Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

It was the year following my bar mitzvah when my father decided we should go up to Jerusalem for the Passover, leaving our business in my mother’s capable hands for a couple of weeks. He wanted to go a few days beforehand, in order to spend some time with his aunt, the widow of a merchant, who was getting elderly. He had not seen her for some years, and felt it was his duty to visit her while she still lived. And now I was a man, he wanted me to see and know Jerusalem, the city of our God, and to eat the Passover there.

So we set off. It was two days journey, three days really, since we stayed in the house of one of my father’s friends for the Sabbath, and I was amazed by the steepness of the final climb. I had not realised the city was set up so high – I hadn't been there since I was a little boy. Many others were entering the city, it seemed we weren’t the only ones coming up for Passover early. But the people seemed to be moving very slowly, and I was beginning to feel impatient. We could hear shouting up ahead, and began to look at each other anxiously. Was it a riot? Even at thirteen I knew how dangerous that was, how volatile a place the Holy city was when all these extra people crowded into its narrow streets, and how swiftly and brutally the Romans would act if they thought things were getting out of control. It was something we wanted to keep well away from: if the Roman soldiers swept through with drawn swords they wouldn’t be stopping to ask first if you were just an innocent bystander. Maybe it was because of the temple, and the continual stream of sacrifices, so that the whole place smelled of blood and incense, but already in my mind I associated Jerusalem with death.

But as we drew closer the shouts didn’t sound dangerous and threatening, it was more like the sound of a great party taking place. Intrigued, we pressed forward through the hesitant, milling crowd, and, as we drew closer, the words became clearer:

“Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.”

Those were Messiah words, and I pushed forward between the people, straining to see who or what was there. My father had hung back, later I was to realise that he had seen would-be “Messiahs” before, and still read danger in the situation. But for me the excitement was wonderful – could it really be that the awaited one had arrived, right now, in front of me, to take for himself a greater kingdom than David and Solomon?

And then .. I saw Him. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps a king with a glittering entourage, perhaps an angel. What I saw was a man. A man in a simple peasant robe, seated on a young donkey. There was nothing remarkable about His face, feature by feature He could have been anyone, it was, if you can imagine such a thing, everybody’s face. But it was the expression on His face that haunted me. The crowd might have been delirious with excitement, but He wasn’t. I expected Him to be smiling, maybe waving, drumming up more response from them. Isn’t that what people in such positions usually do? But He wasn’t like that. It obviously wasn’t something He needed or desired them to do. It just was. He didn’t look exactly sad, just very solemn, perhaps like a priest who is totally absorbed in performing the sacrificial ritual.

And then, I remembered. I knew where I had seen that look before. Once before, when I was just a little boy, we had been in Jerusalem for Passover, and, just as the Law says, we had been taking our lamb, our unblemished Passover lamb, to be killed. At first the creature had been skittish, playing around, resisting the tug of the rope. But suddenly, when we were nearly there, it quieted. It was odd, almost as if it suddenly knew its fate and surrendered. When we brought it to the priest, it did not struggle, but stood there, with that calm, withdrawn look in its eyes. I did not know what it meant, it was to be another ten years before the Christians came to my town and I understood, and wept; but I stood there that day, amidst the noisy crowd, and I wondered.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

No fear in love?

“There is no fear in love,” she repeated to herself, “perfect love casts out fear.” She had always found these words of the apostle comforting, but now they frightened her. They frightened her because she was afraid, and if she was afraid, did that mean her love was lacking?

She turned the thought around in her mind. Martyrdom had always been a possibility, the authorities didn’t like Christians very much, and every so often things would get nasty. Local officials, or sometimes even the emperor himself, would suddenly decide that Christians must be exterminated, or at least cowed into submission, and experiment with new refinements of cruelty to achieve their political ends and satisfy the blood-lust of the crowd at one and the same time. But not here, not now, and not to her. It was easy, in the fervour of worshipping her crucified and risen Lord, to say, “Yes, I would gladly die for Him!” It was much harder here, in this dank, dark, foetid underground cell to feel the same enthusiasm.

And, did it have to be wild beasts? She could have faced sword or arrow; even fire, though she shuddered at the thought of the pain, did not invoke the same wild terror. But she had always been scared of creatures – even mice evoked in her that shuddering horror of being devoured.

But did this fear, this soul-shaking, gut-devouring fear, mean that she didn’t really love Him? She looked around in the almost-darkness at the others in her prison. Some were praying quietly, some even seemed to be asleep. And she was supposed to be like them, so full of faith that nothing done to the body could ever worry her very much? She wondered if anyone else was going through this same torment of terror as she was, but how could she ask without disturbing them. If anyone had a morsel of strength, a morsel of comfort to hold onto at this hour, the last thing she would want to do would be to take it away from them. If only there was a way she could know it too! In the silence of her soul she cried out, “Lord, help me, for I cannot help myself!”

All was quiet, all was still. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the panic pressing in, and her imagination was gripped by a strange picture. There was a hillside garden, with twisted, ancient trees, and the grass moving faintly in the breeze. A full moon was overhead, and in its cold bright light she could see a man kneeling, utterly alone, and the distress on his upturned face was terrible to see. A little away, almost out of sight, other men were sleeping. Didn’t they care? And then, between one breath and the next, she realised what she was seeing. She could almost hear the words: “Let this cup pass from me.” Deep inside her a silent sob shuddered, followed by wonder.

How could this be? If ever anyone had loved perfectly ... and yet, there was no doubting the anguish on His face, the agony of His words .. Oh, she knew all the theology they had told her, how it was humanity’s sin and death and pain He was entering into, but still, it was Him, and He was afraid.

Another picture rose up before her. There was no mistaking this one: the hill, shaped like a skull, the three crosses on its summit. And there was no mistaking the words that He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Here, in terrible pain, gripped by the very teeth of Hell, He was in absolute peace. Why?

And then she understood. He knew the Love that held Him, the love that flowed from the Father through the Son to all mankind. He was going home to Love. And so was she. A short pain, a little space, and there would be nothing except Love, perfect love, the Love that casts out fear. On that Love she could rest every thought, every fear. It was God’s love for her, not her love for Him, that was going to bring her home. For it was the very same apostle who had written, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

Saturday, March 13, 2010


She didn’t dare look back, for some reason the old story of Lot’s wife had come to mind, and she was scared of what might happen to herself if she did. Being turned into a pillar of salt seemed ridiculous; but then a year ago she would have said that all the events of the last few months were ridiculous – the River turning to blood, all those insects, frogs, diseases one after the other, the Great Darkness – it was as if the whole world had gone mad! Yes, she was afraid, but this was no time to huddle down and indulge her fears. The orders had come, it was time to go!

And only now was she realising what that actually meant. Leaving slavery sounded wonderful, she hated being a slave. She hated knowing that there was nothing they owned that could not be taken away from them. She hated having her husband taken away for months at a time to work on the latest building project, and coming home every time with new scars and bruises from the overseers’ whips. She hated fearing for her little boys when they were babies, in case pharaoh decided to have another of his periodic slaughters of Hebrew infants. She hated feeling defeated all the time, always being afraid, always anxious not to displease those haughty Egyptians, in case they chose to punish her. Most of all, she hated bringing her children into the world, and watching them grow, knowing that there was nothing she could do to give them a better life. And now, that was exactly what they were being promised, but at what price?

She had never really understood that leaving slavery would have to mean leaving Egypt as well. Of course they had prayed for deliverance, prayers choked with despairing tears, addressed to the strange, barely known God of their forefathers, the invisible God without images, priests or temples (and some, no doubt, had prayed to gods of Egypt as well), but had they really thought about what redemption would look like? Now she realised that the vague idea she’d had in mind was that someone (Pharaoh?) would just declare them free, and they’d go right on living right where they were in Egypt, only in freedom and prosperity. It was disconcerting to have your prayers answered and discover that your whole existence got turned upside down in the process. Apparently the only way to be free of slavery was to be free of Egypt as well. That was confusing. She hated slavery, but Egypt was home, the only home she had ever known. There were stories, of course, of another place, the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land that flowed with milk and honey. But that was a children’s story, surely, and besides, if it did exist, how far away was it? Did this strange God, who did such strange and terrible things, really expect them to walk all the way, with their pregnant women and little children?

And yet, the world was so full of wonder and terror these days, maybe even that might be possible? Who would have thought the Nile itself could be overcome and turned to blood? Who would have thought that a terrifying hailstorm, the sort of weather that didn’t happen in this country, could batter and destroy so much of Egypt and leave her own people untouched? And, if the rumours flying around so fiercely were true, how could the death of the eldest child have visited every Egyptian house in the land, even Pharaoh’s, in a single night, while her own children lived and breathed and played? The only difference was that strange meal, and the even stranger ritual of painting blood on the doorways of their houses, the same houses they were leaving now, never to return. What did it all mean? How was she to make sense of this?

And now she must go. She could hear the people gathering outside, adjusting the bundles they would carry, counting the heads of their children. Where would they sleep tonight? And the night after? And the night after that? What would they eat when these small supplies of food were gone and there were so many hungry mouths? How would they know where to go? And, the question behind all the questions, who was this God who called them from familiar slavery into the unknown desert? What did He demand of them?

Giving up Egypt, that was the first step. Stepping into the desert, saying goodbye to everything known and familiar. Leaving her whole life behind, everything comfortable and familiar, in order to walk into the unknown. And, a further question to ponder as she moved with the crowd,: if she wasn’t to be a slave any more, who was she?

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Ok, this week's exercise was a challenge -- to write something entitled Dragonfly. Not having much interest in writing up a paper on insect biology, this is what I came up with.

I shimmer-skim in bright light quivering slowly,
Clear as the moment’s passion; small desire
Propels without direction, glad day springing
In quick uprush: wings glint in glory-fire.

No plunge, no plan, no yesterday; tomorrow,
Only the vaguest dream. Under the shade,
I dip, I dart, delight in coolness tasting,
Dance on the water, swift and unafraid.

Thus to your truth I come. No hesitation
Here to embrace each moment glittering sweet,
Flitting as fancy takes me, on the surface,
My own reflection constantly to greet.

Never the deeps, lest they should spoil my flying,
Lest I must pause in meeting appetite,
Lower myself, my vanities denying,
Into rich truth, beyond my transient sight.

I would feed on these wisps and flicks of living,
Not to return into the once-fled place;
Never to drink the deeps of your forgiving,
Nor saturate in flowing floods of grace.

I am the less, consumed by my own beauty.
I am the less, by carapace confined
Until I know it’s your light makes me lovely,
Flaunting in brightness, I am deeply blind.