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 In more recent liturgical Western practice, however, it has been conjoined with, and even been replaced by another birth rite – the Naming of Jesus – the title that is now used across the Anglican Communion.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.