Category: Sermons

A Liturgy of The Rood

Benefice of Bewcastle, Stapleton, and Kirklinton with Hethersgill

Bewcastle Cross – Good Friday

This is the liturgy we used around the Bewcastle Cross on Good Friday for the first time in 2024, which includes a recital of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of The Rood’. However, it almost certainly isn’t the first time it has been read around this cross – I suspect it was recited on Good Friday every year in the 700s when the monastic community existed at Bewcastle. The liturgy is reproduced here for those who might be interested in praying through it themselves.

A recording of the service (excluding the hymn), including the reading of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ can be found here:

The Service

The Welcome

Welcome to this ancient and holy place where, for over 1300 years, our Christian forebears have gathered to worship, meditate on the cross, and pray. Today we join with them.

On Good Friday, the Church focuses on commemorating the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Since the fourth century, the ritual of the Veneration of the Cross has been part of this tradition. During the service, we listen to readings that focus on the events of this day, and towards the end, you are invited, if you wish, to come forward and show reverence to the cross, the climax of our salvation, perhaps by touching it, kissing it, bowing before it, or just sitting silently at its feet.

The encounter we have with God on Good Friday is the most profound of the year and the act of veneration one of those moments when we respond in a very individual, personal way. Today we meet God at his most vulnerable and most powerful – a day of paradox in which defeat is really victory and where one man’s death leads to life for all.

Let us pray.
O thou whose supreme devotion did not refuse the burden of bearing crucifixion,
by whom the sins of the human race were taken away as so heavy a burden,
when you were uplifted by your own arms like a pure lamb to sacrifice:
I beg you to extend the hand of your mercy towards my sins,
and to erase all my crimes completely,
O noble and resolute Lord Jesus Christ.

Behold the Cross on which was hung the Saviour of the world.
We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the World.


We pray together
O Height of humility and Fortitude of the week,
By your humility you have raised up our fallen world.
You permitted the cruel hands of sinners to raise you on the rood.
I offer thanks, and pray that, by this, you will lead me from all wilfulness.
Draw me from earth to heaven:
Do not forsake your lost sheep, but carry me in your arms
that I may be found within your fold,
blessed Lord Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading

Let us pray
Almighty God, Lord Jesus Christ,
You stretched out your pure hands on the rood for us,
And redeemed us with your holy and precious blood;
Enable me so to feel and understand this mystery
That I may attain true repentance and unfailing perseverance
All the days of my life.

The Dream of The Rood

Listen! I will tell the best of dreams
Which I dreamed, the middle of one night
While, far and wide, all speech-bearers slept.
It was as though I saw a wondrous tree
Towering in the sky, suffused with light.
Brightest of beams; and all that beacon was
Cased with gold. Jewels studded lovingly
At its earthen base, just as there were five
Upon the cross-beam: all those beautiful through eternity
Beheld there the angel of the Lord.
No felon’s gallows that, but holy spirits,
Mankind throughout the Earth, and all this marvellous creation, 
Gazed on the glorious tree of victory.
And I with sins was stained, with guilt stricken. 
I saw this tree of glory brightly shine
In gorgeous raiment, all bedecked with gold.
The Ruler’s tree was with gems 
Worthily adorned; yet I could see beyond that gold
The ancient wretched strife, when first
Upon its right side it began to bleed.
I was with sorrows all disturbed, affrighted
At the stunning vision. I saw that brilliant beacon
Then change its clothes and hues; sometimes it was
Bedewed with blood and drenched with flowing gore, 
At other times it was with treasure all adorned.
So there I lay gazing on the Saviour’s tree,
In spirit grieving for a long, long while,
Until I heard it utter sounds. The best
Of woods began to speak these words to me:

“It was long ago – yet I remember still –
That I was hewn down at the grove’s end,
Stripped from my roots. Strong foes there took me,
Command me hold aloft their felons,
Made me a spectacle. These men bore me
Upon their shoulders, till on a mount they set me,
A host of fiends there fixed me.
And then saw I the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that he might upon me
Mount. I durst not against God’s word
Bow down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. I might then
Have felled those foes, yet stood I fast.
The young hero (who God Almighty was)
Disrobed himself, resolute in heart and strong.
He climbed the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many, 
For his intent was mankind to redeem.
I trembled as the warrior clasped me.
But still I dared not to the earth bend down,
Fall to the ground. Upright I there stood firm,
A rood was I, raised up; I held on high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I durst not stoop. With dark nails they pierced me;
The scars still clearly seen upon me,
The open wounds of malice. Yet for him
I dared not harm them. They mocked us both together.
All sodden with blood was I,
Which from his side poured out, when forth
He sent his spirit. Full many a cruel fate
On that hill have I endured.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds,
His brilliant brightness; shadows passed across,
Black in the darkness. Weep all creation,
Bewail the King's death; Christ was on the cross.
And yet saw I men coming from afar,
Hastening to the Prince. I beheld it all.
With sorrows I was grievously oppressed,
Yet willingly I bent to those men's hands,
Humbly. They took up there Almighty God,
And from the heavy torment lifted him.
The battle-warriors left me standing steaming in his blood,
Wounded all over with spears was I.
They laid him down limb-weary; 
And at the corpse’s head they stood, beheld
The Lord of heaven, as there he rested 
For a while, weary from his bitter agony.
Hewed they then a sepulchre for him
In sight of his tormentors. Carved it of the brightest stone,
and set therein the Lord of victories.
Then, wretched in the eventide, they sang
a dirge for him; and when away they went,
Wearily from that glorious Prince, there he stayed, alone.
Yet remained we there fixed and weeping in our places
A good long time after the warriors’ voices
Had from us passed away. The corpse grew cold,
The fair abode of life. Then to the earth men
Felled us down. That was a dreadful fate.
In a deep pit they buried us. But friends
And servants of the Lord learnt where I was,
And girded me with gold and silver.
Now may you understand, dearest warrior,
That I have suffered deeds of wicked men
And sorrows grievous. Now the time is come
That far and wide on earth all shall honour me,
And all this great and glorious creation,
And to this beacon offer prayers. On me
The Son of God once suffered; so glorious now
I tower beneath the heavens.
And I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became of tortures the cruellest,
Most loathsome to all nations, till opened I
For mortal man the right way of life.
Listen! The Prince of glory honoured me,
And heaven's King exalted me above
All other trees, just as Almighty God
For all mankind raised up his mother Mary 
Above all other women in the world.
Now, my dear warrior, I bid you
That you this sight shall say to all,
Reveal in words, this is the tree of glory
On which Almighty God once suffered torments
For mankind’s many sins, and for the deeds
Of Adam long ago. He tasted death
Thereon; and yet the Lord arose again
By his great might to come to human aid.
To heaven he rose. Again the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and all his angels with him,
Will come onto this earth to seek
Mankind at the day of doom, when he, the final Judge,
Will give his verdict upon every man,
What in this fleeting life he hath deserved.
Nor then may any be free from fear
About the words to him the Lord shall say.
Before the crowd he shall ask where that man is
Who for God’s name would suffer bitter death
As formerly did he upon the tree.
Then will they be afraid, and few will know
What they may say to Christ. But there need none
Be fearful if he bears upon his breast
The best of beacons. Through the rood each soul
May to the heavens journey from this earth,
Who with the Ruler thinks to go and dwell.”

Then prayed I to the tree with joyous heart
And eagerness, where I was all alone,
Companionless; my spirit was inspired
With keenness for departure; I’ve lived
Through many hours of longing. Now my hope in life
Is that the tree of triumph I may seek
Alone more often than all other men,
Well it honour; my wish for that is great
Within my heart, and my plea for support
Is turned towards the rood. I have on earth
Not many noble friends, but they have gone
Hence from earth’s joys and sought the King of glory,
With the High Father live they now in heaven
And in glory dwell; and I wait each day
For when the cross of God, which here on earth
I formerly beheld, may fetch me from
This transitory life and carry me
To where there is great bliss and joy in heaven,
Where the Lord’s host is seated at the feast,
And it shall set me where I hereafter
May in glory dwell, live in lasting bliss
Among the saints. May God be friend to me,
He who suffered once on the gallows tree
Here on earth for the sins of men. He us redeemed
And granted life and heavenly home.
Hope was renewed with glory and with joy
For those who suffered burning in the fires of hell.
The Son was mighty on that fateful journey,
Happy and victorious, when
The one Almighty Ruler with him brought 
A multitude of spirits to God's Kingdom,
To joy among the angels and the souls
Of those who already in the heavens dwelt 
In glory. Then almighty God had come,
The Ruler, where his dwelling was.

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Journey of the Magi

The Epiphany, by its nature, is enigmatic. On the 6th January every year, the 12th Day of Christmas (depending on when you start counting), we celebrate the visit of the wise men from the east to see the baby king in the stable with his mother and father, bringing their gifts. We call it The Epiphany because it represents the recognition of God’s coming by the Gentile (that’s us) world. ‘Epiphany’, that moment of sudden awakening or realisation.

But what was realised? Who noticed? Notoriously, Herod became furious when he realised he was tricked by the magi, and sent his soldiers to slaughter all the boys aged two and under in and around Bethlehem, perhaps between six and twenty children, in the hope of killing the baby Jesus and eliminating any competition for his throne.

But apart from the magi and the shepherds, we are not told of anyone else having a clue about the significance of Jesus’ birth. Some ‘epiphany’!

TS Eliot, in his famous poem ‘Journey of the Magi’, takes up this theme of the enigmatic nature of the Epiphany, telling it as a story seen from the perspective of the magi. But it is a journey riddled with pain, difficulty, and disappointment. There are moments that flicker with hope, ‘Then at dawn…’, but they soon fade back into the grey dampness of the cold world. They wander, searching, through the valley of the shadow of Christ’s death, unknowingly, until they reach their moment of ‘epiphany’: ‘It was (you may say) satisfactory’ in the most underwhelming of climaxes.

The journey, however, is for us. We are Eliot’s magi, on what seems a hard, bitter, and foolish journey with almost nothing to show at the end, except a morsel of bread made from flour from ‘the mill beating the darkness’, and the wine from ‘the vines-leaves over the lintel’ and the ’empty wine-skins’ being kicked under the table. But the encounter changes us, and we are left having died and been born again, no longer at peace with the idolatry of the world around us, waiting, longing for the old white horse in the meadow to, at last, carry its white rider…

The Bewcastle benefice sermon for the first Sunday of Epiphany (2024) can be found here.

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Chocolate calendars, numbed shopping malls, new oil deals, and an unHoly Land. Dare we pray the prayer of Advent? Dare we not?

It is easy to become disillusioned, despairing almost, of the direction of travel that we, as a global species, appears to be taking. Western society seems infatuated with technological ‘progress’ irrespective of cost or consequence, and commercial interests have come to dominate most decision-making. How many sci-fi films do we need to warn us before the ultimate destination of, for example, artificial intelligence, is inevitable? But the alternative rise of so-called ‘populism’ demonstrates a dark, fear-driven revolt against the perceived threat to self-interest. The ‘other’, the ‘not us’, has become a target to rail against, to blame; exactly what happened in 1930s Germany.

There are those who work behind the scenes, refusing to give in to these seemingly insurmountable forces, whose agenda is to help bring about a better world where care and kindness towards people and environment are the measure of our action and ‘telos’, or endpoint. But their gains are hard won and easily overturned.

Prophets have rarely been popular figures. Their warnings and offers of an alternative way upset too many, especially those with something to lose. The way we have structured our societies places inordinate power, and therefore trust, in the hands of the few. Whether they be public politicians who make laws and direct policies, hoping to keep our vote, or private board-room directors who exploit human weakness and need, for power and wealth, their decisions shape our society, subtly influencing our values, often cynically, by making us feel inadequate compared to others, and then appealing to the self in us to become like them. Perhaps we need a few more David Attenboroughs who can command our respect and affection while encouraging us to walk a different path, the path of compassion and care for creation.

This ‘different path’ is the Advent calling, set, as it is, in the approach to the darkest part of the year, when the forces that would exploit us by playing to our interests of self-preservation are most powerful. The prayer ‘Come’ requires us to prepare ourselves, to be brutally honest about who we are, both in our vulnerability and in our self-interest. For when we are, terrifying as this may be, we are met by the One who loves us with a passion that will lead him to the Cross on our behalf.

Dare we pray the prayer? Dare we not?

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for Advent Sunday 2023 can be found here.

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Pearl Diving

For over 2000 years Japanese women, known as ama, have descended to depths of over 30m underwater, in a single breath lasting over two minutes, in search of pearls. They descend into the darkness where all colour has vanished. Only silence, shadows and outlines remain. It is a place of extreme cold and danger where few ever venture. They do it 100-150 times a day, and continue into their eighties, needing to retrieve a ton of oysters in their nets to find four or five decent pearls. Not many of us will ever experience the physical and physiological hardship of such a way of life.

But many of us do experience the depth of darkness of physical or emotional pain, loneliness, loss, or other forms of suffering. It can seem like a place without end, without hope, devoid of joy or happiness, no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, just continual darkness. For some, the weight of bearing pain, or caring for others, can be relentless, lasting for years, For others, traumatised by experiences of years ago, or who have suffered abuse of one form or another, it can seem like being trapped in a suffocating cage from which there is no way out.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, grapples with the depths on his own failure as a human being. Although he begins with a summary of the mess the world is in (chapter 1), describing our struggles with fallenness, he descends further and further into the darkness of our own, and ultimately his, sinful nature (chapter 7) – “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It is true that he passes the beautiful corals of Christ’s work on his way down (chapters 5 and 6), and they hint at the treasure below. But he must make that descent himself first, before he can find the pearl of great price for which he seeks in the darkness of his innermost despair.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity (2023) can be found here.

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Beth-El – House of God?

Duplicity. Abraham complies with his wife’s scheming and then denies his firstborn. Isaac is tricked by his second-born with the help of his mother’s plotting. Jacob indulges his wives’ bitter rivalry, and so spawns the twelve tribes of Israel. The Patriarchs of Israel are a sorry bunch, for whom ‘integrity’ was not a word that carried much currency. And yet. And yet God chose them. Promised to bless the world through them – schemers and dreamers though they were.

But perhaps it was the dreaming for which they were chosen? All of them ‘heard’ God speak words of promise. What does it mean to ‘hear’ God? How do you know it’s God speaking and not your own imagination, or madness? Then again, they were all exceptionally wealthy, so perhaps they weren’t mad after all.

But Jacob has fled from his brother, having deceived his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, which his brother, in a moment of rash stupidity (and probably joking), had agreed to give him in exchange for a bowl of stew, and been sent off by his mother to her brother’s household in search of a wife.

Alone and in the darkness of the wilderness, Jacob dreams a dream: God promises to bless his offspring and the whole world. So he calls the place ‘beth-el’, house of God.

But what, really, is this ‘house of God’ that Jacob attempts to locate in the wilderness? Paul, in his majestic letter to the Romans, unpacks the promise, and our place in it.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon the the 7th Sunday after Trinity can be found here.

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The Stories We Tell

‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. A long time ago…’

We love stories. From our earliest days to old age we love listening to, and telling, stories. They are how we make sense of the world around us, how we first encounter ‘others’ in our imaginations, and they are how we form our collective memories that bind us as societies. Jesus was a master story-teller; his stories, called parables, played off the collective stories familiar to his listeners, and turned out to be enigmatic, challenging, full of surprises and unexpected outcomes. His stories are crafted to disrupt in order to allow light to enter the dark places of our hearts.

The problem, though, is that the darkness in our hearts only enters through stories as well. Bad stories. Stories that speak against, stories of victimisation and discrimination, of separation and boundaries, stories that reinforce prejudice. These are the stories that feed self-pity and blame others. We see it all around in families, local communities, society, politics, nations. At every scale stories feed and shape our beliefs.

The story Jesus tells is of the end of all these dark stories and the beginning of the new story, which is the oldest one of all. It is the story of death; Christ’s death, our death. And then birth, with the offering of a new beginning, where, like children, we learn there are no borders other than in the mind. ‘There is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male or female, for we are all one in Christ.’ This is the nature and gift of baptism. The new story is of the unquenchable love of God poured into the world, poured into our hearts.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Trinity can be found here.

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Cataract of God

‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ shouts the psalmist through the drenching thunder.

So many of us are nervous souls, battered down by cares and worries, apprehensive for loved ones or ourselves. The experience of hurt and disappointment has left us timid and small. The adventure of childhood has long since been buried to allow us to cope with our journey towards the end. The thrill of life is now often found only in a book or on a screen. We manage our environments as best we can – warm homes, stocked cupboards, comfortable cars. Even so, financial worries still fret away – will we be able to afford next month? Church, too, is sedate and safe, routine and reassuring. Danger is best avoided with a thorough risk assessment. Our small worlds are contracted to a single stone in a bare field.

The wilderness is a long way from here. Thankfully?

I read a poem recently, about Christ being crucified on “the skull of the world”. It’s reference, of course, to the hill on which he was crucified, called ‘Golgotha’, meaning ‘place of the skull.’ But it captures something far deeper about the deadness of the world, the deadness of humanity, on which and for which he died. The poem goes on to speak of the one who hungered yet fed others, who thirsted while inviting others to come to him to drink, who raised the dead to life while dying himself. As the mockers so astutely put it ‘he saved others, he cannot save himself.’ How? And why?

Christ lived under the thundering cataract of God, the swirling presence of the Holy Spirit. We have been given so many images of this Spirit; water, wind, fire, and none of them are comfortable, not even the dove, who ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. And yet the Spirit is called the Comforter.

Perhaps its time we rediscovered this Spirit of God.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for Pentecost can be found here.

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A Common Treasury For All

In 1649 to St George's Hill
A ragged band they called the "Diggers"
Came to show the people's will.
They defied the landlords, they defied the laws;
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.

'We come in peace' they said 'to dig and sow.
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the wastelands grow;
This earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all.'

So begins a song by Leon Rosselson about Gerard Winstanley and the first Diggers – one that I sometimes sing at our folk evenings. The Diggers arrived at St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey, in April of 1649 as a small group of men and women who had lost their homes during the Civil War and due to Enclosure. By August they had been driven from the land by nearby landowners and resettled a short distance away at Cobham, still in Surrey. By April of the next year the local clergyman, another landowner, had managed to force them off that land also. It is a sorry and uncomfortable tale.

For such a briefly-lived movement, the Diggers have had an astonishingly disproportionate influence, still inspiring young and old alike. That fact, alone, speaks of a resonance deep within us that yearns for a different way of being in the world.

Winstanley’s own inspiration, itself, came from the book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 44-45:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, 
as any had need. 

But this wasn’t the first time in English history that the Bible had been the inspiration for understanding the equality of all. In 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt was stirred by the preaching of the priest John Ball, credited with the first protest rhyme in the English language, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” Ball worked alongside John Wycliffe, who was translating the Bible into the English vernacular for the first time in history. Now the Word of God was reaching the Commoners and it was dangerous stuff.

This is some of the history with which we have to contend when we read Acts 2. It is difficult because we don’t take it very seriously any more – it poses far too much of a threat to our established way of life. So we hide behind excuses like ‘history proves its entirely impractical to live like that anyway.’ And its true, many attempts to live a ‘common life’ have ended in failure.

Many, but not all. Monastic communities have been since the first centuries of the Church’s existence as a continuation of precisely this description of the Church in Acts. They still continue today. Of course, there are multiple notorious examples where these ‘communities’ have been farcical mockeries, even evil parodies, of their calling through history. But there are also countless others, untold and unsung, where true life has been lived.

The question then falls to us as to how we are to respond because, despite what we may tell ourselves, possession and wealth are not the answer the world would have us believe, and that, generally, we are inclined to accept. If we were, somehow, to find a way of walking to a different drum, what would the world look like then…

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter can be found here.

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We had Hoped

Hope belongs to the world of belief; it has direction and a future. Atheism, in contrast, and by definition, has only chaos, and therefore neither. We, all of us, depend on hope, live our lives in hope, even as we rest in the moment. But hope disappointed can be shattering, destructive, devastating. It can ruin a soul and lead to utter darkness. It is the place of hell.

So how do we choose what to hope for? How do we know who or what to trust and believe in? A topical question in a world of ‘fake news’. A cynic’s answer might be to trust no one but yourself. But only the arrogant would be so foolish, for we all die, and what is ‘hope’ that ceases to exist when we do?

Those seven miles of the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus were the seven miles of holiness. On them, the unknown stranger picked up the broken pieces of shattered hope and started reshaping the story in which they had hoped, had believed, had been destroyed. And at the end of those seven miles an extraordinary new vista emerged, a new hope, a greater hope, a hope that filled their hearts with burning. And then the bread is broken, and the burning bursts into sudden, blinding light. Now, at last, they know who they believe in…

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the third Sunday of Easter can be found here.

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Dawn Treader

How does one make any sense of that which is beyond comprehension? How does someone from a flat world grasp a third dimension? How do we estimate the cost of our darkness, the damage of our sin, both to ourselves and to the stardust of the cosmos of which we are formed, and from which all else is created? Are we arrogant to think that we even have such significance? And yet the story of the Incarnation requires us to understand that the Creator knows we do. How? Worse, for some unfathomable reason, the Creator considers us worth the ultimate sacrifice. Us, who are guilty of dust and sin. Why?

We may think we know. And perhaps we can know enough, and that is enough.

It is called Love.

But the consequence of his coming is beyond our wildest imaginings. All that terrifies us evaporates as the mist in the morning sun. The clouds break open and the sudden shaft of sunlight reveals the brightest of fields. Eternity has inrupted our time-delimited existence. There is no more need for violence or greed, for insecurity or fear, for domination and manipulation, for the quest for power or wealth or freedom; all the trappings of a death-infested world. The Dawn of a new world has woken and we are invited to tread in his wake. The painting has come to Life.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for Easter Morning, 2023 can be found here.

Poem: ‘Love (3)’ by George Herbert

NT: Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matt 28:1-10

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