What did she think along the way, as she walked to the hill country of Judah? Mary is the first Christian pilgrim, journeying with the growing presence of Jesus, and today’s gospel reading at Mass stirs us to poetry and song, and an “everyday, effortless verse.”
“And I was travelling, lightly, barefoot / over bedrock, then through lands that were stitched / with breadplant and camomile. Or was it / burdock.”
The Dead Sea Poems, Simon Armitage (1995)
Google maps tells me that the distance from Nazareth to Ain Karem, the place where Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea is 150.9 km. By car, it would take me 1 hour and 35 minutes. Public transport: 3 hours and 2 minutes, but if I was to walk , it would take me 31 hours. Making the rather over exaggerated assumption that I would be able to walk for 8 hours a day, it would take me four days to walk there. The truth is that it would probably take me much longer.
Assuming that the young teenage Mary was a little fitter than a middle aged priest who has seen better days, perhaps she experienced four or five or even six days of walking and wondering, aware of the growing presence of Jesus within her.
She’ll become more familiar with travelling in the months and years to come. She makes the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heavily pregnant. Some time later, she journeys from Bethlehem to Jerusalem with a new born baby. The frantic escape into Egypt, seeking safety from danger, a refugee far from home.
Years later, she makes the many-time journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem with her twelve year old son, wise beyond his years, causing her to wonder. As she watches her child grow into a man, and become public property, she continues to travel with him. She is always at a distance, but never far away. Her travelling takes her to the torn body of her son, grounded on the way to Golgotha, raised aloft for all to see. Her heart broken. Still, she moves on.
Mary is a well-travelled woman. As she made that first journey with Jesus’ growing presence within her, cells separating into cells separating into cells, being human, becoming human, her mind is filled with thoughts. Walking helps one think, perhaps. Heart beating, blood pumping, feeding the mind. The momentum of steps sets the rhythm, the pace of pondering. With each step pressed into the ground, perhaps she speaks a word to herself which move into song, a litany of living, a litany of love.
She is anchored in the words of her ancestors as Scripture spins in her mind. She digs deep into the well of Tradition, plucks out a song which sticks with her, claims it as her own, the song of Hannah whose own child bearing was equally unimaginable.
As she arrives in the hill country home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she is greeted as blessed. The music of the moment stirs Elizabeth’s unborn child to dance in her womb, baby-kicking his way, impatient perhaps to prepare the way.
Mary’s words and wonderings along the way are tied together, intertwined. Unable to know which is her thought or someone else’s taken to heart.
She proclaims the greatness of the Lord, takes the words of Hannah and sees something equally special, more special, beginning to take root in her life, in her very being, in her womb.
“Knowing now the price of my early art,” writes Simon Armitage in his own journeying poem called the Dead Sea Poems, “I have gone some way towards taking it all / to heart, by bearing it all in mind, like / praying, saying it over and over / at night, by singing the whole of the work / to myself, every page of that innocent, / everyday, effortless verse, of which this / is the first.”
The song of Mary, the Magnificat, is an effortless verse sung or said each night at Evening Prayer. Hannah’s words become Mary’s words, and Mary’s words become our words, so taken to heart that we can hardly tell who they belong to or even, at times, what they’re worth.
“I found poems written in my own hand,” writes Armitage in his poem, “Being greatly in need of food and clothing, / and out of pocket, I let the lot go for twelve times nothing, but saw them again / this spring, on public display, out of reach /… apparently worth an absolute packet.”
Mary’s song moves us beyond the limits of ourselves and our own needs to those who are unclothed and hungry, the poor powerful falling from their thrones, and the downtrodden layabouts lifted high. It is a song that proclaims the greatness of God who makes mountains out of molehills, and sees into the heart of our little lives and makes something more of us and the world than we could ever imagine. It may, at times, seem out of reach, hardly effortless, a long way off. Yet not so far.
“To get / There takes no time and admission / Is free if you purge yourself / Of desire, and present yourself with / Your need only and the simple offering / Of your faith, green as a leaf.” (R.S. Thomas, The Kingdom’)
Today’s reflection on the Advent ‘O’ Antiphon for December 22nd takes us from here to eternity!
O King of the peoples and cornerstone of the Church, come and save man, whom you made from the dust of the earth.
Cardiff continues to grow. The next proposed stage of developments is to blow fresh breath into Cardiff Bay with the development of Atlantic Wharf for more entertainment, leisure, pleasure, housing, hospitality and retail. It’s characteristically ambitious. Cardiff needs to compete with other cities. How the plans will empower the community of Butetown, though, needs to be seen – or will it be left behind like the initial redevelopment of the docks?
What, though, holds a growing city together? Finance? Retail? Profits? Politics? Glitz and glamour? Music and entertainment? Business and Tourism? All are important, and then some.
Perhaps the real question to ask is where or what is the heart of a city? What is the heart of a place that is growing, seeing the skyline change, watching communities expand and merge? What are the cornerstones of the communities of which we are a part, their defining qualities, their true character?
We must ask this of the Church, too. On what or who do we depend? What or who is at the heart of our life together? The answer comes in today’s Advent Antiphon. Christ is the cornerstone of the church. He is the one on whom we depend, the one who defines us, our beating heart.
It is easy to slip away from this truth, to engage in so many projects, many of which are worthwhile, follow so many changes, be active and busy but lose sight of who we are and what we are, and why we’re doing them at all. Christ is the cornerstone. For us there is no getting away from this, and everything we do, we do for him who comes to us whom he made from the dust of the earth.
On Ash Wednesday, when we receive the ashes upon our foreheads, we hear the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They draw us back to our humble beginnings, and our mortal end. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Some years ago now, at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage, in a creative reimagining in Summer time, the young people were invited to receive the sign of the cross upon their forehead in glitter with the accompanying words, “Remember you are dust bound for glory.”
“In his own image God created man / And when from dust he fashioned Adam’s face / The likeness of his only Son was formed:/ His word Incarnate, filled with truth and grace.”
So goes a hymn sung at Evening Prayer. We are made in the image of God and, as at the Creation God gazes upon the image of his Son when he looks upon humanity, so too in the Incarnation when we gaze upon Jesus we see God’s image and what it means to be a perfect human being. “God became human so that human beings can become divine,” said St Augustine. He transforms the dust of which we are made.
To a packed square of thousands of young people in Manilla on World Youth Day, St John Paul II said, “You are made to live with God for ever.” All those young people with hopes and plans, ambitions and dreams for the future, are reminded that their future lies further ahead, far ahead, for eternity is the life upon which we should set our hopes.
We are fashioned from the earth, we are dust and ashes but with Jesus as our cornerstone we can hope to live with him for ever. Eternity beckons.
In the midst of our Christmas celebrations there is, of course, some sadness, frustration and fear. We reflect on what it has meant to be able to create a safe and sacred space at St Mary’s, and how our Christmas celebrations, wherever we are, can bring us closer to Jesus, a safe harbour.
Some prayers fit like a glove or feel like a comfortable jumper or an old pair of shoes shaped to your feet. They are prayers which feel just right, prayers which express what you wanted to say but had no words of your own, or which bring you back to the things you had forgotten, pinning the eternal to a moment of yourself.
They are ‘well prayed’ prayers which we just can’t let go or which won’t let us go, like a stubborn tune in your head, or the feeling you had when you first fell in love, reigniting something from the ordinariness which our life has become.
“I place myself into the presence of him in whose Incarnate presence I already am before I place myself there.” This is the first line of a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament written by St John Henry Newman, a beautiful prayer to which I return often.
‘Whether willingly still or stuck in the mud’
There may be an anomaly when we suggest that we can place ourselves into God’s presence when we believe that God is always with us, that we are always in his presence, that he is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and when we hear afresh the promise of Jesus in his parting words, ‘I shall be with you always until the end of time.’ And yet, Newman’s prayer reminds us that there is also that need for us to willingly place ourselves into his presence, to be armed with a motive that moves us, knowingly, lovingly, closer to him, acknowledging that he is there, here. To abandon ourselves to him.
It could be a tentative moving closer, or a rushed and hasty, panicked and desperate attempt to cast ourselves upon him in our need for something, bringing even to him our own sense of unworthiness, like Peter who clutches the feet of Jesus in the boat upon the stilled sea, uttering those words, ‘Lord leave me, for I am a sinner.’ Yes, Peter asks Jesus to leave him whilst at the very same time holding tightly onto him.
Wherever we are, at home or in sacred buildings, whilst willingly still or stuck in the mud, we need to be alert to God’s presence, and place ourselves into the presence of him whose Incarnate presence we already are before we place ourselves there.
Of course, Newman’s prayer was written for use before the Blessed Sacrament, a sacred sign, a sacramental presence, a free gift from the Lord, a Mystery unable to be explained to any great deal of satisfaction. It is the means through which we are nurtured and nourished, and through which we draw close and closer to the saving death of Jesus upon the cross, and through which we receive all the benefits of his loving sacrifice.
The power of Love
During these times when we have been allowed to return to St Mary’s for worship, we have focussed on the phrase, ‘A safe and sacred place.’
In one sense, of course, it is God who makes places and people sacred, by his presence, through his grace – and so everywhere is sacred. And yet, God requires that we cooperate with him. St Paul calls us ‘co-workers’ a beautiful phrase which suggests that God uses us, wants us, to participate in his transforming of the world.
We have never taken the bold assumption that because a place is sacred that no harm can come to people there. The scourged body of Jesus and his outstretched arms upon the cross is a calling back to the reality of life, and the continued presence in the world of sickness and pain, and the sacrificial, painful, nature of love.
What Jesus teaches us is the power of Love to transform, and so in seeking sacredness, we value the sacredness of each person, and so their safety too, a responsibility towards one another which outweighs the difficulties of all that we have to do.
We give thanks that we have been able to open the doors of St Mary’s each day, to gather at the Lord’s Table, to break bread, to hear his Sacred words, ‘to place ourselves into the presence of him in whose Incarnate presence we already are before we place ourselves there.’
We are grateful, too, that despite the new period of lockdown, places of worship are able to continue to open if they feel able to do so, and this is what we are doing, although we understand why so many places, sadly, simply cannot do this.
Over the last few months, after visiting many different places from shops and hotels to cafes and restaurants, I believe that St Mary’s is as safe, if not safer, than any other place I have visited. We have taken all the precautions we have needed to take, and more, and been careful to create a space that felt familiar. We have shyed away from harsh boundaries and hazard warning tape and too many prescriptive signs, to create a space, we hope, that is safe and sacred.
A Safe Harbour
One of the blessed things about having a retired priest in the parish is to share in their quiet and continued faithfulness, and their experience and knowledge too, and we are blessed at St Mary’s to have someone who is far more well-read than the parish priest! A hand written quotation from a book Fr Martyn had been reading was commended to me by him – a beautiful ‘Intention before Prayer’ from the theologian Dietrich von Hilderbrand (Transformation in Christ, 1962):
“I will forget everything that was, and is to come; nor think of what lies ahead of me. Whatever I am wont to carry and to hold in my arms I will let fall before Jesus.
It will not fall into the void. Standing before Jesus, I deliver it all up to him: all burdening worries and all great concerns, both mine and those of the souls I love.
I am not abandoning them as I would abandon them in seeking diversion. I know that in Jesus they are truly in a safe harbour. When at his call I relinquish and abandon all things, I am not casting them away; on the contrary, I am assigning everything to its proper place.”
Whatever concerns and worries we have, whatever pains and sickness we may experience, however the future will unfold for so many of us, whether ‘home’ is the safest and only place to be or we feel able to Break Bread with others, we can and do place all these concerns and all that is dear to us into the arms of Jesus, a safe harbour.
For so many people, Christmas will mean separation from loved ones. It is temporary. This will pass. There may be a space or two at the table, but there is no void and no abandonment apart from that abandoning of everything, including ourselves and all our struggles and fears to the Lord.
Be gentle and, if you can, just let Christmas be Christmas, whatever shape or form that may take. Abandon all to him who, through Christ, has abandoned himself to us. He who laid down his life for us, and who bids all of us who are weary to come to him, for he is gentle and humble of heart. In him we find our rest.
In our fifth Advent Antiphon for December 21st, we end up, for a while, in the gutter!
O Key of David, who open the gates of the eternal kingdom, come to liberate from prison the captive who lives in darkness.
In a funny yet touching song written and performed by comedian Tim Minchin, called Not Perfect, one of the verses goes “ This is my house / And I live in it / It’s made of cracks / And photographs /We rent it off a guy who bought it from a guy / Who bought it from a guy / Whose grandad left it to him / And the weirdest thing is that this house / Has locks to keep the baddies out / But they’re mostly used to lock ourselves in”
In recent years there has been debate around one of the responses to homelessness and rough sleeping, in particular the various architectural designs added to buildings and the built landscape to prevent people from gathering in or sleeping in particular areas. More often than not, this has come from pressure from some parts of the community who struggle with the effects of such activity.
It’s a difficult juggling act: to weigh up the needs and rights of those who have no home and no front door, and the rights of others in our community who want a safe and clean environment in which to live. The debates which follow are often polarised and, quite understandably, filled with emotion and, sometimes, misunderstanding.
And yet you could say that all of us have aggressive architecture built into our homes. We have garden walls and garden gates to mark out our property and dissuade people from trespassing and coming too close. We have front doors to stop people from wandering in at will, as well as to keep the cold out! And these doors have locks, of course, “to keep the baddies out” or maybe, as the song goes, “mostly used to lock ourselves in.”
In recent years, too, we have been grappling with the phenomenon of cuckooing when vulnerable people have their homes taken over by criminal gangs and drug dealers. They live in fear, locked in, hidden away from the world who are oblivious to all the things that can happen behind closed doors.
Into this domestic dilemma of looked doors and homelessness comes Jesus, the key of David, as he’s called in today’s O Antiphon.
Having the key to something or somewhere means having access and even power, the ability to allow people to come and go, to open up and let them in, or close them out, to keep them out. It’s a symbol both incarceration and liberation.
Just as King David, from whose family line Jesus has descended, had the keys to the holy city of Jerusalem, so Jesus now has they keys to the heavenly Jerusalem, opening the life of heaven through his liberating death and resurrection.
He comes, too, to liberate those who are imprisoned, those who live in darkness. What this darkness is, of course, is different for each person, each place.
He comes to open doors, to let us out, to free us perhaps from the traps of poverty or mental health, drug dependency or fractured friendships, the pain of unemployment or lost lives. He liberates us from loneliness and isolation, from the slog of working too hard, or being worked too hard by others. He frees us from the fear of being used by others, of being tossed about on the wind of change, a victim of decisions made by others, a fear of one’s own life slowing down, as the world moves on too fast, too quickly.
Wherever and whatever the darkness is, Christ comes with the key to open the doors, enters into our darkness to bring light, to help us see the way.
Whilst so many social and personal problems remain in the world, in our world, we can trust in Christ who comes to save us, who changes our perspective on what it means to live, what life is, and to raise our hearts and minds to heaven.
‘All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” wrote Oscar Wilde in one of his plays. Christ has already been there, in the gutter, and is there still, alongside us.
O Key of David, who open the gates of the eternal kingdom, come to liberate from prison the captive who lives in darkness.
In the fourth Advent Antiphon for December 20th, we discover a God who is never far away
O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, come and save us, Lord our God.
Brought up on the old black and white movies (a scarcity these days with multiple channels competing with the production of new and shiny box sets and movies) as a child we’d feast on the likes of Cary Grant and Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers, James Stewart and Jack Lemon, to name just a few.
Lots of movies stand out, like Some like it Hot and White Christmas and Bringing up Baby and the memorable ‘Roman Holiday.’ Fed up of the palace restrictions, the princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, escapes into the streets of Rome, experiencing things for the first time, courting (almost) a young journalist (Gregory Peck) before she returns to her royal duties.
Only a few people in Rome recognised the royal presence. Everyone was oblivious to who she was as she danced and laughed and fell in love. They just didn’t know that royalty was among them.
One of the beautiful titles given to Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’, a name which means ‘God is with us.’ Christ’s birth in Bethlehem heralds a new age, a new time, when God becomes involved, in a very human and tangible way, in the world he has created. He walks among us, experiences everything it means to be a human-being, except sin, as St Paul reminds us.
After his Resurrection as he ascends to Heaven, Jesus tells his Apostles, “I will be with you always, to the end of time.” The Incarnation isn’t simply a past event. Jesus has been and will always be present among us. He gives us signs of his presence, gifts through which we feel his saving touch both within and without the life of the church.
His grace is not restricted, and yet he has chosen to make his presence known in many ways. The Eucharist is such an important part of our life together. We are commanded to “Do this in remembrance” of him. It is one of the most beautiful ways in which we receive the presence of Jesus.
We are what we eat. We become what we celebrate. The Church has been called an extension of the Incarnation, the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, the Body of Christ.
Recognising Jesus in ‘the breaking of the bread’ means that we must recognise him too in the brokenness of the world, in the poor and those outside the walls of the church. As the Body of Christ, we are called to be and become his presence in the world but we also meet him in those whom we serve.
‘You will have the poor with you always,’ said Jesus. So let’s eagerly receive Jesus who comes to us in the Eucharist, and be his presence to others, and let us always be alert to him in the lives of those we are called to serve.
‘O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, come and save us, Lord our God.’
The reflection on the third Advent Antiphon for December 19th sheds light on runts and the overlooked!
O Root of Jesse, set up as a sign to the peoples, come to save us, and delay no more.
How do we prove our worth? In job interviews, we have to put ourselves out there, prove that we are the best for the job, talk about our achievements, say how good we really are! Some people find this easier than others. Under those circumstances, if we play down our achievements, we’d definitely lose out.
Even the church has taken to this way of appointing priests to parishes. Clergy apply for parish positions, tell the bishop and the interviewing panel how suited to the job they are.
Promotions come, quite often, because someone is seen or heard to be achieving good things or because they fit comfortably into someone’s expectations. Those who don’t make a song and a dance may go unnoticed, even undervalued, played down, looked over, disregarded.
The experience of Jesse tells another story. When looking for a king to rule Israel, the prophet Samuel visits his home, parades his way through his sons, all of whom stand tall and proud. But something is missing, the runt of the family, who seems to be overlooked, as he quietly does his shepherding job, away from the attention of others.
He is neither tall nor kingly looking, has no one to speak for him, or talk about his credentials. In fact, there is surprise at his selection but Samuel sees something that others cannot.
Jesus is a descendant of Jesse, and so a descendant of David, the King. As king he does not appear to show regal signs of power. He has come in humility, and so many people simply cannot see any sign of Messiahship, any credentials of what it means to be Christ, the Anointed One. Their version of God does not allow him a place. He is, after all, a runt of the people. ‘Nothing good can come from Nazareth,’ it was said of him.
There is no mention about how well he can play a crowd or work a room and yet, there he is, teaching with authority. His miracles are signs of God not magical displays of power, signs that God’s kingdom has come, that the world is being transformed. People are drawn to him. They see in him a sign from God who always seems to favour runts!
So do not give in to the ‘Imposter syndrome’, that somehow you are just not good enough, and cannot be what others expect. Don’t care too much about what others don’t see in you. Don’t measure yourself by the standards of others although by all means take some inspiration from them, even if the inspiration is to discover afresh what is good and unique about you, and what you are able to achieve. Don’t lose sleep over those who are standing tall whilst you are being left behind.
There is much to be said for quiet faithfulness, a humility which is not brash or brazen, does not look down on others, does not label others as ‘this’ or ‘that’ simply as a means of dismissing and deriding them.
‘Go on quietly doing the work that has been given you’, said St Paul. At some point, when the time is right, without even having to push forward what others cannot see, the Lord may say, ‘Well done good and faithful servant’ but only, of course, if we set our eyes on Christ, the sign to us that God has come to save us, and will save us still. The One who transforms even the little that we have, and makes mountains out of the molehills of our lives. This is the God in whom we believe, God who has come to us in Christ, the root of Jesse, the sign for the peoples. It is in him, and him alone, that we find our worth.
Whilst some people are criticising the modern art of this year’s Nativity Scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, we wonder what they would have said about a very different kind of creative expression of the Nativity! Read on!
As a child, I was often making things from odds and ends, old boxes and bits of discarded fabric and other things meant for the bin. I didn’t create anything particularly outstanding, limited as I was in my art and craft skills but one Christmas, I created my masterpiece! A Nativity Scene, the characters of which I craftily made from toilet rolls and ends of fabric collected over many months.
I don’t know how I managed to collect so many toilet rolls (although we were a family of five!) but the characters soon outnumbered the traditional set up. There were flocks of shepherds, a few extra kings, and many other passers-by who peered into the cardboard stable.
In Rome, there is the beautiful Nativity Scene (with features of Rome rather than Bethlehem) constantly on display in the Church of Ss Cosmos and Damian. It’s an impressive site, protected behind large panes of glass, the scene filled with miniature houses, shops, woods, and an array of people about their work. It’s a tradition particularly loved in Naples, the Presepe, where Nativity scenes consist of hundreds of figures, including those of contemporary people.
It’s perhaps fitting that the church of Cosmos and Damian is run by Franciscan Friars, since it was St Francis who first brought us the idea of a Nativity Scene when he created one featuring real animals in the small town of Greccio in 1223.
In such a scene as the Presepe, you may have to look hard to find the image of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, so colourful and busy is the scene but all the townspeople are there cobblers and bakers, playing children and working women, and perhaps as we gaze on such a scene we can and do become a part of it ourselves, part of the crowd, one of the people.
It’s a significant image that reminds us that God was not just present two-thousand years ago in that small scene of a traditional stable seen by only a few. Christ is born into the town, into the region, into the country, into the continent, into the world, into the cosmos.
The Incarnation isn’t just a past event but a present, ongoing reality. Jesus’ parting words to his Apostles in the gospel according to Matthew is, “I will be with you until the end of time.” It is Matthew, too, who at the every beginning of his gospel, quoting Isaiah, says that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’, a name which means “God is with us”
Our Christmas celebrations not only celebrate a past event but a present reality. This year our Nativity Scene will be placed at the entranceway to the Lady Chapel, and we are called to draw near, to make that journey, that procession, that pilgrimage, just like the shepherds who went to “see all that had happened,” and like those Magi whose journey was so much longer.
The scene becomes a shrine, and as we pray at it and bring our offerings there, we are drawn into its holiness, recognising we are part of the shrine scene too, for Christ has comes to dwell with us. In all the difficulties and dangers that people have experienced over the last year may this truth be felt ever more deeply.
We may have not been around 2000 years ago to have peered into that manger but as a reminder of the Mystery of the Incarnation and the presence of Christ born among us, we could, if we really wanted, carve ourselves into a figure to be placed into the Nativity Scene, or maybe we can be represented a bit more humbly by a toilet roll!
The second in our series of reflections on the Advent Antiphons for December 18th takes us deep into the heart of God. It must be love.
‘O Ruler of the House of Israel, who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, come and save us with outstretched arm.’
Imagine a world in which any or all of us could do what we wanted, whenever we wanted with no regard for others. What kind of world would that create? How much chaos would there be?
Every community, each society, no matter how new and how different, will soon start to agree upon a common way of living, a bond of behaviour, a pact of what’s expected from its members. Whether we call them ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ or ‘standards of behaviour’, the system is the same. We need boundaries. We need to know what is acceptable and what is not.
Some laws, of course, may be unpopular with some. And there are often laws which may be outdated, eventually challenged and changed to undo injustice and create a more fair society, as we grow and develop and change.
There are different ways of ruling, too, and some rulers have, we know, taken their power to devastating results, destroying lives, demeaning what it means to be human. There are still so many people in the world today who cannot flourish because of evil regimes and totalitarian rule.
Freedom as the children of God doesn’t mean that God, as Father, wants us to run amok and live aimlessly and selfishly. That’s not freedom at all.
The most loving parent, at times, will in some particular way, correct or discipline a child for their own safety and well-being. They may shout at them as they try to cross the road in front of oncoming traffic, give them a glaring look if their cheek gets the better of them, or make them do things against their will because they know what is right for their child. After all, who wouldn’t send their child to school just because a child preferred to stay at home watching TV, or allowed them not to clean their teeth simply because they couldn’t be bothered.
Moses’ first attempt to deliver the law which God gave him on Mount Sinai met with frustration and disappointment, and anger too. The stones inscribed with the law of God were smashed against the graven image the people had made in their impatience, as they looked aimlessly for other more self-indulgent ways of living.
When Jesus comes, he does not do away with the law given to Moses. There is no smashed stone, no fragmented law, no hiding what has gone before. In fact, he sums up the law of God succinctly and beautifully, simply in the need to love God and love our neighbour.
One of the few commands Jesus gave, a mandatum, was simply to love. On the night before his death, he stoops to his disciples’ feet to wash them, and tells them to follow his example of love and service.
When it is stripped back, the Christian faith is not a complicated set of rules and laws to hinder and take away our freedom. Christ rules with the law of love, his Kingdom is one with love at its heart.
His outstretched arm is not one which comes with a slap or a fist. The hand he stretches out to us is a hand which bears the mark of pain and sacrifice, the wounds of love. He rules with compassion and love, a love which transforms and changes us. Do we believe this? Can it really be true?
‘O Ruler of the House of Israel, who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, come and save us with outstretched arm.’
From favourite teachers to fake news, we reflect on the first Advent ‘O’ Antiphon for 17th December
“O Wisdom of the Most High, ordering all things with strength and gentleness, come and teach us the way of truth”
When I think back to school days and who my favourite teachers were, I suppose, for me, there were three kinds of teachers.
Those who taught by intimidation and whose classes were ruled with fear! The other extreme were those softer individuals perhaps who had little or no control over their class and where little teaching actually took place. In between were, for me, the best teachers: those who were friendly, affable and who generated enthusiasm for their subject but would also take no nonsense. We knew the line we couldn’t cross. To use perhaps the parlance of the first ‘O Antiphon’ they taught with ‘strength and gentleness.’
St Paul says that Jesus is ‘the Wisdom of God.’ We know that Jesus was a Rabbi, a teacher, and he drew to him those who listened to his teaching, particularly the Twelve whom he took aside for special instruction. It was to them that Jesus proclaimed himself to be ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life.’
The first ‘O Antiphon’ of December bids Jesus come close so that he may teach us in the way of truth. It was through him and for him that all was created, and in the poetic words of Genesis, we see order being created out of chaos.
There is much chaos in the world today, and the phrase ‘fake news’ brings further chaos, with conspiracy theories driving people apart. There is a worrying polarity emerging. Often, we are driven apart by ignorance of one another, and into this void are poured false rumours and misleading platitudes, fuelling the fire of cynicism and hate.
As Advent takes us closer to our celebration of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, we pray that he may guide us into the way of truth, with strength and gentleness, bringing order to our chaotic world, inspiring us to seek peace, justice and reconciliation, and drawing closer to each other in love.
“O Wisdom of the Most High, ordering all things with strength and gentleness, come and teach us the way of truth”
A little known angel called Billy finds himself given a very special task indeed but will he ever get there on time? This Christmas story for children is a slightly extended version of a Christmas play written for a Special School a few years ago. We hope you enjoy.
High up in heaven, where life is angelic and people are peaceful and rest is the work of the day, when God has a message to give to the world he gathers his angels around him.
Now, you’ve all heard of Gabriel and the message he gave to a young girl called Mary and her husband to be, and some shepherds he found in a field but this is a tale of a little known angel called Billy. Billy was good, like you’d expect any angel to be but Billy, unfortunately, was always late for everything. One moment, he’d be on his way carrying a special message, with a skip in his stride and a woosh in his wings, whistling away and singing happy, heavenly songs and, suddenly, he would find…well, let’s just say, other things to do!
God, as you know, had given Gabriel, his highest of angels, a very high job indeed. He gave him the message that a new king was to be born, a king to brighten the world with his love, for the king he was sending was his own Son.
‘Take this message to Mary and Joseph and some shepherds you’ll find in a field,’ said God. His voice was very serious and Gabriel bowed low, for being an angel he was always ready to serve. ‘Take Billy with you,’ added God, ‘and make sure he gets there on time!’
And off they flew, with a flash of their wings, to bring good news to the people below, good news of a king, good news of God’s Son to be born in the world.
They passed through a place where a colourful market with wonderful stalls was busy and bustling with life. There were fresh fruits and spices, there were chocolates and cakes, and vegetables pulled from the ground. There were saucepans and ladles and earthenware mixing bowls and every kind of crockery you could imagine. Cobblers were cobbling and tailors were stitching and bakers were selling their freshly baked bread. Large legs of honey-roast ham hung from the butcher’s stall, and a rather round, rosy faced lady cooked maple syrup pancakes which melted in the mouth.
Billy squeezed his way through the crowd until he came to the most colourful, sweet-smelling sweet stall that he had ever set his watery, sweet loving eyes on.
‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy, and the sweet seller smiled kindly at his heavenly words. Billy chose the largest lollipop he had ever seen in his life, and it was sweet and delicious…and took rather a long time to eat! And then, after a long time of confectionery delights, he remembered to look at his watch!
‘Oh no,’ gasped Billy. ‘I’m late again! I have to go! Thank you for the lollipop!’ he cried to the rather satisfied sweet seller who, by now, was selling a very similar lollipop to another little boy who had slipped through the crowd and whose eyes were as bright as the cloak of gold which covered his back.
And off Billy flew, with a flash of his wings, to catch up with Gabriel.
Now Gabriel was visiting a young girl called Mary at home. Mary had been very busy indeed, for she had been drawing water from the deepest well in the village. She had carried the water in a large earthenware jug, and the water was clean and pure and lovely. It was the loveliest water in the world. Every day the villagers thanked God for the well and for the water.
Gabriel gazed into Mary’s eyes. ‘You’ve been chosen by God,’ he said so gently, ‘to give birth to his Son who will grow up and bring life to the world. The baby’s name will be Jesus.’ Mary was deeply disturbed by such news but Gabriel, being a very experienced angel, knew just the right things to say.
‘I’ll do whatever God wants me to do,’ said Mary, and she bowed to the angel and Gabriel bowed back for he knew that he was in the presence of someone so very special, someone who had been chosen by God. As soon as Gabriel’s work was done, he left Mary alone, for Gabriel, as well as being very experienced was also very efficient.
‘I’m here!’ cried Billy, almost bumping into Gabriel as he left the house. ‘I’m here at last. I’m here to tell the news!’
‘The news?’ said Gabriel. ‘Yet again you’re late. Far too late. Late by a mile.’
And Billy was sad, for a while.
‘Come on, we have other work to do,’ said Gabriel.
And off they flew, with a flash of their wings.
They passed through a place where the sound of a circus was filling the air. There were carnival colours and magical music and laughter and so much to do. There were lions and llamas, tigers and zebras and wonderful creatures from every continent on earth. There were singers and dancers and jugglers and gymnasts and acrobats bending their rather long limbs. The smell of sweet popcorn was tickling the taste buds of everyone who passed by, and an elephant trumpeted a loud elephant noise as only elephants do!
Billy squeezed his way through the crowds until he came to the funniest, fanciest clown he had ever seen, with bright orange hair, and a bright shiny nose and a smile as wide as his face.
‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy.
He watched as the clown made him laugh, and, oh, how he laughed! He laughed until his belly ached…and then, after even more laughing and more belly aching, he heard the deep, echoing sound of the town clock in the distance, and Billy remembered to look at his watch!
‘Oh no!’ cried Billy. ‘I’m late again! I have to go! Thank you for the fun!’ he shouted to the clown who was now entertaining another little boy who had also squeezed through the crowds. As Billy listened to the little boy’s laughter lingering high above the crowds and the creatures, off he flew, with a flash of his wings, to catch up with Gabriel.
Now Gabriel had gone to a carpenter’s house, and the carpenter’s name was Joseph. Scattered around his workshop were wood saws and screws and hammers and nails, and the floor was full of sawdust and shavings of wood. There were half finished tables, and chairs with two legs, and fun wooden toys wonderfully carved from olive wood and lemon wood and any other kind of wood that Joseph could lay his hands on.
It was late in the evening and Joseph was asleep on a rug on the floor but he was having the kind of sleep you have when you have something on your mind. He tossed and turned and wriggled around and worried about all kinds of things, for his life had become quite complicated lately and he really was confused about all the recent happenings. Gabriel leaned over, brushed Joseph’s brow with his golden wing and whispered gently in his ear.
‘Joseph, don’t worry. Mary’s baby is from God. Take her as your wife. Everything will be good.’
Joseph relaxed and sighed and breathed so deeply and dreamed of only lovely things for his dreams were now full of an angel’s whisper. As soon as his work was done, Gabriel left Joseph to his beautiful dreams.
‘I’m here!’ cried Billy, as he almost bumped into Gabriel who was shaking off sawdust from his feet. ‘I’m here at last. I’m here to tell the news!’
‘The news?’ said Gabriel. ‘Yet again you’re late. Far too late. Late by a mile.
And Billy was sad, for a while.
‘Come on, come quickly, we have other work to do,’ said Gabriel.
And off they flew, with a flash of their wings.
They passed through a place with shops that lined long streets. The shop windows were as large as houses, and the displays inside were weird and wonderful and brilliantly lit. There were magical mannequins dressed in fine clothes, and hampers of food with items that Billy had never seen before and had certainly never tasted.
Billy squeezed his way through the crowds until he came to the window of what seemed to be the biggest toy shop in the world. He slipped inside the shop, where Billy discovered the furriest, fluffiest teddy bear he had ever seen in his life!
‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy, and the bear’s ears twitched warmly, for the words were lovely to hear.
The teddy bear was so cuddly and warm that Billy forgot about his special work and then, after a long time of cuddly delights, he remembered to look at his watch!
‘Oh no!’ cried Billy. I’m late again. I have to go! Thanks for the fun!’ And the bear gave him a big bear wave before he turned to give cuddles and warmth to another little boy who was looking rather wide eyed, and whose fine cloak seemed to shimmer with golden light.
Billy took one last glance at the bear and his new friend and off he flew with a flash of his wings!
As Billy flew onwards and upwards so fast, checking his watch for the time, he could hear the sound of angels’ voices and he could see such a brilliant light in the sky that brightened the night! For Gabriel and a host of other angels were singing aloud to some shepherds they found in a field about the birth of a new king.
‘The king’s name is Jesus,’ sang Gabriel, as he filled the field with light. ‘He will bring peace on earth.’
The shepherds, excited to hear such a thing, rushed off to see everything the angels had told them.
‘I’m here!’ cried Billy. ‘I’m here at last. I’m here to tell the news!’
‘The news?’ said Gabriel. ‘Yet again you’re late. Far too late. Late by a mile! You really do have to keep an eye on the time, Billy. You seem to be late for everything!
A fireside king
Now Billy was sad, and he sat beside the shepherds’ fire, warming his hands and face, hoping to find comfort in the heat of the flames. His day had been such fun and he had seen so many wonderful things but he wondered how he could ever be a proper angel if he couldn’t get anywhere on time.
And then, as if from nowhere, along came a small boy who was looking rather hot faced and flustered. He looked like a little king, for he had a small crown on his head and wore very beautiful clothes, embroidered with gems and strands of golden thread woven in far off lands.
‘Excuse me,’ said the little boy. ‘I seem to have lost my way. I could see you in the distance through the darkness and I thought you looked a very helpful chap indeed.’
Billy thought he recognised the boy from somewhere and he shook his head and he shook his wings, which is what angels do when they are trying to remember something.
‘I was travelling along with three others to see a new born king,’ said the boy, ‘and, well, I seem to have lost my way. I’m always late for everything, you see.’
Again, Billy shook his wings which caused a shimmer of light to glow. The light was even brighter than the shepherds’ fire which, by now, was beginning to die out.
‘Everything was going fine,’ said the little boy, ‘until we passed through a market place and I stopped to taste the sweetest lollipop I have ever seen. And then we passed through a circus and I stopped to laugh at a clown. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, I found the furriest, fluffiest teddy bear I’ve ever seen and he was so warm and cuddly that I just couldn’t resist playing for an hour…or two.’
Billy thought back to all the things he had seen throughout his long, lovely day and then he jumped up from his place at the fire. His wings fluttered with excitement! Golden showers shimmered through the darkness of the night.
‘I knew it,’ cried Billy. ‘I knew I’d seen you before. At last I can be a proper angel and give good news to the people below.’
‘An angel?’ asked the boy. ‘I’ve seen some wonderful things today. In fact, I’ve travelled many miles since leaving home and I’ve had such fun but I don’t think I have ever seen an angel before!’
‘Well, I don’t think I’m a very good angel,’ replied Billy, ‘You see, by the time I get to where I’ve been sent it’s always too late and some other angel will have already given the news.’
‘Is that what angels do?’ asked the little boy.
‘Well, there are different kinds of angels,’ said Billy. ‘Some angels are like an awesome army and they fight great battles against evil. They are the bravest of all angels.’ Billy looked very serious as he thought of Michael and all the angels of heaven who had marched to war with only goodness in their hearts. ‘Some angels are heavenly helpers who bring comfort and warmth to those in need,’ continued Billy. ‘They are full of kindness and their hearts and so very loving and they bring healing in their hands. And other angels are messengers. They fly from God with great news. That’s the kind of angel I am. That’s the kind of angel I’m supposed to be,’ said Billy lowering his head.
‘Well, you look very grand and glorious,’ said the little boy. ‘You look as if you have great news indeed.’
‘I do have news,’ said Billy. ‘I have news of a new King who has been born into the world.’
‘Do you think it may be the king I am looking for?’ asked the little boy. ‘Do you have any news of him? Or is it all too late…again?’
‘No, of course it’s not too late!’ cried Billy. ‘It’s not too late at all! The new king born this night is in the town below. They say he is beautiful. Hurry, you’re not far away at all! Just follow that star!’ Billy pointed to the sky and it was the clearest night and the brightest star that anyone had ever seen.
‘This is like heaven!’ cried the little boy. ‘Thank you for the message! Thank you for being the best angel I’ve ever seen!’
‘Oh, one more thing,’ said Billy. His eyes were filled with great sadness. ‘There is still much in the world to fear and I really don’t want you to come to any harm. When you’ve seen the new king, please do be careful on your journey home.’
‘I will. I promise,’ said the little boy. ‘And thank you once again. You’ve been so kind. I think you may be the best angel I’ve ever met.’
And off ran the fourth wise man, who was really a boy and who is not very well known at all.
Billy glanced up at the star in the sky and there above him, gazing down, was Gabriel who had a very proud look on his face. In fact, his face was glowing, which is what angels do when they are very pleased indeed. Billy’s face glowed too and up he flew, flying high and higher. The sky burst open with light and it seemed to Billy as though heaven and earth was one. There was heavenly song, the kind that only angels sing when there is something wonderful to celebrate, for tonight the angels had delivered the most important message ever. And Billy’s timing had been just right!