Reflection for Pentecost and the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

”Mortal, can these bones live?“ Ezekiel 37:3.

 ”Stink of death was everywhere. And there, down below, was that beautiful valley full of red poppies…. Here an atmosphere of death and destruction and there, beauty, peace and quiet. I thought: how can these two worlds coexist side by side? But that’s how it was.” Veteran of the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

Today is Pentecost, originally a harvest festival on the fiftieth day after Passover. It also became linked with Moses being given the Law on Mount Sinai when, ‘There were sounds and lightnings…and God descended upon it in fire.’ Exodus 19:16,18. The people ‘saw the voices’ of God, which the rabbis interpreted as being in 70 different languages so that all nations could understand what was being said. Exodus 20:18. This was also linked with the skeletons in Ezekiel’s vision being restored to new life and the coming of the Holy Spirit to those gathered in the upper room with the sound of a rushing, mighty wind, tongues of flame and the ability to speak in other languages as they were filled with the Spirit. Acts 2:1-4. 

Those first followers of Jesus had been through three years of ministry with him, his arrest, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension. What a range of emotions they must have experienced as they now awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit, the power that enabled them to realise that this was not an ending as Jesus left them but a new beginning as they spoke of the Good News which lead to the development of the worldwide Christian church. From bewilderment, death and anguish had come life and hope. Alleluia!

This is also the 80th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Monte Cassino after four months of fighting. Atop the rocky hill above the town of Cassino near Rome was the abbey, the first house of the Benedictine Order established by Benedict himself in the sixth century and for which he developed his Rule which is still in use today. The abbey had been the subject of many attacks over the years and was no longer functioning as a monastery but monks were still there, looking after its many treasures. At the time of the battle, the abbey was wrongly thought to be occupied by German troops and was left in ruins by the Allied attacks although the oldest part containing the tomb of Benedict was spared. Nearly a quarter of a million troops from six continents fought over the abbey, although the monks were able to flee to Rome and preserve many of the treasures. However, civilians sheltering within the abbey were killed, as were about 55,000 Allied soldiers and 20,000 German troops. Around 312,000 Allied and 434,000 German casualties also resulted, leading many to believe that, when victory was claimed at such cost over what was now ruined, it was a pyrrhic victory in what was called ‘The Hardest Fought Battle’ of the Second World War. 

A pyrrhic victory is named after King Pyrrhus whose triumph over the Romans in 279 BC killed so many of his troops that he had to end his campaign. However, despite the bloodshed and destruction at Monte Cassino, a new abbey and community was rebuilt after the war, fulfilling its motto Succisa Virescit  – Cut down, it grows anew. It lives on, functioning on a different basis and now also associated with the battle. 

The first disciples discovered that new life grew from death and destruction, of which Pentecost is a celebration, and the same was true at Monte Cassino and elsewhere. But, with so much death and destruction ongoing in our world today, coexisting with beauty, peace and quiet, we also have difficult choices to make as we face the same question as Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Perhaps the best way of honouring both Pentecost and those who laid down their lives for our freedom is to ensure that, with the power of the Holy Spirit given to us at baptism, we do live – and not just exist.

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Priest Guardian

Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter and Christian Aid Week. 

 “…Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” From Acts 1:6-11.

‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies.’ First line of the hymn by Charles Wesley. 

This week, many people have been looking up to the heavens to glimpse the glory of the Northern Lights, enhanced after a huge geomagnetic Sun storm. They were at their best on Friday night but, although many looked for them again on Saturday, they weren’t so widely visible. The magnificent displays gave a foretaste of the glory of which Wesley wrote, a reminder of Christ’s return at the Second Coming prophesied in the Bible. The power of the storms also meant that electronic communications via satellites might have been affected, just as the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost transformed the lives of those first disciples, energising their mission and the growth of the early church.

That power is available to us today, too, in great and small ways. This is the Seventh Sunday of Easter and also the Sunday after Ascension Day when the Ascension of Jesus is a focus. However, this year’s reflections for Christian Aid highlight Burundi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, where climate change and extreme poverty affect the welfare of many families. One woman, Aline Nibogora, found herself on the streets and separated from her children after domestic abuse ended her marriage, facing a future which could not be planned when each day was simply about survival. However, she was eventually able to attend a Christian Aid training course which then gave access to a small loan which enabled her to grow a few avocados and peanuts. That gave Aline an income which meant that she could eventually buy a bicycle to transport her goods and then find a place to rent so that she had somewhere to live and could have some of her children back. With hard work, teaching and careful planning, she and her family now have hope for the future. 

A few avocados and peanuts made a difference that is perhaps overlooked when shopping – what is purchased and where can make a huge difference to the grower. However, climate change causing droughts, floods and landslides means that many challenges lie ahead for Aline and her family – but a strong community where a neighbour is regarded as part of the family may mean that resources and help can be shared. Perhaps we have much to learn from Aline’s hard work and perseverance as we consider what challenges us today and how we can rise above what threatens to drag us down. The Ascension of Jesus also brings hope as he takes humanity into the heart of heaven and enables us to see the glory in creation that is all around us – whether the Northern Lights are visible or not!

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Priest Guardian.

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – Rogation Sunday.

”Love one another…… I chose you…to bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures.” Jesus, in John 15:9-17

”You weren’t kind. You made that person feel worse than they did when you turned up. Your job is to be kind to these people and do what you can for them. Because in their kind of minute, hour, week, year of need they’re asking you for help. The one thing you can be is kind.” 

London ambulance paramedic, after a patient got upset and left the vehicle. 

Rogation comes from the Latin rogare, meaning to ask, and is the time when God’s blessing was traditionally asked on the sowing of the seed – a good harvest would be a necessity as the winter would otherwise be bleak. The beating of the bounds also took place then, marking the boundaries of the village, praying for protection for it and checking that fences, walls and gates were in good order to keep in the cattle and livestock. In bygone days and without the cheap imports and pesticides available nowadays, people were dependent on their land and its yield. The extensive recent floods and bad weather have meant that, in some areas today, crops can’t yet be sown or have rotted as the ground is still too wet. With parts of Europe in a similar position, and the war affecting Ukrainian supplies, potatoes, root vegetables and grain are already being affected as cheap alternatives are not so available. A new awareness may result, with respect for use of the land, rivers and seas in the spotlight due to recent pollution levels in the Thames being an issue in the Boat Race and water companies.  

Rogationtide still has significance, especially in rural areas, and a Procession is usually held at St Melangell’s. On one occasion, we were in the churchyard, considering the ancient yews that are thought to be at least two thousand years old and I was very surprised when a head poked out of a large hole in the trunk and asked, “What are you doing here?” “More to the point, what are you doing there?” I replied – every part of the yew Taxus Baccata is poisonous, except the aril or berry which contains the most toxic part: the seed. I was concerned for her welfare, but she replied cheerily, “Don’t mind me – I’m just a witch come to find wood for my wand.” You never know who’s here!

In the Dark Ages, it was sometimes suggested that, where there’s a church, the devil would set up a chapel on the North or dark side and might be attracted to the red arils which could kill him. Sadly, any news bulletin shows that the power of evil is alive in our world today just as it was then but then, if a death was caused by anything infectious, the grave would be lined with yew in the hope that it would kill any spores and protect those who visited it. That has now been harnessed by scientists and pharmacists in the development of Taxol and Tamoxifen for the treatment of cancer in chemotherapy – those Dark Ages still bring enlightenment for which many have reason to be thankful.

Perhaps there are experiences in our backgrounds and relationships that are toxic and could poison goodwill if allowed to or be used to enable healing instead? Like that harassed London paramedic, as we battle wrongdoing the many demands made of us may mean that love and kindness do not always prevail. In the Gospel today, Jesus commands his followers to bear much fruit – this Rogationtide, what sorts of seeds are being sown in our lives and what yield of fruit is likely to result?

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Priest Guardian.

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – the Vine and Co-op Live.

”Abide in me as I abide in you…. I am the vine, you are the branches.” 

Jesus in John 15:1-8.

Peter Kay ”is hoping to eventually perform at Europe’s biggest new arena*”….“*if they actually open the place”. His media post after problems with the Co-op Live Arena. 

The image of the vine is the last of the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus and was shared with his followers at the Last Supper after Judas had left to betray him. This happened in the Gospel according to John, after Jesus had said that he would be leaving them (14:2) and the image of the vine tended by the vinedresser is a fruitful image for the bewildered disciples to cling on to like its tendrils. 

Vine dressing involves very much more than just pruning it. Left untended, vines can put on so much growth that the leaves and woody stems become prolific and the sap is taken up by them rather than producing grapes. They will also run along the ground and become covered in dirt and weeds, whereas the vinedresser will prune them to ensure the fruitfulness of the vine and then raise them up and train the stems so that they will be healthy and produce a good crop. The image of the vine, the vinedresser and the sap is powerfully Trinitarian but Jesus also tells his followers that they are the branches producing the fruit – and pruning is necessary to grow the best grapes so that what remains will become more fruitful.

The key to this is the word ‘abide’, which Jesus uses 11 times in this reading – those branches which abide and remain in the vine will produce a better yield. That stems from the care and skill of the vinedresser as well as the quality of the vine and good pruning and, when the difficulties and challenges of life are encountered, it’s sometimes tempting to think that they are preventing our growth rather than enabling it later on. The continuing cost of living crisis means that cutting back costs and resources can be counter-productive – but can also enable us to cling on to what we have, be thankful for it and use it well.

In the news this week has been the Co-op Live arena in Manchester, where its chief executive has not been able to abide the criticism of its organisation and has been cut off from further involvement with it. At a test run, escalators weren’t working, toilet rolls and hand-driers had not been installed and various safety features had not been completed. That’s perhaps not surprising in a venue that will seat over 20,000 people and contain 32 bars, lounges and restaurants but, after 22 people were killed and over 500 injured by terrorism at a concert in the Manchester Arena in 2017, safety must come first. The regulations are very complicated but the fruits of the builders’ labours as skills dovetail and the venue is readied will be clear to see when the time is right, whatever the calendar dictates. 

The same is so for the vine, the harvest of which is also dependent on other factors such as the weather and location – perseverance and co-operation are key to abiding in the hope of eventually being fruitful, whether for buildings or vineyards. Would Peter Kay agree?!

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday.

”The gatekeeper opens the gate…and the sheep follow him because they hear his voice…. I am the good shepherd.” Jesus, in today’s Gospel John 10:1-11. 

“Jack! Here! Jack! Jack!” The priest Guardian last Sunday.

The set Gospel reading is the reason today’s called Good Shepherd Sunday and my view of it has changed since I took in a sheepdog called Jack a year ago. A border collie, Jack had lived outside on a farm for three years but was no longer required and coming into domesticity was quite a challenge for him – and me!  He has a lovely nature but, recently, has begun to take interest in my neighbour’s pet sheep, Lambie, trying to round her up as is his instinct. She doesn’t want this and the problem is usually solved by having him on his lead when she’s nearby. Last Sunday, however, he slipped away after the service and I didn’t realise this until I saw some of the congregation trying to stop him getting close to Lambie. I was told that, if I called Jack, he might respond to my voice. Not a chance! He was so intent on Lambie that he couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to me and, in the end, it took three people to stop him as, by then, he was circling the yew tree as well as the ewe beneath it and trying to round us all up. Clearly, Jack and I both need to do more training together to learn how to do what’s sometimes demanded of us.

Of all the work Jesus could have chosen, describing himself as a shepherd is significant because the good shepherd cares for the flock and will lay down their life for the sheep if necessary – as did Jesus. This also became painfully true on 12th April when Benjamin Achimir, an Israeli shepherd boy aged 14, was shot and killed as he took his flock to graze in the occupied West Bank near Ramallah. The sheep found their way back home without him.  

Is the same true of us? In times of crisis, are we able to find our way without Jesus our shepherd? David, who wrote in Psalm 23 that, “The Lord is my shepherd” was a shepherd boy and harpist who eventually became the third King of Judah but sometimes lost his way. As a young lad, he was a hero for killing the giant Goliath with his sling but was later also an adulterer with Bathsheba, having arranged for her husband Uriah to be murdered in battle. He seems an unlikely shepherd of his people and did not always listen to God’s voice but nevertheless remained King, although depression took its toll of him. Perhaps because of it all, the psalms he wrote are some of the most beautiful prayers to be found and often very helpful when the going is hard.

Perhaps we find ourselves prone to sadness about how things are in the world or are unable to hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd in the cacophony of violence and babble that can so easily drown it out. But if David can serve God despite his faults, so can we – though, like Jack and his new(ish) owner, we may need to listen and respond to his voice more than we do!

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, priest Guardian.

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter

”Touch me and see.” Jesus, in today’s Gospel Luke 24:36-48.

“Touch me – let me feel that it’s real!” Haddy, successful quarter finalist in ‘MasterChef’.

Today’s Gospel is similar to John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples hiding away in the upper room but there are some significant differences. Luke’s version follows the story of the road to Emmaus where Jesus is recognised in the breaking of bread but then leaves the two travellers with whom he’s been talking and explaining the scriptures. They return to Jerusalem despite it being late and then find the disciples and their companions gathered together without Luke suggesting that the doors are locked as in John’s Gospel. When Jesus then appears, they are afraid and think it must be a ghost so, although he shows them the wounds in his hands and feet, a piece of broiled fish is given to Jesus to eat, which proves to them he’s real. 

Luke says that the disciples were disbelieving and wondering as well as joyful when he comes to them but Jesus then helps them understand the scriptures about the resurrection although he doesn’t breathe upon them the Holy Spirit, for which the disciples are told they must wait. In John, that happens straight away but in Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, it doesn’t occur until Pentecost. However, after he has spoken and eaten with them on the day of resurrection, Luke writes that Jesus takes his followers to Bethany and is taken up into heaven even as he’s blessing them, having first told them that they are witnesses to what has happened. Through what Luke, John and others have written and done, despite the differences in their accounts, that witness has come down the years to us and we, too, are called to be witnesses of these things to those who don’t know of them. 

With over thirty wars ongoing and so much violence, hatred and division in the world, it’s easy to allow it all to eclipse the good news of the resurrection that is also part of life today. As we face our own doubts and fears, we can also encounter the risen Christ amongst us, bringing peace and offering new understanding of what the scriptures and his resurrection mean for us in our time. At communion we, too, can eat with him and find the Spirit’s enlightenment and power enabling us to explore what it means to live with repentance and the forgiveness of sins. 

Jesus invited his followers to see for themselves the wounds he still embodied from what had been done to him and to touch him – his scars from what he’s experienced remain as do ours, whether physical or psychological. Yet Jesus’ first words are of peace with the invitation to see and touch him and, like those first disciples, perhaps we are disbelieving or wondering about the reality of his presence with us. But the peace he brings means that there are times when we may find ourselves also touched or in touch with others as love finds a new way of being and we, too, are surprised by joy. Like Haddy in MasterChef, there are times when we have to pinch ourselves to believe that what’s happening is real. But for it to be so, we have to allow ourselves to draw near to the risen Christ and to let him draw near to us. That’s not easy sometimes but as those first followers were commissioned as witnesses, so are we – peace be with you! 

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter, Low Sunday

‘Jesus said to Thomas….. “Do not doubt but believe.” 

Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God.” From John 20:19-end, today’s Gospel.

‘So what’s the truth about those conspiracy theories?’ Daily Mail headline, 13.3.24.

There has been much recent speculation about the health and circumstances of the Princess of Wales, following her major abdominal surgery, and conspiracy theories abound. These range from suggestions that her marriage is in trouble because she appeared without her wedding ring in the photoshopped picture issued for Mothering Sunday to rumours that she has left the country to have cosmetic surgery that’s gone wrong and that the person in the video of her at the Windsor farm shop is a body double. Rings sometimes become loose after surgery and it could be argued that much speculation could have been avoided had they simply been put back on Kate’s wedding finger for the photo but the Princess’s video about her cancer diagnosis has put an end to much of the gossip about her. Some commentators have apologised and others not but, for now, the Wales family is having a time of relative peace after so much turmoil and they, as well as the King, are in the prayers of many. 

Conspiracy theories surrounded the death of Jesus, too. These ranged from rumours that he wasn’t dead and revived in the cool tomb to suggestions that the disciples had stolen his body to make the resurrection seem true. Many others possibilities were circulated too and it’s understandable that belief in his astounding resurrection was so hard to accept. For crucifixion is a messy, dirty, chaotic business involving a bloodied body after scourging, weakened after carrying the weight of the crossbeam. Some prisoners died during the flogging, others endured for some time the excruciating pain from the nails and inability to breathe as their lungs filled with secretions affecting the heart. With the betrayal by Judas, the psychological anguish of being abandoned by his followers who fled and the piercing of the spear to ascertain his death, is it any wonder that rumours of Jesus alive were hard to accept and conspiracy theories abounded?

Into this background is added the mess and chaos of our day – those whose bodies were bloodied in the Moscow concert hall as were those of the terrorists who were caught and tortured afterwards; the seven staff killed whilst working for the World Central Kitchen who were betrayed by alleged misidentification whilst trying to bring humanitarian aid to those desperately in need of it in Gaza; those who have been abandoned, as in the Post Office scandal where reputations were lost as well as homes and livelihoods. As Pilate asked, “What is truth?” and washed his hands of the whole business, so it seems that the Post Office personnel and lawyers – one of them a priest – also abandoned the facts of the use of the Horizon software, making truth a casualty and prosecutions then resulting when there was no basis for them. With so many other issues and institutions such as the water companies giving cause for concern, there is much to make us fearful, like those first disciples who were so afraid and locked themselves away.

And yet, into it all Jesus appeared, despite the locked doors and fearfulness. Into it all, he brought peace not recrimination, despite being identified through the wounds he carried in his risen body. Into it all Jesus breathed the power of the Holy Spirit that changed lives, redeemed wrongdoing and brought fresh hope to his followers. He still appears today, too, and brings this hope when we choose to listen to him in the locked places of our hearts, lives and communities. Like Doubting Thomas, a brave man who refused to believe without seeing for himself, we may require proof – perhaps the greatest of which is the transformation of a group of scared individuals into unlikely evangelists who took the Good News into the world and whose legacy is still evident today despite the challenges it faces. In our day, will we allow doubt and events to conspire against faith or might we follow the advice of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, ‘Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.’ Who knows where that might lead and what might happen if we did? For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song! 

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.

Reflection for Palm Sunday

‘Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” John 12: 12,13. 

”Fling wide gates! He waits, the Saviour waits….Then on to the end, my God and my Friend.” From ‘Procession to Calvary’ in Stainer’s Oratorio ‘The Crucifixion.’

As a child, I remember singing this chorus from Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ with its striking description of Jesus as both God and Friend. The stirring music helped me to see Jesus in my mind’s eye as he entered Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, riding on a colt and accompanied by cheering crowds throwing cloaks and palm branches onto the ground for the donkey to walk on. That Gate in the East of the city is noted in scriptures such as Ezekiel 43:1 as the one through which the Messiah will enter and it was later sealed as Ezekiel 44:1,2 had prophesied. Actual palm branches from the Holy Land were bought by my parents when the vicar decided to discard them and their many thin and desiccated leaves, from which the traditional palm crosses are made, helped me to realise what a dry and arid place Jerusalem must have been.

Today, another city is dominating the headlines as at least 137 people have been killed and more than 200 injured by terrorists at the Crocus Concert Hall on the outskirts of Moscow. A rock concert had been sold out and those present were gunned down at random with the hall then being set ablaze. As many tried to flee, some of the exits were locked and unusable so refuge had to be sought in the basement until the security forces arrived. Jesus, a man wanted by the authorities and whose life was endangered, was free to come and go through the city gates but these citizens in peril were unable to move freely even though the authorities had been warned by American diplomats of a possible terrorist attack a fortnight earlier. It was suggested that large public gatherings such as concerts should be avoided – was this information passed on? Did the concert goers know of the possible danger, were they unaware of it or did they choose to ignore it? 

It was alleged that President Putin thought that the information was blackmail, to destabilise Russia – but it proved to be true. Pandemonium and panic broke out and, as the bodies are removed, the shocked families mourn and the wounded receive hospital treatment, so the forensic examinations have begun to establish what happened and why – as Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” 

Billboards in Moscow proclaim ‘We mourn 22.03.2024’ but – appalling though it is – this is just one of so many attacks on freedom evident today. The word Pandemonium originates in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as the place of all the demons or evil spirits – and many of those present may struggle to come to terms with the terrible things they have seen and heard. Jesus confronted the power of evil and death which tried and failed to contain him and, in our time, the battle still goes on – where do we stand in it all and what can be done to ensure that justice, hope and love will prevail? 

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.

Reflection for the  Fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

Jesus in John 12:20-33.

“I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” Darcy to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as she asks him when he began to love her.

Today’s Gospel for Passion Sunday, a week before Palm Sunday, actually takes place after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and a crowd is still following Jesus. Amongst them are some Greeks who tell Philip that they want to see Jesus so he and Andrew make Jesus aware of this. He then speaks of the time coming for the glorification of the Son of Man and, in asking that God’s name be glorified, a voice is heard from heaven. Some think that the voice is thunder, others that it’s from an angel – those around Jesus many not be listening carefully or perhaps are not ready to hear what is being said. However, a similar voice was heard at Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration and Jesus reminds his followers that the voice is for their sake, not his. The voice is not needed to confirm who he is or his relationship with God but does establish that God’s name has been glorified in Jesus. For this to occur is a reminder of the significance of what is happening – events are pressing and Jesus then talks of being lifted up to draw all people to himself, which John suggests indicates the manner of his death on the cross.

Just as the voice from heaven is also heard on other occasions, when Jesus speaks of being lifted up from the earth there are indications not only of his crucifixion but also of his resurrection and ascension. It seems that Jesus is preparing his followers for more than his death, although they may not realise that at the time. As the cross looms, so it will be followed in due course by his resurrection and ascension as he is raised up from the earth. That will only be fully realised when the time is right and Jesus’ followers then have not yet experienced this and are right at the start of the Passion unfolding. 

So many years later, like Mr Darcy, we are in the middle of it all without possibly realising what has already begun in our lives. Perhaps, like those first disciples, we hear words without listening properly to their meaning or origin. But Jesus’ words then are addressed to us today, too, reminding us that amidst suffering and death, and without denying the agony and terrible cost of this, there is the trust that resurrection and ascension will also unfold too when the time is right. In that lies our hope as Passiontide begins. 

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.