Ash Wednesday

'Low Key Light Manipulation' photo (c) 2006, Sarah (Rosenau) Korf - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Yesterday I spent the morning preparing the ash for use in the two services in my benefice today. It sounds as though this should be an easy task, but it is more complicated than it sounds. For a start, the is to use the remainder of last year’s crosses from Palm Sunday. Even after a year, the palm leaves contain quite a lot of water and need further drying in a hot oven before they will burn. Then there is the fibrous nature of the leaves which, even after burning, needs to be broken down for the ash to be usable.

So after taking down the remains of last year’s palm crosses and putting them on in the oven for half an hour or so, the smoke that came out when I opened the oven door sent me rushing to close doors before every smoke alarm in the house went off.

After that it was a quick trip to a sheltered corner of the garden with a tinfoil tray and a lighter. Another forty minutes and the ashes were ready for the final stage – forcing through a sieve into a bowl. The other end of the afternoon and the smell of singed palm had largely receded in the house. But I have been left wondering whether or not simply to buy a packet of ash from one of the ecclesiastical suppliers next year!

In our somewhat sanitized Western culture, there always seems something a little medieval about going around on Ash Wednesday with a black smudgy cross on ones forehead. Although we have become rather showy about all sorts of things over the past few decades, there are certain things we are not keen to parade in public. Way up there on that list is contrition, followed (still, it seems to me) by expressions of grief. Roadside shrines at accident blackspots may have sprung up all over the place in the last fe years, but gone are the days of wearing black as a sign of mourning except on the day of a funeral. Extend that for a longer period and people around you begin to get rather uncomfortable.

But before we write off our medieval ancestors, it is worth considering what such customs are intended to express and convey. We need to look below the surface (which may not seem very appealing) and try to find the deeper intent of the ritual. It is too easy to talk about “mere ritual” and miss the fact that rituals are usually devised to express something profound about our human condition, often something that holds great psychological significance and that we ignore at our peril.

In the Bible, wearing ash, alongside tearing of clothes, is a symbol of mourning and contrition.  On Ash Wednesday we wear ash as a sign of our acknowledgement that we are all complicit in the sin of the world. There are our personal failings and shortcomings before God – though God is fully aware of the circumstances which give rise to them. And then there are the corporate failings of our society and culture in which we also bear a part.

Too often when we talk about these things there is a temptation to sink into a kind of morbid introspection. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer has confessional passages which seem to pander to this. I sometimes wonder what the psychological effect of, for instance, the weekly repetiiton of the General Confession that begins both Morning and Evening Prayer has been on generations of Anglicans. In one sense it highlights that marvel of God’s forgiveness that is about to be offered and affirmed. On the other, for those who perhaps already feel guilty or ashamed, it seems to over-emphasise our worthlessness in a world that is often only too eager to point out individual shortcomings. Some of the great saints and heroes of the faith have struggled with precisely this. Both Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with their consciences, convinced at one time that there were still unresolved and unconfessed sins that prevented them from enjoying a peaceful and right relationship with God.

This is not to argue that we should downplay the seriousness of sin, whether individual or corporate. But surely, the point of repentance (and penitence, too) is that it allows us to move forward rather than remain shackled to past failure. Both Ignatius and Luther eventually found their freedom in the insight that God’s grace is freely extended to all, not requiring us to earn favour. For me, Sr. Basilea Schlink’s book title, Repentance: the Joy-Filled Life, sums up admirably what our penitence should be focussed on – the joy that comes from knowing that, whatever we may have been and done, God loves us and, through Jesus, offers us God’s forgiveness, grace and peace.

As we receive the ash today, may we experience not only true repentance but also the joy of a holy and purposeful Lent.

Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures and #SH2011 – another excursus

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. The Bible.

One thing that I have heard a number of times from conservative evangelicals is the argument that, because Jesus apparently believed in the “literal truth” of the Hebrew scriptures, then we should too. They point to the various places in the Gospels where Jesus, in conversation with various groups and individuals, takes Old Testament passages at their face value to make a point. At first sight this seems like a reasonable argument. After all, Jesus was God, the second person of the Trinity. So he should know. Right?

I recently heard a version of this argument from the lips of Krish Kandiah at a seminar I attended at Spring Harvest 2011 in Skegness. I blogged about my (one day) attendance here. The occasion was a seminar on the Tough Texts of the Bible, in this case the Genocidal Texts particularly Deuteronomy 20, where God appears not only to sanction but to command the obliteration of the nations living in the Promised Land. Parts of the seminar were actually quite good, and the problems these texts present were well acknowledged. However I was disappointed to hear Krish bring up this argument to bolster his claim that we should not just conclude that the writers of these texts either misheard God or were pursuing their own agendas.

At the event there was not the opportunity or the time to argue the toss with Krish – there were several hundred people present, and judging by the nodding of heads when he said this, and the few responses that made it to the microphone, many of them were in agreement with him.

However, regardless of one’s view of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures or of one’s position regarding infallibility or inerrancy, I think that there are a number of weaknesses with this argument. I would say that there are two broad areas where the argument falls down – the first theological, the second rhetorical.

Firstly, although I agree with Krish that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, he was also fully human. Paul in his letter to the Philippians outlines this process:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7 NRSV, my emphasis)

Now I will be the first to admit that what this emptying exactly means in practice has been the subject of study, conversation and dispute among theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. But there is agreement that Jesus was in some way limited by becoming human. He learned his (Hebrew) Bible in a human way (we get a glimpse of this in the childhood incident recorded in Luke 2:421ff.). Jesus is nowhere presented as possessing the omniscience we often ascribe to God. Indeed, at the Ascension it appears that there may be things that even the post-resurrection Jesus may not know – the times and seasons that will bring in the fullness of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7) – certainly things he is not at liberty to disclose to the disciples. Furthermore, in the Gospel narrative, what Jesus does know about other people (the secrets of human hearts) could easily be the result of a highly developed, Holy Spirit-guided intuition.

To argue then, as many do, that Jesus necessarily had a greater understanding of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures than his contemporaries seems simply to ignore the kenosis involved in Jesus’ incarnation.

Secondly, we come to the rhetorical point: namely, what was it that Jesus was trying to communicate to his contemporaries? Even if we were to allow that Jesus DID know that much more about the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures, would it have been helpful or profitable for him to begin arguing this particular point with the Jewish people (whether the intellectuals or the common people) of his day? Would this not have been a distraction to his primary teaching and purposes which was to give them a clearer understanding and experience of the Kingdom of God/Heaven? Given the reluctance of some to embrace what he did say, wouldn’t teaching that the Hebrew scriptures were not what they appeared and were understood to be have given the excuse for more widespread rejection of the core of his teaching?

When Jesus teaches, he does so from what he and his interlocutors have in common. The wise Christian missionary has always worked in this way. Within the NT writings, Paul looks for things he has in common with his audience – the Hebrew scriptures with his Jewish and “God-fearing” audiences, pagan philosophers and poets with Gentile intellectuals, creation with the populations of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Today, it would be unwise for, say, a missionary to Muslims to begin by attacking their understanding of the Qur’an. There are far more important issues at stake. So with Jesus, the historicity of the OT is not an issue germane to his purposes. Indeed, it is unlikely that his audience could have understood him at all had he approached the issue the way we might do so in the early twenty-first century.

Nor, to my mind, does it make a significant difference to the points he does make. Take, for instance, his use of the story of Jonah. Does it make a difference to his point if the story is not history? Preachers often use imaginary stories without an historical foundation to convey truth, indeed Jesus’ own parables are prime examples. Jesus’ reference to the story of Jonah to draw parallels with his own suffering, death and resurrection do not rely on the story’s historicity but takes something that is well known and uses it to illuminate their understanding and expectation of what being Messiah actually involves.

So can we, perhaps, agree to stop trying to use this as a killer argument? The premise may or may not be a valid one, but if it is, it is so on quite other grounds and this argument does little or nothing to advance our understanding of the Hebrew scriptures.

What the Bible means (to me) – a brief excursus

Here is a brief question as an aside to the main posts:

In the light of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…”), and assuming that Acts can be understood to be now included in this category, consider this verse from Acts 17, where Paul is preaching in Athens and quotes two pagan poets, Epimenides and Aratus:

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:28, NRSV)

My question is this – at what point, exactly, were the words “In him we live  and move and have our being” and “For we too are his offspring” inspired by God? Was it (a) when the poets wrote them? (b) when Paul quoted them in his address? or (c) when Luke made the editorial decision to include them in his book?

What the Bible means (to me) – part the first

For some time now I have felt that I wanted to post a series about the Bible. We read the Bible a lot in our churches. In the Church of England, not only do we read an Old Testament portion, maybe a Psalm, a New Testament reading and one from the Gospels at the Eucharist; we also read an Old Testament reading, one from the New Testament as well as one or more Psalms and canticles usually drawn from Old and New Testaments at Morning and Evening Prayer. That is a lot of Bible.

In addition, classically, we use Scripture along with tradition, reason and experience to determine doctrine and praxis. Synod papers and reports will (if we are lucky) have considered what scripture has to say about the principles relating to matters under discussion. And the theological formation and training of our clergy and lay ministers will have included some elements of Biblical Studies.

However, it is clear that when we talk to each other, especially about the more controversial issues that face the church in our times, that there is a wide divergence of opinion not only about the issues themselves but about the part that our reading of scripture should play in our attempt to come to a common mind. It becomes clear the Bible means different things to different people. Not only that, but groupings have coalesced around these differences of approach, which can then lead to talking past each other as the lack of shared assumptions makes itself felt. As an example of one extreme, take this comment from a recent blog discussion relating to the State of Israel:

The Bible is a book that was written to be taken literally. To read it with your clever eyes and your education is to adapt it for your own end.

Christian Zionists see what is there and interpret all things by the light of the Biblical prophecies, numerologies, and modern prophetic utterances.

For this commentator, there was little or no doubt that the Bible is the word of God, and should determine our attitudes and actions today. But I have lots of questions about the assumptions behind the statements. At the other extreme, of course, are those for whom the Bible is at best a collection of interesting ancient documents, but of little or no relevance in determining how one should live life today. And I have questions about that, too.

So in (some of) the next few blog posts here, I want to consider what the Bible is, how we read and interpret it and what place it should occupy in the life of the individual Christian and the church.

I should perhaps add that my views on this subject have changed considerably over the years – as will no doubt become clear. Comments will be very welcome if they contribute to a fruitful discussion.

God’s PPS?

One of the marks of a teacher who really understands their subject is that they can explain it in simple, straightforward language to a lay person in the field. Thanks to a facebook friend, I came across this report from Damian Thompson of an article in the Times.

Apparently, the father of Lulu Renton, a six-year Scottish girl, sent a letter she had written to God to a number of influential church people. The letter asked, “To God, who invented you?” There was no reply from the Scottish Episcopal church or the Presbyterians and a rather complex reply from the Scottish Catholics.

However, the copy sent to “the head of theology of the Anglican Communion, based at Lambeth Palace.” This drew the following reply from the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

This has obviously been written by Rowan himself – you can almost hear him speaking it as you read. I think he has done a commendable job in addressing the question in terms that a six -year-old might understand and without any condescension. He takes the enquiry seriously, admits it is a difficult question and then gives a good personal answer with great warmth.

It makes me feel very proud of my Archbishop.

What’s it all about? Really?

Over at Phil’s Treehouse, Phil Ritchie is asking questions about the strap-lines that several CofE dioceses have adopted to proclaim their mission statements: Missionary Diocese of…, Going for Growth etc. I think he raises important questions about these, not least the issue about giving a hostage to the future. So many of these things seem like a good idea at the time, only to look rather naff a few years down the line.

However, one question I think the dioceses ought to ask seriously before adopting these statements is to whom such straplines are directed. Is it to remind those who are currently members what they are about? Or is it to say something to those currently outside the fold?

I rather suspect that many of them are the former. Who currently outside or s phere of influence really wants to know that Wakefield diocese is missionary, or that Lichfield is going for growth? In many ways I suspect these could be rather off-putting, making the outsider or casual visitorfeel like they are perceived as evangelism fodder, one element of the vision for “growth”.

For those of us who are already members of the CofE there are plenty of other ways in which the internal message could be put across. And it will take more than such strap-lines across every diocesan publication to change the culture of a diocese and the national church as a whole.

So let’s see something more empathetic and imaginative, that tells others what we are about. How about “Good news to the poor”? Or would that be just TOO radical?