Ursula Grover has won the Royal Mail's Young Letter Writer of the Year contest. Over 50,000 entrants wrote a letter to their Hero. She chose the person who invented rhubarb crumble. “I think you are extremely clever to have invented such a scrumptious recipe! I make it every Sunday because I LOVE it!!” she wrote. “When you eat it the taste of rhubarb comes zooming into your mouth and you feel absolutely refreshed. I am really lucky because my next door neighbours grow rhubarb and give some to me!"
What some of us take for granted, the eight-year-old was wise enough to appreciate – the wisdom of the one who first put together the ingredients which make up her favorite pudding. It isn’t just that she knows how to enjoy it, she’s learnt to make it for herself.
Our lives are made up of a wide variety of ingredients and we all have our own idea of the best recipe. Jesus offered one based around the instructions to love God and each other. But very few of his contemporaries seemed grateful for his suggestions about how to put together a life. On the first Palm Sunday some shouted and cheered but the moment soon passed. Events later that same week suggested a very different reaction.
Today we might reflect on all the things which go into our lives and how we blend them into a whole. If the resulting cuisine puts a “zoom” into our hearts, we may wish to say thank you. Perhaps the best way to do that is continue to go by the recipe of the one who gave us the ingredients.
At an annual festival in Bali each March, around 70 Hindu young men and women dress in traditional sarongs and pray in the local temple in Sesetan before parading in lines through the street and choosing a partner. As a gamelan orchestra chimes in the background and to the cheers of onlookers, they kiss for around 15 seconds before priests step in, soaking them with buckets of water.
The ceremony, dating back to the late 19th-century, is said to ensure the good health and prosperity of those taking part and of the whole village. For the same reason, the crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. They cheered because they hoped he would bring them good times and because it was fun.
Our emotions can be fickle. It’s doubtful whether many of the liaisons created at the kissing festival will come to anything. The crowd’s enthusiasm for Jesus drifted away as the unorthodoxy of his approach became clear during the week which followed. Any real change in the fortunes of individuals or of peoples takes more than momentary enthusiasm or passion.
Jesus’ feelings ran deeper. A word the gospel-writers use for one of them literally means a churning of the inner parts and implies a mixture of anger, sympathy and compassion (e.g. Mark 1.41). It was perhaps one of the things which kept him going through his last week of life.
Perhaps today we might look for ways of harnessing our feelings in the cause of creative change. Most people prefer more superficial expression of passion – it’s more comfortable - but allowing strong emotions to emerge, sometimes from deep within us, can be a powerful force for good.
A grizzle cock pigeon, known to the Air Ministry by the codename NPS.42.31066, is more intimately known as Gustav. This was the pigeon that delivered the first news of Allied success from the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944. During his mission, Gustav was reportedly buffeted by a headwind of up to 30 miles per hour and his view of the sun - his primary means of navigation - was obscured by heavy cloud. But the plucky feathered warrior persisted and delivered the good news from the beaches to waiting military chiefs back in England.
Gustav's feat earned him the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Sadly, Gustav found peacetime more perilous and met an end when his breeder stepped on him while mucking out his loft.
Courage is an admirable quality and one any of us might need at any time. From going to the defence of someone in danger to standing ground against criticism of one of our actions or beliefs, we never know when bravery might be called for. The crises and struggles of every day life often demand the courage just to keep going. Jesus, in the last week of his life, needed constant reserves of courage when his ideals were challenged, his friends uncertain of him and his physical well-being threatened.
As the manner of Gustav’s death suggests, courageous actions bring no guarantee of security. Faint-heartedness often seems a safer bet than fearlessness. But there are times when courage and nothing less is called for. Jesus’ bravery took him to the cross. Let’s hope that if guts are what’s needed from us today, we won’t falter.
The Bentley Brook Inn in Fenny Bentley hosts the annual Ben & Jerry's World Toe Wrestling Championships. Contestants sit opposite each other on the "Toedium" and, locking big toes, place their feet on a small wooden frame, imaginatively termed the "Toesrack". At the cry of "Toedown" they wrestle both right and left feet, in a straight knockout competition with the winner being the person who pushes his or her opponent's foot to the bookend on the side of the frame.
Wrestling can also be done in an even less physical way than with toes. Trials of strength are common between parents and children, between partners, among work colleagues. They can provide ways of pushing the boundaries to establish where each person stands and of discovering more about our own identity in the process.
In the last week of Jesus’ life, the religious leaders of the time engaged him in a trial of strength. They were pushing him to reveal his identity in a way that would give them an excuse to accuse him of blasphemy. Put up or Shut up might have been their slogan. Jesus knew, perhaps partly through the experience of these confrontations, that the fullest statement of his identity would not come in answering their questions but in bowing to their frantic opposition and giving himself into their hands.
Let’s today be grateful for those who sometimes resist us. In the consequent battle of wills, we can learn much about ourselves, sometimes finding new strength and sometimes accepting appropriate limitations. Sometimes too going with any opposition produces greater learning than resisting it. Being world champion toe wrestler or the victor in any other battle of wills may be prizes worth fighting for but getting a clearer idea about who we are and how we best relate to others is an even more desirable one.
The residents of Cape Town claim to have found an effective new weapon in South Africa's battle against crime: staring. In Sea Point, groups of up to 20 residents, wearing yellow bibs, go on patrol, armed with nothing more than filthy looks. The groups stop and stare in silence at suspected prostitutes, kerb crawlers and drug dealers. Crime levels have reportedly tumbled.
The messages our eyes convey are many and complex. The look Jesus gave Peter after he had betrayed him (Luke 2.60-62) must have had many layers of meaning and spoke in ways that words, had they been possible, could not have conveyed.
Attentiveness, amusement, sympathy, alliance and delight are all part of the eye’s vocabulary as well as disapproval, sadness and anger. Occasionally eyes will speak a truth which words are trying to hide. Let’s enjoy today the alternative method of communication offered by our eyes. We might bring a sparkle into other people’s eyes by what we say with ours. But let's not deserve to be looked at with eyes saddened by betrayal.
In the Andalusian town of Villaralto, Judas plays a bigger role in the Easter celebrations even than Jesus. On Maundy Thursday, the townspeople hang out life-size, straw figures of Judas over the main streets. After post-mass hot chocolate and biscuits on Easter Sunday, the town gather in the streets and join in the ceremonial destruction of these Judas figures.
Judas has long been a hate-figure in Christian mythology. He represents those parts of all of us which are disloyal, cowardly, easily-led and greedy. As the inhabitants of Villaralto lay into the straw images of Judas, they are symbolically expressing anger against him, but also anger against those parts of themselves.
Jesus’ way of dealing with human failing was not to be angry about it. We know little about how he felt about Judas but we do know they seemed to have sat close enough to have a private conversation at their last supper together and that he gave him a morsel of bread dipped in wine. These were both signs from a host at such a meal that the recipient was particularly favoured.
Perhaps anger is not an appropriate response to our weaknesses and failures. Jesus’ affectionate attitude to Judas when he knew what he was about to do suggests that God’s approach is much gentler, more understanding. Let’s today try and react to those parts of our personalities and lives we find distressing with a similar gentleness and understanding.
London’s 1,300 mile sewerage system is having half a billion pounds spent on it. Designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette following “The Great Stink” of 1858 when there was a massive overflow of raw sewage into the streets, the system now needs new underground chambers. As London grows and the climate produces more flash storms, new storage chambers are required to prevent a 21st century Great Stink
As we walk the city streets, we’re not normally aware of the effluent flowing beneath us. Nor are we aware, in the normal course of events, of the undercurrents of violence, pain and corruption that lie beneath the surface of our society and, in most cases, of our own lives. Occasionally something happens to reveal them and we have to face their sometimes devastating effect.
The events on a hill outside Jerusalem that we recall today revealed a brutal and cynical aspect of the Judaeo-Roman culture of the time. But Christ’s death also had cosmic significance. It reflected what human beings down the centuries and all over the world have been capable of. It revealed a rebelliousness against goodness, love and God that lies beneath the surface of many people and is part of our culture as well as many others.
The new underground chambers are to store London’s sewage until it is passed to treatment works in Beckton and Crossness. Here it is turned into electricity. Today is Good Friday because Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection is seen as a way of preventing “The Great Stink” of humanity at its worst from overrunning us. Instead our human waste is converted into something purposeful and creative. Let’s today allow the remembrance of those events on Mount Golgotha to remind us both of the harsh realities of our world and the possibility of its transformation.
A new town designed primarily for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents is planned for Sioux Falls. It will have all the usual amenities: hotels, a convention centre, and churches. Streets, shops and public buildings will all be designed to eliminate any disadvantage caused by deafness. Speech and sound will be kept to a minimum and sign language will be the preferred way to communicate. A comparatively silent environment may well appeal not only to the hard of hearing.
Silence is what epitomised the atmosphere of Calvary once the crowds had dispersed and the now lifeless bodies on the crosses were left to hang there. But the sight of the one on the central cross spoke volumes. The signs were there for those who could read them of love generously and courageously offered and violently and bitterly rejected. The battered and tormented body proclaimed loudly the brutality of which human beings are capable and the willingness of God to be on its receiving end. It’s not surprising that central image has become the symbol of God’s self-giving care for all people.
Today silence is a fitting reaction to such love. But there are other kinds of response. One is to demonstrate that same selflessness in the way we love and, silently but in a way that can say so much, to make our lives signs of generosity and self-giving love.
The Oyster Olympics, held in Seattle on the last weekend in March, is a thinly disguised excuse to indulge in huge quantities of this most delicate of sea foods. The competitors, being sponsored for an environmental charity, compete in their “shucking” and their “slurping” but the winners seem to be the ones who know best how really to enjoy an oyster. A favoured method is to eat it ‘naked’. “Using your shellfish fork, make sure the raw oyster is completely detached from its shell. Admire its beauty, grace and freshness, grasp the oyster shell comfortably, cradling it in the nook between your thumb and first two fingers, lift the shell to your lips and, in one swift move, tip up the shell and slurp both the oyster and juices into your mouth. Relax and think of the ocean. Savour the high note of briny freshness and caress the oyster with your molars a few times before swallowing”.
Such detailed and attentive appreciation can be applied to many aspects of life. Making the ability to find such exquisite enjoyment of all that life offers an “Olympic event” is quite appropriate because it’s as we learn to savour all that life offers that we strike gold.
Easter is a celebration of the gift of new life. Christ’s rising from the dead was an affirmation of the power and beauty of Life itself and of its ability, when imbued with God’s energy and love, to overcome anything that threatens it. Lent has been a time of preparation, of sifting the ingredients that contribute to a rich and tasty life and of mixing them in a way that results in the unique individual that is each of us. What’s left now, and it’s perhaps the best way to express how highly we value the gift of life, is simply to savour every mouthful.