Monthly Archives: December 2009

12 Days

I’m on holidays at the moment, beginning with a few days by the beach between Christmas and New Year. Lovely!

Yesterday, we were having afternoon tea with friends when the topic if the twelve days of Christmas came up. One of their children, a delightful young woman, realised from what we were saying that the twelve days came after Christmas, and not before as she had always thought.

It seems to suit commercial interests to have them before, as they can then be linked to something called ‘shopping days’. But Christmas is a season, and it’s only just begun.

When Shakespeare wrote ‘Twelfth Night’ everyone knew when that was; in these days of the loss of stories, it could be anytime.

This may be a small issue in view of issues like climate change. But it seems to me that now ‘commercial realities’ seem to have become the story we live by, they become a powerful impediment to just action.

The story is of a God who is one with us—to save the whole creation, not squander it.

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Christmas Day

Let me introduce you to one of my favourite Christmas paintings. It’s called the Census at Bethlehem. The artist was Pieter Bruegel, and he painted this picture in 1566.

It shows a rather ordinary village in the part of Holland in which Bruegel lived. It’s obviously winter time; don’t forget that in Holland, Christmas is in winter.

Even though this is an ordinary village scene, Bruegel has given it an extraordinary meaning by naming it Census at Bethlehem. We are invited to imagine this village as Bethlehem.

Can you see Mary and Joseph? It’s a bit like a Where’s Wally? picture. They are arriving, soon the Saviour of the world will be born, yet the villagers are taking no notice. It’s all happening very quietly.

That’s the way God tends to work—quietly, in a whisper.

I wonder what the news would be the next day in Bethlehem?

‘Did you hear a mob of shepherds came into town last night?’
‘Oh, I don’t like shepherds, they’d pick your pocket as soon as look at you.’

Or someone might say,

‘There was a bright light in the sky. I wonder if it was angels?’

(Today, of course, we’d think it was a UFO.)

And there might be a rumour that some wise men had been spotted travelling.

‘I hope they don’t come here, those wise men never wash. They smell funny!’

But there’d be no news about a baby born in a spare room, who was laid in some straw in a feed box. That wouldn’t rate. It’s too ordinary.

God works quietly, in the ordinary things of life. The decisions we make, the people we like or don’t like, the opportunities we have to do good, or fail to do good… God is at work, nudging us towards the good and the true. Often, we don’t even notice.

It’s like Bruegel’s painting. God slips in unnoticed, and we go about our business unaware of what has just happened. Our attention is taken by other things, and God is left to try again next time.

And God does try again. Christmas shows us that God desires to be one with us, and will do whatever it takes.

So don’t wait for something spectacular to happen to prove God is real. Look for him in the everyday things of life. God is there.

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I don’t know why they bother…

The President of the British National Secular Society has put out a seasonal message, aimed at helping us to understand one another. It includes this paragraph:

Muslims from Pakistan and India, Catholics from Poland and evangelical Protestants from Africa and the Caribbean are bringing with them unpleasantly conservative religious beliefs that sometimes shock and repel the majority. They often seem primitive, hysterical, fanatical and alien, full of hatred and intolerance and crazy, senseless rules. Honour killings, violent, sometimes fatal, exorcisms, denial of medical treatment to children on the assumption that prayer will be sufficient, the treatment of women as chattels and the spouting of unvarnished hatred of non-believers, gays and Jews from the pulpits of mosques.

It’s the kind of thing one might expect from a far-right political party. I’m speechless.

Fortunately, others aren’t. Take a look at responses by Ekklesia, Church Mouse and (my favourite!!) the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley.

And the compliments of the season to everyone, including the National Secular Society.

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Christmas Eve

An ordinary person

Last Sunday, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mary MacKillop is to be made a saint of that Church. Why should we be bothered, on this of all days?

I think we should cheer this decision. Mary MacKillop was a pioneer of education for poor children, and a feisty woman who stood up to church authorities when she disagreed with them, and was even excommunicated for a time. She’s the kind of Australian many of us would admire, someone who embodies aspects of the Australian character.

One Australian Archbishop said, ‘She was one of us. Mary was an ordinary person who lived a holy life.’ Wow, what a thing to say about anyone. ‘An ordinary person’—an ordinary Aussie—becomes a saint.

For this woman to be made a saint says something about the Australian character: it says it is possible for a real Aussie to be an example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus was born an ordinary human being as well. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he was also as human as you and I are. He grew as a child. He wept, he wondered, he sang. He grew tired and hungry, he knew happiness and sorrow, joy and grief.

But in all this, he was true to God his heavenly Father at all times. It’s good at Christmas time to remember that Jesus didn’t stay a baby. Let’s not be seduced by the baby smile, so that we think that’s all there is. Jesus came that we might know God through him. Jesus came to teach the ways of God. Jesus came to show the great love of God, love that would eventually take him to the cross.

Jesus came to make disciples. And the world needs disciples for Jesus badly. It’s great that Mary MacKillop has finally been recognised. Go online soon, look at her life. She was a dynamo for Jesus.

And Jesus needs us to follow him too. He needs us in all our human ‘ordinary-ness’ to make a difference to the world in his name.

We celebrate his birth tonight and tomorrow, and I hope we do it with style. But don’t let it be for nothing. Let your life reflect his life. Follow him from this night onward.

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Being a Muslim at Christmas

I was quite moved by this short piece; it was in Faith Central (Times Online), and describes the experience of a young British Muslim woman, Sajda Khan:

I have a very vivid memory of my days in primary school; weeks before school closed for Christmas, the beautifully decorated tree would stand tall and proud in the school hall, with glimmering lights, laden with shimmering tinsel and colourful baubles.

Like all the other children, I too would wait impatiently for Santa Claus I can remember once, all the children in my class given a colouring book with colouring pencils; my friend’s book was much thicker than mine, my heart was spilling with grief as I eyed my friend’s thick colouring book from the corner of my eye.

I am a British Muslim and as a child I never really understood what Christmas was about; all I knew was that it was celebrating the birth of Jesus. Little did I know that Jesus was also a revered Messiah, the anointed one, who will one day, return to earth.

The more I learned about Islam the more I realised that my religion requires me to be tolerant and respectful towards other faiths. The one thing that most disturbs me is that despite the many common theological roots and beliefs that Islam and Christianity have shared throughout history, they have often been depicted as lethal enemies locked in conflict. This so-called clash of civilizations has been marked with episodes of confrontation and conflict from as early as the defeat of the Byzantine empire in the seventh century, to the ferocious Crusades and the current war on terror; a story of mistrust, sometimes spilling into hatred that can only be resolved by one side triumphing over the other. The reality is that Christians and Muslim have lived in peaceful co-existence for centuries throughout the world.

Muslims and Christians share similar theological roots; for example a belief in Jesus as a Messiah. There is a difference: Muslims do not regard Jesus as the son of God but see him as a great Prophet.  The Qur’an, mentions Jesus in about 25 different places. Muslims believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus, where God said ‘Be’ and he was conceived. The Qur’an also illustrates the many different miracles he performed; such as healing the leper, raising the dead to life and healing the blind etc. The first miracle of Jesus mentioned in the Qur’an was how he spoke in the cradle as a newborn baby, replying to those who doubted his conception.

Muslims believe that in Islam, all of the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an are a fraternity, they all had the same core message: to call mankind to the worship of one God and to do good.

For Christians, Christmas is about celebrating the birthday of a sacred person: the embodiment of nobility, generosity, compassion and justice. These characteristics can be emulated by anyone from any religious background.  Amid the media hype building up towards Christmas there is little focus on the great characteristics of Jesus and what we can learn from his life.

Even though I do not celebrate Christmas in the real sense – as a university student, for instance I would often work long shifts as a medical operator on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day enabling my non Muslim colleagues to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I do actually celebrate and cherish his birth and his life on this earth by truly loving him and trying to exemplify his noble characteristics in my own life.


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How to choose your religion…

h/t Sanctus1 (humour alert):


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Fourth Sunday in Advent

Jesus taking shape

Sisters and brothers,
the Word of God, made flesh in Mary’s womb,
will come forth to heal us
and make all things new.

Let us pray as Advent draws to a close
for the faith that opens our lives
to the Spirit of God:

O God,
Mary shows us how to trust,
as she hears your word
and commits herself in faith.
Like her, may we allow Christ
to take form within us,
the Son who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 1.39-45

I’ve been thinking about a woman all week. You know, throughout history, there have been women who have turned men’s heads and stirred men’s imaginations: Cleopatra, Bathsheba, Boadicea, Elizabeth I, Mata Hari, Sigourney Weaver, Myffie Warhurst, Karen Walton… But it seems to me that despite all the attention given to these women, the woman who has commanded by far the most attention is Mary of Nazareth.

Yet we don’t talk much about Mary. It’s one of the divides between Catholics and the rest of us that still has currency. Mary doesn’t get a guernsey for much of the time at all in our churches. We feel uncomfortable with the way she has stirred the Catholic imagination. We don’t know what to make of talk of her as the Queen of Heaven; we don’t need to believe that she was conceived without sin; we don’t need to believe she was taken bodily into heaven without dying.

If Catholics are in danger of making too much of Mary, we have an equal and opposite danger: that is, we make too little of her. In fact, we may be in danger of making less of Mary than the bible does.

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Third Sunday in Advent

Good News?!

Sisters and brothers,
the Word of God, made flesh in Mary’s womb,
will come forth to heal us
and make all things new.

Let us pray:

Save us, coming God,
from relying on our goodness;
but as we trust in your word,
and turn from sin,
may the fire of the Spirit
blaze among us;in Christ’s name. Amen.

Zephaniah 3.14-20
Philippians 4.4-7
Luke 3.7-18

Things John the Baptist would never say:

‘I’m ok, you’re ok.’
‘Of course, I could be wrong…’
No, really, you’re fine as you are.’
’Tact and negotiation. They’re what get things done.’
‘Yes, it’s a cheeky little merlot and I think you’d be amused by its impertinence…’

What did John the Baptist say? ‘You brood of vipers!…’ I’ve always wanted to start a sermon like that, but at theological college they teach you not to. For some reason.

Today is the Third Sunday in Advent. The season of Advent is about waiting, and preparing, for the coming of Jesus Christ. Actually, Advent is about three comings:

Advent is about the first coming of Jesus at Bethlehem, his birth, the celebration of Christmas, when the eternal Word was made human flesh.

But Advent is about far more than this. We can’t forget that Jesus comes now, in Word and Sacrament, as we meet Sunday by Sunday. He is in the midst wherever two or three gather in his name. He is here—here in his Body, the Church, in his Word and in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

And Advent speaks of the final coming of Jesus, his return to bring about the Reign of God in all its fullness.

Some of our Communion prayers put it this way:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Or, Jesus came 2000 years ago, the Son of Mary. Jesus comes among us Sunday by Sunday, and day by day. Jesus will come again as Lord of all. And we wait.

But you know, there’s waiting and there’s waiting. How are we waiting? Are we hanging around, loitering, wasting time? That’s one way of waiting.

Or are we waiting by looking forward, anticipating, yearning for the coming of God’s justice and God’s peace, are we ready for Christ as he comes?

This is what it’s about. How are we waiting? Are we lounging about, or are we thirsting for the shalom of God, the peace of God to come in all its fullness? One and only one of these ways of waiting leads to life.

Today’s readings suggest two essential things that should mark our lives as we wait expectantly for Jesus. One is to learn to live well while we wait. The other is to live with joy while we wait.

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A History of Christianity

I’m reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, an amazing and magisterial work. (The subtitle is correct: to grasp the early Christian movement, we need to have a grounding in the Jewish, Greek and Roman histories and cultures of the time.)

It’s way beyond my competency to review this work. Besides, I’m on page 108 right now; only over 900 pages to go… But I do want to point to the wit and insight with which MacCulloch writes, as he does in other books of his with which I am acquainted (The Reformation; Thomas Cranmer: A Life). Take, for example, these words about the Greek pantheon of gods (p. 32):

The pantheon portrayed in both Greek myths and the Homeric epics can hardly be said to exemplify virtue: the origins of the gods in particular make up an extraordinary catalogue of horrors and violence. Hesiod’s Theogony named the first divinity as Chaos; among the divinities who emerged from him, representing the cosmos spawned out of chaos, was Gaia, the Earth. Gaia’s son Ouranos/Uranus (the Sky) incestuously mated with his mother and had twelve children. whom he forced back into Gaia’s womb; Gaia’s youngest son, Kronos/Cronus, castrated his father, Ouranos, before in turn committing incest with his sister and attempting to murder all their children. How unlike the home life of the Christian Trinity. Matters only marginally improved in the generation of Zeus. If one were coompleting a school report on the behaviour of the Olympian gods, it would have to include commetns on their lack of moral responsibility, consistent pity or compassion.

‘How unlike the home life of the Christian Trinity’—just delightfully slipped in. Absolutely sheer unadulterated gold!! This book is well worth the asking price for the wit alone.


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A Christmas message from the President of the Uniting Church in Australia

A Christmas of Contrasts

I wonder how those who favour harsh policies towards desperate people seeking haven and hope in this country will celebrate Christmas this year. For their sake I hope they don’t listen to the story at the heart of the season. They might choke on their turkey and gag on their champagne!

With a worrying sense of déjà vu, I have been aware of a disturbing juxtaposition of images. The Holy Family being turned away from the inn is overlaid with child-bearing mothers in boats confronted with gun-bearing navy vessels.

The image of a mother and child surrounded by animals and shepherds merges with images of a fearful mother with a newborn infant in a detention centre in Indonesia, Christmas Island or the Australian mainland.

The Holy Family fleeing to Egypt seeking asylum from terror, blends with images of hundreds of desperate people being turned away from our abundant shores.

The Christmas storyteller recalls a vulnerable couple seeking refuge in a strange town for the birth of their child. This same little family would later flee to Egypt as refugees to escape tyranny, returning when things were safer. The child of that birth grew up to preach and practice a radical inclusivity and teach about a God whose hospitality knows no limits.

Jesus taught his followers to direct their energies to caring for the lost, the lonely, the little and the least; and that in so doing they would be caring for him. His short life ended, as it had begun, as an outsider. He was crucified ‘outside the city gates’ between two common criminals.

The fear and the ignorance which crucified Christ remains starkly apparent in our world. The fear of the stranger, the other. I recognise it in myself. Would Christ survive this world if he came among us again?

This Christmas, as we welcome Jesus, whom Scripture calls the Prince of Peace, let us recall that he was and remains, a disturber of false peace. That false peace which rests on injustice and indifference to the poor and powerless.

May Christ be born in us again to soften and warm our hearts in the exercise of compassion; to strengthen our will in the pursuit of justice for all; to sharpen our minds to distinguish truth from expediency; and to move our spirits to respond with praise, gratitude and joy to the presence of the Living God, incarnate in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Revd Alistair Macrae

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