About Matt

Lover. Fighter. Matador. Just some of the words that haven't been used to describe me recently. I'm a 36 year old Brit who writes about life, faith, comic books, history and any other randomness that springs to mind. Enjoy the blog. Leave comments!

World Homeless Day 2022

front of Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver. Jesus is depicted lying on a bench, covered in a blanket; his feet are exposed and we can see nail wounds.
front of Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver.

This post was originally written a few years ago, but I’ve updated it for World Homeless Day 2022.

Jesus lies on a park bench, covered by an inadequate blanket. You might just ignore him, write him off as just another homelessness statistic, a junkie or a skiver or a veteran with PTSD who can’t handle civilian life. But take a closer look – his feet are scarred with nail marks. We know who this is.

Homeless Jesus is a sculpture by Timothy Schmaltz, copies of which are on display around the world, from Glasgow and Liverpool to the Vatican and Manilla, and responses to it always seem mixed; some find the statue to be beautiful and moving; others see it as a demeaning portrayal of Christ. Maybe that tension is a good thing, with art stirring questions around Christ’s solidarity with the homeless, because

There’s something about the statue that gets to the heart of the Incarnation. Jesus doesn’t appear as a spiritual entity untouched by the world around him – he’s down here in the dirt and grime. This is someone who went through hell and spent 18 years on building sites. We tend to forget that – we put him on a pedestal as a great moral teacher and a source of inspirational quotations. And if we’re used to him being up there on a plinth, then it’s disruptive to see him sleeping on a bench. Or is it? Maybe it just makes him easier to ignore; after all, it’s easy to do that with homeless people.

Sometimes, though, it’s worse than people just walking on by. In 2018, the Guardian published this story on the physical and verbal abuse received by rough sleepers. One man had his tent set on fire while he was in it. Others were sexually assaulted. Many were urinated on.

So a statue like this isn’t just disruptive to power structures and the authorities, because it’s not politicians who carry out the actual physical abuse of rough sleepers, it’s ordinary people, people like you and me, and while you might be outraged at that, ask yourself why it happens so often if it’s just some isolated thugs? We have to actively choose whose side we’re on.

Homeless Jesus statue outside Regis College in Toronto. His upper body is completely concealed by a blanket.
Homeless Jesus statue outside Regis College in Toronto.

Unfortunately for our comfort, Jesus makes that choice simple and stark. We divorce Jesus, and our faith, from the marginalised, or move him from the fringes, at our peril. This is a man who, were he here today in the flesh, would spend more than a few nights sleeping  in the doorway of an off licence or contending with security guards and defensive architecture. That’s the sort of person he is. That’s why he had such a following among lepers and prostitutes, the beaten and the broken. He recognised the image of God in each person he encountered, and we need the grace and humility to do the same. I hate the thought of my kids growing up in a world where abuse of the homeless is a recreational activity, but if I want them to be able to envision a better future, I need to pledge myself to recognise the humanity of all those around me, and Jesus reflected in their eyes.

We want to honour Jesus as Lord and Saviour, sure, but he’s the Servant King, and so it doesn’t feel appropriate to put him next to luminaries such as Churchill and Nelson. Homeless Jesus has the power to be prophetic, to speak truth to power, to remind us that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. And yes, homelessness is a terrible, growing problem, but there are things we can do, things we can support. In my city, the churches operate a night shelter over the winter months. Thanks to that, no-one died sleeping on the streets last year. Does it fix the problem of rough sleeping? No, but those individuals who survived the winter are testament to how we can make a difference.

We don’t need a stained glass Jesus, and rough sleepers don’t need that ersatz piety when someone’s urinating over them. We need the disruptive Jesus, Jesus of the margins, Jesus of the nail scars, Jesus of the benches and the doorways.

We need a homeless Jesus.

International Day of Sign Languages

On the International Day of Sign Languages, just a quick reminder that the Holy Spirit speaks every language

The theme this year is ‘building inclusion for all’, so it’s good to see that the first BSL sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral will take place on Sunday. And here’s a good article on faith, Deafness and the Church by professor of religion Jana Bennett.

And finally, because I like the song, here’s Amazing Grace in British Sign Language.

On Music

Image of sheet music

Look, I’ll admit it – I’m not really a monarchist. I watched today’s proceedings more out of historical interest than any particular loyalty to the Crown, and I had half an eye on Twitter throughout. But what stood out to me, perhaps more than anything else was the music.

Part of it was sympathy – sympathy for the choristers, sympathy for the organist and the trumpeters, sympathy for the lone piper, a mental crossing of the fingers that they wouldn’t miss a beat or a note before a potential audience of billions. But alongside that was just an awareness of how, for me, the moments of true beauty were marked either by silence or music. One of today’s hymns was Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, which ends with the line “Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.” That’s an interesting image at a royal funeral for a whole lot of reasons.

It’s not a surprise really, because music is a part of humanity, a part of creation itself. Days are soundtracked by everything from birdsong to Grime, and even a rhythmically-challenged tonedeaf like me has a mixtape running through life – ten years ago my wife and I got married, accompanied by Norah Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Be Thou My Vision. Music resonates throughout history, songs of triumph and hope and belonging, songs or protest and mourning, songs to sing when you don’t feel safe.

And then there’s worship and there’s the Bible. Some of the Bible’s songs are familiar today – after all, the Lord is still our shepherd by the rivers of Babylon, right? Some of them are unexpected – a teenager’s protest song in the middle of the the Christmas story, Jesus reaching for and gasping out a song amidst the pain of the crucifixion. Other time’s they’re front a centre, visions of heaven with tens of thousands of singers. Writer Dan Wilt even points out that, when Goliath needs defeating, God sends in a musician (and as someone who much prefers David the songwriter over David the king, I’m here for that).

I know in the UK we’ve failed to foster music as it declines as a subject in schools, but today – as well as Live Aid and Glastonbury, football matches and busking – shows not only the power of music but that it’s hardwired into us. There are times we just start singing, other times when we simply need to hear a sad song on the radio. And that’s something that the Church, with its rich history of psalmody and gospel and choirs and choirs and hymns and songwriters, has real talent in. Not that we should churn out uninspired copies like a bad covers band going through the motions, but in fostering musical creativity, in encouraging communal signing, in making worship accessible and expressing devotion and praise, joy and sorrow through music and lyrics. And that’s not about performance. It’s not even about ability. It’s about reflecting the heart of the God who sings.

The Blessing of the Backpacks

Leather bag hanging from a coat stand.

Over the last few days, churches throughout the world will be carrying out one of the lesser-known liturgical practices, the Blessing of the Backpacks. School pupils, students and workers will bring their backpacks and briefcases and toolbags to be blessed at the start of a new academic year; the summer holidays are over, life returns to normal and it’s time for work to begin again in earnest. And people will pray that the days ahead will be blessed, and that the work that’s carried out by the owners of these backpacks will go on to be a blessing to others. I’ve only second-hand knowledge of these services, but I like the idea of them; rituals like this are a nice spiritual practice, a way of welcoming God into the day-to-day.

But if I’m honest, the idea is tinged with sadness; it’s been a difficult few months, full of unexpected difficulties and complications. Life is two steps forward, one step back into the open manhole and it’s hard to see where God is when life gets like this, when cynicism is a blanket and new problems hide like assassins in the dark corners of the future.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here, and I’ve missed it, even though I haven’t been able to summon up the brainspace to arrange these squiggles on a page into something remotely coherent. But my work bag contains a laptop and a notebook and maybe they’re tools by which I can try to reconnect with God at a time when frustration and fear have come to dominate. After all, it’s the start of a new year, right? New beginnings and all that, resolutions for the future, and maybe it’ll last and maybe it won’t, but I’ve got to do something.

And that’s how life is – sometimes you feel blessed, sometimes you feel damned, but emotions aren’t the be-all and end-all of our religious experience. Sometimes we need the ritual, sometimes we need to put on our game face and come out swinging, sometimes we need to stop talking in cliches and just act like we believe what we believe. Our backpacks contain all the things we carry, and we can bless people out of that, even that’s something as simple as honesty or hard-won empathy. Sometimes it’s a blessing just to know you’re not alone.

So we enter a new year, a new season, and yet we can let go of the pressure because really that’s something we do every day, blundering into the future and doing our best. And we take our backpacks with us, because we can only use the things we carry and maybe, just maybe, God snuck a note of love and encouragement in there just before we set out.

St. George’s Day

The Victory of Saint George by Arsen Birch

It’s fair to say that I’m fairly ambivalent about St. George’s Day. “Englishness” is a slippery concept at the best of times, and St. George has, over the years, been co-opted as a symbol of nationalism and civic ritual, and  that makes me twitchy. Too many bad things end up getting wrapped in a flag.

But maybe St. George works as an icon for modern Britain. After all, once you scratch away the myths, he’s a multicultural figure – born in Turkey to Greek parents, with most of his life lived in Palestine. And then there’s his death, martyred by the Emperor Diocletian for his beliefs.

So I’m okay with St. George’s Day as long as we remember that our national saint was a Near Eastern victim of religious oppression. That’s the sort of context that has the potential to rewrite the narratives wired into our flags.

But then it’s also worth remembering that St. George doesn’t belong to England; we share him with Georgia and Ethiopia, soldiers and farmers, sufferers of skin diseases and syphilis. The Church transcends borders – connecting a white blogger in Derby with a Turkish soldier from 1,700 years ago. That has the potential to break down some of the barriers we’re so keen to put up. We are all siblings of Christ, regardless of background or race or the flag we live under.

So if we’re the product of the stories we tell, let’s tell good ones; there are many dragons still to be slain, some of our own making, and so may we overcome the dragons that divide us; may we find room for all people in our stories and our churches.

St. George the Dragon Slayer by Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov