Tuesday, December 23, 2014


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


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


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'.

Monday, December 1, 2014


John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness -- Limbourg Brothers
The readings for this Sunday are unusually well integrated. The Gospel passage depicting John the Baptist expressly quotes the Old Testament passage from Isaiah, 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 -- the kind of faithfulness that looks to 'a new earth, where righteousness is at home'. In one way or another, then, all these readings point to two interconnected concepts -- repentance and restoration

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. Human pride, cruelty and self-centredness erect a very great barrier between humanity and divinity. The central message of the Gospel – as of many religions – is that despite appearances this barrier is surmountable.
Marc Chagall The Forgiveness of God in Isaiah
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 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 Mark's Gospel 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 beings who can participate in divine life.