Candlemass – 3rd February 2019
One of the ways to think of the great feasts of the Church is that they are like lighthouses, that send their radiance both ahead of them and behind. Easter, for example, illumines all of Lent, and reaches to its last Sunday, Pentecost. Christmas too, warms Advent with expectation, and relishes its Good News for well over a month, a period ending, today, with this feast, Candlemass.
For Our Lord is “A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of your people Israel,” as Simeon proclaims in the gospel today.
St Luke´s story combines two different Jewish observances in one action: the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the baby Jesus. Observing the Law, Mary comes to be restored after giving birth, which rendered her ritually unable to approach the Temple. Joseph and she are the embodiment of the majority of Jews, who, too poor to offer any sacrifice, lived perennially in a state of ritual defilement or sin.
She also comes to present Our Lord, offering him to God as her first-born male, who unblemished, just as Hanna had presented Samuel. There is an echo of this in the name of Anna, the prophetess who comes, as her name is strictly Hanna as well, the late Latin speakers liked dropping their “h”s.
Joseph and Mary offer two turtledoves, the offering prescribed for the poor who cannot afford a lamb: one dove for a burnt sacrifice, the other for a sin offering, removing the defilement. The couple also probably paid five shekels, but St Luke leaves this detail out.
It’s all very kosher. Upon this very Jewish scene, St Luke weaves his very own Epiphany (remember, the visit of the Magi is a Matthean story). For Simeon recognizes Jesus as the “light to enlighten the gentiles, and the Glory (which is in Hebrew “Shekinah,” or the glorious presence of God) of your people Israel.” This light, born in darkest night, has begun to shine and spread everywhere, both home, for Israel and abroad, for the Gentiles. It is, as St Luke has Zachariah sing about St John the Baptist, “…a light to shine on those in darkness and the shadow of death; to lead our feet into the way of peace.”
The Feast of the Presentation and Purification dates from Jerusalem in the late fourth century (381-4 AD). It was initially celebrated on 14 February, 40 days after the 6 January celebration of the Nativity, which was celebrated in the Holy Land at that time then. In the West it moved to 2 February, to match the Western date of Christmas, that eventually predominated. In Orthodoxy it bears the name of Hypapante, or the Feast of the Meeting (that is, Simeon and Anna meet Christ). A procession with candles was added to the beginning of the Eucharist in the early 700s, hence its other name, Candlemass. It was natural that, within a few years, the candles would be blessed. By then the feast from the East was meeting local pagan observances in Northern Europe, such of the Irish Imbolc.
Observed at the midpoint between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox (ie., February 1 or 2), pagan Imbolc was a feast of potentialities: it marked the first milking of ewes and the nascent Spring, along with the lengthening of days and the gradual warming of the earth. It was also an occasion for spring cleaning, specially of the hearths, and, as any gardener knows, cleaning up dead growth before the new shoots emerge.
Imbolc in Ireland was the feast of the pagan goddess Bridget, which then became Christianized as St Bridget’s Day with its distinctive woven crosses on 1 February. With her feast day just next door, and with the abundance of fire in the stories of her life, it’s no surprise that St Brigid makes an appearance among the Candlemass legends. One of those legends reflects a splendid bit of time-warping that happened around Brigid that refer to her as the midwife to Mary and the foster mother of Christ. Chronologically, this would have been a real stretch, seeing as how Brigid was born in 454 AD. It is said in Ireland that she walked before Mary with a lighted candle in each hand when she went up to the Temple for purification. The winds were strong on the Temple heights, and the tapers were unprotected, yet they did not flicker nor fail.
St Luke’s story, however, is not all wine and roses. It contains a dire warning: this light comes for “the rise and fall of many in Israel,” for as St Luke had promised in the Magnificat, the poor will rise to healing and peace while the rich shall be sent away empty, specially the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who will be judged by the cross.
The Light is a troublemaker. It will “reveal the inner thoughts of many a heart,” exposing their deepest secrets; it blazes into the darkest corners, uncovering what is hidden and unearthing what is buried. It is indeed a two-edged sword, God´s Word made human. It will demand that we walk with integrity
This light, according to the first reading, is like a refiner’s fire or a fuller’s soap, purifying gold or silver and cleansing freshly woven wool until Israel can present an offering to the Lord in righteousness. The implication is, of course, that Israel was not able to offer anything in righteousness or justice. In Our Lord’s time the Temple priesthood had abandoned their integrity and defiled God´s house by selling themselves out to the invading Roman principalities and powers. But Christ comes to purify the Temple and to shine integrity upon God´s people and their worship in sincerity and truth.
So, St Luke stresses that we cannot enjoy the light and warmth of Christ without also welcoming the purification that it brings, a cleansing of the inner clutter of insecurity, lack of focus, deceitfulness, culling favour, and so on. This inner cleansing must be undertaken (and the coming Lent will give us the opportunity) in order for the Light to do its work in us and our communities.
St Luke also suggests that Simeon and Anna have a specific skill given by the Spirit: to be able to see the light of the world in the poor and insignificant, already emerging like tiny green shoots: the first fruits of God´s Reign of justice and peace.
So here we are, poised between the seasons, turning away from Summer into Autumn. It’s a time of change. There are many changes happening around us. We struggle to understand the change in the world’s climate, as we have just passed through the hottest January ever. We struggle to find a way through reconciliation with the first people of this land. We struggle to find a place for the Church in a culture that steadily abandons faith. I am sure there are many other struggles each one of us face through change: changes in family, changes in health, changes in work, that all leave us confused and wishing the world would just stop for a while to allow us to catch up, or even go back to a more secure time. Perhaps this festival is a good time for us to instead of worrying about change, to see the tiny signs of hope that come to us. Or perhaps we need to undertake the inner cleansing still to allow the Light to bring the Spirit to our lives.
But remember at the start how the great feasts are like lighthouses shining forth their hope. Whatever the darkness of change and the doubts, today of Candlemas we have the great beacon of Christmas shining forward, illuminating us. There is darkness around us; but the Light of lights, the Christchild choose to come into this darkness, for the Light shines in the darkness, to give us hope that darkness never can overcome it.
I hope you enjoy your candles today. They are such a vulnerable symbol of our vulnerability, so easy to blow out like the hopes and promises of our lives. They are lit twice in the mass, and I think that is a good sign as well, that whatever loss we have suffered, can be replaced again in a new way. No grief is too deep that God cannot fill it.
Based on a sermon by Juan Oliver of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.
What sort of God? – 27 January, 2019
Well, another Australia Day is past. I come from an era when the national anthem was “God Save the Queen”, so I had to memorise the new anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” in the later part of my schooling. I can sing it all, which is more than some people, witness what you see at football matches.
But in reality, for me, it’s a banal bit of prose. For example, what does “for we are young and free” really mean to us here, the majority of us don’t feel that young after the heat this week. But we sing along to it, and would be quite shocked by changes to it. For those of you who have heard the original second verse we would be shocked to sing it as well, with its claim that Britannia rules the waves.
In the Gospel today there is one of those moments of shock for the listeners as well. St Luke describes Our Lord coming to his hometown, entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, and coming forward to read. He is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he unrolls the scroll to find a certain passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Then Our Lord dramatically rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and sits down: sitting being the posture of a teacher in those days. Everyone’s eyes are on Our Lord, as they wonder what comment he will make on the passage he has chosen. His comment anticipated what he would say about the kingdom being at hand now: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
You see, Our Lord stopped the quote in mid-sentence. He didn’t finish the line. He omitted the bit about “the day of vengeance of our God.”
In announcing that God’s jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon was arriving with what he was doing, Our Lord omitted any reference to God exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies. In claiming that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in their hearing, Our Lord is claiming to be Jubilee in person. But the scandalous suggestion is that this Jubilee is to be for everybody…even Israel’s enemies.
Our Lord edited out vengeance, and this gives us a key to how he read the Old Testament. And lest we think that Our Lord’s omission of “the day of vengeance” was simply an oversight or meaningless, consider what Our Lord says to the hometown crowd in the synagogue following his edited reading of Isaiah. Our Lord recalls the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper: Gentiles who instead of receiving vengeance from God, received provision and healing.
Our Lord is announcing the arrival of the God’s favour, but he is emphasizing that it is for everybody…even for Sidonians and Syrians, even for Israel’s enemies! Our Lord is making clear that in bringing the Jubilee of God he is bringing it for everybody!
How was this message of God’s inclusive favour received in Nazareth? Not well, not well at all. Initially Our Lord’s hometown “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But as soon as Our Lord made clear that he was closing the book on vengeance, that he would not endorse the idea of divine retribution on their enemies, the crowd turned viciously against Our Lord. They drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff!
Jesus refused to read Isaiah’s vision of vengeance in the synagogue, just as he would refuse to be a violent, vengeful Messiah in the model of King David and Judah Maccabeus. And that ignited the rage of the crowd. It’s amazing just how angry some people can become if you try to take away their religion of revenge. As long as Our Lord announced that it was the time of God’s favour, the crowd spoke well of him. But as soon as he made it clear that God’s favour is for everyone, as soon as Jubilee was made inclusive and not exclusive, they tried to throw him off a cliff.
We are still faced today we the need to teach about a God who loves and doesn’t set rules of vengeance.
Until we are captivated by the radical mercy of God extended to all, we will cling to the texts of vengeance as cherished texts. We do this not for the noble sake of justice, but for the spiteful sake of revenge. With the incident in the synagogue of Nazareth we learn that Our Lord has closed the book on vengeance. Furthermore, he emphasises again and again, that those who are favoured are to those who need be keepers of the covenant, but anyone who acts with the compassion and love of God. It is not a co-incidence that only St Luke records the parable of the good Samaritan, with the priest and Levite walking by, and the hated Samaritan acting with mercy.
This is the core of the message that St Luke wants us to remember about Our Lord. God is all about compassion and acting on it. Our Lord came to show this: not by calling down fire and vengeance, but willingly undergoing the suffering of all to share the love of God. This still challenges us today. How do we show the compassion of God to those around us? Another Lukan parable is that of Dives and Lazarus, how the rich man, Dives, ignores the poor man, Lazarus, at his gate. Now we may hide our Lazarus at the gate: we send our refugees to PNG and we keep our poor in the third world, so we don’t see the suffering of the poor. But Our Lord will still challenge us to act with compassion and not with vengeance. The problem is that if we still hold God to be one mainly of vengeance, we become self-satisfied and complacent, and see the rest of the world as worthy of God’s displeasure. Sometimes this is seen in the heresy of prosperity theology: God rewards the righteous with wealth. Or a variant is that our comfortable wealthy countries are a result of some vague residual Christianity that allowed capitalism to flourish. We can look down then on the poor of the world with their corrupt governments as some sort of form of God’s vengeance.
I don’t know how good you are at “Advance Australia Fair.” But whatever we celebrated yesterday, we are not excused from also facing how we must live in this country without vengeance, and with compassion. Are we listening to the original inhabitants of this land and their claim that this day is one when they remember the start of the invasion and dispossession? Are we listening to the refugees who we have sent to eternal detention in poverty-stricken countries? There are no easy answers to these questions, I know. But they are questions that need to be asked if we are a people of compassion and not vengeance.
Wedding at Cana – 20 January, 2019
There are several mysteries in the Gospel reading today: there is a wedding but we never meet the married couple; there are the stone jars; and Mary is always referred to as “his mother” and not by name.
Let’s tackle the wedding first. It’s a Cana in Galilee and we are told that the mother of Jesus was there, and, after that, that Jesus and his disciples were there as well. St John in his Gospel is putting the theme of the celebration, but then we never get to mention the happy couple. Presumably, as this was not Nazareth, there must have been a strong connection for them to have travelled to a wedding, this was obviously some big do, not a small village affair. If we are not going to meet the married couple, then the significance is placed on the nature of what is happening: a marriage.
Marriage is the lifelong commitment between two people. In Scripture it is often used as the image of the relationship between God and his people. The people of God are wed to their God: they may be unfaithful to him, but the covenant between God and people cannot be broken. So, any marriage celebration echoes that relationship between God and people, and the absence of the married couple here emphasises this relationship again. St John is reminding his readers that there is a relationship between God and them. The miracle occurs within a relationship.
Then we come to the stone jars. We are told that they are there for the rites of purification, and that they are empty. Presumably, they were emptied before the celebration for the cleansing of the guests, but now they are empty. The rites of purification, like that of temple sacrifice, continue on and on and are repeated, yet always finish with more needed to be done. So it is with the stone jars.
There is also a point of six jars: six is always a pointer to something not complete, it’s not a holy number like seven, the days of creation and rest. Six also indicates that this rite is incomplete.
Finally, we are told that the jars are stone. We often read over that without thinking. But most large jars would have been made in pottery and glazed, that was far cheaper and convenient. Making six large stone jars was a very costly affair. We are deliberately told that they are stone jars, not just jars, so St John is wanting us to think about the stone. Maybe it’s a pointer to the stones of the Temple, as St John has a strong Temple imagery in the Gospel, or to the complaint from the prophets that the people have hearts of stone.
It’s also worth remembering how massive these jars were. They are far out of scale to a normal house. St John is also pointing to the scale of the miracle to happen.
It’s also worth noting that the whole party does not witness the miracles: just the servants. God’s miracles are not always obvious to everyone. It echoes how the birth of the Christchild was announced to the shepherds, people on the fringes, not the whole village of Bethlehem. God often works most clearly with those on the margins, like the servants here.
The next point is why mother of Jesus, and not Mary? This emphasises her relationship to Our Lord, and not her. In the great icons of Mary with Jesus, such as our little copy in the Lady Chapel, this relationship is always maintained, Mary points always to her son. She is saying, not me, but him always. Mary is put first at this point, Jesus and his disciples come after her.
Then the wine gives out.
Mary is then the one to solve the problem. She states the obvious and lets Our Lord work it out. Interesting, if you take all the words we have of Mary, the next quote, “Do what ever he tells you” is her last spoken words in the gospels. It’s a fitting conclusion – Mary, once more, always refers back to her son, and says do what ever he tells you. She gives these words of advice to the servants, and to us for all time, and then remains silent.
What the Gospel is emphasising is the nature of Our Lord’s signs; they point to his power as the Messiah. Abundance flows; weddings are prolonged with the new wine.
There are two things I hope you take from these readings today. Firstly, trust Our Lord. We never trust him enough. Our Lord knows who we are, and what we have done and how little we have trusted him. That does not matter. All we have to do is to listen to him again and trust him, and the miracles will happen. This is faith, and it is hard: no wonder our Lord says that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could move mountains. It’s such a hard lesson to learn to trust, really trust, and learn that despite all the problems and trails that happen, Jesus is there and looking after us.
Secondly, listen to Mary. Do what ever he tells you. Mary is the one who is constantly pointing us to Jesus. That’s why in many old icons, such as the one in memory of Fr Willoughby, whose year’s mind is this Thursday, here in the Lady Chapel, Mary points to Jesus. Mary is always saying, “not me, but my son.” Love of Mary does that; it channels our love back to the God, in the person of her Son. That is Mary. The servants seem not to know Jesus, but they trusted Mary, and the miracle happened. Do what ever he tells you. Our problem is that we don’t listen to him enough and then don’t do what he does tell us.
One of the little delights of this passage is the beginning and end. Mary goes to the wedding, and Our Lord and his disciples are invited as well. But Mary is the first one mentioned. Yet at the end, Our Lord leaves, with Mary, his brothers and disciples. His position has changed. He came as one of the family: he leaves as a leader, with his family as followers. Faith changes things: the miracle changed his family. Any encounter with Jesus as our Lord and messiah does that: we can no longer be first, we are to follow.
So trust and do what ever our Lord tells us.
Grace and Water – Baptism of Our Lord, 13 January, 2019.
Everyone here has presumably been baptised. You may not remember it, but at some stage, someone thought it was important enough to get you done.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord. The Gospels talk about the baptism of Our Lord and the baptism of John the Baptist. The distinction made is that John baptised for the repentance of sins. So, when Our Lord turned up it placed John in a quandary, because he recognised Our Lord as the Messiah, and recognised that he had no sin. So therefore, there was no sense in baptising Our Lord for the repentance of his sins.
But Our Lord insisted. Baptism became the defining rite by which Christians were made.
So, what happened when Our Lord was baptised and what happens when we are baptised?
Let’s consider what happens when Our Lord is baptised. Others came for repentance; Our Lord comes with no sins. As God he then takes part in the rite to show his solidarity with all who wish for repentance. But even more, he sanctifies the water by his divinity. The waters are blessed by his baptism, and, as a result, baptism is no longer just for the repentance of sins, but the giving of Christ in a new way. To testify this the Spirit is seen as a dove, and the Father acknowledges the Son from heaven: a new sacrament is formed.
Now we can consider what happens to us when we are baptised.
Remember at this point what the word sacrament means. It came from the oath, the sacred oath, that a soldier gave to serve in the army, the oath to the SPQR. This oath made him a soldier. In the same way the early Christians called baptism a sacrament, as it made each of us a servant and soldier of Christ. Through baptism we will serve the true king for eternity.
But for Christians sacraments are not just words: sacraments are the giving of grace. You may remember from your confirmation days; the definition of sacraments is an outward and visible form of an inner and spiritual grace.
So, what’s the importance of grace. Let’s try an analogy. If a police officer stops you when driving, she usually doesn’t ask you about the make of car you are driving. What is usually asked about is how you were driving. It’s not an offence to drive an expensive car or a bomb, as long as you drive it according to the traffic rules. So, it is with our lives at the end of time. What we will be asked is not if we had a rich home or a poor home, but how we lived out our lives. How we lived our lives depends on whether we were children of God or not, whether we have done God’s will or not. So how are we children of God? Think how we recognise other people’s children – we see the family resemblance. I expect a few of you over Christmas have been looking at grandchildren or nephews or nieces and seeing the resemblance to the parents, or in the case of grandchildren trying to see your own. Or we know the child from long experience: we see the child often with the parent, and we recognise the child as being part of a family unit. So it is with a child of God: children of God are known by the resemblance to God, and that resemblance is the gift of grace in our lives. Grace is the gift to become like God and to grow like God. Grace makes us more Christlike.
This is the great gift of baptism: the gift of grace that makes us a child of God. Sometimes we say it is the wiping of original sin, the removal of that sin that twists us away from God. At baptism we receive the sacramental grace that marks that child as a child of God.
Now, that child may not remain with that grace. Sin twists and darkens the image. That’s why we have confession to ask God’s forgiveness to restore the purity of the image, to receive again grace. We also have free will and can deliberately turn away from the grace that is given us.
To go back to the driving analogy again: grace is like wiping away our demerit points. Baptism is like receiving our licence: we don’t start off with zero points, we start off with a full complement of points, it’s up to us to then loose them. Baptism gives us those full points.
This day we remember our baptism and its giving of grace when we re-affirm our vows. We are only baptised once in our lives: once we become a child of God, we are never disowned, no matter what evil we commit. God loves us too much. Holy Mother Church reminds us two times in the year about our baptism: today and during the blessing of baptismal water on Easter Eve. In the Orthodox tradition they also have a lovely ceremony for this feast today when they throw a crucifix into the water and people dive in to retrieve it. When I was a curate at Shepperton in Victoria we used to look after the Orthodox Macedonian Community and we did the ceremony every year, it was a lot of fun. It also helped as it was summer; think of the Orthodox who will be doing this swim in the northern winter. In Russia they often do it instead for the Feast of the Holy Cross, which is in September, so they don’t have to brace the icy waters.
This celebration for today has only recently crept back into our Western liturgies, but it’s a good moment for us all to think about our own baptism, and also question: where do we now stand before God? Are we a child of God or not? If we stood before God this day, as we all must one day, would God recognise us or not? How can we work to become more Christlike, become more a child of God, and receive that grace that so marks us.
Meeting God – Epiphany, 6 January, 2019
Long before telescopes and computers, people named the stars and charted their long journeys through the heavens. These early stargazers noticed patterns and consistency in their movements. They saw the stars as gods who influenced and controlled events here on earth. That’s why the author of Genesis is so careful to define that the Lord God created the sun, moon and lights of heaven: they are not gods.
Early books of the Bible testify to the power of stars in the life of ancient people. The Prophet Job mentions three constellations. Childless Abram goes out at night and hears a promise from God that he will have many children, as numerous as the stars. Stars are said to “sing together” and “shout for joy” in the Book of Job, and Psalm 147 tells us God names all the stars and determines their number. Clearly, the stars held meaning for the ancient Jews.
In our Gospel reading, we see wise men coming from the east, following a star. It is not clear to we modern readers how they knew this rising star announced the birth of “the king of the Jews,” as the connection between the rising star and the birth of a king is shrouded in mystery. What is even more strange, perhaps, is how everyone in the story, especially Herod, just accept the wise men’s account of the star and the birth of the king. In fact, King Herod takes the wise men’s astronomical report so seriously that he searches to eliminate the baby.
There are many theories on where the wise men originated and how they knew so much about stars; the Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel is Magi, a group of learned scholars who advised kings by interpreting dreams and astrology. While much about the wise men is unclear, what is clear is that these men are not Judeans, but Gentiles. They are bearing witness to a cosmic event of astronomical proportions: the birth of a baby, though nobody seems to know exactly where he is.
We can imagine their shock when they discover that Herod is clueless about where this baby was located. Surely, King Herod would know if a king were born in his kingdom. It is in this detail that we can see how foreign these wise men are; they are seemingly naïve, unaware of the dangerous politics of Judaea and unaware of how different this new king will be from other kings. They are simply seeking the king whom the star announced. But then they find an answer through Scripture in Jerusalem, pointing to how Scripture can blend with Gentile knowledge to show the way of God, a precedent for the whole of Christianity.
They follow the star until it stops over the place where the Christchild is. It’s so simple. While it may seem mysterious and strange to us to follow a star this way, it is not strange for them. It is simply how they understand the world. It is simply how they found the Christchild.
We must be open to the many ways people find Our Lord, especially the ways that people different from us find Our Lord. The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the peoples of the earth. Just as every human culture is unique and different, the ways in which different cultures find and understand Our Lord will be different, too. We cannot predict or assume how the diverse cultures will find Our Lord. We must be open to all the ways the Spirit leads people to our Saviour, Our Lord.
Legends and poems speculate on what happened to the magi afterwards. Were their lives changed? Did they ever come back? Some say they came again to see the child die on the cross, some say they met again to die together, so their bones were collected and through the vicissitudes of time ended in Cologne in Germany. But I am sure they pondered this unlikely occurrence for the rest of their lives.
Today, we are a community of people from many different backgrounds and places, gathered in the presence of Our Lord. This itself is a miracle. This means that there is hope for a better world. This means the good news that Our Lord died and rose again is a story for everyone, no matter how far they have come to find him. So, rejoice today that the wise men followed the star and found Jesus. We rejoice because although he was not what they expected, they saw past their limitations to see the God in the child. Rejoice today because we found Our Lord, too.
Based on a sermon by Fr David W. Peters the Vicar of the Pflugerville, Texas. \
Loyalty and Freedom – Holy Family Sunday, 30 December 2018
I am always amazed by some of those big Christmas lights that people do in their front yards. All the effort that some people put into to make a colourful display for Christmas – it is very impressive.
One in particular, I remember, had a collection of Santa Clauses in different poses and sizes, various reindeers with or without red noses, a fascinating crib set that seemed to be blown up with air and then have a light bulb inside – that was a new one for me, who were strategically placed in front of two dancing snowmen on a mirror. All this in a front garden, complete with fairy lights around the bushes.
Yet at the same time I thought, not only about the cost of the electricity for such a display, but the huge mishmash of symbolism. Santas and reindeer and snowmen and holy families all mixed up together.
Now mixed symbolism is one of my pet hates. This takes a particularly virulent form with me – I hate churches where they seem to invent a new symbolism every Sunday, like different coloured Advent candles (red for the centre of our country, blue for our beaches, gold for our sun etc) or strange little ceremonies for each Sunday in Lent. Symbols work for me when they are clear and strong – if you mix them too much, they lose their potency.
Yet you have to find the right balance between symbols that help to deepen our understanding of our faith and being overwhelmed by so many that they lose all meaning, like that Christmas garden I saw.
Now this Sunday is one of those Sundays that goes into symbolism. The theme of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph and Jesus. It looks quite idyllic, two parents and a fat baby all getting on well together.
Yet look again and there are other messages. Joseph was not destined to live long enough to see his Son Jesus reach maturity. Some of the gospels have hints that Joseph may have had children from another marriage – presumably his first wife died, a not uncommon experience in a culture with limited medical facilities that makes childbearing a potential death sentence. What happened to Joseph – old age, accident or disease we will never know this side of heaven. The Gospel according to John has Jesus entrusting Mary to the beloved disciple, so if there were other children the connection was not strong enough for them to be obliged to look after Joseph’s widow. So Mary faced an uncertain future inn old age without a large family to look after her. The family also faced persecution under Herod and flight as refugees into Egypt. Jesus too may not have been a family’s idea of a success with a wandering ministry that attracted the hostility of the authorities. So, the Holy Family was not the Brady Bunch.
Look around the typical family here and in our own families we see similar problems. Divorces, re-marriages, living together without marriage, blended families, gay relationships and death of a husband or wife all mean that many a Church has a minority of married couples.
So what does the symbolism of Holy Family mean to us here?
Well, it does not mean normality – the Holy Family were not normal, no matter how pretty the nativity scenes may dress it up to be for one night.
The two things that always strike me are these: there is a bond of loyalty to the family and a freedom.
The loyalty can be seen in the Gospel story today. Jesus stays behind, the parents return, and he goes back with them, and in the words of the translation, is obedient to them. The parents obviously love their child and are upset, and he returns to them. In the later part of the gospel we will learn how Mary is obedient to her son’s vision, and will follow him in his ministry and be there at the end. Jesus in obedient to his parents, and his parents are obedient to his vision.
This also touches the second point – there is a freedom allowed within the family. A freedom to let Jesus wander and take on this ministry. A freedom to trust him even when all are calling him mad.
Naturally, both this loyalty and freedom is based in the love that is at the core of the family.
So how does that help us with our own versions of family. No matter how we find our families may be, we need to have a loyalty to each member. We need to be able to tell them that they are still part of our family no matter how strange they may seem to us or others.
Then we need to be able to give them the freedom to be what they believe they are called to be. We cannot hold children, spouses, parents, partners so tightly that they cannot choose. Relationships are not dominations, and we have to give that trust that allows it to develop.
Finally, we have to recognise the mystery in family. We can admire the faith of Mary and Joseph that made them recognize in their child, who looked exactly as any other child, the Son of God. The feast of the Holy Family pushes us to look at our own families with a look of faith and light, and to recognize the hidden mystery in all our loved ones. They teach us about God and make us understand that a heroic life has become daily life, so that daily life can become heroic.
I am a bit of snob when it comes to those Christmas lights all mixed up with dancing snowmen and holy families. Yet those displays bring happiness and enjoyment to many. They have the freedom to make them how they want to. Let us as we look at our symbols at this Christmastide, of the Holy Family, grow in strength as we look at their loyalty and freedom, and try and apply those virtues in our own lives.
Christmas Day – 2018
The Gospel for Christmas Day is always a bit of a puzzle for many people. If you came last night, you would have heard of the birth of Christ. If we had had a dawn mass, you would have heard of the birth of Christ. But Mother Church in her wisdom, has decided that if you come for the later mass of the day, you won’t get that story. Instead you will be given the passage from St John, filled with imagery of light and life.
Now, our Mother Church does not want to make things too hard for us her children. Yes, she wants us to know the story, the story of how God came to us, not in great light and power, but clothed in the person of a baby, a real baby, that would have to grow, suffer and do all those things babies are notorious for doing.
But what Mother Church wants us to do is to think. God gave each and every one of us a brain, and there is no reason why we should not use it. Mother Church wants us to go behind the baby, go behind Rudolf and his red nose and Santa Claus and all the other tinsel of Christmas.
For the Christmas story is more than a warm feeling. The Christmas story is one of great contradiction: of how God can come to us.
Now the ancients in their stories told of gods who sprung forth in great glory to bring fear and call forth worship from the puny humans they deigned to pass by. They were not cuddly creatures. They brought fear rather than love. Yet God chose a different way for us: God chose the way of enfleshment, of taking on the flesh of a human, and living its life fully with pain and suffering, to show that God is in the misery and messiness of the world, that God does not absence himself from any of the tragedy and pain and joy of day to day life.
In the Gospel today we tackle that contradiction. We hear the great poem of St John, how God was in the beginning, how God was light and life. Yet God became one with us by becoming flesh.
But St John in his gospel goes on, after saying that he became flesh, to say also that we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. In one sense, this is the great challenge of Christians. We are not to tinsel our God. The story of Christmas is incomplete if we leave Our Lord in a manger, safe and sound, with a couple of dotty animals munching hay. That’s the tinsel. John does not even bother about it in his Gospel, he leaves that for Luke and Matthew to draw the pretty pictures. St John challenges us to take this picture to a different level.
This is faith. This is where we go beyond stories, to find grace and truth.
For stories are not enough. Stories and only useful, if they lead into something more, some message. The message that St John wants us desperately to hear, is that God is there, God is there in flesh, God, who was in the beginning, lived among us as flesh, and that this life of love is one of vital importance for us. For unless we have faith, unless we know the living power of Jesus, our Lord, friend and saviour, then we are only dealing with the tinsel.
Our Lord offers to each and every one of us a life of love. Our Lord offers to each and every one of us hope, grace and truth, powers that will shape our lives and alter how we live. If we just life in the now, then the tinsel of the now is the glory we want. But if we know God, find Our Lord as our friend, then we have a hope that moves us beyond the moment. Then we have a hope that will sustain us in all the darkness of life: the darkness that threatens us, but never overcomes, because it never understands.
The Gospel according to St John is read today to make us think. To shake free the tinsel of the pretty scene and to think again. What does Our Lord Jesus really mean – what does Jesus mean for me?
Christmas Midnight – 2018
Tonight, we remember a child. We all remember children, perhaps our own childhoods or perhaps our children and grandchildren at particular times. A memory of a special moment, of an innocence or of a joy that carries on through time.
Each of those memories is against some time and place. Maybe a grandparent’s house in the long past, or your own home now. But there is a child. There is a place and there is you.
Tonight, we remember a particular child, the Christchild. Consider tonight the setting of the birth of the Christchild: Bethlehem. That is really the middle of nowhere. There were great cities at that time, Rome the imperial city had perhaps a million people, even Jerusalem with the Temple of the Lord was famous. But Bethlehem: we have no record of what it looked like it all those centuries ago, no ancient traveller recorded what it looked like, was too insignificant for that. Yet the Christchild is born there, in an insignificant town on the edge of Empire.
In the gospel we heard tonight St Luke tells us that the angels came and told the good news of the birth of the Christchild to shepherds. St Luke does not tell of any others to whom the news was given, only the shepherds. St Luke tells of no wise men from exotic parts. No angel went to the leaders of the little town of Bethlehem, no mayor was summoned. No angel proclaimed it at the temple in Jerusalem or to the Emperor so far away in the Palatine Palace on the hill in Rome: just to shepherds. These were insignificant people, night workers, the poor. Shepherds had to live outside, in all the weathers, away from the comforts of warm kitchens and dry beds, in danger of wolves and robbers.
The story of the birth of Our Lord Jesus, is the story of the importance of the insignificance. If you consider the town of Bethlehem and the shepherds, you realise that God has chosen the insignificant. Then you consider what God has done: that God has surrendered his own self, the power, the might, the very heavens to come and live with us. God did not come to us as some great majestic being full of light and glory to the important of the world, but as a baby, a being in need of protection and parents, a person at risk in a world of danger.
God is making a point for that time and for every time. Not all of us are born to be the Emperor living in Rome, master of millions, with iron armies. Not all of us are to live in great and famous cities like Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God’s Temple on earth. But we are born, and we do live, in simple places, like Goodwood, with or without families and problems, with or without children and parents, with or without jobs.
The Christchild is teaching us an important lesson. There are no places that are, in the end, more important than others in the journey of a life. God has placed us here, now. This here and now may be Rome and we may be the emperor of the world. This here and now may be Bethlehem and we are shepherds. This here and now may be Goodwood and we are the people of God. But the message of salvation is for all people and in all times and in all places. There are no winners or losers in God’s eyes for position or place. Each and every soul is valuable. Each and every soul has a journey to salvation. How we struggle with our sins is something that God knows and has made us for this place and time so to struggle. The coming of the Christchild to Bethlehem and to the shepherds is God telling us that we matter. Here and now. The Christchild sits in the manger of an ordinary life with ordinary people, who see extraordinary things and achieve extraordinary lives. The angels come to us this night to tell us again not to fear, and call us to worship, then go back into the night to live lives confident that God knows and loves us all.
Mary – Advent 4, 23 December, 2018
There is something about Our Lady, Mary. You may love her or hate her, but you can’t be a Christian without dealing with her. Who she is and what she does has been one of the sensitive points of Christianity.
We project a lot on Mary. Once we talked about her obedience, how she said let it be to me according to your will, and portrayed her as the woman who was obedient above all else, in contrast to Eve who disobeyed and took the forbidden fruit. Then we had the idea that she was only a teenager, and used her as the model of youth following God. Then she became the hippy, wandering around everywhere, to Egypt and back, in search of her God. There are so many versions of Mary. In this season of Advent, when we look at those who point the way to Jesus: the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, there are endless ways of seeing how God is pointed out. So, let’s look at one.
St Luke’s is the only gospel in which Mary’s story of the annunciation appears, and in his account, there is nothing submissive nor immature about her. According to St Luke, the angel approached her with words of great honour:Hail Mary, full of grace.Many artists paint the angel kneeling, in recognition of the honour given to her. The angel is explicit; the honour is for the grace that is distinctly hers. This is a courtship scene: the angel is wooing her, on bended knee, a suitor – not an order from on high.
It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what St Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions – courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. It is not submissive meekness: grace is not submission; and the power of God is never meek.
Yes, she is startled by the presence of the angel. So were Gideon, Jacob, Jonah, and the shepherds of Bethlehem, to name a few; they who, like Mary, questioned the angel in wonder, doubt, and even resistance. They are noted for their reluctance. Why not she? What sort of greeting is this?she asked. And the angel obliged her with an explanation. Later, she challenged the angel: How shall this happen to me, when I have no husband? God chose a brave woman.
Many women in biblical stories appear in domestic settings: Sarah is in her tent, baking cakes; Rachel is drawing water at the well; Bathsheba is taking a bath; Martha is fussing around in the kitchen; the woman who lost a coin is sweeping the house. But with Mary, there is no evidence of any domestic work on her part. We never find her cooking, cleaning, washing up. I’m sure she did it, but the Gospels don’t worry about that. It’s not important to whom Mary is. The evidence offered us is her love of adventure. What we find her doing, over and over, is travelling, in journeys that involve risks and an element of danger.
Her recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political nous.
Mary is unmarried when the angel comes. The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission – to become pregnant. God knows Mary owns her own body. And there is no shame in her decision.
Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. This is Mary: well-spoken and out-spoken.
Travelling alone, like every prophet before her, she sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to declare her agenda. There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified. But with her cousin Elisabeth we hear how John the Baptist leaps in the womb at the arrival of the unborn Saviour: the word in Greek is the same as when David danced before the Ark on its journey to Jerusalem all those centuries before. John dances before his Lord as David danced before the Ark. That’s why Mary is known in her litany as the Ark, as she holds the hidden Lord in the same way as the Ark held the hidden presence of God.
Mary gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women and even men everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.
Meister Eckart, the 13thC German Dominican mystic put it well: “We are allmeant to be mothers of God, for God is alwaysneeding to be born.”
Based partly on an address by Nancy Rockwell.
In the Pink – Advent 3
I’m tickled pink this morning. As you can see, I’m in pink and the colour of the vestments are all pink. It’s pink Sunday.
Except we don’t call it that. Today is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. The Latin names we have often come from the first words of the mass in Latin, which is traditionally the introit, the sung sentence as the clergy enter. If you are at 9.30 you would have heard the opening word of the introit as being, “Rejoice.” That comes from the second reading today from Philippians. Rejoice – gaudete, hence the name for today. But it’s chosen for a particular reason.
Now normally the Advent colour is either purple on the more common Roman usage, like in Lent, or blue for the rarer English usage, called Sarum usage from the Latin name for Salisbury, which was a mediaeval centre of liturgy. But twice a year, half way in the seasons of Lent and Advent, we go pink instead. Technically we don’t call it pink but rose, but it sure looks a lot more like pink.
But this Sunday is different. The reason is that Rome used to elect its consuls at the time some 2,500 years ago. It’s midwinter and this is the time in an agricultural world to do things besides farming. Such as elections. So, when the Church was choosing new clergy in Rome some 1800 years ago, it selected this time as well. As choosing clergy was a joyful thing, they couldn’t have a penitential colour such as purple, so rose or pink was a lightening of the mood. The vote for those who were to be ordained was done of the Sunday, so, this Sunday was in pink, to choose the new candidates for the clergy. Then on the ember Wednesday of this week the results were announced, and then on Ember Saturday it all happened. They had a special mass with seven readings and the different orders were ordained after each reading. The memory of this persisted for a long time, clergy were still ordained around this time, on St Thomas’s Day, 21 December as a result: those of you who remember Fr Malcom Lindsay, well, he was one who was ordained on that day. So, the ancient memory still has echoes. It’s pink to rejoice, away from the more sombre colour of Advent.
So now I’ve explained away the pink we can look at the readings for today. Our first reading is from Zephaniah, not a well-known prophet. He is one of what we call the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament, in contrast to what we call the four major ones. It’s one of those number things we like doing. He’s meant to have lived in the times of the kings. But he’s full of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” One commentator has put it this way; Zephaniah teaches us that loves renews the heart and fear makes it old. It’s a good point. It’s the love we have in our hearts for those around us that make us open to new people and new ideas, we wither away when we live in fear. Zephaniah is telling us to rejoice in our heart.
That’s why we don’t have a psalm today, but instead we have the Benedictus, the song of Zachariah, the father of John, when he gets his speech back. It has the lovely prophecy that we will worship God without fear, and that the dawn of God’s tender compassion (the older version was the dayspring, that moment before dawn when the first light is showing in the east) God’s tender compassion will shine. It reminds us also of the words of his wife Elizabeth, who felt her son, John, leap in her womb with joy when she approached the pregnant Mary.
Then we have St Paul at his best with the letter to the Philippians. He calls for gentleness and not to worry, and that we do this by prayer to God with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is such an important part of prayer: if we can’t see what God has given to us, then we can’t be generous with those gifts. Once again it is love renewing the heart, this time by the generosity of God’s gifts to us, that moves us away from old hearts of fear.
Finally, we have John the Baptist telling people that they are a brood of vipers: hardly cheerful stuff. But John’s bark is worse than his bite. There are three groups who approach him in the Gospel reading: the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers. He tells the crowd that they should be generous and share. He tells the tax collectors to only collect what is due. He tells the soldiers not to extort. In other words, he is advocating generosity and honesty. Good sound principles. When you think on what he is saying there is a further principle. The crowds are just those who are listening. The tax collectors and soldiers are those with jobs. So, there are two principles here: in our daily life be generous, and in our work be honest.
Then we come to the bit about winnowing. There are some problems with the text here which have been smoothed over in our translation. It may not be a fork but a shovel and Jesus may not be the one putting the chaff into the fire. This all comes down to how you see our Lord Jesus acting: as the God throwing people into everlasting fire, or as the God who comes down into the fire that we create to save the good. Theology often influences translations, and a lot of our history we have liked to present a god who is keen to throw people into damnation rather than save them from self-damnation. It’s also a view about history; do you see God as manipulating history to a final judgment when punishment can be meted out, or God coming into history to show a way out of the violence that we perpetuate on ourselves. Hard questions.
But back to pink and joy. Pink is all very silly, but that’s the point in one way. Good liturgy touches history, like today, going back over two and a half thousand years to the consuls of ancient Rome. The pink points to that in a strange way. Joy, like being silly, is looking at the unexpected and being surprised. We struggle with sadness at times, the difficulty of life, difficult families or bad bosses. Sadness is a sign that something is missing, be that good work, family or health. It brings fear into our hearts and ages us. But we are called to overcome this by looking for God again and finding that joy that makes us leap like children again. At this time, we can look at the crib and see how Our Lord came to us, emptying himself of heavenly glory to be a simple child, to teach us to also live as a child. Or look at the crucifix, either the great rood above our chancel of the beautiful one in our oratory, of the suffering Lord who takes on all pain to resurrect it with life and joy again. There is such great hope and joy promised by Our Lord.
I would like to finish off with a nice poem today as something a little frivolous and suitable for a pink day. It’s by a man called Thomas Henry Basil Webb, who was killed on the Somme, 1st December, 1917, aged 19. A copy of it was put in Chester Cathedral, where it became popular.
Give me a good digestion, Lord,
And also something to digest;
But when and how that something comes
I leave to Thee, Who knowest best.
Give me a healthy body, Lord;
Give me the sense to keep it so
Also a heart that is not bored
Whatever work I have to do.
Give me a healthy mind, Good Lord,
That finds the good that dodges sight
And seeing sin, is not appalled,
But seeks a way to put it right.
Give me a point of view, Good Lord,
Let me know what it is, and why.
Don’t let me worry overmuch
About the thing that’s known as “I”.
Give me a sense of humour, Lord,
Give me the power to see a joke,
To get some happiness from life
And pass it on to other folk.
Preached at St George’s Goodwood, Advent 3C, 16thDecember, 2018.
Judgment – Advent 2C, 9 December 2018
Advent is the time when we contemplate the future and prepare ourselves to meet the Lord. We meet him in two ways: firstly, in history at Christmas, when our Lord took on our human flesh to live as one of us. We will meet him again, at the end of time, our time and the world’s time, a place without time, when we face him.
It has been well put (by St Cyril of Jerusalem, some 1600 years ago,) that when our Lord came firstly, he was judged, but when he comes again, he will judge. This is indeed a terrifying prospect, but our Lord know what it is like to be judged, and therefor has mercy. But we must face our sins and his judgment. Yet curiously, and as a paradox, we this moment of greatest scrutiny is promised to be one of greatest intimacy. We shall know him as he is and know ourselves as were truly are, and instead of running for the gates of hell we shall see and understand the love he has for us.
So today is rather a bit of a survival training for judgment day. This morning we are faced with St John the Baptist, and his curious baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The New Testament goes to some pains to make this clear that this is difference from the baptism of the Christians, and John is only the forerunner, the one who points the way. Hence, we deal with him in Advent, on the way to Christmas and seeing our Lord.
Christians deal with evil and wrongdoing in a different way to non-believers. Firstly, we acknowledge the existence of evil. Sins are not relative, not the result of background, they are to do with evil, and our temptations to evil. We cannot explain evil away, nor can we ignore the affects of evil in our life. We do sin.
In one sense, it is the hardest part of Christian living, the acknowledging of the problem of sin. We have a culture that makes us victims and wants compensation. If we have failed, there must be a reason, and someone is to blame. However, it is harder to say, that I have sinned, I am responsible, and I must acknowledge it. It’s much easier blaming someone else, and demanding compensation, and being a permanent victim, always blaming your problems on someone else. But that’s not our way. Yes, we are often hurt by other people. In the end we see that it is evil: we can’t explain it, we just have to learn to hate the sin, try and forgive the person, and leave the rest to God.
Now this is where John the Baptist and his baptism comes in. His baptism was a way of acknowledging sin – it was for repentance and forgiveness. It was a public way of saying I have sinned and wanted forgiveness, and as such very, very powerful. One of the great strengths of evil is that it is nameless. By that I mean that the most effective sin is that never discussed, never acknowledged. Sin without form is the most powerful grip on a person. That is why John’s baptism is powerful, and it makes the person say that yes, I am a sinner.
Now here is where Christians part from John and why the New Testament makes a distinction. For we believe that sin can be taken away. That’s the point of Our Lord Jesus – our sins are taken away. We don’t have to suffer the consequences for our evil, we are not caught in a cycle of perpetuation. It all has to do with his death, showing that his love is such that no sin of ours can separate us from that all-giving love. That is why we say the Agnes Dei just before our communion, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”
All we have to do is let Our Lord take our sins away.
That is why we can approach our judgment with confidence. We will be afraid, because we will see the sin in its true life, clearly spoken so to say, no longer a hidden dark nameless thing. That will be a shock. Don’t have a weak heart on the Day of Judgment. But then we will know, from our Christian lives here, that Jesus loves us, Jesus forgives, and Jesus wants to take us into his bosom. Judgment Day for us is not the horror of sin only, that can drive a person to Hell, but the bravery that we can say, that we are guilty, yet we ask for that forgiveness given to us in the Church, and accept it, and allow us to be overwhelmed in love.
There is another theme I would also like to draw out from the reading today. Both John and Our Lord are put to death by people who don’t want to kill them. John is put to death by Herod to fulfil a foolish promise – he does not want to. Our Lord is condemned to death by Pilate, because of the crowd. Both people sinned because they gave way to other’s wills. Sin is often the giving in to other’s wills. But we are called to follow Our Lord’s will – he gave over his will to God and desired nothing but to follow God. Sin is the removal of our selfish following of other’s wills to give up everything for God.
But for now, we need to look for John, we need to start to see our sins, and find a way of repentance. Nothing beats a life of prayer and the daily examination of conscience – how have I done this day, what have I done and what should I have done better? If we do that, sin is forced out of the shadows and we start to grapple with. That way we can prepare for judgment.
Our Lord is coming – what shall we do?
The Days are Surely Coming: Advent 1, 2 December, 2018
“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord. So starts our first reading today, with the ominous words of Jeremiah to the rebellious people of Israel and Judah, who have left their God to follow the other gods. What has happened? The people of the land have become assimilated into the religious practises of the people around them, and as a result, the wrath of God hangs over them, warning them of the future disaster that will come, when they, with those of the other people around them, those who also worship those petty gods, will be taken away. The days are surely coming.
But we know what has happened in the meantime: in the meantime the people of Israel and Judah went along with life, enjoying it, and ignoring the prophets who were sent to warn them. It was, and is, always the case. Life at the moment seems more interesting: what’s on the television seems more fascinating than the call of the Spirit. But the days are surely coming, says the Lord.
Today we enter the season of Advent, when we contemplate the days that are surely coming. The colour and liturgy changes, and, in the season of Advent, we are encouraged to turn from the now to look to the future.
At first sight the future is not too pleasant. People are going to faint from fear and foreboding, we are told by our Lord, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. But for Christians it is to be different: when these things take place we are to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
This is the curious duality that Scripture and the Church seem to offer: the future is decidedly grim but we are going to enjoy it.
Well, it’s grim because it’s going to end. For the world and its people that lives in the now, that’s the problem, especially for the world that enjoys the good things of life. We know that we are the privileged; we are really the Dives of Scripture who enjoy the good things of life while Lazarus sits in poverty by our gates. We are faced with the reality that the future will have to be different. But in the meantime, we want the good times to continue.
But the days are surely coming, says the Lord. Well, as long as they don’t get here too soon. But for Christians, we are to learn to live in detachment from the pleasures of the moment. That’s why our Lord tells us to be on guard, so our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life. Don’t get bogged in the now, in other words. We are not to live so that the pleasure of the moment is the most important thing: that’s wasted time, useless time, sterile time, for it won’t last and even more importantly it doesn’t involve God. Happiness is being close to God, happiness is learning what God wants for us, happiness is the exploration of love that comes from and will return to God.
Christians are called to live with God. Not just in some distant future but now. That’s why we keep an eye on the future, to live better lives now. It makes for perspective. We are to cultivate the presence of God in our lives so the now becomes infuses with God and creates meaning. That is why our Lord tells us to be alert at all times. We are offered this moment, to be filled with the presence of God, to be the witnesses of God. That is why traditionally at this Advent season we talk about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell, to leave behind the things of the world and to concentrate on who we really are, not a child of the world but a child of God, more interested in our eternal future and creating it now by living it, rather than the wealth of the world and the burden of things. That is why we are continually called as Christians to see God now. For by looking afnd seeing God we can shake away from the dross of the world. That is why we should pray every day, learn to have arrow prayers, make the sign of the cross at meals; all little things to make us see God now.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The question is: how do we want to meet those days? In this Advent season, we are reminded again to turn and face the coming glory of God. We are called, in the words of our Thanksgiving Prayer of the Mass, to wait with eager longing of the coming of the Lord. Eagerness, because we realise that what we are offered is far, far better. This understanding then changes our now, it makes us live in the world with joy knowing the love and power and glory of God. That’s why our Lord tells us that we are not to live with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life: a life lived in God is far, far more glorious than that.
We are not to be afraid of the future: God will be there. We are not to be afraid of this moment: God is surely here. Advent allows us to glimpse the glory of that future to inspire us for the moment. The days are surely coming says the Lord, and we can have the confidence to live them now.
Sacrifice -18 November 2018
Sacrifice is a word that is over used and misunderstood in our world. We talk about sacrifice in many ways – she sacrificed her career for him, for example, when someone gives us something for another. We perhaps hear it in the more formal words from Remembrance Day as in last Sunday, about those who made the supreme sacrifice in war.
But for the ancients, sacrifice was one of the actions of life, usually a bit bloody but also a celebration. Pagans and Jews in the ancient world routinely sacrificed. Usually it was animals of some sorts, although the grain offering of the Temple was also a sacrifice. But for most people, sacrifice was the giving up of expensive animals to be slaughtered before your eyes. Often the meat would then be shared with you, some would be kept by the Temple and some returned. Every pagan town would have a temple altar of some sort, usually in the centre, where animals would be slaughtered. It is suspected that it was a major source of protein in the ancient diet. You could not escape the smell of blood that would be so strong. Some anthropologists have even suggested that the foundation of human society was not in the so-called social contract suggested by Rousseau and Hobbes, but in a sacrificial compact instead. But that’s another story. Also what was important was the altar, outside, where the animal was slaughtered, not the building behind, which was used often as a sort of treasury.
For Jews sacrifice was a little different – only in the Temple of Jerusalem would sacrifice be made. But at peak times, like Passover, massive amounts of animals would be slaughtered, tens of thousands of lambs for example. That’s a lot of blood. They used to wash down the Temple, and blood and water literally used to flow from the side of the Temple. That’s the significance of the blood and water flowing from Our Lord’s side on the cross.
So, when the writer to the Hebrews, whoever that was, wrote his letter to those Jews, they would have been very familiar with the concept of sacrifice, and visualised easily the Temple or the local pagan temple altar, with all the smell of animals being slaughtered. Sacrifice was important – it dealt with the notion of appeasing the gods or God and making an offering for a person’s sin. Only sacrifice could do this with its mysterious opening of the doors of death through the shedding of blood.
But the sacrificed needed to be repeated. This was because our own sin continued and the gods remained displeased. There was no end to sacrifice and the shedding of blood and life.
It’s the insight of the unknown writer of Hebrews who thinks about what does it mean, for Christians, that we no longer have a sacrifice of animals? The writer realises the ultimate defect of sacrifice, in that it cannot stop. No matter how many animals you kill, your will need another one. But Christians don’t – why?
The main reason is that animal sacrifice is not required, we have the sacrifice of Christ which we share in the bread and wine, which Our Lord identifies using sacrificial language as his body and his blood. His shedding of himself completes the sacrifice.
This is where the writer takes a new idea. In the past, sacrifices were done for Jews by the line of Aaron, and continued forever, but Jesus takes his priesthood from another line in the Old Testament, that of Melchizedek. Our Lord becomes the new high priest, the sacrifier, and at the same time, the victim, therefore completing the impossible, and being a completion of the demand of sacrifice.
Now, Christian theologians have been divided on why Our Lord had to complete the sacrifice by being the victim. Some writers from the middle ages and then taken into Calvinism, saw Christ’s death as satisfying the legal need of God – we had broken the law and deserved to be punished, so Our Lord out of his love for us dies in our place and takes away our sin. This is what is called satisfaction atonement, that is Our Lord gives full satisfaction for our sins by dying. But other theologians disagree. For that theory means that Our Lord has to die to appease a God who wants death and sacrifice, an angry God who needs his Son to die.
The alternative theory is that Jesus dies to stop us victimising. The needs of sacrifice are not divine, for God always loves us. We sacrifice because we see our evil and we put a sacrifice in place of ourselves. We channel our violence and evil into a sacrifice to show our shame and remorse. This idea is one of transference – we make God into an image of our own evil anger and appease it with the precious blood of life to console ourselves. Sacrifices continue because we never really change and give up vengeance.
Then Our Lord dies as the victim. His identification with the victim means that when ever we try and channel our anger into a victim we find Christ is there. As we love God we find we can’t sacrifice anymore – Christ is the perpetual victim, so whenever we victimise, we find ourselves opposed by Our Lord. God is not an angry God demanding legal satisfaction but a loving God stopping our evil need of victimisation by turning into the victim.
Once you accept that you start to see the reason why we use sacrificial language with our communion. We take Our Lord’s body and blood, we become part of the victim. This means that we too join with whoever is victimised in the world, the marginalised and the oppressed and the objects of our own sins. Whenever we victimise someone, be that refugee or Moslem, we see Christ in that person. Whenever we find someone victimised, we join with that victim through the love of God. The self giving of Jesus changes our world and how we oppress and hurt those around us.
Sacrifice is different for us because of what we believe as Christians. We no longer think in terms of sacrifice of animals – we think in terms of self sacrifice, how we can give ourselves. Through our belief in Christ, and our actions, we no longer can pick on animals or refugees, or Moslems or others – we must learn to give ourselves.
Rememberance Day – 11 November 2018, Guest sermon by Deacon Joe Johns
One hundred years ago today at the 11th hour of the 11th month 1918, the Armistice was signed and “the war to end all war was officially over.” Shortly after what came to be called the Great War was underway in 1914, Laurence Binyon composed this poem while sitting on a cliff top in North Cornwall, looking out over the sea as the casualty lists of that war began to be published:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
A few months later another poem was written, this time by a Canadian doctor serving in Flanders, Belgium. John McCrae penned the equally well-known words beginning
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
For Australia, there would be many, many crosses row on row. For Australia The Great War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. It has been estimated over 5,000 South Australians died on active service during the First World War, lest we forget. As I share my own experience of war with you, as the son of a veteran and as a veteran and retired military chaplain myself, I do with the hope that as you hear my words you will in some way connect with the experiences of the soldiers of World War One whose names appear on St. George’s War Memorial just a few feet from us. I don’t know their specific stories, but I do know that in all war the cost in human suffering is the same, from one generation to the next, from one country to the next.
My Great Uncle Al Herztler served with the American forces in World was 1. He said nothing about the war other than that he had served for a time in France with an artillery regiment. My father served with General Patton’s 2ndArmed Division in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, France. More than any combat operation he had participated in, it was the landing on Omaha beach that forever marked his soul. My father jumped off his landing craft into a sea of red from the blood of the soldiers who had been killed in the first and second waves. He was in the third wave. Four days later he was wounded during the Battle of Carentan. Although medically evacuated back to the USA for treatment, ending his participation in combat operations, the war stayed with him for the rest of his life. I never really understood my father or appreciated how the war affected him until I spent a year in a war zone myself. As a twenty year old US Marine, I experienced first-hand the brutality of armed conflict in a country at war with itself. I served as a member of the Marine Security Detachment (a small team of 12 Marines) assigned to protect the American Embassy in Beirut. I arrived on 19 March 1980 and left exactly one year later. My experience of war made me yearn for peace. After a particularly chaotic few days after I’d been in county about six months and just after we had survived a rocket attack, I asked our cook how he managed to stay calm and positive with the war swirling around him. He told me that he was a Christian and that every-day he would take time to read the bible and pray. He quoted our Gospel for today and said: In the Bible it says you will hear of wars and rumours of wars – but the one who endures to the end will be saved. Abu Smir – our cook, inspired me with his goodness and his stalwart faith. I didn’t know it then but my path to becoming a military chaplain began then.
In 1997 I married my Canadian bride and a few years later we were both serving as chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces. When we both received the Queen’s commission, going to war was the last thing either of us expected. Then there was 9/11. And then for the first time since the Korean war, Canadian troops were deployed on combat operations. The sadness in receiving the bodies of our fallen soldiers was so somber, so brutal. The cost of war can’t be fully appreciated without seeing the effects of the loss of a soldier on his or her family. Early one morning in October 2006 I received a call from the base senior chaplain informing me that soldiers from my unit had been killed on operations in Afghanistan. I was to come in for a briefing in preparation for the death notification to the family. We had already had a number of casualties in the previous weeks and we were all emotionally exhausted. The last tasking I wanted was this one. As we got the final green light to proceed with the death notification I kept thinking about how that knock on the door would forever change that family’s life. As the Commanding Officer and I approached the front door of the house, I noted the children’s push bikes on the front porch. My heart sank more. The wife of the soldier who was killed didn’t want to open the front door to her home. We eventually persuaded her to let us in. As the Commanding Officer explained what had happened, she turned to me and said: what am I going to tell my children? How do I explain to them that their daddy won’t be coming home? I said: you need to tell them that their daddy went to war, he got hurt in the war and he died. She said, yes, I need to tell them the truth.
Four years later, I was serving as a Royal Australian Air Force Chaplain at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. I got a call to assist with the repatriation of the remains of a Canadian Army Officer who had been killed in an IED strike in Afghanistan. I had known the officer, he was from my base in Canada. I also knew the escorting officer, I was his battalion padre for three years. We were mates. After the casket was received from the aircraft and brought to the morgue to await further transport the following day, I had a chance to catch up with Steve, the escorting officer. He was surprised to see that I’d transferred into the RAAF. After a few moments Steve teared up a bit, got a bit emotional and said: Padre, I don’t know what I’m going to tell his wife. There is no body in the casket. I don’t know what they put in there. The bomb blast that destroyed the vehicle he was in was so great that all we could find of Geoff were his military id discs, dog tags. How do I tell her there is nothing left? In silence we sat. We both knew he had to tell her what happened. The only consolation she could have was that because the explosion was so sudden and horrifically intense, he would not have suffered. He was gone in an instant.
Finally, I’d like to share with you the cost of killing on our soldiers themselves, even when the killing is technically justified by the laws of armed conflict. After my return to Australia upon completion of my tour I had the opportunity to provide pastoral counsel to an Australian soldier who according to his own count had killed 7 armed combatants while on operations overseas. As a Christian he could not reconcile the commandment though shalt not kill with the killing he had done while operations. He was guilt ridden, despondent. In brief I explained to him that the commandment though shalt not kill is more correctly translated as though shall not commit murder, as in pre-meditated murder. I explained to him that if he felt his life was in danger or those in under his command or the civilians in the area from those he killed, then his actions were justifiable. I explained to him that the ultimate responsibility for a soldier killing an armed aggressor in a combat zone belongs to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Because the cost of war is so great and the life-long effects war has on everyone involved on the ground in combat zones, it must always be the very last option after all other options have been exhausted.
For the five thousand South Australians who were killed in the Great War, for the thousands more scarred for life mentally and physically, for there family members, today we honour their sacrifices by holding them up in prayer to the Prince of Peace.
On this day the 11thof November, as we remember in prayer all those killed in the Great War, all those wounded and their families and friends, let us pray for peace and work for justice in our world. Let us insure that we take our elected officials to task when it comes to decisions of war engagement. May it only ever be that last resort and not the first response. Let us pray for those who have served in uniform and those who serve today, that our government will always to right by them. Amen.