LETTER FROM THE VICARAGE
On this page we reproduce the monthly letter from our Vicar (or occasionally from our Licensed Reader Janice Taylor) as it appears in our parish magazine, the Parish News.
Letter from the vicarage
FROM THE VICARAGE - DECEMBER 2019 & JANUARY 2020
December as always is a busy month of preparations for the festive season. If you're anything like me, there's still the presents to buy and wrap, cards to send, and food and drink to be stored up ready for the feasting. Some of us will have several Nativities and Carol Services to attend. And oh, there's that minor detail of preparing for the Christmas services…. Busy, yes – but I love it all.
So what words of wisdom (!?) can I share with you in all this busyness? Well, I thought I would spend a short while with you reflecting on the Christmas Blessing:
May the joy of the angels,
the eagerness of the shepherds,
the perseverance of the wise men,
the obedience of Joseph and Mary,
and the peace of the Christ-child
be yours this Christmas.
Firstly, let's think of the joy that Jesus brings. The joy that Jesus brings is a deep-seated sense of peace. Not a worldly understanding of peace, but a peace which comes from knowing of God's great love for us. His love and peace exceed all our understanding, and yet by grace, he pours all of his love and peace into our hearts. This joy gives us hope, hope in this life and hope of a future glory with him. This hope brings assurance and confidence into our hectic, and often challenging lives. It won't guard us against hurts and heartaches but it will sustain us through them. We seek this deep-seated joy whilst trying to balance our busyness and challenges, and perhaps, not surprisingly, it can, at times, feel like it totally alludes us. And so we look to the angels to catch a glimpse of just how amazing God's joy is.
'Joy to the world' the carol sings out, echoing the angel's joyous proclamation to the shepherds. Angels appear when God is doing something truly amazing and wants us all to know about it – and the birth of his son was most certainly something he wanted to trumpet load and clear. Angels are God's messengers, they positively radiate God's glory, and that glory shone all around as they appeared to the shepherds that first Christmas night. We hear how the angels were joined by a heavenly chorus and together they sing out their songs of praise - such is the joy of heaven.
We hear in the Christmas story that the shepherds were overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of the angels – who wouldn't be! Unlike the angels, we are not used to coming so close to God, and his glory is too overwhelming for us. No doubt we too would want to pull away in fear. I sometimes wonder if the angels are not totally bemused by our reaction. Here they are bringing God's loving message to us, something truly wondrous, and yet they find us cowering away from them. But God understands all this, he knows our fears, which is why Jesus came to us, not in a blaze of overwhelming glory, but as a baby. God once again came to walk amongst us, to hold our hands, to quench our fears, and to gently guide us back into a loving relationship with Him. And that brings us joy.
Once the shepherds had overcome their fears and became filled with joy, they were eager to see if all these things were true, and they 'went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger'.
As I look back over my journey of faith, I see times when I too have been so full of joy that I have been positively tripping over myself in my eagerness to come to know, love and follow Jesus more. But I can also recall times of dryness and of being totally disenchanted with my faith – and God – if truth be told. Eagerness implies a sense of urgency, of a bubbling energy to our faith, which quite frankly is impossible to sustain, and I would argue, so unrealistic that we shouldn't expect to maintain it. But eagerness doesn't have to be understood just in that way. Eagerness can be understood as longing. Longing can of course come with and from vibrant energy, but it can also come from stillness, even from the place of pain and hurt.
For me, eagerness/longing is a bit of a catch twenty-two situation. When you need it most, when you're in the dryness, the pain, the hurt, those are the very times you have the least enthusiasm to reclaim it. To that I say, 'Ultreya!'
'Ultreya!' is an Old Spanish pilgrim's greeting used on the Camino – the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St James in northern Spain. Before the days of catching a flight home, pilgrims retraced their steps along the Camino. When a returning pilgrim met someone on their way to the shrine, they greeted them with the word 'Ultreya!' – keep going! The good news is that we never travel alone. We travel together as a community of faith, a church family.
Journeys are so much better when we travel together, even though we each walk at a different pace. Some may feel energized whilst others feel like each step is hard work. It may feel as if we've lost the energy to 'keep going' and have stopped to catch our breath for a while, it may even feel as if we are retracing our steps whilst others seem to be striding ahead. But we must try not to be discouraged. Wherever we are on our journey, we need always to greet one another with 'Ultreya!'. We all need to encourage one another to keep going so that we can all claim that enthusiasm, that longing, to pick up the pace again. We're not alone in this, we're in it together.
I can quite imagine the shepherds having a bit of a discussion before they got going! I sometimes wonder if they too needed to catch their breath before heading off to find the baby Jesus. I also wonder, if the angels had appeared to just one solitary shepherd, would he have gone at all? God knew that only together would they have the courage and eagerness to set their fears and doubts aside and 'make haste' and stride out on the most incredible journey of their lives.
But the shepherds were not alone in all of this. Far away, in a distant land, another group of travellers were, no doubt, also having a very similar discussion. In the blessing, we hear of the perseverance of the Wise Men. They most certainly would need perseverance to carry out such a long and probably difficult journey. But they would also have needed to persevere in holding onto their deeply held beliefs.
We read that the Wise Men 'observed' a star 'at its rising' and understood the significance of that as it heralded the birth of a king. The wise men were astronomers, they were considered the scientist and philosophers of their day. But they also sought to find meaning in their observations, and people looked to them to find meaning to their existence. But unlike the astronomers of today, the Wise Men had the courage of their convictions and set out to find this new king whom they believed the star was heralding.
Perseverance in faith is more than just holding on tight to our beliefs – it is also trusting in our beliefs. Recently I heard a very good analogy of this. Should we be trekking through the deepest darkest jungles of south America, at some point we would need to cross over a deep ravine and our only option would be to seek out a rope-bridge built by the local indigenous tribes. We may or may not have a deep insight into the mechanics of rope-bridges, but either way, we will need to have faith that it will support us as we cross over. Trust in that faith though, only happens once we have the courage to actually step onto the bridge. Perseverance in faith is to keep trusting in God's loving goodness and mercy, and in his promises, even when we're unsure.
The Wise Men persevered because they trusted in their belief. Trusting is letting go of the 'mechanics' and stepping out in faith. If we're honest, that's easier said than done, but if we are to grow in our love of God and our discipleship, then we need to persevere, and simply trust. Putting that trust into action is obedience – which leads us to the obedience of Mary and Joseph.
The obedience of Mary and Joseph was exceptional – in every sense of the word! Not all of us are called to undertake such a calling, but we are all called to come to know, love and follow Jesus more each day. I have deep admiration for those who remain faithful in their witness to Jesus in extreme circumstances and under fear of persecution, even death. And I am equally humbled by those fellow saints I know who remain faithful during the most heart-breaking and testing of times. Just as I look to Mary and Joseph to emulate their example of loving obedience, we can also look around us and see that same obedience in our brothers and sisters too. Mary and Joseph had their doubts, their fears, and over the years their anxieties, but through it all they remained faithful and obedient, and we can strive to emulate their example – even in the simplest of ways.
Obedience comes from a place of assured faith when we trust and persevere in our journey with Jesus. It comes from a deep-seated sense of joy and peace which only Christ can bring – and he gifts us with a renewed sense of that joy and peace each Christmas as we were kneel humbly before the Christ-child.
Mary sang out her praise when the angel brought her the good news. The shepherds witnessed the heavenly host bursting into praise. This Christmas, may we join our voices with theirs as we sing out our praise in our much-loved Christmas carols.
May all the blessings of Christmas be yours this season,
and in the year ahead.