The first thing John Bell of the Iona Community tackled at a diocesan gathering in the Cathedral on Saturday was the excuse of not seeing a future because “we are an ageing congregation here”. It is interesting in itself that (either as a result of a briefing about those who were expected to come to this particular event or perhaps simply his current habit when speaking to a Church of England gathering?) this is where he chose to begin.
First, he used an obvious starting point in scripture - Sarah laughing when she overheard the promise that she would be a mother (“now that I am past the age of child-bearing and my husband is an old man”) and that God’s new possibilities and covenant would descend from her. In due time her son is given a name which meant laughter and she says “God has given me cause to laugh; all those who hear it will laugh with me”.
But secondly, he had a simple take on scripture which was new to me (and which I may well borrow!). People say that Christmas is a “time for children” he said, but had we noticed how the story revolves around older people?
Indeed it does.
The story begins with the promise to Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will be the mother of John the Baptist. Zechariah does not laugh, he disputes – “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on”. When the annunciation promise comes to Mary six months later it is validated by the knowledge that “your kinswoman Elizabeth has in her old age conceived... for nothing is impossible for God”.
The story ends with Mary and Joseph bringing the new born Jesus to the Temple where God’s new possibilities in him are hailed by Simeon (“it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death he had set eyes on the Christ”) and Anna (“eighty-four years old”).
John Bell also touched on how old he imagined Joseph, the shepherds and the magi would have been in the bits of the story in between.
Meanwhile, simply pointing an ordinary camera at a bright moon at 2.35 a.m. this morning was never going to capture a great picture of the eclipse, but it was a pleasure that I was awake, that the sky was so clear, and that the picture catches a hint of the red involved.