Preparing for the Season of Advent

Introduction

Preparing for Advent

Advent will soon be upon us. Once more we will enter that season of the Church's year that comes to trigger consciousness, not to provoke our consciences. It is a time set apart by the Church to remind us who God is and who we are meant to be. It is a time that celebrates beginnings and endings, and what happens in between. It is also a time that invites us to live Advent lives - not just to celebrate the season of Advent.

For those of us who are growing older and entering into new phases of life, Advent can be a time of great re-awakening. It reminds us that we need to follow our call to grow wiser; to understand the meaning of the life that has been given to us. It is a time when we have the opportunity to take stock, to realize the gift we have been given. It is about understanding life itself, and taking on board the Advent message, which is about becoming more than we are, about being all that we can be. That is the message of Advent. To enter into the process of becoming all that we are and all that we can be, in order to live our lives to the full. As Joan Chittister puts it:

When we know who we really are, when we present no disguises and parade no pretensions, when we are honest both with ourselves and with others, we find ourselves free to be ourselves. We have no image to keep up, no lies to gild in a gilded society. We become full of integrity.

Ageing is about growing into our own wisdom and integrity. It is about coming out of one part of life and entering into another. It is about transition, about awareness, about the mental and spiritual attitudes we bring to the challenges of growing in wisdom and in strength in our later years. Physically, we might find ourselves more limited, but the blessing of age is to come to realize the intentionality of growing older. There is a purpose to it. It is not an ending of life, but rather an entry into new life - and it is not synonymous with dying! Death and age are not synonyms. Death can come at any time. Age comes only to those who live! The years of our ageing are the years that call us to bring together all the experiences of life; to look at them head on, and to face up to and look beyond the fears and hesitations that have shaped our past, so that we can walk strong and true into our futures - more fully alive and free than, perhaps, we have ever been. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding”, the last of the great poems called the Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning.

And then:

We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.

The great Advent themes can help us understand the meaning of such beginnings and endings and the journey in between. Throughout the cycle of the Advent readings we find the themes of our ageing and our spiritual reality: The themes of hope and joy, forgiveness and reconciliation, love and peace, expectation and acceptance. We see the meaning of time past more clearly in time present, and thus can live more fully into our futures. We need to embrace the undertaking, the exploration, in order to come to newness. Eliot again, this time from “East Coker”:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated/Of dead and living. Not the intense moment/Isolated, with no before and after, /But a lifetime burning in every moment/And not the lifetime of one man only/But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,/A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album)./Love is most nearly itself/When here and now cease to matter./Old men ought to be explorers/Here or there does not matter/We must be still and still moving/Into another intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,/The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters/Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

To enter the journey of wholeness is an exploration. It is to discover the meaning of our lives, and that too is the call of Scripture, and the meaning of these scriptural reminiscences. Reading scripture through the lens of our own life enables us to touch our own joys, regrets, hopes, fears, hurts and suffering, so that we can move beyond them into greater fullness of life. We can trace the patterns of living through the lives of others, and through the life of Jesus who came that we might have life and have it to the full. Because Scripture is story, it doesn't just tell us something and leave it there. Good storytelling gathers us into the story itself. We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked. Good story makes us realize there is more to this business of being human than we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, doors and windows open. To approach Scripture as story is to be caught up in the drama of life itself - and it can open new doors to growth, wholeness, and that which we call holiness.

If ageing is about growing into fullness of life, then it is about growing beyond the self we thought we were into the self we were born to be. It is about freedom. It is about embracing the reality of our lives without deceit. It is about being content to be who we are, not who we thought we were, or who we hoped to be, but who we are. It is about simplicity and joyful acceptance of the wonder of the self that is.

Ageing really is about growing into a new stage of life; one which enables us to integrate all the other ages of our life. It is the time to ‘stand still', to ruminate, to reflect, to explore the rock pools of our lives to find the diversity that rests within, and has sometimes been forgotten in all the busyness and the pressure of the past.

When we take the time to explore, we open ourselves to change and growth; we become the person we were born to be. Understanding ourselves we can understand others. Compassionate with ourselves, we can be compassionate to others. At home in the community of the self, we can be community for others, and thus be agents of change in the world in which we live.

We need tools to help us integrate the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent in our lives. We need to find ways to free ourselves from those things that tie us to older and perhaps more negative ways of being. Equally we need tools that help us validate the beauty and the truth of our lives. These Scriptural reminiscences are one such tool to assist us all to become open to the call to be ourselves. If we allow it, Scripture can reveal us to ourselves, even as it reveals God's great love and longing for us to be at one with God, with self and with others.

Over the next six weeks, you are invited to enter into the journey of Advent in a particular way, so that you might come to live life more fully, with heads up and arms open, content to be alive and pulsing with fullness of spirit whatever the circumstances of the day.

The texts that make up this six weeks program are invitations to enter more deeply into our lives as they are now. They are doors, if you like, through which you can pass to encounter the living God and God's own designs for you. They are also doors which can open other doors for us - the doors we hide behind - doors of doubt, fear, anguish, loneliness, isolation, and hurt. We have all needed doors that shelter us - but growing into fullness of life means that we need to understand that living behind closed doors also means that we do not live life to the full. This six weeks program offers us a chance of engaging with the Scriptures and our self, so that we can live more fully our graced and gifted lives.

Ways of Approaching Scripture

If we are to enter into Scripture and let the Scripture enter into us, there are some ‘ways' of doing this. The first things to remember are that: 1) Scripture is story - a story that begs for our attention and participation. We put our imaginations, our minds and our hearts to hearing the story and allowing ourselves to be engaged with it. 2) Reading Scripture is a holistic endeavour, and that means that it is also a spiritual activity.

We can get some idea of this by looking at how the early church fathers approached scripture. Origen, who lived between 185-254 AD, wrote: "The Word of God is in your heart. The Word digs in this soil so that the spring may gush out. "That does seem to imply that the stories of Scripture are meant to engage us at a level that will encourage us to be challenged and changed by the encounter.

Jerome, who lived between 342-419 AD, wrote: "You are reading? No. Your betrothed is talking to you. It is your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you. He tears you away from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to you, 'Enter into the joy of your Master.' " So scripture, according to Jerome, is a means of entering deeper into relationship with your God in Christ. It is a place of encounter between the divine and the human. Scripture, in this context, is not a place to find information, though information can be found within it. Scripture is encounter.

John Chrysostom, who lived between 347-407 AD, wrote: "Listen carefully to me...Procure books [of the Bible] that will be medicines for the soul. At least get a copy of the New Testament, the Apostle's epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If you encounter grief, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take from them comfort for your trouble, whether it be loss, or death, or bereavement over the loss of relations. Don't simply dive into them. Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind. The cause of all evils is the failure to know the Scriptures well." Chrysostom makes the point that within the texts of Scripture there is healing to be found. There is wisdom within, and he encourages us to ‘swim' - to become immersed in the story - so that whatever the story, it is given the chance to bring us the healing and the hope we need.

Whatever we might think of these quotes, they point out one thing. The Scripture is a pool in which a child may paddle, or an elephant may swim. Our engagement with Scripture is about a relationship with a God who wants to be in relationship with us. To engage with Scripture is not an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual one. It requires us to be open and authentic - to let the scripture speak to us in heart and mind. To break open the Word of God is also to be broken open by that same Word. It requires not only faith, but a degree of courage.

There are some ways of engaging with Scripture that may be of help.

1. Scripture Meditation:

a. Read the text from scripture slowly. See what the text is speaking about in its historical, cultural, moral context.

b. How does it relate to your life? The text today is telling you something. It is alive in your own life. In what way does it apply to your present situation in life?

c. Dialogue with the passage. God speaks to you and you listen. Note the thoughts, feelings and emotions that rise in you. Let the things in your life that are reflected in the passage come into your mind and heart so that you can confront them with the God who invites you to do so.

d. Thank God for the insights you have received and allow God to minister to you as you rest within the silence of your own heart.

2. Scriptural contemplation

Stories have the capacity to draw us in. Almost without effort we find ourselves imagining the place and the people and the better the story the more we find ourselves moved by what we imagine. This natural capacity is the basis of the way of praying called imaginative, or Ignatian, contemplation. Some people avoid this kind of prayer because they say they ‘have no imagination' but everyone does-it is just that it seems to work differently in different people. We often think that we should see pictures in our imagination, but, just as commonly, people seem to hear their way into a story while others enter the imagination through a vague but significant sense of where things are.

Imagination is related to memory: if you can call up a memory in some way you can use your imagination in prayer. Think of someone you love or a place where you have been happy and you will find yourself spontaneously using your imagination in the way that works for you.

People also differ in how much work it takes to imagine. Some find their imagination more passive-events unfold before them without effort-while others have a more active imagination-they are more aware of the work that goes into ‘building' an experience.

However you approach it though, imaginative prayer is a powerful way to enter into a gospel story. The details of the story and the work of your imagination shape a temporary world for you to experience in a real way.

* Beginning: Choose your scripture passage and become comfortable with it. Read it over a few times until you know what happens and are able to set the words aside.
* Settling: Find a quiet inner place; as quiet as you have available right now. Begin to remember the story and its setting, letting it take shape, and letting yourself settle there.
* Imagining: Use your imagination to enter into the story in some of the ways below:

1. Watch what happens: listen to what is being said; feel the action with your body.

2. Become part of the story either by being yourself or by becoming one of the other people in the story.

3. Listen, taste, smell, feel, and watch what happens. Allow yourself to interact with the others in the event: enter into conversation with them, listen to what they have to say to you and to each other, etc.

4. Allow the event to unfold through your imagination, taking as long as you want, following the narrative wherever it seems to want to go.

5. Respond spontaneously in conversation with God, with Jesus or with one of the other persons in the story.
 Ending: When you are ready, mark the end of your time of prayer with some closing gesture or words of prayer. Afterwards you might want to make a note of anything that seemed significant.

Contemplation involves imaginatively entering into the incident we are considering — being present at the event, seeing it happen as if we were ourselves actually participating in the event.

It is like the experience of watching a movie. Why do we cry at a movie? Surely we know it is just a film? Why cry then? It is because we have become imaginatively and emotionally involved in the story. We in some way re-live it ourselves. We identify ourselves with the actors and make their attitudes and feelings our own. We know how they feel because we feel and experience with them. They become a part of our lives.

We bring our human powers of imagination to our prayer and seek to re-live the life of Jesus in order to find our own lives within it. Here is another example of entering into the Scripture, using the story of the woman at the well in John 4: After settling into quiet and reading the text, simply allow the scene to unfold, and pay attention to what is happening.

Perhaps we are sitting beside Jesus as the woman arrives along the road. We notice His face. It is weary. We see what the woman looks like. Tired having to come to the well daily in the heat of the sun. We feel the heat of the noonday sun. We notice the shape of the stones of which the well is built. Think about the tradition, of it being built by Jacob. Listen to Jesus speaking to the woman. She replies to Him even though she is surprised. Listen to their tones of voice and how the dialogue unfolds. Jesus tells her about the living water. Listen to her desire to have it unfold.

Do I long for the living water? Who are my five husbands? What would I feel if someone told me all about myself? In these questions, the scripture engages us with issues of our own life, and our own need for living water.

3. Lectio Divina (Holy Reading)

Another form of engaging with Scripture is through a modified “lectio divina”. It calls us to read the Scripture passage over in order to let ourselves be engaged by words or phrases within the text. We let these speak to us, question us, prompt us to engage with them.

In order to practice lectio divina,

1. Preparation: Select a time and place that is peaceful and in which you may be alert and prayerfully attentive. Dispose yourself for prayer in whatever way is natural for you. This may be a spoken prayer to God to open you more fully to the Spirit, a gentle relaxation process that focuses on breathing, singing or chanting, or simply a few minutes of silence to empty yourself of thoughts, images, and emotions.

2. Reading (lectio) - Slowly begin reading a biblical passage as if it were a long awaited love letter addressed to you. Approach it reverently and expectantly, in a way that savours each word and phrase. Read the passage until you hear a word or phrase that touches you, resonates, attracts or even disturbs you.

3. Reflecting (meditatio) - Ponder this word or phrase for a few minutes. Let it sink in slowly and deeply until you are resting in it. Listen for what the word or phrase is saying to you at this moment in your life, what it may be offering to you, what it may be demanding of you.

4. Expressing (oratio) - When you feel ready, openly and honestly express to God the prayers that arise spontaneously within you from your experience of this word or phrase. These may be prayers of thanksgiving, petition, intercession, lament, or praise.

5. Resting (contemplatio) - Allow yourself to simply rest silently with God for a time in the stillness of your heart remaining open to the quiet fullness of God's love and peace. This is like the silence of communion between the mother holding her sleeping infant child or between lovers whose communication with each other passes beyond words.

This is a simple and effective way of engaging with the text and allowing the text to lead you into encounter with God and God's own desire for your growth. It is the recommended way to pray the psalms that are offered to you for prayer during each week of the process.

Introduction: Preparing for Advent

Advent calls us to ‘prepare', to pay attention to the God who has come, who comes in so many different ways in our everyday lives, and who will come again. Advent really asks us to look around and see that the past is always with us, the future never far away, and always the present presses in with its own mystery as we grapple with life and its changing shifts and fortunes.

In many ways Advent and ageing go together. In both, the call is to live on the cusp of life - which is to say to live in the present. The present is a fragile and glorious thing. It deserves to be encountered with a whole heart and mind. If we are to embrace it, then we have to travel light - to let go of the non-essentials of life; not just the physical non-essentials, but the other burdens, the hurts, the sufferings and the losses we have endured, and perhaps carried, over a lifetime; we need to reclaim the self we are beneath the roles we have played and the masks we have worn to protect our vulnerability.

Advent and our own ageing calls us to claim again the joy of our youth and our hope. It calls us to freedom. No matter our physical limitations, no matter our inadequacies, each of us is invited to take up our life, to integrate the past with our present and to step lightly into a future that has not happened yet, but is bright with promise.

Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. However, sometimes our spirit of hope and expectation fail us. We grow weary of the trials and tribulations of our lives. We feel small and insignificant, unable to see how our little lives can mean anything. As we grow older, we feel that we cannot, do not, have the energies we once had, and our belief in ourselves, our belief in God who saves, and in a world that is essentially ‘good' trickles away, and we can become depressed, disillusioned with life, and miserable.

However, if we are to live our life to the full, then we have to really know who we are. Too often we name ourselves by what we do, what roles we play, or how we perform. Advent is the celebration of the Incarnation. During Advent we are asked to face the reality that in the Incarnation of Jesus, we find our own life made visible. Like Jesus, we are beloved daughters and sons of God, are called into a relationship of intimacy and freedom. Being human, made in the image and likeness of God we are an amalgam of grace and glory, frailty and weakness. And God loves that in us.

The reading that follows is the story of Jesus' own realization of his origin in God. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus comes to the river Jordan to be baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist. John has been preaching a message of repentance - calling for a change of heart that will enable the people of Israel to see and live life differently. Jesus comes with those who want to change their minds and hearts; who are seeking a new vision of how he and his contemporaries could break free of the weight of sin that lay around them all. Jesus, we are told, was sinless. But he must have felt the weight of sin, and as we see through all the Gospels, closely identified himself with those who felt the burden and the pain of a sinful world.

Matthew 3:13 - 4:11 The Baptism of Jesus

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

The Temptation of Jesus

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "

Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Commentary on the Text: This baptism proved to be a turning point in Jesus' life. He comes to the Jordan to fulfill what he sees as the requirements of God. He comes to the Jordan as Jesus, son of Mary, son of Joseph, the carpenter. He comes with all the ordinary expectations of a human life - the expectations of his mother, his family, and his friends. We all receive our identity from others, from the expectations of friends and colleagues, from the labels society puts upon us, and from the influence of family. Jesus, like us, came to the Jordan wearing expectations of who he should be and how he should be in his daily life. He comes to the Jordan bearing the burdens we all bear - the questions of who we are and what we are to do in this life.

Jesus enters the waters of Baptism, and rises from it into something rather remarkable. According to Matthew he has a deep religious experience “... the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

It must have been an earth shattering experience. Jesus enters the waters of John's Baptism with the expectations of others written all over him. He comes out with the recognition that he is ‘more' than the sum total of these expectations. He comes to a recognition of his own unique identity - beloved Son of God; beloved Son in whom God is well pleased, beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. With his true self once and for all established, and it is perhaps not surprising that he goes to the desert to assimilate and explore the meaning of this revelation of his mission - and to face there the same temptations we face.

The scripture passage asks us to look at our own lives: In a sense to enter into our own baptism, and find our own identity beyond the expectations written upon us, and to see the ways in which the temptation to be other than what we are lures us from real self-acceptance.

Questions on the text:

1. Zachary, John the Baptist's father, had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple. His son John, in both his preaching in the Judean desert and his call to be baptized, as a symbol of renewal of faith in the Mosaic Law, confronted the religious and the political powers of his day. How do you think John's parents may have felt about their son's work?

2. John protests about Jesus coming to him for this baptism of repentance: Why?

3. What does Jesus' insistence upon John baptizing him ‘to fulfill all righteousness', mean?

4. What does Jesus' baptism say about his identification with the human race?

5. What would it be like for Jesus to actually accept his identity as beloved Son of God? How would that feel?

6. Why do you think the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness?

7. What do the temptations of Jesus show us about his acceptance of his relationship with his Father?

8. Do you think it significant that at the end of the temptations in the wilderness, ‘angels came and ministered' to Jesus? What does this tell us about suffering and privation?

9. Jesus is faced with the question of what kind of Messiah he chooses to be. What kind of a messiah do we see in the gospel reading of Jesus' Baptism and temptation in the desert?

For further discussion:

1. If you have children, have you been shocked, disappointed, shamed by the choices your children have made? Have you placed expectations on your children or those you loved, which they have not been able to meet?

2. Jesus carried the human expectations of his family and friends into the waters of his baptism. What are the family expectations you have carried over the years?

3. How have the expectations of others burdened you?

4. What are the expectations you place upon yourself? How realistic are they in terms of the person you really are? How have you experienced the burdens of a life lived for others?

5. Who are those people who carry the burden of your expectations now? How might you free them?

6. When have you known yourself as “Beloved Son/Daughter of God”? (i.e. When have you experienced yourself as infinitely loved and valued? )

7. Do you ever think that now you are growing older, that you are of no purpose? That you are neither ‘fish nor fowl, nor good red herring' - that somehow you are not worth anything?

8. Have you ever experienced a ‘wilderness' moment in your life, when the temptation to move away from what you believe was right hit you hard? How did you cope with that experience?

9. How well can you receive love - and being loved?

10. What is your mission in life? How would you articulate it now?

11. Have you been tempted to use power over another to get your own way?

12. What is your unique and blessed giftedness? How do you use it?

For prayer through the week
Psalm 139

SEA

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you know it completely, O LORD.

You hem me in--behind and before;

you have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,"

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place.

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me

were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

Were I to count them,

they would outnumber the grains of sand.

When I awake, I am still with you.

If only you would slay the wicked, O God!

Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

They speak of you with evil intent;

your adversaries misuse your name.

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,

and abhor those who rise up against you?

I have nothing but hatred for them;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting

Week Two - Accepting Healing

Advent is about becoming. As we move into the Advent season, we need to know that we are called to ‘make straight the paths', as the prophet Isaiah said. How we do that varies, but underlying the call is the understanding that being a whole person means coming to accept healing, to forgive ourselves and to forgive others: To receive healing for the things that have wounded us, and to forgive ourselves for what we may have done to ourselves and others, and to forgive others for what they have done to us. It is to understand that healing and forgiveness is something God invites us to - without judgment, with enormous compassion.

The call to be healed and reconciled with God, ourselves and others is part of the journey into our own ageing process. We can live in the past and within our own wounds and hurts, or we can choose to move out of the darkness and isolation of these places. We need to remember that God's one desire for us is to be at-one with God and at-one with ourselves and each other. Healing is about becoming whole, reconciliation is about seeing ‘eye to eye' with God and with each other.

Reconciliation is a healing act has two interconnected dimensions---divine and human. Reconciliation is a sacred work that restores broken relations between God and humans, and between humans. These two dimensions are inextricably intertwined, just as loving God and loving our neighbor are interconnected. Sometimes, however, we get stuck. We get stuck in our wounds, in our guilt, in our own sense of failure, in our sense of ourselves as ‘less' rather than ‘more'. But how does God see us? Does God judge us? What is God's hope for us? How can we come to own our lives as a wonderful amalgam of weakness and strength? The story of the healing of the leper in Mark's gospel shows us what we need to know and do, if we would have healing and reconciliation in our life.
Text: Mark 1: 40-45 (REB)

On one occasion he was approached by a leper, who knelt before him and begged for help. ‘If only you will,' said the man, ‘you can make me clean.' Jesus was moved to anger; he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I will; be clean.' The leprosy left him immediately, and he was clean. Then he dismissed him with this stern warning: ‘See that you tell nobody, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing; that will certify the cure.' But the man went away and made the whole story public, spreading it far and wide, until Jesus could no longer show himself in any town. He stayed outside in remote places; yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.

Commentary on the Text: At face value, this encounter between Jesus and a leper is simply a story of healing: A sick man encounters Jesus and asks “to be made clean”. The word used is important. The leper does not ask simply that he be healed. He asks to be made clean! There is a difference, and in many ways this is a story less about a physical healing from a disease than it is about being restored to the relationships that have been taken from him by the fact of his illness. This encounter is an excursion into the real meaning of what it is to be an outcast - alienated from all that is meaningful in life, and the power of love to heal and bring integration. The leper wants to be made clean because he wants to be drawn back into relationship with himself, his God and his people. The story is also about how good people impose constraints upon others, taking from them the basic human rights to have food, shelter, and participation in community, friends, family, and even the right to worship God.

In order to understand the story, we need to know a little about leprosy. In the Old Testament of the Bible, leprosy is frequently referred to as an ailment afflicting not just humans, but also houses and fabric. References to leprosy obviously aren't to what is known as leprosy today, but a variety of skin disorders as well as some type of mold or mildew which might affect objects. Key to understanding leprosy in the Old Testament is that it's seen as a form of physical and spiritual pollution which requires one to be excluded from the community. It was symbolic of all that was dreadful in the life of man and the Torah saw it as a punishment from God.

It is also important to see the real person under the label of ‘leper' in this story. While the book of the Law, so rigorously enforced by the priests of the Temple, dealt with the issue of pollution, it in no way considered the impact of the law on the person. There is a terrible reality here. No matter how compassionate people might feel, they lived ‘by the law', and being ‘good religious' people, they believed that adherence to the law was paramount. To disobey it was to disobey God. Furthermore, every good Jew “knew” that such an illness was a punishment from God for some terrible crime! The leper did not know the crime, but he too, must have concluded that God had rejected him to have allowed this terrible thing to have happened to him.

But the leper of this story was a human being. He was a man with hopes and dreams, memories and feelings; but who would look at him and see that human face beneath the face cover? Whose eyes would look at him without fear or horror? Who would see the man behind the label - the suffering behind the disease? What mattered to the people was that he was ‘unclean' and being unclean was subject to the power of evil spirits, and therefore a positive danger to the community, because he might spread the pollution.

The story underscores the reality that God, in the person of Christ, has shifted the boundaries. Compassion and mercy, healing and hope are the true signs of the kingdom of God and that the real meaning of the law is to incorporate people into the community, not leave them alienated and “outside the walls.”

The story is also about us and our own experiences of rejection, alienation, sickness and our desire to be at one with ourselves and each other. It is a story about what is needed to be free from the chains that bind us to living ‘outside the walls' of love and hope and joy.

Questions on Text:

1. What do you think empowered the leper to approach Jesus?

2. Why did the leper kneel before Jesus? What does this tell us about how the leper felt towards Jesus?

3. How do you think those who were accompanying Jesus felt when they saw the leper coming toward them?

4. In this translation of the text, we read that Jesus was ‘moved to anger' (see footnote [1]) What do you think these words are saying about how Jesus felt at the plight of the man kneeling before him?

5. Why did Jesus ask the man to go and show himself to the priest?

6. Once he had been cured, what do you think this man's life may have been like?

7. What attracts you to Jesus in this passage? What do you see in him that might encourage you to approach him as the leper did?

8. Why do you think the holy people of Jesus' day - the priests of the Temple, held the letter of the law over the spirit of the law?

9. Jesus entered into the isolation of the leper, and took on himself the loneliness that entailed. How does this make you feel towards the person of Jesus? Does it surprise you that God, in Christ, could or would experience loneliness on behalf of one of God's children?

Questions for further discussion

1. What experiences of your life have led you to feel excluded from life, as the leper was excluded from life? What situations or illnesses in your life have left you feeling alienated?

2. Have you ever been lonely? Do you know what it feels like when no one seems to understand, or when no one cares about you or what you are experiencing? How have you coped in that time?

3. What is your experience of being seen as an object, rather than a human person with memories, intelligence, thoughts, feelings and rights? What impact did that have on you?

4. Do you value the touch of another?

5. How willing are you to enter into the pain of another in order to make a difference - what stops you from the practice of compassion?

6. Have you resisted reaching out for help in your life? In what situations have you refused the help of others?

7. Do you cling to stereotypes of people, labeling them, rather than seeing them as human beings? To whom do you refuse compassion?

8. Have you - or someone you love, ever experienced being made an outcast by your church? What impact did that have on your relationship with that Church and with God?

9. Most would caution that it is just not wise to symbolically "touch lepers" by leaping into potentially dangerous situations. How do you discern when it is time for you to do daring things?

10. When faced with a choice to change your actions, your beliefs, your attitudes, do you fear the response you might receive? Do you wonder: Will people shun or fear me because of my newly discovered courage?

11. How can you challenge systems or structures that do not see the person beneath the label - the systems and structures that support ageism, sexism, homophobia, racism, sectarianism and the violence that so often follows these and other such segregations?

For prayer through the week
Psalm 28

Of David.

To you I call, O LORD my Rock;

do not turn a deaf ear to me.

For if you remain silent,

I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.

Hear my cry for mercy

as I call to you for help,

as I lift up my hands

GATE.TIFtoward your Most Holy Place.

Do not drag me away with the wicked,

with those who do evil,

who speak cordially with their neighbors

but harbor malice in their hearts.

Repay them for their deeds

and for their evil work;

repay them for what their hands have done

and bring back upon them what they deserve.

Since they show no regard for the works of the LORD

and what his hands have done,

he will tear them down

and never build them up again.

Praise be to the LORD,

for he has heard my cry for mercy.

The LORD is my strength and my shield;

my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.

My heart leaps for joy

and I will give thanks to him in song.

The LORD is the strength of his people,

a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.

Save your people and bless your inheritance;

be their shepherd and carry them forever.

Week Three - Facing our Fears

Advent is calling us to be awake, to be awake and watchful for the God who comes in our present, even as that God has come in our past. It is a call to live in the ‘now' of life. Sometimes, however, we can be tempted to want to turn back the clock; to return to ‘the old days' - when we felt young, alive, and vital. But ageing, like Advent itself, asks us to leave the familiar, to travel light, to be open to all that is possible, not just what is probable.

It is natural to feel that we would like to have the same energy we had in our youth, to have the same commitment to tasks; to have the same friends. It is also natural to be irritated and/or upset by the diminishments old age and ageing bring upon us. We fear the loss of the self we once knew. We fear the isolation. As we stand in the middle of a room wondering why we are there, we fear losing our minds, our senses. We struggle with naming the family in right order. We know we are in process, but fear the journey. But life is a process of leavings, even as it is a process of arrivals. We fear the leaving, even as we fear that there may be no arrival, or that the arrival will be in a place that we do not know. We want to maintain a status quo that maintains the comfort, spares us inevitable separations. What we do not know and cannot know is that in our leavings, we start to live more fully that paradox ‘in dying we live'. The little deaths of separation we experience - isolation; the homelessness we experience when children leave, spouses die, health and wellness become problematic - are, paradoxically, entries into new life. There we face the challenges of living life to the full in this place, in this time, and (often) on our own. We can experience a kind of internal chaos that makes us think we are ‘losing it', and that can spread itself out in dark depressions, a sense of hopelessness or a desire to hide from the natural debility age brings.

In this story of the healing of the lunatic at Gerasa, we are confronted by a story of internal chaos, one that immediately follows a story of external chaos, portrayed by the calming of the storm in Mark 4: 35-41.

In the preceding story, we see both insecurity and fear, as Jesus lies asleep in the boat, as the disciples struggle with a violent storm. The point of that story is that it is fear that enslaves us; Jesus demonstrates to his disciples that to give into fear is to be enslaved by it. To keep on believing that ‘all shall be well', in spite of fear, is to live with hope - even in the midst of chaos. He shows us that, in the middle of external chaos, God in Christ does not abandon us. Over and over again, Jesus says: “Do not be afraid”, yet so often the disciples were. In the story of the storm at sea, Jesus repeats this in another way: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith”? We are told in the story of the storm that we are not to get stuck in our own misery, our own fear, the oppression that surrounds us, but are to cry out to God who can save us. However, the question of internal chaos remains. How do we deal with the profound oppression that comes from within?

The story of the lunatic at Gerasa gives us some insight into that.

Mark 5: 1-13: The Demoniac

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." 8 For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" 9 Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

Commentary on the Text: In the story, Jesus is confronted by a deranged man, who has being living among the tombs and has so terrified the people that they initially chained him up among the rocks. Now he can no longer be restrained, and ‘no one had the strength to subdue him'. Broken by his own inner demons, he wanders among the rocks, howling and wounding himself with stones.

Then Jesus enters his world. It seems like the deranged man sees Jesus with that lucid clarity that only those who have suffered mental illness can know. Somehow, he knows his own need for someone to be present to him, and that this person Jesus somehow hears the cry of his heart -. But notice that there is a two-fold movement in this; on the one hand he wants healing, on the other, he tries to push Jesus away, as if he were afraid of what might happen to him if the healing he wants is granted to him.

How disassociated the man was, is seen in his answer to Jesus' question: “What is your name?” He finds himself unable to answer the question. He does not know who he is, for his very being is a battleground of confusion: The ‘legion' of forces that are tearing him apart. He is one person one minute, another, the next.

Jesus does not run from the confusion or the embattled psyche of this man. He confronts him with peace and serenity; there is a security in the presence of love, and a peace that brings its own healing. Jesus' fidelity to his mission means his willingness to confront the confusion, the anxiety and the desperation of a human soul in anguish, and by that willingness restores meaning to this man's meaningless world.

The extraordinary and dramatic rendition of Jesus' expulsion of the man's demons into the pigs - which are unclean animals in Jewish tradition, has all the elements of folklore. Behind the drama of that embellishment however, there is a very simple story of Jesus doing what he has come to do; bring fullness of life to all people. One thing seems to be clear though, the people preferred the pigs over the people. They seem to be more worried about losing the pigs, than gaining the person back into community.

The effects of this story of healing on those who witnessed it, is important. What the people actually saw created fear in them. They did not have the clarity of the deranged man, who sees Jesus for what he is - a healer, a bringer of hope and life, even in the middle of chaos. The villagers prefer to stay in their chaotic and un-free world; they only see Jesus' disturbing their commonly held ideas and beliefs, upsetting the economy for the sake of one madman. They beg him to go.

Jesus moves on, but before he does, he does quite an extraordinary thing. The man he has healed; the one the villages found clothed, sane, and sitting beside Jesus is given a commission. He is entrusted with a mission to bring grace to others. He must go, not where he wants, but where God would have him - a word of the Word in his own town and country, so that others may find healing and hope in the promise of Jesus that “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full'.

The good news of this story is that not even a psyche that is broken, one that has collapsed before chaos, can be separated from God. Under the broken mind of this poor man, there lives a self made by God and in God's image; a hidden self, an inner self that is born for communion with God, and for a place in the community. Jesus shows us the compassion and the presence that is needed to enable both these things to occur.

Reflection on the text:

1. If you were present to the scene, how would you feel towards the demoniac? What would frighten you about him?

2. How do you think the man possessed by his demons felt at being isolated and persecuted by his own townspeople?

3. The demoniac seems to want to be healed and yet is afraid of healing. Why do you think that is?

4. How does Jesus' presence break through the man's chaotic mind? Do you think that the stampeding pigs were important for the demoniac to witness? What would the value of the sign be to him?

5. Why do you think the people of the town were afraid, when they saw the demoniac sitting next to Jesus, healed, clothed?

6. Why would the villagers not want Jesus to stay in their country and continue his ministry of healing?

7. Do you think Jesus was right to send the man back to his own people as a missionary? Why or why not?

8. What impact do you think the demoniac would have on his own people as he moved among them, healed and made whole?

9. Why do you think so many people feel sorry for the pigs, rather than feel glad for the healing of the demoniac? What does this say about the priorities of the people of the town, and of us today?

10. What is Jesus teaching us about how to deal with both external and internal chaos?

For further discussion:

1. Who are the people who represent the ‘demoniac' for you in your world? What is your response to them?

2. How do you feel about those demoniacs of our day - the young and old schizophrenics; the alcoholic man or woman? How do they threaten you?

3. What are your own demons? What has you in self-destructive bondage: Is it your anger? Is it an addictive habit? Is it obsessive thinking? Is it fear of what might happen ‘if'?

4. How do you cope with your own moments of depression/anxiety/forgetfulness etc?

5. What frightens you about developing a mental illness or the implications of having Alzheimer's disease?

6. How might your presence be a support and a healing presence to those who are suffering from a mental illness or Alzheimer's disease?

7. Have you ever experienced the turmoil and disturbance of depression and/or anxiety? Who has helped you in that situation?

8. Have you ever had to deal with mental illness or mental anguish in your own family? What impact did that have on you? From whom did you gain support?

9. Do you believe that you have it within you to be a presence of comfort and hope to others?

10. Do you believe that every human being ‘beneath the skin' is born for wholeness and graciousness in life? How does what you believe impact upon your relationship with others, including those who may frighten or disturb you?

11. Are you prepared to be challenged in your life - or do you seek to retain control of your life, your possessions and your world, so that you do not have to move out of your comfort zone?

12. What does faith mean to you in times of doubt, fear, anxiety and chaos?

For prayer through the week
Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

THANKSHe makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow

me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

Week Four - Being “Response-able”

Advent signals the moment in time and place and history when the waiting of Israel for its redemption is coming to its fruition. The waiting has been long and hard for the people of Israel. But waiting is part of our life: We wait in supermarket lines, in bus queues, on the phone, in doctor's surgeries. According to some time management studies, the average person will spend five years of his or her life waiting in line, two years playing telephone tag, and six months sitting at red lights. That is over seven and a half years of waiting, at best doing nothing, or at worst experiencing great aggravation! We also wait on the moment of becoming, the moment that makes meaning of all our waiting. We wait on life, as we wait on death. Advent shakes us up and proposes that waiting is not a waste of time. It is purposeful waiting. It is attentive waiting and watching for the moment when light comes and we suddenly see the meaning that we have been searching for all our lives. Advent means being on the lookout for the moment of grace that makes everything fall into place.

Waiting is also part and parcel of our ageing. We have waited all our lives to be ‘old enough', ‘wise enough', ‘mature enough'. In what seems to be the blink of an eye, our waiting to become ‘enough' to do the things we want to do, seems to pass us by. Suddenly we can feel ‘too old', ‘too uneducated' ‘too limited', to be meaningful. But if ageing means anything, it means that we have a wisdom and a strength writ large within us, that others may not recognize, but which is, none the less, real. Growing older can make us realize that ‘now is the acceptable time, now is the time of our salvation' (2 Corinthians 6:2). Embracing our lives as they are now, means that we have the potential to give witness to the truth of our very being - and to express the best of all that we have been. Harriet Mowatt, from the University of Aberdeen writes:

Accepting responsibility for your life and being able to accept the past and achieve satisfaction with self is essential. The inability to do this results in a feeling of despair. The future self requires contemplation of our own mortality. We are required to face up to our own death. Remembering our forthcoming death puts into sharp relief our past self and present self. Who are we, why are we and what is next?

The next reading underscores that point. It is about witnessing, waiting and about hope. It is about letting our lives sing - and our ageing give witness to the hope that is in the world. Sundown is the wrong image for older years. Every sundown is preceded by a blaze of light, a fiery radiance of beauty. We are called to enhance the day, not let it dim into night's obscurity. How we do that matters. We matter, our perceptions of ‘the real' matter, our very oddities matter. Growing older gives us the wisdom of years and the clarity of sight that enables us to see what others miss. That is the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple from Luke's gospel.

LK 2:22-40 Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to our word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed ...and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Commentary on the Text: The story of Jesus' presentation in the Temple gives us insight in Jesus' life. Jesus was a Jew. His parents observed the Law of Moses when it came to such things as childbirth, circumcision, and other rituals. In this story we see two young parents and a child being celebrated by two old people. So the Gospel tells us of Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus to the temple to fulfill the law. Luke apparently combined two different rituals that were originally separate and distinct in the OT. The first is the purification of the mother. The second is the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord (Exodus 13), which was done by both parents. Since Luke combined the two rituals, he included Joseph.

In accordance with that law, the mother of a child had to undergo a rite of purification one month after the birth of a male child (Leviticus12: 1-8). Since Jesus was also the first born son, his parents had to consecrate him to God (Exodus 13:2,11). Originally this meant that the first born son would be responsible for carrying out religious rituals, but when the order of Levites was founded for this purpose, the custom arose for the first-born to be ‘purchased' back, as it were, by making an offering at the temple. Mary and Joseph were obviously poor; they could only afford the offering of the poor.

In the temple they are confronted by two elderly people -Simeon and Anna. These two older people speak from their hearts and their wisdom about the child they see before them. Simeon and Anna represent all that is best in the traditions of Israel. Their life and their waiting in hope bring them the capacity to see and speak truth when it comes to them. They demonstrate the ‘wisdom' of years, and the integration of their hope and courage. They ask us to consider how we use the gift of our years to tell forth the good news we see in the world and in the people of that world. It is a salutary story that offers us insight into the need we have to speak truth as we see it, and to celebrate our wisdom and grace in prophetic ways so that others may hear, ponder, and come to their own truth.

Reflection on the text

1. What do you think Mary and Joseph felt as they presented their child and their poor ritual gifts to the temple priests?

2. How do you think Mary and Joseph felt when they hear that “the child would be a light of revelations to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.”? Would that have been a confronting thought for a Jewish couple?

3. When Simeon prophesied to Mary that "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed...and a sword will pierce your own soul too," what do you think he is actually saying to Mary about her relationship with her own child?

4. In his prayer, Simeon prays “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.” How does this sum up Simeon's relationship with God? How does he see that relationship?

5. The text tells us that Mary and Joseph were ‘amazed' at the words spoken to them by Simeon. Do you think they were marveling at Simeon's knowledge of their child, or the fact that their child was so important, or that even the Gentiles would be impacted upon by the small and insignificant baby, or a combination of all three?

6. What feelings might Mary have felt when Simeon told her of the pain she would endure through the life of her son?

7. The text shows Anna as a devout widow. Do you think her life was wasted by living a life of prayer and praise in the Temple?

For Personal Reflection

1. If you have had children, what impact did the rituals you and your children underwent, have on you?

2. What were your concerns for your children when they were born? What were your expectations of them?

3. Did the potential you saw in your child or the child of others you have known, come to fruition?

4. How have you suffered when those you loved failed to reach their potential?

5. Have you ever placed false expectations on another? What has been the consequence to you and to them?

6. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Do you think this is true of you?

7. Have you ever felt ‘guided' by the Spirit to speak or act in a way that surprised you? What was your reaction to that?

8. Are you willing to shout to the world the good news that you see, feel, taste and touch in this world? Are you willing to live in a blaze of beauty so that others might see the power of life?

9. Do you consider that your insight, your wisdom, your giftedness has something to say to the world today?

10. What does being a widow mean? What words describe the path of widowhood?

11. If you are alone, how do you cope with the loneliness of being without a partner?

12. What part does God play in your life? How aware are you of God's presence in the daily activities of life?

13. How important is the liturgy in your life of prayer? What kind of liturgy do you find most helpful to your sense of who you are and who God is for you?

14. Do you believe that your perspective on the world is of vital importance for others? Can you offer your wisdom with gentleness?

15 Do you believe that as an elder, you have children entrusted to your arms? How can you help to ensure that their lives will be grand with wisdom and courage and that they will make the world better?

For prayer through the week
Psalm 34

I will bless the LORD at all times;

his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

SALT.TIFMy soul makes its boast in the LORD;

let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the LORD with me,

and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me,

and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant;

so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,

and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the LORD encamps

around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the LORD is good;

happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the LORD, you his holy ones,

for those who fear him have no want.

Week Five - Finding Sight

Advent is a call to recognize the beauty that is so often hidden from normal sight. It is an invitation to ‘see clear' in new and perhaps startling ways. It is the season of the church's year which invites us to look again at life, at our humanity, and the nature of the world and see what is really there, not simply what we want to see. In the Gospel story of this week, we meet Jesus at the pool of Bethsaida, where he cures a blind man. It is a story that follows on from Jesus' frustration with his own disciples who fail to see clearly. Just prior to this story of healing, Jesus has said to his disciples: “Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? Do you not yet understand?”(v.17-19). He is frustrated at the manner in which all that he has done and is doing is being misunderstood by the people he loves and by the people who should know better. The story of the healing of the blind man at the Pool of Bethsaida shows just how important new sight is.

In a very particular way, one of the great benefits of growing older is that as we age, we find our once clear sight changes. Such a change is not just a matter of degeneration of our eyes, the onset of cataracts, macular degeneration or lack of focus. It is a change in the way we perceive the world.

What we once saw so clearly is now slightly less clear; there are shades of grey that soften the black and white visions we once had. There are oddities to be seen which we can now value, rather than dismiss. Our changing vision helps us realize the depth of the world in ways we never knew before. It also gives us the power to interpret in new ways things we have seen before and failed to understand in their fullness. Of course we can refuse to see, we can remain with distorted vision, or we can ask that our eyes adjust to the reality of what is, not what we think things should be.

The Gospel story of this week is as much about our own need to see clearly, beneath the superficialities of life to what is real, what is beautiful, and what is good, as it is about the blind man at Bethsaida. Several details regarding the blind man's story indicate the relationship between sight and understanding.

MK 8:22 Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Can you see anything?" 24 And the man looked up and said, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking." 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village."

Commentary on the Text: We need to notice a couple of things about the story. Firstly, the blind man does not come to Jesus on his own (as Bartimaeus will do later), but is brought to Jesus by others who speak for him. They come, they bring, and they entreat Jesus to heal the blind man by touching him (8:22). Secondly, the blind man cannot see well enough to follow, so Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him away from the others to be alone with him (8:23); The blind man is at first in complete darkness and needs assistance. By the end of the story, when Jesus touches him a second time, the blind man is able to ‘see into' and understand everything with clarity (8:25).Thus, the blind man's story implies his cure was twofold: sight restored and interpretive power given (Derrett: 37). It is a story that also indicates that sometimes our friends and/or family can be the ones who understand the areas of blindness in our own lives, and they can be agents of change and healing for us, if we listen to them and allow them to bring us to true sight, true ‘insight' and understanding.

Reflection on the text:

1. When you picture this scene from the Gospel, does anything strike you as strange or different?

2. How is the cure of the blind man mediated by others? Does it remind you of any other scene in the Gospels?

3. What indication do you get of the desire of the blind man for healing in this story? What does this have to say about faith and/or lack of faith or knowledge of Jesus?

4. Mark places this miracle after a cycle of stories that stress the disciples' spiritual blindness and misunderstanding, and immediately after the episode of the disciples not seeing what Jesus was trying to communicate. What do you think Mark is trying to get us to understand here?

5. What is the significance of Jesus leading the blind man away from his village and his friends?

6. What is the significance of Jesus using spit to anoint the eyes of the blind man? Does the spit heal him, or is there something else involved here?

7. The unspoken thing in this passage is that the man was not born blind. Once he could see - when Jesus touches him with spittle and his hands, we see that he could identify shapes, people; what difference does that understanding make to the words of the text: “and he saw everything clearly”?

8. The healing of Jesus appears to happen in stages in the gospel story: First the man can see people “but they look like trees walking”. What is the significance of this healing ‘in stages' for the blind man, and for us?

9. We are told that the blind man eventually “saw everything clearly” (vs. 25). In the Greek the word used literally means “to see into”—what do you think such ‘seeing into' means?

10. What do you think is the relationship between this story and the Marcan community in the early Church? What is Mark saying to his community and to us?

11. What is the cost of receiving our sight? Are we, in our churches, willing to ask for and receive it?

For Personal Reflection

1. In what areas of my life am I blind?

2. Who has tried to point out my blindness to me? How have I responded to them?

3. Am I content to see ‘trees walking', or do I want to see what the poet calls ‘the dearest freshness deep down things', even if it calls me out of my comfort zone?

4. What will it cost me to gain my inner sight, so that I may see the world clearly, and without bias?

5. Do I interpret my world through the eyes of my faith, or through my clouded vision?

6. What has blinded me in my life? Pain, greed, hurts, anger, loss, grief? How has this blinding stopped my ability to respond to the agony and the ecstasy of the world around me?

7. Do I choose to remain blind, rather than see the light?

8. Am I willing to keep growing, keep desiring freedom to live my life?

9. How important is it for me, as it was for the blind man, not to return to ‘the village' where my comfort and support may lie, but rather move on and receive life wherever it is to be found?

10. How much do I depend on my weakness/blindness, to gain me supportive friends and insulate me from ‘outside'?

11. Am I willing to accept the ‘spit' of God to heal my blindnesses and lead me to newness of life?

12. How much do I appreciate that human and divine are one substance. That the spit of God and the dust of earth blend together to make life and give sight? How much do I value my own divine origins and the gifts I hold by God's good grace?

13. Have I permitted my vision to be clouded or dimmed by anger at God? How might I overcome this?

For prayer through the week
STEWARDPsalm 131

A song of ascents. Of David.

My heart is not proud, O LORD,

my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters

or things too wonderful for me.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul;

like a weaned child with its mother,

like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD

both now and forevermore.

Week Six - Taking our Time

At the beginning of this six weeks it was said that Advent was a time of preparation, a time of becoming more aware, a time of reflecting on the enormity of the Incarnation, and what it means to us as people made in the image and likeness of God.

The reality of our life is that it was made for communion with God. In the person of Jesus, we see our own creation and recreation. We are shown our human life, with its strengths and weaknesses. All that we are is to give glory to God. And all that we are is fearfully and wonderfully made. Our lives are a spark of glory of the divine. Yet most of us live in fear, hesitation, doubt. We fail to see that in Jesus, even our wounds are made glorious. Quite literally there is nothing to fear. Yet we fear. We get caught up in the endless anxieties of how, what, why? We worry about the future and our own diminishment, failing to see that our whole life has been a journey to the place where we are now, and it is our whole life that forms the “I” that I am. We are simply full of character, full of the most incredible riches, and we worry about so much!

Advent asks us to let go; to end the endless worry, to embrace life, and to take the time for being, to lessen compulsive doing. In Jesus' words, we are to take notice of the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields; to trust that Father cares for them all, clothes them, feeds them, and nurtures them. And if God does this for all that is, can God, would God do less for me?

What is necessary then? In the story of Martha and Mary, there is a very real cautionary tale for us. The two women, friends of Jesus, are really reflections of us. They can reveal the ‘one thing necessary' for each of us as we grow into our life, as we age into the core of our own being.

LK 10:38-42: Jesus Visits Martha and Mary

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Commentary on the Text: The story of Martha and Mary actually follows on from the well-loved story of the Good Samaritan. If that story talks about the need for love of neighbor, the story of Martha and Mary shows us something about what it means to be a real neighbor, that is, how we can live out the law of love Jesus preached.

The story begins with Jesus travelling to a town, which in Luke is unnamed. He does not think it important in terms of the story. What we know of Martha and Mary comes from the gospel of John. There we learn that Martha and Mary, along with their brother Lazarus, live in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. We also learn from John, that it was in this town that Jesus stayed during the Passover that ended in his crucifixion. John fills us in on the family members in two incidents: the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) and Jesus' Anointing at Bethany by Mary (John 12:1-8).

In the Martha and Mary story however, Jesus is not visiting Lazarus. He is on his journey of preaching and teaching, and the pattern of his ministry seems to be that he comes to a village, and if he is offered hospitality, he stays and gives his message to those who wish to hear it.

In Bethany, Jesus is offered hospitality by Martha. Interestingly enough, she welcomes Jesus into “her” home, indicating that she herself is the owner of the house. The invitation indicates her openness to Jesus and to his message. Martha's name in Hebrew, incidentally, means "lady" or "mistress” (of the house). The fact that Martha offers hospitality to Jesus seems to indicate that Martha herself is interested in Jesus' message, even as she was concerned to honor her guest by providing for him with real Jewish hospitality. Sometimes we get the impression that Mary is the spiritual one, while Martha is not but it is important to realize that Martha too, plays a disciple's role here. She is providing that ‘diakonia' (service) which is the hallmark of the disciple. She gets organized to provide for her guests.

We now meet Mary, Martha's sister. While Martha is bustling about the house getting ready to feed the visitors, we see Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening. It is an important little phrase that tells us that she sat “at his feet”. It is both a place of humility and a place of learning for a disciple.

We need to understand that this small image is important, and presents a radical view of what discipleship means. Women were openly despised by the Judaism of the time. Women were exempt from the study of the Torah. Many rabbis actively discouraged women from learning. The Mishnah includes some pretty cynical thoughts about women: "May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women.” Rabbi Eliezer (c. AD 90) said, "If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery." (Quoted in Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress Press/SCM Press 1969), in an appendix on "The Social Position of Women," p. 373)

Jesus breaks with this tradition. Discipleship is for men AND women. So Mary sits at Jesus' feet, learning from him the road of her own discipleship. In the meantime, Martha is doing the lion's share of preparing the meal for Jesus and the assorted guests in the house who have come to listen to Jesus. It must have been difficult, and you can imagine the growing noise as Martha's anxiety and indignation mount. Finally she erupts into the place where Jesus is speaking and basically challenges him to do something. “If you love me,” she's saying, “you'll take my side”; “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

It is important to pay close attention to what Jesus does and does not say in his response to Martha in verses 41-42. He does not assess her serving as negative. Rather he says that her anxiety is the problem. “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things….” Her anxiety over her social obligations is causing her to be agitated, worried and testy. Mary's focus is different. She sits, listening to Jesus.

It is important to recognize that inactivity is not being commended here; neither is a passive attitude as can be seen from the previous story of the Good Samaritan. But neither is serving being condemned. At the Last Supper Jesus will say he comes as one who serves (Luke 22: 27) and will himself take the towel and basin of a servant.

Reflection on the Text

1. With whom do you identify in this story?

2. Do you think this passage is really about Martha or Mary, or is it about something else?

3. What is your response to the image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is doing all the work?

4. What do you think prompts Martha's outburst to Jesus?

5. How does Jesus break with tradition regarding women in this story?

6. What does the presence of Mary at the feet of Jesus tell us about Jesus' own relationship with women as disciples?

7. What do you think are the qualities necessary for discipleship?

8. How does this story suggest we might integrate our contemplative and active selves?

9. Would you say that both Martha and Mary had an intimate relationship with Jesus? What shows that in the text?

10. Do you think either Martha or Mary had any idea of how the other was feeling?

11. Is there evidence in Jesus' own life to demonstrate this call to live an inner and outer life of discipleship?

12. Do you think Martha and Mary need to be reconciled to each other? Is Jesus pointing out to us that we are both Martha and Mary, and need to acknowledge both aspects of ourselves?

13. Is this a story about women or about discipleship?

For further Discussion

1. With whom do you relate in this story - Martha or Mary? Why?

2. What part does anxiety play in your own life?

3. What does anxiety do to your relationship with yourself, God, others?

4. Have you ever had to cope with issues of burnout?

5. Do you make unreasonable demands on yourself? Why?

6. What kind of things have you done to ensure that your inner and outer worlds were complemented and/or facilitated?

7. Do you make unreasonable demands on others? Do others make unreasonable demands on you?

8. When, in your life, have you experienced a need for times of silence and regeneration?

9. Is your view of yourself based upon how well you do things?

10. How does the experience of growing older impact upon your sense of personal value? Is your worth tied up with what you can DO rather than with who you ARE?

11. Have you ever felt unsupported in the way you have had to live your life?

12. Who has encouraged you to take time for yourself? What was your response to them?

13. Is growing older a time when you can give yourself permission to ‘take time', or are you still caught in the need to be busy and active?

14. Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?

15. How might taking time to pray impact on you and those around you?

16. Do you fear being still?

17. What do you need to abandon in order to reclaim your life?

For prayer through the week

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.

Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.

I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.

WELL I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.

Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.

I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Those who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.

They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.

But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God will glory in him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

[1] (N.B. some texts say ‘moved with pity'; ‘moved to anger' is an earlier, and probably more accurate translation, as it refers to the compassion that arises from anger at injustice)