The season of Epiphany continues and we are gently encouraged to pay attention these January days in this playful discourse between Nathaniel, Philip and Jesus In our Gospel reading today from John 1. 43-51 (Can anything good come out of Nazareth? well, Come and see!) The story moves quickly from the ordinary – sitting under a fig tree to the extraordinary, the Angels ascending and descending – a nod to the story of Jacob. The passage calls us to come and see, just as Nathaniel is encouraged to challenge his first statement, then Jesus, I saw you sitting there. He was noticed. It is no coincidence that we are reading passages during Epiphany which recognise Jesus as the Messiah. I wonder whether we are looking in the ordinary places and expecting a glimpse of the extraordinary? Are we looking this Epiphany for a glimpse of the Christ amongst us around us on in our natural environment perhaps. I wonder if we are able with everything else that is going on to look beyond the bad news. It was a sharp, crisp and clear morning the sky is streaked with gold and I know the light has come. It is a soft light at first as the Earth turns. Light clouds are immaculately turned out as if to welcome it, ruffled neatly in wave after wave of white on pale blue ready to be dispersed in a moment as the suns rays came upon them. The deep orange glow builds through the mountains illuminating, reflecting from cloud, lake and hillside. A hue Matched only by the oak and beach leaves that have stubbornly held on to their branches. It cannot be long before they finally fall this spring. As I run by a Tree Creeper seeks breakfast on one of their lakeside trunks. Across the lake a wistful mist rises as a lone swimmer cuts through the water ‘I am told’ it is around four degrees – she’ll not be in for long then. The swans leading last year’s signets have outdone her and are waiting for me as I arrive at the other end of the lake after what was for them a seemingly effortless journey. The light continues to brighten. A second light takes over now and as the orange glow fades and the earth turns on, a little ice clinging to the highest peaks as a plume of cloud springs up from their midst. The light is fuller encompassing all things as I return home through the trees. Only after all this does the sun itself make an appearance finally breaking the horizon and bringing a little warmth on its low January day. A bright morning helps to lift the spirits just as much as it helps to illuminate the day. An ordinary occurrence but truly extraordinary as well. Come and see. Here, today, we are anxious about our health and wellbeing and I wonder how much this stops us from seeing all this is going on around us as if nothing else mattered. The world is going about its business unmoved by our anxieties, they are typically human concerns. As we hear the discourse between Philip, Jesus and Nathaniel we see Jesus move the conversation on from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the outward seeing – Philip’s invitation to Come and See which leads to Jesus’s own, that inner seeing ‘I saw you under the Fig Tree’ which is much more profound an inner seeing moving from the gentle jibing that the reading began with to the heavens opened. I wonder, where do we look, and what do we take notice of? Where do we see those glimpses of the extraordinary even in these days. Are we prepared to see both outwardly and inwardly for the extraordinary amidst the ordinary concerns of life. It is clear we are not done being taught a lesson by nature, neither are we done trying to work our own way out of it, yet we are still called to turn aside, to come and see in the ordinary moments which may just turn out to be quite extraordinary as we live through them.
Dear Santa Claus, St. Nick, Sant Claus, Bishop Nicolas of Myra died AD343 origin of the fable of fables, Story of stories, giver of gifts by stealth, childhood fantasy of dreams and visions, nighttime visitor, time engineer extraordinaire, magical mystery maker, bringer of wishes, keeper of ‘The List’ – Naughty and Nice.
Children wait in their beds half sleeping, half dreaming of satsumas and chocolate coins, (well, now I’m dreaming). Cutting through the darkness, expected to come for nothing less than to fulfil our deepest desires and for a mince pie, sherry and carrot for the reindeer. Did you too get fed this story as a child or were your parents brave enough to tell you the truth? That there is no Christmas unless we make it happen for ourselves. We can blame others this year that they’ve ‘cancelled Christmas’ but no-one cancels it unless we do it to ourselves. So, it’s up to us to be witnesses to the light in the darkest of times. It’s our task again this year to bring to birth the Christ child, the true light that was and is coming into the world.
But all we have is this darkness to work with. The darkness I’m told is an absence of light. Is that all? I must disagree to say into the void that the darkness is so much more. A place of beginning. Of expectation. Of Potential. Of Dreams unborn. Of Waiting. Of Depth. A place to hold the despair into which we cry our tears of mourning and of sorrow for that which pulls at our hearts and leaves us with that gut wrenching emptiness as if there will be no dawning at the end of this long winter night. (Call it 2020 if you like) And into this: Wilderness, exhausted, a voice cries out. One small voice. When we are at our darkest and deepest moments of despair. When we too want to shout into the darkness – and by the way the darkness can take it all, whatever it is we need to shout. When we name our fears, our despairs, our sorrows and expectations, our disappointments and unrealised dreams – when we let the darkness have them all; then we can begin to make it through. We need to go through the pain of being in the darkness to bring to birth the christ.
Advent is not only a time for waiting, but also for preparation. Our task in preparation is creating the space to allow the Christ to come to birth. Among you stands one whom you do not yet know says John the Baptist to those who follow him out into the darkness, into the wilderness, searching for something that will bring healing in a time of desperate pain. This is where it begins. The slow bringing to birth begins in the darkness, in brokenness. John the Baptist points the way to Christ, just as little Saint Nick the boy bishop of Myra did in the 4th century. The darkness is where it begins with the small moments that bring in the light. A moment spent on a doorstep offering a card, a moment on a video singing a song alone that becomes a choir of joy for others. Small moments of beauty and the time taken to stand and watch what unfolds yes, even in the darkness, especially in the darkness. Small moments of time offered, given for others, moments of love and even gifts given in the spirit of St. Nicolas. As we prepare to remember a moment in time, the birth of the baby, the real moment, the birth of the Christ was the moment Mary said her yes and opened her heart to the possibility of what seemed impossible. The idea of God away in the heavens and unreachable would instead come close. Perhaps that’s why John the Baptist points to the crowd and says one among you. There is one among you whom you do not know who embodies the christ and for us too, there can be one among us. It can be each of us, unknown to ourselves this advent, each one of us, if our hearts are open to the possibility of small moments of transformation. Then comes born to us the Christ-mas in the reconciliation of all things.
I wonder what our expectations might be this advent as we begin our journey towards the celebration of the birth of Jesus once again this year? I suspect we will have rather conflicting expectations not least because of the ongoing pandemic, the last stand of the British Empire, aka Brexit. The rather sad image of a man clinging desperately on to power that has already slipped from his grasp and the economic doom being forecast as countless people loose jobs and income due to the failure of businesses built on consumerism that some thought would never end. Then there is the uncertainty over the latest COVID regulations designed to keep us safe but destined to confuse the vast majority at the same time. I misread the text of Mark where it says: ‘Beware, keep awake.’ I heard, ‘Beware, keep apart.’ How these messages filter into our minds. There is a marked difference between the healthy watchfulness that Mark commends and a mistrustful fear of the other. Our Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Advent begins, not at the beginning, but at the beginning of the end. We’ll return to the first chapter of Mark next week. As Advent starts though, we are reminded of the end game. “in those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” So what’s going on? It seems to me quite apt for the state we’re in and far from the cautiously expectant preparations we might all be engaged in as December comes quietly upon us. For every beginning there is an ending and so forth. It seems to me we are engaged in a struggle for the very soul of our nation, the world even. The apocalyptic nature of Mark 13 was meant to be dramatic, to call people to be ‘awake’, to take note of the lessons of nature, the trees must lose their leaves before the new are grown. Jesus’ words preparing those who wish to reconstruct the old order into the new will not fall away. New wine needs new wine skins. A new order needs a new model. Out of death comes new life. It makes sense as we struggle at the dark end of 2020 politically, socially, morally and economically. You can’t tweak capitalism into being ecological, or into caring for the poorest in society or into a truly representative democracy where the voices of all are listened to, and truly heard. Mark is alluding to nothing less than the highest structures of power in history coming to their knees. Expectations for Christmas stockings have just risen into the full burlesque. From [insert random easily forgotten present] to a complete transformation of everything. The dominant order of the day falls but the words of Jesus do not pass away! And we begin to ask a more urgent question like: How can I live? How can I live in this new world where everything I have known is now different, difficult or subject to regulation. How can I live? Is the right question for Advent, because there is on offer a bigger vision in the words of the bible the Kingdom of God, in the words of the liberation movements, true justice. In musical terms it’s the Cantus Firmus, the song of the earth, the fixed melody which undergirds all that lives and loves and breathes. We can choose to sing in harmony, or not. The Cantus Firmus was used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a metaphor of the love of God, that which gives the underlying rhythm to the very stuff of life and out of which a child is born, a son is given and he will be called wonderful, Emanuel God is with us and the government will be upon his shoulders et cetera. As we begin our adaptation, reconcilliation in the birth pains of all creation this Advent, the call is to sing the new song, to dream the new dream and to celebrate the gifts and promises for all in the light that is to come, the Christ Child, in the crafting of new beginnings.