Tag Archives: Matthew

The Holy Innocents In The Shadow Of The Cross

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Festival of the Holy Innocents is never an easy day on which to preach; its subject matter can be unsettling and difficult to broach. However, the connections between the nativity and the cross are worth exploring. Readings: Matthew 2:13-18 , Jeremiah 31:15-17

This morning’s readings are not the easiest for us to hear for many reasons. The subjects are in stark contrast to the glad tidings and joy of Jesus’ birth. Although the things written about are actually separated by several months from this event, this year it is only three days, since we left the miraculous birth of Christ, represented so often in bucolic Christmas Card nativity scenes with the glowing lantern-lit stable, tranquil Holy Family, rosy-cheeked cherubs  and fluffy sheep – only to be suddenly faced with the horrors of death.

For many people it’s easy to accept at face value the story of the Nativity, there’s nothing that feels threatening about the story, despite the subtle intimation of the Magi’s gift of myrrh, but even that’s saved for next week. It is a happy event, yet Matthew’s gospel reveals a baby who is apparently considered so much of a threat to the region’s most powerful man that he kills a whole village of babies in order to try to get rid of him. This Jesus he had heard about was interfering with Herod’s ambitions.

However, we should not be surprised by Herod’s murderous intentions. He was a past master of assassination. No sooner had he come to the throne than he began annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, slaughtering 300 court officers out of hand.  He also murdered his wife Marianne, his mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus.

Even at the hour of his death he wanted to arrange the killing of the leading citizens of Jericho. Consequently, initiating the slaughter of 20-30 babies would not have been out of character, and would not have really caused much of a stir in a land rife with murders – except to their heart-broken mothers.

Throughout the whole of history, malevolent tyrants have used their power to remove any perceived threat to their authority.  We only have to recall over the last few months, the persecution and brutal execution of Christians, including children, in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State, with its strong resonances to the story of the Holy Innocents; and even more recently, the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar, Pakistan by Taliban militants. All of them innocent, all of them offering no obvious threat to their evil killers, simply murdered because of a misconceived sense of a potential future threat.

Being innocent is not the same as being in the wrong place at the wrong time – they were all in their rightful places, at home with their families, in places of trust such as schools – what then do we imagine it was like when the soldiers burst in and tore the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers or when terrified children look up only to be met by a hail of bullets as they frantically tried to escape.

The death of innocent victims always taps into our basic emotions – but the death of a child touches us deep within. For example, although I have never personally been to any of the Nazi concentration camps, I have seen the evidence in films and books. However, my daughter Ruth, after a trip to Auschwitz, told me that it wasn’t the sophistication of the gas chamber showers, or the ovens and chimneys that caused her to have a lump in her throat; it was the neatly stacked pile of children’s shoes that finally broke her heart at the poignancy of it all.

The poignancy of children's shoes in Auschwitz

The poignancy of children’s shoes in Auschwitz

All these deaths go against our perceived proper order of things – that children grow up, become the next generation of adults and have children of their own. What does become clear then is that if people can be ungodly then they can also be inhumane and that whenever the truth and goodness of God are seen, then a backlash of evil is provoked and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

So despite the cosiness of the nativity story it is more accurate to recall that Jesus was also recognised as Immanuel, meaning ‘God with Us’. That he was born not to home comforts, but to endure pain, suffering and injustice just like the people to whom he came. He came to show this world the way of love; the way of peace; the way of justice.

He showed us how we should live and act during our time on earth, by cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, like kindness, faithfulness and self-control; but he was not equipping us for this life but for the next. His birth already had signs of the more significant part of his life – his death.

Because of this, his story can bring comfort to all who go through the unbearable agony of the death of a child or those who suffer because of human cruelty, since they are redeemable and redeemed, because Jesus is the ultimate innocent victim, his death on the cross conquering over the uttermost depths of sin and evil

The Shadow of the Cross Across The Manger

The star may continue to shine in the sky but the shadow of the cross falls across the whole story

Jeremiah’s prophecy is referring to God’s covenant to bring the Babylonian exiles back –  and that although Israel must weep and mourn, rescue is on its way. In the same way Jesus brings deliverance even when everything seems bleak and hopeless. Jesus has been born as the bearer of God’s salvation.  Thus a new exodus is begun and continued through the death of the Holy Innocents – it is looking forward to the last day when Christ will establish his kingdom and God will make everything new. We weep with the parents and families but God will turn this mourning into joy  and gladness and we have to hold on to this hope.

We also have to remember that God is not responsible for the massacre this was not a prophecy to fulfil a purpose, but a prophecy that had been fulfilled. It is Herod, who is fully aware of the threat Jesus poses that perpetrates these atrocities, or who more accurately despatches his soldiers to carry them out.

What of the soldiers who simply ‘obeyed orders?’ Could we sometimes be like them, when we collude with evil by not intentionally standing against it , when we look on as child sex traffickers, exploiters of street children or dictators who use hunger as a political weapon and thereby allow the innocent to suffer – surely these are situations to which the church, both with a big and a small ‘C’ must loudly proclaim ‘No’ to the world.

In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, Jesus takes his place where so many of his children live and there should the church, his body, always be. Though death attends his birth, his own death will declare that death is never the answer in spite of every Herod’s belief. His presence amidst life’s direst need and his triumph over life’s adversary are the birth of hope for his followers in all times, places and circumstances.

This is where the story of love incarnate leads. For the Holy innocents their deaths are part of the sacrifice of Christ for the whole human race. Therefore, all can be hopeful who die innocently – innocent victims of war, terror, natural disaster, cruelty, accident, abuse, oppression – these are not wasted lives!

Christ’s story mirrors their stories – he suffered innocently, died prematurely, but took on and defeated death itself and so holds the keys to life. The face of Jesus, shines out from the crib and shows us not only the glory of God, but is a vision of hope and love for us today.

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

A Life In Books

A life in books

A life in books

I was recently asked to list ten book that had had an influence on my life. It’s not as easy as you might think, in fact rather than simply being able to dash off a list each one I chose needed to be balanced against another book, another memory, another situation or point in my life. For each one you discard another three or four could easily take its place.

The final ten are therefore not finite and may not necessarily signify every stage of my life in which a book has featured or even the most important; but they are a representation and compiling the list itself was an exercise in discovering how important literature and reading is in my life and no doubt in many other lives as well.

So here is my list, in no particular order, with a brief explanation as to why it made the final ten.

The Classics

The Classics

Here are the classics, the books I studied at school for my English A Level, but also the ones that I continue to read today

1. Aeneid – Virgil
The legendary epic poem telling the story of Aeneas as he travels from Troy to Rome. It appealed to my sense of adventure and love of history, myths and legends.

2. Selected Poetry of William Blake (and John Keats)
Blake’s poetry and artwork really entered my soul and spoke volumes to me, in particular his Songs of Innocence and Experience, but I had to cheat with the addition of John Keats as his was the first poetry that I wanted to memorise.

3. Anthony and Cleopatra/Macbeth – William Shakespeare
These two Shakespeare plays have become for me just two examples of how words, when beautifully written and composed can be understood by any age. A project to study, create and produce a filmed version of Macbeth using the original language with a bunch of 9 year olds proved that.

Reading as children

Reading as children

First reading books certainly can claim an influence on your life. I could so easily have include the Janet and John books which were my first readers; and the memorable time of being on holiday as a five-year old, sharing the same story with a young fellow vacationer – ‘Look, John, look. See tha’ boats’.

Still it is children’s books that appeal to adults as well that remain timeless.

4. Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
The world of Mole, Ratty, Badger and the irascible Toad spoke of an idyllic vision of the countryside, punctuated by ill-tempered weasels and the disastrous adventures of an annoying amphibian. This descriptive way of writing was only equalled later by Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’,

5. The Blue Balloon – Mick Inkpen
The well-worn copy of this book is testament to just how loved it was by my children. At two and half, my daughter Lizzie could ‘read’ it from cover to cover; every word perfect, every nuance expressed. It was a sharing book and just one of the reasons that I ordered a new copy so that it may be shared with future generations as well

Love of knowledge

Love of knowledge

6. Encyclopaedias
My thirst for knowledge was slaked by the two sets of encyclopedias we owned. One was a series of volumes printed sometime in the early part of the 20th century – the other set from the 50’s. However, both were put to full use, prior to the invention of Encarta and the internet.

Their use nowadays is somewhat limited, but where else could you find Jade, Jam and Jaguars all on the same page!

Strengthening faith

Strengthening faith

My studies have provided me with enough reading material to keep me busy for many a year to come. Whole new bookshelves have had to be created to hold it all, but the basis for it all is found in just one book – The Bible and in particular my 7th choice

7. The Four Gospels
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have become essential authors as I follow my vocation, but many years ago they also inspired me to help form my character and outlook on life.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105

8. Making God Possible – Alan Billings
Theology books don’t often make me excited, but it was whilst I was exploring what my vocation might be that I read this book. I suspect is it a bit of specialist, niche book, but it made me want to say – ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s all about.’

9. The Strength to Love – Martin Luther King Jr
Combine the history and struggle of black, African slaves and 20th century segregation with the teachings of a non-violent pastor and you get insights into a world which I can only imagine and yet have a huge amount of empathy with. These were the subjects of my thoughts about justice and equality as I grew up. MLK’s writings are world-famous, and yet they still speak into so many situations that we still face today

Bero Cookbook blog10. The Be-Ro Cookbook
My final book is actually the 3rd edition of the book I have owned. Despite its dubious sexist cover photos; its dog-eared and bespattered pages tell the story of several decades of cooking favourite recipes. It is also a fact that in spite of those decades, I still need to refer to it each time when making scones for the exact quantities. Why is that I wonder?

So that is the ten that made the list – no mention of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Harper Lee, Homer…..

Just outside the list

Or the many others that fill my bookcase…

Bookcase blog

Why not have a go yourself and see what your list might contain?

The Empty Tomb

The Empty Cross

The Empty Cross

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It was with this greeting and response; as we sat down to share our evening meal that a new term began at college. It was only two days beforehand that I had sat next to the Easter cross in my home church, celebrating Easter Sunday and here I was, back to my studies but with new tasks to complete and new challenges. It seemed the same, but then again it also seemed different

I suspect it was the like that for the women, who approached the tomb on the first day of the week. Yes, a dreadful thing had happened and yes, they were probably a bit disorientated and shaken, but they were coming to do what they would always have done if someone died – that at least was normal, but what happened next was very different

Each Gospel gives a slightly different version of accounts. In Mark there are several women together to who arrive to anoint the body, only to find that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back and inside was a young white-robed man telling them not to be afraid, but that the body wasn’t there. Despite his call for calm, they are terrified and flee from the tomb, too afraid to tell anyone what they have seen

In Matthew, it is two Marys who go to look at the tomb, only to experience an earthquake, caused by an angel’s descent from heaven; who puts the guards into a stupor and then shows them that Jesus is not in the tomb. He sends them fearfully, yet joyfully, to deliver a message to the disciples that they are to return to Galilee, only for them to meet Jesus himself who confirms what they must do.

In Luke we again hear about a group of women, who meet two dazzlingly dressed men and after being reminded of what Jesus had previously told them, return to the disciples only to be accused of idle talk until Peter runs to look for himself.

Finally, in John, it is Mary Magdalene who, on seeing that the stone has been removed, runs back to tell this to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, who both then set off towards the tomb, the latter outrunning Peter to reach the tomb, but respectfully waiting for Peter to enter it first, only to be met by discarded linen wrappings. However, it is after this that Mary in a bitter-sweet moment encounters Jesus and can report this back to all the disciples.

All of these accounts add to the story of what happened, but the one fact that they all substantiate is that the tomb was empty.

‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’ Matthew 28:5-6

I often wonder if it shouldn’t be the tomb that is used more as an image of Christ’s resurrection, a permanent reminder of the defeat of death – but equally it is the empty cross that is a powerful and iconic symbol of transformation to which we are drawn.

This is his blood which he shed for you

This is his blood which he shed for you

The truth is that in a way this transformation is what was happening on Sunday, as I watched people, coming forward to place a flower around the cross. The blooms themselves were fresh and vibrant, and everyone placed them as carefully as they could, trying not to bruise the petals. However, some found it difficult to push  them into the ‘ground’, while others knew exactly the spot they wanted in relation to the position of the cross. One flower in particular caught my attention – a beautiful cream tulip, streaked with red, that was placed right in the centre  at the very foot – which looked this morning as if its cup had opened up to catch the blood that would have fallen from Jesus’ body

Yet, as beautiful as this display had become, each single representative bloom was already dying; just as we are called to die to Christ in order to be transformed and given new life. This truly is the joy of the Easter message and yet not everyone chooses to respond to it. That, no doubt, is the greatest regret as far as God is concerned as he tries, in love, to reconcile all of his creation. However, it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and do our part by sharing the Good News

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

He is risen as he said

He is risen as he said

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Called Christmas For A Reason – Mary’s Story

Mary and Child

Mary and Child

The day had been long and arduous, whether walking slowly along the dusty, gritty road or bumping along on the ass’ back; each step jolting the baby she carried inside her, as she gripped tightly onto the beast’s mane.

The town had looked such a welcome relief as they’d approached it, but it had soon become evident as they pushed and jostled their way through the narrow streets that they had arrived too late to find the comfortable guest house with its cool whitewashed walls and decent bed on which to rest.

Instead, “No vacancies, we’re full up!”

She had tried to smile as her husband looked apologetic, but he was determined to find them somewhere to stay. The last place they tried looked less appealing, a little shabby, but by then they were desperate; the baby was stirring inside her. The owner, must have sensed their anxiety as he led them down to the only room he had for them….among the animal stalls! Still there was plenty of clean straw and hay, and when her husband lit the oil lamp its glow had seemed to bring a tiny feeling of warmth to the room.

As darkness fell, she had tried to get some sleep, but it seemed to elude her tonight. She lay listening to the snuffling and soft breathing of the animals; a shaft of moonlight fell onto the earthen floor through a chink in the roof, and tiny motes of dust made it seem alive in the otherwise still air – there was a feeling of expectancy, not least from the child that moved more urgently in her womb. Through the open door she could see what seemed a million stars in the heavens, under which the rest of the world slept in deep oblivion of the future.

She felt the first sharp pain, but waited to wake her sleeping husband until she knew the birth rhythms were regularly and imminent. “The baby’s coming…”

Afterwards, as she wrapped the child in the swaddling cloths she had brought with them, she gazed down at him, cradled in her arms, and felt such an overwhelming sensation of love, that it made her whole body tingle, dissipating completely the few lingering pains of childbirth. She looked up to her husband, wondering what his thoughts were now that the child was here, but she saw only love and an unconditional acceptance, that here was a son; whom he would nurture and raise as best he could, A carpenter’s son or maybe he would choose another calling?

The baby, now content with a breastful of milk, lay quietly. He too held his mother regard as she scrutinized her perfect new-born infant and as their eyes met, she gasped slightly as she glimpsed briefly within them an ancient wisdom that spoke of creation and new worlds. Rocking him gently, she sang a lullaby “Let all creation join my song, for peace and love are born…” which stilled not only her own mind but that of the creatures around her.

“A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23

Outside, Bethlehem and the rest of the world was beginning to awake as the dawn broke. As she laid him in a manger of sweet smelling hay she spent a while pondering the future, wanting this hushed moment of peace to last for ever, but somehow knowing that it would not last…

… at least not in her or perhaps her son’s lifetime. Maybe eventually though it just might….

Bethlehem Wall Graffiti by Pawel Rzyzawa

Bethlehem Wall Graffiti by Pawel Rzyzawa

With every blessing for peace this Christmas!

“Let all creation join my song, for peace and love are born” are lyrics from ‘Mary’s Lullaby’ by Jan Underwood Pinborough

A Bible Is For Life, Not Just For Sundays?

Read the bible in whatever way possible

Read the bible in whatever way possible

At church recently we took the opportunity to think about the place that God’s word, in the form of the bible, takes in our worship and daily lives. Appropriately, it was on Bible Sunday*

It would be silly to ask you to put your hands up or answer out loud, but I’d like you to think what your answers might be to these questions…

I read the bible……

I read the bible every day……

I read the bible every day and then reflect on what I have read…

I read the bible every day and then reflect on what on what I have read and then try to apply it to my life…

The questions are not intended to be accusatory …. that you really should choose the last one in order to be deemed ‘saintly’. The most important thing is whether you actually read the bible!

At college we may not be required to bring our bibles to each lesson or lecture, where we talk about theology, liturgy and formation, but what has become obvious is just how vital Holy Scripture is to our faith. I don’t mean learning huge chunks of it off by heart or being able to recite whole gospels from memory, although it would be handy knowing exactly who said what, where and when sometimes… No, I mean looking to the bible to provide some guidance and answers to the many questions we have, not only about our faith, but about life in general. In the Book, or books to be more precise, lie all those answers. The problem so often is how we understand or interpret them – whether we accept them as instructions or guidance only.

Some people like to look up passages which have been selected as being particularly helpful for the different emotions we may be experiencing. When we’re worried, it might be calming to read, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” or when facing bereavement to be comforted by “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”, both from Matthew’s gospel or when showing gratitude and thanksgiving to proclaim from the psalms “Let us come before him with thanksgiving.”

Even here though we have to be careful that this is not the only way we experience and use God’s word. There is always the danger that these become our preferred readings, to the exclusion of other, perhaps more difficult passages… and are they simply sentences in isolation whereas the whole verse or chapter may actually have more to tell us?

We also have to be aware of bias. So often nowadays we hear people asserting that their stand on different issues is fully justified because of specific passages in the bible. They trot out verse after verse of carefully selected scripture and vehemently declare this is the truth of the matter because it’s written in the bible and that the bible is the Word of God and you don’t argue with God!

All the while they either consciously or unconsciously blatantly ignore other scripture that might contradict their point of view… just think back to how the ordination of women was debated in the Church or how homosexuality is viewed in general. Surely these contradictory passages too are written in the bible and inarguably the Word of God?

What is does show is that it certainly isn’t easy. This book is not really a teaching manual – but it still does contain all the answers. Whenever we think or talk about God we are allowed to do so using all of our previous knowledge and information, but very much aware of the context in which we do so. What have been our examples, our own life experiences? What have we absorbed though our families, our education, our culture? All of these will give us a unique and corporate vision of what God is about, how he moves in our lives and how he moves us to be in his world. Yet we can’t truly be so individualistic without referring it back to and centring on the Scriptures.

Some people might nowadays treat as laughable the simplistic motto from the 80’s and 90’s of WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, but the basic premise makes perfect sense. When we find ourselves in situations where we have to make decisions it might not be a bad thing to simply ask… if I am trying to be more Christlike in my attitude and behaviour then I really need to understand what examples Jesus has given us… and where do I find that out… in the pages of the Bible.

Whether we’re reading about what Jesus was doing or where he was pointing us to what God was doing through him, fulfilling the prophecies; embodying the word that had gone forth or bringing us hope for the future, if we want to get the truest picture, not just some intellectual theologian’s take on it or an experienced commentator’s exegesis or the humble preacher’s attempt at exposition, then we have to go back to the source.

All those other things are subjective and come with lots of layers of opinion and interpretation. Not that I am saying that any or all of them are incorrect, but we need to peel back those layers and expose the heart of the matter, whether you believe it is the word of God to inspire or the inspired word of  God.  “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.Romans 15:4

'Go back to the source'

‘Go back to the source’

My original question emphasised the fact that the bible is a book that needs to be read. We need to make sure it’s not sitting as a pristine but dusty tome in our bookcases, but that it’s placed where it can naturally come to hand. Why not see it as your bedside table book, full of ripping yarns and adventures. Or put it with your dog-eared and food-specked cook books – using it to create delicious recipes for life or maybe in the glove compartment of your car – a combined road atlas and ‘Haynes’ manual to keep you going straight on the journey?

Wherever you keep it don’t forget that unlike a library book there’s no restriction on who could borrow it, it doesn’t have a return by date and each and every copy, whether it’s an original or translation will only ever be a first edition. Happy reading!

*Bible Sunday was celebrated on Sunday 23rd October 2013. It is an annual part of the Church of England’s calendar and resources each year are produced by the Bible Society. Follow this link for more information http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/about-bible-society/our-work/bible-sunday/

Come to Me, All Who Are Weary

Come to me all who are weary

Come to me all who are weary

Last week as I started to draft out this blog, I was sitting in a small cafe in the middle of the busy market town of Bradford on Avon. Its patrons were a mixture of tourists and locals, all taking the opportunity to grab a bite to eat; a quick coffee. Outside the roads hummed with cars and lorries performing an intricate and continuous dance punctuated by roundabouts and traffic lights. Tucked away in a window bay,  it gave me the chance to spend precious moments just ‘musing’ amidst all the hustle and bustle

Nowadays,  in this all too brief earthly world, it can often appear that everything needs to be planned to the nth degree. People rush headlong into the next thing they think needed doing yesterday, so that the present moment is never savoured and burnout is experienced not only in the gym but equally in everyday living.

So often we take on too much, trying to knit together all our tasks into a beautiful complex pattern only to despair when it all starts to unravel. We long for a breathing space – sometimes we just simply want a chance to breathe. When was  it that it became necessary  to live life at such a breakneck speed that each day blurs into the next?

No doubt we would all end up in chaos if we all decided tomorrow to lay aside our ‘work’ and rush to the nearest beach/mountaintop/woodland to escape it all…. rules and regulations both written and unspoken keep us on track most of the time; still it makes sense that creating regular moments aside is not only sensible and healthy, but essential for our spiritual well-being – so why not make a rule to create a recreation space for ourselves

St Benedict in the sixth century introduced his rules for the monks in his community. Not only were there set times for prayer, work and private study but time was set aside each day for recreation and fellowship. However, if you’re still thinking you’d find it difficult to do something like this daily even taking a few minutes each day to re-centre yourself can be helpful – for me the time spent in morning prayer seems to set me up each day. Take five minutes to start with a moment of quietness and then gradually extend that time a little bit each day. I was also recently reminded that the Jewish faith uses the evening before their Sabbath (Shabbat) to say their prayers so that their minds and bodies can be prepared whilst resting overnight – why not take those five minutes then, to quietly review the the day, giving thanks for all the good things and gaining strength for the day ahead.

Jesus himself knew the benefits of taking time away from his work in prayer and solitude. Whether he ever fully achieved this is uncertain during his ministry years, but at least he attempted to and undoubtedly did cherish that time. Ultimately though his concern was for others ….

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Matthew 11:28-30

…… A welcome invitation. Nevertheless,  for the majority of people the closest thing we get to finding a real space for rest is during an annual holiday – which is exactly what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks. This is when we can and should allow ourselves to relax and rediscover our inner self – the self that as children just woke up and made of the day whatever adventure  presented itself to us.

Now where did I put that bucket and spade?