This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I have meditated on the Christmas and Easter story every Christmas, for—goodness–decades, and every year find new diamond-glints in it.
It’s one of those magical stories which speak to everyone. To the poor and down-and-out, as most of humanity have been for most of time, and to the up-and-out.
Joseph and Mary, forced to migrate at the behest of a colonizing power to Bethlehem, where they were homeless, while she laboured with her illegitimate child, the child of scandal. She places the baby in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.
If Jesus was–as I believe he, of course, was– God himself, he could have chosen a blaze of earthly glory to make his presence felt. He could have chosen a throne. But he chose to come to a colonized and oppressed people, to be born of a woman pregnant before her wedding day; he chose a unhygienic manger for his crib, thereby exalting the simplest and humblest of choices.
But God connected him. He could not be hidden. An angel, no less, announces his birth to shepherds, announces that Jesus is the way to joy, that there is peace to men of good will. Wise men, Magi, saw a new star, heralding the birth of the King of the Jews, and followed it to the child, giving him precious gifts, gold, frankincense, or perfume used in censers in the temple, and myrrh, used in anointing oil for kings and prophets.
Scandal, homelessness, rejection, muck, odours. Angelic voices hailing him; shepherds worshipping him; distant Kings lavishing precious gifts on him.
To a lesser extent, that will be the path of all Christ’s followers… unmerited scandal, rejection, undeserved suffering, perhaps patches of poverty. And also affirmation from those who might see Christ in their lives, and on their faces, and unasked for precious gifts, gold, frankincense, myrrh. The glory and goldenness; the muck and shame. Sweet love and bitter hatred. Christ did not escape them–he held his head high whatever shame was heaped on him—and neither shall we.
Christ’s example compels some to choose the path of voluntary downward mobility… Saint Francis and Mother Teresa, Jackie Pullinger, Heidi Baker, all those who work in inner cities. That is not a call I hear.
A call I do hear is the call to simplicity. Simplicity in clothing, in make-up (or the lack of it!), simplicity in furniture, in choices of food, or holidays. Simplicity whenever possible; find the simplest option, God is more likely to be found there in the time and soul-space it frees up. Simplicity for the sake of our own souls; simplicity because our time on earth is limited and should be well-spent; simplicity because complexity is a waste of self and time and spirit; simplicity because there are poor on this earth; simplicity because of Christ. While voluntary downward mobility is a call to a few Christians, voluntary simplicity, I believe, is a call to all Christians, to all sane people.
But to the manger unasked for came gold, frankincense and myrrh, precious gifts Mary accepted on behalf of her precious son, gifts which sustained them when refugees in Egypt. So if and when through hard work or God’s favour, these colourful gifts appear, accept them with a grateful heart, enjoy the good things of this transient world, never losing sight of the gift of simplicity, or the gift of Jesus, and his counter-intuitive teachings which are the way to the great joy the angel promised.
That is what I am reflecting on this Christmas.
And if you’re interested in a family catch-up. It’s been an important year in the story of our family.
Zoe graduated from Oxford University with a BA in Theology, and is working as a Stepney intern at St. John’s Church, Hoxton, which she loves, getting stuck into preaching, community organising, youth groups, etc. She is continuing to study Theology part-time at St. Mellitus College, London, taking courses in Political Theology. We heard her preach at St. John’s last Sunday, and she was excellent. She is living with other interns in a beautiful spacious Church of England house in central London, almost a mansion!
Zoe with the Bishop of Stepney, far left; her vicar, Graham Hunter, second from left, and the new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally
Irene matriculates at the University of Oxford.
Irene graduated from Oxford High School, was chosen as “Young Biologist of the Year,” by Science Oxford, and won the school prize for Chemistry. She’s doing Medicine at Christ Church, Oxford University, and was delighted to be chosen as a Christ Church Prize Scholar with a cash prize of £9200 a year (which is good, since Medicine at Oxford is a six year course). She loves the whirlwind of Medicine, and has had courses in biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, molecular genetics, anatomy and medical sociology!! Irene has a paid job too, blogging about her medical studies for Medic Portal!
And as for me: I am in the middle of my third year of German classes at Oxford University Continuing Education. It was a complete whim; I wanted to do something completely different in 2015, and chose a language I had never seriously considered learning. Learning German was hard at first because I was reluctant to buckle down and memorise the grammar, but I now experience flashes of pure joy when I understand the flow of fast German, when I converse in German, when I read a German poem, and understand it. I am so glad I persisted!
I find travel refreshing, rejuvenating, horizon-expanding, super-duper educational, and am grateful to have been able to travel a lot this year. Roy and I went to Split in Croatia in April, staying in a Castle featured in the Game of Thrones, in a romantic apartment with a patio jutting out into the Adriatic Sea on which we sat to admire sunsets. Lots of hiking, and sea walks. The entire city of Split was once Diocletian’s Palace, and like Trognir has a foreboding, claustrophobic air; you can imagine mysteries, assassins, cloak and dagger chases…
Summer holiday with the family… The Bavarian Alps and the Black forest. Totally restful.
We visited Budapest for the first time in October to stay with Peggy Goetz, my American friend, a Calvin College professor, who was teaching there for a semester. A fabulous history-drenched city I will definitely revisit (and a great walking city).
Peggy Goetz and me in Budapest
We had a mini-walking holiday in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, and straight after Irene’s term, went to Cyprus for 9 days, a hedonistic visit of beach walks, and ancient ruins!
Roy and I are slowly easing into the rhythm of being empty nesters, are focusing on health and fitness, organisation, and slipping into a rhythm of serious work. Empty nesting? Ssshhh… we like it!
I wish you a Happy New Year, hand in hand with the Great One
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.” Minnie Haskell