Lent — a chance to look afresh at the things you thought you knew so well

by
27 January 2009

Whether it is an aspect of the eucharist or of Christ’s Passion, there is always something new to learn in Lent, writes Peter McGeary

A moment in the Passion: Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) by Hieronymous Bosch, c.1490-1500, is the subject of an extended meditation by Justin Lewis-Anthony in Circles of Thorns, reviewed below NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

A moment in the Passion: Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) by Hieronymous Bosch, c.1490-1500, is the subject of an extended meditation b...

Why Go to Church? The drama of the eucharist
Timothy Radcliffe

reviewed with

Circles of Thorns
Justin Lewis-Anthony

Mowbray £14.99 (978-1-906286-21-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

and

The Things He Carried: A journey to the cross
Stephen Cottrell

Mowbray £14.99 (978-1-906286-21-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

and

SPCK £6.99 (978-0-281-06080-1)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

and

Reconciling One and All: God’s gift to the world
Brian Castle

SPCK £6.99 (978-0-281-06080-1)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

and

SPCK £9.99 (978-0-281-05970-6)
Church Times Bookshop £9

and

The God Who Leads Us On: Story meditations on salvation
Ronni Lamont

SPCK £9.99 (978-0-281-05970-6)
Church Times Bookshop £9

and

SPCK £8.99 (978-0-281-06076-4)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

WHEN preparing people for con­firm­­­ation, I find myself basically doing two things.

First, I am trying to impart, to a greater or lesser extent, the truths of the Christian faith. Sometimes this will involve starting from scratch; sometimes it will involve correcting misunderstandings; and sometimes it will involve allowing the candi­date to articulate what he or she has come to believe.

There are many variables: the candidate who has no more than a barely articulated need to come to church will require different things from a person who is chewing his way through John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent for fun (I am not making that one up: he really exis­ted). In each case, I often find that a “confirmation course” arises natural­ly from the questions that the candidate is asking already, and I tailor my approach accordingly.

That’s the easy part: the content of the Christian faith, and what it means to a person. The second part is a bit more difficult. This is to do with other people. I often say to can­di­dates that the hardest thing about being a Christian is other people, church people in particular: the sancta plebs Dei who all too often are not very holy at all. Who would want to belong to an organi­sation like the Church? Why asso­ciate with such a strange assortment of people? Why bother?

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“Why bother?” is a question that obviously interests Timothy Rad­cliffe greatly. A Dominican friar (and former Master of the Order), he produced a very fine book about Christian belief a few years ago, What is the Point of Being a Chris­tian? Now we have a further volume, Why Go to Church?, which the Arch­bishop of Canterbury has chosen as his Lent Book for this year.

In the earlier book, Radcliffe ex­plores the nature of Christian be­lief and hope, and the present volume follows on from this: belief in God, belief in Jesus, is all very well. But why should I need or want to go to church? In an era when the concept of “Sunday obligation” is all but gone, this is a pertinent question.

Radcliffe sees the key to this ques­tion in the eucharist. “Faith, hope, and charity are the ways in which God makes his home in us, and we are at home in God,” he says. The acquisition of these “theological virtues” takes time, and the eucharist is depicted here as a drama in three acts that helps us to do this: by lis­tening to the word of God in Scrip­ture we grow in belief, and so are enabled to proclaim the words of the Creed and to ask for what we need.

Our belief gives us hope — hope that is given to us by the transfor­ma­tion of our gifts into holy things, and by the remembrance of the story of violence and death be­ing met by resurrection and new life. And, in the final act, our hope mani­fests itself in love, love for God as we receive the sacrament, and love for others as we are sent away as living signs of God’s love for the world.

This is one of the finest exposi­tions of the meaning of the eucharist that I have read. This is no dry text­book: Radcliffe fills his pages with stories of people who have crossed his path all over the world, all to illustrate his conviction that “the eucharist is a dramatic re-enactment of the story of our lives, of what it means to be a human being made for God.”

In an era of ecclesiastical bic­ker­ing, insularity, and humourlessness, this book is a tonic. Although this would be a very good book for Lent, it is far more than a “Lent book”. My hope is that it remains in print long after Easter Day.

Justin Lewis-Anthony is a rector in Canterbury. Circles of Thorns is an extended meditation on a painting. Two years ago, when he was recovering from a breakdown, one of the things that kept him going was a small painting by the extraordinary late-15th-century artist Hieronymus Bosch. It is called Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), and it may be viewed in the National Gallery in London.

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In an era of ecclesiastical bic­ker­ing, insularity, and humourlessness, this book is a tonic. Although this would be a very good book for Lent, it is far more than a “Lent book”. My hope is that it remains in print long after Easter Day.

Justin Lewis-Anthony is a rector in Canterbury. Circles of Thorns is an extended meditation on a painting. Two years ago, when he was recovering from a breakdown, one of the things that kept him going was a small painting by the extraordinary late-15th-century artist Hieronymus Bosch. It is called Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), and it may be viewed in the National Gallery in London.

The painting is quite small, and entirely without background: the canvas is taken up completely by the central figure of Christ, robed in white, surrounded by four other men, one of whom is about to place the crown of thorns on Jesus’s head.

Our age is a facile age, and we are content so often with observing something and then moving swiftly on. Or else we photograph some­thing, or download it for our con­venience or entertainment.

To do this with paintings, especial­ly those of Bosch’s era, is to miss the point (or points); for they operate on many levels of symbolic meaning. Lewis-Anthony’s book takes us through these levels, taking us back again and again to the painting, which is helpfully well reproduced on the front cover. Who are these figures? What do they mean? What do they signify?

The author looks at the political, scientific, medical, and spiritual con­texts that would have been part of the artist’s world, and in so doing reveals different layers of meaning to the painting. Who are these people? What do they represent? Why is Christ looking straight at me, the viewer?

This is a very good extended medi­tation on a specific moment in the Passion story; it is also a good example of the quality of patient, intelligent attention that is (or should be) much more fostered than it has been of late in Christian spir­ituality. It is best read by indi­vid­uals rather than a group, I think, but might provide inspiration for a series of Lent groups focusing on something that can be seen.

The “Instruments of Torture” and the “Stigmata of Christ”, art of a kind that Bosch would have recog­nised, are reproduced on the cover of The Things He Carried. Written by Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Reading, this book has its origins in a series of addresses given at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2005.

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This is a very good extended medi­tation on a specific moment in the Passion story; it is also a good example of the quality of patient, intelligent attention that is (or should be) much more fostered than it has been of late in Christian spir­ituality. It is best read by indi­vid­uals rather than a group, I think, but might provide inspiration for a series of Lent groups focusing on something that can be seen.

The “Instruments of Torture” and the “Stigmata of Christ”, art of a kind that Bosch would have recog­nised, are reproduced on the cover of The Things He Carried. Written by Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Reading, this book has its origins in a series of addresses given at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2005.

What were the things that Jesus carried on his way to Calvary? Scripture explicitly tells us of the cross, the crown of thorns, and the seamless robe; but implicitly there were also other things: the disap­point­ments of his disciples, the sins of the world, and so on. Each short chapter ends with a series of ques­tions for discussion or reflection.

This is, in the best sense, a traditional series of devotional addresses which seeks to draw the reader more closely into the Passion narratives. The chapters are of such a length that they could easily be used as readings at a “holy hour” or a discussion group: in many ways, the text demands to be read out loud, left for silent thought and prayer, and then discussed.

Reconciling One and All comes from the pen of another bishop. Brian Castle is the Bishop of Ton­bridge, and has experience of parish ministry in this country and Zam­bia. A particular interest of his seems to be the communication of the gospel across different cultures, and this book is in no small part about the enterprise of building bridges of understanding in order that forgive­ness and reconciliation may take place.

The conviction that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself lies at the heart of the Christian faith, and is also being striven for in poli­tics, society, and the life of the indi­vidual. How do we find peace? How do we begin? Under what cir­cum­stances can forgiveness happen? What does the eucharist mean in all this?

These are gigantic questions, and definitive answers would be illusory. What this book does is illustrate the issues and provoke thought and discussion: each chapter ends with questions for individuals and groups, and a prayer. This is not a dry treatise on the idea of for­give­ness: the text is peppered with per­sonal examples of conflict and healing from around the world. The issues raised would form an excel­lent preparation to the liturgies of Holy Week, giving new life to the Story at the centre of it all.

Ronni Lamont worked as a teacher before ordination. The God Who Leads Us On is a collection of her homilies on a great variety of biblical texts, which are used as the basis of an imaginative retelling of a familiar story in an unfamiliar way, or from a different perspective. Again, these may be read by indi-vid­uals, or else used as the basis for discussion: each section concludes with points for prayer or questions for reflection.

There is a wealth of material in the book — certainly too much for one Lent — and so some judicious selecting will be necessary if it is to be used for a Lent group. This is not just a book for Lent, however.

It will, I hope, throw the preacher (and the listener) back on to ap­parently familiar texts anew.

Why bother? We bother during Lent because we fondly imagine that we know what we are doing with our lives a lot of the time. We ima­gine that we know what the Chris­tian faith we profess is, and what it involves. And Lent is the season of the year when Christians remind themselves that actually they are pro­foundly ignorant, both of what thay profess and how they profess it. And, in the honest acknowledge­ment of that (repentance), we throw our­selves on God’s mercy and love, and try to learn again those things that we thought we knew so well.

In their different ways, each of these books tries to take us to the apparently familiar in strange, un­familiar ways, so that we may see what we thought we knew so well — the eucharist, the Bible, Christ — in new ways.

If they do this, then these books — and Lent — will have done their job.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

To place an order for any of these books, email details to CT Bookshop (please mention "Church Times Bookshop price")

To place an order for any of these books, email details to CT Bookshop (please mention "Church Times Bookshop price")

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