Monday, November 30, 2015


Zecharias and Elizabeth -- Stanley Spenser

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
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. Although this is Zechariah's hymn of praise, it is not his son John, but Jesus, yet to be born, 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’.
Both the lesson from Malachi and the accompanying Gospel make clear, however, that Zechariah is right to think that his son has a key role in the plan of salvation. John is Malachi's 'messenger who will prepare the way', truly a ‘prophet of the Most High’. His appointed 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.

Monday, November 23, 2015


Last Judgment Mural - Ivan Bilibin
Advent I is the start of a new Christian year. The readings are always powerfully apocalyptic – passages from Jeremiah and Luke (this year) or Isaiah and Matthew (last year) that focus on the end of time, and the Second Coming of Christ. Why do we begin the year by thinking about the Second Coming, and not the First – the birth of Jesus? The answer is that the Incarnation is NOT the start of the story of our salvation, but rather a crucial moment within it. At the start of a new spiritual year it is essential that we bring to mind the great cosmic sweep of time within which God acts – from Creation to Redemption – and thereby renew our sense of the immeasurable ‘power, might and majesty’ of the God we worship, a sense easily, and comfortably, submerged in the more homely images of Bethlehem.
At the same time, this is not simply a matter of cosmic theology. The task is to shape our own lives around the very same story, and to grasp this truth -- that for each one of us Birth is the moment of creation and Death the end of time, and that at some point in our journey from the cradle to the grave, God comes to us in Christ as our salvation.
The Last Judgment -- Limbourg Brothers (1400)
Advent I is also the Sunday on which Anglicans throughout the world use Thomas Cranmer’s most enduring Collect, a prayer that he specially composed for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is powerful testimony to Crammer’s spiritual gifts that this prayer has served its purpose for more than 460 years, and even now has been retained in all the newest versions of the Prayerbook. This is because of the incomparable way in which Cranmer uses Biblical phrases to weave together the cosmic and the personal aspects of Advent. Arguably the most beautiful of all his Collects, its words gives us the means to articulate a deep understanding of the human condition within which we must pursue our lives.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


King  David  - Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall King David
This is the closing Sunday of the Christian year, and celebrates Christ as King. In the modern lectionary the traditional description 'Feast of Christ the King' has been replaced by 'The Reign of Christ' no doubt because the image of ‘king’ does not have much resonance in the modern world where ‘democracy’ is the prevailing political ideal.  In this respect, the United States can be thought to have led the way. It was founded on the outright rejection of royalty, and an affirmation of the equality of rich and poor. We are given a choice of Old Testament readings. Choosing the passage from 2 Samuel allows us focus on David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, rather on a more general image of kingship, and since the focus on David brings to the fore the theme that Jesus is ‘of David’s line’, something that is emphasized at Christmas, we seem on more obviously religious or theological ground with that.
Christ in Judgement c.1100
But in fact, the difference is merely one of emphasis. It is David’s kingship that matters. His status in first century Judaism was like George Washington’s in American political culture – uniquely important, and in no way diminished, in either case, by any human failings they may have had. In the time of Jesus, Israel’s hopes, by and large, were still pinned on the thought that a new David would arise, and return the Jewish nation to its rightful place as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. As history turned out, it was not to be. What Christians believe is that, against this background, God acted to reveal a quite different kind of kingship – ‘not of this world’ – as Jesus expressly says in the Gospel passage for this Sunday, a ‘kingship’ revealed, strangely, in a ‘crown of thorns’. The fundamental message runs counter to the hopes people pin on all political programs, and not just those of old fashioned royalists.
So, to celebrate the Reign of Christ properly, we must be sure to avoid all hints of triumphalism, any implied suggestion that ‘our man’ won out over his enemies in the end. Rather, we need, in a spirit of wondering humility, to find a way of accepting that, as Isaiah says, God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. And yet, it is His ways that will and should prevail. The incarnation of God in the journey of Jesus from manger to cross makes it possible for us to do that. Celebrating Christ as King is our acknowledgment of this fundamental truth.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Destruction of the Temple -- Hayez (1867)
It is almost impossible for us to imagine the skyscrapers of New York or Capitol Hill in Washington DC lying in ruins in just a few years time, never to be rebuilt. If anyone predicted it, we could not take him seriously. The prediction that Jesus makes in the Gospel for this Sunday must have struck his hearers in just this way -- quite unbelievable to everyone except his fanatical disciples. Such 'large buildings' couldn't just disappear. Yet he was right. Within forty years, the massive Temple at Jerusalem, a symbol for the Jews of the enduring stability of their faith, was destroyed by Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. But, Jesus adds, the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow it are just the start. There is much worse to follow.

These apocalyptic passages from the Gospels are often thought to be embarrassing. They seem to put Jesus in the same class as those eccentric people who walk the streets with a billboard declaring ‘The End of the World is Nigh”. Still, it has to be remembered that the Roman Empire did indeed collapse. The Jewish Temple was ruined in 70 AD and never rebuilt. The imperial Capitol eventually went the same way, and by the 4th century the culture of Greece and Rome that had shaped the world for centuries came to an end.  In time, of course, other 'powers and dominions' arose to take its place -- up to and including our international ‘global village’ and the internet by which it is connected. It is both unimaginable and certain that our world too will come to an end.

Hannah Praying in the Temple - Marc Chagall
The ‘triumph’ of Jesus over sin and death stands in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Temple and the might of Rome. Jesus was a Prince of a quite different kind. Since he was executed as a criminal, his mission must have been declared a spectacular failure had he aimed at establishing more powerful and enduring political and military institutions.  Yet “by this single offering” the passage from Hebrews tells us, “he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. It all seems highly implausible. Nevertheless, and contrary to every expectation, “the bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength”, as Hannah reminds us in the Book of Samuel. When the mighty Roman Empire began to crumble, a truly different kind of institution took root  in an obscure corner of the Empire. A few humble people formed the kernal of the Church. That mystical Body is now one in which billions of people, both living and dead, are united as in Christ Jesus. Build as we might, it is here, and only here, the Gospel tells us, that we can expect to find ‘an abiding city’.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Boaz wakes to find Ruth at his feet -- Marc Chagall
It is hard to avoid the sense that this week’s combination of readings – whether in the continuous track or the thematic track – are somewhat random. Both the Old Testament lessons are about women in need of protection and support who have to make striking accommodations with the world in which they live. The Epistle continues the Hebrews theme of Christ’s priesthood, while the Gospel from Mark recounts the episode known as ‘the widow’s mite’. This is the occasion when Jesus praises a widow woman who has given a tiny sum of money to the synagogue in preference to the wealthy people he had seen give far larger sums.
All of these are interesting passages, and in three of them women figure notably. But it is hard to find any one 'message' around which they seem to coalesce.  
There is, however, an obvious lesson we can draw from the brief Gospel episode. Generosity is relative to the resources of the giver. This obvious truth makes it odd that human beings should be so impressed by ‘big bucks’. We always hear about huge philanthropic gifts – from Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates and so on – and even though we know that these have cost them very little, if anything, by way of personal sacrifice, we’re still impressed. In sharp contrast, we don’t hear much about small philanthropic gestures that constitute a real sacrifice on the part of the givers, who for the sake of something, or someone, other than themselves, have forgone things they wanted, or even needed. It is the size of a gift that always captures the headlines. And yet this never measures its generosity. 

However obvious this truth may be, it is worth repeating again and again.Yet it does not take us to the heart of the Gospel message. This impoverished woman is giving the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem all that she has to live on. Her tiny ‘mite’ demonstrates the personal depths to which faith in God can go far more powerfully than the ‘showy’ religion on which Jesus comments in the preceding verses. At the same, there is no denying that it is the hypocrites he condemns who get worldly acclaim, while the poor widow remains in her poverty. In this way her case presented Jesus’ hearer, with a real counter-cultural challenge. And so it does for us and our world also. Which, in all honesty, do we prefer – the kind of success that contemporary society undoubtedly favors (and which, sometimes, conventional church going can help along), or the spiritual sincerity and simplicity that brings us closer to God?
picture: MAFA Widows Mite