When you drive around in Sydney’s south-west, with all the road-works around, you are bombarded by an increasing array of signs – some permanent, some portable, some flashing and variable. Road signs can help you to know what the speed limit is, or if there is a sharp corner looming, or a change in the road conditions. Signs point to the road rules that underlie our experience of driving around, and the rules themselves are very helpful for ensuring that people are able to drive safely and efficiently from one place to another, without having an accident or causing injury or death to another person or property. Sometimes the signs can be very unhelpful. For example, I drove back from the city one night before Christmas along the M5, through the section where the motorway is being widened. Signs on the left-hand-side of the carriageway indicated that the speed limit due to the road works was 40km/h; but signs on the right-hand-side of the carriageway indicated that the speed limit was 80km/h. So, I guessed that since I was driving in the right lane, then I could go at 80km/h, but the ‘suckers’ in the left lane had to stay below 40. Well, that would have been my argument to a copper.
I also recently watched a documentary on the Woodstock music festival, which in many ways epitomised the spirit of the sexual revolution and the mantras of personal freedom to smoke or ingest whatever one desired, with whomever one wanted, and wearing (or not wearing) whatever clothes seemed like a good idea at the time. Perhaps society needed to break free from the puritanical constraints of earlier generations, but there would be few who could honestly maintain that the results of this revolution have brought about true freedom or the full flourishing of life.
St Paul writes about a similar set of laws – which like the road rules are meant to allow the true flourishing of human life and family within society. Earlier in chapter 3 of his letter to the Colossians, he contrasts the vision of a way of life which seems very like the Woodstock festival. In the passage today he begins by reminding the church that they are called to be saints, and they are already deeply loved by God, as he calls them ever deeper into true life with God.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden, 6pm Vigil (10’59”)
Holy Family Sunday, Year C
The early church began to realise after the events of the death and resurrection, that this is the God who was revealed in the baby born in Bethlehem. God has come in the child born in the manger. God has come in Jesus of Nazareth; if we want to know what God is like, we only need to look at the life and face of Jesus. So indeed, ‘Joy to the Lord, for the Lord has come.’
Recorded at St Paul’s, Midnight Mass of the Nativity (9’07”)
We are told by surveys and the media that more and more Australians no longer believe in ‘god’. Yet, if you asked them what the ‘god’ that they don’t believe in is like, I would have to say that I don’t believe in that ‘god’ either. For most people, god is a being who is a long way away, living in something like heaven, which most likely is ‘up there’ somewhere; this god looks down in a very critical and judgemental way upon the earth, condemning most people and what we/they get up to; occasionally he does intervene and does miracles; he sends ‘bad people’ to hell and allows ‘good people’ to spend eternity with him in heaven. But the vision that lies behind this understanding of God, is not Christianity, but 19th century Deism, which is itself the fruit of Enlightenment thinking. It is so unfortunate that this seems to be the most common understanding of an idea that is so much richer. For if you understand God only as a watchmaker, who sets the world in motion and then allows it to run its own course, then that god quickly becomes irrelevant and disappears. No wonder so many people say they don’t believe in that god!
In the Judaism that Jesus of Nazareth was born into, God was so much more than this. Judaism is monotheistic, but it is a belief in a creational and covenantal monotheism. The sovereign one, who revealed himself to Moses as ‘the one who is’ (or YHWH) was the creator or maker of all things who remains in close and dynamic relation with his creation; and this God called Israel to be his special people. Five ideas interplay in the Jewish understanding of God: the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of chaos in the story of creation; God’s word was creative to produce new life; God’s law (Torah) guides and forms his people; God’s presence or glory (Shekinah) dwells with the people in the fiery cloud / tabernacle / temple; and finally, God’s wisdom (which is one of the feminine ideas about God) was his handmaid in creation, the first of his works and the instrument for fashioning all things – especially humans. These five ideas revolve in a dynamic and active dance that allows for a simultaneous sovereign supremacy and an intimate presence and an unapproachable holiness and a self-giving compassionate love. The early church began to realise after the events of the death and resurrection, that this is the God who was revealed in the baby born in Bethlehem.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Vigil of the Nativity (6’44”)
The liturgy through the season of Advent provides events and characters to meditate upon. We are joined by Hebrew Testament prophets in our journey who express the hopes and longings of the generations of people for the Messiah to come. In the weekday Masses, Isaiah provides the main voice, but in our Sunday Masses, we have heard Jeremiah, Baruch, Zephaniah and today Micah. We have seen how the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the people of God provided the historical background, and the work of John the Baptist, the greatest prophet in Israel in five hundred years, prepared the way for the Lord to come. Now, on this fourth Sunday, finally Mary the mother of Jesus takes the stage, as she responds to the annunciation by the angel Gabriel and travels as quickly as she could to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth.
Although both Mary and Elizabeth have every right to be overwhelmed by the events that have overtaken them with their unexpected pregnancies, each demonstrates rather incredible grace to offer support and compassion for the other above herself.
The main idea that has struck many saints and spiritual writers across the centuries, is the opening line of the Gospel today: the fact that Mary travels with haste to visit Elizabeth. Once the spirit has moved in her life and she receives this great grace, Mary does not wait idly by or procrastinate. She acts upon the impulse of grace – and goes with haste. Perhaps this is the spiritual impulse that we can receive from the readings today. So often we allow our dreams and desires to remain un-addressed. If there is a letter that we know we need to write, a phone call or visit that we need to make, a word of encouragement that needs to be spoken, or reconciliation that needs to be sought, should we not allow this great grace to stir us to go with haste?
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (6’56”)
Artwork by Tahnja Wolter, a parishioner at St Michael’s, Nowra.
As a society we so often accept poor substitutes rather than the fullness of life experience that is offered to us. When we journey through the season of Advent, it can at times feel like a poor substitute for the season of Lent. The reality is very different – because the character of the season of Advent is not about penance but about waiting and preparing. We tap into the longing of generations of people who waited and longed for the Messiah, the Christ to come. We listen to a series of prophecies written hundreds of years before the ‘day of the Lord’ actually dawned, as the people speculated what such a wonderful day would really be like. The reality of the commandment to rejoice that is so central to the liturgy today is also very different from the individualised sense that we often have about what is means to be happy.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (7’03”)
Advent, Sunday 3A
The readings today reminded me of being in Brisbane at the start of last year, when the devastating flood waters that had claimed too many lives in the Lockyer Valley moved downstream towards the city. Authorities did not want any more lives to be lost, so did all that they could to ensure that the population living in flood-prone areas of the city would prepare and evacuate in time.
Baruch was the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, and seems likely to have been the writer and editor for Jeremiah. The six chapter work that bears his name is dated to the same period – after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple by the Babylonians in the year 586BC. Baruch addresses the small remnant of people who were not marched off in the chains of slavery and destitution to Babylon, but who remain decked out in their mourning cloaks, lamenting over what has been. Jewish people have a strong sense of history as linear – there was progression and purpose in all that God had done in the past in calling individuals and then the whole nation to be his people, who would worship God in the sacred place of the Jerusalem temple. It seemed that all that was lost. Baruch invites this people to throw off their cloaks, to arise and look to the East – towards the city of Babylon.
He doesn’t promise that some great army will come to help them avenge their loss. There is no ‘cavalry’ in sight. But there is the hope and trust in the God who is faithful to his promises, and who will bring his exiled people back home.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (10’34”)
Advent Sunday 2, Year C
We begin the new liturgical year (Year C) in much the same tone as we concluded Year B – with a focus on the destruction of Jerusalem. So it seems appropriate to reflect on the events that would have so marked the lives of any Christians living in the forty-year period between the wonderful events of the Resurrection and Pentecost to the utter devastation of the destruction of Jerusalem. Unless we take the time to reconstruct this history, we can entirely miss the significance of the celestial signs that Jesus offers in the Gospel or the encouragement that Paul offered to the early Church community in the earliest document in the New Testament.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden (8am; 8’53”)