Tuesday, December 16, 2014

ADVENT IV 2014

Virgin Annunciate Antonello da Messina (1475)
Today’s Gospel forms an obvious and natural bridge between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. It tells of the moment when Mary learns she is pregnant -- the Gospel for the Feast of the Annunciation in fact, which, appropriately, takes place on March 25th, exactly nine months before Christmas. The Gospel is preceded by the Magnificat -- Mary’s wonderful hymn of gracious acceptance – normally replacing the Psalm on this Sunday. For that reason, there is only one Old Testament reading, and rather oddly, it may seem, it is taken from the 2nd Book of Samuel. What has a passage from 2nd Samuel to do with Christmas, we might wonder? Actually, despite first impressions, it is a brilliant choice. Taken together these readings capture and express a deep insight into the proper meaning of Christmas.

King David Jean David (1908-93)
David, Israel’s greatest King, wants to repay God for the wealth and power that has been given to him, and he plans to do so by building God a special dwelling place --  a temple to replace the tent that the Israelites have trailed hither and thither through the wilderness. Strangely, God rebukes him for wanting to do this. The prophet Nathan is told to say: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” And yet, at the same time he sends an assurance “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever”. This will happen, though, in God’s way, not David’s, and at the moment of His own choosing.
  
The Annunciation is that moment. The magnificent dwelling offered by a King is rejected  and the womb of a peasant girl is chosen instead. David’s presumption in trying to tell God where it would be best for Him to dwell, stands in sharp contrast to Mary’s simple acceptance of God’s word. The assurance that David's kingdom 'shall be made sure forever', it turns out, does not mean that David’s family is the first of an unending dynasty, but that his divine appointment is to be perpetuated through  a girl who gives birth to a baby in obscurity and is standing by his side when he is put to death by crucifixion. Never has this message been more effectively driven home: “Your ways are not my ways, says the LORD”.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

ADVENT III 2014



John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel readings for the season of Advent, and is the subject of the third Sunday’s Gospel in all three years of the Lectionary cycle. He then reappears shortly after Christmas on the first Sunday in Epiphany for the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. The Lectionary thus does its utmost to drive home the key role that John the Baptist has to play in understanding the significance of Jesus. He is the link between the promises revealed to Israel by the prophets of the Old Testament, a link underlined by the passages from Isaiah that provide the Old Testament lessons for this week and last. 'The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me', Isaiah says, and John can say exactly the same. There is this crucial difference, though. The message now, which Christ at the end of his ministry commissions his disciples to preach, is that the salvation promised to Israel is for “all the nations”.


John the Baptist -- El Greco
The image of John that the Gospel passages paint is very much in accord with the prophetic tradition from which he springs. Like so many of them, he is an outsider, roughly dressed, existing on a strange and meager diet, and proclaiming his message in ‘the wilderness’, which is to say, on the edge of human settlements, whose inhabitants must go beyond town and village limits to hear him. John the Baptist fits so well the people's preconception of how a prophet should be, it is only natural that they should wonder if he might be the promised Messiah.


In this week’s Gospel they ask him outright if he is – but he denies it, and famously points to ‘one who is coming after me’, the thong of whose sandal, he declares, ‘I am not worthy to untie’. The true Messiah, it turns out, is a very different kind of prophet. The Gospels all depict Jesus in the heart of town life – conversing in busy streets, visiting houses, sitting at dinner tables  -- even to the point of being accused of engaging too easily with the seedier side of urban life. His clothing, too, as the soldiers at his Crucifixion discovered, is fine enough to be wagered for.


In their depictions of John and Jesus, then, the four Gospels all implicitly invite us to engage in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. It is one that can prove highly instructive and illuminating, and reveal another dimension of the way in which the 'true' messiah is never 'true to form'.
 

Monday, December 1, 2014

ADVENT II 2014

John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness -- Limbourg Brothers
The readings for this Sunday are unusually well integrated. The Gospel passage depicting John the Baptist expressly quotes the Old Testament passage from Isaiah, with its reference to ‘a voice, crying in the wilderness’, while the tone of Psalm 85 and the message of Peter’s second Epistle resonate with a similar theme -- the kind of faithfulness that looks to 'a new earth, where righteousness is at home'. In one way or another, then, all these readings point to two interconnected concepts -- repentance and restoration

The interconnection is crucial. Modern Christians widely, easily, and for the most part correctly, proclaim the unconditional love of God. God does not love the things he has made because of their merit, but because they are his. Still, sin is a reality. Human pride, cruelty and self-centredness erect a very great barrier between humanity and divinity. The central message of the Gospel – as of many religions – is that despite appearances this barrier is surmountable.
Marc Chagall The Forgiveness of God in Isaiah
Surmounting it, though, is a two sided affair. God’s love means that he offers us forgiveness, however vile or despicable we may have been. In this sense his love is unconditional. But his forgiveness is not. A precondition of God’s forgiveness is our sincere repentance, which is to say, our honest acknowledgement and true remorse for the many ways in which we have fallen short of our God-given potential. 

Peter’s Epistle expresses just this thought when it declares that God’s love is shown by his patience, ‘not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’, while Mark's Gospel in a similar spirit offers ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Repentance is key to lifting us beyond the level of material beings created and nurtured out of love – as other animals are -- and into the realms of beings who can participate in divine life.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ADVENT SUNDAY 2014

Horsemen of the Apocalpse  Salvador Dali
"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory". Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent is undeniably apocalyptic, a feature that makes it problematic for those main-stream Christians who have difficulty in believing in an apocalypse. They are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe.

Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?

Apocalypse Ion Tucilescu (1910-62)
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity simply has to invoke imaginative language. We cannot think about the limits of history in historical terms. So, for instance, the Genesis stories are graphic representations of the great truth that God created time and space, a cosmic beginning to all things whose mysterious nature science is just dimly starting to understand. It is not so strange, then, to think that God will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close with the end of all things. If so, however, we must think about it pictures that are no less graphic.

The Bible is not science. It offers us something that science cannot -- religious and theological insights into human nature and the human condition, insights by which we can live. We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent.  The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear, because, as St Paul says in the Epistle, since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, we need not lack in any spiritual gift in advance of his final return.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CHRIST THE KING 2014

Christ Pantokrator
The last Sunday of the Christian year is now quite widely celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, or The Reign of Christ. This is a relatively new practice, instituted by the Roman Catholic church in 1925, and one that has been followed by other churches for only the last few decades. Although it rounds off the year appropriately with a culminating affirmation of the supremacy and majesty of the risen Jesus, there are at least two reasons to hesitate.

First, the language employs a rather antiquated conception – kingship. The world in which kings and queens, surrounded by immense wealth and splendor, were held in awe because of their absolute power, has long since disappeared. Apart from a few isolated cases, no one attributes such an elevated status to another human being any more, or makes the mistake of treating them like gods. So how can applying ancient royal images to Jesus Christ enrich our understanding or increase our devotion? Second, invoking the image of Christ the King runs the risk of being unattractively triumphalist. Is this not an expression of Christian superiority in a world that rightly emphasizes the need for inter-faith dialogue?

Christ in Silence Odilon Redon (1897)
In this week's Epistle, Paul, even though he is writing for a world in which supreme imperial power was indeed the norm, offers us a way of responding to the first point  . He tells the Ephesians that God --the creator of all that is -- has used his power to raise a criminalized Jew in an obscure part of the empire ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion’. That is to say, the truth about Jesus sets the political power of earthly kings in its proper perspective. For all their majesty, such rulers are powerless to save us from sin and death. Their kind of ‘kingship’ is importantly hollow. This is an assessment that applies to modern states and rulers no less than to ancient ones.

To hail Christ as king, therefore, does not mean claiming supreme power for an alternative political candidate, but reversing our whole way of thinking about power.  It is on the Cross, after all, that Jesus receives his Crown of Thorns. It is of course true, as the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats affirms, that Jesus has been given the final word of judgment over all creation. Still, this does not license Christian triumphalism. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and far more demanding responsibility, also reflected in Gospel parable – to make sure that they see and honor Christ’s kingship in the poorest and humblest people and places of the world.

Monday, November 10, 2014

PENTECOST XXIII

Parable of the Three Servants JESUSMAFA (1973)
The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a monetary unit (distantly connected, in fact, with our word ‘dollar’). Now it means a special gift or aptitude. This change has come about largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to the special aptitudes we find in ourselves. Calling them ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations.  The term ‘gifts’, too, has largely lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Yet, it is precisely because we continue to speak, and to want to speak, in this way, that an important question opens up. Gifts imply a giver. Who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? The special aptitudes we delight in – a talent for music or mathematics, or just as importantly, a gift for friendship – are not ours by right. Still less are they our personal accomplishments. Our gifts underlie our best efforts; they are not the result of them. 
 
Here is one place where even the most secularized culture has difficulty abandoning a truly religious sensibility. 'Gifted' people are 'blessed'. Both they and we ought to be grateful for such 'blessings', in exactly the way we are grateful for gifts from friends and family. Without these blessings, we could not make our way in the world. Yet they are benefits we have not earned, and to which we have no natural or human right.

 The Seven Virtues, Faith -- Giotto
The parable Jesus tells relies upon this acknowledgement. But it also goes beyond it. Gifts bring responsibilities, notably the responsibility to use them well. And this, the parable reminds us, implies risk. To use your gifts to the maximum, you have to take a chance. The cautious servant who buried the talent  was ‘risk averse’, understandably so, no doubt, given the severity of the master who gave it to him. Still, however understandable his attitude may be, it brought him to judgment. Life is a gift that we waste to our eternal cost.

The message seems clear. Each of us must make an accurate assessment of the gifts we have been given, and launch out on paths that make the most of these. Of course, there is no guarantee that doing so will bring success as the world understands it. For the Christian, though, this does not mean that we are left stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, ‘You are not in darkness; you are all children of light’. This is not because they know what the future holds, but because by following Christ they have ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation’. It does not require predictive foresight to be guided by faith, love and hope.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

PENTECOST XXII 2014

Head of a Prophet Mikhail Vrubel (1905)
Depending on what choice is made from the unusually wide range of alternative passages set for this week, it is easy to identify some key themes  -- wisdom, final judgment, and the life hereafter. But how are they connected? The different writers seem to say quite different things about them. The prophet Amos is full of foreboding and paints a gloomy picture -- 'Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light'. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand,  says that everyone who gives heed to wisdom's laws has an 'assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God'. Saint Paul, however, tells the Thessalonian Christians, that it is not wisdom but the faith that 'Jesus died and rose again', which  gives them reason not to  'grieve as others do who have no hope', and brings assurance that 'the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first'. 

Wise and Foolish Virgins William Blake (1822)
So is the prospect of the Last Day a cause for fear or for hope? And from the point of view of this prospect, does it matter or not whether we have lived wisely? The Gospel reading consists in a single parable which throws light on this. Traditionally known as 'the wise and foolish virgins' it recounts the eagerly anticipated climax of a great wedding, the moment when the Bridegroom arrives. Everyone is equally eager for the Bridegroom's arrival. Experience tells us that this crowning moment could be delayed for some reason or other, and it is simple wisdom, not special genius or expertise, that should lead us to prepare for such an eventuality. Yet when the moment comes, it finds some 'foolish' people who lack this modicum of wisdom quite unprepared. And yet their vain attempt to put things right at the last moment reveals the ease with which they realize the importance of the thing they have lost through lack of foresight. Wisdom is not the cause of the bridegroom's arrival, nor lack of it that causes his delay. Wisdom has to do with the guests' preparedness.

The Wise Virgins Paul Delvaux (1965)
The 'faith' of the Thessalonians was that the death and Resurrection of Jesus is the focal point of the meaning and purpose of the whole creation. That is where their hope did, and should, lie. Nevertheless, they still needed wisdom to properly prepare for the implications of this truth, and could, therefore, foolishly fail to do so. With wisdom we can hope, contra Amos, that the 'Day of the Lord' is a day of light. Without it however, along with the 'foolish virgins', we may discover that it is possible to be excluded from this light and left in darkness.