Disarming Christmas

robot santaIt’s Advent, and so we’re waiting for Christmas, but the waiting has sharp edges this year. Christmas itself is weaponised – the phrase “Merry Christmas” has become less of a greeting and more of a shibboleth, a password to identify who’s in and who’s out. A Muslim family appearing in a supermarket’s festival TV advert has attracted controversy for depressing and predictable reasons. We’ve taken barbed wire and hidden it within tinsel while singing Christmas carol mash-ups with conspiracy theories.

When Mary sang her protest song, she sang it from the bottom of society, a young woman in an occupied country. Those at the centre of the story – women and shepherds and carpenters – don’t have power, don’t have influence. And yet two thousand years later we see power and influence and authority and might as our Christmas gifts, heralded by discordant carols as the Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom is driven further underground.

It’s not just geopolitics in which we see this. The words we use around church also have an impact; in recent weeks we’ve seen US politicians try to justify relationships with underage girls because of the traditional Catholic depiction of the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Using the Christmas story to sanctify child abuse is horrific, but it was still all over Twitter.

Things can also be insidious. Both of my kids are autistic, and we’re currently having a lot of difficult and hurtful and frustrating conversations about behaviours and responsibility and how they’re seen as ‘naughty’, and this isn’t getting easier because timetables and environments are thrown out of sync because it’s Christmas. And this is so damn difficult, because my kids are trying to navigate a world that’s lacking in empathy and understanding and compassion, and I fear for what it might do to them. So when we go to church to celebrate the coming of Christ, I don’t want them to feel rejected by words and attitudes that are born out of privilege and influence and ‘respectability’. I want them to be able to see Jesus. I want Jesus to meet with them.

I know he already does, of course; that’s a truth I need to hold on. But too many dangerous things are done in his name, and for that we need to repent. If we’re going to commemorate the coming of the Prince of Peace, we need to disarm our celebrations, because otherwise we end up more like Herod, pretending to worship but really more interested in consolidating our power, and though we think we’re in charge, well, the Wise Men didn’t find Jesus in a palace, did they, and the gossip around Mary and Joseph certainly wouldn’t have painted them as ‘respectable’. We need to stop seeing Christmas as a private possession and more of a gift to the world.

Because power isn’t the gift of Christmas. Grace is. Love is. Incarnation is. And when we seek to turn that into a weapon, we turn Christmas into a blasphemy. And so we need to stop seeing Christmas as a private possession and more of a gift to the world; we need to disarm, disarm our celebrations and songs and theologies and turn our swords into sleighbells.


Advent in Dangerous Times

JoseyMariaWebAdvent feels more present this year. Maybe that’s because the last twelve months have been so turbulent, a maelstrom of political upheaval and violence, wars and rumours of wars. Rediscovering Advent as a source of hope is less a liturgical duty and more a survival strategy.

This isn’t just about hope for the future. That’s important – without a vision, the people perish, right? – but as we look forward to a better world, we can’t delude ourselves that this is all about an Age To Come. That’s a privileged position, a luxury that most people can’t afford. The hope of that future world needs to present now. Our Advent waiting, our “Merry Christmas!” shibboleths are meaningless unless they have something to say in the soup kitchen, the women’s shelter, the refugee camp, the Twitter timeline, the public toilet with no disability provision, those abused and oppressed by the Church itself (Navajo writer Mark Charles wrote about this today).

Advent is a time when the Church thinks about incarnation – the coming of Jesus into the world, yes, but also the Kingdom of God incarnated into the world. And while that’s eschatological, it’s also a nuts-and-bolts reality. We have to carry hope into a world that’s waiting for it, because if we don’t we’re just another bunch of talking heads.

So we remember those who need hope right now. Those in Syria and Yemen, Those who slept in doorways last night as the snow and temperatures fell. Those who’ve been raped or assaulted and who are now being victimised all over again. The children being abused.  Those in prison, those in debt, those invisible. Those crushed in the gears of bureaucracy. Those mansplained and churchsplained, those who’ve had their job or their futures taken away, those fighting addictions or ISIS or cancer or their very own demons.

The picture that accompanies this post is Jose y Maria by comic book artist Everett Patterson. It puts the journey to Bethlehem into a contemporary context of neon lights and seedy motels and payphones, a young couple out in the rain with nowhere to go. I’ve written about this piece before, but it always reminds me of the immediacy of Advent and Christmas. The things we pray and sing and shout about aren’t just for the past and the future, they’re also part of the present. The Advent hope of Mary’s song isn’t just a nice subject for a few carols and a kid’s play, it’s the hope by which we can hack the system.

I need to hold on to that. I need to hold on to it because honestly? I’m scared. I have two sons with autism and I’m scared that the world and its rules and its austerity and prejudice will grind them down. I’m scared because of growing authoritarianism and the feeling that plenty of people are dancing with joy into dark places. I’m scared because I’m suffering from depression and anxiety. I’m scared because there are churches who see pedophilia as a political compromise. I’m scared because it all feels hopeless, I’m scared because I don’t know what to do about it all and I’m worn down.

Maybe that’s why Advent feels more present. Maybe it’s because I need it to be, in these days when Christmas feels right on top of us but too far away. There’s a strange sort of grace in being able to remember that all this hope in which I try to believe was rooted in a land under military occupation, in a world where one of the central figures narrowly avoided being stoned, where a government decided to kill kids because it was politically expedient. Past and present collide and the future feels distant, but still we have to live in hope because hope’s something we can cling on to with bloodied fingernails and divine stubbornness.

So today we remember we are one, and that we have to look after each other because that’s our calling, that’s our mission, that’s our incarnation. And we draw in hope and love and justice images of humanity that others would seek to erase, we make the most of the waiting and echo our glimpses of a world yet to come.


Five Women

WomenofMatthew1As we talk about Advent and move forward through the story, we need to take a side-step. There’s a prequel to this whole story, a setting of the scene that’s easy to miss; after all, it’s just a list of names at the start of Matthew’s gospel, something that we can just ignore as we get to the good stuff.

But among that list of Israel’s heroes there are four other names. They jump out at us, four women among the kings and warriors: Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth and Tamar. A sex worker, a rape survivor, a climate refugee and a woman forced into a bizarre act of prostitution as the result of poverty and abandonment. Their stories are notable, yes, but not what you’d expect to see in the genealogy of the Messiah. Incest and sexual assault and crushing poverty don’t tend to be things we put front and centre in the society pages. These are stories we like to keep silent. These are the people we like to keep silent.

But that genealogy is telling us something. That genealogy is subversive. Yes, it places Jesus in the royal line, establishes his regal credentials, but it does more than that.  This family tree doesn’t just put Jesus alongside national heroes like David or Solomon, it associates the Messiah with the abused, the exploited and the dispossessed; it’s a way of saying that God isn’t just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he’s the God of Tamar and Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

And Hagar and Zipporah and the other Tamar and the daughter of Jephtath and the Hebrew Midwives, and all the other women whose stories run through the pages of the Bible, often mistreated and neglected and dismissed and Othered, but there, present and active in the story of God. And here in Advent, as Mary takes centre-stage, she lines up alongside these other women, there at the end of that list. Right now she’s a prophet, but soon she’s also going to be a refugee as the death squad comes calling.

At the time of writing it’s December 2017. Time magazine has just announced the Silence Breakers as their Person/People of the Year, acknowledgement of the women who have spoken out against sexual assault in the face of powerful abusers, an ingrained rape culture and horrifically low levels of conviction for rape. And as we hear Matthew’s genealogy more and more as we go to carols by candlelight and watchnight services, hear those four names and remember their stories.

They are seen.

They are heard.

Remember, and speak, and cry out for justice.

Make Something, Create Something

e3cdb7afa2db705d5568aca0cd843b94We’ve been talking about advent in the last couple of entries, especially how Mary’s Magnificat is a prophecy not only of the birth of the Messiah but the ultimate coming of God’s Kingdom; in other words, listen to the women. And heck, we need to hold on to protest songs like the Magnificat right now, because the world’s shaking and empires are creaking.

But I’m going to digress a little and talk about Joseph. Because if Mary’s a prophet and a holy rebel and the Theotokos, Joseph’s a builder. And that’s a whole other spiritual gift, because the Holy Spirit is a Creator, a Maker, and if things are falling all around us, sooner or later we’re going to need to look to the builders, the fixers, the people with workshops and toolkits and who know how to put things back together better than before.

 And Joseph took his own stand against the system. He refused to throw Mary to the mercies of legalism, and when the death squads mobilised, he got his family out of Dodge and into Egypt. He’s the guy who quietly stands up for what’s right, not what everyone around him wants to do, and in his own quiet way, he rebuilds on a different foundation.

This week is MAKESMTHNG Week, an initiative aimed at rejecting consumerism for a while and focus on making new things, sharing skills and creating, focusing on arts and crafts and building and repairing. And from a spiritual perspective, it’s great that this falls in Advent, because we can look at the #makesmthng hashtag and see ideas and activities that contrast with the commercialisation of the season.

Our churches are full of people who make things – artists and carpenters and builders and craftspeople, all part of Bezalel’s legacy, but sometimes treated like Joseph, the quiet people behind the scenes. Churches rarely invite the caretakers up to the podium. But my wife and my sister and my kids are making things this advent, and there’s something weightier to that than just pulling out a credit card.

But creating things, making things, fixing things can be a prophetic act in themselves. We don’t have to discard tings when we’re bored with them, we don’t have to participate in a system whereby rampant consumerism exploits both people and the environment, we don’t have to turn Christmas into a time of competing to see who’s bigger, who’s better, who has the most lights on their house, who’s spent the most money. We can pull out a toolbag and hack the system, and maybe remember Joseph when we do.

Advent Everyday

isla_fullxfull.24180799_5gexn24lI wrote a little about Advent a couple of days ago, through the lens of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic song that’s touched a nerve in troubled times. It’s easy to see why; it’s a promise of a better world, a world of justice and peace and equality, concepts that feel particularly under threat at the moment.

But at the same time, Mary’s vision feels like big picture stuff, an advent protest song that looks forward into the future, into a redeemed world still to come. Yes, the baby in the manger was and is and will be the instigator of that world, but we’re not living there yet. Nine months after Mary sang her song of praise, she was giving birth in a stable while death squads stalked the land for her son. How did she cling on to her hope and vision as she and Joseph tried to sneak a newborn over the border and away from infanticide and a psychotic king?

It’s a reminder that, at advent, we have to zoom in, to view the coming of the Kingdom though the echoes and reflections and previews that are breaking through, daisies emerging through cracks in the pavement. It’s too easy to lose hope while waiting for the world to change; we have to focus on the things that birth optimism and, conversely, that which makes us angry enough to insist that things must change.

Mary sang a song of hope and prophecy that we still treasure today. But she still saw her husband die and her son crucified. Hope is messy.

That’s why we need to focus on people; people who are scared, people who are oppressed, people who are seeing vast movements of politics and economics and are feeling crushed between their gears, people who are dehumanised, people who are rejected and marginalised, the Othered and the despised and the scapegoated. That’s where we start.

And advent can break through into the most unexpected places, if we push it, if we open the doors. There’s a hashtag doing the rounds of Twitter, #LooAdvent, started by @SazBrisdion to raise awareness of the lack of appropriate public toilet facilities for people with disabilities (something we’ve talked about here before). Meanwhile, @Elf_On_Wheels is doing a Christmas tour of the UK to highlight the lack of wheelchair and other disabled access throughout the country.

Both of these campaigns are using the trappings of Christmas to draw attention to matters of justice and compassion, and they aim to enact change for people who are often pushed to the margins. And neither Twitter account aims to topple the government or send ideologies crashing to the floor, but they want to see justice and fairness break through into the world. There’s something advent-y about that. Something Christmassy.