Sunday, 16 December 2018

Some Thoughts on Gaudate Sunday and Why We Have a Pink Candle

Advent 3 16/12/1018

Readings : Zeph 14-end
           Phill: 4:4-7
                  Luke 3: 7-18

May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

We have reached the third Sunday in advent, also called Gaudete Sunday. The more observant among you might have noticed that the advent candle we lit this morning is pink, rather than purple.

Gaudete means to rejoice, yet we are in Advent, which can be described as a mini lent, a season that is supposed to be about sombre reflection. Gaudete Sunday is if you like a light in the darkness, a sign that we have almost made it. Although whether you rejoice at it nearly been Christmas may depend on whether you have been super organised and got everything done,
or if you are in a mad panic at the thought of what you still need to do before the big day!

I don't know about anyone else but I can be rather impatient and find waiting quite hard, especially if there’s going to be something nice at the end of it!

Throughout the history of the people of Israel there seems to be a theme of waiting, but it is a waiting in hope and expectation,
that one day the messiah will come, the oppressive rulers will be thrown down.

Our first reading today was from the prophet Zephanianh,
he was alive in an era when Jerusalem and the people of Israel
had seen a great deal of upheaval. They had been conquered by the Assyrias. Their leaders had worshipped false gods in the Jerusalem temple. Zephaniah is a short book, only 3 chapters long and the first two and a half are about how evil the people are and how the trails and tribulations they are living through are Gods punishment on them.
Then half way through chapter 3 we get a change in tone. A remnant of Israel shall be left that can do no wrong, utter no lies. The song of rejoicing we heard this morning follows on from this vision of a better future.
Ultimately it is a song of hope, however bad things may seem God has not totally abandoned his people and one day all will be well.

In his letter to the Phillipans Paul sounds surprisingly upbeat
considering that he was probably writing it whilst under house arrest and with the prospect of being killed at anytime.
In those circumstances I am not sure I would be calling on people to rejoice! I would be more concerned with them putting together a plan to rescue me, but then I am not a saint.

Paul tells the phillipians to rejoice but he also offers some guidelines for how to behave, let your gentleness be known to everyone pray and don't worry, Reading those words today with all the uncertainty we seem to be facing over brexit, national and international politics and what seems a public political discourse that gets more angry and ill tempered by the day.
What Paul is describing sounds a million miles away from what we are experiencing.

Yet I think what both Paul and Zephanianh have to say is very relevant to us today, firstly, don't give up hope, empires may be falling, it may seem as if we are staring in to a cataclysmic abyss, but God still plans to redeem this mess. So whilst we are in a period of reflection and penitence during Advent, it doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom.

 We can still rejoice because God is coming to redeem all things.
 More importantly we can be a forerunner of that redemption
 in how we live and how we treat each other.

At the time of John the Baptist the people of Israel were again experiencing being ruled by an occupying force. They were forced to submit not to God but to an occupying force, who were throwing people of their land, paying them a pittance for skilled work, there seemed little prospect of improvement.
This is why the people were so desperate for a messiah.
John the Baptist with his charasmatic preaching and counter cultural lifestyle was seen as a potential messiah, a figure of hope, that's why the people looked to him with expectation.
John however tells them that they need to look elsewhere, he is not the one, there is one that is greater that is coming.

Waiting in expectation for a messiah to come and save you from oppression is a bit different to waiting in joyful expectation when you are anticipating nice presents, good food and drink,
time with family and friends and possibly a break from work. Many Christians will be celebrating Christmas in secret, their lives in danger because of their faith. For others it may mean extra stress and worry. Children may be dreading Christmas because it means mum and dad will drink, and then fight.

How can we wait in joyful expectation in these situations? As I was thinking about this last week I came across two tweets,
the first was a response to someone having expressed amazement at how Theresa May could joyfully sing "O come, all the faithful", given her current political difficulties the reply was that's what Christians do.
The second was from the twitter account Slug Soup, a curious group of cuddly frogs and hedgehogs that tweet about soup and philosophical musings. They tweeted
"we have been thinking about joy.
It runs through your life like a deep, slow River;
like a stream of cool air.
It is crystal clear, you cannot always see it but it is always there."

There is a deep joy that comes from having a relationship with the God that gave himself to us as a tiny baby. It is a joy that doesn't need Christmas trees or presents, good food or other material things to be felt. Sometimes it may even be hard to find,
but it is always there if we wait and if we pray in joyful expectation it can be found.


Thursday, 31 May 2018

Corpus Christi: Bread and wine into body and blood with the help of a fluffy sheep

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

 Things may not be what they appear, appearances can be deceiving, don't judge a book by its cover. There are lots of sayings that teach us not to rely on what we see. These sayings still exist despite the scientific age we live in, with it's quest to provide firm evidence for everything.

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ. During the reformation the Eucharist and what exactly Jesus meant when he said “this is my body” was a major point of debate. The reformers claimed that the bread and wine looked clearly like bread and wine so must be just bread and wine.

 However, as I said at the start appearances can be deceiving. To help demonstrate this point, I have bought a friend with me tonight, meet Woolly the Sheep.
Now, Woolly was a present from some friends a few years ago. Now, I like cute and cuddly things and have a rather large cuddly toy collection. Andrew had told my friends not to give me any more as we had no space. So, when I unwrapped Woolly, Andrew's first response was “what’s that? I said no more cuddly toys!” I then pointed out the label round his neck which clearly stated this is not a toy.

 Andrew responded by pointing that he has a head, eyes, ears, four paws and body, it definitely looked like a cuddly toy. However if you look beneath the outer skin, you will find that Woolly here is missing something key to being a cuddly toy, he has no stuffing! Instead he has a hot water bottle. When Woolly is being put to his proper use you may pick him up and if you don't know the truth get an unexpected warm feeling, which tells you there is more to Woolly than meets the eye.

 Receiving the bread and wine in the mass can have a similar effect. Sara Miles had no intention of being a Christian when one day she walked into a church where a service was taking place. She joined the service and in her book “take this bread” she describes what happened when she joined in receiving the bread and wine.

“I still can't explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening-the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ”, a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening- God, named “Christ” or “Jesus” was real and in my mouth -utterly short circuited my ability to do anything but cry.”

Whilst we may not all have the same reaction as Sara Miles did, we all have feelings that go beyond what out five conventional senses may tell us. We may feel a sense of awe at some stunning sight of natural beauty, find ourselves moved by a particular piece of music, or just feel a sense of something other.

 A few years ago I visited Medjugorje in Bosnia, in the 1980's a group of children claimed to have seen visions of the virgin Mary on the hillside there. The catholic church has not yet accepted the place as an official holy site. However, when we climbed up the mountain to the site, where there is now a statue, I had a sense of it feeling like a special, holy place. In the same way when receiving the Eucharist I often have a sense that this is more than bread and wine.

 Thomas Aquinas writes about the concept of a spiritual eye, the idea that there is an instinctive or intuitive power in the human soul that can recognise the presence of the divine. It is this spiritual eye that allows us to perceive that there is more to the bread and wine in the mass than mere physical human sight would suggest.

 If our inward sense is telling us that we are receiving something so special, so holy, what does that mean for us? For Sara Miles, who I quoted earlier, that experience was the first step on a road that was to lead to her becoming a church leader. That might not be the path we all take, but in the simple act of receiving bread and wine, body and blood, by accepting part of Christ in us, we can all be transformed.

 Our spiritual senses experience the presence of Christ and that presence becomes part of us, strengthening us, renewing and reforming us until we all become part of His body, His feet, His eyes, His hands, His strength to go out into the world and do His work. Amen