Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Remembrance Sunday
November 15, 2017, 5:38 pm
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Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, 12 November 2017

Yesterday was the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Armistice at the end of the First World War, and next year we shall have completed the centenary of our remembrance. I am currently reading Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, her account of her early life. In August 1914 she was just twenty, and had just won a place at Oxford, in the face of great opposition from her family.  Her father thought education was wasted on women, and thought his daughter should find a husband with money and settle down, and not hanker after a career of her own. Vera’s brother, on the other hand, had been sent to Eton, and when he brought a slightly older friend home with him one holiday, Vera fell in love. Roland, the friend, and Edward, her brother, were also going to Oxford, but when war broke out, the young men thought it their duty to volunteer, as did so many others. Not because they thought war glorious, but because they thought they had a duty to their country. Vera started at Oxford, but after a year, with those she loved facing danger, she gave up her ambitions and volunteered to train as a nurse. She tended the wounded first in London, and later in Malta and France, where she nursed even German prisoners and learned to see them as human beings, not just “the enemy”; but by the end of the war, both her fiancé and her brother had been killed, as well as other young men she had known. Although eventually she married and had children – her daughter is Shirley Williams – the scars of the War never left her.

I was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and my own childhood was marked by it. All you older one’s will have had similar experiences. It’s tempting, on this annual Remembrance Sunday, to look back. But if we look around, we can see the horror and devastation of war still with us, in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere. In the first Would War, casualties were mainly among the troops at the front, professional or conscripted. In the second war, civilian casualties outmatched those in the armed forces, although those were considerable. In modern warfare, often conducted by remote control with rockets and drones, military casualties can be reduced to a minimum – but civilian casualties have become enormous, to say nothing of the sufferings of refugees who flee the war zones but find no sanctuary outside them.

One hundred years ago, the belief that political disputes could be solved by military means was widespread. Those who survived the Great War cam to doubt it. Politicians, rather than military men, tend to think that there are military solutions. In our own day, it has probable been the Iraq War that has exposed the fallacy.

Recently, one or two people have said to me that wearing a poppy “glorifies war”. Actually, professional soldiers tend not to regard war as glorious, and do not like having to kill other professional soldiers. The letters Vera Brittain received from her friends at the front reveal this. By and large, the only people who glorify war today are a minority of fanatics, political and/or religious, such as ISIS, and they do not wear poppies. Those of us who do, do so to remind ourselves and others of the intolerable and unacceptable cost of war, the suffering inflicted not merely on those directly killed or injured in fighting, but on families and communities who are bereaved and brutalised. We don’t think, “How gloriously they died in battle,” but, “what a waste.” The work of the British Legion, largely funded each year by the poppy appeal, continues to pick up the pieces on behalf of survivors.

When we look at the names on war memorials (such as our own), particularly those belonging to small communities, villages and parishes, we are appalled at the sheer number of them. Each was once a living person, a young man (mostly, in those days) whose hopes and ambitions were destroyed, like the friends of Vera Brittain. Many more survived so badly disabled that normal life was impossible afterwards. Many young women had their hopes of marriage and family life taken away, because the men they might have married were dead.

Remembrance is important, because once we forget the tragedies of the past, we risk repeating them. Of course we should campaign for peace; but our campaign will only be effective if we remember the cost of failure. Let us give thanks for the men and women who serve in the armed forces; and let us pray that they will not be asked to sacrifice their lives.


Sunday after Ascension
May 28, 2017, 2:07 pm
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Sacred Heart Icon

How are we to celebrate the Kingship of Christ (which is what the Ascension is all about) in the face of the Manchester bombing? If God is both good and all-powerful, why did he not stop it? Do we, as Christians, have any answers to give, any explanations or excuses

This is hardly a new question. This latest atrocity is only the latest of many such atrocities, both in recent years, and in human history. It is not even the greatest, just the most recent and immediate, the one that prompts us to ask the same old question: where is God in all this? How can we believe in him?

I have no answer to this, and no more does anyone else. It is the same old question, the question the ancient Israelites asked, in the face of oppression and slavery; it is (dare one say) the question Mary was tempted to ask, as she stood at the foot of the cross and watched her son die in agony. The Cross is the only answer we have: God has put himself among the victims, the ones who suffer, rather than with the ones who cause the suffering.

The Bible starts with a good creation, but quickly moves to its corruption. In the old story, this corruption is put down to an Enemy, literally a “snake in the grass”, a tempter who denies God’s goodness, and mocks human trust in him. “Do your own thing, be your own God.” It is unfashionable today to believe in Satan, but our Lord warned us against him. Satan is the spirit of untruth, of lies; the spirit of hatred and anger; of the lust for power and domination over others. He is very real indeed.

In today’s Epistle, St Peter told the Christians of his own time not to be surprised at the “fiery ordeal” they faced. It put them in the same situation as Christ himself. The Devil prowls around seeking to devour us. In current events, we see how he works. He inspires young men (or women) with anger and resentment over injustices, real or imagined, done to themselves or to the community with which they identify. He persuades them that it is their duty, on behalf of God himself, to smite the unbeliever, the sinner, and all who belong to him. He inspires them to sacrifice their own lives in order to destroy. He takes from their heart all pity for their victims; he makes them forget the most fundamental tenet of their religion, that the true God is compassionate and merciful.

And by so doing, he hopes to stir up further hatred and anger, to provoke the victims to anger and thoughts of vengeance, to fill the world with blood and misery. Thus Satan will destroy the good world God has made, and prove to himself that he is God’s equal.

But he is not God’s equal. Good is stronger than evil, truth than lies, love than hatred: and we must believe it. We must not give way to despair, we must not give in to Satan’s strategy. The cross leads to the resurrection, to the triumph of life over death. The Cross is the glorification of Christ, of which he speaks in today’s Gospel. The Ascension which we celebrate is not the commemoration of Jesus’s departure from the world, but of his enthronement as Lord and King of this world. Christ conquers! Christ rules! Whatever the appearances, whatever the temptations to doubt, Christ reigns over all. Long live Christ our King!

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Maundy Thursday
April 14, 2017, 8:28 pm
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last supper

This night which we are commemorating was especially important to Jesus. He knew that his appointed end was very near, the moment when his enemies would prevail, and have him killed. He knew that this is what the Father required of him, if the salvation of the world was to be achieved. He accepted this, in total obedience to the designs of God.

As a devout Jew, Jesus was familiar with the idea of sacrifice, and with the idea of atonement. Jewish sacrifices were of thanksgiving, and of reconciliation. “Atonement” is “at-one-ment”, bringing together again two parties that have been estranged. The Day of Atonement and the Passover festival were two distinct occasions in the Jewish calendar, but on this occasion, the night before his Passion, Jesus was bringing the two ideas together.

Passover was the festival of Liberation, the commemoration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and forming them into a People united to himself by a sacred Covenant. But that earthly slavery was only a reflection of a much more profound slavery, affecting the whole of humanity. This was the slavery of sin, slavery to Satan the Enemy of God. Sin is slavery, because it takes away human freedom, just as surely as addiction to drugs, or drink, or sex takes away freedom. Jesus knew that nothing less was at stake in his own fate than the rescue by God of all humanity. God does not have slaves, God has children whom he loves, and over whom he grieves when they sell themselves into the slavery of sin.

The notion of sacrifice, as Fr Jones was explaining to us the other Sunday, involves the idea of the giving of life. The sacrifices of the Old Law were symbolic: by offering the fruits of the earth or of the flock, God’s people represented the offering of themselves. A further foundation, for animal sacrifices in particular, was that blood is the principle of life. When God saved Noah and his family from the Flood, in the ancient story, he told them , “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” This was the foundation for the Jewish and Islamic rules, even today, for the slaughter of animals to be eaten. All we need to bear in mind is that, for Jesus as a Jew, blood meant life.

At the last supper, which he shared with his closest disciples, Jesus took bread and a cup of wine. As he broke the bread and shared it with them, he said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” As he took the cup, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke has a slightly different wording, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Symbolically, his blood is separated from his body (the cup of wine from the bread), just as less than twenty-four hours later his blood would be poured out on the cross. By telling them to eat and drink, Jesus was in effect telling them to unite themselves with his self-sacrifice. He was making a new Covenant, not just with one People, but with all humanity.

And it was self-sacrifice. Although it was the Roman soldiers who actually nailed him to the wood, under the orders of Pilate, urged by the priests, to whom he had been betrayed by Judas: it was Jesus who by his willing obedience offered himself to the Father, as the sacrifice of atonement, of reconciliation, for the sins of the world, and as the true paschal lamb of the great Passover when God would rescue his people from Satan, and as the High Priest who offers it.. All this is represented in the Last Supper.

And it is re-presented now. As the sacrifices of the Old Law were foreshadowings of the one true Sacrifice of Christ, so our Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) is a participation in that one true, perfect and sufficient Sacrifice. We “re-pre’sent” it, in the sense of making it present in the here and now, not just two thousand years ago, and we “re-prese’nt” it in the sense of presenting it again to the Father, uniting ourselves with it as Jesus told us to do, offering (in the words of the Prayer Book) “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice” to God. “Reasonable”, meaning deliberate and with full awareness of what we are doing; “holy”, because it is a dedication of ourselves to God; “lively”, because it is the offering of our living selves, with all the talents and gifts God has given us, but also with all the weaknesses and failings that beset us. When we join in this offering, by eating the Bread which is Christ’s sacred Body, and drinking the Wine which is his Precious Blood, we take his life into ourselves.

As is our custom, on this sacred night, at the end of Mass we take the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose, and like the disciples in Gethsemane we shall keep watch for a little while. Tomorrow, at the Liturgy, the Sacrament will be brought back, and as we remember our Lord’s death on the cross (which took place at the very hour, as St John explains, when the Passover lambs were killed in the Temple) we again unite ourselves with him. Then there is silence, all through the rest of Friday and Saturday, until on the eve of Easter we meet to celebrate the Resurrection.

Women’s Ordination: why are we not agreed?
February 26, 2017, 10:22 pm
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glory 3a

There are a number of issues on which there is no common mind in the Church of England. Notable among them are the issues of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. Why is this?

First, we are not agreed about the theology of sexual differentiation. Its biological significance is clear; human beings have it in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. Sexual differentiation has evolved as an efficient means of securing the continuance of a species, with a capacity to adapt to changing environments. Procreation is, as it were, the engine of evolution. The theological significance in Christianity, however, is less obvious and has not achieved consensus. It certainly has a significance in marriage (St Paul’s remarks about a great mystery, relating to Christ and his Church), although with the current debates about same-sex marriage even this is less clear than it used to be. But beyond this, as regards the relationship of the sexes in general, and in regard to priesthood, the implications are very far from agreed.

Again, we are not agreed about the theology of priesthood, in particular what is called the ministerial priesthood. This is in part because we are not fully agreed about the significance of the Eucharist, how it relates to the Sacrifice of Christ, how it may be termed a sacrifice, what happens to the bread and wine and in what way they become the body of Christ. Not surprisingly, all this has consequences for the theology of priesthood. We use the same words, but mean different things by them. Our different practices manifest these differences of belief. For instance, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist leads almost inevitably to devotional practices such as genuflection, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and so on. To (for instance) a Conservative Evangelical such practices are certainly not a legitimate consequence of their belief, but are actually incompatible and abhorrent.  Even the word “priest”, applied to an ordained minister, is suspect. The ordained ministry is not so intimately connected with the Eucharist as it is in Catholic theology.

Thirdly, we are not even agreed on the theological importance and status of these questions. Bishop Tom Wright, in his final Presidential address to the Durham Diocesan Synod, made a very clear explanation of this matter, based on the word  “adiaphora” used by St Paul.

“The word adiaphora means, literally, ‘not-different things’, or ‘things that don’t make a difference’. And the question of adiaphora can be posed … like this: granted that there are many differences between us, how can we tell which differences make a difference and which ones don’t? How do you know? Who decides? How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?”

St Paul was faced with a situation where some Jewish Christians still felt bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, while other Christians were happy to eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples. How could the Church accommodate such a variety of practice? He allowed that some things are adiaphora, but Christians should still respect the different beliefs and practices of others, and be careful not to induce them to act against conscience. But some matters are so central, that if Christians cannot agree they may have to separate, or be excluded from the community. But, Bishop Wright points out, the question of what issues are, or are not, adiaphora cannot itself be adiaphora. And that means it cannot be decided locally, at the risk of creating, perpetuating or increasing division within the wider Church.

Bishop Wright pointed out that this principle, the discernment of what is and what is not adiaphora, applies very obviously to two contentious issues in the Church of England, that of Holy Orders and that of Matrimony. It has been consistently held in the Church until modern times that both these institutions (sacraments, I would prefer to say) are “gender-specific”. A priest or bishop must be male, matrimony must be between a man and a woman. It is now maintained that one or both of these views are adiaphora, and that the former practice may, and even should, be changed.

And here is the rub. Who decides? It is clearly not the universal, or even morally universal, view that the gender-neutrality of Orders or Matrimony is right. On the contrary, the majority view is that it is not right. To my mind, the moment at which the General Synod went astray was not in 1992, but much earlier, when it decided that the issue of women and the priesthood was a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. As Bishop Wright makes clear, such a question must itself be a matter of doctrine, not discipline. As such, the General Synod was not qualified to make it, both because it is only a local, national body, and also because its own constitution precludes it from making changes in doctrine. Having taken this one wrong step, the rest followed.

The Church of England is making a valiant, well-intentioned, but probably ultimately futile attempt to square the circle by its current legislation for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. But already there are problems, because for many the issue of ordination is bound up with the question of the equality of the sexes, and this too is seen by them as not adiaphora, with room for compromise. No wonder we cannot agree on a common practice!



The Sacrifice of the Mass
February 20, 2017, 8:01 pm
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on February 19th 2017

I’m sure I don’t expect anybody to remember what I said on this Sunday, three years ago! Until I looked it up, I didn’t remember myself! But I preached on the first reading, the story of creation, and one of the things I said was that the author of Genesis “imagines God building a house, or perhaps rather a Temple, roofed over by the sky, with sun and moon as its lamps, with plants and animals, but most importantly with human beings charged to look after the house, to be priests of the Temple.”

This time I want to take up what I only said in passing the previous time, that God has appointed human beings to be priests of his Temple, the Temple of Creation. This has all sorts of implications for the environment, for ecology and for so-called “green” issues generally.

A priest is essentially an intermediary between God (or in some religions gods) and human beings. A priest leads human beings in their worship of God, the offering they make of themselves. He is their spokesman. He also has the responsibility of making known to human beings the will of God in their regard. He is God’s spokesman.

The great High Priest of humanity is our Lord Jesus Christ. In him, God and humanity are united in a single Person. He is, above all, the supreme Mediator between God and human beings. And because human beings, through their own fault, have become estranged from God, Jesus is also the great Reconciler, the Redeemer who frees humanity from its exile and slavery to sin, and brings them into the liberty that is their heritage as children of God. This is, as it were, the big picture.

The Old Testament, which begins with the story of creation we have just listened to, continues with the story of mankind’s disobedience, and the degeneration that occurs as a result – Cain murdering his brother Abel, and so on. It then tells the story of God’s activity to put all this right, starting with Abraham, through Moses and the prophets, up to the coming of Jesus. Even the Chosen People of Israel were constantly falling away let alone the pagan nations), but God never faltered in his plan.

This story is also about revealing the pattern of this plan, with the themes of Kingship and Temple, sacrifice and priesthood. When Jesus came, he came as both King and Priest. He himself became the new Temple, the dwelling-place of God among men; he himself became the sacrifice which would blot out the sins of the world. What is more, and this is the key-point of what I am saying today, he associated those who put their trust in him with this work of reconciliation. WE are the Body of Christ, WE are the new Temple of the Holy Spirit. We regularly say this, but do we always think about what it means?

In the old Prayer Book communion service (which we still use here on occasion), the priest says that Jesus, on the cross, “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.”

By a “memory”, the Church does not mean simply that we should think about it now and then, or even regularly. It means that we should, in the Mass, re-present that his precious death; and “re-present” means both “make present again”, in every age until Christ’s coming again, and also “present again”, offer again, ourselves personally, the Sacrifice of Christ, and so to unite ourselves with it that we can say (again in the words of the Prayer Book), “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee.”

Think about that: at Mass we offer ourselves, body, soul and everything we have and are, in union with our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father. And why? “For the sins of the whole world.”

Our modern services have tended (if I may say so) to have soft-pedalled this, making it all a little too cosy, a nice family meal for those who are “inside”. When we make our common confession, we say merely that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed.” The old Prayer Book was much harsher: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

Does that sound a bit “over the top”? Well, yes it is, if we have in mind only our own selves. But the point is, we are the Body of Christ. We are a priestly people, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood that (in a certain sense) belongs to the human race from its origin. And the human race, if we just look at history and at the world of the present day, IS full of grievous and intolerable sins. Savage murders, the refusal to come to the aid of refugees fleeing from violence, abuse of children, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable: it’s all going on, all over the world, day after day. And when we come together, on Sundays, to share in Christ’s holy sacrifice, these are the things we have to implore God’s pardon for, to ask his mercy for. We are spokesmen for our race: like Jesus on the Cross, we are praying, “Father, forgive them,” Father, turn their hearts.

As priests of the world, we give praise and thanks to God on behalf of the whole creation. Through our voices, sun and moon, birds and beasts, mountains and springs and “everything that has breath” gives praise to the Lord. That’s easy. But also, through us, sinful humanity, still so often unaware of its position, needs to implore mercy and forgiveness for its failure to cherish and care for the world, and above all for its inhumanity to mankind. Lent is drawing near, the season of penitence leading up to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died to save the world; here, we are privileged to stand with him and pray, “Lord, have mercy.”

Thoughts on the Papacy
January 8, 2017, 2:35 pm
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Having recently been in discussion on another thread regarding Papal authority, I offer the following thoughts for discussion.


  • The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people”, namely all those who have been Baptised, and have received the infused virtues of faith, hope and charity.
  • Baptism imparts an indelible character, which though it may be impaired or deformed, can never be entirely erased.
  • The Lord gave Peter a responsibility to “strengthen the brethren”, and to maintain the unity of the Church.
  • This responsibility has been passed down to Peter’s successors, de facto the Bishops of Rome.
  • This responsibility is universal, ordinary (in virtue of the office itself) and truly episcopal.

Some conclusions:

  • The responsibility is laid directly upon Peter (and his successors), not upon the faithful at large. Therefore it cannot be interpreted as (I caricature) “Peter may do as he will, but everyone else must do as Peter says.”
  • “Peter” has truly episcopal authority throughout the Church.
  • The Church “subsists” (i.e. exists as a concrete entity) at the universal level (including the Church Triumphant), and in each “particular church” (concretely, diocese) under the pastoral care of its Bishop as principal pastor.
  • I would add that it also “subsists” wherever the Eucharist is validly celebrated: wherever the Sacramental Body of Christ is made present, there too his Mystical Body is made present. Thus in each parish the whole Church is in some way present in the Eucharistic assembly.
  • The ordinary and universal episcopal authority of the Pope implies that (at least in case of need) he can exercise this episcopal authority in any particular church. This may be, for instance, when the local Ordinary is impeded (maybe under a persecuting regime), or is neglecting or abusing his own local authority to the detriment of the faithful.
  • It does not imply (I would submit) that his authority in that respect exceeds in content that which could be exercised by the local bishop. The Pope is not a “super-bishop” with super-episcopal powers.
  • The ordinary and universal episcopal authority possessed by the Pope is to be exercised to promote and maintain the unity of the entire Body of Christ. He is responsible (answerable) to Christ alone for this stewardship.
  • To say that Papal authority is universal is not to say that it is absolute or unlimited. Benedict XVI rightly pointed out that it is incorrect to say that “the Pope can do anything.” He has the duty to maintain the true teaching of the Church (and to this end his ex cathedra pronouncements on faith and morals are guaranteed); and he has a duty to maintain, as far as he can, the bond of charity which unites all Christian people.

Some limits to Papal authority:

  • The Pope cannot, in virtue of his ordinary episcopal authority, invalidate Sacraments which would otherwise be valid. Ordinations by bishops who reject his authority (e.g. the Orthodox) are valid, as are Eucharists celebrated by priests ordained by such bishops. Any Christian may validly administer Baptism.
  • I conclude that the ordinary minister of a sacrament can validly administer that sacrament in virtue of their own power, derived from Baptism or Ordination.
  • The ordinary ministers of matrimony (in western theology) are the couple themselves, who express their mutual consent to a permanent and exclusive union, open to the procreation of children, and who seal or consummate that consent by their actual bodily union.
  • While civil or ecclesiastical authority may lay down rules for the public recognition of such unions, they cannot make such rules invalidate what would otherwise be valid in the sight of God. Certainly civil authority cannot make laws which would (e.g. for reasons of race) invalidate in the sight of God unions which would otherwise be valid.
  • While ecclesiastical authority (diocesan or universal) may require an expressed intention of celibacy as a pre-condition for ordination, it cannot of itself remove the right to marriage, or invalidate a marriage which would otherwise be valid.
  • According to St Paul, Peter and the other Apostles had the right (exousia) to be accompanied by their wives, although he himself chose not to exercise this right. If even Peter himself had this as a right, how can he or his successors remove this right from others?

I offer these thoughts as points for discussion.

New Year’s Day
January 4, 2017, 3:15 pm
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Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle

Happy New Year! This is the season when, on Facebook and other Social Media, you get all the comments on the theme, “Good riddance to 2016. Looking forward to 2017.” It’s the same every New Year. Somehow, we keep hoping we can wipe the slate clean of the past, and start afresh. New Year’s resolutions – have you made any?

But in Church term’s, this isn’t a new year at all. It is the eighth day of Christmas, and I hope you have all had your delivery of eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, and so on. We started in Advent, and we go on to Christ the King. Today has several names, the oldest of which is the Feast of the Circumcision.

This name reminds of two facts about our Lord that are often down-played by feminists and by anti-Semites. Jesus was male, and he was Jewish. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was the outward sign (for a male) of belonging to the Covenant Community. Matthew’s gospel begins with a roll-call of names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah… on through Jesse and David, down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Messiah.

“When the fullness of time had come,” writes St Paul, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.” By speaking of “the fullness of time,” the Apostle opens up a whole perspective of history. History – even salvation history – did not begin with Jesus. The birth of the Messiah was the culmination of a story which stretches back not just to Abraham, but to the very beginnings of humanity. God has been playing a very long game indeed.

We are, sadly, not as familiar with what we call the “Old” Testament as we should be. But we remember at least the story, poetic and symbolic as it is, of how when God made humanity from the dust of the earth, he made them male and female and gave them a garden to live in. He made them free, but with limits to their freedom that they had to respect, for their own safety. They chose (prompted by the Evil One) to ignore those limits, and thereby endanger themselves and all those who would come after them. The word “salvation” comes from a Latin root meaning both “health” and “safety”. God, the loving Father, would not leave his children spiritually sick and in danger. He promised to rescue them, from their own folly and from the Evil One who prompted it.

All this is, in a literal sense, “pre-history”. But about 4000 years ago, Abraham received a call to leave his homeland and his old gods, and travel to the Land the one True God would give him. God did not (as we sometimes say) “choose Israel” from the other nations. He created a new nation, Israel, from one man and his wife. That nation, like humanity at large, was frequently disobedient. But century by century it was shaped by God, through the experience of sin and forgiveness, to be the community into which the promised Saviour could be born. “In the fullness of time.” “Born of a woman” – born, in fact, of The Woman, the true Eve who was destined to be the indispensible partner of her Son, the true Adam and archetypal Man. Marked with the sign of the Old Covenant, which was to be transformed into the New.” Born under the Law,” which he summed up as the love of God and of neighbour, a law to be written not on stone but in human hearts.

Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The Word of God means both the words of Scripture and the Eternal Utterance of the Father, which has taken human nature and lived among us. Mary kept the Word in her womb for nine months. She kept it in her heart perpetually. With God, nothing is new and everything is new. Jesus was born after a preparation of centuries, not just months. But a new day dawned, and new hopes were born with him. 2017 will never escape the legacy of 2016, 2015 and all the way back to the beginning. But with God’s help, and following Jesus, we can reshape that legacy and make good come from it. God’s plan is still in progress. It has opened out from the Jewish people to embrace all humanity. “From the old we travel to the new,” as the song says. Christ has come, and Christ will come again. But all the while he is Emmanuel, God with us now. Travel with him.