Acting for Peace—through the Christmas Bowl

My Christmas Morning Reflection in worship on 25 December 2019 at Queanbeyan Uniting Church.

 

Each week during Advent, as a congregation, we have been preparing for the celebration of this day. On each of the four Sundays in the season of Advent, we have affirmed our faith, and rejoiced in what Christmas means to people of faith. We have been oriented steadfastly towards this day; this day on which we recall and celebrate the birth of Jesus.

So, today, Christmas Day, we pause and ponder:

what does it mean, that Christ has come?

what does Christmas mean, for us, today?

 

1       At Christmas, we give presents to those we love.

You have no doubt experienced the delightful look of sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving first one, then another, and then many, presents, one after another. If it is more blessed to give than to receive, it is surely deeply rewarding to look at the sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving.

And at Christmas, we give in abundance, with generosity, to those we love. 

However, at Christmas we should not forget those who have received nothing, who have nothing, who exist on very little, who survive each day with little or no means of support.

Each year, during Advent, we recall the story of John the Baptist, who came as the messenger, to prepare the way, to announce the coming of the one chosen by God. In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. “If you have two coats”, he said, “give one to the person who asks you for it.”

This message, of giving to those in need from the abundance which we enjoy, has been a standard part of Christmas for churches like ours, over the past 70 years. It was that long ago that the idea of the Christmas Bowl originated, in the family celebrations in the Melbourne home of the Rev. Frank Byatt.

Over time, the simple bowl on the middle of the Christmas dinner table has become an organisation that is supported by all the major Christian denominations, as listed on the screen. This is the organisation that provides presents to people living in poverty, in temporary shelter, in areas ravaged by natural disasters, because of the giving of people like us, who have the capacity to give.

This Christmas, we are challenged to think about what we might be able to give away, and who it is that might benefit from our gift. The Christmas Bowl provides a simple and easy way for us to share the abundance that we are enjoying this day, with someone who has not been so blessed.

 

2       At Christmas, we enjoy feasting with those we love.

The table will no doubt be laden high, this day: overflowing with seafood, with turkey and ham, with vegetables; with Christmas cake, with mince pies, and Christmas pudding; with lollies and sweets in abundance.

When Elizabeth and I lived in England, we came to appreciate the way that the Christmas Dinner, in full northern hemisphere tradition, had developed. On the shortest day of the year, amidst cold, rain, perhaps even snow, with dusk falling at 3.00pm, then it just made perfect sense, after a late morning church service, to enjoy a big roast, with hearty servings, washed down with more-than-adequate glasses of liquid refreshment.

Australian Christmas dinners are different, in the heat and humidity of summer; glasses of wine are more often than not replaced with stubbies of beer—although we often continue some of the other inherited traditions. But whatever hemisphere we are in, we eat, and drink, and enjoy.

Christmas should mean that we do not forget those who have no food to eat. One of the things that the Christmas Bowl does, is provide food rations. It is doing this, right now, for Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, and Iraqis who have been displaced and are homeless; for refugees from Myanmar on the border with Thailand, and for the Rohinga families who have fled from violence and persecution into the camps of Bangladesh.

But the Christmas Bowl also provides the means for people to grow and harvest their own food locally. Act for Peace’s partner in Zimbabwe, Christian Care, works with farmers in drought-prone areas in southern Zimbabwe, where about 1,200 farmers are now directly benefiting from the conservation farming program that has been introduced. They have increased crop yields, which has dramatically improved the ability of these 1,200 men and women to meet their households’ food needs, as well as to unite farming communities around a productive development program, while at the same time improving the sustainability of the land.

But we do not need to go to Zimbabwe, or Bangladesh, or Iraq, or Jordan, to find hungry people. Every week, in this town, people from this church and other churches provide food for the hungry, friendship for the lonely, and a place of safety for those whose lives are fraught, just across the road, at St Benedict’s. And this important ministry to the local community ensures that people do not need to go without food, any day, any week.

 

3       At Christmas, we tell the story of the baby born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; and then, the story reports that this family hurriedly fled to another country, seeking safety until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise this part of the story. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals; there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the barnyard, all around. This was not the plan; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude.

The account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew, of the rapid flight that the family took, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, sets out very clearly that this was not a plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge.

Christmas, for us, challenges us to think about those who have no shelter; and especially, to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

This is going on in so many places around the globe. There are 70.8 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes—that is almost three times the population of Australia.

There are currently 25.9 million people officially classified as refugees, meaning that they have a well-placed fear of persecution if they return to their homes. That is the category that Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have been in, had there been a United Nations High Commissioner for refugees in the first century.

The Christmas Bowl is working with the 100,000 Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka, precisely because of this fear of persecution. There are people today who still experience trials and persecution in far too many countries around the globe. The Christmas Bowl is one practical way that we can show we care, that we want to help such people.

4 Finally, at Christmas, let us remember the most unsavoury part of the story; the part we rarely hear on this day, this morning celebration: the part of the story that tells of a king who used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power.

Herod was a tyrant, fearful of any pretender to his throne. Matthew tells that he decreed that all infant males should be killed, to ensure that the baby Jesus would not vie for his throne, or contest his power. That is the fundamental reason why the family of Jesus fled to another country.

Deep at the heart of the Christmas story, then, is the message that we should not repeat the errors of using violence to enforce power. As followers of Jesus, we seek the way of the one born to bring peace to the world. How can we sing “peace on earth, and mercy mild”, unless we work for peace in our world today?

Jesus was committed to the way of peace; the story of his adult life bears this out, and the end of the story is an account of submission to violence, of turning the other cheek and allowing his own life to be taken, rather than to respond with force, violence, and power.

The organisation which administers the Christmas Bowl is called Act for Peace. It is committed to actions which ensure that, as justice is enacted, so peace might become a reality, for countless thousands of people around the world. One of the projects that the Christmas Bowl supports is a peace-building initiative in the Philippines, where workers are educating Indigenous people on their rights, training local leaders and engaging grassroots organisations to monitor and report on human rights violations.

So, today, as we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!”, let us work for peace in the world.  As we carol, “All glory be to God on high, and to the world be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease,” let us support organizations which advocate peace with justice and strive to bring that reality from heaven, here, on to earth. And as we join with those herald angels, who “sing glory to the new-born King, peace on earth, and mercy mild”, may we always act for peace in the world. And as we sing, may the Christ child come.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/24/on-the-move-a-reflection-on-christmas/

 

Putting the Homoousion back into Christmas

Last year I created my own contribution to the festive cheer, in the words below. I am offering it up this year with my tongue still firmly in my cheek.

…..

As I listened to the mesmerising schloppp of the muzakked carols during my occasional forays into the shopping malls, and pondered the calls to put Christ back into Xmas, I thought that it was about time to finish the job that some of the traditional carols have only just started.

References to “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing”, and “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see”, are just the start. Explanations about the one who “abhors not the Virgin’s womb” really need to be expanded and developed. “Hail the incarnate Deity” needs to ring through all of our carolling. Surely, the carols we sing should joyously and vigorously affirm the fullness of our faith!!

With this in mind, in the spirit of the Wesleys (who took popular tunes and put Christian hymn lyrics to them), I have grabbed Jingle Bells by the short and danglies, and consulted with my resident critic and editor-in-chief, who has made sure that the verses, at least, conform to the scheme of rhyming pairs.

I therefore present the following offering, inspired by all that the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition provides. And, in the spirit of this tradition, there is a special verse dedicated to the oft-overlooked Appendix to the Creed, which calls down a curse (an anathema, in Greek) on the heretics and their views.

Let the Homoousions rise to the heavens!

Enjoy!

1

Dashing through the mall

With a Christmas list to go,

Shoppers all around

Buzzing to and fro.

Carols sound on high

Repetitiously;

Santa, Rudolph, bells and snow,

But where can Jesus be?

Refrain A

Calchedon, Nicaea,

This is what we need:

Three in one and one in three,

Blessed Trinity, Hey!

God is now Incarnate,

God Emmanuel,

Human being, he became:

Homoousion!

2

Back in three two five,

The Emperor Constantine

Faced a mess of views,

which he needed to redeem.

“Sort this dogma mess,

Sort it once for all!”

And so the bishops did their job,

made a snappy Creed catch-all.

Refrain B

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Essence of the Father,

Light from Light, and Very God,

Be-gotten not made. Hey!

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Through whom all was made,

He came down, was incarnate,

Homoousion!

3

Though the bishops came,

met, and made a Creed,

Heretics were there,

Sowing their fake seeds.

So the Creed was stretched

To include some words

That ensured the views they held

Would damn them all with verbs:

Refrain C

Those who say, “he was not”,

Let them be accursed!

If they say “from naught he came”,

Let them be condemned! Hey!

If they claim “he’s changeable,

of quite another substance”,

Let them be condemned, we say,

Cast them out of church!

Refrain B

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Essence of the Father,

Light from Light, and Very God,

Be-gotten not made. Hey!

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Through whom all was made,

He came down, was incarnate,

Homoousion!

…..

The sections of the Nicene Creed which have informed this offering are:

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

      the only Son of God,

      begotten from the Father before all ages,

           God from God,

           Light from Light,

           true God from true God,

      begotten, not made;

      of the same essence as the Father.

      Through him all things were made.

      For us and for our salvation

           he came down from heaven;

           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

           and was made human.

‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We wait, and hope, and grieve, anticipating …

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

as we sit and watch the flames and smoke

Hear our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We have seen the photos, Lord.

We have watched from afar,

horrified, terrified.

We have heard the accounts,

listened to the tales of loss and destruction,

and learnt the names of those who have died.

We have felt the heat,

searing heat, scorching heat;

we have watched the smoke,

insidious, permeating everything,

snaking its way into our region;

and we have become weary,

We have inhaled the smoke,

coughed and wheezed,

closed the windows and the doors,

waited for the change in wind direction.

Now it is inside … inside our homes,

inside our lives, inside our beings.

And still the photos, the images, come;

the searing flames, the plumes of smoke,

the walls of fire, the crowning fires;

the valiant citizens, hoses in hand,

the sobbing homeless, utterly devastated;

we have watched them, from afar,

thankfully, from afar.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

For those with the skills and knowledge,

the energy and the capacity,

to stand and fight the fires,

we are grateful, immensely grateful.

Strengthen them, O God,

strengthen them through the food willingly provided,

the leave willingly offered,

through the places of rest and recovery

and the comfort of the chaplains on hand.

For those who have lost property and homes,

whose neighbours and animals have been evacuated,

whose memories and possessions are gone,

we are sorrowing.

Comfort them, O God,

comfort them through the presence of listening ears

as well as through the offers of tangible support.

For those who are mourning the deaths

of fathers, husbands, sons, friends,

we stand silent, in solidarity, in grief;

comfort them, we know not how,

comfort them through the skill of counsellors and chaplains,

comfort them through the support of friends and family.

For them, we grieve,

just as we grieve for the creatures of the bush lands

where fires have spread,

wreaking havoc, causing chaos,

destroying everything in their midst.

And the native animals die in the inferno

and the ashes spread over the sand of beaches

and the dams are emptied, the dust bowls grow larger,

the birds have no trees as their habitat is destroyed,

and we watch as the climate changes, the damage grows,

the omens line up, the signs become clearer.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We wonder about what will come next,

we worry about how close it will come to us,

we worry about what future we are leaving for others.

Give us a firm resolve, O God,

a resolve to live our lives in ways

that respect and value all of your creation.

Give to our leaders, O God, a clear understanding

of the critical moment of choice that is here:

a crisis point in our life as community,

a crisis where leadership is needed;

clear-headed, engaged and informed,

committed to charting a course

that will turn us away from having heads in the sand,

a course that will enable us

to reduce our carbon outputs,

foster renewable sources of energy,

and live as a country that reduces our impact year by year.

These are our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting,

anticipating,

waiting,

and hoping.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Amen.

A young woman? A virgin? Pregnant? About to give birth? (Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The two passages seem to sit side-by-side very comfortably. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection from Isaiah declares that the Lord himself will give you a sign and looks to the conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born to a young woman. The message of the angel announces a child to be born to a young woman who was a virgin. The author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle about the birth of a child and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement about the birth of a child to Mary and Joseph. The angel follows the prophet in affirming that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. But the status of the young mother is a question that has long vexed interpreters.

The Hebrew word found in the original oracle of the prophet, almah, refers simply to a young woman of childbearing age; it had no connotation at all relating to virginity. It occurs in eight other places in Hebrew scripture—with reference to Rebekah and Miriam, in three references to female musicians, and in wisdom texts relating simply to young women. In none of those places does it have any reference to the virginity of the young woman.

There is also, in Hebrew, the word bethulah, which refers specifically to a young woman who was a virgin; but it is important to note that this word was not employed by the prophet Isaiah. He clearly was referring to a young woman aged around puberty, who was now able to bear a child. He was not referring to a young woman who had never had sexual intercourse, who was still a virgin.

The Greek translation of these Hebrew texts was made some centuries before Jesus. The translation is known as the Septuagint, attributed to seventy wise scholars. In this translation, the Hebrew word bethulah is usually rendered in Greek as parthenos. This Greek word can refer quite generally to a young woman, but it can have a more specific reference to the virginity of the young woman.

Now, on two occasions in the Septuagint, the word almah is rendered as parthenos: Gen 34:3 and Isa 7:14. The first refers to Dinah. It occurs in the story at the point where the powerful prince Schechem rapes the young woman. The point is being made that her state of virginity has at that point been lost, so the Greek word is appropriate.

But the oracle of Isaiah 7 refers simply to a woman who, at an early stage in her capacity to bear a child, is indeed pregnant. So there appears to be no reference at all to her lack of sexual activity prior to this pregnancy. This much is clear in the Hebrew. But the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word parthenos.

We must wonder: is the choice of parthenos when translating Isa 7:14 from Hebrew a strategic move by the seventy wise scholars? Is it an inspired insight into the meaning of the Hebrew text? Or is it an unguarded moment, a slip of concentration, amongst the translators?

I incline to the latter view. I don’t think the intention of the Septuagint translators was to insist that we know more than what the original prophet knew—that is, the precise sexual status of the young woman in question, not just young, but still a virgin.

Nevertheless, Matthew uses the version of the prophet’s oracle that includes this Greek word. He quotes the Greek version of the Septuagint, since he is writing in Greek. Mind you, Matthew regularly and consistently quotes the Septuagint translation, rather than other options that would have been available to him. So this is not really a surprise.

Whatever identity we accord the author of this book of origins, it is quite clear that he was an educated Jewish male. As such, he would have known and used the scriptures of the people of Israel, in Hebrew. And yet, he is writing his account of Jesus in Greek—so he makes use, on a regular basis, of this version.

And this version places a focus on the virginal status of the young woman, who was to give birth to Jesus of Nazareth. So Matthew has deliberately chosen to include this in his story.

Why? That is a good question! Why?

Rather than seeing Matthew as trying to prove the historical veracity of the virginal status of Mary, however, I incline to the view that the primary purpose, as Matthew tells the origins of Jesus, is for him to prove Jesus’ legal status as the stepson of Joseph, as a legal heir of David. Whilst the infancy narrative in Luke places Mary at the centre of the story—and the angel makes his announcement directly to her—in Matthew’s version it is Joseph who is centre-stage—and the angel speaks to him, and only him, in this version.

This passage in Matthew 1 is the one and only time in the book of origins when the virginal status of the mother of Jesus is noted. By contrast, the Davidic lineage of Jesus, through Joseph, is a concern which is both in view here at the start of the whole story, and which returns at various points through the ensuing story. (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/)

And as if to reinforce this lineage through Joseph, the book of origins takes pains to establish that Joseph, a descendant of David, was “a righteous man”, as befits a Davidic descendant (1:19; David is declared as righteous at 1 Sam 24:17).

Although, it is worth noting one way by which Joseph exemplifies the questionable moral character of his ancestor—initially he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to dismiss Mary (1:19). Nevertheless, after hearing the announcement of the angel, he remained faithful and “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (1:24).

And whilst he took Mary as his wife, Matthew maintains that, as a righteous man, Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:25). At which point, we may presume, Joseph functions as the de facto father of the newborn child. So this is part of the pro-Davidic apologetic of this book, not the basis for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Joseph, descendant of David, takes on the legal role of father of the child. (Indeed, we are never told that he refrained from relations when they were engaged, before Mary conceived; rather, might we infer that the shame that Joseph expresses incriminates him?)

Certainly, in Christian tradition the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (see Luke 1:35). That developing tradition was presumably already known in early Christian communities of the first century. But how early, we do not know.

In the earliest decades of the movement that Jesus initiated, Paul makes no reference to this claim in any of his letters. He knows the Jewish origins of Jesus, but says nothing even hinting at Mary’s virginal status (see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/)

The letter of James, if it was authored by the brother of Jesus, is an early witness that shows no concern for this doctrine. Mark, the earliest extant Gospel, makes no reference at all to the virginal status of Mary. Early witnesses make no reference to the doctrine which emerged much later, they provide no hints or clues upon which this dogma can be founded.

What we do know is that this claim was articulated in the later part of the first century in the orderly account attributed to Luke, as well as in this book of origins, attributed to Matthew, who includes the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement and to refer directly to this claim (1:18, 20).

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose, eventually leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma. But I don’t think that this particular book of origins was really concerned, either to establish this claim, or to utilise it as a foundation for a whole developed dogma about Jesus, as would subsequently occur in Christian tradition.

And thus, I don’t think we need to hold to a notion that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin when he was born. She was, quite simply, young, at the beginning of her childbearing years, around 14 or 15 years of age. What sexual activity she engaged in at that time can never be known. But she was, in due course, married to a descendant of David; and that is what mattered for Matthew.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

Carols for the season

Last Sunday, Advent Three, in my congregation, we met to hear lessons, or readings, and to sing carols. Our eyes were firmly fixed on the joy of the child who is coming, who comes to us, each year, in the story of Christmas.

This Sunday, Advent Four, in that same congregation, we will hear more readings, telling the story that we recall, each Christmas, and sing more carols, focussed on the significance of those events long ago and their relevance for our lives today.

This is how I introduced the service:

Christmas Carols evoke a wonderful sense of tradition and memory. It is good to be doing that, at this time of the year. Yet it’s also important that we listen for the ways God is singing new songs, with new themes of hope and promise, with new melodies of inclusion, equality and welcome into our communities.

As you sing, you may notice that some of the carols may appear a little different from what you may be use to. The tunes will be familiar. And the words, in many ways, will also be familiar. But not all of them, not always familiar, not exactly as you know them. Some of the words will be different.

Now, this follows a long tradition, in writing words for hymns and carols, of varying the words, reshaping and reworking them. If you look up the Wikipedia article on Away in a manger, for instance, you will find that almost every line in the carol has recorded variants. The most significant are noted; for instance, “no crib for his bed”, or “No crib for a bed”; “the poor baby wakes”, or “The baby awakes“, and so on.

The last line of verse two appears in multiple published variants:

“And stay by my crib watching my lullaby” (Christian Cynosure, 1882)

“And stay by my crib to watch lullaby” (Seamen’s Magazine, 1883)

“And stay by my cradle to watch lullaby” (Murray, 1887)

“And watch by me always, and ever be nigh” (1890)

“And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh” (Herbert, 1891)

“And watch o’er my bed while in slumber I lie” (1893)

“And stay by my side until morning is nigh (1895)

So the carols that we sing today will follow a long tradition in hymnody, by which words are fluid, lyrics are flexible, and changes are allowable—the words of the carols are being reworked, rewritten, by people who are alive in our own time, today, making the message of the carol applicable to today and expressed in current language.

Our carols will follow the well-loved tunes, and will start out with words that are comfortably familiar. But as they proceed, the words will take some turns; so I invite you to pay attention, listen to the changes, reflect on the reshaping, and be prepared to encounter the familiar story in ways that refresh and renew your faith.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(adapted by Sue Wickham)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and fill our lives, all dark and fear dispel,

as once an exiled Israel you found,

redeemed, restored and set on holy ground.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O light of Christ, so bright and clear

and lift our spirits by your advent here.

In all who gather, show us your face,

that we may know the warmth of your embrace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O Wisdom, mind and heart divine,

help us restore a world we’ve let decline.

Enlighten us; your way we would know
and show us where new seeds of hope to sow.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O Advent God of hope, joy, love and peace,

in you we pray our sad divisions cease.

Bind us as one, a people of grace,

for at your table each one has a place.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

 

Words © Sue Wickham 2010

https://pilgrimwr.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=925

The Angel Gabriel

(Words reworked by Sarah Agnew)

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

surprising her by calling out her name:

‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘for God has seen and favours you,

You’re chosen for a blessing, Maria.

‘You will become a mother, Mary,

by Holy Spirit, with a child holy;

he is the one earth’s waiting for – the child of God,

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.’

‘But Gabriel how can this be, my friend?’

‘With God no thing’s impossible,’ he said.

‘Then let it be as you have said, I sing God’s praise.’

O, chosen for a blessing: Maria.

And so in Bethlehem she bore her boy

beneath a star as angels sang for joy:

Immanuel, our God with us, through Mary.

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.

words (c) Sarah Agnew 2019

music ‘Gabriel’s song’ Basque tune

http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/gabriel-and-maria.html

How ancient and lovely

Away in a manger with additional verses

by British writer Rebecca Dudley

(Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,

the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;

the stars in the bright sky look down where he lay,

the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

This version is published in Hunger for Justice (Christian Aid UK)

https://www.musicroom.com/product/kmp1400356/hunger-for-justice-organ.aspx

For some other versions of this carol, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

Hark! the herald angels, combined with

More than a Dream (David MacGregor)

(Arranged by John Squires)

Hark! the herald angels sing,

glory to the new born king.

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled.

Humankind called: “come together,

live in peace with one another.”

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Christ, by highest heaven adored:

Christ, the everlasting Lord;

called to bring your peaceful kingdom,

lion rests besides the lamb.

Justice for the poor and needy

come to us, a child will lead us:

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Hail! the heaven-born prince of peace!

Hail! the Son of Righteousness!

Jesus, Saviour, born among us,

bring your peace anew to us.

Hearts of love reach out to all,

for the world, in your great love.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Adapted from a song, More Than Dream (peace be our living), by David MacGregor © 2015 Willow Publishing

https://dmacgreg1.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/peace-on-earth-mercy-mild/

Combined with words from Hark! the herald angels sing, with the permission of David MacGregor (but not Charles Wesley!)

Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

No crying he makes? Get real, puhhh-leeeease!

The traditional words of the much-sung carol, Away in a Manger, offer a heavily romanticised, sickly-sweet, unrealistic take on the infant Jesus.

Yes, to be sure, newborn babies do look sweet and innocent. But not quite as clean, not quite as picture-perfect, as the many cards and carols present the newborn Jesus. And no crying? Not ever? That does not ring true, surely!

Indeed, one could argue that the way that Jesus is depicted in this carol flies in the face of the very claim that the carol, and the story to which it refers, seeks to make: that, in Jesus, God entered human life, became one of us, was incarnate, enfleshed, fully and completely human. After all, an infant who never cries must surely not be human, we would think?

And yet, still the carol features in Christian worship services as well as shopping mall Muzak and perpetual Christmas movie reruns on tv.

In response to these beloved words, a number of contemporary lyricists have offered rewrites of this classic carol (it is only around 130 years old, if the truth be known).

Each of these versions reworks the carol so that the realism of the day is evident — especially highlighting the plight of the family as refugees, seeking safety in another country. That part of the story resonates so strongly with our contemporary world: the number of refugees across the globe is the largest it has ever been, and it continues to grow as warfare afflicts country after country.

How ancient and lovely. Words by British writer Rebecca Dudley (Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

Away and in danger. Words by Shirley Erena Murray from Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away and in danger, no hope of a bed,

the refugee children, no tears left to shed

look up at the night sky for someone to know

that refugee children have no place to go.

The babies are crying, their hunger awakes,

the boat is too loaded, it shudders and breaks;

humanity’s wreckage is thrown out to die,

the refugee children will never know why.

Come close, little children, we hold out our hand

in rescue and welcome to shores of our land –

in *aroha, touching your fear and your pain,

with dreams for your future when peace comes again.

*aroha is Maori for ‘warm embracing love’

alternative line “in touching, in healing’

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=5787

If I saw my toddler. Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette of the USA

If I saw my toddler with hands in the air

In fearful surrender to someone, somewhere,

I’d search for a people in some other place

Who practiced their preaching and showed love and grace.

If I had to flee from the madness of war—

From terror and violence and things I abhor,

I’d search for a nation with arms open wide,

With safety and beauty and friendships inside.

Be with me, Lord Jesus, as I seek to be

A friend to the stranger and poor refugee,

And as I remember you once had no bed,

May I give up fear and give welcome instead.

This hymn was inspired by a photo of a small Syrian child,

hands in the air, fearing that a camera lens was a gun:

www.snopes.com/syria-refugee-child-surrender/

Biblical References: Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35; Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 4:18

Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887 (“Away in a Manger”)  

Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

http://www.carolynshymns.com/if_i_saw_my_toddler.html

Millennium Carol. Words by Jan Chamberlin of Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

A long ago baby was born in a shed.

What possible meaning could this have for me,

A child of computers and technology.

The stars in the bright sky look down on me now,

But Christmas in these days lacks something, somehow,

There’s tinsel and turkey and gifts by the score,

Yet I am left feeling that there should be more.

Wise men with research grants can do awesome deeds,

But we are neglectful of our neighbors needs

For love and for caring, a Christ-child reborn:

God’s hand touching our hand on each Christmas morning.

The old manger story, with shepherds and kings:

Amazing how simple the message it brings.

Regardless of science or surfing the net:

God still sends us Jesus, and he loves us yet.

Words by Jan Chamberlin, from With Heart and Voice

http://www.methodist.org.nz/files/docs/alec/with%20heart%20and%20voice/1%20millennium%20carol.pdf

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way (Matthew 1)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection looks to the predicted conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The prophet (Isaiah) was speaking some seven centuries before the time of Jesus, when Judah was ruled by a king. But it was a time when the kingdom was under pressure from stronger forces—the kingdom of Israel to the north, in league with the much stronger empire of Syria.

The angel (unnamed) was speaking to Josephus at a time when the Hebrew people were under Roman rule, after many centuries of foreign domination and oppression. The Assyrians had conquered Israel, in the north, and then the Babylonians had conquered Judah, in the south. In time, the Persians, then the Seleucids, and then the Romans, took control throughout the region.

The centuries of foreign rule took their toll on the national psyche. Hope for a leader from within the people, identified by the prophet, continued on in various forms throughout the period. Some who claimed such leadership met unhappy ends, and led the people into disastrous situations. Hatred of the foreigners grew and remained strong, alongside of persistent hope for the people of Israel.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born. The message of the angel announces a child to be born. The context of this latter message, under Roman occupation, resonates strongly with the context of threat when the prophet was speaking. By this means, the overlapping of the child predicted by the prophet and the child announced by the angel is secured.

Thus the author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement. In subsequent verses, he clearly shapes the story of Jesus so that it fulfils scripture at each point along the way. “This took place to fulfil the scriptures” is a common refrain in the chapters that follow (see 1:22, 2:5, 2:17, 3:3, and so on).

Both angel and prophet affirm that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the name given to the child signals the prophetic understanding of the role of the child. Thus, Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”, is the name decreed for the child (Isa 7:14).

This prophetic pronouncement is quoted, with intent, in the book of origins (Matt 1:23). The child should be known as Emmanuel. And yet—the name actually given to the child whose birth was announced by the angel is “he saves”. Not, “God is with us”; but, “he saves”. And we know this child by this given name—in Hebrew, Yehoshua, or modified into English, Jesus. Saviour. The one who “will save his people from their sins” (1:21).

As Saviour, then, the child will serve as a signal of God’s enduring presence with the people. Salvation is effected by God and mediated through the child, it would seem.

The announcement reported in Matt 1 is made to Joseph. Not to Mary, as is the case in the orderly account that we know as the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew’s version, the angel speaks directly to Joseph, addressed as “son of David” (1:20). The story comes immediately after recounting a genealogy for the child, made through Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16).

And the irony of this is that, if we take the literal explanation provided regarding the parentage of Jesus, then Mary is the mother (1:18), but she has had no marital relations with Joseph (1:25). Joseph is not presented as the “natural father”. And the citation of the prophetic oracle is intended to align Mary, the mother, with the virgin who shall conceive (1:23).

Of course, many commentators have noted that there is a translation issue at stake here. (See my post on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/)

In Christian tradition, the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18,23). When did that tradition develop? Perhaps it was already known outside of the community of which the author of this book of origins was a part? Certainly, it was later articulated in the orderly account attributed to Luke. Awareness of this claim most likely influenced Matthew to include the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement—he turns to scripture to provide a foundation for his story at many points.

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose—leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma.

But back to the book of origins. Here, we have a child named incorrectly and a lineage traced back to key figures through the apparent non-father. A strange way to start a story!!

And yet, the book of origins is insistent on the Davidic lineage of Jesus—through the line of Joseph. And that is clearly because the covenant with David was an important motif to many groups in Jewish history. God promised that there would always be a descendant of David upon the throne of Israel; by the time that a member of Matthew’s community started to write the book of origins, this had developed into a messianic expectation in certain groups.

Members of the Jewish community in which the book of origins itself originated firmly believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Accordingly, the stress upon the “correct” ‘Davidic’ genealogy of Jesus would have been of particular importance to this predominantly Jewish group, especially one challenging the authority of the Pharisaic Jews of the time. It is probable that this is why Matthew uses the term “son of David” for Jesus much more than the other Gospel writers (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42).

Matthew’s use of “formula quotations” also provide indications that the life, work and death of Jesus, in its totality, is the fulfilment of prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore the expected Messiah.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet” (or a close variant of this formula) can be found five times within the infancy narrative (1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23), and then a further nine times throughout the remainder of the gospel (3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

There are other scripture quotations which are introduced by simpler formulae; for example:

“it is written” (4:4, 6, 7, 10; 21:13; 26:31)

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said…” (15:7)

“have you not read that…?” (19:4; 21:16)

“have you never read in the scriptures…?” (21:42)

“David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying” (22:43).

Some passages are clearly quoted, but without any introductory formula (for instance, 24:29 and 26:64). Indeed, Hebrew Scripture influences many other parts of the gospel, through allusion and inference as well as through use of selected terminology.

More than half of these fulfilment quotations come from the book of Isaiah, indicating the importance of its themes and theology for Matthew. Matthew uses the fulfilment quotations to emphasise that what Jesus said and did was to fulfil the plan of God, as set out by the prophets and writers of old.

By adding so many of these quotations, Matthew emphasises something about Jesus and what it means to believe in him. Matthew wishes to stress beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the chosen one of God and that the community’s belief in him as Messiah is completely justified; this justification can be found in the fulfilment of Hebrew scripture.

Therefore, in keeping with this notion, Matthew’s report of the baptism of Jesus highlights that Jesus is the fulfilment of righteousness. Only Matthew (3:14–15) reports the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus states that for John to baptise him “is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”.

Thus, Jesus begins his public ministry by demonstrating a central theme of this Gospel—that of obedience to the will of God. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by a sign commonly found in scriptural theophanies, that of God’s voice. Jesus is announced as a “beloved son”, pleasing to God (3:17). He is, in this Gospel, not only the son of David, but the son of God.

As the book itself begins: the book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/