Friday, 3 April 2015

Seven Last Words (7): ‘Father, into
your hands I commend my spirit’

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ … candles light up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

7, Luke 23: 46

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
Luke 23: 44-49.

The words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Reflection: (7) Reunion

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Christ cried out aloud twice on the cross (see Matthew 27: 46, 50; Mark 15: 34, 37).

However, Saint Luke alone tells us what Christ said when he cried out when he cried that second time: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (see Luke 23: 46), which is our seventh and last reflection this afternoon.

This saying, which is an announcement and not a request, is traditionally called “The Word of Reunion,” for Christ has accepted the will of God the Father in Heaven.

This is the seventh last word. It is followed by silence – the silence of the grave, the silence of Christ lying in the tomb, the silence of the disciples who have lost their sense of direction, their focus, their understanding, their control – and our silence before the resurrection.

So often I want to be in control. I want to control the agenda, I want to control conversations, I want to control discussions. And I particularly want to control the words I use, the words others are going to hear me say.

And so I am humbled at times when I listen to Leonard Cohen’s song, If it be your will.

I have been at each of Leonard Cohen’s concerts in Ireland over the last few years. And at many of his concerts, Leonard Cohen ends singing this poem, which for me is about submission to God’s will, accepting God’s will, leaving God in control of my spirit:

‘If it be your will’ … Leonard Cohen on stage at Lissadell House, Co Sligo, in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.


Leonard Cohen sings of his nearly complete subjection to the divine will.

If he is told to be silent, he will be silent; if he is told to sing, he will sing.

If he is allowed to express his true voice (“if a voice be true”), he will sing in praise of God from the “the broken hill” ... from Calvary?

The mercy of God, the compassion of God, the love of God, redeems the burning hearts in hell ... if it is God’s will.

Leonard Cohen’s great hope in this will leads to prayer, to the one who can “make us well” if we devote ourselves to God, pray to God, sing to God.

But he still prays to God to act on behalf of the suffering.

Cajoling God in song and poetry, Cohen says God has the power to “end this night” of the darkness of the human condition, in which people are dressed in only dirty “rags of light” that are fragmented, that are not fully whole and illuminated.

In this song, I imagine Christ on the cross as he speaks to God the Father as his agony comes to its close:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before.


The broken hill is Golgotha where he has been crucified, the rugged and rocky Mount of Calvary.

“Let the rivers fill” may refer to the water of his thirst, the water of his sweat, the water that streams from his side, the waters of baptism, the Living Water that will never leave us to thirst.

If it be your will
To make us well
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
All your children here


In our journey today, we have been concerned, not just with the last words of Christ on the cross, but also with the meaning of his life for our lives, the meaning of every life for our lives.

As Timothy Radcliffe says: “We must wait for the resurrection to break the silence of the tomb.” We must speak up when it is necessary, and to have the courage to speak is “ultimately founded upon the courage to listen.” But at the grave, at times of desolation, at times when there is no answer, we may also be called to be silent.

And so let us listen to Leonard Cohen sing that poem:

[sound track]


‘If It Be Your Will’ … Leonard Cohen and The Webb Sisters, Live in London

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, in your last words from the cross you commended your spirit to the Father. Help us to end our days in the secure knowledge of your love, that whether dying or living, we may be safe in his eternal arms, for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the seventh of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (6):
‘It is finished’

‘It is finished’ … the Cross on a sandbank between the sea and the church in Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

6, John 19: 30

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
John 19: 30-37.

The words: “It is finished.”

Reflection: (6) Triumph

‘It is finished’

This statement is traditionally called “The Word of Triumph,” and it is interpreted as the announcement of the end of the earthly life of Jesus, in anticipation of the Resurrection.

For many years, I led a service of reflection on Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, contemplating the Tomb of Christ.

So often we move too quickly from the afternoon of Good Friday to the morning of Easter Day, without thinking of what has been accomplished.

When I first suggested such a service, the Rector of Whitechurch, Canon Horace McKinley, pointed out that there is no provision in The Book of Common Prayer for anything on Holy Saturday, until the Easter Eve Eucharist, which is the beginning of Easter itself.

On Holy Saturday, we use our churches for children’s clubs, or to decorate the church with eggs and little fluffy yellow chickens.

But do we allow Christ’s Crucifixion to come to its proper end – in the tomb?

Do we contemplate what has been finished, what has been accomplished?

Each year, in Whitechurch Parish, at that Holy Saturday service, we have reflected on great works of music, art and poetry that allow us to wait by the tomb.

One year, I chose for that reflection Mozart’s Requiem. This composition, written at the end of Mozart’s life when he was pressed with other work and in poor health, contains some of his most sublime music. Yet he did not complete it. He died leaving instructions to his friend to finish it off.

On the Cross, now that his life is coming to a close, Christ knows that all has been completed. “It is finished!” he cries out before he dies.

What is finished? What has been completed?

After his conversation with Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar, Christ tells the Disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who has sent me and to complete his work” (John 4: 34). Later, after his great final discourse at the Last Supper, Christ lifts his eyes up to heaven and prays to his Father: “… this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17: 4).

What was this work which the Father gave his Son to do?

In the New Testament, seven principal titles are given to Christ:

● 1, Son of Man;
● 2, The Lamb of God;
● 3, The New Adam;
● 4, The Son of God;
● 5, Lord;
● 6, Prophet;
● 7, Messiah.

But when it comes to his own self-description, Christ constantly talks about himself in terms of his relationship with us. There are seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, seven ways in which he talks about who he is, gives himself a self-description, but always in terms of relationship:

He says he is

● 1, Bread: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall will never be hungry” (John 6: 35).
● 2, The Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
● 3, The Gate: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10: 9).
● 4, The Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
● 5, The Resurrection and the Life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
● 6, The Way, the Truth, and the Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
● 7, The True Vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15: 1).

It is no wonder that at his death, Christ cries out: “It is finished!” His death makes those relationships complete, brings his work to completion.

His death shows not just that these were poetic or literary devices on the part of Christ; he totally identifies with us, in life, in death, and in the grave. Death shows us how completely his identification with us is.

It is finished. Not that it is over, but is complete. His relationship with us has not come to end. It has come to its God-planned fulfilment.

‘It is finished’ … the East Window in Kenure Parish Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is a popular story from the Mexico Olympics and how at 7 p.m. on 20 October 1968, a few thousand spectators were left in the Olympic Stadium. It was cool and dark. The last of the marathon runners, each exhausted, were being carried off to first-aid stations. More than an hour earlier, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia – looking as fresh as when he started the race – crossed the finish line, the winner of the 26-mile, 385-yard event.

As the remaining spectators prepared to leave, those sitting near the marathon gates suddenly heard the sound of sirens and police whistles. All eyes turned to the gate. A lone figure wearing number 36 and the colours of Tanzania entered the stadium.

This was John Stephen Akhwari, the last man to finish the marathon. He had fallen during the race and injured his knee and ankle. Now, with his leg bloodied and bandaged, he grimaced with each step as he hobbled around the 400-meter track.

The spectators rose in applause.

After crossing the finish line, Akhwari slowly walked off the field. Later, a reporter asked him the question on everyone’s mind: “Why did you continue the race after you were so badly injured?”

He replied: “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish it.”

There is a prayer ascribed to Sir Walter Raleigh that says: “O Lord God, when you give your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who for the finishing of your work, laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

The Incarnation makes no sense without the crucifixion. In Christ God fully identifies with the plight of suffering humanity. Birth is not enough, there must be death too.

“It is finished” is not a death gurgle.

“It is finished” is not “I am done for.”

“It is finished” is the last words of Christ on the cross.

“It is finished” is a cry of victory.

“It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what Christ has come to do has been done.

All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled.

Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.”

Of course, we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be seen in its perfection until the end of the world.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury observes that Pascal’s comment on Christ’s continuing agony is an exhortation to us not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or to take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield ... the Cross illustrates the Triumph of God

Saint John’s Gospel makes explicit what all the Gospels assume – the cross is not a defeat but the victory of God.

The Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Christ on his cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here a-born, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Christ.

God’s work, the work of the Trinity, is consummated in Christ’s great declaration from the cross: “It is finished.”

His life, his death, his resurrection, as Irenaeus insists, recapitulates creation, recapitulates God’s covenant with his people, unites creation and redemption in the Incarnation. The new creation is complete.

As Richard Neuhaus puts it in his reflections on the seven last words in his Death on a Friday Afternoon: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” God remains at work making us, his creatures, divine.

Now it is possible for us to live at peace, to be God’s agents of reconciliation, in a violent world. We are able so to live not because we have answers to all the world’s troubles, but because God has given us a way to live without answers.

Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the Church, the “not over.”

We are made witnesses so the world – a world that has no time for a crucified God – may know we have all the time of God's kingdom to live in peace with one another.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you were obedient to the very end,
and completed on the cross
the plan of our salvation.
Help us to rejoice in the victory
of your finished work,
and to live out your will and purpose
to the end of our days,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the sixth of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (5):
‘I am thirsty’

‘Give me a drink’ … an icon of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in the Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Vathy on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, John 19: 28

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
John 19: 28-29.

The words: “I am thirsty.”

Reflection: (5) Distress

“I am thirsty.”

This is the fifth of the seven last words and is traditionally called “The Word of Distress.” Commentators regularly compare the thirst of Christ on the Cross with the request he makes to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7), and the promise that follows: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4: 14).

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those in humanity, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water (see Matthew 10: 42).

Saint John tells us Christ spoke these words, “I am thirsty,” “in order to fulfil the Scripture” (John 19: 28). Once again, the dying Christ calls out drawing on the words of Psalm 22: “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22: 15). And again, later in the Psalms, we hear the words: “and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69: 21).

The Psalmist’s words treat of physical thirst. But on the lips of Christ on the Cross they give a messianic perspective to his suffering.

In his thirst, the dying Christ seeks a drink quite different from water or vinegar, as when he asks the Samaritan woman at the well: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7). Physical thirst on that occasion was the symbol and the path to another thirst – the thirst that leads to the conversion of the Samaritan woman.

On the cross, Christ thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, and that looks for his coming again.

The thirst of the cross, on the lips of the dying Christ, is the ultimate expression of that desire of baptism to be received into the Kingdom of God. Now that desire is about to be fulfilled. With those words Christ confirms the ardent love with which he desires to receive that supreme “baptism” to open to all of us the fountain of water which really quenches the thirst and saves (see John 4: 13-14).

‘The voice of the hidden waterfall’ ... above the beach at Loughshinny, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some time ago, on one of my beach walks near Skerries, I was climbing up behind the shoreline in Loughshinny, and came across what I imagined to be a secret waterfall.

I was reminded how the poet TS Eliot concludes his poem Little Gidding (1942), the last of his Four Quartets, with his deep thoughts about the spiritual refreshment to be found in water, in rivers and in the sea:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


And I was reminded too how we take water for granted in this country, despite the debates and protests and arguments about water charges. We use it freely. We baulk at any efforts to charge us for it in restaurants. It is interesting how the great political battle today is not over the cost of recapitalising the banks but on the follow-up to introducing water charges.

Already the world is suffering from a scarcity of water. Those who analyse future security risks point to the danger of wars in the Middle East caused not by militant Islam, nor by militant Zionism, but by competition for access to the waters of the Nile, the Jordan and the rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris. This is part of the battle scenario being played out at the moment in which the self-styled Islamic State may only be the pawn of a greater power in the Middle East.

We take water for granted at the moment. But our water crises are created precisely because we take water for granted. They are not caused by us using too much water, but by us wasting too much water, mainly through not maintaining the pipes that bring water from our lakes and rivers to our homes, factories, offices and schools.

If we do not remedy this soon – and it can only be remedied through political will, political action and public spending – then we face a series of major water crises, every year, each winter and each summer.

If this problem is not addressed, and water charges are not controlled, then we can be sure, that like all taxation, those charges will rise steadily, drip-drip-drip, that people will be cut off, that major health problems will arise. Profit, not health and cleanliness, will soon become the primary motive for supplying water.

At present, this may appear to be a prospect so dismal that it is almost a fantasy of Orwellian dimensions. But it can come about through our own complacency, our own carelessness, the way we continue to think that water … well … that water is going to continue flowing freely, in saecula saeculorum.

Why do we take water for granted?

Why, when we ought to be in wonder and in awe?

Up to 60% of the human body is water, the brain is composed of 70% water, and the lungs are nearly 90% water. About 83% of our blood is water, which helps digest our food, transport waste, and control our body temperature. Each day, each human must replace 2.4 litres of water, some through drinking and the rest taken by the body from the foods we eat.

When water finally flows from Christ’s side on the cross, we know that he has given us all.

God gives us all in the water of life.

Yes, we ought to be in wonder and in awe.

To quote again from TS Eliot, he writes in The Dry Salvages (1941), the third of his Four Quartets:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities — ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget...


Yes, we ought to be in wonder and in awe.

But so often we forget about water in our cities until it becomes a problem. And then, when the problem goes, we forget about the way in which water is the first and the last of God’s great blessings in nature, immediately after creation itself.

● Creation comes on the first day, in the story in Genesis, and life begins to have possibilities and to take shape on the second day, when God separates the waters.
● The slaves are led from captivity to freedom and promise through the waters of the Red Sea.
● The exiles weep and dream of promise by the waters of Babylon.
● In the waters of the Jordan, Christ is revealed as the Beloved Son, and the Spirit hovers above the new creation.
● We hear Christ thirsting on the Cross in his dying moments.
● Water flows from the side of the Crucified Christ.
● The waters of Baptism incorporate us into the Body of Christ.
● And then, God’s creation reaches the climax of its potential, its potential beauty, with that image in Revelation of the City of God with the River of Life running through its centre.

Too often we see water as a problem – rivers to be bridged, tsunamis to clean up after, storms to clear up from, leaky roofs, dripping drains, flooded fields, stormy shores, barren deserts when water fails ...

And we blame not ourselves.

I begin each day in the shower, thanking God for water, not just the water that cleans me, restores my health and quenches my thirst, but thanking God too for the waters of baptism, in which I was bathed in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when God called me his own.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well … a sculpture by Samuel Peploe Wood (1827-1873). This missing drinking fountain once stood at the corner of the Museum Building in Lichfield, where it was erected in 1862 (Photograph courtesy David Titley)

Christ shares water at the well in Sychar with the Samaritan woman, who is an outsider in so many ways. Sharing water with her, he tells her she is not an outsider, she is accepted by God, she is truly called into the Kingdom of God.

He offers her living water, and those who drink of this water that he gives us will never be thirsty. The water that he gives us will become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

It is water that cannot be tainted, water that cannot be commoditised, water that privatisation cannot stop from flowing freely.

Lord, I thirst. Give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty, Amen.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you thirsted physically on the cross
that our spiritual thirst might be quenched.
Draw us even deeper into the living wells of our salvation
that we may long more and more
for the things of the Spirit,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the fifth of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (4): ‘My God, my
God, why have you forsaken me?’

Morris Kestelman, Lama Sabachthani (Why have you forsaken me?), 1943, oil, Imperial War Museum, London

4, Matthew 27: 46; Mark 15: 34.

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
Mark 15: 33-35.

The words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Reflection: (4) Abandonment

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This fourth saying on the Cross, the fourth of the Seven Last Words, is traditionally called “The Word of Abandonment” and is the only one of this afternoon’s sayings that appears in more than one Gospel.

This saying is given in Aramaic followed by a translation that in the original Gospel text is in Greek.

Of course, we all know too that this phrase is the opening line of Psalm 22.

It was common at the time the Gospels were being written for people to refer to psalms and to songs by quoting merely their first lines.

In the verses immediately following this saying, in both Gospels, the onlookers who hear the cry of Christ on the Cross misunderstand him. They think he is calling for help from Elijah.

It is difficult to understand in what sense Christ felt he was “forsaken” by the Father, for Christ is innocent, he has done nothing to forfeit God’s love and favour, he is holy, harmless and obedient. God still loves him. How could he feel, in any sense, that God have forsaken and abandoned him?

This cry – the fourth of our Seven Last Words from the Cross this afternoon – expresses the depth and intensity of Christ’s suffering, his interior participation, perhaps even his self- understanding of his drama in the terms of Psalm 22.

Certainly, the cry expresses his feelings of desolation and abandonment with the first words of Psalm 22: “At three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15: 34; see Matthew 27: 46).

Saint Mark quotes the words in Aramaic. We may suppose that the cry appeared so characteristic that the witnesses who heard it, when it came later to recounting the drama on Calvary that first Good Friday, recalled Christ’s very own words in Aramaic.

You may remember from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that this is the language that was spoken by Christ himself and by most of his contemporaries.

Christ in Gethsemane addresses the Father in Aramaic also

Perhaps, let us imagine, those words were passed on to Mark by the Apostle Peter, who would also have remembered Christ using the Aramaic word “Abba” in the prayer of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:36).

It is significant, for a number of reasons, that in this cry Christ uses the opening words of Psalm 22.

We can imagine how he was used to praying using the Psalms and other Biblical texts. Think of how we do this ourselves to this day. The offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer are built around Scripture, and the Psalms in particular. Think of the quotations from the Psalms in the Versicles and Responses, for example. Think of how we name the Psalms we use as Canticles, not by their numbers but by their opening word in Latin: Venite, not Psalm 95; Jubilate, not Psalm 100; or Deus Misereatur rather than Psalm 67.

Those words from the Psalms, for many of us, have become embedded in the memory that shapes and structures our spirituality, our prayer life, and our personal piety.

So too those words and phrases remained with Christ from his childhood. So what would have best expressed his deepest need and anxieties before God in his last dying moments?

In a real way, they alluded to the condition of the one who would have taken upon himself all our iniquity (see Isaiah 53: 11).

On the Cross, it would have been natural, not just second nature, for Christ to draw on the psalmist’s question to God when he felt completely worn out in his suffering.

But the “Why” he addresses to God expresses a pained bewilderment at that suffering which can find no merely human explanation. It is a mystery that the Father alone can unlock.

Yet Christ, in finding full solidarity with humanity, had to experience in himself abandonment by God. If we do not, at some stage feel abandoned by God, do we need salvation, no matter what we mean salvation?

And if Christ does not share that feeling, how could he possibly have become fully human, how could he possibly fully identify with my human condition?

Without this last feeling of abandonment and isolation, it would still appear to be an illusion: Christ identifies with my humanity, but does he take it in? Without taking on each and every aspect of our shared humanity, there is no incarnation.

And without losing, abandoning control, over how he dies, there is no natural conclusion, no end to that human life.

None of us has control over how we die, even if we think we have.

In that feeling of being abandoned, in that cry, in that “Why” addressed to heaven, Christ expresses a new solidarity with us when we so often raise our eyes and words to heaven and express, complain, cry out in desperation and desolation.

Yet, in the “why” of Christ on the cross, there is no resentment leading to rebellion or desperation, no reproach to the Father. We hear only the cry of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment, an echo of our own cries of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment.

Christ’s humanity is reduced to a wasteland. He no longer feels the presence of God the Father. But he goes ahead with this tragic experience of complete desolation.

That silence of God weighs on the dying Jesus as the heaviest pain of all, so much so that his enemies interpret this silence as a sign of his reprobation: ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son”.” (Matthew 27: 43).

When it comes to feelings and affection, this sense of the absence of God, of being abandoned by God is the most acute spiritual pain for Christ, who has drawn his strength and joy from his union with the Father.

This pain renders all the other sufferings more intense.

This lack of interior consolation is Christ’s greatest agony.

If sin is separation from God, then at this moment he experiences our separation as his own.

But remember too that Psalm 22, which he perhaps continues to mutter and to recite to himself as his passion is prolonged, moves on to become a hymn of liberation and an announcement of God’s salvation of all:

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

(see Psalm 22: 27-31).

This experience of being abandoned is passing pain.

This experience gives way to personal liberation and to the universal hope of salvation.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you bore our sins in your body on the tree,
and knew the deep darkness of abadonment;
help us to know your presence when we feel forsaken,
and the wonderful truth that we who were far off
have been brought close by your redeeming blood,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the fourth of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (3): ‘Woman, here
is your son ... here is your mother’

‘Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother’ ... Mary and the Beloved Disciple in a crucifixion window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, John 19: 26-27

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
John 19: 23-27.

The words: “Woman, here is your son ... here is your mother.”

Reflection: (3) Relationship

“Woman, here is your son ... here is your mother.”

These words from the dying Christ on the cross are the third set of words in the traditional way we count the Seven Last Words.

This phrase is traditionally called “The Word of Relationship.”

In these tender words, the dying Christ entrusts his weeping mother Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple.

But Christ is not creating a one-way relationship. He immediately follows this by creating a new relationship for the Beloved Disciple: “Here is your mother.”

He entrusts her to him – and him to her. Relationships always have at least two dimensions. But the best of relationships are three dimensional – one to another, and each other to God.

And that central truth about relationships is at the heart of the events of the Cross. As Saint Paul says, on the cross Christ was reconciling us to God and to one another (see Ephesians 2: 15-22).

There are some relationships we cannot create, there are others we cannot control, and others still that we have no choice about.

We cannot create our family. Our families are already given, even before we are born or adopted.

And those relationships survive though all adversities. They are fixed. They are given.

Even though my father and mother are dead, they remain my parents.

Even though a couple may divorce, each one in the old relationship remains a sister-in-law or a daughter-in-law, a brother-in-law or a son-in-law – albeit qualified by the word “former.” In time, they may find they have new relationships: when their children have children, they share grandchildren they never expected. They may want to forget their past relationship, but it remains on the family tree for some future genealogist to tell everyone about.

I like to imagine that one of the untold stories in the aftermath of the Wedding at Cana is the new network or web of family relationships that have been created. After the wedding feast, the first of the Seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel, Christ “went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days” (John 2: 12).

On the way, or back in Capernaum, one finds he is now a brother-in-law, another that she is a sister-in-law, some, perhaps, realise they have a new aunt or uncle, or perhaps a new niece or nephew by marriage.

We cannot create family, yet family often creates us, shapes us, gives us identity and allows others to decide where we fit socially.

There are relationships we cannot control.

Most of us cannot control who we work with. That is the choice of our employers, and even for employers that is legislation to make sure they are not discriminating. I cannot choose my students, thankfully. Your vicar cannot, and should not try to, control who are the parishioners of All Saints’ or Christ Church Cathedral Group of Parishes.

If we try to control who is and who is not a member of our church, depending on the relationships we like to have and the relationships we do not like to have, we will find we have a church that has an ever-decreasing number of members, so that eventually we become a dwindling sect, wanting to make God in our own image and likeness, rather than accepting that we are all made in God’s image and likeness. And that eventually becomes a sect of one, where there is no place for the One who matters.

There are relationships we have no choice about. I cannot choose my friends and I cannot choose my neighbours.

Have you ever noticed that when a house is on the market, both the vendors and the estate agents tell you the neighbours are wonderful? It is only after you move in that you are likely to find out if you have, as that ITV television documentary series describes them, “the neighbours from hell.”

I cannot choose my friends. No matter how much I want to be friends with someone, if they do not want to be my friend, that’s it. I cannot force friendship. When I have a friendship, I can work on it, nurture it, help it to grow and blossom. But I cannot force a friendship. If you don’t want to be my friend, that is your choice, and if you do, and I don’t nurture that friendship, then you are going to change your mind.

Christ knows all about relationships, and he shows that on the Cross.

Relationships define us as human. Without relating to others, how can I possibly know what it is to be human? From the very beginning, God, who creates us in God’s own image and likeness, knows that it is not good for us to be alone. And in the Trinity, we find that God is relationship.

Relationship is at the heart of the cross. And there, on the cross, even as he is hanging in agony, the dying Jesus is compassionately thinking of others and of relationships.

His mother Mary is the only person throughout the Gospel narratives who has been with Christ from the beginning to the end, from his birth to his death. She has been with Christ throughout his whole life.

Saint John, the Beloved Disciple, is the disciple whom Jesus loved. We are blessed if we have a very best friend, a person to whom I am closer than any other. John is such a best friend for Jesus throughout the Gospel narrative. In the Fourth Gospel, we hear that John was “the beloved.” John was the person to whom Christ was the closest. John was the best friend of Jesus.

In the midst of his dying, pain-filled moments before his death, Christ is heard thinking of the needs of the two people who love him most during his life: his mother and his best friend.

As the soldiers are gambling over his clothes and casting lots to divide them among themselves, Jesus sees three women – his mother Mary, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene, standing near the cross, and his mother is standing with the Beloved Disciple.

He turns to his mother and he says to her: “Woman, here is your son.”

He then turns to the Beloved Disciple and says: “Here is your mother.”

It is not a command, it is not a directive, it is not an instruction. It is a giving in love, just as his own death on the cross is self-giving. And in giving there is love and there is life.

And from that hour, we are told, the disciple took her into his own home.

Later, we find Mary and John together in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit is given to the Church (see Acts 1: 14).

Tradition says the Virgin Mary and Saint John later travelled to Ephesus, and that she lived in his house to her dying days.

Saint John the Divine on his deathbed ... from a window in Chartres Cathedral

Jerome, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.” That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

Christ teaches us to love, even when he is dying, even when we are dying. That is what relationships are about, and that is what the Cross is all about.

The cross broadens the concept of family - the family of God. Jesus changes the basis of relationships. No longer are relationships to be formed on the basis of natural descent, on shared ethic identity, on agreeing that others are “like us.”

Our shared place beneath the cross is the only foundational space for relationships from now on.

Mary gained another son. And the Beloved Disciple gained a new mother.

Beneath the cross of Christ, Christian fellowship is born not just for Mary and John, but also for you and me, and for everyone else who believes, for all who believe.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become a new family.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we realise that we are now part of the family of God.

On the cross, Christ entrusts us as his children to one another, to love one another.

“Little children, love another.”

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
your mother stayed by your side
faithfully to the very end;
and you, in the midst of your agony, cared for her.
Help us, even when we suffer ourselves,
to see and feel the needs of others
and to act in love towards them,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the third of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (2): ‘Truly I tell you,
today you will be with me in Paradise’

A glimpse of Paradise ... or clever marketing by a holiday agency?

2, Luke 23: 43

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
Luke 23: 39-43.

The words: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Reflection: (2) Salvation

The Αποκαθήλωσις (Apokathelosis) ... a traditional representation of the deposition of the body of the dead Christ in Orthodox iconography

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This saying, the second of the seven last words of Christ on the Cross, is traditionally called “The Word of Salvation.” According to Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was crucified between two thieves. One of these two thieves realises that Christ is innocent and calls on him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

Christ replies to the Good Thief: “Truly, I say to you...,” or “Amen, I say to you ...” (Αμήν λέγω σοί, amen legō soi), and then, on the only occasion recorded in the Gospels, he uses the word “Paradise” (Παράδεισος, Paradeisōs), from the Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a “walled garden,” and by extension, a “royal park” or enclosure.

There are only two other uses of the word Paradise in the New Testament, neither of which is spoken by Christ:

In his second letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul gives a description of how “a certain person” – perhaps Paul himself – “was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (II Corinthians 12: 4).

And in his Letter to the Church in Ephesus during his Revelation in his exile on Patmos, Saint John the Divine has Christ saying: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2: 7).

In listening to the Word of God, Paul is caught up into a vision of Paradise.

In listening to the Word of God in the cave in Patmos, Saint John has a vision of Paradise as a taste of God’s promises.

In speaking this “Word of Salvation” from the Cross, Christ is inviting the penitent thief to join him in the royal enclosure.

And he invites you and me, in Word and Sacrament, into the Royal Enclosure too. Not to look back to the Garden of Eden, but to look forward to the heavenly city, to join the heavenly host before the Lamb on the throne.

Have you ever had a glimpse of Paradise?

I have a few favourite places that offer me glimpses of what I dream Paradise might be like: I snatch these glimpses walking the beaches of Skerries and Fingal in north Co Dublin; strolling around the Cathedral Close in Lichfield at night, when the lights are out, beneath the star-filled skies; travelling by train along the banks of the River Slaney from Enniscorthy down to Wexford Harbour; on the bus from Iráklion to Réthimnon in Crete, as the sun is about the set behind the Venetian fortezza; the road down the Knockmealdown Mountains that descends from Mount Melleray to Cappoquin, and then passes along the banks of the Blackwater to Lismore.

Have you ever had a glimpse of Paradise?

I don’t mean to ask did you ever have a mystical vision, like that reported by Saint Paul, or those described by Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint John of the Cross.

I mean did you ever have a glimpse of what God’s promise might be like for you?

I know of at least three places that actually have the name Paradise.

The Byzantine Church of Aghios Pandeleímon … next to the Paradise Taverna near Kastélli in the mountains above Iráklion

The first of these three places named Paradise is on the Greek island of Crete. Some years ago, on one of our many, lengthy holidays in Crete, we drove up to Kastélli, in the mountains above Iráklion, when we came across a sign pointing down a dirt track with the words: “Byzantine Church and Paradise.”

The route passes through vast orchards and a densely vegetated landscape. But the Paradise we were being pointed to is the Paradise Taverna, which is run by the eccentric Nikolaides family. But the family also holds the keys to the Byzantine Church of Aghios Pandeleímon dating back to the tenth century, with powerful frescoes.

Over the centuries, the monastery has been destroyed several times by pirate raiders and by the Turks. In more recent years, there has only been one monk at the most living in Aghios Pandeleímon.

When we arrived, we found it was up to the Nikolaides family at the Paradise Taverna to decide who could or who could not enter the church. They may not have had the keys to Paradise, but they certainly had the keys to the basilica. And we were allowed in that hot summer’s morning.

Inside, there are unusual icons of Saint Anne mothering the Child Mary, Mary who would mother the Christ Child and mourn the Christ who is taken down from the Cross on Good Friday.

One of the notable surviving frescoes from the same monastery is one of the Αποκαθήλωσις (Apokathelosis). This is a traditional representation of the dead Christ in Orthodox iconography. And it was a timely reminder in that shaded garden café on that summer’s day of the link between the death of Christ and our invitation to Paradise, the royal garden.

Punting on the River Cam in Cambridge ... Paradise and Paradise Island nearby are reminders of our co-responsibility for God’s creation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The second of these three places named Paradise is in Cambridge. On the north bank of the River Cam as it enters the city, Paradise is a small, low-lying nature reserve that includes Paradise Island.

This fragment of semi-natural habitat was once a common on the margins of Cambridge. Because it is still on the flood plain of the Cam, large parts of Paradise are frequently under water during winter, turning it into a wet and muddy wood. But this also guarantees that Paradise is safe from building development.

Extensive work was carried out on Paradise Nature Reserve a few years ago, so that over-hanging trees were cleared from the footpaths, making access to the site unimpeded. Pollarding and coppicing – forms of pruning that allow regenerative growth – have increased the potential life span of the willows in Paradise, and in recent years 50 hazel whips were planted along with a rural hedgerow.

Paradise in Cambridge is a reminder that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation, that we are co-partners with God in creation, but have responsibility for how we take care of his garden.

Swimming is a pleasure in the clean, clear, aquamarine waters at Lost Paradise Beach, with sand that seems to stretch for miles out into the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The third Paradise I know is a small sandy beach with blue waters and the delightful name of “Lost Paradise,” below an hotel near Kuşadasi in western Turkey where we have stayed for a week or two for the past few years.

A steep path behind the Palmin Sunset Hotel leads down to the small beach known as Kayip Cennet or Lost Paradise. The path is tough and difficult for anyone with my health problems, but the reward is wonderful, and I would have to be wallowing in self-pity not to want to walk down to this beach. One afternoon there, when the temperatures were in the high 30s each day, hovering between 37 and 39 into the afternoon, I started reading Janet Soskice’s Sisters of Sinai. This is her account of Scottish twin sisters who lived in Cambridge and their discovery of an early copy of the Four Gospels in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai.

This is an historical work by the Professor of Philosophical Theology at Cambridge. But she writes with the pace of a first-class novelist, and the book is full of people and places I know and delight in – from Cambridge to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East, and there are even people I have met, including Father Justin, who once welcomed me to the Library in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

I could have sat there all day on Lost Paradise, reading this book. But I was also tempted constantly to take breaks to swim in the clean, clear, aquamarine water, with sand beneath that seems to stretch for miles out into the sea.

These three Paradises have been gifts to me. They have given me glimpses of God’s promises to me. If I have enjoyed them so much, I have been so appreciative of the gifts God gives me in his creation, if I have felt so welcome in God’s enclosure, if I have had a foretaste of the promises of Paradise, then I can only describe them for you in inadequate snapshots, in words that cannot give you the experience, but only give you a glimpse, a taste of “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you spoke in love to the thief
who asked to be remembered in your kingdom;
Speak the words of eternal life
to all who are sincerely penitent,
with the assurance of being with you in Paradise,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the second of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Seven Last Words (1): ‘Father, forgive them;
for they do not know what they are doing’

‘Father Forgive”’ ... The Cross of Nails on the altar in the ruins at Coventry symbolises the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral

1, Luke 23: 34

Patrick Comerford

Reading:
Luke 23: 32-38

The words: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Reflection: (1) Forgiveness

The Dominican author and theologian, Timothy Radcliffe, points out that that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection.

We know of the six days of creation and how God rested on the seventh. In Saint John’s Gospel, we have seven signs and seven “I AM” sayings disclosing for us who Jesus truly is:

● I am the Bread of Life [John 6: 35, 41, 48-51];
● I am the Light of the World [John 8: 12, 9: 5];
● I am the Door of the Sheepfold [John 10: 7, 9];
● I am the Good Shepherd [John 10: 11, 14];
● I am the Resurrection and the Life [John 11: 25];
● I am the Way, the Truth and the Life [John 14: 6];
● I am the True Vine [John 15:1, 5].

The seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel are:

● Turning water into wine in Cana (John 2: 1-11);
● Healing with a word (John 4: 46-51);
● Healing a crippled man at Bethesda (John 5: 1-9);
● The feeding of 5,000 (John 6: 1-14);
● Walking on water (John 6: 16-21);
● The healing of the man born blind (John 9: 1-7); and
● The Raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 1-46).

In the book of Revelation, we have the seven churches and the seven seals. And I could go on.

This afternoon, on this Good Friday, we are going to think about, mediate on, contemplate, reflect on, and be guided by the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

In his book, Seven Last Words (London: Burns & Oates, 2004), Timothy Radcliffe interprets the seven last words of Christ on the Cross on Good Friday as God’s completion of the circle of creation.

And of course, we should see in God’s word both the beginning and the completion of creation. As Saint John’s Gospel opens: “In the beginning was the word.”

As we begin to reflect on these seven last words, we should notice who Christ is speaking to from the cross: in the first, fourth, and seventh words, Christ addresses his Father; in between, in the second and third, and the fifth and sixth words, Christ speaks to us.

This first saying of Christ on the cross: is “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This saying is traditionally called “The Word of Forgiveness.”

We can see this saying as Christ’s own prayer for forgiveness for those who are crucifying him: the Roman soldiers, and apparently for all others who were involved in his crucifixion.

Many of the early Biblical manuscripts omit this verse, Luke 23: 34. But then, I suppose, it is easy to omit forgiveness, to fail to extend it and to refuse to accept it, in our lives.

We know how trite, how hurtful, how deeply wounding, people can be when it comes to forgiveness.

In abusive relationships, how often does the abuser say to the spouse or the child who speaks out, who seeks redress, who demands justice: “Why can’t you simply forgive and forget?”

Forgetfulness is not the same as forgiveness. Nor should we link the two together.

Is forgiveness meaningless if the wrong-doer has no intention of amending their ways, if they have no intention of making redress?

And we all know how easy it is to refuse to extend forgiveness to someone who recognises the wrong they have done, the injury they have inflicted and who seeks forgiveness.

How often, when someone says “Sorry” have I heard myself saying something along the lines of: “Sorry is easy ... Sorry is a very short word for a very long time of hurt ... If only you knew what you had done to me, you would not just be saying ‘Sorry’.”

How often do we feel leaving someone begging for forgiveness, even without forgiveness, gives us a sense of righteous fulfilment?

When someone asks for my forgiveness, and I refuse to forgive them, then the balance of power has shifted. When they were wronging me, they were in control. When I refuse to forgive, I assume control.

And how often we love to be in control, in power, to use that control and power?

On the cross, Christ is no longer in control. He has emptied himself of everything and gives up all control over how he is going to die, how his body is going to be disposed of.

But he does not say: “I’ll wait on others to ask for forgiveness before I say, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’.”

It is also difficult to forgive when I feel that I have no right to offer forgiveness. Can I forgive the Holocaust, the decades of murder in Northern Ireland, the decades of oppression and racism in South Africa, the murders on 9/11, “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, or, more recently, attacks on innocent civilians, mothers and children, in the Gaza Strip, or by Isis on Christians, Yazidis and a variety of Muslims in Iraq and Syria?

Asking whether those who perpetuated those crimes are willing to amend their ways and are willing to give commitments that these crimes are never, ever, going to be repeated, is seldom a possibility after this lapse of time.

But how can I forgive those great crimes of the past century when I was not a Jew in Auschwitz, a policeman in Armagh, a black African in Soweto, a worker in the Twin Towers, a Bosnian, Serb or Croat who lived through the horrors that came with the break-up of Yugoslavia, a Palestinians mother in the Gaza Strip, a Syrian or Iraqi refugee?

Yet the first call on my forgiveness may not be the major crimes of recent decades. Sometimes I am called not even to forgive those who have been offensive to me in word and deed, at work or at home.

Sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive is myself, for the things realise I have done to others, for the things I have said about others, for the things I have done to those I love, for the things I have done to myself. Or, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer, when I have left undone those things I ought to have done, and I have done those things I ought not to have done.

When Christ calls out on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” I know not what I have done and what I have left undone that has placed him there.

But whether I know or know not, he asks the Father for forgiveness for me.

And my response should be not to ask why, but to accept. I cannot hold back from accepting that forgiveness. I cannot try to hold power over God.

When I cannot forgive, when I have no right to forgive, when I am powerless to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive, when I have no right to forgive, when I refuse to forgive, when I am too weak to forgive yet think I am being strong in refusing to forgive, when I delay, dally and ponder whether I should forgive, when I take control and leave others waiting to be forgiven, I realise I am not perfect.

But Christ’s response is perfect, and that can be good enough for me, at least for today.

My response to God’s forgiveness should be generous acceptance. And in that I have freedom from all past hurts; all past offences and all hidden wounds are healed.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
in your hour of agony,
you asked your Father’s forgiveness
for those who caused you pain.
Give us strength to love our enemies
and bless our persecutors,
that we may reflect your love to those around us,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the first of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 3 April 2015, in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, where the Vicar is Archdeacon David Pierpoint.

Good Friday
The promise of
hope and peace

The Irish Times carries the following full-length editorial on p. 15 today [3 April 2015]:

Good Friday
The promise of
hope and peace


In a rare coincidence in the Jewish and Christian calendars, the great festivals of both faiths fall at the same time this year. Today is Good Friday in the Church Calendar, and for Jews the Passover celebrations begin this evening. Of course, Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples was a Passover meal or seder, and the memory of this is passed on in the Christian tradition at its very beginning in language that speaks of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and in liturgical texts adapted from the epistles of Saint Paul, such as: “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us celebrate the feast” (I Corinthians 5: 7-8).

For Jews, the Passover celebrates the escape from slavery in Egypt; for Christians Good Friday becomes the promise of freedom for the whole of humanity; in each tradition, the great foundational moment of faith in the past is made real in the present and becomes full of promise of hope for the future. These Paschal mysteries inspired the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1936 to write his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem as a protest against militarism and a warning against the looming threat of chaos and war.

Angel of Death

Vaughan Williams opens this cantata with the liturgical and paschal words “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”

In the face of the rise of fascism and nazism, the composer feared greatly that Europe was being drawn into another cataclysmic war.

In creating this work for a choir and large orchestra, he drew on the Bible, great Eucharistic texts, three anti-war poems by the American poet Walt Whitman, and a momentous speech in 1855 by the radical MP John Bright, opposing the Crimean War during the siege of Sevastopol.

In haunting words drawn from the Biblical Passover story in Exodus, Bright warned: “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one as of old … to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.”

Bleak warning

The figure of the “Angel of Death” appears in only a few translations of the Exodus story, and the identity of this harbinger of both the death and the redemption of the firstborn is often debated. But the Hebrew word at question in translations is directly related to the Hebrew name for Passover, Pesach, and the Greek name for Easter, Pascha. The Passover story and the Easter story are stories that, paradoxically, hold death and liberty in contrasting tension.

Bright’s warnings about the Angel of Death lost him his seat for Manchester in the House of Commons. But he felt vindicated, however uncomfortably, when the Crimean War turned to bloodshed and disaster, with over 600,000 deaths, and he was soon re-elected to Parliament as MP for Birmingham in 1858.

Eighty years later, his words inspired the radical former Dean of Canterbury, Dick Shepherd, and other radicals who warned about the dangers of rising fascism and the remilitarisation of Europe. At the same time, Vaughan Williams was working on his Dona Nobis Pacem. These bleak warnings were unwelcome in the 1930s but proved to be prophetic.

Like Bright, Vaughan Williams too felt uncomfortably vindicated within a few years when the Angel of Death once again hovered over the land and all were swept into another world war.

Redemption

Do those prophetic words of warning from John Bright 140 years ago and from Vaughan Williams almost 80 years ago, ring true today? The Middle East is now more tense than it has been for three or four decades. Russia once again is engaged in a conflict in Crimea and Ukraine that threatens the stability of Europe.

The far right is on the rise throughout Europe yet again. The lack of concerted action to address global climate change, the modernisation of nuclear weapons in the US and Russia, and the problem of nuclear waste means the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now puts the “Doomsday Clock” at 23.57, three minutes to midnight – two minutes closer than it was last year.

But as he faced into the darkness and the abyss in 1936, even as he realised that another world war was inevitable and unstoppable, Vaughan Williams remained hopeful that the Angel of Death would pass by and that peace would return to this world. The final movement of his cantata is punctuated with the closing words of Agnus Dei in the liturgy: “Dona Nobis Pacem, Grant us your peace.”

At the heart of Passover and Good Friday are stories of death and destruction. But their true meaning is found always in promises of hope and peace, redemption and resurrection, and new life.

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (45):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Falling Angel, Marc Chagal (1947)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Today [3 April 2015] is Good Friday. The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today are: Isaiah 52: 13 - 53: 12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10: 16-25 or 4: 14-16, 5: 7-9; and John 18: 1 - 19:42.

For these closing days of Lent, the six days of Holy Week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence, listening to one movement after another over these six days of Holy Week.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [3 April 2015], on Good Friday, I am listening to the fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death.’


‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

Vaughan Williams’s text for this movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ is derived from a speech on 23 February 1855 in the House of Commons by the great Victorian politician and reformer John Bright. In his speech, Bright condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says “John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.” He is best remembered for his opposition to the Corn Laws, which came to an end in 1846.

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the “Mother of Parliaments.”

Bright’s speech in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: “I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.” However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

Bright’s words seem so appropriate to quote today on Good Friday, and seem so relevant when we consider the present war in Crimea and Ukraine, 160 years after the Crimean war. But at the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, when they were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935), published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

In this movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land...” Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows [4 April 2015], the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death shall cause the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: “We looked for peace, but no good came... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved...”

John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

The Collect of Good Friday:

Almighty Father,
Look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ
was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow: 6, Dona Nobis Pacem.