And so the advent journey comes towards its apotheosis. Thankyou to those who have made the journey with us.
We have not put up a tree this year…untill today.
It will not be a traditional spruce, we will follow a recent tradition of choosing some bare branches from a birch or willow the woods at the bottom of our garden. Emily is always a little disparaging, calling it our ‘twig’, but I love it for several reasons.
I love the fact that we are bringing something inside the house from just outside.
I love the fact that no tree has died to make our Christmas celebration more decorative. Birch and willow adapted to the activities of large herbivores, mostly not here any more- the giant elk and the hairy elephants that tore through these parts when the woods were wild. removing a few branches just encourage these trees to coppice.
I love that we are doing this on Christmas eve, to mark both the first incarnation (creation) and the second one in the form of Emmanuel.
I love too that this is a tree in winter, without leaves, but with tiny buds. It is a tree that reminds me that what is now dark will find the light once more.
Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.
John chapter 1, from the message
A couple of days ago, I tried to describe the first incarnation as the Great Becoming, starting with the great explosion of love that was the Big Bang.
Perhaps we might describe this second incarnation as the Great Compassion, in which what was zoomed out was now zoomed right in. What was distant was now near. What was heavenly was now human.
On this Christmas eve, it is appropriate to allow space for wonder.
It is appropriate to speak of this great mystery that we call God.
I hope you have enjoyed this little ‘conspiracy’ as much as I have. It has been lovely to share this space with different voices whose words took me places I would otherwise not have gone. Thanks so much to Bob, Graham, Steve B, Yvonne and Steve P for your thoughtfulness and companionship.
All of which made me think about how we encounter other voices, other thinking. It occured to me that our social-media-shaped brains are increasingly innoculated against other views. Rather than freeing our brains for exploration and encounter, the internet seems to have set us up as oppositional avotars, whose purpose is to find the error in the ways of the other, not to listen and learn. Even when I try to NOT do this – to not engage – my brain still falls into familliar comfortable groves, thrilling to the failure of my intellectual/religious/political enemies…
…who are mostly not enemies at all, just people with a different perspectives, doing their best to make sense of the complex broken world in which we live.
Advent could easily be a version of the same in which we wait only for what we know, from those who are from our tribe. This would certainly be a comfortable experience, but it seems to me that this would not do justice to the radical disruption that always seems to happen wiht the coming of the light.
I was thinking too about the head/heart thing.
Increasingly I appreciate how an encounter with anything that matters is whole-body. In other words, when I am fully engaged, I feel it in my bones, my gristle, my heart. This is a very different kind of engagement than an intellectual titilation, in which I strengthen my own ego by bolstering my sense of intellectual agency.
In my limited experience, these kinds of embodied encounters are typically about two things;
1. Compassion – when we feel deeply drawn to the heart of another
2. Mysticism – when we sense the undefinable mystery that I will call ‘the divine’
Head and heart. I often find it difficult to go beyond the first, but I am getting better at the second.
We stand with our ancestors and mark the turning point when we turn towards the light. The darkest night has passed and now it is downhill towards spring. New life is coming.
I long for it in the same way as a man for his distant lover – who avoids looking at her photograph lest the seperation become too much to bear…
It is too soon to think about spring. First we must live fully in the season of waiting, firm in the hope that even in midwinter, we can dream of seedlings and spring lambs.
I use the word ‘Christ’ to describe this season unashamedly, not because I am trying to replace all those thousands (tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?) of years during which humans made ritual around the solstace. I am not trying to redeem or convert. Rather I would stand in the midst of the teaching of Father Richard Rohr, as he encourages us to think about ‘the Christ’ in a totally different way.
Everything you need to know about the Christ is already written in creation.
But this teaching, emerging from a long line of thinkers starting with St Francis of Assisi and the Scottish 13th C theologian Duns Scotus, does a lot more than co-opt creation as a pretty backdrop for our narrow religious prejudices. Rather it proposes something that I encountered as a profound soul-deep yes.
What Rohr describes is the difference between the historical figure of Jesus Christ and the Christ, which is another name for everything. The Christ is the means through which all things have their being, the substance, the molecular, mycelial power behind the particles that make all of the universe. The thing through which all things ‘live and move and have their being’.
There are other names for the Christ, but this grand-scale way of describing the life force that holds everything together, set against the context of kindess and love, breaks me down into awe (and often tears when it hits home.)
So, this first Christmas, before the clamour of the more modern one hits us like a train, I am going to think bigger – much bigger. Not because I am dismissive of the stories of Jesus the man, even Jesus the incarnation of the Christ.
I am going to remember that I am woven together from the substance of the Christ, and consider how this changes the responsibilities I carry into the world. Above all, it seems that the reponsibiity is towards love.
The great Becoming
How small we made you.
How constrained by our constraints.
We wore you like a lapel badge,
Pocketed you like a personal passport, then
Raised you at our borders like a flag.
We locked you in the pages of
Our Book, then threw away the key.
But how we worshipped you.
How we pointed at you with steeples.
You asked us to follow you, to
Give away our second shirts, but instead
We made one million icons, each one framed in gold.
We swayed and raised our own egos, singing love songs
Not to you, but to idealised versions of ourselves.
How is it that still, you love things by becoming them?
How was it that this brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman
Took upon herself another name for everything, so we could
Encounter her in all these beautiful things and bleed with her when she
Lies broken? And just when all seems lost, she whispers still –
Just below our house is a stand of ancient oak trees. How ancient I have no idea, but the presence of certain plants in the ground cover (particularly now I have cleared back much of the invasive Rhododendrons) indicates that the woods have been there for many hundreds, prossibly thousands of years. The grounding effect of large trees on our fickle human existance is one that is well documented, and I have something of a love affair with these oaks.
I am perhaps not alone, because they are also home to a number of animals, notably red squirrels, tree creepers, woodpeckers and, most noticable of all, a large colony of jackdaws. Or perhaps I should call them a ‘band’ or a ‘train’ to use their collective noun.
Even though they are there all year, for some reason, these beautiful, fiercely intelligent birds have become symbols of winter for me, and therefore, creatures of advent.
These jackdaws are there all the time, but most notably in the winter, where they are everpresent, almost unnoticed in their ubiquiosity as they flap the sky on apparently pointless journeys from branch to branch, squabbling with each other or an occasional gull or buzzard.
Sometimes the croaking noise they make reaches a distant peak, as it did when the sparrowhawk lingered to close to their untidy stick-nests in spring, but for the most part, the rasp and clatter of their vocalisation is part of the backdrop of living. Because Jackdaws love buildings (in the past often blocking chimneys with their) often they will rattle over the roof tiles – a disturbance until we became aclimatised.
I put out some food once and set up a camera trap to try to capture images of a local pine marten that I knew from glimpses and traces had been scouting out our chickens. all I did was to feed the jackdaws.
Unsurprisingly, our jackdaws have been featured in some of our art work, including this piece that Michaela made featuring an old poem about the burdens of winter;
Jackdaws are often featured in our stories and our folklore, creatures onto which we project meaning in our attempt to make sense of the world. To some they have been holy, perhaps because they often make their homes in the high church steeples. To others they are devil birds, associated with chaos and war.
Other stories come to us from greek mythology;
The story of Princess Arne of the island of Siphnos describes a beautiful young princess who is ruined by her own greed. In this story, Arne is offered a bribe by the legendary King Minos of Crete to betray the people of her island. Unable to resist the bribe, Arne relinquishes the island to Minos. Immediately, Minos and the army of Crete conquer Siphnos. Seeing her actions and disgusted by her avaricious betrayal, the gods decide to punish Arne. The punishment chosen is to turn her into a Jackdaw. In this form, Arne is forevermore condemned to chase after gold; her greed is translated into a Jackdaw’s fascination with shiny objects.
Once more, we do disservice to creatures of the natural world by attributing to them the character traits that are ours, but it seems to me that this bird of winter – this bird of advent – might be a useful reminder of the tautology of this dark season, in which we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation using such exterior excess. Like the jackdaw, we have no need for shiny things, but we chase them anyway.
I like sad songs; in fact, I’m prepared to argue on some days that the only good songs are sad songs.
I can’t remember when I first heard this song, but it had an instant impression on me: many Christmas songs are full on sleigh bells and schmaltz- only a few like this one hint at the sadness that lurks inside all of us, however much we try and hide it or seek refuge in ‘Christmas Magic’ (sic). The first verse, in particular seems so close to home and present experience.
It’s a hopeful atheist/agnostic song, of that stance that is not harsh or seering about faith, but rather sorrowing that it is not there and still seeing that there’s something…something… that might just give hope. In that sense I think it is an Advent song.
The song invariably makes me cry, but this time when I listened to it, this verse hit me:-
‘All that they destroy And in their face we throw our Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy’
Faced with challenge, evil or nastiness, most of us- especially when social media is so accessible and can accommodate the darkest parts of our ego- attack back even harder. Those of us who consider ourselves informed, caring and on the side of the oppressed, despairing that things will ever change and sometimes overwhelmed with the reality of it all are often tempted to hit back with snark or mirthless condemnation. I know I have done. I know I do.
I don’t think anyone is changed by our angry virtue, but I think they have a chance of change if they experience our joy. In any case I think that joy is one of the greatest acts of resistance.
As ever, Mary Oliver puts it better than me:-
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Today singer/songwriter Bob Fraser takes on darkness once more, in the hope that love will win in the end…
A few years ago a friend invited me to go with him to see one of the Hobbit films. Lots of us love myths, legends, and stories of adventure. Especially epic stories of adventure, where there’s a struggle going on between good and evil, darkness and light. They hold a strange fascination for many of us.
We duly met at the cinema only to find that the schedule had been changed and it was not on that afternoon. And it wasn’t on anywhere else within striking distance that afternoon. Once we’d got over that disappointment, his ‘Plan B’ suggestion was to go ten-pin bowling. Now I’ve only played occasionally since school days and probably the last time I went was ten years previously as part of an office Christmas party. So I was a little rusty to say the least. However, amongst the many rounds where I didn’t get a strike at all, I had one when I got four strikes in a row! I knew three in a row and you were a ‘turkey’, but never before had I heard of anyone getting four. I’d never even had three strikes! So I was unprepared for the declaration that came up on the screen that I was a ‘four-bagger’. To me at least it was a story of epic proportions, albeit a short one. Me – a four-bagger!
All of this made me think about whether there is some sort of epic struggle going on in our lives and whether we have a battle on our hands against an unseen enemy who is determined to sideline us and cause us to lose heart. Is the story of our individual lives set within a much bigger epic story, which is still unfolding? As in most epic adventures, darkness holds both fear and fascination. Hidden dangers lurk everywhere. We go through a door out of curiosity and before you know it the door slams behind us and there’s no handle on the inside. We have no alternative but to go further and risk getting totally lost in unfamiliar surroundings. We can lose hope. What if we can’t find our way back?
Most of us have some consciousness of good and evil. We’re well aware of the many cruel things that happen to innocent people, and of the need for justice and truth. We’re utterly appauled at what’s happening in Ukraine. We’re desperately uncomfortable with the number of people living as refugees, trying to make sense of a life they never imagined they would be experiencing. We’re angry about the number of people living in poverty and the broken health and social welfare system in the UK.
When hiding in a dark cave seems better than facing the light of reality; when dwelling on our failures seems easier than getting up again and moving forward, when Advent darkness seems to overwhelm the light of the Christmas story, what do we hold on to that will give us courage and strength, and hope for the future? I wrote a song to capture something of that epic struggle and it’s helped me to embrace a bigger story where good triumphs over evil, where I don’t lose heart and give up. Where I find my way home again, and where love wins in the end.
TRIGGER WARNING. This post deals with theological discussions which have often upset people. Read with caution and kindness, or simply move on. Not all tenets of faith need to be deconstructed, at least not by all of us, at this time of year. I hope that those who persist in reading this might understand that there is majesty and divine grace in the ordinaryparts of this story too…
I grew up attending an Anglican church which was very much on the ‘evangelical’, or even ‘charismatic’ wing of the church. Those for whom these labels mean little just need to know that we practised a fundamentalist version of Christianity, claiming biblical inerrant truth alongside an embrace of charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues and divine healing.
Whilst we had little time for what we saw as the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, that seemed to be happening in other parts of the church, nevertheless, we were firm in certain beliefs about Jesus’ miraculous conception.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
From ‘the apostles creed’
Into this safe world of secure truth came the distant rumble of disruption, in the form of this man, who we regarded as the enemy;
I remember well how we denounced him because, above all else, he dared to doubt the virgin birth. A quote from this article gives some idea of the febrile atmosphere that I remember well;
In the mid to late 1980s the bishop of Durham was a public figure in the way no church figure has quite managed since. He had been a wholly unknown theology lecturer when he went on a scarcely watched television programme to say that he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth. He also said that the resurrection “was not just a conjuring trick with bones”. This was reported, with a dishonesty that is still astonishing, as “comparing the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones”.
I should probably explain that “the resurrection” refers to the central Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. A prime minister saying on the eve of the World Cup that football was extremely boring and they hoped England would lose quickly might carry the same emotional charge of treachery.
In Jenkins’ case, an Essex vicar raised £2,000 from his scandalised congregation to mount a campaign against Jenkins getting the job; the archbishop of York, John Habgood, went ahead and consecrated him a bishop anyway – and three days later York Minster was struck by lightning.
Andrew Brown writing in the Guardian, 2016
Leaving aside the fact that we seemed to beleive that God would send an angry thunderbolt at the enthronment of a heretical bishop, whilst failing to intervene in any visible way at all those other human excesses like war and genocide, what this story reminds me of is what I have come to see as the house of cards version of religion. The edifice of faith I grew up always felt like a shuggly stack of cards. If you removed one of those cards, the whole thing would come tumbling down. Jenkins was shaking this tower and because of this, we hated him an everything he stood for.
As an aside to this story, years later I read an article in which an interviewer asked Bishop Jenkins to reflect on his leadership and in particular, asked ‘what if, when you get to heaven, you discover that you were wrong?’ His answer will stay with me forever. ‘I will fall in to the arms of a loving god’.
Jenkins was trying to encourage people to interact with the stories of the Bible in the way that he was used to doing with his theological studies – to see the stories not as scientific facts, but repositories of truth of a different kind. These days, I am fully at peace with this.
But back to our virgin. If you are interested in exploring the narrative around Mary’s virginity in a deeper way, both in terms of the theology and history of how it has been interpreted, then I very much recommend listening to this podcast.
Does it matter whether Mary was a virgin or not?
To many people, it matters enormously. Perhaps this is because of the house of cards stuff I was describing earlier, but more than this, for many, this part of the story is precious in that it carries an idea of the seperateness, the special purity of Mary herself, and how her pregnancy was entirely different.
This kind of incarnation seems to concern itself with extra-ordinary humanity. I like the idea too that the god child was born into the mess of the ordinary life.
God-with-us is not a reluctant participant, holding his nose against the stench.
Mary is a woman, not a pristine test-tube experiement in a heavenly air-gapped laboratory.
I no longer need to tick a doctrinal box about the nature of divine conception.
There, I have said it. All these years later it still feels transgressive. I am still ducking potential thunderbolts.
Today Steve Broadway finds connections between the waiting season of advent and the wait for genuine action on climate change. I find myself very much in agreement…
One of the resources I’ve been using during Advent is the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book 2022, by Nicholas Holtam (he retired as Bishop of Salisbury in 2021), entitled “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change”. Holtam was the Church of England’s ‘lead bishop’ on the environment (and chaired the Environmental Working Group 2014-21). As one might imagine, given that background, the book is well researched and an excellent source for both information and reflection.
I’m finding it a challenging read but a very apt subject for Advent. In his introduction, Holtam describes it thus: “
Advent is urgent. We are getting ready for Christmas and there is a lot to do. We are also reminding ourselves that Christ will come again (do I personally really think that?). We do not know when that will be so we need to be prepared. Most of the time we just get on with life and live without much urgency, but that feels less possible in a world that is becoming more and more alarmed by the climate and environmental crises”.
Lunchtime sketch in a local bar: ‘we just get on with life and live without much urgency’
The sad thing is that, as the book’s sub-title infers, we’re still only starting to get serious about the environment… it seems that we’re very good at the thinking and writing bit but, when it comes to action, we’re pretty inadequate. For example, in 2020, the General Synod of the CofE recognised the climate emergency (a little late in the day, one might think?) and committed the Church to becoming ‘net zero’ by 2030. Holtham was quick to point out that this constituted “an impossibly ambitious target”.
Another case of yet more talk and inadequate action perhaps?
We can all recall the early days of the pandemic and the dramatic effects it had on our daily lives – quite apart from the horrible business of thousands of deaths, the overstretched NHS et al. The planes had stopped flying, there was very little traffic, the streets were empty, the sounds of nature were all around us. Many people resolved that “we must never go back to the way it was before” (or words to that effect)… but, of course, we have.
And, of course, it’s not just a ‘technical fix’, there are morals involved too… it cannot be acceptable for the carbon footprint of the richest 1% to be equivalent to that of the poorest 50%.
Holtam provides MUCH food for thought. Take this, for example: “It would help if we were more fearful about the damage we are doing to environment by flying… Aviation makes up 7% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet few people are aware that aviation kerosene is NOT taxed, due to international agreement. The missing tax is made up for, to some extent, by the level Air Passenger Duty… but, in 2021, the UK’s Chancellor cut this by 50% on domestic flights to encourage us to fly. It is crazy that it is cheaper to fly from Manchester to London than to go by train”.
This is an extract from the wonderful John O’Donohue’s ‘Blessing On Our World’ (Benedictus)… which seems somehow appropriate:
“Believing ourselves to be helpless, we hand over all our power to forces and systems outside us that then act in our names; they go on to put their beliefs into action; and, ironically, these actions are often sinister and destructive. We live in times when the call to full and critically aware citizenship could not be more urgent”.
It’s a depressing, slow-moving world when it comes to taking action and legislating on environmental issues… especially when governments frequently seem happy to be paying ‘lip service’ to it all.
One of the positive outcomes of the environmental crisis is that it’s highlighted the need for us all to nurture the planet… to be far more mindful of its resources and to take on board sustainable policies that avoid the kind of damage caused by past actions. Sadly, there are still powerful and influential people who continue to follow strategies that reward themselves at the expense of the environment.
Photo: nuclear fusion: ‘a near near-limitless, safe, clean source of energy’? (Damien Jemison/LLNL/NNSA).
Given all our concerns about the Climate Crisis, the recent, remarkable announcement from the US about a breakthrough in nuclear fusion which could mean “a near-limitless, safe, clean source of energy”, comes as a potential ‘game-changing’ discovery. No doubt, it will take several years yet before we know the full implications of this research and the impact (or not) it might have on the future of the planet… but what a remarkable life-changing breakthrough this could be.
I only hope that such possibilities don’t mean that all those ‘climate sceptics’ will effectively tell us “we told you that science would be the answer… so, forget all that talk of having to nurture the planet, we can now pursue stuff that will simply maximise financial rewards, increase our influence on the world and its people”.
Power, greed and riches for the few… at the expense of the few (and the planet)?
Today we hear from my Friend Graham Peacock. He used to be a methodist minister – actually, do you ever stop? – now he works as a chaplain in mental health services. Here he reflects on his own season, amidst the losses of later middle age.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
This is part of a set reading for the first Sunday in Advent (November 27th)
There are often readings like this on the first Sunday of Advent: I’ve always struggled with them. At first, they felt like the apocryphal embarrassing aunt whose presence is tolerated once a year at Christmas: the family heaving a sigh of relief when they leave, knowing that they won’t have to see them again until next Christmas.
(By the way, I do not have an aunt, so I can only speculate what they are like).
Then, when faith made sense to me, I was around Christians who believed that these strange, wild prophecies were literally true, ignoring the colourful literary imaginings and poetry and -it seemed to me- invariably remaking them into angry prose. Strangely this God often seemed to hate all the things they did, only more so.
I’ve only preached from them when I’ve had to do so and I haven’t in the last few years: I knew death and destruction happened, but that was in far off places. I’m middle class: bad things happen to other people- the villages near where I live don’t need to hear readings like this.
Just over two years ago, a friend in the pub looked around at our group of friends and said something like; ‘We’ve all done very well: mid 50s and we are all still here’. I laughed, but over the next few weeks I stopped laughing; within that group two long term relationships unravelled, one person developed a lifelong health condition, and another got a terminal diagnosis.
The suddenness shocked me- it still does; what I imagined was a stable group- a bulwark against the uncertainties of life, was fractured.
It is perhaps a mistake to narrow down the majesty, unevenness and unpredictability of that reading at the start, to the tiny world of myself and my friends. However, in my experience, micro shocks make me think about bigger issues like nothing else: I was never good about preaching the big issues- not that I couldn’t comprehend them or that I’m not interested in them- but rather I was liable to lapse into generalities or comfortable bromides.
The micro shocks I experienced through those events opened me up again to something bigger and more profound- all that I’m certain of could disappear in an instant: what I hold onto is only provisional. I think that’s why these set readings appear on the 1st Sunday in Advent- to remind us of that in shocking, sometimes opaque imagery: it’s no wonder that I/we want to shoo them away.
Maybe next year I could chose to preach on the 1st Sunday of Advent.