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On our search for meaning …

A reflection on Luke 1:46-55

A fundamental part of being human is our ongoing search in every phase for identity, for intimacy, for involvement in the world around us by creating and nurturing things that will outlast our very limited life spans. 

Throughout Scripture, we hear again and again this phrase “from generation to generation” which speaks of our need to have something of who we are and what we have contributed to our family, to our community, to our society endure beyond ourselves as we enter an unimagined, and maybe unimaginable, eternity. 

Our search for significance is epitomised in our customs around grief as loved ones all gather together to tell stories of how the deceased’s life somehow fundamentally changed us, made the world a better place; and to receive the comfort that they live on in the eternal arms of God and in the legacies that they leave. 

No funeral is sadder than the one where there are no nice words to offer, no pleasant memories to hold on to – or, as we reflected on in one of last week’s images – where the dead are unclaimed, buried in mass graves, simply gone and forgotten.

From the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, and shaped and formed us for relationship with one another and with all that was part of the very good, we have searched for our particular place in the universe, for the unique gift that I, Yvonne, or you (insert your name) have to offer this interconnected symphony of time and place.

We hear the rhythm of significance resound today in the heartbeat of the Christ child within his mother’s womb – causing another to leap for joy! And in the song of praise that pours out of Mary – an unlikely person to be thought of as significant in her time and place at all. 

A young Jewish woman in a patriarchal society ruled by the Romans, from a lineage of priests, bound to a carpenter from Israel’s smallest tribe, bearing the disgrace of having fallen pregnant outside of marriage, would have had little to offer the world in terms of wealth or or influence or power. 

Yet, she gives voice to a God who brings down the powerful to lift up the lowly, who fills the lives of those who have nothing with good things while sending those who have everything away empty-handed, who shows strength in mercy, and scatters the proud while holding firm to the promises to those who would give up all and follow.

How does she know all this? 

Because God has chosen her in her lowliness to become known as blessed and to carry within her the blessing of salvation for a world for which she really should have very little to offer.

Significance. 

Every person, regardless of age or gender, religious affiliation or sexual preference, tribe or language, bank balance or level of education, ability or occupation is significant to God in ways that we will never ever even begin to understand. 

And being part of the people of God, people made in love in the Divine image, people on the way to a much-needed kingdom of perfect peace and justice, means being open to how God might be working out God’s purposes in and through another … often in opposition to what we think is right or normal or logical or important. 

It also means that God probably has a particular purpose for me (and you), a part that we must play in this particular time and place for the good news song to be coherent and whole in this generation and the next.

As Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoice in God, her Saviour, I find myself wondering today just what surprises God has in store for us and what significance your love, your faith, your life story might have in this ongoing and uncertain time. 

In his book, “Man’s search for meaning,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” What is your “why” for living right now? And what is our “why” for being church? 

In the rhythms of love and the rhythms of loss within the world right now, may we find too the rhythms of significance that keep us moving, dancing, laughing, together, in Jesus’ name.      

Rhythms of significance

We all have a part to play in the Good News story. Today, we reflect on Mary’s song from Luke 1:46-55.

As you listen to the words, reflect in the silence:

  • How does this song compare to the songs you like to sing?
  • Why is this song significant enough to appear in Scripture?
  • Are there any parts that are challenging or confronting?
  • Is Mary’s song also your song in any way?

***

With hearts and hands and voices, glorify the Lord.
Within the very depths of who you are, rejoice in God, our Saviour,
who looks beyond what others see,
beyond the sin and shame of our fragile humanity,
with eyes of love and favour.

Surely the Shepherd of Israel,
the Lord Almighty,
has done great things – for you, for me.

A God of mercy and of strength,
he lifts up the meek and lowly
and fills the hungry with all good things.

Just as we think that the world belongs to the proud and the powerful,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

Just as we despair at the growing distance between rich and poor, old and young, sick and healthy,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore

Just as we arrogantly grasp for control over the circumstances and struggles of our lives,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

Just as we wonder whether there is still a future for your Church and what part we might play in it,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

*silence*

May the God of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
the God who is faithful from generation to generation,
remember us in mercy forever.
For indeed, from generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures for those alive to the Divine Rhythm 
with and within them.
Bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore
In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Tuesday: take time to grieve

Today, I conducted my first funeral in this unsettling time of social isolation. It is a tough time to grieve. Both for the less than 10 who are able to gather together and for those unable to offer the comfort of physical presence and support. 

It felt appropriate for this time of excruciating grief to use the Gospel story from this past Sunday for the darkness of death and the hope of resurrection are central to the Christian faith. 

So just a few thoughts for those working through grief and loss at the moment ….

Unlike the other texts, in John’s Gospel (chapter 20, verses 1 to 18) it seems as though Mary is alone at the tomb – there in the dark of dawn and the deeper darkness of her heart ache and sorrow. 

She was one of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’s slow and agonising death on the cross and those images lie heavily upon her – along with the rawness of her grief and the empty unimagined future that lies ahead of her and, in fact, all of the disciples. 

When she discovers that the stone has been rolled away, she does not think immediately of all the promises and prophecies that Jesus would die and – in three days – rise again but simply that in this very broken and unfair world that she has experienced of late someone has hidden his body so that they cannot grieve, they cannot remember, they cannot worship as they would like.

When she goes to the room where the others are staying safe behind closed doors, looking for comfort, looking for help, Peter and John run off ahead of her. And, once they have discovered that what she has said is true – that the body is gone – they return to their sanctuary.

Mary, alone, stays in the cold and lifeless place, the empty place, overwhelmed by her tears.

In the immediacy of death, our sorrow often feels completely overwhelming as we wrestle with the loss of the physical presence of a person we loved dearly, process some of the unresolved emotions and brokenness of relationships that occur, and ask deep questions about the eternal. 

There will come a time when we will be able to remember and laugh at how a loved one brought life alive for us; when the tears do not blur our ability to look at the past and at the future and see clearly that they remain present with us in every moment.

But, on that first day of waking up to a new reality, it really hurts. It hurts to no longer hold on to the one we have lost. It hurts that his or her body no longer draws breath. It hurts that they, like so many of our hopes and dreams, have been turned to dust to be returned to the earth and the eternity of God.

As resurrection people, I believe that God would have us take time to acknowledge the darkness, to feel the loss of those loves and lights that have been of great significance in our lives, to let the tears come, and the questions weigh heavily upon us.

In our grief we can take the time that we need knowing that there is a change in this Scripture story when Jesus calls Mary by her name and Mary, in turn, names him by the essence of who he is and what he means to her: “Rabboni” or “Teacher.” 

Death cannot deny or destroy the intimacy of lives so long shared. 

It does not have the final word. 

The darkness will turn to dawn. 

The stone will be rolled away. 

The stories will change from the anguished, “I don’t know where they have put him” to “I have seen the Lord.” 

For those who are mourning in strange ways in this moment, 
may you know that the same arms which welcome your loved one 
into God’s eternal peace, 
bear you through the sorrows 
and the longings of the time to come. 
In your memories, 
may his or her life star always shine bright. 
In your hearts, 
may their love always be in full bloom.

With much love,
Yvonne

Sunday: realisation

Call to worship: Wilderness

I used to know the wilderness only as pain;
A land without food, a land without water.
But you rained down manna
And even water flows in your desert.

I used to think the wilderness was total isolation—
But the Israelites had each other,
And you had the stars in the sky.

So then I thought the wilderness must be time wasted—
Forty years of circles.
Forty years of wondering.
But then I realized, each step is a step,
And maybe there’s growth in that.

So then I concluded that the wilderness must be lonely spaces—
The woman and her well,
The blind man and his gate,
Martha and her kitchen,
Peter and his fire.
But then you showed up in each of those places,
To each of those faces.

So now I wonder—
What if the wilderness is the birthplace of creation?
What if the wilderness is where call begins?
What if the wilderness is where joy is birthed?
What if, between the dirt and the sky
And that wide orange horizon,
The wilderness is where we find you?

by Sarah Are – A sanctified Art

Welcome

Welcome, brothers and sisters in Christ, to the dim hours of dawn as the sun slowly climbs into the sky, bringing light and warmth upon the land. 

How we have travelled these weeks,
through the wilderness of scarcity and isolation,
loss and loneliness, uncertainty, ill health, and strange time which passes now too quickly, now too slowly,
to the praises of Palm Sunday and the horrors of the cross and the silent hours of waiting …
to this moment.

We begin with two questions for you to consider:
1. Why is this day special to you?
2. And, what emotions are you feeling today?

Gospel reading: John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

New International Version

Prayer

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Living One,
no tomb can keep You,
no door is closed to You,
no life is shut off from You.
Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith,
out of death into life eternal.
Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.
Amen. 

Guided reflection

Interesting that the day starts and ends at the tomb, a morning like any morning. No earthquake. No flash of light. No bright star to announce his arrival. No chorus of angel song to testify to the Good News of resurrection. Simply the awareness that what has been is gone. 

So we pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the pale light of morning and we hold before God that which is gone in our own lives.

***

Mary Magdalene, in the dark, notes that the stone has been moved. And her despair is doubled  – for her mind does not go to the promises and prophecies of resurrection but to her broken experiences of a world in which a crowd one day utters “Hosanna” and the next “Crucify,” where the beloveds become betrayers, where those in authority wash hands of their responsibility, where an innocent man is crucified between thieves. In such a world, it makes sense that the very same enemies who have orchestrated all of that, will have taken the body and hidden it so that the name of Jesus did not become mightier in his martyrdom. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the cold air of morning and we hold before God that which is broken in our own world.

***

She goes to get help. Or at least, some company in her grief – but Peter and John run off ahead of her.
The one who was at the cross and entrusted with the care of Jesus’s mother cannot bear to go, at first, beyond the door but notes that the body is gone and the wrappings have been left behind. The one who denied any association with the Lord, goes straight into the burial place and pronounces it empty of the Christ. They see and believe – not in the resurrection – but that the body is gone. And they go back to where they are staying – leaving Mary outside the tomb, crying and alone.

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the wake of bad news and we hold before God those who we have left alone in their frailty or sickness or grief.

***

As she weeps, Mary bends over again to look into the place that has been declared empty. She knows that the one she is looking for is not there so I wonder why she does so. Why she alone stays in the dark, cold place of death when the others have returned to a safe place. What instinct drives her to look again. What she expected to find. Certainly not two angels who she doesn’t even recognise as angels through her tears. Nor Jesus, himself, standing behind her. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the blur of tears and we ask God to hold those times and places in our lives which it feels like God is not present with us.

***

“Mary,” Jesus names her. “Rabboni!” she cries out. And the whole reality shifts. He was dead. Now he is risen. His body was gone. Now he is here. She wants to reach out and hold on to him in her relief- but Jesus gently stops her. Nothing will ever be the same and he is to leave his disciples in order to be with all people. His Father has become our Father. His God is our God. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the truth that changes everything and we ask God to hold the realities that need to named and challenged and transformed.

***

Again, Mary returns to where the disciples have sought sanctuary. Her news is radically different from what it was. The misery and uncertainty of “they have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they have put him” is now the joy-filed eye-witness testimony “I have seen the Lord” and the careful retelling of what he said to her. 

We are not actually told how her news was received; whether they believed her or wrote her good news off as the imaginings of an overwrought woman. Certainly, it did not seem to change their fearfulness for when Jesus next appears to them, they are still behind locked doors. Yet, that does not really matter. Easter Sunday reminds us that we all have a testimony to offer of the personal touch, the power, and the presence of Jesus.

So we pause for a final moment to be still, to be quiet, in the brightening light and we ask God to hold our lives as living signs of God’s love for the world.

Prayer for the world

Lord, like Mary, we weep.
We weep with all who suffer,
with all who are persecuted,
with all creatures who endure our cruelty.

Lord, we weep with those who are lonely,
with those who have buried a beloved,
with those for whom life is harder than death.

Lord, we weep with all who are oppressed,
with all who are bound by their addiction,
with all who are wrapped up in suspicion and hate.

Lord, we weep where disease is spreading,
where war has erupted,
where tempers run high.

Lord, we weep with children abused by the people they trust,
with young people bullied, and silenced, and shamed,
with homes where the anxiety of this time is made worse by violence.

Together Lord, we weep. We weep.

May we all, at the end of this Lent,
though many of our lives still feel like the wilderness place,
receive again with the rising of the light each day,
the knowledge that You are with us,
that You call us by name,
and that You have left us – like the empty tomb and and the folded wrappings – as signs for all the communities of earth
of Your power and Your purpose:
to heal all who are hurting
and bring us back to life.

Amen.

Hymn: Christ the Lord is risen today

Christ the Lord is risen today:
Hallelujah!
Let the whole creation say:
Hallelujah!
Raise your joys and triumphs high:
Hallelujah!
Sing now, heaven, and earth reply:
Hallelujah!

Love’s redeeming work is done;
Hallelujah!
fought the fight, the battle won;
Hallelujah!
vain the stone, the watch, the seal:
Hallelujah!
Christ has burst the gates of hell.
Hallelujah!

Lives again our glorious king;
Hallelujah!
where, O death, is now your sting?
Hallelujah!
Once he died our souls to save;
Hallelujah!
where your victory, O grave?
Hallelujah!

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Hallelujah!
Following our exalted Head;
Hallelujah!
made like him, like him we rise:
Hallelujah!
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
Hallelujah!

Together in Song

Monday: Fragrance

Tonight, we gather at Jesus’s feet to worship an extravagant act of worship (based on John 12:1-11, from The Passion Translation). Before you begin, I invite you to light a scented candle or rub some scented oil or spray some perfume lightly on your wrists – if you have these things at home. 

Watch the video reflection and prayer below by clicking here Video – or read the words carefully giving yourself time to breathe and reflect as indicated.

Close your eyes. Breathe in deeply. Notice the smells, the fragrances which fill the room in which you are sitting – much as the Spirit of God fills your heart. 

Think back on this night of costly perfume spilt in an extravagant act of worship to a story that comes well before it … to a time when something amazing happened in Bethlehem: the birth of the One who would be King of the whole earth.

Remember how the wise men came to worship, bearing costly gifts of their own. The gift of gold. The gift of frankincense – which was used for worship then – and is still used in places to pray today, turning first from black to white before its scent is released.

There was another gift too. Another smell. That of myrrh – a gum or resin – that was placed with the dead at burial and burned at the funerals of those whose death was important.

Think of Jesus who died for you, whose death was important for the life of all. 

Breathe in deeply. Imagine the scents of the stable and the foreshadowing of a tomb outside which, very soon, women will weep in the bleak morning light as they seek to care for a body taken in haste from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. 

This is the night that we breathe in deeply the sweet scent of love between friends, of a meal shared where Martha served and Mary scent and there was no squabble between them because Lazarus, their brother, was returned to them from the dead, or worship in spirit and truth that does not count the cost and will not be contained by the practical.   

Six days before the Passover began Jesus went back to Bethany, the town where he raised Lazarus from the dead. They had prepared a supper for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus and Mary were among those at the table. Mary picked up an alabaster jar filled with nearly a litre of extremely rare and costly perfume—the purest extract of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet. Then she wiped them dry with her long hair. And the fragrance of the costly oil filled the house. 

Breathe in deeply and let your love for the Lord fill your heart – Saviour that he is.

But this is also the night that we breathe in deeply the sharp scent of ambition, of dishonesty, of betrayal as we are given a glimpse into Judas’ heart and find it full of himself. Meanly, he turns on Mary for her generous act. Quickly, Jesus comes to her defence with words that speak of the darkness that will soon descend – and Judas will play a significant part in that.

But Judas the locksmith, Simon’s son, the betrayer, spoke up and said, “What a waste! We could have sold this perfume for a fortune and given the money to the poor!”

(In fact, Judas had no heart for the poor. He only said this because he was a thief and in charge of the money case. He would steal money whenever he wanted from the funds given to support Jesus’ ministry.)

Jesus said to Judas, “Leave her alone! She has saved it for the time of my burial. You’ll always have the poor with you; but you won’t always have me.”

Breathe in deeply and let the Lord’s love for you fill your heart – sinner that you are.

This is the night that we breathe in deeply the contradictions of those who were moved by Jesus’ miracles to worship and believe and those who would plan and plot to see him die for such miracles were incontrovertible proof that he is the Son of God..   

When the word got out that Jesus was not far from Jerusalem, a large crowd came out to see him, and they also wanted to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. This prompted the chief priests to seal their plans to do away with both Jesus and Lazarus, for his miracle testimony was incontrovertible and was persuading many of the Jews living in Jerusalem to believe in Jesus. (John 12:1-11 The Passion Translation).

Breathe in deeply on this night when past and future meet in a fragrance poured upon soon-to-be pierced feet. Breathe.  

***

Oh Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead,
and, in your last days, reclined at the dinner table with followers and friends,
~ savouring the intimacy,
~ unearthing the essential,
~ contemplating the road ahead,

in grateful adoration, I kneel before you this night:
my Saviour,
my Rabbi,
my Companion …

my Treasure:
~ cherished,
~ worshipped,
~ sought after,
~ centre and sustainer of my life.

Like perfume from the alabaster jar,
may my unstoppered confessions spill
and find your welcome and defence:
~ that I have forgotten the cost of your unconditional love while putting a price tag on on my own offer of forgiveness and friendship,
~ that I have held onto and hoarded – for good reason and poor – my time, my resources, my grace,
~ that I have been so caught up in my plans, my agendas, my desires, that I’ve lost sight of your will and your way,
~ that I have been ignorant of your presence, of your need, in light of the urgent and the tangible that crowds in on each day.

As I look upon these feet that walked within my world,
freshly anointed,
soon to be wounded,
~ wipe away all of my transgressions,
~ make me attentive to the immediacy of your kin(g)dom,
~ and fascinate me with the fragrance of your loving-kindness.

Amen.