Friday, December 31, 2010
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
'This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet'. Phrases like this echo like a refrain through the nativity stories in the Gospels – and indeed the stories of Jesus' trial and death as well. The stories of Jesus' birth and death were, from the very first, stories about how God had kept his promise. The earliest Christians looked at the records and memories of what had happened in and around the life of Jesus and felt a sense of déjà vu: doesn't this remind you of...? Surely this is the same as...?
Bit by bit, they connected up the details of the stories with a rich pattern of events and images and ideas in Hebrew Scripture. Utterly unexpected pregnancies – like Abraham's wife Sarah, or Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. A birth in Bethlehem, where Jacob's wife died in bringing to birth the last of the ancestors of Israel, where an impoverished young widow from an enemy country was welcomed and made at home, to become the grandmother of the great hero King David. Shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem where young David had looked after his father's flock before being called to be shepherd of the whole kingdom. A star like the one foreseen by the ancient prophet Balaam as a sign of Israel's victory; foreigners bringing gifts of gold and incense, as the psalm describes foreign potentates bringing tribute to King Solomon . A murderous attack on the children of God's people by a Godless tyrant, a desperate flight and an exile in Egypt. The plain event at the centre of it all, the birth of a child in a jobbing handyman's family, is surrounded with so many echoes and allusions that it seems like the climax of an immense series of great happenings; like the final statement in a musical work of some theme that has been coming through again and again, more and more strongly, in the earlier bars. The last triumphant movement in God's symphony.
The story of Jesus is the story of a God who keeps promises. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, 'however many the promises God made, the Yes to them all is in him'. God shows himself to be the same God he always was. He brings hope out of hopelessness – out of the barrenness of unhappy childless women like Sarah and Hannah. He takes strangers and makes them at home; he brings his greatest gifts out of those moments when the barriers are down between insiders and outsiders. He draws people from the ends of the earth to wonder – not this time at the glory of Solomon but at the miracle of his presence among the humble and outcast. He identifies with those, especially children, who are the innocent and helpless victims of insane pride and fear. He walks into exile with those he loves and leads them home again.
This is the God he has shown himself to be; and he has promised that he will go on being the same God. 'I am who I am' he tells us; and 'I, the Lord, do not change', and 'I will not fail you or forsake you.' When we are faithless, he is faithful; when we seek to escape or even to betray, he does not change. In what is perhaps the most unforgettable image in the whole of Hebrew Scripture, God says that he has 'branded' or 'engraved' us on the palms of his hands (Is.49.16). He has determined that he will not be who he is without us. And in this moment of climax and fulfillment, in this last movement of the symphony, he shows in the most decisive way possible that he will not be without us; he binds his divine life to human nature. Never again can he be spoken of except in connection with this human life that begins in the stable at Bethlehem.
From one point of view, then, a story of triumphant persistence. Nothing has shaken God's decision to be with those he has loved and called, and now nothing ever will. Nothing, as St Paul again says, can separate us from what is laid bare in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And yet from another point of view, it is a story of unimaginable cost and apparent tragedy. For if God has chosen to be with us in this way, he is associated with our weaknesses, humiliated by our betrayals, exposed and vulnerable to our casual decisions to take our custom elsewhere. In the book of the prophet Hosea, we see this depicted in harrowing terms as the marriage of a faithful man to an unfaithful woman, a marriage which the man refuses to accept is over. I suspect that a good many of us have seen cases of a faithful woman sticking obstinately to an unfaithful man. In human terms, such faithfulness is likely to look naïve, foolish or just pointless self-punishing. But God, it seems, knows that whatever limitation and humiliation our human freedom lays on him, we cannot live without him; and he accepts everything for the sake of our well-being.
Christmas is about the unshakeable solidarity of God's love with us, not only in our suffering but in our rebellion and betrayal as well. One mediaeval Greek theologian, deliberately out to shock, described as God's 'manic passion', God's 'obsession'; manike eros. And so it is a time to do some stocktaking about our own solidarity and fidelity, our own promise-keeping.
There are at least three things we might ponder in that respect, seeking to understand ourselves better in the light of the Christmas story. The first is our solidarity with one another, in our society and our world, our solidarity with and loyalty to our fellow-citizens and fellow-human beings. Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out. That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load. If we are ready, if we are allready, to meet the challenge represented by the language of the 'big society', we may yet restore some mutual trust. It's no use being cynical about this; whatever we call the enterprise, the challenge is the same – creating confidence by sharing the burden of constructive work together.
The second is something quite different, but no less challenging. Next year, we shall be joining in the celebration of what we hope will be a profoundly joyful event in the royal wedding. It is certainly cause for celebration that any couple, let alone this particular couple, should want to embark on the adventure of Christian marriage, because any and every Christian marriage is a sign of hope, since it is a sign and sacrament of God's own committed love. And it would be good to think that I this coming year, we, as a society, might want to think through, carefully and imaginatively, why lifelong faithfulness and the mutual surrender of selfishness are such great gifts. If we approach this in the light of what we have just been reflecting on in terms of the Christmas story of a promise-keeping God, we shall have no illusions about how easy it is to sustain such long-term fidelity and solidarity. There will be times when we may feel stupid or helpless; when we don't feel we have the energy or resource to forgive and rebuild after a crisis or a quarrel; when we don't want our freedom limited by the commitments we've made to someone else. Yet many of us will know marriages where something extraordinary has happened because of the persistence of one of the parties, or where faithfulness has survived the tests of severe illness or disability or trauma. I admit, find myself deeply moved at times when I speak with the families of servicemen and women, where this sense of solidarity is often so deeply marked, so generous and costly. As the prince and his fiancée get ready for their new step into solidarity together, they will have plenty of inspiration around, more than you might sometimes guess from the chatter of our culture. And we can all share the recognition that, without the inspiration of this kind of commitment in marriage, our humanity would be a lot duller and more shallow – and, for the believer, a lot less transparent to the nature of the God who keeps his covenant.
And lastly, a point that we rightly return to on every great Christian festival, there is our solidarity with those of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world who are suffering for their Christian faith or their witness to justice or both. Yet again, I remind you of our Zimbabwean friends, still suffering harassment, beatings and arrests, legal pressures and lockouts from their churches; of the dwindling Christian population in Iraq, facing more and more extreme violence from fanatics – and it is a great grace that both Christians and Muslims in this country have joined in expressing their solidarity with this beleaguered minority. Our prayers continue for Asia Bibi in Pakistan and others from minority groups who suffer from the abuse of the law by certain groups there. We may feel powerless to help; yet we should also know that people in such circumstances are strengthened simply by knowing they have not been forgotten. And if we find we have time to spare for joining in letter-writing campaigns for all prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity worldwide will have plenty of opportunities for us to make use of.
Economic justice and Christian marriage and solidarity with the persecuted – very diverse causes, you might think. But in each case, the key point is about keeping faith, sharing risks, recognising that our lives belong together. And all this is rooted for us in that event in which all God's purposes, all God's actions, what we might call all God's 'habits of behaviour' with us come into the clearest focus. 'This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken'; this was the 'Yes' to all the promises. And what God showed himself to be in Hebrew Scripture, what he showed himself to be in the life and death of the Lord Jesus, this is what he ahs promised to be today and tomorrow and for ever. He cannot betray his own nature, and so he cannot betray us. And by the gift of the Spirit, we are given strength, in all these contexts we have considered and many more, to let his faithful love flow through us, for the fulfillment of more and more human lives according to his eternal purpose and unshakeable love.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The Christmas story begins with an act of Big Government. Caesar Augustus sends out a decree that, "all the world should be taxed."
It is a reminder that the debate about the proper relationship between the state and society is nothing new.
Clearly things are different at the beginning of the 21st century and talk of the Big Society is an attempt to reassess the relationship between the state, the individual citizen and the "little platoons" whose importance in developing the possibility of a creative and democratic society is once more being appreciated.
As a result of Caesar's decree, Mary and Joseph were dislodged from their own homes in Nazareth and sent to their census point in Bethlehem. Despite challenges which could have destroyed their unity, they remained faithful to each other. Their child was, however, born in the most vulnerable circumstances and very soon the family became refugees, victims of Herod's persecution.
Christmas is a time for celebrating the 'small societies' which are created by generous self-giving. We should go out of our way to show our appreciation for all those who provide a strong and loving environment in which the young can flourish in their early years.
However, our gratitude should not stop there. We should celebrate the volunteers, the mainstay of the myriad of charities which are one of the glories of Britain. It is all those who sustain the small societies – the families, the charities – who provide the oxygen on which the health of the Big Society depends.
The Deputy CEO of the Paddington Development Trust was recently chairing a meeting of voluntary organisations in the area. She asked in the light of the forthcoming cuts, how many of the fifty organisations represented in the room were confident of delivering the same level of service to the local community in a year's time. Only three hands went up – all Church of England vicars.
It is an illustration of the vital role that churches and other faith communities play among others in building the Big Society.
The Diocese of London is indeed rich with examples of many people doing just this, with 600 community projects enabling local people to support the young and the vulnerable across 450 parishes. Examples span from a church in Holborn that has trained 12 "listeners" to offer professional support services to City workers feeling under pressure in their jobs, to a church in Tottenham that is providing an early intervention counselling service to 33 East Haringey schools. The Church in London has for some time embraced the challenge of providing the types of support networks that are proving to be the foundations of today's Big Society.
The best contribution of Government in these circumstances is to reduce the regulatory burden on volunteers and allow them the freedom to carry out their vital work.
No country is rich enough to supply the absence of the little societies which bring meaning and comfort in the lives of individuals and which oxygenate our civic life by making us apt for the compromises and cooperation of life together.
When therapeutic social structures decay, no ambulance service, however well-funded, will be sufficient to deal with the consequences.
Part of the experience of the past is that there is a cost to volunteering and that charities, churches, and other groups cannot simply expand their volunteering without also expanding the infrastructure to provide support, advice, training and crucially management of volunteers.
State support is crucial in building this infrastructure and capacity. As Mohammad Yunus (the great pioneer of micro credit) has argued in Building Social Enterprise the key is in uniting framework with goodwill and passion. Goodwill and passion by themselves are not enough but they are essential.
It was the childhood of the Saviour in the home of Mary and Joseph which laid the foundation for his latest work. Jesus Christ is the human face of a God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave of his own self. Living in the way he taught, we can see that it is in reaching beyond ourselves in generous service that we reveal our deepest and truest nature. The more ego is diminished, the richer we become in soul.
The State must from time to time intervene and use lawful coercion to hold things together. Society by contrast is founded on the mutual respect and willing cooperation of good neighbours. They will be the true engineers of the Big Society.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Dear Friends in Christ
“They were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod.” (Matt 2.12).
As soon as Our Lord is born, he is caught up in the terror and violence of our world. The wise men, without meaning to, prompt a tyrant to an act of dreadful barbarity. The life of the Incarnate Word of God is never to be spared the risk of suffering and death. Recalling the Massacre of the Innocents (on 28 December in the West) we affirm our faith that God’s action and presence are to be found in the darkest places of the world, alongside those who are exposed to pain and death.
In October during a pastoral visit to the churches of our Communion in India, I listened to a Christian from Orissa describe the murder of her husband as a result of his refusal to abandon his faith in Jesus Christ. In early November we had shocking news of atrocities against Christians in Iraq, and the whole Christian world prays and grieves with that small and courageous community living in daily danger. Regular reports reach us in the West of terrible atrocities against children in the war-torn lands of Congo, Sudan and other places. Every time such an outrage occurs, we are recalled to the reality of our involvement in the Body of Christ; when any member suffers, the whole Body suffers (I Cor 12.26).
But this in turn should rekindle our awareness of the positive reality of the Body, and the call and gift of God that comes with membership of the Body. Each of us is at every moment supported by every other through the life of the Body of baptised believers. Each of us is being fed and nourished by the Lord through this fellowship. And each of us is summoned to solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in prayer and action.
So we are called to daily involvement in prayer and advocacy for all our fellow-Christians in situations of oppression and danger – and all their neighbours too, of whatever belief, since the evils of violence and tyranny are not felt by Christians alone, nor can their sufferings be isolated from those of their neighbours. We are called to discover all the various ways in which we may express that solidarity. And we are humbled and gladdened by the fact that their courage and generosity in witness is God’s gift to all of us; their clear and brave service to the faith, even to the point of death, helps us grow and become firmer in our own faith.
Christ took a human body at Bethlehem so that he should always have a Body on earth. The body in the cradle is the first moment of the continuing life of the Mystical Body in which we learn how to be sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father and how to bring his love alive in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Bethlehem is the foundation for our mutual love and giving, and the responsibility we have for one another. And so it does not just inspire love, it makes love possible and actual in our world. Through our share in the Body, we are daily nourished in life and love, most especially when we celebrate our union in the Body through sharing in the Holy Eucharist.
At this season, let us thank God for the birth of the Word in a human body and soul, the birth which made it possible for us to be united once again with the life of God in unending communion. And let us resolve to live out that life of communion each day in our solidarity with and our work for all who live today in the shadow of the same kind of tyranny that threatened the life of Jesus himself.
To all who share the care of the churches of God and all their people I wish the blessings and joys of this holy Season.
© Rowan Williams 2010