2 February – The journey continues ….

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
(Luke 2.39-40)

What a journey! When we set out we were simply following the angels’ song and look where it took us, to a stable and a birth and such joy as the world has never known. For Mary and Joseph, with their child, the time had come to move, to leave Bethlehem behind. The law had been fulfilled and now they had to get back to their life, their ordinary life. But Mary held something extraordinary in her arms, a child with the favour of God upon him.

Another road ahead

Another road ahead

The carpenter’s shop would be waiting for them, there was business to pick up, water would need to be drawn from the well, their friends and neighbours in their synagogue would be waiting for them. And what would Mary say about what had taken place? We don’t know because, apart from an incident when Jesus was twelve and the family had come back to Jerusalem and the Temple for his Bar Mitzva, the next thirty years are lived for Jesus and his family in obscurity, an ordinary life, like most of our ordinary lives.

But for us in the church calendar time moves much more quickly and very soon it will be Ash Wednesday and another journey will take place.

Ralph Vaughn Williams, the great English composer of the 20th century, was also a collector of English folk songs and carols and many of them he helped to introduce back into the choral and church repertoire. One of my favourite but lesser known carols takes us on the journey we have just completed and beyond. For in this traditional carol, which originates from Castleton in Derbyshire, the journey of the Christian life is seamless and ‘sweet Jesus’ is there as our companion throughout. Travel well and with God’s blessing.

It was on Christmas day,
And all in the morning,
Our Saviour was born,
And our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on New Year’s Day
And all in the morning,
They circumcised our Saviour
And our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Twelfth Day
And all in the morning,
The Wise Men were led
To our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Twentieth Day
And all in the morning,
The Wise Men returned
From our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Candlemas Day
And all in the morning,
They visited the Temple
With our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Holy Wednesday
And all in the morning,
That Judas Betrayed
Our dear Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Sheer Thursday
And all in the morning,
They plaited a crown of thorns,
For our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Good Friday
And all in the morning,
They crucified our Saviour
And our Heavenly King;
And was not this a joyful thing,
And sweet Jesus they called Him by name.

It was on Easter Day
And all in the morning,
Our Saviour arose
Our own Heavenly King;
They sun and the moon
They did both rise with Him
And sweet Jesus we’ll call Him by name.

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2 February – Face of God

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
(Luke 2.36-38)

Someone had been there all the time. Anna is a fantastic character, this prophet who lived in the Temple, this widow for most of her life, living a consecrated life with God. She is one of those, like Simeon, who steps onto the stage of the gospels just for a moment and then fades back into the shadows. But she is also one of those who bring someone else with her.

When Mark tells us about Simon of Cyrene on the way of the cross he just mentions that he is the father of Alexander and Rufus – as though we should know who they were – perhaps because his original readers did know who they were and thought ‘oh, them’, ‘oh, him.’ In a similar way Luke mentions that Anna is the daughter of Pahnuel. That means nothing to us of course, a man, a random name. But that name, fixing her in history, fixing her in a family and a line, also does something else.

Anna by Rembrant

Anna by Rembrant

This is the only mention we get of Phanuel but the interesting thing is what his name means. Any Hebrew name ending in –el has some reference to God and this name is no exception. The name means ‘Face of God’. When I learnt that I was thrilled. It’s just an incidental, almost throw away part of the story but there in that name is something so significant for this final act of the Christmas narrative. There is nothing spare or throw away in the scriptures!

Why were we Bethlehem bound? We made the journey to see the face of God in the child in the crib, just as we will be Jerusalem bound in just a few weeks time and will see the face of God in Jesus on the cross. The feast we celebrate today, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is another moment of epiphany, of seeing who Jesus is and in Simeon’s song so much of this is expressed.

Jesus is the one for whom we have been waiting; Jesus is the light that will lighten all people; Jesus is, in the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews

‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’. (Hebrews 1.3)

Jesus is the face of God.

That reading from the Letter to the Hebrews takes us back to Christmas morning when we looked for the first time into the crib and saw the face of Jesus and saw the face of God, and as Anna speaks of the child she does so as the daughter of the one whose name was ‘Face of God’.

In the musical ‘Les Miserables’ the final song ends with these amazing words

Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

Today, we too look for the face of God in the faces around us.

Lord Jesus, may I see your face,
God’s face,
in the faces around me.
Amen.

2 February – Bitter-sweet

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

(Luke 2.25-35)

He was like a bird, old Simeon, always alert, always on the look out, missing nothing, watching, ‘eyes in the back of his head’ they said. He was known by everyone, he’d been around so long and as he approached the Temple no one was surprised to see him. Taking in everything that was already happening, looking at who was there, he made his way through the courts. The traders were there with their turtle doves and pigeons, the tables of the money changers had been set out, the rate of exchange was being negotiated – just how much could they get out of the pilgrims that day.

Simeon carried on through this noisy, bustling scene, to a place where he always stopped, from where he could wait and watch. As T S Eliot writes in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon.

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.

His faithful vigil continued, his life’s vigil

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners

Mary and Joseph arrive with their baby. It hasn’t been a long journey, though uphill, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was an amazing sight when they first saw the Temple, gleaming in the winter light and the people moving up and down the steps that led into the courts and ultimately to the heart of this sacred place, the Holy of Holies – but they wouldn’t be going there.

They left the donkey, for their return journey, and made their way in. First they had to change the money they had with them into the money they could use in the Temple. Then they had to find the person who sold the pigeons. Mary was comforting her child while Joseph did the deals, the money changers, the animal traders, slick city people who knew how things worked and they, from out of town, ‘red necks’, lacking in city sophistication. The traders could see them coming.

But the transactions done they entered further into the Temple to make the offering and to present their child to God. From the brightness outside they were struck by the gloom inside, until their eyes got used to it and then they could make out the priests about their business, those on the rota for that day, men like Mary’s cousin’s husband, Zechariah, who had been struck dumb in this very place.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

And the old man, the bird-like man, watching from the side-lines, steps out of the gloom into the half light of the place and takes their baby from them and sings of the light that has come into the world.

Once again they were amazed. Angels, shepherds, strangers, and now this old man, all had said such wonderful things about their child, about Jesus, words of hope and joy, words of God and things made new, words of peace, words of comfort.

But then the man, Simeon, turns to Mary and his words are as harsh as the cold winds that had accompanied them as they were Jerusalem bound in the early light of day – ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There is a bitter-sweet feeling to this day. It is the conclusion of the Christmas season and we can pack the cribs away and take down the final decorations. This is the day of the last vestiges of Christmas but in a strange way it is the first day of passion. Sometimes in the Candlemass liturgy the clergy will change from white vestments to end with purple ones and the texts for the ending of the Eucharist reinforce this change of mood. The procession has moved from the altar to the font and the priest says

We stand near the place of new birth.
Let us shine with the light of your love.
We turn from the crib to the cross.
Let us shine with the light of your love.

‘We turn from the crib to the cross’. As the famous Latin antiphon dating from the 8th century says ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ – ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ It is the bitter-sweet truth of this wonderful feast and Mary feels is as she holds her child as she will feel it in not so many years when she will hold her child again as he is taken lifeless from the cross and laid in her arms. Mary could not escape it and Simeon, who had seen it all, does not spare her from the truth. And I wish it were not so and I am sorry to ruin this last day of Christmas. But grown-up religion can cope with the truth. If Mary couldn’t escape it why should I; if a sword should pierce her soul, why not mine; to expect it to be otherwise is to live in a fool’s paradise. But the ‘Cheshire Cat’ grin that some Christians display suggests that they cannot really accept that whilst we believe with Julian of Norwich that

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

the truth is that life can be hard, and that faith and hope and love are not a means of escape from reality but a means of encounter with it. This is the mature faith that this powerful encounter between the old man waiting for death and the young girl holding new life in her arms embodies within the life of the church.

Baby or man? Life or death?

Baby or man? Life or death?

In some years the Feast of the Annunciation and the celebration of Good Friday fall on the same day. John Donne writes about this beautifully in his poem ‘The Annunciation and Passion’ in which he says this of Mary and the bitter-sweet experience in which we share with her

She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.

That sweet and bitter taste that life leaves in the mouth; Lord, may those tasting it today, know strength and faith in you. Amen.

2 February – Jerusalem bound

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
(Luke 2.22-24)

The dawn is breaking and people are setting off on journeys. The shepherds have been in the fields all night, the innkeepers are looking after their guests, bread is being baked and in the yards donkeys are getting ready for a hard days work. People are setting off on journeys. An old man leaves his home, he’s Jerusalem bound. It’s a journey he makes regularly, from his home to the Temple at the heart of the city. In the precincts of the Temple an old woman is stirring. She never leaves the Temple. Once she was Jerusalem bound. But the journey ended for her. She’s not travelling any longer.

Dawn breaks

Dawn breaks

In Bethlehem a young family are getting ready to leave their home. Its forty days since the young woman, the young girl, gave birth to a baby boy. She and her husband are not from these parts, well not now. Joseph’s family originated from here but he moved a long time ago, from Judea to Galilee and it was the Roman occupation that had brought him back. They had called for a census and everyone had had to go back to their place of origin and at the very worst time, Mary about to give birth, in the worst season of the year, they were Bethlehem bound.

Those forty days after the birth of their baby had been like no others in their lives. People they did not know had come to see them and they talked of their child in such strange ways, with words that they couldn’t get out of their minds. Mary was forever going back over what people had said as they saw their child, as they saw Jesus.

Now, on this cold morning, in the dawn light, they left their house. Mary rode on the donkey again, the one that had brought them to Bethlehem, and they set off to Jerusalem. Last time the baby was in her womb, this time her son is in her arms. They too were Jerusalem bound.

But it was not the Roman occupying force that was demanding the journey, but their own law. They were making this journey to fulfil the demands of the law, God’s law, which asked that in thanksgiving for the birth of their first son, an offering was made. It was a life for a life, an offering of a bird for the life of the child. A life for a life. They would buy their offering when they got to Jerusalem, buy from those who sold in the Temple courts, make an offering of love, for love, of life, for life. Now there was a journey ahead of them.

And as the dawn breaks we are setting off on a journey, to work, to school, to the shops, to family, to friends, a journey of remembering as we sit, a physical journey, a mental one. And in the morning we too prepare to make an offering, not of a life but of our life, but an offering in thanksgiving to God for this new day, this fortieth day, with all that it holds in store for us, an offering of love for love.

Lord,
as the dawn breaks
as the day begins
accept our praise
accept our thanks
that we may walk this day
with you.
Amen.

6 January – Journey’s end?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
(Matthew 2.1-12)

We began this journey, Bethlehem Bound, with parts of the poem by T S Eliot ‘The Journey of the Magi’.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, is when we celebrate their arrival, these visitors from the east with their strange ways and significant gifts. The truth is of course that they were not kings – well not as far as scripture records – and there is nowhere that says there was just the three of them. The three comes simply from the three gifts that they presented. But what we do know is that they had come on a long journey to be at this place. They were astronomers, probably, certainly they studied the stars for wisdom and it was in the stars that they saw the sign which told them that the King of the Jews had been born.

It is the twelfth day of Christmas but I imagine that time has moved on much more for the Holy Family. The cribs, even the Minimal Nativity now in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral, do us a disservice. We bring in the figures of the ‘kings’ and put into the background the shepherd boy with his sheep and the older shepherd standing with his pipe, and the sheep and the ox and the hay are still all there. But the reading from Matthew of course mentions nothing about a stable. The stable is all in the Lucan account. As with so much of the use of the Bible in church we mix the stories up to create a helpful narrative and chronology and to give painters and producers of Christmas cards good but inaccurate images from which to work.

The arrival of the Magi in a tapestry by Burne Jones

The arrival of the Magi in a tapestry by Burne Jones

Matthew says that they came to the house and that

‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.’

Eliot describes their arrival in this way.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

This passage is crammed full of imagery that resonates with so much that will happen in the gospels – the three trees on the skyline, a hint of Calvary; the vine over the lintel, the precious blood of Christ in the Eucharistic cup and maybe a pointer to the exodus and the marking of the lintels in the blood of the Lamb; the dice, suggesting the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes as the foot of the cross; and those empty wine skins, kicked away in preference for new skins that will hold the new wine of the kingdom.

There is more besides I’m sure. But all Eliot says of the place where the Magi found Jesus was that they found it and that it was ‘satisfactory’. I love that word in this line, it is slightly shocking. We would have thought that it was all more than ‘satisfactory’. But perhaps this has something to do with that ordinariness in the scene that we have noticed throughout this Christmas journey.

So not a stable but a house. The family have moved out of temporary, unsatisfactory lodging into something satisfactory. There is a lovely poem by Frances Chesterton, the wife of the more famous writer G K Chesterton. Her poem, which has been set to music by Howells and others, tells of the arrival of the Magi at their journey’s end. It’s entitled ‘Here is the little door’.

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold.
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

Bend low about His bed,
For each He has a gift;
See how His eyes awake,
Lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, He gives a keen-edged sword.
(Defend with it thy little Lord!)
For incense, smoke of battle red,
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.

Chesterton suggests that the child gave back to his children gifts that mirror those that they bring. It is a lovely idea and there at the end is the hint at the passion with the reference to the tiny hands and tiny feet which, when a man’s, will bear the mark’s of nails and become the signs of love.

But at the beginning of the poem she writes

‘lift up the latch, oh lift!’

Lift the latch

Lift the latch

I wonder whether, when she was writing this, she had in mind one of the most famous pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite era, ‘The Light of the World’ by Holman Hunt. The two most famous ‘originals’ hang in the stunning setting of Keble College Chapel in Oxford and the equally stunning St Paul’s Cathedral. The image is so well known but one of the most important details is that there is no latch on the outside. Jesus knocks at the little door but has to be let in; we lift the latch. The Magi found the door and lifted the latch and entered the house and found the one for whom they had been searching, the one for whom they had been Bethlehem Bound.

'The Light of the World' by William Holman Hunt

‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt

Jesus will never force himself into your life, he just isn’t like that. He leaves us in control, to welcome him into our lives, to enter his house, or to stay away and keep him out. It was the last act of the journey for the Magi, to lift the latch and enter the house and find the child and his mother, to worship and adore.

They left by another road, they couldn’t travel the same road again, life for them had been transformed. Eliot concludes his poem

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Towards the end of the final book in the Bible, the Book of the Revelation to St John, the ‘Evangelist of the Incarnation’, we find these words

‘The first things have passed away….. See, I am making all things new.’
(Revelation 21.4,5)

For the Magi and for us all things are new, the old dispensation is no more, there is a new covenant and a new world and we have found it in Bethlehem. But unlike the Magi you have no need to head off, to hurry away. We can stay in the house and linger for Christmas carries on and Christmas always carries on for ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’ and that was true then and it remains true now.

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

5 January – Come and see

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
(John 1.43-end)

It wasn’t as simple as some coming from the north and some from the south, this isn’t an example of the old north-south divide which can affect many places, not just the UK. Philip, Andrew and Peter were from Galilee. Nazareth is in another part of Galilee. It wasn’t that Jesus spoke with a different accent from them, they were all northerners. But they were still prejudiced. Nathaniel assumed that nothing good or interesting could emerge from a place like Nazareth and especially not a Messiah. The towns and village around the Sea of Galilee, of which Bethsaida was one, places like Capernaum and Tiberius, places like Magdala, were busy and economically sound, places of business and trading. What was the use of a place like Nazareth?

I like to think of myself as not being prejudiced. I’m middle class, moderately well educated, travelled, read. I vote what I think is the right way. I preach an inclusive gospel and try to live that out to the best of my ability. But scratch me, and not so very deep, and I think you would find some prejudice, some ways of judging people or places that I’m not very proud of, some ways of categorising people as soon as I meet them that I feel ashamed to admit to.

Is it the newspaper I see someone reading? Is it when I see a family emerging from a fast food outlet? Is it when I hear a particular regional accent that I can’t bear? Is it hearing which programmes people watch? I was brought up to be a ‘Blue Peter’ child, we never watched ‘Magpie’ that was a bit downmarket, all those dungarees and perms that John and Peter and Val would have never come on screen in!

The good old days of Blue Peter

The good old days of Blue Peter

Be honest. If you’re not you will never challenge those unworthy attitudes that are deep within you. And the bigger prejudices that are around based on ethnicity, colour, gender, sexuality, wealth, education, have you really tackled those, as an individual, in the place where you work, in your church? I’m staggered to hear some of things that are said in the General Synod when we are debating women or gay people. It’s more than shocking, its scandalous – yet these are people who claim, like me, to be good Christians.

Philip tackles it head on. ‘Come and see’ he says to Nathaniel, and he takes him to Jesus.

IMG_0559

We’re not told if Nathaniel leapt at the opportunity – ‘Great, lead me to him!’ – or whether he was more reluctant, had to be persuaded to have his opinions challenged and changed. The next thing that in fact we are told is that he is meeting Jesus, who shatters his preconceptions and leads to a moment of epiphany, a recognition that the one he had just dismissed is the one for whom he has been waiting and looking.

Could anything good come out of Nazareth? Of course Nathaniel was wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t the most obvious place in which to find anything amazing, life changing, earth shattering. But in fact it is the place in which God found Mary, the place in which God found Joseph. They were ordinary, unassuming people, the sort you might walk past and easily decide were nothing to bother with. But God found something there in Nazareth, something good that he couldn’t find elsewhere, he found such deep faith, such obedient response, an open door through which his work of redemption could begin.

We have been Bethlehem bound. When we arrived in Bethlehem we could have walked past the stable door. It isn’t the kind of place you would expect to find the Son of God; we could have ignored the signs and relied upon our own instincts, listened to our own prejudice – ‘no way, not here, there must be a mistake, we’ll look elsewhere.’ But, thank God, we didn’t. We stopped at that stable door and lifted the latch and went in and found God.

The only way in which we, individuals, institutions, communities, churches can confront the prejudice that lies just below the surface but manifests itself in so much of lives and decision making is to hear Philip’s invitation to us, day in, day out – ‘Come and see’. It will be uncomfortable, talking to that homeless person, meeting the benefit claimant, working with refugees, worshipping in a different way, talking it through with a gay person, trying to understand the political stance so different to our own, but unless we are willing to do what Nathaniel was willing to do, to go and see and to have his opinions confronted, challenged, changed then we will never really meet God who is never the God we expect.

I love the poem ‘Crabbit old woman’. It was written in 1966 by Phyllis McCormack whilst she was working in a nursing home and it captures so well the judgmental attitudes that we can all have. It begins

What do you see, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me-
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
I do wish you’d try.

And it concludes

So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
See Me.

What do you see?

What do you see?

Society, our lives, can only change and become more God like if, on the journey we are making, we hear the invitation ‘Come and see’ and respond.

Lord,
open my eyes to the truth around me;
cleanse my mind of old prejudice and judgments;
confront, challenge and change me.
Amen.

4 January – Crib and cross

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(John 1.10-18)

We are back to that Christmas Gospel again, the passage that opens St John’s Gospel and which acts as the climax to so many carol services. The story goes that when King George II heard the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed, he stood and consequently everyone else stood. It became a tradition; it’s a piece of music that we all stand for. In a similar way in many carol services when we arrive at this, so often the final reading, we stand – it is that important.

The Messiah Festival at the Crystal Palace

The Messiah Festival at the Crystal Palace

But you can’t read or hear this particular reading too often, there is always something which leaps out at you, grabs your attention, and that is the glory of scripture which we revisit again and again and again. Like the householder in the parable bringing from the storehouse ‘things old and things new’ we continually draw fresh water from the spring of scripture. We need that spring, that ‘living water’ as Jesus will describe it later in St John’s Gospel.

What struck me as I read this again were the lines with which this gospel reading opens.

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’

There is a marvellous passage in the book of Proverbs which ends like this

I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

(Proverbs 8.30-31)

The passage is about Wisdom, but it is often used to refer to the eternal nature of the Son, the second person of the Trinity whose incarnation we celebrate at this time and of which John so eloquently speaks. ‘The world came into being through him’ says John and the writer of the book of Proverbs suggests something similar.

I am a devotee of the work of R S Thomas. I know that his poems can be a bit on the gloomy side but there is something for me about the way in which his questioning approach to faith draws out great truth in which we can all share. His poem ‘The Coming’ speaks of similar things to what we are thinking about

And God held in his hand
a small globe. Look, he said,
the son looked. Far off,
as through water, he saw
a scorched land of fierce
colour. The light burned
there: crusted buildings
cast their shadows; a bright
serpent, a river
uncoiled itself, radiant
with slime.

On a bare
hill a bare tree saddened
the sky. Many people
held out their thin arms
to it, as though waiting
for a vanished April
to return to its crossed
boughs. The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.

‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ writes St John. With Jesus we are never far from the cross. Whilst the visitors with whom we have been Bethlehem bound have in the main been happy to see the baby in the crib – and there are still some on their way – not all of them have been, as we have seen. Herod was so paranoid that the slaughter of the innocents happened as a consequence. At his presentation in the Temple, a feast that properly brings Christmas to a close, Simeon will take the child in his arms and say

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ and to Mary he said ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
(Luke 2.34-35)

The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais painted what was at the time a controversial picture called ‘Christ in the House of his Parents. He pictures Jesus at work alongside his father, but this time it is Joseph, not as Proverbs describes him at the side of the creator God, ‘I was beside him, like a master worker’. This is not cosmic creation but the work of the carpenter. And there in the workshop we see the materials for the cross and the tools and the nails that will ultimately hold Jesus to the wood. He has wounded his hand and Mary is on her knees caring for him, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ You can see the painting in Tate Britain and it is well worth a visit if you are in London.

'The Childhood of Christ' by John Everett Millais

‘The Childhood of Christ’ by John Everett Millais

We are never far from the cross and that is what R S Thomas hints at in his poem as he says

The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.

We continue to celebrate the fact that the Father sent the Son to be with us, one with us, to save his people from their sins from the wood of the crib to the wood of the cross. This is the prayer we are using whilst the Minimal Nativity is in Southwark Cathedral.

Lord Jesus,
in the crib and on the cross
you were held by wood
and given the name above every name.
May your name
be written on my heart;
may my name
be written in your love.
Amen.

3 January – Look!

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
(John 1.29-34)

And then he saw him, coming through the crowds. He had been watching the people, expecting Jesus to be among them and all of a sudden there he was. Like that first pre-natal meeting their hearts must have leapt in recognition of each other. The forerunner, the preparer of the way, John, the wild prophet in the wilderness, saw the one for whom he had been preparing the people.

But instead of some great cry of greeting, instead of some declaration of ‘Here he is – I told you he was coming’ the Evangelist gives us other words from the Baptist.

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

The Lamb of God in a 9th century fresco in Rome

The Lamb of God in a 9th century fresco in Rome

Those words in Latin ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, ‘This is the Lamb of God’ are the words traditionally used as we are invited to move to the altar and receive Holy Communion. The priest holds the host before the people as the words are said, our attention is drawn in a powerful way to the bread that is being held for us to see, the bread that is the Body of Christ.

I was taught to pray by my mother. Each day, before we went to sleep, ended with some prayers, mostly intercessory and, of course, commending ourselves to the love of God. But Mum insisted that we put our hands together and closed our eyes. According to her that was the way to pray, that was the position one should adopt for prayer. And that was reinforced in Sunday School and at day school. ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes … Let us pray’ said the Headmistress. There we all were in the assembly hall, sitting cross legged, eyes closed, hands together.

'Hands together, close your eyes.'

‘Hands together, close your eyes.’

It was good training of course because what Mum and the rest of those teaching me were saying was, don’t get distracted whilst you’re praying. Hands together stops little ones fidgeting; eyes closed stops little ones looking. But go to the catacombs in Rome and you will be shown early Christian frescos showing another way of praying, standing up, arms stretched out, hands lifted up. It looks much more alert than the ranks of the obedient unseeing kids in our school!

But this moment of presentation, of call, of recognition in the Eucharist is definitely not one when you should have your eyes closed. This is an ‘eyes wide open’ moment in the liturgy. The priest shows us the host and there is a command to look, to recognise and to respond. Whatever the words are in the liturgy we are familiar with ‘This is ..’, ‘Behold …’ , even the Anglican ‘Jesus is …’ (which conveniently, for some Anglicans, side steps the thorny issue of whether the priest is talking about the host they are holding or Jesus in general!) we are called to look and to recognise. And that was what John the Baptist was doing, there in the wilderness, by the Jordan, as Jesus steps out from the crowd and into public recognition and public ministry.

Like the compere at the Royal Variety Performance at the Palladium, as they announce the main act they step back into the wings. This moment is the beginning of John stepping back, his job is almost done. A couple of chapters later in St John’s Gospel, John the Baptist speaking to his own disciples about Jesus says

‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
(John 3.30)

John steps to one side and the Lamb moves into the centre of the stage.

That image, of course, of Jesus as the Lamb of God is one of the most powerful and enduring. It speaks to us of the sacrifice that will be offered by the one for whom we have been Bethlehem bound, the one for whom shepherds left their flocks. William Blake wrote that most beautiful poem, hauntingly set to music by the late Sir John Tavener, in his collection ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. The collection is made up of mirror images of poems in the two sections. ‘The Lamb’ mirrors that other great poem ‘The Tyger’. But his poem ‘The Lamb’ reflects so beautifully the intimate relationship that we have with the Lamb of God to whom John points.

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 The Christ Child Riding on a Lamb, by William Blake


The Christ Child Riding on a Lamb, by William Blake

There is a time to close ones eyes and pray but there are times to look and see and pray and not miss the Lamb in the crowds.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.
Amen.

2 January – Where’s Jesus?

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
(John 1.19-28)

Yesterday was an important stage in the Christmas story. The eighth day is of course the Octave Day and part of the Christian tradition – though it may go back in origin to the eight day Feast of Tabernacles in the Jewish tradition. So, the celebration of Easter extends until and includes the Sunday after Easter in which each of the days is celebrated with equal solemnity. But Christmas goes even beyond the eight days.

IMG_0552

The traditional and much loved Christmas carol, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ refers to this. The initial celebration of Christmas extends for a full twelve days because it concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany – the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles – on 6 January. That is still to come and that will bring the feasting and the revelling to its conclusion and our journey to Bethlehem.

For the journey is not yet over. There are people still Bethlehem bound, a group of them travelling from the east and on their way to see this thing that has happened. They have been summoned not by angels but by a star and in response they have left their foreign homeland and made the long and treacherous journey to – they know not where. But whilst at this stage we acknowledge that they are on their way we leave them for a while.

Instead the Gospel for the Eucharist today takes us beyond Bethlehem, shepherds, wise men and angels and to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John takes us to the banks of the Jordan. Yesterday I was reflecting on the name that the baby in the manger was given, the name ‘Jesus’. It is a name that resonates with that great figure of Jewish history, Joshua, who saw the children of Israel across the River Jordan and into the land that God had promised them when they were slaves in Egypt. Crossing the Jordan was their entry into freedom and the end of their wanderings – for this stage in their history at least.

St John the Baptist by Titian

St John the Baptist by Titian

John the Evangelist takes us to the banks of the Jordan and we meet someone else who has already featured heavily in this journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist has left his home and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. He is now in the desert, somewhere in the Judean wilderness. John locates him close to Bethany which will become something of a base for Jesus in his ministry as this was where his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.

There are many ‘traditional’ baptismal sites on the modern day Jordan. One thing that always strikes me though when I go to the Jordan, to any of the sites, during a pilgrimage, to celebrate the ‘Reaffirmation of Baptismal Promises’ is, frankly, how unimpressive the Jordan is.

I’m very fortunate to live alongside the River Thames. Now that is a river! The modern Jordan is a rather pathetic stream of brown and unappealing water. It is rather unattractive to be honest, yet pilgrims go down to its muddy edge to remember their own baptism and to grab a little of the water to take home with them. The truth is that too much of the water is grabbed – not by eager pilgrims – but by the farmers on the Jordan valley. The valley is now green and productive, producing cash crops for the Israeli home and international markets and it is the Jordan that is providing the water for irrigation.

The Jordan

The Jordan

When John was there and the crowds were gathering round him to hear his uncompromising preaching and to receive baptism for repentance at his hands we would imagine that the Jordan was much more of a river than a stream (although Naaman’s reluctance to bathe in it to cure him of his leprosy in 2 Kings 5 might suggest it was always less than impressive). The gospel takes us into a situation in which people are trying to find out just who John is. Just as later at Caesarea Philippi Jesus will ask his disciples who people say that he is, the people quizzing John come out with the same suggestions – the Messiah, Elijah, the prophet? To each John answers ‘No’.

But then he says something wonderful

‘Among you stands one whom you do not know.’

There, somewhere in the crowds, is Jesus, but as yet, no one knows him. Perhaps John hasn’t seen him yet himself. Perhaps the last time they met was when their mothers greeted each other and each unborn child leapt in recognition of the other. John looks into the crowd with eager anticipation, waiting for his heart to leap again. ‘Among you stands one whom you do not know.’

The journey to Bethlehem has been the journey to look into the crib and see Jesus. But Jesus is no longer in the crib, he is alongside us and we often don’t recognise him. Even though we are devoted to him, even though we have made this journey, yet we can still sometimes miss him in the crowd.

In St Matthew’s Gospel even the righteous say to the Lord.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
(Matthew 25.37-39)

Where's Wally?

Where’s Wally?

Just as children will spend hours looking into the complicated pictures in a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book and not find him, so we can so often miss Jesus in the crowd. Yet he is there, alongside us, with us, God with us; known, yet so often unknown, seen yet so often unseen, recognised yet so often unrecognised.

Lord Jesus,
open my eyes
that I may see you,
serve you,
love you,
today.
Amen.

1 January – The name

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Luke 2.15-21)

New Year’s Day has, potentially, three titles in the church calendar. Two come from the Gospel for the day and the third is a more general celebration. In the Anglican calendar we can call today ‘The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’ or, ‘The Feast of the Naming of Jesus’. In the Roman Catholic calendar, however, it is called the ‘Feast of Mary the Mother of God’. That last title refers back to the declaration at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD of Mary as Theotokos, a word that means ‘God-bearer’ and hence the title ‘Mother of God’. For some more sensitive Christian souls this sounds an ‘over the top’ title. How can God have a mother, the pre-existent God surely cannot come from human origin ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ as Paul describes it in the letter to the Galatians (Galatians 4.4)? But this title for Mary draws us into that deeper truth that the child whom we have visited in the manger in Bethlehem, the focus and destination for our journey when we were Bethlehem bound, is not just a baby who will become the greatest man, but the incarnate Son of God, God sharing our humanity.

Our Mother Mary - Theotokos

Our Mother Mary – Theotokos

Jesus in his divine nature is God; Mary bore him in her womb; therefore, she is ’Theotokos’, the God-bearer, and we can, consequently and rightly name her as ‘Mother of God’.

But it wasn’t this that I particularly wanted to think about today as the other names we can give to this day are more important in that they have a scriptural resonance associated with this day itself, as opposed to celebrating something which is purely doctrinal in nature.

In the middle of the busyness of Advent at Southwark Cathedral one of the young couples in the congregation gave birth to a baby. I had actually married them earlier this year and we were all delighted when we heard that they were expecting a baby. So the baby was safely born and I then received the message that they would want the ‘Eighth Day’ naming ceremony. The husband is of Nigerian heritage, the wife is English but in accordance with the tradition back in Nigeria, and in many other countries, it was important that the new parents, with the rest of the family, came along to church on the Eighth Day and named the child and gave thanks for his birth and safe delivery. I had officiated at the ceremony on other occasions and so was not surprise but I was delighted.

So we gathered in the Harvard Chapel on the morning of the eighth day – miraculously we found an hour when there wasn’t a carol service going on – and I read this gospel before we named the child. Sebastian Tomilayo was the name chosen by the parents and we gave thanks for his life. There was, of course, an English tradition of giving thanks after the birth of a child which was called ‘The Churching of Women’ in the Book of Common Prayer. But for various reasons, especially an erroneous idea that childbirth made a woman unclean and in need of cleansing before she could be reintegrated into society, it fell out of use. That also meant that this healthy and wonderful ceremony which linked us back to this event in the life of Jesus and back further into Old Testament tradition, of giving thanks for a safe delivery and naming the new child, has become uncommon in contemporary society.

Perhaps the reason 'Churching' became unpopular!

Perhaps the reason ‘Churching’ became unpopular!

But as we stood in the chapel with little Sebastian Tomilayo in our arms we were able to remember that a safe birth is a little miracle and needs to be acknowledged as such and for the whole family gathered before God it was the acknowledgement of a new beginning, a new family and the blessing that that brings.

As with the story of the naming of John that we thought about before Christmas, the name that Joseph and Mary gave to their child was preordained. Gabriel had told Mary, just as Zechariah had been told, what she was to call the child. ‘You will name him Jesus’ said Gabriel. We’re not told that when the naming ceremony came along there was the kind of questioning that happened on the eighth day with John. But presumably that was because Mary and Joseph were away from their home environment, from Nazareth where they were known, in this place in which they were relative strangers and so no one could say ‘but no one in your family has this name.’

Sebastian Tomilayo’s parents had chosen the name carefully – Tomilayo is a Yoruba name that is translated ‘My joy’ – and the name that the angel gave to Mary was important. The name Jesus shares the same roots as the name Joshua. It was Joshua who did what Moses could not do – he took the children of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land. The name, Jesus, Joshua, Jeshua in Hebrew means ‘God saves’. As the angel said to Joseph at the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel of the child to be born to Mary, ‘he will save his people from their sins’. It was all in the name.

For us that holy name is everything. After his death and resurrection, after the day of Pentecost, the apostles are witnessing to Christ in the world and they are healing the sick. Peter is arrested for doing just that and is asked about his authority for acting in this way. Peter responds with characteristic boldness

‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
(Acts 4.12)

IMG_0548

This name, given on this day, is the name at which heads must bow, the name written on our hearts. This is the name by which we will be saved, the name above all others names. This is Jesus, saviour who will take us across another Jordan to the land of God’s promise.

Eternal God,
whose incarnate Son was given the Name of Saviour:
grant that we may live out our years in the power
of the Name above all other names,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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