31 December – Encountering God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

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 1.1-18)

It’s almost a week since we first heard this gospel read at the Christmas Day Eucharist but we return to it today. In fact, this is a longer passage from the beginning of St John’s Gospel than we get on Christmas Day. We are given those extra verses.

The five senses are such an important part of who we are as human beings and how we relate to the world. Whilst I was at Primary School in Leicester we read the story of Helen Keller. I remember it having a profound effect upon me. I think, at that stage, I hadn’t really encountered anyone who had extreme forms of sight or hearing impairment, no one deaf or blind. We heard about them in church of course because so many of the miracles recorded in the gospels seem to be about giving back to people their senses. But at that time in my life it wasn’t my own experience. And so to read of this young girl who was deafblind and as a consequence initially had no language skills at all was amazingly moving. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, liberated her, teaching her language skills so that eventually Helen was the first deafblind person to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

I remember in the book reading how Anne taught Helen that each object has a name that we learn. She poured water over her hands whilst spelling the word ‘water’ on her palm. All of a sudden the penny dropped. Anne broke through into Helen’s isolation and she became able to learn and to communicate. Of course, for her the sense of touch was a way of breaking through where other senses were denying her access to the world. We can only wonder at those individuals who suffer complete sensory deprivation in which nothing from beyond them can have any effect. It is the kind of thing that people inflict on others as a form of torture – but some of our brothers and sisters are living this life day in, day out.

When on our journey we arrived at Bethlehem we saw a baby in a manger. That was the object of our journey, to see this Holy Child. That is the wonder of the incarnation of course, that in Jesus we can experience with our senses the God who is beyond the spheres of taste, sound, touch, sight, smell with which we know and experience the world.

St John describes this in the gospel reading for today.

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.

The God we had been unable to see, we see in Jesus; the God whom we had been unable to touch, we touch in Jesus. And the same can be said for each of the five senses with which we have been blessed. In Jesus our experience, our direct experience of the Godhead of divinity, becomes complete. As Helen felt the water running through her fingers and learnt the name by which it is called, so we touch God and learn God’s name, God’s reality.

In his First Letter St John writes this

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.
(1 John 1.1)

John speaks of a total experience of God through the incarnation. But you may say that that was then and this is now. We have been to Bethlehem in heart and mind, in prayer, Bethlehem bound as a community, but we couldn’t touch and see and hear as John is saying. But that is where the sacramental life of the church is so important. The incarnation and the sacraments are part of the same encounter with God.

As God in Jesus took flesh so the whole of the sentient world was touched with the divine. God could be experienced in another way, a more intimate, direct way than before. And that of course is the life of the church. Through outward visible signs we experience inward spiritual grace in each of the sacraments. In the dominical sacraments, those given to us directly by the Lord, Baptism and the Eucharist, in water and in bread and wine, our senses are brought into contact with God and the reality of God becomes part of the reality of our lives. Through the other five sacraments of the church (one of the extravagant riches of God which John in this Gospel reading calls ‘grace upon grace’ is that there are more sacraments than senses) we experience touch and sign of the divine for every part of our lives.

The Seven Sacraments - places to encounter God

The Seven Sacraments – places to encounter God

There is a sense in which humanity before the incarnation was as locked away as was Helen Keller, but as her teacher broke through and liberated her from her prison of isolation, so in Jesus we have been liberated and brought into a new and sensitive relationship with God. As I hold the bread in my hands there is a real sense that I am holding Christ, as though my Bethlehem journey had enabled me to truly pick the child from the manger and love him as I would want to do.

God confronts me as I look into the crib and God confronts my sight, my sound, my taste, my touch, what I smell, God is all around me as well as within me. This is part of the glory of Christmas that is renewed every time I approach God in the sacramental life of the church and in more ways as well. For as Evelyn Underhill wrote

God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.

I would add, with gratitude in every sacrament for each is an encounter with the God we know in Jesus who enters every present moment through the mystery of the incarnation.

Lord God,
through sight and sound,
through touch and taste,
through my sense of smell,
may I experience you
and know you
and love you.
Amen.

30 December – Pass it on

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.

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 2.36-40)

The story has moved on. This passage is from the end of the account of the presentation of Christ in the Temple. There are two principal characters in that story, apart from the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Simeon was an old man, righteous and devout, who looked for the coming of the one God had promised. Then there was Anna, a prophet, who features in this passage.

I love Anna. I love the way we are given a little story of her life. Even in our own society in which we can all expect to live so much longer, Anna was doing very well. Sixty may be the new forty but eighty-four is not bad going. And we can imagine that having only been married for seven years before being widowed life will have been hard. She may well have been supported, as a widow, by family and friends but maybe not.

Proud Anna in the background of Rembrant's image of her and Simeon

Proud Anna in the background of Rembrant’s image of her and Simeon

When the early church was being formed there was the need to create an order of ministers to do the pastoral, servant ministry of the church. Stephen, whose feast day we celebrated on Boxing Day, was one of that first group of deacons. Their task was to look after the poor and we are told that there was a particular issue that faced the community with regard to widows and the daily distribution of food (Acts 6.1). St Paul later writing to the infant churches often turns his attention to widows, how they should behave, who should look after them. Widows were high on the agenda of the church because they could be a completely unsupported group in society.

So Anna may have had it hard. But she was obviously a survivor. She spent all her time in the Temple and she was a prophet, she fasted and prayed all the time. So we can imagine that people knew her and people listened to her. In the account of the Presentation, Anna comes onto the scene and praises God and speaks. But then she does something else.

I used to go as a teenager for my retreats to Launde Abbey in Leicestershire. I distinctly remember one of those retreats and what was said, though, sadly, I can’t remember the name of the priest who was leading us. But he told us, and I liked this so much that I had to write it on a piece of paper and put it up on the noticeboard in my room at home, that we were to ‘Keep the rumour of God alive.’

Rumours spread, very quickly, ever more quickly, thanks to social media. You can fuel a rumour, keep it going, keep it alive. The retreat conductor used that word ‘rumour’ in a way that caught our attention, certainly caught my attention – ‘Keep the rumour of God alive.’

'Pass it on.'

‘Pass it on.’

This is what Anna does. She goes off and tells those who would listen, those who like her and Simeon, were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem, that the redeemer had come, that God’s promise had been fulfilled, that a child had been born. She kept the rumour alive.

We might call it mission, we might call it evangelism, we might simply call it, telling other people about Jesus. The church needs to be a rumour-mill for Christ, keeping the story going, keeping the truth being told, learning from a woman of experience and spreading the word. We made the journey to Bethlehem to see a child. Don’t keep it to yourself – tell others what you know of God. Keep the rumour of alive.

Lord, as you gave Anna the passion to speak of you,
give us that same desire
to tell others of you
and your love,
to keep the rumour alive.
Amen.

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29 December – Do not be afraid

Jesus said ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.’
(Matthew 10.28-33)

On Boxing Day I mentioned St Thomas Becket and the sermon that T S Eliot puts into his mouth as an interlude in the action of his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral.’ But today we come back to Becket himself because it is today that we celebrate his feast day. Whereas the other feasts in the days immediately after Christmas Day are in some way related to the birth of Jesus – the first martyr, the theologian of the incarnation, the Holy Innocents – Becket’s day is not like that. Instead it was on this day in 1170 that the Archbishop was murdered, martyred, in his Cathedral in Canterbury by four knights who had rode from London to do the King’s business. They took his infamous words ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ not as what might have been a rhetorical question but as a command, a request, thrown out into the air. You have to listen carefully and not take everything on face value, you have to speak carefully and consider the effect your words may have!

The martyrdom of St Thomas Becket

The martyrdom of St Thomas Becket

But whether or not Henry II really wanted Becket killed the result was that one of the greatest saints in English history was created and, as a consequence, the greatest English shrine and pilgrimage established.

I suppose that Becket saw the ending as inevitable. He couldn’t escape his assassins, the writing was on the wall, the script was written and as the swords descended on him I hope that fear left him.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist today has those powerful words

Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Fear is overwhelming, it can easily dominate our lives and stop us from acting. Fear can hold us back in life and mean that we cannot be the person that God desires us to be. I was a very fearful young man, shy, worried; it hampered my growing up, it stopped me enjoying life. There came a point of decision making for me – was I going to allow my life to be traumatised by fear, or was I going to let God be my courage? I had to choose God over my fears.

'Perfect love casts out fear.'

‘Perfect love casts out fear.’

Travel forward in the Jesus story until after his resurrection. St John tells us that the disciples were in the Upper Room ‘and the doors of the house … were locked for fear of the Jews.’ (John 20.19) The Upper Room had become a prison for them, their fears were becoming a prison of their own making. But Jesus steps into that locked space of fear and breathes his peace upon them. Yet, even so, by Pentecost they were still in that room and so the Holy Spirit comes and bursts open the windows and drives them into the streets and casts aside their fears so that they can speak.

St John in his First Letter writes this

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
(1 John 4.18)

We have been Bethlehem bound, we travelled a long way for the birth of a child. But this is no ordinary child – this child is love and this love will cast out our fear. The poet Christina Rossetti wrote a poem which helps us with this

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Love came down in Bethlehem and that love, perfect, casts out our fear. Challenge your fear with the love of God in Jesus and live the full life the child comes to bring.

Love divine,
Love, all perfect,
cast out my fear
enter in
that I may live in you.
Amen.

28 December – The cry of the innocent

After the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

(Matthew 2.13-18)

We are back in Bethlehem but we would rather not be here. Time has moved on. Others have been Bethlehem bound, three visitors from the east who saw a sign in the heavens that alerted them to the fact that a new king had been born and so they had come to pay him homage. But in their desire to do just that, to find the child, they alerted the one who was already seated on an earthly throne to what had happened.

Herod’s paranoia was triggered. There was no way some baby was going to take his throne. And so he comes up with a solution.

One of the most disturbing facts of life is how often it is the most innocent who end up paying the price, bearing the burden, suffering the pain. The ones least able to help themselves become the victims of the brutality and the mania of others. This year, that we are just about to leave behind, has seen more than enough examples of this. Just in the last few weeks before Christmas we have watched in horror the news reports of the school massacre in Peshawar, the murder of children by their mother in Australia and we have the ongoing inability in our own country to really engage wholeheartedly with the need to protect children and vulnerable adults and to care for survivors of abuse.

But history is littered with the bodies of the innocent. In antiquity it is the legendary tale of the rape of the Sabine women, supposedly around 750BC, which captured popular imagination. The Roman men were seeking wives from their neighbours who were suspicious of the rise of Rome. So unable to get wives willing to come they were taken by force. The term ‘rape’ in this context means something more like abduction. But the story provided rich material for renaissance painters and in their work we see all the force of the attack on the innocent.

The Rape of the Sabine by Cortona

The Rape of the Sabine by Cortona

It is a story however that reminds us that in war and tribal rivalries it is the women and children who bear so much of the abuse and pain. In modern wars sexual violence is a weapon used in a frightening way. Women, not killed, sometimes, but left scared, injured for the whole of their life. Girls carrying the baby of their attacker, hating what is in their wombs – and children looking on as their mother is raped.

Herod launches his attack on the children of Bethlehem, all because he is desperate to protect his power, viciously hungry to retain what he has, paranoid that this baby will take it away from him. This feast day, Holy Innocents Day, following so quickly on Christmas, once again serves to make us sit up and take notice. ‘Weren’t we just hearing angels singing of the peace this child would bring – but what am I seeing here?’ we may ask ourselves.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’
(Matthew 10.34-36)

Jesus’ words to his disciples later in his ministry are foreshadowed in the events we remember today. And they are hard words for us to come to terms with. In that city where peace came in the form of a child a sword was drawn to slaughter all the innocents.

The greatest theological dilemma for religious people, Christians among them, is why bad things happen to good people. It is that question and the inability to get a good answer that makes many people give up on God. It is even more the case when evil is done in the name of religion, when it is the religious people who have the drawn sword and blood on their hands.

I wish I had an answer for you, for myself. My only answer is that the incarnation means that God shares in our pain and does not simply look on it from afar. That doesn’t stop the bad things happening – well not immediately – but ultimately it will. That may be unsatisfying but it is all I can offer.

There are in fact three Herods in the story of Jesus – Herod the Great, the one we are thinking about today, Archelaus who succeeded his father and Herod Antipas before whom Jesus would stand in the hours before his crucifixion. Herod was in fact the family name, but the story of this family would be bound up for ever with the story of Jesus, and their fear of losing their power would cause them to kill the innocents, behead John the Baptist and tacitly agree to the killing of Jesus, God’s own son. It is a story that we have seen and, I fear, will continue to see played out by numerous despotic regimes around the world.

'Rachel weeps for children.'

‘Rachel weeps for children.’

And, as it happens, we will hear the cry of Rachel echoing through the centuries, the cry of the mother weeping for her children, the cry of the innocent and perhaps our only response is to cry with them.

Into your hands, Lord,
we commend all the innocent
who have suffered at the hands of tyrants.
Make us restless to see better days come
when the peace you bring
will be the peace we live.
Amen.

27 December – More or more than enough?

Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’ Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
(John 21.19b-25)

Yesterday we left Bethlehem for a moment and looked at the first martyr, Stephen. Today we are still not in the stable, the place where we have been bound, but are with John. This is John, Apostle and Evangelist, the one who is depicted in the gospels as a young man, who lay next to Jesus at the Last Supper, who was there with Peter and James at all the significant moments in the gospel. This is the John who we associate with the Fourth Gospel which surprised us on Christmas Day, and with the Letters and the Book of Revelation. This is John who didn’t die a martyr’s death, as did the other apostles, but lived out his days in enforced exile on the island of Patmos – or did he die in Ephesus – we don’t really know.

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But that is the tradition and it has long been the case that he is celebrated on this day within the octave, the eight days of the initial Christmas celebration.

John is often known as John the Divine. This title pays tribute to him as the first great theologian of the Christian church. It is the use of the word ‘Divine’ that we also find when we are talking of such groups as the ‘Caroline Divines’ or the ‘Anglican Divines’, people like Andrewes, Cosin, Ken, Hooker, and Taylor.

But there is something intriguing which I find in the gospel reading for this feast day and it is that hint at more. Even after the excesses of Christmas Day and Boxing Day there is probably still more lined up for us. The image of little Oliver standing with his bowl in the workhouse and saying ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ is one that stays with us. We want more. And this is what John seems to promise, or at least to suggest, that there is more to be had, that there are untold stories of Jesus and so many to be told that

‘if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’

'I want some more.'

‘I want some more.’

It is a tantalising verse. We want to know, we want more, we want to know all that Jesus did. This is not the only place in which John makes mention that there is more. At the end of the previous chapter it says this

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
(John 20.30-31)

This is the real truth of the matter. Of course more could be said about Jesus. Everyone who experienced him could have told their own story, every community he touched had their tale to tell and the books are still being written and the encounters are still being had and I can write about my experience of Jesus and you can write of yours and we could fill the world and the web with our words. There is more but John is saying to us that what we have been given is enough and enough to know that the child in the manger ‘is the Messiah, the Son of God’. This is all we need to know, this is all we need to believe.

We have been on a journey to Bethlehem, Bethlehem bound. But the Christian life is all about journey, it is all about pilgrimage and there is a destination and one that is not so different to the destination for this journey. The destination is Christ, knowing Jesus, being one with him as he is one with us. Professor Alister McGrath writes this of the journey.

It encourages us to think ahead, and look forward with anticipation to the joy of arrival. One day we shall finally be with God, and see our Lord face to face!

This is what John helps us to do, to see the Lord face to face and to know him as the promised of God, the Word made flesh; John is the ‘Divine’ who leads us to the divine and to find in that divinity our own true selves. For John tells us that Jesus said

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
(John 10.10)

It is that abundant life that we find as we look into the crib and adore God in human form.

Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church:
that, being enlightened by the teaching
of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ your incarnate Son our Lord.
Amen.

26 December – The gift God gives

Jesus said, ‘Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’
(Matthew 10.17-22)

Boxing Day was traditionally the day when servants and tradesmen received their gifts from their employers. With delight and some anticipation they would open their ‘Christmas Box’ to see how generous their overlord was. I hope you got what you wanted when you opened your presents yesterday. There is something wonderful about looking at all those gifts under the tree, their contents hidden from us by cardboard and wrapping paper. As children we would attempt a sneaky feel, a shake to see if we could identify what awaited us, my sister on lookout for our parents, me having a quick examination of what lay there, waiting for us, waiting for Christmas Day.

They are of course nothing in comparison with the real gift of Christmas, the child lying in the manger, the one for whose birth we have been Bethlehem bound. In his poem ‘Christmas’ John Betjeman, which I quoted yesterday, compares the gifts we give with the gift God gives. We need reminding.

No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

But Boxing Day holds a surprise. We might imagine that we would spend the day thinking more about what had happened the day before in that Bethlehem stable, reflect a little more on those others who, like us, were Bethlehem bound – angels and shepherds – and there are others still on the road. But no. Instead today in the calendar of the church is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the church.

The stoning of St Stephen

The stoning of St Stephen

In his play, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ T S Eliot picks up on this fact in the sermon that Archbishop Thomas Becket preaches as the interlude in the action of the play. The Archbishop is preaching on Christmas morning in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and he says this

‘Not only do we at the Feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s birth and His death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?’

It was hard to know what had been wrapped up for us in those gifts under the tree and it was only by taking off the wrappings that we were able to discover. Was it something we wanted, or something we didn’t? Was it something we had hoped for or not? Was it a surprise or expected?

We have seen many babies and looking into the crib with Mary and Joseph we see another baby, crying, needing to be fed, wanting to be held. Just a baby. But we need to look deeper. The force of Becket’s sermon in the play is that you can’t separate Christ’s birth from his death, that the two go together.

Taking the child from the crib into our arms has consequences. The gift of the child to the world is free – Christ is gift to the world, freely given for love, just as grace is that unearned free gift of God in our lives. But loving the gift has consequences.

One of the horrors of this year has been to witness the brutal attacks on Christians in Iraq and Syria by the forces of the so called Islamic State. We heard how the initial Arabic letter for Nasrani, the name given to Christians in those countries, was painted on the homes of Christians so that they could be identified for slaughter, for martyrdom. I heard of one family, all together in their home, killed by a group of IS soldiers. And why? Because they dared to hold the gift to themselves, the Christ child, dared to be known as followers of Jesus. Like St Stephen they paid with their lives for the one who came to bring us life.

The Arabic letter that has become the martyr's mark

The Arabic letter that has become the martyr’s mark

The story of St Stephen’s martyrdom is in the Acts of the Apostles, not the Gospels. You can read it in Acts 7.54-end. But the full story can be read in the whole of Acts 6 and 7. It is worth reading for the amazing and courageous speech that Stephen makes before the Council. But just before the speech begins, as the members of the Council were looking at Stephen it says this

And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6.15)

Bethlehem was surrounded by angels bringing the message of Good News, that the Saviour had been born. There were still angels sharing that same Good News in Jerusalem and there are still angels doing it now, and with their lives.

Loving God,
as I accept your gift
as I hold the Christ
may I be ready to be a witness
to the one who gives us life.
Amen.

25 December – A shocking Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

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 1.1-14)

I suspect that there can be a measure of disappointment when people come to church on Christmas morning for the Eucharist and hear this gospel reading. What? No shepherds, no angels! What? No Mary, no Joseph! What? No baby Jesus, no ox, no ass! Instead of the readings that paint the traditional picture of Christmas – and they come only from Matthew and Luke’s gospels – we are given the beginning of John’s gospel with undoubtedly beautiful language (‘especially in the King James’ Version, Vicar’) but with dense theology. For people who like a bit of magic and sparkle at Christmas this gospel just doesn’t do it.

And yet it is the most wonderful piece of scripture and the most powerful attempt to describe what is at the heart of all that we are celebrating. The details of the nativity are wonderful, the star and the stable, the manger and the angels, the shepherds and the wise men and we couldn’t have a performance of the nativity by the Sunday School without them. But they can’t do any justice to what it is that we are really celebrating and that is the incarnation and that requires serious engagement.

We've all got somewhere else to get to ...

We’ve all got somewhere else to get to …

But perhaps you say that today is not the day for serious theological engagement and exploration of such a doctrine. There are sprouts to cook and a turkey to roast, a pudding to boil and pies to be baked. We want to open our presents, we want to watch the Queen, we want to chat to family (or avoid them), we want to get our feet up and head down and sleep off the lunch. Maybe tomorrow we can think about the incarnation – let’s just settle for Bethlehem today, for that is where we have been bound.

Yet it is precisely into Bethlehem and Southwark and wherever we are that God is made incarnate, into the midst of the busyness and distractions of the day, that the child is born, into our lack of time and inability to give our attention that a baby cries and his mother looks with love into the eyes of God’s son. That is the wonder and the reality of the incarnation. John tries, with the limitations of words, to describe what has happened in the deepest way possible

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Jesus enters the hustle and bustle of an over flowing town, with people rushing here and there. No one really noticed, just some outsiders, who came into the town at the prompting of angels. They weren’t welcome in town, smelly, unruly, loud-mouthed shepherds – but they were the only callers at the stable that day, the only ones to kneel at the manger, the only ones to bring anything with them.

Most people today will be rushing past the stable door, to get to mum’s, to get things done, to be with friends. But the truth remains and is as powerful as it has ever been

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Sir John Betjeman’s most famous Christmas poem is called simply that ‘Christmas’ and the ending remains as powerful today as it was when it was first written.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
 Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
 Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Yes, it will still be true tomorrow. God is with us, and we have seen his glory. And it will be true every day for you and me that as we say in the creed

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

.. but some find their way through the stable door.

.. but some find their way through the stable door.

It is true and it will be true even for those who will always walk past the stable door, bound for somewhere else. But we are here, for we have been Bethlehem Bound.

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our heartfelt praise
as we worship you,
our Saviour and our eternal God.
Amen.

24 December – When peaceful silence lay over all

‘By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Within those prophetic words of Zechariah spoken as his tongue was freed and John was named are these verses. They speak of the dawn and we are approaching midnight. Tonight, in the heart of the darkness a light will burn from within a stable. That light will be Christ. He is the light that will banish the darkness and give hope to those ‘in the shadow of death’ for in his light we see life and in his life we see light.

Illustration of nativity scene - stable outside Bethlehem

In these last minutes before Christmas Day we wait for that light to be kindled, for that light to come into the world. We wait with the whole of creation, in the silence; we wait with the whole of creation, in the dark; we wait with Mary and Joseph; we wait for love to come amongst us; we wait for Christ to illuminate our lives.

God our Father,
in this night you have made known to us again
the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:
confirm our faith and fix our eyes on him
until the day dawns
and Christ the Morning Star rises in our hearts.
To him be glory both now and for ever.
Amen.

24 December – Speaking truth to power

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

(Luke 1.67-79)

He had been unable to speak, for over nine months. When he doubted the word of the angel who came to him in the Temple to tell him that his wife, even though she was beyond the age of child-bearing, would have a son, he was struck dumb. It was only on the eighth day after the birth of the child, when he was named, that Zechariah got his voice back. He wasn’t lost for words.

Zechariah bearing the words of the Benedictus

Zechariah bearing the words of the Benedictus

This is the second ‘song’ that St Luke gives us in the opening chapters of his gospel. Luke says that he spoke this prophecy, but in turn the church has sung it as the Benedictus, every morning as part of Morning Prayer or Matins. Like Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ it is a wonderful song, all embracing, full of celebration, full of prophecy.

So John the Baptist, often called the last of the Old Testament prophets, the bridge between the old and the new, the one who straddles the false divide in our Bible, is the son of a prophet. Zechariah finds his voice and rather than denying God’s promises and losing his voice he affirms and celebrates God’s promises and finds his voice.

The French aristocrat, writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book, ‘Night Flight’ says

“In every crowd are certain persons who seem just like the rest, yet they bear amazing messages.”

Perhaps to their neighbours Zechariah and Elizabeth seemed like any elderly couple, a familiar part of the village landscape. Then extraordinary things begin to happen to them and in the end they bear ‘amazing messages.’ They seemed just like the rest – and in many ways they were – but both, in the end, allowed themselves to be the agents of prophecy – Elizabeth in her womb, Zechariah on his tongue.

We have to ask if the age of prophecy is dead or is it that we just don’t hear prophecy in the same way any more – and what is prophecy anyway? We can easily get it confused with predicting the future and of course there is an element of that in it. But it is much more, I think, about speaking God’s truth into the situations in which we find ourselves. Often this is described as ‘speaking truth to power’ and in many ways that is what the child John grew up to do. Another way in which this calling is often described is ‘disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed’. It may sound slick and clever as a description, yet that is an essential part of what it means to have ‘a prophet’s tongue’.

The prophetic witness

The prophetic witness

In fact prophecy is much more central to the vocation of the church than we sometimes give credit for. We can imagine it to be a rather peripheral activity which has really died out and so some words of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre are salutary

“All men are prophets or else God does not exist.”

Sartre sees prophecy as that important. The journey we are on is a prophetic one, looking to the future, listening to the voice of God. That was what made us Bethlehem bound and it is the spirit that continues to encourage us to travel and to speak truth on the way to those we encounter.

Lord,
give me the courage of the prophet
to speak truth to power
and the wisdom to know
when that is needed.
Amen.

23 December – What’s in a name?

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
(Luke 1.57-66)

There are so many people who I know who are agonized by the name that their parents gave them. But it is their name and for better or worse that is the name they are known by. But I can remember some people at school being very unwilling to disclose what their middle name was. Perhaps it was because they were named after a grandfather, an aunt, given a name that every member of the family had had for ‘generations’. I began a few days ago by saying that I had found records of an Alfred Nunn working as a cabinet maker in Ipswich in the 18th century. Well he was in a long line of Alfred’s or should I say that my paternal grandfather was. They were all Alfred! Not that I have anything against the name ‘Alfred’ but I am grateful that the pattern was broken when my father was born who was called Peter and fortunately for me it was his Christian name that became my middle name. I am very pleased with Andrew Peter to take me through life – I feel as though I got a good deal out of it.

IMG_0524

There was consternation amongst the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The eighth day had arrived, the naming day for a new born child and the neighbours were eager to know the name because that would mean so much. The assumption was that the firstborn male child would take his father’s name. But his father had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the word of the angel. So it was his mother who had to name him. ‘He is to be called John’, she says in a very firm way – there was no argument and when they sought confirmation of this from his dumb-struck father they had an even more emphatic response . ‘His name is John.’

It was a great name to choose. The Hebrew Yochanan means ‘Yahweh is gracious’, ‘The Lord is gracious’. It is what the parents of the child had experienced, the graciousness of the Lord, who had given them what they could hardly dream of – a gift beyond any gift and they wanted to remember this always. Every time they would look at their child, every time they called his name they would remember the graciousness of God.

"He is to be called John."

“He is to be called John.”

Remembering that God is gracious and that we should be as well is part of our response to what God has done for us. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, wrote this

In thinking about religion and society in the 21st century, we should broaden the conversation about faith from doctrinal debates to the larger question of how it might inspire us to strengthen the bonds of belonging that redeem us from our solitude, helping us to construct together a gracious and generous social order.

To create a gracious and generous social order, a community in which the true goodness of God is reflected, nations which deserve the name of the good society, that is the calling that we have received, all people of faith, working with people of good will. Perhaps that could be another goal of this journey as we are Bethlehem bound.

Gracious God,
may I bear your name,
may I bear your nature,
just and righteous one,
Amen.

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