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Friday 15 April 2022: Good Friday

The shrouded body and the hidden word
Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:4

By Jonathan Dean

Retired Minister, who served congregations in London and Turin, Italy; involved especially in Christian-Jewish relations

Context: an English Presbyterian Church which, in 1972, became part of the newly formed United Reformed Church. Mixed age congregation drawn widely from North London

Aim: to wrap ourselves prayerfully in the enshrouded Word of the Psalms

As we contemplate The Greatest Story Ever Told, the death of Jesus, centre of the Gospel, and all our worship of his Body in the Lord’s Supper ‘until he come’, we may call to mind the witness of the North African Augustine, writing at the time of crisis and fall of Empire. We may recall his conversion in a Milan garden like the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, when, from next door, he heard children singing ‘Take it and read it’ which prompted him to seize the New Testament and read words from Paul about leaving evil behind for good and ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ like a head to foot garment.

The story pitches us to the long shelves of possible books belonging to Jews and Christians. Codex and Scroll. The illustrations in our history books of, for example, the lonely puritan, John Bunyan of Bedford, wrestling with Bible words on his knee. All hearing the oft repeated command: ‘Read’ and change your mind.



The Christian Gospel offers us a new body resting in the midst of the chaos of history, in Joseph’s garden. What we saw first with Shepherds’ eyes in Bethlehem’s fields. kneeling to stare at the small body ‘swaddled’ from head to foot in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. The peace of God’s Word enshrined in a new-born, wrapped in cloth.



A predecessor of Augustine in Africa, in Alexandria in Egypt, was the Greek thinker, Plotinus, who, although he rather despised Christians, became for some the interpreter of a philosophical language deriving from Plato, which clarified the effects of the written Word. Plotinus wrote for the first time of what we call ‘getting lost’ in a book, a kind of timeless bliss. His belief that immersion in books is crucial for the life journey of your mind, of you being a thinking human body. In Augustine’s terms preparing the body to become clothed in the Holy Spirit, as was the baby, lying in the manger, on emerging from the earthly heaven of Mary’s womb.



Allow me a personal memory of my first walking past this church, in Finchley Road, West Hampstead, on the way to the Congregational Theological College, then just up the road. The first book I bought from Foyles at that time in 1964 was by the Spanish Basque philosopher Unamuno and described his opinions of what he took to be a kind of Christ figure, Don Quixote. What inspired me in his descriptions was the power of good imagination. As Quixote clothed himself like a medieval knight, he overcame fear. His innocence was created in becoming like a swaddled child and, in a way, resistant to the power of corruption.

Christians and Jews have clothed themselves in one Book above all others as their daily book. It gives their mouths the language for appropriate prayer, the visualization of the growing knight on his unthinkable journey to face evil and death. The desert mothers and fathers of Augustine’s day, chose above all other to copy Jesus in being enveloped in the 150 psalms, crying even: My God, why...? Churches have since systematized daily chanting of the entire psalter.



The Jewish Book of Books we take again today, translated into a life of Thirty Years. And a journey of a few precious months of Roman history, which ended physically in the Roman slave empire’s brutal killing. And the body, unnailed, removed. And prepared for burial. And wrapped as Jews and Christians wrapped their holy scrolls in linen cloths. From head to foot in the secret garden. Like the baby swaddled in strips of cloth, like the precious holy scrolls which Jesus unwound in the synagogue of Galilee. The baby emerging from Mary’s womb. This Body, to be received on Easter Day as the Bread of Eucharist. This Book of Songs for daily pilgrimage back to Paradise, where all the happiness of God’s creation rests again.



The prophet Ezekiel, at the start of his ministry of passion, was told by God to take up the mighty scroll in his hand and then to eat the book and ‘Behold, the taste was sweet, like the taste of honey.’ May we learn, in unclothing the psalmist’s words of Jesus’ suffering and death, that it is the one sure way to God’s promise of the home called Paradise.

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