The gift of community

by Karen Turner.

For the last two years I’ve been involved in setting up an intentional Christian community for university students in Bath, as part of my work as a chaplain.  The first cohort is now 4 months into this adventure of sharing their lives together. Considering the high expectations of this community – to pray together daily, to share a meal together once a week, to serve in the community and to join with an ‘extended’ non-student community once a month – I wasn’t sure that we would find 8 full-time students on demanding courses who would want this to be part of their lives.  I was delighted and amazed to discover that there were.

bath community

The student community had to work out a pattern of prayer that would fit 8 diverse timetables and sleeping patterns. Likewise, they needed to make rotas for cooking and eating and cleaning and to work on ways to enable honest conversation with each another.  Being community requires real effort.

A question that I was asked several times when I spoke to people about the vision was, ‘Yes, but who will lead the community?  Will that be you?’ I wasn’t sure what was behind the question, but at times it made me doubt whether the community would be able to stay on track.

In the early days I wondered if we should appoint one of the students as a leader but the experience of the last few months suggests that might have inhibited the emergence of gifts in the community.   And although I try to pray with the community once a week, and regularly meet individuals for coffee, I am only an ‘extended’ member of this community.

In my early 20’s I was part of an intentional community myself and while there took part in a vocational discernment process.  Although no ‘lightening bolt’ moment occurred, one sentence stayed with me when someone said, ‘I wonder if you might have the gift of community’.

It was a mystifying suggestion as it isn’t a job or a gift that is listed or named in the New Testament and neither does it feel at first like a specific role.  If there is such a thing as the spiritual gift of community, I don’t think it looks anything like what we might conventionally understand as leadership.   It seems to me that it might be primarily about attentiveness.  How is the Spirit moving among us?  What gifts, words, dreams are emerging in our midst that we must not ignore?  Though we may feel despondent or without hope, what new thing is God already providing in our community if we would only see it?

At its heart, enabling the gift of community isn’t about ‘getting young people’s voices heard’ or giving everyone a turn at leadership roles (though it could be).  It is a belief that God’s Spirit is at work in all of us – and believing it enough to become aware of our own biases and prejudices as we commit to journey together.

And God is at work in this community.  As I meet up with them, one by one, I hear amazing stories of grace.  I’ve picked up that one of them serves the others by doing more than his fair share of the washing up.  Another has offered wisdom in enabling people to get on.  Several are excellent cooks and there are those who lighten the mood, who ask good questions, who are faithful friends and those who pray with others when times are hard.  The Spirit moves among them all, offering the gifts that are needed, including the gift of community.

In this season of Epiphany, I’ve been wondering what Mary might teach us about the attentiveness that is a gift in community. Jesus gives us the shape of ministry – self-emptying love – and what Mary does as she listens, believes, dares, ponders, and endures is ministry in that pattern.  We see at the wedding in Cana that she is attuned to those around her (John 2). Of course we don’t really know the part she played in the fledgling Christian community but she is certainly there with the others in Acts 1, constantly devoted to prayer, and so we can only imagine that she is touched by the tongues of fire and practices the holy habits with the others in Acts 2.

We see that Mary’s near-impossible challenge was also the way God chose to love the world in all it’s messiness, and that, understanding this she would have witnessed to the emergence of the life of the Spirit in their midst.  I wonder if there are ways we could make space for this challenge and this gift in 2019?

What now? What is God’s will for my life?

by Josie Smith.

I once spent seventeen years praying for guidance about the way ahead as I tried to follow The Way.

I had been a ‘cradle Methodist’, the latest generation of a family of lay leaders in the church – Sunday School Superintendents, Circuit Stewards, church organists – we even knew, at a suitably respectful distance, an ex-Vice President of Conference!    At sixteen I had ‘felt my heart strangely warmed’ in true Methodist fashion and had realised that Jesus was alive FOR ME.

But then I realised that ‘Conversion’, even a Methodist one, was only the first step.   I began to ask ‘What now?   What is God’s will for my life?’

The following year my mother died of an inoperable brain cancer, after months of increasing pain which nothing could alleviate.    We had been a family of six – my parents, a younger brother, a baby sister whose arrival had surprised everybody, and a grandmother whose sight had almost gone and who had come to live with us to be looked after – by my mother.

For the next seven years, then, the question ‘What now?’ was deferred.    My stumbling first steps in my mother’s much larger shoes turned me from a sixth former into some semblance of a middle-aged matron very quickly, as I learned to cope with the needs of four other people while getting to grips with household management, appeasing my grandmother’s anger and everybody’s need for regular meals and clean clothes – bringing up the baby, and helping Dad with a big garden.    There was always an urgent NOW, and it seemed a bit irrelevant to be looking for a career in God’s service.

One day, travelling to Sunday School on the bus with my Junior Teacher’s Handbook, I met a young man carrying a Senior Teacher’s Handbook.    He turned out to be a son and grandson of the Manse, and he put up heroically with my rather unusual lifestyle for the next few years (we saw each other perhaps twice a week, and that would be a good week!) until our marriage, when he and I moved into a small house nearby so that I could look after both households.

Fast forward several months.    My brother had by now left home, my grandmother had died, my sister was growing up, and my father had met someone who was to become his second wife.   The following year, a month before our first child was due, he and she were married. To my great joy!

Another fast forward.   The youngest of our three children was starting school, we were living in another part of the country because of my husband’s work, I was going to be free during the school day, and the question which had always been there resurfaced.   What now?

As it happened there was a teacher training college in the nearby town, in the same direction as my children’s school run.   There was a nationwide shortage of teachers at the time, and there was a drive to persuade suitably qualified mature students into the profession.   Friends urged me to apply for a place, my husband added his encouragement, and I was accepted to start immediately.

Then it dawned on me, for the first time, that the prayers I had been praying for the previous seventeen years had actually had their answer in what I had been doing all the time.   Having brought up four children I already had a head start.

From then on, I relaxed.    God, I decided, had a sense of humour, and I never would catch up.    So ever since then I have gone with the flow – nudged by other people who saw needs I could fill and jobs I could do.    My prayers are no longer anxious – often I don’t even use words – and in old age I can look back on those early years as a tough but completely appropriate apprenticeship into a life of trying to take seriously the Methodist Covenant Service.

Pondering Death at Christmas

by George Bailey.

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19

In the first week of Christmas it is good to ponder upon the birth of Jesus; not in an idle philosophical way, but in a deliberate effort to see how this good news transforms life now. The word translated here as “ponder” (sumballō; literally “throw together”) is used elsewhere in Luke/Acts to mean “discuss [leading to a significant collective decision]” (Acts 4:15), “help [to defend an understanding of the scriptures]” (Acts 18:27), and even “make war” (Luke 14: 31) – this is an active, productive kind of pondering.

The questions turning in my heart have been triggered by the challenge of recent experiences of death for people amongst whom I minister, and informed by the Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ.[i]

Nativity_Icon

There is much symbolism to explore, but focus for now on the baby – see that it is not in a manger but a stone coffin, and the wrappings are as much reminiscent of ancient burial clothes as swaddling cloths. To become human flesh means that God enters the tragic suffering of human misery and mortality as a vulnerable baby in impoverished surroundings. The creator of all things cannot speak or look after himself, and is dependent on unprepared youngsters isolated from their support networks. Within a short time his life is at risk as other babies around him are massacred by military forces of the local political dictator, and his unmarried teenage parents are forced to flee as refugees.

“Cave, manger, swaddling clothes – are indications of the kenosis of the Godhead, His abasement, the utter humility of Him, who invisible in His nature, becomes visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, is born in a cave, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus foreshadowing His death and burial, the sepulchre and the burial clothes.”[ii]

By incarnation the Son of God becomes vulnerable to the risk of human death – indeed, it is his actual death by crucifixion that sets humanity free from sin and death.

This leads to a question that I have pondered for many years since first being alerted to it by the Homilies of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): if Jesus had not died upon the Cross, would he have grown old and died like all other human beings? At first glance this may seem to be the sort of speculative and ponderous (now using the verb pejoratively) investigation which gives theologians a bad reputation. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this question gets to the heart of the matter. The emphatic answer from St Gregory is “no” – Jesus’ human body is completely united with his divine nature such that it is free both from sin and mortality, and so “He is able to completely dispel the process of growing old.”[iii] There are a series of questions which flow from this surprising proposal (of course, you may want to challenge it, which would be a valuable act of Christmas pondering in itself…)

First, the proposal questions the way that we see the suffering of Jesus in the gospels – what is Jesus Christ’s relationship to his personal experience human suffering – e.g. the privations of his birth and childhood, his hunger in the wilderness, his physical torture leading to death? The Greek Orthodox Patristic tradition sees all these as real bodily sufferings, but also that Jesus is not a helpless victim of human mortality in the way we are – instead he obediently chooses these sufferings for our sake, to reveal God’s love and justice.

The second associated question is over the way that the work of Christ on the Cross functions for our salvation. Jesus is both, a sinless human being free from the threat of death, and also able to choose to hand himself over to death. It is this unique reality of the incarnation which means that on the Cross a sinless sacrifice can be offered by a sinless priest and the sin of all is atoned for once for all. This is using the language of Hebrews – a further question would be about how this idea works out in the other sets of terms and images used to refer to atonement in the New Testament.

Finally, the un-aging non-deteriorating body of Christ leads to questions about the quality and nature of the life of those who are “in Christ” now. The gospel is about eternal life – the restoration of a human-divine relationship that is free from human sin and mortality. Humans who trust in Christ still die, but they are invited to have their attitude to human suffering and death transformed by the promise of Christ. Christmas is not just about birth, but also about death; not just about the incarnation but also about life for followers of Jesus now being changed. As Gregory of Nazianzus puts it, the Nativity of Christ is “not as of creation, but of re-creation.”[iv]

Methodists may not have icons to provoke this pondering, but find similar theological moves in the Christmas hymns of Charles Wesley. The incarnation changes all humanity’s relationship to God: “of our flesh and of our bone, Jesus is our brother now, and God is all our own.”[v] This promises new freedom beyond the pains of death: “Made perfect first in love, and sanctified by grace, we shall from earth remove and see his glorious face.”[vi]

I pray your Christmas pondering may bear fruit… can we, even us, lead grace-filled lives and help those who are today suffering the tragedy of pain and death?

 

[i] picture in the public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_Icon.jpg

[ii] Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), translated G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, p.157 [altered]

[iii] Homily 16 §5, in Veniamin, Christopher (ed.), Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), p.117.

[iv] Gregory Nazianzen, Theological Oration 38, §4; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310238.htm

[v] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no.199.

[vi] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no. 208.

Waiting…

by Sue Culver.

‘Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison’ – Hebrews 13:3

Advent is nearly over – a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ-child. I don’t know about anyone else, but as I cast my eye over the bookcases in my study, I see a whole shelf of books about Advent – a range of books, which if read, promise to prepare my mind by stretching my imagination encouraging me to be ‘messy’, my body by amazing recipes for feasting, and my soul through daily meditations taking me ever closer to God.

I have found it hard to engage with any of them this year, because my mind is full pondering on a different kind of waiting and preparation.

I work as a volunteer chaplain one day a week at HMP Oakwood.  It is one of the biggest prisons in Britain, housing anything up to 2,400 prisoners at a time.  It’s a purpose built prison, opened around 8 years ago and from a distance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a distribution centre or industrial warehousing  because that is exactly what it looks like, and in a sense, exactly what it is – warehousing for human beings.

Within the walls, residents wait. They have no choice. They are all there for a reason of course, and the punishment for whatever crimes they have committed is to have their liberty denied. So they wait. They wait for their sentence to be served; they wait for their loved ones or their legal briefs to visit; they wait for their food to be served; they wait for health care to be given; they wait for a chaplain to respond. They wait for doors to be unlocked and locked again; they wait for toilet rolls to be distributed; they wait for the clock to tick….and tock…and tick. Tempus fugit is not a phrase you will hear in prison and waiting is exhausting and for some, the only way to cope with waiting is to submerge into a drug enhanced parallel world, at least for a time.

In this environment, how on earth does anyone offer Advent as a time of purposeful waiting and preparation for an incarnate God. How is Advent time any different from the chronological time these men are trying to kill?

How does one speak of the existence of God, the knowability of God, and the love of God in a place which primarily is a place of control and punishment and graceless?

I go back to the words written in Hebrews that encourage us to remember those in prison as if you were together with them and at the same time, recall the words of Sylvia Mary Alison, the founder of the Prison Fellowship. She wrote in her memoirs, ‘In our prayer imagination, we can enter any prison in the world, and visit Christ in prisoners there…It is Christ who beckons us into the darkest of the world’s jails. Will you cooperate with our Lord in building his house from the ground floor up, by marching into every prison of the world in prayer?”

In my experience, prison is one of the places where the currency of prayer is priceless. To spend time in prayer with a prisoner who is lonely, lost, grieving, or miserable is one of the most humbling experiences of my prison day, and also the most valuable. Of course you could argue that it fills in a little more time if a prisoner can buttonhole the Chaplain to talk to for an hour, but actually, more often than not, what is revealed is a brutal honesty about the darkest, hidden depths of despair that those having to wait endlessly face as they consider why they find themselves incarcerated in the first place. And so to be able speak of a God who waits alongside them within those darker than dark places, a God who calls ordinary people in this world to pray and be alongside too is one of the most powerful expressions of faith that I witness to.

This year, I began an Advent Prayer project and asked for 80 volunteers to pray for an individual prisoner by name, someone resident in the drug rehabilitation unit of the prison, as part of their daily Advent devotions. As well as praying, volunteers were also asked to sponsor the provision of a small Christmas gift of a mug, some socks and a few sweets to be given to them on Christmas morning. I was not at all astonished to find that exactly 80 volunteers came forward to do just that and so my Advent waiting is watchful and full of practical preparation. Practical in the sense that I have 80 extra gifts to be wrapped, once they have been screened by security at the prison and I’m watching and waiting to see what affect this will have on those being prayed for, and, those who are praying. Watching and waiting with an excitement that I have never experienced before, not least because not all of those volunteering would recognise my belief that it is Christ who beckons us into the darkest of the world’s jails to be alongside those who wait for their liberty to be restored. So, together we offer our prayers, our longings, our goodwill, whatever it is that each of us think we are doing as we hold the name of a particular person before us or before God each day into the heady mix of Advent preparations because if nothing else, the coming of the Christ child means its ok to be human. Not only that, but there is something of the divine in each of us and when we can prepare for Advent in our own way across differing positions or beliefs about something that is bigger than we are as individuals, we can truly say Christmas, blessed Christmas has come again.

Advent Thoughts on Self-esteem and Humility

by Joss Bryan.

The season of Advent is a penitential season when we are called to contemplate the chaos and darkness of the world. As part of our reflection we acknowledge that the light of Christ brings not only comfort and hope but also exposes those things which we would prefer to remain hidden or in ignorance of. The promise of redemption holds within it the tension of grace and judgement. It calls us to a time when we examine our hearts as we wait for God’s coming. Becoming more aware of the darkness in both the world and in ourselves is integral to this penitential season. The light reveals the truth of the state of the world and who we are, but the promises of God point us to the glorious possibilities of what is to come and who we might be.  To pray longingly in Advent for the light and at the same time recognise that this is something we want to avoid too, takes courage, for we know it will reveal the discrepancy between the person we are and the person we long to be, the world that is and the world as we think it should be. It can threaten our self-esteem and leave us in a dark place psychologically and spiritually.

The seasons of Advent and Christmas, are overwhelmed by expectations. Expectations of family and relationships, gifts and the holiday season. The actual and the hoped for does not always coincide. For many, this is a season when the expectations of themselves, others and what they desire are not realised. A dark sense of letting oneself down, others down and being let down by others and life itself, can lower self-esteem to a devastating level and obscure the light and hope brought to us in the Christ child.

Maintaining self-esteem is thought to be important for well-being throughout our lives. Some would go so far as to claim that it is a basic human need[i]. We have a need to evaluate ourselves as worthy of love and of value and if is not met, then we become psychologically distressed. In light of this, how do we understand the virtue of humility?

Humility

Humility is a problematic word in contemporary understanding. For centuries, it has been associated with accepting an inferior status in society. However, humility in ancient texts is concerned with relationships and the conviction that every human being is a beloved creature of God.[ii]  Furthermore, humility concerns the recognition of our need for others and God. The notion of dependency emphasises an awareness of our relationship and connectedness in the world and the interdependencies of human life, which necessarily draws one away from a self-centred orientation, to one which is more outwardly focussed.  It also acknowledges our dependence God and on others for our successes and almost everything we enjoy in life. This outward focus and realisation of dependency can only be achieved through an individual’s confidence in the love of God for them[iii].

Reynolds defines love as ‘life-giving generosity, a compassionate regard that draws near and attends to the beloved for its own sake with their good in mind.’  He imagines love as summoning us into a ‘relational space of giving,’[iv] but the attention to the beloved for its own sake is of equal importance. In Advent as the approach the mystery of the incarnation, God invites us into this relational space of giving and receiving. He demonstrates His love for humankind in the life, death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ, as He comes to us for our own sakes alone. His unconditional love and grace, bring us to our knees at the manger and the cross, as we claim our self-worth in His abiding love for us. This love, summons us into a ‘relational space’ of giving and receiving in which our sense of guilt and unworthiness is taken up into God’s economy of grace. Every human being is worthy to enter into this ‘relational space of giving and receiving love’ and invited to live humbly with one another in hope of the coming of God’s kingdom.

*For a full discussion of self-esteem and humility see – Jocelyn Bryan (2016), Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, Chapter 9, London: SCM Press

 

[i]Greenberg, J., ‘Understanding the vital quest for self esteem’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2008) pp. 48-55.

[ii]Bondi, R.C., 1987, To love as God loves, Philadephia: Fortress Press, p.42.

[iii] Bryan, J., 2016, Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, London: SCM Press, pp.224-225.

[iv] Reynolds, T.E., ‘Love without bounds: Theological Reflections on Parenting a Child with Disabilities’, Theology Today, 62 (2005), pp.193-209.

 

[1]Greenberg, J., ‘Understanding the vital quest for self esteem’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2008) pp. 48-55.

[2]Bondi, R.C., 1987, To love as God loves, Philadephia: Fortress Press, p.42.

[3] Bryan, J., 2016, Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, London: SCM Press, pp.224-225.

[4] Reynolds, T.E., ‘Love without bounds: Theological Reflections on Parenting a Child with Disabilities’, Theology Today, 62 (2005), pp.193-209.

Isaiah 35

by James Dunn.

The dating of Isaiah is always a problem (were two or three Isaiahs combined?) and it is quite probable that prophecies of different times were put together.   Chapters 34-35 seem to have been an original prophecy, perhaps from the time of king Hezekiah when Judah was in rebellion against the regional super-power of Assyria at the end of the 8th century BC.   But here the target is particularly Edom, the kingdom to the south of the Dead Sea, founded by Esau, son of Isaac and brother of Jacob.   Later on, in the time of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Edomites helped plunder Jerusalem and slaughter the Judeans.   It was particularly for this reason that the prophets denounced Edom so violently (34.5-9; Jer. 49.7-22;  see also Ps. 60.8 and 108.9).

The striking feature of these two chapters is the sharp contrast between Isa. 34’s emphasis on divine judgment and 35’s bright hope and promise.   34 was all about the Lord’s rage ‘against all the nations’ (34.2), and his ‘day of vengeance’ against Edom in particular (34.9) leaving it a waste land (34.9-15).   The contrast in chapter 35 could hardly be stronger:  the wilderness shall be glad, the desert blossom (35.1);  the weak hands and feeble knees strengthened (35.3);  the assurance of God coming to save them (35.4);  water breaking forth in the wilderness (35.6);  a highway opened up for the Lord’s people to return to Zion with joy (35.8-10).

What is particularly striking for Christians is the fact that Jesus took up 35.5-6 as hopes that had been fulfilled in his own ministry.   Isaiah had prophesied that the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame would leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless would sing for joy.   It is noteworthy that it was on precisely this passage that Jesus drew when he answered the query from the imprisoned Baptist, whether he (Jesus) was the one whose coming the Baptist had predicted.   ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear . . .’ (Matt. 11.5/Luke 7.22).

This tells us something about prophecy:  that it was intended primarily to warn and encourage those to whom it was delivered.   It used language and imagery which could rise above the particular historical circumstances which occasioned it.   That the language, the hopes and warnings, could speak to other, later and different circumstances, was why it was treasured and listened to afresh even though time and circumstances were different.   Some of the language was indeed prophetic, in the common sense of the term – when hopes expressed earlier were fulfilled later, and we can speak quite properly of prophecy being fulfilled.   But some of the prophet’s language was found to be particularly appropriate to refer to or even describe events which happened later.

This seems to be the case with Jesus’ reply to the Baptist.   The imagery which Isaiah had used to express his hope in God proved to be highly appropriate to describe Jesus’ ministry.   It is true that Isaiah’s hope was exceeded by what was happening through Jesus’ ministry;  Isaiah had said nothing here about lepers being cleansed, the dead raised, and good news being brought to the poor.   But the reality of Jesus’ ministry so closely mirrored the prophet’s hope, who could complain that the reality exceeded Isaiah’s prophetic hope?

So we can say that the role of prophecy in the divine purpose has been to lift eyes from the present, often troublesome times – to look beyond the difficult all too earthly now, to see how God’s purpose is being enacted despite multiple human failures.   And to see now in that beyond a hint or even a pattern indicating how God will act in the future.   In other words, fore-telling prophecy is not a matter of word for word, event for event precision.   Was even Isaiah 53 ‘precisely’ fulfilled by the events of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion?

No!  If we are to understand and benefit from biblical prophecy it is not by finding a word for word match between earlier hopes and later events.   It is by lifting our eyes beyond the current events, as the prophet did, and finding hope in the divine purpose.   And when prophetic words from the past match events of the present it’s not so much a matter of fulfillment, as a confirmation that God is indeed in control of what happens to his people.

The importance of roots

by Gill Newton.

“O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer:  Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.” Isaiah 11 v 10

“Researching my family tree” is on my “bucket list”.  It has always interested me, but I’ve never quite yet found the time!  In preparation though, I’ve sat down with Mum and encouraged her to tell me all she knows about our family tree.  Thankfully her knowledge is quite detailed and far reaching, so I’ll be off to a good start when I eventually find the time!

Genealogy is increasingly popular as evidenced by online resources to aid our research.  Then, there are the television programmes like “Who Do You Think You Are?” helping celebrities discover their roots, and others to find long lost family members.  Perhaps part of this interest is because families less often live in close-knit communities now. Vital connections have been lost; but people still need to understand where they come from.

Of course, what’s discovered may be a source of great pride and excitement or sometimes of fear or embarrassment as the dreaded “skeletons in the cupboard” are revealed.  Nevertheless, an understanding of where our roots lie remains really important to many of us.

It’s possibly why we have those seemingly boring genealogies in various parts of scripture!  It was important to Matthew, at the start of his gospel, to explain the family tree of which Jesus is a part – “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”[i]

Recently, I attended a District Resourcing Day for Local Preachers and Worship Leaders, wonderfully led by our President of Conference, Revd. Micky Youngson.  We were encouraged to reflect on the Advent antiphons and I was drawn to “O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse).”

Through this antiphon we can sense that the coming of God is anticipated from within.  Jesus will be at the heart of the family line of the house of David.  This is not God parachuting in from an unknown sphere, but God emerging from within the Israelite family.  This is God knowing the limitations of our human frame and understanding our place in the created order.

So, just like us God enters the world as part of a family line – with its own stories of joy and disappointment, with its own skeletons in the cupboard!  We can be confident that God knows just how important it is for our sense of identity and security to know where our roots lie.

Often, those television programmes conclude with joyous stories of reunions and restored relationships, of people having a deeper appreciation of who they are and a better understanding of what makes them that way.  Surely this reminds us of the importance of treating well those in our communities who feel they have no identity, no home and no sense of belonging anywhere.

Every family tree, despite its black sheep and “skeletons in cupboards” can produce unexpected fruit.  Every individual search for information about our ancestors is an opportunity to acknowledge the faithfulness of God to our family over the years.   That’s because our family trees, whatever they reveal, shape us, and God plays a huge part in all of that.  The story of the family of David, is the story of the human race, because “Jesus isn’t just one of the branches of this family tree, he is a continuation of the trunk.”[ii]  Being described as the root of Jesse means that he is both a product of the family line, but also the source of it, the one from whom all life emerges.

So, as we enter this Advent season, in a world so desperately in need of light, this antiphon reminds us of the family dimension to the incarnation.  Christ came as part of a human family, the line of David, a family to which we’re all connected and in which we all have a part to play.

The antiphon reminds us of our family bond to God in Christ and therefore of our call to care for one another, especially those who need it most.  God comes to the help of the whole world but we are the carriers of that aid.  The bringing of Advent hope will happen because of the God who comes from within: within our human family and within our hearts.

 

[i] Matthew 1 v 1

[ii] Quote from “The Art of Advent” by Jane Williams