When we first meet Abram, it is in Genesis 12, and he is invited by the Lord to leave his kindred and his father’s house and go from that country to a land that God will show him. Abram is mostly faithful to this – he probably brings to many of his possessions and his kindred along for the journey – but at least he sets out. He is promised that he will become a great nation, with a great name – a name that will become a blessing for the nations and for all families of the earth. Yet, when we meet Abram in our reading today from Genesis 15, it is not just 3 chapters and many adventures that have passed – it is also many years later, perhaps more than two decades. So when God appears again to him, and the word of the Lord is addressed to him (a phrase that is unique here to the Torah; normally it is only used in the Prophetic writings) we finally hear a reply from Abram (rather than only passive listening). And his question seems valid – where are my descendants that you have promised?
At this stage, God invites Abram to take it outside. Go outside and count the stars – if you can – for such will your desendants be. Now, as difficult as it is to count the stars on a very clear night – and having spent time in the southern Negev desert away from electrical lights and pollution I can attest that you can see many stars there on the typically clear nights – it is even more difficult during the day. It is only in verse 12 that we are told that the sun begins to set, and verse 17 that the sun fully sets. So when Abram goes outside to see and count the stars, he can only see one star – the sun. The other stars are still there, but hidden from his eyes. It is a beautiful image of faith. Sometimes we cannot see the promises of God being fulfilled, yet that doesn’t mean that the stars are not still there beyond our ability to see them. And it is for this reason, that Abram is able to trust in God even when he doesn’t see the answer that he is hoping for, that God takes on a priestly role to declare that he is justified, and his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.
It is often in being faithful to God in these small details in our lives that we can encounter God in the great things. Joseph and Mary demonstrate this in the Gospel today. They just go about the ordinary details of the law of the Lord, naming and circumcising Jesus, and then presenting him at the temple as part of the purification ritual that was required of women after they had given birth. Rituals help to remind us that God is part of our ordinary lives. There is no great division between the secular and sacred aspects of our lives. In praying in thanksgiving our morning offering, or in offering thanks for the food that we are about to receive, we remind ourselves that God is part of our everyday lives.
Christmas can be a very confusing time. We have mixed together a veritable plethora of traditions, myths, consumer ideals and cultural detritus along with vestiges of gospel stories and religious music and artwork to create this weird celebration of this annual holiday. The end result is not very satisfying for anyone.
During the month of November, I was privileged to be in Jerusalem staying at the Tantur Center for Ecumenical Studies on the southern edge of Jerusalem, looking out over the towns of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahur, Beit Safafa and the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The problem is that the dry and rocky landscape as you look out across it is dominated by only one thing – the so-called Separation Barrier, or the Apartheid Wall that began to be built by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the second Intifada. It was meant to follow the 1949 Armistice Line, commonly called the Green Line, but it often strays many kilometres into the territory of the occupied State of Palestine. So for example, while I was staying there, our group visited the Wi’am Peace Center which has no access to half of its lands, because they are on the wrong side of the wall. A large section of wall juts into Bethlehem to provide access for Israeli citizens to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located next to a Palestinian Cemetery and is therefore a source of constant tension – as I discovered firsthand when I strayed in between members of the IDF and Palestinian youth on my first visit to Bethlehem. Nevertheless there are signs of hope in this very depressing situation, and there are many Jews who do pray the Torah and Ketuvim (Prophets) and know that they have moved far away from the situation of being a remnant people, to the occupying oppressors. Street artists such as Banksy also provide continued hope for change.
Unfortunately, we are not able to look on this situation and speak of how foreign such oppression is to us. The Australian story of abominable treatment of refugees, both onshore and in our offshore processing centres on Manus Island (even if now closed) and Naura remain as a significant stain upon our social conscience.
On Friday an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas”, written by Stephanie Saldana. During my time at Tantur I was very privileged to meet and become friends with Stephanie, who is married to the program director at Tantur, Frederic Masson. Stephanie is American, from San Antonia in Texas; her father is the Diocesan director of Caritas and has been working successfully for decades to find homes for refugees from all over the world, but especially from the middle east, among the Catholic community there. Frederic is French, but since they have been married they have decided to live in the middle east, in Iraq, Syria and most recently in Jerusalem. Frederic is now a Syrian Catholic and is studying to be a priest. They have three wonderful children, JoJo is the oldest, then Seb and the youngest cutie is Carmel. The whole family is fluent in French, English and Arabic. Through a grant, Stephanie has been able to devote the last two years trying to document and save as much of the cultural and social heritage that she can, by visiting and documenting the stories of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Greece, as well as visiting other refugees who have managed to now settle in Europe. I want to quote from three sections of her article – which is linked below, as also is the website where Stephanie shares some of the stories of heritage restoration – Mosaic Stories.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside. If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine. [A fruit like a mandarin] As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Christmas continues to challenge us to be faithful to these much deeper stories. Once we have looked into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we can no longer treat them only as statistics, or problems that are over there. We continue to be challenged to see Christmas as a story of a God who loved the world too much to allow it to remain locked in despair and hopelessness. Christmas reminds us that God wants to be involved in our messy world.
Christmas – Vigil Mass; Midnight Mass; Mass during the day
The Gospel from Luke 1:26-38 presents the familiar scene of the Angel Gabriel being sent by God to announce to Mary that she would become a mother to the Son of God. This is one of the passages that I spent many hours pondering during my recent thirty-day Ignatian retreat, and the first thing that really struck me is the opening line. Luke takes us from the universal and the general and slowly reveals more and more details about the circumstances and locations and people until we finally zero in on the person of this virgin Mary. I also developed a system of highlighting the scriptures, using different colours and symbols to highlight the words that signify location, the words spoken by God or an Angel, other key characters, as well as the different responses of people, ranging from positive, through neutral to negative and even sinful and demonic responses. This passage features the Angel acting as a direct instrument of God, and Mary, responding as best as she can. We will see the dialogue is almost entirely that of Gabriel, with only two responses recorded of Mary – yet both continue to resonate very strongly with those who follow the way of Jesus.
Despite her confusion, fear and doubtless anxiety, Mary becomes for us the perfect model of Advent and thus of Christmas. She questions the basic possibility of a virgin conceiving, yet her final answer calls every Christian to a similar response of trust and openness.
Read more: Advent, Sunday 4, Year B. Luke 1:26-38
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.
Advent 2, Year B.
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.
Advent, Sunday 1, Year B. Mark 13