Monday, January 28, 2013


The Prophet Jeremiah -- Michaelangelo

There are weeks when the lectionary readings are so full of subtleties that it is hard to distill a single theme on which to reflect. This is one of those weeks. In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah recounts his deep reluctance to accept the awesome prophetic role that God has in mind for him. Here we get a glimpse of a paradox that runs through so much of the Bible. To be ‘chosen’ by God as one of his special witnesses is the most momentous and significant thing that can happen to any human being. In one sense it offers the individual a more distinguished role in human life than anyone could ordinarily hope for. Ye, quite unlike high office in other spheres – politics, business, science, the military for example – where we can expect acclamation, popularity and reward, prophetic greatness is very likely to bring ridicule, rejection and persecution.

Christ in the Synagogue -- Nicholai Ge (1868)
This was true in Jeremiah’s case. His example, though striking, fades to relative insignificance in comparison with Jesus, however. Jesus is far more than a prophetic witness. The lessons throughout Epiphany underline again and again that he has been uniquely chosen by God as God’s own incarnation – His Son in a very special sense. In Jesus, out of sheer love divinity takes on the limitations of humanity. Today’s Gospel, shows, nevertheless, that such love can be met with deep resentment, hatred and even violence. It is this reaction that finally leads Jesus to Crucifixion.

In this context, the famous passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians serves wonderfully to remind us of what love is like. It is easy to sit back comfortably and let these familiar and beautiful words flow over us. But we should make no mistake. As Paul himself knew only too well, church people are like the resentful people in the synagogue at Nazareth far more than they are models of the love that he so powerfully describes. Set against this fact, there is this Good News: Christian hope and faith are pinned on God’s love for humanity, not on humanity’s love for one another.


The Presentation -- mural inthe Abbey of St Walburga, CO
Feb 2nd commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, a traditional observance of faithful Jews on the birth of a first son. It has special resonance in this case, of course, since it prefigures the Eucharist in which day by day we have the opportunity to give God back the gift he gives us. So Mary and Joseph return to God that which uniquely came from God.

Commonly called Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The readings are the same each year, and identify Jesus with ‘the Lord whom you seek’ whose unexpected appearance ‘in the temple’ is predicted by the prophet Malachi. The appointed Psalm, appropriately, extols the beauty and wonder of God’s ‘dwelling place’ and the joy of being there. The association with candles comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode recorded in the Gospel for the day is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' with its description of the baby Jesus as 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'.

Candlemas comes forty days after the nativity, and has long been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season. This is not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation. In the ceremony for Candlemas, candles for use in both church and home are blessed with a prayer:

Presentation of Christ -- Andrea Mantegna (1453)

God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon the light of your revelation to the nations.
Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


'Ezra Reads the Law to the People' Gustave Dore (1832-83)

This week’s Old Testament lesson offers us a glimpse of what must have been a profoundly moving occasion. After decades of exile in Babylon, the Israelites have returned to the Promised Land. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, the ancient gates are functioning again, and the people gather in celebration at the Water Gate, itself a symbol of new life. Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law of Moses. It takes a whole morning, but these are the Laws that have made the Israelites the people they are, and to which they now re-dedicate themselves.

Jesus unrolls the Scriptures James J Tissot (1886)

So moved are they, the people weep. But Nehemiah bids them be joyful. The beautiful  words of Psalm 19 (prescribed for this Sunday) echo his sentiments. “The law of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart”.

Both passages serve to underline the immense cultural and religious significance the Scriptures held for the Jews. We need a sense of this if we are to appreciate just how extraordinary the episode recounted in the Gospel is. Jesus reads the Scriptures in his local synagogue, to people who have known him all his life. Suddenly he announces, referring to himself it seems, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." It is little wonder that the people are stunned into silence, and then -- as next week’s continuation of the same passage shows – moved to anger and violence. The modern reader’s task over these two weeks is read imaginatively, so that it becomes possible both to sympathize with them for their profound religious loyalty, and yet to understand how they went wrong in their rejection of Jesus.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Baptism of Christ-- El Greco (1608)

The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates an event that is recorded in all four Gospels. The Gospel for this year is Luke, the shortest of the four accounts – ‘when Jesus had also been baptized’ is all it says about the event itself – and it combines two seemingly very different ideas, a ferocious warning about ‘unquenchable fire’ with the appearance of a dove, traditionally the symbol of peace. In a justly celebrated poem, T S Eliot powerfully connects the two.

Baptism Jean-Michel Basquiat

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
 Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
 To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
 We only live, only suspire 
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Eliot here gives expression to the choice with which Christianity confronts us. We can live by our own lights and struggle through the existential problems that ‘human power cannot remove’, or we can transcend them by letting the love of God in Christ consume us. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

Jean-Michel Basquiat began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.