Wednesday, January 17, 2018

EPIPHANY III 2018

     
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Duccio - Calling the Disciples (c.1314)
This week’s readings are remarkably short-- three readings and a Psalm totaling just 24 verses. The Gospel continues the story of Jesus’ early ministry. The times were turbulent, and dangerous ones for Jewish prophets and teachers, who were easily branded political rebels or dissidents. John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal for Jesus to leave his home in Nazareth and establish himself on the shores of Galilee, the familiar location of so many Gospel stories. It is here that he finds and calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John who were to be his ‘core’ disciples and, after his death and resurrection, his apostles.

The Prophet Jonah -- Tissot
Mark’s account of this episode, which provides this week's Gospel, is rather briefer than the one given by Matthew, who links the Galilean context to the prophecies of Isaiah. The lectionary's choice of readings, however, establishes another important Biblical resonance that underlines the connection with John the Baptist -- the story of Jonah, who is sent to call Nineveh to repentance, and does so successfully.  
 
Interspersed between the readings from Jonah and Mark, though, is one of those awkward passages that seem inextricably tied to a belief that the world will end very soon. Paul tells the Corinthians to abandon their normal way of life completely, even to the point of ignoring familial obligations to both the living and the dead. We know, of course, that ‘the appointed time’ had not ‘grown short’, since the world is still here almost two thousand years later. Paul’s apocalyptic tone, however, is not without purpose even yet. Repentance does require us to see our normal life in a quite different light, and to radically review our priorities. This implies a certain sort of detachment from the plans and projects in which we are engaged. Spiritual detachment may not arise, as it did for Paul, from a belief that time is running out, but in the absence of an attitude something like his, discipleship loses its spiritual edge and is at risk of degenerating into conventional piety. Religious observance becomes a matter of going through familiar motions as nothing more than an ordinary part of ordinary life. Among the early Christians, a lively belief in the immanence of the Second Coming served as a powerful antidote to spiritual laziness, and the Epistle serves to remind us that this is the kind of antidote we still need.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

EPIPHANY II 2018

Samuel and Eli -- John Singleton Copley


Vocation, and what it implies, is the unmistakable theme that unifies this week’s readings. The Old Testament lesson tells the compelling story of the boy Samuel wakened in the night by a voice. Understandably, he takes it to be his aging master Eli calling for assistance. What else could it be? God is unlikely to call a mere boy in preference to a priest of wisdom and experience. Rather poignantly, it is Eli himself who helps Samuel to understand that this truly is God’s voice, even though by calling Samuel to be the priest and prophet of the Chosen People, God is thereby signaling not only the end of Eli's own religious role but the disntegration of his family.


In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus calls two disciples, Philip and his friend Nathanael. Philip’s call is brief and to the point, Nathanael’s rather less so. Both accept the call. The New Testament has more to tell us about Philip, but almost nothing further about Nathanael. Nevertheless, the question he asks in this brief episode is deeply resonant with meaning -- “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Such immediate skepticism -- rooted in prejudice perhaps -- makes him an unlikely candidate for discipleship. Yet Jesus sees honesty in his skepticism -- "truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" -- and this is the perception underlying Nathanael's call.

The Apostle Philip --Durer

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer, strangely, is a very powerful 'Yes'. Nothing less than the redemption of the world came from this undistinguished village -- not from a great cultural center like Athens, an imperial capital like Rome, or a place of religious pilgrimage like Jerusalem. The story of Samuel and the insignificance of Nazareth are both reminders of a profound truth: the first step to discipleship is openness to the possibility of God's preferring places and people that from a human point of view seem very unlikely or unpromising. It is a truth that the beautiful Psalm for this Sunday underlines. ‘LORD, you have searched me out and known me . . . you discern my thoughts from afar”. Divine vocation is not a matter of chance, but based on God's intimate knowledge of us, a ‘knowledge  . . . so high that I cannot attain to it’.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

EPIPHANY I 2018 (Baptism of the Lord)


John Baptizes Jesus -- MAFA (Cameroon)
This year we move from the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6th) to the Baptism of Christ (Jan 7th) in a single day, and at the same time fast forward through the life of Christ by nearly three decades. Yet, though these events are separated by a considerable stretch of historical time, both celebrations can be said to fall appropriately into a single liturgical season -- 'Epiphany'. This is because the visit of the Magi to the stable and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, along with the wedding at Cana, are ‘epiphanic moments’. That is to say, they are occasions when it is made manifest that those who encounter the person of the historical Jesus are in the same moment encountering the eternal Christ. 
 
Leonardo da Vinci's Baptism of Christ
Only Matthew's Gospel tells the story of the Magi. Only John's Gospel relates the wedding at Cana. By contrast, the one time that Jesus and John the Baptist encounter each other -- when John baptizes Jesus -- is recounted in all four Gospels. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John the Baptist makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this 'washing' with a wholesale spiritual transformation.The reading from Acts shows that John's placing himself in a secondary, preparatory position to Jesus, was one that the early Christians believed and affirmed.
  
There is a theological puzzle here, however. If baptism is 'washing away of sin', the sinless Jesus cannot need it. Why then does he submit to it? By this action, we should conclude, Jesus declares his identification with humanity. He thereby shows repentance to be a precondition of a transformation that is possible even for sinful human beings. The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ in this story, and a notable feature of Leonardo's image of it. Quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us -- that divinity can perfect humanity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

CHRISTMAS

Christmas Night -- Paul Gauguin
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.
 

D G Rossetti - A Christmas Carol
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 - Hornhurst
 
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 11, 2017

ADVENT III 2017

Icon of John the Baptist -- Rublev

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”.

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.
 
Leonardo d Vinci - John the Baptist
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 4, 2017

ADVENT II 2017


St Mark the Evangelist (1424)
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. It is easy to see that human pride, cruelty and self-centredness erect barriers between human beings. But they erect no less a barrier between humanity and divinity. The central message of the Gospel – as of many religions – is that despite appearances, this barrier is surmountable. We have not shut ourselves off from God for ever.
 
John the Baptist -- Ivanov
Surmounting the barrier of sin, though, is a two sided affair. God’s love offers us forgiveness, however vile or despicable we may have been. In this sense divine love, unlike human love, is unconditional. But God's forgiveness is not. It has a precondition -- sincere repentance. Without honest acknowledgement and true remorse for the many ways in which we have fallen short of our God-given potential, we remain 'tied and bound by the chain of our sins', as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.

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, however, also brings into play a deeper dimension. It is key to lifting us beyond the level of material beings created and nurtured out of love – which is what plants and other animals are. It draws us up into the realm of beings who have the potential to participate in divine life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

ADVENT I 2017

Salvador Dali -- Horsemen of the Apocalypse

"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory". Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent is undeniably apocalyptic, a feature that makes it problematic for those main-stream Christians who have difficulty in believing in an apocalypse. They are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe.

Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?

Angel of Revelation -- William Blake
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity simply has to invoke imaginative rather than literal language. That is because we cannot think about the limits of history in historical terms. So, for instance, the Genesis stories are graphic representations of the great truth that God created time and space, a cosmic beginning to all things whose mysterious nature science is just dimly starting to understand. It is not so strange, then, to think that God will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close with the end of all things. If so, however, we must think about it pictures that are no less graphic.

Contrary to the opinion of some admirers as well as detractors, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a collection -- books of history, prophecy, poetry, story. Taken together they offer us something that even the most impressive scientific investigation cannot -- religious and theological insights into human nature and the human condition, insights by which we can live. We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us in another compelling image. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not in ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son, today's Gospel tells us -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent.  The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear. This is the message of St Paul in the Epistle. Since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, we need not lack in any spiritual gift in advance of his final return.