Thursday, January 13, 2022

Close encounters

 


The Gospel set for Holy Communion today, Mark 1:40-45, catches Jesus out in a compromising position. He has been in close personal contact with someone from whom he is supposed to be socially distanced—someone who might infect him and others—and subsequently he has tried, and failed, to keep this event quiet, out of the public eye. Now he is at the centre of a storm of unwanted attention.

What is interesting is the agency of the outcast or marginalised man. The word my English translation renders ‘begging’—a word that draws out an emotion of disgust and thoughts of shaming, in my cultural context—combines the Greek words to come close-beside someone and to testify to their character and actions. It can be used as a word to describe encouraging someone or admonishing someone.

The leper comes close beside Jesus, to reveal something about him. What this man acts to reveal is that Jesus is both willing (a question of desire) and able (a question of power) to cleanse him, to address the (albeit temporarily necessary) injustice of his isolation from human touch. The desire and power of the leper reveals the desire and power of the celebrated man Jesus.

That is fascinating and exposes our assumptions of where will (or desire) and the means to act on that will (that is, power) lie.

Regardless of our social standing, we can exercise the will and the power to come close-beside someone else to admonish or encourage them, by witnessing to their will and power to do good, or their refusal to respond with such compassion.

We can stand with others, or at a distance. We can empower others or keep power for our own self-interest. We can move to restore others as quickly and fully as possible, preferring them before ourselves—even at cost to ourselves—or not. We can participate in human dignity, or by our actions send ourselves into exile.

 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Poverty and riches

 




A collect is a form of prayer, that helps focus our personal prayers according to a shared theme. There are collects for every week of the year, as well as collects for other events or occasions, and the collect for this coming Sunday has long been my absolute favourite:

 

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

 

Here ‘the poverty of our nature’ means a recognition that everything we are and have is a gift. We came into this world with nothing, and we shall take nothing with us when we go. And in-between these two moments, we steward the life given us, the world entrusted to us to hand on to those who will come after us. To recognise this poverty of our nature is freedom from hubris. What might otherwise be tragedy and a cause for resentment is transformed into something beautiful in its time, a life for which we can be truly grateful, by the riches of God’s grace at work in our lives, renewing us, so that the glory of God in whose likeness we are formed is revealed.

 

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Epiphany

 

The unspecified number of travellers bearing three kinds of gift to the infant Jesus are most likely a consortium of Persian court astronomers (Magi) and Chinese Han dynasty court astronomers. Their arrival at the court in Jerusalem, enquiring after a child born to be king of the Jews, causes consternation.

There is a pattern in the Gospels of identifying events in the life of Jesus as fulfilling earlier events. For example, Isaiah speaks of a woman, pregnant at the time of his speaking some 600 years before Jesus, and of a judgement that will fall before her son is weaned. That Jesus’ birth fulfils this is not to say that Isaiah prophesies Jesus’ birth, but that Jesus’ birth is a similar but greater sign, and that the earlier sign helps us understand what will happen in and through and to Jesus.

In the same manner, I would suggest that the reality that the Christian church today is growing faster—under persecution by the governing authorities—in Iran and China than anywhere else on earth is a fulfilment of the journey of the Magi.

Happy Epiphany to all, and especially to my Iranian and Chinese friends!

 

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

On the twelfth day of Christmas

 

When is Christmas?

That’s not as daft a question as it may sound. Obviously, Christmas Day is 25th December. But for many people in our impatient society, Christmas Day is the culmination of Christmas, or at least the summit before a rapid downhill through Boxing Day and the relief of taking down the decorations and collapsing in a heap.

In the Church of England the season of Christmas runs, essentially, from sunset on Christmas Eve until sunset on 5th January, with the season of Epiphany (the Feast of the Epiphany is 6th January) taking up the baton. The Christmas cycle then carries on until Candlemas, on 2nd February. Many churches will take down most of their decorations now, with the crib remaining until Candlemas. I think, though I am not certain, that in the Roman Catholic church the season of Christmas runs until this coming Sunday, the Baptism of Christ, with the Christmas cycle also lasting a little longer into the Sundays before Lent. But small variations aside, what both share in common is that Christmas Day is not the end of the matter but the dawn.

Does it matter, when and how we celebrate Christmas? Well, yes and no. I really don’t think that it matters in terms of when we take down decorations, and even friendly arguments about whether that should be 5th January or 2nd February tend to miss the point.

But I do think that it matters that we, collectively, can’t bear to live in the moment. That we rush to bring the trappings of Christmas into Advent, because it is too stark; that we rush to put away Christmas, because it is too much; that we look for ways to transform our dark and dismal January lives with New Year’s Resolutions because we (think that we) need a New Me. It bothers me that we are, collectively, in such a rush.

It is still Christmas. Joy and peace be with you this day.

 

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

On giving, and taking, advice at the beginning of a new year

 

This time of year, there’s a good chance thar your social media feed is full of advice for living well in the year ahead. The New Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today included these verses, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3:

18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

It is always hard to translate and apply advice for living well across ages and cultures, and these verses—verse 18 in particular—have been badly mishandled by conservative men and women. But these verses are worthy of a second look.

In the Genesis account of the first man and woman, we are presented with an undifferentiated human, made from the clay of the earth, who is then separated into two equal and non-hierarchical humans: the man, to be the gardener; and the woman, to be the warrior-deliverer, given to rescue the man when he is overwhelmed. The role-description of the woman—Hebrew: ezer, active intervention on behalf of another, especially in military contexts—is one shared by the Lord God.

The word translated ‘submit’ in Colossians 3:18 is a compound of the Greek word for ‘under’ and the word for ‘to arrange.’ Moreover, the word for ‘to arrange’ is used almost exclusively in a military context, for how soldiers arrange themselves in formation. In other words, the form this submission is to take is concerned with fulfilling the vocation to be a warrior. Women are warriors, who fight in all kinds of arenas to deliver, or bring liberation to, men, women and children who experience injustice and oppression. But if you are married, don’t allow the long list of good causes to fight for to come between you and your marriage, which is meant to be a lifegiving and lifelong relationship.

The word translated ‘love’ in verse 19 means to prefer another over yourself. Husbands, prefer your wife over yourself. Put her first, before you. That sounds a lot more like submission, as we would understand the term today, than ‘wives, don’t allow yourself to be distracted out of military formation’ does. Moreover, the advice to husbands—again, lost in translation—goes on to deal specifically with warning against nurturing the fruit of bitterness. In other words, this is a gardening metaphor, addressed to the gardener. If you are married, the primary garden which you are to prefer over your own clay is the clay of your wife’s life, giving yourself to nurture every good fruit that grows there, and to guard against sowing seeds that will produce bitter fruit.

To those given as warriors, remember the focus of who you are called to fight alongside. To those who are given as gardeners, commit yourself to bringing out the very best fruit of the life you care for.

That is pretty good advice, that stands the test of time, and which we disregard at our peril, and great relational cost.

The word translated ‘obey’ in verse 20 is another compound, of the words for ‘under’ and ‘to listen’ conveying the meaning, ‘children, listen carefully to your parents.’ Listen to your parents, they may actually know what they are talking about.

And in verse 21, advice to fathers (advice mothers don’t need reminding of in quite the same way?) not to provoke their children to anger, because the long-term consequence of such provoking will be to dishearten them.

I am a dad. And I would love my children to learn that their mum and dad might actually know what we are talking about when we give them advice...But until they discover this for themselves, I need to take on board the wise advice not to provoke them to anger or dishearten them. Some days I need to hear this more than others, but in any case, I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis.