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.