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.