Archive for the ‘Advent 2011 Reflections’ Category

Saturday 24th December “Walking in the way of peace”   Leave a comment

Well I have made it. We have reached the eve of Christ’s mass and I have managed to read the set scriptures and commentary in the booklet by Redemptorist Publications and post some thoughts on this blog every day through Advent. I have valued the exercise and want to spend time in the coming weeks reflecting on what I have written, seeing what it might say about where my faith/spiritual journey now is and maybe glean some pointers as to what the next few steps might be. However for today I will reflect on the set passages as I have done throughout this period.

The Bible passages set for today are 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14; and Luke 1: 67-79.

In 2 Samuel we have King David stating he wants to build a temple for God and then Nathan being given the prophecy that is was not to be David but David’s son who would build the temple. In the passage in Luke we come to Zachariah’s prophetic song at the birth of John the Baptist. 

There are lots of echos here in my personal life.  I have long identified with David, he mucks up big time over and over again but then comes back to God with deep passion. I have often mused that he was probably bipolar (manic-depressive) as I am. He certainly portrays in some of his psalms a personal knowledge of what it is like to be depressed (e.g. Ps 32). Then here he is trying to make a grandiose gesture of building a temple – very hypomanic.  And in this story it is Nathan the prophet again who is his spiritual counsellor. My firstborn son, who is 18 next month, is called Nathan. We did not name him after the Old Testament prophet but because the name means “gift”. However my attention is always alerted when I hear passages about him read out or the amazing anthem by Handel “Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet …” about the coronation of King Solomon, David’s son who was going to go on to build the temple.

There is thus for me in today’s readings a strong theme of “fathers and sons”. This is timely for me with my own son reaching the age that in our culture we think of as adulthood. Many a musing there about what I might have been able to pass on to him for his future life. One thing I value in Nathan is he seems to have inherited from both me and his mother an independence of thought and spirit. Looking forward to watching his life unfold with the ups and downs we all face. However as any loving father would be I am a little fearful for the immediate future with all its transition and uncertainty. I have hopes but no divine prophecies for his future. 

Then tomorrow we celebrate the birth of “The Son of God”.  Intellectually I can not say what I mean by that phrase as it relates to Jesus. For decades I wrestled with that but it has become less important in my spirituality now. However at midnight communion/mass tonight I will in awe and wonder give thanks for Emmanuel … God with us!


Friday 23 December 2011 – “Preparing the way”   Leave a comment

Today I have finished my Christmas present shopping and done the big food shop for the “feast” so have been enacting my own preparations for what is to come.

The Bible passages set for today are Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; and Luke 1: 57-66.

In Malachi we have more prophesies of the one who will prepare the way. Again I hear the words so clearly as set in Handel’s Messiah:

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.

But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He
appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
[Handel’s Messiah Recetive Part I]

Or from a modern version of the Bible:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,
[Malachi 3: 1-3 NIV]

It is interesting to take a sceptical position about prophecy and muse on these words. Malachi is difficult to date because it contains few historical references but it was probably written about 450 years before Christ.  It here talks of a messenger – a quite universal theme in scripture and in many religious experiences. The messenger precedes the arrival of something longed for and seen as a significant intervention of God in the lives of humankind. So what could have stirred Malachi to write these things and then their subsequent interpretation of them hundreds of years later to refer to John the Baptist and Jesus?

I have no problem with prophecies being poetic generalities that find their meaning in the sense making of later generations.  Look at it from God’s perspective – how would He/She communicate with humankind? Although hearing a voice and interpreting it as God speaking are reported throughout history and across religions most religious people would probably talk along the lines of sensing what God is saying. Believing God to be entwined with every sub-atomic particle in the universe He/She is there then within the workings of our brains, our thoughts and our emotions. However as said in previous posts we are not puppets of the creator. We can make choices to recognise or not the existence of the divine and to seek to relate to Him/Her. So it seems reasonable to me that in deeply spiritual people, and I would put prophets among those, they can experience times of being well attuned to the divine. At times I believe this may come out as prophetic words. I definitely see this as sensing God’s purpose and expressing it in ways familiar to the individual concerned not in being a scribe for divine dictation.

I would like to go on and make some “learned” points based on Jung’s writings on the collective unconscious and symbolism in religion but it is over 20 years since I struggled to read and understand that stuff.  Suffice it to say there seems to be common themes ideas that repeat in religious experience. Many a sermon has been constructed based on that, e.g comapring Jesus to various Old Testament characters e.g Melkizedak, Abraham, David, … There is something that speaks to me about the way prophecy might work. Our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines (neural networks). An example of this is that we are so good at recognising the faces of individuals we know but we also get triggered false recognitions when we think someone is somebody else or even when we say “they look a bit like so and so”.  So to me in the bigger patterns of life, in the narrative we construct of the events that surround us it seems to me that we should recognise strong echos in the writings from the past that are familiar to us. That not fully worked out mechanistic view of prophecy is important to me as a way of seeing that prophecy has a plausible basis, that brings in scientific perspectives, where is can’t just be dismissed as bunkum; as impossible therefore I won’t think about it further.

Even with a sceptical view the sheer number of links between Old Testament prophecies and the stories around Jesus needs answering. It seems improbable to me that these were merely constructs of the Gospel writers to cynically creating a new mythology; i.e. deliberate deceptions. Many of those writers went on to die for what they believed. People die for their convictions not usually for something they know to be a construction of lies. 

This all begs the question why do I warm to these Biblical prophecies and reject say those of Nostradamus?  Where people see fulfillment of these I understand it to be triggering pattern recognitions in the brain too. I don’t think researching the precision of fulfilment in terms of minutia of facts is a fruitful investigation partly because of what I describe as the poetic nature of prophecy. The real answer is I think that I value prophecy as a tool in sense making of subsequent but still past events not as a predictor of the future. The prophecies of the Old Testament have helped me construct meaning out of the New Testament but they are not for me points of blind faith. I am sure I will go on questioning them and the notion of what prophecy is on and off for the rest of my life.

I have gone on to long on this theme and not said anything of the story from Luke of Zechariah being struck mute until he named John the Baptist as instructed. However I will sign off this post now (my wife wants to sleep).

[Note I discovered that Malachi 3: 23-24 are not included in the King James Version or the New International Version of the Bible but were in the Jerusalem Bible. I have not looked into the reasons for this but it seems a non-contriversal point given that the verses relate to the prophecy of Elijah coming back before the Messiah which occurs at various other points.]

Thursday 22 December 2011 – “Turning the world upside down”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were 1 Samuel 1: 24-28; Luke 1: 46-56.

We are back with pregnancy and the huge potentiality of every new birth. Any child may be used to “turn the world upside down.” Today in Samuel we read of Hannah’s dedication of the young Samuel, who she had prayed for so long, to the Lord and bringing him to Eli to be brought up in the house of the Lord. Then in Luke we have the Magnificat, Mary’s beautiful song of praise uttered while she was pregnant with Jesus and when staying with her older cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. That is 3 babies that went on to change their worlds and in different ways many later and geographically spread parts of the world.

I have always loved the story of Samuel since I was a child. I wanted to be able to hear that voice of God and respond ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ [1 Samuel 3: 10]. In my 20s I had the opportunity to learn yachting and longed to have a small yacht of my own. It was a period when I still made such prayer requests to God and I prayed for one, resolving to call it Samuel if I ever got one. Samuel went on to be a wise Judge of the people of Israel. There is a story in I Samuel 6 that provoked an insight that is important to me on my faith journey – but I’ll save the telling of that for another blog post. 

It was Samuel who anoints the first kings of Israel (Saul and David). The beginning of this story in 1 Samuel 8 for me is one of those points in history that to my view things would have gone better for God’s work on earth if different decisions were taken. Samuel counsels against having a king but in the end he (and apparently God) relents because of the people’s demands. From what I can tell at this historical distance and the biblical accounts the wise Judges and the tribal elders seems a lot more wholesome form of Government than an autocratic king. I also think that the subsequent images of God based on kingship give a distorted image of Him/Her that was particularly negative in influence through the medieval period of church history. 

There are two instances of Church history in particular that I wish had gone a different way. Firstly, when Constantine adopted Christianity as a state religion of the Roman empire (c. 313). This embroiled the church  in political power games that were to show many unChristlike attributes down the subsequent centuries. Christianity became Christendom. More nationalistically I am saddened that at the Synod of Whitby in 664 the indigenous Celtic church put itself under Roman authority. We would have had a very different national spirituality if that had not been the case. However here we are back at the point of Monday’s reflection. God takes risks with the unfolding of history by entrusting much of it to the decisions of His/Her conscious  creation.

How are we influencing the world in which we live?

Wednesday 21 December 2011 – “The season of glad songs has come”   Leave a comment

I have had a day of pre-Christmas blues and then come to a reflection entitled: “The season of glad songs has come”. The Old Testament reading is from one of my favourite books of the Bible: Song of Solomon 2: 8-14. The Gospel reading is Luke: 1: 39-45.

When a friend says something like the Bible is not relevant to modern-day life I like to point to the Song of Solomon.  It’s imagery is of an agrarian culture in the Middle East approximately 3,000 years ago. However to almost anyone who has known the joy of a deep and passionate love, the emotions that imagery conveys are very recognisable.  Many preachers and commentators have interpreted the Song of Solomon as an allegory for God’s relationship with his people. Indeed the notes for today’s reflection do this too. However I value the book particularly for reminding me that in more ways that we usually give credit the people of the biblical times are people just like us. To me that reinforces the validity of learning  from their spiritual journeys recorded in the Bible.

The story in Luke is where Mary visits Elizabeth and somehow (her baby jumps but quite how she makes the leap from that I don’t understand) Elizabeth recognises that Mary is expecting “her Lord”. She goes on to exclaim to Mary as will be familiar to catholics everywhere:

Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
[Luke 1: 42 KJV]

So we move in today’s readings from a passionate love poem to the story of a meeting of two pregnant women. What could be more earthy, universal and central to the experience of being human. And it is in this that God meets us.

Tuesday 20 January 2011 – “Pregnancy and promise”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages for today were Isaiah 7: 10-14 and Luke 1:26-38.

The passage from Isaiah foretells the virgin birth and in Luke the angel breaks that news to Mary. However I might struggle with what may be historical truth and what symbolic myth in the Christmas story there is one bit in today’s readings that is particularly meaningful to me:

… and will call him Immanuel
[Isaiah 7: 14 NIV]

Immanuel meaning in Hebrew “God with us”.

Whatever theological wrangling has gone on throughout Church history, or inside my own head, as to the exact nature of Jesus what he represents to me is “God with us”. It is one thing to believe in the existence of God, say as creator, but it is in fact quite a big further leap to then see Him/Her as “with us”. However through the eyes of faith I have “known” that all my life.

The stories of today’s readings and indeed the whole theme of Advent is expectancy. Given my faith in “God with us”, what is my own expectancy? What does that faith really mean in my life?

4th Sunday of Advent – “Expectation and preparation”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Romans 16: 25-27; and Luke 1: 26-38.

The story in Samuel is one of the numerous stories in the Old Testament where the people of Israel have to be persuaded to repent of worshipping false gods and to turn again the The Lord. Then after God gives them victory in battle over the Philistines (always something that challenges my view of God’s interaction with history); it ends with an image that was much repeated throughout my youth and one I can gladly own for myself.  They set up a stone and called it Ebenezer – “Hitherto the Lord has helped us”.  I have always loved the reference to this in my favourite hymn, the one I have said since my teens I want at my funeral, “A sovereign protector I have” by Au­gus­tus M. Top­la­dy. To my view this must be sung to the wonderful Welsh tune Trew­en (both my Grandfathers were Welsh and Welsh spirituality touches me easily). I was going to just quote the last verse that refers to the Ebenezer but the hymn is such a complete summary of things that are important in my own faith I quote the whole:

A sovereign protector I have,
Unseen, yet forever at hand,
Unchangeably faithful to save,
Almighty to rule and command.
He smiles, and my comforts abound;
His grace as the dew shall descend;
And walls of salvation surround
The soul He delights to defend.

Inspirer and hearer of prayer,
Thou shepherd and guardian of Thine,
My all to Thy covenant care
I sleeping and waking resign.
If Thou art my shield and my sun,
The night is no darkness to me;
And fast as my moments roll on,
They bring me but nearer to Thee.

Kind author, and ground of my hope,
Thee, Thee, for my God I avow;
My glad Ebenezer set up,
And own Thou hast helped me till now.
I muse on the years that are past,
Wherein my defense Thou hast proved;
Nor wilt Thou relinquish at last
A sinner so signally loved!

[Augustus Toplady, December 1774]

I had a few other thoughts coming out of today’s readings but compared to those well crafted and deeply felt words by Rev. Toplady which I claim for myself they are just noise, so I will leave today’s reflections there.

Saturday 17 December 2011 – “Part of the Story”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were:  Genesis 49: 2, 8-10, and Matthew 1: 1-17.

Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, in the 42 generations recorded there are some names very familiar from the Old Testament stories. Genealogies have been very important in many human cultures. It seems likely that Matthew included it here to show God’s purposes throughout history and to emphasis Jesus’ importance.

I don’t know my own genealogy back further than a few generations but I am aware that part of my own spirituality builds on that of my ancestors.

After a tiring day that’s as far as my thoughts have gone for this reflection.

Posted December 17, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

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