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Bishop Robert’s Christmas Message

Blow, blow thou winter wind, John Everett Millais, 1892

In one of our best-loved carols, Christina Rossetti situates the birth of Jesus ‘in the bleak midwinter’. She paints a severe and freezing manger scene, with howling wind and deep snow. She represents the frosted earth and water with iron and stone.

From the biblical narrative, it seems unlikely that Jesus was born in the bleak mid-winter, as the shepherds would not be putting their sheep out to pasture in freezing conditions. But that does not stop us gladly enjoying Rossetti’s romantic poetic licence and reminding ourselves that the conditions of the first Christmas were hard, extraordinarily hard by modern standards.

Mary was a young girl giving birth a long way from home. The town of Bethlehem was crowded with strangers registering with the tax authorities of the occupying powers. Mary laid her new- born baby in an animal’s stone feeding trough. And the first visitors were not close family but rough men from the fields.

It is extremely difficult to recover this first Christmas. The festival has become overlaid with medieval nativity scenes and Romantic or Dickensian winter scenes. In the twentieth century, Christmas became the setting of the perfect family gathering. Most significantly, the run up to the commercial Christmas – the ‘golden quarter’ – is a now a vital part of the retail industry’s overall wellbeing so that vast sums are expended on advertising to persuade us to acquire more goods and more debt.

But not in 2020. This year it will be very different. Travel bans, lockdowns and quarantines mean it will be harder and perhaps impossible to get together with our loved ones. People are poorer. High streets, at least at the time of writing, are closed in many countries. And even when they re-open, shopping isn’t quite the same when you have to physically distance and wear a mask.

Christmas will be simpler this year. And for many it will be sadder. As Covid-19 has progressed, more and more families have been affected by the virus and its frightening and sometimes long- term symptoms. Some of us have a relative who has been in intensive care, struggling to breathe. Many of us know someone who has very sadly lost their life, and some of us face the first Christmas without someone close to us. This year, perhaps we more intuitively sense the harshness of the manger scene, the cruelty of death, the pain of a bleak mid-winter.

Adoration of the shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst 1622

Another well-known – and much older – carol speaks to us about ‘tidings of comfort and joy’. In 2020 we need to hear these tidings. For Christmas is at heart the story of a God who draws near to us in Jesus, sharing the sorrows and joys of human experience. In the mystery of the incarnation, the eternal God wonderfully condescends to be born as a human baby, in the roughest conditions. He is ‘Immanuel’ – the God who is with us.

Whatever conditions you face this Christmas, I hope you will be able to reach out and find the God who is with us. I hope you will take comfort from the presence of God with you, and perhaps also find opportunity to comfort others.

‘God rest you merry’ in modern English means ‘may God grant you peace and happiness’. The unknown author continued:

‘Let nothing you dismay
for Jesus Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan’s power
when we had gone astray
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.’

I wish each of you and your families comfort and joy as we approach this Christmas season.

+Robert Gibraltar in Europe 

Bishop’s Lent Appeal 2018

2018 Bishop’s Lent Appeal: Please see the attached link for information about this year’s projects.

Bishop Robert says ‘There will be updates on these projects posted regularly on the Diocesan website at www.europe.anglican.org Do keep an eye out for these regular updates. And please do consider how you can support my appeal.’

https://bishopineurope.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/bishops-lent-appeal-2018.pdf

Bishop of Europe’s Easter Message

Here is Bishop Robert’s Easter Message to us:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

BISHOP’S EASTER MESSAGE 2017

“Purity of heart is to will one thing”, said the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. I write these words near the beginning of Lent, a season in which we try even more seriously than usual to order our desires under the overarching desire for God. Since our desires are continually stimulated, manipulated and exploited by powerful forces in the world, Lenten disciplines of even moderate asceticism are strongly counter-cultural and have seldom been more valuable in promoting true spiritual life.

It has been a particular delight for me that the daily lectionary this Lent has us reading through the prophet Jeremiah. Few other biblical characters exemplify such a single-minded longing after God and his purposes. For 40 years, Jeremiah faced the political situation of his day with utter realism. He helped his people navigate their way through one of the most disturbing times in their history – the huge discontinuity and disruption marked by exile in Babylon. Against the false prophets, who disseminated an easy message of ‘business as usual’, Jeremiah is unflinching in proclaiming that God is faithful, but that a very different kind of hope and a so far unimagined future lie on the other side of a painful judgement. “I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “to give you a future and a hope. You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:11).

Jeremiah provides a suggestive backdrop to Easter. In his book “Outside Eden – Finding Hope in an Imperfect World”, Peter Fisher counters the idea that Easter is an exercise in mere wish fulfilment. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that the disciples who followed Jesus were expecting that, having given up homes, fishing businesses and so on, they would be rewarded with a relatively smooth path to greatness in the kingdom of God. They had, we know, been in the habit of discussing the various positions of honour they could expect. But Jesus’s death seemed to be the unexpected end of their hopes. And Jesus’s resurrection – a new spiritual body – was quite outside the rational categories that had so far been available to them. So the shape of the hope that opens up before the disciples on Easter Day is quite different from anything they had previously known. And, not surprisingly, the new resurrection order dramatically changes the character and capacities of the disciples too.

For most of us, Easter Sunday morning is epitomised by the reading of St. John’s account of Mary Magdalene meeting her risen Lord in the garden. I have been struck, in re-reading this text, by the repeated ‘turning’ of Mary. She is the first to see the empty tomb. After running away in fright, she returns with Peter and the other unnamed disciple. Having seen the empty tomb, the others depart, but Mary remains, standing weeping outside the tomb. When the gardener engages her in conversation she ‘turns around’ and sees Jesus, though without recognising him. It is in the face to face conversation between them, and in particular when Jesus speaks her name, ‘Mary’, that she recognises the risen Lord.

Rowan Williams comments (in ‘Resurrection – Interpreting the Easter Gospel’): “She, the one who had turned, again and again, in ever-dwindling hope, now finds that hope answered. Turning, over and again, to the name, the figure, the recollection of Jesus, even when it can only seem abstract and remote, issues at last in knowing with utter clarity that it is still he who calls us into our unique identity.” It is in turning, metanoia or conversion (or re-conversion) that we find Jesus and are found by him. Thus Mary finds a new future and a new hope.

Easter 2017 greets an uncertain and fearful European continent. The achievements of the post-war decades are being radically questioned. The story of smooth progress towards an ever-more prosperous, liberal and globalised future is being angrily protested against. Yet we don’t know what could replace it. The European Commission has published a White Paper that offers five very different scenarios, and both Protestant and Catholic Churches are holding conferences on ‘The Future of Europe’. There is, as yet, little in the way of genuinely convincing and inspiring ways forward. We feel ourselves to be in a kind of ‘Holy Saturday’, with old hopes having gone and a new vision yet to crystallise.

If that is our situation, we can take courage from Jeremiah, who assures his readers of a future and a hope that lie, not in the immediate present, but on the other side of exile. For Christians, faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1).  And so, in the purposes of God, Easter bursts upon us in unexpected ways with the promise of a future that we cannot yet specify.

Whatever the vagaries of human history, the seasons of the natural world are a tangible reminder of the faithfulness of God. Each year, the flowers grow and the trees blossom. As I write this, my daffodils are just starting to show the first yellow of Spring. I am reminded that amidst the sad Lamentations of Jeremiah (which are traditionally read on Good Friday), the prophet can nonetheless declare: “The Lord’s compassions never fail, they are new every morning: Great is your faithfulness!”

In closing, I want to thank all our clergy and lay people who will be involved in the preparation and conduct of worship for Holy Week and Easter. I wish insight and skill especially to those who will be endeavouring to communicate the Easter message in ways that will connect with regular churchgoers and visitors alike. I hope and pray that people will turn to meet the risen Lord in the welcome and worship we offer.

I wish you all a blessed and joyful Easter.

+Robert Gibraltar in Europe