Archive for the ‘God’ Tag

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Immanuel   1 comment

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarte...

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaiah, 7: 10-14:

‘And the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, “Ask ye a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  And he said, “Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel…” ‘

The Advent hymn, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel‘ is based on these verses, and was one of the Latin ‘antiphons’ which were sung in the Early Church during the week leading up to Christmas, dating from as early as the sixth century. There were seven of them, one sung on each of the days from the 17th to the 24th. However, some time in twelfth century five of them were put together into one hymn. Each described Christ in a different way, as Emmanuel, ‘God with us‘, ‘the Root of Jesse’ (Isaiah, 11:10), ‘the Dayspring’ (Malachi 4:2), ‘the Key of David’ (Isaiah 22:22) and ‘the Lord of Might’ (Exodus 3:15). In 1851-4, J M Neale translated these five verses into a hymn in English, which has always been accompanied by the tune ‘Veni Immanuel’, a French adaptation of a plainsong ‘Kyrie’, arranged by Thomas Helmore, an Anglican clergyman who led the revival of Gregorian chant in Britain. The five verses are still sung in Advent, and the hymn remains very popular. The third verse is very poignant at present, as at many other times in history:

‘O come thou Dayspring, come and cheer

Our spirits by thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Posted December 21, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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A Hymn for Spring, by J M Neale   1 comment

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All is bright and cheerful round us;

All above is soft and blue;

Spring at last hath come and found us,

Sping and all its pleasures too.

Every flower is full of gladness;

Dew is bright, and buds are gay;

Earth, with all its sin and sadness,

Seems a happy place to-day.

If the flowers that fade so quickly,

If a day that ends in night,

If the skies that clouds so thickly

Often cover from our sight –

If they all have so much beauty,

What must be God’s land of rest,

Where His sons that do their duty,

After many toils are blest?

There are leaves that never wither;

There are flowers that ne’er decay;

Nothing evil goeth thither;

Nothing good is kept away.

They that came from tribulation,

Washed their robes and made them white,

Out of every tongue and nation,

Now have rest, and peace, and light.

JOHN MASON NEALE, 1818-66

Posted May 21, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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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)

A New World Dawning: Easter Sunday   1 comment

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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

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Easter Saturday: The Secret Arimathean Apostle   10 comments

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ f...

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ from Pilate Русский: Иосиф Аримифейский просит у Пилата тело Иисуса Христа для погребения (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Deuteronomy 21. v 23

‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree. but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and it was a typical punishment for slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand and the victim being made to carry the beam of his own cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire knew that this punishment, whether carried out by the government authorities or even landlords, might one day be their fate. When Jesus talked about being ready ‘to take up your cross’, this was the destiny and destination he had in mind for his followers. He meant it quite literally, and in many cases, it became an ultimate ‘acted parable’, as for our Lord himself. But this was, like the entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the Temple Courts, a real historical event. A death like this could not be other than the final event in Christ’s life. This is John’s account of the aftermath of Jesus’ death upon the cross:

 

 

 

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take down their bodies from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the sabbath, since the coming sabbath was especially holy.

So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side, and at once blood and water poured out. (The one who saw this happen has spoken of it, so that you also may believe. What he said is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth.) This was done to make the scripture come true: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And another that says, “People will look at him whom they pierced.”

‘After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph took it away. Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.’

‘There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried. Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.’

John 19 vv 31-42 

(see also Mt. 27, vv 51-61; Mk. 15, vv 38-47 and Luke 23, vv 47-56)

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only man in the Sanhedrin who we know supported Jesus, though not openly, was Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew tells us owned the nearby tomb, just recently dug out of solid rock. He could even have been a close relative of Jesus, perhaps his uncle, which would have permitted him to prepare the body for burial, in the tomb, with the crowd of women outside. In the gospel accounts, he appears as a transitory figure at the trial and crucifixion. However, other writers have pointed to his significance in preserving ‘The Word’, proclaiming ‘The Way’ and protecting both Jesus’ mother and the small band of disciples during the perilous years after the crucifixion. The legends surrounding his role as ‘the Apostle of Britain’ have had a profound influence on British history and culture, not least in William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem, which has become the unofficial anthem of England. But, for now, the scriptural record tells us that it was him who laid the body of Jesus to rest, properly anointed, in his own tomb, and that it was this tomb which Pilate had sealed and guarded, the only events of Saturday, the Sabbath.

Joseph of Arimathea was a man of refinement, well-educated, possessing many talents. He had extraordinary political and business ability and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world of that time, a metal magnate controlling the tin and lead industries across much of the Roman Empire. Tin was the chief metal for making alloys and was in great demand by the Romans. Many authorities claim that his control of tin was due to his holdings in the ancient tin mines of Britain, in particular in Cornwall, where it was smelted into ingots and exported throughout the Mediterranean by Joseph’s ships. The tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia is frequently referred to by classical writers, especially by Dioderus Siculus as well as by Julius Caesar himself. In the Latin Vulgate of the gospels of Mark (15: 43) and Luke (23: 50), both refer to Joseph as ‘Decurio’, the common term employed by Romans to designate an official in charge of metal mines. In St Jerome‘s translation, Joseph’s official title is ‘Noblis Decurio’, indicating a prominent position as a ‘minister of mines’ for the Romans. It was quite remarkable for a Jew to hold such a high rank in the Roman State. We know he was an influential member of the Sanhedrin and a legislative member of a provincial Roman senate. He owned a palatial home in Jerusalem and a fine country residence just outside the city. In addition, he possessed another spacious estate at Arimathea, several miles to the north of the city, at Arimathea, known as Ramelleh today. Everything points to him being as a person of affluence and influence in both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies.

According to the Talmud, Joseph was the youngest brother of the Virgin Mary’s father, making him Jesus’ great uncle. Joseph the Carpenter seems to have died while Jesus was still quite young. Under these circumstances, the Law appointed the next male kin of the husband, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, as  legal guardian. We now that Joseph never abandoned his great-nephew. He defended him at the trial, defied the Sanhedrin by going to Pilate and claiming the body, when all others feared to do so. His arms were the first to cradle the broken corpse, taking it from the cross to the tomb. He continued to protect the    body from the conspiratorial Sanhedrin members, risking his wealth, power and position in doing so, The disciples spoke of him as ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘honourable’ and ‘a disciple of Jesus’. The Gospel of Nicodemus shows that Joseph believed in the validity of Jesus’ teaching.

The speed with which Joseph called on Pilate after Jesus’ death indicates that he had been present at the crucifixion, together with John the Divine and a number of the women following Jesus. Pilate appears to have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death, asking those near him to verify it. According to both Jewish and Roman law, unless the body of an executed criminal was immediately claimed by the next of kin, it would be cast into a common grave with others and all physical record of them was completely obliterated. Why then, didn’t Mary the Mother, as the immediate next of kin, claim the body of her beloved son? Perhaps John, fearing for her safety, suggested leaving this duty to Joseph of Arimathea, as family guardian, to make the request. Also, Joseph had a nearby tomb ready, a private sepulchre, within the garden of his estate. Meanwhile, a reign of terror continued to prevail within the city walls. No follower of Christ was safe from the Sanhedrin, who were not just enjoying the Passover, but also a Roman holiday in the persecution of the followers of ‘The Way’.

All but two of the disciples had fled the city and gone into seclusion for fear of their lives. Nicodemus and Joseph remained, but only the latter dared walk openly in the streets without fear of physical attack. Yet he knew he was dealing with dynamite. Why then did he go to Pilate? Why didn’t he simply claim the body, according to the custom, on the hill of crucifixion itself? Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for him to go further than the Sanhedrin, but he knew that its fanatical Sadducean Priesthood sought the total extinction of Jesus, even in death. Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests, would have preferred Jesus’ body to be cast into the common pit so that all memory of him would be steeped in shame. To have him decently interred within a family sepulchre would run the risk of allowing a shrine to be set up, a martyr’s tomb, to which multitudes of pilgrims might flock for generations to come. The Sanhedrin might therefore have intervened to prevent her taking the body, but they could not interfere with Joseph. Nevertheless, he went before Pilate and boldly asserted kinship rights on behalf of his niece, thus securing the procurator’s support, just in case…

Following the entombment, the Sadducees, suspicious of the disciples, and determined to prevent any possible tampering with the body, requested a guard from Pilate, reminding him that Jesus had claimed he would rise again on the third day. Whether Pilate gave them a Roman guard, or whether he simply allowed them to arrange a guard from the Temple’s own men is unclear from the gospel accounts. The fact that they met with him on the Sabbath of the Festival shows just how determined they were to take every possibly precaution. They accompanied the guard to the tomb and saw to it that the tomb was sealed.

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

So, on the Sabbath, the Saturday, the tomb was sealed and guarded, and the disciples, except for Joseph, were in hiding outside the city. The next day, Joseph of Arimathea was no longer guardian over his nephew’s body, but over Christ’s mission on earth.He was also to become the guardian of all the beloved against their arch-enemy, the Sanhedrin, and the Chief Priests. He made the work of Peter and Paul possible, and planted the roots of Christianity in fertile soil a long way from his homeland.

Prayer: Joseph of Arimathea

Bless all, O Lord, who worship you in secret; all whose hearts are growing round an undeclared allegiance; all whose life is laden with a treasure they would pour out at your feet; all who know with greater certainty each day that they have found the pearl of greatest price: then by the power of the Cross, O Christ, claim your victory in their heart, and lead them to the liberty of being seen by all men to be yours, for your dear name’s sake. Amen.

 Dick Williams

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’.

 

Spy Wednesday: The treachery of our unfaithful hearts.   4 comments

English: Judas Iscariot The face of Judas Isca...

English: Judas Iscariot The face of Judas Iscariot peers from carved foliage whilst carvings of the other 11 disciples adorn the pulpit in St.James’ church http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/740582 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

In Christianity, Spy Wednesday (also called Holy Wednesday, and in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Holy and Great Wednesday) is the Wednesday of Holy Week, the week before Easter. It is followed by Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Paschal Triduum. This day is known as Spy Wednesday as a reference to the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot, indicating that it is the day that Judas Iscariot first conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins. This event is described in the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6. The Sanhedrin was gathered together and it decided to kill Jesus, even before Pesach if possible. In the meantime, Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Here he was anointed on his head by a woman with very expensive ointment of spikenard. In John’s Gospel, this woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some of the disciples, particularly Judas, were indignant about this. Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on, Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. On Spy Wednesday, and sometimes during other days of Holy Week, a Tenebrae service (“tenebrae” meaning “shadows”) is held. During the Tenebrae service, there is a gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and Psalms is chanted or recited.

 

 

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Judas’ ‘surname’, Iscariot, derives from the place-name, ‘Kerioth’, which was in the far south of Judea, beyond Mount Hebron, looking east to the Salt Sea, Or ‘Dead’ Sea, across the wilderness of Judah. Like Jesus himself, through Joseph, Judas was also descended from the tribe of Judah, through his father Simon, and was the only one of the twelve not from Galilee. His speech and manners would therefore have differed substantially from the other disciples, who would have regarded him as more of an outsider than Jesus himself, who spoke with the same accent as them and, as far as they were concerned, was a Galilean, a member of the northern tribes of Israel. The Aramaic dialects would have been as different as the sixth century differences between Mercian and Northumbrian ‘English’, though they would have shared the ancient Hebrew of the scriptures, plus a smattering of Greek.

Mark’s gospel (14: 1-2, 10-11) gives us the earliest account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, paraphrased here in Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus:

It happened two days before the Great Feast.

The Jewish Leaders were trying to find some way of getting hold of Jesus and killing him. They didn’t dare do this openly, or when the Great Feast was on, for they were afraid of a riot.

They were delighted when they heard that one of ‘the Twelve’, Judas Iscariot, had come and offered to put Jesus into their hands. They promised to pay him, and Judas began to look for the chance of doing it.  

 

Matthew adds the detail of the thirty pieces of silver and Luke cites the primary cause of Judas’ betrayal as his mental condition; in first-century terms, demonic possession. He also adds the involvement of the officers Temple Guard in the plot to arrest Jesus. These are interesting additions. Luke, a doctor, is concerned to stress Judas’ psychological condition, suggesting that the financial reward was accepted, but not sought, by Judas. The disciples’ anger at Mary of Bethany for ‘wasting’ the expensive ointment, attributed in John’s gospel to Judas as ‘Treasurer’ to ‘the Twelve’, suggesting Judas’ love of ‘filthy lucre’ as his primary motivation, is not even mentioned by Luke, whereas both Mark and Matthew, like John, place it ‘centre stage’ in their accounts of Judas’ act of betrayal. John calls  Judas ‘a thief’, regularly helping himself to the disciples’ funds. Although John agrees that Judas’ plan to betray Jesus was pure evil, he does not attribute it to sudden mental illness on Judas’ part. John’s account places that event of demonic possession very specifically as taking place during the Passover meal. However, he suggests that Judas had already formed his plan before the Wednesday of Passover week, perhaps jealous of Andrew and Philip, who had provided access to Jesus to Greek Jews through their Bethsaida connections, Jews whom many ‘pure’ Judeans, like Judas, would have regarded as gentiles, though Jesus welcomed them as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. There is also a clue to Judas’ motives in John’s report of the fact that, although many of the Jewish authorities believed in Jesus, they feared the power of the Pharisee Party in the Sanhedrin to ban them from the Temple and its courts, so they would not speak openly of their belief, preferring the approval of men to that of God (Jn 12 vv 20-26, 42-43).

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot (Photo credit: Missional Volunteer)

 

Luke’s mention of the Temple Guard shows his emphasis on Judas’ concern, shared with the Sanhedrin, to keep this as an internal ‘Temple’ matter, not something to involve the Roman authorities in, at least at this stage. However, when the arrest takes place two nights later, John’s report claims that Roman soldiers were present, accompanying Judas, the Sanhedrin representatives and the Pharisees. This account makes it difficult to believe that Judas had any motive of forcing Jesus into an armed rebellion against Roman rule, as some commentators have suggested. His followers were armed with swords at Jesus’ own bidding, but following Peter’s attack on Malchus, the High Priest’s servant, Jesus himself ordered them not to resist his arrest.

The whole situation seems to have become hopelessly confused. Judas may have been an extreme example of the confusion felt by all Jesus’ disciples. The ‘traitor’ may have thought that Jesus, whatever he said in public, was the national leader sent by God to deliver his people and that he, Judas, only had to force his hand to make him act as he ought to free the Jewish people and overthrow the Romans, and that God would give him the miraculous power to do this.  So, he betrayed him into the hands of both the Sanhedrin and the secular Roman government. But nothing happened. Jesus accepted his arrest. When Judas realised what he had done, he went out into the shadows and committed suicide, so Matthew tells us (Mt 27 vv 3-10). The point is that, in his lifetime, there was nothing about the appearance of Jesus  to demonstrate his authority, no outward sign guaranteeing who he was. He had been passionately concerned with one thing only – what God was doing, summed up in the phrase ‘God’s Way’ or ‘the Kingdom of God’.

 

Judas' regret

Judas’ regret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the truth about God, men and women, and the world we live in, that Jesus tried to make clear in word and deed. He stood for something very different from the popular political assumptions and religious convictions of the other rabbis of his age, the sorts of things they preached about in the synagogues. He challenged some of the central religious beliefs of his own people, facing them publicly and finally in the central shrine of the national religion, the Temple in Jerusalem, Zion itself. The demands he was making on both leaders and led were far more radical and revolutionary than their aggressive nationalism. So, in their eyes, he was unpatriotic, unheroic and irreligious. He could have avoided a head-on collision with them, but chose not to. When the confrontation came, the Sanhedrin knew exactly what they thought the issue would be, ‘blasphemy’.  There was no alternative for them but to get rid of him, because he represented a threat to all they stood for. He also stood for something very different from the convictions all his closest friends seem to have held, not just the muddled political motives of the traitor, Judas. It was only after his death that they began to realise and understand his demands on them.

Spy Wednesday Prayer: “God our Father, we are exceedingly frail and indisposed to every virtuous and gallant undertaking. Strengthen our weakness, we beseech You, that we may do valiantly in this spiritual war; help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.” (Prayer of Thomas a Kempis)

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Posted April 16, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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