We enter Holy Week this year just a few days after the year-anniversary of the UK's first lockdown. What a difference a year makes. It's become a staple of the national conversation in recent weeks to observe the transformation in attitudes, plans and expectations from last March up to now, the way that the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has at different moments served to unify and divide, to trigger outpourings of love and of anger, to inspire creativity and provoke dread or despair.
Like many who are not schoolteachers, NHS staff or other key workers, in these recent weeks I have been getting used to spending most of my time at home, getting very acquainted with Zoom and the various tools we are using for online teaching at the university where I work. It’s been quite enlightening (and at times quite shocking!) to see how this period of enforced restriction has affected my sense of time: little jobs can stretch out to fill a whole day, and often I will look at the clock (or the calendar!) and be startled to see how much time has passed.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish clergyman and writer who profoundly influenced the fiction and non-fiction works of C.S. Lewis. One of Lewis’s lesser-known publications is an edited collection of MacDonald’s writings: the book can be hard to find in print now, but a dear friend gifted my a copy of it two years ago, offering me a valuable 'guided tour' of MacDonald's profound, if at times abstruse, writings on life and faith.
I've always felt sad at the passing of Christmas Day: at how quickly the world moves on to Boxing-Day sales, extinguished fairy lights, discarded fir trees and raucous New-Year revelries. Perhaps it's partly nostalgia, but I yearn for those past times when the twelve days of Christmas were celebrated in full. For me, Christmas is worth lingering on, because it's a sign of the world to come.
One of my favourite pieces of Christmas music is ‘For unto us a Child is born’ from Georg Friderich Händel’s Messiah. I have loved it since I was a child, touched by its bouncing joy and the intricacy of its polyphonic choral writing, with lines appearing and disappearing like needles through the musical fabric, aligning with each other for a few ‘stitches in time’ before one vanishes to reappear a moment later in a different hue. As a music historian, I am enchanted by the majesty of Händel’s choral setting, but its glorious lyrics are what I love most.
As we approach the most significant point in the Christian calendar – the weekend where we remember the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, our saviour – it is good to return to some of the core truths that he taught about himself whilst on earth. I've been struck recently in particular by one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples as he prepares for death, in John 15:
As academics, we don’t like looking foolish. We are trained to provide evidence for assertions, and refrain from making them if we can’t provide justification for what we think and believe. But as I have been working through 1 Corinthians over the past few months, I have been convicted and encouraged by Paul’s call to ‘foolishness’.
Reflecting on what Advent might mean for my work, I ended up looking at the connection between teaching and research. About half of this Advent wraps up my first semester of teaching (in a job I recently began), and the other half will give a little more time to pursue research tasks until Christmas is fully here.
At my church, we have been going through Isaiah in this month's sermon series. When we got to chapter 42, I was struck by the call in verse 10 to ‘sing a new song’. This is a phrase I've come across again and again in the Bible (in fact, I've found and listed a handful of these occurrences below) but it was the first time I stopped and pondered: why a new song? Why not an old song? God’s plan for his people was established before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-10). So what is it about the newness of the song that’s important?