John’s Crown of Thorns

photo | Piers Northam

John, a Good Friday Person

At our church during Holy Week we have been using different symbols to help us concentrate our thoughts on each day’s theme. So, for example on Monday which was about the Anointing at Bethany, we all had a small envelope of spices which gave a fragrance to the Gospel reading and reflection.

Today, Good Friday, we all held rusty nails but on my bookshelf I saw something that helped me to get more out of that symbol. It was a crown of thorns. What is really special about this Crown of Thorns is that it is made of barbed wire (see photo above) and it isn’t easy to handle.

What makes it truly special is that it was made for me by a fellow theological student in the 1970s at King’s College, London. The final year of our course was spent at St. Augustine’s College Canterbury. There I was part of a Christian yoga prayer group which met every morning, using a different Christian symbol each day as our focus.

Someone had produced a Crown of Thorns made out of twigs and I remember remarking that I’d love one for personal prayer. It was just a chance remark. After Easter when we returned, I was presented with a crown of thorns, made out of barbed wire. It was from my friend John Aves, a farmer’s son from Norfolk. He had made it himself.

I have used it often as a focus for prayer and meditation but it also took on a deep meaning when John, who became a faithful and loving parish priest, died suddenly at the age of 52. My last meeting with him was when I lived in Edinburgh. He had been studying part time for a higher degree and his tutor/supervisor was at Edinburgh University. If my memory serves me, my last letter from him was to tell me he had got his qualification. Then he had a sabbatical in the Holy Land and it was whilst staying in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, and just before he came home, that he died.

Though I hadn’t seen him very much at all since we left college, he left an indelible mark of friendship and love upon me and on so many of us who knew him in those days. I can still hear his beautifully infectious laugh and his sense of joy as well as his impish humour that would catch us out as he roped us into some plot to make life a bit lighter and a bit zany. That flowed out from a real faith and a joyful love of God. It came as no surprise to hear that he was a much loved priest in the parishes where he served. He was to my mind one of God’s holy and caring servants.

I am not alone in that view. His bishop, Graham James, wrote a Lent book in 2015 and it portrayed 40 companions who had a message to give for Lent. John was one of them.

Bishop Graham began what he said of John with these words: “John Aves was one of those priests whom bishops treasure,” explaining that John’s farming family background led him to value country ministry and that “his faith came alive in the context of an ordinary country parish. He never dismissed the value of tiny, elderly, rural congregations.” (for 17 years he was Rector of Attleborough and Besthorpe in South West Norfolk.) He also said that John was one of those priests who not only received  ministry from his bishop but gave ministry to him.

Those who knew him in London and Canterbury know exactly what Bishop Graham means when he says he valued his “words of pastoral wisdom, gentle enquiries and occasional admonitions over a shared whisky” as the balm to his soul.

One of John’s legacies is an educational project which provides bursaries and other support for Palestinian refugees to study at Bethlehem University. The Project lives on through John’s wife and sons.

A simple crown of thorns made of barbed wire is for me an apt symbol to sum up John – he was truly a Good Friday person. He understood the theological truth that God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in  him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16), and he lived that truth and opened people up to it. He was a simple soul with a profound and deep understanding of Jesus and the love of God which saves the world.

John was a minister of that salvation and a proof that it is love poured out simply in His name to ordinary folk that changes everything. John certainly showed that to me. John’s crown of thorns will always be for me a symbol of what Jesus brings to all our lives and how he does it through lives like John’s.

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