Pentecost: from Grand Finale to New Creation

A couple of years ago I was invited to visit Palestinian and Israeli Christians and had the opportunity to visit Nazareth, where a large modern church stands on the traditional site of the annunciation. This beautiful building, the largest church building in the middle east, is enhanced by many modern works of art presented as gifts from around the world. While many different cultures and artistic traditions are represented, the common theme is Mary the mother of Jesus – the story of the incarnation begins with her willingness to carry in her own body the one who will carry the sins of the world for our salvation.

The church has a number of large bronze doors on which are depicted scenes from scripture and one which caught my eye portrays the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is a powerful image which presents the twelve apostles, together with Mary, welcoming the Spirit who is represented both as a descending dove and as flames. GoNaz BA Pentecost Doord’s presence is both powerful and empowering and leads to worship and witness. On a lighter note, the image also reminded me of the finale of a West End musical, with the star at the centre and arms raised!

As an Evangelical, I have sometimes wondered about the Catholic emphasis on Mary and the encounter with this image was no exception. It reminded me that often, in Catholic art and Orthodox iconography, Mary is represented as being present with the disciples when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. It sent me back to my bible to check whether this was ‘just a tradition’ and I found that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and, staying in the upper room, indeed ‘all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). And then the Pentecost story itself begins in Acts 2.1 with ‘they were all together in one place’.

The story of Jesus’ life on earth begins and ends with his mother and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, she has to give permission for God the Holy Spirit to conceive the earthly life of Jesus within her body. This is new life, a new creation made possible by Mary’s ‘Yes’ of courage and trust, as well as the work of the Spirit. At the end, when Jesus is no longer physically present on earth, the same Spirit of God comes to give powerful faith to a group of dispirited disciples and empowers them to witness to Jesus across the world

We too are invited to welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives. Just as Mary’s ‘Yes’ made possible God’s new creation of Jesus within her, so our ‘Yes’ to the Spirit makes possible God’s re-creation of us in the likeness of Jesus. God’s presence in our lives takes on the appearance of Jesus, as the word of love becomes flesh in our lives and actions. Come, Lord, Jesus, come!

In my Head

In my head,
my jogging becomes a run,
bounding over ditches
and crossing the finishing line
well ahead of the field.

In my head,
my waistline diminishes,
I watch only the news on TV
and always work effectively.

In my head,
I think creatively,
wait patiently
and love constantly.

In my head,
I practise relentlessly,
exercise regularly
and pray constantly.

In my heart,
the butterfly flits,
distractions distract
and the compass needle spins.

In my heart,
sloth slides onto the sofa
and tomorrow never comes.

Lord, renew my heart
and direct my thoughts,
through Jesus Christ my Lord – really…

Christopher J Ellis

Opening to God

David G. Benner Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Downers Grove IL, IVP 2010

It was one of those moments of delightful ‘accident’ or serendipity. I was browsing a small bookstall in a retreat centre recently and came across this little book by David G. Benner. It is a book about prayer but it is so much more: it offers practical guidance while also giving psychological insight and glimpses of profound theology.

Benner is a Canadian writer on spirituality with a professional background in clinical psychology and the teaching of spirituality. He argues that prayer is primarily an expression of our relationship with God. It is more than ‘saying prayers’, it is ‘being with the Beloved’, a relationship which spills out into the whole of life and leads to personal transformation. There are many practical suggestions about the ‘how’ of prayer in this book, but the author begins by arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world.

The evangelical roots of this author are in evidence as he shows the importance of Scripture in nourishing the life of prayer.  The traditional method of  lectio divina (spiritual reading) is explained and then its four stages are used as a way of exploring the many dimensions of prayer. So lectio (reading) leads to ‘prayer as attending’, meditatio (meditation) leads to ‘prayer as pondering’, oratio (prayer or speaking) leads to ‘prayer as responding’ and contemplatio (contemplation) leads to ‘prayer as being’.

Along the way, Benner explores the importance of silence, honesty and imagination. He explains clearly such forms of prayer as the examen (the prayerful recollection of the day), the Jesus prayer, pondering art, journaling, conversational prayer and centering  prayer.

A key concern is that prayer should be holistic. In part, this means that, whatever our personality or spiritual tradition, we should broaden the repertoire of our praying. But holistic prayer also means that our prayer activity should move beyond our times of prayer to transform the whole of our lives.

Prayer that is reduced to technique or discipline seriously misses the fact that first and foremost, prayer expresses a relationship between us and God… [for] we are his friends, not his servants (John 15.15)… It is to this friend’s presence in our life and our world that we attune our self when we offer prayers of attending. It is with this friend that we offer prayers of pondering, responding and being. (p150)

This is quite simply the best book on prayer that I have read. It’s first reading will excite and encourage and re-reading will offer rich reflections and practical guidance. On a scale of one to five, I give this book six stars!

You can check our David Benner’s blog and some of his other books at

Eat this book!

…the self is the sovereign text for living, the Bible is neither ignored nor banned; it holds, in fact, an honoured place. But the three-person Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings.

Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading

by Eugene H Peterson (Hodder & Stoughton 2006)

Surveys tell us that bible reading is on the decline in all parts of the Christian community. Eugene Peterson is not only concerned to encourage the reading of the bible, but of reading it on its own terms as God’s word to the reader.

This is the second book  in Peterson’s five-volume series on Spiritual Theology. It’s style clearly indicates Peterson’s approach to Spiritual Theology as being in the form of a conversation rather than  a tightly focused textbook. The material is wide-ranging, illuminative and entertaining. It is a highly personal approach which offers fruitful reading and, as usual for Peterson, a gold mine of quotable quotes.

The book is in three sections. The first offers a theological introduction which includes reflections on, for example, how the reading of scripture can mediate the presence of God, scripture as revelation, the importance of story in an incarnational religion and the connections between bible reading and Christian living.

The second section shares reflections on methodology of spiritual reading. However, while it is structured around the classic four stages of lectio divina, it does not offer a standard explanation of these stages. Instead, it shares a number of fertile reflections about the process of reading and praying. In fact, Peterson diverges from the usual treatment of the fourth stage, contemplation, as a mystical resting in God, by seeing this stage as a working out of the reading and praying scripture in daily living and the forming of a Christ-like life.

In the third section we are treated to some fascinating observations about the process of translating biblical languages into contemporary English – a veritable feast for enthusiastic readers of The Message.

There is, however, an overall thesis to the book – that healthy Christian spirituality requires an appropriate method of regular and meditative scripture reading in order to form Christ-like character and obedient living. This thesis is not developed in a linear way but  conversationally, through a series of reflections which focus on different aspect of spiritual reading and the best way to report this is through a series of quotations or summaries.

Reading scripture isn’t enough. How we read it is vitally important. The title Eat this Book expresses this and is based on the Revelation 10.9-10. Peterson suggests this phrase should be regarded as a key text alongside such injunctions as ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart’, ‘Repent and believe’, ‘Give thanks at all times’ and ‘Follow me’. Why is ‘Eat this book’ so important? Well:

It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative – we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.

The authority of the Bible is derived from the authorial presence of God. This is not an impersonal authority, a collection of facts or truths, it is not a bookish authority like a textbook:

This is revelation, personally revealed – letting us in on something, telling us person to person what it means to live our lives as men and women created in the image of God.

This personal revelation means that the reader should approach scripture as one ready to be addressed by the personal God we meet when we read in the right way. Peterson describes this right reading as ‘participatory reading’. This participation is helped by much of scripture being in the form of ‘story’. After all, story is an incarnational genre. God’s revelation is incarnational – and his presence in our lives is to be incarnational as well. So,

Spiritual  theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in the telling invite: ‘Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-rules world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’…

When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.

Mary Overload?

Hands up those who can remember Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life! As a teenager they had a profound impact on my sense of where God is to be found in the gritty realities of everyday life. From an ecumenical perspective, the prayer ‘Help me to say Yes’ broadened by Protestant understanding of Mary, with its line, ‘God needs my Yes as he needed Mary’s Yes’.

Protestants have often, or even usually, ignored the biblical figure of Mary in reaction to what they see as the excessive claims of medieval and Catholic piety and dogma. They have even muttered such things as ‘Mariolatry’ (often while practising their own ‘bibliolatry’ – but that’s a debate for another day). In contrast, and prompted by Quoist, I have, each year during Advent, preached about Mary as a model of faith, an example to us on how to respond to God’s call – ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.’ I have even meditated upon the charismatic implications of the work of the Holy Spirit conceiving Christ within her.

Yet this week I found myself reaching a kind of Mary overload. Two things came together. First, while on my Italian journey I have been reading each day a few pages of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. It is, I believe, a spiritual classic but even classics are of their time and this isearly Merton and, at times very pre-Vatican II (because, of course, it was). Published in 1949, it is the fruit of the early years of his contemplative monastic journey when he seems to have been ecumenically unaware.Despite this, the book is full of gems – or perhaps I should say ‘seeds’ that encourage the reader to contemplate. But of course it is human, and so mixed.One moment he writes,

… if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth consult not your own imagination but faith. Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form himself in you by His cross. (p96)

Then within a few pages he is talking of Mary’s soul as ‘absolutely full of the most perfect created sanctity’ (p101), and ‘We believe that hers was the most perfect sanctity outside the sanctity of God…’ (p100)  I could quote further, but I expect you get the gist. I started muttering about the Vulgate’s mistranslation ‘full of grace’, about scriptural warrants for such ideas – and then tried to be eirenic and generous.

Coronation of the Virgin by Michele Giambono

The second thing was just the next day. I entered the first room of the Academia art gallery in Venice, with its medieval and early renaissance religious art, and found that nearly all the pieces were of Mary. Now, I’m very happy to spend time in front of pictures of the annunciation (Mary’s Yes) or images of the Virgin and Child (symbolic of incarnation) but when I realized that a third of the works in the room are representations of the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven – well – I had to take the weight off my feet and take stock. The first reaction was emotional and negative – then the reflection began and I tried to enter the world view of these artists and the spirituality that they express and provoke.

Leave aside for the moment the theological qualifications and caveats – I worked my way through them apace. Yes, coronation speaks of hierarchy. Yes, Mary seems to be given a mediatorial role which should only belong to Christ. Yes, there are dogmatic formulations about perpetual virginity and ‘the assumption of BVM’ which Protestants find very problematic…. yes, yes.

Then the closing lines of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine came to mind:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here is a vision of the consummation of all things in which we all have crowns! Is it too big a step to see in the medieval vision of Mary’s coronation a prefiguring of our own destinies where ‘Love [bids] us welcome’ and gives each of us the place of honour. If this interpretation has any merit then the coronation becomes a symbolic representation of Mary’s place as the first Christian – chronologically – and, perhaps, prophetically.

Her Yes makes room for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enable Christ to be born. She is, as eastern Christians say, the Theotokos, the bearer of God. She also stands at the cross while most of the disciples ran away… And, perhaps, in these pictorial representations of her welcome in heaven we see the welcome that awaits all who trust in the child she bore for us and our salvation.

So – back to Merton. No coronation here, he is talking of Mary’s poverty and lowliness as expressed in the Magnificat.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God.

Well, I – we – might still hesitate with some of that, but its central theme is rich. As Paul puts it, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’; or as Kendrick puts it, ‘Our weaknesses become his possibilities’; or, as Merton continues:

This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.

Facing God in Church

After a week’s holiday the blogging continues – as does my Italian Journey page.

The guide book tells me that there are over a hundred churches in Venice – we are talking buildings, of course, for some of them are ‘redundant’ and some are now concert venues for the ‘Venice Experience’ of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in period costume. Two church visits have set me thinking.

Approaching San Marco

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday and I walked to San Marco to worship at solemn (sung) mass in the basilica. I had visited last week as a tourist (in the rain) but now I wanted to return as a worshipper, albeit one who would have to participate in a language where I can manage (badly) a couple of dozen words and then dive for the phrase book.

At first, the body language of the building was an ambivalent presence. I arrived early and had time to look around from my seat before the service began. I thought of the wealth of Venice as a trading city, of plunder from Byzantium and untold inequalities that enabled some to donate so much wealth for civic splendour and personal glory … and perhaps for the glory of God (very similar thoughts that come to me whenever I enter Westminster Abbey).

The shape of the liturgy was familiar so I was able to follow the service of the word and then the familiar movements of the Eucharist. I had a fair idea what the readings were likely to be and so reflected on Acts 2 and John 20. The sung bits were in Latin so I knew them from concerts I have sung over the years and was able to join in – though not vocally  – the choir was beautiful, singing renaissance settings from a gallery high up above the sanctuary (in one of the galleries for which Monteverdi wrote his Vespers of 1610).  The archbishop was kindly and there was a confirmation of some young adults to boot. The sharing of the peace was warm and a good time was had by all.

But what struck me were the mosaics – especially in the domes and the half dome of the apse above the high altar. From my place I could see throughout the service three images of Christ. First there was the crucifix above the screen between chancel and the nave – above and behind the presiding archbishop. Then there was the image of the ascended Christ above the congregation in the Ascension Dome over the crossing. But most striking was the Christ Pantocrator – Christ, Ruler and Sustainer of all – which faces the congregation from the apse above the high altar. It was the continual presiding of the risen Christ – over the cross of crucifixion, over the reading and preaching of the word, over the praise, over the offering and breaking and sharing of bread – Christ over all, in all through all, for all. I didn’t understand many words – but I knew the gist of the service, and I know and am known by the one who holds all things in being and whose name is Love.

What a contrast was the second church. This morning, I was on my way to the supermarket – a circuitous way as all journeys seem to be in Venice. On foot, over stepped bridges, down alleys and around corners. And with the canal equivalent of a back lane on my left, I noticed a small church on my right. Exploring inside revealed a building down at heel architecturally but vibrant with signs of current use and much popular devotion. A head just showed above an open copy of L’Oservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. On my tentative ‘Scusi’ a kindly face appeared above a Franciscan habit and he readily agreed that I could photograph a painting above the main altar that had attracted my attention. Originally a Carmelite convent church, it is now called Ognissanti  – All Saints – and they are very much in evidence in the sixteenth century altar painting which portrays a crowd of saints adoring the Triune God. Perhaps not a great painting, and certainly a very dimly lit architectural setting, but the portrayal of the Trinity is theologically and spiritually powerful.

God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God...

Here is no suggestion of hierarchy, so common in much western art. Rather, here the Son, holding the cross as a sign of his incarnation and sacrificial death, is on an equal level with the Father and the Spirit hovers between them, the bond of love. Dingy and dark, surrounded by peeling walls – but the body language of this little church speaks of lived faith and faithful prayer and, at its heart, the love of the Triune God. So I took my photograph, then sat reflectively, then  knelt prayerfully. Finally, with a ‘Grazie’ to the friar, I went to the supermarket.