The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.
For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.
The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.
The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.
The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.
The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.
The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).
The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.
On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.
In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.
Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.
The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.
The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.
Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah was a prophet (740-681 BC) who lived during the fall of Israel in 722 BC. He and his contemporaries, Amos, Hosea and Micah gave warnings to the kings of Judah about the dangers of abandoning God and living a life that did not support the poorest and marginalised of the society. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, as we call it today, was the Bible of Jesus’s time, so Jesus would have read this reading, the last of four Servant Songs.
Today, many sermons use this reading to support Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. When the people of Israel first read or heard the word, they might not have interpreted it the same way. The people of Israel may have thought it referred to themselves. They were in exile and were thinking that they were the injured, that they were led like a lamb to the slaughter and that it was them who, like sheep, had gone astray and gone their own way. The people of Israel were trying to find meaning in their suffering, a suffering that had been instigated by God. They were lamenting and languishing in self-pity, but the beauty of this Isaiah reading is there is hope that through suffering will come redemption, joy and reward.
Today, we look at our own sufferings. We may say, why me? Like the people of Israel, we need to reflect. Is God punishing us, or is our predicament down to our own life choices? Is suffering redemptive in any way? We too, just like the Israelites, have to make sense of our exile, for many will think that the suffering is because God has abandoned us. Yet, we know because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is always hope, and while the suffering may seem senseless, somehow God will bring good from it. God has the bigger picture, and whilst ego makes us feel that we should be the centre of God’s plan, perhaps our role is for others in years to come, maybe generations to come, to benefit through what we are suffering today.
So, this reading allowed the people of Israel to reflect, as we should reflect. Through that reflection, know that there is hope. There will indeed be redemption, joy and reward, for God is a God of love as well as a God of Justice.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 17th October 2021
Luke 12:16-31 (NIRV)
16 Then Jesus told them a story. He said, “A certain rich man’s land produced a very large crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have any place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I will store my extra grain in them. 19 I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain stored away for many years. Take life easy. Eat, drink and have a good time.” ’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You foolish man! Tonight I will take your life away from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “That is how it will be for whoever stores things away for themselves but is not rich in the sight of God.”
22 Then Jesus spoke to his disciples. He said, “I tell you, do not worry. Don’t worry about your life and what you will eat. And don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than eating. There are more important things for the body than clothes. 24 Think about the ravens. They don’t plant or gather crops. They don’t have any barns at all. But God feeds them. You are worth much more than birds! 25 Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? 26 You can’t do that very little thing. So why worry about the rest?
27 “Think about how the wild flowers grow. They don’t work or make clothing. But here is what I tell you. Not even Solomon in his royal robes was dressed like one of those flowers. 28 If that is how God dresses the wild grass, how much better will he dress you! After all, the grass is here only today. Tomorrow it is thrown into the fire. Your faith is so small! 29 Don’t spend time thinking about what you will eat or drink. Don’t worry about it. 30 People who are ungodly run after all those things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 But put God’s kingdom first. Then those other things will also be given to you.
A certain rich man’s land produced a very large crop. There is nothing to suggest he was a nasty man. There is nothing to suggest that he got his wealth through sinful behaviour. There is no backstory and no reason for anyone to think he may have got his money from robbing the poor etc. There is nothing to make us think anything badly of this man unless we read things into it. What this story does tell us, is this: all that we do can have no worth unless God blesses the deed.
This passage is asking, who do you prioritise? Some versions call the rich man a foolish man because he is not putting God at the centre or thanking God for all the extra crop he is growing. Psalm 53 starts off by saying “Foolish people say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” This rich man is foolish because he thinks his success is down to him. He does not thank or worship God. He does not have an attitude of gratitude. He has not put God first, and that is why he is foolish.
There is nothing wrong with creating wealth, it is what you do with it that matters. You can go out and earn money; there is no question that God wants us to prosper. There is no doubt that God wishes us to enjoy the riches of God’s creation. But the foolishness of this story is that the man does not think of giving any of his surplus crops away to those suffering around him.
The second part of the reading is in many ways more self-explanatory. It reminds us not to worry, and that is really hard. I admit I am a bit of a worrier. I went to the theatre yesterday, which you probably think would have been a pleasant experience. I went to see Les Miserables, which in itself is the most dreadful, horrible story in the world, but the music is very good. So, what did I worry about? I worried if I would get there on time and I worried that I did not have the right COVID-19 double vaccination proof, but that all went well. I then got to my seat and I worried about where my arms were going to go, are they going to get in the way of the lady sharing the armrest next to me? Then I worried about who is going to sit in front of me. What if it is a 6ft 8 giant? Luckily, God blessed me with a 4ft 8 lady instead, who needed a booster seat! I worried I would not be able to hear, I worried I would cry because I cry quite easily. In the interval, I worried about getting ice cream. Am I going to get the right number of ice creams? As it happens, I got in the queue and the card machine was not working, so I had to join another queue! After the show, I worried about how I would get home. It was getting late and it was raining, was I going to get soaking wet?
So, trust me, when you are a worrier, life is very hard, but Jesus tells me, do not worry, do not be anxious. I know how hard it is to have anxiety but if we have faith in God then our worries should at least be alleviated. Of course, if you do worry, that does not mean you do not have faith in God. What this reading is saying is allow God to help you, allow God to be with you in that anxiety and let him help you get through the worry.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 3rd October 2021
Psalm 65 (NIRV)
Our God, we look forward to praising you in Zion.
We will keep our promises to you.
2 All people will come to you,
because you hear and answer prayer.
3 When our sins became too much for us,
you forgave our lawless acts.
4 Blessed are those you choose
and bring near to worship you.
You bring us into the courtyards of your holy temple.
There in your house we are filled with all kinds of good things.
5 God our Savior, you answer us with right and wonderful deeds.
People all over the world and beyond the farthest oceans
put their hope in you.
6 You formed the mountains by your power.
You showed how strong you are.
7 You calmed the oceans and their roaring waves.
You calmed the angry words and actions of the nations.
8 Everyone on earth is amazed at the wonderful things you have done.
What you do makes people from one end of the earth to the other sing for joy.
9 You take care of the land and water it.
You make it able to grow many crops.
You fill your streams with water.
You do that to provide the people with grain.
That’s what you have decided to do for the land.
10 You water its rows.
You smooth out its bumps.
You soften it with showers.
And you bless its crops.
11 You bring the year to a close with huge crops.
You provide more than enough food.
12 The grass grows thick even in the desert.
The hills are dressed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks and herds.
The valleys are dressed with grain.
They sing and shout for joy.
Psalm 65 speaks of the abundance of God's love. Verse 7, about the calming of the oceans and the rolling of the waves, reminds us of Jesus in the boat with the storm, which He stilled after saying to the disciples, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26) This showed the people of Israel that Jesus was God; He could still the storms, just as God does in this Psalm.
This Psalm was written 1000 years before Jesus was born, traditionally by David. It reminds us in verse 3, “When our sins became too much for us, you forgave our lawless acts.” Some people find this hard to accept. It is sort of saying, no matter what you have done, no matter what evil you have done, as long as you repent and are sorry, then forgiveness can be yours. Yet, when it comes to forgiveness, some people are so entrenched in pain and wanting justice by way of revenge, that they cannot accept that God can forgive. It is vital you remember that you have to repent, you have to be sorry.
In Theological College, we had to debate whether or not Jesus would have forgiven Judas. There were strong feelings either way, but in the end, it was decided that because Jesus was God - a God of love - even Judas would have been forgiven. So verse 3 reminds us, even though it is unpalatable, if there is the desire to repent, then they will be met by a God of forgiveness.
Verses 6 - 13 are all about God’s abundance. “Everyone on earth is amazed at the wonderful things you have done.” Take a moment to think to yourself, how amazed are you about the wonderful things God has done? How has God developed you and made you the beautiful person that you are today?
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 3rd October 2021
Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.
Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.
Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).
It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.
The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.
On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).
Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.
Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.
Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.
On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”
According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)
Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.
The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.
On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.
Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.
Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.
A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.
In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.
“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)
The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.
St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.
One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.
Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.
On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.
Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).
Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.
Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain.
This article was written in July 2021 and has been re-posted with permission from the author. To see the original article, click here: https://hazelstainer.wordpress.com/2021/07/23/the-making-of-a-saint/
Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Predicts His Death
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
The Way of the Cross
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Last week, if you followed the lectionary, you would have heard the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus more or less says no, because He has come to help the Jews, not the Gentiles, which is very difficult for us to read and comprehend. This is not an all-loving Jesus; this is a rather harsh Jesus. He was rude to the woman, and He called her a dog. Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine. His human part is still developing, and He is still learning about and understanding his ministry. Jesus is only just realising that He is not just there for the Jews, He is there for everybody. Jesus only realised this after He had met the Syrophoenician woman and heard her response to His refusal to heal her daughter. So, He changed his mind and healed the girl.
Jesus is being rude again in today’s reading. He is being rude to Peter, who has gone from hero to zero within two verses. The climax of Mark is Jesus asking, “Who do people say I am?” Who do we think Jesus is? Is He just a biblical figure and a great storyteller? Is He just a miracle worker, someone who can feed 5000 people with only a few loaves and fishes and raise people from the dead? How we respond to these questions changes our lives. If we only think that Jesus is a miracle worker, then so what? But if we believe Jesus is the Son of God, then that changes everything.
In John 6:66, Jesus’s message was not liked, and many turned back and no longer followed him. In the next two verses, Jesus asks his disciples, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the person sent by God to save us. Jesus may not be who they expected, for instance, a warrior with a mighty army. Other people claiming to be the Messiah had appeared in this way, but they had failed.
Jesus was pleased with Peter’s answer but, as we see in Mark, His attitude quickly changes. He tells Peter to shut up and “Get behind me, Satan!” Once again, Jesus is coming across as a bit rude. What Jesus was trying to tell Peter was, despite knowing Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was wrong to rebuke Jesus for talking about his upcoming death. Jesus is saying Peter’s thoughts did not come from God, but man. Peter was right about Jesus being the Messiah, and he was right to follow Jesus, but Jesus is making him aware of what will happen to his followers. They will lose their lives.
Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, was skinned alive in Armenia. James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, had his head bashed in. Andrew was crucified in Greece. Judas Iscariot, as we know, hanged himself. Peter was crucified upside down by Emperor Nero. Thomas was stabbed by a spear in India. James the Great was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Philip was tortured and hung up to die. Matthew was staked to the ground in Ethiopia. Jude, also known as Thaddeus, was crucified in Turkey. Simon was crucified and sawn in half. Even Matthias, who replaced Judas, was beheaded. The only disciple that we believe died from old age was John, the author of the Book of Revelation.
The disciples went to horrible deaths, and that would not have happened if they did not know Jesus was the Messiah. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a famous book called The Cost of Discipleship (1937). He says the reason Christianity is suffering is because people go for cheap grace. People think by saying that Jesus is their Lord and Saviour, they will be alright. These same people never put their beliefs into action and speak up for Jesus. But as Bonhoeffer, James and Mark say, people should show their faith through their actions. If you want your faith to show, then it has to be full of good works. It is not a cheap grace; we have to suffer for our God. Jesus is telling His disciples that they will suffer, but your soul will also be saved.
As always, it is our choice. God does not let people into heaven who do not want to be there. The only people who will get to heaven are the people that want to be there. To want to be there is to love God and to love God is to show it.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 12th September 2021
St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in London. In photographic and illustrative cityscapes of the capital, St Paul’s is invariably positioned in the centre. The cathedral is so well known, it independently represents England’s famous city.
The beautiful building is admired by thousands of visitors every day, attracting over 250,000 school children per year. For many, to have a photograph taken on the steps of the main entrance is sufficient, however, the interior is something not to be missed.
In order to fully appreciate the magnificence of the architecture and decoration, some knowledge of the cathedral’s history needs to be recognised. Many people know about the destruction of the building during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the current structure is actually the fifth cathedral to have stood on this site.
In 604AD, King Ethelbert of Kent founded the first St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. At this time, Christianity was still relatively new, therefore the wooden structure was one of the first religious settlements in England. Unfortunately, most likely due to the inadequate building material, it succumbed to fire in 675. Undeterred, the building was re-erected, only to be destroyed by Vikings a few centuries later.
The third version of the church was sensibly built in stone, however, St Paul’s appeared to be ill-fated, suffering another fire in 1087. With the Normans on the throne, those in power were determined to build the tallest church in the world, so construction began on a fourth building. The erection of this unique cathedral took many years followed by an additional 60 to make it even larger.
From 1300 to 1600, St Paul’s Cathedral stood without fatal incident, however, lack of care resulted in a gradual deterioration. Inigo Jones, a notable architect (whose other notable works include the Queen’s House, Greenwich) oversaw the restoration of the decrepit building, but it was doomed from the start with the launch of the English civil war. Plans to continue developing the cathedral were made after the reinstatement of the monarchy, with Christopher Wren drawing out the blueprint, unfortunately, the hapless building was to face another demolition. In 1666, before Wren had the opportunity to start building, St Paul’s was completely destroyed by the infamous Great Fire of London.
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a remarkable man of many talents. Now respected for his architectural skills, he was also an accomplished astronomer and mathematician. In fact, he was a professor of astrology at Gresham College in London and Oxford University. His deep-rooted devotion to Christ, as a result of being a rector’s son, and his allegiance to the royal family during the civil war earned Wren the opportunity to work on the prestigious cathedral.
Wren had already completed several commissions in London, including the palaces at Kensington and Hampton Court, therefore Charles II knew he was a trustworthy architect to take charge of London’s greatest building. With a motto “Architecture aims at eternity,” Wren not only focused on the aesthetic appeal but took into consideration the longevity of the construction.
By 1675, Sir Christopher Wren was ready to begin building work. The floor plan was set out to resemble a Latin cross – an indicator of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and the building was to be topped with a dome, mainly to satisfy Wren’s desire.
Initially, Charles II and other influential individuals were set on having a spire atop the cathedral, but due to Wren’s persistence, the famous dome was assembled instead, thus unintentionally creating one of St Paul’s Cathedral’s famous interior marvels: the Whispering Gallery.
The Whispering Gallery, located 30 metres above the cathedral floor, got its name as a result of an architectural fluke affecting the acoustics in the dome. A whisper against the wall on one side of the gallery can purportedly be heard at the opposite wall. Unfortunately, the number of visitors in the gallery makes it impossible to fully test this theory. If the 257-stepped spiral staircase was not too much for you, it is possible to climb even higher. Above the Whispering Gallery at 52 metres and 85 metres from the ground are the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery. These both run around the outside of the dome, providing fantastic, panoramic views across London.
Although the unique acoustic trait may fail to occur, it is still worth the long climb up to the Whispering Gallery. From the balcony, you can peer down at the floor of the cathedral where the main church services are conducted. Depending on which side of the dome you stand, it is also possible to see a bird’s eye view of the nave, north transept and south transept.
The most awe-inspiring sight from the Whispering Gallery is not the view below but the closer view of the painted ceiling of the dome. This, of course, can be seen from the ground, however, the intricate details can be better appreciated from this higher vantage point. Surrounding the entire dome, and made to look three dimensional with the inclusion of painted pillars, are murals to represent the life of Saint Paul.
There is evidence to suggest that Christopher Wren wished the entire ceiling to be made up of mosaics, but, most likely due to costs, Sir James Thornhill (1675/5-1743) was commissioned to provide monochrome paintings instead. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of two famous ceilings that Thornhill was responsible for, the other being the ceiling of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
Thornhill did not paint alone, instead, he supplied detailed pen-and-ink sketches for other painters to replicate. A total of eight scenes completes the experience of Saint Paul as written in the fifth book of the New Testament: the Book of Acts. A particularly memorable painting is based on an incident accounted in Acts 27 in which Paul has been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The artist has depicted Saint Paul holding a poisonous snake, which ought to have killed him. His survival convinced the island inhabitants of the existence of God.
Although Wren did not get his wish for the entire dome to be decked in mosaics, the triangular spaces below Thornhill’s work caused by the structure of the dome’s arches, have been filled with the coloured mosaics. Designed by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), these portray four Old Testament prophets (Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Again, these can be seen from the cathedral floor, or from a closer perspective in the Whispering Gallery.
It is only natural for a cathedral to be filled with biblical paintings and objects, however, St Paul’s is also famous for a number of burials. The crypt, which can be entered via stairs by the north transept, is home to many graves and statues that honour individuals of significant reputation. The two most popular are the tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson earned his spot in St Paul’s crypt after being killed in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite his demise, Nelson prevented an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and his army. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is also a national hero and deserves his granite casket under the cathedral. His army successfully defeated Napoleon at the famous Battle of Waterloo.
A third important thing to locate (no, not the cafe – although do visit that as well) is Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb. This is slightly more difficult to find in comparison to the elaborate memorials of the war heroes. In the south aisle of the Chapel of Faith, set in the Cathedral’s foundations, is a simple stone slab. Initially, this may appear an insult to the great architect and individual responsible for the construction of the long-lasting building, however, written in Latin above his tomb is the epitaph “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” Wren does not need an effigy or ornate tombstone, he is buried in the undercroft of his very own creation.
Other notable memorials around the crypt are for artists and scientists who contributed greatly to society through their work. These include J. M. W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, William Blake, Randolph Caldecott, Sir Alexander Fleming and Florence Nightingale. The latter is one of the very few women to be honoured in such a way at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Memorials in the form of statues can also be found inside the main body of the cathedral. Carved by various sculptors from a variety of stone, an abundance of well-known names and likenesses can be spotted from all corners of the building. Lord Leighton, Lord Kitchener, Samuel Johnson and John Donne are a few examples. In the grounds outside, a gilded statue of Saint Paul and a stone Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the completion of the Cathedral, are located.
St Paul’s Cathedral is also home to other artworks, excluding the memorial tombs and statues. The ceilings themselves are an exceptional feat, decorated with complicated mosaics. These were added from 1896 in order to appease Queen Victoria, who believed that cathedral looked dull and shabby.
Other works to look out for include Mother and Child by Henry Moore and The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt – the altarpiece in the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, as well as temporary exhibitions: the Commemorative Crosses by Gerry Judah – in memoriam of the First World War, Tides by Pablo Genovés and Martyrs by Bill Viola.
Of course, everything else in the cathedral is beautiful enough to be recognised as art. From altars and gates to the stone flooring, everything can be appreciated. The current organ is also a sight to cherish. Being the third largest in the United Kingdom, it has 7256 pipes and is decorated with elaborate carvings. Apparently, even the original organ was something special, being the first in Britain to have pedals. The composer, George Frederick Handel, got great pleasure from playing this instrument.
St Paul’s Cathedral is as magnificent as it was when completed in 1711, only 36 years after work began. It has been the location of many ceremonies, particularly the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. It has also been a place of celebration for the jubilees of both of Britain’s longest reigning queens.
Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren’s durable architecture, St Paul’s Cathedral will hopefully remain standing for centuries to come. Thousands of services can be predicted to take place during the following years, but why wait to experience the amazing building? As long as you are willing to pay the fee, St Paul’s Cathedral is ready to welcome you and reveal its true beauty.
For the original article, click here
This blog post was published with the permission of the author, Hazel Stainer. www.hazelstainer.wordpress.com
Taming the Tongue
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
I have found some interesting facts about the tongue:
How do we use our tongue? It is important to remember that everything can be used for both good and bad. A knife, for example, can be used as a tool, but it can also be used as a weapon. Nuclear atomic energy is a clean form of energy, but it can also be used as a weapon of mass destruction. The same applies to the tongue; we too can cause enormous devastation.
A man came up to me and said, “Martin, you remind me of a computer.” I thought, wow, is that because I am quick, can solve most things and retain information? He said, “No. As you get older, you lose your memory, you become outdated, you crash unexpectedly, and eventually have to have your parts replaced.” Rude!
So, with our tongue, we can uplift, or we can vilify. At a football match, there is chanting from the spectators. This chanting can uplift, and players have said there is nothing better than hearing their names being sung. Yet, the chanting often becomes quite nasty against the opposing team.
We can control the tongue. We can control what we say and what we do. The reading in James is reminding us that there will be a judgement day. What we say and how it is received is very important. James is warning us to be careful.
There is a little mnemonic, which is quite useful: THINK. Before you speak, you have to think:
Is it True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspiring?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?
Before you speak, THINK, and if your words fit that criterion, then go ahead and speak.
This Sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 12th September 2021
It is virtually impossible to find a building more steeped in British history than the spectacular structure of Westminster Abbey. Although sections of the present building date from the 1200s, its history dates even further back. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Abbey has been in constant use and importance in the life of past and present royal families. Still used for church services today, Westminster Abbey welcomes visitors to tour the sacred building and marvel at the architecture and the many wonders hidden inside.
There is a discrepancy about the origins of the first church built on this site, however, historical evidence has been confirmed for the years subsequent to the death of Edward the Confessor at the very beginning of 1066. Children are taught at an early age about the Battle of Hastings that followed the death of this holy king, but little to no emphasis is put on the use of Westminster Abbey at that time, nor in the lives of future monarchs.
Originally, the church founded by Edward the Confessor stood in roughly the same place as the current Abbey, however, its surroundings would have looked completely different to the built up area that exists today. Over a thousand years ago, the Westminster area was on the very outskirts of London, a city which had not yet expanded to its contemporary grand size. Not only was the church located in the suburbs, it stood on a boggy, inhospitable island known as Thorney. Surrounded by many tributaries of the River Thames, it was not the welcoming district it is today.
The current building was erected over hundreds of years, beginning during the reign of Henry III (crowned 1216-1272). As a devotee to the canonised St Edward (the Confessor), Henry wished to demolish the existing church and construct a spectacular structure in the European Gothic Style in the saint’s honour. St Edward, who had been buried in his own construction, was provided with his own shrine. St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel still remains in the centre of the Abbey, unfortunately, due to fragility and age, visitors are unable to enter.
Little is known about who was responsible for the design of what was to become Westminster Abbey, but the three main stone masons involved in the raising of the building have been recorded as Henry of Reyns (d1253), John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley (d1285). Although influenced by French cathedrals, the continental style was simply appropriated rather than copied. In order to make the building unique to England, as well as contain the highest vault (102ft/31m), certain aspects were altered from the geometrical system. This includes a single aisle, a lengthy nave and wide transepts. The stone and marble sculptures add to the Englishness of the building.
The façade of the Abbey, for which it is most famous, is as impressive as its interior. In order to keep its magnificent appearance, Westminster Abbey has been refaced several times, and may no longer resemble the original building. Architects, such as Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and James Wyatt (1746-1813), have done a great deal of work on the building over the centuries. The latest major restoration took place between 1973-1995.
It is not clear who is responsible for the carvings, statues and effigies, but these are in over abundance in and out of the Abbey. Many Kings and Queens of England have been laid to rest under elaborate shrines and memorials that are so intricate it is difficult to believe that they were produced by the hands of a human being. And it is not only the royals who have been subjected to this lavish treatment; many members of the aristocracy have been honoured with a burial place in Westminster Abbey.
The most remarkable monument in the Abbey can be found in St Michael’s Chapel, one of the many small chapels located around the perimeter. Interestingly, this does not belong to a monarch but rather Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1704-31) who died in childbirth. The memorial was designed by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-1762) and consists of life-size figurines of Lady Elizabeth’s husband trying to protect her body from a skeletal apparition of death. To create realistic statues of people is one thing, but to successfully carve a skeleton from stone is a serious feat. Roubiliac was responsible for other effigies in the Abbey, including one of the musician Handel located in Poet’s Corner.
Westminster Abbey is open to the public every day for services including Holy Communion, Morning Prayer and Evensong. For a fee, tourists are allowed in to follow a plotted tour around the holy building. Although this means it is difficult to take your time and study every hidden corner as a result of the crowd continually surging forth in one direction, the tour is laid out so that nothing is missed. The accompanying audio guide provides the history of the building’s involvement with the English royal family but also points out works of art, sculpture and architecture that will amaze many a visitor.
Unlike most churches throughout the country, not all the effigies remain the whitish-grey colour of stone. Evidence remains of coloured paint that was added to the statues to make them as lifelike as possible. Although some of these have faded over the years, many are still covered in the rich reds and blues.
Westminster Abbey was built before the fashion of painted ceilings and walls came in to being. In contrast to other London churches, for instance, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Abbey relies on ornate carvings for decoration. Having said that, during a cleaning in the 1930s, two wall paintings were uncovered that historians believe date back to the end of the 13th century. These have been identified as images of Christ with the apostle Thomas and Saint Christopher. Of all the artistic components of the Abbey, these early paintings are one of the few that feature religious content.
The most complex piece of art situated in the Abbey is the Cosmati Pavement in front of the High Altar. This also dates back to the 13th century and was commissioned by the abbot of the monastery, Richard de Ware (d1283). Pavements made of mosaics were all the rage in Italy, therefore Roman stonemasons were invited to England to lay something similar in the newly built Abbey. The pavement spans 24ft and is made up of a variety of material: onyx, porphyry, limestone and glass. The geometric pattern consists of an assortment of shapes and colours and, despite its age, still looks colourful today.
Although the architecture is phenomenal, the greatest attractions are the tombs and memorials of famous people – and not purely the Royals. Upwards of 3000 people are eternally remembered in the Abbey and more are likely to be included in years to come. The flamboyance of previous centuries has abated resulting in more indistinct plaques and stones for the more recent tributes. The most popular area for tourists is located in the South Transept and is most commonly known as Poet’s Corner.
Over 100 well-known authors, poets and playwrights are celebrated in Poet’s corner. Some, such as William Shakespeare (1564-1616), have ostentatious friezes, however, the majority have modest stone slabs, many of which are embedded into the floor. Literature lovers will be excited to locate some of their favourite authors, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Geoffrey Chaucer (the first to be buried in this corner), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth.
With floor and wall space running out, memorials have begun to feature on stained glass windows. These have been added fairly recently and take into consideration the writers who were shunned at the times of their deaths. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde (1854-1900) is one example. Almost 100 years after his death, Oscar Wilde, who had been denied a place in Westminster Abbey on account of his sexuality, was awarded a humble lozenge in the giant window above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. Space remains on the window for future authors to take their place amongst the other literary greats.
Westminster Abbey is a captivating example of British architecture and history and is certainly worth the visit. There is no other church or building as elaborately adorned as this structure on the edge of the Thames. As visitors follow the numbered audio points on their tour, they are encouraged to look up and marvel at the mesmerising ceilings that must have taken several years to produce.
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This blog post was published with the permission of the author, Hazel Stainer. www.hazelstainer.wordpress.com
Jesus Honours a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Jesus wants some peace and quiet and has been wanting it for ages. He is travelling to the land of the Gentiles and is desperate for some quiet so that he can gather his thoughts. Yet, he does not get it because he is approached by a woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit. Despite being a Gentile, the woman knows about Jesus and follows Him.
Before I became a minister 20 years ago, another minister called Alwyn Knight preached on Mark 7, and I remember one of the things he said. Jesus said to the Gentile woman, who according to tradition is called Justa, whose daughter is called Berenice, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Many theologians and preachers have trouble with this verse. What Jesus said comes across as very harsh and horrible. He has called the woman a dog, which is not something you expect from the Son of God. But Alwyn Knight pointed out, this verse is not showing us the twinkle that Jesus had in his eye. He claimed this was a bit of banter between Jesus and the woman.
Yet, most commentaries say that Jesus meant what He said. He was calling the woman a dog, and that is difficult for us to get our heads around. Why would Jesus call this woman a dog? But the woman gets the better of Him by saying, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus appreciates this remark and tells her that for saying that, the demon has left her daughter. She went home, found her child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
What does this passage mean? I would like to share the first joke I used when I began preaching as a lay preacher about 23 years ago. A man wishes to go to a nightclub, but the bouncer stops him and tells the man he cannot come in. “Why’s that?” asks the man. The bouncer informs him that only people wearing ties can enter the club. The man asks what constitutes a tie, and the bouncer tells him it is something long and thin tied around the neck. So, the man goes away and finds a set of jump leads, which he ties around his neck. When he returns to the club, the bouncer says, “You cannot come in because you do not have a tie.” But the man says he has and indicates the leads tied around his neck. The bouncer sighs and says, “Okay, you can come in, but don’t you start anything!”
Now, how does this joke relate to the Gospel reading? I think what Jesus is doing is showing humanity. We have this idea that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. If He is fully human, then Jesus has to have some human foibles. In this passage in Mark, Jesus is showing his human side and that, perhaps, He did not recognise the full extent of his ministry. Has this woman, this Gentile woman, made Jesus realise that He has also been sent as a Saviour to the Gentiles?
I believe this passage shows us Jesus’s human side. He was rude, and somehow we need to process that, but it did prompt Jesus to rethink. Had His ears been opened to the wider ministry of the Gentiles, rather than sticking to the Jews? We believe the second miracle in Mark 3 also involved a Gentile. Does the passage make Jesus realise He is not just serving the people of Israel but that His mission is worldwide? Did this Gentile woman make Jesus change His mind about helping the Gentiles? There was only one time before this where Jesus changed His mind; that was about changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2).
Should theologians, preachers and all Christians consider Mark 7 as the moment when Jesus realised that His ministry is worldwide, and that there are no boundaries about hearing the word of God, that His ministry is for all people? So, think about it. Was this the beginning of Jesus’s wider ministry?
This Sermon was first preached at Wanstead URC on 5th September 2021
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon