ABLAZE Mass, 10th May

Ablaze Mass posterAt St. Laurence’s Church, Milton Road, Cambridge, at 6pm on Sunday 10th May, there will be the next monthly ABLAZE Mass. Led by the Holy Spirit, and by teenage humans, this Sunday Mass enlivens the soul.

Described by one Cambourne parishoner as “Best. Mass. Ever.” this will be the spiritual highlight of your month.

Thoughts for the Easter Vigil

At some point tonight, God raises Jesus high and gives him a name that is above all names.

We light a fire, we light a candle, we light up the church. We sing the great hymn of resurrection joy Rejoice, heavenly powers; sing, choirs of angels. For Jesus Christ is risen. Easter joy bursts from every moment in this Mass, we rejoice with the host of Heaven in the work of salvation brought by God through his Son.

The readings, tonight, take us right from the beginning of time all the way through salvation history. We begin with the beginning of Genesis. There are two stories about the creation of the universe in Genesis, and we read the first one, the one that starts, appropriately enough, in the beginning

In the second reading, we pick up the story with Abraham and the sacrifice he was asked to make. We saw this story a few weeks ago during Lent. Here, the emphasis is on the promise God makes to Abraham at the end of the reading: “All the nations of the Earth will bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.”

Skipping over Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his coat with long sleeves, the flight of Israel’s sons to Egypt to escape the famine, and 400 years of slavery, we come to the people of God sandwiched between the Red Sea and the army of Pharaoh. God begins by suggesting that his patience is already running thin and the Exodus hasn’t even begun yet “Why do you cry to me so?” He rescues his people from the army, however, and they march through the Red Sea dry-shod. They are free.

But not for long. By the fourth reading, the Israelites are in exile again. Through Isaiah, the Lord addresses the people telling them that his anger is abating and he is making a promise to them as he did in the days of Noah: “the mountains may depart and the hills be shaken, but my love for you will never leave you.”

Isaiah again in the fifth reading: a pastoral poem of God’s desire to nourish his people, to give them all that they need. God calls his people to abandon their wicked ways and return to him, so that he can give them his abundant gifts.

The sixth reading, from Baruch, is from about the same time as Isaiah. Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe and shared much of Jeremiah’s work. He has been excised from Protestant bibles, but we are able to benefit from his words. He calls the people to wonder what they are doing, being carted off away from the promised land once again. He is sure that the Lord will, once again, call to his people and gather them to him again. Turn back to the Lord and he will call us home.

The final Old Testament reading is addressed, once more, to the House of Israel in exile. Ezekiel is rather more forthright in his criticism than Baruch was. God reminds Israel that they defiled his land and defiled his name. It is for the sake of his name that the Lord will gather up his people. In so doing, he will give a new heart to his people, infuse them with a new spirit. God’s people will live in his land; they will be his people, and he will be their God.

St Paul expounds on the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ died and, having been risen, can die no more. We join in Christ’s death at our baptism, and die to sin such that our sin no longer has power over us, we are no longer slaves: we are free and we shall share in Christ’s resurrection to be with God in eternity.

The end of Mark’s Gospel is quite sudden. His first words in chapter 1 are “the beginning of the Good News…” At the end, chapter 16, he concludes with an empty tomb, an angel and the women, the first witnesses of the resurrection, stunned into silence. Mark prefers to let the rest of the story live within us, within the life of the church. Jesus is risen, it is up to us to proclaim that to the world. Jesus told the disciples to meet him in Galilee but Mark doesn’t tell us what they found there. He lets them do that for themselves and on, down the generations, through us.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Thoughts for Good Friday

I always find today’s liturgy starkly beautiful. The church stands in shocked silence at the events that unfold in the reading of St John’s Passion.

The building is bare. The statues gone or covered up. The tabernacle is empty. There is no Mass today, not anywhere in the world. Yesterday, we had a church. Today, we have an empty room. Jesus is not there: he has been taken by force of arms and is to be executed as a common criminal.

We gather in silence. Our priests prostrate themselves at the foot of the Cross. Words are spoken.

See, my servant will prosper: he shall be lifted up, exalted to great heights.

Isaiah’s words begin with such power, with such positivity, with such hope. Hope that is dashed with the very next sentence:

As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.

The words that pour from the prophet’s pen describe so closely the events that were to take place 800 years afterwards that we cannot but see a connection, for it was our sufferings that Jesus bore; he was pierced through for our faults and by his wounds we are healed.

The letter to the Hebrews proclaims Jesus’ priesthood and gives us the boldness to stand in the presence of the Most High. Not because of our own good efforts, far from it, but because Jesus’ suffering has bought redemption for us all.

And so to the reading of the Passion.

We know the story well. Jesus is betrayed by a friend; Jesus gives the only military command of his life on earth: Put your sword back in its scabbard. Jesus is not broken, though. He sets his face like flint and talks back to Annas, the High Priest’s father-in-law and even reproaches the guard who takes umbrage with his tone.

Pilate wants nothing to do with this case. He’s got Rome breathing down his neck because of recent trouble and the last thing he needs is another riot on his hands with so many people in Jerusalem for the Passover. The local religious authorities are not willing to give him what he wants, though. For his own part, Pilate can see exactly why the chief priests have dumped Jesus on him and he is convinced of Jesus’ innocence. He doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, however, and washes his hands of it. He gives the people what they want and walks away.

Not walking away, and at great personal risk, we see the three Marys and John at the foot of the cross. Jesus knows that Mary will be left destitute with no man about the house so, even as he is dying in agony, he ensures that his mother will be cared for.

In completion of the Father’s work of redemption, Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content.

It is left up to the less-known disciples to claim Jesus’ body and bury it.

The last sentence of today’s Gospel always takes my breath away. Our saviour has been killed; all hope is dashed; the life drained out of him. The starkness of this moment is captured perfectly in John’s closing words:

Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Full stop. The end. We hear no more words of scripture until the Easter Vigil. In the meantime, we wait by the tomb, or we wander, subdued, through the world. Our Saviour is dead. What now?

The closing prayer of the Good Friday liturgy is one of my favourite parts of the whole cycle of the liturgical year. It is rendered best, in my opinion, in the 1970 translation:

Lord, send down your abundant blessing upon your people who have devoutly recalled the death of your Son in the sure hope of the resurrection. Grant them pardon; bring them comfort. May their faith grow stronger and their eternal salvation be assured.

All depart in silence.

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday

And so we enter the Easter Triduum, the greatest feast of the Church. We begin, as is traditional, with a meal.

Many huge things today: the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of his enemies, the Sanhedrin meets at night time (something it is not allowed to do), Jesus’ friends run away.

But before all that…

The year is 1446BC (or 1250BC, nobody really can be sure), and the people of God are suffering in Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. A leader has arisen among the people, chosen and blessed by God, who challenges Pharaoh to let God’s people go. The events that followed are recounted in today’s first reading, from Exodus. Moses and Aaron are passing on God’s instructions about what to do to prepare their households for their long march to freedom. They are to eat a hearty meal and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The bread will not have time to rise, so make unleavened bread. Get ready, for the Lord will walk amongst the people tonight.

St Paul shows us that he clearly understood what Jesus was doing on this night, in history. Whenever we do as Christ did, we proclaim his death. Sounds a bit silly, but we do not proclaim it in isolation, the Messiah’s death is his moment of victory.

It is interesting that, on this day when we commemorate the night when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, that the Gospel reading doesn’t mention the Eucharist at all. This moment is not recorded in John’s Gospel. No, the details of the meal appear in the other three Gospels, which we can read at our leisure. That said, anyone who doubts the voracity of John’s belief in the body and blood of Christ should head over to chapter 6 of his Gospel, in which he mentions eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood seven times before stating that many of Jesus’ disciples couldn’t accept that and left him then.

On the night before Jesus died, St John tells the story not of the meal, but of what happened after the meal. First-century Jerusalem at Passover would have been a hot and dusty place, and feet would get dirty quickly. A gracious host would have bowls of water available for guests to wash their feet in. There would also be a servant or two to help with this. It seems that the Lord’s friends hadn’t washed their feet before the meal, and there were no servants to do this job for them. Jesus steps up and shows them exactly how to be a great leader. He stripped off his Passover best and wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down and did the job of a servant, finishing up by giving his friends a firm command to do the same to each other.

In another place, Jesus tells his disciples that, in order to be the greatest, they had to put everyone else before themselves, they had to become the least, they had to become the slave of all.

After centuries of opulence, Pope Francis is giving us a hint of what this teaching means in practice.

Thoughts for Passion Sunday

We begin Mass today with a Gospel reading. It does us good to sit with this for a moment, because it can be overshadowed by the reading of the Passion later on.

We see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with all the people shouting and waving and putting their cloaks down and making sure that the coming king’s feet don’t touch the dusty ground. He rides on the foal of a donkey: this is not a fine warhorse, this is not a chariot. He takes the lowliest of animals, a beast of burden, the child of a beast of burden and mounts this beast as his ride. Far greater than the finest of thoroughbred chargers, this symbol of poverty, of service, of burden carries the Christ into his city. The people are unperturbed by his show of humility and cry on,

Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father, David. Hosanna in the highest Heavens!

In the first reading, Isaiah’s words ring clearly for us as a foretaste of Christ’s own life. We see in the words of the prophet everything that Jesus did in his life and, in particular, in his Passion. We hear, too, a call to our own lives: when God opens our ears, we must listen, even if his call leads us down a path of suffering. Our faith seems ridiculous to many around us: we take strength from Isaiah’s words: we know we shall not be shamed.

In the psalm, this week, we are reminded of Jesus’ words from the cross. Even in his last hour, he was filled with the scripture. The psalm describes his suffering, even what the soldiers did with his clothing, and his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” rings in our ears.

St Paul reminds us that Jesus, the son of God, is divine. He came from God and returned to God. Yet, he did not cling to his equality with God: he emptied himself of this glory and loved us so perfectly that he submitted to the death of a common criminal. There were much more dignified ways to die, even more dignified ways to be executed. Crucifixion was about as bad as it could be: it was a humiliating death: slow, painful and public. “But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names.”

This week, we read the story of the Lord’s passion and death from one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), according to the three-year cycle of readings. We will hear John’s account on Good Friday.

Mark, this year, is the most concise rendition of the four. He began his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism and concludes with the Passion. We stand as we are reminded, once more, of the completion of God’s great work of salvation. As with all stories, this one is full of human weakness. Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed, by one of his friends (how many times have we done this to him?); Peter announces that he will stand by Jesus to the very end, even into death (who was it who stayed with him to the end, though? It was not Peter). In Mark’s Gospel, we see a young follower of Jesus, not mentioned in any of the other renditions, running off into the night naked. Some scholars think that this boy may be Mark himself.

As Jesus is hanging on the cross, he quotes the psalm we read earlier, and yields his soul to the Father.

Seeing this, the centurion, a gentile, recognises Jesus for what he is: “Truly, this man was a son of God.” The centurion is the first person in the whole of Mark’s Gospel to recognise Jesus and to declare his identity aloud.

In the Temple, in front of the Holy of Holies, hung a huge curtain. Behind this curtain was the place where God’s presence dwelt on Earth. This curtain, the Veil of the Temple, separated the presence of God from the people. Only the High Priest was allowed through the veil, and then only one one day each year.

At the moment of his death, the curtain, the barrier separating God from his people, was torn in two, from top to bottom. From that moment, God was no longer separated from us. Soon after, he would send his Holy Spirit amongst us, and we would be his church.

Thoughts for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

We see the transformation of the world beginning this week. God tells Jeremiah that, even though the people turn away from them time and again, he will call them to himself once more, for all time. The written Law is too easy to ignore; when you take a child by the hand, they will wriggle free after a time and go their own way.

Not this time. God promises a new law, he will write it on our very hearts, creating hearts for love, pure hearts, cleansed from our sin.

Interestingly, this is a rare mention of the God’s holy spirit in the Old Testament occurs in the psalm. The psalmist expresses our yearning for God’s help, for we are nothing without God. We yearn for him: it is written on our hearts.

St Paul outlines what Jesus did for us, reminding us that our Lenten journey is nearly at its end, when we will get to see Jesus submit so humbly to God that his prayer for the salvation of the world was heard.

In the Gospel, Jesus explains to us (because we’re a bit thick) what must happen and why. He is the seed of God planted in the Earth and the death he must die is a literal and brutal death.

I find it interesting that the church has chosen this exact starting point for the Gospel this week. We could easily start the reading with “Now the hour has come…”, but we don’t. We begin with some Greeks approaching one of the apostles asking to see Jesus. Between them, the apostles arrange for these foreigners to have access to Jesus. It is the role of the leaders among the church to bring people to Jesus, to facilitate that meeting, to welcome strangers and to bring them into relationship with the one who was lifted up.

Now that sentence is being passed on our world, with whom do we align? Do we stand with the prince of this world? Do we stand with him who is to be overthrown, or do we let go of the convenience of the life we have and move towards the life that God is giving us to lead, one that will bring us to his eternal kingdom?