A Midwinter Mishmash.

As readers of these posts will have seen I take my inspiration from many different sources and I always have lots of stuff on the go. I want to use this post to reflect on some of that stuff;

Films; as nobody can really ignore the burgeoning weight of George Lucas’ original concept I saw the new instalment ‘The Last Jedi’ with my son on a recent trip to a wintry Belfast. I found the film immensely enjoyable and boasting a sense of humour I had not previously noticed (especially in the dialogue between Poe Dameron and General Hux in an early sequence!). I also found it an intensely religious film, full of themes (besides the good and evil and the light and the dark) like redemption and choice, and, in the climactic duel between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker, the impotence of evil. I found Adam Driver’s performance magnetic, his face showing all the conflicts in his mind and heart. Excellent!!

Then, in Newcastle I saw ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ on the big screen as part of a birthday treat- this film is one of my favourites and is full of light and darkness (and is still a ‘U’!!). Those close-ups of James Stewart’s face as he realises he has nowhere to turn are still, for me, the most frightening images in cinema. How Frank Capra and his actors managed to fit so much into a piece of ‘popular’ entertainment still amazes me after multiple viewings! When it was over the audience burst into a round of applause!

Reading; I am re-reading Michael Chabon’s novel ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’, a story about struggling comic book artists that takes in the fraught history of that genre, Jewish legends about The Golem, and the panorama of the Second World War and the efforts of Joe Kavalier to free his family from occupied Europe. Like all good novels this book contains multitudes and is excellent. My Christmas reading has been enlivened by two books, I started to read ‘God is no thing’ by Rupert Short last year before I went into hospital, it is a spirited defence of thinking Christianity that is well written and intelligent. Also worth a mention is ‘Windows on a Hidden World’ by Jane Maycock, a series of Advent meditations that use metaphysical poetry alongside scripture to illuminate the season. As she says the poetry of Robert Southwell (‘The Burning Babe’ and ‘New Heaven, New War’) deserve to be better known and the whole book is an excellent way to, as the subtitle suggest “explore the Advent landscape’’

As ever, music is in this mix; the genius of Todd Rundgren has been mixing it with the grace of pianist Bill Charlap and the ever surprising Thelonious Monk. I have also been listening to a sampler from the Jazzland label set up by pianist Bugge Wesseltoft; his collaboration with Henrik Schwarz (‘Leave My Head Alone Brain’) is an intriguing mix of gospel piano and beat influenced electronics and guitarist Eivind Aarset who on the track ‘Wanderlust’ manages to travel from hard rock, jazz to ambient atmospherics in 12 glorious minutes!

One final thing; as the feast approaches we have been listening to ‘The Box of Delights’, I taped this radio adaptation of John Masefield’s fantasy from BBC radio 4 in the late 1990’s and it has worn well. Masefield’s books were a great influence on Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and this story is tremendous. I read an illuminating article in the Guardian yesterday by Stephanie Merrit (“We need the darkest Christmas stories. These are dark times” (on the Guardian website). Surely the Christmas myth reminds us that darkness never has the last word, for the light is always coming and, as someone put it long ago; “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

The other Christmas Story……

The other Christmas Story……

The other Christmas story.

Christmas is almost upon us, although its coming is forestalled by the advertisers as they stoke the fires of consumerism, the actual feast is still some days away and I want to use this post to explore some of the themes of the season.

At least two of these are presence and redemption. I recently reread Charles Dickens’s seasonal parable (or should that be polemic?) ‘A Christmas Carol’, and then I watched the film ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ which relates a fictional version of how Dickens came to write the novella. Both stories illuminate the revolutionary tenor of the season; in the novella it is Scrooge who is redeemed, and in the film it is both Scrooge and Dickens! Scrooge learns to be present to those around him, and Dickens grapples with the demands of fame and his need to make money by writing whilst being present to his family and repairing his relationship with his father.

I think that Christmas is a bit like an elderly relative; she used to be part of our family and lived amongst us, we loved her stories and her memory. Like the old man in Ray Bradbury’s story of the same name she was like a time machine giving access to the past through her memory. But times have changed and this relative has moved away into a care home and we no longer see her very often (perhaps not even at Christmas!) and even though we still love her and may even expect an inheritance from her she has become disconnected from those who need her experience and presence. Like all metaphors this can be pushed too far but it has some value in thinking about the perennial question; what does Christmas mean?

One post like this is not sufficient to explore the riches available to us in this season! But look past all the seasonal flummery and, as a Christian feast, Christ-mas tells us stories of presence and redemption that have become part of popular culture. Yet they remain stories which are concerned less with what happened and more with what it all means. These stories are also deeply political; they offer a stinging critique of the way things are in this world. They posit a different way of ordering the world; just listen to the words that Luke the evangelist puts into Mary’s mouth as she hears the cry of celebration from her relative Elizabeth; “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52, 53). Can you imagine what the world might look like if that revolutionary song became any sort of political agenda? The reality we are invited to enter here is too shocking, too radical by half! It’s no wonder we domesticate Christmas out of sight and reduce it to a harmless folk tale of a baby in a stable (actually the real location of the birth was a back room in a family home – space may have been tight but Joseph was amongst family after all!!).

Stories collide at Christmas; rich and poor, powerful and powerless, God and humanity, and whether the stories ‘work’ for you is dependent on the extent to which you believe. Opening yourself up to the possibilities contained here can be the way into a new understanding of who God is and who we are. G. K. Chesterton (who wrote extensively on the festive season) put it like this; “The child who has doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest” (From ‘Magic’ 1913).

Once upon a time, anyone?

Midwinter 2017.

“Print the legend……!”

“Print the legend……!”

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Many people will know this quote from the 1962 movie ‘The Man who Shot Liberty Valance’. Of course it is placed firmly in the context of the story of a heroic deed perpetrated by the wrong man and without taking anything away from John Ford’s wonderful film I want to use it as a way into this Christmas reflection.

As a (still) working clergy person I have been involved in countless Carol Services through the years. Many follow the well-worn (Anglican) pattern of interspersing lessons from scripture with well known (and not so well known) carols. One I led recently began with material from the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem and Micah, carried on to the gospel accounts from Matthew and Luke and included the breath-taking meditation on Christ from the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians before ending with the equally audacious passage from John’s gospel where the author reflects on God’s Word becoming flesh and, in Eugene Peterson’s luminous phrase in his paraphrase ‘The Message’ “moved into the neighbourhood”.

How does it come about that such disparate passages become bolted together? What have the geopolitical situations facing Isaiah and Micah to do with the efforts of the gospel writers to forge an ‘origin’ story for a man they mostly knew through the story witness of others? I think that answer is partly to do with the way that these words encapsulate a human hope. This hope fund its expression many years before a baby was born in the back room of a family home in Bethlehem. It is a hope that there will be justice and peace that comes not at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable, but is the inheritance of every member of the human family. I believe that this is the hope that Jesus and his strange kingdom came to embody before the church got hold of him and turned him into a strange mix of emperor and soldier.

What Matthew and Luke did was what every writer did in their time; they took the ancient texts of the Jewish faith and rewrote them in the light of their convictions about Jesus of Nazareth. In this way the words of Isaiah and Micah, originally written to address the geopolitical situations they faced as prophets, become charged with a new conviction forged in the fires of history and yet located in the weak and the vulnerable. And this hope is found in the prophecy that little children will always lead those who think they know better. So perhaps there is more truth in the mix of legends and myths (and some personal experience) that make up our nativity stories than there is in a completely factual account. Perhaps we need what some theologians are calling a ‘second naiveté’ that retains a proper rigour in the approach to these stories but also appreciates them as stories that are full of wonder and conviction. Like all stories they are themselves and yet they also reach beyond themselves. So, as the man said; “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

Happy Christmas!!

The Grace Ubiquity.