We must allow moments from God to turn us upside down

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Most of us just dawdle along in our Christian faith until occasionally something brings us up short, some life-changing event, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a massive change in one’s career. I suppose we don’t always think of such moments as kairos moments, the in-breaking of God into our chronological time. We think of the discovery of a cancer in a partner, or other seriously disabling conditions, as things which ruin our plans, take away life, and are negative; but what if we could begin to see some of these disastrous and dramatic shifts in our vision of life as precisely moments of the coming to be of God in our lives?

Jesus experienced just such an incident (Mark 1:14-20) with the arrest and ultimately the execution of his beloved cousin John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. This event, and the disastrous consequences for John, would be the catalyst which triggered into being his own ministry in Galilee. Perhaps until that moment Jesus had been an admirer and follower of John’s reformist agenda for Judaism, and content to follow his lead. If so, John’s arrest pushed Jesus to reconsider, for we know that even after his own baptism by John and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, Jesus had not taken up any leadership role. Into this moment of crisis, Kairos, he recognises that his own time for action has arrived; and Jesus chooses disciples to follow him and carry out his work.

Now, as we all know, it is possible to resist or even fail to recognise these moments of grace, of God’s call. We see this in the story of Jonah and the Ninevehites, (Jonah 3: 1-5.10) though the humour and grace of God is lost in the savage cutting down of the story (he and the whale etc). What is perhaps most shocking is that Jonah was sent to a large pagan city, once the capital of ancient Assyria and, according to the story, found a receptive audience, and turned what had formerly been pagans with many gods, and a warlike people at that, hell bent on the conquest of the Middle and Near East, to the worship of the one true God. Now we know that Jonah was not written in the 8thc BCE but quite likely much later, even during the 4th century, so history is not its aim, but rather a story of the grace and mercy of God and to hated foreigners at that. Certainly during that period, there were many around, Egyptians ruling Palestine, not to mention the rise of the Greeks under Alexander.  Perhaps therefore our ‘Jonah’ was writing, along with the Wisdom writers of the period, of the astonishing outreach of God to all people, regardless of their goodness; for as we know the original Assyrians were a byword for cruelty. Conventional wisdom would certainly have been to hunker down in periods of stress, and most certainly not to have considered even the possibility of God’s outreach to them;  but our Jonah, to his credit, was able after God’s hard lesson in being swallowed by a huge sea creature, to consider a different way. With this somewhat zany story in mind, I have been surprised and frequently deeply moved to hear of the deep faith and liveliness of Christians in Iraq, those returning to the Nineveh Plains of the North, to ruined villages and despoiled churches, now that Isis has been driven out; and amidst the chaos one of their priorities has been to restore their churches and worshipping communities and, even more radically, receive the help and support of Muslim neighbours in getting ready for Christmas.

When Paul wrote his many letters to the truculent Christians of Corinth, (1 Cor 7:29-31) he was addressing Christians who ostensibly ‘had it all’, quite unlike the Christians in modern Iraq, but probably much more like us. Corinth was a new city, founded by Caesar after the destruction of the old one because it had supported Carthage against Rome in the final Punic War. It did not therefore have the ancient aristocracy at its head, but up and coming ‘new’ men, free veteran soldiers and freed slaves on the make. With its two thriving ports, one facing west towards Italy and the other, the other side of the Gulf of Corinth looking east. It would have been a hive of activity, with enormous markets selling spices from the east and metals from Spain, importing grain from Egypt, and no doubt a thriving slave market too. Its citizens were avid social climbers, as we know from the wealthy Erastus who became the city treasurer and was a Christian, showering his benevolence on rich and poor, and building public amenities. As he appears to sport only one name, we can assume he rose from humble, even slave origins, a tribute to the go-getting nature of the city. This was a society of traders, bankers and exploiters, an anything goes community, and no doubt Paul believed that if he could successfully plant the Christian faith there, alongside the many other new cults and old pagan beliefs of Corinth, then he could do it anywhere.

Corinthians were a hard nut to crack, and those who made the move to the Christian faith probably did not for a moment considers the effects life under the lordship of Christ would ultimately have on their lifestyles. This is why Paul wrote ‘Those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who deal with the world should not become engrossed in it….The world as we know it is passing away’. For the average Corinthian entrepreneur this would have been social suicide, yet Paul insists that should be their approach to daily life! The Greek makes wonderfully clear precisely how engrossed in the world these people were, since the word for buying things comes from the word ‘agora’, the heart and nerve centre of the city, the place that made them tick, and Paul was stating that the Christ event had turned their world upside down. We too must look for such events, such kairos moments in our lives.






Homily on using sex properly

Our 1st Reading sounds like a lovely story. Dear little Samuel, helped by his master Eli, eventually says “Speak Lord your servant is listening.”, and he gets a message from God. But we need to read on in the Bible, beyond what we have been given as our Reading, (1 Sam 3:3-10) if we want to find out what that message was. And when we do that, we find that God gave this little lad a really hard message to pass on to his master, that he and his sons were doomed, because of the way his sons were behaving.

It’s the same with the disciples isn’t it? We know that Andrew and Simon Peter, the two named in our Gospel, (John 1:35-42) are in for a tough time which will end up with them watching Jesus die, and eventually being crucified themselves. But our Gospel, at this point, gets us to concentrate on how they were first called. Notice that Andrew and his friend (probably James or John) go to Jesus’ house at the 10th hour, that’s 4.00pm, and stay the rest of the day. Unlike other accounts, where they simply drop their nets and follow Jesus, here we see how they first met and then clearly had a long hard talk with him. Only then, the following day, could Andrew say to his brother Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”

All this therefore reminds us how hard it is to be a good Christian, to really follow the way of Jesus. When we look at the hard message in our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20) we need to remember that the Christians at Corinth are newly converted from paganism, and so Paul has to teach them that following Jesus is not like following the pagan gods. Those gods were not moral, and there was no expectation that their followers should be moral either. All one could do was to try and placate these gods with a bit of prayer, and hope that this would keep them on your side. So pagan society had no idea that the fornication that Paul talks about, the use of the bodies of women or slaves as objects of sexual pleasure, should be avoided; nor did their world have much notion of the idea that we Christians take for granted, that people should aim to stay with one partner for life.

This was a hard calling for them, a complete change in their way of life; but it is also a challenge for us. For our modern world makes it very difficult to stick to this idea of faithfulness to one partner. Instead it portrays in films and TV soaps and dramas people jumping into bed with one another after the briefest of introductions. We also have the problem of easily available pornography that treats bodies as objects of erotic pleasure, just like the world of ancient Corinth.

It is intriguing isn’t it, that when we Christians preach about this to the world, we’re often dismissed as old-fashioned puritans spoiling people’s fun; yet the strong movement in the last few months by women, to stop men touching them inappropriately, has been greeted as a great step forward. I must admit I feel like saying “I told you so, and when will you realise that freely available pornography encourages this, and needs to be restricted in some way too?”

However, the really important words for me in this message from St Paul, are the words “You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.” Nowadays people often defend their actions by saying “It’s my body, and provided I don’t hurt anyone, I can do what I like with it.” The first mistake they make here is their assumption that there are actions we can take that do not affect other people. The point is that we affect other people, not just by what we do to them, but how we think about them. That’s why pornography is so dangerous. But we Christians would go further, because we say that the way we think about our own body is even more important. Our body is a gift to us from God. He continues to love us even when we misuse the body he has given us, although of course he is saddened. So regularly reminding ourselves that we do not own our body is a vitally important part of our prayer. We need to give thanks regularly for God’s creative power; for without his life force within us, we would simply be nothing, our bodies would crumble to dust. Our hands and fingers and eyes and legs and arms all belong to God, and our whole body exists to be an extension of his love and care, and not a way of satisfying our wants and desires.

 It is hard to think like this, but this is what we are called to do as Christians.



Called to serve God – whatever!

Frances writes on the Readings for next Sunday :-Our Readings now return to ‘Ordinary Time’, but as Mark’s Gospel is short we take one of our periodic forays into the Fourth Gospel, just as we did on Christmas morning with the Reading of John’s magnificent Prologue. John presented us with a piece of writing which displays his absolute conviction as to the identity and purpose of Jesus, no ‘perhaps’ or ‘buts’ are possible, and I am sure most of us would like to have that certainty, even crave it. How simple everything would be if we knew all about God, and then we would live our lives out perfectly. Yet for most of us, our coming to the faith and our continuing in it is a much less precise thing, something tentative and prone to difficulties and lapses. I suggest that today’s Readings reflect that tentative nature of our discovery of our lives in and with God and, as we know, the Gospel picture even of the faith of the disciples/apostles was to prove a raggy affair.

Those of us brought up in non-western environments share with earlier generations a whole set of protocols about meeting people and getting down to business. It would be thought unforgivably rude to turn up and immediately address any issue without observing certain polite ways of behaving, asking after the family, engaging in small talk and going all round the houses. In our Gospel (John 1:35-42) we see that the disciples of John the Baptist leave him to follow Jesus. But the process by which they do this is not clear cut. In the Synoptic Gospels, the disciples live in Galilee and are gathered from their fishing on the shore of the lake. Here in John, the Baptist has been baptising near Bethany in the Jordan valley, and the disciples, clearly thinking men since they had followed John’s call for repentance (metanoia) are prepared to switch to someone with apparently more on offer, the one the Baptist acclaims as ‘The Lamb of God’, the ultimate sacrifice. I am intrigued by the circuitous way in which they approach Jesus, asking an apparently meaningless question about his accommodation! This verb is used three times in the Greek so it is clearly making a point. It appears to be the polite way of asking about the person himself, since we are told they ‘stayed’ (not the Jerusalem Bible ‘lived’) with Jesus all that day. The question is ‘Where are you staying?’  They then clearly engaged in much discussion since they became his followers; and later the next day Andrew found his brother Simon with the words ‘We have found the Messiah.’ Greater certainty comes from thoughtful conversation, and time spent with the bringer of the truth.

We meet this in our account of the call of Samuel. (1 Sam 3:3-10.19) The very youthful Samuel, whom you will recall was left at Shiloh by his grateful mother under the tutelage of Eli, is quite unaware of his identity as a great prophet and leader of Israel, and so also was Eli. Clearly he had just assumed the child would grow up as a servant in the shrine and no more, whilst it was expected that the sons of Eli would ultimately assume their father’s role. It takes three attempts on the part of God before the old prophet comes to understand that this child is destined for far more than mere service at this shrine up in Ephraim. Ultimately of course he would be the reluctant king maker, bringing David to prominence, and all the focus would shift to Jerusalem. For poor Eli the rise of this child would be a disaster, something which would test his reliance on God to the utmost. As Samuel grew, clearly his awareness and understanding of God’s way for him and his nation increased. It would be a challenging call.

When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth, (1 Cor 6:13-15.17-20) he wrote to a group of people who, as converts from paganism, had no concept that the Christian faith in the redemption wrought by Jesus actually affected the way one lived one’s life in this world on a daily basis. Paganism in general was about placating the gods, so as to keep the Roman state in good shape. The idea that the gods expected their adherents to live out just and moral lives would have seemed ludicrous to Romans, because the gods they worshipped were notoriously fickle and flagrantly immoral. Corinthian Christians were on a long learning curve forged in Judaism, in which human behaviour, either political or personal, was of the essence of the relationship between God and the believer. Those whom God the Son has taken into his life, God’s life, must live with the care and devotion to others displayed so eminently by their Redeemer.

With this in mind, Paul speaks of the ‘body’ here ‘soma’, not mere flesh, ‘sarx’, for it is about the whole human make up. He speaks of what it is to be ‘Members making up the body of Christ’, that is the Christian community. I do think it sad that the compilers of our lectionary have cut out the fruitier bits, verses 15b and 16, in which Paul goes to town regarding the trips to the brothels, or the sexual abuse of slaves so common in Greco-Roman culture. Read as we have it, it all looks rather ‘clean’, barring the odd lapse. In fact Paul makes a deliberate play on the Christian being a ‘member of Christ’, in vivid contradiction to the resort to prostitutes where in sexual acts they become ‘members with harlots’. This is emphasised very explicitly by our last verse ‘You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. This is why you should use your body for the glory of God.’ Corinthian Christians, like the rest of their commercially minded pagan colleagues, knew all about buying and selling. It was their very livelihood, and Paul relentlessly reminds them of their new status in Christ. We are now God’s slaves, his ‘things’. Whereas formerly they might buy and sell flesh, in their new status they must now live in the liberty of the redeemed. It was a hard call.

Many different ways to meet Jesus

Today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we are called to look at the birth of Jesus in a different way. At Christmas, Luke’s Gospel told us that the birth of Jesus is for ordinary people like those simple Jewish shepherds.  Matthew’s Gospel, that we’ve heard today, (Matt 2:1-12) says something different; for it reminds us that the birth of Jesus is not just for his own people, the Jews, but for the whole world. So he tells us the story of the coming of foreigners, the wise men, people the Jews called Gentiles or Pagans, people like you and me, who speak different languages and have different customs from the Jews.  So each of us, in our own way, from our own particular background, is called to come to Jesus, and to see God revealed to us in him.

This means that we must expand our vision of Bethlehem. Somehow, we must see beyond the scene before us, of a few men bowing before a tiny baby and giving him gifts, and realise that this is a vision of heaven. This is a vision of a world where not just a few people, but all the peoples of the world, “All nations” as our Psalm says, (Ps 71/72:8-11) “shall serve him.” St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Eph 3:2-6) is even more explicit. He says that the presence of Jesus means “That pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ, through the gospel.” St Paul’s vision must be for us, and so we must ask God to help us to see, to have a different kind of sight, to look below the surface of things, see deep inside.

This is most important in our relationship with every one of our fellow human beings. Each person we meet must be seen by us as a child of God. We need to look into their eyes and smile at them, and acknowledge that there is a depth in them, just as there is a depth in us, that is there for us to get to know, if we want to. This must especially be true of those who are foreign to us, people we might find a bit strange, people with a different culture or language like the wise men. God does not limit himself to those who already believe in him, to those who are already Christians. God loves all men and women and in many different ways draws them to himself, and we must have a similar vision. The wise men were just like that, and yet they were the ones who found in this tiny baby a new way of meeting God.

The way the wise men found Jesus is also interesting for it is very different from the shepherds. Like many ancient peoples, the wise men studied the stars, studied the movement of the moon and the sun. Some people even worshipped these things as gods. Matthew reminds us that it is sometimes through ways that are strange to us that people find the one true God; and so we must be wary of saying that there is only one way. Jesus, of course, is “The Way” to God, but Jesus draws people to himself  in many different ways.

In Britain today, a recent survey has shown that more than half of British people say they are not “religious”. But the survey also showed that such people often still believe in prayer. Somehow the word religion has come to mean for them something that restricts their way to God, something that seems to tell them that to come to God they must follow a particular way. True Christianity must somehow acknowledge this. We are called to reach out to all these people and to point them to Jesus without restricting the way they get to him.

 If you actually talk to people who are in Church on a Sunday, or any other day, and if they are honest with you, you will find that they have come to God in all sorts of different ways. Like the wise men they follow the star in their way, and come to Jesus in their way, but the important thing is that in one way or another they come. This is an important message to share with those who think they are not religious. We have to explain to them that coming to Church does not mean being forced to pray in a particular way, that the Church, the family of Jesus Christ, the people of God, is an enormous family of peoples of all nations, and that within, or even beneath, the standard words and prayers and songs that we use, is a depth of faith, and a variety of different ways of praying, that they can be part of.

When the wise men see the star over the place where Jesus is, they are filled with delight. May God help and guide each one of us to share our faith in such a way that it draws people to the light, so that they too can delight in God’s love and glory.



The Baby Jesus is worshipped as King

Frances writes on the Readings for THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY :-

Those of us who inhabit a world of artificial light often fail to recognise the significance of light in the ancient world, a world in which once the sun went down life became closed, and the outside world was dangerous. They would in consequence dream of long term sources of light, even worship it, and use it as their great metaphor for redemption, for salvation from enemies. Light represented what was good, God-given, holy, and a source of grace. When Third Isaiah wrote of the return of the exiles from Babylonia under the rule of the Persian Cyrus, he saw this saving event in terms of light. (Isa 60: 1-6) Light is his watchword, his exuberant and flowery praise song for his restored city, Jerusalem, which he sees as the beacon, indeed the centre of a renewed world that knows no bounds. Jerusalem is now the key from which all will flow, ‘Throbbing and full’ she will be the great commercial hub of the East, and from her light every other part of the world will be illumined; ‘The glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth.’ His joy knows no end. Banished is the cold, the dark, and the oppressive rule of tyrants. This was what his nation had always looked for from God, and Isaiah reminds them that this time of blessing has come as the exiles returned home.

Our Gospel too takes up this great theme of light. (Matthew 2:1-12). When Matthew came to write his Gospel sometime in the late 80’s AD, he had seen and lived through exceedingly dark times, with the crucifixion of Jesus, the failed Jewish insurrection with its appalling consequences for the nation, and the separation of the Christian sect from Judaism. His Gospel would catalogue this revolutionary movement as it went out to the pagan world. For Matthew, the great tragedy would lie in his own nation’s rejection of Jesus, as they turned their backs on the long-awaited messiah and doomed the people to yet more generations of oppression and fear. Matthew therefore picks up on Isaiah’s use of light as the emblem of the coming Christ child, and speaks repeatedly in our Gospel of the ‘star’, the asteroid in Greek, that dazzling light which will streak through the heavens, no mere physical phenomenon but God’s message to his faithful followers announcing the one who would irrevocably alter human history.

Matthew will make a subtle and continuous play on this image of the light which comes to us from God, this source of revelation, the disclosure of God in the tiny infant; playing with the contrast between Jesus and Herod. Now anyone who knew anything about the rise to power and reign of Herod the Great would have immediately associated him with the reign of darkness. Herod was a foreign king, planted upon Israel by Mark Antony, and held in power by the might of Rome. His reign was a catalogue of vicious oppression, from the slaughter of some three thousand Pharisees to the murder of his wife and her offspring, the last of the legitimate Hasmonean dynasty. Herod was a Jew in name only, and though he famously built part of the Temple, he also patronised pagan gods, being responsible for the construction of the temple to Zeus/Jupiter at Baalbek, and his construction of the great fortress city and port at Caesarea. Matthew would quite deliberately go out of his way to paint this tyrant in the blackest of colours, a dark force, needing to be overcome by the light.

Our Jerusalem Bible translation sadly loses the impact of this great clash between light and dark by sentimentalising the next part of the story, where we are told that the prophet wrote of ‘A leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’ In the Greek original the word is ‘Govern’, literally to assume hegemony over the nation, and clearly a deliberate threat to Herod and his offspring and their power. In other words, Herod recognised exactly the degree of threat posed by this baby and all that he stood for. This is made even clearer by the actions of the Magi who greet Jesus, not as our text says by kneeling to him, but rather by the full prostration, the proskunesis performed to the Great King of Persia. Literally, they worshipped him as God, and they returned home by a different way, deliberately snubbing the monarch in whose territory they were staying. Herod is shown to be redundant, and though we shall have the massacre of innocents, a parallel to the tyrant Pharaoh in the time of Moses, he will also draw the link between Jesus and Moses, the one who redeemed his nation from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus, the saviour of the world. Our Gospel then is very far from a pretty crib scene, but a determined piece of political propaganda, in which Matthew unreservedly lays all his cards on the table, telling the world precisely who it has received in the birth of the infant Jesus.

It can be no surprise that this great motif of light and illumination, or Epiphany, would be a powerful theme in early Christian literature. St John in his later Gospel and Letters would develop the theme of Jesus as the ‘light’, and well before the Gospels were written St Paul would develop it too. In his Letter to the Ephesians (3:2-3.5-6) he would say that it was ‘By a revelation that I was given the knowledge of the mystery’ of God’s self-gift to the world in Christ; and he will proclaim that this unfolding mystery is now not for Jews alone, but intended for pagans too, and that this means that God intends us all to be one. As the Greek text has it: ‘Joint heirs’, a joint body, and joint sharers of the promise in Christ. Truly, we are the illumined ones, those to whom the Epiphany, or showing forth of God as man, is revealed.



Visions of God are rarely given to the contented

I wonder if you know much about St Stephen, the first person to die for being a Christian? You can find his story laid out in great detail in the Acts of the Apostles, (6:5 – 8:2) and so it is strange how few Christians know much about him. This isn’t helped by the fact that St Stephen’s Day is the day after Christmas, so that most people are too involved in the Christmas festivities, and the Christmas stories to remember St Stephen. One Christmas Carol does mention him in passing – Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen – but that tells the story of Good King Wenceslaus not St Stephen.

Yet the death of Stephen is actually very closely linked to the heart of the Christmas message, for as he was stoned to death for his faith, we hear that “Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven” and then he says I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56) It is this message, the same message as the message of Christmas, that leads to Stephen’s death.

St Paul writes to the Colossians, “Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you” (3:16), and it was this message that was at the heart of the vision of St Stephen. It is a vision that has inspired countless other Christians down through the centuries, that the baby born for us at Bethlehem is the one who opens the way from earth to heaven. Jesus later when he is a man makes this clear when he says, “I am the Way”, and he means, of course, the way to God, the way to heaven.

However we need to remember too, that most visions of heaven are not given to people who are holy or contented, but to people who are sad or desperate, or even, as in the case of Stephen, actually facing death. Abram (later called Abraham) is a great example of this. He is a desperate man, for he thinks that all he has done so far will come to nothing if he has no children to come after him. He and his wife are old and have almost given up any hope; but Abraham prays again to God in the midst of his despair, and as he does so he is given a vision of heaven. He is told to look at the stars, and to believe that he will have a son. Then comes some very special words for us Christians, for the text reads, “He put his faith in the Lord, who counted this as making him justified.” (Genesis 15:1-6)

These are important words for us because St Paul uses them in his long exposition on faith in his Letter to the Romans. (4:1-5:2) He uses it to explain how we are justified, in other words how we are made right with God. He explains that it is not by doing good things, nor by keeping the law, that we are made right with God, but through our faith. Of course our faith will lead on to us trying to do good things, but the essence of being a Christian is that we put our faith in God ; and in this we are following the example of Abraham.

Abraham’s story does not stop there of course. He does have a son, Isaac, but then is tested by God as he wonders whether he should show God how much he loves him by killing Isaac as a sacrifice. Once again he is in deep distress, and then as he is about to raise the knife, as before, he is given an answer, a sheep to offer in place of his son, a lamb of sacrifice. Here too God reveals his love, here too heaven is opened.

Mary and Joseph are in another sort of desperation. They are about to flee into Egypt as refugees, not knowing when it will be safe to go back to Nazareth. They too have put their faith in God, that this son of theirs, this little baby, is from God, and that somehow they will be able to bring him up safely, so that he can do the work of faith and love that needs to be done for the sake of the whole world. It is a message that every human being needs to hear especially when they are faced with struggles in their life, or when they think they have failed, or when everything seems to be going wrong. Then is the time, however hard it may seem, to put our faith in God, and know that as we do so, we are made right with him, that we are brought into union with him, through the sacrificial love of Jesus. And with that knowledge in our hearts, somehow we will get through.






Disturbing images for Christmas

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- We can very easily get sentimental when we think about the Holy Family, indeed can make them rather twee. However the Readings set for this year point in a quite different direction; and instead suggest things quite startling and disturbing. The reason I say this is because it seems to me that all those who appear in our stories, both from the Old Testament and in the Gospel seem to be on the edge, the different and the strange, the highly disturbing, which is perhaps where we are all meant to be. In our Genesis story of Abram and Sarah (Gen 15:1-6. 21:1-3) we find the patriarch the epitome of failure. He is old and childless, and moreover his wife is cursed with barrenness so that his heir lives in distant Damascus, well outside the confines of what would become Israel. Abram cannot fulfil the basic requirements of a patriarch, a leader of men, and provide sons to follow in his line. Then the Lord God takes a hand in the people’s affairs and rescues not simply Abram and Sarah, but the very nation itself, by the promise of a son. Our text, a hatchet-job if ever there was one, significantly omits all the raggy stuff surrounding this event, with Abram and Sarah’s appalling treatment of Hagar and Ishmael, the horrific story of the Sodomites, and the resort to incest to produce offspring of the daughters of Lot who is Abram’s nephew! All of this speaks of the very precariousness of human life, most especially life without God. It makes very clear that without the guiding hand of God in all this, the entire project of forming God’s ‘chosen people’ would have foundered right from the beginning.

Our Reading from Hebrews (Heb 11:8.11-12.17-19) backs this up, and labours to impress upon us the faith of the founding father and mother of Israel, and ends with that great tour de force, the willing sacrifice of Isaac – on whose life hangs the very being of the nation. We are meant to see that there is something distinctive about Abram/Abraham, as he is the one chosen out of all this chaos and violence and sin, to become the leader of his people, and there is in him that God-given gift of faith which enables him not merely to respond to God’s offer of redemption, but to have some perception of that relationship with the divine which would start his nation on its long and painful journey to God. That our story ends with the aborted sacrifice of Isaac is of course the great pointer to God’s ultimate work for the salvation of his people, Jesus, the one for whom there would be no last minute reprieve, no alternative sacrifice, no ram caught in a thicket, but rather the supreme sacrifice on the cross of the only and beloved Son of God. He is the Father’s gift to his creation, born of his very being, the perfect sacrifice for a sin ridden creation. He is the sacrifice that brings an end to all those myriad previous sacrifices, pagan and Jewish, the only really fitting offering to God and of God.

When we come to our Gospel, (Luke 2:22-40) with this disturbing background to guide us, we begin to see precisely what a strange set of occurrences surround our Holy Family, as this long journey to the world’s redemption enters its final phase. First of all, we have the conventional picture of the pious Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commands of the law, and we think they fit in rather well. But at this point a startling event occurs. Simeon, described as ‘upright and devout’ smashes the whole thing to smithereens. Simeon is not a temple priest, nor apparently joined in any way to the elite who ran the temple, or even of the ultra pious Pharisees. He is simply a man of prayer. Yet it is this man who becomes the rogue-cannon. First of all, unconventionally, he takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God with the acclamation that he can now die in the knowledge that he has seen the ‘salvation of Israel and the light of the nations’. But Simeon has not done a gentle or kind thing, he has declared to this couple, with no pretensions to greatness or high rank or power, that their child will be the one who, bypassing the long-expected system rooted in power and political clout based in the temple and the law, will take the faith of Judaism out to the world! Simeon moreover promises Mary that her child ‘Is destined to be a sign for the fall and the rising of many in Israel’. This child, he prophesies, is going to be the catalyst that smashes the system and the expectations which had led and fostered the nation since the time of Abraham! He warns Mary of the pain this child will bring to her, ‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’. Now surely this is a terrible thing to say to a new young mother, not a scrap of comfort or of conventional well-wishing, but words harrowing and deeply disturbing; and he ends with the enigmatic promise that this child will cause ‘The secret thoughts of many to be laid bare.’ The Greek speaks rather of the ‘revelation’ of what lies hidden in our hearts. Clearly then, Simeon’s words are not cosy but powerful, and they shatter all conventions, and do it most of all to Mary and Joseph.

This picture is taken up by Luke’s description of Anna the prophetess; and again we see that this old woman represents a break with conventional Judaism and families. She is of the tribe of Asher, up beyond Galilee, but long a widow and dedicated to the Temple, though she does not seem to have any official position there; and she appears to have forsaken all kith and kin for a life of prayer in the Temple, something none of the Temple elite, or even its work-a-day clergy, did. Yet she too sees Jesus and immediately praises the Lord and looks forward to the deliverance of Israel, deliberately going out of her way to tell others about him. None of our stories are about conventional or secure, nice families; all of them are about discordances, upset, and radical breaks with the established order, and expectations of it. The picture painted by Simeon and Anna, like those incidents surrounding the House of Abraham, are meant to bring us up short, to make us think and reconsider what the Christmas stories are about; and if we are looking for the cosy and the secure then we will not find it here. For just as these people are marked for life by their encounters with God, so every crib we view will be overshadowed by the cross, as we see in the stable cross-beams in our Bethlehem scenes. Christmas is above all the Feast of the Incarnation, of God’s full entry into our humanity, and it is meant to be deeply disturbing.