Friday, 14 December 2018

St John of the Cross, again

Epiphany, by Malcolm Guite

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.

But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,

They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

Epiphany, by Malcom Guite

Annual Covenant Service

The idea of a covenant between a Christian and God appears frequently in the Bible. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, wrote a ‘Covenant Prayer’ to be read aloud once a year at a special service. He held his first service on Monday 11 August 1755, at the French church at Spitalfields in London. It was attended by 1800 people.
  Wesley attributed it to the English puritan Joseph Alleine (1634–1668), but he wrote it through the lens of his own Churchmanship. We don’t know the words of his original Covenant Prayer, but many think its words will have been similar to those Wesley published in his 1780 pamphlet Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God.
  This idea of a covenant between a Christian and God was basic to John Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other (cf. Ephesians 5:21–33). Later versions incorporated words from the wedding service: Christ is ‘my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death’.
  Wesley recognised that people need to grow in their relationship with God. He emphasised repeatedly that God’s grace and love prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.
  Over a number of years, Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He looked for some means of helping them to hear God's offer and challenge ever more deeply and to allow God to prompt and enable them to respond.
Wesley’s first service came from the Puritan tradition of pastoral and spiritual guidance. He therefore insisted that his own Covenant Service be located in a framework of pastoral care, preaching and guidance.
  That framework dealt with the corporate needs of a particular society of Christian disciples and, within that, with the needs of all the individuals within that group. It therefore linked personal devotion with corporate worship.
  Although Wesley's early covenant services were not held at any particular time of year, in British Methodism the custom soon developed of holding Covenant Services near the beginning of the New Year.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

The three 'wise' men?

Consider the three wise men in the Christmas story. Or should it be the three ‘wise’ men?
      The only Gospel account to mention these men is Matthew 2:1–12. The Church has since invented vast fictional ‘biog raphies’ to flesh out the story, but we know essentially nothing about them. Indeed, we are only guessing when we say there were three of them, which has
always been assumed because the men left three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
  But were they ‘wise’? The early Church was unanimous in calling them astrologers and magicians, that is, people who foretold the future by studying the movements of stars and planets. Astrology was always strictly forbidden within Jewish society: all references in Scriptures to astrology assume the practice was completely forbidden. Furthermore — just like today — the success of astrologers in predicting the future was pitifully bad. Isaiah 47:13–15 ridicules the ability of astrologers to predict the future, and passages in Daniel say the same (Daniel 2:4:7, 5:7). Perhaps the wise men were sometimes unwise.
  In fact Matthew’s Gospel does not use the word ‘wise’ at all, but ‘Magi’ — the meaning of which is now wholly lost. The more understandable word ‘wise’ was substituted centuries after Matthew wrote his gospel, during severe persecution of the Church by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (who reigned 284 to 305 AD).
  Some historians suggest the Church changed the word ‘Magi’ to ‘wise men’ as an act of gentle irony. Picture the scene: a blood-thirsty dictator clings to power at all costs. King Herod is known to have killed so many members of his own family that his Roman overlord Caesar Augustus once famously said he would prefer to be a pig in Herod’s household than one of Herod’s family. And then imagine someone requesting an audience with the dictator, and saying, ‘Please tell me where I can find the person who could topple you as King’! Mt 2:16–18 describes how the Magi’s actions led to one of the worst acts of persecution in the Middle East for generations: the killing of all local boys aged under two.
  Now scroll forward to the reign of Diocletian, when death was the penalty for being a Christian. When the Christians of that later century heard the story of the Magi in Matthew 2, it must have triggered a wry smile, a laugh of gentle irony, for they knew what it was like living under a foreign dictator. They would understand how misjudged were the Magi’s actions.
  So, to defuse and make safe the story of the Magi, they gently mocked their naiveté by nicknaming them ’the wise men’.

The book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth is named after its central figure, Ruth, who became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus (Ruth 4:21–22; Matt 1:1,5). It is one of only two Biblical books bearing the name of a woman; the other is Esther.
        The author of this literary gem focuses on Ruth’s selfless devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi (1:16–17; 2:11–12; 3:10; 4:15) and her future husband Boaz’s kindness to them both (chapters 2–4). The book seeks to underscore the importance of faithful love among God’s kingdom people.
  Ruth is a history book, and is placed between Judges and 1 Samuel because it is set ‘in the days when the judges judged’. That time was characterised by moral and religious decay, oppression by foreign powers and national dis-unity. The book describes a rare time of peace between Israel and Moab.
  Before the main story commences, we learn of an Israelite family from Bethlehem — Elimelech and his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They had emigrated to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech’s sons married Moabite women: Mahlon married Ruth and Chilion married Orpah. Elimelech later died.
  Naomi’s two sons later died in Moab (1:4), maybe following disease or famine; the book tells us the Moabite harvest had failed.
  The books starts with Naomi returning to Bethlehem. She told her daughters-in-law to leave her and return to their respective mothers and re-marry. Orpah reluctantly left; but Ruth was defiant, and said to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me’ (1:16–17). That a foreigner from Moab shows this amount of love shows the truth that participation in the kingdom of God is decided, not by blood or birth, but by conformity of life to the will of God. Her devotion to her mother-in-law marks her a true daughter of Israel despite being a gentile and a worthy ancestor of David. Further, her place in that ancestry shows that all nations will be represented in the kingdom of David’s greater Son.
  Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was starting. They were by now totally destitute so, in order to support herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth went to the fields to glean. (Leviticus comes to life here, with its injunction to leave part of the harvest for the needy, and with all of its concern and compassion for the underprivileged within society.) By chance, the first field Ruth visited belonged to a local grandee called Boaz. He was kind to Ruth because he knew of her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Later, Ruth told her mother-in-law Naomi of Boaz’s kindness, and the way he let her glean in his field through the remainder of the harvest season.
  We then learn that Boaz was a close relative of Naomi’s husband and legally obliged to marry Mahlon’s widow, Ruth, in order to carry on his bloodline. He agreed to do so.
  Boaz and Ruth then married and had a son, who was named Obed. He was ‘the father of Jesse, the father of David’ (Ruth 4:13–17), that is, the grandfather of King David.
  The book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story told with considerable skill. It is unexcelled in its compactness, vividness, warmth, beauty and effectiveness. Most striking is the contrast between the two main characters, Ruth and Boaz: the one is young, foreign, destitute and a widow, while the other is middle-aged, well-to-do and an Israelite securely established in his home community.

St Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa was born on 26 August 1910, in Skopje, the current capital of Macedonia. She was baptised the following day as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.
      She received her first Communion at the age of five and, later, said she felt a love for souls that began that same day.
      At the age of eighteen, she joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. There she received the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux. After a few months’ training in Dublin she was sent to India, where, on 24 May 1931, she took her initial vows as a nun. Sister Teresa was assigned to the Loreto Entally Community in Calcutta and taught at St Mary’s School for girls.
  On 10 September 1946, during the train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Mother Teresa received her ‘inspiration’, her ‘call within a call’. In a way she would never explain, she somehow knew Jesus’ desire to love and care for human souls. A desire to satiate His thirst became the driving force of her life. Over the course of the next weeks and months, a series of interior voices and visions further revealed Jesus’ desire for ‘victims of love’ who would ‘radiate His love on souls.’
  The suffering and poverty that Teresa saw outside the convent walls had made such a deep impression on her that in 1948 she won permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. In August 1948, she dressed for the first time in a white, blue-bordered sari. Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa.
  The charter of her new Missionaries of Charity was to love and care for those persons nobody else was prepared to look after. It soon included a hospice; centres for the blind, aged and disabled; and a leper colony.
  Mother Teresa began to send her Sisters to other parts of India, then opened a new house in Venezuela, followed by foundations in Rome and Tanzania. Then, starting in 1980 and throughout the 1990s, Mother Teresa opened houses in most of the former communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, Albania and Cuba. By 1997, Mother Teresa’s Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 and comprised 610 foundations in 123 countries. Her co-workers now number over a million.
  In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. She received many other prizes, receiving each ‘For the glory of God and in the name of the poor’.
  In order to respond better to the spiritual needs of the poor, Mother Teresa founded different types of community, starting with the Charity Brothers and contemplative branches of first Sisters, then Brothers.
  After many years of deteriorating health, she died on 5 September 1997, aged 87. The Roman Catholic Church beatified her in October 2003 and proclaimed her a saint in September 2016.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.
Mother Teresa

St John of the Cross

Thursday, 22 November 2018


Everyone has a favourite aspect of Christmas. It may be the decorations or the special food; it may be the presents or the music; for some it’s the smell of a pine tree in their living room and for others it’s excitement on a child’s face. My favourite is the sight of twinkling lights.
     The whole point of Christmas is to celebrate the fact of God coming to earth as a human child — Jesus — in order to live a perfect life in our midst. As the Bible says, ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all human-kind’ (John 1:4). The lights on my tree remind me of God sending his light into the world.
     We all need light. It creates vitamins in our skin and it helps us to see. We’d soon be lost without it. And luckily light and dark can’t exist in the same volume of space, because the light shunts back the dark. Therefore, in proportion that our lives are filled with Jesus ‘the light of all humankind’, our souls contain this spiritual light. It also means that we can see, make spiritual distinctions, and find the paths that lead to God and thence eternity. And that light came into the world at the first Christmas, many, many years ago.
     So each time I see the lights of Christmas I’m reminded of the reason for Christmas: we celebrate the means of eternal life and we look for God, who reminds us to pray for help that we can see the path of glory.

God appeared to the shepherds

Jewish society at the time of Jesus was very highly stratified from the Roman emperor at the top to slaves at the bottom. Everyone knew their place in this hierarchy, and anyone attempting to climb a level was soon cast down. Everyone knew it was wrong to do so. And associating with anyone from too low a level was also thought wrong.
     Shepherds were near the bottom of the social order. The reasons were simple enough: they were considered unclean because of many aspects of their job. For example, they would often touch blood and dung. They did not attend the Temple often enough because they were always in the fields with their flocks. Some synagogues refused to admit shepherds because they had no education and would have mangled the local dialect when repeating the Jewish liturgy. They had probably not memorised the Torah (the Law of Moses).
     It’s demeaning being near the bottom of a social order. We have records of shepherds running wild through small, out-of-the-way Judean villages, demanding not to be treated as ‘non-people’. And they had a point: the people needed wool and milk from the shepherds’ sheep, as well as lambs and sheep for sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple.
     St Luke in chapter 2 of his Gospel describes Jesus’ birth, and makes a truly amazing claim. He says the very first people to hear the good news were shepherds:
There were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:8–11).
     It’s amazing because it demonstrates the upside-down world that Jesus came to bring about. Although the shepherds were the least important in most
people’s eyes, God chose to tell them first.
     This social inversion became a feature of Jesus’ ministry, and is demonstrated repeatedly in the Christmas stories:

  • Jesus is born to an unmarried mother from a provincial backwater.
  • He is born in a cattle shed and a feed trough is used as a bed.
  • The magi greet him. They are gentiles and astrologers, so doubly unclean.

So as we read the Christmas stories, we need to understand that God intends us to read the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth as being deeply subversive. He is changing absolutely everything.