Sermon for next before Lent – OT8 Year A
The words of God through the Prophet Isaiah “Behold! I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands”’
Behold! The everlasting God has carved you into the palms of his hands. Behold!
Of course that was not what we heard – we heard ‘See!’ There are times when one despairs of the committees which translate our scriptures out of Hebrew and Greek. The Command ‘Behold!’ occurs more than one thousand three hundred times throughout the Scriptures. Yet the NRSV has it just 27 times outside the New Testament and not at all in the New Testament. And this translation is the most widely used now in the Western Church . . . Perhaps it is no surprise that we have lost sight of God . . .
One thousand three hundred times, behold! Behold! Behold! The first word God directly addresses to the man and the woman in the Garden? Behold! God said, ‘See!’ NO ‘Behold!, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’
We are perhaps the first culture in the history of Mankind to have all but lost this facility. So people will say – ‘oh it is an old fashioned word for looking – so we will get rid of it’ Look! See! That will do.
Looking and Seeing as we shall discover in our Lent course are ways of blindness. They reduce the World to a set of objects for our use, for manipulating for putting to our own ends – because we do not ‘Behold!’ We perhaps do not even know how to begin and after all there is SO MUCH to SEE!!
We look this way and that – we lost the facility to Behold, rather we have advanced to the highest art form the facility to create a million and one things to look at. ‘Look here!’ Look there! Did you see?? we are held captive by a blizzard of images – and we can no longer Behold the Image of God. The author Matt Crawford – a motorcycle mechanic philosopher 🙂 – argues in his book ‘The World beyond your head’ for the right ‘not to be addressed’. He is writing about the fact that everywhere you look someone is trying to grab you attention – trying to get you to buy something. A local school is ‘Recognised by Apple as a distinguished school for innovation, leadership, and educational excellence.’ Recognised by Apple . . . Does no one See? Are we blind to this?? Have you ever taken time to consider their logo . . .? We have created an existence in which we are surrounded by a million and one human artefacts – look! Look! Look!
Returning from retreat at Ngatiawa on Monday I took the bus to the airport. Disoriented by the sudden blizzard of visual stimuli having spent a week in the bush – I glanced at the screen where our route was shown – only to see the name of a stop followed by ‘alight here for Burger King’.
And our distraction leaves us open and vulnerable to everything under the sun. We are an age like no other plagued by mental health issues and anxiety disorders. A young girl comes on retreat. She wants to know ‘what is the wifi code’ and is disturbed to find that there is no wifi available.’how will I keep in touch with what is happening in the world?’
In the time of Jesus – worries were sharp and upfront and pressing – what WILL we eat? what WILL we drink? What WILL we wear? And Jesus advice sounds at first like no more than a pragmatic answer. Who by worrying can add an hour to his life??
in the movie Bridge of spies – a Russian spy played by Mark Rylance, is caught in America. As his lawyer (Tom Hanks) explains his situation to him, of how he may well face the electric chair he seems unperturbed, so he asks ‘aren’t you worried’. Rylance putting more power into three words than most can in thirty three thousand replies ‘Would it help?’ But Jesus wants us not only to wake up to the futility of worry. He desires that we ‘Behold!’ And so in the fulfilment of those words first spoken in the Garden of Eden, he says ‘Behold! The birds of the air! they neither reap nor sow nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them.’
The gentiles worry about these things – those who do not know that they are the children of God. Who do not Know God as their Father – who do not Behold his engraved palms and see themselves there. Those are the people who worry. Your Father in heaven knows you need all these things. So strive for his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you . . .
What does this mean? to strive for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness?? It is to desire God through all, above all and in all. it is nothing new – It is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and souls and mind and strength – it is to make every effort to enter in through the narrow Gate – to Love Him above and through and In all.
As St Augustine puts it – in the words of our collect – our hearts are restless – this is a matter of our desires – Look here! Look There! Did you See? Our hearts are restless until they find there rest in you.
Jesus has been teaching this all the way through the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t store up for yourselves treasure on earth – where your treasure is – there will your heart be. If you set your heart on the things of this world they will fail you – they will rust and the moths will get them – or someone will hack your bank account – or or or a thousand and one worries . . . all because our hearts are not set on God. Where your treasure is there will be your heart . . . you will be devoted . . . you will gaze longingly on it . . . and the eye is the lamp of your body – so if your eye is set on things that will decay, then so will your heart – your Life, your existence. you cannot serve two masters – you will hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other
For the first thousand years of the life of the Church, the church new this – they had a strong word for distraction – they called it ‘fornication’ – it was to have as it were those adulterous eyes that look for life anywhere but to the Life giver. Eyes set anywhere but on God – looking, Seeing, but not Beholding.
There is the lovely story of a man sat in a church – same time each week he would turn up – finally the Vicar asked what he was doing sitting there. The man gave him a beatific smile – Oh, I just sit here smiling at God and he smiles back at me . .
The Psalmist speaks of this beholding – ‘For God alone my soul in silence waits – for my hope comes from him’
A brother came for a word from the Elder. Father, give me a Word/ Love the Lord your God with al your heart and soul and mind and strength’, The brother went form his teacher. Ten years later he returned, ‘Father, I have learned that word. Give me another Word. the Elder replied ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ The young man went out from him never to return. Such I suggest is the deep work which beholding God in Silence does. This Lent, if we have begun this work, let us continue. If we have put it down, let us pick it up again. If we have not yet picked it up, do so. for truly ‘Behold! He has engraved us in the palm of his hand’ This is not one fact amongst many – it is THE Fact – It is Life – it s The living God – it is We who are found there in His hand. It is there that our True Life is to be known
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do
When I was leaving the Vicar factory – I had to meet up with the man who was to be my training Vicar to consider my curacy. Whilst I was in his kitchen his teenage daughter strode in and said ‘Absolutely Ridiculous!! At youth group tonight, they said ‘being angry with someone is like murdering them.’ This was my first encounter with Naomi – and you might say it was her first encounter with the words of Jesus. . .
Jesus is the one who calls Lazarus from the grave – out of the darkness and into the blinding light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And like those mornings when someone bright and full of good cheer strides into the bedroom and flings open the curtains to let the Sun in, we want to get back under the covers and hide. The words of Jesus are like that freezing cold shower that reminds us we really do have a body – a wake up to reality call . . . and how we need it – perhaps moreso than any generation, we have surrounded ourselves with layers of unreality, almost entirely cut off from the Truth about the World and our existence. We are Unaware . . .
Technology is of course one of those ways in which we have become unaware. We place something between ourselves and the world around us – the more complex the technology, the wider the gulf between our lives and the Reality we inhabit. Just a couple of weeks ago there was a fascinating story about the English Rugby team and a problem with technology.
They employ a coach for nearly everything so it seems and their ‘Vision and Sight coach’, a South African woman – had a bucket of cold water for them – ‘you need to get off your smart phones – your ball handling skills and Awareness of where other players have eroded in the last five years as you have started to use them all the time’ The water was even colder for England than for most rugby teams because they are sponsored by the UKs largest Telecommunications provider . . .
Smart phones have two effects – they get us even further out of our bodies, so we get less used to using them, our eyes barely move at all when using them – as if we weren’t disabled enough already – and they lessen our awareness of what is happening around us. We see this all the time – people not noticing their surroundings as the screen captures their consciousness.
And what is more these affects are cumulative and may possibly be irreversible. We are losing our awareness of our surroundings, and for we Moderns that only compounds our disconnection from our existence. We grow nothing we eat, we make nothing we use, we largely live in urban environments, totally man made, live surrounded by human artefacts – and within these environs we live in what historically speaking is total isolation from one another. Cocooned in the convenience and comfort of our illusory existence, when reality does break in, we are ill equipped to deal with it.
So my Vicar’s daughter was being thoroughly modern as Jesus through his Word crashed into her life. ‘If you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement – indeed the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is the most profound assault on our sense, the Full Light of Day, when we thought we were awake, we realise that we must have been asleep. Blessed are the Who? The Meek shall inherit the Earth???!!! Blessed are those who mourn????
And so it goes on. I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire . . . Wake up!! Says Jesus
And it is such a shattering awakening that, with the disciples when the rich man turns away from Jesus, we are left asking ‘Whom then can be saved?’
Over the last few months from time to time we’ve been pondering the reality of the Eucharist – this Act of Worship – that one might say is like a river of Fire flowing from Heaven to Earth, transforming, purging, transfiguring our Existence. Do we begin to See?? Do we begin to Know what it is we share in Sunday by Sunday?
Jesus wakes us up to the Reality of fractured lives – and then urges us to live in the light of it – if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So [in the light of reality] when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
There is an urgency to Jesus’ counsel. Come to terms and Quickly . . . This stuff is Life and Death – don’t treat it lightly. ‘You are caught up in something which you barely perceive yet which has eternal consequence . . .’
Sometimes as Anglicans I wonder if we are as poorly equipped to handle this Reality as any other Christians. We have this treasure of the Eucharist which is central to our worship – but there is something deep in our Anglican DNA which is about coming to be here to ‘do our own private business with God’ Many of us baulked when the Peace was introduced into our Worship – but if we do not come reconciled one to another, as far as that lies with us, how can we approach the table?
It is not that the Eucharist is a symbol of our life together – that the REAL thing is the meals we share etc. etc. Rather the other way round that the life we do or do not share together is a sign pointing to the reality or otherwise to us of the Eucharist. How can we approach the table?? For there is but One Bread and One cup – so we must come ‘as one body’ (And of course this was at the heart of Paul’s concerns with the Corinthian Church which explicitly was divided – one following Paul, another Apollos etc.)
But this is why we have our liturgy – In part we might answer this question ‘how CAN we approach the table?? How Can we be saved??’ with regard to our confession – those ‘sins of ignorance’ .
Our lack of awareness means that we commit many many sins of ignorance . . . as I have said before we have little or no sense of the impact of our lives upon others. Spider photo 🙂
Some months ago I was brought to my knees by the realisation that as a Modern Western person, I had used my fair share of the world’s resources by the time I was 20 . . . and now I am well on my way to my third time through.
We HAVE sinned in ignorance . . . like God’s ancient people, the Jews we make provision for this in our liturgy – they through the sacrificial system, as Job the most righteous man who ever lived made sacrifice for the possible sins his children had committed – so we ask for mercy and forgiveness for those sins which through our blindness we have committed
I turned 55 this week and I think that puts me in that most widely despised category, an old white man – and as such I am responsible for the sins of the whole world. Yet I should not complain – from of old we have been told that in some sense we are all responsible. Jesus does not take just some sin upon himself but that of the whole world, and takes it to the cross. If we are to be found in Christ, where shall we stand so that we might say ‘well at least I am not guilty in this or that respect? Stand apart – in judgement of others. As Jesus parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee humorously helps us to see – ‘Well at least I’m not like that Pharisee!!’ To stand apart in the muck and the mess of human existence is to find ourselves separated from Jesus who was the Meek and the mourning and the lowly and the humble – who emptied himself.
‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’
When we wake up to this reality we realise that in human terms our case is hopeless. And we have one of two options we either give in to despair – and much of contemporary culture it seems has given in in different ways to such nihilistic despair — or, in faith, we cry out Lord have mercy. In Faith
We cry out Lord have mercy in faith – for we realise our fragility, but more we realise that we cry out to the one who from the Cross cries out – Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
The freshness of the Cold Water – shocking to our bodies is the Reviving of our hearts and souls, it is The Water of Life. The Brightness of the Son, searing our eyes, conveys the Deepest Warmth, the Passionate Love of God for his children, the objects of his Sheer mercy
Blessed are the WHO?? (This sermon is given in a very different form to that written below)
“There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”
I wonder if anyone can tell me who said that??
Well it comes from the lips of one of the characters of the more interesting philosophers of our age, JK Rowling . . . Lord Voldemort . . .
And I think it sums up in practice if not always in explicit theory the prevailing philosophy of our day, indeed of any age. Our hopes are either raised or dashed by the people, we the people put in power . . . Let’s be honest about this, we are not particularly interested in the moral character of our leaders, rather we just want them to ‘get the job done’ (as long of course it is the job WE want them to get done.) Given the choice over the effective brute and the ineffective Saint . . .
It’s interesting in this light to consider a couple of things – firstly why we make the choices we do for those who lead nations, where we have a choice – and democratic processes . . . well enough said about that. The Scriptures are really NOT big on Kings, Emperors, Leaders in general – indeed the idea of The Leader is in a very large part something which grew out of the movies 🙂 . . . but we still look for the person who is going ‘to get the job done’
So again locally what do we really want in a new bishop??? What are we interested in when in a few months time we come to elect Bishop Kelvin’s successor? It’s one of the ironies about human life that the more closely we know people, often the more clearly we see their faults and so are tempted to go for someone we only know vaguely, but then again, as the old saying goes ‘better the devil you know . . . than the devil you don’t’ yet be under no illusions as to where your choice lies 🙂 Perhaps out there there is some bishop with a proven track record in restoring crumbling dioceses, they have a really impressive CV – come over really well in presentations – and they want to be our bishop . . . They ‘get the job done’, then there is someone else, not at all much to look at. Known to be kind, humble, meek, pure in heart, with an at times sad disposition about the world . . . but will they ‘get things done’?? What do we look for in a bishop? With whom do we agree? Which way? The way of Jesus? Or the way of power?
We might of course readily say, well the Way of Jesus of course, but after a few hours wrangling over it that old temptation to ‘get things done’ can rise to the surface . . . after all Jesus’ track record doesn’t exactly speak volumes does it – Yes he was a Good man, but at the end all his followers have given up on him and he’s dead on a Roman Cross . . . oh yes there were rumours that that wasn’t the end, but . . . we live in the Real World. The world of Realpolitik go ‘getting things done’
Of course that ‘realistic’ desire to ‘get things done can extend right to the heart of religion. If we just . . . pray hard enough, if we just worship in the right way, if we just get ourselves sorted out. The prophet Micah leads us off down this track pondering “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high??? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?’ Will that be enough to twist his arm?? How about something bigger??? ‘Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?’ Perhaps that doesn’t quite cut it – it’s really not all THAT sacrificial – hang on a minute ‘Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”’ The Religious world is just as prone to Power – Power over God to ‘get things done’ Ramping it up. If we get a thousand people praying for this . . . if we give more . . . if we . . . if we get the right bishop, the right leader . . . if only . . .
And God is having none of it ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?? but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? While the World calls for bigger and louder and more and more Impressive, more ‘powerful’ – the Human scaled response is all that God calls for – in our day to day lives, our daily bread existence, act justly with the people you meet, don’t seek to win out over them, be fair, Love Mercy – treat others as you yourself are, fragile and frail and like the grass of the fired that is here today and gone tomorrow, but a breath of wind . . . that’s all you are – so walk humbly with your God. Wake up to the scale of your existence – lose your illusions . . . for in that small thing you may find you are much closer to Him than you might think
As St Paul says ‘Jews demand Signs’ Show us a sign that we might believe win you they said – do something spectacular Jesus! ‘Greeks demand Wisdom – well worked arguments – a decent apologetic – explain your faith!’ and all we have is ‘Christ crucified’ . . . humanly speaking no power at all . . . I think it is probably fair to say that if no one has ever laughed at you for your faith, you haven’t really explained it to them properly 🙂 And then says Paul – just look at yourselves – Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. . . humanly speaking the church was never meant to look like much – funny how we get anxious as in the eyes of the world we become ‘irrelevant’, small, nondescript.
Blessed says Jesus, blessed are the nobodies . . . In Lent we’ll be looking at some of the ways our faith doesn’t make sense in The Modern world . . . not with any view to change it, mind you . . . there’s enough folk trying to do that, not enjoying the way in which the world ignores all this sin and salvation stuff, this message of the cross . . . but lets be honest, look at those Jesus says are blessed – no wonder we don’t get a ready hearing – Blessed are the WHO . . . Really?? The Meek shall inherit the Earth?? These words of Jesus are SO hard to hear in our culture of Power of ‘getting things done’, of the irrelevance of Good or Evil, just Get Results – as I have mentioned before these words of Jesus so stick in the throat of some Modern Christians that they try and avoid them – to paraphrase one popular writer, ‘God’s Kingdom is so wonderful that even the losers get in!!!’ But in so doing rejects not only Jesus’ words, but Jesus himself – the poor, mourning, meek one, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker finally persecuted and killed for righteousness sake.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he uses metaphors about things small and hidden – not obvious, not demanding our attention. In amongst all the people putting their money in the treasury, he picks out the widow putting in her mite, the woman who brushes her hand against the hem of his robe, the child in their midst. the lost coin, or the one sheep in a hundred or the mustard seed . . . ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. Jesus was low and despised, he was mocked, laughed at, spat upon and finally crucified – and we expect that our faith will seem respectable?? Wise? Significant??
It is hardly surprising that when St Paul goes to Corinth taking only this message of Christ and him crucified he goes ‘in weakness and in fear and in much trembling’. Trusting God to work through his Holy Spirit to bring people to faith – because sure as eggs is eggs, only God can bring us to faith in the One revealed to us in Jesus on the Cross, for He in no way tallies with the way we are taught to understand the world – Blessed are the WHO???
Finally we have a stark choice – the one the world holds before us, and of which Voldemort’s words are the unveiled truth, “There is no good and evil, there is only power . . .”, or the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus sounds to us so other worldly – after all how is THIS the way to get things done?? Pray by all means, but come on ‘we need to get things done!’ But if the words of Jesus sound otherworldly, perhaps it is because the world in which we live is so distorted??
For in the same way that God chose the weak and poor and the foolish – those ignored in the world, – those are the same people who receive his message so readily. The poor in Spirit, the mourners and the meek. Those with no power of themselves to save themselves find themselves to be the recipients of God’s salvation.
Occasionally people rise to power who effectively throw off the mask – who agree with Voldemort not only in deed but in word, but the way of the World is in practical agreement with him even if it has not the self understanding to admit it “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” As someone commented about Donald Trump this weak – ‘well at least you can’t accuse HIM of being a hypocrite’ WYSIWYG . . .
there are only two ways, the way of power and the small hidden weak poor foolish merciful and humble way of Jesus. Each of us Is small, our days are few and race by like the wind – let us not waste them – let us follow Jesus in his humiliation, for finally the way of Power will be revealed to be a Lie. This we believe – let us so live
“All the prophets testify about him, that everyone who believe in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” Acts 10:43
The Baptism of Jesus is a bit of a puzzle for us. The custom in many church’s on this Sunday – one which we have observed here in the past, is to use it to remind ourselves of our own baptism. Now that is a good thing to do, and of course in Catholic churches a small stoop of water is provided at the entrance to the church that you might take a little to remind yourself of Baptism before coming to participate in the Eucharist. But it we are not careful we do what we always have a tendency to do, to make this all about us. So we say the point of the Baptism is Jesus identifying with us – but that’s not strictly correct.
Jesus’ baptism is the Baptism of John and has a very clear meaning. It is the baptism of repentance of God’s people who are called to turn back to God in preparation for the coming of the Servant of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah. It is very much a Jewish rite – indeed it had a special meaning in that it was the rite of purification for those wanting to become Jews – for proselytise – that is those seeking to convert The Odd thing about the Baptism of John was that it was Jewish people who were coming to be baptised. As John told the Pharisees ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “we have Abraham as our Ancestor”’ Put another way, “don’t go relying on your Jewish heritage” God is looking for a response, that of Repentance for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.
But the baptism of Jesus was a bit of a puzzle for John also. He protests to Jesus “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” John who declares Jesus to be “The Lamb of God – who takes away the Sin of the world” doesn’t understand why Jesus has come for baptism. Clearly what is happening here is something to which we Gentiles are outsiders (a theme which Matthew comes back to later on in his gospel.)
Yet there is an identification going on here and a very significant one. Jesus replies to John’s amazement with the words “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” Such powerful words which we can discern even more clearly breaking it down phrase by phrase “Let it be . .” Like the words of Mary – there is here a submission to GOd’s good purposes – Let it be to me according to your word.
“Let it be so now!” In other words in the Baptism of Jesus we are witnessing a special Time – that which Jesus announces as ‘The Day of Salvation’ In this moment of human History, something Special is happening – “Let it be so now” – “for, it is proper for us” Note how Jesus draws John in into this moment. Remember a few weeks ago how we heard in Advent that passage from Matthew – and Jesus asks the crowds ‘What did you go out in the wilderness to look at?’ The one about whom it is written, ‘Behold! I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you’.
“Let it be so now! For, it is proper for us” Jesus is saying to his cousin, This is Our moment. From this point on John the forerunner withdraws, becoming less as Jesus comes to fill our vision – but now – it is proper for us in this way (that is through John Baptising Jesus). You John are going to play your Key part Today by baptising me – “to fulfil all righteousness.”
To fulfil – You don’t have to spend long in Matthew’s gospel before you hear what is a several times repeated word – ‘fulfilment’. We have already encountered it once, in our reading just before Christmas – where in Joseph’s dream – he is told by the angel ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means, God is with us’
All this was to fulfil . . . we’ll come back to this in a moment. Then Joseph takes the infant Jesus and Mary to Egypt – ’to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet – “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and then twice more – ‘to fulfil, to fulfil – before now – ‘this is proper to fulfil all righteousness’. Put another way, the other fulfilment seem to be coming to this point – “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”
Jesus doesn’t merely do things to fulfil God’s plans and purposes, He IS the fulfilment of those purposes. And this is revealed in this moment. The purposes of God for his people which he has been patiently working out through the history of Israel. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan – ‘suddenly the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending upon him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”
Throughout the Old Testament story of God’s people – over and over again through the prophets God refers to Israel as ‘My Son’ So the ‘the people of Judea and all Jerusalem and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by John in the Jordan.’ and finally – the fulfilment – The Son of God. The fulfilment of God’s purposes for His people – baptised and affirmed as God’s beloved Son . . . and the question is – ‘What happened next?’
If we are to fully understand the baptism of Jesus, we need to see it in its context and that it is ‘Jesus, who will save his people from their sins’ The context is of God’s people preparing themselves for His coming – They are with John, in the wilderness – they are on the far side of the Jordan – they are outside of the place of promise – and we do not know but we may assume that after their baptism they go home . . . except one . . . Jesus comes from Galilee – like all the rest he has to cross the Jordan to meet John – he has to leave the land of promise but he doesn’t re-enter . . .What happened next? He is sent out back into the wilderness. to save his people from their sins.
All three gospels which specifically mention the baptism of Jesus, next have Jesus’ being led, or as St Mark has it – driven out into the wilderness . . . what is going on here? If we see the baptism as it were a renewal of the story of going into the promised land, Jesus would go back across the Jordan, but no – he is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness . . .
As I said last week as we considered the name of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us, to save his people from their sins. The Name of Jesus, the one who Is the fulfilment of God’s desire to save his people from their sins, the name Jesus – Joshua – ‘The Lord Saves’. John Baptises Jesus to fulfil all righteousness and then he is led back away from the Land and back into the Wilderness. All the others crossed the Jordan, were baptised and went back in – Jesus ‘to fulfil all righteousness goes into the wilderness’
At the heart of God’s work to save his people from their sins was under the Old Covenant through The Day of Atonement – And on this most Holy Day in the Calendar of God’s people two goats were selected . . . one was offered as a sacrifice and its blood was spread on the atonement seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant. The other? The Priest laid hands on the Goat and placed the sin of the people on the goat and it was driven out into the wilderness. After the waters have washed away the sins of all the people from Jerusalem and Judea and along the Jordan – Jesus finally, the sinless one steps into those same waters – and the sins of all the people are laid on him by John who is of the priestly line of Abijah (‘My father is The LORD) — and he is driven out into the wilderness.
Now there is much more to all of this story – but remember ‘it is to fulfil ALL Righteousness’ In the Old Covenant – this was tied explicitly to the Day of Atonement. So Jesus is sent out as the Scapegoat – bearing the sins. It is interesting to note that at times of course the goat didn’t particularly want to disappear into the wilderness, and so to stop as it were a reinfection, it was thrown off a cliff . . . have you ever wonder why St Luke – after the baptism and the time in the wilderness notes that on his return to Nazareth – when he has declared the salvation of God in the synagogue – records ‘They got up drove him out of the town and led him to the brow of the hill . . .so that they might throw him off the cliff . . .’
Well as we know – this isn’t the whole story – for there is a second goat – the one whose blood is scattered on the mercy seat – the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant – for Jesus is the One who will fulfil ALL Righteousness – the entirety of the work of atonement foreshadowed in the Old Covenant – is to be found in Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins.
But this now does become about us – for in our baptism we are included in Jesus Baptism – so that all that was effected through him – the removal of Sin and its final destruction upon the cross – we are included in
St Paul sums this up wonderfully in his second letter to the Corinthians – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Every part of the Life of Jesus reveals who Jesus is – the one who will save us from our sins. He who IS the righteousness of God – who does what he is ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ – bears the Sin of the World, that we might become the righteousness of God. He is baptised and carries away our Sin so that when we are baptised we might know how righteousness. And so . . . when we are baptised we join with the crowds from all across Judea, and now indeed all across the world, an untold multitude – that we might go, not back to the wilderness, but forward into he land of God’s promise in and through Jesus. For ever praised.
(I am very grateful for an article by Alistair Roberts
which helped tremendously with this reading of Jesus baptism)
The feast of the naming and the circumcision of Jesus – 2017
‘And you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’
Why are we given the names we are? Usually nowadays for no better reason than these are names our parents like. But that is no bad reason – for our name always reminds us of our parentage – those through whom we have come into the world. The desire to change one’s name – to name oneself is not something we should encourage. For how would we name ourselves aright?
I know that for many years I struggled with my own name – I was named after an uncle who died in infancy and it seemed to me that everyone called ‘Eric’ was OLD. It was only in my later years when the French footballer Eric Cantona strode the stage of my beloved Leeds United that I began to think differently about my name. Latterly I have come to understand it as the most significant link to my parents, of blessed memory – they named me.
But in earlier days I began to wear it with a little more pride as I learnt it was an ancient Norse name given to Kings – most significantly Eric the Red, or Eric Bloodaxe 🙂 All of a sudden I had left the arena of old men in flat caps and had entered the stage of Norse Saga and myth 🙂 Of course, having the name Eric neither made me an axe wielding Viking, nor a great footballer . . . and one feels for those children named in a prophetic sense – Grace, Charity, or as many of the boys at the Catholic high school where I taught were named, Christian. It seemed to have the opposite effect!
Today in our gospel we hear how ‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’ Jesus is given his name in the prophetic sense – in response to the words of the angel to Mary and Joseph he is named Jesus.
The name Jesus was not all that unusual amongst Jewish boys of the time. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it would have been Jeshua – another form of the name Joshua, which literally means ‘The Lord Saves’. A name which linked Jesus to God’s actions in bringing his people into the promised land – a name with close associations with the prophetic tradition. Jesus is of course proceeded by John the Baptist, who is ‘the elijah who is to come’ Elijah – My God is The LORD! Elijah’s successor is Elisha – Literally ‘My God Saves!’ or God is Salvation! In other words Jesus as he is named is part of the long story of God’s people – and is circumcised on the eighth day as required by the Law of Moses.
And the name, given by the angels to Mary and Joseph means – ‘The LORD Saves’ for as the angel said to Joseph – ‘you shall name him Jesus, for he shall save His people from their sins’
Matthew links this announcement to the word spoken through Isaiah – ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means God is with us’ The name Jesus is given for he shall be with his people, to save them from their sins. He comes to be with His people, to save them from their sins.
When we ponder, or utter the name of Jesus, we are reminding ourselves of our need to be saved from our sins. Why does God send Jesus to identify with his people? That he might take their sin upon him and save them from it.
And it must be said, that this is an element of the Christmas story which in the carols excepted seems to be lost from the telling. Jesus comes to be with his people, yes,
To save them from their sins? . . . this element gets lost in the telling or has been of late.
A few months ago I was with someone who asked as it were to the wind, ‘what has happened to Sin and Salvation in this Church’ We had been sat through hours and hours of this and that or the other seemingly pressing matters at General Synod, but not one word about the heart of our Faith, or better the Reason for the coming of Jesus amongst us, to save his people from their sins. And the question was a good one. Why in this age has the centre of the Gospel of Jesus – the one who shall save his people from their sins – disappeared pretty much from view?
Well the reasons behind this are multifaceted – yet a not unimportant part of the reason is the collapse of Community in this day and age. When you are living in such proximity to others that you are aware that your life depends on them, and theirs on you, not just in extreme situations, but for day to day living – the breaking of relationship which is the fruit of sin is of utmost importance – Life or Death in some circumstances.
Yet, ‘Relationship’ has become such a light word in our culture – meaning less and less. Yesterday I was speaking with a young man, what we are calling a ‘millenial’ – he spoke of how ‘Trust’ was not part of the meaning of modern friendship. ‘Nowadays one knows that people are only friends until something more interesting comes along’ – a dynamic I have seen worked out countless times in the life of those children I know well. We have fewer and fewer strong connections – and thus less to break – or to use the language of our tradition, less obvious Sin.
My grandparents grew up in tightly knit societies where one knew ones place – and more, ones obligations to others, not least the poor. Held in place in this way, Sin was often a public matter. Now we live lives with no local consequences – our purchasing decisions don’t seem to affect anyone in our immediate circle. Our lives are lives of disengagement – lived out virtually – disconnected. Sin is alien to our consciousness . . .
And in this arena of nothing really mattering, not only Sin seems to disappear, but also Jesus himself. We have less time for him as Saviour, rather he becomes a wise teacher, in a Private spirituality – our faith no longer specifically about Him. For it is not only Sin and Salvation which has disappeared from the life of the Church, but ‘Jesus’ is now reduced to a rhetorical tool to justify this or that or the other agenda of our own. His words ‘no one comes to the Father except they come through me’ seems a strange throwback to that age in which Sin and Salvation were what it was all about.
Witness for example the very strange language of our confession from the 1928 prayer book (a watered down version of the 1662 whose name it bears) If we compare it with confessions from ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’ the language of Sin and Salvation are much more to the front. They are a cry for HELP! We are in big trouble – Sin threatens to overwhelm us! Save us! Jesus, Save us!!
And of course – this is the Prayer he LONGS to answer – for He Is the One Named Jesus – so named for he shall save his people from their sins. This is why He Came – that we might be reconciled to God in and through Him. It is of course the meaning of Confessing our Sins – it is the meaning of Our Baptism, It is the meaning of the Eucharist. All of which focus on Jesus – and Who he is – the one who shall save his people from their sins.
We are still in the season of Christmas – a season of 12 days in which amidst the feasting we meditate upon the Gift of Jesus to us. Let us take time to mediate upon the Name of Jesus – so named because he shall save his people from their sins.
You and I know each other by our names – let us in the same way Know Jesus.
Christmas presents – lots of excitement – but occasionally don’t deliver – the toy which needs batteries – which aren’t included – or the 1000 piece jigsaw, with one key piece missing -and it hasn’t fallen under the table =
The Christmas Sermon – perhaps less excitement 🙂
Of course all this talk of missing pieces – or the missing batteries might suggest that I’d be asking ‘What is missing to make your christmas complete – or rather whom??’ But I’m not . . . it would be most misleading to say that we need Jesus to make our Christmas complete – for Jesus isn’t part of Christmas . . .
Because it’s the summer – many of us will be heading away for a break and now more than ever holidays are about the accumulation of ‘experiences’ – perhaps bungie jumping?
Or walking the Routeburn?
Or visiting a vineyard? Or sky diving?
But there is one experience which everyone here has in common – can anyone guess what it is??
Actually this experience is common to everyone who has ever lived and who ever will live . . . and none of us can remember it – it is the experience of being born!
When you and I were born we came into a world of which we have no sense of ownership – we don’t even begin to have the language to say – ‘this is my world’ – although ‘Mine’ is a word most of us pick up in our very early days . . . yet how easily we say that ‘Jesus is born into ‘our’ world’ . . . where do we learn this way of speaking about things? That the message of Christmas is that God has come to us to be with us in ‘our world’ as if God was somewhere else? – perhaps lived in a different world – like a long lost relative visiting from the other side of the world . . .???
How often do we hear – ‘God in Jesus is born into our world’ . . . without thinking for a moment about it.
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ‘. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’.
Jesus came into our world? The babe of Bethelehem is born into that which he has himself created . . . He prepared a world to be born into!
Jesus’ birth is unique in that He alone is born into the World which he knows as his own – the world which cannot be known apart from Him – a world which makes no sense apart from knowing Him
St John picks this up – he says ‘although the world was made through him, the world knew him not . . .’ speaking through the prophet Isaiah God says ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ The rest of Creation knows its Maker . . . this is where the idea of the ox and the ass at the cradle of Jesus comes from, THEY recognize their maker . . . yet ‘He came to his own and his own knew him not . . .’
YET . . . Yet to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
The message of Christmas is that by and large we have got Christmas inside out – it is not that God is on the outside of our world and is born into it – rather that he is at the heart of it and comes to us who are on the outside – cut off from his life and promises that we might be born again, born into His Life, to know the world as it really is.
‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness’ In so far as we might understand Christmas as Jesus coming to us – it is like the master of the house opening the door – filling our darkness with light and inviting us in to that Light and Life
It is not that Jesus comes to us as a present, but as an invitation
Jesus has not come to join in with Our Christmas, to share in our lives – he has come that we might share in his . . .
And so we come to his house – to participate in his life in Word and Sacrament, in Bread and Wine
2 Sermons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Ss Joseph and Mary
‘Male and Female he created them’
St Joseph and the Fatherhood of God
One of the great difficulties for us as Christians, especially in our day and age, is that we are completely unaware of the great biases we have. The logs in our eyes. Believing that we ‘know everything’, we are even more profoundly disabled by our ignorance. Like a stubborn older person who won’t use a walking stick ‘because people will think I am old . . .’ our pride leads us into terrible problems – not least when it comes to Knowing our faith as it has been passed down to us.
‘We know better nowadays’ is the mindless mantra drilled into us from our first encounter with what is falsely called ‘knowledge’. That the generation which knows so much is watching as the creation collapses around us, whilst simultaneously checking out pictures of cats on Facebook, betrays our deep ignorance of anything in the Real world. Hence the significance of The Tradition which Roots us in Christ and the Church and thus, anchored in Reality.
Our faith is Traditioned, it is handed down to us – we are given sight and understanding through the Grace of God by His Spirit, and don’t make it up for ourselves. And sight and understanding are embodied in a language. Christians when we are speaking truthfully speak differently to those amongst whom we live.
But, like anyone living in a strange land – we are tempted to try and fit in – we are too easily embarrassed by the things that make us seem odd, which make us stick out. The dominant culture shames us more or less subtly for our foolishness in thinking and speaking in such and such a way, not least when it comes to how we address God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for ever praised. Indeed our own NZ prayer book, seeking to fit in and hiding shamefully behind the fig leaves of cultural relevance, invites us to name God for ourselves. the Power to name is the power to define – our Gift is to name all that which God has set under us, to seek to name God is no less than to make ourselves God.
The final Sunday in Advent is traditionally the Sunday when we as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the fullness of the Incarnation in the birth of Jesus, and consider the Mother, Mary the one who is the God bearer – the one who holds the One who is uncontainable. However, we are in Year A, the first year of the three year cycle of our readings and so our gospel reading comes from Matthew. Matthew directs us in passing to the Unique circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy ‘When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’, Yet Matthew is more concerned to draw our attention to the forgotten figure in the drama of the birth of Jesus, the male . . . St Joseph. St Joseph, the male who is not the Father
Every year around the world in Western Churches two difficult questions are asked in preparation for Christmas – the first is ‘whose turn is it to play Mary in the Nativity??’ , this is difficult for there is never a shortage of willing girls to take this most prized role, and we MUST make sure that every girl gets a go! The second question is less politically tricky, more the sort of question we all too often face in the church, ‘who can we get to . . .’, in this case ‘who can we persuade – challenge – bribe – or if it comes down to it, Force to be Joseph?’
Finding volunteers to be Kings – or even shepherds? No problem! Good strong male characters, but Joseph? Everyone knows that Joseph is just a bit part in the story – he just has to tag along and look after the main player. All the photos afterwards are with the mother – babe in arms. For frankly who would want to be Joseph – indeed Joseph himself in all likelihood wasn’t terribly struck by the idea. Upon realising that his betrothed is inexplicably with child, his first response, ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,’ was to resolve to ‘dismiss her quietly.’ Let us not suppose darker motives – for Matthew tells us Joseph is a ‘righteous man’ – such a description is not to be taken lightly. What might be in view here is simply to quietly and privately ‘write her a certificate of divorce’ – rather than go to public trial over the matter, and thus ‘expose’ her, for he is a good man. The Woman is not to be exposed.
Whatever, he is in a very difficult situation – but perhaps that is nothing compared to a deeper matter – that he is not the father. He is a little more than an extra – having no agency. like the unwilling boy in the nativity, told where to stand – Joseph is told by the angel what he must do – a passive player in the drama of the birth of Christ.
The theologian Karl Barth puts it like this ‘“Born of the Virgin Mary” . . .from the human standpoint the male is excluded here. The male has nothing to do with this birth. What is involved here is, if you like a divine act of judgement. To what is beginning here man is to contribute nothing by his action and initiative. It is not that humanity is simply excluded, for the Virgin is there. But the male, as the specific agent of human action and history, must now retire into the background, as the powerless figure of Joseph’
Removing the male from the action when God sets about his most profound work, is a common theme in Scriptures First Adam is asleep as Eve,’the mother of al the living’ is created, then Abraham is asleep as God pronounces his covenant, and I could go on – Joseph of course only gets his orders, whilst he is asleep, only the men see visions and dream dreams – when God speaks to them they are asleep – Joseph is told, there is no conversation, his agency is purely to do as he is told. And again as he must take the infant Jesus to Egypt, the instruction comes not whilst he is at work, but whilst he is asleep . . .
Perhaps it is no surprise that little boys aren’t eagerly queuing up for this nativity play role. But I suggest that both the feminine eagerness and the masculine lack thereof both point us to something deeper. As I said we shall contemplate Mary this evening – but Joseph . . .
You see, the issue is quite plain at one level, he is not the father. Joseph is not the father – he must bring one up as a father but without being the Father – The Father.
As I’ve already mentioned – our modern western culture finds the name of God as traditioned – as handed down – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – embarrassing. A throwback to ‘a patriarchal and therefore oppressive way of seeing gate world from which we have now been liberated’. But this is a profound and tragic error on several levels.
Jesus as we know refers to God as his ‘Father’ – he teaches his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’. Of course if one was of such a will one could dismiss this under the ‘patriarchal’ argument – except for this. Jesus teaches us ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’
Put another way – you cannot define God by your earthly understanding of ‘father’ – to be ‘Father’ is something that can only be known in reference to God.
God in moving Joseph to one side reveals the utter inadequacy of the human male as a reference point for fatherhood. If we are to know what Father means, we must look to God, only in Knowing God, do we Know the Father.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
I had been a Christian for some time before I began to notice how I addressed God. In prayer and in my daily life I found myself crying out ‘Father’ – a spontaneous habit which only seemed to recede in those darker periods when I found myself rebelling against his Love. To Know Him is to Know The Father
Those sad cases one sometimes comes across in which a man (usually) says he cannot relate to God as Father because of his poor relationship with his own father only further highlights the essential point – that we cannot understand the Fatherhood of God from a human point of view. They are pointing right at the Fatherhood of God, for As one writer puts it ‘a strange discovery awaits every human being; the fact that a man does not possess the paternal instinct in the same was as a woman possesses the maternal instinct – there is nothing immediate in a man’s nature that corresponds directly to the principal of fatherhood’ for you have one Father, the One in heaven.’
Woman and the Salvation of the World
This morning we considered Joseph – so in the interests of equality it is only reasonable that tonight we consider Mary. I say ‘equality’, but it is notable that neither the Scriptures nor the Tradition treat Mary and Joseph as if they were equal . . . and as I said this morning we are wired by our culture to read texts in a certain way. If I say that ‘the Scriptures do not treat Mary and Joseph as equals’, then if we did not know any better we might fall into a lazy and easy assumption that Joseph as the man is held in far higher regard in ‘these patriarchal and outdated Scriptures’ than the ‘mere woman’ Mary, except of course, we know that is not so. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.
Joseph is that oxymoron – a ‘passive actor’, more fully a passive male – in the drama of the birth of Jesus. The birth of God into the World does not include Joseph – He does not speak a word. He is told what to do whilst he is asleep – in a dream. It is worth asking whether, because we live in a society which is profoundly masculinised, we fall too readily for the suggestion that the male is central to the Scriptural account and so fail to See, and be amazed by how marginal the male is in this narrative of the birth of Jesus.
Indeed as we explored this morning, do we miss the force of Jesus’ words ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ That is, there is no earthly referent with regard to Father? When God reveals himself as Father, actually we are told not to try and interpret Father with reference to the male human?? The man Joseph gives us no clue to the meaning of ‘Father’, the Name Father by which the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God. We Know God as Father, but that is a profound divine mystery for He is in heaven and there is not earthly example – not even St Joseph.
How different to Mary! This morning we contrasted what happened at nativities. Children as I so often say get it – they are in spiritual terms ‘thin places’ that is they are Open. In some respect this is MOST hazardous – children in this age as much as any other are exposed to many and terrible things – they are utterly open and we are utterly careless. We are all about protecting children, for they are utterly vulnerable and, in the next breath in the name of ‘education’ we put devices in their hands which which are doorways for much that they are not able to comprehend or worse which can literally destroy their souls – to Know everything – Good and Evil. Yet, at the same time, whilst there are still children in the Church, by grace they come to know God in Jesus, and Mary his mother.
How interesting it is that whilst boys are often grudging to play Joseph . . . Kings, YES! Shepherds . . .OK, but Joseph? Girls queue up to ‘be Mary’. The paternal instinct is absent from the male – it is not instinctual – but the maternal is instinctive within the female. They instinctively want to pick up the doll. They Know. Watching our own girls growing up – Sarah and I have so many photos of them ‘holding the baby’ Whereas the male is the one who is only awkwardly ‘left holding the baby’
And that maternal instinct finds its correlative in the role of women in the faith who faithfully pass on Life in the Tradition. It is interesting to note that in the latter part of the C19 in Russia, some of the saints of the Church gave themselves unstintingly to instructing women in the faith. When the Church then endured the horrific suffering under Communism, as we all know it was the women who bore the faith, who carried it within them and transmitted it. What after all is it to become a Christian than to be ‘Born Again’ . . . the question of Nicodemus at this assertion not perhaps without some weight . . .
It is an observable principal that whilst the male teaches the dogma of the faith, it is the woman who passes on the Essence of The Faith, its Being, The Mystery of Faith – in a far deeper instinctual way – the way of Mystery. At my daughter Rose’s wedding I made reference to those who were missing – including Sarah’s mother who kept faith alive in her family and passed it to her daughter, and then through her mother, Rose and indeed all of our children. Life passes through the female. The female is the life giver – so, rather than equality – compared with Joseph and indeed Any other Saint, The Church has exalted Mary – calling her ‘Theotokos’ – literally the one who bears God. The frail finite encompassing the consuming Fire of the ‘infinite’. Frail human flesh bearing the One who is a consuming Fire . . . Our God, incomprehensibly contracted to a span within a Woman.
In front of you you have two icons of Mary, The upper one is called ‘the Hodighitria’ – Mary points us to Jesus, she posts us to the Way, and Christ blesses his mother – As the Father speaks from Heaven ‘This is my Son, the beloved, Listen to Him, so Mary also directs us to her Son. At the wedding of Cana, ‘Mary said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’’ This icon is so significant that mariners of Old would place it in the bow of the boat The Virgin Mother pointing us to Jesus, ‘the Way’. Within her occurs the incarnation – the weaving together of heaven and earth – thus as as heaven is woven into Earth, so Jesus is The Way in toto.
Yet – Supremely it is Mary’s assent to the Will of the Father which is the gate of Salvation for all of humanity – for all of those, as Jesus calls us ‘born of woman’. Her assent becomes the human vehicle for the Life of God to enter into the World Incarnate – In flesh – and again when Jesus ascends to the Father who sends the Spirit – there on the day of Pentecost, St Luke names 1 woman present amongst the apostles – Mary the Mother of Jesus. (See the lower icon)
As Eve is named for she was ‘mother of all the living’, so Mary is the Eve of the New Creation – it is her ‘Yes’ which is the doorway for the life of God into the world, the Spirit of Jesus, that we might be born again. It is perhaps not going to far as some assent, that Mary is The Church – for the Church is the body of Christ – she is the one who within herself holds that body – she is the one who gives of her flesh that God might be born into the world. So in the second Icon as is customary we see Mary seated in the centre of the Church, our Mother.
Now it may have become apparent that I have been weaving together the story of Mary with that of Women in the Church, perhaps a note that we have lost. As The Church has forgotten the way in which the story of Joseph (and indeed many other men in the Scriptures who have to be asleep for God to work) puts the male out of the picture – so there has been in the Western tradition of the Church an approach to Mary which has divorced her from Womankind, and allowed the dominance of the male – to the point where as many say ‘it is a man’s world’. Neither Joseph not Mary conform to the way we are told the world is – which is a Sign to us that we are failing to See the World as it truly is – as God created it to be.
Deep in the story of Creation we come upon the story of the Fall. Why should the Serpent tempt Eve? Of course, if we wear the glasses modern thought has put upon us we would say ‘well here is an example of a Patriarchal text! The woman is being portrayed as weak, so Satan goes for the weak point’ This however is not how the Deep tradition of the Church reads it at all! No! The Woman is Receptive – that is at once her profound Strength and also the Potential of weakness. Of Glory, or of Shame. As the Ancient story of Achilles tells us, the weak point is always found in regard to the Strength.
Rather the Woman in the Story is portrayed as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. God’s Creative act culminates as he puts the man to sleep that he might do his most mysterious work – this is a Hidden thing. It is something which we can only begin to know in the Church in the Body of Christ. It cannot be known from outside of faith. The Serpent takes on Eve precisely because he knows that She as Woman is the source of Life for the human – both physical and spiritual. If he can deceive her, then all of humanity is lost. Eve receives the apple – she takes it into herself, and so the knowledge of Evil enters the world. How might this be redeemed, by the Woman taking Good, The Good into herself, in her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ Mary receives the Word of God into her being for the Salvation of the World. As Karl Barth put it, ‘here the Woman stands absolutely in the foreground.’ Yet this is hidden – it is a veiled truth for it is the stuff of mystery, the essence of Life and the feminine.
JRR Tolkien, a man versed in the deep myths and of course the Tradition expressed this well in the person of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings – she ruled Lothlorien with her husband Celeborn, and she is the one who gives to Frodo the Light which busts forth in the Evil darkness of Shelob’s lair. Frodo, the male, hesitates before her Mystery and offers the Ring to her, the Ring of Power. “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.
But she survives the test – the Ring is a thing of Evil and she will not receive it – lest the Old Magic be undone – and then ‘for all shall love me and despair’
This Truth is veiled. It is in the secret places that Jesus is woven together – it is the hiddenness of the humility of Mary that God comes into the world. It is only with the eye of faith that this young Jewish girl might be known as the Queen of heaven, it is not now public fact – the one who’s yes to God was for the Salvation of the World. And it is this profound mystery which is at the heart of the Eucharist – for because Mary received Life in and through her Yes to God, so the One born to her feeds us with His Very Life in the Eucharist.
We are in Advent – waiting for the bread of Heaven – which comes to us through Mary’s echoing the divine Yes – she is the one who calls Jesus to his Passion – ‘When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’’
In her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb comes into being.