We are somewhat used to the “seasons” of the church. Liturgical Seasons made greater sense to communities more intimately connected to the rhythms of nature and especially of farming. When the cycles of communal life were linked to changing weather and the various seasonal activities of sowing and reaping, lying fallow, preparing the soil, processing and storing the harvests, it was natural for the village church to have its own seasons related to the life of Jesus and the story of the church. The seasonal rhythms of land and church would become linked, and feel ‘natural’.
In earlier times there were fewer alternate forms of communication. Medieval congregations may not even have been able to read. Newspapers didn’t come into being until the second half of the 17th century and were not widespread until the 19th century. Radio, telephones, cinema, TV and the internet are all children of the 20th century. In those earlier communities the church was a main channel for disseminating information, discussing and enacting community values and reinforcing the sense of belonging and community. The seasonal structure of church life reflected a settled and not very mobile social world, in which communication was very much centred in the life of church as community hub.
We live in a very different world. Over the months of lockdown we prepared daily readings that reflected the seasonal nature of church life. We acknowledge that this is countercultural to our world of rapid communications, high mobility and 24/7 engagement. We propose to continue this for the coming church year but in an amended way.
The readings will generally follow, but not always be linked to, the Revised Common Lectionary for the day. The notes might not engage with every reading for a day but might select from among them for comment. We will leave the links to the full range of readings so you can ‘click and read’ even if there are no notes for that passage. It is a way of grounding ourselves in a different rhythm of life and anchoring our hearts and minds in the priorities of the church’s agenda, not that of our political masters or the advertisers hungry for our purses or social media clamouring for our opinion.
Feast of the Epiphany – Wednesday, January 6, 2021: Psalm 29; Matthew 2.1-12
If Christmas is the most widely known of all the festivals and seasons of church life, one of the least known and most diverse in practice is that of Epiphany (the feast day observed on or around today January 6th). Some churches have Epiphanytide (a season of varying duration celebrated after January 6th). The focus of the day, or the season, is ‘the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Personally, I think it is one of the most significant and challenging of all the church seasons because it relates to the nature of the presentation of Jesus to the wider world, one of the more contentious and confused strategic challenges that the church today must engage.
With that in mind we are going to spend the next few weeks reflecting on this theme of the Revelation of Christ to the World.
Psalm 29 presents Yahweh as the one whose great voice speaks through the thunderstorm. We studied this Psalm in the middle of last year and I reproduce the notes here.
There are clear marks that this is a very ancient Psalm, most likely taken over from early Canaanite worship. There are ancient Ugaritic and Egyptian writings with very similar themes. This is possibly the oldest Psalm in the whole of Hebrew poetry. Some of the marks of this ancient lineage are the mention of ‘the heavenly beings’ in vs 1 – a reflection of an original pantheon of gods – over which a ‘god King’ (cf. vs 10b) ruled with his mighty thunderous voice.
In taking over an ancient pagan hymn of praise the Psalmist is very keen to make sure that there is no mistake that the hymn has been pressed into the service of Yahweh, represented in the NRSV by the capitalised form ‘the Lord’. This form, ‘the Lord’, recurs in every line of the hymn for the first 5 verses (with the exception of vs 3b) – ten occurrences in all! A further 8 occurrences in vss 7-11 yield 18 declarations of the divine name in 11 verses.
Lines not to mention the tetragrammaton (the four letter divine name in Hebrew – YHWH) are 3b, where an artful theological point is made – God is not ‘the God of thunder’ (as elsewhere across the ancient near East) but ‘the god of glory’ – who thunders!) Vs 6 describes how ‘he’ makes Lebanon and Sirion ‘skip’ like young animals and vs 9b, c describe the impact of the voice of ‘the Lord’ mentioned in vs 9a.
Vs 9c introduces a marked change – so sudden that many scholars think something may have slipped from the text here. To this point the psalm has described the mighty God who is heard in thunder and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire (literally ‘splits’ the flames of fire –lightning, vs 7) and outlined the impact of the thunderstorm on forests, deserts, oceans, trees and animals (see the alternate reading of vs 9a in the notes to the internet version of this verse). Vs 9c takes us away from nature and the wider region into the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: and in his temple all say “Glory!” The cosmic power of the natural realm is here grounded in the temple, and while the Lord sits enthroned over the flood (reference to the waters of the heavens – vs 10a) and the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever (reference to a pantheon of ‘the gods’ over which Yahweh rules – vs 10b), all this power and might is invoked as God’s strength and peace to be shared with God’s people (vs 11a, 11b).
In an age when science has demythologised thunder and lightning and largely taken away their terror, this Psalm may lose some of its power. That is a tragedy! The repeated uttering of the sacred name YHWH – revealed to Moses on Sinai – rolls repeatedly through this psalm like thunder rolling through a great thunderstorm. In the poetry the previous cultural understandings of a ‘god of thunder’ known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Scandinavian mythologies (among others) are reinterpreted through a theology of a god of glory who reigns over all other ‘gods’ and blesses his people with both power and peace.
In an age of increasingly common ‘extreme weather’ this Psalm may recover some of it ancient authority – although even as we think of God’s power behind the might of the weather we will perhaps also reflect upon the sins and negligence of humanity in our stewardship of oceans and wilderness, forests and animals.
Lest we relegate this Psalm to a primitive age and primitive people, remember that on 2nd July 1505 Martin Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm while returning to his home at Erfurt. He was terrified. Lightning struck very near him. Luther vowed that if he survived the storm he would enter a monastery. He fulfilled his vow – in consequence of which I am writing these notes, and you are reading them because he went on to become one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation. The Voice of God can still speak in a Great Storm!
Matthew 2.1-12: The biblical text that anchors this day in the narrative of the Gospel is the Visit of the Magi. Here there was no proclamation of Jesus other than the silent witness of nature through the star in the heavens. Through their own study of nature they were drawn towards Christ. They needed the guidance of Israel’s prophetic tradition to finalise their search but the initiator and driver of the search was the mysterious star in the sky.
Both the Psalm and the gospel today speak of what can be known through engaging with nature. Our Catholic sisters and brothers have a much stronger connection to ‘natural theology’, what can be learned about God through the engagement of reason with the ‘book of nature’. As we continue to respond to the ecological crises around us a return to some of this ancient spirituality that heard the voice of God through the forces and wonders of nature is much needed.
Thursday, January 7, 2021: Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 3:1-21; Acts 9:10-19a
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
The other two readings present a God who speaks to Samuel and to Paul ‘out of clear blue sky’ (read Acts 9 from verse 1). We do not always need someone to tell us about Jesus: God is already there in the world and will communicate Godself in various ways. What is critical in these passages is the work of Eli and Ananias who helped Samuel and Paul to enter more deeply into their experiences of God and to understand what those experiences meant.
Too often the church has celebrated the great proclaimers like Paul and Peter, not the Eli’s and Ananiases of the world without whom Paul and Peter would not have come into a healthy faith.
Have you ever played this role of encourager and guide in the life of someone responding to God?
Friday, January 8, 2021: Psalm 29; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 4:11-16
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
What a lovely little couplet of readings accompany the Psalm! Yesterday we saw the young child Samuel grappling with his first experience of call. Today we see him in the height of his powers as prophet, anointing another young man – almost overlooked amid his older and more impressive brothers – for the great and revolutionary work of becoming king. Remember that anointing a king was effectively an act of sedition – you were announcing the end of the reign of the existing king, even if it took time coming.
Then Paul writing to Timothy reminds him Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young (vs 12). The readings today remind us of the importance of young people in God’s work of revealing God to the world.
Who are the young people around us to be encouraged and ‘anointed’ and prayed for as the prophets and leaders of tomorrow? If we want to gospel to flourish and the world to see Jesus, there is no work more important for tomorrow than praying for and encouraging the young of today!
Saturday, January 9, 2021: Psalm 29 ; 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-12; Luke 5:1-11
For the Psalm, see Wednesday.
Today’s readings relate to faithfulness and abundance in our experience of God. In the 1 Kings reading a dying David (remember him – the young shepherd anointed yesterday?) gives a charge to his son Solomon.
A vital task of those of us who are older is giving our ‘charge’ and our blessing to our descendants. That is the essential and important work of older people. There is not enough of it being done. If you are over seventy this is part of your work, to be done wisely and gently, but quite intentionally.
Note also here that vss 5-9 are missing. Why? What has been left out? Those of a detective orientation will enjoy looking for clues in these verses. What you will find is a part of David’s legacy that is very dark, straight out of The Godfather movies. To what extent do we leave our resentments, anger and thirst for revenge also to our children? Should we do that?
One of the inspiring men I have met was a Palestinian leader who spoke of his childhood after the catastrophe of 1948 and the expulsion of his family from their home and their land. Every night as a child he and his siblings drifted off to sleep to the sound of their parents weeping in the next room over all that had been lost. When later courting the girl he married, they discussed the past and resolved to NOT communicate to their children the wounds and sadness of their people’s trauma – the history, yes, but not the crippling emotions that they had lived with as children. He said to me, “There is no greater burden you can bear in life than your parent’s grief. We decided that it stops with us.”
The Luke reading reveals the startling abundance of the gospel – the full net as a symbol of the fruitfulness of Jesus’ mission in revealing the kingdom of God. This story appears twice in the gospel tradition: in Luke 5 at the call and commissioning of Peter and in John 21 where it is an appearance of the risen Christ who then re-commissions Peter after his threefold denial (John 18).
I find it a wonderful instance of grace that the same story presents both Peter’s first meeting with Jesus, AND his restoration and re-commissioning after a terrible failure.
The readings over these first few days of Epiphany have shown the intergenerational nature of God’s revelation – the roles of young and old in hearing God’s self-revelation, helping each other understand it, and passing from generation to generation the light of witness and experience despite distraction and even failure.