On the third Sunday of Advent there is the cry of joy and the imperative call to rejoice and be glad. In the midst of the craziness of this time of year it might all seem to be too much. Yet Paul quietly calls us to focus in the series of short commandments that he offers in 1 Thessalonians for our second reading. Let us take time to listen to each of the eight short teachings that Paul offers, all of which can help us to focus on this call to rejoice always, keep on praying, give thanks in all things while remaining open to the work of the Spirit, and testing all things.
The Gospel of Mark was written, most likely, around the year 65 in the city of Rome. It was a very turbulent period, after the great fire that had raged for seven days through the city in July 64. The Emperor Nero needed someone to blame for lighting the fire – although many suggest that he was the most likely arsonist – and the Jewish Christians who lived across the Tiber and were untouched by the devastating fire were an easy target. A persecution against the followers of Jesus began, that resulted in many, including both Saints Peter and Paul, being martyred.
The death of so many of the early leaders is the likely catalyst for wanting to put down in writing the good news of Jesus the Messiah. The oral stories of the life and ministry of Jesus that kept the faith alive, now needed to be kept for future generations as well.
What a story it is! Many people in the Jewish world had been looking for signs from God. Most of them wanted a Messiah that would lead them in a revolt against Rome. Few if any expected the sign would be a prophet like John the Baptiser calling them (in Hebrew) to t’shuvah.
Across the pages of the Jewish scriptures is told again and again a story of freedom from oppression and slavery. John is retelling the story of the Exodus and inviting his hearers to join in the action, to come down into the water and find life and freedom for themselves.
Just as Moses had invited the people to leave behind the slavery of Egypt, so John is now inviting anyone who will listen to leave behind their world of sin and rebellion against God. God had invited them to walk along the straight path of freedom, but they had wandered away and forgotten who they were created to be. John invites them to ‘come on home’ – to return to the path that leads to life, joy and wonder. This is what t’shuvah means. John invited his people then, and we are invited today to turn around and stop going down a road that will only lead to destruction, pain and hurt. T’shuvah he says. Stop dreaming and wake up to the new reality of the bright light of the one who is to come. He will lead you into the new life of the Holy Spirit.
+ Jesus, you call us to wake up to the good news that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Thank you for the freedom that only you can offer. Amen.
Happy new year! (Such a geeky liturgical thing to say!) We begin this new season of Advent today, and with this Sunday the whole cycle of the church’s year begins again. We switch from listening to the gospel of Matthew and begin to listen to the first of the gospels to be written, the gospel of Mark. It has been three years since we have heard the unique voice of Mark as part of our Sunday readings.
But wait, if we begin reading from Mark’s gospel today in this season of Advent, then why aren’t we beginning with the opening verses of the Gospel? Why are we in chapter 13? And if Advent is all about preparing for Christmas, why aren’t we reading about the birth of Jesus – you know, from the infancy stories that Mark tells?
In fact, if you open to chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, you find there are no stories about the birth of Jesus. The opening lines – which we will hear next Sunday – are brilliant, but they are all about the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Today Jesus uses an image of the fig tree in full blossom as a sign that summer is near. He points to all the events that were going down around him as a reminder that the community needs to stay awake, be alert, and keep watch. The image is like soldiers standing on the fortifications that surrounded the towns of old, keeping vigil as they gazed across the landscape.
There will be no signs that we can read to know when the Son of Man will come again. Jesus is very clear that only the Father knows when the right time will be – so our task is simply to remain faithful to God, no matter how dark the night, and to keep awake, watching for the new day to dawn.
+ Jesus, keep us focussed on the new dawn of your day of justice, and help us to be attentive to all that really matters in our lives. Amen.
We come to the final transcendental this week as we encounter Beauty. Over the weeks of Advent we have journeyed through these ideas that are present in every single thing, indeed in being itself – ‘Omni ens est unum, bonum, verum et pulchrum’ – that all being is one, good, true and beautiful.
“The quality of something that brings pleasure or delight to the senses, or satisfaction and meaning to the mind through its appearance, value, usefulness, or desirability. This quality is exhibited by God and instilled in creation.” Mangum, D. et al. eds., 2014. Lexham Theological Wordbook.
The word for beauty that is commonly used in the Hebrew bible is used primarily for a description of human beauty and it is androgynous – referring equally to masculine or feminine beauty. Beauty is also the easiest experience to help us to connect to God. When we have that moment of encountering a beautiful scene in nature, or a work of art, literature, music or another person we are often left breathless. That moment will often lead us to ponder upon the wonder of God and help us to have that sense of connection with all creation – which is one of the surest indicators that we are in the presence in that moment of one of the transcendentals.
Like in the other realities that we have explored during these weeks, there are as many failures in the experience of beauty as there are concerning unity, goodness and truth. There is a fickleness in the societal experience of beauty, and yet we are so deeply formed by trends and fashions that rarely last more than a season or two. Images of beauty that adorn the covers of too many magazines are contrived and manipulated to remove all signs of true humanity which are found in the flaws and blemishes and wrinkles that help to define our true beauty.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (14mins)
Matthew 1:18-24; Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7
When John the precursor asks the question of Jesus – are you the long-anticipated Messiah – or are we to wait for someone else? – he taps into the long tradition of the prophets and holy people of Israel who had longed for a new David to set them free from all of their oppressors – but with an emphasis on their political and economic freedom. Yet Jesus is content to point to the reality of his ministry which he knows is fulfilling a very significant strand of prophecy, such as we read in Isaiah 35 – our first reading today. Even if this is not the kind of fulfillment that John, perhaps representing the Essene tradition was looking for, this was enough to present the truth of the claim that Jesus was making.
During these days of Advent, as we ponder the bedrock fundamentals of our experience as humans encountering the divine, we arrive on this third Sunday (also called Gaudete Sunday, when rose-coloured vestments are worn) in this series considering the four transcendentals: that all being is one, good, true and beautiful. So this week we are pondering what it means for something to be true, how we work it out, how God speaks to us and challenges us in this, and how to go deeper and further then a simple black-and-white understanding of truth.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (14mins)
Advent Sunday 3, Year A. Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The word Good is very commonly used in the scriptures (more than 500 times), but it can mean one of ten things:
- pleasing / agreeable;
- advantageous / profitable;
- fitting / appropriate;
- abundant / full-measure;
- generous / benevolent;
- sound / free from defects;
- excellent / unobjectionable;
- morally upright / righteous;
- just (justice)
Unlike the Greek view of an ideal ‘good’, the Hebrew Bible focuses on concrete and dynamic examples of what God has done and is doing in the lives of God’s people.
God is good (tob Hebrew / agathos Greek)
God is morally perfect & gloriously generous
The works of God are good; the commandments of God are good; all the things of God are good.
God saw all that he had made and behold it was very good (Gen 1:31)
Note, this is about good – not perfect. Good is changing and growing; good allows flaws and imperfections along the journey towards goodness. Perfection is a concept that comes from the Greek understanding – but it is finished and complete and consequently it is boring. We are called to join the Lord in the continuing work of creation – which allows space to get things wrong.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am Mass (16 mins including audio of Identity)
One small piece of wisdom that has come down from the ages (it was first stated in Greek philosophy, and then offered into the Christian tradition through the writings of the Eastern fathers, St Augustine, and then codified in scholastic philosophy through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas) is the Latin phrase: omne/omnia ens est unum, bonum, verum et pulchrum. Literally translated this means: All being is one, good, true and beautiful. Since I first discovered this teaching, it has deeply impacted my life. So as we begin this new season of Advent and this new liturgical year (in fact as we restart the six-year Sunday and weekday cycle from the beginning*) it seemed to be an appropriate time to begin with the very fundamental teachings that an understanding of the transcendentals provides.
The transcendentals remind us that God leaves traces of Godself in everything that has been created – that is everything. We may have learnt in our childhood through the old Baltimore Catechism that the answer to the question “Where is God” with the answer “God is everywhere.” Yet, although we have taught this, we have often minimised this belief, saying rather that God, although everywhere, is really only truly present in much more limited ways – like in our church, or our sacraments, or in the people who are part of our group (and then probably only when we really like them!). The transcendentals can help us to break out of this stingy and narrow understanding of God.
This week we begin with the concept of God as one. ‘One’ is a very common word in our scriptures – used 2,222 times in the Hebrew scriptures (most in the book of Numbers), and 1,569 times in the New Testament (most often in the Gospel of John). Most of the time the word one just highlights that something is in the singular, rather than the plural. But at times it points to something deeper, emphasising the very nature of Gd, such as in Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the Shema prayer recited each day by Jewish people: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The word ‘one’ here is the word ‘ehad and is the basis of the Judeo-Christian belief in monotheism. But this belief began to become more nuanced with the claim made by Jesus (for example, in John 10:30) that “the Father and I are one” which would become part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
All of this is pointing to the dynamic nature of God. Too often we have limited God to a very static and boring understanding, when there can be nothing that is more dynamic. The only way to know God is through relationship as a subject, not an object. If we begin to grasp this, then we can begin to live in an elevated sense of freedom, goodness, truth and beauty.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am Mass. (14mins)
* The Sundays are arranged in a three-year cycle, starting in Year A with the Gospel of Matthew; Year B with the Gospel of Mark; and Year C with the Gospel of Luke. The weekdays are arranged in a two-year cycle, with the same Gospel readings, but different first readings (drawn from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures). Over the six years the cycle runs: Year A/I; Year B/II; Year C/I; Year A/II; Year B/I; Year C/II.
- Watch reflection video: Amazon ad – The Priest and the Iman
- Listen to reflection song: All who are thirsty (Marshill version was played)
- View the Slides presentation.
If you want some background reading, the following articles may be of interest:
As we have wandered through the stories behind the stories of the gospels and their composition and connection to the church, life and our own histories, it seemed appropriate to think about how the stories that are told about the birth of Jesus would fit within this new understanding. So considering the writings of the New Testament, it is worth looking at how the story of Jesus was built up over time. For example, by the mid-60s, when the Gospel of Mark was being written in the city of Rome, the letters of Paul (presuming that all thirteen are genuine and written in the life-time of Paul – and I have never seen any truly compelling information or argument to doubt that) would all have been complete. What is interesting about these letters is how little they speak about the life and ministry of Jesus. In fact, only five pieces of information about Jesus are found in these letters, most of which are fairly obvious and not all that helpful. Namely, Jesus:
- was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) – that is especially insightful
- was Jewish, “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4)
- was a biological descendant of David (Romans 1:3)
- had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5) – or near kin; both are adequate translations
- was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:22) and he died (1 Corinthians 15:3)
When you turn to the Gospels, you find that the first and last Gospels to be written contain very little about the infancy stories / narratives. Mark is completely silent, and John only gives us a single line as part of the beautiful prologue that begins his unique gospel account. In contrast, both Matthew and Luke provide two long chapters filled with information that tell the story of the birth of Jesus in compelling ways for the community that received these gospels.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am
Advent Sunday 4, Year C.
We saw in the first week of this series that one of the places that we see the law of four is in every great story ever told as well as in the story of our own lives – the pattern of (1) Hearing the summons; (2) Enduring the obstacles; (3) Receiving the prize/favour and finally (4) Returning to the community. This pattern runs very deeply within our physical and spiritual DNA, and we can easily understand that this is something is good and God-given. So it should be no small wonder to realise that this pattern is also able to be seen in the order of the Gospels that the tradition of the church has given us to read them. Although the Gospels, as we saw last week, were written in the order of Mark – Matthew – Luke and John, and the Gospels are given us the order of Matthew – Mark – Luke and John in our bibles, the early church has read them in the order of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke – and this order is also expressed in our liturgical cycle of readings. This is because this order captures this cycle of life, addressing the fundamental questions of change; suffering; joy and service that we meet in our lives.
We also see more clearly how this four-fold structure is captured in the new logo that we have adopted as a parish community.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park, 9.30am (16 min 30 secs)
Advent, Week 3, Year C.
This week in our Law of Four series, we looked in more detail at the four Gospels, and particularly the connection and relation of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) – why we call them the Synoptic Gospels, and how over the last 150 years we have developed a better understanding of the way that these gospels are connected. We then looked at the history of the first century of Christianity in light of the question of the composition of the Gospels.
Play MP3 (17 mins)
Download Adobe PDF of the notes.
Sunday 2, Season of Advent.