Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas stories

May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

I begin of course, by wishing you Merry Christmas again!

In our home, like many homes, we have our own little Christmas traditions … some are fairly ordinary, like having the youngest child put the star on the Christmas tree … and I can tell you that now that Malachi is 4 and a half, it was no joke lifting him high enough to reach the top of the 7-foot tree we bought at the parish Christmas fair … others are fairly unique … my wife and I have a large star of David made of cardboard and covered in tinfoil with stickers from the nativity scene stuck on … we made it with the children in the emergency shelter we were house-parents in over 20 years ago and we have carefully carried it with us from house to house since … and every year we place it atop our Christmas tree … another of our traditions involves stories … in the box with the decorations that go up into the attic are some books on the theme of Christmas … there is 'the little Christmas tree' by ee cummings … 'how the Grinch stole Christmas' by De Seus … or how he didn't steal it as Malachi likes to point out … and 'the night before Christmas' by Clement Clark More … in our house it is a special tradition that on Christmas eve I read that story to our boys …

Because stories are important, I think … and they are a special part of our Christian tradition … every year as we work our way through the Church calender we tell special stories at certain times of the years in our readings in Church … on Saints days, if they are people who are part of the Bible story, we read from those parts of the Bible where they are mentioned … at times such as Pentecost, or the transfiguration, or the Baptism of our Lord, we read those stories … during Holy Week and Easter we read about the events leading up to the death of Jesus, his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection … and at Christmas we read the different stories that led up to the Nativity of our Lord …

We don't have time to go over all of the stories this morning … or rather, we do, but I might be held responsible for a great many late or burned Christmas dinners if I tried … but there are a few I would like to over briefly …

There is the Christmas story of Joseph … an honest, hard-working carpenter … a righteous man whose heart was perhaps broken when he discovered that the young woman he loved was going to have a baby and that he was not the father … a kind man whose first impulse was not to punish the girl for betraying him, but to end the relationship quietly, privately, to spare her from public disgrace … a man of faith, who believed the word of God that came to him in a dream that Mary had done nothing wrong … who took the woman and her child into his home … who protected them from harm, even to the extent of fleeing with them to Egypt to protect them from Herod's soldiers … who provided for them, and cared for them, and loved the child as if he was his own son …

There is also the Christmas story of Mary … the young women who is told by an angel that she is going to have a baby and that no human man will be the father … if what we know about the time and place in which she lived, she must have been very young, perhaps only 14 or 15 … and yet, she doesn't ask what will happen to her when people find out … she doesn't ask if anyone will believe her unlikely sounding story … she doesn't ask who will look after her and the baby … she simply says that she will do what God asks … and then shows what a kind and good-hearted young woman she must have been by going at once to look after her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a baby …

There are many other Christmas stories we could tell … that of Elizabeth and Zechariah and their baby John … that of an inn-keeper kind enough to let poor travellers use his stable even when the inn was full … that of shepherds who heard the song of angels as they huddled for warmth around a small fire on a cold hillside … even that of Herod, a man so obsessed with power that he would stop at nothing to retain his grasp on it, even if it meant defying the will of God spoken by the prophets and killing children …

But all these stories, varied though they are, have something in common … they are all human stories … the stories of ordinary human beings like you and I to whom something extraordinary happened … a profound encounter with the divine that changed their lives forever … which is very appropriate at this Christmas time when we remember how the human and the divine became inextricably intertwined when the Word became flesh and the son of God was born as Mary's Son and God entered into the world, fully man and fully God, as the baby Jesus … and because that happened, when we hear the stories of Joseph and Mary and Elizabeth and all the others, we know that what happened then is not only that happened to other people in a place far away and long ago … we know that it was when the story of God and the story of humanity became visibly one … that this is a story that we are part of also … the eternal story of how God loved us all so much that he sent his Son into the world for us … Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes … but this Christmas I pray that you will know that you and all others will know that you are part of the Christmas story not just today but everyday … so that the joy of the Christmas season, that Merry Christmas I wished you when I began, will be yours throughout the year and all through your life from the day of your baptism and every day of your life … Amen.

Sermon notes: 25 December 2011 (Christmas day)

Christmas journey

May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

During the season of Advent we have been on a journey … a spiritual journey … one where we make our way in our hearts and minds to a little town … a town located in a time and place very different from our own … a time of kings like Herod who had the power of life and death over his people … a time when the Roman Empire controlled all the known world by the power of it armies … a time when travel was by foot or on the back of an animal or in a boat powered by sails or oars … a time when communications were limited to what one person might tell another face to face … where few could write and a letter had to be hand-carried to its destination and could take months to get there …

a time when diseases we think of today as minor were life-threatening … we have travelled to a dusty almost desert land, where there is little water and eking out a living is hard … where most of the people live in abject poverty … a place conquered by the Roman soldiers not because it has fertile land or is rich in natural resources like timber or gold but because it is on the main land route between Rome and Egypt, the place where most of the Capital’s food comes from …

a place where even though the people are poor, they are proud … because they know themselves to be a people chosen by God … and even though they are oppressed by the most powerful and ruthless military force their world has ever known, they are not without hope … because they know that God will one day send them a Saviour … he will send them his anointed one … the messiah … And as we have journeyed to this place, we have heard strange and wonderful stories … of how an angel visited a couple called Elizabeth and Zechariah, a couple married many years without children, and told them that their prayers would be answered and they would be finally blessed with a child … and that their son would have a special purpose … that he would be the one the prophets had spoken of, the one who would prepare the way for the promised Messiah ...

We also heard how that same angel visited another woman, a girl called Mary and told her that even without a husband she would have a child … a child who would be the Son of God most high … and when the young woman asked how this could be without a husband, she was told that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon her … and scared though she must have been … and dangerous though it was in those days to have a child with no husband … the young woman agreed … and conceived a child within her …

And so our journey is almost over … for we have come tonight to that town called Bethlehem … we have seen angels appear in the night sky and heard them singing and praising God and telling us that the child has been born and that he is the Saviour and the Messiah … full of wonder we have made our way under the starry sky and through the cold night air to that little stable at the back of an inn … we have pushed our way past the sheep and the cattle and the donkey, so that we may stand shoulder to shoulder with the shepherds … so that we might gaze with them in awe upon a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger …

And even though in one sense we know exactly who that child is … in another we do not … in our minds tonight he is newly born … we have come to this point of our spiritual journey to meet with that child anew and so we are in a sense meeting him for the very first time … and so we must ask those questions that we always ask when we meet someone for the first time: who are they … what do they do … where do they come from … but the child can not answer for himself … so we must listen to other voices … those who knew him … those who now speak for him … we must listen to what was said by the prophets … by the angels … by his mother … by those came to know him so well … and heard what he had to say … and saw what it was he could do …

And listening to those voices, we hear that the name of this child is Jesus … and that while he was born in Bethlehem in that time long ago … he also is more than that … he is the Son of God … he is the long awaited Saviour … he is the Messiah … that he is in fact the Word of God made flesh … the word of God that before all time created the world … that he is in fact God himself … and because of God's great love for us he has come into the world so that we might have a Saviour … so that light might come into the world and drive out all the darkness that is in it …

The season of Advent has come to an end … and so, of necessity our journey through it must come to an end … but that does not mean that our spiritual journey has come to an end … that is a journey that we must continue all through our lives … in fact, just as we in a sense gaze upon the Christ child for the very first time this night, so too we must begin our journey anew not just this night but every day … but if we begin anew each day by welcoming the Christ child and the light that he brings into our hearts then we begin that journey well …something that I pray for myself, and for you, and all God's children this night and every night … Amen.

Sermon notes: 24 December 2011 (first Mass of Christmas)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

cold turkey

A new report from Duke university indicates that we have underestimated the intelligence of our avian friends ... so much so that to describe someone as 'bird brained' may no longer be quite the insult it used to be. As a near-vegan with Franciscan leanings (don't ask!) I am delighted this news is coming out just before Christmas ... a time when untold millions of birds are slaughtered.

Those of you who will be tucking into some dead bird as part of their seasonal festivities may wish to reflect upon the fact that not only was this a creature that knew pain and suffering before it died ... but that it may also have been a lot smarter than you thought ... that it might have known exactly what was going on ... and desperately did not want to die ... and also that it is perfectly possible to be healthy and well nourished without any living creature having to die.

Too late for most of this year's turkeys ... but something to think about for the year ahead.

In any event, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

implants 2

The Irish Medicines Board has decided against advising women to remove the suspect PIP breast implants. I find that a curious position to take. Presumably they think they are being conservative and prudent in their advise. There is no overwhelming evidence to suggest the silicon in the implants is dangerous; so they see no reason for women to rush to remove them.

As I said in yesterday's post I have mixed feelings about implants and cosmetic surgery when used for purposes other than reconstructive surgery. However, this silicon gel is not approved for medical use. It seems to me that advising women to wait to see whether or not it is dangerous is akin to asking them to be guinea pigs. The stuff never should have been put into their bodies. So it should be taken out. End of story.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


silicone breast implants
The implant scare raises all kinds of questions. A lot of the women who had them would have had reconstructive surgery after mastectomies ... but many more would have had them for cosmetic reasons ... is body image really so important? And what drives our idea of what is the 'right' way for a body to look? I would have to admit to being deeply uncomfortable about this whole industry. There's an interesting post about cosmetic surgery here that suggests more than anything that those who submit to it are really trying to fill a gap in their lives that no amount of surgery can fill.

Interestingly the French government is offering to pay to remove the implants from all women ... but only replace them those who had cancer as opposed to those who had them solely for cosmetic purposes. That seems to mind to send out a message about how they view cosmetic surgery. But since as a government they also legislate to allow such procedures, is their response here consistent?

But the merits of implants aside, what kind of people put industrial grade silicon into women bodies instead of medical grade? The stuff they used was 10 times cheaper - was profit their only consideration? And even though the company is defunct, the people who ran it are presumably still around - will criminal charges be brought against them?

Troubling also is the attitude of the lawyers for those who had the implants. Since they can't go after the company, they are planning to go after the clinics - is this right? Is justice only about going after those with the deepest pockets available as opposed to those who actually did what was wrong? And what about insurance - shouldn't companies like this be obliged by law to have policies in place to cover claims that come in even after the company has ceased to trade? Surely that is common sense.

The biggest shock of the story, for me at least, is the numbers of implants involved. This company produced hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of implants during its time and it was only the third largest company making them. I had no idea the market was so big. Maybe that shows my naivety. But I also think it speaks volumes about society's attitude to women. There's pressure for them to look a certain way - the more they look like a candidate for a page 3 photo-shoot candidate the better - and if they can't look that way naturally, then surgery and plastic is an acceptable answer.  It shouldn't be. Women, and men, should be able to feel beautiful for just being who they are ... and to feel lovable and loved without having recourse to the surgeon's blade.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What housing crisis?

House prices are continuing to fall in Ireland. And apparently the rate they are falling at is increasing. Why should this be a surprise? People are out of work; the government is taxing everything in sight; the prospects for the economy are bleak; the banks are tight when it comes to lending; and there's a huge over-supply of housing left over from the building-boom.

What people should really be wondering about is why they aren't falling faster ... but of course, the reason is that the Irish people are pouring borrowed money into the banks so that they don't have to force developers to flood the market with houses. That can't go on forever, so eventually it seems logical that prices must drop further.

The truth is, the way things stand there is no reason why property shouldn't go back to pre-boom levels. Basic supply and demand. Lots of houses plus not much money in the economy equals low prices. But then, since the 'experts' couldn't figure out that an endless spiral of price increases fueled by banks willingness to lend ever increasing amounts was bound to end badly, maybe these same experts can't see the writing on the wall in relation to the current situation now either.

And the real irony is that we have people homeless in a country where the government is the effective owner of hundreds of thousands of empty housing units. Maybe irony is the wrong word. Perhaps vanity is closer. Or avarice. Or pride. One thing is sure - whatever is the right word, I'm pretty sure it must be one that describes a sin, and a serious one at that.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cold Comfort


There is a report out that states that over half the elderly in Ireland go without food or other necessities in order to pay for heat. Our Minister for Energy doesn't like the sound of that. So how does he deal with the problem? He denies that it exists. This from a Labour politician, a member of a party that is supposed to stand for justice and equality. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. After all, he is a member of a government that, as shown in the latest budget, that believes in protecting the rich from their mistakes at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

Some years ago, when I worked in a university, I did a little research in an area called Political Marketing. My studies led me to believe that smaller parties inevitably decline after going into government with larger ones. Look at what happened to the Green Party. Remember the Progressive Democrats? And who among us has anything but the vaguest memories of Democratic Left?

So perhaps the Labour Party will get its comeuppance at the next election. However, that's cold comfort for the elderly now going without food so they can afford to heat their homes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

'tis the season

I wonder if I am the only person who starts to get a little 'caroled out' at this time of year? Perhaps it is an occupational hazard for clergy - I've already done five carol services in the last week and am facing into two or three more before Christmas.

I had another one this evening, a school one. I admit that I approached it with slight dread. I was already tired after a long day & yet another service with the added bonus of a horde of OPC (other people's children) had me less than enthusiastic. However, I have to say that it was the lift I needed. Shiny little faces, all delighted to be up there singing and reading. Childish voices piping out the familiar words full of innocence and joy.

And the moral of the story? Does there need to be one? But if there does ... sometimes relief comes from unexpected sources ... and sometimes it comes from the ones we should have known to expect it from.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary's response

Today is the 4th Sunday in Advent, when we traditionally think of the Blessed Virgin, as is seen in our Gospel reading. Having heard the announcement of the angel, Mary's response is 'how can this be?' Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. And Mary, despite the fears that she must surely have had says 'let it be done with me according to your word.'

Mary's question is one for us all to hold in our hearts. When we feel God's call upon us, instead of looking for ways to avoid what we are called to do, instead we must ask instead 'how can this be?' And the answer to our question will be, like hers, that God will strengthen us with his Spirit, so that we may also respond in the words that Mary used 'let it be done with me according to your word.' Amen

Saturday, December 17, 2011

a little luxury

My wife and I spent last night at the Fota Island Resort. It was a bit extravagant, but she had gotten a 'deal' on one of those online voucher sites. A night in the hotel, a bottle of wine waiting in the very spacious room when we arrived, free passes to the luxury spa, and a very nice breakfast.

She had bought the voucher a while back, in anticipation of celebrating some good news, which in the event never came. However, having had some other good news to celebrate which we received earlier this week (I am to be rector of a parish sometime in the New Year), we decided to use it before it expired (its use-before-date was rapidly approaching).

I'm uncomfortable with luxury. It is the kind of thing I could never buy. But once bought, it would kill me to see it wasted. And I have to confess, I really enjoyed the night. It helped that it was the first night in years where sleep was not interrupted by a small child or two visiting us in the middle of the night. We emerged from our stay relaxed and refreshed, which makes it worth it. Not the kind of thing we could or would do often. But worth it as a very occasional treat.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

The story goes that some years ago, when ecumenical relations were not very far advanced, the Roman Catholic bishop of Cork was informed that his Church of Ireland counterpart had passed away. 'Good,' he responded. 'So by now he'll know who the real bishop of Cork is.' There was a happy gleam in his eye as he contemplated the toasting that his erstwhile rival was now enjoying.

Christopher Hitchens has died. One would almost be tempted to adapt the above anecdote to the event. However, that would be churlish. Mr Hitchens, like most atheists, I believe would like to be proved wrong, that they would delight to die and discover that their being had not ceased and that they were in the presence of a loving and compassionate God.

Obviously, I wouldn't agree with the stance he took on religion and a great many other subjects. But I accept that they were sincerely held. And so today my prayers are for him and those who held him dear and mourn his passing. May he rest in peace (and may he delight in God's presence). Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

a free lunch

Chef Preparing Food in a Kitchen clipart
I was at a pre-Christmas lunch today. Young men in an area of socio-economic deprivation were cooking lunch for the vulnerable elderly of their locality in the local youth centre. When they had finished serving to those who were there, they planned to take plates of food to those unable to to leave their homes.

These are the young men who will almost certainly never go to university, may never have a full-time job, & are unlikely to own their own home. In our 'economy' they are considered non-productive, a drain on resources. But this is a lie. They are not the problem, it is a system that fails to cherish all people. We do not live in an economy, we live in a community, which is made up of many smaller communities, and these communities are better places when those who live in them care about each other. These young men understand that. And it makes them wiser than those who run nations and more valuable than those who try to convince us that we are all parts of some vast economic system.

Jesus said 'blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.' Well, there they are. I wonder what it is that the rest of us shall inherit?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

proptery tax

 A Little House With A Landscaped Yard clipart
It's hard to know which is worse in the debate over the new property tax: that the government is bringing in yet another tax that is in no way based on ability to pay; or that other elected officials are cheering people on to break the law.

What's really cruel about this is that there are people out there who paid fortunes in property tax up-front by way of stamp duty which is not going to be recognised for the purposes of this tax.

If the government keeps going on this way, they are going to get a no vote on the Euro zone referendum (which will be needed, whatever the spin doctors are saying now) ... which might mean we'd be kicked out of the Euro ... which would mean there was no need to pay the the bond holders so we could 'burn' them if we wanted ... which would eliminate the need for all the austerity budgets ... hmm ... I wonder if the government knows what it's doing after all?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

a bit of fun

Sitting in a cafe in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, yesterday, my wife and I watched two young women trying to transport what appeared to be two skip baps balanced on top of a wheel barrow. The load slipped left, the load slipped right, the load slipped forward. One held tight on the handles, the other tried to keep the bags in place. The heavy rain didn't help!

Sitting snug behind plate glass eating our lunch we found it better than television. The women saw us watching; we smiled and waved & they smiled back. They clearly knew how funny they must look & didn't take themselves too seriously. If only more folk were like that, the world would be a far more pleasant place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Simple pleasures

In this joyful season of Advent, it is good to remember that there are simple pleasures in life, and not just the ones thrown at us by advertisers on tv or in catalogues.

Last night, my youngest son climbed into bed with my wife and I. A few minutes later he was asleep, his little face angelic.

This morning I threw on a jacket I hadn't worn in a few weeks. As I did so there was a jingle. I checked the pockets to find several euro in change.

Simple things, but they brought a smile to my face. There are simple pleasures in your life also, I'm sure - may they outweigh any sorrows ...  Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the ministry of John

Sermon notes: 11 December 2011 (3nd of Advent)

May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

Today is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, also known as Gaudate Sunday – Gaudate meaning rejoice in Latin … it is the Sunday during the sombre and penitential season of advent when we rejoice in the anticipation of the coming of our Lord

last week we talked about John the Baptist/Forerunner as someone who left a relatively comfortable home to go out into the wilderness to lead a life of poverty and hardship … we spoke about his intensely religious upbringing in a family of priests and prophets … always with the knowledge of the prophecies about himself in the back of his mind … and that surely, even as he saw himself as a forerunner of the one who was to come, he also must have taken intense satisfaction and joy from knowing that he was fulfilling God's will for his life and playing a major part in preparing the way for the promised and long awaited Messiah …

we stopped at the point where Jesus comes to him for baptism … and wondered what it must have been like for John, to know that his work had been to prepare the way for another … and I suggested that it must have been intensely satisfying … knowing that he had done the will of God … that like the other prophets who had gone before him he had pointed the way towards the Messiah … that he had been part of the mission of the whole people of Israel in helping prepare all the nations, all the world, for the one who was to come …

Many often feel somewhat uncomfortable at the fact that Jesus went to John for Baptism … John's baptism, after all, was for remission of sin … various theories have been put forward … in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that it must be done to fulfil all righteousness … but doesn't say how his baptism accomplishes this … it is often seen as a mark of Jesus' humility that the one without sin would submit to it in any case … part of his solidarity with sinful humanity …

but perhaps it was also a way in which he linked himself with John's ministry … a necessary step … if John has prepared the way, and has been the forerunner of Christ, then what better way to associate oneself with that ministry than to undergo John's baptism, whether one needs it or not … and of course, John said that his baptism was with water only, and the one who came after would baptise with the holy Spirit … and the Holy Spirit was to descend on Jesus at this Baptism … making it a very firm transitional point between one ministry and the other …

So what was this ministry of John's that helped prepare the way for Jesus?

First, it was a ministry of presence … John gave up a comfortable life to live in the desert … he showed that material things were not of the first importance … whether clothes … personal appearance … possessions … food …

But he also showed that he was not above justice in the material world … he knew that not all could live his life … and when those in authority came to him … soldiers and those who collected taxes for the Romans, he told them to be fair to those they dealt with … be satisfied with your pay and do not extort more … collect only the taxes that you must … a message of social justice without political revolution …

he also challenged the religious authorities in a major way … after all, he called them a brood of vipers to their face!

And his challenge to King Herod's marriage demonstrated his conviction that no one above the moral laws … that wealth and power did not create an entitlement to live in a way that was unacceptable for the rest of society …
Looked at in that way, we can see that there were common themes between John's message and that of Jesus … clearly there were difference … he had nothing like the same power or authority that Jesus displayed … and his ministry essentially came to an end with his death … whereas with Jesus it was his death that truly gave life to his movement … yet nonetheless, he did in a very real way prepare the way for Jesus in his ministry … he prepared the people for the kind of message that Jesus was to preach … and many of Jesus earliest and closed followers had originally been followers of John … or at least had gone out to see and hear and be baptised by him …

I said at the beginning that John would have found joy in his role … I think we also should rejoice in what it was that John did … even as we rejoice in the memory of Jesus' first coming … and indeed rejoice in the thought that he will come again … and especially rejoice in the thought that with God's grace we can play our part also in making ourselves and all others ready for that glorious second coming … which is my prayer for all God's children at this joyous time of year … Amen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Two women standing arm-in arm, one dressed in a long black gown and a black pointed hat.
I have to admit to be a little under-informed when it comes to matters occult. The announcement regarding the find of a witches cottage in Pendle this week took me by surprise ... mainly because I had never heard of Pendle nor its famous association with witchcraft. A quick look at wikopdedia soon had me up to speed ... my first thought when reading about the trials and subsequent executions was 'how sad.' Some were most probably the victims of hysteria. Also, I do not believe in the death penalty. And I rather suspect that these so called witches were either deluding themselves or deliberately deceiving others into thinking they could do magic for their own ends.

However, those who thought themselves 'witches' or portrayed themselves as such would have been morally guilty of the crimes  for which they were executed. Those who thought they had powers and tried to use them were guilty in the same way a person who points a gun and pulls the trigger only to discover the gun is empty is morally guilty of the crime they intended. And those who were only pretending not only were deliberately trying to terrify people for money or power, but they knew knew what they were doing was against the law of the land, carrying severe penalties, up to and including death ... as did those who really believed.  Both groups received justice according to the reckoning of the times they lived in.

The past really is a different country!

I think the best we can do for those who suffered, either innocently or not so innocently, is learn the importance of learning from past mistakes and trying to mete out justice as fairly as we can ... and perhaps be very slow to hand out punishments which, if we are later proved wrong, we can do nothing to correct.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Jesus and John

I've always rather loved today's Gospel reading because of the way it shows up a certain kind of critic for what they are. In the passage Jesus points out that people were critical of John the Baptist for being an ascetic and yet the same people criticise him for not being one. Basically it underscores people's ability to find fault when they wish to ... even if the fault they find today is in direct contradiction of the fault they found yesterday or will most certainly find tomorrow! Think of that when next you hear someone complaining about the Church or Christianity or religion in general. Is what they are saying valid or is it rooted in the speaker's own biases and prejudices?  It is hard to imagine any two people less deserving of criticism and yet not only did Jesus and John have critics but the criticism was the prelude to their judicial murder. Something to keep in mind when next you hear others voicing complaints against those you know in your heart to be Godly people.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

what would John think?

John the Baptist (or John the Forerunner) is, naturally, a prominent figure in our readings in Advent. I wonder what he would make of the economic chaos the world is facing? He cared nothing for material things for himself. Yet he thought those in authority, in his time soldiers & tax-publicans should not to take advantage of their position to the disadvantage of others. And he thought common morality applied as much to kings as anyone ... and was not afraid to tell them so to their face. And when he was in prison for his uncompromising faith and preaching his main concern was the his ministry, the Messiah, & God's will.

Somehow, I think he would not be too impressed with how any of us are facing the problems of today. And that he would point us towards the one that his own life pointed toward ... and tell us to try to concern ourselves with the things that really matter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

budget 2012

Matters of high finance are not my area of expertise. Yet it seems common sense that our financial crisis is as a result of what can only be termed the gambling of those who do consider themselves experts in that field. The government, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to national the debt that resulted from their speculations when it all went wrong (having lightly taxed the profits when all was going well). And now spending cuts and higher taxes are being made to pay off that debt in a manner that will disproportionately affect those who are poorest in our society.

If I have misunderstood any of this, perhaps someone will set me straight?

In the meantime, Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas lights

I was at the switching on of the Christmas lights in a small town over the weekend. As I stood in the crowd I overheard the conversation of two women near me. One couldn't make out what the local dignatary was saying in their speech before the switch was thrown. Her friend could & offered to tell her what was being said.

'Thanks,' she said. 'Just leave out anything he says about religion.'

Both laughed.

I don't know the women, so I don't know the context of the remark. Was she being ironic, knowing full well that the chances that any reference to religion on such an occassion in modern Ireland were very remote? Or was she serious, truly thinking that to have any reminder of religion would in some way 'spoil' things?

Either way, we seem to have reached a point where religion is being removed from Christmas, rather than being the reason for it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

John the Forerunner

May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

This is the time of year when we normally talk about John the Baptist … he is mentioned in the readings for both this Sunday and next … and this is perhaps not a surprising thing to do in the Season of Advent … the time when we think about the coming of Christ into the world … for John is the one whom Christian tradition holds was the one who came before Christ to prepare the way … Eastern Orthodoxy indeed refers to him as John the Forerunner more commonly than as John the Baptist …

So I thought it appropriate to talk a little bit about John today …

So what do we know about him? Very little really … apart from what we read in the Gospels and a few lines written by the historian Josephus we don't have much to go on … but if we take that information, and read it in the light of what we know of the life and culture of the time and place he grew up in and spent his life, & use our imaginations somewhat, then we can tease out a fairly good picture of what his life was like  …

Firstly we know he came from a very religious family. Both his mother and father were descendants of Aaron … so they were a priestly family on both sides … his father was a priest who served in the Temple … and so too most probably were his male relatives on both sides … not only that, but St Luke's Gospel tells us that both his parents were righteous people, devout, who kept all of God's laws … also we see both of them speaking prophetically in that Gospel … his father, Zechariah has a vision with an angel & later speaks prophetically about his son; and his mother Elizabeth speaks prophetically on the occasion of the visit to her by the Blessed Virgin Mary …

Priests like Zechariah did not do that work full time … he belonged to one of 24 priestly divisions & each division took turns spending a week at at time in the temple offering incense … he would have been in the temple for one week about twice a year … and then all the divisions would be there for the major festivals … but we have no hint of what Zechariah did the rest of the year … but it seems that he was able to afford to take several weeks off a year … so probably not a day labourer …

but he probably wasn't too wealthy … the kinsman of his wife Elizabeth was to marry a carpenter … and families of the time tended to stay within their own economic & social standing … and we know that Mary came and stayed for three months while Elizabeth was expecting … probably to help out … which means they probably couldn't afford to hire someone … so not wealthy but not on the poverty line … perhaps a skilled craftsman of some sort … or given that the hill country of Judah where they lived was a fertile area, filled with small vineyards, olive groves, and small farms, perhaps he had his own small plot of land which he worked …

So John would have grown up in the rural setting of the Judean hill country … not too far from Jerusalem … in a family where the religious traditions of their people were held in particular significance … watching his father make his regular trips to the Temple several times a year to serve as priest … no doubt adored by his parents, as the child they thought they would never have, the child given to them by God by the promise of an Angel, who said he would be their joy and delight … adored, but not spoiled … for he was to be brought up as a Nazarite … which was to live under a religious vow … drinking no wine … and avoiding the fruit of the vine in all its forms (grapes, raisins, juice) … not cutting his hair … he couldn't cut it, except once a year … and he could only comb it with his fingers ... a strict and ascetic way of life …

as he grew older, he would have been expected to join his father in his priestly division … so from about the age of 20 he also would have gone to the Temple regularly to offer sacrifice … and most likely would have joined with his father in his more mundane work also, on the land or at his trade … but it seems likely that John also spent a lot of his time in prayer, alone, in the wilderness … we know it was there that the spirit of God came upon him when he felt called to his preaching ministry …

perhaps he went there to ponder the words spoken to his father by the angel: that he would be great in the sight of the Lord; that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, & the spirit and power of Elijah; that he would bring many people back to God … and the significance of his father's prophetic words: that he would be a prophet of the Most High; that he would go before the Lord to prepare his way; that he would bring people to salvation through the forgiveness of their sins; that he would bring light to those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death …

He must have spent more and more time in the Judean wilderness … until the time came when he was spending almost all his time there … and then, when he was around 30, he realised what it was he had to do with his life … he found a rough, cheap coat of camel hair … a bit like sack-cloth, to wear and a tied it around him with a bit of old leather thong … his hair and beard were already long and unkempt – remember he couldn't cut it, except once a year … and he must have been lean … rake thin … living on locusts and wild honey doesn't make you fat … although when Luke says locusts he may well have meant locusts shaped bean pods that were more readily available that big grass-hoppers … and wild honey more probably means figs and other wild fruit … the phrase means he was living on what was available in the wilderness …

Did people come to John, or did John go to people? Probably both. At the beginning, he must have gone to them, otherwise how could anyone have heard his message? So he must have travelled the Judean wilderness, going from small village to small village … and to the roads that crossed it to preach to those who travelled in small groups or in large caravans … perhaps even to those who tended herds of sheep or goats, all that the sparse vegetation was good for …

until the time came when he no longer needed to find people to preach to … for one person told another and another until enough travelled out into the barren lands … hungry for the spiritual food that could only be found in that desert place … and as the crowds came he baptised them … marking that they had turned away from their old life of sin …

And as he did all this … what was it like for him to lead a life … knowing that it was the life he was called to before he was born … a life that was designed to prepare the way for another … a life that intended to point people to someone else … a life that even after he was dead had the purpose of reminding people of the life of another person?

Perhaps it was a life that he didn't find so strange … all the prophets that had gone before him had pointed to the life of this person … the history of all the people of Israel … every generation since Adam, had been designed to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah … so perhaps it gave him peace and contentment knowing that he was the last in a long line of those who had gone before … and perhaps he also found peace and joy in the knowledge that there would soon come a time when all those who followed the one he went before would also be called to live a life that was much the same, in spirit if not materially … that they also would be called to go before all the world proclaiming the Messiah … leading lives that were designed to prepare themselves and others for the time he would come … not for the first time but the second …

I think he did find peace and joy and comfort in those thoughts or ones like them … and so may we … so that even as we prepare ourselves spiritually in this season of Advent we remember our task to be like John in preparing the world for the coming of its Messiah … something that I pray that I, & you, and all God's children may have the strength and courage to do. Amen.

Sermon notes: 27 October 2011 (2nd of Advent)

Friday, December 2, 2011

following the Son of David

In our Gospel today we hear the story of two blind men healed by Jesus. In the Gospels the idea of blindness always carries with it the sense of the literal, as a physical disability, & the metaphorical, in the sense of spiritual blindness. Often in the Gospels those who are physically blind are spiritually better able to see than many of their peers. In today's passage, they were following Jesus ... two blind men were able to follow him down the road, calling out after him, according him a Messianic title, and asking for his mercy. Though blind, they knew who he truly was; Jesus the Christ ... the one whom even the blind can easily follow if they are spiritually open, if they will but see through the eyes of faith. Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

a solid foundation

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus speaks of the importance of having a solid foundation. For his listeners, the solid rock on which to base their faith was the words which he spoke to them and the revelation which was the Word made flesh, his presence among them. For us, it is the words of scripture, his body the Church, and his presence among us still which he promised. Though it may be tempting to wish that we walked in Gospel times and spoke with him face to face, there is no need to be envious of those first disciples. As Jesus said to Thomas: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed. Amen.