Friday, 1 December 2017

Epiphanies



Epiphany is a Greek word meaning ‘manifestation or appearance’.
    Because an Epiphany is an experience of sudden and striking realisation, the term can be used to describe a scientific breakthrough, a religious or philosophical discovery, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realisation allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. For this reason, Epiphanies are studied by psychologists and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.
In the Church, the word Epiphany describes experiences in which God Himself somehow speaks to us or which lead to God.
     The readings chosen for the month-long season of Epiphany explore the ways God makes Himself known. A constructive use of the readings will help create a mindset in which our meditations make is easier to understand when a revelation or discovery is indeed of God.
     The Church’s season of Epiphany ends on 2 February when we celebrate Candlemas—itself a moment of Epiphany, as we remember two old people (Simeon and Anna) who saw the baby Jesus and discerned in him the Messiah.

Who is Isaiah



Characters in the Bible
Isaiah
Isaiah is one of the most important figures in the whole of the Old Testament. In translation, his name means ‘God is salvation.’
     We know much about Isaiah from two types of source: firstly, from the longest book of prophecy in the Old Testament, which now bears his name — traditionally considered to be its author, although this idea is simply not possible.
    We also know of Isaiah from the historical writings of the Old Testament, for example 2 Kings 19:2; 2 Chronicles 26:22; 32:20–32. 2 Chronicles 26:22, refers to ‘Acts of Uzziah … written by Isaiah, the son of Amos, the prophet.’ In fact, the Old Testament mentions four other people with the same name (in Ezra 8:7; 8:19; Nehemiah 11:7; 1 Chronicles 26:25); and the names Jesaia (1 Chronicles 25:15) and Jeseias (1 Chronicles 3:21; 25:3) might also refer to him.
    Isaiah was a Judean prophet in the eighth-century bc, born to a man named Amos (Isaiah 1:1). His central theme was to urge the people of Judah to turn back to God. He declared that all the world belonged to God and that God would destroy it if they failed to repent. He said, ‘The land will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word’ (Isaiah 24:3).
Isaiah married a woman known as ‘the prophetess’ (8:3). We do not know why she was given this name. Some believe she may have carried out a prophetic ministry in her own right, just like Deborah (Judges 4:4) or Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20). Others say, however, she was simply the wife of ‘the prophet’ (38:1), and was not herself endowed with prophetic gifts.
    Isaiah was probably about twenty years of age when he began his public ministry. He was a citizen — perhaps a native — of Jerusalem. His writings give unmistakable signs of high culture: he was an official prophet at the Royal Court, and prophesied during the reigns of four of the Judah kings: Uzziah (or ‘Azariah’), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (1:1). Uzziah reigned fifty-two years in the middle of the eighth-century bc, so Isaiah must have begun his career a few years before Uzziah’s death — probably in the 740s bc. He lived until the fourteenth year of Hezekiah (who died in 698 bc), and may have been contemporary with Kings Manasseh; so Isaiah seems to have prophesied for at least forty-four years.
    But even this long life is too short to allow us say that he wrote everything in what we now call ‘the Book of Isaiah’. The later chapters (i.e. 40–end) were certainly written a century or so later, by an anonymous prophet who copied Isaiah’s style but preached a message vastly more hopeful than anything seen before.
    In his youth, Isaiah must have been seen the invasion of Israel by the Assyrian tyrant, King Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15:19). He would have witnessed first-hand the subsequent conquest and (what we would now call) genocide and crimes against humanity.
Some of Isaiah’s most moving poetry was directed against King Ahaz: despite the escalation of the war, and the atrocities against the Judean people, King Ahaz refused to co-operate with the kings of Israel and Syria to oppose the Assyrian aggressor, and was on that account attacked and defeated by Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Damascus (2 Kings 16:5; 2 Chronicles 28:5–6). Having been humbled in this way, Ahaz sided with Assyria, and sought the aid of Tiglath-Pileser against Israel and Syria. In consequence, Rezin and Pekah were both conquered and many of the people carried captive to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29, 16:9; 1 Chronicles 5:26).
    Both Jewish and Christian traditions believe that Isaiah was killed by being sawn in half with a wooden saw. Some interpreters believe that this is what is referred to in the New Testament verse Hebrews 11:37, which states that ‘some prophets’ were ‘sawn in two’ — presumably as a punishment for opposing the Assyrians.

Three wise men



The wise men are also known as the ‘the three kings’ and the ‘Magi’. They appear only in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew does not say much about them, so Christian tradition has filled the void left by silence.
         The magi were a group of foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity cele brations of Christmas and play an important part in the Christian tradition. We remember them particularly at Epiphany and the season named after it. The feast of Epiphany itself occurs on 6 January each year.
According to Matthew the Magi came ‘from the east’ to worship the ‘king of the Jews’. Although Matthew’s account does not mention the number of these Magi, the three gifts has led to the widespread
assumption that they comprised three men.
In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi number twelve. Their identification as kings comes from much later, and is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, ‘May all kings fall down before him’.
Traditional nativity scenes depict these three kings visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, at the same time as the shepherds and angels, but this idea is merely an artistic convention to allow the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience. Matthew’s account simply presents an event at an unspecified (but later) time after Jesus’ birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed Magi visits Jesus in a house rather than a stable, with only ‘his mother’ mentioned as present.
The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi but later traditions and legends give them names. In the Western Christian church they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as:
o Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), an Indian scholar.
o Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), a Babylon ian scholar.
o Melchior, a Persian scholar.

But it gets more complicated. By the later Middle Ages, Balthasar was said to be a king of Arabia, Melchior was a king of Persia, and Gaspar was a king from India.
Matthew explicitly identifies the Magi offering three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold recognising kingship in the recipient, itself implying that Jesus was (or would be) a king. Frankincense is an aromatic gum that is burnt during worship, so presenting Jesus with incense implies a sense of divinity: Jesus is God. And myrrh is a mixture of spices used to anoint the dead and thereby helps stop the decay of a corpse, so offering myrrh to Jesus is a prophecy of Jesus’ death and its importance for us.
Further traditions exist. One suggests the magi converted to Christianity and were later martyred for their new-found faith.
    Certainly, by the late third-century, their bodies were venerated at a shrine in Constantinople, reputedly brought there by Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. Their relics were moved to Milan in 344. When Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (Barbarossa) imposed his authority on Milan, he moved the relics again, this time to Cologne Cathedral, and built there the Shrine of the Three Kings, where they are venerated today.

Resolutions



I’ve just returned from a service in Church. It was in many respects a ‘normal’ service but somehow everything came together to create an event of great beauty. The Church itself looked a spectacle with fairy lights and candles. I felt a sense of peace permeating everything and the tangible presence of God gave a sensation of unfathomable depth. But the Oldham weather enveloped me as soon as I stepped out from the Church. The contrast was hideous, and seemed determined to rob me of the benefits of worship.
    As we start a New Year, many of us will adopt a resolution or two, seeking to becoming different, better people. It’s a good idea provided we are sensible and realistic. My resolution is to try to keep hold of the wonder of God that I sensed in Church, and carry it with me as I go around the Parish and wider ministries that God requires of me.
    The idea is simple enough but in practice I’m sure I’ll struggle; godliness is always difficult because the powers of darkness work day and night to stop us being the people God want us to be. That’s why we are distracted so easily. That’s why we fall.
    Everyone who truly wants a life of holiness needs to ask God’s protection — and often. The good news is that God wants us to be such people, and he readily answers all such prayers. We need to offer God such a prayer quite often, but God will not think we are nagging Him.Indeed, there are several parables in the Bible reminding us to ask continually.
    Church beckons, so I must return to the holy house of God. Like a rechargeable battery, frequent times in Church will help recharge my spirituality if I ‘leak’. So in all these ways, I will be able to fulfil my resolution. And so can you.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Failure to plan is planning to fail.



It’s been a long day. I’ve spent much of it planning ahead, preparing future services and compiling grant forms. I’ve spent time phoning colleagues and agencies. All these conversations seem to start with questions like, “Are you free next Tuesday?” or “Can I have such and such by next week … ?” Sometimes it feels like hard work. But planning and preparing is always time well spent. As they say, failure to plan is planning to fail.
    Much of what passes for Christian spirituality emphasises a living in the present moment. That can be a good start. But we need to plan any spiritual encounter. Coming into the presence of God the Almighty without any prior preparation is actually telling God that he is not really worth our attention. If we would prepare before meeting the Queen or the Prime Minister, how much more should we prepare ourselves before any encounter with God.
    There are many ways of preparing before we enter God’s presence. If we intend a time of intercessory prayer, we can fruitfully draw up a list of the needy during the day. Spiritual reading and fasting are a good start if we need to seek God’s counsel before a big decision. Even our “routine” time of prayer each evening can become a more intimate encounter if we put everything else to one side at a pre-determined time beforehand. (Twenty minutes is a useful start.)
    My long day is over. I’ve switched off my computer and fled from the phone. I’m seeking God, as I knew I would need to be at this time in the day. And it was well worth waiting for. After all, what else can, ”Seek the Lord while he may be found” mean?

Christogram



A Christogram is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus. They are traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian Church.
       After images of the cross, in the Latin-speaking Christianity of medieval Western Europe, the most common Christogram was ‘IHS’. These three letters represent the three consonants of ‘Jesus,’ when written in Greek: Jesous = ΙΗΣΟΥΣ; and this name starts iota-eta-sigma, or ΙΗΣ. (In Latin, the letters I and J were not distinguished so ‘JHS’ and is the same as ‘HIS’.) So we are being invited to bring Jesus to mind each time we see the letters IHS.


Francis de Sales



Francis de Sales was a Bishop of Geneva. He is best known for his gentle approach to the religious divisions in an era characterised by religious divisions between the Catholic and Protestant Churches.
    He was born into a noble family in the Duchy of Savoy on 21 August 1567 in what is today Haute-Savoie in France. He was baptised ‘Francis Bonaventura’ after two of the greatest Franciscan saints.
    In 1583, Francis went to study in a Jesuit institution in Paris to study rhetoric and the humanities. Within the year, Francis attended a theological discussion about predestination that convincing him he was damned.
    It caused a personal crisis of despair which made him physically ill. He was even bedridden until December 1586 when, with difficulty, he visited the old parish of Saint-Étienne-des-Grès in Paris, where he prayed before a famous statue of Mary. He rededicated his life to God; took a vow of chastity; and soon became a tertiary of the Minim Order.
    Francis ultimately concluded that God had good in store for him, because (1 John 4 says) ‘God is love’. His faithful devotion to the God of love not only removed all his doubts but also influenced the rest of his life and his teaching.
    Francis completed his studies in 1588 and joined the University of Padua in Italy to study law and theology. He also decided to become a priest. He was consecrated as Bishop of Geneva, but he continued to live in in what is today France because Geneva was then under Calvinist control and therefore closed to him. His diocese became famous throughout Europe for its efficient organisation, zealous clergy, and well-instructed laity. He worked closely with the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, which was very active in preaching the Catholic faith in his diocese.
    Francis’ way of teaching Catholic spirituality is often referred to as the ‘Way of Divine Love’, or the ‘Devout Life’ — the phrase comes from a book he wrote of a similar name: Introduction to the Devout Life. One ancient story says Francis saw a vision of St Francis of Assisi on the south shore of Lake Geneva.
    During his long years as a bishop, Francis acquired a reputation as a spellbinding preacher and something of an ascetic. His motto was, ‘He who preaches with love, preaches effectively’. Certainly, his goodness, patience and mildness became a byword for holiness.
    All Francis’ writings suggest a quest for holiness, especially in his most famous book Introduction to the Devout Life, which — unusual for the time — he wrote specially for laypeople. In it he suggested the most potent way of progressing in the spiritual life is charity rather than penance. Francis also left a mystical work, A Treatise on the Love of God and many letters of spiritual direction. The letters to his disciple Jane Frances de Chantal were compiled to form the book Letters of Spiritual Direction. The book is a profound display of common sense and good psychology both applied to the pursuit of holiness and the love of God.
    In December 1622, the Duke of Savoy required Francis (in his role as bishop) to accompany him on a Christmas visitation of his vast domain. Francis suffered a stroke in Lyon from which he died on 28 December. He was 55 years of age. He was buried on 24 January 1623 in the Monastery church of the Visitation in Annecy, which he helped found. 
    Francis was called ‘the Gentleman Saint’ after his patience and gentleness. He was beatified in 1661 and made a saint four years later.