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.

 

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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.

Advent Everyday

isla_fullxfull.24180799_5gexn24lI wrote a little about Advent a couple of days ago, through the lens of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic song that’s touched a nerve in troubled times. It’s easy to see why; it’s a promise of a better world, a world of justice and peace and equality, concepts that feel particularly under threat at the moment.

But at the same time, Mary’s vision feels like big picture stuff, an advent protest song that looks forward into the future, into a redeemed world still to come. Yes, the baby in the manger was and is and will be the instigator of that world, but we’re not living there yet. Nine months after Mary sang her song of praise, she was giving birth in a stable while death squads stalked the land for her son. How did she cling on to her hope and vision as she and Joseph tried to sneak a newborn over the border and away from infanticide and a psychotic king?

It’s a reminder that, at advent, we have to zoom in, to view the coming of the Kingdom though the echoes and reflections and previews that are breaking through, daisies emerging through cracks in the pavement. It’s too easy to lose hope while waiting for the world to change; we have to focus on the things that birth optimism and, conversely, that which makes us angry enough to insist that things must change.

Mary sang a song of hope and prophecy that we still treasure today. But she still saw her husband die and her son crucified. Hope is messy.

That’s why we need to focus on people; people who are scared, people who are oppressed, people who are seeing vast movements of politics and economics and are feeling crushed between their gears, people who are dehumanised, people who are rejected and marginalised, the Othered and the despised and the scapegoated. That’s where we start.

And advent can break through into the most unexpected places, if we push it, if we open the doors. There’s a hashtag doing the rounds of Twitter, #LooAdvent, started by @SazBrisdion to raise awareness of the lack of appropriate public toilet facilities for people with disabilities (something we’ve talked about here before). Meanwhile, @Elf_On_Wheels is doing a Christmas tour of the UK to highlight the lack of wheelchair and other disabled access throughout the country.

Both of these campaigns are using the trappings of Christmas to draw attention to matters of justice and compassion, and they aim to enact change for people who are often pushed to the margins. And neither Twitter account aims to topple the government or send ideologies crashing to the floor, but they want to see justice and fairness break through into the world. There’s something advent-y about that. Something Christmassy.

Mary’s Protest Song

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Icon by Ben Wildflower

At the start of the advent story, in the dust of Nazareth, a teenage girl sings a protest song. It’s the sort of song that, in the wrong political climate, gets your name on a list somewhere. It’s the sort of song that shakes the world. It’s the sort of song that sings of a badass faith.

Mary sings, and in singing she prophesies that the child she’s suddenly carrying will be an agent of justice and mercy and peace. The proud will be brought low; the starving will be filled; the humble will be lifted up; the avaricious will find themselves lying in gutters. It’s subversive and counter-cultural, God siding with the weak against the powerful, standing with the marginalised in the corridors of power. We don’t always read it as such; it’s too easy to see Mary as an innocent sitting in the middle of a Nativity scene, as someone who’s sweet and middle-class and quiet and beatific. We forget she’s a young girl coming of age in poverty, among political oppression and poverty. When Mary sings out, she becomes a prophet.

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Virgin Mary and Eve by Sr Grace Remington, OCSO

And because of that, her song echoes like a heartbeat at the centre of history. Theologically, it’s a bridge between the Garden of Eden and the coming of the Messiah. That’s why modern representations of this draw upon the books of Genesis and Revelation, identifying a sense of sisterhood between Mary and Eve, and showing Mary going toe-to-toe with the Serpent of Eden and the Dragon of Revelation. And that’s healing – the piece by Sr Grace Remington, Mary consoling Eve, is healing, refusing the binaries that we erect to keep us apart. The virgin can embrace the fallen woman and we can be healed by the life that grows in her belly. There’s hope there, and a prophecy at their feet, the serpent ultimately defeated, humanity reconciled to each other and to God.

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Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls, Bethlehem

That’s because there’s something about Mary’s song that resonates with people on the margins, the oppressed and the downtrodden. Take a look at the icon/graffiti painted on Bethlehem’s Separation Wall, Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls. It’s a traditional looking icon of Mary, but along the Wall in the background there’s a crudely painted serpent-dragon, a spray-painted behemoth forever pursuing the Holy Family but never catching them, a monster and metaphor due to be crushed by the baby in the manger. We can turn to these stories at times of trial, turn to them and hear a Palestinian teenager speaking words of God, an inspired signal in the middle of the noise.

Listen for this, because at this time of year we’ll see Christmas be contested; we’ve already heard people using the relationship between Mary and Joseph being used to justify inappropriate relationships between teenagers and adults. The gospel can be weaponised; faith can be made toxic; Mary’s song can drown out these cacophonies; after all, the Lord called her to be a badass prophet of God and a young mother. Let’s not reduce her or infantilise her.

It’s December 1st, and so we also commemorate the day that Rosa Park was arrested for not giving up her seat. We’ve also seen the #ChurchToo hashtag trending across Twitter. The prophetic voice of women still needs to be heard; heirs to the Magnificat and Mary’s song, and the cry of the baby in a manger.

We Need To Talk About Toilets

I’ve said this before, but we need to talk about toilets.

For most of us, the humble toilet is something that’s taken for granted. It’s just there, certainly not something to worry about. Okay, maybe toilets are a tad embarrassing, not something to talk about in polite conversation, but they’re there when we need them, right?

Sadly, for a lot of people that’s not the case. And that’s why we need to talk about toilets, because among other things (sanitation, safety, education) they’re a matter of human dignity.

For a start, there aren’t enough decent public toilets out there for people with disabilities. That presents a stark choice – either struggle with inadequate facilities or just stay in the house all the time. Neither of these choices are fair, neither allow people their intrinsic worth and dignity, but this is the reality for too many. There are children with disabilities who have to be changed on a filthy, inadequate toilet floor just because of the lack of equipment like hoists and adjustable changing benches. This should not be the case.

This is why toilets are a theological issue, and why our churches have to give them more thought. For a start, are our disabled toilets as good as they could be? Do they need more investment? Look, I know funds are tight, but when people are marginalised from the wider community, that could be a clue as to where our churches’ spending priorities should be.

Then there’s accessibility. If local councils and town planners aren’t stepping up to the plate, maybe our churches should make our toilets more accessible to the public. And I don’t know how they might work, but that doesn’t matter because these are conversations that need to be held on a local level in response to local needs.

I know this might all seem a bit prosaic, but toilets are a theological issue. They’re about compassion and justice, they’re about loving our neighbour and the Image of God.

And that’s why we need to talk about toilets.