Christmas 2019

We have come here this morning because something wonderful happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the single most important event in human history, summed up in St John’s memorable phrase, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14 ESV). The Word, through which God spoke all creation into being, the Son eternally begotten of the Father, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is born for us, and lives among us. The verb translated as ‘dwelt’ means to live in a tent, and thus to settle, which conveys something both temporary and permanent at the same time. This is the paradoxical quality of the Incarnation, which looks back to the Exodus when the people of Israel spent forty years in tents before they got to the Promised Land, and that God’s presence was with them, as then so now. God is with us, Emmanuel, He is with us now in the words of Holy Scripture and will be with us in the Eucharist.

Today is a day to be encouraged, and the message of Isaiah is one of joy. The birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is good news, He comes to bring true peace to humanity. Our God reigns as a little baby, lying in a manger. Christ’s gift to us is peace and goodwill to all humanity. He can give us these gifts because He who is born for us today will die for us. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes will be wrapped in linen cloths in a tomb once He has died for us on the Cross. The beginning of His earthly life points to its end to remind us of the love of God for humanity. With joy the prophet can proclaim, ‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10 ESV) Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in His Birth and Death we are saved. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. Prophets tell us both how things are and how they WILL BE, thus we have a vision of God’s future, we have the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We glimpse true glory in the vulnerability of the baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us not because we ARE lovable, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the Church exists to extend that transformation across space and time. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love, something so wonderful that we cannot fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, be transformed by it. As Austin Farrer wrote: 

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung pp. 27, 28]

As St John says, ‘ In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4 ESV) Just as the star gives light to Bethlehem and guides the wise men on their way, so Christ gives light to a world filled with Darkness. Christ is the true light, and comes to give us true life in Him. ‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (Jn 1:12-13 ESV) In the Church we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to have new life IN HIM. We are IN CHRIST, and are fed with HIS BODY AND BLOOD so that we may continue to be transformed by Him. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him, so that cleansed from our sins and transformed by the love of God we may live the life of the Kingdom, the life of heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14 ESV) given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. To us is offered through Christ the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right through Him. This is no pipe dream, but the reality of God’s love freely given to restore our fallen state. So let us live it and encourage others to so that all humanity may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Midnight Mass 2019

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about ninety miles, with some fairly large hills involved. It would probably have taken Mary and Joseph ten days to travel there, walking with a donkey. It was a huge effort: in order to be with family, and to comply with the demands of the census. Amidst the joy and the wonder of this holy night it is good to begin by pondering the fact that the Holy Family were tired, even before the Blessed Virgin Mary went into labour. Tonight is a time for many emotions: joy, wonder, love and fear, as we celebrate God working among us. 

The prophet Isaiah in tonight’s first reading speaks of a future centred upon the birth of a royal baby. It is a message of hope, a light shining in the darkness, which looks forward to the star of Bethlehem, announcing the birth to the world. The boy will free us from burdens and break the rod of our oppressor. The wonderful mystery which we celebrate here tonight is that through Jesus Christ sin will have no power over us. He will bear our burden on the Cross. Christ is born for us so that He may die for us. His life begins lying against the wood of the manger, as it will end against the wood of the Cross. This is the justice and righteousness to which Isaiah looks forward: a God whose entire life and being proclaim the love of God. Christ is the true son of David, a Wonderful Counsellor, in Him God shows His true might, the Eternal Son show us the heart of love of the Everlasting Father, Christ is the Prince of Peace, as He gives us peace from God, not human peace, but something far more wonderful. All that Isaiah proclaims is made manifest tonight in this little child. The world can never be the same.

St Paul writes to Titus to remind him that God’s grace has been revealed. Her tonight we see the kindness of God in giving His only Son to be born for us, making the salvation of the human race possible. Christ gave Himself for us, to redeem us from sin. Here tonight God is born as a baby, so that humanity might become divine. This is generosity on a scale we can hardly imagine, because God’s love is so all-encompassing, so utterly wonderful. As we celebrate His coming in the flesh we also look forward to His Second Coming, when our Saviour will return. We are to prepare for this by celebrating the mystery of our salvation, and allowing it to transform our lives.

So the King of Israel, the Saviour of the World is born not in a palace, but surrounded by farm animals. As Isaiah prophesied, at the very start of his prophecy: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib’ (Isa 1:3 ESV). So the animals kneel to honour their Creator, born in their midst. ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ]. 

Meanwhile out in the fields there are shepherds, looking after their sheep. Jerusalem is only six miles away, and these are the sheep needed for Passover, and other Jewish festivals. Shepherds are interesting in that David, Israel’s second king was one, and scripture talks of God shepherding His people Israel. The Messiah, the saviour, is prophesied in terms of a shepherd. St Matthew quotes the prophet Micah: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt 2:6 ESV quoting Micah 5:2). An angel comes to the shepherds to tell them the wondrous news which has just taken place. They are afraid, terrified in fact, and rightly so. It is so completely out of the ordinary. We have so domesticated this pastoral scene that we forget that here we have ordinary people faced with an angel and the glory of God, something so amazing that humans cannot bear to look at it. It’s too bright, too wonderful. And there’s not just one angel, but a multitude of the heavenly host, an army of angels, thousands of them, more than you can count, singing the praise of Almighty God. The worship of heaven comes down to earth for a moment to celebrate this wonderful event. Words cannot describe it, though we will get close to it this night as we celebrate the Eucharist. For here too heaven and earth will meet, and Christ who is the living bread come down from heaven, born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, will take bread so that it may become His Body, to feed us, so that we might share His divine life.

It’s a radical action, which turns our world upside down. Ours is a God who shows strength and power in His weakness, in His dependance upon others, to show us what true kingship is really like. Whereas Caesar claims the title Augustus, literally one who is worthy of honour, the one worthy of true honour is born not in Rome, but in Bethlehem. As the angel announces to the shepherds, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11 ESV). Jesus is our saviour, not some Roman Emperor. He is the Messiah, the one who can save us and all humanity, and he is lying not in a cot in a palace, but in a manger, surrounded by animals. God defies human expectations, and human understanding, to do something wonderful, and unexpected, because this is what the Kingdom of God looks like: it turns our human world on its head. The Son of God is born in a stable, and adored by shepherds. The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed its truth, that God is with us, is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world that longs for healing and wholeness. Tonight the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels in giving praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Some prophetic words for the Church …

‘We tend to manage life more than just live it. We are all overstimulated and drowning in options. We are trained to be managers, to organize life, to make things happen. This is what built our culture. It is not all bad, but if you transfer that to the spiritual life, it is pure heresy. It is wrong it doesn’t work. It is not gospel.’

 

from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas – Daily Meditations for Advent, Cincinatti, 2008, p. 31

Advent IV ‘He will save his people from their sins’

The story of salvation history, of humanity’s relationship with God can be characterised by one phrase: , ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid!’ Again and again God speaks to His people to tell them to be of good heart, to reassure and encourage them. This morning’s readings are a case in point. Joseph is afraid at the fact that his intended wife, Mary is with child. Rather than take her to court and divorce her publicly for infidelity, he intends to deal with the matter privately. Joseph is a just man, one who walks in the Law of the Lord. Joseph is someone close to God, so it is no surprise that God speaks to him in a dream. The angel is clear: the child that will be born is of the Holy Spirit, He will be the Son of God, and His name will be Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. 

St Matthew clearly understands the Birth of Jesus as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard as our first reading this morning. You ‘shall call his name Immanuel.’ (Isa 7:14 ESV) Jesus: God saves, Immanuel, God is with us. Names matter. What does is mean to say that God is with us? Is it an expression of solidarity? Or something more? In Jesus God is with us, and shares our human life, from birth to death. This is not some remote divine figure, but one intimately acquainted with all of human existence. This changes the dynamics of our relationship somewhat. God is not external, but someone who understands us, and loves us, whose entire existence is about communicating Divine Love and Reconciliation. This is all the Church has been about at its core for the past two thousand years, proclaiming the same message of hope and salvation.

He will save his people from their sins: the angel’s words to Joseph could not be clearer. Jesus is God’s rescue mission, to save humanity from their sins. It leads to the Cross, and so as we prepare to celebrate His Birth, we know that His life will end here, on Cross, where He who was without sin, became sin, experiencing all the alienation and estrangement which it produces. As we prepare the most joyous of feasts, we are mindful of the cost of God’s love. This is a love which will see the bonds of love which unite Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, ruptured, as the Son experiences death and desolation, so that we no longer have to. This is the Good News of the Kingdom of God, which the Church exists to proclaim and live out, to continue God’s work of love and reconciliation. 

Jesus will be born so that Scripture might be fulfilled, or as St Paul puts it in the beginning of his Letter to the Romans: ‘which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures’ (Rom 1:2 ESV). The Church has always proclaimed this truth, because it is true. On the road to Emmaus, before He reveals Himself to them in the Eucharist,  Jesus explains the Hebrew Scriptures to them: ‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Lk 24:27 ESV) The Church interprets Scripture as pointing to Jesus Christ because that is what Our Lord Himself does. We follow His example. It is how the Apostle Philip explains Scripture to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:35. Scripture, the Word of God, points to the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. He is its author, its focus, and the interpretative key, who unlocks its meaning. 

The final words Jesus says to His disciples before His Ascension are ‘And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20 ESV) The one who is God with us, as he departs this earth, promises to remain with us. And through His Holy Spirit, he does. He is with us in Scripture, and especially in the Eucharist, when we feast on His Body and Blood, given for us, so that we might have life in Him. God gives Himself for us, so that we might become what He is, so that we might share the Divine life of love forever. This is what salvation looks like, and tastes like. The act of love which we are preparing to celebrate in Our Lord’s Nativity should draw us to love God and our neighbour, to live out the love which becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, which will become flesh and blood that we can touch and taste, here, this morning, to feed us, so that we might share His divine life. So let us imitate the mystery we celebrate, let us be filled with and transformed by the divine life of love, let us like Mary and Joseph wait on the Lord, and be transformed by him, to live out our faith in our lives so that the world might believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Advent III – He that will come

The prophet Isaiah provides our first readings during Advent this year, and he is particular strong on the idea that the Messiah will come to deliver Israel. As Christians we use the period of Advent to reflect upon the fact that Christ is coming, He is coming as a baby born in Bethlehem, He is coming to us here today in the Eucharist, and He is coming with vengeance to judge the world. Should we be afraid? On the contrary, as the prophet says, ‘Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart,“Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’ (Isa 35:3-4 ESV). 

Isaiah has a vision where the desert, a dry wilderness is carpeted with flowers, a sign of new life, of hope. This is the flourishing which the Messiah will bring, ‘the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God’ (Isa 35:2 ESV). As Christ Himself says ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10 ESV) This is good news, a reason to rejoice and be glad, and to mark this the Church instead of penitential purple wears rose today, to mark the joyful character of this day, and to remind us that Christ is coming. As Isaiah says, ‘the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ (Isa 35:10 ESV).

The time is both now, and not yet. As St James writes, ‘You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand’ (Jas 5:8 ESV). Patience is a hard thing to master. We are naturally impatient, we don’t want to wait, but we have to. The question is how we wait: in joyful expectation, preparing ourselves for what is to come? 

John the Baptist has been waiting for the Messiah, and while he leapt in his mother’s womb at the Visitation, in this morning’s Gospel he appears to be having doubts. He is expecting a Messiah of judgement, and he is isn’t sure what is going on. John has been imprisoned for criticising Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. He is hoping for a messiah to sweep away an unjust and corrupt regime, hence his doubts about Jesus, who doesn’t seem to be a political messiah. Jesus tells John’s disciples, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:4-5 ESV). 

The vision of a messianic future envisaged by Isaiah in this morning’s first reading has become a reality: prophecy has been fulfilled, God keeps his promises. The Kingdom of God is a place of healing, and Christ is the great physician, who has come to heal our souls. Jesus is the one who is to come, He has come, and will come again. The establishment of God’s kingdom can look strange in human terms: going to those on the margins, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed and marginalised is not a grand gesture. That is the point! The greatest grand gesture Jesus will make will be in handing Himself over to be crucified and die the death of a common criminal. This is how the messiah will reign as the true King of Israel. 

It defies human expectations, which is the point: God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts ours. That’s the core message of this morning’s Gospel, if we expect God’s rule to look like human kingship, then we will be disappointed. God has something else in store, something far more wonderful than we could ever imagine, and at its heart is the transformation of humanity by love. God heals His people, because God is a God of love. God loves us not because we are loveable, we are sinners, who don’t deserve to be loved, and cannot earn that love. But rather than what we are, God loves us for WHO we are, His sons and daughters, created in His image. 

This is grace: loving sinful humanity so that we may be transformed by love. Hence the focus on healing, something which only God can do, to heal our souls with His love. This is the cause of our joy, what the prophet Isaiah hoped for has been fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled. The Church exists to carry on God’s healing in the world, to take humanity, and heal it with God’s love. This is what we are about to celebrate in the Eucharist where we thank God for loving us, and prepare to experience that healing love, so that it may transform us. We do so with reverence, because we are not simply consuming human food and drink, but the very Body and Blood of Christ, given for us, to heal us. The greatest medicine our souls could ever wish for. Soon we ‘shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God’ (Isa 35:2 ESV) God’s glory and majesty is to die on a Cross for us, and to feed us with Himself. Come to the banquet my brothers and sisters, and experience the love of God, and let it heal and transform you, so that you and all creation may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Advent II Yr A – REPENT

John the Baptist appears in this morning’s Gospel in stark un-compromising fashion. His message is simple, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mt 3:2 ESV). It is a clear message, but to understand it takes some work. To repent means to change ones mind: to turn away from sin, and turn back to God. We are called to think differently, and as a result of this to act differently, to follow Jesus, and thereby to change the world, by co-operating with God to make the Kingdom a lived reality here and now, and to share in it forever. To repent is to turn away from sin, which separates us from God, and each other. Sin makes us selfish, self-absorbed, concerned with pleasure, wealth, power. It’s all about ME, how I feel, what I want. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God tells us that another way is possible, by the grace of God. It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Freeing, liberating: living for others rather than ourselves. At its heart the Kingdom is a place of generosity and real love, life in all its fullness. The Church exists to proclaim this same message, and to say to the world: Another way is possible.

It is not surprising that in those times people came out into the desert to hear John. He was charismatic, his message was a refreshing antidote to the Religious Establishment of his day. People come, confess their sins, and are baptised, they are washed clean, to serve God, and to love Him. They also come because in John the people of Israel see prophecy fulfilled, and a new Elijah is in their midst. One who points to the Messiah, and has done ever since he leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the Visitation. Before John was even born he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the One who would save Israel from their sins. We see this Messianic kingdom hoped for in the vision of Isaiah in this morning’s first reading. The branch which comes forth from the stem of Jesse is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who filled with God’s Holy Spirit, conceived and bore Our Saviour, the true King of all that is, or has been, or will be. He will be on the side of the poor and the meek, people who are left behind, and ignored because they are not rich or powerful. It’s a radical vision, which reminds us that we still have some way to go in order to put it into practice in the world around us. Isaiah’s vision of Messianic peace looks impossible, but it signifies a world-changing peace, which alters how things are, how we behave. For with, and through God another way is possible. It is not simple, or easy, but it is possible, if we rely upon God to help us. As St Paul says to the Christians in Rome, ‘May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:5-7 ESV) and again ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope’ (Romans 15:13 ESV). We receive the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and Confirmation to strengthen us to live out our faith in our lives.

Hope can feel in pretty short supply when we look at the world around us, and if we look to humanity we will be disappointed. Our hope comes from God, our hope is God, God with us, whose Birth we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. Advent is a time of preparation, when we prepare for Christ to come, both as a baby in Bethlehem, and as our saviour and our Judge. As the son of Jesse, and the son of David, Jesus is Israel’s true king, who rules over all. Isaiah has hope in the peace the Messiah will bring. Injustice and affliction, the fruit of sin is dealt with on the Cross, where He ‘shall stand as a signal for the peoples’ (Isa 11:10 ESV). Christ comes to die, out of love for humanity. In Him God can make things put right, and restore Creation, so that the entire Universe may praise the God who created it. 

Our Saviour is also our judge. ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Matt 3:12 ESV) It’s real, and it should make us stop and think for a moment. Are we living the way God wants us to? If we are not then we need to repent, say sorry, and live the way God wants us to live. This is how we flourish as people. John the Baptist calls us to make a spiritual u- turn, to turn our life around, to turn away from what separates us from God, our sins. He calls us to the waters of baptism, so that we can be healed and restored by God, filled with his grace, and prepared to receive the Holy Spirit: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John is that they do not show the repentance necessary, they haven’t made the u-turn, they don’t have the humility to recognise there sinfulness, and the need to be washed in the waters of baptism. They are confident that they are children of Abraham; they don’t have the right attitude for God to be at work in their lives.

As well as seeing Jesus as our Saviour, John the Baptist sees Jesus as Our Judge, he points to the second coming of the Lord when, as St John of the Cross puts it, ‘we will be judged by love alone’.  It is love that matters – in Christ we see what love means it is costly, self-giving and profound. As we are filled with His Spirit, nourished by Word and Sacrament, we need to live out this love in our lives. This is how we prepare to meet him as we prepare to celebrate His Birth and look forward to his Second Coming. So let us be prepared, let us live out God’s love in our lives, let us turn away from everything which separates us from God and each other, let us live out that costly, self-giving love in our lives, as this is what God wants us to do. It is through doing this that the world around us can see what our faith means in practice, how it affects our lives, and why they could and should follow Him, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.  

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