Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 24

We didn’t just turn up and sing, you know.
We rehearsed for ages –
through Ages -
learning our parts:
the cherubim sopranos,
seraphim altos,
angel tenors,
archangel basses;
going over and over –
we younger ones needing to learn
how to process from heaven
carrying starlight
without setting fire to the wings in front of us.
I was the cherub soloist,
charged with the opening lines:
did you think that such a task would be
given to an archangel?
I am much older now;
and can no longer reach those highest notes –
does it surprise you that we angels age?
Much slower than you do, of course;
but yes, we too experience growth through time.
Again and again
we filed across the starry sky;
sometimes someone below caught half
a glimpse, or snatches of our song,
and tried forever after to join in.
But for the most their fellows thought them mad,
or they turned mad in trying to complete the song.
And when the night came,
how we sang! A song
the like of which earth had not heard
since that great day when
it was sung into creation –
oh yes, God sang –
nor has heard since,
though every word still resonates
through time and space.
Some hear it still, and still join in
caught up in joy that defies understanding.
For songs are not for playing back,
as if you were a lifeless tool:
songs are for breathing life into
and sending on.
Songs are for living.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 23

Just as suddenly as it appeared, the angel vanished.

But – can you hear the lingering echo of its refrain?

Glory to God in the highest heavens!
And peace to the inhabitants of the earth below!

For God’s favour towards you
has found expression
in his very Self coming to you,
resting in your midst,
in the form of a sleeping baby.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 22

Angel spotted close to Sunderland Minster, visiting the revellers in The Lambton Worm pub.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 21

Joseph, the Southern lad, returns home with his Northern bride.

We don’t know whether that is ‘home’ to his mum and dad, or ‘home’ to more distant relatives: it matters not – either way, they are welcomed in. It is inconceivable within the Code of Middle Eastern family that it should be otherwise.

The small guest room does not have enough room.

We don’t know whether that is not enough room for Joseph and Mary to sleep in, because there were already other guests; or simply not enough room for Mary to give birth in – that they stayed in the guest room, but she laboured in the main room, the room the family and their animals slept in, altogether.

But we do know that this is a familiar story.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 20

Christmas carols. Love them or hate them (and I will confess, I love singing carols), theologically they contain more dung than comes out of the back end of a donkey and three camels combined. In particular, the sentimental mirroring between Jesus being born in a stable (he wasn’t) and his being ‘born in our hearts today.’

As Andrew Perriman points out, the story the New Testament tells about Jesus is that, having suffered and been vindicated, he is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, having been given authority to judge the nations. When the New Testament speaks of Christ, or the Spirit of Christ, being ‘in us,’ what is being conveyed is this: that we should expect to identify with and share in his vulnerability, his suffering, setting aside any claim to earthly power or privilege. And that famous image from Revelation, of Jesus standing at the door and knocking, is not an image of Jesus knocking at the door of the heart, but at the door of a community of believers.

The good news that the angels proclaim to the shepherds is political in nature, not one of private personal piety. It is this: that the powers that rule over their lives harshly will not continue to do so for ever, for God has acted to save his people. This is worth celebrating.

The not-so-evidently-good news is this: that until what was set in motion in that manger is completed, those who hope in that day must fully associate themselves with all that was done to that child. The warm welcomes, the self-interested demands, the misunderstanding hopes, the false accusations, the abuse, the torture, the taking of his life. But this too is not primarily about the individual but about the community: and the continuation of the good news is that the One who suffered at the hands of powerful men and was vindicated by God is with us; and his presence, by his Spirit, is our guarantee that after we, too, have suffered for and with him, we too will share in his vindication.

One of the things that has struck us as parents is that the stories we think will be too frightening for our children don’t scare them at all; whereas, often, things we imagine they will be fine with, really upset them. We might skirt around the massacre-of-the-innocents, and focus on the Christ-child-as-constant-companion; but children know that tyrants have always killed children, and are more likely to be disturbed by the spirit-baby-implanted-inside-them as curfew monitor: Big Brother is watching you…controlling, not comforting.

Perhaps we need to summon up our own courage, to muck out the steaming midden of sentimentality that surrounds Christmas, and to discover again the story that the Christmas angels tell.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 19

What’s with the census?

Some question its historicity, seeing it simply as a narrative device to explain how a child from Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, in order to show that Jesus fulfilled certain prophecies.

But if the Gospel writers are shaping a world that is meant to shape our imagination, if scripture is there to instruct those who revere it, then that is not an adequate explanation.

We need to ask, how are we to respond to this account?

The problem for many is that the census doesn’t make sense to us. If the Romans wanted to collect data on the peoples they ruled over, data which would help them to maximise the effect of deploying limited resources, a finite number of legions, then you would want to know where people were living. You would not organise mass migration, with its potential to destabilise the Pax Romana. Joseph would register in Nazareth, possibly as ‘Joseph, from Bethlehem’ (then you could track population movement).

Our problem exists because we read the account from the perspective of the powerful.

From that perspective, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But what if we were to turn the census on its head, and read the account from the perspective of the oppressed?

What if this is a story about a people movement? What if this is a story of an occupied and oppressed people saying to themselves, We might not be able to stop them counting us, but we can try to ensure that the data they collect is absolutely useless to them…?

What if this is a story about civil disobedience; about defiance; about bricolage – taking something intended as a strategy of control and co-opting it as a tactic of subversion?

And what if this is a story of how God joins in – joins in with civil disobedience as a grassroots response to oppression? Of God adding his weight to the cause?

If that was a story – a fundamental, at-the-very-heart-of-it-all story – passed on to shape our imagination, then what tyranny might be frustrated by those who tell and retell the story of Jesus’ birth year on year?

Here’s to the unreasonable ones, the uncooperative ones, the subversive ones – the ones God can and does use to change the world.

Then again…

Perhaps this is not a global census. Perhaps it is a local census, decreed by Herod, the local dictator backed by Rome; a census of the kind that will rise to the level of first-importance later, under Quirinius. And perhaps Joseph registers in Bethlehem because that is where he lives; perhaps he had only travelled to Nazareth to conduct the arrangements for his marriage to Mary. Later, when they return from political exile from Herod in Egypt, he intends first to go to his town, before deciding it will be safer to return to hers.

Perhaps this isn’t a story of defiance. Perhaps it is a story of a people so burdened by layers of injustice that they have no defiance left. Perhaps it is into this situation that God sends a saviour.

Perhaps our imagination might be shaped to go to those who are resigned to their lot, who have lost sight of hope?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 18

Why the shepherds?

Why does God send an angel, tramping across the hills by starlight, to carry a message to this band of night-shift workers?

Why do they get an additional host of angels, marching, under cover of darkness, across the sky?

Some say it is because God seeks out the marginalised. And there may be some truth in that. But God seeks out all of his children; and perhaps it is truer to say that the powerful prefer the darkness while the poor, knowing how dark it is – how it hides their suffering from the eyes of the world – are more open to welcoming light…

No, I think there is another reason why, of all the village peasants, the shepherds must be fetched down from the hills.

This is the story of the restoration of the house of David. This is the key. When God chose David to be king, he was a young boy charged with looking after his father’s sheep. When Samuel sends news to Jesse, to gather all his sons, for the prophet comes to worship God with them, David – the very son Samuel is sent to anoint king – is overlooked. Out on the hills, watching over the sheep.

He must be summoned – and even then, he’s only recalled to mind, and recalled home, when every other son has been ruled out.

So when God sends news to David’s hidden son, Joseph, to gather his family at the ancient family home; in order that a son may be anointed king –

not crowned, not yet, for first will come the hidden years; the crowning will come after suffering, and in Jerusalem –

when God sends this good news, the shepherds of the town of David must be fetched home.

They are the guests of honour. Their presence represents David, some-time shepherd of Bethlehem, at the birth of the heir to his throne.

It could not be allowed to come to pass without them.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 17

In the Prologue to the Gospel According to John, we read this:

‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…’ (John 1:11, 12)

and taking these words with Luke’s account that:

‘…she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2:7)

we hear John as saying: When he was born, his own kin refused him; but to those who later received him – to his disciples, who believed in his name – he gave power to become children of God.

But, listening, we do not hear; and seeing, we do not perceive.

John’s Prologue is his nativity account. Luke focuses on what took place; John, on What Took Place when what took place, took place. According to John, when the light shone in the darkness, some hid in the dark and some were drawn to the light.

The inn is an unhelpful poor translation: it is not the motel (as in, where the Good Samaritan took the bandit-battered traveller to recuperate), but the guest room of a home (as in, the upper room where Jesus celebrated one last Passover meal with his disciples). When Joseph and his pregnant wife turn up, the guest room of his relative’s home is already full; and so they are welcomed into the room the family slept in; a room in which the animals were also kept at night, penned in at one end; their manger, filled with clean straw, being a fantastic impromptu crib.

There is rejection in the nativity accounts, and it is found in Matthew’s telling: Herod, and the power-holding elite in Jerusalem, presented with the light shining in the darkness – by star, and prophecy – draw back into the shadows, where their true motives might be concealed.

But this is also the story of those who received Jesus. And, in particular, they were Joseph’s family: the long-since dis-empowered heirs of the House of David. And they are restored as children of God, not on the basis of their heredity or illustrious ancestor but on the basis of God’s promise to David.

God is about to move to restore all things. The ripples will spread throughout the universe, let alone the world. But they will begin – as God’s moves to restore all things always begin – with a particular family with whom he makes a covenant alliance.

Not everything is black-and-white. Not everything is a binary choice. But here, John presents us with just such a choice. This is not a story of rejection, which allows us to sit over the account, in judgement of others. It is a story where some choose the darkness, and some choose the light: and we are presented with making the same choice – if not by the end of the Prologue, certainly by the end of the Gospel…

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 16

If I were to offer a definition of the term ‘saint,’ it would be this:

someone who has set out to discover their identity, or to forge their place in the world;

only to be met by God - or by God’s messenger, God-in-disguise – who holds out to them their true identity, within which they will find their deepest, fullest expression;

and they embrace it.

And in embracing the gift of themselves, as gift, they are made holy – set apart for God’s purposes in and through them, for the very thing they were given to contribute.

As God works to bring vibrant, inter-connected life out of chaos, a saint is not someone whose life is without mess. They are not an ‘ideal idea,’ a story that the story-teller could get round to writing some day if she were so inclined: they are marks on pages, sometimes smooth and at other times jagged.

The invitation tends to come when all seems lost – not often to the very young, unless they have already suffered loss beyond their years – for only then have we become bold enough to dare into truth; and only then have we become weak enough to let truth dare into us.

The messenger – the postman who delivers our true self? A vision, of Christ upon the cross, or of his mother. An angel, wings unfurled, or wings concealed. A leper. A dying child in a not-God-forsaken slum. At times they come in finery; more often, clothed in poor man’s tattered coat, all but incoherent. Even a ‘brute’ animal, for all creation sings the defiant song of God’s salvation in the night.

Joseph is not a saint because he is prepared to offer Mary and Jesus a roof over their heads. He is a saint because, having set out to construct the life of a builder, and only dream of the past-glories of his ancestors, he embraces the invitation to become David’s true son and build a home on earth for our true Home.

And what of you? And what of me?

When will we be held-out our true selves? And how will we respond?

And what of an entire region, which, having a proud past – right pride, the stuff of boldness – and having suffered great loss – the closure of the pits and shipyards – receives a visitation from an Angel of the North?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 15

There will come a day when Jesus will
feed a multitude with a picnic,
and then instruct his disciples
to gather up the broken pieces in
twelve baskets.
Within those baskets lies the meaning:
as God gave manna in the wilderness
to a people newly free,
so God has set his people free again;
moreover, only on the day before the Sabbath
were they to store up manna for tomorrow,
and so these baskets announce
the advent of God’s rest,
an invitation to enter in;
yet more, the twelve who gather-up
are, in-so-doing, commissioned,
not only as disciples but fathers of the tribes,
long torn asunder, swept away,
but gathered now from east and west
and north and south.
But for now, Joseph,
gathering-up the torn-and-scattered
fragment-hopes-and-dreams into
the dream-weaver’s basket;
seeking to make sense.
And so the angel comes
not as to Zechariah or to Mary or to shepherds –
bearing a news for which they need to know
they did not dream it – in physical form;
but to the place where Joseph works
to process meaning:
enters his dream…
and in that unseen place
anoints this son of David
hidden king –
the very thing his son in time
will hang for.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 14

Where’s Joseph? Often, so far in the background, he’s not even in the frame.

But Joseph is every bit as central to this story as is Mary.

It is because he is the son of Joseph that Jesus is counted Son of David. But if we are to verify his ancestry, then Joseph must be shown to be a true son of David, centuries after the Davidic royal house has provided a ruler for God’s people.

The coronation psalm composed for the Davidic line has God declare, “Today I have declared you are my son.” The king is God’s son, by adoption. And adoption is no second-best to a conceived son. An adopted son is a son, with the full rights of any son. Indeed, this God is insistent that the widow and the orphan be cared for. David himself marries widows, and adopts the sole surviving heir of Saul’s family. In adopting Jesus, Joseph takes him as his own. God adopted David’s family line; and when God in turn was in need of adoption, in Joseph, David’s family line holds true to the covenant made between God and his offspring and David and his descendants.

David wanted to build a house, a home on earth, a resting-place for God. God’s response was that this was not what he asked of David, but that his son would build the temple. Solomon is charged with building God’s first home. Joseph, the builder, is charged with creating a home for God-made-flesh, a shelter, both physically and relationally.

This humble builder is a true heir of the humble shepherd-boy, a king among men, recognised not by men – who look on the outside - but by God – who looks at the heart.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 13

Angels slide between
our weak constructions that divide
profane and holy
known and unknown
the waking-world and dream
earth and sky
reason and faith
heaven and earth
and back again:
whatever it takes
to get their message through.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 12

To the old man who, frail flesh-and-blood,
dares to step into
what he believes to be the most dangerously holy spot on earth;

to the almost-a-woman-now,
about to step across
the door between was-child and wife;

to the man of humble means
whose mind is set
to take upon himself the shame of breaking off his wedding;

to shepherds in the fields by night,
who sing their faltering courage up
and jump, adrenalin-alert, at every dark-distorted sound;

to people under occupation,
who face capricious whims
and posturing of Roman legions:

do angels say, “Don’t be afraid!” in order that their message might be heard;
or is the very message that they bring, “Fear not…”
Fear not,
for I AM with you.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 11


At his birth
he will be cradled
in outstretched arms, of women who wait
to clean his body, tenderly
wash away caked blood and soil,
and wrap him tightly-bound in linen strips
so he feels safe in this wide space;
then lay him gently in the carved-out rock.

How many times did you rehearse these moments in your mind, Mary?
Did you know then that when it came to pass
these actions were themselves preparing? For

At his death
he will be cradled
in outstretched arms, of women who wait
to clean his body, tenderly
wash away caked blood and soil,
and wrap him tightly-bound in linen strips
so he feels safe in this wide space;
then lay him gently in the carved-out rock.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 10


A cast of characters is being assembled,
must come together.
Two women, related, but of different generations,
each an expectant first-time mother;
two sons, who will be born just months apart,
destined to die – most violent deaths –
not too much more divided.
One gets a sense of urgency –
the energy of their rehearsals
the buzz of trying out –
if I stand here,
or take this prop –
the editing, honing the script,
the scene is set.
The time has almost come
to dim the lights,
take in the deep collective hush
and step onto the stage…

‘Past, present, and future woven together by a true master.’


Monday, December 09, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 9

God pushes at the boundaries, always wants to know what will happen if…

Let there be light! Sky! Land! Sea! Plants! Stars! Sea creatures! Flying creatures! Animals that live on land! Let there be creatures made in out likeness!

Like Mary.

The girl who talks back to an angel: you might be an expert in angel matters, but you don’t know very much about human bodies…

The mother who doesn’t take any nonsense from her son: I don’t care if you haven’t prepared a turn; this is a big social occasion, and no-one gets to just sit it out…

The woman who is not afraid to tell Jesus that he is losing his mind…

The woman who doesn’t care if you are a Roman centurion: that’s my son you are executing, and you’ll have to do it around me, because I am not stepping aside.
Mary pushes at the boundaries, always wants to know what will happen if…


Zechariah talks back to the angel, and is silenced. His motive is not inquisitiveness as to God’s permission-giving, life-releasing imagination, but hesitation: give me some guarantee. Mary, on the other hand, is all, I wonder what would happen if…well, no going back now!

Do not fear, said the angel.

I’m not afraid, replied Mary. Just momentarily overwhelmed by so many possibilities at once.

And then she composed herself, and said, Come on then, let’s go on an adventure.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 8

Gabriel, said God
I have another message that needs sent.
Go to the town of Nazareth, and there
you’ll find a most remarkable young girl,
exceptional among her peers.
She never fails to do exactly as she ought,
helps out her mother without thought
of playing with the other girls;
she never pulls her sister’s hair,
or hides her brother’s much-loved toy.
She sits apart and contemplates such worthy things.
In short, most tiresome.
Though, as I said, remarkable enough,
you’ll have no doubt you’ve found the girl.
And when you do,
you want next door.
Mary, a girl you would not pick out in a crowd,
a bubbling brook
of hopes and fears
of tears and laughter
of wide-eyed dreams and bright-eyed mischief;
in short, like any other.
If you can catch her eye, then let her know that she is chosen.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 7

As we shall see in the various angel accounts in the Gospel birth narratives, encounters with angels precipitate the humbling of the powerful and the lifting up of the powerless. And as none of us – however marginalised – are entirely without power, and as none of us – however hard we seek to protect our interests – are entirely without powerlessness, this results in an upheaval within. That which needs to be brought low, is brought low; and that which needs to be lifted up, is lifted up. All topsy-turvy.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 6

Zechariah’s words, spoken over his son –

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. –

spoken in response to his angel-encounter,

swirl through history until they settle on a child born in the Cape, in 1918 – a son on whom is laid the mantle Rolihlahla, ‘trouble-maker’…

When I was a child, my government told me that Mandela was a terrorist, a dangerous man who must not be free. When I became a man, he became an elder statesman to the world. We discovered that it was us who were in a prison cell, and he led us on a long walk to freedom.

How did we go from demonising this man to loving him? One repentant step at a time.

When I was a man, my government told me that bin Laden was a terrorist, a dangerous man who must not go free. But we killed him before we asked, from what prison cell might this deeply flawed man – as we all are – free us?

So when the British Prime Minister and American President praise Mandela, remember: Mandela opened the door to our prison cell - a door Christ had unlocked - but we have chosen to return to the comfort of its familiar walls...

When Jesus said, "Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you" he was only giving us the first step.

The next step is, "Love your enemy, and pray with those who persecuted you."

And the next step is, discover that your enemy has become your critical - but committed - friend...

Today, we have a choice: will we take the first step on the long road to freedom?

I cannot be sad that a great man, whose life was an epic journey, and whose mortal body had worn frail, has entered into eternity. Rest In Peace, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and Rise In Glory.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Advent 2013 : Day 5

The Benedictus (The Song of Zechariah)

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel,
who has come to his people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,

To show mercy on our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah’s response to the angel’s message is nine months in silent gestation. As a child born before its time, before the lungs are developed, cannot draw breath, so too a word spoken before its time does not grasp the life it carries in potential. Zechariah’s song – of praise, of hope, of comfort, of commission – is still spoken and sung every day two millennia later…

What is the word to us today?

What response might be shaped in us, as we wait, in silence, this Advent?