A message for Pentecost – and for all the days that follow:
I was struck this week by St Paul’s comment recorded in the Book of Acts – in passing, stating an obvious, incontrovertible starting point – when addressing the sceptics in Athens about this new religion he was preaching. “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence”. Paul rightly takes as his starting point the fundamental equality and common identity of all human beings, all created by the one God, all equally God’s offspring, as he goes on to say. I’ve read that phrase many times without really noticing it, but this week, as the divisions within our society have been cruelly exposed by the different death tolls from COVID19, I had to stop and think again.
Although it may be a self-evident truth – to Paul, and to anyone not infected by that really powerful virus, racial prejudice – it’s also so very obviously not the way the world is. As a white middle class man in a professional role, my chances of dying from COVID19 are much lower than most. COVID19 disproportionately affects the old, the ill, the poor, and members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Among the conspiracy theories going around are ideas that all of that is deliberate – that the virus was designed to kill off people in precisely those groups, and especially people of colour. It’s not true; a virus which originally emerged in central China doesn’t know the skin colour of the people it’s infecting – as far as the virus is concerned, all humans are equally good targets.
What the coronavirus shows us – in shocking detail – is the inequality that already exists in our society. The virus isn’t targeted at anyone, but it finds it easiest to attack those whom our society values least – the old and the ill, those whose housing isn’t good, those in low-paid jobs, those who are regarded by society as less significant, less worth looking after, the ones at the back of the queue for PPE regardless of how much risk they may be exposed to. And in most of those groups people of colour are vastly over-represented: doing those jobs without which society would collapse, but which society doesn’t want to pay much to have done, suffering higher levels of poor health, living in substandard housing. Racial prejudice feeds into that spiral of inequality: BAME people are filling many less well-regarded jobs, and those jobs in turn are regarded as less important because of the BAME people doing them.
The coronavirus has shone a light on the structural inequalities in our society, had made us see the realities we mostly know are there, but invest a lot of time and energy in ignoring. We know that there is huge inequality in our country, justified sometimes by the language of austerity, but even better just kept out of sight and therefore out of mind. And now we do have to notice those doing the suddenly dangerous jobs, we applaud: which is good, and appropriate. But there should also be a reward for those who are due applause, an appropriate recognition of the service they have done for us. But that is a problem of course for our society: the debt we owe is not one that can be appropriately recognised merely by doling out applause for all, and medals to a few. The injustice that has been exposed is deeper than that – and far more expensive to put right.
We have discovered that the people whom society has treated as being expendable are really essential. Carers, cleaners, bus drivers, posties, refuse collectors – the list goes on and on – they can’t work from home, and society as a whole depends on them. The question is what we do with that knowledge.
And that’s where I return to Paul. As he introduced his preaching of the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, he began by establishing the common humanity that he and they shared. Paul’s ministry was founded on breaking down the barriers that the Roman Empire took for granted – in Christ he says there are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew – he systematically disassembles all the ways in which society was kept neatly ordered. Along with ethnic and gender differences, he challenged power differentials by establishing communities of believers in which the rich did not have the authority by virtue of their money. Paul didn’t encourage Christians to rise up and fight the secular authorities – but he did teach a way of living which radically undercut the norms of the Empire.
That is what the Church should have been doing ever since. But instead for too many centuries the Church has found ways to baptise structures of injustice and oppression. The Church of England has the disadvantage of having been around a long time – there’s plenty of history of which our Church needs to repent. This time of coronavirus should help us I think understand what repentance means. It’s not just about feeling sorry – it’s about doing things differently. When confronted again by the inequalities of our society, we must look at ourselves and the ways in which we continue to reflect those inequalities in ourselves – and as Paul taught us, live differently.
The Church will come out of the coronavirus crisis poorer than we were. Will we also come out of it wiser, more aware of our calling? At every level, parish and deanery, diocese and nation (and in every nation), will we do the hard work of returning to that basic assumption that underlay Paul’s preaching and church-building – that all people equally are created, loved and called by God? And in our very different culture and time, will we use the resources we have to demonstrate that repentant return to the roots of our faith? It will be difficult – at a time of constraint, people naturally retreat to what they have known, defend what they have. But the light has shone onto the inequalities we have lived with too happily and too long.
If and insofar as we can change ourselves, we in the Church of England will also have something to say to our nation of which we are the church: and all Christians will equally have something to say to the societies in which they live. A truly radical sense of the equal dignity and worth of each individual is a political statement, because it has implications for the society in which we live. Human beings are indivisible wholes: bodies deserve to be treated with equal dignity just as much as souls do. It should be the desire and task of any society to enable all of its members to live healthy, purposeful lives, and a scandal and a sorrow when it is impossible to achieve that aim (and alongside that, to desire the same for all people worldwide). Through whatever political policies they may believe will achieve it, it is this end that we should ask and challenge our leaders to seek.
Whoever you are, whatever your background, age, ethnicity, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality – you are included in that universal love of God. You are God’s offspring. In a world and society which acts as if some people were more in God’s image than others, have the confidence to believe that God looks and sees in you God’s own image. And likewise God sees God’s image in everyone you meet, whether you can discern it or not. St Paul went into the marketplace in Athens and told those whom he met that they were made and loved by God. If you know it for yourself, will you also say the same to others? Then the good news of the love of God will truly be a power in our world, nations, our neighbourhoods, our communities.
The language of exile has been around quite a lot recently as people have begun to reflect on the experience of these locked down times. Sometimes it’s been used in reference to Christians being unable to gather in, or even enter their churches. That is a real and deep loss, and was especially so in Holy Week and on Easter Day – but I don’t think it’s all that’s going on. Exile is a powerful word. I don’t think many would reach for it to explain how they feel if there wasn’t something profound going on. Behind the regret about the closure of church buildings lies a deeper sense of loss, and a fear that it will be longer-lasting, and more profound than even months of locked doors. The power and tragedy of exile is not knowing when or whether you will ever get back home.
Bishop Peter Selby has expressed that deeper and more profound sense of loss in a recent article in The Tablet – ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’ The Church of England is of course a limit case of this sense of privation, as the archbishops, after conversation with the diocesan bishops, have written to the clergy directing them not to go into their churches – and have followed suit by not using their own private chapels in their own residences. Bishop Peter sees this as a sign of a church losing its sense of its vocation and role in society:
That removal of Holy Week and Easter to the domestic realm reflects, without any element of challenge, faith becoming a private matter and our public life belonging to be the realm of practical secularity.
The CofE bishops will surely seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces.
I am not here waving a flag for the current policy of the Church of England. I do though want to take a different direction in trying to discern what is going on in the current situation, I hope taking as seriously as he does the issues Bishop Peter raises.
It is certainly true that for many there is a sense of radical displacement, of exile, in being excluded from the church building. What I believe we need to question is the nature of that grieving – and this is a hard thing to do in the midst of it. But if we do not take up that challenge now, there is a danger that we do not discern what God may be saying to us. Because it may be that in feeling so much at home in our churches, we may have forgotten that we are always in exile. Walter Brueggemann claims that
… we may take the exile as metaphor for the characteristic “human predicament” in biblical mode, a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance, and a bewilderment about how to be fully human now. And if we take exile as characteristic context, then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile. The characteristic task and opportunity of the preacher are to asert, yet again, that the matrix of human homelessness is the very arena of divine presence whereby homelessness is made home-filled.
The Word Militant – preaching a decentring word
Brueggemann reminds us that there should always be something of exile in the Christian experience of this world. And that is the question with which we need to wrestle – whether we are perhaps too much at home in the ecclesiastical life we have lived up to this time? One of the other critics of the present restrictions points out, rightly, that
There is an iconic significance also to church buildings, for sacred architecture, too, seeks to express eschatological realities, a representation in brick and stone of the heavenly Jerusalem.
But it is also true that what should be an icon can become an idol. The prophetic establishment in the time of Jeremiah believed that Jerusalem was secure from invaders because of the presence of the temple within the city. It was Jeremiah’s task to tell them that the city would fall, that they would go into exile. The estrangement from God which had already happened within the people would be worked out in space and time.
“Let us then go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). It is only by beginning with our fundamental homelessness that we are open to being brought home to God, by God. Only by recognising that we are exiles can we hear the good news of God’s salvation. Before we hasten to put everything back in its proper place and resume business as usual, whenever that may be possible, we also must ask whether that very desire does not also betray a dangerous comfort with what is – rather than a focus forward to the city that is to come. The heavenly Jerusalem is not here on earth; if our churches try to take its place then they will prevent rather than enable our worship.
This in no way entails an abandonment of the public life of our society, the privatisation of religion to which Bishop Peter is rightly opposed. Ironically, Christian religious practice has during the last few weeks become far more visible in one of the most significant public spaces of our age, the realm of digital communications. Streamed from dining rooms and kitchens and improvised domestic chapels, with varying degrees of technical competence, it is far easier to participate – at a certain level – than it ever has been. This is not solely a substitute reality. The digital world is part of the real world, because it is part of the living experience of many – and for increasingly many it has always been that way. If churches now retreat from that world again, it will be a significant failure to learn the lessons of this crisis – just as much of a failure as it would be if we forgot those who are not at home in the digital world.
But though the digital world is important, it is partial – only available to some, and not the whole of human relationship for any. And it is therefore not an answer to the core of the critique. Both the public, and still more the embodied nature of Christian discipleship and worship demand far more than a good internet presence.
Bishop Peter’s key claim is that
clergy are key workers, exercising an essential public function, one rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches and the liturgical function they carry out within them, especially in Passiontide and Eastertide … [and that] … the work is essential and the workers are key, not just for those who happen to opt in but as signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation.
While agreeing with much that he says, I am not comfortable with the idea that the ‘essential public function’ of the clergy is ‘rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches’. It is rooted in the celebration of the liturgy, in prayer and teaching and acts of service – in the many things that those in ordained ministry are called to model for the church and show to the world. For those called to parish ministry, it is rooted in a particular place and a particular community. But though that function may be appropriately and beautifully exercised in a church, I don’t think it is rooted there.
Church buildings have been for centuries the signs of the presence of the church – and hopefully therefore also the presence of God, particularly in countries with a tradition of institutionally approved churches. Are they now? The answers will be various, in the widely varying contexts of our country and our world, but I don’t believe we can continue to assume that they will be a general ‘yes’. The public service of the church to the world cannot I think be assumed to be seen, heard or understood in our society simply because it is manifested in worship conducted in a church building. The task of being ‘signs of hope and healing’ is a complex and creative one, with as many answers as there are contexts, and church buildings may often be part of it – but the question must be asked, not the answer assumed. We must at least consider the possibility that exclusion from church buildings might make us understand more deeply what it means to be a church in the public square, not merely a religious club. Maybe this is what it takes to make us see where the mission of God is in our communities and our country?
The church must be a public body – and it must be embodied. Digital space is a real dimension of the reality in which we now live, but it is not the whole. Disconnected from the realities of physical encounter, it can become a realm of fantasy or nightmare. The church remains committed to a sacramental life of water, bread and wine, of touch, of embrace. The body of Christ is constituted by the eucharist it shares. It has been interesting to observe that most members of local congregations appear to have continued to engage digitally with their local and habitual place of worship – regardless of the ‘production quality’. I suspect that the engagement through digital means may be much deeper because of the other dimensions, of already knowing, caring for and being cared for by, the figures appearing on a screen. But that embodied, sacramental life is not dependent on a building. It is the life of a people on the move: the sacrament is always a viaticum, the food for a journey.
We are always in exile; we are always at home in Christ. I have a suspicion that we have forgotten something of the former – and so have been much less completely the latter. This time of exclusion, which feels like an exile, may also be a time for moving on with God into a life as a church which holds on to both of those truths more completely. If we can do so while re-inhabiting our church buildings, well and good: but let them be formed to our calling as disciples, not be the template which forms that calling.
At the back of my mind in writing this has been a haunting memory of the prophetic voice of Ivan Illich, and particularly his essay, published in 1967, ‘The Vanishing Clergyman’ (sic – Illich was deeply radical in very many ways, but male gender was still assumed). Illich had a vison in which:
The ‘diaconia’ will supplant the parish as the fundamental institutional unit of the church. The periodic meeting of friends will replace the Sunday assembly of strangers … The minister will be a man mature in Christian wisdom through his lifelong participation in an intimate liturgy, rather than a seminary graduate formed professionally through ‘theological’ formulae.
I foresee the face-to-face meeting of families around a table, rather than the impersonal attendance of a crowd around an altar. Celebration will sanctify the dining room, rather than consecrated buildings the ceremony.
Celebration of Awareness
I am not proposing this as an organisational plan for the Church of England, or any other church. It is I think a prophetic provocation – I hope it may startle us into thought.
The title of this piece is taken from the Salve Regina, a medieval hymn to Mary. The whole sentence is
Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us; and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
After this experience, of dislocation, exile, distancing, my hope is that we will be led closer to Christ through listening at depth to what we may find it hard to hear.
One of the many things I’ve been missing this Easter season is the hymns – that whole repertoire of song which signifies the move from Lent and Holy Week into resurrection joy. Yes, I can sing along to myself, or to Youtube, but it’s not the same as being part of a congregation. But I was brought up a bit short when I read the gospel for this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter – which is the story of the disciples’ walk to, and run back from, Emmaus.
What made me stop and think was the different experience that I had of that story in this time and in the midst of this experience. Previously – and I don’t think I’m alone – I had tended to skip to the end of the story. The disciples having listened to Jesus teaching them on the road, and seen him breaking the bread, are so overwhelmed with the news of the resurrection that they set off in the dangerous night back to Jerusalem. But the previous twenty seven verses of the reading tell a very different tale. The disciples are despondent and bewildered, trying to make sense of what has happened to them, to Jesus and to all their hopes and expectations. The life they thought they were leading, the direction they were going, seems to have come to a dead stop.
And when Jesus gets through to them what has really happened, that he has risen, it is not as if their previous hopes are also resuscitated. The life they had been living has still irrevocably gone, but the future that is now opening up before them is one in which Jesus is alive. But it takes time to change course, to start really living in the light of resurrection. When Cleopas and his companion get back to Jerusalem, they tell the other disciples – but when Jesus then appears to them they are ‘startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost’ (Lk 24:37).
So much as I love the hymn, I’m beginning to rethink its second phrase. “This joyful Eastertide, away with care and sorrow!” Well yes, but care and sorrow are not switches you can flick, so that all is suddenly joy and delight. This is a different sort of Eastertide, one in which there is tragedy and sadness, especially for those ill or bereaved. Even for those of us not personally touched by COVID-19, there is an increasing sense of foreboding. What will the future look like? One thing is certain, that it won’t be an immediate return to the days before the pandemic. For many, their personal future is uncertain, even bleak. For all of us, whevever we are in the world, there are economic and political uncertainties. This Easter is a season to live with the rest of the story, to join in with the uncertainty, the confusion, the fear even, as Jesus’ followers try to grapple with this new reality of resurrection.
Because that new reality is always our hope. We can’t flick a switch and move on into the kingdom of heaven, any more than we can decide we’ve had enough of coronavirus and get back to life as it was. But we can hold fast to the hope that lies before us, that beyond our anxiety and exhaustion and fear, Jesus is walking with us, joining us as we get on with our lives, living with us in our solitude or accompanying us in our workplace. Wherever we are, he will be.
From where I sit at home, I can hear the trains rumbling in and out of East Croydon station. I hear the cars attempting to drive too quickly round Croydon’s dual carriage ways and watch aeroplanes climbing and descending overhead. Now – well, it’s not exactly silent, but it is quiet. The hyperactive bustle has been replaced with the sounds of essential travel. The birds are no longer having to shout as they sing their territories.
This reflection comes on the quietest day of the Christian year, Holy Saturday. This is the day on which the eucharist is not celebrated, the day when all creation holds its breath, while Jesus sleeps in the tomb. That’s the spiritual and liturgical truth every year – but most years, in most churches, it’s actually full of people cleaning, preparing Easter liturgies, arranging flowers, printing off orders of service, finishing sermons, rehearsing music – etc., etc. For a day when nothing is supposed to happen, it’s terribly busy.
In this very strange Holy Week, as we prepare for an equally unusual Easter, I would like to invite you to join with me in the silence of Holy Saturday as a way into the mystery of God’s love which we celebrate at this season.
Holy Saturday is not a continuation of Good Friday, nor is it a prefiguring of Easter Day. It is in-between time, the time of uncertainty and waiting, the time of not knowing what will happen next, bad or good. Jesus has given himself into his Father’s hands as he dies on the cross. The ambiguity of ‘It is finished’ is as yet unresolved – we do not yet know whether it is a cry of failure or of triumph. We do not even have the security of knowing that the worst has happened, still less the certainty of resurrection.
Or at least, that is how it is in the drama of Holy Week. But we read it also from the perspective of Easter. We know that this day of waiting is the prelude to unimaginable joy, to the breaking from the tomb and the beginning of the restoration of all things which is the final consummation of God’s purpose, in the new heaven and the new earth.
It is that knowledge, I believe, which enables us –perhaps strangely – still to live with the stillness and not knowing of Holy Saturday. Our resurrection faith gives us the strength to bring hope into the emptiness of this day, without denying its power. Holy Saturday has its place in our spirituality, because it is still part of our human reality. The light of resurrection is the sure hope of a new dawn, but in this world the experience of emptiness and darkness is still real. Those of us given the task of ministry are called to accompany people there and be with them, to walk with them as Jesus brought the good news to the dead (1 Pet 3:19).
Holy Saturday is the process of the transformation of the tragedy of human existence: it is the experience of God descending into the depths of that which is lost and hopeless, opening up a way for us through the very powers that would otherwise destroy us.
Dermot Power, ‘The Holy Saturday Experience’, The Way 38/1 (1998), 32-39
It has felt to me that the whole of this Holy Week has had something of Holy Saturday about it, and that that will continue into Easter. So how do we celebrate Easter this year? Maybe not as noisily as we sometimes do, and certainly not by gathering together. I hope instead that in our own homes we will be able to experience the sheer wonder of the resurrection in a new way. The gospels vary in the exact number who were the first witnesses to the resurrection, but it was not many. Whether on our own (like Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel), in twos or threes or family groups, this Easter may be an opportunity to experience again the overturning of all expectation that the resurrection brought. Having gone to a tomb, they found new life. Going in darkness, they were overwhelmed by light.
In that light, then, we bring the good news of resurrection into the current crisis. For those who go to work, saving lives and keeping our essential services going, anxious for themselves or their families, as well as those who stay at home. For those who are sick, and those who pray and wait for them. For those who are sitting in the darkness of bereavement, and especially those who have not been able to say farewell to those who have died.
For our society as a whole, at a time when the superficial comforts of consumerism have been in part stripped away, the resurrection brings the good news that death is defeated, that God’s forgiving love is offered to all. The deepest realities of our human existence have forced themselves into the public realm, and require an equally profound answer.
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, now powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The shadow of death has been cast across the world: here in Europe, and in the USA it is particularly dark at the moment; and who knows where it may fall next? Death, which had been almost completely pushed out of our minds and our lives is now out again and walking our streets. There is real, and justified, fear. The older you are, and the more other conditions you have, the more the danger. But the virus is no respecter of persons.
In these days we have no choice but to face again the reality of death. We continue to pray that the number of those who die may be kept as small as possible, but each individual death is an immeasurable catastrophe for those who grieve. However few or many there may be, in our own communities, our own countries or around the world, the fact of death is now present to us in a way that Western culture at least has tried to avoid. Those who sadly die are surrounded by a far greater number who walk into the shadow of death, who encounter the frailty of their mortal bodies as breathing becomes difficult, even impossible without oxygen. Around all of them again are the medical staff who care for them, and their anxious friends and family, often unable to be in touch with their loved ones who are ill. Death has broken out of its prison in care home and hospital, it is no longer an occasional and extraordinary visitor. Naturally, many of us are afraid, and perhaps those who are not afraid are not paying attention. The question then is how to respond to that fear. How do we live, live fully and freely, in the light of the death we can no longer ignore?
The readings set for this Sunday are all about death – and life. In the valley full of dry bones, bones with no possible life left in them, Ezekiel is commanded by God to bring them back to life. That life comes not with the restoration of their physical bodies, but when the breath of the Lord comes back into them. Then they live, and stand up. Jesus comes too late to heal Lazarus – three days too late. He is very definitely dead. And then Jesus summons Lazarus back, the dead man recalled to life. As he comes from the tomb Jesus says ‘unbind him, and let him go’. This being John’s gospel, we are right to look for more than one meaning in Jesus’ words. Lazarus is cut free from the physical shroud, which symbolises his being cut free from the cords of death, and let go back into the world of this life.
These scriptures bring us into the presence of death only in order to show, in dramatic form, that death is no equal to the life-giving power of God. We do not live in a world in which the powers of life and death slug it out like two evenly matched boxers, wearing each other down but neither able to prevail. The biblical message is that life always prevails because God is its source and also its end. Through whatever journey it may need to take, the destiny of all life is to be folded up into the everlasting life of God. It is that promise that Paul sets out in this Sunday’s other reading, from his letter to the Romans:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
These readings are chosen for today because today we begin to look towards the cross. As Lent draws towards its end, the focus narrows towards the events we remember in Holy Week, of Jesus’ last days in his earthly ministry. We are invited in reflecting on these scriptures to place them in the context of Jesus’ death – and to be reminded through them of his resurrection. These two weeks of Passiontide are bearable because of what concludes them, the event which opens up a new world of resurrection. But that resurrection life lies on the other side of Good Friday.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, walking into the valley, knowing the death that awaited him. In different parts of the world, we are in different parts of the coronavirus valley (or peak). In the UK, we are just beginning our journey through the darkest part, as numbers of cases and deaths mount up and up. Jesus went to his death so that our own journey into the shadow need never be alone, need never be the end.
Beside every person in hospital, struggling to breathe, Christ sits and suffers. Death by crucifixion was in part a death of suffocation; literally, Jesus has been where they are. By his Spirit, he connects those who cannot be physically together, as he prays for us all to the Father.
However dark our valley, however real and present our fear, we can also know that fear is not the last word, just as death is not. The word that overcomes death is life; the word that overcomes fear is love.
This is the first Mothering Sunday for quite a while when I won’t be able to see my mum, and give her a huge hug. She’s 97, and the risk of visiting is just too great. But I’ll miss it a lot, and I know so will she. We’ll Skype each other, but it’s not the same without being able to touch.
Touching and being touched are fundamental to our humanity. From a handshake to an intimate embrace, the meeting of flesh to flesh binds us together. It was a sign of their dehumanisation and exclusion from society that the Dalit people in India were known as ‘the untouchables’; touch is a powerful force for binding us together. That of course is why intrusive or predatory touching is so dangerous: the power of touch can be used to break down as well as to build up. But the answer is not to stop: the answer is to use touch to express love and respect, to honour one another for all that we are as God’s children.
And now we are in a time when touch is dangerous, when even being too close to one another carries great risks. On this Mothering Sunday, a day for hugs and kisses, we are being advised for our own good, and for the good of us all, to step back, to keep our distance. We should not underestimate how hard that may be, for ourselves, whether or not we think of our selves as touchy-feely types, and for those around us. But it is still what we need to do, for our own good and the good of our society.
But there is of course another dimension to Mothering Sunday, which makes it more than Mother’s Day, and maybe also means that we can still know that we are, held, embraced, even hugged. The love that we celebrate today in giving thanks for mothers, and for those who show that same quality, mothers or not, is a reflection of the nurturing, creative, caring love of the God who holds all things in his hands. Jesus reflected that in his ministry – he healed by touch, he blessed by touch, he forgave and reassured by touch.
By the gift of his Spirit, Jesus still touches us; resurrected and in glory, he can enfold the whole world in his embrace. He prays for us constantly and brings us into the relationship of love which binds together Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That remains as true now as it ever has been, but the means by which we are often experience that closeness of God are temporarily taken away from us. Most of us can’t gather at the Lord’s table; we can’t greet each other with a touch at the Peace; we can’t even gossip over a cup of coffee – and it is usually through that closeness and contact, through sharing in eating and drinking together, that we also know the closeness of God. But the fact that those things aren’t there makes no difference to the big truth – God still offers us his touch, his embrace.
However separated we might be, we are still all joining together spiritually around the throne of grace. God’s nurturing, maternal love is poured out on us, wherever we are. Spiritually – which means at the deepest, truest level – we are all united together in Christ as his brothers and sisters. Spiritually, we all equally receive the sacrament of his presence. Spiritually, he takes us all in his arms and blesses us.
As we receive that blessing in our own lives, let us also seek the ways in which we can be a blessing to others. In whatever way we can, let us share the touch of God.
How worried are you right now? Yes, about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes. Whatever your personal state of mind, this is a time to think about what it means for you – and in this post I’m talking to those who identify as Christians. As Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus – Jesus who associated with the poor, the sick, the marginalised. We are people whose first calling is not to meet our own needs, but to the bear the burdens of others. So we can’t really think about what it means to respond to this outbreak without first thinking about what it also means for others, for our whole community.
So what do we do in the face of advice to self-isolate, to avoid contact, to reduce our contact with and exposure to others? In a world where enough people are lonely already, where many people go around the whole time with their guard up, suspicious of strangers, how do we continue to witness to the love of the God who breaks down barriers, who reaches out to embrace us, who heals and reconciles us by the gift of his own body, his own blood?
Those questions drive us back to the roots of our faith. They make us realise that our response to the coronavirus can’t be merely pragmatic, still less fearful – it must be informed by our faith in God. We come into God’s presence recognising our weakness, our sin and our fear – and opening ourselves to be filled again with God’s gifts of faith, hope and love. In the incarnation of Christ, God comes to share all our human state, including our desire to avoid suffering – ‘Father if this cup can pass from me’, he prayed in Gethsemane – but with complete trust and commitment to do whatever was the Father’s will. Because he has passed through death and defeated death, we too can approach whatever may come, knowing that God will be walking with us.
We live in uncertain times, in many ways, and none of us know how quickly or widely the coronavirus outbreak will spread. We do not come to God for a heavenly insurance policy, to exempt ourselves from what may happen to other people. Our faith does not prevent us getting ill. But it does mean that we know we are always profoundly healed – whether we live all the time with disability or illness, or whether we are afflicted in passing, at root we are whole in Christ. In the light of that wholeness and that promise we can live the life we are given with the joy that Christ gives, day by day, looking forward to the fullness of eternal life. How can we, then, healed and reconciled, continue to be agents of healing and reconciliation to our neighbours and communities?
Well, firstly, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean ignoring government guidance, or deluding ourselves into believing that if we’re praying enough then we won’t be infected. The authorities in the UK have adopted a sensible and measured approach, and we are all well advised to follow it: to follow it in adopting sensible precautions, and also in not panicking ourselves or encouraging others to feel more anxious than they need.
As for what it does mean? – well, someone else has done the thinking for me, and I suggest you have a look. Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, has suggested four golden rules – which if we can follow, will make this epidemic/pandemic into also an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the difference that Christ makes.
Nostalgia is an under-rated force in history: time goes forward, but people often flee backwards, from crisis and complexity to imagined simplicity and purity. The past can be another country, but it can also be a homeland.
Arabs (Yale, 2019), p289
Tim Mackintosh-Smith writing about Arabs in the early ninth century; seems a very relevant thought for New Year’s Day. Particularly this year?
Great book, too.
My Christmas sermon from Midnight Mass in Croydon Minster (as broadcast on BBC1). Happy Christmas!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ That’s what the angels sing to the shepherds, still trying to understand the message they’re heard. The very first Christmas carol, you could say – the first song in response to the birth of Christ, sung as the event itself was unfolding: a song of wonder and rejoicing at the amazing thing that God was doing. And from then to now, people love singing carols. As someone said to me one Christmas, why is it that we have to have all those readings, they just get in the way of the carol singing. He was trying to wind me up – but he was onto something. When we sing we open ourselves up; we can be touched by the wonder of God. But it can be risky too – we become vulnerable. As a child I loved singing, but sadly other people didn’t love my singing as much as I did. After being told to be quiet once too often it took me years to discover that actually I could sing OK.
The song of praise that the angels sang, the carols that we sing, invite us all to take the risk of opening our hearts, to God and to the world God loves. They ask us to believe that this birth, this nativity, is the gift of a child not merely to one family, but to the whole world. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the gift of new life is offered to the whole world by God; we are given the chance to turn our lives again toward God and to receive that new life into our own lives. We are all invited to join in the angels’ song and to make it our own; not just something we listen to, but something we live, the rhythm and beat of all that we do and all that we are. It’s the best earworm ever, a joyful song which is still there whatever may be happening in us or around us, even in the darkest places and times a reminder of the hope we have in God.
Each of us is invited to share in the song of Christmas, but there’s even more – the angel’s song does not only praise God, it also talks about God’s blessing on the world. ‘Glory to God in the highest’, the song of praise, leads directly into ‘peace on earth among those whom he blesses’. Living the story of Jesus in our own lives is not merely for our own personal benefit. As those who are living in harmony with God we are called to bring harmony into relationships and situations which are broken and discordant – in ourselves, in our families and communities, in our society and across our world.
Of course, that’s also the risky bit. Singing carols together is wonderful – the singing itself gives voice to that desire which is deep in all our hearts, the desire for a world in which we can live in harmony with one another and with ourselves. But if this song is your song, if it’s what keeps your life in tune, then you need to keep singing it after the nativity set’s been put away. And you might get told to be quiet, like I was as a small boy. Because the Christmas song is about a world turned upside down – or maybe better to say, an upside down world turned back up the right way.
The gift that God gives is the promise of a world made new. The celebrations of Christmas can be an escape from the world and all its pressures and problems – and maybe we all need that. Much more importantly, though, the Christmas gift God brings to us is hope for a world renewed. Those of us who wish to continue singing the angels’ song do so through witnessing to that hope precisely where hope seems hardest to come by. In the practical work of winter night shelters and food banks; in welcoming refugee children seeking reunion with their families; in offering care and companionship to the lonely and the sad; in seeking ways to avert the climate change crisis – in these and in many other ways the angels’ song continues to be sung in our country and in our world.
The angel’s song, the carols we sing, express the human yearning for a more complete, a more whole, a more human life. That is God’s desire too; God wants to bless the world. As you celebrate this Christmas, as you sing this story again, my prayer is that you will find in that song a way to live every day in hope, faith and love. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t sing! We all have a voice, we all have a song. In a world of uncertainty and anxiety, may the angels’ song be sung loud and clear: peace on earth, good news to all people. Amen.