Follow the Star

We will share here pictures of stars from Monifieth Parish Church, with a thought or two from our minister.  We would also love to share photos from windows around the village (send to xmas@mpcos.org.uk).  


Click on our 'Creating Stars' page to access videos of how to make some stars at home...and share your photos, please!

DAY THIRTY-SEVEN – EGYPT

Good morning and welcome to the final reflection of our Follow The Star Journey!
Of all the people and places mentioned in the nativity narratives, EGYPT is probably the one least associated with the story…we are more likely to think of pyramids and mummies than a place of sanctuary for Jesus and his family.  Yet, it is the place to where, according to Matthew, Joseph took Mary and Jesus in a bid to keep them safe from the wrath of Herod.  We do not know if Mary and Joseph had been to Egypt before but, even if they had, it would not have been as refugees fleeing violence.  Neither did they return to Bethlehem when the crisis passed; instead they returned to, and built a new home in, a different place: Nazareth, in the mountainous region of Galilee.  
Egypt was a place of significance for the Israelite people.  It had been a place of sanctuary for Jacob’s son Joseph after his brothers had sold him to travelling merchants.  It is also where the wider family of Jacob found food during years of famine in their own land.  But it was also the place where the Israelites faced slavery, racial-injustice and infanticide.  Egypt is a sign of both blessing and curse…a place of sanctuary and oppression.  For theological reasons, Matthew draws strong parallels between Jesus and Moses, but I would like to use Egypt (and Nazareth) as a metaphor for what comes next.  What do we do after the Christmas season has finished?  Where do we go after Epiphany?  Do we return to the “same-old” or do we travel a different path, make new homes, seek God in other places?
In recent years there has been a cry from some Christian quarters to “keep Christ in Christmas”.  This year, I have been delighted to see some push-back to this.  Those whose ministries I most respect are saying, instead, “let Christ out of Christmas”.  In other words, let us not keep Jesus as a tiny, quiet baby, all wrapped up and well-behaved in a manger.  That is not who Jesus was born to be.  Instead, Jesus came to change our lives, world and communities for the better.  Jesus brought down the mighty and lifted the humble; Jesus demanded justice and sacrifice; Jesus listened to women and touched the ‘unclean’.  For Christmas to mean anything, we must not keep Christ in Christmas: we must let him into every area of our lives.
As you pack away decorations and cards this year, perhaps you could keep something from this season out on display.  It could be anything, and just one thing, but something to remind you every day of the importance, power and grace of the incarnation.  Whatever it is, I pray it will bless you each day this year.  May you know the warmth and welcome of the Epiphany light, this day and always, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY-SIX – MAGI

Good morning to you all,
We have now arrived at Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when we mark the visit of the MAGI to Jesus.  Whilst they have been in the background of our most reflections, we turn the spotlight upon them today.  In many ways, they are the most mysterious of visitors: we do not know exactly where they come from, other than “the East”; nor do we know how many there were: tradition suggests either 3 or 12, but all we know from Scripture is that there was more than one; nor is it entirely clear how long after Jesus’s birth they appeared, with Herod’s infanticide orders suggesting it could be as long as 3 years.  Even just talking about them, we have various options for their collective name—kings, wise men, philosophers, astrologers—which I why I prefer to at least try to stick close to the original word in Matthew’s Gospel: magi.
Another area for wondering and discussion is why the magi came in the first place.  Yes, the scripture tells us that they came to pay homage to “the child who has been born king of the Jews” having “observed his star at its rising”.  But why would priests of the Zoroastrian religion—the role most often given to these eastern visitors—come to pay the new Jewish king homage?  Commentators on Matthew’s Gospel suggest that they represent the Gentile world, for whom Jesus was born just as much as for the Jewish world.  There is theological and literary weight behind that position.  However, I wonder if something more subtle is going on, here…. It had become increasingly accepted in recent decades that, for a few of centuries before Jesus was born, there was cultural, philosophical and religious dialogue going on between the Israelite people and those practising Zoroastrianism.  There appears quite clear evidence of the impact of Zoroastrian beliefs on Jewish theologies and, perhaps even more so, on early Christian understandings of good-and-evil, salvation and bodily resurrection.  How does it feel to us, then, if we hear the magi’s story as one of interfaith dialogue…and open-hearted search for truth, wisdom and the divine…rather than the subsuming of all religions into one?
Jesus is an important figure to many non-Christians in the world.  What might we learn about his life, influence and message from God if we were to welcome other voices in our conversations about Jesus, just as Mary welcomed the magi into her home?  Could we receive as much as we give?  May your hearts find peace in God, the source of all truth, wisdom, faith, hope and love, Fee.   

 

DAY THIRTY-FIVE – MYRRH

Good morning everyone,
We are onto the third gift offered to Jesus by the Magi: MYRRH.  It is, in some ways, similar to frankincense in that it is an aromatic tree resin harvested by tapping trees.  The trees in question are part of the Commiphora family and they grow in similar locations to Boswellia trees: Somalia, Oman, the Yemen and Ethiopia, as well as parts of Saudi Arabia.  As such, it is beginning to feel like a standard set of Christmas gifts given to someone who is important but not well known: some bling and some smellies!  But, like the others, the gift of myrrh has attracted symbolism and meaning throughout the years.
The root meaning of myrrh is “bitter” and is commonly used to scent oils, make perfumes, and for medicinal-type purposes.  In ancient Egypt, it was used in the embalming of mummies and is mentioned in John’s Gospel as one of the spices used on Jesus’s body after his death, “according to the burial custom of the Jews”.  As such, a common theory for the gift of myrrh is that it signalled Jesus’s mortality (alongside his divinity) and pointed towards his death.  This is an attractive argument, but I tend to be sceptical of theologies and perspectives that focus on the death of Jesus to the virtual exclusion of his birth and life (and resurrection!).  There is nothing more certain than everyone who is born will die…should we all give myrrh to newborns?!  Another theory is that, like the gold and frankincense, the myrrh was in honour of Jesus’s kingly status, for myrrh was often used in anointing oils.  Given the Magi were searching for a king, this seems a plausible explanation.
The more I learn about the nature and uses of the Magi’s gifts, the more suspicious I become of the symbolism of king/deity/mortal with which I grew up.  Such interpretations are too narrow, limiting our imaginations about what was going on during that visit.  As of today (and this could most definitely change!), I am torn between thinking the Magi offered gifts ‘fit for a king’, given the surrounding Scripture narrative, and the notion that they were offering practical gifts from their toolkit (noting that myrrh’s health properties seem more promising that frankincense’s).  Today, useful gifts for newborns and parents are things like nappies and cotton wool, muslin cloths, barrier cream and vests.  Maybe the Magi gave, from their own wisdom, things they may bring.
There is a joke that, after the Wise Men left, Wise Women came with nappies, wine and chocolate!  Whilst I wholeheartedly appreciate the sentiment and humour, this Christmastide I have begun to rethink just how ‘wise’ these visitors from the East were.  Perhaps their gifts truly were from the heart, offering something of themselves to make the lives of a family they did not know just a little better…?  If so, I would like some of their wisdom in the year ahead.  God be with you, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY-FOUR – FRANKINCENSE

Sunday greetings to you all,
Today we consider the second of the Magi’s gifts, FRANKINCENSE.  The name of this aromatic tree resin has been a joy for funny Christmas card writers for years, and a tongue-twister for many a young child, but the nature of the gift is hidden from most.  What is it about frankincense that makes it a fitting gift for “the child who has been born king of the Jews”?
Frankincense literally means ‘high-quality/pure incense’ and was used by the Israelites as a holy offering to God.  As such, many theorise that this gift demonstrates either the priestly role of Jesus or his divine nature.  Even today, many Christian churches use frankincense in their worship services, at least partly symbolising the prayers of the people rising to God.  However, frankincense is also a perfume—at the time of Christ’s birth often used by royalty—so it might also have signified Jesus’s kingly status.  And, just like gold, there might also be health benefits to this substance, with many believing it to have anti-bacterial properties.  All very good reasons for this fragrant gift to be given to a special child.
Today, frankincense continues to be harvested in vast quantities, for various uses, from certain trees in the Boswellia family.  These trees grow in harsh, arid regions of the world, and key production countries include Somaliland, Somalia, Oman, Ethiopia, and the Yemen.  Trees start producing resin when they are about 10 years old and are tapped 2 or 3 times a year.  However, over-tapping, tree-clearing for different land us, and natural infestations mean that Boswellia trees are dwindling in numbers.  There is a delicate balance to be struck in the future production of frankincense because the more a tree is tapped, the less likely its seeds are to germinate.  A powerful reminder that our greed can be our downfall.
There are so many reasons why frankincense might have been given to Jesus.  Knowing what I know now about this potent resin, I am drawn by the idea of knowing when enough is enough.  Jesus did not shy away from occasional luxury or extravagance, but he knew when it was appropriate and when it was not.  That might be my reason for the Magi’s frankincense from now on….  Peace be with you, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY-THREE – GOLD 

Good morning to you,
Of all the gifts presented by the Magi to the young Jesus, GOLD is the one with which we are most familiar.  Most of us will have some form of gold jewellery in our homes and, whether we know it or not, there are tiny bits of gold in our electronic gadgets.  Even so, few of us have lots of gold just lying around!  As such, gold is both ubiquitous and rare: we all have or want a little bit of it but affording very much is outwith the means of most.  Our desire for gold is not historically unique.  Gold has always been considered a precious metal, perhaps due to its rarity but perhaps, even more so, because of its gleam and glow, which lasts for a long time, as gold resists corrosion.  For most of history, gold was seen as a luxury symbol of wealth and status, often reserved for members of royalty or the ruling elite.  Many theorise that this is why Jesus was presented with gold by the Magi, i.e. as a symbol of his kingship on earth; although, interestingly, we have no idea how much he was actually given…does that matter?!  
Today, gold is most commonly used (visibly at least) in wedding and/or engagement rings.  There are good practical reasons for doing so: it is a metal that is both easy to manipulate into a circle and long-wearing, so that most rings last the lifetime of the wearer (and longer!).  Symbolically, its precious nature conveys the precious covenant of marriage, whilst the giving and receiving indicates the desire to share everything with the spouse-to-be.  As a girl, however, my memories of gold wedding bands are linked with sore eyes!  Whenever I had the beginnings of a stye coming on an eyelid, my mum would remove her ring and get me to rub it against the eyelid.  I have no idea of the scientific efficacy of this technique (it is certainly not mentioned on the NHS website!) but I do not remember having severe or long lasting styes.  Again, such perceptions of gold as good for our health are not new: for millennia, gold was thought to have positive health effects because… well… how could something so pure not be good for us?!  And yet, there might be a kernel of truth there, because gold is, at least, non-toxic.  As such, there are many people who can only wear jewellery, particularly earrings, made substantially of gold, unless they want some form of adverse reaction or skin-staining.
I wonder then…  What does gold mean to/for you?  Does that change how you perceive the gift of gold to Jesus?  Might the Magi have been offering something very different from the traditional status symbol of rulers?  Does it matter how much was given?  Is there a disconnect between the life Jesus was to live and the offering of gold?  If so, how?  Go on: use your holy imaginations today, and may you be blessed in your wonderings, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY-TWO – HEROD

Hello, and welcome to 2021!
As we continue into the final week of our ‘Follow the Star’ journey, we return to Matthew’s narrative of the nativity as we are drawn ever-onwards towards Epiphany.  It is he, alone, who mentions today’s character, HEROD: the self-titled king of the Jews.  No wonder he got upset when people came searching for “the child who has been born king of the Jews”!  Whilst the actions accredited to him by Matthew—including the instruction to slaughter all children 2 years and younger in/around Bethlehem—are historically uncorroborated, few deny that Matthew accurately captured Herod’s character.
Herod was a rather wily and self-serving politician.  Born in 73 BCE, he spent his life using relations and contacts to gain then maintain power, starting by riding on the coattails of his Edomite father, Antipater.  Antipater was granted Roman citizenship whilst a courtier in Judaea and went on to ensure Herod was appointed as the governor of Galilee.  Through various manoeuvrings, bloodshed and marriages of convenience, Herod eventually became the sole ruler of Judaea.  He assumed the title of ‘basileus’, the highest possible title, akin to ‘king’ or ‘emperor’.  He was not always popular with either the Jewish populace nor the Jewish authorities, not least because he was not a Jew himself.  Moreover, Herod’s appointment shifted Judaea’s status from an independent Jewish kingdom to a Roman vassal.  In a bid to maintain a solid power base, he tried to ‘buy’ allegiance from the people by embarking upon a huge building campaign: markets, amphitheatres, ports and, most significantly of all, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  His reign ended in terror with the burning alive of Jewish men who tried to remove what they considered idols from the Temple, as well as the execution of 2 of his sons.  When he finally died in 4 BCE, of a rather unpleasant disease, his accumulated kingdom was divided between 3 of his sons, at his request.  No one would again reign over the same land as he did, not even his heirs.
Herod is both an historical figure and a literary.  Matthew might have used artistic licence to emphasis a likeness between his rule and that of the Pharaoh’s whilst Israel was enslaved in Egypt, but there is a thread of truth in his depiction.  Herod was a man who lusted after power and who would do anything to keep it for himself.  He is someone we should continue to contemplate, even millennia later, as we seek to avoid the corrupting influence of power in our own lives.  Peace be with you, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY-ONE – PEACE  

Hogmanay greetings to you all,
I am going to go pop-culture on you today!  In the film “Miss Congeniality”, Sandra Bullock stars as an FBI Special Agent who goes undercover at the Miss United States beauty pageant.  There is a bit during the competition when the compere (Stan) asks the contestants, “What is the one most important thing our society needs?”  All the contestants reply, “World PEACE”.  Then, when Bullock’s character is asked, she responds, “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan.”  At this point, everyone goes silent.  Stan looks unnerved and everyone in the audience is looking at her either blankly or aghast.  After a good few seconds, she adds, “And…world peace,” at which point the entire audience erupts into cheers and applause.
There are few of us who would argue world peace is a bad aspiration except, perhaps, those who work in the arms trade or those who have seen the episode of “The Simpsons” when the achievement of world peace means human beings became ripe for alien attack!  However, the ‘peace’ spoken of in the Bible—‘shalom’ in Hebrew and ‘eirene’ in Greek—is more than the absence of violence.  It is more like wholeness and flourishing that comes through justice, restoration and divine transformation.  It is something we humans can (and should) work towards but it is, ultimately, a gift from God.  As such, I struggle with this translation of the angels’ song in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace to those with whom God is pleased”.  Peace is only true peace when it encompasses everyone, not just some.  Then we get into the murky waters of discerning (as if we ever could) which of us have pleased God!  Such use of energy only serves to divide us further and is never going to bring about peace!  So, what to do?  Well, I am no Greek scholar, but I would like to play around with the words a little, so they are more reflective of God from the beginning of Scripture.  How does this sound?  “Glory to God in the highest!  Peace on earth!  God delights in God’s people!”  The love of God, which brings Jesus amongst us, and the delight God has in God’s creation is, and can be, the very foundations upon which we can build true and lasting peace.
May the peace, love and delight of God be what unites us in the year to come.  Blessings, Fee.

 

DAY THIRTY – LIGHT 

Hello everyone,
One of the most powerful statements heard during the Christmas period is from John’s Gospel: “The LIGHT shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.  In fact, scratch that: it is one of the most powerful statements in the whole of Christian scripture.  The idea that nothing can overcome the love and truth of God—that even the death of Jesus at human hands does not eradicate God—is something upon which many of us base our faith and hope, and all we do in God’s name.  And yet, this phrase has come to have a problematic edge for me: what is wrong with the dark?!
Those of us fortunate enough to have sight know that light is important in order to see.  Without lights in our homes or cars, we would have many more accidents than we already do.  As such, an element of anxiety or fear can come with the absence of light: if we are used to navigating the world by our eyes, not being able to trust them is hard.  I am also one of those people who struggles with positivity and motivation during the months of December and January when the hours of daylight in Scotland are fewer.  The absence of light has an emotional as well as physical impact on me.  However, when I am trying to sleep, light is not my friend.  We have a couple of wee shrimp tanks in our bedroom and, if I want to sleep before the tanks’ sunset time, I get grumpy.  Without darkness, I struggle to rest well: something we all need.  Think about all the times and places when the absence of light was creative or nurturing: in from which God spoke in Genesis 1.
One of the challenges of 21st century Christianity is to sit with nuance and not push metaphors too far.  There is spiritual hope in John 1:5 but we should not seek to eradicate darkness.  Moreover, at a time when many of us are becoming more aware of the ingrained nature of racism in our societal structures, language and culture, associating light with good and dark with evil is hugely problematic.  So, in hearing these words of John, let us celebrate the hope of God’s love, that can never be erased, without taking that same hope and love out of the lives of others.
Peace with you, Fee.

 

DAY TWENTY-NINE – MESSENGER   

Good morning to you all,
We have thought about angels a couple of times, so you may be fed up with me telling you that the word ‘angel’ means ‘MESSENGER’.  However, today I want to talk not about the angels that come from God but the messengers who become earth-angels, spreading God’s good news amongst their fellow human beings.
For, you see, the message from God did not stop in our nativity story whenever it reached the first human.  Zechariah passed the message onto Elizabeth, then others.  Mary shared with Elizabeth; Joseph shared with Mary.  Most powerfully, the shepherds shared the message, first with Mary and Joseph, and then all who would listen…and all who listened were amazed.  If they were amazed, do you think those people would have kept quiet about it?  Absolutely not!  And so, the network of messengers continued.  It continues to this day.
We have all met angels as messengers in our lives; we would not be Christians without them.  God’s good news is not meant to be a carefully guarded secret.  Whilst we might not feel comfortable shouting it from the rooftops, we are called to pass it on.  We are called to be God’s messengers on earth.  We are called to be earth-angels.
My invitation to you, then, is to be alert for times when you can be God’s messenger.  It need not be a big thing; indeed, the story of faith is usually passed on in small and repeated acts of faith, hope and love.  But be alert and embrace the opportunity to share why you have faith.  Not to foist your beliefs on someone else but to share the good news of God’s love for all.  For that is, I think, the best news we can hear.  Fee.

 

To see previous weeks' reflections, please click on the relevant link below.

DAYS ONE TO SEVEN 

DAYS EIGHT TO FOURTEEN

DAYS FIFTEEN TO TWENTY-ONE

DAYS TWENTY-TWO TO TWENTY-EIGHT

 


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