Peace, justice and Father Christmas!

A guest post for St Nicholas Day from Embrace the Middle East.

‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.’ Psalm 85:10 

Psalm 85’s concluding verses (vv.10-13) picture a bright future where God restores all that is not experiencing ‘shalom’. 

They proclaim ‘tsaddiq’ will be as present as peace when this day comes. This Hebrew word holds together ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’.

For many Christians in the West ‘righteousness’ has become associated mostly with personal purity. So we need the reminder that ‘justice’ is also emphasised in the scriptures whenever we see ‘righteousness’.

God is as concerned with our social systems as He is with individuals’ lives. So any vision of His kingdom that doesn’t seek a fair future for all has lost sight of true peace, and its Prince.

Why then is ‘peace’ more of a central theme at Christmas than ‘justice’ is? Because the latter shouldn’t jar with any of our celebrations of the coming King.

It will not help us if we tranquilise the kingdom by editing out its uncompromising hunger for justice. It will only further confuse and disappoint us. It will limit how much we experience true peace – and how we go about trying to build it.

Today is St Nicholas’ Day, and our modern depictions of Father Christmas are a good example of our tendency to do this.

Legend says the man behind the myth – the Bishop of Myra (a province now in Turkey) – actually gave his generous gifts to rescue the daughters of a poor man from being sold into prostitution. A far cry from typical depictions of Santa today!

In our vision of the kingdom, justice and peace must embrace as perfectly balanced equals. This perspective must shape all our prayer and action. That’s why we’re inspired when we meet Christians in the Middle East who model it so profoundly.

Hussein and Nadine Ismail are gentle, people of peace. But they are tenacious in how they apply their love and compassion for children and young people who need their help. The Learning Centre for the Deaf in Lebanon kindly but persistently challenges society and government about how much education deaf children can access.

To do anything less would be to neglect justice. It would limit the real ‘shalom’ those with hearing difficulties could hope to experience.

Let’s pray we will better express this same balance:

Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace, who champions the flourishing of all, thank you that the bells which will sound this joyful season ring out the arrival of a kingdom of peace and justice. Amplify their message loud in the hearts of all Your people, here and in the Middle East, till we even better hear, and obey, their resonating call, Amen.

Sharing the Peace

Something to consider and discuss with others

  • Which do you think you typically prioritise, peace or justice, and which are you more likely to neglect? How could you balance both?
  • Do you think we should, or could, bring the theme of ‘justice’ back into our Christmas celebrations more? If so, how would you start?

Something you could do today

  • How could you spread the word about the real St Nicholas today? You could forward on today’s email reflection to friends. Or perhaps share a post on social media talking about the original man behind the myth of St Nicholas, and asking others why ‘justice’ has become a bit lost at Christmas.

Copyright 2018 Embrace the Middle East. All rights reserved. Embrace the Middle East is a registered charity no. 1076329.

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Anne Catherine Emmerich

🙁 Oh, unfortunately nobody has helped us to tell Anne Catherine’s story yet.
Could that be you?

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote that explains some of what inspires the astonishing community, drawing as ever on great people already living the life we dream of.

Through the noise and the pain, hope…

Last year, this word from Jean Vanier dropped into my inbox and a number of ideas began to coalesce.

Belonging Together

Living with men and women with intellectual disabilities has helped me to discover what it means to live in communion with someone. To be in communion means to be with someone and to discover that we actually belong together. Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and their capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain.

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p.16

I had been reading a lot. Reading peoples hopes, fears and responses to the primates meeting of the Anglican Communion. Reading Neurotribes and learning more about the history of the neurodiverse community in which I live, horrified at the brutality with which so many autistes have been treated over time. I’ve been reading other people’s blogs about the life of the church in the holy land and this piece sent to me by a friend, knowing that I’m the mother of a non-verbal child: Why you should talk with non-verbal people.

This is the part which I want everyone to hear:

You do it for them–to show them they’re worth talking to.

Think about it. What do you communicate to someone by talking to them, or by refusing to talk to them? Imagine *that* boss everyone’s had who thinks talking to lowly little you is a waste of time.

But what if it wasn’t just your boss who wouldn’t look at you and talk to you because you’re not worth it? What if it was…(oh my gosh) everyone?…

And that’s the moment that I realized how much of the conversation I conduct is selfish, selfish, selfish.

Not that we shouldn’t enjoy those friends whose conversation is balm to the soul. Let’s be thankful for those people. But when I decide who I sit next to, when I let a conversation fall off so I can excuse myself and chat with someone else, those decisions are driven by what I can get out of it.

When I look at it closely, I realize the horrifying truth.

I seek to be encouraged, entertained, provoked, challenged, and flattered. And it’s not that I wouldn’t do that for someone else, but perhaps it’s at least slightly conditional upon whether or not they can repay the favor.

By making a simple, though complicated shift in my goals, it changes everything…

If my goal is to communicate to him that I love him, what I’m willing to do changes completely.

To communicate love, sure, I’ll work for it. I expect to. Anyone would.

I’ll take an hour and a half instead of an hour to make dinner, and expect a much bigger mess. It’s cool, because I’ve shown him I like him to be a part of what I’m doing.
Posted by MAURAOPRISKO on JANUARY 18, 2016

So much of what I had been reading, especially of the conversations taking place within the churches speak out of the pain that they are experiencing and out of a longing to be loved and accepted. People writing and speaking are so aware of the pain they are experiencing that they listen selfishly and respond to point out the plank in the other person’s eye.

I hear conversations where the meaning is lost as the rallying cries of differing tribes are raised and objected to: sexism; heteronormative; surely poverty is more important; traditional values; climate change; ageing spirituality; hearing friendly churches, accessible churches, Generation Y, and I find it hard not to join in, shouting for the inclusion of Autistes and their recognition as human beings, worthy of love and acceptance regardless of gender, sexual orientation, intellectual ability, theology, politics…

I’m trying not to do that. I’m trying to step back, to see the bigger picture. Each of these causes is worthy, has its place. Each person’s pain is real. Each person is loved and created by God. Each voice is telling us something about the bigger humanity God created.

I always come back to the passage that presiding bishop Michael Curry quoted following the primates meeting that sanctioned The Episcopal Church:

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3.26–29

If this is a vision of life in the kingdom of God, then the ever increasing complexity of non-binary genders, multiple neurological constructions, a spectrum of sexualities, differently abled individuals… leads me to believe that we are drawing closer to the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

It feels chaotic, its bound to really. Complexity theory tells us that new life springs into being on the margins of an organism. So perhaps the church really is beginning to live where it should live again, on the margins.

It is in these chaotic margins that The Astonishing Community seeks to stand.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those who do not feel valued by our society.
  • all who casually exclude others by failing to spend to time with them.
  • all who are desperate for their voices to be heard.
  • all whose lives are dedicated to listening (with ears or in other ways).

 

Gertrude – Saturday 9th December 2017

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Gertrude was born on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256. At the age of four, she entered the monastery school at the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta, where she was confided to the care of St. Mechtilde, and joined the monastic community in 1266. 

At the age of twenty-five, she experienced the first of a series of visions that continued throughout her life, and which changed the course of her life. Her priorities shifted away from secular knowledge and toward the study of Scripture and theology. Gertrude devoted herself strongly to personal prayer and meditation, and began writing spiritual treatises for the benefit of her monastic sisters. Gertrude became one of the great mystics of the 13th century. Together with her friend and teacher St. Mechtild, she practiced a spirituality called “nuptial mysticism,” that is, she came to see herself as the bride of Christ.

Gertrude produced numerous writings, though only some survive today. The longest survival is known in English today as The Herald of Divine Love or The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness, partly written by other nuns. There also remains her collection of Spiritual Exercises. A work known as Gertrudian Prayers is a later compilation, made up partly of extracts from the writings of Gertrude and partly of prayers composed in her style.

One of the most esteemed woman saints of the Christian West, she was a notable early devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Book 2 of the Herald of Divine Love is notable within the history of Christian devotion because its vivid descriptions of Gertrude’s visions show a considerable elaboration on the long-standing but ill-defined veneration of Christ’s heart. This veneration was present in the belief that Christ’s heart poured forth a redemptive fountain through the wound in His side; an image culminating in its most famous articulation by St Bernard in his commentary on the Song of Songs. The women of Helfta—Gertrude foremost, who surely knew Bernard’s commentary, and to a somewhat lesser extent the two Mechthilds – Mechthild of Magdeburg and Mechthild of Hackeborn — made this devotion central to their mystical visions. Saint Gertrude had a vision on the feast of John the Evangelist. She was resting her head near the wound in the Savior’s side and hearing the beating of the Divine Heart. She asked Saint John if on the night of the Last Supper, he had felt these pulsations, why he had never spoken of the fact. Saint John replied that this revelation had been reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would have need of it to rekindle its love.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those who are orphaned.
  • all who experience visions and visual disturbances.
  • all mystics and those who find their work inspiring.
  • all who pray for those who have died and all who are grieving.

 

Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Friday 8th December 2017

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On this day the church celebrates the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the most celebrated women ever to have lived. That God created Mary, as God creates each one of us, is without doubt; however, the stories pertaining to just how she was created vary.

All seem to agree that Joachim and Anna were old to be parents (like so many of the great biblical parents). God granted a child to them in their old age and this child was Mary. In the Orthodox telling, Joachim and Anna are clearly at a point of desperation when God intervenes. As with Abraham and Sarah before and as will happen to Elizabeth and Zachariah in the future, God begins with angels…

Joachim and Anna are not together when God sends messengers into their grief. We don’t know whether this is because they were both doing their different daily chores or whether they had each sought out solitude in which to cry out to God. Was it painful for them to be together sharing such longing?

God sent an Angel to Joachim in solitude on a mountain, and to Anna in her affliction weeping in her garden, to tell them that the ancient prophecies were soon to be fulfilled in them: a child would be born to them, who was destined to become the veritable Ark of the new Covenant, the divine Ladder, the unburnt Bush, the living Temple where the Word of God would take up his abode. Through the conception of Saint Anna, the barrenness of human nature itself, separated from God by death, has on this day been brought to an end; and by the wondrous birth-giving of her who had remained childless until the age when women can no longer bear fruit, God announced and testified to the more astonishing miracle of the Conception without seed, and of the immaculate coming to birth of Christ within the heart and the womb of the Most Holy Virgin and Mother of God.

“Even though the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place through a miraculous action of God, she was conceived by the union of man and woman in accordance with the laws of our human nature,

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • the newborn.
  • all who labour.
  • all who devote themselves to God in obedience.
  • all older parents.

 

Anthony of Siya – Thursday 7th December 2017

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Anthony’s is another life deeply coloured by grief. He was born in 1477 in a Russian village near Archangel. From an early age he devoted himself to reading sacred books and making icons. When his parents died, he worked for a wealthy lord in Novgorod, eventually marrying the lord’s daughter. Less than a year later, however, he was widowed. The hagiography then writes: “Despairing of earthly consolations, he gave his wealth to the poor and, owning only the clothes that he wore, went to become a monk at the Monastery of St Pachomius.”

Anthony is clearly deep in grief and maybe in depression. He found solace in a life of prayer, vigil and ascesis. He prayed for most of the night, took on the heaviest work by day, and (in a time when this would be praised as a virtue, not questioned as an eating disorder) ate only every second day. After a short time he was ordained to the priesthood.

Some years later he and two companions, seeking a still more secluded life for prayer, travelled to the frozen shores of the White Sea and established a small monastic brotherhood where the River Siya enters Lake Mikhailov. They lived in utter poverty, staying alive by gathering mushrooms and wild berries. This phenomenal lack of worldliness impressed and intrigued others that were seeking deeper relationships with God. In time, therefore, other brethren were attracted to the site, and a monastery was founded with the help of the Grand Prince of Moscow.

Anthony’s response was to withdraw into the forests, living alone for many years. God however, who exists in the community of the Trinity, is always calling us back into community to share our lives with our neighbours as well as in communion with the divine. Anthony’s spiritual children called him back to serve as the monastery’s abbot.

Let us give thanks to God for taking even our most distressing experiences and using them to shine light into the world.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those who are widowed.
  • all who cannot imagine being happy.
  • all who find visual arts helpful in exploring faith, whether as onlookers or creators.

 

St Nicholas of Myra – Wednesday 6th December 2017.

stnicholas-tobiasshaller-basedonnathanaeldewardNicholas was born in Lycia (in Asia Minor) around the end of the third century, to pious Christian parents. From early youth he was inclined to solitude and silence; in fact, not a single written or spoken word of the Saint has come down to us. Whilst he may simply have been quiet, an introvert by nature, I can’t help but wonder whether Nicholas had autistic traits, especially given the combination of his preference for silence and solitude alongside his sudden violent outburst at the Council of Nicea, where he struck Arius on the face. This act should have led to Nicholas being deposed as a bishop, but the other 316 bishops were convinced during prayer that Nicholas had acted out of love for truth and not through malice or anger and so allowed him to remain a bishop.

Nicholas had wanted to be a hermit in the Holy Land; but  was ordained priest by his uncle, the then Archbishop and told to return home to serve the Church publicly and be the salvation of many souls. His desire for a life of simplicity led Nicholas, when his parents died, to give away all of his inheritance to the needy, taking particular care that this charity be done in secret. Perhaps the most famous story of his open-handedness concerns a debt-ridden man who had no money to provide dowries for his daughters, or even to support them, and in despair had resolved to send them into prostitution. On three successive nights the Saint threw a bag of gold into the window of the man’s house, saving him and his daughters from sin and hopelessness. The man searched relentlessly to find and thank his benefactor; when at last he discovered that it was Nicholas, the Saint made him promise not to reveal the good deed until after he had died. (This story may be the thin thread that connects the Saint with the modern-day Santa Claus).

Let us give thanks that a man who spoke and wrote so little can still be God’s instrument to inspire us in faith and generosity today.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those, who do not speak, or do not speak often.
  • all who poor, hungry or in danger.
  • all charged with steering the course of the church, according to God’s will.

 

Sabbas the Sanctified – Tuesday 5th December 2017

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Reflecting

Sabbas’s father was a soldier, who took his wife with him on manoeuvres, leaving their son in his Uncles care, until the age of eight, when he entered a monastic school. When he was seventeen years old, his parents asked Sabbas to return home and marry, but Sabbas insisted on receiving monastic tonsure. It is hard to know, at this point in Sabbas’s story, whether his decision is driven more by a sense of calling to the monastic life or the desire to remain in what had become his home, living the only life he had witnessed. He would barely have known his parents or what married life looked like. Let’s pause to thank God that, whatever the thought processes guiding this teenager, the resulting actions gave glory to God.

Sabbas spent ten years at this monastery before travelling to Jerusalem, to a monastery that practiced a strict rule he lived here until the age of thirty, when Elder Theoctistus died. With this death Sabbas discovered the desire to live a more secluded life. Living as a hermit in a cave was part of the monastic experience of the time, but what prompted Sabbas’s decision? Did he feel the call to a deeper, more silent life of prayer; did he need fewer distractions or was he trying to distance himself from grief by making himself less attached to others? Whatever his personal motivations, God blessed his actions.

St. Sabbas was blessed to seclude himself in a cave. On Saturdays, however, he left his hermitage and came to the monastery, where he participated in divine services and ate with the brethren. After a certain time, however,  St. Sabbas received permission not to leave his cave at all, he remained there for five years, until his spiritual director died. St. Sabbas then withdrew from the Lavra (rich monastery) and moved to a cave near the Jordan. In 478, he moved again to a cave on the cliffs of the Kedron Gorge southeast of Jerusalem. Each time he seems to be moving to more remote, more secluded spots, to be totally alone with God or away from all people. So, God being God, made people curious about this holy, prayerful man.

Disciples began to gather around St. Sabbas, seeking the monastic life. As the number of monks increased, a lavra came into being around his hermitage. When a pillar of fire appeared before St. Sabbas as he was walking, he found a spacious cave in the form of a church. Eventually St. Sabbas founded several other monasteries and he composed the first monastic Rule of church services, the  “Jerusalem Typikon”, that became accepted by all the Palestinian monasteries.

How wonderful that God can take the journey of a life that withdraws from other people into greater and greater solitude and silence and use it to bring together communities of love, prayer and faith.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those, who live ordered, disciplined lives.
  • all who spend long periods of time alone.
  • Christians in Palestine today.

 

Barabara – Monday 4th December 2017

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Reflecting

This piece of our potter’s work is Saint Barbara, whose life in one way epitomises all that Peter is saying about how our actions grow from our convictions, with our convictions growing from faith and love. On the other hand she has an impulsiveness that shows a complete lack of fear or lack of understanding of the consequences of her actions.

Barbara lived during the third century. At some point in early adulthood she secretly began to believe in the Holy Trinity. Nobody knows why she began to believe. She hadn’t been visited by preachers, although she might have heard tales. She is reported to have begun by believing in the mystery of the Trinity, an amazingly complex notion to be revealed into her heart or apprehended during prayer.

When her father, Dioscorus, was required to go away in the middle of a bath-house building project, Barbara directed the workmen to build a third window in addition to the two her father had commanded. This action is both bold and oblique. Changing her father’s orders was likely to bring trouble, but the addition of a third window would not have an obvious meaning to the uninitiated. Something in Barbara clearly needed to express what she was coming to understand, to make solid something unseen and mysterious.

When Dioscorus returned, he asked why the third window had been added. Barbara could simply have argued her desire for more light or the artistic merits of an arrangement of three windows, instead Barbara began to tell him all the wonders of the mystery of the Trinity. Perhaps she had consciously, or unconsciously put the third window there to provoke the question, to enable her to speak about a topic she didn’t know how to bring up.

Sadly Barbara did not meet with a loving acceptance, nor a sense of wonder at where his daughter would get such strange ideas. Her father tortured her inhumanly, but she refused to renounce her faith.  Finally he  beheaded her with his own hands, in the year 290.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those, who believe secretly.
  • all who find meaning and pleasure in the placement of windows and patterns of light.
  • all who can be driven to anger and/or violence in defence of their beliefs.