Reflections for Lent and Passiontide

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5:30pm Cathedral closes

Reflections for Lent and Passiontide

The Revd Preb Richard Springer

Week one: A Particular Body: Rejecting the devil’s goods

When the Church, the body of Christ, admits to perpetrating the sin of racism wilfully and institutionally, they say, ‘I am in the wilderness’. I am facing the world as it is. They imply that the world as it should be, is yet to come. And God’s people hope in that. Being in the wilderness is not a philosophical phase of a crucifixion narrative. The devil is not a mind game Jesus is playing like a games console trying to get through the levels to win the prizes.

We’ll avoid the power of the Cross if early on the Lenten journey we rule out the reality of the devil, temptation and the wilderness. Admitting that evil is real is not the same as confronting evil. To kill racism is not to celebrate the Resurrection. To kill racism is to firstly meet the devil. We cannot celebrate the Resurrection new life without first thirsting in the desert and then witnessing the reality of his death.

Jesus fasts in the desert.

Who has much of a choice about fasting in the desert? Only those with the means to store up food and transport it around. Who is it that has a choice about facing racism by only consuming webinars and seminars? Jesus’ fast has a physical impact. It is a question of making choices even when resources are depleted. For some that might be giving up wine on a weekday. For others it is choosing God when the desert sands seem to roll on and on. A Black parent I know spent last summer’s lockdown trying to contact her son’s school in order to access the meal vouchers she needed to help feed her teenager. She struggled to get any reply. She did however receive many emails from the school about their name change following the tossing of the Edward Colston statue into Bristolian waters.

Jesus puts himself where his body might break. It’s no surprise the devil shows up. Devilish behaviour always presses on the weakest moment of the vulnerable person. Even here Jesus makes choices. Jesus is the one who is physically vulnerable here. But he is able to reject the goods the devil is offering. These are tempting goods that offer Jesus an escape to scar-free resurrection life. King of the world, with riches and lands. Skip this wilderness and win the universe. This is a temptation for those who unwittingly seek to win the I beat racism race.

Instead, Jesus identifies with those who cannot skip to the end. Those who truly submit before receiving blesséd sustenance. Those who live wilderness life. Who know what it is to traverse the arid red landscape with nothing to drink and yet who have faith in a God that knows them. He comes not as an ally to the least of these but becomes one of the least.

His Body, this Body, if willing to be forged in the exposing heat of the wilderness sun, rejecting devilish temptations, will one day live in the cool bright light of real Resurrection Power.

Week two: Sorrow and Love

As a parish priest, I am blessed, to have a place among a people. One day in the week recently, as I stood behind the altar, as all priests do, as the Agnus Dei was being said by a masked congregation, I broke the consecrated bread. In my hands the sound it made was a crisp sharp snap. Some shards of material fell into the chalice. I could see the bits floating.

One faithful woman I know, when asked about the Sunday Mass said, “to be honest I glaze over it all until the bread is broken.”

The sound of the snap caused me to pause longer than I would normally.

I had broken Him in the presence of the people. Sorrow and love flow mingled down. A public exhaustion and slow asphyxiation. His heaving breath becoming shallow, until three words, ‘It is finished.’ His brown Palestinian body broken.

The weight of the numbers of those who have died at the grasp of Covid-19 in the past twelve months is overwhelming. It has exhausted governments and health services. The pub, cinema and barber are shut. It is public.

In his latest book, Let us dream: The path to a better future, Pope Francis, writes that, “Lockdown opened our eyes to a reality that is so often hidden: the basic needs of the most developed societies are being met by poorly paid migrants.” In the context of the UK, you might specify second and third generation immigrant communities from the Caribbean and parts of Asia and Africa in particular.

Disproportionate numbers of Black and Asian people have been killed by Covid-19. Usually on low wages and on the frontlines some people have to put themselves where their bodies might break. Along with the suffering of elderly people and those with disabilities the plight of the vulnerable is plain to see. It is public.

And yet too many have been wilfully glazed over and are now only waking up to the fact that bodies are breaking and have been breaking. Because they do break. And it is too easy to wilfully glaze over at the suffering of others.

Too many times worthy institutions and well-placed people freeze in the face of the ugly truth. Such persistent inaction is inadequate. The task of the Church is to get on with dying to self-preservation. Not by way of virtue-signalled faux martyrdom. But via a wilderness journey to the Cross. He taught his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering… and be killed.” He placed himself in the hands of those who would break him.

At Holy Communion the broken material that matters is consumed by the people. The power vested in Him is now available to them. It’s not a fleeting institutional, positional and uninspiring power. It’s not a power in the wealth of a church’s accoutrements. It’s a power from a publicly exhausted, asphyxiated Jesus into those who have come to know what it is to identify with that act as salvation itself.

Week three: Handling Power

The story of the cleansing of the temple is found in each of the four Gospels. Jesus goes to the Temple to pray. There he finds systemic corruption masquerading as assistance to worship. Jesus’ response in the Temple is full of prophetic power.

This story takes place in the days before Jesus’ death on the Cross. Yet it is telling that it does not appear in the readings set for worship during Holy Week as we prepare for His death. I wonder what the church is afraid of?

One thing is certain. The body of Christ is not a body among bodies, it is a particular body: His body, the Church. Therefore, the Cross, the Eucharist, and the infestation of racism in church is a bodily challenge to credible witness. His body hangs on the cross, we handle His body, the living bread, at the altar and those things, such as unchecked racism, that corrupts His body are especially egregious.

The mystical language of the ‘word made flesh’ in John’s Gospel tempts the reader to believe His dwelling among us is all mystery with no straightforward ramifications. Jesus’ handling of his power has a physical manifestation. Jesus cannot abide systemic abuse in the house of prayer. He has to powerfully and physically drive it out.

I am fascinated by the reclamation of language that community organisers practice. I have learnt that power is simply the ability to act. This is not a social activist’s motto. It’s the definition in the dictionary. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how often positionally senior leaders say they have ‘no power’ - from politicians, to management and church leaders. What happens here is that power is choosing not to act.

In the face of social injustices this is indefensible. In the body of Christ this is literally incomprehensible. The corruption of the body and any inaction in response – these two cannot abide. People who are Black or People of Colour, these people know this truth very well. An attack on their personhood and bodies becomes a fight for life. There are no choices.

Many Black and People of Colour have learnt that power is not finite; held only by those who would subjugate them. It is in the abused too. Jesus shows that there is power within a body that chooses to act.

His body is accountable because it is right there, acting. He drives out the moneychangers and later that same body hangs on the Cross. This is not salvation of the people by mystery or committee it is salvific death in the presence of the people. Power has never been handled better than that. No wonder we must confess before we consume.

Such power in action is a gift of love.

The Rev’d Dr Martin Luther King Jr teaches, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Week four: Offering Gift

The most golden of Sunday School memory verses is John 3:16, “…that He gave His only Son … (that we might) have eternal life.”

Lent is the liturgical journey toward this gift given. In Holy Week, our liturgies try to support those who face the intensifying truth of what it cost to give the gift of Himself. A once and for all offering.

Christians walk this way. Of rejecting the devil’s goods, being where our bodies might break, handling power with love to finally come to wherever it leads, ready to offer ourselves as gift to others. That readiness must always involve an acceptance of our vulnerabilities. It is not a sign of weakness.

The brilliant theologian, Dr Willie James-Jennings, makes this important point: “Theologically, the problem is not a vulnerable body. The problem has never been a vulnerable body. The problem is the denial of a vulnerable body. And the refusal to honour the vulnerability of the body.”

This is not just vulnerability because of oppression people face due to their poverty, race, gender or sexuality. But as well as this, it is the pretence that operates in those institutional and individual bodies that foolishly believe themselves to be invulnerable.

The threat of Covid-19 and other killing illnesses being categorised by some public figures as an enemy we must ‘fight’ triggered many listening in as a careless misunderstanding of the vulnerability of all bodies. Let alone that beyond a recognition of our collective vulnerability could lie a productive conversation about which bodies to protect, how, when and in what ways.

In terms of race, even people that wish to ultimately be gift to one another can end up in a muddling collusion. Often in the mix is too little reckoning of collective vulnerability in the mutual gift giving venture.

Some who suffer long, hesitate to exercise their own agency and power. This can be understandable – it is risky. This is then translated by the invulnerable pretenders as a problem in the sufferer rather than in the individual and systemic perpetration of the suffering. Supremacist practice does not know how to honour such vulnerability. It is anathema and will be starved of nurture as to lead to neglect. Those incorrectly deemed weak are ignored. All possible gift disappears.

Others who suffer long, believe in the lie of assimilating invulnerability as a goal. This too is an understandable choice. In a supremacist system this might bring temporary relief but never the revelation of lasting gift.

Jesus has no earthly seat of power to offer anyone. Nor does he protest endlessly against them. He dies as a poor, brown-skinned Saviour of the poor and the authorities alike. His eternal gift is recognised in diversity. From Nicodemus to the women at the Cross, the Roman soldier to the belovéd disciple and His Mother.

At the heart of the faith, the gift given highest honour is His body offered up. The problem has never been a vulnerable body.

Prebendary Richard Springer is the Rector of St George-in-the-East, Dean of Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic Ministry for the Stepney Area and Director of the Urban Leadership School at the Centre for Theology and Community.