Sunday, January 25, 2015

EPIPHANY IV 2015


 The Prophet - Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013)

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. So says St Paul in this week’s Epistle. He thereby seems to endorse a widely held belief that feelings are much more important than theological doctrines when it comes to Christian faith, or even more generally (as in the well known song) that ‘All you need is Love!’  Yet, in the very next paragraph Paul emphasizes the importance of not mistaking idols for the one true God. This is knowledge not everyone has, he says, and it can make a crucial difference. So is love enough or not? Or do we need real knowledge of what we ought to love

The other two readings throw some light on this important issue. The Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy could not make it plainer that God uses prophets -- people of special insight who will reveal his Word -- and that one such prophet will stand out from all the rest.  The Gospel passage casts Jesus in this light -- as someone who teaches, but with an authority greater than all the other prophets. The heart of this short episode is to be found in the opening paragraph, in fact, because the extraordinary power to heal demented people that he subsequently demonstrates, is taken as awesome evidence of this special prophetic authority.

Fallen Demon - Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Theological speculation can indeed be a kind of knowledge that puffs up. It is possible to attain impressive expertise in a highly sophisticated intellectual enterprise that, in reality, has very little to do with knowing how to live a life of faith.  At the same time, this is no license for anti-intellectualism, the kind of Christianity that abandons reason in favor of emotion. John’s Gospel explicitly describes Jesus as ‘the Truth’, and elsewhere Paul tells us that ‘the Truth’ will set us free. It can only do so if we know what the truth is – precisely the task that we have, literally, God-given  minds to work on.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

EPIPHANY III 2015

     
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    Calling Disciples He Qi

This week’s readings are remarkably short. The Gospel continues the story of Jesus’ early ministry. The times were turbulent, and dangerous ones for Jewish prophets and teachers, who were easily branded political rebels or dissidents. John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal for Jesus to leave his home in Nazareth and establish himself on the shores of Galilee, the familiar location of so many Gospel stories. It is here that he finds and calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John who were to be his ‘core’ disciples and, after his death and resurrection, his apostles.

The Prophet Jonah -- Tissot
Mark’s account of this episode is rather briefer than the one given by Matthew, who links the Galilean context to the prophecies of Isaiah. The lectionary, however, establishes another important Biblical resonance that underlines the connection with John the Baptist.  Jonah is sent to call Nineveh to repentance, and does so successfully.  

Interspersed between the readings from Jonah and Mark, though, is one of those awkward passages that seem inextricably tied to a belief that the world will end very soon. Paul tells the Corinthians to abandon their normal way of life completely, even to the point of ignoring familial obligations to both the living and the dead. We know, of course, that ‘the appointed time’ had not ‘grown short’, since the world is still here almost two thousand years later. Paul’s apocalyptic tone, however, is not without purpose even yet. Repentance does require us to see our normal life in a quite different light, and to radically review our priorities. Without that, discipleship loses its spiritual edge, and degenerates into conventional piety -- just going through the familiar motions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

EPIPHANY II 2015


The Calling of Samuel -- Joshua Reynolds

Vocation, and what it implies, is the unmistakable theme that unifies this week’s readings. The Old Testament lesson tells the compelling story of the boy Samuel wakened in the night by a voice. Understandably, he takes it to be his aging master Eli calling for assistance. What else could it be? God is unlikely to call a mere boy in preference to a priest of wisdom and experience. Rather poignantly, it is Eli himself who helps Samuel to understand that this truly is God’s voice, even though by calling Samuel to be the priest and prophet of the Chosen People, God is thereby signaling the end of Eli's own religious role.

In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus calls two disciples, Phillip and his friend Nathanael. Phillip’s call is brief and to the point, Nathanael’s rather less so, though both accept the call. The New Testament has very little more to tell us about Nathanael, but the question he asks in this brief episode is deeply resonant with meaning -- “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Such immediate skepticism makes him an unlikely candidate for discipleship. Yet the fact that Jesus sees it and overcomes it, is the evidence that he is truly called.
Philip the Apostle -- Duccio

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer, strangely, is 'Yes'. The redemption of the world came from this undistinguished village, and not from a great cultural center like Athens, an imperial capital like Rome, or a place of religious pilgrimage like Jerusalem. The story of Samuel and the insignificance of Nazareth are both reminders of this truth: the first step to discipleship is openness to the possibility of God's preferring places and people that from a human point of view seem very unlikely or unpromising. It is a truth that the beautiful Psalm for this Sunday underlines. ‘LORD, you have searched me out and known me . . . you discern my thoughts from afar”. Divine vocation is not a matter of chance, but based on God's intimate knowledge of us, a ‘knowledge  . . . so high that I cannot attain to it’.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

EPIPHANY I 2015

John Baptizes Jesus -- MAFA (Cameroon)
As we move from the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6th) to the Baptism of Christ (Jan 11th) we fast forward through the life of Christ by nearly three decades. Yet, though they are separated by quite a stretch of historical time, both celebrations fall into the same liturgical season -- 'Epiphany'. This is because the visit of the Magi to the stable and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, along with the wedding at Cana, are ‘epiphanic moments’, which is to say, occasions which make manifest the fact tha those who encounter the person of the historical Jesus are encountering the eternal Christ. 
 
Leonardo da Vinci's Baptism of Christ
Only Matthew's Gospel has the story of the Magi. Only John's Gospel has the wedding at Cana. But all four Gospels relate the one time that Jesus and John the Baptist encounter each other -- when John baptizes Jesus. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this, with a spiritual transformation.The reading from Acts shows that John's placing himself in a secondary, preparatory position to Jesus, was one that the early Christians believed and affirmed.
  
There is a theological puzzle here, however. If baptism is 'washing away of sin', the sinless Jesus cannot need it. Why then does he submit to it? By this action, however, Jesus declares his identification with humanity, and shows repentance to be a precondition of a transformation that is possible even for sinful human beings. The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ of this story. Quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us -- that divinity  can perfect humanity.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

CHRISTMAS

Nativity - Natalia Goncharova
Nativity -- Natalia Gonchorova (1910)
Many churches, perhaps most, have multiple services at Christmas, so the Lectionary provides three sets of 'propers', readings that can be used in every year of the 3-year cycle. 
 
Nativity -- Giotto
It is notable that 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.
 
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 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.
Nativity --  Hornhorst
“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, only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, was the birth of Jesus dimly recognized for what it truly was. And its full significance, Christians came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
Nativity -- Gauguin
 
The key spiritual task at Christmas is to find a way of acknowledging that in Jesus God came to an earthly home, without at the same domesticating him. The deep innocence of Jesus that makes our redemption possible, is not that 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, God might be reduced to ours.

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'.