Advent

The Surprise

Chagall Chicago Art Inst of Design

Chagall window, Chicago

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation, says Mary. NOT “God’s mercy is for the rich”. She didn’t say that. NOT God’s mercy is for the upper-class. She didn’t say that either. And neither did she congratulate the selfish who are increasingly rewarded in our society and by our politicians (and apparently, by our votes): the influence-peddlers and the professors in their offices and the business-people in their downtown towers. For the mighty one of Israel, Mary said, has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and  sent the rich away empty. Notice that word: empty. You and I –we’ve already had enough. Advent is about who we see and who we ignore, an announcement about place and privilege. It’s about justice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And it’s about our political and economic and environmental opinions just as much as our religious opinions. Because the surprise we’d better learn now, is that those things cannot be separated.

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Who’s Missing at Christmas

Chagall Chicago Art Inst of Design

I have a confession to make. I haven’t made a parcel for my son D. yet this Christmas. This has been on my mind a lot the last few days. I haven’t gotten something together and baked cookies and wrapped up little reminders of home and sent it all away via Canada Post. Christmas morning will come, and way off in England somewhere, D. and his girlfriend E. will wake up, and brush the sleep out of their eyes, and get some fresh coffee, and stretch and yawn, and then they’ll sit and open presents. And there won’t be anything from Daniel’s pappa. Me. And the worst part is: it’s too late now. I could make all kinds of excuses: it’s final exam marking time, there are so many emails going back and forth about the Finnish and Estonian churches, the research for the book on pilgrimage is taking too long. Things were crazy-busy at the university. All true. But really, is any of that an excuse? I just haven’t been paying enough attention.

At this time of year, one of the questions that comes up, in very many families, is who will be missing this Christmas? We don’t just decorate the table – we start to think about who will be around it. And who won’t. Sometimes it’s because of a death. This is the first Christmas for me without my mother. Some of you have lost loved ones in the last couple of years. You know how hard that is. Sometimes it’s because of distance, as it is for me with my middle son. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Children grow up and go to their partners’ parents, or have Christmasses of their own. Sons or daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, are off at school, or away traveling. Maybe there’s been a rupture in the family. That’s especially difficult it seems, at Christmas, in what is supposed to be a season of love and forgiveness. There’s a reason that this is also the season of greatest depression and anxiety. “I’ll be home for Christmas” isn’t just the title of a song. It’s a feeling we have in our heart. It’s an urge, almost instinctive, to be home, wherever we feel home is. It’s an unconscious, powerful urge to gather in loved ones under our wings.

One of the ironies of Christmas, is that that warm, family, clannish keeping track of who is home and who is away is actually not very Christmassy. If, by Christmas, we mean the first one.

The first announcement wasn’t about pulling the family all together. It was, instead, about expanding the very notion of family. Blessed are you among women, cries out Elizabeth, as if she can’t help herself: and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why? Because Jesus was going to help his family? Actually, no. As it turns out, he was about to tear his family apart. And a sword will pierce your heart also, the old prophet Simeon warns Mary about her future. This kid will be trouble. But for humanity – well, that was something different. This child was born to expand the whole concept of family, to include, in the sense of all the prophets of Israel, all those people traditionally left out.

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. NOT the rich. Not the upper-class. Not the influence-peddlers and intellectuals and business-people. For the mighty one of Israel has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things – even better than a Canada Post box from home – and God has sent the rich away empty.

Who is missing this Christmas is an issue that has to do, not with sentimentality and longing, but with who we see and who we ignore.

Christmas, according to Luke, is NOT about happy faces around a table where everyone is related to us. We know that. Of course. But it bears repeating. Christmas is much tougher, and more real. It’s about raw power. It’s about justice, and injustice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And God’s choice, this Christmas, is as it was the first Christmas, is NOT for US. It’s for the refugee, and the migrant, and the outsider, and the poor, and the working poor. God chooses to lift up, not the rich, not the happy, and not even the middle-class. God’s incarnation was and is, to lift up the lowly.

Blessed are you among women, says Elisabeth. Because God is doing something important through you. In you, God is already lifting up the lowly, and remembering the long-standing promise.

Mary is, in a Biblical sense, the spoiler. When you think about it, she’s a lot like the whole Biblical nation of Israel wrapped up in one person. For just as God once chose a weak, insignificant nation of slaves, so God once chose a weak, insignificant girl.

Firstly, she was a girl. At a time when women were property only one step up from the furniture, God chose of all people, a woman. In addition, she was young – we don’t know quite how young, but young. And finally, she was caught in a scandal, in a society not so different from the societies today where a young woman in Mary’s place would be murdered brutally by her own family for so-called shame of getting pregnant.

This was the one God chose as the theotokos, or: “God-bearer”. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, she replies to the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

The message for us is this. If God chose someone as weak and insignificant as Mary for something so important and powerful, then SURELY God continues to choose the weak and insignificant around us. And we need have no shame when we feel that way. AND: we should be ashamed when we ignore the theotokai – the weak and insignificant – who are the prophetic witnesses to what is important and real in our own world.

In the Paris climate talks that just wrapped up, one of the things we learned is that climate change isn’t just about protecting ourselves. It’s about justice. Because it’s more often than not the poorest who are the first to feel the effects of unstable climate. So climate change is once more, a question of how we work out our faith, or fail to.

In Judea, in Paris, in Montreal, wherever you are, God is in the business of using nobodies to perform powerful foolishness. Like Mary said: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has helped this servant, in remembrance of such a great mercy.”

My urge, this Christmas, like yours perhaps, is to bring the family together as much as possible. I want to know who’s missing at Christmas. Somehow to include my son in England. And that’s not a bad thing. But God wants me – God wants us – to think even BIGGER. Who’s missing at Christmas isn’t just the son who isn’t getting a parcel on time. It’s the one who never gets a parcel, the one who waits at the border, the one who lives on a reservation without drinkable water.

What can we do?

We can say with Mary my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God. And then we can let justice be born in us. Even when we are nobodies, worth almost nothing, we CAN do that, with love for Christ and for each other. For we are like Mary in one last, important way. When we think we have and are nothing, but we are open to the announcement of the angel, that’s when God can use us most of all.

The Stranger who travels with Us

Dovrefjell

I recently heard a story about a Norwegian acquaintance of mine. She was in Germany at a conference, and when one of the German academics first met her, she told her: “oh, you’re from Norway! I’d love to visit Norway someday.”

That’s nice. Right? Norway is a beautiful country. Nothing strange about what this woman said. Presumably, lots of people would love to visit the land of fjords and mountains. But what was a bit jarring was what came next. “My grandfather always told me stories, as I was growing up, about how lovely a country Norway is,” this German academic told my friend. “So I’ve always had this image of your homeland as a very special place. He said that in the early 1940s he spent some of the happiest years of his life in Norway.”

My acquaintance was a bit nonplussed. Did the German not realize what she was saying?

Yes, World War Two is long over. Yes, now Norwegians and Germans are neighbours and, very often, even friends. Yes, there are lots of German tourists welcomed in Norway every year. But did the German not realize that the ‘happiest years of life’ for her grandfather, who almost certainly was in Norway as a soldier during what was a brutal occupation of the country, were not exactly the happiest years of Norwegian history?

Countries, like people, don’t mature and grow up without suffering, and sometimes, without causing suffering. And the church is the same.

Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much growth and help, relief and education and hope as the church. Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much misery and pain and ignorance and hate and death, as the Christian church. So when we hear the words of the prophet: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the Way, we need to start by being a LOT more sensitive than that German academic. We have to ask ourselves exactly how we, personally, might be implicated in the message. Is Advent good news, or bad news?

For one thing, it means, without apology, that it’s okay to be political. The first words we hear about John the Baptist are political: in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Luke writes, naming the dictator of the day: when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… You can’t escape it. Advent always comes to us in the midst of politics.

This year, the politics are again brutally obvious: more and more and more shootings, most recently in California, and all the while some Americans saying that there’s nothing to be done. Rivers of blood staining the streets in Syria. Extreme weather events killing people and creating refugees globally – even as world leaders gather in Paris, in a city so recently scarred by the awful terrorist murders of innocent youth, to debate whether the climbing thermostats will make the world uninhabitable for our grandchildren. Millions of people flooding across borders and across oceans. A mass migration of misery. Children dying. Drones dropping bombs. Changing governments, a plummeting dollar, financial insecurity, increasing surveillance, and everyone uneasy.

Prepare the way of the Lord. As if we have time and space and hope enough for that, we think. Make God’s paths straight.

The most basic thing these words tell us is that something IS happening. We can’t put our heads in the sand. Changes are coming – have always been coming – and we can’t pretend otherwise. The world is changing. We are, as individuals, as institutions, and as families, facing massive upheavals. Our bank accounts, our homes, our educations, will NOT be walls high enough to save us. None of us will be the same ten years from this Advent. We can’t escape.

We are heading down some sort of path, into this hard environment, what the Bible calls this desert.

Making paths STRAIGHT seems to be about how we go forward, which is a matter of justice. When it comes to refugees, it’s clear, in recent news, that we can either straighten refugee routes, or we can block them. Between those two options, the Bible is quite clear. Hospitality to the poor and the oppressed is not just expected. It’s demanded. I was naked, and you clothed me, says Jesus, in Matthew, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was on the evening news huddled in the rubble on the newsfeed, and you did something. Whatsoever you have done to the least of these, you have done for me. To prepare the way almost never seems to be about protecting our own interests. Far more, it’s about allowing into our shelters and onto our paths those who need it most. I do not desire your offerings, says the LORD in the Hebrew Bible, but let justice roll down like streams. And yet. And yet we ALSO need to have a good solid sense of ourselves to undertake that prophetic work, otherwise what we do will be insincere and superficial.

And maybe this is the other part of the story. It seems like a paradox, but it’s a basic truth: the more comfortable we are with our own selves and with our own place, the easier it will be for us to travel through the coming desert, to face adversity and to make the paths straight for others. Our basic equipment, so to speak, is how we feel about ourselves, and what we know ourselves to be.

If we FEEL loved, we are better able to love. If we know that we are valuable, it’s easier to value others. If we learn to be gracious and forgiving with ourselves, we will, in most cases, have an easier time being gracious and forgiving with others. So our first task is to remember – and to remind ourselves and others – that WE are valued creations, loved, and accepted, just the way we are. Then we can treat others that way.

We are ALL strangers, and preparing a way means making that highway through the desert big enough for everyone.

There was a lovely video I saw recently about the settling of Saskatchewan. It was so well designed and shot. It talked about how life was hard for the European pioneers, but how life got so much better, and about how prosperous most of those families are now. In one sense, there was nothing wrong with the video at all. It was quite beautiful. But when it was done, I thought the same thing as that Norwegian academic I started out describing, thought of the German: do they not realize? Yes, the pioneers – among them my grandparents – worked hard. Yes, prosperity came. But at what price? The film, meant to be so inclusive, never once mentioned the First Peoples, and the disaster that European settlement was for them.

For us to celebrate an anniversary, or to prepare a way through the wilderness, two things must come together – a commitment to justice AND a sense of our own fractured and imperfect belonging. My friend Kathryn recently posted a quotation from a 4th century ascetic, Amma Syncletica, about how we develop a relationship with our Creator. Amma was a desert woman herself, and she wrote: In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: At first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.

The desert is not ahead of us. It is where you and I are traveling already. There will be cold nights and hunger and difficulty. As we journey, we can either take note of our fellow travelers, or not. When we do, and when we welcome them, and work for justice, and share love, we are already making the paths straight – for the Creator of all, the One who calls us, is already that stranger who travels with us.

Off-Road in Bethlehem

Five years ago I was in Bethlehem. Five years isn’t that long, but it’s odd how the memory works. Or doesn’t work! I remember touring the church they say is built over where Jesus was born. I remember the Lutheran Centre where we heard speakers and bought some crosses and shared worship. But from the actual streets of Bethlehem I remember little.

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My strongest recollections are NOT of the official streets, the paths we should have taken. My strongest memories of Bethlehem are of the very few times – two, I think – of going off-road. Leaving the group. Abandoning the security of our guide and just exploring.

There was one main street that led from a drop-off point downhill to the Church of the Nativity. We had walked up and down that street a couple of times and frankly, to me, it got kind of touristy and boring. There were so many other streets to explore. So I asked my friend DL, whom I knew would have the same urge, if she’d like to try the side-street. Off we went.

It looked like it should run parallel, but you know the old saying about looks. Soon there was a left turn, and a right turn, and then a whole warren of little alleyways.

As we walked we were both getting quieter and quieter. I didn’t want to say anything to DL, and I suspect she didn’t want to say anything to me. It had only taken maybe ten minutes.

We were lost.           

A voice says: Cry out! And I said: “What shall I cry?” Did you hear that from Isaiah this morning? Get thee to the desert, it says, to the wilderness. And there prepare the way of the Lord, a highway for our God.

For whatever complicated historical and economic reasons, we live in a society that, more and more, wants to train the unpredictability out of us. We live in a world of systems. Computer systems. Communication and transportation and economic systems. Everything is a system. We’re told to behave in a certain way. Not only do most of us more or less successfully behave like that, but we get VERY upset with those who don’t. Or can’t. We put them into institutions. If John the Baptist were around now he’d be in a hospital or on the street. Or on meds. The only times we allow ourselves to see our wildernesses, our wild places, is up on the movie screens, where we can safely walk out of the theatre and tell each other that that’s nice, but it’s not real life.

We’ve become slaves in so many ways, and the worst kind of slaves – slaves that actually WANT to be where we are. We’re like the ancient Hebrews who told Moses: “why did you bring us out here into the desert where there’s no food? Weren’t we happier to be well-fed – even if we were in bondage”?

Today’s lessons, each in their own way, are about EXODUS, which is a word that doesn’t mean all that much in our world right now. But liberation, which is what Exodus leads to, DOES mean something. Or it should.

Advent is about preparing for liberation. And however much we decorate the church or our houses, Advent is ultimately about how well we prepare ourselves and our communities for justice, and truth, for incarnation and for the risk of being out there, maybe a bit lost, preparing for a new way in the world.

This last week some of us at the university got free passes for the movie “The Exodus”. It was a big Hollywood production, with absolutely fantastic costumes and sets and 3-D effects. It must have cost millions, maybe tens of millions, to make.

But the point, for all that, was simple: there is captivity, and there is freedom. And sometimes we make ourselves captives even while we think that we’re free. Where does liberation await us? Almost always, the movie seemed to imply, it’s off the beaten track. In the “wilderness”, wherever that is.

Our churches are failing. Not all of them, but many. We’re closing buildings, shutting down congregations, bemoaning the fact that there is so much grey hair in the pews.

In one sense, that’s sad. But I wonder if what’s really happening is that we Jesus-believers are being forced out to where it all began: in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness of NOT knowing what a building should be, in the wilderness of NOT knowing who should be part of our group, and in the wilderness of NOT having big budgets and buildings and programs that we can do what the prophet says we should be doing:

Cry out, says God. Cry out that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice – and how are we supposed to lift it up? – Lift it up, without fear, and say“Behold! The advent of your God!”

It starts, I believe, with allowing ourselves, every day, in our homes and work, to be less safe, and more spontaneous. It means forgiving ourselves, and others, for failure, because only by doing that can we learn to try again to succeed. It means relying on others, for only in community can a person survive the wilderness.

And it also starts by seeking justice, however imperfectly, and by keeping our eyes open. By so doing, says the prophet, we will be preparing our hearts for the Christ child. And if we don’t spend some time in the wilderness, it won’t matter how many lights we’ve hung or how Christmassy our houses look, we won’t be ready for Jesus no matter what.

If it sounds unsafe, it should. Can you imagine a crazier-looking character than John the Baptist? But every year he is our model of preparing a way for the Lord.

Lift up your voice with strength O Judah. Do not fear. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

At one point in our wilderness way to the Church of the Nativity, we stumbled into an open square. It was a market. Spices, meats, nuts, dates….everything seemed to be there. There were lots and lots of people. But as far as I could see, not a single other face that looked like mine. They were all locals.

We went left. No exit. Right. Again, no exit. Down a stair…dead end.

Eventually, we found our way to another street, and from there to another street, and emerged, eventually, via a series of lanes and stairs, back onto the main thoroughfare that we had left behind.

Was it a bit frightening? Yes, at least to me. Was it interesting? A thousand times more than the other way.

Prepare the way of the Lord. How? By being less afraid, by being more human, by being willing to act a bit crazy and look a bit lost. By loving, seeking justice, and by embracing the life we’ve been given and not worrying quite so much about the opinions of others. Maybe it was a risk going off-road on the way to the Nativity. But five years later, that’s the only street I remember. May we each, in our own ways, hear God’s call to go “off road”, and learn what it is to be out there, preparing a way through our homes and through our lives.

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Yard-Art Love

Christmas in Verdun

(author’s note: This story was published on line in Maisonneuve Magazine a few years ago. Although it may not be immediately obvious, it’s actually a kind of Advent, Annunciation story. Interesting that it’s set in St-Henri, and I now live nearby in Verdun, although I didn’t when this was written.)

 

There I was, butt-up, head-down, outside at midnight in my dressing gown. Smack-dab in the middle of lining up my plastic snails, someone at Hydro threw the city’s breaker. The darkness was just so – you know – total, with no big fat moon sitting like a pumpkin just over the neighbor’s clothes-line, that I lost the snails for a moment. It kind of makes you think you could be anywhere. Or anyone. It’s like when we were St-Henri girls pulling down the shade pretending to be camping dans les bois even though we could still hear the humming of the fridge downstairs and the adults talking, voices rising and falling with the rye and coke, the shuffling of cards, the arguments, the calling through the screen door for fresh packs of du Mauriers.

It wasn’t easy making it all the way back to the porch in that kind of blackness. Every footstep’s a decision. I closed my eyes – for concentration – and figured my place in relation to the big cement angel fountain in the centre of the yard. Saint-Gabriel help me see my hand in front of my face, I said, and then I just went. Stepped right around the flock of pink flamingoes, each with their one foot up, waiting. Inched my feet around the frog, knowing the little rascal was there, even without the sound of water shooting out of his mouth. Pictured the glass fairy globes on their poles so clearly I could touch them, passing. Waited till I could hear the lazy clack-clack-clack of the windvane duck, so I wouldn’t bump it off its tethered flight.

I heard geese that night. I swear I did. It was a remarkable Passover. Their calling out in the high darkness to each other made me look up. Oh my God yes. If it’s true what they say, that in this world there are ghosts wanting bodies, then they could have had mine. Perhaps they did.

The night drifted, with the streetlights out. I don’t know, I really don’t – what happened, exactly. Stars trespassed the city, came up my street, crossed my eyes. I fell right over the yard butts (a family of four in descending girth, thick white legs like sausages from their slacks), still looking up. Don’t know how long I sat there. Like eating candy at the drive-in. A good long while, I guess.

What we long for, we live in fear of finding, open and waiting, wanting nothing more than to fall into our laps like fruit off the trees, forever luscious. I’m not saying it was the stars, exactly. But two things happened that night: my troll disappeared, the one sent to me by my mother’s cousin’s sister (somewhere in Norway, I’ve forgotten where). That nasty short fellow with his long nose never did fit with the leprechaun. Better he’s gone now.

And best: I sit on the porch, growing fatter and closer to term with my precious little baby each passing week. A real-estate agent came by today, a nice man in a fancy car, sweating in his spring suit as he hung over the fence trying not to look at either my big belly or the manger scene (I decided to leave it up at Christmas). He said “Ms. Elizabeth, I could sell your house for a lot of money.” I told him about the ultrasound the doctor ordered, about the bulb in the streetlight over my yard that keeps burning out now, the city crews that come back every few weeks to repair it. I showed him how my ankles have swollen with the edema. I asked him about my collection – what would happen to it if I sold? But he didn’t really answer. Eventually he left, my leprechaun making rude faces after him.

The Jesus who didn’t want to be Christ

memorial Christmas 2012 copy

This last week they buried Nelson Mandela. I talked about him quite a bit last Sunday. So I don’t need to go over all of that again, even though singing those liberation songs was fun! But in light of today’s Gospel lesson, and the aftermath of a South Africa withOUT Mandela, there may be something here still worth connecting to. Part of it is that when the current leader of South Africa and of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, came to pay his respects at the funeral, he was resoundingly booed by the crowds. Why? It’s not hard to imagine: Zuma is corrupt in the style of so many African dictators, he is making millions while the people are in worse and worse shape, he is out of touch with the heritage of the ANC as a freedom and liberation party, he has been implicated in scandal and mismanagement, and on and on. It seems like he’s more than just inefficient. He may be a very bad man.

But then why are all these awful things even more obvious than usual for a corrupt politician? One main reason: Zuma is NOT Mandela.

I remember when I played basketball in high school, there was one player who was far and away better than any of the rest of us. He could dribble, and shoot, and jump, better than any of us, and he made what we found hard, look easy. But the coach wouldn’t let him play all the time, and the reason was this: if I let one person do all the work, the coach said, then the rest of you won’t learn. The TEAM won’t be as strong, and the wins won’t come, no matter what.

The cult of “one special person” was a trap, our coach thought. And it’s a trap for Mandela’s South Africa and for faith, too. It’s wonderful that Nelson Mandela became such a symbol of liberation and justice. But there’s a danger. When one man or woman becomes the focal point for all such hopes, and the only one thought capable of fulfilling them, then the problem is: what happens when they’re gone? If the world considers them, not just a hero, but a super-hero, then no one else can do it. And justice and liberation should be everyone’s concern. Even a non-Mandela’s.

Which brings me to today’s Gospel lesson. Notice what happens. Go to Jesus, the Baptist tells his disciples, and when you see him, ask Jesus if he is the one.

That kind of language makes what I would call the same “cult of personality” or “cult of person over process” mistake. Yes, the people of God had been waiting, many of them, for a Messiah, someone to rise up and be another David. And yes, there was also in some circles the anticipation of a prophet who would announce this political figure and prepare the way. I guess that Messiahship – if you can call it that – was and is inevitably a kind of single-person, cult phenomenon.

So maybe it was natural that John should be reported as using such language: “Is he THE ONE?” But then, given that, we should also notice how Jesus answers:

Jesus is very careful. He never ever says, to John, or to John’s disciples: “Yes. I am the one.” To their question about whether he is the Messiah, Jesus doesn’t answer with his own person at all. Go and tell John, Jesus answers “not who I am, or who I say I am, but what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.

As I read this, what Jesus is saying is this: I’m not important. Tell John that the Kingdom of God is what’s important. And that kingdom has come.

At least in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (John is a different case), Jesus pretty consistently refuses to get involved in a cult of personality. Which raises all kinds of questions for us modern-day Christians.

Firstly, as the theologian Bultmann once said: Jesus preached the Kingdom and Paul preached Jesus. Meaning, our faith has an awful lot to do with the person on the cross, and in light of the message of Easter and of Paul and of all of Christian orthodoxy, rightly so. But . But there’s a question we need to answer: in our emphasis on Jesus, do we sometimes miss the very reign of God he was crucified for proclaiming? I believe so.

This coming season is a prime example of the cult of personality. Firstly, Christmas is of course overwhelmingly secularized. We could go on and on about the commercialization and the buy buy buy and the sentimentality and all the other overindulgences. And perhaps we should. But even those Christians who want to oppose this phenomenon of our societal “binge and purge” usually say something like this: let’s put the CHRIST back in Christmas.

WRONG! Let’s NOT put the Christ back in Christmas! Maybe, in light of the Gospel this morning, we should be saying: let’s put Christ’s MISSION back in Christmas. Because that would be even better.

That means helping the poor. That means clothing the naked. That means visiting the sick. That means standing up for justice for the outcast and marginalized. That means doing something – anything – for those who cannot always do things for themselves.

I’m not sure if any theologian has ever talked about the Jesus who didn’t want to be Christ. Maybe that sounds silly. Even unchristian. But maybe there were times when Nelson didn’t want to be the ONLY Mandela, if you know what I mean. And the Gospel of Matthew, near the end, makes it painfully clear that Jesus is to be found in everyone who needs our help. When were you sick? When were you in prison? When were you naked, and we did not clothe you? say the damned, to which the Lamb on the throne answers: Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did to me.

We need a new category of Messiahship. A new kind of Christ. A realization that Christ is in the people who most need our help. And Christ’s work is in US, when we do what the Gospel says.

Our music and films, our history, our Nobel prizes, our governments…just about everything about our society is based on the cult of important, seemingly indispensable, people. Christs, of a sort. From the latest American Idol winner to the latest supermodel to the latest Youtube hit. On the surface, Jesus seems to be the ultimate example of that kind of cult – the most important person of all. The little carpenter’s son who changed the world.

But as we approach Christ mass, may we reflect on where Jesus himself pointed. Don’t look at me. Look at the work, he said: let the blind receive their sight, help the lame to walk, work so that the sick and diseased are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. In South Africa, we should honour Nelson, but pray that there will be a thousand Mandelas raised up to continue his work. And on this side of the ocean, we should be praying that there will be a hundred thousand of US to do messiah’s work. And then Christmas will truly come, truly blessed will we be, and happy will be anyone who takes no offence at such great good news. Are you the one? No, not the one……AMEN. Come Lord Jesus, in this way.