Christmas


This is the script of my address at the BBC Radio Leeds carol service recorded at Halifax Minster (with the same joke as in the Yorkshire Post piece. Sorry.

I made myself a snowball, 

As perfect as could be,

I thought I’d keep it as a pet,

And let it sleep with me.

I made it some pajamas,

And a pillow for its head,

Then last night it ran away,

But first – it wet the bed!

That was the Christmas poem by someone called Shel Silverstein. It gives new meaning to the phrase “missing the point”, but it made me laugh.

It also made me wonder what each of us thinks when the word ‘Christmas’ is heard – usually when the season begins some time in July. What are the associations in your head? Turkey, trees and tinsel? Presents pies and pudding? Family, fairies and fun?

Well, it could be anything, couldn’t it? Given my job, the first thing that comes into my mind is carols, cake and christingles. Swiftly followed by sleep after all the services.

Anyway, however you celebrate Christmas, and whoever you celebrate it with, the story at the heart of it all – familiar though it is – still has the power to surprise, encourage and challenge us. Just as a choir of angels disturbed the peace in the little town of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Christmas sneaks into our imagination, gets behind our defences, and leaks light into the darkness. Like earth being surprised by heaven.

So, just as we are getting used to the notion that the world is falling apart – that Christmas in Yemen might not be much fun this year, for example – Christmas defiantly demonstrates that violence and power do not actually have the final word in this world. As the Gospel of John puts it: “the light has come into the world and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Yet, even so, in the face of such defiant hope, we can too easily miss the point. Let me tell you a story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write a note to Jesus. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” But, he knew this was a bit of a fib. So, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

But, Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God – and we certainly can’t threaten God. Because Christmas offends all sense of justice and tit-for-tat calculations of goodness. Read the gospels and see that Christmas is about grace and generosity – the light of God penetrating the darkness and refusing to be suppressed by misery, backstabbing, inducements or deals. No! Christmas makes the outrageous claim that however dark the world, however dark my life, however deep in the dirt I find myself, God refuses to distance himself from us, and comes to where we are.

In other words, it is physical. Christians talk about ‘incarnation’ – meaning that God declines to remain ‘a good idea somewhere out there’ and comes among us as one of us: human, flesh and blood, vulnerable as a baby in a mucky manger, subject to all the world can throw at any human being. No exemption from suffering and injustice, no protection from hard questions and tough temptations, no hiding place from reality. God among us – one of us.

Now, this could just remain a nice idea. Or it can take flesh in us. As we sing the carols and re-tell the story, we can let the snowball of hope melt our hardness and leave its mark on our life.

Happy Christmas!

This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

This is the text of an article written for the Yorkshire Post about the meaning of Christmas:

When we say that someone is 'down to earth', we usually mean that they are straightforward, unpretentious, with no airs and graces. Their feet are planted on terra firma, and they cannot be accused of being above themselves (or anybody else, for that matter). Being 'down to earth', therefore, is a good thing – something we recognise by its absence in some people's language, behaviour or demeanour.

So, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is about as 'down to earth' as you can get. Christmas might be about many things, but it is above all about God not exempting himself from the realities of the world, but opting in to all the world can throw at him (and us). Christmas is fundamentally a celebration of God being down to earth.

Now, this will sound uncomfortable to some and inconvenient to others. After all, isn't God there to be worshipped and feared? Haven't we already got God taped – if not only in order to dismiss what we don't like about religion?

Well, Christmas is supposed to surprise us – something our familiarity with various popular presentations of the Nativity militates against. But, it is meant to break across our fixed views of the world and the way it is, opening our imagination to a new way of seeing God, the world and us. It is meant to subvert our expectations of how the world inevitably has to be, inviting us to look differently, see differently and live differently in the world as it is.

Go back to the original story. God doesn't explode on an unsuspecting planet at the place of most political significance and compel everybody to turn their eyes to the great event. Most people in Palestine have no idea what is going on. That is part of the irony – the surprising and subverting. And, when it comes to it, it is outsiders – the 'great unwashed' shepherds and pagan foreigners – who are first to have their eyes opened to the mystery born in obscurity in a remote and troublesome corner of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the first Christmas draws the 'wrong people' to Jesus. Not the pious, the prepared, the priests or the pretentious, but those who don't 'belong' and those who least expect to be included. Or, as I once put it (and got into huge trouble with the media for daring to do so), the first Christmas should have led to the singing of “O come, all ye faithless…”.

Now, our familiarisation with Christmas, the sentimentalising of our consumer culture and our commercialisation of the celebration, have removed the Jesus of Bethlehem from the real world to somewhere more containable (where we don't have to worry about him growing up into a politically troublesome adult). In doing so, we allow the story itself to become rootless in the real world. And this is problematic.

So, consider this. The baby of Bethlehem was born into a world in which life was very cheap and expectations very limited. This world was dominated by a military power that ordered every part of life and society and dealt brutally with those who challenged its hegemony. The land into which the baby was born was occupied and its people humiliated. Under threat of persecution and death, the baby and his family fled to another country, becoming refugees and asylum seekers in a land whose very name (Egypt) represented slavery, misery and hopelessness. Terrorist groups emerged from the hill country of the north from time to time, bringing death and destruction to those places where the Roman forces exercised their power.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? A world of insecurity and threat. Not a million miles from a world of ISIS, terrorism, fear and uncertainty.

Well, this baby would grow into the man who defied all power and denied all fear by inviting people to think again (or 'repentance' as it is sometimes known). What if there was to be a people who were not driven by fear, but drawn by hope? What if we could be down to earth, but not bound by earth? What if, while remaining rooted in and committed (body, mind and soul) to this world, we could be free to sit lightly to our status and dignity, our security and self-fulfilment, loving our neighbour as ourself and putting their interests before our own? What might this world look like? What would a society like this lead to?

This is basically what Christmas is all about. God doesn't wait for us to get our act together and sort out our integrity before coming to him with a plan. Rather, God takes the initiative, coming among us as one of us and, ultimately, opening his arms to us in an embrace that absorbs all that the world can throw at him, but without throwing it back.

And this is the point of getting to a church for a carol service. I love the aesthetics of candle light and familiar carols. But, what the church is actually doing – well or badly, but always fallibly – is to create a space, for an hour or two, during which we can be confronted afresh by the mystery of God's surprise – that even God is down to earth, right where we are.

A friend pointed me to this today and I thought it was quite funny:

Boxing Day has brought – for some bizarre and inexplicable reason – to my memory songs by the Beautiful South and Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott. Heaton manages to write poetically of a culture that has become plastic – artificially coloured water instead of a full-bodied red wine.

The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun – with Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

A bit pessimistic? Or a reasonable judgement on a culture that allows itself to be anaesthetised by ‘stuff’ and sentimentality to the extent that reality (as most people on the planet experience it) is avoided?

Today is St Stephen’s Day in the Christian calendar. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and his story is told in Acts chapters 6 and 7. He got stoned for telling an unpopular narrative of God, Jesus and the world. He didn’t go looking for death, but he didn’t duck it when it came.

What matters here is simply that Stephen saw life in the context of eternity. Not everlasting life (in terms of time and years), but life in all its depth and quality – life that can be given up because death does not have the final word: that belongs to the God of resurrection who spoke life into being (“Let there be…”) in the first place and yet enters into the heart of death, loss and horror without a hint of romanticism.

It used to bother me that Christmas Day was followed by this day of martyrdom – a phenomenon that seemed utterly remote as a possibility in the placid days of my youth. Today, however, Christians are being slaughtered in deliberate persecution across the globe. Martyrdom has become a very modern practice – a very inconvenient one for western liberal sensibilities, according to which religion was to be seen only as some anodyne analgesic for helping feeble people limp through life.

The baby of Bethlehem would grow into the man of Calvary and the empty tomb. We move in one day from the dependent baby (Jesus) to the man (Stephen) who had to choose and take responsibility for his choice. One day the baby would be the man who had to choose – and who would make it clear that his followers would face the same choices. For many Christians today the choice is neither notional nor merely ‘spiritual’; it is real, imminent and immensely costly.

I am not sure we have begun to take on board the enormity of this costly discipleship. But, the Christian calendar – by accident or design – confronts us not only with a biblical figure, but with the challenge to our own response to mortality and eternity.

This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Later this morning I shall make my way over to Bradford for a carol concert at the Cathedral. Every year the cathedral is packed, but not just with the usual suspects. As every cathedral experiences, the place will bring together people of all ages, a variety of backgrounds, and a range of faiths and cultures. And at the heart of the event will be a common cause: the reality of reconciliation between people of difference in a place of worship of a God who takes us seriously.

This carol concert is just one of those events that forge strong relationships during the good times in order to hold the weight and pressure of the testing times. Here we see a variety of people in an exciting and hopeful city coming together for a short time, but in mutual respect, friendship and – even – love.

I guess this is what is now happening in Glasgow following the tragedy in the centre of the city on Monday. The shock is now giving way to the grief that weeps its way out of the wounds that can’t be avoided. People have died, others are seriously injured, many are suddenly bereaved … and the numbness can no longer protect from a necessary mourning. As it has in the not-so-distant past, Glasgow will no doubt see a coming together of very diverse people, united in pain and loss.

But, as in all such tragedies, some people will look for some order from the chaos – or some sense that defies the apparent meaninglessness of death. But, what is there to say when words seem inadequate?

Christmas provides a unique context in which to bring people together in this way. The carols and readings tell the story of how God comes among us as one of us – not waiting for us to sort it all out. Strip away all the tinsel and shopping and we are left with raw humanity and a Christmas story that is neither romantic nor pain-free. The baby of Bethlehem is born into a land under brutal military occupation in which life is cheap. His birth brings together an unlikely group of people to share the experience and see in this baby the hope they have been longing for. Yet, even the rumour of this birth results in infanticide unleashed by a paranoid King. The family quickly become refugees in a strange land. The baby grows into the man who ends up dead, arms open in embrace for a world that can throw at him what it will, and he won’t throw it back.

Christmas, then, is about God opting right into the mess and injustices of the world as we know it. No exemptions for God – or us. There are no equitable scales of loss: the loss of a loved one changes the world for ever and each loss is unique.

But, our mortality does not have the final word. Even here, we can find ourselves drawn by hope, and not driven by fear.

This is the text of a commissioned article published yesterday in the Yorkshire Post.

“God surprises earth with heaven!”

Now, that would be the sort of headline that might provoke either interest or ridicule. At any time of year it would sound odd. Yet, that is what Christmas is essentially all about.

In the tweet generation, when everything has to be expressed concisely, it doesn't tell the whole truth about everything, and it doesn't pretend to close down all argument. Instead, it opens up the mind and the imagination to the possibility of surprise.

The rumour abroad is that Christians either want to spoil the fun of Christmas for themselves and everyone else, or endlessly bang on about a fairy story in which God and Santa Claus suffer an identity crisis. Neither is true – as any actual experience would confirm.

Christians just want to hang on to the reason for the season; but, they want to do so with all the celebration we can manage. And why? Because, having spent the four weeks of Advent preparing – opening our minds and hearts to the coming mystery of God's surprising presence among us – we want to let joy erupt through the present darknesses and fill our life with light.

Which brings us back to tweeting and surprise. How do we express something of the mystery, challenge, joy, celebration, misery of Christmas in simple sentences that can be understood … but that scratch away at the back of the mind and awaken our curiosity? The discipline of tweeting helps.

For example, in a country that faces an obesity epidemic in the face of supermarkets that waste thousands of tonnes of food every week, too many people go hungry. Not a little bit peckish, but hungry. Children turn up at school unfed. Parents with several low-paid jobs between them are humiliated into using foodbanks, feeling they have let themselves and their children down. And the same people feel the commercial pressure to buy the 'right' things whatever the cost. How might we reflect this in 140 characters? “No room at the inn? Room for everyone in church – where all will be loved.”

This Advent and Christmas the churches across many of our Yorkshire towns and cities have been running, hosting and resourcing shelters for homeless people. They have made space for medical attention and changes of clothing. They have opened up their sacred spaces for camp beds, kitchens and care. These have been staffed by volunteers, and in several cases food has been provided by local mosques. Without shouting about it – and with no ulterior motives – churches have been making real something of the mystery of Christmas: “God with us, God among us, God one of us, God for us.”

And it is here that we are brought back to the element of surprise that has escaped many at Christmas. We have been anaesthetised by the saccharine of Christmas kitsch into accepting our role as advertising fodder and consumers of stuff. Yet, pop out of home and shops into the unfamiliar place where the story is re-told by people you know and see every day, and see if there might be the slightest glint of surprise. Is there anything in the Christmas narrative – even in the school nativity play, full of sheep, towels and the odd intrusive alien – that opens us to a glimpse of something bigger and deeper?

For example, we just accept that in the original gospel stories there are shepherds and wise men. OK, despite the obvious time gap between their appearances, we lump them together in the stable in Bethlehem and don't think any more about it. Yet, shepherds were the workers in the fields – managing and defending with their life the sheep they didn't own – and the Magi were foreign astrologers. In some cases shepherds did the dirty work with the animals so that their bosses could attend to their religious duties and keep themselves clean. Magi came searching in (for them) strange places and, finding their pilgrimage's end in a slum rather than a palace, then discovered just how dangerous being an immigrant traveler can be: the local power brokers tried to have them dealt with.

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? So much for human progress in the two thousand years since then – especially when it comes to our treatment of 'foreigners'. We too easily think God (and our satisfaction) must be found in places of holiness and cleanliness, of brightness and comfort; yet, Christmas tells us that God meets us where we are, in the places of agony and muckiness, of loneliness and fear, and welcomes first those whose curiosity leads them from the familiar places of security into the places of risky vulnerability.

And this goes to the heart of Christmas. We can celebrate with joy only when we are open to surprise – not only the surprise of God coming among us as one of us, but the risk that he might still do so through us to those who are still the most vulnerable in our society. And that includes our neighbours whose loneliness or fear might be hidden from us by the veneer of sufficiency.

I think Christmas is about “being drawn by hope and not driven by fear”. It is about “the Christmas presence you've always wanted”. At Christmas “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe” (Bruce Cockburn) as “the eternal breaks through into time – and time bleeds into eternity”. Here “the light mugs the darkness and there's nothing the darkness can do about it”. Like the shepherds, it is about “hearing songs of light in the nighttime of fear” and “daring to dance in this world to a tune that haunts us from another”.

As “hope looks despair in the eye … and doesn't blink first,” may this Christmas be happy and holy.

 

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