Tag Archives: Saint John the Baptist

21 December: Zechariah.

 

ossyrianfire

 

On glowing coals your incense plumed and rose,

and tendrils, wisps of smoke, entwining vines

of perfume circled round the holy throne,

round holy presence, round what faith enshrines.

O Zechariah, priest of God and seer,

in God’s eyes good, so good and true, yet you

were unprepared for Gabriel’s appearing:

you balked. But some, condemning, misconstrue.

Before the angel’s majesty and mien,

before unfathomed worlds spirits behold,

to me, your doubts, your dread – how right they seem:

before your silence gained what he foretold.

O Zechariah, made mute, but little flawed,

you shall live to see, to see your God.

(Luke 1:5-25)

SJC

Sister Johanna sent us this sonnet that distills the essence of her reflections on Zechariah. Thank you Johanna!

Will.

 

 

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December 20. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VII.

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Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb (1:21-23).

I can imagine Zechariah staying in the sanctuary long after Gabriel had left him, and then slowly, reluctantly leaving. I imagine the reaction of the people to this long absence of his when he at last emerged. They were not prepared for this new Zechariah – for Zechariah the visionary. Undoubtedly, there were questions for Zechariah. He answers with signs, but maybe they don’t get it at first. Maybe they were impatient with him; possibly there was some teasing before the more perceptive ones among the people noticed Zechariah’s changed countenance and told the jokers to shush.

Zechariah was a man whose vision of reality had not prepared him for the vision he saw in the temple that day. Yet, he had stellar qualities that I would like to have. He was deep, stable, faithful, humble, loyal and prayerful. When the Archangel Gabriel announced a new reality to him that day in the sanctuary, and gave Zechariah the grace of silence within which to ponder this complete reordering of his existence, he acquiesced. And months later, when his eight day old son was circumcised, he was able to affirm his full concurrence with the angel’s message by writing the name that Gabriel had told him call his son: John – much to the amazement of all who where there. And so, he then regained the power of speech. He had used his silence well, and through it had grown and changed, and had come to a full acceptance of Gabriel’s message. (cf. 1: 59-66).

God works that way sometimes. He sometimes does something enormous in our lives and does not always seem to prepare us for it beforehand. He throws us in the deep waters. We may feel frantic. When he works in this way with us, we can only rely on him to give us gradually the understanding we need.

Every Advent is an opportunity to become like Zechariah, to encounter Gabriel in the Holy Scriptures, to hear him saying something that, even now, is hard, very hard, to grasp as fully as it deserves. We know that we each have a role to play in salvation history. We will not be bearing John, no. But as we each bear the unique gift that our personal faith brings to God’s people we can say, as Elizabeth did when she conceived, “The Lord has done this for me” (1:25). And we can pray during this season of Advent for the grace of silence to ponder the Word of the angel who stands in God’s presence.

SJC

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, photo by NAIB.

 

 

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December 18. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star, V.

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The angel replied, “I am Gabriel who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news (1:19).

When I read of the angel’s reply to Zechariah’s disbelief and perplexity, I do not hear a rebuke in his words, as some interpreters have done. I hear reassurance. First, the angel tells Zechariah his name. His name is Gabriel. In the bible, to know the name of another being is highly significant: the name gives the other a sort of power over the one whose name is disclosed. God refuses to tell Moses his name in order not to give Moses power over him. He refers to himself only as I AM. But here, Gabriel allows Zechariah to know not only who he is but also what he does: he “stands in the presence of God.” He, furthermore, is God’s messenger: “I have been sent to speak to you….”

I can imagine Gabriel emphasising the words “sent” and “you,” as if to respond to Zechariah’s doubts about the angel somehow getting him mixed up with another and younger man. Gabriel tells him that there is no muddle. He is obeying what Almighty God has commanded. He has the right address, and knows exactly who Zechariah is, and how old. Zechariah is emphatically the right man.

And what is the purpose of this angelic visitation? Its purpose is to bring Zechariah this good news. Perhaps Gabriel emphasises the word “good” here, to assure Zechariah that, despite his confusion and doubt, this is not a tragedy. This news is good! Gabriel’s words might be paraphrased as: ‘Zechariah, you are not Job! This is a New Beginning for all humanity, and you have been chosen to play a leading role. You will be the father of the one who will prepare the way of the Lord! The new stage in salvation history is now starting, and you and Elizabeth will be instrumental in an event of truly cosmic proportions.

My own feeling here is one of great affection for Zechariah. Surely, Gabriel cannot be displeased with this humble man. He just needs time to take in the message.

Sometimes I need time, too. Do I allow myself time when I need it? Or am I hard on myself when I cannot immediately understand what God seems to be asking of me? Or, worse, am I hard on God? Do I turn away from God in frustration when his message seems incomprehensible to me? Sometimes I need to wait and pray. Do I?

SJC

This Cornish Angel carries the name of a parishioner, inviting our prayers.

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17 December, 3rd Sunday of Advent: A reflection from Bangladesh

Article by Sister Gillian Rose, a former USPG mission partner, who oversees the USPG-supported Bollobphur Hospital, which is owned by the Church of Bangladesh.

Despite political unrest that upset the country and horrific terrorist activities, here at Bollobphur we remain a little oasis of peace. Families of different faith backgrounds – Muslim, Hindi and Christian – live and work together in peace and harmony. Indeed, tiny babies of different faith backgrounds share together the warmth and comfort of the incubators.

Our largest incubator often has three babies growing up together. I always say these tiny babies do better if they have a companion – and, indeed, they keep each other warm when a sudden power cut shuts off the electricity supply to the incubator.

During the year, a total of 573 babies were born at Bollobphur. Of these babies, 38 were tiny and premature. The majority are very tiny on arrival, weighing only 800g, 900g or
1kg. Several mothers brought tiny twin babies for us to care for. Our student nurses care for them, feeding them every two hours, day and night – and what a joy it is when the mother is able to take her baby home, weighing over 2kg.
• Your church can directly fund this health programme through USPG’s Partners in Mission scheme. Visit http://www.uspg.org.uk/pim This link leads to an article on Bollophur by Sister Gillian Rose with a picture of her with a mother and baby.

 

O God, whose servant John prepared the way for Jesus’ coming:
we pray for the medical mission of the Church of Bangladesh.
Bless the premature babies there, sharing a common incubator.
May their world become a fair and just home for all.

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

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Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.

SJC

John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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December 15. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: III.

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Then there appeared to Zechariah the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, “Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard” (1:11-12).

The gospels are sometimes discreet about their characters’ emotional reactions. The Holy Spirit must fill in such details. I imagine Zechariah suddenly feeling, with scalp-tingling certainty, that he is not alone in the Lord’s sanctuary. He looks up from the incense and gasps, his heart hammers in his chest, he trembles, he feels frozen to the spot. I imagine him telling this story long afterwards, every detail held fast in his memory. A magnificently beautiful angelic being is standing there on the right side of the altar of incense, radiant, solemn, and looking straight at him – looking straight into his eyes, and seemingly into his very soul. Zechariah stares back, shaking and wide-eyed. The splendour of the angel overwhelms him. He is frightened, feels he should cover his eyes or lower them, but he cannot stop looking at the angel’s majestic beauty. The angel tries to reassure him, calling him by name, “Zechariah, do not be afraid.”

How does Zechariah respond? Does his fear evaporate? I rather doubt that the fear disappears completely, but perhaps some aspects of it diminish a bit as the angel continues his message. “…your prayer has been heard.”

What prayer? Can it be the one so dear to his heart, yet so long unanswered? The prayer that was by now past praying for? That Elizabeth should conceive? And bear a son? Indeed, yes! Zechariah’s prayer had been heard: Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. (1:13)

But, Zechariah – even though he is a holy man, and upright in the sight of God – might not have been prepared for the fact that when we ask God for something in prayer, God hears not only the request of which we are conscious, but also that request’s most profound ramifications, of which we are not fully conscious when we first made our prayer. Perhaps, then, we need to be ready when we ask God for something – ready for the fact that God does nothing by halves. Our prayer will be answered, yes, but it will be answered so deeply, so completely that it will require of us a new level of surrender to the divine will, and a greater degree of courage than we had needed hitherto. This much is certain: when God answers a prayer, some mind-stretching is required in order to take it in.

SJC

 

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12 December. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star: Preface on Lectio Divina.

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It is always good to hear from Sister Johanna at Minster Abbey. Today she introduces her Advent reflections on Zechariah (or Zachary) by explaining how they came to her. She was reading the Gospel story of how John the Baptist came to be born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth when a very human and likeable figure emerged.

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a rather fancy Latin term that may not be known to every reader of these posts. It means ‘sacred reading’, or ‘holy reading’ and refers to the practice of slowly and prayerfully reading the bible. For a Benedictine nun or monk, lectio is a daily exercise, lasting anywhere from one to two hours, and it is a wonderful experience. But lectio is not merely a pious exercise for monks and nuns. If you take your spiritual life seriously and wish to grow closer to God, try to set aside a period of time each day for this beautiful practice. Busy people may not have time for a full hour or two, but even a daily habit of fifteen minutes can be full of grace.

If you have never tried it, lectio may seem strange at first. Reading the bible is not like reading any other book. You are not trying to ‘find out what happens next’, or quickly reach the end. You are reading a bit like a child eats an ice-cream cone: you try to make it last, and to savour each line like the child savours each lick.

Soon, the reader finds that lectio divina yields a harvest of rich meditations. This in turn leads to deeper prayer, as the Holy Spirit gives the reader new insights, which can be deeply personal ones that shed light on the way God is working in the reader’s life. I have found that writing down my lectio meditations helps them along. As I write, more insights come. The following posts are based on the meditations I have had when using the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke for my lectio.

Reading can be a window looking beyond ourselves. Zakopane. Poland.

 

 

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24 June: Saint John the Baptist: Dipped in Light, Dipped in Grey – Editor’s note.

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Today is the feast of John the Baptist. As John the Evangelist tells us,

The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him. He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light. That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world. 

John 1:5-9.

And of course, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the longest day, the light-filled day. For Southerners, Antipodeans, the days are about to lengthen. So now turn over and read Sister Johanna’s poem, and cast away greyness, revel in the light.

You may also care to revisit T, Alfie and Ajax’s musings on greyness in all its aspects: https://agnellusmirror.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/land-of-plenty/

Photo: Zakopane, Poland, Holy Family Shrine.

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9 January: The Baptism of Our Lord

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When my ten-year-old godson was baptised, he chose a new name, one that was important to him: his Father’s name.

When my son was baptised he was given names from his grandfathers and godfather. Our daughter’s names, too, were chosen to say something about who they were and where they came from.

We can learn something about a person – and their parents and ancestors – from their surnames.

And so it is when Jesus is baptised; we are told something about him: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

While John was right to say that Jesus did not need his baptism of repentance, by accepting it Jesus witnessed to his relationship with his Father – a relationship John encouraged his penitents to renew at a personal level through a symbolic death and rebirth in the water.

Let’s pray for the grace to be faithful to our baptism by daily witnessing to our relationship with the Father and by daily renewing that relationship in our moments of reflection and repentance.

MMB

The Baptism of the Lord, Basilica of the Holy Family, Zakopane, Poland.

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15 December: Accept God’s invitation to change.

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There is an aura of joy about today’s readings; in the first, the people are told to: “Shout for joy” and mourn no more, for salvation was coming.  Isaiah was prophesying about a time when the people had repented and returned to God, and He had forgiven them, making a “Covenant of peace” with them which would never be shaken.  His only requirement was that the people had faith in Him.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus commends John, who had been the “greatest of all the children born of women”, because he had known what God wanted and had not been afraid to preach it.  He had been the person bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments, showing people the first step of the new order: repentance and baptism.  Yet, those coming after who accepted the teaching of Jesus would be in a greater position than John because they had faith, having learned the truths of the Gospel, and were to benefit from the Sacrifice of the Cross.

The reading ends with a warning to the Pharisees, who had been too proud and too convinced of their righteousness to receive baptism from John. They had not realised that this was how God was leading His people at this time; they were “Thwarting God’s plan”.

Let us pray that we will always be open to change our ideas to do whatever God asks of us.

FMSL

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