Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. I have just recorded a talk to be broadcast on Shrove Tuesday. Here it is!

Ash Wednesday

We are about to enter the season of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and in many churches a traditional service will be held that includes the imposition of ashes. This is where the minister makes a mark of the Cross in ash on the foreheads of those assembled. As this takes place, the minister says:

‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

There then follows a period of about 40 days when people are meant to be penitent, that is, to be sorry for their sins and to show that they are so by giving things up and practising self-denial.

This really goes against the grain of the sort of society we live in. Our economy would actually collapse if people did seriously engage in self-denial as opposed to a token self-denial such as giving up sweets or whatever. The consumer society is just that: a society in which we consume and the more the better. Of course, there is a downside to this as we are discovering with global warming. Yet even though we know we need to do something about global warming, one solution we won’t countenance is consuming less. The message of self-denial is not one we are ready for and not one any economy is likely to adopt any time soon.

If the idea of self-denial is one that we don’t want to hear, the words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ are words we want to hear even less. The consumer society thrives on advertising designed to show us how happy we can be if we buy a particular product. The last thing we want to hear is that we are dust and that we are soon going to die. In fact, we are engaged in this orgy of consumption precisely because we don’t want to think about death. We want to focus on the here and now. If we did think more about death, we might have to reorder our priorities and change the way we live.

No, death is not something that we want to be reminded of. This is why millions spend millions on creams and treatments that are supposed to ward-off ageing. We do not want to see the face of a dying person in the mirror every morning. The creams and treatments don’t work, of course, but we are so desperate that we will try anything. However, the face that stares back at us in the mirror, whether we want to hear about it or not, IS the face of a dying person: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The reaction to this Ash Wednesday reminder is often to see it as typical of religious kill-joys: people who don’t know how to enjoy themselves and don’t want anyone else to either. It is seen as very negative and morbid. It is not meant to be. It is meant to remind us of who we are and of our mortality so that we can prepare for our death and make the most of our life. A popular saying is: ‘Life is not a dress-rehearsal’ meaning that this is all there is so we had better make the most of it.

The Christian message is that indeed life is not a dress-rehearsal, but it does not follow that this is all there is to it. There is another life beyond this one and what we do in this one directly affects our life in the next. No dress-rehearsal indeed!

It is because life is not a dress rehearsal, but the real thing, that we need to hear the Ash Wednesday sentences:

‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

We will die and the best way to prepare for our certain death is not by trying to blot the thought out with work or pleasure, it is by turning from sin and being faithful to Christ who Christians believe not only died, but rose again from the dead.

His death gives us hope as we face our own.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Then and Now

I have been reading Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman. It is subtitled: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. The book provides a detailed examination of these two ancient cities as well as much historical information. I have also just finished, coincidentally, watching the second series of the HBO/BBC drama, Rome. What both the book and the TV series do, in their own different ways, is reinforce just how much the world has changed since then.

This presents a real dilemma when preaching because most congregational members are not really interested in exploring the implications of this change when it comes to understanding a passage of Scripture. And yet, an act of imagination is required if the Bible is not just to be a text on which we impose our own pictures inevitably drawn from our very different world.

I will never forget the shock I got when I first went to Galilee. The lake is so small. I was brought up with images inspired by calling it the Sea of Galilee. I imagined it being so much bigger. Being there, helped me get a better image of what the geography must have been like and that helps me now to imagine some of the journeys the Bible describes Jesus making as well as some of the events it tells us about..

We have a problem in our lectionary readings in church at the moment. The software I and many others use, giving us the readings for each Sunday, is out of synchronization with the version of the lectionary published by the Church of England and which is used by the English-speaking churches, amongst others, here in Hong Kong. This has resulted in us having the same Gospel reading for two Sundays running. I used the computer version for the first Sunday and my colleague the published one for the second Sunday.

The explanation of why the printed version is right, and not that on my software, is found on the Church of England Liturgical Commission’s Official website:

'The provision of Is 49:1-7, 1 Cor 1:1-9, John 1:29-42 for 20 January (3rd Sunday of Epiphany) is correct.

This is because the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany (13 January) takes the readings for the Baptism of Christ (Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43 and Matthew 3.13-end), and the 1st Sunday of Epiphany (6 January) coincides with the Feast of the Epiphany itself.

Likewise the readings normally read on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany are in 2008 read on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany (27 January), and Candlemas may - if desired - be celebrated on Sunday 3 February.'

So that’s all clear then!

One good thing, however, now I know which is the right one, is that I will get to preach this Sunday on the passage that the software gave for last Sunday, that is, Matthew 4:12-23. This describes how Jesus makes his home at Capernaum instead of Nazareth after John the Baptist is arrested. Again, one of my abiding memories of Capernaum, after visiting it, is how small these villages must have been. Peter’s house, which now has an awful looking modern church built over it, must also have been small. It is a beautiful setting, though, and must have been even more so when Jesus lived there.

All of which challenges us all both preacher and congregation to work at the text not just to understand what the words mean, but to imagine what it means: to picture the world in which the words were written. A world with no cars, electric, computers, telephones, and all those things we are so proud of having invented, but which have added to the stress of life and are contributing to the destruction of the planet.

I like this quotation from the historian G M Trevelyan that appears on the Rome website:

"The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today... The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once on this earth, once on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow".


I have just downloaded an update for Visual Liturgy 4, the computer software I mentioned above, and it has corrected the problem. If anyone has been having the same problem as me, check for downloads!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Morning After the Night Before

Last Sunday, we had one of the best congregations, numerically, we have had. We normally get a good turn out on Sundays, but this was especially good and especially for a January, which, after Christmas, can be a quieter time of the year. In fact, we had the highest number of communicants Christ Church has had at a service in January since 1966. (This is as far back as I have registers for. I am not sure where the older registers are – if I have the time I’ll try to find them and let you know!) In fact, the last time we had this many at a service was in September last year, which was also the highest for a September since 1966.

Numbers have to be taken cautiously and do not mean that the congregation is spiritually healthy, but it would be a brave Vicar who said they meant nothing and most of us being human are rather glad when people decide to come to Church rather than choose to stay away. I took them to mean that at least people were enjoying the services and finding something in them that met a need as well as giving them a way to worship God.

Last night, we had our first Church Council meeting of the New Year for which we also had a good turn out. During a fairly general discussion, at one point, the comment was made that there wasn’t ‘enough variation in the services’. This is church speak and code for: ‘they are boring’. I got the distinct impression that the person who voiced this comment wasn’t alone in his opinion. He felt we always said the same prayers in the same order. I explained that this was inevitable to an extent if you have a set liturgy. The music, the hymns, the readings, the intercessions, and even the sermon, however, are different. But what he meant, of course, was that the services feel the same irrespective of the reality.

I can’t pretend that this observation hasn’t got to me. Unusually, I was allowing myself a little optimism about how we were progressing here, but this comment is a cause for some concern. For me, the Sunday Eucharist is at the heart of what we are about as a Church: coming together as God’s people to offer him our worship, to bring him our needs, and to seek his strength to serve him both in mission and in our daily lives.

Clearly, this comment calls for proper reflection and prayer and not an immediate and, inevitably, defensive response, but if I can’t be allowed a few instant thoughts here, then where can I be allowed them?!

The dilemma for me is the tension between worship as service, the word liturgy after all means service, and worship as entertainment. We live in an entertainment culture. This is inescapable. People expect to be entertained in any free moment they have. This is why they walk around with wires dangling from their heads and with their ears glued to mobiles. Boredom is the one thing we won’t allow ourselves and why should we when there is so much out there to entertain us twenty-four hours a day?

All of which does not mean that our worship and church services should be boring. I remember many years ago a fellow member of the Youth Fellowship commenting that the way the choir sang the canticle, Te Deum, meant it should be renamed Tedium. Worship certainly shouldn’t be tedious. Our worship should be the best it can be. At its best, our worship should inspire us and lift us to heaven to join the heavenly choirs. But I still think there is a difference between being inspired and being entertained. Inspiration should lead us to take part, to join our prayers and praises with angels and archangels and with the whole company of God’s people. This is very different to entertainment, which is self-centred focusing on what I want and where the only thing that matters is whether I like it or not.

So are our services here becoming boring? Given the number who are coming to them, obviously not everyone thinks so, but it is worrying if committed people feel this way. Does it matter, or rather, should it lead to a change in our services? I know that we must constantly strive to do better and to give God our best. I am also sure that we need to avoid the temptation to change the services into entertainment. Quite what this means for our services, I don’t know and need to give it some thought.

I do know this morning that more than anything, I just feel a bit sad.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Agnus Dei

I hope that you have all recovered now from the festivities of Christmas and the New Year and are settling well into 2008! Here in Hong Kong and China, of course, we are now getting ready for what is a much bigger celebration in terms of the effort that goes into it, that is, Chinese New Year. Not having liturgical significance, this is a celebration I rather enjoy!

At the moment, however, I am preparing for the sermon on Sunday and it has led me down some interesting paths. I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from John 1:29 specifically John the Baptist’s words: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Lamb motif, the Agnus Dei, is in effect the logo of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong. We have it as a mosaic outside our church and it appears on our literature. This was something I inherited when I came here and have been more than happy to use.

In the past, I have spent some time looking up its use historically in attempt to understand where the symbol originally came from. Fifth century Rome seems the most likely answer, although it only comes to prominence in sources from the ninth century onwards. It was later widely used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades.

What I have been wondering this week, however, is why it was adopted by Christ Church. True, the Lamb represents Christ and we are Christ Church, but I have been at many Christ Churches and it has not been used in this way by them. I have started to enquire into its usage here and interestingly no-one seems to know when, or why, it came to be used. Enquiries are on going and I will let you know!

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Perhaps more interesting is something that I uncovered in an essay by Richard Bauckham in his recent book: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. He discusses the use of gematria in St John’s Gospel. Gematria is where a numerical value is assigned to a word. In Hebrew and Greek, he writes, the letters also represented numbers. Similarly, we sometimes do this in English with A having the value of 1, B equalling 2, and so on. He cites an interesting piece of graffiti from Pompei: ‘I love the girl whose number is 545’. That is, the girl the letters of whose name add up to 545.

Gematria is also behind the number of the Beast in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 13:18 it says:

‘This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.’

The writer is telling his readers who the Beast is. It most likely is the Emperor Nero. The sum of the letters Nero Caesar written in Hebrew is 666.

Why this is interesting as I prepare for Sunday is that, according to Bauckham, in Hebrew the numerical value for the name ‘Jesus’ and for the ‘Lamb of God’ are the same, that is, 391. To quote Bauckham:

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (1:29, 35-36), he is interpreting the name Jesus by gematria.

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Much more important is the question of what it means to say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The use of gematria that I have just referred to shows that the ancient Biblical writers used techniques with which we are not immediately familiar nowadays. This means that we miss things that would have been obvious to the first readers. But it isn’t just in the area of literary techniques that we run into problems.

The sacrifice of animals was a familiar practice in the ancient world. At Passover Jews in Jerusalem sacrificed lambs in their thousands. This is not something we do or understand the point of. In fact, we rather regard the whole business as barbaric and primitive. This makes understanding the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world also hard to understand. Indeed, it perhaps why some modern day Christians recoil from the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice for sin. As one recent writer puts it: ‘isn’t the idea of God sacrificing his Son a form of cosmic child abuse?’

We live in different worlds in more ways than one. The problem is that because we think we are more advanced than them in scientific and technological ways, we are also more advanced theologically. This is cultural and historical arrogance. We are back to the fact that God chose this time, 2,000 years ago, to give the supreme revelation of himself, the Word made flesh, as we have just celebrated. If we believe this, we are going to have to swallow our pride and accept that in this conceptual world we find so foreign, lie truths that are timeless and eternal, and which we ignore or dismiss at our peril.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

I am taking a few days off over the New Year but wanted to wish you all a very happy New Year wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. I hope 2008 will be a year of much blessing for you and that you will keep reading the blog!