Meditations

Meditations

These ‘interesting times’ of great disruption and uncertainty provide no shortage of challenge and angst, and the church is by no means immune. However, even with these ongoing troubles we have a great hope that we can turn and cling to. Drawing upon this hope the faculty of Trinity College Theological School will be assembling a series of meditations and reflections, which will be added to each week. We pray that these will draw you closer into the hope which we have received.

On Remaining Together

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

Dr Chris Porter (Thursday 28 May)

The Johannine epistles have a lot to say about group boundaries and who is in and who is out. It is in 1 John that we get the enigmatic and confusing saying that ‘those who went out from us did not belong to us because if they had, they would have remained with us…’ These sort of statements on group boundary markers have often caused significant confusion and hurt in the church, especially when utilised as a means of unilateral exclusion.

Yet there is something profoundly comforting about knowing that we are part of distinct groups, part of something that we can claim membership within. Henri Tajfel saw the great benefit and challenges of group behaviour during the Holocaust and the subsequent slow recovery for the great numbers affected. He saw that we gain a distinct degree of ‘positive social identity’ from identifying with the groups we belong to. In our current era the groups that we belong to—our work, our church, our family—have proven to be greatly needed sources of esteem and identity as we navigate the realities of pandemic society.

However, as the current round of lockdowns start to ease, and people start to emerge from their isolation there are two visible dangers for us. The first comes with the impetus towards individualism that comes with extended personal freedoms, as I have reflected on before. No longer are we restrained to our own environments, but we can now enact our freedoms—sadly sometimes with deadly consequences.

But the second danger comes with the expanded horizons of our new online medium, where the narrow borders of our isolated homes have been erased by the seemingly limitless boundaries of the internet. Online church services allow international members to zoom in and gather where physical borders would not permit it. Indeed, at the risk of being hypocritical, I have enjoyed gathering with overseas churches that I have worshipped in person with in the past. However, in doing so we run the risk of forgetting who we are actually in long term fellowship with and who we are ministering to.

Church members run the risk of not being truly part of any group, but rather floating between amorphous groups with very little sense of us-ness to bind us together. But even further, ministers face the challenge of ministry that is unanchored from distinct fellowship.

While this sort of ministry and fellowship may feel attractive as restrictions are eased the sheen will soon wear off and congregations will start to become unmoored and adrift in a lonely sea of individualism. Instead we should heed John the Elder’s advice and abide with one another in truth and action.

Vultures around the Carcass? Judgment, Blame and Scapegoats

A flock of Vultures on carcass. Photo: Arindam Aditya 2016

The Revd Dr Fergus King (Monday 25 May)

When I worked in Kenya in the 1980s, news circulated from Uganda of a disease which caused healthy young adults to lose weight rapidly and die. At first known as "slim", it would become more formally recognised as HIV/AIDS. At first, there was a temptation, because it affected those whose morality was seen as unacceptable, to describe it as a judgment or punishment, most likely from God. This is problematic. The idea of a loving God whose Son died for humanity sit uneasily with this kind of judgment. So, even does 1 Corinthians 5:5 in which Paul says a malefactor be "handed over to Satan". This is not meant to be a death sentence or excommunication, but expulsion from the community to provoke repentance, not a death-sentence. And that, as 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 then shows, is how it worked. The sinner was forgiven and reconciled. 

In the African context, as elsewhere, the transmission to innocents would bring a change of mind. Subsequently, HIV/AIDS would be dealt with as a pastoral crisis, in which care and love replaced judgment.

Why the history lesson? Well, there are currents ebbing and flowing in today's world which would appear to challenge the wisdom of dealing with illness as a matter of care. Some, and they are not all without influence, seem to be more concerned with issues of blame and judgment. African students are ostracised in China. This spawns a tit for tat reaction. Chinese and Asian folk are ostracised in Australia. Governments (some, at least) seem to be more concerned with blaming each other for the causes, transmission, and thus, blame outsiders for the social and health problems with which they are grappling. Then, it can be other insiders who are blamed: millennials are risking others by not being careful about social distancing: a whole swathe of society, many who have done as asked, disparaged for the actions of a few. There is no end to the human propensity to play blame games and scapegoat. It has affected our species in a depressingly large number of histories and geographies.

So, if we see the shoots of this pernicious weed appearing in the letters page and the op-ed pieces of  those who would just claim to be "telling it as it is", let us not be ashamed to call it what it really is: wrong. It is most often those who “tell it as it is” who cannot produce evidence for their views, found and fuel conspiracy theories, and encourage the poisonous behaviour which follows in its wake. We might describe their behaviour as like that of vultures around a carcass were it not for the fact that vultures are highly misunderstood and perform vital functions in what the Lion King memorably described as the “circle of life”.

As Christians we have seen these phenomena within living memory. We have seen the folly of lumping supposedly moral verdicts with a pandemic (for that is what HIV/AIDS was and is). Are we so blind to history as to repeat its mistakes so quickly?

COVID-19 and the Dilemma of Technology

The Revd Canon Dr Robert Derrenbacker (Thursday 21 May)

In Psalm 135, the Psalmist writes: ‘The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them’ (vv 15-18 [NRSV]).

We might think that the problem of idolatry was a problem for the ancients, with their primitive tendency to worship a statue or a graven image, and not so much a problem for us today. I would argue that this season of Coronavirus reminds us that we – like the early readers of Psalm 135 – are equally prone to making idols, to putting our trust and faith in things and ideas instead of putting our trust in God.

One of the contemporary idols with which we have problems is the idol of Technology, and perhaps no more so than at this moment. We have faith that technology will produce a much-needed vaccine that will ‘save’ us and allow us to return to life as we knew it; we are tempted to think that technologies like Zoom replicate the same experience and the same significance as face-to-face interaction. Both of these assumptions are far from certain and perhaps even somewhat dubious.

And in our idolisation of Technology, we may think that technology, particularly new technologies, bring only benefits. The late philosopher of technology, Neil Postman (d. 2003), argued in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) that ‘[e]very technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that’ (p. 5). Culture, he said, always pays a price for technological change. For every advantage that a new technology brings, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Yes, we should ask ‘What will a new technology do?’ But we also need ask the important question ‘What will a new technology undo?’ As a result, Postman could argue (I think rightly) that ‘the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally. There are, as it were, winners and losers’ (p. 9). Thus, every new technology benefits some and harms others.

Now, don’t get me wrong – like most of us, I benefit from (and sometimes even relish in) technological innovation. But let’s not forget that there are both gains and losses that new technology can bring. Take just one example: Modern antibiotics have a certain technological paradox – yes, antibiotics can rid the body of disease. But they also weaken our immune systems and make medical diagnosis more difficult in ways the pioneers of this technology could not have predicted.

So during this season of Coronavirus, let us remember that Technology is something that brings both gains and losses, or to put it more Biblically, blessings and curses. There are always winners and losers with any technological innovation. As such, let us also resist the temptation to make Technology an idol, trusting it will provide the means for us to interact with each other humanly, or even ‘save’ us from this pandemic. For when our faith shifts away from our trust in God to trust in a thing like Technology, we will become lifeless, as the Psalmist predicts, just like the idols we worship.

Living with new gratitude for the gift of life

Funeral procession of Pamela Bone, St George's Malvern. Photo: The Age 2008

The Revd Dr Colleen O'Reilly (Monday 18 May)

Just when I thought I had the ageing thing nailed, the government intervened. I had been required to retire from parish ministry in 2019 because of my age, and I quietly enjoyed it when people said they couldn’t believe I was that old! But then, COVID-19 turned up and the government told ‘the elderly’, those over 70, to say home because we are in a most vulnerable group. Elderly is not a word I had associated with myself. But, I must admit I had already been thinking about my mortality before the spectre of dying in ICU, succumbing to the ravages of this virus on my aging body, suddenly became real.

I have beaten the ‘three score years and ten’ of biblical long life. I am in good enough health thanks to modern medicine, so why should there not be years yet to come? Please God, there will be. But we know neither the day, nor the hour… I have grandchildren whose lives I want to see unfold. I have another ministry. I have a writing project underway. I have plans for travel and leisure after years of parish ministry seven days a week.  

But this virus has brought us up sharply against the reality that our days are always numbered. We don’t have tomorrow yet. As the psalmist often acknowledges, our lives are fleeting and in God’s hands at every moment. Of course, people don’t want to live with that awareness. Funerals these days often downplay or even deny the sorrow of a life ending. But surely, we who trust our lives to the God ‘who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus’ do well to learn a new sense of mortality. Not a morbid anxiety, but a new gratitude for each new day and a new readiness to be led by the ‘great Shepherd of the sheep’ along a path to transformed life, familiar to him, but as yet unknown to we who must one day follow. 

What will we take?

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation (Mary awaits the Word), 1898

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee (Thursday 14 May)

Like me, I am sure you have all noticed how much more silence there is in these days of isolation and being-at-home. For us city and town dwellers it is more marked than for rural folk. And, as we slowly emerge from home and begin to mix again, perhaps these ‘sounds of silence’ become more apparent as we prepare ourselves for the noisy, congested and busy times to re-commence.

The Christian tradition has always held a place for silence, going right back to the God of the Psalmist who encourages us to ‘be still and know that I am God’ (Ps 46:10) and to Elijah who hears the God speaking on Mt Horeb not in the rock-splitting wind or earthquake or fire, but in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:12).  

The poet T.S. Elliot in his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ asks the question: ‘Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.’ And C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters contrasts the music and silence of heaven with the ‘exultant, ruthless, and virile’ noise of hell.

People around us, even those who long for life to return to ‘normality’, are asking what we have learned from this time and what we need to take from it as we leave it.

We need to take with us something of that silence: that implicit challenge to the way we blanket ourselves in noise and thick air to block out the anxious, tremulous, questing voice which our solitude has asked us to hear.

The land, the sky and the seas have also experienced a time of ‘silence’ that they will regret losing. Pollution has been markedly less, our carbon footprint has been lighter, our air cleaner without planes and petrol. Some have seen their own cityscapes for the first time in years. The earth itself has had its own isolation, freed from our sometimes repressive presence: a time in the wilderness to become again wilderness, to breathe again pure air.

The privations have been hard for us, especially for those who have lost work, those struggling to teach children at home, those whose businesses have faltered or failed. But this time has also been a gift: to recover silence, to move away from the barrage of noise, to regain a sense of ourselves as contemplative beings, open to hear the word: the one word we need above all else to hear. Earth too longs for that healing, purifying word to emerge from the silence.

Let’s not lose the stillness and the silence. Let’s allow this time of fallow to be re-integrated into our everyday lives and into the environment. Let’s not just take up the drumsticks and bang away on the drums to drown out the silence, the fears, the yearnings, the possibilities. We need them even if they sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. The earth needs them. We all need silence in order to hear the word; we need the fallow for the seed to be sown.

Living 'Without God'

Edith Breckwoldt, The Ordeal, 2004

The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay (Monday 11 May)

During the summer of 1944 – 15 months into a 2-year imprisonment that would end in his execution in the Flossenbürg concentration camp – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his best friend that the world had reached its adulthood and that it was time now, even (especially!) for Christians, to live ‘etsi deus non daretur’ – ‘as if there were no God.’

Long misunderstood by both his admirers and his critics, Bonhoeffer’s comment has often been incorrectly interpreted to mean that modern society has no more need of a God-concept, and that the Christian faith – if it is to survive in any meaningful way – must return to the resources of the human spirit for its mission and ministry in the world. 

But this is not what Bonhoeffer said, or meant. 

In his letter to Eberhard Bethge in which this idea was first posed, Bonhoeffer went on to stress that, far from being a capitulation to atheism, when the Christian lives ‘as if there were no God’ she is in fact offering a Christological affirmation of the way in which God chooses to be with us.

‘Before God, and with God, we live without God.’ 

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian faith was rendered infantile and inconsequential, if it relied solely on a God who was nothing other than the omnipotent ‘help of last resort’. For far too long, Christian society, and the church within it, had treated God as though he were an all-powerful Solver of Problems, but one to whom the world might turn only when it had exhausted all its own capacities. God had been relegated to being merely the Deus ex machina of classical Greek theatre. 

Against this, insisted Bonhoeffer, the God of the gospel is with us perpetually, in all of life’s ups and downs – not as the omnipotent Problem-Solver, to be sought when all other solutions have been tried and have failed, but as the One who lives with us in the solidarity of our weakness and aloneness; who lives with us, precisely as a suffering and powerless God. 

‘Only the suffering God can help us.’

What does this have to do with our current coronavirus pandemic? Simply this – that there have been signs recently that, at least in some parts of the Christianized world, God is still perceived in that infantile way so roundly repudiated by Bonhoeffer.  

‘Jesus is my vaccine’ – said one protester in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (20 April 2020).

‘The blood of Jesus will protect this church against this virus’ – declared a Perth-based pastor in mid-March.

Such declarations of divine power may sound triumphantly faithful – but they are exposed in all their hollowness by the tragic fact of a quarter of a million deaths worldwide. 

No, God is not the ‘miracle cure’ for coronavirus, no matter how right it still is to pray for a cure. God is not some sort of Divine Prophylactic, the incantation to whom absolves us of the need to take responsibility for ourselves and others.

Much more potently than that, God is the One who journeys with us through the tragedies and traumas of this pandemic. Far from being a God who appears only in the final scene to solve our problems, while having been embarrassingly absent from us through all our heartaches beforehand, he is, on the contrary, the One who is constantly with us in our heartaches, sharing with us in our powerlessness and sufferings.

That may not be the image of an all-powerful God we might prefer at this time – because precisely in times of pain and anxiety, we tend to want an omnipotent Problem Solver. But that image of God is commended to us by neither history nor Scripture.

Rather, we are encouraged to live ‘before God and with God, without God’ – because the God with whom we live and commune is not only there, victoriously at the end, but is with us right the way through, as well.

Rest amidst the Unrest

Marc Chagall, Tapestry, Ten Commandments

Dr Rachelle Gilmour (Thursday 7 May)

The word Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, comes from a root word meaning “to cease”: it is the cessation of work on the seventh day. One of the justifications for the Sabbath day rest in the Hebrew Bible comes from a creation theology:

“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exod 20:11.

For those who are overworked during this time of COVID-19, working longer shifts in health, food services, or other industries addled with the burden of going online, a whole day’s rest sounds an unrealistic luxury. And yet rest is commanded in the law of the Exodus, because rejuvenation is essential for humans to flourish; to pause in this way is to experience the holy. To cease work is as essential to the community as work itself. The seriousness of this commandment is found in its place alongside other commandments: “do not murder” or “do not steal”. It is my daily prayer that those who are overwhelmed throughout this time with work, will be provided with the means and space for peaceful rest, a Shabbat Shalom.

For others, COVID-19 is experienced as a period of complete cessation. Some have lost their jobs or the activities that kept them busy; whilst others continue to study or work from home – busy, but with the peculiar feeling that every day feels the same. How is it possible to cease on the seventh day when all normality on the other six days has already ceased? Living in isolation is intense emotional and mental work; where is peaceful rest, Shabbat Shalom, in the midst of ongoing, exhausting cessation of normal activities?

Closer examination of other sabbath commandments in the Hebrew Bible may provide some answer.  The other account of the commandments in Deut 5:12-15 is addressed to the heads of a household, “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” But the command doesn’t end there; instead it goes on to list all the workers under the care of the heads of household who also rest, “Your son, your daughter, your male and female slave, your ox and your donkey, your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns.” Central to this commandment is that those under your care are able to rest, for you too “were a slave in the land of Egypt.” The Sabbath command is not simply to rest on the seventh day; the command is to give others rest, those who perhaps need rest more than you.

This principle is made even more explicit in the instructions for Sabbath year for the fields in Exodus 23:10: “six years, the fields should be sown, and on the seventh it lies fallow”. For the good of the field, and your future yield? Perhaps. But the more important reason is stated in v. 11, “that the poor of your people may eat.”

To find sabbath rest, especially for those of us who have already ceased normal activities, may be to give others rest. A phone call to give a friend rest from their loneliness; an offer to take a burden from another; a financial gift to give someone rest from money worries. This too can bring a peaceful Sabbath, Shabbat Shalom.

The Pathway Ahead

The Revd Dr Gary Heard (Monday 4 May)

There is a sign on an Alaskan highway that warns drivers about the limitations facing them ahead. It reads “Choose you rut carefully, as you will be in it for the next 60 miles” reflecting the deep ruts which previous travellers have created on the highway. It is a reminder to us that once we commit ourselves to a particular pathway, we are often stuck in it for longer than we imagined at the outset. The illusion of free choice allows us to think that we can change tack at any moment of our choosing. Life has its own way, however, of carrying us along on the back of decisions and commitments we have made which seem to make the tracks deeper the longer we travel them.

In this time of disruption we are thrown out of those tracks and reminded how comfortable we find ourselves in them, even as we rail against the pressure and limitations they place upon us.

A former director of the Green Bay Packers once observed that “change is inevitable, except from a vending machine”, reminding us that change is unavoidable. Changes are generally experienced in one of two ways: changes which are welcomed, and those which are – at best – unexpected. Some of the changes we might look forward to include graduating from school, starting work, entering new relationships, and the birth of children. When we are younger, birthdays are something we look forward to, with particular milestones greatly anticipated. Unwelcome changes often involve a loss, or a change in long-held plans and dreams.

The reality is that change never comes smoothly, or in ways that we might reasonably expect.

I recall undergoing intense seasons of training as a young basketballer, only to find that aspects of my game seemed to go backwards for a few weeks. The new strength, speed or endurance often meant my sense of timing took time to adjust to meet the new ways my body was now able to function. While it might be tempting to think that the changes were counter-productive, they were in fact preparing my body in new ways, which I had to learn afresh.

It is this uneven and unexpected aspect of change that we are constantly asked to adapt to. Paul talks of the time when “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To do so requires that we learn to adapt to change, some of which is welcome, other aspects unexpected, and others difficult. One cannot grow without change (though not all change is necessarily growth). 

As we are thrown out of our ruts in this time, we need to recognise it as an opportunity for change, guided by reflection on what is important – which can be picked up again when this time is over, and what might need to be set aside and replaced with things we have discovered in this lockdown time. Whatever shape in which change appears, it is an invitation to become all that God has created and redeemed us to be.

Freedom and Love

Dr Scott Kirkland (Thursday 30 April)

One of the things that it is easy to forget while “we” are in isolation is that not all of us are so lucky. Those who have been designated “essential” workers have been out and about, putting themselves in potential danger in order to keep at least a minimum functioning of our normal lives. This is not just our medical workers, but it includes sanitation workers, postal workers, those working in power stations, food delivery, supermarkets, public transit, and childcare.

One of the things this apocalyptic moment is revealing is that it is often those who are paid the least who are the most necessary. We realise the degree of the alienation required—that is, what it is we take for granted—in order to be able to obey the moral and legal obligation to remain at home. Our society doesn’t work because of finance, it doesn’t work because of big multinationals, it doesn’t work because of Netflix, it works because we have a commons which is maintained every day by truly essential workers. Just imagine the complaints if all our rubbish and recycling wasn’t being picked up, or if the postal service wasn’t working.

This provides us with an opportunity to think carefully about what it is to live well together, and about what it means to be free. I want to suggest there are two ways we can think about freedom. In the first way, freedom is a bit like a capacity. We can choose to have a burger or a pizza for lunch, or we can choose to become a doctor or a lawyer (if we are so lucky). Or, as in America, we can “choose” a healthcare plan. Freedom here is something that is consciously available to us as a kind of capacity, or potential. The other way we might think about freedom is as something more like a collective condition. I am free in Australia because I know I don’t have to worry about healthcare, I can go to the doctor. I am free because I don’t have to worry about clean water or electricity. Freedom here is something accomplished together, and it is therefore something that can be lost together.

It is these essential workers who are the basis of our collective freedom, providing us with a common life in which we can enjoy a lack of worry. Of course, we still worry, and freedom is not accomplished. We live in societies founded on exclusions. However, we are seeing in this crisis that freedom is not a matter of the choices we are offered on the market, but of a collective struggle. If we recognise this, maybe we can act differently towards our essential workers.

Let me finish by suggesting that freedom might be thought of a little bit like falling in love. We say we “fall” in love because there is a very real sense in which we don’t choose it. When I fell in love with my wife, I didn’t do so because I chose her or because there were a set of attributes she had that tipped me over the edge into love. Something happens in love, something overtakes us as if from outside. There’s an event. We find that we have fallen into it. Freedom might be thought of as something like this. Not a matter of choice, but something that we fall into together, something that overtakes us as if from outside.

Normal Service Will Be Resumed

The Revd Dr Fergus King (Monday 27 April)

Not “going to church” can make us feel really guilty, especially if we have been brought up that this was something we really ought to do. Religious observance can become a really strong force in our lives and behaviour. Not only that, we can really beat ourselves up for failing to keep such observances.

When Jesus encouraged or, at least, did not stop his disciples from plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26), the reaction from his opponents was scathing: they had broken an important religious observance. But, were they really, and was Jesus leading them astray? Ed P. Sanders has pointed out that most of Jesus’ supposed breaking of Judaic commandments were not really the case, and there were often approved precedents within the Scriptures. This is one such case. Jesus was not encouraging his disciples to break the Law: David’s men eating the bread of the Presence, which properly was only to be eaten by priests (1 Samuel 21:1-6), had set a precedent. Sometimes circumstances overcome observance.

Jesus then goes on to explain exactly that: observances are useful, but necessity may mean that observance be put aside (Mark 2:27). 

We seem to be in a similar position. Necessity, ensuring that the vulnerable are not exposed to a potentially fatal virus, takes precedence over observance (“going to church”).

But this is only temporary: normal service will be resumed. And there are lots of things we can do to sustain our love of God (reading Scripture, prayer, meditation, all those online things you never realised we could attempt, shared phone calls for prayer). Even if we cannot “go to church”, as long as we can be bothered, Sunday mornings (and other times) are still there.

Oh, yes, and let’s not beat ourselves up with unnecessary feelings of guilt. They are an indulgence we should set aside.

Presence and Paraclete

The Revd Dr Chris Porter (Thursday 23 April)

‘But Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ (John 14:5) is Thomas’ anguished cry as Jesus announced his imminent departure from the disciples in that upper room the night before his crucifixion. This sense of confusion and grief at the distance that Thomas is anticipating is just as palpable for us reading the text as it was for the disciples in the first century. Perhaps even more so in our current time of social distancing and self-isolation that highlights John Donne’s 400-year old reflection on social isolation which begins: ‘No man is an island entire of itself…’ This anguish is even more dissonant on this side of Easter, where we normally reflect on the weeks of intermittent presence between the glorious resurrection and the eventual ascension forty days later. In the church calendar this season is normally a time of gathering and ‘are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one “great Sunday”’ (Athanasius, Epis.t fest.; General Norms).

However, perhaps this year we may get a closer understanding of the liminal period that the disciples were in. While the resurrection provided a salve for the disciples’ angst that the crucifixion generated, Jesus’ eventual departure was still imminently approaching. The feasting would turn into fasting. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to Thomas’ cry by reassuring them that through his actions—as the Way, the Truth, and the Life—he provides guidance on the path laid before them to the Father’s house. But Jesus is not deterred from his departure. His departure is required to enable the sending of the Paraclete—the Advocate, the Helper—and unless He departs the Paraclete cannot come (16:7). The Paraclete will come alongside, to dwell within, to ‘help you and be with you forever’ (14:16).

This liminal space between presence and absence has been amplified this year, as we gather virtually and often crave physical presence and relationship. But even here we can be reassured that even as we are physically separate from one another we are still spiritually present through the Paraclete that has been sent amongst us. We may not be able to see the end of this period of social isolation, but we can be reassured that we have one who has gone before us to the end. We know the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Perhaps in this strange Eastertide we can gain a new—stronger—perspective on the need for Jesus’ departure that enables His presence with us.

The Time of Singing Will Come

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 (detail)

Dr Peter Campbell (Monday 20 April)

Times of stress often lead to periods of deep introspection. Lent is already a period set aside by the Church for reflection and thoughtfulness. This is signified by reduced or at least subdued liturgical use of music. The “Gloria” and the “Alleluias” are not sung or said during Eucharist, descants and other flourishes are dispensed with, and in places with more strict observances there would not be any solo instrumental music, the organ being used only to accompany singing.

This is not because we want to stifle joy and praise, but because Lent is a time of preparation. We are keeping back the good wine until the appropriate moment for celebration; we are, in a very literal sense, going without, giving up something in order to focus our minds on what is to come. This delayed gratification will make celebrating the day of Resurrection all the more glorious and wonderful.

The regimen of self-reflection that we are called upon to engage in during this season can take many forms. Abstinence is the most commonly thought of, but this does not extend to doing away with the sacraments or other essential elements of regular worship. In fact, it has been suggested that Lent might actually be a time for taking on something new and positive, rather than giving something up. It is not so much about doing without as doing with purpose; our introspection leads us to try harder to make ourselves a little better.

In Australia, the most serious restrictions from the COVID-19 epidemic have coincided with Lent, deepening our desire to seek answers, to review what is most important and valuable to us and to reflect on the state of the world. We look forward to Easter as we look forward to the renewal of life once the epidemic has passed. The forty days of Lent, then, has parallels to the period of quarantine (literally, forty days) introduced in the fourteenth century to combat the spread of plague. The equivalence is not coincidence: the quarantine period was based on the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, isolated from others and being tempted but not giving in.

So, the music we give up during Lent helps us to focus on the joy that is to come. Many of the Psalms exhort us to sing to the Lord. Psalm 5 asks the Lord to “give heed to my sighing”:

But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice:
Let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them:
Let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.

Yet it is hard to be joyful in such difficult times, with so many across the world so sick and frightened. But we must also remember that Lent is not inherently a time of sadness. The “Gloria in excelsis Deo” may not be sung, but we do still sing the “Gloria Patri” after the Psalms and at the end of the Canticles (even if our choirs and congregations cannot gather together in person). We are not giving up happy music, only moderating the excesses of celebration until the appropriate time. Until that time, we are called, like Jesus in the wild, to reflect on our desire to do better and triumph over temptation and evil. As the Song of Solomon reminds us so poetically, we must live in hope:

For now the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come.

The New Normal

The Revd Dr Colleen O'Reilly (Thursday 16 April)

Staying home is now our new normal. And going to church at home has become the way we belong to the Body of Christ. One of my friends said she rather enjoyed the Easter Vigil in her bedroom slippers! 

Life as we have known it is severely disrupted, and we are all coping as best we can. We had plans to go here or there. We had plans to see people, concerts and plays. We were not expecting to value anew the lives of family and friends as we do now that we are all at risk of a virus we cannot see. We did not expect to be vulnerable ourselves to an illness never before known.

It seems to me the greatest disruption of all was the raising of Jesus. We can assume the disciples believed in the resurrection of the dead and looked forward to it ‘on the last day’. Martha of Bethany hoped this for her dead brother Lazarus. So, when the first day of the week turned out to be a ‘last day’ the disciples’ expectations were challenged, though all was not yet clear. When the women found the tomb empty and were told to tell the others, they had plans to do so. The two on the road to Emmaus planned to go home. The Galilean disciples planned to go fishing. 

The risen Christ broke into all these plans with his presence. Christ’s unexpected presence has the potential to break more fully upon us than anything we plan to make it happen. Perhaps the zooming, the live streaming and pre-recording of services of Holy Week and Easter will be the disruption to our gatherings that have enabled a presence unlike that experienced before.

The anecdotal evidence is that many people, including some who would hesitate to push open the church door, experienced new depths and insights into the meaning of resurrection this year. In the disruption to familiar patterns and plans, God’s love breaks upon us to lead us by another way.

Who knew you could greet the risen One in slippers? Who knew that our collective absence from congregations would be a powerful form of presence to one another, and above all to the risen Christ in whose transformed humanity is found, not merely the disruption of our plans, but the irruption of God’s plans and purposes within us and within our world.

Meditation on Hebrews 2:5-18

Virgin and Child with angels and Sts. George and Theodore, Icon c. 600, Saint Catherine's Monastery

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee (Tuesday 14 April)

Meditation on Hebrews 2:5-18: This passage from Hebrews was the New Testament reading set for morning prayer on the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March, and it seems appropriate not just for the feast day but also for our present context.

Our text is part of a contrast between angels and the Son which will, in turn, lead into a contrast between Moses and the Son. Why angels? Because later rabbinic tradition believed angels were mediators of the covenant on Mt Sinai. Hebrews, in other words, is drawing a distinction between the old and the new covenants: the new building on the old, the new outlined within the structures of the old.

In this context, our author relates Psalm 8 directly to Jesus whose incarnation, death and exaltation are part of its extended meaning. Of course we know Psalm 8 is about creation and the astonishing honour conferred on human beings made in the divine image. But Hebrews sees Christ as the climax of human existence and beatitude in creation, and the source of its transformation in the new age.

In this sense, the Son is the ‘pioneer’ of our salvation: that is, the one who not only goes before us but also creates the path itself and accompanies us on it. In the incarnation Christ shares our ‘flesh and blood’ in order to overcome the fear and, indeed, the reality of death. He enters into our suffering to identify with us in our fragile humanity but also to bring suffering, sin and death definitively to an end.

This is a message for us today, as we live with the coronavirus; as we confront our fear of death, our fears for those we love and our concerns for those who are poor and vulnerable. Jesus has entered into that fearful humanity of ours. He has embraced it. He is with us now in flesh and blood to share our pain and hold out the promise of release from slavery to fear by overcoming sin and death in his own person: in our place, for our sake, on our behalf. He stands before us today, arms outstretched, offering us divine help and guidance and strength and blessing. Today we acknowledge also the faith of his Mother who said yes to the incarnation, despite what it meant for her life.

Sanctifying God's Name

Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836–1904), The Prayer

The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay (Thursday 9 April)

In times of crisis, danger, and fear, the Church has frequently sought solace in Hebrew resources of lament and supplication. The psalter is one such evident resource - but it is not the only one. Rabbinic tradition contains a poignant, and beautiful, prayer for precisely such times - the prayer of Kiddush haShem (sanctification of the Name).

While most frequently associated with prayer and action in times and in the face of martyrdom - not least in the death camps of the Sho’ah - the prayer itself can be, and has been, used in many other types of dire circumstance. As R. Joseph Soleveitchik once put it:

‘Through the Kaddish [the prayer by which the Name is sanctified] we hurl defiance at death and its fiendish conspiracy against humanity. The one who prays declares the following: no matter how powerful death is, no matter how black one’s despair is...we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we are not giving up, that we are not surrendering, that we will carry on the work of our ancestors as if nothing had happened, that we will be satisfied with nothing less than the full realisation of our ultimate goal - the establishment of God’s kingdom.’

Of course, that final establishment of God’s kingdom does not come about by human effort, but by God’s actions. Nevertheless, this prayer reminds us that we are not called to be passive, either. The Kaddish entreats God that

'there be abundant peace from heaven,
and good life,
satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge,
healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement,
relief and salvation,
for us and for all God’s people…’

But the Kaddish equally expects God’s people to be actively engaged in offering those comforts, helps, and succour. We are called, that is, to remind ourselves - and to remind those amongst whom we live - by our acts of faith and tenacity, that there is a fuller reality beyond the bleakness of current circumstances.

Christians, of course, are not Jews – and so it would not do to colonise this holiest of Jewish devotions as though it were naturally our own. And yet, there is within the Kaddish – as well as within all other defiantly faithful acts by which we seek to sanctify God’s Name – a profound truth that we share with our Jewish kinfolk.

And that is this: that together, we hold fast to our belief that, despite and transcending all fear and danger, stands always God’s great and merciful Nevertheless… That his word of abundant love, and not our own circumstances, is always the last word; and that his word is eternally for us, and not against us.

Holding fast to this great truth, whatever our situation may be, is to engage in our own Kiddush haShem – the most sacred of all devotions.

A Lament for Holy Week

Michaelangelo, Christ on the Cross, c. 1541

Dr Rachelle Gilmour (Monday 6 April)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Christ’s last words on the cross in the accounts of Matthew and Mark fuse a tender, intimate address, ‘my God’, with the deep despair of abandonment. The question is not, “have you forsaken me?”; nor is the question directed to a third party, “why has that God forsaken me”; instead the question speaks directly to God, simultaneously trusting and accusing, “you have forsaken me, why is this so?” Paradoxically, the God who has abandoned is also near, able to hear the accusation and the cry of God’s beloved.

Psalm 22, from which Jesus quotes, is a psalm of individual lament from more than 500 years earlier. Although there are no concrete details about the situation causing the psalmist’s despair, some scholars have suggested that it is an illness of some kind, based on the effects on the psalmist’s body in vv. 14-15:

         I am poured out like water,
               and all my bones are out of joint;
         my heart is like wax;
               it is melted within my breast;

The psalm was taken up into the liturgy of ancient Israelites, possibly as a song sung by those with illnesses travelling up to Jerusalem for healing. The psalm continued to be sung, even after the temple was destroyed, and the second temple rebuilt. And Jesus, upon the cross, takes up the words of generations of Israelites who have cried out to the Lord, including many in time of illness.

During this Holy Week, Psalm 22 is the psalm assigned for Good Friday in our lectionary. In this time of extraordinary widespread sickness, unemployment, loneliness, uncertainty and suffering, our churches cannot meet together in one location, but we can cry out together with the psalmist to “my God”. Like Israelites over many generations, we lament and long for the rescue from trouble and praise that comes at the conclusion of the psalm. Yet, we also hear Christ’s cry in this psalm; and in our lament we contemplate the Cross. 

Confidence in Times of Uncertainty

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Scream, 1893

The Revd Dr Gary Heard (Thursday 2 April)

How’s your blood pressure?

COVID-19 is leading to lock-downs the likes of which we have not seen in generations.

The share market is taking everyone on a downward spiral that not even the scariest amusement park ride can emulate.

The economy seems to be seeking refuge in the subsoil.

Not only have spectators been locked out of AFL games, the season has been put on hold at least until the end of May, while almost all professional, amateur and social sport has been cancelled.

And… dare I ask how your toilet paper supplies are holding up?

Fear is a powerful emotion. It has the capacity to destroy rationality, destroying our ability to think clearly and make sensible decisions. In fact, fear is often scarier than reality, as the power of our imaginations is immense.

It is interesting then that the most common command in the Bible – both Testaments – is “Fear Not,” appearing over 200 times. The command is not a “stick your head in the sand” approach, but one which is attached to a promise: “For I am with you,” says the Lord.

Of course, there are pressures upon us that we have not seen before. The unknowns which attach the challenges do raise significant questions for different people. When the disciples (experienced fishermen) began to fear for their lives as waves swamped their boat on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked them, “Where is your faith?”

It is a good question… in what is our trust? When all was said and done, Job reached that point of acceptance and trust: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) Job knew that God’s purposes were good, and therefore could trust God in the midst of his difficulties. Can we?

Of course, this does not rule out the responsibility we have to be sensible in our actions and responses, which is why so many of us are now isolated at home. While we may be physically distanced, let’s work hard to keep connected with one another, to keep our spirits encouraged!

Long-Distance Worship - An Idea From The Rabbis

Torah niche at Dura Dura Europos synagogue

The Revd Dr Fergus King (Monday 30 March)

Over the centuries,  the logistical issues of participating in worship exercised the Jewish ancestors of our faith. Their understanding that accessible Scriptures were needed led to the translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek, so that those unfamiliar with Hebrew might hear the sacred texts. This habit would enter and remain within Christian missional  practice. 

 Worship centred on the Temple was more problematic. It was difficult for Jews who lived far from Jerusalem to attend the feasts of the Calendar. How might they retain faithful observance? Some thought  building other Temples was  an alternative. This was seen in the division of Judah and Israel which  led to the separation of Jewish and Samaritan practice. Others attempted to build Jewish Temples in Egypt at places like Elephantine and Leontopolis. Compared to the Jerusalem Temple, such  places had relatively short lives. The extant Jewish writings tend also to portray them as irregularities. 

 More acceptable was the pattern which emerged within Judaism, and permitted the survival of the Jewish faith without a Temple, after its destruction by the Romans in 70CE. This pattern goes by two names: “spiritualisation” or “sacrificialisation”. It is basically this. Recognising that it was impossible to get to Jerusalem for every festival, and rejecting the possibility of alternative temples, Jews in the Diaspora were of a mind that  gathering together to  read the rituals for any given festival was as good as  getting to the Temple  itself. So, they would meet, read the relevant passages from the Torah, and  so fulfil their  obligations. This practice enabled Judaism to survive and evolve beyond the tragic events of history, and the continuation of devotion to God. 

 Whilst not facing the destruction of a Temple which will be permanent,  we today face a situation when, like the Diaspora Jews of old, we may simply not be able to gather in our accustomed spaces and worship  in our traditional ways. When this is our predicament, we might learn from their example. We might read the texts from our Scriptures which relate to the Eucharist which we are, for the moment, unable to celebrate, and  in so doing have at least some “spiritualised” or “sacrificialised” time for God. 

 We might do worse than read one or more from the following: 

  •  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 
  • Mark 14:12-25 
  • Matthew 26:17-29 
  • Luke 22:7-38 
  • John 6:1-71 
  • John 13:1-17:26 (ironically, the Last Supper with little mention of the Supper) 
  • Hebrews 7:1-10:18 

 As we do so, we might usefully reflect on what we are missing, so that, when we gather again to break the bread, we will do so with a new appreciation and fresh sense of gratitude for what we have loved and missed. 

Eucharist and Absence

Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-1602

Dr Scott Kirkland (Thursday 26 March)

COVID-19 has brought the frailty and vulnerability of the body into sharp relief. Some have suggested that in the wake of COVID-19 we should consider practices such as virtual Eucharists. I would like to suggest we resist that, and think a bit more about what bodily absence might symbolise.

COVID-19 provides occasion to think about the bodily absence of Christ in productive ways. There's something about the absence of the Eucharist which gives way to a realisation that it is always an act of hope, of anticipation. The Eucharist, however, can be something we take for granted, something we don’t miss until it is gone. The absence of the Eucharist is also indicative of the absence of an ability to meet together in, as, and through the body of Christ. That which binds us together as one body is taken away for a time.

Søren Kierkegaard tells a story of a lover watching the beloved disappear on a ship over the horizon. It is in that moment of absence that love is somehow brought to attention. This is more than not knowing what you have until it’s gone, it is a matter of not knowing what we don’t have in the first place. We don’t have Christ, his body has ascended and we await his coming. The Eucharist is an enactment of this hope. 

Love One Another

Paul Klee (1879-1940), The Lamb, 1920

The Revd Dr Chris Porter (Monday 23 March)

In a society which already experiences so much social isolation—that is only exacerbated by social media—the idea of churches being forced to cease to gather together can feel absolutely heart rending. In response some have clung to the encouragement of continuing to meet together in Hebrews 10:25. However, in doing so I fear the encouragement towards love for neighbour in 10:24 may be completely nullified.

Throughout the Gospels we see three commands from Jesus: Love God, Love Neighbour and Love One-another. These three loves derive from one another, an intertwined unity. We are called to love God, which flows out in love for neighbours and each other. Love of neighbour is only possible by loving God. Similarly, we are called to love one another, but we can only do that on the basis of loving God and neighbour. But in the Gospels only one of these would have been novel, the new commandment of John 13:34 – to love one another. In the upper room before the Passover of His passion Jesus is seeking to comfort his disciples in the light of his departure from them. So, in addition to loving God and loving neighbour, He makes explicit what we presume to be implicit: loving one another.

This love for each other is demonstrated by Jesus—as he makes clear in John 15—in laying down His life for His friends. But this is also what he calls his disciples to emulate, to obey his command of loving one another. This is the tension that we do, and should, feel. The tension of wanting to love and encourage each other in gathering together around Word and Sacrament but knowing that this is likely to actually be un-loving for members of our in-Christ family. Knowing that what encourages us in meeting and partaking of the sacraments together may be a source of sickness or a knell for others. Here we can follow Jesus’ command, and lay down our own desires in order that we can lift up each other’s life. Knowing throughout that others are doing the same for us.

Indeed, it is by this self-giving up that we can best love each other. By this self-denial we can uphold others who are vulnerable. By this self-limiting and eschewing our own preferences everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples; … if we have love for one another.