“What happens next?”

Happy New Year!

As Christmas and New Year celebrations draw to a close, Twelfth Night approaches and festive decorations are put away for another year, and as many of us return to work or are simply left wondering how to consume a mountain of leftover turkey, there can be a tangible feeling of “What next?”. With daylight still at a premium and the beginning of newspaper mutterings about how to beat the dreaded January Blues, not to mention the main political parties stepping up their rhetoric in an election year, many will be diving for their duvets if the question is posed. However, the liturgical answer to the question “What next?” is the slightly unheralded season of Epiphany.

After the patient waiting of Advent and the joyful celebration of Christmas, the relatively short period of Epiphany is sometimes the forgotten season in the Church’s year. It is when the Church marks the time when the Magi from the East visited the infant Christ, kneeling before the child and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But with the Magi often present in our crib scenes, and our next door neighbour’s pre-yuletide mastery of We three Kings of Orient are on their recorder, I suspect that Epiphany has often become neglected in its own right, or at the very least subsumed into Christmas.

But it would be a great shame if Epiphany escaped our attention. There is plenty which is relevant and important in this brief narrative after Jesus’ birth. Remember that this was a period of extraordinary political and social tension. Mary and Joseph had been forced to Jerusalem by a census which was likely motivated by a desire for higher taxation, and which certainly fuelled resentment of the Roman Empire. This was an overcrowded and busy Bethlehem, in which King Herod ordered in troops to seek out and murder every child under the age of two. There was no oasis of peace into which Jesus was born. It was a melting-pot of anger at the establishment, social disharmony and panic. And, as a result of King Herod’s infanticide, Jesus and his family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt for their own safety.

Amidst this turmoil, the Magi make a pilgrimage to kneel at the feet of the Christ-child, making offerings of precious gifts, which reveal the reason why this baby is so special. Gold marks Jesus out as the King, the sovereignty of God in human form, who will lead the oppressed people into freedom. Frankincense recognises Jesus as the Great High Priest, the divinity of God made flesh, who will lead the church in prayer and worship. Myrrh, foretelling the death of God on Earth, which will open the way for all humans to gain eternal life.

These are costly gifts, which point to the costliest gift of all, that God chose to limit himself and become like one of us. That God gives up all that he has simply to bring us back into his loving embrace.

But this episode also shows us something else beyond these gifts. The Magi are outsiders, not from Jewish heritage, and yet they are the first to tell the world about the specialness of Christ. God’s sacrifice and God’s invitation of love are not for a small group of people, they are for everybody. Jesus and his family become refugees by seeking freedom in Egypt, the place from which Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery. When Jesus is on the Earth, no place or people are beyond redemption, all are set free.

What next? Maybe we have gifts to offer which will show the world who Jesus is. Maybe we can learn to see Jesus in the downtrodden victims of a turbulent world. Or maybe, after the highs of Christmas, all that is left is to do is kneel with the Magi in wonder and awe at the feet of our Saviour.

Rob Glenny

Tell me the old, old story…

Have you ever read a murder mystery novel, or watched a detective programme on television where you don’t find out whodunit right until the very end? There are clues along the way which hint at the guilty party, many red herrings to be distracted by, and with any number of suspects, until eventually at the climax of the story we discover who was responsible. When the culprit is finally revealed, the rest of the story makes sense. All those aspects which initially seemed confusing or suspicious fall into place, and the convention is usually that all the loose ends are tied up.

But have you then tried re-reading, or re-watching the story, knowing what happens in the end? It completely changes the way you understand what is going on. The story falls into place much more easily, because you have the key piece of information which explains everything else. And once you have that information, you can’t forget it, or put it to the back of your mind, and it becomes impossible to read the story, or watch the programme the way you did the first time. It’s like seeing the world after having laser eye surgery, you can never go back to viewing things the way that you saw them before.

As the nights draw in, the temperature drops, and winter begins, it can be easy to feel jaded as we hear again the story of Jesus’ arrival on Earth. We all know how the story goes, we all know what happens to each of the characters, and we all know how it ends. And knowing what happens makes it almost impossible to hear the story the way that we did when our hearts were captivated by the bravery of Mary, the loyalty of Joseph, the pilgrimage of the shepherds and the Magi, the glory of the angels, the jealousy of Herod, and wonderful paradox of the infant saviour of the world lying vulnerable in the place where animals feed. Familiarity, as they say, can breed contempt.

But, of course, being swept up in the emotion of the narrative is only half of what is going on here. Because although this nativity story marks the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life among us, it is the plot twist in the story of God’s relationship with all humans, which is a rather longer tale. Here’s how that story goes…

God creates the universe, and everything in it, and gives humans a special place in that creation. He asks them to look after the planet, and live peaceably with one another. But humans decide to turn their back on God. They spurn God’s love, and they treated one another badly. So God gives them a set of laws to help them stay on track. When people break the laws, God sends holy men and women, prophets, judges and kings, to lead people into holier ways of living. But they are ignored, or turn their back on God themselves. There is a gap between God and the people, and no matter what God gives to the people to help them come back, they always seemed to mess it up.

So God did what only God could do. He becomes one of the people. Not a powerful one, he isn’t born rich, or into royalty, and he doesn’t have a powerful family. Instead he comes as an outcast: poor, homeless, of no social standing, the tiny frail body of a newborn child. And he lives a life of humble obedience, preaching a Gospel of boundless love and unlimited forgiveness. A life which the least in society can imitate far more easily than the greatest. God shows humans the way to live, and how by following that example, ultimately we could be reconciled with him. God became like us so that we could become like God.

It’s a story which never gets old.

Rob Glenny

 

What did you do?

daddy-what-did-you-do-in-great-war

It’s one of the best known propaganda poster images of the Great War, one of the most powerful and emotional, and surely also one of the most often copied and parodied. A little girl in a blue dress sits on her father’s knee, looking at a picture book. On the floor at their feet, her younger brother is playing with his toy soldiers. The father looks left into the middle distance with a haunted expression, as his daughter asks him, “Daddy, what did youdo in the Great War?”

This War Office poster dates from the first year of the First World War, before the beginning of general conscription, when the British Army was still entirely a volunteer army. It aimed to move the fathers of Britain to ‘do their duty’ and enlist, so that they would not need to be ashamed when their children, in years to come, asked them whether they had done their bit for King and Country. The desire to provide for their dependents, at a time when provision for the families of wartime casualties was far from generous, was a huge disincentive to married men volunteering, and this poster sought to apply emotional pressure on them to do so. It’s not clear how many men responded as a result of this pressure, but it clearly made a mark. The fact that it’s so well remembered is evidence of that.

It has been all too easy for later generations to smile at the gullibility of those who were emotionally bullied into volunteering, or to condemn the military leaders who were prepared to send men to their deaths, or to spill oceans of ink in arguments over the causes of the War, who was to blame, and the alleged mistakes that were made. One major achievement of the way this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the War has been observed, is that it has balanced respect for those who were prepared to lay down their lives, with a sense of the horror of war, and the need to work tirelessly for peace.

But that old poster retains its poignancy after a hundred years. That little girl is still asking me — asking all of us — “What did you do, after the Great War, to ensure that what people called ‘the war to end all wars’ might somehow, sometime, be seen as a contribution to the ending of war for ever?” This may seem like a foolish question, as we look back over the century that has passed since then and count the number of wars that have taken place. Many commentators have said that there has not been a single year in all that time when there has not been a war somewhere in the world. Many of these wars have involved the Allied powers, though often at a distance, so that George Orwell’s chilling 1984 vision of a world constantly at war somewhere else seems eerily prophetic.

When we stand at the War Memorial this Remembrance Sunday, to remember the 12 men of Marston who died in the 1914-18 War, and the millions of others they represent, we will be invited to join in an Act of Commitment, with the words,

Let us pledge ourselves anew to the service of God and our fellow men and women; that we may help, encourage and comfort others, and support those working for the relief of the needy and for the peace and welfare of the nations.

Then we all respond,
Lord God our Father, we pledge ourselves to serve you and all humankind, in the cause of peace, for the relief of want and suffering, and for the praise of your name. Guide us by your Spirit; give us wisdom; give us courage; give us hope; and keep us faithful now and always. Amen.

God knows, with all the news we see day by day of wars, genocides and epidemics, the need to commit ourselves to the work of peace is greater than ever. Please join us on this Remembrance Sunday, and make this commitment your own.

Tony Price