During this month of September when the first readings at our Eucharist have been from the letter of James, we’ve heard of five people who heeded the keynote verse in that letter: be doers of the word, not hearers only. In the modern translation the verse reads: what good is it if you say you have faith but do not show it in deeds?
We started the series with Martin Luther King, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the USA until he was murdered in 1968 at the age of 39. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland in the 5thc., converted a country of Celtic polytheists to Christianity, enduring hardship and danger in the course of a strenuous life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leading theologian in 1930s Germany, a man of penetrating intellect who asked fundamental questions of the confessing church and was executed in 1945 for his part in the resistance to Adolf Hitler. Last week Anne talked about Hilda, abbess of Whitby, a formidable woman of faith who combined managerial skills with sensitivity, to the extent that she recognised the poetic talents of Caedmon, a swine herd and encouraged him to overcame his reticence and recite his poem in praise of the creator, the earliest fragment of Old English, Anglo Saxon to have survived.
Today, we’re going to celebrate the courage and faith of Edith Cavell, a woman brought up in conventional stability who risked and eventually lost her life to serve the Gospel.
Edith Cavell was a middle class woman but her circumstances were modest. She was born in 1865 in a village near Norwich where her father was vicar. She was the eldest of four children who were taught by their father. She had no higher education. She had to work for a living as her father kept his family on a limited income with no inherited wealth. She became a governess. One of her pupils described her, after he had grown up, as ‘a martinet’ After working for a family in Brussels between 1890–1895, she came back to England, trained as a nurse at the London Hospital and worked in various hospitals in England. Then in 1907, Nurse Cavell was recruited by a pioneering Belgian surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, in Brussels. By 1910 she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When war broke out in 1914, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She immediately returned to her clinic in Brussels. The next day, the German army marched into Brussels, ignoring the Belgian neutrality treaty. 200,000 Belgians fled across the Channel and were given asylum in the UK. Dr Depage set up a major emergency hospital on the Belgian coast to receive retreating French, British and Belgian soldiers in 18,000 beds in makeshift wards. He asked Edith Cavell to join him but she decided to stay in Brussels and said: ‘Any soldier must be treated, friend or enemy. As nurses we must take no part in the quarrel – our work is for humanity. The profession of nursing knows no boundaries’.
In late August and September of 1914, the German army advanced toward Paris, leaving thousands of French and British soldiers stranded behind German lines. The Germans warned the populations of France and Belgium that if they sheltered allied soldiers they would be shot. Edith Cavell defied this warning. She treated any wounded soldier, friend or foe; she reminded her nurses that each man is a father, a husband, a brother, a son.
An underground support network was formed and by May 1915, she had helped at least 200 allied soldiers to hide in the basement of her clinic, to be treated and smuggled across the border to neutral Holland. Her deputy begged her to stop but she refused. In early August 1915 she was arrested and imprisoned. She confessed to her captors and was sentenced to death by firing squad. The English chaplain visited her in the evening after her sentence and recorded her saying: ‘Standing as I do in the sight of God and eternity, I have realised that patriotism is not enough. I must have no bitterness or hatred towards anyone.’ These are the words carved on her statue at the bottom of Charing Cross Road. The chaplain told her he would always think of her as a heroine and a martyr. She wasn’t happy with this. She told him she was simply a nurse who tried to do her duty. She wrote a farewell letter to her nurses from her prison cell: ‘When better days come, our work will resume all its power for doing good. The thought that before God you have done your duty will sustain you in the hard moments in life and in the face of death. I may have been strict but I have loved you more than you can know.’
She was kept in solitary confinement for three months before her execution. There was public outrage as the news of her death reached London and a memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral in October 1915. It was attended by members of the royal family and senior members of the government. Public opinion favoured burying her in Westminster Abbey, an exceedingly rare offer for a woman of her social status. But her family felt it would be more appropriate for her to be buried in her home county of Norwich.
Edith Cavell was brought up with an over-riding sense of Christian duty and she carried this with her to her death. She didn’t go willingly to her death but she went confident that she had done her duty to God and humanity as far as she was able. She wasn’t a reckless woman. She knew she had gifts. Medicine was developing as a science and she wanted to make a difference to the role of nurses, not by sacrificing the vocational, caring aspect of their work but making them partners with doctors and almoners, using science and training entrants into nursing in such a way that they would be recognised as a profession. She was an efficient and effective administrator. The boy who remembered her as a martinet obviously recognised that she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly and she had expectations and made demands of her colleagues so that they lived up to the high standards she set.
She valued all people as children of God, no matter what their status, their wealth, their nationality. If they were in need, she wanted to help them. Edith Cavell was a woman of deep faith but the message in James’s epistle about faith and works underpinned her whole life. She wasn’t self-seeking or self-promoting, she was an honourable, highly moral woman of great integrity.
Six weeks today we’ll be commemorating the armistice that was declared at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month a century ago, bringing the war to an end. At least 2 million young lives on both sides were lost in that war in Europe alone. The war itself was such a senseless failure politically, economically, strategically that two decades after its end, another conflict broke out with its own trail of lost lives and land laid waste. Edith Cavell was 45 when she died, at the prime of her life. Most of the war dead were considerably younger than that, as you can read in the book Harriet Hall compiled about our memorial tablet. Edith Cavell wanted to make the world a better place. She was a trail blazer– she confounded the Victorian expectations for unmarried middle class women. She created a model for future generations.
For a while after Anne’s sermon last week I thought that the order should’ve been reversed so that we ended the series on a high note – the Abbess of Whitby lived a long, fulfilled life which didn’t come to a violent end, like Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Edith Cavell. But I thought on reflection that it’s entirely appropriate that we should end by celebrating the Christ-like sacrifice of a woman who followed the pattern of her Lord. What good is it if you say you have faith but do not live it out in deeds?
Margaret is a retired teacher and serves as Reader (Lay Minister) at the Ascension.
This year Mary Magdalene has been thrown into the spotlight with a Channel 4 documentary, and a new film taken from her perspective entitled Mary Magdalene.
There are many myths surrounding Mary Magdalene, it was claimed that she was a prostitute, and even more far fetched as written in the Da Vinci code that she was Jesus’ wife. Gregory the Great in 591 theorised that the unknown woman washing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and her hair was Mary Magdalene. This theory is totally unfounded but cemented her reputation as an immoral woman.
It is worth knowing that the Eastern Orthodox Christians have never depicted her as a prostitute and thankfully Biblical scholars today have moved on from referring to her as such.
The rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene’s reputation however has taken centuries. It was only in 2016 that Pope Francis established the 22nd of July as a major feast day to celebrate Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle.
Mary Magdalene has now been granted the same status as the rest of the early apostles by the Roman Catholics. In doing this Pope Francis has made a statement that men and women are of equal value as disciples a move which the Catholic Church would find hard to step back from.
There is a distinction between disciples and apostles. The twelve were all disciples, all who follow Christ are disciples, including ourselves. The Apostles as well as being disciples were also eye witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
Mary was the first to speak to the resurrected Christ and the first to testify to the other disciples who then became apostles. As such Mary has also become known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
Apart from a unfounded bad reputation what do we know about Mary?
We are first introduced to Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:1-3:
“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”
Scholars concur that Mary was from Magdala a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is significant as not many people were described with the name of their home town this conveys her status as an important person in the Gospels.
The passage states that she had seven demons cast out of her. Jesus would have found Mary in a state of great suffering. She was not herself.
Jesus through his love and compassion would have looked beyond her pain and hurt to see her potential and took time to draw alongside her, heal her and then count her amongst his close friends.
Mary helped practically with Jesus’ ministry. In verse three we discover that Mary is a financial supporter of Jesus. No husband, father or brother is mentioned and commentators have concluded that she was a woman with independent means, perhaps a business woman, or woman who had inherited. She chose to give of her own resources, because she trusted and believed in Jesus.
Mary became a key follower of Jesus, she is one of the few women mentioned alongside the twelve disciples, learning directly from Jesus as he taught and went about his ministry. Not only this but she become the leader of the female disciples such as Joanna.
Mary went on to became one of the first significant leaders in the early church and bore witness alongside the other apostles. By leading the women disciples she is now seen to be the equal of Peter. It was a segregated society so men would have led and baptised men. And women would have led and baptised women.
Traditional art has a lot to answer for as it cemented Mary’s reputation as an immoral person. Often she’s portrayed with too much flesh on show and generally with red hair. She is often in a penitential position as though she is still seeking forgiveness for her past wrongs and she has not moved on.
In fairness to the artists Mary was often portrayed so that we could imagine ourselves in her place. A little like the prodigal son Mary was traditionally used in art as a reminder that no matter who we are Jesus loves us and will forgive us. She shows us that we too can embark on a relationship with God.
Today’s artwork is much better and modern images show her looking directly at us, unashamed, dressed respectably and even ready to offer us a blessing. Not someone to be pitied but respected.
Mary Magdalene was the most faithful of all the disciples. When all the men had fled even Peter, Mary remained with some of the women. She was there throughout Jesus’ crucifixion. She stayed by the cross for those three hours in solidarity as Jesus died. It may be her eyewitness account that the Gospel writers used. Unlike the other disciples Mary remained despite the risk of being arrested and killed. She followed the procession to see Jesus buried at the tomb and she was the first to return to anoint Jesus’ body. As the first witness Mary is traditionally known as the first Apostle, not Peter.
I find it hard to read the Gospel passage we heard without feeling a pang. Mary’s pain is so raw when she returns to the tomb. She loved Jesus so much and cannot reconcile her grief. Her world as she knows it has come to an end.
Imagine her there by the empty tomb.
When the angels ask why she is weeping she responds ’They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’
She might have been angry as well as distraught. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to think that a person you love has been removed from a peaceful rest by strangers for an unknown reason.
It is only when her name is called that she recognises Jesus. It puts me in mind of the passage from Isaiah chapter 43 verse 1 used in our baptism services.
“I have called you by name and made you my own.”
She responds with ‘Rabbouni!’ meaning, master and teacher. Mary not only recognises who Jesus is but she recognises Jesus in relation to herself. Her identity is tied up in Jesus.
It came as a complete shock when Justin Welby discovered that his father was not Gavin Welby a Jewish whisky salesman, but Sir Anthony Montague Browne. Welby’s response was calm and measured given the circumstances. “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
Similarly Mary by rooting her identity in Jesus was able to be courageous. Firstly at the cross and then when Jesus tells her to go and bear witness to the other disciples. Mary obeys immediately, trusting Jesus implicitly.
Sadly the myths surrounding Mary have been used to disempower women throughout many generations, in the church. We are still working through some of the ramifications in churches and society more broadly today.
There is a strange sense of irony that the film Mary Magdalene was produced by The Weinstein Company, the company went bankrupt following numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The witness of many actors triggered the global #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace has come under the spotlight.
Speaking out always takes courage and Mary had that in abundance. Mary lived in a culture where women were not listened to let alone used as witnesses.
Despite this Mary told her story and enough people believed her faithful witness which made her instrumental to the start of the Christian movement.
In our own lives as Christians we have opportunity after opportunity to share our own stories of faith and the good news story of the Gospel. I wonder how many lives can be transformed through our Christian witness of actions and words by sharing the good news we know.
I tell you, among those born of woman, there is no one greater than John.
This is Jesus’s endorsement of John the Baptist, prophet, whose horrific death was the subject of our gospel reading.
John and Jesus were related and their lives became intertwined while they were still in their mothers’ wombs. When Mary received the news of her pregnancy, her first response was a very natural fear – she was young, unmarried, bewildered. Her second response was the extraordinary proclamation which we know as the Magnificat – a song of praise to the God who will bring down the mighty from their seats, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich, empty, away. Her third response was to visit Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was also pregnant, in very different circumstances. She was barren and she was apparently past childbearing age. Zechariah, her husband, didn’t receive his wife’s news with abandoned delight but Elizabeth was overwhelmed, almost ecstatic with happiness . When Mary arrived Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry – Blessed are you among women…….. as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
It’s not surprising that with two redoubtable mothers like Mary and Elizabeth, these two young men should be confident, forthright and secure. Luke’s gospel says that [John] grew strong in spirit and lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly in Israel. Jesus’s childhood is sketched in the gospels but he too began his ministry after a period in the wilderness.
They were both charismatic, attracting large followings. Both adopted unconventional lifestyles. Jesus lived the life of an itinerant preacher, remarking wryly that whereas foxes had lairs and the birds had nests, he had nowhere to lay his head. John wore camel skins and lived off a diet of locusts and wild honey. Whenever he emerged from the desert, crowds flocked to hear him. Sometimes Jesus was almost besieged, forced to escape the multitude by preaching from the waters of a lake.
Both had a vocation ‘to speak truth to power’.
Welcome, my friends, to the Church of the Ascension, on this our festival day. The feast of the Ascension is not one of the most visible of the church’s feasts, but it is a truly important day in the Christian calendar. Today we see Jesus translated from the human plane, limited by a corporeal existence, to the divine plane, unlimited by time, space and physics.
Which is one reason we don’t make too much fuss about it, generally. It’s a bit of an oddity. If you look at Christian art around the ascension, it tends to look like medieval versions of Superman. Jesus is either depicted on top of a cloud, slowly drifting away, or we see a pair of feet going in to a cloud. It’s not easy to engage with the Ascension when we know for a fact that heaven is not up there and hell is not down there and the three-storey world is not an adequate way to describe the wonders of our universe. I remember earnestly preaching to my congregation a couple of years ago, saying, don’t think of Jesus as a sort of first century Iron Man zooming up on jet packs. A little while later, in came Sunday School and I said, so what have you been up to and they said, “
We were doing the Ascension and look what we made!”
[shows visual aid of blue-painted coffee cup with cotton wool clouds and figure ascending into the the cup]
Seriously, the Ascension is meaningful: the way the narrative is written tells us something about the nature of Jesus, and about our relationship with Jesus, the human Jesus and the divine Jesus. Jesus is lifted up – to Lordship, to power, to reign at God’s right hand. It’s also a clear echo of the Daniel passage we heard: Jesus is among the clouds of heaven, exalted and eternal. It’s a celebration of Jesus, but it’s also a challenge: the Ascended Jesus is Lord above all Lords, all Caesars, all Kings, all priests, all prophets, all Kings and Queens and Caesars and Trumps and he will reign.
But, for the disciples, he is gone. It says that they were joyful as they returned to Jerusalem, but he is still gone from their sight. I think that must have been a little hard, and it is testament to the power of their belief that they stay focused and joyful. It’s a bit like Mary meeting the Risen Christ and being told not to hold on to him, though that’s all she wants – at some point we have to be willing to open our arms and our hearts and share this good news.
Because this is the pivotal moment when we switch from gospel to Acts, from life with Jesus the man to life for Jesus the eternal Saviour. The disciples are waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, for the Spirit to come, though they do not know how this will happen. In the Ascension Jesus leaves behind all limits, breaks all bounds, and opens up the possibility of the renewal of the world. The Ascension is not an end, but a turning point.
So what happens now? We wait. The disciples waited and prayed, until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. It’s a lesson we could emulate: it’s so easy to rush into things, and so hard to wait, especially when things seem a little empty, but there is a time for every purpose, and sometimes our purpose is to watch, and pray, and discern. That’s what Thy Kingdom Come is all about: a time of prayer across all our churches, prayer for wisdom and hope and renewal, at a time when the church needs this as much as at any time in our history.
Here at the Ascension we’re deep in a time of watchfulness and prayer, though we’re anxious to move forward into growth. I’ve been here six months now, and it’s been a busy six months, going through the major festivals of Christmas, Passiontide and Easter. Now we as a church are in a period of deep discernment, with a newly elected PCC and a new vision, and we would welcome your prayers as we develop our mission plans for the next year and the next five years.
So the disciples watch, and pray, in faith and hope and trust, waiting for the Spirit to descend. They must have missed the living presence of Jesus among them, but they watch and pray. Seeing Jesus live, and die, and return to them in the joy of the resurrection, has been a whirlwind, and now comes this time of peace and quiet waiting for the next thing to happen. Spiritual life and development always follows organic patterns rather than mechanistic ones.
In spring the beautiful blossom appears on the trees, but it doesn’t last: all too soon it falls into dust. The flower has to go to make way for the leaves to grow and the fruit to develop. Just as the disciples had to let the human Jesus go so they could begin to know the risen Christ, so our early joy in Jesus, our simple childlike faith, has to mature and develop, and some of that process will be marked by loss: a simple faith is replaced by a deeper and a deeper faith. It is in the times of loss, of wondering just where God is, when God seems to have withdrawn from you, that you can move closer to God as you watch and pray, and wait for renewal. You may even think you’ve stopped believing in God, but as Karl Rahner once said, you cannot lose God, you can only lose your image of God. The idol must fall to allow the reality to break through.
So as we leave Passiontide and Easter behind and look forward to Pentecost, our work begins. The Ascension passes the baton to us. As servants of the Risen, Ascended, Glorified Christ, we are tasked with loving our neighbour and spreading the good news, just like those first disciples. Jesus is not ours to keep, rather the Risen Christ is ours to share.
But we are not left alone as we wait, and watch, and pray, and prepare for renewal. Jesus left us the means to remember him and to encounter him again. When we eat and drink the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we open our hearts to the living Christ and rededicate our lives to him.
In taking communion we share in the memory and the promise, the promise that love and life will triumph over hate and sin and death, the promise of a renewed church and a renewed world, the promise that Jesus gave to us all, that we can have life, and have life in abundance, and for all eternity.
Why are we here?
We did some work last week at the Annual Meeting, when we looked at why we are here. Why has God called us to this church, rather than to any other? There is an abundance of churches in this area, including now some liberal churches, and so we have to be able to say that the Ascension is a church with a distinctive mission and purpose. There is no point reordering, there is no point planning for our future, if we don’t know why we are here. So we spent a little time on this – a very little time – but I think it was a worthwhile exercise. For anyone who wasn’t here, we ended up with a pile of post-it notes about our mission and purpose, which I took home and analysed.
I apologise to a few of you who have heard some of this earlier in the week, but it is worth exploring it together as a congregation. Sometimes when you do these exercises you end up with all sorts of answers and nothing clear emerges, but the Church of the Ascension is very clear what it is about.
Firstly, we are about being a spiritual home. We are important to each other. This is a church where you are not questioned, where you are accepted for who you are, and this is a church with a long history of being liberal, radical and progressive, and we like that. That is all good, that is what drew me here, and it is our history and our mission to keep that cutting edge.
But, and here is a but from me, there are two problems here which I think may be impeding our growth.
Number one: if you see the church as your home, and that specific word did come up, then what does that say to people who come here for the first time? Are they outsiders? Visitors? Non-members? How will that make them feel? The idea of home sometimes means that we get stuck. This is how we do things. We like it like this. We think we are open to change and growth, but actually, we like what we do now. We don’t want to be more traditional – no, we are a radical, inclusive church. We don’t want to introduce new things either – we like what we traditionally do. That’s just something to watch. When new people come into church, they will bring newness with them, and you may not always be comfortable with it.
Number two: we are, I think, resting on our laurels a little bit. We think we are THE inclusive, progressive church, and so we don’t need to do anything more. Actually you’ve got several modern, welcoming, inclusive churches within a couple of miles of us, so if they also have other factors which draw people in, they will go there instead. That’s not really a problem – if people prefer another church, it doesn’t matter, they’re still worshipping. But it does show that we need to change and modernise and up our game to get new people to come in to us.
The second theme was inclusion, unsurprisingly. We call ourselves the Inclusive Church of the Ascension. But, as one person pointed out, we are not there yet, and maybe we need to revisit our inclusion consciously. Strike the Maybe. We need to make sure we are including everyone. Let’s bring the children more into our worship. Let’s consider what we do for people with dementia. Let’s see if we can improve our offering for people with disabilities, even before the reordering. Let’s see if we can replace this sound system so people with hearing difficulties can actually participate properly in our worship.
Someone asked why we use this word inclusive – can’t we just say ‘everybody welcome’? I would say no, because it’s about more than treating people equally, it’s about more, even, than meeting people’s needs. It’s about seeing Christ in each other. It’s about making sure that the distinctive gifts of each person are honoured. I would really like to see more participation in our worship, but not more of the same people doing different things. Just one example: I am working towards having the children leading worship more – it says in Isaiah that ‘a little child will lead them’, and it’s life changing when they do.
Somebody wrote a definition of a church which was more than welcoming – I hope, by this definition, we are actively affirming. We think we are, but we are not sure. It’s specifically about the issue of being gay, but it can be widened in many ways.
Lastly, we are about service to our community. We do amazing things in our community – shoutout to Simon and the Wash House project, Bridget and ESOL, Trish and LewCAS, Ted for the Majority World work, and many others. That’s what we really need to develop, both as a church and as the Ravensbourne Team.The parish boundaries are useless here. We need to recognise that Holy Trinity can work in our parish, just as we work in theirs. St John’s and the Ascension freely work at Holy Trinity – now let them bring their gifts to us. And when we reorder, let’s have a team-wide vision, which lets us do the right things in the right places.
I’ll finish with the thing that wasn’t on many slides. I didn’t ask why we go to church, I asked why this church, so the answers we gave are fair and good. There is, however, a deeper why, and I know that we know this. Still we should always remind ourselves that there is a deeper why. We are here for one reason alone, and that is to meet with God. In being an inclusive, liberal, welcoming, active church, we must never lose sight of that. f we are not conscious that we are followers of Jesus, we cease to be a spiritual home and we become a club. If we are not always seeking a divine encounter, we become a doer of good works, just plugging the gaps in the welfare state. And if we are not filled with love, one for another, we will never really be inclusive.
And that is the key to church growth. If your hearts are filled with love, your pews will fill with people. If Christ is at the heart of all we do, we will be effective, loving, serving people who carry the gospel with us. It starts in here, with our heartfelt confession and deep commitment, and it ends out there, as we seek to transform this community and to bring the transformation only God can bring to the world.
Reverend Anne Bennett
Anne is Team Vicar at the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath.
There are no birth narratives in Mark, John, the Acts of the Apostles or the Epistles. The nativity stories are in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and they are so often conflated in hymns, prayers, Sunday School plays, even musical theatre, that it’s easy to think of them as an integrated whole.
But the resurrection stories are quite different. Each of the five stands in its own right, has its own perspective on events, involves different individuals and different settings. It’s easy for non-believers to dismiss them as inconsistent and totally implausible.
The earliest written account is in Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes as a recorder of a tradition: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day, appeared to Peter, and afterwards to the twelve. hen he appeared to five hundred of [our] brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James and afterwards to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to [me]. It was like a sudden, abnormal birth. Later in this section of the letter, Paul asserts with typical firmness: the truth is, Christ was raised to life, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead. Since a man brought death into the world, a man also brought resurrection of the dead.
Paul has no problem with the idea of bodily resurrection. If he had been a Greek he would have accepted the classical view that a physical resurrection meant imprisonment in a physical body, in other words a fettering of the spirit, not a release into a new kind of life. But Paul was a Jew. The book of Daniel contains a clear statement of the Jewish belief about life after death – Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of everlasting abhorrence. Elijah raised a widow’s son in Nain. Jesus perfomed the same miracle in the same place 9 centuries later. He raised Jairus’s daughter, the centurion’s servant, Lazarus. Resurrection wasn’t commonplace, but it wasn’t unknown.
Paul’s account differs in many respects from the gospel stories. There’s no reference to the rolling away of the stone over the sepulchre. There are no women. No angels or men in white robes. The order in which Jesus appears on Easter day is not the same. Paul is keen to elevate the narrative so that the intellectual challenge of the resurrection is presented as theology. Elements of the story such as grave clothes, ointment, earthquakes are peripheral to Paul’s purpose.
But details are significant. In Mark’s gospel, the three women who were the first people to visit the tomb were named – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. They were key witnesses to the scene – the stone rolled away, the empty tomb and the messenger. The women were very frightened. In Matthew’s gospel, there were two women and they reacted to the angelic message with joy. This account is the only one to mention that there had been soldiers guarding the tomb, on the orders of Pontius Pilate who was responding to a warning by the Pharisees that Jesus’s followers would steal the body. In fact the chief priests bribed the guards to say that this was what had happened.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the resurrection narrative occurs in Luke. Two friends of Jesus, walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem were joined by a stranger. When they reached Emmaus, after walking 10.4 miles, they shared a meal with him. As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they realised that their companion was the risen Christ.
John’s gospel is balanced in favour of the part played by a woman. Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and had a personal encounter with a man whom she thought to be a gardener. He called her by name and she responded by calling him Rabbi, teacher. A week later he appeared again in the same room and allowed Thomas to touch him, Thomas, who had doubted the truth of all the stories he had heard.
There are several convergences in these disparate reports. All mention a stone which had been rolled away, revealing an empty tomb. The role of women, though their reactions are different, was to be key witness to the resurrection. The risen Christ carried on teaching his disciples, he carried on being their Rabbi. Jesus was not a ghost. He could eat and drink. Sometimes Jesus invited his disciples to touch him, but famously when he greeted Mary he said: touch me not.
Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Roman left us one of the few historical texts of the period. “John the Baptist and Jesus were two holy men. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned Jesus to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold.” This is as near as we get to a detached almost contemporary account.
Between the NT stories and this little scrap of writing by a minor historian, there isn’t a great deal of authenticated information to build a religion on.
But a common thread running through it all is perspective. As we read these stories we accept that they represent points of view.
The resurrection is the great miracle of our religion. If you believe in the supernatural, you can accept that in his role of creator of the universe it is well within God’s power to break his own laws. Bringing a dead body back to life is another manifestation of his power over all he made.
The Catholic catechism acknowledges the enigmatic quality of the resurrection. Although [it] was an historical event, verified by the sign of the empty tomb and the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith, something that transcends and surpasses history. Certainty and ambiguity combined in one sentence.
What does the resurrection mean for us?
I can’t believe that the meaning of the resurrection is to prove the almighty power of God. If it were so then we must ask why this God doesn’t use this power to deal with all the horrors that are and have been in the world, affecting individuals and whole nations.
It can’t mean irrefutable fact as we understand it. When we watched an eye witness on TV describing the fall of the Berlin Wall, we saw the men climbing up with hammers and pick axes. There were clouds of dust. People clawed at the structure and ran over no-man’s- land into the West, stopping to look at the collapse of the barrier that had dominated their lives. Everyone there would have their version of what happened to pass on to family, friends, neighbours. But the basic threads of the story could be verified by anyone who looked at archive film or old newspapers.
His effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met
From my perspective as a 21st century Christian humanist, I see the resurrection as a series of metaphors, recorded by a disparate group of men and women who wanted to make sense of the most extraordinary experience any group of people has ever experienced. They had spent three years with Jesus who embodied all the qualities of God. They had met the word made flesh. And he had died. But his effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met. Mary met a gardener. He responded to her intense grief with compassion, with sensitivity, with love. She recognised Jesus in him. Two friends, also immersed in grief, encountered a stranger as they were walking. He responded to their bewilderment by making them aware of the inevitability of suffering that must be the result of human limitations. They realised that they had encountered Jesus. When they broke bread together, they understood the meaning of Jesus’s promise that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst. When they honoured the dignity of even what society regards as its dregs, they were honouring Jesus. When they visited the sick, fed the hungry, they were doing it as if to Jesus.
My favourite representation of Jesus’s resurrection in art is a drawing by Michelangelo in the British Museum. He’s naked. The tomb is an elaborate alabaster box. Jesus is balanced on one foot on the edge. He has the musculature of a very athletic, energetic man in the prime of life. He’s thrusting with both arms towards the sky, throwing his head back and gazing upwards. The message is clear. The jaws of death could not contain this man. We must look for him and recognise him whenever we meet him.
Margaret is a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) at the Church of the Ascension Blackheath.
The Christian festival of Candlemas celebrates the purification, when Mary and Joseph went with the little Jesus to the temple. This was a requirement in Jewish holy law, laid down in Leviticus chapter 12:
“Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days: she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed…..When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest..a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering….If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take with her two turtle doves or two pigeons. The priest will make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean from her flow of blood.”
So after the birth of Jesus, Mary had to allow eight days before Jesus was circumcised, which was his naming ceremony. She then had to allow thirty-three days for her “blood purification”. At the end of these thirty-three days Mary and Joseph took their sacrifice of two pigeons to the temple to ask for her forgiveness and healing from the flow of blood.
Now how we see the purification ritual very much depends on where we are standing. In our society today we don’t see women as “unclean” after childbirth and at first sight this all looks rather primitive. But if you think back to the first century, childbirth was a terrifying, dangerous and very bloody business, with no pain relief, a high risk of infection and a high maternal mortality rate. It was seen as part of the curse of mankind, the curse following the fall in Genesis:
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
To be honest, childbirth is pretty scary today, even in Western society with all our midwifery and medical capabilities. For the young Mary it would have been terrifying, and she would have been relieved to survive as a healthy woman after giving birth.
My heart exults in Yahweh;
I rejoice in the power of his salvation.
He has satisfied the hunger of the poor.
The famished cease from their labour.
He raises the poor from the dust.
He gives the needy a place among the princes.
He assigns them a seat of honour.
These verses from the first book of Samuel are extracts from the proclamation of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, after she received the news that she was to bear a son. And these are from the canticle which we call the Magnificat, delivered by Mary the mother of Jesus in an identical situation:
My soul tells of the greatness of the lord.
My spirit rejoices in the salvation of my God.
The Almighty has done great things for me.
He has pulled down the princes from their throne and exalted the poor and needy.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
I have selected some of the verses that have the clearest verbal echo. Hannah’s emphasis is more on the military power of Yahweh. Mary’s on God’s thirst for justice. But what these two women have in common is their recognition that the births of their two babies were so important that they must be seen in a cosmic, a religious and a political setting. It was the political aspect of Mary’s role that Anne emphasised in her sermon in Advent.
I want to concentrate on Mary’s pivotal role as organiser, interpreter, manager of her son.
Shops display their Christmas decorations in October and many non-religious people begin their preparations for our winter excessorama before Guy Fawkes Day is over. Advent candles are interpreted as the countdown to 24th December. If you want to give yourself a truly bibulous series of sign posts to Christmas you can buy an Advent calendar which presents you with a little bottle of rare whisky every day for a mere £10,000.
But although Advent tends to be subsumed into the commercial Christmas, today is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, Advent Sunday. Happy New Year.
A few weeks ago a visiting preacher talked to us very enthusiastically about her recent visit to Wittenberg. This is the city where Martin Luther pinned his 95 declarations on the church door at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31st October 1517. The preacher recounted how she was relieved of a weight of guilt when she recognised the force of the verse in the epistle to the Romans which led to Martin Luther’s rejection of catholicism. He emerged from a life of self-loathing and a sense of unworthiness, a conviction that he could never be forgiven. The verse (ch 1 v 17) ……reads: [the gospel] is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…….because in it the righteousness of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith.
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here