Thrilled to see grace at work

Frances writes on the readings for the Baptism of the Lord :- These readings are all designed to focus upon the reality of the human life of Jesus among us. God with humanity; humanity transformed in his image. This task is partly achieved by way of comparison with the world into which he was born, and into which he would bring his saving grace and so change forever the world in which we live.

Second Isaiah, (Isa 40:1-5.9-11) the prophet of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, deliberately wrote a message of hope and transformation to his exiled people at one of the darkest moments in their national life. His country, Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians of the Fertile Crescent along with hundreds of other tribes and nations. Their temple in Jerusalem, by then the centre and focus of their worship of the One true God, had been plundered of all its wealth and beauty and left a heap of smouldering ruins ; and the entire elite, from king and royal family, courtiers and intelligentsia and skilled workers, had been dragged off to labour in Babylonia. It looked at if the entire ‘God of Israel’ project was finished. But this was precisely the moment for optimism on the part of Isaiah, who recognised that a renewed and revitalised Judaism would ultimately rise from the ashes – the work which would produce this great renaissance indeed began and flourished in Babylon. Not for him was the nation to go under to a pantheon of pagan gods, but rather this fertile environment would nurture a reformed Judaism, one orientated to the truth and full of hope in its ancient promises.

When Titus became the first bishop, or leader of the Christians, on the island of Crete, he too had a similar revisionist agenda. (Titus 2:11-14. 3:4-7) Now it would be very easy to read ‘Titus’ as a heavily moralising tract, and certainly our Jerusalem Bible translation seems to have done precisely that with its invocation to ‘give up everything that does not lead to God’. This could very easily be seen as a call to reject the world and sit and wait for the great in-bursting of God, a moment of Rapture, an attitude Paul vigorously rejects in Thessalonians. But the Greek suggests something quite different. The Greek calls us to ‘renounce impiety and worldly passions’, which is not the same thing at all, and much more specific. So why does Titus focus on these two areas of the lives of the Cretans? Not only was Crete now part of the Roman Empire, with its plethora of gods which were clearly opposed to Christianity, we have to remember that statues of the gods pervaded every aspect of public life. Religion was never a private thing as it has become for us. Such ‘idols’ were at street corners; at the law courts where oaths to them were taken in legal matters; they were resplendent at the amphitheatres and in all the games laid on for public entertainment; at the baths and in paintings and decorations at peoples homes. Military life too was suffused with reference to the gods. There were ‘worldly passions aplenty too, with the games, brothels and the abuse of the person by slavery, for Crete had its big slave markets. But there was something about life on Crete which was altogether older and more deeply engrained than Roman ways. Way, way back, in the Bronze Age Crete worshipped the Goddess Dea, and by the 9th century BC Crete was one of the great centres of the myth of Cronos-Zeus. There is an ancient cave on Mt Ida where the child Zeus was said to have been nurtured, hidden from his devouring father, Cronos. These ‘creation’ myths exercised a powerful hold on the population, and we can imagine that Christianity really had to work to capture the imaginations of the people to the truth of the incarnation and our human destiny in God. Indeed, Titus speaks of the teaching or rather training, pedagogy,  necessary in the faith, and whilst we might be inclined to gloss over this phrase, for the original hearers it would have had far more the sense of the exhausting physical preparation for the Olympic Games or the very careful schooling of the mind in Philosophy. Just as with Isaiah, whose work flooded his people with hope of salvation from captivity, so on Crete too, the newly arrived Christian message was never some dour call to smarten up their act, but rather training in becoming a new creation, one fit for the company of God himself. It was full of excitement and joy.

All this, as we see from Isaiah and Titus, has very little to do with our achievement, but is a work of grace. What we have to do is be open to that experience, alert and expectant, welcoming. This surely is what our reading from Luke’s gospel is about. (LK 3:15-16.21-22). I think we see this encapsulated in John the Baptist’s description of himself: “I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” We do not live any longer in a culture of slaves and masters, of hierarchies and minions, but I can assure you, as one who was nurtured in such a world in Apartheid South Africa, that there are ways and means of expressing status and grinding down the weak and the lowly. John, who could have claimed the top role for himself, deliberately stepped aside from the temptation and assumed his rightful place, that of the lowest of the household slaves before his Lord, in a movement of complete self-effacement in response to grace in the person of Jesus; and the image we are given of this moment is not one of resentment or agony, but of joy and liberation. There simply was no moral agonising on his part, quite simply the knowledge of who he was and who Jesus was, and he was thrilled to stand aside. Let us watch for those moments of grace in the coming year.

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