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A couple of years ago I was invited to visit Palestinian and Israeli Christians and had the opportunity to visit Nazareth, where a large modern church stands on the traditional site of the annunciation. This beautiful building, the largest church building in the middle east, is enhanced by many modern works of art presented as gifts from around the world. While many different cultures and artistic traditions are represented, the common theme is Mary the mother of Jesus – the story of the incarnation begins with her willingness to carry in her own body the one who will carry the sins of the world for our salvation.

The church has a number of large bronze doors on which are depicted scenes from scripture and one which caught my eye portrays the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is a powerful image which presents the twelve apostles, together with Mary, welcoming the Spirit who is represented both as a descending dove and as flames. GoNaz BA Pentecost Doord’s presence is both powerful and empowering and leads to worship and witness. On a lighter note, the image also reminded me of the finale of a West End musical, with the star at the centre and arms raised!

As an Evangelical, I have sometimes wondered about the Catholic emphasis on Mary and the encounter with this image was no exception. It reminded me that often, in Catholic art and Orthodox iconography, Mary is represented as being present with the disciples when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. It sent me back to my bible to check whether this was ‘just a tradition’ and I found that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and, staying in the upper room, indeed ‘all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). And then the Pentecost story itself begins in Acts 2.1 with ‘they were all together in one place’.

The story of Jesus’ life on earth begins and ends with his mother and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, she has to give permission for God the Holy Spirit to conceive the earthly life of Jesus within her body. This is new life, a new creation made possible by Mary’s ‘Yes’ of courage and trust, as well as the work of the Spirit. At the end, when Jesus is no longer physically present on earth, the same Spirit of God comes to give powerful faith to a group of dispirited disciples and empowers them to witness to Jesus across the world

We too are invited to welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives. Just as Mary’s ‘Yes’ made possible God’s new creation of Jesus within her, so our ‘Yes’ to the Spirit makes possible God’s re-creation of us in the likeness of Jesus. God’s presence in our lives takes on the appearance of Jesus, as the word of love becomes flesh in our lives and actions. Come, Lord, Jesus, come!

Incarnation

Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

and we have seen his glory…

Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet, railed against the cold churchmanship he had known, abstract and hard on people:

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book…

He predicted that,

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down…
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

This is always a danger, especially for theologians: to reverse the divine plan and make the personal abstract. Yet incarnation is not abstract, it is down-to-earth religion with a down-to-earth God, born of a woman, pierced by nails and buried behind stone.

 The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour

The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour

How can I portray incarnation,
how paint a mystery of God become human,
spirit become matter?
How can I define an action,
an event which defies definition?
How can I describe a process of humiliation,
a road of descent from heaven to hell?
How can I speak of ‘presence, or ‘glory’?
as the Word did not become words, but flesh.
What shall I bring to this mystery?
Not explanation but adoration,
not narrative but sacrament,
as Word becomes flesh again:
Christ in me, the hope of glory.

In a country church

In this church all is still,

but for the clock’s tick;

the bell ropes hang

waiting for the ringers’ tug.

The pews wait for restless worshippers

or tired travellers;

the windows send threads of sun

along the pews’ edges

and silence waits to be filled.

Something coalesces –

is it the presence of God?

or is it my racing pulse

slowing to the pace of reflected memories?

In the space,

in the silence,

in the need,

in the waiting,

there is room for God.

In my Head

In my head,

my jogging becomes a run,

bounding over ditches

and crossing the finishing line

well ahead of the field.

 

In my head,

my waistline diminishes,

I watch only the news on TV

and always work effectively.

 

In my head,

I think creatively,

wait patiently

and love constantly.

 

In my head,

I practise relentlessly,

exercise regularly

and pray constantly.

 

In my heart,

the butterfly flits,

distractions distract

and the compass needle spins.

 

In my heart,

sloth slides onto the sofa

and tomorrow never comes.

 

Lord, renew my heart

and direct my thoughts,

through Jesus Christ my Lord – really…

God of the Journey

A Prayer for Pilgrims

God of the journey,

you call me to follow in the way of Jesus

and you walk with me each step of the way.

Guide me when I am lost,

strengthen me when I have far to go

and refresh me when I am weary.

Pick me up when I stumble,

carry me when I faint,

and bring me to your resting place of love,

through Jesus Christ

my companion and Lord

Opening to God

David G. Benner Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Downers Grove IL, IVP 2010

It was one of those moments of delightful ‘accident’ or serendipity. I was browsing a small bookstall in a retreat centre recently and came across this little book by David G. Benner. It is a book about prayer but it is so much more: it offers practical guidance while also giving psychological insight and glimpses of profound theology.

Benner is a Canadian writer on spirituality with a professional background in clinical psychology and the teaching of spirituality. He argues that prayer is primarily an expression of our relationship with God. It is more than ‘saying prayers’, it is ‘being with the Beloved’, a relationship which spills out into the whole of life and leads to personal transformation. There are many practical suggestions about the ‘how’ of prayer in this book, but the author begins by arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world.

The evangelical roots of this author are in evidence as he shows the importance of Scripture in nourishing the life of prayer.  The traditional method of  lectio divina (spiritual reading) is explained and then its four stages are used as a way of exploring the many dimensions of prayer. So lectio (reading) leads to ‘prayer as attending’, meditatio (meditation) leads to ‘prayer as pondering’, oratio (prayer or speaking) leads to ‘prayer as responding’ and contemplatio (contemplation) leads to ‘prayer as being’.

Along the way, Benner explores the importance of silence, honesty and imagination. He explains clearly such forms of prayer as the examen (the prayerful recollection of the day), the Jesus prayer, pondering art, journaling, conversational prayer and centering  prayer.

A key concern is that prayer should be holistic. In part, this means that, whatever our personality or spiritual tradition, we should broaden the repertoire of our praying. But holistic prayer also means that our prayer activity should move beyond our times of prayer to transform the whole of our lives.

Prayer that is reduced to technique or discipline seriously misses the fact that first and foremost, prayer expresses a relationship between us and God… [for] we are his friends, not his servants (John 15.15)… It is to this friend’s presence in our life and our world that we attune our self when we offer prayers of attending. It is with this friend that we offer prayers of pondering, responding and being. (p150)

This is quite simply the best book on prayer that I have read. It’s first reading will excite and encourage and re-reading will offer rich reflections and practical guidance. On a scale of one to five, I give this book six stars!

You can check our David Benner’s blog and some of his other books at http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/blog/

Prayer for Holy Week

Lord Jesus,

   waiting is hard.

Help me to wait with you now:

   in the garden of your painful praying,

   on the way of your stumbling,

   beside the cross of your dying.

And beside the tomb of your lying,

   help me to wait for your rising

   and to pray for your coming

      to make all things new.

Crucifixion

by Graham Sutherland

in the Vatican Museum.

Photo: Chris Ellis

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