Wednesday, January 18, 2017

EPIPHANY III 2017



He Qi 'Calling Disciples' (2001)
A little oddly, perhaps, the appearance of the disciples Andrew and Peter, which John's Gospel recounted last week, is repeated this week in Matthew's version.  There are some important differences between the two, however. The fourth evangelist tells the story in connection with John the Baptist. Matthew makes only a brief mention of John, and links the story more directly with with the prophet Isaiah. Jesus, he declares, is the light that Isaiah prophesied would eventually dawn on those who sit 'in the region and shadow of death'. 
It is with this alternative context in mind that Matthew introduces Andrew and Peter. But there is a further subtle and important difference. In John’s version, Andrew and Peter take the initiative in seeking Jesus out. In Matthew’s version, it is Jesus who encounters them fishing and calls them , as he does James and John. What is more, he calls them to leave not only the work they are engaged in, but everything that they have. Their response is usually held up as exemplary. 'Immediately they left their nets and followed him'. But what about Zebedee who is left sitting in the boat?  Has he no claim on the sons he has raised, and on whose labor he will depend in old age?

 Matthew’s version of the call to the disciples is echoed in many other parts of the Gospel. Following Jesus is repeatedly spoken of as being all consuming, even to the point of abandoning family responsibilities. Doesn’t this mean that Christian discipleship requires a kind of fanaticism? How could we answer such a call ourselves, given our love for parents and children, our belief in the value of what we do, and our obligations to the wider community?


Vassily Polenv James and John (1904)
Elsewhere, confronted with questions like these, Jesus allows that for many people wholesale commitment of this kind is just not possible, but he promises that God can work with less than this. It is enough to start with simple penitence, seek more and more ways in which ordinary life puts Christ first, and relinquish rival claimants to our most fundamental allegiance. The Epistle for this Sunday illustrates just how easy it is to fall into subsidiary loyalties. The loyalties for which St Paul chastises the Corinthian Christians mean nothing to us now. But we have our own rivals for Christ’s headship – family, nation, profession, ethnic group, sports team. If few of us can respond as immediately as the twelve disciples did, we can at least resolve to take more steps in their direction. What matters, is where the heart is, and whether we can truly say with the Psalmist, ‘One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life’.

Monday, January 9, 2017

EPIPHANY II 2017

 Baptism of Jesus (Ende c. 937)

Over the Christmas season and into the first weeks of Epiphany, the Lectionary readings bring to our attention a deep connection between Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. The readings for this week continue to build this bridge between Old and New Testaments. The passage from Isaiah sets out a much larger divine plan than previous prophets proclaimed. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. God’s love is no longer to be confined to the Children of Israel. He has called Isaiah to a far more ambitious prophecy, so that “My salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Apostle Andrew -- De Zurbaran
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and declares “Here is the Lamb of God”. The expression 'Lamb of God' is now so well-worn, it is easy to miss the religious implications of this extraordinary metaphor. It too forges a connection between past, present and future, and it does so by means of two powerful resonances deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Jews.  One is the memory of the Passover Lamb, the sprinkling of whose blood on the doorposts played a key part in the Israelites' liberation from slavery. The other is the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, who is led like a Lamb to the slaughter. Thus with the use of this single image, John the Evangelist conveys the spiritual intensity that enables John the Baptist to penetrate the true significance of Jesus long before others manage to do so.

This Gospel passage takes the bridge building a step further, however. Among the first to hear John’s metaphor are Andrew and Simon. It is given to the otherwise undistinguished Andrew to grasp the truth and tell his subsequently much more distinguished brother “We have seen the Messiah” – the “Anointed” for whom, as devout Jews, they have been taught to yearn since infancy. Together they take the first hesitant steps on a new spiritual journey. It is a journey that will bring them first to the disillusionment of Passiontide before the total transformation of Easter that equips them both for martyrdom.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

BAPTISM of the LORD 2017


El Greco - Baptism of Christ
The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates an event that is recorded in all four Gospels. Outside of the Passion narrative, relatively few episodes in the life of Jesus appear in all the Gospels, so this degree of Scriptural warrant is special. 
The Gospel for this year is Matthew, but in fact, though the four Gospels record the baptism slightly differently, they all lay special emphasis on three aspects. First, they affirm a theological link between John the Baptist and the preparatory, prophetic ‘voice’ that Isaiah describes as ‘crying in the wilderness’. Secondly, they all speak of the highly charismatic John as nonetheless secondary to Jesus. Thirdly, they make the baptismal event a “manifestation”, that is to say, one of those very special occasions – like the Transfiguration – when Jesus’ divine nature and commission shone out unmistakably to all who were present. 
The Dove -- Fernand Leger 1951
These three aspects are importantly connected. The prophet is a notable feature of Judaism, and as the reference to Isaiah implies, John stands out in this long and continuing line. Yet, with the appearance of Jesus, there is, so to speak, a change of gear. In the First Coming we move beyond the level of even the most distinguished prophets, and encounter not just another valuable source of spiritual insight and passionate human integrity, but a revelation of the Holy Spirit itself.
Written in retrospect, the Gospels struggle with this question – Just who was Jesus? Eventually they tentatively arrive at an answer which the Church has sought to refine ever since – Jesus is the Christ, the one human being in whom God is made fully manifest. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

EPIPHANY 2017

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian year when the Gospel reading is always the same. The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition --  only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based.  Tradition has filled out Matthew's account of the arrival at the stable of strangers from some far off  place, notably by holding that there were three travellers, identifying them as 'kings', and even giving them names. The Bible does not provide any basis for this. In some modern translations the description 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', and in fact 'magicians' may be the most accurate-- which reduces their status considerably for a modern audience.
So why has this brief and mysterious episode attracted so much attention for so long? The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, but then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context in which Jesus was born -- the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people hoped for or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a king, but myrrh also presages death. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, foreigners. This is the most important aspect. Although the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus must remain firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long expected Messiah if it is to be understood properly, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike. This is St Paul's great insight, an insight that leads him, at intense personal cost, to take on the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world. It is this special call that he explicitly acknowledges, appropriately, in the Epistle for Epiphany.
Adoration of the Magi - He Qi
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the moment, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.

Monday, December 19, 2016

CHRISTMAS

Christmas Morning Service - Anders Zorn
There are often multiple services at Christmas, so the Revised Common Lectionary provides three sets of 'propers'. These readings are used in every year of the 3-year cycle.
All three sets forge a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus. This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, and the Epistle readings from Hebrews and Titus are chosen to make this clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. Isaiah is really three books. Moreover, the authors of these three books (Chaps 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66) lived and wrote several hundred years apart – before, during and after the traumatic capture and exile of the Israelites in Babylon.
 
Christmas Night -- Paul Guaguin
The editing of these materials into “one” book is no accident. Whoever its editors were, they correctly perceived that the same spirit, and in large part the same theme, animates them all – how to have a faith that endures despite the vicissitudes of time and circumstance. This common theme makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to be taken from all three -- a fact that carries an important lesson for us. 
 
When John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is ‘the one who is to come’, he is making reference to a hope and a yearning that has persisted over a very long period of time, and across dramatically changing fortunes. We should take this timescale to heart.
“A thousand ages in Thy sight, are but an evening gone” Isaac Watts reminds us in his paraphrase of Psalm 90. It is easy for us to confine the advent of the Messiah to the deeply intriguing and appealing, but brief, event that is the Nativity. While God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas,it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
Nativity -- Giotto
 
 
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a way of acknowledging the fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home, while at the same time avoiding any tendency to domesticate  Him. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence of a sweet little baby. “He came and dwelt among us” so that, despite all our follies and weaknesses, we might be raised to God’s level. The danger of too 'nice' a Christmas is that, inadvertently, reduce God to ours.

Monday, December 12, 2016

ADVENT IV 2016

El Greco - St Joseph and the Christchild
The readings for this week form a bridge between Advent and Christmas. The Gospel begins the story of Christ’s Nativity which is about to unfold in longer readings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and then Epiphany. At the same time it looks back to the ancient promise of a Messiah, and directly quotes the prophet Isaiah in the famous passage that provides the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday.
 
Since we are still in Advent, we have only the start of the story in brief. Yet this short passage does something very special --  it enables us, unusually, to focus on the distinctive role of Joseph in the Gospel of God. Since Jesus owes his humanity, as well as his Jewish identity, to his earthly mother Mary, she has had a widely acknowledged theological role in the mystery of the Incarnation. Yet in a quite different way, Joseph also has a key part to play in God’s salvation history, since he too could have accepted or rejected it.

Sorolla - Virgin Mary (1887)
Nowadays, single parents and unmarried mothers are a thoroughly familiar part of life. As a result, it takes real imaginative effort to appreciate the significance of Mary’s highly unorthodox pregnancy in a culture so different to our own. At the annunciation Mary memorably says ‘be it unto me according to your word’. The great courage and deep faith that this reveals, is matched by Joseph’s response, however. Confronted with such devastating news, it would be natural for anyone to feel an intense personal affront and rejection. But Joseph had to face this further prospect -- acute embarrassment, ridicule, and social contempt.

All the time close at hand there was  an easy as well as a socially approved solution – ‘to dismiss her quietly’. The angelic voice in the dream tells him to do otherwise, but it relies, of course, on his having the spiritual insight and moral courage to accept that advice. His reward is to be accorded parental status by being giving the task of naming the baby. As it turns out, this is no small reward. Paul declares to the Christians at Rome in this week’s Epistle that their whole calling – like ours – is ‘for the sake of that name’. And at the name of Jesus, he tells us elsewhere, every knee shall bow. Every time we do so, we have good reason to remember Joseph.

Monday, December 5, 2016

ADVENT III 2016

St John the Baptist - Crivelli
‘What did you go out to look at?’ Jesus asks the crowd in this week’s Gospel, ‘A reed shaken in the wind?”  It is an image that has caught the imagination, and provided books and poems, as well as sermons, with a striking title. But what exactly does it mean? The exchange occurs in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that is mostly about the significance of John the Baptist. Clearly, ordinary people were much struck by this extraordinary man, and here Jesus is prompting them to ask themselves why.


Some commentaries suggest that from time to time freak winds blowing through the reeds around the Sea of Galilee created strikingly unusual formations. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying to the people ‘Surely you didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak?’ On the other hand, they can hardly have been drawn by his important social status. No one could have been less like the political dignitary who dresses in soft robes and lives in a royal palace. No, they went to see a prophet. And that means, consciously or unconsciously, they went to see him out of spiritual longing.


Botticelli - Mystical Nativity
This week’s Old Testament lesson is amongst Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd Jesus was addressing would have been thoroughly familiar. It gives graphic expression to that longing “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’. John is the harbinger of this vision, Jesus its fulfillment. The fulfillment is not all sweetness and light, however. ‘Here is your God, come with vengeance, and terrible recompense’.


Once again, as the possibility of replacing the Psalm with the Magnificat reminds us, the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming with its carols, social festivities, and baby in the manger falls easily within our comfort zone. We know what to expect, and we like what we know. The Second Coming when (as the Epistle puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more unsettling affair, inevitably generating a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.


Advent is the opportunity to switch familiarity and surprise around.  Since divine judgment on the shabby lives human beings so often lead is precisely what it is reasonable to expect, we ought to find the Incarnation – God with us -- spiritually surprising. "What is Man that You should be mindful of him? Psalm 8 asks, and, we might add, "that You should want to live here!"