Thursday, 25 December 2014

Welcome, stranger

Gospel Luke 2:15-20
House shrine Assisi
When the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried away 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.

It may be a surprise to learn that the word ‘hospitality’ doesn’t mean what we think it means –like many words it has lost something in translation and in tradition.
These days we imagine that it means having friends and loved ones around the table. To be generous to those we love; to celebrate togetherness. As hopefully many of us are able to spend the Christmas season.

But, the reality is that hospitality means to welcome the stranger; to treat a stranger with warmth,  as a friend-

-as the innkeeper found it in his heart to welcome Joseph and Mary despite the fact he had no room 
-as the angels welcomed the shepherds – despite the reputation of shepherds
-as the wise men were welcomed, despite being from another country and other faiths.

Hospitality means taking risks; ignoring the natural human instinct to fear the unknown, to be wary of the other. Instead, to reach out; to put another’s needs and comforts before your own. Something it is difficult for many of us to do at this or any other time of the year.

There are many theological discussions about where, when and how the birth of Jesus truly came about but what the Gospel tells us is this – that from this very first moment the world is changing; people are changing; the rules are changing. 

The Nativity story heralds the birth of a brave new world – brave because it means living a life that is not about you; that means creating experiences of love; love that gives without expectation of getting back; a re-creation of God’s love.

From before he is even born, Jesus is stirring hearts and minds to this; he brings kindness from a profiteer; shepherds from their duties; wise men from their studies; he brings us from our warm houses and many other 'things to do' to  places of gathering; to be together - friends and strangers sharing in witnessing a new life; praying that the coming of Emmanuel will see  new life; new love within of us.

Let us pray that we will be hospitable with that love.
Every blessing of the Season.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

No-one was there

Another back story

The shadows are  where you are safest. These long nights at the turning of the solstice are a boon to me. From the shadows of the inner wall I watched with measured breath as the soldiers set their weight to the city doors, silencing the rasping hum of the desert winds. I waited as one man flexed the muscles in his chest and biceps, a preening gladiator, whilst the other picked up the longspears and held one arms length, a javelin against the other's chest. Words were spoken, rumbling laughter, then they strolled off with the rolling gait of the weary, arms circling their helmets like baskets of bread or fruit. Guards with their guard down, for there was no-one left on the midnight streets of Bethlehem. 

To that, even I would agree. It has occurred to me before now that 'No-one' is a very fitting name. The curse of a misbegotten body has refused my humanity. Beggar, homeless, unclean, it is all very much the same. No-one that matters. And so I live and I survive, by the wits few would honour me with. In shadows, by darkness, in quiet streets and the afterwards of city life. 

And so the census is no friend, filling streets with wandering incomers, glassy eyed at the markets, synagogues and fine houses. Filling up the nooks and crannies of every alleyway and courtyard with tents and awnings. Strange that in all this chaos their eyes still pick out 'No-one', their hands still reach to pick up a ready stone, still point the finger to warn others to get out of the way. This old nightwatch alcove near the gates is a refuge, a place to see and not be seen, but there no point being safe if you are freezing and your stomach is pleading for food. Hoping that the revelry at the end of a long day's travel will have sent everyone to bed, I leave my lair.

The blessing of a new moon offers some comfort though the night is full of stars so bright I could reach up and grasp one in my hand. Parched with thirst I head first to the nearest well. With the confidence of familiarity I circle the courtyard. Then I see her. A shadow in shadows. Another beggar? But no, without the fear that any beggar would have, she opens out her cloak to clear the dust and I see the outline of a heavily pregnant woman. As my eyes pick out the details, I recognise her. I remember her and a man, her husband I imagined, coming in on the tails of the last caravan of the day. But she is alone now. I can hear her breathing, laboured, deliberate. It seems this woman is about to give birth in the dirt and dust of a city street. 

My feet carry me forward before my thoughts do. I crouch by her side and whisper to her that she is not safe, that she must have someone, somewhere to go. But she is not listening,intent on the movement within her she is rocking with each keening breath. She reaches out and grabs my hand. It has been so long since I have even been near another human being, the touch is like lightning, firing through me. I hold on. Then, footsteps turn to the sound of running as the man enters from one of the side streets.   'Miriam,' he calls desperately, and kneels to cradle her, 'there is nowhere, nowhere.' He looks across at me. Even in the light of the new moon he can see the scars and sores of my suffering. He lifts his cloak across his face, the whites of his eyes showing disgust and tries to pull the woman away. But she is holding on to my hand; fingers pulsing with the contractions that are getting closer and closer. 

'You have to get her somewhere safe,' I tell him. Rocking himself now with fear and apprehension, the man gasps, 'There is nowhere. No room anywhere.' 

My wonderful, hospitable city that cannot find a room for a man of the line of David and a woman about to give birth. My heart screams out to the God who has forgotten the outcast, the stranger and the weary. My mind races, searching for answers I have given up on.

I tell him 'There is somewhere. Somewhere close. If you can carry her. I can find you somewhere.' He lets the cloak fall and sets his face in a way that, even I can see, speaks of courage and determination. 'Thank you,' he says and lifts her into his arms. 

I race ahead. There is a house owned by a kinsman of mine with a stable nearby where the animals winter. As I approach the building, the dogs bark a warning. 
Their owner peers warily from the door curtain. 'Any closer and the dogs can have you.' His bark far worse than the animals but no bite. 'No nearer, cousin, I promise. Just a favour, a call for the hospitality of old, a call to your heart.'

'If it's shelter you're after you can sleep round the back, just be gone in the morning.' He pulled his head back into the warmth of his own home and fastened the curtain so that not a glimmer of light escaped. I took it as all the permission I needed and led the man to the lean-to and the cave within. I tethered the animals together at the front rail and gathered the straw for the woman to lie on then dragged one of the feeding mangers over, thinking it would be a place for a baby to avoid being stepped on. I could tell that it wouldn't be long. 

I stood calming the animals and staring into the starry night. After so many years as an outcast here I was in the most intimate of moments. I wondered what sort of sign God was offering. Then a cry like the bleat of a lamb. The baby boy gleamed with new life, I prayed that he would never again know what it was to be unwanted and alone. The man looked up from wiping his wife's brow - a gesture so lovingly helpless. 'I'm sorry,' he said. And then as I made to leave, 'You don't have to go'.

'I shouldn't be here,' I replied,' after all, that baby will need all God's blessing.' 

'Well, he has that already.' There was a smile on the man's lips. 'But thank you again. When we tell him of this night can we tell him your name?' 

'No-one,' I answered,'tell him that No-one was there on the night he was born. 


Saturday, 20 December 2014

O Antiphon - O Clavis, Key of David

O Antiphon - O Clavis 

"O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:come, break down the prison walls of deathfor those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Come, O Clavis
and free your people

Locked in the darkness
of doubt
of fear

Trapped in boxes
of control
of ego

Walled in the tombs
of resentment
of 'if only'

Behind shadow doors
of left alone
of exclusion

O Clavis
O Come


Friday, 19 December 2014

O, Antiphon - O, Jesse

O, Jesse - O, Liberator

"O flower of Jesse's stem,
                    you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you. 
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."

O, Jesse
From the silent deep of beginning
Earth's enveloping womb
Breaking free, unwinding 
Roots clasping rock
Light seeking Light 
Breaking free
Earth and air 
water of life
Breaking free
Branch and twig
Leaf and bud
Sun flowering
Moon ripening 
Star bursting 
The harvest is sown 
with a single seed
O, Jesse


Thursday, 18 December 2014

O Antiphon - O Adonai

O Adonai - O Lord

"O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free."

O, Come 
O, Adonai

Creating God
Revealing God
Sending God
Leading God
Guiding God
Calling God
Whispering God
Silent God

O, Ancient
Surrounding God
Saving God
Shielding God
Freeing God 

O, Sacred
Whose word is Law
Whose Law is Love
Whose servant am I
O Adonai
O, Come.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

O, Antiphon - Wisdom

O Wisdom, 
flowing from the mouth of the Most High; 
reaching far and wide, 
disposing of all things sweetly and mightily. 
Come teach us the way of prudence.

Sofia,  beautiful -  skin deep; 

heart deep; blood deep; gut deep.

The beauty of a crone; shining wisdom; 

flowing compassion; crafting prudence.

Sofia, midwife of hope; knowing beyond; seeing within. 

Tasting the humours on her tongue; 

ferric blood; salty tears.

Sofia, counting the quickening in her heartbeat;

Holding the moon in her embrace;

Calling Hope in her song.

O, Come...O, Come.


Sunday, 14 December 2014


Sunday Gospel
John 1:6-8,19-28

A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.

This is how John appeared as a witness.
When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared,
but he declared quite openly,
‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked
‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said.
‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’
So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:

a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’

Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

Perhaps it is something in the delivery. After the energising, immediacy of Mark's Gospel beginning last week, here we listen to something that has the repetition of a legal argument. Not the typical poetic stanzas of John but the deliberate reworking of the same declaration - I am not the one.

John was impressive though. A rebel with a cause, turning his back on the priestly clan he was born into to become a desert wanderer, a prophet, a witness. Raging at the walls of Herod's palace or rejecting the rituals of the Temple, John has something 'superhuman' about him. No-one is out to kill him - yet. Or even silence him. John, in an Old Testament, 'change or else' sort of way, makes sense. One of God's own angels, a messenger filled with the Spirit, showing signs that the people were waiting for.

There is something in the priests and Levites questioning that suggests that if John had answered 'yes' he would have been believed.

John knows better. Knows that, not only is he not the one, he is less than a slave compared to him. Clearly, given Jesus' view on service, John has no sense of who he is setting the scene for. And nor should he. All those old titles have been stood up, used up and often given up.

It's been a while since I used a movie in a reflection. The latest science fiction epic 'Interstellar' is awash in metaphor that could speak about courage and trust, love and uncertainty, metaphors of Advent itself. There is a phrase used more than once to justify both journey and sacrifice - Newton's Third Law - that to move forward always means that you leave something behind. John knows he is going to be left behind. John and the rest of the prophetic world that the Pharisees, the priests and the Levites believe that they are in control of. John is willing to make the sacrifice, to break through the ties himself, if need be, to make the way straight for the Lord.

'Interstellar' portrays an experience of a new universe with five dimensions where humanity will, one day, exist. John's mission is to be a witness to a world that does not yet exist. The Incarnation is also revelation. The Gospel writer, John, has reminded us that Jesus is the Word. The Divine that holds all dimensions in creative tension. In Jesus, the Divine enters the world enfleshed. And not riding on clouds of thunder but from the belly of a woman. A helpless child, filled with the Spirit, born of Love. A Light that will answer all  questions and overcome all doubt.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Make way

Sunday Gospel
Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:

Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way.

A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.

and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

This year the Confirmation group was blessed with several, very bright, scientific agnostics/atheists who had come along with a different sense of conversion in mind. Studying for their Religious Studies examinations meant that they had to address non-Christian beliefs about creation and I had to agree with them that the standard Christian response of 'because we say so' and 'that's what faith is about' was an inadequate argument - even if that's what it said in the textbook. So we talked about all the wonderful scientific discoveries that had been made over the last few hundred years. It was about the time Rosetta had reached the comet way out in space and there accident-prone but determined Philae had been sniffing and tasting her way around the surface. Who could doubt where the real power truly lay? Who could argue with science?

The next week I brought along a sheaf of six closely typed sheets of paper. A quick Google search had resulted in hundreds of names of Christian scientists and mathematicians involved in everything from the Big Bang to genetics to quantum physics to theories of evolution. Priests, religious orders, ministers and laypeople who faith had been strengthened by reaching out in wonder. People who knew that real power lay out beyond their own ego.

How could we ever imagine that we are not part of an eternal re-discovering? Never mind sci-fi movies and string theories, we live a faith where time is an ocean of connecting currents.

Only last month we spent our time in communion with those who have died and gone before us into another dimension that we call Heaven. And we believe. Each Mass we celebrate the eternal sharing of Jesus. Time folding and layering with each sharing of the Real Presence. Witnessing a change that cannot be seen but can be experienced. And we believe. Everyday people lay claim to miracles of healing and rescue beyond our understanding. And whilst we seek to understand, we still believe.

Mark's gospel has no time for an infant narrative. That Jesus is a man is not to be tested - there are living witnesses who can give this assurance. This is the 'what we know'. What Mark wants us to know is that Jesus is the Son of God - there in the first verse his statement of intent that is qualified many chapters later by a 'non-believer', the centurion at the foot of the cross.

In Advent, Mark draws those who are unwillingly to accept the status quo. He draws those who unable to continue following the rules that seem set in stone.

Mark takes the scripture that is already hundreds of years old and moves it on. Scripture has evolved into a man - the adult John, an anomaly in his own priestly family. And a man discounted by birth - Jesus, the Nazarene. These two, sent into orbit only months apart are about to collide. A new creation is on the horizon.

Whilst, somewhere in the east, astronomer friends are watching the skies and plotting a course to Bethlehem.