Saturday, 14 January 2017

In the Unknowing

GospelJohn 1:29-34 

Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, ‘Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I spoke of when I said: A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me. I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water.’ John also declared, ‘I saw the Spirit coming down on him from heaven like a dove and resting on him. I did not know him myself, but he who sent me to baptise with water had said to me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.” Yes, I have seen and I am the witness that he is the Chosen One of God.’

Something that I come across with people both seeking faith and rejecting faith is the need to 'know'. How to achieve the sense of certainty that allows one to sit back and be sure. Well it's not going to happen. Not from anything you will ever be able to hold in our hand or in our head. And this is a good thing because we should not be seeking a sense of certainty, rather, a sense of mystery. 

John of the John.

The John of Old Testament prophetic, spirit driven zeal speaks out of the Gospel  of mystic revelation.

Rather than the plea for reassurance from the confined darkness; John has his Baptist speak words of labyrinthine prophecy, echoing  a leap of faith made in the dark comfort of the womb. 

The turning of John's words; signs and wonders; befores and afters; knowings and unknowings - recognises the true mystery of who Jesus truly is. 

Recognition that faith truly serves mystery. 

'There he is. And I don't even know who 'he' is.' 

Mystery and humility.

We expect John to know. 

A cousin; a visitation. 

Forgetting that, by tradition,  the Holy Spirit whisked John into the desert not long after he could walk. Was part of that retreat from the world intended to embed in John the memory of that preternatural encounter? 

To allow that leap of recognition within the womb to be his talisman, a lodestone that blazed so brightly that so many others were drawn to the light of anticipation?

The thousands gathered together on the banks of the Jordan. Gathered in anticipation of the Messiah, the Chosen One,  Seeing the light so strongly in John's eyes and voice that some thought John was surely the One. That maybe he just didn't know. 

John did know that within him, he held a reflection of the Spirit's desire. A desire that was coming to fulfillment.

Humility and mystery.

Not John; never John. 

Always the One who was 'before'. 

Before life; before birth; before time. 

Known only, and ultimately, in the Unknowing. 


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Epiphany - All that I am

Sunday Gospel
Matthew 2:1-12 

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

The story of the Three Kings is one that we are comfortable with; one that we all know. Not least because the Feast Day means we can take down the decorations and start to get back to normal. Except, that, according to the Church’s calendar we should leave our decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord which is next week (those Victorians and their 12 days of Christmas! – Bah, humbug). 

There is no evidence that the Kings were kings, certainly not from the gospels. It is far more likely that these were astrologer, proto-scientist, magician types. But then someone with too much interest in royal protocol decided that if Jesus was a King then only a King was good enough to visit – it’s a wonder the shepherds managed to stay in the story, given their reputation as thieves and vagabonds.

That is the way with stories. The Chinese whisper effect, the elaboration to suit the culture, the audience, the attitude of the times. And that is often a criticism of the Gospel – that it is only stories; easier to find the discrepancies, the add-ons, the need to scientifically prove or disprove that there was a ‘star’. 
And the gifts...the strange gifts for a baby. But maybe the thing about the gifts is more about where they are from... than who they are for?

Imagine...three (more or less) wealthy, wise men; intelligent; privileged; curious. Seeking out a 'something' until they find it. And then, maybe next year, seeking something else. Sounds very contemporary to me, this spiritual wandering. Yearning for something that will satisfy what their material wealth does not. This particular portent has them intrigued; coming together to share their wonderings and then to share their wanderings. Sure that the stars are telling them something; prepared to follow an unknown path. 

So they travel, with their caravan; their starmaps and their assurance. Assured enough to enter King Herod's courts as equals; as diplomats. Believing that the accepted authority will be the authority. 

Herod does not have the answer; their faith in worldly power fails. It is a different faith which holds the power; the faith of ancients; prophecies and portents. Did they recognise this other sign, leading them further away from the world they knew? Did they notice the lilt of truth against the hiss of Herod's deceit?

And there the truth is revealed in poverty; in the lacking. Seeing how little the Christ had; how little he needed; how much he trusted. Seeing how his life was held in the loving hands of two human beings with nothing to offer but their best. They see and understand. What could they give?

They offer their best. It wasn't that these gifts spoke of anything except their own sense of value; that these gifts 'valued' them - as merchants; as traders; as elite. It isn't the gifts they give but what they represent.  Offering what the Rich Young man, many years later, cannot. They give what had defined them; they give themselves into the baby's hands. Letting go of the world's control over them they ignore Herod's command; they hear the voices of angels; they return to their country by a different way - a way of humility and faith; a way of the prophet; a way of witness.

What can they give him? What Thomas gives as his witness. The witness of faith; that Jesus is 'My Lord and my God'. 


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Where your treasure is

GospelLuke 2:16-21 

The shepherds hurried away to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.
  When the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception.

Pope Francis is forever reminding us to keep close to Mary because she is a 'Mamma' and she knows the way. In Matthew we have so little clues, we have to rely on Luke's fondness for her to see the 'Mamma' beneath the title, Mother of God.

At the start of the New Year, another Mary, Mary Oliver, is oft quoted as an inspiration for the year ahead;

'Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.” 

An excellent guide into mindfulness and the appreciation of all that is good in the world. 

Perhaps Mamma Mary would have written;

'Pay attention
Be astonished
Treasure it'

In a few weeks, Mary will receive the warning, as if she hasn't worked it out for herself, that her new life will have more than its share of heartbreaks.  And it is up to her treasure to show its worth.

Mary doesn't bring up a son who is tied to her apron strings; who afraid of his shadow, who takes the well worn road. The sword is overshadowed by the myriad graces and blessings of the everyday. Jesus has vision and courage and trust and all those qualities that makes you and I want to follow him because he follows his Mamma - and Abba - witnessing to the extraordinary in their ordinary lives. But it won't have been easy.

I wish you every grace and blessing for this new year and every year of your life. And for the days when you need it - I wish you the treasure of remembering.

There's an idea going around social media - you may have seen it - a Blessing Jar. The idea that you fill a jar with all the good things that have happened during the year - to be opened next New Year's Eve. 

I have a variation on the theme.

You can use a jar; a trinket box or journal that you got for Christmas, the techno's might want to set up a Facebook or Blog page that only they can see. 

And start collecting treasure; write in it, stick things in it. Blessings, graces, noticings, images, kindnesses. Add to it regularly. Don't share it (except when you feel it's right to) and don't store it. 

Keep reading it; looking at it; appreciating it and letting it inspire you. In difficult times make sure you go back to it so that you are not overshadowed by the pointy finger of isolation and fear. 

Treasure your friends; whether they are shepherds or Magi. Trust those whose words and gestures reach your heart. 

And give yourself time to ponder. Maybe then you can 'tell about it'.

When Mary stands at the foot of the cross, it doesn't come as a suprise. She is a Mamma; she is ready, she has made herself ready. Her courage is held in the years of grace and blessings; in all that God's promise has given. She knows where her treasure is. When we follow her we will find ourselves with  her Son. 


Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Holy Innocents

GospelMatthew 2:13-18 

After the wise men had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt.
Herod was furious when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. It was then that the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted because they were no more.

In the days after a birth - a new reality begins to emerge. The realisation that even if you have planned with military precision how this child will fit into your life - you have already been thwarted.  Life changes life - Love changes it more. 

Love has no desire to live in isolation. Love holds your hand if you invite Her or stands watchful in the shadows if you don't. Love is Love. 

The Octave of Christmas teaches us so much about Love - the humility of God's Love; the courage of Mary and Joseph's; the persistence of the Shepherds and the conviction of the Magi. 

On his day Stephen taught us that Love is for others; yesterday John told us that there is nothing else.

Today we learn that Love is feared by Power and that, in fear, Power will try to defeat it. 

Many years from now Jesus will stand in chains in front of Pontius Pilate and tell him that he has no Power over him. 

And for that Jesus will die

But Love will live.  


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Another 'Yes'

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 1:18-24 

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph; being a man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfil the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son
and they will call him Emmanuel,

a name which means ‘God-is-with-us.’ When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home. 

 As simple as that? That Joseph, an ordinary working man - not a priest or a prophet – would accept the memory of a dream of an angel.

That Joseph, a hard-working man, a labourer, would believe that his God would ask him to be the father of his Son.

That Joseph, as much as he may have loved her, would see in Mary the Mother of his God.

As simple as that; but surely no easier; no less blest; no less full of grace for Joseph to say 'yes' than for Mary?

In fact, for Mary the simplest proof, for her, will be the child growing within her over the next months; whilst Joseph must simply trust; must accept the dream of an angel and the word of his wife-to-be. And to trust it for the rest of his life. His, seemingly, very ordinary life. After all, how little we know about Joseph.

Yet God asks for Joseph's help; to be a true father to this child; a true husband to Mary. Joseph - an ordinary man living out an extraordinary promise.

And the miracle is that he does.
How could he have possibly, absolutely known it was God’s Will.

He didn’t know. But he made a choice - he chose not to ‘know’; he chose not to judge; he chose faith.

‘let it be unto me according to your Word’.

Mary, being awake at the time, was able to answer the angel in words; Joseph answered in action and acted with integrity. Despite the possibility that it was only a dream, perhaps from Mary it was only an excuse; but who was he to judge?

There would be years ahead of whispers and gestures made behind backs and under veils. He knew this - he knew all he could do was be himself; all he could be was a loving husband, a good father. Which is what he had planned to be all along – maybe why he had been chosen too.

We may see ourselves as ordinary people yet we all have the potential to be extraordinary. We may look at others -believing that in God's eyes they are better than us; believe others are reaching great spiritual heights; speaking with authority; working miracles amongst the poor and the homeless; being acknowledged by the great and the good. And we will say that God is with them; that we are not so great, not so graced. 

A social media friend of mine has a charity, run from home, to support the homeless and refugees. She works, seemingly, more hours than there are in the day yet receives criticism that she is too political, not political enough or that her work is no more than a drop in the ocean and is actually allowing the tragedies to go on. Phrases that build into walls of not wanting to get involved, giving the option to play it safe rather than get it wrong. Often it is this fear that stops any of us in getting involved in the messiness of other people's lives. Surely, this is exactly where God wants us to be and where the Son of God is sent to lead us. It is easy to get caught up in the complexities of life when the simple truth seems unbelievable. 

Joseph's son will be Emmanuel - God is with us.

Jesus speaks to all of us through Joseph; gives him his two great Commandments before he is even born. Asks him to love God with all his heart, soul and mind; asks him to love as he would wish to be loved– to believe Mary as he would expect to be believed, to love this child as any child deserves to be loved.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

The consolation of being wrong

GospelMatthew 11:2-11 

John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.’
  As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Oh no, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:
‘Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way before you.
‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.’

The consolation of being wrong

I knew what the message was
I thought I knew what the message was
I knew what the answer was
I thought I knew what the answer was

I knew I was right
I thought I knew I was right

I knew how it all was going to end
I thought I knew how it all was going to end 

I didn't know my birth was the end and the beginning
my birth was the end and the beginning

I didn't know that it wasn't all up to me 
It wasn't all up to me

I didn't trust in what I am seeing
trust in what I am seeing

I didn't know the kingdom is already here
the kingdom is already here 

I didn't know the answer is love
the answer is love


Sunday, 4 December 2016

Entering into chaos

GospelMatthew 3:1-12 

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’

The Church chooses these weeks of Advent to begin again;to turn again.  You will notice that the mass books have changed and where we were once in Year C we are now in Year A. The years follow the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

The Church doesn’t even try to fit all of John into one year but keeps his writings for special occasions. For some feasts we only ever hear John’s voice but the rest of the year we get to hear similar accounts from three different people.  Similar; but not the same. It seems that at no time could the Good News be constrained to a single account; the ministry of Jesus has never been reported through just one set of eyes; between the Gospels, Paul’s writings and the letters we have always heard the Good News in more ways than one.

Is this meant to confuse us; to keep us on our toes? Or does it reveal Jesus in a more human way? If any group of people were asked to talk about a friend there would be differences of opinion; of experience; of sharing.  

Which is what the Gospels give us; which is why they are worth reading; not just listening to on a Sunday when you have missed the rest of the week – like watching a soap opera with missing episodes – but sitting and reading them as full accounts. Or even reading two or three side by side and noticing the nuances in the voices. 

Mark and Matthew seem very alike; perhaps because they are both Jews. Alike, but not the same. The later thoughts of Matthew sometimes tremble with anger and a need for retribution. Matthew’s people are suffering; they are being cast out of the Temple; they are being told that they are no longer Jews.  Matthew puts the words of his frustration into the mouth of the Baptist.  

Matthew's words give us an understanding of the early church; its fears and its trials.  He speaks up against those who have tormented them and calls the Baptist's prophecies to rail against those who have hurt his community. The people who nodded in agreement to John's visions are the ones who had been turned away from hope.  Now that we are the 'organised church' which side of Matthew are we  standing on?

At this time of Advent we listen to John calling us to ‘turn again’ –to find our own path that doesn't rely on tradition or expectation but in faith in a God that desires justice and mercy. It almost feels like a Lenten message of penance and reconciliation; much as the early church celebrated Advent. 

I recently heard a wonderful description of mercy passed down from the Jesuit priest Fr James F Keenan. 'the willingness to enter into the chaos of another'.

Faith isn't a place of safety; it's the decision to undertake the journey into the unknown.  We make our own paths straight only by supporting other people in the reconstruction of theirs. At this time of year we are surrounded by requests for shows of 'mercy'. We are asked to enter into the chaos of poverty, homelessness and fear; for food and necessities for the Foodbank, tents and clothes for the homeless, nappies and feminine hygiene items for those human conditions we would rather not think about. 

Preparing the way for a struggling couple, in a land of strangers, trying to find a place for the woman to have her baby has never been more relevant than it is now. If we do not want to believe that John's curses are against us, then we are surrounded by the means to prove it.