Always an unexpected person with whom to share God’s love

Most of us have to face nights when we cannot sleep, because of pain or worry of some kind. Like Job in our 1st Reading (Job 7:1-7) we toss and turn wondering “When will it be day?” I usually sleep well, so when it happens to me I find it very difficult, and if I discover it is about 4 in the morning and I am still awake, then I will give up trying to sleep, and get up and make myself a cup of tea and sit somewhere and put myself into the hands of God.

I wonder if this is what happened to Jesus in our Gospel today? (Mark 1:29-39) He had had a busy day praying with the sick and the suffering, and all was going well; but he knew that his task was not to be successful but to challenge the world with his Gospel message. He knew too that this would end up with his own death, just as had happened to his cousin John the Baptist. So he gets up early, and goes somewhere away from the house to pray, and that’s where the disciples find him. I wonder if his prayer was like his prayer on the night he was arrested, when he agonised about his future with God.

Some people question how Jesus can be God and yet pray to God. They fail to realise that when we Christians talk about God, although we may use language that implies that God is some kind of person in one place, we know that actually God is a power beyond our understanding who can be present in all and every place at the same time. So God can be fully in Jesus, and yet also everywhere else. That’s why, if we are true to the teaching of Jesus, we must live out the Gospel message everywhere. Our love cannot be confined just to our family and friends but must be shared as widely as possible.  

The disciples are small minded men without Jesus’ vision. They have seen his success healing people in the village, and so they want to take him back there, presumably so that they can bask in his glory. But Jesus knows that he has to move on, that he cannot just stay put in one place. So he says “Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  Later on, the risen Jesus actually says explicitly, does he not. (Matt 28:19-20) Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

This command to go to all the nations is there throughout his teaching. Remember the story in St Luke’s Gospel (4:24-30) when we hear how he went to his home place of worship, and when they praised him he immediately challenged them with a reminder of how God worked powerfully amongst foreigners way back in the time of Elijah and Elisha. They were so offended by this reminder that they then tried to kill him!

It’s always easier for us to speak to people we know, or people from a similar background to us, rather than to strangers ; but as Christians that is what we are supposed to do. As Christians, we must never limit ourselves just to places and people we feel comfortable with. St Paul in our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 9:16-23) actually says that he only receives the blessings of the Gospel by sharing it. If we keep our faith to ourselves, if we share our love and care only with those we know, then we have failed to follow Jesus; for he told us, as you know, to love our enemies, even those who persecute and hate us. (Matt 5:43-44)

We do not have to travel to foreign countries to do this, but if that is God’s calling then that is what we must do. One of the Catholic Churches in Oxford is run by two Nigerian priests who have felt the call to come and re-convert those who live in England, where so many people are slipping away from the faith. But even in the place where we live, we can find plenty of people we might not think of as people to share the Gospel with. Let me give you an example from the Immigration Detention Centre where I say a Sunday Mass on a Monday. Here I might well encourage the men to think of the Officers, the Staff, as people they otherwise might easily forget. As officials we might well forget that they too are human beings,  children of God, and they too may well be struggling with some problem. A kind word and an offer to pray for them may be just what they need.

Remember Zacchaeus the hated tax-collector up the tree? Only Jesus looked up and did not just see him, but called him down and thus changed his life. Whatever our situation we must never neglect the stranger who might be right under our noses, because that is what Jesus wants us to do


Living with whatever the future brings

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-

Those of us who live under a regime of continual chronic pain will probably wholeheartedly sympathise with Job, (7:1-4.6-7) for there do seem to be times when our lives appear to be one’s of constant drudgery, and we despair of things getting better, or of our regaining what we perceive as the lost control we once had over our lives. Job’s tale is of course a late Old Testament writer’s attempt to cope with the problem of evil; and in the end Job’s fortitude does win through and of course Satan loses his bet with God, made in his conviction that our sufferer would curse his creator. Now I trust by now that none of us hold such a dualistic view of God. God the creator and sustainer of the cosmos does not share his power with Satan or make deals with him; but it is possible that we all have to learn the hard lesson that we do not have unlimited freedom over our bodies or lives and that we all live under various constraints that being bodily impose upon us. Of course, how we live with our limited abilities and disabilities depends on us. We can go down into the dark cursing, or try to live with them creatively and positively. I think of ex army amputees who have, through great stress and much help, learned to live very different lives from the macho existences they once enjoyed. There are many others. It is how one learns to cope with the difficulties and choices life thrusts upon us that will be significant.

Paul could of course have picked himself up after his Damascus Road experience and gone on into the city to persecute Christians. How very different our understanding of the Christ event would have been. Instead, it was a life changing moment as we know. Something about that incident opened up new opportunities for Paul, which he embraced. Here, in 1 Corinthians (9:16-19.22-23) he shares with his fellow Christians  the implications of that moment when, meeting the risen Lord, he, a powerful and educated Jew destined for great things and much acclaim, was invited and empowered by God to take a very different path. It was one which would alienate him from his fellow Jews who represented the law righteous Judaism which had killed Jesus. It led him on a path whereby he lived a much more dangerous, hand to mouth existence, preaching the Gospel to Jews, and increasingly to pagans.

Here, writing to the Corinthian Christians, a group still clearly immersed in the commercialism of their city and concerned with status and the rights of preachers, he explains why he does not charge for his preaching and ministry, nor does he insist on any of the ‘rights’ which other preachers accepted. Paul then pushes things even further, claiming that he understands himself as God’s slave, bound, even chained for the Gospel. This is something his experience of Christ has imposed upon him. So altered is his life now – just as that of any slave, captured in war or sold into slavery through dire poverty – that he believes he has no rights himself, just like other slaves. Paul was of course a Roman citizen, born free, and as we know enormously proud of this status. Yet in relation to the gift-grace which God granted him, he is now completely in the thrall of his patron, God. The point he is making is that were he to start charging he would lose that conviction that this was God’s way for him and no other. I suspect that Christians in Corinth, used to the ways of other ministers, were decidedly upset by Paul’s approach to his mission. But he never suggests that others serving the Church live in this precarious manner, it was something for him and him alone, and it fitted with his itinerant ministry unlike that of those who stayed at home and worked there over the years. Here then we meet someone whose life was totally turned inside out by God, and who responded to it with vision and a wholehearted zeal – the enthusiasm of the wholly convicted who never turned back to his former life and who responded to its joys and difficulties equally.

In our Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) we meet Jesus early in his ministry. He had recently been baptised by John, an event which led to his reception of the Holy Spirit which thrust him into a series of temptations, after which he begins his own ministry, somehow connected to the call of John the Baptist and the arrest of the latter. Jesus himself proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, and as a vivid sign of this begins to heal people. Initially he worked in the synagogues on the Sabbath, but this attracted the attention of hostile Jews and in our Reading we find him moving out among the needy themselves, first Peter’s mother in law and then covering the towns and villages of Galilee. Mark, writing for Roman Christians, immediately presents us with a picture of Jesus, the angry young man of Galilee, who is increasingly estranged from mainstream Judaism and one therefore acceptable to Romans in the years after the failed Jewish Revolt.

The fact that Jesus demonstrated his power of healing both of conventional illnesses and by his control over the demonic, would have made an immense impression on pagan and Jew alike. In a time with little understanding of the working of disease, and almost no cures or control of them, Jesus’ power and even the record of them would have proved enormously attractive. People died like flies in the ancient world, from things easily curable today, and of course they had no knowledge of hygiene and the transmission of infections which frequently raged through cities. Early on, in places like Antioch, Christians got a reputation as ‘healers’, and adverts for Christianity, quite simply because they remained to clean and offer water to sufferers of dysentery and cholera, when conventional wisdom advised they be abandoned. Christians were not aware of the hygiene implications, rather it was care and solidarity which imposed this requirement upon them. Clearly Jesus’ power over the mentally ill was very impressive, since such illnesses would have been truly terrifying to people, and cut sufferers off from family and community. In our account from Mark, he makes it clear that Jesus was all too aware of the dangers of personal acclaim and the possibility groups would set him up as king or ruler in some form, for he will not stay put, or gain adulation, but rather moves on all the time. Jesus then ‘gives life’ to sufferers, opening up new possibilities and potential for them, it’s how we deal with the situations we find ourselves in that matters, for good or ill.

The Teaching of Jesus sets a different tone

Frances writes :- As I read through the set texts for next Sunday, I began to think over the nature and meaning of ‘authority’ and how we are to discern what is truly of God, and what on the contrary can often appear authoritative and compelling but yet proves to be quite the opposite. Being able to discern what is the right way for one to act, by which I mean what makes for a truly human life, one following the pattern of Jesus – of God, may prove to be very different from that suggested by powerful worldly figures, be they Trump, Assad, or more mundanely those whose exploits we read about in the likes of Hello magazine. Indeed when we read that 17% of US Christians espouse Prosperity Churches which believe that God blesses with wealth those he chooses and damns the rest, we do have to ask ourselves if they have ever even read the New Testament or understood Jesus at all. Being rich and famous does not necessarily make anyone the ideal role model for the Christian, and this was the case in ancient times just as much as it is relevant today.

The compliers of Deuteronomy (18:15-20) were active in the 7th century BCE. This court and temple intelligentsia worked for the King, here Josiah, to reform Judaism which had succumbed to pagan influence and lost its way. Some of its material is much older, dating back to the establishment of the Jerusalem Temple, and played its part in the reform. Far from having anything to do with Moses, it appealed to his name and memory to give authority to its decrees. So Deuteronomy is in fact a highly political and timely document, the work of a dynasty and state under threat, and it gives regulations and advice as to how to build a strong and unified theocratic nation under a strong king, as befitted a people needing to defend themselves against the powerful and aggressive Babylonian state which was rising on its northern borders. I dare say it never occurred to its compilers that such writings would be used thousands of years later to bolster an equally aggressive Israeli state which oppressed its neighbours and those whose land it occupied. As my New Testament tutor so wisely used to remark, ‘Context is everything!’

Mark’s Gospel (1:21-28) speaks of Jesus’ ministry and his teachings. ‘And his teachings made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.’ We need to examine this carefully if we are to appreciate what it was about Jesus that attracted so much attention and respect. Why did his teaching about God and the Jewish way of approaching God stand out and become so astoundingly different, so at odds with that of the scribes? Scribes were learned men who studied the Old Testament law, and whose innumerable commentaries on that law guided the Jewish way of life. But what we see in Jesus is continual friction between him and them. Jesus never seems to heal for instance on a Wednesday, but significantly always on the Sabbath, the Jewish day prescribed for rest and prayer, and which was clearly rigorously adhered to by the scribes who required others to follow suit. Jesus consistently mixed, not with the religiously pure, those who made great efforts to keep the law; but rather went out of his way to mix with those who for various reasons did not, because of occupation, poverty or illness. Jesus’ teaching seems to have set quite different underlying markers for those on the search for God. Whilst the law taught by the scribes worked by rules which were often negatively framed ‘Thou shalt not…’, Jesus appears to have spoken much more about the Father’s love for his creation, his outreach to fallen humanity, and his desire not to exclude but to include all who were able to respond to his invitation. This approach shared much with the Old Testament prophets who had in their turn been persecuted by the state and the Temple. In our account of Jesus’ behaviour and message, we are not told a lot about his ‘teachings’ in Mark, but we meet them in action.

Now we should pause to remember just what illness meant in the ancient world, and here epilepsy seems to have been the case.  Most people, Jewish or pagan, believed illness to be the work of the demonic; so that those seriously ill would be shunned, as were lepers or those with mental illness. But just imagine the fear provoked by epileptic seizures, where a person was flung to the ground, seriously endangering themselves and others, risking burning a house down, and frightening others. Such a person would be cut off from society, and without family and friends, employment or home, become the butt of everyone’s animosity. Jesus just acts differently towards this man that society and synagogue condemned and ostracised. He does what God does to all of us, irrespective of whether he had kept or broken the law. He heals him, and in that healing gives him a place, a status in society. Now free to form relationships, have a family and earn an income, the non-person becomes a person. The gulf between Jesus and the scribes must have been yawning, immense and very threatening. This man whose relationship with the Father was all about the fullness of life met and given to us in divinity stands as the hallmark of what real authority is like, so that he can stand eternally as the true guide to the kind of behaviour which is acceptable to God and our encounter with divinity.

Our Reading from 1 Corinthians (7:32-35) is one of those huge traps for the uninformed who like to brand Paul as anti-feminist and problematical. If however we stop to consider for a moment what life was like in largely pagan Corinth when he was writing, I think we can get a more balanced and helpful view of things. Paul was writing to the tiny separatist group of Christians in this ‘in your face’ pagan city with its easy divorce, its liberal attitude to immorality even incest, its tetchiness and grasping attitudes whereby people clawed their way to the top. Christians stood out, or were meant too, as those who had turned aside from the common lot. They were risking social ostracism by their choice for the faith. In such a situation, Paul was surely suggesting that it was probably better not to marry since one could put a pagan partner under intolerable pressure and even serious risk of harm. The authoritative voice may be the right one, it may not always be convenient or easy.

God loves our efforts even when they fail

It’s important to remember that God loves our efforts to do his will whether we succeed or not. We heard this message at the end of our 1st Reading from Jonah, (3:1-10) but there is a lot more to the story of Jonah than we get there, and it is worth looking into.  First of all, Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do. He doesn’t want to walk through the city of Nineveh with God’s message, and so he runs away to sea.

We too sometimes run away from something we feel God wants us to do. Instead of sharing our faith with someone, instead of expressing the Christian view on some issue, we keep quiet. Instead of doing a kind action that will need some effort on our part, we make excuses that we are too busy, or too tired, or not good enough or clever enough with words. But God doesn’t give up on Jonah, and nor does he give up on us. In Jonah’s case, he ends up nearly drowning at sea, but God saves him (the story says) by a whale. My view is that he wasn’t swallowed, just kept above water, and it was a dolphin not a whale, but the details don’t matter. For, in one way or another, God brings him back to land; and Jonah realises that he had better get on and do what God wants this time.

Like Jonah, the disciples of Jesus are called to follow him in our Gospel today, (Mark 1:14-20) but although in their case as in our Reading, they show real enthusiasm to start with, we know that they too ran away when things got tough and Jesus got arrested. They too were brought back from their failure by the power and the love of God. In their case by experiencing the Resurrection, when Jesus appears to them in his new risen life and empowers them to go out and preach the Gospel. We too need to realise that the risen Jesus is with us, even when we have failed him in the past, even when we have run away; and encourages us to serve him in one way or another.

Now we get to the bit of Jonah’s story that is our actual Reading. He walks into this great City and proclaims God’s message, and much to his surprise they respond, and try to change their ways. This is where we get the mention of how God loves our efforts, because that is what the Reading says about the people of Nineveh. They “believed in God”. What it doesn’t say is how successful they were at changing their ways. We humans are never entirely successful at being good are we? So I guess they were the same, and the comforting words are that God sees their efforts. In other words, God does not judge us, as he didn’t judge them, on surface success but on what is in our hearts and in our minds. God is always looking within us, and giving us the encouragement we need to keep on attempting to do his will, as much as we can.

Jonah must have been astonished at his success, although we know from the story that his warning that God would destroy them UNLESS they changed their ways was not carried out. Jonah however didn’t think their efforts to change were enough, and was more than a little annoyed that God forgave them. As it says in the text “God relented: he did not inflict on them the disaster which he had threatened.” There are times when we think like Jonah, we wish God would deal with the evils of the world. But God loves people who are bad or stupid much more than we do, he constantly gives people another chance ; and that’s another lesson we have to learn, as we seek his will not ours.

In the case of the disciples of course, they never knew how successful their efforts to share the Gospel would be. It took them all over the known world, even to the great City of Rome; but we must remember however that they all died without seeing their efforts rewarded. Yes, they managed to create small groups of Christians in some places, but they died long before Christianity grew from these few small churches to become a world religion. We too will never know the full result of our efforts to serve God. We just have to say “It is enough Lord that I have tried to do your will, and to share your message of love. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”


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.

We are called to be one with God

Frances writes on next Sundays’s Readings (Advent 4)

Earlier this year I visited the ancient shrine of Apollo at Kurion in Cyprus and even had my picture taken, lying down in the ‘dream-chamber’ where countless pagan pilgrims of the past spent the night anticipating an encounter with the divine. This was such a common practice for Greco-Romans that they regularly recorded such arduous pilgrimages to Kurion or sites on the Turkish mainland. We have one from the 2nd century CE from a man who was subsequently a soldier in the Roman army on Hadrian’s Wall and on the Danube. Statilius Solon recorded his visit on the tombstone of a dead friend, doubtless one who had also made the journey with him and kept the memory of this visit as the crowning glory of their lives.

When Luke (1:26-38) told his story to hearers of his Gospel of the annunciation of the Christ-child to Mary, the tale of her encounter with divinity would have touched a familiar and vital nerve. Like her, ancient devotees went in humility and no little fear, for such meetings between God and humanity were terrifying moments; but for those who endured such God-touched experiences the benefits were lasting and life changing.

We need to look at why St Luke chose to introduce us to his version of the Gospel with a unique infancy narrative (Mark and John have none, and Matthew significantly takes us in through Joseph’s dream, another favourite way of meeting the divine). Luke, as we know, was taking his story of Jesus and the redemption he brought out into the pagan world. He was writing in the period after the failed Jewish Revolt, which had seen over a million Jews slain, let alone Greeks and Romans. Over one million Jews had been enslaved and the temple in Jerusalem was utterly destroyed. Palestine would have been a devastated land, bearing the tragic scars of this revolt and memories on both sides, Jewish and Roman, of the appalling losses would have been fresh and very painful. In Rome, the huge Coliseum, a tribute to Roman power and blood lust was either just nearing completion or already in operation. In Italy and the East, the civil war which had brought the Flavians to power provoked equally uncomfortable memories of vicious in-fighting and the waxing and waning of powerful dynasts and many had suffered its effects. In Rome itself, the citizens were experiencing the terror of the crazy Domitian who slaughtered those he saw as threats with impunity. In writing his account of Jesus, and the truly Good News he brought, Luke needed to do something powerful but non-threatening, something which would present Jesus, a crucified Jew, to the pagans as someone worthy of their attention, but who did not threaten the fragile and newly-one peace.

Bearing all this in mind, we find that Mary comes from the kingly Davidic line, but is far removed from kingship. She is ‘deeply disturbed’ by the angel’s message, and protests her unsuitability for the task, but will ultimately submit herself to the divine will – a will far superior to that of tyrants and emperors, “Let what you have said be done to me”.

By way of complete contrast, our Old Testament Reading from 2 Samuel (7:1-5.8-12.14.16) presents us with quite a different picture. There is King David at the height of his power, conqueror of the tribes, the one who seized Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and has carefully ensured that other shrines are put out of action so that Jerusalem is the hub of political and religious attention. He has arranged the murder of Uriah the Hittite, and taken Bathsheba for himself, and generally chucks his weight around. Now, to impress his authority on the nation he decides to build a temple for the Lord. He’s a cocky man, trying to dictate terms to God. Yet the Lord, speaking through Nathan the prophet brings him firmly down to size. Speaking in a series of first person statements, Yahweh succinctly reminds David of where he has come from, an insignificant shepherd, raised to the heights by God who is the one who subdued his enemies and gave him fame. God makes it abundantly clear that it is He himself who has lifted David from the dust. He does not need David to build him a temple, God will do it for himself! Well, what a set-down, and God makes clear that he will establish the Davidic line, not the King, who owes everything to him. How very different from the exchange between the angel and Mary, and how appropriate her answer to the God who can make fertile barren wombs, and bring the dead back to life and whose Son will give to all, Jew and pagan, a vision and promise of the God-man relationship unparalleled throughout human history.

When St Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans (16:25-27) in the late 50’s CE, he was writing to a community living under the tyranny of Nero, a period in which many, from the highest to the lowliest died. Ultimately, in a great purge of Christians, Peter and Paul would themselves lose their lives, and Nero would embark on his colossal reconstruction of central Rome, his Golden House, a Trump-like tribute to appalling egotism and self glorification.  The Letter is therefore coloured throughout by Paul’s reflection on the nature of fallen humanity and its absolute need for and reliance upon God. Paul knows that of ourselves. We are all, great and small alike, hopelessly mired in sin, and that even when we know and want to do good, we fail, frequently doing the exact opposite. His message to the Christians of Rome is that we must place ourselves entirely in God’s hands, and that unless we do this we are doomed to failure. Only in Christ can we aspire to live as we were made and designed to be, ‘Called to be saints’, made for divinity. Only by submitting ourselves entirely to God can we be truly human. That was what Mary did, and that is what we celebrate this Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, the ultimate encounter between divinity and humanity.