‘Tree of Life’ (2009), Scott Rasman
22-24 “‘God, the Master, says, I personally will take a shoot from the top of the towering cedar, a cutting from the crown of the tree, and plant it on a high and towering mountain, on the high mountain of Israel. It will grow, putting out branches and fruit—a majestic cedar. Birds of every sort and kind will live under it. They’ll build nests in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will recognize that I, God, made the great tree small and the small tree great, made the green tree turn dry and the dry tree sprout green branches. I, God, said it—and I did it.’”
* * *
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom: ‘Deck the Halls’ (Genny Tunbridge)
In the Christmas story, trees don't appear - unless shepherds sheltered beneath windswept trees on the hillside, or the manger-crib was made from rough logs, eyed critically by Joseph the carpenter. Yet for most of us today (Christians as much as anyone else) it's hard to imagine Christmas celebrations without a tree. What do they mean for us? For some it's about memories and family traditions - decorations brought out every year, some gifts, some hand-made reminders of children now grown up; or the expedition to select and bring home the tree.
The tradition goes back a long way. Fir trees with baubles are a relatively modern import (brought from Germany 200 years ago), but for many centuries before that in Britain and Northern Europe evergreen branches, particularly holly, were brought indoors to decorate for the midwinter festivities ('Deck the halls…') and great Yule logs (real ones, not chocolate-covered cakes!) were burned in fireplaces throughout the 12 days of Christmas. Evergreen leaves, and the light and warmth of burning wood, were both valued symbols in pre-Christian times representing the life and light of the sun, beginning to conquer the darkness after the winter solstice was past. When the early church adopted the winter festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus, these symbols of winter comfort and joy took on added layers of meaning as reminders of God's evergreen love and the light of Christ come into the world.
bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
Real Christmas trees have a lower carbon footprint than artificial trees, particularly if locally sourced and responsibly disposed of. The National Trust #TreesUp campaign is inviting anyone to share photos of their decorated tree (or houseplant) and make a donation towards planting new trees: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/trees-up
‘The unchristmas tree’, by Rosie Miles & Nicola Slee
The unchristmas tree has no lights
except what filters through its spaces
except its own astringent needles
except those caught in its branches
except the gifting of itself
The unchristmas tree costs nothing at
except the grace to notice where it grows
Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)
We’ve almost got there! Three weeks of Advent down, and Christmas is in sight. We’re also on Week 25 of our ‘Trees of Life’ journey of exploring and deepening, together, our Christian discipleship – the words we’ve used to describe the many different ways in which each of us, individually and collectively, tries to respond faithfully to God’s call to ‘seek justice, love with kindness, and walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8). We’ve reached a natural stopping point – which is also an exciting new beginning!
Without regularly gathering all together, it’s been almost impossible to know what impact these reflections – written and spoken – over the last 9 months, have had on each and every one of you reading them and listening to them. I’ve had some feedback along the way, which has been really encouraging – but much of what we’ve shared has been a leap of faith, trusting that it will turn out to be helpful, in all kinds of ways that are hard to even imagine, let alone predict!
In the new year (starting on 3rd January), we’ll take up the journey once again, taking the time between Christmas and Pentecost (in late May) to walk with Jesus from his birth in Bethlehem, to his death in Jerusalem – and beyond death, on the freshly-trodden paths of resurrection life.
But for now, we’re on the cusp of that birth. Advent, the time of waiting and watching, is nearly over. The one we have been longing for, hoping for, is nearly with us, again and anew. The kingdom that, as the poet R.S. Thomas puts it, has for so long seemed ‘a long way off’, is within touching, breathing distance – and with it, perhaps, the possibility that our other deep hopes and longings might also find their fulfilment, even if not now, then in a time that is bearable – in God’s good time, we might say.
We have heard a lot, in the last few weeks, about both judgment and hope: both the cutting down of the ‘high and lofty’, and the raising up of tender, new, green shoots – even from tree stumps that seem dead and beyond hope. Today, those visions come within a hair’s breadth of becoming reality. For the prophet Ezekiel, the little cutting becomes a majestic tree, full of life – what begins as God’s promise (‘I personally will…’) turns into a done deal (‘I, God, said it – and I did it.’). And likewise, for the spirit-filled, prophetic Mary, what the prophets of her ancestors so often framed as a future coming, she (like her foremother Hannah many years before) announces as a present reality: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’). The world has been turned upside-down. The kin-dom of God has arrived.
As the poet Jan Richardson puts it: ‘Mary knows that some things are so outrageous that sometimes we have to talk about them as if they have already happened in order to believe they could ever come about. And so if we believe that God has brought justice to the world, we live that justice, and we share in making the world more just. If we believe that God has brought healing to the world, we live that healing, and we share in making the world more whole.’
And how does Mary know? She knows because she has come to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and even as she calls her greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb has leaped for joy. She knows because the same Spirit that surrounded and brooded over her, has filled Elizabeth too: cousin greets cousin, prophet encounters prophet, unborn child recognises unborn child. The Holy Spirit, the breath of life, the wind of creation, the ‘Go-Between God’, stirs within fleshy bodies, between blessed and beloved servants of God, and for a moment, at least, the kin-dom of God has taken flesh, and joy abounds!
Jan Richardson again: ‘Hope starts small, even as a seed in the womb, but it feeds on outrageous possibilities. It beckons us to step out with the belief that the action we take will not only bear fruit but that in taking it, we have already made a difference in the world. God invites us, like Mary, to open to God’s radical leading, to step out with sometimes inexplicable faith, trusting that we will find sustenance.’
As we approach this Christmas – feeling separations sharply, longing for a ‘more’ that is, for the moment at least, out of reach – may we feel the wind’s breath on our cheeks, know the Spirit’s connecting power bridging our distances from each other, feel Mary and Elizabeth’s joy bubble up from deep within us, and find ourselves, if only for fleeting Moments, walking ‘haphazard by starlight’ (to use U.A. Fanthorpe’s breathtaking phrase) into the kin-dom of heaven.
Reflection (Gloria Smith)
In school, one of the skills small children are asked to do is to put a story into the correct sequence. It demonstrates understanding of the story but also an ability to remember in the correct order. If I asked you to put the Nativity story in order, I wonder what you would say? I think generally there is a recognised order to the story and it starts with today’s reading from Luke. But I wonder if you realise this is an amalgam of two versions, one from Matthew’s gospel and the other from Luke’s. I would suggest that for today’s theme of ‘God’s upside kingdom-coming in Jesus’ the differences in the two versions is really significant, not only for then but also for us today.
Matthew’s account begins with the genealogy of Jesus, identifying that it can be traced back through the prophets and kings to Abraham demonstrating not only his Jewish lineage, but also his connection to royalty and power. We have to remember scholars believe Matthew was written from a Jewish perspective as that gave authenticity for the claim Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is then followed by a visitation of an angel to Joseph, the birth of Jesus and then a visit by the Wise Men who visited them not in a stable but in a house. The Wise Men gave gifts fit for a king and Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt after Herod threatened to kill Jesus as he saw him as a threat to his kingdom.
Luke’s version has a different feel to it. It is almost all in an upside-down world. After the angel visits Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, the angel visits Mary in Nazareth. A small inconsequential village ‘up north’ you might say, of no significance to anyone other than those who live there. Gabriel tells her she will be having a baby and how special he will be. In those Jewish times the importance of women was generally in providing children, not receiving such a message from God. Only when Mary has agreed does the angel visit Joseph. Another upside-down moment. The angel gets Mary’s agreement before he visits Joseph, suggesting very much Mary is a willing participant. The story then moves to a visit by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth who is also having a baby, John the Baptist. This results in a long conversation between the two women where Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of ‘my Lord’. Mary responds with the Magnificat, stating what God is intending to do. Another upside-down moment, as it involves a long conversation between the two women about worldly matters, but we will return to the Magnificat later.
When Jesus is born, it is (in Luke’s version) in a stable as we traditionally know – but this is the Son of God! This continues this upside-down account and is more so when Luke writes about a visit from shepherds. A choir of angels appeared to the shepherds in the field and they were told to go and visit the new baby, the Messiah. In those days, shepherds were loners spending much of their time in the open spaces with their sheep and were not particularly welcomed by village people. But, interestingly again a message from God, not to the rich and powerful but to the marginalised.
All of this narrative begs the question: Why did God use an ordinary young girl from a nondescript northern village in Galilee to give birth to the Son of God, when he could have been born of a wealthy rich Jerusalem family and had a much easier and safer start to his life?
I think the answer lies in the Magnificat that you heard today. Mary talks of God bestowing upon her this great honour because she is ‘lowly’. According to the feminist theologian Jane H. Schaberg it is ‘a personal, social, moral and economic document’. It begins by vindicating Mary by honouring her as she says ‘all generations shall call me blessed’. Mary then goes on to say that God ‘scatters the proud’ and ‘brings the powerful down from their thrones’, ‘lifts up the lowly’ and ‘fills the hungry with good things’ and ‘sends the rich away empty’. Radical, subversive ideas. It is precisely because of whom she is that God chooses her. Not a rich daughter of a powerful politician or religious leader but a young girl from an inconsequential place betrothed to a carpenter. Out of the mouth of Mary came this earth-shattering statement about God’s mission in our world. These words that she speaks are huge upside down, world order changing words that signify the reason why Jesus came in human form. To be alongside not the rich and the powerful but the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. Karen O’Donnell, another feminist theologian, says the Magnificat is ‘a radical declaration of the mode of God’s interaction with the world, in which God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.’ She goes on to say that every time it is said at Evening Prayer it is reminding us of ‘God’s intention to disrupt the established order’. In effect it declares right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel what God intentions are in sending Jesus into the world. And I would say if we only had Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, where all the players are poor and where the message of God to the world is given through this young girl it would become really obvious about God’s purpose and longing for our world.
Reading the Hebrew bible from Ezekiel, this message is re confirmed:
‘I bring low the high tree, I make
high the low tree,
I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.’
The metaphor is really clear. Commentators write of a message of hope when a new king comes, the messiah, and a new kingdom will begin, and that kingdom will raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty.
So if it is true that God wants to disrupt the world order then does that mean as followers of Jesus that is what we should help to bring about?
I think it does. Mary speaks to us today as much as she spoke to Elizabeth back then. We have to hear the message anew. As I was brought up Anglo- catholic I used to know this off by heart but it is really important that we listen to what Mary is saying. Not just listen and say the words, but to take them into our hearts and help to bring about their reality. We need to become God’s agents in the world to challenge, to disrupt and to turn this world upside down with messages of God’s desire – to re-create an upside-down kingdom that was always her intention.
Reflection (Ruth Harley)
Some years ago, I was at an event where, as an ice-breaker, we were asked to tell each other what our favourite passage from the Bible was, and why. I wonder what your answer would be to that question? My answer was – and is – the passage which is part of today’s gospel reading: the Magnificat, the song of Mary.
For me, this is, one of those pieces of scripture which has made its way deep into my bones. It has somehow become part of me, and it has shaped who I am and who I am becoming in all sorts of ways. It has done that partly through repetition. I have said or sung or heard it almost every day for most of my adult life as part of the liturgy of Evening Prayer. I first got into that habit when I was a student at Oxford. In my college chapel, Choral Evensong was a daily occurrence, and the words of the Magnificat, in the older translation of the Book of Common Prayer, would rise toward the vaulted stone ceiling: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…”
It was, perhaps, an ironic setting in which to fall in love with the Magnificat: an Oxbridge college, the very epitome of entrenched privilege. For 500 years, that chapel has rung with the revolutionary words of Mary: “he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away”. And yet, in that place as in so many places, the privilege of the rich and the mighty has always been obvious. For hundreds of years, the students who have sat in that chapel and heard that song, day after day, have been predominantly white, predominantly wealthy and, until very recently, all male, and have been schooled to perpetuate an inheritance of privilege, the extent of which most of us can barely begin to get our heads around. And yet, daily, that education is punctuated by Mary’s vision of a very different, God-shaped world. It’s a strange contrast.
At the other end of the sociological spectrum, the Magnificat is much loved by activists, especially those of a more catholic persuasion, myself among them. It is read by many who strive for a more just world as a mandate for action, a manifesto for what that world could look like: the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted up; the poor fed, and the rich sent away hungry. That sounds like good news for people living in poverty, good news for people who feel powerless, forgotten or excluded. And it is, as the Good News, the Gospel, always should be. It is easy to see how the Magnificat has become the touchstone of liberation theology, which declares God’s preferential option for the poor: that God is on the side of those who are oppressed and excluded, in solidarity with all who seek justice.
But notice something about the text. Notice the tense of the verbs: “the mighty one has done great things”, “he has brought down the powerful”, “he has filled the hungry”. Past tense. God has done it. And yet… and yet we have only to look around us, or turn on the news, to see that the powerful remain powerful, and the hungry – too often, despite the best efforts of many – remain hungry. So what are we to make of that?
And notice something else about the verbs in this passage – notice who is doing them: God. God is the one who lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful. God is the one who overturns systems of privilege and brings justice. The Magnificat is not, primarily, a manifesto for human action. So where does that leave us?
To say that God has done these things is not, of course, to deny the persistent reality of injustice in the world. The kin-dom of God is an eternal reality, already established, but not yet full realised. It is that now-and-not-yet which is the essence of this Advent season. We catch glimpses now of what has always been and will always be. And we are called to find ways to expand and magnify and – most importantly – share those glimpses of the kin-dom in ways which make them real and tangible.
To say that the verbs in the Magnificat belong to God is not to say that we should be passive, any more than Mary is passive, in response to what God has done and is doing. We are invited to participate in the life and work of God’s kin-dom. We, like Mary, are invited to say ‘yes’ to whatever part God is calling us to play. But the work is not ours to begin or ours to complete. Certainly it is not ours to control. We are not called to build the kin-dom. God has already created it. We are called to receive it, and to reveal it, which is precisely what Mary does in the Magnificat. And in receiving and revealing the kin-dom of justice which God has already established we, like Mary, praise and glorify God.
The Magnificat is more than a manifesto for justice.
It is a statement of who God is.
God is the one who disrupts privilege and overturns injustice.
God is the one who is on the side of people who find themselves on the underside of the unjust systems in which we are all caught up.
God is the one who has already – in Jesus, whose coming and coming again we now await with eager longing – overcome all the powers of death and destruction which now distort our troubled world.
God is the one who, by the life of the Holy Spirit in us, invites us to participate in a different way of living, to live in ways which reveal the kin-dom of God among us.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.”
Rejoice in knowing that God has been, and is, and will be establishing a realm of perfect justice throughout the whole creation.
Rejoice in knowing that God is tearing down every form of privilege and division and oppression which separates neighbour from neighbour.
Rejoice in knowing that we are invited to participate in that work.
Rejoice in knowing that even in the bastions of power and privilege a different song is already, even now, being sung.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
There is something here about time. The kin-dom of God, which Mary is describing in the Magnificat, is an eternal reality. But it is one which is not yet fully realised. We catch glimpses now of what has always been and will always be.
As I read / listened to the readings and reflections for this week…
· what did I notice, or what particularly stood out for me?
· what did they make me wonder, or what questions am I pondering?
· what have they helped me realise?
· is there anything I want to do or change in the light of this week's topic?
Poems / prayers for this week:
‘The Kingdom’, by R.S. Thomas
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
‘BC:AD’, by U.A. Fanthorpe
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
‘For Joy’, by Jan Richardson
You can prepare,
it will come to you
crossing through your doorway,
calling your name in greeting,
turning like a child
who quickens suddenly
It will astonish you
how wide your heart
for the joy
that finds you
and still so
 Strangely the carol The Holly and the Ivy mentions the blossom, berry, thorn and bark of the tree, but not the green leaves!