Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Time of re-creation

The Nativity, by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

One of the great early Christian leaders, St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), teaches that Christmas is a “festival of re-creation”, that in the birth of this Child the world has been recreated. It is the beginning of the renewal, sanctification and re-creation of the entire universe.

The same understanding of Christmas is echoed in the Orthodox Liturgy:

"Your coming, O Christ, 
has shed upon us a great light. 
O Light of Light, Radiance of the Father, 
you have illumined the entire creation!"

The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), abolishes the boundaries between man and God, matter and spirit, secular and sacred, seen and unseen. The very world through which we stumble on our pilgrimage into God is now tinged with sacredness and glory.

It’s just as well, because there are times when we experience this world as a place of exile, a vale of tears, an environment of undeserved suffering, pain and confusion. It is for many a source, not of joy, but of unrelenting depression and despair.  (Those who are blessed with a confident faith, or who have never faced such agonies, or who have grown through them, are called to be gentle and sensitive towards others whose pain and inner anguish causes them to doubt even the existence of a loving God.)

For me the real magic of Christmas is not the “feel-good” stuff so much as the transcendent Lord of glory and love entering into the fulness of all that it means to be human, so as to redeem, renew and transfigure everything about life in this world, including the miserable bits, from the inside. (St Paul talks about that in Romans 8).

But I’m no Scrooge! There is nothing I would do to diminish the exuberant joy of Christmas. But let's not forget that those God chose to participate in the first Christmas had a hard time of it. Mary and Joseph shunted from pillar to post, desperately looking for somewhere to stay. Jesus born in a smelly cave where the animals were kept. All those little boys slaughtered by the power crazy Herod, their mothers wailing and their blood running in the streets. The Holy Family living as refugees in Egypt until it was safe to return to their own land.

The Lord of glory and love entered into the fulness of what it means to be human, in the kind of circumstances in which most people have lived and died . . . violence, killing, exploitation, anguish, poverty and the despair we see all too often on the television and in our own streets. It is REAL human life to which God is now joined, and which is being transfigured bit by bit in him.

Love Divine invades our world to effect a union of the divine and human that can never be dissolved; a union in which God so freely and at such great cost gives himself to us as the Babe of Bethlehem, the Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Calvary whose sacrifice of love brings us back to the Father, the Risen, Ascended Lord, AND the Food of eternal life in the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion we receive at Mass, in our parish Church which is OUR “Bethlehem”, OUR “House of Bread” (which is what the word “Bethlehem” means).

So, if we feel as if we’re hanging on to Jesus this Christmas just with naked faith, that’s OK. We have a place in the prayers of many others. We dare to trust in the goodness and love of our Incarnate God and in his purposes, knowing that he is our King of Kings, our Lord, our loving Saviour, our wonderful Redeemer, our firm Rock, our Hiding Place, the one who wipes our tears away and heals us deep within. We also remember that he who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion (see Philippians 1:6).

One more thing . . .

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell!

That little poem is actually the beginning of a hymn about God’s love, written in 1917. The last verse was found penciled on the wall of a cell in an American mental asylum by a man who had died there, having lived in that cell for many, many years.

Who knows the cruel torment of mind he suffered, as much from the treatment as from his illness! What we can say, however, - and this is so wonderful - is that although locked up and written off as insane according to the "wisdom" of the age, this man at least some of the time anchored deeply into a reality, an experience of God, that broke through the darkness, flooding his soul and his prison cell. That was far more real to him than all the darkness, all his torments and all his anguish put together.

This is what he wrote on the wall of his cell. These are the words they discovered when he died:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.

So, let's remember that whatever our circumstances, our happiness, our blessing, our joy, or our pain and sorrow, to open up our hearts to the Lord during this Christmas season, and allow him in his own way to touch us with the wonder and sacredness of his love.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

St John, Apostle and Evangelist

Here is a great meditation for St John's Day. It is a homily by Lutheran Pastor Christopher Esget, published a while back in FIRST THINGS.

Beloved, today is St. John’s Day, the beloved disciple of Jesus and the man inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Fourth Gospel, as well as three epistles in our New Testament and the Book of Revelation. On Christmas Day, we heard the majestic prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Today, on St. John’s Day, the author of those great words testifies to this great truth: “That One who already was in the beginning, who existed from all eternity, and who was made flesh – that is the One whom we have heard, whom we have seen, whom we looked on and have touched with our hands.” The next time you hear the horrible idea that Jesus and the Bible is a collection of fables or falsehoods, remember John’s testimony: He and the other Apostles heard, saw, and touched Jesus. And in hearing, seeing, and touching Jesus, they touched God, God in the flesh.

That is the historical fact. But it is not just history. Now, he says, we who were with Him, we who heard Him, saw Him, touched Him – we are proclaiming Him to you, so you can be with us, so you can have fellowship, communion, with us, so you can be part of the Church that Jesus established.

What does it mean to have fellowship, communion, with the apostles? What does it mean to be a true Christian, to be a true member of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? St. John teaches us two important things about this:

1) We must not think of ourselves as holy people, good people, perfect people, people without sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

2) But then, we also are to dedicate our lives as Christians to turning away from sin and living a new life. “My little children,” John writes, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”

He goes on to emphasize in all his writings how important it is that we make every effort to be holy: to not sin, and to keep the commandments of Jesus. Again and again he hammers this home:

* “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4)
* “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 Jn 2:9)
* “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” (1 Jn 2:15a)
* “Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 Jn 2:29b)
* “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (1 Jn 3:4)
* “whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.” (1 Jn 3:8)
* “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” (1 Jn 3:9)
* “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 Jn 3:10-11)
* “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:18)

John’s writings are replete with sayings like these. Note well that word “practice” – he speaks of ongoing, habitual, and intentional sins. You know what the commandments of God are: [list 10 Commandments]

All the Commandments summed up in one word: “love” – love God, and love your neighbor.

St. John calls us to holiness of living – and thus constant repentance as we feel and experience our own unholiness – but at the same time John assures of the forgiveness and salvation found only in Jesus. “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” We have an attorney who will go to court for us. And the case He argues is based on the iron-clad fact that our penalty has been paid: “He is the propitiation for our sins.”

That is why you who through Baptism have become followers of Jesus can know that He ever loves you. St. John is called the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and I suspect John records that not to boast, but to say, “Jesus loved even such a one as me.” And John says of this same Jesus in our first reading, “To him who loves us.”

As we follow Jesus, there is one thing alone that is our authority, our guide, our light: the words of Holy Scripture. And today, in those sacred writings, we heard about “the things that must soon take place…. for the time is near.” The Bible gives us a different view of time – a view that sees this life as short, where Christ’s coming is always “soon.” It does not matter if it is another two thousand years, or a mere two minutes from now; we are always to be prepared.

All this is lived out in different ways for each of us. After Jesus had prophesied Peter’s martyrdom, Peter asked the question recorded in today’s Gospel: “What about him? What about John?” Jesus replied, “How does that concern you? You, follow Me!” St. John and St. Peter had different kinds of endings to their lives – Peter was crucified, while John suffered in a different way, being exiled to an island called Patmos. Peter and John had different particular callings in life, but the same overarching calling to be disciples of Jesus: “Follow Me.” That is also our calling. Whether you are an engineer, housewife, secretary or soldier, in every place you go, the words of Jesus go with you: “Follow Me.”

Those words are not burdensome. For you follow the One who at Christmas took on your flesh and bone, your human nature, and who proceeded to live perfectly in your flesh, to suffer every temptation you suffer in your flesh, to endure every pain and humiliation you endure, and finally to die your death, and to rise again in your human nature, now glorified, and to bring that human nature into the presence of God the Father. That is the One you now follow, the One who is coming again for you, soon, for the time is near.

This day we give honor for the ministry and testimony of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, who so faithfully recorded these glorious truths for us. May God pour out on us His Holy Spirit, that we may always heed John’s Words as a light in a dark place.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Greetings to all my friends

(Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O EMMANUEL

Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

This is the old chant for "O Emmanuel". You can listen to it HERE.

our King and Lawgiver, 
the Desire of all nations and their Saviour: 
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Luke 1:57-66

In the Bible people's names are very important. Names do not merely identify someone in a crowd. Biblical names tell us something about who that person is. "Isaac" means "he laughs"; the name "Isaac" echoes the laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they're told that the aged Sarah will have a child. The name "Israel" means "one who strives with God", and is given to Jacob after his night of wrestling with God. Jesus gives Simon a new name - "Peter", which means "Rock", a name as solid as the foundation of his confession of Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, Zechariah wants to name his son "John". The trouble is that Zechariah ignores the custom of naming a child after the father or grandfather. Zechariah was being obedient to the angel's message. However, the family responds in a way that any of us might: "We've never done it that way before."

Naming the child "John" points to the new thing that God is doing. "John" means "The Lord shows favour." As Zechariah sings in his canticle, a new day dawns. The Lord shows favour to all people. John will declare a new day dawning in Jesus Christ. 

"We've never done it that way before" is precisely the point. As we move forward trusting in God, we, too, will see and experience new things in our lives by his grace.

Zechariah's song: 

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel : 
for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us : 
in the house of his servant David; 
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets : 
which have been since the world began; 
That we should be saved from our enemies : 
and from the hands of all that hate us. 
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers : 
and to remember his holy Covenant; 
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham : 
that he would give us; 
That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies : 
might serve him without fear; 
In holiness and righteousness before him : 
all the days of our life. 
And thou, Child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; 
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people : 
for the remission of their sins, 
Through the tender mercy of our God : 
whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; 
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death : 
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O REX GENTIUM

Isaiah 9:7
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 2:4
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This is the old chant for "O Rex". You can listen to it HERE.

thou for whom they long, 
the Cornerstone that makest them both one: 
Come and save thy creatures 
whom thou didst fashion from the dust of the earth.

1 Samuel 1:24-28; 2:1,4-8; Luke 1:46-56

Today's Gospel is the response Mary made to Elizabeth's acknowledgment of her blessedness. Mary's words are infused with expressions found in other Biblical canticles and songs which she clearly knew off by heart. On her lips, however, the words are imbued with a far deeper meaning than they had in the Old Testament. Mary's rejoicing begins with the stark acknowledgment that she is "saved by grace" ("my spirit hath rejoiced in God MY Saviour"). Incidentally, this is one of the truths that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seeks to guard. 

In union with Mary and the Church down through the ages we pray her song, "the Magnificat" every day at Evensong (or "Vespers"). The Church makes these words her own, singing exuberantly the song of Mary's rejoicing, and, incidentally, reminding ourselves that our only hope of salvation is God's grace. 

With Mary - who is often said to have "foreshadowed" the Church - we bless and thank God for his loving-kindness and grace, and all the other blessing he has given us.

Mary is struck by her own lowliness before the immensity of God's power and greatness, for he has worked wonders. As we sing her song, we, too, will be humbled by that same power and greatness; most of all we will be smitten by his love. 

We are approaching the end of Advent. Today Mary shows us the way. Mulling over her prayer in faith, humility and love, and making it our own by faith, will help us to be ready for the coming of Jesus.

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O ORIENS

Isaiah 9:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

Isaiah 60:1-3
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

This is the old chant for "O Oriens". You can listen to it HERE.

Brightness of Eternal Light, 
and Sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those
who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

Song of Songs 2:8-14, Luke 1:39-45

Most of us have realized at one time or another, no matter how fleetingly, that the solution to many of our personal problems may be found in just forgetting ourselves, more positively, in concentrating our attention and energy on someone else or on some good cause. Today we think of Mary - after her words of acceptance to the Angel - "making haste", climbing up into the hill country to share with her cousin Elizabeth (and John the Baptist discerning the sacredness of this Visitation from the vantage point of his mother's womb!). Possibly Mary went in order to share with Elizabeth what had happened to her; but undoubtedly she made that arduous journey so as to assist Elizabeth - a much older woman - in her pregnancy. We read that Mary stayed there for three months.

But what a visit! No wonder it has a feast day of its own in the middle of the year. Notice that the older woman says she is "honoured" with a visit from "the mother of my Lord."

It is also significant that Elizabeth says to Mary, "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (v.45). May we be known as children of Mary who always believe that the Lord will fulfil his word!

There is, of course, a sense in which the Church is foreshadowed in Mary's visit to Elizabeth. As Mary carried Jesus within her and brought great joy to her cousin, so our vocation is to bless others by bringing Jesus to them.

This beautiful prayer is very appropriate for today:

Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
you have revealed the beauty of your power
by exalting the lowly virgin of Nazareth
and making her the mother of our Saviour.
May the prayers of this woman
bring Jesus to a waiting world
and fill the void of incompletion
with the presence of her child,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O CLAVIS DAVID

Isaiah 22:22
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Isaiah 9:6
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

This is the old chant for "O Key of David". You can listen to it HERE.

Sceptre of the house of Israel, 
who openest and no man shutteth, 
and shuttest and no man openeth; 
Come and bring forth out of the prisonhouse
him that is bound.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38 

We all know friends or relatives in difficult circumstances: struggling with cancer, separated from loved ones, depressed or discouraged, saddened by death or other losses. What can we say or do? 

"I'll pray for you", "I'll remember you at Mass", or "I'll light a candle for you" are the kind of things we might say. To those without faith those expressions might mean very little. But when Christians promise to pray for others, our promise is based on what the Angel said to Mary: "Nothing is impossible with God" (better translated as "No word of God is lacking in power".

Speaking to Ahaz, God makes the same statement: "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." (Isaiah 7:11)

Mary models the kind of faith that makes "I'll pray for you" really mean something. In his sonnet, "The Lantern out of Doors", Gerard Manley Hopkins, speaks of his and our concern for friends who for various reasons are no longer within the reach of any good we can do. Where we can't go, he says, Christ follows and cares; in his words, Christ is "their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend." One of the lessons of Advent is persistence in prayer. Because we believe nothing is impossible for God, we trust that he can care for others and do for them good beyond our little conceptions.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Barnett on Jesus the Rabbi

Paul Barnett, retired Bishop of North Sydney, and well-known Biblical scholar and ancient historian, has just posted on his blog an article he recently wrote about Jesus as a Rabbi in second-temple Judaism. Follow the link to his blog to keep reading.

Wise Judgements

For many years biblical scholars have baulked at the idea that Jesus was a transcendent figure and have busied themselves redefining him in humanistic terms.

Is this due to the ‘secular’ spirit of the age that airbrushes the Almighty from the public square?

For a period in early the twentieth century some thought there was little we could know about Jesus, for example, in 1934 Rudolph Bultmann declared, ‘We can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus’. The pendulum has swung back so that in 1985 Ed. Sanders could say, ‘We can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish…we can know a lot about what he said…’.

Despite Sanders’s confidence there is no agreement about how to think about Jesus.

The great philosopher, musician and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was a confused apocalyptic prophet.  Robert Eisler and Samuel Brandon thought he was a warrior-zealot ready to inspire a revolt against Rome. According to Geza Vermes Jesus was a devout, charismatic rabbi who healed.  For Ed. Sanders, Jesus was yet another species of prophet.  Others, like Burton Mack, reacting against a Jewish Jesus found it more plausible to locate him as a social reformer in the Greek cynic tradition. The list is long and seemingly unending.

There are, of course, some elements of the above to be found in Jesus.  He was called a rabbi, many thought of him as a prophet, and he did forcibly eject the traders from the temple.  The problem is that these are secondary activities that some have over-inflated and made definitive. Those who redefine Jesus along these lines tend not to address all the evidence, in particular the witness of the apostles in the New Testament.

Jesus’ miracles, if accepted, would clinch the issue and identify Jesus as singular and otherworldly. That is a subject for another day. What then about his judgements, which form a significant part of the Synoptic Tradition?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And this is how Bishop Barnett concludes:

No society can be perfect, and no society has been perfect. But some societies have been democratically governed, freer of corruption, more prosperous across the population, generous to poorer nations, better educated, with more schools, universities, and hospitals, scientifically innovative, expressive in the arts, and with widespread engagement in sport and exercise.

It would not be hard to demonstrate that countries historically influenced by Jesus’ wise judgements have been blessed in many if not all of these ways.


Jesus’ judgements as a rabbi are deceptively disarming. They appear to be mundane and not extraordinary but when carefully compared with the values of the cultures of his day, and their successors, they identify him as uniquely wise.

Furthermore, his judgements effortlessly translate into any culture, timelessly. They are as applicable in modern western society as they were in first century Jewish and Graeco-Roman society and in every culture since.

Today's Advent Antiphon: O RADIX JESSE

Isaiah 11:1
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Isaiah 11:10
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. 

Michah 5:1
Now you are walled about with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike upon the cheek the ruler of Israel.

Romans 15:8-13 
I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing to thy name"; and again it is said, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and further Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Revelation 5:1-5 
I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, "Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.")

This is the old chant for "O Root of Jesse". You can listen to it HERE.
Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

The prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope in a hopeless situation for Israel. The Davidic dynasty had become corrupt and unfit for a Messianic King. Apostates like King Ahaz (2 Kings 16) and weaklings like Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38) occupied the throne of David. When God offered King Ahaz a sign, the king refused. God, nonetheless, gave Israel a sign to assure his people that he would indeed raise up a righteous King who would rule forever over the house of David.

We understand the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy and the unfolding of God's plan of redemption to begin with the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. This child to be born is the fulfillment of all God's promises.

As today's Gospel indicates, those who were to be used by God to bring his plan to pass required faith and trust in his promises, as well as considerable risk-taking. Mary and Joseph, therefore, are examples of faith for us. 

We need to grow to the point of really believing the promises of God, especially when we are faced with perplexing circumstances and seemingly insurmountable problems. God has not left us alone; he has brought us his only begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us draw near with faith and take him at his word.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O ADONAI

Isaiah 11:4-5
With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.

Isaiah 33:22
The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us. 

This is the old chant for "O Adonai". You can listen to it HERE

Captain of the house of Israel,
who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush,
and gavest him the law on Sinai: 
Come and deliver us with thine outsretched arm.

Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25

Even people who like travelling say, "How good it is to be home." This is much more the case for those who have been forcibly driven out of their homes or even deported. In our own time we are familiar with the sight of wandering, homeless refugees.

In today's first reading, the prophet Jeremiah promises that God will give the Israelites a new king, a good king, unlike the previous ones who had been responsible for the people's hardships, including their exile. It is said of the new king that he will bring the house of Israel back from all the lands to which thy were banished. "They shall again live on their own land." 

In celebrating the season of Advent, the Church helps us to come back home from our exile, our state of being away from God, of being lost in a world of greed, violence and selfishness.

No matter how well life goes for us, or how well adjusted to it we become, in this world we will always have a sense of exile from our true and lasting home. In fact our REAL exile is self-imposed whenever we try to organize our life around something other than the Lord Jesus Christ.

By using the Advent season to point us day after day to the coming of Jesus, the Church tries to make sure that we are focussed on our true home. That true home is, of course, life in eternity with God; yet that same life bursts in upon us here and now wherever Jesus is allowed to be king over our lives.

A special Christmas message

"Behold, the Lamb of God "
Concelebrated Mass at Patmos House, Brisbane, Australia
4th Sunday of Advent, 2009

2009 was my last Christmas in Brisbane. For a number of reasons I knew in my heart that the time had come to move on, and so (without at that time announcing my resignation), I wrote to parishioners and friends what has turned out to be my last Christmas message as a priest with a parish of my own. The other day, one of my Brisbane friends emailed Christmas greetings and suggested it was it was time for a re-run of "that" letter. So, here it is: 


". . . no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof." 

Where do you think that comes from? The Soviet Union after the revolution? Some right wing fascist dictatorship? A secular humanist's dream of what should be decreed in Australia?

Those words are an order of the English Parliament, dated 24th December, 1652. (It was three years after the murder of King Charles I; Oliver Cromwell was in control of Parliament and England.)

This is not the place for an essay on the kind of puritanism that sought to eradicate every trace of Catholic faith and culture from England. But in our day, when the Gospel and the Catholic faith are under attack - it seems from all sides at once! - it is good medicine to look again at the courage of those in the so-called "Commonwealth" period of English history (when even services from the Prayer Book were illegal) without whom the Church of England would never have risen from the ashes.

We don't even have to imagine the way things were. We have the eyewitness report of Christmas Day 1657 in the Diary of John Evelyn who had gathered with a tiny congregation in the chapel at Exeter House, in the Strand:

"I went to London with my wife to celebrate Christmas Day, Mr. Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel, on Micah vii. 2. Sermon ended; as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away.

"It fell to my share to be confined to a room in the house, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it, the Countess of Dorset, Lady Hatton, and some others.

"In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others from Whitehall to examine us one by one; some they committed to the Marshal, some to prison.

"When I came before them they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (as esteemed by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the mass in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture.

"I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Christian kings, princes, and governors. They replied, in so doing we prayed for the King of Spain too, who was their enemy and a Papist; with other frivolous and ensnaring questions and much threatening, and, finding no colour to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.

"These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord's Nativity. As we went up to receive the sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action; so I got home late the next day, blessed be God!"

History records the bravery of both Anglicans and Roman Catholics in England during that time who secretly practised the faith when it was driven underground. We owe them an enormous debt.


We should remember this whenever we slip into thinking that the natural state of affairs for the Church is to be part of the power elite in this or that society, or that as individual Christians we have a "right" to be thought well of in the culture of which we are part. Christmas should remind us that OUR FAITH BEGAN AS AN UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT. Indeed, it began literally underground, as Chesterton delighted in reminding us, in the CAVE where the animals were kept.

Furthermore, at different times in history, Christians (of all traditions) have been pushed back underground, and have suffered greatly for the honour of just being the people of Jesus. And from time to time there has been the wholesale destruction of Christian cultures of influence. We only have to think of the ancient centres of flourishing Church life in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and North Africa, which were trashed so violently by the Muslims.

We don't have to look so far back in history. Did you know that the 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than any other time? Literally millions of our brothers and sisters have died over the last hundred years rather than renounce the faith of Jesus, or the principles of justice for the oppressed that are part and parcel of the Gospel.

I fear that we twenty-first century Christians in western countries like Australia have become soft and sentimental . . . dare I say even "gutless", worried about what people think of us - especially now that the Richard Dawkins crowd has captured the limelight with its peculiar brand of fundamentalist atheism - and we tend to clam up every time there is an opportunity to say or do something that just might prod someone we know into beginning a journey of faith. We are paralysed by fear, when - if we think about it - the worst thing that could ever happen to us is that we might become the butt of snide remarks at a dinner party or the pub.

And the "liberal" Church? Well, it seems more worried about whether or not it meets the approval of our corrupted culture, than if it meets GOD'S approval. 

The real truth is that there are many people out there who desperately want to meet a well rounded, intelligent, caring, fun person like YOU, who is not a "religious nut" but who can engage in a conversation about "spirituality" and the "meaning" of life, and - yes - about JESUS! Right now there is widespread evidence of an intensifying hunger and thirst for spiritual reality in modern secular Australia.


As Anglicans, let's stop grieving the loss of the supposed "standing" we had a generation or two ago (or whenever YOU think was our "golden age"). Let's lay hold of the grace and power of the Holy Spirit who can turn spiritual whimps into the sort of people who share meaningfully with others, serving them, and loving them into a real relationship with Jesus.

History reveals that many times when the Church has been reduced to an "underground movement" it came to depend only on God's promises and grace, and consequently underwent cleansing and renewal.

I hope and pray that in our time the whole Church - from its increasingly "underground" position - will rediscover the Good News of Jesus - the Gospel - as well as its own essence as a dynamic, loving, sacramental community, the many membered Body of Jesus in the world today, connecting with others, especially the truly needy, supporting them in their troubles, their pain, their sorrow, the tangles and ambiguities of their troubled lives, and bringing them to know and love Jesus as their Saviour.

It is unfortunate that a lot of people who "do evangelism" today (including some well resourced Catholics and Evangelicals) behave as if all that is necessary in order to make "converts" is to have the best logical arguments. Now - as you know - I quite enjoy the challenge of robust debate myself; but I need to remind you that conversion to Christ is not just changing what people THINK or BELIEVE. It's also - in fact, primarily, - changing what - or "who" - they LOVE. That is much more difficult. Jesus has to win our HEARTS as well as our MINDS.


So, if I am permitted to use militaristic imagery, the chief "weapon" we use in our struggle as underground Christians trying to reach others for Jesus is LOVE. It's not good enough just to beat people in a debate! We must - as I have just said - love them to the Lord. After all, his love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), so as to flow out from us into the lives of others.

I often think of this at Christmas, especially when gazing upon the Christmas Crib with the hands of baby Jesus outstretched towards us. He left the glory of heaven to join us in our poverty, so that through him we might become rich! Our redemption cost him everything. I once preached a mission sermon on the "hands of Jesus", beginning with those little hands outstretched in the manger, moving on to the hands at work in the carpenter's shop, then to the hands reaching out, touching and healing all who came to him with their broken lives in the time of his earthly ministry; then the hands dripping with blood, nailed to the cross - hands outstretched in a cosmic embrace; and finally the hands of the Risen Body held out to doubting Thomas who cried out to Jesus in that moment of realisation, "My Lord and my God."

It was St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who said. "Christ has no . . . hands . . . on earth but yours" now with which to minister compassion to the world. As an underground Church slowly bringing about the Lord's revolution of love, we accept the cost of serving others as Jesus did . . . giving ourselves away, if that's what he calls us to do.

Even orthodox parishes need to hear this, because Jesus did not say: "By this shall everyone know you are my disciples, that you have the best and most breathtaking liturgies in town", or "that you believe everything in the Creed, the Bible and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church", or "that you have stunning contemporary emergent outreach services", or "your healing services and spontaneous times of praise and worship lift you to heaven", or "that you operate the most effective social welfare programs in the district." No. However important these things are, Jesus actually said, "By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, that you have LOVE one for another." (John 13:35)

And the greatest sign of that love is THE WILLINGNESS TO FORGIVE THOSE WHO HURT US DEEPLY. Look at Ephesians 4:32 where it says: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you."

Authentic Christian life like that develops when the Church goes underground, because nothing but a culture of love works for people who are completely marginalized, poverty-stricken and persecuted. Our parishioners - for all we have been through in these days when Anglo-Catholics like us are persecuted and bullied by those who have risen to power in large slabs of Australian Anglicanism - know this better than most. Many of you have said how that in spite of all our faults as a community (and we have some!), our experience of God's love and the love of the Church family over the last five years years is so much greater than anything you have known elsewhere. A wide range of visitors to our worship have said the same kind of thing.

What happens to us in our personal lives or as a Church community if we do not allow our hands to be the hands of Jesus, reaching out and loving one another and the world around us? After all, we know that kind of love carries with it enormous risks, and we want to be "safe." What happens to us if we close ourselves off to love? Think of Jesus on the cross, and the love that flows from the cross into your life and mine as you read this devastating answer to that question from C.S. Lewis' book, The Four Loves:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung
and possibly be broken.
If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,
you must give your heart to no one,
not even to an animal.

"Wrap your heart carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries;
avoid all entanglements;
lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change.
It will not be broken;
it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable . . .
The only place outside Heaven
where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love
is Hell."


As I gaze into the manger and see those little hands that are destined to be pierced for me and nailed to the cross, all I can think is how amazing and real that love is, and how unworthy I am to be loved like that. I can't help it . . . I am smitten every time! And I understand more and more deeply just how costly it was that first Christmas for God to come among us to rescue us, to redeem us, to forgive us, to bring us back to himself, to give our lives meaning, to pour his love into our hearts, and to be with us in the joy and the pain of our very human life.

What about you? Will you come to Mass at Christmas, and open your heart to him? Christmas is a great opportunity to renew your relationship with Jesus. It's the perfect time, if you have strayed, to begin receiving Holy Communion again, and know the wonder of his love in that special way.

Finally, if someone has given you this letter to read, and you're not one our Church members (in fact, maybe you've never been to church before!) there's no better time to dip your toe in the water than Christmas. You'll be so glad you did. We’d love to have you with us.

This comes to you with my prayers and best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Today's Advent Antiphon: O SAPIENTIA

In the Church's traditional cycle of prayer, Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, always includes the great song of Mary known as the Magnificat. This song is preceded and followed by a short verse or "antiphon" that links it to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the Magnificat antiphons are very special. Each begins with the exclamation "O" and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.

These "O Antiphons" were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together some of the key Old Testament texts and phrases looking forward to our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of Scriptural images; in the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. These are understood as the words of Jesus, responding to his people's plea, saying "Tomorrow I will be there."

I have provided short reflections on the Scripture readings set for Mass on each of these days adapted from Homilies for Weekdays, by Don Talafous (Liturgical Press, 2005).

Of special note this year is the recently released recording of a haunting and beautiful setting of these Antiphons by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis (b. 1954) who began his work on them in 1995 but did not complete the set until 2003. They are for a double choir, and contain numerous overlaid harmonies. The music was recorded by the Royal Holloway Choir, conducted by Rupert Gough, at St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, in January 2010.

You can listen to Miskinis' O Antiphons HERE. (You will also find details of the other works on the CD and how to purchase it.)


Isaiah 11:2-3
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear 

Isaiah 28:29
This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom. 

This is the old chant for "O Sapientia". You can listen to it HERE

that camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to another,
firmly and gently ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of understanding.

Genesis 49:2, 8-10, Matthew 1:1-17

In our personal reading of Scripture we are likely to skip over genealogies and assume there is nothing interesting in them. Matthew's genealogy, however, is very interesting. In this list of names, we see God's grace at work in ways we do not expect. The patriarchs are the first group of people mentioned. Not all of them were noble or saintly. Jacob, for example, stole his father's blessing, cheating his older brother. Israel's kings make up the next group. They reflect the best and the worst of human nature. Some are idolaters, murderers, and adulterers, like King David. Unknown people make up the third group. Yet God is at work among them. (It has often been pointed out, too, that the women in this genealogy have marital histories that include scandal and scorn.)

Jesus has an interesting family tree! It emphasises the work of God's grace in the flow of real history with real people, saints and sinners alike. It encourages us to look for signs of his grace in our lives and in those around us.