Reflection – Phil Wall
Statues and Censorship
Readings: Psalm 40; Matthew 16:13-24
Yes, I did have a fantastic break, thanks for asking. From mountain climbs up Cader Idris and Helvellyn; to dips in the balmy Barmouth sea and lukewarm Lake Coniston; and times catching up with friends and family with a film or three – it was a wonderful and very welcome break. I was originally due, of course, to be off in Tokyo, cheering on Team GB as they tried to emulate their success in Brazil but the world has changed since I bought my Olympic tickets and the salamanders of Japan have nothing on the donkeys of Blackpool anyway! I did, however, get in touch with my friend Darran – who’s currently enduring the severe restrictions of the renewed lockdown in Melbourne, Australia – to reminisce about our last Olympic odyssey some four years ago, the highlights of which included navigating the waterways of the Amazon; being wowed by the wonder of Iguazu Falls; and delighting in the colour and vibrancy of Rio de Janeiro, where you can catch sight of Christ the Redeemer wherever you are in the city.
To see this image of Jesus – arms outstretched as if to give the residents of Rio, and the world, a divine cwtch – up close is breathtaking. Of course, it’s not the only impressive statue of Jesus around and, seeing as most of us have had to curtail our holiday plans, or at least our foreign travels, this year, I thought we’d enjoy a quick jaunt to some of the most iconic images of Jesus across the world, some of which you might well have seen up close too. Let’s see if you recognize any…answers overleaf!
Okay, so did you recognize any of these? Congratulations if you did as I reckon a few of these would be Pointless answers!
First up was a statue of Christ the King from Poland – technically the tallest statue of Jesus in the world, if you include the mound it’s on! Then we had Michelangelo’s Cristo della Minerva in Rome followed by the incredible Christ of the Abyss, near Portofino on the Italian coast. I love that image.
Next up…you might have got this one…Christ the King in Lisbon – a near replica of the one in Rio. Beside that we have the colourful Divine Mercy Shrine in The Philippines and, finally, the biggest statue of the baby Jesus in the world – which bears more than a passing resemblance to Phil Collins – and can be seen in the town of Guadalupe in Mexico.
So, a whole range of images of Christ there. I wonder if you had a favourite. I wonder if you had a least favourite! Well, whatever else might be said about them, such images of Christ are normally placed somewhere with a stunning backdrop – an ornate church, a beautiful vista, even an ocean view…then there’s Mount Toro in Menorca –
Mount Toro is said to be the spiritual centre of Menorca, where there has been a shrine and place of pilgrimage since the 13th century. Over the years, it’s housed a monastery and convent and now…telephone, television and satellite masts.
I wonder what you think or feel when you see this image. Perhaps you feel disappointed that the image of Jesus is obscured or dwarfed by the ugly masts all around him. Perhaps, as a friend of mine said to me, the image makes you think of Jesus in the Temple, condemning the religious leaders for squeezing God out of the picture in the endless desire for financial gain. Or perhaps you see Jesus embracing the masts, blessing the forms of technology and communication which have enabled us to stay connected at a time of global social distancing.
Well, whatever you feel about the image, if you look up Mount Toro on the internet you will see many pictures like the below – where it appears as if the pylons do not exist.
The ugly masts have been photoshopped out the picture! And that, I think, is a temptation that we all have. We can be tempted to think that God must be kept pure, away from the dirtiness of our everyday lives where we compromise and lie and try our best and yet fail. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe that God is for Sunday, for services, for success even. Sometimes we can be tempted to neaten up the God-story – as those who decided the order of the lectionary certainly did with chapter 16 in the gospel according to Matthew for in the official Sunday lectionary ordering, Peter’s realization that Jesus is the Messiah is usually carefully cut off from the following verses in which Peter refuses to accept that Jesus must die, subsequently getting called out by Jesus – in pretty brutal fashion, it must be said!
But even this edit is less inauthentic than the lectionary’s treatment of Psalm 40 in which the first 10 verses of praise are included whilst the following seven verses of desolation usually disappear altogether, as if God will embrace thoughtful words of beautiful worship whilst ignoring the honest cries of a desperate believer. And in case you think such thinking is confined to previous, less enlightened, eras just look at the condemnation that Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber received from many wings of the Church when she shared her desperate pleas for God’s intercession in the Divided States of America earlier this month.
Still today, some within the Church believe that God is to be kept free from our impurities; that the masts should be airbrushed; that the darkness and desperation of our lives must be kept out of sight and hidden beneath a veneer of respectability, for fear that God and our neighbour will be disgusted by the messiness of our lives.
But God tells us differently. For God came to us in Jesus, born, as all children are, amidst blood and pain. As a grown man he made a point of being with those who were ill and outcast, those who were dying or dead or who lived lives that others thought of as sinful. Untouchable people. He did not need to keep away from certain people or situations in order to maintain his purity. And here, in this gospel reading, we see him begin the ultimate journey into darkness as he prepares to enter Jerusalem and the seat of corruption and power. He is ready to challenge, confront and love those who control Israel and who are leading her astray. Jesus did not stick to safe situations or places of purity– he lived, died and rose again in the midst of the confusion and complexities of an uncertain time. Sound familiar?!
I’ll hope you’ll forgive me, then, for bringing together the usually separated verses from Matthew’s gospel; for encouraging us to see Peter as a mixture of a man; so in tune with Jesus that he was able to see him as the Messiah and also as one who could be blinded by his own desires, however good and noble they might have been. We remember, too, that Jesus’ words, however strong and challenging, did not for one minute take away his declaration that Peter was a rock upon which God would build his church. Those words were spoken not as a reward for success but as a gift – a vocation that would lead Peter to be transformed beyond his wildest dreams, to see and carry out healings and to speak words of life to those around him. But he would also keep failing, keep getting it wrong, and even when he did take the right path it led, ultimately, to his death as a martyr.
These past few months have reminded us – as if it were needed – that life is messy, confusing, unpredictable. It has reminded us that, like Peter, we too are complex people living in an ever-changing society. We are a mixture of brilliance and brokenness, of love and hate, of hope and fear – and we are called, invited, welcomed into the presence of God, sharing all that we are. Like the psalmist, we are invited to speak of God with courage, with honesty, with our lips and lives, aware that we might not always get it right – that we may hurt ourselves and others even when we are trying to do the right thing; that sometimes our crosses are from God and sometimes they are of our own making – but God knows that and yet God is here still, amongst us; amidst tv masts and disinfectant sprays; not denying the shadow-lands of our lives but transforming them. Right here – within the mess and magnificence of our daily living, Christ can be found. At the centre. Present. Forgiving. Loving. Amen.
[Christ the Redeemer being prepared for its reopening on August 15th this year].
 For those who like their psychological thrillers, I highly recommend ‘Us’ – a wonderfully creepy parable about the oppression of the underclasses and the consequences that this reaps.
 Verses 11-17 do not appear in the Sunday lectionary readings; are ignored in most musical versions of the psalm – including U2’s otherwise excellent song ‘40’; and pick up interpretations of the Bible such as ‘The Word On The Street’ and you will find these lines conspicuously absent.
 Not all church members will like the language she uses but those who want to look up what she said can do so at https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/prayers-for-enduring-this-shit-show
Prayer – Sue Walkling
Let us pray.
Listening Lord who cares for all creation, we bring before you our prayers for the world, trusting that you are always ready to listen.
We bring before you those who have lost trust in their nation’s leaders and governments:
- The people of Belarus
- The people of Beirut
- Exam year pupils in the UK, their schools and college staff
Inspire and encourage the leaders of all nations to act justly, with integrity for the good of all their peoples.
We pray for those who are grieving; for those whose grief is new and raw, and for those whose grief has been with them for a long time
- We pray for the families of the young people who died in the sea at Lytham St Anne’s
- And the four young people killed in a car crash in Calne
- We pray for those who are living with the reality of losing loved ones to coronavirus and other illnesses during these strange times, when funerals have not been able to happen in the normal way, and people have struggled to find ways to support the grieving, or to express their own grief and to say, ‘Good bye.’
May they all know your comforting presence with them.
In these uncertain times we are thankful for your constant love and we pray for those living with anxiety:
- Anxiety about their health or the health of a loved one
- Anxiety about employment and unemployment
- Anxiety about coping with life in the new normal
- Anxiety about returning to work or school after months of being at home
- Anxiety about how to feed a family on a very limited budget
May your loving presence bring a sense of peace and calm which encourages hope to grow.
Loving God, we pray for ourselves: for your church at Castle Square and St David’s Uniting. Whilst we are unable to meet in the way that is normal to us, may we continue to support each other and the communities around us.
We give thanks for all who have kept us connected through reflections, newsletters, phone calls and cards, may we continue to be your Kingdom people in a new and different world.
So let us join together in praying for that Kingdom to come by saying together, Our Father…