Epiphany 3: The generosity of God

In this reflection, Archdeacon Colin Williams, Archdeacon of Germany and northern Europe and Archdeacon of the Eastern Archdeaconry, draws links between this Sunday’s Gospel reading, John 2.1-11, and the contemporary life of Europe.

‘Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.’ (John 2.6)

That is a key sentence of the Gospel passage set this year for the Third Sunday of Epiphany.  The wedding feast at Cana in Galilee would have operated within the same context as any other wedding feast of Jesus’ day.  No tame affair of a few hours.  It would last for days.  The host’s reputation would stand or fall on the degree of lavishness he poured out upon his guests. At this wedding, though, the wine was about to run out. The host’s reputation was about to take a nosedive.  Jesus saves the day.  And how!  The figures speak for themselves.  From a shortage of wine, the host suddenly finds himself with 120-180 gallons on his hands.  Enough to float a battleship, had there been such a thing in the Palestine of Jesus’ day.  Unreasonably, extravagantly, unashamedly generous.

John has a characteristic word for this as for other acts of Jesus. ‘Jesus did this’, John tells us, as ‘the first of his signs…, and revealed his glory.’

water into wine armenian

Depiction of the changing of water into wine on a tile in St James’ Armenian Cathedral Jerusalem: replica by Armenian potters in Jerusalem.

In this act at a wedding feast In Cana of Galilee, Jesus points away from himself and towards the Father.  He demonstrates that unreasonable, extravagant, unashamed generosity is key to a full understanding of the divine life.  We worship a God who from no motive other than generosity created our world and our universe and all that is in them and saw that they were good. We worship a God who in Jesus Christ generously gave of himself to come and live and walk among us in human form.  We worship a God who generously pours out his love and his sustaining power on his Church.  A God who in Jesus Christ gives of himself as we reach out our hands to receive all that he has to give of himself in bread and in wine.

Our calling as followers of Jesus Christ on our continent of Europe is to bring in God’s Kingdom. To work with him and each other so as to mould Europe in such a way that more and more it becomes a god-shaped continent.  That means many things. It does though mean in particular that we are called to make of our continent a space which is characterised precisely by generosity.

In our better moments in these last decades the peoples of Europe have dared to be generous. Though our post-WWII willingness to reach out and be reconciled to those whom for   too long we had called   enemies.  Through the Schengen Agreement and the breaking down of physical barriers between nations. In the particular case of Germany in 2015, through the outrageously generous reception of over one million refugees from Syria and other war-torn lands in the Middle East.

A key task in the Europe of the second decade of the twenty-first century is to foster such generosity still.  In a Europe in which individuals outside the UK Parliament are harangued for holding views which the haranguers find uncongenial.  In a Europe in which a leading member of the German Bundestag is viciously attacked and hospitalised on the streets of a German city because of the views which he holds.   In a Europe in which the popular and open Mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk is murdered on the street by reason of decisions which in good conscience he had taken.  In such a Europe, there is an urgent need for us to rediscover generosity and openness towards each other.

In Cana of Galilee, Jesus shows the way.  Generosity can take us from anxiety and fear to joy and  rejoicing. Through our generosity, mirroring his generosity, God can act, God can make a difference.  In our churches,  in our communities, in our nations, in our dealings one with another, let our first instinct again  be to show unreasonable, extravagant  generosity towards each other.  For in our doing that, God’s Kingdom will draw near.

The Baptism of Christ – Plunging deep into faith

 

A reflection on the three readings which the lectionary selects for this Sunday (Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22) is offered by the Rev David Waller, the Anglican Chaplain for Mallorca based in Palma. David also acts as Area Dean for part of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar.

I relish the idea that Christmas is one of the shortest liturgical seasons in the Church’s calendar. This is not because I’m a Scrooge at heart but because it allows Epiphany to sound the starting pistol for the life of faith and for the mission of the Church. There is a real sense of taking the anticipation, delight and awe of Christmas and then it’s as if God saying to us ‘well don’t just stand there, do something!’

There is an inherent undercurrent of effervescent excitement to Epiphany, if I can put it that way! These readings all tell us of the energy that is released as the people of God grasp at the astounding thought that they are called by God, who then equips them for what is to come.

So Second Isaiah tells of the restoration of God’s people. Following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC by the Babylonians and subsequent exile, the people of Judah are now encouraged to return to their home. God works through the good offices of Cyrus the Persian king who has overcome the Babylonians and who offers this restoration to God’s people. Among the many themes of the Isaiah reading for this Sunday we might focus on verses 1 and 2a where the collective calling of God’s people is reaffirmed through allusion to water; the Exodus at the waters of the Red Sea and perhaps the entry into the promised land through the waters of the Jordan. In all of this God’s chosen people belong to God – ‘you are mine’ – and even though they pass through waters, (often a sign of chaos and uncertainty in the Bible) they shall not be ‘overwhelmed’. All of this, to jump to the last verse, is because God has made us for himself and our destiny and creation is interwoven with our giving glory to God, in how we live a full human life.

In the reading from Acts it is worth recalling the animosity that existed between inhabitants of Judaea and those living in Samaria – that the Samaritans were not quite ‘proper’ somehow. Hence the radical story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells to show the boundary crossing nature of God’s love. Here Peter and John travel to Samaria where someone else has already told the people there of Jesus Christ and baptised them. If I can speculate a little here, it’s as if the Samaritans knew the name of Jesus, maybe having been told of the account of his life and actions, but had not yet received his spirit. Peter and John show them that in receiving Jesus Christ it is a matter of more than just knowledge or understanding, it’s about nothing less than life transformed! I realise that I say this from a twenty-first century viewpoint where the mission of the church is to call people to depth of understanding in faith rather than settling for a slightly objective understanding of Christ as simply one more consumer choice! Faith in Christ calls on the whole person, within the context of their community, to be transformed.

In Luke’s Gospel we hear the passage where John the Baptist rightly points us to Jesus to be the recipient of our expectations. In doing this John also exemplifies the self-emptying ministry of serving others that Jesus will reveal fully in his life and on the cross. This is the life that in God’s good time we are all called to emulate as followers of The Way, the way of Jesus Christ. baptism site

Traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan: photo taken by Ben O’Neill on recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land by those participating in the diocesan CEMES programme.

I resonate very much with that question of John in the Gospels about who should be baptising whom on this occasion! I guess we all feel that it is Jesus himself who gives us his gifts of his spirit in order to live out the Christian life. But here Jesus is baptised by John. The gift we receive here is the understanding that God shows us what to do. That if Jesus himself is subject to this ritual showing that he is changed, and turned towards God, then that is the path for us to follow too. It is the essence of a suggestion that if we turn to Christ; if we repent of our sins; if we reject evil, then we too may hear those words whispered in our ear, in our minds, our soul – ‘you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ How could we then not respond? Epiphany!

Epiphany: The boundless limits of the love of God

Drawing on all three lectionary readings set for the Feast of the Epiphany (Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12) Bishop David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, draws on his experience to reflect on the history and meaning of the Feast, and the varied ways that it is celebrated in the countries of our diocese.

Epiphany (Greek epiphaneia – manifestation, appearance, or showing forth) is possibly the oldest festival in the Christian calendar, after Easter. The Ancient Eastern Church celebrated the baptism of our Lord on this day when a voice from heaven declared, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, thus showing to the world who this man Jesus was. To this was added a focus on the wedding at Cana and Christ’s first miracle, showing his divine nature. In the Western Church the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated, perhaps to displace the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. Around the 4th century scholars think there was an ‘an exchange of feasts’, with the West additionally adopting Epiphany and the East also taking on Christmas.

The Magi are central to the Gospel of the day – possibly Babylonian astrologers or religious wise men from ancient Persia (modern day Iran, which borders with our Diocese in Europe). The Old Testament was widely known in the ancient lands of Babylonia and Persia. There was a presence of Jews in exile there in the 6th century BC and some of the deportees’ descendants never returned to Judea. Wise men in those lands would know of the sacred texts of the Jews who lived among them. Isaiah, with its themes of light and darkness, (Arise, shine; for your light has come…for darkness shall cover the earth …nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn) may have had a particular resonance for eastern sages especially if they were adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which has cosmic dualistic leanings: day and night, good and evil.

Christians have read St Matthew’s story of the Magi in conjunction with Psalm 72 where in verse 10 we read ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’[1] and with Isaiah 60.1-6, which speaks of gold and frankincense. Fr Nicholas King SJ (who was our Bible Scholar at the last Diocesan Readers’ Conference) points out in his translation of the Bible that not only should the reference to gold and frankincense immediately alert us to the gifts brought by the Magi, but also Isaiah speaks of camels, which is why we think that the Wise Men came on camels, for this mode of transport is not mentioned by Matthew at all![2]

magi gifts cologne

According to tradition the relics of the Magi lie in the great Cathedral of the city where our Diocesan Synod meets, Cologne.

Throughout the countries of our Diocese can be found a richness of Epiphany traditions. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate both the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January. It is a lively festival in Spain, el Día de los Reyes Magos, the Feast of the Three Kings, perhaps most important for children for on this day (not Christmas) they receive their presents. The French enjoy an almond cake called Galette des Rois, the King’s cake, which usually has a toy crown or a figurine of the baby Jesus inside, and is topped with a gold paper crown. In Russia (although the Church there observes the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian) Epiphany is marked by cutting holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, to bathe in the freezing water! In German speaking lands, from the reference in the Gospel to the Magi “entering the house” where Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus was, people bless their houses after the Epiphany mass by marking over the entrance door with chalk: 20+C+M+B+19 (for this year). The initials either stand for Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or for the traditional names of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

These names date from the 9th century but became symbolic of the three human groups from the then known three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, to point to Jesus’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the nations of the world, signified in the persons of the Magi. In later years the three kings were also associated with the phases of human life – youth, maturity and old age. This tradition underlines a truth basic to Christian teaching: God’s salvation is not offered just to one exclusive group. St Paul speaks to this truth in the second reading,

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel(Ephesians 3.5-6).

These days in Europe there is pressure on governments to exclude people from other countries. In some places foreigners are becoming suspect. But Epiphany tells us that there is no exclusivity with Christ; there is no one outside the boundaries of God’s love. Epiphany challenges us to expand our tents to welcome everyone. Even pagan astrologers were among the first to worship him and were blessed by his presence.

The celebration of the arrival of wise men from the East represent a new beginning for humanity. They represent the entire human race’s longing for the light of God’s grace and truth. They symbolise the procession of all of God’s children from every part of the world, who are on the way, seeking Christ, and who on finding him offer gifts and worship. Christ our God is for all the peoples of the earth. This is the thrilling message of Epiphany.

From a pure virgin by divine command appeared the light that lighteneth man’s days.

A brilliant star proclaimed the glad event in the far heaven shone its ardent blaze.

The Persian magi saw the effulgent star, illumining the sky like solar rays.

Towards Bethlehem with joyful steps they sped to offer him their precious gift and praise.

(Translation of words by the modern Persian poet, Hamidi, in the Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran)

st simon zelotes church iran

The Anglican Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran

[1] Common Worship translation

[2] The Bible: A study Bible freshly translated by Nicholas King, Kevin Mayhew, 2013

 

‘And be thankful’

 

This reflection for the Sunday after Christmas draws particularly on Colossians 3.12-17, the lectionary epistle. It is written by Revd Helen Marshall who has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain, retreat leader and spiritual director in the UK, taught in a theological college in Kenya, and has recently moved to Geneva where her husband is working for the World Council of Churches. 

As a variation on the ‘new year resolution’, the church where I served my curacy chose a phrase from Scripture as its ‘motto’ for each new year. As we approach 2019 perhaps we might benefit from pondering three words from our New Testament reading this Sunday: ‘and be thankful’.

The Colossians are urged to ‘be thankful’ and to live with ‘gratitude’ for all they have received from God. Gratitude is not a common human commodity. We more often meet the opposite, both in ourselves and others. Ingratitude – grumbling, being negative, feeling we’ve not got what we deserve – these seem to be deeply engraved attitudes in us all. It’s so easy to get into the habit of complaining; sometimes we even fail to see the good gifts that are right in front of us. The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once described human beings as the ‘ungrateful biped’!

We may all know people who are rarely grateful for anything, those whose prevailing response to life is critical and negative; they always seem to be complaining about something or other. It can be quite exhausting to be in such a person’s company for long. On the other hand, it’s refreshing and upbuilding to meet someone who is deeply and genuinely grateful.

Gratitude is an essential part of the Christian life; our response to God’s grace in Christ. It’s rather like two sides of a coin: God’s attitude to us may be summarised in the one word ‘grace’; and our response to him summarised in the one word ‘gratitude’.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he describes the kind of lives they should live in response to God. Knowing they are ‘beloved’, they are to be compassionate, tolerant, kind, humble, gentle and forgiving towards one another. But they are also urged to be thankful to God:  ‘be thankful…sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts…whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father…’ Gratitude is to colour the whole of their lives and the whole of our lives too. As one writer puts it, we are called to ‘thanksliving’.

Thankfulness towards God and forbearance and patience with other people are linked together. If we have received God’s grace deeply into our lives and are full of gratitude and thankfulness, this will go a long way in enabling us to be patient and forgiving towards others. While we are deeply grateful to God for his love and his gifts to us, we won’t be constantly comparing ourselves to others.

Many of our chaplaincies in Europe are very diverse communities, with people from a variety of nationalities, backgrounds and cultures. This can sometimes be a source of misunderstanding and division; there is an even greater need for patience, gentleness and humility among us. But if we can remember that we are all ‘beloved’ (even those we may find most difficult) and ‘be thankful’ both for God’s love and for one another, this will help us to live with more grace and patience and, indeed, to see our diverse communities as a rich blessing.

Of course, sometimes it is extremely difficult to ‘be thankful’; we may face intense personal suffering or family difficulties; we may be anxious and disillusioned about what is happening in our world, or even in our churches.  Yet, God’s grace in Christ remains the same.

So let us approach this new year with the confidence that we are ‘beloved’ and therefore ‘be thankful.’

A prayer:  Holy God, may the love you pour out upon us take root deep in our hearts, bear fruit in our lives and keep us in thanksgiving and praise of your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advent IV/Christmas Seeing Salvation

This reflection draws particularly on the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 52.7-10 which is one of the lectionary texts selected for Christmas Day.  It is offered by Rev Alan Amos, who after a varied ministry both in the United Kingdom and the Middle East now holds PTO (Permission to Officiate) in the Dioceses of both Europe and Salisbury. He currently acts as spiritual adviser for the ecumenical English-speaking Cursillo in Geneva. 

‘Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;

For the Lord has comforted his people,

He has redeemed Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52.9)

These words from Isaiah celebrate the coming of a new age, ‘for all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’ (Isaiah 52.10).  This age has been seen, both by Christians and Jews, as belonging to the Messiah.  In both our communities of faith we celebrate the coming of the messianic age, though for Christians it is ‘realised’ in Christ, whose very Hebrew name YESHUA speaks directly of salvation, while our Jewish brothers and sisters wait for an age which is still to come.  All of us are called to do our part in healing a world which is crying out for the work of mending and reconciliation and justice and peace. And the more we participate in this healing, the closer we will draw to one another.

The prophetic voice can talk about a future hope as if it has already been accomplished; it is as if the telling forth of the words of prophecy through God’s mercy and faithfulness brings about the very theme of the prophecy.  Such a prophetic voice strengthens weary limbs and brings fresh vigour to hearts and minds; for it calls us to live valiantly in the expectation of the fulfilment of God’s promises.

As we look forward to Christmas, we need to rediscover the language of hope. This is a language that goes beyond the categories of optimism and pessimism, which are often used in support of short-term thinking.  By contrast, the message at the heart of Christmas is one that shows a way forward through times of danger and suffering, because God has chosen to embrace the world in the coming of Jesus Christ. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks to us of Christ as our pioneer and example, who calls us to follow him ‘outside the camp.’ (Hebrews 13.13) This reminds us that God’s love of the world is transformative, and that we are called to be agents of this transformation. In this vital work we will be sustained by ‘hope which is an anchor to the soul’ and which reaches ‘beyond the veil’ to the life of heaven itself. (Hebrews 6.19)

Hope for the future is greatly needed in Europe at this time, as well as in the holy land.  And the grounds of hope are sadly hard to detect. Unless … unless we live trusting in God’s promises and are prepared to take the risk of believing in a future where good will triumph over evil. Christ has come into our world to inaugurate God’s reign; we are therefore called to live as the visible citizens of an invisible kingdom, and to be willing to pay the price that may be required of us.

I am grateful, as my wife Clare has shared with me her experiences of visiting Albania, that we have been spared the sufferings endured by the martyred church in that land.  And yet she found there not overwhelming sorrow but a firm and triumphant joy among the Christian community.  How that puts us to shame! But also gives us hope.

‘May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfil the vision of your prophet: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war anymore.’ (verses from the Siddur Sim Shalom, prayer book of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, USA)

 

 

Advent III: Rejoice, the Lord is near

The lectionary passages this week are Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18. Canon William Gulliford, who is Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese in Europe, as well as Vicar of St Mark’s, Regent Park, London, offers his reflection.

 

baptism site

The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus. Photograph taken on recent CEMES* study pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Advent has lots on in many ways.

For many Diocese in Europe chaplaincies, ensuring the Christmas bazaar, the Nativity play and carol service are all done before many of the regulars depart, is a priority. Although a vicar in London, as well as DDO for Europe, I have much the same church-diary issues. Only on the second Sunday of Advent this year we had the St Mark’s, Regent’s Park Nativity as the sermon, while we were still singing On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry…. The poor Baptist was rather swamped by angels, tiny sheep, and the Christmas Tree.

Fortunately, the Advent lectionary presents John the Baptist on two Sundays!

The Gospel writers are of one accord that the Baptist’s ministry was a time of preparation for Jesus’ own. St Luke, our Gospel writer for this year, gives us much more detail about his background. If for all the Gospel writers the Baptist represents a tangible connection with the Hebrew Scriptures, this is especially underlined in Luke’s account of John’s infancy. Like many of the ancient prophets, he is of a priestly line, but this is of little significance in terms of what the Baptist will go on to proclaim, which seems to have no direct connection with the Temple, in which his father had served. As Zechariah concludes the Benedictus, Luke says simply “and the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1.80) This statement is heavy with possible meaning, and is picked up when we meet John again in Luke 3.4 (last Sunday’s reading) when Luke quotes Isaiah 40.3-5 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord.”

As the CEMES* interns experienced on their journey to the Holy Land this November, the Judaean wilderness is a remarkable place. It is not some distant terrain, out of reach, for only the intrepid to explore.  Immediately to the East of the Mount of Olives, the wilderness tumbles into the rift valley, towards the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Rain hardly falls there, and oases are miles apart. Only the Jordan, sustained by water from the North, and springs in the valley and its basin interrupts this hostile landscape.

A radical community sought to live in this barren wilderness at a place known today as Qumran. We are learning more about them as the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are published and studied. The overlap between the condemnation by the Qumran community of the Temple hierarchy, and what John says is striking.

qumran cave 4

A cave at Qumran where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

In this Sunday’s reading, John responds to the tax collectors and soldiers that make their way to him. The chastisement they receive is implicitly less severe than that offered to the Jerusalem authorities, at whose root an axe is laid. It could be that the directness of the Qumran rule, which calls it members to kindness, humility and self-control (1 QS 2:24) is being extolled by John, outside the walls of an otherwise tight and secret enclosure.

One key connection between John and Qumran appears to be a ritual washing.  The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of the Essenes practising such a thing, “but one to hallow the body, not to forgive sins”.

Certainly, the Qumran texts are insistent on monogamy for the married and strict chastity for the monastic. John the Baptist’s imprisonment comes about because of his furious criticism of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas’ second marriage to Herodias. This will lead to his death.

There is a lot going on in today’s readings.

John was a historical figure, as borne out by many sources. He is also an intriguing one – until very recently there was a tiny community called ‘the Mandaeans’ in southern Iraq who revere John and not Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians he is known as the Forerunner. He prepares the way, in preaching and as he challenges the strong.

We are called to rejoice as well! This seems a tall order with so much to ponder and the threat of violence in the air. Advent III is Gaudete Sunday, a moment of refreshment and rejoicing. Zephaniah explains that our rejoicing, even in the midst of foreboding, is possible. The eve of battle might be a moment of fear, or, we may rejoice if God is rejoicing (Zephaniah 3.17); and we must hold on to the truth that he will bring us home (3.20).

St Paul repeats this call to rejoice, for the simple reason that the Lord is near. This joy will be seen and known as gentleness. Joy and gentleness are not to be hidden virtues, limited to the initiated, but are characteristics of the faithful, which effervesce well beyond the Church – expressions of God’s peace which “surpass all understanding which will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Where the Baptist calls in the wilderness, our Lord is near at hand and we will rejoice.

*CEMES = Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme: a church-wide scheme to give young people thinking about possible vocation to ministry a year of opportunity for practical ministerial experience and time for theological and personal reflection. Under William’s guidance the Diocese in Europe has participated in the scheme for several years.

If you would be interested in contributing to this blog, please contact Clare Amos at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

Advent II: The Message and the Messenger

The lectionary passages this week are Malachi 3.1-4, Philippians 1.3-11 and Luke 3.1-6. I am grateful to Ben O’Neill, currently working in Vienna, for sharing his reflections.

One of my tasks here at Christ Church is to manage the Church’s Twitter page, @CCVienna. The concept of Twitter is to keep people up-to-date but with a character limit. We’ve all encountered the hypothetical lift situation in which you are asked to summarise the Christian faith before you reach the third floor. The need to condense our message into one short, snappy statement, can be difficult. So, who are you? What is your message?

It seems to me that most answers to these questions today would include at least one word that ends with -ism. Even within the Church, many of us are keen to divide ourselves into camps. We find all sorts of labels to try and define our identity. This Sunday, we consider John the Baptist. S Luke’s portrayal of John reminds us that our identity is not found in any of the -isms that we create, or the labels we use, but in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

ben pic

Ben and other CEMES interns visiting the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem during the recent CEMES study pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ben is  in the front row standing approximately 4 to the left of the Patriarch, wearing a suit and tie.

Although John the Baptist comes chronologically before Jesus, Luke’s account demonstrates what it means to follow Jesus – namely a recognition that John’s identity is not based on whether he is a Pharisee or an Essene or a Sadducee: Luke doesn’t use his character limit to say on which side of the fence John sits regarding being a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee. There are no words ending in -ism in sight, but he is grounded in a promise-keeping God.

Luke exhorts us not to focus on John, the messenger, but the person about whom the message is sent. John hears a message from God and he is unafraid to share it, exactly as he hears it, unadorned and unmanipulated.

So, what is that message? It is one of repentance. In the Malachi reading, we see the description of the Messiah’s coming as like a ‘refiner’s fire.’ This image reminds us that following, turning our backs on material possessions and the allures of worldly passions, can be painful. But the role of a refiner is not to destroy, but rather to make the metal more precious, valuable and usable than when it is found in its raw state, as an ore, in a river or stream: there is a positive end that emerges from the difficulties and divine admonishments we face.

The word ‘repent’ means to turn back, to align our wills more closely with the will of the Creator God for us; just as the refining process removes impure molecules, repentance is about actualising the state of glory, realising what it means to be made in the Image of God, the Imago Dei. Repentance is about turning away from sin to follow Christ, and part of that process is being reminded that we need to view these other labels and frameworks, which we construct, in the context of God’s sovereignty.

We, in the Church, can be just as guilty of this. In the divided Church, with its many denominations and even inter-denominational divides, it is easy to focus on the –isms that divide us, rather than what unites us. Gerard Hughes in God of Surprises, defines sin as ‘not letting God be God.’ We all have egos, and personalities, but when we read the Bible or approach Christ in these Holy Mysteries at the Eucharist, we need to empty ourselves of all our social constructs in order to allow God to be God and to allow ourselves to be changed and shaped, becoming humble and obedient like Christ.[1] As Fr James Schall puts it, ‘At Mass we are full of the Lord, not full of ourselves.’[2]
And so, for what are we here? What is our message? What is our purpose? Given 5 minutes to summarise our lives what would we talk about? Would we, as John the Baptist does so clearly, talk about God – or would we use it to glorify ourselves or start narrating all the different -isms with which we identify? In Advent, I am reminded of the Magnificat, ‘My soul doth magnify the LORD.’ Immediately before this, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth has just been praising Mary. This opening line puts things into perspective, recognising that it is God who is worthy of the praise and attention, to divert attention away from herself. John the Baptist’s denial of himself, to point solely to Christ, does the same thing. Saying don’t focus on me, the humble messenger, but focus on God who sent me and who is about to be born into the world, to suffer temptation and death for our sake and to rise again to defeat death and sin, winning the keys of death and hell. Focus on Jesus Christ in whom alone our Salvation and glory is to be found.

Benjamin O’Neill is serving as Intern of Christ Church, Vienna, as part of the wider Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme, a role he combines with being an Erasmus student in the German Department of the University of Vienna. Originally from Durham in the UK, he is currently discerning his vocation to ordained ministry with that diocese.

[1] See Philippians 2:7
[2] https://adoremus.org/2009/06/15/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-quotin-persona-christiquot/