Advent 2016: Ephrathah (Micah 5:2)

Ephrathah. It’s one of those strange biblical words we only hear at Christmastime, an enigmatic reference in the famous messianic prophecy of Micah. It would be easy to filter it out – I’be done that for years – but names mean something, don’t they? Names have power.
Ephrathah is the ancient name for the region around Bethlehem. It gets its name in Genesis 35, in which Rachel gives birth to Benjamin but tragically dies in the process. In commemoration,  Jacob names the place Ephrath, which most commentaries will tell you means ‘fruitful’.

So Ephrathah celebrates birth, new life. Looked at through a prophetic lens it speaks of the birth of Jesus in the manger, the birth of the Messiah, of the Saviour. This is the birth we celebrate at Christmas, Ephrathah becoming fruitful again with the coming of redemption. A place that’s written off as a one-horse backwater town is the source of something amazing. All of this is true.

And yet Ephrathah has another meaning. Someone in its etymology are darker connotations, because Ephrathah can also mean ‘ash heap’.

This isn’t a joyful meaning. It reflects the tension in the story: Jacob may have gained a son here, but he also lost his beloved wife. The celebration of new life is cut through with mourning. Hope and despair hold each other close.

In some traditions, the second candle on the Advent Crown is the Bethlehem candle. We remember the place where Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph travelling there on a hypothetical donkey, no room at the inn, all of that. And, because this is part of our Christmas celebrations, it becomes a joyful scene.

But the story is marked with tragedy: the Slaughter of the Innocents is never far away and Jesus himself came into the world already on a journey to a cross. Bethlehem’s fruitfulness is accompanied by its ashes.

There are a lot of scared people out there. Many are mourning. Maybe, this Advent, we need to make more space for that sadness and fear, amid the tinsel and the office parties. Because it’s only in acknowedging the ash heaps of life that we can discover hope; only by facing the mourning that we can begin to heal.

And may Advent become a time of healing and hope for each of us, as the hopes and fears of all the years embrace each other in Ephrathah.

Advent 2016: Hoping for Hope at the End of the Night

The nights are drawing in and getting colder; the morning commute is barely illuminated by fog lights cutting through the mist. Winter, if not officially arriving for another few weeks, is waiting in the wings and making sure we’re ready for her big entrance, and this year, perhaps more so than any other I can remember, it feels like a midnight of a season.

We started 2016 grimly joking that it was going to be a difficult year. After all, we lost David Bowie and Alan Rickman within days of each other, things weren’t off to a great start. From there on in, things seemed to spiral until we’re knocking on the door of December and the world barely feels like it’s holding together. We live in interesting times, so the saying goes, but “interesting” is said with hollow, humourless laughter and a gnawing knot of fear.

Advent starts today, the closest Sunday to St. Andrew’s Day on the 30th. It starts the liturgical year with a sense of anticipation and expectancy, a countdown to Christmas and the coming of Christ. Children eat chocolate hidden in calendars. It’s a time of fervent waiting, but in this earthquake of a year, I need to see Advent as a journey back to Bethlehem.

I suffer from anxiety. That’s not an easy thing to admit, here in public, but there you go; we’re sometimes helped by honesty and, being honest, my sense of hope feels like so much static, no signal cutting through the noise. The people living in darkness still wait to see a great light. Or maybe it’s not about waiting; maybe it’s about having the eyes to see what’s already there, to see the source rather than the reflection or the shadows of imagined absence. The Magi saw the star but they still had to make their way to the manger.

I’m holding on but my fingernails hurt and I need to rediscover hope, need to trust that hope is there, even if that feels like a pilgrimage through the dark. And I don’t have a map and it’s too cloudy to clearly make out the stars, but I need to keep moving and just hope I’m moving forward.

We stand on the cusp of Christmas, the celebration of God moving into the neighbourhood. And so I pray that I’ll learn to trust in the promises implicit in that, not in some eschatological way, but in the day-to-day. Nowadays, when the world we built on shifting sand seems so fragile, when everything seems to be mutating towards something toxic, that trust is more important than ever. But it’s hard to hold on with hands balled into fists.

We use the seasons as symbols, and Advent takes us through the longest night so that we can see the light start to lengthen at the end of it. Christmas is coming, that hope is out there swaddled in a manger. This year I grope towards it once again, beaten and bruised but still stumbling stable-wards. The stumbling feels harder this time, there’s more to fight through. But by grace we manoeuvre through the night, the star still burns above a stable as we move ever onwards in the direction of Bethlehem.

Black Friday vs Advent Sunday

In a couple of days it will be the first Sunday in Advent and the countdown to Christmas begins in earnest. As such it’s a fairly fundamental part of Christianity – that’s probably why, liturgically speaking, this is the start of the church year. It’s a big deal

But it’s only when I sat down to write this that I realised the irony of the season – Advent Sunday is sandwiched between two celebrations of consumerism, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This wouldn’t be quite so jarring were it not for the scenes of chaos that will sweep our malls today, reminding us of the concept of ‘competitive shopping’ – you know, where you’re apparently allowed to pepper-spray your rivals in the pursuit of a bargain. The idea that Christmas has become too commercialised isn’t exactly new, but this year, with a growing awareness of the gap between rich and poor and associated corporate corruption, the issues seem more pronounced, more immediate.

Meanwhile, in contrast to this, the Christmas story is tinged with poverty and dominated by the idea of a God who enters into the physical world of dirt and straw, who incarnates, becomes human, hangs about with the poor and hopeless and lost. Concern for the poor, anger at injustice, are characteristic of Christ’s ministry, and any attempt to follow in his footsteps has to take this into account.

So in one sense, Christmas isn’t the end of a year, it’s a beginning, a time for new starts and a re-evaluation of what’s gone before. Christmas invites us to consider what it means for each one of is if God walked down highways and through villages 2,000 years ago. And, I guess, those videos I posted earlier invite us to ask what the heck has happened to our society if it’s worth pepper-spraying someone over an X-Box. And, as we prepare to light candles and open the doors of our advent calendars, those questions, perhaps more than ever, demand answers.

Joshua Norton and Jesus: A Post for Christ the King Sunday

In 1859, America got its first Emperor.

He wasn’t  a traditional emperor, because America officially doesn’t do that sort of thing. Nevertheless, emerging from a self-imposed exile following his bankruptcy the previous year, Joshua Norton proclaimed him the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Now, it’s clear that Norton wasn’t a real emperor, but he did become a much loved part of San Franciscan life as people played along. He wore an ornate uniform and wrote dramatic proclamations in the local press, and if he liked a local restaurant he’d award it royal patronage. At one point he walked into the middle of a riot targeting Chinese workers and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed. And when he died in 1880, tens of thousands lined the streets to say their final farewells to their beloved emperor. Reading the tributes is a moving experience: “Emperor Norton has killed nobody. robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for some fellows of his line.”

Norton died alone in a rain-soaked street, but his funeral cortage was two miles long.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and Christians around the world will be celebrating how Jesus is king over God’s Kingdom. But in doing that, we need to recognise how that Kingdom looks very different to the empires of this world. We sometimes forget that, when we look around our great cathedrals and revel in having the ear of kings and Queens and presidents. In his last week on earth, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of an infant donkey, he caused chaos in the middle of the Temple, and he got nailed to a cross like a common revolutionary. Without the benefit of hindsight, without the light of the Resurrection, Jesus’s Kingdom probably looked more like Emperor Norton than the Caesars or the Herods.

I think that’s something we need to rediscover. We sometimes get too comfortable, too institutionalised, too powerful. We become too used to being part of the elite, the in-crowd. And yet, way back in the day, St. Paul wrote that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Today we honour Christ as King. But his Kingdom is a different world founded on different principles. The last are first, the foolish are wise, the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s an upside down Kingdom that doesn’t ride into town on a mighty war horse;  it appears, often quietly, in the margins, in the brokenness, in forgotten spaces and ignored places. And so that means getting our hands dirty, it means being radical, sometimes it means becoming unpopular, sometimes it means speaking truth to power.

The embassies of this Kingdom should be our churches, and often they are. But sometimes the embassies of the Kingdom are soup kitchens and food banks,  sometimes they’re vandalised because the love and grace of God burn so brightly that people race to put out the fire. And then some churches are beautifully constructed and the worship sounds great, but something inside them has turned toxic and the glory of God has left the building. And that statement sounds crazy because their congregations may still number in the thousands, but the Kingdom of God isn’t measured by our metrics; the palace may be there but Christ won’t sit on their thrones.

And this reminds me of another American eccentric. James Hampton was a war veteran and a janitor,  a quiet man who kept himself to himself. He lived in Washington DC until his death in 1964, and upon his passing his family and neighbours learned of a project Hampton had been working on for fourteen years. Inside a rented garage, they discoverer a throne Hampton had made for Jesus to sit on in the event of the Second Coming. This wasn’t a professional job; it was made from old furniture, tin foil, coffee cans, vases and light bulbs. This wasn’t a traditional throne, not a million pound, gold plated project, but a piece of outsider art. And yet somehow that represents the upside-down Kingdom of God better than many things that have the ‘correct’ branding and marketing.

Today we celebrate Christ our King, and rightly so. But we need to remember that he’s King of a Kingdom that looks morelike him than the empires of earth, and that this needs to be reflected in the inhabitants of that Kingdom. And if that happens, the world may think we’re crazy.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Christ vs Christendom: Christ the King Sunday 2016

It’s Christ the King Sunday, but I find myself stuck in the wilderness. Jesus is there too; this is the moment, after forty days of fasting, that Jesus faces temptation. And although this is an alien looking landscape, and a mysterious, liminal confrontation with powers and principalities, the temptations he faces are very familiar: security, power, fame.
Jesus rejects the temptations, of course, because his path goes through the wilderness rather than avoiding it. He will still become king over all, he’ll still be enthroned, but that throne will be a cross and his coronation has crucifixion as a centrepiece.

It would be a mistake to see this temptation as a unique moment. Because while this is renowned as the moment that launched Jesus’s ministry, it’s also a moment that repeats itself, constantly, throughout the life of the Church.

Temptation is a choice, every time, and often we fail. That’s a fact of life, and praise the Lord for his mercy and grace. Forgiveness is at the heart of faith, and I rely on this far more than I like to admit.

But sometimes temptation leads us into dark places, and sometimes we dance collectively into that darkness because, let’s face it, while the Church will always brand itself as Christ’s, too often we end up rejecting him because we prefer to choose Saul as our actual king.

Saul is, after all, handsome. Saul is powerful. Saul is a warrior. “Give us a king!” we cry, and in doing so we reject the one who already has the job. And when we do this, things change; the Body of Christ mutates into Christendom, and people start getting scared.

This is a blasphemy, of course, and a heresy. We envisage enemies at the gates, we hallucinate a Fifth Column within, taking all we have. The fasting Jesus was challenged to turn rocks to bread, and that’s a temptation born out of scarcity, of security. When we ask for stones to be made into loaves, it’s a lack of faith. After all, where would we stop? Provision becomes prosperity, we think we’re sating our greed but in reality it always becomes more. We make ourselves rich while others starve outside our gates, and we like kings who encourage that prosperity.

Power is another concern. We like power.  Someone has to slay our enemies, someone has to weed out the traitors, someone has to bomb the bad guys and make all the thugs and the terrorists get into line. And if you can achieve that, well, you’d be a legend, a star, everyone would look up to you,  praise you, kneel before you. Don’t worry about all the menial things, you can always subcontract the foot washing if you want.

It’s easy to give into temptation. It’s easy to ignore that Christ is on the throne. It’s easy to set up our own imperial cults that code our own baser desires. Voices within our congregations will claim thst the biggest threat facing our churches is same-sex marriage, or radical Islam, or liberals. I suspect the greatest threat is a more insidious thing.

It’s Christendom’s Empire facing down the power of God’s Kingdom.

It’s the structures that have given in to the wilderness temptations beating down those who resisted those same temptations.

It’s triumphalism crushing others underfoot.

It’s praising Christ as King but following someone else because we think thry’re going to save us and our faith.

Institutions don’t save. Politicians, priests an emperors don’t save. Jesus saves, and as the Church, we’re just here to provide ground support. And we can’t do that without being rooted in Christ himself, not surrogates or substitutes. Maybe that’s our cue to start refocusing on the one who’s really on the throne rather than building our own empire. It’s far too easy to become the ones doing the crucifying rather than those who look to the King on the Cross; we become radicalised rather than sanctified.

We’re all in the wilderness, every one. The question is, who do we follow out of the desert?