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Looking ahead: Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – 14 February 2024

Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2024)

Romance is alive and well with NAB data showing Australians spent more than $849 million at restaurants, jewellers and florists during the 2023 Valentine’s Day celebrations – up 7% on 2022. Despite cost-of-living challenges, Australians seem happy to shell out on their nearest and dearest. 

“Even though many of us have other worries at the moment – with cost-of-living pressures – if there’s joy to be had, people will go for it.”
(Fab Succi, Melbourne restaurantor)

A reflection by Joe Kay, Sojourners
On the surface, the confluence of Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday seems to produce an odd and uncomfortable couple, but it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.
Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.
The ashes remind us that this phase of life is limited. We lose sight of how much each day is a precious gift. We fail to see the many possibilities for gratitude, celebration, and love that are present in each day. The hearts remind us that love creates us, animates us, and sustains us through our limited days. Love gives us this day and all its possibilities. Love is for everyone we can touch in some way, even strangers a half a world away. Together, the ashes and hearts remind us that we’ve got to decide how we’ll use today. Will we bring more division, pain, and indifference into our world? Or will we choose to do all that we can to make the world more as God would have it? We all must choose.
Lent sharpens our focus on what matters. It challenges us to get re-grounded and find creative ways to bring healing and love to others, especially the marginalized and the needy and the victims of injustice and abuse. Lent prompts us to examine what’s getting in the way of giving and receiving love in our lives. It calls out the insecurities and fears that form walls. It challenges our prejudices and our selfishness.
Above all, it forces us to see injustices and do something about them; to recognize those who are hurting and find a way to help heal them; to reach out to the outcasts and the refugees and embrace them.
We mustn’t waste the daily chances that God provides to make a difference.
Ultimately, Lent encourages us to forge a trail of love through our daily dustiness and to transform our ashy selves with creative acts of kindness and compassion. It reminds us that we are physical beings for now – formed in the elements of stardust – but we’ll always be animated by a breath of life and love that wants to guide us.
So, let’s heed the Valentine/Ash Wednesday reminders. And let’s pray for the faith and the courage to live each day boldly, kindly, and joyfully right up to the day when we exchange our heartbeat for a deeper place in God’s heart, which is love.

A reflection by Juliet Vedral, Sojourners
What Lent teaches us about real love 
I love that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year. Valentine’s Day – that bane to single people and the unsentimental, the feast day of our culture’s obsession with love and romance – is momentarily subverted by a reminder of what love really looks like: self-denial and commitment. Ash Wednesday in many ways is one of the most passionate and powerful expressions of love – God’s love for us, and our love for God.
Ash Wednesday and Lent, the season of reflection and preparation for Easter, take love to a whole new level. Lent is a season of self-denial, a pushing away of distractions that keep us from enjoying our First Love. My priest likes to say, when imposing ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return – and remember that you are beloved.” In other words, life is short, and too often our priorities are completely jacked up. And though Lent is a time to mourn the ways we forget God, it is also a time to remember that we are still beloved.
In our human relationships, we would do well to remember the brevity and brutality of life. We won’t always have time to tell say “I love you” before our beloved can never hear it again. We can “stay connected” and always want to make time, but never quite get around to it; we can forget our partners in the tyranny of the urgent, or in the demands of parenthood; we can lose our loved ones far sooner than any of us anticipate.
Valentine’s Day does a great job at communicating love for one day, but it lacks the impetus or mechanism to help us do the hard work of love. And one thing required for the hard work of love is a repudiation of the very things that keep us from loving well. Ash Wednesday, with its accompanying fast, is that repudiation.
Falling in love makes you reprioritize your life. In those first blushes and crushes of human love, we can get butterflies in the pit of our stomachs; we forget to eat or lose our appetites. We can put off good things or even tasks that once seemed necessary and absolute because we cannot tear ourselves away from the object of our affection (eventually, my now-husband and I would go on grocery dates because we really needed food, but we also wanted to be together). We go into “hibernation” when we first fall in love, spending as much time with our beloved as we can.
When our beloved is God, Lent can be that hibernation period to fall in love all over again. God responds to the sin that keeps us from divine relationship, not by punishing us or withdrawing from us, but by wooing us away from other, lesser gods and back to the lover of our souls.
We even receive a special gift on Ash Wednesday. The ashes imposed on our foreheads are a sign of repentance and mourning, showing the severity with which we take our falling short. We are not supposed to display our fasting and repentance in a pious way, but we’re also not supposed to wash them off.
To me, those ashes are a mark and reminder, as deep and personal as jewellery or flowers. Those ashes show that we are loved, and that our beloved’s commitment to us is constant and true, even when we are not. They show that divine Love is not just about feelings or sentiments, but about death to everything that hinders it.
The ashes remind us that the heart of love is laying down one’s rights and one’s life for our beloved. When we first fall in love, we easily let go of things we held dear and thought we couldn’t live without, because we have found something greater. I’ve only been married for nine months, but I can already see how the human heart can snap right back into its worst habits and desires as relationships grow comfortable and familiar. Our beloveds don’t need candy or sentimental gestures. They need the passion and commitment that come from love’s first awakening.
It’s because of the tendency to forget our First Love – to rely on emotions and feelings instead of true sacrifice and commitment – that we need Ash Wednesday this Valentine’s Day. In Jesus, God puts aside everything to make us God’s beloved on the cross. This is not a sentimental gesture. It is a whole-hearted, full-throated commitment. Jesus is all in, and Lent is an invitation for us to join him.
For those who observe, may we be willing and able to say yes.

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Rebuilding Trust – World Economic Forum

The World Council of Churches urges the World Economic Forum to consider longer-term good of all people

As the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting commenced in Davos beginning 15 January, World Council of Churches General Secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay urged the gathering to renew its commitment to multilateral cooperation for the longer-term good of all people.

The forum is convening under the theme “Rebuilding Trust.”

Pillay reflected that trust is the essential ingredient without which human societies – and the global community – cannot function.

“However, in today’s divided and increasingly conflictual world, it is a commodity in critically short supply,” said Pillay. “While some of those in attendance in Davos are themselves drivers of inequality, injustice, and division, we want to believe that many others are genuinely committed to exercising their considerable influence to promote a greater measure of justice and peace in the world.”

The four key themes identified for the meeting are:

  • “Achieving Security and Cooperation in a Fractured World
  • “Creating Growth and Jobs for a New Era”
  • “Artificial Intelligence as a Driving Force for the Economy and Society”
  • “A Long-Term Strategy for Climate, Nature, and Energy.”

Rebuilding trust will be an essential precondition for progress in any of these areas, Pillay observed.

“Given the unprecedented constellation of global crises – especially of climate, conflict, and economic inequality – there is an urgent need for cooperation and action, rather than division and unconstructive competition,” he said. “The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum gathers key decision-makers in the fields of politics, economics and business. The power of this gathering must be leveraged for rebuilding trust and the renewal of commitment to multilateral cooperation in facing these crises, not only in the short-term interests of a privileged few but for the longer-term good of all people and our common home.”

Read the full statement here.

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Photo by Jordan Wozniak, Unsplash

Western churches recognise Epiphany on January 6th.

[The Orthodox church celebrates Epiphany on January 19th. Epiphany is one of three major Orthodox Christian celebrations along with Christmas and Easter]

Epiphany is the church season in which God’s light is revealed in the world, when glory is made manifest. The spiritual flow of these winter seasons are awaiting light in the darkness (Advent); Light overcoming darkness (Christmas); and following the light to its glorious source (Epiphany). The story moves from flickering candle light, to the Light of the Cradle, to seekers welcomed into the widening circle of light.

Diana Butler Bass reflected on Epiphany in her most recent blog on The Cottage. She writes:

On Epiphany morning there was a newsletter from the poet David Whyte. The title seemed seasonal — “A Star for Navigation.” I expected a post, maybe a poem, on the biblical story of the Wise Men. I eagerly clicked the link. But my theological geek self was disappointed. The post was about finding one’s true work and vocation:

Every work begins as an intimation and discovery. Like the first time as a child we walk to the edge of a field, glimpse a new horizon, and immediately want to go there. We do not know where the horizon will take us. We have a glimmering, an inclination, a notion that somehow we will find something beyond our present knowledge. . . Each of us, somewhere in the biography of our childhood, remembers a moment where we felt a portion of the world calling and beckoning to us.

I appreciated his short essay, especially his rendering of calling as a horizon. I get it. I like horizons as a symbol, image, and actual place. Horizons as transcendence, as guide for the journey, as location for the future, as cosmic mystery.

But I missed those wandering mystical astrologers — until I realized that those ancient Wise Men were doing exactly what the poet described. The Epiphany story is a tale of journeying toward a horizon – a place of radiance and peace – drawn by a star. From the East they came, beckoned by its glimmering glory and the longings of their hearts, until that star stopped and was overhead, most surprisingly, shone upon the Child. Epiphany took them to a new horizon, the unexpected place of their longings and dreams.

I know what he’s talking about, that desire to discover what is just beyond, to reach that which beckons us. There it is! Rising, just over the hills, the light breaks through the dark, over the mists.

Look to the edge, that place where earth and heaven meet. Can you see the glistening beauty?

O star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Epiphany: the light beckons. We do not know where the horizon will take us. But we go. The more we follow, the brighter it shines and the clearer the way.

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Patriarch of Romanian Orthodox Church – Christmas greetings

The Romanian Orthodox Church is a member church of the Victorian Council of Churches.

Patriarch Daniel of the Romanian Orthodox Church has prepared this message on the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of the Lord (first published in Orthodox Times here).

The mystery of the Nativity of our Lord is the mystery of God’s merciful and humble love for humankind. As the Son of God descended to us on earth, so He has opened the way for us, humans, to ascend to Him, to heavenly life. Therefore, the Incarnation of the Son of God, who became Man out of unfailing love for human beings, is the foundation and centre of the Christian faith.

For the Holy Apostles, the contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnate Son of God becoming human is the source of all theology, of all spiritual life and of the Church’s mission in the world, as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist says:

God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We are called, therefore, to show compassionate love and solidarity to all people, but especially to those who suffer from war.

At the same time, let us bring the joy of celebrating the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ to the homes of orphans, to the elderly people centres, to the bedside of the sick, but also where there is much sadness, loneliness and depression, to the poor, bereaved and grieving families. Wherever we can do good, let us do it, in our hearts and in our actions, with the joy of the angels, the shepherds and the Magi who came to Bethlehem!

On the occasion of the Holy Feasts of the Nativity of the Lord, the New Year 2024 and the Baptism of the Lord, we wish you good health and peace, joy and God’s help, together with the traditional greeting, “Many Years to Come!”.

With high esteem and brotherly embrace in Christ, the Lord,

† Daniel,

Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church

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‘Ain’t no room for peace’

A reflection by Rev Uncle Glenn Loughrey
(Glenn is an Anglican priest and First Nations Wiradjuri Elder who worked tirelessly in the lead up to the Referendum to raise awareness of the issues. This is his reflection on the Gospel reading for Advent 2B, Mark 1:1-8)

Ain’t No Room for Peace

Today is Advent Two and our focus is on peace. What an appropriate idea to focus on in a world which is demonstrably not at peace. War, violence, conflict, and confrontation has broken out on every continent. It is broadcast to our screens, played on our radios and front page on our newspapers.

James Hillman in his book, “A Terrible Love of War” asserts that war is not an opposite state to “Peace” rather “Peace” is the brief interval before the next War. He goes further to state that war is normal, and humans need war to find meaning and purpose. He adds that belief and the Abrahamic faiths include the call for war within its language and mode of operation.

In fact, we are addicted to war. Maybe we find this confronting. We can accept, perhaps, that this is true of the Old Testament but the New Testament Is about love and the Prince of Peace. Surely, it is not about war and the language of war. Or is it? Perhaps we have recruited the language therein to mask the violence and love of war we harbour in our battle with evil, evildoers, and those unlike us.

In the recent debates around the referendum there was more emphasis on war and violence than on peace and reconciliation. Those who say they were for such values exhibited a love of violence. I spent most of my time in church communities and I can assure you the passion for violence was as real there as anywhere. The focus on how to defeat the enemy who somehow posed a threat to society was at the forefront of most conversations. Christians didn’t seem to be any different to the aggression exhibited on our tv screens, radios on stages.

The church sees itself as an instrument of peace. We who make up the church pray for peace Sunday after Sunday. We have litanies and prayer s for peace. Hold vigils to implore God to bring peace amongst us. Yet there is no peace, and we use words of violence in conversation, Bible Studies, and sermons to condemn those who do not believe, those whose lifestyles are not ours, those that have another world view.

All the praying, it seems, is to no avail. War on both a world scale and in our personal relationships continues. In our society the need to focus on family violence reminds us war is alive and well regardless of people’s faith, beliefs or hopes. Just as charity, love, begins at home, so does war. The violence partners, children and others experience here normalises violence and allows us to agree to war.

Maybe this calls us to think about why, after 2000+ years since the coming of Jesus, we are no nearer to peace on earth than the night he was born. The call to love our neighbour as ourselves hasn’t worked. And we cannot simply say that it is because there is evil in the world, and we can’t do anything about it.

Why? Thomas Merton suggests

We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God”.

How is it possible that those who have grown up breathing the Christian ethos have failed to do so? This is not about those who go to church and identify as Christian, but the fact that the Western world is and remains embedded with Christian philosophies and morality from its very beginning. Yet we are unable to find peace with self, others, and God.

In today’s reading we encounter John the Baptist and the call for repentance, individually and as a society. Yes, we individually must find peace with God but that must be as a part of a society so that it does also. The peace of everyone is needed to make peace in the world. Peace is not an ethereal personal experience. It is what we contribute to society and the world.

Thomas Merton writes again:
“Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”

John the Baptist suggests that when he calls all to repentance and reconciliation. It didn’t happen then, and it isn’t happening now. We seem to be blind to our complicity in the war in small things which leads to our complicity in the large things.

I am not sure if what Merton calls for is possible because peace is more than prayers, and blaming the other for the wars we are engaged in, in our own lives and the life of the world. Prayer is an aspiration which Merton suggests takes much more than we are often ready to commit to, to bring about peace. John suggests the same. If you want the Messiah and a new world then you must repent, not just in words, but in a life differently lived.

In the recent Referendum we had the chance to do peace in our country. Pat Dodson comments:

“…… Australians hear the whispering in their heart and know it can only be silenced by coming to terms with the original owners of this beautiful and bounteous land. Many Australians of goodwill sense that a moment for national leadership has slipped past us and is gone”.

The war continues without peace.

Why? As Desmond Tutu said:

There can be no future unless there is peace. There can be no peace unless there is reconciliation.”

Repentance and forgiveness are the twins who power peace. Being prepared to face the fracture in relationships allows for the offer of the hand in forgiveness. Without it, violence remains.

1960’s Anti-war activist and Catholic Priest Daniel Berrigan said that while people say “Of course, let us have peace,” (they add the caveat) ……, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties …

There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison, and death in its wake.

Peace is unproductive, production is fuelled by war. Economies struggle to survive without war or the threat of the war. The war economy is, like prisons, a reliable source of income and jobs. Nations need violence and death to find their identity in contrast to the other and to balance their books. The dead come back heroes and patriotic legends are made.

Peace provides none of that.

John Dear, another peace activist writes that

“The life of “peace” is both an inner journey toward a disarmed heart and a public journey toward a disarmed world. This difficult but beautiful journey gives infinite meaning and fulfilment to life itself because our lives become a gift for the whole human race. With peace as the beginning, middle, and end of life, life makes sense.”

Peace can not be welcomed through prayer and the intervention of a benevolent God. Peace can only come when it is the central element in the lives of individuals and nations. While ever we are addicted to self-interest in all its shapes and forms, to greed and possessiveness, to demonising the unlike us, then there can be no peace.

To work for peace is something very few people are prepared to do seriously, without counting the cost. It is something the church and its members speak of but hesitate to make real. John the Baptist calls us to do a deep personal assessment and to change the way we live and be in our relationships with others despite the implications for ourselves.

John the Baptist and Jesus both attested to the consequences of peacemaking. One lost his head, and the other was nailed to a cross.

Daniel Berrigan continues:

“If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

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A reflection on Advent 3 by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Many will know the (prolific) writings of Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a Korean-American, who has visited Australia in recent years. This is her reflection for Advent 3. First published here

We are approaching the third Sunday of Advent, reflecting upon the coming of Christ into a broken and destructive world.

This Sunday’s Advent worship carries the theme of joy and love, but as the killing continues in Gaza, there is no joy. The death toll in Gaza is now more 17,000 people. This number is continuously rising as the airstrikes continue and people are dying from illnesses and lack of food, clean water and medical assistance. The situation in Gaza is dire and heartbreaking for us to watch and witness in real time.

Palestinian Christians who live in Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born, are reminding us of their daily struggles under settler colonialism. Their families and friends in Gaza are dying and being covered by the rubble, as Gaza is now a city with broken, torn and dead bodies lying underneath the rubble.

Palestinian theologian Munther Isaac shares: “If Jesus were born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble.”

More than 2,000 years ago, Christ was born as a Palestinian Jew under the Roman Empire, and today he comes to us among the most marginalized, oppressed and broken in our world.

During my visit to Palestine just before the Oct. 7 Hamas airstrike, my daughter and I toured the Church of Nativity, often called the Basilica of the Nativity, located in Bethlehem in the West Bank. This basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land and is revered as the place of the birth of Jesus. I had a broken knee from a fall a few days earlier in Nazareth, so with crutches and a leg brace, we walked into the beautiful church and made our way down the narrow, dark, slippery steps into the lower-level cave where a silver star marks the spot where many believe Christ was born. Origen of Alexandria in 248 believed this cave is where Jesus was born, and Christians around the world continue to believe this.

At that time of our visit, the narrow and slippery steps to the lower level of the church were crowded with tourists and pilgrims from around the world who wanted to see and touch the spot where Jesus was born. Due to the pain of my broken knee, I couldn’t really enjoy the moment as the crowds were pushing their way around me and we felt the need to leave quickly due to the long line of tourists behind us. Nonetheless, it was a visit that was meaningful to me as it made concrete that Jesus was physically incarnated and born as a vulnerable, poor Palestinian Jew. He was born in a crowded stable and placed in an uncomfortable manger where animals ate.

Over the years, Christians have sanitized the Nativity scene of Jesus and made it into something beautiful, glorious and holy. But there is nothing beautiful about being born in a cold stable/cave and being placed in a dirty manger after birth.

I have given birth to three children, and there is nothing glorious about the Nativity scene of Jesus. It is and should be shocking to us as it was for the those during the time of Jesus. A woman wants the cleanest, most comfortable and delightful place to give birth to her child. No one dreams of giving birth in a dirty stable or a cold cave where animals are feeding, sleeping and roaming around. But that is how Jesus was born. And Isaac reminds us if Jesus were born today, he would be born under the rubble — a dark, gloomy, dirty and hopeless place.

This Sunday of Advent, how can we celebrate joy in such a broken, painful and dying world? Jesus came into the world to bring peace, love, joy and hope. He was born under Empire, became a refugee in Egypt and ministered among the poor, marginalized, oppressed and sick. Jesus healed the lepers, engaged with Samaritans, searched for the lost and brought joy and hope to the weary. Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” Jesus is reminding us we need to do likewise. We are to embody Jesus’ message of hope and joy during this season of Advent.

As we approach this Sunday and light the candle of joy, we need to remember Jesus came into the world to set the captives free, to liberate the marginalized and to side with the oppressed. He told us to love God and to love our neighbours. We need to follow Jesus and, as we do, may we represent, express and carry Jesus’ message of love, peace, hope and joy.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim serves as professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind., and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the author or editor of 22 books.  She is the host of Madang podcast on Christian Century.

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A Christmas message from World Council of Churches


Image by Cathal Mac an Bheatha, Unsplash

Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay
General Secretary
World Council of Churches

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it –John 1:3-5

In so many ways we, and our whole world, are living through a time of darkness, when mounting challenges threaten to diminish our hope, to overwhelm our will to meet the evident needs and palpable pains of our day, and even to sap our dedication to truth and justice.

Yet, as disciples of Jesus and as Christian communities united in Christ’s love, we are called to stand up to fear, counter falsehood, challenge selfishness and greed, and offer hope to the whole world.

We cannot acquiesce in disappointment nor succumb to despair. The world needs more from us— more courage, more creativity, more inspiration and dedication. More self-giving love.

From where do we source such energy and life?

Remarkably, we Christians find that strength in the birth of a weak and vulnerable baby, born 2,000 years ago into poverty at the far edge of empire in Bethlehem, Palestine, soon to be endangered by evil powers and displaced in exile.

In this poor child we recognize the heir of the great Jewish prophetic tradition of justice, the one who proclaimed God’s nearness and our dearness, the one in whom his followers came to see the very image of God and the promise of a New Creation.

In his birth, we welcome God’s own Son now immanent, the epiphany of God embodied in our humanity, sharing our nature and lifting us to share in his. He is Immanuel – God with us forever.

No wonder the angels sing, the shepherds kneel, and the very stars shine brightly.

Our celebration of the birth of Jesus is thus our defiance of despair, our yes to life and hope. He is our light in a time of darkness, enabling us to live for the truth and to strive for the redemption of the world.

Children of the light, we will not settle, nor let others settle, for a world lethally scarred by violence, seared by heat, or darkened by fear. We will not acquiesce in the devolution of democracies nor the misuse of religion nor pandering to prejudice.

Therefore, as we, Christians everywhere celebrate the birth of the Messiah—God’s countersign to a world that sometimes seems bent on self-destruction—we in the World Council of Churches share with you our heartfelt joy. We redouble our resolve to labour tirelessly with you for the health and healing of the sick, a fair economy, the well-being of migrants and displaced people, peace and security for all, the advancement of human rights and dignity, deeper community in faith, and the flowering of justice for women, for children, for the earth itself.

So let us rejoice! The light of Christ promises to banish our darkness. May it brighten our spirits and warm our hearts. May it light our way, illuminating our journey to wholeness, to authentic discipleship, to justice and to peace on earth. May the love and light of Jesus fill our hearts and lives this Christmas and always!

Blessings and peace in Christ,


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2023 Christmas messages from Leaders of Christian Churches in Australia


Image by Greyson Joralemon, Unsplash

Rev John Gilmore, President
National Council of Churches in Australia

We are soon to celebrate God’s presence with us in the birth of Jesus and we also encounter the reality of our world and the difficulties so many face. There is such a contrast with the beauty and wonder of the Christmas story and the present-day reality of the Holy Land

The angels sum up the expectation of Jesus’ birth in what they say to the shepherds in the hills around Bethlehem.

‘Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ 

Their song was full of hope and joy.

 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will among people’. 

They enter Bethlehem and find the baby Jesus and worship.

Bethlehem now is within the West Bank of Palestine and is about 70km from Gaza. Not far at all. Tensions in the West Bank are also high and Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem will be muted and Manger Square may be without the usual festive lighting.

Our hearts echo the cry of the angels and we with them pray ‘on earth peace and goodwill among people’. Goodwill includes concern for the other, approval and affirmation, and actively expressed care. Much goodwill is needed!

When there is heartfelt good will it is a sign of peace being made real. Australia’s First People need to experience goodwill from us all. Those overwhelmed by the cost of daily life need to receive goodwill in this special time of year. People in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank need goodwill from and for each other.

Our prayer this Christmas could be that all in distress experience goodwill, love, peace and justice.

(NB. In the Western Church, Christmas is celebrated on 25 December 2023. Most Orthodox Churches will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on 7 January 2024.)

Download the PDF link below to read the 16 messages from Australian Church Leaders

document2023 Christmas Messages from Australian Church Leaders final (481 KB)  | released 12 December 2023


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May you find the peace of Jesus at work this Christmas

Christmas message from Archbishop Philip Freier
Anglican Diocese of Melbourne

10 December 2023

(first published on TMA, The Melbourne Anglican)

Our journey to Christmas this year is a heavy one. World events are distressing with chaos and conflict escalating at a rate beyond our comprehension. It was a different age with different tensions, but the world of Jesus’ birth was not a time of ease or peace. The pax romana, effectively a peace that the Roman Empire forged through the annihilation of their enemies, was still incompletely accomplished throughout the land of Israel. The whole of Jesus’ life was lived in the unfolding shadow of these ancient world events. The journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was on account of the Roman census, a sign to Israel that they were being incorporated as a defeated people into the Roman Empire. Any romantic notions we have about the Jesus’ birth in the stable of Bethlehem need to be measured against the powerlessness of Joseph and Mary in the face of the demands of their times.  The escape of the Holy Family from King Herod’s edicts points to the complexities that are alive in such world events. As always happens, the little and the least in the affairs of the world experience the greatest suffering in these struggles for power and control.

This was the world in which the incarnation of the Son of God took place. Jesus’ birth is at the same time highly contextual but also wonderfully timeless in what it declares about God’s love in a broken world. As we make our journey to Christmas, I hope that we do this with the assurance that God is always present with us in the turmoils of the world.

The Australian community is at this same time making a journey towards the future informed by the negative outcome in the referendum about a First Nations’ Voice. The analysis will undoubtedly continue for some time. Throughout the 120-year history of the Australian Commonwealth, constitutional change has been difficult to achieve with most referendums failing to gain support. I think that there is a danger in our present circumstances of interpreting the referendum result as somehow pointing to an anti-Indigenous consensus in Australian society. There have been some early indications that bipartisan positions at a state level around the country have been abandoned on the basis that “the people have spoken”.

In that light the importance of the Yoorook Justice Commission is significant. Yoorrook’s work is to open up the impact of colonisation on the Traditional Owners and First Peoples of Victoria. It is the most systematic attempt to explore this question so far. I commend to you the materials on the commission’s website as resources to deepen your understanding of this work. It is also important that this work continues to be supported across the divergence of opinion on the referendum.

May you have a blessed Christmas and find the peace of Jesus, the Prince of Peace at work in your heart, your home and your relationships. Starting with ourselves, we seek to extend this gift of God in Christ to a fractured and broken world.

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16 Days of Activism – a sermon

(a sermon/reflection prepared for Sophia’s Spring UCA, 26th November 2023)

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is held annually on 25 November. The day begins 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that runs from 25 November to 10 December (UN Human Rights Day), with the 2023 theme “UNITE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”.
Break The Silence Sunday is an effort to open up a conversation within the church about rape and sexual assault. Within the context of our faith communities we hope to
(1) acknowledge the reality of rape and sexual violence in our world;
(2) support survivors by creating a place where they can tell their stories, feel loved and supported, and find encouragement on their healing journey;
(3) commit ourselves to the work of changing the world, creating a future where rape is a memory.

Today we stand with survivors and victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence. We witness their pain – and their strength. We ask what they need from us, as individuals and as communities of faith. This service today, and many around the world, is part of breaking the silence of complicity and fear, and through it all trusting in the good news of God’s incredible love for us, and for all the world.

I could talk about the facts – that in Australia sexual assault happens once every 21 minutes on average. I could talk about victim blaming and shaming of survivors of sexual assault. I think you know this already.

I could talk about the silence of the church, often unprepared to talk about such things, even though the biblical narrative has many such stories for us to dwell on, to learn from, about power and patriarchy. Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

I think you know this already.

I could talk to you about the statistics – 53 women murdered this year[1] by their intimate partners or ex-partners this year. I could talk about the suffering… I think I’d be preaching to the choir.

The reading from Matthew 25 is often entitled The Final Judgement, or The Sheep and the Goats. I want to read this text from two different perspectives.

The first lens is the popular reading of this text that points out a simple truth – that the separation depends on how we treat people in need. When the sheep and the goats are separated, the king commends the sheep, the righteous ones:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then those in the group will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The ruler will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.’

Those in the group that the ruler commended were surprised. They had simply got on with the task they saw in front of them and offered acts of kindness and compassion and practical actions for the welfare of others. We might add in our day and age it might include advocacy, raising awareness and multiplying efforts to protect the dignity and worth of those who are most vulnerable.

In this reading, the followers of Jesus are called to continue his work and to live in relationship with others following his example. I offer this to you this morning not so much to entreat you to do good (as if you’re not already), or even to do more, but to encourage you to recognise that those actions you do, small and large, bring healing, and offer compassionate care. Like the parable of the yeast where it quietly and – for all intents and purposes – invisibly goes about its work of transforming the flour. It may be through the gift of simply listening, or making space for survivors’ stories to be heard, held, and cradled. We often underestimate the power of presence, in contrast to the more routine medical, professional model of delivering services and doing things TO people.

The particular acts of compassion Jesus names address basic human needs – food, water, welcome, hospitality, clothing, comfort, shelter and practical care. They are part of the Abrahamic hospitality code, protective hospitality offered to those in need or who are threatened in any way.

The sacred scriptures of all three Abrahamic religions teach philoxenia ‘love of the stranger’ as opposed to xenophobia ‘fear of the stranger.’ For all three traditions, the classic example of hospitality toward the stranger is in Genesis 18 which celebrates how generously Abraham embraces the three strangers who pass by his tent. Abraham doesn’t wait for the strangers to ask for water and bread. Rather, he rushes toward them to invite them to rest and refresh themselves. He gives them not just ‘a morsel of bread’ to see them on their way, but clean water to wash their feet and a generous feast of freshly prepared foods.

For us, the ‘stranger’ may well be someone from another culture or another country or another religious tradition. But that ‘stranger’ may also be a friend, or a family member, or a condition, or a situation.

The second lens for this Matthew reading leads us to a bigger picture, and arguably the point that Jesus was seeking to make with this parable. It comes right at the end of a long block of teaching that Jesus has in private with his followers in Jerusalem, just prior to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. This story is about them, but not cast in the role of the sheep, nor the goats.

Rather, these followers of Jesus are the ones who will continue the work of Jesus in healing, teaching etc and risk being the ones who are hungry and thirsty, the stranger needing hospitality, the one who will need clothes for the journey, the one who will travel to share the good news and thereby risk sickness and need help, and those who may be persecuted and imprisoned and need the comfort of visitors.

The imperative to live as Jesus brought many challenges to the lives of the early disciples, and the sheep in the parable are any who would help and support the disciples in their time of need. Perhaps our contemporary western church has less of these challenges, or perhaps our highly individualised society has changed how we see our place in the community of Christ?

Can we imagine in our contemporary context, that we, as followers of Jesus, might be the ones who need support and care from others – rather than dispensing it or offering it TO others? In this reading from Matthew, discipleship – following the example of Jesus – may place us in situations where we may be the very ones who need practical help, support and compassion.

It makes me wonder whether we offer help and support through power and privilege, or whether we offer help and support to others while also acknowledging the lived experience of our own needs, brokenness, difficulties, and our own vulnerability. From a place of humility. To draw alongside others in their time of need because we know what it is like to be in need ourselves.

In an interview with Francis Weller entitled The Geography of Sorrow, he points out that most of us hold huge wells of unexpressed grief inside us because we live in a culture where grief is unwelcome, something we need to get over quickly. We are ashamed to grieve. He suggests the work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend towards cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.

You may recall Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, which speaks about our own woundedness as a source of strength and healing when supporting others, to recognize the sufferings that are common to all human persons.

And still, I wonder what that might mean for us as we reflect on how we find our place in the community of Christ. And in turn, how as a community we make space for others whose lives have been broken, damaged, hurt and harmed. When we recognise those times in our own lives, and draw from this deep well of lived experience to offer compassion, kindness, support and love.

Feeling ‘out of our depth’ may be the best starting point to connect with those who have experienced violent relationships as they seek to find safety and healing from their trauma, and rebuild their lives.

One survivor writes: I could have used the support from the church. I needed a church where I could walk in, feeling broken, guilty, and confused about my own identify and be received with open arms telling me that I wasn’t any different in their eyes. I needed this kind of community. You see, when you experience something like rape, it has a lasting impact. It shakes your core, your identity. You feel violated and damaged, dirty and ashamed. It will always be the anniversary of that night. Who am I to have let something like this happen to myself? How do I move on from this? How has this changed me as a person? Where was God when this happened, and why would something like this be allowed to happen? Church doesn’t necessarily feel like a comforting place because I felt like I had to hide what had happened to me because it’s “not appropriate for church”, and that was the part of me that needed support the most.

She asks, Are we creating a worship space that feels safe for survivors to be their true self? Even on their lowest days? Are we trauma-informed and sensitive in our planning? How does our environment and building welcome people who have experienced trauma? We need the voice of the church to break the silence that is around rape and sexual violence. The reality is though that sometimes we need to sit in the discomfort so that we can learn how to make a positive change. We need to normalize the conversation. It’s absolutely okay to talk about rape in the church. Church should be a place people can feel comfortable expressing who they are and where they are in their healing journey. They shouldn’t fear judgement, shocked responses, or even excessive pity. A service like Breaking the Silence Sunday is the first step in that process of acknowledging that no matter who you are or what you’ve been through, you are not only welcome here, but this is a safe place for you.

Reverend Moira Finley, who is a catalyst for Break the Silence Sunday, writes:

“What we need, from those of you who don’t bear the scars of rape, is for you to listen. We need for you to listen to our stories, to not turn away. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and yes, it will break your heart. We need you to deal with all of that, all of your own discomfort, so that you can listen to us, support us, encourage us as we deal with the winding, difficult journey of healing. We need you to listen to our fears, to try to understand our anxieties. We need you to be patient with how we tell our stories, with the stops and starts, with a sudden flood of memories that come and have to be shared or they will overwhelm us. We need to know that we aren’t a burden to you, that you’re in this with us for the long haul, that you’ll stand with us in the good days when we are enjoying life, because we do have them, but also in the dark days of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and despair, because we have those days as well. We need your voices, the voices of allies in this struggle, to stand with us and help us change the world, to create a future where no more people face the sleepless nights burdened by memories of what someone else inflicted on us”.

Francis Wheeler (The Geography of Sorrow) notes that

“In healthy cultures, one person’s wound is an opportunity for another to bring medicine. But if you are silent about your suffering, then your friends stay spiritually unemployed. In Navajo culture, for example, illness and loss are seen as communal concerns, not as the responsibility of the individual. Healing is a matter of restoring hozho – beauty/harmony in the community. The San people of the Kalahari say, “When one of us is ill, all of us are ill.”

It resonates with Paul’s message to the early church in Rome: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’. (Romans 12.15)

Suffering, hardship and trauma are a shared concern for the community and one that calls us all to be ‘spiritually employed’ for the sake of others. It’s what we do together. May it be so. Amen.

A sermon prepared by Rev Sandy Boyce for Sophia’s Spring community, 26th November 2023

[1] Researchers at Destroy the Joint have updated their Counting Dead Women register of known deaths due to violence against women in 2023, which now stands at 53. This is the 47th week of 2023, meaning more than one woman has been killed each week of this year. There are still five weeks of the year remaining. Six women have now been killed across Australia in the last seven days, five allegedly by men’s violence.