[John 1, 7]: “[John the Baptist] came as a witness to testify to the light ...”
Today’s lessons proclaim the Advent message that God will give us Light in a troubled world’s darkness. Our world is darkly troubled. Here are five examples taken from recent news items:
1. In a recent Big Issue article [1-7 August 2011], a Celebrity chef describes how, in disguise, he sold The Big Issue in London, and returned home overwhelmed by how invisible he had become as shoppers gave him a wide berth. “I was five minutes away from my restaurant,” he wrote, “but suddenly I felt like I was in another world. I wasn’t in London any more. All these lovely people who know me and enjoy my food were the same people now ignoring me in the street. ... presenting myself as a homeless working person was really tough. The first person that bought from me ... said ‘I don’t want your magazine, and don’t touch me’. ... Some people were great, but the rest were miserable.”
2. In his evidence to the Leveson Media Inquiry, the comedian Steve Coogan described tabloid devastation of individuals as: “a dispassionate sociopathic act by those who operate in an amoral universe.” [Guardian, 23:11:11] It is a mouthful, but it’s an accurate description of human beings caught up in organisations which are dispassionate - free from human emotion; sociopathic - unhealthy for human society; and amoral - disconnected from human morality.
3. Ken Costa, a leading financier heading the Bishop of London’s initiative to reconnect the financial world with morality, wrote recently in the Financial Times: “Economics cannot flourish without mutual trust and respect or without fundamental honesty and integrity. We all need to learn the grammar of morality, .... For many, this will be exactly like learning a new language.”
4. Studies have shown that although extremist Muslims make up less than 1% of the Muslim population they dominate the nearly 95% of the negative media coverage of Muslims. Why do we stereotype strangers?
5. Tonight one in seven of the world’s population will sleep hungry. Water shortages will affect half the world’s population by 2030. These statistics are people!
Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent reflections on last summer’s riots concluded with a question: “whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed ...”. [Guardian, 05:12:11]
For those who do look for energy to enlighten the darkness, does Christmas provide inspiration? For many, the traditional promise of joyous peace on earth has become just another traditional decoration. Last month a ‘Private Eye’ cartoon showed a couple passing a pile of Easter Eggs in a shop, the man saying to his wife: “Is it November already?”. Last weekend, “Tis the Season to be Greedy” was a newspaper supplement’s rubric! [Guardian Weekend, 03:12:11] Christmas becomes superficial when a reformed humanity seems a pipe-dream. A 10th century Jewish rabbi said: “The main causes of irreligion are the weak and ridiculous arguments advanced in defence of faith”. [Guardian ‘Face to Faith’ 03:12:11]. Is our understanding of Christmas joy, based on the introductions to Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, persuasive?
Scholars cannot work out the precise year when Jesus was born. Paul, whose Letters were written about 20 years after the Crucifixion, merely says that Jesus was Jewish, “born of a woman” and “descended from David according to the flesh”. [Gal. 4: 4 and Rom. 1: 3] In Mark’s Gospel, written about 40 years after the Crucifixion and probably based on Peter’s recollections, there is nothing about Jesus’ young life. John’s Gospel, written 70 or more years after the Crucifixion, gives no details about Jesus’ birth. To those first Christians it was irrelevant to the good news they courageously proclaimed.
We have gained so much from the scientific revolution which explores the physical universe by careful observation and measurement, but this leads us to set up too narrow a correlation between facts and truth. Jesus was noted for using stories to convey powerful truths, e.g. about the Good Samaritan. The factual accuracy of that story’s background is irrelevant. Careful reading of Matthew’s and Luke’s detailed and magnificently fantastic birth stories, containing much poetry, quickly shows that the two accounts are, in factual detail, incompatible. And did you ever know under which star your house is? Concern about factual accuracy will distract us from the meaning. Matthew and Luke, each separately dealing with their current situation, prepared their readers for the real significance of Jesus using the Old Testament and Roman imperial religion as contexts. They are not merely attractive stories, but a skilful framework emphasising that in Jesus hard-pressed people will find valuable leadership, justice and peace, joy and light.
Matthew wrote to show that Jesus fulfills the prophets’ hopes, at a time when Jewish Christians were being excluded from synagogues. Luke wrote to show that it was Jesus, not the all-powerful Roman Emperor and his cronies, who provides the way to joyous peace. About 30 years before Jesus, Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, had brought Rome’s civil war to an end, and greatly expanded its Empire. Octavian’s success resulted in him being worshipped - that is the meaning of his title ‘Augustus’.
Listen to these examples, made shortly before Jesus’ birth, and catch the imperial style which Luke subversively uses to exalt the crucified nobody his Gospel celebrates. The Governor of Asia Minor described:
“... the birthday of the most divine Caesar... [as] the day which we might justly set on a par with the beginning of everything, ... in that he restored order when everything was disintegrating ... and gave a new look to the whole world, ... For that reason one might justly take this to be the beginning of life and living, ... It is my view that all the communities should have one and the same New Year’s Day, the birthday of the most divine Caesar.”
The League of Asian Cities accepted this suggestion. They said:
“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has ... brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a saviour – he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who brought glad tidings, ...”. etc.
The Roman idea of a good, well-ordered world under the divinely successful Augustus was peace through military victory. At best violence establishes a lull; at worst it begets escalating violence in return. Those non-violent but later executed subversives, John the Baptist and Jesus, both rejected this kind of peace, having suffered and lived under its yoke. Shortly after their birth King Herod died, and there were armed revolts against Roman power. As part of their retaliation, Roman troops captured and destroyed a town as near to Nazareth as Fotheringhay is to Cliffe, and enslaved its surviving inhabitants. [Josephus, 4.488 – 489].
The Roman authorities persecuted the early Christians because their rejection of imperial worship gained converts, yet they continued determinedly to celebrate their subversive Christmases For them it was not a folksy tradition, but an opportunity to proclaim the salvation inherent in Jesus’s way of living. The world’s false Gods who need placating and flattering were as nothing to the crucified Jesus.
Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel Prefaces make, in particular, a metaphorical assertion of Light in our darkness. Our Advent services of Compline use the same symbolism and provide space to reflect. Advent is an opportunity to change as we prepare to accept the Light of the World, so that we, individually and as a church, can respond to our own and our community’s diverse needs. What we know of Jesus sheds light on the darkness in all five of the situations with which we began.
The 13th century Meister Eckhart said Christmas should be the birthday of Christ within us, metaphorically-speaking, of course. When that happens we can wonder with angels, shepherds, star-struck sages, seers and animals at the glorious potential of an obscure vulnerable baby who would defy the mightiest military power humankind has known, by embodying his Father’s care for all.