Month: February 2021

A Lenten Message of an Icon

Icon of the Transfiguration written by Sister Irène of the Convent at Bec-Hellouin, Normandy.
Photograph arranged by Piers Northam.

The Gospel used by the Church of England on the Sunday before Lent is that of the Transfiguration. (Luke 9: 28-36) An unusual choice perhaps but it has a message to tell us as we enter, once again, the Lenten season.

One of the most treasured things I have is an Icon of the Transfiguration (see above). It was  painted/written by Sister Irène of the Convent at Bec-Hellouin, in Normandy. Sister Irène wrote (or painted) two versions. One is in the Chapel of the Transfiguration in the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Epping. It was commissioned specially for the new Chapel. The second is in the library in my home. It was written in memory of parents.

Over the centuries there have been many attempts by artists and Icon writers to capture the moment when Jesus is Transfigured – bathed in glory –on the Mountain.
Quite naturally the primary subject matter of these paintings & icons is Jesus bathed in beatific and glorious light. It is to this that our eyes are drawn but also  we take note of the other five figures, not least the favoured disciples, Peter, James & John, usually at the foot of the painting, often in a state of enraptured prayer.
In Sister Irène’s Icon there is a sense of awesomeness and of being overcome by the dazzling beauty of it all.

We are led by the Gospel writers to see this scene with the eyes of those disciples and certainly through their witness.
Whilst the effect on the disciples is present in Sister Irène’s Icon there is something else that attracts me to it and it is something unusual. It concerns the figure of Elijah.
Traditionally the two representatives of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah are shown as revered, wise and elderly men.
Moses represents the theme of deliverance which threads its way through the Old Testament and, Elijah the prophetic strand which points to a deliverer­ usually called a Messiah who will free the people of Israel from whatever yoke holds them back from true love and service of God.
 Sometimes this is the behaviour of their leaders – those Kings who did wicked, even demonic, things about whom we hear so much in the Scriptures – or it is about correcting and judging of sin which led to the people being variously exiled or driven back into slavery until they mended their ways.
By placing these two figures on either side of the figure of Jesus at the moment of his glorification we get a Triptych but always with the two figures pointing away from self towards the Christ in the middle.
This is because Jesus fulfils the hope and promise of deliverance – of freedom – of transformation of a community who, wayward and rebellious, nevertheless are claimed by God as his own.

So in the Icon both Moses and Elijah are pointing their hand towards Jesus. See, they are saying, this is one whom God has sent to free you and love you into his Kingdom.
Because Jesus is Transfigured then we, looking at him and making him the centre of  our lives, can be Transformed too.

Sister Irène  gives us a clue, I believe, not in the transformation of the disciples – that is yet to come when they understand better what has happened on this Mountain – not in them, but in Elijah.
He is almost always, as I say, painted as an old and venerable man whose wisdom came through a life that was often harsh, incredibly lonely and more often misunderstood but who, through experiencing God closely, becomes the great Prophet, calling people back to a life with God. 
In this Icon, however, Elijah is painted as a young man.
At Bec we were shown a number of possible representations but it was this which excited me most.
A young Elijah symbolised for me something essential about the Transfiguration – that it is about being Transformed by the glory and love of God in such a way that we are utterly changed.

Elijah as a young man is on the face of it a physical thing but spiritually it can be seen as a Transformation from within.
The more we see the glory and love of God as something that frees us, forgives us, redeems us and opens for us a new way of life, so our soul fizzes with new energy, new life – a life energized by God. This opens us to new possibilities, new adventures of faith and a renewed way of being true disciples.

Luke’s version of the Transfiguration tells us that while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed.
And it was this change that I see startlingly portrayed in Elijah and with that a realization that this is at the heart of our relationship with Jesus.
We are called to be people of change- people who are renewed by our encounter and subsequent life with, in and through Jesus Christ. People who are unafraid to grow, indeed who long to grow and become more deeply involved the Christian adventure.
This change comes about when we turn our lives around towards the beauty of God, which as St. Paul tells us shines in our hearts and gives the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is the message of the Transfiguration and it is personalized by that rather beautiful phrase, shines in our hearts.
God penetrates our hearts with light – with knowledge that in Jesus we can all be changed, transformed. We can be renewed, rejuvenated, made youthful again, because in the trials of life in this world with its pressures and relentless claims on our energy, especially at this time, this affects our spiritual centre which gets a bit askew. We become weary, dispirited, disorientated
Which, of course, is why Lent is such a Godsend.

It is a time to refresh our souls, to learn afresh about the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ, about disciplining our lives through prayer and fasting and centring ourselves on God again. It’s about encouraging new growth in the Spirit. And new hope.
No wonder a writer of the Orthodox Church calls this a season of the springtime of the soul. The spiritual writer Thomas Hopko quotes a phrase from the Orthodox Lenten Liturgy which begins : The Lenten spring shines forth, The flower of repentance ­
He goes on to say: The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation. She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering a new and exciting experience. The tone …is one of brightness and light.

Lent is not about doom and gloom and grovelling – it is a time of rebirth renewal. It is an enthusiastic turning of our lives back to God and therefore a time of rejoicing.
We are bidden to put a new spring in our step and let the glory and love of God, shining not only from the face but also the heart of Jesus, burn away from our lives all that is not of God and replace it with a re-centring on God which is what repentance really means.

So as we approach the Lenten Journey we are given a glimpse of glory. Lent is a time of real Transformation and of being glorified as we are held in the beautiful glorious, totally stupendous Vision of Jesus on the Holy Mountain and so becoming filled with a longing to be there with Him. We are invited to be transformed through a response to God’s Glory which begins with thankfulness.
Thanksgiving is such an important part of our response to what God is doing for us in Jesus Christ, in our community and personal life. We give thanks in small and big ways.

It would be a good thing to use Lent as a time when we repent of negativity and concentrate instead on the positive things which are happening, from deeper care and kindness towards each other to the many opportunities we have to think and pray about what matters in our lives.  Not least, the many and varied signs in which God loves us. The call to return to God is a big sign of God’s love but so is the call to make life better for others through what might be called random acts of kindness.
When the story of this pandemic is told, it will include so much about how, with God holding us, we have not only transformed our neighbourhoods through such acts of kindness, but also discovered the transfiguration of what is important in our being human, true humanity shot through with God’s glory. Add to that the inspiration of service from carers, NHS workers, doctors and amazing people like Captain Sir Tom. Ordinary people who by simply showing goodness, determination, care and kindness. People like you!

The message of the Icon of the Transfiguration is to show us what ordinary lives, blessed by God, can be and how we can all be transformed, transfigured, when we live close to God in Jesus Christ.


Collops & Pancakes

Pre Lent. Festivity and Fasting

In the past, the days before Lent were used to eat up all the food in the house which were traditionally ‘banned’ during the period of Fasting. It was the period of ‘Carnival’ (Carnivale) which is still popular in parts of Southern Europe. One of the most popular being in Venice with its parades and fancy dress and general merriment. Sadly because of the Virus, like many things, it won’t be happening this year. ‘Carnivale’ means, literally, ‘farewell to meat’ – a reminder that in Lent meat was not eaten. The Monday before Ash Wednesday is known as Collop Monday because on this day, any meat remaining in the house was fried into collops (like a medallion) and eaten. A traditional recipe involves bacon collops with eggs. Then on the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, the remaining eggs were used to produce pancakes (a tradition still extremely popular). Like meat, eggs were forbidden in Lent. This Tuesday was also the day when people confessed their sins and made themselves ready for the Lenten Fast. The word ‘Shrove’ comes from ‘shriven’ meaning ‘to confess and receive God’s absolution/ forgiveness’.

A more unusual festivity, and a unique one, is associated with the village of Whitechapel in North Lancashire, where I was Vicar for a time. The School children would go round the houses and farms in the area and  would knock on doors and  say ‘Please –a– pancake’. In the past they no doubt got pancakes but in more modern times, it was much more healthy—the children each received an orange! (sadly not this year of course).

Nowadays some of the festivity continues but the meaning behind it is lost. Lent is no longer a time for absolute fasting though many ‘give up’ things like chocolate or alcohol. (Sometimes the motive for this abstinence is to do with losing weight for the summer!). Fasting is a good spiritual discipline for all sorts of reasons. It is meant to train the body so that the soul is free to communicate more closely with God; it is a reminder of our Lord’s desert time when, after fasting he was tempted by the devil and resisted—and we are called to resist the temptations that beset us. Going without food of any kind and perhaps eating more simply at all times helps us to identify with so many in the world who are suffering from malnutrition—people we can help if we give the money saved by avoiding luxury foods to Third World charities and causes.

More than anything, fasting is also about giving up earthly things in order to concentrate on heavenly ones. A proper Fast must be accompanied by a deeper praying. In our modern world we could give up things other than food—such as watching less television—and using the time saved to read a spiritual book . A negative should always be accompanied by a positive. Lent can be a time to ‘take on’ something as well as ‘give up’. Setting an aim to be a better, more equipped, Christian is a good goal and turns Lent into a positive time. Lent is not a time of gloom but as the word itself means—a spring time for spiritual growth. An exciting time of opportunity to spend more time with God.


The Greening Power of Spring comes ever near

Another lovely Tweet from my friend Joyce Smith. Here’s what she has to say about it:

Dear Friends,

It’s now getting lighter in the mornings and the birdsong is great to hear.
During my hour’s birdwatch last week I saw robins, blue tits, great tits, starlings, blackbirds and wood pigeons – all competing with the squirrels! At other times a wren sang beautifully on my fence and a crowd of long tailed twists twittered on the bird feeders. I guess some of you saw more than I did?

This starling and wood pigeon were a display of being in unity and sharing together. Joyce

A note about Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox who said this about her in his book Original Blessing.

Hildegard was one of the “great creation-centered mystics of the West.” This multitalented and prolific abbess of a Benedictine abbey was an influential preacher, healer, scientist, composer, theologian, artist, and poet. She coined the term viriditas, or greening power, connecting it closely with creativity.

All in it together

Elephant family in harmony with creation,
made, arranged & photographed by Piers Northam

Last Sunday at St Mary-at-Latton our Family Service had a Creation theme. Piers, the leader told a story based on A Year Full of Stories, 52 Folk Tales and Legends from around the world.

The particular story was called Elephant and the Rain Spirit which was sub-titled An African Bushman Story.

It told of an Elephant which was very proud of being the largest and strongest animal, the greatest in the land. Being a big animal no-one dared to argue with him. Until, that is, the Rain Spirit challenged the Elephant.
The Elephant wasn’t used to being challenged and began to protest. What about his great trunk and his fine tusks, not to mention his great big feet which made the earth tremble.
The Rain Spirit then reminded him that it was she who filled all the watering holes so that the animals can drink and watered the plants so that they could grow.
The elephant got quite annoyed at this and insisted that he could find his own food and drink.
The Rain Spirit said that the Elephant could therefore fend for himself and with a flash of lightning off the Spirit went. The Elephant laughed. He had seen the Rain Spirit off. He really was the greatest.

All went well until the Rainy season arrived but there was no Rain Spirit to fill the lakes and water holes, nor water for the plants. The other animals became thirsty and hungry so they went to the Elephant. They asked him to provide water for them to drink and water the plants so they had food to eat. The Elephant was a bit stuck so he told Crow to make water.  Crow did her best but very soon what little was produced was soon used up. Except for one watering hole that Elephant kept for himself. He told Tortoise to guard it which he tried to do.
All the animals tried to persuade Tortoise but to no avail. Until, that is, the Lion came. He moved Tortoise away with his paw and began to drink. The other animals took advantage until all the water was gone.
When the Elephant returned and saw what happened, he became very angry. The Tortoise tried to defend himself but the Elephant punished him by swallowing him up. The Tortoise wasn’t happy either and he made a great commotion in the Elephant’s stomach. The Elephant sunk to his knees in agony.
Then the Rain Spirit returned and the Elephant begged for help. The Rain Spirit said that surely, as the Elephant was the greatest in the land, why would he need help.

The Elephant then realized something. He told the Rain Spirit that though he was the greatest on earth, he wasn’t the greatest in the sky. The Rain Spirit laughed and laughed and the rain splashed down. When Tortoise heard the rain he gave Elephant a great thump and Elephant coughed him out again.

This delightful story has a big lesson. No one is more important than anyone else and that we all depend on each other. Gifts and food and water have all been provided for all of us by God. To enjoy this Providence all we have to do is share it with each other. That also means that we have to look after all of Creation. We are called Stewards which really means lookers-after. We have accountability for this stewardship. That goes for Mother Earth too. We have been given the work of caring for the climate and looking after this wonderful planet of which we are currently the tenants.

But we know all too well that we are failing.
Politicians, world leaders, those who exploit animals, rain forests, oceans, poor people and natural resources because they are greedy or who, like the Elephant in the story think they are the greatest are leading the world into extinction are all failing. So are we!

David Attenborough, the elder statesman of planet and nature conservation together with Greta Thumberg, one of our youngest activists have done more to alert and educate people of our Universal plight than any politician. Young voices are being heard in our own country. The proposed Future Generations Bill with its simple aim to put the well-being of those who follow us at the heart of decision making today. The Bill has been promoted by The Big Issue Foundation and Lord Bird who does so much for the homeless and vulnerable.

The Pandemic is a time when our own vulnerability as  the human race, is something we are being made to face. Whatever happens as we try to tackle the Virus, things are no longer the same and never ever will be. We are discovering that we aren’t the greatest and we never will be. There are truly vital lessons to be learned.

In the Christian religion there is a word – Repentance-  it means expressing sorrow for our mistakes and failings and self-centredness but most of all, out of this, there needs to come a turning round towards God, (The heart of what Repentance means) returning to the source of love and self-lessness. We are to return to the one who is our Provider – who gives and gives and gives all we need.

The Elephant had to learn a big, big lesson about our mutual dependency on each other. We all have a special place in the life of the world. However, that special place is not greater or better than anyone else. We have to try and help people to realize that and also, that together we can do lovely and wonderful and beautiful things.This depends on mutual care, love, acceptance, celebration and cherishing each other. Also, developing a growing recognition and gratitude that God who really is our provider, makes life (ours and all creatures that inhabit our Planet) very special.

Our picture above shows a family of rather gentle elephants. All those at the service made their own versions of it. May it remind them and us of how much better it is if we work together with others – human and otherwise!


#The book, A year full of stories. 52 Folk Tales and Legends from around the world, is written by Angela McAllister and is wonderfully illustrated by Christopher Corr. Published by Francis Lincoln Children’s books 2016 ISBN 978-1-84780-859-2

#There are a few photos of the children’s elephants on the St. Mary-at-Latton Facebook page (under photos).