Monday, December 19, 2016


Christmas Morning Service - Anders Zorn
There are often multiple services at Christmas, so the Revised Common Lectionary provides three sets of 'propers'. These readings are used in every year of the 3-year cycle.
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.
Christmas Night -- Paul Guaguin
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 despite 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.
“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,it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
Nativity -- Giotto
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a way of acknowledging the fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home, while at the same time avoiding any tendency to domesticate  Him. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence 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, reduce God to ours.

Monday, December 12, 2016


El Greco - St Joseph and the Christchild
The readings for this week form a bridge between Advent and Christmas. The Gospel begins the story of Christ’s Nativity which is about to unfold in longer readings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and then Epiphany. At the same time it looks back to the ancient promise of a Messiah, and directly quotes the prophet Isaiah in the famous passage that provides the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday.
Since we are still in Advent, we have only the start of the story in brief. Yet this short passage does something very special --  it enables us, unusually, to focus on the distinctive role of Joseph in the Gospel of God. Since Jesus owes his humanity, as well as his Jewish identity, to his earthly mother Mary, she has had a widely acknowledged theological role in the mystery of the Incarnation. Yet in a quite different way, Joseph also has a key part to play in God’s salvation history, since he too could have accepted or rejected it.

Sorolla - Virgin Mary (1887)
Nowadays, single parents and unmarried mothers are a thoroughly familiar part of life. As a result, it takes real imaginative effort to appreciate the significance of Mary’s highly unorthodox pregnancy in a culture so different to our own. At the annunciation Mary memorably says ‘be it unto me according to your word’. The great courage and deep faith that this reveals, is matched by Joseph’s response, however. Confronted with such devastating news, it would be natural for anyone to feel an intense personal affront and rejection. But Joseph had to face this further prospect -- acute embarrassment, ridicule, and social contempt.

All the time close at hand there was  an easy as well as a socially approved solution – ‘to dismiss her quietly’. The angelic voice in the dream tells him to do otherwise, but it relies, of course, on his having the spiritual insight and moral courage to accept that advice. His reward is to be accorded parental status by being giving the task of naming the baby. As it turns out, this is no small reward. Paul declares to the Christians at Rome in this week’s Epistle that their whole calling – like ours – is ‘for the sake of that name’. And at the name of Jesus, he tells us elsewhere, every knee shall bow. Every time we do so, we have good reason to remember Joseph.

Monday, December 5, 2016


St John the Baptist - Crivelli
‘What did you go out to look at?’ Jesus asks the crowd in this week’s Gospel, ‘A reed shaken in the wind?”  It is an image that has caught the imagination, and provided books and poems, as well as sermons, with a striking title. But what exactly does it mean? The exchange occurs in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that is mostly about the significance of John the Baptist. Clearly, ordinary people were much struck by this extraordinary man, and here Jesus is prompting them to ask themselves why.

Some commentaries suggest that from time to time freak winds blowing through the reeds around the Sea of Galilee created strikingly unusual formations. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying to the people ‘Surely you didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak?’ On the other hand, they can hardly have been drawn by his important social status. No one could have been less like the political dignitary who dresses in soft robes and lives in a royal palace. No, they went to see a prophet. And that means, consciously or unconsciously, they went to see him out of spiritual longing.

Botticelli - Mystical Nativity
This week’s Old Testament lesson is amongst Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd Jesus was addressing would have been thoroughly familiar. It gives graphic expression to that longing “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’. John is the harbinger of this vision, Jesus its fulfillment. The fulfillment is not all sweetness and light, however. ‘Here is your God, come with vengeance, and terrible recompense’.

Once again, as the possibility of replacing the Psalm with the Magnificat reminds us, the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming with its carols, social festivities, and baby in the manger falls easily within our comfort zone. We know what to expect, and we like what we know. The Second Coming when (as the Epistle puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more unsettling affair, inevitably generating a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.

Advent is the opportunity to switch familiarity and surprise around.  Since divine judgment on the shabby lives human beings so often lead is precisely what it is reasonable to expect, we ought to find the Incarnation – God with us -- spiritually surprising. "What is Man that You should be mindful of him? Psalm 8 asks, and, we might add, "that You should want to live here!"

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


John the Baptist -- Bernard Strigel (1461-1528)
The traditional color for the Season of Advent is purple. Increasingly, however, blue is used as an alternative, and this reflects a significant change in thinking, a change embodied in the Revised Common Lectionary. In part Advent is like Lent – a penitential season when our thoughts should be focused on the great, but awesome, themes of sin and redemption. In Cranmer’s original Book of Common Prayer, and in the versions that followed for many centuries, the Sunday lessons throughout Advent had the “Last Things” as their unifying theme – death, judgment and the Second Coming of Christ.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, by contrast, on the last Sunday in Advent we switch from death to birth, when the Gospel of the day begins the Christmas story. This is not mere convenience. This year’s Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent demonstrates just how closely the Second Coming and the First are connected. John the Baptist, warns his hearers of judgment in the sternest language -- "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – and he urges them to repent because “the kingdom of God is at hand”. This is the stuff of the Second Coming and of old-style Advent. But then, almost immediately, he turns their attention to the First Coming when he tells them that “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me”.
The fact is, God’s time is not our time. Strictly, in the eternal God there is neither ‘before’ nor ‘after’. Incarnation and Judgment are two sides of a single divine act. The ‘baby in the manger’ is at one and very the same time ‘Christ in his glorious majesty’. The trouble, though, is that we have become so comfortable with the homely image of the baby, we need several weeks to remind us that his coming is a challenge to the comfortable non-judgmentalism that the modern world holds dear.
Last Judgment - Wassily Kandinsky
Once again the child messiah will indeed inaugurate Isaiah’s vision of the ‘holy mountain’ where nothing is hurt or destroyed. But he does so because his ‘delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. This doesn't cohere very well with the image of a baby, and fits rather better with 'hellfire' preaching. Yet this is the ultimate message of Christmas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


On Advent Sunday a new cycle of readings begins and the Gospel passages move from Luke to Matthew, mostly.  But on Advent Sunday itself, this change is not so very significant. Whatever the year, the readings for the first Sunday in Advent are always powerfully apocalyptic – all about the end of time and the final judgment.

It is belief in a beginning and an end to time that differentiates the great religions of the book from the religions of the East. Whereas for Buddhism and Hinduism salvation lies in escape from the endless round of existence, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, history is the context within which God brings about the redemption of the world. Yet, generally speaking, compared to Christians in centuries past educated people nowadays have great difficulty in believing in an apocalyptic end to time. Moreover, the popularity in certain quarters of 'the Rapture' and 'left behind' theology has resulted in 'adventism' being regarded, even by committed mainline Christians, as a belief for religious fanatics or obsessives. Still, the doctrine of the Second Coming  and the Last Judgment cannot be set aside as exotic inventions. Here they are, right in the appointed Common Lectionary. So what should we think about them? How are they best understood?

The first point to emphasize is that, despite the frequency (and enthusiasm) with which people have tried to predict ‘the end of time’, Jesus is quite clear -- “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. In other words, all this will happen in God’s time, not ours. Secondly, ‘if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into’. The message seems to be this: don't try to predict the end of time, but always be aware of its possibility. It is not prediction, but readiness that matters.

Since each of us has our own ‘end of time’ – the hour of our death -- this makes sense. It does not matter when God brings the whole of history to a close, if we have met the end of own lives quite unprepared.
Suppose with the inevitability of death in mind, we take the message of Advent to heart. What then are we to do by way of preparation? The Epistle for this week has the answer ‘You know what time it is now, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day’. The passage from Isaiah puts it even more simply ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’ The world regularly confronts us with the choice of letting our thoughts and actions be exposed to the light, or hiding them in some form of darkness. The 'moment’ to choose light over dark is perpetually 'now'.
The two illustrations --  The Last Judgement and The Alpha are works by Ende, a 10th century female Spanish manuscript illuminator. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

CHRIST THE KING (Reign of Christ) 2016

Christ in Nails
The Revised Common Lectionary that has now been widely adopted across the world celebrates the last Sunday of the Church’s year as 'The Feast of Christ the King' (or 'The Reign of Christ'). Thirty years ago this feast would have been almost unknown to the Anglican Communion. Even for Roman Catholics it is not a very longstanding observation, being added to the Calendar as recently as 1925.
Yet celebrating Christ as King is an especially appropriate way to conclude the Christian year. Faithful observance of the Church Calendar enables those who follow it to live through the cosmic story of humanity’s salvation. We start out  languishing under judgement (Advent). In that condition God comes to dwell among us, and is made manifest to the world (Christmas and Epiphany). This incarnate God calls us to a time of repentance (Lent), but because of our own inability to save ourselves, comes in great love to die for our salvation (Passiontide and Good Friday). In a mighty and glorious demonstration of saving power, God raises Christ Jesus (Easter), and returns to the heavenly places (Ascension), while continuing to strengthen us with his Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
Christ in Silence - Odilon Redon
Reflecting on this narrative of salvation, we can see that, despite many appearances to the contrary, the God in whom necessarily ‘we live and move and have our being’, has given final authority over human kind to Jesus Christ. Yet, as the Gospel for this week so powerfully reminds us, Christ’s Kingdom signals a complete reversal of the values of worldly power that so evidently shape and influence our political life. Where the State relies on coercive power for its security, the path that Jesus pursues (to quote this week’s Epistle), is “making peace through the blood of his cross”.
In last year's lectionary, the Gospel text focussed on Christ as the supreme judge of 'sheep' and 'goats'.  This year, by contrast, we have a section of Luke's passion narrative. Jesus is truly “Christ the King”, but his 'throne', it turns out, is a place of torture, and his 'crown' is made of thorns. This casts a quite different light on what it means to pray sincerely for the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ. Before doing so, we we must first grasp just how different it is to all worldly authorities – be they ancient empires, military dictatorships or modern democratic Republics. At times of political success and failure, it is hard to remember Mary's magnificat, that with the advent of Christ, God "casts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

PENTECOST XXVI (Proper 28) 2016

Destruction of the Temple - Nicholas Poussin

As Advent approaches, the Lectionary readings take on a more apocalyptic tone, with warnings about turbulent times ahead, religious persecution, and finally, the end of history in preparation for the transformation of the world. Since the Gospel passage was written after the destruction of the temple, it was written with hindsight. Luke knew that the warning was for real. Like the other evangelists, however, he places these warnings just before the passion narrative begins. So the story of persecution and suffering starts with Jesus himself. His 'followers' are just that -- people who follow in his footsteps.

Clowns of War Arguing in Hell -- Jose Orozco
As recent events amply demonstrate, modern times are no less turbulent than the days of the Roman Empire. There are plenty of 'wars and insurrections', 'nation still rises against nation', every year there are 'great earthquakes, and 'in various places famines and plagues'. Even stable and prosperous societies can become deeply divided. In the United States and Europe followers of Christ are more likely to be held in contempt than persecuted, but in the wider world Christians are more often  the victims of violence and persecution than the adherents of any other religion. So the events predicted in the Gospel are easy to believe. But what of the spectacular end to which all these trials were supposed to be a prelude? Don't we know now that these things are neither 'dreadful portents' nor 'great signs', but simply recurrent, disturbing and lamentable features of life on earth?

In this same passage Jesus says 'Beware that you are not led astray' by people who say 'The time is near!' 'Do not go after them', he tells us, because 'the end will not follow immediately.' 'I am about to create new heavens and a new earth', God declares through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson. But we need to view this promise through the perspective of eternity. Whether we like it or not, God's time is not our time. 'In your sight a thousand years are as the passing of one day', Psalm 90 says. The task of true disciples is not to second guess God, but to say, in the face of everything, 'Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation'. In this spirit, the challenge is to fix their gaze firmly on the Christ of the Cross who has gone there before them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

PENTECOST XXV (Proper 27) 2016

Kandinsky -- All Saints

For many people, both those who are religious and those who aren't, belief in God and the hope for life after death are closely connected. Indeed, for some people the belief in God seems pointless unless it is connected with surviving death. So it is instructive to hear about the Sadducees in this week's Gospel passage.  The Sadducees are less familiar than the Pharisees, but they too were a sect of devout Jews at the time of Jesus. Passionately committed to the worship of God, they nevertheless denied the existence of life after death. They subscribed to a long held Jewish view that God's blessing and our enjoyment of it are confined to this life, and that the real hope of life after death must reside in the generations who succeed us -- 'Abraham and his seed for ever'.

In the passage from Luke the Sadducees pose a riddle to Jesus that they could just as easily have posed to the Pharisees. Their aim is to show that the idea of life after death speedily reduces to paradox. Jesus' response to them does not try to resolve the puzzle. Rather, he casts a different perspective on the belief in immortality. It is wrong to think of the life to come as just like this one, only better and longer. It is altogether a different kind of existence. People are changed, and, like angels, dwell in the presence of the eternal God. The God in whose presence they dwell -- then and now -- is the God of Abraham and the God of Moses who spoke out of the burning bush. So life after death is not a restoration of what has been, and thus a return to  normality. It is a continuation into perfection of the eternal life that we begin when we believe in Christ.

Job  - Jacob Jordaens (1620)

St Paul, addressing the Thessalonians, connects life after death with the Second Coming of Jesus and the judgement of the world. He warns them, however, against the temptation to anticipate it and make it their principal hope. He reminds them of what they have and are now -- chosen 'as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit' and called to proclaim the good news, so that they may 'obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ'. The lesson is not to become all otherworldly, but to 'stand firm and hold fast' in this world, enjoying the grace of God 'in every good work and word'. It is from this standpoint that Christians can repeat the words of Job: 'I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. . . . then in my flesh I shall see God'