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Reflection for Christmas I 27th December 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 26/12/2020 - 12:01

Christmas I 27th December 2020 Year B

After the very bright light,
And the talking bird,
And the singing,
And the sky filled up wi’ wings, And then the silence,

Our lads sez
‘We’d better go, then
Stay, Shep. Good dog, stay.’ So I stayed wi’ t’ sheep

After they cum back,
It sounded grand, what they’d seen: Camels, and kings, and such,
Wi’ presents – human sort,
Not the kind you eat –

And a baby. Presents wes for him. Our lads took a lamb.

I had to stay behind wi’ sheep.
Pity they didn’t tek me along, too. I’m good wi’ sheep,
And the baby might have liked a dog After all that myrrh and such.

                                                                                  ‘The Sheepdog’ by UA Fanthorpe.

UA Fanthorpe is one of my favourite poets and especially for this time of the year. Her Christmas and festive poems seem to sum up what Christmas is all about in just a few words and to say it better than any sermon I could write – but you are still getting a sermon because this is too exciting a time of the year for me not to share my excitement and hopes with you.

Today’s readings are relatively short and they are all hopeful. The first few verses from Isaiah 61 and especially verse 11 are words of great hope:

“11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
 and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

These words were originally written to give the Hebrews hope in their God and their future with him. They take on, however, a new meaning when Christ is put in to the text. The Hebrews longed (and still long) for the Messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors and to give them new hope. Isaiah is encouraging them not to give up because as he says just like seeds there is more to come than first seen or expected and what is to come is glorious.

Paul takes this hopefulness to a deeper level in the three verses form Galatians we heard read. He tells these early Christians (mostly Jewish converts) that the Messiah has been born and that through him we can come very close to God, so close in fact that we can call God ‘Abba’. Abba is probably best translated as ‘daddy’ and its use implies a close, loving relationship. What Paul’s words imply are that through the birth of Christ everything has changed. No more is God a distant reality, he is actually as close to us as a parent can be and because of the love he has for us (and we should have for him) we can rightly call him ‘Abba’ or daddy. It can sometimes be all too easy to forget that it is in Jesus that we see God and in his humanity we can come to know something deep about God’s divinity. No wonder the shepherds were amazed when they went to the stable!

Whether or not shepherds actually visited the Holy Family, is subject to debate and discussion but what this tale implies is that Jesus was born for all of God’s people and creation; not just for the chosen few or the wealthy. By having the shepherds visit him we are shown that Jesus is our Messiah and that he is the Messiah for all whom chose to acknowledge him.

The shepherds were basically outcasts living nomadic lives. A motley crew of undesirables and not all of them Jews either. They visited the Christ Child to pay homage and as such opened the way for all marginalised peoples to come to Christ in hope of liberation and acceptance. Just as the magi did for all non-Jews. But for me the most powerful words this morning are the last few words of the poem:

"I had to stay behind wi’ sheep.
Pity they didn’t tek me along, too. I’m good wi’ sheep,
And the baby might have liked a dog After all that myrrh and such."

Why? Because for me these words speak so clearly of the humanity of Jesus. We can at times get too caught up in the glories of Christmas that we lose sight of the Messiah’s humanity and the sheepdog Shep’s regret brings it home. Jesus might well have liked a dog. A boy and a dog – well many a story has been told and a song sung about that type of companionship. Jesus may have been God but he was also human and in need of love, acceptance, support and encouragement and a dog alongside him might have given him what he needed. We humans like our pets and this poem reminds us that Jesus was just as human as we are, even if he was God as well. For many of us in ‘Lockdown’ our pets have been great company or an excuse to get out of the house and I suspect even those of us without pets have smiled on occasion at the antics of the neighbour’s cat or dog. Pets can and do lift our spirits.

So despite all the religious ‘stuff’ around his birth what we are quite simply celebrating is the fact that a boy was born who was to change the world. To change it by his extraordinariness in the ordinary!

Happy Christmas

A reflection for Christmas Day by Canon Dean Fostekew

Submitted by Dean on Thu, 24/12/2020 - 13:36

Christmas Day 2020

In Bethlehem ‘X’ really does mark the spot, the spot where it is believed that Jesus was born. Almost three decades ago I visited that spot, in the Church of the Nativity. The writer Annie Dillard describes the site of the stable thus:

“One of the queerest places on earth – I hope- is the patch of planet where, according to tradition, a cave once stabled animals, and where Mary gave birth to a son whose later preaching – scholars of every stripe agree, with varying enthusiasm – caused the occupying Romans to crucify him. Generations of Christians have churched over the traditional Bethlehem spot to the highest degree. Centuries of additions have made the architecture peculiar, but no one can see the church anyway, because many monasteries clamp onto it in clusters like barnacles.”

                                                                         From ‘Bethlehem’ P.217 in ‘Watch for the light.’

The Church of the Nativity was nothing like I imagined it would be like. In fact, if I am truthful, much of the Holy Land was too ‘Disney’ for me and I found myself often unmoved by major pilgrimage sites and having moving experiences in unexpected, rather mundane places. The Church of the Nativity left me particularly cold especially when the clergy I was travelling with started to sing; ‘Away in a manger’ badly. I just had to get out of the church building and I spent time just sitting in Manger Square watching ordinary people walk by.

Over the years I have reflected on my reaction to the Holy Land and I have also discovered that I am not alone in my feelings and probably no different to some of the pilgrims who have visited over the last two millennia. For a start, where was Jesus born?

Some theologians say it probably was not Bethlehem but Nazareth. Bethlehem, however, fitted the ancient prophesies better. Was he born in a stable or an inn or a cave? All three places are possible and just as likely, as many artists and poets have interpreted. Look at your Christmas Cards when you get home – what does Jesus’ birth place look like? In most paintings it will be a dilapidated venue, a falling down stable or stone building. Why? Because it is meant to represent the old ways passing away and a new beginning for humankind. It represents the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New.

Whatever happened 2000 years ago we Christians believe that Christianity began with the birth of Jesus, the long promised Christ, the Messiah. His birth was the time when God emptied himself into humankind. God became human. For me the fourteen point star on the floor of the crypt chapel in the Church of the Nativity that supposedly marks the place of Jesus birth or God’s incarnation is unimportant. What to me is important is the belief that God became as we are – fully human.

God did not need to become human but he chose to do so, so that we the creation could understand him better and he could prove to us just how much we are loved by him. Loved so much that he was prepared to die for us. If you have ever felt that you would give your life to save the life of a loved one, you’ll have some concept of what this unbounded love God offers us is like.

A love so powerful that it is life and creation changing. Today’s celebration of Jesus’ birth is all about love, earth shattering, all powerful, hopeful love. This for me is the importance of Christmas and it was in the Holy Land that I realised that I did not need a specific place to give thanks for Jesus’ birth. I can give thanks for his incarnation anywhere because his birth is not time limited or place specific. The incarnation is a universal, eternal event and event like the resurrection that is never ending.

Jesus’ birth was a gentle, almost unnoticed event at the time, give or take a few shepherds and magi (who may or may not have actually pitched up) depending on which Gospel account you read. HOWEVER Jesus’ birth was actually just as explosive as his later resurrection!

Jesus birth is frankly quite amazing. His birth has changed lives and cultures for over two millennia and this year in particular we need to be reminded of that fact and the hope for change that it brings. Sadly, however, Christ’s incarnation has been used by some in the past to cause trouble and strife but that is humanity’s doing NOT God’s. God did not become human in order to start a war or to cause division or even to set up a religion as Dillard says:

“I have never read any theologian who claims God is particularly interested in religion anyway.”

God became human to save us from ourselves.To love us both as God and as a human being too. Knowing that we are loved and that that love is unconditional and always there should be something that comforts us and gives us hope in the dark times and inspires us and challenges in the good times.

Human love can be fickle – we all know that - but God’s love is never fickle or changing and this is what Christmas says to us. Jesus is the epitome of pure, unadulterated, unbounded and eternal love. Love for you, love for them, love for us, love for me, love for everyone and anyone regardless. No one is beyond God’s love. Jesus is for all of us not just a selected few or chosen ones. Even if this love is rejected it is still continually offered – this is one brilliant and everlasting Christmas gift.

And how was this love manifested?

In a helpless babe, an infant needing love and care himself, that’s God all over. Unpredictable, constantly challenging our perceptions and taking us by surprise and in doing so showing us something wonderful.

Christmas is amazing, celebrate it with great joy and hope this year as you have always done; give thanks to God for Jesus and above all try to love others as God loves you. Loving each other is important as this past year has shown us, we all need each other to help us cope in the difficult times. Be inspired by Christ’s birth this year to love and receive love when its offered; to give and receive the helping hand and too surround everyone with your prayers for a better year to come.

 

Bassano's Adoration of the Magi

Submitted by Dean on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 16:39
Adoration of the Magi Bassano

 

The painting above is entitled; ‘The adoration of the Magi’ and it was painted in about 1542 by Jacopo Del Ponte (‘nick-named’ Bassano from the town the he came from ‘Bassano del Grappa’) near Venice.

Bassano’s work is one of my all time favourite paintings. Why? For many reasons; such as his use of strong colour, his subject matter and the fact it was one of the first paintings that I learned to ‘read’. Most of us will get‘Nativity’ scenes on Christmas cards this year but have you ever taken a good look at them and wondered what the different elements in the painting are all about? How does the artist want you to read their work? What is Bassano saying to us his viewers?

Bassano has taken as his inspiration the story in Chapter 2 of the Gospel according to St.Matthew, where Matthew records the visit of wise men from the East:

"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born." They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

"Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road."

In the centre of the painting you have the three wise men, representing different races and ages of humanity. St.Matthew is trying to tell us in his words that the Christ was born for ALL God’s people and not just the Hebrews, so is Bassano trying to do the same in his painting. Hence the black man, the old man and the younger man. The wise men or kings are offering their gifts to the child; gold - acknowledging his kingship; frankincense - acknowledging his divinity (incense is used to represent our prayers ascending to God in heaven) and myrrh - foreshadowing Christ’s death (myrrh was used in embalming).

The baby Jesus is raising his hand in blessing and acceptance of the gifts and in doing so acknowledges who he is to the wise men. In these paintings the baby Jesus is usually shown naked, emphasising his belly button as proof that Jesus was both fully human and divine. All humans have a belly button, is the reasoning here. Joseph also is usually depicted, as here, as an older man with a walking stick, empathising the fact that he was too old to have been Jesus father and that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. If you look carefully around the Holy Family you will see other symbols telling us who Jesus is and how his life will develop.

The Holy Family is not in a stable but in some form of ruined temple, this emphasises the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the promised Saviour. Look at the stable pictures in other paintings and they too are falling down, indication the passing away of the old and the birth of the new age in Christ. You also have the ox looking at Jesus and the donkey looking away. The ox is a symbol for the new testament and the donkey one for the old testament. In Hebrew society the king always rode a donkey in processions. The cut tree in front of Jesus foreshadows his crucifixion on the cross.

Christmas cards with their Nativity images are worth studying, have a look at yours this year and ponder as you ‘read’ the painting what all the different bits mean and why the artist put them in. Nothing in any painting is there by accident. In Bassano’s painting there is so much going on and I have only given you a little insight but I hope you will like the painting as much as I do.

The Nativity has been a source of inspiration to many artists over the centuries and to countless millions of Christians as well. So strong is the truth it portrays that it remains, and I believe will always remain, an inspiration for the human race for eternity.

The simple message of the Nativity is that in the birth of Jesus (the Incarnation) God became human to show us all how much we are loved and how we can in God hope for a better future. With all the pain and difficulties we have all faced in 2020 let us hope that the hope and love of Christmas will encourage us to look forward to 2021 with joy in our hearts.

May Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one all things earthly and heavenly, fill you with joy and peace; and bless you now at Christmas and in the new year to come. Amen.

 

A reflection for Advent IV by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 19/12/2020 - 15:36

Advent IV – Sunday 20th December 2020

Let it be with me according to your word

Like most journeys, many of us are glad when they come to an end.  Sometimes there a great sense of relief and satisfaction just to finish. We may feel tired, exhausted or worn out. We may wish that we had not started on them or been taken in a particular direction over which we had no control. At other times we wish they continued forever. A holiday, a friendship, a new and exciting opportunity, an unexpected encounter.   

Today the fourth Advent candle, representing Mary, the mother of God, the God-bearer, the theotokos, is lit. Our waiting is almost over.

If I was to ask you “what have you been wondering and pondering upon since our first Advent candle was lit, what would you tell me? Would it be one of new beginnings or a new understanding? Would it be one of asking questions which remain, as yet, unanswered or unresolved? Would we say that we have not had time or is there something that we are grappling with and will not let go?

In today’s gospel (The Annunciation), Mary too had questions. She was much perplexed and pondered upon what was being said. “How can this be?”  No doubt there were other questions and emotions which are not disclosed.

What surprises me is that Mary said “yes” so willingly.  “Yes” to the Incarnation.  “Yes” to a God who desired to dwell within her. To say that it was inconvenient and not good timing, would be an understatement. She overcame her fear by trusting the message Gabriel brought.  “Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God”.  She opened her heart to this sudden, unexpected and life changing message. She opened her womb to bear a son, who was to be named Jesus.

Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c1328) believed that we are all meant to be mothers of God. He wrote “What good is it for me if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within me? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace?”

In his book “Waiting on the Word”, Malcolm Guite  also comments that although Mary’s role as the God-bearer, is in one way unique, in that she alone physically nurtures and brings into the world the body and person of Jesus Christ, in another way Mary is the archetype of every  Christian soul, and of the whole Church. We are all in some way called to respond to God’s promise. To say “be it unto me according to thy word”, to treasure his words and the gift of his spirit in our hearts. In some way, even in the intimacy of our own flesh and daily lives, to bear him into the world. Mary is our model and our encouragement as we prepare both outwardly and visibly and inwardly and spiritually for his “arrival” this Christmas.   

I want to end with the Collect appointed for the Feast of Mary, Mother of the Lord, which encapsulates something of her response: -

Almighty God,

Who looked with favour on your servant Mary

And called her to be the mother of your Son;

Grant us, we pray,

The humility which found favour in your sight;

That we, with her, may proclaim the greatness of your name,

And find the mercy shown to those who stand in awe of you.

Let it be with me according to your word

'Advent Hope'

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 12/12/2020 - 11:31
Advent Hope

Our Winter yarn-bomb project! Thank you to everyone who made pom-poms during 'Lockdown'.