The Sparrow, the Crown, & the Thorns

The Holy Thorn Reliquary at the British Museum

The Holy Thorn Reliquary at the British Museum

A massive earthquake struck the town of Ocotlán, Mexico, not too far from Guadalajara on October 2, 1847, the same year Saint Mark’s was founded.  The earthquake leveled most buildings in the town and rendered whatever was left standing uninhabitable.  The next day, according to the mayor of the town, Juan Antonio Ximénez, “the perfect image of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross was seen [in the sky] between west and north, formed between two clouds and lasting for half an hour, in which time more than 1,500 people who were in the plaza fell to their knees, performing acts of contrition and crying to the Lord to show mercy.”

Many decades later, in 2010, in a church in that same town, a crown of thorns that had been placed by a statue of Jesus began to bloom, showing “several pink, trumpet-like flowers coming out of it and a few other green shoots with leaves….”  Mind you, this miracle involved a crown “made out of a thorny desert plant that had been twisted into a circle” by some local pious soul, and not an actual relic of the actual Crown of Thorns that was placed on the head of Jesus, as St. John and two of the other evangelists report.  

That Crown of Thorns has been famously featured in the news all week, since the un-rivaled hero of this Holy Week must surely be Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, who is credited with ensuring the safe recovery from the flames of Notre Dame of the relic of the Crown of the Thorns.  That relic is, in fact “a twisted circlet of juncus balticus rushes, to which no thorns are any longer attached.  The thorns themselves  - maybe as many as 60 or 70 of them - have long ago been disseminated as separate relics: trophies for the faithful (or the victorious) who prize such things.  Fr. Fournier also took pains to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from Notre Dame.  And the New York Times reports that on his way out of the cathedral, whose roof was in blazes by then, “Father Fournier, alone in the nave, gave a benediction to the cathedral.  He said, ‘I thought Jesus could help us a little bit, and work, too,’” in the effort to save that holy place.

The thorns themselves (so long detached from their associated diadem of rushes), that are found in reliquaries such as a famous one at the British Museum, seem to come from another species of plant altogether: ziziphus spina-christi.  But this is an un-troubling detail to many, and I don’t see why we should trouble ourselves with it today.

Today the question on our minds might be to wonder what difference the Crown of Thorns could make in the world today.  And this is just another way of asking what difference the death of Jesus on the Cross could make to anyone in the world today.

While we are considering legends of the Crown of Thorns, we should include the old legend that tells of a group of swallows that were flitting around the Cross that day so long ago at Calvary.  Those birds used their little beaks to remove from Jesus’ flesh, and from the entwined circlet around his head, the thorns that pierced the steady brow of the Crucified Christ.  The legend goes on to say that one particularly pious swallow - the first swallow to remove a thorn from Christ’s brow - then took off on a 3600 kilometer flight.  This was no great feat for the bird, except that he or she accomplished this flight without ever losing the thorn.  The ambitious and athletic swallow is said to have flown to the Sierra de Guadarrama, outside of Madrid, where it sought out a hilltop, and there it died of exhaustion, and was buried beneath the earth, perhaps by the earth itself.  And to this day the hilltop is known a El Cerro de la Golondrina: the Hill of the Swallow.  Curiously the legend reports no result of the swallow’s efforts, or outcome of its death.  No shrub sprang up in the place where it died.  No tree blossoms there to mark the holy season of Christ’s death and resurrection.  As far as I know, the hilltop does not even provide a regular resting place for swallows on their migratory pilgrimage.  But the view is very nice.

If you do a little asking, you will eventually find that the reason the thorns from the Crown that was placed on Jesus’ head at his Crucifixion are so sought after, is that they are counted among that minuscule number of objects still extant in the world today that have been in contact with his Blood.  Now, most 21st-century Christians do not spend much time thinking in terms of the shedding of blood in ritual sacrifice, and what such sacrifice could accomplish, and how.  But most first-century Jews did think precisely in these terms.  And especially on this day: the beginning of Passover, when the blood of the slaughtered lamb was to be smeared on the doorposts and the lintels of their houses in order to protect and save the children of God’s chosen people, when the angel of death came past on his way to begin the process of their salvation.  The Passover lamb was no scapegoat: it was the supplier of blood, as well as the food for the meal that would send them on their way to freedom.  But first and foremost it was the supplier of blood, which everybody knew was also the stuff of life.  And which God had told Moses would ensure life for his people, whose lives had become a misery for the benefit of their political and economic masters.  And that’s why tonight will be different from every other night.

Back in Mexico, no one remembers anymore just what the vision of the crucified Christ that appeared in the sky looked like.  Was it an image of a Velasquez painting?  Was it a 3-D sort-of hologram?  Was it more like Virtual Reality?  Or was it a configuration of clouds that suggested to one and all who gazed upward, the form of the Son of God with his arms stretched out on the Cross, as he uttered his words of resignation or accomplishment: “It is finished”?  Maybe it was a mass-hallucination, made all the more plausible as people talked with one another and convinced themselves that they had seen something that they could not possibly have seen… the way people do.

But in truth, it hardly matters.  Remember, this vision appeared on the day after a devastating earthquake, when death and destruction surrounded them, and when the daily realities of their very existence had been thrown into chaos and disarray.  They were frightened and worried.  They were injured and mourning.  They were hungry and thirsty.  They were anxious and uncertain about the most essential things. Mayor Ximénez reports that “there was terror and fright everywhere, especially when rocks broke away from the hill and the wild animals were terrified.”  But then they saw an image of Jesus in the clouds.  And on [his] face was an expression combining love and reassurance.”  And the effect of the vision (mass-hallucination or not) was to bring calm and hope to those whose lives had been shattered just the day before.  I think I’d settle for a mass-hallucination like that.

We tell ourselves that we no longer believe in such legends because we know better, because everything we have learned about the world has taught is that such stories cannot be true, and because we are sophisticated people who will not be manipulated by tales that the church uses to get us to do as we are told.  We no longer buy into such foolishness.  All of this is true.

But it might also be true that we no longer pay attention to such legends, or to the legend of the swallows, or put much stock in the Crown of Thorns because we have stopped believing that the Death of Jesus on the Cross has much impact on our lives.  We have lost track of the meaning of the Crucifixion.  And we have given up on the idea that that there is any power in the Blood of the Lamb, as the old spiritual used to promise.  All of which suggests that we have also given up on the idea that God could protect and save his people; that he is leading us to salvation; and that the supplier of blood is of inestimable value to those who hope for anything like freedom, anything like life; and who hope that tomorrow will be different from all our yesterdays.

Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, must know a thing or two about people who have given up.  He was on the scene when a terrorist took the lives of journalists in Paris in 2015.  And he was with those who responded to the terror attack that killed 90 people later that year in the same city.  And he served with French forces in the endless war in Afghanistan, and was nearby when an ambush left ten of his soldiers dead.  I am sure he has seen a few people give up on hope.

I would think, that like you and like me, Fr. Fournier is not expecting a vision of Jesus in the clouds.  I would think that he does not expect a migration of swallows to perform a miracle for the world.  But I am struck by the image of this man, making his way through the cavernous cathedral, while its roof burns above him… where he stopped, having accomplished his aim of rescuing the Crown of Thorns and the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of the One whose head once wore that Crown.  He stopped to give a blessing, there beneath the flames, which is to say he offered a prayer there for God’s help in time of trouble.

Fr. Fournier, despite all he has seen, has not given up on the One whose Blood was poured out on hill beyond the city wall, all those years ago.  And I believe that he has provided us with an indispensable motto for our times… for those of us who still hold on to hope, and who can see how it is that God might be at work in the world, and who know that it is for us and for our salvation that there is still power to be found in the Blood of the Lamb.  There, in Notre Dame, as the roof was succumbing to the flames, having directed the firefighters in the rescue of the Crown of Thorns, Fr. Fournier stopped to pray.  There remained, of course, much work to be done, a great deal more to try to save.  Fr. Fournier explained why he stopped to pray.  He said, “I thought Jesus could help us a little bit, and work, too….”

I think so too.  And if I could, I would fly to the top of the Cross and I would remove one of the thorns from Jesus’ bleeding brow, to relieve his suffering just a little, and to bring hope to those who have lost it.  And I would carry that thorn with me wherever I go, until my dying day.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*Details of the letter of Juan Antonio Ximénez on 3 October 1847, and of the various miracles of Ocotlán are all from Robert Bitto in “Jesus in the Sky and the Flowering Crown of Thorns,” www. mexicounexlpained.com

**Details of Fr. Fournier’s rescue of the relic and the Blessed Sacrament and other details about Fr. Fournier are from The Chaplain, the Cathedral Fire and the Race to Rescue Notre Dame’s Relics, by Elian Peltier in the New York Times, 17 April 2019

Posted on April 19, 2019 .

The Parable of the Stray Kitten

I press on… because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  (Phil 3:12)

…to hear the kitten purr, go to Saint Mark’s Facebook page…

…to hear the kitten purr, go to Saint Mark’s Facebook page…

One of the reasons that domesticated animals show up in my sermons, and in my prayers, and in the ways I think about the church and about God, and about heaven, is that so many animals are so completely and totally dependent on us.  My dog Ozzie’s dependence on me has been front and center all week, since he is recovering from surgery following a knee injury - a torn ACL.  But I also spend a fair amount of time around horses: formidable creatures, who can nevertheless be astoundingly fragile and dependent on their human caretakers.

I understand that our relationship with animals - both wild and domesticated - is complicated and fraught.  And it is not my intention to address the totality of that relationship from the pulpit this morning.  I am of the view that, for better or worse, over the course of human history we have taken God at his word, that we should “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion… over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  (Gen 1:28)

I am not of the view that we have in any good sense met God’s highest expectations in the ways we have taken him at his word.  Nor am I of the view that we have exercised much wisdom in how we have filled the earth and asserted our dominion over it and over all living things.  To be sure, we have subdued a great deal.  “Give an inch: take a planet” has been our watchword, and some day we will have much to answer for.

All the same, I speak to you as a man who has just paid for his dog to have reconstructive knee surgery, so spare me a little.

It’s a cat, however, that comes to mind this morning.  Or to be more precise, a kitten that I happened to see skittering across a street on a warm autumn night last year, and which was obviously a stray.  I was with a friend eating at a restaurant with outdoor seating.  And nothing seemed so obvious to me as the suggestion that I could entice this at-risk kitten to come to me (and hence to safety) using the French fries that remained on my plate.  It worked.  And to spare you the details (which involve a cardboard box, an escape, a second capture, the same box, masking tape, and an Uber ride), suffice it to say that the kitten was corralled by no less than three people, including the waitress at the restaurant who indicated a willingness to take the kitten home and welcome it into her familial feline fold.  But not that night.  The kitten would have to spend the night elsewhere, she said, until it could be tested for diseases that might threaten her other cats.  So the kitten came home with me, since the Rectory easily allows for the quarantine of one tiny kitten at a safe distance from Gus.

The kitten fit easily in the palm of my hand.  She was a dark brindle.  And when I post the text of this sermon on-line, I will also post a sixteen second video of her curled up on a towel under my bathroom sink, purring contentedly.  Those are sixteen seconds of bliss unless your heart is made of stone.

It is true that I was slightly smitten by this little kitten.  It is true that later that night, I allowed the kitten to curl up on the bed under my arm.  It is true that the result of my affection was that Ozzie, Gus, and the bedsheets all got fleas.  And it is true that if the good-hearted waitress had not followed through, and had the kitten not found a home with her, then I would surely have given the kitten a home with me and Ozzie, and Gus, and the Ministry Residents (after treating her for fleas).

It was her smallness, her obvious vulnerability, and, of course, the established fact that only hours after rescue and rendition to a new and completely foreign environment she was capable of curling up and purring so beautifully that won me to her.  And every moment of the twelve hours or so that she was in my care, the question lurked in the background: would I be willing to take her in?  Would I be willing to make her my own?

Remember that this is not a sermon about pet adoption.  My little story is mean to be a parable to put us in mind of our complete and total dependence on God.

So often, I read the Scriptures, and I wonder how I can convince you that you and I must do something.  I want us to heed the call to claim the faith of the church as our own, to be willing to stand up for Jesus, to take seriously the command to take up our cross and follow him.  But this morning, I hear a message from the other side of the page, when I hear Saint Paul describing something of his own repentance, his own conversion.   I am reminded that the whole story of our life in God is not held in our hands, but is held in God’s hands.  And our life in faith is not determined nearly so much by our footsteps, as it is by the footsteps of Jesus.  And the inclinations of our hearts can only ever follow the inclination of his loving heart.  St. Paul, you see, had been large and in charge (to paraphrase him a little).  He had been sure of his own righteousness.  He was above reproach in every conceivable way.  If anyone else had reason to be confident, he had more!  But something happened.

On Friday nights this Lent, Mother Johnson has been reminding us that the basic structure of narrative is conducive to describing repentance and conversion.  And she’s reminded us that people in recovery are often well acquainted with that basic narrative structure, since recovery is rooted in the stories of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.

Saint Paul would have done well in our Friday night program of digital story-telling.  And indeed, his story of repentance and conversion is one of the most famous in history, notable for the acute difference between what it was like and what it is like now.  But of course, the really important part of the story is not just what it was like and what it is like now.  The really important part of the story is what happened.

Elsewhere, Paul has told the story of what happened to him in eloquent detail.  Those details from the road to Damascus are of a kind that few of us have ever experienced or can relate to: the bright light, the voice from heaven, the fall to the ground, the scales on his eyes, etc.  But today Paul has told us in a single phrase what it was that happened to him, in a way that we might pay attention to, because, unlike the bright light, the voice from heaven, the fall to the ground, the scales on the eyes, etc, this other thing that happened to St. Paul has happened to every single one of us as well.

St. Paul is writing from prison.  He has realized that he is completely and totally dependent on God.  And if you unpack his language, you will find that there is a basic narrative structure to what he has to tell the church at Philippi.  He tells them what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.  He puts it in terms of why he is not discouraged, though he sits there in chains.  And this, he tells them, is what happened: “I press on,” he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own!”  Christ Jesus has made me his own.

That’s what happened to St. Paul: Christ Jesus made him his own.  St. Paul did not go church shopping, or even synagogue shopping.  He was not looking for faith.  He thought he knew everything he needed to know.  He thought he had done everything he needed to do.  He thought he was righteous, and by nearly every measure he knew, he was correct.  But he did not know that God was going to do something with him.  He did not know that God was not done with him.  He did not know that God had a story of repentance and conversion for him.

He  knew what it was like, and he assumed that it would be like that for ever.  He had no thought that he was in need of repentance or conversion.  He didn’t know that something could happen.  And he had no thought that he was in need of Jesus - in fact he thought he knew otherwise.  But there was another side of the page.  And when St. Paul turned and saw the other side of the page, then he also saw what had happened.  He saw that Christ Jesus had made him his own!

The same is true of everyone here.  Christ Jesus has made you his own, if you will have him.  For he will not force himself on you.  Jesus knows that we are small and vulnerable, but he also knows that we deeply desire to curl up under the sink and purr.  He knows what it was like.  And he knows what can happen.  And he knows what it will be like for each and every one of us.  He knows that we are strays.  He knows that we have been out late and have been stranded on the street.  He knows that we are in trouble.  He even knows that we have fleas, if you want to put in terms of the Parable of the Stray Kitten.  But never mind that; he has made us his own.  Christ Jesus has made you his own.

The deeper truth of the matter, of course, is that this narrative structure is faulty at some profound level, where Jesus is concerned, since Jesus made us his own long before any one of us even drew breath.  Jesus made us his own when he created our inmost parts, when he knit us together in our mother’s womb, as the Psalmist puts it.  Jesus has known us since before time and will know us for all eternity, since we were his before we were anything at all.  And he joined himself more perfectly to every single one of us when he became small and vulnerable, like us.  But that truth is very difficult for us to see.

It’s much easier for us to see that we are strays, that we are lost, that we are small, vulnerable, and at the mercy of so much that we seem to need to escape, living, as we do, on such mean streets.  And if we are to grasp the deeper truths that are found outside of conventional narrative structure, sometimes it is first helpful to lay out the story in the most basic terms of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.

Looking at it this way, on this side of the page, bound in time as we are, what happened is that Christ Jesus made us his own.  And I suspect that he wants us to know that he has made us his own so that, now and then at least, we can curl up in some warm, safe place, and purr.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 April 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 7, 2019 .

A Change Moment

There are at least two factors that make is hard for us to hear the full power of the story of the Prodigal Son.  The first is our habit of hearing the story as individuals.   

Now it’s true that the story is written about an individual, that bad son who decides that he needs his inheritance right away.  And he goes about sinning in a real capital-I-individualistic way.  He doesn’t see any reason to stick with his family, build up their fortunes, support his father in his old age, or help his brother with the work of the estate.  He has no sense of collective belonging.  As far as he can see, the family is just a financial asset, and he wants to cash in.  So he flies in the face of all the cultural expectations and all the familial ties, and he withdraws his share.   

I feel sure that as he left home his father and brother knew he would be back soon needing help.  It’s pretty clear that there is no plan, no maturity, no sense that it would be best to avoid having to drain other people’s resources when the money runs dry.  It’s clear he has no plan to give money to people who need it more than he does, or start a family, or do anything else that involves paying attention to other people’s needs.  He’s a self-centered individualist if there ever was one. 

But there is no reason that we have to hear his story as a story about individuals. Because it’s an especially powerful story if we think about what happens to us as a collective.  Think about it: very few of us set out deliberately to squander everything.  It does happen, and we all have our bad spells, but I think most people can listen to this story with some sense of distance.  Demand your inheritance up front and blow through it in a short time?  I don’t think that’s a really common occurrence.  I’m not sure inheritances are all that common any more, to be honest. And in any case, it takes a special act of the will to lose absolutely everything, even when you are very young.  We mess up, of course, but rarely with the kind of clarity and force that the prodigal son brings to that task. 

So individually maybe we aren’t in that much danger of imitating the prodigal son.  But collectively, the picture is different.  Collectively, without a clear sense of individual agency, we seem alarmingly good at wandering far from where we belong.  We seem alarmingly ready to squander the resources of the good earth God has given us.  It looks like we are willing to be reckless with other important things too: our liberty, the dignity of every human being, the covenant that requires all of us to work for the common good.  Belief in the future.  The great treasure that is God’s church.  We run through these gifts as though there were no tomorrow.  We seriously entertain the notion that there may be no tomorrow.  We are collectively, disastrously, prodigal. 

We’re told in Luke’s gospel that the younger son “comes to himself” one day while he is looking after some pigs.  He comes to himself and sees that he is living a degraded life.  He is hungry.  He comes to himself and remembers that he is the son of a magnanimous father who treats even the servants with some fundamental respect, and he determines that he will go home.    

That’s hard to do when we are talking about collective sin.  It’s really hard for us to come to ourselves collectively.  It can be hard to know how we even got to that pigsty, and hard to know where home is now.  If we never really intended to squander our inheritance, and we didn’t squander it all by ourselves, how are we going to repent?  What’s the first step? 

Do you remember that I said there were two factors that keep us from hearing this story in its full power?  The first one is that we hear it as individuals, and we don’t think about our collective sin.  The second factor that keeps us from hearing this story fully is that we think we have to hear it in chronological order.  It’s a very tidy story, at least initially.  The son takes his inheritance.  He lives a dissolute life.  He comes to himself.  He returns.  As everyone in our Friday night Digital Storytelling group has heard a million times, there is a “change moment” in this story, a point of crisis after which nothing is the same.  The prodigal son hits bottom.  The story turns.  Metanoia. 

But don’t let the conventions of linear storytelling get in your way when God is waiting to bring you home to the fullness of life.  If we didn’t get to our degradation on our own, if we’re not just in a private pigsty, if the whole world has gone astray and we’ve all forgotten that we are the children of a loving creator—there isn’t going to be one big turning point.  This isn’t one person’s story.  I hate to say it but we may never know when we’ve hit bottom.   

But there is good news in that.  If we are all down here with the pigs together, if we can’t even say exactly how we got here, if we have trouble even knowing how the trouble started, we don’t have to wait until the story takes a clear shape before we call on God to help us.  

Think about that crazy, loving, abundantly-forgiving father.  Do you think that if his son had sent word that he was stuck in a pigsty with a large crowd of people to whom he was inexplicably bound, the father would have reacted ungenerously?  I don’t.  I think he would have run straight to the barnyard and embraced the son, muck and all.  I think he would have jumped right over the fence and into the trough.  I think he would have asked his son to come home and bring a few hundred of his hungry friends.  I’m not sure how he would have pulled it off, but I’m certain that the father’s love and the father’s resources and the father’s forgiveness would have been more than enough for the trouble the son and his friends were in.  And I’m certain that seeing the father run right into the muck to embrace his son would have been good for everyone there, no matter whose fault the situation had been. 

What would that story of repentance look like for us?  What would the world see if we came to ourselves today and remembered that we were beloved children, not lost prodigals?  I’m not talking about individual escape from the troubles of the world, I’m talking about what it would look like to have confidence today, right here in the pigpen.  Confidence in God.  Confidence that salvation is real, and it’s for everyone even when we think we are experiencing it individually.   

I’m talking about how the joy of forgiven Christians might transform the world.  I’m not talking about shallow Christian happiness, I’m talking about Christian realists who are set free to act boldly.  People who know that they can rejoice even here and now, because change doesn’t have to wait.  People who are transformed by God’s grace to live according to our baptismal covenant right now.  People who are willing to experience the embrace of God even if the world has forgotten God.    

It’s hard to write this story.  I can’t explain exactly how we got to the point at which we had squandered our inheritance.  I’m not at all sure that it’s completely squandered.  I think we may have hidden reserves still, though the trends are profoundly worrying.  I have ideas about whose fault our predicament is, but all of my ideas are partial and self-justifying.  I have almost no ability to name my part in our collective prodigality.  I can lament, but actual repentance that involves changing my life down in the heart of it all where the problem is—that’s pretty hard to get my mind around.  I fear that mastery of this story is beyond me in some ways. 

But I’m going to take my cue from the church today.  It’s Laetare Sunday, the Sunday in Lent when we change the vestments from violet to rose, and we acknowledge a kind of premature rejoicing.  We remind ourselves to rejoice in the middle of repentance.  We break the conventions of Digital Storytelling, and we start to live in the end of the story before we make it all the way to the metanoia.   

God is here, now.  Forgiving.  Abundantly.  Not waiting for our breaking point.  We may be hungry and we may be facing degradation, but we are being asked to acknowledge even now that we are children of God, before the story makes sense to us.  The whole world may not change today because you and I change, but how do we know what genuine freedom and rejoicing in the love of God might bring to our collective experience of degradation?  The father in Luke’s gospel sees his son while the son is still far off, practicing his weak apology.   He runs to wrap his arms around that sorry prodigal.  What will our creator do for us if we are the least bit willing?  Why shouldn’t we find out?

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
31 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 4, 2019 .