Thursday, 30 December 2010


GospelLuke 2:36-40 

There was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
  When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Meanwhile the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.

In Advent we recognised John the Baptist, in all his wildness and righteousness,  as the last of the Old Testament prophets. As chosen and as driven as he is by the Holy Spirit, there is still something of that tradition that calls him to look for reassurance from this man who has not come armed with lightning in chariots of fire. 

Yet Anna, born nearly a hundred years before John, immediately recognises the Messiah, held in the arms of his young mother and guarded by his artisan father; a child overlooked by the Temple priests; whose mother and father would have had to pay hard earned money for Temple sacrifice; for the privilege of entering the Temple. 

How does she know?

Perhaps she has learnt the true meaning of prophecy? To see what is real; because she had become real. 

I thought of Anna when I read this passage from 'The Velveteen Rabbit' - if you can't read children's books at Christmas, when can you?

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. 
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

Anna had not had the best of lives; a widow in her early twenties; presumable childless; one of the unwanted; the nonentities of the community.  Which is why she had had to turn to the Temple where she built a life. Maybe she had become a good listener; someone people would turn to for advice; someone people would ask to pray for them with an offering of a penny or two. Built a life that did not blame God for where she was but thanked him for it; who gave herself to him with all that she had. 
Which, to be honest, would have taken time. I would suggest that there was a lot of grief; regrets; resentment and ego that had passed through God's hands before she became Anna the prophetess. A lot of letting go and a great deal of letting God. To let go of demands that God make it right; that God change what has past; that God do something
Anna learns that it is up to her to allow God to do something.She has let God make her real; let God love her more and more as she becomes old and wrinkled and even, like the Skin Horse, loses her hair. To be loved as the world cannot love; for who she is; as she is.She becomes confident in that relationship of love; as a child is confident in love. She knows the strength of love. She has said 'yes' to that love.
When Anna sees Jesus, she recognises him; but she doesn't see a mighty God in a powerless child; she sees what is real - the God that belongs to her as she belongs to him; a powerless God in a mighty child; mighty because Jesus rests in the arms of two people who have also said 'yes'. 


Sunday, 26 December 2010

Wholly Family

Gospel Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
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.

After Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. But when he learnt that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judaea he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he left for the region of Galilee. There he settled in a town called Nazareth. In this way the words spoken through the prophets were to be fulfilled:

‘He will be called a Nazarene.’

Christmas Day - five years later

The woman lifts her veil and settles it over her head trying to make a deeper shadow across her face; shelter from the unforgiving afternoon sun. Not the best time to be collecting water from the communal well- but then the sun was not the only unforgiving thing in this village.

The clay pot is now full, but rather than make her way home she stands with arms clasped around it; cradling its coolness to her as she watches and waits. Across the square, a man stands at a doorway; his shoulders set with a determination that she recognises; by his side a young boy doing his best to stand equally as tall and as still. At the door the silhouette of another man; she sees him shake his head; lowers her eyes and shakes her own.

'I have no argument with you, Joseph, but the other families will not accept him being taught with their sons.' the Rabbi gestured to the young boys already sitting within the cool room.

'Then your argument is with me, Teacher, because my son is now five years old and under the Law should be studying scripture. I am only asking you to do your duty.'

The Rabbi considers the man and boy standing in front of him. He remembers Joseph as a young and thoughtful student and feels regret for the life that he has chosen but also admiration for his loyalty and dedication.

'We both understand 'duty' in our own way, Joseph. I will do what I can. He can sit in the doorway, to keep the dogs and goats from joining us; whatever he learns, he learns. That's all I can offer.'

Joseph recognises the gift; 'Thank you Rabbi; just as well he has good ears.' He puts his head down to the boy's ear. 'Listen well, little man.' Then gently pushes him towards the threshold, turns and walks towards across the square.

As he passes the well; the woman lifts the clay pot onto her head and falls into step behind him.
'This is not right', she murmers under her breath, 'why should he have to go through this?'

Joseph answered 'If he is going to change the world then he has to see the world for what it is. He will meet people far less sympathetic than our Rabbi, far more judgemental than our village - he needs the skills, the knowledge, he needs to know the Law and what we have done to the Law. Even this day is a victory for him, for us. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't believed in him.'

'You are a wise man, husband.' Mary commented. They both laughed and Joseph lifted the pot from her head and carried it the rest of the way to their home. After all, at this time of the day, there was no-one to see.

Just before supper, the boy flung the door curtain aside and stormed into the house. His mother looked up and saw the vertical frownline in the forehead, round eyes close to tears and the clenched hands; she said a blessing under her breath. He walked through to the workshop at the back of the house without a word. At the worktable he picked up a chisel and started gouging pieces out of a length of wood. Joseph called to him from his seat in the corner near the fire. 'How did it go today?'

Jesus dropped the chisel and walked across to stand at his father's knee; arms held strapped to his side.
'They asked me what the Seventh Commandment was,' he muttered 'I knew the answer - thou shalt not commit adultery. And they laughed - the Rabbi said 'at least I knew the Law' but I don't understand what he meant.'

'But it made you angry? Angry enough to take it out on that poor piece of wood?'

The words burst out; 'it wasn't fair; why would they laugh at me? They don't even know me. And there was another boy who came and sat at the doorway. His name was Eli; they wouldn't let him in because his father is a tax collector. They made fun of him too but he said he never shows that he is upset; that that gave them power over him and they have no right. I am going to try to be like Eli but I didn't like them making fun of me and you and mama. Saying we weren't a real family. That's not true; we are a real family.'

Joseph drew his son to him. 'We are a real family. Families aren't decided by rules. Family are made by love and belonging. I cannot imagine being without you and your mother; you know that you will always have the two of us and the tone in your mother's voice when she calls us in for supper tells the both of us that we belong to her. Love holds us together, Jesus, not blood, not tradition, not the Law, just Love. Remember that.'

On cue, his mother's voice was heard calling them to the table. Jesus laughed and his arms went around his father's neck. 'After supper will you tell me the story about when the angels came?'

'Of course I will,' Joseph replied ' I think it's the perfect night for that particular tale.' He lifted the boy onto his shoulders. 'As long as you remember to tell your mother you love her.'


Saturday, 18 December 2010

Like Father,

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.

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 is what the Gospel would have us believe.

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, living the life of a peasant; 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 word 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.

In earlier times, such a request would have come with a deal; a covenant; a promise or two from God that this or that would happen. There is none of that here. God asks simply 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.

I would say – he didn’t know. But he made a choice - he chose not to ‘know’; he chose not to judge; he chose to accept.

‘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 too are ordinary people. 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; but not only with them.

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.  

And Joseph says 'yes'.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Godisnowhere - the Return

We have had the strange experience of starting and ending the year with real winters- snow, ice and cold; weather warning and travel restrictions.  

Last winter I had a series of blogs called godisnowhere - which translated to 'God is nowhere',  'God is now here' and, quirkier but relevant at the time, 'God I snow here'.  God certainly gets my attention with snow. Despite (in spite of) the inconvenience I love this weather; in this weather I know where I am or, rather, where I would wish to be. 

This weather makes me wish for well wrapped up walks with muffled blanket silences and ice-sharp cracks of sound followed by warm and peace-filled conversation or  'feet up with a book' evenings. At least that is what I have been wishing for - but have not been getting. 

The duty to work, the duty to shop, the duty to 'christmas' is weighing heavy - and heavier yet because, in this weather - it's just not right.  But duty has a way of getting its way; finding alternatives; putting on  the pressure to 'carry on regardless'. This 'carrying on' is a worldly concept -a stubborn attempt at not letting circumstances get one over on you. But if God has a hand in it then it is running away and it's dangerous to run in snow. 

 If I lived further north in the deeper cold or on an island measured by the changing tides then I would hear it more clearly -  it is time to join the land in rest; to treat the world with respect; to treat myself gently. 

Nevertheless, I hear it. 



Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Annunciation

Living in Hope

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.’

Last week I was talking about how the Gospels allow different viewpoints to come across as the Good News is experienced by different people. How Mark’s simple and all encompassing message from the Baptist developed conditions and exceptions because of Matthew’s experience of trying to live the Gospel in the community that he belonged to.

This week we are with John the Baptist again, but now time has moved on. Jesus’ ministry is growing; John is in chains and, knowing the end of his life is nearing, sends a message to Jesus demanding to know if he is really the Messiah.

Or does he?

 Reading Scripture for and by yourself can open up many new insights and feelings.
Listening to scripture being read on Sundays, you begin to put a certain tone to many of the well-known chapters and verse.From the Sanctuary, the Gospel is read with solemnity, authority and clarity. Re-reading scripture assumptions begin to develop; assumptions that this was said in anger; that was said as an insult; the other was a condemnation. And, not to say that Jesus isn't fully able to express these emotions, but would a Gospel of Love not seek to speak in other ways?

This occurred to me some years ago, after a re-reading of Thomas, the doubter; where Jesus’ words are heard in reassurance; as to a child. 

Perhaps the same could be heard here?

There are voice games played in the theatre where a passage of text is read ‘in the style of….’ Why not try that experiment here?

We are told, we know with the benefit of hindsight, that John is the last of the Old Testament prophets; the last one who will come wielding threats and calling down fire and brimstone from an Angry God. He knows his scripture, this son of a priest; he knows what has gone before and for how long. He knows he is from a long line of prophets and holy people who have died waiting and hoping.

Perhaps, as part of his calling God has told him that he is the last; that there will be no more waiting after him. But does it seem that way?

But knowing that you seem to be following the path of many of the prophets; knowing that your life; your ministry; your chance of making a difference was about to end; wouldn’t you want reassurance? To be able to say to God as Simeon said ‘now your servant can go in peace’? Faith is a great thing but it does not belong in isolation – it needs relationship; it needs communication.

When John sends his message to Jesus perhaps it is not a voice of accusation that Jesus is not delivering the fire and brimstone as promised. Maybe it is asking for that reassurance that this is the change; this time it is different; that the Lord is offering forgiveness, healing and peace. That it has been worthwhile. 

And the message in return is Jesus' promise – yes, John, it is different; you have been a good and faithful servant; peace is with you; the Kingdom is here. 


Saturday, 4 December 2010

Turn again

Second Sunday of Advent 
Matthew 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.’

Last week I forgot to wish you a Happy New Year.

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. 

At Scripture we have started reading Mark’s Gospel which most scholars believe is Simon Peter’s memories of his time with Jesus.

 It is a short, energetic and deceptively simple Gospel, a bit like Simon Peter really.

Mark and Matthew seem very alike; perhaps because they are both Jews. Alike, but not the same.

Why am I talking about Mark when we are reading Matthew?

At the top of this page  there is Matthew’s reading. The part of the passage that is in bold is virtually the same as Mark.  Reading the other paragraphs; I would ask you - what has Matthew brought to the Gospel?

It seems he has brought anger and a need for retribution. Matthew’s people are suffering; they are being cast out of the Temple; they are told that they are no longer Jews. The Temple that has no more accepted Jesus after his death and resurrection than it did whilst he was standing before them. Matthew puts the words of his frustration into the mouth of the Baptist.  

Mark’s words offer hope for everyone whilst Matthew’s point the finger of accusation and warning against those that caused him and his community so much pain.  

And my question would be – are we ever guilty of using Scripture like that? Do we ever hear the Word of God promising forgiveness and grace and think about someone… ‘except for you’? Do we ever use the Good News as a weapon; to justify exclusion or judgement? 

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. 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’ – we all, always, live in need of God's grace - do we turn with joy that we are called by the Beloved or with a need to prove ourselves worthy of His promise? 

Maybe the only important thing is that we turn.