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The Venerable Bede - The Ascension - Julian of Norwich - A Wreath - St Mark, Evangelist - Holy Week
La Corona: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

 

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735)

Listen to an audio version of The Venerable Bede read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)


Christ is the Morning Star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.

The Venerable Bede, who spent almost all of his life as a monk near the coast of northeast England, died on Ascension Day, 735. He had been taken to the monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Wearmouth aged seven, living there for a while, before moving with Abbot Ceolfrith to the monks’ new house in Jarrow. When he was 14, only he and Ceolfrith escaped plague sufficiently to maintain the daily offices and the round of prayer. He was greatly suited to, and delighted in, a life devoted to prayer, study, teaching, and writing. He wrote over 60 books, mostly commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of his work was written in the vernacular, but most of his surviving texts are in remarkably clear Latin. His History of the English Church and People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), which he finished in 731, remains the prime source for English history of the 7th century. Its perspective is that the unification of the church in England as a Roman Catholic body created an English people out of the diverse groups and kingdoms throughout the land. He is particularly respected for stating his sources and explaining their reliability, and for separating fact from hearsay and tradition. In his History he introduced the use of A.D. to reference time in Christendom. Although this had been suggested before, its value was not recognized and people used the accession of local kings and rulers as marker points, as we do in parliament today. This complicated arrangements between kingdoms and the construction of history. Although now we often refer to the years A.D. as the Common Era, his innovation was obvious and brilliant. More technically, he made considerable efforts to help people understand how the date of Easter is calculated. We know him for these contributions, but much of his work was to help novices and his contemporaries understand both the Bible and the immediate historical and ecclesiastical context in which they lived. He died translating the Gospel of John into what we call Old English. His remains were brought to Durham in 1020 to lie with St Cuthbert but were moved within the Cathedral in 1370 to a large chapel, where many people now visit them. The prayer with which he ended his History might be used by all of us:

I pray you, merciful Jesu,
that as you have graciously granted me
joyfully to imbibe the words of your knowledge,
so you will also, of your goodness,
grant that I may come at length to you,
the fount of all wisdom,
and stand before your face for ever. Amen.

(Tomorrow’s - May 25th - commemorative service for the Venerable Bede at Durham Cathedral will available on
Durham Cathedral’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vl_C6p3voI)

 

 

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The Ascension

Listen to an audio version of The Ascension read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

We touched on the Ascension earlier in the seventh stanza of La Corona. Now, this coming Thursday, we celebrate Jesus being taken into heaven. Heaven is one of the mysteries of our faith. We need our imagination to apprehend heaven, but we are committed to it - The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting, we confess. The elderly are promised eternal rest, and most of us want to know if we will see our loved ones again. We may wonder whether we are presently animated bodies – something more than sophisticated biochemistry - or, rather, incarnated souls – eternal beings wrapped in impermanent clothing. Professor John Polkinghorne points out in this context that all the atoms in our bodies are replaced every two years. Not just our hair and nails, but everything; we are a dynamic continuity. It is perpetual development within some broad definitions, our essence inside an everchanging home. Nevertheless, we know that on earth our bodies cannot be separated from us. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary took hold of the risen Jesus’s feet and worshipped Him (Mt. 28: 9). Jesus asked His disciples, handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have (Lk. 24: 39). On the way to Emmaus two disciples could not recognize Him (Lk. 24:16). He was to them then an unexceptional human being. Once they recognized Him, the continuity of their relationship with Him was restored, and He could depart physically from them. That may be an essence of heaven, the continuation of our relationship with God and of other valued relationships we have. We may need our bodies for this, just as Jesus did, and so we hold out hope for our own resurrection. Professor Polkinghorne says Hope is the trust that there is a God who can bring about a fulfilment. And that trust is, itself, faith: it is the commitment. A few months ago, we read about credo, I believe, from cor do, I give my heart. Jesus’s Ascension could only happen after His Resurrection. It is a sequence He established for us.

(This was stimulated by a conversation between John Polkinghorne and Patrick Miles published in the Church Times on 9 April 2020.)

 

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Julian of Norwich

Listen to an audio version of Julian of Norwich read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

On the morning of 8th of May 1373, a woman 30 years old, on, she thought, her deathbed, had a series of 15 visions of Jesus that revealed various aspects of the love of God. Another vision came a short while later. She recovered from her severe illness and soon afterwards wrote down her experience. Twenty years later, after meditating and considering her visions as an anchoress at St Julian’s Church in Norwich, then the second city of the realm, she wrote a long account, The Revelations of Divine Love. We know her as Mother Julian, a name that comes from the church next to which she lived. Anchoresses or anchorites were people who secluded themselves from the world, sealed in their rooms until death. The liturgy that began their life of solitude, prayer, and meditation included parts of the funeral rite, signifying the person had entered their grave, where their contemplative life might be uninterrupted. Julian had a window in to the church and a window onto the outside world. She may have been a recluse, but people sought her out, including Margery Kempe, the mystic whose autobiography describes the visit. Julian’s world was not altogether different from ours, secluded as we are at present, hiding from a plague. These are material similarities. Perhaps more pervasively, in Julian’s time there was serious discontent with the church, with theological dissatisfaction and philosophical churning articulated by William of Ockham and John Wycliffe. It is the same in our post-modern, post-colonial, post-structural society. Julian was loyal to the church. Her visions illuminated the all-encompassing love of God at the centre of this world. Love was our Lord’s meaning, she wrote. It is almost universalist, for she did not sense any wrath or anger in God towards us. Her insight was reaffirmed when T.S. Eliot used her lines, now her most well-known lines, in Little Gidding: All shall be well/And all manner of thing shall be well. This is the divine certainty, that what God loves He will take to Himself.
From the conclusion of The Revelations:

So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning.
And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us.
And this love was never quenched, nor ever shall be.
In this love all his works have been done, and in this love he has made everything serve us, and in this love our life is everlasting.
Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning. In it we have our beginning.

All this we shall see in God without end; which Jesus grant us. Amen.

 

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A Wreath

Listen to an audio version of A Wreath read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

George Herbert’s response to La Corona is his poem A Wreath. Donne and Herbert, fully aware of each other from about 1600 though Herbert was 20 years younger, knew a wreath as a short-lived symbol of victory and honour. The flowers fall and the leaves fade and people forget. Early Christians were taught to avoid wearing wreaths, then considered inappropriate imitations of the Crown of Thorns. Even John Donne refers to a vile crown of frail bays. Both poets knew that a crown of Glory is everlasting. It doth flower always. But how to gain that crown? John Donne’s poetry is vivid and intense throughout. He does not evade the human condition. His religious verse is preoccupied with sin and death, condemnation and salvation, as we read. Herbert’s poetry is altogether different. He is at home with his Master, assured of His friendship and love. He doesn’t force questions of grace or effort for salvation. His Wreath is more tightly interwoven than La Corona, with the warp of echo and elaboration binding the weft of each line. But it bathes in grace, painting for us simplicity as essence for living with God. It is a poem for today, when we are confined to our homes and life is, for a short while and for some of us, unconvoluted and simple.

A Wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,
I give to thee, who knowest all my wayes,
My crooked winding wayes, wherein I live,
Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,
To thee, who art more farre above deceit,
Then deceit seems above simplicitie.
Give me simplicitie, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know, thy wayes,
Know them and practise them: then shall I give
For this poore wreath, give thee a crown of praise.

                                               A Wreath

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St Mark, Evangelist (d. c. 74)

Listen to an audio version of Saint Mark read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

April 25th is for St Mark, the evangelist who gave us the shortest gospel with its most direct text. Mark was writing for people who knew him. Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, we read (Mk 15: 21), a remarkable association placing Mark in his community of readers. He is usually identified as John Mark, a cousin of St Barnabas, who travelled with him and St Paul on their first missionary journey to Cyprus. This missionary work began unfortunately, because John Mark left Paul and Barnabas at Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). His mother, Mary, owned a house where the apostles and early Christians met (Acts 12:12). Some think he may have been the young man, only mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, who followed Jesus to Gethsemane and escaped naked when the guards caught his linen robe (Mk. 14:51). Much later he was close to St Peter, My son, Mark, Peter wrote (1 Pet. 5:13). His book is a series of stories probably gathered from St Peter and written down in about 68 AD using the unpolished Greek of the eastern Mediterranean. It is a compressed account, written to be read aloud and listened to, and not originally composed for textual exegesis. The stories were assembled to show that Jesus changed the way we encounter God. His book was accepted by the Early Church, not dismissed. The stories had changed Mark’s world and because he knew they were true, we must consider them and decide what they mean for us. For Mark, the extraordinary healing and teaching of Jesus’s ministry was a prelude to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Mark presents a total change in perspective about the world from what people then held and, to a great extent, hold today. He does not beat about the bush, but from his seventh verse onwards, tells us of the fusion of God and humanity in Jesus. Mark is urgent. In the first chapter alone he uses immediately nine times to show the fibre-optic like communication between heaven and earth in Jesus. The gospel ends suddenly with the empty tomb, but before that are three chapters that present to us the most precise Passion narrative. Mark gives us God at the weakest point of human experience. It identifies Him with the opposite of human ambition. And what of our response? Mark shows it in stark words. Inside the palace, Jesus is asked by the high priest Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? He replied I am. Outside, at the same time, Peter is asked if he is a follower of Jesus. I am not he repeats three times. It is a chilling contrast.

(This Calendar entry borrows heavily from Rowan Williams (2014) Meeting God in Mark. SPCK)

 

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Part 1

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

La Corona – the crown. John Donne’s sequence of seven sonnets is all about our Redemption. It is right for Holy Week. The sequence forms a circle, the perfect shape, using the last line of each poem to begin the next, and the last line of all to begin the first stanza. Each time, the same words serve a different purpose. The circle mirrors the church year, for even within our direct progression from Christmas to Easter, the Annunciation appears on March 25 to begin Jesus’s earthly story again. It has no end. The Sun that bids us rest is waking/Our brethren ‘neath the western sky, we often sing at Evensong. But this week is one for special focus. James 1 (or 6) would not give patronage to Donne in the middle of his career but told him to take holy orders. The king astutely perceived in him a capacity to inform, instruct, and engage, the three principal requirements of a preacher. They were realized in 1615 and later as Dean of St Paul’s. They are there in the first Corona verse illustrating the balance between trust in God and our own exertions, the question of grace and effort for redemption. The reward for effort on Earth of a vile crown but the gift from God of a crown of Glory.  Back then the purpose of Holy Week and especially Good Friday was neither complicated nor nuanced. It brought and bought us salvation.

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,
Weav’d in my low devout melancholy,
Thou which of good, hast, yea art treasury,
All changing unchang’d Ancient of days;
But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,
Reward my muse’s white sincerity,
But what Thy thorny crown gained, that give me,
A crown of Glory, which doth flower always;
The ends crown our works, but Thou crown’st our ends,
For, at our end begins our endless rest;
The first last end, now zealously possess’d,
With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.
‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,
Salvation to all that will is nigh.


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Part 2

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

The second sonnet of La Corona is for the Annunciation, the day which began Jesus’s journey to Golgotha. It is the visit of the angel to Mary, asking her to be the agent through which the Word will become flesh. She is Theotokos, the bearer of God. It is verse of extraordinary power, built upon an intensity and skill with language using paradoxes – mysteries - that jolt our imagination. Only there may we apprehend the incarnation that began at the Annunciation. John Donne moves us backwards and forwards between the earthly and cosmic significance of God incarnate. These visionary ideas are conceits, concentrated images that involve vivid contrast and, because they verge on the philosophical, contribute to our comprehension of what was happening on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Not what physically happened to one Man, but what it was He stood in for. Mary’s assent to the Holy Spirit’s request, Be it unto me according to thy word she said, is a moment of harmony and peace, a sacred moment, made remarkable by the angel asking for Mary’s consent. It frames this sonnet, but there near the beginning of the verse, this unassumingly presented yet earthshaking incident is shown to be a foundation of the Crucifixion.

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He'll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d ; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother,
Thou hast light in dark; and shutt'st in little room
Immensity, cloister'd in thy dear womb.

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Part 3

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

John Donne’s third La Corona sonnet is for the Nativity. The nativity stories do not neglect the Crucifixon, but it only peeps in through myrrh. Genesis begins the Old Testament and St Matthew the New. The Nativity is in Matthew’s first chapter. At the end of that chapter, Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (Mt. 1: 25).  The first chapter of Genesis tells us allegorically about the foundation of the world. At the end of that chapter the earth has been made. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen 1: 31). At that moment God is omnipotent. He is above all His creation. But from that point forward things change, especially as humans learn the consequences of freedom, and, slowly, that there is no freedom without responsibility. By the end of Genesis, Jacob and his family have fled to Egypt. In St Matthew, God is there as a dependent baby, no longer omnipotent. He needs protection from Herod’s swords, the first assassins sent for Him. He too must flee to Egypt, but the escape can only be temporary, for here we are in Holy Week.     

 

Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-beloved imprisonment,
There he hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for Him, hath th’Inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent
Th’effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
See’st thou, my Soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.


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Part 4

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

The fourth stanza of La Corona takes us back into the Temple with Mary and Joseph to seek their son talking with the academics and clergy. It is a story of an innocent child unaware of the devastating fear that had shaken his mother a few hours earlier, and of a prodigy meeting the clerisy on their own terms and in their own place. For John Donne, the encounter levels Jesus with the learned. It is learning that prepares Him for practical work. Donne was himself widely read, at Oxford in Spanish and the Spanish mystics, at Cambridge in logic, and at Lincoln’s Inn in law and theology. His own work issued from deep knowledge, but while it gave Jesus confidence to speak in the synagogues, for Donne it was eight years from 1607 before he overcame his reluctance to be ordained. Some think La Corona was written in 1607, and others a little later. Irrespective of these details, John Donne knew that after the palm-strewn procession into Jerusalem, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus spent most of His time teaching in the Temple. He began and ended His ministry in the Temple, the focal point of His faith. A place we rarely comprehend because it has been lost. The last days were between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, as we are now.

With his kind mother who partakes thy woe,
Joseph turn back; see where your child doth sit,
Blowing, yea blowing out those sparks of wit,
Which Himself on the Doctors did bestow;
The Word but lately could not speak, and lo
It suddenly speaks wonders, whence comes it,
That all which was, and all which should be writ,
A shallow seeming child, should deeply know?
His Godhead was not soul to His manhood,
Nor had time mellowed him to this ripeness,
But as for one which hath a long task, ‘tis good,
With the Sun to begin his business,
He in His age’s morning thus began
By miracles exceeding power of man.


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Part 5

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

The fifth sonnet is for Good Friday. Crucifying John Donne called it. We read the accounts the gospels present deliberately because things move quickly through the night and day. But here Donne is complete: the motivation - professional envy, the arbitrary conviction, the road to Golgotha, the death, and the gift. In some traditions, at least part of the Good Friday service follows the fourteen Stations of the Cross, points for particular reflection between Jesus’s condemnation and burial. They include moments on the way to the hill and in the execution itself. They would have been well known to Donne, given his Roman Catholic upbringing, his travels on the continent, and the nature of his times. Some are from the canonical gospel accounts, but others are more symbolic. The sixth station is one of these, Veronica passing her veil to Jesus that He might wipe His brow and, for a moment, she distracts Him from His pain. She is an archetype for those who care for us. There are Veronicas working today for some who will recover and others who have been, are, or will be arbitrarily condemned. The sonnet is not shy of pain, something common in the early 17th century, nor of death, also more apparent then than it has been in the last 50 years. Both of these features of early 21st century life make apprehension of the crucifixion more difficult and ours the last line’s prayer.

By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate;
In both affections many to Him ran,
But Oh! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas, and do, unto the immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a Fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to a span,
Nay to an inch. Lo, where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears Him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist, with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul.

                                                            Crucifying

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Part 6

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

The title of the sixth stanza of La Corona is Resurrection. Jesus’s appearances to his disciples and friends between Easter Day and His ascension gave these people proof that the grave was not the end, for them or for us. He was present in a way that people in the same place all experienced together. The appearances we read about were individual events, he did not appear in many different places at the same time. He was still a singular person. We normally celebrate the miracle of Easter in church with trumpets and singing and loud organ accompaniments and voluntaries. It is characteristically a celebration of Jesus as the Christ who has overcome death, although we don’t hear much about death itself. It is different this year, for there will be thousands of enumerated deaths on Easter Day. John Donne writes directly to these people and to those whom they loved and who loved them. In his time death roamed the streets. Several pandemics of plague ravaged London during his life, particularly seriously in 1593 and 1603, but also in 1607, the year he likely composed La Corona and gave it to Magdalen Herbert, George Herbert’s mother. In the last two lines he gives us what we often call the hope of glory, not as hope, but as assurance and expectation.

 

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall (though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly), be
Freed by that drop, from being starv’d, hard, or foul,
And life, by this death abled, shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death, bring misery,
If in Thy little book my name Thou enrol,
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrefied,
But made that there, of which, and for which ’twas;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep, and death’s soon from me pass,
That wak’d from both, I again risen may
Salute the last, and everlasting day.

                                   La Corona - Resurrection


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Part 7

Listen to an audio version of La Corona read by Chris Burn
with musical accompaniment by Andrew Burn (bassoon) and Nicola Paoli (cello)

The seventh and last part of La Corona is for the Ascension. We celebrate the Ascension on a Thursday in May, 40 days after Easter. The day of the Ascension was the last time the disciples saw Jesus with their own eyes. Jesus left them with three promises, to be with them always (Mt. 28:20), to come again (Acts 1: 11), and to send them His power (Lk 24: 49).  The Ascension itself perhaps provokes a greater mystery than the Resurrection. It indicates there is a place to which the visible Jesus departed. A place outside a geographer or astronomer’s ability to reach from this earth. The days after Easter transformed a band of terrified brothers and sisters into the evangelists of Pentecost. The transformation did not happen on Easter morning, but it began then. It took time and reassurance for them to know the Ascension would not be the end. It was the beginning of time similar to ours. Many of us have not yet seen Jesus, but we have heard about Him, and we have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit as did John Donne. Every year we spiral inwards, coming closer to the Centre. We pass the same points, never ending but not quite the same. It may be why Donne chose to end La Corona with its beginning.    

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose just tears, or tribulation
Have purely washed, or burnt your drossy clay;
Behold the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon,
Nor doth He by ascending, show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which has batter’d heaven for me,
Mild Lamb, which with Thy blood, has mark’d the path;
Bright Torch, which shins’t, that I the way may see,
Oh, with Thy own blood quench Thy own just wrath,
And if Thy holy Spirit, my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

                                   La Corona - Ascension


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Holy Week

Listen to an audio version of Holy Week read by Chris Burn

Holy Week turns the world upside down. It is the exemplary time to witness the Kingdom of God. It may be familiar, but it is not usually comfortable. What we will see we will have heard before. Today, Jesus was hailed by the crowds a few days ago but tomorrow he will be deserted and killed on a garbage dump. That was Golgotha, well outside the city wall. His death is the archetype of Love’s austere and lonely offices, the tasks described by Robert Hayden that we fulfill for those we love; the duties that are a basis of functioning family life. Jesus will be asked about his Kingdom, but Pilate will not understand. He will remain ambivalent. Like most of us. He will send Jesus to the Cross, our symbol for God’s Kingdom. It is where Light pierces Life, but not as we might expect. It is the end of the Incarnation. St Paul wrote that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1: 27). That is Holy Week. It is not for the ambitious. It is for those who come as they are. It is the gate to the Kingdom. The Kingdom may seem upside down; we must decide what is the right way up. From R.S. Thomas:

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you will purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

                                    The Kingdom (1972)

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