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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.

Advent II Sunday 10th December a reflection by Canon Dean Fostekew

If like me, you are a fan of historical novels you will be quite familiar with messengers arriving and shouting out their news (and there is a lot of shouting going on in today’s readings). Usually, in the novels the news they bring is, more often than not, unpopular - well you wouldn't want to spoil a good story. In most cases the herald is exhausted having travelled far to proclaim their message. Sadly, some of them end up dead - either because others do not want the message to be delivered or the recipient doesn't like what he or she is told. Whatever their fate, messengers were important in conveying the news of the society in which they lived.

John-the-Baptist is one such messenger and his ministry seems to have been foretold by the prophet Isaiah centuries before, also a messenger:

3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40:3

In today’s readings what is clear is that the messenger is not the one 'to come’ but merely the pre-cursor and it is striking in Mark’s Gospel account that John is humbly pointing the way to Jesus:

7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. Mark 1:7

The messenger, so says Isaiah, is the one sent to tread the path 'to make a highway in the desert', to level out the uneven path for the more important figure to follow. Many people, we are told were, drawn to John’s call to Baptism and I suspect many wondered if he were in fact the promised Messiah but John refutes any such suggestion that he is ‘The One’. He is merely the servant of the one to come. I wonder how many of us would be as humble as John was, when lauded with praise and adulation not to take on the mantle of superiority and to make out that we were the ‘Promised One’? Human nature likes flattery and we can all be tempted to be something we are not - but, not John.

Mark tells us that John-the-Baptist came to make 'the paths straight' and to encourage repentance. Both Mark and Isaiah seek to tell us that we need to prepare and be prepared to meet the Lord, the Christ. Perhaps not an easy thing to try and do nowadays with the frenetic run up to Christmas and the disappearance of Advent in secular awareness. There just doesn’t seem to be time to prepare. We do not, however, only need to prepare we also need to be ready to respond to the call as well. It is all well and good ‘hearing’ the call to repentance but we have to make a positive response in order for that cal to really make a difference in our lives. John called his followers not only to repent but to be physically Baptised as well. We 2000 odd years later are also called to hear and respond too.

In order to properly prepare and respond we have to try and clear space in our lives, hearts and minds in order to shut out the ungodly din of life and allow the godly voice of our Creator to talk to us and to encourage us to make that response to his call. Easier said than done, though. So what to do?

This Advent try and find just a few minutes each day to be still, to stop and let the busy-ness of the world pass you by. You might want to quietly and calmly say the Lord’s prayer a couple of times a day or just to sit and be with God for a few moments. You could even do this on the bus, or in a busy café. Just carve out a wee space to pray or to be quiet.

How ever you create this time, make trying it a priority. See this as prayer time in which: “The still,

small voice of calm” can talk directly to you in the silence or even with just the silence. Look out for the signs or people (prophets) pointing you in a new direction or encouraging along the path you already tread and be open to surprises as to how God might be talking to you.

What might you hear? and How will you respond?

These are two questions you might have to try and answer. For when we stop and give space to God, we might be surprised, as I said, by what God is trying to say to us! And, who knows where, actually giving God a bit time this Advent, might take you?

“See the Lord comes ...” Isaiah 40:10a

Thoughts for Advent Sunday 3rd December 2023 and prayers for when lighting your Advent Candles by Canon Dean Fostekew

Advent Sunday 

‘Happy New Year’ - a bit early you might be thinking? Not at all because today being Advent Sunday is the beginning of the Church’s new year. It might seem a bit daft beginning a new year today when the calendar year till has a good month to go, could the Church not wait a bit? Actually, no and when you consider that pre-1752 New Year’s Day was the 25th March starting the Church’s new year today is as good a day as any. 

We begin the Church’s new year today because with the beginning of Advent we turn our thoughts again to the forth coming celebration of Christ’s nativity. Every year the church reminds itself of Jesus’ life story and the birth narratives coming in our darkest months give us hope of new life and new hope, Even if life does not tend to be as straight forward as we might sometimes hope.

Stephen Cherry in his poem ‘Advent Wreath’ writes:

I wonder about circles

and straight lines.

I wonder about eternity 

and time.

I wonder, though this sounds grand, about the 

purpose of my life.

Many of us will no doubt have wondered similar things this past year if things did not plan out as we might have expected. With the days of our lives there seem to be echoes of repeated patterns of living from the past but also the emergence of new ways of being too. The familiar and the unknown all mixed together and it’s never easy when that happens.

Advent, can I think, does give us hope. For Advent is a time when we look forward and anticipate the future through the lens of the known. What I mean is that in Advent we ponder on the second coming of Christ by reminding ourselves of his birth some 2000 odd years ago. We remember through the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel writers what happened and hear from the letter writers how that birth changed the world and the lives of all God’s people. And, we can do the same thing this year. 

As we light the candles on our Advent wreaths we do so thinking about the teachings of the prophets about the Messiah and the knowledge of his birth and how his life is so intimately bound up with our lives. Ponder and wonder on these facts over the next four weeks and as you light your candles pray for each other and our world; that the light and hope of Christ will never be lost. 

Advent Wreath Prayers

Advent Sunday & the First Week

We light this candle to recall prophetic voices which announced the Prince of Peace, which foretold the coming Kingdom of God, which called for justice and announced the song of happiness.

May the light overcome the darkness.

Advent II & the Second Week

We light this candle to recall, shepherds on the hills and throughout the ages who in their place of work have been ready to hear good news and who were delighted to pass it on to others.

May the light overcome the darkness.

Advent III & the Third Week

We light this candle to recall Simeon and Anna and all those who are the Quiet in the Land. Those who have awaited every generation for the glory of the Lord to be revealed and who have patiently accepted your will and timing.

May the light overcome the darkness.

Advent IV & the Fourth Week

We light this candle to recall Mary and Joseph who saw their visions and dreamed their dreams, who heard angelic announcements and were obedient to your Word and their calling, giving a home and care to the Child.

May the light overcome the darkness.

Christmas Day

We light this candle for the baby of Bethlehem, for the child born to be King, for the boy in the cradle who became the man on the cross, the Redeemer and
Saviour of the World.

The darkness is overcome, the light is around us.

 


 

Looking towards St.Andrew's Day 30th November 2023

St.Andrew of Scotland 2023

How did a Galilean fisherman become the patron of Scotland? 

According to early chronicles of the Christian religion, Andrew was inspired to preach in Greece and as far north as Kiev, which is why Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Georgia and Russia have him as patron saint. He is widely venerated in many other Christian countries, and among other patronages ascribed to him he is the patron saint of fishers, miners and singers. Andrew was martyred by the Romans in their province of Achaia – now in Greece – at Patras, on an X-shaped cross which became his symbol. Andrew asked to be executed on the saltire cross as it is now know because he did not believe himself worthy to die on a similar cross to that of Jesus Christ.  Christians at Patras somehow managed to preserve his body in a secret grave.

Legend again has it that a monk at Patras, St Regulus or Rule, was determined to preserve the relics and in a dream he was told to take the saint’s arm, kneecap, three fingers and a tooth to the ends of the earth – Scotland, at that time!!! Then comes the most intriguing legend about Andrew. You will recall the Constantine story of a vision before battle – well the same vision was seen in the sky by King Oengus II before the Battle of Athelstaneford in 832, and with his Picts and Scots being victorious against the larger forces of Northumbria, Oengus ordered that the flag of his kingdom should be a white X cross on a blue background – the Saltire, as we know it.

The Scottish cult of St Andrew grew exponentially. Thanks largely to St Margaret and subsequent kings, St Andrews became the largest ecclesiastical centre in Scotland and a centre for pilgrimage with the long-lost shrine of our patron saint as the main attraction.

Quite some legend! The important thing, I think, about St.Andrew that we can take away this morning is his willingness to give up everything and to follow Jesus. He did not have to give up his fishing and probably quite a good life but the inspiration he found in Jesus was enough to encourage him to take a risk and to follow the young rabbi to who knew where. Andrew, like us, discovered that faith in Jesus can help us to do things we did not think we were capable of and like Andrew we have a duty to share our faith with those who have yet to hear the words of Jesus speak in their hearts.