Arise, shine; for your light has come

By now many of us will have put up our Christmas lights. But the origin of this festivity which we link with Christmas is more complicated than it may first seem. The pagan festival of light on the 21st December welcomed the return of light at the winter solstice acknowledging that all beginnings emerge from darkness. Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time” or “Yule season”) is a festival historically observed by the Germanic people. Many present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat and Yule singing stem from pagan Yule traditions. For Christians this all has new meaning, as the light we look to is that of Christ who overcomes darkness with new life.

Isaiah 60: 1-6 NRSV

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

Reflection

In the Old Testament the great Prophet Isaiah sees the hope of Israel as a brilliant light that will reach the darkest corners of the earth and human experience. In the New Testament, the Gospelers recognise that Jesus is that promised light, which john describes as: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

This light, which we celebrate in Advent in anticipation of the great feast of Christmas is first known inside a person, in the womb of Mary the mother of Jesus. Following the announcement of the angel Gabriel, God overshadows Mary, and she conceives within her womb the Emmanuel, which simply means, ‘God is with us.’ Mary is the first Christian, the first person to carry the light of Christ and share that light with everyone, the light that enlightens the nations. For the truth about the Incarnation, the God-event when the very light of the creator chooses to dwell among mortals, is that God does not stand aside but actually engages in what it is like to live, to know life, love, and all the emotions and experiences of being alive. The light comes among us. At the start of John’s Gospel (his prologue) he introduces another prophet – John the Baptist. The people ask, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (John 1:22,23)

John acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testament – he points beyond himself, like Mary ever Virgin, to where the light truly dwells. But what about us? Do we long to dwell in light? Do we look forward to longer days and new life? Are we people of the light, who point to God and Jesus in all we say and do? Do we seek to bring the light of love into every situation?

As we decorate our homes and community with lights, to change the darkness of December into the hope of new light and life, may we remember how God chose to come among us, to bring his light into the darkness, just as Isaiah reminds, the light has come – his glory appears! (Isaiah 60:1)


Lord, the light of Your love is shining, in the midst of the darkness shining

Jesus, Light of the World, shine upon us, set us free by the truth You now bring us

Shine on me, shine on me.

Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory

Blaze Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire

Flow river, flow, flood the Nations with grace and mercy

Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light.

Lord, I come to Your awesome presence, from the shadow into Your radiance

By the blood I may enter Your brightness, search me, try me, consume all my darkness

Shine on me, shine on me.

As we gaze on Your kingly brightness, so our faces display Your likeness

Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here, may our lives tell Your story

Shine on me, shine on me.


Lord, you have shown us the way from darkness into the light. May all who struggle amidst the darkness of this present age, see the light which is your love among us. Grant us all the grace to see a way forward through the present challenges of our time, illumined by your love. Amen. 

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

O come thou Root of Jesse

Today we are considering the Root of Jesse from the prophecy of Isaiah.

One of the past-times I’ve taken up this year has been researching my family tree. I admit that I thought it would be fairly straight-forward given modern technology but it really isn’t. Sometimes you’re making educated guesses about ancestors and undertaking research to see if you’re right. And I’m finding the more I research people that more I empathise and feel connected to them. In my family so far we have peasant farmers, railway workers, professional musicians, social climbers, teachers, soldiers and factory workers. Part of the family lived in the same villages in the borders of Scotland for centuries; others were moved in the Highland Clearances and ended up in Edinburgh.

There’s great contentment in knowing more about my roots.

Root of Jesse

The Root of Jesse is depicted in orthodox and Western Christian art as a way for us to understand Christ and his origins. We know how important it was to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers, that the genealogy of Jesus was illustrated for the communities they were writing for. They needed to know that Jesus was from the Davidic line. Jesse, father of King David being a direct ancestor of Jesus, Immanuel.

Our reading for today establishes that genealogy. Jesus fulfils that prophecy.

A couple of years ago, Jane Williams explored Advent in a series of articles for the Church Times. She says of the Root of Jesse: “The tree that looks dead, looks as though its story is at an end, will blossom again, and with it the new age will dawn.”

She continues:

“Isaiah describes the coming one as wise, strong, and just. Nothing deceives God’s Messiah, because he does not judge by human standards but by divine, and so the world can at last be at peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11.6-7).”

A little child. A child that we know will establish our relationship with God, creating a new covenant with the Creator.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thank you to Br Paul-Vincent and the monks of St John’s Abbey, Minnesota for giving us permission to use this recording.

Malcolm Guite reflects on the Root of Jesse:

O Radix

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Malcolm Guite

We are grateful to Malcolm Guite for giving us permission to publish the poem here.

The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25:31-46

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’


Reflection

Mother Jo Winn-Smith

Jesus’s parables were often set in a context familiar to his listeners. This story of the sheep and the goats would have been easily understood by the crowd gathered round him.

A couple of years ago I was on holiday in Morocco. We’d been on a camel ride and were relaxing after in a Bedouin tent, drinking mint tea.

The big tent opened out onto a courtyard, and whilst we were there, as it was starting to be late afternoon, a loud, noisy mixed herd of sheep and goats flooded into the homestead.

They were all jumbled up together, having been out on the savannah. But as they came in, without direction or order, they automatically and naturally separated off into two groups: one of sheep and one of goats. Each creature knew which was its trough and water, and split off, without exception to their respective sides.

Advent includes this theme of judgement, as we are preparing not just for Christmas but Second Coming. This stark story, indicates it will be clear who followed Jesus, and who did not. I wonder, if like the sheep and goats I saw in Morocco, if we do not actually know, deep in our heart of hearts, which side we are on? We know if we follow Jesus, we know if we have accepted the truth, we know if we love God and seek to honour him in our lives.

This is not to say anyone is either 100% good, or 100% bad. There will be times we have helped others, and times we have not. We all need God’s grace and forgiveness. But I suspect we also know deep down, whether or not we have opened our hearts to that grace, whether we ask God to guide us to make those loving decisions, or if we actually don’t take it that seriously and haven’t let our lives be changed by knowing Jesus.

How can we know? How can we grow to be more loving and sharing of what we have? Opening our hearts and minds to God can start right here. Engaging this Advent in these Maranatha reflections, is exactly the sort of thing that is the kind of practice that if we develop it, shapes our souls and helps us to see with the eyes of love, the eyes of God.


Prayer

Lord Jesus,

Help us to know you, to be your sheep. Shape us, mould us, form our hearts to see as you do. Encourage us and inspire us to see how we can give of what we have, use our talents, use what is in our storehouses, to share with others and tend to those in need.

In your precious name we pray,

Amen.

“I believe that you are the son of God”

John 11: 24-27 Martha said to Jesus, “I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha says to Jesus in a wonderful declaration of her faith, “I believe that you are the messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She says these words, speaking as it were through tears of grief, having just lost her dear brother Lazarus. She is willing, even in the face of her bereavement, to declare that Jesus is God’s Son and trust him with her future, her brother’s future, indeed the future of the whole world, past, present and yet to come.

At times of loss for us, physical or emotional, we too can turn to Jesus and trust that God has a plan for the world and that we are part of that, we can bring hope, faith and life to others.

In a few days’ time we will switch-on our church Christmas lights sadly with no ceremony this year due to Covid. I pray they will shine light into the darkness of this time bringing real hope, comfort and even faith.

May we, like Martha have the courage to shine a light onto the truth and help others to know that Jesus loves them too, that our Lord seeks to comfort them and offer them hope, to illumine their lives with faith.

Because Jesus who knows what it is to carry a heavy load, to suffer and to die, embraces us with love and brings us by his grace alone to the joy of God’s presence which is life everlasting, the kingdom of heaven.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,

Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;

Thy justice like mountains high soaring above

Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest to both great and small;

In all life thou livest, the true life of all;

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

And wither and perish but nought changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,

Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;

All laud we would render: O help us to see

‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908)

With Jesus, our perspective on life has a new gleaming horizon, a promised destination where the angles of the Most High adore. Martha, in those few words of hope to Jesus, demonstrates how she comprehends this hope. May we, with her, be willing to declare that Jesus is the Son of God, the one coming into the world.


Lord of light, as we prepare for Advent at a time when Christmas will feel very different to years gone by, help us to shine the light of faith into places of darkness, bereavement and challenge. Walk with us these coming days we pray, guide our steps and help us to place our trust in you alone, the one who offers faith and the hope of eternal life. Amen.  

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!