Sunday, Advent, Week Three

Zephaniah 3:14-18

Luke 3:10-18

As the weeks of Advent progress we are invited deeper and deeper into the mystery of our redemption. The Third Sunday of Advent sounds a note of JOY that is impossible to ignore. The first reading from the prophet Zephaniah is remarkable in its joy and image of God;

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exalt with joy over you,
he will renew you by his love;
he will dance with shouts of joy for you
as on a day of festival.

This is one of my favourite quotations from the Advent liturgy. It’s worth taking a moment today to picture this scene in your mind. Notice the thoughts and feelings that arise for you.

Zephaniah paints a scene of great rejoicing when the ruined city of Jerusalem will be restored. It’s so easy to picture the joy and exuberance. I have a sense that dance speaks to our very heart. It says something about what it means to be fully alive. The popularity of Strictly Come Dancing says something too about our shared joy as a nation and the power of dance.

We need to hold onto this joy as we read the somber tones of the Gospel. John the Baptist comes with an uncompromising message of the demands of the kingdom of God.

To be in right relationship with God is to be aware of the demands of justice. For John, God’s kingdom breaks through when every choice and every action mirrors the justice of God. When everything is in right relationship, this is where true joy is found.

The pandemic has certainly highlighted the myriad of ways in which we fall short of God’s vision of justice for our world. This Advent is perhaps a good time to reset our own values and to try to be sign of God’s kingdom to those around us.

Spend some time to day imagining God dancing with shouts of joy for you. And perhaps watch your favourite clip from Strictly and celebrate the talent that you see.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Saturday, Advent, Week Two

Ecclesiasticus 48:1-4, 9-12

Today there is a gear shift in the weekday Liturgy of the Word as we move from Isaiah’s prophecies to a selection of texts from a range of Old Testament books. The focus of the during Second Week of Advent has been preparing the way of the Lord. We look back to the Old Testament promise that Elijah would come at the end of time. Elijah would come and unify the people: ‘turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.’

Our Gospel text from Matthew picks up the theme of Elijah’s coming. The disciples ask if Elijah has come already. Jesus tells them that Elijah came in the form of John the Baptist. People didn’t recognise him.Throughout the Scriptures we read the stories of those who failed to recognise God’s signs. If we imagine ourselves living in Biblical times, could we be sure that out hearts would have been attuned to God’s revelation?

The readings of this past week speak of God’s closeness. Our God has a plan beyond our imaginings. Each day we are invited to trust in his promise and to live lives that reflect this hope. We can help each other to stop and be attentive. We can help each other to hear the prophetic voices and to nurture the seeds of God’s kingdom.

How can you be open to the signs of God’s kingdom today?

Friday, Advent, Week Two

Isaiah 48:17-19

Our reading from Isaiah is short today. It’s just three verses. But those contain so much. Here God speaks with a tone that is tender and deliberate:

‘This says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you.
I lead you in the way you must go.’

There are resonances of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. In those wilderness years the Israelites needed to rely wholeheartedly on being led by God. Every step they took was a step towards freedom.  In the next few lines God’s tone becomes wistful:

‘If only you had been alert to my commandments, your happiness would have been like a river, your integrity like the waves of the sea.’

Israel now lives in exile in Babylon and can’t avoid looking back and taking stock of the missed opportunities and times when they fell short of the demands of the covenant. But help is at hand because God has promised to redeem them. They’ll leave Babylon with the promise of restoration and new life.

Regret at how things may have turned out in our lives is a real burden of our human condition. There’s a kind of dull ache when you realise that you missed an opportunity to be your best self.

In the Rule of St Benedict there is a chapter entitled The Tools of Good Works. It’s a list of seventy four things that you can do to keep yourself on the right track. It’s quite an overwhelming list. But I always take heart that the tools begin with love and end with the mercy of God. If we can keep love and mercy before our eyes for ourselves and others, God will do the rest.

Can you offer your regrets to God today?

Thursday, Advent, Week Two

These words struck me this morning at Office of Readings*:

‘When God saw the world falling away from himself through fear, he acted at once to draw it back by love, invite it by grace, preserve it by affection, and hold it together by compassion.’ ( St Peter Chrysologus)

From the very beginning of the history of salvation we see the part that fear can play in how we relate to God and each other. The primitive ‘fight or flight’ response is hard-wired in our nervous system. Fear is natural and our ability to overcome it will vary according to many more factors than we realise.

In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear God telling Israel not to be afraid:

‘For I the Lord, your God,
am holding you by the right hand;
I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid,
I will help you.’

Israel’s experience of exile meant that they lived with a heightened sense of alert. If you have witnessed the devastation of your homeland and the destruction of the one building that guaranteed God’s presence, the Temple, then fear is the natural response to anything that might threaten your fragile sense of self and community. This fragile sense of self is voiced by Isaiah as he refers to Jacob as ‘poor worm’ and Israel as ‘puny mite’. Isaiah uses more reversal imagery to assure the people that God can take their weakness and make them strong:

See, I turn you into a threshing sled,
new, with doubled teeth;
you shall thresh and crush the mountains,
and turn the hills to chaff.’

The newly empowered Israel will be able to make her way to freedom. And water, the thing that is most essential in the desert, will be provided in abundance. Not only that, but terrain that once yielded nothing will be planted with cedar, acacias, myrtle, olives, juniper, plane and cypress.

In a world that prioritises strength and makes fun of weakness it’s not always easy to acknowledge our weaknesses, let alone see how God could use them. When a situation seems hopeless it can be impossible to see how new life might come.   

Are there situations in your own life where God is inviting to be afraid? When God tells you that he will hold you by your right hand, what is your response?

* This reading is from Stanbrook Abbey’s ‘A Word in Season’ (Advent, Christmastide)

Wednesday, Advent, Week Two

The Immaculate Conception

Gen 3:9-15, 20
Luke 1:26-38

In her book ‘Born Contemplative’, Madeleine Simon writes about the spiritual development of young children and explores her thesis that we are all born with an innate capacity for God. She says that a child’s faith journey begins the moment the mother knows that she is pregnant. As we celebrate today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception the church invites us to stand back and to imagine that moment when Mary was conceived, the beginning of her faith journey. All that we know of her parents comes from pious legend and so we are left to imagine the upright, God-fearing couple, Joachim and Anne, who have followed the path of Torah all their lives.

In our liturgy today we are engaged in a collective looking back over the story of our salvation. The story of the Fall in Genesis Ch 3 looms large and lays before us the human dynamic of sin and shame. It’s always important to hold Genesis Ch 1 alongside Ch 2 and Ch 3 as here we find a theology of blessing: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ Humanity’s relationship with God is ruptured, but it is not beyond repair. God never loses sight of humanity’s innate capacity to live with Him in love.

The whole of Biblical revelation charts the path of God’s relationship with his people. We see in each page God’s desire to restore harmony. God will use the lowly and the weak to fulfill his plan. Mary enters the story of our salvation as one who is poor and lowly. She has been nurtured in a tradition of God’s Word (Torah), God’s Service (Prayer) and God’s Work (Kindness). She had learnt the ways of faithfulness and love. In today’s Gospel story of the Annunciation we see the flowering of God’s plan as Mary is told that she has ‘won God’s favour’. Every small choice from the very moment of her conception has led to this day.

It’s easy to feel inadequate when Mary is held up as ‘the one without sin’. But perhaps we could see today’s feast as an invitation to make each small choice count? Perhaps today we could celebrate our personal part in God’s plan?

Tuesday, Advent, Week Two

Isaiah 40:1-11

‘Console my people, console them.’

Today’s text from Isaiah is perhaps one of the most familiar of the all texts used during Advent. Handel’s Messiah has surely played a part in making this part of our collective scriptural psyche. The words of comfort come from the beginning of the Second Book of Isaiah. This is a different thought world to the First Book of Isaiah and likely is written some 160 years later. By the time of writing and redacting one of the most defining moments in Israel’s history has taken place; Jerusalem and its Temple have been devastated and the people deported to Babylon. Exile in Babylon was a time of soul searching for Judah. Stripped of everything that gave them identity as God’s people, they feel abandoned and wonder why God has been so silent. Isaiah’s prophecy breaks this silence and offers some hope.

Isaiah paints the scene of a triumphant homecoming for Judah with their time of exile ended. The now familiar theme of reversal is used and we picture a landscape where valleys, hills, ridges and mountains are transformed. It’s likely that image of ‘a straight highway’ will have reminded the hearers of this prophecy of the triumphal journey of the Israelites through the Red Sea and of the entry into the Promised Land. The language of triumph continues as a messenger shouts the joyful news: Here is your God!

I have heard people talk of their experience of the pandemic as ‘exile’. There are certainly similarities in that people were cut off from so many of the ordinary things that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Many were forced to find new meaning in a daily routine that quickly became monotonous. I have a sense that like the exile for Judah, the pandemic is a defining moment in our history. Perhaps our memories are fading a little now? Perhaps we feel we will always bear the wounds?  Whatever your experience of the pandemic, can you hear Isaiah’s words addressed to you: Here is your God. Can you look back and see where God has led you triumphantly back to your homeland?

Monday, Advent, Week Two

Isaiah 35:1-10

Today Isaiah offers us another poetic vision of all that God promises for the people of Judah: everybody and everything will be restored in a land governed by God. Judah has experienced a period of barrenness and dryness in her relationship with God. All of this God will turn into fertile land where everything can flourish. It is a very exuberant text. The glory of God is seen in a land where everything is restored and blossoms. What was once arid will now become fertile.

It’s getting harder and harder to hold onto a vision proclaimed in these terms. Daily we hear of natural disasters and see the scenes of heart-breaking devastation. By all accounts we’ve been too slow to read the signs and to understand that each individual choice can have a global effect. In a sermon preached here at Turvey, Br John made the point that the forest fires in Greece were the result of a cycle of grasping and only a cycle of giving can put out the fires.

Though Isaiah’s vision paints a picture of paradise, in previous chapters he hasn’t been slow to point out Judah’s serious shortcomings: ‘Wow to those who add house to house and join field to field until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants of the land.’

Isaiah too knew the cycle of grasping. He warns Judah of God’s impending judgement.  The people have a choice; they can acknowledge their failings and seek forgiveness, or ignore them and rep the consequences.

The final stanza of our reading paints a beautiful picture of joy:

‘They will come to Zion shouting for joy,
everlasting joy on their faces:
joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament be ended.’

All of this is possible because God is coming to save his people. God’s promise to come and save is a strong today as it was for Isaiah.

During Advent we can invite God into the most arid places of our lives. In trust and hope we can wait for those places to blossom.

Sunday, Advent 2

Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 3:1-6

I originally started this reflection by focusing on the very familiar Gospel for today of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. As I looked at the readings again the imagery from Baruch in our first reading struck me very forcibly. In powerful poetry Baruch prophesies the glorious reversal of Judah’s fortunes:

“Jerusalem take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty glory of the Lord for ever, wrap the cloak of integrity around you, put the diadem of the glory of the Eternal on your head: since God means to show your splendor to every nation under heaven, since the name God gives you forever will be, ‘Peace through integrity, and honour through devotedness.’ ”

I have always loved dressing up and in my life before the monastery few things could equal the joy of finding the perfect dress, shoes or skirt. What I wore could really transform my mood. I relate very easily to the beautiful imagery of the cloak of integrity and the diadem of glory. It strikes me that these garments can be the outward sign of an inner transformation. God wants Jerusalem to be recognizably different. The exuberant imagery continues as Baruch prophesies Judah’s triumphal return. They left for Exile on foot, but on their return, they will be carried. They will make their way through a landscape that God has transformed.   

Similar themes are found in today’s Gospel. Luke sets the historical scene for his hearers: someone of great significance is about to appear on the world stage. John the Baptist heralds this event and stands in an impressive line of prophets who were so consumed by God’s Word that nothing could keep them from proclaiming it.

The very physical imagery of moving earth and radically altering the landscape of the wilderness can easily lose its impact. In quoting Isaiah Luke will have stirred in his hearers the foundational story of the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Isaiah imagines a new Exodus, a triumphal return from the pain and displacement of Exile to Jerusalem, city of peace and promise.

‘A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.’

John the Baptist calls us today in 2021 to a new Exodus. He calls us to repent and to put our full hope in God’s promises. Every hardness of heart that has weighed us down through the year is now laid bare. We have the chance to begin again and make space for Christ. How we go about this inner landscaping is up to us. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to preparing for Christ. How will you prepare?

Saturday

Advent, Week One

Isaiah 30:19-21.23-26

I’ve often been asked how I knew I wanted to be a nun. I think people know when they ask me that me that I didn’t have a Damascus road experience. I usually answer by talking about my growing conviction that I wanted to follow Christ and put my whole trust in his promises. Their next question is usually, ‘And are you happy?’. This is actually more complicated to answer because the life of faith is a long journey with many twists and turns in the road. I have a sense that I am on the path that God wants me to be on. In this sense I am happy.

Isaiah’s words to the people of Judah are to assure them that they are on the right path. He promises an end to their weeping and God’s attentiveness to their cries: ‘He will be gracious to you when he hears your cry; when he hears he will answer.’ They must put their full trust in God and not be swayed by political alliances with other nations. In fact, they must acknowledge their need for God. The invitation is to walk in God’s ways: “Whether you turn to right or left, your ears will hear these words behind you, ‘This is the way, follow it.’” There is something very re-assuring about these words. Once they are firmly on the path a wonderful vision is promised. There will be an abundance of water, their every need will be provided for and their healing promised.

Look up the passage in Isaiah and notice the poetry of abundance. How do you see this promise in your own life?

Friday

Advent, Week One

Isaiah 29:17-24

In today’s text from Isaiah we have several images of reversal.

‘In a short time, a very short time,
shall not Lebanon become a fertile land
and fertile land turn into a forest?’

A radical new society is promised where creation is transformed and societal structures reformed. Together these reversals will make communal life possible. In common with the other social justice prophets, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah’s message is that faith in God shows itself in right relationship with everyone and everything around you. It’s the poor and the lowly who stand to gain in Isaiah’s vision. Judah is promised a new start.

‘But the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel…’

We could see Isaiah’s vision as one of ‘levelling up’, although this might have a rather hollow ring in our culture today. In Isaiah’s theology it is an essential part of God’s vision for the world. This vision is echoed in today’s Gospel reading where Jesus restores the sight of two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31). Matthew is showing us that where the kingdom of God breaks through, those who are marginalized are given priority.

We are all co-workers in his vision of the kingdom. It comes to us in small ways, when our path is made smoother by the unexpected kindnesses of others. We carry the life of the kingdom within us. Each day the choice is ours as to whether we take the opportunities to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’.

Can you be open to the Kingdom today?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash