The collect for a missionary, in commemoration of The Rev’d John West (1778-1845), Priest, first Protestant missionary to the Red River Valley, from The Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962):
O GOD, our heavenly Father, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst call thy blessed Apostles and send them forth to preach thy Gospel of salvation unto all the nations: We bless thy holy Name for thy servant John West, whose labours we commemorate this day, and we pray thee, according to thy holy Word, to send forth many labourers into thy harvest; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lesson: Acts 12:24-13:5
The Gospel: St. Matthew 4:13-24a
The collect for today, the commemoration of John Wycliffe, (c 1320-84), Scholar, Translator of the Scriptures into English (source):
O Lord, thou God of truth, whose Word is a lantern to our feet and a light upon our path: We give thee thanks for thy servant John Wyclif, and those who, following in his steps, have labored to render the Holy Scriptures in the language of the people; and we beseech thee that thy Holy Spirit may overshadow us as we read the written Word, and that Christ, the living Word, may transform us according to thy righteous will; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
The Lesson: Daniel 2:17-24
The Gospel: St. Matthew 13:9-16
Artwork: William Frederick Yeames, Wyclif Giving “The Poor Priests” His Translation of the Bible, c. 1910. Illustration from ‘The Church of England: A History for the People’ by H.D.M. Spence-Jones.
“The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise”
So much hidden and revealed in a parenthesis, it seems. “The birth of Jesus Christ,” Matthew tells us, “was on this wise.” He goes on to confront the strange and wondrous nature of Mary being with child but not of Joseph but of the Holy Ghost and provides a wonderful insight into the mindset of gentle Joseph, “a just man,” we are told who does not want “to make her a public example.” A laconic phrase, it hides the harsher realities of the situation of women who were stoned for adultery, a custom that has sadly not entirely disappeared from our world and day. In other words, Joseph is in the dark about what is going on at this point. Yet we see something of his character: rather than expose her he “was minded to put her away privily.” That doesn’t means doing her in!
It is only at this point that he is let in on the plan by the angel of the Lord, who pretty much explains everything to him in a dream. The dream is a kind of ancient world IT, information technology, a means to convey information. The angel’s information to Joseph is very specific, not much in the way of obfuscation or ambiguity. The angel, in a rather lapidary fashion, straightforwardly explains the situation to Joseph: don’t be afraid to take Mary as thy wife; the thing which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost – you have to wonder what on earth he made of that; she shall bring forth a Son; you – meaning Joseph – “shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.” Of all the angelic statements, this one probably made more sense than the others. The idea of Yeshua, Saviour, is rooted in the Jewish Scriptures and looks back to Joshua, Yeshua, and now ahead to Jesus.
Joseph is to call the child Jesus. He is given the naming rights, a significant point, the rights of a father, though Joseph is technically only the step-father. It signals the theme of the Incarnation, namely God’s embrace of our humanity in Jesus Christ and the ways in which he is incorporated into the structures of human life, in this case the family. It establishes identity at the same time as suggesting the unique otherness of Christ.
The collect for today, the Sunday after Christmas Day, from The Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962):
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
The Epistle: Galatians 4:1-7
The Gospel: St Matthew 1:18-25
Artwork: Luca Giordano, The Dream of St. Joseph, c. 1700. Oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Fine Art.
“And in their mouth was found no guile”
They are the Holy Innocents, the last of the jewels in the Christmas crown of the Child Christ. They are without guile or deceit, and so are unable to harm, hence innocent (Latin, in nocens). And they are, it seems, without speech, hence infants (Latin, in fans).
Unnamed yet known, unnumbered yet numbered, The Feast of the Holy Innocents belongs directly to the festival of Christmas. They are in the narratives of the nativity of Christ in the story of the flight into Egypt. They die in place of Christ who ultimately dies for all. They are the very paradigm of the innocent victim in the truest sense.
It is an awful and frightening spectacle even for an age like ours inured to brutality and slaughter. “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked … sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem.” There is blood in Bethlehem, the blood of the little ones who die because of the wrath and envy of Herod. We live in a world where unnamed and unnumbered thousands of little ones die, the innocent victims of the social, political and personal machinations of others. How can we possibly make sense of the senseless slaughter of the little ones? Whether it is in Rwanda, in Syria, in the Sudan, or in the urban confusions of modern culture in the issues of abortion, child neglect, abuse and exploitation, we confront the hideous enormity of human sin and suffering.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents attempts the impossible. It connects their deaths to Christ and in so doing offers consolation and comfort to the Mothers in Israel, like Rachel, who confront the unbearable loss of their children. It is one of the hardest and yet profoundest aspects of the pastoral ministry to have to bury the little ones whose deaths seem impossible to comprehend. We are like “Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they are not.” And we are not in our loss and sorrow. It just doesn’t seem right. And, of course, it isn’t, but the great theological idea here is that their deaths participate by anticipation in the redemptive death of Christ crucified. Their deaths are not without meaning; they become in the words of the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, “redeemed among men, being the first-fruits unto God and to the Lamb.”