Trust and Hope – Lent 5, 26 March, 2023
These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. We’ve had the woman by the well, the blind man healed and, today, we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to us, one that seems to get closer every year we age. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.
So, it is good to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, that wonderful passage that we shall hear again on the Easter vigil. We only get a snippet today, and then we listen to Our Lord’s command, “Lazarus, come out” and to wonder what all that means.
We Christians have some very distinctive, and some very special, things to say about death: about both real, physical death and about the other deaths, the little deaths, the endings and changes and losses that we seem constantly to be experiencing. In fact, we say much the same thing about both types of death. What that is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.
The valley of dry bones, that Ezekiel is looking at and talking to, is Israel. It’s a great passage but we miss the exiting part in the interests of brevity and just get the conclusion today. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. There were a few people left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren’t worth the effort to haul away. That was it. Israel was dead. The nation and faith were so defeated and scattered. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, and everybody knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death was supreme.
So, also with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead: very dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Our Lord could have helped if he’d arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.
So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Our Lord looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend’s body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel, and of Our Lord; and we see what they saw.
They first thing they saw was the reality, the force, the sheer power of death. Ezekiel was struck mute and ended up babbling on about how dry the bones were. Our Lord was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. There is nothing light-hearted here. Death is the final word creation has to say to us.
We all want to avoid death. Death is very real and it’s very powerful, and if we don’t say this first, then we’re not telling the truth. Jesus, Our Lord, joins in that grief with his own tears. The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain and fear in the face of death.
There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.
When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, and when Our Lord stood at Lazarus’ tomb, they didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life: they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or birds popping out of eggs. If Ezekiel had kept his mouth shut those bones would have stayed dry. If Our Lord had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.
All of this, is the first thing Ezekiel and Our Lord saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that, but they saw something more.
What Ezekiel saw, and what Our Lord saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel: and so, God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move: the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.
So, also, with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus came back. Before too long, Lazarus would die again, and Our Lord would not be there, and Lazarus would stay dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries: it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians see that the world does not see.
We see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.
At the same time, notice that these stories give us absolutely no information about the mystery of death itself. Nor do they promise that everything will be all right as we deal with the dying.
Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and then posts on Facebook talking about tunnels and bright lights and four day’s worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.
What’s more, St John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus’ life got quite a bit messier: less pleasant and more complicated; after this miracle. He too became a target of the authorities. He really didn’t live happily ever after, not as we count such things.
Also, Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission, than Israel had wanted, and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.
The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself, and that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see. Alas, we can see no farther: we can see no more. But we can see that far. We would like details, we would guarantees, and we would like some power and some control in all of this. We want to know what it’s like. But we don’t get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not in the midst of the other deaths, the little deaths.
Instead, in the face of all the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first that death is stronger than we are and that we have no knowledge about and no power over death, and then we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all: Lord of life and of death.
So, we must choose. Whatever deaths are before us, we must choose.
We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. That choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death: death in whatever form is a call to trust.
We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.
Who Sinned? – Lent 4, 19 March 2023
Well, today we had another long reading from St John. Last week we had the Samaritan Woman, and not we have the man born blind.
Yet the question this week touches one of the great questions of being human, the question of suffering. Who has sinned and what caused this man to be born blind? How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world that we believe God both created and loves?
The question about why always occurs; it’s been around since people started thinking about what it means to have only one God who is just, loving, and good. There is no really satisfying answers; no nice, neat conclusions. But the question persists, it has to: to ask this is part of what it means to be a thinking, engaged person. Things that happen must have a reason, an explanation: they have to make sense, if we’re going to understand them.
Let’s look at the story. Our Lord sees a man blind from his birth. His disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is, that hunger for some explanation in the face of tragedy, pain, and suffering, especially that which apparently make no sense, that we can neither understand nor justify. We also ask, why has this person got the virus?
We know about this question. We know that much of our pain, and the pain in the world, is hard to understand. It’s like the fate of the man born blind; it just happens. So, we all ask our own versions of “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We ask why there is so much pain; why people, especially good people, get sick or get hurt when it isn’t their fault. We ask why so many die so young. We wonder why families so often do not work out the way they should work out, the way everybody wants them to work out. We wonder about a lot of things.
The disciples wanted to understand this tragedy, and with it, other tragedies. Now, if the man had become blind because of his own carelessness, or if someone else had blinded him on purpose, then it would still be a tragedy, but it would make more sense; it would be easier to deal with. But that’s not what happened. So, the disciples ask.
One of the traditional answers in Our Lord’s time had been that tragedies such as this are a case of God visiting the sins of the parents on the children. Both the Books of Numbers (14:18) and Deuteronomy (5:9) say this quite specifically, and it had become a common proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The parents sin; the children suffer. While this isn’t particularly reassuring, it is at least something; it does offer an explanation. It shows how God, who has to be a part of everything, could also be a part of this.
But there were problems with this answer. It just wasn’t right. Many of the great thinkers in Israel’s tradition, notably the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (18:2), had flatly and very specifically denied this. They had insisted that God did not skip generations, that God treated people as individuals and not as heirs of someone else’s sin. We don’t inherit our parents’ sins. So, there was a contradiction in the tradition. It was a puzzle.
By and by, some other rather ingenious teachers came up with an interesting alternative. Perhaps, they speculated, a child could sin while it was still in the womb. Being born blind would be punishment for that sin. Again, while this was a really weird explanation, it was at least some sort of answer. There was some justice to be found, some sense to all of it, even if it wasn’t good sense, even if it felt less right than the earlier answer.
So, when the disciples asked Our Lord their question, they were asking him to choose from the two standard, traditional answers to the ancient question of “Why?” They were asking for an answer to the ancient cry for meaning and justice.
It’s important to realize what Our Lord does when he responds to this question. First, he rejects both options. In doing this, Our Lord is rejecting all answers that explain the question of “Why?” He doesn’t say, “No, that is not the reason, but this is.” Instead, and this is very different, Our Lord refuses to make sense of this situation by explaining it in terms of either the divine will or human sin.
So, he rejects the explanation that bad things happen because the victims are bad, or because the devil makes them happen, or because people don’t have enough faith, or because they don’t pray correctly, or whatever explanations people had come up with before and have come up with since. Covid was not a punishment for our sins, nor were the bushfires before that, nor 9/11 before that, nor the tsunami before that. Neither Our Lord nor the Christian faith offers any clear, rational, sensible explanation of senseless suffering. Neither Our Lord nor the Christian faith give us answers to the problem in the way we want answers.
Instead, we’re left with the brute fact that we live in a world that really isn’t fair, a world that is marked by ambiguity and inconsistency, a world that is dangerous, a place where strange things happen. We live in a world where tragedy happens for no apparent reason to people who do not deserve it. The point is not, that if we just have enough faith then these questions won’t matter, or we’ll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, but we will never understand to our satisfaction, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.
But that’s not all what Our Lord says. He says two more things. They are not answers to the question of “why,” and we make several important mistakes if we treat them like answers. The first occurs when Our Lord says of the man born blind that through him, the works of God can be made manifest. That is, the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end of it, causing it to happen. God won’t be found there, sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, covid virus and blindness like some hideous dealer at a cosmic casino.
Instead, the place to find God is in the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new, not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it. The God who is found there, the God who is active there, is the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side. Remember the Resurrection story with Thomas – those wounds are still there. It’s the God who knows, who cares, who remembers what suffering is like, the God of the Cross, the God who shares our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love. The God who takes the Cross of suffering and answers it with a crucifix with himself as the answer on it.
Remember, please remember, this is not an explanation of what happens. God didn’t poke the man’s eyes out before he was born, so he would be handy for Our Lord to use as a sermon illustration. That’s not the point.
Instead, the point is that God can be found in very real ways, even in transforming ways, in the very heart of undeserved and inexplicable pain. That’s the first thing Our Lord says.
The second thing Our Lord says is this: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Our Lord says “We.” We must work the works of God. Tragedy, pain, and suffering are also calls to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy.
Note that this isn’t an explanation, either. Terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But the call to such ministry and service is part of Our Lord’s response to the reality of tragedy and suffering: not a justification for them.
These two things are what Our Lord says to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They’re also the way Our Lord responds to our cries for explanations.
For us Christians, what makes sense out of the world’s and our suffering is not answers or explanations. Instead, what makes sense out of these is the presence of a God of compassion and love, along with the opportunity to serve. What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand it. Instead, it’s that God has taken it upon himself, and that God is present in it and through it, and that God calls us to love him, and to serve him, and to find him, in our own pain and in that of our brothers and sisters.
We don’t have explanations we want for why it happens. But God’s not picking on us. That’s the truth. It promises that we matter, that our service and care are important. It promises that we are never alone, never forsaken. God is indeed with us, even in the very heart of the very worst. Do not be afraid. That’s what we hear from God, time and time again, and that is enough.
Based partly on a sermon by Fr James of Texas.
A Remarkable Encounter – Lent 3 A, 12 March 2023.
The gospels, as we know, are the good news, the stories of the life and words of Our Lord, as told by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The reading we have heard today from St John’s gospel, the story of the Samaritan Woman, or the Woman at the Well, is a description of an extraordinary meeting. In fact, this passage contains the longest conversation with Our Lord recorded in Scriptures. It is extraordinary that this conversation occurs with a woman, a tired Samaritan woman, drawing water at the well in the heat of the day.
St John has included a travel narrative in the drama of Our Lord’s ministry to get to this point. Our Lord and his disciples are making a long journey on foot, walking from Jerusalem to Galilee, opting to take the shorter route through Samaria. The climate of the region is arid, hot, dusty, and barren. When the travellers stop at midday, they are tired, hungry, and especially, thirsty. The disciples go into the city to buy food, while Our Lord waits by the famous Well of Jacob. It’s an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide in the old scale. It’s now built over by a church, the last of a long line, but that’s another story. A woman approaches with her water jar, probably keeping herself modestly apart from the Jewish rabbi. Normally they would not speak to one another. But Our Lord is thirsty, and he is known for not necessarily behaving or speaking within the cultural norms. He asks for a drink. While she responds with surprise that he would speak to her, the tired woman at the well turns out to be a smart, witty, feisty conversationalist.
Our Lord and the woman engage in spiritual dialogue that is both profound and earthy, metaphoric and literal. “I can give you living water,” he says. Taking living water in its literal sense as spring water, she responds. “How? You have no bucket; the well is deep.” Our Lord replies with metaphor: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Her comeback is spirited, and somewhat sarcastic: “Sir, give me this water so I don’t have to keep coming here to draw water.” The tone of the conversation is almost bantering until Our Lord sets the trap. “Go, call your husband.” Then when she says, “I have no husband,” and he counters, “You have had five husbands,” But this woman is not left speechless, she responds, with all things, theology, “Sir, I see you are a prophet,” and engages him in discussion of worship. “I know the Messiah is coming,” she says with confidence. Again, Our Lord brings her up short. “I am he, I am the Messiah,” he declares.
Our Lord’s purpose is to reveal to Jew and Gentile, and John’s purpose is to convince his readers, that Our Lord is the Messiah and the Son of God, that all who believe in him with never thirst, and indeed will have everlasting life. The Samaritan woman realises that she has had an experience of God there at the well. In her awe and haste, she leaves her water jar behind. She gathers her neighbours: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” – and many come to believe that Our Lord is truly the saviour of the world.
Most traditional commentary on the story of this remarkable encounter focuses on the woman’s five husbands, and the one she has now who is not her husband. Five husbands and not married to her current partner. She must be, it is argued, an adulterer. She is at the well alone at noon, according to this line of thinking, because she is shunned by the other women, who come together to the well in the cool of the morning. In this interpretation, Our Lord exposes her lie, but he shows his compassion, saving the soul of an outsider, a marginalized woman, a sinner.
There are other possibilities. We have seen that the Samaritan woman is quick-witted, confident, and able to discuss her cultural history. There is nothing in the story that indicates adultery. It is not impossible, in those times, that she could be widowed multiple times. What ever has happened, she has had a life filled with grief and hardness. A widow would need to be sheltered in a man’s household. The one who is not her husband could be a brother, a cousin, or her husband’s brother. We don’t know.
But what about the time of day? In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Our Lord had a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a doubter. Unlike Nicodemus, who came to Our Lord by night, in the darkness of disbelief, the Samaritan woman is a striking example of a faithful woman. What if she comes at noon, in daylight, because daylight signifies faith? Our Lord sees her – “You’ve had five husbands” – and she in turn sees him for what he is, prophet and Messiah.
Having had this theophany, this revelatory experience of God, the Samaritan woman goes on to become an enthusiastic evangelist, a witness to the transforming power of faith. She uses her voice and her experience to gather more believers to Our Lord. “Come and see,” she says to the people of the city. While at first, they are convinced because of her testimony, she invites them to experience Our Lord for themselves.
It can be no accident that John chooses the Samaritan woman as the protagonist in the longest recorded conversation with Our Lord. The Samaritan woman is a dynamic character, energized by her meeting with a stranger at the well at midday. By her faith, her willingness to engage in spiritual dialogue and to believe in the abundant life that Our Lord offers her, the woman at the well emerges from the image of thirsty, careworn outcast to hopeful evangelist. As St Paul affirms, “Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
The Samaritan woman’s importance reaches deeper than that of a saved sinner. She is an example of faith, of spiritual questioning and dialogue, of experiencing the powerful presence of God. She is a voice of evangelism and witness. She encourages us all to engage in the faith, to ask and seek answers, and to receive that water that never fails, the living water of Our Lord.
Based on a sermon by Susan Butterworth, lay minister at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
What Happened in Christ Happens in Us – Lent 2, 5 March
Journey. You start somewhere, and you end somewhere. Well, journey is also a theme of Lent.
We remember not only the forty days that Our Lord lived in the wilderness, but also the forty years the Israelites lived in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. A journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. A journey for Our Lord from family to mission. In the Liturgy we walk the Litany every week to remind ourselves of the penitence and hardness of this time, and that it is always a journey. Furthermore. Christ’s life was, can and must be seen as a renewal of that pilgrimage towards the heavenly homeland bringing the whole of humanity to the Father.
In this journey, Christ is our guide. He is the new Moses who leads us through the desert of life.
The Christian exodus, like the Jewish exodus, is a journey not only on flat land, it also climbs various mountains.
So, walking with Christ, let’s climb with him on the mountain of temptation, on the hill of his great preaching by the Lake of Galilee; on the mountain of the transfiguration, Tabor; on the mountain of anguish, the Mount of Olives; on hill of death, on Mount Calvary; and on the Mount of Ascension, the Mount of Olives again. In the background, however, stand out also those mountains called Sinai, Horeb, and Moriah, the mountains of the revelation of the Old Testament. At the same time, these are mountains of passion and revelation. Furthermore, they refer to the mountain of the temple, in Jerusalem, for that too is a mount, Mount Zion, on which the revelation becomes liturgical.
Considering this, we can say that the mountain is the place of the ascent, we have to climb, body and spirit. Climbing the mountain spiritually is freeing ourselves from the burden of everyday life, it is breathing in the pure air of creation. A mountain offers the panorama of the breadth of creation and its beauty, gives us inner elevation and allows us to sense the Creator. Sacred history adds to these considerations the experience of the God who speaks and the experience of passion, which culminates in the sacrifice of Isaac and of the lamb, that prefiguration of the Lamb sacrificed on Mount Calvary. Moses and Elijah had been able to receive God’s revelation on the mountain; now on Mount Tabor, they are in conversation with the One who is the revelation of God.
Lent is not only a path of penance for people who are grieved for their sin. It is a path of light or, better, of conversion to light. The victory over temptation is already a source of transfiguration.
The Gospel of this Sunday presents us the Transfiguration of Christ. It is an event that marked the life not only of Jesus, but also of Peter, James, and John, and must mark our existence.
The context is of prayer, on Mount Tabor. It is a very special and privileged moment. It is a revelation of the divinity of Our Lord Jesus. It is a moment of light that Our Lord wanted in order to prepare his disciples for the passion and, also ourselves, so that we arrive prepared for Good Friday. We too must enter the mystery of the Transfiguration and make it our own. We must not only contemplate the radiant Christ but become what we contemplate.
The first way to participate in the gift of the Transfiguration is to give room to prayer and listening to the Word of God and to fix our gaze on the Our Lord, made truly present in the bread of mass. Furthermore, especially in this time of Lent, it is responding to the divine invitation of penance with some act of mortification.
Another way of living the mystery of the Transfiguration is to imagine the scene, as the Gospel describes it, and identify with one of the three apostles who accompanied Our Lord on Mount Tabor: “And he was transfigured before them (the three apostles: Peter, James, and John),and his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.“ Our Lord Jesus is transfigured: the white clothes and the shining face place us in the direction of the Son of Man, Daniel’s great vision. In this way, it is revealed to us that Our Lord Jesus, who is on the way to the Cross, is the Lord on the way to the light of the Resurrection. The last, and painful, pilgrimage that Our Lord is travelling, hides an Easter meaning. But it is a fleeting and provisional advance: the way forward is that of the Cross. In fact, the three favourite disciples, called to see in advance the glory of Our Lord, are the same that will be with him in Gethsemane where they will see his weakness. Peter, James and John (and we with them) contemplating the divinity of the Lord, are prepared to face the scandal of the cross.
The Gospel continues narrating that, next to the transfigured Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him. Moses and Elijah are the figures of the Law and the Prophets. These two great biblical characters, who had the privilege of “seeing and hearing” God on Mount Sinai and on Mount Horeb, are at the side of Our Lord on the mountain of the transfiguration and testify to his identity. It was then that Peter, ecstatic, exclaimed: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Moses and Elijah are particularly qualified characters to speak with Jesus on his journey. Moses led the people of God in the transition from Egypt to the promised land and, called by God to lead the march of Israel towards freedom, repeatedly felt the bitterness of the contestation and abandonment. He died on the threshold of the promised land without the satisfaction of entering it but he never failed in his faith. Elijah, one of the most tenacious prophets, intolerant of any form of idolatry and corruption of the government, knew flight, desert and solitude, but also the joy of the presence of God and the comfort of his word. Our Lord is walking towards the Cross, but he is the definitive prophet, the last word of God: “Listen to him”. The fundamental attitude of his disciple is listening.
Think back then to the forty years in the desert, which were a time of transition and trial, but they were also a privileged time. In the desert, dwellings or tents must be set up every evening and taken away every morning. The desert is the place of horror and death, the place of scorpions and snakes, the place of thirst and hunger, the place of hidden raiders that suddenly swoop down. But it is the time, also, of strength and life. Never as in the desert, the people are strong because they are bare, light and carry little luggage but a lot of life, hope, and energy to be treasured later when they arrive in their homeland.
The desert and tents were and are a privileged place, the place where one is face to face with God. It is also the place and time of total dependence. Already in the desert of exodus the realities that the New Testament will later assume as the last, that is, water, manna, and the Word, are understood precisely in the sense of total dependence from God.
The people who live under tents cannot do without vital elements such as water, food, manna, quails of the desert. The Lord God sends the goods, but God wants the people to have total availability and dependence and to demonstrate them because the Lord does not let anyone miss anything.
Lent is our time for travelling on a journey. How are we burdened down in life, and never ask Our Lord to lighten our burdens so we too can dwell with him? Our Lord gave up his glory to live among us, to dwell among us as a man with frail flesh that would be tortured and killed. He still dwells in our midst in our sacraments today, asking us to journey with him, knowing our failures, but forgiving and offering us new chances to travel with him into the promised land.
Ifs – Lent 1 A, 26 February, 2023
If. It is a wonderful word, opening the world to the imagination and dreams of the heart. If this was that or if that was this, then wouldn’t the world be just right. Yet in those ifs we find also the temptation to make the world in our own image, to fulfil our fantasies and sins. Our delusions can blind reality.
The Gospel today, the temptation in the wilderness, is all about ifs. We hear, “If you are… then,” the subtle temptations and promises of the the devil.
This is Lent, when we tackle the delusions of ifs. Look around and you see the flowers have gone, the side altar pictures are closed, the banners vanished, the alleluias silenced and the sombre purple joins our litany to state that this is a season of tackling our delusions of ifs and buts. We are called in this season to face who we are, our failures, our sins, our avoidances and dedicate our selves to the Way of the Cross.
The Way of the Cross is the path of our Lord. It is the path where he takes on the burdens of the world with all the delusions of the ifs and buts that have made sin such a potent force. In this season we are to tackle our own ifs and buts that have distracted us from seeing who we are and how we need our Lord’s love and grace.
Let’s go back first to the temptation in the Garden, from the first reading. The conversation between the Woman and the serpent in Genesis is deeply instructive about the nature of the lie.
The serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Look at this closely. The heart of the serpent’s lie is an implication that God does not love the woman. Instead, she is told that God has some other (non-loving) motive for withholding the fruit of the tree. Equally as diabolical is the lie, “You shall not die.” This is the false suggestion (which toxic shame itself often tells us) that we can have an existence of our own construction, that what God has given to us is insufficient or inadequate. It is another way of declaring that we are not loved.
In contrast, the heart of the gospel is that we are loved by God. We were created by love and for love, and are sustained and healed through love. St John is so grounded in this fact that he declares, “God is love.” And this is the very nature of reality, the nature and content of truth. The healing of shame (whether toxic or otherwise) is always an action of love. It is not a love that says, “Nothing is wrong,” (for that would itself be a lie). It is a love that says, “Then neither do I condemn you.”
It is this subtle use of lies that plays into the Gospel today, with the ifs. “If you are the Son of God” leads into the temptations of power and grandeur of the world. To give bread for all without work, to fly, to have the world in all its splendour, all these temptations are for worldly power, for popularity, to be loved and acclaimed. Yet all were false, for there were in the end cheap gifts, ones that are not true gifts. There were cheap, for they were not based on the love of people who knew their cost.
The Way of the Cross is the way of cost. For our Lord, the cost was his death, to prove the depth of love. For us, the cost is to be true in who we are with our faults so we can make a surrender of the fault to our Lord. We hold on to many of our faults because they are convenient props to who we are: we are distant so we don’t have to risk intimacy, we are busy so we don’t have to give time, we are stingy so we don’t have to risk poverty, for all the risks are bound into ifs, if I do this then I have to take a risk I don’t want to face.
Yet our Lord walks the Way of the Cross to take on all risk. For him there was not the risk, but the certainty, that the only way he could show the love was to take on death: the death that would be the torture of the cross, the nails in flesh driven into wood.
To strip away our illusions, our daydreams of ifs that hide the truth of faults, we are called to take on three things each Lent: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. To do without, or to take on more. To fast, to give up food, to know want in its basic form. This can be the traditional fast on Friday, to go without a meal, or to eat fish. Or you can fast from the extras in life, magazines or television. To go without makes us realise that we have too much and makes space in crowded lives.
Almsgiving also teaches us of the riches in our lives. We all struggle to make our ifs fulfilled with money. If only I had this or that then I would be happy. Alas, the pleasure is only fleeting, and new desires waken that call for more money. We are called at this season to give up some of our wealth, painful though it may be. To do without so others may do with necessities. Then we find that the real riches are not those of the world, but the love that comes from God. Our Lord was tempted with the world with all its glory and riches, yet the love of God was worth much more.
Finally we have prayer, the foundation of our relationship with God. We have to find time for more prayer during this season. Even if the prayer is just another moment that we realise is too brief. A hallo prayer when we get up for the glory of another day and all its chances, a thank you prayer as we lie on our beds, or a decent prayer time with good reading. Whatever our opportunities offer, we need to find that time of prayer in Lent so we can grow in our love. If we are to follow the Way of the Cross then we need some directions, and the directions only come from a life of prayer. You cannot find the Way from the daydreams and temptations of ifs, you need the solid pointers that are revealed in prayer.
The devil’s dance of deception seeks to confirm the lie, to tell us that we are not dying (or already dead), and urging us further into the make-believe world of the shame-constructs of sin. Ifs and false promises are delusions. For the God of Love does not promise to change the past, nor to make the pain disappear. Rather, love makes it possible for the past to truly become the past and for the pain to become bearable.
The Fulfilment of the Law – 12 February
We come here, as Christians, especially in our Anglican and Catholic tradition, to learn about the God of Love. How God gives his only Son to us, who dies and rises for us, to show forth the love of God to each and every one of us.
Well then, we get a bit of a shock when we come to today’s Gospel. No only are we not to murder, we are not even to think of murder or be even angry with a person, or even insult someone: even calling such a person a fool will make us liable to the hell of fire. We are not to commit adultery or even think in lust. We are not to swear falsely or even swear at all. So in the end, there is precious little we can do without finding ourselves in the hell of fire.
Not an optimistic outcome for most of us, I fear.
So what is going on?
St Matthew in his Gospel presents the most Jewish memory of Our Lord. It is Matthew who records that Our Lord wore the tassels of an observant Jew. It is Matthew who records, as we heard at the start of the Gospel today, that Our Lord comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. “Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven we learn. The scribes and the Pharisees were not slack either – Our Lord never accuses them of that.
Yet at the same time we learn that Our Lord eats with those who are unclean, does work on the Sabbath by healing the ill, and declares all food clean. All are breaches of the Law. So how can one who sets aside the requirement of the Law, to be ritually pure, say that he does not come to abolish the Law?
This passage comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, the passage where Our Lord give the new way of living to his disciples, which started with the Beatitudes.
Our Lord is here dealing with the implications of what the Law actually means. The disciples knew the Law – they knew the Ten Commandments and the rules that flowed through them, on how to live a life that was pleasing to God. Here, though, Our Lord hammers out the consequences. The Law is not a boundary line of sin. It’s not that if you kill you sin, but you feel like killing someone you are innocent. It’s not that the act of adultery is a sin, but lust is not. The commandments do not mark boundaries: do this and you sin, otherwise you are righteous. The Law marks instead ethics on how you live. That’s an important distinction.
It’s the realisation about how sin works: sin is not the completion of evil; sin is the result of wrong living. Sin does not suddenly happen: sin is the result of a life that has slowly gone wrong. The Ten Commandments are not showing the events that will displease God – they are showing the results of a life that has gone astray from God.
What Our Lord wants his disciples to do instead is to fulfil the Law, to live lives that are close to God’s heart. It’s not about boundaries, do this and you are good, a little further and you are evil. That’s nt what God is about, like some sort of boundary enforcer. Human lives are lives that live in sin, that fail and move away from God. That is the frailty of living in a world that is imperfect, of living lives that fail.
Now, we can deal with this failure to live pure lives in several ways. We can say we are dammed; we are going to the hell of fire. This is the pessimism of damnation – nothing matters because we are dammed.
Another way is by saying that only certain things count as sins: this was what Our Lord is condemning in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Their way was that only if you committed the big sins would you be in trouble. Only the commission of adultery or murder was a sin, not its approach. It was this scrupulousness that Our Lord is attacking here. One again, the Commandments are not boundaries: they are pointers to wrongdoing. There is no sudden change from innocence to sin, sin is a gradual accumulation of evil.
What Our Lord wants to show is a new way though his way of life. Instead of pretending that we are perfect, or sinless, or instead dammed to hell, Our Lord wants to show a new way of facing our imperfections. This is the realisation that we do sin. We are imperfect. We are not what God hopes we will be. However, the way of Our Lord is the way of love, for it shows us that God still loves us despite our sins and offers forgiveness. The life and death and resurrection of Our Lord show God’s acceptance of us as imperfect beings and God’s call to us to receive forgiveness instead. Christianity is not a struggle against an impossible moral code – Christianity is the lesson that we are imperfect, and God loves us anyway, and God offers us forgiveness when we are humble and accept our imperfections and ask for God’s help.
That’s why in last week’s Gospel he tells the crowd that they are the salt of the world, the light that cannot be hid. He was not talking to the perfect, he was talking to a crowd of frightened people, desperate to find healing, full of failures. He was not going to condemn them. Our Lord saw that they were his children, the children of God, and had so, so much potential if they could listen and follow. That’s the message he still calls to us. Try.
There is also the importance of forgiveness. Scripture teaches that forgiveness is an act of grace and mercy, and that it is through forgiveness that we can experience the love and forgiveness of God. Christians are called to forgive others, just as they have been forgiven by God.
Apologising and saying sorry are important aspects of forgiveness. By taking responsibility for our actions and expressing remorse, we demonstrate our commitment to making amends and repairing the relationship. Forgiveness is a two-way street, and both parties must be willing to work towards reconciliation. This means not only apologising, but also listening to the other person’s perspective and trying to understand their feelings.
Forgiveness can be difficult, especially in cases of hurt or betrayal. But, as Christians, we are called to put aside our pride and our desire for revenge and instead choose to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened or ignoring the hurt that has been caused, but rather, it is a deliberate decision to release the anger, bitterness, and resentment that we may feel towards someone else.
Sin makes its home in us when we deny its existence. Sin makes its home in us when we despair. God does not want that. God wants us to be people we were created to be, joyous children of light. This can only be done by love, the love of God who takes us back, and the love that waits for us to turn back to God, to be open to God, and to see our shortcomings and ask God to help us by forgiving. The fulfilment of the Law is not its rigorous keeping: it is discovering that it is founded on the Law of Love, who is God.
Hills and Light, Salt and Food – 5 February
Welcome this morning to Gesimatide. If you are wondering what I am talking about, you can look at the pew sheet and the Sunday today is Septuagesima, which means seventy days, as we are now roughly seventy days before Easter. The Church year is divided around two great feasts: Christmas and Easter. Christmas, and the feasts following of Epiphany, Baptism of Christ, and Candlemas look at the manifestations of Our Lord’s divinity. Easter, looks at his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, but in one sense look at Our Lord’s humanity, how he really took on who we are, and lived as one of us, complete with eating, sleeping, weeping suffering and even death. As Hebrews puts it, tempted in every way as we are, except without sin. Now that we have finished the season of Christmas with the feast of Candlemass last week, our readings start to look forward to Lent and look at our Lord’s humanity.
Being human, means we need to learn as well, and Our Lord was a good teacher. Like today, he uses very human things: a light on a lampstand, salt in food. Simple things to teach a profound message. Food is bland unless it gets some salt, lights can’t be seen unless they are up high. But note you need both: bland food and salt, lights and stands. Both.
Which leads me to the news of the week, the requiem mass for George Cardinal Pell in Sydney. Everyone seems to have an opinion about George Pell: to some he was a highly courageous and wronged man, and to others someone who concealed abuse or even worse. I have a friend who went to the requiem this week, and the eulogies were inspiring about a man who gave a clear moral guidance. I have another friend who went through the Melbourne church system for those who abused by Roman Catholic priests and found the process antagonistic and unsympathetic. Pell was all those things: courageous, controversial, narrow-minded, and protective of the institution over victims of abuse. We all have our opinions of him.
But Pell is in God’s hands now, but it’s worthwhile to ponder a little on how he was treated and how we continue to treat those who challenge us.
Australia is not a good place for open discussion. We do not like being challenged with different ideas, and the technology of the internet has allowed abuse to flourish instead of allowing new spaces of conversation. Cardinal Pell was vilified for his views, which were a legitimate conservative contribution to the debate on how we should live. Questions of gay rights, gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, are questions, not predetermined answers. To find out how we should answer them, we are as Christians, and particularly as Anglicans, to reflect on what Scripture, tradition and reason says. Furthermore, we know that tradition is a continually revelation, as that great Anglican and Roman Catholic John Henry Cardinal Newman. But to come to a well-informed choice of the conscience we need to hear those opinions, we need to hear what people are saying. We need the lights on the stands, we need the salt on the food.
We used to call this tendency to attack those leaders who unsettled us the tall-poppy syndrome, but it has become more than that now. Even when we attacked the tall poppies there was still debate, often much of it in ways that would not pass the political correctness of today. But now we are demonising the conversation space with incivility and abuse. We are attacking now not just the salt and the lights, but the variety of the food and the stands. We are less tolerant of difference.
There is also a growing intolerance to the reality that our public figures, like all of us, are people with faults, not everyone can be Jesus Christ. We are also forgetting to live with people with whom we differ but with respect and love. The treatment of George Cardinal Pell was one instance where people were out to get him, and not try and see his contribution to the public life of Australia.
This has not always been so. Those of you who have read the recent biography of Don Dunstan, for example, would learn how Dunstan would send a car to collect his old adversity Sir Tom Playford to bring him around to his office when he had some difficult decisions to make. Dunstan appreciated Playford’s political sense. Going back further, to the time of our first bishop, Augustus Short, Short initially did not get on at all with Samuel Way, after whom Wayville is named just up the road. Way had invited a rather extreme Calvinist called Thomas Binney to Adelaide and Short banned Binney from preaching in any Anglican church. This did not bode well for a relationship between Way and Short. However, over the years Way and Short progressed, and Way now knighted, became Chief Justice. But Short and Way learnt to respect each other and work with each other, especially in the founding of Adelaide University and this cooperation helped Short obtain permission for women to receive degrees. Both were good Christians who learnt respect for each other.
Well, we are not all like Short, Way, Playford, Dunstan or Pell, but we are all Christian and called to listen to the words of Scripture. We are called to let there be salt and light and to respect those who give such variety to our lives. We are called to live our lives so that we do give our opinions though. We have to be brave in our families and jobs at times to show what we believe. Remember also those great words that St Francis of Assisi never said, that in all things preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words. How we live, how we act, in saying what we believe and respecting those from whom we differ is the way we live the Christian life. Also, those who lead our society and utter opinions, they are not all saints, nor are they all demons. We should be gentle with people so that people may be gentle with us. We should remember that people are fallible, and not be hasty to condemn. We should give thanks for people even with flaws, like George Cardinal Pell.
Finally, enjoy the diversity and eccentricity of those who are different. One of my best moments of the week was seeing one of our local characters at the bus stop. She’s very eccentric and many people avoid her on the streets but over the years I have grown to know her. I asked her at the bus stop if she was off to Woollies to do her shopping. No, she said, I’m off to the Red Cross to buy an evening dress to wear on the street. What a wonderful life, and now I’m waiting for her to wear the dress in Goodwood for Lent.
Candlemass – 29 January
Standing in the present looking back on dreams and hopes of the past; being aware of pains and hurts of the past; and longing for a hope-shaped future.
I wonder if that sounds familiar. Well, that was the experience of two old people over 2,000 years ago: Simeon and Anna.
This episode in St Luke’s gospel draws the past and the future into a very present moment as Joseph and Mary come to present their baby boy in the temple, as was the custom. In the present moment, the pain and joy of past and future are drawn into a place of hope. At the centre is the baby Christchild, revealed as the light of the world.
For so long, and through life’s ups and downs, Simeon had held fast to the promises of God as told by the prophets such as Malachi. Now Simeon physically holds that dream come true – the baby Christ. As we hear those poignant words of Simeon which are echoed in the Nunc Dimittis (that prayer recited down the centuries at the end of day and often at funerals): ‘Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace – your word has been fulfilled.’
Simeon is ready to pass from life to death, and to eternal life with God.
Here is the light of the world – so shocking to the Jewish people at that time because this tiny fragile baby is not only being revealed as their promised Messiah but he is being revealed as the light for ALL people. The one who is the hope for all people and all places in every time, is lying in Simeon’s arms.
Anna too is a holder of hope. We know very little about her but what we are told is moving. She was only married for seven years before her husband died. She was a woman who knew about grief and loss and shattered dreams, and she had chosen to spend her days worshipping in the temple, keeping her eyes fixed on God, praying – prayer based in hope.
In Anna we glimpse something of the grief and loss and shattered dreams which Mary is yet to experience. As Simeon speaks in a place of hope, he also speaks of Mary’s pain yet to come, for a sword will piece your heart also we hear. Simeon tells Mary of pain yet to come.
So that, many years later, when Mary stood at the foot of the cross watching her grown son cruelly tortured to death, when that amazing good news from the Angel Gabriel all those years before now looked as if it were all crumbling, Mary looked back and recalled those words of Simeon and clung onto hope, just as Simeon had done for all those years.
Mary would remember Anna too, and somehow Mary knew that she, too, would be able to live with her pain, by the grace of God, because, somewhere in it all, there was hope in God. Like Anna and Simeon, Mary saw deeply. She saw beyond the immediate and how life seemed to be, and she clung onto hope. That didn’t diminish the pain of her thoughts and emotions in the present, but that tiny flame of hope remained strong in the darkness. She knew the truth that she had given birth to the Light of the world, and the darkness would never overcome that light.
A word we hear frequently is that word ‘resilience.’ For that is what we see in Simeon and Anna and Mary – a hopeful resilience, and we’re given a beautiful insight into how Mary nurtured that hope-shaped resilience.
This telling of this presentation of Christ in the temple, comes immediately after St Luke’s narrative of the shepherds on that first Christmas night. We are told that after the shepherds left the Holy family in Bethlehem, Mary treasured their words about all they had experienced, and she pondered them in her heart.
In these days of our present, like Simeon and Anna and Mary we are deeply aware of pain and that great sense of loss that people are experiencing in so many different ways, and we need to be honest about our struggles and our weariness. Yet we also need to ponder – to look back and to look forward – to pray and ponder and to replenish the treasure of God within our hearts.
In a little while we will proclaim the great mystery of faith: ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’. Deep words to ponder as we treasure the mystery of what God has done in Christ and that which is yet to come. Deep words as we ponder the greatest gift of all, that Our Lord’s own flesh and blood are offered to us, full of forgiveness. In our pondering, we pray that we will see more deeply – beyond how life seems to be.
As we walk into this week, where will be our prayerful pondering in our own lives and in the life of our church, as we acknowledge the darkness, yet also ponder and treasure the light of Christ which will never be overcome!
So what will you thank God for this week and treasure for the future, to sustain us with Simeon, with Mary, and all the countless saints throughout the ages, so that we can live the struggle with hope? What will you ponder this week which will build up the treasure store within you from which, like Anna, you can bless those around you?
May this week be one in which we treasure and ponder God’s promises and blessings so that we might see more deeply, and live the present with hope in Jesus Christ.
Two Lambs – 15 January, 2023
Dickens famously started one of his books with the tale of two cities. Today I would like to tell you the tale of two lambs.
The first lamb I want to tell you about is the Lamb of Abraham. You may remember the story, Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son, and sacrifice him on the mountain. So Abraham took his son, Isaac, and when his son asked him what they would sacrifice he only told him that God would provide. Then Abraham took his son, bound him, lay him on the wood and prepared to kill him as a sacrifice.
The God intervened and told him that was not necessary, and directed him to a lamb or ram in a bush nearby that was caught. Abraham took that lamb, and sacrificed him instead.
Now the importance of this incidence is that it marks a clear change in sacrificial needs in the pre-history of Israel. Human sacrifice was not practised again by them; in fact, they would see it as abhorrent. But other races, even the Romans at times of crisis, would still sacrifice humans. The reason for sacrifice is that it appeases the gods. People need to keep God happy, so they offer what is precious, and the most precious thing was life itself, and human life was the most valuable.
So that’s the first lamb I want to talk about.
The second lamb comes from the passage we heard today in the Gospel, when John calls Our Lord the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our Lord would be seen as the perfect lamb that would offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and would die meekly like a lamb on the cross. So the need of sacrificing lambs at the Temple would cease with the sacrifice of the perfect lamb.
Now, the odd thing about this imagery, is that a lamb replaces a human, with the lamb replacing Isaac the son of Abraham, and then a human replacing all lambs, with Our Lord taking the perfect lamb. It’s a lovely mirror imagery.
But the weakness is why Our Lord must be sacrificed. Now this is where we start to think about why did Our Lord die, what we call the atonement. If we see sacrifice as appeasing an angry God, then we start by sacrificing any human, then we go to lambs, then we go to a perfect human. The problem with all this is that why should God be angry with us? Now we do make mistakes, we do commit sins. But it’s not enough to say that we need to appease God for our sins, because that gives the image of God as an angry God. Much of our theology of what we call the atonement, why God dies for us, is based in ideas about either an angry God needing satisfaction, or a legal God needing the laws to be satisfied. That’s part of our inheritance though Augustine, Anslem and Calvin, great and wonderful theologians, but also thinkers reflecting their own times. What the Gospels present instead is a loving God, a loving God who loved us so much he gave us his only Son.
Instead of thinking about angry gods wanting vengeance we should start to think about us as beings who by shame try to make good our sins by offering something precious. God always is there to forgive: that is what love is about. We offer precious things like other humans, but God does not want us to take life. So God directs us to offer lambs instead. Finally, God sends the Son to teach us a new way that shows us that even this sacrifice is unnecessary: and God then allows his Son to die as a victim of our anger and injustice. But to show that God is not one of vengeance, God does not punish us for killing his only Son, God has his Son rise to life again to show us that the way of vengeance and anger is only a phase, and that true forgiveness and new life lie beyond.
Now we can start to ponder what John the Baptist says today: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees Our Lord as the ultimate lamb that finishes all the sacrifices of lambs in history. But a lamb was sacrificed for a person sins: this lamb takes away all sin, note how John says the sin, not sins of the world. The sin of the world is the need for vengeance, the need to sacrifice to take away our shame. Our Lord as the perfect sacrifice takes all that sin away. There is no need of vengeance, there is only the need for love.
It is also worthwhile to consider, that where in the past we offered the lamb to God, God now offers the Lamb to us. We offered the lamb to appease the anger of the gods: now God offers the Lamb in his Son, to appease our anger. It is God’s offering of the Son that takes away the sin of the world for in that we realise the extent of the love of God in that God withholds nothing from us, not even his Son.
As an aside, in Aramaic “talja” means both “lamb” and “servant,” so it may also be referencing the idea of the suffering servant from Isaiah. So the Lamb of God is also the Servant of God.
When we come to communion, we use those words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the Holy Mother Church inviting her children to see that in the bread and wine, we take the body and blood, of the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Lamb of God. All thoughts of vengeance and appeasement are finished, instead we are presented with the love of God that withholds nothing. We are invited to come and receive him, not that we are worthy, but instead to be healed of the insanity of the cycle of vengeance and sacrifice. It calls on us to deal with our cycles of anger and vengeance, to learn to let go of this, and instead accept a God who took away all sin, and invites us to release and forgive instead, as he did.
Releasing the cycle of hate is one that we only accomplish by forgiveness. We see this forgiveness in the life and sacrifice of Our Lord. This is what we are called to practice. Now, people are more concerned about happiness than forgiveness I find, and that’s more to do with high or low are expectations are in life, most people start with high expectations and learn to lower them over time. But for Christians, we are about learning to become Christlike, and that can only be done by forgiveness. I think the secret to forgiveness is learning to be grateful for what we have, even when we have been injured by then sin of others. From gratefulness for what we have, we can learn that God takes even the blackest moments of our lives and redeems them. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, gives himself to us instead. That is the greatest gift that a God can give, and a gift for which we are eternally thankful.
Epiphany 8 January – by Timothy Hender, Lay Reader
Thank-you to Wardens and Priest.
Before King James I on Christmas Day 1622, Lancelot Andrewes preached:
It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off . . . , ‘the very dead of winter.’
TS Eliot, not only an Anglo-Catholic but also a great admirer of Lancelot Andrewes, incorporated these words into his poem The Journey of the Magi – a work read widely in Anglican churches at this time of year, including our own. The Journey of the Magi is narrated by a Magus who wearily recounts a simpler time when he could trust in his faith before the disruptive revelation of the Christ child. For those of us of a traditional or liturgical persuasion this is part of our understanding of the epiphany; yet step outside the church door and countless Christmas cards, pageants, cribs, reliquaries and carols have contributed to the popular cultural construct of the epiphany – of a camel’s breath steaming in the cold night air, its saddle bags stuffed with low carat gold and flashy oriental gems, and of elderly gentlemen wrapped in extravagant layers of ornamented silk, bent over a pristine baby in a meticulous barn.
There are many gaps between this popular story and the visit of the wise men as recounted in today’s gospel. For example, Matthew introduces the practice of astrology – a practice that is otherwise not present in the Scriptures – we simply don’t know the time of year and there is no hint of the names Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. There are also gaps between today’s reading from Matthew and the nativity narrative elsewhere in Scripture – Bethlehem v Nazareth, house v stable and so forth.
We are not going to resolve these gaps today, even if we wanted or needed to. Instead, let us put the minutiae of biblical criticism aside and consider, instead, the broader message that Matthew (writing shortly after the time of Christ), the early church fathers (who developed the notion of the Christ’s presence and relationship to the world with great care and consideration) and the compliers of the Scriptures (who presumably included the epiphany for a purpose) wanted us to hear.
At Christmas we encounter the incarnation – the coming of Christ as both man and divinity, having taken his human nature from his human mother, Mary. His presence in the stable was only made to the local Jews and it was with the visit of the Three Magi that his divinity was revealed to the Gentiles – that is, to the world beyond Judaism and by extension to all humanity, including us. The daily mass readings leading up to the Epiphany remind us that there were other revelations of Christ’s divinity to various audiences; for example the descent of the dove at Christ’s baptism by John, the calling of the first disciples and in a much more earthy way than today’s reading, the marriage at Cana and the miracle of water into wine. That Christ was brought to the visible world as truly divine and truly human is clearly the knowledge, the understanding that the early Church wanted us to hear.
However, the epiphany sits within a broader concept of the incarnation in Scripture and we have been left a more complex message. We should not forget that the incarnation and these subsequent revelations are of Christ’s divinity in the visible world but that He has been eternally present as the Word, the Son of God and as one of the three persons of the Trinity in the invisible – God’s – world. The most prominent scriptural attestation is John 1:1 – ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God’ and in the trinitarian formulae of St Paul, amongst others.
Christ’s eternal presence continues. His ascension is presented as continuance and not a termination, and to this I would add that His nature since the ascension continues to be both divine and human. This is easily forgotten, especially as we often put down our Bibles after Easter Day. In His appearances after the resurrection He appears in forms that do not conform to the norms of the visible world, unlike before the crucifixion when he presented largely as human. For example, He not only escaped the tomb – He appeared in ‘another form’ to two disciples, was unrecognisable on the road to Emmaus, was mistaken for the cemetery gardener and despite appearing (apparently spontaneously) in locked rooms could sit down to a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. In other words He appeared as both human and divine at the same time and it is in this state in which He ascended.
What does this mean for us? It means that we can be in no doubt that all of humanity are upheld in Christ’s humanity and that his incarnation and resurrection apply to the whole universe of things in both the visible and invisible world. It also means that in sharing our humanity with Christ that we have been and will be resurrected with Him. In other words, we were not only with and of Christ when He was in our world, but since the resurrection and ascension continue to be with Him in God’s world. This should be of great comfort to us, that in meeting Christ in the eucharist we are not only meeting Him as we remember Him from the Bible, but in His eternal form, both fully divine and fully human.
 John 1:29-34, Mark 1: 17-11
 John 1:35-51
 John 2:1-11
The Holy Name – 1 January, 2023
There are always numbers in the church. We celebrate the forty days of Lent, which is actually more than forty days. We talk about the twelve days of Christmas, ending on Epiphany. We also regularly talk about Octaves, eight days, or seven if you ignore the first day. Octaves are well marked with often special starts and ends; or if a Saint’s day falls mid-week, it can be moved to the Sunday in the Octave, which we regularly do for St George here. Anyway, it is on the eighth day of Christmas that the church celebrates the Holy Name of Jesus.
We celebrate the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus on this eighth day of Christmas because it was on the eighth day that Jesus was circumcised and received this name. This story is told in a single verse of the gospel we just heard.
The shepherds, summoned by an angel, have visited the baby in the manger. They return home, praising God for what has happened. Then comes the focus of today’s celebration. “After eight days had passed,” we hear from the gospel, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
“It was time to circumcise the child.” Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph have their child circumcised on the eighth day. Thus he becomes a participant in the covenant, a son of Israel.
Circumcision brings with it the shedding of blood. What happens to Our Lord on his eighth day is the first small step in the shedding of his blood for the redemption of the world.
His blood will be shed abundantly when his life draws to it close.
• In the Garden of Gethsemane he will pray so urgently that his sweat will resemble clots of blood falling to the ground.
• Blood will drip when he is scourged with whips by Roman soldiers, and when they press a crown of thorn branches deep into his head.
• Blood will drip as he carries his cross on the long walk to Calvary, and when spikes are driven through his feet and hands.
• And blood will drip even after he is dead, when the sharp point of a Roman lance cuts into his heart.
The blood shed at his circumcision is only a small beginning, the promise of what awaits him.
But something more than circumcision happens to Our Lord on his eighth day. He receives his name. Among the Jews, circumcision is when a boy is named. A Jewish boy is named by a ceremony of blood, a Christian starts by a ceremony of water: it makes you ponder John’s description of Jesus dying on the cross, when blood and water flowed from his side, John perhaps seeing a new way of Jews and Christians living in Jesus.
The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the Greek version of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appears to him in a dream.
And so it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It is a name that comes from God. The name of the Saviour, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.
We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next. The name of Jesus points us to who he is, who he is for us: the Saviour, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, a different way of life.
The name of Our Lord Jesus has long been held to be holy and special. The old Anglican canons, or laws, asked people to bow their heads at the name of Our Lord Jesus, a custom we maintain here at St George’s.
There are three great prayers in Christianity: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer.
The recitation of the Holy Name of Jesus is the third great prayer. One famous form of this is the continual recitation of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is a lovely and famous book from the eastern tradition called “the Way of the pilgrim” which became popular is the mid 20th C, about a pilgrim who travels through Russia in the 19c learning and living this prayer, saying it continually. The practice of learning to say this prayer over and over again is one of the great calming prayers of our faith. It is a prayer we should try and make part of our spiritual life for the challenges of our lives.
A new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray with devotion the Holy Name of Jesus.
• Perhaps some of us will die during the new year. We can leave this life at peace with God, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may face great trials. We can meet them confidently, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may experience wonderful joys, new opportunities, unique blessings. We can express our gratitude, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.
A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Saviour’s Name with faith and fervour, a year when we discover that this world can be a very different place through the power of the Holy Name.
Based partly on a sermon by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker of the USA.
The Word Became Flesh – Christmas Day 2022
Let me tell you about one of my favourite poems, over a thousand years old from Anglo Saxon England, called the Wanderer. It is about a man who is, as we would say now, a stranger in a strange land. His people are dead, and he wanders with no true home, never at ease in a foreign land. Everywhere he goes he feels lost and he yearns for a past he cannot have. It is a feeling that many of us can relate to, maybe when we were younger, maybe when we migrated, maybe when we left home, and our parents are no more. It is perhaps more poignant at Christmas, too, when we miss family and homes. We might all feel a sense of homesickness of this time, for members of families, friends, or the past.
The Gospel that we read this morning has also a sense of homesickness. St John writes:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.” (1:10-11)
It describes Christ’s “homecoming.” It is followed by a statement that reverses and fulfils:
“But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name:” (1:12)
Part of the Christian story was that God came to us, to make his home here, but we did not receive him.
That is why that within us something that responds to the phrase, “Stranger in a strange land.” The sense of homesickness, or a desire for “home,” is not erased by substitutes or marketing. If anything, we must describe our inherent homesickness as a gift from God. A quote from C.S. Lewis points to this:
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Or as St Augustine puts it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
It is to Lewis’ credit that he managed, despite a young man’s atheism, to come to the realization that his heart was hungry for God, homesick for heaven, and that he needed to change course and set sail towards that Dawn that has no ending. It is of note, that it is likely that this longing was intensified by the death of his mother when he was a young boy.
Our own lives, indeed, the life of the world, is marked by many tragedies, disappointments and points of suffering. They are not the “cause” of our homesickness, but they easily contribute to its poignancy. I look back fondly and at times achingly to a time when my parents were alive and the Christmases then, for I am homesick for another time. But now I say my prayers for my dead parents. In one sense, they are not only part of my past but part of a future for I properly long. I am homesick for what is past, but I believe I will find a homecoming in heaven.
Even so, I know that much of my homesickness for the past is an illusion. Much of what I ever knew in the past was make-believe, or imaginary. For example, no child truly knows their parent. What we see of them is the tip of an iceberg, often surrounded with things we imagine to be true. A child might mention a moment that endures in their memory which the parent cannot even recall. All we could ever find, were we truly able to travel into the past, would be a shadow, a shade, a ghostly apparition that mocks reality itself. These things have no place in the true heart, the true home. The true heart, so often hidden from our awareness, is paradise. And, as such, it contains “many mansions.” Many things, even all things, dwell there, but not as they were. What we find in the depths of the true heart is Christ, and all things in Christ.
But our Lord came into this world to make it his home, but his own received him not. He knew the sense of homesickness as the home he offered all was rejected. We were as a stranger in a strange land indeed, a wanderer, seeking to show people the path of love.
This Christmas I would ask you to remember that Christ has come to us to make his home with us. There is no fuller way of living than to know the power of God who dwells with us if we let him. We will always be homesick if we do not receive Christ into our lives, and our lives will be filled with substitutes to try and fill that void. He has come to make his home with us, and to be our home, to welcome us strangers into the place that has been prepared for us. There we will be strangers no more; we may dwell in paradise – the heart’s true home.
Christmas Eve – 2022
Many of us have grown up with a widely held view that Christmas is a time for children. As children we believe in Santa Claus, but don’t look Santa Claus. The presents, the excitement, is a time for mounting excitement for children, with a stealthy Santa Claus making a climactic visitation on Christmas Eve to deposit presents under the Christmas tree while the children, hopefully, slept on. For adults, Christmas stirs up the memories of childhood. It brings seasonal rituals which unlock the past and move us by a strange compulsion to share childhood again with our children. We may gather around the tree to open presents, or share laden tables of festive food, pulling bon bons. Indeed, parents may so completely forget themselves that they end up on the floor having taken over their children’s Christmas toys! All this and much else tell us that Christmas is a time for children.
Yet for Christians, Christmas itself summons us with a more compelling insistence which demands that we DO become as little children again. Our Lord himself tells us this is so; it is his Father’s plan for the whole of humanity — there is simply no room for those who consider themselves to be grown up, to be adult. For a Divine infant, a wordless Word, cries out from a stable in Bethlehem for the whole world to be silent and listen; so that we may learn to become as little children: as helpless, as vulnerable, as available for his Father, as he is.
Our Lord does not offer us an adult world. Rather, He offers us himself. The adult world is one of nuclear madness and arms race insanity; impossible house prices and environmental catastrophe; ideological war and moral bankruptcy; technological enslavement and media addictive propaganda; of building walls rather than bridges. These, and a multitude of other ills, tell us all too clearly that it is adults who lay waste God’s world and deface God’s image in one another. But Christmas comes to rescue us from such destructive insanity, not by calling us to childish make-believe or adult fantasy, but by entering the miracle that is Christmas itself: God bringing to birth the Christ-child of Bethlehem, who is also the Christ-child who has come to dwell in you and me, and to destroy fear.
The angel tells the shepherds on that first Christmas: “Do not be afraid; for see: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The first words of Christmas were “Do not be afraid.” The shepherds’ dark night sky was split open by blinding light, so the reason they were afraid is obvious to us, but these words, “Do not be afraid,” are words for us, too.
The reason the angel gives for our fearlessness is that a Saviour is born to us this day. The world Our Lord was born into was full of problems and turmoil. The weight of the Roman occupation was felt by everyone, including these shepherds, it difficult for most people to see much hope. Every Christmas since the first one has happened in the shadow of war, famine, occupation, and uncertainty, even to today. Every Christmas since the first one has happened in a world where children have gone hungry and been abused and neglected. There has never been a perfect Christmas. Our Lord Jesus is always born into a adult world that is fearful and anxious.
Christmas brings a divine revolution to earth: the new age of the Child of which Christ is King. He is the infant Ruler who has set the stars dancing, the planets whirling, and the heart of all people alight with the joy and wonder of a Child. It is time to discover again this Child and his Divine Delight: to dance in time with the universe, sing for joy and laugh away the grimness of our self-destructive adult folly; to become the child I am at heart. Let this Christmas begin God’s revolution and his new age be its dawn.
May the joy and Blessing of the Christ Child be with us all in this Holy Season,
Based partly on a letter by Bishop David Robarts.