Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the Picture: Ourselves

Read: 1 John 4.7-12
 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
You might have been wondering who could be left to talk about from the Christmas story, but the last person we need to put “in the picture” is absolutely vital if it is to mean anything at all.

To discover who this person is you will need to find a mirror and take a long look into it.

The story we have been considering over the past weeks isn’t a piece of ancient history. It is a story which is still alive and life-giving in our present age.
“God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him”, says the writer of the first letter of John. Many billions of people through the ages have found meaning for their lives through following the steps of the man whom the infant Jesus grew into. Perhaps you are one of them.

The first letter of John, though, says something even more radical than this. “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.” We have seen many different pictures of God’s love over the past few weeks, but the picture he wants to draw right now is the one which includes us. We become part of his picture, says this letter, as we love one another. As the carol “ O little town of Bethlehem” puts it “ Cast out our sin and enter in/ Be born in us today.”

  •  Which pictures, and which parts of the nativity story have spoken most powerfully to you out of all those we have looked at?
  • What do you feel you need to do in response to this series of Advent thoughts?
  •  If you would like to, get in contact to let me know what effect these Advent thoughts have had on you.

Revd Anne Le Bas, 01732 762955,
facebook: stpeterandpaulseal                         twitter: @sealpandp

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Midnight mass

Our Midnight Mass service starts in darkness, with the lighting of the white "Christ" candle on the Advent candle stand. We sing favourite carols, and hear the story of Jesus' birth. There's a chance to light a candle by the crib for those you may be thinking about at Christmas. The choir sings carols from about 11 pm, and the service starts at 11.30pm. The service is easy to follow, whether you are a regular or have never come to church before, and you will be warmly welcomed.

In the Picture: Jesus

Glykophilousa Icon
Mt Athos, Greece, before 9th C.

Read: John 1.1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

There are thousands upon thousands of pictures of Jesus as a baby in Christian art, so it was hard to choose just one picture to represent the key figure in the story of the nativity, Jesus himself. Without him, there could be no story, but every image of him tells that story slightly differently.
This picture is an ancient Orthodox icon, from some time before the 9th century AD. It is now housed on Mount Athos in Greece. It is reputed to have found its way to Mt Athos miraculously, floating upright across the water from the Turkish mainland, where it had been thrown into the water by a Christian woman called Victoria, to save it from being burned by her husband. This type of icon, showing Jesus and Mary cheek to cheek is called the Glykophilousia, which literally means “sweet loving”. It is sometimes called the “sweet kissing” or “loving kindness” icon. It captures something of the very natural and human love of a mother for her child.  It reminds us of the heart of the Christmas story, the love of God shown for humankind in the gift of Jesus. If we want to know what Christian faith is all about, it is here in this picture. In Jesus, God comes as close to us as a child in his mother’s arms, and makes himself as vulnerable too
The opening of John’s Gospel speaks of this wonderful gift – God himself coming among us to conquer our darkness and bring us to life through his love.

  • Who shows you love and takes care of you? Give thanks for them (and to them if you can.)
  • “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16) When and how did you first become aware of the love of God, and how secure do you feel in that love?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Eve Crib Service 4pm

I'm looking forward to our crib service on Christmas Eve at 4pm. The children bring up the crib figures as we tell the story, singing carols as we go along. It is very informal, great fun, and very popular - come early to get a seat! There are headresses on offer if children want to do some dressing up beforehand, and at the end all the children gather around the crib for its blessing as we sing Away in a Manger together. The service lasts 30-40 minutes. It's a great way to start your Christmas! All ages are welcome - you don't have to have a child or be a child to come.

In the Picture: Anna

The presentation of Christ
Picture from the Mafa people of Cameroon/ Eastern Nigeria 20th C

Read: Luke 2.36-40
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. 

Simeon was not alone in recognising God at work in the infant Jesus. A widow of eighty-four, called Anna, who had lived in the Temple for decades also spotted Jesus among the crowds. Her response was not only to praise God but also to talk about him to all around her who were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. She is one of the earliest evangelists in the Gospels. This is Good News that cannot be contained.

This picture was painted by a member of the Mafa people of Cameroon and Eastern Nigeria. Anna is pictured peering round Simeon’s shoulder, smiling with delight at the child. The picture portrays the events taking place in their own local setting, with local people in local dress. This picture, one of a series, was a deliberate attempt to help people understand that God comes to us where we are, speaking our language.

  • If you were Anna, what would you say to those around you about this child? 
  • Why do you think Jesus is special (if you do)?
  • Spend some time imagining this story happening where you are. How do you imagine the scene would look?

Monday, December 21, 2015

In the Picture: Simeon

Simeon’s Song of Praise
Aert De Gelder 1645-1727
Maritshuis, The Hague

Read: Luke 2.22-35
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ 

Luke’s account of the events following Jesus’ birth is completely different from Matthew’s. There are no Magi, no mention of Herod or of the massacre of the children and therefore no need to flee into Egypt. Instead, the Holy Family return to Nazareth almost straight away.
Before heading back to Galilee, though, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, to offer a sacrifice required by law for a firstborn son. They enter the Temple, just one ordinary family among many, but an old man, Simeon, who has been promised by God that he will see the Messiah before he dies, somehow spots them amidst the crowd. His song of praise, traditionally called the Nunc Dimittis, the Latin translation of its first  two words, is said or sung at Evensong every day.
Aert De Gelder’s depiction of this moment picks up on Simeon’s words that this child is “the light that enlightens the Gentiles”. He glows with what seems to be his own, heavenly light. Simeon warns Mary, however, that her child’s life will not be easy, and that it will bring her pain as well as joy.

  • Imagine you held the infant Jesus in your arms. What would your song be?
  • Think of the children you have known and have watched grow up – your own or those of friends or family. Have they grown up as you expected them to, or have they developed in ways you would not have predicted?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

In the Picture: The people of Egypt

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665 Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Read: Matthew 2.14-15, 19-23

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew tells us very little about the time Joseph, Mary and Jesus spent in Egypt, just that they went there and found protection from Herod. Matthew ties this in with words from the Old Testament prophet Hosea (11.1) “out of Egypt have I called my son.” Hosea was referring back to the story of the Exodus, but Matthew reframes his words to suggest that in Jesus there is a new Exodus, a new deliverance from slavery.

In this picture, by Poussin, like yesterday’s, we see the Holy Family welcomed by the Egyptians with food and drink. Even the donkey has found water and is eagerly drinking. There is a sense of relief. The family is safe, and all will be well, at least for a while.

  •     Imagine you are Mary or Joseph. What are you feeling as you reach out for the food and drink that is being offered?
  •     How do we welcome those who are refugees among us today? How can we provide safety and protection?
  •     Is there anything in the news today about refugees, or can you find out more about organisations working with them (UNHCRTorturecare, Kent Refugee Action Network or IRC (see the video below).