Advent 4 – Love – Christmas Readings

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It’s getting close now….
It’s nearly midwinter, nearly the shortest day….
It’s nearly Christmas.

And I want to give my attention to the story, to let the wonder of it seep through me, and there is a pile of ironing, and things in the kitchen that need attention, even though I am keeping things simple, even though.

It’s easy to feel the darkness closing in, even though there are lights and music flashing and blaring out there. In here, it’s cosy, and the sun is setting already. I will hold on to the wonder of love being born among us, even though the circumstances could hardly have been less promising – for circumstances are never quite what we hoped, and there’s the lesson. To look deeper than circumstance. To make a courageous decision to hold on to hope, and peace, and joy, and love, even though. For these things are real, and true, and enough. These things are golden strands, woven through the dark fabric.. It is where they can be found. And the One who is coming will light the way, and scatter the darkness, and hold out a helping hand.

I’ll hold on to the message of “Love came down at Christmas”, and light my candles in the fading light, and watch the rain clouds sweep across the sky, rain falling on all of us, just the same.

Perhaps later, the skies will clear, and we’ll see the stars.

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You can find out more about the candle ring, and the words around it, here.

From The Bible Retold

The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed. The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.

Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem. That was Joseph’s family home: he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling. But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying
“Glory! Glory to God in the highest,
And on the earth be peace!”

And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light.
“Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem. There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met.
“The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem. And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.

And from Prayers and Verses

Love came down at Christmas
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti
1830-94

O God,
be to me
like the evergreen tree
and shelter me in your shade,
and bless me again
like the warm gentle rain
that gives life to all you have made.

Based on Hosea 14:4-8

The Little Christmas Tree

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Please feel free to use any of the material that you find helpful, saying where it is from.

Have a peaceful and joyful Christmas, and thank you so much for giving your time to read this blog

Advent 3 – Joy

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Mary by David Wynne, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

I love this contemporary statue of Mary in the ancient setting of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel.  I love the bright, pure colours of blue and gold, which are probably  much closer to the original look than the current mellow stone.  Most of all, I love her stance.  It is open, powerful, ready to receive the extraordinary gift that was promised her.  It is joyful – with a joy that acknowledges the reality of the difficulties to come, I feel.

Once again, this week, we have a powerful word – Joy – as our theme.  Once again, we are aware that our immediate circumstances may not point to joy, but to sadness, or anxiety, or emptiness.  Once again, we see examples in the stories of Christmas where people have faced great difficulty, as Mary must have done with her unexplained pregnancy. The consequences for her of saying “Yes” could have led to rejection, abandonment, or even death. She does not overlook the huge difficulty, but goes through it, beyond it, to the bigger move of God, the higher purpose her life is serving.  She does this through her own choosing, her active acceptance, of the role the angel gives her.   It is a radical, open, trust, which Wynne’s statue of Mary captures so well. She also does it through seeking out her cousin Elizabeth.  With Elizabeth, also unexpectedly with child, she has someone who might be able to understand her strange predicament, and help her come to terms with what has been promised.  The two women – one too young, the other too old, could nurture and support each other, both giving and receiving, as the time came for Elizabeth to give birth.

Here too is a route to joy – the presence of another.  We are promised that God will not leave us, and we often find that another flesh and blood person embodies the love and care of God for us.  It must have been so good for Mary and Elizabeth to share those three months together. Perhaps, we too can offer some companionship to each other – simply being present, simply listening, simply understanding.

Here is the story, from my book The Bible Retold

Among the fields and vineyards of Nazareth, in Galilee, lived a girl named Mary.  She was soon to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, who could trace his family back to David, the shepherd king.

Then, one day, astonishing news burst into Mary’s quiet, hopeful life.  The angel Gabriel came to her with a message.
“God is with you, Mary!” Mary gasped, and fell to her knees.  “Don’t be afraid. God smiles on you!” The angel spoke the astounding words gently, lovingly. “You will have a son and name him Jesus.  He will be called great – the Son of the Most High God! The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and his kingdom will never end!”

For a moment there was silence, as Gabriel’s words filled the air – and Mary’s mind. “But how can this be, as I am not yet married?” Mary asked.
“God’s Holy Spirit will enfold you.  Your child will be holy.  Even Elizabeth, from your own family, is going to have a child, despite her age! She is now in her sixth month.  So you see, nothing is impossible with God!”

Mary raised her eyes to Gabriel’s face. “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.” And the angel let her alone, her mind spinning with the strange words.

Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.” She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.

As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her.  She understood at once what had happened to Mary.

“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said. “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeth laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”

Then, Mary speaks out extraordinary words, which in turn echo the words of Hannah when she said goodbye to her long-awaited son, Samuel (I Samuel 2)  You can read Mary’s words in my previous post here.

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And so begins the journey of one called Lord God by Elizabeth into human flesh – not too pure and holy to found among frail humanity, not too great to be nurtured in the womb of a young woman, and born into uncertain poverty.  One who set up home on this earth, and opened our eyes to see heaven here, even here.

We thank you for being born among us,
sharing with us what it is to be human.
we thank you for showing us a way to live,
full of grace and truth.
Light up our path, and let us walk with you.

From John 1

From Prayers and Verses

 

 

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Advent ring from the good folk at Chapel in the fields. If you’d like to know more about the words, you can find out at my previous post.

 

Please feel free to use my material, saying where it is from.

 

Advent 2 – Peace

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We’re drawing deeper into Advent now, the days are shortening, the cold and wet are creeping closer.  Meanwhile, the shops are full of – beautiful things, and plastic tat, and carols, and cheesy music, all jumbled and clashed together as we go from one to another, and back again.

How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things?  How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, sometimes takes the theme of Peace, and peace is much needed.

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This beautiful Advent ring is from The Chapel in the Fields,  and you can read more about it, and the words on it, here.

 

Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
….
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11: 1-2, 9

I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life.  We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life, and in the promise of Isaiah something or someone, to persist, to keep growing and going, despite how things seem. All is not lost.

Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture above, harbours life.  Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have.  Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing – a holm oak, some sycamores, and the rose I planted to climb up the trunk. I wrote about the tree here.

Trees come up in the reading from the Gospels, too.  John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit.  What their lives produce.

Here it is, from my version in The Bible Retold.

Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered.  Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person.
It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.

John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt.  He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey  he could find in the desert.  But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God!  His kingdom is near.  Come and be washed clean!”  And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.

There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change.  “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit.  Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”

But most who came were hungry for a new beginning.  For John taught them to hope.  In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives.  They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing.
“I baptize you with water, for repentance.  But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater.  I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”

In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come  might look like in practice

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..

Luke 2:9-11

We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need.  What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able.  Perhaps this is a way towards Peace.
As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for, we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.

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Hope, and Peace

Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold.
Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life?
Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able?
We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day.  Perhaps we can do more than that.  If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others.
Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?

Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.

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Little Free Pantry in the East Anglian Daily Times!

Our regional newspaper, the East Anglian Daily Times, has picked up the story of Melton St Andrew’s community food project.  This is such good news!

It’s online now, you can find it here and it’s in today’s print edition, Thursday 5th December 2019.

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Take a look at the top shelf on those photos.  Do you see the model of St Andrew’s?  That was such a lovely surprise on Thursday, to find that a young person had made us a careful and colourful model of the church, and left it on the shelves for us.  Thank you to you. That was such a generous gift of your time and talents.  It seems very much in the spirit of the Little Free Pantry.

Generosity grows and spreads.
Here’s a close up of the article, although it’s easier to read online.

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I do want to say that this is a community project.  It’s received a huge amount of encouragement and support from the Church community – someone made the bunting, someone hand drew posters, people come in each day and check all’s well, people notice what goes quickly so we can replace it.  People from the whole neighbourhood contribute by both giving and receiving.

 

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Our pantry at Harvest

We started the project at Harvest, which was very appropriate.  What we’re finding is that we’re noticing things in the Advent readings that I, for one, hadn’t paid enough attention to before.

For instance, as we’re thinking about the prophets, and their message of hope in this first week of Advent, there’s this, from Isaiah 58:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

 

These words seem very powerful right now – as do, always, the revolutionary words Mary spoke when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  Two women carrying children.  This is my paraphrase of what Mary said:

I’m so full of joy my spirit is dancing
before God, my Lord, my Saviour.
God did not turn away from me
because I am poor, and now
I will be called blessed by all
the generations yet to come.

God, the great, the holy,
has done so much for me.
God brings down the powerful,
but lifts up the weak.
The well fed are empty,
and the table of the hungry
is piled high with good things.

God looks at us with kindness,
giving hope to the hopeless,
caring for those who trust him,
remembering his promises to our people.

 

We know that local community food projects are appearing in many places – and some are long established. We’re the first pin on the map for the UK on the Little Free Pantry website, and it’s a model that’s very simple, very easy to set up. We hope others will be encouraged to do something similar. Wouldn’t it be good if more community food projects sprang up all over the place?  Our hope is for a society where they are not needed, and we can work for that, as Isaiah says.  Change is possible, on the grand scale – the national scale, and on the very small scale too.

We can do both. We can make a difference this Advent.

Perhaps we can find some time for making and sharing, some moments of peace and connection, some moments to hold onto hope in midwinter days.

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Advent ring from The Chapel in the Fields.

Advent 1 – Hope

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Starting a little late, I thought I’d share with you some thoughts as we go through the four weeks of Advent.

This week’s theme is Hope.  Ah, hope. We were talking about that in our Thursday group a few weeks ago, reflecting on how hope feels different when we hold it in difficult, uncertain times.  Not as a glib avoidance strategy that it’s all fine, really, it’s all going to be fine…. but as a deliberate and courageous stance, holding on to a vision of how things could be.  With politics in uproar, and the climate crisis deepening, we need courageous hope, that’s prepared to work to refashion things around us in defiance of what we see.  There is real power in such acts.

During this time of darkening days, we often revisit the words of the prophets.  They often spoke into desperate, unpromising circumstances with a mixture of a vision to hold in our hearts, and actions for our hands to do.  Those actions can be prophetic themselves, speaking out and making plain God’s dream for the world – a beautiful, hopeful vision strong enough to withstand hard times – brave enough to choose to be born to a poor family, who sheltered in a stable, and had to run from a murderous tyrant.  This is how hope was offered to the world, in the infant Jesus.

During this Advent series, I’ll share with you some extracts from my books.  Here’s something from The Bible Retold , as the retelling of the Hebrew scriptures comes to an end, and we look forward..

As the walls were rebuild, so were the people.  For God was building them into a new kind of kingdom.  Isaiah the prophet wrote: “This is how to truly serve me: unbind people who are trapped by injustice, and lift up those who are ground down.  Share your food with the hungry, and clothe the cold – that is how to live in the light!”

The people listened to his words of bright hope.  “There is much darkness in the world, but your light is coming!  All nations will be drawn to you, and they, too, will shine!”
….

“A child is born to us,
a son is given.
Authority will rest
on his shoulders,
and his names will be
Wonderful Counsellor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
His kingdom, his peace,
will roll across the lands,
and he will reign on the
throne of David for ever.”

We give thanks for the work that is being done right now, in our communities, to clothe, and feed, and seek justice.  May we have the courageous vision to join with that work of light.

From Prayers and Verses

Scatter the darkness from before our paths.

(Adapted from the Alternative Service Book)

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The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true light.

The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true life.

The days are dark.
Dear God, give us your true love.

The Advent Candle Ring is from the good people at The Chapel in the Fields
It gives me great pleasure to know that the oak at the base was one a lectern, and the lighter wood on top a dining table.  The words written around it are from the ancient chants, the  “O” Antiphons.  I am intrigued by the old Advent practice of placing yourself with the prophets in the time before Jesus, not having a name to call your hope by, but knowing what it is you hope for all the same.  The first few centuries of the Christian Era saw these great prayers, the “O” Antiphons, sung during Advent, calling on Christ to come now, and to come again.
You can listen to the old chant, and read Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, and much more, here.

May you hold on to hope.