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3rd Sunday of Advent

11 December 2023

17 December, Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end; Psalm 126 or the Magnificat; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

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I LOVE the positivity of 1 Thessalonians 5. Joy and gratitude are true signs of the indwelling Spirit at work in us. But the scientific imperative is also there: “Test everything!” We cannot take it for granted that our perceptions are right. The meaning of Christian “unworthiness” is a good example. John the Baptist prophesies: “Among you stands one whom you do not know. . . I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” A centurion whose servant was ill once spoke to Jesus in similar terms: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8.8).

“Lord, I am not worthy.” Just before we take communion, we make the centurion’s words our own. They are a universal response to the divine presence among us; for John also prophesies that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29).

Going by examples in scripture, “Lord, I am not worthy” is a wise response to standing in the presence of God. It begins in Eden, when Adam and Eve, now equipped with the blessing-curse that is self-awareness, know that God is near, and try to hide themselves from him. Moses (Exodus 3.11) and Isaiah (6.5), too, respond with fear to being in the divine presence, prompted by the gulf between themselves and God’s holiness.

So, when John the Baptist speaks out, he does so as one who is aware of that divine presence, and yet equally aware of the fractured nature of his own humanity. And he has no illusions about the relative nature of those two states of being. How low does one have to be not even to deserve the privilege of untying another being’s shoes?

When I read Bible texts about “un/worthiness”, or encounter the idea in a liturgy, my initial response can be caution, even unease. There is a good example of this in a eucharistic prayer: “We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.” I understand, and believe, the underlying idea — which I have referred to before — that God’s service is perfect freedom. But there is a nagging doubt.

Perhaps I am sensitised by the fact of being female. Being told that we can find freedom in service and subjection to another being sounds uncomfortably similar to the kind of mind-set that props up complementarian views of the nature of maleness and femaleness. Such views speak the language of equality between male and female, but the equality of a wife consists in being an assistant and subordinate to her husband, whose rule is law (like a Roman paterfamilias).

In that light, taking on the identity of “unworthiness” becomes (potentially) problematic, as if the eucharistic prayer really means “we thank you for giving us even this crumb of an insignificant part to play (not even allowed to sit down!) — and, yes, more of the subordinate servant function which has always been our lot in this life.”

But men, too, are to share this part, and to experience this level of status. In a step forward for equality recently, the Pope invited women to take part in the Roman Catholic Church’s synodal process. Good. But the shift needs to be completed. First, an equality of unworthiness, then — despite that unworthiness — an equality of vocation, according to which those who truly believe that they are “not worthy” are found fit to participate. The same should be true of other Christian governing processes.

Unworthiness, in short, is a concept that we may be tempted to play down, lest we end up promoting Uriah-Heepism: “I am the ’umblest person going.” Alternatively, we could apply some theological refinement to ensure that people really understand their perception of unworthiness.

I do this by reminding myself that the Baptist’s prophecy is a recognition that he has done nothing to earn the part that he is now to fulfil in the revelation of the Christ, the Son of God. We might paraphrase: “I have not earned the right to undo his shoes.” This puts the emphasis on our humanity as a state in which we cannot claim credit for our talents or abilities (which, after all, we have not created or won), but we can declare ourselves ready to put them to good use — in other words, to God’s use.

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