One more Christmas

When I announced in September that I will be retiring next summer (see the piece later in this issue) it seemed a long way in advance. But the reason we made this decision, was so that as we go through the next nine months, we will be able to recognise and celebrate all of the ‘last’ occasions we will be having together.

So as we approach our 25th, and last, Christmas in Marston, I am beginning to think about what I want to say about this major event in the Christian Story. There are so many different aspects of what happened those two thousand years ago, and so many views about exactly what did happen and what it means, that there is almost endless scope for reflection and prayer.

At the heart of it all lies the central affirmation of the Christian faith: that the truth behind the mystery of everything, is Love. Or, in the simpler, well-known words of John 3.16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

In that baby, born in such unpromising conditions in Bethlehem, God himself was coming into the world to show us who God is. To show us God’s true nature, to tell us how God wants to relate to us human creatures, and how we can live and enjoy that relationship, and in the end to show us the full extent of God’s love, by giving up his life for us even though we failed to understand, and in our misery and hatred, brought him to that cruel and violent end. The cross already casts its shadow over the manger; but the end of the story is that God’s love is not defeated, but endures and still invites every one of us to respond with all the love we can.

The words of the angelic host, who announced the news of Jesus’ birth to the astonished shepherds outside Bethlehem, still ring through the world: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2.14, KJV). God’s glory and greatness are shown in the sheer generosity, and risk, and joy, and adventure of embracing this way of coming to save a broken world. Our response is to give him that glory, by the return of our love, thankfulness, worship, and imitation. The expression ‘peace, goodwill toward men’, can be understood in different ways. It can mean peace, among all those whom God favours, protects and blesses – that is, potentially, every single human being, since it is for the whole human race that Christ came.

Every Christmas brings the tragic reminder that peace is a commodity which is desperately absent from our world. In the past couple of years it seems that wars have multiplied, and the suffering caused to millions of people continues undiminished. It’s hard to conceive why the human race chooses war rather than peace, when all claim that they desire peace, and certainly peace is what God wants. The reason is, that war is an inevitable result of the ‘fallen’ state of human beings when we deliberately turn away from God, rejecting God and the glory and good will of that Christmas song. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, in Genesis 4, is the precursor of every act of violence and bloodshed that has followed throughout history.

The remedy will be, when all of us turn back to God in love of God, and the love of all those whom we will then see for the first time as our brothers and sisters. No doubt we cannot imagine how anything we do could change such a world as this; but that doesn’t excuse us from taking the first small steps.
Receive the gift of God’s Son, born into the world out of love. And give glory, praise and love to God and to all whom God loves. That’s all.

Tony Price

Forgiven

Last Saturday I went back to my old school in Edmonton, for a school reunion. Come September it will be 55 years since, as nervous 11-year-olds, my classmates and I started ‘big school’ and found ourselves no longer the oldest juniors, but the very smallest and weediest seniors in the world of school. Anyone who has ever attended one of these occasions will recognise immediately what it was like. You go into the room that’s been allocated to your year group, and it’s full of all these old people, their faces crossed with wrinkles, their hair grey or gone. And they’re all saying to you and each other, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you at all…”, or “Yes, I remember your name, but I would never have recognised you…” And little by little you start to recognise and remember, and to revisit those years you spent together as teenagers, and possibly even friends.

One of the great things about this return was that I was reminded of something wonderful that happened when I first attended one of these reunions, five years ago. On that day I met a woman I shall call Jill (because that’s her name), whom I had not seen since we left school aged 18. And I said sorry to her for something I did over 40 years before.

What happened was this. When I was in the Sixth Form I was one of a small group of students chosen to edit the Sixth Form magazine. At the time I had ambitions to be a poet, and in my mind the magazine was going to be chiefly a vehicle for my genius, in which I could publish the best of my own verses. Unfortunately we were also expected to solicit contributions from other budding writers and poets; and Jill submitted a couple of her own poems. My fellow-editors and I turned down one of these and made her rewrite another before we would publish it. Not because they needed it in any way. Just because we could. We used our ‘power’ as editors to put down another student, and make ourselves feel important.

And for over 40 years, whenever I looked at that blotty, roneoed old student production (which for some reason I had kept) I thought of Jill and felt guilty about what I had done to her. So when I met her again in July 2010, I told her how bad I felt about that arbitrary abuse of power, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Jill – bless her – didn’t say, “You know what? I don’t even remember that.” She said something much better. She said, “That’s OK; I’ve got over it; I forgive you.” I could hardly believe how good that made me feel: it was as if a weight had been lifted from me; I had been set free from some burden; and in fact I have stayed free, I haven’t felt guilty about it since that day.

Now, you might think this was a fairly trivial wrongdoing, in the great scheme of things. But for me that makes it all the more instructive to see how guilt can weigh on a person for a lifetime, and yet be lifted, completely removed, by a forgiving word. As Christians we take this for granted, rather. Every week when we come to church, we say Sorry to God for all that is wrong in our lives, and the priest tells us that God forgives us. By rights we should feel even lighter, freer about this, than I did about Jill’s word of forgiveness, because the ways we have hurt God are so much greater. How much greater, then, is the healing and freedom that his forgiveness brings, seeing it was gained by Jesus’ death on the cross?

Jill, as it happens, is a Christian, and I’m pretty sure she knows very well what she was doing when she said what she did. Being forgiven is one of the most wonderful things in life; and forgiving is wonderful too, because when we do it we are being like God, and doing what God does. Jesus certainly knew what he was doing when he taught his followers to pray, Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Tony Price

All things bright and beautiful

In June this year, the words of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in a document entitled Laudato si, argued that the time has come to consider protection of the Earth’s resources as a moral and spiritual concern much more than as an economic problem. In a passionate encyclical, which has been translated into eight different languages, he argues that the global market economy has plundered the Earth, at the expense of the poor and future generations. He puts the blame for climate change squarely at the door of a combination of hyper- consumerism and human greed, writing: “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain… As a result, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.” Of course, to most people this man is better known to most as Pope Francis, and whilst his writing may have come as a surprise (he has only published one previous encyclical), it will have been no shock that he has again put the concerns of the world’s poor at the heart of his thoughts.

In a list of the things we care most about, I would hazard a guess that caring for the environment and doing our bit to reverse climate change would probably figure quite low down. Somewhere a long way beneath putting food on the table for ourselves and our families, and slightly above putting the right bit of rubbish in the right bins. On that same list (I’m guessing again here), I reckon that making society fairer and redistributing the huge amount of global wealth collected by a tiny proportion of people sits much higher up as a concern. Not once in the recent election campaigning, which is usually a good barometer of which issues are in the public consciousness, aside from a brief mention by the Green party, was caring for the planet even vaguely alluded to. Instead, we heard endless rhetoric about economic competence, and making work more worthwhile for “hard- working Britons” (or insert whichever focus-grouped buzz word you prefer). The message was quite clear, we care about ourselves first and about our planet second.

Except that the Pope’s message to all of us, not just to Roman Catholics, is that these concerns are inextricably linked. Caring for the Earth is a matter of social justice, not an abstract concern for those who are wealthy enough to be able to afford the luxury of such anxiety. As such, if care for the poor is high on our list of priorities, then what is required is a change in attitude so that care for the planet is seen as part of that solution. Pope Francis argues that if we continue to make the pursuit of wealth our single goal to the exclusion of others, then both the Earth will suffer as we turn everything in it to a consumable resource, and the poor will suffer as they have always done whilst the rich get richer.

Part of the problem, is certainly apathy. One comedian has likened making environmentally friendly changes to our lives in the context of global consumption as like turning up to the aftermath of an earthquake with a dustpan and brush. It can feel like that sometimes.

And yet, such change is quite clearly possible.

Pope Francis, of course, is the first Pope to have taken his name from Saint Francis of Assisi, who was renowned for dedicating his life to care of the poor and respect for God’s created environment. Often depicted with a bird in his hand, Francis understood that nature and humans share a symbiotic relationship. Both are dependent on each other, both are vulnerable to suffering if they do not share this support together. St. Francis, through small acts, had enormous influence and was inspirational to millions of people. If everyone makes small gestures, such as sharing lifts when the car is used, not leaving the tap running forever, or trying to buy local produce, it would have a noticeable effect. If everyone made big gestures, like putting pressure on our elected officials to see climate change as a matter of social justice and equality, it would change the world. And the world needs changing, before it’s too late.

Rob Glenny

 

One nation under God?

The outcome of the General Election on May 7 turned out to be a surprise to a great many people. One news report described pundits of the British political scene as being ‘gobsmacked’ by the Conservative victory, which returned David Cameron to No. 10 Downing Street with an overall majority in the House of Commons. At the same time, many voters who had hoped for change were bitterly disappointed, and some deeply apprehensive, even fearful, about their future and the country’s.

On the day of his victory, the Prime Minister stood in front of the TV cameras and said, “As I said in the small hours of this morning, we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country from north to south, from east to west. It means giving everyone in our country a chance so no matter where you are from you have the opportunity to make the most of your life.”

Whatever our views, or however we voted, Christians must surely be in agreement with this sentiment, and hope and pray that the new Government will indeed fulfil this stirring pledge. But we will also want to be vigilant and hold them to it, especially in view of the fact that many of the Conservatives’ election manifesto promises pointed in a rather different direction. Can a Government really claim to be a ‘One Nation’ Government, if it continues the trend of the last decade, which has seen growing inequality in our society as the mega-rich have become even richer, while most ordinary people have seen their incomes fall in real terms? What’s needed is not a promise of no tax rises, but a fiscal system which does more to redistribute wealth. Many people are seriously worried that further privatisation of the NHS will put basic health care beyond the reach of those who can’t afford private health insurance. Many in the legal profession believe that further cuts in legal aid provision will make it impossible for ordinary people to afford proper legal representation. How can we call ourselves ‘One Nation’ if the justice system works for the rich, and not for the rest of us?

We may also applaud the Government’s stated desire to make work, for those who can work, more rewarding than living on benefits. But it has tried to achieve this aim in ways that have disadvantaged some of the most vulnerable. For example, the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, which penalises people who continue to live in the same rented home after their children have grown up and left home. It may have been intended to free up housing for people who need it, but it results in a hard-hearted pressure for tenants to leave a home they may have lived in for much of their lives, and often without providing adequate alternatives. This has tended to advantage private landlords at the expense of the tenants. Again, how can we describe this as a ‘One Nation’ policy?

St Paul urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for [rulers] and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2.1-2) Or perhaps, as the Prime Minister said, so as to give ‘everyone in our country a chance so no matter where they are from they have the opportunity to make the most of their life.’ We will indeed pray for the new Government, and yes, maybe pray that they break some of their manifesto promises, in order to fulfil this more beautiful pledge of being a ‘One Nation’ Government which takes seriously its calling to govern for the good of all.

Tony Price

 

Who would Jesus vote for?

During the late 1990s, an interesting fad spread across a large swathe of Christian teenagers in this country. All over the country, young people (and some older folk too!) were donning wristbands with the letters W.W.J.D? printed or sewn into their fabric. The letters, as you may remember, stood for the phrase “What would Jesus do?”. Presumably, the wristbands were intended as physical reminders to those who wore them to think before action, and consider in their thinking what Jesus might have done in a similar situation and attempt to emulate his example. This had two major benefits: (1) More consideration was given to Jesus’ life and ministry by some people, and to the principles by which he taught and acted, and (2) People were encouraged to consider their own Christian values in more areas of their lives than previously, and specifically in areas outside the church.

The fad — as they all do — passed, the wristband returned to the status of niche fashion accessory, but for many people the principle of considering what Jesus would do remained an important guide to making ethical decisions. So, that leads me to consider the obvious question of the moment: How would Jesus vote?

Christians of all persuasions tend to convince themselves that Jesus would have supported their own political beliefs. Socialists point to Jesus’ preference for the poor and the marginalised. Conservatives highlight the importance of personal responsibility and accountability in Jesus’ teaching. Libertarians draw attention to Jesus challenging the role and power of the state. Anarchists might note that Jesus himself played no part in a governmental system to support his own ministry.

Despite the propensity for Christians to point to Jesus’ example as support for their own Christian views, there are, I believe, two things which we Christians ought to be able to agree on when it comes to discussing politics, and they concern the nature of God.

Firstly, God doesn’t just belong in church. If we proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of all things, then God belongs in all the aspects of life about which we make decisions: finance, education, healthcare, social welfare and so on. Christians often fall into the trap of consumer politics, allowing the question which dominates their thinking to be: “what in this policy will benefit me personally?” rather than “how is God served best by this policy?”. If God is compartmentalised, and only affects areas of religious activity, then we have no one but ourselves to blame if the world ends up looking worse as a result.

Secondly, God doesn’t just belong to Christians. We like to imagine that the purpose of God is to make life better for those who believe in him, and to be a supernatural advocate for the church in daily life. As a result, Christians who engage in the political process often only do so as a means of pursuing a specific Christian agenda. But God cares about the good and wellbeing of his whole creation, and every person in it. It isn’t good enough for Christians to be vocal only when an issue arises which concerns faith of the church, and to remain silent on other matters. Christian engagement in politics should reflect God’s care for the whole of creation, and should be more than organising hustings or campaigning on hot-topic issues.

It would be presumptuous and probably heretical to suggest how Jesus would have voted. No political system is perfect. No politician is perfect. None can provide the redemption which God alone can provide. But Jesus had compassion on all people, regardless of wealth, stature, religious belief, health, or any other social marker. His life and ministry were about bringing justice, peace and joy. He engaged with his community and cared for the vulnerable. If our politicians did the same, they would serve us well. If we helped them by living lives by that example, they would serve us better. Much like those wristbands, politics ought to force us to face the questions of how we can emulate Jesus more faithfully, and where we can serve him more fruitfully.

Whoever you vote for, whoever ends up representing this constituency after the election, whether you agree with them or not, they still need Christians to pray for them and work with them to bring about a nation which better serves God.

Rob Glenny

Live forever

What would it be like to know that you would never die? Death is so much an enemy that we fear, that our first thought might be: How wonderful it would be to live forever! We would have endless days to see and do everything we could ever desire, to enjoy every pleasure life could afford, and to do so again and again. We would never have to feel rushed or stressed, because no matter how long something took, there would always still be an endless amount of time left, when we had finished it.

But in fact we know that all through history people have thought endless life would not be such a good idea. In fiction and legend, people have imagined that living forever would prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. Think of legends like that of the Wandering Jew, who was punished by having to walk the earth to the end of time. Or stories of people for whom endless life without perpetual youth brings the misery of just being old, and then growing older and older for all eternity. It’s as if we cannot escape the certainty that things run down relentlessly (it’s the second law of thermodynamics, they tell us). Living forever would become a bore and a burden. There are only so many pleasures you can tolerate, after all, before they become a pain.

And yet the Easter Story would have us believe that death has been defeated, and eternal life is on offer to everyone, because Jesus rose from the dead. Where modern people dismiss the story of the Resurrection as impossible nonsense, it wasn’t so hard for Jesus’ contemporaries. King Herod, who had had John the Baptist beheaded on a lustful whim, believed that Jesus was himself John the Baptist who had been raised from the dead. Jesus was said to have raised the dead, notably his friend Lazarus. But these resurrections were of a different order: even though these people had supposedly been brought back to life, it was only for a relatively short time before they would die a second time, and this time for good.

Jesus’ Resurrection was different in that it was forever: he would never die again, and furthermore, his Resurrection was an event that would have consequences for the whole human race. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Of course our experience is that we die, just as everyone we love dies. What Jesus was saying was not that the normal processes of biology would be subverted, but that the spiritual realities behind life and death had been changed for good. ‘Death’ is the ultimate metaphor for separation from God, the separation caused by human hostility towards God and turning away from him. What Jesus did when he died on the cross, and rose again from the dead, was to remove that separation, and bridge the gap between human beings and their Maker. Because of this we have something to hope for even better than infinite quantity of earthly existence; we have the promise of the infinite quality of existence that God himself enjoys. And this ‘eternal life’ is something that begins on this side of the grave – even though it may usually seem that we don’t so much see it with complete sight, as only catch glimpses of it from time to time. The beauty and splendour of the Easter liturgy often contain moments when we catch those glimpses.

When Jesus made that promise to his friend Mary, that those who believed in him would never die, he asked her, “Do you believe this?” She answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” As we join in her confession of faith, so we shall grow in confidence in God’s promises that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God, and we can both enjoy life in the here and now, and know that this is an enjoyment which – second law of thermodynamics or not – will never run down or come to an end.

Tony Price

Practice makes permanent…

During my university days, in addition to occasional bouts of studying, I was both a football coach for one of the University teams and a conductor of the University wind band. What these activities have in common was that both required periods of training in anticipation of a performance. In the case of my football team, they would prepare for match-day by building up their fitness and honing their skills in the mud and the cold to simulate the conditions in which the game would be played. For the wind band, time was spent in rehearsal learning to play the right notes in the right order, and then perfecting a well-phrased and balanced sound. I had a mantra which I used to utter to both groups: practice makes permanent. If you want to produce a high level of performance, the best way to achieve that goal is to practice a skill until it becomes so deeply ingrained in your muscle memory that it becomes instinctive. In other words training — for football, for music, or any skill — is about formation. It’s learning to produce an action so reliably, that when you are under pressure to perform, that action itself becomes second nature.

For the Israelites, there was a period of 40 years after the escape from Egypt in which they became wanderers in the wilderness before they could reach the land of Israel. But this was more than a place of purgatory, indeed it marked for them a time of preparation and training. They learn to rely on God’s provision for food in the manna they received from heaven each morning. They learned to rely on each other as a community living together in freedom. They learned how to listen to God’s will for them by following the commandments that God gave them. And so the wilderness became a place of formation, where the Israelites formed as a community of God-shaped people, ready to enter into the place —both spiritually and geographically— that God had desired for them.

It is of course from the wilderness that John the Baptist emerges right at the start of Mark’s Gospel, preaching repentance, and calling people once again to turn to God. And in this Gospel, it is where we meet Jesus for the first time, who receives his own baptism by the river Jordan. Just as the Israelites would spend 40 years in the desert, so Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness before his final journey to Jerusalem. During this time, he manages to reject the temptations of food and power, instead committing his life to God’s purpose even when that purpose ends in the cross. His experience of self-denial, and his capacity to put God first, are what prepare him for those fateful moments in the garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed that if it were possible he should not have to die, and yet still had the strength to say “your will be done”.

Lent can sometimes feel like a long wilderness period before the real action of Holy Week begins. It’s a time during which we practice self-denial in our everyday living, and are reminded that before the joy of the resurrection “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return”. It is a time when we rehearse saying “no” to ourselves and our immediate desires and needs, and say “yes” to putting God’s desires for our lives into practice.

However, sometimes life doesn’t fit into neat liturgical seasons, and our times in the wilderness — illness, the death of a loved one, financial or spiritual difficulty — can make us feel alone and abandoned. But when we look back on a period like that, or if we are experiencing one like it at the moment, we should take heart from the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and the temptations of Jesus. These are times of challenge and pain, but they are also times when we discover that we are not alone. God is with us in the wilderness, holding us, weeping with us, strengthening us, forming us. Like the musician or the footballer, like the Israelites, like Jesus, we are preparing for that moment of performance, when we are able to respond instinctively in the right way. We call that moment heaven.

Rob Glenny

Lent is for life, not just for — er, Lent

In the same kind of way as secular society anticipates Christmas by embarking on its spending and consuming binge around the beginning of October, so it anticipates Lent with what’s been called January Detox. Many people think that after all the excesses of their Christmas celebrations, particularly of eating and drinking, it must be good to have a time of dieting and going without alcohol. In fact studies have shown that a short time of abstinence has very little effect on our overall health. What’s needed is moderation all year round: a more sensible diet, and ideally at least two alcohol-free days every week.

The Christian season of Lent, which begins this year on 18 February, is often used as a time for denying ourselves some of the everyday pleasures we enjoy. There are good reasons for doing this, as a way of helping us not to be enslaved by our physical pleasures, and to remind ourselves of the millions in the world who don’t have the things we so often take for granted. Some people go without something trivial like chocolate or alcohol; others decide to forego something more serious, like TV or at least one meal a day. You might disagree (and so might I) about which sacrifices are trivial or major! The important thing, if you want to deny yourself during Lent, is to choose something that will cost you something in terms of will-power, but not be so difficult that you fail to keep it up and then just feel bad about yourself.

But Lent is so much more than just a time for self-denial. Far more important than this, it’s a time to prepare ourselves for the great feast of Easter, when we celebrate God’s victory over death, sin and evil. It’s a time for us to get to know God better. There are numerous ways of doing this, and most of them involve not giving something up, but taking up some new activity, or increasing what we already do.

We could spend more time in prayer — and perhaps learn how to pray better. For far too many of us, our prayers are not much better than telling God about all the things we want. I think of these as ‘Gimme’ prayers; and even if many of the things we ask for are for other people, not just ourselves, it’s still a kind of shopping list we have in mind. But prayer is also supposed to be a love language we use with God. It will include all the murmurings of thanks, expressions of our love and how much we enjoy God. There should be lots of silence too, in which we shut up and listen to what our Beloved wants to say to us. I’m convinced that if all the people who claim to be religious spent more time listening to God, instead of all the noise they make about God, they might even hear him saying, ‘Stop killing people. Build a fair society and world instead.’

We could go to church more often. I guess that during my time as a parish priest I’ve heard all the excuses people make for not going to church. But excuses is all they are. Of course we can worship and pray in solitude; but like so many other activities, we can learn to do them even better — even when we’re alone — if we also join with others to practise.

We could learn more about the faith we claim to believe in. Whether or not we have ever read the New Testament before, Lent is a good time to do it. Half an hour of reading on each of the 40 days of Lent (probably less time than we spend watching the news) will be enough to read it all. And of course, if you already know the New Testament, there are plenty of other worthwhile Christian books you could read.

And we could live more thankful, more generous lives.

But all of these ideas are not just ways to get to know God better, that we can then stop doing as soon as Easter is upon us. They are life-forming, life-giving habits. If all of us Christians lived by them not just during Lent, but all year round, the Church would be a better place — and so would the world.

Tony Price

“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