingly far more demanding command to love my enemies, in the end amount to the same thing. Thus the first word from the Cross exemplifies the attitude Jesus has all this time been urging on his followers.
This simple sentence, however, leaves us with two questions. Who exactly is ‘them’ for whom forgiveness is sought, and in what sense do ‘they’ not know what they are doing? The answer to the first question directs our attention beyond the relatively small number of people who arrested, condemned, tortured Jesus, and nailed him to the Cross. It includes the people in the crowd, both those who shouted “Crucify him” and those who stood in silence near the Cross. Perhaps it even includes the people whom one of the Gospels describes as ‘also present, watching from a distance’. Since few of us are prone to violence and physical cruelty, it is these people, on the periphery of the event, with whom we can more easily identify. And indeed, truth be told, probably most of the things about which we feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed are not actions and events that we have instigated, but occasions on which we have merely been silent or complicit. The uncharitable thought that sides with the strong against the weak, the truth that goes unsaid for fear of rejection or rebuke, the helping hand that it is too inconvenient to offer, these all put us in the category of the Levite rather than the robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The traditional form of confession in the Prayer Book reflects this when it places confessing ‘what we have left undone’ ahead of ‘what we have done’.
This still leaves us with the second question. In what sense did the instigators, agents, supporters and passive witnesses of the Crucifixion not know what they were doing? Did they not feel the hatred, contempt or fear that motivated them? Didn’t they see blood flowing from the lashes and the thorns? Didn’t they hear the nails smashing through bone? Of course they did! So what is it they didn’t know? The answer is, they didn’t know the true significance of what they were doing and seeing. They saw these as necessary steps in preventing a destructive rebellion, or in defending Judaism, or as merely going along with what everybody thought. But unbeknownst to them, this Crucifixion was not simply one more instance, among many, of extreme brutality in a brutal world. It was an attack upon the sacred, upon the holy of holies. It was the epicentre of an age-old struggle between good and evil.
Could they have known this? Not Pilate, not the Roman soldiers certainly, not the crowd. Perhaps the better educated Jews could have been expected to see and hear the resonances between Jesus and Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, and so have some dim awareness of who Jesus really was. Yet even the disciples, who had been with him throughout his ministry, didn’t see this, and fled in fear. It was only with hindsight, after the event, in the wake of the Resurrection that those involved could know what they had done. At that point, of course, they had done it. All there could be then, was forgiveness.
So it remains, and often is for us. Take the present crisis. Political leaders, government officials, and the general public alike do not really know what they are doing. Necessarily, they have to rely on surmise, prediction, instinct, cooperation. Measures put in place to contain the spread of disease will undoubtedly result in considerable damage to lives and livelihoods. Possibly this is for the best, possibly not. If ever we know, it can only be with hindsight. It may be that, despite the best intentions, we all prove to have been agents of, and complicit in, immense but ultimately unnecessary suffering and loss, with repercussions that resonate for decades, and greatly exceed any risk they may have served to reduce. Jesus’ first Word from the Cross, then, invites us to acknowledge this. For all the differences between the world of the New Testament and ours, we are not so far from the biblical characters it is easy to condemn.
Given we know, as they did not, the significance of the Crucifixion, there ought to be this difference, though. They did not think they needed the forgiveness Jesus asked for them. If we are honest, we know that, however ‘right’ our course of action may feel, forgiveness may be just what we will come to need when it is too late to undo what we have done. Yet we also know that at that point, Jesus will plead for us too.
Reflections on the Seven Last Words from the Cross
In the Bible, the number seven almost always suggests or signals some special religious significance. From the Book of Genesis to the Revelation of St John the Divine, it is used in this way no less than 514 times. Perhaps it is partly in acknowledgement of this that the Gospels record seven occasions when Jesus spoke while hanging on the Cross. Though these “Seven Last Words” do not all appear in any one place, it has long been thought that Christians ought to reflect on them together, especially as part of our devotions for Holy Week.
As is only to be expected from someone in the most acute agony, Jesus’ utterances are short, in some cases just a few words. The usual order is roughly chronological.
1.Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
2.Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
3.John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. (To disciples) Behold your mother.
4.Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
5.John 19:28: I am thirsty.
6.John 19:30: It is finished.
7.Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It is traditional to associate each ‘Word’ with a specific theme. Following the same order these themes are Forgiveness, Salvation, Relationship, Abandonment, Distress, Triumph and Reunion. They provide a helpful focus for reflection, but their generality, as well as their somewhat loose connection with the biblical text, leaves considerable scope for reflection
In the Epistle for Palm Sunday, St Paul says ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. Meditation on the Seven Last Words is a key way of entering more fully into the mind of Jesus as he undergoes the humiliation, suffering and death that is to be the final step in the salvation of the world. Since corporate worship, even in the most holy season of the Church’s year, is impossible at this time, these short reflections on the Seven Last Words will be published day by day through the first part of Holy Week and on Good Friday. They are offered in the hope that together with the accompanying pictures, poems and prayers, they will enable you to apprehend, and embrace, the holy mystery that is the mind of Christ on the Cross.
CMM blogs for Holy Week
Monday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Forgiveness
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Tuesday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Salvation
Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Wednesday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Relationship
: John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. (To disciples) Behold your mother.
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 • Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 • John 13:1-17, 31b-35
GOOD FRIDAY at NOON Seven Last Words
Abandonment: Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Distress: John 19:28: I am thirsty.
Triumph: John 19:30: It is finished
Reunion: Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
GOOD FRIDAY LITURGY
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 • Psalm 22 • Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 • John 18:1-19:42
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Job 14:1-14 or Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24 • Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 • 1 Peter 4:1-8 • Matthew 27:57-66 or John 19:38-42
LITURGY of the PALMS
LITURGY of the PASSION
Though still commonly called Palm Sunday, in modern liturgical practice the Sunday before Easter Day is referred to as ‘The Sunday of the Passion’. This is because it is the first liturgical observance in the season of Holy Week and Easter when a Gospel narrative of the sufferings (passion) of Jesus is read. The older title is not lost, however. This Sunday is unique in the Lectionary because it prescribes two Gospels, and the first of these -- for the Liturgy of the Palms – tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover. Riding on a donkey, and greeted with enthusiasm by a crowd waving palm branches, it is traditionally described as his ‘triumphal entry’.
It is only after modern worshippers have enacted this scene by taking part in their own procession, that they listen to the first Passion narrative of Holy Week – usually read or sung in a dramatic form by a number of different voices. Though this second Gospel, whether in the full or the abbreviated form, is much longer, the first is no less crucial in establishing the shape of our journey to Easter. On Palm Sunday we begin with triumph, but the triumph is short lived – and hollow. The Bible readings for the days that follow reflect the rising tension, and contention, that surrounds Jesus. It culminates in the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday -- his betrayal, trial and death.
It is vitally important to see that in this intervening period, his enemies not merely gain the upper hand; in the world’s terms, they are completely victorious. What better outcome for those who see Jesus as a radical traitor to their faith, and a threat to their political security, than that he should be killed in the brutal way reserved for the worst of criminals? And what greater evidence of his missionary failure, than that his most loyal disciples abandon him in fear and wretchedness, and even deny that they ever knew him? We need to grasp the depth of the degradation, pain and failure, to which Jesus is subjected, together with the strength of his unwavering obedience to God, in order properly to understand the shallowness of his ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday.
The fact that there are two Gospel readings, and the second one is so long, naturally deflects attention for the other readings. Yet both serve to amplify the meaning of the passion. In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah speaks with the voice of the ‘Suffering Servant’, the ancient harbinger of Christ: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . therefore I have not been disgraced. . . and I know that I shall not be put to shame” The Epistle is drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a brilliant post-Resurrection summation of the Christian faith. Though rich in theology, this passage is so poetic, it has the character of a hymn. Its opening line, however, presents us with a very great challenge. By the mighty act of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Day, God does not undo or reverse the horrible reality of the Crucifixion. Rather, God transforms it, showing us, contrary to our normal human standards, where true victory is to be found.
This year, unhappily, we cannot re-enact the triumphal procession, or make a journey to the Cross on Good Friday. Yet by reading and reflecting carefully on the scriptures, we can still do our best to follow Paul’s opening injunction: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. The key word is ‘Let’. Deprived of the aid that corporate worship gives us, and especially the sacrament, persisting with a Christian life is undoubtedly harder. Still, whether we can go to church or not, our spiritual task is always to find the grace to make the mind of Christ our own.
In each of these stories there is a miraculous element, and the dramatic nature of the miracle intensifies from one episode to the next. Jesus, somehow, knows the Samaritan woman’s personal history without asking. This impresses her greatly, but it pales in comparison with the miraculous gift of sightedness to a man who had never been able to see. The restoration of Lazarus from death to life is more dramatic still, but it also has special significance for John's Gospel as a whole. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is overturning the tables in the temple that finally leads the Jewish authorities to the decision that Jesus must die. In John's, it is the raising of Lazarus that brings them to the same conclusion. Why is this?
In the verses that follow, John proceeds to tell us. The Jewish leaders are afraid that Jesus' growing popularity as a miracle worker will lead the Roman imperial authorities to anticipate a popular rebellion, and order a violent suppression of the Jewish nation in order to prevent it. So, fearful for their religion, they resolve that action must be taken against Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest comes up with a more sophisticated proposal; they can best protect the nation by contriving to have Jesus condemned to death by the Roman authorities as a rebel.
If the raising of Lazarus is what gives rise to this plan, it also reveals its futility. Read in the context of this week’s Old Testament lesson -- Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones into which the Spirit of God breathes life -- Jesus’s miracle is placed beyond mere revival, and cast into the context of redemption. The extract from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans invites us to pursue this line of thought even further. It challenges us to think quite differently about life and death. “To set the mind on the flesh is death” Paul says, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. . . . If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Lazarus’s putrefying body, then, is not the only form of death. Nor is it the worst. Jesus displays God’s creative power in a spectacular act that reverses the normal processes of nature, and yet the point is not to give Lazarus a few extra years. Rather, it is to show that a quite different life-giving transformation is on offer and to warn us, paradoxically, against clinging desperately to this mortal life.
This is a message of special relevance at the moment. In response to the coronavirus, some occupations and activities have been declared “essential” and others “non-essential”. It is clear from the way this distinction is applied, that it relies upon a key assumption: it is "essential" that people avoid death for as long as possible. That is what ultimately matters. Such an assumption, though, runs contrary to the Easter theme of the Christian gospel.
At the Crucifixion, the plotting of the chief priests and Pharisees seems to succeed. Jesus is indeed put to death by the Roman authorities. Yet his death was followed by another 'rising from the dead' far more significant than that of Lazarus -- the Resurrection on Easter Day. This offers us, if we choose to take it, the kind of life that really matters – a life in Christ that transcends our mortality. Sometimes, however, as at the present moment, the world presses Christians very hard indeed to answer this question:
Do you really believe that?
The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually long. It starts out as a miracle story and then turns into a perplexing parable. A man who is literally blind is given sight for the first time in his life. The Pharisees are highly suspicious of Jesus. So they look for ways to discredit this miraculous deed, while at the same time dispelling any idea that he might be the Messiah. First, they doubt if the man really was blind. Then, they try to get him to admit that Jesus is religiously at fault; healing on the Sabbath is a sin. By implication, the miracle cure is no reason to praise him. To this line of reasoning, the man makes a memorable response "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see."
When the Pharisees finally engage with Jesus himself, it seems that the whole episode is not primarily a healing miracle at all, but what we might call a ‘parable in action’. The miracle reveals something about spiritual sight and spiritual blindness. Puzzlingly, Jesus says that those who are blind will be able to see, and that those who can see will prove blind. How are we to understand this? An important clue comes right at the start of the passage. The blind man is not blind because he is a sinner. Though it looks like a curse, his blindness is in reality a very special attribute, since through it Jesus will reveal the works of God. The content of that revelation is that Jesus is the one true light. That is to say, it is by close attention to the works and words of Jesus, not by scrupulous attention to religious regulations, that we can discern God’s will for us. By refusing to acknowledge this, the sighted Pharisees show themselves to be purblind, unwilling to see. By acknowledging it, the blind man, paradoxically, shows himself to have a degree of spiritual insight that the physically sighted lack.
Spiritual sightedness, no less than physical sightedness, concerns reality -- the truth about ourselves, the lives we lead, and the world we live in. Like ordinary eyesight, it requires light by which to see. Yet sinfulness flees from the light, because it prefers that the truth should remain hidden. The short passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians reflects this dichotomy, and turns it into a choice with which we are confronted. “Christ will shine on you” verse 14 declares. For those who want the truth, these words represent a liberating promise. For those engaged in “works of darkness”, however, these very same words constitute a threat. The choice is clear, and real. We can continue to act according to our own lights, and inevitably stumble around in darkness. Or we can avail ourselves of the light of Christ, and gladly embrace the truth that it reveals, however painful or uncomfortable that might be for us.
Symbols are indispensable to theology and religion. Since God is not a ‘thing’, but the source of all things, symbols are essential to talking about the relation between the created world of which we are a part and the transcendent Reality that created it. In the Bible, ‘bread’, ‘water’, and ‘light’ are used symbolically again and again. It is easy to see why. All of them are essential to biological life, and so they readily lend themselves as means by which to point beyond the biological, to the essential elements of spiritual life.
The Old Testament lesson and the Gospel for this week are linked by one of these symbols – water. Moses, tormented by yet more complaining demands on the part of those he has led out of slavery – on this occasion it is “Give us water” -- cries out to God in his frustration. God responds by aligning himself (almost literally) with a miraculous supply of water in the wilderness. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb”, he tells Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it”. Thereby, the Israelites’ biological need for water is satisfied, but also made the means of demonstrating their dependence upon God.
The episode reveals both God's providential generosity and the weakness and waywardness of the Israelites. They have taken it upon themselves to test God, and thus expose their underlying faithlessness. The Gospel passage offers us an interesting reversal. Here too the symbol of water plays its part, and the need for it is made the means of a test. But it is God in the Person of Jesus who wants water, and the humble Samaritan woman who is asked to provide it.
Being Samaritan, she is not one of the ‘Chosen’ people, but part of a group regarded by Orthodox Jews as renegades. Nevertheless, she passes the initial test by drawing water from the well. This proves her worthiness to be put to a deeper test. Does she long for ‘living’ water of a different kind, and can she see that Jesus is offering it? The woman is convinced, almost, by the extraordinary insight Jesus shows into her life and character.
This gives us a clue to the nature of the ‘eternal life’ to which Jesus refers -- life in God. In the Epistle, St Paul’s description of this life also makes an implicit reference to water. “We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.
The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of his three year ministry. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B. It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin very plain. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul thought to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite many obvious difference, there is important common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did. We deceive ourselves if we think that modernity’s undoubted success in science and medicine has done very much to change that.
In short, the human condition is pretty much the same as it always has been. To believe in the Bible as Revelation is to believe that, however much interpretation the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles may need for a modern audience, they all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what, on this occasion, does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous – namely, put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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