Posts Tagged ‘Mary’

What is God asking you to do?

December 23, 2017

Advent 4 – 2017 

Luke 1:28-38

Marian Free

 In the name of God for whom nothing is impossible. Amen.

 If you read the beginnings of the four gospels, you will notice some substantial differences. For example, Mark launches straight into an account of Jesus’ ministry: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Mark is not interested in where Jesus has come from, but only in what he has done and what it means for those who believe. The gospel attributed to John is cosmic in breadth and poetic in expression. Jesus is identified as the Word who coexisted with God from the beginning of time and who, in fact, is God. The author of John’s gospel is not interested in Jesus’ earthly birth and childhood, only in his divine origin.

If we want to discover anything about Jesus’ human history, we have to rely on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately they are not reliable sources. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth have at least as many differences as they have similarities. Luke has much more detail than Matthew making his account nearly twice as long. Even the style is different. Luke’s is rather like an overture to an opera, two of the main characters burst into song. Matthew’s account is more sedate and includes to fewer details.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph, not Mary plays the central role. It is to Joseph that the angel appears and it is Joseph who is informed that the child is to be called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins). Joseph makes no protest and asks no questions, but simply does as the angel has commanded. There is no census, no crowded city and no manger. We are simply informed that Joseph formally married Mary and that he didn’t consummate the marriage until after the birth of the infant. We are to assume from this that Joseph and Mary were already in Bethlehem. (Jesus only goes to Nazareth because after Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt they learn that it will not be safe to return to Bethlehem.)

Joseph plays only a supporting role in Luke’s version of events. In fact, we are half way through the story before Joseph appears and then he is only mentioned as the means by which Mary gets from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary takes centre stage here. The angel (named) appears to Mary (in person, not in a dream) and tells her that she is favoured in God’s sight. Mary is informed that she will bear a son who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Unlike Joseph who simply accepts the angles word and responds immediately, Mary reasons with the angel (reasoned is a better translation than “pondered”), and she challenges him: “How can this be?” It is only when the angel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible with God that Mary acquiesces to God’s plan.

After Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers again present two quite different scenarios. According to Matthew the magi come from the east following a star and bringing exotic gifts. From the way in which Matthew tells the story, we can infer that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s hometown. And from Herod’s over reaction we can guess that by then Jesus was about two years old. In place of the magi Luke records the appearance of the angels to the shepherds who visit the newly born Jesus in the stable.

Both Matthew and Luke are determined to show that Jesus didn’t simply emerge from nowhere. They make it clear that from his birth Jesus was set apart as God’s anointed. Not surprisingly, the way in which the gospel writers tell the story reflects their different interests and different audiences. Matthew wants to make it clear to his readers that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises. He also wants to demonstrate that the new community of faith is the true Israel. Those who believe in Jesus cannot be considered a breakaway sect because they exist in continuity with all that has gone before. In Matthew’s account, Joseph has dreams as does his namesake in Genesis, Mary’s pregnancy and the gifts brought by the magi fulfill events predicted by Isaiah and Bethlehem is the place where according the Old Testament, the King of Jews, God’s anointed one was to be born.

Whereas Matthew is writing for an audience that is primarily Jewish, Luke is writing to a largely Gentile readership. Luke’s audience knows that they are not Israel – new or otherwise. They are more interested in the power of the God revealed in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. This God, Luke tells them, can achieve the impossible and can create something out of nothing. Other characteristics of the Lukan author are evident in his account of Jesus’ birth – his interest in contextualizing the story against the events of the time, and his concern with the poor. It is important for Luke to ground Jesus in the history of the time, so (even though he gets both the date and the ruler wrong, Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the census ordered by Quirinius in 6CE). Mary’s hymn affirms that the “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. It is uneducated shepherds with no resources who are the first to worship the infant Jesus.

All of this is interesting and we could spend much more time examining the differences between all four gospels and exploring the reasons why they emphasise different aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ story. But these are not quaint stories written so that we can exercise our brain. They are stories of faith and as such they continue to speak to and challenge us today.

Joseph and Mary are ordinary people going about their ordinary business when an angel bursts into their lives and demands that they trust God and that they join God in a grand and costly adventure. The response of Mary and Joseph force us to consider:

Is our relationship with God deep enough and intimate enough that we are able to recognise the voice of God when God speaks to us?

And if we do hear:

Is our trust in God strong enough and confident enough that we are able to believe that God will empower us with the courage and skills we need when God asks us to do the seemingly impossible?

And if we do trust:

Is our faith robust enough and important enough to us that we are comfortable with the idea of taking risks and not worrying what others might say about us?

In their different ways, Mary and Joseph answered God’s call to bring Jesus to birth. Are we paying attention, are we aware of God’s presence and if so, are we ready and willing to respond to God’s call?

Advertisements

So easy it seems hard

April 1, 2017

Lent 5 – 2017

John 11:1-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who love us beyond our wildest imagining. Amen.

“If only” must be among the saddest words in the English language. They express regret, disappointment, a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are and a yearning for things to be different. They suggest an unwillingness to accept that life is beyond our control and that it includes the good and the bad. They represent a failure to live in the present and a striving for what is probably an unrealistic and ideal future. Or, as in the case of today’s gospel, “if only” expresses a desire that God would behave in the way that we expect.

There are, as is often the case with John’s gospel, a number of things going on in today’s gospel. Jesus’ life is in danger. The Pharisees have been trying to stone him, which means that for Jesus to be anywhere in Judea, let alone near Jerusalem, is extremely dangerous. According to John Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. Apparently while there he chooses to say with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whose home in Bethany is only a couple of miles from the city. The siblings are more than friends with Jesus. They share an intimacy that would allow Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet and to wipe them with her hair, and that gives the women courage to tell Jesus that “the one whom you love is ill.” Not only are they close friends, but Martha and Mary have confidence in Jesus’ ability to bring about healing.

When Lazarus becomes ill, they send a message to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t come. The sisters don’t have the advantage that we have. They don’t hear Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. What they know is that a friend who loves them not only doesn’t come, but fails to even to send a word to explain the delay. One imagines that the sisters are disappointed and confused by Jesus’ behaviour. His failure to honor their friendship and to come to their aid must have taken them by surprise.

No wonder both women reproach him when, long after Lazarus has died, Jesus finally turns up. “Lord if only you had been here our brother would not have died,” they say. We could have been saved this trouble and this grief – “if only you had been here.” Their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal is unchanged. They simply do not understand why he would choose not to save their brother.

The reaction of the women is often overshadowed by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, or overlooked because of Martha’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but it is important to notice the reproach and to recognise that, despite their friendship and love, the women are not afraid to let Jesus know that they feel he has let them down. It is probably because the sisters know Jesus so well that they feel free to tell him just what they think.

Both the Old Testament and the New are populated with real people who have real feelings and real failings, both of which are essential to their relationship with God. When we read the bible we don’t get the sense that the various characters on the pages are trying to be something that they are not. We are not given the impression that if a person is less than perfect that God will have nothing to do with them. We learn that from Abraham to Martha and Mary, those who are close to God, those who have a strong relationship with God have no problem in either being themselves or in letting God know exactly what they think. Abraham takes God on when God threatens to destroy Sodom, Moses suggests that God will look foolish in the eyes of the nations if God destroys Israel, the woman at the well was not afraid to tell Jesus that it was the Samaritans, not the Jews, who were the true believers, and Martha and Mary have no qualms in greeting Jesus with a reproach.

These characters have one thing in common – an open and honest relationship with God/Jesus – a relationship in which they are not afraid to tell God/Jesus exactly how they feel, in which they are comfortable to have their doubt and uncertainty, their frustration and disappointment exposed for all to see. They didn’t care if they appeared foolish or uncertain and they had no problem letting God/Jesus know just what they thought. When they were face-to-face with God/Jesus, they were not overcome with embarrassment, self-consciousness or shame. They were comfortable enough in their relationship with Jesus to have their flaws and doubts laid bare.

Over the past four weeks we have met characters who, in conventional terms have been anything but model Christians, let alone perfect human beings. Nicodemus is timid and uncertain, the woman at the well had had five husbands, the blind man came to faith only in stages and Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for being late. During this time, we have observed people who were not confident that Jesus was who he said he was, whose self-interest led them to misunderstand what he said, who took their healing for granted and who scolded Jesus for not responding in a timely manner.

We learn from these characters that if we want our relationship with God/Jesus to grow, it is important that we are completely honest – about ourselves (our strengths as well as our weaknesses), about our questions, our doubts and yes, even about our anger and disappointment. We can take the lead from those in the bigger story that it is not only OK, but that it is healthy to enter into debate with God, to voice our concerns and express our frustration. Our relationship with God is like any other relationship. It cannot grow if there is dishonesty, fear and anxiety, but only if there is openness, respect and trust.

My hope is that this Lent you have learned something of God’s boundless love for you, that you have gained confidence to be yourselves – knowing that God’s love will not be withdrawn – and that you understand that the best relationship with God is one that is honest and true, one in which nothing is hidden and in which we are so sure of our place in God’s love that we are not afraid to let God know what we think, to ask the difficult questions and even, as did Martha and Mary to question God’s reaction (or lack of action) in regard to issues that we think are important.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in a relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. It is only because it is so easy that it sometimes seems so hard

Martha’s problem- too busy, or too unhappy?

July 16, 2016

Pentecost 9

Luke 10: 38-40

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who values and delights in each of us in our own way and desires that we are true to ourselves. Amen.

We all hate martyrs don’t we? By this I don’t mean that we hate those who are martyrs in the true sense of the word – those who have given their lives for their faith, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Oscar Romeros and so on. People such as they rightfully command our attention and our admiration. No I mean the martyrs who are martyrs of their own making. Those who demand that we notice how busy, how put upon, in short how “good” they are. I mean those who take on things that they would rather not and then whine and moan that no one helps them or that no one recognises how much they are doing/how much they have to do. Such people have no joy in the task in which they are engaged and very often suck the life out of those around them. The reasons for their taking on more than they really want to could be the result of any number of things. They might think that they will receive recognition and thanks, a sense of importance in the eyes of other for doing something no one else seems to want to do. Sadly, because they take no delight in what they are doing, the effect of their overwork is the opposite of that they had hoped for. Instead of being commended, they are seen as kill-joys at worst and attentions seekers at best.

The interpretation of the Mary/Martha narrative with which I grew up and one that has haunted more than a generation of happily busy women, suggests that because Jesus commends Mary and censures Martha, that he values contemplation more than work. How often have you heard someone (usually a woman) say rather guiltily, ‘I’m only a Martha’ as they uncomplainingly pour yet another cup of tea at a Parish function. This view has been very damaging to many women in the church who are left feeling that their contribution is somehow lacking because it is not spiritual enough. At the same time their contribution has been undervalued, because making jams for the church fete and ensuring that churches and halls are kept clean has not been seen as the real work of the church[1].

A better way to view the story is to see it as an illustration of need for balance in our lives, to understand that it teaches that our times of busyness will be more fruitful and less stressful if they are sustained by prayer, and that a healthy spiritual life is one in which time is spent with God informs and guides what we do, so that what we do is not banal and empty, but infused with the presence of God. Martha and Mary are opposites who demonstrates that action and contemplation are both necessary for a life lived in the presence of God.

A feminist view of this account identifies the fact that Luke effectively silences both women. Martha is censured for feeling burdened and Mary’s silence is commended. Neither woman is given a voice, which is interesting given that in John’s gospel both women play prominent roles in the community.

Then there is, to me, the most compelling interpretation. It is not that Martha is too busy or that Martha is not holy enough. Jesus problem is that she is not happy enough.

Jesus has apparently dropped in on the pair unexpectedly. Hospitality was an important cultural norm. The women would be expected to provide Jesus with food and shelter. That didn’t mean providing a feast, it simply meant sharing what they had. Why then is Martha so upset, what are the “many tasks” that are driving her to distraction? We can only guess that Martha is not so much focused on making Jesus at home, but on impressing him with her culinary and housekeeping skills.

Martha appears to be doing more than is required. The problem is not what she is doing, but that she is getting no pleasure from her endeavours. She has taken on too much and no one seems to have noticed or if they have, they don’t care! it appears that what Martha wants, is not just to ensure that Jesus is fed and comfortable, but for Jesus to appreciate her efforts, to commend what she is doing and to confirm what she believes – that it is she, not Mary, who is doing what is necessary.

Martha does not have the insight to recognise that both she and Mary have a choice as to how they exercise hospitality. Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus first and to worry about other details later. Martha has given other things priority and now that those things have overwhelmed her, she looking for someone to blame for her distress and is wanting to draw Mary into the maelstrom of her distress.

It is important to recognise that there is nothing wrong with being busy If no one did anything the world would grind to a stop. So the issue here is not that Martha is working rather than listening, but that what she does is driven by a sense of self-importance or a desire for recognition.

Jesus’ interaction with the two sisters is a reminder that there is not a tension between prayer and work or that one is superior to the other. Both are necessary and it is our task to find the balance that works best for us. Underlying the narrative is the reminder that our faith is intended to be a source of freedom, peace and joy. Faith is not, and was never intended to be a burden, a struggle or an imposition.

Martha’s unhappiness stemmed from a belief that she needed to earn Jesus’ recognition and regard. Mary’s better part is not so much that she prays rather than works, but that in contrast to Martha she knows without needing to be told, just how much she is loved and just how little she had to do (has to do) to warrant that love.

[1] This despite the fact that many Australian churches have been built on the sales at church fetes and many continue to rely on cake stalls for their survival.

 

Abundance not sacrifice – Lent is God’s gift to us, our gift to ourselves

March 12, 2016

Lent 5 – 2016

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose outpouring of love is more than we can ever imagine.  Amen.

It is just possible that I am turning into a grumpy old woman or it may be that I am by nature someone who tends to take the world and faith seriously. Whatever it is, I have found myself being irritated or disappointed by the attitude that some people (particularly via social media) have taken towards Lent. There have been posts on Facebook by people bemoaning the fact that they are saying “goodbye” to beer or wine or some other treat for forty days as if Lent is a burden imposed upon them rather than something taken up freely. Other people have posted cartoons, which again make it seem that Lent is at worst some interminable punishment or at best a trial that has to be endured. To be fair, I am sure that most of the posts are from people who do take Lent seriously and who assume that their friends will understand that they are simply making light of it not expressing how they really feel.

It does concern me however that the negative messages about Lent, give the wrong idea – not only about the practice of Lent but about the Christian faith – to the non-Christians who hear or read them. Those who are not in on the secret could be forgiven for thinking that Lent is a period of misery expected by an exacting and demanding God instead of seeing it as a time of self-imposed abstinence that will liberate us to know more fully an indulgent and affirming deity.

The readings for the first four weeks of Lent have encouraged us to turn our lives around and to remove the barriers that separate us from the overwhelming abundance of God’s love. John the Baptist urged us to “repent” (literally – turn around), the parable of the fig tree reminded us that we share with all of humanity its frailty and imperfections, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem gave us an insight into the sorrow experienced by God because of our refusal to accept God’s love and the parable of the two sons demonstrated God’s utter refusal to exclude us from that love and at the same time reminded us of the ways in which we place ourselves beyond the reach of God’s affection.

Today, as we approach the end of our forty days, we are confronted by a description of an act of intimacy, extravagance and tenderness – not of God towards us, but of Mary towards God. At first the gospel seems out of place an action of such beauty and lavishness seems to conflict with a time of fasting and self-denial.  But today’s gospel is a perfect fit – not only with the gospel readings that have preceded it, but also with the central purpose of Lent. In conjunction with the gospels of the past four weeks, today’s gospel sums up what Lent is about and what we can hope to achieve.

We discover, if we plumb the lectionary offerings, that Lent is primarily about ensuring that we are in the best condition possible to accept God’s love for us. We allow ourselves a period of prayer and self-examination to reflect on our lives and in particular to consider whether or not we are truly open to the love that God is constantly pouring out on us. Fasting and self-denial are not intended to be a way of  “mortifying” or denying the flesh” but a means of identifying and ridding ourselves of the obstacles that we place between ourselves and God – obstacles which are just as likely to be emotional and psychological as they are to be physical.

When we strip ourselves bare, when we purge ourselves of all the things that prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love, we will be simply overwhelmed by the outpouring God’s grace and the generosity and the bounty of God’s affection. We will be astounded that God could love us so much and we will be acutely aware of our little we deserve that love.

Lent is a lesson of love, God’s extravagant, unconditional and boundless love, which is ours for the taking. The disciplines of Lent are not intended to weigh us down, but to prepare us to receive God’s love without question and without hesitation.

This is where Mary fits in. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, responds to God’s love with an extravagance that matches Jesus’ own. Mary is the perfect example of someone who has allowed herself to be stripped bare, who has opened herself completely and unreservedly to God’s scrutiny and in so doing has discovered not judgement but compassion, not condemnation but understanding, not rejection, but complete and total acceptance. Mary responds in the only way possible – with a demonstration of her deep and humble gratitude.

Even by today’s standards, Mary’s actions open her to disapproval – the loose hair, the public and intimate display of affection, the extravagance and waste. Yet for Mary there is no other response that will adequately express her reaction to God’s love for her. Mary throws caution, propriety and decorum to the wind. She has no thought of what others might think of her only that she must express her own love in a way that matches her experience of the love of God.

Lent then, is not so much about sacrifice as it is about abundance, not so much about self-denial as it is about self-acceptance, not so much about being unable to measure up, but about realizing that there is nothing against which to measure ourselves. Lent is less about sacrifice and more about abundance – about discovering the abundance that emanates from God and not from the world. Lent is less about will power and more about letting go – for it is only when we truly let go that we are able open ourselves to the wealth that is ours for the taking.

During Lent we identify and shed the obstacles that separate us from the love of God – a love so overwhelmingly abundant that it calls for a response that is extravagant, intimate and tender a response like that of Mary sister of Lazarus.

Forty days is not much to ask – in fact it almost seems far too little to give when we gain so much in return.

Making a difference in the world

December 20, 2014

Advent 4 – 2014
Luke 1:26-36
Marian Free

In the name of Jesus who surrendered himself completely and in so doing became completely God. Amen.

What a year this has been. What a week! This week alone two people have lost their lives in a hostage situation in Sydney, 140 students and teachers have been killed in an attack on a school in Pakistan, eight children have been stabbed to death by their mother in Cairns, and (hidden away in a small paragraph of today’s paper) we learn that another 180 women and children have been kidnapped by Boko Haran in Nigeria. In the face of all this horror and violence it is easy to overlook the devastating news that the UN has run out of funds and that hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria and Iraq can no longer expect food handouts and so may have escaped the war only to face starvation. It might also have escaped our attention that currently in the Central African Republic something like 10,000 children – some as young as eight – have been recruited as soldiers and force to fight in a war they almost certainly do not understand.

And that is just this week and only the news items that particularly grabbed my attention. It is only the tip of the iceberg in a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams.

The week just gone is exactly the sort of week that might make a person ask “where is God in all this” and “why doesn’t God do something to stop the violence and destruction?” The reason is simple – God can’t intervene. At least God cannot intervene decisively and enduringly without stooping to our level and behaving just like us. If God were to use violence to put an end to violence either the world itself would be destroyed or the world would follow God’s example and the cycle of violence would continue. If instead God tried to impose God’s will, to dominate and subjugate the aggressors would resist God’s control and take out their frustration on others the situation might become worse rather than better.

So while God might despair at the state of the world today, God chooses not to intervene. If God does intervene God does so in a completely novel and unexpected way – without resorting to violence or domination. God knows that forcing us to do God’s will is not nearly as effective as working with us to achieve the same end. For this reason God refuses to coerce us, to bend us to his purpose or to subjugate us to God’s authority. Instead God waits. God waits until we are ready, until we recognise and are open to God’s greater wisdom and willingly submit ourselves to God’s plan for us and for the world. For it is only when individuals acknowledge God and allow God to direct their lives that they enable God to be effective in achieving God’s purpose. It is only when we relinquish our pride, our arrogance and our selfish ambitions that God is able to work in and through us to make real God’s hopes for all humankind.

And so we come at last to today’s gospel and the extraordinary story of an ordinary young woman whose selfless humility made a place for God in her life and therefore for God in the world. In order to respond to God, Mary put aside her fears, her ambitions, her desire for respectability and her need to be in control of her own life. Mary was less concerned with what was good for her, and more concerned about the greater good, less worried about her own future, and more worried about the future of humankind. Mary let go and gave herself and her life completely into God’s hands.

It was Mary’s willingness to submit to God that provided God with the opportunity to intervene in the world. It was Mary’s “yes” that led to Christ’s birth and consequently to the redemption of all humankind.

If then the world has not been redeemed, we need not look to God but to ourselves. While we continue to hold on to our own hopes and dreams, while we persist in trying to prove ourselves by competing with and striving over and against others, while we rely on our own resources to provide security for the present and the future, we effectively diminish God’s presence in the world while at the same time reinforcing our own.

Paradoxically, it was Mary’s submission, her giving up of her self, that not only allowed God to be brought to birth in the world, but made her most truly the person God created her to be. In giving up everything, Mary gained more than she could have ever imagined, by accepting ignominy, Mary gained the sort of fame which few have achieved and few can even imagine.

Mary is told: “Nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible for God, but in order for God to make a difference in this broken world, God needs our cooperation, our willingness to let go of ambition and self interest, our preparedness to relinquish our need for control and give ourselves completely to God’s will. There are few who are prepared to give themselves so completely and lose themselves so thoroughly and as a result the world continues its trajectory towards self-destruction.

God needs our ‘yes’ to join that of Mary’s so that in every age and every place, ordinary men and women will continue to bring Christ to birth. Our “yes to God might not transform the world, but it might change our small corner for the better.

A matter of life and death

April 5, 2014

Lent 5 – 2014
John 11:1-42
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us life in abundance. Amen

One of the mysteries in the account of the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ tardiness – when Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill he stays where he is for two more days. This is even harder to understand when the narrator tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and that Jesus wept when he learned that Lazarus had died. This confusion is shared by the characters in the narrative. The disciples take Jesus literally when he says that Lazarus is merely asleep, Martha exclaims: “if you had been here my brother would not have died” – a sentiment echoed by her sister Mary. The Jews wonder: “could not the man who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Why, when Jesus cares so much for his friends and obviously has the power to cure the sick, does he delay?

An obvious reason for Jesus’ hesitation is that the Judeans are trying to kill him. If Jesus returns to Jerusalem it will place him (and by association his disciples) at great risk. It is little wonder then that he takes some time to think about the consequences of his going . What changes his mind appears to be his belief that Lazarus has died. This simply adds to the confusion – why, having chosen to play it safe, would he now risk his life and that of others to go to someone who is already dead? Again the answer is in the text: “so that you might believe”. Believe what is an obvious question, the answer to which is found in Jesus’ discussion with Martha. In response to Martha’s assertion that Lazarus will rise again on the last day, Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been claiming to be life. The gospel begins with the claim that “in him was life and the life was the light of all people” and the word life occurs at least forty more times – sometimes with the descriptor eternal life, but often on its own. “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). It is this focus on life in the gospel as a whole that helps us to get a handle on this chapter. When Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness is not unto death he is not trying to deceive or mislead the disciples. What he is trying to do is to get the disciples and the Jews to understand life and therefore death differently, to understand that somehow, as a consequence of his presence in the world, the relationship between life and death has radically changed – a fact that will become clear after Jesus’ own death and resurrection, but which he wants them to take on faith in the present.

Physical death is brutally real – the raising of Lazarus does not alter that fact, neither does Jesus try to sugar coat the reality of death. Lazarus is not raised to eternal life, but to life in the present, a life that will eventually end with death. Death separates us from the one who has died and the one who has died loses any benefits he or she might have had in life. The grief that Lazarus’ sisters and friends (including Jesus) feel cannot be avoided. In raising Lazarus Jesus’ attempt to redefine the ways that his followers think about death. (In order for that to happen, Lazarus has to physically die.)

There are a number of aspects to this redefinition of death. First of all, Jesus’ apparent lack of concern does not indicate indifference to Lazarus’ illness or indifference with regard to the sister’s grief. Jesus’ refusal to be hurried demonstrates that death (even his own) is not a matter over which human beings have any control. Death is something that is determined by God (not illness or other cause). Pilate himself would have no power to crucify Jesus unless that power had first been given him by God. Secondly, by creating ambiguity around Lazarus’ death – saying the illness will not lead to death, saying that Lazarus is asleep when he is not, opening the grave when it is certain he is dead, Jesus opens the possibility that death is not the definitive end to life. Death is more open ended – life does not cease completely after the death of the physical body.

A third way in which death is redefined is the notion that death is in some way for the glory of God. In the case of Lazarus, death glorifies God because his being raised to life will help the disciples to believe that Jesus is life. When Jesus raises Lazarus, he demonstrates that death cannot defeat life – something that will be definitively proven when Jesus is raised from the dead never to die again. Life and death are in the hands of God. Finally, the raising of Lazarus shows the disciples that death does not lead to separation something that will be clearly evident to them when Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection life will break into the world of the disciples ensuring that they are never separated from him.

In the account of the raising of Lazarus, both life and death are radically redefined for the disciples of Jesus. They learn that death has lost its power to overcome life. That said, Jesus offers no false promises of happy endings, no assurance that pain and sorrow have been eliminated from the world, just an assurance that this life can, with confidence be understood as a prelude to the life to come, that the separation from loved ones is only a temporary condition and that no matter what happens in the present, Jesus will never abandon those who believe in him because death itself cannot separate him from those whom he loves.

Bridging the gap

December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

John 1:1-14 – a reflection

Marian Free

In the name of God who will stop at nothing to ensure that we reach our full potential. Amen.

“In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Have you ever noticed that John’s gospel denies us the Nativity. Not for John the angels, the shepherds or the Magi. John does not mention Mary or Joseph or Bethlehem. Those looking for familiar images or for the Christmas card stories will find none of that sentimentality here. The author of John takes us back to the very beginning – to creation. Whereas Matthew and Luke use genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage – Matthew to Abraham, Luke all the way back to God. John makes it very clear that Jesus existed before anything else. According to John, Jesus is much more than Luke’s “Son of God”. Before time began – the Word, Jesus, co-existed with God, in fact was God.

Luke and Matthew try to engage us with stories of Jesus’ human beginnings, John is much more interested in connecting us with the mystery of Jesus’ being both God and human. John tells us that in Jesus, God takes on human flesh and becomes fully engaged in human existence. John not only takes us back to the very beginning, but he also grounds us in the present. In the fourth Gospel we come face-to-face with the confronting reality(?) of a God who is fully human and a human who is fully God. Instead of contemplating a baby, we are forced to consider the deeper realities of our faith, to ask ourselves what does it mean? How can Jesus be both fully human and fully divine? Why would God abandon the heavenly realms for the messy, dirty, risky experience of earthly existence?

God enters our existence to bridge the gap, to heal the divide between human and divine, to show once and for all that all creation – including the human species – is infused with the presence of God, and to demonstrate that God is intimately engaged with God’s creation. The Word made flesh is not a dispassionate, detached deity who is uninterested in human affairs, but in the person of Jesus, has fully identified with the human condition – assuring us that nothing is outside of God’s concern, that our daily lives are not so dull that God is not interested in them. The Word made flesh is proof positive that unlike us, God does not make a distinction between the holy and the mundane, the extraordinary and the ordinary. When God in Jesus took on human form, God in effect declared that all creation bears the image of God.

When we revisit the baby, we discover that the child in the cradle is just as confronting and challenging as the Word made flesh. There, vulnerable and dependent lies God himself – totally (and at great risk) entering into the human condition. This is what we discover once more at Christmas time. God’s love for the world was so great that God could not stand aloof, but had to become one with God’s creation, so that creation could achieve its true purpose – to become one with God.

An angel made me do it

December 21, 2013

Advent 4 – 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

 There is a wonderful line in the mini-series of “Pride and Prejudice” when the overly religious and moralistic Mary states – in response to Lydia’s elopement: “As difficult as this situation is, it is a useful reminder to us that a woman’s virtue, once lost, is irretrievable.”  She reflects a common view. Her cousin, Mr Collins has already commented something to the effect that the situation would not have been as bad had Lydia been dead. All the blame, all the responsibility for her loss of virtue fall on her. Mr Wickham, the man who has persuaded Lydia to run away with him, will have a reputation of not being a “respectable man”, but it is Lydia and her family that will bear the censure and the social isolation that will result from her reckless behaviour. No one will want to socialise with the family after this and the four other sisters will now be tainted by association. As Elizabeth says: “She is ruined, and her family must share in her shame and disgrace.” Sexual indiscretion on the part of the woman seems to have been seen as something that was contagious. It was considered to be so morally wrong that no one would want to be seen to be condoning it by maintaining a friendship with the family.

These sorts of attitudes regarding chastity make Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy quite extraordinary. In many cultures even today, a woman who shames her family or her husband can be cast out of that society or even worse, put to death. A respectable man would want nothing to do with her and would certainly not want to raise someone else’s child as if he or she were his own.

So far as we can tell, in the first century, as in some places today, young people were engaged at a very young age. They didn’t necessarily live together and were not actually married until they were older. This seems to have been the case with Mary and Joseph. When Mary fell pregnant she and Joseph were not married and not living together. You can imagine his shock and disappointment when he discovered that Mary had become pregnant to someone else. In the normal course of events he could have caused a commotion. Mary’s pregnancy would have been a source of great humiliation, shame and embarrassment to him. In normal circumstances, he would want nothing more to do with her, he would not want to be associated with someone who was not chaste and he almost certainly would not want to raise someone else’s child – especially in a culture in which a son was required to carry on the family name.

Mary’s parents have let him down. They have not kept their side of the bargain that would have been to ensure Mary’s chastity – any commitments they made with regard to the betrothal have been broken. Now that Mary is pregnant, she is “spoiled goods”. Joseph is within his rights to ask for compensation and not to marry her.

However, he resolves not to make a fuss, to demand recompense or to make an example of Mary. Instead he decides “to dismiss her quietly” and to release her and her parents from any arrangement they have made. Perhaps, as tradition has it, Joseph is an old man who with the wisdom of age understands why a young woman might choose someone else or perhaps he just likes to keep to himself and does not want to draw attention to the situation. Whatever the reason, Joseph presumably thinks that this episode in his life has been dealt with and put behind him. Not so – God, in the form of an angel intervenes with an outrageously unbelievable story. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Assuming the account to have some truth in it, Joseph is asked to make a huge turn around. He has to reverse his decision, he has to come to terms with marrying Mary, he has to accept and raise a child that is not his own, he has to confront the fact that his neighbours may view him with contempt and that his only explanation for behaviour which will make no sense at all to those around him – will be: “An angel made me do it”.

Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time, so can only guess at the scenario and wonder how much license the author of Matthew has taken with the story. It is possible, as Matthew suggests, that Joseph was held in such esteem in the community that his behaviour would have been seen as further evidence of his goodness and generosity. He is protecting a young woman from life-long isolation and shame. All the same, we cannot underestimate what a huge decision this would be for Joseph and risks he was taking in marrying a woman who was already pregnant. His own moral codes would be called into question and his social standing compromised as a result.

It is possible that the culture of the time was more open to God speaking to people in dreams or to angels appearing apparently out of nowhere with messages that turn a person’s life upside down. Even so, few, I imagine would believe that God was asking Joseph to do something that was so socially unacceptable. In effect, Joseph would have had to convince his family and friends to accept that God was asking him to do something that would compromise his (and God’s) moral standards and to behave in a way that was contrary to the principles and values that his community held in common. Joseph had to be absolutely convinced that he message that he had dreamt did indeed come from God, absolutely sure that the risks he was taking were worth the end result and that going against his own moral code was, in this instance, the right thing to do.

Some people make the mistake of confusing Christianity with morality. Being a Christian, they believe, has to do with being good (as opposed to being in union with God). This allows them to make moral judgments and to censure those who do not live up to their particular set of standards. The reality, as we know, is much more complex. When we strip away the sentimentality from our Christmas stories we find a different point of view. Beneath the romantic story of angels and dreams and of Mary and Joseph and the baby, we discover that God is not bound by our ideas of right and wrong or by our set of moral principles. The central characters of the Christmas story are a woman who has become pregnant out-of-wedlock and a man who is prepared to risk his own character and to ignore the accepted morality of first century Palestine. Each, in their different ways, respond to an angel who asks them to behave in ways contrary to the social mores of their time and to act in ways that will expose them to derision and disdain. Yet their relationship with God is such that they are able to place their trust completely in God, to put their own hesitations behind them and to take risks that make them vulnerable to censure and to social exclusion to ensure that God’s purpose can become a reality.

The example of Mary and Joseph is not an excuse for us to ignore moral values or cultural norms, but it is a reminder to us that we should build our relationship with God such that not only do we know and do what is right and proper, but that we also know when we are called to step beyond cultural boundaries and social constraints so that God’s presence might be known in the world.


%d bloggers like this: