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?

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The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

But while the days are getting longer and light breaks through in the dark, the nights still feel long. Last week a young man froze to death on the streets of Birmingham. People with disabilities are unable to fully participate in society because of, among other things, a lack of adequate toilet facilities. Around 20% of people in the UK live in poverty. The light in the darkness often looks more like a flickering candle than a healing sunrise.

Advent is the anticipation of two sacred narratives: the coming of Christ in the manger, and the realisation of the Kingdom of God to come. Which can leave us in a chronological limbo – we celebrate the past, we look forward to the future, but what does that all mean for the here and now? It’s hard to celebrate when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; it’s hard to look forward to a better tomorrow when your family is being torn apart.

And so Advent is nearly at an end for another year, but where does that leave us? Are we changed as a result? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Because if we’re looking back to one Incarnation, and looking forward to another, then there’s got to be another kind of incarnation in the middle, an attempt to help the Kingdom of God break through. And that’s down to us. Sometimes it’s about leveraging our privilege, sometimes it’s insurrectionary, sometimes it’s just about being decent to each other, but it’s down to us to cry out for justice and to fill the food banks and to protest and listen and welcome and love.

(And the fact that the ‘Homeless Jesus‘ statues that top and tail this post remain so controversial shows us how far we have to go.)

That’s not just for Advent, although in the depths of winter it takes on a new urgency. Maybe Advent isn’t just a countdown, it’s a way of starting the new year right. Things don’t change overnight, after all, it takes time for green shoots to emerge from cracks in the pavement.

But in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I need to remember that as we emerge from the anticipation of Advent to the hope of Christmas. That the presence of God is still here, and that it can work through us to make a difference in a world that aches and wars.

 

(More posts for Advent 2017 can be found here.)

Halfway Out of the Dark

halfway out16:28, and the sun has set on the shortest day. The night ahead is long, the longest for another year. The shadows close in, winter nipping at our toes. We know the science behind all this, the way the Earth turns, climate and orbits and axial tilting. We know all this, but sometimes metaphor is mightier than mechanics.

That’s why, down through the ages, so many communities have celebrated on the solstice; Korochun and Dongzhi, Yalda and Yule. As the longest night draws in, people come together and eat and light candles and fires and look forward to the lengthening of the day. We talk and in the candlelight we look forward to being halfway out of the dark, as an episode of Doctor Who once put it.

 Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, or the 21st (the scholar Michael Heiser speculates that Christ’s actual birthday could be September 11th, which in retrospect is disconcerting). But the early Church decided to celebrate at this time of year anyway, until the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar divorced December 25th from the Solstice. Some quarters of the Church celebrate Blue Christmas today, a time to remember those we’ve lost over the previous twelve months. There’s a wisdom in holding this during the longest night

We picture Jesus being born at night in the midst of tribulation – poverty and scandal, occupation and oppression. The Empire forces a heavily pregnant women to make a rough journey, and when they arrive there’s no room at the inn. It’s still Advent, so we can’t get into the slaughter and the exile that come next, but they’re out there, lurking in the dark. The contemporary echoes of this dance around us, their shadows wrapping us in cold hopelessness. I wake up at night and find myself worrying – if government bureaucracy doesn’t get me then North Korea will.

But the darkness doesn’t win. It feels trite saying this amid the anxiety of waiting for another shoe to drop, but I have to hold on to that hope, even if that’s with bloody fingernails. Maybe that’s why I’ve accidentally been writing about Advent from the margins, why I’ve been focusing on the women and the workers and the ones left behind. Maybe that’s where hope is found, not because they have an intrinsic uniqueness, but because these are the groups who’ve had to cultivate hope.

Candle-And as I think about this, I remember the forgotten Nativity, the cosmic Christmas portrayed in John’s Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness,” wrote John, “And the darkness has not overcome it.” While I’m thinking of the stable this year, I also need to remember how the Light of the World intersects with the straw and dirt and crap of a world where too many Empires and Supremacies are screaming to hold on to their power. But as they scream let this year be an apocalyptic nativity, an unveiling not only of the evil that surrounds us and the toxins that infect us, but of a Light, a Hope, a Baby, a Messiah, a reminder that, if you’re halfway out of the dark you keep walking towards the Light.

 

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.)

God vs. Defensive Architecture (update)

spikesUrban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral a while back. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.

tree-spike-1

We saw this again this week, when the Independent published a story about howhomeowners in Bristol have attached spikes to trees to stop birds from defecating on their cars. We’re manipulating our environment in an almost dystopian manner, weaponsing space to keep away unwanted animals, unwanted humans. Urban design needs its ‘swords into ploughshares’ moment.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we ‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature. And it would be wrong to say that this is entirely negative – here in the UK there are textured sections of pavement to help blind people and guide dogs cross the road, and my favourite piece of hidden design is a small gizmo on the underside of pelican crossings that rotates when the traffic lights change, thus alerting those who can’t hear the signal.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?