The Holy Family (27 Dec)

see Jeffs Jottings – My magnificat

The first reading from Genesis tells us something about the relationship between Abraham and God. The reading is made up of two separate parts of this story (from chapters 15 and 21); you notice that in the first part he is called Abram, meaning great father, and in the second part, Abraham, father of many. Names and name changes were quite significant in that culture; also the inheritance of position and dignity went from father to son, and if there was no son to any of his wives then it went through one of the maidservants’ sons used by the father. Although Abram is childless, God promises that he will have many descendants. Part of the story omitted is where God promises that Abram will have a son by his wife, Sarah, although she appears to be too old – she actually laughed at the thought. But God’s plans come to be, and Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah; God can bring about what seems to us to be impossible, but co-operating with Him will achieve remarkable results.

From the Letter to the Hebrews,(see here scroll down) the second reading tells us something about faith. The writer believes that “to have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 GNB) – to believe in what seems impossible. He illustrates this with reference to various Old Testament characters, like Abel and Noah (whose story of the flood you will be aware of), but he is most interested in Abraham, the great ancestor of the chosen people. We hear reference to that most alarming account of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a human offering, of Abraham going ahead with this until at the last moment an angel stops the process and offers a ram instead (seeGenesis 22). While the writer of Hebrews takes this as an example of faith, the gospel writers might well have some of the story in mind when they tell of the Son of God, led up a hill and sacrificed on the wood of the cross. The way stories are developed and used to make different point, it may well be that this was preserved to illustrate that God does not want human sacrifice (seeDeuteronomy 12:31) which some of the neighbouring tribes practiced and the Israelites might have been tempted to do. But this second reading for us is about accepting what God wants of us and going ahead boldly to do it.

In the gospel  (Luke 2:22-40), we read how the parents of Jesus take him at the appropriate time to the temple to be dedicated to God. Notice that this service of presentation and dedication fulfills the Jewish law and at the time of the writing of this story the Christians believe that it is Jesus Who fulfills the Law and that in Him the glory of God is revealed. The words of Simeon are significant for us, as they were for Mary. He is a character between the Old and the New testaments and his words resound with allusions (see here) to the events and words of the prophets in the Jewish Scriptures especially; but they might also be applied to the Christian era when he addresses Mary directly. She too is a character at the junction of the old and the new eras; Simeon refers to the troubles and the blessings in the long history of his people as well as to the sorrow in the life of Mary, but also, perhaps, to the conversion of individuals to Christianity by Baptism as the sink into the water to die to the old self and rise out of it into new life with Jesus dying and rising. But we need to experience this pattern in our own lives and as we try to live more and more as Christians should we will have our own falls and uplifts.

see Jeffs Jottings – My magnificat

4th Advent B

see Jeffs Jottings – The ideal idea

The first and second Books of Samuel have some of the early history of the chosen people. It is an instructive interpretation of past events from which the reader is expected to learn something of the ways of God with people and how people should respond to Him. In our reading (from 2 Samuel chapter 7), King David is presented as a good king who will become an hoped-for ideal ruler when the people reach their zenith of power. The king has subdued all his enemies (with the help of God) and is now settled in his own house (actually a palace) and is at last safe from surrounding enemies; in this successful situation he wants to build a house (in fact a temple) for God, close to the palace in Jerusalem. Up to this point the ‘house’ of God has been the ark of the covenant kept in a sacred tent and transported to different areas to be close to the people in general. The prophet Nathan thinks it is a good idea to have a temple, but later he gets to understand that this is not what God wants, at least for the time being. Rather, what God wants is for the house (the dynasty) of David and all the people to dwell safely and well in the land that He has given them for themselves; and in the future God will raise up an heir of David’s who will reign over an ideal kingdom. But who, reading this history can grasp how this will in fact turn out? We apply it to the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus nearly a millennium after David, but its completion still needs our co-operation.

The second reading is the last three verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. We don’t have the original of any of the New Testament books, but only manuscripts of a later date. Some of these put these three verses a chapter or so earlier and some have them in both places and I think one omits them altogether. It may be that these verses were not originally by Paul but were added later. But that is by the way; since these verses still have a lot to say. This one sentence tells us that the core message of the Christian teaching is that we are elevated to a higher potential because this is the climax of what was prepared for in the Old Testament (the scriptures). It is God Who enables us to live well as we should, and in accord with the Good News as preached by Paul.   Previously, what the Good News was and what God wanted was a mystery, but now it is clear in Jesus Christ. And this is Good News that should spread to all people, including those we think unlikely. You can read more about this here.

In the gospel reading we hear of the annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel. He tells Mary of her role in God’s plan; it is a great favour for her for she is to have a child who will fulfil the longings of God’s people and His promise through the dynasty of David. As David mistook God’s plan for him, so Mary cannot see how this will come about and how God’s plan will come to reality. But the message the angel adds, is that God’s power can achieve what seems impossible to us and is impossible without His help. The Spirit which played such an important part in creation and in the history of the people, will come upon Mary. This power of God is shown in the pregnancy of Mary’s much older cousin Elizabeth with John the Baptist. Mary verbally accepts the word of God and co-operates in His plans for the rest of her life, beginning with caring for her cousin. The thread through these readings applies also to us who read and hear them. How we expect and want things to be, may not be what God has in mind for His overall plan. What God wants of us may surprise us, but He is with us and enables us to fulfill our role and progress the coming of His kingdom, we should respond as Mary did as we prepare to celebrate the gospel events at Christmas.

see Jeffs Jottings – The ideal idea

3rd Advent B

see Jeffs Jottings – Work your miracles

The first reading is from Isaiah chapter 61.  As Israel’s long history progressed, even from the time of Abraham, leaders kept being chosen and supported by God, and when it came to Kings their appointment was confirmed by anointing. Then when times were difficult for the nation, people began to expect that God would send an anointed one who would bring them to their fullness and their dream of success. The history of the people tells us (Ezra 1:1ff) that their captivity in Babylon ended through the emperor Cyrus, chosen by God to send the people back to their homeland. Our first reading for today comprises two stanzas from a poem in the book of Isaiah from about this time (530 BC). The first could well be the voice of such a chosen liberator, though we might see it as also being appropriate to be expressed by Christ Himself. The word Christ means anointed and the Spirit of God is with the anointed one. This chosen one (whether we think it is Cyrus, or proleptically Christ) has good news to deliver – the word Gospel literally means good news. It is to announce the day everything will be put right, a vindication that is sometimes translated as vengeance (for the Jews would likely have thought of retribution on their enemies). The next stanza that we read is probably the thoughts of Jerusalem personified for the inhabitants of the city and its surrounds; it sings of rejoicing in the restored glory of the building and of their society in themselves and in relation to their enemies. This stanza can remind us that we should rejoice at the things that God has done for us in Christ.

In the second reading Paul write to the Thessalonians  from Corinth and has received news from Timothy that the Christians in Thessalonica, which he had to leave hastily, are doing well. He writes to give them some advice and to praise their success. Our reading is almost the end of this letter, dated about 50 AD. Christ wants His followers to be upbeat, to pray for things they want and anyway to always thank God for all His blessings. The community there seems to have quite a few ‘prophets;’ They are people, male or female, who feel moved by the Spirit to make pronouncements and public prayers. Some in the community dislike this activity, but Paul says you need to judge what they say and accept what you know to be right and good and reject the rest. He ends by praying for them – its good for people to know when they are being prayed for!  May you be entirely blameless, he prays using the phrase ‘body, soul and spirit.’ Be ready for the advent of Christ, he prays, which the early Christians thought might be quite soon.

The gospel is from John, a Gospel written  much later than the other three and which had to address issues that were developing in the church at the time. One of these was an exaggerated adulation of John the Baptist by some supposed Christians. After all John had been a very impressive character, attracting crowds out into the desert to recommit themselves to God in a ceremony of baptism similar to ones for people taking on an entirely new religious belief and practice. In many ways his extravagantly ascetic life and dramatic death at the hands of Herod, were more impressive than the generally compassionate preaching and lifestyle of Jesus. So at the beginning of this Gospel the position of John in Christian belief is clarified in the reading we have today. Positively, John is the one announcing good news as in the other gospels which also quote the passage from Isaiah used in last week’s readings. Here it is quite clear that John is not the one, not the light, but just a servant preparing his way. Even today we can sometimes have an image of our saviour which attracts us, rather than elevates and challenges; we need, perhaps to rethink and recommit ourselves.

see Jeffs Jottings – Work your miracles

Advent 2

see Jeffs Jottings – The creation process

The first reading is a well-known passage, set to music so elegantly by Handel – just listen to it and reflect! The text originated at the time of the ending of the Babylonian captivity of the chosen people of God, as the prophet announces hope and consolation from God as the time of their exile draws to an end. The way back to the promised land is either a huge detour or is a way across the desert – they have felt deserted even by God but now see a way ahead – there is always a way for us to return to God when we have strayed and lived away from Him. The prophet interprets the exile as a time of punishment for all their previous neglect of their religious practices and lack of faithfulness to God. The voice puts it the other way round: God is coming to them. It is about setting things right so that God can come cutting through all the obstacles that we have which prevent His engagement with us; if we can do that then we can envisage God’s glory – His presence – not as individuals but as a community of people together. The symbolism and allusions of this passage to growth in our spiritual lives are remarkable and should not be overlooked. The voice announces the glad news (the word ‘gospel’ means good news) for God cares for us like the ideal shepherd. The deeper meanings behind this passage are eminently relevant to us at this time of Advent – of preparation.

The second reading is from a letter attributed to Peter, but addresses a much later situation, about 100 AD, The message is for those who are worried about the Second Coming of Christ and the day of Judgment which seems to have been unduly delayed way beyond their expectations. Don’t worry that people are dying before the end comes, the reading argues, alluding to Psalm 90 (especially verses 3 and 4). The important thing is repentance – moving from our old ways to living within the life of God. Through Christ we can do this but we must start now (as we in Advent prepare) to be eager to free ourselves of any spiritual blemish.

The gospel is the opening words of the Gospel of Mark and may be taken in three different ways because of the ambiguity of the little word “of” before “Jesus Christ.” Firstly, it can mean that the message which the gospel is about to present is the very message that Jesus Himself came to deliver to us- it is the good news from Jesus. Secondly, it may be taken to imply that Mark is going to tell us the good news about Jesus – he came to save humanity and by his death (and resurrection) he did. And thirdly, “the Good News of Jesus” can mean that Jesus is Himself good news for us. I think we might think on these three, but accept them all as meaningful to us. This goes beyond what the author had in mind, but this kind of development for a deeper understanding is the way Scripture is used; the next part of our reading shows the author developing the words of Isaiah in the first reading. The voice in the Isaiah reading calls for preparation to be made in the desert; it is a voice that says, “in the desert prepare the way of the Lord.” To apply this to the preaching of John the Baptist in the desert by the river Jordan, the text has been punctuated differently – “a voice in the desert cries out: prepare the way of the Lord.” Throughout history, God comes to us in various ways at different times, and we must prepare to let Him into our lives. We must apply to our situation the message of John, calling out “repent” which means “change your way of thinking!” What we must do as we prepare in Advent for a renewed coming of Christ to us is to let Him into our life, for He shows the way to live for the good of others and consequently for our own good too.

Advent 1 B

3rd December 2017

The first reading comes from a great cry of lament that has a typical pattern for prayer at the time, and which is still found sometimes in our prayers; first of all God is ‘reminded’ of all that He has done and continues, for the benefit of the petitioner – of the relationship that there is between Himself and us; but then it is a cry of desperation, of feeling let down by a God who doesn’t act as we expect – He is giving us grief; followed by a cry for God to come anew. We think of God as our father and redeemer, but can be too confident about this and reliant on God’s love and forgiveness with the consequence that we encounter difficulties, we actually become hardened in our attitude to religion and to God – God gives us a bad time so we shall be stripped of our complacency and realise our utter dependence on Him. To execute this process seems to have been a task given to Isaiah, called to “make the heart of this people heavy!” (Isaiah 6:10). In the reading we hear that God hardens the people’s heart so that they will lament their situation, realise their wickedness, call on God desperately to bring good times upon them, openly admitting their guilt and the weakness of themselves before God like clay in the hands of a potter. Two and a half thousand years ago when this was written people were not so self-willed and individualistic as we might be today, and they would not have had such a caring and gentle view of God, so they thought of Him as actually hardening their hearts – an image that is strange to us. But now and in Advent we have to change our ways and be ready to help and work for our God, who comes like a weak and helpless babe not bursting into our lives with power and might; our image of God is put on its head! It is not so much that He helps us, but mysteriously, we must help Him.

Paul opens this letter to the Corinthians with a paean of praise for the blessings given them by God in Jesus Christ. This is what we sometimes need to hear, because, not only are we generally wanting to please God, but also He is determined to bring to a successful conclusion to the work of creating and redeeming our world. Paul is a well educated and skilful spiritual leader, and this is a most tactful opening address to those whom he needs to correct in a number of ways throughout this letter. The words can apply to us, when he writes that we are not short of any needful spiritual gifts as we prepare for the advent of Christ. God will surely bring a happy fulfilment to His work with us; but we might think, if Paul was writing to us, what reprimand and criticism would he make after this uplifting introduction.

The gospel reading comes at the end of the only long discourse attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel; it is a discourse about the final days before the end, similar to a type of visionary writing of first century alluding to disasters leading up to the day of judgement and followed by a kind of farewell speech expected of important religious leaders. The reading is the concluding exhortation; it is mixed up with allusions to parables that the readers would know, like those inMatthew and Luke about a leader leaving his servants in charge. There is a hint that even if the times seem dark (“at midnight”) they must be ready; for at the time of writing, the Temple has been destroyed and the Romans are becoming suspicious of Christians. At Advent when we are preparing to celebrate the past coming of Jesus with an eye on the final completion of creation, we are reminded to remain faithful and resist the temptation to postpone committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Christ – to Christian living. From the old missal’s Collect prayer for this day comes the phrase ‘Stir Up Sunday’ with its culinary traditions!

see Jeffs Jottings – Yelling kids

Christ the King

David the youngest in the family was out tending the sheep when the prophet Samuel called for him and announced that he was God’s choice to be king. The people lived closer to nature than we do and were familiar with the work of the shepherd, living with and caring for the sheep and leading them to safe and profitable grazing. A king was often likened to a shepherd with responsibility for the care of the people. The prophet Ezekiel draws on this sympathetic imagery when trying to encourage and console the people who were in the difficult situation of exile – some had fled to Egypt but most were in Babylon. So he depicts God as a shepherd caring for them and gathering them together. Yet this great comforting message also has a warning of judgement, for God acts righteously. Throughout their history as a settled nation in Israel some had been rich and materially successful and even now in exile some would become well-off and powerful – sometimes the words for these folk are poorly translated as “the sleek and the strong” or even as “the fat and the healthy.” But there will be judgement as the next verse makes clear; God will be a shepherd but will sort out the good from the bad – the sheep from the goats. The responsorial psalm to this reading is appropriately number 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

The first recipients of this letter were worried about death and about what would happen to those who died before the final coming of Christ as judge, so Paul in this letter addresses this worry. They would know the story of the fall when Adam sinned and so became mortal and due for death. Adam stands for all humanity and we know even now that the only thing certain about our life as humans is that it will end in death. But Christ, Paul is anxious to point out to the Corinthians, brings about a significant change to all of this by his conquest of the finality of death and by having a life that goes beyond death – by His resurrection. And just as Adam’s situation affects all of us, so all are changed by this transcendent life of Christ. All this will be realised at the time of the fulfillment of the kingdom, the end of the world, when all who are in Christ, will become one people in Christ and under God. Let us live as people of Christ, ready for our part in all of this!

This Gospel reading is the last of a series of parables, and is the conclusion of a section about the end of the present age; it is followed by the account of the last Supper and the beginning of the narrative of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is a description of the nature of the Last Judgement. This whole section is unique to Matthew’s gospel and somewhat typical of his style and content. It is easily understood as a call to treat others well, especially those in need and this is a very important lesson for us. However what makes this care for others the deciding factor in the final judgement, is the important theological teaching that it holds. Firstly, it is quite explicit that Jesus is the divine king with glory around him, angels below and God as his Father; the Son of Man, the expected Messiah is also called Lord, the name of God. Secondly, all other human beings, particularly the needy, are so intimately involved with the Son of God that any attitude and action towards them is directed also to Christ Himself; in some way He lives in us, who are all needy one way or another. These doctrinal elements in the story are complemented with the Christian code for life; positively this is doing good for others, but the Jewish leaders and authorities would also have noticed the absence of any seeming benefit from all the religious practices and devotions that they supported, taught and enacted. What a lot this has to say to us here and now!

see Jeffs Jottings – Ways of reading the bible

33rd Sunday A

The reading from Proverbs is a surprising choice, though it is a beautiful picture of a wife if we overlook the the servility of the woman that was part of the writer’s culture.  It is a selection of verses from Proverbs chapter 31.  It might remind us of last week’s first reading praising the lady Sophia (meaning wisdom).  In the end we must realise the beauty in any person who loves God and shows care and devotion to others.

The second reading addresses the anxiety the Thessalonians have about the end of the world – many Christians thought that it would be quite soon, but Paul wants to allay their fears – the phrase ‘like a thief in the night’ is just a way of saying that you don’t know when it will come.  If they are good living people they should have nothing to fear.

The Gospel reading takes up the same message about being ready to meet the Lord when that time comes.  It does make the point that we are all different in the talents that we have, but what matters is what we make of what we’ve got – we all must strive to make our own sphere of influence as good at we can.

see Jeffs Jottings – Company

32nd Sunday A

The first reading is from the later Greek writings not in the Hebrew Bible.  It is about wisdom; which is female in the Greek language and also in the English female name ‘Sophie’ which means wisdom.  She is to be loved, cared for, cherished and constantly looked for and looked after – and these words that we read of her, is itself very wise!

The second reading shows us that in the early days of Christianity there was the thought that the complete end of God’s creating would be soon; though this was not to be, the ideas about life in God after death, eventually for us all, is still what Christianity believes and what gives us comfort when friends or family die.

The parable from Matthew that is our gospel reading is also about death – and notice that it is likened to the marital joining of one with the beloved – and that is a beautiful image of death; but we must be ready for it.

see Jeffs Jottings – Not Religiously

all Saints

The first reading is from the Book of Revelations; the writing is to a large extent visionary, utilizing Old Testament interpretations of history, images of heavenly realities and hopes for the future completion of God’s creation. At one point the author dreams of the opening of seven sealed documents about disasters in the history of the world, past, present or future; but just before he reaches the perfect number seven, he inserts the passage from which we read today (from Revelations 7:2 -17). This opens with the suspension of the stormy elements of disaster brought by the four angels, and the signing with a seal for rescue on those to be saved; at first the perfect number of 144,000 is given for the tribes of the chosen people as those to be saved (the mention of each tribe is omitted from the reading), but that is followed by a countless number of every variety of person one might find in the world; all are rescued by the Lamb of God – salvation from the great disaster – for which there is celebratory thanksgiving.

The second reading is from 1 John 3:1-3 (the first of three short letters to Christians in the tradition of John’s Gospel); it seems to be written by one who has an oversight of a number of church communities, and that there are two groups of Christians who interpret things differently and have split from each other. The writer is trying to encourage faithfulness to the early teaching and to the tradition that goes back to Christ himself. But the message of Jesus and the beliefs of Christians were from the start developing to suit differing contexts and to express further reflection on the mysteries of God and Incarnation. It seems that the ‘elder’ writing the letter is upbraiding those whom, he thinks, have taken this development too far, though in exactly what way is not clear. This short passage is stressing the changed relationship that Christians have with God through the reality of the Incarnation; he uses the word ‘children’ to express this though admits the mystery of what this will be in the future when Christ reveals Himself in some fuller way. However he contrasts the Christians with other people (‘the world’) in a way that might shock us nowadays; at least in the Catholic Church for the last 50 years the values of others have been respected: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons [and daughters ed.], that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them.” (Nostra aetate).

The third reading is Matthew 5:1-12a expresses the qualities, attitudes and actions that we should strive for if we are to be truly happy (be blessed), usually referred to as the beatitudes. Although you might count nine or even ten of them Matthew has put the first eight of them poetically together in a section opening and closing with the same second part of the couplet: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They are drawn to a large extent from thoughts in the Old Testament (Matthew’s Bible). The setting is from a mountain which is a place of special revelation, for example at the transfiguration (chapter 17) and after the resurrection; the disciples are close to Jesus to learn about the new laws for life, just as Moses received the Commandments on mount Sinai; Jesus sits, which is the customary way for a Rabbi to teach; His teaching is to be passed – the last words of Jesus to His disciples in this gospel are a commission to pass His teaching on to others (Matthew 28:16ff). Matthew clarifies what is mean by poor – it is not necessarily those on low income, or beggars, but those living a simple spiritual life free from attachment to earthly goods. Being pure in heart might mean avoiding desires of a sexual or avaricious nature (lust or greed) but the phrase can also mean having a healthy and spiritual vision of what one is to do with one’s life. The rest of the chapter might expand on the beatitudes in the reverse order of the eight.

see Jeffs Jottings – Be an angel

30th Sunday A

The first part of the book of Exodus lives up to the meaning of its title – exodus means going out; it is about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the early life of Moses and the miraculous escape from slavery into the desert and on the way to the promised land.  But then we read of the establishment of the covenant between them and Yahweh.  But this is an account put together after much retelling, adaptation and development.  During that time the rules by which the people should live became established and were put together in the form of a book; they originated at the time of Moses and the Book is attributed to him (Exodus 24:1-7).  The first reading for today is taken from this book shortly after the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai; among all the ways that those in covenant with God should live is this definite section about how to treat immigrants – foreigners living in your land.  We notice also the strong image of God as a strict ruler who in anger will deal harshly with those who let him down.  Ideas about God also develop with time.

The second reading, 1 Thess 1:5c-10, follows on from that we had last week from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians.  Now we hear how this Gentile community of Christians have influenced others in that part of the world.  Paul had preached to them about there being just one God, whereas they were used to a multiplicity of gods in their pagan environment.  He had preached to them about how they should live their lives to please this one God.  And it was quite a development for them to move from polytheism to monotheism and to a belief in a God who cared for them.  Paul himself had developed in his understanding as a Jew to the idea of a God who was there for all peoples.  We detect in this reading two other ideas that were present at that time; the potential wrath of God and the proximity of the final coming of Christ.  Some Christians today still have these ideas, but generally we think of God as a loving father and the end of the world as a distant future fulfillment of Christ in the world.

The gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, does not follow immediately from last week’s reading; in between is something about the Sadducees trying to question Jesus about life after death, for they didn’t believe in resurrection.  Today we read from Matthew how after the Sadducees, the Pharisees come to Jesus.  The story is based on Mark (12:28-34) where a scribe asks what is the most important commandment, and in response to Jesus’ answer tells him he is right.  But in Matthew’s version the encounter is more confrontational; a Pharisee asks the question in order to trap Jesus; for them more than 600 laws in the Bible were all of equal importance.  But the importance for us is Jesus’ reply, namely that loving God and neighbour are the two most important commandments; the first is taken from the succinct and central creed of the Jews in Deuteronomy (6:4-9) and thus avoids the trap posed to him.  However, as thinking develops, nowadays we might think of them as necessary and best practice rather than commandments.  I think, in addition, that we might put the two together and believe that loving others is the way that we love God; and we extend ‘neighbours’ to mean all other people that we encounter or who need our love.

see Jeffs Jottings – Meet God