Some would say there is no difference, for when an outlaw becomes a king he remakes the law in his own favour.
But Christ is the king of a higher law, the law of God’s kingdom – and the symbol of this kingdom is a crown of thorns.
From the very beginning, thorns have been a symbol of godlessness.
When Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the ground was cursed such that he would toil to raise edible food among the new-grown thorns.
When the prophets looked for an image for the pagan nations, tempting Israel away from God’s law, Moses, Samuel and Jeremiah all likened them to thorns – and Joshua to thorns in our eyes.
When Jesus spoke of the sower with the good seed of the kingdom, some seed was choked among thorns, representing the cares and attractions of this world.
Now, the pagans, the Romans, have dressed Jesus as a phoney king and placed a crown of thorns upon his brow – perhaps scratching at his very eyes.
These thorns are my sins and transgressions. Each time I choose to turn from God’s Law, I add another barb to his crimson crown.
This king loves you enough to wear the crown. And he promises you a crown in return – a crown of beauty for the ashes of your repentance. Since Ash Wednesday, you have been seeking more intentionally to amend your life – but at some level you will have failed. Fear not! He offers you not a crown in reward for your success, but a crown earned by his victory, his choice to take every last sin of the human race and bear it to Golgotha.
You have been offered transfiguration but been subject to temptation. Jesus has been exalted that you may be purified. To bear the fruit God seeks, you must die to old ways – you must allow Christ to crucify everything within you which is not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. To reign with him, you must share his crown of thorns.
Each Sunday of the year is a celebration of resurrection. This Sunday, uniquely, is a celebration of crucifixion. It is meant to leave us desolate, abandoned with the scattered friends of Jesus. Some preachers might choose to let silence speak at this moment in the Mass. But this year, we need some light in our darkness, some hope in our hardship. It is coming! The veil of the temple, the division between heaven and earth, has been parted. There is a way for our future glory to enter our present reality – can you hear it, the sound of heaven touching earth? – but this is the story for the week ahead.
Today is the Sunday of great contrasts. A crown, not of gold but of thorns. Hosanna! Crucify him! The king of the Jews, executed as a common criminal. The King is dead. Long live the King!
Last month, tens of thousands of people from all over the world tuned in to a webcam at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. A rare ‘moonflower’ was expected to bloom at any moment – and watchers were caught off guard when this happened not during the night, but in broad daylight.
In ancient Jerusalem, people from afar were also looking for a rare attraction – some Greeks arrived, pagans with an interest in Judaism, and declared “We want to see Jesus.” Maybe they were content to have him pointed out to them. Maybe they wanted an interview with him. Perhaps St John was even using “seeing” to mean “believing and understanding”. Whatever it was they wanted, their arrival was a sign: news of Jesus had passed beyond the Jewish nation and was beginning to attract the wider world. When pressed to perform his first miracle at Cana, Our Lord protested that his hour had not yet come; but now, with the nations watching, the hour was indeed at hand.
When a moonflower blossoms, it is a bittersweet occasion. The beautiful and fragrant bloom soon closes again and exudes a putrid odour. Yet this is necessary for the flower to achieve its purpose and give rise to new life. Jesus too needed to alert his supporters that the path ahead would lead through devastating loss before the new life he had promised could be attained, and he too chose an image from the natural world, an image which warned that what was to come was quite different from what had gone before – as different as an ear of wheat is from a tiny grain.
How do you enable a grain of wheat to burst into new life?
Well, first you have to wait for the right time. Winter wheat and spring wheat each have a right time for planting. Jesus waited until he was 30 to begin his public ministry.
Next, the seed needs to be watered. Jesus began his public ministry with baptism.
A seed cannot grow without oxygen. The Holy Spirit, whose name means ‘breath’, descended upon the newly-baptised Christ.
Some seeds need to pass through a trial before they germinate – a forest fire, a cloud of smoke, or rough treatment in the gizzard of some animal. In all cases the seed must break its outer casing and send a root earthwards and a shoot heavenwards. Jesus was roughly crucified, his body laid in the earth and his divine spirit released to enter heaven, after a visit to the holy souls waiting outside the gates.
A seed does not literally die when it is planted – a truly dead seed will not germinate at all – but it suffers the ‘death’ of losing its old identity. We could choose many other examples of creatures which have shed their old identity – caterpillars becoming butterflies, nymphs becoming dragonflies, tadpoles becoming frogs and toads; all point us to the need to grow and change. Yet each of these creatures changes according to the law written in its very being, the DNA which programmes every cell in its body.
“If anyone serves me, that person must follow me.”
Jesus invites us to follow him through death and resurrection. Everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus faces the trial of openness to change: if we are truly to be servants of Jesus, he tests us to see if we are willing to live by his standards even when this is far from convenient for us. This might be a challenge to turn away from some obvious sin – but it might be the challenge to stand up for Jesus and for his church in the face of public criticism.
This week, the Vatican issued a statement explaining why the Catholic Church is unable to offer blessings to same-sex couples. We may find ourselves suddenly challenged to justify why the Church is ‘homophobic’. We live in an age which is not interested in what ‘the Church teaches’ so we need to shift the conversation to ‘what Jesus said’. In fact, Our Lord said nothing directly about same-sex relationships, but did say it was God’s plan, made clear in Genesis, that a husband and wife should form a committed bond with one another. So perhaps the best response to a critic is that the Catholic Church exists to bless what Jesus blessed, and we are only trying to be faithful to Jesus; the same statement said that the Church will gladly bless individuals who seek to be faithful to God’s plan. What the church says to all human beings who experience same-sex attraction – as it does to all other people – is that “You are valued. You are loved by God. You are worthy of God’s blessing.” This response will not satisfy all our critics, but it may encourage them to take a fresh look at who Jesus was and what he taught. Our role is only to hold Jesus up in front of the world – he is the one who will ‘draw all people to himself’.
Recently a Zulu king died and was buried – but in the Zulu culture, they use a word to indicated that he was ‘planted’ in the ground and gathered unto his ancestors.
It is not enough that Jesus died and entered eternal life – I too must be planted. The divine law written in my heart must be allowed to shape my growth. It is not about who I am now, but who I am called to be. What part of my shell must be broken? My pride? My selfishness? My desire to conform to the world around me? My fear of change? After the water of baptism, after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, I must face up to the challenge to change.
Do you want to see Jesus? Do you want to follow him, whatever the cost? He is the one affirmed by the voice of the Father. And Christ himself cries out: “Come to me on the cross! Embrace the tree of life! Drink from the source of eternal salvation! But do this and your life will never be the same again.”
The day and the hour of our own blooming into eternal life is as mysterious as that of the moonflower. But the webcam team were ready. Don’t be caught out. Don’t delay. The day to give God permission to break your shell and begin your transformation is today. Our crosses are veiled because today is not the day to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, we celebrate yours – but only if you are willing to change!
Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!
We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.
Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.
The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.
God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?
For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.
We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.
An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.
God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!
Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”
Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?
But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”
Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!
Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).
Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)
The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years.
I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.
Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.
Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.
As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:
(1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;
(2) As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.
I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.
As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.
Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.
Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.
Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK, the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?
We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.
The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).
That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.
We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!
If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?
“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.
You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.
So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.
St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.
It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.
Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.
Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!
But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!
Making Sunday special is possible.
I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.
I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.
I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!
St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?
It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.
Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.
Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”