Happy New Year

May God bless and keep you and your loved ones throughout this coming year.

A reflection for Christmas I Sunday 31st December 2023 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

The Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told them (Luke 2:20)

One of the books which I recently bought is entitled “The Art of Christmas” by the theologian, Jane Williams. It is a series of meditations on the birth of Jesus as depicted in some of the world’s greatest paintings.  One of the paintings is by El Greco (1541-1614) -  “Adoration of the Shepherds” -  which is now held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. It is considered to be his last painting and was meant to hang over his own tomb in a convent in Toledo. Some of his other paintings can be seen here in The National Gallery of Scotland.

El Greco paints the shepherds barefoot and ragged; their faces full of wonder and reverence. There is a swirling feeling to the painting; the whole world is in motion around the holy family. The child at the heart of the painting is tiny but shining; the source of the light illuminating his parents and the shepherds. 

We are reminded that the first announcement of God’s message came to the shepherds. Shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. They were unable to keep the demanding details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe the meticulous hand-washings and rules and regulations. Their flocks made constant demands on them; and so the orthodox looked down on them. 

Who knows, they may have been very special shepherds. Perhaps the clue comes in the angel’s explanation: the Messiah, the Saviour, has been born in David’s own town; David started life as a shepherd and ended up as Israel’s greatest king; reference to shepherds goes a long way back.

God seems to like shepherds. They get the most royal of invitations to the nativity. Mary has a personal visit from the angel Gabriel. Joseph has an angelic visitation in a dream, but the shepherds not only get their own personal angel, telling them the good news, but then they are joined by the “heavenly host”. 

The shepherds are perhaps even the first evangelists. They tell the good news that the angels gave them and that they were then able to see for themselves. We are told that they went about “glorifying and praising God”. 

No doubt shepherds were a commonplace of the districts in which Jesus conducted his ministry in later life. He seems to have observed them closely. The good shepherd who searches for the lost sheep is a picture of his own ministry of seeking out the lost, rather than concentrating on the safe and comfortable. He even describes himself as “the good shepherd” who has taken the time and trouble to know and be known by the sheep, who will protect them at any cost.

Over Christmastide we will have sung and heard familiar carols referencing shepherds. They will have ranged from “While shepherds watched their flocks” and “Shepherds left their flocks a-straying” through to “the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “The Shepherd’s Farewell”. We just cannot get away from them.

As we come to the end of another year with the hopes, challenges and uncertainties that will face each of us may we know the presence of the good shepherd. May we be sure that he knows us and that we can know him too. And may we like those first shepherds who heard God’s message, continue to “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us”. 


A reflection for Christmas Day 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

One of the things that priests are trained to do is theological reflection. It becomes second nature and, in my case, it’s sometimes prompted by adverts. It happened a few weeks ago when there was a stushie about a Marks & Spencer Christmas commercial. It showed a group of rather alarming people trashing elements of a traditional Christmas – blowtorching a pile of Christmas cards, upsetting a game of Trivial Pursuit by dumping the cards and pieces into a tank of tropical fish and burning three party hats in a grate. The strapline at the end of the commercial was:

“Love Thismas (not Thatmas)”

and the overall message encouraged viewers not to be bound by Christmas traditions.

The ad received very mixed reviews, and was sternly criticised on social media by Katherine Birbalsingh, the woman to whom journalists routinely refer as “Britain’s strictest headteacher.” Several people spotted that the party hats which were being incinerated were in the colours of the Palestinian flag and the row became political. My own reaction was that it expressed a sadly selfish, individualistic and consumerist approach to Christmas.

I am a strong believer in tradition. I hope that you will, for the rest of today, enjoy whatever your Christmas traditions are. In my case, the fascination with Christmas traditions goes back to when I was a very young child. I would pester Annie Jane, my paternal grandmother, to tell me what Christmas was like when she was a little girl. Since these conversations took place in the 1950s, Annie Jane was remembering the Christmas traditions of a working-class household in the 1880s – her father was a boilermaker in a shipyard.

She described how she and her sisters would hang knitted woollen stockings at the end of their beds. In the morning, each of the stockings would contain an apple, an orange, a bar of chocolate, a bag of nuts and just one toy.

To my child’s mind that sounded rather meagre, not least because I knew that Annie Jane’s Christmas present to me would be one of those brown ten-shilling notes that some of you will remember and that had vastly more purchasing power than their modern equivalent, the fifty-pence piece. Yet I found the story fascinating and delighted to hear it repeated. It became a tradition about a tradition.

Years later it struck me that there’s a theological dimension to the story. Annie Jane’s Christmas gifts were a mixture of the expected – the fruit, the chocolate and the nuts - and the unexpected surprise – that single toy.

For Christians, Christmas is just such a mixture, for we too have traditions, musical and liturgical, which we value, and which evoke treasured memories. All of this is important and helps us to celebrate. Yet it may distract us from the surprise, from the astounding truth of the Christmas Day Gospel.

That truth is simply stated, but its implications invite a lifetime of responses in love, prayer and service. The God who creates and sustains the universe, sustains it and sustains us in risky freedoms, the freedom to live in a natural world which is evolving and which isn’t always safe, the moral freedom to choose between love and hate, between kindness and cruelty.

The surprise is that God came among us to share those risks and those possibilities; came among us not as a finger-wagging authoritarian commanding obedience but, at least initially, as a baby, as us at our most helpless and dependent. The Creator experienced what it is to be a creature, the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and the pains, even unto death.

Which brings me to the music which formed the soundtrack of that Marks & Spencer advert. It was a cover version of Meat Loaf’s 1993 hit single I’d do anything for love (but I won’t do that). An apt choice for a commercial promoting assertive individualism.

The Christmas Gospel, the surprise good news of Christmas, is that the God who is love itself will do anything for love of us – no buts, no qualifications, no limits. This is a God who came among us to express that love in a human life. The divine intention was and is both to break down the barriers of selfishness that separate us from God and to show us what it means to be fully human and how we may move towards that fullness.

I hope that truth hasn’t lost the power to surprise you and that your Christmas will be peaceful and blessed.

A reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 24th December 2023 by the Rev'd Canon Dean Fostekew

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you ... blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.”

The annunciation story most be one of the most widely artistically depicted passages from the Bible. In continental Europe you would be hard pushed to find a church without an annunciation painting and in the art galleries of almost every town you are bound to find at least one painting of this episode in our faith. But ‘Why?’ might be a good question to ask.

When you think of it, it is a pretty amazing and almost too impossible story to believe. No wonder Joseph questioned Mary when she told him her tale as to the truth of it all. A young girl, a virgin of about 13 or 14 is visited by a strange man who claims to be a messenger (an angel too boot) from God. He tells her that she will soon become pregnant but not by any human intervention. The Scots phrase; ‘Aye right!’ would seem to be an

appropriate response to Gabriel’s message and Mary’s tale. But if we are to believe the Scriptures then that is what happened and Mary, somehow found herself pregnant.

We could spend many happy hours debating how Mary became pregnant and that fact that in the Early Church (before the third century) many believed that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father but that God worked though him to achieve his end desire. This morning, however, we won’t give time to that debate, as fascinating as it might be, we will instead just accept that Mary became the ‘Mother of God’ the ‘Theotokos’ (God-bearer) as the Orthodox Church refers to her.

It was in Mary’s womb that God chose to dwell. In the first reading from 2Samuel God decides to get Nathan to tell David that he is fed up dwelling in a tent and moving around and that he now wishes to live in a more permanent home – the temple:

6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this

day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 2 Samuel 7:6b

Not that God is actually going to restrict himself to one place for all time but that God wishes for his people to have a focal point at which to worship him. In directing David to build the temple God is enabling the Hebrews to build their community around him and for the temple to become a symbol for his presence on earth. Just as the figure of Jesus is the fleshly embodiment of God on earth for the entire world today. So successful was Jesus in embodying God that the incarnation has yet to be repeated. But isn’t the concept amazing – God deciding to take on human form in order for us to better understand him and know him. The temple was a focus for God, a symbol and sign but Jesus although of God, lives and breathes just as we do. What a way for God to come among us, through Mary’s womb.

Our God did not come to us as a powerful ruler or King; he came to us as a helpless baby. He came to us as a contradiction in human minds; weak not strong but for God it was the best way to show

himself to us. As the late Fr.Gerry Hughes SJ once said; ‘Our God is a God of surprises’.

And, that God of surprises still has the capacity to amaze us anew each day for just when you may think you understand him, you get a new insight or contradiction that sets you thinking again. We certainly have a living faith and it shows us that we are not a people of a book but followers, people of the ‘Word made flesh’ - people of the living God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Our Book, our Scriptures inform us about God but it is our encounter with the living Christ who shapes our faith. This is why the annunciation is so important for at the annunciation moment God became flesh for the first time and Mary was the first human being to encounter God at that intimate level, deep with herself. Mary is the rôle model for all of us in the way she met her God. We like Mary are also called to be ready to meet our God face to face and like her to be prepared to say; ‘Yes’ to him as she did in her encounter with his messenger.

For me what is important about the annunciation is not how Mary became pregnant but that she did

indeed become pregnant and subsequently gave birth to Jesus, who is our God made human. It is because of this incarnation that we see the annunciation repeated over and over again in works of art.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you ... blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.

This is a familiar salutation but in fact a mind- blowing one at the same time. As we continue to journey towards the 25th December take time today to ponder on the annunciation and Mary’s role in the incarnation of God and give thanks for Jesus and pray that he will come again as he promised.

A reflection for Sunday 17th December 2023 Advent III by the Rev'd David Warnes

“Who are you?”  It’s the key question in today’s Gospel. If we look at the Gospel carefully, we can deduce the tone of voice in which that question was put to John the Baptist. The Gospel calls John’s answer his “testimony” and tells us that John “confessed” and “did not deny”. This is the kind of language we associate with the Sheriff Court. John is being cross-examined. 

“Who are you?” It’s a question about identity. For some people, identity is something constructed from a set of personal choices, a rather consumerist notion of what it is to be human and a dangerously individualistic one, for it can lead to people asserting as “my truth” what is, in reality, their opinion. 

For other people identity, is about membership of a group, a race or a nation and much of the current conflict and tension in the world arises out of that way of thinking. 

What might a Christian answer to the question “Who are you” be? John the Baptist points us in the right direction.

John’s first answer to that question was a negative – “I am not the Messiah”. They then tried to fit him into two other pigeon-holes – “are you Elijah? and “Are you the Prophet?” they ask. John says a definite “No” to those versions of his identity. And then we clearly hear the frustration of the priests and Levites. 

“Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

What do you say about yourself? That’s an invitation to define his identity in terms of his own individual choices. And John the Baptist refuses to do that. His answer is extraordinary – he quotes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It’s as though he is saying “You are asking the wrong question. Don’t focus on me, don’t focus on what I think about myself, focus on what I am saying.” Or, to put it another way, “don’t stand there looking at me – I’m a signpost. Look in the direction to which I am pointing.” 

And that is prophetic, for the Hebrew prophets’ vocation was to point people towards God, sometimes in warning mode and sometimes, as in the case of today’s glorious reading from Isaiah, to give them hope, to remind them of the resources with which God will bless them if they are receptive.

John the Baptist points his questioners towards Jesus, not naming him but referring to him as 

“…the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 

It’s a very humble statement, but it has none of the weakness that we often, wrongly, think of when we think about humility. It’s the statement of a person so confident in what he’s called to do that he doesn’t feel any need to draw attention to himself, or to accept any of the labels that other people want to tie on him. 

John points us towards a Christian concept of identity. The voice, he suggests, is not something to be used for self-definition or for self-assertion. He uses his voice to proclaim the identity of Jesus. What John the Baptist does and says is shaped by his understanding of who Jesus is. 

As we proceed through the Christian year that began two weeks ago, we will be having a refresher course about who Jesus is and about what that shows us about who God is. We all need that refresher course, for we are all tempted to take shortcuts when it comes to defining our answer to the question “Who are you?”

A truthful answer to that question has to be that we don’t yet fully know who we are but that we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of a God who is unceasingly mindful of us, who seeks to draw us into true authenticity and who offers us the resources of love and faithfulness that can make that possible. That is an offer which we are only able to accept by being mindful of God. 

That’s the point that Paul is making in his letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica. The mindfulness of God of which he writes isn’t easy

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances...”

That sounds impossible, but Paul reminds his readers and us that God is the source of all the resources which can make that possible.

“May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.”

In saying that, he is echoing Isaiah’s promise that:

“…the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In today’s readings, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul offer us signposts, showing us where our attention should be fixed. In following their direction, we aren’t embarking on some sort of self-awareness or self-improvement plan. There’s more to mindfulness of God than the secular versions of mindfulness, the fixing of one’s attention on one’s breathing or on other sensory experiences, helpful though that may be. To be mindful of God is to accept our own vocation to be signposts, pointing those who feel forgotten towards the God who remembers them and who unreservedly loves them.