Boxing Day: A Modest Proposal

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s odd to be writing about Boxing Day when we’re not even out of Advent yet. But there’s a reason for it.
There have been a lot of reports over recent weeks about levels of poverty in Britain, something I’d imagine is replicated in other western nations. As we count down to Christmas, this inequality is biting even deeper; winter has truly kicked in, and if you’re worried about choosing between eating or heating, then an inability to buy gifts may well be adding additional levels of shame to an already difficult situation. Then shops close on the evening of the 24th and food poverty, fuel poverty, hygiene poverty, all of kinds of poverty are compounded even as we head into a celebration of joy and peace and hope.

Boxing Day – the Feast of St. Stephen – is traditionally a time of helping those who’ve fallen on hard times, responding to, if only for a day, the inequality rife across society. So my modest proposal is this: that we commemorate the Season of St. Stephen. This is, after all, a man who enters the biblical narrative to make sure that starving widows are getting fed in the face of unfair distribution of resources. And in the lead up to Christmas, as we also remember Stephen’s saintly counterpart Nicholas, maybe we add toys to those resources.

I’m aware that I’m being gimmicky here – helping each other should be as natural as breathing, not something reserved for special occasions. But most of the time it’s not that natural – in my busyness and my privilege I need to remember food banks and shelters and soup kitchens, remember those who are dreading Christmas because they don’t have food or heating or shower gel or tampons or presents. To my shame, people around me become invisible. To our society’s shame, people around us are condemned by media and politicians.

What sort of Christmas are we celebrating?

This is where we can think about buying an extra can of beans, an extra bag of groceries, a washbag, a tin of cat food, a box of Lego, socks or scarves or sleeping bags. Maybe we can think about giving our time, our money, our thoughts and prayers. Maybe we give our support and our love and our presence to those who are already serving in this way. Maybe we can be changed; I know I need to.

And when we do that, Boxing Day can be the start of “What next?” rather than the end of our Christmas charity.


Disarming Christmas

robot santaIt’s Advent, and so we’re waiting for Christmas, but the waiting has sharp edges this year. Christmas itself is weaponised – the phrase “Merry Christmas” has become less of a greeting and more of a shibboleth, a password to identify who’s in and who’s out. A Muslim family appearing in a supermarket’s festival TV advert has attracted controversy for depressing and predictable reasons. We’ve taken barbed wire and hidden it within tinsel while singing Christmas carol mash-ups with conspiracy theories.

When Mary sang her protest song, she sang it from the bottom of society, a young woman in an occupied country. Those at the centre of the story – women and shepherds and carpenters – don’t have power, don’t have influence. And yet two thousand years later we see power and influence and authority and might as our Christmas gifts, heralded by discordant carols as the Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom is driven further underground.

It’s not just geopolitics in which we see this. The words we use around church also have an impact; in recent weeks we’ve seen US politicians try to justify relationships with underage girls because of the traditional Catholic depiction of the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Using the Christmas story to sanctify child abuse is horrific, but it was still all over Twitter.

Things can also be insidious. Both of my kids are autistic, and we’re currently having a lot of difficult and hurtful and frustrating conversations about behaviours and responsibility and how they’re seen as ‘naughty’, and this isn’t getting easier because timetables and environments are thrown out of sync because it’s Christmas. And this is so damn difficult, because my kids are trying to navigate a world that’s lacking in empathy and understanding and compassion, and I fear for what it might do to them. So when we go to church to celebrate the coming of Christ, I don’t want them to feel rejected by words and attitudes that are born out of privilege and influence and ‘respectability’. I want them to be able to see Jesus. I want Jesus to meet with them.

I know he already does, of course; that’s a truth I need to hold on. But too many dangerous things are done in his name, and for that we need to repent. If we’re going to commemorate the coming of the Prince of Peace, we need to disarm our celebrations, because otherwise we end up more like Herod, pretending to worship but really more interested in consolidating our power, and though we think we’re in charge, well, the Wise Men didn’t find Jesus in a palace, did they, and the gossip around Mary and Joseph certainly wouldn’t have painted them as ‘respectable’. We need to stop seeing Christmas as a private possession and more of a gift to the world.

Because power isn’t the gift of Christmas. Grace is. Love is. Incarnation is. And when we seek to turn that into a weapon, we turn Christmas into a blasphemy. And so we need to stop seeing Christmas as a private possession and more of a gift to the world; we need to disarm, disarm our celebrations and songs and theologies and turn our swords into sleighbells.

Advent in Dangerous Times

JoseyMariaWebAdvent feels more present this year. Maybe that’s because the last twelve months have been so turbulent, a maelstrom of political upheaval and violence, wars and rumours of wars. Rediscovering Advent as a source of hope is less a liturgical duty and more a survival strategy.

This isn’t just about hope for the future. That’s important – without a vision, the people perish, right? – but as we look forward to a better world, we can’t delude ourselves that this is all about an Age To Come. That’s a privileged position, a luxury that most people can’t afford. The hope of that future world needs to present now. Our Advent waiting, our “Merry Christmas!” shibboleths are meaningless unless they have something to say in the soup kitchen, the women’s shelter, the refugee camp, the Twitter timeline, the public toilet with no disability provision, those abused and oppressed by the Church itself (Navajo writer Mark Charles wrote about this today).

Advent is a time when the Church thinks about incarnation – the coming of Jesus into the world, yes, but also the Kingdom of God incarnated into the world. And while that’s eschatological, it’s also a nuts-and-bolts reality. We have to carry hope into a world that’s waiting for it, because if we don’t we’re just another bunch of talking heads.

So we remember those who need hope right now. Those in Syria and Yemen, Those who slept in doorways last night as the snow and temperatures fell. Those who’ve been raped or assaulted and who are now being victimised all over again. The children being abused.  Those in prison, those in debt, those invisible. Those crushed in the gears of bureaucracy. Those mansplained and churchsplained, those who’ve had their job or their futures taken away, those fighting addictions or ISIS or cancer or their very own demons.

The picture that accompanies this post is Jose y Maria by comic book artist Everett Patterson. It puts the journey to Bethlehem into a contemporary context of neon lights and seedy motels and payphones, a young couple out in the rain with nowhere to go. I’ve written about this piece before, but it always reminds me of the immediacy of Advent and Christmas. The things we pray and sing and shout about aren’t just for the past and the future, they’re also part of the present. The Advent hope of Mary’s song isn’t just a nice subject for a few carols and a kid’s play, it’s the hope by which we can hack the system.

I need to hold on to that. I need to hold on to it because honestly? I’m scared. I have two sons with autism and I’m scared that the world and its rules and its austerity and prejudice will grind them down. I’m scared because of growing authoritarianism and the feeling that plenty of people are dancing with joy into dark places. I’m scared because I’m suffering from depression and anxiety. I’m scared because there are churches who see pedophilia as a political compromise. I’m scared because it all feels hopeless, I’m scared because I don’t know what to do about it all and I’m worn down.

Maybe that’s why Advent feels more present. Maybe it’s because I need it to be, in these days when Christmas feels right on top of us but too far away. There’s a strange sort of grace in being able to remember that all this hope in which I try to believe was rooted in a land under military occupation, in a world where one of the central figures narrowly avoided being stoned, where a government decided to kill kids because it was politically expedient. Past and present collide and the future feels distant, but still we have to live in hope because hope’s something we can cling on to with bloodied fingernails and divine stubbornness.

So today we remember we are one, and that we have to look after each other because that’s our calling, that’s our mission, that’s our incarnation. And we draw in hope and love and justice images of humanity that others would seek to erase, we make the most of the waiting and echo our glimpses of a world yet to come.


Five Women

WomenofMatthew1As we talk about Advent and move forward through the story, we need to take a side-step. There’s a prequel to this whole story, a setting of the scene that’s easy to miss; after all, it’s just a list of names at the start of Matthew’s gospel, something that we can just ignore as we get to the good stuff.

But among that list of Israel’s heroes there are four other names. They jump out at us, four women among the kings and warriors: Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth and Tamar. A sex worker, a rape survivor, a climate refugee and a woman forced into a bizarre act of prostitution as the result of poverty and abandonment. Their stories are notable, yes, but not what you’d expect to see in the genealogy of the Messiah. Incest and sexual assault and crushing poverty don’t tend to be things we put front and centre in the society pages. These are stories we like to keep silent. These are the people we like to keep silent.

But that genealogy is telling us something. That genealogy is subversive. Yes, it places Jesus in the royal line, establishes his regal credentials, but it does more than that.  This family tree doesn’t just put Jesus alongside national heroes like David or Solomon, it associates the Messiah with the abused, the exploited and the dispossessed; it’s a way of saying that God isn’t just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he’s the God of Tamar and Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

And Hagar and Zipporah and the other Tamar and the daughter of Jephtath and the Hebrew Midwives, and all the other women whose stories run through the pages of the Bible, often mistreated and neglected and dismissed and Othered, but there, present and active in the story of God. And here in Advent, as Mary takes centre-stage, she lines up alongside these other women, there at the end of that list. Right now she’s a prophet, but soon she’s also going to be a refugee as the death squad comes calling.

At the time of writing it’s December 2017. Time magazine has just announced the Silence Breakers as their Person/People of the Year, acknowledgement of the women who have spoken out against sexual assault in the face of powerful abusers, an ingrained rape culture and horrifically low levels of conviction for rape. And as we hear Matthew’s genealogy more and more as we go to carols by candlelight and watchnight services, hear those four names and remember their stories.

They are seen.

They are heard.

Remember, and speak, and cry out for justice.

Make Something, Create Something

e3cdb7afa2db705d5568aca0cd843b94We’ve been talking about advent in the last couple of entries, especially how Mary’s Magnificat is a prophecy not only of the birth of the Messiah but the ultimate coming of God’s Kingdom; in other words, listen to the women. And heck, we need to hold on to protest songs like the Magnificat right now, because the world’s shaking and empires are creaking.

But I’m going to digress a little and talk about Joseph. Because if Mary’s a prophet and a holy rebel and the Theotokos, Joseph’s a builder. And that’s a whole other spiritual gift, because the Holy Spirit is a Creator, a Maker, and if things are falling all around us, sooner or later we’re going to need to look to the builders, the fixers, the people with workshops and toolkits and who know how to put things back together better than before.

 And Joseph took his own stand against the system. He refused to throw Mary to the mercies of legalism, and when the death squads mobilised, he got his family out of Dodge and into Egypt. He’s the guy who quietly stands up for what’s right, not what everyone around him wants to do, and in his own quiet way, he rebuilds on a different foundation.

This week is MAKESMTHNG Week, an initiative aimed at rejecting consumerism for a while and focus on making new things, sharing skills and creating, focusing on arts and crafts and building and repairing. And from a spiritual perspective, it’s great that this falls in Advent, because we can look at the #makesmthng hashtag and see ideas and activities that contrast with the commercialisation of the season.

Our churches are full of people who make things – artists and carpenters and builders and craftspeople, all part of Bezalel’s legacy, but sometimes treated like Joseph, the quiet people behind the scenes. Churches rarely invite the caretakers up to the podium. But my wife and my sister and my kids are making things this advent, and there’s something weightier to that than just pulling out a credit card.

But creating things, making things, fixing things can be a prophetic act in themselves. We don’t have to discard tings when we’re bored with them, we don’t have to participate in a system whereby rampant consumerism exploits both people and the environment, we don’t have to turn Christmas into a time of competing to see who’s bigger, who’s better, who has the most lights on their house, who’s spent the most money. We can pull out a toolbag and hack the system, and maybe remember Joseph when we do.