So who in the world is Fursey? He’s a rather obscure Irishman who gets a mention in Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I read that book in seminary and for something written in 731 AD it’s quite readable. Bede mentions quite a few Irishmen for a book devoted to the development of Anglo-Saxon England. Each year I get a reminder of Fursey for a week during the second week of Advent in the prayers Dorie Ann and I use at the lighting of our Advent wreath at home. One section of the devotional tells of a vision of “four fires through which unclean spirits threatened to destroy the earth.” They are listed as the destroying fire of falseness, the destroying fire of greed, the destroying fire of disunity and the destroying fire of manipulation. And each year, but particularly this one, we comment on how contemporary this feels.
Fortunately, the devotional doesn’t end there. It continues: But Fursey urged everyone he met to do as the angels told him: to fight against all evils. He encouraged them with these words he had heard: “The saints shall advance from one virtue to another;” and, “The God of gods shall be seen in our midst.”
At first the encouragement Fursey offers seems pretty pale against a set of destroying fires. In a world that seems beset by falseness, greed, disunity and manipulation we might be excused for wanting stronger stuff that what is on offer. Yet implied in these messages from the angels is a charge to follow the Jesus path as the means by which God overcomes the destroying fires.
The first charge is to fight against all evils. The first all too human reaction is to take up arms, whether political, economic or military, meeting might with might to set things right. This is not the Jesus path. If we fight fire with fire, fire always wins. There are other ways to fight against evil than to use the tools of evil. Paul enjoins the Roman Christians to follow the Jesus path in these words: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) To confront evil with good seems anti-intuitive to us, but only because the Jesus path is not the path that we were taught either by the world around us or even, sadly, by the church much of the time.
To fight against all evils means that wherever we find cursing in word or action we respond by blessing in word and action not only the victim but even the perpetrator. In the orbit of our reach, no evil done to others is irrelevant to us. We are God’s agent of blessing and that is our first duty.
The next word to Fursey from the angels is that “the saints will advance from one virtue to another.” We dare not turn this into an inward concern about building our own character. Virtue has substance only in so far as it is demonstrated by word and action in our relations with others. Advancing from one virtue to another means that our growth in Christ and therefore in virtue is a continuous journey. The primary function of a spiritual discipline, whether the Trinity Way of Life or any other set of disciplines is to keep and guide us on that journey. Therefore, it is never enough to simply come to worship, listen to teaching, receive nourishment in the Sacrament and then drop back to spiritual passivity for the remains of the week. What we receive we are to apply through the tools of our spiritual disciplines until we rejoin the worshiping community the following Sunday to build one another up, to share the stories of what God has done, accept the divine strength given in Holy Communion and return to the fray growing in the good works God is preparing for us.
The final word from the angels is that the God of gods shall be seen in our midst. In late November we began a preparation for Christmas in Advent and we are just now completing the 12 days of Christmastide. The birth of Jesus is the story of the God of Israel joining Israel in the midst of Israel. The God of gods is seen in their midst even though many do not recognize him. John’s Gospel notes that “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:11-13) This adoption by God in Jesus is done through our baptism and its significance extends far beyond our personal salvation.
It cannot be said often enough that Christmas is not the end of the story of God’s redeeming work but its beginning. Jesus’ life, works and words covered a period of 33 years. The culmination of those years was traumatic and dramatic. But even that was not the end of the story. In fact, the Jesus story is still going on, acted out by generation of generation of apprentices of Jesus. The God of Israel entered Israel but now moves beyond the community of Israel into the gentile world. Wherever we are faithful, the God of gods is seen in our midst.
This past year has been a difficult and painful year all over the world and also in our local community. There seems to be an encroaching darkness that fills millions and even billions of people with anxiety and fear. But as John the evangelist also notes: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) In 2017 the challenge to the community at Trinity (and to Christian communities everywhere) is to be bearers of that light. In times of anxiety and fear we have a mission to carry out. If we take that mission seriously and execute it prayerfully and faithfully the destroying fires of falseness, greed, disunity and manipulation will never have their way.