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.

The world is in financial and economic recession. Israel continues its violence against Gaza – to what possible end? Mugabe continues to disregard the world’s horror at his corruption and scorn for his people. Climate change cannot be ignored. There is a lot going on and everywhere I go people are asking hard questions about the future.

I was in a church in Croydon this morning and tried to bring together the insecurities of the real world into which ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and the one we inhabit. Wise men travelled to find what God’s own people missed and, at what we call Epiphany, allowed the light of a star to shine into the darkness of oppression, violence, paranoia and mendacity. (Read Matthew 2:1-12) We don’t know what 2009 will hold, but we do know there will have to be changes not only in the ways we live and the choices we make, but also in the values that drive us. The ‘blind growth’ view of economics is being weighed in the balance. And people feel very insecure about themselves, their ‘normality’ and the future of the world itself.

So, it might be timely to recall that Christian hope is rooted not in a system or a prognosis, but in a person. The God who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth is one who is unashamed to live with vulnerability and insecurity (a baby born in an obscure part of the Roman-occupied Middle East) and is unafraid to show the wounds of real life when the risen Christ holds up wounded hands and invites the world to touch them. This God is one who has refused to let the violence, destruction and death of the world have the final word – God has the final word and it sounds like ‘resurrection’.

This sober rumination has just reminded me of the great Beautiful South song that exposes:

A plastic world and we’re all plastic too
Just a couple of different faces in a dead man’s queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants but you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

Epiphany whispers light into a dark world and invites us to look for the God of substance beneath the veneers of security we crave.

This certainly puts into perspective matters such as the future of the Anglican Communion and those internal churchy matters which seem to fill some people’s lives and internet preoccupations. Having blogged the entire two weeks back in July/August 2008, I have just written a review of the Lambeth Conference six months on and it will appear on the Fulcrum website in the next couple of days. I will provide the link when I know what it is. But it all needs to be kept in sharp perspective as the sideshow it is to the real stuff of the Kingdom of God.