We hear the story of Jesus overturning trading stalls and tables, berating and ejecting tradesmen from the Jerusalem Temple, supposedly the holiest of places, but clearly also for some a place of business and profit. But the story has greater relevance than just an occasion where Jesus railed against particular people at a particular time. It also causes us to question the extent to which we as Christians should support or be wary of the profit motive, and whether the economic systems we have devised for ourselves are really just and equitable, and what role they might play in advancing or hindering the Kingdom.
Jesus’s determination to stay true to the road that lay before him, true to his Father’s will, was to lead him to the Way of the Cross. On that journey he calls upon us to bear our own cross, for such is the way of Christian discipleship. But the truth is that we don’t like anything that looks like a cross, problems, troubles, sickness; we spend our entire lives trying to avoid them. In that, we are very much like Peter.
One of the problems in church life is that we do eventually take on new ideas, but we somehow cannot let go of the old.
Particularly at Lent there is the tendency of church teaching, especially in the liturgy and in hymns to concentrate on human sin and error from only one perspective – the tendency of the season to view the complexity and vulnerability of the human condition through just one simplistic and erroneous lens. For far too long, the western church has tended to see human failings in terms of crime and punishment.
We like to form a pattern of the world, a mental map of how things work, why they happen, an explanation of the way the world works, and why. We tend to seek explanations for new things according to the old ways, we like to fit things into an existing pattern. Generally it can serve us well. But sometimes it can serve us ill. As Jesus says earlier in Mark’s Gospel: “no one puts new wine into old wineskins”. Today, some elements of church life and teaching are now holding us back, limiting our ability to learn and progress. We can, of course, be tempted to hold onto it all; it’s familiar and comfortable, but like the old wine skin it cannot contain, it cannot hold the new, lest it burst apart.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke start with the genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors and his claim to a worldly royal heritage, or the story of his birth and his family – but for John this is already too late in the sequence of events. For whilst at the start of the Gospel of John we encounter Jesus already as a young man, commencing his ministry with a ritual baptism by John the Baptist; first John is at pains to set Jesus in his cosmic context. Not just as a person born into time, but as a reality which existed before all time.
In the temple an old man waits. Tired, near the end of his days, prepared for his dying, but waiting nevertheless. Utterly convinced that his eyes will not close for the last time, before he sees the promised Messiah, the saviour of his and all people. Outside a family prepares to enter. They are humble and poor, the sacrifice they are about to make is an allowance for those of few means, otherwise they would be expected to bring a lamb and turtledoves. But like the old man, they too are devout. All the rituals have been observed, their poverty does not prevent them from observing the pious demands of their faith. And so an ending and a beginning, as so often in life.
Jesus approaches some young men, in the middle of their work, at a critical point in their work and calls them to drop what they are doing, straight way, and to follow him to an uncertain and precarious future. Forget everything else, drop everything now, don’t look back, don’t prevaricate, don’t set pre-conditions, but follow me now. One might well ask is that the message of today’s gospel, is this really what I am being asked to do? To forget job, home, family, commitments, all other duties for my faith?
In the gospel reading we have this rather odd encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. As miracles go it doesn’t seem a big one. But the words cannot truly capture what is really going on – the personal encounter – the fact that in the moment Nathaniel meets Jesus, he feels something that he has never felt before, but had yearned for. Something that we all, in our own way, long for.
Luke tells a good and powerful story. If he were alive today he would be a movie-maker, telling his story in the modern way. And like a cinema film, Luke is telling several stories at once. Not necessarily all drawn from the same actual event, but from many events that happened over a longer period of time. But he combines them with consummate skill into one narrative, one dramatic happening in order that we might learn and understand – he is less concerned with exact factual accuracy that he is with us taking Jesus’s example and seeking to follow it in our own lives and communities. Whatever the future of Christianity holds, and there will be great surprises along the way, it will have to teach people how to believe and live and not dwell simply on what to believe.
The story about the three Wise Men, sometimes known as Kings, sometimes called the Magi, is contained only in the Gospel of Matthew. Whether it really happened in the way that Matthew describes is not the point. The ancient people were quite relaxed about real events being mixed up with ancient legends – not to obscure the truth, but to bring it out, to make it real. The Three Kings, and the Shepherds, serve as symbols that all of us, great and small, the rich and powerful, poor and vulnerable, young and old, east, west, north and south are called to hold in our hearts another king, but a king of humility, of compassion, of justice, of mercy and of self-giving love.
In his gospel, Luke (and similarly Matthew) is saying that God, that the divine, that transcending and healing love is to be found in us – for Luke, true dignity, true holiness, is to be found in the simplest of things, the least exalted of things. That God, that the divine, that transcending love is to be found in all of us – not in the trappings of social status or worldly power, or those who wield it merely because they desire power over others.
The challenge of Christmas, the challenge of the Christ-child lying in a roughly hewn animal feeding trough, is to re-discover the joy and wonder of life. To explore its simple beauties, its transcendent joys, its moments of sheer poetry and surprise, sometimes fleeting, sometimes in the smallest of things.
Christmas Miscellany is a collection of carols, prayers, reflections and music gathered from the churches of the Catholic Diocese of Killaloe and the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe, and hosted and edited at St Columba’s Church, Ennis. It is particularly heartwarming to reflect that, at this time of Covid, the reaction of churches has been to collaborate and unite in a shared programme of celebration and thanksgiving. In time we will find that Covid 19, much as we deplore it, has taught us many things. Not least among those lessons will be the knowledge that what unites us, what brings us together, what we share, what we love, what holds us together, is so much more than what divides us.
Our world would listen to a church that with humility but also with resolve and with wisdom, pointed us to a way of living, a way of loving, a way of being fully alive, fully human, fully at one with the God who made us and who speaks daily into the wilderness of our own hearts, if we would but listen. We are not that church. We are not that people. Yet. But we could be.
Jesus instead wants us to be whole rather than religious, he calls upon us to be loving rather than moralistic and self-righteous, to be inclusive rather than exclusive and divisive, to live life abundantly rather than be constrained and withered by guilt and shame and failure to follow impossible rules. It was this freedom, this emancipation that caused people to seek out the baptism of John, and it was this experience of limitless and indiscriminate love that compelled the multitudes to Jesus’ side and made them hang upon his words. This must be the task of the church of the future. To preach the gospel that promises us our release from captivity, from the chains that bind us and to discover the liberty, at last, to realize our full potential, our full dignity, our fullest and truest humanity.
We commence our journey through these days of Advent, leading to a destination that is not so much a finish line as it is a starting point, not so much a goal, as a waypoint on our Christian journey. A new beginning, but also a continuation. But do we need to continue the reactions and fears of the past in our own spiritual lives and our own reading of scripture? Perhaps we might understand the words of Jesus in a less literal but also more ‘revealing’ way. Advent is a good time to ask those questions…. our entire life long is the time to answer them.