Saturday, 24 December 2016

Midnight special

Tonight we celebrate the incarnation and many churches through out the world will have a midnight service as part of that celebration.  This is a traditional service that brings us into the festive day with the traditional Christmas story.  A story that has become commercialised over time so that we see the stable, the inn and the shepherds in a cute over sweet atmospheric package.  Have we lost a sense of what this night of wonder is really about?  Have we lost our visualisation and theological understanding of this event?

In going back through the centuries to the night when a young woman gave birth, not in the roughness of a stable or cave but rather in a family home.  A home that was no doubt housing a large number of relatives who have gathered in town as a result of the census that Rome has called.  The family home that has not seen so many of the family gathered together for many a year. We can probably relate to that sort of atmosphere when we come together as scattered families at special times like weddings, anniversaries, and special family occasions.  Often times it is impossible to accommodate everyone.  People sleeping on floors in lounges, on air mattresses, chaos every where.  If we can imagine that we can begin to realise the chaos in the family home in Bethlehem this night.  Now let us put into the mix the youngest member of the family, heavily pregnant and because Nan has the guest bedroom she has to make do with the main family room.

Of course being in the Middle East at this time of year it gets a bit cold for the animals so they have been brought inside as well, to keep them warm but also to heat the home, despite all the extra people. Uh! Oh! she has gone into labour, no time for medical midwives in this household, lets get down and deliver.  Safe birth! Hallelujah! With no place to put the child, wrap him up in warm clothes (swaddle the child) and lay him in the warmest place, the manger that the cows have been fed from.  This is the true miracle that all of those people were there to assist the couple with the birth and that they found a place out of the cold amidst the warmth of family.  The love, the relationships and the acceptance even at the time of stress and uncertainty.  Hope comes from a loving relationship that is formed from birth and grows into old age and beyond.

Stars of hope birthed in the incarnation.

The acceptance of God within our midst at the moment of birth is an acceptance of love within ourselves.  A love that is capable of transcending all the borders and all the barriers that our fears erect.  The incarnation is the birth of hope in the midst of disarray and anxiety.  It is how we build our communities and remove them from the fears that, if allowed, would destroy our very existence as a community.  We only have to look at the chaos that is America or the ME to see this in action. In creating the space to welcome this Christ child within our crowded and busy lives we begin once more to build with hope.  We allow the unacceptable to come into and be a part of ourselves.  We make room for those things we do not like, we shun and consider to be below us, the outcasts of the world and our own society.  Just as the shepherds, outcast but necessary voices, come to share the blessings of a new birth we welcome the other into our lives.

This is a sign of hope that we can well afford to heed within our own families and communities.  God incarnate is not to be sheltered from the vagaries of life but is to welcome the lowliest and those we have judged to be outcast.  It is we, those who erect the barriers, who will find the hope embedded in this baby.  A hope that will, if we were only to allow it, transcend all of our prejudices and exclusions, all of our negatives, to find a new peace and a new accord as the future breaks upon us. Drawing us into a whole community undivided by prejudice and misunderstanding, a community that sees God in the face of those around us.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The idolisation of the cross - a reflection

The early Christian Church never used the cross as a symbol preferring the ICTHUS and the Chi - Rho among many others but since its adoption some 400 years after Christ's death it has become ubiquitous with the Christian faith.  Like any symbol it has changed from a simple Roman or Greek cross to more ornate ones such as the Jerusalem cross.  Indeed before becoming associated so firmly with the Christian faith it was associated with pagan worship.  During the reformation it became a point of dispute even amongst those who were protesting.  The traditional cross with the corpus as seen in many catholic and orthodox churches was accepted by Luther and Lutherans but rejected as being idolatrous by other protestant denominations.  In more recent times the bare cross has become more of a norm in churches than the crucifix as it is sometimes said that Christ should not be left on the cross as he is resurrected and ascended.  So when does veneration or contemplation of a symbol become idolatry?

To my mind this is an important question to ask, especially if in our liturgy the cross becomes such a focal point of worship that to turn away from it is to bring the worship experience to an experience of devastation.  I have no issues with the cross or crucifix being a point of meditation, a useful symbol that points to greater things.  In this we see that the symbol like an icon, as a path into a spiritual landscape that is beyond the immediate.  It becomes a window onto God but this is not worship and is only peripheral to the worship experience not its essence.  In the empty cross are we creating an incomplete symbol, one that is more attuned to the modern sensibilities that avoids the horror of a tortured body.  In using this as a focal point of worship are we neglecting the reality of Christ's presence in our neighbour.  We can make up any faith-filled excuse to have an empty cross (Jesus was taken down, Jesus is resurrected, Jesus is ascended) but are these just excuses for not looking at our neighbour and for not seeing Christ.

Has the cross become an idolatrous excuse not to see the plight of our neighbour?

In a chapel or circular seating arrangement for worship we are looking at each other during the worship as compared to a traditional Church seating pattern.  It may seem strange for us to see the face of the other but in seeing, truly seeing, a face we acknowledge Christ in our presence.  In seeing someone in tears during a funeral we are seeing Christ mourn.  In seeing someone's joyous expression during a wedding we are seeing the joy of Christ.  In wanting to focus on the cross we are abandoning Christ to the cross as we turn away from the joys, misery and hurt in the world.  Indeed in having a bare cross, no more nowadays than a form of adornment with no faith commitment, are we not also fleeing from the idea of death.  Death has to come before Christ can be resurrected and ascend.  It is at the moment of death, death on the cross that we see the saving work of Christ.  It is from death that the seed of new life comes in the resurrection so how do we acknowledge this, how do we accept this in today's world of denial?

As we near the celebration of Christ's birth this reflection may seem strange but what better time as we come to celebrate a new beginning to reflect how we treat the end.  If we start our new year with a new attitude towards our symbols maybe, just maybe, we will accept our neighbours and see them as the incarnation of God in our lives.  In doing so we may be more loving, more accepting and more able to challenge the injustices that we see in the world.  But if we remain focused on the cross could it be that we are keeping Christ there, crucifying him over and over and over.......again.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Love is inclusive not exclusive

In the readings from this the fourth Sunday of Advent, just prior to the actual incarnation we have Isaiah's prophesy and Matthew's description of that fulfilled (Is. 7.14; Matt. 1.23).  Of course we have the problem of the virgin versus the young woman in the translation and interpretation but lets leave that aside for the present.  The implication is here that the incarnation of God is prophesied and fulfilled within a cultural context which is filled with innuendo and shame.  Shame for Joseph and the family as a result of accepting a 'virgin' / young girl who is already pregnant for his wife. This culture will put away the woman in disgrace to be ostracised for life; hidden away from family, friends and culture; a leper who has no leprosy.

Only by loving do we accept the other.

In an extraordinary turn around from the expected ostracisation by a community we have an acceptance, yes of God's presence (a given), of a person in their own right and for who they are not or who they appear to be.  Our focus is so often on the fact that Joseph is spoken to or that their is an intervention but is this really the issue here.  All that happens is that Joseph is given all the facts, God does not make Joseph sign up all he does is give the man the facts.  The decision is always Joseph's to make.  Just think of the bigoted way in which we think today and place ourselves in Joseph's shoes.  What would our decision be?  Quite honestly, if we take away all our sanctimonious attitudes, I suspect that we would not make the decision that Joseph made.  The difference is that today we are influenced by media, by the greater community and by the politics that surround us each and every day.  It is not the well being of the person that comes to mind first but rather our standing and political face in the community.  We only have to look at the political attitudes towards those who seek asylum and the ground swell of nationalistic rhetoric to see that this is true.

If we today act out of our political presence in the world what does Joseph act out of?  The political pressures where still there and in some ways they were as horrendous, if not more so, for a village carpenter.  Yet, Joseph acts with compassion towards someone who is likely to be shamed and placed in the shadows.  He acts towards the person and with the person in mind, not towards the political sense of the community.  In looking at our interactions within our parish and within our daily lives are we ready to do the same as we draw towards the incarnation?  How can we tell whether our decisions are based on compassion or on political gain?  Do we sometimes or always err on the side of caution and fail to make the connection between our decision and the well being of our community?

To act as Joseph did is to act with a deep understanding of the other.  To make decisions with compassion is to make decisions that are deeply centred in love.  Love that Joseph shows is a love that does not bow to power, politics or opinion and yet it is a love that shares everything openly. In not sharing we ultimately deny love for political gain.  In not being open with our knowledge, insights, wisdom and in not listening to others we are not operating out of love.  We demand these things for ourselves and then neglect to reciprocate.  God gave his trust to Joseph operating out of love, hoping that Joseph would commit himself to the same having been given an example.  We acknowledge and see God's love abounding in scripture and around us in our lives.  A love that shares and is one with the other.  A love that seeks the well being of all not just of one.  A love that will weather the storms of scandal and upset without losing sight of the other. The love that we accept is a love that is totally inclusive, it is not petty thinking only of self, it is not greedy thinking only of gain, it does not shun or put others into categories to be ignored.  If we do not get our way do we throw a tantrum or do we accept all in love resting in the grace of hope, faith and joy?   In approaching the incarnation can we let go and let love guide our ways?

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Joy comes with healing

John the Baptist is worried, is Jesus the Messiah or isn't he?  John like  many of his time had an apocalyptic understanding of who the messiah was; a warrior, the scion of David, kingly in appearance one who would come to re-establish Israel. Jesus responds by reminding John via the reports his disciples will carry back Isaiah's words of healing (35.5-6; Matt. 11.5).  This is not what was expected, where was the new kingdom?  Where was the overthrow of the Roman invaders?  Where was the new society that was so hoped for?  Here we are so many years later asking the same questions, filled with the same doubt, in a world gone mad on violence and cold hearts.  What has happened to the joy that comes with God's peace and Christ's abundant love?

We feel as if we are deserted in the midst of the fecundity of present time.  Mainline churches and volunteer societies appear to be dying.  We look towards a bleak dry future so turn towards the glories of the past with reminiscences of the joy and love we felt when all things were bright and cheerful.  We yearn for a future that is filled with the joys of the past and the friendships that have been created.  What we never realise is that those joys that we are sunk into remain in the past and so we never have the ability to engage with the present to create new joys out of what we perceive to be endless sorrows.  It is only when we recognise that by dwelling in the past and attempting to re-create that past in the present we are creating our own melancholy and inability to move into the future.  In this recognition we begin our return to new life and the joy of Christ in the world.  By retreating to the past and attempting to recreate it in the present we are playing a political game that is only for our benefit, our control of the world around us, our drug of choice that pushes our own agendas without thinking of the greater whole or of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

Let the past die, mourn the past but live into the joy of new life.

Being human we are unable to let go of the memories of the past.  They haunt us in the present and deny us our future.  In the incarnation as it comes towards us we are reminded that we are mortal for God has created us and has become created with us so that we can live into the future.  A future that as we know involves dying and in dying we let go of the past.  In living into the future we recognise the elements of re-birth and newness of life as we co-create the joy of God's love.  It is only when we recognise the elements of death within our own lives that we can start to let go and let God's love in recreating joy, happiness and life.  It is through this healing power of understanding and anamnesis as we re-live the path of Christ that we come to the joy of new life.  This letting go and re-membering needs to occur within all aspects of our life.  We become hypocrites when we allow our past activities and politics to guide our present activities without first going through death to create new paths and new joys.

If we do this correctly, we mourn each death and move on into new life, this applies to parish life as much as to our lives in community.  This is the upside down world of God's coming kingdom, it is we who have to mourn not others, it is we who have to suffer the death of ourselves not others,it is we who have to forgive ourselves not others.  Christ gives us a clue to what healing in God's kingdom means as he proclaims those deeds that have been undertaken.  The poor and the outcast are given hope and joy.  The vicissitudes of life are not imposed by others but by by our own wants and needs our own rejection of the joy that is around us if we open our hearts to the other.  God's kingdom comes in the iruption of newness within the fecundity of our lives as we understand ourselves and so come open our eyes to joy and love in relationships we build into the future..

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Prepare with faith

Sitting in the balcony seats of a theatre watching the opening of Godspell. There is a hair raising moment as a superb tenor calls from beneath you - 'Prepare Ye the way of the Lord' (Godspell) - it reverberates through the theatre and sends shivers down the spine. On this Sunday, this is what we are called to do. Prepare in faith and with faith as we listen to John's vituperative outburst against those who come to him (Matt 3.7).  A tongue lashing about their own faith as they come to a preparation to receive a new spirit of God's presence in their lives. A tongue lashing that comes from the liminal spaces of the desert margins to the overly pretentious religious of the day.  A call from the margins that extends into the future to today and beyond.

John's call from the margins needs to be heard by all who profess a faith as it is a persistent call to those who believe that they are centred in God / Christ. Just as John called out to those who were not practicing their faith genuinely within the society of their time, we are also asked to be that voice on the margin.  We are all called to be voices from the margins of the societies that we live in.  However, we must remember that John called to his own and is a signpost on the way towards Christ, pointing towards a new future that must be taken in faith.  We must realise that we are required to point out our own faults and our own lacks first, before we can portray the Christic life.  In our preparations for the incarnation we often neglect John the Baptist's call to examine our own behaviours.  We are expectant in our faith journey at this time of year for the incarnation, as we should be, but are so future orientated that we forget our present circumstances.  How can we come before Christ incarnate if we have not realised our own faults and brokenness?

No matter how we perceive ourselves as a faith based community we are called by that faith to reveal Christ within ourselves and part of that revelation is to see ourselves as others perceive us. Then and only then can we be the true prophetic voice that calls to the world, reminding the world what it is to live as Christ.  For example, the Dalai Lama has reiterated and reminds us that violence in the name of any religion or faith is one that is anathema to that faith. All faiths and those that adhere to those faiths look towards a life that is premised on relationship and God's love. Yet, when we look around the world all we see is the violence that we perpetrate upon each other that arises out of our own lack.  Our own lack or willingness to embrace the other with a childlike faith.  Such a faith knows no bounds in its acceptance of the other.  Until we can come ourselves into such an acceptance we will fail in our faith journey towards Christ. And violence is only one thing that denies us the totality of living a Christic life.

You do not have to see the outcome. Just step out in faith.

We have a habit of judging the worth of someone or the feasibility of something from our own internal pre-judgements, most of which are formed from first impressions.  Isaiah that right judgement is a sign of Christ's presence (Is. 11.4).  We do not judge on outward appearances for if we do it is very unlikely that the lion will feed with the calf.  We will avoid the two and go with either this or that, for us it is incomprehensible for both this and that to come together.  Two opposites can never mix and yet Christ brings the two together as one not as polar opposites.  If we are not open to Christ's Spirit we are not open to an acceptance of another way of seeing.  Isaiah, Christ and poets often see things from a different angle.  We are asked to step into, with, and alongside faith knowing that the dream of impossibilities is open to us.  Only when we accept this faith journey (a darkness in the future that turns to light as we approach) will we come to truly understand Christ's presence in our lives.

A challenge:
Can you dream of 50 different ways to use the worship space that you attend without repeating yourself and without specifying it as worship?  In opening ourselves up in such a way we allow ourselves to start to imagine the topsy turvey world that would be if we all lived into Christ.