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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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Drawn into new life.

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Advent gives us an opportunity to revisit familiar stories. The familiarity can tempt us to skim over the stories, telling ourselves that we already know the message. It can also invite us to a deeper engagement with the story that gives it a new relevance, allowing it to speak to our changing circumstances in new and fresh ways.

Today I’ve been reflecting on Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel. It’s a beautiful moment of encounter between heaven and earth that’s always summed up for me in the words of Edwin Muir’s poem, “The annunciation”:

“Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there.”

Yet the beauty and mystery of the encounter do not undermine the challenge. Mary is clearly disturbed by the angel’s words in a way that is completely understandable. The annunciation changes her life in a way beyond imagining. It opens her to a world of uncertainty and vulnerability, taking her life in a completely unexpected direction. The angel’s response offers hope in that uncertainty:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you… And the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow…”

His words take me back to the creation, when the Spirit hovered over the chaos to draw out new life. They offer hope and promise in an uncertain and challenging situation. In the chaos of our own challenging times we too need to hear that promise renewed. However chaotic and challenging our lives might be the Holy Spirit will hover over us drawing us into the new life God promises.

Where do you need the presence of the Holy Spirit to overshadow you this Advent?

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O Sapientia

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Something from the archives as we begin the O Antiphons. These prayers developed by the early church call on Christ to come and save us. They never directly used the name of Christ, but take up the titles used for the Messiah in the Old Testament. They change the whole tone of Advent, increasing the sense of anticipation and expectation.

The first one is O Sapientia, O Wisdom:

“O Wisdom, who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end of creation to the other, strongly and sweetly ordering all things, come to teach us the way of prudence.”

This antiphon always take me back to the Creation, to the Spirit hovering over the waters as God brings new life out of chaos. I’m always especially drawn to the especially to the image from Proverbs of Wisdom playing and delighting in God’s presence at the Creation.

We’re living in challenging and chaotic times that make us increasingly aware of our smallness and vulnerability. Our need for the hovering Spirit to draw new life and hope out of these chaotic times becomes clearer every day. By recalling our beginnings O Sapientia reminds us that our beginnings are in the heart of God. However chaotic and disturbing our present might be we are created and held in the love of God.

As we move through Advent where is wisdom drawing you back into the love of God?

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Pentecost, Empowerment & Surrender

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Pentecost is full of contrasts. The fearfulness of the disciples in the upper room contrasting with the serenity of Jesus as he stands among them offering peace. The disciples, gathered in one place, yet each grappling alone with their doubts and fears. The multitude of voices clamouring for attention in the crowd and the unity when the Spirit enables the disciples to proclaim the Good News in a voice that everyone can understand. It all feels a bit chaotic and I sympathise with the disciples huddled safely in that upper room.

Yet Jesus, even as he promises them his peace, will not allow them to stay there. He recognises, if they don’t, that it’s not a life giving choice. So he sends them the Spirit, the gift they need to make, a choice that is truly life giving. It’s a gift designed to stir them up, coming in two uncontrollable elements, wind and fire:

“Suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.”

I’m struck by how these powerful signs of the Spirit both encourages the disciples to make a life giving choice and takes them into the unknown. Maybe the most striking contrast of Pentecost is that the Spirit both empowers the disciples and compels them to go in directions where they have to surrender all semblance of control.

As we invite the Spirit into our lives this Pentecost, we are called to embrace the same contrast of empowerment and surrender in the midst of our lives.

Where is the Spirit empowering you to surrender control this Pentecost?

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The Spirit of Truth

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In the lead up to Ascension Jesus is preparing his disciples for change. Once again they face a departure that will require them to let go of everything they thought they understood. Jesus says to them:

“I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes you will be led to the complete truth…”

His words touch on something that we both desire and fear, the complete truth. We are surrounded by voices telling us they have the truth that we need. In today’s “post-truth” world it can be especially challenging to discern the truth. We know our need for truth in order to be able to live well and with integrity, yet we struggle to know where we should turn to find it.

Jesus answers that for us, telling us he will send the Spirit of truth who will lead us this truth that we can rely on and trust. But to discover it we need to be open to and prepared. The truth that the Spirit brings us will not necessarily appear obviously and easily. It will require us to be attentive to all that is going on in our lives and our times. We need to be prepared to do the hard work of listening and discerning its presence in the midst of the myriad of voices that make up our daily lives. To do that we have to be prepared to let go of everything we thought we understood in order to be open to the new possibilities the Spirit brings.

As we move towards Ascension what opens your heart to the coming of the Spirit of truth into your life?

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Deep calling to Deep

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Today’s readings are an invitation to go deeper into the mysteries of God. In the second reading St Paul tells the Corinthians that the wisdom of God goes beyond anything they can dream or imagine:

“We teach what Scripture calls: the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the human mind, all that God has prepared for those who love God.”

To engage with this wisdom we have to open ourselves to the mysterious nature of God. We have to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit in unexpected ways, maybe into places and situations that surprise or even disconcert us. It’s a call to take the risk of stepping into the unknown.

The gospel only intensifies the invitation and the challenge in quite a disconcerting way. Commenting on it Father Denis McBride writes:

“But Matthew is not writing his Gospel to grind his readers into the dirt or make them feel helpless. He is calling the community of believers to face the vision of Jesus with a willing heart and a ready spirit.”

It’s easy to feel disheartened in the face of today’s gospel, but that would be a mistake. This call to embrace Jesus’ vision is a call to go beyond what is comfortable and familiar. It’s also a call to empowerment. By calling his disciples to go deeper into their faith through the bedrock of the Law and prophets Jesus is giving them the power to choose life over death.

It seems to me that Jesus also offers us the same choice, to take the risk of embracing his vision with open hearts. He calls us to allow his vision of the kingdom to change the way we live and the way we engage with others.

Where is Christ calling you to embrace the vision of the kingdom with a willing heart and ready spirit today?

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New songs for uncertain times

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Today’s gospel, the visitation, is one of my favourites. I’m always touched by the encounter of these two women as they both face unexpected and uncertain circumstances. I’m struck by Mary’s courage as newly pregnant she sets out on a dangerous journey to visit her cousin.

I’m touched by Elizabeth’s wisdom and insight as she faces the fulfilment of a dream she had given up on. In the midst of so much uncertainty their encounter is a powerful witness to the reality of love, hope and trust. Full of joy and the Holy Spirit Elizabeth cries out:
“Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Her words bring me back to the responsorial psalm:
“Ring your joy to the Lord, O you just; O sing him a song that is new.”

In their challenging, and uncertain circumstances Mary and Elizabeth were able to sing out their new song full of hope and courage. We’re living through uncertain times ourselves, more challenging than I’ve ever known or could have imagined.

We can’t ignore or underestimate the effect that has on us. Yet, like Mary and Elizabeth, even in those circumstance we are called to live with hope and trust. We are called to discover and sing our new song to the Lord, even if it is tentative and uncertain, carrying tears and laments as well as joy.

What new song are you called to sing this Advent?

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Today’s gospel focuses on Joseph, who often seems a shadowy figure. Unlike Mary, he is not asked to give his consent to the angel’s message. When the angel appears to him everything has already been decided and he presented with a situation that must have left him reeling. It’s hard to imagine just how out of control he must have felt his life was when the angel said to him:

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.”

Reflecting on Joseph’s situation through the filter of the psalm I was struck by this from psalm 23:

“Let the Lord enter! He is the King of glory.”

Whatever his initial response to Mary’s pregnancy and the angel’s message we know that he was a man of faith. With the rest of his people he waited faithfully and hopefully for the coming of the Messiah. So however startling and disturbing he found the angel’s message he was prepared to take the risk of accepting it. His story highlights something that we easily forget, to welcome Christ into our lives we have to risk completely surrendering control. We have to be willing to give up our own plans to follow the new direction that Christ shows us, however startling it might be. Like Joseph we have to be willing to let ourselves be led in new and unexpected ways.

As we begin the fourth week of Advent where are you willing to invite the disturbing presence of Christ into your life?

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The hope that never deceives

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As we begin our celebration of Trinity Sunday I’m drawn to this from St Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“Our sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

I’m touched by his realism as he openly acknowledges that suffering is part of life. He makes no attempt to run away from it, to disguise or numb it as we are so often tempted to do. He doesn’t expect, or even seem to want, a trouble-free life. Instead, in accepting the inevitability of suffering he discovers the transforming power of hope.

Like St Paul, we all know suffering is part of life, and hope is often its first victim. When life gets challenging or painful we tend to fall into a hopelessness that tells us that all is lost. The voice of hopelessness can be both persuasive and beguiling, it’s one we are all too willing to listen to.

St Paul, writing from his own experience of suffering, to others who were also suffering, draws us away from that voice of hopelessness. He tells us that, however painful or challenging our lives, the hope Christ offers us can never be undermined or destroyed. It’s not a hope based on empty promises or dreams that deceive or mislead. Instead, it’s a hope firmly grounded in the love of God which has existed since the beginning and which will always hold us in being.

This Trinity Sunday how is the hope the Spirit brings transforming your daily life?

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In Wind and Fire

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As we begin to celebrate Pentecost I find myself reflecting on how our Pentecost tapestry highlights the themes of the feast, listing our hopes for the coming of the Spirit into our lives:

“Come, cleanse, renew, heal, guide, fill, strengthen.”

I often find myself thinking that it seems a little bit crowded. The words seem to be jostling for space, almost overflowing the narrow hanging. This thought was in my mind as I read the first reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He tells us:

“There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.”

In the light of his words I it seems hardly surprising that the words on the tapestry seem to burst out of the available space. Pentecost is a feast overflowing with a generosity and energy that are impossible to contain. The variety of gifts God pours out at Pentecost cannot be contained. They overflow, just like the words on our tapestry, insisting that we use them in all sorts of different ways to help, support and nurture the people of our times. Just as the disciples were compelled to reach out to the world by wind and fire the Spirit demands that we burst out of whatever upper room imprisons us to share her gifts generously with our needy world.

What overflows in your heart this Pentecost?