Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Nativity -- Giotto

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. 
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.
Nativity - Altdorfer
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.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Rather unusually, on this Sunday one of the lectionary readings can be repeated. ‘The Magnificat’ is a rapturous song of praise that Mary offers to God when she realizes she is to be the Mother of Jesus – ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’. It can be used in place of the Psalm, and then heard for a second time as the centerpiece of the Gospel reading.

The Visitation -- Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)
Mary has walked to a distant village to visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is from Elizabeth that she receives final confirmation of how remarkable her position is: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Like the Magnificat itself, these words have also become a widely used and long established prayer in the worship of the Church.

The Magnificat, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel, has been said and sung innumerably many times over many centuries. This is powerful testimony to its deep spiritual significance for Christian believers in every time and place. Oddly, though, sheer familiarity can actually deafen us to the mysterious story it reflects. God’s mighty work of redemption, the point and purpose of the whole created cosmos, begins in a remote part of the Roman Empire with the unexpected pregnancy of a teenage girl from a tiny village. It is Mary’s acceptance of what might well bring her shame and degradation that inaugurates the spiritual transformation of human kind through the life and death of Jesus. 

Roman ruins
‘From now on all generations will call me blessed’. This is such an unlikely scenario that Mary’s words seem absurd. The world in which she lived was dominated by one of the greatest and most enduring empires in human history, an empire that has vanished so completely, only a few archeological traces remain. Yet at Christmas billions of people, to whom that world is literally ancient history, will nevertheless give thanks for Mary’s role in their redemption, and call her ‘blessed’. What plainer evidence could there be that God has indeed ‘brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’?

Monday, December 10, 2012


Tomb of David, Mount Zion -- Jean David (1908-93)

In this week’s readings the Advent theme of judgment rises to a crescendo. In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zephaniah tells Israel to rejoice because God has ended the terrible catalogue of acts of judgment that have befallen his Chosen People. The defeat of their enemies is at hand because God Himself will come amongst them. A Canticle from Isaiah (in the place of the usual Psalm) repeats the theme and tells the inhabitants of Zion to ‘Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel’. The brief lesson from Philippians provides a New Testament echo – rejoice because ‘the Lord is near’.

'Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees'
The Gospel, however, has a rather different tone. This is John the Baptist at his sternest. No mention of rejoicing, just a dreadful warning. John addresses those same inhabitants of Zion, as ‘You brood of vipers’ – no better than snakes squirming across the sand to avoid the flames that will destroy them. No good saying, ‘But we are the Chosen People!’ This gives neither right nor privilege, because God could just as easily choose stones to be his servants. True repentance, John declares, will indeed make a difference, but only if it includes giving up all the little conventional sins that everyone expects householders, soldiers and tax collectors to commit.

Will they then see the Messiah, the mighty warrior whose coming Zephaniah and Isaiah herald? Could the ferocious John be Him? No, someone even more powerful is coming. This true Messiah will come amongst us in order to separate the wheat and burn the chaff ‘with unquenchable fire’.

Somewhat strangely, the passage ends by saying that John proclaimed ‘good news’ to the people. How could exhortations’ of such ferocity be good news?  Here we get the first inkling that true ‘salvation’ will be quite different to everything we might long for.  The ‘warrior in your midst who gives victory’ will be born in a stable and die on a Cross. That is the mystery of the Incarnation that millions of Christians across the world are about to celebrate.


Monday, December 3, 2012


This is one of those relatively rare Sundays when the Psalm is replaced by a Canticle – a Bible passage whose beauty and power makes it the equivalent of poetry. The three most famous and widely used canticles all come from Luke’s Gospel, and they occur in the first two chapters, just before and after the birth of Jesus. The Magnificat -- the song of the Virgin Mary as she realizes the significance of the burden that God has given her – is the most famous, but the Benedictus which is assigned for this Sunday is no less powerful.

The context is dramatic. Zechariah is taking his turn as a priest in the temple when he is struck dumb by a powerful vision. It tells him that the son that is about to be born to him should have a name – John -- that marks him out from the family into which he will be born. When the child arrives, Zechariah’s speech returns and he breaks into this wonderful hymn of praise – a canticle that many prayer books use every day.

John the Baptist - Alexander Ivanov (1808-56)
Zechariah’s insight is that he is living at a time when the historic promises God made to Israel are about to be fulfilled, and he sees the child that has been born to him in old age as having a key role in it. But the third of Luke’s canticles –– Simeon’s praise in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis -- corrects a misunderstanding. It is not John, but Jesus in whom ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.

John, though, has a key place in the process. He is indeed a ‘prophet of the Most High’ whose task is to proclaim, in his fiery way, that an essential first step is repentance. We cannot be rescued from ‘darkness and the shadow of death’ unless first we recognize our need to be, and deeply long for light.

Picture courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library