The danger of crowds

What on earth is Jesus getting at in today’s Gospel when he tells us to “hate” our family? (Luke 14:25-33) Strange words because we know that he taught us that we must not hate anyone, that we must even love our enemies, so why does he appear to say the opposite here? I think the answer lies in the words that come before it. “Great crowds accompanied Jesus on the way.” The point is that Jesus was quite rightly suspicious of crowds. He knew how easily people will follow the crowd, and think that where a crowd is there must be something important happening. And most of us are more than a bit like this. If there are lots of people in church, we tend to think that means success. If most people go shopping or stay in bed sleeping on Sunday, we find it difficult to be different.

 Jesus says instead that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” (Matt 18:20) – not two or three hundred, but “two or three”! On another occasion, when he’d begun teaching them about his presence in the bread and wine, the crowds were shocked and turned away from him; and instead of pleading with his few disciples to stay, he challenged them with the words, “Do you want to leave too?” (John 6:67) The final instance of a crowd being wrong was at his trial wasn’t it?  One day, as he enters Jerusalem, they’re all cheering, and the next day they are all shouting “Crucify him!” (eg Matt 27) And if you want a more modern example of the way crowds can turn to evil, look at the way Hitler and the Nazi Party manipulated the crowds in 1930’s Germany.

 We may think we are not like this but beware, for it’s a very natural human tendency to want to be like the people around us, and to behave like them, and Jesus knows this. Try this experiment, sit talking to someone, and put one hand in a different position and watch the way the person will very often mirror your movement. So, when Jesus is faced with the crowds who are all wanting to see him because everyone else seems to want to see him, he has to really challenge them to think and act for themselves, rather than to just go along with the crowd. So he uses brutal language, even that word “hate” to make them really think hard about what they are doing, just as in another place he shocks people by telling them to cut off their hand, if it does wrong!

In today’s Gospel, he explains what he is saying with two stories, one about building a tower and the other about going to war. In both cases, he reminds us, it is like everything important that we do in our lives, it requires real commitment, not just going along with the crowd. If we really want to following Jesus –  to be a Christian – then we have to realise the challenge this is, and not give up halfway because we hadn’t realised how difficult it would be!  

People here in England, especially young people at school, have a big problem here. Most want to be and to think like their friends, and not to stand out from the crowd, and being a real practising Christian – even more a Catholic Christian – is not what most of their friends see as trendy. Much of the scorn poured on the Church is, of course, nonsense, but if the crowd believes it, then it’s difficult not to believe it too. The crowd, for example, in their ignorance, say that since the Universe was created by the Big Bang, there cannot be a God. This is nonsense, of course, because the Big Bang theory is a Christian idea not an atheist one, and was first put forward by a Physicist called George LeMaitre who was also a Catholic priest. But try telling the crowd that. As this example shows, the crowd has their own kind of wisdom which is often just nonsense.  Listen to what St Paul says on this subject:- “If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Cor 3:18-19)

So when in our 1st Reading (Wisdom 9:13-18) we are told that we need “wisdom”, we need to remind ourselves this is not the kind of wisdom comes from the crowd, from what people around us are saying or thinking, but the wisdom that comes from God. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not easy. It’s much easier to believe vaguely in God as a quiet force that makes few demands on us, or not to believe at all. than to believe in the challenging loving God that Jesus brings to us. Crowds will come and go in their support for this or that, and are not to be trusted. We are called to follow Jesus, and that can often be a hard path of service and sacrifice, and not an easy road.

 

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God’s radical plan for us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Few of us really give much consideration to the enormity of the gift of God to us in Christ, or precisely what that means, and just how life changing that truly is. Our Readings this week focus precisely on this seismic shift in reality, as Jesus and Paul grapple with this issue and seek to bring home to their followers what it means. For us, one of the traps we easily fall into with our Gospel, (Luke 14:25-33) with all its hard talk of abandoning family and possessions, is that we read it literally especially as we only read bits of the text. In so doing we easily miss the point and end up bewailing our inability to do precisely that, rather than look at the larger picture. It is to this larger picture that we must turn our attention.

Our Reading from Wisdom (9:13-18) speaks of the inadequacies of the human being in relation to God and of the impossibility of our ever knowing ‘the intentions’ or mind of God. Coming from a philosophically dualist valuation of the human being, it separates the human mind from the body and sees the latter as of little value. “For a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” For such men, schooled in a Platonist tradition, the best that could be hoped for was to shed the confines of the earthly body and hope for a linking of the immortal soul with the source of creation.

But this is not the Christian view. The whole point of the Incarnation, of God becoming human and redeeming us in and through his fleshly body, lies precisely in his hallowing, making holy, the very materiality of our earthly existence. In vivid contrast to Wisdom’s claim that God’s mind (intention) is unknowable; the Christian claim is precisely the opposite. God the Son, who ‘threw away’ divinity for us, has shown us precisely what God’s plan for us is. Ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the bodily death and resurrection of God the Son, we are now fit for heaven, sharers in the divine nature in the wording of the Petrine Letters, destined as St John has it in Jesus’ great prayer, to be One as Jesus and the Father are One. In Jesus therefore the mind of God is not hidden but opened wide for you and for me.

In our Gospel Jesus is shown working desperately to get both his followers, and all those in Israel, to appreciate the enormity of the change which has come upon them. God’s revelation of himself, and therefore of his plans for us in and through Jesus, imply a radical transformation of society, both that of his time and ours. You will remember that last week’s Gospel was about the tragic-comic grab for the best seats at a banquet following Jesus’ healing of a man with dropsy. We are flies on the wall at this most challenging and awkward moment when Jesus pulls the plug on the carefully crafted system of rules governing the way society ticked, and showed it up for what it was. The story then continues with the great banquet in which the giver represents God the Father and the invited all cry off with fatuous excuses. It is a scene painfully vivid with rejection of God’s great offer of himself. Our Gospel is its sequel, and as I previously remarked, we can miss the point if we just get hung up on the ‘rejection of family’ stuff.  The whole context points us in a much more significant direction, and we need to keep this uppermost in our minds. Renunciation is there but its entire purpose is quite different.

This is beautifully, even hilariously illustrated by Paul’s Letter to Philemon (9-10.12-17). The situation is as follows. Paul has pinched the services of a trusted slave of the wealthy businessman Philemon from Colossae. Paul was in prison in Ephesus and needed someone to continue his missionary work and help him out. Stealing someone’s slave was a very serious thing and potentially could have made matters far worse for Paul. His solution was to exploit the existing patronage system to get both himself and the hapless Onesimus off the hook, and boy, does he play the system to perfection.

Paul plays both on the system of slavery and that of patronage. Onesimus may be a slave of Philemon’s, but Paul is Christ’s slave – now giving slavery a power and glamour it never had in the real world. Christ himself is describes as becoming as a slave in Philippians. Philemon was a Christian, so he would not want to fall out with Paul, one of the predominant preachers and missionaries of the time. Paul claims that in Christ he ‘begat’ the slave, making him as it were of his own flesh. When therefore Onesimus returns, he bears as it were, the imprint/identity of Paul himself. By implication, he could not be given his deserved punishment – flogging or death. Paul plays on the fact that whilst he is Christ’s slave, he is also his agent or ambassador, acting in the person of Christ himself and therefore of enormous clout, a far superior patron to Philemon. Paul insists that through Onesimus he sees Philemon himself acting as his co-agent for the Gospel. Here then, in this dramatic overturning of traditional society and its mores, we see Paul both play the system – if Philemon accepts he will have Christ for his patron like Paul – and both will have the most superior patron imaginable; and of course, Paul gets himself off the hook for Philemon could not possibly charge Paul with theft, or beat Onesimus! What a tour de force

The whole point of all this rambling set of stories is to emphasise just how God overturns the social order. None of us will ever be worthy of the Kingdom, but by His grace we will be gifted it. We have to begin by opening ourselves to the enormity of God’s love for us, and somehow or other emulate Jesus who ‘emptied himself’ for our salvation. That requires us radically to rethink entire areas of our own lives. If we can do so with the wiliness of a Paul, then even better.

Homily on being placed with the saints

We must never forget, that the heart of our faith as Christians is that we meet God in and through Jesus. As he said “To have seen me, is to have seen the Father”. (John 14:9) This means that we can feel God the Father’s love and compassion for us in a very real way, as we hear Jesus speaking words of comfort and wise advice, and as we see him dying for us on the cross. But our danger is that this gives us such comfort that we fail to see the challenge in much of what Jesus says; and we fail to realise that the God whom he teaches us to call “Father”, is also the God who is, as we heard in the reading from Hebrews (12:18-24) “Nothing known to the senses”  – an immense and powerful force way beyond our understanding.

We need to remember all this as we hear Jesus’ parable today. He appears to be simply giving wise advice on how to be polite and modest at dinner parties, but actually, like all of Jesus’ teaching, this is more about our relationship with God. Yes, there are places where Jesus teaches us that when we are with God, it is he who will sit us down and serve us; but in this teaching that is certainly not the case. Instead, he is warning us not to take God’s welcoming love for granted, as if we could walk into heaven and say “Hello God”, and walk right up and sit down beside him as if we were the most important person in the room. Now I’m sure that you can see how wrong that attitude to God  is, yet we do meet people who do take God for granted like that, don’t we? And perhaps we sometimes can be a bit like that too. It’s one thing to know that God loves us and always hears our prayers, and quite another to take that closeness for granted, and forget who we are talking to.

Two things follow from this. The first is that we must be careful when we pray, not to spend all our time speaking to God, and never giving God time to speak to us. Of course there are times when we’ll want to pour out our story to God, especially when something upsetting or distressing has happened to us, or when we’re in pain or great sadness. God will always listen. But we also need to develop what our 1st Reading calls “An attentive ear”… maybe we should call it “A listening ear” .

This must apply to the whole of our life and not just to our times of prayer. Sadly, when we get busy with our life, or our work, or our problems, it is easy to forget to be sensitive to what God may be saying to us in and through everything that we experience, not just so-called religious things.  The reason why we are encouraged to have “times” of prayer each day, as I mentioned last week, is to help us to make all of our life more responsive to God’s presence, rather than limiting God to only one area of our lives. If we think it’s all right to rattle off a few prayers, and then forget about God and his will for us the rest of the time, then we have missed the point, haven’t we?

This leads on to the second thing I want to say, and that is the importance of developing an attitude of humility in all that we do. Now true humility is not getting agonised about our sins or our failings, instead it’s much more about having a sense of humour about ourselves – not taking ourselves too seriously. I love the story of the new Head Teacher of a very posh school for clever girls, who introduced the radical idea, that these clever girls should be taught the value of failure. She pointed out that instead of agonising about failure and getting steamed up about trying to get perfect results, the best way forward in life is to see our failures not as things to beat ourselves up about, but as some of our best learning experiences. That, you see, is true humility.

The kingdom of God, that we pray for every day when we say the Our Father, is a place where everyone has an equal place and is equally valued. Life with God is not about scrabbling to reach the top of the tree, but about realising that everyone is equally precious to God even, and perhaps especially, if they think of themselves as a failure. That is what the reading from Hebrews says, doesn’t it? “What you have come to is… the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven…. You have come to God himself… and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect.”

 Notice that! Not, you have to make yourself perfect to be a saint; but you have been “placed” with the saints, and even they, the holiest of all people, have not made themselves perfect, but have been made perfect….. by God.  That is the kingdom we belong to, and it should affect every aspect of our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Death, Life and Mary

For us Christians, the day someone dies is also the day when we meet God face to face. As St Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12) That’s why we sometimes call the day of death our heavenly birthday. For me, the 12th June is a date I cannot forget, because it is the day my mother died over 40 years ago. I hope and pray that she is now with God in heaven, as I remember the words of St Paul from our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ” Notice that! We Christians do NOT believe that people pass automatically to heaven. Eternal life with God is a gift given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God dies to defeat death, and so bring us to eternal life with him.

 

I’m reminding you of all this standard teaching on the faith, because from the very earliest times Christians have celebrated death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her entrance into heaven. And just as I can remember the date of the passing of my earthly mother, so they remembered, and have passed on to us, the date – the 15th of August – of the passing of the mother that Jesus gave to us all as he died on the cross. As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus said to his dear friend John, the only disciple brave enough to stand with her “This is your mother”

 

Now we might say “Yes OK.”, and leave it at that. But the Church tells us that Mary is more important than that, and that we need to think and pray regularly about her part in bringing Jesus to the world, if we are to understand more clearly what it is that God offers us through Jesus. A famous Dominican writer, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, points out that when someone asks us home to meet their mother, we’re actually being offered an even closer friendship with them. This may well have happened to you? Think how in this situation, the Mother tells us stories, sometimes embarrassing ones, about her son or daugher from when he or she was younger; and thus we learn things about them that we never knew before.

 

Some of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, including our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) are clearly one’s that do not come from Jesus, but from Mary : stories she must have told the first Christians, so that they could learn more about how God works through Jesus to bring us to eternal life with him.

 

The three most famous stories are told at length in the Bible, and so are clearly very important. They are first the story of the Angel coming to Mary, then Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth (our Gospel today) and then finally the birth of Jesus and the few stories we have of his childhood. Mary’s part in all this reminds us that even the most ordinary human beings, like you and me, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God in wonderful ways. They remind us also how God chooses to become fully human, in Jesus, to be a baby in the womb and a child in his mother’s arms. This is the most remarkable thing about the Christian Gospel that we easily take for granted.  God choosing to work in a special way in one of us, Mary, in order that he might be born as one of us, Jesus.

 

Thus we are taught two things. First, that God does not work in us just in a spiritual way, but that he uses our flesh and blood humanity to bring his love and glory to the world – just as he worked in Mary. Second, that, although we are called to a personal faith in Jesus, who died for us, part of the way we are linked to him is by being living members of his family. Remember what Jesus says to us. “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” (John 15:15) and in another place Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). That is what we are called to be ,with Mary our mother, a family supporting and loving one another, and together bringing his message of love and salvation to those around us and to world.

 

Finally, of course, the message for today is that when we die, we do not die alone. We are drawn through the love of God fully into the family of God that we have been part of whilst on earth. We cannot really ever understand what life after death is like, but we can know that somehow the best things about being human, loving and caring for one another, are something we will experience with God for ever after we die. Before Christianity, life after death, if believed in at all, was an entry into a shadowy ghostly world to be feared more than welcomed. Death for Mary, and for all the family of Jesus is quite different, an enter into life and love and glory. That is what we celebrate today.

Life-changing moments

Frances writes on the readings for the Vigil of SS.Peter & Paul:- These readings are all about life-changing experiences. How this happens to some of us, and the effect we can then have on others, changing their lives forever. It involves being awake, receptive to such offers from God, and allowing ourselves to become vehicles of his grace and change in others. Others indeed will have offers of divine grace and healing made to them, and they in turn will have to be open to God’s call and work in them. Just before Christmas each year, the Divine Office has a reading from St Bernard of Clairvaux, in which he meditates on Our Lady’s answer to God’s call at the Annunciation. Will she respond, and what will happen to a fallen world if she turns her back on the divine plan?

The reading from Acts (3:1-10) recounts the healing miracle worked by Peter and John in the Temple in Jerusalem. They themselves had of course been transformed by their experience of the resurrection of Christ, which had turned them from fearful men – those who believed Christ’s cause completely lost – to active agents in the spreading of his gospel. They approach a beggar, one accustomed to gain his living at the beautiful gate of the temple. He seems to have had no other vision of life and looked expectantly at them, hoping for the gift of a valued coin. Imagine then his amazement when this does not come, but instead he is healed and with it the pathway to a totally different life dawns. How will he react? Is his vision of humanity, of the world, big enough to enable him to grasp the initiative and once more join the productive society? We are not told any of the answers here, but left to meditate on the astounding change wrought by God through his apostles, and invited to travel this route with them. The fact that the man’s joy is recorded bodes well for the new life he can seize upon when he is no longer simply a victim of circumstances and can act independently at last. Similarly, we have to consider the response of the onlookers, described as astonished and unable to explain the miracle.

Our reading from Galatians (1:11-20) similarly speaks of a shattering shift in focus. Paul was born a Jew, into a line of Pharisees- those rigorous for following the minutiae of the law – and as part of his utter conviction that his way was right he persecuted Jews who followed Christ until the extraordinary experience he had on the Damascus road changed his life forever. Our excerpt speaks of his subsequent behaviour, with its emphasis that he avoided any return to Jerusalem and its hard-line Judaism. Indeed, from his description, Paul went off to ‘Arabia’- a pagan province of the Roman Empire – and from there he must have gained instruction in the Christian faith and then went off on the first of his missionary trips which included proselytising in Galatia to pagans. We just take all this for granted, but when we stop to think about it we see the enormity of the shift in the life of Paul the Pharisee. In effect, as we see from his letters, his total reliance on the Jewish law is set aside as he lives out the new Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Son of God and our only redeemer. His entire way of living would have been changed, as he lived and ate with pagan converts to the new faith, something defiling and unthinkable in Judaism, and he gives up his respected and secure life in Jerusalem for the uncertainty of the travelling salesman for Christ, totally at the mercy of others, often persecuted and in danger of death. We too need to recognise these life-threatening and life-changing moments in our own lives and grasp them when they come to us just as Paul and Peter did.

In our Gospel (John 21:15-19) we meet our final life changing incident, where the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at the Sea of Galilee and eats with them – that ultimate mark of friendship – and in it remakes or remoulds Peter, the Peter who had failed him and denied ever knowing him at the passion. Imagine what a tense situation this would have been with the world of knowing between the two. Jesus, who had predicted Peter’s denial, and Peter who had been so certain that he would stand by his friend only to reject him at the fatal moment. Never mind the others who behaved similarly, never mind our knowledge of his human frailty, let’s focus on the intense moment in which these two met once more and Our Lord’s testing “Simon, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep”. Within this three fold questioning and answering there surely lies a profound knowing of each other, an openness and transparency to the truth in which Peter’s heart and mind are searched, known and accepted. This time he will not, cannot, renege on his recognition of the truth.

Let’s think of those life –changing moments we have experienced and how they have changed our lives and those of others we have met. Like Peter, we may have found some of those incidents profoundly uncomfortable, but they will have been necessary and of infinite value.

 

 

A Holy Thursday Homily on Prayer

I want to concentrate on prayer over the three great days of the Easter Triduum, particularly to see how the ceremonies in which we take part, teach us more about how to pray. So let’s begin with Holy Thursday

Our Gospel (John 13:1-15) has given us the  familiar story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and that is the ceremony that Bishops and priests with their people re-enact on this Holy Thursday night. But what we humans too easily tend to concentrate on is the command at the end – to wash one another’s feet. In other words we tend to concentrate on ourselves, on what we should be doing. Now certainly it is important to hear and act on that message to love one another, but if we are not careful we miss out on what comes first, not on what we should do, but what we should allow God to do to us. We have to allow God to love us.

We see this in Peter’s refusal, to start with, to allow Jesus to wash his feet.  In typical Peter fashion he says “Never…. you shall never wash my feet”. Jesus then has to explain to him, and thus to us, that unless we allow ourselves to be washed by him we cannot be in communion with him.

This is the mistake most of us make in prayer. We tend to think that prayer is something we do, that prayer is us communicating with God. When we approach prayer this way we are treating God as a power outside us, at a distance from us. Now although God is distant from us, the heart of the message of Jesus is that God has chosen to come close to us, to be one with us in and through Jesus. To really pray as a Christian we have to begin by recognising  that prayer is principally God speaking to us, God working in us, God with us – Immanuel.

As I said Peter shows us this very graphically. First of all he doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet at all. He wants to love and to follow Jesus, just as we all do, but he wants to do it, as we do, in his way. He has grand ideas, as we do, about being the servant of God, of doing his will and following his ways. But in Jesus God turns the whole thing upside down and Peter has to learn this, just as we do. We have to allow God to serve and to love us first, for he is the source of love and thus the source of all prayer.

This becomes even harder for us to grasp when the ceremonies of this holy night move on. As the altar is stripped of all its finery and everything is left bare, we are reminded that in the end all that we have to offer to God however special it may be, is, in the end, nothing. For in the end it is just us and God.  Let me read to you a parable that expressed this from a great writer on prayer – Ruth Burrows.

It is from her simple book on Christianity called “To believe in Jesus”.

God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity ; all this God values most highly….  When we reach the top a double shock awaits us. God is not there – there is silence, no response when we make our arrival known. Secondly the vase… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain.. We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing.. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.”

Now I do not want you to think that there is therefore nothing we can do for God, nothing we can say to God. Ruth Burrows and other great teachers on prayer make clear that all that we do and say matters to God. The problem comes when it begins to matter too much to us. Then, if we reach a time, when we find it difficult or impossible to pray as we used to, when some tragedy strikes us, or we are faced with illness or depression, we can think that God is not there.  Then we go to Mass and feel nothing, and think that if we feel nothing it is not worth going when actually God is just as present as he has ever been, and what we need to do is go on as if through a desert until some oasis in our life enables us to realise that actually he was there in our darkest moment.

 We will think of this more on Good Friday – the darkest day of the year for Christians – but for now we are left with the challenge that Jesus poses to his disciples after the Supper is over and they have moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane. He simply asks us, as he asked them. “Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray”  This is when prayer gets really difficult for our minds are full of all the things in our life that we want to think about and which seem to distract us from being with him. We try to sit or kneel with him in the silence, and feel we are failing as our mind races around on this or that which seems to take us so far from what we should be doing.

Some people find help here by saying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer or reading the Bible, and yes these can be good ways of helping us to stay with him, to watch with him. But sometimes it is better just to be quiet with him despite all the distractions, to just admit before him how weak and silly we are, and maybe like the disciples how hard we find it to stay awake. We need then to remember that when he wakes them up, Jesus still loves them as he loves us for that is why he washed their feet. Our prayer has to be most of all a dwelling, an abiding in that love.

Remember how Jesus compares us to the branches of a vine. He is the root, the stock from which all the growth, our love and activity, comes. He says

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. ………..  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”  (John 15:1-5)

In the end we need to know that prayer is just being with God. That is why the greatest prayer of all is not our words or our thoughts, but simply the action of the Mass. The greatest prayer is his presence with us – his Body and Blood that he gave us as the way to be one with him on this holy night. Yes he wants us to love God and to love our fellow humans in every way we can, but in the end, he calls us simply to be one with him – to be with him in the silence and to know he is always with us even to the end of the world.

 

An extraordinary happening. God becomes man.

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : –  Roughly 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, St Paul recorded a hymn in common use by the church in Philippi in northern Greece. (Phil 2:6-11) Quite clearly he was so impressed by its highly developed Christology, its understanding of the two natures of Christ, that he wanted it recorded and passed on to posterity. This hymn or praise song speaks of the remarkable combination of divinity and humanity met in the one, unique person of Jesus, and it was this that stood out and made the Christian faith so distinctive for the faithful of Philippi and the rest of the Christian world of the time. We have to remember that for Greek gentiles, (pagans) there was no real problem with divinity, they had known myriads of pagan gods in their time. They were powerful and to be feared, they were unpredictable and frequently ill disposed to humanity. What was extraordinary and so compelling about Christ was that they believed they had met the one supreme God in human form in Jesus and that, contrary to all previous expectation, he did not behave as a god was expected to do. On the contrary, as God, Jesus, as they had heard, had deliberately and knowingly laid aside all power and divine capabilities to assume total solidarity with the meanest of human beings, even dying the most appalling of deaths for us and with us, thereby providing incontrovertible evidence of his true nature. In Greek, the word we have in the Jerusalem Bible as ‘cling’ to his equality with God is a very rare word, normally reserved for muggers, someone who would smash and grab, even kill to retain power. Clearly this humbling of the divine by the very one who had the power over his heavenly status made a stunning impact on the hearts and minds of Christians. In a world where most people had little control over changing their status, and the masses were at the beck and call of richer and more powerful patrons and the state, the notion that God might meet them on terms of such amazing equality and take them into God’s very life, could be a compelling and very attractive way of thinking and life changing.

Such ideas could be very empowering, despite the cost that preaching such a redeemer might impose. Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC (Isa 50:4-7) spoke in a series of magnificent ‘Servant Songs’, in a very powerful way, of the God-given message those compelled by their understanding had to impart to a nation they believed had radically strayed from the faith of Israel. Such was their conviction that God was with them that despite the threat of persecution and even death, they were certain that they were doing the right thing. We have to remember that when Isaiah wrote in the 6th century BC there was no understanding of immortal life with God. So the notion that one might literally throw away ones life in the service and salvation of others, as Isaiah counselled was madness. Isaiah then speaks to ideas of the divine-human relationship which are radical, new and demanding. God it appears can speak to his people and ask difficult and very sacrificial things of them; even to the surrender of their lives. It appears then that in these two cases our lectionary deliberately offers us the opportunity to explore the meaning of the relationship between humanity and divinity at its sharpest and most painful points. On the one hand, Isaiah would consider the possibility of being tortured for his commitment to God’s message, on the other we are invited through the message of Philippians to conjure the almost unthinkable – that God in Christ will set aside all that it means to be God – for us – and will share our human fate to the last terrible dregs of his and our humanity.

However, the Palm Procession Gospel (Mark 11:1-10) sets the scene for this self-oblation within a certain and sure structure. Mark wants us to see that the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and the subsequent events are not mere happenchance. The picture he paints of Jesus’ arrival suggests careful planning on Our Lord’s part  with the arrangements made for the collection of the donkey, and the ‘code’ by which it is collected and recognition given by its owners. Then there is Mark’s description of the entry itself, with the donkey festooned with the cloaks of his followers whilst others strewed their cloaks on the ground and others placed greenery there to cover the roadway. In ancient times kings were thought too important, even sacred, to touch common ground, so that they had to be protected from it by coverings placed in between. It seems that Mark wanted his readers and hearers to be left in no doubt as to the identity of Jesus as he entered the Holy City for his passion. Moreover, this is affirmed by the greeting of the crowds who used the ancient Hallel Psalm 118 to greet the longed for Messiah. Mark’s Jesus is not naïve; he knew that during his passion he would be deserted by his closest followers and savagely turned on by the fickle crowds who had greeted him with such fervour. So Mark again, as with our previous writers will play with the ideas of divinity and humanity thrown up by this gospel passage.  This is the time for all of us, you and I to do some work to get to grips with this extraordinary phenomenon that we call Christ, the God who became human for our salvation.