Thinking Anew – God’s relationship with us is one of invitation
Tomorrow’s readings point to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who, whether we like it or not, fully knows us, each one, both personally and collectively
A group of friends were discussing the loss of a young man who had died after a long and testing illness. Among them was an elderly man who said that it was hard to believe there was a man above at all. It was more of a question than a statement.
A younger man who had travelled some distance to attend the funeral said that whatever about “a man above”, he knew that there was a woman above and went on to explain that he had been guided from home to the funeral in a remote country church by a woman’s voice on a satellite navigator. He stressed that he was not being facetious or belittling his friend’s comment but rather making the point that previous generations could never have imagined a voice speaking from the skies, giving him direction and alerting him when he took a wrong turn. If human technology could make such a thing possible, he suggested, then perhaps we should not lightly dismiss the possibility of something or someone above.
Tomorrow’s readings point to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who, whether we like it or not, fully knows us, each one, both personally and collectively. The psalmist tells us that we were known before we were born and that there is nowhere we can hide from or indeed be lost by God.
“You mark out my journeys and my resting place and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.”
This is echoed in the Old Testament reading which describes the call of Samuel and reveals a God who is aware of what is going on in that young man’s mind as he struggles with his vocation to be a prophet. In that encounter Samuel is left free to decide how to respond, with some help from Eli.
This makes the point that even though God knows us through and through, he leaves us free to choose what our response should be; his relationship with us is one of invitation, to “come and see”, as Nathaniel is told in the gospel reading. It is a freedom, however, with responsibilities.
One of the best-loved carols of the Christmas season, O Holy Night has its origins in the small town of Roquemaure in the south of France in Christmas 1843, where the parish priest asked a local man called Placide Cappeau to write a poem about Christmas. Even though Cappeau had little or no interest in religion, he obliged, but went a step further by inviting his friend Adolphe Adam, an accomplished musician and composer, to put the words to music. (Adam is perhaps best remembered today for his ballet Giselle.) Cantique de Noël, as the carol was known, was widely accepted by the church authorities in France until Cappeau left the church to join the socialist movement and it became known that Adolphe Adam was Jewish.
Soon Cantique de Noël was deemed unfit for church use because of its “lack of musical taste” and “total absence of the spirit of religion”.
It found its way into the English language not as a Christmas carol but as a freedom song. An American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, who was an ardent abolitionist, saw in these words a way of promoting the anti-slavery cause: “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
John Sullivan Dwight recognised the universal significance of the Child of Bethlehem in terms of justice and truth in everyday living. He understood that “the man above” notion of God had limitations.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “I should like to speak of God not only on the borders of life but at its centre, not in weakness but in strength, not, therefore, in man’s suffering and death but in his life and prosperity . . . God is the beyond in the midst of life.”