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LET US BREAK BREAD TOGEHER

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I Corinthians 11:23-26

Luke 22:14-23

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.”

Imagine how often these words are said every day of every week, year in and year out, across the world.  It all began “on the night” Jesus was betrayed, that first Maundy Thursday when Jesus had supper with his close companions for the last time.  It is appropriate, then, that here at Volmoed, our weekly community Eucharist is celebrated on a Thursday.  But the Eucharist is above all a celebration of the risen Christ, not simply the Jesus of history. As Luke tells us, it was on the “first day of the week” that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (2:41) And ever since, Christians have celebrated this feast of the resurrection at least on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the start of God’s new creation.

This service is known by several names: Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and Mass.  But to begin with, as Luke tells us, it was simply known as the “breaking of bread together.”  Indeed, the “breaking of the bread” takes us to the heart of what we do here because it dramatically focusses our attention on the cross, on the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of the world.  What we do here re-presents God’s act of redemptive love: Jesus “took bread”, he “gave thanks”, he “broke it”, and he “gave it.”  In other words, in these actions we  see the what God has done for us in Christ, the “bread of life” given for us. So, we take bread, we give thanks, break it, and receive.  In those actions the whole of the gospel is proclaimed, for as often as we do this, says Paul, we “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Each time we break bread together we are declaring that “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Jesus is not entombed in the past, even in the Upper Room; he is truly present with us today as the Lord of life, and he makes himself known, as he did on the Road to Emmaus, in the “breaking of the bread.” 

If “breaking bread” describes the heart of this act of worship, the service is also known as the Lord’s Supper. Although only a piece of bread and sip of wine, it is a meal, a supper, or as some have called it, a “holy banquet” or “love feast” to which the risen Christ has invited us.  We come to this Table to share this meal because he invites us.  It is the Lord’s Supper not ours.  We are not the hosts; Christ is the host; it is not our Table, it is his Table, and he welcomes us to sit at table with him. He presides, he celebrates, he breaks bread with us, and in doing so he makes himself known.  The Lord’s Supper, this simple meal of bread and wine, is a foretaste of the banquet feast of the coming kingdom of God, the age to come.

So we come to this Table because Christ has invited us to have fellowship with him as we do with each other, for “though we are many we all share the same bread.”  The bread of life which is Christ himself. That is why we also call this service Holy Communion.  Communion, a word related to communication and community.  At Holy Communion, Christ communicates with us and we with him through a series of words, actions and symbols that inform and strengthen our faith and build community.  Communion also suggests intimacy, the intimacy of lovers.  We pray that the Spirit will bless the bread and wine so that we may feed on Christ by faith.  Nothing could be more intimate than such communion; the communion whereby the life of one person is shared by another. It is like a lover who says to his or her beloved: “I could devour you!”    That is the passion of the great mystics who find in the Song of Songs not just a sensual love-song between human beings, but an expression of what it means to fall in love with God.  Not often, but certainly on some rare and remarkable occasions, I have seen people burst into tears at Communion, tears of love, tears of gratitude. Holy Communion is a means of grace because here we are assured of God’s love for us, God’s desire to be an integral part of our lives, the “bread of life” that nourishes us in love.  That is Holy Communion.

Which brings is to a further description of this meal we share, this breaking of bread, this Lord’s Supper, this Holy Communion, is a feast of thanksgiving.  Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it…”  The Greek word used in the New Testament is “eucharist.”  If the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus is the host at the Table; if the Breaking of Bread recalls that we come to meet the crucified yet risen Lord who has conquered death; and if Holy Communion describes our intimate relationship to Christ as we eat the bread and drink the cup, then Eucharist describes our response.  We come here to express our gratitude to God for God’s love.  That is why the prayer at the centre of the meal is known as the “Great Thanksgiving.”  We “lift up our hearts” in order to give thanks, for that is “very right to do at all times and in all places.”  We give thanks to God for all God has done and continues to do for the world and for us.  Our sacrifice is an offering of thanksgiving, and therefore it is the offering of ourselves to the service of God.

Which brings us to the word “Mass”, another word used to describe this simple meal of bread and wine.  The word comes from the Latin missio which means “being sent.”  It is the word used at the end of the Latin Mass when the priest says “Ite, missa est.”  The service has ended, you are now sent into the world.  Mass reminds us that we come to this Table to be renewed for serving the world.  We come to receive food for the journey; we go to share what we have received,  bread of life broken for the sake of the world.  Just as the disciples could not remain on the mountain of Transfiguration but had to descend with Jesus onto the plain on the way to the cross, so we come to the Lord’s Supper, to break bread, to share Holy Communion, and give thanks, to go into the world to serve God in the service of others.

This all began on the night when Jesus was betrayed, the night he broke bread with his disciples and told them to do this in remembrance of him until he came again.  I end with the words of a hymn that we used to sing at Holy Communion in days, now long ago:

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face.

Here would I touch and handle things unseen;

Here grasp with firmer hand, the eternal grace,

And all my weariness upon Thee lean. 

Here would I feast upon the bread of God;

Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;

Here would O lay aside each earthly load,

Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

This is the hour of banquet and of song;

This is the heavenly table spread for me;

Here let me feast, and, feasting still prolong

the hallowed hour of fellowship with Thee.  (Horatio Bonar 1808-1889)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed,  Maundy Thursday,  1 April, 2021

TURNING THINGS OUTSIDE IN

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Luke 14:15-24

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you…Woe to you when all speak well of you.” Luke 6:22-26

How can we possibly be blessed if people hate us, and exclude us from their company?  And why should we be wary of people who affirm us, who pass compliments, pat us on the shoulder, say nice things about us, and embrace us?  Anyone who has suffered from discrimination whether because of race or gender, ethnicity, or class, know that being excluded does not make you feel blessed, but cursed.  And anyone who has been cursed from childhood by being told that they are good for nothing and will never succeed at anything, know how much they crave affirmation.  How they long to be told that they are worth something, how they hunger for words of encouragement.  So how can Jesus say: “woe to you when all speak well of you?”

Jesus’ Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Plain shock us, and that is what he intends. Nobody would have taken much notice if Jesus had said we are blessed when people include us and cursed when they don’t speak well of us.  But he says the very opposite.  If last week we hear about Jesus turning things upside down, or the right way up, today it is about turning things inside out.  We are blessed when excluded and cursed when people speak well of us.  But why?

Well remember the people to whom Jesus was speaking.  Many of them were peasants, not well-schooled and not well-spoken, not the kind of people the self-righteous Pharisees would invite to dinner.  And some of the crowd listening to Jesus might have been Samaritans, or even lepers, people who were hated and excluded from polite society and respectable religious circles.  To them Jesus is saying, consider yourselves happy that you are not included in such self-righteous and ultra-pious company!  You are better off as outsiders because you are, in fact, insiders in God’s kingdom.  But to the religiously self-righteous and the Pharisees Jesus says, “woe to you when all speak good of you!” Woe to you who relish having your egos massaged by praise.  You who walk about as though you are God’s chosen ones.  Truly, you are outside God’s kingdom.  In short, in this Beatitude Jesus turns things inside out.

Is this not the message of Jesus’ parable about the great banquet, also recorded by Luke?  A friend throws a dinner party and invites all the people we normally honour, all the socially well-heeled, to attend.  But all of them make excuses.  The dinner is not to their liking.  They either don’t think the guest list is distinguished enough, or that the host is worthy of their company, or that it would be to their advantage to attend, so they send lame excuses and don’t pitch up.  They have excluded themselves from the party.  So the host sends his servants to find all those who were never invited to such banquets, those who are always excluded, those about whom no one has a good word to say, and compels them to attend!  Come and claim your rightful seat at my table, join me at my party – there are no signs of exclusion at the door only a welcome mat. 

So those who have always been hated, discover that they are loved, and those who have been excluded find themselves enjoying the master’s hospitality.  They are truly blessed far beyond anything they could have imagined.  But those who have always been regarded as respectable, those who have always received praise, those who think highly of themselves and bask in their privilege and status, find themselves excluded.  There has been a reversal of roles.  The victims are vindicated; the perpetrators punished, in fact, they have punished themselves because they do not want to join the party and join with those others in the cekebration.

How often this happens in history.  The Civil War in the United States was all about who should be invited to the banquet, who should have the vote and therefore access to the levers of power, privilege, and affluence.  The South wanted to keep slaves in their place, the North was willing to invite them to the table.  The struggle, of which racism is both cause and symptom, continues to this day.  Who really belongs at the table?  It is the same across the world, and certainly here in apartheid South Africa.  Who should have access to education, to health, to privilege, to power?  The signs “Europeans Only!” or “Whites Only!” answered those questions categorically. But as things turn out, the outsider becomes the insider, and those who live by the creed of exclusion actually exclude themselves from God’s party where everyone is welcome.

Jesus’ beatitudes are revolutionary and obviously have a wider reference than simply to his audience on the Plain for they have to do with what it means to follow him, what it means to live according to the kingdom or reign of God.  Consider the prophets, those who spoke truth to power, those who challenged the status quo of injustice and oppression in the land, those who were reviled and persecuted because they were defending the poor and oppressed.  They were blessed even though those in power or those who benefitted from the way things are, hated them and excluded them from their company.  Remember the time when people like Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela were hated by those in power and disliked and shunned most white South Africans.  But they, says Jesus, are the blessed ones for they did what is right and good.  And by the same token consider those who were regarded as the pillars of social respectability, the guardians of moral propriety, applauded with honours for their patriotism, find themselves excluded.  To such, Jesus says: “Woe to you when all speak good of you!”

Jesus is not saying that excluding others is good, or that affirming others is bad.  Jesus is not saying that we should make sure people hate us in order that we can be happy.  Nor is he saying that we should not speak well of other people, affirming them in and for what they do, especially those who are often demeaned or spoken down to.  That is not what Jesus is saying at all.  What Jesus is saying, first to the self-righteous and privileged is this: if you want to come to the table then you need to be humble enough, you need to learn to share, you need to embrace the outsider sitting next to you.  And what Jesus is saying to those who feel excluded is simply this: there is room at the table for you.  Indeed, as Luke also records, if in your humility you come in and sit down at the back, the master may well say “come up higher”, and to those who are accustomed to the place of privilege he may well say: “Give this person you despise your place at my right hand.”  For says Jesus: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

John de Gruchy

Volmoed Lent 4   18 March 2021

HUNGRY FOR JUSTICE

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Isaiah 58:6-9: Luke 6:21,25

Is not this the fast that I choose:

To share your bread with the hungry.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Lent is a time of listening again to Jesus’ challenging words of costly discipleship as we journey to the cross.  Such words change the way in which we see the world and ourselves.    Of course, we are all eager to hear words of encouragement and hope, rather than challenging words that disturb us. But the words of Jesus that seem to turn the world upside–down are really about turning it the right way up.  Words that challenge what is wrong to make things right; words that challenge sin so that we might receive salvation.  No words do this more than the words of blessing and the words of woe in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

We come here on a Thursday to celebrate God’s love, to share the peace of Christ, and to find strength for the journey.  We come seeking words of comfort and support to help us cope with our daily lives. But we do not come to escape from the realities of a broken world in order find the peace of God in the beauty that surrounds us by denying the ugliness of the injustice that confronts us in the world.  We come so that we might become God’s joyful agents of God’s mercy, love, and justice in the world.  Indeed, it is in seeking to be God’s agents of justice in the world that we discover God’s peace; it is in challenging ugliness that we affirm beauty; and by proclaiming the good news of Christ we challenge the bad news of despair and hopelessness.

In thinking about Jesus’ words “blessed are you who are hungry now” I searched the web for information about world hunger and found myself in Wikipedia reading about “The Hunger Games.” For those who don’t know (as I didn’t!), The Hunger Games is a series of novels that, in 2012, ranked second only to Harry Potter.  In 2014 the Hunger Games evidentlysold 65 million copies in 51 languages, and it has been turned into a movie series. It may seem shocking that people could turn hunger into a game, but in fact The Hunger Games are meant to challenge a world that is upside-down, a world in which the majority are hungry while a minority have more than enough to satisfy them.  As Wikipedia tells is:

The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in an unspecified future time, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, located in North America. The country consists of a wealthy Capitol city, surrounded by twelve poorer districts ruled by the Capitol. The Capitol is lavishly rich and technologically advanced, but the districts are in varying states of poverty. District 12 is the poorest region where people regularly die of starvation. As punishment for a past rebellion against the Capitol one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts, are selected by lottery to compete in the annual Hunger Games in which the participants are forced to fight to the death in public. The winner and his or her district is then rewarded with food, supplies, and riches. The purposes of the Hunger Games is to provide entertainment for the Capitol and to remind the districts of the Capitol’s power and lack of remorseforgetfulness, and forgiveness for the failed rebellion of the current competitors’ ancestors.

That just about sums up the upside-down world in which we live.  There are the rich and powerful who have control of all the resources, and the poor and powerless who go to bed hungry.  Hunger has become a game, like monopoly, in which the more you have the more you want and the more you get.  Just think about it.  The world’s billionaires have not gone hungry during the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been more than filled, while the number of hungry people has reached obscene levels.  Think of all those who have made a fortune out of the war in Yemen which is now devasted by poverty, disease, and famine.  War games have led to hunger games!  How upside down is that? 

So what are we going to make of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled?” Can that possibly be true?  When will those who are hungry now be filled?  When will those of us who have more than we need go hungry?  Is this just a promise or threat that can never be fulfilled, literally a pie in the sky when you die?  Or is Jesus shocking us, like The Hunger Games, into facing reality?  Is he telling us that as long as there is such injustice in the world, there will never be peace in the world, and those who have more than they need will never feel secure and at peace, and may lose all they have in the end?

Although it often seems that what Jesus said in his sermon on the Plain in Luke is radically different to his sermon on the Mount in Matthew, there is a deep connection.  If Luke tells us that the hungry will be filled and those who are satisfied now will eventually go hungry, in Matthew Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be filled.”  These words challenge us who have more than we need to become hungry for God’s justice for those who are hungry now.  That is what the Lenten fast is about.  “Is not this the fast that I choose” says God, “to share your bread with the hungry?” Jesus is not telling those who are already filled to go hungry; he is challenging us to share what we have so that no one goes hungry. If you are not hungry in your belly now, become hungry in your commitment to justice, for then you shall be filled. To become hungry for justice and to do justly is how we show our love for God and neighbour. 

Concretely this means that we take time to find out how we can contribute to alleviating hunger.  Maybe we can all make one pledge today:  to renew our commitment as individuals and as a community to respond to the hunger crisis facing the world and our own society in whatever way is possible for us.  Many of us support NGOs fighting hunger and poverty.  Many of us are helping to support the unemployed at this Pandemic time.  May we continue to do so, perhaps even more than we have, and resist the temptation to throw up our hands in despair because the problem is so huge.  Jesus’ challenging words to us today are to remember the hungry by being hungry to see that God’s justice is done.  They are not a call to starve ourselves, but to share ourselves.  Only in this way shall the hungry be filled, and those of us who are full now will avoid Jesus’ words of woe.  This is our Lenten fast: “To share our bread with the hungry” and to do so for the love of God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed Lent 3   4th March 2021

PLAIN SPEAKING

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Luke 6:17-26

Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.  They had come to hear him…Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you…woe are you.”

This is how Luke describes the beginning of what we normally call the Sermon on the Mount, that is when we read it in St Matthew’s gospel.  But in Luke it is normally known as the Sermon on the Plain, though in the NRSV we are simply told “Jesus came down with his disciples’ from the mount where he had been praying, “and stood on a level place.”  At the risk of being a little corny, we could say that in the sermon Jesus preached he was levelling with the crowd, or simply engaging in some plain speaking.  But, however you look at it, Luke’s account of the Beatitudes is significantly different from that of Matthew.  Even the location is different.  In Matthew it takes place on a mountain side – I have even been there to visit the Church of the Beatitudes – but in Luke, Jesus is on level ground.  He is facing the crowd eye to eye not speaking from some lofty pulpit.  Though there is some irony in Luke’s account.  For Luke says that when Jesus began speaking “he looked up at his disciples!”  They appear to be standing on higher ground, maybe regarding themselves as a little superior to the rest of the crowd.  But what Jesus said soon brought them down to earth with a bump.  And that is what Luke’s account of the Beatitudes does – it may lack something of the beauty of Matthew’s version, but it shocks us.  It is plain speaking.  And it is this version of the Beatitudes that we will be considering during the next six weeks of Lent.

Some of you may be wondering whether Jesus may not have given two sermons that were similar yet different.  That’s not unusual among preachers.  We sometimes use the same material but put a different spin on it depending on the occasion and the audience.  But it is more likely that Matthew interpreted Jesus’ sermon in a way that connected with a major aim in writing his gospel – to challenge the religious hypocrisy of the pharisees who thought they were more righteous than anyone else.  To them Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke, however, always has the underdog in mind, the despised, underprivileged, and downtrodden, so to them, Luke tells us Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor.”  Not just those who are humble, but those who possess nothing.  Those who are not just hungering and thirsting for righteousness, but those who are physically hungry.  Luke goes further, for in his gospel Jesus not only says that the poor and hungry are blessed, but follows this up by saying “woe to you who are rich,” and “woe to you who are full now.”  In fact, every one of Jesus’ sayings about being blessed in Luke’s account has a corresponding “woe” attached.  “Blessed are you who weep now,” but “woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”

I recall the day when I first read the Beatitudes as translated by J.B. Philips.  It was published in the nineteen-fifties, Philips wanted to make the New Testament more accessible to what was then called “modern man.”  His translation was an attempt to help us hear Jesus’ speaking to plainly and to the point so that we would be less tempted to admire the beauty of his words and more able to hear what he was saying.  To those who were so accustomed to hearing Jesus say: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, or simply “Blessed are the poor”, we now heard Jesus saying: “How happy are you who own nothing,” and “how miserable for you who are rich!”  Suddenly I heard Jesus speaking to me.  To be blessed, according to the original Greek (makarios), means being happy, and not to be blessed means being miserable!

In the Beatitudes Jesus is addressing a question that philosophers, wise women and wise men, have tried to answer through the centuries.  What makes us happy?  And that remains a puzzling question. One of the best-selling books in recent times is Gretchen Rubin’s book called The Happiness Project in which she brings together the wisdom of the ages and new scientific research, to find the answer. You can check it out on the web.  When we really think about it, we know that genuine happiness has much less to do with wealth and possessions than it has to do with the love of friends and family and having a meaningful life.  This is what we give thanks for when we count our blessings and name them one by one.  These are what we value most, or should do, but often forget to live by them. Happiness is connected to love, to forgiveness, to sharing and caring, not to possessing and grasping.

Lent is a season of repentance, a time when Jesus wants to level with us, speak plainly to us, to bring us back to what is most important in life, the values of the gospel.  Repentance is acknowledging that we have not been doing very well on that score, sometimes abysmally so, so we need to change direction, turn around, start again with a clean sheet.  Literally the word repentance in the New Testament means a change or heart and mind that enables us to live according to the will of God for us.  It is seeking first the kingdom of God because everything else is secondary. It is turning away from that which hinders us from following the way of Jesus and turning towards that which helps.  It is what we mean by conversion, a life-long process on the journey towards being at one with God.

Isobel and I are in the middle of moving downstairs, and that means downsizing which is, as you all know, always a challenge.  For how do you get rid of all the stuff you don’t really need for the next stage in life when so much of it has some significance for you?  But you must; you must live more simply.  Repentance is like that – deciding what must to be left behind, in order to move on in your journey of faith, hope and love.  You can’t take everything you may want to cling to, so you must decide on what you really need.  Thinking about Jesus’ Beatitudes helps us to do that, and there is much more that follows in his Sermon on the Plain as we will see during Lent, that focuses our minds on this task.  For it is there that we hear Jesus teaching us to love for our enemies, not to judge others, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy-times seven.

Lent, then, is when we learn again about what makes us truly happy. If we want to be happy, then we must do what is right, loving and just and we will be unhappy if we don’t.  Can we be happy if we are wealthy and our neighbours down the road are living in poverty?  Can we be happy if some children get a good education while others don’t, or some have plenty to eat while others go to bed hungry?  When we ask such questions, we soon find out what it means to seek God’s kingdom” first.  We discover that we cannot have peace if we are surrounded by injustice, we cannot expect love if we do not love in return.  That is the beginning of repentance, the beginning of a change of heart and mind in the ongoing conversion of our lives as we follow Jesus.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed Lent 1 18th February 2021

SMELL MATTERS

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II Corinthians 2;14-17

Thanks be to God, who … uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.

Sniffer dogs are amazing creatures.  It is claimed that they can detect cancer, explosives, illegal drugs, currency, bad blood, and even illegal cell phones.  We may not be able to do that but if we lose our smell, as happens with many Covid-19 victims, it can be life-threatening.  Our ability to smell gives us pleasure when we enjoy the fragrance of fresh flowers or the smells of delicious food cooking in the kitchen.  But our sense of smell also protects us from danger and harm.  The smell of smoke alerts us to fire, the smell of rotten fish keeps us from eating it.  If we could not smell perfume manufacturers would not exist, rose gardens would lose their allure, and the joy of smelling the fresh sea air would be denied us.  Like the other four senses, hearing, tasting, touching, and seeing, smelling matters, adding value to life and saving us from potential disaster.

Of course, smell alone does not prove that something is rotten.  We still need scientists to examine the cause and explain why it is bad.  But often our intuition, our senses, lead the way.  We can smell a rat even before a crook is convicted of fraud on scientific evidence.  When say that we can smell rotten fish, we don’t always mean that the snoek is bad, but that someone is trying to con us.  We intuitively know because our senses warn us even before ours reason kicks in.  Smelling is like love.  We experience love before we can explain or understand it.

With this in mind listen again to the words of our text, but now as translated by Eugene Peterson: “God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade.  Through us he brings knowledge of Christ.  Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance.  Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God.”  In other words, people are attracted to Christ because those who spread the gospel smell good – their message carries conviction not because their arguments are necessarily beyond challenge, but because their lives “smell good”.  But, Paul add, while that sweet smell means salvation for some it means damnation to others.  What smells good to some, does not to others.  How are we to understand this?

Paul prefaces his remarks by referring to the triumphal victory parade that used to happen after every major Roman victory much like our victorious rugby team’s parade through our cities after their World Cup victory in 2019.  The Roman procession would be led by state officials, trumpeters, people carrying aloft the trophies of battled, animals for sacrifice, then his captives – enemy leaders and generals in chains, soon to be executed, and others brought back into slavery.  Then came the musicians — and mark this –priests swinging censers of burning incense whose sweet smell wafted across the crowd and enveloped the triumphant general dressed in a purple toga and riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. Then followed his family and the victorious army.  What a glorious sight, what a triumphant cacophony of sound, and what a sweet smell of burning incense percolated through the air of the crowded and normally smelly streets.  It was the fragrance of victory and every person who smelt it shared in the triumph.  Well, not everyone enjoyed the smell.   It was not sweet for the captives in the procession.  For them it was the smell of impending death or slavery. So Paul writes: “we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”

I have always been wary of incense in church not for any theological reason but because it reminds me of the time when, before I was about to preach in St George’s Cathedral years ago, the then Archbishop Burnett, incensed me with a cloud of smoke which almost overwhelmed me and made it difficult to speak!  But incense is used for different purposes in churches.  As the smoke of incense rises, the Psalmist tells us, it reminds us that our prayers are rising up to God as depicted on the wall hanging behind the altar. And the sweet smell of the incense that the monks burn before the reading of the gospel reminds us of the aroma of God’s love, grace and gift of life in Christ.  In other words, we not only hear the good news, but we smell it.  It is a smell that evokes a sense of life, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit.  Not only can we “taste and see that the Lord is good”, as the Psalmist says, but we can also smell that in Christ God has included us in the victory parade that celebrates God’s love and gift of life.  Which is the very reason we are here today

So, writes Paul, everywhere he and his companions travel on their mission to preach the good news, “God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade.  Through us he brings knowledge of Christ.  Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance.  Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God which is recognized by those on their way to salvation – an aroma redolent with life.”

But we cannot celebrate the victory parade of Christ’s resurrection if we forget those for whom the smell of incense meant death or slavery as the Roman army marched in triumph – people who would have been jeered by the crowd and worse. For the Christ we follow is not a triumphant general who has won a victory over our enemies, but the crucified One who walks in solidarity with all of us, victor and victim alike.  Christ died for all not for some, and our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others.  We cannot enjoy the fragrance of our freedom in Christ while others only smell the odour of death, hatred, violence.  People who live every day in places where every smell is a reminder of the bitterness of life and the decay of their circumstances.  Christianity begins to stink when Christians become self-righteous in trying to keep God’s love for themselves instead of sharing God’s love with all.  So may it be said of us as it was of Paul that “everywhere we go people breathe in the exquisite fragrance” of Christ. 

John de Gruchy

12 February 2021

THE STIGMATIZING OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN COVID VIRUS

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I keep on getting e-mails from overseas friends who express sympathy because they have heard that the Pandemic is so grim in South Africa. Then I keep on hearing about the “South African variant of the virus” being a major problem in Britain etc., so much so that we have been banned from flying to some countries and now the Australian cricket team has pulled out of touring the country as planned. What is going on? Little is said about the achievement of South African scientists in being among the first if not the first to identify a variant Covid virus without which nobody would have known about it. As we now know there are several such variants springing up across the globe. But it often seems that South Africa is to blame for the rapid spread of the Pandemic, not the failure of political leadership or the irresponsible behaviour of people. In fact, the actual number of people infected with the SA bug in Britain seems to be quite small, and I gather the situation in some developed countries is really as grim if not more so. But it is an old colonial ploy to blame the “other”, especially if they arrive on your shores like a virus, for their own failures — very convenient, and the media generally plays the same supporting role because some one has to be blamed, not us. I have yet to hear on international media that the spread of the virus in South Africa has gone down by 50% over the last week, that hospital admissions are much fewer than before, as are Covid-related deaths. That’s nothing to brag about, of course, because the numbers are still too high, and we are fifteenth in the world when it comes to total numbers of infections during the pandemic. But the improvement has been positive enough for the government to have lifted some of the restrictions. There is also no guarantee that we will escape a third wave — none of us are out of the woods yet. In any case, if South Africa is the “bad boy” you would have thought that the good boys would be more than willing to share vaccines instead of hoarding them. Global health is surely important for local health. After all it was a Brit who said “no man is an island,” even though many believe that by shutting borders they will remain immune. Oh, well, I guess if I lived in Britain I would also go along with the stream, after all South Africa is a long way away, and we have to blame somebody. In the meantime I must wear a mask, avoid crowds, and try and behave responsibly. You never know, there may be a new British, Portuguese, or American variant already winging its way to our shores. And it will be a while before I get a jab.

IN PRAISE OF MARRIAGE (and SHIRAZ)

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John 2:1-12

“You have kept the best wine until now.”

Isobel and I celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary today.  We got married young, too young, many said back then, and undoubtedly some thought it would not last.  Of course, it was a risk, and at times it seemed as if our marriage might not survive.  For marriage is an adventure, and adventures are risky and too often fail.  That is why we normally prepare well before climbing a high mountain, which is not a bad metaphor for marriage.  It is relatively easy to get to base camp, and many make it.  But from then on, the going gets tough, casualties mount, and even breathing gets difficult – in fact, many confess that they got divorced because their relationship was suffocating.  Marriages can run out of oxygen and sometimes, however reluctantly, divorce may be necessary.  As a marriage officer I have married many couples and not all marriages have survived.  Maybe my pre-marriage counsel was flawed or went unheeded, maybe the couple were not really in love or never learnt about “hanging-in love” — a variant as important as “tough love”, and the most critical element in any long-term relationship.  A love which knows how to forgive and start again.

I have been thinking a lot about marriage recently not simply because of our wedding anniversary, but because I have been researching monasticism, and therefore thinking about monastic vows – poverty, celibacy, and obedience.  I have been reminded that many theologians in the early Church wrote about marriage, as they did about perfection, celibacy, and martyrdom.  One of the greatest of them was St Augustine who, as you may know, “slept around” a fair bit before becoming a Christian and a bishop, as he himself tells us.  Ever since those days there have been innumerable treatises written on marriage, sometimes comparing marriage vows to monastic ones, and virtually every book on Christian ethics that I read as a student had a substantial chapter on the subject.  Most repeated St Paul’s advice that it is “better to marry than burn”, which was simply saying if you must have sex then get married, before speaking in more lofty tones about love.  Having children out of wedlock was frowned on – though sexual adventures were common even among Christian royalty as among other classes.  The “pill” changed all that and brought about the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties.  But not everyone who got married before that did so to avoid scandal.  They did so because of a mutual attraction, that is, they fell in love, as many great novels describe, and often  that love matured like a good wine which takes a long time before you can taste its full value.

Covid 19 meant that we could not have a party to celebrate our sixtieth, but we did manage to have a small family gathering, among them children and grandchildren – lunch in the open, of course, and the beer and cider were non-alcoholic, naturally.  But I had long been keeping a KWV Shiraz for such an occasion and this was the moment to uncork it.  I was not disappointed.  That got me thinking about the long process that led to its magic.  The toiling in the sun to pick the grapes; the crushing required to reduce them to pulp; the separation of the juice from the dregs; the storage over several years in oak barrels, themselves a work of art, all the while monitoring the temperature, and then the bottling, labelling, corking and, finally the tasting.  What a process went into producing the nectar we poured into our glasses.  Yes, I know as the story tells us, that Jesus could turn water into wine in an instant, just as conversion can be instantaneous, but it is also a life-long process, as is falling in lasting love.  Like a good Shiraz, the maturation of love takes time and effort. It is not always an essay ride.  But at least we can say, with the equally amazed wedding guests at Cana, the best wine has been served at the end! 

I fully understand why young people who live together today don’t get married, some of whom are very dear and close to us.  Indeed, their relationship is sometimes more stable and meaningful than many marriages based on solemn vows made before “God and this congregation”.   But as they look around, young people see too many failed marriages and, as they look to the future, they see too much uncertainty.  So why bring children into a world like this, a world of war, plagues, and a decaying environment?  The Church may say that marriage is a sacrament, but too many, they say, describe it as a form of bondage if not a living hell.   Yes, it is true, climbing a mountain peak is fraught with danger.  After sixty years we know that very well.  There are moments when you feel you are falling over the edge, and those when you feel like jumping without the need to be pushed.  But there are also times when you can see and marvel at the beauty of the whole earth laid out below.  A good marriage is made up of many such magical moments and I know too many beautiful marriages to despair of the institution.

The New Testament calls marriage a mystery, and why some Churches regard it as a sacrament, a means of grace that enriches and ennobles life.   This requires that we do not confuse the trappings with the reality, the ceremony with the necessary commitment, the scent of the flowers with the blessing being offered and needing to be accepted. A sacrament is a means of grace, but it is not mechanical like the signing of the register, it is a gift calling for commitment, the beginning of a graced journey of mutual care, of forgiveness and embrace, of agony as well as ecstasy, not simply the tying of a knot that unravels when pulled too hard or strangles because it is too tight so.    Marriage is always a work in progress, and invariably requires a great deal of effort once the rosy glow has evaporated.  You don’t get to the peak without putting one foot in front of the other while every muscle cries in pain, demanding an end to the torture.  But nothing worth doing comes easily, and the view from the top is breath-takingly beautiful.  So, when you get there, enjoy it while you can, for the day may come when you will no longer be able to embrace or hold hands, and there will inevitably be a moment of parting, for that is part of our human journey.

 Jesus obviously enjoyed being at the wedding in Cana, a place which Isobel and I once visited, and where the wonderfully hospitable Greek priest gave us a parting gift of wine to celebrate the occasion.  I will not comment on its taste when we finally drank it some years later.  But that does not detract from our memories of the moment when he sat us down in his modest sitting room and he  read to us the story of Jesus turning water into wine.  So, I turn again to that story on this the 60th anniversary of our marriage.  Like those early theologians and many since then, we salute those who choose to remain single, we understand those who are hesitant to get married in times such as these, but we remain committed to marriage as a means of amazing grace, grateful to all who have travelled with us over the years sharing both our tears and our joys.

And so, having arrived near the mountain top and uncorked the Shiraz I can only say – with some amazement – “you have kept the best till now”. Who would have thought that back on 7th January 1961 in the Methodist Church in Parktown North where we shared the chalice together at the communion rail surrounded by family and friends, and  began this journey of a life-time as we drove off in our tiny blue Fiat 600, not knowing precisely where we were headed.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 7th January 2021

On our fiftieth wedding anniversary, Isobel wrote this poem which I share with you because it says it all. 

After Fifty Years

We have grown up together, you and I,

Acquaintances, friends and then lovers,

Teen-agers, eager to spread our wings,

Testing the waters and tested by death;

Catapulted into instant adulthood.

We have grown together, you and I,

Shouldering responsibility, ill-prepared,

Buoyed by shared values, shared faith,

Dreaming, exploring, risking,

encouraging each other, flying high.

We have grown apart at times, you and I,

Going down different roads, absorbed,

excited, leaving the other behind,

but halting, turning, finding one another again,

each growing as we struggled to mend the rifts.

We have grown each other, you and I,

Each with our own interests, talents,

Urging the other to participate, to learn,

sometimes dragging the other along,

Kicking and screaming, but enabling them

To grow – petals unfolding like a flower

touched by the sun’s kiss.

We have grown old together, you and I,

By Gods grace and love, support,

Encouragement each for the other,

By the gift of children, grandchildren, friends,

And we have been tested again by death,

But, because of all that has gone before

We have been able to walk on – together.

Isobel de Gruchy                                          6.1.11  

NO NORMAL CHRISTMAS

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Luke 2:1-14

Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.

As I was thinking about Christmas in this strange and fearful time of pandemic, the words of the carol made famous by Bing Crosby came to mind: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”  The best-selling single of all times, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies.  Maybe that record will now be broken because many more will be dreaming of a Christmas

Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow …
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.

Why I should be dreaming of a white snowy Christmas in the middle of an African summer, I do not know, for right now any old Christmas would do, whether black or white, so long as it is reasonably “normal”.  Christmas as we once knew it with carols and cards, and midnight masses, and presents spread around a tree decorated with lights and cardboard angels, and grandpa dressed up in a red costume making out that he had just arrived from the north-pole.  

But there can be no “normal” Christmas in abnormal times.  Christmas for my parents during the Spanish Flu was not normal, nor was it normal for us as a family during the Second World War.  It was certainly not normal for many political prisoners during the apartheid years.  In any case, what is normal for some is not for others, and least of all for refugees, shack dwellers, friends who are grieving and those with terminal illness…  Yet, I recall many happy Christmases over the years, and I guess that is what we all call a “normal Christmas” – merry occasions of family gatherings, crowded church services, and Christmas dinners, all the things that are no longer as possible as they once were.  And who can tell what Christmas will be like in the “new normal” for we fear it, too, will be abnormal.

But Christmas is not meant to be normal.  The first Christmas was anything but “normal”.  It was, in fact, a rather strange event that took place in a back-yard cattle-shed in an obscure little village called Bethlehem where the one and only inn was booked out.  The innkeeper and his wife had no place for a peasant couple from out of town, one of them a heavily pregnant teenager and her partner, who seemed more puzzled than pleased that he might soon be a father.  “Sorry Mr Joseph from Nazareth you should have booked in advance!”

Yes, looking back as we read the story it may appear to be beautifully choreographed, made in heaven, we might say, but back then it seemed like a make-shift event in a town crowded with visitors. “And then, on top of it, a bunch of shepherds arrived unannounced in the middle of the night smelling like they always do. Thank goodness they did not come into the inn but went around the back to the cattle shed!  Why have they come?  What is going on here in our village where nothing normally happens?  This is all very unusual, strange, abnormal.  Who is this teenager who has suddenly given birth?  And why all this fuss about the baby crying in the manger? Maybe you should go and demand that the shepherds tell us what is going on, and come back quickly so that I know…” “Well, you won’t believe it, they simply told me that an angel had appeared to them on the nearby hillside and said: “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 

The only thing about Christmas is that it was not normal and can never be normal, indeed, we should not even try to normalize Christmas, for when we do, we miss the point. We forget how wonderfully strange it is for people of faith that God, the mystery in whom we live, move, and have our being, should do so among us as a human being like us. Unlike Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, which describes the mystery of Christmas in such earthy images, the opening verses of John’s Gospel, makes the bold assertion that “the Word that was with God from the beginning, the Word that was God, became flesh and came to dwell among us!”  That is the stupendous claim of Christian faith.  Christmas is celebrating the coming of God into the world “full of grace and truth”.  So, you would think that preparations for Christmas would have been divinely super-organized.  After all, it is not every day that God comes to live among us.  There is nothing normal about that.  A virgin birth, after all, is not normal. So let us not try and make it normal.  Let Christmas remain the most abnormal event of all time.  Let us be overwhelmed by the message of the angels.  In times like these, we need genuine good news, not fake news, but news that give us hope and enables love.  And such news is not normal.

Yes, of course, we are all saddened by the fact that we cannot celebrate a “normal” Christmas this year, but that does not mean that we cannot celebrate Christmas.  On the contrary it is precisely the reason to celebrate Christmas.  We are being forced by these painful times of fear and uncertainty, these abnormal times, to hear again the strange “good news” that the angels sang, that God loves the world so much that he wants to share our lives even if we can only find him room in the backyard.  I do not have to spell out what that good news means.  But here is what a twelfth century monk, Gueric of Igny said:

“Here is the Gospel message in all its original simplicity, undyingly new; the message that men and women are really loved by God, that sins are really forgiven, and that the mercy of God, beyond all our comprehension, has come to drive out forever the bitterness of selfish hearts and fill us instead with the sweetness of his presence forever.”

This is the message of the angels: “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

I leave you with a Christmas blessing Isobel wrote:

No matter what the restrictions, may the wonder of it all still shine through.

May the absence of those we wanted to share with not inhibit our joy,

May the frustration of cancelled activities and restrictive protocols not knock out all our happiness.

May the angels’ song, “Do not be afraid” come through loud and clear.

May modern communication methods help you to “be” with loved ones even when you are not.

So to each of you I wish a very Happy Christmas!

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed

Christmas 2020

BE WOKE

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Matthew 24:36-44

Stay awake, for you do not know the hour.

I don’t know about you, but I keep on falling asleep in front of the TV.  The wise woman sitting beside me wakes me up by turning it off.  But by then I have slept through half of the programme and have no idea what has been going on.  Maybe it was all too boring, or perhaps I was simply suffering from lack of sleep. But on checking this out with others my age, they told me the same old story.  I was getting on in years, they said.  But falling asleep when you should be awake is a problem, especially if you are driving a car, or doing something else that requires you to be alert.  Falling asleep during this Covid-19 Pandemic could be fatal, for we begin to drop our guard as though it is all over just when we seem to be entering a second wave.  Stay alert, keep awake, keep your mask on when you must, be prepared.  It was said of Rip van Winkle that he “slept through a revolution”.  There is even a small mountain somewhere in upstate New York which we once visited where, it is said, Rip van Winkle fell asleep.  Many people suffer from Rip van Winkle-itis:  they yawn, turn off the TV news, and put a sign on the door “Do not disturb!”  But suddenly wake up to the fact that the world has changed, and they are not ready for the new world they must live in.  

I recently read an article about a trendy new word: WOKE.  I had heard it used but had no idea what it meant.  It sounded like people were mispronouncing “wake”.  But WOKE evidently is more than that.  It is being aware of what is happening in the world.  This is the message of Advent.  Wake up!  Be WOKE. Do not sleep through the revolution that the coming of Christ has started.  Be aware of what is happening so that you are prepared to meet the Christ who is still coming, the Christ who meets us along the road today in friend and stranger, in the struggle for justice and the face of the poor.  The Christ who comes to make a new world.  Only WOKE people can discern his coming.  “For we do not know the hour or the day”, whether it is today, tomorrow, or the end of time.

Advent, then, is a wake-up call, a time to prepare for the new world.  A time to prepare to leave behind what we call “ordinary time”, the time in which we have been living since Pentecost and begin our journey of life anew. Advent is the Christian new year, the beginning of extraordinary time because it gives us time to start again. If Christmas is, for us, just part of ordinary time, the old normal, we will get ready for it with the usual Christmas busyness – shopping for presents, preparing the Christmas family gatherings, sending Christmas greetings to friends.   But Advent is no longer normal time, and like Covid-19, it forces us to think again about our priorities.  Not just about the new normal because of the Covid pandemic, but the new normal because of the coming of Christ.

 The pandemic has certainly been a wake-up call to remember what is important in life, why families and friends are so precious, why it is necessary to pause and pray, to think about who we are and what we are doing to each other, to our neighbours, to those who are different to us, to planet earth in all its awesomeness and fragility.  A time that is forcing us to remember what it was once like in the family home, what it was once like to hug and kiss, what it once was like to together around the Christmas tree.  So Advent is a time to remember the love we had, the faith we treasured, and the hope that sustained us back then because long before Covid-19 woke us up, we had taken all that was extraordinary and reduced it to something very ordinary.  For all its glitz, Christmas had become a busy, busy time of shop, shop, eat, eat, get exhausted and fall asleep.  The extraordinary had been reduced to the mundane.  We did not really celebrate Christmas as the feast of life in God’s new normal, but simply as a time of even more frenzied activity than even in normal times.

The Advent colour purple reminds us that, like Lent, this is a time for listening again to the call of John the Baptist to “repent”.  Repent means becoming open to grace, the grace that comes to us at Christmas.  It is a call to wake up and receive the love of God that came into the world in the Word made flesh. Repentance tells us that to prepare for the coming of grace we need to throw out the junk we have collected on last years’ journey, to put aside the bad memories of past failures, and leave behind all the husks just like the prodigal son did in order to return home and start life again in God’s new normal.  Advent is the time when, once again, we get ready to leave behind the land of fear,  the  country of depression,  the place of broken relationships, the pigsty in which we find ourselves, and do what all wisemen and women do – travel again to Bethlehem.  Advent is the time to start again by returning to the place where Shepherds are given to wonder at what is happening before their eyes, the place where Joseph stands watches in awe as Mary gives birth to a baby who changes the lives of all who ponder on these things that came pass.  Advent is the time to shed the pessimism and cynicism that has accumulated over the past year, to cast aside the fears that have dogged our lives, and prepare to receive the Spirit who gives birth to love and hope.

The context in which Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake had to do with what we now call his Second Advent or coming.  That is, his coming at the end of time for which the early Christians looked forward to in great anticipation.  For it would be a day when persecution would end, their faith in Christ vindicated, and a day on which the world would be born again, and a new heaven and a new earth would arrive.  This is expectation is part of the mystery of our faith: “Christ will come again.”  Don’t ask me when, Jesus says, for no one knows the day or the hour.  But Advent reminds us that we should always be ready, like an expectant mother waiting for her time to come without knowing precisely when the baby will be born.  The birth of Jesus took his parents by surprise as it did those shepherds and wise folk, and it took the world by surprise. For Christ always comes unexpectedly, always at the time we least expect.  To be sure, the dire predictions about global warming suggest that the end of time as we know it may come sooner rather than later which is why we must wake up   to prevent disaster from overtaking the planet. Be woke!

So again as we journey through Advent we hear again Jesus’ call to “wake up” and the Baptist’s call to “change our ways.”  This is another opportunity to start living differently, a time to forgive, a time to love, a time to make peace, a time seek justice, a time to laugh, a time to rejoice, a time to celebrate, a time to discover the joy we had when first you met the Lord, a time to receive God’s grace.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  Advent  13 December 2020

AN INVITATION TO VOLMOED

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A TIME OF SPIRITUAL RENEWAL: JANUARY 29-FEBRUARY 4, 2021

THIS MONASTIC MOMENT (Friday 29 evening to midday Sunday 31)

John de Gruchy will introduce the Monastic Story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (4th century) through to the great Medieval Benedictine monasteries.  He will also talk about Monastic developments in more recent times, including the legacy of Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of the “new monasticism” and the Taizé Community in France. You are invited to attend as a daily guest (R25 pp per day) or to stay at Volmoed (R 495 pp per night).  Registration from 17.00 on Friday.  Supper is provided on both Friday and Saturday evenings at 18.30. at R70.00 per meal.  Otherwise the week is self-catering.

Sessions: Friday 19.30 Introductions and Worship

Saturday 8.00   Eucharist led by the monks of St. Benedict’s Priory

10h00 – 11h30   Session 1 The Desert Experience

                             12h00    Silent meditation in the Chapel

                             15h00 – 17h00 Session 2   Benedictine Monasticism

Sunday 9h00      Eucharist

                             10h30-12h00  Session 3  The New Monasticism

THE VOLMOED PILGRIM’S WALKA day of retreat and reflection

(Monday 1 February 9.00-4.00)

Wilma Jakobsen will lead a day of retreat and reflection, including opportunities for silence, journaling, creative expression, reflection alone or in small groups as preferred.  Option to do part or all of The Pilgrim’s Walk, around some of the sacred and beautiful spaces on Volmoed (bring walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, walking stick) There is a guidebook available for the pilgrimage @R30. For those staying at Volmoed, there will be 7pm compline on Sunday and Monday evenings.   Day visitor fee R25; R 495 pp. for those staying overnight. (Self-catering, tea and coffee provided) 

 A BENEDICTINE SILENT RETREAT (Tuesday 2-Thursday 4 February)

The Brothers of St. Benedict’s Priory on Volmoed will lead a retreat beginning with the Eucharist at 8 a.m. on the Tuesday and ending with the Volmoed Eucharist at 10 a.m. on the Thursday. Accommodation R495 per person per night (Self catering)

PLEASE BOOK BY JANUARY 10th.  BUT AS COVID PROTOCOLS WILL PROBABLY STILL APPLY THE NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS WILL BE LIMITED.  BOOK THROUGH THE VOLMOED OFFICE 

To book:  Contact Volmoed Office   0875501874

For Information: Contact Wilma 0607540348 (safricawilma@gmail.com)