Advent Book Club Bonus Day 7

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke 2:22,25-32

Nouwen tells us of his struggle when he reads a passage like this – the temptation to analyse intellectually rather than to simply be there. I pondered this approach back on Day 4.

With a familiar story like this one, it is all to easy to recite the words of the Nunc Dimittis by rote. Anyone who has grown up with the Book of Common Prayer service of Evensong, or indeed who uses the current Common Worship service of Compline, will be used to it. It is perhaps easy to start worrying about the shopping list, work deadlines or your tax return – those things we have left undone… But I do find that when I actually stop to listen – to myself, or to a choir, and actually contemplate the words, I realise that this truly marks the end of Israel’s Advent, if they but knew it. An old man, realising that this was not just the Messiah for one oppressed people, but the Messiah for the whole world.

I was so tempted to indulge my love of Howells again here with the Collegium Regale setting of the Nunc Dimittis, but here’s something else – the Geoffrey Burgon version made famous by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. One unlikely hero – an old, balding man – with music written about another – a baby barely days old.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 6

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Today Nouwen reminds us that to become a child of God, we need to live the Beatitudes. We need to become childlike again to enter into the Kingdom of the Father.

I’m not sure how this quite works. Unless we believe that all children are poor, hungry, weep… How can this be being childlike?

The prayer in the book did Help me to unpack this a little. Lord, give us beatitude instead of superficial happiness. The theme of Advent was of waiting – not surrounding ourselves with the glitz of the party season, the materialism of a retail bonanza. Now that Christmas is here – with the one gift we really need – God coming down to earth in human form and lying in a manger – should suffice. Yet it is all too easy for us to forget that gift and move on. Today, indeed, the set readings for Church have moved on to the visit of Jesus to the temple as a child – are we stil not marvelling over that simplest of gifts – a newborn baby – life itself?

Lord, may we be blessed. May we never forget the gift you gave us of Jesus, lying in a manager. May we never forget to count this as the greatest amongst our many blessings; nor forget that it is a blessing for those who have little else. May we value not matters, not the ephemeral. May we be less selfish. May we give of what we have of both material vale and of our time and our humanity. Amen.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 5

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11

Today Nouwen reminds us that true ministry is not just the giving of gifts – it is the giving of self. How then do we fit this with today’s Bible reading, which seems to be about the giving of gifts?

Perhaps the message is that it is all to easy to remember the gifts and be vaguely aware of the journey that brought the wise men there. Wise men? Magi? Sorcers? Members of an obscure sect? What does seem certain is that these travellers had come a long way, and ultimately risked life and limb if discovered fleeing from Herod without telling him where Jesus was – and that giving of self, as well as the giving of gifts, was a sign of their wonder at what had occurred and their need to pay homage themselves.

So to I guess it must be in life. I could just turn up to church on a Sunday morning, safe in the knowledge my standing order is in place. But I don’t. I feel called to do more – to give up time – far less than many, but still a fair amount given my somewhat insane work hours before Christmas.  In setting an example in other spheres of life – I will muck in to cover for those who are sick or busy at work. I could go on, but I won’t.

There is, of course, a big risk that you, my reader (an estimate of one reader isn’t far wrong!) think that this is a vainglorious exercise and that I need to go read Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Perhaps. But that isn’t the point I was trying to make. It is that with prayer, I realise that I cannot not do some of these things.

How much more so then for those called to the priesthood. In our lent course last year, we looked at the sacraments, and in one session we covered ordination.  Our course was being led by a (then) aspiring (now current) ordinand, and we looked at the words of the Common Worship service for ordination: “Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.” Again, we all realised that this isn’t something that you necessarily want to do – but perhaps something that those called to priesthood can’t not do?

Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to serve you and to serve others. Help me not to turn a blind eye when I see those in need of my time. Help those called to greater service than I in their ministry of service to you and your people. Sustain them, uphold them, support them when they are unable to serve, and pray that we, in turn, may graciously accept that service and through it learn more of you. Amen.

And, as the readings seem to have skipped to Epiphany before we have even reached twelfth night, we might as well have a setting of We Three Kings. After all, why not a jazz version performed on an ice rink?

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 4

Sing praises to the Lord,
O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning…
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you
and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30:4-5,11-12

Today Nouwen challenges us to turn loneliness into solitude. He thinks we spend too long clinging to people, things and experiences in trying not to be alone, rather than learning to let God fill the silence. I guess this is true of me – I can easily find 101 things to do with my time other than pray.

Oddly enough, though, today’s Bible reading is a good example of the sort of thing that helps God fill the silence. I’m thinking again of the discipline of Daily Prayer.  I can’t promise that I do always manage it, but my hit rate is getting pretty good. And the psalms play a very important part in that cycle of prayer. When we are short of our own words, we can often find something in the psalm of the day that chimes with us.

Like Dorothy, I found today’s suggested action – resolving to practice cheerfulness – and prayer – to cast away all our sackcloth and ashes and be joyful in the Lord – didn’t quite fit with the Nouwen thought. Both of these seem easy to do from the sake of appearance but hard to do from the heart. I loved Dorothy’s suggestion that instead we are honest with God – we share with him the rough and the smooth – we are not artificially happy.

One cannot simply be relentlessly cheerful.  Indeed, as we all have occasion to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness, it would seem odd to be cheerful throughout our prayer time or any formal liturgy that includes repentance and absolution. Likewise, intercessory prayer is not tailor-made (at least for me) for outward cheerfulness.

I promised yesterday to pray for the Syrian orphans. Today I found the obvious link too of the Holy Innocents, commemorated in the church calendar today, with the massacre at Newtown. Indeed, that chimed again with the psalm above – in a speech given by President Jeremiah Bartlet in the West Wing episode College Kids in the aftermath of a massacre at a college, we have the following quote: “Joy cometh in the morning,” scripture tells us. I hope so. I don’t know if life would be worth living if it didn’t.”  Let this be our thought for the day too.

May joy come to your mornings.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 3

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:5-7

Stretching our hearts out to God. Nouwen’s thought is that it is not us that prays – it is the Spirit of God that prays through us.

Today’s Bible quote fits with this. The Spirit of God prays through us when we surrender ourselves to God we can always reach out to him, however broken the world around us is. How can we understand God if he is truly in us and is all-knowing? It just isn’t possible with our finite sized brains.  Yet what we can see of him reassures us if we but let him do so.  As we hear in almost every blessing at the end of a Common Worship service “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord…

Today’s prayer asks us to pray that our world is opened out towards God, and likewise that the world of those who have never had the chance to know God.  Perhaps this is a good prayer for me to hold close tomorrow on the feast of the Holy Innocents remembering the TV footage of Syrian orphans?

 

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 2 – Boxing Day

18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

John 21:18

Again, so soon after celebrating the birth of Christ we are taken to the end of the Gospels – this time, John. Nouwen challenges us to see a surrender to the unknown as a sign of spiritual maturity, rather than weakness.

We are asked to pray that we will be able to willingly subject our way to God’s will. To follow Jesus. Perhaps, even to take up our cross?

All this didn’t leave me feeling very Christmassy. Christmas is a time of joy and celebration – the darker turn to the tale can wait a few weeks, can’t it? Yet ultimately the end of the tale figures right in the Christmas experience at church. Without the end of the story, there would be no midnight mass. There could be a service, but it wouldn’t be mass.

So, other than turning more towards the end of Jesus’ life, how can we see anything of the early stories of Jesus in today’s thought? Perhaps it is this: without Easter there would be no Christmas; without Christmas there would be no Easter. Even at the start of the Gospels we hear the tale of John the Baptist echoing the prophecies of old. As John might have said if it were today: Hey folks, this is it. It’s not some great King with a crown and a huge army. It is that most unlikely of things – a baby, lying in a manger. God, loving us as we love a baby – unconditional, forgiving love. That love being so great that he is willing to give us his firstborn to serve us all. May we be willing to give ourselves to God, even if we meet him the most unlikely places.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 1 – Christmas Day

15 For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish.

Luke 21:15-18

Firstly, may I wish you all the happiest and most blessed of Christmases.

We have a less than typical reading from Luke’s Gospel set for today. Not the birth of Christ. A passage instead from the end of Christ’s life. Nouwen’s point is that the names are powerful – and Luke’s point is that the name of Jesus can save us.

Perhaps there is a link here to one of the two most traditional of Christmas texts, the opening of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. Names are perhaps some of the most powerful words out there. They are what makes us distinctive and known to others.  The Word – Jesus – is the most powerful word of all – and is the word that will save us.

Today’s Christmas Action is to remember to pray with the psalmist: “O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”.   I think I’ve managed this inadvertently (as I’ve only just got the time to read the book). Midnight Mass… the words of John’s Gospel rang out, around a real sense of powerful holiness… striking quiet the well lubricated congregation when they heard that Gospel together with some of the most familiar hymns and beautiful of church music.  Fellowship in the wee small hours with a great bunch of people who weren’t ready to go to bed quite yet as they were buzzing from one of the most special moments of the year. Waking up with my family all around. Church again this morning with a very happy congregation again struck quiet, this time by +Alan’s sermon which started with the Wind in the Willows. More family arriving, the sense of wonder at Ben opening his presents, dinner, more presents (not an unreasonable number but someone fell asleep part way through before lunch!), and sitting down at a few points and just thinking how, well, blessed I am, and how much I have to give thanks for.

Advent Book Club Day 24

32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

Luke 12:32-33

Today I started with the Bible quote, and I particular, the first phrase. We should not be afraid, because our God is pleased to give us his Kingdom.

As we reach the end of Advent, we are so near to being given his Kingdom. The arrival of God’s son, Jesus, which we celebrate tomorrow, is the key to that Kingdom. If we can but believe, we can be part of that Kingdom.

Today, Nouwen reminds us that God wants to join us on the road. God sent his son to us so that we can feel that God is with us – a fellow traveller, as those on the road to Emmaus found. By being human, he shared our experience. By being God, he had the power to save us.

Advent is almost over. The strong feeling at the start of Advent that we should shun anything Christmassy has been gradually replaced with a feeling that carols, shopping and cards can be avoided no more. Friends and colleagues who we won’t see tomorrow have already wished us a “Happy Christmas.” Resistance is, as they say, futile.

But it isn’t over yet. There are a few hours left. A few hours to put our house in order. As we either rush round preparing for visitors, or rush to visit, we are still preparing. Never let us forget that. Take a few moments to am “am I truly ready?” Take a few moments to pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” As the collect we prayed at the start of Advent said, “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light.” Ask ourselves “could we perhaps spend just a few more minutes polishing that armour?”

I’d like to thank each and every one of you who have read any of my posts. I’d like to thank Pam for organising my fellow #adventbookclub tweeters and bloggers. And, most of all, i pray that each of you and those dear to you will have a blessed, holy Christmas.

Advent Book Club Day 23

3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, I repent, you must forgive.

Luke 17:3-4

Today Nouwen thinks about being forgiven. Being the forgiver we’re in control. Being forgiven, we have to be vulnerable – to admit we’ve failed – to ask for forgiveness. Can we, in our own hearts, ask God for forgiveness? Are we willing to be vulnerable to God?

Today’s Bible choice is on that theme – we should rebuke a offender, but if they repent, we should forgive them, however often they sin.

This is, of course, our daily prayer. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. How then can we live up to this? How, for example, can I feel called to forgive those who stole from me the other week even though I have no idea who they were and whether or not they repented? How can I forgive the colleague who sees nothing wrong in not pulling their weight and leaving me to pick up the pieces?

The answer, surely, lies in that prayer. Forgive us our trespasses – we all sin, however good we are – as we forgive those who trespass against us. Because we are all sinners, we are in need of forgiveness, hence we must ourselves forgive.

Today’s Advent Action in the book is to ask forgiveness of one person today. Early days yet, but I’ll watch out for this!

At last – after a few days of tenuous links, I can see one to today’s Great ‘O’ antiphon. Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver, it is your laws that we break. You are, however, our saviour – the one who came to earth to die for us that we might be dead to sin. For that reason you are our hope. Come and save us. Come and heal us. Come and deliver us from evil. Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha.

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Advent Book Club Day 22

101 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:1-4

Nouwen reminds us today that communities are not only full of the people we love and respect; that the people we least like often live there too. This fits with today’s Bible reading which recalls that, in amongst the disciples was Judas, who would betray him.

I gave thanks for community this this afternoon.  Over the course of the day my parish church, St Albans Cathedral, welcomed 3,033 people through its doors for Carols on the Hour – six short carol services which are, funnily enough, held on the hour. I was ‘on duty’ for two of them – standing outside at the West End with a yellow sash on inviting people to come in. It was so pleasing to see the number of people say things like “oh, can we come in?”, “I’ve lived here ages and never been in – why not?” and on the way out “Thank you so much, happy Christmas!”

It felt so right that local people who’d never normally think to come in, or at least not to come in for a service, felt that they could – and that they got something out of it.  And 3,033 is not a bad turnout given how wet and horrid it is today.

And so to a prayer for the day.  Lord, let us always strive to welcome others as we prepare to welcome you. Let us strive to live out the good news so that, as in the words of the hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. Let us welcome the fact that people feel able to come and hear the great glad tidings told. Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

 

And so to today’s Great ‘O’ antiphon. These aren’t part of the Nouwen book, which may explain why I cannot always see a link between them and the Bible reading, Nouwen thought or prayer for the day.  Mind you, I can’t always see the link between those latter three anyway. They are, however, an important part of my Advent preparation. Rather than clutter this post up, I’ve blogged a little more about these here.

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.