Monday, 31 December 2012

31st December 2012 - St Sylvester

The last day of the year in the secular calendar is the seventh day of Christmas for the community of faith. In some parts of Europe it is also known as St Sylvester's Day. He was ordained Bishop of Rome in 314AD and a participant in the great Council of Nicea, dying ten years later in 335AD. He was a key spiritual leader at a time when Christians all over Europe were being intoxicated with enthusiasm for the teachings of Arius, or else driven apart by attitudes taken up for an against the reconciliation of Christians lapsing the face of persecution. He is buried in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla on the via Salaria outside the city, where the  faithful would meet to pray among their dead in good times and in bad, taking inspiration from their heroic life stories.

Sylvester is not known for his writings. His thought contributed to the decision making at Nicea, and his steady hand on the leadership of the Roman Church in such turbulent times meant that it remained true to the Orthodox concensus of faith. So, a guardian of truth and stability is honoured as one year changes into another, one for whom Jesus Christ was truly divine and truly human, the second person of the triune God together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Behind the man Sylvester, these words of faith he stood for and the ideas they represent, is a community of many diverse people, humble before God in prayer, worship, witness, service and proclamation, a community of people learning to live together with their differences and unite around this successor of the Apostles, serving and always pointing to the truth of Christ, the way to life in communion with God.

At the turn of the year we look back and look forwards too, although rarely do we look so far back, unless the name of Sylvester arouses curiosity from someone who has never heard of him and his story as a key member of the body of Christ. But whenever we look forward, no matter what we think the future holds for us, we know that within it, all will be in Christ, and Christ will be in all.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

30th December 2012 - Christmas Sunday

No saint or martyr is commemorated on the sixth day of Christmas, but co-incidentally this year it falls on a Sunday. The lectionary readings continue to reflect on the mystery of the incarnation, God sharing our human nature and experience, dwelling among us. This Lukan year Gospel of the day tells the story of how the boy Jesus went missing from the pilgrimage group heading home, only to be found by his parents in the Temple, four days later. It tells us a little about his relationship with his parents, and only mentions in passing the terrible anxiety of his parents searching for a missing child, one entrusted to their nurture and protection by God.

The calendar of the Roman Catholic church designates this Sunday in honour of the Holy Family, celebrating and upholding the ideal of family life centred around the sharing of a common faith. What is interesting and challenging about Luke' story is how this family's unity and strength are tested, as indeed they often are in many families, by the unconventional behaviour of their child.

Jesus gets left behind, but not because he is rebelling against his parents, indeed the outcome of the story is that he returns with them to Nazareth and submits to their guidance and nurture in the expected way. He has received his spiritual formation from his mother in the traditional manner as the son of a Jewish family, steeped in the pharisaic tradition of devotion. He goes with them and their community on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but what most aborbs him there and leads to him getting left behind are questions about faith he has for the elders and teachers in the Temple. His family nurture has awakened his hunger to know more about God and God's world, and to have confidence to look outside the security and constancy of the domestic realm into the greater world of faith to find answers.

The elders are amazed at the discussions he wants to have with them due to the maturity of his thinking expressed by his curiosity. It's three days before his parents find him, and his response to their anxiety is not reassuringly apologetic, but rather perplexing. "Do you not know that I must be about my father's business?" They don't understand. But perhaps they are comforted to find him accepted in such eminent company and looked after while he is far from home. For them it becomes part of recognising that Jesus was growing in wisdom as well as stature, looked upon favourably by God and others. It's something every parent wants and hopes to see in their offspring.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

29th December 2012 - St Thomas a Becket

The coming of the Word made flesh begins a new way for people to relate to one another and God. Around the preaching of the Good News Jesus proclaims a new community of values, concerns and trust grows. It crosses boundaries of language, culture, ethnicity, economics and political power despite persecutions arising as state rulers feel confidence in their values and concerns is challeneged and threatened. Secular rulers emerge who are wise enough to adopt Christian faith, or engage it into their thinking. But there are always tensions between how churches understand their role and responsibilities, and the how the state would like things to be.

Christianisation of cultures and societies is never complete because of the way they continually evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Christian values and convictions can profoundly influence how society develops, but it's only authentic and lasting as a result of dialogue between witnesses to the Gospel and everyone else with ideas about how to make things better. Imposition of religion always proves a failure sooner or later. It taints successes the church achieves for the common good. Transforming dialogue between religion and society, church and state, is possible only when each other's autonomy is accepted and respected. The world needs to understand and respect that sense of 'otherness' about the church's existence to be blessed by it. This is part and parcel of what incarnation means in human history.

This day of Christmas, St Thomas a Becket the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury is remembered. Although the leading prelate of the twelfth century British church, his relationship with King Henry II was conflictual because Thomas insisted that the church had a certain independence, rights of its own and loyalties transcending national interests because of its communion with the Roman Papacy. Thomas was exiled six years in France as a result, and with matters still unresolved when he returned, tensions continued, as Thomas reminded the king of the limitations of his power and authority. In the end, Thomas was murdered in his own cathedral by Henry's own knights. Four hundred years later, another Thomas - Thomas More - was martyred by order of another Henry (VIII) for his refusal to sanction a formal break in allegiance between the British church and the Papacy during the reformation.

Stories of this kind of heroic spiritual courage repeat themselves in different countries around the world over centuries of Church growth. They are a reminder to faithful people everywhere eager to make sure their witness to faith to the incarnate God is relevant. Although we belong in the world, tension with the world never goes away, for we are not 'of the world' once we let God rule over our hearts and lives.

Christ 'came into his own and his own knew him not, his own people would not recognise him.' The same has always been true of the Church called to be the Body of Christ on earth here and now.

Friday, 28 December 2012

28th December 2012 - Holy Innocents

Matthew's Gospel tells how Herod, on learning of the birth of a potential rival for people in his realm orders the killing of every boy child under the age of two which can be found in Bethlehem and the surrounding district. His violence and ruthlessness in controlling the people in Judea is already the basis of him being tolerated as a local ruler by the Roman overlords. Only when prompted by the enquiry of foreign visitors about the whereabouts of the child foretold by heaven do his own advisors search the scriptures and identify this child's birthplace.

Paradoxically, tradition speaks about them as martyrs, although for them there is no conscious decision involved in them submitting to death. They are martyrs in the sense of witnessing to the depths of evil to which people can descend in order to preserve what they value most - their own power and sense of themselves.

This story echoes that of the captive people of Israel whose expansion and vigour were perceived as a threat by the rulers of Egypt, who ordered the killing of all new born Hebrew boys to curb population expansion. Those who govern by fear are themselves governed by fears, and end up doing terrible and inhumane things to others, with no respect for the innocent or the weak.

Jesus warns sternly against harming children by causing them to fall or despising them. The young and vulnerable need all the support and affirmation they can get to grow up as healthy human beings. Not all suffering can be avoided, he says, but little ones need to be protected as much as possible from un-necesssary suffering. Every human being was once a child. Committing deliberate acts of cruelty and killing is a symptom that a person has lost their basic sense of humanity. Jesus recognises can happen in this fallen world, so terrible things can happen to children. He declares how much worse will be the consequences for those who abuse them. 

Jesus also says that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we are meant to return to the innocence and openness, trust and wonder of little children in relationship to God. This can mean facing up to the memories of suffering and hurt experienced as a child, turning to God for healing and release that will restore lost humanity. Anyone can claim the freedom to make this journey of repentance , but if we will not do it, we are damned indeed. 

Thursday, 27 December 2012

27th December 2012 - St John, Apostle & Evangelist

Of the disciples, John son of Zebedee, James' brother is portrayed as closest to Jesus, leaning on him at the last supper, asking him questions. Tradition regards John as the youngest disciple. 

The Gospel bearing John's name declares it is eyewitness testimony, especially the passion story. In it John speaks of himself as 'the beloved disciple'. Generally his Gospel contains stories and sayings similar to the other three. Instead of sharing passages of text or storyline, John organises and re-tells stories differently, adding reflections and comments, attributing to Jesus some powerful discourses and spiritual sayings. Its poetic and mystical qualities set it apart, to the extent that its universal acceptance by the churches was debated and came later than the other three Gospels. 

It was initially suspected that it was an esoteric gnostic text to be avoided because its version of Jesus' story was not fully grounded in reality. Yet, John's account of Jesus' engagement with life, death and the rootedness of the truth he tells, belongs in real experience rather than fantasy or philosophy. They disclose a writer inspired to evangelise both gnostic and conservative Judaic thinkers. He confronts them creatively to tell the story of Jesus. He begins, proclaiming Jesus as the divine Word revealed in the entire life and body of one person, at home in the reality of this world.

If John was the youngest disciple, he certainly grew up in those three years spent together. As Jesus was dying on the cross he entrusted John with the care of his mother Mary. Tradition has it that he stayed with her until she died in Ephesus, and lived himself to a great age. When he began to write, whether he had companions who shared in writing the Gospel with whom he reflected upon his experiences and all Jesus had discussed with him is not known. His Gospel was the last to become widely known, but it may have been half a century or more in taking its familiar form.

We know much of Jesus' words and deeds, far less about the man. He was habitually self effacing, referring to himself as 'Son of the Man', perpetually pointing beyond himself to the Father. Likewise we know little of John the closest to Jesus, except that his apostolic life revolves entirely about making known the depths of divine reality in Jesus. When speaking poetically of Jesus' ministry and identity, John dares to put into Jesus' mouth words other evangelists are shy of: 'I am', words the God of their forefathers used to reveal His presence to Moses. John had confidence in this truth which others took time to realise and accept. It came from his lifetime's personal experience.

The development of faith with understanding starts from Jesus' humanity and finds fulfilment in acclaiming his divinity. This was how it was for John, and how it is for us too.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

26th December 2012 - the Feast of Stephen

The story of Stephen the deacon's killing and the persecution that followed it, some time in the first decade of the life of the infant church would have been told on the anniversary of his death for several more decades before Luke recorded it in his Acts of the Apostles. Another century would elapse before Luke's stories of the birth and infancy of Christ took their place in the evolving cycle of commemorations and story telling.

Nobody knew Jesus' birth date, so celebrating his birth was a matter of choice. Dates selected related to the winter solstice pagan festivities (25th) in the north of Europe and the celebration of the birth of Osiris (6th Jan) in Mediterranean lands. It was a way to 'baptize' the ancient impulse to feast in the quietest season of the year when little else could be done apart from wait for the arrival of better growing and working conditions. In due course both dates were universally adopted as well as the days in between, spanning the arrival of the new year, a festive season in honour of the incarnation of the Son of God. 

This innovation did not displace the Feast of Stephen however, because it was already there from the earliest time in the collective memory of the church. He was the first of multitudes to die for their open profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and the difference they believed this would make to the destiny of humankind. Stephen's affirmation was perceived as a blasphemous innovation threatening the status quo of privilege and power as much as core shared beliefs.

His death was a traumatic set-back for the infant Christian community. Believers scattered far and wide, but they took with them a story which they couldn't help but tell to anyone that would listen. This was when they discovered that it could touch hearts and minds, inspire and change lives, and raise up new disciples among those who hadn't even heard of Jesus before.

Luke's account of Stephen's martyrdom echoes that of the death of Jesus. He looks up into the Beyond as he faces condemnation and he forgives his murderers as he is dying. The power of the Spirit bestowed upon Jesus' disciples enables them to behave like him, in loving compassion, self sacrifical service and willingness to suffer for the truth.

The wonder recalled in the moment of Christ's birth doesn't linger long as an exalted sentiment, but is rooted in the grim realities of a world where great fear has yet to be overwhelmed totally by great joy. 

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

25th December - Christmas Day

From the stillness and silence of eternity comes the Word - the reason, principal and purpose which brings all things into being. The divine presence and activity at the depths of all time, space and matter, ready to be discovered, marvelled and rejoiced in, ever since humankind became capable of remembering and reasoning. This day, attention is focussed on one human being. A child, as tradition would have it, born in the night, un-noticed, far from home, far from the extended family and neighbours waiting to welcome him.

For those expecting his arrival, he'd be special because he was a first-born son, inheritor of his father's stories, possessions and standing in the community. He would also be another pair of hands to train in a skill, disciplined to work hard and provide for others. How many would have hoped in earnest that he'd have the mind of a great teacher and a heart of such unfathomable faith? 

Some might look into his face and ask, as was their pious habit, Will this one be the Messiah? It was their way of acknowledging the blessing of the birth of a son, no matter whose child he was. At this moment, however, nobody is around to congratulate his parents. They are alone with him, and astonished when shepherds arrive, their eyes alight with the wonder of an experience they've had out on the hillside, guarding animal flocks.

Who were these night watchmen? They slept under the stars, earning their keep as property guards by the owners of the flocks dwelling more comfortably in tents or houses elsewhere. They may have been homeless poor people surviving hand to mouth on the edge of society.

They are exuberant with joy and filled with unusual confidence when they find Joseph, Mary and the child in the manger. They'd abandoned their charges to come and see for themselves, and confirm that they had a real story to tell. It wasn't an idle dream, but a glimpse of something beginning in the Beyond and leading to this place. 

Mary marvels, and ponders in her heart on what has happened, realising what she and Joseph already knew in their hearts is true for everyone welcoming this good news. God has chosen to come and be with humankind, starting not with the elite of successful people, those at the peak of evolutionary progress, but with those left behind in the race for life, those with little or nothing to show for their existence, those forgotten, un-noticed. 

All are beloved children, all matter to their Maker, all have potential to become much more than they imagine of themselves. It's the fact of great fear which inhibits their growth to fulfilment. Now this great fear is overwhelmed by great joy - it is the joy of love divine all loves excelling to be made known in the life of this one born to us, given for the life of the world.

Monday, 24 December 2012

24th December - Christmas Eve

Joseph lives and works several days journey from his place of origin. Colonial rulers require his return to the place his clan belongs to register his identity for taxation. It will lose him a week of income earning and family time, just when Mary is about to give birth to this child whose origins and identity are wrapped in heavenly mystery. For their sakes he must do what is entrusted to him to do.

Bethlehem, village of King David's clan, was the heartland of Jewish national identity and aspiration, although its offspring spread far and wide from the necessity of having to ply a trade to earn a living. Nazareth was culturally as distant from Bethlehem as could be imagined, up in the Syrian border land, where races religions and cultures co-existed for centuries. Nobody knows how long the families of Mary and Joseph were settled there, but it's clear they had no relatives to call upon to offer them hospitality at the end of their journey south to Bethlehem.

With Mary close to giving birth, their journey was one that would be sure to end with uncertainty about where they might stay, however briefly, for the inevitable wait to be registered by the Roman authorities. It's always the poor, vulnerable and dependent who are forced to wait by the wealthy, powerful and capable. There are no concessions or privileges available to a man with a wife heavily pregnant and close to giving birth.

At the very time they need to be in a safe secure space for a healthy birth, they are forced to be utterly unsettled by a system which wants everything from them and gives nothing to them. They are displaced persons, dispossessed of real dignity or worth by state law enforcement.

In chaotic parts of the world, because of war, famine or poverty, despite best humanitarian efforts to alleviate conditions, this is still what happens. Mothers are compelled to give birth wherever they find themselves, no matter how difficult, dangerous or dirty that place may be.

With no family to welcome them, and no room for them at the inn, the one public place of hospitality for strangers and travellers, they take refuge in an animal shelter for the arrival of their baby. We know nothing of whether or not they were alone in their predicament, whether a provision of a stable was an act of good-will on someone's part, or a place furtively acquired, as is often the case of a homeless person finding a resting place.

In this story, regardless of what his parents are enduring, all eyes are on the arrival of one who is unknown, coming to his own people un-recognised and un-welcomed, despite centuries of waiting in anticipation for this day to dawn. In faith, they are ones who have trustingly said 'yes' to their part in this unique moment of cosmic history.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

23rd December 2012 - O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel you are our king and judge, the one whom the peoples await, and their Saviour. O come and save us O Lord our God.

The Hebrew name invoked in today's Advent antiphon means 'God is with us'. Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah's birth (7:14), declares that the One to come as saviour will bear this name. 

The evangelists name Jesus as the one to fulfil Isaiah's inspired expression of hope in God's power to save his people, through his unique birth, and the impeccable life of self sacrificial love and service which follows. 

In Jesus, God becomes present in human flesh, not in any abstract philosophical ideal way, but in the personal reality of this man whose story the Gospels recount. Because of Jesus nobody can say that God doesn't understand the trials and tribulations human beings go through.

One can argue about the necessity of his sinless conception birth, or the sinlessness of any child that is born for that matter. If the inclination to sinful behaviour is of genetic origin, what is even more vital is the freedom human beings have to resist inclination and impulse, by direction our attention elsewhere, to higher things. "If you are risen with Christ seek the things which are above where Christ is." said St Paul. God has given human beings the ability not to sin, and in Jesus we see that freedom can be lived fully, in the face of the most evil and life threatening temptations possible. It is an ability and freedom each person must take ownership of in coming to know God.

In showing us His way, at such close quarters, he rescues us from all that threatens to overpower and annihilate us. If we stumble and fall, experience any setback, He doesn't take over control unless really necessary. His way is to help us to our feet, and show us the paths we have a choice to follow. He goes wherever we go. We learn the truth with Him and from His guidance. In this, he is the most gentle of judges, concerned only for the welfare of those who are his own sisters and brothers.

Emmanuel, God-with-us, is the One who accompanies our journey through life, who encourages us to live for others and not for ourselves, as we learn first how to live for God. It's when we give time to God in silence and stillness, opening ourselves to the infinite to be filled with the Spirit that we are given strength to love, and find in this life's fulfilment.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

22nd December 2012 - O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one; Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

The invocation of today's Advent antiphon translates as 'King of Nations', but it doesn't mean nations in the 'United Nations' sense of sovereign states, but the broader notion of people identified by clan, culture, language and geography which persisted for millennia before modern 'nation states' was developed. 

All kinds of local leaders down the centuries acquired the status of king, on the basis of their strength in facing conflict or their wisdom in building wealth and stability for their community. Such kings symbolised local identity, social cohesion, representation of a particular clan before God, and also to neighbouring clans. 

Kings bestow favours on those who give them allegience. They honour those serve well their leader and their clan. Kings lead the way in forging alliances, doing battle with foes, establishing trading partners, all in pursuit of the well-being of subjects and allies. Kings remind people of their shared history their identity and belonging. Kings represent the laws which order community life for mutual benefit, and those who administer and enforce such law are answerable to the king for their endeavours.

The Hebrew people acknowledged Yahweh God ruling over them as their "Great King above all gods", and yet wanted an earthly ruler to give them the same status as other nations. Prophets pointed out that God was reluctant to allow them to have such leadership, warning they would be the poorer for it in the long run. God conceded and allowed them to learn for themselves how to manage their own affairs, and their first kings represented them before God in worship before priestly functions were delegated.

To appeal to God, all-powerful creator of humankind from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7) as King of Nations proposes an ultimate symbol binding the whole human race, in which each person can find unity in their common humanity despite differences of race, culture, history, and the ways we order and govern life together. Yet, this prayer calls out to the coming One who will rule over "every tribe and tongue and people and nation", Christ the universal King. He also reigns from the cross and stands powerless before Pilate crowned with thorns. He is the contradiction of omnipotence, a cornerstone which was first rejected. It is the paradox of God's relationship with us, and ours with Him.

Friday, 21 December 2012

21st December 2012 - O Oriens

O Daystar, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

The antiphon for this the shortest day of the year, Winter Solstice, does not curse the darkness, but rejoices in the light that persists. Oriens / Dayspring refers to the sun. Without the sun's light no life on earth could have evolved, or exist today. It is not surprising that the sun has been worshipped as a god in many cultures throughout the world since time immemorial.

The Hebrews even borrowed an Egyptian poem in praise of the sun God and adapted it for use in worship - the first part of Psalm 19 - while making it clear that "the heavens are telling the Glory of God, the firmament makes know His handiwork." All that sustains life on earth is the gift of the unknown and unseen Author of all.

The church at prayer never worshipped the sun but sees Christ's presence symbolised in what the sun provides. In St John's Gospel the coming Christ is called 'the light shining in darkness, which darkness cannot overcome'. It is a tribute to the persistence of His presence at all seasons, in all times and places. As he concludes his ministry on earth Jesus says: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." There is no place where the light of Christ cannot penetrate.

He is the light which exposes all hidden in darkness, for good or for ill. 
He is the light of hope to those who cannot see the way to go in the darkness of this passing age. 
He is the light of truth and justice to those whose discernment fails and go astray. 
He is the light of trust, to those whose confidence has been betrayed and shattered. 
He is the light of encouragement to those who are infirm and have lost their strength. 
He is the light of compassion to those who are wounded and suffer. 
He is the light of freedom to those opression by others or by their own fears and disordered passions. 
He is the light of transformation at the lowest ebb, heralding a new beginning.
He is the light of tender gentleness enfolding the anxious child hiding in the dark depths of self.
He is the light of pure self-giving love that gives meaning and purpose to all that exists.

He is the one whose life we welcome, born that night, when great fear was overwhelmed by great joy.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

20th December 2012 - O clavis Daviid

O Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no one can shut, who shuts and no one can open. Come and bring the prisoners forth from the prison cell, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Since its invention four millennia ago, the key been a symbol of effective power. Even today, the software which drives our computers, or gives us access to our emails or e-banking is activated by a digital key. 

Whoever uses keys has control, even if it is delegated to them by the possessor of power.  In the modern materialistic world the vast proliferation of locks, pass codes and security devices is a measure of how insecure many of us are with our identity and possessions. Is there a single key that can give us all the sense of freedom and safety needed to live abundantly?

The Key of David, subject of this day's Advent antiphon, refers to Isaiah 22:22 where the prophet says that the key of the household of David will be entrusted to Eliakim when he becomes chief steward, as one worthy of taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 

The sceptre is a symbol of a ruler's authority which can be handed to another in an act of delegation. These images regard Jesus as One entrusted with the welfare of all who have fallen foul of authority 

In the visions of the seer in the book of Revelation (3:7) Jesus declares himself to be inheritor of the power of this key, the ultimate caretaker. When he opens a door, nobody can shut it, or when he closes a door nobody can open it. He also describes himself elsewhere as 'the door', a symbol of security and control. He who is ultimately 'all in all', is entrusted by the Creator Father to reconcile all things in Himself.

These are bold poetic statements about the absolute power of divine love embodied in His very being. And notably, this antiphon looks to Him first and foremost to deliver those imprisoned, or surviving at the extremities of human existence. We are called to share his responsibility exercising liberating power for the good of others. We'd do well to remember that God will open or close, whenever we can't or won't.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

19th December 2012 - O Radix Jesse

O root of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us and do not delay.

Today's antiphon is a reminder of Jesus' human identity - 'born of David's line'. Jesse was the father of King David. The Jesse Tree, representing Christ's genealogy appears in mediaeval iconography of the incarnation takes his name. Fine artistic interpretations of his family tree can be seen in church stained glass and wall paintings. St Matthew's genealogy of Jesus traces his ancestry from Abraham 'father of many nations' via Jesse to Joseph, husband of Mary. St Luke's genealogy traces his line different, going backwards from Joseph via Jesse to Adam. Neither represents a historical chronology. The most that can be inferred from the Gospel stories is that Jesus' family were descendents of the clan of King David

Lineage is a device used by the evangelists as part of the story they tell to emphasise in different ways the rootedness of Jesus in generations of Hebrew people, and in the human race. These were stories the first hearers of the Gospel could identify with, and thereby understand that the One whom God sent is no celestial alien, nor angel, nor demi-god, nor superman, but a person like us, sharing fully in the universal experience of being human in order to transform it. 

Yet, as St John says challengingly in the prologue of his Gospel: 'He came to his own and his own knew him not.' Jesus represents authentic humanity in a way that all people can choose to identify with. But no matter how well connected socially Jesus was, this didn't shield him from his having authority, his message and life being rejected, as he invited every person to be more truthful about themselves in their relationship with God.

Jesus' humanity is a signal for the nations: "This child is destined to be a sign that will be rejected ... many in Israel will stand or fall because of him, and so the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare" said Simeon on welcoming the infant Jesus to the Temple. Jesus' very being exposes all that is not right about human status and power. It is good enough reason for kings to fall silent before Him. All who acclaim him must also be aware that they too are subject to scrutiny in the light of his self sacrificial love.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

18th December 2012 - O Adonai

O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the Law on Sinai. O come and save us with your mighty power.

Today's Advent antiphon begins by addressing the Christ who comes by the Hebrew title which means Lord / Master, used in prayer to the Almighty, to acknowledge divine power and sovereignty. 

The word first appears in the story of Moses and the burning bush. 'Adoni', the root of the word, originates in the Phoenician term used to address their deity Tammuz as Lord. It was also re-used by the Greeks in the name of the deity Adonis, beloved of Venus, and also appears in other ancient Eastern Mediterranean religious cults. Sea-faring Phoenicians were great exporters of their culture.  One intriguing historical reference places the cave Jesus was said to be born in (where the Bethlehem church of the nativity was built) on the site of an ancient sanctuary to Adonis-Tammuz. 

Religious belief systems in those times didn't compete with each other, unless they were associated with a struggle for power and dominance. They borrowed from each other's language, stories, sacred places, rituals and symbols to express perpetually evolving relationships with the divine and each other. Syncretism is often used as a term of disrepute in relation to borrowed or imitated religious practices. In reality it's what all human beings do, except when insecure enough to try and prove they are exceptional and 'pure' through zeal and devotion in a bid for dominance.
Moses fled from retribution for a killing into the Sinai desert and was surviving there as a lonely shepherd. Here he received the call to return and liberate the children of Israel. Answering this call rescued him and transformed him into the leader, law-giver and trusted friend of God he became. The coming Christ is identified with God's self manifestation to Moses in the mystery of a bush which burns and is not consumed - a symbol of Christ's incarnation - it points to the fire of divinity inhabiting the humanity of Jesus without consuming Him. 

'Adonai' whatever its religious origins expresses the reverence and loving devotion proper to relationship with God. It is an appeal to the Almighty to deal with us in our great need with the infinitely greater power of devoted love that belongs to the Author of our being. It expresses that ultimate trust which gives life its true vitality.

Monday, 17 December 2012

17th December 2012 - O Sapientia!

"O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe, and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth."

The seven days before celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth begins, Christian prayer of longing in keeping the Advent vigil is taken to a new level. Until now attention has been focussed on the historical succession of patriarchs and prophets culminating in John the Baptist. All pointed in their different ways to the hidden mystery of God declaring through them his Word, his will and purpose to the world. 

Now, all attention is devoted to the story of the coming of Jesus, the only begotten Son and Word of God, recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each day of this week of waiting uses a special prayer in the form of brief verse used as an antiphon. It first appears in the acclamation to welcome the Gospel at the Eucharist, then to accompany the Magnificat at Vespers. Each calls on Jesus the One who comes, using an image or metaphor from the poetry of the First Testament referring to God's intervention in history.

In semitic culture the wise person was one who knew how to do things successfully and show others how to, God is understood as source and giver of all wisdom. The most striking scriptural images are of women who are good housekeepers.  The feminine personification of Wisdom in Egyptian and Greek mythology as 'Sophia' concerned the practicalities of life, but also hidden knowledge of higher things and other spiritual realms. God's Wisdom and God's Word are two dimensions of the knowable activities of the Unknown, theory and practice inseparably bound like two sides of the same coin. They issue from God the unseen into the created order in the person of Jesus.

The Word is made known by dwelling with us, by action and teaching, by suffering in sacrifice. Wisdom is revealed by reconciling all things to God, making possible unity in diversity, binding all people  together in love. This is who this man Jesus is for the world, representing all that can be desires to make the world the way it is meant to be.

We simply pray to be taught the way of truth revealed in him who declares: "I am the way, the truth and the life.", nobody comes to the Father except by me. He who is makes Himself know to us as 'the image of the unseen God'.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

16th December 2012

When human beings communicate, words which are uttered (especially if they are similar sounding) take their meaning from context, emphasis, and pacing. If there were no pauses or silences between words it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to establish what is being said. Stillness and silence are therefore an essential part of making sense of life, thinking, speaking and finding meaning in everything.

In Advent, Christians wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. St John the Evangelist introduces his Gospel not with a birth story but with a declaration of the cosmic significance of his life. It expresses belief that this man is God come in human flesh, to share human existence and reconcile humankind with its creator, restoring awareness that everyone is a child of God. 

Jesus is here described as God's Word 'through him all things were made'. Word here is more than simply speech, it is thought expressed in action. The One who is beyond human knowledge, the God who 'hides Himself' is made known to us, as fully as we are able to comprehend, in this man Jesus.

We open up reach out in stillness and silence to the unknown beyond. From silence this Word which is Jesus is uttered. A man like ourselves becomes the focus of attention, a man who never ceases to point beyond himself, back to the unknown beyond which he confidently addresses as Abba (Daddy) Father.

Getting to know and love Jesus by reflecting and meditating on his story is not an end in itself. He not only invites us to find our true selves in relation to him as friend, Lord and master, saviour and redeemer, he also invites us to look with him to the unknown beyond with the same secure familiar intimacy as he does - calling God 'our Father in heaven'. Christian prayer addresses God as Father 'through Jesus Christ our Lord' for this reason.

The actions of Jesus' ministry distinguish him as a healer showing compassion to the sick and poor. He is one who restores the rejected and lost to their proper place in society. He confronts hypocrisy and injustice, speaks with wit, wisdom and depth about the things of God. Finally he offers his life freely and sacrificially to reveal the truth about God, and pardons those who take his life. In all these actions can be seen how "God so loved the world".

Through Jesus we are shown what it means to say "God is love. Those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them." Digesting this fully is a lifelong effort. While we learn through doing, it's in the 'non-doing' of practicing stillness and silence that its meaning for us personally is understood. From this inner contemplation, the Advent of the Word is made real.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

15th December 2012

If it's possible to experience eternity, fullness of life unbounded by space and time in this life, a different perspective on existence is revealed. Giving wholehearted attention to the mystery of the unknown beyond knowledge is a means to explore consciousness of what life is, refining our perceptions, understandings and values. It's a way of addressing the deep seated longing to reach out to our Creator. Christians believe it's an innate longing, not acquired or earned, but received from God as part of the gift of life itself. It has evolved as our species evolved. We don't always recognise or understand this longing, yet it can awaken within us and take us somewhere different. 

All religions have a place for dwelling in stillness and silence. It's a stable threshold, where reaching out into the beyond can safely be done. Not that stillness and silence are always perceived as safe places. We take hidden things with us from the realm of activity - thoughts, feelings, insights, information processed consciously or unconsciously. Active life appears to depend on continually resolving different complex matters. We fear inactivity may lead us into threatening chaos and prefer to avoid stillness and silence for too long. We learn by letting go of everything it's an illusion. Matters may sometimes resolve themselves more effectively by a measure of detachment from urgent concerns, and directing our attention elsewhere. 

Stillness and silence can also seem threatening because it's a state where suffering emerges from where it is hidden beneath everyday activity. It can take the form of physical pain, symptoms of stress and tiredness, or unresolved bad memories. Relinquishing the desire to control and suppress things, as we face the simple task of opening up to the beyond, allows everything to be processed differently, going against natural survival instincts, it seems, but Christians and others say, it reveals the wounded self to One who is uniquely able to heal. 

In ancient times, when the character of Hebrew prophetic ministry and utterances were in the early stages of development, prophets danced wildly and performed rituals in order to fall into a trance. They were said to be seized by the Spirit of God in this altered state of consciousness, emerging from it as bearers of the Word. They plunged from intense activity into an state of composure where stillness and silence could be reached while surrounded by others. 

Stories of the prophets, notably Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist, depict them taking refuge alone in remote places where stillness and silence are unavoidable. Here they are prepared by God to be the bearers of his Word in speech and action. 

The Gospels tell how Jesus went away on his own to quiet lonely places to pray, following a prophetic tradition which influenced his entire ministry. When Jesus teaches about prayer he observes how important it is to hide away with God for this purpose, and be alert - the Advent watchword.

Friday, 14 December 2012

14th December 2012

Heaven, in mythologies ancient and modern, is a place or state of delight and satisfaction, the opposite of hellish suffering. What makes people happy varies remarkably. It's expressed in culturally determined ways - dancing, tasting the best food, feasting, singing together, pampered like royalty, ectatic love-making, absorption in exquisite music or sublime worship, beauty and harmony, leisure and recreation - where everyone's value, freedom and equality are expressed and honoured.

These are just a few examples of what conveys sensual pleasure, a sense of intimacy, or a sense of beauty truth and goodness, touching upon physical and mental, social and spiritual dimensions of existence. Everyone has an idea of enjoyment that makes them feel completely alive and fulfilled, embracing every aspect of our selves, not just as individuals but in relationship to others.

The Scriptures describe heaven where worship and celebration occur continually, modelled on an oriental royal court. Jesus has little to say about it, aware that images can give a misleading impression and arouse false expectations. In response to a theoretical dispute about the post-mortem status of a woman married serially to seven brothers, he remarks "in heaven people neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they are like the angels". Normal social bonds and conventions applied to ordering relationships in life do not exist. They serve no purpose. 

Jesus doesn't say there's no intimacy in heaven. In the story of Dives and Lazarus the poor man is consoled for his suffering 'in the bosom of Abraham' - an image of security and comfort. The prophet of the Book of Revelation speaks of heaven "where there is no more death, mourning, sorrow or pain". The new order is a just and true society, in which all who belong to God inhabit a perfectly beautiful city, not ordered according to flawed human imagination, but by the divine mind: "coming down out of heaven from God". 

Nothing of the flawed and failed sinful dimension of human existence on earth belongs here. No more suffering. It's where relationships between humankind and God flourish as intended, no longer subject to the challenges and pressures of passing time. These images represent our deepest longing to be right with God and each other.

It's in moments of life when, for whatever reason, time seems to pass slowly or is suspended, that we experience "peace which passeth all understanding", and gain some finite sense of what eternity might mean, as a state where longing ends and complete fulfilling joy is found, in communion with God and all humankind. 

Is this an immersion in the depths of the common unconscious? What of our present consciousness and self is present? Or is this the state where ultimately all sense of self can be safely relinquished to receive something infinitely better? The End remains a mystery in which "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well". Where God is "All in all".

Thursday, 13 December 2012

13th December 2012

From where we are on mother earth, we look up, and we look out, beyond ourselves and our survival needs. The heavens, represent for us the beyond, all that is above knowledge and imagination, and it's a natural desire to reduce the boundaries of our ignorance. Only in the last few minutes of the day in the comparative timescale of human evolution has our species been able to stand completely outside this planet and start exploring the solar system.

As tiny witnesses to the overwhelming vastness of the universe, we are conscious that nothing we know exists without birth and death. The second law of thermodynamics concerning entropy postulates the death of the universe is inevitable, its finite quota of energy will eventually be exhausted long after our solar system and planets have been devoured by stellar and cosmic processes. 

Such a vast timescale is impossible to grasp, as is the moment of our own demise, yet as Christians we live knowing the  inevitable. We strive to make the most of whatever time we receive gratefully, conscious of life as a gift from our Creator. God originates entropy and isn't subject to it.

Christians hope in God's work of redemption: healing transforming and setting all things free, making a disordered world as it was intended to be at the outset of creation. This isn't shallow optimism persisting in the face of daunting facts. It's rooted in a higher vision of life, a sense of meaning which emerges as we tread the path of faith.

The heavens above are a universal symbol of where God the Creator dwells. Christians believe God's presence is made known through divine activity in the universe, but believe there is more to God's being than this. The cosmos itself is not divine. The cosmos, alive with divine energy, is contained within God's being. The more value we place on the gift of life, the less we can be indifferent to its Author. In trust we look beyond everything known or knowable, longing to relate to God, longing to understand the meaning and purpose of this gift of existence.

From the 'beyond out there', we keep being drawn back to the 'beyond within ourselves', equally unknown. Here we learn relatedness to others. Here love becomes the crowning reality of inner experience that dispels fear, hatred and despair, develops compassion, trust and confidence. Love is a gift we receive at the heart of life itself, a gift we learn to understand and use well. It's a gift that grows as we give it to others.

When we reach out with longing to the 'beyond out there', doing so with love makes for a unique kind of growth in the spiritual dimension of ourselves. It percolates into every aspect of relationships. We look to heaven, to the One from whom redemption comes - we know not how, but we trust in love that it does.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

12th December 2012

Wherever Jesus travelled teaching about the coming of God's reign, suffering people came seeking his help. Whether afflicted with sickness, infirmity, mental torment or social rejection, they came with their needs and those of others, having exhausted the possibility of help from others. He asks them personally about their need and acts both to make them well, to restore them to their proper place in the community.

In one case he challenges the view that sickness and affliction are caused by sin. He's asked about the cause of affliction to someone blind from birth: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" Jesus replies "He was born blind so that God's power might be displayed in curing him." Blaming anyone for birth blindness has no place alongside this. Whether giving sight to the blind is achieved miraculously, or the latest eye surgery, it's still a revelation of divine creative power at work through compassionate action. Jesus speaks of God's reign coming in terms of outcomes with an impact on human lives.

"Are you the one to come or are we to look for another?" ask John's disciples. "Go and tell John what you hear and see - the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought the Good News ..." is Jesus' response. Look what's going on, he says. He doesn't invite them to look at himself. He points to God at work. In a real sense it doesn't matter whether good things happen through his agency or that of others. His ministry has a catalytic effect, stimulating countless people down the centuries to find practical healing solutions in meeting the need of others, carrying on what Jesus reveals possible by his actions.

Jesus' ministry comes to its climax as he willingly endures rejection and suffers death on the cross revealing loving compassion and forgiveness as the ultimate healing power, confirming God's victory over evil, over Hell and Satan/the Devil. This is a definitive moment in human history. Jesus reveals what is possible, what needs to be done in practice to overcome evil with good. This continues with many others throughout history being willing to suffer and give their lives defending justice and truth, unmasking and overcoming the destructive power of evil, and in compassionate service to others. The way of Jesus is not to destroy but to redeem and transform what sin distorts and impairs, to make something creative happen in place of what is destructive.

The work he did, he commissioned his disciples to continue, to enable God's will to be done 'on earth as in heaven'. When Christians look for Jesus' coming, they will recognise Him in any actions and outcomes which overcome evil with good, which heal and transform, which bring freedom justice and peace to the suffering - wherever this world is made a better place. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

11th December 2012

One modern idea of Hell is of a condition of of chaos and relentless material suffering, seen in the most serious disasters, conflicts and societal breakdown. There's no need to describe a mythological or symbolic place that reflects current social structures, as Dante did. The focus now is on personal experience, not only of physical suffering, but also being trapped and isolated in despair without meaning.

More people than ever in history live in cities. The majority cope well enough in crowded conditions, whether by choice or necessity. Sartre's 'Hell is other people' reflects an experience of breakdown and non-communication in relationship, unable to share any understanding of what is going on, and unable to escape a sense of isolation in close proximity.

This applies in interpersonal communication. It also applies to individuals who admit they don't fit in society, who can't find a place or a community to identify with or belong to. This also applies between a person and God. The isolated individual fails to grasp how to pray, how to reach out and commune with the author of life. Or if they do, they experience the silence of God as utter non-response. They don't know if God exists, or if God ignores them. If so, why?

The ancient poetry of the Psalms voices the experience of isolation, chaos and suffering as part of the journey into faith, but the modern experience of alienation and anomie witnessed to is of a different order. General consensus about any authoritative world view that can give a basis on which meaning in life can be interpreted is not evident.

Science observes, analyses and describes the world but doesn't interpret anything outside its own  disciplines. Ideologically competitive science denys, even denounces the necessity and value of finding a higher meaning to existence. Modern creative art follows its own impulses, striving to contribute something of beauty, truth and goodness to the world, experimenting, but often in a chaotic and individualistic way, rarely contributing to making sense of the whole.

Both attempt to get us to perceive everything in a fresh way and wonder at it, but rarely offers a greater description of reality from which a highest sense of meaning can be derived. A coherent pattern is missing, yet the inter-relatedness and interdependence of everything is devoutly proclaimed as a key understanding of the modern world.

If Hell exists in human experience, is Satan/the Devil the author of it? Does either exist? Questions no longer troubling this age as they once did. It makes the task of accounting for evil more complex. If the Gospel message is taken at face value, Satan/the Devil is a problem. A problem dealt with. Faith recognises the material and spiritual reality of evil and suffering, and invites trust in the victory of Christ over Hell and Satan/the Devil.

Monday, 10 December 2012

10th December 2012

In creating humankind, Christians believe God made possible evolution of discernment between what builds up and what destroys, what's healthy and what's harmful for well-being. This discernment, our moral sense, works at a collective and personal level. It can be distilled into reasoned argument, but is more complex than this. It touches on every aspect of relatedness between self, others and God. So far the word sin has not been used. It belongs at the highest level of thought about human relatedness.

Sin is identified with mistakes or decisions causing needless suffering and chaos in life. It is rooted in self-centred motivation or attitude - putting self before others and before God, if God is acknowledged at all. The Genesis stories see suffering and misfortune, guilt, shame and blame emerge from an original human disregard and rebellion against God. Sin is about refusal to relate to God and respond to One who is source of all existence. 

Sin happens because humans are free, not prevented from doing what isn't good for them. Learning is part and parcel of human destiny. We come to understand what sin is by the damage it does. Experience teaches us which actions and attitudes do us no good. We discover through the passage of life that disquieting inner longing for God is better acknowledged and explored than it is ignored.

Scripture regards sin not merely as transgression against divine order, attracting punishment for the offence, it also regards sin as a spiritual ailment to be cured if we are to 'have life and have it in abundance'. With Christianity historically a cultural force in civilisation and nation building, it was inevitable that understanding sin in terms of crime and punishment would dominate.

Different generations and cultures have imagined Hell as a place of punishment, varied in relation to what kind of retribution people fear suffering most. Dante's classic portrayal of people in Hell reflected existing hierarchical social order. Measures of punishment were meted out to different ranks of people, according to the extent they abused their abilities, power and responsibility, or else surrendering themselves to passions that betrayed their humanity. 

The seven strata of Dante's hell are named after seven deadly sins - lust, greed, pride, vanity, anger, slander, avarice - each containing the appropriate corrective, applied eternally to all refusing to recognise their faults and failings. This status quo somewhat reflects the Gospel story of Dives and Lazarus, but doesn't equate with the Petrine idea of Christ rising from the dead evangelising spirits imprisoned in Sheol.

All ultimately face judgement, evaluation of their lives and consideration of their sin. The human face of God imagined by the church in the person of Jesus is one who enquires. "What have you done?" There's more in Scripture about Jesus as diagnostician and healer than about Jesus as judge.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

9th December 2012

The story of the Fall describes the origins of blame and shame. Questioning God's safety instructions, leads to an experiment in disobeying orders, resulting in discovery of discomforting self-awareness. God asks the couple: "What have you done?" They become anxious and insecure about taking responsibility for their actions. Each projects on the other a sense of blame for having done something with fatally dangerous consequences. Now they know something about the realities of the world. Now they must learn to fend for themselves, protect themselves from danger. It's a parable of the dynamics of human development from childhood dependency into adult autonomy and responsibility.

Like physical pain, guilt and shame are warning symptoms that something isn't right. They invoke a response to address what has gone amiss, a response which, in itself may be far from adequate to resolve the cause of the symptoms. The challenge after failure to do well, or do the right thing, is  learning the causes, not repeating a pattern leading to the same outcome. Intelligence developed across millennia, learning what gets intended results by trial and error. Humans excel at it, yet it hasn't eliminated or reduced the capacity for failure leading to guilt, shame and blame. Areas of our lives continue blighted by incapacity to learn from our errors, or from each other.

The persistence of violence as a means to resolve conflict is a key area of human failure. It concerns personal and collective relationships, it also concerns relationship to nature, ravaged by mis-use and desire to dominate and exploit it, rather than live in harmony. People and their environment are all interconnected and interdependent in a vastly complex manner. Many different, sometimes conflicting ways of understanding what's wrong and what needs doing to put things right are possible. To continue to do nothing, to deny the need to act responsibly, puts the future of humanity and the planet at risk.

Sorting out messes we have made is regarded by many as a race against time, yet others are indifferent, complacent in the face of danger. A feature of human freedom is the ability to ignore guilt and shame and suppress impulses they generate to find a remedy to underlying problems. The ultimate outcome to misuse of freedom not addressed, however great or small the issue, is needless suffering.

When people talk about Hell, they refer to a realm of unrelieved, un-necessary suffering. Some kinds of suffering are acceptable as means to an end: 'no pain no gain' is a popular phrase which refers to this, but it has nothing to do with a notion of Hell where none of the perpetual agony has any meaning. The prospect needs taking seriously, not least because such conditions seem readily reproducable in this life when we pay no attention to tackling the consequences of our errors and wrong decisions.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

8th December 2012

From the Gospel of Jesus, the world has learned about human value, dignity and freedom in relation to God. This is a source of confidence and hope that worthwhile and meaningful life is possible for all who embrace trustfully a way of living and serving God and each other in the face of our limitations and weaknesses. Relatively little is said in the Gospels about life beyond this mortal existence. The Gospel concentrates on dealing with the present, finding eternal life in the here and now. Yet the context In which Jesus teaches is always the imminence of the End of all things. 

As St Paul teaches, decades later about the meaning of Christ's resurrection in the face of mortality he insists: "If for this life only Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied.." The mystery of resurrection applies in a manner inadequately understood to all human beings he explains. He improvises as he follows his own train of thought.

Paul was re-born into an experience of Christ's resurrection and the indwelling Spirit. An intellectual and scholar, he has to work out what this all means. He has to invent ways of expressing new thoughts to explain God's graciousness to others. e says about other things that he's passing on only what was handed down to him as a convert, but he believes he too has the creative Spirit to think about matters not covered in what he'd learned. He is certain it is proper and honest to speak of both a temporal and an eternal realm, perfusing each other, God and human beings belong together in both. Temporal life ends, yet as he says: "The gift of God is eternal life."

Greek platonic ideas permeated and influence the culture of cosmopolitan first century Judaism. Immortality of the soul, transmigration of souls and re-incarnation, would not have been alien, nor would they have been mainstream to those with ancient Semitic roots. For three centuries before the Second Temple was destroyed, the idea prevailed that immortality was a reward from God for martyrdom or outstanding holiness. Immortality was not therefore an inherent property of the soul which made transmigration and re-incarnation feasible for all, but a conditional gift, earned from God.

The Gospel affirms all life is divine gift, that God is indiscriminately generous with grace, mercy and love. Gifts can be accepted, embraced, used or ignored, refused, neglected, however. Life in this world and in eternity depends on the response humans make to God's creative initiative. We aren't ignorant of the choices from the outset. The longing to 'be forever' lies deep within us. Awareness of the life enhancing, transcending nature of goodness, beauty, truth and justice invites openness to the divine, and to communion with God. But because we are created free, contradiction of higher values is also a reality challenging us to discover who we are, and what life consists of.

Friday, 7 December 2012

7th December 2012

With the divine gift of freedom, human beings learn to change, adapt, be responsive to life and all its events. This leads to responsibility - how do we use the choices before us? To further our evolution or just to subsist and survive? For growth or destruction? For the benefit of self or of others? For good or for ill, however that may be understood in context.

Knowing that we are mortal brings with it consideration of what we might do or become within that finite time span of life. We reflect on these things at each major stage in life, matching our ambitions and plans against the reality of our achievements. However great or small our resources and potential may be, each of us is finite. It's quite natural to want to make the best out of our limited opportunities, and check that we are doing so. However, when our own expectations aren't met, either for ourselves or others, a sense of failure and inadequacy causes distress, undermines trust and confidence. This is of no benefit to a healthy life.

With good reason  Paul teaches: "There must be no passing of premature judgement." We cannot see the wider context in which present success or failure occurs. It's better not to engage in the kind of criticism which undermines, when what everyone needs is nurture and support. Jesus often speaks against pre-judging and condemning each other. He teaches that mutual restraint is vital for the health of all our relationships when he says: "Judge not and you shall not be judged." If we are to use our critical faculties considering our lives or the lives of others, it must be to build up and not to break down.

Scripture speaks of the End as the proper occasion for final judgement. Then, all created things and human beings are to give account of themselves for the part they have played in the unfolding of the divine purpose while time continued its course. When the End comes for us, whether it's early for us or finally: "It is our human lot to die once, with judgement to follow.." says the writer of Hebrews.

It's not an occasion to criticise or condemn, but for Christ's work to be completed, bringing salvation (wholeness and fulfillment) to those eagerly awaiting him. Only the Creator can ultimately evaluate what people make of themselves in this life. The reason why judgement and condemnation are so closely linked in our thinking is fear that inadequacy and failure will cause our annihilation. Scripture itself, born in a context of tough testing and trial has its share of imagery expressing this anxiety, but it is not the last word on judgement.

In the End, Christ will be all in all. No matter how anxious, dramatic and tortuous this process, the way to salvation remains open for every person to reach ultimate fulfillment in Him.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

6th December 2012

Life from birth to death is in constant process of change. The process of adjustment to continuous minor changes is automatic. We are hardly aware of them, until we quieten ourselves and re-focus our attention, as in meditation, or when checking how to achieve something, like shouldering a burden we're unused to, balancing, attempting to read small print with weakening eyes.

We observe more consciously, reflect on and celebrate major change: childhood development stages, adolescence, leaving home for work or college, marriage, childbearing, vocation, major illness, bereavement. The meaning of existence is made partly from experiences great and small. It also comes from connections we make with others during this journey, above all, in relation to One with us always from start to finish. One who dwells in us, with us and beyond us; One in whom we live, move and have our being.

It's not that we're fully conscious of God and who God is for us at any time. We can sometimes be aware of God without understanding, unable to interpret this to ourselves or others. We can learn from religious practice or spiritual discipline, ways and means of interpreting this awareness, but ignore what we are taught, resisting or taking ages to be persuaded of the truth. "Late have I loved you Lord." said St Augustine after his libertine years rejecting his Christian mother's appeal to live by the Gospel. Some people feel their lives are invaded by God, and experience being changed by grace from beyond. They interpret this as conversion to life of faith in God, as St Paul and many others have.

Does God force Himself on anyone? Doesn't this violate the freedom God confers as part of human nature? Sometimes experiences and events in life give the impression of God breaking in unexpectedly, perhaps unwanted. This has more to do with hidden aspects of our nature of which we know little. Jung invited observation that conscious experience is like the visible tip of an iceberg, mostly hidden beneath the waves. The background processing of sensations, memories and understanding as thoughts which may or may not percolate up to consciousness from below suggests how the mind/brain works.

If human existence is immersed in divine Being, the unconscious may be understood as a dimension where God dwells hidden, closer to us than we know, until we learn to delve within ourselves. When God seems to break into conscious experience, is it the outcome of a dialogue in the unconscious between self and God, resolved by emerging into consciousness, changing what we believe about everything? It doesn't matter whether we interpret this as God intervening from within, or above and beyond. We cannot fathom how grace works to make change and bring all things to fulfillment under God's reign. Grace manifests itself in all the affairs of the world as in the affairs of the heart, if only we learn how to perceive it, and awaken to welcome its Advent.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

5th December 2012

Saint Paul lived in an era when anxiety about the end of the world was commonplace. Life under a violent exploitative colonial regime was nasty brutish and short. It was understandable that oppressed people should long to see an end to victimhood. Jesus' ministry and the events issuing from its astonishing conclusion, heightened expectation among his followers that the End of all things would be soon. This was reflected in his writings.

As decades passed, the church spread from Palestine across languages and cultures. Believers were martyred in persecutions. Some grew old or sick and died, but the End didn't arrive. Paul gave pastoral reassurance to people  wondering anxiously if dead loved ones would lose out if they missed the finale of the great cosmic drama.

His own certainty about the End and eager anticipation of it was undoubted. He didn't know when and didn't seek to know when, but he expected it to occur in a single instant, when the eternal 'imperishable' nature of reality, which is clothed by transient material reality, would be revealed. He stated: "We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash in the twinkling of an eye ..."

This refers back to his conversion experience, when the risen Lord was revealed to him as he was unexpectedly overwhelmed by blinding light. This instant that turned him from persecutor to evangelist by the grace of God acting in a decisive transformation. 'We shall all be changed' is a key theme of his preaching and the spiritual formation of new Christian disciples. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds." he exhorts.

Change is a constant feature of existence, whether we are called to respond to it, or to be its initiators and instruments. Paul, however, speaks in the passive voice, about change we aren't in control of, concerning the nature of our existence as children of the creator Father God. We don't just live, we are sustained, cherished in life by the infinite consciousness of the One Jesus declares with poetic flourish, values every sparrow, and each person so much more, He numbers the hairs on our heads.

Over and against the prospect of annihilation at life's end, the Gospel places, not our knowledge of God, but God's knowledge of us. My consciousness of self is fundamentally linked to God's consciousness of me. I come fully alive as I open myself and reach out in trust, discover and acknowledge the bond of love between us. "Not that we first loved Him, but that He first loved us."

We affirm in faith that we are on journey into the unknown, now in this world, and at at the end of life. In that unknown we are not alone, due to Him who loved us and gave himself for us in a way we can understand - in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

4th December 2012

Certain instincts inherited across generations are characteristic of all living matter and make both survival and growth possible. Among these are the impulse to reproduce, to defend against danger and learn to adapt to changing conditions, to the point where physique and behaviour modify themselves over generations to optimise survival potential. From the origins of time and space itself matter has evolved to the point where planet Earth (and presumably others like it) produced rare conditions in which organic forms of matter have all the characteristics we call life. The evolution of the human species, with its particular form of self awareness and ability to understand and organise its own environment, is the most recent chapter of a long evolutionary history.

Faith refuses the notion that this entire process 'just happened' and started itself for no discernable reason. Faith speaks of God as 'uncreated creator', the Mind whose infinite intelligence is expressed in the rich complexity of the creative process. Exactly how all things came into being, where and when the seemingly unending chain of cause and effect began is subject to detailed human enquiry now that we have evolved the technical means to do so.

Even the question of whether or not God was the Prime Mover in the creative process is not ultimately accessible to enquiry or reasoning. Whatever we think we know of God, so much more remains unknown, a complete mystery. How all things were originated by God is beyond our comprehension. Our longing to understand the reason for our existence however, leads us to take it on trust that, no matter how it was achieved, God is creator and source of all that is.

Reaching out from the natural pre-occuption with survival and all it entails, human beings have a capacity for curiosity, awe and wonder which takes them out of themselves. Having a useful knowledge of our environment is a part of what it takes to adapt to changing circumstance and survive.  Longing to know more about the universe and God has evolved as part of our self-consciousness. It is so much more than hunger for useful information. It is longing for relationship a mutual relatedness not only with creation but the Creator. In trust we reach out and hope that God is also reaching out towards us, to engage with us. "O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!" as Isaiah said. It's a sentence at the heart of the Advent seasonal liturgy.

We have evolved possessing this higher longing as part of self consciousness. The heart of faith interprets and voices this candidly in the words of St Augustine: "O Lord thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

Monday, 3 December 2012

3rd December 2012

In the search for meaning in life, belief in God presupposes assent to facts impossible to verify empirically. The content of belief is a working hypothesis relied upon to guide our attitude and relation to God. It's always subject to critical review and amendment. What cannot be shown to be false when experience is tested, we choose to rely on and trust in. This is the core of what believers call faith.

The prophet Isaiah was a prime advocate for trust in God as a foundation for hope that the fortunes of his people would be restored. He confidently used poetic and anthropomorphic imagery speaking of divine activity and relations between creatures and Creator. Yet, he could declare candidly the unknowability of the One he reached out to in trust: "Truly, thou art a God that hidest thyself." He prayed longingly for a manifestation of God: "O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!"

He was no stranger to visions and exalted experiences: "Woe I am undone for mine eyes have seen the Lord of hosts!" However, more important to him than individual experiences were unfolding events that revealed divine providence in action, changing peoples' plight by ending slavery and suffering. This vindicated the personal faith he placed in God.

Like other prophets he struggled and suffered striving to know God. He turned inwards only to refresh himself to keep turning outwards, looking for God and the divine will made known in his time: "Those who wait upon the Lord renew their strength."

Personal survival beyond death hardly featured in the thinking of Isaiah's day, although the dead had their proper place, where they were confined to the background, outside time in shadowy nothingness, disconnected from the community of the living. Their idea of annihilation was being erased from the community's memory. 

Mediums might conjure up departed spirits (though how scripture doesn't say), but the ensuing interaction is reported to be of advantage neither to the living nor the dead. The dead lived on in stories told by the community descending from them. This made having offspring to inherit one's story as well as one's wealth was vital for every generation.

Isaiah and the prophets waited upon God in hope to restore their peoples' collective fortunes. They appealed to God above all to remember them. In this was the key to giving life meaning - being part of something greater than themselves.

Today's culture emphasises individuality and self-awareness. Our identities may be shaped by belonging to more than one community. Few of the billions who've ever lived can be famous, universally remembered, and not everyone's self awareness is fully developed. Yet, the longing to 'be forever', secure from being lost and forgotten amidst the 'changes and chances of this passing world' haunts us all in different ways.
For the heart of faith, only One who is author of our being can make this so.