On the eighth day of Christmas… What’s in a name?

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.                Luke 2:15-21

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose? By any other name would smell as sweet?” from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Is a name just a label to distinguish one from another? Does it have worth? In Romeo and Juliet the question is about love. Can two people from families who dislike each other, fall in love and be together? In our passage above, a name is not just a label. It garners identity. Possibly, it is the first thing we learn about another person. Their name is part of their identity. Tied up with identity, we find respect, dignity and personality. All of which, if you use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, would come under the psychological needs of a person. Without a name, a person cannot identify themselves, or be identified.

Up to the point of Jesus being presented in the temple, his name may not have been shared with the shepherds or other family members. We simply don’t know. Or there may have been heated arguments over the decision that he would receive the name that had been received from the angel before he had been conceived. Was it a family name? Does it matter? In a way I think it might. Jesus was given a name that was fairly common. It didn’t mark him out as being special or being in the bloodline stretching back to David.

Jesus’s birth, his childhood, his refugee status and his name don’t set him apart to be king. His unremarkable name is another part of the story that allows us to share and identify with a man who shared his life with us, in the grime and dirt of our everyday lives.

On the seventh day of Christmas…. trusting God

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.                                                                                              John 5:1-9.

Below is an excerpt from one of my paintings. It recently had an outing to Wick when it was on display for Midnight Mass. This painting can be many things to different people, it has many different layers and was painted in response to an extremely persistent nudge from the Holy Spirit. I could have ignored that nudge. That persistent feeling, but I felt it was important to obey. I could have said something along the lines of “If only I had the skills…” or “If only God would provide someone to teach me…. or help me…” One of the phrases I have heard over and over when I have presented this painting at various venues is “If only God would give me the breathing apparatus I need to dive into the depths…”

The diver in the painting quite deliberately hasn’t a snorkel and mask and oxygen tanks  because the breathing apparatus is man-made. We don’t need something made by man to go deeper into God. The man lying by the pool didn’t need someone to lift him into the pool. I didn’t need someone to show me how to create this painting. That sounds arrogant, but what I mean is that my dependence on ‘man’ was greater than my dependence on God. My focus was not on what God can do, but rather what I could do if ‘man’ showed me the way. I needed to change my mindset and trust that God would show me how to paint. The strokes and the way in which I would paint might only be as good as a three year old’s but it certainly wasn’t going to be like an old master’s. I had to trust that what I did would be good enough. I had to trust that God would provide the skills. The man by the pool had to trust Jesus when he was told to get up and walk.

Dear Lord, we struggle to place our trust in you. We often think that others are praying on our behalf so we don’t have to. Help us to change our focus from ‘man’ to you. Where we struggle to hand things over to you, help and guide us to keep our eyes focussed on you. Where we think we can do better, gently remind us that you are God, not us. Help us to discern that small, quiet voice of calm and everything around is raging and clamouring for our attention. Where an inkling or thought comes to mind, supposedly out of the blue, help us to discern whether that is from you and whether we should act on it. Thank you for the freedom and peace that we find in you.

On the sixth day of Christmas… whose culture?

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Every reading of the Scriptures carries a certain interpretation. Too often, we in the western world apply a western view to the Scriptures. There are of course, many other types of bias that we apply as well – for example, our own experiences will also inform what we read in the Scriptures. This passage is a good example of that. Those of us who have grown up in a western culture, and have not spent considerable time in another culture, getting to know the traditions and ways of that culture see the way that Jesus addresses his mother in a derogatory way.

It is true that the culture of Jesus’s day was highly patriarchal. However, we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus loved his mother, to the point of asking one of his most loved disciples to care for her when he was dying on the cross. The cultural reading of this passage would suggest that although there is a sense of exasperation on Jesus’s part when he answers “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me,” there is also the use of a colloquial word of endearment. Throughout Jesus’s teachings we learn of a different, radical way of thinking that turns the world’s thinking upside down. We should therefore be very careful when reading this story through the lens of our own culture.

Lord as we come to you, reading and searching your Holy Scriptures for guidance and how to apply them to our own lives, we ask that you show us the different facets of each story. Help us to uncover the truths that you would like us to know. Gently lead us to understand the historical context in which these Scriptures were written, so that we might be less judgemental when applying them in our own culture. Thank you Lord, for the ways in which you taught that show us that there is another way, that is generous, loving and kind.

On the fifth day of Christmas… rivers of living water

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” John 7:37-39.

Included in the reflection today is part of the reading from John for today, and also the reading from Isaiah. Although the reading from John appears to be an astounding claim, it does reflect that which had been written hundreds of years previously and is included below.

Though we feel that we may experience the wrath of God, he is always forgiving. I feel it is important to remember that much of what we do experience is not the wrath of God, but the wrath of man. In God alone I will find my salvation. Humans cannot give that to me. He is my comfort and in Him I place my trust. Trust leads into joy, and joy leads into giving thanks.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Equally, when you are thirsty you are invited to drink from Jesus because in Him there is a well of salvation. We hark back again to the invitation on Christmas Day where we were invited and are continually invited to allow God to dwell in within. To allow the well of salvation to dwell within. Only then, will rivers of living water flow out of us, as believers.

You will say in that day:

I will give thanks to you, O Lord,

for though you were angry with me,

your anger turned away,

and you comforted me.

Surely God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Lord God is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the Lord,

call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations;

proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;

let this be known in all the earth.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 12


On the fourth day of Christmas… we remember the Holy Innocents

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew 2.13-18

On the 28thDecember we remember those whose innocent lives were taken from them through violent means. Traditionally, we remember the numbers of toddlers who were killed by Herod in and around Bethlehem as he was trying to remove any possibility that Jesus might one day take his, Herod’s place, as ‘king.’

More widely, we remember all those who have lost their lives through violence. Not just children, but any soul whose life has been cut short. Anyone who suffers at the hands of others and those who do not feel that human life should be valued. Those who have lost their child, and close family members too who grieve for the loss of a family member.

We ask God to hold these people close and in return that these people may feel the closeness of God. We ask for safety and security for children that they may grow up knowing the love they receive is healthy and nurturing. We ask for grace upon those in care and for those looking after them. We ask for wisdom and discernment for those in positions of power and authority that they act accordingly when action is required to ensure the health and safety of all those whose lives may be in danger. We thank you God that you ask for all the children be brought to you and that you bless them.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Mark 10:14b-16.

On the third day of Christmas… we celebrate John, Apostle and evangelist.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,

to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

to declare your steadfast love in the morning,

and your faithfulness by night,

My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;

my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree,

and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the Lord;

they flourish in the courts of our God.

In old age they still produce fruit;

they are always green and full of sap,

Psalm 92: 1-2, 11-14.


The 27this the day that we celebrate John, Apostle and Evangelist. Although it is unknown if John the Evangelist and John the Apostle were the same person, the Church honours John who proclaimed that Jesus is the Word who became flesh. Someone who was present at many events throughout Jesus’ ministry, and lived and died following in the footsteps of the Christ who he loved.

John’s faith can be likened to that described in the psalm above. He appeared to be solid in his faith and walked with reverence alongside Jesus of whom he described as the Word. He flourished in his ministry, with deep roots in the Scriptures.

The psalmist above describes how to thank God for His love and faithfulness, by giving back exactly that which is given freely in the first place. Morning and night. Those who walk in His paths are described as the righteous, who are growing in the house of the Lord.

If we hark back to Christmas Day where I spoke of living in God and yet also having God live within us, we too are planted in the house of the Lord, and are able to flourish in the courts of our God. I am thankful too of those of riper years who are still flourishing, producing fruit and appear to have enough energy to serve God.

I pray that God continues to supply the sap that each of us needs in our own unique way to interact with each other and to serve God in the way that He calls us. I pray for those who struggle and feel that they may not have as much energy as they did the day before or the week before. I thank God that through His Scriptures and our interaction with them that we too can be part of the dynamic of living in the house of God, yet also having God live within us.

On the second day of Christmas… we give thanks for Stephen.

Now after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and did obeisance to the king; then the king listened to them. They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord; they testified against them, but they would not listen. Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!” 2 Chronicles 24:17-22

We celebrate Stephen on the 26thDecember. He was both a deacon and a martyr, having been stoned to death for his part in accusing the authorities of being stiff-necked and opposing the Holy Spirit. He was one of seven deacons who were responsible for the widows of the early church in Jerusalem. As shown in the reading above though, having rocks hurled by perpetrators was not a rare occurrence during Biblical times and happened for a variety of reasons. A couple of hard blows to the head and death would follow on.

Both the stoning of Zecharaiah in the passage above and the stoning of Stephen were executed by people who thought they were acting in the best interests of the authorities. In particular, in Stephen’s case, the authorities being the Sanhedrin whose interests lay in having a very particular focus on God and how one should interact with Him.

Through the short biography of Stephen in the book of Acts we learn more about deacons and their role in the fledgling church. Being able to allow God to guide and direct and then to allow God to speak through the Scriptures (in Stephen’s case, the Hebrew Bible) as well as prophetically is part of what deacons are required to do.

I wonder if you know of people who could be identified as being a deacon (apart from the two who are carrying this title)? I wonder if you might like to learn more in allowing God to speak through yourself to others?

Father God, I ask for us to made aware of your healing presence and your touch on our lives. I ask for more of you to pour out on our lives so that we each have an abundance of your presence in our lives so that we may experience the joy that you have for each of us, knowing that there isn’t just ‘one’ way to experience God.

On the first day of Christmas….

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” 1 John 4:7-16.

Most people expect the first day of Christmas to be the day after Christmas. But Christmas Day itself is the first day of Christmas. The readings therefore, all point to the Lord and how he will dwell in midst of his people. Of course, this is a great part of Hebraic history and throughout the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, you will find this recurring theme. For us as Christians, we too are invited to share in the mystery of God dwelling both within us and us in Him.

The popular carol of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ apparently innocuous and seemingly about farm animals and a range of people is also about focussing on Christ. “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree.” Christ is represented by the partridge and the ‘true love’ is God Himself. Used at a time when the Catholic Church had to disguise their teachings due to the threat of persecution, it follows that people had to be creative in order to pass on their teachings and keep their faith alive.

I wonder how many people, persecuted for their faith, are able to keep their spirits up with songs of a similar ilk? In this Christmas season I invite you to take some time out from the festivities and pray for those people groups across the world who face persecution and ask God for that life-giving creativity to enable those people to keep their faith alive.

The choice of inviting Christ into our own lives

Advent has taken us on a real roller coaster of a ride. Each Sunday we explored the concepts of hope, peace, joy and love. We’ve waited as watchmen, or watchpeople to be politically correct, waiting for the first glimmer of hope on the horizon. A bit like the battle at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings. At the first light, watch for help, for it is at hand. But we’re not needing a god-like Gandalf to appear at the top of the ridge, staff in hand, with a white charger and an army of loyal men to fight on our behalf. There’s nothing tangibly physical for us to go into combat with.

Instead we’re asked at Christmas time to engage with our senses. After all, our traditions at Christmas are all about being with our families, joyful, knowing that we are loved. We’re invited throughout Advent to allow hope, peace, joy and love to engage with us. To be a people who are alert, watchful, waiting for a sense of who God is. Knowing that he’s not going to appear before our eyes, like Gandalf did, but who, if we let him, will reside deep within and appear in our conversations and encounters. Who, when we find Him, will shine like nothing else we have ever known.

We’re asked, as human beings, to engage with our emotions. Something that our culture has repressed in so many different ways because there is a fear of the unknown. What will well up when our senses and emotions engage with who God is? Our journey takes us ever deeper into who God is. Our Gospel reading shows how John wrestled with who he thought God was, and how to present that in ways that the Greeks of his day would have been able to grasp.

This evening, as we celebrate the age-old anniversary of Christ’s birth into our human world, we too are invited to ponder anew on what God means to us. Our quest is to make Jesus known, but we can only ever make him known if we are keen to get to know him ourselves. A quest that is as old as the oldest story you’ve ever known. A quest that takes us and continues to take us on a real roller coaster ride, with highs and lows as we experience hope, peace, joy and love.

By doing so, we’re admitting to ourselves that we are spiritual beings. We’ve acknowledged that our spiritual journeys have taken us all sorts of places. We’ve wandered, come back for a while, wandered off again. But we’ve come back. And in all likelihood, will keep coming back. We received the imperative command from Zephaniah on the way, “Rejoice!” And we should be joyful when we hear what John had to say about Jesus. He is the physical embodiment of the Word. Come as a new-born, incredibly fragile as all babies are. Vulnerable and dependent on those around him. His mother Mary, Joseph, his extended family. Those who helped him grow into the man who we and others have studied. His words and the words of his followers, who have tried to pass on what they felt was true to Him and of God. And what is meant by hope, peace, joy and love. Words that will resonate with our souls, if we let them. Words that will still the roller coaster and allow us time to look around and give us space to pray into what we see and hear. This, then, is our experience of the Light. Our roller coaster ride enters the light. The Light that was the life of all people.

This is the light, if you like, at the end of the roller coaster ride. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. This is the light that existed before the sun and moon were made. These are words of mystery. They describe something that cannot be contained in one day, or in a wrapped box.

The Light that lights every person that comes into the world. His presence came into the world, yet was already in the world because he had already created it. This is stuff that we can try to wrestle with but no one will ever have an answer for, because it simply is a mystery. And somewhere along the line we human have to acknowledge that we cannot source a logical explanation because there isn’t one to find.

This evening we celebrate who Christ is. Born out of wedlock, weak, and helpless. Thoroughly dependent on others for food, and clothing. Instead of choosing to come with a fanfare and a white charger, with long flowing robes and a white beard that turns people’s heads, he chooses the vulnerability of an infant in a manger. In this Christmas season we are invited to become child-like in our understanding, fully accepting of the grace that is on offer today. To those who receive him, who believe on his name, he gives the power to become children of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. Human, yet divine. At Christmas time we are offered the chance to become children of God. Human, yet also of God. That is a truly humbling mystery of God, full of grace. That we are given the choice of whether we accept the invitation offered to allow God to dwell within. To open ourselves, our houses, if you will, to let the joy and love that surrounds the birth of Jesus Christ enter our lives. So that he will in turn, be born again within each of us.

Third Sunday of Advent: Rejoice! Rejoice!

If Advent in its entirety is about getting back on track and focussing on waiting with expectation for the coming king, then today, Gaudete Sunday is a time when we can rejoice about all the good things given to us, as part of that preparation.

The first reading we had this morning comes from what is known as a judgement oracle which speaks of the wickedness of Jerusalem and the punishment and conversion of the nations to faith in the Lord. The book of Zephaniah, which was written in the seventh century before Christ, is predominantly about judgement, but it turns to salvation at the end.

Zephaniah, like many prophets understood that amongst other things, poverty and austerity can really pull people down. Psychologically and physically. The attitude to psychological health can either build up or break down a person, and Zephaniah is aware of that. He uses the imperative “Rejoice!” and “Do not fear!” “You shall fear no more.” Humans are inherently fearful – we fear that God is not with us, and that we will not be able to overcome whatever obstacle we see before us. We fear that we won’t be able to provide enough, or have enough, or even be enough. Zephaniah’s word acknowledges our fear, but instead of compounding that fear with more judgement, he presents the opposite, joy. “Rejoice!”

The women of the Hebrew Bible had a tradition of singing during times of crises and also celebrations and the song in the book of Zephaniah resonates with that tradition.

Our own preparations through Advent are penitential – we’re invited to acknowledge that our spiritual journeys aren’t always focussed directly on God, they might weave and wander. They might go around in circles for days before straightening up for a while when our focus returns to God. We have times when things seem to be going right, and sometimes there are the stretches of time when we just can’t seem to get going. There are those who feel that they can bring what they’re struggling with to God and sing and worship  through that and by the end might feel that they are more focussed on God than they were to begin with. And there are those who feel that when they’re struggling that they cannot come to God until they have worked through some of the struggle themselves and then they might be able to sing praises to God. Being able to rejoice and praise God is something that our culture has taught us is highly individual, dependant on who we are and how we feel. But Zephaniah’s command and use of the imperative is that we should rejoice, regardless of our own individual feelings. This is a corporate statement. When we come together, we are no longer individuals seeking our own salvation, but one body seeking salvation for the church.

Rejoicing continues in the canticle from Isaiah. Forgiveness, comfort, joy, and the presence of God. It is not that God is present apart from us, or a little way away. It is not that he is in the sky above us, in the starry heavens, but as Isaiah writes, he is great in our midst. He is my strength and my might. He dwells in amongst us, not just from Christmas when we remember and celebrate Christ’s birth, but that God is amongst us all, here and now.

And as if that is not enough, our reading from Philippians tells us to rejoice too. The Lord is near. Our reading shows that the Philippians were anxious. Anxiety from or about what we don’t know, but I know that each of us feels anxious from time to time about various matters. Paul draws the anxiety to God by calling the people to prayer. This might have been silent prayer, but equally, depending on the culture one was in, this could have involved singing, just as the women of the Hebrew Bible did in times of crisis. Paul’s actions echo that of Zephaniah, in that Zephaniah having delivered oracles of judgement then followed up with an oracle of salvation. Paul could have continued to choose anxiety but instead chooses prayer and peace.

The gospel passage is no different. Yes, there appears to be an inordinate amount of judgement, but there is also a message of hope, of expectation. John attacks those in the crowd who justify themselves by their stance in their religion by telling them that their bloodline has nothing to do with their belonging to or being part of Israel. The  challenge is that their heritage can no longer be a comfort to them. It is faith, and it was faith in Abraham’s time, in Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s time, in Paul’s time and in our time that enables one to be called a child of Abraham.

The grace and favour that God bestows on us shows that our expectations pale into insignificance when presented with a living God who chose, and continues to dwell amongst us. The expectation of what we should do is part of our commitment to the relationship that we hold dear in both allowing Christ to dwell within and submitting to the authority that Christ has in our lives, both corporately and individually.

Though we are watchful in Advent, waiting expectantly for Christ, both as individuals but also as a body, we rejoice in the good things we have received and anticipate in receiving, knowing that God is indeed with us.