Christmas for New Birth.

ave you ever held a new-born child?  It is an experience without peer.  A tiny life.  A person in miniature.  Holding a new-born for the first time, I was told by her parents to support the baby’s head – a baby’s head is too large for her neck to support at first.  New-borns do very little – they cry, feed, sleep and poo.  There are no smiles or coos to reward the parent or visitor.  And yet it is one of life’s greatest experiences.  Parents are driven by biology to protect and nurture their child, but non-parents too can understand the imperative to care for the bundle of warmth that barely fills a hand.  To hold a new-born child is to hold something that is simultaneously immensely fragile, utterly dependent and unimaginably precious.
 
Christmas is when we mark the time that God took flesh in a new-born child.  God became fragile, dependent and precious and was born to an unmarried teenager.  Some of our carols get it wrong.  Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?  Certainly not! Babies cry to be fed, to be changed, to be held.  Jesus needed all of these, he would have cried.  The Gospels are more realistic.  There we read that Joseph thought of leaving Mary; that birth was not welcomed in the house, but with the animals; that the so-called wise men nearly brought disaster in the form of Herod’s murderous wrath; that Jesus and his family fled as refugees from violence in their home country.  We also read of Mary’s care for her child, and her treasuring of all that happened.  The fragility and dependence of God on his mother is a source of wonder, an image of the Word made flesh, God become human.
 
We are to be born again.  To be new-born into the world.  Sometimes this sounds like we have been given super-powers, a new suit of armour to deflect the challenges and pain that might come our way.  But to be new-born is to be fragile, easily broken by what others do.  It is to be dependent on others for care and food.  And it is to be precious beyond price.  We need to acknowledge our fragility and dependence, not to guard against it.  It is in our fragile and dependent state that we are precious.  Can we celebrate this Christmas that our preciousness is found in being fragile and dependent?
 
In Jesus, God shares in our humanity and became a child.  In Jesus, we are new-born into the kingdom of God.  We are immensely fragile, utterly dependent and unimaginably precious.
 
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18.1-5).

Christmas for those who feel trapped.

It’s some years ago now, that the Dublin based school-teacher and writer, Bryan MacMahon, wrote a story about a young substitute teacher, who was posted to a small rural school.  After the initial excitement of getting the job, she soon became conscious that there was something wrong with the children.  The light, the lively energy, so typical of youngsters, just wasn’t there.  It wasn’t long before she realised that the problem was that they had never been introduced to the wonderful world of myths – the great Irish stories, like the Children of Lir or Cúchulainn or Fionn MacCuchaill.  As we all know, children love stories, and stories are so important for them if they are to develop the imagination of their hearts, as well as their intellects.


When we want to celebrate Christmas sometimes our hearts just aren’t in it.  Something holds us back from being free.  It might be a vague feeling we have that unsettles us or maybe we have a very clear understanding of what causes us to feel trapped.  Whatever it is that’s holding us back, God is calling us to happiness.  And God calls every part of us - the tidy stuff we’ve sorted out and all the untidy messy stuff that is part of everyone’s life.


This is what the young teacher said to the country children under her care:


Your eyes are like rooms that are dark and brown.  But somewhere in the rooms, if only you will pull aside the heavy curtains, you will find windows – these are windows of wonder.


We all, I think, love stories. Maybe that’s why we love gossip and stories about other people’s lives.  But there are also good and healthy stories.  Stories that fill us with encouragement and hope and make us feel good about ourselves and the world we live in.


But for some strange reason bad stories seem to stay in our minds longer than good ones.  We remember the cross word or the difficult relationship rather than dwell on the kind compliment or the happy time.
So how is it possible for us to think and imagine about the wonder and excitement of Christmas?  It’s not always easy to be like a jolly angel with the multitude of the heavenly host praising God.  But the words of the teacher offer us a glimpse of hope. Despite how we might be feeling now, there is always the potential for happiness in the future, if only we can find those ‘windows of wonder’ in the present.
Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, said: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10)  He didn’t say that he came so that we could have a little bit of life or a tiny portion of happiness.  To the full.  No terms and conditions.  No hidden criteria.  Every person is called just as they are and are offered full and complete happiness.  This is the Jesus of Christmas and the Jesus of each of our lives.


So at Christmas if we feel trapped or uncertain, may we have the courage to open and refresh our windows of wonder, so that our imaginations might be on fire with the love of the God who calls us and loves us just as we are.
END

Christmas for the coming out.

Jn1:1-13; Matt 2:12:-18; Luke 1:38-45
 
John’s gospel pictures Jesus, as the Word, there before the beginning of time, creating all things that have being, and now coming out to us as God in human form. Not only the “Word of truth”, the gospel of God’s story, but the very essence of God Himself, revealing His true identity to us.
 
What are the hallmarks of God’s coming out to us? Stepping out of eternity, he wrapped Himself in the vulnerability of an infant babe. He became dependent upon Joseph a confused dad, whose status in society was threatened by a child not of his design, and Mary, a faithful teenage mother, fearful for what was overtaking her own plans and expectations of life. God Himself identified with the vulnerability that we face whenever we are outed, intentionally or otherwise

- will I be hurt?
- will I be understood?
- will I be rejected?
- will I hurt others by being who I am?
 
The real Christmas story shatters our modern myths of calm, peace and tranquillity. In Matthew’s gospel we see the crowded hustle and bustle of travel. Childbirth in most desperate circumstances of a stable. A context of threatened violence; Herod’s intent was to eliminate the infant Jesus. We see reliance upon parents and friends hearing Godly guidance for His protection. The wise men, hearing God, chose not to return to Herod as they’d promised. His parents heard God and fled to Egypt with the vulnerable young Jesus. We should cherish God’s provision of wise friends and guardians in our lives.
 
Luke’s gospel tells of the pregnant Mary seeking the love and support of the pregnant Elizabeth, described as her “kinswoman” in the ASV translation. We too can draw on power of love and support from our own kind, our kin. See how John, even within Elizabeth’s womb, ‘leaped for joy’ when Jesus, his own kind, within Mary’s womb came near. As they faced coming out they drew deeply on the support and love of friends.
 
The vulnerability and violence of Jesus’ birth is echoed by His death; He was scapegoated and marginalised away by religious leaders, brutalised and crucified by political leaders. Where once He’d been protected from violence as a vulnerable babe, now in maturity He makes Himself vulnerable to renounce and triumph over violence. By showing love through all man threw at Him, He showed a new way. An instinctive human behaviour is to hit back, to retaliate, when we are hurt or threatened, which escalates the violence and hatred. But Jesus broke that cycle by accepting violence without retaliation to the very end. God’s love to us utterly overcame and truly came out.
 
This Christmas, may our coming out, in the smallest or very largest ways, be characterised by vulnerability. As we reveal our inner truth, our identity, our true-selves, may we show love even if we fear violence, and confidence as we know and hold onto the truth. That truth of who God made us to be, and that He loves us. That the almighty God and the creator of all the diversity in creation is for us. That in the incarnation, God in man and man in God, He laid everything bare and came out to us.

Christmas for those with angry families.

 ‘This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.  Because her husband Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”’ 
(Matthew 1:18-21).

The account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew always jarred with me as a child.  A fidgety, 6 year old miniature feminist scowling in the church pew, I raised a number of silent objections.  Why did the angel appear to Joseph?  He wasn’t the one who had to become pregnant.  He wasn’t the one who had to deal with being mother of God.  All he had to do was procure a donkey and stand reverently next to the manger.  Matthew’s account of the story seemed to rob Mary of all the agency, power and humility expressed through her speech in the gospel of Luke ‘May it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).

Now I am an adult (but still fidgety and a feminist), the appearance of the angel to Joseph makes a lot more sense.  In the time before the angel’s arrival, Joseph had to deal with the hurt that his loved one had apparently betrayed him.  He suppressed any anger and desire he might have felt for revenge – a desire fully sanctioned by a law which advocated stoning for pregnancies out of wedlock – and made plans to quietly divorce Mary to minimise her disgrace.  Even after the angel appeared to him, Joseph would have had to field decades of snide remarks, awkward questions and arguments family members, friends and strangers who felt he had done the wrong thing, made a poor match and a bad relationship.  Again, he would have had to suppress the anger and hurt these questions raised.  This suggests a huge amount of courage on behalf of Joseph, which is often overlooked in our celebration of Christ’s birth. 

None of this makes for a very stable family narrative.  The image of the harmonious nativity, endlessly reproduced at this time of year, threatens to hide the fact that the holy family is dysfunctional at best.

This is a family featuring:

- Parents who are halfway home before they realise they have left their precocious twelve year old in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-52)

- A child who publicly denies his mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46-50 and Mark 3:31-35).  It made a great theological point about the importance of church family – but imagine the pain it would have caused for the family waiting outside. 

- A child who finds his family and his father’s occupation become a hindrance when he wryly notes that ‘Only in their own towns, among their relatives and in their own homes are prophets without honour’ (Mark 6: 1-6 and Matthew 13:53-58).

And this is without apocryphal infancy narratives in which the young Jesus (a toddler with divine powers) turns his playmates into goats because their parents won’t let them out to play with him (see the infancy gospels of Thomas and Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Infancy Gospel, which imagine a child Jesus who is a far cry from Away in a Manger’s ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’).

Messy families.

The messiness of all families – even of the holy family – used to be something Christian theology acknowledged more freely.  The medieval mystery plays, performed by craftsmen in some of the country’s biggest towns between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, dramatized the entire salvation narrative from creation to doomsday.  They also explored the human conflicts inherent in these spiritual narratives.  As a consequence, the medieval Joseph and Mary’s relationship is far from harmonious.  The York mystery cycle devotes an entire play to Joseph’s trouble about Mary, and portrays Joseph’s anguish at his wife’s pregnancy:

JOSEPH:         Whose is it, Marie?
MARIA:          Sir, God’s and yours.
JOSPEPH:       No no.  Now I know well I am beguiled.
(Translated from ‘Joseph’s Trouble about Mary’, The York Mystery Plays, c.1350s-1569)

This bitter conflict is never entirely resolved, even after the angel’s visit, which restores Joseph’s faith in Mary.  For the rest of the cycle, Joseph continues to squabble with his wife, being portrayed as anxious, erring, and fretful – in short, as a human being confronted with both the incomprehensible grace of the divine and the strain of assuming the patriarchal role demanded of him by society.  Medieval images of the holy family frequently reflect this discord, with Joseph absent, marginalised, or busy in the background of the frame.  Not quite the ‘happy families’ we see in today’s Christmas cards. 

 



Angry Families
Today, however, we are afraid to acknowledge the discord and complexities of real family life, instead favouring an image of the nativity as the ultimate ‘happy family’.  The Ideal Family, consisting of two Happy Parents and their Happy Children – is not only reproduced in nativity scenes, but also in the many Christmas adverts which surround us at Christmas time.  This image can be extremely alienating.

For my generation, it is also unrealistic. 

I have friends who spend up to four hours of Christmas day in their cars as they drive between the houses of separated parents, stepparents and siblings.  Though they participate fully in the spirit of love, their Christmas day is often one of anxiety, not of peace, as they navigate transport issues and poor weather because they don’t want to hurt anyone by choosing to spend their day with just one parent. 

I have friends who have to spend Christmas apart from their cherished partners or even pretending they don’t exist because, even if accepting of their sexuality, their families don’t think it’s ‘the right time’ to have *that* conversation with the wider family just yet. 

I have friends who spend Christmas fielding awkward questions about why they are single.

I have friends who spend Christmas day peacekeeping between various family members.

I have friends who don’t go home for Christmas at all.
 
These friends are not represented in the Morrisons adverts, on the glossy covering of Sainsbury’s magazine, on the front of the festive board game boxes.

hey are not represented in the nativity.

But they should be.

Perhaps we need a different way of looking at the nativity this year. 

As well as embracing the acceptance, harmony and joy that the little figure in the manger gives to all of us, contemplate also those standing around the manger.

 


That wooden figure of Joseph?  He is exhausted from the long journey, fraught with caring for his pregnant wife and weary from the judgement of innkeepers (did they really not have room?  Or did they somehow know there was something taboo about me and Mary?  Could they tell we weren’t married before…is it that obvious just from looking at us...?).  He worries that this is the first incident in a lifetime of judgement he will have to shield his wife and son from.  He’s overcome with joy at the dozy, tiny new life, but also worried that he will somehow let him down – a natural enough worry for any parent, but to a parent of the son of God –

The wooden figure of Mary?  She twiddles with the rough swaddling clothes, making him as warm as she possibly can.  She glances at her husband, seeing the mixture of wonder and terror on his face, and for the tiniest of moments she wonders how they will last the course.  She knows saying ‘yes’ was the right thing to do, but she regrets the social stigma this solid, honest carpenter will suffer on her behalf.  She thinks she knows why they are staying in a stable, and not in an inn, or with one of Joseph’s relatives.
 
And nestled between these anxieties, a tiny baby.

Christmas for the unwanted.

Christmas at times brings us unwanted presents. They immediately go to the bottom of the pile -
either destined to be passed on to someone else or, at times, to rest at the bottom of a deep
drawer, there to be forgotten altogether. They have no place in the recipient's affections or plans.

In the human sphere, we are accustomed to hear of unwanted pregnancies. Sadly we also hear of
unwanted children who are destined to live in a home where they sink to the bottom of the pile.
It is helpful to ponder for a moment that, in some ways Jesus was an unwanted pregnancy. It
certainly seemed like that to Joseph who wanted quietly to break his engagement with Mary to
avoid the scandal and difficulties which would follow. As we know, of course, this unwanted
pregnancy was soon accepted by Joseph as a very special, indeed unique, gift from God - good for
us that he had a change of heart!

There is one further scenario to add to unwanted gifts and unwanted pregnancies. That is of a child
who was once loved but who then becomes an unwanted burden or embarrassment: once well
loved but now suddenly out in the cold. Sadly this is the experience at times of sons and daughters
who come out as LGBT and move from the category, 'loved' to 'unwanted.'

The story of Isaac and Esau is one of several examples in the Bible when someone, once loved
and at the heart of the family is excluded, sent away - in effect, disowned by the family. When
Sarah manoeuvres to get Esau thrown out of the family in favour of her son, Jacob, we see the
pain at the heart of a family unable to cope with what God has given. Esau is unwanted. But
significantly God steps in to assure Esau that he is not abandoned or unloved by God, rather he
continues to enjoy God's protection and will know much blessing in the future - outside of his birth
family but still firmly within God's family.

In the Christmas story Joseph is a reminder of the possibility of the unwanted becoming loved and
cherished. A gay son or daughter will sometimes have to endure the kind of dismissal undergone
by Esau - but never by God. God was in at the beginning; God gave each one of us as a gift,
whatever our sexual orientation, and he always offers his protection and blessing, often particularly
so if, for some reason we are unwanted and abandoned by our birth family.

ithin the Christmas story lies the prayer that the followers of Jesus will learn to be more like
Joseph, indeed more godlike! To be like Joseph who had his eyes opened to see that an
unwelcome, even unwanted child is in fact a special gift from God. In the rich creativity of God we
are blessed by the fellowship of our gay brothers and sisters. The Christmas story calls us, the
church, to receive all our LGBT brothers and sisters with the joy with which Joseph (after initial
hesitation) welcomed the birth of Jesus, and provided for him a loving and secure home.

Christmas for those with depression.

Christmas is often a difficult time for those with depression or who feel depressed and hopeless. A time of year when everyone is expected to feel happy, to be happy to have fun. A time when families come together and share food and gifts and that creates a lot of pressure and makes it difficult to relax and enjoy the season.

owever the Christmas story is not all jovial and light hearted. Mary is told that ‘Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too”’ (Luke 2:34-34). Mary’s heart would be torn with sorrow watching her only Son die the most agonising of deaths. The crucifixion is a sign of hopelessness that all joy had gone, the cross represents the end of life as it was known and a deep mourning even within the heart of God. That is the hope of the gospel- not only that there is resurrection but that God knows pain and is with us.

The Christmas story invites us to see a God who burst into the squalor a stable, the despair of a marriage that looked like it could have fallen apart. Imagine how Mary felt by the fact that ‘And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly’ (Matthew 1:19). The pain of not being believed and of being misunderstood must have sent her to the pits of despair. She would have been judged by many in society. Imagine how betrayed Joseph must have initially felt, wondering how his wife could have had an affair. Imagine knowing your child was wanted by King Herod and would be killed if you didn’t escape or being King Herod worrying that your position could be lost by the birth of a new king.
The gospel is one of liberation. Yes Christmas is a day that is joyful and that can be difficult but its real meaning is that the world was liberated through it. God has come to our world and entered our reality. The incarnation shows us that when we are depressed God is with us. Depression is a hard road to walk along, it feels like you are alone but the truth is we have a risen Lord who is always with us, standing by us and loves us exactly as we are. He loved us so much he became a baby of the poorest kind and grew up to be crucified to demonstrate the love that God has for the world.

This Christmas remember the joy of Christmas is deeper than happiness or enjoying presents but is about having the hope that God loves you and sent His only Son to die for you. That peace can transcend how we feel and be assured that there are people who pray for you and love you all the time. The pain and loneliness we feel we suffer from depression is tough but God offers us light in the darkness.

Christmas for those who navigate manipulative relationships.

he country where my family has lived for the past five years is very big on knowing where you’re from and being confident in who you are.
 
Whenever people gather or someone is officially welcomed in Aotearoa/New Zealand, we are invited to give our pepeha(introduction) and share our own story.
 
For Maori, the indigenous people, this involves telling the story of our tupuna (ancestors) and our whenua (literally the land that our ancestors came from) – and it’s a powerful experience.
 
We traditionally greet each other to establish whether someone is friend or foe, and we explain the story of how we got here: the story empathically does not start with ourselves - your pepeha will include your people's mountain, your river, your waka or mode of transport (how you physically travelled to the land in the first place) and your Whakapapa - your ancestors that you can name. 
 
We acknowledge and honour the places and the people that have formed us, so we can confidently begin to establish ourselves in a new community, place of study or workplace.
 
At the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the writer firmly establishes Jesus’ whakapapa: who he is in the line of his tupuna David, which helps Matthew explain who Jesus is and why he has come.  
 
In the gospels we read of how Jesus’ relatives and friends try to dissuade him from his calling to teach and heal. Others want to persuade him to give them and their family special favours. He knows what it is to feel manipulated.
 
Sometimes people aren’t even aware how manipulative they are being, nor of the effect their behaviour has on others, including family and friends they love. It’s hard to be compassionate when we sense that someone is trying to control us. But let’s remember that Jesus was always ready to listen compassionately, to debate, to disagree and most importantly to forgive.
 
This Christmas, if you feel people are trying to coerce you into behaviour or relationships or to do things that you know are not healthy or life-giving, why not stop, reflect and consider: where am I from, what are the gifts and abilities God has gifted me with, and what is my life for?
 
When we are confident in our own story and our unique identity, drawing on the gifts of our tupuna and the truth that we are loved and called by Christ, then we are freed to be forgiving, compassionate and hopeful people.
 
And through our lives and the way we live, the light of Christ will shine in dark places.
 
Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui! 
Stay strong, patient and courageous!

Christmas for the uncertain.

I wonder how certain we might be if an angel appeared and told us we are to have a baby? How certain might we be if in a dream we were told that our betrothed was pregnant but it wasn’t ours? I wonder how certain we might feel if an angel appeared to us in a field and told us to go and worship a king in a stable. I wonder how certain we might be about angels at all?

What if we felt we were being called to go on a journey to follow a star with no certainty about why or where to go? What if we arrived in a bustling village with no sense of where we were staying or where and when our baby would be delivered?

The Christmas story is full of uncertainty. Much as Christmas is today for many of us. That uncertainty may present itself simply in terms of concern about whether that friend will buy you a gift or not and whether you should have a present in reserve to bring out just in case they do or how you will spend the 25th December. Do you spend it the way you want to or do you spend it the way you feel you have to even if it means you won’t enjoy it as much – or even hate it?

There are many people who will spend the day surrounded by friends and family whom they love and who love them in return. There will also be many people for whom a day with family fills them with dread and yet others who long for others to spend the day with.

Christmas Day is a significant day for many people, however God is no more present with us on that day than God is on any other day of the year. For some reason we have to make it as perfect as possible and then have a meltdown when it isn’t and claim that “Christmas is ruined!”

Christmas is uncertain. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not so good. Life is also like that and we manage to roll with it so perhaps we should with Christmas as well. Stories of virgin births, choirs of angels, travelling wise men and incredibly accepting and compliant shepherds fill our ears and we may rejoice at this or we may say, hang on – really? Can that actually have happened?

But what is the message beyond these stories? What is it that the Christmas story is trying to tell us? I suspect it is something about God not leaving us to wallow in our own mess, a God who knows what it is like to be a human being in the messy and uncertain world we live in. A baby who grew up to have such an impact on the world that we still celebrate his birth today but who himself was uncertain:

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39

ut of Jesus’ uncertainty came great creativity, came a supreme act of love and commitment to the world and to God. However uncertain we are that is indeed worthy of celebration.

Christmas for the stressed.

Stress is a normal part of life.  When something around us changes, our minds and bodies respond to these stresses and adjust to the new situation.  Stress is a good thing, helping us to grow out of our comfort zone and to develop resilience.  Stress only becomes toxic when we feel out of control or overloaded. 

t Christmas, sadly, it is easy to feel out of control.  If family and friends come to you, you can feel overworked and overloaded, whereas if you are the guest you can feel constrained by someone else’s rules.  There is intense pressure to create the perfect Christmas, especially if this is the only time of the year your family meets together.  Family gatherings can be great fun, but there are times when families disagree and tensions run high. Eating and drinking too much, followed by uncomfortable nights on an ancient sofabed, can leave you feeling exhausted and irritable as the older members of the family embark on another round of criticism of everything from frozen roast potatoes to the divorce rate.  It’s enough to make you feel the prophet Micah had your family in mind when he wrote:
the son treats the father with contempt,
   the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
   your enemies are members of your own household.’

Micah describes the collapse of a nation as being like the collapse of a household, an apt metaphor for the nation of Israel which sees itself as God’s own family, God’s chosen people.  This year our domestic stresses have the backdrop of a world in turmoil and we know that many families are suffering extreme stress as they are separated, displaced or damaged by war and oppression.  It is difficult to see the light of the world in the darkness around us and many people feel little hope.  The central story of Christmas is not one of a happy family in a settled home, but of a child born in a temporary shelter into a poor family living under an oppressive regime. Mary endures childbirth in dreadful conditions, and when the child finally arrives she has to lay him in a makeshift cradle. Yet despite these deep stresses, she finds hope and joy in this new life and builds memories to treasure in her heart.

It is tempting, today, to feel that we ought to have the secret of a happy, stress-free Christmas.  The magazines promise us that if we only follow their sequence of instructions and buy their long list of products, all will be well, the turkey will be bronzed and the children will be delighted with their presents.  A real Christmas is never perfect, never stress-free, but if, like Mary, we fix our eyes on the Christ child, we will see the gift of God’s love to the world.  No matter what stresses we endure, no matter what darkness surrounds us, hope from on high has visited us, bringing light to those who sit in darkness and showing us the path to peace.

Christmas for the numb.

Christmas is excessive. Not just in the stuff piled high, lugged home, and thrown out, but all of it: every John Lewis ad, every flickering candle, every wonky tinsel-haloed angel picking their nose through Away in a Manger, demands from us an emotional response.  More than anything else Christmas is a time for indiscriminate feeling. I was (cheerfully) informed by a Police Sargeant that Christmas is one of the main times of the year for family murders; but even if an argument over a will doesn’t deteriorate into cousin-throttling over the mince pies, there are countless people in an impotent rage on Christmas day over a million tiny things.
 
This demand for emotional response is problematic and not particularly healthy in itself, but for anyone who has had to suffocate big feelings so successfully that they are emotionally numb, this festive onslaught can leave one feeling like an alien. Going through the motions but with no real connection - a child with its face pressed up against the glass, separated from the light and warmth.
 
To be numb is not to have no feelings, but to have too many. And a fear that if one was to acknowledge or engage with them, they would be unbearable: the pain of rejection, grief, confusion, anger, desire, love. There is a fear that these feelings would consume and destroy us, or those we loved. So our clever minds - protecting us - harden us over, creating armour, as though we were knights riding into battle.  It is safer to feel numb, because it’s when the feeling comes back - that agonising pins and needles of warm blood flowing in icy veins - that you have to worry. It is a brave coping strategy, to be numb, to freeze, to survive - half alive, but alive nonetheless. But left too long these frozen bits of us die, and we do not live fully, because it is being able to feel a range of emotions that makes life rich and meaningful.  And this is why God was made incarnate - to make us fully alive, to connect us to Him and to one another in love.
 
I think of the shepherds who after the Exile were so despised and excluded. Up in the hills they were seen to have so little value that they were apart from the general ordering that was happening within the census. I imagine them with their half frozen hands and feet coming into the cattle stall - the first to witness the Messiah, who would spend his life bringing the excluded into the love of God. Jeremiah describes this God like a stranger who stays one night only in a guest chamber. But it is this God who is also the Light and Warmth of the world, who offers the Shepherds and us a place where they and we can warm frozen hands. Frozen hands and hearts need, not extreme heat, but the gentle but steady warmth of another human being. We need a safe space in which to risk the excruciating return of sensation - to be able to look at those unbearable feelings in some gentle steady light.  To have someone who loves us in our entirety and will not turn away, who will help us to bear those feelings if we can begin to lay them out in front of him - our own painful offering. He will stay with us, Emmanuel, as much in the bottom of a manger, as in the bottom of a boat on a stormy sea.  “Remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mtt 28:20)
 

Christmas for the outcast.

hat I love about the Christmas story is the way God bucks the trend. Everything about it is countercultural. When he came on his rescue mission, he chose to come as an illegitimate baby born to a teenager from an obscure village in a far flung outpost of the Empire. Not content with that, his mother had to borrow a feeding trough for a cradle because they were on the road and homeless when he was born. Nothing quite like that start in life to give you an outsider’s perspective.
 
Our Christmas story comes from the little cameos we get in Matthew’s and Luke’s tales of Jesus. And I find them intriguing: because of who was invited to the celebration when the creator became a part of his creation. They didn’t throw him a party at the Palace even when they found out who he was. From the beginning he was seen as a threat to the establishment, both secular and religious.
 
Foreigners and shepherds are about as low as you could get in the pecking order of the day. Ritually unclean because of their close contact with animals, unwashed because of their outdoor life, shepherds were outsiders, an isolated, fringe community on the edge of society. And foreigners were as popular then as they are now. When the chips are down you stick with your own, whether the threat is economic recession or a Roman army of occupation. And these were astrologers to boot.
 
Over centuries God called out a people to form a community that was different, based on justice, generosity and welcome. But it is human instinct to cling to your own tribe, to connect with people like yourself and reject those who are different. Israel was all about insiders and outsiders and yet, when their God came to visit, for them he was an outsider. So perhaps it is no surprise that outsiders were the ones Israel’s God invited to share the special moment of his arrival.
 
There is something of a pattern about that. It was outsiders who welcomed him at his birth and it was an outsider - the Gentile Centurion who executed him - who recognised and honoured him at his death. In his ministry it was the outcasts who were drawn to him, people who felt rejected by society were intrigued and attracted by Jesus. And the reason is clear: there are no insiders and outsiders for God!
 
The early church wrestled with this: barriers of race, gender, age, culture were painfully dismantled. It is so against our instincts that every generation of the church has had to rediscover this mystery Jesus came to reveal:
 
God is for everyone: no exceptions, no outcasts, no straight insiders or LGBT outsiders, a celebration of diversity!
 
Christmas is the best time to remember this. If you feel like an outcast, take heart, because you have always belonged at the heart of the Christmas story, God has made sure of that!

Christmas for the cynical.

“Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Matthew 2:8

When you think of the Christmas story it might not be King Herod who immediately stands out as a noteworthy character. We usually look to the shepherds, ponder the response of Mary, conjure up images of exotically robed wise men gathered around a starlit stable. Enduring repetitive Christmas services, surrounded by people you might only ever see once a year, can leave our hearing of the Christmas story emptied of mystery. We’re comfortable with the message: God came to earth, in a stable, the angels sang, the shepherds rejoiced, the wise men came, peace on earth... But there’s very little about the Christmas story that should leave us feeling comfortable.

In the gospel narrative, Herod is the antagonist of the story; a king who pretends to give homage to Jesus, but is secretly determined to kill the child. And, it gets worse. Matthew tells us “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” (Matthew 2: 16). Everything about Herod’s reaction is tragic; echoes of innocent children slaughtered in Exodus abound. And yet I’m left wondering, ‘could Herod’s reaction to the birth of Jesus be the most honest?’

Herod’s honesty stands out because there’s so much in our telling of the Christmas story that’s hard to believe: Joseph’s willingness to step outside the cultural norms of his day; the Magi who travel on a star-lit curiosity, and, directed by visions in dreams, defy the will of the king; Mary who is asked to do the impossible, and still says ‘yes’... It’s not surprising then that of all the unlikely characters Herod is the one who is easiest to understand. This is a king who feels threatened, whose power might be undermined, reacting in the way that he knows best: defeat power with power, crush opponents, and quash those who would stand against you.

Of all the characters in the story whose lives get disrupted, Herod is the one who takes things into his own hands. Yet, as we look at him trying to micro-manage the situation for his self-serving advantage it only serves to highlight the vulnerability of the incarnation. The God-becomes-flesh story stretches us, it relentlessly knocks our assumptions about the way in which God works. In the earthliness of the birth narrative the scene has been set for the whole gospel; here is the recklessness of God, heaven meeting earth in a vulnerable child. God is taking risks, and inviting us to be risk-takers too.

Herod represents power and authority structures, those who will go to great lengths to keep things the way they are. Perhaps there’s a little of Herod in all of us; as we struggle with change, close ourselves off to what God is doing in the world, and distrust the sacred in our midst.  And, still, Christ comes. Christ with us. Emmanuel. At the heart of the Christmas story is the reckless and revolutionary love of God in Christ, a love that challenges and transforms us and refuses to let things remain as they are.

erod’s response may be human but the incarnation invites us into a new way of being human, daring us to see beyond how things are to the way things could be, prompting us to question how we can respond to the recklessness of God in our own lives. This question, and our response, is challenging, especially if over the years we have had to endure the same old stories, politics, and power structures attempting to micro-manage the gospel. Yet even today, the Christ-child reveals the reckless heart of a God who takes risks on the oddest, queerest, most ordinary people like us.

Christmas for those who try to be perfect.

Whether it's the uber-cool of the perfectly chic festive feast of the TV chef
or the promise of near collapse in the increasingly desperate search for the perfect present
...it can feel like the pressure is on.
 
And did THEY feel the pressure too? That first Christmas?
The child was on his way, surely everything should be made just perfect for his arrival...only...by the time they got there the town was full and options were few.
 
Did she ever say to herself...’this is not how I imagined it would be before the angel came...when I daydreamed about my life, not in my wildest dreams did it look like this’? Not this unexpected pregnancy; not this labour far from home; not this straw-strewn sanctuary and the warm lullaby breath of animals; not this tiny baby entrusted to trembling hands.
 
And him, he was, we are told, someone who worked with his hands.
A craftsman, a carpenter. Would his skilled eye and creative imagination have conceived a far finer cradle for her son than this rough cattle trough? One carved and smoothed through loving attention and made perfect through growing anticipation seems more fitting. But in the end, this one would have to do.
 
It was enough...
 
'Enough' when I want 'perfect' requires a re-calibration, a seeing with new eyes and an understanding of how damaging a default standpoint of ‘insufficiency’ can be.
 
In a book called ‘The Soul of Money’ Lynne Twist writes about how the mantra of ‘not enough’ has become a kind of default setting for our thinking about much of life; from the cash in our pocket, to the people we love and even how we view our own worth.
 
This is what she says about what she calls the ‘myth of scarcity’:
 
“For many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep’. 
The next one is ‘I don’t have enough time’. Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of our lives hearing, complaining or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…we don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. 
We don’t have enough weekends. We are not thin enough, we are not smart enough, we’re not successful enough.
 
Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor we are already inadequate, already behind, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get or didn’t get done that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack.”
 
Maybe this Advent we can dare to shake off the burden of ‘lack’. To let go of whatever it is which would say that this, or that, or we ourselves are not perfect – for in God we have and are ‘enough’.
 
Maybe this Christmas the fused tree lights; the kindly meant but disastrous present; the burnt food offerings; the families which don't quite equate to those in the ads; the expectations that others put on us, which we can never, would never wish, to match; the expectations we take on for ourselves or use to burden others and those precious parts of ourselves we deem 'less than perfect', can find sanctuary in the stable.
 
The stable - where imperfection offered freely was enough. More than that, because He was there, because it had been his plan, it was perfect. In the midst of imperfection...joy!
 
‘Joy to the world, the Lord has come!’

Christmas for the hopeless.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2.8)
 
We all know what happened next; the angels, the light, the singing, the little child in the manger. But the shepherds have no idea that everything will change on this night, and even less idea that they will be the first to bear witness to that change. As far as they know, this night will be no different from any other they have sat through on this lonely hillside, and the next night will be no better, and it will go on and on, in just the same way for the whole of their lives.
 
We don’t know much about them, but it’s reasonable to assume that they didn’t have many reasons to be hopeful. They’re living in an occupied country, at the mercy of the brutal Roman Empire. There’s no real possibility of doing anything about that either. Rome suppresses dissent ruthlessly. They occupy one of the lowest positions in their society too, and people were often suspicious of them because of their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They couldn’t easily keep the ritual requirements of their faith, and they were sometimes accused of grazing their sheep on other people’s lands. And to add to all that it’s dreary, cold and dark; there are no streetlights to beat back the pitch blackness of the night. It’s just another in an endless round of dreary cold and dark nights. It is easy for us to say “Ah, but any minute now the angels will show up”, but they don’t know that.
 
It’s the same for all of us when we are feeling hopeless. It may be that a whole new life is just around the corner, but we can’t see round the corner. People telling us blithely that it will get better one day doesn’t help at all. I recall a woman I knew who was stuck in the darkness of depression once telling me that if one more person told her there was a light at the end of the tunnel, she would probably thump them. What use was that, she said, when she couldn’t get to the end of the tunnel? What she needed was someone to come and sit in the tunnel with her, someone who was at home there and unafraid of its darkness. There’s no one who fits that bill better than God, to whom “darkness and light are both alike”.(Psalm 139.12)
 
Whether they realise it or not, God is with those shepherds, in the darkness, long before the shining band of angels shows up. How else does he know where to send the heavenly host? And the same is true for us. God is with us in the night, perfectly at home there, however long it lasts and however hopeless it feels.
 
As one of my favourite Advent hymns*, puts it:
 
But the slow watches of the night
not less to God belong
and for the everlasting right
the silent stars are strong.
 
 


You can read the whole hymn here.
(Thy Kingdom come on bended knee the passing ages pray.
Frederick Lucian Hosmer 1840-1929)(Sung to the tune: Irish. It has a lovely lilt.)

Christmas for those who feel shame.

‘His own people did not accept him’ – John 1:11
 
John’s biography of Jesus doesn’t begin with the story of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, or indeed with the little town of Bethlehem lying still on a starry night. It begins with an assertion: Jesus came into the world, and the world was ashamed of him.
 
If the world was ashamed of Jesus, then it was in part because Jesus seems so utterly shameless in the face of the world’s expectations for socially acceptable messiahs. In the first few chapters of John’s Gospel alone, he oversteps all sense of social propriety by renaming a man he’s only just met, declaring that angels will ascend and descend on him, turning water into wine at someone else’s party, and single-handedly starting a riot in the temple in one of the holiest seasons of the year.
 
And yet John reckons Jesus is far more shameless still than any of that reveals. Jesus, says the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel, is God himself, become a human being. Jesus is the category-confuser bar none, the one who refuses to be pinned down by social expectation or conventional rules about the separation between the holiness of God and the muckiness of fallen creation. When Luke tells us that Jesus is born in an animal’s feeding trough (amidst all the filth that must have entailed), the product of an out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy, he means to tell us exactly what John communicates: that right from his birth Jesus was shamelessly doing things that conventional wisdom says are shameful.
 
Human societies have always used shame as a way of policing conformity, as a way of beating down difference and of controlling variegation. Whatever you think about the social usefulness of shame, we all know how crushing feeling ashamed can be. At its easiest to bear, it is humiliating and raw and we want to cower in a corner so nobody will see us. At its worst, it is soul-destroying and makes us hate ourselves so much we want to be blotted out of existence altogether. The toughest thing about shame is that it’s just about the hardest emotion to escape from, because the only antidote to being ashamed is to behonoured, consistently and over and over again, and that doesn’t happen very often.
 
But in fact that’s exactly what happens at Christmas. At Christmas, God comes among us and honours our fallen state. To those of us who feel ashamed because we don’t fit in right, or we don’t act the way others expect us to – to all of us whom the world shames, God bursts into creation at Christmas and says, ‘you’re my people’. To those of us whose lives are messy, who don’t fit the mould society has formed for us, who are too different or stick out too much and who feel ashamed because of how people react to us, God comes to us in Jesus and says: be shameless like me.
 
If you are feeling ashamed, remember that Jesus holds you in a place of honour. Remember that people were ashamed of him first; and remember that in coming to be one of us he picks us, chooses us, and says ‘I will not be ashamed of you’. Because, as John put it, to all who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God. And what greater honour can there be than that?

Christmas for the lonely.

"I'm a stranger here and no one sees me", sang Bob Dylan, "nothing matters to me and there's nothing I desire". Except of course, in the longing of his song, an absent 'you' to his 'me'.  In the decades since he wrote Nobody 'Cept You, loneliness has become a significant issue for increasing numbers of us. 
 
Like Dylan perhaps we seek consolation in relationships: in those we admire or who set our hearts on fire. Perhaps like him, we seek consolation in memories: a familiar hymn or a cherished memory.  Perhaps, as in his lyrics, there's a void: nothing seems sacred, nothing seems worthwhile; everything's changed and feels strange.
 
This isn't a contemporary phenomenon. The psalmist expresses the sense of pathos: "I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the house-top" (Ps 102:7).  Loneliness is a common human experience - fleeting moments, regular intervals or sustained periods. It doesn't correlate with our relational status or our business; or discriminate between those of us who're cup half empty or cup half full people.
 
Rowan Williams puts it with heartrending, recognisable eloquence: "Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with such stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into a different worlds, and there is no language we can share... It is in the middle of intimacy that the reality of loneliness most dramatically appears" (A Ray of Darkness, p. 121-26).
 
At Christmas, those "sudden clefts" feel more acute. Christmas adverts promise the perfect celebration - the idyll of togetherness. This year, John Lewis spent millions of pounds acknowledging that often we feel "half the world away" andinviting us to "show someone they're loved".  
 
Our responses to others - and the way others reach out to us - go someway to cultivating community and expressing support in tangible ways.  Deciding to "do something" can take us out of ourselves, creating a sense of purpose by giving us something else to focus on.
 
But: loneliness isn't just a physical, emotional or relational question. It's also a spiritual one.  In the absence of others or when shared language is lost, those gaps might draw us into a different sort of intimacy; intimacy with God.
 
Such intimacy is rooted in God's desire to to reach out to us in Jesus.  In this season, perhaps we turn to the opening chapter of John's Gospel for a poetic and majestic expression of this love; it's sublime in its intimacy and scale. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.
 
This Word is full of light and light, truth and glory; grace and peace. This Word becomes flesh, coming to us and dwelling with us - even in the depths of our loneliness. Humanity is reconciled in this: the Word who abides close to the Father's heart, abides with us.
 
He was a nursing infant and a toddler in exile. He learnt a trade in the stability of a home in Nazareth, yet he was without honour there. He was tested in the wilderness and sought refreshing solitude on the hilltop. He was betrayed in a garden by one friend and denied in a courtyard by another.   He cried out in dereliction on the cross, yet in alienation spoke words of forgiveness and acceptance. He was buried in a strangers tomb and drew alongside disciples on a road, sharing his risen life with them in broken bread.
 
This is the intimacy of God with us: Word made flesh sharing our language in wordless infancy.
This is the intimacy of God with us: the one whose Spirit sighs within us, who is our peace.

Christmas for those hiding who they are.

A Hiding Place.
We all spend a lot of time hiding, don’t we? There are so many things that we try to hide from the gaze of others and this can make ‘family time’, especially Christmas time, quite stressful and difficult. There are the awkward questions that, even well-meaning relative, are asked ‘so, have you got a boyfriend yet?’ and you wonder how to answer it; the truth might be, ‘no, but there is a girl that I really, really like’, but that’s not something you want to share in front of Nana over the turkey and sprouts! Maybe it’s a situation like this, your sister is given the most gorgeous new sparkly dress which you just know will look a hundred times better on you, but you have to politely thank Aunty for the menswear sweater you just unwrapped. Whatever the situations you find yourself in over this season, it can be really tough if you cannot be completely you.

As many of us celebrate the birth of Jesus, it maybe that a sense of foreboding, fear and anxiety is rising up within you and it can be so tiring to carry those feelings and you maybe just simply dreading the season because you know you will end up completely knackered at the end of it.

esus said:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)

In one of the German translation the word used in ‘erdrückt’ which mean crushed, maybe that is how you feel, the crushing weight of having to pretend to be something that you are not, the crushing weight of hiding your true self.

It’s a pretty familiar scripture passage but one that is important to remember over the Christmas season. If you are carrying that burden of hiding who you are, the place you can go to rest is Jesus. The absolute most fabulous things here is that you don’t have to hide when it’s just you and Jesus, not only do you not have to hide, but you can’t hide, it’s as simple as that.

Oh, sure, sometimes when we are told that God sees everything we do and knows everything about us, we see it almost as a threat to get us to stop doing something, but it should very seldom be taken that way. No, God (and therefore Jesus) not only knows everything about us, but created us the way we are, in order to be loved by him. So rest this Christmas, not only in Jesus, but in the love that He has for you.

Maybe you will need to carve some time out of the days specifically to do this, maybe at night before you go to bed, maybe you can retreat while the Queen’s speech is on (unless you want to watch it!) or if you can’t find opportunity to actually leave the room for a few minutes, maybe retreat in your head while everyone else is watching the Downton Abbey Christmas special.

It’s also worth remembering that almost as soon as He was born, Jesus went into hiding from those who wanted to bring him harm. So not only will you be resting in someone who loves you and someone who you can be real with, but also someone who knows what it’s like to hide. How wonderful, that our Saviour has experienced everything we have, maybe over different circumstances and for different reasons, but he really does know how you feel.

I pray that you will find time this Christmas to rest in Him, to know His love, and that through this you will find His strength will see you through the season.

I genuinely wish all of you a really blessed Christmas and fun-filled New Year too.

Christmas for the Angry.

Christmas. Jolly people enjoying each other's company, good food, carols, gifts, celebrating the birth of Jesus? Or anger at feeling excluded, anger that you're expected to be someone you aren't, anger that your Christmas might not be anything like the adverts suggest is normal?
 
Yet adverts rarely mention we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. God coming to earth in the most unexpected way to turn our expectations upside down. A vulnerable baby, born far from home, amongst the animals, in what was probably a fairly cold, smelly stable or outbuilding. Born to a young woman who was probably poor and probably a teenage mum, and a man she wasn't married to and who wasn't the biological father of the baby.
 
Three different angels arrive separately explain parts of God's plan to Mary and to Joseph. The Gospels show Mary agreeing warmly to having this special baby. Both Mary and Joseph seem to trust God's overall plan. But they don't tell us how Mary and Joseph felt about:
 
*what this unexpected baby would mean for their relationship or for how they got on with their families
*having to spend a week going all the way to Bethlehem on a donkey while Mary was very heavily pregnant
*there being no rooms left in Bethlehem
*becoming refugees in Egypt after Jesus was born, because it wasn't safe to go home to Nazareth
 
I suspect that alongside their trust in God, Mary and Joseph might have felt quite angry that what God was asking of them involved hardship, lack of control, and not conforming to what their society expected. God was trusting and loving Mary and Joseph as they did their best with the human care of the newborn baby Jesus. Jesus in whom God came to live amongst us and to love us in all the many aspects of being human.  Including our anger, our joy, and our fear. Jesus who loves us so much that he would die at the hands of people fearful of him, and in doing so, would save us from our own lack of love.
 
Jesus - radically loving, radically compassionate, radically inclusive. Jesus who, on the cross, would pray for those crucifying him, asking forgiveness.
 
 Jesus who would also occasionally get angry. He would turn over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. He would sometimes rebuke the disciples and especially Peter when they suggested he should be protected from suffering and death. And when the Pharisees criticised him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus looked at them with anger and grief. And looking at all these examples, we can see Jesus’ anger is always mixed with grief – intense sadness that those he has come to love and save, including his disciples, are trying to put barriers between themselves and God’s radical love which knows no bounds and will always triumph, including over death itself.
 
So let’s celebrate that God loves us so much that he comes among us in the vulnerability of baby Jesus to share in our anger and our joy and all the other aspects of being human, saving us from the things which divide us from his love, now and for ever.

Christmas for the Grieving

The Christmases of 2008 and 2009 were tearful ones for my wife and myself. The tears of joy in 2008 which accompanied our first Christmas with our firstborn son (I challenge anybody to tell me that their first Christmas with their first child wasn’t similar) were replaced with tears of grief the next year as his younger brother was stillborn just three months before December 2009. In the midst of the celebrations around us we struggled on trying to make it a meaningful moment for our oldest boy and our church family (I was helping to pastor a church at the time) all the while just wanting to hide ourselves away and move into the new year leaving the past one behind.

The 6th of December is the feast day of St Nicholas who is famed for giving gifts to young children and is the character upon whom the modern concept of Father Christmas is founded. What many people don’t know is that amongst church historians he is also famed (lauded even) for having a full blown punch up at the Council of Nicaea with Arius who had the temerity to suggest that Jesus was not fully divine as well as being fully human.  It’s funny how often in the Church and our Christian life the good bits are mixed up with the bad stuff.

The Bible is full of dichotomies like this. Look at the presents that the Magi bring to Mary at Epiphany; the Gold and Frankincense are wonderful signs of Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, but a little box of myrrh? That’s embalming fluid for dead people, the equivalent of bringing a tiny coffin as a present to a baby shower. Of course the truth is that Jesus is King, Priest and Sacrifice all in one glorious hypostatic union. He cannot achieve what he is come to do, win the victory he is destined for unless he first experiences pain and death.

In the midst of our grief something wonderful is happening on a cross and in a tomb. Jesus didn’t just come to die for our sins, he came to die for our wounds and pain and grief[i]. Christ on the cross unites himself with all in Him who die and all in Him who grieve the dying. He lies in stillness with them both in a tomb whose silence speaks powerfully of the victory won the previous day over sin and death. He bursts forth at dawn for both at them and resurrects in his wake corpses and dreams that have died. In all this he doesn’t remove grief and pain but rather he transforms it and makes it into something that could never have been without the death in the first place.

But oh, the waiting for that Resurrection Day...

My wife and I have discovered in handing over our grief to him that Jesus’ love bores deeper into our very being than we ever thought possible[ii]. Our pain is his pain, our grief is his grief. The baby in the manger is the saviour on the cross who unites himself to every part of our life and seeks to bring his resurrection to it. My prayer for you this Advent is that as you allow Jesus into whatever grief you are currently experiencing, that you will experience his resurrection power transforming your pain into something that was never possible before. Celebrate all the gifts he gives you, the gold and the myrrh, the fight and the peace. He will make them all new.

[i] Isaiah 53:4

[ii] See http://www.peter-ould.net/2009/12/23/myrrh/http://www.peter-ould.net/2010/12/25/frankincense/, http://www.peter-ould.net/2011/12/25/gold/

Christmas for the anxious.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5.
 
Sometimes it can seem like Christmas brings out our deepest anxieties and fears.  Tension within the family, fear of rejection, uncertainty about who we are – or fear that who we are is not acceptable – becomes even worse when we’re confronted with the images and ideals of a ‘happy Christmas’.  Anxiety can become a constant companion, tightening our chests and forcing us into a dark corner we’re unable to leave.  The darkness closes round us; we can’t move away from it, we can only curl in on ourselves.
 
Christmas can seem a long way from that dark – it’s all bright lights, tinsel, and playing happy families.
 
And yet much of the story plays out in the dark – even the kitschiest Nativity scene is illuminated by starlight and a lantern or two, neither of which are very bright.  The stable must have been a place of fear and pain for Mary, at least to begin with.
 
The prologue to John’s Gospel, too, speaks of darkness in a way that resonates with me as someone who struggles with anxiety.  “The light shines in darkness” – it doesn’t say that the darkness is totally destroyed, at least not here and now.  One day, perhaps, all will be blazing light and our anxieties and fears will vanish.  But for now, the darkness is still present – only there is a light in it.
 
Knowing the light of Christ doesn’t make the darkness of fears and anxiety vanish.  But it shines in that darkness, as Jesus comes to join us.  There’s plenty of fear, anxiety and darkness in the Christmas story, even after Jesus’ birth, as we see in the story of the massacre of the Innocents and the flight in to Egypt.  But the light shines on, all the same, and it “will not be overcome”.
 
Even though it’s not the best translation choice, I always like the way the King James Bible renders John 1:5 “and the darkness comprehended it not.”  Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly ground down by anxiety, I feel like my own anxious darkness is overwhelming everything except the bare minimum to keep functioning, and I certainly don’t feel that I “comprehend” the world around me, much less God’s will and love.  But the light is still there, whether I understand or perceive it at this moment.
 
It will never be overcome by the darkness, and one day it will overcome the darkness in its turn.
 
That’s what Christmas is really about.  That’s the light and love that Jesus means.  And if we can’t see it clearly now, we can know that we will one day.  No anxiety can ever change that.