Sunday 24 December 2023

The Oxen and the Angels

Blurred pixel image of a crib scene with Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, kneeling ox

A Christmassy Poem - The Oxen by Thomas Hardy. Based on an old tradition that the animals would bow in worship on Christmas night: 

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

A lovely poem from one of the great writers about Christmas. Albeit he was an agnostic or atheist, or somewhere in between He had embraced the mid-Victorian changes in views on science, taken up Modernism, and decided they didn’t tally with Christianity. 

I’ll be honest, to me the science of those 19th Century Modernists – deterministic, everything in its place – seems naive in the light of the 20th Century discoveries in Relativity and Quantum Theory. And that confident belief in the religion of Progress was shattered by two world wars. Which also broke Western faith, and left nothing in its place.

Hardy seems to believe that in shedding the folk faith of his childhood, he has lost something. And I think he has. Douglas Adams has one of his characters say, “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – which causes me to reflect two things – one is that even the wildest of wildflower gardens has a gardener. And the other is – wouldn’t it be great if there were fairies at the bottom of the garden?

And because the church is so often in hock to the ideas of 30, 50, or 100 years ago, we can be part of the disenchantment of our world. Because we’re often basing what we do on the secular modernism of the past. It’s too easy to cling to schemes for growing the church, following the methodology of business, working on our bug-free five steps to salvation or seven weeks to change your life. Or the business methods of charismatic leadership can give us churches which are about the personality and power – and protection – of the leaders rather than actually following God’s ways.

And sometimes, the job of the church is to stop being busy about schemes, be quiet, and listen to the angels sing. And on Christmas Night, of all nights, it’s appropriate. Because – back to Hardy’s poem – a world devoid of mystery is a world just a little hollow. And while I don’t believe that cows bow the knee in their barns on Christmas Eve, I do believe that a mystery happened the day that God dropped in.

Our tired old world has made its 4.53 billionth trip around the sun. Or thereabouts. We remember that one year, the God who made the earth made it his home.  And we can praise the God whose birth was heralded by the angels who sang when the Universe was made. Whose dark eyes reflected the stars that he called into being.

So we come, and bow, lay our claims down, and give God thanks. Today a child has been born to us. Born to bring us close to his Father. Born to make the world anew. And the heavens tell us his glory. So take a moment, make space in your heart, and hear the angels sing.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Fairytale of Isaiah

"Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand." (Isa 64:8) 

Kirsty MacColl leaning over piano, singing at Shane MacGowan, black and white, in Fairytale of New York,

Hard to know where to start with the woe of the world today. Innocents suffer and die as Hamas attacks Israel and Israel bombs Gaza. Ukraine faces another winter of bombardment of its energy supplies, up against a gormless yet relentless opponent. In order to try to resolve the issue of climate change, three English dignitaries fly to a conference in separate private planes. And Shane MacGowan has died just before Christmas. And the hope that Fairytale of New York may finally make it to number 1 after 36 years comes as small consolation.

Like Kirsty McColl and Shane Macgowan, Isaiah 64 is looking into a world of disillusionment after hope. After Exile, the hope was that the Jews would return to a land of blessing - where ever valley was raised up, every mountain lowered, every road made smooth, and they would live up their calling to be God's chosen people.

Instead, they managed about half of it. Malachi will point out to them that they're letting down their side of the covenant in the imperfect sacrifices they're bringing.They were still a fractious little nation, with a poor replica of their original Temple, surrounded by enemies and at risk of being crushed by the great empires around them. The dreams weren't bad, but after the party they still have the hangover of reality to face. 

And if that's not sounding familiar yet again today, I don't know what is.

And yet amid the disappointment, there is hope. And the hope doesn't come from the failing People of God, as they forget to call on God's name and do their substandard good works. Instead it comes from their Covenant God. The one who on Sinai made the mountain shake with holiness.

And so the turn to God as their faithful parent - "we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand." The clay on the wheel may go wrong - but that doesn't make it worthless. It can be remoulded, returned, broken flat and made into a ball and raised up again.

All those people that sell us perfect lives - with the right products, the right lifestyle, the right prayers, the right way of following God's laws - are lying to us. Because in this world it is not in our hands to have a perfect life. Even a man as rich as Elon Musk must put up with his own fallibility - whether he believes in it or not.

When Kirsty tells Shane in "Fairytale" that he's taken her dreams from her, he says "I kept them with my own. Can't make it all alone. I built my dreams around you." In the drunk-tank, as two lovers scream abuse at each other, there's still a glint around, as the boys of the non-existent NYPD choir sing and the bells ring out Christmas Day.

We can despair, or we can turn and say - you are the potter, I am the clay. Let's try again, and again. Remake me again, and let's see how it works out this time. And let me be remade and remodelled and changed until the day when I am fully in the right image - the one I am called to be, the one I was seen as before time began, the one I will be when time ends. And if it takes the end of time to make this all right, then let that be.