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

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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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

John’s distinctive vision of God

Frances writes on the Readings for Christmas Morning Mass :-     St John’s great Prologue, (1:1-18) which sets the theme for his entire Gospel remains a pretty stunning claim and piece of writing, even for our jaded palates today; so we need to consider its impact when he first wrote it in the latter part of the 1st century CE. John was most likely writing in Asia Minor, probably in Ephesus, a largely pagan city with a very tiny Christian minority, converts from paganism to a faith in Jesus which had by then parted company with Judaism. Ephesus was a big, thriving imperial city in the province of Asia, one of the wealthiest in the empire, ablaze with Roman facilities, temples galore and the palace of the emperor for when he visited; the seat of provincial government. It was an army base and a veteran settlement and a great port. It was cosmopolitan and its streets jangled to many different tongues and ideas. It was renowned for its elite philosophies and its libraries. If the Gospel was to cut any ice here it had to compete with all the established religious cults and ways of life so much a feature of this city. I suspect this is why John introduces his ‘Saviour’ in such a different way from the synoptic writers Matthew and Luke, whose picturesque infancy narratives are so easy to engage with. John, dealing with a very different audience, describes the Christ as ‘The Word’. His Jesus is to be the great communicator, speaking to countless different nations, and the ultimate revealer of the divine, in this city stuffed with divinities and many ways of communicating with the gods.

And what a distinctive vision of God John gave! Pagans, for all their regular and varied contact with the divine, through sacrifices at the many temples and their abundant festivals, with household gods in tiny statues, in this case almost certainly to Diana, (Artemis), with her yearly brutal hunting rituals, were nevertheless fearful of their gods and, with exceptions, liked to keep them at a safe distance. At death, pagans believed that was the end, with the exception of the emperors who became divine and then joined the pantheon for worship in their own large temples in the east. John makes a set of truly astounding claims, principally that God’s Word –his ultimate communication with all humanity – has become human. God has not merely spoken to us through prophets or divines of some sort, but has actually become one with us, one of us – God made visible, touchable, open and available to all.

The way John goes about this is highly significant, ‘In the beginning was the Word’. This God he claims has existed from all eternity. Now the east knew from vivid experience that tyrants, kings, emperors and those who became ‘gods’, had frequently for all their clout been of relatively short earthly duration. What we call the Middle East and Turkey had been subject to many rulers, both home grown and conquerors, from the Assyrians and Babylonians, through Alexander and his Greek generals, and then on to the Romans. Many of their other gods were of relatively recent acquisition, from Egypt or further east, and they knew how gods could change, becoming incorporated into other cults. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ spoke of something far older and more durable, a being stable and unchanging which would have been attractive enough, but when coupled with the even more astounding claim for the Word, ‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father’, then clearly John was proclaiming something, someone, quite different. He spoke of an eternal God who met each and every human being where they were, at their level!

In Jesus the Word, God’s articulation of himself, we can all enter, says John, into the very heart and life of God himself, ‘From his fullness we have all of us, received – yes, grace in return for grace’. This has made all those old and familiar ways of communicating with divinity redundant. The visions, the dreams of contact with the gods, the sayings of sages and prophets, or the devoted searches of philosophers for some ‘higher way’. All fade into insignificance in the light of this divine gift: God with us, God one of us, we have the capacity now in grace to live like God himself.

Something of this astounding claim is echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews, (1:1-6) a letter sent to Christians from a Jewish background and probably written about the same time as the Gospel. Clearly its intent was to drag this particular body of believers away from their Jewish understanding of the God-man relationship, which kept the two so apart and still looked to the law and the temple and its sacrificial system, despite the fact that it lay in ruins. In Christ, the writer explains, the Christian enters into a totally new dimension in his/her relationship with God as they encounter Jesus the man who would die and rise from the dead – ‘The radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature’. The fact that Hebrews insists that God ‘Has spoken to us through his Son’ is again highly significant. Once again we meet this great act of divine communication which deliberately puts aside the old ways to meet us face to face in Jesus. For the hearers of Hebrews and of John’s stunning Gospel, things could never be the same again.

The next generation of Christians, who lived in far off Gaul, and were ministered to by their bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, were able to explore the meaning of the Incarnation of the Word through his wonderful writings. He speaks of Jesus as the man from God sent to ‘Invite man to become like himself, commissioning him to imitate God, placing him under obedience to the Father so as to see God, giving him the power to apprehend the Father. He who did this is the Word of God, who dwelt in man and became Son of man in order to accustom man to receive God and accustom God to dwell in man, in accordance with the Father’s will.’ Small wonder then that Christians living in Gaul were prepared to die for their faith when they lived in the hearing of such a message.

Our Old Testament Reading, from Isaiah (52:7-10), the Isaiah of the exile, speaks a message of hope to a shattered Israel. Here in our New Testament Readings we meet that promise fulfilled, God’s word kept in its entirety. I hope that this message, that gift of the Word made flesh, will be as sharp and shattering for those of us satiated by a world of words and communications, and as full of hope and grace, as it was to its first hearers. Happy Christmas.

 

 

God will build us a house

I was amused by a photo on the Internet the other day of three houses in a row. Two were lit up with lots of pretty Christmas lights and stars, and one even had a large Father Christmas and a Snowman. But the one in the middle had nothing at all, and someone had therefore written, “Apparently the house in the middle doesn’t do Christmas.”  Now, I don’t want you to get me wrong. I love pretty Christmas lights and have quite a few in my house as well as some lighting up one of my windows, but the idea that the house without any lights wasn’t doing Christmas is just plain wrong, isn’t it?

The point is that it is quite possible that the only house of those three that was really celebrating Christmas was the one in the middle with no lights. We Christians know this is true because at the heart of our Christmas celebrations is a simple stable and a manger, but our Readings for this Sunday morning remind us about this in a different way, as we will only hear the story of the stable tonight when Christmas finally comes.

Our First Reading (2 Sam 7:1-16) takes us back to that idea of a house. King David is full of bright ideas about building a house for God. His son Solomon would eventually build it, and it would be a grand Temple glittering with gold and ornamented with precious things – a bit like one of those brightly lit Christmas houses bit without the advantage of electricity!  But David is told that he has got it wrong. David thinks, as we often do, that he must build this house to show God how much he loves him; but instead the prophet tells him “Hang on a minute. First of all you need to appreciate how much God loves you.”  He says “I will build you a house”; and of course he doesn’t mean a house made of bricks or stone or even pretty lights, but a house that will last for ever.

For us Christians, that house that God builds for us, is Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the house that we are invited to live in. He says again and again “Live in me as I live in you.” (See John 15) Some translations have “Abide in me” which is even richer in meaning.  Yet I was singing  “O little town of Bethlehem” the other day and found someone had changed the words. Instead of singing “O holy child of Bethlehem… be born in us today”, it read “Be born to us today”   No, no, no!!”, I said to myself. Christmas is not just about Jesus coming to our world to be alongside us, it is much more about Jesus coming to be in us. We are called to be like Mary his mother. In a sense, we are called to give birth to Jesus for the world, to carry him within us in such an intimate way, that his presence doesn’t require bright lights, just a friendly caring face, and a heart that in all sorts of ways tries to bring God’s love to others.

Did you notice in our Gospel (Luke 1:26-38) that when God via the angel Gabriel asks Mary to be the mother of Jesus, she is clearly aware that this is an awesome responsibility, for it says that “She was deeply disturbed by these words.”  As I am sure you know, true Christians cannot celebrate the birth of Jesus without being, like Mary, deeply disturbed by what all this means. Whilst some people may use Christmas to forget about the sufferings of our sad world, we Christians never do. We watch the News of sad happenings in the world, even though it hurts to hear of such things, because it is God’s world, and we have a responsibility for it; not least to pray for all those places where people are suffering, as well as to give thanks for those who are trying to help them.

Sitting at home, as I will be, with lots of bright lights and presents and good food, I will be aware that I do not do as much for others as I should. Maybe that other is a family member I do not get on with very well, yet have to see at Christmas? There’s a challenge for us! Or maybe it is something else. Christmas is not about us, is it? It is always about others, always a message for the whole world. That, as St Paul says is, “The way the eternal God wants things to be.” (Romans 16:25-27)