Christmas 2021

Our Celebration, today and over the next few days of the Birth of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is something familiar and yet strange. We are very familiar with the story, taken from the accounts of Luke and Matthew, and shown in countless Christmas Cards. And yet, there is something momentous, even mind-blowing, about the fact that God the Creator and ruler of all becomes incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is born today in Bethlehem. God becomes helpless, vulnerable, and completely dependant upon Mary and Joseph. Today we are celebrating the fact that God takes a risk, and enters into the world as a human being, to live, to die, and to rise again, for us. Our Creator does this out of love for humanity, to fill us with His love and grace, and so that we might be transformed into His likeness, and spend eternity with Him.

The Four Gospels start their accounts in different ways. Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew and Luke have accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy. John, however, goes back to the beginning, to the start of everything, the Creation of the Universe in Genesis Chapter One. In the beginning, before the creation of heaven and earth, Jesus was:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.’ (Jn 1:1-3)

In the Book of Genesis, God speaks the universe into creation. He does this through His Word, Jesus Christ. That Word is now made flesh, lying in a manger in Bethlehem. He has come to give each and every one of us life and light:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (Jn 1:4-5)

Our experience over the last eighteen months or so has had its fair share of darkness, despair, and fear. And yet Christ, who is the Light of the World, has not been overcome. Our hope is in the Word made flesh, a light which no darkness can overcome or extinguish. We commit ourselves to this hope today, and every day, knowing that this is a God we can trust, a God who loves us. A God who has experienced all human life from birth to death. A God who knows our pain and our weakness, a God who heals.

We can have the confidence of the prophet Isaiah, to lift our voices in song, knowing that: 

the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ (Isa 52:9)

Today God’s plan of salvation, the redemption of his people becomes a reality. A baby is wrapped in cloth and laid in a stone feeding trough, so that Jesus’ life begins as it will end. Christ’s Birth mirrors his Burial, so that He can be raised to New Life at Easter, before returning to the Father’s right hand in Heaven. With joy the prophet can proclaim:

and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10)

Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, and the message of salvation, the message of the Church, can be proclaimed. 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. The Prophets tell us both how things are and how they will be. We therefore have a vision of God’s future, and the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We can glimpse true glory in the vulnerable 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 are His thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us: not because we are lovable and good, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the role of the Church is to extend that transformation across space and time, through you and me, and the whole Christian family of believers. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love. It is something so wonderful that we are not able to fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, we are transformed by it. As the twentieth century Anglican theologian, 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.”’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung, pp. 27, 28]

Or as St John puts it: ‘in him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4). Christ has come among us to transform us. We experience this transformation in Baptism, in the Eucharist. Sacraments: outward visible signs of inward spiritual grace — God’s generous love poured out on us to fill us and to change us into His likeness. And to bring this about God gives us His Son. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him. Freed from our past mistakes and transformed by the love of God, we can 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), given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. Through Christ we are offered the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right. This is the reality of God’s love freely given to restore us to the fullness of life.

So let us embrace God’s love and encourage others to experience the true joy of Christmas. Let all humanity join with the angels to 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. 

James Tissot – The Nativity (Brooklyn Museum)

Advent IV (Year C)

This morning’s Gospel presents a striking scene. It describes the meeting of two cousins: one older, one younger, both pregnant. Neither were expecting to have children, so the whole thing has come as a bit of a shock to them both. Mary goes up from Nazareth to Ein Kerem, which is a few miles west of Jerusalem to see Elizabeth. This is a journey that takes about a week on foot. Luke tells us that Mary goes ‘with haste’ (Lk 1:39). She is rushing to her cousin. Mary has good news to share with Elizabeth: she also is going to have a baby! As well as sharing her news, Mary wants to help her cousin prepare for the birth of her child. Both are filled with joy, and love, and care. As Mary enters the house of Zechariah, something amazing happens:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.’ (Lk 1:41)

Even before he was born, John recognises Jesus, and leaps for joy. John is a prophet, even in his mother’s womb. He announces the presence of the Saviour. This leads Elizabeth to cry out:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’ (Lk 1:42)

Mary is blessed, because she says, ‘Yes’ to God, she accepts God’s invitation to bear the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Saviour of the World. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son called John. Then Mary is told that she will bear the Son of God, and goes to see Elizabeth. The narrative is fast-paced, with lots happening. Yet, Elizabeth seems to understand the nature of the events. She asks:

And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ (Lk 1:43)

Elizabeth understands that Mary is the Mother of God, and that her unborn child, Jesus is God come among us, Emmanuel. Equally, Elizabeth knows that her baby will be a prophet, who will announce the presence of the Lord and prepare His way before Him. She joyfully declares:

For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’ (Lk 1:44-45)

Mary and Elizabeth trust God to be at work in their lives. They are humble and obedient, and because of this the salvation of humanity can be brought about and announced. Both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God, call people to repent, believe, and be baptised. Their mission starts here with their mothers trusting God’s promises. Mary and Elizabeth demonstrate the humility and obedience which allows to God to be at work in the world, saving His people, made in His image. 

This is why we celebrate Christmas. It is the best news the world has ever had. We prepare for it, we get ready, in the season of Advent. Mary stayed three months (Lk1:56) with Elizabeth to help her prepare. They spent time in prayer, and pondered the amazing world-changing events which were about to take place.

There is a beauty in the way that we put lights on trees, like the one on the Village Green, which proclaim by their illumination the coming of the Light of the World. Christ is coming, we should be ready to greet Him. His arrival is prophesied in Scripture. The prophet Micah declares that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem:

from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.’ (Micah 5:2)

God’s plan of salvation has always been that Jesus should be born, and all of human history from the Creation onwards has been leading up to this point. In Micah’s words, Christ will:

‘shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.’ (Micah 5:4-5a)

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for us His flock, and lays down His life for us. We can dwell secure because Christ is our peace, and in Him we have the hope of Heaven and the promise of eternal life.

Christ is our Saviour because He shares all our human life, from birth to death. Jesus offers Himself out of love, to take away our sins, to heal our wounds, to restore us. We have, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘been sanctified’ (Heb 10:10), made holy. We have been made God’s holy people again. This process continues in the Eucharist. In our communion, whether actual or spiritual, God continues to transform us by His Grace into His likeness.

Our salvation is very close indeed. We can feel it. We know that God keeps His promises. We can prepare to celebrate the Christmas festival with joy, because we know what is about to happen. A baby will be born who will save humanity, whom John the Baptist will recognise as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. This is the Good news we share with the world around us: that God loves us, was born for us, and dies, and rises again, for us. All that Jesus is and says and does, from His taking flesh in the womb of His mother, His Birth, His Life, Death and Resurrection, proclaims God’s love for us. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: God’s love of humanity. God has always loved us, and always will. God is love. 

So let us prepare to celebrate that love. May it fill our hearts and minds, so that we live lives of love, proclaiming God’s love, so that all the world come to believe and give glory 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. Amen. 

The Visitation – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

This week our readings and liturgical texts have a joyful character. This is reflected by a change of liturgical colour. On the Third Sunday of Advent, instead of purple, rose may be worn. A lighter, happier colour. Our liturgical colours express something of the character of the day or season we are celebrating, and helps us to enter into the mysteries and live them out in our worship. 

It is fair to say that we are currently in need of good news. Thankfully there is a message of hope and joy in our reading from the prophet Zephaniah. After Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, Zephaniah prophesies its rebuilding and restoration. These prophecies also look to Jesus as the ultimate restoration of Israel, and her true hope:

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion;’ (Zeph 3:15-16)

Christ comes to save His people from fear. This is reinforced in the next verse:

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save’ (Zeph 3:17)

Jesus’ name means ‘God is salvation’, and He comes to save God’s people, which is why the Church celebrates His coming during this Advent season. Christ’s coming will bring healing and reconciliation, something humanity longs for:

Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.’ (Zeph 3:19)

God longs to heal our sin, to take outcast humanity and gather it into the feast of the Kingdom. God wants to clothe us in a garment of praise and thanksgiving, which is the garment of our Baptism, when we put on Christ. God longs to feed us with Himself, so that we might be nourished by Him, and have life in Him, for all eternity. This is the hope which Advent brings, and it is the cause of our joy.

The knowledge of salvation in the reason for the joy of St Paul and the Christians in Philippi: for them the Lord’s coming is imminent. The message Paul wishes to share with his fellow Christians is: Be happy, pray, and don’t get worried — God in Christ wants to give you peace. This is how we should live as Christians, and we do, though it is good to be reminded of it from time to time. 

Reminding people of profound, and sometimes uncomfortable truths is the cornerstone of the prophetic vocation. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist begins by warning the people of his own day against spiritual lethargy. It is easy to get complacent, and two thousand years later, we need to hear the same message. John’s words left his original hearers scratching their heads and questioning:

“What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”’ (Lk 3:10-11)

What then shall we do?” this is the question most, if not all of us, would ask. The answer can be found in verse 8: ‘Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.’ The next step after repentance and belief in God is to live out our faith in our lives. Luke’s Gospel tends to focus on the poor, so John the Baptist’s advice is particularly welcome. Caring for the poor and needy, supplying the basic needs of food and clothing, are the starting point of Christian charity. Once people’s basic needs have been met, then it is possible to start dealing with other problems. This is reflected in the Gospel:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”’ (Lk 3:12-14)

Tax collectors were well-known in the Ancient World for charging people extra, and keeping the surplus themselves. It was expected, and so the right to collect taxes was auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was a corrupt system, which John seeks to reform. Likewise, soldiers are in a position to misuse their power and use it to extort money from the weak and vulnerable. John makes it clear that this is not how people should behave. 

John’s proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom leads people to wonder whether he is the Messiah. John the Baptist has this to say on the subject:

“I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”’ (Lk 3:16-17)

John understands his mission as to prepare the way for Jesus, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then the chaff of human sin will be burned away, preparing us for Heaven. This is good news, the reason for our everlasting hope, and the cause of our rejoicing.

Christ comes to free the world from the effects of wrongdoing. On the Cross Jesus bears the burden of our misdeeds, healing our wounds and restoring our relationship with God. So let us rejoice and invite others to share in the joy of the Lord so that the world come to believe and give glory 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. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Voice in the Desert (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Many people, especially children, enjoy opening the doors on an Advent Calendar. They are a daily count down of the days until Christmas, and can contain images from the Christmas story. At home, ours began with a star, which reminds us of the Star that appeared in the sky and was visible above Bethlehem, the star which led the Wise Men from the East. Advent means ‘coming’ and the Church prepares for Jesus’ coming over these four weeks. The star reinforces the idea that Christ’s coming was announced and visible. People could see that something was happening: it was a real event, something amazing and out of the ordinary. Some two thousand years later it remains so.

The Gospel this morning begins with precise historical details. The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius was from September ad29-August ad30. This detail allows us to know when the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist began. St Luke also tells us the names of the governor of the province of Judea, the names of the various local rulers and the names of the Jewish high-priests for that year. This historical information is useful and tells us something about why St Luke is writing his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel is a work which narrates events that happened in a particular place and at a particular time. These are real historical events. At some point in the twelve month period described, John was inspired to go out into the Judaean desert. There he began to proclaim:

a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Lk 3:3)

The Jews were used to the idea of ritual washing and cleanliness, but this was something more, something which would turn your life around. Repentance means being sorry for what we have done wrong, and vowing not to do it again. It puts us in a position of being able to accept God’s love. Repentance makes it possible for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom. Luke understands John’s prophetic ministry as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa 40:3-5) which he quotes in verses 4-6 of Chapter 3. John the Baptist is the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

John prepares the way for Jesus by going before Him, preaching repentance, and calling people back to God. He does this is so that, 

all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’(Lk 3:6)

God in Christ is saving His people. This is why we celebrate Jesus’ coming: firstly as a baby in Bethlehem, and then His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. In addition, through the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to us in the Sacraments of the Church and the Scriptures every day. Jesus fills us with the love of God, and transforms us so that we become more like Him. This is Good News, the best news we’ve ever had!

The Book of Baruch is supposed to have been composed by a scribe of the prophet Jeremiah during the exile in Babylon, but was probably written a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Today’s reading is from the final chapter, which ends the work by offering Israel consolation. Being cheered up is always a very good thing, especially at the moment, with a new strain of Covid, prices going up, and winter upon us. Something to lift the spirits is particularly welcome. Baruch speaks to Jerusalem and tells her to: 

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction,…and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God’ (Bar 5:1)

This prophecy is fulfilled in the baptism first proclaimed by John, then Jesus, and now offered to the world by the Church. We are living proof of the fact that God keeps His promises, we can trust Him. Through our baptism we are able to:

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God’ (Bar 5:2)

God makes us righteous, we cannot do it ourselves. Thanks to God’s grace, His unmerited kindness, we are clothed in godliness. Baruch tells Jerusalem to look eastward, to look at the rising sun. This reminds us of the star at Bethlehem which was in the East, and of Christ’s Resurrection on the first Easter. Baruch restates the prophecy of Isaiah that valleys will be filled and hills will be made low: 

so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.’ (Bar 5:7)

Travel was a dangerous business in the Ancient World, and Baruch’s vision of the Kingdom of God is one of peace and glory: 

For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.’(Bar 5:9)

This is what happens when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom: prophecy is fulfilled in Him, and we are the living proof of it.

Advent, then, is a joyful time, when we prepare for the coming of the one whom we love, and who loves us. We are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same; to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by Word and Sacrament, built up into a community of love. As St Paul writes: 

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.’ (Phil 1:9-11)

God offers the world a radical alternative, built on love, which is shown most clearly in the Cross, when Jesus died for love of us. God loves us so that we might become lovely, and gave His life for us, so that we may come to share His life . This is our hope. This is the hope proclaimed by the prophets. This is the hope of Advent. We need to live out this hope in our lives. Only then can the world come to believe and give glory 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. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Voice in the Desert (Brooklyn Museum)