Monday, 17 August 2009

Something about Mary

In one of my other blogs (see 'One Pearle') I published a sermon I gave recently which sought to take another look at Mary who, in some quarters, is not just ignored but treated with something bordering on vilification. Some protestants eager (and quite rightly) to safeguard the uniqueness of Jesus, have downplayed the role of Mary to something along the lines of a human incubator, used for the purpose of bringing the Saviour into the world and then subsequently disgarded. I understand this attitude because for many years it was my own. It is only through my study of Church history and by taking another look at the Holy Scriptures that I have come to change my mind.

In my sermon I argued that Mary can, without compromising the deity of Christ, be justifiably and biblically called the 'Mother of God' (Gk 'Theotokos'). In fact to call her such is to actually protect the deity of Christ, something it was calculated to do so by the early Church at Ephesus in AD 431 (see I also argued that as a result of this we should honour Mary and call her 'blessed' as she prophesied future generations would in Luke 1:48 (Elizabeth also referred to her as such earlier in the chapter at verse 45). In the words of a fifth century hymn she is, justifiably, "more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim".

This understandably brought a response from some members of the congregation - something it is always good to see - and one person quoted the passage from Matthew 12:46-50 in which Jesus appears to 'put Mary in her place' after she had called with Jesus' 'brothers' (relatives) to see Him. When told they were outside waiting to speak with Him Jesus replied: "Who is My mother and who are my brothers?" And He stretched out His hand towards His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother." (verse 48-50)

Looking at the text it does appear as if Jesus is placing Mary alongside everybody else in importance, but that may be to read into the text a predisposed bias against her. No one comes to the text of the Bible completely objectively. We are all taught and influenced by someone and something. If we have been brought up to read the Scriptures a certain way by preachers and teachers who themselves have been taught to regard Mary as of no importance then understandably it will influence how we read the text in front of us.

Looking at it again isn't it also possible to understand that Jesus is just using - as He often did - an incident involving His mother and relatives' presence to make a different point i.e. that everyone can belong to His spiritual family if they obey the will of His Father? Surely that is His point in saying what He said rather than a kind of put-me-down to keep Mary in her place and ensure that all future generations would do the same? And as with interpreting every passage of Scripture, particularly where it is possible to read it in several conflicting ways, we need to ask the question: Whose interpretation is the correct one and on what authority can they claim they are right?

Friday, 14 August 2009

I am a Christian

I accidentally came across a blogspot called (I think) 'Live life as if..' (the link is below). When I read the 'About me' link I came across this passage which I thought was really well written. It's a good description about what a Christian is and its free from the kind of triumphalism which is, sadly, the mark of some Christianity today:

"I am a Christian!!! When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not shouting "I am saved." I'm whispering "I get lost" That is why I chose this way. When I say ... I am a Christian, I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble and need someone to be my guide. When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I am weak and pray for strength to carry on. When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not bragging of success. I'm admitting I have failed and cannot ever pay the debt When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not claiming to be perfect. My flaws are too visible but God believes I'm worth it. When I say ... I am a Christian, I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches which is why I seek HIS name. When I say ... I am a Christian, I do not wish to judge. I have no authority I only know I'm loved."

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Sign of the Cross

What is it about the sign of the cross that seems to evoke such animosity sometimes? I know people who will run a mile if they saw anyone make the sign of the cross. And if that person were from an evangelical background, the sign of the cross would be tantamount to back-sliding or worse. It may be something to do with some deep seated prejudice that still lingers (in Wales) against Roman Catholics - the result of Protestant propaganda perhaps. Which is a shame because the 'sign' belongs to no one tradition but to Christianity. Take this quote from the 3rd century:

"In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross."

And later in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who died around A.D. 386, said, "Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers and on our brow and in everything: over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our goings out and our comings in; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest. Make it on your forehead so that the devils, at sight of the standard of the King, may flee away trembling."

Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, although most protestants avoid its use. Which is a shame because this small, simple gesture is full of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity. Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth. The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.

In two fairly recent publications: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006), both authors - one an Orthodox Christian and the other a Roman Catholic - urge their readers to learn from the early church. "The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."

"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

As Nathan Bierma (a Protestant) writes in Christianity Today Magazine: "Whether we practice it or not, the sign of the cross is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show."

Hypocrisy is always wrong and there is nothing worse than empty gestures made just for show. But as Jesus teaches us it is not the thing itself that is wrong it is the motivation behind it. "When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.." (Matthew 6:16) Notice he condemns the motivation not the practice (as with prayer and almsgiving). To condemn the making of the sign of the cross because of its potential for showing off one's sanctity makes about as much sense as condemning any Christian practice. I like the advice of St. John Chrysostom (always one for common sense). He admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...