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Easter Sunday Festal Evensong – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: ‘His face was like the sun shining with full force’

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner 

Date:  9 April 2023  5.30pm

As you may have noticed, from early evening, the area round the Minster sees many ghost tours. Often the tours stop near the Great East window. Here there is a house known locally as ‘the plague house’, which is supposed to be haunted by a young girl who appears at a first floor window. It’s a regular part of the nightly ghost tours. I was rather surprised the other day – just as I walked past this house – to hear a woman telling her child, while pointing at the East Window, that this is a very, very famous window. ‘However’, she continued, and pointing towards a small window in the plague house, ‘not as famous as this window’.

Fame comes in many different guises.

Every day, more or less, I sit in front of the East Window as we say Morning Prayer at 07:30.

Sometimes it’s dark; in other seasons it begins in darkness and becomes light; and sometimes it is lit even before we start. But it never disappoints. Its colour and vibrancy inspire our prayer and remind us of those who have prayed as we do over many centuries.

The East Window is renowned because it’s an astonishing depiction of Christian themes by late Medieval designers and glaziers. It is a perspective, and a theology, that remains fixed to the time it was created, nearly 600 years ago.

This afternoon’s second reading provided the words that inspired most of the panels in the window. In fact the passage we heard today is captured almost entirely in one frame. Without wanting to make this sound like a crossword, from where you’re looking, it’s 10 up and 5 across.

It depicts Jesus surrounded by candles; hair white as snow; a sword coming out of his mouth. His face is a shade of yellow, reflecting the phrase: “his face was like the sun shining with full force”.

Of course, even the most gifted glazier couldn’t represent fully the force and splendour of this description.

Christ risen;

Christ in glory;

Christ eternal.

It’s simply beyond human imagination and skill.

But the effectiveness of this panel doesn’t rely purely on human craft. In designing something novel, the artists were working with something older than humanity. As it happens – and I’m sure it’s no coincidence – 10 up and 5 across is just about bang on central to the window as a whole. I suspect that this layout is down to more than just chance. At the centre of the window this frame bears the full force of the rising sun. It is lit for longest and this inevitably pale reflection of Revelation is transfigured by the day’s first light. Working with God’s creation, the glaziers have achieved something no human power could ever provide. At those moments in the day the glass become the words from Revelation: “his face was like the sun shining with full force”. It is an overwhelming experience and, when it happens, it is too dazzling to behold.

At Easter we celebrate the Risen Christ, who has conquered death and in whom the light of God shines forth into the world. As the glaziers found, it is impossible for us to reflect that brilliance in our own strength and skill. We need to have God with us, in us, enabling our dull gifts to be suffused with the light of Christ. Six hundred years ago the glaziers knew that this would only work if the figure of Christ was set in the centre of their design. They left a message for every generation that followed, an invitation to place Christ in the centre of our lives, providing the love, meaning and purpose that transforms everything that surrounds us.

This Easter I hope and pray that we each embrace once again the transforming power of God and allow resurrection glory to shine out into the world.

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Easter Sunday Festal Eucharist – The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell

Title: Easter Sunday sermon Festal Eucharist

Preacher: The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell

Date:  9 April 2023  11.30am

“(Jesus) asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’” John 20. 15

For those of you who made it through this Holy Week, here at York Minster, you will have heard a series of beautiful and challenging sermons from the Dean, on the last words of Jesus from the cross. But on this morning, we, with great surprise and rejoicing, encounter the risen Lord and consider his first words. And the first words of Jesus on the first Easter morning, are not as we would expect.

And if you’re sitting there wondering what those first words are, if it had been me on the first Easter day – if you’ll forgive such a thought! – then I think there would have been a shout of triumph. It has I mean, after all, it’s been quite a weekend, isn’t it? You know, you would forgive Jesus for a little bit of uncharacteristic triumphalism on such an occasion as the resurrection. He might have said, I’ve risen from the dead. I’ve forgiven the sins of the world. I go for the things of glory. If you read that you wouldn’t be surprised.

But sometimes a still small voice is louder. And the actual words that Jesus spoke on that first Easter morning, to Mary Magdalene, well, they are still reverberating around the world.

I find it beautiful and astonishing that what he actually says is, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

And still, not recognising him, Mary opens up her heart to him.

And because the Easter faith we proclaim and celebrate today is all about love, or not really very much about anything at all, then we can also identify a golden thread running through the whole story of the gospel, and reaching its climax in Jesus‘s death and resurrection.

This golden thread is love. It is compassion. And it is inviting us to find a way to justice. And love is always looking for love to be returned. Always searching. And by asking these questions, Jesus is forming first with Mary Magdalene and then with others, with us here today,  a new community in his name with a new purpose for the world.

So, on the night, before he dies, giving us the new commandment to love one another, he washes his disciples’ feet. And on the cross, he turns the other cheek, and walks the extra mile, forgives those who nail him there, and reaches out to the not exactly very penitent thief, who, in the last chance saloon of life, reaches out to him. And even on the first Easter day, when you might have imagined Jesus rising with a shout of triumph, he turns to Mary with compassionate concern, and reaches out to the sorrow in her heart.

And since this is how God is revealed to us in Christ, the one whose character and very nature is service, compassion, love, then it must also be the case that this is how God comes among us today, on Easter Day,- even to those who don’t yet recognise him.

He says to us, here in York Minster on this Easter morning, and across the world, and especially in  situations where people are hurting or grieving, he says to us in a still small voice of calm, why are you weeping?

And if you’re a third child, in a family, whose universal credit has been limited to two, you might say to Jesus why does my birth have to be such a problem for my parents and my siblings? This is why I’m weeping.

And if you’re an Eritrean asylum seeker who came to this country in a little boat across the channel, and are awaiting possible resettlement in Rwanda, you might say to Jesus, why am I being punished for fleeing persecution, where can I find justice and compassion in this world. This is why I’m weeping.

And if you’re a hard-working, single parent, who can’t make ends meet, you might say to Jesus, I’m having to choose between food and fuel, and if my kids need a new pair of shoes there is simply nothing left to pay for them. This is why I’m weeping.

And if you’re a young Ukrainian graduate who volunteered to defend your country, and is now on the front line in Kherson and sheltering from enemy fire, and unable to get to church today, and can only sing alleluia in your heart, you might say to Jesus, my heart is broken with the madness of this war. I haven’t seen my family for months. I live with death each day. This is why I’m weeping.

Or I’m a fisherman living on the Polynesian island of Tuvalu and the sea levels are rising, and my whole world is sinking, why, doesn’t this world care, those whose actions across the globe melt ice caps, hack down forests, and are steadily killing, well, everything. This is why I’m weeping.

Or I was trafficked into a place where I have no identity, agency or freedom. Or I am a survivor of sexual abuse and my whole life is scarred, and no one takes responsibility. This is why I’m weeping.

Or what about you?

What sorrows and fears have you brought to church this morning? What griefs and hurts are locked inside? What do you want to say to Jesus about your tears? And what do you long to hear from him?

And Jesus, again to Mary unrecognised, asks another question – perhaps, the most important question any human being can face – ‘Who are you looking for?’ Which means I suppose, ‘Who will you follow? How will you set your compass? What are the values you propose living by? What do you believe? And whom do you trust?’

And because there are no easy, off-the-shelf answers to the huge problems facing our world, and all the different hurts and sorrows we carry; and because we don’t know the way to go, what God offers us, amidst these trials and challenges, is a companion. A guide. Someone to be with us. Someone who knows what it’s like to be us. Someone alongside us and to show us the way. Someone to show us what being human is supposed to look like.

This won’t solve all our problems. But it will change the way we tackle them. It will cast them in a different light. And, frankly, as I look around the world today, without the compassion, service, love and justice that we see and experience in Jesus, we will never find peace in our world, nor any way through the intractable and confronting challenges we face.

‘I’m looking for Jesus,’ said Mary. Actually, she’s speaking to the Jesus she is looking for but she doesn’t yet recognise, because, he is alive with a new and transformed life, which is the hope, and the promise that, despite all of life’s difficulties and challenges, there is a better future and an eternal hope.

And Jesus,  then speaks her name.  ‘Mary,’ he says. And her eyes are opened and she recognises him.

Dear friends, in this moment we find the greatest hope of all, and the most important message of Easter: we only know and recognise God, when we know God knows and recognises us. Jesus reaches out to the sorrow in Mary’s heart and he speaks her name. And in the knowledge that we are known by God, of inestimable value and deeply loved, we can rise up and build a better world, a world ordered by the love, compassion and justice that we see in Jesus, so that we respond to the world in the same way that Jesus responds to us.

Because as we know it is easy to be cynical and to despair. it is so easy to think that things can never change. That death and evil and injustice have the last word. And that all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got in the years left to you. And then protect that keenly.

The reason we are here today, on Easter day says something else. Things can be different. Things can be better. That expectations can be turned around. And this is very good news indeed.

It is worth celebrating. So, open those Easter eggs when you get home. Crack open the champagne. Put some red stripe in the fridge. Bake a very large cake. Stop off for a kebab from the caravan on the ring road. Order lots of curry. Invite everyone in. Turn the music up loud. Wear your most outrageous hat. Pucker up. Make a noise. Celebrate. Something better is beginning. A new hope is stirring. Tap your feet to a new rhythm of joy and hope. Because Jesus is risen from the dead. He is reaching out to the sorrows in our hearts. He is inviting us to follow him. He is calling us by name.


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Good Friday: The Last Word of All – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Last Word of All

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  5.30pm

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

Back in 1993, a 74-minute CD was released by an English composer. A distinguished English composer, who has written some very well-acclaimed pieces that have been performed by a number of internationally renowned artists. But this record was not quite like his other ones, for it consisted entirely of one phrase of music being played again and again, and the music in question was a man singing the refrain of a hymn.

Now if you think it strange that someone could release CD consisting of part of a hymn being sung over and over, what made it even stranger was who it was that was singing. For this was no professional singer – quite the reverse. The singing is actually a tape-recording from the early 1970s, taken from material compiled by the BBC for a documentary about life in slums of inner-city South London now long-since demolished. And the researchers for this documentary came across an old man on a sitting on a lonely bench singing to himself – quite unaware that he was being overheard. And as he sat there he sang:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

The voice of this old man sounds ragged and pathetic; he was clearly someone not only well advanced in years, but clearly not in the best of health. There are frequent pauses for breath in between the clauses of the song, and his aged voice sounds pretty toothless, and conveys all the signs and sounds of extreme poverty. And yet he sung

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

It is a performance, in its way, of great grace and serenity. Were you to listen to the recording, which is widely available in all the usual places, you would realise at once how near the bottom of the social scrap-heap this man must have been. And yet, he sings this genuinely pathetic and touching refrain, this most unexpected and unlikely affirmation of faith in God’s love and support.

Today, of course, we are singing rather older and more venerable songs. Songs not from the 1970s, but songs rooted in ancient traditions of the church. We have, indeed, just sung one of the four accounts of Christ’s passion, and sung it in a musical style the origins of which are more than 1500 years old. And all of that feels, perhaps, appropriately Good for such a distinguished setting as the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York which we know as York Minster – appropriately Good for a holy day that the Church has labelled – so paradoxically – as being Good.

And that, in itself, is a strange last word – a very strange last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God dies. An even stranger last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God not merely dies, but is unjustly and cruelly executed by a conspiracy of corrupt and callous humans, too bent on their own agenda to notice the incarnate Love of God present in their midst.

And so it is, on this day of days, that we hear that ultimate, final Last Word: When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

And this last word is inexorable and inescapable. For century upon century upon century, across the entire Christian world, it has always John’s account of the Passion that has been read on the day that Christ dies. And thus the last word of all is always, and can only ever be It is finished.

For these are very human words. We are finite people, and we live in a world of beginnings and endings. And we know that every beginning comes to an ending – whether the ending is happy or sad. A lovely holiday finishes. A lifetime’s employment finishes. A love affair finishes. Every single life that is lived comes to its conclusion, prematurely, or after many years – life finishes.

This last word is no more and no less than the ultimate statement of the human condition – for we are finite, and thus we have no other destiny but to finish. As creation begins, so it must end – and endings are hard, for every ending is, in its way, a death. And yet…. And yet that old man, who had, I am sure, lived out most of the years of his life, that old man could sing

This one thing I know, that he loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

This one thing I know…. That he loves me so…

And that is the big clue…. That is the key to the mystery of this day… that is the lens through which Saint John calls us to view the Cross, to view the the broken and pierced body that hangs upon it, to view the death of God, inexorably shot through with the Love of God. And, for Saint John, and for the Church of God, it is the triumph of that love which allows us… which dares us…. Which demands of us that we call this day Good.

Nearly 40 years ago, one of the finest priests who has ever ministered in the Church of England, a man with a theological brain that could have guaranteed him a professorial career of great distinction in any university, but who chose to devote himself entirely to parish ministry – nearly 40 years ago, well into his fifties, this man wrote an account of the nature of the church’s ministry that many regard as a spiritual classic of the 20th Century.

In it he explains all sorts of not insignificant ways the church brings benefits to society, many of which are as valid today in the Britain of 2023, as they were back in the 1970s. He would, I am sure, have applauded how the Church of God has, in the last fifty years, become much more conscious of the call of what many people call social justice. But ultimately, he says, it is not for this service that the Church…makes its offering…

 The Church offers itself to the triumph of the love of God… The Church lives at the point where the love of God is exposed to its final possibility of triumph or tragedy – the triumph of being recognized as love, the tragedy of so passing unrecognized that the final gift, the gift of which all other gifts are symbols, the gift of love itself is never known. The Church cannot endure that this tragedy should be…for it recognizes…the love of God is no controlled unfolding of a predetermined purpose according to an assured programme… But rather….

That upon which all being depends is love expended in self-giving…[love] without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent: love…on the brink of failure…yet ever finding new strength to redeem tragedy…and restore again the possibility of triumph.

That weary and broken old man – he knew this. He knew it in the very fibre of his being, which was why he could dare to sing

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

For pretty much everything had failed him. His friends and family had failed him. His community had failed him. His country and his politicians had failed him. All those who should have supported him had failed him, and, in our own day, we fail him and so many like him again and again and again. But Jesus – Jesus, who we see today, so finished upon the cross – Jesus had not failed him – had not failed him and could not fail him. Could not fail him because of and not despite of the shedding of his blood.

For today, on this Friday we call Good, we hear the Last Word of an incarnate God who thinks big – who thinks bigger and more daringly than the world had or has ever witnessed. The God Incarnate who, at the very start of his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraged his followers to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. A tall order you may well think. But in this ultimate last word, we get the clue to that. For last night, were reminded that Jesus loved his own to the end – to love so completely finished that it is made perfect.

And today, on this stark day of horror and of triumph and of life, we see a Jesus who has put all in order, and done all that he came to earth to accomplish. To make sure that all is complete, he’s even prepared to drink sour wine. And then, in triumph, and in control – he bows his head, and he gives up his spirit. This is not just what some might call a good death, it is very much more than that….

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

This is the last Last Word, because it is the word not of despair and brokenness, but of completion and perfection. Of a life so perfectly lived in tune with God’s will, and a love so perfectly loved in tune with God’s love.

That is the last word which God’s church is called to proclaim anew in each and every generation – a last word of paradox and triumph, enunciated by a broken figure reigning from a criminal’s cross.

As Gavin Bryars, the composer who made famous this old man’s song, as he was working on this recording one morning, he went to make a coffee, and he left the tape-loop of the old man playing in his office, adjacent to a staff common room in the university in which he worked, unaware that the song would be overheard.

When he came back with his drink, he says, “I found the normally lively room subdued. People were moving about more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly, weeping.”

For in his eloquent and melodic Last Word, that old man sung of love perfected upon the Cross. Of a love which would never fail him – which would never fail the world. A Love that could drink sour wine and proclaim the triumph of God’s work as it exclaims It is finished.

For that is the ultimate last word from the cross and about the cross. It is the Last Word about what Bill Vanstone so aptly called  Love’s Endeavour and Love’s Expense. It is the Last Word on which, and only on which, you and I can dare to rely. For it is the last human word that demonstrates the eternal truth that He only became human, that He only did any and all of this, and did it so perfectly, that we might become divine.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

What Last Word will you dare sing today?

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Good Friday Meditations: The Last Word Series – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Mark’s Last Word, Matthew’s Last Word, Luke’s Last Word 

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  12pm – 1.30pm 

Mark’s last word

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When one of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

One of the big questions raised by the events of Good Friday is a question which sounds very, very simple – but is, in fact, rather complicated. The big question of today is, at its simplest, one of identity: who is it that dies today?

We can, I think, all agree – and by ‘all’, I don’t just mean you and me here in this cathedral this afternoon. By all, I mean the voice of history, tradition and reason that has been the backbone of Christianity for 2000 years. We can agree that a man from Nazareth by the name of Jesus dies today. But that is about as much as it is possible to say without raising some fairly big questions.

For people were executed all the time by the Roman authorities in first-century Palestine. The bad and the ugly, and quite possible a number of the good as well. The rule of the occupiers’ law was hard and fast, and all the more effective for that.

But the question remains, albeit in slightly nuanced form – who, or perhaps what, is it that dies today?

When you embark on the study of theology, one of the disciplines you rapidly encounter is called Christology. Christology is about working out what on earth we actually mean when we talk about the Christ. Or, in other words, just exactly what do we think Jesus whom we call Christ actually was – or, indeed, still is? And the nub of this debate – the key to this question – is all about whether Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is properly human, and/or is properly divine, and/or is both.

This was a big, big question during the first four hundred years of Christianity, and different theologians and bishops had very differing answers. There were those who said it was impossible to hold that God was one, and that Jesus could be divine. There were others who said that, in essence, if Jesus wasn’t divine, all this was a load of fuss about nothing, and of no value to folk like you and me.

And there were arguments about how it might be he could manage to be both. Arguments that sometimes verged on him only appearing to be human, or only appearing to be God – all of which were expressed in philosophical terms that would make any normal person’s head spin in this day and age.

Needless to say, this kind of stuff was, and continues to be really quite hard for most theological students to follow. It feels, in its way, only one small step away from debating how many angels can be found on the head of a pin. But I was blessed with a lucid and clear-minded teacher who said that, to preserve what you and I might think of as a conventional, orthodox Christian faith, there were three simple rules that had to be upheld. And the rules were easy to remember, as they all sounded the same – at least at first.

All you needed to remember, so this wise and learned man said, was

It must be God who becomes human.

And then he repeated this maxim two more times.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Our teacher could see that we were still scratching our head, so he clarified it for us – and showed us why he repeated his saying three times. For, he said:

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Or, to be slightly more serious and easy to explain – it must be God, and no lesser being, that becomes human – if the Christ is only a watered-down form of God, that’s no use to anyone, least of all you and me.

And God truly must become human. It can’t be play-acting or make-believe. God really has to do this living as a human experience. The act of becoming has to be genuine, and not a charade.

And, finally, and for St Mark, most importantly, it must be proper humanity that God embraces. In other words, he mustn’t just look like it – he can’t just pop down from heaven in a kind of spacesuit with a human face painted on it. God in Christ really must become just like us.

And that’s a big order – but it is, for St Mark, the last word on the subject. And much of Mark’s gospel, and much of Mark’s passion story is shot through with hints that, in the eyes of this gospel writer, Jesus is gut-wrenchingly human. Indeed, one of Mark’s favourite turns of phrase, often translated in rather genteel terms as indicating that Jesus was deeply moved is really about a visceral response to injustice that gets Jesus knotted up in his bowels or stomach, he is so upset.

And Mark gives us a hint of all this, literally, in the last words he reports from the lips of Jesus. Words which have made generations of clergy stumble to ensure they are pronouncing them correctly: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani – words which, translated, we recognize as the opening words of Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We know the translation well. Psalm 22 is one of the great psalms of despair, at least in its beginning. But the question Mark raises for us is what language are the words which Jesus utters? And a secondary question, for those who know the New Testament well, might be whether those words are the same words we find in Matthew’s account of the last words – for Matthew recounts Jesus as crying out Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani. Matthew takes out one letter ‘o’, and Eloi become Eli.

Why, you might ask? Or even more crisply and relevantly – why does this even matter?

I want to suggest to you it’s just a little, very Marcan clue or reminder that this is an utterly human Jesus we see dying on the cross. But you would have to go to a small village about an hour outside Damascus in Syria, really to understand this today. For in the village of Maaloula, which is a tiny little place, the inhabitants of the village are about the only community left in the world who still speak Aramaic as their native language. And Aramaic was the language which Jesus spoke on a day to day basis as his mother tongue.

It’s not a biblical language. You won’t need me to remind you that the Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, and that the New Testament was written in Greek. And when St Matthew quotes Jesus’ last, despairing cry, he does so in Hebrew – the ‘real’ language of the Jews, and certainly a language Jesus would have known well….but not his native tongue. Mark, however, gives Jesus his last words in his own, real vernacular Aramaic. And the only difference in those four words is that letter ‘o’ – Eloi not Eli.

 That may sound to you a trivial, semantic difference. But Mark, like all the evangelists, was concerned with the detail as well as the big storyline. And for Mark it was not enough simply to have that all too human cry of utter despair. For Mark it was not enough to portray a Jesus showing full, vivid human emotions of anger, terror and despair. For Mark it was not enough to have Jesus die this most abject death, broken, vulnerable, and so utterly alone that he felt even God had deserted him. Mark had to underscore that point, for those who were ready to listen to or read his gospel with care. Mark had to have Jesus speaking his ‘real’ language. Even by the simple, almost throw-away use of one single vowel, Mark is using his last word to say to us, this God has become utterly, completely, fully human.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.


Matthew’s last word

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ò You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ”

Do you remember what you were doing 45 days ago? Ordinarily, that would be an absurd and impossible question to answer. Today, however, you might just have a clue that six Sundays and forty other days make up the season of Lent, and thus the penny might just drop that 45 days ago you were gathered once again in church, to mark out the beginning of Lent.

I don’t know about you, but to me, it feels like a long time ago, and it has certainly been a long journey, as we have inched closer and closer towards the foot of the Cross. And it feels a long time ago that we confronted our own mortality in the simple, chilling formula that accompanies the imposition of ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Lent opens with a stark reminder of the profoundly ordinary quality of us and our flesh, and the heavy dose of realism that we are no more than dust, and dust will be our final state.

And from those chilling, profound words, we have had a holy season with which to grapple with sin, and with the cause of sin, which we call temptation. And four days on from Ash Wednesday, on the first Sunday of this great season, we are always confronted by the story of Jesus being tempted. Tempted for forty days in the desert, battling with the shadowy figure we call the devil.

It feels a long time ago, but the memory of it, I am sure, lurks in your minds, for it is a well known gospel story. A ravenous, probably despairing Jesus, after forty days of fasting, is rounded on by the devil. And they speak of stones and bread, and pinnacles and dashed feet, and kingdoms and worship. And, each time as the devil goads Jesus, he challenges him by saying If you are the Son of God…

 If you are the Son of God… turn stones to bread

If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down

If you are the Son of God…worship me

If, if, if…. could you bear it? Could you bear it if you knew it all to be true??

The Temptation story is a profoundly uncomfortable story precisely because we know, and Jesus knows, that the devil is right. All that goading, all that taunting… You say you are the Son of God… prove it…

His Majesty’s diplomats – consuls, ambassadors, and other senior figures – are customarily rewarded for good service by being appointed as members of the Order of St Michael and St George, and thus, depending on their status, get allowed to put after their names CMG, KCMG, or GCMG, designating them as being Companions, Knights or Grand Knights of this strange order.

It may be that being an ambassador requires one to put on airs, but the rest of the Civil Service likes to joke that these three sets of letters actually stand for Call me God, Kindly call me God, and, at the most senior, God calls me God.

And here is the devil, doing exactly this with Jesus. He is making him the most truthful member of the diplomatic honors system – he calls him what he is. God – or at least, the Son of God. If you are the Son of God…

And when Matthew tells the story, he deliberately brings it to a climax on a very high mountain, from which Jesus can see all the kingdoms of the world, where the devil attempts to demand that Jesus worship him.  Jesus, of course, as you will remember, has no truck with this, and sends the devil packing, and angels take his place, to wait on Jesus.

But now the angels have gone. We have leapt to the end of our six-week journey, and temptation and testing have been replaced by desertion and despair. We come, today, to the last scene of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, to find him arms outstretched on a cross, nailed there like a common criminal. And it is time for us to look at St Matthew’s account of this dreadful scene, and see if we can work out what Matthew’s last word is on this extraordinary death.

I spoke just now about the three simple rules of Christology that I was once taught. That God really must become fully human, that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human, and that God must really become human.

Mark’s last word which we considered just now, emphasizes very clearly that God, in Jesus, has become completely and totally human. Now, as we look at the same scene through the eyes of St Matthew, I want to suggest that he is helping us understand that, truly, it is God and no substitute or imitation that, in Jesus, has taken flesh.

Because, for Matthew, I think it hangs in the way, in the precise way, in which Jesus is taunted as he dies.

If….If….If….  If you are the Son of God…. come down from the cross.

 Because, for Matthew, the mocking of the dying Jesus is, incredibly, another temptation.  If… If… If… you are the Son of God – turn stones to bread, throw yourself down into angels’ arms, worship the devil…. If you are the Son of God…come down from the cross.

The Temptation story is not, of course, about If you are the Son of God… The evangelist knows that Jesus is the Son of God. Call me God… Kindly, call me God… yes, even God, calls me God, to use diplomatic language.

The Temptation story if about what it means to be God. The Temptation story is about how God behaves, if you like – it is about how God chooses to show God’s creation the nature of God. It is about how God guarantees God will be, and what God will not do, no matter how much the devil may want it…. no matter how much we may want it.

And for Matthew, his deft telling or re-telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, his unique inclusion in this narrative that has the chief priests, the scribes and the elders taunt Jesus by saying If you are the Son of God… come down from the cross, for Matthew, this is, if you like, a last word on what it truly means to be God.

For God can, indeed, turn stones to bread, and God can, indeed, jump off high places and be guarded by angels. God can utter all sorts of powerful words if God thinks it right to do so. And God could come down from the cross – but then, what kind of god would God be?

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak.

They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne.

But to our wounds, only God’s wounds speak.

And no other god has wounds, but thou alone.

(Edward Shillito, Jesus of the Scars)

Matthew gives us his last word in his unique telling of the crucifixion narrative. If you are the Son of God come down from the cross, they cry out.

And because he is the Son of God, he will not.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. Amen.


Luke’s Last Word

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”  One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As we move from hearing Matthew’s last word on the Cross, on the death of the Son of God, to seeing how Luke depicts the final moments of Jesus’ life, things have changed for us, quite dramatically. If you open up the Passion narratives from the four gospels, you will find a great deal in common between Mark and Matthew, but when you come to look at how Luke tells us the details of this ultimate story, somehow the feel is very different.

A few minutes ago, we were considering Matthew’s last word – how Matthew wants us to be clear that it is, indeed, the Son of God who is nailed to the cross. And that last word, as I said, helps us, who are wounded and vulnerable, to know that God has direct and personal experience of brokenness and death.

Luke’s last word, I think, Luke’s last word takes a different tack, but also has something vital to offer us as we contemplate the death of Jesus. The mood that pervades Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution is a very different mood to the other three gospel accounts. It would be going too far to suggest that for Luke this is a happy ending, and not a sad one, but Luke has a last word to offer us that is more overtly Good News, perhaps, than the other gospels. And that, I think, is because Luke wants us to understand that in this death – this very regrettable death – something redemptive is really going on here.

For it is strange, is it not, that this is the day of the year that we call Good? There are so many obvious candidates for the title Good in the Christian calendar, but, if we were starting from scratch, I doubt if you or I would label today, of all days, Good. You might think of putting that label on the Sunday we will reach in two days’ time, when all is joy and excitement – the new life of Easter, surely, is good? Or the day that we celebrate Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem – surely it is a good day when we celebrate that the Word has become flesh. But this day – this day of all days – this is good?

Well, says Luke, the last words I want to give you are, truly Good News – Good News even in the context of the death of Christ, the death of the Son of God. And for Luke, the news is Good, and the day is Good, because it makes a difference. It makes a difference to you and me. And you can see that it makes a difference.

The nails go in. The Roman soldiers do their job, and nail the Son of God to a cross. And Mark and Matthew and John get on with the action. But not Luke. Luke wants to give us the last word of redemption – Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

The Centurion stands to watch the proceedings and sees Jesus die. The other evangelists have him tell us that this was the Son of God – to which one might, just perhaps, say, “Whoops”. Bad news. Better not to try and execute a relative of the Almighty. But Luke wants to tell us of redemption: Certainly, says the Centurion, this man was innocent. The executioner is prepared to own up to a big mistake right there and then.

Everyone is being redeemed. Things are unpleasant and unfortunate, but blame is being avoided and people are being forgiven.

And then there is the thief – the so-called penitent thief.

And let’s be honest. Was ever a label so inappropriately given? Even Luke – even the kind-hearted and non-judgmental Luke is clear that Jesus is crucified surrounded by two criminals. And while it is certainly the case that one of them gets into an argument with the other one about the merits or not of crucifying Jesus, there is not a hint – not a jot or tittle – not the tiniest scent of anything approaching penitence with this man at all.

I hope that, on this day of all days, I don’t have to remind any of you that penitence means saying sorry. And there is not a single mention of apology with Luke’s portrayal – which is the only portrayal in the four gospels – the man we call the ‘penitent thief’ is actually, when you look at the facts, impenitent!

He’s argumentative – very happy to argue with the other dying criminal. And he’s cheeky, or possible opportunistic – hey, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Or perhaps he is plain sarcastic….) But penitent he is not. And it doesn’t matter! That, surely, is Good News. That, surely, is redemption.

This man is a chancer. Perhaps it was being a chancer that got him nailed to the cross for his pains. But he chances it one last time. And he hears the other thief talk up the idea of Jesus being the Messiah. Well, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But, like Voltaire, who on his deathbed, when asked to renounce the devil, exclaimed as his last word that it wasn’t the time to be making enemies, in a similar spirit, this thief isn’t going to argue with these Messianic claims.

And so he says, maybe just as an outside chance, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. It is, at the very least, a cheeky request, and there is nothing penitential about it at all. And yet, none of that matters. Truly says Jesus, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Earlier, as I was telling you about the three ways that we have to think about who and what Christ is, I explained how I was taught that God really must become fully human – which Mark’s last word emphasizes for us. And I explained  that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human – something which Matthew’s last word underlines for us.

The third piece of that jigsaw to help us understand who and what Christ is – especially who Christ is as he hangs on the cross – is that God really must, properly, have become human. It can’t just be some kind of divine cross-dressing act. God has to have become, and not just seem like one of us. Because only if God has become human can he really do anything to respond to human need. And that’s what Luke’s last word gives us right now, as we look at this extraordinary, cheeky, wonderful encounter with a thief who is a smart lad, but utterly impenitent!

God, who has truly become like one of us, can look at this outrageous character, just as he can look at you and at me, and use last words to say Today you will be with me in paradise.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.

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Maundy Thursday: Love’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Love’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  Maundy Thursday 6 April 2023  5.30pm 

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion – a celebration, indeed. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.

Thus thirteen remarkable men gathered in an upper room nearly 2000 years ago – themselves, already, the product of a remarkable faith history coupling joy and sorrow in an extraordinary mixture. And one, at least, of these thirteen already experiencing his own very personal mixture of joy and sorrow, in the realisation that what he had come to understand as the sole purpose and mission of his life had come to its very climax. Such a poignant climax that, as he rightly anticipated, this was to be his last earthly meal. And not just a normal meal – this meal was the Passover meal, redolent with the ancient history of the liberation of his people. A meal, which so he himself says, he had earnestly desired to share with his friends and followers before the end came.

And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.

For thus the community of the New Covenant gathers together. Thus the Church,  the Body of Christ gathers together, and as it does its members bring their own mixture of joys and sorrows. Tonight Christians gather together to celebrate the first of the three great darknesses of Holy Week – the joyful and sorrowful darkness of Maundy Thursday, complete with its recollections of feasting and friendship joyfully shared in a moving meal, but recollections also of the scandalous foot-washing, the betrayal by Judas of Jesus, the agony of the Garden, and the arrest, terror and betrayal committed by an entire community of friends. Thus tonight, as every year, faithful Christians come together into the darkness of the night.

But darkness is not easy. Darkness can be overwhelming. Darkness can be scary – for adults, just as much as for children. And darkness can a place of uncertainty and confusion.

After all in this darkness, even Simon Peter was confused. As Jesus is about to wash his feet, Peter remonstrates with him, only to be told You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. In the darkness of this night, Simon Peter was so confused he could not even recognize love that clearly.

If that sounds odd, then let me challenge those of you here tonight who have ever been blessed to have a deeply loving relationship. Just think back to the time that you first realised that you seriously and profoundly loved that other person, whoever it may have been. For many of us, that moment of realization is also a moment of anxiety – for it is also the moment when we wake up to the awful question about whether such feelings are reciprocated – about whether our beloved loves us. Sometimes, especially in the darkness, it can be hard to recognize love that clearly.

Now think back to the moment that you realised that the person you loved actually loved you back. To that remarkable moment that can be both inevitable and so deeply nerve-wracking – that moment when, after a split second, that

someone – someone who matters more than anyone else –that someone says I love you too for the first time. That moment can be a bolt of flame that glows out in the darkness with an intensity that is incomparable.

And, for that community of thirteen men who gathered in the upper room before the festival of the Passover, love was in the air – but it was hard for them to understand it, as the candles flickered in the darkness of that night.

It was hard for Peter to make sense of it, for it would be many days yet, well after this darkness had turned to daylight, it would be many days hence, when the world would be a profoundly different place, that Peter would be able to look Jesus in the eye and say, Yes Lord, you know that I love you. For you do not know now what I am doing said Jesus, in the darkness of that night, but later you will understand…

Later, they would understand, that Jesus had done what he had ultimately come to do. Indeed, Jesus had done what it was impossible for him not to do. Jesus had come to act out for them the Last Word of love. For having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…

Much of the poetry of the Welsh poet-priest, R.S. Thomas demonstrates clearly just how hard it can be to understand love – but it also demonstrates a profound knowledge of what love can do to transfigure people, and thus transfigure the world. In an understated poem simply called The Chapel he wrote


A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,

there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal

to the tourist to stop his car

and visit it.  The traffic goes by,

and the river goes by, and quick shadows

of clouds, too, and the chapel settles

a little deeper into the grass.


But here once on an evening like this,

in the darkness that was about

his hearers, a preacher caught fire

and burned steadily before them

with a strange light, so that they saw

the splendour of the barren mountains

about them and sang their amens

fiercely, narrow but saved

in a way that men are not now.

For in the darkness of that poet’s evening, in the darkness of the Upper Room, in the darkness of this very evening, and even deep in the darkness that can sometimes shroud our hearts and lives – in all that darkness there is only one fire that consumes and burns steadily and with a strange light, and that is the fire of God’s love – a love that only comes to us, a love that only comes to you and me, a love that only comes to the world… because Jesus having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.

 But what an end. For this is one of those moments when no translation does justice to the subtlety of St John’s language. This end of which John speaks is the highly ambiguous Greek word telos, which means so much more than just the end of something, be it a street, a sausage, or even a life.

John is trying to tell us that Jesus loved his own to completion, that Jesus’ love was a love which loved to an end that is so complete, that it is made perfect. John is trying to tell us that Jesus’ love for his own is the last word on the subject.

And so, in the darkness of this night, as the candles flicker, Jesus gives his disciples – his beloved ones – two very big hints about this perfect love. He acts out for them a love that is rooted in such a shocking act of service it has Simon Peter almost running for the door in disbelief and horror.

And then, reaching for wine and bread sitting on this table of precious food, he catches their attention yet again, by breaking and sharing what he tells them is his body, and his blood. A gift so profound and deep and precious, that it can make those who receive it Christlike, as we, in our turn, become the Body of Christ.

Or, in other words, Christ gives his beloved ones the flame of love. The flame of a love so remarkable that it can endure to the end. The flame of a love so wonderful that it can bring completion. The flame of a love so unique and extraordinary that it is the only thing which can bring perfection into an imperfect world. The flame of a love that can be hard to understand, but which will pierce the darkness with a light that (so this gospel writer told us at the very outset, in his famous prologue) will never be overcome, and will conquer all that tries to extinguish it.

We may not always understand that love, and often we may fail to mirror it in our own lives. But this is the love that created the world, and which, now redeems the world, and it is a love that burns with an inextinguishable flame that can set on fire the poet’s preacher in that gloomy Welsh valley, and which can set us, can set even me and you on fire. For this is the night of love’s last word.

So as we journey on in the darkness of this night, as we journey on through the darkness of betrayal, desertion and denial, as we journey into the darkness of a sky turned black, and of an innocent man’s death, as we journey into the cold darkness of a sealed tomb, let us hold on to Love’s last word.

Because then, and only then, in that final darkness, before the dawn breaks on the third day, will we be able to perceive that flame of complete and perfect love which will never, which can never again be extinguished. Amen.

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Judas’ Last Word – The Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Judas’ Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  5 April 2023  5.30pm 


Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…

Throughout the Christian year, as we follow the calendar of the church from Advent onwards through Christmas, into Lent and then Easter, and onwards into the rest of the year, throughout the year we are used to celebrating saints’ days every so often. Today, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, we do the reverse. We remember – we do not celebrate – a non-saint’s day. For today is Judas’ day – and this day is often known as Spy Wednesday, for it was the day on which Judas struck his deal with the Jewish authorities to receive the infamous thirty pieces of silver in return for betraying Jesus.

And I believe that it is impossible for you and I, as Jesus’ disciples, I believe it impossible for us to work out our last word about the cross – our last word about the death of the Son of God – without us considering the actions of Judas Iscariot. Without us hearing his own last word on the subject.

The Judas story is a sad one, and a complicated one. The sadness is obvious enough, I guess – the complexity harder to deal with. For it is not enough to note that Judas betrays Jesus – surely, we have to ask why he does so. And so we move into the realm of speculation. And the most commonly held theory about Judas’ motive in betraying Jesus is that he was frustrated that Jesus was not being militant enough.

Judas is often portrayed as being the one who wanted to see Jesus make overtly political claims of Messiah-ship. Judas is the one who wanted to see some real action that might signal the end of the ungodly and sacrilegious Roman occupation of the Holy Land by the Romans, and bring in a new era with Jesus as a political Messiah. And perhaps Judas thought that by bringing about a great confrontation between Jesus and the High Priest, all this could and would happen. And if that is what he thought, then he was wrong – so very, very wrong.

And he was wrong, fundamentally, because Judas tried to pack God up into a box no bigger than his own intellect and emotions, with a nice clear label, to be placed on a particular shelf in his mental store-cupboard. Judas tried to make God, and God’s Messiah, an extension of his own desires. He tried to turn the teaching and preaching and ministry of Jesus into a tool for his needs and desires – however worthy these might have been – rather than offering himself freely as a disciple who would follow and serve selflessly wherever and however that might take him.

Judas thought that Judas’ agenda was better than God’s agenda – and he paid the most awful price. A price that echoes down through every generation – after all, what insult is more hurtful that calling someone a Judas?

And today, on Spy Wednesday, we hear again the account of Judas’ betrayal. But before we get too comfortable, gazing down our spiritual noses in distaste at what this man did, we need to work out what we make of his last word, and how it might affect our own last word on the subject.

During the two years that the the Irish writer Oscar Wilde spent in gaol for actions that, thank God, we no longer think of as criminal, there was a particularly black day in the prison, when a murderer was executed one morning. It led Wilde to reflect in a famous poem that

Each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard

Some do it with a bitter look

Some with a flattering word

The coward does it with a kiss

The brave man with a sword

 The account of the last supper which we have just heard tells us of the dreadful story of Judas…. but it tells us the story of ourselves as well. For when Jesus predicts his imminent betrayal, every single one of the Twelve guiltily look around at each other, uncertain of whom he is speaking. And Mark and Matthew flesh this out, reporting that they all ask, Not I, Lord, surely?

So, if those words were spoken, let us never forget that they were not merely a last word for Judas – they were words found on the lips of all of Jesus’ closest friends and followers, all of whom will desert Jesus and flee in terror only hours later. Indeed, as Jesus explains just a few verses further on, even Peter will deny Jesus, and will do so three times before the second cock crow. And the guilty look of betrayal and the guilty words of potential guilt are ours as well, all too often.

For there are times when we want to make God and to make his Christ instruments of our own will and personality. There are times when we want to parcel God up neatly into a box with a particular label on it, constantly forgetting that God is bigger than anything and anyone we can imagine, and that God’s agenda is broader and more wonderful than anything we can imagine.

And we do the same with Jesus. The gospel stories themselves demonstrate clearly to us that there are those who simply want to make Jesus a magician, or a physician, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a friend, or perhaps even a lover. And Jesus is none of these, just as he is none of the things that we try and make him. Jesus’ agenda was and is a bigger agenda than that of the Dean of York, or of anyone else gathered here.

Judas’ last word, that propels him into the terrible darkness of that Thursday night, is a reminder to us that our own last word needs to be big enough and broad enough to allow God to be God and Christ to be Christ, without making them conform to our own devices and desires. And that means, as the writer to the Hebrews understood, that we must run the race God has set before us with perseverance, and that we must look – and look properly and fully – at Jesus, who is none other than the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

For even if our gaze does remain fully focused on Jesus, our own sinfulness will still bring those moments when we nervously wonder if we have betrayed him, for such is human nature. But if we show the perseverance of which the writer to the Hebrews speaks so powerfully, then that Not I, Lord need not be our last word, and we may journey through the darkness of the Thursday night into the dazzling brightness of new life on a Sunday morning. Amen.

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Paul’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Paul’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  4 April 2023  5.30pm 


My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We’re weird because we go to church.

This means – well, as she gets older there’ll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she’s a teenager they’ll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. It means that we don’t believe in dinosaurs. It means that we’re dogmatic. That we’re self-righteous. That we fetishize pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we promise the oppressed pie in the sky when they die. That we’re bleeding hearts who don’t understand the wealth-creating powers of the market. That we’re too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures, full of meaningless distinctions, on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy.

So wrote the novelist Francis Spufford, in a robust apologia for Christianity that was published about ten years ago.

Now, I imagine that you’ll have heard those objections before, or countless others that are similar. But the really hard thing Spufford had to say was:

But hey, that’s not the bad news. Those are the objections of people who care enough about religion to object to it …the really painful message our daughter will receive is that we’re embarrassing.

I wonder if any of that rings true to you this evening – that sense of ‘raised eyebrow’ (at the very least) on the part of ‘normal’ people (ie those people who don’t go to church on Sundays), if you admit to them that you are a real, committed church-goer. That fleeting look of bewilderment or pity – never mind hostility.

The truth of course is that there is nothing new in this. Christianity has often seemed to make no sense to those who spectate it from the outside, and whose heart is too hardened to dare to venture in. And when it has not had to contend with apathy – which is a comparatively new phenomenon in matters of religion – Christ’s church has had to deal, often, with outright contempt and hostility.

A good number of Roman emperors took it on themselves to launch persecutions of the church from the First Century until the end of the Third Century – persecutions which saw mass murder, fear and oppression as a recurring constant for the Body of Christ. And I hope that in the comfort and security of York, we don’t forget for a moment that Christians in some parts of the world face persecution today. Indeed, in this very morning’s Guardian there was a profoundly sad article about the Christian presence on the Mount of Olives being subject to discrimination and the possible confiscation of sites where Jesus was teaching and preaching in this, the last week of his life.

And then there was that extraordinary fellow – the one who changed his name. The one who was a religious nut himself – that tiresome, unstoppable, belligerent, self-opinionated Pharisee – was his name Saul….?

In its way, the story of Saul-who-becomes-Paul (or, at least, becomes known to us as Paul) is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. For he was a man who was convinced by the rightness of his arguments, and would hold his position with energy and vigour, and could clearly argue passionately for hours without ceasing.

The trouble was that Saul’s zealousness and energy was devoted pretty much 100% to persecuting and destroying the very first Christian communities. But rather than invoke a miracle that stops or drains his energy and his abilities, God just turns everything upside down for him, by recommissioning him from persecutor to preacher, and making him a passionate apostle and disciple for Christ.

Paul encounters the risen Christ, and his life is given a new focus. He never loses his fanatical passion for religion – he just comes to understand that his faith, his zealous, pharisaical, Jewish faith, has reached its climax in the person of Jesus, and in the event of the Cross.

One could argue that all of Paul’s writing are one great collective Last Word on the death of Christ. His entire activity from the Damascus Road onwards to his probably martyrdom in Rome is his response to the event of the Cross and its implications. But tonight we hear, I believe, the very essence of his thoughts about the Cross.

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God…for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

So take heart should the world scoff. Take heart if a six year old tells you that you are weird. Take heart if they roll their eyes at you at work or at school or over the dinner table or anywhere else. For Paul’s last word could well have been that  The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. What will your last word be this week?

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The Prophet’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Prophet’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  3 April 2023  5.30pm 


Yesterday morning, as we were reminded of the fickle nature of the crowd whose shouts turned from Hosanna to Crucify in just five days, I invited those of you who considered yourselves to be disciples of Jesus to use this Holy Week to try and work out what you consider to be your last word on the subject of the cross. For, in this week of unique significance, day by day in the scriptures we encounter what are, in effect, last words of many of the biblical authors on the subject of Jesus the Christ, and the significance of his death.

This is not remarkable when it comes to the writers of the New Testament. The writers of the four gospels, St Paul, and the other writers whose letters are found near the back of the Bible, all of them are, in effect, reflecting on what they think is the significance of Jesus’ life and death. After all, we know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and all the New Testament is, in one way or the other, a reflection on the life and death of Jesus and its implication for the world.

But, as the White Queen so wonderfully remarked, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”, and tonight I invite you to consider a ‘last word’ about the cross to be found on the lips of a biblical author who was writing around six hundred years before Jesus was born – but who, nevertheless, has something of great import to offer us in this week of weeks.

The longest of all the prophetic books in the Old Testament is that of the prophet Isaiah. A passionate, beautiful and complex work – almost all scholars would claim that it is a compilation of at least three different writers, spanning from the 8th to the late 6th century before Christ. And in the writing of the second of the book’s authors, we find four strange, beautiful, powerful, and also (in the proper sense of the word) pathetic songs – songs of a figure we have come to know as the Suffering Servant. Songs which, in their way, are a last word on God’s Messiah, a last word on the Christ – although written well over 500 years before his birth.

These four songs speak of a shadowy figure identified only as God’s servant – a figure called to bring justice to the earth and light to the nations. A figure who will open eyes and bring prisoners out of darkness. If some of this sounds curiously familiar to you, it should – for there are probably no other sections of the Old Testament that influenced Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation as much as these four ‘songs’. They are, in their way, a chronologically premature last word on the ministry of God’s chosen one. And they tell us of new things.

Of course, we don’t always like new things. Despite the fact that the opposite of change is really death, new things are often things about which we are very wary. As the Minster moved through the pandemic, and worked out how best to approach the new reality of live-streaming, the service times on Sunday morning were adjusted – and it has been made unnecessarily plain to me just how much some people don’t like new ways of doing things, even though the change happened well before I came here as Dean!

And if such unhappiness can be forthcoming within a Christian community about a relatively minor issue, we should not be surprised that the preaching and teaching of Jesus led to such utter hostility as to bring about his death – a fate that he shares with the Suffering Servant, as revealed in the final of the four of these songs, which we will hear read on Good Friday.

And in the song we hear this evening, if we open our ears, we can recognize just how continuously new the servant’s ministry is. For this figure is called to bring justice across the earth. That sounds so good, until we remind ourselves that it was – apparently – for the sake of justice and liberty that President Putin felt it necessary to invade Ukraine. When politicians and world leaders start to invoke this kind of language, it can lead too often to a situation that involves body bags.

But God, so the prophet tells us, God says he will declare new things, and so he does – for this Suffering

Servant is called to bring justice to the nations without so much as lifting up his voice.

The Servant is called not to break a bruised reed; not to quench a dimly burning wick. This is a long way from how you or I might instinctively think about bringing justice, or liberating people from captivity. What has been taking place in Ukraine for over a year has involved a hell of a lot of reed-breaking and wick-quenching – and it is not just governments and armies that do this.

For I recognize that I’m all too good at crying out and lifting up my voice, and I am sorry to say I’ve probably broken a good number of bruised reeds in my time. And if that applies to you as well, then, like me, use this Holy Week to take note that God is declaring new things to us. God is calling us to a better way – a much better way…. But a very costly better way.

Before Jesus was ever born, the Bible’s greatest prophet had already delivered his last word on the ministry of the Messiah. As we journey again through this Great Week, as we evaluate our own last word on the Cross, let us hear again this strange prophetic figure speak to us of the new things that God is declaring, and let’s make sure that when we speak of justice and liberty, we pursue it in a Christlike manner that shows we have heard and acted on the Prophet’s last word. Amen.


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Palm Sunday: Vinea Mea Electa – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title: Vinea Mea Electa (My chosen Vineyard)

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor 

Date: Palm Sunday 1 April 4.00pm 

Readings: Psalm 80, Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-end


‘Beer is made by man’, said Martin Luther, the church reformer.

‘But’, he said, ‘wine is made by God’. I tend to agree.

If God makes the best wine, we might assume that God takes an interest in vineyards as well.  Just imagine the vineyards that make the beautiful wine: beautiful vineyards, full of choice vines and gleaming grapes, sun-drenched vineyards which are carefully tended and cultured, the soil rich, the terroir bountiful, the land a treasure passed on from one generation to another, imagine the vineyards which produce the most fruitful wine which is both a gift and a blessing from God.

The symbolism of wine, and the vineyards that produce it, are peppered throughout the scriptures, good wine is often seen as the fulfilment of God’s promises. The prophets look towards the time when the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on the holy mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, refined mature wine, a gift and blessing from God.

We see that gift and blessing in the story of the wedding at Cana, when Mary pleads with her Son to fix a shortage of wine at a family wedding, and in his first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus transforms water into the most beautiful wine, the best wine, which is to be shared as part of a banquet, a celebration, and which becomes a sign not only of Jesus divinity, but of God’s generosity and love.

Jesus also refers to himself as the vine, and his disciples as branches, and time and time again, we, his disciples of today, are encouraged to work at bearing good fruit, seeking life in all of its fullness and abundance, we too are called to be a gift and a blessing and a sign of God’s generosity and love.

On the night before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his friends, he took a cup of wine, and after giving thanks, gave it to them saying, ‘Drink this, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’  Jesus takes this nectar from the fruits of the earth, and places it at the heart of his church.

However, this is not what we have heard in our readings this evening.  The images in our readings are of ruined vineyards, vineyards which have either not produced the expected harvest, or vineyards which become a focus of malicious and selfish gain, through appalling violence.

The parable that Jesus tells us from the Gospel of Matthew, is of a landowner who owns a beautiful vineyard and lets it out to tenants. When he sends his slaves to collect the harvest they are killed. Then the landowner sends his son to collect the harvest, and this time the tenants kill him, in order to gain his inheritance. The vineyard has been ruined, it is no longer a place of plenty, but a place of terror. No good wine can come of this.  There is no mention of the grapes, nor of the beautiful harvest, rotting on the vines, languishing in the sun, thereby preventing the production of the most beautiful wine that can be shared at celebrations and family meals for years to come.

The parable is of course figurative, it speaks of humanities reluctance to tend and nurture and grow and our propensity to reject that love which helps us produce the best harvest in our lives. The very gifts that can bring so much joy and that can share so much grace: we diminish, we reject and we destroy. So often the inclination of the human heart seems to be towards greed, hatred, selfishness, violence, when Jesus is always so very clearly calling us towards generosity and love. Christ comes to help us see the Father’s love for us, so why do we as human beings, so often reject it?

Today we begin our journey to the place where we learn what true generosity and true love is.  We see God giving us his son, nailed to a cross, as a sign of his boundless love for the world. The cross stands there in the vineyard of our hearts, saying to us, there is another way, there is a beautiful harvest waiting for you, which will produce the very best wine.

It is there on the cross, as he waited to die, that the sour wine given to Jesus is transformed through God’s love into the most beautiful life-giving wine.  The blood pouring from his side, becomes for us the new wine of the new Kingdom, shared from a cup at the banquet which celebrates the new creation, where death will lead to life, sins will be forgiven, hope will be restored and our vocation in Christ will be affirmed.

Christ comes to us, only in generosity and love, to invite us to the banquet,

where wine will flow in abundance, the best wine, 

wine which is a gift and a blessing from God, 

who offers us a cup, and longs for us to take a sip

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Palm Sunday: The Crowd’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Crowd’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: Palm Sunday,  2 April 2023  10.30am 

Last words are for fools who believe they have not yet said enough, remarked Karl Marx on his own deathbed. You might agree with that, although it feels a slightly aggressive way in which to take leave of this life. I suspect that, when the time comes, my own preference might be closer to that of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who sadly remarked I only wish I had drunk more champagne!

Or it might prove to be the case that we are overwhelmed with regret, and echo a sentiment more in keeping with the last words of Queen Elizabeth I, who is reported, wistfully, to have said All my possessions for a moment of time.

But whatever faces us at the end of our own lives, today, and throughout this week of weeks, we are called by God and by God’s Church to work out what our last word is when faced, as we are right now, by the Cross, and by the death of Jesus. Because it is no use claiming to be a follower or a disciple of Jesus, if you have nothing to say to the world about the Cross – for the Cross stands not just at the heart of our religion. For the Christian, the Cross stands – the Cross must stand – at the heart of the life of the world.

And it is not just Christians who can find themselves confronted with the Cross. In 1972 the American Jewish author and rabbi Chaim Potok wrote a remarkable novel entitled My name is Asher Lev, about a child born into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in New York, a family very like his own. And it turns out that this child is blessed with the gift of truly remarkable artistic talent.

But, while you or I might delight to see such talent in one of our own offspring, in the context of a devout, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, this was very far from welcome, for art, painting and drawing do not sit well in Orthodox Judaism, which takes very seriously the prohibition on making graven images.

But so very talented is this child that, with the eventual encouragement of their rabbi, his parents arrange for their son to have lessons in art from a non-religious Jew who possesses similar talent.

The climax of the story comes when the teacher tells his ever-blossoming pupil that if he wishes to be a truly great artist, he must go down to the Met – the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and gaze at, and study, and sketch, and reproduce all the great paintings of the crucifixion in the museum.

The boy is horrified at the idea that he, an Orthodox Jew, should be encouraged to immerse himself in pictures of the ultimate expression of the Christian faith. But his teacher is clear – no other image in the world, he says, has the significance in the entire history of art as does the crucifixion of Christ. To be a truly great artist, whatever one’s faith or beliefs, one must encounter the cross of Christ.

In other words, this committed, observant Jew is called to find his ‘last word’ on – of all subjects – the Cross.

This morning, as we begin Holy Week, we find ourselves faced with a body of people that the evangelists refer to as the ‘crowd’. And because of the curious, unique nature of today’s liturgy we have had not one but two snapshots of the crowd in this morning’s service – which is both helpful and necessary if we are to understand what being part of a ‘crowd’ can really mean.

Just now, as we gathered outside the Minster, we acted out the crowd’s behaviour as it followed Jesus down the Mount of Olives, celebrating his arrival in a Jerusalem turbo-charged with religious fervour at the celebration of the most significant Jewish festival of the year. And, as the evangelist reminded us, so excited is the crowd, it is shouting Hosanna, and calling Jesus the Son of David     , and claiming that he has come ‘in the name of the Lord’.

But crowds are easily swayed, and – as we see all too often in our own volatile political and social climate – people can veer from being superstar to public enemy number one in little more than a heartbeat. When the going gets tough, both 2000 years ago, and all too often today as well, a crowd can change its communal mind and change the chant of Hosanna to the hideous last word that cries out, Let him be crucified.

And so, today, God asks us, God demands of us once again, to work out what the Cross really means to each one of us. God asks us what it is that we might say to the world around us about the Cross and about the death of Jesus. Are we outwardly going to shout Hosanna, but let our inner thoughts and our behaviour call out Crucify? How will we fashion our own response to the Cross?

I want to suggest that if you – or I – properly wish to answer this question, the ultimate question of Holy Week, then you need to walk with Jesus throughout this week through the great liturgies of the Church. For if, after this morning, the next time you set foot in a church is next Sunday morning, I am not sure that you will properly have understood what it is that God in Jesus has done for you, and I am not sure that you will fully understand what it will mean to celebrate resurrection on Easter Sunday.  And that is why the Church of God has, for many many centuries, offered unique and powerful liturgies to help us enter into this ultimate, great drama of hope and of salvation.

And so I invite you to join us in the coming days. To join us tomorrow, and Tuesday and Wednesday, as we are reminded of Jesus’ last days of teaching his disciples and friends as the situation around him ineluctably comes to a head.

And then to join us in the solemn darkness of a Thursday night, replete with its bread and wine, and acts of service; to join us in the bitter darkness of a Friday afternoon, complete with an agonizing and undeserved death; to join us in the expectant darkness of a Saturday night, as the light of a single candle will illumine your life more brightly than you could have thought possible.

And if we are faithful to God’s call, and make such a journey, then we will comprehend so much more clearly what God has done for us on the Cross, and then can we frame our own last word to help us speak – as we are called to do – speak to the world of the death of the Son of God.

For now, right now, the crowd chants Crucify…Let him be crucified. Is that going to be your last word?

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Those who love their life lose it… – The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward

The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward (Dean Emeritus of St Edmundsbury)

10.00am Sung Eucharist

Passiontide begins today. We turn ourselves towards the events that are to come.

The Gospel reading reminds us of what lies ahead for our Lord.

He talks of grains of wheat, of lives lost and found, warning those around him of what sort of death he was to die. The losses to come would be hard and many, not only his own dear life.  He sought to reassure them that they belonged within a greater story, the story of God’s saving love for the world.

What was to happen was of cosmic significance.   The death he was to die meant the judgement of this world and God glorified in love.

And I, says Jesus, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself

Passiontide draws our minds and hearts towards this cosmic, saving action of God in Jesus Christ.

But what are we to make of those enigmatic words of Jesus? “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”?

One of the delights of six months at Mirfield, as my husband trains there for the priesthood, is the weekly sessions of Greek I’ve attended. We look at the gospel reading for the Sunday to come and make our way through, drawing out the resonances and meanings in the original.

And so I discover that today’s gospel has the same word for ‘life’ – as in ‘Those who love their life lose it …’ – and ‘soul’ – as in ‘Now my soul is troubled’. ‘Psyche’ is the word in Greek – from which we get any number of familiar derivatives: psychology, the most obvious. Translated here, really rather differently, as ‘life’, and ‘soul’.

Interestingly, there’s no biblical Greek word for the ‘self’ as we commonly use it now. There’s a Greek word for the reflexive sense, as in ‘myself’, to be sure – but no word, apart from ‘psyche’, to describe who I am. My inner self.

As Jesus prays with troubled soul, he warns his disciples that unless they are prepared to sacrifice their lives – their very selves – for his sake, they would not know eternal life.

Perhaps, today, he encourages us to reflect on our Western world, and its intense focus on the ‘self’. We talk of self-esteem, self-awareness, self-belief, self-love, self-respect.  And now, we have ‘selfie’ too.

Attitude specialist Janice Davies introduced a National Self-Esteem Day in New Zealand in 2006, which is now international, renamed Selfday.

In the UK, in response to concern about the detrimental impact of selfies, the first TrueSelfie Day was held in July last year. Designed to mark the 20th Anniversary since Princess Diana died, the intention is to give young people a platform to celebrate their individuality. The motivation is well meaning, but illustrates how deeply engrained preoccupation with the ‘self’ is in contemporary culture. The website[1] tells us that there are over 1 million selfies taken each day. TrueSelfie fears that the individual person is getting lost. That young people are very concerned with body image and self-esteem, with around half of girls and up to one third of boys dieting; that over half of bullying experienced by young people is because of appearance. The Diana Award has created #MyTrueSelfie, to boost self-esteem.

If we are nationally – internationally – obsessed with our selves, I’m not sure creating a website that encourages young people to take even more selfies is going to help very much. It all sounds rather nightmarish.

An over-preoccupation with self can leave us in a living hell.

In his 2017 book Selfie[2] Will Storr interviewed CJ. She is an extreme product of what he calls a self-obsessed age. Not every young person is like her, but her story is credible. It describes what life is like for some young people today.

CJ is twenty two. She was bullied at school, which make her parents anxious. ‘My parents just wrapped me in a bubble,’ she told Storr. ‘They were like, “You’re not going anywhere.”’ At home CJ could do pretty much what she liked; her happiness ruled. Her mother was ablaze with admiration. “You’re amazing. You’re sublime. You’re a prodigy.” CJ began to think, “Yes, I am.”

CJ now has a selfie habit. She is up to 4 a.m. editing, adding filters and selecting only the finest to post on Facebook and Instagram, alongside captions such as “Hypnotising, mesmerising me”. She spends £35 a month of storage on iCloud. She wakes at 7.30 a.m. to think about her hair and make-up, how it will look in pictures. She’ll take selfies everywhere. She’s really delighted when someone – particularly a celebrity – wants a selfie with her. She’s taken selfies at funerals. When her mum told her she was being inappropriate, CJ replied, “I look good, it’s always appropriate.”[3]

An extreme situation? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It won’t surprise you to hear that CJ also self-harms, as so many young people do today. A way of feeling something amidst the suffocating narcissism that a self-obsessed culture perpetrates.

Of course – not all young people are caught up in this way. And it’s not just young people either. Selves are everywhere in western culture today. We see ourselves – whatever age we are – reflected back from the black mirror of my smart phone, or computer screen. The bleak possibilities are there for us all: the dark mirror that draws us in towards that over-preoccupation with self.

Our understanding of humanity is at the heart of this.

Today, as Passiontide begins, perhaps we can think of self-love, self-absorption, in this context. That when we are seduced into the selfie world – as CJ was – we do indeed lose our life, our self, our soul by loving ourselves too much. You remember the ancient story of Narcissus? How he was 16, and very beautiful. He aroused great love in all who met him, including the nymph Echo. He rejected her, as he rejected all advances, and she wasted away to the haunting voice we hear in rocks and cliffs. One day, Narcissus lay down to drink at a quiet pool in the woods and for the first time he saw his own reflection. Immediately he was entranced, besotted. He fell in love for the first time. Whenever he reached out to touch, though, the image rippled away. He could not draw himself away from the beauty before him. He wasted away, as Echo had done. No body was ever found, only the white and gold flower that nods in the wind at this time of the year, the narcissus flower.

It’s a myth with an ancient and contemporary warning. Particularly for any in danger of losing their humanity in a selfie world that can so quickly get out of hand. Someone said “When it comes to the web, we think we’re spiders, but really we’re flies.” We’re all affected – and we should be careful. We might lose more than we think. The young people around us might never know how empty existence has become.

To find our humanity, as it is shaped by Jesus, is to turn away from that world and find ourselves as we love and serve others. To hate our lives in this world sounds extreme. But there is a central Christian message here about self-forgetfulness for the sake of others that we need to learn again, and again. It’s great when so many young people get involved in voluntary action. When they campaign against violence. When – as more and more do – they put their phones away and engage with what’s around them. It’s worth encouraging this as much as possible. The place to begin is me.

To turn away from the black mirror, and turn towards Good Friday and Easter beyond, is to allow ourselves to be shaped by the Passion. It is to look on Cross and see ourselves reflected there. Reflected and shaped in our humanity by the Christ who focuses not on himself, but who radiates God’s love, for the sake of the whole world.

The cross holds the depths of human life. It is where the sin of self-preoccupation is devoured by the holiness of God. The lives, the selves we promote in this world, all our self-obsessions and narcissism taken up. Our self-absorption, self-promotion, self-this, self-that, transformed into the humanity that is shaped by Jesus Christ.

Over the next few weeks, whenever you gaze on Jesus Christ on the cross, recall your self. For it is reflected there. Our humanity finds itself in God’s love. Our true reality is here, as we forget ourselves and are drawn, through Christ, into God’s being, into the fullness and abundance of life and love. Jesus gazes at us from the cross with the eyes of God and we are seen as we truly are: our selves, our life, our soul.

We are bathed in the love that pours upon us from Jesus on the cross. It’s then that we receive humanity. We are given life. What is asked of us, is that we, in turn, give it away as we love the world. Self-giving and self-forgetful in acts of kindness and compassion.

This is the cosmic action in which the God of love makes us whole.

We find our life in the passion of Christ. The soul of our humanity. As we give as he gave, we live eternally.


[2] Will Storr, Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, London, Picador, 2017

[3] Storr, 2017, p. 281ff

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