The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

But while the days are getting longer and light breaks through in the dark, the nights still feel long. Last week a young man froze to death on the streets of Birmingham. People with disabilities are unable to fully participate in society because of, among other things, a lack of adequate toilet facilities. Around 20% of people in the UK live in poverty. The light in the darkness often looks more like a flickering candle than a healing sunrise.

Advent is the anticipation of two sacred narratives: the coming of Christ in the manger, and the realisation of the Kingdom of God to come. Which can leave us in a chronological limbo – we celebrate the past, we look forward to the future, but what does that all mean for the here and now? It’s hard to celebrate when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; it’s hard to look forward to a better tomorrow when your family is being torn apart.

And so Advent is nearly at an end for another year, but where does that leave us? Are we changed as a result? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Because if we’re looking back to one Incarnation, and looking forward to another, then there’s got to be another kind of incarnation in the middle, an attempt to help the Kingdom of God break through. And that’s down to us. Sometimes it’s about leveraging our privilege, sometimes it’s insurrectionary, sometimes it’s just about being decent to each other, but it’s down to us to cry out for justice and to fill the food banks and to protest and listen and welcome and love.

(And the fact that the ‘Homeless Jesus‘ statues that top and tail this post remain so controversial shows us how far we have to go.)

That’s not just for Advent, although in the depths of winter it takes on a new urgency. Maybe Advent isn’t just a countdown, it’s a way of starting the new year right. Things don’t change overnight, after all, it takes time for green shoots to emerge from cracks in the pavement.

But in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I need to remember that as we emerge from the anticipation of Advent to the hope of Christmas. That the presence of God is still here, and that it can work through us to make a difference in a world that aches and wars.

(More posts for Advent 2017 can be found here.)


Halfway Out of the Dark

halfway out16:28, and the sun has set on the shortest day. The night ahead is long, the longest for another year. The shadows close in, winter nipping at our toes. We know the science behind all this, the way the Earth turns, climate and orbits and axial tilting. We know all this, but sometimes metaphor is mightier than mechanics.

That’s why, down through the ages, so many communities have celebrated on the solstice; Korochun and Dongzhi, Yalda and Yule. As the longest night draws in, people come together and eat and light candles and fires and look forward to the lengthening of the day. We talk and in the candlelight we look forward to being halfway out of the dark, as an episode of Doctor Who once put it.

 Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, or the 21st (the scholar Michael Heiser speculates that Christ’s actual birthday could be September 11th, which in retrospect is disconcerting). But the early Church decided to celebrate at this time of year anyway, until the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar divorced December 25th from the Solstice. Some quarters of the Church celebrate Blue Christmas today, a time to remember those we’ve lost over the previous twelve months. There’s a wisdom in holding this during the longest night

We picture Jesus being born at night in the midst of tribulation – poverty and scandal, occupation and oppression. The Empire forces a heavily pregnant women to make a rough journey, and when they arrive there’s no room at the inn. It’s still Advent, so we can’t get into the slaughter and the exile that come next, but they’re out there, lurking in the dark. The contemporary echoes of this dance around us, their shadows wrapping us in cold hopelessness. I wake up at night and find myself worrying – if government bureaucracy doesn’t get me then North Korea will.

But the darkness doesn’t win. It feels trite saying this amid the anxiety of waiting for another shoe to drop, but I have to hold on to that hope, even if that’s with bloody fingernails. Maybe that’s why I’ve accidentally been writing about Advent from the margins, why I’ve been focusing on the women and the workers and the ones left behind. Maybe that’s where hope is found, not because they have an intrinsic uniqueness, but because these are the groups who’ve had to cultivate hope.

Candle-And as I think about this, I remember the forgotten Nativity, the cosmic Christmas portrayed in John’s Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness,” wrote John, “And the darkness has not overcome it.” While I’m thinking of the stable this year, I also need to remember how the Light of the World intersects with the straw and dirt and crap of a world where too many Empires and Supremacies are screaming to hold on to their power. But as they scream let this year be an apocalyptic nativity, an unveiling not only of the evil that surrounds us and the toxins that infect us, but of a Light, a Hope, a Baby, a Messiah, a reminder that, if you’re halfway out of the dark you keep walking towards the Light.


Carpenters of Bethlehem

25 years ago, I went on a cruise arranged by school. It was one of those Once-in-a-Lifetime trips, taking in Egypt and Istanbul, Ephesus and Jerusalem, the Pyramids and Yad Vashem. In Bethlehem I bought an olive wood Nativity scene that’s still with me now, sitting on the sideboard as carved Magi make their way across the living room.

Wood carving is an important trade in the Holy Land, making use of wood left over from the oliver harvest. But it’s also a tradition that’s under threat from the brute force of economics and geopolitics. We may be about to celebrate the birth of Christ and honour his stepfather, but, as this article shows, the modern carpenters of Bethlehem are struggling.

This is partly due to a lack of pilgrims. Bethlehem, after all, is in the West Bank, and while its economy is focused on tourism, there’s also a sense that the city isn’t safe. And so woodcarvers create intricate scenes featuring Mary and shepherds and Joseph and Jesus, the birthplace of Christ is seen as tacitly off-limits to his modern day followers. We’ve yet to see how recent news about the US embassy moving to Jerusalem will affect this in the long term.

The situation in the Middle East is a mess. Often it’s easy just to see that mess in terms of politics and ideologies or set dressing for the Eschaton. But while all this is going on, the residents of Bethlehem go on with their lives, carpenters and innkeepers and expectant mothers echoing the ordinary lives of those caught up in the drama of 2000 years ago. Many of them are Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ. Too often we in the West forget them, ignore their voices. It’s hard to hear them above the noise.

But the woodcarvers of Bethlehem persist, and as we draw closer to Christmas they and their families are worthy of our prayers, our fellowship, our business. Maybe the memory of one carpenter in Bethlehem can draw us closer to those who follow in his footsteps so many years later.


(More of my Advent 2017 posts can be found here.)

Listen for Once (or, how Elizabeth got mansplained)

elizabeth-greets-maryMary’s pregnancy wasn’t the only good news of the months leading up to the birth of Christ. There was another miracle happening in the family, in the womb of an old woman called Elizabeth. A relative of Mary’s, Elizabeth’s son would grow up to be John the Baptist, a wild prophet haunting the wilderness and declaring the coming of the Lord.  And when Mary receives her angelic visitation, it’s Elizabeth she goes to see, it’s Elizabeth who is one of the first to hear the news. The old woman and the virgin rejoice together and swap patterns for baby clothes and complain about back ache and swollen ankles and the lack of understanding coming from their men.

Mary met Gabriel in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:26), and then immediately went to stay in Judea for three months (Luke 1:56); could she have been in town when John was born? The way the verses break down makes it sound like Mary goes home before the birth, but wouldn’t it make sense for her to be around to help?

Either way, maybe there’s some solidarity going on here; both women are supernaturally pregnant, and while they’re faithful with it all, it’s hard to imagine they got a lot of support from the rest of the family. After all, no-one seems entirely clear what’s going on. Zechariah’s lack of belief loses him the power of speech; Joseph needs a visit from Gabriel to set him straight. Maybe Mary and Elizabeth need to spend time together because they’re the only people who understand what’s going on. As women in a patriarchal society, it’s likely they would have been dismissed and patronised during this period of waiting, but it’s worth noting that the only ‘man’ who seems clued in from the beginning is John, and he hasn’t even been born yet.

But eventually the day of John’s birth arrives, and a crowd shows up to name and circumcise the boy. And this is where the mansplaining seems to start, because despite Elizabeth insisting that God told her that the boy was to be named John, the crowd that dismisses her is determined to name the child after his father. Elizabeth must have been fairly insistent though, because they eventually ask Zechariah what he wants to call his son.

This is a whole other can of worms, because they make signs to get Zechariah to write down his wishes, even though we’re never told that he’s deaf, only that he can’t speak. Despite them being at the centre of God’s great plan for that first Christmas, both Elizabeth and Zechariah are patronised and dismissed. It’s only when Zechariah announces that “His name is John!”, and thus receiving the gift of speech again, that people seem to accept what the couple is saying.

That’s typical, isn’t it? Zechariah is silenced by God, but Elizabeth is silenced by everyone else. And while it would be nice to put this down to the patriarchal nature of the ancient world, you’ve only got to spend a few hours on Twitter to see women silenced or abused or dismissed. This isn’t just ignorance or rudeness; in some quarters it’s policy. In others it’s a survival strategy employed by a crumbling power structure. Elizabeth’s opinions on her son’s name didn’t matter, even though she was speaking on behalf of God; women theologians’ expertise on the Bible doesn’t matter because they’re not men; sexual abuse survivors don’t matter because, well, they should have spoken out sooner. Bureaucracy doesn’t consider sanitary towels a basic human need for half the population, or think about the impact of that on health or education. Lots of people have recently written about the emerging political power of black women, but we’d’ve be spared a lot of trouble if we’d listened to them in the first place.

But no; there are so many ways to try and silence half of the population. And when many of those voices are shouting from the margins and through the windows of locked rooms, we’re ignoring cries for justice, for mercy. We’re ignoring wisdom and may even be ignoring prophecy.

I’m glad I’m involved with a church tradition that has women in leadership. I’m fortunate to have learned so much from the theologian who led my preaching course and her no-nonsense confidence in her work. I’m thankful for the wisdom and intelligence and compassion of my wife. Because without these voices, I’d be less of a Christian, and the Church would be less of, well, a Church. Back in that first advent, as the world behind the world began to tremble, the voices of Mary and Elizabeth were eventually heard and valued. We need to do the same today.

Open the Doors

vacancies-neon-sign-2325-pLook, I’ll be honest up front. I’m an introvert. I like my own space and small talk wears me out. I believe strongly in the idea of being welcoming and hospitable, I believe that society is a team sport. It’s just that I also believe that someone else needs to be doing all that while I look after the dishwasher or the TPS reports. Heck, I get stressed out ordering at subway because they start asking too many questions about artisanal bread.

So let’s give some props to one of the little-celebrated heroes of Advent. We know him as the Innkeeper, but it’s not clear from the gospels how accurate that is – I guess he could just have easily been one of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. Either way, he comes to the rescue when a young, heavily pregnant couple show up on his doorstep: there’s no guest room on account of the census, but he finds a place for Mary and Joseph, and even if that’s among the animals (or at least among the agricultural equipment), at least they have a roof over their head. The cows and donkeys of the traditional nativity scene may seem a health and safety nightmare, at least no-one’s giving birth in a gutter.

Nowadays people aren’t desperate for a welcome because of censuses or miracle pregnancies. They’re desperate because huge geopolitical forces have conspired to drop a barrel bomb on their street, they’re desperate because a benefit payment didn’t come through, they’re desperate because they build up the courage to tell their parents they’re gay and now they don’t have anywhere to live. Then there’s the quiet desperation of loneliness or depression, shyness or bereavement. There’s physical accessibility – people can’t make it to a carol service because there’s no real wheelchair access in the church, people can’t go Christmas shopping because the toilet facilities are awful. There are so many ways in which we’re called to be the Innkeeper this Advent, so many ways in which we’re called to let people in.

I’m writing this on International Migrants Day, and while it’s usually Epiphany at which we remember Jesus becoming a refugee, remembering the hospitality of the Innkeeper shifts the focus onto our own hearts. Because most of us aren’t refugees, aren’t homeless, aren’t abandoned. Most of us can do something, it’s just that busyness and hard-heartedness lead us to lock the doors. Headlines crying out from newsagent windows and dog-whistle racism pull the gates shut.

And yet amid this noise, we see reminders of a Kingdom whose gates are never closed. St. James’ Church in Piccadilly is displaying an art installation made up of 700 pieces of clothing discarded by refugees across Europe, a moving reminder of the human cost of the crisis. The artist and photographer Kezia M’Clelland is contrasting images from warzones with ancient words of prophecy to remind us that there’s less of a gap between us and the world of the Bible than we like to think. Groups like Upbeat Communities are welcoming refugees to their new communities. At times like this, hospitality is the carrier wave for hope. At times like this, we could all do with acting a little less like gatekeepers, and a lot more like the Innkeeper.