Monday, 19 February 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 25 February 2018

Simon of Cyrene takes up the Cross and follows Christ … Station 5 in the Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next [25 March 2018] is the Second Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16; Psalm 22: 23-31; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Introduction:

Lent in Ireland has traditionally been a time for making resolutions – resolutions that are often like New Year’s resolutions. We start out well, giving up drinks, or sweets, or smoking or chocolate – at least for the first week or two.

But now that we are into the second week of Lent, I imagine Lenten resolutions are much forgotten already, just like New Year’s resolutions.

How many of us can remember what your New Year’s resolution was this year?

And if we can remember it, have we stuck to it?

How many of us are continuing on the Lenten journey?

How many of us are continuing on the Lenten journey? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Yet, we often start doing things like this, not as spiritual disciplines, but to reshape, remould ourselves in an image and likeness that I or my friends will find more acceptable.

And when we fail, when we go back to our old habits, how often we feel precisely that – that I’m a failure, that I am worth a little less in the eyes of others, that I’m not quite as close to perfection as I thought I might be

And we are constantly reminded in advertising and through the media of the need to be perfect. If only I drove this car, had that new DVD player for home viewings, cooked in that well-stocked kitchen, or drank that tempting new wine or beer, then I would be closer to others seeing me like a perfect Greek god.

Yet the lectionary readings next Sunday are a call to put aside the struggle to conform to outside demands and pressures, and instead to journey in faith with God.

‘Ibrahim/Abraham/Avraham’ by Stephen Raw in the ‘Holy Writ’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral in 2014, bringing together the traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Genesis 17:1-7,15-16

On the First Sunday in Lent [18 February 2018], we heard a story of journey and covenant when we read about Noah, his family, and the journey in the ark that ends with a new covenant not only with Noah, not just with his family, but with all humanity and all creation.

This story the following Sunday is a story about the next major journey in Genesis that ends with a new covenant, not just with Abraham, not just with his family, but with all humanity and all creation.

Abraham’s journey in Genesis is a struggle to better understand God and to discern his place in God’s plan. Along the way, Abraham learns that no one individual has a monopoly on God’s covenant.

A covenant is between two parties, each of whom have benefits and obligations; it is made by both and can be terminated by either.

However, God’s covenant with Abram is different. It is God who makes the covenant (verses 2, 6) and God who and establishes it (verse 7). Most of the obligations rest with God, and most of the benefits are designed for Abram. God promises to make Abram ‘the ancestor of a multitude of nations’ (verse 4), giving him ‘numerous’ descendants (verse 2) and giving him for ever the land of Canaan where he is now an alien (verse 8).

It is not clear how God is to benefit. But Abram has one obligation, to ‘walk before [God] and be blameless’ (verse 1). In return, God will never break the pact (verse 7), and it applies to Abraham and his descendants.

As a sign of this covenant, all males will be circumcised soon after birth, so that they will carry the sign or mark of this covenant as part of their life-long journey, their life-long identity. A man who is born a Jew can never forget that he is born a Jew. As the poet-singer Leonard Cohen sings in his poem/song, ‘First we take Manhattan:’

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens (guided, guided)
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin


Abram becomes Abraham; his change in name is significant (verse 5): the gift of a new name signifies a new relationship, a new status, a new stage in life.

Sarai shares in God’s blessing; she too has a change of name and becomes Sarah (verse 15). She will be blessed with fertility; she too will ‘give rise to nations’ (v. 16) and kings (verse 16).

But Sarai is childless and elderly and has not given Abram an heir. Abraham laughs in disbelief at the idea that Sarah is going to have a son (verse 17). He will be named Isaac, meaning ‘May God laugh in delight.’

Not only will Sarah have a child, but Abraham and Sarah will be the ancestors of a people that shall share in this covenant, and shall be the ancestors of the Messiah.

The story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is deeply woven into the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. We too can laugh with God, for we have been incorporated into a covenantal relationship with God through Christ.

We are to be a people who are peaceful and a blessing to all. We are to be a people who go and a people who find God out in the world. We are a people who have a covenant with God, who see God at work in the world, and who show this to the world.

This story is also a counter-balance to tendencies to overemphasise personal salvation. The story of salvation is not about a personal covenant but about a covenant with a whole family, that expands to a whole people, and that then widens out to the whole of humanity. There are no individual, solo Christians, we are always in partnership with God and with others who are invited into that covenant.

God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah in their old age change the course of history not just for one person, one couple, one family, but for the whole of humanity ... a painting in the Jewish Museum in Krakow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 22: 23-31

This psalm is a prayer for deliverance from illness. The psalmist, who is gravely ill, feels that God has forsaken him. But he offers thanksgiving in the Temple and in this portion of the psalm he comes to the conclusion that God hears the voice of the poor and the hungry (verse 26). God is the God of all people and nations, to the ends of the earth, and the God of the generations to come, a people yet unborn (verse 31).

The Colosseum in Rome … Saint Paul describes Abraham to the Church in Rome as an archetype of faithfulness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Romans 4: 13-25

Earlier in this Epistle (Chapter 2-3), Saint Paul has argued that through the Gospel, it is faith that brings humanity into harmony with God. Now he considers Abraham as an example. At the time, it was believed that God’s blessings came to Abraham because he kept the Law of the Covenant.

Here, however, Saint Paul argues that Abraham was blessed because he believed, because he had faith that he would be the father of a nation and a source of blessing for ‘all ... families’ (Genesis 12: 3). Those who are part of God’s covenant and family are not those who keep the law, but those who have faith in God.

Our relationship with God is founded on faith (verse 16), and on God’s free gift of love or grace. If it was based on law, we would all break the law continually, and find ourselves outside God’s covenant. But it is based on faith, and so Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of us all (verse 17; see Genesis 17: 5).

Sarah becomes the mother of Isaac because of God’s promise and because of this faith. Contrary to expectations, Abraham, who had every reason to doubt that he would become a father, believed because of the hope given by God’s promise, his faith grew stronger as he thanked God for this gift (verse 20), and he found a right relationship with God (verse 22).

For Saint Paul, Abraham is an archetype of faithfulness, but not because of what he did. For Saint Paul, faith is much more than keeping the law – it is about accepting God’s gift, about keeping faith in God’s promise. God loves us because God has created us worthy of God’s love.

We may choose to live life differently, but we can never be perfect. But we can freely receive God’s promise, God’s love, and God’s mercy, and our faith is our response to that promise.

Simon of Cyrene takes up the Cross and follows Christ … Station 5 in the Stations of the Cross in Friars’ graveyard in Gormanston, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 31-38

We have been reading about the journey of Abraham, and the promise that goes with being faithful on that journey. Now Jesus and the disciples are on the journey from Bethsaida to the villages of Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8: 27) in today’s Golan Heights and then a centre of the cult of Pan, from an area inhabited by Jews, by people of the Covenant, to an area that is Greek-speaking and inhabited by many Gentiles.

On the way, some of the disciples reveal that they are not quite sure who Jesus is. Some may think he is another John the Baptist or Elijah, or another prophet. But Peter recognises that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Mark 8: 29), even though he cannot yet know the meaning of this declaration of faith, or the cost of discipleship that it implies.

Jesus then speaks openly about his forthcoming death and resurrection. But Peter, who has just confessed his faith in Christ, now takes him aside to rebuke him, only to be rebuked himself. When Peter impetuously rejects Christ’s teaching, he is told that he is under the influence of the devil: he is relying on human values, not divine ones (verse 33).

Yet, Peter’s reaction is a normal reaction. Who would want to continue on a journey like this, to face a short-term future like this, without knowing the long-term promises, the full promises of God?

Christ then describes true discipleship: first, a disciple must renounce self-centeredness (verse 34) and follow him. Those who are prepared to give even their lives for his sake and for the sake of spreading the good news (verse 35) will find true life. But those who opt for material well-being deny their true selves and lose out (verses 35-37).

There is a cost to discipleship, but the challenge to take up the Cross and follow Christ is open to the crowd, not just to the disciples, is open to Gentiles and not just Jews, is open to all (see verses 34-38).

God in Christ has come to enfold humanity. The cross will not stop the proclamation of the Good News, nor will it keep salvation history from breaking into the cosmos.

So often, in the face of criticism, the Christian response is either to shut down or to retreat to a different understanding of God and Jesus. But Christ tells the people that if they want to follow him on the journey, there is a cost to discipleship.

We are challenged on this Second Sunday in Lent to take up our cross and follow Christ on that journey.

Christianity cannot be reduced to an individual mental or philosophical decision. It is a journey with Christ and with not only the disciples but with the crowd, the many, who are also invited to join that journey.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes between cheap grace and costly grace, and reminds us of the ‘Cost of Discipleship’

Some reflections: the Cost of Discipleship

Saint Mark’s Gospel next Sunday reminds us of our failings in discipleship, in taking up the cross. How often we want God to be a god made in our image and likeness, rather than us being shaped in God’s image and likeness.

And that is how the disciples behave in this Gospel reading. They want Jesus to be a messiah who will meet their expectations. When Jesus starts telling his disciples what sort of demands are being laid on them if they want to be his followers, they react with shock and horror at what he has to say.

They were not expecting a counter-cultural Messiah, a Messiah who would be rejected by the social and religious leaders of the day. They were expecting a lot more than that. And they were hoping that the coming of the Messiah would make things easier and more comfortable rather than more making things more difficult and more demanding.

Peter takes Jesus aside and gives him a good ticking off. After all, who did this Jesus think he was? If he was going to be the Messiah, he had better start behaving like one, like one that had been expected to act … to act with power and command.

When we find we fall short of other people’s expectations, it is often not because of who we are, but because of other people’s expectations – false expectations – of us.

How often have you heard someone say, ‘I’m surprised to hear you say that,’ or ‘That’s not the way I expected you to behave’?

And how often do we do that to God?

How often do we pray to God expecting God to do something? And if we do not get the answer to our prayers, we blame God for not answering me, for not being God in my image and likeness – instead of praying to God and asking to be more in God’s image and likeness?

The beginning of the creation story is that we are made in God’s image and likeness. The beginning of the Gospel stories is that God in Christ took on our image and likeness. Now Lent, in part, is about preparing to accept that in taking on our true image and likeness.

God in Christ totally identifies with us – with all that is difficult in life, with all that is messy and dirty in our lives, with all that is painful and gross in my life – to the point of actually dying in the most messy, dirty, painful and gross way possible.

If Peter knew what was ahead of him, he might have been even stronger in rebuking Christ in this Gospel reading. But the triumph comes not in getting what we want, not in engineering things so that God gives us what we desire and wish for, so that we get a Jesus who does the things we want him to do. The triumph comes in a few weeks’ time, at Easter, in the Resurrection.

True discipleship and true prayer means making God’s priorities my priorities: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the isolated, the marginalised, the victims, the unloved. It that is difficult, nobody said that being a Christian was going to be easy, that being a Christian would not cost anything.

As the German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have put it, being a disciple means having to pay the cost of discipleship. There is no cheap Christianity and there is no cheap grace.

‘Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8: 34) … the Byzantine-style crucifix by Laurence King (1907-1981) in the crypt of Saint Mary le Bow on Cheapside in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: Violet.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Collect:

Almighty God,
you show to those who are in error the light of your truth
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
Grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things
as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Creator of heaven and earth,
we thank you for these holy mysteries
given us by our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which we receive your grace
and are assured of your love,
which is through him now and for ever.

Blessing:

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

God’s covenant with Abraham makes him ‘the ancestor of a multitude of nations’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested hymns:

The hymns suggested for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year B) in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16:

545, Sing of Eve and sing of Adam
323, The God of Abraham praise

Psalm 22: 23-31

581, I, the Lord of sea and sky
8, The Lord is King! lift up your voice
493, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

Romans 4: 13-25

418, Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face
545, Sing of Eve and sing of Adam
244, There is a green hill far away

Mark 8: 31-38

608, Be still and know that I am God
93, I danced in the morning when the world was begun
94, In the name of Jesus
588, Light of the minds that known him
59, New every morning is the love
108, Praise to the Holiest in the height
599, ‘Take up thy cross’, the Saviour said
605, Will you come and follow me

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

An Inter-Faith walking
tour of Limerick

A group from the Diocese of Limerick, Ardfert and Killaloe visits the Jewish Cemetery in Castletroy (Photograph: Joc Sanders, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The mosque in Dooradoyle, the site of former synagogues on Wolfe Tone Street, and the old Jewish cemetery in Castletroy were all visiting points during an Interfaith Walking Tour in Limerick organised as part of the Ministry Training and Education programme in the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert.

A variety of clergy and readers took part in the training day on Monday [12 February 2018].

The group met at the Limerick Islamic Cultural Centre and Mosque at Old Dooradoyle Road, established by local Muslims in Limerick. Jumu’ah (congregational) prayers are performed at this mosque each Friday and members also receive Quran lessons.

The centre is a converted detached, single-storey bungalow on the Dooradoyle Road, across from the Crescent College Comprehensive.

The group then visited places associated with Limerick’s Jewish Community in Limerick, which was once centred on the Wolfe Tone Street area. Although there is no formal Jewish community centre in the Mid-West region today, a number of Jewish families and individuals are living in the area.

Jews began to settle in Limerick in about 1881, and for a period in the 1890s there were two congregations at Nos. 63 and 72 Wolfe Tone Street, then known as Collooney Street.

The working group is introduced to sites associated with the Jewish community in Wolf Tone Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The sites visited included No 18 Wolfe Tone Street, where Limerick’s rabbi lived from 1889, and former Model School where the Jaffe and Stein families were beaten up in 1892, the former synagogue at Hillview on Wolfe Tone Street, and the site of the former Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue at 63 Wolfe Tone Street.

The former synagogue at Hillview on Wolfe Tone Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

From the former Model School on O’Connell Avenue, the group visited the Redemptorist Church at Mount Saint Alphonsus, where Father James Creagh of the Redemptorists preached his violent anti-Semitic sermons in 1904. The boycott that followed caused serious suffering and hardship among the Jews of Limerick.

After lunch in Annacotty, the group visited the Jewish Cemetery in Castletroy which is maintained voluntarily by Limerick Civic Trust. The graves visited include the grave of Limerick’s last rabbi, Simon Gewurtz from Bratislava and the grave of Stuart Clein, who died on 5 March 2012 and who was the last person buried in the cemetery.
At the end of the day, the group also visited Kilmurry, a closed Church of Ireland parish church in the Castletroy area.

The next training day is on Monday 12 March 2018, in the Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on the topic ‘Maintaining a sustaining a life of prayer.’ Two sessions are offered: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The Limerick Islamic Cultural Centre and Mosque is at Old Dooradoyle Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Monday, 12 February 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 18 February 2018

The Triptych of the Baptism of Christ in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next [18 February 2018] is the First Sunday in Lent and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 9-15.

Mark 1: 9-15

9 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἦλθεν Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲτ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη εἰς τὸν Ἰορδάνην ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου. 10 καὶ εὐθὺς ἀναβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον εἰς αὐτόν: 11 καὶ φωνὴ ἐγένετο ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν, Σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.

12 Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον. 13 καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ Σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

14 Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ 15 καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.

Translation (NRSV):

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in an exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Putting the readings in context:

The Gospel reading, in a style so typical of Saint Mark’s Gospel, tells four stories, one immediately after the other, in short, pithy, summarised ways, punctuated with the word καὶ (‘and’): the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan; the 40 days Christ spends in the wilderness; the arrest of Saint John the Baptist, and the beginning of Christ’s ministry in Galilee.

The theme of 40 days in the wilderness makes an obvious connection with the start of the Season of Lent. But first we should ask how the readings connect with the Gospel theme and with Lent too?

How do we put them in context?

Noah and Abraham … a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, shows Noah (left) holding the ark in his arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Genesis 9: 8-17

The Old Testament reading comes immediately after the Flood. The waters have receded, and Noah, his family and the remaining animals have set foot on dry land. Immediately before this reading (Genesis 9: 1-3), God renews the promise made at creation (Genesis 1), and again gives the commands: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’

With this is a warning about the need to show respect for all human life: because humanity is made in the image of God, wilful bloodshed must be accounted for to God (verses 5-6).

God makes a ‘covenant’ (verse 9) with Noah, his sons and ‘every living creature’ (verse 10). Because it is from his sons that ‘the whole earth’ (verse 19) shall be ‘peopled,’ the agreement is between God and all humanity. He will never again destroy humankind (verses 11, 15, 16). This covenant is with all creatures and with ‘the earth’ (verse 13) itself, and it is an ‘everlasting covenant’ (verse 16).

Ancient people imagined a rainbow as a divine warrior’s weapon, his ‘bow’ (verse 13), and that the flashes of lighting were his arrows. But God turns this around and instead makes the bow as a visible sign of the covenant. God’s ‘bow’ is in the clouds, not on earth, showing us that God is no longer angry with humanity.

When the rains come, they will not continue ceaselessly any more but shall end with a rainbow, which is now a sign of hope. The story of the Flood teaches us that God judges the world according to human behaviour, punishes evil, and rescues the worthy.

‘Noah and the Dove’ by Simon Manby in 2006 … a sculpture in the gardens of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Psalm 25: 1-10

The psalmist prays that God will show him his way (verses 4, 8 and 9) and his ‘paths’ (verses 4 and 10). He trusts in God (verse 2), and he hopes that God will deliver him from his personal enemies. May none who trust in God be shamed or be subject to treachery. Instead, those who follow God’s ways will be saved (verse 6).

The psalmist trusts that God will forgive his sins through his mercy and love.He prays that God may remember his present fidelity rather than his youthful deviances (verse 7). God instructs sinners (verse 8), and he leads and teaches the humble and those who respect him (verse 9).

Abel and Enoch in a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall … the story of Enoch is recalled in I Peter 3: 19 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I Peter 3: 18-22

Before this reading, the author writes: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you … Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (verses 15-16). We are called to do more than defend ourselves: we are to respond to any request for an explanation of our ‘hope,’ engage the outsider in conversation, even though this may lead to suffering, for which Christ is the example.

Christ suffered for the sins of us all (verse 18). He is ‘the righteous,’ and he brings us to God. He really died (‘in the flesh’), but he overcame death and rose to new life.

In verses 19-20, the reader is reminded of the story that angelic beings had intercourse with women, and so broke the boundary between heaven and earth (see Genesis 6: 1-4). In late Judaism, people believed that this action provoked the Flood. In I Enoch, an apocryphal book known when this epistle was written, Enoch goes on God’s behalf to tell these beings that they are confined to prison. The story of Enoch is applied to the risen Christ in verse 19, and the ‘spirits in prison’ are these bad angels.

During the building of the ark, God waited patiently for humanity to turn to him, but no-one did (verse 20). The eight people are Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives.

Then in verse 21, we are told how baptism also involves water, but in a different way. Its role is not ritual cleansing (‘removal of dirt’); baptism saves us, putting us in a condition to be found worthy by God at the Last Day (‘appeal’), sharing as we do in Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ has gone to heaven and is in God’s place of honour (on his ‘right hand’, verse 22), and he has angelic beings (‘angels, authorities, and power’) subject to him. God saved people in the past; now he saves us through Baptism.

‘And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (Mark 1: 12) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 1: 9-15

Saint John the Baptist has come, ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (verse 4). Many have taken the opportunity to start new lives in God. Jesus, too, is baptised by Saint John – Saint Mark does not tell us why. The opening of the heavens symbolises the start of a new mode of communication between God and humanity.

The description of the Holy Spirit ‘descending like a dove’ (verse 10) recalls the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation in Genesis 1: 2. For Saint Mark, the ‘voice ... from heaven’ (verse 11) confirms the already existing relationship between God and Christ.

Saint Matthew (Matthew 4: 1-11) and Saint Luke (Luke 4: 1-13) describe Christ’s temptation in the wilderness in detail, but Saint Mark mentions it only briefly.

All three synoptic Gospels say that Christ overcame tempting and enticement by the devil. Satan (verse 13) is the supreme demon whose kingdom is now ending. The forty days (verse 13) recalls Israel’s 40 years in the ‘wilderness.’ But it also echoes the 40 days of testing Moses endured when the covenant was renewed after the golden calf incident (Exodus 34: 28). Elijah also spent 40 days on Mount Sinai (see I Kings 19: 8).

The wilderness was probably the Judaean desert, which was regarded as the home of demons. There too, he was in danger of being attacked by wild beasts, but angels wait on him and protect him.

The word Saint Mark uses in verse 14 for arrest also occurs in the story of Christ’s passion and death. So Saint John’s fate foreshadows the arrest and death of Christ.

Christ then returns to Galilee. His message begins with: ‘The time is fulfilled’ (verse 15). This is the time appointed by God. The decisive time for God’s action has arrived. ‘The kingdom of God has come near’ (verse 15). The final era of history is imminent, and Christ calls people to start a new life in God’s way, to ‘repent, and believe in the good news’ (verse 15). We could say the whole of Saint Mark’s Gospel builds on this verse, and is an explication of it.

Is your Lent going to be an opportunity to be part of the new creation in Christ?

Is your Lent going to be a time to take account of your own hidden temptations?

Is your Lent going to be a time to explore your own wilderness places and to be aware of them?

Is your Lent going to be a time of preparation for the acceptance of the Kingdom of God?

‘Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

An appropriate painting to illustrate our reflections on this Gospel reading as we prepare a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent is the painting Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness (1942), by the English painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

This painting is inspired by a verse in this Gospel reading: ‘And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (Mark 1: 12). It is one a series of beautiful and compelling paintings, Christ in the Wilderness, produced by Spencer between 1939 and 1945, portraying the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness.

Stanley Spencer was one of 11 children, born in in 1891 in Cookham, a small Thames-side village in Berkshire where his grandfather was the village builder. His father William was a professional musician and organist at a nearby church, with a passion for reading and discussing the Bible out loud with his family each evening.

Spencer was in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War I with the field ambulances in Macedonia. It was an experience that had a profound effect on him as an artist, and the memories of war infiltrated his spirit.

Spencer became well known for his paintings depicting Biblical scenes occurring as if in Cookham, the village where he was born and lived much of his life. The best-known of these works must be The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927), which is clearly set in the village and with actual villagers portrayed taking part in Resurrection on Easter morning in the parish churchyard.

In 1938, Spencer moved to London and started working on the Christ in the Wilderness series in his bedsit in Swiss Cottage. In the 1950s, many of the paintings in the series were exhibited in Spencer’s parish church in Cookham. He died of cancer on 14 December 1959.

In this painting, Spencer shows the massive figure of Christ striding through a bleak and desolate land. Yet we can see the promise of resurrection in the figure of Christ.

He was in the wilderness for forty days (Mark 1: 13) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical Colour: Violet.

The canticle Gloria may be omitted in Lent.

Traditionally in Anglicanism, the doxology or Gloria at the end of Canticles and Psalms is also omitted during Lent.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This collect may be said after the Collect of the Day until Easter Eve.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Blessing:

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Suggested hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested for the First Sunday in Lent (Year B) in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Genesis 9: 8-17:

592, O Love that wilt not let me go

Psalm 25: 1-9:

17, Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness
(Treoragh mé, treoragh mé a Thiarna)
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord

I Peter 3: 18-22:

218, And can it be that I should gain
260, Christ is alive! Let Christians sing
257, Christ is the world’s Redeemer
417, He gave his life in selfless love
553, Jesu, lover of my soul
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
229, My God, I love thee; not because
102, Name of all majesty
234, O Love divine, what hast thou done?
214, O Love, how deep, how broad, how high (verses 1-3, 7)
235, O sacred head, sore wounded
177, Once in royal David’s city (verses 1, 2, 5, 6)
439, Once, only once, and once for all
200, The sinless one to Jordan came
244, There is a green hill far away

Mark 1: 9-15:

66, Before the ending of the day (verses 1, 2, 3d)
207, Forty days and forty nights
668, God is our fortress and our rock
324, God, whose almighty word
322, I bind unto myself today (verses 1, 2, 8 and 9)
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
635, Lord, be my guardian and my guide
637, O for a closer walk with God
363, O Lord of heaven and earth and sea
136, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
595, Safe in the shadow of the Lord
197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
200,The sinless one to Jordan came
204, When Jesus came to Jordan