There is an adage that says, “There are no atheists in the trenches.” This phrase appeared during World War I, and came to represent the idea that the unbelieving heart comes to pray when it is in peril. That the resistant mind which asserts that the divine is impossible can allow for the divine to become possible when danger is near, or when death is at one’s heels.
We do not necessarily need a battlefield to bring the unbelieving heart into acknowledging the always persisting hand of God at work in the world. It can be through any jolt which this life affords us, any jolt which brings the unbelieving heart out of its own way and into the way of the Lord. Choosing to come to the Lord for the resistant heart happens through a sort of emptiness.
It happens through a deep acknowledgment within one’s striving heart to reach up to the heavens and say, I need you God. To reach up to the heavens and say I need not the things of this world. I need not the fullness this world can give me for it has been shallow, and it has been false. The only portion I need Lord is from you. It is through this sort of emptiness that the empty is filled, and the empty is made blessed. It is through our own poverty of spirit that we come into the realm of the almighty more clearly. We are able to find blessedness through our emptiness. Whether this emptiness has always been a part of us, or is foisted upon us due to circumstances which collide with us, in the trenches or otherwise.
Jesus speaks of this emptiness, this emptying of self, often in the Gospels. In many ways it is a persistent companion, this notion of the need to be empty in order to be filled by the Divine.
A scene opens to us in Luke in which a teacher is amidst his students, his hearers. Jesus is depicted here as teacher, as a teacher who out of the abundance of his heart sets about proclaiming truth to those who come to hear him, and to be healed by him.
On a level plain he spoke to them, maybe even seated among them. He taught of the “great reversal” the seemingly impossible truth that through emptiness, through the profundity of one’s lacking one can be able to know what real fullness is. Through one’s poverty, through our supposed worldly insufficiencies we are made sufficient by God.
In that level place on that day when the Teacher taught he spoke of this— He spoke about the irony of emptiness. How through it we are made satisfied. That in spite of our lacking we are blessed.
Here before us in this text is a clearly drawn line which Luke sets up for his hearers.
On one side are blessings, on the other side are the curses. Blessings and curses. Beatitudes and woes. Luke sees fit to emphasize here in his sixth chapter the fullness which can only come from emptiness, or perhaps, from out of the depths of our willingness to be vulnerable for God. To be vulnerable to the blessings God bestows upon humankind when they are willing to be empty of self, I mean to truly be empty.
Emptiness takes many forms.
The poor… hungry…weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, spurned for loving God.
Fullness takes many forms.
The rich. The physically full. The laughing. The false prophets.
And what of the rich? Jesus says that the rich have received their consolation. He warms his hearers to not be consoled by the world or by one’s wealth. Jesus is warning us to not allow for worldly riches fill us, to stay away from trusting in the riches we store up. For when we allow our wealth, our worldly fullness to dictate our happiness, or our contentedness, we can be lost in our own false truth, a truth which leads only to a shallow place, and not the wide expansive place where God lay.
How can the inconsolable, those who think they have everything, be consoled by God? How can a full vessel be filled? It cannot.
Yes, God’s love can be imparted to all who wish to come to Him, but it is in that very act of wanting to come to the Lord, through that posture which acknowledges the vastness of God, and the finiteness of ourselves, in which an emptying occurs. Whether one discerns it or not it is an emptying of self. An emptying of a love of riches, and of feeling full by the world. It is a turning from the shallows to the wide expansive place of God.
Luke is also showcasing the idea that God has a special love for the outcast and for the last in this world. Does God indeed have a special love, or show preferential love for the poor? I ask this question knowing that it is an unanswerable question, and yet I ask it knowing full well that within us, I think we know the answer.
So, who are the empty? To be empty is often to be vulnerable, to be exposed, to maybe be on the periphery.
To be empty for some may mean needing special attention, or care, or assistance in this life. Being empty may mean always falling short. Being empty may mean always feeling as if you can never get a break in this life. Being empty may mean feeling that hopes are dashed.
When we are empty though we are blessed. That is where the irony lay. When by our own freewill even we choose to be empty, to throw off the things of this world which construct false and shallow truths around us God is pleased.
Jesus tells us that it is the poor who will inherit. That it is the poor, the empty, the marginalized, the sinners, those on the periphery who will inherit the Kingdom of God! This troubles me, as I am a person who is comfortable, a person who has things, stuff, and a person who has never gone hungry or been particularly marginalized. Yet, I still see this text as one which inspires a great hope. It reminds me that the first shall be last, that the first will not be forgotten necessarily, but that they, in the workings of God’s mind miss the mark just a bit more than the poor do. It reminds me that the poor know just a bit more about God.
And so, who are they who walk this earth who know God? Who are the ones who walk this earth full of the love of God? Who are the ones who know what the kingdom is? Who are the ones who know what true rejoicing means? Or what true reward means?
It is them that dwell in the trenches. They who are emptied of the distracting cares of this world, and are setting their eyes on the heavenly things. They who strive not for ambition but for satisfaction. It is them who while all seems to be amiss they are able to lift up their eyes and cry Holy, Holy, Holy.
Our Gospel reading today is Luke’s version of how Jesus called his first disciples, chief among them Simon Peter. This is more than a matter of historical interest, because we too call ourselves disciples of Christ, and so much of what is true of Jesus’s first interaction with those who followed him then is also true for those of us who attempt to follow him now and will be true of his followers in the future.
There are in fact three truths about Christ’s call upon our lives that I want to point out today. First, when Jesus calls someone, there is a moment of self-recognition in that calling. Peter discovers something about himself in this moment. Second, when Jesus calls someone, he calls them to a new kind of work and life. Peter is given a new job to do when he chooses to follow Jesus. And third, when Jesus calls someone, he calls them to leave their old life behind.
So let’s consider the circumstances of Christ’s call on Peter. Interestingly enough, according to Luke Jesus calls his first disciples at something of a low point in their lives.
Simon Peter with James and John, his business partners in their little fishing consortium,have been out all night and taken nothing, and now they are cleaning up their nets after a difficult and fruitless effort. It’s been a frustrating time, with lots of work and nothing to show for it.
Fishing from boats would have taken place overnight, so it’s probably daybreak now, but despite the early hour, masses of people are already pressing in to hear the word of God that Jesus uniquely speaks, and so he gets into Peter’s boat to continue his teaching. And when he is done, he has a last word for Peter directly: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
You will notice that Jesus does not say, “let down your nets and maybe you’ll get a catch.”
He says, “Do as I say and you will get a catch.”
And yet there seems to be no particular reason to believe this. Peter is an experienced fisherman who has been working all night; if there areas fish to be taken he would have taken them, but he trusts the word of Christ and does as he is bid.
Jesus promises Peter a catch, and a catch he gets. All night long there were no fish, and now there are more than they can all handle.
So here is the first point. Self-recognition. Peter knows he is seeing a miracle. Nothing can explain this except the power that is wrought by the word of God, which has just been spoken in his hearing.
And because he is in the presence of the divine Peter does what people in the Bible always do when they realize they are in the presence of the divine. Gideon in today’s reading from Judges does this, and now Peter does it too. He says, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
The presence of the holy convicts us of our own sin. Knowing we are sinful means we cannot remain safely in the presence of God. We, like Peter, know that our sins make us unworthy to be in God’s presence.
But Jesus does not depart. Jesus does not depart from sinners, because as he says in this very same chapter he came not to call the righteous but to call sinners to repentance.
That is why he is here. Jesus did not come to recruit the morally perfect. He is here to call sinners to repentance, and that is good news for a sinner like me and good news I trust for you too.
Second point: Jesus calls us to a new life. The fishing metaphor is a memorable one, and Luke skillfully develops it, but there are depths here that we may miss.
Peter is a fisherman, and he has as he put it in verse 5 “taken” nothing despite a night’s effort. When Jesus miraculously provides a great catch we know he is intent on staying with us despite our sin and calling us to something new. And so he tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”
The most obvious way this is new is that Peter Jesus says will now be fishing for something different; instead of fishing for fish, he will fish for people.
But with these words, I want to argue that Jesus changes the meaning of what Peter does. He doesn’t just change what Peter fishes for; he changes what it means to fish.
It is good that our translation uses different words for what Peter describes as his own activity:—“we took nothing”—and the words that Jesus uses to describe what Peter is going to do in the future:—“you will be catching.”
Because “took” and “catching” are definitely different in the Greek.
To “take” fish in the Greek implies to catch in the sense of trap or take prisoner. The fisher of fish is someone who catches fish to trap and ultimately to kill them.
But when Jesus says you will be “catching” people the word he uses there means literally to “catch alive.” The fisher of persons is someone who catches those persons to keep them alive.
The fisher of fish is a trapper; the fisher of people is a rescuer.
So despite a surface continuity here between fishing for fish and fishing for people Peter has in fact been given by Jesus a radically new job and a radically new life. From here on out the work he does is work for Christ, to bring others into the same relationship of discipleship with Jesus that Peter himself now begins.
Which brings me to my third point: When Jesus calls us he calls us to leave our old life behind.
What’s the last thing Peter and James and John do in this passage according to Luke? “When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Think about what that means in view of what has just happened. Peter and James and John, longtime partners in the fishing business, leave their boats and everything in them at the greatest moment of their careers. They are fishermen, and their boats are packed full of fish. This is what they work for, and they have just pulled in the haul of a lifetime. This is like earning your fattest payday ever but refusing to cash the check. And then quitting your job. Just walking away.
So what about those of us who would be disciples of Christ today?
Does Jesus find you this morning at a low point in your life? Do you feel some frustration and annoyance with what you are doing, like you are getting nowhere?
Our own work is often this way. Like Peter, we toil and take nothing.
But if we are disciples of Christ we are not meant to be in the taking business anymore. If we are following Christ, then we are in the business of catching alive. To be like Peter a fisher of persons is to acknowledge our failings, to leave that old life behind, and to follow Jesus wherever he may lead. To fish for people is to draw others as if in a net into following Christ as we have been inspired follow him. And that is a job we can and will be empowered by Christ to do in his service. Just as surely as our Lord promised Peter “you will get a catch” so too does he promise “you will be catching men.” The promise of Christ to us when he calls us is that we are now no longer the frustrated, unfulfilled, and sinful people he called but the who we are becoming as a result of faithfully following our Savior.
But to follow him into that new life it’s possible that today he is asking us to leave something of our old life behind. Maybe even at the height of what looks like success in the eyes of the world. Is our Savior asking you to forsake some comfort or convenience or even walk away from a big payday?
If he is, then know this. It is a new life to which you are called. Whatever our ordinary work might be our task of discipleship is a new job that we are meant to be working alongside and within whatever else we toil at.
Our real job is to help our master Christ call others as we have been called, to rescue them into the life that only he can provide. If we will do this, we can have confidence that where Peter led the way we too will follow and by following we will help rescue others into that same new life that we—with all the saints—enjoy in Christ Jesus. Amen.
In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
I can but be mindful today that we are in this Mass, on the recovery side so to speak, of the Annual Parish meeting. I am sure it went well and was an occasion of appropriate amity.
It has to be said, however, that the history of church meetings, and indeed formal business, has by no means always been thus, which is to say dealings of sweetness and light.
There are no parallels to be sure, but one thinks of the church furniture being thrown by enraged Presbyterians when Laud attempted to impose the blessing of the use of the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland, as one example of a meeting that did not go well (in the High Kirk in that instance).
Then again, it is cautionary to recall the impact of Pope Stephen VI’s desire to assail the reputation of Formosus, in the 9th century.
Since the latter was dead one might have thought this to be an impediment, but Stephen was not to be so easily deflected and simply gave orders for a trial go ahead with the accused dug up and dressed in the robes of his office and placed in the dock so that the case could proceed.
Needless to say, the judgement went against the accused.
This left the matter of how to effect a punishment. Again, Stephen was equal to the challenge and simply instructed that the remains of Formosus be dragged through the streets before being tossed finally into the Tiber.
Good order in the church also decayed somewhat when Urban VI was elected in 1378, an event which triggered the Great Schism. Noting which cardinals had failed to vote for him he ordered their torture and execution, with his one recorded concern being that the screams of his enemies were not loud enough….
(Then again one has to doubt how he came out of it all in the end when one recalls how and where he was placed by Dante in the Inferno…..)
But we must not get diverted by the cautionary curiosities of Church history and its many episodes of deplorable disorder….
For we come today to one of the shortest but also most sensational sermons ever given, which is that in the Gospel today –which relates it all in a mere seven verses.
But before we do so, I want to notice something more telling than merely the sensational curiosity of those dark episodes of history I have just sketched, for they prompt a question about why we find stories and narrative so engaging – even in the briefest of forms.
I call to mind here Galen Strawson who in a recent book of essays with the engaging title, Things that bother me, includes a biographical chapter. This starts conventionally enough with his school days, after which, in the words of Kieran Setiya his prose:
“ shivers into fragments: taking LSD, travelling from Turkey to Iran, listening to Bob Dylan and to Berg’s Lyric Suite” before in a final scene, “ filling a blue mini (car) with beech leaves”
Of this sequence of scenes, this commentator observes:
“The writing is sparse but eloquent, emotionally honest, bright with sensation.
What do these episodes have to do with one another?
In the midst of beauty, it feels unimportant to ask.”
Does it really? The comment alludes to a notorious thesis maintained by Galen Strawson which holds it to be a “fallacy of our age” that meaningful lives require “narrativity” when, so far as he is concerned, we could live far better instead, and more simply, in a constant present.
This is a very curious idea but I suggest illuminating in its error.
Think for a moment about the pieces of music we are hearing today in the Mass setting (Britten) and motets. It is indeed an interesting question to ask just what it means to speak of the “now” in a work of music. Just what is the present moment in listening to music?
Is it ever really possible to live in an evanescent moment and truly to hear music (even in one’s mind)?
I would venture to say no, and that this tells us, that as incarnate beings it is impossible to hear music without it being sequential and that in hearing it we must hold in tension the immediate present or ‘now’ with what has gone before, in order to hear music as such at all.
Just think of a solo Cello suite and the way in which one seems to hear chords and even more than one melodic line even, in fact they are merely ‘implied through the mind’ as one does not at any one given moment hear such complexities, thus demonstrating that the effect achieved relies upon the interplay of the mind and the memory which is where the music is actually experienced.
But now you may wonder why I touch upon this.
The answer is that not only do we, as humans live our lives sequentially, but we need something parallel to my point about music – namely a narrative within which and through which to order our lives, in fact I suggest we actually need a meta-narrative as well, within which to frame our lives as a whole if they are to have truly deep, which is to say adequate, meaning.
And that takes us back to that Synagogue, all those centuries ago in Nazareth, of which we heard in the Gospel. This was the first Sermon by Jesus Christ himself in the Synagogue of his home village of Nazareth where he had grown up.
It is important to understand the context for we know that before Jesus returned to Nazareth there had already been a quite extensive ministry in Jerusalem where he had
cast the money-changers from the Temple,
performed a number of miracles,
met Nicodemus, and then en route to Galilee
the woman of Samaria at the well.
Reports of all this would have preceded him and would have evoked the curiosity of the Nazarenes’ as everyone gathered in the village synagogue, where he would so often have been seated as a child before.
The service itself would have opened with prayer and psalms and would have featured two readings, one from the Law, one from the Prophets. It would have been at that point that Jesus rose, signifying His intent to be reader of the Prophetic portion in the scroll.
Having read standing, in reverence for the Scripture, Jesus we are told then resumed His seat in the way appropriate to the status of one who is to teach, and one having authority.
At that point, the implicit drama suddenly reaches its peak, as his opening sentence made the sweeping assertion that the great prophetic words which He had been reading had now been fulfilled in him.
In short a world historical moment had arrived for his was a claim of startling audacity : “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was too, we may note, an emphatic and unhesitating assertion of his central claim as to who he was and what he represented.
This was definitely not a situation where people around him came up with ideas by way of response to his enigmatic but profound impact – a point worth keeping clear at a time now, when there are many who want to move the interpretation of Jesus away from what he said about himself to the interpretation made of him by those who came to follow him (which would be inherently more speculative).
This difference has significance that should not be overlooked.
There is a current tendency to move away from the “downward Christology” represented by what Jesus himself asserted to the “upward Christology” of what his hearers came to suppose about him instead. This reflects a wider tendency in our culture to suppose that meaning is ultimately something we each create and in a sense impose upon the world. – much as “Beauty” is sometimes said to lie “in the eye of the beholder”
The universalization of this constructivist idea risks generating reliance on an inadequately examined wider theory, in which the entire world of our experience and meaning is turned into a drama comprised of choice: where reality is a kind of fiction, a world where matters of fact and of things-being-the-case become increasingly hazy and malleable.
On the one hand, this leads to a deep vagueness, and on the other, to a world where claims become ineradicably contestable with seemingly little clarity as to what would, or even could, conclusively settle conflicting claims (for example in the presumptive absence of access to the way things are). Increasing stridency in advancing incommensurable claims is naturally one result, while rising potential for conflict is another.
Though there is however one area where we do not seem ever to imagine that we could behave like this (which is surely significant) and that is in regard to money.
I must not digress, but consider what would happen if I were to go in to my bank and say that as part of my self-understanding, from henceforth in my overdraft account 1 + 1 would equal 0.5 while in my deposit account, 1 + 1 would equal 4, and that accordingly, in order to respect my self-understanding the bank should henceforth recognise a 50% decrease in by indebtedness and a 50 % increase in my overall worth.
I have a suspicion that my presentation would not end well and that a harsh assertion of what would be termed ‘financial realities’ would probably be made, leaving my happy notions of constructivist banking rather battered and bruised!
But returning to Jesus’ sermon we may note that in addition to the bold clarity with which Jesus begins to set out as straight facts who and what he really was, there were also the deep truths presented in what he said regarding us and our destiny aside from the redemption offered in Christ. These frame then, by way of contrast, the radiant hopes he unveils for mankind and the possibilities before us, in him.
Elsewhere, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advances an authoritative proclamation of the laws of the new kingdom that is his, And asserts that these claims supersede the ancient law of Israel, and the covenant made by God with Moses.
His new dispensation presents a foundation, on which whoever builds shall never be put to confusion. For Jesus presents himself as the Son of God whose work is nothing less than the salvation of the world.
All this is made possible by virtue of who he is and the fact that,
‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,’
The revelation he makes of Himself is the Revelation of God,
His death is for the life of the world;
and in worshipping him we worship God;
when we trust in Him we trust in God;
when we obey Him we obey God.
Cumulatively, this asserts that as a matter of fact the nature and perfection of what was made manifest in the flesh, in the person of Christ, was such as could only adequately be captured by accepting the fullness of the claims he himself set out so clearly: and by recognising that he was God in human flesh, which is to say a fully human person who was also divine.
This was indeed a tremendous claim whose weight can be seen in the response (later on in the Gospel) of those who were horrified by it and promptly proclaimed ‘This man blasphemeth’ even while the others understood and confessed ‘Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Consistently here in the Gospel thus, we, just like his original hearers are presented with our Lord’s conception of himself and of his own work.
Jesus, as the Christ, lays claim to the possession of the fullness of the divine Spirit:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.’ And he lays claim to be the Messiah of the Old Covenant, with all the fullness of meaning, and dignity which that entailed. He makes a direct claim to be the fulfilment of all the previous prophetic utterances to Israel.
Thus was presented a revelation and Epiphany in that small synagogue at Nazareth, that was also addressed to the church and the world for all time to come, for Jesus stands as the centre-point and pivot on which the history of the world turns; with all that was before converging in Him, and all that was after flowing from Him.
No wonder then, that of those who understood the Bible states ‘They that went before, and they that followed after, cried, Hosanna! blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord.’
But there is too here, in the message of today’s Gospel, another and contrasting strand which speaks to the sad nature of the unredeemed human condition. It is the depth of the understanding of this that helps us to see what, alone, we would be unable to remedy.
For we are all in various ways suffering the consequences of our fallen –which is to say sinful– human condition –aside that is from God’s mercy.
It is sin that impoverishes, while no one who possesses Him, by love, trust, and conformity of will is truly poor, in the deepest sense for whatever else one has, whatever else one lacks, our true wealth lies in God.
It is sin too that ultimately leaves people captive through our own misguided desires, whereas even when faced with physical constraint we can never ultimately be captive in the spirit under God.
Our passions, our self-will and our habits may enslave us — but God frees us.
Sin imprisons by distracting us from our true treasure or by misleading us into pursuit of a vain substitute when we effectively worship this or that false idol.
Christ comes to us today therefore, just as he did in Nazareth, not only to proclaim, but to bestow, the blessings of which He speaks.
He not only comes to
‘preach good tidings to the poor,’ but also
‘to heal the broken-hearted,’ and
‘to set at liberty all them that are bound.’
He is the good news he proclaims and is thus the Gospel which he utters.
He does not merely proclaim the favour of heaven, but actually brings
‘the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Jesus does not here detail the means by which He is about to bring about the golden year, the year of Jubilee, for ‘that lies in
His death on the Cross for the abolition of sin,
His Resurrection for the abolition of death;
His reign in glory for the bestowal on all sinful and bruised souls
of the Spirit of healing and of righteousness.
It is here that we need to recall that opening point about narrative and the need for a meta-narrative in which to frame the meaning of life itself – and our individual lives– as something inherently narrative in character, such that we would be impoverished to try and live it only in the ‘moment’ of Galen Strawson.
Here we arrive at terrain traversed by Erich Auerbach, in his famous book Mimesis in the domain of aesthetic realism – for, in that work he sets the stage for a powerful argument to the effect that it is through the Christian gospel, in which God incarnates himself (amidst) the humble and destitute, that the affinity between what St Bernard calls ‘sublimitas’ and ‘humilitas’ is established. Thus Christianity, with its reversals of rich and poor, and superficial inversion of the Messianic kingly concept, shatters the classical equipoise between high and low. But it is also deeply realist, for, in its grasp of the quotidian and demotic it gets to the heart of things and anticipates the philosophical perspective in which true knowledge is knowledge of the underlying mechanism of things.
What lies behind realism is thus in a deep way nothing less than Revelation itself.
Auerbach might have quoted Matthew 25 here, which has the Son of Man coming again to judge the living and the dead, and the Gospel of St Luke today, where the cosmic metaphysical grandeur of God incarnate in human form, through his sacrifice making redemption available to all, is not left as some remote and abstract matter. Rather salvation and indeed damnation are integrated into “such embarrassingly quotidian matters” as one offended commentator put it (Eagleton) as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and setting the captive free.
Thus is Salvation, in Christian tradition, an ethical and indeed societal matter and not a merely cultic one for it is framed by the deep understanding of a realist narrative of truth.
How apt in the face of such awe inspiring disclosure as the Christian Epiphany then is the understated response of Christ’s hearers in Nazareth who wondered at the ‘words of grace’ and a narrative wherein
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
 The analytical philosopher and son of P. F. Strawson, the late Waynfleet Professor of Metaphysics.
 “Storied Career Thoughts of a philosopher of narrativity” London Review of Books, 2018.
 Then again, I suppose it is possible that this particular bank manager might have been so blessed as to study a modicum of philosophy and therefore respond with a more creative account of my difficulty, than a crude and harsh assertion that I had parted company with reality or was indeed simply out of my mind. For example he might have been non-realist but coherentist banker.
This sophisticate could then say that he had no wish to make any claims about the nature of reality, be it of the financial or any other kind, but merely to say that I was simply neglecting to play by the rules of the game we had agreed upon when I opened the account.
According to those rules, (entirely regardless of whether or not the many hundreds of pages it took Bertrand Russel to establish in the Principia Mathematica that 1 + 1 = 2 had in fact established an objective reality) I had agreed that for the purpose of my banking game with the bank that this was how things would be for the purposes of my account.
In this way he could shrink from a claim to objectivity or mathematical Platonism, by saying this issue turned merely upon an instance of subjectively agreed coherence but use that intersubjective position to deny claims of mere relativism.
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ And Jesus answered him. ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.’
There are two meanings to confession in the Church and they take different forms. Both forms of confession are evidenced in Peter’s ministry. There are seemingly two different versions of the same man Simon-Peter in the Gospels. We have something to learn about our own faith in Jesus Christ and what He is looking for in us when we discover the two expressions or versions of Peter.
First, confession: When we hear of Christians making their confession in the Church they are usually referring to making a sacramental confession before a priest or a bishop. We have just spent two classes in the middle and high school classes in our church school learning about sacramental confession and how to make a sacramental confession. When anyone “makes a confession” in the Church of this sacramental kind, the penitent is indeed stating out loud in the confessional all the sins committed since the last confession. The sins are outwardly confessed in that the confessor can hear them and the penitent can hear them. They are, in a particular sense, made real and objective. They can be, in a sense, “looked at” because they are confessed.
There is also an aspect of sacramental confession that is like The Confession of Peter from today’s Gospel. When a penitent makes a sacramental confession there is a belief, a trust, a faith that the Church in this world has the Holy Spirit active and alive in the Church’s ministry and can speak for Christ. Christ and the Holy Spirit are one. By making a sacramental confession the faith of the penitent is witnessing that what Christ told Peter after Peter’s confession is the truth. Jesus said, after Peter’s confession, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. The two types of confession come together. Both proclaim that Jesus is the Christ of God and has authority on earth to forgive sins. These are the two meanings of confession.
The two types, or versions, or persons of Simon-Peter are there in the Gospels for us to see, appreciate, and learn something about ourselves in the process. On the one hand the Gospels present us with a Simon-Peter who is intense, sometimes excitable, almost foolish, way too anxious, and even bumbling. Isn’t Peter the one who impetuously jumps out of the boat first when Jesus comes walking on the water? Isn’t Peter the one who is exhausted and exasperated, and even seems irritated with Our Lord when Jesus asked him to push out from the shore and go fishing again, after he had been fishing all night? And we know it’s Peter who after Jesus’ arrest actually denies that he even knows Jesus. Yet it is this same Simon Bar-Jona Jesus comes to call a rock. It is this same Peter who risks his life to build up the Church. It is his excellent gift of humility and integrity that allows him to admit that he was wrong when barring non-Jews from the faith of the Church and he changed his mind. It was he who is the first among the apostles to outwardly and emphatically proclaim Jesus as the Christ of God. We see in the Gospels two sides of this man who Our Lord comes to claim that it is on this rock, Christ, on which He will build His church, and He did.
For us, as followers of Jesus, we have such a thorough and complete example in Saint Peter of how our whole lives can be a confession of Jesus Christ. We bring all aspects of our lives to Jesus when we choose to follow Him. Just like Saint Peter the faith we have in Jesus does not depend on the degree of goodness we have. Saint Peter was not in any way perfect. The faithfulness we have in our commitment to Jesus does matter. We bring all our virtues and our vices with us when we come to Jesus. We bring all our strengthens and our weaknesses, all our gifts and failures. Jesus takes the gifts and uses them so we can grow in our faithfulness and he takes our failures and weaknesses and uses them to reveal what we have to overcome to grow in faithfulness.
In this way, our whole lives, every part of them, are used to have us grow in faithfulness, in love, and in hope of everlasting life. In other words, growing to perfection. We can be faithful not just in spite of our imperfections, but have them be used to bring us to perfection. Just like in the case of Saint Peter. Jesus looks for faithfulness in us, and will use that to bring us to complete goodness and perfection.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
It is striking that the Church calendar, after the great Feast of Christmas, plunges rather rapidly after Low Sunday into two particularly fascinating episodes.
First the story of the Epiphany and secondly the Baptism of Christ.
Both are deeply intriguing as soon as we pause to probe beyond the superficial familiarity that will otherwise beguile us.
Consider the Epiphany, most of us have a charmingly precise idea of what that original episode comprised: namely, three wise men understood to be Kings, who had travelled on camels from somewhere out in the East, seemingly alone yet guided by a star, bringing with them gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
All very picturesque and the subject of any number of familiar paintings that have recently adorned our mantlepieces as Christmas cards.
Let us pass over such niceties as to whether there were in fact only three of them (The Syriac church has always held there were `12) and whether they were really kings (both points upon which the Bible tells us absolutely nothing just as it does of their further history).
But then there is a sentence that we regularly read without any special attention when in fact it is deeply curious, namely: “WhenKingHerodheardthis, hewasfrightened,andallJerusalemwithhim”?
It is actually an interesting puzzle as to WHY both Herod and then “all of Jerusalem with him” were frightened. After all, why would anyone be worried by some eccentric itinerant figures from the East wandering by claiming to be following a star? Do they not sound redolent of the 1960’s and the West Coast where one is given to understand that some people follow the guidance of rocks and crystals quite regularly and so why not stars?
Yet in fact, the answer to the puzzles of the Epiphany lie in just
Who these wise men really were, and
Where they came from
While for us, there is too the most important question of all, namely
why did the Wise Men come?
I would suggest that those mysterious Wise Men came from the area now called Kurdistan, within a wider area then known as Parthia.
Which is to say that they were drawn from a people known from ancient times as the Medes among whom the magi were a seemingly hereditary priesthood viewed as having extraordinary and esoteric religious knowledge and that had most likely strong Sumerian influences. Later it took a more Persian form that relates to the religion we now call Zoroastrianism, which itself evolved from its somewhat dualist beginnings into the monotheistic faith that it is today (also known as Parsi-ism in India
No less a figure than Herodotus (cf. TheHistories I, ci) provides a principle source here and for identifying oneiromancy (not astrology we may note) or the interpretation of dreams as one of their central gifts.
And as for why a few Wise Men from Parthia would frighten Herod and all Jerusalem with him, you have only to recall the recent history of those times to answer this question.
It was not long before the birth of Christ that with Parthian assistance, Jewish sovereignty had been restored, leaving Jerusalem fortified with a Jewish garrison.
It was only after that and after fleeing to Rome, that Herod had obtained from the Emperor Augustus the title “King of the Jews” and – even more important– the resources needed to return. Even then, it was not for three years, and after a five month siege of Jerusalem by Roman troops, that Herod was actually able to occupy his own capital.
Thus, Herod had only just ascended to a precarious throne of a rebellious buffer state which situated between contending empires: Rome on one side and Parthia on the other. So, in that context it was indeed very understandable that Herod feared that his own subjects might conspire to bring the Parthians in again to their aid against him.
And while he feared for his throne, everyone else feared for their safety in the event of another siege.
All this dispels much of the twee cosiness of the picturesque Epiphany, that seems so familiar to us
Nonetheless the key question remains of WHY the wise came – and that was because, where others merely looked, they SAW who the infant Jesus really was – Son of God and redeemer of the world…..
So what then of today’s Gospel?
Well that develops that same last point – in being all about the manifestation and recognition of who Jesus really was – spelled out according to St Luke quite explicitly in propositional form (and via a voice from heaven)
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. ”
But that disclosure comes within a very interesting context – namely the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.
If last week we were still with the infant Jesus – this week we have proceeded with break-neck speed right on to something that happened years later – namely his Baptism
But again, we need go beyond the familiar imagery and all those paintings of this scene that come to our mind
A deceptively simple question is again central
Why did Jesus need to be baptised by John ?
Early followers of Christ evidenced some perplexity about these questions. For one thing, the baptism of Christ by John could be taken to suggest that Jesus was somehow subordinate to John the Baptist.
Then again, if we think of this in the light of the theology of Baptism later developed by the church and thus of baptism as about specific and profound ontological change, as in
imparting the grace of forgiveness of sins, and as
marking our initiation into the Church,
this theology is not applicable either.
— How could this apply to Jesus Christ who never committed any sins and thus needed no forgiveness ? Clearly it could not !
But remember now that Gospel line again: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Here there is a clear echo with the Book of Isaiah, which states: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased” (Isaiah 42:7).
This illustrates what Christians had come to believe, namely, that the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah ultimately refers to Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus who will be thus, the definitive “covenant of the people” and “light for all nations.” Who will “open the eyes of the blind” and “and release the prisoners, and release those who live in darkness.”
Thus the readings today help us to understand something that goes back all the way to the Wise Men and those who followed Christ during his lifetime
Namely the belief in the incarnation – and why it was that Christ came. Since by virtue of being uniquely both fully human and divine, it was he alone who could
— by offering his own life for us— atone for our sins, and make redemption available to all who believe.
But what about John the Baptist specifically in all this?
Here, just as with the Wise Men – the background, or “back story” as they say now, is all important
For Luke – as we see unfolded throughout the Gospel,
John the Baptist is himself a fulfilment of prophecy and his arrival marks a new manifestation of prophecy, an exciting sign of renewed divine activity.
While his birth is significantly less miraculous than the virgin birth ascribed to Jesus, it is nonetheless in line with the birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah. or of Samuel to Hannah.
Thus is it indicated that he is sent by God, to prepare the way for Jesus.
But what is the theological meaning of John’s particular kind of baptism?
Luke follows Mark exactly in stating that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3; cf. Acts 19:4). And here epentance, or transformation in the sense of the word metanoia is meant
changing one’s entire outlook and disposition,
actively turning to God, rejecting evil and
And in the Gospels John’s baptism is thus crucially an act of preparation for the coming of the Lord and for divine judgment.
The Jewish historian Josephus connects this baptism with forgiveness, seeing the action as meet, right and appropriate but not of itself purificatory – rather it expresses appropriately a spiritual reality separately effected.
There is thus nothing here working ex opere operato in the manner of a sacrament
Such inner cleansing, inner conversion of life, would appropriately be followed by ritual cleansing of the body, which no doubt was also felt to seal and symbolize the inner event.
This can be held to cohere with the prophetic tradition that asks for justice and mercy before sacrifice, and with the thinking expressed at Qumran about the relationship between inner commitment and “entering the water” as preparation for the community meals (Manual of Discipline). Josephus—and perhaps indeed John—had had very probably spent some time in his youth with the Essene movement, in the desert at Qumran.
All of this coheres with what is made so very clear in St John’s Gospel, namely that John the Baptist’s commission is that of a witness and a revealer of a greater truth coming from another.
Remember those words from the Prologue (we heard in the Service of Lessons and Carols):
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:6-7)
Or as John the Baptist puts it himself in that Gospel, when facing interrogation by emissaries of the religio-political authorities in Jerusalem:
Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said.
For it is there that you have the challenge for each of us: To recognise fully who Jesus Christ was and is – in the manner of the Wise Men and now to take our commission into this world and strive
To make straight the way of the Lord !AMEN.
 The term deriving from the Greek words όνειρο, dream, and μαντεία manteia, prophecy and covering a form of divination based upon dreams – which in more recent times was revived in modern culture by such figures as Carl Jung.
 Then there are the further factors to keep in mind that by the time of the birth of Christ, Herod may have been close to his final illness. Augustus was also aging, and Rome, since the retirement of Tiberius, was without an experienced military commander. While away to the north Pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolt against Rome (which was to be successfully accomplished within two years.)
 “Indeed, it seemed to John that even this washing would not be acceptable as a pardon for sins, but only as a purification for the body, unless the soul had previously been cleansed through upright conduct.” (Ant 18.5.2, transl. J. Fitzmayer, in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible Commentary Vol. 28: New York 1979, p.451.
 A movement that seems to have started the whole tradition that has come down to Judaism to this day in the guise of the ritual rites of purification associated with the Mikvah.
Today the Christmas season comes to a close. It comes to a close in the feast the Church calls the Epiphany. It may interest you to know that the early church started celebrating Epiphany before initiating a commemoration for Christmas, so important was it in the minds of our forebears in faith.
So why so important? What is an epiphany anyway? In Greek it means simply “a revelation from above.” So what we remember this day is a revelation from God, of God’s own redeeming action in a new and literally world-transformative way. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is just the beginning of the definitive chapter in God’s dealings with humanity, and we only grasp the full implication of that beginning here, when we consider not just the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ but how his birth was received.
That blessed birth was received by what Matthew calls the “great joy” of total strangers to the covenant between God and the people God chose unto himself. These strangers come from a foreign land, and they practice a strange art. They are astrologers, interpreters of celestial signs, which were in the ancient world often reported to attend the birth of great kings.
We suspect they are outsiders because they make an understandable mistake when they head off to Israel from their homeland; rightly believing that the celestial sign is a portent of a royal birth they wrongly look for the child in Jerusalem, the capital city and natural home of the ruling family.
Neither the visiting wise men nor the false and murderous king Herod knows the truth though, a truth that can only be revealed by the Hebrew prophet Micah, whom Matthew freely quotes in the middle of today’s passage. The birth of the real king of the Jews takes place not in Jerusalem but in little Bethlehem.
And this is not the only fulfillment of prophecy in Matthew chapter 2. For the Hebrew Scriptures are littered with the promised expectation that foreign powers will one day come to Israel not to threaten but to honor her.
The most obvious example is from today’s reading in Isaiah 60: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And so it came to pass in Bethlehem, that the infant Christ and his mother Mary received the gifts of the kings of nations and the Lord’s praise was proclaimed by the Gentiles as well.
That Jesus and Mary received the gifts of these Gentile ambassadors I believe was not merely to politely accept a donation but to enact a crucially important religious and political ritual.
What happens in Matthew 2 is that the nations, the Gentiles, powerful representatives of the world outside Israel and the covenant people, come to pay tribute to the Jews and to their newborn king.
And what do I mean by tribute? Tribute in the ancient world was a formal system of not just rendering gifts but rendering honor and recognition. When a king exacted tribute he did so not because he wanted to enrich himself, because to pay tribute is not just to transfer wealth.
To pay tribute is to acknowledge that the one you are paying is your true ruler, the one to whom you owe your allegiance and who in turn pledges you his protection and aid. Genuine tribute is not extortion but the free rendering of service to someone you recognize as worthy of your devotion. This is why Matthew says the wise men told Herod they intended to “worship” the new king and upon finally finding him at the end of their long journey they “fell down and worshipped.”
We talk a lot here at the Advent about worship. We take pride in how we worship here. We claim that worship is important to us. And so it is. But what is it at its most basic level? To worship just is this. It is what the wise men do. To worship is to pay homage, to render tribute, to the one who is worthy of it and to offer the worthy one whatever gift and service you have to bring. For Matthew, the wise men from the East are Christ’s first and perhaps exemplary worshippers.
Matthew describes the worship of the wise men in terms that are simple, direct, and powerful. Grammatically in the Greek there is a strict parallelism between the essential phrases of our Gospel reading’s final verses: “1.) they fell down and worshiped him… 2.) they offered him gifts… 3.) they departed.”
In three potent phrases we get a summary of what it means to worship. To fall down, to offer gifts, and ultimately to depart. These actions of the wise men can be read as the very actions of all formal worship. If we are to worship as they did, then we too must fall down before the one whom we know is our king; we must offer him whatever gift we have; and when our time comes we must depart from our service.
I said a few minutes ago that with Epiphany the Christmas season comes to a close.
Well, another season is coming to a close in the life of this parish. Today is the last day that our beloved rector of many years, Allan Warren, will celebrate the mass for and with us.
And though he is horrified to have a fuss made over him in any way, I cannot let this moment pass by without comment.
I have said that what we learn from the wise men is what it means to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and I want to add to that my conviction that what we in this place have learned from Fr. Warren is above all else nothing other than that very same thing—how rightly to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
Worship has been the beating heart in the life of this parish for as long as he has been our leader and example.
I know because it was at this time of year Roxy and I first set foot in the Advent, January 2006, 13 years ago.
It was blindingly obvious to us from the second we walked through the door that here Jesus Christ was adored and worshipped as Lord, that here in this holy place you could do no other than to fall down before him and to offer him your every gift.
That call to worship was palpable—even irresistible—in no small measure because of the man whose words and deeds, whose powerful Gospel preaching and reverent celebration of the liturgy, issued that call to worship.
Allan Warren has spent his life and worshipping, and leading others in worshipping, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He has offered his king every gift he possesses.
And now it is his time to depart from among us.
And so this is my tribute. I expect it is yours too. It is the highest honor we can pay him.
And yet I know he would be the first to say that neither I nor we owe anything to him because of who he is but that all our tribute—all honor, all praise, all glory, every gift we have to offer—goes to the Lord Jesus Christ who alone is worthy.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
The first time I visited the small city of Bethlehem was more than a decade ago, and it was a very upsetting trip. Upsetting not because of the commercialism of the place which is ever present. Nor was it the somewhat unruly Church of the Nativity, which is ancient, fascinating and very holy in an odd, chaotic, Middle Eastern way. Rather, it was the trip itself: traveling to Bethlehem, getting in and getting out.
The city is only six miles south of Jerusalem, but it takes a long time to get there, and it exists in a very different world. Bethlehem is near the border of the Palestinian territory, which is as poor and hopeless, as Israel is prosperous and secure. To get there one has to change buses – from an Israeli bus to a Palestinian bus – and to get to that second bus one has to go through the wall. The ghastly steel wall which separates the two territories.
No matter what your politics may be, if you go to Bethlehem, you will, I think, find the wall to be horrible beyond imagining. It is a monument to hatred and violence and intransigence on the part of both the people of Israel and the people of Palestine, and it is therefore very tense and scary to go through it to get to that second bus. You can feel the fear, the suspicion and hatred of the Israeli soldiers on the one side. You can feel the fear suspicion, and hatred of the Palestinian forces on the other side. Hatred and fear all around you.
And on my first trip, once in Bethlehem I entered a city which was quite depressed, almost despairing. Because of the disastrous political situation of the years before my visit, most people were afraid to go there, and the tourist trade – which was essential for the economy – had been almost entirely destroyed. Many hotels were shut. Most of the shops which line the street which leads to the Church of the Nativity were closed. The owners of those which remained open were so desperate that they would say or do anything to sell you something. I couldn’t take it and got back on the bus.
* * * * *
Many of you, I am sure, have heard that Bethlehem means “house of bread” in ancient Hebrew. To those of us with a spirituality centered on the Mass, this is both satisfying and thrilling. Bethlehem – the “house of bread.” This church, a “house of bread,” where day by day and week by week Christ comes to us and is born for us, so to speak, in the Mass. It may mean this. We don’t really know. Bethlehem is too ancient a place for us to know for sure what its name really means. Excavations of the city go back as far as 1400 B. C. Hebrew scholars tell us, though, that there is another meaning to the name which is just as likely as “house of bread”, and that is “house of fighting.” We don’t hear that very often, because we don’t want to hear it, do we? It doesn’t sit well with “how still we see thee lie.” And yet the Bethlehem I visited was certainly a “house of fighting,” and it would seem that it was very much the same at the time of Jesus’ birth. Our Lord was born into a time and circumstance of bloody violence and great strife. He was born a member of a people conquered and held down by a brutal empire and corrupt leaders. He was born a member of a people divided into factions which hated one another as much as they hated the Roman oppressor. He was born a member of a people who could be forced to endure a census by the enemy occupation.
A census provokes very odd reactions, as we know from the plans for the next one here in the States. It seems quite an innocent and sensible thing to do, and yet it bothers people. Some people become very suspicious when a census is taken. The first census recorded in the Bible, taken by the Jews themselves just after they were organized into a kingdom, was seen by some to be a revolt against the sovereignty of God and many resisted it. The much later census reported in his Gospel by St Luke was just another assertion of power and control by Rome. Moreover, it involved taxation. Go to Bethlehem. Go wherever it was that you were born. We’ll write your name down, and then we’ll take your money, and we’ll use that money to oppress you. “House of fighting” – not only Bethlehem, but the whole nation was surely a house of fighting. Violence, hatred, suspicion, brute force: it was into this darkness that the light was born. It was because of this darkness that the light was sent, that the light was born into the world.
* * * * *
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Good people, the world into which Jesus, our Lord, was born was not that different from our own world. I don’t think I have to convince you of this. Turn on the radio. Read the newspaper. The weapons and the politics may be different, but the violence and the hatred are still around. Darkness now is much the same as darkness then.
And yet – yet, that blessed word! – and yet, the world is very different, for now a light shines in the darkness, and that light was born in Bethlehem. The darkness has not overcome that light and the darkness will never overcome that light, for he was born to live and to die and, rising out of death, finally to dispel the darkness forever. The darkness of sin and brokenness. The darkness of hatred and enmity. The darkness of evil, the devil, and death.
The light, our dear Lord Jesus, was born in Bethlehem. The light shone through his life. The light shines on in you and me.
He came to teach and we are taught. He came to heal and in him our souls find peace and comfort, even in a troubled, troubling, wounded, wounding world. He came to live and give us life and light. He came to die and, rising, to destroy death, the ultimate power of darkness, and to create the world anew.
The light was born in Bethlehem – the “house of fighting” – but by his grace and by his power and by his living presence that light has made this church a new Bethlehem and now for you and me a peaceful, holy, and life-giving “house of bread.”
The Book of Psalms was put together about twenty-five hundred years ago. Contained within it are songs and poems, some of which are nearly three thousand years old. For many of them it is quite easy to identify the situation which gave rise to the poetry, for the psalm itself tells you. For instance:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, then were we like
unto them that dream.
The first: easy. A lament written during Israel’s exile in Babylon. The second: no problem. A shout of joy and praise at her return. Other psalms, however, are less clear. The reason behind their writing has been so long forgotten that it is hard even to guess just exactly what they mean.
This, it seems, is not as great a problem in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth, when scholars tried hard to figure out what various psalms meant, where they came from, and when they were written. Nowadays,
“Post-modernism,” whatever that is, has declared that a “text,” whatever that is, can have no intrinsic meaning, so – calm down – why worry. Stop thinking.
Strangely enough, St. Augustine in the fourth century would have felt somewhat the same way. A text from the Bible, as Augustine saw it, always had many meanings on many levels. Often, the literal meaning was the least important. So if you can’t figure it out – calm down – why worry. But don’t stop thinking.
One deep calleth another in the noise of the water floods.
St. Augustine and many others who followed him over the centuries had a great deal to say about this line from one of the most beautiful and often-quoted Psalms in the Psalter. It is obvious that the Psalmist is referring to a waterfall or a cataract – probably the headwaters of the River Jordan, which are quite spectacular – but this literal meaning is of little interest to Augustine.
One deep calleth to another.
Augustine sees this on another mystical level as a description of the yearning, of the infinite desire of the human heart for God.
One deep calleth to another.
The depth within you and me, our created grandeur – made in the image of God – our depth calls out, yearns for, can only be satisfied by the depth of God. Our small infinity is itself a desire which can only be answered and completed by the large infinity of God. “Our hearts are restless,” says Augustine as he prays, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Deep calls out to deep.
Desire is the dynamic of human life. Our depth is a desire for God’s depth . . . . a desire for the infinite, a desire for the eternal, a desire for that which transcends; a desire for the good, the beautiful, and the true – that which animates and is real. Desire is built into us. It is part of our being. And if there is a problem with desire, it is not that we desire too much, but rather that we desire too little. Too often we are seduced by things in life which promise satisfaction but can’t deliver it. You know what I’m talking about: money, power, sex, security, fame, possession – how often are we seduced by these things, and then they fail us. They offer a taste, perhaps, a glimpse, a hint, an intimation of that which is transcendent and which may fulfill us. And we fall for them. And again they fail us, for what is glimpse, when you’re yearning to see? What is a taste, when you hunger for a meal? And indeed, to a man dying of thirst in the desert, a single drop of water is a torment.
Deep calls out to deep.
Abyssos abyssum invocat.
But how to find that depth? How to find the object of desire? How to locate that which by its very nature transcends our world? The timeless: can it be in time? The infinite: where to look? Is not then the depth within us forever doomed to futility and frustration? Will our hearts ever find their rest?
Unless God comes to us – unless God comes to us – we cannot find Him. Unless God makes Himself available, we cannot grasp Him. Unless God translates Himself into terms (human terms) we understand, we cannot know Him.
God created us as a desire and a yearning. Within us there is a question and there is a quest. Unless God gives us Himself, there is no answer, there is no goal, there is no rest.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive
and bear a son,
And shall call his name Emmanuel,
For unto is a child is born,
unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called
The mighty God,
The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.
This is what we celebrate this day, dear people. In the manger, in that stable, in an insignificant town, in an insignificant country – there lay the end of desire, there lay the depth of God, the infinite and transcendent – now made man – a Savior and the Sabbath rest of our hearts – newly born, sleeping in the hay.
The Word was made flesh. Alleluia. God in His Son Jesus made Himself available to humanity. We can grasp Him. God’s depth answered the call and question of our depth, and He came to us. God translated Himself into human terms. In Jesus we can understand Him … and … in Jesus we can understand ourselves. God’s desire for us met the desire within us (which is us) for Him.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
In that manger, in that stable, in that town, in that country, at that time, lay sleeping in the hay or in His mother’s arms, at her breast, the Infinite High God, come down for all mankind.
And on this day, and at that Altar, He comes to us again: God’s depth. The object of desire and the yearning of our hearts.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!
Many ask this time of year, “What is the true meaning of Christmas?” I dare say that some people ask themselves that question throughout their whole lives; not just at this time of year. If you were to ask enough people what their answer is to the question you would probably get a whole range of answers. Christmas means so many things to so many people.
There are some who would say that the true meaning of Christmas is helping their fellow man. Just as Jesus was born into a poor, lowly state, and identified more openly with the poor, so we ought to take the meaning of Christmas to be helping those who, like Jesus, do not have the financial advantages of others. Christmas means giving, especially to the less fortunate.
There are others who may say that Christmas is really about ensuring good will among all peoples. That since Jesus is the Savior of the World, the true meaning of Christmas is doing all we can to promote and create understanding and acceptance of all people regardless of their race, beliefs, or national origin. There is a social consciousness grounding to their true meaning of Christmas. Christmas is a time to do those things and to follow the example of Christ. Isn’t that something that we should be about all the rest of the year as well? It is part of our Christian calling.
I would like to offer a definition of the true meaning of Christmas as a love story. It is a love story about how God loves mankind with the love that will never be matched. That is the true meaning of Christmas. Everything that happened on this night of Jesus’ birth two thousand eighteen years ago has to do with love.
This love story on a human level is a love story about a husband and wife. Joseph loved Mary so much that he would go to any length to protect her and care for her. Joseph was willing to do all that he could to guard and protect his espoused wife so that she could bring forth the savior.
Christmas is a love story of the love of a mother for her child. No one loves a child as a mother loves a child. No human has been as devoted to Jesus as his mother. Mary loved her child Jesus so much that she was willing to face possible death and certain alienation to fulfill her calling as the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Mother of God. No one would know Jesus better than his Mother Mary.
Christmas’s purpose as a love story can be witnessed in the shepherds’ awe and wonder. The appearance of the angel and the multitude of angels awakened in them the same sense in all of us to become lost in awe, wonder, love and praise in the presence of God. They could not wait, but had to run to see and reverence this Jesus at the manger in Bethlehem. The shepherds were told the good news by the angel and they knew the sense of love, wonder and praise that the Christ Child deserved and ran to the manger worship him.
One can take Christmas as a love story and can be supported in that definition in any one of these scenes. The greatest revelation of Christmas’s true meaning as a love story is the love of God for all mankind. It is that love that God has for mankind that had Him enter time and space and become a man in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Bible says, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. To give oneself so completely as to share the very nature of man is truly the highest form of love. God loved us so much that He was willing to humble himself and become one with us. That is the most amazing love story.
But then we are talking about the true meaning of Christmas. Why would God do that? He would do it out of the love, but the true end and purpose is salvation. Once again, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him may not perish, but have eternal life. God loved us so much that He came to save us. He loves us and saves us; there is Christmas’s true meaning. If we look at all the love in the Christmas story, we will find the true meaning of Christmas.
God blesses us this night by loving us so much that He came to redeem us. What better form of giving? What better form of peace and harmony? What better form of love?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.