Well, for most of us, the holidays are over, and it is back to the humdrum workaday life. Other than because we like them, why do we have holidays? Don't you get a weekend every week? Why should you have more time off? (I'm sure there are company owners all over the place asking that very question – but those are not the issues I am going into here!) Holidays make us feel good. On my breaks, I do a number of things. I have in the last few years journeyed back into one of the joys of my childhood, the making of Airfix models of fighter planes. I also love to read and paint.
All these pass-times of mine have one common factor – while you are doing them, the rest of the world retreats into the background. These pursuits require your whole attention, so the rest of your life has to sit quietly somewhere else while you occupy yourself in gluing part 54 to part 55 to make the accurate fuselage assembly, or carefully mixing up exactly the right shade of ultramarine blue with a tinge of green and applying it just so to the canvas. Of course, reading means you can depart from the real world and immerse your mind in whatever exotic existence the author has created for you, and thrill to the adventures unrolled by the novelist's art.
So, while I am actually occupied by something, it is beautifully restful, because it puts on hold all the things of usual daily life that tire you out and use up your energies all the other times. By giving your time to these activities, your 'turn off' the exhausting duties of the rest of the year. And don't you feel refreshed when you do! Well, I do anyway! So, is holiday just a way to make us feel better? I'm pretty sure that's a good enough reason for most people, but actually, that is not where it all began.
The word holiday goes right back to Anglo-Saxon English of the 5th to 6th century with the words 'halig daeg' (literally holy day), meaning a day reserved for religious worship, for which the normal daily work was put aside to allow all people to dedicate the day to religious festivities. This was so much a part of community life, even that far back, the two words became one, haligdaeg, which over the following 15 centuries became the word 'holiday' we know today.
Again in old English, these 'holy days' were more commonly called 'feasts' which goes back through Latin to a word meaning to celebrate or be joyous. Since so often, this celebration would include a whole village or community joining together in a special community meal, which could include dancing and story-telling related to the holy event or saint being celebrated, we get the meaning we give to the word 'feast' today of a sumptuous meal.
The Christian Church had three types of feast: the most common was every Sunday. Now, most people think we do not work on Sunday because it is the Old Testament Sabbath, marking the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested having created the world on the previous six days. No, that is the Jewish Sabbath, which is on Saturday. The Church, from Apostolic times in the first century, declared Sunday a Feast Day, because we celebrate that Jesus' resurrection occurred on that day. In the year 321, the Emperor Constantine proclaimed that all Sundays should be a public holiday, and so was the inventor of the weekend. You may wish to remember him in your prayers!
The next type of Feast was the Moveable Feast. The most important of these was Easter, which, as we know, moves up and down the calendar through its link to the Paschal full moon. If you did not understand that was why Easter is a different day each year, look, it's all too complex to go into here – grab me sometime and I'll explain it to you. Then of course, Lent, Good Friday, Ascension, Pentecost and Holy Trinity are all tied to Easter, and so move up and down with it. So they are 'moveable' feasts.
Then the final group are the Immoveable Feasts. I bet you guessed it – they are the ones, such as Christmas, Epiphany and Saints Days that fall on the same calendar date every year. Only a few of these actually date earlier than the fourth century. Christmas was not really being generally celebrated until the sixth century, and even then, on a number of different days in different churches.
One thing remains true for them all though. They were not about having a day off work, as I feel most people think of holidays today. They were about taking a day out of your time to praise and thank God for blessing us. In the immediate sense, for the good things in our lives and the world around us. But as you can see in the survey above, for the most part they originated in the desire to thank God for the moment Jesus arose from the dead. In that moment, Jesus established the great Gospel of Christianity – Death was conquered so that our lives can take us, if we follow him, to the eternal and perfect life God wants to share with us.
In ancient times, Christians saw that as a thing worth putting your daily work aside for, and fixing your gaze for the moment on it. To celebrate the fact of it and sing out your thanks and praise to God for it. To join joyously with your family, friends and neighbours and share the exhilaration of knowing it.
So that is why we have holidays. We can still have the sleep in, the beaches and barbeques, the roast animals of great variety with all the trimmings and side dishes, and I am keeping my Airfix models (I already have a Dambusters Lancaster ready for my mid-year break).
But while we are immersing ourselves in all that recreation and rest, remember to give thanks to the one that gave it all to you, to the God that waits to give you the “Peace that the world cannot give.”
Biology affirms that there is only one human species. This is proven by the fact that any human couple, no matter what race, colour, creed or country they each come from can have children together. Christian scripture agrees – every human being has been created in the image of God. There is only one kind of human. Yet it then horrifies me as I see news of racist demonstrations and riots that our society seems to have so many people that are capable of loving their dogs, but not their neighbours.
So, why do we celebrate Christmas? In the Christian line of belief, what part does Christmas play? Two of the Gospels, Mark and John, do not even include a reference to the birth of Jesus. Have a look – in Mark 1:9, Jesus makes his first appearance, a fully grown adult, to be baptised by John. In John, the Word is the great transcendent spiritual presence existing fully from before creation. The man Jesus again first appears fully grown at 1:29 to be baptised and proclaimed by John. The writers of both these gospels did not see his birth or childhood as something required in the presentation of the story of Jesus.
Of the other two, Matthew's narrative is not really a story of his birth, it is a story of the reactions of the world to Jesus' coming. The wisdom of the Magi searches for him, the lust for power of Herod tries to destroy him and the love of his father Joseph protects and saves him. It has always fascinated me how many Christmas cards have the Magi depicted on them – theirs is actually not a Christmas narrative. That is why we read their story at Epiphany, a couple of weeks after Christmas in January.
So, really, it is only the Gospel of Luke that sees the events of Jesus' birth as significant enough to be fully included in the holy scriptures. The familiar story of a manger in a stable, the shepherds and angels – that is all from the book of Luke. By the way – the ubiquitous donkey of all the Christmas cards – not there! It is likely a pregnant teenager Mary walked the hundred plus kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No wonder she was ready to drop the bundle when she got there!
Another historical hypothesis I have considered is that the reason Mary was in the stable for the birth was that she was in labour. There was no room in the public area of the inn for a woman about to give birth because of the Jewish custom around contact with blood. The Law dictated that any woman giving birth was to be isolated for a week if she had a boy, two weeks if a girl. It is all there in Leviticus 12 if you want to check! In many cultures, including Australian aboriginal, a woman must separate herself from shared spaces during birth. As Mary was away from her home town, her only option would be to separate herself to the shelter of the inn's stable. But that is just a theory of mine.
Back to what is there in the Christmas narrative of Luke. Take note again, as in Matthew, most of the space is taken up not by the birth itself, but with the 'parallel' birth of John the Baptist, the interaction of Mary with her 'kinswoman' Elizabeth, John's mother, and then the angels and shepherds. It is worth noting, the birth of John the Baptist takes up 44 verses, Mary visiting Elizabeth takes up 18, the actual birth of Jesus only 7 and the story of the shepherds a further 13 verses. Again, as in Matthew, the birth itself seems a less important part of the story than the effect it has on the people around it.
So we have this great celebration, probably the one Christian event that touches more people and is identified with Christianity in a greater way than any other, that we decorate our homes and streets for, cook special meals for, buy piles of presents for, send stacks of cards and wishes for, close our offices, factories and shops for – and it is contained in 7 verses of one gospel!
Now, I get Easter. The event of Jesus dying and rising from the tomb carries in it the whole Christian belief that Jesus has conquered sin by conquering its greatest component – death – to bring any who will follow him into God's eternal perfect existence. THAT merits celebration! In Jesus' earthly ministry, all that he did and taught guides us in how to live our life in the faith that believes God loves and accepts us. But what significance does Jesus' birth have? How does knowing the circumstances of his birth advance God's kingdom or bring us closer to it? Why does it merit being one of the two most significant celebrations of the Christian year? What do we gain by knowing it?
Here are my thoughts on the matter. What I celebrate at Christmas is that God came here and was one of us. Luke 1:23, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ This knocks me over just a bit. God decided to be with us. Remember – God did not have to do that.
This is the significance to me of the story of Noah. That ancient story tells us what God could have done with a disloyal, self-obsessed, unrewarding creation such as humanity has proven to be. It tells us what a logical God would have done. Get rid of this dud lot, and start again, to see if I can get them right this time! Lucky for humanity, what we have is a loving God that chooses to save us from ourselves instead.
God chose to be with us. Incarnation, literally meaning the taking on of flesh, was God's way of getting to the source of the problem and finding a way out for us. I say it again, because it is the part that leaves me totally amazed – God chose to be with us. Logic wouldn't do that, only love would.
Conception, pregnancy and birth are the way a human body takes on life and enters the world. That was Mary's gift to all humanity. Through that miracle of motherhood, she was the vessel in which God entered and shared our life.
There is another word that is important here, kenosis. It is a theological term drawn from the Greek word meaning 'to pour out' or 'to empty'. It is perhaps best conveyed in the words from the hymn in the letter to the Philippians, 2:5-7 Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
'The form of a slave' , the lowest of all humans. He not only poured out godliness to be human, he poured out any human glory or status or power to be the most humble of humans, a child born in poverty to insignificant parents. God chose to do all this for our sake. God did not seem to consider for a moment whether we deserved it or not, it would appear that was just not part of the plan. To quote Paul again, from the second letter to the Corinthians 8:9, For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
So there it is. My view on why this Christmas thing is something worth celebrating. We are not, to my mind, celebrating that a particular event happened, that a child was born sometime in history in a particular set of circumstances. We are celebrating that it WOULD happen. That God SO loved the world that he gave his only son. I like to really stress the SO. God SO loved the world. SO much. SO completely. SO unquestioningly. SO self-sacrificially. In that inexplicably overwhelming love, God chose to be with us. Emmanuel.
Have happy one! Bill.
What is the hardest thing in the world to do? The Hindu scriptures say it is to conquer the mind (Bhagavad Gita 6.6). The writer Ayn Rand wrote, “It's the hardest thing in the world - to do what we want.” According to several million people on social media, but most significantly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in season 5, the hardest thing to do in the world is live in it. The actor Micky Rourke said, “The hardest thing in life to do is to change." Many people say that being a parent, and especially, of course, a mother (That whole birth thing must REALLY hurt!) is the hardest thing in life.
I think the hardest thing in the world to do, it is to forgive. To put aside the pain or injury, and take that first step in healing the relationship. Why do we find it so hard? Anything that has hurt us – physically, emotionally or humiliatingly, that pain overrides our logical sense that things can only improve with forgiveness.
In my prison chaplaincy role, I have been surprised by how many men say “You talk about forgiveness, but how can I be forgiven? I know how many people I've hurt, my victims, my family – surely there can never be forgiveness for me – I cannot forgive myself!”
And I think this touches on the real truth of what makes forgiveness so hard for us to sustain. It calls on us to change. And we do not like that. I recently put two photographs beside each other. They are both of me, standing in the same place, but the first was taken in 1978, the other in 2010.
The original picture was taken by my mother, who was visiting me in London, where I was living the idle life that they call 'backpacking' these days. Mum said she wanted a photo of me and Peter Pan – the two little boys who refused to grow up! In 2010, I was again in London, all alone, so I got a passing Dutch 'backpacker' to take my photo standing where I had stood over 30 years before. I stood on the wrong side – but the effect is the same!
The thing that surprised me most when I looked at the two pictures side by side only recently was that I am wearing almost identical clothes. Blue jeans with a fat leather belt and ostentatious buckle, black top and only the processes of aging have changed my hairstyle! In the 70s I had a thing for cowboy boots, now replaced by more comfortable runners, but not much else has changed.
As I looked at it I realized that somewhere way back there, now almost forty years ago, I found a me, an image of me, of who I was, that I have remained pretty content with ever since. I fact, I am sitting typing this in jeans, boots, a thick belt with an ostentatious buckle, and a black shirt on. And the hairstyle hasn't changed much either. I am clearly quite comfortable with it.
When I studied psychology, I learned that as a general rule, people are happiest with what they are familiar with. We are comfortable with what we know and have grown used to. There are two conflicting proverbs: “Birds of a feather flock together” and “Opposites attract”. Research seems to indicate that the former is generally the rule, and the latter is probably talking about magnets.
What has this to do with forgiveness? Something we find hard to do, such as forgive, is usually something that is calling on us to change. In pain, we are fixated on the pain. To forgive is to turn in the opposite direction. To put aside that which we are holding or feeling most intensely, which can literally mean, putting ourselves aside, to seek what is better for all. It is calling on ourselves to be a different person. And we do not like different. There is no doubting it – forgiveness is a really big ask.
However – it is also the only way to begin healing. It is the only thing that can do battle with the memories of hurt, humiliation, injury, damage or bitterness that sit and fester if left unattended. Only forgiveness has what is needed to restore relationship that has been betrayed or damaged. Bishop Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandella realized that the only way to overcome the decades of violence and murderous inhumanity of Apartheid South Africa was to establish official processes of confession and forgiveness. The bloodbath that the world expected was largely avoided and that nation found a way forward. When I put that thought alongside the indignation I feel when somebody has slighted or passingly offended me, and how hard I find it to put aside my anger and forgive them, I feel very small and ashamed.
Interestingly, the word 'forgive' appears 133 times in the NRSV translation of the Bible. A lot of our faith and belief is tied up in the search for forgiveness. In your life, how many times would you think God would have had the right to feel offended or disappointed in you? And what did God do about it? God set out on the most astonishing and upside-down plan to establish a way to forgive us. It is quite amazing when you think about it. It is my view that that is what the story of Noah is teaching us. If God is the God we believe in, the creator of all that is, then God has the power to equally dispose of all that is. But God will always find a way to escape the flood. God is able to put aside what is bad about us, and love what is good about us.
In the end, God loving us that much should allow us to love ourselves. And loving ourselves, as God's beloved children, we should have the confidence to grow comfortable with the challenging different self that is able to forgive others.
All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-5)
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
Lent is a penitential season. Penitence means we make efforts to overcome the sin we carry that stands between us and God. That is the basis for all that fasting, piety, charity etc that we pursue during Lent. I have been reading an article that suggested that most of us probably have somebody, group or many somebodies that we wish would repent of sins that hurt or offended us. So here is a radical suggestion – maybe part of our own penitence is finding a way we can forgive them? Put aside our hurt and be proactive in finding a way to heal the rift? Just a thought.
Here is what I learned this week: The Church word 'Lent' comes from Old German and is the name of the season we call Spring. It comes from the German word for 'long' or 'lengthen' because it was the season that was marked by the lengthening of daylight after Winter. I like this association, because it helps me to see the Lenten Fast as a sort of spiritual 'spring cleaning'. Uncluttering the shelves and airing out the cupboards of our soul, ready for the celebration of Easter. Happy Lent, everyone!
This month marks twenty years since I was first ordained as a deacon, at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on Saint Agatha's Day, 1995. In that twenty years I have been called to minister as an Assistant Curate at St James the Less, Mount Eliza and St John's Toorak; and as Vicar to St James and St Peter Kilsyth and Montrose (Surely the parish with more saint and suburb than any other!), St Alban's West Coburg and Pascoe Vale South (multiple suburbs a theme it seemed), and finally, as proof that God truly loves me, at Holy Trinity Williamstown. It was a bit disconcerting to realize when my oldest daughter began grade two, it was at her second school and her fourth address. She began grade 6 at her third school and fifth address.
It is an odd thing being called to ordained ministry. Your main qualification is that you can sincerely say “I think God wants me to be here, to do this.” These days, you then spend a year while both you and the relevant authorities of the Diocese check the sincerity of that statement. The year consists of a series of seminars and interviews. In my day it consisted of questioning interviews with a rather frightening man in an office next to the Archbishop's, then two armchair interviews at the homes of elderly priests (only men in those days, of course!) This all culminates with a full day of interviews, which any spouses have to attend with you, called a 'Selection Conference'. A month or two later, your letter comes in the mail with a yea or nay.
But that is just the beginning of the process. You then do a four year degree course, at the same time being placed to work in a different parish each year, and still getting interviewed regularly to see if that 'calling' is still there. Once that is done, and you have your degree as well as a Diploma of Ministry from the parish placements and holiday placement in chaplaincy roles, as well as other 'extra' courses and seminars you do along the way, they ordain you. You are then placed to work under a senior priest in an 'Assistant Curacy'. You do two of these, two years each. Interestingly, of all the professions you could choose, in ministry, you continue to attend classes, seminars and conferences – Post Ordination Training, known more familiarly by those doing it as 'Potty Training'. During those next four years, you continue to be interviewed to see if that 'calling' has survived the process.
It always made me chuckle to think that, up to nine years after you first did something about that sense that you are being 'called', that God has communicated in some inner way that you are chosen for a particular ministry, the Church authority is still checking if that 'call' is true. After nine years, a doctor is writing prescriptions and potentially performing surgeries. A lawyer is standing in court representing people in major life-changing issues. After nine years, the Church is still checking if you have actually 'got it'. Compare that with Mark 1:16-18:
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
They heard the call, they put down their nets, and it began. Oh! For those simpler days!
It is, I do accept, a strange thing, this 'calling'. For Peter and Andrew, placidly fishing in the Lake of Galilee, there was Jesus, in person, saying quite clearly - “Follow me! I have a job for you.” Discerning your calling today – whether to ordination, or any other path you hear God sending you along – is a spiritual matter. Only you can hear it, that inner voice through which God guides you. I know the Church today is rather over-loaded with people who will tell you with great personal conviction what God is telling you to do or say or believe. Over the years, I have relegated them to the background noise of the world. If God is speaking to you, only you can hear it. Read 1 Kings 19:11-13, one of my favourite images in the Bible.
Depending on how you define it, in most denominations of Christianity, there is a belief that we are all 'called' in some way. At its simplest, some believe that the call to believe and follow Jesus is the calling of all Christians, plain and simple. The Apostle Paul in a number of his writings alludes to many ways we are individually called to use the gifts God has given us to build up the Christian community, such as 1 Corinthians 12:28. God calls us all, and we all should be listening out for it.
During my training for ordination, I took part in six silent retreats. One each year at college and one before each ordination, deacon and priest. I have tried to book one in every year or two since. I continue to maintain that if you are listening for God to speak to you, you are far more likely to hear it in silence, rather than the lecturing voices of others.
Especially around Election time, all our news seems to be telling us how bad we've got it. Does the church have a role in helping us see what is good around us? I think so! In Christchurch, New Zealand, where the Anglican Cathedral was destroyed by earthquake, the have just opened a temporary replacement made from cardboard. They're happy. In the UK, the government has established a project to help churches whose rooves and towers are infested by bats. Everyone but the bats are happy. In Nottinghamshire, UK, the Revd Kate Bottley, Vicar of Blythe Anglican Church, initiated a flash-mob dance to round off a traditional wedding ceremony. To her delight, a video of the event went viral on the internet and became Britain's most viewed video for July. She said how glad she was to overturn the Church's grumpy reputation. Maybe we should look out for ways to create spontaneous happiness in those around us. I truly believe God would approve.
I have always been tormented by the way we readily hang labels on people, which become the whole simple story of that person. When I was in my late twenties, and considering returning to Church, it seems whenever I walked into any Christian gathering, somebody would ask me “Are you a Christian?” My answer was always, “Well, you tell me what you think a Christian is, and I'll tell you if that's what I am.” Not one one person ever responded to that. I was usually then automatically labeled 'Not a Christian', that information was filed away, and thus I remained in the perception of that person.
People ask me “How do you work in the prison?” I often want to ask, “How do you work at your place of employment?” What they are really asking is “How do you work with THOSE people?” meaning criminals, dangerous monsters, bad people. The answer is I found it much more difficult working in a department store in my younger days, dealing with all the different people that walked in the front door with complaints, unreal expectations and selfish demands. The men I meet in the prison, with some obvious exceptions, are ordinary people, getting on with the difficulties life puts before them. The few exceptions are generally, in my view, people so traumatized and damaged by abusive lives, that they have lost the ability to relate to other humans. I'm pretty sure I have never met a monster. I'm looking forward to, though, if it ever happens.
When you meet somebody new, are you looking for everything that is good about that person? I feel our society, and especially our media is teaching us to look for what is dangerous or threatening about that person. Read about Jesus. He met ten lepers, he met a tax-collector, he met a foreigner, he met a man born blind, he met a man possessed by many demons who lived naked and wild among gravestones. They brought him a woman caught in adultery. A woman of the city, a sinner, came and knelt at his feet. All these odd-bods and misfits, and I've checked a few translations, never once does Jesus say “Ooh! Be careful, it's one of those!” His disciples sometimes come close, and a couple of Pharisees and Lawyers blurt it right out. Jesus, however, greets and welcomes these people, and whatever label society has tacked on to them, he is able to encounter them in a way that turns out positively for everyone. There is a much broader sense to Jesus saying, “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
I eventually returned to the Church when I met up with a Parish community that didn't say “Are you what WE expect?” but rather, said “You look interesting! Let's see where we can fit you in!” The rest, of course, is history.
Last Monday, in London, a child was born and all the world took notice. A future king, whatever your view on monarchies, republics or other forms of state, is a person to be noted. As that same day rolled around our globe, about 368,538 other babies were born. Of those, 14,549 will die before they are one year old. Those born in Australia are about one tenth as likely to be in that number as the world average, and just short of one hundredth as likely as the children born in Sierra Leone. Whatever this new King of Britain becomes, and whatever world leaders are now being born and are growing up, let's continue hoping they do great things about the world conditions that lead to these dreadful statistics.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)