Sermon for Christmas 1 – Year A – Keeping Christmas

Sermon for Sunday December 29th – First of Christmas – Year A

Matthew 2:13-23

‘Keeping Christmas’


Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
then in the grave at last reposing;
sing lullaby!

I wonder how we kept Advent? In what way did we make of Advent a time of preparation for this season of Christmas? How are whatever means we used affecting the nature of Christmas for us this year?

A lot of questions to start with, but note the last one – How are whatever means we used to keep Advent affecting the nature of Christmas for us this year? How is Christmas different because of our preparations? How Is it? For we are of course only a few days into the twelve days of the Feast of Christmas. And being only a few days in, we may well ask, How are we keeping the season of Christmas? What practices are we building into our days to keep our attention on the Word made Flesh?

Of course it almost goes without saying that we live in a culture where it is far from easy to Keep Christmas. As I saw someone in the church say – ‘Christmas trees are very odd here, for come Boxing Day we throw them on the fire and set off on our summer holidays’. The Christmas of out imaginings doesn’t seem to work here in the Southern hemisphere . . . but then the Christmas of our imaginings is by and large a thing of myth, a powerful and controlling myth and Here in New Zealand we might say, ‘A northern hemisphere myth’. Rooted in ancient pagan practices based around midwinter festivals which the church transformed to announce the birth of Jesus – we sing of Holly and Ivy, and ‘Snow on Snow’, we put up fir trees, which are all that grow in cold Northern climes at this time of year . . . It is all too easy to make our own Kiwi Christmas – except it too would no doubt be a thing of myth, and little to do with the birth of Jesus.

I have to say I rapidly tire of those well meant but trite comments seen on FB and elsewhere, ‘don’t forget, Jesus is the reason for the season’. It falls into the category of ‘don’t forget to say thank you for the gift of electricity when you sit down to your dinner’. I’d like to make the perhaps painful suggestion, that as Christians, our Keeping of Christmas, is not much better than that of those around us to whom the name of Jesus is at best incidental to ‘the holidays’. And that our inattentiveness to Jesus is in no small part because of how peripheral the church has become in our own lives.

Let’s just come back to my opening barrage of questions? How did we keep Advent? In what way was Advent for us a time of preparing a space in the depths of our being wherein Christ might find a home? Where had our focus been those few weeks, outward on the ‘many things’ which pressed in on us as we sought to get what we think of as Christmas together? Or was it inward? Did we take the opportunity the church gives us in the season of Advent to preapre our Selves for the coming of Christ? Did we go to work on our habits of Attentiveness to him? Spending time in prayer, asking him to show us how our hearts needed to be changed that we might be fit vessels for the Holy Spirit?
A good test of the quality of our preaprations in this regard would be ‘what difference did you notice in your heart on Christmas day?’ Was there a different quality to the Joy, or the Peace that that celebration brought? The Church gave us Four Sundays with this one focus – preparing to meet Christ? What did his coming reveal in us of our preparations? And now we are in the season of Christmas – how are we keeping that? How Do we keep Christmas?

There are a couple of suggestions I’d like to make as to how we might do this – how we might train our hearts and minds in Attentiveness, that like Mary our Parent in faith, we might ponder and treasure these things in our hearts.

Firstly, play carols around the house! There is no doubt that the deep tradition and faith of our traditional carols work a deep magic when it comes to learning our faith better. Now you may note I said ‘Traditional’ carols. Not modern ones 🙂 And there are two reasons for this. We live in a culture, which is particularly sharpened here in New Zealand, which is continually seeking the new, the novel, and to use a word which should always be treated with healthy scpeticism, The Relevant 🙂 This focus diminishes the value of our roots.

As we demonstrated in Advent through the JEsse tree – we are people whose faith comes to us from the past. Part of the sickness of our age is that we fail to see that we are midgets stood on the shoulders of giants – we tend to see things the other way round, and our lack of appreciation for History and Tradition bears this out. So as to carols . . . are they a hundred years old?? They haven’t stood any tests, they are not deep rooted, they may have sprung up with joy – but will they survive the heat of day? – leave them be – go to that which is tried down through many years.

The second reason for going to the older carols is that they are the ones which speak in the fullest terms of the significance of the birth of Jesus. Over and over they speak of the one born to die. Of late I have been studying contemporary carols, from here in New Zealand and from further afield, and almost without exception they do not speak of the suffering and death which lies ahead of the infant King. That this is The reason He is born into the world. They speak all too readily of Emanuel, GOd with us, not recognising anywhere in their lyrics that this is a word of judgement – that the coming of God into the world is at once his Saving act of Judgement and Mercy. Christmas carols which miss this have not been rooted in the preparation of Advent. They see Christmas as separate, not the culmination of the time of preparing. And they are not Carols which are rooted in the Christmas season.

If we would Keep Christmas then the Church’s calendar gives us Profound and RICH resources to keep us from those myths of Christmas which are not profoundly inculcated with the significance of the birth of Jesus. Firstly, and here it would help if we might speak Christianly, Christmas day is Not followed by Boxing Day, but by The Feast of St Stephen. Of course Old Carols help us here to keep this in mind 🙂 Immediately we see how deeply a mythical Christmas has intruded into our consciousness. How Jarring it is to awake on the day after Christmas Day to read of the death of the church’s first martyr! Like Marley’s ghost it is an unwanted intruder. Yet the Church in her wisdom would have us meditate upon that on December 26th.
Then of course a day which is of Huge significance to us here, December 27th, our Patronal Festival! The Church Keeps our Attention upon Christ in calling us to meditate upon the one who lay upon his breast at the last supper, the beloved disciple who in many ways IS the Church founded at the Cross where Jesus gives John, His Mother. In my household like I am sure in most if not all others, there are no unopened presents under the tree, but there are SO many unopened presents which the Church would give us from her treaure trove of deep tradition. I was recently preaching at St Nicholas, Waverley, asking them to take time to address Nicholas in prayer, seeking his intercessions before the throne of Grace. I wonder if we also have some unopened treasure of Grace?

And Then we come to todays gospel reading, another fundamental tradition of the Church, Helping us to Keep Christmas, not the mythic fake which consumes us.  For hot on the heels of St Stephen and St John, on December 28th the church remembers the slaying of the children by Herod in his Wrath. The Feast of the Holy Innocents. Here just a few days into the season we hear the dramatic words of Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Keeping Christmas holds this before our face. The birth of Jesus, sees the eruption of evil into the world, it has always been there smouldering under the surface content to remain quiet when the myths of Christmas do its work for it, But where the light that gives LIFE to all comes into the world, Darkness strives with all its might to extinguish it. In the profound depth of the winter of the human soul, gripped by fear the desperation of our human plight is laid bare. Our deepest need, for One who will save us from our sins.

I’ve spoken throughout of the ‘Myth’ of christmas – Myth is capitalised and in inverted commas – christmas is in lower case. Every year I see example after example of how still the darkness fights against the Salvation that Christ has wrought for us, put another way I see evidence that we as Christians need to live far more deeply into The Myth – THe Story of Christmas. For the dark distortion of Christmas continues to try and undo the work of the Cross. I see it in carolsl which expunge the Cross, and I see it in encounter after encounter with people, where a sense of unreality sets in. I think for example of a man who would spend Christmas day alone, although he had family locally, for he was very ill and felt intrusive if he asked to be collected for the day ‘I don’t want to spoil their Christmas’. Such a Christmas, a sentimentalised ‘time for families’ is a powerful Myth which needs shattering, that those for whom Christ comes, the lost and the lonely, the poor and the sinners might know his salvation. The Church by its insistence on keeping infront of us the harsh realities of Witnessing to Christ exemplified in The Feast of Stephenm by reminding us that the Darkness does not comprehend the Light, through our own St John the Evangelist, and that fear still rules the hearts of those in authority at the coming of Christ with catastrophic effect, in the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, The Church will not have us rest easy in the ‘Myth’ of Christmas.

our forebears who were all poorer, whose lifes were usually of far greater suffering than many of us will ever know, knew this. They wrote Carols about the significance of the one who was coming into the world, of the final conflict upon the Cross of the babe of Bethlehem – and through observance of the 12 days of Christmas, of Saints and martyrs and evangelists Kept Christmas Wholly.

At the outset I asked how our obsevation of Advent had impacted upon our clebration of Christmas – may our Keeping a Holy Christmas – meditating in our hearts upon all that happens in and around the birth of Christ – transform our lives in the weeks and months that by the grace of God lie ahead of us. Christ is Born to die for us. Alleluia! Amen

The Feast of St Stephen

Reading for Vigils


Yesterday, my dear brothers and sisters, we celebrated the birth in time of our timeless King; today we celebrate the triumphant sufferings of a soldier. Yesterday our King, clothed in a robe of flesh, came forth from a virginal womb and deigned to visit this earth; today a soldier, leaving the tabernacle of the body, departs as a conqueror for heaven.

Our King, though supreme amongst kings, came to us in lowly estate; nevertheless, he would not come empty-handed. He brought a great largesse for his soldiers, not only to enrich them but to strengthen them to fight without being overcome: he brought the gift of love that leads people to union with God. It was the same love, then, that brought Christ to earth and raised Stephen to heaven.

In earning the crown which his name signifies, Stephen had love for his armour and it won the victory for him. For love made him pray for his neighbours to win forgiveness for them.

Through love he resisted Saul’s cruel persecution and won his earthly persecutor for a heavenly companion. What he could not accomplish by argument, he accomplished by prayer; and love inspired both. With Stephen, Paul now rejoices in the light of Christ, with Stephen he rules. Stephen went before, wounded with stones that Paul threw; Paul followed after, aided by Stephen’s prayers.

Love, then, is the source of all blessings. It is our greatest protection and our road to heaven. Those who walk in love cannot go astray or be overwhelmed by fear. For love directs, probes, and guides.

Christ ahs set up a ladder of love, and every Christian can climb to heaven on it. Hold on to love, then, brothers and sisters; show it to one another; advance and ascend to heaven by it.


‘Love as a weapon of warfare’, from the sermons of St Fulgentius of Ruspe.

On the Feast of the Nativity

Reading for Vigils upon the Feast of the Nativity

‘Beloved borthers and sisters: Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us Rejoice!

It would be unlawful to be sad today, for today is Life’s birthday, the birthday of that Life which, for us mortal creatures, takes away the sting of death and brings the bright promise of an eternal hereafter. It would be unlawful for anyone to refuse sharing in our rejoicing. All have an equal part in the great reason why we are joyful, for our Lord, who is the destroyer of sin and death, finding that all are bound under condemnation, is come to make all free.

For when the fulness of time was come, the Son of God took upon himself human nature so that he might reconcile that nature to him who made it; hence the devil, the inventor of death, is met and conquered in that very flesh which had been the field of his victory.

Let us give thanks to God the Father through his Son in the Holy Spirit, who for his great love wherewith he loves us has had mercy on us and has quickened us together with Christ even when we were dead in sins, that in Him we might be a new creature and a new handiwork.

Let us then put off the old nature with its deeds, and having obtained a share in the sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh.

Be conscious, O Christian, of your dignity! You have been made a partaker of the divine nature; do not fall again by a corrupt manner of life into the beggarly elements above which you were lifted.

Remember whose Body it is of which you are a member, and who is its Head.

Remember that it is he who has delivered you from the power of darkness and has transferred you into God’s light and God’s kingdom. By the sacrament of baptism, you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not cast away this guest by evil living and become again a servant of the devil. For your freedom was bought with Christ’s own blood.

From the ‘Sermons on the Lord’s Birth’, St Leo the Great

Sermon for The Feast of the Nativity – 2013

Sermon for Christmas – 2013
John 1:1-14
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.’

I wonder what the word Christmas summons up for you?
Perhaps you might just like to take a moment to rest and reflect in that.

Christmas. Many years ago, growing up as part of the church in the North of England, I frequently seemed to be in services led by the then Bishop of Carlisle, David Halsey. For some reason I cannot fathom, it seemed that every time I heard him speak he gave the same sermon recounting what had happened to him one Christmas at a midnight service where he’d expected no one to turn up and the church ended up packed. I cannot to this day remember what the point of the story was, but his capacity to summon up images with his words means that the picture is clear in my mind. Words call forth entire worlds, worlds of imagination and worlds of existence.

Words Create worlds. Many years ago whilst at University I shared a room with a young and very troubled man. Stephen was a student of the English language and spent much of his time sending his poetry to every publisher he could think of – apart from the odd encouraging reply, to no avail. But it was He who first taught me in a most graphic way the power of words. In many senses, his troubles were rooted in his fascination with the literature of Occult practices. There was a perpetual and at times impenetrable darkness to him, especially when he had been reading such material, and of an evening and long into the night purely by speaking he would ‘summon up’ worlds of such oppressive darkness that the darkness was tangible and capable of doing no less than creating a cold dead place in my soul.

Of course not all such Creativity with Words is as obviously life denying, but our carelessness with the Creative power of Words still leads us into dark places. What culture can hope to remain humane where Rest homes are termed ‘end of life facilities’, or where in the workplace we have carelessly named ‘Human Resource managers’. Once you call a human being a resource, they become categorised along with coal and oil and gas, with soil, and hammers. Something to be Used – and to Use a human being is Always to Abuse a human being. We should take care with our words – they speak our pasts and they create our futures.

Words Create Cultures. If you want to get to understand a culture, then tourism will do you little good. If you want to truly inhabit a culture, you must learn its Words, its language. For me one of the sharpest lessons of coming to New Zealand has been learning this afresh. As Mark Twain said of the English and the Americans, ‘Two nations divided by a common tongue’, so our two cultures use the same words, but differently. This is even more perplexing than having difficulties with Mandarin Chinese, or Usbek – for we miss the point that the Use of words is what creates a culture – so different cultures may have the same words, but very different languages – as my eternally frustrated American friends realise when they speak with me! Same words, but we are not communicating, for our words mean different things to us.

Words Express a culture – Here in New Zealand, the culture is ‘She’ll be right’, and revealing the roots of our common culture ‘Good as Gold’. But that also reveals that Words Form Us. To grow up a New Zealander, or indeed English or American, is to learn a Way with Words. We tend to think that language is primarily about our self expression, but we fail to see that the self we express has already been shaped by our birth cultures words. For example we see this when we reflect that the ideas about our unique individualism, are passed onto us by our culture – so our thoughts are, I regret to say, mere products of our culture – and should we decide to rebel against this, then they are products of our rebellion against our cilture. Blood as they say, will out.
Of course here we are also ‘gifted’ by being a bicultural nation – We Should be Very wise about Words for we readily use Maori where the paucity of English becomes clear. It surely is Obvious here in New Zealand that Words express cultures? That they crate words of imagination that are more than that, that have a concrete quality to them that profoundly affect our lives together.

And of course, here in church tonight we are awash with Words – most Very familiar – the Carols and the readings – although there is something which for most of us is Not So familiar and that is the words of the liturgy. It is both pertinent and interesting to note that the collapse of congregation sizes in England, and I suspect here also, coincided with changing the liturgy. All of a sudden the words were no longer the common language of worship – it was as if once more we were at the tower of Babel. Without a common tongue, you have no common people, all you have is the primeval formlessness and void, and so the people dispersed . . .

But we ARE gathered here once more tonight – in the middle of the night – and whatever impulse it was that drew us here in large part it is rooted in Words. Imagine for a moment that you knew in advance that all the Carols would be unfamiliar, or the readings . . . that in an effort to be relevant the new Vicar had completely rewritten the service . . . knowing that to be the case . . . would there have been the same Pull to be here?
Formed by words, what Words have as it were drawn us forth?

What draws us out of the comfort of our homes tonight?  Perhaps it was the gentle cajoling of a Spouse or a parent? Or perhaps indeed the plea of a younger one to come and know what it was to be in church in the middle of the night? Perhaps we were sat alone and it was the memory of all that was in the past – voices seemingly gone, yet not forgotten – summoning us forth

I was speaking recently with someone relatively new to the church and the Deep things of faith, who expressed his journey thus . . . it was as if the words were summoning forth the person I had always wanted to be . . .

And it struck me what a wonderful expression that was of a person coming to faith in Christ. The Word that summons forth those people we were created to be – The Word that spoke to Lazarus, four days dead in the tomb – Lazarus! Come Out!

At the very heart of this Eucharist is this truth expressed in words but which words are in a sense inadequate to contain, that ‘The Word’, the Primeval Word that is the the Creation of all that is, The Word of the Beginning, The source of All Life, ‘And the Word, THIS Word became Flesh’. Going deeper into our memories than children’s nativity plays, than the story of the first Christmas, the words of the gospel of John taking us back, taking us back to something which predates all our cultural separateness, taking us back to our common root, our Creation as the Image of God, Christ THE image of the Living God, The Creative Word from which all creative life giving words flow, steps into human flesh and dwells amongst us

And we beheld his glory, the Glory as of the only begotten of the Father. It is as if that pale flickering light that is God’s image in us, if we trace it back to its source is like the Glory of a thousand Suns – Here in the middle of the night, Inexpressible Light.

I often wonder what might indeed be the impact of our coming to understand the fulness of all we are engaged in when as Christians we gather for the Eucharist – Where the Word made flesh is presented to us in Bread and Wine. The Light, that Inexpressible Glory, which darkness cannot comprehend, which is the Life of all people – reduced to a mortal span and present with us. But perhaps it is only right that we cannot fully understand, that we cannot put it fully into Our Words, for it is not we who create the world. our lives, our selves, our very thoughts the product of so many words of others. The deepest truth about ourselves we encounter in this Holy Night, not that we speak – but that we are Spoken . . . 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. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

What is summoned up for you, on this Holy Night? May that Word speak and summon forth in us Light and Life from the forgotten depths of our being, and may we know what it is to be born of God, in Christ the Living Word, to the eternal glory of the Father. Amen

Collect for the first Eucharist of the Nativity

In this Holy Night, let us pray that Christ may be born in us, and fill us with His Light and Peace

Silence is kept as we wait on the One who prays within us

Eternal God, You made this Holy Night shine with the brightness of your one true light. Bring us who have seen the revelation of that light on earth to see the radiance of that heavenly glory, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen


First Vespers of the Feast of the Nativity

The Antiphon for the Magnificat

‘When the sun rises in the morning sky, you will see the King of kings coming forth from the Father lioke a radiant bridegroom from the bridal chamber. Alleluia’



The Word became flesh in order that all of humanity might be revealed as children of God. Let us pray to him and say: Jesus, born of Mary, hear our prayer

That holy Church enjoy a rebirth in this glorious feast and proclaim throughout the world the eternal kingdom of heaven, we pray Jesus, born of Mary . . .

That we show forth the birth of God’s Son by a new way of life, a new love for people and a new regard for the good things of this world, we pray Jesus, born of Mary . . .

That Christian communities celebrate this feats with joy, with all the happiness and delight of the family of God, we pray Jesus, born of Mary . . .

That with simplicity of spirit we stand in wonder to proclaim with the shepherds joy and glory and peace, we pray Jesus, born of Mary . . .

That we all find Christ reborn in our hearts so that together we may show forth his meekness and poverty, we pray Jesus, born of Mary . . .


Concluding prayer

Lord God, whilst all the world lay wrapp’d in deepest silence, and night had reaached its mid-point, your all-powerful Word came down. As year by year the beauty of this night returns, growing old with the aged and renewed in the wonder of children, so may we, grown old in sin but reborn to grace, proclaim with our lives what we chant with our lips:

Glory to you, our God, in the highest heaven, peace on earth and in the depth of every human heart. We ask this through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God with us. Amen

December 23 – O Immanuel – I Am the Bread of Life

The Advent Antiphons are said or sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers each evening of the week immediately prior to Christmas. Each one speaks of an aspect of the One who is to come, Israel’s hope and a Light to the Gentiles.

This set of reflections juxtaposes each of the Antiphons with one of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus Christ, the embodied Hope of all Creation – the Word made flesh.

In this video, the Dominican brothers of Blackfriars Oxford sing the Magnificat Antiphon, O Immanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Immanuel, our King and Lawgiver,
The One Expected of the nations, and their Saviour,
Come and save us, O Lord our God
(Translation from Benedictine Daily Prayer: Liturgical Press)
Today we come to the last Vespers before the feast of the Incarnation. The Antiphon, O Emmanuel, is the briefest, and yet the most breathtaking in its scope. In holding together those things which in our human frailty we cannot begin to conceive of as other than antithetical, more so even than ‘King’ and ‘Shepherd’
Immanuel, ‘God with us’, we know from its root in Isaiah, is a sign of the one who ‘is coming with judgement to save us’. [Psalm 50, one of the great Advent Psalms expresses this as the prayed Word of God] And thus also of an imminence beyond our senses and comprehension of The Transcendent One. He who Is Other, whose ways and thoughts are most assuredly Not ours comes to dwell amongst us.
In this simple Antiphon, all the Antiphons coallesce and find a home as the Hope of the Nations comes to us.
Jesus in his ministry amongst the Pharisees creates the same indigestible possibilities. ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
Almighty and eternal God With Us – the Judge who comes to Save us – who commands ‘unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man, you will have no life within you.
Advent, primarily is about Faith. Faith makes us Expectant. Faith is the midwife of Hope. Faith causes us to Watch, to Wait, to Listen, to Strain our senses to catch the first rays of the rising dawn. By Faith we acclaim Christ as King of the Nations, the Lord of All. By Faith we Know him to be The Way to the heart of the Father, the Wisdom which at once describes and IS all of Creation in its plenteous goodness.
And by faith we now come to the Great Feast – where we feed on him in our hearts by faith. It is when we assent to these apparent impossibilities that our eyes are opened and we See and are healed.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus

O Antiphons – December 22 – O Rex Gentium – ‘I Am the Good Shepherd’

The Advent Antiphons are said or sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers each evening of the week immediately prior to Christmas. Each one speaks of an aspect of the One who is to come, Israel’s hope and a Light to the Gentiles.

This set of reflections juxtaposes each of the Antiphons with one of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus Christ, the embodied Hope of all Creation – the Word made flesh.

In this video, the Dominican brothers of Blackfriars Oxford sing the Magnificat Antiphon, O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Gentiles, and the Desired of all,
you are the cornerstone that binds two into one.
Come and save poor humanity,
whom you fashioned out of clay.
(Translation from Benedictine Daily Prayer: Liturgical Press)
To most of us the titles ‘Good Shepherd’, and ‘King of the Nations’ sound poles apart. Shepherds are not Kings and Kings are not Shepherds. The Nativity of Jesus seems only to enforce this, as Shepherds come to worship whilst Kings seek to kill and destroy pretenders to their power.
Yet deep in the memory of Israel – the One who is to Come is at once both King And Shepherd, for instance in Psalm 23. Yahweh, Israel’s God and true King, is my Shepherd.
But Israel’s desire for a King had been so that they might be like all the other nations and so Kingly Rule in Israel followed the path it did and the Kings from David down were not a source of blessing and life, but curse and eventual desolation and exile as graphically prophesied and recounted in the Fifth Gospel, the book of Isaiah.
Jesus declaration ‘I Am the Good Shepherd’ takes us straight back to the vision of the Psalm – indeed its imagery of being led by still waters, of the restoration of the soul, of tables being laid for His flock are found all through the gospels.
The One who is also the Gate, is declared to be the Good Shepherd who enters by the gate, whose sheep know his voice and follow Him. The One who does not expect his flock to lay down their lives for him, as human kings do, but rather lays down his life for his sheep – thus exposing the mythical necessity of laying down ones life for the ‘king’. The True King of Israel, the ‘One born King of the Jews’ whose star rises suddenly and without explanation, has come. The Shepherd is amongst his flock.
Yet He goes further – this Shepherd has sheep of ‘other folds’. Israel’s true King is also King of the Nations – the One before whom every knee in heaven and earth and under the earth shall bow, Saving All who hear his voice and Like Lazarus come forth and follow Him.

Sermon for Advent 4, 2013 – Year A


Sermon for Advent 4 – Year A 2013
Isaiah 7:10-17
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

‘Chosen – Righteous Joseph’

School, on the whole is not good for the soul. Often as I took parties of youngsters onto the hills of Northern England I would reflect on how much more humane were our encounters away from the classroom. Schooldays we were told  were the happiest days of our lives. Many, indeed in all probability most, would beg to differ.

Amongst the many humiliations of my early schooldays, one endured by countless youngsters over the ages was the weekly football. (I have two left feet, dances find me lurking in the kitchen or indeed the bar, trying to escape the horror of the invitation to dance and the inevitable disappointment of my partner.) But probably worse than the humiliation of playing Football, of endless freezing cold afternoons in the bulk buy nylon Wolverhampton Wanderers strip – the details are etched in my mind, as with an iron tool upon lead – worse than all of that was the ritual of picking the team.

Week by week the two best footballers would take turns to choose their team. Some of my gifted classmates would jump up and down saying ‘pick me, pick me!!’ and find themselves as the glamour boys, the strikers, then there were the not outstanding, but not incompetent ones who would pack the midfield, then finally the scrapings. Week in week out, without fail. Being chosen carried nothing glamourous – I was amongst the ‘no choice’ candidates – to occupy the Defence. Picked for standing around doing nothing if your team was doing well, and being shouted at by the rest of the team when, as was inevitable, the Good players ran past you as if you weren’t there and scored a hatful of goals. The PSychotherapy has been expensive and only partially successful!

Of course, the idea of being chosen usually carries with it a certain kudos. Being chosen to be head boy or head girl at school, Being chosen first for a sports team. You are Wanted – You are special, and ‘the chosen ones’ at my High school – the First XV rugby team wore their chosenness as many do – corridors cleared ahead of them – we were taught to live in fear, an almost Holy Awe of these chosen ones, who did not wear their election lightly, but KNEW they were Special.

Being chosen is also an integral part of the story of our Common Life and faith. Last week we rehearsed the story of ‘God’s Chosen people’, the Jews, as we built up our Jesse Tree, but this is chosenness of a different order. (Indeed although my spellchecker does not recognise ‘chosenness’, if your Google it – every hit is a reference to the Jewish people).

A Substantial part of the story of Israel, was the constant stream of humiliations visited upon them when they forgot that their being chosen did NOT mean that they could behave like the first XV. The focus of their faith was not that they were chosen, it was the one who had chosen them. Not WE have been called by God, but ‘we have been called by GOD’ Called not to be full of themselves, rather to be empty of themselves, and quite literally full of God, as revealed by the Temple in the midst of them. A chosenness which was not a vehicle for self regard, a cause for pride – a chosenness which required Absolute attentiveness to God, expressed in Faith Full Obedience.

Now there is One way of telling this story which goes like this. God Created the world full of goodness, chose Israel and they screwed it up, they weren’t up to it – therefore God had to put into effect Plan B. Jesus as it were as an afterthought – a second try, and indeed we might then look around us and hope that God has a plan C. But like joining the dots, its always possible if you have enough dots to draw whatever you like. So whilst there are elements of truth in the story that so many tell, it is wrong in two key elements.

Firstly that Israel was Chosen to be the bearer of the very Life of God, in the Word made Flesh – in Jesus Christ. That was Always the plan, that God himself would dwell amongst his people, and that through them All the nations of the world would be blessed.

That was what the faith of the Patriarchs in particular Abraham, ‘the father of many nations’.

And the ‘Jesus was God’s plan B story’ is also told wrongly, because it says ‘Everything had gone to the dogs – there were NONE who were righteous, none whose attention was still on God and his promise.

Yet the story of the people of Israel is throughout the story of a faithful remnant, even though the people as a whole go astray.  As Advent moves to its climax, the hopes and fears of all the years are coming into sharp focus in two of these remnant of faithful Israel. Mary, who without realising why ‘has found favour with God’ – When our attention is on God, even the fact that we are attentive to him is hidden from us, and , oh yes Joseph . . . also chosen . . . like Mary, like faithful Israel, chosen for obedience.

Joseph is overlooked from the earliest years of our Christian walk. ‘I’m going to be Mary in the nativity!!’ is a far more joyous cry in households, than ‘I’m going to be Joseph’ – so peripheral in our imaginations to the Incarnation is Joseph, that it’s not much above being picked to be a sheep . . . ‘Mary. . . and of course angels :-)’ – ‘Joseph and the sheep’. [I’m not for a moment suggesting there are certain gender imbalances which need to be addressed here . . . ;-)]

In Year A we focus on Matthew’s gospel and thus the account of the birth of Jesus is told through the story of Joseph – not his perspective mind you. We get little or no insight into the workings of Josephs mind. I remember once seeing a wonderful stage play which was in effect an extended dramatic monologue of Joseph in his carpenters shop musing on being ‘chosen’ in this way. We like to do this – to put ourselves in Joseph’s place – but really when we do this we are dragging Joseph into ours. We project how we would feel onto him. None of us know how Joseph would have felt. And such flights of fancy distract us from what Matthew tells us.

Joseph we are told discovering that Mary is pregnant ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to disgrace, planned to dismiss her privately’ – Joseph ‘being a righteous man’ . . . Sadly and I think to our almost infinite loss, the word righteous as an adjective for a man or woman, has become horribly devalued. Because of our focus on Jesus and his encounter with the Pharisees – because of our own experiences of some people with whom we rub shoulders, because of a failure to understand properly what it means to be a sinner, or a saint, indeed to totally misunderstand the Work which Jesus comes to accomplish, we do not think the word Righteous can be a truthful life giving adjectival modifier of ‘Woman’ or ‘Man’. And it has slipped from our speech. If we read someone was a ‘Righteous man’, we tend to think they are at best unutterably dull, or at worst a hypocrite – usually a combination of the two. But this is not the witness of Scripture. Indeed if we have been attentive to our Advent readings we read of ‘A righteous branch to spring up for David’ – Jeremiah’s version of the Jesse Tree.

Joseph is a righteous man – that is he is of the type described in Psalm 1 – to be righteous is to be attentive to and obedient to God Happy is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. – These are the ones who are marked as Righteous in the Scriptures. There is nothing of Self Righteousness in them – they are not absorbed in how they appear to others, they are absorbed in and absorb like Water from a stream, the Life of God. In a Very important sense they are the chosen – Called AND chosen – responsive to the Call of God – He is the focus of their faith.

One of the deepest mysteries of our faith is how God puts himself into our hands – he is in a strange sense reliant on those he has called. And this is VERY important for how we understand Jesus. Jesus is both utterly divine AND utterly human. It is all too easy to imagine Jesus as a ‘special case’ in his humanity – as if his humanly obvious righteousness, his life of prayer and fasting and obedience to what God says to him, is entirely a one off. But to do that is to as it were see his human life as nothing more than a veil for his divinity. It is as if we say – Jesus can only be attentive to the Father Because of his divinity. It is to say that it is Not human. But precisely because Jesus IS fully human, that Righteousness we see in him is not only divine but humanly transmitted, through Mary and to the external observer, through Joseph as well.  The Righteousness of Jesus is utterly divine, but also though MAry and indeed Joseph, utterly human. The scriptures take with full seriousness our human nature and how our life towards God is transmitted humanly as well as through the waters of rebirth.

And Because Joseph is righteous, he is receptive to what God wishes to say. Faith revealed in obedience. The Christian life, the life of the Righteous, is a life of faithful obedience to what God is saying.

Of course Joseph at first tries to protect Mary – from the shame but then attentive, righteous Joseph is spoken to by an angel through a dream. ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ Joseph, son of David – Joseph is announced as part of that Righteous branch of David that Jeremiah spoke of, the faithful Remnant. And he is given work to do ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’ You Watch over her – and a tremendous privilege – and you will name him ‘Jeshua’ – which literally means God Saves. And BECAUSE he IS righteous, because He is Attentive and desires Only to do what God desires of Him, He Is Obedient.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, . . . and he named him Jesus.

Exemplifying the obedience that comes through faith of which Paul speaks as he introduces the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Obedient One, The Righteous One. And this is why as we draw ever so close to the birth of Christ, we rejoice and give thanks for Joseph and Mary – who are chosen for faithful obedience, and pray for the grace to be similarly God attentive, and obedient to what He requires of us – to his eternal glory. Amen

O Antiphons – December 21 – O Oriens – ‘I Am theLight of the World’

The Advent Antiphons are said or sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers each evening of the week immediately prior to Christmas. Each one speaks of an aspect of the One who is to come, Israel’s hope and a Light to the Gentiles.

This set of reflections juxtaposes each of the Antiphons with one of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus Christ, the embodied Hope of all Creation – the Word made flesh.

In this video, the Dominican brothers of Blackfriars Oxford sing the Magnificat Antiphon, O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Rising Dawn,
Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice:
Come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.
(Translation from Benedictine Daily Prayer: Liturgical Press)
Those of us who live in higher latitudes, especially in the summer months *, have perhaps little sense of the sudden change from day to night of those lands closer to the equator, such as the land of Palestine. Here night falls, and day breaks. There is not much by way of dawn or dusk. This suddenness of the Rising Dawn in the East in this Antiphon – draws us to the words of the prophet : ‘the LORD whom you seek will come to his temple’ So as the one who watches for the dawn has only the briefest of opportunities to announce it, the Light of the World does not slowly dawn on our consciousness, rousing us gently from slumber . . . thus we are commanded to Keep Awake! through Advent. To remain alert and attentive, for the signs of his presence remind us that He Is Near.
And a more sure and certain light we could not hope for.
The Psalmist describes the Word of God as a light to our paths and a Lamp to our feet. Often the world may seem a very dark place – often it seems that we know not what we should do, yet He Is Near. Jesus tells us that He is the sure light, the Light of the World. Which way should we go? ‘Follow me!’ he at once invites and commands us. ‘Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness’. He is Near, Always Near! If we have lost sight of Him it is because we have fallen prey to the distractions of the World.
The World promises much to us which glitters and glistens, which suggests security and salvation but they deceive.
On some mornings I am graced to see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean *. Where I live it is particularly intense, but it is never certain. When we look for other lights, they fail. ‘Put not your trust in princes or in any child of man’. They fail, they are flawed. Put not your trust in the abundance of your possessions for they will perish. Rather put your trust in the one who is the World’s true light.
Advent like all of the seasons of the Church is given to sharpen the essentials of our faith. In Advent we renew our sleep threatened attentiveness – the continual practice of waiting upon the Lord, ‘as the eye of a maid looks to the hand of her mistress’
This Antiphon of the Rising Sun, reminds us that the time draws very near. Wake! Watch! Pray! For your Lord comes! Suddenly! Light!
* This blog is written in Southern New Zealand where it is at once Advent and the days are at their longest