Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Tag

Epiphany: Out of the Orient   2 comments

My favourite Epiphany carol is ‘Falan-Tiding’ (‘Out of the Orient Crystal Skies’), not the modern five-part choral setting popular in the US, but using the simple tune of the Tyrolean carol ‘Ihr Hirten, atehet alle auf’. Last year at this time, in The Daily Telegraph, the choirmaster of Canterbury Cathedral, David Flood, chose it as his ‘most unfairly neglected’ carol. According to ‘the Oxford Book of Carols‘ it dates from about 1610. Interestingly, it starts with Matthew’s wise men and ends with Luke’s shepherds, which is truer to the narrative, since the Magi would have had to have left their homes weeks if not months before the birth, given the distance between Tehran and Jerusalem. We often put their story second, because they arrived after ‘the shepherds there about’, who only had to leave their tents and flocks on Bethlehem Down and run down the hillside, ‘singing all even in a rout, “Falan-tiding-dido!” ‘ The poetic and archaic English fits the simple tune beautifully to illustrate the nativity narrative perfectly:

002‘Out of the orient crystal skies

A blazing star did shine,

Showing the place where poorly lies

A blesséd babe divine,

Born of a maid of royal blood

Who Mary hight by name,

A sacred rose which once did bud

By grace of heavenly flame.

This shining star three kings did guide

Even from the furthest East,

To Bethlehem where it betide

This blessed babe did rest,

Laid in a silly* manger poor,

Betwixt an ox and ass,

Whom these three kings did all adore

As God’s high pleasure was.’

*’simple’

Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The verb ‘adore’ gives us the other phrase to describe ‘Epiphany’, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which is the subject of a ‘magical’ piece of orchestral music by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), from his ‘Trittico botticelliano’ of 1927, so called because it was inspired by three paintings by the Florentine Renaissance master in the Uffizi Gallery there. The central ‘panel’ is ‘L’aderazione dei Magi’, one of four surviving treatments by Botticelli of this subject, showing the presentation of the gifts by the Magi to the new-born Jesus among a crowd of onlookers. In transposing this scene into music, Respighi hinted at the Renaissance period by including the Advent antiphons of ‘Veni, Veni, Immanuel’, taking us back to the beginning of the Christmas period, and reminding us that, not only did the wise men set off weeks before the birth, but that they too recognised the importance of the child’s birth in the context of the Jewish scriptures. They were not simply astrologers, but Zoroastrians who found their wisdom from different traditions and sources, both terrestrial and celestial, occidental and oriental. To indicate this ‘blending’, Respighi blends the Latinate plainchants with occasional oriental melodic inflections. The ‘Moderato’ section then represents the Journey of the Magi, with a trudging two-bar repeated pattern in the strings and an oriental oboe melody. Other wind instruments, together with strings, suggest the presentation of the three gifts and the piece is then completed with the adoration suggested by a simple melody played by a bassoon, a lullaby for the Christ child, drawing on the bagpipe tunes played in Rome and other Italian villages during Advent. The oboe takes up the tune, merging it with a reprise of the opening Sicilian melody.

So, whether in music, picture or poetry, the Epiphany narrative has proved to be the most enduringly inspirational of all the Advent and Christmas stories set down by the gospel-writers. Its message of a ‘new dispensation’ in the form of a humble human birth is what gives it so many dimensions in time and space.

Christmas in Eastern Orthodox Churches   2 comments

English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский...

English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский: Русский поэт Борис Пастернак. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Christmas (when it comes; Christmas Day is on 7th in the Julian calendar) to all my Russian friends, colleagues, and former Russian-speaking students, as well as to other Eastern Orthodox adherents from other cultures. Just as we in the West finish our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations, so they begin in what was once the Eastern half of Christendom. I once took a group of Hungarian students ‘west’ for the first time on 6th January 1991, to Birmingham. We began with a tour of Selly Oak and Bourneville. We visited the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there was a truly wonderful Christmas Eve service taking place, led by a male voice choir singing vespers, the congregation standing in the domed auditorium. Even in the dim candle-light, the colourful frescoes added to the sacred atmosphere. We had travelled west to be transported east!

Here, I’ve ‘imported’ an ‘iconic’ picture from a sixteenth century text held in the Hungarian National Library, ‘A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata’ (‘The Oriental Wise Astrologers’). A print of this appears in a multi-lingual anthology of poetry, ‘Karácsonyi csillag’, published by Európa Press, Budapest, in 1990, which I was given for my first Christmas in Hungary, just two weeks before the sojourn in Birmingham.

The illustration (below) appears opposite Boris Pasternak‘s poem in Russian, ‘Christmas Star’, with a translation into Hungarian provided by Judit Pór.

001A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata, Francia Művész, 15. Század Vege. Hóráskönyv.

Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of S...
Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of Soviet Writers, in 1934 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ez a tél. Ez a tél.

Feleútban a hegynek

fel a sziklaodúban fázik a gyermek

Fuj a pusztai szél

Ökör melegíti, meleg lehelet.

Csak állnak a barlang

középben a barmok,

a valyu felett dús pára lebeg.

Lerázza a pásztornép

szalmát a subárol

félébren a távol

éjfélbe bámul már odafent.

Lenn hóban a kis temető meg a rét

meg a kert, kocsi rúdja

mered ki a bucka

alól, tele van csillaggal az ég.

Köztük mécsnél bátortalanabb

csillag – sose járt itt

azelőtt – haloványlik,

és Betlehemét keresi, oda tert…..

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St Andrew’s Day, November 30th: Scotland and Hungary   1 comment

Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the twelve disciples, possibly the first and previously one of John the Baptist’s disciples (Mt. 10 v 1, Jn. 1 v 40). He and his brother were originally from Bethsaida in Galilee (Jn. 1 v 44),  moving to live and work at the fishing port of Capernaum on the northern shore of Lake Galilee (Mk. 1 v 29).  Pointed towards ‘the Lamb of God‘ by the Baptist (Jn. 1 vv 35-40), he, in turn, introduced his brother to Jesus, telling him that he had found the Messiah (Jn. 1 v 42). There are several references to his role in the ministry of Jesus, especially in terms of mediating within the group of apostles and facilitating Jesus’ contact with would-be disciples and enquirers (Jn. 6 v 8, 12 v 22, Mk. 13 v 3). He also witnessed the Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1 v 13).

Andrew means ‘manly’ in Greek and, as he was not just Simon Peter’s brother, but also his partner in the fishing business, it was a name that he no doubt lived up to. However, after meeting Jesus, he gave up the trade, at least as a full-time occupation, and, together with Simon, he joined Jesus’ itinerary ministry as a ‘fisher of men’. Before the cross became the symbol of Christianity in Roman times, the fish was the sign which Jesus’ disciples recognised on each other’s houses and later in the catacombs in Rome. After Jesus’ ascension he travelled in Asia Minor and along the Black Sea as far as the River Volga. He therefore became the patron saint of the Volga  boatmen and then of Russia. He was taken prisoner as a Christian and condemned to death by crucifixion. Legend has it that he considered himself unworthy to be put to death in the same manner as Jesus, and so elected to be crucified in the form of a ‘crux decussata’, or diagonal, hence his white diagonal cross on a blue background making up the flag of Scotland and, of course, the background of the Union Flag. The white stands for the purity of the saint and the blue for the sea which he loved.His remains were taken from Patros where he was buried (hence his association with Greece) to Constantinople. He was canonised by the Church long before being adopted by the Scots as their patron. His remains are now said to be on the spot over which St Andrew’s Cathedral was built and around which the university town grew up.

There are also many legends about the manner in which the relics of the saint came to rest in Scotland. One of the most attractive recounts how a group of monks set out from Constantinople to reach Scotland to spread the gospel and convert the Scots to Christianity, probably in the sixth century.  They asked for the relics of a holy man to take with them as a protection from all the dangers of the voyage. Given the length of the journey and the number and nature of the hazards, known and unknown, that they were likely to encounter, they needed a pretty hefty insurance policy, and so were given the bones of St Andrew. After months of travel, they arrived on the east coast of Scotland, buried the relics near where they landed and set up an altar within a small church which they built on the spot. On being converted to Christianity, the people then declared St Andrew as their patron and St Andrew’s became a place of pilgrimage.

Since then, Scottish people all over the world celebrate St Andrew’s Day, though Hogmanay, a two-day public holiday in Scotland, and Burns’ Night are more important events in Scotland itself and among expatriates. Stories are told in schools which illustrate the bravery and independence of the Scots. Many of these tales date back to the period when the Scots contested the claims of Edward I and Edward II to be the Kings of Scotland, following great historical characters such as William Wallace, Robert Bruce and the Black Douglas. Perhaps the best-known legend is that of Bruce in despair following the capture of his wife and execution of his brother. He was considering giving up his claims to the Scottish throne and going into exile, lying back on his straw bed looking up at the roof of his miserable hut. Then he saw a spider hanging by a long thread, trying to swing itself from one beam to another. He counted the creature’s six attempts to link up with the other beam before finally succeeding. Bruce remembered that he had fought and lost six battles, and vowed to fight on.

A distinguished follower of Bruce was the Good Lord James of Douglas who fought fiercely to recover the castles of Scotland that had fallen into the hands of the Norman English. The castle at Linlithgow was one of these, having the usual defences of huge gates to the only entrance and a portcullis behind them, a huge iron grate which could be let down rapidly, crushing all below it with its spikes. Not far from the castle lived a farmer called Binnock who supplied the castle garrison with hay. One night, he loaded a great wagon with hay, hiding eight fully armed soldiers beneath it, lying flat at the bottom of the cart. In the morning, he and his driver approached the castle and the portcullis was raised to allow the two men to enter. When the cart was directly under the portcullis, the driver took his hatchet and severed the horses’ harness. The horses, freed from their load, started forward, leaving the cart of hay under the portcullis. Binnock shouted ‘Call all, call all!’ as he pulled his sword from under his farm coat and slew the gatekeeper. The English soldiers were unable to lower the portcullis with the hay cart in the way. The soldiers hiding in the cart were joined by reinforcements lying in wait outside and the castle was taken.

The dreaded Black Douglas was so-called for his deftness at using the cover of darkness to retake the castles. He used the night of Shrove Tuesday, when most of the English troops were tucking into their pancakes, to take back Roxburgh. The wife of one of the English officers was sitting on the battlements singing a lullaby to the child on her lap. She saw black objects moving about in the darkness below and thought they were cattle. However, they were Douglas’ soldiers, able to scale the walls without detection. When she realised what was happening, the mother changed her song:

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall not get ye.

From the darkness at her shoulder a voice said, Ye canna be sure o’ that! and was followed by a heavy hand on her shoulder. She turned to see the Black Douglas himself. Although many English died that night, Black Douglas saw to it that no harm came to the woman or child. Sir Walter Scott tells this tale in Tales of a Grandfather, commenting ‘I dare say she sang no more songs about the Black Douglas’. A third legend tells a tale of a group of English soldiers approaching a castle held by the Scots. It was a black, moonless night, and this time the English were wearing black cloaks over their uniforms. However, one of them put his hand on a thistle and gave a cry of pain. This alerted the garrison and the castle was saved. After that, the thistle, an unlikely flower to choose as a national emblem, became just that. The other, sometimes preferred, emblematic purple flower is, of course, the heather.

File:Saint Margaret of Scotland.jpg

There are historic ties between Hungary and Scotland predating Edward I,  the hammer of the Scots, and even the Norman conquest of England. These relate to Margaret of Wessex, who was born in exile Mecseknádás in southern Hungary. Margaret was the daughter of the English prince, Edward the Exile and granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, king of England. After the Danish conquest of England in 1016, Canute had the infant Edward exiled to the continent. He was taken first to the court of the Swedish king, Olof Skötkonung, and then to Kiev. As an adult, he travelled to Hungary, where in 1046 he supported Andrew I‘s successful bid for the throne. Margaret’s mother, Agatha, was related either by blood or marriage to István (Stephen I), the founding king of Hungary. and Margaret was born in Hungary around 1045. Her brother and sister were also born in Hungary around this time. Margaret grew up in a very religious environment in the Hungarian court. Andrew I of Hungary was known as “Andrew the Catholic” for his extreme aversion to pagans, and great loyalty to Rome, which was probably what induced Margaret to follow a pious life.

Still a child, she came to England with the rest of her family when her father, Edward, was recalled in 1057 as a possible successor to her great-uncle, the childless Edward the Confessor. Whether from natural or sinister causes, her father died immediately on landing, but Margaret continued to reside at the English court where her brother, Edgar Ætheling, was considered a possible successor to the English throne. When the Confessor died in January 1066, Harold Godwinson was selected as king, Edgar perhaps being considered still too young. After Harold’s defeat at the battle of Hastings later that year, Edgar was proclaimed King of England, but when the Normans advanced on London, the Witenagemot presented Edgar to William the Conqueror who took him to Normandy before returning him to England in 1068, when Edgar, Margaret, Cristina and their mother Agatha fled north to Northumbria.

According to tradition, the widowed Agatha decided to leave Northumbria with her children and return to the continent. However, a storm drove their ship north to Scotland, where they sought the protection of King Malcolm III. The spot where they are said to have landed is known today as St. Margaret’s Hope, near the village of North Queensferry. Margaret’s arrival in Scotland in 1068, after the failed revolt of the Northumbrian earls, has been heavily romanticized, though Symeon of Durham implied that her first meeting with Malcolm III may not have been until 1070, after William the Conqueror’s harrying of the north.

Malcolm was a widower with two sons, Donald and Duncan. According to the sources on which Shakespeare based his ‘Scottish Play’, Macbeth, the ‘evil tyrant’ who had his wife killed after Malcolm had escaped into exile in England, returning to overthrow Macbeth and claim the Scottish throne. He would have been attracted by the prospect of marrying one of the few remaining members of the Anglo-Saxon royal family. The marriage of Malcolm and Margaret took place some time before the end of 1070. Malcolm followed it with several invasions of Northumbria, in support of the claims of his brother-in-law Edgar, as well as to increase his own power. These, however, had little result beyond the devastation of the province.

Margaret’s biographer Turgot, Bishop of St. Andrews, credits her with having a civilizing influence on her husband Malcolm by reading him stories from the Bible. She instigated religious reform, striving to make the worship and practices of the Church in Scotland conform to those of Rome. This she did with the inspiration and guidance of Lanfranc, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. She also worked to bring the Scottish Church practice in line with that of the continental church of her childhood. Due to these achievements, she was considered an exemplar of the “just ruler”, and influenced her husband and children – especially her youngest son, later David I– also to be just and holy rulers. She attended to charitable works, serving orphans and the poor every day before she ate, and washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ. She rose at midnight every night to attend church services. She invited the Benedictine order to establish a monastery at Dunfermline in Fife in 1072, and established ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims journeying from south of the Forth Estuary to St. Andrews in Fife. A cave on the banks of the Tower Burn in Dunfermline was used by her as a place of devotion and prayer. St Margaret’s Cave, now covered beneath a municipal car park, is open to the public. Amongst her other deeds, Margaret also instigated the restoration of the monastery at Iona. She is also known to have been an intercessor for the release of fellow English exiles, forced into serfdom by the conquest.

In her private life, Margaret was as devout as she was in her public duties. She spent much of her time in prayer, devotional reading, and ecclesiastical embroidery. This appears to have had a considerable effect on the more uncouth Malcolm who could not read; he so admired her devotion that he had her books decorated in gold and silver. One of these, a pocket Gospel with lavish images of the Evangelists, is kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Malcolm seems to have been largely ignorant of the long-term effects of Margaret’s endeavours, not being especially religious himself. He was content for her to pursue her reforms as she wished, a testament to the strength and affection inherent in their marriage. Malcolm and their eldest son, Edward, were killed in a fight against the English at the Battle of Alnwick on 13 November 1093. Her son Edmund was left with the task of telling his mother of their deaths. Margaret was not yet fifty, but a life of constant austerity and fasting had taken their toll. Already ill, Margaret died on 16 November 1093, three days after the deaths of her husband and eldest son.

Below: Site of the shrine of St. Margaret,Dunfermline Abbey, Fife

Saint Margaret was canonised in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV in recognition of her personal holiness, fidelity to the Church, work for religious reform, and charity. On 19 June 1250, after her canonisation, her remains were moved to Dunfermline Abbey.

The Roman Catholic Church formerly marked the feast of Saint Margaret of Scotland on 10 June, because the feast of “Saint Gertrude, Virgin” was already celebrated on 16 November, but in Scotland, she was venerated on 16 November, the day of her death. In the revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969, 16 November became free and the Church transferred her feast day to 16 November. However, some traditionalist Catholics continue to celebrate her feast day on 10 June. She is also venerated as a saint in the Anglican Church.

Several churches are dedicated to Saint Margaret. One of the oldest is St Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle, which was founded by her son King David I. The chapel was long thought to have been the oratory of Margaret herself, but is now considered to be a 12th-century establishment. The oldest building in Edinburgh, it was restored in the 19th century, and refurbished in the 1990s.

Right: St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

Others include the thirteenth century Church of St Margaret the Queen in Buxted, East Sussex, St Margaret of Scotland, Aberdeen and the Church of England church in Budapest. There are also memorial stones and shrines to her in and near Mecseknádásd in Baranya County (see below).

 037

Sources:

Victor J Green (1978), Festivals and Saints Days: A Calendar of Festivals for the School and Home. Poole: Blandford Press

Wikipedia, Saint Margaret of Scotland.

Beating the Bounds: Rogation Days to Ascension Day   2 comments

BEATING THE BOUNDS; SCANNING THE SKIES?

The ‘Rogation Days‘ are the days before Ascension Thursday, which is forty days after Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar. The days get their name from the Latin word ’rogare’ meaning ’to ask for’. For a long time these were ’petitions’ to the almighty which were chanted in processions around the church. In A.D. 511 the Council of Orleans declared that the three days before Ascension Day, commemorating Christ’s going up to heaven, should be holidays for prayer and fasting. The processions moved outside the church and circled the parish, pausing at the edge of fields where prayers were said petitioning for a good harvest of the particular crop growing there. These sojourns included a ’Gospel Oak’. A modern survival of these folk-customs is ’beating the bounds’, possibly originating in pagan Roman festivals, Terminalia and Ambarvalia. The statue of Terminus was not int he form of a man, but a wooden post or boundary stone, marking the end of one estate and the beginning of another.  From this, we get the idea of the end of a bus or rail route as a terminus. Ambarvalia, held at the same time of year, involved processions around the fields, with participants carrying sticks with which they beat the ground in order to drive away the winter frosts. Any grower will tell you that a late frost is very dangerous to the prospect of a good crop, especially if it comes after a prolonged spell of warm weather.

At ’Rogationtide’, a procession forms up at the church with the priest in charge at the front followed by someone bearing the ceremonial cross. The choir follows, dressed in their gowns and surplices, and a crowd of parishioners, including schoolboys with their masters. Most of them carry willow wands, topped with wild flowers. They stop at well-known ’landmarks’ around the route following the parish boundary, perhaps a gate, a tree, a bridge or a road crossing, so that the company can gather round for prayers asking for seasonable weather and a successful harvest. At some of these points refreshments will be waiting. At the ’Gospel Oak’, or some other prominent landmark, the wand bearers used to set about beating the landmark, then  transferred their wand-action to one of the boys, who was rolled in the grass or ’gently bumped’ against a tree, receiving compensation in silver for his ’suffering’.

Since accurate mapping is a comparatively recent development, this was a sensible way of marking boundaries between parishes, especially before the early twentieth century, when the parishes played a vital role in the administration of the Poor Law and other local ’secular’services. In England and Wales, the Parish Council is still the basic unit of local government. If there was a dispute between parishes as to where the exact boundaries lay, somebody could be found who would remember a particular landmark from having received a beating there. In the late twentieth century the custom revived somewhat despite the national government taking over welfare services, and especially in urban areas where the boundaries might pass beside, or even through, a number of public houses, breweries and other  places of interest forming  ’recent’ additions to the townscape!

At St Clement Danes in London, the procession of clergy and choir follows the beadle, an officer from medieval times, featured in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, who was responsible for  ratepayers’ meetings which were held in the ’vestry’ of the Church. The Beadle was also responsible for the relief and discipline of the Poor in the parish, especially the children in church. For this purpose, he carried a stick called a mace, and wore a blue uniform cloak. At the St Clement Danes procession, the choirboys follow his now ceremonial mace, themselves carrying willow wands topped with ribbons or flowers. With these, they beat the boundary stones, although the southern boundary lies along the bed of the Thames, for which the procession takes to boats.

Ascension Day, on the Thursday, is the day on which we think about Jesus being ’taken up’ to heaven from Bethany, as  Luke describes in both his gospel (chapter 24) and in The Acts of the Apostles (chapter 1, vv 9-11). Having witnessed this, he tells us, they spent all their days in the Temple, worshipping and waiting for the gift of the Spirit to come to them before starting their ministry.  In Acts, he tells us that, as they watched him, ’a cloud hid him from their sight’.  They still had their eyes fixed on the sky when two ’men in white’ appeared beside them and asked them why, as practical Galilean fishermen and farmers, they were stood there ’star-gazing’. So, in addition to praying, they set about other practical preparations for ministry, together with the women and the family of Jesus. Already a hundred strong, the believers meet together and a successor to Judas is chosen. This was an important appointment, as Judas had been the group’s Treasurer. After that, Luke moves on quickly to the dramatic events of Pentecost. So, even during this quiet period of prayer and refection at Ascentiontide, like the disciples, we cannot afford to be ’so heavenly-minded’ that we are ’no earthly use’. Heaven may be a beautiful place, and we know that we too have a place there, but, for now, we need to focus on the here and now. We won’t need to strain our eyes, scanning the skies for signs of Jesus’ second coming, as with his first. It will be as clear and ’transparent’ an event as when he left. For this reason, Christianity has often been described as ’the most materialistic of all world religions’.

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A Hymn for Spring, by J M Neale   1 comment

Image

All is bright and cheerful round us;

All above is soft and blue;

Spring at last hath come and found us,

Sping and all its pleasures too.

Every flower is full of gladness;

Dew is bright, and buds are gay;

Earth, with all its sin and sadness,

Seems a happy place to-day.

If the flowers that fade so quickly,

If a day that ends in night,

If the skies that clouds so thickly

Often cover from our sight –

If they all have so much beauty,

What must be God’s land of rest,

Where His sons that do their duty,

After many toils are blest?

There are leaves that never wither;

There are flowers that ne’er decay;

Nothing evil goeth thither;

Nothing good is kept away.

They that came from tribulation,

Washed their robes and made them white,

Out of every tongue and nation,

Now have rest, and peace, and light.

JOHN MASON NEALE, 1818-66

Posted May 21, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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The Incredulous Twin: Finding Faith: The Second Sunday of Easter   1 comment

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.jpg

The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio

John 20 vv 24-29:

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the twin), was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was  with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look a my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

(Good News for Modern Man)

Who was Thomas the Apostle?

In the gospels, Thomas is also named as ‘the twin’, Didymus,  in Latin to reinforce his Aramaic name, Tau’ma, from the word t’oma, which also means ‘twin’. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (v 13) his name is coupled with that of Philip, which suggests he might have been, with Andrew, the other unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who followed ‘the lamb of God‘  from a village called ‘Bethany’ (not the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha) where John had baptised Jesus the previous day, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. In the story in John’s gospel (chapter 1 vv 35-42), the two spend the day with Jesus until twilight, and are close enough to the town of Bethsaida, on the northern shore of Lake Gaililee, for Andrew to fetch his brother Peter to meet ‘the Messiah’. The next day Jesus leaves Bethsaida early to walk the twenty miles to join his mother at Nazareth before going on with her for a wedding in Cana two days later. He arrives at the feast with his growing band of disciples, including Philip and, no doubt, Thomas, Andrew and Peter, plus Nathanael (known later as Thaddeus), who is from Cana himself. After their thirsty walk from Nazareth, they find plenty of water, but no wine with which to toast the bride and bridegroom.

Therefore, it’s more than possible that Thomas was one of Jesus’ first pairs, or ‘twins’ of disciples, his partner being Philip, whom he introduced to Jesus, just as Andrew had introduced Peter the previous night. By the end of that third day, following Jesus’ first miracle, John tells us that all five had put their faith in him, two in their home town of Bethsaida and two in Cana. Despite Nathanael’s rather rude joke about Nazareth, Jesus describes him as ‘a true Israelite’, sitting under a fig tree early on a hot day. Although Israel had ceased to exist since  Maccabean rule had been ended by the Roman conquest of 63 AD, when it had become part of the Province of Syria, Nathanael identifies Jesus not only as ‘the son of God’, but also ‘the King of Israel.’ This would have been heard as a direct challenge to Roman authority in northern Palestine, identifying Jesus with the local freedom-fighters, the nationalistic Zealots who wanted to free the whole country from Roman rule and reunite with Judea, as had happened briefly from 142-63 AD. If Thomas was one of these first disciples, although he himself is silent in the gospels at this stage, he was surrounded by certainty and infectious enthusiasm about who Jesus was among his relatives and friends, and there was little doubting the miraculous signs in which the Galilean himself ‘revealed his glory’ (v 11).

Some have seen in the Acts of Thomas (written in east Syria in the early 3rd century, or perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century) an identification of Saint Thomas with the apostle Judas brother of James, better known in English as Jude. However, the first verse of the Acts follows the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by distinguishing the apostle Thomas and the apostle Judas son of James. The Nag Hammadi copy of the Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Of course, Judas was a popular name in first century Palestine, so it’s entirely possible that, as a Galilean, he would have been known by his Aramaic name to distinguish him from the other two disciples by the name of Judas. Syrian tradition also states that the apostle’s name was Thomas. Few texts identify Thomas’ other twin, though in the Book of Thomas the Contender, part of the Nag Hammadi library, it is said to be Jesus himself, who himself is recorded as telling Thomas: “Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself…” Again, it’s possible that Thomas, or ‘Twin’ was the nickname given to the disciple to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of James, because he bore a physical resemblance to Jesus, and/or, as the quote above shows, kept very close to him.

How can we know The Way?

To have been so close to Jesus, Thomas must at least have been among the very first disciples. Jesus later comments on the questioning of the ‘Way’ by both Thomas and Philip in a way which must have stung the pair of them, since he points out that, despite being with him from the first, neither shows a very deep understanding of who he is in relation to ‘the Father’. In John’s gospel, the fact that this criticism comes immediately after Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial during the Last Supper, underlines its significance. Thomas is sceptical, but unlike Peter, he does not make grand gestures or promises he knows he cannot live up to, nor, like Philip, does he ask for further proofs. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray his master by this stage, so Thomas’ incomprehension seems an insignificant sin by comparison with the other three. But Jesus expects better of his earliest converts. Where is the certainty which Andrew and Nathanael revealed in Bethsaida, and in the miracles which they testified to, beginning in Cana? (John 14 vv 5-12).

A Reluctant Martyr?

In John Chapter 11 Thomas is the disciple who suggests to the rest of the disciples that they should all return to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that they could all be martyred with him. There are two ways of reading this. We can regard it as a somewhat cynical remark, fitting in with Thomas’ sceptical character, as revealed in connection with the Resurrection appearances, or we can take it at face value, as a declaration of loyalty from one close enough to Jesus to be called his twin. Of course, even then, the line could have been delivered with an air of resigned stoicism, rather than with the enthusiasm of a disciple looking for martyrdom.

Thomas’ name is also linked to Thaddeus’ early mission to Syria, but more importantly to the mission to the Jewish diaspora in India, which he undertook himself in 52 AD. From there he is recorded, in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, to have returned to Jerusalem in time to be the only witness the Assumption of Mary, which, in a strange inversion of the resurrection stories, was disbelieved by the other apostles until they themselves saw Mary’s tomb.

The Value of Scepticism to Faith

Perhaps most significantly, however, in the early church Thomas was not stigmatised as a ‘doubter’ so much as being the apostle who, having seen Jesus’ wounds at close quarters, was able to proclaim the two natures of Christ, that he was both fully human and fully divine. The vivid drama of his very personal testimony would have been difficult to dispute by the Greek Gnostics in the early church who argued that Christ was, throughout his time on earth, an ethereal presence, a vision of the Divine, rather than real flesh and blood. That’s why, although his feast day is celebrated on different days in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars, his ‘doubting’ is commemorated on the second Sunday, a week after the first appearances of Jesus to his disciples. By itself, the empty tomb proved nothing, and even the sudden appearances to Mary and the disciples, in the open air and through locked doors, might have given support to the Gnostic view of an ethereal body. It is the graphic detail of Thomas’ account, a man who knew Jesus well enough to have been his twin, that remain the most difficult to disbelieve, reinforced by the way in which Thomas’ scepticism is immediately transformed in his proclamation “My Lord and My God”. Jesus immediately responds with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are they…’ which remains as a promise to his followers down the centuries that follow. Thomas is not excluded from his Lord’s blessing by his original disbelief or scepticism, call it what you will. His Resurrection experience is total – he believes with all his senses and emotions, transcended by the Lord in that by believing he, and we, may have life in his name (John 20 vv 30-31). The ‘Drama of Thomas’ is well re-told in the following extract from a book used in schools:

From ‘The Drama of Jesus’, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:

‘Heavy cloud made the night even darker. Shadowy figures cautiously climbed the outside stairs to the large room on the roof. When the door opened to admit them the merest glow of light showed and the door was immediately shut. Finally it was barred with a huge wooden beam.

‘On one side of the room two men were arguing. “I tell you Peter, I don’t want to listen.”

‘ “But, Thomas, you must. The Lord is not dead. He’s alive. It’s a fact and you have to realise it.”

‘Aggressively, Thomas burst out, “If Jesus is alive why are we all coming here furtively and hiding behind locked doors? Are we scared that the Jewish leaders are going to arrest us for body-snatching? If He’s alive why doesn’t he show himself to the world” Even in the feeble light of the small lamp they could see his face going red. “Why doesn’t he show himself to the authorities before they break that door down and throw us all into prison? If he’s alive why doesn’t he go and see Caiaphas and the Council? That would prove his claims.”

“So far, he’s only appeared to people who love him,” said John quietly.

“I loved him and he hasn’t appeared to me…” Thomas turned away. There was a break in his voice. John moved across the room towards him. “It wasn’t Jesus’ fault you weren’t here last week when he first came among us.”

‘Thomas broke in, “But..”

“Surely, man, you remember He told us what was going to happen that day on the road from Caesarea Philippi. Not only then but on two occasions He made it clear. He said He would be handed over to the Gentiles and mocked, insulted, flogged and crucified.” John spoke with deliberation, “He said, ‘Three days later I will rise to life.’ “

‘Impulsively, Peter broke in, “John’s right. He said it again and again; we all heard him.”

“Heard him, maybe, growled Thomas, “but did you believe him?”

“Believe him?” Peter put his hands to his head. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about! That’s why I said, ‘God forbid, it must never happen to you, Lord.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said to me, ‘Out of my way, Satan. You stand right in my path, Peter, when you look at things from man’s point of view and not from God’s.’ To me he was the Lord of life. I saw him heal sick people and bring the dead back to life; it was incredible to me that he should die, let alone come back to life as he promised. But he did. And Thomas, you must believe it. He has come back from death.” Peter’s voice shook with emotion.

‘Thomas started to walk away. Peter gripped his friend by the shoulder and swung him round and said tensely, “Don’t turn away from me when I speak to you. Do you think we’re all imagining this? Do you think we’re lying?”

Andrew stepped between them. “Simon, let him be. Were you in a hurry to believe when you first heard the news but hadn’t seen the Lord?”

“Anyway,” said Peter gruffly, “when Mary broke the news that his body was gone John and I ran all the way to the tomb. Right, John?”

“Right,” said John, smiling, “but I arrived there quite some distance ahead of you.”

‘Peter was beginning to relax. There was a hint of a smile in his voice, “But you weren’t game enough to go into the tomb till I arrived.”

‘John almost shouted, “Up to that moment I didn’t realise that I was seeing, before my own eyes, what the scriptures foretold. Now Thomas, get this straight. We’re not saying that He’s alive merely because the tomb was empty. We’ve seen him outside the tomb. We’ve heard him and touched him; we’ve seen him eat food here in this room.”

“But not me.” There was a hard note in Thomas’ voice.

‘ Thomas stepped back and lifted his voice so that everyone in the room could hear, “Think what you like. But unless I see the scars the nails made in His hands and unless I put my fingers where those nails were and my hand into his side I will never believe.”

‘Peter groaned, “I give up.”

‘Andrew spoke again, “Simon, be fair. We all found it hard to believe at first.”

‘Peter ran his fingers through his hair. “But it’s not the same with square-chinned, stubborn character here. I’ve told him, John’s told him, Mary’s told him, Cleopas told him – we’ve all told him.”

‘Andrew spoke urgently, “Simon, keep your voice down. You’ll have the whole Sanhedrin here in a moment. Let Thomas alone. Isn’t it hard enough for him when he sees our joy, and his doubts fill us with misery? At least try to see his problem, brother.”

‘Peter gazed at Andrew. He saw a look he had often seen on Jesus’ face. Impulsively he put his arm round Thomas’ shoulder. “If you’d seen him, you’d understand how I feel. Forgive me.”

‘Thomas shrugged himself free of Peter’s arm and muttered, “Forget it.”

‘An embarrassed hush settled on the whole room. A deep silence. 

“Peace be unto you.” The voice startled them.

‘They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing. No one spoke. Instinctively they turned towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes. He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong, “Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord…and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

‘And as suddenly as He had appeared, he vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

‘John spoke with infectious enthusiasm, “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.” ‘

Prayer:

Our Lord and God, forgive the doubting heart in each of us, which questions your resurrection. We are men of our age and want to see and touch before we believe. And yet we thank you for that blessing, reserved for those who do not see and yet believe. Grant us that faith which looks to Jesus, risen from the dead, our Saviour and our living Lord.  Amen.’

(Ian D. Bunting)

Sunday into Monday – 48 Hours that Changed the World: ‘… He is risen indeed!’   3 comments

A tenth-century manuscript was found in the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland some years ago which contains a dramatisation of the visit of the women to the tomb on Easter morning. It was evidently used in the form of worship, as a dramatic litany. The scene is the tomb with the stone rolled away. An angel guards the place. The women enter and the angel speaks, ‘Quem quaerites?’ he asks, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ‘We seek the Lord’ says Mary Magdalene. ‘He is not here – he is risen and gone before you.’

This short dramatisation marks the beginning of a religious drama. Certainly, Read the rest of this entry »

A New World Dawning: Easter Sunday   1 comment

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The name Easter derives from Eostre or Eastre, the pagan Goddess of Spring. Her month was April and this became the Paschal month of the Christian Church. This was grafted on the celebration of the Greco-Roman celebration of the dead and risen God of Spring, Adonis, and it is interesting that the New Testament refers to Jesus as ‘Adonai’, the supreme being. For Christians, ‘Pasg’ in Welsh or ‘Pasque’ in French, begins with the Feast of the Resurrection on the Day of Jesus’ rising from the tomb, and its timing is directly related to the Jewish Feast of Passover, or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew. It is by far the oldest of the Christian festivals, dating from the time of Cedd in the Celtic Church in Britain, before the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the missions of Cuthbert and Augustine to them, hence the different name in Welsh. The monks arriving after the Norman Conquest enriched the festival and the pageants grew more elaborate, with instrumental and vocal music being added.  For some, they grew too splendid for some. In 1470 the properties provided for the Easter Play at St Mary Radcliffe, Bristol, included:

 a new Sepulchre, well gilt with gold, an image of God rising from the sepulchre; Heaven, made of timber and dyed cloth; Hell, made of wood and iron; four pairs of Angel’s wings of well painted wood; the Holy Ghost coming out of Heaven into the Sepulchre’.

In some churches, the Paschal Candle forms a focal point, with its five grains of incense inserted in the form of a cross. It is lit at midnight as Easter Day begins, and remains lit until the Ascension, reminding us of the period the Risen Lord spent on earth, revealing himself to his disciples in various metaphysical form to his disciples, as referred to by Paul. It’s generally accepted that Mary Magdalene entered the garden containing the tomb and made the first encounter with the risen Lord ‘at the rising of the sun’, and it was common at one time for people to get out into the fields at dawn and greet the sunrise from the top of a nearby mound, such as the Wrekin in Shropshire. So, at Easter, we don’t go ‘all round the Wrekin’, as the Black Country saying goes, describing the way the lengths some people go to avoid confronting the truth. The challenge of the central truth of our faith, the Resurrection, needs to be met head-on.

The Resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15 vv 3-8:

‘I handed on to you, as the central fact of our Christian faith, the account I was given…”He died and was buried. On the third day he was raised to life. He was seen by Peter; then by ‘The Twelve’. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred at once; most of them are still living, but some have since died. He was then seen by James, his brother; then by all his close friends. Last of all, long after anybody could have hoped, he was seen by me also.’

Paul is writing to Christian friends who even some twenty years after the execution of Jesus are finding it difficult to understand what ‘the resurrection from the dead’ means. Whatever happened was a fact, but it remained difficult to describe or explain to those who had not themselves experienced seeing the body of the risen Christ. My son, aged eight, watching a cartoon version of the resurrection yesterday asked  ‘was he body or spirit?’ He wanted to know how he could suddenly appear and disappear like that, through locked doors and walls. Like Paul, I felt a sense of passing on what was ‘handed on’, rather than simply expressing my own opinion.This was the authoritative account given from the beginning. His description of his own experience is quite brief, but he says it was like that of Peter and the others. This is our earliest written evidence that something very unexpected had happened ‘on the third day’, something contained within the ‘most important’ statement given to Paul at his baptism two years later. Various accounts had been circulating among the Christian communities of how on our ‘Easter Sunday‘, the tomb had been found empty. No description of the disappearance of Jesus’ body exists because we presume that nobody witnessed it, unlike the raising of Lazarus from his tomb by Jesus about ten days earlier. Only his ‘appearances’ are described. The accounts differ very much among themselves on many matters – who was the first to see Jesus, what the women did when they got to the tomb, where the appearances took place – in/ near Jerusalem, or in Galilee. But all agree that the tomb was found empty with the stone rolled away. After Paul, Mark’s earliest gospel account runs like this:

‘When the Holy Day of the Jews was over, three women friends of Jesus – Mary of Magdala, Mary who was James’ mother, and Salome, brought sweet-smelling oils to anoint his body. They got to his grave very early on Sunday, just as the sun was rising. “Who will roll away the stone from the cave’s mouth for us?” they said to one another. It was a very big stone. They looked up and saw that it had already been rolled away.

They went into the cave and they were amazed to see a young man in white clothes sitting on the right-hand side. “Don’t be frightened,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was put to death. He has risen. You won’t find him here; you cannot see where they put his body. Go and tell his friends that he will be in Galilee before you and you will see him there, as he told you. And don’t forget Peter.” They ran out of the cave trembling with terror. They were so frightened that they didn’t say a word to anyone.’  (Mk 16, vv 1-8)

It is important to remember that it was not the empty tomb that convinced his friends that Jesus had been ‘raised from death’ but the new experience of God which Jesus made possible.  What they believed God had done was the ground of their conviction. The empty tomb, by itself, doesn’t prove anything. It looks as if these first friends had their hands on an early report that they didn’t know what to do with, and there is no reason to doubt that the women among them found the tomb empty, as Jewish scholars also confirm, and that they were certain that it was the tomb in which they had seen Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place the body the evening before.

But the convincing evidence, as Paul saw and stated, was the fresh experience of God which changed the whole way in which the friends of Jesus lived and thought, and which made them new men and women. This fresh experience of the risen Christ is something which his millions of followers can now share this day and on every day. Each one experiences the Resurrection in his own way, but it is also a common experience which binds Christians together and which they pass on from generation to generation, from regeneration to regeneration, as in Baptism we die with Him and are raised with Him to immortal life.

Prayer: To me also (1 Corinthians 15 v 8):

We thank you,  Father,  for every Christian who bears witness to the power of the risen Christ. We have not seen as the apostles have seen, but we have met him in our lives; and we shall never be the same again. That meeting has changed us. As faithful ambassadors, may we be able to introduce others to him, that they too may meet with our Lord and Saviour Jesus.  Amen

Ian D. Bunting

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Easter Saturday: The Secret Arimathean Apostle   10 comments

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ f...

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ from Pilate Русский: Иосиф Аримифейский просит у Пилата тело Иисуса Христа для погребения (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Deuteronomy 21. v 23

‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree. but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and it was a typical punishment for slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand and the victim being made to carry the beam of his own cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire knew that this punishment, whether carried out by the government authorities or even landlords, might one day be their fate. When Jesus talked about being ready ‘to take up your cross’, this was the destiny and destination he had in mind for his followers. He meant it quite literally, and in many cases, it became an ultimate ‘acted parable’, as for our Lord himself. But this was, like the entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the Temple Courts, a real historical event. A death like this could not be other than the final event in Christ’s life. This is John’s account of the aftermath of Jesus’ death upon the cross:

 

 

 

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take down their bodies from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the sabbath, since the coming sabbath was especially holy.

So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side, and at once blood and water poured out. (The one who saw this happen has spoken of it, so that you also may believe. What he said is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth.) This was done to make the scripture come true: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And another that says, “People will look at him whom they pierced.”

‘After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph took it away. Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.’

‘There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried. Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.’

John 19 vv 31-42 

(see also Mt. 27, vv 51-61; Mk. 15, vv 38-47 and Luke 23, vv 47-56)

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only man in the Sanhedrin who we know supported Jesus, though not openly, was Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew tells us owned the nearby tomb, just recently dug out of solid rock. He could even have been a close relative of Jesus, perhaps his uncle, which would have permitted him to prepare the body for burial, in the tomb, with the crowd of women outside. In the gospel accounts, he appears as a transitory figure at the trial and crucifixion. However, other writers have pointed to his significance in preserving ‘The Word’, proclaiming ‘The Way’ and protecting both Jesus’ mother and the small band of disciples during the perilous years after the crucifixion. The legends surrounding his role as ‘the Apostle of Britain’ have had a profound influence on British history and culture, not least in William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem, which has become the unofficial anthem of England. But, for now, the scriptural record tells us that it was him who laid the body of Jesus to rest, properly anointed, in his own tomb, and that it was this tomb which Pilate had sealed and guarded, the only events of Saturday, the Sabbath.

Joseph of Arimathea was a man of refinement, well-educated, possessing many talents. He had extraordinary political and business ability and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world of that time, a metal magnate controlling the tin and lead industries across much of the Roman Empire. Tin was the chief metal for making alloys and was in great demand by the Romans. Many authorities claim that his control of tin was due to his holdings in the ancient tin mines of Britain, in particular in Cornwall, where it was smelted into ingots and exported throughout the Mediterranean by Joseph’s ships. The tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia is frequently referred to by classical writers, especially by Dioderus Siculus as well as by Julius Caesar himself. In the Latin Vulgate of the gospels of Mark (15: 43) and Luke (23: 50), both refer to Joseph as ‘Decurio’, the common term employed by Romans to designate an official in charge of metal mines. In St Jerome‘s translation, Joseph’s official title is ‘Noblis Decurio’, indicating a prominent position as a ‘minister of mines’ for the Romans. It was quite remarkable for a Jew to hold such a high rank in the Roman State. We know he was an influential member of the Sanhedrin and a legislative member of a provincial Roman senate. He owned a palatial home in Jerusalem and a fine country residence just outside the city. In addition, he possessed another spacious estate at Arimathea, several miles to the north of the city, at Arimathea, known as Ramelleh today. Everything points to him being as a person of affluence and influence in both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies.

According to the Talmud, Joseph was the youngest brother of the Virgin Mary’s father, making him Jesus’ great uncle. Joseph the Carpenter seems to have died while Jesus was still quite young. Under these circumstances, the Law appointed the next male kin of the husband, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, as  legal guardian. We now that Joseph never abandoned his great-nephew. He defended him at the trial, defied the Sanhedrin by going to Pilate and claiming the body, when all others feared to do so. His arms were the first to cradle the broken corpse, taking it from the cross to the tomb. He continued to protect the    body from the conspiratorial Sanhedrin members, risking his wealth, power and position in doing so, The disciples spoke of him as ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘honourable’ and ‘a disciple of Jesus’. The Gospel of Nicodemus shows that Joseph believed in the validity of Jesus’ teaching.

The speed with which Joseph called on Pilate after Jesus’ death indicates that he had been present at the crucifixion, together with John the Divine and a number of the women following Jesus. Pilate appears to have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death, asking those near him to verify it. According to both Jewish and Roman law, unless the body of an executed criminal was immediately claimed by the next of kin, it would be cast into a common grave with others and all physical record of them was completely obliterated. Why then, didn’t Mary the Mother, as the immediate next of kin, claim the body of her beloved son? Perhaps John, fearing for her safety, suggested leaving this duty to Joseph of Arimathea, as family guardian, to make the request. Also, Joseph had a nearby tomb ready, a private sepulchre, within the garden of his estate. Meanwhile, a reign of terror continued to prevail within the city walls. No follower of Christ was safe from the Sanhedrin, who were not just enjoying the Passover, but also a Roman holiday in the persecution of the followers of ‘The Way’.

All but two of the disciples had fled the city and gone into seclusion for fear of their lives. Nicodemus and Joseph remained, but only the latter dared walk openly in the streets without fear of physical attack. Yet he knew he was dealing with dynamite. Why then did he go to Pilate? Why didn’t he simply claim the body, according to the custom, on the hill of crucifixion itself? Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for him to go further than the Sanhedrin, but he knew that its fanatical Sadducean Priesthood sought the total extinction of Jesus, even in death. Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests, would have preferred Jesus’ body to be cast into the common pit so that all memory of him would be steeped in shame. To have him decently interred within a family sepulchre would run the risk of allowing a shrine to be set up, a martyr’s tomb, to which multitudes of pilgrims might flock for generations to come. The Sanhedrin might therefore have intervened to prevent her taking the body, but they could not interfere with Joseph. Nevertheless, he went before Pilate and boldly asserted kinship rights on behalf of his niece, thus securing the procurator’s support, just in case…

Following the entombment, the Sadducees, suspicious of the disciples, and determined to prevent any possible tampering with the body, requested a guard from Pilate, reminding him that Jesus had claimed he would rise again on the third day. Whether Pilate gave them a Roman guard, or whether he simply allowed them to arrange a guard from the Temple’s own men is unclear from the gospel accounts. The fact that they met with him on the Sabbath of the Festival shows just how determined they were to take every possibly precaution. They accompanied the guard to the tomb and saw to it that the tomb was sealed.

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

So, on the Sabbath, the Saturday, the tomb was sealed and guarded, and the disciples, except for Joseph, were in hiding outside the city. The next day, Joseph of Arimathea was no longer guardian over his nephew’s body, but over Christ’s mission on earth.He was also to become the guardian of all the beloved against their arch-enemy, the Sanhedrin, and the Chief Priests. He made the work of Peter and Paul possible, and planted the roots of Christianity in fertile soil a long way from his homeland.

Prayer: Joseph of Arimathea

Bless all, O Lord, who worship you in secret; all whose hearts are growing round an undeclared allegiance; all whose life is laden with a treasure they would pour out at your feet; all who know with greater certainty each day that they have found the pearl of greatest price: then by the power of the Cross, O Christ, claim your victory in their heart, and lead them to the liberty of being seen by all men to be yours, for your dear name’s sake. Amen.

 Dick Williams

Good Friday: Shrouded from history?   1 comment

Mark 15, vv 1-37

Early in the morning, the Jewish Council talked over what they should do with Jesus. They handcuffed him and took him off and handed him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. They brought the charge against him. “Haven’t you got anything to say?” asked Pilate. “See the charges they are making against you.” But Jesus had nothing more to say. Pilate was very surprised. He wanted to put the mob in a good mood, so het set Barabbas free and had Jesus flogged. Then he handed him over to the soldiers to be put to death on a cross.

‘Simon, whose home was in North Africa, was coming into the city from the country at the time. The soldiers made him carry the wooden cross and marched Jesus to Skull Hill. They offered him drugs to deaden the pain, but he didn’t take them. They nailed him to the cross and tossed up for his clothes and shared them out among themselves.

‘The charge against Jesus was fastened on the cross, THE JEWISH KING. Passers-by shook their heads and swore at Jesus. “Aha! You’d pull down the Temple and rebuild it just like that? You’d better look after yourself and get down from the cross!”

‘It was now three o’clock in the afternoon.

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” Jesus called out loudly (The words are the words of an old Bible hymn)…One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine and put it on the end of a cane and tried to make Jesus drink it.

‘….Jesus gave a loud cry and died.’

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(from Alan T Dale’s, Portrait of Jesus)

Only Jesus seemed to realise how near the end was. And what an end: a slave’s death on a Roman cross, executed as a threat to Roman peace! Suddenly, ‘with a loud cry and a gasp’, as Mark puts it, it was all over, or so it seemed. So, on the dawn of the day which commemorates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, one is tempted to ask, ‘What was Good about that?’

What we need to remember is that is not a piece of historical writing. It is part of an act of worship, a celebration. When they repeated it, Jesus’ friends were thinking of the greatness of God’s love which Jesus’ death had made real for them. The details of what happened vary in the accounts of the gospel-writers because they were writing for different ‘congregations’ and never intended to give a detailed account of what happened, since they thought the event would remain in living memory, and all that was needed was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice each time they met. They expected their world to end soon with the return of the resurrected Jesus.

When these accounts were written down there were misunderstandings and bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities. They therefore tend to emphasise the Jewish part in Jesus’ death, especially that of ‘the mob’ and the Temple authorities, and to underestimate the role of the Roman governor, Pilate. There is no doubt that he took the final decision; he could not have done otherwise. Any suggestion of a threat to Roman peace, especially in the crowded Jerusalem of the ‘High Festival’, Pesach, would force a governor worth his salt from Caesar to act quickly. The fact that some of Jesus’ supporters were armed would, on its own, give him the basis for Jesus’ execution as ‘The King of the Jews’, the words of the charge he had pinned to the cross and which he refused to alter.

Besides, the death of Jesus came to mean something very special to his friends. Not a desperate defeat resulting from a huge miscarriage of justice over which to remain bitter and brood, but a celebration of God’s love. This was how far Jesus’ love for humanity took him. His resolution to live according to God’s will and in his way, and to share that with his people, took him to the cross. He could have escaped at any point, but didn’t try to.

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course it was a dark day, in every sense, but the Christian knows that without its events there would have been no Easter Sunday. For many British people, the most pleasant memory associated with the day is eating hot cross buns which were once sold from house to house by street vendors who cried ‘one-a-penny; two-a-penny; hot cross buns’. This is a seemingly trivial reminder of the fate of Jesus, and is, in fact, yet another example of the grafting of a Christian tradition onto an older pagan one. Two loaves, each marked with a cross, were found among the ashes of Herculaneum, destroyed in A.D. 75, and it is unlikely that they were made for a Christian, especially since at that time the more universally accepted symbol for the nascent religion was the sign of the fish. The Greeks also marked cakes like this, and the Anglo-Saxons made small cakes marked with a cross at the Spring festival held in honour of Diana. From early Roman times right the way through to the Saxon invasions, altars to Diana were raised at crossroads, and traders sold refreshments, including ‘cross buns’. The famous Banbury ‘cross’ of another nursery rhyme is a market place at the junction of two ancient roads, such as those that sprang up in market towns throughout the Cotswolds as the wool and textile trades developed.

The Church services in England and Wales remind Christians of the events of the first Good Friday. The sacred bread is brought back from the altar of repose and consumed, the cross is uncovered and many services recall the last words of Our Lord, the seven ‘words’ from the Cross:

Father forgive them for they know not what they do’

‘Let us pray for all those who are doing evil. Let us pray for all proud, violent, and malicious men…..let us pray for ourselves when lack of zeal, the deceitfulness of riches, and the cares of this world make us the sleeping partners of social evil…

Father forgive us, for we know not what we do’

‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’

‘Let us pray for all those who want to repent and begin a new life, but who feel that it is too late…And let us, as one with the thief, pray as he did: ‘Lord remember me’. So may our last hour blend into light of paradise, through the power of the crucified.

‘I thirst’

‘Let us pray for all who suffer physical distress through lack of food and water…And let us pray for all who hunger and thirst after righteousness; that in their obedience to Christ they might have meat to eat unknown to them before and, according to Christ’s promise, be satisfied.

Mother, there is your son. Son, there is your mother.’

‘Let us pray for family ties. Let us pray for the bereaved; let us pray that Christ may create relationships which survive the worst blows which life can give. And let us thank him for his power in creating new relationships which sustain us in the different stages of our pilgrimage.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

‘Let us pray for all who are abandoned; for nations…for children…for old people…for captives…who are abandoned…and for ourselves when we feel ourselves to be abandoned…May we learn to say “I shall yet give thanks unto him who is my Saviour, my King and my God”.

‘It is finished’

‘Let us thank Christ for finishing the work that he came to do; let us thank him for doing everything that is necessary for our salvation…to end our search for forgiveness…for pardon. And let us thank God that with the end of our search there is the beginning of a life of thankfulness, praise and service, offered to God not from fear but out of love. And let us pray that we may find the work he has for us to do, and finish it.

‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’

‘Let us thank God that when the conscious control of our life is beyond our grasp we may still repose upon God’s eternal changelessness…that in death our lives pass into the hands which made the world, and guide the universe. And may we place our lives in those hands while life is strong and full and sweet.

 ‘Father, with thanksgiving, we commit our spirit.’

(Dick Williams)

Good Friday has become a fashionable day on which to perform what are known as Passion Plays, re-enacting the events of the last week of Christ’s life. The most famous of these is performed at Oberammergau in memory of a time when the village survived a great plague which swept across Germany. The people perform the play every ten years, usually in the summer when more people can see it. Some 400 performers take part in a vast theatre with an open-air stage which holds 5,000 people, and the play lasts nearly five hours. It is accompanied by a symphony orchestra and a choir. A hundred performances are given of what has become a vast commercial enterprise, but also remains a sincere, unique and moving experience.

In some parts of Britain Pace Egg Plays are still performed on Good Friday, closely resembling the Christmas Mummers plays. Pace is derived from Pasche or Paschal, meaning Easter-tide. The custom still continues at Midgeley in Yorkshire and the Pace Egg Play there has been performed since 1800. It is thought to be based on a 16th-century story,

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman...

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman sarcophagi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘The History of Seven Champions of Christendom’. Seven is, of course, the number of perfection in the Bible, while thirteen, the number of people at the Last Supper, including Judas, is considered ‘unlucky’ by more superstitious Christians, who think that Friday 13th is doubly unlucky, since Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  However, there’s no need to ‘touch wood’ (i.e. the cross), because we are assured of the Resurrection on Sunday. Unlike ‘doubting’ Thomas, we don’t need to see and touch the wounds of the crucified and risen Christ to celebrate that as another historical fact. Nor do we need to establish the authenticity of the Turin shroud to prove this fact, though it’s interesting to read that scientists no longer think it is a Medieval fake. We may lack more than the simple chronicles of the events of Good Friday contained in the four gospels, but these chronicles mean that the passion of Christ, interpreted in various forms of art down the century, also remain indisputable facts. There is no fiction in the crucifixion of Christ, we know that he died on the cross and that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped his body in a linen sheet and laid it in a cave he himself had cut out of the rock, with a heavy stone rolled against the mouth. The Jewish historians also wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion.  These facts are the bedrock of  the Christian witness and the chronicles from which they come are not ‘shrouded from history’.

 

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