The Calendar - 2021
Easter Day - Good Friday - Maundy Thursday - St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), Monk and Bishop -
John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) -- Mothering Sunday - George Herbert,
Poet and divine (1593 – 1633) -
The Beginning of Lent - Hannah Grier Coome (1837-1921) -The Transfiguration - Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord
Listen to an audio version of Easter Day read by Chris Burn
Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.
George Herbert - Easter
We think of Easter as the end of Lent, but it is really the beginning of our time. They say Pentecost marks the birth of the church, but the Resurrection, the singular miracle, started it. Without the Resurrection we might revere Jesus as a remarkable prophet, as do Muslims. But with the Resurrection, the little group of disciples, largely uneducated, demoralized, and distraught began to change the world. It is a supernatural event that erupted into the natural world, but it is difficult to grasp without allusion to nature, separated as we are from it in time and context. Nature is the book of God’s works, so we can surely find hints of resurrection there, though we must carefully avoid confusion with resuscitation.
Gerrard Manley Hopkins brought us a helpful vision, that glows, hinting at a Transfiguration of natural things. He knew the Easter context inside out, alluding to Gethsemane, the olive oil press. He sensed stale experience in a world without the Resurrection, and the source of the everlasting sunrise:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins - God's Grandeur
Listen to an audio version of Good Friday read by Chris Burn
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour's love to me,
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be,
O, who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?
Samuel Crossman (1625-1684) gave us his reflection on Jesus’s Passion in a collection of nine poems, The Young Man’s Meditation, published in 1664. Crossman began his ministry in 1647 at Sudbury, a small market town 25 miles southeast of Cambridge. He was not ordained by a bishop, because Parliament had abolished bishops the year before. He served both the parish of All Saints and a Puritan congregation throughout the Commonwealth period (1649-60). But in 1662, he was one of 2,000 ministers ejected from their parishes because they would not accept the Prayer Book or the authority of bishops, and, further, he was imprisoned on November 2nd that year for preaching. Perhaps his poem was inspired during this persecution, for he must have been pressed back onto the basis of his faith. He came back to our church in 1665, being ordained by the bishop of Norwich. Crossman drew on George Herbert’s long, narrative Passion poem, The Sacrifice, its refrain being Was ever grief like mine? Like Herbert, he contrasts Jesus with the world, presenting our inadequacies as opposite to our Redeemer (Love to the loveless shown, / That they might lovely be). By 1689, the poem had been included in hymnbooks, but the tune from which it is now inseparable, Love Unknown, was only composed in 1918. The composer, John Ireland, was at lunch in London with Geoffrey Shaw, who showed him the poem. Miraculously, 15 minutes later, Ireland said, “Here is your melody,” and gave him the tune, scribbled on the back of a menu. Crossman’s poem has seven verses, but only six have come down to us in the hymn. We omit his sixth verse, which reveals the voice of his poem to be Joseph of Arimathea*. The voice, of this hidden disciple (love unknown), conveys his personal encounter with Jesus. The gift Crossman left us is a vision of the living Christ at the foundation of our faith. Through his poetry we may approach the Cross and meet our Lord.
Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like Thine!
This is my Friend,
In Whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.
*I am indebted to Alison Shell of University College London for this insight.
Listen to an audio version of Maundy Thursday read by Chris Burn
We are in a week laden with cosmic significance. We hear an account of the Passion every year, listening simultaneously to two messages: one information about a sequence of events; the other an attempt to comprehend such a familiar story. It is only about 20 hours from the Last Supper until Jesus’s body is laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. It seems too short for everything that happened: the arrest, the judicial processes, the via dolorosa, the Crucifixion, and the burial. The phases roll on so quickly and with such precise organization. Once Judas had pointed Him out, the physical agony began. He knew where He was going. Before that it was mental. Imagine imagining what was to come: the pressure from within to avoid the Cross. Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me. They had gone to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, from the Aramaic gat-smane, meaning an olive press.
A place for crushing oil out of the trees’ fruit. Some of the trees there today were there with Jesus: they are 2,000 years old.
They witnessed his anguish. It is in their wood. We may remember The Agony from George Herbert:
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings;
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), Monk and Bishop
Listen to an audio version of St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), Monk and Bishop read by Chris Burn
St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), Monk and Bishop
For about 500 years, St Cuthbert was the most popular saint in England until he was eclipsed by Thomas Beckett. He was born in what is now the border country, near Melrose in southern Scotland, and found a vocation to monastic life when he saw a bright light descending from heaven one night, only for it to be joined by a brighter beam, and then retreat back upward. Shortly afterwards he heard that St Aidan had died that night. He became a devout monk, who interspersed lengthy periods of solitude with extensive evangelistic journeys into the hills, where he developed a reputation not only as a shepherd of souls, but also as a healer. He was not as upset by the Synod of Whitby’s (663/4) adoption of Roman ways as were some of his Celtic brothers, so his leadership of the community at Lindisfarne (c.664-676) became a ministry of ecumenical healing. He retired in 676 to live as a hermit on the island of Inner Farne off the Northumberland coast, and among his last acts as prior were promulgation of laws to protect the eider ducks and other sea birds of the Farne Islands, likely the first pieces of bird conservation legislation enacted. Reluctantly, he came out of retirement in 685 as bishop of Lindisfarne but then travelled energetically throughout his diocese for 20 months, until he sensed death was approaching and he retreated again to Inner Farne. He died there on 20 March 687. His body was buried that day in Lindisfarne Abbey, but 11 years later it was seen to be incorrupted, and this became the focus of his cult. A bound copy of the Gospel of St John – St Cuthbert’s Gospel – was then placed in his coffin. Now in the British Library, it is the oldest intact European book. Similarly, between his death and 721, Eadfrith, a monk and also bishop of Lindisfarne, compiled the beautiful, illuminated manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Cuthbert’s honour. Almost 200 years later, shortly before the Vikings destroyed Lindisfarne, his body began a journey that ended at Durham in 995, when it is said he did not want to move any further and the cart carrying his coffin stuck fast. A church was built over him, but he was moved in 1104 into the new Norman cathedral, and again his incorruption was shown. The shrine, at the east end of the cathedral, became a focus of pilgrimage and miracles but was dismantled in 1538 by Henry VIII’s agents, although his relics and other treasures had been secreted just before the demolition by some alert monks. Today the magnificent, towering church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Cuthbert’s tomb, now a simple slab behind the high altar, remains a place to pray and reach personal decisions. Bede wrote of Cuthbert that He protected the flock committed to him by constant prayer on their behalf, by wholesome admonition, and – which is the real way to teach – by example first and precept later. The Cathedral is still a sanctuary, and a welcoming place of constant prayer.
John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)
Listen to an audio version of John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) read by Chris Burn
John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)
Atheism is not a new religion. For some, the inadequacies of the church stimulate views contrary to faith; for others, their mindset issues from the coherent and ever developing explanation of the world provided by natural science and the great control we exert over some phenomena through engineering. These people are known (technically) as ontological naturalists; they believe nothing exists except things we can measure. Life then is, as Stephen Hawking allegedly may have put it, a biochemical soup on the surface of a minor planet. But neither science nor engineering can address the question of why we are here nor of how we should live. Some of us, believe that science is part of a larger enterprise: our framework is not science or faith, but science and faith. John Polkinghorne, who died on 9 March aged 90 was the single most impressive Christian contributor to the dialogue between science and faith in the 20th century. He came from a humble home, but his brilliance was evident. He was the Senior Wrangler in 1952 (1st in mathematics) and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and was elected to the Royal Society in 1974. In 1979 he resigned his position to train as an Anglican priest. He was ordained in 1982 and worked in parish life for four years. His friends then brought him back to Cambridge to serve in various posts, academic and national. There he wrote a series of short, clear books developing the theme that we live in One World, offering our faith as a framework to celebrate the beauty of the world, and presenting faith as a fulfilling explanation of problems science has had to take as is. There are three in particular: first, that the world is intelligible, as science demonstrates we continually understand more and more of the world and its structure fits consistently within our ideas; second, that the universe is remarkably finely tuned, for instance if gravity were just a little stronger the universe would have fallen back in on itself after the Big Bang; and third, that there is a humane reality beyond our own societies that points to ways to live, answers awkward questions the same way everywhere, and presents concepts of mathematical elegance and beauty that fundamentally describe the natural world as we know it. These days much academic writing hides behind jargon and complex language. But not his. Here is his view on why modern science came out of the Christian world:
The way Christians think about creation (and the same is true for Jews and Muslims) has four significant consequences. The first is that we expect the world to be orderly, because its Creator is rational and consistent, yet God is also free to create a universe whichever way God chooses. Therefore, we can’t figure it out just by thinking what the order of nature ought to be, we’ll have to take a look and see. In other words, observation and experiment are indispensable. That’s the bit the Greeks missed. They thought you could do it all by just cogitating. Third, because the world is God’s creation, it’s worth of study. That, perhaps, was the point the Chinese missed as they concentrated their attention on the world of humanity at the expense of the world of nature. Fourth, because the creation is not itself divine, we can prod it and investigate it without impiety. Put all these features together and you have the intellectual setting in which science can get going.
Quarks, Chaos and Christianity: Questions to science and religion (1994)
Listen to an audio version of Mothering Sunday read by Chris Burn
The fourth Sunday in Lent is Mothering Sunday. It often falls close to the Annunciation on March 25th, an event that needs our imagination to apprehend it. Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred./The Word himself was waiting on her word. Words of Malcolm Guite that may be familiar. They bring to mind Fra Angelico’s fresco, which is perhaps the most well-known depiction of the blessed encounter. There we see Mary’s apprehension of God’s messenger. She cannot comprehend him; she just responds. She must have believed that God had a special role for her son, yet, with Joseph, she and Jesus had to escape to Egypt as refugees. There she probably weaned Him and watched His first steps and listened to His first words. They came home to Nazareth, where she must have had countless conversations with Him as an adult with a child, almost certainly made His meals, and made Him eat them. As He grew older she had to decide when to choose for Him and when to let Him choose, when to guide Him and when to stand back; she was bringing up God. At the suggestion of a warden, I have read Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, a social history from late Victorian rural England. A passage describes memories of the difference between a devout Methodist village home with only one child and the hurly-burley of life in the crowded and impoverished cottages of other families:
Inside Freddy Ashley’s home all was peace and quiet and spotless purity. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the table and board floor were scrubbed to a pale straw colour, the beautiful polished grate glowed crimson, for the oven was being heated, and placed half-way over the table was a snowy cloth with paste-board and rolling pin upon it. Freddy was helping his mother make biscuits, cutting the pastry she had rolled into shapes with a little tin cutter. Their two faces, both so plain and yet so pleasant, were close together above the paste-board, and their two voices as they bade Laura come in and sit by the fire sounded like angels’ voices after the tumult outside.
It was a brief glimpse into a different world from the one she was accustomed to, but the picture remained with her as something quiet and pure and lovely. She thought that the home at Nazareth must have been something like Freddy’s..
George Herbert, Poet and divine (1593 – 1633)
Listen to an audio version of George Herbert, Poet and divine (1593 – 1633) read by Chris Burn
George Herbert, Poet and divine (1593 – 1633)
Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee.
Bemerton is a small village about 2 miles west of Salisbury Cathedral. For three years, George Herbert and his wife Jane Danvers lived there in the rectory opposite the tiny church of St Andrew. He said Mattins and Evensong daily with his parishioners, who grew to love holy Mr Herbert. He left us poetry he wrote at Bemerton in The Temple, and another short book A Priest in the Temple, which for over 200 years was one of the few published sources of advice for country priests. He is a poet of the Incarnation, because he knew God as both his Master and his friend; Christian love recurs as his great theme. His father died when George was three, but his quite remarkable mother, Magdalen Newport, moved her family to Oxford and then London, where George attended Westminster School under Lancelot Andrewes. He went up to Cambridge and rose to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College and, in 1620, University Orator. He endured a long struggle with an ambition to become a courtier, but James I’s death in 1625 dismissed that possibility, and Herbert’s vocation to the church became clearer. The next year he was ordained deacon and given the prebendary of Layton Ecclesia, now called Leighton Bromswold, which is in Huntingdonshire near Little Gidding, where his close friend Nicholas Ferrar lived. Herbert undertook to restore the church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin at Layton. The interior at St Mary’s is now symmetrical, to balance prayer with preaching, the BCP and the KJV, both then fresh foundations of Anglicanism. He entered the Church of England sponsored by John Williams, the warm and genial bishop of Lincoln. Williams’ gentle, generous, and tolerant churchmanship was an important influence when Herbert spent his last three years as priest at St Andrew’s. His poor health drove him from swampy Cambridge to relatives, ultimately in Wiltshire, where in 1629 he married Jane, at Edington, northwest across Salisbury Plain from the city and in 1630 took the living at Bemerton. There his warm life and work were governed by reason, discipline, and propriety. He walked twice a week across the meadows and along the River Nadder to Salisbury Cathedral for Evensong and to play his lute and viol afterwards with the musicians. Then he felt close to heaven. We sing his poetry as hymns Let all the world in every corner sing or Teach me, my God and King, and we listen to it set in anthems King of Glorie, King of Peace. As R.S. Thomas wrote, it is a proof of the eternal beauty of holiness. February 27th is his feast day.
Thou hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise. (from Gratefulnesse)
The Beginning of Lent
Listen to an audio version of The Beginning of Lent read by Chris Burn
The Beginning of Lent
Lent is upon us. Shrove Tuesday was this week, the day for us to be shriven. To make our confession and receive forgiveness. Oh shrieve me, shrieve me, Holy Man said the Ancient Mariner to the hermit when he made it to land and needed release from his guilt. Now we formally start Lent on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season for discipline. Some of us give things up, and others prefer to do something regularly. It is a good season for resolutions, because we only promise to keep them for a compact time, not the whole year. It is not a sombre season, especially when, in more normal times, we go on holiday to escape the minor inconveniences of winter. Daily discipline, undertaken for a sort time, has an uncanny habit of becoming permanent when we reap the benefits of many small opportunities placed before us through its practice. In the last two years I have read anthologies of poetry that have been prepared for Lent. (I have found Malcolm Guite’s The Word in the Wilderness: A poem a day for Lent and Easter, very helpful.) The Calendar has then carried some of the ideas sparked by the verse and commentaries. Dorothy Wordsworth described the poetic imagination as a view into a deep, luminous truth. Her friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote of the capacity of poetry to take us beyond the lethargy of custom and present a heightened awareness of the world – natural and spiritual, if they can be separated – that we miss due to a film of familiarity and selfish solicitude. The insights we may distill from poetry may appear momentary, but they may change the way we see. From R.S. Thomas:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
The Bright Field (1975)
Hannah Grier Coome (1837-1921)
Listen to an audio version of Hannah Grier Coome read by Chris Burn
Hannah Grier Coome (1837-1921)
February 9th is the commemoration of Hannah Grier Coome, who founded the Sisterhood of St John the Divine (SSJD), the first Canadian Anglican religious order for women. Hannah was born in Carrying Place, Prince Edward County, into a high-church family with close ties to the Family Compact, the ruling elite of Upper Canada. She and her eldest sister, Elizabeth, shared an uncommon religious conviction. Hannah married in 1859 and moved with her husband to Britain in 1862. She was seriously injured in a fall during her first pregnancy, lost her child, and required a long convalescence, nursed by Elizabeth who went over to look after her. Both of the sisters were drawn to the devotional and social mission work of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, near Oxford, a monastic order founded as a result of the Oxford Movement. Elizabeth was about to enter the CSMV, when she was recalled in 1871 to her dying father. Hannah moved back across the Atlantic to Chicago in 1877, but her husband died the next year. By 1881 Hannah had decided to join the Wantage Sisters, but she was urged instead to form an order in Toronto. She entered her noviciate with the CSMV at their house in Peekskill, NY, where she gained experience in nursing and social work. After she professed her vows on 8 September 1884, she returned to Toronto and started the SSJD, living at Bishop Strachan School, where Elizabeth was principal. Almost immediately Hannah was asked to set up a field hospital in Moose Jaw during the North-West rebellion. When she returned to Toronto, the order established several hospitals and nursing homes there and in other cities. Hannah recognized that sustainable social work stems from a devout life, so her sisters spend several hours each day in prayer, study, and worship. Today there are two houses, in Toronto and Victoria, and the order is well known for its work in rehabilitation of injured people, its persistent devotion, and its ability to offer spiritual guidance.
Listen to an audio version of The Transfiguration read by Chris Burn
St Matthew (17: 1-9), St Mark (9: 2-9), and St Luke (9: 28-36) all give very similar accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus, a singular point in the middle of His ministry. We formally celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6th, a date selected by Pope Callistus III in the mid-15th century in gratitude for victory over the Turks. Tradition from at least the 3rd century holds that the Transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor, where there is now a Basilica, but Mt Hermon, or even the Mount of Olives, are other likely places. Often the event is portrayed at night, but it would have been difficult to climb or descend the mountain in the dark, and the gospels do not present the time of day. No matter, the dazzling radiance of Jesus’s appearance was brighter than any light, and His closest disciples, Peter, James, and John were shown the eternal side of His dual nature. St John alluded to the Transfiguration in chapter 1 verse 14 of his gospel, and the other evangelists also show Jesus as celestial but still recognizable: part of a reality that transcends our universe. Apart from us, brilliant; anticipating the continuity to be implicit in His Resurrection; and sensing the presence of Moses and Elijah as tangible evidence of the Jewish line of salvation. God is present in a cloud; the Cloud of Unknowing, which later would absorb Jesus at His Ascension, and will absorb us at the Second Coming (1 Thess. 4: 17). The Father’s words, heard directly very rarely in the Bible, come from the cloud and could not be plainer. This is my Son, … Listen to Him! These days, we also celebrate the Transfiguration near the beginning of Lent, mid-way between Christmas and Easter. It is important enough not to be lost in the dog days of summer. In August it is the last festival of our Lord before Christmas, punctuating the long series of weeks in Ordinary Time between Pentecost and Advent. In February it marks the point where Jesus’s journey began the road to Golgotha. At the Transfiguration Jesus appeared in His heavenly form, flooded with brilliance and glory. What Peter, James, and John saw then is what we shall see in our own time. It will be radiance, not mere illumination.
Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord
Listen to an audio version of Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord read by Chris Burn
Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord
The Lord shall make my darkness to be light, Psalm 18:30
Forty days after Christmas (February 2nd), St Mary ended her confinement and she and Jesus were presented in the Temple. As a first-born son, Jesus was to be offered to God – in thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt – and then ransomed by a sacrifice of doves. The Redeemer had to be redeemed. The feast, formerly called The Purification of St Mary the Virgin, has lost its association with thanksgiving for recovery after childbirth, because we have discarded the “churching” of women from our customs. We neglect to see each birth as a miracle and act of wonder, even though the BAS has a rite for this. We know it took many women much time to recover from childbirth, and that many others gave their lives for their children. No wonder Mary and Joseph wanted to give thanks to God as they took their baby to the Temple. There, their unobtrusive little group met Simeon, and later that day, Anna. Simeon had been prepared by the Holy Spirit to meet the Messiah, and he waited patiently; he recognized Him, even as an infant. Malachai (3:1) had written that the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple. Simeon saw a light to lighten the Gentiles. He understood what was in store for Mary, and he knew that his work was now done. He could depart in peace. Light is less valuable than it was, because we dismiss darkness with the flick of a switch. It used to travel as a candle or lamp from room to room, a precious commodity. We were surrounded by darkness for almost half our lives and crippled by it. The Magi were led by God’s light to the stable, and St John saw Jesus’s life as a light that shines in the darkness. A light for the world. Simeon’s words were represented in processions with candles, commemorating Christ’s entrance to the temple, from about 350 AD onwards. The candles were blessed for many years, and the feast was known as Candlemas. Candlemas brings Christmas to an end. It is a day for those who have just entered the world and for those who are about to leave it.