Thinking Anew – The beginning of beginnings

In the ancient world, the dove was a universally recognised symbol of innocence, gentleness, nurture, and humility. Photograph: Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

In the ancient world, the dove was a universally recognised symbol of innocence, gentleness, nurture, and humility. Photograph: Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

 

The word augur has interesting roots. It comes from the Latin – avis ( a bird) and garrio (chatter). In ancient Rome officials called augurs were considered experts who could predict the future by interpreting patterns of bird flights when political appointments were being made. If birds of ill omen appeared the augurs would pronounce that the gods disapproved of the candidate and if auspicious birds appeared that indicated divine approval. Every Roman emperor from Augustus onward claimed to have been singled out by the appearance of an eagle, the bird associated with Jupiter, the supreme god. To this day eagles feature on the insignia of countries such as Russia and Germany.

This may explain an inconsistency between St Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus which we read tomorrow and that of Matthew and Mark. Luke says the Spirit descended on Jesus “in bodily form like a dove” whereas the others simply say “like a dove” – less specific. Did Luke have in mind the Roman tradition of live birds confirming appointments thus stating that Jesus was divinely approved? And was he also comparing the emperor’s eagle representing imperial dominance with the dove of the Spirit pointing to Jesus “the Prince of Peace.” In the ancient world the dove was a universally recognised symbol of innocence, gentleness, nurture, and humility.

This new year is filled with uncertainties as we face further disruption forced on us by the Covid pandemic with its negative impact on economies and lifestyles. And we seem powerless when it comes to saving our planet and therefore ourselves from the devastating effects of climate change.

These are scary times for everyone yet people of faith can view them in a different light because the incarnation (the birth of Jesus Christ) assures us that the God of promise is actively engaged in human life and human history.

The author HG Wells described Jesus as “easily the dominant figure in history . . . A historian without any theological bias whatever should find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth. ”

But St Paul, takes us deeper when writing to the Philippians by insisting that Christ Jesus “being in very nature God . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” The Greek text makes clear that Jesus is not some kind of pretend figure, a cardboard lookalike; he is truly divine. This was debated in the early years of the church as we see in documents of the New Testament such as these opening words from the First Letter of John which refer to Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” Beginning here means the beginning of beginnings.

It is difficult to explain Jesus in words because we are in the realms of mystery which by its very nature is beyond words and in some measure beyond understanding. However, art and music can sometimes help unpack and explore truths that are too deep and mysterious for ordinary language. We have an example of this in a Christmas carol by the 17th-century priest and poet Robert Herrick, sung we are told “To The King In The Presence At Whitehall” in 1647. In it Herrick encourages us to take our Christmas hope into the future with confidence no matter how awful things seem to be: “Dark and dull night fly hence away! / And give the honour to this day, / That sees December turn’d to May. /If we may ask the reason, say/ The why, and wherefore all things here /Seem like the springtime of the year? / Come and see/ The cause, why things thus fragrant be: /’Tis He is born, whose quick’ning birth / Gives life and luster, public mirth,/ To heaven, and the under-earth.”

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