The Baptism of Christ: Gen 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

 

January is a time for making resolutions: we start the New Year full of optimism, full of promise, but despite our good intentions, most of us, myself included, have probably broken them by now. We mean well, and we fail. And that’s the point. We try to turn over a new leaf, but we find it hard to stick to. The God whom we worship understands temptation and sin, because he lived as one of us. He is a God of love, of mercy, and forgiveness. How ever many times we fall short we be assured that we will be welcomed, healed, restored and pardoned. God loves us as we are. We do not need to earn his love, or deserve it. He loves us and longs for us to have the fulness of life in Him. Today Jesus shows us the way back to the Father,

The ideas of baptism, of becoming regenerate, born again in Christ, of repentance, a change of mind, turning away from sin, and turning to Jesus Christ seem, as ever, to be just what we need as human beings, men and women, who despite our best efforts to the contrary just find it all too easy to be and do what we know we shouldn’t.

John the Baptist goes out into the desert in this morning’s Gospel. He goes out into the wilderness, to a place on the margins, of society and of human habitation, to take people out of their comfort zone, where they feel safe, to a place of encounter with God. John is ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. His message is a simple one: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. What he does – pouring the water of the River Jordan over people –  signifies their turning back to God, a new start, a new beginning, wiping the slate clean. What starts as something symbolic becomes something more with the Baptism of Jesus – it becomes a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

Jesus does not need to be baptised, he has no sins from which to repent, there is nothing which separates Him from God, the Father. He is both God and man, and yet He is baptised – out of obedience to the will of the Father and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – so that we can see God in action in the world. The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit of God is active in the world. God has taken flesh in the womb of Mary and is born among us, recognised and worshipped by the Wise Men. Now he shows us the way back to the Father, through obedience and humility, through repentance, turning away from the ways of sin and the world, and turning back to the God who loves us. This is what the church is all about – proclaiming the same message, going the same thing, sharing in the same grace, which we do not deserve, we haven’t worked for or earned, but which God in His love and mercy gives us. We receive adoption, we become part of the family of God, we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The utterly unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in His nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, profligate, and extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to react in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church, it shows us a new way of life, life in the Spirit, life with God, which has a profound effect on our lives, who we are and what we do. It opens a possibility to us, of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. It shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love – that Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. This sacrifice is made present here and now so that under the outward forms of bread and wine we may partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, so that our souls may be nourished and our lives transformed by God’s very self – a solemn moment, the holiest thing on earth, the most wonderful moment of our lives. Here, now, God continues to give himself so that we can continue to be transformed, something which begins at our baptism, to prepare us for heaven, and so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now – living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

It sounds easy, being extravagantly loving and forgiving, and yet for two thousand years we have struggled with it. It is easier to be selfish and sinful. Yet, despite our shortcomings, God continues to forgive us, so that we can carry on trying to be the people he wants us to be, which we need to be together, as a community of love and forgiveness, which is what the Church is.

Ours is a faith which can transform the world, so that all humanity can share in God’s life and love, each and every one of us can become part of something radical and revolutionary, which can and will transform the world one soul at a time, it may sound strange, crazy even, but that is the point. Rather than human violence, cruelty, and murder, the only way to transform the world is through the love of God. This is what the church is for, what it’s all about; it is why we are gathered here, to be strengthened and nourished, through prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of the Church, strengthened and nourished to live out our faith in our lives to transform the world. Nothing more, nothing less, just a revolution of love, of forgiveness, and healing, which the world both wants and needs, so let us live it so that the world may be transformed and 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.

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Epiphany 2017

Most people nowadays don’t really pay much attention to the stars in the sky. Lots of people in our modern world thanks to increased levels of light pollution barely notice them, or may just be able to point out a few constellations. If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself somewhere where the nights are dark, like say Mid Wales then on a clear night you can see something magical: the sky is covered with stars. People looked at them, named them, and studied them. They mattered, because people believed, rightly or wrongly, that events on earth and in the heavens were somehow linked. Wise Men in the East saw a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in the constellation Pisces, which was believed to represent the Jews , which coincided with a comet moving in the sky. So, on the basis of their observations they travelled hundred of miles to Israel, the land of the Jews, and go to the royal palace in Jerusalem, to find out what is going on.

The Wise Men are told that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, so they travel further, in order to see something wonderful. As they come they are fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah which is the first reading this morning. It is a sign that when God comes among us He will be seen by the nations, the Gentiles, people who are not Jews. It is the first moment when we can say with St Paul that, ‘the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel’ (Eph 3:6)

The Manifestation of Our Lord to the Gentiles, which the church celebrates today, is a deepening of the splendour of the Incarnation: what began at Christmas becomes deeper, and more wonderful. With the arrival of the Wise Men from the East, the whole World is told that God is with us. Gentiles are made co-heirs, ‘members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel’.

The promise is made through the words of the prophet Isaiah in this morning’s first reading. The light which is shown by the star which the Wise Men follow is the Light of the World, the true light. Kings and the nations come to its brightness, they come to worship God made man; they come to pay their homage to the Saviour born among them. They come with camels and bringing gold and frankincense to worship their king and their God. They come to Bethlehem, and not to a royal palace, or a throne. This is what true kingship is, true love, that of God and not of humanity.

The wise men bring Jesus gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are and always have been expensive, costly, and precious things. Gold, is a precious metal, which does not tarnish, which is pure. It is a gift for a King: its purity points to a life of perfect obedience, the pattern of how life should be lived. Incense, from Arabia, was offered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, as the sweet-smelling smoke rose, it looked like our prayers rising to God. It is a sign of worship, a sign of honour, and how humanity should respond to God. Myrrh, often used in the ointment was part of embalming, it speaks of death. Even in Christ’s birth, and appearance to the Gentiles, we see Christ’s kingly power, and his obedience to the will of the Father. We see His role in worship as our great High Priest, which leads Him to Death and Burial

Everything points to the Cross, where Christ will shed his blood for love of us, where he will die to reconcile us to God. It is an act of pure, self-giving love, which we as Christians celebrate. It’s why we come to the Eucharist, to share in Christ’s body and blood, to be fed by him, with him, and to become what he is.

In the gifts which the Wise Men offer Jesus they show us that they recognise and understand who and what He is. They kneel before Him, something we do for Kings and God. He is both. They honour Him: they recognise that God is with us, that salvation has come to the world in the person of this small child. It is truly an event of cosmic proportions, which changes how humanity relates to itself and to God. The Wise Men come and kneel and they worship and adore the Lord of creation and the Word of God Incarnate. The King of all is not in a Palace but in a simple house in Bethlehem, and He meets us here today under the outward forms of Bread and Wine, to heal us, to restore us, and to give us life in Him. Let us come before Him, offer Him the gifts of our life, and our love, and our service so that we may see His Kingdom grow.

As we celebrate the Epiphany we also look forward to Our Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan and his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. He who is without sin shows humanity how to be freed from sin and to have new life in Him. In turning water into wine we see that the kingdom of God is a place of generous love, a place of joy, and of life in all its fullness.

So let us be filled with joy and love, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world, that it may believe: so that all creation may resound with 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.

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The First Sunday of Christmas

As we approach the end of another year it is natural both to look backwards and forwards, to what has been, and what will be. Ideally we would do both in a positive fashion, grateful for what has been, and hopeful for the future. It isn’t as easy as it sounds: the world feels a worried, troubled place with the risks of war and terrorism, political instability, economic insecurity, and unpredictable weather, to name but a few. It isn’t pleasant to dwell on such matters, and it seems that there isn’t that much that you or I can do about them.

As Christians we are called to be people of joy and hope, emotions which are encapsulated in the Feast of Christmas, which we continue to celebrate for either twelve or forty days, leading up to the Epiphany or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Church, unlike the world around us, doesn’t stop celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ for some time yet because it is so important to take some time to think about God has done for us in being born for us. The shops around us have cleared their shelves for Valentine’s Day or Easter Eggs, but we are not so hasty. The awesome truth that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has taken flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that the Son, Jesus Christ has been born for us, should make us pause.

God is not remote, a distant disinterested Creator. He becomes human, and is born like we are. God gets involved, and shares a human life, its joys and its pains, and its end: death. God does this for us. This is grace, an unmerited gift, something we don’t deserve, so that we might know His love. God becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we might share in the Divine life of love. God loves us, not because we deserve it, or that we have somehow earned our way to Heaven, but so that we can know Him, love Him, and serve Him, in Earth and in Heaven.

God shows his love for us in being born as one of us, sharing our humanity, so that we might share His Divinity. In Jesus Christ we can see and know who and what God is. This is the mystery of the incarnation. It is something we cannot fully understand, in this earthly life at least, but it is something we can begin to experience. We can have hope for the future, in and through Christ, however bad the world around us is. Through Him we can know something of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. No matter how many mistakes we make, and what ever mess we are in, it is something which God in Christ can deal with. This is not to say that God has a magic wand to wave over our problems, but rather that we see our problems in the broader context of God’s love for us, another way becomes possible, and this is where the Kingdom breaks into our lives.

Our first reading this morning sees the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the hope of the Messiah, hope for the people of Israel, which is fulfilled in the baby born in Bethlehem, Jesus, our Saviour. Isaiah trusts God to fulfil His promise, and looks to the future with hope. He sees the future in terms of a wedding – a cause of great joy. It signifies a restored relationship, something Jesus will bring about himself, on the Cross, to heal our wounds through His. This is Good News, and it fills us with joy.

The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians reminds us that the Incarnation has changed everything. It is an event in history which happens at the right time, when people are mature enough to understand what is happening. God sends His Son, born of Mary, to redeem us, and to adopt us, to bring us into God’s family, so that we can receive our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to fill us with God’s love. We are included, we are adopted. Rather than being disinherited, which is what we deserve, men and women are adopted through Christ. In Jewish law inheritance was about passing property from fathers to sons, Paul shows how Jesus has re-written the rules: men and women are treated equally, and brought into the inheritance of the Kingdom of God’s love. This is great news, a departure from the ways of the past, a sign of radical equality in and through Christ – salvation is God’s free gift, restoring the dignity of humanity.

In Luke’s Gospel we see shepherds who have just been told the most wonderful news: the Messiah, the Saviour is born in Bethlehem. They decide to go and see what God has told them. They make haste, they hurry, they are excited. They see Mary and Jospeh and the baby lying in a manger, a stone trough for animal feed. They see a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, just like the lambs they raise to be sacrifices in the Temple. They see One, who from his birth has been marked out to be the sacrifice on the Cross which will restore Israel, and bring about a true passover. The shepherds see something amazing and they tell people about it – it is Good News. God loves us this much. They go back to their flocks praising God for what they have seen – salvation in their midst, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Mary said “Yes’ to God to bring these things about, now she ‘ponders these things in her heart’ she reflects on what has happened. Having been obedient she turns to God in love and worship and prepares to be obedient to the law of Moses, and the covenant, the agreement which God first made with Abraham, two thousand years previously. Mary and Joseph are obedient to the Law and so their Son is circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). He receives the sublime name, Jesus, that is to say God is our Saviour.

God saves us. We hear His words in Scripture, and here in the Eucharist we are fed by God and  fed with God, with His Body and Blood, broken and shed for us, that through His death we might have life in Him. So let us come and share in God’s generous gift to us, to heal us, to restore us, and give us hope in Him.

God’s salvation, the saving of humanity, is an act of love and obedience. So as we continue to celebrate Christmas and are filled the joy of the Incarnation, let us also reflect upon the fact that Love and Obedience and Suffering go hand in hand. They are costly, and likewise, for us in our Christian lives, following Christ means embracing love, obedience, and suffering, bearing witness to the truth that God loves all of us, gave his life for us, and asks the same of us.

And so may we begin the New Year full of joy and hope, mindful of the costly Love of God. As we recall the obedience of Mary, may we like the ox and ass in the stable kneel and worship the Lord of Creation, the Word of God Incarnate. Let us be like the shepherds and share our faith with others in what we are, and do, and say. Let us fashion our lives after the example of Our Lord and Saviour, to whom with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most just and right, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory, now and forever…

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Christmas Midnight Mass

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

He became human so that we might become divine

If you have seen any of the Star Wars films then you will be used to the idea of a world under the thumb of a despotic tyrannical regime. A world which longs for deliverance.Two thousand years ago the people of Israel were similarly in a bad way. They were occupied by a foreign power, Rome. They were part of a foreign empire, ruled by pagans. They longed to be free. All hope seemed lost. Their souls were crushed. Had God abandoned them? Their prophets had told them to expect the Messiah, who was an anointed Saviour of the house and lineage of David. He would save them, free them, give them hope, light in the darkness. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah looks forward to in tonight’s first reading. People knew the prophecy but could barely hope that they would see it fulfilled.

We are now in a very different situation: we can say with confidence that a child is born to us, the Son of God, born of the Blessèd Virgin Mary. This helpless baby is our Mighty God and the Prince of Peace, the Creator and Ruler of all that is, all that ever has been, and all that will be. This night, in a small hill town God comes among us, God is with us, Emmanuel.

And so, to comply with the Imperial census demands, Joseph and Mary travel to his ancestral home, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, 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. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and 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.’ (Micah 5:2-4).

Bethlehem in Hebrew means the House of Bread and in the House of Bread is born tonight the one who will be the Living Bread, come down from Heaven. He will be the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd of His people, Israel. We are told in the Gospel about shepherds out in the fields. They are raising the lambs to be used in the Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. When these lambs are born they are wrapped in strips of cloth to keep them safe, so that they may be without spot or blemish, and thus be an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. And so the One who is to save Israel from her sins, Yeshua, which means God saves, is born and treated like a Passover Lamb. He is wrapped in strips of cloth, swaddling clothes, just like the lambs on the hilltops. He is the Lamb of God, the true passover of Israel, who will go to His death willingly, led like a lamb to the slaughter. He was anticipated in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, by the ram caught in the thicket. He is born for us, the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.

The shepherds are greeted by angels who announce the Good News, that the prophecy is fulfilled, here and now. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. These hard-working farmers eagerly go to see God come to earth. God meets humanity not in a blaze of glory and triumph, but as a vulnerable new-born baby, who needs a mother to feed him, who needs others to provide him with warmth and security. The Word of God, through which everything was created, lies silent and helpless. Here we see real love – open, vulnerable, all gift, holding back nothing, but risking all to come among us, to heal our wounds, to save us, to show us how to live.

All the tinsel, and excess, all the consumerism, and even the ignorance and unbelief of the modern world cannot cover up the sheer wonder of this night. In the stillness and darkness something wonderful happens, which we cannot fully understand. God comes among us, born as a baby, to share our life, so that we might share His. Our God longs for a relationship with us, and brings it about, so that we might have life in and through Him.

The Son gives us a life in which to live. He offers up himself for us upon the Cross, where He dies for us. He gives himself to us under the signs of bread and wine so that we might share his divine life. As the shepherds hurried to meet him, let us too yearn for that divine encounter. Let us long to be fed by Him, fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we can share His life, life in all its fullness.

When the Holy Family came to Bethlehem the town was overcrowded. There was no room for them. The weather was cold, and we can speculate that their welcome was too. As we celebrate the birth of Our Saviour we have to ask ourselves: Have we made room for Jesus in our lives? Have we really? If we haven’t, then no fine words can make up for it. We have to let our hearts and our lives be the stable in which the Christ child can be born. We have to see Him in the outcast, in the stranger, in the people which the world shuns, and we have to welcome them, and in welcoming them to welcome Him. This is how we live out His love in our lives. This is the true meaning of Christmas – this is the love which can transform the world. It is radical and costly. It terrified the might of the Roman Empire, and showed human power that it was as nothing compared to Divine Love. Soul by individual soul, for the past two thousand years, the world has been changed by ordinary people living out the love shown to the world in this little vulnerable child.

So, tonight, let us receive the greatest gift which has ever been given and share it with others, living it out in our lives, regardless of the cost, so that the world may 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. Happy Christmas

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A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Love tends to become like the one loved; in fact, it even wishes to become one with the one loved. God loved unworthy man. He willed to become one, and that was the Incarnation.

Fulton Sheen The Divine Romance New York 1930: 70

As God was  physically formed in Mary, so he wills to be spiritually formed in you. If you knew he was seeing through your eyes, you would see everyone as a child of God. If you knew that he worked through your hands, they would bless all the day through …. If you knew that he wants to use your mind, your will, your fingers, and your heart, how differently you would be. If half the world did this there would be no war!

The Ven. Abp Fulton J. Sheen How to find Christmas Peace,  taken from  Advent Meditations with Fulton J. Sheen, Liguori Publications: Liguori MO, 2007

Advent III Year B

As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff: what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell, but something far deeper and far richer, which comes from God. We are to be people of JOY, filled with it, and sharing it with others.

We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity. This is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear, and hear it they must.

In this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation, and yet they are drawn to the Good News. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ’s gift of His Spirit is coming. He is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives

The state, the church, and the world around us all seem to be in a mess. There is political instability, fears for the future, tyrants and demagogues in power. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.

Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to those who are oppressed, a healing love which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, which releases prisoners. It turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different: comfort to those who mourn, a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, which we have put on in our baptism.

In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. It is a daunting prospect, yet we know and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.

We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.

We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, we are to be filled with a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God. We give thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us. We draw close to Jesus in His word, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where we are fed with His Body and Blood, so that we can be sanctified by God, and share in his divine life and joy.

We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may fill us with his love.

The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We could just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us. The One who calls us is faithful, and He will do this. Let us trust in Him, be fed and nourished by Him, with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit, so that all the world may come to believe and trust in Him, 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.

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A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Lightness of spirit is related to Redemption, for it lifts us out of precarious situations. As soon as a priest goes in for revolutionary tactics in politics he becomes boringly serious. This world is all there is, and therefore he takes political involvements without a grain of salt. One rarely sees a Commisar smile. Only those who are ‘in the world, not of it’ can see events seriously and lightly. Joy is born by straddling two worlds — one the world of politics, the other of grace.

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 238