Dear friends, It's that time again, the run up to Christmas. But Advent is not just the run-up to the mystery of Christmas and the gift of the Word-made-flesh. It is not just, as for so many in our greedy culture, an accelerating spending spree in the diminishing number of shopping days. It is a time for facing up to what the coming of the Lord might mean.
The whole thrust of the Scriptures is to think the unthinkable, to take risks, to abandon the self you know to find the true self, which implies trusting in something.
Along comes Jesus and says, “Leave all and follow me”, now, not when you have sorted out the financial issues, and made sure the lawn will be cut, and the insurance paid up, and said goodbye to the family, but now! A very hard saying, like those words to the rich young man.
So many of us feel our courage fail, even when we have, with high hearts, begun the journey, or are well on in it, and we turn away, and weep, like Peter; for even the greatest of saints could fall. As Bunyan says, “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven.”
Advent must make us ask ourselves whether we have the courage not to take that way, not to retreat from that last jump into the unknown, back into what we think we know.
If we seek the unknown Real, we have to give up the well-known Shadow; for we are afraid of being really loved, known as we are known, with all the things that we hardly acknowledge to our innermost selves seen in the cloudless, shadowless light of apocalypse: that revealing of all that has been hidden, that we have hidden. We are afraid of being born again, of the glory that shall be revealed in us. Nobody ever said that growing up was not painful.
And yet this season does lead us up, through our acknowledgment of our darkness and weakness and failure, to the generous joy of a birth. It leads, not to a door in heaven opening and angels blowing trumpets (at least, not yet), but to a simple cradle holding the Ancient of Days, made weak, helpless flesh like ours — not (as St Athanasius put it) “by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Personhood into God”.
Our little minds may not understand the weight of glory, or the mystery of grace; for the lesser can never comprehend the greater. But, in all its brokenness, God loved his creation to death, and came among us.
In the perplexity that comes with the yearly challenge of Advent, I comfort myself with a saying attributed to that great mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.” Just as these darkening days lead towards the solstice and the rumour of the returning sun, Advent does indeed lead to eucharist.
Change of Liturgical Gospel. It’s the beginning of the church's year and that means a change in the liturgical Gospel. This year it’s Mark. It’s the shortest of the four gospels, has no infancy stories, and ends abruptly. Yet for richness, suspense and eyewitness detail Mark often surpasses the other accounts of Jesus’ life. This Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent and the opening of Year B in the liturgical cycle, the year of Mark. If I tell you that Mark is my favourite gospel, you will probably be surprised. For many, the favourite gospel is John, with its long, poetic discourses on love.
For others, it is Matthew, because it has the Sermon on the Mount, the richest depository of Jesus’ moral teaching, from “Blessed are the peacemakers” to “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Others again would choose Luke, the gospel of compassion, which alone has the Prodigal Son parable and Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”.
It may seem puzzling to choose Mark – the shortest gospel, the one with the least teaching, lacking any kind of an infancy narrative. And Mark ends abruptly, once the pasted-on endings by other hands are removed – brief, dry summaries themselves of events better told in Luke. The women flee from the empty tomb and the final words are “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. That reads even more brusquely in Greek, since the last word is γ?ρ (gar, “for”) – a bizarre conclusion.
For a long time now it has been regarded as almost a dogma of faith that Mark’s gospel was written first – despite coming second in the canon and all the ancient sources telling us that Matthew was the first to be written. Everyone will tell you that Matthew made use of Mark’s version to produce his gospel (along with incorporating material from a lost source used by Matthew and Luke but not Mark – known as Q).
For example my favourite account of the Anointing in the synoptic gospels is therefore Mark’s, although I also treasure John’s – the only version that gives us the name of the anointing woman: Mariam of Bethany. You may object that I have limited myself to just this one example concerning women. But when I look at the rest of the gospel and the stories about men I find the same thing – that time and again Mark is better than the Matthean parallels. Usually the difference is not so much in major omissions in Matthew that make the story come alive in Mark (and are often but not always maintained in Luke).
It remains true, of course, that Matthew has wonderful passages that are totally missing from Mark, principally centred on Jesus’ teaching. And where would we be without Luke’s stories of the conception, birth and childhood, or without John’s marriage at Cana and raising of Lazarus? But Mark is by no means the poor relation of the other gospels, even though it is the shortest overall. On its own ground – that is, in the stories found in synoptic parallels – I maintain it should hold pride of place. It may be evident by now that I have my doubts about Mark being a source for Matthew, as it does not seem likely to me that Matthew would deliberately decide to remove what are frequently the best details of the stories.
But obviously the solution to the relationship between those two gospels cannot be that Mark took Matthew’s gospel and rephrased it in more clumsy Greek, invented some extra flourishes, and decided to cut out all the Sermon on the Mount! The Synoptic Problem (as it is called) is “so complicated,” wrote Henry Wansbrough OSB, “that some scholars regard it as little more than an intellectual game”. My own view is that the second-century Bishop Papias – the earliest source we have on the formation of the gospels, though one usually spurned by biblical critics – gives us the basis for an explanation. Entering this thorny area might stretch the our patience but whatever our different views are on how the gospels were written, what I urge on everyone is a greater appreciation of Mark, so that we can savour this gospel with more pleasure in the coming year.
Christmas. Yes it is approaching that time again. Though we still have the whole of Advent to prepare ourselves to be ready to open our hearts to invite Christ in. Please use the time wisely, pray more earnestly, read your Bible, help out others given that there is much need in the world. You'll find details of the Christmas Service on our Services page.
Christmas Gifts Oxfam has a great idea for a gift. Why not invest in a gift of Fairtrade olive oil and a donation of an olive tree. This unique, symbolic gift pays for an olive tree to be planted in Palestine and comes with a planting certificate of thanks and a 500ml bottle of Zaytoun's best-selling organic, Fairtrade extra virgin olive oil. A thoughtful gift which will delight the receiver and benefit farming communities in Palestine too. Further information or to order please check out their website: https://onlineshop.oxfam.org.uk/zaytoun-olive-tree-gift-set/product/HN503739?pscid=ps_ggl_Google+-+Trading+-+SBO+-+PerformanceMax+-+2023_&crm_event_code=20REUWWS07&gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQiAyKurBhD5ARIsALamXaHTUtIqL8jCxOTtCEhn_bim5Q-JrDrX3Q-arMSf84E48WxmmpzbmHoaAuQfEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds
Bequest in your Will. I remember being told, sometime ago, that it was the height of rudeness to suggest that someone left something in their will to the church. The church relies heavily upon bequests to continue its operation and mission. C of E parishes receive more than 4000 legacies a year, considered in many cases to be a lifeline, since regular giving often concentrates on maintaining existing mission and ministry. But, currently, only one in four wills contains a specific bequest. The C of E already offers a free online will-writing service in partnership with the company Farewill, at farewill.com/cofe. When we make a will, we actively choose what we will do with the gifts we have received in our lifetime. . . Our gifts can be a legacy to ensure we can act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Would you consider it please?
Thank you. A very big thank you to all who continue to support us financially. It is no exaggeration to say that it is humbling to witness such generosity. I realise it's not easy and that there are many demands upon our resources. By giving to the church, we strengthen our life together and then are enabled to go out and take the gospel to those in need of both spiritual and material support. You can give, via this link, to our ‘give a little’ donation site. If you have online banking, you can transfer money via the Church bank account, the details of our bank account are; NatWest plc., Baker Street Branch. Sort Code: 56-00-14. Account: St Cyprian’s Parochial Council. Account Number: 12138126.
Your Priest & friend, Fr Michael
What is Prayer? I used to pray that God would feed the hungry or do this or that, but now I pray that God will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things. Mother Teresa of Calcutta