Fr Tom Herbst OFM, late of the Franciscan Study Centre here in Canterbury, chaplain to Kent University, and the sisters at Minster Abbey, friend to many in Kent, friend and contributor to this blog, died this evening in Pilgrims’ Hospice, Margate. Please pray for him and all left behind to mourn and celebrate him. Here is a November blog of his from a few years ago.
It seems to me ironic that the Yuletide feast begins, these days, around the middle of November. Seasons of penitential purple should, in some ways, be hungry affairs; an open reminder that we all stand as beggars at the Lord’s table.
When Jesus fed the five thousand they were, I believe, impressed for two reasons. Obviously the dissolution of the wall, which separates nature from supernature, was something to write home about. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is the very real hunger in that place.
When the Apostle remarked that the multitude had nothing to eat he was, perhaps, saying more than he intended. Certainly the crowd had fasted that day. Many had fasted for their entire lives. Food was a precious commodity in a desert land and no harvest, however bountiful, was proof against starvation. Roman soldiers returning to barracks or out on a foray often simply took everything the people had. And if, by some chance, the strong provider failed? Did anyone ever count the widows and orphans found dead in the roadside ditches of ancient Palestine?
Those listening to Jesus on that long ago day believed that God saw it all. They wanted to believe that God cared. How amazed they must have been when the power of God filled, not only their hearts, but also their bellies. TJH
It is interesting to note that shortly after Jesus commanded His disciples to love their enemies, according to Luke’s account (9:54-55), they asked if they could kill their enemies. They wanted to call down hellfire from heaven on their enemies, as Elijah did. This passage is particularly important for us here in New Mexico . . .
One Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus because He was heading toward Jerusalem where their enemies, the Judeans, lived. When James and John heard this, they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus had just commanded them to practice universal love and creative nonviolence, to love even their enemies, yet here they were—ready to kill their enemies. They preferred the teachings of the prophet Elijah, who called down fire from heaven and killed his enemies.
Luke says simply, “Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village,” (9:55).
Jesus rebuked the disciples because they wanted to call down fire from heaven. He absolutely forbids even the thought of it. He rejects violence of all kinds, including retaliation and warfare. He will not tolerate it among His followers. Jesus wants us to be as nonviolent and loving as He is, come what may. We are not allowed to kill people.
Two thousand years later, here in New Mexico, we not only want to call down hellfire from heaven, but we have also actually built the most destructive weapons in history to do it, and then we used them to kill hundreds of thousands of sisters and brothers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, we have built tens of thousands of more nuclear weapons that can destroy the entire human race. We have surpassed James and John, who wanted to call down hellfire from heaven. We have done this and continue to prepare to do this.
After a hundred years
Nobody knows the place, —
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.
Weeds triumphant ranged,
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.
Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way, —
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.
From Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete, via Kindle.
Two thousand years on, and people know the place of Christ’s agony in the garden, his further agony and death on Calvary; the place of his tomb; they visit them in their thousands every year.
But did Mary Magdalene return to the tomb – or Peter or John – after Easter? Mary took the Lord’s message to the Apostles: they were to take themselves to Galilee, they knew the way. Before long Peter was leading them out to the boats for a fishing expedition. But the winds of summer seas would take most of them far away, to where people were waiting to hear the Good News from the fishers of men and women. No need for the disciples to revisit the empty tomb, but James and his church in Jerusalem surely remembered and marked the spot.
We cannot all hope to visit the Holy Land, but we can go to Mass this Easter time, or slip into the back of any church, acknowledge the ever-present risen Lord, and then … go back home, back to our daily lives, to glorify the Lord by our life. To share the Good News, mostly without words, but living as other Christs in today’s world, letting the Spirit speak through our instinct.
A feast of Sister Johanna’s thoughts during these few days. Today and tomorrow she invites us to sit under the fig tree with Nathaniel. Will he become a disciple of Jesus? And let’s ask ourselves as well, will we follow him?
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, starting with verse thirty-five, John gives us his account of the calling of the disciples. I was pondering this well-known section of the gospel recently, thinking about what it must have been like to be one of those who were called. Their life changed completely, from top to bottom, bottom to top, from the outside in and inside out – all in a matter of minutes. The exact moment of each disciple’s encounter with Jesus, the moment when they realised that following him was the only thing that really mattered, must have been deeply inscribed within their memories. In quiet times, they must have revisited the mysterious occasion, trying to understand its profound effect and meaning.
I notice this time that in John’s gospel, the disciples are excited about Jesus in a way that is less evident in the other gospels. Right from the beginning of their discipleship, they are already talking about Jesus’ identity as saviour. Two of those called immediately tell others that Jesus is the Messiah. Andrew, Peter’s brother, is the first to do so (see John 1:40f). Then Philip makes the same declaration, and tells Nathaniel that they had found ‘him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote.’ And here I begin to slow down.
Something about Nathaniel’s response to this news is absorbing my attention, and I want to explore this feeling. Nathaniel is different. Seemingly, he is not so ready to jump on this Jesus-bandwagon. He is cautious. He points out to Philip that Jesus comes from the lacklustre town of Nazareth. Before we think how silly Nathaniel is being, let’s stop. It can be quite a turn-off to discover that a person everybody is making such a fuss about comes from the kind of place where the only exciting thing that ever happens is… is nothing. The people there are backward. They have no style. They all talk with their own uncultured accent. They’re just losers, we might think. In our day, such a town would probably not be a safe place to live – there’d be gangs, maybe drugs and weapons. “From Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. “Can anything good come from there?” I can think of quite a few places about which I’d be inclined to say that. And that’s where Jesus comes from.
Then John records the conversation that takes place between Nathaniel and Jesus. It is an unusual one. Interpreting it can be difficult. I ask the Holy Spirit to inspire my imagination and then I let my thoughts play with this scene. I first imagine Jesus speaking to Nathaniel in the rather jovial tones we often adopt in social situations when we meet a new person. I hear Jesus now. He’s saying in a friendly voice to Nathaniel – maybe even clapping him lightly on the back – “Nathaniel! An Israelite in whom there is no deception!” They’re smiling. And they are also sizing each other up. As I think about these words, I realise that there is a subtext here in Jesus’ introductory remark. Jesus seems to be telling Nathaniel that he senses his hesitation about him. But that’s not all. Jesus’ words are not words of correction. There is nothing threatening in them. On the contrary, Jesus’ friendliness suggests that he likes the fact that this Israelite will think for himself and will not deceive him by pretending to be impressed just because everyone else happens to be.
What does Nathaniel make of this? I think he’s secretly pleased. He’s been complimented by Jesus of Nazareth – but in an understated way. We are usually quick to notice compliments, even understated ones. Nathaniel is no different. Probably taking up Jesus’ own joking tone, Nathaniel says to him, “How do you know me?” When we receive an unexpected compliment, sometimes we try to deflect it with a little joke. It isn’t that we don’t like praise. We always do – but it can make us feel momentarily bashful, slightly confused. We’re apt to cover this awkwardness with some bravado. “Of course I’m the admirable human being you think I am! How did you happen to find this out about me?” is what Nathaniel’s playful remark suggests to me.
Those of you who have read my posts before know that I’m apt to take time to develop these lectio reflections so that we can enter more deeply into the sacred text by prayer. I think we should stop here for today. As Jesus and Nathaniel are getting to know each other perhaps we can turn to Jesus in prayer as if meeting him for the first time. What have we heard about him? What does he say to us? Are we playful? Or serious? Tomorrow we will return to this reflection.
We found this plaque on the wall of our holiday house, so the Christian roots sink deeper there than at Minster Abbey in Kent, two modern or five ancient realms apart. Ty Gwyn – the White House – is walking distance from Saint David’s Cathedral; a short walk further is his birthplace. We were on holiday rather than pilgrimage, but that was part of the holiday too, even if we took plenty for the journey including changes of clothes, and a meal for the first evening. We did use the local shops after that.
Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey wrote this reflection for us, about the preaching pilgrimage Jesus set up for his disciples. This was David’s way of life as a missionary bishop. As well as preaching, he was known as a healer.
He called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority over all devils and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey; neither staff, nor haversack, nor bread, nor money; and do not have a spare tunic…. . So they set out and went from village to village proclaiming the good news and healing everywhere. Luke 9: 1-4,6.
I’m ashamed to admit that I usually go blank when I read this passage from the Gospel of Luke. But, today I lingered over the words, repeating them over and over gently in my mind, in order to give the Holy Spirit all the time necessary to help me find my way through this text. And before long, things began to happen.
I first noticed the words, ‘He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.’ To proclaim and to heal. Jesus is not a man of words only, but of words and deeds: and here, the deeds are deeds of healing. Deeds of life, therefore. Jesus wanted his disciples not merely to tell, but show that he, Jesus, was a man who could bring about change – change of the most important kind. This, for ordinary people, is vital. And ordinary people, hard workers, carrying a burden of responsibility and of sorrow – these are the ones Jesus was trying to reach.
The Twelve were also given ‘power and authority over all devils’ – well and good, surely. Good for the Twelve. Jesus was commissioning them here, and he knew that Satan would try to undermine their efforts, their confidence, everything. But Jesus doesn’t suggest to the Twelve that they walk up to the ordinary man on the street and announce, ‘I have been given power and authority over all devils’. Imagine it. I rather think that then, as now, the reaction of the man on the street to such an approach would have been one of hasty withdrawal from that apostle, a withdrawal of eye contact, a striding in the opposite direction, and throwing only the quickest of backward glances to make sure that apostle wasn’t following. But the authority to cure diseases was something else. This was something the Twelve could use, and ordinary people would respond to. The Twelve were the primary ones who needed to know that Jesus’ power was greater than Satan’s – but the ordinary people were the ones who needed to see real results. And Jesus is happy to respond to this need.
Jesus isn’t finished with the Twelve yet. He has more instructions – and they are strange ones. First, ‘Take nothing with you for the journey.’ Imagine what it would have been like for the Twelve to hear that. It was probably not possible for them to exchange puzzled glances with each other right then, but they must have wondered incredulously, “Whoever heard of someone being so crazy as to set out on an important journey without packing?” But the subtext here is in words Jesus uses elsewhere, ‘Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ Rely on him. You are going out to do his work. He will provide. The labourer deserves his wages. Jesus, anticipating their questions, perhaps, goes on to make the nature of God’s providence perfectly clear by detailing the things they were not supposed to take:
‘No staff’ to lean on as you walk. Lean on me, he suggests.
‘No haversack.’ Right. He already said ‘take nothing with you.’ No, not even an empty bag to put things in once the gifts start coming. You are not to stockpile.
‘No bread.’ I am the bread of life. You will have food of a different sort to sustain you. Your fathers had manna in the wilderness. You will be fed.
‘No money.’ Why? Because I am your wealth. People long for me more than for money. Offer me to them free of charge. They – or enough, anyway – will fall all over themselves to help you whenever you have a need.
‘No spare tunic.’ No, not even a change of clothes. Some people will welcome you so fully into their lives that they will seem to adopt you. You will be like their son. You will want for nothing.
And now, I place myself for a moment in the sandals of one of the Twelve, imagining myself going on this missionary journey. With nothing. I feel exposed, vulnerable. Very. But only for a moment. Then I remember that this is always a very good thing in the spiritual life. Self-assurance is worth very little in my relationship with Jesus. I think of how it’s been when I have gone off on my own to pursue projects that did not originate in Jesus. Self-assurance, therefore, is not what Jesus wants to inculcate in the Twelve on this, their first missionary endeavour – or in me, ever. He wants us to rely on him utterly – and on ourselves, never.
And off they go. The program was successful beyond their wildest dreams. ‘They went from village to village proclaiming the good news and healing everywhere.’ Everywhere.
Continuing our armchair pilgrimage to Wales: this altar stone is a treasure of Saint David’s Cathedral. Traditionally, Catholics have had, at the centre of altars, a stone containing relics of martyrs. This one, we are told by tradition, was a portable altar stone that could be used to celebrate the Eucharist outdoors or in a private dwelling.
The stone was given to David in Jerusalem. He brought it home to Wales and carried it on his travels around his diocese of Menevia. It is generally known as the Sapphire Stone.
This is a relic on many levels! It is a relic of Saint David himself, a reminder of his devotion to bringing the Eucharist to his flock: the source and summit of the Church’s life. It links the cathedral and visitors to David, founder of the cathedral, patron of Wales. And it links us, through David, to the pre-Islamic Holy Land, to the Apostles and to their Lord and ours.
Whatever your thoughts or feelings about altars or altar stones – and this one must have been well hidden in Reformation times to have survived – the emotional and spiritual resonances of this rather non-descript stone cannot be denied.
My brother has a small business with just a few employees. One of them, a smoker with compromised lungs, phoned him in the early hours of the morning. This man had developed a cough which he was worried might be the Corona Virus and he was self-isolating at home.
What struck my brother most was the palpable fear in the man’s voice and his words: at 2.00 a.m. What thoughts went through his head? There are times when Faith is challenged in the face of death. Here is Sir John Betjeman among the mourners at Aldershot Crematorium.
But no-one seems to know quite what to say
(Friends are so altered by the passing years):
“Well, anyhow, it’s not so cold today”—
And thus we try to dissipate our fears.
‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’:
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.
Betjeman knew doubt and fear: so did Jesus in the Garden:
And they came to a farm called Gethsemane. And he saith to his disciples: Sit you here, while I pray. And he taketh Peter and James and John with him; and he began to fear and to be heavy. And he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch. Mark 14:32-34.
Let us pray that all facing an unlooked-for death may face their end with due courage and may the Angels welcome them into Paradise.
These mariners are all at sea, one of them in great distress, seasick, transfixed by the waves. It puts me in mind of two things: when the apostles were in peril on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them over the water: this is almost a ‘Jesus’ eye view of them as he approaches!
And in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea. And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. And they cried out for fear. And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not.
The second thought that springs to mind is the unfortunate group of people who died in the back of a lorry on their way to what they hoped would be a new life in Britain. These were not hundreds of miles away on the Mediterranean Sea, but in a car park a few miles from London, dying from cold and suffocation, while those who drove by them on the Continent or in England were completely unaware they were there.
Nor we dare forget the thousands in peril on that Mediterranean Sea, crammed into small, unseaworthy boats, hoping to reach Europe and a new life. And the many awaiting their chance to embark on this perilous voyage in North Africa or Turkey or on their way through Africa or Asia, after paying vast sums to people smugglers, human traffickers.
Over the years many migrants have brought great gifts to their host countries; they and their children have settled and become good neighbours. Perhaps you can number immigrants among your ancestors?
Let’s pray that we might have a “Jesus’ eye view” of today’s migrants, as Pope Francis urges us.
And let us pray that the distressed may have an Andrew’s eye view of the Saviour approaching, either to be welcomed to a dignified life in a new land, or opening his arms to lead them eternal life with him, after all their trials here below.
With November slipping into December, it’s time to remember Saint Andrew, Apostle and mariner, missionary and martyr, whose feastday is tomorrow.
We passed through his parish in Dover on our L’Arche Kent Pilgrimage in May. All walkers received a sticker with a fish, designed by Ines, one of the community.
The Parish website tells us:
The ancient Buckland Yew Tree suggests that Christian worship has taken place on the site for many centuries, possibly as long as the Christian message came to these shores.
Yew trees are evergreen, and so have been seen as a symbol of eternal life. Ancient yews are to be found at many of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage, including Coldred, Barfrestone, Patrixbourne, and Saint Mildred’s in Canterbury, which is hollow enough for Abel to hide in! Some yews are reckoned to be older than the church beside them: not the first nor the last pagan sites to be Christened.
The present church dates back to 1180, but the Doomsday Book records the fact that there was already a church on the site by 1086. The church is dedicated to St Andrew, Apostle and Martyr (feast day 30th November). The East window depicts St Andrew kneeling at the side of Our Lord Jesus Christ clutching the church of Buckland in his hands.
The Saint holding the Church: we saw that also at Barfrestone and at Saint Mildred’s in Canterbury: an image of the Communion of Saints we profess in the Creed. ‘Our’ saint, our patron, will pray for us and bring our prayers to God.
So we thank God for the welcome we received at Saint Andrew’s – we did fill a couple of pages in the visitors’ book to say thank you at the time, and left a sticker! And we pray for the parish, especially as they ar given a mission to new families on the old paper mill site.
At the end of the Church’s year we celebrate Christ’s Kingship, and the Gospel reading is either of the last Judgement or the Passion: Luke’s account of the crucifixion or John’s report of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, which Sister Johanna will be talking about this week. A challenging reading, as she states from the start.
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus undergoes a question and answer session with Pontius Pilate that ends with Pilate sentencing Jesus to death (see John 18:1 – 19:30). I must confess that I tend to read this dialogue too quickly because it is always painful. But, I recently read John’s account of the Pilate-Jesus dialogue again, this time more slowly and more prayerfully. I found that the text opened up and some new realisations occurred to me.
I would like to share my findings with you in this week’s posts.
In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, an impasse is quickly reached around the central theme of power. Problems around the theme of power were nothing new to Jesus; they had been rumbling along beside nearly every experience of Jesus’ life and they were addressed in many of his teachings. Yet few – if any – of Jesus’ followers were able to grasp Jesus’ teaching on power and powerlessness. Perhaps we cannot blame them; Jesus asks us to absorb a profound paradox here. He would have us lose our life to find it, be great by being truly small, be powerful by being the most powerless servant of all. This seems to go against our instincts, which lead us to seek self-preservation through control and dominance, even if over only a few people. The apostles themselves were forever getting this wrong, arguing often about who was the greatest. To detail the way the theme of power is present in Jesus’ whole life and in his teachings goes far beyond the scope of these posts, but in looking closely at how the two personalities of Jesus and Pontius Pilate are revealed in their dialogue in John’s gospel, I found that one thread in this complex weave-structure can be examined. As we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King next Sunday, I hope these reflections will shed light on the true power of Jesus, our King.
Pontius Pilate is a well-known name to readers of the New Testament, but as a historical figure little is known about him. What is known is very telling, however. He was the Roman Procurator in Judea from about the year 26 to 36. The Procurator’s job combined several offices: governor, judge, tax collector, and commander of a band of soldiers that functioned a bit like a police force. A lot of power was concentrated in the Procurator. Yet, for this reason, the job was an awkward one.
The Procurator was caught in the middle. He needed to garner support from the Jews in order to please his own authorities in the Roman government. At the same time, he needed to be seen to stand for the official line in order to further his own career – a factor that made it more difficult to please the Jewish community in the area he governed. There is historical evidence that he clashed with both sides and pleased no one. Finally, around the year 36, he was deposed as Procurator of Judea and recalled to Rome.
It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for Pilate in the situation that developed with Jesus and the Jews, and to see him as the harassed middle-man caught in a strange and violent drama that he neither caused nor fully understood. There is certainly an element of that in the story. And perhaps Jesus, too, gave him the benefit of that doubt. But we are looking at something much more profound here. We will begin our exploration tomorrow.
Not the sort of King that Pilate expected: Shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury.