Reflections with Father Peter
When I was at school the terms were called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. Trinity is the current term, a time when Christians celebrate our experience of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It causes a few headaches to children because of the use of metaphor which too often is understood literally. It causes difficulty to modern Christians because although we experience God as Father, as Jesus and as Holy Spirit, the metaphor we use as shorthand was a long time in development. It is important to remember that it took its present form way back in the fourth century AD using ways of thinking central to Greek philosophy but no longer ideas we easily understand.
Since the 4th century the world has changed dramatically. Even thinking of God as the Father, which once resonated with a patriarchal society, causes difficulties for many when the shape of modern families is radically changed and women now have very different roles to play.
So we use a variety of metaphors – some Christians refer to God as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier – God who creates, who saves us from our worst selves, and who also strengthens us in life. So we struggle to express belief in a series of changing metaphors.
Metaphors should not be expected to provide literal physical definitions. In fact we trivialise our faith if we confuse metaphor with literal understanding. Rabbi Benjamin Sylva once put it this way: “A literalist interpretation of Scripture tells us that God is a rock that sent a bird to cause a virgin to give birth ….or Moses obtained a chiselled code of conduct from a flaming shrubbery in a cloud.”
If we recall some of the metaphors in the scriptures we can see why it would be inappropriate to analyse their literal meaning too far. Some metaphors in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, include: a shepherd (the 23rd Psalm), a potter (Isa. 64:8), then in Psalm 18 a rock and fortress . There are the female metaphors. Genesis Ch 3 and Psalm 139 refer to God as a seamstress who “stitches, mends” (Gen. 3:21) and knits (Ps. 139:13,15). In Deuteronomy Ch 32 (and Exodus Ch 19 ) God is presented as an eagle who teaches her young to fly and carries them on her wings, or is God rather the metaphor of mother (Isaiah 42:14; 66:13), ) a mistress (Psalm 123:2), or a mid-wife (Psalm 22:9-10).
Some of the metaphors reappear in the New Testament almost as a way of saying it is the same God acting. The wind and the fire of Pentecost are two standard illustrations to indicate the presence of God or the Spirit in the older scriptures too.
In the New Testament Jesus is the good shepherd, the Lord, the King, the foundation, the mother hen, the True vine, the living bread, the light, the door, the gate, the living water, the morning star and so on.
These metaphors are helpful, not so much because they tell us about the reality of a created universe but because they give us a focus for living our faith. The aim is not so much to find a perfect description of God but rather to focus on how we are prepared to let our understanding of God affect the way of life we want to lead, the people we want to become.
Of anger, loss and hope……………Easter
Late last year I watched the first performance of Cantata Memoria, a musical work composed by Karl Jenkins, broadcast from the Millenium Centre in Cardiff . The cantata commemorated the 50th anniversary of the disaster at Aberfan when the school was swamped by an avalanche of slag from the nearby coal tip. The music ensures the disaster will not be forgotten as it is performed far and wide, receiving its debut in the USA in New York.
The Cantata Memoria sung in both Latin and Welsh takes its basic structure from the ancient Requiem Mass, the mass for the dead. The musical piece interweaves grief and hope. The Latin sings of the dies illa, dies irae – those days of anger. Yet in the Cantata we are not left with the grief we are moved forward to recognise change, and hope.
A requiem mass looks to death but also presupposes resurrection to new life. The Cantata traces this looking back and also looking forward and in doing so speaks to that sense of loss, change and hope which is part of the human soul, the human psyche. The analytical psychologist Jung recognised this part of the human constitution.
In Christianity Lent is the overture to Easter. We are in the school’s Easter term and having entered the forty days of Lent we look forward to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Forty days many Christians now use in preparation for sharing that sense of loss suffered by Jesus’ first disciples when he was arrested and put to death on that Friday long ago. We prepare to move to the celebration of Easter, the resurrection, the return of Jesus to the company of his followers.
Some years ago the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, caused a furore in the tabloid press when he said the resurrection was “more than a juggling trick with bones”. He was right of course. It was much more. It was something which led men who had been fearful and locked away hiding in an upper room after his death to new courage, new enthusiasm to spread his message across the world, across the centuries.
Easter for the Christian Church is one huge performance of a Cantata Memoria as we tell and sing of days of grief and anguish which give way to hope and newly invigorated faith. The trust in God of a truly “Easter People”
The Advent Wreath – a reminder that all life is a time of preparation.
St Cuby’s church, like many churches, will during Advent prominently display an evergreen wreath with five candles throughout the Advent Season. It is a simple countdown mechanism measuring our weeks of preparation for the arrival, the “advent” of Jesus.
Advent is like a month long opportunity to look at our readiness to face life with Christian values. If you like a series of SATS tests, albeit done privately by the individual, on the Christian life we lead. Symbols are very important in the Christian life because they make pictorially vivid things that are hazy if left as ideas swirling in our heads. Just like SATS indicate how well we are educating our children and how far they are engaged in preparation for life.
Our Advent wreath, made of a mixture of evergreens, symbolizes the continuation of life in the middle of our cold, dark northern winter. The wreath will have three purple candles and one pink candle and a larger white candle at its centre. We start the countdown each Sunday from the first Sunday in Advent until Christmas Day. One purple candle is lit during the first week, two in the second week, the pink one in the third week, and the fourth the last week. For us, as Christians, the gradually increasing light symbolizes the approach of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the light of the world. As a school we celebrate the increasing light of knowledge in the children laying the foundations of life here.
As we light each candle week by week we bring to mind the stories of the Jewish - Christian tradition. The first candle represents the prophets of the Old Testament calling people to ethical behaviour, the second candle reminds us of our trust (Faith) in God, the third (pink) candle is the symbol of Joy – the Shepherds’ joy at hearing the good news and Mary’s joy at being chosen by God for a vital role in his plan, and the fourth candle is that of the “Angels” symbolizing our hope for peace in God’s world. The fifth candle (white) in the middle of the wreath is for Christmas Eve or Day symbolizing the arrival of Christ, the light of the world.
In our calendar Advent lasts but four weeks but we know it is just a practice for the whole of life in which we never cease to prepare for the next phase of our lives, each phase but a stepping stone, or another candle in the never ending circle of life.