Friday, November 28, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
One of the most underrated of English saints is Benedict Biscop, who was founder of the monastery at Monkwearmouth in the
Bede records in his Life that for the church at Jarrow he brought back two pictures, most cunningly ordered: one of Moses lifting up the Serpent in the wilderness; and one of the son of Man lifted up upon the Cross. We know that images of the Crucifixion were hardly known in the West before the sixth century: Benedict’s enthusiasm for being entirely up-to-date with the mother See meant that the extreme northern wilds of the civilized Christian world possessed in his day an iconography richer than anything to be found outside the old empire of the Romans in the East.
The great impetus which had caused devotion to the Cross to spread throughout the Church was two-fold: firstly, the emperor Constantine had a vision shortly before the battle of the Milvian bridge, which gave him supreme power over the
The English always had a great devotion to the Cross from the time of their conversion until the destruction of the Reformation: in this Benedict Biscop was typical of his time. Saint Oswald like Constantine set up a Cross and dedicated his soldiers beneath it before the battle of Hexham, by which he saved Christianity in Northumbria; great carved Crosses were set up in the open air to be places of worship and signs of Christ’s dominion over the land, one of which at Ruthwell in Scotland has carved upon it runic lines from the greatest of Old English poems, The Dream of the Rood. And in the liturgical observances of Holy Week, it was the Creeping to the Cross on Good Friday which really captured the imagination and attention of the people, not the rather attenuated rites of the Paschal Vigil.
Despite all the antagonism which the Reformation attached to ritual gestures we recall too that in the teeth of bitter Puritan resistance the composers of the Book of Common Prayer insisted on the godly retention of the sign of the Cross in Holy Baptism, in expectation of better times. Nor should we forget the sacrifices made by our Catholic forefathers to bring back the Cross to the Church of England: the Cross in their churches despite the ferocity of legal and illegal iconoclasm; the Cross preached from their pulpits; the Cross imprinted in their hearts and shown forth in their lives.
This Cross which now stands so imposingly on the east wall of this Church is a worthy successor to this long tradition of devotion, painfully maintained. It is a Cross which stands above an altar, and here we see demonstrated an important lesson which is beginning to be re-learnt. For the past forty years in so many churches, Cross and altar have been separated. Liturgical researchers have told us that no one put crosses on altars in the early church, and contemporary liturgical style has devised unhappy ways of fiddling about with off-centre processional crosses and so forth, which have dissipated the classic simplicity of the western altar as we have know it since the middle ages. The happy restoration of an architecture and iconography which places priest and people together facing Cross and altar restores the integrity of the liturgical celebration. It draws our attention away from any supposed image of God made by the gathered assembly and towards the true icon of Christ who is the only authentic Mediator with the Father. Christ reigns from the tree, and does so above the place where the sacrifice of the New Covenant is renewed.
The fathers of the church taught that the Cross was venerable for two reasons: firstly, because the Scriptures themselves used it as a sign of the atoning sacrifice of redemption, as the apostle writes Making peace by the blood of his Cross; secondly, because the True Cross was the altar upon which the precious Blood was shed, O tree with royal purple dight. Both reasons make it most apt that above every Christian altar should stand the image of the Holy Cross. Before the Cross stood above the altar its sacred character was emphasized by the presence of veils and screens to demonstrate the holiness of what took place there; now are altars are no longer concealed, it is not enough to assume that the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and its continuity with the offering of the Cross will be instilled simply by presenting the celebration as a meal.
Your parish priest is a worthy successor to Benedict Biscop in adorning your church with such an attentive sense of liturgical propriety and such a discerning eye for the integrity of true Christian imagery. Like Benedict, I suspect a few trips abroad might have sharpened this taste to its current good form. But neither he nor Benedict pulled off the astonishing coup of S. Radegond, who wrote to the emperor Justin in
Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee
The feast of Christ the King prompts us to ask questions about how the kingdom of Christ relates to the kingdoms of this world; about how our citizenship in the one says about our relationship to the other. In order to look at that question, I’d like to explore two different types of people and why I think we need not to be like them.
The first type is the cynic. In my last parish, there was a wonderful children’s drama project that rented an office in the church tower. The two directors of the project gave a group of children from the housing estate an intensive playwriting course over the course of a term. At the end of the course, each child would write a short play which would then be performed by professional actors. The results were often extremely striking and several of them have stuck in my mind. One that did so was about a beautiful woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a boring nerdy man. How did we know he was so boring and nerdy? Well, she knew this because he went to a particular and rather rare type of academic institution, not in case you’re worrying, theological college, but ‘politician school’.
The girl who wrote that play was a youthful example of a particular political type that is more and more evident in this country: the cynic. The person who, for whatever reason, feels that they have very little stake in the political process and very few hopes that any political system is likely to produce positive change. Cynics are inclined to assume, often quite understandably, that mostly politics is about people pursuing their own self-serving interests and aggrandising themselves. In the housing estate that the girl who wrote about the nerd at politician school comes from, only eighteen per cent of the residents voted in the last European election and well under fifty per cent at the last general election. There are a lot of cynics about.
In contrast to the cynic and a sort of mirror image of them is the apparatchik. The person for whom politics is an all-consuming obsession. One might have in mind people political editors of newspapers. Or perhaps some of the senior party spin doctors; people at any rate whose entire existence seems to be caught up in the politics and machinations of the so-called ‘Westminster village’. It’s a theme that’s been written about recently that politicians today tend more and more to be apparatchiks: people who have not had other careers outside politics and seem to have few other interests but are totally consumed by politics and the political process. (There may, of course, be similar people when it comes to the Church but that’s another matter).
The cynic and the apparatchik are both, in their most extreme forms, very frightening people. Cynics are frightening because those who really feel that they hold no stake in politics may eventually try to achieve their aims by other means. The apparatchik because those who think that politics can solve everything are prone to messianic and utopian delusions about what governments can achieve and are sometimes willing, like Stalin or Hitler (apparatchiks par excellence), to sacrifice the lives of many people in trying to realise their all-consuming political dream.
Both cynics and apparatchiks have their counterparts in the Church. Closely related to the cynic is the pietist. The Christian for whom, in words we so often hear, ‘faith is really a very private matter’, who does not think that their faith really has much to do with the mucky and compromised business of how a country is governed and how people live together, who thinks that politics and religion don’t really mix. Who believes in the Kingdom of God as a spiritualised future goal that bears no relation to how the kingdoms of this world rule themselves or arrange their affairs.
If the cynic is related to the pietist, the apparatchik finds a counterpart in the triumphalist: the one who thinks that the Church should join hands with dominant political authority to create a society in which people are moulded so that they conform to the will of Church and state. In the early Church, it is the emperor Constantine who epitomises Christian triumphalism. When we look at the church in 1930s Germany, willing to be co opted by National Socialism, or at countries existing under sharia law, we arrive at some picture of what this rather ugly religious and political position might look like.
What I want to say today is that I believe Christ the King calls us not to fall into either of these positions.
On the one hand, not to be cynics or pietists disowning political processes altogether. For surely, there’s no call in the New Testament for that. Jesus says, ‘render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ and St Paul urges those who belong to his churches to be loyal to those in governing authority. Neither are, in any sense, calling their followers simply to detach themselves from society or from politics.
And yet, on the other hand, there’s equally no call in the New Testament to be apparatchiks or triumphalists, attempting to coerce the rest of society into our own vision of how things ought to be, however worthy certain aspects of that vision may be. Jesus says to Pilate that ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. The Kingdom that Christ brings is not a utopian dream but a future reality. We are called not to make the Kingdom happen but rather to the slower and more painstaking work of preparing the way for it, witnessing to God’s promise of it and praying for it to come.
The feast of Christ the King points us then to this view: politics are important but they are of a modest importance. On the one hand, we can’t opt out of them entirely like cynics and pietists and say our faith has nothing to do with them. On the other hand, we can’t, like apparatchiks and triumphalists, allow politics to consume everything. This side of the kingdom, politics have their significance but it is not an ultimate significance because the kingdom of God is coming and with it all the kingdoms of this world will pass away.
But I want to offer that statement with what I think is a vital qualification. And that is that just because our view of the importance of politics is a modest one, that does not mean that our position on political issues always has to be moderate. Just because we don’t think politics can solve everything does not mean to say that our stance on every matter has to be, as it is often is, cautious, timid and mealy-mouthed. When the Church is confronted by National Socialism in 1930s Germany or apartheid in 1950s South Africa or, in our own time, by the international arms trade or environmental devastation or widespread famine in Africa. When we are confronted by these things, just because we think there are limits to what politics can achieve, it does not mean that we always ought to adopt a safe neutral position.
For, as we hear in today’s gospel, to owe allegiance to Christ the King is to belong to one whose judgments are really very clear. Before the Kingdom comes, Jesus will typically come to us not as a powerful ruler or politician, but identifying himself completely with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner: ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. The way in which we and the society to which we belong treats these people really does have ultimate significance. Yes indeed the Kingdom of Christ is coming and that kingdom will relativise all earthly kingdoms but no that does not allow us to be complacent in the face of wickedness, injustice and suffering for the judgment of Christ the King on these matters is not moderate and cautious but terrifyingly decisive and clear:
‘…these will go away into eternal punishment,’ he says, ‘but the righteous into eternal life’.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The passage from St Mark’s gospel that we have just heard received two starkly different interpretations in second and third century Egypt. In a famous sermon on this text, entitled Quis dives saluetur (Who is the rich man who is to be saved?), St Clement of Alexandria argued confidently that Jesus’s advice to the rich young man that he should sell what he owns and give the money to the poor should be taken spiritually and not literally. ‘The Saviour’, says Clement, ‘has by no means excluded the rich on account of wealth itself...if they are able and willing to submit their life to God’s commandments, and prefer (those commandments) to transitory objects’. What is wrong, then, he asserts, is not having money, but being preoccupied with it.
A very contrasting line was taken by St Antony of Egypt some years later when, as his biographer, St Athanasius recounts, he went to church one day and heard the very same passage being proclaimed. For Antony, there could be no messing around with interpretations and spiritual meanings. Jesus had spoken plainly, in words that could only be taken one way and demanded action from all who heard them. Athanasius records that Antony, ‘as though the passage had been read on his account, went immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers...And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor.
The tension between these two very different views can be traced back, perhaps, to the New Testament itself. For, depending on where we look, we can find what seems to be a Clement of Alexandria-style realistic and pragmatic approach to financial questions in, for example, the parable of the talents, or perhaps that of the dishonest steward. But, on the other hand, if we look at the Magnificat, or the description in chapter 2 of Acts of the apostles selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to the poor, things sound very much more radical. These passages remind us of Antony’s direct and literal take on Jesus’s words to the rich young man.
So, which way should we follow? Needless to say, in most parts of the church, Clement’s view has historically prevailed, even if it is perhaps less prominent in the New Testament. With some very important Antony-like exceptions, such as those who live in religious communities, Christians have tended to live pragmatically within the economic systems in which they’ve found themselves. For sure, theologians from the early Church up until today have stressed he importance of almsgiving, and of not investing too much of ourselves in our wealth and material possessions. But the Church has generally accepted the economic status quo, and tried to work within it, being content to temper its excesses and blunt the edge of its cruelty towards the very poorest.
A time of financial crisis, however, like the one that we’re currently experiencing may lead us to take another look. We’ve seen over the past few weeks the frailty of financial institutions, and the near breakdown of systems that many of us had assumed were robust and unassailable. Economic strength that seemed assured, and indeed almost our God-given right is suddenly revealed to be fragile and vulnerable, giving us a timely reminder of our creaturely frailty and dependence. We might echo the words of the Psalmist, in a passage which starts full of pride and hubris but ends in contrition and humility:
In my prosperity I said, I shall never be removed:
thou Lord, of thy goodness hast made my hill so strong.
Thou didst turn thy face from me: and I was troubled.
Then I cried unto thee, O Lord: and gat me to my Lord right humbly.
But even more than this, current financial circumstances might make us dissatisfied with simply accepting the economic order of the day, and inclined to raise our sights towards the life of the Kingdom of God. And in a way we are doing that here and now, because the new economic order of the Kingdom is inaugurated by Jesus in the Eucharist. For here admission depends not on financial strength, but on being in love and charity with our neighbour. In the economic order of the Eucharist and the Kingdom, there is radical equality, with the king and the pauper invited to eat the same food and drink the same drink. And in this order, to the question, how much is provided? God always answers, ‘just as much as is needed’.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Evelyn Waugh has a scene in his novel
When Augustine arrived in
In the novel
And at the heart of all this is the House which is the House of Bread: the Church which is
A sacred sign, marking out this portion of our town and land to be consecrated to the glory of God; a charitable sign, housing the living in easy and loving familiarity with the beloved dead; an awesome sign, in which the presence of the most High abides always in our midst, he who is priest, victim and sacrifice under the sign of heavenly food; this has been the work of St John’s for the last hundred and fifty years. And because she is a sign that points to Jesus Christ, and because the Scriptures tell us that He was to be a sign that is spoken against,
Our faith teaches us that God’s grace perfects nature and does not destroy it, and a Church dedicated to the glory of God should be an image of that divine work in the souls of humankind. It is not simply a convenient building in which the faithful assemble, it is the gate of heaven, and everything about it should point towards divine realities. The care with which we undertake the sacred liturgies which are its life; the beauty of its fabric and the splendour of its decoration; all these things are not simply the fulfilment of a particular aesthetic taste, they are an affirmation of the incarnation, in which God redeems what he assumes and elects what is created in his image to share the divine life. If, as the great theologian
The writer to the Hebrews tells us: for here we have no lasting City, but we seek the city which is to come. This Church for the last one hundred and fifty years has pointed beyond itself to a city not yet attained, the City of
Saturday, November 15, 2008
A Handful of Light: Daily Bible readings for Advent and Christmas by Michael Mitton begins with standard and uninspiring Fresh Expressions breast-beating as the author recounts his experiences of people who won’t come to “normal” church (whatever that is) and want to “do church” in a different way. Thankfully, the book settles down thereafter to a helpful series of daily Bible readings for Advent, following a well-orchestrated scheme that charts seasonal themes of lament, longing, annunciation, nativity, and illumination.
On each day, the author sets the reading appropriately in context and draws out interesting points of cultural and contemporary reference. There is some triteness: “I don’t suppose any one wing of the Church has got it completely right”; and some perhaps unintended comedy: “furious Esau, covered with hair and resentment”, and Mary lying in the back seat of a Mini heading from Inverness to
For the most part, however, Mitton is a resourceful and reliable guide: easygoing, but thoughtful and widely read. The book could be used profitably by individuals or groups.
An appreciation of these could lead to a reappropriation of some very well-worn material, but this worthwhile exercise is marred by occasional superficiality, and frequent recourse to the cliché: within three lines of an exposition of “O come, all ye faithful”, the authors tell us that consumerism has taken over Christmas “in our day and age”, but the carol “pulls no punches”, and goes “straight to the heart” of the mystery.
“Creative ideas” for exploring the carols further range from helpful dramatisations to buttock-clenchingly embarrassing exercises involving pebbles and nutshells.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Beginning with the Benedictine principle that God is present everywhere, Holtz challenges his readers to see God in the trappings of popular culture. As he walks around his home town of
By finding pointers to God in the world around him, he challenges the assumption that apparently worldly celebrations of Christmas must stand in opposition to the Church’s keeping of Advent and Christmas. As such, this is a helpful book for those who are bothered by what may appear to be secularisation.
At times, Holtz’s insights are crowded out by over-use of the first person, and more personal detail than is helpful. Also occasional grammatical and typographical flaws mar the text, which is otherwise well presented, and accompanied by the author’s illustrations.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
It is possible to enliven services at this time of year with any number of gimmicks, but for communities who seek to refresh their celebrations by making full use of recent Anglican liturgical material and drawing deeply on the tradition, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing by Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones will be an invaluable resource.
A superb essay on the nature of liturgical time, which includes an inspiring reading of Donne’s poem “Upon the Annunciation and Passion falling upon one day”, ushers in a detailed and careful examination of the liturgical texts and options for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
The book will help clergy and other worship-leaders as they struggle to draw together the bewildering range of materials that now exist in a coherent way that makes theological and liturgical sense. The directions about what people “may”, “should”, or “must” do are inevitably problematic in our current state of liturgical anarchy, but the authors combine scholarly erudition with pastoral realism, and have sharp eyes for foreseeing practical questions and problems.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
What went wrong with Christian Europe? Why are we now building a new order which will only accommodate Christian values in private, while in public life the tenets of secular liberalism and political correctness hold sway? One of the fundamental problems for Christian living has always been legalism, and one of the most besetting faults of modern Christianity has been to portray the moral life as a matter of rules, things to be avoided. The Christian life has not been taught as S. Paul taught it to the Galatians: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; it has been taught as a set of rules to be kept, with anything further reserved for religious enthusiasts and the clergy. How many Anglicans taught their Catechism in the past considered their moral obligations to cease once they had kept their hands from picking and stealing, and applied themselves to learn and labour to get mine own living? Of course, this does not mean that moral rules are redundant or don’t apply to Christians: we continue to keep the Ten Commandments at the heart of all our moral teaching. However, as S. Paul states Christ is the end of the Law, and if we are in Christ through our baptism then our moral life is not one that can be summarized in legal form: it is a growth in virtue. All human beings are called to recognise fundamental moral values and live by them, and it is these fundamental moral values that we can work to put into effect in our own lives, and which constitute the cardinal virtues.
What we call the cardinal virtues were first sorted out by the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and are only mentioned together once in the Scriptures and then only in the Old Testament Apocrypha: If anyone loves righteousness, Wisdom’s labours are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude (Wisdom 8.7). But Christian thinker and theologians have always used them as a good moral map to teach the life of virtue, to show what is needed to make good moral decisions and to be equipped to live well with God’s help. Firstly among the cardinal virtues comes Prudence: the way in which we use our God-given reason and knowledge of good and evil to live and makes choices in our moral life.
Now of course the way in which Prudence is thought of has become something of a joke, because of the way in which our Prime Minister so cunningly appropriated its mantle to obscure economic and financial agenda which only now have been exposed to the cruel light of day. It evokes images of piggy banks, saving for a rainy day, stilted caution and Scottish bank managers turning you down for a loan. And of course there is a false prudence which is like this: a prudence which has as its end worldly things, a prudence which is little more than cunning and calculation, a prudence which stems fundamentally from covetousness and which S. Paul describes when he says To set the mind on the flesh is death (Romans 8.6). To be prudent in this way is to be as much a stranger to the real character of the virtue as it is to be heedless and reckless in all we undertake.
Christian prudence is not like this. Christian prudence trains us and helps us to learn how to apply the moral principles we have to the situations we encounter in life, how we can recognize what God wants of us in the complexities of human living so that we avoid sin and seek the good. When we are baptized and become children of God we receive the gift of prudence from God at its most fundamental level: we are able to recognize the ultimate good, eternal life, and to choose it as our destination and goal. But we need to learn how to be prudent in the way we make provision for ourselves and others in all the incidents of human life, to apply moral truth to our circumstances and do so courageously and well. How does this take place?
Firstly, through the integrity of our memory. What I mean by this is that we need always to strive for truth in what we recall, truth in the record of life past we preserve in our minds. If we allow the knowledge we have of life to be tainted and corrupted by our own gloss on events, reconstructing the past to suit our own ends and our own preferences, then we will never be able to to act prudently in the present. Think how we almost unconsciously rework conversations, encounters, events and relationships to show ourselves in a good light, to justify ourselves as the rich young man seeks to justify himself to Jesus: all this must go if we are to act prudently. One of the great benefits of the practice of sacramental confession is that we are called to think about our sins in an objective light: we see them ourselves in the cold light of day when we prepare, and we confess them aloud to God in the presence of his minister in the cold light of day as well, without evasion, self-justification or the distortions of false pride which corrupt our recollection.
Secondly, we become prudent through being taught by others. The apostle James writes: Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed (Jas 5.16). We need to have the modesty to take advice, to learn from those experienced in the faith and to trust them not as substitutes for our understanding, but as a means of enhancing it with the wisdom of others. One of the sadnesses of the decline in the religious life in the Church of England is that our opportunities of finding a wise soul-friend are so much diminished. A closed mind is the enemy of prudence, because it refuses to accept any knowledge of the truth of things which is not its own.
Lastly, to be truly prudent we need what the theologians call Solertia: which we might call a sort of spiritual intuition of opportunity. Moral choices do not come to us on our own terms and in our own time: they are sprung on us by our circumstances, our temperament and the spiritual warfare in which we are taking part. Real prudence, the capacity to recognise good and choose it, needs to be ready to respond to the unexpected and the new without hesitation and without recklessness, to be clear–sighted and nimble in the face of challenges.
Truthfulness in memory; open-mindedness in taking counsel; clear-sightedness in the face of the unexpected: these are the signs of Christian prudence. Without them the moral life will become at best the keeping of rules without reason or the ability to face new circumstances and new threats, and at worst a heedless cobbling-together of the fragments of morality in the face of life’s challenges. With them we will possess what the French poet Claudel termed the intelligent prow of our nature, the means by which we navigate through all the complexities of life to our final end and perfection with God.
Paula Gooder’s The Meaning is in the Waiting, which takes its title from R. S. Thomas’s poem “Kneeling”, opens with a reflection on waiting in which she considers the notion of active waiting, and probes not only what it might mean in Advent to wait and prepare for the future, but also to await an event that has already taken place.
After this detailed but accessible introduction, Gooder offers 24 meditations grouped around the biblical figures associated with the candles on the Advent wreath. She examines in turn Abraham and Sarah, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary, and observes the centrality of waiting in their various stories. Shrewd observations and intelligent commentary are offered with a lightness of touch, so that the reader is drawn gently but compellingly to re-examine familiar texts and find in them fresh insights to ponder.
The Meaning is in the Waiting is probably best suited to individuals who are prepared to draw out the full implications of these meditations for themselves, and will appeal less to those who are looking for more prescriptive material this Advent. It is an exceedingly good book, and well worth waiting with.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
David Adam has crafted a stimulating six-week course from Advent to Epiphany exploring the theme of joy. The Echo of God: A six-week course from Advent to Epiphany is designed for small groups meeting weekly, but could be adapted successfully for individual use.
Adam employs the ancient method of lectio divina, the pattern for which is “Realise, Read, Ruminate, Respond, Rest, and Recollect”. A passage of scripture is appointed for each week, and each is accompanied by an accessible and insightful commentary and guidance on reflection and meditation.
Adam frequently drops in nuggets from a treasure-house of spiritual writers, including Symeon the New Theologian, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Traherne, Teilhard de Chardin, the Curé d’Ars, and — most extensively — Julian of Norwich.
Even in church life, the tinsel and the fairy lights can crowd out the profundity of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. This course provides a welcome invitation to ponder their themes more deeply. Sadly, the book is unattractively produced with a cover that looks like a broken windscreen.
Our enquiries revealed that Adam’s central, and very powerful, quotation, “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us,” does not in fact come from “one of the Desert Fathers”, as he claims, but from Abbot Columba Marmion (1858-1923).
Insights Christmas: What the Bible tells us about the Christmas story consists of extracts from William Barclay’s commentaries, revised and republished posthumously in 2001, on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This slim volume comprises two discrete sections: the first contains a brief introduction to Matthew’s Gospel and is followed by commentary on Matthew 1.1-2.23; and the second, rather shorter, introduces Luke’s Gospel, and then includes commentary on Luke 1.1-2.20. The lack of synthesis between the two sections results in repetition, and it is left to the reader to draw out any overarching themes or conclusions.
Barclay’s distinctive theology is evident throughout his exegesis. He is conservative on matters such as gospel authorship, but liberal on the Virgin birth, about which, he claims, “the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.” His style is occasionally clunky: “First and foremost, Luke’s Gospel is an exceedingly careful bit of work.” He is quick to appreciate beauty in the scriptures, and his reflections on the openings of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are illustrated with anecdotes.
In his book In the Bleak Midwinter: 40 meditations and prayers for Advent and Christmas, Herbert Brokering has put together a meditation and a poetic prayer on each line of Christina Rossetti’s Christmas carol. This book is designed to be read at home, either alone or in the context of the family. Indeed, Brokering’s own family is never far from the surface in his meditations.
The winters of his upbringing in rural
A good number of the meditations assume a rather imaginative take on the Christmas story. According to Brokering, “Dr Luke must have wished to be personally present” at the nativity; and “Anna, Mary’s mother, must have made sure that what Mary would need was in a special bag.”
If a wistful and schmaltzy reading of this most wistful and schmaltzy of carols is really what you want to find in your stocking this Christmas, put this on your wish list. But we don’t think you’ll find it on ours. Other works by the same author include More Cat Psalms and More Dog Psalms.
David Coffey has written Joy to the World as his Baptist World Alliance President’s Advent Book. It covers the 31 days of December, and is organised as a collection of readings for five weeks, with weekly activities to be carried out in groups. The week’s readings are to be read individually in preparation for the weekly group meeting. The readings within the week are thematically linked to joy: World of Joy, Community of Joy, Songs of Joy, Saviour of Joy, and Gifts of Joy.
The book works in much the same way as other books for Advent, with a daily scripture reading and commentary, followed by a pause for thought leading on to a prayer, and finishing with a final reflection, encouraging the reader to engage actively with the outside world.
There are helpful suggestions about how to focus on the theme of the week in a small group, although forward planning would be needed if some of the suggested activities were to work effectively. The combination of daily and weekly activities makes the book suitable for use in a parish home group setting. An unattractive cover featuring what appears to be an enormous Christmas bauble does not do the book justice.
Do Nothing Christmas is Coming by Stephen Cottrell is a very short book in the format of an Advent calendar, with daily thoughts and activities for each day from 1 to 25 December. Cottrell has the evangelist’s eye for a short but provocative illustration or aphorism, and these appear on almost every page: “you learned life’s really important lessons at nursery school; sit still, share your toys and clean up after yourself. If we managed these three there would be peace in the world!”
The author’s prophetic instinct to criticise the way in which Christmas is celebrated in Western countries conflicts creatively with his pastoral instinct to make the most of the opportunities the season affords.
Pre-credit-crunch writing about people’s spending habits already feels oddly dated, and, while the author’s assumption that Christmas 2008 will be the usual orgy of consumerism is surely justified, economic circumstances will add considerable complexity to this picture, and, for some people, transform it altogether. Sentimentality occasionally obtrudes: pre-packaged food, for example, misses the vital ingredient of “love that only you can stir in”.
Do Nothing Christmas is Coming would be very valuable for anyone who wants something short and snappy to read each day, and especially for parents seeking practical help in sustaining Christian family life over Advent and Christmas. Wealthier parishes might consider a bulk order for general distribution. The book is particularly suitable for giving to those on the fringes of church life.
In All Senses by John Cox is a series of daily readings for Advent, with the theme of using not only our physical senses, but our other senses as well, such as those of balance, justice, and wonder. For each day there is a Bible reading followed by a reflection, in which these additional senses are employed to explore more fully the meaning of the season. Suggested responses are given to take the reflection further, and apply its insights, and a prayer concludes each section.
The readings begin on Advent Sunday, with 21 undated readings, before dated readings begin on 19 December. The author suggests that Advent should be “a time to be still amidst all the rush, and to ponder on things of God”, and the book intends that, through reading the passages and reflecting on their meaning, the reader will gain a freshness of spirit, and be able to contemplate and worship Christ with a deeper sense of intimacy.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Here are the books being reviewed:
The Echo of God: A six-week course from Advent to Epiphany by David Adam
Kevin Mayhew £7.99 (978-1-84867-042-6) Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Insights: Christmas: What the Bible tells us about the Christmas story by William Barclay
Saint Andrew Press £5.99 (978-0-7152-0858-8) Church Times Bookshop £5.40
In the Bleak Midwinter: 40 meditations and prayers for Advent and Christmas by Herbert Brokering
Augsburg Books £5.99 (978-0-8066-8053-8) Church Times Bookshop £5.40
Joy to the World: 31 days for Advent by David Coffey
CWR £6.99 (978-1-853-45475-2) Church Times Bookshop £6.30
Do Nothing Christmas is Coming: An Advent calendar with a difference by Stephen Cottrell
Church House Publishing £4.99 (978-0-7151-4164-9) Church Times Bookshop £4.50
In All Senses: Daily meditations and prayers for Advent by John Cox
Kevin Mayhew £8.99 (978-1-84867-043-3) Church Times Bookshop £8.10
The Meaning is in the Waiting: The spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder
Canterbury Press £8.99 (978-1-85311-908-8) Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas by Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones
SPCK £9.99 (978-0-281-05978-2) Church Times Bookshop £8.99
From Holidays to Holy Days: A Benedictine walk through Advent by Albert Holtz OSB
SPCK £8.99 (978-0-281-06088-7) Church Times Bookshop £8.10
A Handful of Light: Daily Bible readings for Advent and Christmas by Michael Mitton
BRF £7.99 (978-1-841-01247-6) Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Bethlehem Carols Unpacked: Creative ideas for Christmas carol services by Lucy Moore and Martyn Payne with BibleLands
BRF £8.99 (978-1-841-01534-7) Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Both Feasts speak to us of Christ as the Light of the World whilst showing that human beings can live lives which are so focused on Him that they, too, shine as lights in the world, lighting paths for others to follow.
Now there’s a lot in this wonderful metaphor of light.
Human beings have always been fascinated by light: from tiny babies to seasoned astro-physicists, we are easily lured into whiling away our time contemplating the myriad ways light plays and dances. No wonder we have made such use of light as a metaphor for things that delight and please us.
And we marvel not only at light’s playfulness, but also at its power: from frenzied pagan sun-worshippers, to lethargic sun-bathers, we cannot help but be struck by the sheer brute energy of light.
No wonder we have made such use of light as a metaphor for power, strength and ascendancy.
We love the way that light can show us things, too: for, bemusingly perhaps, it is only in sensing, perceiving, seeing light, that we can “see” anything at all; we are such visual creatures that we sometimes hardly notice the ways in which we use metaphors of light to talk about truth and knowledge and understanding.
And if we stop to think about it, we can become aware that light is more than beautiful, and powerful, and useful; it is also beneficial, we might almost say benevolent, for it brings food and warmth, and so light’s metaphorical might reaches beyond the realms of truth and beauty and power into the sphere of the good and the gracious. By the same token, though, light’s power can be destructive; it pushes away darkness and can burn things clean away; and so metaphors of light can be used to describe correction, banishment and purification.
Ultimately, of course, light is the great source upon which all life on this planet is dependent. Little wonder that the sun has been revered as a god; and no wonder that theological and philosophical traditions alike have pictured God’s relationship to the universe in terms of the sun’s relationship to the earth.
All this and more is invoked when we describe God as the Light of the World; all this and more is intended when we declare that Christ is this self-same Light of the World; all this and more is suggested when we acknowledge the ways in which the Saints light up this dark and wintry world.
For, almost immediately after the Beatitudes read in today’s Gospel, Christ, the One we know to be the Light of World, tells his followers that they are the “light of the world”.
They – we – are called to reflect the light of God in such a way that any light that appears to come from us leads directly back to its Source.
Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
And this is what those who have been hailed as “Saints” have pre-eminently achieved.
Their rewards, we can be certain, are great; they are the blessings which are promised in the Beatitudes. But the costs, we must be clear, are also great, in worldly terms at least.
For those who shine in this way are not passive mirrors, unaltered by the light that reflects and deflects from them. Rather, they are torches which burn with a flame: a life lived as witness to Christ and to the Father, is a life ignited by the Holy Spirit; it is a life which burns with love of God and with God’s love for the world; it is a life which is given over, a life which is “spent”.
Nor is this burning always a safe, demure, carefully contained affair like some elegant Victorian spirit lamp, or an orderly sanctuary light. As the wild and contradictory lives of the Saints show, this is something rather more exciting. As the writer of the Book of Wisdom has it, the souls of the righteous will “run like sparks through the stubble” (see
We cannot ignore the fact that the Beatitudes promise happiness and blessings to those who mourn, and lack, and thirst, and hunger, to those who do not insist on their rights or justice for themselves, to those who are hounded and persecuted, to those who hurt and suffer.
But nor can we ignore the fact that these blessings are not simply showered on all those who experience such difficulties.
It is not that in some strange, twisted way the desperate situations of bereavement, hunger, thirst, suffering or injustice are in any sense in themselves “good” or “desirable”.
No, these difficult circumstances are the opportunity for good; the promised blessings will be bestowed upon those who respond to adversity with God’s faith, hope and love in place of the world’s anger, despair and bitterness.
The happiness and blessings promised in the Beatitudes come, that is, to those who mourn what needs to be mourned; to those who seek what needs to be sought; to those who give what needs to be given; to those who sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed.
And so the Beatitudes lay out for us something like a charter for holiness, but this is not in terms of the necessary conditions for holiness to happen; nor even in terms of specific privileged actions to be named “holy”; rather this charter for holiness is couched in terms of a description of the character of holiness, harbouring at its heart an account of the ways in which a God-directed life will deal with life’s hardships.
A life lived as a torch burning for Christ in the world will have a particular direction: it will always be a life with a particular place in the Church; it will always be a life which locates itself in relation to God and the world, rather than simply in relation to itself; as such, it will always, therefore, be a life to which difficulties and hardships adhere. All the Saints endure suffering: they suffer with and for God’s world; they suffer with and for the Church; they suffer with and for Christ.
But in a life lived as a torch burning for Christ in the world, hardship is dealt with in certain ways and not others.
In the world around us today, there is great emotional, social and political capital to be won from clinging to and using “my hurt”. Indeed, such moves have become prevalent in the rhetoric of many of the ecclesial and theological debates which trouble us today.
But make no mistake: holiness is not to be found in licking our wounds or cherishing our sufferings for their own sake, as a means to gain leverage, self righteous or otherwise, over others. Such is the path of festering meanness and corrosion. If we only cling to suffering for its own sake, our arms will remain closed and unable to receive God’s good gifts.
The Saints do cherish their sufferings but only insofar as they are a true sharing in the suffering of Christ, with and for the world, born of his love which he has from, shares with and ever pours out to the Father; as such the Saints cherish their sufferings only insofar as they can lead to Christ.
Holiness is to be found in joining our response to the suffering which we experience and see around us with God’s response to suffering in the gifts of faith and hope and love. It is this which burns so brightly and ignites the lives of others.
On this Feast of All Saints, let us pray that our lives might be lit by the lives of the Saints, that we like them might burn in our times with Christ’s love as lights in the World, learning to count not the costs but the rewards, learning to respond with God to hardship and suffering with faith and hope and love; and let us pray that we might never extinguish the love which is growing in others, but rather that we, once lit, might run with the Saints like sparks through the stubble, igniting all around us with the love of God.