This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
I love the Gospel of Mark because of its breathless character. We seem to race from one place or event to another, with little time in between, and less time to catch our breath. In a few short chapters, Mark crams in the whole of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
That breathless quality is displayed in abundance in this morning’s reading as we race around Galilee, following Jesus and the disciples, after the first apostolic mission, when they were sent out two by two, and [given] authority over the unclean spirits.
With so much packed into the reading, the preacher or reader would be forgiven if their attention was drawn to the latter part of the passage, the feeding of the 5000. My attention though is drawn to the beginning, to the regathering of the band of disciples with their leader, following their missionary travels. The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. That is what arrests my attention this morning. I can see this scene perfectly clearly, because I know from experience what that was like
Most of us, most of the time, do not need anyone else’s help for us to judge ourselves poorly. We are well apprised of how we have missed the mark, perjured ourselves, once more done or said those things we have ought not to have done or said, and not done or said those things we should have. Momentarily we will be invited to make a personal, corporate confession of our sin. We will just plough ahead with this. What is so pathetic is we need not be asked for a show of hands, whether time for confession would be helpful. The ancient liturgy of the church – without benefit of having personally surveyed either you or me – presumes the state of things in our soul, and that, yet again, our personal confession of sin would be both helpful and necessary for most all of us. The distinctive quality of confessions, in my experience, is that they are so tedious and boring.
Jesus judges this woman about whom we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus judges her. Jesus puts a face to God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love. It is not a judgment of ridicule, or rejection, or hopelessness, or boredom, or eternal condemnation, but rather a judgment of love.
This woman is a known person. It’s her again. We can presume that Jesus is also a known person. It’s him again. She did not pick Jesus at random. She knows something about him, most likely has heard him teaching, seen him healing before. What she is doing, down on her knees, is making her confession with alabaster oil and tears. It’s an extravagant confession, as is her known sin. No words from her are recorded. What’s to say? It’s her again. Most significant in this Gospel story is not whether Jesus bears God’s love, nor whether Jesus bears God’s love for this woman. Jesus has said that before, and she has heard it. The question – her question – is whether Jesus still loves her? Yes, he still loves her. He still loves us.
I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
After the death of my parents, I had to settle their estate and then prepare the house that I grew up in to sell. Among the almost five decades of memories were photo albums assembled through the years. In one of these albums is a picture of my Mom and me when I was an infant. She was in her nightgown, her hair in curlers, sitting in a rocking chair holding me. She was lovingly looking down at me and I was gazing up at her, our eyes locked while I sucked on my pacifier. I imagine my Dad seeing the opportunity for the iconic shot and carefully reaching for his camera. It is a picture we have all seen in the many photo albums of our lives or even while walking in the park, eating in a restaurant, or visiting family. The mother gazes at the infant with a gentle outpouring of love, comfort, and safety. The infant returns the gaze, looking up into the eyes of its mother, taking in information, studying her face, expressions, and eyes. This gaze of love is so compelling, you cannot help but to get drawn in. Even though you were too young to remember this interchange, somehow you hold it sacramentally in embodied remembrance.
It was this kind of gaze that came to mind when reading these words in a small book published by our Society called A Cowley Calendar which has a quote of our founder Fr. Benson for each day of the year. On the page marked “Tuesday in the Octave of Ascension” there is this quote: “We must realize that His eye is really upon us. We must therefore rest in the knowledge that He is looking on us. He gazes into our hearts, He knows all the thoughts that are there. He watches when perhaps Satan assaults us with manifold evil thoughts. He encourages us to be strong, to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him; and if we will only live in His love, then no power of the enemy can tear us away.”[i] In our lection this evening from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray to his Father for his disciples in loving intercession. As he begins to pray, the author of John says that Jesus looks up toward heaven. Its almost as if Jesus returns the gaze of his father as he prays about his coming glorification on the cross and then for protection for his disciples.
That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.