Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The Naming of Jesus -- unknown

Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
or Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21
Psalm 8 

January 1st has long been celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, a commemoration of one of the three traditional birth rites that Jesus, as the child of a Jewish mother, naturally underwent. Interestingly, though many other feast days were abandoned by the churches that broke with Rome at the time of the Reformation, the Feast of the Circumcision was generally retained, notably by the Lutherans and the Anglicans. It remains a major feast of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In more recent liturgical Western practice, however, it has been conjoined with, and even been replaced by another birth rite – the Naming of Jesus – the title that is now used across the Anglican Communion.

In medieval times Christ’s circumcision was thought theologically significant because it marks the first time that his blood was shed. It thereby signified his true humanity, while at the same time pointing forward to his redemptive sacrifice in the blood of the Cross. It is harder to give an equally straightforward account of why the Feast of the Holy Name matters.

Yet the explanation is not so very far to seek. At birth each one of us is given a name, and normally this is the same name that we take to the grave. Our names do not describe us, and any ‘meaning’ they once had is quite coincidental. Yet it is by a name, not a biographical description, that we introduce ourselves to each other. The first step in getting to know me – who I am – is getting to know my name.

So too it is with ‘Jesus’. The name means ‘Savior’, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, and it is so widely regarded as ‘holy’ that only rarely is it used for anyone else. The Feast of the Holy Name can be thought of as subsuming all that Jesus did within the knowledge of who he was. It invites us both to encounter and to dwell upon the Person in whom all the events of Nativity, Baptism, Ministry, Crucifixion and Resurrection are united in a single story of salvation.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Madonna and Child (2011) -- Ruth Tietjen Councell by kind permission of the artist

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)
John 1:1-14
Psalm 98  

The lectionary readings for Christmas – officially ‘The Nativity of Our Lord’ -- are the same in each year of the three year cycle. Variety lies in the fact that provision is made for three services. The Gospel for the third of these services famously starts with this verse : “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This wonderfully majestic sentence points to a question that has long troubled philosophers – why does anything exist at all?  -- and it identifies the source of all being in a single purposeful will – God’s Word -- through which ‘all things came into being’ and without which ‘not one thing came into being’.

Though utterly familiar to millions of Christians, these affirmations are as deeply theological as anything anywhere in the Bible. They are also extremely difficult to understand. Where does the key to their significance lie, and how are those whose minds do not run to metaphysics and theology to gain insight into their meaning? The answer is, in the Incarnation. The finite human mind can penetrate the infinite purposes of God only because God has chosen to become human.

The Epistle to the Hebrews expresses the point exactly. In Jesus we can find ‘the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being’. This being so, we do not need to grapple with difficult theological puzzles and paradoxes. We may of course choose to, and there is a lot to be learnt in doing so. But it is sufficient to track the story of the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do so partly by modeling our lives on his, as best we can, partly turning repeatedly to God in prayer and sacrament, and partly by following the pattern of worship that the Church calendar prescribes.

That is why, though Christmas comes at the end of an old year, it signals the start of recurrent journey towards the divine that is in us and beyond us, and for which we could not ask a better light than Christ.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Henry Ossawa Tanner The Annunciation (1898)

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16Canticle 3 or Canticle 15
or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16: 25-27
Luke 1: 26-38
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 – replacing the normal Psalm on this Sunday. Before that again is an Old Testament reading from 2nd Samuel. This is more puzzling. What has the passage from 2nd Samuel to do with Christmas, we might wonder? In fact, it is a brilliant choice, because together these readings capture a deep insight into the meaning of Christmas.

David, Israel’s greatest King, wants to repay God for the wealth and power he has enjoyed, and he plans to do so by building God a temple to replace the tent that the Israelites have trailed hither and thither through the wilderness. Strangely, God rebukes him. 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 choosing, not ours.

The magnificent dwelling that a king offered to build is rejected -- in favor of the womb of a peasant girl. And David’s presumption in trying to tell God where best to live, contrasts sharply with Mary’s simple acceptance of God’s word. The assurance turns out not to mean that David’s family will always be kings – which we now know since ceased to be the case long ago – but that his line is to be perpetuated in a baby born in obscurity and destined for death by crucifixion. “Your ways are not my ways, says the LORD”. This is a truth we must hold on to if we are to see the real meaning of Christmas through the tinsel, the turkey and the lights.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African-American painter who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia when the famous Thomas Eakins was Professor of Drawing. Many of Tanner's paintings had religious subjects, and several are in the ownership of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Monday, December 5, 2011


John the Baptist -- triptych by Rogier van Weyden (early Flemish)

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel readings for 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, and the message of salvation for “all the nations” which Christ commissions his disciples to preach.

The image of John that these 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. He seems to fit Isaiah’s description so well -- ‘The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me’ -- it is only natural that people should suppose that 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, regularly depicted 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 its seedier side of urban life. His clothing, too, is fine enough to be worth wagering for.

In their depictions of John and Jesus, 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, especially if we dwell on the less obvious aspects.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

St Andrew's Day 2011

November 30th --  the Feast of St Andrew, Apostle
patron saint of Scotland, Greece and Russia

Deuteronomy 30:11-14
Romans 10:8b-18
Matthew 4:18-22
Psalm 19 or 19:1-6

Andrew, in Galilee,
From nets and fish by Jesus bidden.
In simple faith so simply borne
His life is hidden.
And yet he calls again, by echoing
Words from another shore.

Andrew, the icon of a faith
That Jesus drew
A colored window brightened
as the light shines through.
And his refraction making it reveal
Thorns on a crimson Cross.

Andrew, each dedication of a place 
To Jesus given
On land and sea 
They sound within the wind and waves
That first, eternal call, repeating still its message,
'Follow me'.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Detail from Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

The readings for this Sunday are unusually well integrated. The Gospel passage depicting John the Baptist expressly quotes the Old Testament passage, 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. In one way or another, all these readings point to two interconnected concepts -- repentance and redemption.
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, and erects a very great barrier between humanity and divinity. The message of the Gospel – as of many religions – is that this barrier is surmountable.
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 of 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 John 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 those who can participate in divine life.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Albrecht Durer --- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

“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.

Yet the passage can hardly be set aside. This is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. It is an extract from the Christian Bible that is expressly appointed in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses. So how are we to understand it?

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 event whose mysterious nature science is just dimly beginning to understand. It is not so strange, then, to think that God will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close. 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 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. No one – not even God the Son -- can predict its end. 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, we need not lack in any spiritual gift in advance of Christ’s final revelation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Christ Pantocrator -- Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

The last Sunday of the Christian year is now 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 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, it brings two risks with it.

To begin with, it appeals to a rather antiquated conception – kingship. The world is long since gone in which kings and queens, surrounded by immense wealth and splendor, exercised absolute power and were regarded with awe because of it. No one attributes such status to other human beings now, or is likely to make the mistake of treating them like gods. So how can applying ancient royal images to Jesus Christ enrich our understanding or increase our devotion? Secondly, there is the risk of an unattractive triumphalism. Invoking the image of Christ the King can sound very much like an expression of Christian superiority.

Though writing for a world in which supreme imperial power was indeed the norm, St Paul in the Epistle 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 – an assessment that continues to apply to modern states.

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. This does not license Christian triumphalism, however. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and more demanding responsibility – to make sure that they see and honor Christ’s kingship in the poorest and humblest parts and people of the world.

St Margaret of Scotland

Margaret of Scotland in the window of St Margaret's Chapel Edinburgh
 Margaret, Queen of Scotland
Proverbs 31:10-11,20,26,28
Matthew 13:44-52
Psalm 146:4-9
or Psalm 112:1-9

The feast day of St Margaret of Scotland falls on November 16th. Margaret, who was born around 1046 AD was probably Hungarian. A political refugee, she found protection at the court of Malcolm King of Scotland. Though her youth, delicacy and refinement contrasted somewhat sharply with his character and life style, they appear to have had a deeply happy marriage, a fact reflected in the reading from Proverbs appointed for this day. They had eight children including David I, one of the architects of the Scottish nation.

Margaret's profound personal faith, her commitment to the reform of the Church, and her seemingly limitless charitable work were legendary in her own day. She it was who established a ferry across the River Forth to encourage pilgrimages to the Shrine of St Andrew at St Andrews in Fife. Centuries later the ferry was replaced by the famous Forth Road Bridge, but the towns of North and South Queensferry retain their commemorative names.

Margaret died on November 16 1093, just three days after the deaths of her husband and eldest son. It was over 200 years before she was canonized -- by Pope Innocent IV in 1250. Her connection with pilgrimage inspired this verse of a hymn about her.

Patience the cloak she wore
Love in her bag she bore
Grace was the staff with which she strode
Hope in her Blessed Lord
Faith in his Holy Word
These were her food upon the road.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Parable of the Talents - Annette Fortt (by kind permission of the artist) annettefortt.com.

Proper 28 The Sunday closest to November 16, RCL

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. To call them ‘talents’ or ‘gifts’ has no special resonance any more, and yet speaking in this way necessarily invokes a theological meaning. Gifts imply a giver, and who is the giver if not God? The aptitudes we have – a special 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. Rather, they are blessings for which we ought to be grateful in exactly the way we are grateful for birthday or Christmas gifts from friends and family. Without these gifts, we could not make our way in the world, yet they are benefits which we have not earned, and to which we have no ‘natural’ right.

The parable Jesus tells goes beyond this important observation, however. 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, given the severity of the master who gave it to him. Nevertheless, 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, but for the Christian this does not mean that we are left stumbling in the dark. One 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’.


Monday, November 7, 2011


Martin and the Beggar -- Trento Longaretti (b. 1916)

Nov 11th is Martinmas -- the feast day of St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of France. Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. After a time he became a monk, and later reluctantly accepted ordination as Bishop of Tours on condition that he could maintain his monkish lifestyle. Martin's concern for the poor was made evident while still a soldier. A famous legend recounts how he cut his valuable military tunic in two to clothe a naked beggar. He died in 397 AD, and his ascetic life, episcopal leadership, concern for the poor and championing of the oppressed quickly led to widespread veneration. His feast day became known as 'Martinmas', and was used as the 'quarter day' on which accounts were settled before winter began.

Chuck Bartow's poem 'Salvation' does not mention Martin, but it brilliantly finds spiritual significance in military and wintery images that make it specially fitting for his feast day.

As with a powerful but unseen blow,
Midwinter’s sun strikes every tree in sight.
Ice-sheathed limbs, bravely engarde, glistening, bright,
Wildly flail. Armor falls into the snow –
Shoulder pieces, elbow plates, gauntlets glow
Then disappear. Bare tree bark, dark as night,
Stands exposed to day. All is brought to light:
The wounds, the tears that let the sweet sap flow.
Yet warrior light, fierce as unseen grace,
Saves what it strips that’s armored unto death
With slash after slash, silent, certain, keen.
Swift, sure, assault upon assault with pace,
The beauty of it makes us catch our breath,
And wish for light ourselves to strip us clean.
from Dust and Prayers by Charles L Bartow

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


The commemoration of All Saints (November 1st) has long been a major Christian festival. It is now widely celebrated on the Sunday following. Accordingly there are two sets of readings for this Sunday. This lectionary note is based on the readings for All Saints. A link to the readings for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost can be found below.

All Saints' Day, RCL
Revelation 7:9-17 
Psalm 34:1-10, 22 
1 John 3:1-3 
Matthew 5:1-12

The Gospel for All Saints in this year of the lectionary consists in ‘The Beatitudes’, so called because they comprise a list in which each item begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. It is also contrary to those Old Testament passages where the same word is usually translated ‘happy’ and refers to the emotional and material benefits that can be expected to flow from following God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is warning his followers that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them.

So why would anyone go in for it? Sometimes the answer is thought to lie with post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect in heaven, if only we persist. But to follow Jesus for the sake of future benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’. That seems right.

The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a central Christian affirmation on just this point. The greatest possible blessing in life is ‘that we should be called children of God’ and ‘we are God’s children now’. Speculation about heaven and the hereafter is not really relevant because ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’.

None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled. Being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children either. Yet at All Saints we are invited to acknowledge this deep truth.  Though ‘the world did not know it’, the lives of the poor and persecuted who truly lived as ‘children of God’ were as blessed as we can ever hope our own will be.

Readings for Pentecost 21 
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 
Psalm 78:1-7 or 
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or 
Amos 5:18-24 
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 
or Psalm 70 
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 
Matthew 25:1-13