Monday, 23 December 2013

Down To Such A World As This: A Short Thought for Christmas Eve Eve

What's your favourite Christmas carol? There are some (pardon the pun) crackers. My two favourites are Of The Father's Heart Begotten  and  See Amid the Winter's snow. The former wins hands down on putting into beautiful words the heart of Christian faith, and the latter wins on capturing something of the joy and the mystery of the Christ-child. My favourite stanza of 'See Amid the Winter's Snow' is this:

Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was thine
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.

Down to such a world as this. Such as what, we might ask? Well, think back over this year. Over the next week or so, there will be all sorts of television programmes looking back over 2013; I predict that Andy Murray, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will feature heavily. Not to take the shine off a Brit winning the Men's Singles at Wimbledon or the birth of a royal heir, but there are countless other stories which won't be told in these retrospectives: happy stories of looking forward to holidays and fun evenings out with friends; everyday stories of getting up in the morning and going to work, looking after children and the elderly; grindingly hard stories of poverty, unemployment, illness and bereavement; heartbreaking stories of the real human experience of living in a war zone, of being a child soldier or a persecuted Christian fleeing one's home village in Syria or holding on to home in the grim knowledge that this decision might well mean death.

Down to such a world as this. This world, with its injustices and inequalities, with its tragedies and atrocities, with its starvation and its obesity, with its poverty and its hyper-consumerism, with its sadnesses and its joys, with its possibilities and its realities; this is where Christ is to be found.

The name spoken by the prophet, 'Emmanuel', the words of the angel to Mary, 'The Lord is with you', and the words of John, 'the word became flesh and dwelt among us,' all tell the story in which all human stories are given meaning and hope: the story that through all and in all, God is with us. With us because so great was his tender love that, risking the pain and hardships of human life and death, he came from highest bliss, down to such a world as this, so that in the midst of such a world as this, we might glimpse something of the highest bliss of heaven, and transform such a world as this by that vision.              

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Driving Home for Christmas: A Reflection on Isaiah 35

I'm not much of a Chris Rea fan, but at this time of year it's not easy to avoid Christmas pop music, and Rea's Driving Home for Christmas, with its easy-listening ambiance and its feelgood sense of anticipation of a warm homecoming, has won its place in the canon of festive greatest hits. As you listen, you can just imagine it; the frustration of the 'top to toe tailbacks' tempered by the hope that 'soon there'll be a freeway' and home will be within reach. If you're interested, here he is talking about how he wrote the song: 'It just felt Christmassy, you know.'  

One little line expresses something of just how deep the need to travel to a place which we know to be our true home is: 'get my feet on holy ground.' The American theologian Frederick Beuchner wrote a book called 'The Longing for Home', in which he simply states that 'joy is home.' It's joy, or the expectation of joy, that keeps Rea going through traffic jam; it's joy that has him singing at a standstill. Homecoming and holiness mingle as one; there is something holy about every homecoming, and holiness itself, the holiness that it is awareness of the presence of God in the midst of human life, is the deepest homecoming anyone could know.     

This week's Old Testament reading speaks of another road home, a highway not unlike Rea's freeway. Like Rea, the 'ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing'. Expressions of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon took on many forms in the fifth century BC and afterwards; here, in Isaiah, it is pictured as a singing homecoming. But it's not just the people who sing; the very landscape itself bursts into song, as Isaiah 35:1-2 has it: 'The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.' In this vision, the hills really are alive with the sound of music. But unlike in this famous song, the ground doesn't sing out because it is so verdantly beautiful that it can't but sing; it sings out because it is so parched and exhausted that its transformation into a route home is miraculous beyond any expectation. 

Much has been written about what it means to be in spiritual exile, to be far from home. It's a potent image, especially for a generation who are so likely to have moved around a bit, like I have. Maybe, though, it's one of those metaphors that only makes sense if you know instantly,instinctively, what it's getting at, if you know somewhere hidden within how far from home you've strayed. I suspect that for such people, home is much closer than we think. 

Christmas is a time for homecoming, and, just like Chris Rea in his car, we might feel as if spiritually, we are stuck in a traffic jam with no sign of it clearing. But this passage from Isaiah tells us that there is a freeway up ahead, and it is to be found in the least promising of places, in the dry and difficult places in our lives. Take that road, the prophet encourages us, and joy and gladness will find you; sorrow and sighing will flee away. Maybe you might catch yourself humming on the way.    

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Christmas Mystery, or the Christmas Gimmicry..?

What a Christmassy weekend I'm having. In between the Christmas Tree Festival at the lovely little church up the hill, all glowing and twinkling and mulled wine and smiley welcomes, the Winter Wonderland at the primary school with its turkey sandwiches, the chance to win back the sweets you donated a month ago and our stratch choir singing carols in more-or-less SATB parts, the putting up of the Christmas tree and the decking of halls at home, the carol service at the church up the windy road, and the quiet little Eucharist I'll be celebrating later on this morning, an oasis of still among all the festive activity, there are Christingles. Lots and lots of Christingles! The children were put to work constructing them in the church hall yesterday morning, and this afternoon two of the churches will be all about Christingles as The Children's Society gets its annual huge, sweet-encrusted orangey publicity and fundraising moment. 
This last week, Christingles have occupied an inordinate and completely disproportionate amount of my brainspace. Last year, I am told, I did quite a good talk, which the children still remember. (It was an idea I filched from someone.) So, this year, the stakes had to be raised. It may or may not surprise you to hear that on Monday evening I was trawling websites for Christingle-related ideas, that on Tuesday I was Googling 'giant inflatable orange', with hilarious but ultimately unhelpful consequences, and that on Wednesday morning I was doing exactly the same thing with a colleague, with exactly the same results (what it is that they say about madness?) We searched high and low for the elusive Christingle costume and / or the styrofoam Christingle of years past. Then we started talking about complicated ideas involving ribbons and, unfathomably to me at least, a huge cross. By Thursday I gave up, went to the craft shop and bought some orange paint and a brand new styrofoam ball and some lollypop sticks. Even then, something seemed not quite right, as though the most important thing about the talk I was to give on Sunday afternoon was still, infuriatingly just beyond my grasp even after all this thinking. 

Then, on Friday morning, at Morning Prayer, we read Isaiah. 'These people come near to me with their mouths', the prophet said, 'and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote' (Isaiah 28:13). That's the thing about prophets, you see; they quite literally say it as they see it. It's easy to palm this prophetic insight off onto someone else, to say that it's those people who say the same liturgy week in, week out who are guilty as charged, or that it's those people who sing the same worship choruses week in, week out who are at fault. Of course, the reason why it's so tempting to dismiss this prophecy about being about someone else is because it's really quite uncomfortable to allow ourselves to accept that yes, this might be about us, and recognising that the trap of allowing worship to become a string of words we say while we're thinking about our lunch, or about Christmas shopping or about anything other than the words we are saying is a very easy one to fall into. If we've been around churches for any length of time, we've been there ourselves, probably on a regular basis. One friend told me yesterday that her children were bemoaning having to hear the Christmas story a-gaaaain; 'We know about this! We know all about the shepherds!' 

So, what do we do, as church ministers, about this condition? We do exactly what I've spent much of the last week doing, and we come up with gimmicks.  Giant inflatable oranges, costumes, stryofoam and sweets - surely that'll catch their attention, stop them drifting away, eh? The bigger, the more outlandish, the sillier, the better! Admittedly, the prophets weren't averse to a gimmick or two of their own, if Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea are anything to go by. But the difference is that the prophets spoke into the heart of what they saw, their actions being the servant of the words, whereas the temptation for me, and other ministers, is to suppose that all we need is the gimmick, and then we'll be home and dry. And of course, on any level, this strategy is doomed to failure. This is so partly because the children of 2013 have grown up with Nintento Wii and LazyTown and let's face it, there's no way I can compete with Sportacus (although that would be a sight to behold, admittedly for all the wrong reasons). 

More cuttingly, this strategy is doomed because contrary to my own knee-jerk reactions, it doesn't get close to solving the problem. Isaiah got it in one; 'their hearts are far from me.' Much as I am not keen on slogans (a bit too gimmicky for my liking), one evangelist put it like this: 'the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.' The problem isn't that children get bored easily and need to be kept entertained, or that numbers of people coming to church have dropped off a bit and we need to do something spectacular to bring them back; the problem is, and always has been, that our hearts are far from God, 'prone to wander' as the hymn puts it. 

If we put it like that, things start to look a bit different. I start to see that my job as a minister is not to come up with an even better gimmick than last year's, it's to help people to enter into the mystery of Christmas, the wondrous worship of Jesus as 'God-with-us'. It's to enter more deeply into the faith that, as Irenaeus of Lyons and other early Christians wrote, 'that which He [i.e. Jesus] has not put on He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved'; in other words, by becoming human flesh and blood, Jesus lifts all human flesh and blood to the heights of heaven and redeems all human flesh and blood that is hurt and hurting in sin. By taking on the human heart, Jesus is able to save the heart of the human problem.   That is the real antidote to the ongoing problem of a humanity whose hearts are far from God. 

So this afternoon, at our Christingle service, I hope that people come and that the children will enjoy it and not get bored. I hope that no-one whispers 'it was better last year.' I hope that the sytrofoam Christingle I've constructed (with a little help from my children)  will be big enough to be seen my everyone, that the music will be lovely (as I'm sure it will) and that the service will go well. But most of all I hope that among all the dolly mixtures and fire hazards, that we will be drawn to the Jesus, the God-with-us who is, and who can only be the answer to the heart of the human problem, the problem of the human heart, who alone can walk with us the path of human life and lead us to God. Then I'll have done my job.