December: A child is presented and given a mission

December: A child is presented and given a mission

Advent 1 Sunday 3 Dec 2023

Mark 13:24-37

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church New Year. A year of walking through the Gospel of Mark, designated Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary. Yet the church new year barely draws the kind of interest given to the beginning of the secular new year. There isn’t the same kind of buzz about new year resolutions and new beginnings as we transition from Pentecost to Advent.

Still, there is a deep sense of anticipation as we look ahead to Advent and what it means and represents. Mark in his crackling no nonsense account intensifies that expectation with the charge to be alert and keep awake, for only God knows the day or hour when the Son of Man shall return.

Jesus’ farewell discourse underscored by Markan apocalyptic overtones paint a rather bleak picture. They say that the backdrop to Mark’s gospel was the failed Jewish revolt against Roman occupation around 66-70 CE. It is imaginable that Mark was grasping for hope in a place of dark despair. How ironic that the whole world right now is watching live the catastrophe being visited upon the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. So, we begin the church new year in the shadow of sorrow, imagining Palestinians grasping for hope in a place of dark despair.

We exist in the reality of the promise that the Lord is near and is coming. There it is possible to find hope – the incarnational hope that comes to us at Christmas. The kind of hope that breaks, not perpetuate, the reign of domination, discrimination, racism, and hate in the world. Our Advent task then is to actively wait in the shadows for Jesus to come. And our active waiting requires us to be alert and keep awake, proactively seeking hope where hope is lost and light in the depth of darkness.

Advent 2 Sunday 10Dec 2023

Mark 1:1-8

This Second Advent, Mark tells of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord through baptisms of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From the wilderness, a wild and isolated place remote from human habitation, John’s call for repentance is a call to truth-telling – the kind of truth-telling which prepares hearts to receive the Prince of Peace.

Interestingly, Advent in the ancient church was known as ‘little lent’, complete with pre-Christmas fasting integral to the preparation for receiving the infant Jesus. In that context, John’s call for truthfully confronting the sinful self would not have been so controversial. But in a world where Christmas is overcommercialised and is used to promote self-indulgence, the nature of John’s message may raise a few hackles. Who wants to hear about repentance when merriment and festivity are the order of the day? Why would I want to look in the mirror and confront the truth that I would rather not see?

Isn’t it the case, though, that the truth shall set us free? I imagine Gloria Steinem was speaking from experience when she agreed with the sentiment. But with the caveat that first the truth will make you really, really angry (my paraphrase) before it sets you free.

For John, preparing the way of the Lord requires lives that are completely turned around and reformed. In his terms, repentance is not just regretting the sin, it is also the resolve to sin no more. This is entirely possible when we turn to God and offer to God our broken selves in all truthfulness. For only God has the power to make us whole and set us free. Advent also reminds us of an aspect of repentance that requires confronting a harder truth. Some would suggest that the essence of the incarnation is that Jesus enters into the entirety of our humanness to challenge and dismantle the human powers and structures which enable, perpetuate, and justify sin. This means that truth-telling is naming our collective complicity, conformity, and tolerance for structural and institutional injustices and the dehumanisation of others. And so, the call to repentance is more a call to repent for our communal, national, and global sins. This perspective may resonate with the millions of people around the world marching for justice and peace for Palestinians in Palestine. This Advent, as we light candles for Peace, we are reminded that there is no peace without justice in the way of the Lord.   

Advent 3 Sunday 17 Dec 2023

John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Apostle in his gospel account introduces John the Baptiser as John the Witness. According to the Fourth Gospel, the primary role of John is not to baptise but to witness to the Light coming into the world. Distinct from Mark’s John, this John prepares the way of the Lord by witnessing and pointing the world to God’s Light in Christ.

Clearly, John takes his role as witness very seriously. He does not make more of himself, and his own identity described by Luke does not matter. Nothing is more paramount than the testimony and preparations God sent him to make.

Bearing witness to the Light is no small thing, especially when everything seems dark. In the same way prophetic truth telling can be unpopular, so giving witness to the light can be an uncomfortable and even painful task. For it often involves exposing hidden things out into the open. It involves insisting that the Light can overcome the darkness to reveal much that have been hidden for too long.

Indeed, being a witness is being a silence-breaker, naming unpopular truths that make one vulnerable and a target of ridicule and even violence. This is the risk John the Witness was more than willing to take, for he knew the value of the Good News that stands among us without recognition.

This Advent, John the Witness reminds us that awaiting the birth of Jesus calls us to also live as witnesses to our ever-present God of light. The Light that brings healing and freedom, the Light that insists on shining in the deepest shadows, the Light that visits us with joy when we least expect or imagine it. As we light the Candle of Joy this Advent, we pray that Mary’s vision of justice and joy may visit upon Palestine this Christmas.  

Advent 4 Sunday 24 Dec 2023

Luke 1:26-38

The story of the Annunciation is one of the most well-known in the New Testament. Interestingly, Mary while quite visible in the gospel accounts of Luke, Matthew, and John, in Mark and the Pauline letters she is rather invisible. Despite Mary’s high profile, she is still a woman shrouded in mystery and a figure of controversy. Apart from the continuing contention around the miraculous virgin conception, she has been buried under layers of theology and politics, that the real Mary is hard to identify.

Some Christians pray to her, some don’t know what to do with her, some refer to her as Theotokos, the Mother of God, and many see her as a prophetic figure who fearlessly announced the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Perhaps we are distracted by things that ultimately do not matter. When our focus is on the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel, one cannot help being overtaken by an overwhelming sense of awe. For as one scholar puts it, in that exchange this favoured young girl from Nazareth received a divine message comprising an assurance not to be afraid, a promise that she will bear a son, a command that she shall call him Jesus, and a prophecy that he will be great, the Son of the Most High, who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever.

How is that for being favoured. Talk about going from the ordinary to the extraordinary in one instant sweep. The point has been made that while the Annunciation is an extraordinary event, it is a story that resonates with ordinary folks like us. For ultimately it is a story of grace. Mary found favour with God through grace and we all have found favour with God through grace. Our life of faith is all about grace.

In this time of Advent, we are reminded of a love that overlooks our human fallibility, pouring out grace for us freely and unconditionally. This is Love that comes down at Christmas in the Christ Child. As we light the Advent Candle of Love, may we be properly awed and overwhelmed by grace.   

Christmas Monday 25 Dec 2023

Luke 2:1-14

I suspect I am not alone in wondering what more can be said about this glorious event of Christ’s birth that have not been said already. The familiarity of the story means that commentators need to work extra hard to offer fresh and engaging reflections on the expectations, the disappointments, the promise, the heritage, the memory, and the mystery associated with the Christmas event. Given that the story has been regularly heard by the multitudes of Christians since childhood, it is not surprising that the season of anticipation is filled with assumptions and much retelling that have failed to convey both rich nuances and simple ironies. The point has been made that in Luke’s account the cultural and socio-political realities of the time are grafted into the narrative and that the retelling of the story should not gloss over them. Others have chosen to imagine how Immanuel ‘God with us!’ may become incarnate in the here and now and what that encounter with Jesus yet again may look like.

An interesting approach prioritises the shepherds and the central role they play in Luke’s narrative. The angel’s announcement of the fulfilment of the prophecy was made to the shepherds in the fields not to any recognised religious, community, or political leadership in that society. So to take Luke’s narrative seriously is to accept that Jesus is being born where people need him most…in the fields of the isolated, the forgotten, the rejected, and in the painful places of spiritual barrenness. By extension, the baby Jesus is also born to those who have been so alienated by the church that they have given up on God. As we light the Christ Candle this Christmas Day, we hope and pray that God is sending out angels to the fields with good news of great joy. And we pray for courage that we may also be amongst those angels.

Christmas 1 Sunday 31 Dec 2023

Luke 2:22-40

On this first Sunday after Christmas, it is not surprising that some folks wish to hold on to the Spirit of peace and goodwill associated with the coming of the Christ Child. In Luke’s narrative of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the sight of the child, of the promised one, stirs from Simeon a song of peace borne of the knowledge that God’s salvation has come to all people including the gentiles. Similarly, Anna’s (the prophet) response to the child is an affirmation of the arrival of peace on earth.

Jesus’ orthodox upbringing and his parents’ faithfulness and obedience to God reflect a rootedness in tradition and a deep commitment to the law. To be clear Jesus is not and has never been anti-law. He just rejects practices of the law that subvert God’s command to love and that fail to offer hospitality to the neighbour. On the occasions of the child’s presentation and the mother’s purification, Luke used the ceremonies, the place, and the witnesses to further proclaim Jesus as the Christ.

To reiterate, in God’s dwelling place, a child is presented and given a mission. Through that child God gave the world Good News. So, for those of us who struggle to let go of the Spirit of Christmas, Luke tells us that the Spirit of the season lives on in Jesus. We are reminded that as God favours the child with wisdom and with grace we too are favoured as long as we hold the Christ Child close to us. 

These lectionary reflections were prepared by Rev. Dr Katalina Tahaafe-Williams


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