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Mixed blessings.

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Today we’re celebrating the birthday of St John the Baptist. It’s a feast that has a flavour of Advent for me. The hymns, music, antiphons and readings all recall that sense of waiting and uncertainty, hope and expectation that I connect with Advent. I find that it’s good to be reminded of them at other times. I’m reflecting on this from the gospel account of John’s birth:

“All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts, ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered.”

We all know from our own experience how difficult it can be to hold uncertainty, suffering and hope together. It’s very tempting to allow one to overshadow the other. Mostly, I find it’s hope that gets overshadowed! John the Baptist’s birth takes place in the shadowy mists of uncertainty and suffering, both personally for Elizabeth and Zechariah, and communally for the oppressed people of Israel. In the midst of all that John’s birth offered the people something to wonder at, a treasure of hope to hold in their hearts in the uncertain times they faced.

Their experience resonates with us in our own challenging times, when we face the uncertainty of economic and political crisis. It reminds us that in the midst of the suffering and uncertainty we fear there will be moments of gift and blessing. Those precious moments won’t cancel the suffering and uncertainty. Instead they will offer us small treasures that we can hold in our hearts to give us hope and courage as we face the challenges of our times.

As we celebrate the birthday of St John the Baptist what are you treasuring in your heart?

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The light of Christ

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Today’s readings are about call and response. Isaiah and St Paul reflect on their call to take the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. In the gospel of John recognises Jesus in the crowd and proclaims him as the Messiah. Reflecting on their accounts inevitably draws us back to reflect on our own call:

“I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

It seems to me that Isaiah, St Paul and St John all heard and responded to some version of this call. Their responses may have looked different on the surface, and led them in apparently different directions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because they lived in different times, faced different situations and had different personalities and skills. This meant that they each had to spend time reflecting on what it meant for them to become “the light to the nations” in their particular situations.

Through baptism we are also called by God to be “a light to the nations”. While the heart of that call is the same as the one heard by Isaiah, St Paul and St John the practicalities of what it will look like in the particular challenges we face today are different. So I’m hearing today’s readings as a call to discern how to I can best bring the light of Christ love to people today in ways that will lighten their burdens and offer consolation.

How are you being called to bring the light of Christ’s love to the people around you today?

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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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Today we’re celebrating Gaudete Sunday, a time to pause and remember that even in dark and uncertain times there is cause for joy and hope. Looking at the readings through the filter of the psalm (145) I am struck by this:

“It is the Lord who keeps faith for ever, who is just to those who are oppressed.”

In these challenging and uncertain times there is plenty that would oppress us. Today’s readings remind us never to give up hope however dismal things might seem. Isaiah writes that even the dry, barren wilderness of the desert can blossom into new life. St James calls us to be patient because the Lord we are waiting for will come, however unlikely that may appear. Neither of them deny the challenges that we face, or the costliness of hope. Instead they tell us to look for and keep alive those glimmers of hope that are buried in the midst of the challenges.

John the Baptist exemplifies that hope, sending disciples to Jesus to ask:

“Are you the one who is to come, or have we to wait for someone else?”

Even in the bleakness of his prison cell he is still seeking, still hoping, still looking for the Messiah he proclaimed with such conviction. It seems to me that the key to the faithfulness the readings call us to is in the psalm verse. It is the Lord’s faithfulness that enables us in our turn to strive to be faithful to God. It is God’s faithfulness that makes it possible for us to trust, hope and keep seeking God’s presence even in the most challenging of circumstances.

What gives you the courage to keep hoping today?

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Back on track

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Psalm 71 paints a picture of the ideal leader. It describes the Messiah Israel has hoped for and waited for for centuries. A ruler who brings justice and peace and cares for the poor and the needy:

“In his days justice shall flourish and peace till the moon fails.”

In times when we are all too well aware of the failings of our leaders this image seems so idealistic that it can easily be dismissed as irrelevant. Yet, the ancient Israelites also lived with less than perfect leaders who did little to provide justice or care for the poor, and through all the suffering that caused they kept this idealistic hope of the Messiah alive. However battered they were by circumstances, however disappointed they were in their leaders they kept that glimmer of hope alive.

With this in mind I turned to the gospel and was struck by this:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.”

It seems to me that there are two elements to John’s call, a turning away from and a turning towards. Repentance calls us to turn back to God. It is also a call to turn away from all that distracts us from seeking God’s presence, from the disillusionment and despair that can seem overwhelming, and that would cause us to give up. It’s a call to keep hoping and trusting even when hope feels so hard it’s almost impossible.

What do you need to turn away from to be able to reorientate yourself towards God this Advent?

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Courage to be free

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I find today’s gospel, the beheading of John the Baptist, full of threat and menace. It seems to me that everyone is trapped. John is imprisoned by Herod. Herod is trapped by his fear and guilt and by the oath he swore in front of his guests. Herodias and her daughter are equally trapped by the circumstances. It would be easy to feel that there’s no hope in this gospel. But looking more closely I found hope in these words:

“King Herod says about Jesus… “John the Baptist himself; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Jesus only appears in the background of the passage, unaffected by the intrigues and power struggles of Herod’s court and by what people say about him as he goes about the region preaching the good news of the kingdom. He reminds me that however trapped we may feel by circumstances Christ offers us the hope of freedom.

Where is Christ offering you freedom today?

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Called to the margins

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Today we’re celebrating the birthday of St John the Baptist. From his very beginnings John is marginal, he marks the boundaries between the Old Testament and the new Testament. He calls us to look back to the rich tradition of the old Testament with its covenant and promise, and forward to the new hope offered by the coming of Christ. While being on the margins brings insight, wisdom and the clarity of view that those in more central positions can miss, it is an uncomfortable and often dangerous position.

Those on the margins are often ignored, misunderstood or even despised. They make us feel uncomfortable or even threatened. John the Baptist knew that all too well. Reflecting on this I was struck by these words from the hymn we sang at last night’s vigil:

“How shall we hear the Word if we despise the voice…”

They carry something of the urgency of John’s original message. They remind me that the voices that call us to be open to the transforming power of the Word are not necessarily ones we are comfortable with. If we we want to hear the Word in our times we have to turn towards the voices of those on the margins today. We have to ask ourselves whose voices are despised, silenced, ignored. Then, responding to John’s instruction, we have to listen to them and allow them to point us towards Christ.

Where are you being to hear the Word from challenging directions today?