The Light Shines in the Darkness – Merry Christmas!

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Tonight we had a beautiful 9 lessons and carols service. One of our readers, Ros, read this poem by Lisa Debney and it was so beautiful I wanted to share it with you along with my good wishes for Christmas and 2017.

Remember that we carry the light of Christ with us into this dark world – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it!

Find this poem in this book.

Mary by Lisa Debney

Your eyes are open now.

Those eyes which will open the eyes of others.

You study my face and, just for the moment,

though you came for the world,

you are mine and mine alone.

I made you and you made me

and we gaze at each other in equal wonderment.

 

Your eyes are open now,

so dark-bright –

sent from a night full of light and stars –

that I could watch you for ever,

watch your chest rise and fall

as you breathe the cattle-soaked air.

I would like this moment to last for ever,

you are so wonderful to me,

so truly wonderful as you are.

 

But not my will, Lord, but yours be done.

I must hand you over for the world cries out for you,

though I cry out to let you go.

Just for tonight let the future leave us in peace.

Close your eyes, baby.

Close your bright eyes on the dusty darkness of the world.

There is majesty in you but for now let it hide,

let it hide like a gem while you sleep.

 

 

But Mary treasured all these words… Happy Christmas!

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Wishing all my readers a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

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Here is an extract from my Christmas Day sermon:

If you truly put yourself into the nativity story, you can’t help but wonder: how did Mary cope?

Well, St Luke gives us a tiny clue in a beautiful verse. He writes that Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’. I think he is referring not only to the words of the Shepherds but to the other words Mary has heard up to giving birth to Jesus.

Unlike us, Mary didn’t know the end of the story, didn’t know what was going to happen to her after she said ‘yes’ to God. So Mary clung onto the words and to the Word that she had heard as if her life depended on it. She remembered that the angel Gabriel had told her that she was highly favoured by God, she remembered, after hearing the jeers calling her a prostitute and a whore as she left Nazareth for her cousin Elizabeth’s house that the first thing that Elizabeth said to her was that she was ‘blessed among women’, and then she remembered exactly the message that the angels had passed onto the shepherds, those men with funny accents and coarse ways that stumbled into the cave – they said ‘peace on earth and goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’ – God’s favour – Gabriel said that God favoured me, Mary remembered, me, here in this cave a long way from home, disgraced by my village – God still favours me.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Mary shows us what it is to have faith in the most dire of circumstances and there was worse to come for her. Soon after she and Joseph would have to flee to Egypt as refugees, unsure of the welcome they would receive in the country of the old enemy of their people. But Mary, throughout, must have treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. God favours me, she remembered, I am blessed among women. She chose to believe in God’s word when all the other words around her said the opposite.

So as we are on the cusp of a new year, unaware of what is to come, of the challenges and joys to come, we too should be like Mary and treasure the word of God to us, that we are loved so much, that we are welcomed, that we are included, that, yes, we are favoured by God so much that he became a vulnerable baby, come to be with us, alongside us in our difficulties and our delight. Let us treasure all these words, the Word of God, more than any other gifts we might receive today and ponder this mystery, this Christmas joy in our hearts. Amen.

 

Celebrating Mary the Mother of God

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Being a bit of a hybrid Christian, having grown up Anglo-Catholic, then been a Baptist for a bit and then come back into the Church of England I’ve had a constantly changing relationship with the Virgin Mary. My evangelical sensibilities were wary of her but I have now come to the realisation that to ignore Mary is to miss a huge part of the Gospel.

Today is the feast of what many call the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – celebrating the belief that Mary was received bodily into heaven. Of course, we don’t have any scripture that asserts this clearly but it is interesting to note that there is no site at which she is said to be buried, no shrine to her earthly remains. Anglicans officially fudge the name of the feast by calling it the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that we can celebrate her feast day without necessarily believing that she was bodily taken into heaven.

Today, I read an extract from Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor by Ivone Gebara and Maria Bingemer about the feast of the assumption and it made me look at it in a whole new light. Here are some quotations that gave me real food for thought:

Mary’s assumption brings a new and promising future for women. Excluded from Jewish initiation rites because of their anatomy, banned from full participation in worship and the synagogue by their menstrual cycles, for a long time women – even in Christianity – subtly or explicitly have been second class citizens in the world of faith because of the ‘inferiority’ and the ‘poverty’ of their bodies.

Mary’s assumption, however, restores and reintegrates woman’s bodiliness into the very mystery of God. Starting with Mary, the dignity of women’s condition is recognised and safeguarded by the creator of that very bodiliness. In Jesus Christ and Mary the feminine is respectively resurrected and assumed into heaven – definitively sharing in the glory of the Trinitarian mystery from which all proceeds and to which all returns.

She who, while a disciple herself, shared persecutions, fear and anxiety with other disciples in the early years of the church, is the same one who, after a death that was certainly humble and anonymous, was raised to heaven. The assumption is the glorious culmination of the mystery of God’s preference for what is poor, small, and unprotected in this world.

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Sculpture at Wichita Cathedral

Sermon – Holy Family – Sunday 29th December, 2013 – a leap into darkness

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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I was delighted (and a bit nervous) to be invited to preach at my home church of All Saints on the day of my parents’ 40th Wedding Anniversary.

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Here is the text of my sermon:

Matthew 2:13-23

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9:2)

Only a few days ago we heard these words read in our Christmas services – the words of Isaiah written about 600 years before Christ pointing to the light that was to come into the world. In today’s gospel reading, Joseph and Mary are the people who are walking in darkness.

Joseph is the star of the nativity in Matthew’s gospel. He is a model for us all. Much is made, and rightly so, of Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message brought to her by the Angel Gabriel. Here in Matthew’s gospel we discover that Joseph’s ‘yes’ to the angel is also hugely significant.

Joseph and Mary have been happily settled with relatives in Bethlehem, raising their toddler Jesus when Joseph, seemingly out of the blue, has a dream that shakes him to the core. His small, fragile family is in danger from Herod. An angel tells Joseph, rather abruptly to get up and take Mary and his baby to Egypt.

I don’t know what images are conjured up for you when you think of Egypt? Sunning yourself in Sharm El Sheik? Visiting the Great Pyramids? A Nile cruise? Or perhaps rioting and political unrest? None of these images come close to the fear bound up for a first century Jew in the phrase ‘go to Egypt’. Egypt is a place of darkness, a place of slavery, a prison, the place from which the Lord God dramatically delivered his people. This is all upside down and back to front. Egypt is a place of death, a tomb.

The imagery of darkness is there in the gospel reading: Joseph got up and took the mother and his child by night… There is almost the implication that Joseph woke up from his dream in the middle of the night, hastily packed their belongings and set off in the darkness to the foreign country of Egypt.

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command is astonishing. The threat to his family was even greater than what they might find in Egypt. So he went. He said ‘yes’ to God with no idea of what would happen and not with only himself to think about but his wife and small child, a two year old who would struggle with a change in his routine. This sounds a little bit like Abraham and his call to leave his home for the vague notion of a Promised Land. And that is deliberate, I think. Matthew’s original audience were Jewish Christians, they knew the call of Abraham and the promise of descendants more numerous than the stars – even though he and his wife Sarah were old. They also knew that Egypt is the place from which God rescues.

Joseph takes the step of faith that has been taken throughout the centuries by those who sought to follow God. A step that’s taken by us all when we say ‘yes’ to God: a leap into darkness.

And so Joseph models for us the great pattern of salvation that we experience in our lives over and over again – death and resurrection, death and resurrection. He goes to the place of darkness, the place of slavery and returns with the Christ child who will bring light to those who walk in darkness.

Earlier this year, Lord Howell was speaking in the House of Lords about fracking. He described the North East as a ‘desolate’ place. This understandably upset a lot of people – and I’m sure Fr Neil wasn’t too impressed!

The north of Israel in ancient times was viewed in much the same way. Just at the beginning of the Isaiah passage I started with it says:

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”

(Isaiah 9:1)

In the place where no one expected blessing, the land beyond the Jordan – far from God’s own city of Jerusalem, there was salvation to come.

Picture a different donkey ride. Mary and Joseph, struggling with their belongings on a donkey, travelling for days to reach the “desolate” north of Israel. Jesus, a young boy sits on his father’s shoulders and points out what he can see: ‘look, Abba, another sheep!’ Mary and Joseph reminisce about that other journey they took to Bethlehem, some years before, they smile as they tell Jesus he’s been on this road before. This time they arrive looking like foreigners, they have been living as refugees in a strange land but now they come and find a place to settle by the sea in a small town called Nazareth. They are carrying the Christ child. They are carrying with them the hope of the nations. They are bringing the light that shines in the darkness.

This journey is made possible all because Mary said ‘yes’. All because Joseph said ‘yes’. The Holy Family are a family who say ‘yes’ to God, not knowing what the future will hold. We join with them in the journey – into the unknown. We don’t know what 2014 will hold for us. Mary and Joseph carried the Christ child with them. The message of Christmas that we celebrate in this season is that God is with us, Immanuel. Like Joseph, we carry Christ with us ourselves as we leave this place, as we start a new year, as we move to a place of the unexpected, possibly a place of darkness, into that we carry the light of Christ. God with us. Immanuel.

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At the service they made an affirmation of vows and my mother got a surprise new ruby ring which was blessed. As a thank you for using the church for a party this evening they also bought a new set of vestments for the church.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus – radical friendship with Jesus

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Today it is the ‘lesser festival’ of Mary, Martha and Lazarus – siblings who were great friends with Jesus. It really raised a smile for me at Morning Prayer today to see them described as Companions of our Lord. That is what I want to be. Imagine the ease with which Jesus spent time with this family. He was probably so friendly with them he could walk into their house whenever he felt like it and make himself comfortable. We get some glimpses of the personalities of the sisters in particular, imagine the dinner table conversations they had together! Through Mary, Martha and Lazarus we see how radical friendship with Jesus is. He debated with the women as if they were men, teaching them things usually reserved for men and cared for them as if they were his own family. Oh, and there’s the small detail of bringing Lazarus back to life as well.

It put me in mind of the lovely icon of St Menas with Christ, his friend alongside him, his companion:

Image source wikipedia

I particularly like the wording of the collect for today, it encapsulates the wonder of friendship, and of how wonderful friendship is when Christ is in your circle of friends:

God our Father,
whose Son enjoyed the love of his friends,
Mary, Martha and Lazarus,
in learning, argument and hospitality:
may we so rejoice in your love
that the world may come to know
the depths of your wisdom, the wonder of your compassion,
and your power to bring life out of death;
through the merits of Jesus Christ,
our friend and brother,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Mind the Gap – the hidden sadness in the nativity stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dark side to Christmas. My friend Andy wrote a very moving article reflecting on what this Christmas would be like for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve also just read the book Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann where she explores what it means to meet God in the darkest moments of life. At my placement church in Leeds there are many people who visit each week to collect food from the foodbank and there are others who have fled their countries and live here in fear. All of this has combined to make me think again about the message of Christmas and what this season of joy might mean to these different people.

When we read the bible, it is sometimes the things that are not said that can be significant. We are fortunate that our gospel writers wrote very intentionally – their versions of the life of Christ and the early Christians weren’t written on the back of an envelope – they were carefully crafted. If you look closely at the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke there is quite a lot of hidden sadness.

  • In Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message Gabriel brought her, she said ‘yes’ to shame, to ostracism in her community, to the risk of losing Joseph. Imagine for a moment what her pregnancy must have been like for her.
  • Joseph is compelled by the hated occupying forces to take his heavily pregnant fiancee all the way to Bethlehem just for his name to be registered – presumably so that the Romans can leech even more from his people. Joseph, in agreeing to stay with Mary, must have attracted some comments as well from his village – everyone would have assumed he was the father of the child.
  • The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, on the outskirts of the city being kept there both physically and metaphorically by wider society. What hardship had they encountered in their lives and what would have carried on after they had met Jesus?
  • The wise men had to change all their plans after meeting Jesus, they had to go home by a different, probably dangerous, possibly costly route. What would that journey home for them have been like?
  • As we can see, in amongst all the joy is sadness. In the call of God there is both loss and gain.

    I don’t know if this gives me comfort or not. I guess it does because if it wasn’t there, I don’t think I could believe the story – it wouldn’t feel real.

    I got irritated in Waterstone’s yesterday looking in the so-called Religion section. There, next to the bibles was AC Grayling’s alternative to the bible ‘The Good Book’. A cursory glance at it immediately spoke to me of emptiness. The reason the bible is the ultimate Good Book is because it contains the disturbing reality of human life – not a sanitised version of what we think it ought to be. I think I’d rather have the warts and all version of how God deals with people than someone’s lofty ideas of how life should be. This is the amazing mystery we celebrate at Christmas, that in our confused and often sad lives, Jesus still chooses to come and be present to us, in the dirt, whilst others whisper about the inappropriateness of it all.

    Immanuel. God with us.

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    Jesus says “don’t worry!”

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    There seems to have been a flurry of picture sharing on Facebook in the last week or so. Among all the pictures, one in particular stood out for me:

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    Jesus has quite a lot to say about worry and anxiety. It’s amazing that we don’t focus on this teaching very much. This morning I heard the story of Martha and Mary on the Pray as you go Podcast. I was encouraged to think about what it was that Martha got wrong that Jesus seems to ‘rebuke’ her for. I thought and realised that the essence of it is that Jesus is telling her “don’t worry”:

    “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41, 42 NIV)

    The passage also mentions that Martha is ‘distracted’.

    When our gaze is distracted from Jesus we get stressed and worried!

    So it’s right that Jesus seems so harsh with Martha – he’s trying to hammer home the point about how destructive worry is – he loves her too much not to challenge her.

    How often do we really hear these words of Jesus?

    “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25, 27, 34 NIV)