Thinking allowed

Stations of the Cross

Sta­tions of the Cross is a tra­di­tion­al devo­tion for Lent, and espe­cially for Holy Week. It ori­gin­ated in Jer­sualem, where pil­grims would lit­er­ally walk along the route from the centre of the city to the tra­di­tion­al place of Christ’s exe­cu­tion, stop­ping en route to recall vari­ous incid­ents recor­ded in the gos­pels, or else­where in the tra­di­tion. The num­ber and names of the sta­tions were later codi­fied at four­teen (to which a fif­teenth sta­tion of the Resur­rec­tion was added in more recent times). Many sets of words and pray­ers have been writ­ten to acccom­pany the walk. I com­piled this par­tic­u­lar set for an ecu­men­ic­al ser­vice in my home par­ish, and sub­sequently pub­lished them on the Think­ing Anglic­ans blog. It envis­ages a scen­ario in which some of those who par­ti­cip­ated in or wit­nessed the ori­gin­al events are gathered to remem­ber what happened on that day.

  1. Pil­ate con­demns Jesus to death
  2. Jesus takes up his cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets his mother
  5. Simon helps Jesus carry the cross
  6. Veron­ica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
  14. Jesus is placed in the tomb
  15. Jesus is risen

the tree of knowledge of good and evil

This Sunday’s read­ings include part of chapter 3 of the book of Gen­es­is, the cent­ral story of the fall, in which Adam and Eve are temp­ted to eat the fruit of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil, planted in the centre of the Garden of Eden, and which God has for­bid­den them to eat.

The con­sequence of this is that the couple are expelled from Eden, and they will die.

What are we to make of this?

The key to our under­stand­ing this today is per­haps in the words ‘know­ledge of good and evil’. Our human ancest­ors, at some point in their evol­u­tion, developed enough con­scious­ness to become self-aware. This is a fun­da­ment­al human trait — to be aware of your­self, and to be aware of oth­er people and real­ize that they too are self-aware. Per­haps this real­iz­a­tion, this con­scious­ness, went hand in hand with the devel­op­ment of lan­guage, the devel­op­ment of com­mu­nic­a­tion with fel­low humans. And con­scious­ness and the recog­ni­tion of oth­ers leads to con­science — the recog­ni­tion of good and evil, as the writers of the Gen­es­is story put it. Humans had eaten of the fruit of the tree, and there was no going back.

And along with this self-aware­ness must have come the real­iz­a­tion that things die: that oth­er creatures die, that oth­er humans die; and even­tu­ally the real­iz­a­tion that each of us will die too — the real­iz­a­tion of our own mortality.

Like the writer of Gen­es­is chapter 3 we can under­stand the link between this high level of con­scious­ness, or self-aware­ness, and death. The writer of Gen­es­is puts the story in myth­ic lan­guage, lan­guage that all can under­stand. He (most prob­ably it was a ‘he’ or sev­er­al ‘he’s) starts from the inno­cence in which we assume the non-con­scious to live: the inno­cence where one does not have to make mor­al choices and the inno­cence in which one’s own life is the centre of the world, indeed the only thing that makes the world, the inno­cence in which one has no idea that one’s life is finite. And he points out that self-aware­ness leads inev­it­ably to a loss of that inno­cence which cul­min­ates in the know­ledge of our own impend­ing death.

And in this myth­ic lan­guage we too can grasp at the truth, that in our self-aware­ness we do things that we know to be wrong, and in our know­ledge of our own mor­tal­ity, we live in dark­ness and fear, fail­ing to reach the great heights of cre­ativ­ity and light of which we should be capable.

What then of Jesus? Jesus pro­claims to us the king­dom of God in which is life in all its abund­ance. In this king­dom we are freed from fear of death to live life, a life in which we can make mor­al choices, a life in which we are not con­sumed with jeal­ousy or with bit­ter­ness towards oth­ers, but a life in the light, a life of cre­ativ­ity. The apostle Paul wrote, ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (1 Cor­inthi­ans 15.22.)


from the shrine of St Peter

If this is Thursday, this must be the Vat­ic­an! Today we vis­ited the Vat­ic­an Museum, the Sis­tine Chapel, and the Basilica of St Peter. Jonath­an Board­man, chap­lain of All Saints, the Anglic­an church in Rome, gave us a tour of some of the prin­cip­al works in the museum, and talked about the paint­ings in the Sis­tine Chapel. Although I have been in the Chapel twice before, this was the first time since the major res­tor­a­tion of the Michelan­gelo fres­coes. It was also the first time I had really con­sidered the over­all scheme of the dec­or­a­tion: the ceil­ing depict­ing scenes from the Cre­ation to the Flood; the pairs of pic­tures on the side walls by a num­ber of earli­er artists (Old and New Test­a­ment scenes in pairs, where the OT scene is in some way a ‘type’ for the NT one oppos­ite it); and, of course, the Last Judge­ment on the ‘east’ wall. Here we see Peter and Paul as the strong men of Christ, sport­ing their per­fect, resur­rec­ted, bod­ies (or at least, as Jonath­an later noted, per­fect in the eyes of Michelan­gelo; we might not all envis­age our per­fec­ted bod­ies as those of East Ger­man athletes!).

And then to the Basilica of St Peter. The vast­ness of this build­ing nev­er ceases to amaze. I remem­ber vis­it­ing as a school­boy in 1973. Our guide asked a fel­low pupil to walk over to one of the columns and touch the carving of a dove that seemed a few feet off the floor. As he got near­er we real­ized that far from hav­ing to reach down to it, he could not in fact reach it by stretch­ing up. The per­fect scale of the build­ing had con­fused our senses. On the oth­er hand, you do have to won­der what the fish­er­man from the Sea of Galilee might have made of all this splend­our and pomp.

This is a place where the claims of the bish­ops of Rome are most evid­ent, from the ‘Tu es Pet­rus’ mosa­ic in massive let­ters writ­ten around the base of the dome, to the monu­ments recall­ing pap­al declar­a­tions such as the ‘immacu­late con­cep­tion’, and above all the gran­di­ose memori­als to a swathe of popes in the main basilica. These expli­citly pro­claim the primacy and uni­ver­sal imme­di­ate jur­is­dic­tion of the see of Rome. As an Anglic­an, I find it very easy to chal­lenge the show of pride and opu­lance, and the claims to power that these build­ings and memori­als present (whilst not for­get­ting that my own church has its own grand build­ings, monu­ments and claims).

As a con­trast to all the show it is a wel­come change to des­cend to the crypt. Here you stand more or less at the level of the basilica built in the time of Con­stantine in the first half of the fourth cen­tury. Imme­di­ately beneath the dome and the high altar (with its great bal­dachino designed by Bern­ini, and forged from bronze taken from the Pan­theon of ancient Rome) stands the tomb of St Peter. Not his actu­al tomb, I think, which lies anoth­er level down, not access­ible to the gen­er­al pub­lic, but a shrine to the saint, non­ethe­less. This is the place to stand and give thanks for the life of Simon son of Jonah, to whom Christ gave the nick­name ‘Ceph­as’ or ‘rock’ (‘pet­ros’ in Greek), and to pray — espe­cially at this time, in the middle of the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity — for the unity of the Church, uni­on amongst Anglic­ans and uni­on with our oth­er sep­ar­ated broth­ers and sis­ters, and espe­cially in this place, uni­on with the see of Rome, with the suc­cessors of St Peter.

When you stand before, or over, the tomb of the lead­er of the Apostles, you are taken back to New Test­a­ment times, to the days 2000 years ago when Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called Simon, son of Jonah, to fol­low him, to the days when Simon Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Christ, dis­owned him, and was for­giv­en, to the days when he preached the resur­rec­tion of Christ in Jer­u­s­alem, and then through the east­ern Roman Empire, before end­ing up in Rome, to suf­fer and die as a wit­ness to the king­dom of God pro­claimed by the Jesus he had known. Here, in the crypt of the basilica, the pomp of the main church is for­got­ten — the roof is low, the walls are plain. Here are the simple tombs of many of the popes, placed close to where they believed Peter was bur­ied. Here it is pos­sible to for­get the grandeur that is just a few feet over your head, and to recov­er a simple spir­itu­al­ity, and the simple mes­sage at the heart of what Chris­ti­ans believe, and to which Chris­ti­ans down the ages have borne witness.

It is easy to say that the claims of Rome are mis­con­ceived and mis­un­der­stood, but even so I find myself not unwill­ing to allow a primacy of hon­our to this ancient see, effect­ively the only one remain­ing of the ancient pat­ri­arch­ates of Jer­u­s­alem (the see of James, the broth­er of Jesus), of Alex­an­dria, and of Anti­och, all three long since hav­ing lost their Chris­ti­an hin­ter­land. This primacy would not be the primacy of the main basilica, a primacy of marble and costly show, a primacy of uni­ver­sal jur­is­dic­tion or of infal­lible pro­nounce­ments; rather it would be like the crypt, plain and simple, unadorned, the ser­vant of all, exhib­it­ing mor­al strength, uncor­rup­ted per­son­al char­ac­ter, and the love of God the Fath­er and of the cre­ated world, preached by the car­penter of Nazareth.


on the feast of St Agnes

Today we vis­ited the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura — St Agnes out­side the Walls. It’s the feast day of St Agnes, a young girl of 12 or 13, who was killed in Rome for her Chris­ti­an faith near the end of the per­se­cu­tion under the Emper­or Dio­cletian, around the year 304. This is the church where she is bur­ied, and a great ser­vice is held in this church on this her feast day.

At the start, two tiny (live) lambs, gar­landed and bedecked with flowers are car­ried into the church on trays and placed on the altar. They are blessed, and then, dur­ing the Glor­ia, car­ried out in pro­ces­sion, and away to a con­vent. When they are old enough to be shorn, their wool is woven into the pal­li­ums which the Pope gives to all Roman Cath­ol­ic Arch­bish­ops (as a sym­bol of their met­ro­pol­it­an jurisdiction).

Mar­garet Vis­s­er has writ­ten an inter­est­ing book about this church and the cult of St Agnes, The Geo­metry of Love (see it at Amazon UK, and there are some pic­tures on her web­site). After the ser­vice one of our group spot­ted Mar­garet Vis­s­er in the church and she was kind enough to come and talk to us about the church and the book.

Here we wor­shipped; here we prayed, at this place (as Eli­ot wrote about Little Gid­ding) where pray­er has been val­id; to stand and pray at the shrine of this young girl, mar­tyred for her faith 1700 years ago today; to stand and pray with this young girl and for this young girl, who sur­rendered her life rather than offer incense and pray­ers to pagan gods; to stand and pray with the count­less num­bers who down the cen­tur­ies have stood in this same place, before the tomb-chest of Agnes, and who have sim­il­arly offered their pray­ers — this is a mov­ing exper­i­ence, although one rather won­ders what she would have made of the great church and the great ser­vice held in her name, let alone the incense offered at the altar over her tomb!