The Light of Epiphany

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

John 1;1-14

Epiphany is one liturgical drama. It begins with the Lord’s birth, but is followed by unique revelations step by step, until Lent. No single part of the drama can embrace the full truth of the proclamation that God had become man – that light had entered the world’s darkness, and that mankind can participate in Christ’s divinity – no single event can fully unravel the magnificent scale as outlined in the words of St. John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the Word” now made flesh. The liturgy of the Church in a spectacular way provides a whole pageant, step by step, “manifesting” or revealing the fullness of the drama of the coming of Christ to Bethlehem and his work as Saviour.

When Christmas trees are being dumped, this is just the beginning of our journey of faith so now we must step outside the busy world. Then we hear of the foreign Magi, appearing after the local shepherds of Judea, telling us that Christ was for everyone. “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name”. [John 1;12] The first days after Christmas do not avoid the dark world. We recall Stephen our first martyr, the horror of the Holy Innocents, (still repeated in every generation and culture). We meditate with St John the beloved disciple who wrote to the Churches facing persecution, again continuing at a greater pace today yet reminding us that “the light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not”. [John 1;5]

Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi, Anonymous, 19th Century, Wikimedia Commons.

Epiphany is a drama unfolding many acts of revelation. None greater than the final prophet who, “came to bear witness to the Light that all men through him might believe”. In Christ’s baptism by John is revealed the overshadowing of the heavenly Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the beloved Son. In each episode the Gospel and the liturgy of the Church take us ever more deeply into this truth, that God had been manifested in the man-child of Bethlehem.

Every episode prepares us for that most difficult step into the Passion and Easter. This is beautifully underlined at the February Feast of Candlemas, in which the worshipper turns now from Bethlehem and a birth to Jerusalem and the Cross, so we who believe become like Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel saying “For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.” [Luke 2;30-31] But also with the Blessed Mother to face the implications that, “this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against, yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, [Luke 2;34-35]

Living in this present world, Christians will need these Epiphany stepping stones to form their minds, before beginning the difficult journey of Lent, Holy week which will demand a personal transfiguring of our hearts and lives to engage with the truth as spoken by St John “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. [John 1;14]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The Holy Name!

The Holy name of Jesus

Luke 2;15-21

One of the great moments for a parent is the choosing of names for our children, frequently before they are born. Having chosen the name of each child we watch the name and personality become intertwined. Then one of the great gifts the child can do is to confirm their approval of their special name. The giving of names to each new person within a family is not only a privilege but has a sacred value that many miss these days. In the past Christian parents would give their offspring names of saints and heroes of the Christian faith together with names of valued ancestors within the family, all of which will convey identity and belonging. Sadly, with the decline of faith, these traditions are becoming rare, and names are chosen now from the ranks of celebrities and idols of the moment or even names that have no meaning or ancestry whatsoever which surely cannot contribute to the development of a stable person!

Guido Da Siena: Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Public Domain)

The gospels highlight the sacredness and value of the name Jesus, given to Our Lord. Both John the Baptist and Jesus, were not given names by the parents, but in both cases the names were divinely given by God alone before the actual birth. Matthew recalls the words of the angel, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”. [Matthew 1;20] This underlines that the child Jesus was uniquely of God but had also has a human genealogy too that could be traced back through Hebrew history, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham”. [Matthew 1;1] It is St. Luke who then underlines the fully human dimension of the child Jesus who on the eighth day received circumcision and named as a male child of the Hebrew nation. Within the Christian tradition, the giving of names has a sacred purpose. The disciple Simon was renamed Petros, Saul renamed Paul, we dedicate our church buildings with the names of saints and priests like Popes and Patriarchs will take sacred names as signs to inspire their ministry.

From the earliest days of the emerging Church, power was attached to the Holy name of Jesus itself as can be seen in St. Peter’s address to the Jewish leaders after the feast of Pentecost, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by whom we must be saved.” [Acts 4;12] Again we read in letters of St. Paul, “God has given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” [Philippians 2;9–11]

We see the same power in the witness of the Early Fathers who taught their people the great virtue of exulting in their prayers the name of Jesus. The elderly St. Ignatius went to face martyrdom saying, to the amazed onlookers, “that he carried the name Jesus within his heart”. This was the birth of an important development in Christian devotion to the Holy name, which was to grow over the centuries reaching a high point in the use of what we now call, “The Jesus Prayer”. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”. This is familiar to some who know the classic book “The way of the Pilgrim”. So often in the minds of many, prayer becomes a matter of asking God for something, but praying the holy name of Jesus, places Christian prayer on another level. It not only sums up everything we believe, recognising that the name Jesus Christ implies true God and true Man the saviour and can only be on the lips of a Christian. The prayer has solid meaning in the mind but grows inwardly taking root in the heart, transforming the person allowing the name Jesus as St. John Chrysostom says; “Descending into the depths of the heart allowing body and soul to become one.”

We wish all our readers a Blessed New Year!

Full of Grace and Truth

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

John 1;1-14

Writing a homily for Christmas is made more difficult by the many homemade ideas that people cling to that are unreliable and have little to do with the truth of the incarnation that the Church first received from the Apostles. There are are at least three popular man made ideas that undermine the teaching of the Christian creed:

  • The man Jesus Christ was a great teacher and a wonderful example to all of us of how we should live and behave. His claim to be God is mere legend, along with the Virgin Birth, Shepherds, and Wise Men which are all fairy tales. Rising from the Dead, Miracles, Ascending into Heaven, are all just later inventions, and have no historical authority. At best they may have value as Teaching Aids and Codes of Behaviour.
  • Maybe Jesus was someone special but no more than a mere human being and there have been plenty of other individuals who have claimed to be in some way divine, but they have all died sooner or later.
  • The followers of gentle Jesus have a lot to answer for having often been guilty of all sorts of misdeeds done in His Name: The Crusades, Slavery, and Persecutions and wars have all been justified by His followers.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, Public domain.

Christmas in the Church often begins with St John’s Gospel telling a very different story! No shepherds or wise men, no little animals or twinkling stars but St John, a theologian and thinker saying: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”. Jesus Christ, he tells us was the Word and Son of God and “was begotten of the Father before all worlds”. St. John does not begin the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, for the mystery of His birth was not “His beginning” (as the popular view supposes). He had existed as the Word of God the Son of God since creation was begun. This Word was revealed by the great Hebrew prophets. God’s Chosen People, the Jews, did not, as a whole, receive the Word as spoken by the prophets or believe in Him later when he lived on earth. They ended up by killing Him. But some believed in Him, and St John affirms that “to as many as received Him He gave the Power to become the Sons of God”. There was a purpose in his coming, and that was to save or set free the souls of humanity.

St John who had a special insight with his close friend of Jesus, and who took care of the Lord’s mother Mary in later life. John must have pondered these mysteries for many years before setting them down in his Gospel. He says precisely this in his final verses of his gospel, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

The Church of God, began on the feast of Pentecost guided by the Holy Spirit, and with the same Spirit has continued to develop her understanding of those things the followers had witnessed, finally writing things down more than fifty years after Jesus had been crucified and overcome death. We are challenged today by ideas that are not part of the written scriptures or the revelation handed down within the Church. So much that people have come to believe is simply man made, and are pitifully inadequate theories especially about the person of Jesus Christ and what he brings to our human predicament.

There are other really important beliefs which are the foundation of the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ and why he came to live as a man. If people have indulged in fake beliefs sometimes going right back to their childhood, it is our duty to try and correct. Not always easy, but sometimes in this secular age they will actually be grateful, because more and more people are dissatisfied with the Secular Agenda which is always changing its moral position, and is drowning in lies and propaganda. Done sensitively we may have the best opportunities now to correct errors and guided by the Holy Spirit we may lead others who wish to hear, back to the real truth.

Our team of contributors wish all our friends a Happy Christmas with God’s blessing in the witness and ministry we are called to undertake.

Francis Gardom. Edward Bryant and Geoffrey Neal

R. I. P. Family Life

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matt 1;18-25

I had a shock during the week. No, it wasn’t anything like the post arriving before mid afternoon, but something of a quite different order. I had occasion to be in the local main car dealers, and got talking to the young woman receptionist. And she casually mentioned her husband. Husband? What kind of word is that? What kind of world is she living in? Surely we have progressed beyond all that dreary patriarchal enslavement of womankind? Well, because I am not ashamed to be counter-cultural, indeed I would argue that is the vocation of the Christian to be ready to be just such, I congratulated her, and I hope that those reading this Reflection would have done the same.

We could debate long about what has caused the collapse of family life. I hold the media – the MSM as it is often now called – responsible for much of this misery. Christians would be striking a major blow for decency – I do not even say Christian standards – by refusing to buy in to such rubbish. But it is far too simple just to point the finger elsewhere. The Times newspaper once posed the question “What’s wrong with the world?” and the writer G K Chesterton wrote the following letter ” Dear Sir, I am, Yours faithfully.” We must all be prepared to acknowledge that because none of us is perfect we too are caught up in the pain and brokenness that typify much of personal life in the western world today.

It is salutary to measure family life in our own day against the example of the Holy Family. Given the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, the divorce option would have been open to Joseph – though he was not yet married to Mary, he was betrothed, which in Jewish custom was the point of commitment – a year’s betrothal always culminated in marriage unless one of the partners died or there was some kind of scandal, and that was undoubtedly the case here, as described by Matthew, when, before the marriage proper, Mary was found to be pregnant.

Rembrandt, The Dream of St Joseph, around 1650, Public domain.

We do not know a lot about Joseph, though pious Christians of later ages have done their best to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, but in a sense, this passage says all we need to know, for it tells us that he was a righteous man and that he was a man of faith. What a powerful combination of qualities that is. We can find many people who have an innate sense of justice – indeed it is rumoured to be a particularly British quality – how else would the word “le fairplay” have entered the French language – but without a lively faith in God, to give justice its context and its meaning, justice can at best seem unfeeling and, at worst, spiteful and vengeful. Justice on its own in this situation would require that Mary be punished: faith, bolstered by Joseph’s dream of the angel, in fact dictates a totally different course of action – not merely no divorce, but the acceptance of Mary, pregnant though she was.

And acceptance is one of the keys to any successful relationship. It is fundamental to the Christian life to believe that Jesus accepts us just the way we are – after all, if he’d waited till we were perfect, he wouldn’t have had to die for us, would he? And if he accepts us, then we too must be ready to accept others for the sake of Jesus. If Joseph could accept Mary in spite of the uncertainty, in spite of the shame, in spite of the wagging tongues and pointing fingers, then we too are bound in duty and love to be of a mind to accept one another, spouses, family members, fellow Christians and those beyond, testing though this often is.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Straight Talking

The Third Sunday of Advent

Matt 11;2-11

Two figures prepare us for the coming of Jesus Christ. They are St. John the Baptist, the “voice crying in the wilderness”, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, through whom the Word was made flesh. These two figures frequently are represented either side of the entrance to the sanctuary in older Church buildings, pointing the way for worshippers to the heart of the faith. Both were of the Royal family of King David. Both chosen before their birth and in accordance with God’s divine plan to restore our participation in the divine relationship that leads to holiness. Both were Hebrews nurtured by the Old Testament Scriptures yet making it possible for the age of the New Testament to begin.

St. John the Baptist Icon, Syria, Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

John the Baptist is an unforgettable character, living as an ascetic like the prophet Elijah, dressed in rough clothing and surviving on a crude dessert diet. He had no time for hypocritical religious or civil leaders describing them as a “brood of vipers”. [Matt 3;7] His hard hitting words are not a comfortable message for any audience but when he passes judgement on the legality of the marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother’s wife, he quickly winds up in prison. This is the setting for our reflection. It is a strange exchange between John in prison and Jesus beginning his own mission. John on the brink of death, sends two disciples to Jesus, asking a direct question; “are you the coming One or do we look for another?” The reply is less direct, go look at the evidence, “lame walk, deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, dead are raised and the poor hear the gospel.” Surely this is not suggesting that John was becoming overwhelmed by doubts after all he had witnessed the manifestation of Christ at the baptism far more likely that it was for the benefit of John’s own followers, many of whom would join the apostles.

This exchange was placed by Matthew in the middle of his gospel some twenty or more years after the Resurrection when the mission of the apostles was well under way. In the Gospel itself, Jesus has collected his own group around him and sent them on a first mission, “as sheep among wolves.” [Matt 10;16] They had indeed come up against sharp conflicts that would become a characteristic of following Christ. All the disciples, both during the Lord’s lifetime or after his resurrection, needed to know that however great and unique John the Baptist was, he remains the forerunner and herald. The Crucifixion and trampling of death by Jesus, the Son of God is not a continuation of John’s ministry but a completion of it. There will be no more prophets to prepare the way for the Messiah had already come.v

Thus the ministry of John was crucial for all the disciples of Jesus, especially those who had come from John’s group like Matthias who replaced Judas. He is a crucial figure linking the long history of Hebrew prophets who for centuries had yearned for a new Messianic age with the coming of Jesus Christ.

John’s simple lifestyle in the dessert corresponds to his own no nonsense straightforward message, [Matt 3;3] “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” This message, of John should appeal today, in our modern societies, where living is complicated and confusing and people are increasingly struggling to know the true from the false, a world of misinformation, propaganda and downright lies everywhere. In times past we trusted most teachers especially in higher education, but now they are teaching a new monochrome anthropology at variance with the Judeo-Christian principles that have guided our cultures in the past. Once we trusted news outlets to speak the truth. But now we seem to live at a time when everything is tainted, even political and religious leaders are no longer trusted to tell the plain truth. Social media has contributed hugely to the instability of the world around us and directly upending mental stability among the people, so that not only individual lives but the democracy itself is floundering. Who would not be hoping in these days for a straight message and safe highway through all of this?

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Are You Ready?

The Second Sunday of Advent

Matt 3;1-12

“Prepare the way for the Lord” cried John the Baptist. While thinking about preparing, my mind turned to school inspectors, from a body known in the United Kingdom as OFSTED. Although their approach is more measured these days, it is not so long since news of an OFSTED inspection produced something like panic in schools. Normally after just a day or two’s notice, the inspectors descend, taking no special circumstances whatsoever into account: if the Head Teacher had had a nervous breakdown – sadly not a rare occurrence – too bad – they judged on what they saw, and many careers were destroyed.

St. John the Baptist,
NCC Church in Oslo.

So we ask if Christians should not with equal seriousness prepare, as John the Baptist calls us, for the coming of the Lord? These are well known words, but words which may have been blunted through their very familiarity. Also in the United Kingdom today, Kings and Lords are abound but are largely toothless tigers: so, Lord this or Lord that is paying a visit to town, so what difference? After all, they are just human! My guess is that in the feudal society of medieval England, or indeed in the police state of Herod’s Palestine, things would have been very different.

So when John cried “Prepare the way for the Lord” my guess is that for many ordinary people it would have been a call to be ignored at their peril. If you weren’t ready, heaven protect you. Yet at another level, remember, all this happened at a time of great religious ferment, the Jews were expecting something momentous to happen, they believed that God was going to intervene decisively in his world, they were looking for the coming of a Messiah. So on both scores, ordinary people would have rushed to get themselves ready in every possible way for the coming of the great King. The mass baptisms undertaken by John, are proof enough of a great spiritual awakening among the people, even if for their own reasons, the rich and powerful, the upholders of the status quo chose to remain deaf.

What has this to teach us? We all know that, for a host of reasons, our faith grows stale. Two thousand years of Christian history have come and gone and still we sing “When comes the promised time, that war shall be no more?” We also know that the things of this world can so easily lure us away. It may be the sheer necessity of doing the household chores, it may that we simply give in to the prevailing culture and join the great throng of those who seem simply to live life for our own selves, heedless of others, careless of the things of God.

Advent is one of the most beautiful seasons of the Church’s year: it is rich with promise, it has wonderful music that almost aches for the return of the Lord in his glory. Every time we say the Creed we affirm our belief that one day, in God’s time, it will happen, and the age will close. Because we do not know when, because it seems sometimes as though it will never happen, the temptation is to put off getting our spiritual house in order, is to defer our preparations for the coming of the King to another time, when the things of this world are not pressing in so hard upon us. But it is precisely for that reason that we should act now; we should try to see ourselves through God’s eyes; eyes which express love, an infinite love, let it be said, but eyes which also express great sadness that we have strayed so much from his paths and followed our own devices and desires.

Busyness should never be an excuse for neglecting our souls; if our souls are right with God, then we can sit light to all the bustle and frantic activity that surrounds us and can so easily suck us in. If not, then we risk sinking under the pressures that we allow to rule our lives. A good resolve for Advent is the opening words of another old hymn – thy way, not mine O Lord. So let it be for us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Be Prepared

Advent Sunday

Matt 24;37-44

The writer Rod Dreher begins his book The Benedict Option with these words: “No one saw the flood coming.” This theme matches the gospel passage of St. Matthew that opens the new liturgical year on Advent Sunday recalling Noah and the need for preparedness. Noah was a man who lived by faith in God and was well prepared to face natural or man-made disaster, unlike the people of Dreher’s home town, Baton Rouge, who never imagined the consequences of the August 2022 floods. The whole community was shell shocked very much like the people of Europe are today, also facing the perfect storm of food and fuel shortages, inflation and economic confusion, political turmoil and social conflict. For decades people have been asleep believing everything they have been told, that such things could never happen again in our enlightened world, that lessons had really been learned.

Anonymous, Greece (Public domain)

The Christian world has likewise indulged in a similar lack of preparedness, not listening to the warnings that have been given by the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and others, who decades ago, saw the storm clouds gathering over the Church, with ingredients that would create a spiritual crisis. Christians have been asleep like the foolish virgins who said, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’[Matt. 25;11] There is no assurance in the illusion that today’s creeping secularism could be trusted and tolerated, that somehow Christians could live alongside or even modify their faith to a godless culture. Rarely have Christians been less prepared to work together to face the storms and supporting each other in the face of destruction. We approach Advent 2022 with this monumental challenge, that Jesus, in his coming and taking our humanity, by his birth in Bethlehem and by his death as a man in Jerusalem, he makes possible our participation in his divinity, enabling us to face the storms. This is the only message we take into our own lives as alert and sensitive worshippers in the coming months. It is the same message of St. Paul to the Roman Church, “Put on Christ” and do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep.” [Romans 13;11]

Banish the idea that Advent is just “a countdown season” before the Christmas parties and return to the crucial point of a serious Advent season and with the mind of Matthew’s Gospel, ready to resist inertia. “Know this, if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into” says Jesus. [Matt 24;43] The setting in which Jesus spoke these words was perfect! It was Jerusalem on the first day of his Holy Week Passion and the teaching he gave of vigilance was crucial if his followers, who must be in a state of readiness. John Henry Newman, preaching to his parishioners on this predicament, said, that those who watch for Christ “in all that happens, would never be surprised or overwhelmed”.

Never has it been more vital for Christians not to be so preoccupied with daily living that they are indistinguishable from everyone else, being taken by surprise by a terrible turn of events unable to fight the good fight in readiness for the Son of Man’s coming at an hour we do not expect.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The Compassionate Christ
– If You Are a King

Sunday before Advent, Christ the King

Luke 23;33-43

In six months, Britain will witness the coronation of the new King Charles III. Few will realise that the ceremony is not just a pageant, but is rooted in the kingship of the compassionate Christ of the Christian tradition. We however are fortunate to have a dramatic liturgical drama at this time each year that reflects upon this theme. The season of Pentecost turns to the season of the Incarnation in a climax with this Sunday proclaiming Jesus Christ as King of the saints of the faith through the ages. If it remains true to its tradition, the Coronation next year will underline the monarch’s links with the Kingship of Christ. The setting is the Holy Eucharist, and the symbols of the crown, the sceptre and orb each bearing a cross that together with the Bible are brought from the High Altar and bestowed upon the King who will be consecrated with the holy oil of Chrism. We must hope that this will not be altered or its significance glossed over, and some may see the message.

Christ the King, The Melkite Catholic Annunciation Cathedral in Roslindale.
[Boston at English Wikipedia & John Stephen Dwyer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Meanwhile we are grateful to have this Sunday, first recognised in 1925 by Pope Pius XI providing a climax that formally underlines the Biblical title “King of Kings,” and confirms the full meaning and purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost to build a Kingdom of disciples and saints for the Lord.

However there is still much to untangle in the Christian interpretation of Kingship, because our present age, awash with propaganda, has filled our minds with political dogma about figures of power, wealth and status. Believing that the world encourages on the one hand the creation of rich celebrity idols, yet at the same time signals a better world achieved through a processes of “levelling up” for the rest of us. Monarchy has naturally been caught up in this net, and depicted as an institution of power and great wealth derived in the past from an empire built on the transportation of populations across the oceans to work on plantations. The Kingship of Christ far from being part of any of these ideas. It is the remedy for distorted worldly power.

At his trial when challenged by Pontius Pilate’s question, “are you a King,” Jesus said “my Kingdom is not of this world”, “I came to testify to truth.” Jesus is for us King of compassion and truth, just as he was at his humble birth in the stable at Bethlehem where God gave him “the throne of David and a kingdom that will have no end”. The entire adult ministry of Jesus between his birth and crucifixion were about this vision of a Kingdom of heaven that is the vehicle for renewing humanity and the world by being utterly distinct from the kingdoms of Caesars, dictators, princes and presidents. The healings that accompanied his time among people, all witnessed to the Messianic Kingdom built one built on God’s original plan to live by truth and not by evil and lies. This is why we pray daily, “thy will be done and thy kingdom come.”

All this is on display as Jesus stands before his alter ego, Pilate. This is an image of Kingship so totally removed from the modern mind. How different from the power of princes of this present age? The first followers saw very clearly this difference, and that they could not put their trust in Princes of mankind who would compel them to offer incense to Lord Caesar and call him “Kurios”. From Nero and Diocletian, Stalin and Mao it has been the same story.

Let us pray that in our age the people of God will stand by Jesus the one Lord and King in the way St. Paul gave in a final instructions to his disciple Timothy; “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” [1 Timothy 6;13 -15]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Peace In Our Time?

2nd Sunday before Advent

Remembrance Sunday

Luke 21;5-19

One of the saddest things about growing old is that short term memory starts to fade, though one can often recall events that happened years ago with total clarity, while being totally unable to remember where you left the keys you had in your hands two minutes ago. November is a time heavy with remembering.

Philip Stevens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls Days, in England, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament, and then, Remembrance Sunday (its American equivalent being Veterans Day), falling on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. We all remember how so many people had their lives changed forever by two World Wars and other conflicts of the twentieth century.

Now once again, the spectre of world war looms, and though, comfortable in our relative peace, we can easily overlook this, there is always war going on somewhere in the world. A hymn that was once popular on Remembrance Sunday began with the words “O valiant hearts,” which sprang out of the overwhelming grief generated by the litany of death of the First World War. In context its emotionalism is understandable, yet I always felt uneasy about it, because it compared the deaths of all those young soldiers to the death of Our Lord himself.

It was the seventeenth century Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, who wrote “Any man’s death diminishes me” and so it does; it is in no way to belittle the sacrifice made by many for the protection of liberty and democracy to say that Our Lord’s self-sacrifice is of a totally different kind. Yet in such a terrible year as this it is tempting to ask, blasphemous though it might appear, whether either the Cross or all the sacrifices in recent wars have accomplished anything, so great is the evil which confronts us.

My answer to that, though, has to be a resounding yes. Although we still must reflect about the causes of the First World War, and the consequences, who can doubt that the Second World War was a necessary conflict; had the Allies not gone to war, what would have happened is too horrible to contemplate. And though we have to be a little cautious about the narrative relating to the present conflict in the Ukraine, the bellicose pronouncements of President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, together with, sadly, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, can give no cause for comfort.

Jesus and Apostles, anonymous, Cappadocia, c.XII,
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons}

And as to the Cross: the problem is not with Our Lord’s sacrifice, the problem is that men and women continue to live as though it did not matter. They abuse the priceless gift of free will that God has given them, and they sow dreadful seeds of hatred and envy and greed; who can doubt it, for the fruits are everywhere to be seen. Vital though it is for us to fight against evil, it is just as vital for us to root evil out from our own lives, that they may be truly mirrors of Our Lord’s own life. It must never be forgotten, that Jesus went meekly to his Cross, praying all the while for those who had condemned him. We should remember in order to learn and to apply the lessons of the past, but we should also remember, as a spur to renewing our own lives in the image of Christ, who came to bring peace to a troubled world, and who still calls us all to share in his work of bringing peace and hope and reconciliation to others.

Fr Edward Bryant

The Trap

3rd. Sunday before Advent

Luke 20;27-38

The Reflections using Luke’s gospel will end with the final Sundays before Advent. This Gospel has given us a syllabus on the meaning and cost of discipleship. The passage for the week is just one of the five battles Jesus faced before his trial. In its context it follows an earlier encounter with the Pharisees who had been trying to trap him, by sending spies, pretending to ask sincere yet double-edged questions, saying “is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” The wrong answer here could lay Jesus open to treason! In this case the Lord not only saw their deceit and avoided the trap, but declared his own conviction that it was possible to be both loyal citizens of the state but also to fulfil commitments to God.

Now Jesus faces another trap with the stricter party of Sadducees who accepted the Torah, the five books of the Law of Moses. This battle with Sadducee lawyers was a theologically complex trap involving marriage and the resurrection, by which they tried to ridicule Jesus and drive him into the party of the Pharisees. The trap used a popular controversy of the time about remarriage which Jesus answered at a far deeper level. He explains that for those who love God deeply that life does not end with death but will be transformed at the resurrection through the love God, or in words of St. Paul, “and now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love”, [1 Corinthians 13;13]

Anastasis, Unknown Author, 11th Century, Chora Church Museum, Istanbul,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These passages before his Passion have several purposes. They are based upon the Lord’s own experiences which are used as important guides for the first disciples. Jesus was facing a real human world of intrigue, trickery, deceit and entrapment in which he and we, and all his followers need to be alert to at all times responding in ways that reflect not the world of mankind but the kingdom and love of God. “Be wise as serpents but innocent as doves.” It will get more and more difficult with more vicious and sophisticated traps set by the enemies of Christ. Facing this adversary is like facing “a prowling lion seeking whom he may devour”.

Although the arguments and battles Christians face today are different to those in the gospel, the traps and deceits remain ever present. Indeed they may be more difficult and intimidating today because the means of manipulation are far greater and far more widespread as a result of global communication which sets up controversy across the internet in matters of seconds. For example the battle over abortion or gender, over human rights (whatever they are) or the stewardship of the world of nature are examples of new moralities that have the power to override orthodox belief. The State is now using every means to increasingly manipulate public opinion and taking greater and greater powers to enforce compliance with the new and godless mind. The enemy is a creeping totalitarianism we are all now confront. Mass media manages propaganda radically restricting freedom of speech and belief.

These are changes now facing Christians across the entire world as huge numbers are becoming trapped by state regulations enforced by the police. Others who would like to be openly faithful are feeling impotent to react to mass conditioning. St. Paul in his writing to his disciple Timothy was urgent in making him aware of the dangers of entrapment, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned. The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but they will …… turn their ears away from the truth….but you, be watchful in all things”. [2 Timothy 3;12ff]

This lesson is so very serious for us that the NCC together with our friends in the Union of Scranton are heavily engaged in making a future in which faithful disciples in the fragmented denominations can work together for the truth, supporting each other in the battles, and avoiding the traps.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Translate »