God really cares

We may sing “There is a green hill far away” but actually the hill on which they killed Jesus was more likely to have been a dark hill with not much green in sight. It was, and is, a very dark moment in a long long history of we humans doing dark and awful things to one another. But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Because we Christians believe that this is not just another man being tortured by others; this is also God entering into our darkest human moments even into death itself.

 

There are two ways in which we care for those facing darkness and sadness in their lives. First there is the care we offer to those we do not know : to those poor refugees from Syria, especially the children, fleeing from a murderous tyranny ; or to those suffering from poverty and hunger in places where there is very little food. Yes, we care about them, we may even shed a tear when we see such suffering on the TV, and we may well give money to one or other of the charities that is trying to help. But our care is care at a distance, it doesn’t affect us personally.

 

Then there is the other kind of care, where someone close to us is in pain or in sadness. Maybe it is or has been a husband or wife or a child or a close friend. Here our care is very different. We long to help more than we actually can. We long to do something to take away their pain, and usually we can do very little, and we suffer even more because there is so little we can actually do. So we suffer alongside them. This kind of care for others is a care that really hurts. 

 

This is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. We are sometimes inclined to think of God as caring for us at a distance. Sad for us yes, trying to send help if we will receive it, but somehow remote from the actual suffering. But the God we Christians believe in is not like that. We believe that God cares for us as we care for someone close to us. His love is this different kind of love, a love for us that really hurts. Remember that God is in us, within us, and so feels all out pain and sadness.

 

And that is why it is important that we try to avoid making the death of Jesus too matter of fact. To see Jesus hanging on the cross so often that we fail to register the dreadful pain both physical and mental that Jesus is enduring as he hangs there. Here is God suffering for us, but choosing to do so as a real man unable to lessen the pain he is feeling. That is why on Good Friday we bring in a cross, and we hear the words “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world”   Note that! Not just “Here is the cross” but “Behold”, a word  that is challenging as it tells us to look a lot more closely  “Behold”, a word that tells us that here is something that we must attend to, not just look at as we look at many things, and then pass on; but actually a word to make us stop and think and hopefully pray.

 

And what we are called to see is something deeper than the surface story. What we are called to see, surrounded as we are in this world by so much that is dark and sad, is God’s love and mercy pouring out for us. But it does not just begin on the cross, it actually begins way back when God chooses to become a man. So, surprising as it may seem, we must link Good Friday with Christmas. Medieval pictures sometimes even hint at this where the cross beams of the stable roof stand out as a reminder of the cross that is to come. Remember too the Wise Man’s gift of myrrh, the ointment used in burial – a surprising gift for a baby unless we know who this baby is! 

 

For this man is God come to us, this real flesh and blood suffering human body, is Emmanuel – God with us. This is not just the outward form of a man, as if he were play-acting, but a real flesh and blood human being who suffers and dies with just as much pain as we do, both as we watch over loved ones who suffer, or as we face pain and suffering ourselves.

 

In one of my parishes there was a woman who could not face coming forward to the cross on Good Friday. She had a very strong awareness of what the Crucifixion of Jesus really means – so much so that when she tried to come forward she could not cope with the tears that she shed. We might say “How emotional!  Why couldn’t she control herself?” but actually I thought her tears  were an example to us all, and I tried to persuade her to keep on coming, despite the tears, to help us all to be more aware of what it is we are looking at, and why we are encouraged, if we want to, to actually kiss the foot of the cross as a sign of our love and gratitude for this the greatest sacrifice ever made.

 

Amazing love, amazing grace!

 

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homily on God in the emptiness

People often tell me that the most moving ceremony of Holy Thursday is what happens after the Mass is over. In some churches the emphasis is on the place of light where the Watch of Prayer till Midnight takes place ; but although that is very important, I think that what happens in the rest of the Church is more significant for most people : and that is the stripping of the altar.  In Eynsham we do this whilst everyone is still in their place in the main part of the church, so that they can actually see the altar, and the sanctuary around it, gradually becoming a place of desolation and emptiness. Only then, when the place that is usually the focus of light is dark and empty, do we turn to the one place of light in an otherwise darkened church.

It always reminds me of the great words from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) that we hear on Palm Sunday where he talks of God in Jesus “emptying himself” This is the heart of our faith: that God, who is all-powerful and quite beyond our reach, chooses to become like us, so that he might draw us into his love. So we are called to find God not just in light and glory, but also in darkness and emptiness. St Paul goes on to say that God chose “to assume the condition of a slave, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” We often find this difficult to grasp. We think of Jesus as the Son of God, as our Lord and Saviour, and so he is; and so we find it very difficult indeed to think of him as choosing deliberately to be completely like us.

This is the problem with the foot-washing too. This would have been the task of the lowliest slave which is why the disciples are so shocked. But when the priest imitates this action, everyone chosen has already washed their feet, and so there are no dirty smelly feet of the kind that Jesus would have encountered, and so the ceremony although significant loses some of its bite! In the same way, most images of the crucifixion, of the death of Jesus on the cross, rarely convey the real horror, the pain and, even worse, that sense of desolation, of emptiness, that Jesus must have felt in his heart. He must have asked the question we ask when we see pictures of innocent people suffering in war “Why, why do people do this kind of thing? How can anyone be so cruel?”

I sometimes hear people say, “Ah but it was different for Jesus. He knew that Easter would happen, that light would eventually break through the darkness.” But surely this is not the case. He had hope maybe, for he had identified himself with the suffering Servant of Isaiah, the great reading we hear on Good Friday. It begins by describing the terrible suffering he must endure, but ends “His soul’s anguish over he shall see the light and be content” (Isaiah 53:1-12) Yes he had hope, but it was hope as any human might have, it was not the certainty he would have known as God; for he has emptied himself of that power to become like us.

Our problem is that we so often think of Jesus in glory, that we begin to think that somehow the suffering he endured didn’t hurt him in the same way it would hurt us. Indeed there are some who might even take it further, and imply that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die but just appeared to. A view that was condemned many years ago. This then has been a problem for Christians down through the ages so that we can hear St Augustine dealing with it in the 5thC when he wrote, “When something is said of the Lord Jesus Christ which would refer to a certain lowliness unworthy of God, we must not hesitate to attribute it to him, since he did not hesitate to join himself to us…. he wished to make his own the words of the psalm as he hung on the cross and said “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” (Discourses on the Psalms 85:1)

It is the same problem that we face when we celebrate Mass. We use the word “celebrate” deliberately, because it is a great joy that God has chosen to come to us in the Bread and Wine, the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. But we need to remember what St Paul says of this ; that “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death”  Note that, because it is so important! In the midst of the wonder and glory of his Risen Presence, we are called to proclaim not that glory, but all the suffering that he chose to undergo in order to be one with us. Yes we say it, but how easily we forget it, which is surely why all the ceremonies once a year before Easter are so important for us.

 

We may not know, we cannot tell

What pains he had to bear

But we believe it was for us

He hung and suffered there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary points us to the heart of God’s love

Was Holy Mary, the mother of Jesus, present at the last Supper, the supper on which we base our celebration of Mass? The answer must be a resounding Yes, because we know she was in Jerusalem the following day, the Friday when Jesus was crucified. We know that, because St John tells us that he stood at the foot of the cross with her.(John 19:25-27) I suspect that the reason her presence is not mentioned on the night before, is probably that anyone reading it in those days would have taken it for granted that she and the other women would be present. Minds at that time, and until quite recently would have thought “Who else would have cooked the food and laid the table?” But further, if any of you have been to a Jewish Sabbath meal or Passover meal, or seen it on the TV, you would know that the mother of the house has a specific role in the ceremonies, and not just in the cooking.

Our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) however takes us right back to before the birth of Jesus, when a pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, and clearly proclaims that in some way her son Jesus is going to defeat the evil powers of the world. “He has routed the proud of heart. …pulled down princes from their thrones” etc. – and “princes” here means evil powers, not Prince William or Harry! Knowing this, Mary will not want Jesus to avoid the coming confrontation that she, like he, knows must happen. But she can also remember the words spoken when she presented her baby in the Temple (Luke 2:29-35) “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel …..   (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.)” So, unlike the disciples, Mary knows that her son’s defeat of evil will come through suffering and sacrifice, and that she will have to watch and suffer alongside him, before a greater glory appears beyond his death.

So when at the Last Supper, Jesus says “This is my body.. broken for you… this is my Blood.. shed for you”, Mary is more aware than anyone else there what that must mean. Yet there is no sign of her trying to stop him, only a deep faith that somehow, as she watches her son go forward into suffering, God will be at work; only a realisation that, as she suffers agonies as she watches her beloved one die, somehow that death will defeat all the evil that oppresses the human world. As St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.”

This is why one of the most important things we must realise about the Mass is, that it is the way above all ways in which we, like Mary, are drawn into the sacrifice of Christ. The Mass is the way in which we can become one with that suffering that, though so dreadful, defeats all the evil we human beings either suffer ourselves, or inflict on others, through our own greed, and anger and stupidity.

The Church therefore often refers to the Mass as a sacrifice, but we must be careful about the use of this term, as it is one of the misunderstandings that led to the Protestants splitting from the Church at the Reformation. The Mass is a sacrifice not in its own right, like the sacrifices the priests used to offer in the old days; but because it is the bringing into the present of the one perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  As we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews (7:26-27) “We have.. a high priest, (Jesus) holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily…. he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (on the cross)

So the priest at Mass prays to God on our behalf,  “Look upon the oblation (which means the offering) of your Church (that’s us) and, recognising the sacrificial Victim (that’s Jesus on the cross)… we may become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.” In other words we ask that we may be drawn into his sacrifice, that like Mary at the foot of the cross, we might be certain, despite the tragedy which pierces our soul, that this will ultimately lead to glory. But the Prayer at Mass makes this even more explicit, for the Priest says a few seconds later “May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation,,, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.”  In other words, what we celebrate at Mass, which includes our own offering, our own little sacrifices of love and service (more on that next week) is not just for us, it is celebrated for the whole world.

This is why Mass is so important. It’s not a ceremony put on for us to make us feel better or more holy. The Mass exists to draw us into the love of God himself, shown to us most of all by that suffering on the Cross, and shown to us too by the image of Our Lady of Sorrows watching her son suffer and die, and yet believing that this was not the end. We are being called into love, so that we may learn to love like that, every day. No wonder those who come wanting to be entertained at Mass get nothing out of it! They have missed the point!

Today, we celebrate the glory of Mary drawn into the glory of heaven just as we will be, not by our own efforts however worthy they may be, but by the mystery of God’s sacrificial love. We celebrate the dragon– that is the evil of this world – defeated – the dragon we heard of in our 1st Reading (Rev 11:19.12:1-10)  But note where that defeat takes us….for the woman there is not just Mary but us the Church and we are taken, not immediately into the glory of heaven, but into the desert. Like Jesus after his baptism choosing to go into the desert, so we choose to follow him into that world of struggle and service that we are called to as members of the Church. Holy Mary, Mother of the Church, you know what suffering means, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen

 

Peace, but through sacrifice

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Readers of the Bible today frequently assume that everything was perfectly understood and well established by the time the particular texts were written down. This runs quite contrary to the evidence, where we frequently find even the disciples clueless as to Jesus’ meaning, and oblivious of the need for any radical alteration in their thinking. Then, as now, there was a need for education, for the instruction of the followers of Jesus. Clearly insight does not spring up out of the blue. It comes after laborious and often difficult work on the part of those whose job it is to teach, and it can often be a frustrating and difficult task. Indeed, most modern Catholics display an unwillingness to work to discern the mystery of God in Christ, preferring to think that they got it sorted at their first Holy Communion classes, or are simply too lazy to do the work. Such an approach leaves us unfitted, disabled to act as the ambassadors for Christ that we are called to be. After all, if we approached other areas of our lives, on line banking; mastery of the internet; with such Luddite attitudes, where would we be?

The Letter to the Ephesians (2:13-18) illustrates just how carefully St Paul, or a later colleague, was to give careful instruction to the tiny Christian community in Ephesus. In our excerpt, he writes about two critical issues, or rather using a fundamental concept – the death of Christ on the cross for our salvation – he then goes on to look at the ecclesiology, the life of the local church, pointing out why and how these two things are so deeply intertwined. The writer speaks of the deep hostility in the city between Jews and Gentiles. Now we know that Jews were given special privileges by Rome. They were not required to offer pagan sacrifices, and were given doles of olive oil for their worship even during times of tension and hostility. Nevertheless, Jews were regarded with suspicion, set apart in their own quarters of great cities, and viewed with contempt by many. As the tension grew over various incidents up to the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in 66AD things gradually got worse, and after all, Palestine was a Roman occupied territory, and had been so for decades. Gentiles and Jews did not mix easily, due to the strict Jewish laws regarding this issue, and could not easily fraternise because of the dietary laws and so on. Christian communities containing both groups would I suspect have become a reality by the time of Paul’s death in 63, and, if as some suggest, this Letter postdates Paul’s life then it would have been written either during or after the Revolt, at a time of maximum hostility. The writer’s argument for understanding the reasons why Church unity and fraternization was not simply desirable but absolutely essential, becomes even more powerful and significant.

Part of his argument becomes clearer when we look at the Greek. Our Jerusalem Bible translation says Christ”In his own person (destroyed) the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the law.” The Greek says Christ in his own sarx – flesh achieved this, that is, in something utterly anathema to Jews, and lowly to Gentiles, emphasising precisely how Christ’s ravaged body became the ultimate sacrifice of unity, not just between the different races, but between God and mankind. Where the Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of his “Uniting them both in a single body”, the Greek uses the word soma, indicative of the entire person(s) remaking in Christ. From now on, all believers in Christ are totally refashioned, remade through and in the sacrifice of Christ’s body, and any sense of division according to race is utterly meaningless.

In the same way, in our Gospel, (Mark 6:30-34), Jesus instructs the apostles about the need for self discipline in their ministries. They cannot serve properly when exhausted and must rest. Shepherds too need proper care and attention to their personal health to avoid burnout. But as our reading from Jeremiah teaches, (Jer 23:1-6) it is also possible for leaders in communities to so lose sight of their task so that it becomes merely an opportunity for self gain and aggrandisement, and then they need to be taken to task, and will be , by the Lord.

 

 

 

The problem of pain

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – Most of us find the idea of suffering abhorrent and will avoid it if we possibly can. We view suffering as failure or even as punishment from God and in consequence see it all negatively. Yet the Christ we follow and worship as Saviour of the world was one who won the greatest of victories, that over death and sin, precisely through taking on suffering. There seems to be at very least a contradiction here and perhaps we can make some attempt to see both the choiced suffering of Jesus and that of his creation, which is imposed upon us in a different light. This is not to suggest that death, and the pain it brings either physical or mental, is an illusion or that we become a group of masochists continually seeking out pain.

 

The tradition that suffering is somehow linked to transgression and failure and is punishable by God is of course very old, as we see from the Old Testament. In the work of Jeremiah, (31:31-34) we see how God promises to restore the Jewish nation after its exile in Babylon and the cruel ravaging of the nation with the destruction of its monarchy and aristocracy. In this passage a chastened nation is promised a wholly new covenant relationship, one in which they will be obedient to God’s law and all will go well. The telling line is “They broke that covenant of mine, so I had to show them who was master.” In this simple but primitive understanding of the divine-human relationship, modelled on that of earthly rulers and their subjects, there exists a straightforward system of punishment and reward.  It suggests that when things go wrong with creation we have only ourselves to blame, for we have sinned and must put things to rights. The tragedy for Israel is that its failings and their results never seem to alter things; all we seem to have is more of the same. Yet this is not true of reality, is it? After all, children learn from making errors: falling over produces tears, better balance helps. Scientists tell us that it is through innumerable ‘wrong-turnings’ that progress is made.

 

Over the centuries Jewish writers explored this concept of repeated failure and suffering and gradually began to see how defective and inadequate it was. After all, good people suffer and die along with the bad as we see with Job. Those righteous for God’s law can be horribly put to death, as we see with the Books of Esther, Maccabees and the great Servant Songs of Isaiah, not to mention Syrian and Iraqi modern Christian martyrs. By the time of Christ and the writings of St Paul, we can see situations in which the entire created order seems to be at odds with its creator and not necessarily through any deliberate fault on its part.

 

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) daringly explores the idea of vulnerability and weakness in God himself. Incarnate in Christ, God the Son deliberately enters into our fallen and marred creation in complete solidarity with us. As immortal God he is incapable of suffering and death, made human in Jesus he can, and willingly submits himself to all the pain and suffering which mortal beings of necessity are a prey to. Hebrews makes clear that this is not a pleasant or easy path for the Son to have followed, but that in doing so he truly identifies with us, he really does become one of us, so that his prayer to the Father can be uttered from the depths of his abject despair and his total solidarity with us. If through this exchange we become divine, most assuredly by it divinity has also taken on frailty and failure and the threat of the annihilation which is the cause of all our fears.

 

In our gospel, from John (12:20-33) we see this etched out in a homely but shattering analogy. Jesus has returned to the environs of Jerusalem and was staying with Lazarus (the one Jesus raised from the dead) and his sisters. The Jewish Sanhedrin had already met to determine his fate and resort to the time honoured idea of the sacrifice of a scapegoat in order, so they claim, to protect the rest. Jesus was by this time well aware of their hostility and malign intentions towards himself, indeed, would have to have been intellectually blind or stupid not to have known his fate. So he gives a developed and well constructed meditation o suffering – his own and that of others who will follow him. “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain….” He speaks of a process of the absolute destruction of the wheat seed which thereby and only thereby produces the next year’s crop. There are times when this degree of suffering is the only thing that can recreate and renew a situation. The levels of suffering will be horrendous, but the end result will be worthwhile. Those of us who suffer debilitating illness or injuries will have felt something of this process; those divorced or separated; faced with the loss of loved children will know of it too; for such suffering can only be deeply harrowing and may frequently leave the sufferer at a complete loss as to how to make anything positive from the experience. Christians suffering in Syria and Iraq will be living it out on a daily basis. In this we will experience the self-emptying of God the Son. It won’t be a good experience, for it wasn’t for him either. Hebrews describes it thus: “Christ offered up prayer and entreaty aloud and in silent tears…”. John’s Jesus says: “Now my soul is troubled, what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.” It will be a kind of dying, and in it all we will have to cling onto is the truth that Jesus underwent this in faith, his faith – quite unrelieved at the time – that his Father would not ultimately desert him. It is what we all live for as believers, Christians who follow the Christ who was vindicated by his Father, who came back from the dead.

Aiming for the best for God

The challenge for every Christian is to care about every single other person the way God cares for them, without considering their race, their religion, their background, or anything else that makes them seem different or even disturbing to us. God could have wafted into our world like an angel without really being human, but he chose to become like us; and his Baptism is the first moment in the adult life of Jesus when he does this. How easily he could have thought, “I am God’s son” or just “I am a holy Prophet. I am close to God in a special way. I don’t need Baptism like these ordinary people.”  But he didn’t! And he goes on to accept the mockery and violence of others without turning against them. For he says, does he not? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

 

Each of us is free to choose to act in this way. It can be hard to be kind and loving when people annoy us or anger us or even attack us, but that is the ideal, the target, we should always aim for. Freedom does not mean just doing what we want to. It means choosing freely to do those things and to act in those ways that serve the highest good, what we call the “Sovereign Good”, the good that is the will of God for his world. This is a high calling, this idea of always aiming for a target, and it is at the heart of what “sin” means. For “sin” does not necessarily mean that something is bad or wicked. No, “sin” actually means missing the target, falling short of the ideal. And it is only because the world uses the word “sin” simply to mean something bad, that I am going to avoid using it during these homilies on morality.

 

Another mistake we make is to confuse our feelings, what I feel is right and good, with what actually is right and good. Our feelings, like our conscience, can be good or bad, or rather muddled between the two. That is why the old saying taught me by my mother “Look before you leap” is so important. Some of you know how impetuous I can sometimes be, saying or doing things without thinking of the consequences. I guess we are all like that, especially when we allow our feelings to run away with us; but some of us are worse than others! That’s why our conscience, in Catholic teaching, should not be seen as an automatic pilot connected to our feelings, but much more something in our hearts and minds that is a judgement of reason rather than simply an emotion.

 

So if we are to treat every person properly, our conscience has to be informed. We have to work at it. This is why prayer is so important. We confessors often suggest that people pray for those that they have difficulty getting on with. But by that we do not mean pray that they will change to suit us. We mean : pray that we will see the situation the way God sees it, and rise above our feelings to something higher and better. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Phillipians (4:8) “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”

 

We live in a world where people talk about justice and freedom and liberty and equality as rights that they ought to be given – by their government and by society in general. What we all need to realise is that such things can only exist if each human being strives to give them to others, strives to be a really good person every day. Those who do not believe in a higher power to turn to and pray to for help in this process are, we would say, missing out on a vital source of inner strength that we all need, to be able to live as good people. We Christians are realists. We meet each week for this very reason, we try to pray every day, to strengthen our links with God, the power of goodness and love that we need to help us cope with our wayward and selfish nature.  As Isaiah cried out in today’s 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) “O come to the water all you who are thirsty…  Listen, listen to me…… Seek the Lord while he is still to be found…. Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.”

 

You have heard me say before, and I will say it again, that morality, trying to be good, should not at the heart of the Christian life. What should be at the heart of our life as Christians is our relationship with God, because it is only from this that true morality springs – a realisation of how hard it is to be truly good, and thus a turning to God every day to help us. This is the real struggling human world that God chooses to be part of, both when he is born as a human baby of a real loving human mother, and as an adult when he chooses to be baptised and to walk the road that will take him ultimately to the cross. As St John writes in his 1st Letter, of which we heard a later part as our 2nd Reading today. “In this is love: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” (1 John 4:10)

 

As I give this series of Homilies on the Moral Life that we Christians are called to live out in response to that love, I hope I will be able most of all, not to go on about sin, but to share with you the high ideals that we should all be aiming for. And this all starts, as I said at the beginning, by us aiming to treat every person the way God treats us all, with infinite love and understanding. Hopefully then, we begin to rise above the awful ways we humans sometimes treat one another, as we become aware of our own prejudices and failings. Not just to tut tut about things in France as this week, or in Syria or Iraq or Palestine, or anywhere else we can think of, but most of all in our own back yard wherever we happen to live and work. There is the challenge we face as Christians. There is where we need God’s help and grace.

Christmas is meant to be deeply disturbing

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- We can very easily get sentimental when we think about the Holy Family, indeed can make them rather twee. However the readings set for this year point in a quite different direction, and instead suggest things quite startling and disturbing. The reason I say this is because it seems to me that all those who appear in our stories both from the Old Testament and in the Gospel seem to be people on the edge, people who are the different and strange and the highly disturbing, which is perhaps where we are all meant to be. In our Genesis story of Abram and Sarah (Gen 15:1-6. 21:1-3) we find the patriarch the epitome of failure. He is old and childless and moreover his wife is cursed with barrenness so that his heir lives in distant Damascus, well outside the confines of what would become Israel. Abram cannot fulfil the basic requirements of a patriarch, a leader of men and provide sons to follow in his line until the Lord God takes a hand in the people’s affairs and rescues, not simply Abram and Sarah, but the very nation itself. by the promise of a son. Our text, a hatchet-job if ever there was one, significantly omits all the raggy stuff surrounding this event, with Abram and Sarah’s appalling treatment of Hagar and Ishmael; the horrific story of the Sodomites. and the resort to incest to produce offspring of the daughters of Lot, nephew of Abram. All of this speaks of the very precariousness of human life, most especially life without God. It makes very clear that without the guiding hand of God in all this the entire project of forming God’s ‘chosen people’ would have foundered right from the beginning.

Our reading from Hebrews (Heb 11:8.11-12.17-19) backs this up. and labours to impress upon us the faith of the founding father and mother of Israel and ends with that great tour de force, the willing sacrifice of Isaac – on whose life hangs the very being of the nation. We are meant to see that there is something distinctive about Abram/Abraham, as he is the one chosen out of all this chaos and violence and sin to become the leader of his people; and there is in him that God-given gift of faith which enables him not merely to respond to God’s offer of redemption, but to have some perception of that relationship with the divine which would start his nation on its long and painful journey to God. That our story ends with the aborted sacrifice of Isaac is of course the great pointer to God’s ultimate work for the salvation of his people, Jesus, the one for whom there would be no last minute reprieve; no alternative sacrifice; no ram caught in a thicket; but rather the supreme sacrifice on the cross of the only and beloved Son of God. He is the Father’s gift to his creation, born of his very being, the perfect sacrifice for a sin-ridden world.

When we come to our Gospel (Luke 2:22-40) with this disturbing background to guide us, we begin to see precisely what a strange set of occurrences surround our Holy Family as this long journey to the world’s redemption enters its final phase. First of all we have the conventional picture of the pious Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commands of the law and we think they fit in rather well. But at this point a startling event occurs. Simeon, described as ‘upright and devout’, smashes the whole thing to smithereens. Simeon is not a temple priest, nor apparently joined in any way to the elite who ran the temple or even of the ultra pious Pharisees, simply a man of prayer. Yet it is this man who becomes the rogue-cannon. First of all, unconventionally, he takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God with the acclamation that he can now die in the knowledge that he has seen the ‘salvation of Israel and the light of the nations’. But Simeon has not done a gentle or kind thing, he has declared to this couple, with no pretensions to greatness or high rank or power, that their child will be the one who, bypassing the long expected system rooted in power and political clout based in the temple and the law, will take the faith of Judaism out to the world! Simeon moreover promises Mary that her child “Is destined to be a sign for the fall and the rising of many in Israel.” This child, he prophesies, is going to be the catalyst that smashes the system and the expectations which had led and fostered the nation since the time of Abraham. He warns Mary of the pain this child will bring to her, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Now surely this is a terrible thing to say to a new young mother, not a scrap of comfort or of conventional well-wishing, but words harrowing and deeply disturbing, and he ends with the enigmatic promise that this child will cause “The secret thoughts of many to be laid bare.” The Greek speaks rather of the ‘revelation’ of what lies hidden in our hearts. Clearly then, Simeon’s words are not cosy but powerful. They shatter all conventions, and they do it most of all to Mary and Joseph.

This picture is taken up by Luke’s description of Anna the prophetess, and again we see that this old woman represents a break with conventional Judaism and families. She is of the tribe of Asher, up beyond Galilee, but long a widow and dedicated to the temple, though she does not seem to have any official position there, and appears to have forsaken all kith and kin for a life of prayer in the temple, something none of the temple elite or even its work-a-day clergy did. Yet she too sees Jesus and immediately praises the Lord and looks forward to the deliverance of Israel, deliberately going out of her way to tell others about him. None of our stories are about conventional or secure, nice families. All of them are about discordances, upsets, and radical breaks with the established order and expectations of it. The picture painted by Simeon and Anna, like those incidents surrounding the House of Abraham, are meant to bring us up short, to make us think and reconsider what the Christmas stories are about, and if we are looking for the cosy and the secure then we will not find it here; for just as these people are marked for life by their encounters with God, so every Crib scene we view will be overshadowed by the cross as we see depicted sometimes in the stable cross-beams of Bethlehem scenes. Christmas is above all the Feast of the Incarnation, of God’s full entry into our humanity, and it is meant to be deeply disturbing.