Epiphany and the Illusion of Power

The Magi went to the palace first.

Eventually they would kneel before Jesus, but first they’d be distracted by earthly power, a magnificent palace, a king who whispered in the ear of emperors. It’s a distraction that’s understandable, but still it leads to an atrocity. The pursuit of power so often does.

Then, when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem they find God, toddling and crying, graze-kneed and circumcised. Godhead made uncoordinated and babbling, death squads just days away and the Omnipotent forced to run.

It’s a strange sort of power that’s revealed at the Epiphany, certainly not the power we see worshipped today, not the power we seek for ourselves in a twisted attempt to build the Kingdom of God with the bricks of Empire. Epiphany reveals God in vulnerability and in nappies, the Word of God without words. This isn’t where we look for power, we don’t look among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. We look to the rich, the connected, we turn on the vulnerable out of a never-ending fear, we want to drive away the homeless to make way for a royal wedding. Two thousand years after the Magi blundered into Herod’s palace and we still make the same mistake.

There’s an ongoing temptation to look for God in all the wrong places. That’s when we need to remember that God stands with the weak, the oppressed, the persecuted, the poor; we need to remember that God works not in our arrogance, our pride, our confidence but in our weakness, our vulnerability, our brokenness. Maybe this Epiphany it’s not about asking why we can’think see God; maybe it’s about confronting whether we’re looking for Him in the right place; if we’re truly looking for God or just the trappings of power.


Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

The year is almost over and not a moment too soon. It’s been a strange twelve months, marked by political upheaval and a seemingly neverending succession of scandals, conspiracies and the overturning of everything we hoped was secure. If there’s a season for everything under Heaven, then 2017 has been a time to mourn.

2016 was characterised by the loss of beloved cultural figures like David Bowie and Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher, and we mourned their loss. This year was different, the Hollywood Apocalypse, the unveiling of so many crimes, the sins pf men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein laid bare.

It’s fair to grieve and rage about all this, necessary even; we grieve and mourn, and maybe we’ll even be inspired to pick up a pen, or a guitar, or a script. Because while the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, he’s also an Inspiration and an Encourager, and if he can give Bezalel the vision to create beauty in the desert, maybe he’ll give us ears to hear new music, eyes to see new art, a Pentecost heart to speak new words. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, and sometimes through being comforted, through our tears, new possibilities are born. And blessed are those who cry out for justice, who were courageous enough to type #MeToo and in doing so dragged deeds of darkness out into the light. Let’s never forget that this comes at a cost; the world doesn’t always embrace justice as it should. 

Then there’s Yemen, there’s Syria, there’s Grenfell and Manchester and Las Vegas, wars and rumours of wars. May we see the destruction sown around the world and be moved to cry out for justice and hope. The Children of God are peacemakers, or shold be, and this last year has been a reminder that we should lean into that inheritance, that we shouldn’t accept the world as it is, but instead work to build bridges, to break down walls, to beat swords into ploughshares. And where we’re suffering from apathy and compassion fatigue, may we be given an appetite for justice, may we hunger and thirst for righteousness and cry out to God to be filled.

That’s been difficult this year; something seems to have broken and the world lurches out of control. Fake News and conspiracies and trolling and gaslighting have replaced debate and compromise, democracy even. So many are fighting all this, but they’re tired; the fight goes on, but the war is long. We need to look after each other, those who fight and those under attack. Too many choose to take their own lives because of the weight of the world, to many are crushed within the gears. 2018 is the year that a broken machine needs to be fixed.

And so we mourn those we’ve lost. We mourn the upswing in prejudice and bigotry, we mourn the trolling, we mourn the hate speech. We mourn what we may become, we mourn the darkness we may be stumbling towards. We have to decide how we respond to this – with complicity, with malice, or with a desire for justice tempered with mercy and grace. This is our choice going forward.

2017 is about to recede into history; we stand at that liminal time of year at which a pregnant future swirls before us, ripe with both opportunities and fears. And we all walk towards it; no-one can stay behind, but in the midst of it may we glimpse Christ beckoning us forward, calling us to be compassionate, calling us to be creative, calling us to stand. 2018 opens its arms to receive us, to welcome or to crush we don’t yet know. Whichever it is, may a light still shine in the dark; may a better Kingdom come.

Childermas Again

Dawn breaks on the Feast of Holy Innocents, on memories and statistics: Manchester Arena and Kameron PrescottNorth Park Elementary and Aztec High SchoolYemen and Syria. Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. One in four children in the UK are affected by poverty, 21% in the US, 1 billion worldwide. Children are bought and sold for sex, we hand children guns and force them to be soldiers. Herod’s shadow still stalks the land.

Only that’s not true, is it? Because Herod’s not our shadow, he’s our mirror. We write off the Slaughter of the Innocents as an anomolous event aimed at killing the Son of God, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s yet another example of a normalised assault on children. If Herod was our historical dark side rather than our twin, we wouldn’t see churches covering up child abuse, we wouldn’t see so many bombs falling on civilians, we wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back as politicians enact policies that push more children into poverty.

The Slaughter of the Innocents was all about who gets to be king, and the children of Bethlehem were that most obscene of euphemisms, “collateral damage”. Given the situation facing many children throughout the last twelve months, we’re more open to Herod being king than Jesus.

Maybe that’s why it’s so important to celebrate Holy Innocents: not simply because it reminds us of the crimes of Herod, but because of its present reality. It’s a time to remember the realities of the season now we’ve stopped greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” and started to return to our ordinary lives. It’s a time to remember that Christmas has consequences, and that’s not just about distant atrocities but about the societies and cultures in which we live, the societies and cultures we help create with our spending, our attitudes, our blessings, our silence.

We live in worlds in which Herod still occupies a throne and in which it’s still children who suffer the most as a result. On the Feast of Holy Innocents, it’s time to stop empowering that.

Christmas: What happened next?

So the shepherds walk away rejoicing, the heavenly host fades from view and the Magi are still two years away. Dawn breaks on the first day after the first Christmas and what does it bring?

It brings, I guess, the first stumbling lessons in parenthood. Did Mary seek out the innkeeper’s wife, or members of the extended family to give her impromptu lessons in how to change nappies, how to breastfeed, how to re-wrap those swaddling clothes?

Did Joseph look at his family and start having the thoughts that all new fathers have: Can I do this? How do I do this? Did he start asking around if any quick jobs were going? Does he look around for angels, hoping that they’ll have some advice to hand?

The shepherds return to the fields, the sheep, the distrust, the ostracism. They’ve seen something amazing, a cosmic act of revelation,  but no-one would believe them because they’re shepherds. They return to the fields, rejoicing in a Kingdom that won’t come until the child is fully grown, and even then it wouldn’t be the revolution everyone expected. Where would their lives take them from here?

In the courts of Jerusalem’s Temple, an elderly man and woman continually to wait patiently for something that’s already arrived. They don’t know that yet, of course; they continue to pray and watch and hope as corrupt men turn their house of worship into a den of thieves. How did they keep the faith as their world turned toxic?

Then there are the bureaucrats, packing away their pens and doing their filing and counting up how many citizens their bosses could tax. Didn’t they have second thoughts as the census revealed the poverty around them? Did they just follow orders? Did they have an inkling that somewhere in their spreadsheets was a secret that would outlive the edifice of Empire?

Then there’s us. We say Merry Christmas but what happens next? Was it just something to say to prove a point? Or did we mean it? Do we go back to our regular lives unchanged, or do we carry something greater into the world? Did our Christmases mean anything?

And if so, what happens next?

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.)