The Lost Pyx: a Mediaeval Legend

(Nobody can persuade me that Thomas Hardy wasn’t a lover of traditional folk songs; not when he wrote poems like this one!)

Some say the spot is banned; that the pillar Cross-and-Hand
Attests to a deed of hell;
But of else than of bale is the mystic tale
That ancient Vale-folk tell.

Ere Cernel’s Abbey ceased hereabout there dwelt a priest,
(In later life sub-prior
Of the brotherhood there, whose bones are now bare
In the field that was Cernel choir).

One night in his cell at the foot of yon dell
The priest heard a frequent cry:
“Go, father, in haste to the cot on the waste,
And shrive a man waiting to die.”

Said the priest in a shout to the caller without,
“The night howls, the tree-trunks bow;
One may barely by day track so rugged a way,
And can I then do so now?”

No further word from the dark was heard,
And the priest moved never a limb;
And he slept and dreamed; till a Visage seemed
To frown from Heaven at him.

In a sweat he arose; and the storm shrieked shrill,
And smote as in savage joy;
While High-Stoy trees twanged to Bubb-Down Hill,
And Bubb-Down to High-Stoy.

There seemed not a holy thing in hail,
Nor shape of light or love,
From the Abbey north of Blackmore Vale
To the Abbey south thereof.

Yet he plodded thence through the dark immense,
And with many a stumbling stride
Through copse and briar climbed nigh and nigher
To the cot and the sick man’s side.

When he would have unslung the Vessels uphung
To his arm in the steep ascent,
He made loud moan: the Pyx was gone
Of the Blessed Sacrament.

Then in dolorous dread he beat his head:
“No earthly prize or pelf
Is the thing I’ve lost in tempest tossed,
But the Body of Christ Himself!”

He thought of the Visage his dream revealed,
And turned towards whence he came,
Hands groping the ground along foot-track and field,
And head in a heat of shame.

Till here on the hill, betwixt vill and vill,
He noted a clear straight ray
Stretching down from the sky to a spot hard by,
Which shone with the light of day.

And gathered around the illumined ground
Were common beasts and rare,
All kneeling at gaze, and in pause profound
Attent on an object there.

‘Twas the Pyx, unharmed ‘mid the circling rows
Of Blackmore’s hairy throng,
Whereof were oxen, sheep, and does,
And hares from the brakes among;

And badgers grey, and conies keen,
And squirrels of the tree,
And many a member seldom seen
Of Nature’s family.

The ireful winds that scoured and swept
Through coppice, clump, and dell,
Within that holy circle slept
Calm as in hermit’s cell.

Then the priest bent likewise to the sod
And thanked the Lord of Love,
And Blessed Mary, Mother of God,
And all the saints above.

And turning straight with his priceless freight,
He reached the dying one,
Whose passing sprite had been stayed for the rite
Without which bliss hath none.

And when by grace the priest won place,
And served the Abbey well,
He reared this stone to mark where shone
That midnight miracle.

by Thomas Hardy

Random Lent thought for Friday March 24th: ‘Hallowed be your name’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 23rd: ‘Teach us to pray’

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 22nd: A Selfish Lent?

It seems strange to say it, but Lent can easily become a very selfish and self-centred time of year. During Lent, we are encouraged to examine ourselves, make changes, and try to draw closer to God. In our emotion-driven age, we can often fall into the trap of interpreting ‘draw closer to God’ as ‘have a deep feeling of peace inside’. It’s a short step from here to spending Lent monitoring our feelings and focussing on our emotional well-being.

Jesus offers a better way to draw closer to God.

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”.

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”‘. (Matthew 25:34040 NIV 2011).

Lord, deliver us from the snare of a selfish Lent.

Random Lent Thought for Tuesday March 21st: Contentment

‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”‘ (Hebrews 13:5).

in the Letter to the Hebrews, the section immediately before this one is about sexual immorality, which gets a lot of attention in the church and in the world (the media celebrates it, the church obsesses about it). It’s an important subject and I make no apology for giving attention to it from time to time, but it’s good to remember that the author to the Hebrews gives just as much attention to the danger of the love of money. I live in a covetous and greedy culture, with a powerful advertising industry dedicated to growing a spirit of discontentment in me. And whenever I give in to it, people cheer me and say, ‘Good for you! You deserve it!’

The author of Hebrews gives two remedies: contentment, and trust in God. As Sheryl Crow would say, ‘It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got!’ To be happy with what I have and not to be always wanting more – what Paul calls in 1 Timothy ‘godliness with contentment’ – is a great spiritual secret which I have not yet fully learned.

The second thing is trust in God: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’. God has promised to provide for our needs (not our wants – a category which includes most of what I worry about!). So growing closer to God and learning to lean on him is what it’s all about.

I’d add a third strategy for dealing with the love of money: generosity. If the false god of wealth is wrapping his chains around my heart, cheerful giving is always a good strategy for defeating him!

Random Lent Thought for Monday March 20th: ‘What We Do’

A few years ago I re-read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a book I hadn’t read for about twenty years. I have also watched a couple of movie and TV versions of it.

Whenever I go back to a book after watching movie adaptations, I’m usually impressed by two things: (1) How much better the book is than the movie! (2) Nonetheless, every now and again the scriptwriter put a line in that is so good and so true to character that you think ‘I wish the author had put that in!’

So, in the 2007 BBC miniseries of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, after a long period of hard-earned wisdom in the School of Hard Knocks, Marianne Dashwood says to her sister Elinor, “It is not what we say or what we feel that makes us who we are, it is what we do – or what we fail to do”.

Yes – I think Jane Austen would have agreed with that 100%!

And so would someone else: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NIV 2011).

Enough said. Carry on.

Thirsty for God (a sermon on John 4:5-42)

Ten years ago, in this church, we raised the money to drill three deep water wells for villages in West Africa. In late September of that year Willard Metzger from World Vision visited us and explained to us the significance of those wells. In villages with no wells of their own, the women sometimes spend most of their day walking back and forth between their homes and the nearest supply of fresh water, sometimes a distance of several miles. It isn’t possible in one trip to carry enough water to cook the evening meal; two or three trips might be necessary, just for that one job.

Obviously in a community with no well of its own, all the fresh water for drinking, cooking and washing has to be carried from somewhere else. The scarcity of water has a direct negative impact on health in the community. But what a difference when a local deep water well is drilled! The plentiful supply of fresh water has an immediate positive effect on the physical health of the community, and also on the quality of family life; when people don’t have to spend so much time walking to get water, there’s time for so many other family activities not even imagined before.

Water is essential for life. For people who live in places where it’s scarce, their entire lives become consumed with searching for it and transporting it. Behind every waking moment there’s this nagging worry: “Will we be able to find water?” Not surprisingly, in the lands of the Bible, where water is often scarce, it became a powerful symbol for true spirituality, for the reality of a living relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus met her in Sychar in Samaria. Samaria was in central Palestine, between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. Historically this was the heart of the old kingdom of Israel. When that kingdom was destroyed in the eighth century B.C., the King of Assyria deported many of the local inhabitants and brought in foreigners to take their place. These foreigners married into the local population, and the result was the Samaritans. Their religion was a blend of Old Testament Judaism with pagan beliefs and practices. The Jews of Jerusalem looked down on them as half-breeds who didn’t follow the pure religion of Moses, and there was a lot of bad blood between them.

It seems such a simple thing, for Jesus to sit down and have a conversation with this Samaritan woman, but in fact he had to cross at least three barriers in order for it to happen.  The first was the one we’ve already mentioned, between Jews and Samaritans. The second was a male/female barrier: in those days a man and a woman who were not married to each other just didn’t speak to each other in public; it was very questionable behaviour. But as Jesus is sitting down by the well in the heat of the day, a woman comes up with a water jar on her head, and Jesus starts a conversation with her.

The audience who first heard this story would have been suspicious about that woman right away. Why was she coming for water at noon? Respectable people were all off having their siestas at that time of day! Water jars were filled in the morning and evening; why wasn’t she coming at the usual time? Was she being ostracized or something? The original audience wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find out that the woman’s sexual life was in disarray – married five times, and now living common-law with someone. So this is a third barrier Jesus is crossing: he, a respectable rabbi, a ‘holy man’ if you like, is chatting with someone who was looked down on as a sinner.

But despite all these barriers, Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman about what he calls ‘living’ water. That was a figure of speech; it meant water bubbling up from a spring, in contrast to stagnant water of the sort you might find in a cistern. That old stuff isn’t much good, Jesus says to the woman: you can drink it if you want, but you’ll soon want another drink! But the living water – ah, now, that’s a different story! “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (13-14). Obviously he’s talking in metaphors here – but metaphors for what?

I think that when Jesus came to live among us as one of us, the last thing he had in mind was to create another religious system. ‘Religion’ often deteriorates into a control mechanism to try to domesticate a relationship with the living God. ‘Religion’ is all about holy places, holy people, and holy rituals. ‘Religion’ said that Jesus and the Samaritan woman should not be speaking, because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew, and because she was a woman and he was a man, and because she was a sinner and he was a rabbi. ‘Religion’ said it was a really important issue whether you worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, as the Samaritans said, or in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, as the Jews said.

‘Religion’ still does the same kind of thing today. It assumes that some places are holier than others, so churches are houses of God and if you want to meet God you need to go there. In religion, you can’t meet God in the middle of your ordinary life; you have to go off somewhere different to find him.

Religion also assumes that some people are holier than others. Priests and pastors have the inside track, and bishops and archbishops are even better! So instead of praying for ourselves, let’s get the professional religionist to speak to God on our behalf, because God’s more likely to listen to him or her than to me.

‘Religion’ assumes that some people start at a disadvantage – in our gospel for today, the Samaritans, the women, and the particularly sinful. So religion can’t understand someone like Jesus who hangs around with all the wrong people, like tax collectors and prostitutes. Doesn’t he understand how dangerous that is? They’re going to drag him down to their level!

Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious; he came to break down the barriers between religion and ordinary life, so that the living water of true spirituality could flow out into every part of our lives. He came so that every human being could have within them ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (v.14) – so that every human being, wherever they worshipped God, could do so ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.24).

What is this ‘spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ that Jesus wants to give to everyone who comes to him? A few chapters later in John, we read these words:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (7:37-39a).

Connecting these two passages together, we can find an answer to our question: the spring of water is the Holy Spirit, who comes to live in each of us.

In the traditional religious approach to God, if you wanted to meet God you had to go to a temple, because temples were the places where God lived. But Jesus turns the whole thing around. Jesus doesn’t send you to a temple – Jesus makes you into a temple yourself! God doesn’t live in houses made by human hands; no, God’s Holy Spirit comes to live in human beings, so that each of us becomes a temple, a place where God lives.

We see this in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. One hundred and twenty ordinary followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit in a dramatic explosion of praise and testimony. This was the thing that bystanders found so astonishing about the early church; ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed’ (Acts 4:13). Early Christianity was a lay-people’s movement: it didn’t depend on religious organization or ritual, but on the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit which each ordinary believer had received and continued to receive.

Those early Christians didn’t feel like they had to gather in holy places to meet God either; instead, they were conscious that the Holy Spirit was joining them together into a holy community, so that any place they met became a holy place. That’s why the question of where we worship God is irrelevant. As Jesus says in verses 23-24, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”. To worship God in truth is to worship him as he truly is, as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. And to worship him in spirit, or in the Spirit, means to have that well of living water bubbling up inside us – God the Holy Spirit living in us, guiding our words and actions in worship, so that the worship we offer is pleasing to the Father.

This sort of thing is contagious. Toward the end of our gospel, we read that the Samaritan woman went into Sychar and told a whole crowd of people about Jesus; “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v.29) The people were intrigued by this story and came out to see Jesus for themselves, and so he stayed in their city for a couple of days. What was the result? ‘And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world”’ (vv.41-42).

 

In other words, the Samaritans had moved on from having a second-hand faith to having a faith that was based on their own experience. Their ideas about God and Jesus were no longer based on hearsay, but on their own personal experience, and that experience led them to say, “He’s the Saviour of the world”. This is the promise of God to every one of us: we won’t just know him by hearsay, but by our own personal experience.

So let me conclude by urging you not to be satisfied with that old stagnant water. Jesus did not come to make us more religious; he came to fill us with the Holy Spirit. And as he reminded us in last week’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is not under our control; he’s like the wind, blowing where he wants to blow. All we can do is make up our minds to be satisfied with nothing less than his presence in our hearts, and then come to God in prayer and ask for the Spirit to be poured out among us.

Sometimes we have to wait for a while for that prayer to be answered. For some reason, the infilling of the Holy Spirit seems to be a blessing we have to persist in prayer for. Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his ascension until they were clothed with the power from on high. They waited ten days, meeting constantly and praying together, until the Day of Pentecost when the blessing was given at last. Since then, many ordinary Christians have talked about having to keep on praying, waiting patiently, until at last they sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit. I have no idea why this is so. Perhaps God wants to know how serious we really are; perhaps he wants us to experience the desperation of spiritual thirst to the full, before we experience the living water of the Spirit.

I know from my own experience that while we’re waiting, there’s a tendency to settle for less – a tendency to pretend we have received what we asked for, and to go away with lowered expectations. There’s a tendency to take that empty place in us where the Spirit will live, and fill it with the stagnant water of religion. There’s a tendency to give up; ‘God obviously hasn’t noticed my prayer; there’s obviously no blessing of the Holy Spirit waiting for me’.

Don’t give up. Jesus encourages us in several places in the gospels to persist in prayer and not to get discouraged. And in Luke’s gospel he tells us that if we human beings, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). So let us ask, and keep on asking, and not give up, until we experience the quenching of our thirst, as Jesus gives us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).