Childermas Again

The Killing of the Innocents by Herod, Leon Coginet

The original version of this post was written five years ago. It’s tragic to note that, since then, not much has changed; in some ways the situation has become worse. On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, this is something we need to confront; on the brink of a new year, this is something we need to take forward.

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 inadvertently 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 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK (that’s gone up since I wrote my original post); UNICEF reports that one in six children globally live in extreme poverty. The UN tells us that around 33 million of the world’s refugees are under 18, 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 recent years, 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.

O Emmanuel

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 23rd December is called O Emmanuel, or O God is With Us; you can hear it sung below. Links to the full series can be found here.

We’re nearly there, we’re nearly at Christmas. The longest night is behind us, Mary and Joseph are almost at the stable, a new year is upon us. And yet it’s sometimes hard to draw comfort from this; for some, this Christmas season is going to be rough, either because COVID keeps them from their loved ones, or because there will be empty spaces around the table, or because this will be one more lonely day in an ocean of lonely days. Others will be working – nurses, doctors, all those invisible people who keep our countries moving, who keep the lights on, who make sure there’s food on the shelves for Boxing Day. This year has reminded us not to take these jobs for granted, that for many the 25th will be a work day. Others – volunteers, faith communities, charities – will be gearing up to bring something of Christmas into dire situations, food parcels, presents for kids, hygiene products. There are a lot of people relying on these services; there’s a lot of weight in those responsibilities.

This may sound a bit downbeat. Christmas is a time of celebration, of joy, of hope, and Christmas will come. But no matter how close we are to the finishing line, we’re still in Advent, that pause in which we remember exactly what we’re celebrating. Here, at the end of the O Antiphons, we hear the call that God is with us, that God doesn’t magically appear but is born in a stable, genes and divinity coalescing, God birthed into humanity. God isn’t with us as a spectator, feet untouched by dust, hair untouched by raindrops; God stands alongside us, familiar with grief and loss and heartbreak; understanding that sometimes the future contains horrors that have to be faced; knowing the pain of attending funerals and the joy of attending weddings.

And so God is with us; in the High Dependency Unit, in the refugee camp, in the queue at the foodbank, in the care home, in the cell block, at the protest, on the Zoom call. In the grief, in the fear, in the mental health crisis. Two millennia ago, Earth and Heaven came together in Bethlehem and that resonates onward to today. God is still with us.

O King of the Nations

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 22nd December is called O Rex Gentium, or O King of the Nations; you can hear it sung below.

“Give us a king!” the people said.

“But aren’t I enough for you?” God replied.

“Nope. We want to be like everyone else. Give us a king!”

That was a long time ago, but we still want a king. We might not call them a king nowadays – maybe ‘Leader’ or ‘President’ or ‘Someone Remotely Competent” – someone who can fix this whole mess. It’s understandable, I guess, but there’s an edge to this, because often WE want a king who will sort out THEM. That’s been particularly highlighted throughout 2020, a year marked by division, x vs y. Factions and denominations and states and companies establish their little fiefdoms and build themselves up by tearing down others.

Into a world like this, Jesus comes as a baby, a symbol of a new start. He grows up to be not a warrior, but a carpenter, a builder, someone who fixes and repairs things. He comes as a healer, he comes as a storyteller. In a metaphorical kind of way he comes as a blacksmith, to beat swords into ploughshares, AK-47’s into ventilators. He doesn’t come as the sort of king we’re all used to, but a crown of thorns is still a crown.

Swords into Ploughshares by Kelly Latimore

His Kingdom exists throughout the world, and not just in the eschatological sense. Most of the time it’s hidden by noise and actions that don’t reflect Christ, it’s hidden by theocracies that claim that God hates all the people they do. It’s hidden because winning has become more important than healing, it’s hidden because being right has become more important than being kind.

But this year, things are strange. This year, things aren’t as we expected. This year, the new is normal. And that’s going to be difficult for so many of us; it’s going to be sad, it’s going to be lonely, it’s going to be heartbreaking, it’s going to be frightened. And that’s when we who claim to follow the upside-down King need to put down our swords, put down our proof-texts and pick up our saucepans, our debit cards, our contact lists. Because Christ’s Kingdom is just. Christ’s Kingdom is peaceful. Christ’s Kingdom is kind.

O Dayspring

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 21st December is called O Oriens, or O Dayspring; you can hear it sung below.

Tonight will be the longest night, the night we’re furthest from the sun (here in the northern hemisphere at least). It’s cold, the darkness draws in, and astronomy becomes metaphor. We cycle through the season, springtime and harvest, summer and winter, but we can be wary about that awareness – what if the spring doesn’t arrive, what if the nights don’t get shorter, what if, what if, what if… It sometimes can feel like the night will go on forever, with the dawn nothing but a cruel mirage. Maybe this sounds like hyperbole. Maybe it sounds like truth.

“Do not be afraid” sang the angels, echoing one of the refrains of the Christmas story, but in days like these it’s easier said than done. And that puts some responsibility on those of us who should be listening out for the angels – to make it a little easier for people not to be afraid, to offer our words or our writing, our hugs or our debit cards, our protest songs and our break-up songs. And I have no idea where I fit in with all this, because I’m trying to see the light, trying to see it beyond my cynicism, my pessimism, my depression. But here’s an idea, An image, a metaphor – if the Spirit has been pictured as a dove and a goose, then maybe this Christmas the Spirit can come as a robin. Cheesy imagery maybe, but maybe also a twist on iconography that can give us eyes to see. Heaven knows we need to find ways to tell our stories anew.

One of my favourite carols is O Little Town of Bethlehem. I think that’s mainly for these words:

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

There’s a lot of hope wrapped up in that stanza; the idea that the light shines in the night and that the night has not overcome it, that faith and fear can be flatmates, that Christmas brings with it the promise of a better tomorrow, even if the journey is tougher than we’d want. The streets of Bethlehem were dark, but the morning was on its way, and that reminds me of a line from another carol: “Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings”. Because ‘wings’ is a an old metaphor for the rays of the sun, daybreak emerging from the horizon, a new dawn coming bringing light to the dark streets, bringing a better tomorrow.

O Key of David

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 20th December is called O Clavis David, or O Key of David; you can hear it sung below.

We stumble towards the end of 2020, this apocalyptic year that has unveiled so many things, that has dragged so much racism and fear and inequality and authoritarianism and Othering into the open. And we look at it, hoping that exposure will cause these terrible things to shrivel and die, but too often their roots get stronger, they feed off the attention and grow. We inhale their spores and bad things start to grow in our hearts.

In today’s O Antiphon, the Key symbolises authority, not just the trappings of royalty or the speeches of leaders or the jangling duties of the prison warden. The Key of David is also spiritual authority, and when Jesus talks about this key to Peter, he does so in a town where, it was said, the fallen angels came to Earth millennia before, he does so in a world in which so many powers and principalities, spirits and systems, habits and heartbreak seek to keep us captive, to wrap us in chains like Marley’s Ghost.

Jesus is born into this world, his birth heralding a prison break. Thirty years beyond the manger he makes that clear when he uses the words of a prophet to make his mission clear: “I’ve come to bring good news to the poor. I’ve come to bring freedom for the oppressed. I’ve come to set the prisoners free.” Imagine a skeleton key hanging from his belt; imagine hope and liberation; imagine the cries of a child harmonising into a freedom song. And imagine, on being freed, looking at the keys we’ve used to imprison others, imagine feeling the weight of that, imagine Jesus pointing us towards the prison doors at which we’ve served as the jailer, imagine the click of the lock as we move to release others in the light of the grace we’ve been given.