We so often view temptation as something to be fought and resisted at all costs, but perhaps one of the main problems with temptation is that it is so difficult to spot. Temptation is usually subtle and attacks our most vulnerable areas, so that we are enmeshed in sin long before we are aware of it.
Jesus was perhaps most vulnerable to playing the role of the wonder-worker. From the Gospels it is evident to even the most hostile observer that Jesus had amazing powers, which he used primarily in healing the sick. But we are told that Jesus performed other miracles as well, so his powers were way beyond those of any other mortal. How easy it would have been for Jesus to cut short the laborious process of teaching and preaching, by simply performing a few extra impressive miracles.
It is difficult to discern quite why that would have been wrong. When the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread he refused, quoting from Deuteronomy and saying that human beings need spiritual food rather than just material food. Yet later, when Jesus was on a mountain with five thousand hungry people, apparently he had no qualms about multiplying bread and fish in order to feed the people. Why was the creation of bread a temptation at one point but perfectly acceptable and even commendable at another point?
When Jesus climbed a mountain during his wilderness experience and saw all the different kingdoms spread out beneath him, he knew that he could rule over them all if he played the power card, yet he recognised this as a temptation and the wrong path. But later he happily used his astonishing powers to enable him to walk on water to reach his friends’ boat. There does not seem to be any particular reason for performing such a miracle. Although we are told that the wind was strong and the disciples were having a tough time of it, there is no suggestion that they were in any danger or needed rescuing. So we can only assume that Jesus wanted to reach them and took the quickest route. Why was it all right to use his powers to do that when it was not all right to use them to rule the earth, since the earth would surely have profited by being ruled by Jesus?
Jesus resisted the temptation to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, trusting God to save him from harm. But three years later he allowed himself to be crucified. Perhaps his cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” marked the finality of his rejection of the constant and overwhelming temptation to abuse his own gifts. As he had done throughout his life, even on the cross when he was dying, Jesus refused to use in the wrong way the powers he had been given.
Perhaps it is only when we are close to God that we are able to discern our own temptations and to know that something may be wrong in one context but right in another. If we are to recognise our own temptations, then we need to know ourselves well. Otherwise we waste a lot of energy resisting the wrong thing, for the devil always attacks us where we are vulnerable whether or not we are aware of that vulnerability.
For instance, a person who has been brought up since childhood with the idea that to be idle is the height of sin, will probably spend immense energy in always busying themselves. But it may be that the real sin is in refusing to be still before God. It may also be true that it is sometimes right for to be busy, and at other times wrong for to be busy.
Similarly, a person who has been warned against the sin of pride since earliest days may always deprecate their own gifts. But the real sin may be in refusing to take sufficient pride in the gifts God has given and in refusing to use them to in God’s service. It may sometimes be right to be proud of those gifts, and sometimes wrong to be proud of them.
Temptation is far from simple, as Jesus discovered in the wilderness, that perhaps is why it took forty days to answer the devil in apparently short answers. The short answers have a lot of thought behind them. Lent is a time to slow down so that we may develop a spirit of recollection, thoughtfulness or to use a modern time mindfulness.
I imagine that most of us have regrets regarding the past. We are encouraged to think that we can learn from our mistakes and indeed we can, but we may still regret making this mistakes. Sometimes we can put things right, but often we have to accept that something is lost which we can never recover. The choices we make in life whether good or can put us on a path which it is difficult to alter. In the face of such regrets the life of a baby offers new hope. The child’s life lies open before us; there are no regrets, no looking back and wishing things had been otherwise. The child is an open book, with blank pages to be written on by a future full of promise. Yet some, even at the birth of a child, may see dark clouds already on the horizon. Will the child grow up to share their father’s tendency for high blood pressure or their mother’s tendency to depression, or even worse? Will they end up unemployed and unfulfilled. Soon the blank pages of the book begin to fill with the forbidding text of a life which looks as if it is going wrong before it has begun.
This might be overly pessimistic. We could tell a very different tale of how the world this child has been born into will shape their life. Yes, there will be difficulties and challenges ahead, but let’s be more optimistic that this child will not only survive their problems, but learn how to thrive overcome adversity and lead a fulfilled and long life..
So which side do you stand on? Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full person? How do we resolve this? Well with any child we may find that the pessimist was vindicated or that it was the optimist who wins out.
The problem with both the optimist and with the pessimist is that they measure the life of the child according to a human measure of success which the child will either succeed or fail in. The child is only just born, but already the burden of expectation lies heavy upon them
This month, on the 3rd, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the end of the Christmas Season. The Gospel of Luke describes how the parents of Jesus bring him to be presented in the temple. We are told that they are following the Jewish practice according to which ‘every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord’ (Luke 2:23). This act of presentation happens at the beginning of life because at this point the child is an open book to be filled with God’s law, to be dedicated to God. The child’s life now belongs to the Lord. At first sight this would seem to be the ultimate denial of the child’s freedom, the closing off of the possibility for the child to decide for himself how he wishes to live his life. Yet the reality is that this is the ultimate act of freeing. The child’s life is not to be measured according to success or failure in achieving a set of human goals, but in faithfulness to God’s life giving promises. We are freed from the burden of self-fulfilment for God Himself becomes our fulfilment.
What of those who are not faithful? Those who refuse the gift of God? To Simeon it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ of the Lord. Anna had spent most of her life praying in the temple. These two venerable prophets proclaim that the child being presented in the temple is God’s salvation, the Christ who will free Israel and be a light to the pagans. Here is more than optimism, for this is a real hope. Through this child God will restore us to the faithful friendship we have lost by sinning. More than that, he will offer us adoption as his sons and daughters, to share fully in his joy.
Our past can burden us; mistakes made, hurts suffered. But the past (and for that matter the future) can only truly burden us if we judge our lives by human standards.
The hope offered us in Jesus Christ transforms us, so that no matter how life has been, hope is not lost, a hope which rest not upon our own efforts, but upon the loving friendship revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This is what Simeon and Anna proclaim: in this child God comes to save us by making us his friends. This is not to say that the emotional hurt of the past goes away, but it is to give us an assurance at the deepest level of our being that no matter how life has turned out God presents us with a gift which goes beyond all human measure: his only Son.
Just one week ago we celebrated Christmas, the great feast of the Incarnation when God himself took human flesh and came to live among us as a baby boy. Now, one week later, the Church celebrates Mary as Mother of God. It is not that we are turning our attention away from Jesus. Instead, we are being asked to meditate on why it is important that Jesus should enter into our human world through a human mother and be welcomed into a human family.
The Scriptures tell us that Mary conceived her child Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Once Mary had given her consent to the message of the angel, the Holy Spirit descended upon her, granting her the power to receive the divinity of God’s Word, and likewise the power to bring this Word forth. The child born of Mary is therefore God, and so she who bore him is truly called the ‘Mother of God’. We can go further still: Mary bore God incarnate. Jesus did not bring down his body from heaven ready made. Neither did he simply pass through Mary like water through a pipe. Instead, he received his body from Mary: through her body he shared our humanity. This is important: the child born of Mary is both fully human and fully divine. As such he was able to both heal humanity from its sins and to elevate us to a new dignity as adopted sons and daughters of God from the inside. In Jesus, God saved us as one of us: God came to share our human nature so that through his flesh and blood we might share his divine life, and he shared our human nature by entering into our human world through a human mother. Or to put it another way God in Jesus made his home with us so that we might make our home with him.
The key point here, it seems to me, is that God did not just use Mary’s body and her flesh as a convenient instrument through which to take human nature. God chose Mary out of love, gained her consent, and then loved her as a mother. This is appropriate and fitting if, as the Church teaches, Jesus -the Word made flesh – is indeed to be fully human. There is more to human life than biology alone. Like God, we are able to know and to love. Indeed, the fullness of human life is found in the knowledge and love of God which spills out into a love of neighbour. Yet this life of love has to be learned: we have to learn how to love in a human way, and our first school of love is our family which has at its core our relationship with our mother.
Making a baby, making a child, is not over when that baby is born for that child if it is to be fully human must be loved into fullness of life. To be a mother (and indeed to be a father) is to enter into an ongoing dynamic of co-operation with God so that over the years God might love the child through the love of his or her parents, and in the process the ongoing creative act of God that brought the child to life be brought to completion.
This sense that we need to be ‘loved into fullness of life’ is something that our society has become increasingly aware of over the last century as the extent to which our emotional, psychological, and even spiritual well-being is anchored in the love we received as children from our parents or guardians becomes better understood. It is the love of a mother and father for their child that calls or draws out from that child love in response to love, goodness in response to goodness, truth in response to truth.
Now in taking flesh from a human mother and entering into a human family as her son, Jesus too entered this same mother-child dynamic of love in which human love is learned and shared in a human way. This is very good news for us, for as we have said already, Jesus came to share our human nature so that through his sacred humanity we might share his divine nature.
Now in baptism we become members of the Body of Christ, we share in Jesus’ sacred humanity, and because we are members of His Body we become members of His family through Him: through our union with Jesus we are able to say truthfully, like Jesus, that God is our Father, and by the same token we can truthfully declare that Mary is our mother.
All of us who are united to Christ, then, have two mothers: we have our earthly mother, and we have our mother in heaven, Mary. And as our relationship with our natural mother was, I hope, an immersion and education in what it means to love another human being, so in our relationship with our heavenly mother we have an immersion and an education in what it means to love God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Motherhood itself is a co-operation in God’s creative and recreative love – the love of our mothers gives us life and leads us to fullness of life. Mary, because she is Mother of God, is mother of our salvation: and her love leads us to her Son.
Thursday the first of November is the Feast of All Saints. It is one of the great feasts of the Christian Year and in a special way it is the celebration of ourselves and our hope. We ourselves are called to be saints and we ourselves are called to see God.
The readings which are chosen for this feast do, in fact, have much to say about seeing God, for a saint is someone who sees God. The first reading from Revelations presents us with the great crowd of witnesses who stand before the throne of God, seeing the divine glory. The psalm speaks about a people ‘that longs to see my face’. The second reading, from the First Letter of John, tells us that, although we are already the children of God, there is a moment yet to come when ‘we shall be like him for we shall see him as he really is’. The third reading from Matthew contains the most extraordinary promise, that those who live the life of the beatitudes: ‘they shall see God’.
The notion of ‘grace’ can seem abstract but its biblical origins are in this very ordinary experience of seeing another person and being seen by them. Whenever we come across the expression ‘finding favour in the sight of’ it is this experience that is involved. Noah, for example, found favour in the sight of God, and this led to him and his family surviving the great flood. Esther found favour in the sight of the king who was looking for a new queen: in his eyes she stood out among all the other women gathered before him. Mary finds favour in the sight of God the angel Gabriel tells her, and so she is full of grace. The great blessing of the Book of Numbers seems very simple: may the Lord turn his face towards you. It is a way of wishing a person grace: may God see you, recognise you, acknowledge you, remember you, be gracious to you.
If God sees people, what about people seeing God? ‘No one can see God and live’ is a statement that echoes through the Bible. Moses and Elijah come closest but even then it is a qualified seeing: Moses sees God’s back, Elijah ‘sees’ God in the sound of fine silence.
There are other visions by prophets and patriarchs but never of God himself, always of an angel or some other creaturely manifestation of the divine glory. No one has ever seen God, the Gospel of John tells us, but the only Son who is nearest the Father’s heart, has made him known. Grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ, an access to God not available before Christ and not available apart from Christ.
So Paul, in writing to the saints in Corinth, reminds them that they are people who have seen the glory of God shining on the face of Christ. Obviously those who lived with Jesus and came to believe in him as the Son of God were in a special position: they can say that they have already seen the face of the Incarnate Son and whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. Our faith depends on the testimony of these apostolic witnesses.
But all who receive the Spirit of Jesus are introduced to this intimacy: they see that Jesus is the Lord and they may speak to the Father and call him ‘Abba’. Already we are the children of God, as today’s second reading puts it, already saints therefore, because by faith we see God working in Christ, in the Church, and in the world.
There is also a but, the but of ‘not yet’, that is, what we are to be in the future. If the saints are those who see God, then whoever has the gift of faith already shares this vision, though for now ‘in a glass darkly’. The saints in heaven have been brought through faith to its flourishing in the clear vision of God. They have come to see as they are seen, to know as they are known, and to love as they are loved. They see God, as the Bible says, ‘face to face’. Even in our sins we are seen by God and are blessed by that loving gaze.
By grace – the impact in us of God’s loving gaze – we are enabled to look towards God, to turn away from our sins, and to purify our hearts so as to live in sincerity. This is what it means to be holy, in the fullest meaning of some very simple words: a saint is someone who, held in God’s loving gaze, comes to see God.
On All Saints Day there will be a Sung Mass at 12 noon.
In St Mark’s Gospel the last miracle which Jesus performs, just before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday is the healing of Bartimaeus. This is what happened:
And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.
The character Bartimaeus leaps out from the pages of the Gospels and he becomes a follower at the eleventh hour, the stage when those who have been disciples all along are beginning to lose heart. His story is told so that we may take heart, not just sitting by the wayside but actually following Jesus in the Way.
Bartimaeus wasn’t born blind, because he actually asks that he might see again. Bartimaeus was no stranger to loss and suffering. Going blind must have meant losing not only his independence and livelihood but being condemned to endure much suffering and humiliation. Whatever status he may have had, Bartimaeus obviously lost it with his sight. In the eyes of the good citizens of Jericho he would have been a person of no account. He sits on the edge both of the road and of their world. But it is his healing in a way it is the most significant of all.
Bartimaeus stands before us as a man of faith. His call to discipleship comes through healing, in order that others might be given sight of their own weakness as the place through which the call to discipleship leads. Only when we can see and accept our weaknesses can we allow Christ to come and serve us. On the road all the way to Jericho, as Jesus talked of the suffering and death which awaited him in Jerusalem, the disciples were confronted with this paradox, and theirs is a hard struggle with their own lack of faith and understanding, their mixed motives and ultimately their very personal need for God’s grace and mercy. The humble, honest and heartfelt cry of Bartimaeus ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ is not yet theirs. Greatness, seats on the right and the left in glory, and the reward for leaving home and family – these are their concern. But Bartimaeus had learned much from the calamity which had come upon him.
Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had healed another blind man (8.22-26). It was at Bethsaida in the north near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Other people led that man to Jesus and it was these people, not the blind man, who asked that he might be healed. But Bartimaeus himself cries out boldly to Jesus. When Jesus calls to him, he throws away his cloak, leaps up and goes to him, which is odd because blind people do not throw their things about. They need to remember where their things are, so that they can find them again. They don’t leap up and go to someone in a crowd. They feel their way bit by bit. It is as if Bartimaeus has no longer any need for a cloak. It is as if Bartimaeus could see already.
Although blind and vulnerable, Bartimaeus is not helpless for he can receive and embrace the words ‘Take heart, rise, he is calling you’, and move confidently towards Jesus. Jesus had used those words himself. Once at night when the disciples were in a boat and no longer had the strength to row against the wind to Jesus came to them, walking on the water and saying, ‘Take heart, it is I, have no fear’. However, the disciples did not understand and did not take heart. But Bartimaeus is ready. In God’s providence, Bartimaeus has come to know his own weakness and need and has the insight to know that what matters is that Jesus is there to serve him and this is seen in the way Mark tells us that Jesus stopped and said ‘Call him’. Immediately he is off the ground and on his feet.
All through the Gospel the other disciples have been on the road with Jesus as he goes from town to town teaching and healing. But they have failed to truly see him or understand his words. All that time, Bartimaeus was sitting in the dust by the side of the road, day after day, going nowhere it seemed, yet he was in truth like a tree planted beside a flowing stream, the roots of his faith growing unseen until the day his Master came and said ‘Go your way, your faith has made you well.’
By God’s grace, Bartimaeus made that great leap from sitting by the wayside to following Christ along the Way. May the good Lord who cured the blind and the lame lead us to streams of water, that our eyes may be opened and our hearts receive him, so that we too may follow him along the Way.
When we see a building with a cross on it, we know at once that it is a Christian Church. The Cross is the most widely recognised symbol of Christianity. The seven-branched candlestick stands for Judaism and the crescent for Islam. But the Cross is the sign of Christianity. The 14th September each year is the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. There used to be two feasts of the Holy Cross in the liturgical year, the finding of the Cross on 3rd May and the Exaltation of the Cross on 14th September. They commemorated respectively the discovery of the Cross in Jerusalem by St Helena, the mother of the first Christian Emperor, in the 4th century and the recovery of the Cross by the Emperor Heraclius in the year 629AD, after it had been carried away by the Persians. We cannot be certain about the days of the year when these things happened, but they were certainly historical events. Now the liturgical calendar has combined their celebration into one on 14th September.
The Cross is central to Christian faith. You will almost never find a church without a cross, occasionally a plain cross, sometimes a crucifix with a figure of the crucified Christ hanging on it, or an illuminated cross outside the building. So what does the Cross mean for us? What does it stand for? What moment in history does it bring before us? It was a moment (alas, one of many) when the religious and secular powers – n this case the Jewish and Roman – combined to condemn and execute an innocent man.
As far as the powers were concerned, it was routine. Here was another religious and political fanatic, who was a threat to the stability of society and must be dealt with. Moreover, they had to do their job quickly because the Passover was imminent. They had no time to consider the case more carefully, even if they had wanted to do so.
What they could not see was that this particular execution would reverberate down the ages in a way that other many similar exceptions had not. What was the difference the biblical theory, if we can call it that, is that this was the execution of the Son of God. Consequently, what they did was not just another routine execution. As he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). And later, St Paul wrote; ‘if they had known they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:8). They could not possibly understand the significance of what they were doing. But that does not make them guiltless. They knew he was innocent and it can never be right to execute an innocent person. They did what they did from a mixture of motives, which is typical human beings. In the mind of his judges and executioners, Jesus’ crucifixion was a typical moral muddle, with all the confusion, uncertainty and twinges of conscience that we all experience.
But what was the meaning of the Cross in Jesus’ mind? It was the full and final expression of the love of God for his people and for his creation. He was born to be ‘God with us’ and he dies as ’God with us’. He will never take that back, no matter how we treat him, no matter what we do. He could have escaped from the cross. In the Garden he told his disciples that he could command twelve legions of angels to come to his aid. But if so, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled? (Matthew 26: 53-4). God knew that we would try to reject our Saviour. The Old Testament had made that quite clear. The history of Israel had been one of continued unfaithfulness. But the life and the death of Jesus is one of total faithfulness, the sacrificial offering of a human life lived with perfect love and self-giving, handed over to the Father; ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). The Cross is the conclusion of a life that is both fully human and totally divine.
In the single event of the crucifixion we can see at the same time both the depths of human sin and degradation, and the heights of God’s forgiveness, love and power. That is what makes the Cross both terrible and wonderful. The Cross is the an instrument of torture and death, it isalso a symbol, a measure of God ’s boundless love for us. He came as one of us, to abide with us, and make present among us his love and forgiveness. He came not just to restore us the life that had been offered at the beginning, but to lead us even higher: to be with him, the Son, at the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ human life ended on the cross. So the cross stands for both death and life. It displays the fact ofJesus’ death at our hands. It also displays God’s forgiving love, which can never be put off by our rebellion.
As the hymn says:
O faithful cross, you stand unmoved, while ages run their course.
Foundation of the universe, creation’s binding force.
The crucifying of Jesus was a cruel and sinful execution of a totally innocent man. That is still done today to our fellow human beings. ‘In as much as you did this to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:31 – 46).
At the same time what happened on the cross is unique because it was the death of God-made-man for our salvation. It is through that death, and the salvation it gained for us, that he can say: ‘You did it to me’.
The Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, which is celebrated on the 6th of August is an easily misunderstood occasion. On the mountain of the Transfiguration Jesus becomes radiant with light and it is easy to suppose that Peter, James, and John see him as he really is, which is somehow different, and more true, than the way they see him normally. That is to say, in the Transfiguration, Jesus lets the mask slip, allows his real self, his divinity, to peep out, momentarily, from behind the veil of his apparently ordinary humanity. It is as if the humanity of Jesus is like a suit which conceals the real Jesus, the divine Jesus, within itself.
However, if that is they way we think of Jesus, if that is what we think is being conveyed by the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, we will be wrong about both his humanity and his divinity. We get a good idea of what is going on at the Transfiguration from St Luke’s Gospel which makes it plain that what Peter and James and John saw on the mount of the Transfiguration wasn’t how Jesus really was at that time, but a prophetic vision of how he would be in the future.
It is clear that Elijah and Moses are the same two men who will greet the women at the empty tomb on the first Easter morning, and tell them that Jesus has risen; and that they are the same two men who, immediately after the Ascension of Jesus, will tell his disciples: ‘this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’.
What Peter and James and John see on the mountain of the Transfiguration, then, is a vision of the glorious humanity of Jesus, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven: not something hiding behind his humanity, but precisely his humanity glorified. And if they foresee the future, glorified, humanity of Jesus, then they also foresee their own future humanity, as it will be glorified with the same glory that is poured out on the humanity of Jesus.
At the Transfiguration a voice announces from the cloud: ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’. If we do listen to him then we are offered the opportunity to become co-heirs with him, sharers in his relationship with God, sharers in the glory of his perfected humanity.
But this comes at a price: ‘He charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead’. It is only after his death that the humanity of Jesus will be glorified in the resurrection and ascension.
So it is with us. ‘The sufferings of this present time’ St Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans, ‘are as nothing in comparison with the glory about to be revealed in us, for the creation awaits with eager longing the revealing of the children of God, when it will be set from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. St Paul acknowledges that the sufferings of this present time are real: ‘the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains’ he says, ‘and not only the creation, but we too, who already have the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly’ as we await that moment when our humanity will share completely in the glory which Jesus already has with the Holy Trinity.
On the mountain of the Transfiguration there was revealed the perfection of humanity that God intends for all of us, and the means by which we may attain to it: ‘This is my beloved Son: listen to him’.
We are sometimes encouraged to “think outside the box,” The suggestion is that we have become to set in our ways. We can also be encouraged to “think big,” we need to enlarge our vision. Jesus encourages us to think outside the box of popular modern day culture and habits by thinking small.
The prophet Ezekiel once imagined Babylon as a mighty, brightly-coloured eagle, which swooped down on the cedar tree of Israel and broke off its topmost shoot, Israel’s hapless king Jehoiachin. The prophet was under no illusions when it came to the overwhelming force of the Babylonian army which was besieging the Kingdom of Israel. But Ezekiel’s story turned to prophecy: God himself would take a tender shoot from the treetop. Where Babylon had brought low its royal captive, God would raise up a mighty tree offering shelter for all kinds of bird and wild animal; a mighty tree which started as a small shoot.
This image is echoed in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. God, as usual, favours the underdog. He chooses the apparently insignificant to be the bearer of his growing providence. The insignificant seed is Jesus Himself, the Galilean maverick. The seed grows to become the great tree in which all the birds can roost, when the nations find their place in Christ’s kingdom, the New Israel of Jew and Gentile.
The images of the seed and the full-grown mustard plant are not snapshots from before and after the resurrection. The tiny little seed isn’t a matter of remote history. Our entry into the spacious kingdom of God is through baptism into the apparent insignificance of Christ’s life and death.
So, Christ is still the mustard seed with whose humility we make our own. We talk glibly enough about the ‘great and the good’, but how hard it is to be great and good in our world. There are powerful temptations to climb the greasy pole or stay at the top by less than honourable means. The rewards of high office easily become an end in themselves, false gods of wealth and prestige. Perhaps the challenge of the parable is to think small enough, to be willing to shed our delusions of grandeur. This is what it is to think of others with due regard for their dignity as well as ours.
Yet, if the mustard seed is not entirely past history, neither is the great tree merely a pious hope for the future. Through our seemingly small acts of charity we take our place even now in that kingdom. The tree grows as we shrink.
Jesus was very good at thinking small. We hear in the Gospels that at times great crowds followed him who would sit at his feet for hours, careless of whether they had food or drink. Yet of these great crowds Jesus could only pick twelve who he called disciples, one of those betrayed him and at this death they were frightened and demoralised. It was a very small legacy he left when he died.
Perhaps thinking small was a necessity for him rather than a choice. If it was a necessity it was still the right choice, for from the tiny seed of his death did come a great tree. We need to get ourselves into the same frame of mind and put aside the notion that we will only achieve great things if we think big. Sometimes a person will say, as if it is a failing, “I have such little faith.” The apostles said much the same, thinking that bigger was better they asked him to increase their faith. And Jesus replied: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. In other words in the Kingdom of God a little goes a long way. So if you want to achieve great things, think small.
This year we celebrate the Ascension on the 10th of May. With our modern understanding of the world, the Ascension can be rather hard for us to understand. After all, surely if you go up and up into the sky, you don’t go up into heaven at all, but you just end up going into outer space? So what was it that the apostles witnessed at the Ascension and what does the event mean for us? The Transfiguration has some striking similarities with the Ascension and perhaps one event can shed light on the other.
Both the Transfiguration and the Ascension took place on a mountain, and this is significant, because mountains are the kind of place that God likes to reveal himself. In the Old Testament, both Moses and Elijah had personal encounters with God while they were on the top of mountains. In both the Transfiguration and the Ascension, something dramatic happened to Jesus: in the Transfiguration, his appearance changed and his clothes became dazzling white; in the Ascension, he entered into heaven. Both events reveal something of the glory of Christ which is normally hidden from our eyes.
It is also significant that a cloud is mentioned in both stories, for in the bible a cloud often depicts the presence of God. We are told this very explicitly in the book of Exodus, where the Israelites were led by the Lord in a pillar of cloud: the Transfiguration and the Ascension are very reminiscent of this. In the Transfiguration, a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice in the cloud saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” and in the Ascension, a cloud took Jesus from their view.
So the cloud is very symbolic of Jesus’ intimate relationship with his Father. Another similarity is that in both stories, two men appeared: Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, and two mysterious men in white at the Ascension. At the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to make three booths in some kind of vain attempt to hang onto this experience rather than see it as a preparation for something greater; Peter wasn’t at all ready for Jesus’ departure.
When it came to the Ascension, the apostles were still not entirely ready. As St Luke recounts, the apostles were left amazed staring into heaven, and they had to be told by the two men in white ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
At the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his departure which was fully realised at the Ascension, but it was not a departure that left the disciples abandoned. In fact, the Greek word St Luke uses for departure in his account of the Transfiguration is the word Exodus. St Luke wants us to understand the Ascension in the light of the Exodus story. Jesus’ Ascension is not so much a departure as a going before, it is about leading us into freedom, into the promised land.
When the bodily resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end it was difficult for the apostles to accept, but their experience of the Transfiguration and the Ascension helped them to follow Jesus on his journey. The Transfiguration gave the apostles the courage to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem where they would witness his terrible suffering and death on the Cross, and the Ascension prepared the apostles for Pentecost, that defining moment when the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to go out into the streets and give witness to the glory of Christ’s death and resurrection; freeing them form their slavery to failure and fear.
It was at the Ascension, that the apostles came to realise that Jesus Christ had been exalted to the heights of heaven, and although it’s difficult to express what it must have been like to come to this realisation, the point is not to dwell on exactly what the apostles experienced, but to dwell on what was promised. The promise of the Ascension is that since Christ has been exalted to the heights of heaven, we too can share in this exaltation. When Jesus’ disciples witnessed the Transfiguration, they didn’t leave rejoicing because as yet they weren’t at all ready to share in the glory that they had witnessed. But after the Ascension, the disciples did leave rejoicing, because it was only then that they began to realise that what had happened to Jesus was going to happen to them. Our hope when we celebrate the Ascension is that we too will share in the glory of Christ.
Alleluia! It’s the one word that characterises our Easter celebrations. We’ve been holding off from using it for the whole of Lent just so that we can apply it with renewed intensity to our celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. It gets sung back and forth during the Easter Vigil and we take it up again at various points during the Eucharist on Easter Day. This ‘Alleluia’ permeates the whole of our Easter celebration – it gives it its character, its mood.
But just what does it mean, this ‘alleluia’ that expresses our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? The word does have a meaning – it comes from a Hebrew word that means ‘praise the Lord’ – but Christian tradition hasn’t translated it, leaving instead the sound that obviously lies behind the Hebrew word for ‘praise’: the sound of cheering, or, to use a technical term which reproduces the same kind of noise, ululation. This great cry of ‘alleluia’ is like the roar of a crowd at a football match when a goal is scored: it says something more basic and more immediate than the explanation of its significance that comes in the post-match analysis which puts into words what happened in the match. A supporter of Manchester City can explain all the significance for Liverpool of this or that goal, but only a Liverpool supporter could have cheered when the goal was scored.
At Easter, when we celebrate the fact that Jesus, whose death on the cross we commemorated on Good Friday, has risen again, we cry ‘alleluia’ because we are cheering the fact that he’s won.
He has proved stronger than death, that final, common enemy of the whole human race, and so, in Christ, our “team” – the whole human race – has won. We can spend the rest of the year thinking about all the implications of that victory for us – of how exactly we relate to Jesus and his victory, of the love and power of God it reveals, of the life with God it promises. Indeed, that is what we do, for, as Christians, it is our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus that lies at the foundation of all that we believe. As St Paul tells the Romans (10:9), ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ And of course, the deeper our understanding, the more we will be able to appreciate the significance of the victory we celebrate. At Easter, though, we don’t get that far. In fact, in our Gospel reading, we don’t even get as far as encountering the risen Jesus: the empty tomb and the folded grave-clothes are enough to prompt this outburst of joy.
Joy, though, is not the only emotion the sight of the empty tomb could prompt. For Mary Magdalene it was a source of distress. What she saw was simply an absence: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ The difference in the case the nameless ‘other disciple’ whom we understand to be the evangelist John himself is that he didn’t just see the empty tomb, but ‘he saw and he believed’.
The joy which our Easter alleluias express is the joy of believing, that joy in the Gospel which is a powerful force, impelling us to want to go out and share the good news with others, and also a way of attracting them to share in that belief and that joy: to come back to the football match, the cheering of the crowd is something it’s enjoyable to join in with.
So as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, his victory on behalf of all humanity over death itself, we renew that joy which lies at the heart of the Christian message with a cry that sums up the whole of that message: Alleluia!
Easter is the triumph of God’s love over our sinfulness. If Jesus is the Word made flesh, that word is Love and Love cannot be defeated by human action. The Resurrection demonstrates that God’s love will always be the victor: there is never a time when God will not forgive.
All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was anointed by a women. The details vary between the Gospels but the main difference is that Mark, Matthew and John all connect the anointing with Jesus passion. All three see it as a prophetic action which prepares his anointing for burial. In Luke’s account the incident is placed much earlier in the story of Jesus (Luke 7) and the passion is not referred to at all.
Luke’s story is intended to face us with the sheer unsolicited love of God through Jesus. The anointing takes place at a meal to which Jesus has been invited by one of the Pharisees. It is probably a major occasion, because we are told that they reclined at table in the Roman style while they were eating. It becomes apparent that Jesus has been invited more out of the curiosity of his host that as a matter of honour for he is not offered the usual courtesies which would be usual on such an occasion.
Then a woman, who is obviously known locally because she is identified as a despised sinner, comes in and stands before Jesus. Her tears run down her face and bathe his feet, then taking a jar of precious ointment she anoints his feet, kisses them and dries them with her hair.
The shocked Pharisee thought that Jesus should have rejected her if he knew the manner of woman she was.
It is sometimes said that this sinful woman comes to Jesus and seeks forgiveness of him and, as a reward, receives her absolution because of her act of kindness. In other words, this act of kindness to Jesus is the condition of her forgiveness.
But suppose her coming to Jesus is the act of a sinner already forgiven by God, who, realising that Jesus is in the house of the Pharisee, comes to him and pours out her love, her joy and her gratitude?
The scene is then transformed into an expression of celebration. Her tears of joy – the perfume, the fragrance of the presence of Jesus – this too makes perfect sense of the story that Jesus then goes on to tell about the two debtors.
We are surely expected to remember and contrast with this the arrogant behaviour of Simon the Pharisee – his refusal of normal courtesies to Jesus, his superiority, his judgmental attitude towards the sinner. With the sinful woman’s open and total expression of self-giving love, the story calls on us to examine our basic orientation towards God and our capacity to be open to reconciliation and forgiveness. The sinful woman was open, transformed and filled with joy. How open was Simon, niggardly, cold and formal?
Lent is not a time when we anxiously try to behave better, giving up things we enjoy so that we demonstrate our sorrow for our sins and hope to be forgiven. Indeed we cannot but be sorry for our sins when we see the cost to Jesus. Whatever we do in Lent is nothing in comparison to the suffering of Jesus.
Lent is much more a time when we celebrate the extraordinary love of God, shown to us in Jesus who died for us while we were yet sinners. We try to keep a good Lent not so that we might earn something but so that we might open our hears to God and experience the forgiveness which is already his gift to us.
Christmas is a wonderful and a very busy time of the year in Church and so it is a good time to acknowledge all those who help not only to keep things going but to make sure that all is done well and beautifully in honour of our Lord’s birth.
Firstly it would be difficult for members of the congregation not to notice that just before Christmas we had the joy of hearing the church bells being rung before services again including before the Midnight Mass and on Christmas Day. Ringing may look easy but involves both physical and mental co-ordination to be able to rotate in a controlled manner and eventually very precisely a bell which can weigh anything from 4 cwt to 25 cwt. It normally takes about three to four months to train a complete novice to be able to carry out simple ringing for services. Our campaign started with an advert placed by Gary Lewis in the local press to which we got a good response. We now have three people who were complete novices (Stuart, Doreen and Gemma), two returning ringers (Diane and Kieran) and were also lucky to have the support of David and Gillian Huxtable, ringers who had recently moved to Midsomer Norton. Now after Christmas we have a team of around ten ringers and we look forward to hearing the bells as they progress in what is often referred to as the art and a science of bell ringing. Once our new team has settled in a little more we will try and recruit some more, so if you fancy having a go mention your interest to one of the ringers.
During Christmas there are a number of extra services and concerts and we welcome all those involved, but afterwards there is a certain amount of clearing up. It is remarkable that personally I do not think that I have ever gone into church when it has looked messy or scruffy. Thank you to our team of cleaners lead by Shirley and Pat who ensure that the church always looks clean and well cared for.
This year Christmas following on immediately after that last Sunday of Advent posed a few logistical problems. One of these was solved by Ralph Plummer who made a new base for the Crib to sit on inside the altar. The Crib was arranged by Giles. Ralph also lead the way in dealing with the damage to the decoration which had been caused by the defective hoppers and downpipes above the Lady Chapel. That corner now looks much better.
As always the church was filled with beautiful flowers for Christmas. Thank you to Jenny Barnett who at a very difficult time was as always busy in Church and thank you to all those who worked with her.
Last year, after a number of years, Tim and Margaret Marshall indicated that they would like to be relieved of putting up, decorating (and at one time collecting) the Christmas Tree. We thank them for all their past efforts and are grateful to Giles who planned and with help (Diane) arranged the tree this year. Thank you also to the team which dismantled it which was no quick job.
Our musicians, servers and sacristans as always rise to the extra demands of the various Christmas services. It is surprising how long it takes to light all the pillar candles and then put them out. It was good to welcome back former choir members and to thank them and our regular choir members and organists for the Carol Service which had a lovely mixture of new and old carols and of course the way in which they support and enhance our services throughout the year.
A highlight of Christmas is the Crib Service which as usual was extremely well attended. For many years the team was lead by Rosie Shears along with Angela Fitch who ensured that the huge number of costumes provided all look pristine and fresh. This year Angela wanted to step back and we thank her for all she has done to make this event a success. This year the team included Gill Tincknell, Carol Moore, and Theresa Balliston-Thicke and besides those “dressers” who helped on the day. Thank you for your support and help.
Thank you also to our sides persons and others who all work together to ensure that both regular members of the congregation and visitors are made to feel welcome and have the books etc. that they need to help them enjoy the services.
Last year it was decided to replace the printer on which the news sheet and magazine were produced as it had reach not only the end of the maintenance and leasing contract but was coming to the end of its life. A new printer was obtained which besides printing in colour can also produce collated copies of, for example, the magazine and so saving a great deal of time and effort. We thank Margaret and Tim Marshall who used to print the magazine, among other printing, and Lyn Hughes, Ralph Plummer, Joan Darke and Margaret Wilton, who used to help with the collating. We are grateful to Linda Broadhurst who edits the magazine which is then printed, folded and stapled by Ralph and Christine Plummer and also to Beth Davies who masterminds and prints the news sheet.
This is really just a snapshot of our common life as St. John’s Church, thank you to all of you who contribute to make our common life fulfilling, joyful, prayerful and generous.
I am sure that most non church goers and a few that do probably think of the feast of the “Epiphany” as a feast with a rather silly sounding name. It is not obvious to most of us what ‘Epiphany’ even means. It means manifestation, which perhaps does not help that much. Perhaps we would do better to imitate the Spanish and call it La Fiesta de Los Tres Reyes Mages, the ‘Feast of the Three Magic Kings’.
We are often reminded that St Matthew doesn’t tell us there were three of them, nor that they were kings. The Magi were, at an early stage of Church tradition, turned into Kings. This might have been because of their gifts, which only kings could afford, but I also wonder if there was more to it than that. It might have been because the word magus in Latin, as in Greek, quickly came to mean ‘wizard’ or ‘sorcerer’; and sorcery was not considered a good thing in the times when Christianity had become the dominant and official religion of the Roman Empire and the nation states of Europe which succeeded it. So we have the carol ‘We three Kings of Orient are..’ rather than ‘We three Wizards from the East’.
When the story that we hear In the Gospel was composed, magus referred specifically to Persian soothsayers, who were generally revered as ‘wise men’. And so it is that when these wisemen, stargazers, astrologers, saw this new star, they were assumed by the story-teller to know what it meant. They knew what to ask Herod when they got to Jerusalem:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
So they followed the star that, according to their Persian wisdom, presaged the birth of a new king of Judaea, until it stopped and stood over the lowly cattle shed where the child was. That is what the star meant to them. For us it has, or should have, further meanings. We have not only secular science to go on, but also the revealed word of God in Scripture. So first of all it means the fulfilment of the prophecy of Balaam, son of Beor, from the Book of Numbers chapter 24:
The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near —
a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.
Edom will become a possession, Seir a possession of its enemies,
while Israel does valiantly.
One out of Jacob shall rule, and destroy the survivors of Ir.
So here the star represents the King, the wielder of the sceptre.
For us, the prophecy is now to be understood in a yet much grander sense than it had in the Old Testament where it looked ahead to the kingdom of David and the conquest of the national enemies of the Israelites. The King of the Jews whom the Magi now come to honour is the King of Kings, the King of all nations, the King whose Gospel is destined to conquer the whole world. This ‘sceptre out of Israel’ arose not to subject all the nations to the rule of Israel, but to submit himself to death at the hands of the most powerful empire that had ever arisen, in order to liberate us all from the rule of any earthly king.
These further meanings of the star in the east are found in the traditional symbolism of the Magi’s gifts: Christ the King is represented by the gold, Christ the Priest is represented by the incense and Christ the Sacrificial Victim by the Myrrh, used by the women at his burial. The Child after all was ‘born to be King’, the King who would reign over the whole world from the cross.
This year the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday in January.
The time of Advent is all about beginnings, for us the beginning of the year and the beginnings of the Gospel, the good news of Christ and his love for us.
It is fascinating to compare the different ways in which the Four Gospels begin. Matthew and Luke both tell us parts of what we recognise as the Christmas story and its preparation, with the story of Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth, the shepherds and the kings. John the Evangelist goes back to before time itself, while Mark launches in with the preaching of John the Baptist.
It is the two figures of Mary the mother of the Lord, and John the Baptist, who figure prominently in the Advent season who define the dual aspect of Advent which is both a time of joyful looking forward to the birth of Christ and also a time of serious personal reflection, or as John would put it “repentance.”
Mary, the young woman of Nazareth, prepares with joy for the birth of her son with excitement of sharing the news of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth and no doubt other family members. Admittedly there is the tension of how Joseph would take the news and then the rather unfortunately timed journey to Bethlehem. Joseph like Mary is also a person of faith, acceptance and welcome.
Mary is a complex figure. She is often portrayed as essentially a person of obedience but there is far more to her than that. She is also a person of commitment, she gives herself body and soul to God and that is an act of great courage and faith.
She is a person of hope and longing, her song of joy is also a revolutionary song as she looks forward to wrongs of this world being put right and the world becoming a place of peace and justice, That coming of the kingdom of God is part of the joy we look forward to as we look forward to Christ’s birth.
If Mary is a figure of who represents the joy of discipleship then the figure of John the Baptist represents the challenge of discipleship. St Mark opens his gospel with the prophecy of Isaiah:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Mark then introduces us to the austere and tragic figure of St. John the Baptist who proclaims a baptism of repentance. People are to turn from their evil, selfish ways and help to bring in that world Mary looks forward to.
Advent has always had that dual aspect of Mary and John, joy and repentance, indeed we can only properly prepare for joy of Christ’s birth by reflecting on how we need to change our own lives so that we can be part of his kingdom.
A Meditation for Christmas
Every year the poet U A Fanthorpe would write a Christmas Poem to print inside a card sent to friends. The poems are a fascinating sideways look at the birth of Christ. Here is one:
Boeings wing swiftly over Earth
Humming like enormous Messiahs
Brining everyone home for Christmas;
Children wailing impossible wants,
Housewives worrying in case enough isn’t
Parsons, with prevenient care, sucking Strepsils,
Telly jingling twinkling mistletoe-ing,
Cash tills recording glad tidings of profit,
Office parties munching through menus –
Crackers! Champagne corks!
At the heart of it all, in the hay,
No sound at all but the cattle
Endlessly chewing it over.
On the 25th of December 1830 Francis Kiilvert, who was Vicar of Clyro, lay wake in his bed in the early morning. He thought that he could hear bells ringing from a long way off. Then he realised it was the sound the air freezing – for there was an intense frost. (On another occasion he had to break the ice before he could get into his bath and then he had to thaw the sponge in his hands before he could use it.) How many of us today would be able to hear such a sound as he heard for we live in a very noisy world: electrical hum almost beyond hearing, the constant drone of motor cars, the noise of the central heating.
Christmas reminds us that although we call our God, “Wonderful”, “Almighty”, “Creator”, he is in fact a very humble and quiet God. Not for his birth the pomp of a place but rather a stable. Not for him a great trumpet fanfare but the joyful song of angels so quiet that only the shepherds in the silence of the countryside could hear it. Later not for him a fine white charger but a donkey.
The prophet Elijah discovered that God was not to be found in the earthquake, in the wind, or in the fire, but in the sound of silence, a silence so profound that we might hear not the sound of bells ringing but rather the air freezing.
For many people Christmas is not about the birth of Christ at all and indeed our God is very easily lost in the noise and bustle of our world and in the extra noise which is generated by Christmas celebrations. We must allow some silence into our lives so that we might hear the cattle chewing the cud, or the sound of a baby breathing, a baby who is Christ our God, born for us on Christmas Day.
What is more important for Christians? Is it behaving in the right way, doing the right thing – avoiding sin – , or is it being happy? At one time there was a great emphasis placed on the importance of happiness in the Christian life. Now we are much less likely to see our lives as Christians in terms of happiness, and instead tend to think first about what the rules for our lives might be.
I’m not suggesting here for one moment that things like the commandments, or behaving in a moral way aren’t important. They are extremely important. But what has been lost to an extent, perhaps, is the sense of what those things are actually for. We might say we’ve forgotten how to use what God has given us in the moral teaching of the Church as signposts; which point to the possibility of happiness in this life, which reaches its fulfilment in the next.
If this is true, then the Gospel for the Feast of All Saints gives us a timely and famous reminder of the possibility of happiness, of beatitude, coming right from Our Lord himself. In the beatitudes we’re given a set of paradoxes, where each one of them issues a challenge to us.
Here they are:
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The challenge is that they turn any ideas that we might have about what it means to be blessed, to be happy, upside-down and inside out. Each of them speaks of a situation or a disposition which we might not associate with flourishing and happiness, and shows us that in and through those things by God’s grace we might have some taste of the kingdom of God which Christ came to bring. And they also show some of the features of discipleship that we will all encounter.
The wonderful thing about the beatitudes is that they teach us how no-one needs to think that the Christian life is not for them. It’s not a manifesto for the people who’ve already made it. On the mount, Jesus is teaching a crowd of all sorts who’ve come to listen to what he has to say. A common side effect of our confusion about what moral teaching is for is thinking that living the life of faith is just for those people who already have the self-discipline and the strength of character to be good and happy people. Not so. Regardless of where we may feel we’re at in this moment, we should remember that fulfilment in God is what we were created for, and is at the very heart of our desires and longings. And these can start to shape and direct our lives towards him, when we accept the promptings of his grace, and take up the challenge of discipleship. The journey to a happy life can start right now this minute; there’s no reason to delay!
In case we needed more encouragement – and let’s face it – most of us do; then we need only think about the Feast of All Saints. It’s a day when we’re reminded that happiness, beatitude isn’t just an ideal, but a real possibility for us. And that’s because we know that there are people just like us who have responded to that grace to take up the challenge of discipleship, and attained beatitude with the vision of God in heaven. A crowd of all sorts, people as diverse as anyone could imagine, who have grown through grace, and walked with God towards a happy life; a life which now stretches out into eternity.
And yet more encouragement – since we can never have too much – they’re not just signs to us of the possibility of beatitude. They’re interceding for us, supporting us with their prayers as we journey towards God. They’re asking God to bring to fulfilment in us what he brought to fulfilment in them.
Our possessions are in a way an extension of ourselves. What we do with our possessions reveals the kind of people we are. They symbolise our character. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly warning us about the way we use riches and possessions. When Zacchaeus comes down from his sycamore tree, repents and turns to God his conversion is expressed by giving a half of his possessions to the poor. In Acts the apostles respond to the gift of the Holy Spirit by sharing their possessions with each other. They understand, what the whole Bible teaches, that God is the creator and giver of all good things. Life is not something we possess; it is a gift we receive. And we want share these gifts with others.
It is so easy to get caught up with acquiring possessions. We want more and more. In his Gospel Luke tells us about an incident when someone wants to co-opt Jesus to help him get his inheritance but Jesus declines. Settling wills can be a terrible time in families when greed comes to the surface and Jesus knows what such avarice can do. It takes you over and makes you think that the more you have the more secure you are.
So Jesus tells a parable which shows how the hunger for more possessions can isolate us and cut us off from life. A farmer has a really good harvest and instead of giving thanks to God for such abundance he turns in on himself. He does not have enough room for his crops so he decides to build larger barns which will house them.
You might have thought that he was doing this so that he could then have a store of food to help his neighbours in time of famine. But no, it is clear he is only interested in himself. He sees increasing his possessions as a means of security. He can protect himself from the pitfalls which ordinary people face each day. The deadening effect of his greed is seen in his selfish desire for his own enjoyment and he uses a well-known formula for hedonistic living. ‘Eat, drink and have a good time’ but he has forgotten how the saying ends ‘for tomorrow we die’.
At this point his internal dialogue is rudely interrupted by God himself – which is unusual in parables. His self-regarding world is broken open and he is called a fool. Literally this is true for we read in the psalms ‘The fool says there is no God.’ The farmer acts as though there is no God. He thinks he alone can plan his future. But beneath his greed there lies a deep fear of the frailty of life and like so many like him, he thinks he can secure life with even more possessions. And like many in an acquisitive society he shuts out the thought of death which will prove that life is a gift over which he has no power.
The farmer sadly ended up dying alone, rich in possessions which would soon be handed to another who had not toiled for them as Ecclesiastes points out. If he had wanted to really live he should have been ‘rich in the sight of God.’ What does that mean? It means that God alone can provide the security because he is the source of all life. And God provided a Law which taught how possessions must be shared, how the poor must be given the gleanings from the harvest. Sharing possessions is a sign that you have overcome the fear of the frailty of life and are willing to be generous to God’s creatures.
Avarice, greed, covetousness, each desires to have more and more, and each was regarded as a pernicious vice in the time of Christ for they destroyed society. Greed, St Paul tells us today, ‘is the same thing as worshipping a false god’.
Harvest is a time to give thanks to God who provides us with more than enough to eat so that we may have the joy of sharing our abundance with those who do not have enough and in so doing we remember that there is only one way of being secure in this world and that is by basing our lives on the love of God for us which is the one constant of our earthly lives.
When you see a building with a cross on it, you know at once that it is a Christian Church. The Cross is the most widely recognised symbol of Christianity. The seven-branched candlestick stands for Judaism, and the crescent for Islam. But the Cross is the sign of Christianity. And on the 14th September each year we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
There used to be two feasts of the Holy Cross in the liturgical year, the Finding of the Cross on 3 May, and the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September. They commemorated respectively the discovery of the Cross in Jerusalem by St Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, in the 4th century, and the recovery of the Cross by the Emperor Heraclius in the year 629AD, after it had been carried away by the Persians. We cannot be certain about the days of the year when these things happened, but they were certainly historical events. Now the liturgical calendar has combined their celebration into one on 14 September.
The Cross is central to Christian faith. It is rare to find a church of any denomination without a cross of some sort inside or outside, whether it be an elaborate carved Calvary or a neon lighted cross. So, what does the Cross mean for us? What does it stand for? What moment in history does it bring before us?
It was a moment (alas, one of many) when the religious and secular powers – in this case the Jewish and Roman – combined to condemn and execute an innocent man. As far as the powers were concerned, it was routine. Here was another religious and political fanatic, who was a threat to the stability of society and must be dealt with. Moreover, they had to do their job quickly because the Passover was imminent. They had no time to consider the case more carefully, even if they had wanted to do so.
What they could not see was that this man is the Son of God. Consequently, what they did was not just another routine execution. By their decision they committed the greatest sin imaginable: attempting to eliminate the man who was their God. As he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23: 34). And later, St Paul wrote: ‘if they had known they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:8). They could not possibly understand the significance of what they were doing. But that does not make them guiltless. They knew he was innocent, and it can never be right to execute an innocent person. They did what they did from a mixture of motives, which is typical of fallen human beings. In the mind of his judges and executioners, Jesus’ crucifixion was a typical moral muddle, with all the confusion, uncertainty and twinges of conscience that we all experience.
What, though, was the meaning of the Cross in Jesus’ mind? It was the full and final expression of the love of God for his people and for his creation. He was born to be ‘God with us’, and he died as ‘God with us’. He will never take that back, no matter how we treat him, no matter what we do. He could have escaped from the cross. In the Garden he told his disciples that he could command twelve legions of angels to come to his aid. But if so, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled? (Matthew 26: 53-4). God knew that we would try to reject our Saviour. The Old Testament had made that quite clear.
The history of Israel had been one of continual unfaithfulness. But the life and the death of Jesus is one of total faithfulness, the sacrificial offering of a human life lived with perfect love and self-giving, handed over to the Father: ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23: 46). The cross is the conclusion of a life that is both fully human and totally divine.
In the single event of the crucifixion we can see at the same time both the depths of human sin and degradation, and the heights of God’s forgiveness, love and power. He came as one of us, to abide with us, and make present among us his love and forgiveness. He came not just restore to us the life that had been offered at the beginning, but to lead us even higher: to be with him, the Son, at the right hand of the Father.
Jesus’ human life ended on the cross. So the cross stands for both death and life. It displays the fact of Jesus’ death at our hands, because of our wickedness. It also displays God’s forgiving love, which can never be put off by our rebellion. As the hymn says:
Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be.
One of the features of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus is often to be found praying. It is no surprise that having observed this frequent activity of Jesus, his disciples are moved to want to pray like him. So, Jesus takes the opportunity not only to teach them a prayer (the Lord’s Prayer), but also to teach them the way to pray: persistently. To pray persistently is to pray like Jesus. What does that mean?
To illustrate his point Jesus tells a parable. And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The friend that Jesus imagines would seem to be in danger of losing his position as friend. In the midst of an awkward situation someone has come to him for help and the implication is that this help only arrives after much asking. ‘I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs’
But who is really making unreasonable demands on the friendship? The man who has gently put his children to bed and is now trying to sleep? Or the friend who is unorganised and demanding and bangs on people’s doors at midnight? And, what is more, keeps banging on them, until he gets what he wants!
Jesus puts the granting of the man’s request down to his ‘persistence’, but there is a further nuance to the word Jesus uses. It is a particular type of persistence, an impudent or shameless persistence. It seems as if the reward comes to the man because he is shameless in asking and not simply because he persevered.
We might be able to see what to make of this interpretation if we look at Abraham’s entreaty in the book of Genesis that God does not destroy the city of Sodom. Abraham knows how impertinent he is being in this dialogue with God, for he uses such rhetoric as he perseveres in asking for more and more.
‘Let me undertake to speak to my Lord, I who am dust and ashes’ Gen 18,27.31: ‘Please let not my Lord be angry if I speak’ Gen 18,30.32
Abraham uses these idioms twice each, to colour his persistent petitions. Like the friend banging on the door, Abraham knows he is trying his luck with God, but he keeps going. He is shameless in his persistence.
The twist in the tale, of course, is that although God saves the one righteous man of Sodom and his family, he still destroys the city. But this should not distract us from the role that Abraham takes upon himself.
It is the role of a man who has embarked on a life with God, in a relationship with God. Indeed, at the beginning of this scene Abraham goes with the LORD as he leaves Abraham’s hospitality to ‘send him on his way’ Gen 18,16. In this relationship, Abraham has the boldness, the impudence to ask God for things repeatedly; and God is there.
Jesus presents this relationship with a stark simplicity: ‘ask, and it will be given to you’. Following the teaching of a prayer that encourages us to speak directly and simply to God as Father, Jesus gives examples of what this means by looking at our relationships here on earth. If human beings come through for each other, our friends, our parents, how much more will God, if we recognise that we are his children? This is the logic of the simple teaching of Jesus.
God himself has already made this promise: Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you’ Isa 49,14-15.
Jesus has come to deepen our understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God. He has come to fulfil the promise of God. It is only the one who is like Jesus who prays like Jesus, who has no shame before God to keep on asking. Namely, one who is a child of God. Jesus teaches us that prayer is about simply and confidently calling God, Father. And because he is our Father, we can be bold and persistent.
What does it mean to be a successful church? This is an important question if we remember that Pope Francis is asking the Roman Catholic Church to identify with marginalised and therefore the presumably unsuccessful of society. We might also note that Jesus himself was singularly unsuccessful. Not only did he die a criminal’s death but he only left behind a small band of demoralised disciples who had not been notable in their understanding of his ministry and mission. So do we show our success as Christians by being completely unlike Christ? Successful and powerful, at the centre of society, while he was at the margin?
If you asked this question of the Church in Corinth, the Christians there would have been very clear about their answer. A successful church they would have replied is a church alive with the gifts of the Spirit. They were very certain what those gifts were: Paul lists them in his First Letter to the Corinthians. There are gifts of tongues, of wisdom, of knowledge, of healing, of miracles, of prophecies, of discerning spirits, of exorcism and so on. These are all very exciting gifts, dramatic gifts, and it must have been very exciting to go to such a church. Yet all was not well in Corinth. The church at Corinth was full of strife, and envying, quarrel and dissension, and worst of all when they met together for the Lord’s Supper, their celebration was not a sign of their unity in Christ but rather the opposite, a time not of affirmation but instead of judgement and condemnation.
Paul had to give them the most extraordinary list of instructions. He had to lecture them about sexual morality, food offered to idols, the ministry of the Apostles, lawsuits, marriage, even what women should wear on their heads. He is very stern, very direct and very firm. His list he admits is not complete: but when he meets them he will put them right on everything else.
What on earth had been going on? Or more importantly, as they were demonstrating so many gifts of the Spirit, what had been going wrong? All is revealed in the thirteenth chapter of his letter. The gifts which he mentioned in his previous chapters, the gifts which the Corinthians were so proud of, might be dramatic, they might cause a lot of notice and even admiration but they were not the most important gifts. So he opens his chapter by writing that he might do this and he might do that but that if he has not the gift of love then he is nothing. This is the gift, he writes, that enables us to live, and work, and worship, and care for one another. This is the gift which enables us to build up the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. It is the gift that enables us to tolerate one another, to forgive one another, to endure what life and people throw at us but still go on hoping and rejoicing. It is the greatest of all gifts because however important other gifts are such as faith and hope they will come to an end. These gifts like all the rest he mentions will end because they will not be needed in heaven. Love, however, will be needed as much, if not more than ever, because it is the life of heaven itself.
Love is not a showy gift like some other “spiritual gifts” but it is the gift that transforms our lives more than any other, and it is the gift that bind and unites us to Christians and non Christians, to the successful and the unsuccessful alike. On the day of Pentecost the thing that astonished the crowd, who were from all over the known world, was that they each heard in their own language what the Apostles were saying. This was a quite different gift from the speaking in tongues which the Corinthians practised. That gift often needed an interpreter when it was exercised. The gift on Pentecost day was the absolute reverse: no interpreter was needed at all, because all heard and understood what was said. It was the sign that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on all flesh, on all the people of the world. The Holy Spirit was not a possession of one particular group of people, whether of ethnicity or religion. The Holy Spirit is not a possession of the Church or any part of it. The Holy Spirit is a gift, the gift, which as St. Paul realised unites rather than divides.
It is hardly surprising that the gift of the Spirit is indeed poured out on all people, for the Bible, tells us that all people are made in the image and likeness of God: the Spirit gives life to all people. Surely we are right to see this gift in anyone, Christian or not, who loves with patience and tolerance and care and forgiveness.
So what is it that the Church offers to the world? Perhaps the recognition that in the important things of life, such as the gift of love, there is more that unites us than divides us. So what is it that makes us different? Not that we are better or superior in the way that we live of lives compared to those without faith. We know that is not true, though it is a complaint that is still sometimes heard: those who go to church are no better than the rest of us. Indeed we agree, but as Christians we have discovered that without the help of Christ to guide us, without recognising the gift of the Spirit within us, we would quite lose our hold on this most precious of all gifts, the gift which makes our lives with one another possible, and even joyful: the gift of love. Above anything else it is that gift of love which makes our life a success whether we are notable or not, important or unimportant, rich of poor. St Paul knew that this was the only criteria which was worth applying to any church, at Corinth or anywhere else, in his day or in ours.
We are told that is ok to be vague about certain of our Christian beliefs by no less an authority than an Archbishop. Indeed when we come to the Resurrection vagueness is perhaps forced upon us, and not so much vagueness but absolute incomprehension. Although for the sake of clarity I would want to draw a distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’. I have absolutely no idea how the resurrection happened, except that it occurs through the power of God and his love for his Son Jesus Christ. But I am absolutely certain that the resurrection happened. A very important part of my belief is not just the existence of the Church and my own experience and the experience of other Christians but importantly the reaction of the disciples and others to that event.
Joy, relief, gladness and rejoicing: these were all the emotions that were absent when the disciples and others first began to experience the resurrected Jesus. The women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body were told by the ‘young man dressed in white’: ‘He has been raised; he is not here’. And they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16: 5-8). St Luke says that when the women later reported to the Apostles what they had seen and heard, ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’ (Luke 24: 11).
In all the Resurrection appearances in the Gospels there is this same mixture of belief and unbelief, reality and unreality, mistiness and clarity, of slow recognition and incredulity. The disciples hesitated; they did not believe in fairy tales. They had been shocked by the experience of Jesus death and the experience of his resurrection was another overwhelming shock.
Remember the emotional trauma they had gone through. They had seen the failure of what they had imagined Jesus’ life and mission to be about. Not only had they seem him arrested, tried by both his own people and the Romans and suffer a horrible, tortuous death; but they also had endured the trauma of their own failure and cowardice. When they had been tried they had been found lacking. Could you not have watched with me one hour? “No!” Could you stand by me in my hour of need? “I know not the man.” If their greatest wish could have been granted, that wish might well have been that none of the event of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday had happened, I am not sure that their wish would have been to meet Jesus again and be reminded of their own inadequacies and failures. Jesus himself recognised the emotional difficulties that the disciples would have when they met him, the inevitable reminder of their not so glorious past when he asked Peter three times if he loved him. The Resurrection demanded amongst other things that the disciples put their faith in Jesus love for them despite the way they had behaved. After the Crucifixion not only was the Resurrection too good (or too bad) to be true: it was impossible.
We tend to associate fear and bewilderment with the Cross, and joy and new life with the Resurrection. But the Gospels tell us that those to whom the resurrection was announced experienced bewilderment, terror and incomprehension: their whole world view was altered. How could it be otherwise for to experience the resurrection was to experience the glory of the risen Lord?
When Paul met the risen Jesus the light that broke in on him dazzled his eyes and his mind so that he was blinded literally and metaphorically, spiritually and emotionally.
Here is an experience that is real and true, so that with Christians throughout the ages we can proclaim in truth and certainty and joy: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Alleluia.
The first gospel that came to be written was the gospel of Mark and it was probably written sometime between AD 60 and 70. You will not, of course, get complete agreement among scholars about the date, because if they did agree they could not go on producing books about the period that Mark’s gospel was written. So sometime between 60 and 70 is probably the best answer we can get, although someone claims to have found part of St. Mark’s gospel written in one of the finds at Qumran which would make it about AD 55. So there you go.
If you actually turn to St. Marks’s Gospel it is surely astonishing that he mentions nothing about the birth of Jesus. He plunges straight in with telling us about John the Baptist and the way he baptised people in the river Jordan and how Jesus himself came to John to be baptised. I suppose that we could get over that rather abrupt beginning by understanding that Mark does not have the same obsessions that we have about Christmas. But even more astonishing is that when he comes to the end of his Gospel, he does not tell us about a single resurrection appearance and that we might think is very odd. His gospel appears to finish in mid paragraph.
This is how the Gospel ends: the women go to the tomb; they find the stone has been rolled away; they see a young man dressed in white; they do not realise that it is an angel.
The young man says to them, “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who has been crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look here is the place where they laid him. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him just as he told you.”
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
That probably is how Mark finishes his Gospel on a note of apparent terror. The women fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement and fright. Various people have thought that this could not possible be right; that Mark could not possibly have ended his Gospel there. So there are three other possible endings which can be found in various different versions of the Bible. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Mark actually finishes his Gospel at then end of verse 8 of chapter 16 with the women running from the tomb. I think he finishes his Gospel there because there was no need for him to write about the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
There was no need for him to write about the risen Lord as he was writing to a community of faith for whom experience of the risen Lord was a present reality. In other words they did not need to be told about it because it was part of their own experience. They knew all about the risen Lord, they experienced him in their lives and in the lives of others. That after all was why they were Christians. Yes, they were very interested to read about the things which Jesus had said and done and about his teaching. They were interested in hearing about the events of Jesus life because that was a matter of history, but why did they need to know about the resurrection when it was part of their living experience. I think that is why that wonderful abrupt ending is the correct ending of St. Mark. It is a wonderful ending because it propels us into the present experience of the Church.
In fact if you want to read about the appearances of the risen of the Lord, then the first written references are not be found in the pages of the gospels at all but are to be found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This letter may well predate St. Mark’s Gospel by a few years. It is interesting that when St. Paul writes about who the Lord appears to he is not actually writing about that to tell people about the interest of the appearances themselves but to establish his own authority. He is argument with the Corinthians is that while they had listened to this person and that person he was the only one of their teachers who had seen the risen Lord. They may have had some very interesting preachers and teachers but he Paul was their apostle. You know that I am an apostle he argued because the Lord appeared to this person and that person and then to 500 people at once and then last of all he appeared to me. St. Paul quotes the resurrection appearances of Jesus to establish his own authority. When he told them about the resurrection appearances he was not telling them something new.
Just as with Mark and his gospel so Paul was telling the about something which was part of their daily experience as Christians.
But when St. Paul writes about the resurrection appearances of Jesus he points us to a very important principle which tells us how we may experience the presence of the risen Lord. The resurrection appearance that Paul refers to: “then last of all the Lord appeared to me as one untimely born,” he is presumably referring to the resurrection experience which he had of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. In that vision Jesus said to Paul: “Saul why do you persecute me?” St. Paul had not in fact been persecuting Jesus himself he had been persecuting Christians and that is what the vision tells him: that the risen Christ is to be experienced in the lives of faithful Christians. Paul had experienced the risen Lord when he had been persecuting, torturing, and murdering Christians. He had treated them appallingly. They had resisted with courage and St. Paul experienced the risen Lord when a kindly faithful Christian prayed over him, and the scales of blindness dropped from Paul’s eyes.
We may think that is was absolutely wonderful to be in the Upper Room, or to be on lakeside in Galilee, or to be in that pub on the way to Emmaus and to have seen the risen Lord, not as a vision but as someone who might be touched and felt, who you could talk to as you could talk to anyone else. How wonderful to have a vision like St. Paul and indeed some people are granted such an experience. We must not think that we are second rate if we have not had such an experience. We must not think we are somehow not proper Christians, because Jesus himself tells us that the way that he will continue his living presence on earth is through the lives of faithful Christians. That is the meaning of that very intimate scene in the supper room when Jesus breaths over the disciples and tells them that this is my life flowing into you. Now go and live that life, my life in the world today.
When people met the disciples they felt, they knew. that they had met the risen Lord. Jesus tells us that, St. Paul tells us that and Christians have experienced that throughout the ages, and he tells us that whenever you share bread and wine my living presence is there with you.
May you have a very happy and joyful Easter.
Lent is a time of simplification; a time of giving up things. Some people give up things such as chocolate and give the money they have saved to a charity. Some people give up things so that they may have more time to pray or read the bible or take up an extra devotion. At it’s heart the inspiration of Lent is that we simplify our lives in one way or another so that we may walk more closely with Jesus, so that we may renew and re-invigorate or encounter with him.
When we talk of encountering Jesus it is always interesting to see how others encountered him in the pages of the gospel as they show us the many different ways that encounter may take place. One such person was Nicodemus, a man respected within his community, going to visit Jesus at night time, in the dark, in secrecy.
What drew him to Jesus? Curiosity about his reported actions, miracles already performed or some teachings overheard? Could his journey have been planned as a “set-up” to incriminate Jesus, on the part of the Sanhedrin, of which Nicodemus could certainly have been a member?
There are three references to Nicodemus and they are only found in the Gospel of John. But he appears at key moments in the life of Jesus: in the beginning stages of his ministry; at the time of Jesus’ arrest, when he defends Jesus’ right to fair treatment before the chief priests, and finally, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea, another secret disciple, at the sepulchre bringing quantities of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body.
In spite of speculation and some traditional stories which grew up around him, we actually know nothing more about Nicodemus. He made a journey which changed his life, he moved from darkness into the light of Christ and gave Jesus the opportunity to teach us all about true commitment, which leads to our glorious rebirth.
Jesus especially loved those who took time to sit down and take the risks of talking to him. Talking to Jesus was always a risk. You never knew what turns and twists the conversation would take, but those who took the chance always found that it was a risk worth taking. For the curious thing about talking with Jesus was that although he never pulled his punches, and although he could speak very directly, people never felt threatened or judged by him in a negative sense. Think of the women he met at the well. She had a very colourful past but rather than be overcome with shame and guilt when she realises that there is nothing about herself which is hidden from him, she goes to tell others to come and speak to him. “Come and see the man who told me all that I ever did. I think that he must be the Messiah.”
If the woman was taking risks talking to Jesus, he was also taking risks sitting down and chatting to her. She was not Jewish but rather a Samaritan, and the Jews had nothing to do with them. Her past probably made her rather unpopular in the village, she was rather free with her favours and had probably upset a number of marriages. The complaint of course would surface several times: you see what sort of people he associates with. He cannot be a prophet otherwise he would know what sort of life this person and these people had led. The same is true in this conversation with Nicodemus. Of course Nicodemus is taking risks, but so is Jesus. Nicodemus may be cautious but Jesus is not, he speaks clearly and fully to him. If Nicodemus had wanted to he could easily have gone of a told people about the heresy that Jesus was teaching.
Some Christians speak of conversion at the work of a moment. For those of us who have never felt a moment of complete and utter change in our lives, Nicodemus is a great encouragement. Nicodemus had the extraordinary privilege of meeting Jesus face to face in the flesh. He had the great opportunity of spending time with him, and the rarest of all commodities spending time with him alone. Able to ask Jesus whatever came to him and was important to him. But for all that, he was not immediately convinced. He was perhaps a cautious and reflective man. He met Jesus. He saw how others behaved towards him and treated him. He knew that the Jesus trial was deeply flawed and unjust. He thought deeply about things, he took time to make us his mind, yet I think that once he had made his mind up he would be steadfast in the decision he had taken.
So here at the beginning of Jesus ministry we have Nicodemus interested but cautious, taking care not to risk his reputation, or his position or compromise himself, by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness and in secret. What sort of disciple we might ask, would he make? But then after Jesus had been arrested, crucified, died and been buried, at what would appear to be the worst moment Nicodemus makes up his mind. When he had absolutely nothing to gain, there he is on Easter morning walking down the road not under cover of darkness but in broad daylight going about an unmistakable task. He is either bent under the weight of the burden he is carrying over his shoulder, or perhaps he wheeling the spices and myrrh on some kind of trolley or cart, making his way to go and embalm the body of Jesus. It is an unmistakable act of discipleship.
Nicodemus shows us what discipleship can be. Some can say that they have met Jesus and he changed their lives, but for the rest of us it is no less important to be able to say that we are walking with Jesus, that we are talking to him as we journey on, and that he is changing our lives. If we take the risk of revealing ourselves to Jesus of showing him what we are like, then Jesus, we can be sure, will also reveal himself to us.
In church there are certain prayers for which we are obliged to stand. This is because these prayers are taken from one of the four Gospels. We stand to show a special respect for the Gospels; but it would also seem appropriate to imagine three of these prayers (the other being the Lord’s prayer) being delivered by people standing up: The first is the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prayer of blessing at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, with the child presumably in his arms. The second is Mary’s prayer as she greets Elizabeth after the message of the Angel Gabriel. She is described as standing up and making her way to Elizabeth — the Greek word for standing up also being the word for resurrection. The church stands and recites or sings these prayers at Morning and Evening Prayer.
The third prayer is in the Gospel for the Feast of the Presentation which we celebrate on the 2nd of February. (There will be a Sung Mass in church on that day at 12 noon. This third prayer is the prayer of Simeon the priest and it is part of Evening Prayer and when it is said Compline, the last prayer of the day. Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms, and being in the temple is surely standing to do this.
We stand as a mark of respect but there is more to it than that. Human beings stand up while other animals walk on four legs, which is what is really meant by the phrase ‘creeping things’ in the seven-day creation story in Genesis. So standing up becomes a symbol of our full humanity. It also shows that we are alive. In the great mediaeval paintings of heaven, the saints stand for eternity, without ever growing tired.
It is curious that these prayers are prayers involving children. One is part of a joint prayer of praise between two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, while the other two are by men holding babies in their arms. Tertullian, the third century theologian, saw that what really showed the difference the Church had made to the ancient world was in her attitude to babies. It was commonplace for people to abandon unwanted new-born babies in the open. The babies were either left to die or where taken to be used in utterly inhuman ways. Christians took these children to themselves; they embraced them and brought them up, so that they too could stand for the praise of God.
It is sometimes said that some men do not want to be fathers or that they are afraid that the child will in some way replace them. The Old Testament contains many stories about men, from Abraham on, who do not easily accept the children they are given. The stories culminate in the New Testament with St Joseph who sums up so much of the experience of the men of the Old Testament, being told not to fear to take Mary as his wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Part of the problem is in an extraordinary way the child, consciously or not, is a sign of death. The child comes to replace us. Zechariah talks in the Benedictus of those who dwell in the shadow of death. Simeon has been told that he will not see death until he has seen the Messiah, or to put it another way, when he sees the Messiah, then he will die. The paradox is that only by accepting death can we accept life. This of course if very true of the child Jesus, we must welcome him into our lives so that he increases and we decrease: it is part of Resurrection which is not just something for the future but which starts here and now.
What about the women then on this feast. The strange thing is that Mary’s prayer the Magnificat does not address a child. Instead the prayer speaks of the future, of the generations to come and the pattern that God has established for history, where the proud will be laid low.
I think that this different focus is because women face a different temptation from men: men are tempted to reject the child; women are tempted not to let go of their child, not to allow their child to face the dangers of the world. This too is to dwell in the shadow of death. The Feast of the Presentation is a feast of light against death’s shadow. A man and a woman overcome the fear of death. The man by accepting the child, the woman by presenting the child to God, like Hannah before her, but in a vastly more profound way. Given up to death to overcome death, Christ is the light of nations. Something worth standing up for and celebrating.
The first Sunday of the New Year has an apparently outrageous title, it is the celebration of Mary the Mother of God. We could say that this feast has a great dogmatic and doctrinal significance, or to put it another way it takes us to the heart and wonder of our faith. The feast always falls a week after Christmas and after the excitement of angels, shepherd and Bethlehem it is as if we take a deep breath, calm down and remind ourselves that yes, this is our faith.
The title of the feast in the original Greek is Theotokos which means ‘God-bearer’ and is not simply a piece of flattery about Mary; we’re not in the business of being sycophantic here, but are actually claiming that Mary, a humble young woman from a nowhere town, a nowhere country, in a seemingly God-forsaken era of human history, gave birth to God. So immediately we realise that the feast is not primarily about Mary, it is about God. We are only interested in Mary because of what she shows us about God. That is always true of Mary as it is true about all the saints: we are interested in them only because they point us to God. The truth about Mary as God bearer is at once outrageous, and yet essential to our faith. The significance of this title is not so much in who Mary is as in who Jesus is. Mary is called ‘Mother of God’ because her first-born son, Jesus of Nazareth, who was circumcised two thousand years ago in Palestine, is really and truly God. Not ‘God’ in inverted commas, not ‘God in a way’ or semi-divine or ‘so perfectly in touch with the divine that he can be called “God” in a very real sense’. He was, is and ever shall be God, the divine Son of the divine Father, the Word that proceeds eternally from the Father. He is the word made flesh as St. John puts it, and he became flesh just as we all have in the womb of our mother.
This God was born of a woman, born under the Law — that is to say, born in a particular time and place, into a particular culture. This is the point that Saint Paul makes in his writings: if God was not in Christ then our faith is in vain. If that child was not God, and if that man nailed to the cross was not God, and if the man who came out of the tomb to live forever is not God, then all our religion is futile. Whether our idea of religion is a set of philosophical propositions, a strict moral code, a sense of communion with ‘the divine’ or a warm philanthropic glow, without the historical grounding of the birth of the man who is God, it is not Christianity and it is not the Good News. For our faith is not a human philosophy but a divine truth. To put it bluntly, you couldn’t make it up!
When the shepherds first heard the Good News from the angel, they told everyone they met, and were met with wonder, a wonder composed of amazement, incredulity and outright mockery we could well imagine. The shepherds, however, saw the child Jesus and went away glorifying and praising God. If we dare to model ourselves on those shepherds and tell the Good News that Mary points us towards, we will equally be met with scoffing and contempt. No matter: we have encountered God because we have encountered Jesus, and we go out glorifying and praising God. The Lord makes his face to shine upon us, and it is the face of Mary’s son.