Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Waiting for dawn to break (Midnight Mass sermon 2013)

[a bit of a rough and ready draft, with deep gratitude to Julian Dobson, whose brilliant blogpost ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html) helped both shape and 'earth' my more disparate thoughts]

The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of the dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the students suggested: “When from a distance you can see the difference between a dog and a sheep?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Is it when you can tell the difference between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer then,” said the students. “It is dawn,” said the wise teacher, “when you look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”

Two years ago, in the middle of this church, a tent appeared, just before Advent, with a sign over its opening, ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of God’. It was a sign of revolutionary hope, at a time when tents were springing up all over the place, from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, to Wall Street and the City of London – canvas occupations of places the powerful thought they had under control; places where, all of a sudden, the hungry were being fed, all who were sick were being treated, the voiceless were being heard, impossible dreams were being dreamed.

But then, what? What has changed? A question echoing down the years not just from 2011, but from two millennia before. “Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.” What has changed?

In the House of Commons last week, government ministers and their colleagues laughed and jeered, or just didn’t bother turning up, for a debate on the causes of the spiralling increase in foodbank use, and then within days launched vicious attacks on the Trussell Trust, Church Action on Poverty, and others for daring to ask why people are going hungry in one of the richest nations in the world.

Less reported, for the first time this Christmas, people in prison have been banned from receiving parcels from their loved ones, including stationery, books, and clothes – under new rules introduced by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

And then are stories which won’t reach the newspapers at all, of men and women, young and old, stripped of even their pittance of jobseeker’s allowance over Christmas, for reasons as arbitrary and as unjust as not being able to attend the JobCentre because of a hospitalising illness.[i]

It is still night, and darkness is still with us. There is not enough light, it seems, to look into the faces of our fellow human beings and recognise them as our sisters and brothers. We are still too immersed in our own ideologies, our own self-interests, our own agendas, to hear the love-song the angels bring.

And yet...

In a Mexican slum there is a destitute old woman who each year puts up an extensive nativity set. The Christ Child is in the centre, of course, and around him she places dozens and dozens of figures of people and animals. This is no matched set! None of the figurines match; and they are not in scale with each other, some only an inch high, some several feet tall. She just clutters the set with whatever figurines she can find. But there is a great truth hidden in this mish-mash of nativity characters. Although the senora cannot read or write, she has seen something that is all too easily missed. In the Bethlehem stable, there is room for all. From the highest to the lowest, from king to shepherd, from old woman to new born baby.

On one level, it is merely a chaotic, mismatching nativity set. An eccentric tradition. A futile gesture. But on another level, it ‘prefigures’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. Just like the alternative spaces that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London Stock Exchange, and many more, created. However fragile, however temporary, however imperfect. Places in which to practice living differently. Places where we can learn to recognise each other as sisters and brothers.[ii]

The pictures of Rembrandt are striking in many ways, but perhaps most so for the way he uses light and shade. Have a look at his picture of the Nativity. There is a man with a lamp, but the stable is not lit by the lamp. The light comes from the manger, the light from the newborn Jesus lights up the faces of those around him, enabling us to see them, and enabling them to see each other.[iii] This is where night ends, and dawn begins. In the stable. In the manger.

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I led a small, quiet Requiem Mass in this church. I was accompanied by five men, as they remembered the uncle of one of them, who had recently died. They came from five different African countries, countries which have, at times, been at war with each other. Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, and others. And as we remembered those who had died, and shared bread and wine together, we recalled the words Archbishop Rowan Williams had used recently to describe Nelson Mandela:

“Most politicians,” he said, “represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.”

‘Prefiguring’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. A place not fully a reality in today’s South Africa, by any means. But a place glimpsed, touched, tasted.

And I was reminded too of the words of another Archbishop, Christoph Munizihirwa, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, who was killed by Rwandan soldiers in the process of surrendering himself, in the hope that two companions might be able to escape in his car:

“One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act,” said Archbishop Munzihirwa, not long before his death. “People of good will must never be disheartened... There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried... In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. God knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of a child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.”

The seed in the soil. The light in the stable. The tent in the city square. The nativity scene in the slum. The prisoner who forgives his enemies. The martyred Archbishop. The child in the manger. These are the small, fragile beginnings of revolution. And those in power do not like them one bit. And so they send armed police in to clear the tents. They attack churches and faith organisations for ‘scaremongering’, and, bizarrely, for creating the demand for food banks in the first place. And a threatened king in Jerusalem orders the massacre of all Bethlehem’s babies.

And what do we do? We keep on beginning the revolution. Returning to the stable. Planting new seeds. Putting up new tents. Forgiving new enemies. Hearing to speech as-yet-unheard voices.

There is a place not far from Reading in Berkshire called ‘Christmas Common’. It is the site, according to the history books, of a Christmas truce in 1643 during the English Civil War. A dangerous, if fleeting, moment of daring to recognise enemies as brothers or sisters, even in the darkness of the battlefield. But Commons like Christmas Common – and perhaps even a Common much closer to home – are also enduring places of shared resource, open to and cared for a whole community, places where ‘commoners’ of all backgrounds and circumstances can meet each other as equals, as neighbours, as sisters and brothers, and work, and play, and eat, and celebrate together.[iv] We have a dream for just such a common in the wasteland we’ve renamed ‘Bromford Meadow’. A seed sown in the soil, slowly germinating.

Our twice-weekly 'Open Door' is another such space where 'what-is-not-yet' breaks in to 'what-is'. It is what it says: an open door. And a warm welcome, a hot cup of tea, some friendly faces, and listening ears. A place where people might come in with 'I need', but discover among friends an 'I can', perhaps for the first time.

We get a taste of ‘what-is-not-yet’, too, every time we share communion together, whether it’s shared in a circle, where we can see the faces of our sisters and brothers; or shared in a moment together, each waiting to eat until all present have food in their hands – our own small ‘prefiguring’ of the time when no one goes hungry.

In 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela made his ‘long walk to freedom’, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (who also died this year) was translating a Greek epic telling the story of the Trojan War. It gave him some of his most well-quoted words. They are words for a night like this, as we celebrate once again the Word-made-flesh, and as we wait for dawn to break:

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

[i] I’m deeply grateful to Julian Dobson for highlighting these 3 examples in his brilliant blog post, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html)
[iv] Julian Dobson, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’

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