Homily on the many different ways to pray

When St Paul talks about the advantages of being unmarried in our 2nd Reading today, (1 Cor 7:32-35) it’s easy to misunderstand him. It follows on from last week, when we heard him tell us not to be “engrossed” in the world. (7:31) Some people have taken this to mean that the only really good Christians are those who choose a single celibate life and spend all their time deep in meditation and prayer, and that the rest of us are somehow 2nd Class Christians! There are two answers to this nonsense. The first is that being unmarried does not stop you from having to do & to think about everyday practical things; & the second is that a few lines earlier St Paul has praised marriage as a holy thing in which an unbelieving spouse can be made holy by their believing partner.

This means that although the Church has always honoured those who choose to be unmarried, to offer their single life in a special way in the service of God, as monks and nuns do; it thinks of marriage as a different but equally valid holy calling. Both have a place, provided both are used to glorify God. In the world of today where there is an idea around that unmarried people are somehow a bit odd, we Christians want to get the balance right. What matters is how we use the particular life that we find ourselves living, not our particular lifestyle.

Part of the problem is that we Christians use the word “world” in two different ways. On the one hand, we talk about the world as a beautiful place that reveals the glory of God, and on the other we use the word to talk about all the things that take us away from God, about being worldly. In the first sense we ought to be engrossed in the world, to delight in how its beauty reveals God to us; but if we allow worldly things – our job, our clothes, our favourite sport, our internet connections etc, to take over our life so that we become engrossed in them, then we have definitely gone wrong.

People have often said to me how difficult it is to pray, because all sorts of thoughts come into their head to distract them and stop them thinking about God. I always suggest that instead of getting worried and trying to shut those thoughts out, what we should be doing is taking these thoughts and sharing them with God, as we pray. The most extreme example of this is faced by those who are parents or carers of little children. They would like to be able to come to Church and pray the way they used to, but instead they have to spend all their time trying to control their little ones, and gradually as they get old enough teach them to pray. I always tell such people to remember that it is the bringing of their child to church, to Mass, that is their offering to God. It is their quiet and persistent example to the child that is what matters; that their exhausting care for their child IS the way, at this moment in life, that they are giving their undivided attention to God.

The unmarried, and those married people whose children have now left home, can of course spend time thinking about the Readings and the Homily from the priest and the Prayers and what they all mean in a much more concentrated way. Their prayer will feel much more like the way we tend to think prayer ought to be ; and for them that’s right, but it is not the only way to pray, not the only way in which we can offer ourselves to God when we pray.

I remember once a young man who had the mental age of a child of 5. He couldn’t fully understand the prayers offered in Church, but that didn’t make him any less a child of God. He came to Church with a smiling face and simply enjoyed it, even though sometimes he would call out inappropriate things at the wrong time, just like little children do. I know too of people who go to Church in a country that is not their own, and where they cannot understand the language used. Some people say to me that they don’t see the point of going if they don’t understand anything. My answer is that it is the going that matters. It is the offering of oneself to God together with one’s fellow Christians that matters.

Why were the people in the Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28) impressed by the teaching of Jesus? Because it was not like the scribes. The scribes knew their Bible and taught by quoting this passage & that passage in a learned way, but Jesus (though he knew the Bible as well as they did) was recognised as someone who taught them from his heart, & it was because his heart was one with God, that they recognised that here was someone different. May our hearts be more like the heart of Jesus, whatever kind of life we lead.

 

  

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Continual growth is the only way

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- There are occasions in one’s reading of Augustine when you do think he is excessively gloomy about us and the world, and goes on alarmingly about the necessity of divine salvation and the extent of the difference between us and God. That is until one stops to consider what the world is truly like. From the security of the cosy Cotswolds and a moderately wealthy Britain, we can so easily fall into the trap of thinking things are going pretty well and we are fairly in control; and no doubt Augustine might have had a similar view until Rome was sacked by the Goths, and Italians streamed into North Africa as refugees. Certainly by the time of his death, as he watched his city and others fall to the Vandals, and his life’s work go up in flames, he can have had very little cause for any optimism about our capacity to ‘save the day’. Our present times are similarly desperate, with two seemingly grossly unbalanced statesmen who hold nuclear weapons threatening each other and the world, not to mention the incredible tales of the brutalities of Isis in Syria and Iraq, or the atrocities perpetrated on innocent men and women caught up in wars not of their making, and a refugee crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. In such circumstances I began to reflect that Augustine’s view of the great gulf between us and God, and the revelation of the immensity of divine love shown in the redemption gained for us by Christ, really is as yawningly cavernous as he has supposed.

When looked at from such a perspective our Reading from Romans (11:13-15.29-32) takes on a quite different perspective. If we do not take the time really to grapple with Paul’s difficult and complex thought processes we could easily fall into the trap of reading our passage as a simple and rather prim moral message: the pagans have been brought into the salvation offered by Christ in order to bring Jews up short and bring them to their senses. But surely this is not the point, as we learned from Paul’s agonised plea in last weeks passage, (9:1-5) in which the necessity for redemption in Christ is explored. Indeed, so great is the need as Paul understand it for his Jewish compatriots to accept Christ, that he likens it to “a resurrection from the dead”, a huge, an unimaginable, transformation of the human being, fitting us to share the glory of God. This, Paul claims, is achieved by Jewish rejection of Jesus, which gave the Gentiles the opportunity to meet God in Christ and be saved which in turn reopened the same possibility to Jews. Anyone with the smallest understanding of Paul’s letters must be aware that they are fundamentally NOT about some small tinkering with personal behaviour, some minor sprucing up of the personal psyche that will put things right with God. He, and Augustine after him, were all too aware of the extent of our estrangement from God, and therefore of the immensity of the gift given us in the sacrifice of Christ whose life-giving gift truly recreates a fallen, wretched world. This is the cause and the only cause for Paul’s optimism that a creation estranged from God and his entire purpose, may be brought back to him by one supreme act of love in the Son.

In our Gospel from Matthew (15:21-28) we meet this scenario as it is worked out in the human life of Jesus. In the preceding parts of the Gospel, we have met Jesus in ever increasing hostility with the leaders of Jewish thought and behaviour. They in turn have come to see him not as some minor irritant, but as the Greek so forcefully puts it, as a ‘scandal’, one to be got rid of, wiped off the map. As a consequence, Jesus’ ministry increasingly turns to the pagan world, and we meet him today in the territories of Tyre and Sidon, city states of great antiquity from the Bronze Age, whose ships ploughed the Mediterranean, and whose many gods were taken out all over their territories. Here he meets a Canaanite woman, a worshipper of the Baal’s at the end of her tether over her sick daughter, and who in her distress turns to Jesus. No doubt she had heard of his healing powers from others. So great is her concern for her child, so desperate her need, that she turns her back on her traditional gods and reaches out to Jesus. The disciples are embarrassed by her cries for help and want her shut up, even suggesting Jesus help her for this sole purpose! But Jesus is himself puzzling out the nature of his saving ministry and asking himself if it is indeed only for the rejecting Jews. The woman, as we see quite frequently in our Gospels, dialogues with Jesus, enters into a relationship with him, crossing the social and racial boundaries of the day, breaking open the barriers which kept Jew and Gentile apart. In fact we are told that she did far more, for in her meeting with Jesus she ‘worshipped’ him. The Greek proskunesis has sadly been lost by the Jerusalem Bible which has the woman kneel to Jesus. But this woman has recognised his power, and has thrown aside centuries of tradition to reach out to him, as of course he scandalously reaches out to her. That is what salvation is about, the coming together of two totally estranged ways of being, met in the life of this unique man.

In the late 6th century BCE, when the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and the Near East their policy was to allow children born to those captured under the Babylonians to return to their ancestral homes if they so wished. It is here that Third Isaiah takes up the story. (Isa 56:1.6-7) We know that under the Persians the returnees were encouraged to rebuild the temple, and that it was completed in 516 BCE. But life for the returnees was hard, their lands had often been occupied by foreigners sent there by the Babylonians, and things did not go smoothly. Indeed, by the time of our writers, it seems that temple cult and worship were frequently neglected. Isaiah issued a wake up call, welcoming all, Jew and foreign convert alike, who observed the rules correctly. Indeed from the text it appears that they relied heavily upon converts to keep the faith up to scratch. Understanding of our faith, real, devoted practice of it, and commitment to exploration of what its depths imply is something none of us can take for granted. All too frequently complacency, even contempt can creep in. Continual growth is the only way.

 

Challenging the pushy individual

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s Readings :-  We unfortunate people, who are heirs of both the Protestant Reformation and the European Enlightenment, come to our faith with very individualistic understandings of its meaning. Sadly lost to most of us is the sense that we are community first and last and that our beliefs and practices are fundamentally shared experiences. We ‘believe’ in Jesus because of the faith of the Church over centuries, and our salvation comes from within the Church and not due to our ‘personal’ belief. Ian Mckellen’s wonderful comment recently on discovering that he had been baptised in infancy was to remark, ‘So I shall go to heaven?’ To which the Christian with him responded firmly ‘Yes’. We have to remember that when either Jesus or Paul writes ‘you’ it is almost always in the plural, a statement of belonging and solidarity.

So it was that the compilers of Third Isaiah (58:7-10), writers for those returning to Israel from foreign exile by the policy of the Persians around 520 BCE, wrote a stern message to their hearers. They reminded them that the exile of their ancestors was due to their idolatry, their abandonment of the God of Israel and that only by following his laws and ways could they hope to prosper. In our part of this ‘welcome home’ passage we read that the prophets require right behaviour from the returnees. Some would have done quite well in exile, for many were skilled men and women of the elite, whilst others would have had much more basic jobs, building for the Babylonians, farming and mining. What our writers stress is their communal responsibility one for another. With such behaviour they will be light, shining like the dawn, so vital in a period without electricity. They will be heard by their God when they cry for aid and illuminate the world.

Jesus clearly recalled Old Testament passages such as this when he was expounding the nature of the society moulded in his image, in the image of the Beatitudes. Our Gospel (Matthew 5:13-16) continues immediately from the Beatitudes, as Jesus unfolds what they are about; and every You is in the plural. This is the behaviour which makes a community. Jesus talks then about the ways in which the community keeps the faith alive, by the mutual support of each other. He is no more muttering on about salt here than in his vineyard parables is he speaking of wine making. Salt here is clearly a metaphor for that zest and activity which fosters the growth of the community and how one keeps it alive, and it is the same with his example of lamps and where we put them. Lamps shine out and light up dark places, places ready for the redemption which only his Good News can bring; and the lamp bearers, the Christian community, are those who seize every opportunity to carry the faith about Jesus to the world. Quite clearly any literal interpretation would become ridiculous. Jesus was not an advocate of better lighting for Galileans and no one hearing him at the time would ever have considered that he was.

This is of course why St Paul so agonised over the Christians of Corinth. Clearly in those early days when they were first converted, around a decade after the resurrection, the understanding of the faith was fairly fluid, and as is very clear, in Corinth many different Christians put their own gloss on what it meant and how it affected their behaviour. It is clear from Paul’s response that the city abounded with orators and philosophers at a time when Athens had become something of a backwater, and Corinth was the place where it all happened. Some of the converts from paganism thought they were among the intellectuals, those in the ‘know’ about Jesus, whom they saw as a philosopher. Some believed him to have been  a totally other-worldly divine figure, and these ‘spiritual’ Christians divorced their beliefs in Jesus from their daily living, as the letters make so abundantly clear, as they supported a brother having sex with his stepmother, went to pagan courts, and treated the poorer brethren with contempt at the agape-Eucharist. Their sense of belonging to a community, built and moulded on the pattern of Jesus who was crucified, was just non-existent.

This is why Paul insisted that in spreading the Gospel among them his whole focus was on the crucified Christ. We unenlightened literalists can become bogged down at this point. What we have to remember was just what a terrible and utterly degrading death crucifixion was. Indeed, with the exception of the Gospels, few writers even mention it let alone describe it. It would not be until the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century that images and interest in the cross became widespread, after Helena his mother found bits of the original. Paul of course was not saying that all he knew of Jesus was his crucifixion. Quite the contrary, the crucifixion was the supreme metaphor for the being, life and death and mission of Jesus; and Paul himself would have learned much from the Christians with whom he stayed early after his conversion in Damascus and elsewhere. When Paul speaks of the Eucharist, it is precisely in terms of what he received from the communities and faithfully passed on to others that is so vital, and shows the strength of their solidarity. No, Paul was at pains to stress the whole life of Jesus as a saving act of total submission in and for others, for the community. Certainly, Jesus dies alone and brings redemption to the whole world, but his example, in his entire life and on the cross, are about the gift of himself for others and his call to us to follow in his steps. For the Corinthian elitist Christians, and those who thought in terms of a spiritual philosophy, the whole idea of a crucified Jesus would have been the ultimate difficulty. These were status conscious men and women who were desperately making their way up the social echelons. They would have been buying slaves and even crucifying the odd recalcitrant. The Gospel message of the cross would have been the hardest thing most of them were ever to truly espouse, and clearly there were those who totally lost the plot. For them there were other foreign cults of far more promise and exoticism, and we can only imagine the haemorrhaging of the community that may well have then occurred in this powerful and grasping city.

Like them, we too need to take to heart the message of the cross. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrated on 28th of January expounds the message of the cross in his Conferences as firstly the remedy for the sins of the world which Christ alone could make, but secondly as a model for us all: in despising the world, as illuminating every virtue, in charity; in patience; in suffering humbly without blaming others; and as an example of perfect obedience to the Father. He was naked on the cross, derided and spat upon, struck and crowned with thorns, and finally given vinegar to drink. Do not then be attracted to fine clothes and riches, for “they divided my garments among them” Do not seek for honours, for he knew mockery and beating. Do not seek honourable rank because they plaited a crown of thorns and placed it on my head….

The Church : A Glorious mixture

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I wonder how many of us have realised that Jesus’ ministry was an extremely localised affair for the most part, and largely limited to Galilee. Sure, he does have some trips to Sidon, to the Decapolis over the Jordan; and in all four Gospels is of course killed in Jerusalem. Only in John do we get the sense of other trips to the holy city, and a journey through Samaria. I just wondered what inferences we could draw from the geographical setting of Jesus’ ministry.

Galilee was in the far north of the united kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and although since the 4th century BCE it had been heavily Hellenised, like Judah it remained largely an agricultural area apart from its cities. Indeed, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom seems to have been delivered largely to those close to the land, and frequently to the impoverished. We hear of day labourers, of those forced to beg since they were incapacitated by blindness, of injuries such as paralysis and lameness, and even worse leprosy, that scourge of the ancient world; and the accounts of Jesus’ meeting with the Baptist stress lack of wealth and usually reflect badly on Kings and those in power. His supporter-apostles were drawn from the fishing communities of the Sea of Tiberius, not people who were broke, but whose employment cut them off from the respectable in the towns who found them smelly and uncouth. These were the kinds of people despised by the wealthier elites, both in Galilee and in Jerusalem, but as we note, often feared by them because of potential insurrection; and in Mark’s Gospel right from the start we hear of spies sent from Judah to keep tabs on Jesus. Galilee, along with Israel/Samaria, had been taken over by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and they imported many foreigners into the area, hence its description by Isaiah as Galilee of the nations/Gentiles with their pagan gods. Those left behind with the removal of the elite from the cities were precisely the agricultural workers thought too insignificant to deport. In the absence of other leadership they, along with the Samaritans, developed their versions of Judaism.  Quite clearly Galileans had a bad reputation and were viewed in dubious terms from Jerusalem. By Jesus’ day it was part of Roman Judaea, taxed by Rome and overseen by legions in Syria just to the north. Certainly their Herodian puppet kings who built massive temples and cities in the area were only quisling Jews. When the revolt came in 66 we know that it was in part a civil war with decided economic overtones, and retribution was frequently exacted against the Greeks and Romans living in the cities. Since Christianity became very largely an urban phenomenon, as we see from Paul’s Letters, we tend to forget this and miss many of its radical implications.

Yet it was from among these despised and derided people that Jesus arose, and from among whom his ministry began, as we see in our Gospel. (Matthew 4:12-23) Galilee it appears, despite its poor press, was ripe for responding to Jesus’ radical Gospel, and its fishermen apostles had a future in store which would take them out to the furthest reaches of the known world. We should not however see Galilee simply as a dull backwater, for as our Old Testament Reading from First Isaiah (8:23-9) reminds us, Galilee though devastated by the Assyrians, was also part of a great trading route across from the Transjordan via the fertile valley of Jezreel to the coast, and the fabulously wealthy pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon. The Way of the Sea had prospects, outreach, and ultimately all that foreign influence so abhorred by the south would pay off. Well at least in Christian terms.

Quite clearly First Isaiah, writing in the 8th century BCE, wanted to send messages of hope to his people in the dark days of the Assyrian conquest; and wise man that he was, he knew that no earthly empire lasts forever. His message is one of God’s punishment of his faithless nation, yet of forgiveness and hope. He would even adopt the imagery of the invader, speaking of the ‘happiness of men dividing the spoil’, so reminiscent of invading armies and the chaos they wreak. How extraordinary that his vision, taken from shame, war and collapse should be used by Matthew to herald the ministry of Jesus. But whilst we must think he knew something of its original meaning, Matthew deliberately adopted this image to explore the dramatic significance of the advent of Jesus which he knew, as he wrote his Gospel in the aftermath of the failed Jewish Revolt, was to have consequences for the world far in advance of the explosion of the Assyrians so many hundreds of years previously. That he placed this passage with its reference to First Isaiah immediately after the temptation of Jesus by the devil is no accident. This is meant to be the story of Matthew’s great ‘warrior’ Jesus, who defies the devil and whose ministry would take his message of God’s love for his creation out to the entire world. We pass this passage over in bored silence at our peril.

In our Reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian churches, (1 Cor 1:10-13.17) we begin to explore what this explosion of the faith out among the Gentiles would entail. This requires some imaginative effort on our part, as we inherit the faith from 2000 years down the line, established, informed, with its doctrines well worked-out, and its structures well established. But this was not the case some 15 years after the Resurrection and my guess is that things were all pretty fluid. ‘Christian’ groups of widely divergent values combated each other, and some, such as the ‘Spirituals’, a group of elitist know-alls in Corinth caused mayhem in the communities, and were clearly far from their founder’s values, not merely in theology but in the implications for the practice of their faith in daily life, as is so clear in the letters. Paul, devoted follower of Jesus, really had to struggle to enable these groups in this vibrant pagan city to understand the life and message of Jesus. We, sharers in the spoils of so rich an inheritance, should see this as an opportunity and invitation to delve ever deeper into our origins. For it is in knowing where we come from that we can understand and judge our own faith and our response to it

Homily looking at Mary a different way

When we get to know someone, we get to know them even better when they invite us into their home, especially when they introduce us to their mother. So, if we want to know Jesus better, and I hope we do, then getting to know Mary better will help us in our task of understanding more fully who Jesus was and how best we can respond to him. Our problem is that all too often Mary is shown in pictures and statues as almost unreal – quite unlike any real woman that we have ever known. Nowadays feminism has encouraged women to become more outwardly assertive, but that doesn’t mean that in the past women have been as quiet and modest as some men wanted them to be. If you know the stories of Rumpole of the Bailey, you will know that the quiet wife back home was always described by this brilliant lawyer as “She who must be obeyed”.

This is true of women even further back in history. Men wrote that history, and have presented themselves as the major players, but every now and then they have had to mention women whose role could not be ignored. In English history that would include a couple of our greatest queens – Elizabeth 1 and Victoria. In the history of the Jews too, the Old Testament part of the Bible, although the leaders and prophets are largely men, some women are hugely significant. There is even a book named after one foreign woman Ruth, telling the story of how she became the grandmother of King David. And one of King David’s wives Bathsheba made absolutely sure that her son Solomon, though not the first- born, became the king after his father died. There are also two other stories of women, Jael and Judith, who unusually for women, resorted to violence to save their nation.

Each of these last two was described in the same terms used by Elizabeth when she welcomes Mary. (Luke 1:42) She greets Mary and says “Blessed are you among women” and she says it “With a loud cry”; and Christians have used that greeting ever since when, in asking Mary to pray for us, we say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” – the greeting of the angel – and then the words I have just mentioned – “Blessed are you among women.”

Mary had to be a tough young woman if you think of all she had to go through – the stigma in those days of being an unmarried mother – the journey to Bethlehem heavily pregnant and the birth in a stable – then the flight into Egypt and so on. Later on, some mothers would have retreated into their home to weep, as their son was arrested and crucified; but not Mary. She stands at the foot of the cross whilst people mock him, and almost by her defiant presence there reminds us of the words God spoke when Jesus was revealed in all his glory at the Transfiguration : “This is my son. Listen to him” (Matt 17:5)

Our Gospel today reminds us Mary had a lot to think about once she became a mother. The arrival of the shepherds with their tale of a vision of angels (Luke 2:16-21) leads her not just to “treasure” what they say, but to “ponder them in her heart” – in other words to think long and deep about the significance of this child that she has just given birth to. We only have to think of the intelligent, brave and insightful person that her son Jesus became to see her influence at work; teaching him and praying with him as a tiny child so that by the time he was 12 he could impress the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem with his questions. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:47) Joseph was busy at work a lot of the time. It would have been Mary who did most of the teaching.

So when Paul asserts in our Reading today from his Letter to the Galatians (4:4-7) that Jesus is “born of a woman”, he is not only emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, a human being like all of us; but he is perhaps also subtly referring to the influence women have in the upbringing of their children – of what they are like when grown up. Indeed, later on he shows that he is thinking of the significance of women, when he speaks of two other women from the Old Testament – Hagar and Sarah.  Mary, like Sarah, is the free woman, and just as Sarah bears Isaac, the significant and only son of Abraham, so Mary bears Jesus the significant and only son of God.

So when we’re faced with troubles in our life. When we feel like creeping away and weeping over all we and our poor troubled world has to face, let’s remember the brave strong young woman who stood against the whole world to bear her son, and to bring him up to be a light for the world. But not just a light but, as St John says in his Gospel, THE LIGHT “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” You might ask where does John gets these wonderful words about Jesus that begin his Gospel? Maybe the answer lies in the words of Jesus from the cross to the two people standing beneath it. He says to John, of Mary as she stands there “Behold your mother” ; and what do we hear next? “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:26-27)

May we take Mary into our hearts as John clearly did, and thus. Like John, learn even more about Jesus “Of the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Being open to God’s work of re-Creation

Frances writes on the Readings for Advent 2 :-  These all speak to a longing for a reformed world, and bearing in mind the present unsavoury state of so many things, this is surely something profoundly necessary.

First Isaiah (Isa 11:1-10) of the 8th century BCE was reflecting on the invasion of his country by the Assyrians which he put down to the infidelity of his people as they turned to the gods of the peoples round about. His complaint here seems to focus specifically on the injustice practised upon the poor, and for the need for radical reform at the top. In their hour of need, Isaiah turns once more to the House of Jesse, the father of King David; and obviously longs for a return to those glory days when things seemed to have been going so well. But what is really interesting is how he relates that time to the first creation story, the one placed second in Genesis but actually dating back to the time of David or even earlier. What we see in this world was that it was a vegetarian creation, one in which the country’s top carnivores did not hunt weaker animals, and one where small children were immune from harm; and he focuses this time of universal peace on Jerusalem. From these not so subtle comments we can deduce that things were not going at all well in Jerusalem, at least in the mind of Isaiah, who we think was martyred for his pains. The fact is that the work of this prophet, a writer of stunning beauty, and one who was so opposed to the status quo in Jerusalem, is highly significant. The court itself had many prophets and writers, mostly employed to sing the praises of the reigning king and the establishment, but we do not hear from them. Posterity has not salvaged their work but rather saved that of someone who vigorously opposed the system, and one moreover who perceived the situation to be so dire that he went right back to a story of the creation to achieve his ends. Clearly First Isaiah believed things so desperate that nothing short of a wholesale re-making of the world was necessary.

The compilers of our lectionary have deliberately chosen this passage as part of the prelude to the Incarnation. God in Christ has re-made the world, his birth speaks to a wholly new order, one in which God reconciles himself to fallen humanity through his Son. It is once again about a story of our re-creation, once more we are to become what we were made for and intended to be by the creator.

This is perhaps why Matthew (3:1-12) gives such a vivid description of the Baptist. It is not that John had a penchant for weird dressing or an odd diet but much more significantly, that he returns John to a primeval hunter-gatherer society, he dresses in animal skins and eats what he can gather from the wilderness. He is neither part of a farming community nor a city dweller, but something which harks back to a very different age, one in which people were considered innocent. He wants us to recognise the absolute difference between John and the mass of the people, and the Pharisees and Sadducees; for it is only as such that he can be the prophetic witness to the dawning new age in Christ. Matthew, who reflected on the coming to be in time of the Messiah in the age of the Augustan peace, was determined to make clear what a dramatic and radical event the coming of Christ would be for the world; and as a mere sandal carrier John has vividly demonstrated both the dramatic nature of this shift and embodied it in his very person by deliberately becoming as a slave – insignificant.

It rests with Paul (Romans 15:4-9) to root this for us. For St Paul, as we learn from his letters, was given the job of helping the new and intensely fragile Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean to embody or live out the meaning of our re-creation wherever and whenever we are. For most of us, most of the time this is quite a tall order, yet one he believed possible under grace as we study the scriptures. His call is for tolerance, or as the Greek has it, for being of ‘one accord’, which is not quite the same thing; for Paul will continually refer us back to Christ. We, as he puts it in 1 Corinthians, are those who ‘have the mind of Christ’. That studying of the scriptures is and must be a lifelong journey in which we are continually open to God’s great work of re-creation in each and every heart.

How asleep to God many are

Frances writes on the Readings for this coming Advent Sunday:- Advent is a time when we Christians prepare for the great event of the incarnation, the coming to be in time of Christ. In a discussion groups a number of us reflected on the fact, that despite the many hours of input we ourselves have received, and the time we have expended on our children and those of others, for many devotion to the faith seems limited to a desultory ‘I go to Mass on Sundays’, which is something which the majority don’t really engage or understand. Or the say ‘I go because otherwise my Mum yells at me!’ Small wonder then that our Readings strike such a harsh and apparently admonishing tone. Many of us will also need this during the run-up to Christmas, when we all become so absorbed in the preparations for the festivities that we don’t take time to ponder its deeper meaning.

It appears that Jesus was well aware of this tendency even among his closest followers. (Matthew 24:37-44). In Matthew’s Gospel ,Jesus has engaged in increasingly bitter acrimony with scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish leaders; and the hostility between him and them appeared quite irreconcilable. Matthew’s Gospel marks this all the way through by describing Jesus as a ‘scandal’. By this time in the Gospel he was already in Jerusalem for what would be his death; he has attacked the temple and its corrupt officials; lamented the destruction of the temple and city which was becoming increasingly likely. It also appears that even those closest to him would fail to recognise his significance when his three-time predicted passion occurred. It is within this context that Jesus reminded his audience of past failures in attention and fidelity, with his reference to their inattention before the Flood. Since this too failed to cut any ice he then presented them with a small but witty vignette on watchfulness, taken from daily life: the cartoon picture of the attentive householder (the house-despot in Greek – a sign of priorities if ever we needed one) ever vigilant against the incursions of a thief.

Perhaps Jesus deliberately used this amusing picture from daily life, to remind his original hearers and us of the lengths to which we all go to care for our ‘own’, our possessions. It is thus just one further sad reflection on our inattention to the needs of our eternal souls and our preparedness for the coming of the Son of Man. At the very least, no Christian can ever kid him/her self that they were right with God, or even organised as an ambassador for the gospel. What we all share is our utter incomprehension of the magnitude of the gift God is about to bestow on us, and our utter unworthiness of it. Our Gospel therefore hits out equally against the Pelagian – arrogant of his/her moral probity, as well as the fickle and clueless mass of the faithful.

With this picture of such unpromising material before us, we can sympathise with St Paul (Romans 13:11-14) and his call to the tiny Christian communities of Rome to ‘wake-up’. Certainly Paul does spend a great deal of effort and ink in many of his letters calling on Christians to ‘clean up their act’ – their moral lives; but we have to remember the context in which this occurs. Paul was and remained a Jew, and as he remarked in one letter according to the requirements of the Jewish Law his life was faultless. Yet such was the extent of divine grace as met in Christ, that he realised that for all his moral probity, his faultless following of the law, it could not reconcile him to the Father. This was and remains the action of Christ alone. Decent behaviour, moral living, is therefore merely one sign of our having understood something of the extent of the self-gift of Jesus to his creation. It cannot earn us life with God, which indeed is promised to saint and sinner alike. Paul would tussle with these difficult questions in Romans Chapters 7-8 where he recognised that for all his law-righteousness, he was still utterly estranged from God, and could only rely on grace, the action of Christ redeeming the creation he loved into being, and loved to the end.

But, many will say, our Old Testament Reading (Isaiah 2:1-5) strikes such a positive note. Does it indeed? First Isaiah was written in the 8th century BCE as the Assyrians devastated the Northern kingdom of Israel. This has been described by one historian as ‘spectacularly brutal’, something of the IS of their age. These warrior-traders carried all before them. Isaiah actually wrote the piece, we have taken out of context, as a clarion call for religious reform as he saw his nation going to pot, lacking devotion to God or careful management of the state; and we best know his savage recriminations of this state of affairs as Isaiah 5, the Song of the Vineyard. First Isaiah wrote from his love and faith in God, most definitely not from any conviction that his nation had got things sorted. Indeed, if anything, his Book is a tragic indictment of his people, yet redolent with his faith and hope in the redeemer of Israel. How important it can be not to take things out of context which, in a rather ragged way, is what this entire meditation has been about.