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A free floating commentary on culture, politics, economics, and religion based on a passionate commitment to the truth and a desire graciously to refute that which is contrary to it….
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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St Luke tells us at the end of his story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem that his mother Mary 'kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.' (Luke 2.19) This is what as Christians we do year by year, as, in the familiar words of Bishop Phillips Brooks' much loved Christmas hymn, 'the dark night wakes, the Glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.' The Greek word which St Luke uses to speak of Mary's deep and reflective meditation is sumballo, from which we get our word 'symbol'. Mary both keeps and holds on to the amazing and overwhelming reality of God's action and presence in and through her motherhood, and imaginatively reflects upon it, going deeper and deeper into the meaning of what this birth and this child, of which she is so intimately a part, is about. She 'ponders in her heart', and the heart in the Bible is not primarily the place of feeling, but of willing and of choosing. Her deep reflection is to shape her life, and brings her to the foot of the cross, and to be part of the worshipping and expectant community, as Luke tells us in Acts, awaiting the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The angel had said to Mary in the moment of annunciation that 'the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you' and therefore the child she was to bear would be called 'the Son of God.' And so Mary became, in the words of another ancient Christian hymn, 'the gate of Heaven's High Lord, the door through which the Light has poured.' When Jacob in the ancient story in Genesis lay down in a desert place and dreamed of a ladder set between heaven and earth with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, he woke up exclaiming, 'this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!' if this was true of the place of Jacob's dream, even more is it true of the Mother of the Lord and Christian devotion has not hesitated to speak of Mary as the temple of God, the ark of the covenant, and the gate of heaven.
Mary, the 'Christ-bearer' reflected deeply and imaginatively on what Jesus meant, and she has been seen as an image, a picture of the church, which likewise reflects on and lives out the meaning of the God who so comes among us. The great movements of renewal in Christian history have come about through a return to what the Scriptures tell us. We have to realise over and over again how great and how overwhelming is the reality of God's love which always comes down to the lowest part of our need, as it came in Mary's child at Bethlehem.
Many years ago J.B. Phillips, one of the first translators of the Bible into contemporary English, wrote a book with the title, Your God is too small. He was right then, and is right now. Our human tendency is to domesticate God, to make God in our own image, to shape him by the culture and expectations of our own day, But the Gospel message of Christmas – and of Good Friday and Easter from which that Christmas message is inseparable – is of a love that goes to the uttermost and will never let us down and will never let us go. This is the 'amazing grace' of Evangelical conversion; this is the same grace which we receive and adore in the holy and blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. As John Betjeman put it simply, 'God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine' – and so in our hearts, in our willing and our choosing, in our transformed lives as we like Mary live out our vocation as 'Christ-bearers'. St John said of the Word of God who became flesh, that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness was not able to overwhelm it, to snuff it out. The light of Christ in us is to shine in the darkness – the darkness of human fear, and violence, and the sinful distortions of deception and betrayal. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God with us, God in the muck and the mess (and the stench) of a stable at Bethlehem; God as a fragile, new-born child laid in the pricking straw of a rough feeding-trough; God in the mess of our world, a world both beautiful and distorted. At Christmas also we celebrate our own new birth, the Christ born in us. And so we rightly sing and pray:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
May the God who came to us at Bethlehem to take us by the hand, surround you and renew you with his love, and light, and grace, that you, like blessed Mary, may know his peace and joy this Christmas and in the year ahead.
With every blessing,
--(The Rt. Rev.) Geoffrey Rowell
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