A few thoughts to accompany our reading
Philemon is the shortest letter of St Paul and one of the shortest books in the Bible. It is a person to person letter more than any other. [The letters to Timothy and Titus are partly personal but go on to address matters of church order and organisation]. A question I often find a useful way into a Scripture is to ask “what is it doing here?” In other words, why would God have wanted this document to communicate with us?
Philemon is a delightful and moving appeal by Paul to a fellow Christian, Philemon, on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. The letter and other parts of the Bible assume the institution of slavery in the background, which we may find challenging. Christian relationships and mutual responsibilities are addressed in a fallen world, where institutions as well as individuals are fallen. God’s salvation can begin now, even though the fulfilment of His kingdom lies in the future.
One of the features of this is the circle of fellowship among believers both around Philemon and around Paul, who is “in prison”, perhaps in modern terminology under house arrest. Greetings are being sent between these people separated by huge distance, and presently unable to greet one another in person. How many of our family and friends are far away, out of reach, separated for long periods during a pandemic? Christian fellowship may be even more keenly felt in such times.
St Luke chapters 1 and 2 are a distinctive section of the Gospels. Mark and John begin their accounts with John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus at perhaps 30 years of age. Matthew addresses Joseph’s story, the visit of the Wise Men, the role of Herod and the flight into Egypt. Luke covers different ground entirely. These two chapters introduce a series of characters, Zechariah & Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist, Mary & Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna. To this impressive cast we should, of course, add Gabriel and the host of angels.
Think of the impact of these two chapters on art through history. That would include the stained glass windows of Holy Trinity Utrecht. Early Christian tradition depicts Luke as an icon painter, in particular painting Mary and the infant Jesus. Certainly, this Gospel paints an amazing narrative picture. What do we find here?
We find faithful servants of God receiving revelation about God’s initiative of salvation. Zechariah struggles to believe at first, but he comes through in the end. Echoing Old Testament Psalms and prophecies the characters keep bursting into songs of praise under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Zechariah’s song we call the Benedictus, Mary’s song we call the Magnificat and Simeon’s song we call the Nunc Dimittis, each by their opening words in Latin. The angels are singing too.
These two chapters overflow with the work of the Holy Spirit, with God’s work of salvation, with the coming of the Messiah, with ordinary people of God released into praise. As people might say, this is not just a message for Christmas. Now as then, God comes. He comes to people ordinary in the eyes of the world. He comes to save. He invites praise and releases His people in praise. What kind of response can we begin to make to such an amazing, generous and loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?