Engaging with Holy Week

One of the great privileges of worshipping in St Albans Cathedral is the wonderful liturgy and music throughout the year. Holy Week provides such variety – the joyful entry behind a donkey; the pauses to reflect; then the roller coaster ride of the Triduum – the time from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the end of the Easter Vigil.

The Cathedral is perhaps fuller of people as Christmas approaches, yet Holy Week is the busiest for the virgers, musicians, clergy and volunteers. The sheer variety means frequent changes of pace, of rearranging the furniture, of musical tone.

Last year, with health worries and sadness hanging over the family, I didn’t engage with Holy Week. The week after, whilst I still felt I trusted God, I felt him more distant – almost let down. It’s a feeling that has lingered, a bit, for the last year – a feeling that is unreasonable, but not unexpected.

And then Lent 2015 arrived. Work has been stupidly busy for both Sarah and I. I was ill, then Sarah was ill. Tiredness has been the watchword. Late trips home from work have been a temptation to sleep or catch up on professional matters, not to read a Lent book or three. Would Holy Week be the same? Well, would it?

At last. A glimmer. Not of hope – there’s more than a glimmer of that already in the promises we heard on Palm Sunday. No, a glimmer of the closeness of God.

Firstly, there’s music. On Sunday morning we processed behind Harry the Donkey, down to the Abbey where we were met with ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. Tonight, already, we’ve had a stunning anthem ‘As the Father hath loved me’ – a setting of parts of John 15. My iPhone has been topped up with Victoria’s Lamentations, Macmillan’s Seven Last Words and more. There’s more to come tomorrow with the Sanders Reproaches. And that’s before Easter itself arrives.

All of this may be gibberish if you’re not into that sort of church music, yet if you could but hear, you’d perhaps get a sense of the majesty of God, and the range of emotions it can bring.

Is it just emotive music to me? Is the effect of the Sanders on me not just the same sadness the plaintive trumpet at the end of La Boheme triggers? No. For me, God has never been a convenient excuse to listen to great music; great music has been a way of signposting my soul to God. Of letting the mood bring you closer when your rational mind wants to think instead on “that which we have left undone” – loose ends at the office, whether the Ocado order is complete, what to do with my parents at the weekend if it rains. Of praying when words alone aren’t enough.

Our preacher tonight, Rev’d Dr Gregory Seach, spoke of the richness of Maundy Thursday’s liturgy. For me, this was:

  • The simple sound of a chanted psalm, Psalm 22, as the church was stripped of decoration – a powerful metaphor for the darkness to come tomorrow.
  • The joy of tasting bread and wine – tonight of all nights remembering “Do this in memory of me” – my italics to stress that this is a direct instruction.
  • The act of moving at the end of the service from my comfortable seat to kneeling before the altar of repose, lit only by candles with all around in darkness, my mind blotting out my fellow worshippers and focussing on prayer.
  • Leaving in quietness, alone with my thoughts and prayers.

Before this Holy Week is out, you know, it might just have done its thing and reminded me that God isn’t as distant as he’s seemed of late. There’s a word (in fact an A word) to respond to that, but it’ll have to wait until Sunday…


Personal patronal

Statue of St Richard, Chichester Cathedral
A Prayer of St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

Today is, I guess, a kind of “personal patronal”. My parents were married in St Richard’s church in Chichester, and I am named as a result.

I cannot claim to live a life of frugal vegetarianism, nor can I hope to cultivate figs as a hobby. But in some small way, I can aspire to be like St Richard by aspiring to his aspiration. And on the occasions I do get to take a few moments in Chichester Cathedral when visiting my parents, I pause to echo his famous prayer at the shrine of St Richard.


Lent 2014 – Turning to the Cross – Passion Sunday

I’ve been reading, but not blogging, the Lent materials. Somehow blogging stopped when we went away for a weekend, and never resumed. But now we have reached Passion Sunday – the time when we turn fully towards the Cross; towards the inevitability of Jesus’ death. To imagine what it would be like as one of the first disciples, worrying that you’d put your hope in a saviour who now seemed powerless; to imagine what it would be St Peter, the rock on which the church would be built, and feel so powerless as to need to deny your Lord; to be Mary, seeing your hopes dashed on Calvary.

Today’s thought from Maggi Dawn’s Giving it Up “It’s not fair” focuses on Luke 10:38-42 – the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha. Martha busies herself getting ready for Jesus, Mary sits and listens to what Jesus is saying. Jesus tells Martha, when she complains, that Mary has focussed on what matters whilst Martha has been distracted.

Maggi notes that it isn’t clear whether Martha is upset at Mary behaving in a way women traditionally didn’t – they were expected to serve the guests – or whether perhaps she is cross at herself for not spending time with Jesus. At any rate, the story tells us to slow down, to try not to be distracted, and to focus on Jesus. This evening I finally got the chance to do that – after the main Passiontide service, there was an opportunity to just sit and pray, and I did just that.

I don’t know how it keeps happening, but yet again there is a parallel between Maggi’s selection for the day and the #BigRead14 offering for today, Patience. The author, Stephen Cherry, prays for patience. For the time not to be busy like Martha but to listen like Mary.

Finally, as we’ve not had a hymn for a while, this


Lent 2014: Day 7: Fame and Fortune – and an Important Commission

What does it feel like to be famous? Think of a famous movie star – how would it feel to walk in their shoes? Yes, that is me trying out some famous footprints above, although I’ve never really wanted to be famous.

Today Maggi gives us the second temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:5-7), with a warning that desiring fame and fortune in the Church can be just as dangerous as throwing yourself off the temple – perhaps exhilarating on the way, but painful at the end.

Rachel, too, picks up on the analogy of the tele-evangelists, calling for generous giving almost as a condition of God’s blessing. These tele-evangelists conveniently forget, for a time, that the evangelical view is that we are justified by faith alone, and not by our acts – it is our faith in God that should save us, rather than our having donated. That’s not to say that giving money to the church is a bad thing; if we want to grow in our faith, and others to discover and grow in their faith too, we need preachers, and perhaps pulpits, and these cost money. But it is not a pre-condition for being saved – we do good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved. Perhaps I’d best stop this line of thought here as my theological knowledge doesn’t deep enough to develop my point.

Maggi also thinks about fame for spiritual gifts. I was thinking about this too. Two Advent Book Clubs ago, I looked at the ordination service for priests. The words of the ordinal seem to call for a degree of fame – but little fortune.

Fame, or infamy, may arise if we stick our heads above the parapet and share our faith. If we’re good at it, it may be fame – which should be turned to the fame of the faith, not of the preacher. If we’re bad at it, it may be infamy.

But fame need not mean wide renown. It could mean fame to just one person – the one person you invited to church that one time where something just took. Asked, many years later, they might say “I remember going to church with X. (S)he is the reason I first went; it was Jesus that made me stay”. And that is the sort of fame we can, and should, all aspire to – the important commission we all have (see, I’ve brought us back to today’s #BigRead14 prayer, Important Commission) – for God’s sake, not our own. For spiritual good fortune, not financial good fortune.

Lent 2014: Day 6: Psalm of the Dawn and Stones into Bread

Stones into bread – the first temptation of Jesus in the desert – from Matthew 4:1-4 – perhaps the least well known of the temptations.

Maggi treats us to a snippet from her book on her blog – why the fast may not have literally been forty days and forty nights, but why forty is symbolically important. She reminds us that fasting is a reminder of both our own physical existence and our spiritual existence; the physical longing for that which we have given up and the spiritual realisation that we can give up without slavishly giving way to our physical wants; the physical as well as the spiritual Jesus.

As I prayed on this passage, I thought about the contrasts from today’s #BIGRead14 Barefoot Prayer, Psalm of the Dawn. I imagined being alone in the desert, longing in the cold nights for the warmth of the sun, warmed only by the Son. The baking heat of bread on the stones baked themselves in the desert. Waiting for dough to prove before it rises – waiting before the Son rises. Rushing both risking ruining both. The need to pray as well as fasting.

Lent 2014: Day 5: Old and new – awakening

As befits a Sunday, there is a lightening of the mood in the #BigRead14 Barefoot Prayers by Stephen Cherry – an Awakening.

Stephen calls us to awake to God; to listen to him and what he wants.   This is something it is all too easy to forget to do in Lent; to be fixated by what we have given up; to listen to the hymns in their minor keys; and to dwell on forgiveness for acts past without praying on acts future. I pray that I may redress this balance.

Luke 5:33-39 is Maggi’s choice for today – new wine and old wineskins. In the past I’ve perhaps skipped past the true message here.

I’ve assumed that as one of the more Biblically focussed networks of churches is called “New Wine” that new wine is seen as the best and that we are called to put it in new wineskins – newer forms of church coming ever closer to God and removing past errors (as if older forms of church saw through a glass darkly; newer forms see Jesus face to face).

Yet, as Maggi points out, old and new can co-exist and complement each other. A rich old red and a crisp young white can co-exist on a wine list, just as old and new can co-exist in church. It’s interesting to read Rachel’s take on this from her perspective as a final year ordinand. Pushing my restaurant analogy slightly further, few people would order that cheeky young sauvignon blanc to go with a steak; likewise, the Bordeaux is unlikely to sit well with the salmon.

Both old and new need to play to its strengths and each leaves room for the other. What seems most important to me is that whatever we do, we do it well. I’ve been to all sorts of church services, high and low, formal and informal, where it has been obvious that people are just Trying Too Hard. Whilst I know (from behind the scenes) that a good service where people encounter God is often hard work, done well that work should not be self-evident and the result focus just on God. The winemaker knows what she or he is good at, and grows the right sort of grapes for the wine they know how to make; occasionally as church we need to remember the same is true.

Lent 2014: Day 4: What does the Lord require?

A short post today as the arthritis is playing up, we’re away at my parents and it is Dad’s birthday and Vi’s 100th birthday today.

Maggi sets us Micah 6:1-8 – God points out all he has done for his people, and then Micah asks what he should do for God? I hadn’t realised before reading Maggi’s book that Lenten fasting used to be a community thing; the whole community knew the rules as to what to give up, and it would be something far more “essential” than chocolate, or booze, or coffee. (What, you mean coffee isn’t essential?).

Perhaps there is a glimmer here in that way back when community rules dictated what should be given up, people had far less variety (and for all but the richest, far less luxury) than today? Yet even in the few years since Maggi wrote, the use of foodbanks is increasing, austerity bites and those swathes of the community giving up essentials again have little choice.

Lord – We pray for your coming again; we look for it, yearn for it. We count our blessings even as we give up one or two. Help us to fight for justice for those who aren’t giving up luxuries but essentials; help those in authority realise the cries of their people, as the Israelites cried out in their times of oppression; help justice come again to your earth. Amen.

Lent 2014: Day 3: More than the body

I’m looking at today’s two resources the other way around. Firstly, the #BigRead 2014 challenge – Bread. Bread is a metaphor for Jesus – “I am the bread of life” – and each week we encounter him in bread and wine. Perhaps though we don’t think of ourselves as bread – to be transformed and grown as dough is kneaded, proved and then shared with friends and family to support them?

Maggi turns to Luke 12:22-34. She draws on the passage’s idea that God will provide for us if we but trust in him, and develops this through the idea that we’re not just giving stuff up for Lent in the hope we can atone for our sins. Indeed, only Jesus can bring us to forgiveness by his sacrifice on the cross. Perhaps our time fasting gives us time to meditate on that rather than enjoying a guilty moment of pleasure?

Lent 2014: Day 2: A true fast

Maggi has us read
Isaiah 58:6-12. The reading makes clear that fasting alone isn’t enough – in both senses of “alone”:
– Just abstaining from food or drink isn’t enough. We should think about alms as well, and praying. 40acts has a range of activities to inspire; last year I found Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings helpful and am giving it ago this year – there’s a range of situations over the days to think and pray about, coupled with either a call for action or giving – and there’s an app to remind me.
– Maggi’s point which struck me most was slightly different. Doing it without God is maybe good for our physical health, but not our spiritual health. The time spent not doing whatever we were doing needs to be turned to God: this could be time aside to pray, or a quick prayer whenever those chocolate pangs strike.

Today’s BigRead14 Barefoot Prayer poem, Breath of God, has us calling on God to breathe on us and be with us throughout our day. Perhaps this fits with Maggi’s point about not fasting alone without God? That time to prayer as part of fasting allows God to breathe on us. And who knows? It might just stick once Lent is done.


Lent 2014: Day 1: To dust you shall return

This Lent I shall be trying to read both:

I can’t promise to blog diligently on both or even either book; rather when I have something that I particularly want to remember I shall write about it – mostly for my own benefit, so I won’t be offended if nobody reads!

Lent is here again. The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday is done – less exhortation, more invitation:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

And it should be an invitation – though not one for a Christian to turn down lightly. We should want to give up and to take up; to prepare for the glory of Easter. The Easter that seemed so far away mid afternoon when I felt the sort of hunger pang that might normally be addressed by a trip to the “hotline table” at work to see if a little something sweet might be found.

Lent is here again. Maggi points us to Psalm 103 – we are reminded that:

“The days of man are but as grass : for he flourisheth as a flower of the field.

For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone: and the place thereof shall know it no more.”

Maggi explains that ashing is a balance. An over-emphasis on our sinfulness could be oppressive and perhaps lead us to believe redemption is just too hard – so it might not even be worth trying; yet it can be also a way of making us appreciate life.

A twitter pal drew on the same link between the remembrance of our own mortality and the Book of Common Prayer funeral service as the Archdeacon did at tonight’s Cathedral sermon; the same twitter pal also realised the last time someone had marked a cross on his forehead was his baptism – a celebration of the gift of life and the giving of a life to God.

Mulling on these two ideas brings me to the first of Stephen Cherry’s Barefoot Prayers for Lent (there’s been a few more in the build up since Sunday) – Repentance. Poem as prayer is welcome; one of the things I need to repent is not taking enough time to pray; to listen; to hear the voice of God in the storm; to hear not just the rush of time towards the return of my body to dust but the time to learn to see God clearly rather than through a glass darkly.