Dear friends: I speak to you in the shadow of Aleppo and fentanyl; and I wonder what meaning any word of mine might have this day in light of the savagery of Syria over the past 5 years and the growing crisis on the streets of Vancouver and many other cities. But here goes, with the help of the Spirit.
What are we waiting for? When, early in Advent some years ago in an EfM study session, someone asked that question, one of the participants responded, “Maybe the question is not ‘What are we waiting for?’ but ‘what are we WAITING for?’” – as in why are we not getting on with it? Jesus has come, Christ is with us and the Spirit of Creation is abroad in the world. We know what needs to be done and often how to do it, and sometimes we actually have the means to do it. So, why don’t we? It was a powerful question that resonated loudly within me.
I first felt the call to ordained ministry quite early in life and then spent the next 40 years running as fast and as far as I could away from it. Like many others I’ve heard speak here, I’ve had a complex relationship with the Church in many of its expressions. I was raised in the Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church, both Anglican expressions, and extremely conservative.
But after 4 years in Canada in my mid-teens I returned to the UK with a new, more generous, view of Christian faith – and of community. And when I encountered the simmering and then open hostility between Protestant and Roman Catholic, I decided that what I saw there had not much to do with Christianity as I had come to understand it; so I quit the church, cold turkey, and didn’t go back for decades. Along the way I tried many other ways of believing and living out my values. I explored other faith traditions and other expressions of Christianity. I became immersed in the arts, which became my avocation and source of creativity…you might say they became my incarnational vehicle – the means through which the Divine Presence most deeply touches me and invites me to participate with it in the act of creation, or re-creation. And then I encountered – and embraced – the Baha’i Faith. I have no regrets about my time as a Baha’i: I learned much that enriched my life, and that I continue to carry with me; but after a decade I found it didn’t feed me spiritually. I don’t know whether that was anything intrinsic to the Baha’i faith, or a longing in me for an idealized form of the faith of my youth, or my profound and continuing love for the Way of Jesus of Nazareth; but in any case it sent me spinning off into another extended wilderness experience.
As a Baha’i I had encountered some painful prejudice at the hands of Christians, so it was very difficult for me to return to the church. And any time I tried – expecting that over the years the church might have changed in some way – I discovered that it had not; indeed, many in the pews were yearning to return to a time when everyone went to church, the pews were full, and so were the coffers, and few challenged orthodoxy – the Christendom model. Thankfully much has changed since then but, surprisingly, much has not.
It was much later, when I was working in the Canadian Arctic that I encountered an example of generosity and forgiveness that would change my view of “church”, and challenge my own cynicism and hypocrisy. I met people: Gwich’in, Dene, Inuit and Inuvialuit, who had been horribly abused by the church: who had lost families, heritage, livelihood and identity through the actions of the church on behalf of the Government of Canada…and yet here they were worshipping in their own languages as well as English, singing lustily and praising the Creator with thanks. At the time few who hadn’t experienced it knew the full extent of the abuse – and they weren’t talking much about it – but even then it made me feel ashamed of my reaction to what I began to see as petty prejudice as a Baha’i earlier in my life. Through the faith and hospitality of these communities I found a way to let go of my own hurt, and understand that the thing I was waiting for was actually something I had to help make happen. I had not only to wait expectantly; I had to “do” creatively. I had to participate: siting outside in safety looking in was no longer an option. I had to embrace vulnerability. That was hard for me and it still is, but my call to ordained ministry would reassert itself and – long story short – after 40 years of running away, I would be ordained in this very building by Bishop Michael Ingham. And then the journey: the pain and the longing and the waiting – and the joy – made sense. I had had a lot to learn; and I still do.
So I renewed my commitment to live within Christian community and explore the meaning of God-in-Christ with other people of faith whom I don’t expect always to agree with me. But my discomfort with orthodoxy persists. Today’s Gospel is a good example: a teenaged girl becomes pregnant allegedly without sexual congress (as they used to say in polite society!) and her betrothed is convinced by God through an angel to marry her anyway because the father is not another man, but God Himself. From a 21st Century perspective it strains credibility and tests the limits of faith. It seems clear that even to the people of Jesus’ time he was a Galilean, born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, the natural son of Mary, and Joseph the carpenter. But for orthodox Christianity it became a miracle and an article of faith.
And that story leads to many others we’ll hear over the next couple of weeks; and many thoughtful people within and outside the church will search for comfort, meaning and truth in them. And that’s not so easy. As one of my mentors; a respected pastor, scholar and teacher sometimes says, “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true”. Which is to say that when we read the Biblical stories, we’re often in the realm of myth, not history; and myth, properly understood, is about eternal truth not historical fact. It’s our way of explaining the unexplainable, and creating meaning in our lives. It’s about truths that defy easy explanation or acceptance. It’s a kind of hyper-truth.
My main concern with Christmas as we have come to observe it is that it has a tendency to draw us into a pattern of thought and practice that returns us annually to an emotional space that we have invested with cozy and comforting images and associations that have not much to do with the reality of that place in those times, or our place in our times. Normally, we’d call that nostalgia. It’s as though each year at this time we imagine that we get the chance to start all over again with a lovely clean slate, and a rose-tinted view of the Incarnation – the fleshing of the Divine in human reality – without having to explore the profound meaning of incarnation for us today: the way in which powerful ideas (like Justice, Compassion, Love and Hospitality) are given physical expression – what they look like in practice when fleshed by us. So as we prepare to celebrate that Incarnation of 2000 years ago – whether we receive it as literal fact or sacred myth, how do we relate to these cozy and comforting images today?
Let’s take a closer look at the continuing story of the pregnant girl and her betrothed. Theirs is a world in which the earth is flat; heaven – if it exists – is up, hell is down; God has no name and no gender but is thought of as male and dwells in the clouds somewhere. In this world men rule and women are of little value. There is one superpower that rules the known world with an iron fist, the peace it has achieved maintained by the brutal exercise of raw power. The powerful are rich and can expect perhaps 60 or even 70 years of life. The rest are serfs, or slaves who live at the pleasure their owners. If they’re lucky they might have maybe 30-35 years of very hard life. In this world only half of newborn infants survive to maturity, and maturity is very young – men were expected to be married by age 18, and their brides even younger.
So in the Christmas story, we have a very young couple. They’re not slaves; they’re the working poor and that’s VERY poor. The girl is pregnant and they’ve travelled on foot for days or weeks with, perhaps, the help of a donkey. They’re far from home and they’re dusty, dirty and exhausted. The girl will deliver her first child in the feed-box of an animal’s stall, because the inn-keeper has been kind enough to offer them the privacy of a stable: the inn itself would have been one large room populated by men. They have no change of clothes and those they have chafe and leave rashes, especially when they wear them wet after washing. Their skin is chapped and blotched, their feet bruised. And then there are the bugs – lots of them that bite and itch. Later they will become refugees; oppressed, impoverished, fleeing murderous tyranny. But at least the girl has a faithful boy who will marry her and love her for life, and her first child will survive to maturity and have brothers and sisters. And in that world at that time that wasn’t a bad deal. But it’s not such a cozy, comforting picture after all. So how much of that gritty reality do we see in the images of the crèche and the pageants and the greeting cards?
But we needn’t look very far to see plenty of it in the world of our experience: Superpowers. Brutal dictatorships. Corrupt leaders. Genocide. Slaughter. Exploitation. Crushing poverty. Homelessness. Millions – no, tens of millions – utterly without hope. Our world remains a dangerous and inhospitable place for most of its inhabitants, some of them just down the street and around the corner, or in our back alley.
The Christmas season invites us not just to rejoice in the celebration of that incarnation of 2,000 years ago; but to engage in the continuing process of Incarnation by drawing on the life-force that is within and around us to make the Divine clear and present in us, in our time. So as we celebrate the birth of the child who would grow up to befriend women, the poor, the sick, the homeless, thieves, prostitutes, the friendless, the marginalized and the untouchable, now is as good a time as any – and better than most – to ponder our response, in our time, to those who would, surely, be closest to his heart. For, despite the change in our world accomplished through Jesus, and in his name, it is not yet enough.
So this is not a time for nostalgia, nor, I think, for waiting: it’s a time for being and doing – because that’s our diaconal calling: the ministry of all the baptized to God’s people around the world – and just outside our doors.