The poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) wrote these lines as part of an Advent poem in her Christmas Sequence:
O let us, even in our fear, join hands
As we think of a story that is old
Yet new each year. It is a mystery
How God took time and entered history.
As we enter into a new Church Year with the beginning of Advent, into a new Calendar Year in January and into the annual celebration of Christmas, cycles, time and new beginnings may be on our mind. Every year brings change as we re-live our annual cycles and patterns.
In the light of this, it is powerful to think of Christmas in the way Elizabeth Jennings invites us to do: how a happening once some 2000 years ago not only changed the world then, but also how it still changes us year after year. There is always change, for that is part of the fabric of life. But there is also transformation: when we actively seek to be changed into God’s image and plan for us and then allow God’s mystery to transform us.
God, indeed, still takes time and enters history, as Christ is born in our hearts this year and always – and works in unexpected ways in our own history.
In this sense, I wish you a deep and purposeful Advent, a light-filled and mysterious Christmas, and a happy New Year.
Yours in Christ,
This month, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King – as we always do on the last Sunday of the Church Year before the
season of Advent starts.
Christ as the King is a frequent subject in Christian art, and Holy Trinity has its own Christ the King depicted in its great east window. Indeed, the image of Christ has been depicted in countless ways, changing with times and with different approaches to spiritual thought.
‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’, it says in the Letter to the Hebrews (13.8), but that does not mean that we won’t see different things in Christ as we change and grow.
As images of Christ change with time (and our own spiritual reflections on Christ change too), we may want to ask what kind of king we understand Christ to be. How helpful is the image of kingship, when reflecting on Christ’s example and presence among us?
The Benedictine nun Delores Dufner reflects on exactly this key question in one of her hymn texts (another form of art) that we sing at HT and might help us explore the image of Christ the King in a different way:
1 O Christ, what can it mean for us
to claim you as our king?
What royal face have your revealed
whose praise the church would sing?
2 You came, the image of our God,
to heal and to forgive,
to shed your blood for sinners’ sake
that we might rise and live.
3 Though some would make their greatness felt
and lord it over all,
you said the first must be the last
and service be our call.
4 You chose a humble human form
and shunned the world’s renown;
you died for us upon a cross
with thorns your only crown.
5 But still, beyond the span of years,Delores Duffner OSB
our glad hosannas ring,
for now at God’s right hand you reign,
a different kind of king!
© 1991, 1993 GIA Publications Inc.
One License # 94012
May this hymn reflection help us see Christ’s image in yet a different light.
Yours in Christ,
"…your name is perfume poured out…" (Song of Songs 1.3)
In one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) reflects on the gifts we receive from God: some gifts are for our benefit (so that we may better find God), others are clearly meant for sharing. Indeed, many of our gifts and talents are meant to be poured into the world, just as the Holy Spirit pours them into us.
In a world where there seems to be crisis on top of crisis, this can be an anxiety-inducing thought. We might feel that we have little to give anyway and may feel that what we do contribute makes little difference. Our own life circumstances may be affected by various crises and we might feel exhausted and ‘poured out’ in life and ministry.
Bernard is aware of this, I think, when he talks about learning to ‘pour’ ourselves in a sustainable way, by using the imagery of a tube and a bowl: A tube takes in water and spills it out almost at the same time. A bowl is first filled to the brim, before overflowing. Both potentially pour out the same amount of water: but one is always empty and the other is always full.
Bernard says: ‘Be wise to pour yourself like a bowl and not like a tube.’ We need to allow God to fill us first, before we can pour out to others. We are no use to God and neighbour if we’re constantly running on empty, for we can only give what we have!
So, should you feel exhausted by the thought of contributing to life and ministry, try to look after yourself by allowing God to fill your bowl first, before overflowing in God’s love. For we are to soak in God’s love, peace and light before they cannot be contained any longer and overflow into life around us.
Yours in Christ,
We had a good break this summer, which saw us on a road trip to Austria via France, Germany and Belgium.
One of the highlights of this trip was a visit to Fontenay Abbey in Burgundy. Burgundy had been on my ‘bucket list’ for a while, because it is there that the monastic order of the Cistercians started out right at the end of the 11th century.
The Cistercians were about spiritual renewal and simplicity and their monasteries (often set in remote locations) tended to reflect this in their architecture, artwork, music and liturgy (as the Cistercians reacted to elaborate and rich forms of monasticism widespread at their time).
Fontenay Abbey (founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118) is an amazing example of such early Cistercian architecture.
Although it has long ceased to be a working monastery (the grounds even housed a 19th-century paper mill), many of its buildings have been restored to their 12th-century appearance (making it a UNESCO world heritage site).
There is definitely still an austere Cistercian feel to this place in its simple grandeur.
Looking around this deeply spiritual place was very moving indeed, as I imagined the Cistercian monks at work or in prayer.
But what I primarily took away was a call to a ‘simplified grandeur’: How can we simplify things, without losing a sense of God’s grandeur in worship and in our lives?
We all are called to live more sustainably as we move towards Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2030.
But that should not reduce our zeal for worship, social action and life in God.
How can we express our humanity and the sheer abundance of life in God in ways that are sustainable and yet overflowing?
As we go into the Season of Creation this September, we’ll continue to focus on these questions as we consider our impact on the order of creation, our call to Christian discipleship and our place in the wider community and, indeed, the fabric of life.
I am very much looking forward to our services, reflections and prayers this season here at HT.
A change of pace, a change of step, can sometimes be extraordinarily important for seeing things afresh and for learning a different rhythm of life.
The story of Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3.1ff) is such a moment of change, as Moses steps aside to marvel at a bush that is on fire, yet not consumed by the flames.
What follows from that stepping aside is nothing less than an encounter with the living God (changing Moses’ life and the lives of all Israel).
We, too, are invited to learn to see things differently as we grow in our journey through life, and we often do not even have to step very far away from the ordinary in order to do so – after all, Moses is in his work-place as he encounters the Burning Bush while keeping the flock of his father-in-law!
A good question for us may be this: What would help us to change step so that we could see things afresh? Even in little things, parts of our routines?
I am planning on practising a bit of ‘stepping aside’ this summer, both while on holiday and when in Stirling ministering at HT.
What is important is that we are ready to look at the ordinary with fresh eyes, so that God can show us new things and break through into our lives.
As the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) wrote in her work Aurora Leigh:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Wishing you good courage for ‘stepping aside’ this summer, wherever you may be!
Yours in Christ,
One of the books I’ve read this spring is The Hidden Life of Trees, written by the forester Peter Wohlleben. A riveting read from start to finish, which I can very much recommend to you: the author describes some of the lesser-known factors at work in a forest and paints a fascinating picture of trees and other living elements, working together to form ecosystems (in language even I can understand!).
Key to the message of the book is the insight that trees are social beings, ‘sharing food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors’ (The Hidden Life of Trees, p.3).
But why would they do that? Wohlleben writes this:
A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather.
But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this environment, trees can live to be very old.
To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of the summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.The Hidden Life of Trees, p.4
As we observe the Feast of Pentecost and celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Church, we are reminded that Church is perhaps a bit like a forest: we need to work together, nourish and look out for each other, so that we may come to maturity in faith.
It is no good nourishing only oneself and cutting out any ‘competitors’; we have a common calling to share and to support one another as we form Christ’s body in the world and grow in our understanding of God and as human beings.
Wishing you a happy growing season this Pentecost,
Towards the end of this month, on Thursday 26th May, we’ll observe the Feast of the Ascension, which is celebrated 40 days after Easter.
The Ascension of Christ, as described in the Gospel of Luke and in Acts, is very much seen as the end-point of the immediate post-Resurrection period where Christ appears to his disciples, continues to teach them and even shares in meals with them. The Ascension brings this to a close, as Luke’s Gospel ends like this:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the templeLuke 24.50-53
The Ascension brings Easter to yet a different level: it is a point instigating spiritual growth and maturity.
The Master has to leave in order for his disciples to grow up! I often think of hatching birds when pondering the Ascension: the moment when the little ones are ready to fly, they receive a nudge from their parents, forcing them to leave the nest and fly. They can’t stay in the nest forever; they need to trust in their own skills and become fully grown birds.
Likewise, we have spiritual need of the Ascension and need to risk leaving…our nests to become Christian disciples pledged to growth. That might sound risky and it might be tempting to hide in structures well-known to us.
But the Ascension teaches us that we are created to fly and grow, as we find a renewed relationship with God and God’s wonderful creation.
Wishing you a good Eastertide and a deep & bold Ascension Day,
Easter is at the absolute heart of the Christian faith and the most central time of the Church Year.
We celebrate Easter every Sunday, as we meet on the first day of the week (the day of the resurrection) in worship and prayer.
However, once a year we make a special effort in our Easter celebrations as we prepare ourselves during the Season of Lent and go through the drama of Holy Week through to Easter Day, recalling Jesus’ last days before his death, his passion and resurrection.
This year (as the restrictions due to the Covid pandemic are eased), we will manage a full round of services: from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper and from the cross to the empty tomb (and quite a few services in between!).
The worship of Holy Week is not just a re-telling of the central Christian story: it is designed so that we may enter into the narrative more fully and be touched on deeper levels with the help of all our senses.
Christ is always risen, but we are to find our own step on the Christian Way as we walk God’s purpose for us.
As we sing in our Lent Hymn this year:
From ashes to the living fontAlan J. Hommerding (CCLI Licence # 237731)
your Church must journey still;
through cross and tomb to Easter joy,
in Spirit-fire fulfilled.
I am very much looking forward to walking this year’s holy journey of Holy Week & Easter with you.
Yours in Christ,
Our Lent book this year is Saying Yes to Life by Ruth Valerio (who is an environmentalist, theologian and a director at Tearfund). In the book, Dr Valerio discusses issues related to climate change and the need for climate justice & action as she reflects on the story of creation as found in Genesis chapter 1.
The well-known creation story of Genesis 1 certainly has enormous implications for how we have come to view the world and humanity’s place within it. One verse found in Genesis 1 has perhaps been particularly influential in how we view the world as God says to humanity, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen 1.28)
We can clearly see the consequences of blunt dominion of the world by the impact humanity has on life on this planet and its various forms of ecosystems. It would be helpful to renew our understanding of ‘dominion’ to be more about our human capacity for ‘stewardship’, which seems to be inbuilt into our system (as Genesis seems to suggest). As the OT scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, the Biblical image of dominion of living creatures needs to be about the ‘securing of the well-being of every other creature and [about] bringing the promise of each to full fruition.’ Jesus is very clear on this in his teaching (Brueggemann says): ‘The one who rules is the one who serves.’
As we go through Lent this year, we might want to ask: What are we stewards of? Our relationships maybe? Creation around us? Our shopping habits? Our carbon footprint? Our own fruition and outlook on life? Good stewardship will take care to include the well-being of creation (and will not advocate ‘humanity first’, but acknowledge that we are but a part of a wonderful world created as being good).
What will we help to bring to fruition and learn to carefully steward as we take our place within God’s wonderful creation?
Yours in Christ,
At Holy Trinity, our worship is very much coloured by the different seasons of the Church Year.
However, at present, it may feel like being between seasons, as Christmas has firmly come to an end (with Candlemas on the 2nd of February) and Lent & Easter are not yet on the horizon.
But our present spell of Ordinary Time is an important part of the whole cycle which forms the Church Year: we need the different colours and themes, the highpoints and feasts, as well as the stretches of time in between so that our own spiritual lives can organically grow out of our yearly cyclical walk in God-time.
For our lives are cycles of growth as well, as we learn to let go of things no longer life-giving and re-enter perhaps familiar space with deepened insight, in order to find God at work within us anew.
The poet and priest Malcolm Guite puts it like this:
Tangled in time, we go by hints and guesses,
Turning the wheel of each returning year.
But in the midst of failures and successes
We sometimes glimpse the love that casts out fear.
Sometime the heart remembers its own reasons
And beats a Sanctus as we sing our story,
Tracing the threads of grace, sounding the seasons
That lead at last through time to timeless glory.
From the first yearning for a Saviour’s birth
To the full joy of knowing sins forgiven,
We start our journey here on God’s good earth
To catch an echo of the choirs of heaven.
I send these out, returning what was lent,Sounding the Seasons: 70 sonnets for the Christian Year
Turning to praise each ‘moment's monument’.
Wishing you deep God-moments wherever you may be in your own cycles of life.
Yours in Christ,
Every year in the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we focus on the Birth of Jesus: the promise of a Messiah as foretold by the prophets and the incarnation of the Word of God, born in human flesh.
Luke famously writes this about the incarnation: ‘And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2.7) A very vivid description of being clothed – both in human form and in actual bands of cloth.
The idea that God stoops low to meet us in Jesus’ birth; that God’s Word takes human shape so that we can learn something deep about God by walking alongside Jesus and by following his word and example, is key to the mystery of the incarnation. God is clothed, so that our lives can be profoundly touched.
But there is another aspect to our ‘bands of cloth’ perhaps worth remembering this Advent and Christmas.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us of this in his poem God speaks (from the cycle The Book of Hours): here God is described as speaking to everyone at the point of their incarnation, telling them (and us all) to ‘clothe God’ in our being and life. Not only Jesus is to clothe God, but we all are called to give God shape in who we are and what we do.
Maybe we could remember this basic calling to life and embodiment as we go through the seasons of Advent and Christmas (and celebrate Jesus’ birth): that our own ‘bands of cloth’ (as humble as they may be) are key to the mystery of the incarnation as we are all called into the fabric of life by God – and that to wrap others lovingly in ‘bands of cloth’ is to take part in God’s plan and purpose for all of creation.
Yours in Christ,