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

Compassion raises the dead

10C Widow of NainThis seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins with two stories of healing: the first is the healing of the Centurion’s slave; the second is our gospel story today – the raising from the dead of the son of a widow in the town of Nain. In the first story the healing comes at the very specific request of the Centurion who implores Jesus to heal his servant. But when Jesus makes his way across the Valley of Jezreel to Nain, there is no obvious candidate whose faith Jesus is responding to. The dead son cannot be the candidate, but nor is there any reference to his mother making a request to heal her dead son.

When Jesus comes across the scene, the whole town is involved. Although death is common enough, everyone would be touched in such a small community. Unlike in our sanitised and overly formal Western experience of death, there are professional wailers and mourners whose loud cries provide the permission for those who are closest to the deceased person to mourn and weep in whatever way they wish. There would be tears streaming down the cheeks of everyone in the crowd. Others would have spices prepared to anoint the body and prepare him for burial by wrapping the spices into the burial clothes, to offset the smells of decomposition.

It seems that it is simply the compassionate heart of Jesus that is stirred into a response so that he goes to the bier upon which the young man is being carried and commands the young fellow to get up. Jesus doesn’t even seem to be afraid to make himself ritually unclean by touching the body of the deceased lad. The account of the story is stark and honest, describing the raising to new life in very simple terms. The town of Nain is just across the valley from his own village of Nazareth, so it is not too hard to imagine that Jesus had visited the town before, since it was only an hour or so’s walk away. Perhaps the woman and her son were already known to Jesus.

Another possibility is the fact that at this stage of his life, it seems that his adoptive father Joseph is already dead. So Jesus is the only son of a widowed mother, so he would certainly have known exactly what the woman in the story was going through, and her social and economic destitution that would be the result of the death of her son. Whatever the motivations of Jesus to bring new life to this young man and his mother, the crowd recognises the power of this moment in a flash. They erupt with joy and delight and perhaps disbelief that one like the great prophets of old is now in their midst, doing these great and mighty works. They knew that in this scene, ‘God had visited his people’ – he has drawn near to them to save and rescue them. Many in the crowd would have longed to see the signs and wonders like their ancestors had seen, and now their wildest dreams were being fulfilled before their eyes.

The same is true for us. Whatever the week ahead holds for us, God will again draw near to us to bring his love and salvation for us. He will draw near in the person of Jesus to provide the one thing that you most desperately need, even if it is not the first thing that you seem to want. The fact that Jesus will draw close is always enough. That he is here means that we also will be able to make our way through the darkest of nights to see the light of his dawn again.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (one of three first Holy Communion Masses this weekend; 8 mins 30)
Sunday 10, Year C. Luke 7:11-17

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Above text is from the Journey Radio Program version, available here.

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

Mary and Gabriel

The scene that is presented in the Gospel today is one of my favourites. We read from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38. The angel Gabriel appears to announce the birth of a child and follows the pattern established in the Hebrew Scriptures: the angel says, ‘do not be afraid’; the recipient is called by name and reassured of God’s favour; the birth and name of the child is disclosed and then the future role of the child is revealed.

But the similarity between this scene and the announcement of the birth of John also invites us to closely reflect on the differences. While the announcement of John came as the fulfilment of fervent prayer, the announcement to Mary of the birth of Jesus was completely unanticipated. Even more so, while John would be born to parents who were past the age of child bearing, the miracle of the birth of Jesus would be far greater – he would be born to a virgin. The announcement spirals down and through time from the general to the specific: from God to the region of Galilee to a town called Nazareth to a virgin who is betrothed to a man named Joseph – and finally to Mary.

According to the customs of the time, the marriage would have been arranged by her father. Mary would live at home for a year, then the groom would come to take her to his home and the wedding celebrations would last a week. But legally the marriage was already sealed after the engagement. For example, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been treated as a widow.

The birth of this child would not only be extraordinary – but he would be the Son of the Most High God. Although Mary had not had sexual relations with any man, this child would be born by the power of God.

These scenes remind us that God works in the lives of ordinary people like Zechariah and Mary. Gabriel was not sent to the home of a queen or princess, but to the insignificant home of a girl betrothed to a labourer. Her significance lies in her answer: “Let it be done unto me, according to your word.” Let our significance be the same.

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Description is of the Journey radio program reflection: Three versions of the homily available here (including radio)

Advent, Sunday 4. Year B.

A strange kind of king

20140525_163201Even though across its long history Israel had very little to make it stand out – one thing that is notable is the honesty with which it tells its story. So although it could never claim to be the largest, wealthiest, most powerful or most influential nation, perhaps it can lay claim to being the one nation that told its own story with a brutal truth. The prophecy that forms our first reading today, taken from Zechariah 9 is a great example. Zechariah writes around 520BC – around 20 years after the people have returned from their fifty plus year Exile in Babylon. Although they are now back in their own land, they have very little to show for it. The Persians have allowed them to return and provided some funding to rebuild both the city and the temple, but all that they have to show at the moment are the foundations for a new temple and a partly rebuilt wall. The city is not yet rebuilt and the surrounding countryside is still suffering from the destruction that the Babylonians had unleashed upon the small forces of Israel’s army. So I imagine that the people would have listened with great delight when Zechariah began the prophecy – the call to ‘Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ The next line must also have been heard with great delight: “See now, your king comes to you; [and then it gets even better – after all their defeats] – he is victorious, he is triumphant!’ But then the prophecy begins to turn very strange indeed, and very characteristic of Hebrew prophecy: He is “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Surely the people would have expected that a victorious and triumphant king would come on a great stallion warhorse – but no, this long-expected king is going to overthrow the way of war and triumph by a new system of peace…

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (7’57”)
Sunday 14, Year A. Zech 9:9-10; Mt 11:25-30
(Patronal Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary)

Presentation of the Older Brother

leadingThe feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated forty days after Christmas, brings the nativity stories to an end. It is a very Jewish feastday, concerned as it is with the purification of the mother after giving birth to a son (the purification period was doubled for the birth of a daughter – WTF?) and the redemption of the first-born son, in fulfilment of the Mosaic law. The story in the Gospel of Luke also brings the series of stories about the birth of Jesus to a conclusion, with only the final story of the the holy family travelling to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve years old (and on the cusp of manhood). Over the course of these stories, a whole series of figures is given to us in different life situations – from a couple in their middle years (Zechariah and Elizabeth), to a pair of teenagers just starting out (Mary and Joseph) and today two people in their older years who are ready after a faith-filled life to return to their maker. In the midst of all of these examples, Jesus provides the constant theme of a God who is near; a God who fits into all kinds of different situations and circumstances – as an older brother who shares our same human experiences and even our own temptations.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’09”) – includes final blessing at Mass.
Luke 2:22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18.

Joseph as model in the holy family

Although each of the five stories that St Matthew tells in the beginning of his Gospel about the birth of Jesus ends with a statement such as “this occurred so that words spoken by the prophet may be fulfilled,” the final line of the Gospel tonight, that Jesus “will be called a Nazarene” does not actually occur anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures; the town of Nazareth (or Nazara or Nazaret) is likewise not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Which present scholars across the centuries with a dilemma. Some have suggested that Matthew has access to a prophetic book or writing which did not actually get included in the canon of the Christian scriptures – a canon that was not settled at the time of the writing of the Gospels. Nevertheless, it is clear that Matthew saw in the birth of Jesus this powerful sign of the fulfillment of the scriptures, and there is something about the person of Joseph that particularly captures him. Even though the Gospels record no words that Joseph spoke, there is enough spoken about him to create at least a partial character study of this righteous and just man of God, who became the adopted father of Jesus and the protector of the holy family.

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Recorded at St Paul’s (7’00”)
Feast of the Holy Family, Year A.
Matthew 2:13-15;19-23.

Timely weddings

kairos‘Nuptial imagery rings through the bible like peals of wedding bells’ (Bishop Tom Wright)

Today we have the fourth of the great epiphanies – when the true identity of Jesus is revealed. Although it may be tempting to imagine the scene of the wedding at Cana as a contrast between the stale water of Judaism and the good wine of Christianity, the Beloved Disciple has overlayed so many rich images in this simple story that we need to go deeper to find the meaning for us. One of the striking elements is the fact that it seems this was not going to be the moment when Jesus chose to reveal himself, but as the result of the persistence of his mother (who was the primary wedding guest – Jesus was the +1) the planned schedule that Jesus was following (the chronos) was interrupted and this wedding became a kairos moment, when he revealed himself and his glory as the first of seven (or eight?) signs.

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Recorded at NET training, Weyba Downs, Qld (11’09”)

Grace impels us to go in haste

TotalAbandonmentThe 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?

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (6’56”)
Advent, 4C.

Artwork by Tahnja Wolter, a parishioner at St Michael’s, Nowra.


Mustard Seed Mary

Even though as a family we would gather to pray the Rosary every night, I have never had a strong devotion to Mary, and some forms of Marian devotion have been a real turn-off for me. So when I was discerning which Diocese to join, the fact that the Patronal Feast of the Diocese of Wollongong was the Immaculate Heart of Mary was something of a turn-off. I had always considered it appropriate that the two feast days of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary were celebrated side-by-side in the liturgical calendar, but that the Sacred Heart was a Solemnity (the highest form of the feast day) and the Immaculate Heart was only an optional Memorial – the lowest form. This provided the correct balance between the worship of Jesus and the honour due to Mary. Yet in Wollongong, since it is the Patronal feastday, the Immaculate Heart is also celebrated as a Solemnity.

So what do our readings today – complete with two images and parables of the seed taken from the 11th Sunday in the Season of the Year – have to offer us?

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am. (8’21”)