A reflection on Luke 1.5-15, 24-25, 39-45:
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These words of Elizabeth’s are, in some form or other, repeated daily around the world by millions (myself included) as we pray the rosary. Part of the important role Elizabeth has to play is in pointing out, to Mary and to the world, the vital role Mary is playing as the theotokos, the God-bearer. Naming and blessing that gift is important.
For all of us, having our roles, our vocations, our very beings, recognised and blessed by others is important. Sometimes that happens formally by the church, sometimes it comes in words of encouragement or prayers from an individual, not always the person we might expect. What is intended as a passing remark, even, may take on great significance.
And how do we value and recognise and bless the vocations of others, we as individuals and as church communities? What can we do to encourage one another, to build one another up, to affirm and bless the unique gifts and vocations of the people in our lives?
A man facing scandal. A man full of uncertainty, full of questions and doubts. Yet a man determined to run the course he has chosen, the course God has set before him. This is how Stephen Cottrell portrays Joseph.
It’s that mix of determination and doubt that I find so engaging. Joseph says of love “It matures slowly in the fertile ground of commitment, of determined choosing: … this path and not that.” It seems to me the same could be said of faith. It is the commitment, the choosing, the discipline which sees us through. The high points, the experiences which leave us buzzing, the mountain-top moments are important, but it’s the daily dedication and re-dedication which sustains faith in the long run, and through the hard times.
[I am aware of the irony of writing about the importance of discipline in a post which I should have written yesterday, but failed to!]
A reflection on Luke 2.1-7:
“…because there was no place for them in the inn.” That one little phrase is all there is in the narrative about how the Holy Family came to end up in a stable. The basis of much speculation, and many a drawn-out sequence in a nativity play. I wonder how many inns they tried? How tired and despairing they were before they finally found a place, however inadequate? What the innkeepers were really like (surely not quite like their be-teatoweled modern representatives1)? One little phrase which invites whole realms of speculation and imagination, as so often in the gospel narratives.
This chapter deals with some themes which are looming large for me at the moment. The relationship between “looking up”, to see the big picture, and “looking down”, to the detail. The balance between contemplation and action.
It seems that advent is a time for looking up, when we too might focus on our guiding star, the light which leads us. A time for stepping away from the little things, the petty fears, the niggling doubts, and seeing instead God’s big picture – for us, for the world, for Godself. Isn’t that what the enormity of the incarnation which we contemplate demands? Isn’t it what the all-consuming magnitude of the Coming which we anticipate will require?
And perhaps it seems that advent should be a time of contemplation. Which it is. We pause, we reflect, we step out again in wonder and adoration on the journey to the manger, which is ultimately the journey to the cross and the gloriously empty tomb. But to say that it is a season of contemplation should not deter us from action. There comes a point where we, like Casper, are stirred by our very contemplation into decisive action. Action which comes from a deep well of contemplation.
Some people are drawing connections between advent and the protests currently happening in the USA. And no wonder – if advent is about contemplating the coming of God’s kingdom, which is justice and peace and joy, how can we not be moved to speech and to action when we see those things being so callously disregarded?
Advent is an active kind of waiting, a journeying kind of waiting. The kind of waiting which changes us, and makes us want to change the world. So, what are we waiting for?
I find Stephen Cottrell’s portrayal of Herod quite chilling. Perhaps I would find it easier if he came across as either a bit more likeable, or just downright nasty. What I find disturbing is that he seems to have convinced himself that he is the victim in this situation, that he doesn’t have a choice.
And how familiar that sounds! We all, I think, know people who hold all the power but still manage to play the victim. That person who, whatever the issue, somehow manages to come across as hard-done-by, no matter how culpable their own part in the situation. It’s easy to align Herod with those people and say with the pharisee “thank God I am not like that.”
But actually, aren’t we all a bit like that? It’s so much easier to blame circumstances, other people, even God….. anything really, except ourselves. But in the end, we are responsible for our own decisions, our own actions or lack of them. However hard the circumstances, however great the pressure, we do have a choice. And a responsibility. It’s easier to hide behind “I had to because…” or “I couldn’t until…” but we have to face up to the truth: we, like Herod, are responsible for how we live.
One of the “four last things” on which Christians traditionally concentrate during Advent is Judgement. It’s a concept which has rather fallen out of fashion in some parts of the church (and been too much emphasised in others) and it’s certainly not a comfortable idea to sit with. But it is part of the faith we inhabit. I hope and pray that my account of my life will never ring as hollow in God’s ears as Herod’s did in mine.
A reflection on Luke 2.36-38:
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with the 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.
Preaching this morning, I asked “As we wait for the day when we will see God face to face, where do we catch glimpses of God in the here-and-now? In what and in whom?” Anna, spending her whole life in the temple, must have caught a fair few glimpses of God: in the worship happening there, in the people who came to offer sacrifices and to pray.
But something made this different. Something made this family, this child, stand out from the crowd. Something made Anna see that here was not just a glimpse of God, but God himself, face-to-face, in the face of a tiny child. I wonder what that something was. No wonder she wanted to tell everyone what she had seen – the hope of the nations, the light of the world, right there in front of her.
As we look for our own glimpses of God, I wonder how we recognise God in our midst? In places or people? In worship? In the faces of those we meet? What is it that makes us want to praise God and tell everyone what we have seen?
In today’s passage (Matthew 2.12-23) we see both the wise men and the holy family returning by another way. There are no neat endings to the nativity narrative because it isn’t an ending at all, it’s a beginning. A beginning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A beginning of a new chapter in God’s relationship with humankind. The beginning of the new covenant.
But let’s pause for a moment to look at this returning by another way – the end of the beginning, if you will. No-one returns from their encounter with Jesus the same way they arrive. The shepherds go on their way praising God. The wise men return by another way. Mary and Joseph flee to save their young son. Everyone is changed by their part in the nativity story. Everyone is changed by their encounter with Christ.
And so are we. We do not go on from an encounter with Jesus in the same way we came to it. We are changed, made new, transformed. We seek Christ and when we find him, that is not an ending of our journey, but a new beginning.
It seems to me that today’s reflection is another one about looking for Christ in unexpected places (see yesterday’s post). Or rather, looking for Christ in unexpected people. Because the magi are really not the sort of people to whom you’d expect the Messiah to be revealed. Gentiles, for a start. Foreigners. Probably mixed up in all sorts of magic and ‘false’ religion. And not really terribly sure about where they’re going or what they’re looking for. But God thinks differently, and makes the magi a key part of his plan to reveal himself to the world in the person of Jesus.
And in doing so, he challenges us to look at the most unlikely people, and seek out something of God in them. Often moments of deep encounter with Christ come when we meet him in the people we least expect. I quite frequently hear people exclaim in amazement that a child has shown them something of God. They had dismissed the possibility, simply because the person they are talking to is ‘only’ a child. But God works through everyone, regardless of age, class, gender, race, disability, sexuality, religion or anything else. His ways, after all, are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts. He sees in each person his own image, even (perhaps especially) when others cannot.
All of us have people or groups of people in whom we are reluctant to see or to seek Christ. Let’s begin by examining those prejudices and asking God to take them and challenge them in ways we cannot even imagine. It might be scary, it might be uncomfortable, it might turn our world view upside down. But it will surely bring us closer to God’s kingdom.
Looking at the start and end of Jesus’ life. Borrowed rooms and the kindness of strangers. The stable and the upper room. There’s something about living in places not one’s own which implies traveling light, leaving a shallow footprint, holding loosely the things of this world.
Is that how Jesus is? Well, it sort of is and it sort of isn’t. In the world but not of the world. Traveling light but dwelling deeply. But to view Jesus as nomadic, passing through, not rooted in place or property, shouldn’t mislead us into thinking he’s less that totally immersed and steeped in what it is to be fully human, fully alive, fully part of this world.
And that’s how we should be too. Fully engaged in the reality of the world around us, but not trapped by attachment to particular places or possessions. In the world but not of the world.
The thing about being a bit nomadic, about living in borrowed rooms, choosing to root ourselves in Christ instead of a particular place and community and home, is that it can get a bit lonely. Whether it’s moving around, or choosing not to join in with the latest craze, or speaking out against the prevailing attitude, we put ourselves on the edge when we choose not to conform to the dominant culture. It would be easier to go with the flow. But the edge is where God calls us to be. It’s where Jesus met people. It’s where we meet people. It’s where we meet Jesus. And suddenly it’s not lonely any more.
I’m reminded of Adrian Snell’s beautiful song “Fierce Love” which I’ve been listening to a lot in the last couple of months (be warned – the video will make you cry):
“This is where I seek you, in the margins not the centre.” Appropriate for a Saviour who spent his life in borrowed rooms and the homes of outcasts. May we seek and find Christ in the most unlikely places.
I have long since lost count of the number of times I have said “Jesus changes everything”. I’ve said it in sermons, assemblies, small groups, to visiting brownie packs, over coffee in the church cafe, and on this blog. And it’s true. But today’s reflection on the prophecy of Simeon and Anna in the temple reminds us that it both is and is not that straightforward.
Anna’s response, praising God and telling others that the Messiah is here, is the straightforward part. But what of Simeon’s prophecy, with talk of rising and falling, opposition, and a sword that pierces the heart? Perhaps it seems to put a bit of a damper on the rejoicing at Jesus’ coming. But actually, what Simeon says takes in the deeper, more complicated truth of what Jesus has come to do.
Because salvation both is and isn’t straightforward. Jesus comes to save us – that much is clear. But the arrival of the infant Jesus in the temple does not immediately make everything OK. Perhaps that’s what the people who had watched and waited in the temple for the Messiah with SImeon and Anna were expecting. But how could a tiny baby make everything OK for all these people? Simeon is onto something important when he speaks of pain and trouble to come. The presentation of Christ in the temple is more like a promise. Jesus has come to save us. But he will also be with us through times of trouble and pain and uncertainty, holding out the promise that this is not all there is. More is to come. Better is to come. Salvation is promised. All shall be well.