‘Jerusalem (the hymn) – 100 years on

(Based on a sermon at Highnam Parish Church during the celebration of 100 years since the Sir Hubert Parry wrote the music for ‘Jerusalem’.  Parry was brought up at Highnam Court and learned to play the organ in the parish church.)

Samuel Longfellow was a 19th century American hymn writer. One of his hymns has always stuck in my mind. It was in a book called the ‘English Hymnal’, which we used in parish where I was a curate over 40 years ago. The second verse of this Longfellow hymn goes like this:

The Summer days are come again;

The birds are on the wing;

God’s praises in their loving strain,

Unconsciously they sing.


My boss – the Rector of the parish – used to reckon that many people in our congregations were like that: ‘unconsciously they sing’. We love singing hymns and often the tunes are fantastic. But we don’t pay enough attention to the words. And there are times when – even in the fairly modern hymn book we use in our local church – there are some hymns which I wish we could blue-pencil – cutting them out or editing them – because they say things that we just don’t believe, or are so old-fashioned that they don’t make sense in the 21st century.


The words of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ were originally a poem written at the beginning of the 19th century by William Blake. The poem was based on the legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought the young Jesus to Glastonbury and then links through to the idea of the creation of a new Jerusalem at Christ’s second coming – from the book of Revelation.


Nobody took much notice of the poem for over a hundred years, but during the First World War, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, included it in a patriotic anthology called ‘The Spirit of Man’. At that time morale in this country was at a very low ebb because of the number of casualties the War, and there seemed no end in sight.


Bridges thought that it would make a good hymn – as he said – to ‘brace the spirit of the nation to accept with cheerfulness the necessary sacrifices.’ So he asked Sir Hubert Parry to put it to music. And – as we know – it’s become almost an unofficial English national anthem for sporting occasions, it was adopted by the suffragettes and later by the WI, and – along with ‘The Red Flag’ – was sung at the end of Labour Party Conferences.


So Parry’s Jerusalem had quite an impact in many different ways. No wonder it’s so popular today, and quite often chosen here at Highnam for both weddings and funerals.


But what about the words? Are we just singing them unconsciously – without thinking what they mean? Is it one of those hymns which should be blue-pencilled? I don’t think it is. But let’s have a look at the words now.


In the first verse Blake asks four questions:

Did those feet walk upon England’s mountains green?

Was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

Did the Countenance Divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Was Jerusalem built here, among these dark Satanic Mills?


Well – fairly obviously – and literally – the answer is ‘No’.  But this is poetry – and – like so much creative and artistic work – we’re into a different way of thinking and speaking. Drawing on that ancient Glastonbury legend, Blake invites to think ‘what if – -‘. What if Christ could be made real for everyone – whether in the lovely countryside or among the soot-blackened mills which were such a feature of the industrial revolution.


Then he goes on in the second verse to doing something about it. He uses imagery of bow and arrow, spear and chariot and sword. In reality – probably not the imagery we might use – but he’s showing a determination to build ‘the New Jerusalem’ right there in the world he knew so well at the beginning of the 19th century.


Well – here we are – 200 years later – and what have his words got to say to us? The news of the past couple of weeks has been dominated by worrying and – sometimes frightening events in the world as it really is. Brexit; suicide bombers in Iraq and Bangladesh; racial troubles and shootings in the USA; and a rise in hate-crimes in this country since the referendum vote. It sometimes seems that – rather than moving towards a New Jerusalem – hatred and division are getting stronger – in our own country as well as around the world.


But let’s look a bit further back than Parry or Blake. Let’s go back 2000 years to the words of a man with an even greater vision, who really did walk this earth – not in Glastonbury – but in Galilee and Jerusalem. In St Luke’s gospel, Jesus answers a lawyer’s question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ by telling story of the good Samaritan. He was the only person who stopped to help a badly injured man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. And the main point of the story was the good neighbour was a foreigner. The Jews hated the Samaritans. They were sort of Jewish – but not proper Jews. A bit like Sunni and Shia Muslims in some ways.


No good Jew wouldn’t have anything to do with a Samaritan. And Jesus is clearly making the point that for his followers there must be no distinction of race or religion. Man-made divisions are wrong. We are all God’s children and – as Christians we have a responsibility to actively break down the barriers that separate nation from nation, race from race, religion from religion.


Our weapons are not bow and arrow, spear, chariot and sword – but the word of truth from God, the spirit of love and care for all our brothers and sisters. We can’t do it on our own, but each of us can play our part – as members of the Body of Christ – in making this green and pleasant land, the continent of Europe, the ruined cities of Syria and Iraq, the drought-ravaged countries of Africa and Asia – all of God’s world – a little closer to becoming the New Jerusalem.


The Referendum: What next?

Winston Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons on November 11th 1947 in which he said this:

‘Democracy is a very bad form of government. Unfortunately all the others are so much worse.’


The EU Referendum on Thursday was an exercise in democracy and we were all entitled to vote remain or leave. Unfortunately around 12 million registered voters didn’t bother to make their cross on a ballot paper. But what’s done is done and the nation has decided that we should leave the European Union. It’s a democratic decision – government by the people. That decision will affect every single one of us – whichever way we voted. And its repercussions are spreading across Europe and right round the world. Though I was surprised to discover yesterday that this referendum is not legally binding. Parliament could decide to ignore it – though that seems unlikely.


But another major decision will be made in the next two or three months. About 330 mainly white, mainly male people will draw up a shortlist of two candidates to be our next Prime Minister. The final decision will be made by approximately 150,000 people who happen to be members of Conservative Constituency Associations. The British people must judge whether that is truly democratic or not, and perhaps we shall be given the opportunity to do that in an early General Election.


I wrote a blog a few weeks ago setting out what I saw as a Christian perspective on the coming Referendum. So what is the Christian perspective on what happens next? Rather than giving my own thoughts, I’d like to read you what The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on Friday morning”


“The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world, and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.


As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues – come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.


The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.


As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.”


Wise words from Justin Welby. But I finish with some words from another former Prime Minister speaking about a very different, world-changing event – the day we came to call ‘9 – 11’. The words are from Tony Blair:

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again.”


We hope and pray that they will. None of us can know what the future holds, but – come what may – we are in God’s hands. But we are also Christ’s hands and feet and voices in the world. And we have to do what to ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable in our own nation – and throughout the world – do not suffer any more as a result of Thursday’s decision. St Paul, writing to the Galatians, said: “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.“ And – as a young man once said to Jesus: ‘who is my neighbour?’ ‘My neigbour’ includes those who voted the opposite way to us and all our brothers and sisters – whatever their race, their colour or their religion.

Interesting PS:

Do we have enough Members of Parliament with the courage to sign up to this motion?

‘This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government and humbly requests Her Majesty to invite Mr Kenneth Clarke and Mr Hilary Benn jointly to form a Government of National Unity.’


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The Referendum in 500 words

I wouldn’t dream of telling you which way to vote in the Referendum on 23rd June. It would be wrong of me as a priest to tell you where to put your cross on that day or any other election day. But your vote is important. I really believe that voting is not just a hard-won right – it is a duty. And we shouldn’t stay away from the polling station through apathy, disillusionment with any political party, or thinking that my vote doesn’t matter

In the run-up to the day itself both the ‘remainers’ and the ‘leavers’ are bombarding us with their version of ‘the facts’ about our membership of the EU. And – believe me – it will not get any easier to decide what is true, what is prejudice, or what is pure speculation.

We stand at a crucial point in the history of our nation. Not only that – Europe is at a   crossroads too.   The decision we make will affect our children, our grandchildren, and many generations to come. So it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

So what is this referendum NOT about?

  1. It is not just about whether we as individuals or as a nation will be better off financially. That is impossible to predict.
  2. It is not mainly about whether we might gain or lose more control of laws and regulations. We would almost certainly still be subject to many EU regulations whether in or out.
  3. It is certainly not mainly about immigration. Mass migration is an international issue and will not go away even if we vote to leave.
  4. And it is not about fear. I read recently: ‘Make people afraid of something and you can make them do what you want.

This referendum is about our future. Too many of the arguments we have heard in recent weeks have been harking back to the past – to the ‘good old days’ before the EU. Yes – it’s important to learn from the past – as Nick Robinson’s two-part documentary about the history of the EU on BBC2 a few weeks ago showed so clearly. We saw that one of the greatest visionaries about the future of Europe 60 years ago was Winston Churchill. Churchill was clear that a united Europe was the only way forward to avoid repeating past conflicts which had torn Europe apart generation after generation.

I know that the EU is not perfect. But it’s not only the UK that wants a change of direction – many of our fellow members want it too. I am convinced that we are better off inside, not least because we can then play our full part in helping to decide the future shape and direction of the organisation. Outside the EU we would have no influence at all.

How you will vote is up to you, but please, please do vote. It really matters.

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Syria – time for ‘grown-up’ action

My wife and I regularly lead pilgrimages to various countries. When we go to the Holy Land, we usually begin with a trip to the top of the Mount of Olives – just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. The first church we visit is called ‘Pater Noster’ – Latin for ‘Our Father’. It’s built over a cave, which, by tradition, is where Jesus first taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer,

All round the walls of the church are panels with the words of the prayer in most of the world’s major languages. At one point there’s a smallish panel which has the prayer in Aramaic – the everyday language which Jesus and his disciples spoke.

About four years ago, on another pilgrimage, we went to a small village with a mixed Christian and Muslim community, which is one of the few places where the Aramaic language is still used. We were welcomed at the church by the local priest who told us about the history of this very ancient Christian community. Then he asked if we’d like him to say the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic. As we listened, it was an amazing experience – hearing those words as Jesus himself would have said them.

We saw that church and that village on the television news earlier this week. Its people had fled, and opposing forces were fighting to control it. Bullets and shells were flying, and military aircraft circled overhead looking for targets. The village is called Maaloula. It’s in Syria – about 30 miles from Damascus.

It was so sad to see that village – and it’s church – which we had visited, being torn apart in civil war and its people seeking shelter in Damascus itself, not knowing whether they will ever be able to return to their home. Just one small village and its people, but it somehow made the tragedy of Syria more real and more personal. We had been there.

Going to such places does that for you. In the same way we can appreciate the problems of Israel and Palestine on a personal level, because we’ve been there so often and met real people – Muslim, Jewish and Christian. We walked on the streets of Cairo a few months before the revolution, and visited St Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai, now forced to close to visitors since the overthrow of President Morsi in July. We were in Istanbul about six months before the riots there. We walked along the Boston street where the bombing took place during the marathon. We had been to those places – and somehow the television pictures came alive – real people in real places.

I sometimes wish that our political leaders and media pundits could see that more clearly. It’s all too easy for them to pontificate from a distance and rush to take what they often see as the simplest way of sorting out problems. We used to call it ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ Now it’s launching some cruise missiles for a so-called ‘surgical strike’ to bring an offending country into line.

But where have the world’s leaders been for the last two and a half years? A hundred thousand people – real people – have died in Syria. Four million people – real people – have fled their homes and are now refugees, either within Syria or in neighbouring countries. Yes – the use of poison gas three weeks ago was terrible, but it was one more, particularly terrible chapter in this escalating civil war, which could end up engulfing the whole of the Middle East.

There are no easy answers – military or diplomatic – for Syria. But neither hand-wringing inaction nor gung-ho firing of cruise missiles are acceptable.

I don’t know whether the Russians and the Syrian government have really changed their attitudes. I don’t know whether America and her allies will still go ahead with the use of force. At times it’s seemed over recent days that in London and Washington, in Moscow and Damascus, they’ve been making it up as they go along. The innocent victims in Syria deserve better than this amateurish approach to their suffering. They need the rest of the world to act like grown-ups. Could we be seeing the early signs of this in the agreement between the U.S. and Russia about dealing with Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons? Maybe so. And maybe they’ll learn to allow the United Nations to do its job rather than trying to be ‘top-dog’ themselves.

But what can we ordinary people do about it? Well – we can ask the hard questions. We can try to understand. We can watch the television pictures and think of the real people – men women and children – families just like ours. And we can pray for them. Pray too for the United Nations and for political leaders across the world, that they will have the wisdom and the understanding to find peaceful solutions to this and the world’s other problems.

It’s sometimes said that mankind has come of age. Not yet it hasn’t. We may be very clever. But we haven’t yet learned true wisdom. We may have some understanding of what needs to be done, but actually doing it is another matter.

A reminder of the collect, the special prayer for this Sunday: O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Grown-up Christianity Part 3: Easter for Grown-ups

It’s forty years since I left theological college to be ordained as a Church of England Priest. But I very clearly remember one essay which the college principal asked me to write in my second year. ‘If some bones were found in a rock tomb in Palestine and they were proved absolutely to be the bones of Jesus, would it make any difference to your faith?’

I struggled with that essay because it was the first time that I’d been faced with the possibility that there might not after all have been an empty tomb on the first Easter morning. I wish I’d kept a copy, but all I have to go on is my memories and the way my faith has developed over the years – and continues to develop.

I remember tackling the subject by looking at the different versions of what happened in the New Testament. The stories vary quite a lot when you read them carefully, and sometimes contradict one another. But the picture seems to be something like this:

In the early hours of the Sunday morning after the crucifixion the tomb was found to be empty and the grave-clothes were lying in a strange shape.

Jesus then appeared to his disciples on and off for about five and a half weeks – often when they were least expecting him. After that he didn’t appear to them any more. His disciples assumed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that his new, resurrection body was the same as his old flesh-and-blood body. But it wasn’t quite the same – because after his resurrection Jesus could appear and disappear, and pass through locked doors. His last appearance was, they believed, the occasion when he ascended into the clouds.

Many Christians today believe all of that. But for other people there are a number of difficulties in squaring the Bible stories with modern scientific knowledge. For instance – if it was the same human body of flesh and blood which rose from the tomb, how could it pass through locked doors? And if that same body ascended into heaven, where is that particular collection of atoms now? Is it somewhere in space?

Look at it another way. Jesus died at 3.00pm on Friday. If the tomb was found to be empty at dawn on Sunday, that’s roughly 40 hours. We know that when a human body dies, the cells, particularly the brain cells, deteriorate very quickly and after a very short period of time – let alone 40 hours – the body is useless. It just cannot be resuscitated.

Now some Christians may say: ‘God is all powerful – he can do anything – he could perform the miracle.’

But if we believe that Jesus was really a human being in every sense just as we are – not just God pretending to be human – then surely he was fully human in death as well as in life. And his physical body would deteriorate as surely as ours will when we die.

So what’s the answer? In all honesty I think we have to say that we cannot be sure. And it’s no use saying that just because it’s in the Bible it has to be true.

But I think we can turn to St Paul for some help in another part of the New Testament – his first letter to the Corinthians. This letter was, in fact, written earlier than any of the four gospels and it’s Paul’s own reflection on the resurrection. It’s in chapter 15 that Paul refers to Jesus as ‘’the first-fruits of the resurrection of the dead’. He sets the pattern – as it is for Christ, so it will be for all people. But does that mean it will be a physical, flesh and blood resurrection for us? ‘A senseless question!’ says Paul. For him the resurrection body is something completely new – not the resuscitation of a corpse.

He compares it to sowing seeds. ‘What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power. Sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’

Raised as a spiritual body. Paul is saying that what the disciples saw was not the old, physical body of Jesus but the new, resurrection body which was of a completely different nature.

This is what led me to my conclusion in that essay I had to write at college. It really wouldn’t matter if the bones of Jesus were found. The resurrection wasn’t a corpse coming back to life, but a new life, unlimited by time and space. And that’s what it will be like for us too.

I know that for atheists and others that may sound just as fantastic and unbelievable as the various accounts in the Bible. But it works for me. And I’m pretty sure it worked for the early Christians as well.

Those first disciples saw or experienced something. There’s no other way of explaining how a frightened bunch of disillusioned men and women, who’d seen their leader executed on a cross, were totally transformed in a very short space of time.

If nothing had happened that first Easter Day then the Jesus movement would just have been one more religious cult – one of many at the time – and it would have died out very quickly.

But it didn’t. The Church grew and grew – and in many parts of the world it goes on growing. The Church isn’t perfect – never will be in this life! It’s made mistakes. It’s got a lot wrong. But still there are millions upon millions of people in this world who put their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their faith is not in one historical event that happened almost 2000 years ago. Their faith is not determined by whether or not the tomb was empty, nor even by what appears in the pages of that unique collection of all-too-human documents which we call the Bible.

We cannot pigeon-hole what we mean by ‘resurrection’. We will never be able to define it in words, in creeds, in books, in sermons, in blogs or in pictures. All we can do is point to the reality which these things are feebly attempting to describe.

Authentic Christian faith in the 21st century is about experiencing a new, changed life right now. God’s gift of new life each new day. Belief in resurrection life is, quite simply, a blinding realisation that God wants us to share in the full and complete life which is his gift and his purpose for every human being.

St Paul said that if there is no resurrection then it’s all pointless. I’d go further and say that true resurrection is to be found in our own lives day by day, if only we will let God work through us, bringing new life – not only for us – but for the whole world. This is God continuing his creative work within us. As Harry Williams wrote over 40 years ago in his book ‘True Resurrection’: “All that separates and injures and destroys has been overcome by what unites and heals and creates. Death has been swallowed up by life.”

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Grown-up Christianity Part 2: Lent for Grown-ups

I used to be a smoker, but I had my last cigarette on Saturday 29th March 1986. And I haven’t smoked anything since. Before 1986 I’d given up smoking for Lent on several occasions, but – stupidly – when it got to Easter Day I thought: ‘Great – I can have a cigarette now!’ Not a very grown-up approach to Lent. Eventually – in 1986 – I decided to give up smoking at the end of Lent. That last cigarette was on the day before Easter. And for me – it worked!

So what is Lent for? What can we say about Lent for grown-up Christians?
At our Ash Wednesday service I read these words in the introduction: ‘I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’

Now that all sounds good and sensible. But I sometimes wonder: Why just during the forty days of Lent? Wouldn’t it be good to be doing all that every day of the year?

I’d like to suggest a three-pronged approach to Lent – or rather – three legged. When I’m shooting video for a DVD I use a tripod to mount my camera on. It has three legs and it keeps the camera firm and level. But if I let off the catch on one of the legs – or don’t have it correctly adjusted – it will be far from level or firm. In fact it’s quite likely to fall over.

As human beings, the person we are is made up of three dimensions which are a bit like the legs of my tripod. We are body, mind and spirit. The three together make up what we sometimes call the ‘soul’ – our essential humanness. The soul isn’t some extra bit tucked away inside us. It’s the sum total of everything we are. Who we are depends – like the tripods and its legs – on keeping every part of us in good condition. If we neglect any one of the three, then we won’t be firm or level. We’ll be out of balance and our whole being will be affected.

So – just as I have to make sure the legs of my tripod are set right, so we have to look after the three dimensions of our soul – body, mind and spirit. And Lent is a good time to do something about that. As well as preparing us for Easter, Lent takes us into the season of Spring. In fact the very name ‘Lent’ is thought to come from an old word for Spring. So maybe – if it’s not mixing up the metaphors too much – it’s time for a personal Spring clean.

In practice, though, what might this involve? Let’s take them one at a time.

First – the body. Quite a lot of us – myself included – could do with losing some weight. Most of us should take more exercise. Some sorts of food aren’t good for us. The alcohol we enjoy drinking is full of calories and it’s a drug. It’s addictive and, if we drink too much, it can rot our livers. Smokers can’t avoid the messages about that other popular drug – tobacco – and the dangers it brings. Most of us are getting older and muscle strength isn’t what it used to be. Keeping as active as possible is important.

Then – the mind. The old saying ‘If you don’t want to lose it, use it.’ Certainly applies to the brain. I think I read somewhere that brain-power peaks in your twenties, and after that it’s all downhill. But that it’s best to do all you can to keep your mind stimulated, and there are plenty of opportunities around if we seek them out – book clubs, evening classes, University of the Third Age, clubs and societies. And, of course, getting involved in various forms of community service.

And then – the spirit. That’s a bit more difficult to locate, or for a doctor to diagnose. But most people – whether they’re religious or not – seem to agree that there is something called ‘the human spirit’. As Christians, we believe that this is to do with our relationships with God and with our fellow human beings. In fact, when we talk about ‘sin’ and ‘confession’, it’s not about lists of individual acts of wrongdoing. It’s more about the breakdown of our relationships with other people and with God. That’s why many churches which offer confession with a priest now refer to it as ‘the Sacrament of Reconciliation’ – a way to be reconciled with God and with our neighbour.

And our spiritual well-being is also about how we see ourselves – our own sense of who we are and what we are – our self awareness. Our spiritual dimension can be fed and nurtured in Church, in a house-group, in our own personal prayer and in reading – both the Bible itself and other specifically religious books. But don’t forget novels, the theatre and cinema, radio and television – all of them can be a source of spiritual nourishment and challenge, as well as helping to keep our minds active.

So – three legs – three dimensions of our own existence. We may be all too well aware of our shortcomings in each. Sometimes it needs someone else to point them out. But doing something about it is another matter. And this reminds me of a couple of verses from St Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.’

We keep on doing things that aren’t good for us physically, mentally or spiritually. Or not doing things – like the extra exercise – that we know very well would be good for us. But St Paul knew that – with God’s help – something could be done, that human nature can be changed.

So – it’s Lent. What can we do about it? If we just think in childish terms of ‘giving something up for Lent’, then we’ll just end up like me and the cigarettes all those years ago. It’s Easter – time for a ciggy, and an extra glass or two of wine, a chocolate Easter egg – or whatever – and it’s back to square one.

I doubt if any one of us in Lent 2013 can set about making all the changes we should make in our lives at one go. That would be unrealistic. But maybe we could pick just one or two things from each dimension of our lives that we can begin to change – and change permanently. That’s what growing up as a Christian and as a human being should really be about. Moving forward one step at a time.

But, of course, before you can start taking steps forward you have to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. You remember – at the beginning – the words I used from the Ash Wednesday service mentioned repentance. Now repentance isn’t mainly about being sorry for something – though that comes into it. It’s actually more about turning round – a change of direction.

A certain well-known Prime Minister once said: ‘The lady’s not for turning!’ But we have to be prepared to turn round and start heading in the right direction if we are going be real grown-up Christians. And then – bit by bit – make some changes to really strengthen our bodies, minds and spirits. Changes that will last – not be forgotten in six weeks time.

So maybe those words from the Ash Wednesday service do sum it up quite well: ‘I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’

A grown-up Lent for grown-up Christians.

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Grown-up Christianity Part 1: Wise Men

This is the first of an occasional series of blogs about being a grown-up Christian. It was written for the feast of the Epiphany.

If you look at the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the 6th of January in the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England, they are headed: ‘The Epiphany – or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. A nice, snappy title for the day! But at least they were making an effort to explain what it’s about.

Epiphany is a Greek word which literally means ‘to appear to’. Manifestation is from a Latin word meaning ‘a public showing or demonstration’.

But enough of the Greek and Latin for now. The more important questions are: What is the significance of the story of the wise men for us? Why was the story included in the Matthew gospel in the first place? And did it actually happen?

I was looking at the same sort of questions on the Sunday after Christmas when we read the story of the Holy Innocents – the children of Bethlehem slaughtered, according to Matthew, by King Herod.

Most traditional-minded Christians will say: ‘Well – it’s in the Bible, so it happened.’ But – in the words of the old song – ‘it ain’t necessarily so’. In fact, some biblical scholars have questioned whether we can regard any of the nativity stories as historical fact at all. They think that Jesus may well have been born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, and that there wasn’t anything particularly unusual or spectacular about his birth.

Now – I don’t want to start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I think it’s important for us, as grown-up Christians, to ask some hard questions and examine the evidence.

The nativity stories only appear in Matthew and Luke – no mention at all in Mark or John – and St Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about them either. There are key differences between Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem; Jesus was born there; and they were visited by wise men from the East. Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus made a speedy move to Egypt to escape the Herod massacre. After a couple of years, Herod died and they went back to their own country, but not to Bethlehem – they settled in the small village of Nazareth in the North.

But Luke says that Nazareth was their original home, and that they had to go to Bethlehem for a census during the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Just after Jesus was born, some local shepherds came to visit.

So – two rather different stories. And when historians look at some of the details, they find several problems. There’s no record anywhere else of a massacre in Bethlehem – or of a census taking place during the reign of Herod, who, incidentally, died in about the year 4BC. There was a census in 6 AD, but there’s no reason to suppose that everyone had to go to their ancestral home.

It looks, then, as though Matthew and Luke – writing 60 to 70 years after the birth of Jesus – were trying to fit the nativity stories to some historical events they’d probably heard about. But they got most of it wrong.

We need to remember that the four gospels are not biographies – or historical text books. They are theological books. Each has a very different purpose. Each has a different audience in mind. Each took some of the stories which were being passed around by word of mouth, and wove them together in their own way to put across a particular view of who and what Jesus was. The choice of stories and sayings, the order in which they appear, and the extra bits they added all came together to create four very different and distinct theological views of one person – Jesus.

For instance – in their own ways and for their own reasons – Matthew and Luke were each trying to make the stories fit with ancient prophecies from the Old Testament. So firmly had they both come to believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of those prophecies, that they hunted through the Hebrew scriptures to find bits that would support that view. Then they created a back-story to fit those prophecies.

Bethlehem was the home-town of David. Lots of Old Testament writings talk about the hope that one day a descendant of David would come and restore Israel’s fortunes. This would be the Messiah, the anointed one. Micah had foretold that a new ruler would come from Bethlehem. Put all this together and Bethlehem is the place where they think they that Jesus should have been born. It wouldn’t do at all for him to be born in an obscure little village like Nazareth.

The reality is that we just don’t know for certain where Jesus was born. But we do know that he was usually referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. So quite possibly the scholars who support the Nazareth theory are right.

Does it matter? Well – no. If they are right, then the Christmas stories we’re all so familiar with are myths. That’s not the same as putting them in the same category as fairy stories or Father Christmas. Human history if full of myths – stories intended to convey truths about our beliefs, our history, our culture.

The ancient world was quite used to the idea. One simple example – the creation stories in Genesis. They’re not historically or scientifically accurate. But they are an attempt to convey truth about why we are all here on this planet.

The nativity stories are intended to pass on truths about the nature of Jesus Christ – who and what he was. Again – not necessarily history or science, but valuable to us nevertheless.

As for the wise men and the feast of the Epiphany – the truth that story tells us is that Jesus if for all humankind – not just one ethnic and religious group – the Jews. By the time the Matthew gospel was written down, the Church had come to accept that, in the words of St Paul: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

So we don’t have to jettison the nativity stories. What would Christmas be without ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, the traditional nativity play and crib scene, and such wonderful poems as John Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’, T.S.Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, and Laurie Lee’s ‘Twelfth Night’? The music, the poetry and the stories all enrich our celebration of the birth of Jesus. But all must be balanced by a grown-up, 21st century faith in Christ.

(In writing this blog, I am grateful for the help provided by a section of Mark Tully’s Penguin/BBC book ‘Lives of Jesus’, which I recommend for further reading. It’s based on a 1996 TV series with the same title, and examines the different pictures of Jesus which emerge in the four Gospels – Jesus the God; Jesus the Jew; Jesus the Rebel; and The Hidden Jesus. The book is out of print now, but Amazon has used copies available.)

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