Archive for the ‘Christ’ Tag

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Three   Leave a comment

Part Three: The Third Missionary Journey, Jerusalem & Rome.

005

Chronology:

The chronology of Paul’s career cannot be fixed precisely, but fortunately, we have one precise date to start from. The proconsul before whom Paul was cited at Corinth on his first visit there was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who was known to have held the appointment from July AD 51 to June AD 52. Based on the reports of this visit in Acts, Paul was in Corinth from early in 50 to late 51. From this fixed point, we can then calculate backwards and forwards, using the indications of time supplied in Paul’s own letters or in Acts. If Paul reached Corinth early in 50, then his ‘Second Missionary Journey’ must have begun in 49, and the visit to Jerusalem which preceded it, when he came to an agreement with the leaders of the church there, would presumably have taken place in AD 48. Paul dates his earlier visit to Jerusalem fourteen years before, pointing to AD 35, three years after his conversion, which has therefore been tentatively dated to AD 33. When exactly Paul arrived at Ephesus is a matter of conjecture, but we know that he established himself there for a full three years. His stay there seems to fall between 54 and 57 AD, rather than any earlier, and it was between these years that he undertook his ‘Third Missionary Journey’.

004

Ephesus & Corinth:

The ‘Third Missionary Journey’, through the interior of Asia Minor, is given the most cursory treatment in Luke’s diary which constitutes much of the Acts of the Apostles. He seems to be in a hurry, as Paul himself probably was, to reach Ephesus (Acts 18: 23; 19: 1). It is evident that he had formed definitive ideas about the most effective way of conducting his mission. He decided not to cover ground by moving rapidly from place to place, but to settle, as he had done at Corinth, in a suitable centre from which he could reach a whole province. Ephesus was to prove to be such a centre as one of the principal cities of the province of Asia, with excellent communications by land and sea. Settled by Greeks in antiquity, but always with something oriental about it, it had been a meeting place of East and West long before the conquests of Alexander had inaugurated the Hellenistic age. Its world-famous temple was dedicated to the native Anatolian fertility-goddess, Artemis, or Diana to the Romans (Acts 19: 27; 34 f.), though she had little in common with the virgin huntress of the classical pantheon. From ancient times a seat of Greek philosophical thought, Ephesus was also hospitable to all manners of superstitions, and in Paul’s time it was notorious as a centre of the ‘black arts’ of magic (Acts 19: 18 f.). This was the place which for the next three years or so was to be Paul’s headquarters (Acts 20: 31). There are evident signs that this was a planned strategy on his part. Ephesus was another meeting point of trade routes and cultures, and therefore an excellent place from which to disseminate the gospel.

002

Paul arrived in Ephesus and began as always in the synagogue, this time for three months. Opposition grew, however, as the disturbing implications of Paul’s way of reading the familiar stories dawned upon the puzzled hearers. Resistance hardened, and this may have been one of the occasions when submitting to synagogue discipline, Paul received the official Jewish beating of forty lashes. He tells us that he had received this five times, which in itself indicates his steady commitment to working with the synagogue congregations as long as he could since he could easily have avoided the punishment by simply not turning up. Some of the Jewish community in Ephesus had begun to spread rumours about what this “Messiah cult” was doing. From later writings, we can guess at the sneering comments about what these ‘Jesus-worshippers’ were up to behind closed doors, with men and women meeting together and talking about a new kind of “love,” not to mention the disturbing gossip about eating someone’s body and drinking their blood. So Paul realised, as he had done in Corinth, that he could no longer treat the synagogue as his base. It was time to move elsewhere. He formally ‘withdrew his converts’ and established himself on neutral territory in a lecture hall in the city, which he rented. For the next two years, he divided his time between his tent-making business and the public exposition of the faith. He held daily conferences at the hall, open to all comers, which attracted numbers of residents to the city (Acts 19: 8-10). People came from far and wide, spent time in the city, and then went on their way. They chatted about anything strange or new that they had come across in their travels. The group of early Christians who met in the lecture hall was one of these.

By this time, Paul had built up an efficient ‘staff’, whose names keep recurring in his letters – Timothy (Rom. 16: 21; 1 Cor. 4: 17; 16: 10; Phil. 2: 19-23 etc.), Luke, Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; Col. 4: 7; II Tim. 4: 12; Titus 3: 12) and several others, though Silas had, by this time, faded out of the narrative. They were available either to work by his side at the headquarters or to be sent where they could be useful in keeping in touch with churches already founded, or in breaking new ground. It was in this way that Paul’s mission in the province spread. We happen to learn from his letters the names of the three up-country towns where churches were founded without any visit from the apostle himself – Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1: 7; 2: 1; 4: 13-16) – and there were certainly others. The author of Acts says, perhaps with some exaggeration, that…

…the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord.

(Acts 19: 10)

Meanwhile, however, trouble was brewing. There was furious opposition from the Jews (Acts 20:19), and some from pagan quarters (Acts 19: 23-27), though we hear also of some of the dignitaries of the province who were friendly towards him (Acts 19: 31). We have some record both in Acts and in the letters (I Cor. 15: 32; II Cor 1: 8). From the letters to the Corinthians we also learn something that the author of Acts does not tell us, that Paul was, at this time, driven almost to distraction by disorder in the church in Corinth. In a climactic passage of his letter to the Galatians, he had pointed out that the Messiah’s people had ‘died’; they had left behind their old identities as Jews or Gentiles and had come into a new identity (Galatians 2: 19-21). That was, in part, why the gospel was “a scandal to Jews,” but, at the same time, only makes sense within a deeply Jewish, messianic view of the world. Charged with his specific responsibility, Paul was able, without compromising that messianic identity, to live alongside people of all sorts, sharing their customs while he was with them. When he had dinner with Jewish friends, they would have eaten ‘kosher’ food together, and when he went to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he would have eaten whatever they put in front of him (I Cor. 10: 27). What would then have made the difference was ‘conscience’, not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might have been offended or who might be led back into idolatry.

005

This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference in which simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. Paul not only thought that this was unnecessary, but that it violated the fundamental principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but also perverse to some. For instance, a Jewish family who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs must have found it strange that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating, though a Gentile family would have seen little harm in it. But, once again, Paul is teaching in his letter to the Corinthians that they should think like the people of the Messiah, building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself. So in Chapter eleven of his epistle, he deals with the problems of the family meal, the Lord’s Supper or ‘Eucharist’. Then in Chapter twelve, he addresses the question of unity in the fellowship and the way in which the Spirit gives to each member of ‘the Messiah’s body’ different gifts to be used for the benefit of all. In Chapter fourteen, Paul applies this to the corporate worship of the church, following his exquisite poem about divine love, agape, in chapter thirteen. In this, Paul is not just teaching them ‘ethics’, but also to think eschatologically:

We know, you see, in part;

We prophesy in part; but, with perfection,

The partial is abolished. As a child

I spoke, and thought, and reasoned like a child;

When I grew up, I threw off childish ways.

For at the moment all that we can see

Are puzzling reflections in a mirror;

But then I’ll know completely, through and through,

Even as I’m completely known. So, now,

Faith, hope and love remain, these three; and, of them

Love is the greatest.

(I Cor. 13: 9-13).

Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward to the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit. That is why love matters for Paul even more than faith, which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate and practice the life of the ultimate life to come. That’s why the final theological chapter, fifteen, dealing with the resurrection of the body, is the centre of the gospel. It is also the beginning of a study I have made elsewhere on this website in a series of articles examining the role of eschatology in Christian thought from Paul onwards. Paul’s main point in relation to the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is about messianic eschatology. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” But if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. This is blunt but consistent and precisely what the followers of the other first-century Jewish leaders would have said. It was not disloyalty to Israel’s God, but the contested messianic loyalty that characterised Paul’s missionary thought and journeys throughout.

Jesus had described himself at his trial by the Sanhedrin as the ‘Son of Man’, which was the Hebrew and Aramaic way of saying ‘man’ and could even be used to describe the Jewish people themselves who believed themselves to be ‘God’s People’. Jesus used the words not just to describe his own ministry, but about himself and his friends, the new ‘People of God’. The word ‘Christ, the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘the one who is anointed’, was a word Jesus seemed not to like and was more wary of using, including of himself. When Peter had used the word of him, he rebuked him for doing so. It was a word with a long history. Kings had been ‘anointed’ and prophets had been spoken of as ‘anointed’. The word was even used of a foreign emperor, Cyrus. In the years before Jesus began his ministry, the word had come to represent God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ whom the Jewish people expected God to send as their deliverer. But this ‘Chosen Leader’ was thought of in many different ways – sometimes as a supernatural figure, sometimes as a soldier. Yet although he did not like the word and did not use it of himself, Pilate had had him executed as a ‘messiah’, a claimant to the leadership of the Jewish people – ‘the Jewish King’, as he had put it on the official death-notice on the cross.

It seemed to Jewish Christians that no word described him better – he was ‘God’s Chosen Leader’. They began to talk about him as ‘Jesus the Messiah’, where ‘Messiah’ is a simple descriptive name. When ‘Messiah’, however, was translated into Greek as ‘Christ’, it began to change its meaning. Greek-speaking ‘foreigners’ didn’t understand it and simply used it as Jesus’ second name. Paul, of course, knew the Jewish world from the inside and used the word ‘Christ’ in his letters to describe the whole influence of Jesus – his life in Palestine and the new experience of God which he made possible, so that he could use the words ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirit of God’ and ‘Spirit of Christ’, as we have seen, to describe this new experience. Paul was struggling with an almost impossible task, and he was aware of how difficult it was. But to talk about Jesus as though he was not just a good man who had died was to be false to what he felt in his heart the new divine experience to be. His meeting with the Messiah on the Damascus Road fulfilled everything and thereby changed everything, as the following statement made clear:

Whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by the Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3: 7-11).

003

The Messiah regarded his status, “equality with God”, not as something to exploit, but as committing him instead to the life of the ‘servant’ and the shameful death of the ‘slave’. That is why he was now exalted as Lord over all. ‘Lord’ was another word the early Christians used as a common way of identifying Jesus; he was ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. The word ‘Lord’ had been used for God in the Old Testament; God was ‘Lord’. It was also used to describe the Roman Emperors and some of the pagan gods. As Paul once wrote, There are many gods and many lords. So it came to be used of Jesus; to say that “Jesus is Lord” became the simplest way for believers to proclaim their Christian faith. It carried a sense of his presence, his love and his forgiveness, of the power to live in his way, which He gave to all who accepted his love. This is what lay at the back of the struggle to find words that really described what Jesus meant to his followers. The passage above is focused not just on a belief or theory about the Messiah, but on personal knowledge. Paul wrote of knowing King Jesus as my Lord, of knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. Paul knew the theory thoroughly, but it meant nothing without the awareness of the person and presence of Jesus himself. His personal ‘knowledge’ of the Messiah found intimate expression in suffering. He speaks of this as a ‘partnership’, which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, giving us synonyms such as ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. It expressed a mutual belonging for which modern English does not provide exact words.

Paul had come to the point where he was content to share the Messiah’s death in order that he might arrive with him at the ultimate hope of Israel, ‘the resurrection from the dead’.  The ancient story of Israel had been fulfilled in the Messiah, and all Paul’s previous zeal for God and the Torah had to be counted as “trash” by contrast. That’s why he ‘forgot’ about his past and, like an athlete with his eye on the finishing line, aims to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. Then comes the point of all this for the Philippians: they must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah (Phil. 3: 13-19). But how could the Gentile Christians do this? They had not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah, but they all had their own status, personal and civic pride. Even if they lacked status, because they were poor, or slaves, or women (though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all had the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they were Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who found themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, they must instead resist and find instead the way of holiness and wholeness shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God (Tom Wright).

Colossae & Corinth (again):

Paul’s later letters to both the Ephesians and Colossians are both deeply Jewish in their orientation, only making sense within that worldview. Nineteenth-century Protestantism didn’t favour Jewish thought, and didn’t want Paul to be too Jewish and, more recently, some scholars have tended to demote the two epistles as anathema to the more ‘liberal’ agenda they find in Galatians and Corinthians. Tom Wright claims that this is a mistake, resulting from contemporary ideology and moralising which seeks to ‘pigeon-hole’ Paul. Colossians was written, it appears, to a young church. Paul had been informed of its existence by Epaphus, himself from Colossae, who seems to have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and to have returned home to spread the word. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians was written at Rome, when he was in prison in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, in about AD 63. Colossae had been a great city, but had very much declined, and was now the smallest of the three neighbouring cities in the valley of the Lycus. Laodicea and Hierapolis were still prosperous by comparison. Its church was the most insignificant of the churches which received a letter from Paul, and it was scarcely mentioned in later times. Neither in this epistle nor in the Acts is there any evidence that the apostle ever visited the Colossians. But he had “heard of their faith” (I: 4, 9) and states that they “had not seen his face in the flesh (2: 1). Nevertheless, Paul was praying for the church to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding and to be able to draw on the “power” of Jesus in living and working to his glory (Col. 1: 9-11). In particular, Paul longed for them to develop and enrich the practice of giving thanks. To that end he supplies them with a poem, like that written to the Philippians (chapter two, above), celebrating the universal lordship of Jesus over all the powers of the world. Part of the meaning of this poem was that it was written by someone in prison. According to Tom Wright, it invites…

… those who read it or pray it to imagine a different world from the one they see around them – a world with a different ‘Lord’ in which the One God rules and rescues, a world in which a new sort of wisdom is unveiled, a world in which there is a different way to be human.   

‘Wisdom’ was the key theme of much of Colossians. As always, Paul wanted people to think, not simply to imbibe rules and principles to learn by heart, but to be able to grow up to full maturity as human beings, experiencing that “Christ is all and in all,” and coming to “the knowledge of God’s mystery.” (Col. 2: 2). All this will happen when they realise that it is Jesus himself who reveals that ‘mystery’ and the means of finding all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Paul is here drawing deeply upon two important strands of Jewish thought. First, he knows very well the traditions of prayerful meditation through which devout Jews hoped for a vision of the heavenly realm. These traditions seemed to have been developed at a time when with pagans still ruling Palestine even after the end of the Babylonian exile had ended, there was a sense that the greatest prophetic promises, particularly those concerning the visible and powerful return of Israel’s God to the Temple of Zion had not been realised. Second, there was the belief that the whole creation was made by the One God through his wisdom (Proverbs 8). To speak of “Lady Wisdom” as God’s handmaid in creation was a poetic way of saying that when God made the world, his work was neither random nor muddled, but wise – coherent and well-ordered; it made sense. To reflect God’s image, mankind needed to be wise as well.

The “mystery” tradition and the “wisdom” tradition were both focused by some writers of the period on the Temple. That was where the One God had promised to dwell. If there was to be a display of the ultimate mystery, the writers expected that it would be in the Temple. This expectation got bound together in yet another strand of Jewish thinking: David’s son Solomon, the ultimate ‘wise man’ in the Bible, was also the king who built the Temple. When Solomon consecrated the newly built shrine, the divine glory came to fill the house in such blazing brilliance that the priests could not stand there to do their work (I Kings 8). For us, living in a radically different culture, all this feels like an odd combination of disparate ideas. In Paul’s world, and especially for a well-educated Jew, all these apparently separate notions belonged like a single well-oiled machine. Here is the secret of creation, of wisdom, of mystery, of the Temple. This is how it all fits together. N T Wright challenges us to imagine all the complex but coherent Jewish thought…

… pondered and prayed by Paul as he travels, as he works in his hot little shop, as he stays in a wayside inn, as he teaches young Timothy the vast world of scripture, which is his natural habitat. Imagine him praying all that in the Temple itself as he visits Jerusalem after watching the gospel at work in Turkey and Greece. Imagine, particularly, Paul finding here fresh insight into the way in which, as the focal point of creation, of wisdom and mystery, and of the deep meaning of humanness itself, Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over all possible powers. And now imagine Paul in his moment of crisis, of despair, feeling that the “powers” had overcome him after all, reaching down into the depths of this fathomless well of truth to find, in a fresh way, what it might mean to trust in the God who raises the dead. This is what he comes up with:

“He  is the image of God, the invisible one;

The firstborn of  all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and the earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot –

Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –

All things were created both through him and for him.

And he is ahead, prior to all else

And in him all things hold together;

And he himself is supreme, the head

Over the body, the church.

 

He is the start of it all,

Firstborn from realms of the dead;

So in all things he might be the chief,

For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell

And through him to reconcile all to himself,

Making peace through the blood of his cross,

Through him – yes, things on the earth,

And also the things in the heavens.

(Col. 1: 15-20.).

If this poem were less elegant, one might suggest that Paul was shaking his fist at the powers on earth and in the dark realms beyond the earth, the powers which had put him in prison in Rome and crushed his spirit to the breaking point. But he was not doing so, but rather invoking and celebrating a world in which Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is now the one through whom, by means of his crucifixion, all things are reconciled. This is not the world that he and his friends can see with the naked eye since that is one in which allegiance is given to Caesar and there are bullying magistrates and threatening officers, with prisons and torture in their weaponry of oppression. But they are invited to see the world with the eye of faith, the eye that has learned to look through the lens of scripture and see Jesus. The Messiah is living with the Colossians, just as Paul had written to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.  It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd int Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

From his base in Ephesus, Paul sent different members of his staff to deal with the quarrelling Corinthians (II Cor. 12: 17 f.), but he then found it necessary to interrupt his work and cross the Aegean himself (II Cor. 12: 14). There are two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament, but these contain clear indications that the correspondence they represent was more extensive. They illustrate vividly the problems that arose when people of widely different ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, levels of education and positions in the social hierarchy were being welded into a community by the power of a common faith, while at the same time they had come to terms with the secular society to which they also owed allegiance. These problems were threatening to split the church into fragments. It may have been about the same time that the very serious trouble broke out which provoked Paul to write his fiercely controversial letter to the Galatians. If the Second Letter to the Corinthians was written at about this time, this would explain Paul’s cri de cour in it: There is the responsibility that weighs on me every day, my anxious concern for all our congregations (II Cor. 11: 28). The difficulties at Corinth were eventually resolved, and Paul, having wound up his work at Ephesus, was able to visit a church now fully reconciled.

Rome & Jerusalem:

It was at this point that he wrote his the longest and most weighty of all his surviving letters, that addressed to the Romans. In this letter, he looked back briefly on the work that lay behind him and sketched a plan for the future. He had covered the eastern provinces of the empire, from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum. He added that he had no further scope in these parts and that it was now his ambition to bring the gospel places where the very name of Christ has not been heard. Accordingly, he was planning to open up work in the west, with Spain as his objective. On the way, he would visit Rome, and hoped to find support there for his enterprise (Rom. 15: 19-29). Paul had not yet visited Rome, but from the greetings, at the end of his letter he obviously had several friends there, and he knew quite a lot about the what was going on in both the church and the wider society. His intention to round off his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean world and to move on to the West was a more focused ambition than simply finding more people to preach to, more “souls” to “save”. He wanted to plant the flag of the messianic gospel in key points where the “gospel” of Caesar and the ‘Pax Romana’ was being flaunted. Rome itself was, therefore, the obvious target; but beyond that, Spain, the western edge of the known world, was also a major centre of Roman culture and influence. Paul’s great contemporary Seneca had come from there. Galba, soon to be emperor, had been governor there, based in the port of Tarragona, which would presumably be Paul’s initial target. It boasted a large temple to Caesar. As in Ephesus and Corinth, Paul would have longed to announce that Jesus was the true Kyrios right under Caesar’s nose.

He knew he would have to tread somewhat warily in Rome, as the church there was not of his founding, nor was it within his ‘sphere of influence’ originally laid down by the church in Antioch. He also knew that there was some prejudice against him among the Roman Christians, who had all sorts of rumours about him. Some might distrust him, either because he was too Jewish or because he was not Jewish enough and had treated elements of Jewish practice too loosely. Some kind of outline of his teaching was a basic necessity. Before presenting himself there he sent his letter, a considered and comprehensive statement of his theological position, designed to establish his standing as a Christian teacher. There was also a more pressing need. Something had happened in the recent past in Rome that had put the Roman Christians in a new and complex position. Claudius, who had become emperor in AD 41, had banished the Jews from Rome after riots in the community sometime in the late forties. Despite the decimation of the community, not all the Jews had actually left, and those that remained had ‘gone to ground’ to hide their identity. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila were among those who had left, which was why they were in Corinth when Paul first arrived there, probably in AD 49. But with Claudius’ death in 54 and Nero’s accession to the throne, Claudius’ edict was revoked. Jews could once again be permitted back in the imperial city, though they were not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

At this time, there was more than a streak of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The term “anti-Jewish” is more appropriate than “anti-Semitic,” because the latter implies some kind of racial theory unknown until the second half of the nineteenth century. Also, in the first century, all Jews were identified by their Judaistic religious practises. There was no such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews were exempted from making sacrifices to Caesar and the Roman gods. The danger posed by Paul and Silas in Philippi was that, as Jews, they were teaching non-Jews things that it was illegal for Roman citizens and subjects to practice. In the amphitheatre at Ephesus, when Alexander, a Jew, stood up to preach, there were angry whispers. The same antagonism can be sensed on the edge of remarks by poets like Juvenal or sneering historians like Tacitus. Underneath the ethnic and cultural prejudice there was always a ‘theological’ belief that since the Jews did not worship the gods, they could, therefore, be blamed for disastrous events. This blame was subsequently transferred to the Christians in subsequent decades and centuries. Even in Corinth, Gallio’s refusal to make a judgment about Paul caused the mob to beat up the synagogue president, getting away with it. Going after the Jews was a default mode for many, right across the Roman Empire. Besides their exemption from religious observances that would compromise their beliefs, the Jews were allowed freedom of worship and the right to collect taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that they were integrated into wider society. For the most part, they were ostracised.

Paul’s message ran completely contrary to this social reality. Among the churches he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece this had not been so clear-cut, since he had always started in the synagogue first and made it clear that the gospel was “to the Jew first, but also, equally, to the Greek.” (Rom. 1: 16). He had given no opportunity for the creation of a Gentile-only Christian community. In most of the cities where he had preached, with the possible exception of the large metropolis of Ephesus, the probability is that the followers of Jesus were never large in number, perhaps only ever a few dozen, or in Corinth, conceivably, a few hundred. It would have been difficult for significantly different theological positions to have emerged once these communities had been established, at least not in the early decades of their communal life.

001

But in Rome things were different. The message of Jesus had evidently arrived there sometime in the forties, perhaps with the apostle Peter, though this is only a tradition. This places Peter as having arrived in Rome in the year AD 44, whereas Paul did not arrive there until after AD 56, a date given by St. Jerome. There were followers of ‘The Way’ present in Rome perhaps even before Peter’s visit (if it took place), but the scriptural references to ‘the Church’ should not be taken too literally, as referring to a material institution. If it existed in any united form, it was a spiritual body in Christ. The more likely case is that the followers of Jesus at Rome were unorganised, treading in fear, meeting secretly in small groups at the homes of various converts in order to worship, often quite literally ‘underground’.

The imperial capital was, in any case, a city where different cultural and ethnic groups from all over the empire would cluster together for protection in their own districts. It is therefore highly likely that there were many scattered and disparate ‘house-churches’, as is shown by the greetings given in Romans 16, all worshipping Jesus but not really in direct contact with one another, and almost certainly with differing customs and practices based on their cultures of origin. The bands of converts met in grottoes, but mostly in the catacombs among the dead. The Roman law had recognised these underground cemeteries with the decree of sanctuary. However, when the persecution of the Jesus-followers was at its worst, the Roman soldiery would waylay the worshippers on entering or leaving the catacombs. To avoid capture they would make secret entrances and outlets, often through the houses of believers. The Tiberian and Claudian ban that promised to inflict death on all who openly professed the new faith was still in place when Paul was planning his sojourn in the Imperial City. When writing to the followers in Rome, he was aware that one of the ‘churches’ met at the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16: 5) and that as well as this Jewish ‘church of circumcision’ there were also Gentile Christian meetings elsewhere in the city. Paul’s visit to Rome, however, was not pending immediately, and probably didn’t take place until AD 58 at the earliest. First, he had to go to Jerusalem, and he implored the Roman Christians to pray for him,

… that I may be served from unbelievers in Judaea and that my errand to Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people.

(Rom. 15: 31)

004

Paul not only apprehended danger from Jewish opposition but also felt some doubt how far he would be welcome to his fellow Christians at Jerusalem. To understand this we need to look at the situation which had developed as a result of his startling success in the building, all over the eastern empire, of a close-knit network of Christian communities which was supra-national, multi-racial, and ‘egalitarian’. As he was to write to the Colossians, that there was to be no distinction between…

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man.

(Col. 3: 11).

This inevitably antagonised those who adhered to a stiff, nationally orientated type of Judaism – those, in fact, who stood where Paul himself had stood before his conversion. He had ‘ratted’ on them, and that could not be forgiven or forgotten. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argued, as he had done in Galatians, that the church could not be allowed to become a ‘purely’ Jewish institution with Gentile Christians tolerated as second-class citizens. “There is no distinction,” he repeated (Rom. 3: 22; 10: 12). If he had been finally defeated over this, the Christian church might have had as little impact on the great world as any other of the of the numerous Jewish sects. Although he was not defeated, neither could he be said to have gained a decisive victory in his lifetime. Advocates of the narrower view dogged his steps to the end and sought to win over his converts. No doubt they were honest and conscientious men, who stood obstinately by their principles, as did he. Quite simply, as far as he was concerned, they were in the wrong, and in his letter to the Galatians, he had written of these opponents in harsh terms and with passionate indignation. His tone in Romans was softer than that of Galatians, as he also set out his mission to Jerusalem as one of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the opening passages of his letter read like a ‘manifesto’ for a religious revolution, demonstrating how vital the issue was for him:

God has shown us clearly what he is like in a new way – how he stands for what is right, overthrows what is wrong and helps men to live in his Way.

This is not altogether a new Way, as we have seen – the Men of God of the Jewish people had begun to see how God puts wrongs right. But Jesus has made it quite plain. If we are to live in God’s Way, we must trust God; this means trusting in Jesus who has made God real to us.

This is true for everybody everywhere; for God … has no favourites. We have all done wrong; none of us has lived as splendidly as God intended him to live, though we were all created to live in his Way and be like him. But God treats us as if we had learned to live splendidly; his love is given to us freely. And it is Jesus who has won this freedom for us. 

There is nothing in all this to make us proud of ourselves. Keeping all the rules wouldn’t have stopped us being proud of ourselves. We have simply taken him at his word, and that leaves no room for boasting.

I am sure of this: everybody can really live as God wants him to live simply by trusting him, not by trying to keep all the rules. I mean everybody. Is God only the God of the Jewish people? Isn’t he God of all people everywhere? Of course he is, for there is only one God. So he puts Jewish people right – if they trust him; and he puts the people of other countries right if they trust him. 

When the original Jerusalem concordat was made, the leaders of the church had stipulated that the ‘Gentile’ churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. But for Paul, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions that arose among them. He set up a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded; he recommended a system of regular weekly contributions (Rom. 15: 25-28; 1 Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8: 1-9, 15). The raising of the fund had gone on for some considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, so as to represent the several provinces (I Cor. 16: 3 f.; Acts 20: 4).  The handing over of the relief fund was to be both an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the ‘Diaspora’ churches affirming their fellowship with the Judaean Christians in the one church. However, the goodwill mission miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was certainly not entirely welcoming. James was genuinely frightened of the effect of Paul’s presence in the city on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. James urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Torah by carrying out certain ceremonies in the Temple (Acts 21: 20-24). Paul was quite willing to accept James’ guidance. As he had already written to the Corinthians,

To Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews; as they are subject to the law of Moses, I put myself under that law… 

(I Cor. 9:20).

001

Unfortunately, however, he was recognised in the Temple by some of his arch-enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the Holy Precincts  (Acts 21: 27-29). There ran across the temple court a barrier with an inscription threatening with death any ‘foreigner’ who trespassed beyond it. There was no truth in the charge against Paul, but it was enough to rouse the rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the Roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21: 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safekeeping to the headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23: 23-33). After wearisome wrangles between the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, and fearing that he might be sent back into the hands of his accusers in Jerusalem, Paul decided to exercise his right of appeal to the emperor (Acts 25: 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship bound for Rome, leading to the famous ship-wreck off Malta (Acts 27: 1 – 28: 15).

005

Paul in Rome:

004

So Paul fulfilled his cherished plan of a visit to Rome in person but as a prisoner. He was placed under something like house-arrest, occupying his own private lodging, with liberty to receive visitors, but with a soldier constantly on guard (Acts 28: 16). He was awaiting trial there, a trial which was continually delayed.  It is probable, though not certain, that the Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as to Philemon, all of which refer to their author(s) being in prison at the time of writing, belong to this period of confinement. This period of house-arrest lasted, we are informed, for two years (Acts 28: 30). Scholars presume that the case eventually came up before the imperial tribunal, but whether it resulted in acquittal and a further period of freedom to travel, or ended in condemnation and execution, we have no means of knowing. The Letters to Timothy and Titus have been thought to refer to a further period of imprisonment in Rome, but the evidence is at best ambiguous, and it is unlikely that these letters, in the form in which we have them, come from Paul’s own hand. We know that Paul’s original plan before he went to Jerusalem, was to travel on to Spain, but we have no evidence that this goal was fulfilled. He was associated with Rome for ten years in all, and some have suggested that in addition to visiting Spain, he also travelled to Gaul and Britain. However, there is little if any hard contemporary evidence to support these assertions, which are based mainly on tradition and fanciful conjecture.

006

That he ultimately suffered martyrdom may be taken as certain, and there is no good reason to doubt the Roman tradition that he was beheaded at a spot on the road to Ostia known as ‘the Three Fountains’, and buried on the site now occupied by the noble church of St Paul-without-the-Walls. According to the chronology given at the beginning of this article, Paul could hardly have arrived in Jerusalem before AD 59. His period in prison in Caesarea could not, therefore, have ended until AD 61, therefore. At that point the governor Antonius Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, based on evidence from non-Biblical sources. Accordingly, Paul would have sailed to Rome in the autumn of 61, arriving there in early 62. His period of house arrest would have continued until AD 64 and Tom Wright dates Paul’s death to this year or later. Beyond that, we cannot go, but it may be significant that it was in the winter of 64/ 65 that the emperor Nero made his savage attack on the Christians of Rome, following the Fire which was blamed on them. The Roman-Jewish War followed in AD 66-70, during which Nero died in AD 68, and the War ended with the Fall of Jerusalem…

… (to be continued).

010

The Incredulous Twin: Finding Faith: The Second Sunday of Easter   1 comment

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.jpg

The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio

John 20 vv 24-29:

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the twin), was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was  with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look a my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

(Good News for Modern Man)

Who was Thomas the Apostle?

In the gospels, Thomas is also named as ‘the twin’, Didymus,  in Latin to reinforce his Aramaic name, Tau’ma, from the word t’oma, which also means ‘twin’. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (v 13) his name is coupled with that of Philip, which suggests he might have been, with Andrew, the other unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who followed ‘the lamb of God‘  from a village called ‘Bethany’ (not the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha) where John had baptised Jesus the previous day, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. In the story in John’s gospel (chapter 1 vv 35-42), the two spend the day with Jesus until twilight, and are close enough to the town of Bethsaida, on the northern shore of Lake Gaililee, for Andrew to fetch his brother Peter to meet ‘the Messiah’. The next day Jesus leaves Bethsaida early to walk the twenty miles to join his mother at Nazareth before going on with her for a wedding in Cana two days later. He arrives at the feast with his growing band of disciples, including Philip and, no doubt, Thomas, Andrew and Peter, plus Nathanael (known later as Thaddeus), who is from Cana himself. After their thirsty walk from Nazareth, they find plenty of water, but no wine with which to toast the bride and bridegroom.

Therefore, it’s more than possible that Thomas was one of Jesus’ first pairs, or ‘twins’ of disciples, his partner being Philip, whom he introduced to Jesus, just as Andrew had introduced Peter the previous night. By the end of that third day, following Jesus’ first miracle, John tells us that all five had put their faith in him, two in their home town of Bethsaida and two in Cana. Despite Nathanael’s rather rude joke about Nazareth, Jesus describes him as ‘a true Israelite’, sitting under a fig tree early on a hot day. Although Israel had ceased to exist since  Maccabean rule had been ended by the Roman conquest of 63 AD, when it had become part of the Province of Syria, Nathanael identifies Jesus not only as ‘the son of God’, but also ‘the King of Israel.’ This would have been heard as a direct challenge to Roman authority in northern Palestine, identifying Jesus with the local freedom-fighters, the nationalistic Zealots who wanted to free the whole country from Roman rule and reunite with Judea, as had happened briefly from 142-63 AD. If Thomas was one of these first disciples, although he himself is silent in the gospels at this stage, he was surrounded by certainty and infectious enthusiasm about who Jesus was among his relatives and friends, and there was little doubting the miraculous signs in which the Galilean himself ‘revealed his glory’ (v 11).

Some have seen in the Acts of Thomas (written in east Syria in the early 3rd century, or perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century) an identification of Saint Thomas with the apostle Judas brother of James, better known in English as Jude. However, the first verse of the Acts follows the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by distinguishing the apostle Thomas and the apostle Judas son of James. The Nag Hammadi copy of the Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Of course, Judas was a popular name in first century Palestine, so it’s entirely possible that, as a Galilean, he would have been known by his Aramaic name to distinguish him from the other two disciples by the name of Judas. Syrian tradition also states that the apostle’s name was Thomas. Few texts identify Thomas’ other twin, though in the Book of Thomas the Contender, part of the Nag Hammadi library, it is said to be Jesus himself, who himself is recorded as telling Thomas: “Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself…” Again, it’s possible that Thomas, or ‘Twin’ was the nickname given to the disciple to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of James, because he bore a physical resemblance to Jesus, and/or, as the quote above shows, kept very close to him.

How can we know The Way?

To have been so close to Jesus, Thomas must at least have been among the very first disciples. Jesus later comments on the questioning of the ‘Way’ by both Thomas and Philip in a way which must have stung the pair of them, since he points out that, despite being with him from the first, neither shows a very deep understanding of who he is in relation to ‘the Father’. In John’s gospel, the fact that this criticism comes immediately after Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial during the Last Supper, underlines its significance. Thomas is sceptical, but unlike Peter, he does not make grand gestures or promises he knows he cannot live up to, nor, like Philip, does he ask for further proofs. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray his master by this stage, so Thomas’ incomprehension seems an insignificant sin by comparison with the other three. But Jesus expects better of his earliest converts. Where is the certainty which Andrew and Nathanael revealed in Bethsaida, and in the miracles which they testified to, beginning in Cana? (John 14 vv 5-12).

A Reluctant Martyr?

In John Chapter 11 Thomas is the disciple who suggests to the rest of the disciples that they should all return to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that they could all be martyred with him. There are two ways of reading this. We can regard it as a somewhat cynical remark, fitting in with Thomas’ sceptical character, as revealed in connection with the Resurrection appearances, or we can take it at face value, as a declaration of loyalty from one close enough to Jesus to be called his twin. Of course, even then, the line could have been delivered with an air of resigned stoicism, rather than with the enthusiasm of a disciple looking for martyrdom.

Thomas’ name is also linked to Thaddeus’ early mission to Syria, but more importantly to the mission to the Jewish diaspora in India, which he undertook himself in 52 AD. From there he is recorded, in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, to have returned to Jerusalem in time to be the only witness the Assumption of Mary, which, in a strange inversion of the resurrection stories, was disbelieved by the other apostles until they themselves saw Mary’s tomb.

The Value of Scepticism to Faith

Perhaps most significantly, however, in the early church Thomas was not stigmatised as a ‘doubter’ so much as being the apostle who, having seen Jesus’ wounds at close quarters, was able to proclaim the two natures of Christ, that he was both fully human and fully divine. The vivid drama of his very personal testimony would have been difficult to dispute by the Greek Gnostics in the early church who argued that Christ was, throughout his time on earth, an ethereal presence, a vision of the Divine, rather than real flesh and blood. That’s why, although his feast day is celebrated on different days in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars, his ‘doubting’ is commemorated on the second Sunday, a week after the first appearances of Jesus to his disciples. By itself, the empty tomb proved nothing, and even the sudden appearances to Mary and the disciples, in the open air and through locked doors, might have given support to the Gnostic view of an ethereal body. It is the graphic detail of Thomas’ account, a man who knew Jesus well enough to have been his twin, that remain the most difficult to disbelieve, reinforced by the way in which Thomas’ scepticism is immediately transformed in his proclamation “My Lord and My God”. Jesus immediately responds with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are they…’ which remains as a promise to his followers down the centuries that follow. Thomas is not excluded from his Lord’s blessing by his original disbelief or scepticism, call it what you will. His Resurrection experience is total – he believes with all his senses and emotions, transcended by the Lord in that by believing he, and we, may have life in his name (John 20 vv 30-31). The ‘Drama of Thomas’ is well re-told in the following extract from a book used in schools:

From ‘The Drama of Jesus’, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:

‘Heavy cloud made the night even darker. Shadowy figures cautiously climbed the outside stairs to the large room on the roof. When the door opened to admit them the merest glow of light showed and the door was immediately shut. Finally it was barred with a huge wooden beam.

‘On one side of the room two men were arguing. “I tell you Peter, I don’t want to listen.”

‘ “But, Thomas, you must. The Lord is not dead. He’s alive. It’s a fact and you have to realise it.”

‘Aggressively, Thomas burst out, “If Jesus is alive why are we all coming here furtively and hiding behind locked doors? Are we scared that the Jewish leaders are going to arrest us for body-snatching? If He’s alive why doesn’t he show himself to the world” Even in the feeble light of the small lamp they could see his face going red. “Why doesn’t he show himself to the authorities before they break that door down and throw us all into prison? If he’s alive why doesn’t he go and see Caiaphas and the Council? That would prove his claims.”

“So far, he’s only appeared to people who love him,” said John quietly.

“I loved him and he hasn’t appeared to me…” Thomas turned away. There was a break in his voice. John moved across the room towards him. “It wasn’t Jesus’ fault you weren’t here last week when he first came among us.”

‘Thomas broke in, “But..”

“Surely, man, you remember He told us what was going to happen that day on the road from Caesarea Philippi. Not only then but on two occasions He made it clear. He said He would be handed over to the Gentiles and mocked, insulted, flogged and crucified.” John spoke with deliberation, “He said, ‘Three days later I will rise to life.’ “

‘Impulsively, Peter broke in, “John’s right. He said it again and again; we all heard him.”

“Heard him, maybe, growled Thomas, “but did you believe him?”

“Believe him?” Peter put his hands to his head. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about! That’s why I said, ‘God forbid, it must never happen to you, Lord.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said to me, ‘Out of my way, Satan. You stand right in my path, Peter, when you look at things from man’s point of view and not from God’s.’ To me he was the Lord of life. I saw him heal sick people and bring the dead back to life; it was incredible to me that he should die, let alone come back to life as he promised. But he did. And Thomas, you must believe it. He has come back from death.” Peter’s voice shook with emotion.

‘Thomas started to walk away. Peter gripped his friend by the shoulder and swung him round and said tensely, “Don’t turn away from me when I speak to you. Do you think we’re all imagining this? Do you think we’re lying?”

Andrew stepped between them. “Simon, let him be. Were you in a hurry to believe when you first heard the news but hadn’t seen the Lord?”

“Anyway,” said Peter gruffly, “when Mary broke the news that his body was gone John and I ran all the way to the tomb. Right, John?”

“Right,” said John, smiling, “but I arrived there quite some distance ahead of you.”

‘Peter was beginning to relax. There was a hint of a smile in his voice, “But you weren’t game enough to go into the tomb till I arrived.”

‘John almost shouted, “Up to that moment I didn’t realise that I was seeing, before my own eyes, what the scriptures foretold. Now Thomas, get this straight. We’re not saying that He’s alive merely because the tomb was empty. We’ve seen him outside the tomb. We’ve heard him and touched him; we’ve seen him eat food here in this room.”

“But not me.” There was a hard note in Thomas’ voice.

‘ Thomas stepped back and lifted his voice so that everyone in the room could hear, “Think what you like. But unless I see the scars the nails made in His hands and unless I put my fingers where those nails were and my hand into his side I will never believe.”

‘Peter groaned, “I give up.”

‘Andrew spoke again, “Simon, be fair. We all found it hard to believe at first.”

‘Peter ran his fingers through his hair. “But it’s not the same with square-chinned, stubborn character here. I’ve told him, John’s told him, Mary’s told him, Cleopas told him – we’ve all told him.”

‘Andrew spoke urgently, “Simon, keep your voice down. You’ll have the whole Sanhedrin here in a moment. Let Thomas alone. Isn’t it hard enough for him when he sees our joy, and his doubts fill us with misery? At least try to see his problem, brother.”

‘Peter gazed at Andrew. He saw a look he had often seen on Jesus’ face. Impulsively he put his arm round Thomas’ shoulder. “If you’d seen him, you’d understand how I feel. Forgive me.”

‘Thomas shrugged himself free of Peter’s arm and muttered, “Forget it.”

‘An embarrassed hush settled on the whole room. A deep silence. 

“Peace be unto you.” The voice startled them.

‘They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing. No one spoke. Instinctively they turned towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes. He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong, “Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord…and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

‘And as suddenly as He had appeared, he vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

‘John spoke with infectious enthusiasm, “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.” ‘

Prayer:

Our Lord and God, forgive the doubting heart in each of us, which questions your resurrection. We are men of our age and want to see and touch before we believe. And yet we thank you for that blessing, reserved for those who do not see and yet believe. Grant us that faith which looks to Jesus, risen from the dead, our Saviour and our living Lord.  Amen.’

(Ian D. Bunting)

Sunday into Monday – 48 Hours that Changed the World: ‘… He is risen indeed!’   3 comments

A tenth-century manuscript was found in the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland some years ago which contains a dramatisation of the visit of the women to the tomb on Easter morning. It was evidently used in the form of worship, as a dramatic litany. The scene is the tomb with the stone rolled away. An angel guards the place. The women enter and the angel speaks, ‘Quem quaerites?’ he asks, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ‘We seek the Lord’ says Mary Magdalene. ‘He is not here – he is risen and gone before you.’

This short dramatisation marks the beginning of a religious drama. Certainly, Read the rest of this entry »

A New World Dawning: Easter Sunday   1 comment

DSC06321

The name Easter derives from Eostre or Eastre, the pagan Goddess of Spring. Her month was April and this became the Paschal month of the Christian Church. This was grafted on the celebration of the Greco-Roman celebration of the dead and risen God of Spring, Adonis, and it is interesting that the New Testament refers to Jesus as ‘Adonai’, the supreme being. For Christians, ‘Pasg’ in Welsh or ‘Pasque’ in French, begins with the Feast of the Resurrection on the Day of Jesus’ rising from the tomb, and its timing is directly related to the Jewish Feast of Passover, or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew. It is by far the oldest of the Christian festivals, dating from the time of Cedd in the Celtic Church in Britain, before the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the missions of Cuthbert and Augustine to them, hence the different name in Welsh. The monks arriving after the Norman Conquest enriched the festival and the pageants grew more elaborate, with instrumental and vocal music being added.  For some, they grew too splendid for some. In 1470 the properties provided for the Easter Play at St Mary Radcliffe, Bristol, included:

 a new Sepulchre, well gilt with gold, an image of God rising from the sepulchre; Heaven, made of timber and dyed cloth; Hell, made of wood and iron; four pairs of Angel’s wings of well painted wood; the Holy Ghost coming out of Heaven into the Sepulchre’.

In some churches, the Paschal Candle forms a focal point, with its five grains of incense inserted in the form of a cross. It is lit at midnight as Easter Day begins, and remains lit until the Ascension, reminding us of the period the Risen Lord spent on earth, revealing himself to his disciples in various metaphysical form to his disciples, as referred to by Paul. It’s generally accepted that Mary Magdalene entered the garden containing the tomb and made the first encounter with the risen Lord ‘at the rising of the sun’, and it was common at one time for people to get out into the fields at dawn and greet the sunrise from the top of a nearby mound, such as the Wrekin in Shropshire. So, at Easter, we don’t go ‘all round the Wrekin’, as the Black Country saying goes, describing the way the lengths some people go to avoid confronting the truth. The challenge of the central truth of our faith, the Resurrection, needs to be met head-on.

The Resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15 vv 3-8:

‘I handed on to you, as the central fact of our Christian faith, the account I was given…”He died and was buried. On the third day he was raised to life. He was seen by Peter; then by ‘The Twelve’. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred at once; most of them are still living, but some have since died. He was then seen by James, his brother; then by all his close friends. Last of all, long after anybody could have hoped, he was seen by me also.’

Paul is writing to Christian friends who even some twenty years after the execution of Jesus are finding it difficult to understand what ‘the resurrection from the dead’ means. Whatever happened was a fact, but it remained difficult to describe or explain to those who had not themselves experienced seeing the body of the risen Christ. My son, aged eight, watching a cartoon version of the resurrection yesterday asked  ‘was he body or spirit?’ He wanted to know how he could suddenly appear and disappear like that, through locked doors and walls. Like Paul, I felt a sense of passing on what was ‘handed on’, rather than simply expressing my own opinion.This was the authoritative account given from the beginning. His description of his own experience is quite brief, but he says it was like that of Peter and the others. This is our earliest written evidence that something very unexpected had happened ‘on the third day’, something contained within the ‘most important’ statement given to Paul at his baptism two years later. Various accounts had been circulating among the Christian communities of how on our ‘Easter Sunday‘, the tomb had been found empty. No description of the disappearance of Jesus’ body exists because we presume that nobody witnessed it, unlike the raising of Lazarus from his tomb by Jesus about ten days earlier. Only his ‘appearances’ are described. The accounts differ very much among themselves on many matters – who was the first to see Jesus, what the women did when they got to the tomb, where the appearances took place – in/ near Jerusalem, or in Galilee. But all agree that the tomb was found empty with the stone rolled away. After Paul, Mark’s earliest gospel account runs like this:

‘When the Holy Day of the Jews was over, three women friends of Jesus – Mary of Magdala, Mary who was James’ mother, and Salome, brought sweet-smelling oils to anoint his body. They got to his grave very early on Sunday, just as the sun was rising. “Who will roll away the stone from the cave’s mouth for us?” they said to one another. It was a very big stone. They looked up and saw that it had already been rolled away.

They went into the cave and they were amazed to see a young man in white clothes sitting on the right-hand side. “Don’t be frightened,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was put to death. He has risen. You won’t find him here; you cannot see where they put his body. Go and tell his friends that he will be in Galilee before you and you will see him there, as he told you. And don’t forget Peter.” They ran out of the cave trembling with terror. They were so frightened that they didn’t say a word to anyone.’  (Mk 16, vv 1-8)

It is important to remember that it was not the empty tomb that convinced his friends that Jesus had been ‘raised from death’ but the new experience of God which Jesus made possible.  What they believed God had done was the ground of their conviction. The empty tomb, by itself, doesn’t prove anything. It looks as if these first friends had their hands on an early report that they didn’t know what to do with, and there is no reason to doubt that the women among them found the tomb empty, as Jewish scholars also confirm, and that they were certain that it was the tomb in which they had seen Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place the body the evening before.

But the convincing evidence, as Paul saw and stated, was the fresh experience of God which changed the whole way in which the friends of Jesus lived and thought, and which made them new men and women. This fresh experience of the risen Christ is something which his millions of followers can now share this day and on every day. Each one experiences the Resurrection in his own way, but it is also a common experience which binds Christians together and which they pass on from generation to generation, from regeneration to regeneration, as in Baptism we die with Him and are raised with Him to immortal life.

Prayer: To me also (1 Corinthians 15 v 8):

We thank you,  Father,  for every Christian who bears witness to the power of the risen Christ. We have not seen as the apostles have seen, but we have met him in our lives; and we shall never be the same again. That meeting has changed us. As faithful ambassadors, may we be able to introduce others to him, that they too may meet with our Lord and Saviour Jesus.  Amen

Ian D. Bunting

Image

Good Friday: Shrouded from history?   1 comment

Mark 15, vv 1-37

Early in the morning, the Jewish Council talked over what they should do with Jesus. They handcuffed him and took him off and handed him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. They brought the charge against him. “Haven’t you got anything to say?” asked Pilate. “See the charges they are making against you.” But Jesus had nothing more to say. Pilate was very surprised. He wanted to put the mob in a good mood, so het set Barabbas free and had Jesus flogged. Then he handed him over to the soldiers to be put to death on a cross.

‘Simon, whose home was in North Africa, was coming into the city from the country at the time. The soldiers made him carry the wooden cross and marched Jesus to Skull Hill. They offered him drugs to deaden the pain, but he didn’t take them. They nailed him to the cross and tossed up for his clothes and shared them out among themselves.

‘The charge against Jesus was fastened on the cross, THE JEWISH KING. Passers-by shook their heads and swore at Jesus. “Aha! You’d pull down the Temple and rebuild it just like that? You’d better look after yourself and get down from the cross!”

‘It was now three o’clock in the afternoon.

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” Jesus called out loudly (The words are the words of an old Bible hymn)…One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine and put it on the end of a cane and tried to make Jesus drink it.

‘….Jesus gave a loud cry and died.’

Image

Image

(from Alan T Dale’s, Portrait of Jesus)

Only Jesus seemed to realise how near the end was. And what an end: a slave’s death on a Roman cross, executed as a threat to Roman peace! Suddenly, ‘with a loud cry and a gasp’, as Mark puts it, it was all over, or so it seemed. So, on the dawn of the day which commemorates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, one is tempted to ask, ‘What was Good about that?’

What we need to remember is that is not a piece of historical writing. It is part of an act of worship, a celebration. When they repeated it, Jesus’ friends were thinking of the greatness of God’s love which Jesus’ death had made real for them. The details of what happened vary in the accounts of the gospel-writers because they were writing for different ‘congregations’ and never intended to give a detailed account of what happened, since they thought the event would remain in living memory, and all that was needed was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice each time they met. They expected their world to end soon with the return of the resurrected Jesus.

When these accounts were written down there were misunderstandings and bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities. They therefore tend to emphasise the Jewish part in Jesus’ death, especially that of ‘the mob’ and the Temple authorities, and to underestimate the role of the Roman governor, Pilate. There is no doubt that he took the final decision; he could not have done otherwise. Any suggestion of a threat to Roman peace, especially in the crowded Jerusalem of the ‘High Festival’, Pesach, would force a governor worth his salt from Caesar to act quickly. The fact that some of Jesus’ supporters were armed would, on its own, give him the basis for Jesus’ execution as ‘The King of the Jews’, the words of the charge he had pinned to the cross and which he refused to alter.

Besides, the death of Jesus came to mean something very special to his friends. Not a desperate defeat resulting from a huge miscarriage of justice over which to remain bitter and brood, but a celebration of God’s love. This was how far Jesus’ love for humanity took him. His resolution to live according to God’s will and in his way, and to share that with his people, took him to the cross. He could have escaped at any point, but didn’t try to.

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course it was a dark day, in every sense, but the Christian knows that without its events there would have been no Easter Sunday. For many British people, the most pleasant memory associated with the day is eating hot cross buns which were once sold from house to house by street vendors who cried ‘one-a-penny; two-a-penny; hot cross buns’. This is a seemingly trivial reminder of the fate of Jesus, and is, in fact, yet another example of the grafting of a Christian tradition onto an older pagan one. Two loaves, each marked with a cross, were found among the ashes of Herculaneum, destroyed in A.D. 75, and it is unlikely that they were made for a Christian, especially since at that time the more universally accepted symbol for the nascent religion was the sign of the fish. The Greeks also marked cakes like this, and the Anglo-Saxons made small cakes marked with a cross at the Spring festival held in honour of Diana. From early Roman times right the way through to the Saxon invasions, altars to Diana were raised at crossroads, and traders sold refreshments, including ‘cross buns’. The famous Banbury ‘cross’ of another nursery rhyme is a market place at the junction of two ancient roads, such as those that sprang up in market towns throughout the Cotswolds as the wool and textile trades developed.

The Church services in England and Wales remind Christians of the events of the first Good Friday. The sacred bread is brought back from the altar of repose and consumed, the cross is uncovered and many services recall the last words of Our Lord, the seven ‘words’ from the Cross:

Father forgive them for they know not what they do’

‘Let us pray for all those who are doing evil. Let us pray for all proud, violent, and malicious men…..let us pray for ourselves when lack of zeal, the deceitfulness of riches, and the cares of this world make us the sleeping partners of social evil…

Father forgive us, for we know not what we do’

‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’

‘Let us pray for all those who want to repent and begin a new life, but who feel that it is too late…And let us, as one with the thief, pray as he did: ‘Lord remember me’. So may our last hour blend into light of paradise, through the power of the crucified.

‘I thirst’

‘Let us pray for all who suffer physical distress through lack of food and water…And let us pray for all who hunger and thirst after righteousness; that in their obedience to Christ they might have meat to eat unknown to them before and, according to Christ’s promise, be satisfied.

Mother, there is your son. Son, there is your mother.’

‘Let us pray for family ties. Let us pray for the bereaved; let us pray that Christ may create relationships which survive the worst blows which life can give. And let us thank him for his power in creating new relationships which sustain us in the different stages of our pilgrimage.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

‘Let us pray for all who are abandoned; for nations…for children…for old people…for captives…who are abandoned…and for ourselves when we feel ourselves to be abandoned…May we learn to say “I shall yet give thanks unto him who is my Saviour, my King and my God”.

‘It is finished’

‘Let us thank Christ for finishing the work that he came to do; let us thank him for doing everything that is necessary for our salvation…to end our search for forgiveness…for pardon. And let us thank God that with the end of our search there is the beginning of a life of thankfulness, praise and service, offered to God not from fear but out of love. And let us pray that we may find the work he has for us to do, and finish it.

‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’

‘Let us thank God that when the conscious control of our life is beyond our grasp we may still repose upon God’s eternal changelessness…that in death our lives pass into the hands which made the world, and guide the universe. And may we place our lives in those hands while life is strong and full and sweet.

 ‘Father, with thanksgiving, we commit our spirit.’

(Dick Williams)

Good Friday has become a fashionable day on which to perform what are known as Passion Plays, re-enacting the events of the last week of Christ’s life. The most famous of these is performed at Oberammergau in memory of a time when the village survived a great plague which swept across Germany. The people perform the play every ten years, usually in the summer when more people can see it. Some 400 performers take part in a vast theatre with an open-air stage which holds 5,000 people, and the play lasts nearly five hours. It is accompanied by a symphony orchestra and a choir. A hundred performances are given of what has become a vast commercial enterprise, but also remains a sincere, unique and moving experience.

In some parts of Britain Pace Egg Plays are still performed on Good Friday, closely resembling the Christmas Mummers plays. Pace is derived from Pasche or Paschal, meaning Easter-tide. The custom still continues at Midgeley in Yorkshire and the Pace Egg Play there has been performed since 1800. It is thought to be based on a 16th-century story,

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman...

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman sarcophagi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘The History of Seven Champions of Christendom’. Seven is, of course, the number of perfection in the Bible, while thirteen, the number of people at the Last Supper, including Judas, is considered ‘unlucky’ by more superstitious Christians, who think that Friday 13th is doubly unlucky, since Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  However, there’s no need to ‘touch wood’ (i.e. the cross), because we are assured of the Resurrection on Sunday. Unlike ‘doubting’ Thomas, we don’t need to see and touch the wounds of the crucified and risen Christ to celebrate that as another historical fact. Nor do we need to establish the authenticity of the Turin shroud to prove this fact, though it’s interesting to read that scientists no longer think it is a Medieval fake. We may lack more than the simple chronicles of the events of Good Friday contained in the four gospels, but these chronicles mean that the passion of Christ, interpreted in various forms of art down the century, also remain indisputable facts. There is no fiction in the crucifixion of Christ, we know that he died on the cross and that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped his body in a linen sheet and laid it in a cave he himself had cut out of the rock, with a heavy stone rolled against the mouth. The Jewish historians also wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion.  These facts are the bedrock of  the Christian witness and the chronicles from which they come are not ‘shrouded from history’.

 

The Stony Road to Jerusalem – Palm Sunday into Holy Week.   2 comments

003

There was a shout about my ears

And Palms before my feet.

G. K. Chesterton, The Donkey

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the last before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, is taken from John 8 vv 58-9:

Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am”. They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.’

These words come at the end of a long ‘dispute’ with the Jewish authorities in the Temple during the Festival of the Shelters, or Tents, in October. During this festival the people lived in temporary tents, or ‘booths’ along the sides of the rocky, hilly road into the city from Jericho. It was a time for giving thanks for the harvest, but also a celebration of their long march to freedom through the desert from Egypt with Moses, a time for thinking about leadership, and to look forward to the coming Messiah. Jesus spoke in the Temple Courts, as was the custom for Jewish teachers, and it seems to have been at this point that the Jewish leaders saw the threat he posed to all that they stood for and decided to get rid of him. “Who do you think you are?” they demanded of him angrily, in a battle to show who had the purest genealogy. Jesus refused to trace his ancestors for them, but simply said “I Am Who I Am”, words which could be interpreted as blasphemous, being close to the Hebrew name of God, ‘Yahweh’. He followed this up with the claim to be greater than Abraham, greater than Judaism itself, as Abraham was its founder. At the time, this would be like an Imam in Islam today claiming to be greater than their founding prophet.

Two events which happened when Jesus and his friends returned to the city at the Passover Festival were ‘acted parables’, intending to make clear in action, in addition to his words, just what he stood for. The first was his triumphal entry, intended to convey a message to his disciples and would-be followers. This took place outside the city, along the stony road, and was a very different declaration than that hoped for by many of those among the five thousand men he had broken bread with in Galilee. Jesus and his friends joined the pilgrims who had come up the steep road from Jericho and were singing hymns and psalms as they walked along. They began to recite the words of an ancient hymn:

 

002

Jesus used the occasion to show his friends that, though they might share many of the nationalistic aims of the day, he came in peace and not in war, that his message was inclusive and not exclusive. In John’s gospel, some Greek pilgrims (many Jews were Hellenistic at this time, living around the Mediterranean or in northern Palestine) seek an audience with Jesus through his Galilean disciples, Philip and Andrew. Jesus affirms them as one of the many groups he has come to minister to, no doubt further annoying the orthodox Judeans present, who commented that the ‘whole world’ seemed to be following him.

Jesus’ choice of an ordinary farm animal, borrowed from a friend, as the means of his entry into Jerusalem was also an act of commemoration of the time when King David, his ancestor, rode into the city on a warhorse, after a great victory in battle over the enemies of Judah. It was an act aimed at his followers, demonstrating that, far from being a Zionist (in modern interpretations) he was seeking to be a servant of the whole of the people of Israel, as well as a prince of peace. A servant king. When evidence of his revolutionary views was sought for by the Sanhedrin, this very public action was not seen as significant, perhaps discarded even by them because they too acknowledged it as an inclusive, conciliatory gesture, rather than a divisive one. Only later, for the Christians, did it become imbued with revolutionary significance. This is how they told it:

001Jerusalem was at last in sight. Near the Olive Hill, Jesus sent his friends to a village. 

‘Go into  the village facing you,’ Jesus said, ‘and just as go in you’ll find a donkey. It’ll be tied up, and hasn’t been broken in yet. Untie it and bring it; and if anyone asks you why you are doing this, tell them: “The master needs it, and he’ll send it straight back”.’

They set off, and found the donkey tied at a door outside in the street. They untied it.

‘What are you untying the donkey for?’ asked some of the bystanders.

They said what Jesus had told them to say, and the men let them take it away.

They brought the donkey to Jesus and threw their clothes on its back. Jesus sat on it. People spread their clothes on the road, and others put leafy branches from the fields (down) and spread them out. All the crowd, those in front and those behind, shouted the words from the old Bible hymn:

Hurrah!

Happy is he who comes in God’s name!

Happy is the kingdom of King David, our father!

A thousand times – Hurrah!


The donkey became an important symbol in the early church, partly because the animal figured so much in the stories of Jesus. The mark of the cross is said to have originated from the that left on the back of the beast on the first Palm Sunday.   It had been a donkey that had taken Mary to Bethlehem Down just before Jesus’ birth and carried them through the town and into safety in Gaza, returning via the Temple in Jerusalem for the announcement of the birth en route to Nazareth. At one time, the association between the Christ and the beast was so strong that both Greek and Roman writers accused his followers of worshipping it as well as Him. Many church ceremonies in Britain are still led by donkeys on Palm Sunday, and there is  a traditional distribution of strips of palms, looped and folded into the form of a cross. The palms are then kept and returned to be burnt to make ashes for the ‘Ash Wednesday’ of the following Lent, being smeared on believers’ foreheads in the shape of the cross.


Throughout Holy Week, the Church re-enacts the incidents of  the last, memorable week in Jesus’ life, through selected, often dramatised, readings. Early in the week, the gospels tell us, Christ turned out the money-changers and merchants from the Temple. This second ‘acted parable’ was far more revolutionary in its immediate impact on Jerusalem, as the Holy City, than his entry into it had been. This was because it was it was not aimed at his own followers, but deliberately  targeted at the Temple authorities. It was a protest against their failure to keep the Foreigners’ Court clear for those from long distances coming to worship, from the Greek city states around the Mediterranean, to the hinterland of the Nile Valley.  It wasn’t simply an attack on the misuse of the Court of the Foreigners as a place for making gain from these pilgrims. To buy creatures for sacrifice, every Jew needed Temple money, and the money-changers were demanding high, unfair fees for every transaction. This was a further act of discrimination against non-Judean pilgrims which the authorities chose to ignore, as it suited their purpose of treating them as inferior.

003002

Jesus’  ‘personal’ clearing of the Court is usually presented as a spontaneous event, an expression of the righteous indignation which he felt at the moment he entered the Court, but the account in Mark’s gospel hints at it being premeditated, and there can have been no event more calculated as a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple administrators. It would also be seen as more of a threat to the order which the Romans struggled to maintain during the festival under the watchful eye of the Roman Governor himself, representative of the power of the Empire, as the final political authority in Palestine. It seems that, following his verbal challenges to the authorities at the October Festival, Jesus had made up his mind to appeal, over their heads, directly to the people at the Passover Festival, the following Spring, when the Temple Courts would be crowded with pilgrims from throughout Palestine and from all parts of the known world around the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia Minor. He would speak his final words and act out his message to his people, including those from Galilee who continued to support him, and who would be in and around the city in greater numbers in the Spring.

As a ‘tweeting vicar’ from Weston-super-Mare said recently on Sky News, Jesus used every means at his disposal to communicate his message, often using different means at the same time – pictures, parables, plays and poems as well as sayings, symbols, stories, songs and sermons. He planned carefully to use all these for serious purposes, as well as seizing every moment of opportunity as it occurred. In seeking ‘fresh expressions’ of discipleship, the Church needs to follow his lead, not just in the message, but in the media by which it is delivered.

Based on Alan T Dale’s ‘Portrait of Jesus’.

O Lord, who came to show God to men and was not afraid of their anger, take from us the wish to speak in inoffensive whispers in an unwelcoming world, and make us strong to speak of you boldly; in your name. AMEN.

O Lord of time, Lord from before our birth to beyond our death; help us to know you in each moment, so that, keeping your word, we may live now in the free and greater life of God. AMEN.

Susan Williams

St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   4 comments

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa...

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took him to Ireland as a slave. He was a shepherd on the estate of a chieftain in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the six years of his captivity he resolved to give his life to the service of the gospel. He escaped to Wicklow, to the south of Dublin, and boarded a ship engaged in the trade of wolf-dogs. He was put off on the coast of Gaul and became a monk in the monastery at Lerins. In those days, the western sea routes around Britain and France were the chief means of transport around the various Celtic territiories, since the overland routes were slow, difficult and treacherous, even where the Romans had left roads.

After returning to his home in Britain, he conceived the idea of a Christian mission to Ireland, describing how, in a dream he saw a man named ‘Victorious’ holding letters from Ireland, one of which he gave to Patrick to read. The words in the letter began with ‘The Voice of the Irish’ which called upon him ‘to come again and walk among us as before’. He first returned to Gaul, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator, and for fourteen years he prepared for his vocation as a missionary.

 

wicklow mountains
wicklow mountains (Photo credit: lalui)

He returned to Ireland in 432 and probably landed again in Wicklow and began his mission in the kingdom of Ulidea in East Ulster. He needed the protection of the tribal kings and clan chieftains and succeeded in converting one of them, Dichu, who gave him a site on which to establish a place of worship, a wooden barn, or ‘saball’ in Irish, which became known as ‘Saul’. The most powerful chief, the High King of Tara, had ruled that every fire in Ireland must be put out at Easter and relighted from a fire in his castle, those disobeying being put to death. When Patrick was brought before the King for deliberately lighting his own fire on a hill opposite the castle, he said that he had done so as a sign that Christ, who had risen from the dead, was the Light of the World. He was set free, which reveals not just the strength of his faith, but also the growing strength of the faithful Christians. He then travelled throughout the country, founding communities, including the church and monastery at Armagh. He died in A.D. 461, supposedly on March 17th,  and was probably buried at Saul.

 

001

Probably the most famous legend about him is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the three-in-one. The shamrock thus became one of the national emblems of the Irish, the other being the harp (see the picture above). Perhaps the most significant legend, however, is that connecting Patrick with Joseph of Arimathea, which tells of Joseph visiting western Britain following the death of Jesus, bringing with him the Sangreal, or dish used at the Last Supper. This gave rise to the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. Joseph was said to have built a little chapel at Glastonbury, which was replaced by the Abbey, the ruins of which are a place of pilgrimage to this day. Patrick is said to have founded the monastic community there, at a time when the Tor would still have been part of the island of Afalon, easily reachable by ship from the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of Ireland.

There is also a story from Glyn Rhosyn in Pembrokeshire that Patrick settled there, but was told by an angel, in a dream, to move on, since the place was being reserved for St David, who became the patron saint of ‘Y Cymru ‘, the Welsh. Another legend places him in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde, at Dumbarton.

 

St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag
St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flag of St Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white background, became part of the Union Flag when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, joining the cross of St Andrew, for Scotland, and St George, for England. It remains on the flag to this day, although only Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated North and South of the border, and is a public holiday in both the Republic and ‘the Province’, which is appropriate, since there was no border in Patrick’s day and much of his ministry was conducted in the north of the island. The flag of St David is not (yet) part of the UK flag, nor, of course, is the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), the national emblem of ‘the Principality’. Patrick also has a hymn named after him:

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The Power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

 

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo
Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hymn is traditionally attributed to Patrick himself, and it certainly shows very clearly the blending of pagan mythology with Christian teaching in the early Celtic Church. It combines the functions of incantation, war-song and redal statement. The whole poem is given a tremendous force and unity by the notion of binding, so characteristic in Celtic art with its intricate knots and never-ending interlacing patterns, such as in the Book of Kells (see the picture above). The original Gaelic poem is known as ‘St Patrick’s Lorica’ . A ‘lorica’ was a spiritual coat or breastplate which not only charmed away disease or danger, but also secured a place in heaven for those who wore it day and night. The word became applied to spiritual poems which characteristically had three distinct parts: the invocation of the Trinity and the angels; the enumeration of various parts of the body to be protected; and a list of dangers from which immunity was being sought. The second of these elements is there in verse 8, where Christ’s presence in every part of the body is carefully invoked.

Legend has it that Patrick composed his lorica shortly after landing in Ireland on his mission, in 432, and to have used it in his defence before the pagan high king at Tara. Whether or not Patrick himself wrote the lorica, it is a supreme expression of the holiness and wholeness that marks Celtic Christianity, and which is summed up in another statement attributed to him:

Our God is the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and lowly valley’

These words, and the words of the hymn itself, take on a new relevance for us, in our return to the ecological consciousness which Patrick himself epitomised in his ministry and teaching. The translation of Patrick’s lorica into the hymn was done by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and many other hymns, many especially written for children. It was written for St Patrick’s Day, 1889, set to the traditional Irish medley, St Patrick, by Stanford (1852-1924), with the eighth verse ‘Christ be with me’ sung to one of three other Irish melodies. It is also considered an appropriate hymn to be sung on Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, associated in the early church with baptism, so it helps to direct our thoughts on this St Patrick’s Day towards the coming of Holy Week.

%d bloggers like this: