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…


BigRead13 Day 44 : Minds

Today’s #BigRead13 post can be found here.

Today we’re asked to think on Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And with it a snippet from C S Lewis – The Last Battle this time – people who are trapped in a prison of their mind – if they but trusted, they could be helped out, but they cannot trust.

Today’s prayer asks us to be thankful for the transformation God makes in us.

Some music for this evening which helped me think about this – the Agnus Dei from the Missa Bell’ Amfitrit’ altera by Lassus. Tonight isn’t about big drama. It’s about quietly sharing a meal with friends. It’s about what could turn into a bloodbath being defused by Jesus healing the high priest’s slave’s ear that Peter had cut off. And it is about the peace, the calm, that sharing the Eucharist has brought countless generations since – being still, and knowing God’s presence, by harking back to what he asked us to do and, well, doing it.

BigRead13 Day 43 : Seek

Day 43’s Big Read post is here.

Matthew 7:7 is the set reading for today:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

We’re asked if we take time to seek after God, or are we content as we are?

I don’t think with me it’s so much content – rather it comes back to the idea of being #notbusy. When we’re too busy we settle for second best, rather than striving after best when that could take just that last little bit of free time – or have to squeeze out something else essential. I tried to make time for the Lent addresses this week, I really did. The first was excellent. I missed the other two though.  Am hopeful of Maundy Thursday though…

Lord, give me the time to seek after you. When I’m busy, let me look for you in the busyness. When I can make the time, help me to be not busy and look for you in the calm too.

BigRead13 Day 42 : Colour

Day 42’s #BigRead13 post can be found here.

2 Corinthians 4:4 is today’s reading:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

In today’s excerpt from The Silver Chair, Aslan arrives. He is so bright and real and strong, all else pales. We’re asked “are we just living in the shadowlands?”

Part of me says yes, we are. At first we see through a glass darkly, and then we see face to face… There are shadows which cloud God from us and which we hope to see pass when we get to Heaven.

We look at God in black and white – with occasional glimpses of colour that hint at what there might be to see in future. And I always worry that others may be seeing more of him than me, and that that means they are somehow closer to him than me. I’m not wading into this weekend’s debate that raged on the Guardian website and in the twittersphere about the respective merits of the evangelical and anglo-catholic view of Jesus and the Cross. I will, however, confess if I may, to a teensy little bit of jealousy when I hear some of my more evangelical friends sound like they are having a far closer relationship with God than I am – that perhaps they are seeing, if not in Glorious Technicolor™, then in sepia or faded tones rather than the washed out grey I do. But then I pray that God won’t mind, and that he’s just glad I’m trying to see him at all, and doing my best, and perhaps will let me see more as I deepen my relationship with him.

The one thing I do think I get to do is to hear a little of God in richness and colour through music. I know that none of you will sit back and listen to this for an hour, but I’m going to listen to it tomorrow, and it is just a little audible glimpse of God’s wonder. The music starts at 02:21 in:

BigRead13 Day 41 : Real?

Day 41’s post from the BigRead13 can be found here.

1 Corinthians 15:12-34 was today’s reading – I’m not pasting it here as it’s a little long but go read it here if you like. From The Silver Chair we have someone wondering what if Aslan and Narnia weren’t real, but deciding they’d be on Narnia’s side, for Aslan, whatever. And so we’re asked to think how we might respond to those who say that we’re living in an ‘imaginary world’ – presumably a response to those who think God and religion are just a construct to those of us who need something comforting, well, comforted.

I think I blogged about this back in Advent. Just who could make up a story as intricate and unlikely as the Bible? Who would invent a God who gives himself up to die for the people he has created? Who would choose a God who refuses to save himself? A God with a very short list of demands – to love him, and love each other? A story so compelling that millions have heard it and believed, even Perhaps there might be something in this…

Which brings me on to tonight’s Lent address. This week we’re lucky to have Canon Mark Oakley with us to preach all week. Why bring this up now? Firstly because it both challenged and encouraged me. And secondly he brought up C S Lewis as he spoke of how God is revealed to us in Holy Week and through the Passion and Easter. Lewis said that we have an incomplete knowledge of God – and that when we come to Heaven, we might well be glad with the knowledge we then have of the prayers God didn’t answer.

Mark likened God’s for us to sitting in the sunlight. If we are willing to just sit and let the sun do its work, we will be changed and be warmed. He gives us the gift of our being; and asks only for our gift of becoming more like him. And what, then, of Holy Week? We don’t necessarily get a new revelation. Rather, all we think we know about God is laid bare, starkly before us.

I pondered on this afterwards and realised how true it is. We know the stories very well. They are some of the most read bits of the Bible. But if we truly think about what they tell us, oh boy. We are reminded of human frailty (Peter’s denial), of human fickleness (the crowds welcoming Jesus – “hosanna” – before turning on him – “crucify!”), of human grief (Mary at the foot of the cross). Mark reminded us of the contrast between two bowls of water – one of love (the washing of the feet), one of indifference (Pilate’s washing of his hands).

Finally, I’d not heard before of the seven gifts of the Passion. But now I have – the unbidden donkey, the scented ointment, the upper room, and then the four we will come back to on Good Friday – Simon of Cyrene’s shoulder, the words of encouragement from the second thief, the drink of vinegar from the soldier, and finally the gift of the tomb – Joseph of Arimathea giving up his own resting place to offer Jesus a loyalty he could not admit when he was alive.

Lord, help us to be loyal to you. Help us to be loyal to the future, to justice and equality and love, rather than just the past. Let the story of that last, dreadful week not just inform us but form us. Amen.

BigRead13 Day 40 : Happiness

Day 40’s post from the BigRead13 can be found here.

2 Corinthians 5:5 today:

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

And with it a thought from Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. God can make us happy, but only through God – because there is no place without him that he can make us happy without him.

Take up thy cross?Perhaps this is a slightly funny thing to be thinking about this morning, when as Twitter reminds us, we start to think that #everythingchanges.  Whilst Lent has not been a full-on barrel of laughs*, there was a darkening a week ago when we started to turn our minds to the Passion of Christ. Today there was joy and happiness again, as we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Yes, that is my son being happy about the donkey on the right.

But then things got dark again.  Instead of a Gospel reading and sermon, we had the dramatised Passion of Christ. We recalled Peter’s denial of God. We recalled Pilate washing his hands. We recalled the Via Dolorosa. And then those agonising three hours on the tree.  And it wasn’t just passive. The congregation joined in as the crowd, shouting “Crucify” – enough to send shivers down your spine. Gets me every time.

And it’s only going to get worse. There’s a whole week ahead. A week of darkness, sadness, suffering.  So why happiness now? Perhaps there was a clue in what we did after the Passion. We moved on, as ever, to share peace with each other. To pray.  And then to remember what it’s all about. To remember that the victory of the cross is followed by a victorious resurrection. To remember that without Good Friday, there couldn’t be Easter Sunday.  But without Easter Sunday, nobody would remember Good Friday. It’d just have been another crucifixion by an occupying power.  Instead, it is the selfless act by which we are reconciled to God and God to us. It is the darnkess before the light, but the light that we are luckily enough to know is coming.  And sharing a meal with friends to remember this – what could be happier?

* technical theological term.

Ride on, ride on in majesty

BigRead13 Day 39 : Worry

Day 39’s post from the BigRead13 can be found here.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Today’s extract from The Screwtape Letters reminds us that worry and anxiety keeps us from God.  We’re asked how worry features in our life and what can we do about it.

Ah yes, worry. Worry and anxiety lead to business that squeezes out time for God. What if I don’t work hard enough and I get blamed for something and lose my job? What if I forget something and get demoted? What if…? All too easy to let your mind race. All too easy for it to squeeze out thoughts of God. All too easy not to “Be still and know.”

BigRead13 Day 38 : Blood

Day 38’s post from the BigRead13 can be found here.

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9:13-14

In less than a week we will be at Maundy Thursday, when we remember the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples. “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Jesus says he is giving us all of him; the disciples still don’t quite get it though – until the next day when he gives up his life for us.

Today’s thought from Hebrews reminds us that the Jews had long ago sacrificed various animals in the temple to God. Yet here is the ultimate – a human self-sacrifice. And to remember it, the meal the night before – a meal that gives, that brings us closer to God. What can we do in return? Well, of old those whose physical lives were spared felt themselves indebted to their saviour and would serve a debt of gratidude. How much greater the debt for our spiritual life where our Saviour truly did surrender himself for our sake? Sadly, not enough. But, Lord, help me become closer. Amen.

BigRead13 Day 37 : Adventure

Day 37’s post from the BigRead13 can be found here.

Today we learn of the call to adventure Jesus issued to his disciples in Matthew 4:18-22:

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

We’re asked if we, too, feel like we’re on an adventure, and asked to pray that when we’re asked to live life to the full, we live up to this challenge.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been described as someone who lives life to the full. I’m perhaps the least well-travelled person in my department at work and amongst my group of friends. I’m not normally one to take risks, even calculated ones. I’m timid, physically (which may be hard to imagine for a 6’3″ chap, but I am scared of heights!). But in one way, maybe I am living life to the full. By trusting in God.