Blue Christmas (repost)

Five blue candles of varying heights, lit against the night.

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.

It’s here that I say that things do get better, that you’re stronger than you think you are, even when you don’t believe that. The nights get shorter, a bit more light every day. But there are times in the year that give us reasons to pause and acknowledge that sometimes things are hard, that there are those who would have been here who aren’t, that there are broken things and broken hearts, that at this time of year the music of Slade and Mariah can get drowned out by the noise of war drums, of scapegoating, of panic, or by the silence of absence, loneliness, despair. We can’t move on without acknowledging grief and sadness and loss.

“Every worship group should have a break-up song.” I can’t remember who said this – they had an Irish accent if that helps – but they were right. We like to talk of hope, of faith, joy; we’re less interested in talking about doubt, of sadness and trauma, of depression and despair and disappointment, as if these were two binary choices rather than different facets of the messiness of life.

In some traditions, today is a day to acknowledge and make room at the inn for sadness, for loss, of worry. The Nativity contains all these things alongside the hope and hallelujahs. Blue Christmas creates a space to recognise hurt and all we’ve lost. And maybe it’s appropriate that it coincides with the Feast of St. Thomas, the doubting disciple, the one who had to wait for a glimpse of hope, the one who embodies both cynicism and faith. Let’s not criticise Thomas too much – he was given hope in the midst of an impossible situation. The candle still flickers, the dawn still peeks above the horizon, a scarred hand still reaches out towards Thomas, towards us.

Because if we celebrate Blue Christmas tonight, it’s in the context of the days getting longer, increments of hope. Things can change, not because that’s an inevitability, but because we can look after each other, weep with those who weep, dance with those who sing. Sometimes, on the darkest night, God can seem far away, but that’s just an invitation to see him reflected in those around us, churches and communities as stars in the depths of the dark, candles raging against the night, a reminder that we’re still in advent, that Christmas is around the corner, that someone, somewhere, needs and wants you to be here tomorrow, next week, next Christmas.

Strictly Come Dancing

Strictly Come Dancing Logo: Gold glitterball with the series name across it, radiating blue rays and glitter.

Well, this is unexpected. Never thought I’d be blogging here about Strictly Come Dancing. Random references to Doctor Who and superhero comics, sure, but not a celebrity dancing competition. I mean, I watch it, but never really felt the need to write about it.

But last night, EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis took home the Glitterball trophy. For those who haven’t been following this series, Rose is profoundly Deaf and a BSL user, and so that was reflected throughout the series, perhaps most notably when one routine had a period of silent dancing. And none of this journey was about sympathy or pity or “Aww, look at the Deaf girl”; Rose was a damn good dancer who won an exceptionally close competition. This was really about representation for a community that isn’t often showcased on mainstream TV. And this is a big deal, because while this was going on, Channel 4’s subtitles went down for weeks and the government was drawing fire for not having BSL interpreters at their televised Covid briefings.

So why am I talking about this on a Bible blog? Simply because I believe that the Church needs to learn some lessons from this about representation. Too often we’re too slow or too lazy to make adaptations, and while we sometimes make worship accessible, worship leading remains out of reach.; how many stages or pulpits are accessible to a wheelchair user? And yet when that is the case, we’re not learning from the faith stories of those who are Deaf, those who are autistic, wheelchair users or those with invisible disabilities. And yes, that means embracing theologies around disabilities, but also just freeing up everyone to use the gifts God has given them, of realising that Pentecost extends to languages like BSL, SSE, Makaton and any other method of communicating.

So I celebrate Rose winning Strictly. I celebrate my Church and their commitment to bringing in BSL interpreters. I celebrate these things, but I also pray that they’re not the end of the journey but the start.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today commemorates the lives of transgender people lost to violence. Around the world, vigils will be held, acts of remembrance for a community that faces anger and hostility on a daily basis. Transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled over the last few years. Many transgender people face domestic violence, anger and insults walking down the street. Some are murdered, some take their own lives. Some are buried under the wrong name.

This is a season of memory, but increasingly it needs to become a time of passing down stories, of stopping to listen to the experiences that have been silenced or ignored, of letting these stories change those of us who need to change, to empower those whose power and hope has been taken from them. Too many people have been taken from us because their stories were drowned out by rage and hostility, and this has to end.

There are verses throughout the Bible which talk about God calling us by name, about God engraving our names on a stone and giving it to us as a gift of love. And I think it’s important to say, on this day of remembrance, that God doesn’t dead name anyone, that proclaiming God knows our innermost being is a vital statement in a world where so many are dismissed or gaslit, that creation is a spectrum rather than a collection of binary oppositions. And we remember, through the weeping and the cries for justice, those an angry society failed to protect.

Scars and Remembrance

‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch

Remembrance Sunday 2021. Surrounded by flags and uniforms, medals pinned on civilian clothes, the local vicar’s words turn towards trauma: physical trauma, yes, the wounds carried in the bodies of service men and woman, but also the invisible trauma, the nightmares and flashbacks, the slow-burning scars that can take years to bleed, that can lead to imprisonment or homelessness. This is the invisible trauma, the trauma we don’t know what to do with. It’s often a silent wound, a not-knowing-where-to-turn, and while as a society we’re getting better at acknowledging it, we’re still not yet there.

Individuals evolve their own coping mechanisms. Some talk about it, formally or informally. Some lock it away in the quiet. Some turn it into art.   Others try to fight it. Others give up. We speak of war, we speak of service, of duty and honour, but the scars? The scars get buried in the statistics, uncovered mainly by over-stretched charities. Trauma runs through both our remembrance and our forgetfulness while veterans sleep in doorways and a not inconsiderable chunk of our GDP blows up in Yemen.

The Bible is a book that sees people living through vast amounts of trauma: slavery, exile, persecution, natural disasters. It records atrocities and violence, some of which seem to be rubber-stamped by God. No-one ever preaches on Lamentations but there it is, the record of a city destroyed, its warriors defeated, its survivors picking through the rubble. It’s a neglected part of the Bible but it’s there. Maybe that’s something to remember this Remembrance Day, that and the unspoken horrors that may be carried by the people sitting next to us in the pews, the nightmare-memories that maybe keep you up all night.

I wish I knew what to do with all this. The image that keeps recurring is the risen Jesus standing before Thomas, hands outstretched and covered with scars, because despite the miracle of resurrection the memory of crucifixion is still written on Christ’s body. There’s probably a profound theological point to be made around that, but maybe the image of scarred hands is enough for now as the sun goes down on another Remembrance Sunday. Embrace the victory, rebuild from defeat, but never forget the scars. Healing has to start by seeing the wounds in the first place.

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.