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Called to life and hope

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Today we’re celebrating the Baptism of the Lord, the feast that brings the Christmas season to an end. As it celebrates the first public appearance of Jesus it refocuses our attention in a new way. The humility and openness of John the Baptist turns our attention towards Jesus:

“Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.”

His action takes an already growing sense of expectancy in the crowd and points it towards its source and hope. He shows us the one we are to follow, to imitate, to grow into. As she reflects on Mark’s account Sr Verna Holyhead writes:

“This gospel is a declaration of who Jesus is to Mark’s church, a statement of their self-understanding as disciples of the new messianic times who are sons and daughters of the Father because they are baptised into the Spirit-filled and Beloved Son, and commissioned to serve in his name.”

Her words remind me that we, like those first disciples, are called to reflect on who Christ is for us today. Like the early Church we will struggle to understand and accept the implications of that for our lives. The reflection will necessarily challenge us. It will lead us through deep and tumultuous waters as we struggle to let go of all that would prevent us from embracing the new life Christ offers

Jesus, the beloved and favoured one, has come to challenge and transform us with his costly gift of love. As he rises from the waters of his baptism he calls us to follow him through it’s depths into the light of life and hope.

How is Christ calling you to follow him today?

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Delights and challenges.

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Today we’re celebrating the feast of Epiphany. Together with the Baptism and the wedding at Cana it’s part of a trio of epiphanies that recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of God. It’s full of awe, wonder and joy. Yet there’s another side to it. There’s challenge, threat and uncertainty there too. The magi find the Christ after a hard, and sometimes dangerous journey that’s summed up in T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The journey of the Magi”:

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”

Their journey brings them joy and delight as the gospel makes clear:

“The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child and his mother Mary, and falling to their knees did him homage.”

Yet that doesn’t cancel out the difficulty, challenge, suffering and hardship, they face but manifests in the midst of all those hard realities of life. Generally, I think we’d prefer that joy and delight would cancel the hardship, but it is just possible that, by not doing so, the gospel offers us a greater hope and a greater joy.

This way it takes account of the hardships and suffering we all live with, and tells us that it’s in the midst of those that we’ll discover the joy the Magi followed the star to discover. In our challenging and uncertain times that seems to me to increase the hope by acknowledging the hardship and telling us that however hard our journey we can discover and delight in the presence of Christ who chooses to dwell in our midst.

Where is Christ inviting you to delight in his presence in your life this Epiphany?

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Recognising the Messiah.

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It’s tempting to tell ourselves that Christmas is over. The world has moved on, many decorations are down. The present giving, parties and gatherings are over and life has gone back to its normal routine. We can be tempted to move on with everyone else, packing wondrous and challenging feast of the Incarnation away with the dusty decorations.

Yet, these days of Christmastide offer us a real opportunity to spend more time reflecting in the Incarnation. The gospels for the past few days are focussed on recognising Christ’s presence in the midst of ordinary life. Yesterday John the Baptist pointed out Jesus in the street, telling his disciples:

“Look, there is the Lamb of God…”

He goes on to tell how he recognised Jesus as Messiah when he baptised him. The theme carries on in today’s gospel. John once again points Jesus out to his disciples, but there is a new development, this time two of his disciples go after Jesus, asking him where he lives and being invited to “come and see”.

When Andrew brings his brother Peter to meet Jesus the recognition deepens. As Peter recognises Jesus, Jesus recognises something new in Peter. He highlights a quality in Peter that I suspect Peter wasn’t aware of. In that moment of mutual recognition Jesus offers Peter a new name and new life.

These days offer us a quiet moment of mutual recognition with Christ, allowing us to recognise his presence with us and opening our hearts to allow him to being recognised by him.

Where is Christ inviting you to recognise his presence in your life?

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Glory & Vulnerability

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As we celebrate the feast of the holy family I’m struck by these words that author Jeanette Winterson wrote in an article in the New Statesman:

“The beauty and mystery of the Nativity story is found in the symbol it offers of new life, unprotected and vulnerable. Impossible. But only the impossible is worth the effort.”

Her words bring me back to a reality at the heart of the Christmas story that it’s tempting to brush aside. As well as being a story of glory, wonder and joy, it’s a story of weakness, vulnerability and uncertainty. It both offers us the hope and joy of new life, and reminds us that that new life is necessarily vulnerable and fragile. Part of the strength of the nativity is that it shows us how to hold both of those together.

Today’s gospel emphasises both the vulnerability and the hope. Simeon and Anna have spent a lifetime waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Recognising his presence in lives touched by the vulnerability of age they hold together the joy and pain that make up all our lives. Mary and Joseph are celebrating the joy and wonder of new life. Yet Simeon’s words to Mary open their hearts to another aspect of the truth:

“You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many …, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword shall pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.”

His words highlight the whole new level of uncertainty and vulnerability that Mary and Joseph are facing. They also carry a powerful message for us. Impossible as it might seem the Messiah chooses to dwell among us in the midst of our own vulnerable, imperfect and uncertain lives. That is the source of our hope and our joy.

Where are you aware of the Christ to chooses to dwell with you in the midst of your uncertainties?

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Favoured and Beloved

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Today Christmastide comes to an end with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. It’s a feast full of the promise of new life. It takes us back to our beginning, recalling creation when God’s spirit, hovering over the waters, called new life out of the the swirling chaos:

“As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’”

It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the news to recognise that we are living in chaotic times. That is stressful and unsettling, so this reminder that it was out of the chaos that God called us into being is consoling and encouraging.

It also calls to mind another, more personal beginning. Through our baptism in Christ each of us has been called to become a new creation, to blossom into new life in Christ. Through the gift of this baptism we have become favoured and beloved daughters and sons of God. This certainty can give us the courage and hope living away that allow our baptismal promises to shape our lives and our interactions with one another.

As we start a new year it’s worthwhile to take some time to reflect on these beginnings founded on love and hope. Time reflecting on our baptismal promises and how they might shape our life seems to me to be time well spent as we make our way through these challenging times.

As we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord how might your baptismal promises shape your daily life?

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Led by a star

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Today as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany I’ve been struck by how so many many of this week’s Gospels have been about seeking. Shepherds, priests, Levites and John’s disciples are all very clearly looking for something that’s important enough to disrupt their daily routine to find.

This sense of seeking is most clearly seen in the Magi. They felt compelled to set out on a dangerous and uncertain journey, to seek out and pay homage to “the infant King of the Jews”. The risk they were prepared to take is summed up beautifully by TS Eliot in his poem, “The journey of the Magi”:

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”

It seems to me that what kept them going on that hard, cold journey was the hope that the birth of the Messiah would bring to the world. In the reality of the world they lived in that hope would have seemed at best uncertain, that is certainly the impression that their encounter with Herod would have given them. Yet they journeyed until:

“The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child and his mother Mary, and falling to their knees did him homage.”

In our uncertain times their perseverance in that hard journey encourage us to keep the glimmers hope alive in our lives however small they might seem. They help us to keep seeking the presence of Emmanuel, Christ-with-us, in the midst of our complex and messy 21st century lives.

As we celebrate Epiphany how do you allow your seeking Christ to disrupt your daily life?

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Pondering and Treasuring

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Since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by Mary’s pondering. I always wanted to know what she was pondering, and what treasures she was holding in her heart. If I’m honest, I would still like to know. So today, as we begin a new year with all the hopes and uncertainties that entails I’m reflecting on these words from today’s gospel:

“As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

I imagine that all that Mary faced since the annunciation would have left her with much to ponder. Some of that pondering would have been life-giving, encouraging and hopeful, treasures to help her face whatever the future held. As a young woman, pregnant in unusual circumstances, some of her pondering must touched on the painful, hurtful and judgemental, not treasures to carry into the future, but burdens be laid down.

Mary’s wisdom is that, in the midst of the challenging and uncertainty she faced, she was able to take the time to reflect on what she needed to let go in order to make space for the treasures that would sustain her. This makes her an excellent model for us as we start the New Year. A year of hardships and challenges that has left us with much to ponder. We have to ask ourselves where we discover the hidden treasures in those challenges, and what we have to put down in order to make space for them.

As we move into 2023 what treasures are you carrying in your heart?

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Into the unknown: Some thoughts on New Year’s Eve

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The last day of the year always seems to me a time for pausing. It’s a time to look back over the past year before we move forward into the unknown territory of the New Year. It’s a time for discerning what we need to take forward with us and what we need to leave behind.

As I look back over 2022 it seems as if the world stage has been overwhelmed by challenge, uncertainty and anxiety. At times it has felt like we were lurching from one crisis to another, and we face the New Year knowing that many of those have yet to be resolved.

In such circumstances it’s very tempting to have be gloomy, it can feel hard, and even dangerous, to hope in such situations. As I reflected on this I’ve been struck by today’s gospel. Writing from his own challenging and uncertain times John reminds us of the source of our hope:

“The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

His words take me back to the the heart of Christmas, Christ’s coming with light and truth into the messiness of our world. Even in these dark and uncertain times the light of Christ shines in the darkness, offering us hope and inviting us to trust.

If I look back honestly at this challenging year I find that there are glimmers of light in the midst of the challenges. This presents a new challenge, to actively seek the glimmers of grace and truth that Christ brings however unlikely the circumstances may seem.

As we prepare to enter a new year what gives you the courage to seek the glimmers of Christ’s presence in your life?

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Seeds of love

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The Christmas octave is one of the most liturgically challenging times of year. It feels like we’ve hardly begun to celebrate the great mystery of the Incarnation before we are rushed into celebrating one feast on top of another. St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents and, (in Northampton diocese) St Thomas Beckett follow one on the other. At best it can feel somewhat unfocused.

This year I found a helpful focus in an unexpected place. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St John the Evangelist and I was touched by the second reading, from the writings of St John Henry Newman. In his parochial and plain sermons, he tells us that Christian love is never an abstract concept, only having meaning when practised in the daily interactions of life:

“By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.”

His words take me back to the heart of the Incarnation. It’s the Love that St John describes, who comes to show us how become people of love in the midst of all the messiness and challenge of daily life. Practising that love in the ordinary encounters of our life may seem small and insignificant in the face of the challenges our world faces. But those small acts of love have the power to grow like the mustard seed, changing life, lightening burdens and bringing hope.

As we work our way through the Christmas Octave how is love taking root in your heart?

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Light in the shadows

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As we celebrate the feast of the Presentation I’m finding myself drawn to the prophetess Anna. She captures something of the essence of this feast which always seems to me to be a combination of shadow and light. In many ways Anna is a very shadowy figure. An older woman and a widow it’s easy to see how she might be overlooked, pushed into the background by people with more importance or louder voices. Yet that’s not the picture Luke paints for us.

She is a woman grounded in the faith of her people, a prophetess who has spent her life in the Temple worshipping and praising God. Like Simeon she recognises that the child being presented is no ordinary child, but the long awaited Messiah:

“She came up just at that moment and began to praise God; and to speak about the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Far from a shadowy figure Luke presents a wise woman, who is able to recognise and proclaim the presence of God with confidence. She is no stranger to suffering and loss, having experienced both in her long life. She knew what it meant to keep on hoping even when hope seemed lost in the long shadows of hopelessness. It is out of these shadowy and sometimes painful experiences that she is able to recognise the presence of Christ, the promise light of the world in the most unlikely of circumstances.

As we celebrate the feast of the Presentation how does the light of Christ break through the shadows in your life?