Archive for the ‘Sunday’ Tag

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

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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:

 

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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.

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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

Mothering/ Refreshment Sunday (fourth in Lent, 6 March, 2016)   Leave a comment

Simnel cake

Simnel cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,

‘Gainst thou go a-Mothering,

So that when she blesseth thee

Half the blessing thou’ll give me.

ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674)

Living in Hungary, I’m often asked why we celebrate Mother’s Day in Britain on a different date from most of Europe. I answer that we don’t celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’, we celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday‘, in which human motherhood is just one aspect.

With Lent half gone, the Church allows a break from fasting, a ‘breakfast’ or ‘refreshment’. The Gospel for the day tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand and so, appropriately, the day became known as Refreshment Sunday. In the early Church, there was a special ordinance requiring the priest and people to visit the ‘Mother church‘ of the district on this day, and this custom became associated with pleasant gatherings of families and reunions of children with mothers. Hence the popular name, ‘Mothering Sunday’.

DSC06206By the 17th Century it became common practice for serving maids and apprentices to be given a holiday on this day so they might visit their mothers. In those days, they left their homes at the age of nine or ten, then living in accommodation provided by their masters. Mothering Sunday would be the only day in the year on which they would see their families and keep up their links with home. They took gifts of flowers or special cakes made for the occasion.

These cakes were spicy and made with a fine flour which had a Latin name, ‘simila’, hence the cakes were known as Simnel cakes. These are sometimes decorated with little fruits, artificial flowers with eggs and nests – looking forward to the great festival of Easter.

The picture on the right above, shows our Oliver presenting his mum with Spring flowers in church, a tradition which is repeated in many parish churches and chapels throughout the UK. So we celebrate motherhood in the form of our human mother, the mother church and the ‘motherhood’ of God which, unlike our human mothers, but like ‘agape’, ‘has no end’.

So, all this has little to do with Mother’s Day, which is a North American institution. On 9 May 1906, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia lost her mother and succeeded in persuading the state governors to proclaim the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.

In Pennsylvania it became a state holiday, and other states followed suit until in 1913 the US Senate and House of Representatives dedicated the day to mothers. It is therefore, by definition, not a religious festival, and never has been. When the ‘Yanks’ came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, they brought these traditions with them, hence the reason that ‘Mothering Sunday’ has turned into a secular ‘Mother’s Day’ for many in Britain.

Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday   1 comment

‘Shrove Tuesday’ can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women aged eighteen and over who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner is kissed by the verger and receives a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantagous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormondizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May. More on this next week….

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