Saturday, 22 January 2011

Will you?

GospelMatthew 4:12-23 

Hearing that John had been arrested, Jesus went back to Galilee, and leaving Nazareth he went and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town on the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah was to be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali!
Way of the sea on the far side of Jordan,
Galilee of the nations!
The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light;
on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death
a light has dawned.’
From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’
  As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew; they were making a cast in the lake with their net, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ And they left their nets at once and followed him. Going on from there he saw another pair of brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they were in their boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. At once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed him.
  He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people.

'At once' seems like Jesus had some kind of hypnotic power over the people that he called. That he could say their name and they would drop everything and walk away.  It seems impossible or, at least improbably for these men; with homes, families and livelihoods to be prepared to turn away and risk everything on this wandering preacher.

Modern theologians put forward the theory that by living in in this lakeside town, Jesus had probably been working on or near the docks; that he had sat and ate and talked with these men; that he had spent time getting to know them; that perhaps they already knew and respected him as a rabbi of sorts. There is the possibility that he had already shared his mission with them so that the call to leave was expected, planned  - they were just waiting for the right moment.

Which is certainly more logical and makes much more sense but it's not what it says in the Gospel - it's not what it says in any of the Gospels.

The call did not come at the right moment; not for any of these men. Preparing a fishing boat; deciding where to cast a net; repairing, cleaning and folding the nets for the next days fishing - none of these are five minute tasks. A boat is not crewed with a few men 'spare' - every man on the deck, every man on the dock has a job to do; a crew to fit into; a tradition and a responsibility not just to himself but to his crew;  his partners; his family; the community itself. Every man has his place; every man knows his place.

The very thought of bringing in a boat without a catch; of dropping a net still tangled and torn would have horrified those around them; would have horrified them,  looking back on it. But they did it.

Why? Not because it is part of some great plan but because Jesus calls them by name.

In the spiritual world, in every culture; your name, your real 'this is who you are' name is incredibly important and holds great power. Some believe your real name is gifted to you at some initiation point in your life; that  you should not share this name recklessly with others; that knowing this name will give others power over you. God, who is only 'I Am',  tells us that our names are written on his hand.

Jesus knows the power of names; he calls demons by theirs and takes away their power to name him. He names and re-names his followers; he looks into them and sees who they really are. And calls that person into the light; onto the path that will lead them home.

The four may well have good fishermen; great family men; well liked friends and workmates. They may have believed that the life they were leading was as good as it gets; as good as they imagined  they wanted. Any wonderings about the why and how of things may have been something for a walk under the stars  or a sleepless night, and no more.  The empty space waiting to be filled; the awareness of 'something else' given over to childish fancy or a moment in prayer.

And then they were called, named and transformed - fishermen - fishers of men. A small difference; but enough.

In our lives it can be just as subtle; just as extreme. We have many names, many roles to play; lives that rely and are relied on by others. God may be in there somewhere. A scripture meeting; an hour at Mass; a book now and again; understanding that there are tasks and intentions that God is asking of you  of all of us, but we are really too busy; too involved in the other day to day priorities that we all encounter. We could do more, but not now; not yet.

Then,  in the middle of some mundane, necessary task, it will come. Jesus will hold a mirror to your eyes and show you who he sees; will  call you by the name written on his Father's hand and it will be up to you.

Will you follow?


Saturday, 15 January 2011

Lamb of God

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.’

The beginning of Jesus' ministry is, naturally, one event that all the Gospel writers are compelled to write about. And in all the basic details they are in agreement. Last week I felt that there was something of a need to find the Jesus who had suddenly 'appeared'. To remind ourselves that there was a need for the Christmas story of a baby born to poor and unremarkable people; of a life lived out of the limelight. Seeing Jesus being born, living and growing as an ordinary human being was incredibly important - to validate everything that he says and does (as a human being rather than a god playing at being human)  and that everything that we, ordinary human beings, try to do in his name. 

The Gospel writer, John, has a different image of Jesus. That Jesus is human is undeniable to John. John the beloved, who took care of Jesus' own mother. Who had seen, walked with, talked with, and been held by the man. It would not even occur to him that anyone would doubt Jesus' humanity - but his divinity?

John, after all his years of reflection (the only apostle who died of old age, in his bed); after all the years of watching the faith grow; seeing the need to rationalise what was miraculous; the seeking to separate the sacred from the mundane; seeing the questions and doubts appear; John cannot let us have any doubt. 

John's Gospel begins at the beginning, not the Nativity beginning; not the Tribes of Israel beginning; not the start of Jesus ministry beginning but The Beginning. The Beginning of Time and Light and Order. The beginning with the Word.

Jesus is not a figure created by the Father to fulfil a mission; Jesus the Cosmic Christ is 'with' the Father since forever; for forever. 

And it is to recognise this that John the Baptist is called into being. Remember, John's mission began in the womb-  his sense of prophecy, of 'seeing'; his sense of the Holy Spirit with him throughout his life. John's mission makes him a mighty prophet; the greatest the people had seen; people called to change; the tide asked to turn. The promise of a new life, a new way of life was being made. 

John the Baptist is a much different man in this Gospel; a mystic; a man knowing what he is called to do. There is no sense of unworthiness in his words; why should there be? He looks forward to the one coming after him. He knows his place and acknowledges the guidance of the Holy Spirit in everything he does. John is a tuning fork attuned to the work of the Spirit; to the coming of the Spirit's Beloved. He is a dowsing rod seeking out the Chosen One.

The gathering of those who wish to believe; who want to be changed; who will accept the baptism of water knowing that a greater baptism is possible. This is the beacon that draws Jesus near. That ignites his life; that draws him into the beginning - this new beginning - this journey of sacrifice.

John proclaims - you see a man but I see much more - the gift of the Father's own son.

John admits, twice, I do not know him. His cousin; he may have known the boy; have met the man; but this divine presence? John cannot know; can only be guided towards; his gift of seeing stretching into the past and the future. 

John sees Jesus; sees the sacrifice that is being offered. The lamb that was sufficient for Abraham's sacrifice is not enough for God. The Lamb of God - is God.


Saturday, 1 January 2011


GospelMatthew 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.

Probably one of the most memorable parts of the Nativity story is the coming of the Wise Men. But what is the story? If you ask most people they will tell you that there were three Kings; some people may even know their names - Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior; even more will know their gifts - gold, frankincense and myrrh. 'Religiously' we will take down our decorations on Twelfth Night - the feast day of the Ephiphany, the feast day of the Three Kings, or, in other parts of the world - give out gifts. 

Except, according to Scripture  these were wise men, not kings; there is no mention of their names or how many of them there were and the date of the Epiphany is as arbitary as the date of the Christmas day itself. In fact, this year we are not even celebrating the Epiphany on the 6th.

Most of what we think we know about the Magi (a general term meaning a priest caste )  is, quite frankly 'made up'. Tales and rituals from various cultures, various centuries, that have come together in a mutually acceptable account that lots of people who have never heard or read the Gospel will know. 

A good argument for the argument that there is no truth in the Gospels; that they are all no more than poetic licence, myth and fable. If we are fooled by the story of the Magi; then what else could be fantasy or Victorian fairytale?

Does the story (by the way,they are only mentioned in one of the Gospels) of the Three (more or less) Wise Men (but could be kings) celebrated on (or about) 6th January feed the inclination to believe that the Gospel, that Scripture is a work of cultural storytelling with very little basis in truth? There's some good arguments for the cynics and atheists amongst us.


The letters at the top of the page are not the name of the fourth King (could have started a whole new tradition there !) It stands for 'what you see is what you get' and suggests a really pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to life.  But actually, can mean quite the opposite. 

Because it depends on what you see.

See Matthew; the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, introducing these strangers; these Gentiles at the very beginning of Jesus' life. As much as it may have pained him, Matthew knows that Jesus did not just come for his people and he addresses it straight away.  Look, see - you who had him in the palm of your hand and let him go. Here are men, important men who took a chance; travelled on faith; travelled with a desire to know, to learn; who came wanting to believe. 

And then later as the Christians became the mix of cultures and races that they are; they are given a feast day; wise men become kings; and then are found names. We remind ourselves in different ways that these people are important. 

We will have stories ourselves, family stories, all planted firmly in fact and in truth, but gilded with each telling until it becomes more outrageous; more romantic; more unforgettable. No-one will tell us that they are not true. 

When you read; when you see these stories from the Gospel - see the writer; see the teller of tales; see the believer to whom these accounts are so important - see the whole history of Christianity winding its path to your feet; see and believe.