Childermas Day: Feast of Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

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It’s the Christmas hangover of commemorations, isn’t it? The joy and beauty of the Nativity give way to the world’s brutal realities as Herod’s death squads march into town.

It’s not a part of the story we like to think about too much, a liminal atrocity on the fringes of the narrative. And yet so many of those kneeling beside the manger are either affected or complicit – Herod issues the order, sure, but it’s inadvertantly thanks to the blunders of the Magi. Jesus, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt, but what of the shepherds left out in the fields? Did any of them have infant sons waiting for them at home?

We pretend, of course, that this sort of thing is rare. That we live in a civilised society where children are valued and loved. And yet there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK; in 2014, UNICEF reported that one in three children in the USA are in poverty. The UN tells us that around 41% of the world’s refugees are children, but it takes a photograph of one of their bodies washed up on a beach to make us give a damn about that statistic for five minutes. Churches cover up child abuse.

Herod casts a long shadow.

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate the wisdom of the church calendar. Not just the big celebrations, but the hidden feast days, the obscure remembrances, the idea that someone somewhere decided it would be good to honour Herod’s victims, and in doing so remember all the other infant victims of our politics and greed, our rage and corruption. Childermas isn’t just a call to memory, it’s a call to repentance.

And yet there’s also space for hope – there has to be, because this is too important to fall victim to nihilistic cynicism. There are people working to end child poverty, people operating shelters so families can escape domestic violence, people opening their homes to refugees. They need our support and our prayers, because they’re saving children from war and want, violence and apathy; because they’re a sanctuary along the flight to Egypt; because they’re building the Kingdom of God in the shadow of Herod’s legacy and that’s a sacred calling, at Christmas and beyond.

Christmas 2015: The Image of God (Luke 2:1)

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“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…”

Stop right there. The Emperor is speaking, after all, and he’s in charge. We know that because we keep finding statues of him. There’s a couple in the British Museum, and they’re not just monuments, they’re propaganda. They’re telling a story about Rome and it’s leader. He’s a warrior, a nobleman, he’s in charge, he’s keeping the empire standing. That was the message of every statue, every coin, mass communication before there was mass comunication. And, when the Emperor became a divine figure, a ‘son of a god’, all these propaganda tools became images of god.

So think about Christmas and the nativity scene, the baby in the manger. Here’s another picture of God: God Incarnate, God With Us, Emmanuel. Those are the big theological ideas, sure, but what are they telling us? If God’s in the manger, what image does that leave us with?

Is it an image of relationship? God becoming human to break down the barriers that separate us from the divine?

Is it an image of humility? Christ isn’t born in a palace, after all, and the only people who recognise him are peasants and outsiders, right?

Is it an image of vulnerability? This is a God who’s willing to learn to talk and learn to walk, a God who sustains the universe but who also has to learn basic bodily functions. This is a God who bleeds.

It’s all these things and more. And all of these speak of God’s love and grace for us.

And yet this also reminds us of something profound and glorious. God became a human being, yes, but we’re made in the image of God, each one of us: every king and Emperor, every street sweeper and refugee, each one an image of God, each one important, each one loved. Over the course of nine months, angels start appearing to a teenage girl, a carpenter, some shepherds. Why? Because thrt’re important. They’re recipients of God’s grace. And they’re loved. Bruce Cockburn put it well:

“There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you’ve got ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It’s a Christmas gift you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes.”

Happy Christmas.

Blue Christmas

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I was born and raised a Methodist, so the liturgical calendar was, for me, something that happened to other people. Sure, Christmas and Easter were the two big services of the year, and other traditions had developed over the centuries – Covenant Sunday, Harvest Festivals, Ladies Day – but ask me when the 12th Sunday after Pentecost was and I’d’ve looked at you as if you were crazy. Heck, I always got a little confused about Pentecost itself.

I’m getting old though, and I’m beginning to appreciate the quirks of the Christian year, especially the smaller, quieter festivals, the ones I’d never heard of. That’s why today I’m thinking about Blue Christmas.

Blue Christmas is an acknowledgement that the festive season isn’t, for a lot of people, the most wonderful time of the year. For many, this will be the first Christmas spent alone, or without a loved one. There’ll be an empty place at the dinner table, one less present to buy and unwrap, a tangible emptiness in the room as the Queen’s Speech comes on. Loss and absence are amplified, just as much as peace and goodwill.

So many churches will be holding services to support those who’ve lost family and friends over the last twelve months. And it feels right that these services are held on the longest night, because that’s when loss is often at its most brutal, in the quiet, in the dark. These are the times we need a flickering candle to light the way out of the night.

So we remember our individual losses, but maybe, as communities, this is also a time to remember those losses that shook us corporately. Aylan Kurdi. Jeremy Mardis. Sandra Bland. 14 people killed in San Bernardino. 9 people killed in Charleston. There’s a communal aspect to all this, and it’s political and social, but it’s also spiritual – how do we perceive other people? How does the dehumanised way in which others are treated scar our communities and our souls? How the hell do we stop things like this happening on a weekly basis? These are everyday questions, sadly enough, but on the longest night we need to see that candle again.

I think, deep down, there’s a reason we seem to hold all our services of remembrance in the dark, cold months. Maybe that’s when we need them most. And so maybe that’s when we most need to remember each other, to remember those who’ll be shedding tears this Christmas, to hold in our hearts those that most need to experience the hope and peace that the season promises. These are things that can’t be forgotten behind the tinsel and 24/7 movies about Santa falling in love. These are difficult days for many and that’s when we need to stand together, standing in the dark, following a star till morning.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Advent 2015 2: Transforming the Sword (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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Isaiah had a vision once, an image of peace and prosperity. He saw a world where war was no more, where no-one had to train for battle, where people gathered up their swords and turned them into tools for farming, where God has established a reign of peace.

It’s a beautiful vision, but it’s hard to comprehend. It’s almost utopian, and it’s clear that it’s only achieved because of God’s own intervention. Meanwhile we spend billions on inventing more and more elaborate ways of killing people, and no matter how impressive our drone fleets or our fighter jets are, we still need more of them. We can wipe out everyone multiple times over because hey, you never know, the survivors in their bunkers might have to obliterate, I dunno, zombified mutants or opportunistic cockroaches.

War seems to be baked into us now. There’s always another enemy emerging from the rubble of the previous conflagration, a never ending cycle that moulds our politics, embodies our fears, boosts our economies. Sometimes this will affect us deeply, when the shock of sudden violence strikes close to home, but then it’s back to business as usual, because the scale of the problem is too vast for individuals to process, there’s always another suicide bombing, always another mass shooting, too many losses to mourn without them breaking us, the minute’s silences stretching into hours.

And yet Isaiah’s vision is still compelling. We live in the now-and-not-yet kingdom of the Prince of Peace, who was broken on a violent cross and yet transformed that into a symbol of hope. Bill Hicks once asked why Christians thought Jesus would want to see all those crosses when he comes back. I get his point, but that’s the power of the resurrection story – a torture instrument is comprehensively transformed into a symbol of hope, each empty cross standing as a mockery of the power of violence and death.

All those crosses? Counter-cultural, just not in the way the Culture Wars pesent it. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” isn’t just a ‘thing’, it’s antichrist.

(And now someone’s asking “But what about ISIS?” I don’t know what to do about ISIS, but I’m willing to bet we should have done it 30 years ago.)

So.

What does it mean to live in the light of Isaiah’s vision? Yes, I know it’s eschatological, but the Kingdom of God breaks into this world when we catch a glimpse of that future and live as if it can be a present reality. And that’s going to be on an individual level, so what does “swords into ploughshares” look like into our communities?

Do we need to find ways to literally take knives and guns and turn them into sculptures or shovels?

Do we need to take those angry and insulting and threatening emails and Facebook comments and do some origami?

Do we need to, you know, stop sending hate mail peppered with Bible verses in the hope that they make vitriol holy?

Do we need to learn how to make peace instead of acting as apologists for volence or abuse?

Do we need to transfer more of our resources towards supporting safe spaces for survivors of domestic violence or child abuse or the sex trade?

Do we need to treat refugees and migrants with more kindness than we have been?

Do we need to be on the streets at 2am stopping fights and handing out flipflops?

Do we need to look at all of the above and see what we can do about their underlying causes, like poverty or prejudice or religion?

If violence is so ingrained in humanity then any intentional attempt to follow the way of peace takes a sword and turns it into a ploughshare. And that won’t stop wars, it won’t change the world overnight, but that’s not our job. We follow in the footsteps of Christ, and where violence tries to have its way, we turn to the empty cross and laugh.

And act.

Part 1 of this series, Breaking the Bow, is here.