Strangers of Epiphany

Although there is nothing in the Gospel of Matthew about camels, kings or even how many of the strange magi visited the child Jesus and his mother Mary – there are enough details to provide much pondering. The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel – although we are given a full (stylised) rendering of the genealogy of Jesus and then the announcement of the pending birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective – no information is given to provide any clue about the exact location in time or space of the events (beyond the genealogy) and no human has actually spoken a single word – only angels have spoken so far. So when the second chapter opens with a brief mention of the name of Jesus, we are told where and when he was born and we are then introduced to the central characters of this part of the story – the magoi. In fact, they are given the right and privilege to be the first humans to speak, as they ask their question: “where is the child to be born?” It is interesting that in this most Jewish of all the Gospels, that the first words are allowed to be spoken by people who are not only non-Jewish, but so totally removed from the whole Jewish story of creation, salvation and prophecy. Which leads to the question of what role strangers like this are going to have in the whole of the story, and why they are here if not at least in part to provide something like the first-fruits of the great Gospel commission that will conclude this same Gospel of Matthew in chapter 28.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (8 mins)
Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12

How is this woman mother of God?

The understanding that Mary – a seemingly ordinary teenager growing up in Judea or Galilee who happened to be visited by the archangel Gabriel to hear the announcement that she would become the virgin mother of the saviour, who would be called Jesus – thereby becoming the mother of this unique person who was both human and divine, and therefore she also receives the title of mother of God. Not a bad title for a resume. (Although it was not uncommon in the Roman world, where the Caesar’s following on from Julius all adopted the title of ‘son of God’ for themselves, which also gave a boost to their mothers as well.) In our Diocese one of my brother priests has been struggling with this question, prompting our bishop to send a pastoral letter reminding the people of God what the church teaches on this point. So, let us take a moment to consider why this title for Mary came about, and what it might mean for us today.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am Mass (10min)
01 January – Solemnity of Mary, the holy Mother of God.
Numbers 6:22-27; Ps 66; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

The child in whom we live and move

So many of our Christmas traditions are based on the barest threads of details. For example, in the gospel of Luke, although we are given very complete information about the announcement of the birth of first John and then Jesus, and the details of their parents and travels, when it actually comes to the moment of the birth of Jesus, Luke covers the event in just two lines. Because of our developing fascination with the birth of Jesus, those two lines have been parsed and prodded in order to provide material for artwork, plays, sculptures, carols, movies and homilies. For example, the only thing that suggests that Mary gave birth in anything other than a normal house is the fact that she places the child Jesus in a manger / feeding trough, because there is no room in the ‘inn’ (katalumati in Greek). And although ‘inn’ is a valid way of translating this word, it is certainly not the only way, nor perhaps the best way. For example, when describing the upper room where the disciples gather for the last supper, in Luke 22:11, it is the same word that is used. Yet centuries of tradition have now placed their heavy burden upon this interpretation, even though the word could simply be translated as ‘house’. I like this simpler translation, because it still speaks of the rough and impoverished conditions of the birth of Jesus, without completely separating it from Matthew’s account (which has the parents of Jesus living in a house at the time of his birth). But it also speaks of the normalcy of the relationship that Jesus has come to have with us – a relationship of friendship and joy, grace and wonder.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8pm Vigil (8 mins)
Christmas, Mass during the night. Luke 2:1-20

The Baptism of Jesus and ours

baptism-jesusWhen you come to reflect on the baptism of Jesus, the first thing that you need to take account of is how odd an event it must have been. The primary significance of the baptism that John was offering was a washing from sin and a ritual of repentance. It was in direct competition to the sacrificial system of the temple which was all about cleansing a person from personal sin and recognising how terrible sin was – to be cleansed involved the death of an animal – that should tell us how seriously people understood sin. And yet Jesus was here, asking John to baptise him. We profess that Jesus was like us in all things – except sin. So why is the sinless one presenting himself alongside all the other riff-raff of the day to be washed clean? There is no universally agreed answer – which is why the early church considered the baptism of Jesus as such a scandal – even if it is attested by all four gospels. Perhaps the best answer is that it was part of his call to be in solidarity with all people – especially those who knew themselves to be far from God.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (10mins)
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Year C.

Epiphany – the choice of the Magi

light abstractIn considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.

When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.

The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am

Epiphany Sunday

Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)

The Holy Dysfunctional Family

Holy_FamilyFlowing directly out of the celebration of Christmas this year we have the opportunity to reflect upon not only the holy family of Nazareth, but also our own conceptions and ideas of family. In my case, I know that many of my most basic understandings of family came from comparing the idealised image of family that came from watching perhaps far too many mainly American sitcoms and family dramas as a child – with my experience of family. And it would be fair to say that it seemed that my family rarely measured up to the esteemed heights of the Walton family or the Brady bunch. We never seemed to be able to solve all of our problems within the allotted half-hour or hour, and things sometimes seemed more complicated than ensuring that we all said goodnight to each other would fix. As I have grown older and experienced many more family situations, I have discovered the often-quoted declaration that there are only two kinds of families in the world – the dysfunctional families and the very-dysfunctional families. Thankfully in the scriptures that we are presented with today, we discover that being a holy family and being a dysfunctional family may not be incompatible.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (8min)

Feast of the Holy Family, Year C.
1 Sam 1: 20-28; 1 John 3:1-2; 21-24; Luke 2: 41-52

Video reflection: Gift of Life (LifeWay Media)

Christmas Day – the Compassion of God

PARAY1There is an extraordinary line in the second reading today – ‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous thing that we had done, but because of his mercy.’ (Titus 3:4-5) We have often understood Judaism and its focus on the laws and commandments of Torah which included the 613 mitzvah to be about a religious system that emphasised the keeping of the laws and the rewards that this would merit. But this reading turns that whole emphasis on its head to remind us that to be saved is all about God’s kindness, favour and compassion – not our righteousness. And for this we can be eternally grateful.

Recorded at St Paul’s (7 mins)
Christmas, Midnight Mass (readings of the Dawn Mass)

The book of genesis of Matthew

runningAll the Gospels are anonymous. But when early Christians began collecting them in the second century, they needed a way to distinguish each one from the others. So they gave them titles. The title “According to Matthew” is affixed to this Gospel because church tradition had credited it to Matthew, one of the twelve. It is fitting that Matthew’s Gospel is the first book in the New Testament because it was the favourite Gospel of the early Christians. You see, the first disciples were all Jews; and Matthew sought to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of David, sent by God to rule His kingdom. So Matthew, more than the other Gospel writers, found Jesus’ messiahship in strange and wonderful places where Jews would know to look: in genealogies, titles, numerology, and fulfilled prophecies.

Matthew wants his mainly Jewish audience, as God’s chosen people, to consider how Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the ideal for Israel, even the perfect candidate to be the Anointed One. So he shows how Jesus identified with Israel—even with their spending time in exile in Egypt—and yet, unlike Israel, He did not fall into disobedience. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus has come to fill the Scripture full by His teachings and His example. In this way, Jesus is a new Moses, a new Lawgiver. But again, He is greater than Moses because He gives the law and writes it directly on the hearts of His disciples and of any who care to overhear the message of the kingdom of heaven. According to Matthew, five sermons of Jesus complete the picture of Jesus as Lawgiver. They don’t replace the five books of Torah, but His words refine and complement God’s instruction to the people of the new covenant.

For Matthew, Jesus is more than the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecies, the true son of Abraham, and the new Moses who brings a new law: He is “God with us” who promises to be with us forever. That means that Jesus is no mere mortal: He is God in the flesh who saves us from our sins. The coming of Jesus into the world fulfills God’s earlier promises to bring about redemption and a new creation. These images of Jesus that Matthew paints so beautifully fired the imaginations of Christians for centuries so that today, when we open our New Testaments, we find Matthew is first in line.

(The Voice Bible translation, Introduction to Gospel of Matthew)

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The readings of the Christmas Vigil Mass are rarely used, especially since you usually get the largest congregation of families and children at the earliest Mass. But following on from the series of the Law of Four, I thought that the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew – the whole of chapter 1 – needed to be read. I chose the Voice as an accessible, yet accurate, translation for the first two Masses (5pm and 8pm)

Epiphany – the nativity in the Gospel of Matthew

4.0.1So we arrive at the feast of the Epiphany and the customary three wise men make their way from their hiding place elsewhere on the sanctuary or in the sacristy to their appointed places in the manger nativity scene, joining the shepherds, angels and animals in adoration beside the holy family. All very standard and wonderfully historically accurate. Or is it? What our nativity scenes attempt to do is offer a mash-up between the two very different Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus – the Gospel of Luke told from the point-of-view of Mary with the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, the absence of room in the traditional lodgings, the making use of the ground floor room where the animals are usually kept, and the visit of the maligned shepherds as the first guests and witnesses to these events. Then the Gospel of Matthew told from the point-of-view of Joseph, situates the birth of Jesus within the greater story of the people of God. Matthew begins with origins of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their genealogy and then the very simple recounting of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Chapter one gives us no details of where or when the child is born – only that he is as an act of God. Attempting to bring both shepherds and magi into the one scene felt a bit like all the extraneous characters in Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit movie – or even worse if he had decided that the most appropriate people to save the heroes (Bilbo and the dwarves) was Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.

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Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12

The doubt and faith of Abraham

As we reflect on the place of family this Sunday, the liturgy offers us the example of four very different yet faithful people in the Gospel of Luke in Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna. The other readings provide us with the foundational example of faith in Abram and Sarai – who were called to leave behind their land and kin to go to the place where the Lord would lead them (Genesis 12). Although Abram is faithful to the Lord in leaving behind his land, he is not faithful in leaving behind all of his kin. It seems that one of the motivations that Abram has in taking his nephew Lot is as an insurance policy. He and Sarai are already old and past the point of natural childbearing; if the Lord does not come through, then perhaps Abram thinks that at least a nephew is a near substitute. But when Abram arrives in Canaan, he does not find a land of abundance – he finds a land that is in the middle of a famine and they are unable to stay. So after a series of misadventures and deceptions in Egypt, followed by battles in Canaan, Abram finally begins to respond to the original call of the Lord, and asks Lot to go his own way. It is only then that Melchizedek arrives on the scene (Genesis 14) to bless Abram – which prepares the way for Abram to receive the word of the Lord – our first reading today. Even so, as the Lord prepares to make covenant with Abram – now to be known as Abraham – Abram continues to argue and bargain with the Lord. At which point Abram is invited to go outside and consider and count the number of stars in the sky. Although we imagine this scene to take place at night, in fact we are told a few verses later that the sun then begins to set. So it is in broad daylight that Abram is asked this – which helps to explain the “if you can” part – it is not just that there are so many stars to be counted, but it is also that you cannot see the stars in the daylight. It is a beautiful reminder of our need to renew our own faith in the Lord – especially if we have been like Abraham and not always been totally faithful and completely honest with the Lord. There is still hope for all of us!

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am
Feast of the Holy Family (Year B)