What is in a name? Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank. These names may not mean anything to you particularly. To me the last does. It was Frank I think who took my greenhouse, though possibly Eva. Frank didn’t take it, it was demolished, flattened, rendered useless. An act of wilful vandalism. One from which I’m (clearly) still recovering Eva and Frank the terrible twosome were the names of the storms that were, it seemed to me, centred on my greenhouse around last Christmas. So we spent the lull before the new year clearing broken glass and splintered wood. Storm Jesus? Jesus has not made it on to the Met office list of approved storm names. Perhaps in time. Though perhaps that storm has already passed over and we are still clearing through the wreckage. What then did storm Jesus look like and have we missed it? The properly American named Walter Wink has written a book titled ‘Naming the Powers’. The powers he describes in the book could be said to be storms. No teacups here. Though perhaps American tea-party politics is one of the powers Wink might name. Walter Wink speaks of Naming powers, speaking directly to their authority and calling them out for what they are. Speaking truth to power is a phrase used by the community organising group TCC – Together Creating Communities. A grass roots community group giving the power back to the ordinary folk, calling those who claim powerful positions to give account. Beware you who stand in their way. So long as they remain part of the community, separate from the established places of power they retain their mandate to speak truth to these powers. Walter Wink suggests in his book that this is what Jesus does. And that we have attempted to domesticated him. The success and failure of Christianity, or The Way as it was named earlier, for me lies in Constantine. A clever move making Christianity the religion of the empire. Domesticate it and take away its cutting edge, remove the critical element. Make it part of the establishment so it is hard to criticise the powerful hand that feeds you. Offer the Ego power and status and it is difficult to refuse. Jesus refused. The naming of Jesus is a calling out of the one who was and is to be a storm in the lives of the comfortable. Joseph, Matthew tells us, names him Jesus. He claims him into his family and gives him the power and the authority to speak truth into that institution. He overturns the plans of the rich and powerful for keeping the poor in their place. He blows through the country reminding all that they owe their loyalty to God, to themselves and not to the authorities. He rains on the parade of the Jewish leaders who have taken advantage of the Roman rule to maintain their powerful position, who are stealing from the ordinary folk in the name of the temple. The Jesus storm has been, but the effects linger on. Jesus himself named the powers of his day, spoke truth, not post-truth, but the old fashioned kind of truth into the places where many feared to tread. Is this our truth? Are we merely defenders of our positions or are we willing to speak truth to the powers to be willing, like Jesus, to give everything we have away, even our own life in order that all might have life. Mine is a position of power, as is every cleric in the church. It is my duty to speak truth to the powers who claim status above me, and to ensure that every voice is heard, not just the loudest. Those of us in positions of authority are the most at risk of being seduced by the power that such positions offer. We must use it as Jesus did, not to merely maintain the container, but to enable all to get to the contents to the true spirituality that Jesus offered that is the vine of life climbing up the trellis of religion. When the religious stands in its way, when the trellis is broken by the storm, the vine sprawls around the garden, but gives life in places it was never able to reach before. We as church have become afraid of the storm. The trellis has been built strong to domesticate and tame the vine. The truth is that the storm of Jesus will be set loose on the community with or without the church to enable his manifesto to come into being. We can be part of the journey, or we can attempt to hold on to what is not ours to hold. We can begin by speaking truth to those who hold power close to us. 500 years ago Luther nailed 95 issues to the door of Wittenberg Church about abuses of power. Reading them now, they make little sense to our situation. Perhaps it is time for another 95…
Each year amidst high tension and deepest secrecy the world waits in trepidation barely able to contain its excitement and in great anticipation of what the designers and creative minds will reveal – too soon and you’ll forget it, too late and it will be lost – for unto us will come, to us is given, the Christmas advert. I ought to have given you a check-list so you can tick them off as we go. They range this year from the: ‘we have everything you need’, to ‘your favourite things’ and from ‘bouncing on a bed in a scarf’ to ‘how to make an entrance at Christmas’. ‘From the this is how we baste it my dear’ – ‘school of Christmas’ to ‘winding up the children’, and ‘children winding up the parents’ come to think of it. From ‘everybody eats at my house’ to ‘light it up, dress it down, sing it, make it snow, drink and dance and sleep it off and do it all over again’ to ‘how to smile at some really naff presents’ or ‘what to buy to avoid the naff present face’. From, ‘honestly we really do make all these by hand because hand made presents are the best, as long as they are our hand made ones’… to ‘have a drink on us, but don’t forget to tell your friends’ (p.s. we invented Santa).
Don’t we just love a story to tug at the heart strings at Christmas – yes even the original Christmas story makes an appearance “Guys, it’s just a bag, I mean a baby, guy’s it’s just a bag”. But under the radar and slipped in ever so carefully are a few moments of truth alongside the retail opportunities of the season. Mog’s Christmas teamed up with Save the Children to encourage us to share the day with friends and neighbours who might have nothing this year – unbeknown to the creators a poignant tale for those whose homes have been devastated by flooding. The important things are those that we do for each other. And the moving tale of the janitor who works the night shift alone at a mannequin factory. Each night he amuses himself and sets up mannequin surprises for the day staff culminating in a great Christmas mannequin tree. And unbeknown to him whilst the factory syndicate wins the lottery, the day staff repay his kindness by making sure he also is one of the winners. Small acts of kindness and generosity.
I’m once again taken with the tale by those who, in conjunction with Age Concern this year, talk about making a connection this Christmas, not just with those who are near and dear to us, but reaching out to someone who may be alone lonely or forgotten. Reaching out to offer them the gift of knowing that when everyone else is celebrating, they too are remembered.
Somewhere, there is always an empty cradle at Christmas, something is missing. What do we choose to fill it with?
And so for me “It’s just a bag” becomes “It is just a baby.” Despite the stories of journeys, the tinsel crowns, the lights and action, extraordinary stories they may be, but, yes it is just a baby. An ordinary birth. Not an uncommon event, even at this time of year. But also, Really? Oh No, it is so much more than a bag, I mean baby. It is so much more than a baby.
And so what do we choose to fill our manger of need? With every gift? Do we fill the cradle with far more than what we need to try to make up for the emptiness? But simply to recognise, that yes there was a birth, is in itself a beginning, because those beginnings grow. And so we begin to usher in the birth of something so much greater. Something that words alone cannot do. In sharing our Christmas, in welcoming the stranger into our stable, in offering a helping hand to those who might need it we begin to see the Christ child, and then, the joy at Christmas begins to make some sense.
Lucy Winkett ended thought for the day this past Tuesday with the challenge to ‘give ourselves away’. Lucy is rector of St. James’ Piccadilly. Had I the chance to be in London over Christmas I would make time to go there to see the art installation by Arabella Dorman. It includes a dingy which arrived on the island of Lesbos with 62 refugees on board. St. James’ Piccadilly is no stranger to controversy. One of it’s previous incumbents, whom I met in Bangor, was Donald Reeves, known for being a nuisance to the CofE. Together with his partner Peter Peltz they founded the peace charity Soul of Europe. Based on the words of Mandela: “You don’t make peace by talking to your friends; you have to make peace with your enemies.” They began bringing people together. So I find myself ill at ease as, unlike the thousands of refugees who will be on the road this December, I have no need to travel and I have a secure home. Today’s Gospel reading tells of Mary journeying to visit Elizabeth, both of them pregnant. Mary makes a second journey with Joseph to Bethlehem. A third journey takes them away into Egypt as refugees fleeing from violence. The first journey was one made out of love, to see a relative. The second out of obligation to the state and the third made in desperation and fear. So little has changed. These journeys will all happen this Christmas. Returning to the words of Lucy Winkett: what does it mean to ‘give ourselves away’? If I suggested to you that Advent was a time for emptying out in order to be ready for Christmas, what might your initial thoughts be? Emptying cluttered shelves and bookcases, in order to fill the house with this year’s must-reads and best-buys? Maybe. Fasting or more probably dieting through advent in order to make room for twelve days feasting? Maybe not so much these days. Perhaps it could mean emptying ourselves of our own needs, wants, desires, pride and expectations in order to be filled with the love that comes from being truly open to receive the gift of God in Jesus? How often do we hear, it is in the giving that we receive? Do we really understand this concept? It is not the reciprocal voucher exchange that I and my cousin used to practice for a number of Christmases past! Giving of ourselves to such an extent that we give ourselves up, give ourselves away. Until we do that, there is little room for Jesus or anyone else to make much of an impression upon our hearts. A Christmas film might help us to unpack this idea a little. The Richard Curtis Christmas comedy Love Actually from 2003. The film begins and ends with a scene of travellers reunited with friends and families at an airport. The voice-over from Hugh Grant suggests, contrary to the popular opinion that we live in a world dominated by violence and hatred, Love actually is all around us. But it is not necessarily news worthy or dignified, but it is there. And so begins the tangled web of stories to make us laugh along the way and prove the point. In fact it appears that Love can be found in a myriad of unexpected, awkward, and you might well suggest if you have seen the film, inappropriate places. As the new prime minister meets his household staff. As someone is caught with his brother’s wife. Being in love with the bride during a wedding, when you are not the groom. Being seven and in love with the most popular girl in school. Or in love with someone with whom you cannot communicate. Love in the darkest places, where a heart’s desire is beyond grasp. But the film begins to turn to those true expressions of love that take an effort to cultivate. Where there is sacrifice, we see a giving away of self to the point where there is nothing left to give. The invitation is then open for love to enter in. Not because of inappropriate desires, but because of the selfless giving of one person to another. And so we see a sister devoted to her brother. The seven year old gives up everything to learn to play the drums for his girl. A writer and his housekeeper who cannot say anything meaningful to each other learn each other’s language in the hope that one day there might be a chance for their unspoken affection. Moments of beauty in a silly Christmas film brings to birth the idea that in order to receive, first we must be prepared not just to give, but to give up our self. Mary gives up her body, her identity, her home and then her freedom. Mary gave herself away. We are asked for the same. Love is given a chance when we are transparent before the other. Love will find a way in, often through pain or suffering. First we must admit that we are broken. When the moment comes that we have nothing left to give; Christ can then enter in, the transformation can begin and we will truly have given ourselves away.