Today we remember the death of Our Lord. This is the saddest day for all Christians, when violent people put an innocent man, a suffering servant, to death.
The liturgy today recounts this in the great passion according to St John. Most of the Gospels we read are short passages, but today we have the longest passage, as we follow our Lord to the cross and death.
There are two other particular things we do in the liturgy today: we have the proclamation of the Cross and the Great Intercessions. Today we have reverted to the traditional practice of Christians not to have the sacrament. Today is our time instead under the Cross with Mary and John, seeing Our Lord and God depart and leave us in death. As a result, our coming to the altar today has its focus not on the presence of Christ in the sacraments, but the presence of the power of the Cross, the symbol for all Christians of what Our Lord suffered for us.
The Cross is the moment of great intercession. Our Lord dies for us. His death is an intercession for all of us, the permanent presence of his suffering for us. On the cross, St Luke recounts how the penitent thief askes to be remembered, and Our Lord tells him he will be this day in paradise. The way of a thief is opened on the Cross, the way for all of us will not be denied. The road home to that lost country from which we have been in exile is now made plain to all of us who are reborn. The flaming sword of the Seraphin that barred the way to paradise is extinguished by the blood of Our Lord falling from the Cross, falling into the cup we share.
That is why we are invited to come forward and behold the cross at the altar today. We are invited to join with Mary, the God-Bearer, who bore her son and our God, and now stands weeping under the Cross. No words come down in Scripture of what she said, nor would any words encompass the grief of any mother who sees her child in torture. But John recounts that Our Lord gives Mary to John, Behold your mother, and to all of us, at the hour of Our Lord’s death. We pray “Holy Mary, Mother of God, prayer for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” because she was there at the hour of his death, that death when all but that small croup under the cross had fled. As we take the Cross today, remember Mary, Our Lady, at the foot of the Cross, remember our sins, remember the thief, and ask for the forgiveness that we too may be in paradise.
The mass then continues with the Great Intercessions. They are longer than the short versions we have each mass, but reflect an older pattern. For the Cross is the moment of all intercession, when the needs of all ascend into the Godhead. That is why the great crucifix, also known as the rood, hangs high traditionally in our churches, often over the entry to the sanctuary like here, to show that through it we reach the throne of heaven, the altar of God. Wine and water flow from his side in death, the wine and water that flowed from the temple at the Passover, the wine and water that make the cup each time at mass. With that Cross Our Lord dies for each of us and takes our needs, our sins, our love into the Godhead through the gift of the Holy Spirit joining us with him. That is why today we revert to the more ancient style, longer and more formal, as we more earnestly pray with the suffering Lord, who is dying for us.
Then God dies. We are left abandoned, by the God we killed. Our Lord descends into death, where we all one day must go. This is called in our older language, the harrowing of hell. To harrow a field was to plough a field with a frame set with teeth to break open the clods, remove weeks and cover seed. The harrowing of hell is when Our Lord descends into death to break it open and sow the seed of resurrection. For God will even reach into death for us.
There is a lovely passage in the great English mystic Julian of Norwich, who died around 1417. In it she sees the love of Our Lord, who would suffer time and time again, die time and time again, for us, because his love is so great for each of us. For the suffering and pain passes, but the love of Our Lord for us never passes, for his love has no beginning, but is now and ever shall be. When we pray at the foot of his cross, we see the suffering he has for each of us, but we also know that the love for each of us is far greater.
Our mass concludes today with the sacrament being brought back to the altar in the cup of suffering, the chalice of the mass. Then it is consumed, finished, and is present no more, and we leave in the dereliction of the day, mourning that Our Lord dies for us.
Good people of God, we are at the foot of the Cross, we are with John and Mary. Will we abandon the one who loves us?
Tonight, we come to the start of the great liturgies of the three great days. These liturgies are at the heart of the Christian message of Our Lords’ last days, death and resurrection.
Tonight, we come to the last night of Our Lord with his disciples when he institutes the Sacrament of his body and blood.
Tonight we wait with him in the presence of the sacrament before his arrest.
The readings tonight reference back to the first Passover, for Our Lord dies on the same day as Passover. The Passover remembers how the Angel of Death passed over the Jews, to take the first born of their captors, to force the freedom of the Chosen People. To remember this a special meal was held every year. In Jerusalem the lambs were slaughtered at the Temple, so much blood would flow that is gushed from the Temple into the valley below, followed by the water cleansing the Temple. Blood and water issued from the side of the Temple. Then the lamb was eaten with the story told, so the people would not forget how the Lord God had saved them.
Yet Our Lord took this action and with the blessings of the bread and wine made a new sacrament for his disciples: that this was to be his body and his blood.
After the Reforms of the mid 20th C, another action was also added to this mass. St John in his Gospel does not record the institution of the Last Supper, instead he recounts the washing of the disciples’ feet. This was to teach the disciples that Christian love is always found in service, not domination, a lesson we always need to learn. This washing was repeated by Christians, but not anciently part of the mass – it was done for example by monarchs at this time to show their charity, or an abbess to the nuns in a separate rite. Now it takes place as part of the mass, to teach all Christians that service is the core of discipleship, but the main point of the mass today is the giving of the institution of the Great Sacrament of Our Lord’s own body and blood.
In this there are a whole range of images. The lamb that was slaughtered for the Passover meal is seen in the lamb of Jesus who meekly went to the cross. The bread refers back to what we often call the Shrewbread, or Holy Bread, that was kept in the temple. The cup of wine was the cup of blessing of the Passover meal – crucially not finished being drunk until Our Lord takes the vinegar wine on the Cross itself, thereby uniting the death on the cross in the shedding of his own blood.
The great Eucharistic prayer has one little touch which I always like tonight, we say in it that on the night, this very night, before he went up to the cross. Each time we come to mass, we don’t just come here to remember something that happened centuries ago. We come because we re-enter into the event. Christ is not dead and buried some two thousand years ago. God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Christ still dies for us on the cross, and still rises for us every moment, continually renewing the world through his sacrifice and life. That is why we believe in the presence of Our Lord in the sacraments. He told us, on the night before he was betrayed, that bread and wine would be his body and blood, and we would do this in remembrance of him. The world here is more than a memory, it is a re-entering, taking part again, living through again.
Which is why the mass then goes on after communion to the altar of repose. We join Our Lord as he goes to the garden to wait for his betrayal and arrest. There, the gospels record how he prayed so deeply that the sweat fell like drops of blood. We sit in silence next to his presence, as he waited in the garden and prayed that this cup should pass from him, but not his will, but God’s. The sacrament tonight is in the more ancient form, kept in the chalice, the cup of the altar, to show that the cup of the sacrament is the cup of his suffering as well. In this garden he made his peace and accepted his cup, as we too must learn to take our own cups of suffering,
Finally, we strip the altar and wash it. This is an old English custom from our ancient rites of Sarum, where we wash the altar in anticipation of Our Lord’s dead body being washed for burial. The priest pours wine and water on the five crosses of the altar, symbolising the five wounds of Christ, and washes the altar while the psalm 22, “My God, May God, why have you abandoned me?“ is sung, and the sanctuary is stripped bare to show the life of Our Lord leaving.
Good people of God, we are entering the last days of Lent, and Our Lord is giving himself to us in the bread and wine of his body and blood. He accepts his cup of suffering and invites us to share it. Will we have the strength to join his suffering?
Palm Sunday – 28 March 2021
One of the advantages of having a guest preacher over Lent is that I can concentrate on the last section, Holy Week. This year I am going to look particularly at our liturgies, what we do, in how it shows our faith.
The first thing to consider is why we have such different services over this period. Now, long, long ago, Christians were also Jews, so we just kept the Jewish customs, usually concentrated on the Sabbath, and then did an extra bit on the Sunday, to show we also believed that Our Lord was the Messiah and rose on that day. Of course, there was no such thing as a weekend back then, so the Sabbath customs often happened in the evening, which was considered the start of another day, for a day was a period of darkness followed by light, for darkness was always followed by light. We still have a relic of this in the Church, when we talk about the first evensong of a festival, for a liturgical day still starts for us on the evening.
The great festival of this time for the Jews was the Passover, the celebration of two things. The main one was the celebration of the escape from Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over the first-borns of the Jews. As such it is the link with the chosen people being led by Moses and Joshua to the Promised Land, and remember that Joshua is the same name as Jesus, as Joshua/Jesus is the one who finally leads the people over the Jordan, so our Jesus/Joshua will lead us to a new promised land of eternal life.
But for Christians the festival was linked with the resurrection of Our Lord, so after the celebration of the Passover meal, on the Sunday morning they would gather, often before dawn and the start of the workday, to remember the rising of Christ from the dead.
Now, let’s skip on a few centuries to the time when Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, under the Emperor Constantine in 313. This was also a period of stability in the Empire, the last great period, and travel was possible and eagerly taken up by those wealthy enough to indulge. Places like Jerusalem took advantage of this to become a tourist destination for the newly affluent Christians, and padded out their Easter Day with recreations of the events leading up, complete with re-enactments at the actual places of the crucifixion and resurrection, and for us today, a procession into Jerusalem for Palm Sunday. These tourists returned to their homes and popularised these recreations. We have one account of a nun called Egeria, a wealthy nun who travelled there around 380 and wrote an account of her travels: she sounds like one of these people who could never shut up about her holiday to all her friends stuck at home. But as a result of this the Cathedral cities started also recreating the last week of Holy Week with ceremonies that were happening in Jerusalem, and then it spread to all parishes.
At the same time the period before Easter had always been one for teaching those preparing to be baptised, and gradually this became Lent, a period of teaching for all Christians. The recreation of the last days of Our Lord became a way of teaching all Christians, especially in a pre-literate world. What we do teaches us our own history.
The great ceremonies of Holy Week, which we start today with Palm Sunday, enter into the recreation of the last days of Our Lord, and also continually point to his passion. Anciently the palm procession started at another church, if it were a city, sometimes outside the walls. Like today it started with the blessing of the palms, but the rite was different. The blessing took the form of how we start the prayer of consecration, lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord, to link the blessing with the Eucharistic prayer. For all the rites of this week must link in with the great and saving sacrifice of the Cross.
The procession then would stop at the gates of the city or the church where there would be ceremonial knocking on the doors for entry. This was a foretaste of Our Lord knocking on the Gates of Hades, liberating the dead from Hell, and bringing the dead into their true home, the heavenly city, then entering as the true King of Heaven We enter with Our Lord into the shadow of the heavenly city, our church.
There is another link between the procession and the passion – it is only when he enters the city, that he is acclaimed king and then by Pilate, which is why the passion is also sung today. This is the mockery of the kingship of the world, while we celebrate his true and hidden kingship.
Then the great hymn of “All Glory Laud and Honour” starts, an ancient hymn, written by one Theodulf in around 820. The version we use is that of the great 19th C translator John Mason Neale: as part of the Catholic revival in Our church there was a great interest in many ancient Latin hymns and he was one of the best translators of the age. Originally it was much longer, and it has been pruned over time, one line that did not survive, owing to American English, was “Be Thou, O Lord, the Rider, And we the little ass.” These great hymns have been sung for over a thousand years, to inspire us for this season.
Until the mid-20th C, the whole rite was done in purple, like the rest of Lent, but then the first reforms made the first section in red, and the later reforms made the whole service in red, we here keep the mid-century tradition of changing half way through.
The passion gospel is now read only twice over Holy Week: today and on Good Friday. The last section is sung traditionally to a special chant, the weeping chant.
The liturgy today is teaching us above all other things that there are two kingdoms: that of the world and that of God. The world is one of vanity and passing glory, it hails a king one day and then crucifies the same person the next. We all see the same even today. But God works in a different time; the kingdom of the world may despise those who challenge it, but God has different values. God’s kingdom is that of the suffering servant who can survive the fashions and hates of the world. During Lent we have been spiritually cleaning ourselves by prayer fasting and almsgiving, looking at the deeper level of God working around us. Now we are challenged by our liturgies, to go deeper, to see God’s purpose for the world, and also ourselves.
Good people of God, we are entering the last days of Lent, and Our Lord is entering the city. We may hail him as king, we may shout crucify, we may abandon him at the Cross. But will we follow him to resurrection?.
Many years ago now, the then American president, George Bush, talked about the need for “the vision thing.” Inelegant in expression, he was trying to say that to make people commit, that had to have a vision of what they were achieving. The Scriptures in Proverbs put it a little bit more poetically, in that they tell us that the where there is no vision, the people perish.
Organisations and people need a vision thing. Yes, organisations are into vision statements, but they are so often banal and bureaucratic, hardly worthy of the description vision at all. So much of our corporate life is taken up in targets and rules rather than clear visions of help and need. Even the church hierarchy loves us to do vision statements, imposed from on high, instead of the harder work of helping us where we are.
Anyway, let’s get back to the vision thing. The reading from the Gospel today is all about the vision thing. Mark has his account of the transfiguration as we call it. Peter, James and John go up onto the mountain with their friend and master and suddenly find their Lord changed, altered, into a creature of light, talking with the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah. What do we make of this story? What do we make of this change, transformation, transfiguration?
There are two different ways of understanding this story. The first is that Our Lord was altered, and everything else stayed the same. This would mean that it was an alteration in how Jesus was. However, this presumes that we normally see things in the right way.
The second way is to understand that it was Peter, James and John who were altered. It was they who suddenly saw our Lord Jesus Christ as he really was. What altered was how they saw the world, not the way Christ was.
The second view has an important difference. It means that the supernatural world is always there, but we are limited. It is as though we have some sort of spiritual colour blindness, only seeing the world in its dullest material way, and not in its spiritual colour.
This explains why we suddenly have flashes of realisation, of suddenly seeing a normal situation with new eyes. People sometimes tell me of some particularly moving situation, when they see perhaps a moment in the garden in a different way, or see a person with a beauty they never saw before. What is happening is not that the place or person is changed, but rather for a moment we see things as they really are, charged with the grandeur of God. It is a moment when our spiritual colour blindness is lifted and we see the world in its spiritual colour. Our way of seeing is altered to see it how it really is in God’s way. The spiritual life gives to all of us moments of clarity and beauty when we see the wonder of God.
If we realise that it is us who have the blindness, the limitation, then we start to understand what we must do. For if we saw the transfiguration of Our Lord as something that Jesus did, then we would be waiting for the world to change for us. But when we realise that it is our blindness at fault, we realise that to see the world how it really is, then we are the ones that need change. It is our blindness that fails to see God around us, not God neglecting to give miracles.
The starting point to work on this blindness starts here with the Church. Every week we come here, and we take this bread and wine. But it is not just that. For we come to the altar with the belief that we are taking Our Lord’s body and blood. We are coming to take part of God. We are coming to be joined to God. What we eat, we become: we eat the body and blood of Christ and become part of his body. We see only bread and wine, yet we know there is a divine reality behind what is happening.
That is why, week after week, this sacrament is offered to all people. More than any fancy sermon, good music or fellowship, the heart of our worship has to be in the bread and wine. That’s what has held us together over these difficult times when our churches were closed – the mass still went on, even if the community could not gather. For in the sacraments we touch a reality beyond ourselves. We see bread, wine, but we know the words of Our Lord, “this is my body,” “this is my blood.” There is nothing more sacred that that. That is why we must pray each week that we may be blessed by this sacrament, that it may transfigure us, that we may see God’s way. That is why we must seek always to be touched by the wonderful thing that comes into our lives, the true body, true blood of Jesus. May we find ourselves open to the real beauty and presence of God in the world. The world is a very dull place if we never see it in its true colours. Let’s not ask God to change, let’s ask that we may change and see the world as it is meant to be, transfigured into what Our Lord is. It’s our vision thing – to see God where God always is.
That’s why when you look at icons of the transfiguration you see some wonderful insights. If we were a church with an overhead projector I could show you a few. That the light comes from Jesus. But usually around the light coming from Jesus is a dark space. The reason is that in one understanding on what is happening is that Our Lord is being changed not by the light of the world, but by uncreated light, the light of God that we cannot see because it is not in the world. So, he comes out of what we cannot see with our senses, hence the dark matter behind his gleaming presence. We see Our Lord only through the light, which is transformed by his body, we see the glory of God only through what he has created, in the person of Our Lord and in the world, which is only a shadow of what we cannot see.
This vision thing is more than appearances. The vision of who Our Lord really is gives to his disciples the vision and courage to be who they are. Peter, James and John are with him at the transfiguration. They will also be with him in the garden on the night he is arrested. This vision of glory they will learn from, and the suffering of the last night they will also hold. The Lenten readings of the first and second Sundays always hold a balance: Lent I with the theme of temptation in the wilderness, and now, Lent II, with the vision of glory. It’s Lent and life in a nutshell, wilderness suffused with moments of glory. Christians need those visions to give us understanding. In all our troubles, in our agonies in the garden we will also remember the vision of the transfiguration. We are the people of God who hold on to the glory of God in all our troubles. We hold onto the vision that changes in our sacraments and worship and then take it to our own moments of despair. Because we have seen his glory we will never forget. We have the vision thing.
Disease and God – 14 February, 2021
Disease was an important matter in the ancient world. Besides the limited medical knowledge that meant even a trivial infection could result in death there was also the problem of how society accepted a diseased person. For most cultures a diseased person was unclean and could not enter society. They were ritually unclean. The old Law had a myriad of ways how a person could become unclean. This was not only from disease, such as leprosy, but also from childbirth or coming in contact with dead animals. Some things were unclean by their very nature, such as certain animals. There was no clear logic about this – it was accepted that God in his wisdom had decided this and it was fact, like the colour of the sky. Therefore, diseases that made a person unclean, such as leprosy were also accepted in the same manner that it was accepted that the sky was blue.
At the same time as uncleanliness was accepted as a potential hazard of life there was a strong suspicion that such diseases were judgments of God. If certain animals were unclean by their nature, why should it be different about the reason people became leprous? For example, the pig is unclean, but sheep are not. The only reason why the pig is unclean is that it has hooves but does not chew a cud. There is no real reason, just an arbitrary rule. Similarly, for diseases such as leprosy – the reason why certain people were afflicted with the disease was arbitrary, like the rule about pigs. There was no logic in why they had the disease, but other people did not.
However, people like to find reasons for everything. Theories were put up why the pig was unclean, that it had offended God in some way. Similarly, for those people who had leprosy or any disease, people speculated that they had offended God in some way, and disease was a punishment.
Even our own culture is littered with the relics of this attitude. Disease and illness in our culture has often been seen as a punishment from God. It is not by coincidence that our hospitals are built on the outskirts of towns – the reason is not just sanitation, but the need to separate people from society who are diseased, separate, as they cannot join society. For those of you who ever studied Michael Foucault, we learnt that the origins of prisons and hospitals are the same, both are motivated by the need to separate people from society. We even use the same words, both hospitals and prisons describe the divisions in areas as wards. In both hospitals and prisons, we do separate people from society in similar ways, standard issue clothing and restriction of personal freedom. Disease has been seen as a punishment from God, and the State helps in the constriction of the person punished. Another example is our attitudes to specific diseases. It is fascinating to examine how the identical comments of certain diseases in particular, as God’s wrath and judgment, have been transferred through the centuries, from leprosy, then syphilis and then AIDS.
But back to the Gospel. Our Lord seems to have a different idea about disease. Once again, we are back in Mark 1, and we are dealing with how Mark presents at the start of his gospel the challenge Our Lord makes to the ideas of holiness and cleanliness. Our Lord continually attacks the boundaries between what is seen as clean and unclean in his world. Mark also points how this challenge will also attack the idea that there are boundaries of holiness that exclude people as less holy. At the start of Mark, we have an expulsion of an unclean spirit in the synagogue, then last week the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and now the healing of the leper. Note that the leper asks not to be healed but to be made clean: the issue is all about cleanliness in a society obsessed about who is clean and unclean. Our Lord is moved with pity and says: “I do choose – be made clean!” and reaches out his hand and touches him. Mark draws out the action by putting in that he reached out, not just touched him, it is a deliberate act of Our Lord. Now, touching an unclean person normally makes a person unclean, but the reverse happens here, Our Lord’s action cleans the man, note the word again, not heals. Our Lord then orders the man to go to the priest to offer what the Law commands. Now, a leper, as unclean, cannot go to the Temple – the Temple excluded all who were not healthy males, so the sick, lepers, eunuchs and women could not go into the court around the Temple. By going there, a person had to be very sure they were clean. Our Lord is asking the man to go to the holy place and show his cleanliness, pointing to the link between holiness and cleanliness that is to develop in this gospel.
As if to make the point the next episode in the gospel is about another healing. Jesus first forgives the person who is crippled. The scribes dispute his power to forgive sins. Jesus, to show his authority to forgive sins, then heals the person. The healing is different from the forgiveness, but both stem from the same power of Christ as the Son of God, who is holiness incarnate.
With the leper in today’s reading there is no suggestion that the person has sinned – Our Lord is not advocating that his leprosy is connected with sin or God’s punishment. Quite the reverse. Our Lord is moved to pity, the gospel says. Our Lord then heals the leper. This is the Son of God making God’s power known. When God created the world, God saw that it was good, God wanted us all healthy. Disease and illness are part of the fallen nature of the world, they are in the world in the mindless way that evil is in the world. Our God is not out to get us, disease is not a punishment from God, God does not want a world of cripples. Our Lord is acting here to show what God wants, people who are healthy, people who are clean that can join society. It’s like the pig. Pigs are not unclean because they have offended God. Neither do we suffer illness or misfortune because we have offended God.
We have a God that wants us to fulfil our purpose of being the children of God, children who have been capabilities, capabilities of love and leadership, and all the other skills that God gives us so bounteously. The gospel today shows the power of Our Lord, the power of the Son of God. It also shows us that God wants us to use the gifts we have; God wants us healed so we can fulfil our purpose. But when misfortune comes, illness or any of the other evils in the world, they are not God’s plan for us. God does not make us ill. God is not out to hurt us. God will work on us, that even though we may have misfortune, we may have disease, God is there still allowing us to fulfil our purpose. Misfortune and disease do not make us less effective in showing to others God love for us, for fulfilling our purpose.
On an aside I find it interesting how people are moralising about the present pandemic. In the past there has always been someone who has seen the disaster of disease as some sort of judgment from God. That is conspicuously absent this time. No one is arguing that the United States is cursed by God and China is not, or Victoria is cursed by God and South Australia is not. Have the places that have done well just not fitted a simplistic view of judgment or have we become stuck in some Trump obsession instead?
Don’t be taken in by evil. Misfortune, illness and disease are not from God. Pigs are not victimised by God, and neither are we. When we suffer from diseases, we recognise in them the mindlessness of evil in the world, that attacks all. But the victory of evil is when we believe we are defeated, that we can no longer be God’s children, when we believe that our purpose is frustrated. No matter what happens, we still have a role to play, to show forth to others God’s love for us.
New Maps -7 February, 2021
Let me talk about maps today. We all have maps to deal with. We use road maps to find a new address. The more modern may use Google earth or have a navi system in their car. Taxis have become a lot easier these days because of these map devices.
But there are other sorts of maps we use. We have our social maps, those people we will find our way easily to. In a large crowd we activate our social maps, those with whom we will talk with and those with whom we will put o the far edges of our social map, and even those for whom will fall the old line “beyond here be monsters’” It can be really fun at a church gathering watching clergy and how they relate or don’t relate to the Archbishop or bishop by the way they gravitate towards a casual chat or rush to the door. There is a social map operating here.
Now is Our Lord’s time there was also clear social maps as well. It operated on two principles: holiness and cleanliness. The holier the place the better the person. The centre of this world was the Holy of Holies in the Temple where only the High Priest could enter, and it went through the grades of the Temple to the Court of the Men and then outside that the Court of the Women and beyond that the Gentiles. Occupying these different realms of holiness gave people status. At the top were the priests, then down to what were seen as damaged people like eunuchs and then to the Gentiles. The important thing about holiness was that it defined people in relation to the Temple. The more holy you were, the more you could enter the Temple. The boundaries were dangerous: if you went to the wrong part of the Temple you could be stoned to death.
Then there was the maps of cleanliness and uncleanliness that every good Jew had to navigate. Besides what was clean in food, such as beef but not pork, button mushrooms but not open mushrooms, there were people to avoid as well, such as menstruating women, the dead and lepers. Your life was controlled by the map where you could, or could not go, to remain clean.
I want you to hold onto this idea of these two maps of holiness and cleanliness when we are talking about Our Lord in Mark. Because it is how Jesus deals with these maps that teach us about how he wants us to understand God.
Now let’s look at the passage today. We are in Chapter 1 of Mark. Jesus has been baptised and the twelve called and we start with his ministry. Here it starts with him preaching in the synagogue and then a man in the synagogue who has an unclean spirit speaks up and Jesus expels the spirit from him. We then have the passage from today, where he goes to the house of Peter and Andrew, heals the mother in law of Peter, then the town gathers around the door and he heals and expels demon there. Then after prayer we learn he goes throughout Galilee speaking in their synagogues and casting out demons. The next passage, which we will deal with next week, will have him touching the unclean leper.
What we should note that from the very start, chapter 1, we have Our Lord challenging the boundaries of the maps. Our Lord is in the synagogues, the places of worship, holy places, dealing with the unclean spirits inside those holy places. He is making the unclean clean as well by his healing, often deliberately by touching and healing. By touching he would become unclean, except that his touching is a reversal of normality, by which the unclean becomes healed and clean. The point about the synagogues is important: these are places that shadow the Temple and point to the struggle that is to come with Our Lord against the institution of the Temple and the notion of a hierarchy of holiness. Our Lord is going to challenge the whole notion of what is holy and the positioning of unclean people with unclean spirits inside the synagogues point to what will happen. Remember also, that in Mark at the moment of Jesus’ death the veil of the Temple, the barrier between the most holy and the rest of the world will be torn.
So why? Well, that’s why we have to work through the rest of Mark for this year and find out in detail. But the short answer is that Our Lord is showing that these maps are wrong. Maps of holiness and cleanliness say all the wrong things about God. They make God into a god of rules and harshness, and Jesus continually presents himself as the Son who shows the Father to be compassionate and loving. Rules that define who people are because they are not holy enough are wrong. Our Lord tears up this map. But he points to the system as having evil inside it: thus we find the people with unclean spirits right inside the synagogues. Our Lord will teach a message of healing and making whole people and communities again: so he heals the mother in law of Peter and she rises and serves him, making the household right again. She now has the strength to offer the customary hospitality to her guests. Her identity is no longer a bedridden, fevered person, but a gracious host to a visiting teacher and his disciples. Our Lord wants this world to be a place of happiness and right relations of compassion and support, not a world of maps of who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean. Nothing that God has made can be unclean.
But then how do we build a world that will see God in this way? Well, that’s the rest of the Gospel again, and that’s what we have Lent and Easter to go though. But today it’s just chapter 1 and we have to learn to see the signs that will divide us: the maps of holiness need to be torn up and the barriers between clean and unclean are reversed. God does not need boundaries to be preserved by killing people: God wants all people instead to learn love.
Candlemass – 31 January, 2021
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, forty days, 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 Christchild. Observing the Law, Mary comes to be restored after giving birth, which rendered her ritually unable to approach the Temple.
She also comes to present Our Lord, offering him to God as her first-born male, who is 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 and Greek 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, what we usually call the Epiphany, is a Matthean story). For Simeon recognizes Our Lord 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. 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. We struggle with the changes made to our lives since the covid pandemic began. 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.
Leadership for Christians – 24 January, 2020
There are two good themes I would like to ponder today from the readings: the story of Jonah and the idea that we are called to be fishers of people.
Firstly, let’s look at the story of Jonah. It’s a short book, and a great tale. It is not meant to be a true story: one of my lecturers, a Uniting Church scholar who taught me , whom we called Rabbi Anderson, said it was missing the first four words that made sense of it: “Once upon a time..”
Anyway, God tells Jonah that he has to go to Nineveh to tell them to repent. Well, Nineveh is an Assyrian city, the people who had just conquered most of the area around them with a particularly bloodthirsty ruthlessness, including the northern Kingdom of the Jews, Israel, and sent them into exile. Jonah hears God but instead of going there, immediately takes off in the opposite direction, even taking a boat to get away – perhaps because water was seen as particularly effective at putting a barrier between a land-based God and oneself. However, God is having none of that, calls the storm into being, and eventually Jonah confesses his escape attempt to the crew and is thrown overboard into the belly of the great fish. There he repents of his decision and is thrown up on land and heads to Nineveh. He tells the people there of God’s wrath, and they repent. Jonah goes outside the city to watch its destruction in vain, and God shelters him with a vine, which God then allows to wither and die, so Jonah is angry about the loss of the shade. God then asks Jonah why he is so angry about the death of a plant, but not about the death of all the people and cattle of Nineveh?
There are many lessons the writer of Jonah seems to be drawing. An important one is that God has mercy on even the hated and foreign Assyrians. God is not just the God of the Chosen People. But the important one seems to be about Jonah – how Jonah won’t change unlike the pagan Assyrians. He is called to go and preach but won’t. God gives him a second chance from the belly of the great fish, and Jonah reluctantly goes. The people of Nineveh repent, but Jonah doesn’t – he still wants them destroyed by God. God then shows Jonah by the death of a vine that his priorities are wrong – he is after his own comfort and not feeling for the people and cattle of Nineveh – but the story ends on that question of why won’t Jonah feel for the people – we are left with no answer about Jonah. Jonah is presented as a man who despite being a Jew, a believer in God, continually sees the world as one not loved by God but under God’s judgment: the people of Nineveh are pagan bloodthirsty Gentiles and God should punish them. Jonah is the great failure – he never understands God’s mercy and never changes. The people of Nineveh change, God changes his mind – Jonah does not.
Now let us look at one part of the Gospel today – when Our Lord calls Simon and Andrew. He tells them to follow him and he will make them fishers of people. Have you ever thought how strange this analogy is? For think about what happens when you fish like they were fishing – you catch fish in nets, pull them out of the water, so they die, then sell them to other people to eat.
Is this what Our Lord is wanting from Andrew, Peter and, by extension, us? We often think of fishing as with a bait, and use the analogy that way, but giving some attractive food, a bit of God’s love for example, we can pull people from their world into a better world. But fishing even there involves death – to be lured by a false bait, for that is what a bait is, and a fish mistakes it for food, and then killed? But the fishing that was done here on Galilee was by nets so there was not any false bait, instead a group of fish, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Once you start to think about how they were fishing with nets, then the school of fish start to seem remarkably similar to that other well-loved analogy, a flock of sheep. Fish and sheep are both gathered in groups and ultimately have the same destination – food. As the disciples were called to be fishers of people, they are also called by the example of the shepherd as well.
But here lies the point – the shepherd they are called to follow and imitate is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. The model that Our Lord teaches is a reversal of the traditional model – not a fisher giving up his fish for death, or a shepherd giving up the sheep for death, but one who seeks out the lost and even dies for the sheep. This is the reversal that Our Lord teaches – the system is no longer for domination and death but one for protection and life.
To be a fisher of people or a shepherd comes down then to the person changing, not the school or flock. This is the point of Jonah again – God wants change from Jonah – why won’t he repent when everyone else does, including the people of Nineveh? We as Christians are called to change to be able to lead. To follow Jesus is to learn to change, to become more Christ-like, to die even, so we can guard the sheep and fish that we are entrusted with.
So, it’s no use blaming those around you for the lack of change – the people of Nineveh can repent and Jonah did not even care. The people around you may be just sheep and fish, catch up in their own needs and as mindless. But the question for us is not about the fish and sheep – it is about our role as shepherd and fisher. Do we really love those around us? Do we lay go and search out the lost? Do we lay down our lives for them? Do we try to change as Jonah could not?
Change is the theme in the readings today: change from one way of living to another. The first reading is from the Book of Judges, and is the start of the story of Samuel. It’s maybe from around the year 1000 BC. Then we have the Gospel reading and Paul writing to the Corinthians, which makes it early 1st C AD. Today we look at how change happened over this period.
The story of Samuel starts his life living with the Ark of the Covenant at Shiloh. Now that’s a small place, but a cultic centre around the Ark. But the Ark will be taken into battle and captured, before being returned. It will then languish and not return to Shiloh, before David takes it again. The capture of the Ark signifies that it is not an all-powerful talisman.
The big change here is the start and ending of the Temple. Samuel is the last of the Judges – he will anoint Saul and David, and start the Jewish Kingdom and the erection of the First Temple. The Jews will radically change their society to live under a king and to have a central place of worship in the Temple with all its ritual, away from a small cultic place like Shiloh. Samuel marks the start of the transition of Jewish life to a new Temple based worship.
Jesus and Paul are of course living before the famous Jewish Revolt in 66 AD. They mark the ending of that very era. For the Jewish revolt led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The Temple would not be re-built, and Christians and Jews would develop a spiritual life without a Temple focus.
So, Samuel marks the transition of a cultic crisis – the change of worship and organisation to a kingdom and a Temple, and the time of Our Lord and Paul mark the change from the Temple worship to another. The Temple is the sandwich between the two eras.
So, what is the point of the Temple? The Temple gave a focus on how to live. It gave rules on what to offer and how to be clean and live a life that was pleasing to God. It gave a structure on how to organise a society – with a king who obeyed and an altar for sacrifice. It marks the transmission of Jewish life from a series of prophets, often violent, who arise and impose leadership on the tribes and the scattered worship with places like Shiloh and the Ark to another form, with an organised and hereditary kingship and organised and structured Temple. The older way of chaos under the prophets moves to a more organised and hopefully less violent kingship and Temple. Samuel helps them move to a new way.
Yet a 1000 years later the structure was no longer working. The Temple, mark 2, was there, yet one faction of Jewish life increasingly controlled it. The country had no king – the last dynasty with kings like Herod were not of the right family, nor had there been a king of the House of David for centuries. The country was ruled by the pagan Romans, and before them Greeks. The old way was no longer working, and Our Lord and Paul prepare for a new way.
What Christianity is offering is a new way based on the incarnation, or enfleshment, of God in humanity. God has taken on human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our desires are to follow those of Christ – we are to live by how Our Lord wants, not by our own misplaced desires. Desires will still tempt: and in our prayer life we need to acknowledge them, and in one way, visualise Our Lord helping to build a wall between them and ourselves to help overcome them, but these desires never give contentment.
That is why St Paul gets so ratty about fornication here. He places our bodies on a par with that of the Temple – the centre of Jewish life, and the replacement to be. It’s a question of desire. What is our desire – to go to a prostitute or to go to Christ? The endless and never satisfying forms of sexuality will not bring contentment. What brings satisfaction and fulfilment and growth is a life following Christ.
This is the point about the exchange between the two disciples and Jesus in the Gospel reading today. Our Lord asks what they are looking for, they reply, rather strangely, where are you staying? The point is, what they are asking is more than where he is physically living – the words are sometimes translated as abide. It’s the same word that has just been used for John the Baptist saying the way the Spirit of God, like a dove, descended and remained, or abided, in him. Jesus also talks about abiding in the Father using the same word. There is the link between the dwelling of the Spirit and the dwelling the disciples are looking for. It’s not a question asking for an address – it’s a deeper question as to what makes Our Lord tick. The disciples are asking Our Lord to show them who he is, and that is why Our Lord invites them to come and see. John often has Our Lord asking one question, and the disciples answering with another question, but Our Lord then moves to meet the disciples on the level they are asking. So, he ask them what they seek, they ask where does he stay, and he answers their question at their level. God will always meet us where we are, and then move us to a deeper level of seeking.
For us it’s the same question – what makes Our Lord tick – why do we love him and follow him. The reply is still the same – come and see. We have become Christians in different ways – some from an experience, some from a lifelong sense of belonging to a church, some from the love that has been shown – but to each of us we are called to abide, to live in Jesus. This is the new Temple for us, the new presence of God. Yet living in Our Lord is not an address – it’s a continual experience of coming and seeing what he calls us to do. The Temple, with its rules about how to live is gone. What we are offered instead in a new way, a Temple of the Spirit, a Temple lived in Christ and ourselves in communion with him. Unless we see the point of the Temple, that pink elephant, the need to have God dwell in us, then nothing makes sense.
Themes of Mark – Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2021
Each of the four Gospels begins in their own unique manner. Matthew, for example, embarks from the very first verse on a lengthy genealogy of Our Lord, tracing his Jewish lineage all the way back to Abraham. Luke, by contrast, begins with an introduction that reads like part memoir and part history textbook. John, for his part, utilizes poetry to introduce theological themes that continue throughout his Gospel.
But Mark is in a category unto himself. He never offers a genealogy of Jesus at all, never claims to be writing history, and moves at such a breakneck pace. Instead, Mark jumps right into the fray and opens on the banks of the river Jordan, as Jesus is baptised.
Although the lectionary begins in the fourth verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, it bears pointing out that the first three verses of the chapter lend important clues about just what kind of Gospel Mark is writing, and how best readers ancient and modern should read it.
For starters, it is no accident that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t make it past the first two sentences without quoting the Hebrew Bible—in particular, Isaiah. St Mark, not unlike Our Lord himself, knew the Jewish scriptures well and quoted them often. He narrates the story of Our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection, not as a new story about God and God’s people, but rather as a pivotal moment in the larger story of God making Godself known in human history. The God we meet in Jesus, Mark tells us, is the same God spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures, who is doing a new thing.
The second thing these omitted introductory verses point out is that this Gospel that Mark has written (gospel means literally “good news”) is not all that can be, or should be, said of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, Mark makes clear from the first words of his Gospel that this is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark makes these two important points just prior to launching into the story of baptism because it turns out that baptism works in much the same way. In baptism, we don’t stop being who we are or get to ignore the history that inevitably and fundamentally shapes us. Just as Jesus doesn’t stop being Mary’s boy from Bethlehem, incarnate from the God we first met in the Hebrew scriptures, so too are we all someone from somewhere, for better or worse.
There is also a hidden understanding here as well that relates to how baptism was performed anciently. The candidate for baptism made the promises to renounce evil and follow Christ, professed belief in Jesus, then took off his clothes and was immersed in water. The person then rose from the water, was anointed with oil and clothed in new clothes, generally white. Baptism was the death to the old life, birth into a new life in Christ. Taking off the old clothes symbolised the life left behind, the new white clothes symbolised the new life as a Christian.
As a side point this was one place where female deacons were employed in the early Church, for the baptism of women. Unlike the Jewish religion for Christians both men and women had an initiation, and for propriety women deacons had a role in baptising other women.
Once you understand how baptism was performed then another theme in Mark becomes clear. Listening to the story of Our Lord’s baptism the listeners who were Christian would identify with their own baptism, taking off their garments until they were naked or nearly naked, then the plunge in the water and rising again.
There are two other points then in Mark where nudity is an element that connects with this passage – the young man who fled away naked in chapter 14, when they arrested Our Lord, and Our Lord’s own death.
Firstly Our Lord. Our Lord was crucified with either no or hardly any clothes. The reason was simple, it was part humiliation, and also that clothes had value, that was the spoil of the soldiers, hence them gambling for them. People were not crucified with anything of value. But it then ties in with baptism, for in baptism you take off your old clothes and die to the old life, and Christ literally died on the cross to make the new life possible. Our Lord’s death had clear baptismal connotations for those who understood baptism.
The last link is the young man who they tried to arrest with Jesus. Mark records how he fled naked, leaving his garment, a linen cloth, with the soldiers. The linen cloth he left is described with the same word in Greek that is used then when Joseph wraps the dead body of Jesus for the tomb. There is another connection here, between the cloth the young man left behind, and the cloth that Our Lord is wrapped in for the tomb. It is a grave cloth, a symbol of the old life. The young man then appears in the Gospel again – the word in Greek is the same; this time dressed in a white robe, to tell the women of the resurrection of Our Lord. He is the symbol of a newly baptised Christian, who flees naked with the arrest and death of Our Lord, who flees the old life, who goes naked into the waters of baptism to rise into a new life, a life that is possible through Our Lord’s resurrection, shown by the white robe.
All this may sound rather deep and confusing, but the Gospel, especially Mark, was not meant to be read in disparate chunks week by week, it was meant to be a way to listen to the whole story at once, to pick up themes. This is one of the deep themes of Mark that only the initiated Christians would be able to follow as they found food for their faith is the telling of the Gospel.
In Mark’s Gospel the ministry of Our Lord starts with his baptism and ends with his resurrection. In miniature, it is the story of a Christian. In baptism we start our ministry, with the assurance that our sins are removed, we are not to be hindered by the burdens of the past. So many people get stuck in the remorse of the past, our mistakes, and we wish we could change them. Well, it can’t be done. But they can be forgiven. We find the assurance of that in baptism. We find the working out of that by taking our daily problems to Our Lord in prayer and handing them over, which can be just as simple as telling Our Lord in prayer what we have done like a child and then letting him take care of the rest. It’s simple, as long as you keep on praying. Then our lives look to our own death and resurrection, just as Mark’s Gospel presents the story.
Mark’s gospel is centred around the themes of baptism and resurrection, deliberately, as it is a conversion document, designed to make us understand our own participation of Our Lord’s death and resurrection.
In Mark’s Gospel alone, the word “immediately” appears 42 times: three times more often than in the rest of the New Testament and seven times more often than in the entire Old Testament. It is as if Mark’s style of writing is a sermon in itself: just as the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection moves at a breakneck pace, so too does the life of the baptized! The work is urgent!
That’s why when Jesus is baptized, Mark wants us to feel the water and smell the breeze and see the spectacle! That’s why, when he describes the heavens opening, he says they were torn apart: schizomenous is the word in Greek. It shares the same root as the word Schizophrenia; a violent disruption in the status quo. God’s voice disrupts the status quo, declaring Our Lord to be God’s own Beloved!
If we want life to remain exactly as it is, and if we want to stay exactly where we are, doing exactly what we’re doing, perhaps we should re-think baptism and the Christian life.
But if, on the other hand, we desire a life dedicated to following the living God, as we work together to build God’s kingdom, then the place to start is at the water’s edge.
From there, find a good pair of shoes and a sturdy walking stick because the journey has just begun, and the work of the Kingdom is far too urgent to wait. Amen.
Will You Follow? – Epiphany 2021
There is a traditional Italian story about an old woman named La Befana who was the most renowned housekeeper in her entire village. She would happily spend the day with her broom sweeping the floor, cupboards, and front step. The neighbours all knew her home was spotless. One day as she was sweeping, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. When she opened it, she saw quite a sight: three strangers looking travel-worn but well-to-do. The first one said that they had travelled a long way. The second explained that they needed somewhere to rest and heard that her house was the most hospitable in the village. The third told her the strangest thing of all: they were following a star.
Old Befana eyed them warily. She had lived alone for a long time and was cautious. They did not look like robbers, but more like scholars or wealthy merchants or possibly nobility of some kind from lands far away. Hospitality was important and so she invited them in to stay. She showed them to where she slept and they settled onto her small bed, pulling up her blanket, and falling asleep immediately.
In between sweeping, Old Befana checked on the strangers from time to time, but they did not stir. She wondered where they were from, and why they were following a star.
When they finally awoke in early evening, she offered them food and drink and asked them her questions. They told her they came from the East and were following a star that would lead them to a new-born child who was the king of the Jews, and who would be the king of all kings. The strangers wanted to reward her hospitality by inviting her along to find this child and bestow gifts upon him.
Old Befana had been so caught up in their story that she dropped her broom in surprise. To travel with three strange men following a star? It would not be proper! Besides, who knows how long it would be before they found this new king? Think of all the dust and cobwebs that would collect around her humble house! She shuddered as she pictured it and told the strangers kindly, but firmly, “No, thank you,” and wished them luck as they walked on into the night.
When Befana went to sleep that evening, she tossed and turned as she dreamed of the strangers, the star, and a baby bathed in light. When she woke up the next morning, she could think of nothing but the strangers, their story, and their invitation. All the time she spent thinking about that little king who perhaps lived in a village just like hers interrupted her cleaning schedule so much that, at last, she had a change of heart and decided to follow the strangers after all.
That night, she set off on the road with her broom in one hand and gifts tucked in her apron, looking for the light of the star and peeking into every house along the way. If it looked like a child lived there, she would leave a little gift, as she could never be quite certain which child was born the king of all kings, for the Christchild could be found in all children.
The Italian story of Old Befana is typically associated with Epiphany celebrations, as it is related to the Magi from the East who come to seek where the king of the Jews can be found. The strangers that both the legendary Befana and our Gospel story’s King Herod encountered were not kings, but most likely Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, which in Matthew’s time would have been understood as astrologists and interpreters of dreams. This would not have been seen as odd in the ancient world, as astrologers prophesied the birth of other prominent rulers, such as Alexander the Great, from what was written in the stars, and prophetic dreams happened to Gentiles and Jews alike – as we see in the Gospel of St Matthew, as well as in the Old Testament. Both the star and prophetic dreams reveal God’s presence in miraculous ways that call those who experience each to act in faith.
The star which the Magi follow becomes a bridge between the pagan astrological hopes that invite the Gentiles into God’s story and the Jewish Biblical promises of a Messiah from the “star out of Jacob” as mentioned in Numbers 24:17. Two different worlds, aligning in one same goal: hope for the future. St Matthew reminds us that even from Our Lord’s birth, we see the walls between races and cultures breaking down. The Gentile Magi are seen to have what is a common occurrence in Matthew’s Gospel – the ability to be obedient to God by literally and figuratively following the light – while King Herod, the chief priests, and scribes serve as foils to show the unbelief of some of the people to whom Jesus was sent. Furthermore, these strange foreign men are allowed by Mary and Joseph to see the Christchild, as were the shepherds, neither quite the respectable guests for a new born Jewish child.
St Matthew consistently relates everything back to Our Lord’s future story and puts it in the framework of the ongoing story of God. Perhaps the worst sin in Matthew’s Gospel is the hypocrisy of the Judaean leadership, which King Herod portrays well in his sneaky and murderous intentions when engaging with the trusting Magi. It also forebodes what will happen later to Our Lord because the past in Matthew always points to Jesus and Jesus’ future. This interpretation is appropriate both to Matthew’s era and the community to which he writes. There are two claims to kingship: the one in this world, which Herod is keen to retain, and the divine kingship which Our Lord represents. The wonder which the Magi see and interpret translates into faithful action as they seek to pay homage to Jesus, while Herod scrambles in fear and plots murder.
If the Magi were from the East – meaning the Persian empire in this context, consider what a long journey they would have had to make. It echoes Abraham’s obedience to God in traveling from Ur, in modern-day southern Iraq, all the way to Egypt and back to Hebron in the Promised Land of Israel. What would compel not just one person but three to follow a portent in the sky on such a dangerous journey so far from home? Like Old Befana, would you have joined them?
We have been living through a global pandemic for almost an entire year. Our journey has been long, and we do not know when the end will be in sight. This ambiguous loss creates discomfort. While we have not been wandering through the wilderness literally, we certainly have been well and truly stick in one place, devoid of holidays, devoid of family, devoid of friends from afar; all the anchors, which used to hold us in place, are uprooted, setting us adrift. Adapting daily to new information and ways of doing things is tiring. Personal losses, whether through death, a job loss, or other changes, deplete our emotional reserves. Many wonder why God would allow this to happen, and some have lost their faith in God. This is where our story and that of the three Magi converge. We are not lost. We are traveling toward something greater than ourselves and Emmanuel – God with us – is as close as our breath. As Christians in this broken, hurting world, we can act now to reach out to our neighbours and offer hospitality of the heart. We have what the Magi and Matthew’s community had: hope for a better future in Christ.
Like them, we follow the star that brings us to Our Lord, and, in knowing Jesus, we change course, going home another way. Life will never be the same as it was before the pandemic. There is a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch Renaissance humanist and theologian: bidden or unbidden, God is present. The Magi did not know God in the way that the Judaean people did. Yet God’s sign compelled them to become part of God’s hopeful story. In our Book of Common Prayer, the Christian hope is defined as living “with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” God is doing a new thing even now, and we are all invited to be part of the unfolding hope. Will you follow?
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Danae M. Ashley, of S. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.
Christmas is one of the greatest days of the year. We come together this day to celebrate the birth of a baby, helpless and vulnerable, yet at the same time God. It’s a contradiction, that God should come as one of us, and even as one of the most vulnerable of us.
But this morning we don’t tell the story of the birth in our Gospel. We did that last night, and this morning we expect you to have heard the story, or at least know it, and instead come her to ponder what it all means. So, this morning, we listen, instead of angels, shepherds, magi and manger; to the great prologue of St John. St John tells us a mystic revelation instead, that in the beginning was the word that all things were made through, and he was light, and the light was the light of the world. Word, Light and Life are the three key themes that St John opens for us as we contemplate the birth of Our Lord.
If you like what once were called penny dreadfuls, those books filled with dastardly conspiracies and buxom heroines, you probably have come across the name of the illuminati. They are often presented as some strange hidden group. There is more than that though. Illuminati means those who have seen the light, and those who were baptised were once called the illuminati, for they had seen the light and came to faith. For St John starts his gospel with this reflection on who Christ is instead of a story about his birth, because he wants to make a point about understanding. He wants us to be illuminati.
For in John there are many miracles about the life of Our Lord. But there is always a problem about them for those there. Many people see them, but don’t understand them. You see, it’s all about faith. People may see the signs, but only see them as a passing wonder. It doesn’t bring them to faith. The penny doesn’t drop for these people. They haven’t moved. They have seen, but haven’t been illuminated. The light has not shone for them.
The great Anglican monk and liturgist Dom Gregory Dix talked about becoming what you are. Baptised we may be; yet our illumination is not a static episode in the past, but a becoming which is part of our daily being. We are never finished with the growth into seeing reality as God its creator created it and sees it.
That’s the point of this great passage from St John this morning. It challenges us to move beyond a story about a child being born some two thousand years ago in a strange land. It challenges us to move beyond those angels, shepherds, magi, and manger to another reality. It calls us to have the illumination, to have light, to be illuminati, to be the baptised people we are, filled with the grace of God and the Holy Spirit and not just passive spectators of a tale told too many times.
There are many things that happen in the world that move and bother us. This year has been a particularly bad year. Sometimes we are so close to what happens that we have lost our perspective, especially as we wait minute by minute for the latest cases of Covid. We are so close we can no longer see the bigger picture and the light of God. I remember seeing a documentary once about the Carthusian monks in Parkminster in England in the 1960s. Once a week they were given a summary of the world news, pinned up on the noticeboard, in Latin! During the Cuban Crisis they had to wait a whole week to find out in World War III had broken out, unless the missiles arrived earlier. The point of this was to train them to let go of the world, to pray for the needs of the world, but to be detached from it. As the letter of St Peter tells us, with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. We are so close to the action at times that we cannot see the light, the reason, for why things happen. But this does not mean that God is not there, working through all this. We have been inconvenienced. But many, such as in our neighbouring countries, have been destroyed by the loss of tourism. Has this crisis of this year made us a better people? Are we more generous as a result? Have we just watched the signs of what have happened but not had faith and seen God?
That’s what the prologue from St John that we have heard this morning is meant to make us do. Go beyond signs to faith. Signs and stories are just the first steps to a deeper and better understanding, an understanding when we have faith. Be the illuminati, see the light, hear the word, and find the truth. With the truth that our god and Saviour, Jesus Christ has come into the world, and knows each and every person, sins and all, and still offers forgiveness and love to each and every person if we dare to accept such an audacious gift.
We have all heard the story. The baby is born. But do we have faith in what it means?
One of the things, that religion is very good at, is symbolism. We use things, items, symbols to point to deeper truths. Sometimes the connections are merely transitory, such as wearing white for the vestments tonight. It’s just a custom, that can change. Traditionally black was the colour for death for us, so we would wear black for funerals, but now it is increasingly common for black to be worn by guests as well. That symbol is fading. Other symbols are connected to the deeper truth, such as the wine and bread to the body and blood of Christ. You cannot break that connection without destroying the reality of the sacrament.
I’ve been pondering over this year and what symbols are appropriate for this year of crisis. There have been many suggestions: such as cancelled holiday tickets, zoom aps, covid codes – all things we knew little about a year ago. But for me I think the best one has been the surgical mask.
A year ago, most people had never worn one unless they worked in the medical field. And the first time I wore one I put it on upside down, and I have seen quite a few with the white on the outside instead of the blue. This year we all learnt how to wear one. Here in Adelaide it’s been only cursory, such as in the brief shutdown, but if you have been in Melbourne recently you would see them everywhere.
The interesting thing is what happens when you are in a situation where masks are expected but someone doesn’t comply. Plane trips or public transport in Sydney or Melbourne; or in our Nursing Homes until this week. There are looks at the person who has forgotten to put one or doesn’t care. Heaven help if that person then coughs, people move away, glaring at the person for the irresponsibility and danger. I travelled on a plane to Sydney a month ago and one man did not put on his mask, and didn’t people stare at him. There is a shunning, an avoidance, a fear.
Even more extreme is when a certain shop has been named as a hot spot for Covid infections. I doubt many of us will ever use a certain pizza shop in a nearby suburb. There is now a permanent shunning of it as unclean, dangerous: do not go there.
It’s good to think of this as we look at the gospel story tonight, the birth of Our Lord. Because that’s a story that is filled with symbolisms, some of which it is hard for us to understand. One that is hardest for us to understand is that Our Lord was born into a world of ritual purity. Only certain things and people were clean that you could deal with. For example, pigs and dogs were unclean animals and no good Jewish home would deal with them. It also extended to people – unclean occupations, or that the person was non-Jewish. It extended to places, such as tombs of the dead. The point about this was that life was unpredictable. You needed to stay ritually pure to be on the right side of God. It was like an insurance policy, you stay ritually pure, and God would look after you. If not, look out. So, eating the right food, avoiding the wrong people, were all symbols of a person on the right side of God.
Now when you understand that need to be pure, you start seeing something new in the Gospel stories. That’s the visitors. St Luke, as we heard tonight, tells of the visits by the shepherds, who are invited by the angels. St Matthew tells of the Magi who are lead there by stars. These two groups are noted particularly by the writers. The point about these two is that both were impure.
Shepherds were those who worked out in the fields, looking after animals in the night: it was a low status group thought to be little better than tramps and certainly unclean, both physically and ritually. Then the Magi, well, they were foreigners, and possibly involved with Zoroastrians, certainly not Jewish, and unclean as well.
Not the sort of guests that a good Jewish family would invite into the home for a viewing of a new baby.
Yet when they come, knocking on the stable door, so to speak, in the middle of the night, with no better excuse than angels and dreams, Mary and Joseph let them in.
The clean new baby is shown to the unclean.
Now when this baby grows up, he is going to do a lot with those who are unclean. He is going to eat meals with them. He is going to touch lepers to heal them, even though it is noted when he heals a Centurion’s child, that he does not have to touch, merely command. He deliberately touches to invite uncleanness, yet cleans the diseased instead. This is going to annoy a lot of people, so many in fact, that he is going to get himself killed.
All this points to a greater symbol: God is not afraid of becoming one of us. God is not afraid of impurity. God is not afraid of strangeness. God is not afraid of death. God loves us instead. So the Good Lord will eat, touch and even rise from the dead to show that love.
Now this is a year when many of us have been afraid: afraid of disease, afraid of changes. The symbol of the facemask is a good symbol for our fear.
Yet we are called by the Good Lord Jesus to not be afraid. All these things will pass, as wars and plagues have passed before. What is important instead is that love will win, the Christchild is born, vulnerable yet open to all even from birth, to shepherds and Magi and all sorts who are not the clean and pure of the world. Do not be afraid. In the symbol tonight of the bread and the wine, that great symbol that joins us with the body and blood of Christ himself made manifest in our midst, we touch again that hope that good will triumph and God’s will be done.
It’s Rose Sunday today. That’s why these magnificent vestments are being worn, in this lovely shade of pink. That’s why there are roses embroidered all over them as well, in reference to this day. We only get these colours out twice a year, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which we call Mothering of Laetare Sunday, and today, the third Sunday of Advent, sometimes called Guadete Sunday. The Latin names are just the first words in Latin of the entrance antiphon that is sung when I come in, which means Rejoice.
Why do we have it? Well, is our holiday break in Advent, when we are meant to lighten the mood, away from the sombre themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Its origins go way, way back to before Christ, to the habits of the ancient Roman Republic. This time of the year there is winter, when there was not field work, and in Rome this was the time that the elections were held for all the public offices, like consuls and tribunes, as this was the time that an agricultural society could take off and electioneer. So, when the church arrived in Rome it adapted to the custom of the early Roman Empire, by that stage, which still had elections at that time. In the early church the members of the congregations elected the clergy: and that term meant then not just priests and deacons, but also the lesser offices of lectors and doorkeepers; there were seven in total. So it was done, at this time, before the midwinter feast, which became for us Christmas. Elections should not be done in a sombre mood, so Mother Church lightened the mood for the day, so off with the purple and in with the pink rose to show the change of pace. Hence the antiphon, “Rejoice!, gaudete” that is sung at the start of high mass.
But back to the readings. Today we tackle John the Baptist. If you ever go into an Orthodox church you will see a screen separating the nave from the chancel, usually it’s covered with icons, and as a result is called the iconostasis there is always one of John the Baptist there at the right of Jesus. In the Orthodox rubrics, he is always placed there because he was the prodromos, the one who pointed the way to the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah,” John said. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” And then John went even further in saying of the one for whom he prepared people, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Prodromos means in Greek the forerunner, and that word for runner, dromos, is the same we have for a dromedary camel, a runner camel.
There is something to be said about knowing your place. In politics or in business, underlings, even those with distinguished titles, sometimes forget their job description and say things or cut deals which only their superiors are allowed to do. It’s fun watching the underlings of President Trump playing this game saying in a comment something which seems to say what the U.S. President has not yet said, or worse, might not want to say. John the Baptist did not have this problem. According to tradition, he was a first cousin of Jesus, yet there were no problems with jealousy or confusion of role. As a forerunner, he challenged people to think about their moral failures so that when Our Lord appeared on the scene they could appreciate his message of forgiveness and love. Because John understood his role, the need for Jesus was advanced.
Humility gives more than it asks.
John’s role in today Gospel is therefore worth our consideration. John so depreciated his status that historically he seemed to disappear from the stage once Our Lord arrived. That’s how John saw his role as forerunner or herald, but some who had come to appreciate his charismatic personality may have thought otherwise. Groups of John’s followers are documented in a variety of early Christian settings, such as in Acts of the Apostles.
Not only was that not John’s stated intent, however, but there is much to be said for that quality in humility that gives more than it seeks. John describes his humility in servant-like terms. He isn’t worthy to untie the thong of his master’s sandal. The sandal, usually a flat, undyed piece of leather, was in constant contact with the dirt and it was the one spot where touch could show the unworthiness of the disciple for the master.
There are many humble gestures that Christians might be called upon to use in order to demonstrate their own humility before Our Lord in a John-like way. Touching feet clad only in sandals made dirty by dusty roads may be symbolic, but washing them and putting body lotion on them is an ancient custom familiar to us from Our Lord washing Peter’s feet and Mary’s anointing of Our Lord’s feet. However, such humility, in our shoe-clad society, encourages us to ask with what measure of love we might reach out to show our appreciation for others rather than calling attention to ourselves. The Advent-Christmas season often has us sharing cards, gifts and foods with friends, neighbours and relatives. However, it’s one thing to be caught up in the spirit of the season, and another regularly to ask, “How might I be a forerunner/ambassador to Christ every day?” The mark of John’s humility was that he pointed away from himself and to the Messiah. We might ask ourselves how our actions could encourage someone to consider Jesus. Often the simple things do this, a meal to someone in need, or a phone call. It’s a question that a prodromos should ask: What did I do or say today that made a person ask about Jesus?
It was St Francis who captured the essence of this humility is assuring that “in giving we receive” and it was his Master who taught us that in giving to others we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Mt. 6:3-4) The essence of Christian humility lies in giving more thought to how another may discover Christ through our words, actions and shared feelings. The essence of Christian humility lies in keeping our focus on Our Lord, and looking for him in the face of a stranger.
This does require a reversal in our all-too-human need to see ourselves first and to consider how a caring action may affect our personal need, our wallet or our comfort level.
John, however, on the occasion in our Gospel lesson, not only recognized the importance of pointing others away from himself and to the Lord. He also knew that having found the Lord who alone could forgive, love and free him, he was happy to play second fiddle.
So, we to, must continue to learn the lesson of humility, to rejoice and wear our pink roses, and learn to be a prodromos, and point others to Our Lord and Saviour.
The Good News -6 December, 2020
We all know Christmas and Advent. We’ve all seen the Christmas plays. We’ve set up the Nativity crèche with the holy family, cow, donkey, and shepherds. It’s become almost too familiar. In part, that’s why we have the season of Advent. These four weeks serve to prepare the way to Christmas via a bit of liturgical wilderness. The penitential season provides a time of reflection and contemplation so that we can hear the good news of Our Lord’s incarnation afresh and let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives.
This year is a bit different, to say the least. For many, this does not feel like the usual joyous march toward Christmas. Hundreds of thousands around the globe will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one who has passed on due to the pandemic. Millions more will be attempting a celebration without their usual large and festive gathering, due to travel restrictions. For almost the entirety of the year, we have all been a people anxious and waiting for another lockdown. We missed Easter. We have been so fortunate here things are not so, so worse.
This has been a year full of new experiences, and every little thing is cast in new perspective. And yet, while the harshness of wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the same ageless truths remain constant. We are just able to see them more clearly. The fundamental truth of these wilderness seasons is that we are waiting on an imperfect and broken world to pass. The season of Advent reminds us that no matter who we are or where we are in time or space, all earthly things will come to an end.
Nearly 30 centuries ago, Isaiah wrote to God’s exiled people, who were longing to return home. God’s message to them is one of comfort. The Lord is coming. On first hearing, Isaiah’s message hardly seems one of comfort: The comfort offered in these verses is more complex than a “happily ever after” story. The comfort comes by putting things into a divine and cosmic perspective. All people will fade like grass, but God is mighty and endures forever. The goodness of God will prevail. The prophet does not give an immediate timeframe or an immediate solution to the heartbreak and suffering of the people in exile; what is offered instead is a message of hope for the future.
The Second Letter of St Peter is also written to a people longing for God’s return. The author’s message is not unlike Isaiah’s: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.” All things will, in the end, pass away. And in the end, God’s justice will prevail. While we don’t know the exact date of its writing, we do know that this epistle was written to the fledgling Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They are looking for Our Lord’s return and immediate relief from their suffering. But God does not descend with thunder from the clouds in triumphant material salvation. Instead, God’s word instructs the early Church to step back and seek a divine and cosmic perspective. A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God. Again, this does not seem like a happy fairy tale message for a people experiencing immediate pain and anguish. The author goes so far as to say that God’s lack of thunderous return is not to cause more suffering but instead is an act of love and patience. Once again, we are given a word of hope for the future, but we are also given instructions on how to live in the present: “Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”
In our gospel reading, we read the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Without much prelude or fanfare, we are thrust into the action in the desert. The prophet John the Baptizer proclaims in the wilderness a familiar message. At this point in history, Israel has been invaded and occupied by the Roman Empire. And now John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though crowds flock to John – the reading says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” – John still points away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John points to a hopeful future by promising one who will come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit.
Our readings also show us that waiting is not a passive action. We are to live out our hope. In waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we proclaim God’s message of justice. We name sin. We turn toward justice. We stand in the wilderness, pointing to the one more powerful than us.
Our Advent message from John the Baptizer is not to adopt a locusts-and-honey diet or de-clutter the closet to make room for the camel skins. The message isn’t even to level mountains or make a straight highway running through the desert! Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people that await the coming of the Lord. We are always in waiting – through victory and defeat, triumph and loss. It is certainly our job as the Church to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world. But it is just as much our job to be visible in the wilderness, naming injustice, oppression, and apathy as sins. We name these things as sin not to cast judgment or humiliate or ridicule. And least of all do we name sin in order to exclude people from our “in” group; it is precisely the opposite. We stand in the wilderness and welcome all to journey with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We point to something better. We point to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come. Our Church is always the hospital for sinners.
This Advent, many of us are already in the wilderness. Let us step back and pray for a glimpse of the divine and cosmic perspective. We remember that all things here on earth are temporary and passing, and we have to work to embody God’s patience and love here in this world. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming. As our collect says, let us live in such a way so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Based on a sermon by Michael Toy, of Princeton Theological Seminary.