22 February 2023

‘Who is Our Neighbour?’:
a six-week study course
for Lent 2023 with USPG

‘Who is Our Neighbour?’, a six-week study course for Lent 2023 produced by the Anglican mission agency USPG

Patrick Comerford

Lent began today on Ash Wednesday (22 February 2023).

One way of marking Lent this year is following ‘Who is Our Neighbour?’, a six-session Lent study course ‘Asking what it is to be a good neighbour’ and produced by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

I have edited this 48-page Lent Study resource and have also written the introduction:

Introduction: Who is Our Neighbour?

‘Who is our neighbour?’ This is a key question that is at the heart of the Parables in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

It is almost as difficult to choose our neighbours as it is to choose our family members. I may ignore them, they may pass me by on the street, we may fail to catch each other’s eyes as we leave our homes and close our doors – but we are still neighbours.

We seldom get to know our neighbour by design or through some great, planned-out exercise or scheme. We move into a house or flat with the assurance from the previous tenants or occupants, or from the letting agent, that the neighbours are wonderful.

Films and television dramas have idealised neighbourhoods and neighbours. The reality is that, neighbours, like families, are not always ideal. It’s only when we are faced with a time of need or a crisis moment that we realise who our good neighbours truly are.

During the pandemic, as many of us spent more time at home than we expected, we started to get to know our neighbours. Sometimes we get to know our neighbours by accident. But the results are often surprising – on both sides of the ‘neighbourhood fence.’

At a casual level, that friendly smile, that morning greeting, that check-in call, became more sincere and led to shared replies and responses. Sometimes, sadly, people realised their neighbours were worse than expected. But, in most instances, we learned something new from each other: what we share and how we differ; how we have needs and skills to share; how we all contribute to the variety and diversity that make up the beautiful mosaic that is our society and our world today.

The Church as a body learns about our neighbours in similar ways. In mission, we give and receive from each other, without asking who the giver or the receiver is – because, in reality, in the Body of Christ, Christ is both the giver and the receiver.

When we grow closer as neighbours, we realise what we share, what we have in common, how our differences contribute to our understanding and to the beauty of life. I can never return to thinking I am self-contained or self-sufficient. As we become better neighbours, we mature in empathy, we became more aware of our own dependence on others, and on the need to help our neighbours at their points of need.

Little gestures make a big difference: not just the small and the snatched greeting, not even the shared lift or the offer to help with child-minding, but the realisation that I am not fully human until I see my needs in the needs of others, to see my humanity in the humanity of others.

Neighbours bring unexpected gifts and I bring the unexpected to them.

My neighbours teach me not only who they are, but open me to the potential of who I am. Their needs and my needs become incarnational signs – sacraments if you like – of how we can serve humanity and of who we can be.

The six studies in this Lenten Study are inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10: 25-37). In some Orthodox traditions of iconography, the man who is mugged, beaten up and left on the side of the road becomes an image of fallen humanity, the world in need, the world that has become the victim of its own selfishness in the journey of life, but also the victim of capricious and powerful decision-makers.

Those who pass by the victim on the roadside of life are you and me, the faithful members of the community of faith, the religious, those who say we believe but who need to put our belief and faith at the service of our neighbours, the needs of society, the needs of the world.

But in that tradition of iconography too, the Good Samaritan is depicted as Christ himself. It is often an unexpected image of the neighbour. The rejected becomes the one who comes to the aid of the rejected, the comfort-less find comfort in the one who has come to bring hope and light to the world.

The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us not to ask but to answer the question, ‘Who is our neighbour?’ That lies in both me and the other person.

I too am a neighbour. My neighbour is not just the focus of my compassion and concern; my neighbour also teaches me what it means to serve. To be a good neighbour, I need to both give and receive, as Christ both gives and receives.

The Church is both the giver and the receiver in mission. In identifying and serving the needs of others, we find not only who our neighbours are, but they too welcome us as neighbours. We become Christ-like, as we should, for as the Church we are the Body of Christ.

The six studies in this Lenten Study are from Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Diocese of Europe. Our theme this Lent is informed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but you are invited to draw on other readings too, offering shared experiences in the Church, in all its diversity, of what it is to be a good neighbour today.

Patrick Comerford

Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSVA):

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27 He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28 And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30 Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37 He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

All scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (1)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) … a portrait by Joshua Reynolds

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Later today I hope to be present with the Parish Choir at the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford at 7 pm.

In previous years, my Lenten reflections have journeyed with the saints, looked at Lent in Art, reflected on the music of Vaughan Williams, and similar themes.

This year, I am planning to take time each morning reflecting once again on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Perhaps I am sympathetic to Johnson because of his origins in Lichfield. Perhaps I am drawn to him because he recalled that when he lived in in London he went ‘every day to a coffee-house.’ But he was also a pious Anglican, a regular communicant, and he writes regularly and carefully about his observance of Lent and Easter.

At early age, his mother encouraged him to learn the Book of Common Prayer by heart, including its many rich Lenten collects. The Book of Common Prayer invites us ‘to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and Repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.’

Samuel Johnson once declared, through his amanuensis James Boswell, that unless we set aside certain days for particular remembrances, we will probably fail to remember.

Johnson was generally negative about religious verse and his own devotional poems, marked by earnestness and humility, were composed mainly in his later years. There are several meditations and seven Latin prayers, the majority of them based on the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer.

David Nichol Smith, in Samuel Johnson’s Poems, says these verses ‘are preserved for us in sufficient numbers to rank [Johnson] as a religious poet, though a minor one.’

The Collect of Ash Wednesday in its traditional version in The Book of Common Prayer prays:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Johnson translates this into Latin as:

Summe Deus, qui semper amas quodcunque creasti,
Judice quo scelerum est poenituisse salus,
Da veteres noxas animo sic flere novato,
Per Christum ut veniam sit reperire mihi.

His translation is dated 13 April 1781 and was first published in Works in 1787 (see Poems, pp 229-230).

Translated back into English, this reads:

Almighty God, who dost always love what thou hast made, before whom as judge to have repented of one’s sins is salvation, grant that with my soul made new I may so lament my former sins as to be able to obtain forgiveness through Christ.

Johnson has condensed the original without losing very much and has made it a personal prayer. But his emphasis is a positive one, so that he begins with an affirmation of God’s love rather than asserting that God does not hate. It is a twist in emphasis that reveals much about Johnson’s piety and his confidence in the love of God.

Yesterday’s Reflection
Continued tomorrow

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square, Lichfield, at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)