Sunday, 13 January 2019

Born in the Spirit

In looking at the baptism of Christ we are inevitably drawn to the descent of the Spirit and need to come to some sort of understanding of what this means for us today. In the reading from Luke's gospel (Lk. 3.21-22) the descent of the Spirit occurs after Jesus' baptism while he was praying, by implication, on his own. Thus, the words and the presence of the Spirit was a personal experience and not a public one. In Mark's gospel it is a vision experienced as he comes up from the water (Mk. 1.10-11), which is repeated in Matthew (Matt. 3.16-17). To my mind this indicates that the baptismal experience was an extremely profound one for Jesus' internal spiritual life with few repercussions on the lives of those around him at the time. It was thought provoking and so intense that he required solitude to process the experience. Elsewhere in the Scriptures the Spirit is outwardly manifest, or apparently so, with the laying on of hands (Acts 8.17) but usually more personal in the way of the prophets (Is. 43.1). If it is as personal as it appears what then does it mean for us to be born in the Spirit, is it the ecstatic prominence that is seen or is it a more subdued life changing event?

If we were to look back in the scriptures to the first "manifestation" of God's Spirit and interaction with humanity we would be looking back to the Sinai event and the initial revelation of God to the people of Israel (Exodus 19-20). This is a traumatic event for the Israelites, which ultimately leads them into a rejection of the personal entwinement of  God's presence in their lives. A personal involvement that comes with a cost that they leave to the prophets and at the time, Moses (Exod. 20.19) as God's Spirit demands of us a prophetic voice. The fear according to interpretive sources is a fear of responding to God with openness and in the keeping of the commandments. This is the originary fear of opening oneself up to be injured and hurt by the other as we allow them into our hearts and minds. We fear, ultimately, being hurt when we cannot live up to the expectations of God and the other. In our reaction to that fear we lash out against what we perceive to be attacks against our person or our integrity. Until the Israelites were able to place God and the other before themselves they found themselves within the desert experience and continually in a place of exile. This took forty years of pain and struggle, it was not immediate.

The swirl of ecstasy when we accept the Spirit  (Egyptian artist - Taher Abdel Azim)

Since that time, the closeness of God's Spirit became associated only with the prophets who undertake God's bidding, even if sometimes against their own will (See Jeremiah). For us Christ changes this as he models the acceptance of the Spirit in a manner that can be emulated without fear. The prophetic charge of God's call is still present but it is not the charge of strangeness but of normality. It opens us up to the other without fear but with love. It means that when we are filled with the Spirit we reject our own responses if they are abusive of the other. It means that we are responsive to the hurt in others and do not compound it in our own commentary. Our displays of God's love need to be responsive to the presence of the other. Sobriety and sternness do not always determine the presence of God. Then again hysteria and ecstasy are also not, necessarily, indicators of God's presence. God's Spirit calls us from the moment of Baptism, just as it called to Christ. Our personal response to God's presence is not always immediate as babies, but manifests as we grow into our faith and the acknowledgement of God in our presence (remember the forty years). So being born of the Spirit is an acceptance of the presence of God in our lives, a presence that has been with us since our early lives. It is our recognition of the other and it is God's acknowledgement of that change in our perspective.

In moving into the world we return with a true respect for each other that encompasses faults, errors and disagreements. It allows us to form a harmonious whole in the presence of God and it forgives the hurts that we deem to have been heaped upon us, through mis-perception, mis-understanding and genuine error. No community that is called into place is perfect but struggles within itself to find God's presence and display it to the world with joy and peace. God truly loves us, so that we may mirror that love back to God and as a light in the world. Our prophetic ministry as bearers of God's light in the world is to understand our own grievances, forgive ourselves and others whilst enfolding each other in prayer and love. It is these actions that achieve community and bring God's presence into reality.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The subversive gifts

What is in a gift? Today, we celebrate the coming of the wise men / astrologers / kings into the life of a young baby who would know nothing of the event but marvel at the stories told in the family home of the visitation. I am sure he would have marvelled at the concept of gold for the family (where is it mum?), the fragrance of frankincense being burnt in the home and being told it cane from the wise men and at family funerals the expensive myrrh being burnt for the dead or even used to help preserve granny (Matt 2.11). We are told today that the gifts represent things that are associated with the Christ; kingship, priesthood and power over life/death. I believe that if we allow ourselves to be lulled by these simple meanings we actually miss some of the deeper points that are being made by the writer. These are points that in today's world allow us to take on a new understanding about the presence of Christ in our lives in face of a society whose beliefs are at odds with the Christian ethos.

Gold is always associated with kingship. It's very essence and beauty is something that Queens, Emperors and other rulers lavishly display to show their authority. Yet, the very presence of gold amongst the wealthy and powerful should send us signals on the darker significance that gold retains. The power that is on display is power that is of the self. It is power that overrides others and demeans those with less. It is an authority that if allowed, or not, de-legitimises the others feelings, presence and self-hood. It proclaims the wealth and greatness of the individual and in some, if not all, circumstances it proclaims the right to what ever the owner wishes. So what does this tell us about the gift that is given? From what we know of Jesus the Christ's life the allure of gold was not high on his agenda. Indeed the Gospels record his rejection of such power during his forty days in the desert. Perhaps as a result of the gift given to him he was able to see beyond its allure to the greed that was displayed by those around him for such power. Perhaps, when we see the gift of gold we need to remind ourselves that the Christ's riches are not found in gold but in love and friendship that is the foundation of community.

The gifts from the wise call us to re-evaluate our thinking

Frankincense is associated intimately with the priesthood. Even today when we have services with incense a part of the church incense is frankincense. It's scent would have been redolent through out the temple during Passover and most ceremonies. It was indicative of sweet prayers ascending to God. It is mentioned in numerous places in the Bible and is seen as a symbol of the divine name (Mal. 1.11). It is a high quality resinous substance from Arabia and Somalia, which has a balsamic-spicy and lemony smell with undertones of pine. The association with ritual and spiritual things is part and parcel of our understanding of Christ the High Priest. Yet, the use of ritual and religion to manipulate has been well highlighted in recent years. It speaks of personal gain and hypocrisy rather than purity and love. Throughout history there are incidents where it is the cleric or spiritual person who is at the root of the evil in society. We can see figures like Rasputin, Jones (Jonestown massacre) and modern priests who have abused spiritual wealth and power in one form or another. The Gospel account is quite clear in Christ's rejection of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who hid behind the fragrance of incense. This rejection may well be a keen insight into the hidden depths of those who care for power and self rather than for the spiritual realities of God's presence. The presence of God brings joy and love not wailing and the feeling of rejection as a result of man made laws that boost the image of the priest. It is in quietness that God is found and the expression of God's love is as ubiquitous as the fragrance of incense when the other is the centre of our attention.

Myrrh is representative of death. It was used as part of the funerary rites and in the embalming of bodies. It was extremely expensive at times worth more than gold. Myrrh is an earthy smell with bitter undertones. It is considered as an associate of death as it was used in the embalming process and is likely to be the resin used on Christ's body following the crucifixion. A foretaste then of death at Christ's birth, in some respects a completion of a circle. We have both a fascination and fear of death, one of the reasons for our elaborate rituals around death and mortality. However, myrrh has many other properties including a healing function. It was well used in the ancient East and Hildegard of Bingen used it for medical purposes. This is life rather than death but then life and death are entwined. Christ would have known both and showed no fear of the latter as death is needed for new life to come into being. Neither should we fear our mortality for it is a part of substantive life. Christ brings us to new life not to death as he rejects the need for stasis and invites us to joyousness in new things as our world changes around us but retains God's love and presence in every breath we breathe.