Which Star We Follow

De L'eglise after snowstorm

It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.

When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.

Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.

So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?

Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.

To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.

We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.

So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.

I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.

Tree Lot on December 23

German ornament copy

Maybe one of the saddest things you can do, the evening of December 23rd, is to stand on a sidewalk and look at a Christmas tree lot. It’s like peering into the fairy-tale ballroom after Cinderella and the Prince have left. You see the evidence of something magical. But no actual magic. And no people. There are tags strewn about, needles stamped into the earth, bits of twine here and there from the wrapping machine, placards wired onto the fence advertising the prices– scotch pines, ten dollars a foot. A Big “Merry Christmas-Joyeux Noel” still stencilled on the entrance. But the party’s over. All that’s left is garbage.

Which is why it’s doubly hard to see a tree, on such a lot, hours before Christmas. A tree that apparently, no one wanted. I empathize with those trees. On the lot by the church in my neighbourhood last night, it was dark. The speakers on the lightposts in Verdun were still playing Christmas music: Jingle Bell Rock and Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. But on the lot, the lights had been put out. A half-dozen trees leaned forlornly against slat fencing. No one even bothered to guard them– the gate was wide open. You want a tree? Go on in and take one, someone would have said. If someone had bothered to be there.

The trees, so valuable just a few days ago – are now for the asking. The problem is, no one’s asking. The bubble of Christmas tree speculation – if we can call it that – bursts somewhere during the evening of, probably, December 21st. A Christmas tree alone on Christmas Eve is as unwanted as a turkey after Thanksgiving. Worse, actually. Because at least a turkey can stay frozen. People get hungry again. No one gets the urge for a Christmas tree in January. Not even a beautiful ten-foot balsam fir. And because they’re cut, the tragedy is, no one can replant them. These living creatures have been sacrificed for absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. They’re a liability.

So there I was, my hands full with last-minute groceries, looking into the lot, hearing the carols, and thinking about Christmas. And abandonment. I was remembering all the times in my life I’ve felt like one of those trees. The times I’ve been at some conference and realized that all the important people around me were being taken up, disappearing one by one into conversations, lunch-plans, networking, wanted for their value. And I was left behind. The times, so many years ago, when I was a teenager, when I sat at home alone, my social capital less than nothing. Times have changed, in my life. That’s not true anymore. But my memories still remind me what that’s like.

And then I thought about my students. All those young people, on the day they start CEGEP or college, trying so desperately to figure out what might get them a job five years down the road. It’s such a crap shoot. The stakes are high. Some of them will get it right. They’ll be the ones snapped up like the premium Christmas trees at the beginning of December. Many of them will get it partially wrong. But they’ll get picked up just the same, like the tree that’s a bit quirky but just right for that family in the small apartment, or the one that’s sold for a few dollars less. But after that, a few students will see the promise, feel the action so close but so far, and for any number of reasons, they will be passed over. They’ll wind up like these trees. Those are the people I said a prayer for, standing there.

Then I thought about Luther. Because doesn’t a person automatically think about Luther, looking into a Christmas tree lot?  Luther LOVED the Nativity. But he said, and I quote: the birth was pitiful. There was no one –those were his words: no one – to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition. She, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, no one offering her service. Luke says, in describing Jesus’ birth, that the family was painfully unwanted. Desperate.

And then I thought about my tree, in my apartment. With its lights it glows in the dark and makes me feel warm just looking at it. On its branches I’ve placed the memories of so many beautiful places and people and encounters. G’s friend came for a visit yesterday and said it smelled great. These trees, I thought, looking at the ones scattered and alone in the dark lot – they will never have that moment of beauty.

As I was standing there, a young man who had been loitering across the street from me, under the awning of the metro, sauntered across, hands in his pockets. He looked in at the trees, like I was doing. I thought at first that he had come to ask me for change. But he ignored me. To my surprise, he stepped right past me, into the lot, and up to the abandoned tree I was looking at. And suddenly there was an old truck there, pulling up to the curb, and other young people, two bearded fellows and a woman, gloves on. As I watched they began to load the trees onto the back of the pick-up.

Wait a minute, Hey, wait! I called out to the first kid. What are you doing with these trees?

We’re rescuing them, he answered, with a smile.

What do you mean?

If we leave them they’ll just go into some landfill. The City has a recycling program, but they don’t come here. So we’re taking them. Why? Do you want one?


He shrugged, Okay. Better for us. We can use them. These ones are the best. They’re not plugged up with tinsel and all that other crap (actually, he didn’t use the word crap).

What do you do with them?

The young man evaluated me, but only for a second. With my hands full of shopping bags, and my Anglophone accent, it was pretty clear I wasn’t some sort of city authority.

We take them to our farm, and we grind them up, he answered. Well, not all of them. The really misshapen ones we use as bird-feeders. They’re perfect, like this guy here – he indicated one particularly straggly, ugly tree. We’ll hang bags of suet from his branches and the birds will just love to make a home in him.

The other ones – he nodded to the rest – well. He hoisted one in his hands. They’ll give their wood to mulch and their needles to the strawberries. They don’t make good Christmas trees. But they’re far more valuable for us. They’ll help new life grow, by sheltering the berries under their needles.

And then the fellow jumped in, and the truck took off, and I was left alone again. And I stood there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, and I thought about Christmas again, and about the angels above the hills of Bethlehem, and what it was they were actually singing to the shepherds. About a God who picks out – and picks up – ESPECIALLY the unwanted and the abandoned. The ones left behind. Who uses even that, even loneliness, and death, and injustice and oppression and the stripping away of beauty, as a way of bringing new life to the world. Who has never stopped, as it turns out, being the Creator. And I realized that there is more than one way to be noble. And many ways to be of service. And that the true message of Christmas is in a refugee child, leaning against a fence, forgotten but not alone, whose life means hope and whose death shelters new life, again and again, always Christmas. Always, evergreen.

candles in the snow

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.

Saying Goodbye to a Tough Season

Montreal night Jan

There were two ugly Christmas ornaments on my tree again this year. Every January I think of getting rid of them, but I never can. So I pack them away in boxes for next December and know that when I take them out I will think of the woman who sold them to me.

At that time we were living in a posh neighbourhood. This woman and her family didn’t “belong”. She and her three kids lived with her mother in a ramshackle place down the street. Their house always had something going on. No one seemed to have a job. Strange vehicles and hard-looking men came and went. The police made regular visits. The grandmother, a saint, did a lot. For long periods the woman would disappear. She had that gaunt, undone look of someone with addictions.

One snowy December afternoon our doorbell rang. I opened it. It was the neighbour.

At first I didn’t know what she wanted. Then she drew out of her coat pocket two boxes – large Christmas balls and small ones. She handed me one. She had hand painted crude designs of trees and snowflakes on dollar-store glass balls. Aren’t they beautiful?

I’m selling them to raise money for Christmas presents for my kids.

There really was no question. I bought two. And we hung them on the tree that Christmas.

That was many, many years ago. I’ve long since moved away. The three kids have grown up. Occasionally, I see one of the young men, who seems to be doing well. But their mother is gone. She died – they say of a drug overdose – a few years after selling me the decorations.

Maybe it’s just sentimentality that has me keeping these childish ornaments. But in the glitter and glitz that is Christmas, every year it seems a bit more important to pull them out of the box and think about them. And I remember a mother so desperate for money for presents that she went door to door, to her neighbours, without shame. And that reminds me of all the others for whom putting away ornaments is saying goodbye to a tough, tough season.

The Disappearing Nativity

Harburg Monument

“Now I can die,” said Simeon, holding the baby high up in the air. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Harburg, Germany, as some of you might know, is a suburb of Hamburg. In a public square in Harburg, near the S-Bahn station, there’s a monument titled “The Monument against Fascism”. Or maybe I should say that there USED to be a monument there. Or maybe I should say that if you go there, there still is a monument, KIND OF. Except that it was once there and now it’s gone. Or it’s still there. But you just can’t see it anymore. Or something.

When this monument was first created in 1986 it was 12 metres tall and 1 metre square, a tall rectangular pillar covered in lead. That’s big.

But it was also a performance piece. Most monuments are built to last centuries. “We will forever remember…” – this or that battle, or sacrifice, or person, or whatever. The typical statue, for me, is some bronze bearded guy on a horse high up in the sky with a bayonet in the air. You can see a beautiful example of that down on the corner of Rene Levesque and Peel.

But the statue in Harburg is very, very different. It was built precisely so that it would disappear. So that it would bury itself. Two artists, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shavez were responsible for the idea. Like I said, the column was (or is, depending on how you look at it) huge: 12 metres tall, one metre square, and covered in lead. Germans especially, but also people from all over the world were invited to sign their names on the monument, as a sign of their commitment to the ongoing struggle against Fascism. It was also supposed to represent their memory of what the past held, especially in Hamburg, where after the war everything was rebuilt as if those terrible years had not existed.

The artists provided two steel pencils so that people could mark whatever they want onto the obelisk – their names, their commitments against fascism, their losses, their hopes and dreams and their struggle against the forces that take away our humanity. It was supposed to be about memory and commitment. As it sunk, it was also supposed to be about how much of something we let go, or SHOULD let go, or not, and how much is permanently with us, or should be.

So here we are, barely three days after Christmas and where a few short days ago you couldn’t find a place ANYWHERE to get away from Christmas carols and songs, now you can’t hear them anywhere. We’re busy burying Christmas right now. If you’re like me, you’re thankful that recycling day is right after Christmas because it’s perfect – you can just get all that paper and cardboard right out of the house, pronto, and make everything clean again.

It’s amazing to me sometimes how big we make Christmas, and then how quickly after December 25th such a massive celebration sinks right out of sight. This is one of those times where the difference between secular society and the teachings of the church are the most glaring. In the church, I always feel like we’re saying: “not yet, not yet, not yet” BEFORE Christmas when all the ads are on TV and they’re having the Christmas parades in early November and cutting trees in October and putting up angels before the snow has even hit the ground. And then from December 26th on, when everyone else is rapidly forgetting the whole thing like it was some kind of overindulgent party, here in the church, we’re saying “wait, Christmas is not over yet!”. Hold on for January 6! The gifts are barely out of the wrapping before everything gets packed up again and the world is talking about New Year’s Eve and Retrospectives of 2014.

FORGET Christmas. That’s where most of our world is right now. But you and I are still being invited to gather around the cradle in Bethlehem.

When I read the Song of Simeon, or I think about the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and I think about the statue in Hamburg, it’s hard not to think that there is an unhelpful way for Christmas to disappear, but maybe also a faithful way to let Christmas go.

The unhelpful way is to to turn away in disgust from the commercialism and all the debt and buying and overindulging and to say: thank God we’re done with that. Or at least: thank God until we all go crazy again next December. Learning from Simeon, the faithful, grace-filled way to remember the Nativity would be to let it enter us in a more permanent way.

That image of that statue of lead sinking into the earth is extremely powerful. I remember a woman from one of my former churches telling me once how she accidentally stepped on a pin, and never had it taken out immediately. Over time it sort of healed over, and now for years it’s been embedded permanently in her foot.

For me, that’s what the Hamburg memorial represents. A needle in the flesh of the earth. It’s not really gone. That’s what the artists wanted. It’s there – and we can either forget it, or not. It’s a memorial beyond fading, because it forms part of the very fabric of the earth that we walk on.

And I think that’s what CAN happen, also, to the good news the angels sang. For some Christmas can just sink out of sight. But if take some time – in and even AFTER this season, to remember the Baby, and Simeon, to think about how life and death and justice are wrapped up in this story, then it can become more like that Memorial. Maybe it can sink into the unconscious working out, day by day, of our faith, no matter who we meet or where we go in 2015.

Simeon was content to witness the good news and then let it sink into him. “Master, let your servant now depart in peace,” he says, “for my eyes have seen this amazing salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” And he knew it wouldn’t be easy, either, for the people around Jesus. Why else would Luke have him turn to Mary and say, “and a sword will pierce your own soul also”?

Whatever else you can say about a baby, anyone who’s ever been close to one knows that once they arrive, whether you are a mother or a father, a grandparent or an aunt or uncle, the family is never the same again.

And Jesus, in particular, was to be a life that would forever change the world. Starting with the babies the Gospel of Matthew says were slaughtered by Herod, Jesus would turn out to be the kind of new life that resulted both in violence AND peace.

From the time it was first created in 1986, because of the incredible weight of all of that lead, and also because of the location the two artists chose, the Monument Against Fascism began sinking into the earth. This was what the artists wanted. You can see the thing on the internet, and see how it lost height every year as it sank into the earth. By 1993, seven years after it was built, the last of the signatures and the graffitti at the top of the column sunk below the surface. Apparently, if you go by that square in Harburg now, you will only find a plaque with a text in seven languages, reminding visitors of what was once there.

There is a text that the two artists put at the very top of that 12 metre column, and now it’s the only text you can read on a sign by where the statue USED to be. It says this: “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

We ourselves. You and I are in a world that would now like to forget the Nativity and move on. And in that context we are the living monument, the ones who have signed this remembrance and must now keep it alive. May the child born in swaddling clothes, the God made flesh, and the Word who came to his own even though his own knew him not, help us to live out the true message of Christmas. May we, as we should, become LIVING Christmases, embodying, as did the Messiah, God’s love in our lives.

A Pointe St-Charles Nativity

(with thanks to Alice Zorn, )

From the south shore of Montreal, if you were to drive over the Victoria Bridge and then, just past Costco, turn left on Wellington, you’d pass the train yards toward my house. If you did that, you’d go right through Pointe-St-Charles.

We all know the Pointe. The Pointe will always be the Pointe. But it’s changed. Property values have gone up. Gentrification has set in. Lots of it is still a tough neighbourhood, but it’s mixed now – there are plenty of upscale places sharing space with some of those old, hard-times homes. And they really know how to do up Christmas in the Pointe. In particular, if you were paying close attention as you drove down Wellington, you’d see a very special Nativity scene set up outside a clinic.

Nothing special about a Nativity scene. Right? There are hundreds of them in that neighbourhood. But if you were to slow down and look more closely at this particular one, you’d be surprised. My friend Alice Zorn, a writer who lives in the Pointe, alerted me to this. The centre, when you read the sign, is actually a Birthing Clinic. A place where young women go to have their babies. Nowhere more perfect for a Christmas nativity scene.

Except that, despite how it looks, the Crèche out front of this Centre turns out to be NOT very traditional. There’s a roof, and what looks like a stable. But when you get up close and look at the little figures, the manger is actually a bed. And while there’s a Mary, sort of – a young woman, anyway – she’s not wearing a blue robe and staring peacefully at a baby Jesus. She’s on her back. Shouting. And there’s no Joseph, standing in a bathrobe doing not much of anything. There’s a midwife, in action, helping the baby to be born. And there are no angels. Instead, there are a whole bunch of other pregnant women figures, standing around watching and helping as the young woman gives birth.

The first time I saw this, I felt tricked. From a distance, it LOOKS like a manger scene. But where’s Jesus? Where are the cattle and sheep and oxen (even though the Bible doesn’t actually mention any animals except sheep)? Where’s the little drummer boy? (And Rudolph?!!!) And where are the shepherds and the angels?

This isn’t a REAL nativity scene! Or is it?

Well, that depends, maybe, on what the nativity really means.

In the eyes of many people, tonight and tomorrow are the highest pressure times of the year: Christmas. And in our usual way of seeing the world, Christmas is supposed to be about love and happiness and warm feelings and family and forgiveness. If we’re religious, as we are, then it’s about the birth of Jesus, which is remembered as a sort of lovely historical event that means something nice, but not always very defined, for us now.

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that part of the charm of the traditional Christian Christmas is that it’s set so firmly in an imagined, highly-stylized past. During the reign of Caesar Augustus a decree went out that all the world should be enrolled. And Joseph went with Mary, his betrothed, who was heavy with child, to the town of Bethlehem… and she gave birth in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.

It’s lovely. The problem is, the past we celebrate is also wrong. I grew up thinking about Jesus being born in a stable, with straw and hay and cold puffs of air coming out of animal’s nostrils and the smells of a barn. I LOVED that image, the traditional image of the crèche, and the manger.

But in fact, as I learned when I was in the Holy Land in 2009, the place most people kept their animals in Biblical times, in Palestine, was in caves. So if there was no room in the Inn, Jesus would have been born in a cave. Not some quaint medieval European barn.

Our manger scenes are beautiful. But absolutely inaccurate. Which goes to show that maybe history isn’t the most important thing going on here, and that the Birthing Clinic in the Pointe may not have everything wrong after all.

So what ARE the basics, then?

There’s a birth. The most human of beginnings. The birth takes place in a marginal place, an uncomfortable, makeshift place, because of society’s indifference. There’s a young woman. A scared man. An oppressive political system. A baby. Witnesses who are used to living outside in the cold and dark. And God is present, being born into the darkest time of the year and the darkest places of our world.

On second thought, it sounds to me like the people in the Pointe may have the essence of the Christmas story exactly RIGHT.

Do not be afraid, said the angel to the shepherds. To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Why? Why these people? Maybe Luke’s Nativity is a way of saying two things: firstly, it’s the poor and outcast and outsiders whom God is paying attention to. And secondly, it is what is poor and outcast and an outsider in US, and in our lives, where our Lord is being born in us. When we are stripped of all the fancy clothes, the bells and whistles and the pretensions we load on ourselves, maybe that’s when Christmas really comes.

Luther said, again and again, that the fact that Jesus was born in a rough and rude stable means that the Gospel can go, and BE, anywhere. In the most desperate of situations, hope can be born. This also means something very important for us: if and when we fail, and we find ourselves marginalized, or feeling like we don’t belong, or knowing we’ve messed up, or simply cast aside by a success that passes us by, then our place with God is not worse. It’s just as strong, or stronger. Do not be afraid, said the angels. This good news is for you. And this will be a sign, for YOU.

Above the unusual Nativity scene I was talking about is a sign in French that reads: Pointe St-Charles birthing centre. On ne peut plus attendre. Ca pousse! Which might be translated as: we can’t wait any longer! It’s coming!

That, also, is the essence of the story from Luke. Ca pousse! It’s coming! Once Jesus is born, there’s no turning back. Once Messiah has come, and come in a way that surprises and shocks and upsets the normal order, then nothing normal should ever be normal again.

For it is only when we are outsiders ourselves, and realize that we are so, that we can stand with the Shepherds, watching in wonder as rank on rank of angels fill our skies, singing their hope and love and promise into our lives.

“For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.” What a promise. What a wonderful blessing. And in faith, and from faith, our answer is clear: Glory to God in the highest, we can respond. And on earth: peace and goodwill!

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.

Christmas Bloody Christmas



From this week’s news:  GENEVA (AP) — A panel of U.N. investigators said Thursday it believes the Syrian government is committing a crime against humanity by making people systematically vanish…


In a report based on interviews with survivors and family members of victims, the panel said the war tactic being used by President Bashar Assad’s government amounts to a crime against humanity. It is a policy of spreading terror and mental anguish….Most of the victims have been young men.


And from Matthew’s Christmas reading: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated. And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under….Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more”.


Anyone who says that the Bible is not political has simply not read it. What could be more political AND more topical, these days, than mass murder in the Middle East, carried out by a desperate tyrant? Bashar Assad, meet Herod. Herod, meet Bashar Assad. There aren’t that many kilometers between Damascus and Jerusalem. There are more than enough similarities. Except that Herod was a good deal more clever than Assad. And built more monuments. And was, if anything, even more psychotically paranoid. Herod killed most of his own children.


Bible stories, when we take off the tinsel-covered glasses, are every bit as bad as today’s news. They are often – extremely often – accounts not of peace and harmony and carols sung by choirs, but of bloodshed, hate, suffering, disappointment and cruelty. There’s more blood in the Bible than in most books. And oddly enough, it seems that the birth of Jesus, before it brought life to the world, first brought death.


We especially forget that. The Prince of Peace, according to Matthew, came into the world with angels and nice pronouncements, but his arrival immediately precipitated mass murder. Jesus may have been what Hollywood would call a “good guy”. But if Matthew is to be believed, then there were a lot of parents in Bethlehem who would have had good reason to hate the Son of Promise.  This is no “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace”. The Incarnation – the Good News – caused huge collateral damage. Maybe, part of the point is that it still could.


In other words, the  slaughter of the innocents is – or SHOULD be – a sobering reminder of the cost of truth and justice. There’s a hard learning here, especially for us who are comfortable: the RIGHT thing to do may not often be the popular thing to do. And it will almost certainly not be the easy thing to do. I’m one of those people who likes to please others, and for the most part, to stay safe. So it amazes and inspires me to read about people like me, like us, people maybe that you and I even know, from here on the South Shore/Montreal who go to work in the tough zones of the world, like the Syrian camps, or the Pakistan schools, or the clinics in Sudan. The kind of person who was killed just yesterday, a volunteer giving vaccinations near Karachi. Or closer to home, those people who stand up to the oil companies on the First Nations reserves or stand with them.


Yesterday I heard a rebroadcast of the interview with the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai. Her battle is not my battle. But I was amazed when the interviewer from the CBC said to her: what did you do when a Talib came to your school, or stopped you on the street? And she said, with such simple bravery: “I said to him, what I am doing is for you, too, and for your daughters and sons. I am not less than you because I am female. Education is a right.”


She spoke as if the man holding a gun would actually listen to her words and think about them. But we live in a world of Herods, where he wouldn’t, and probably won’t. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he wouldn’t at first, but maybe, just maybe, enough Malalas might convince him.


And that’s where we come in. I’m not sure why this story about the babies being slaughtered because of Jesus is actually in the Bible. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. But I think that part of what it does, besides getting Jesus to Egypt, is to show how troublesome, dangerous and divisive the message of Jesus really is. And how Jesus’ birth requires COURAGE from us. Christmas is not just the stuff of greeting cards and FaceBook posts. The message of real love and justice at Christmas is intended to change hearts and minds. It’s intended to make us, at least sometimes, stand up in the middle of a conversation and say: “I don’t agree”. And that is a path that might, at some point, leave us standing with the First Nations at a demonstration, or in Palestine with the Lutherans there, or welcoming refugees, or demonstrating against a corporation or government that just doesn’t care.


This last week I watched the movie: “The Hunger Games”. It’s a story about power and the abuse of power. It’s about love and murder. It’s a very good movie, even though it’s Hollywood and not everything about the plot makes sense. But it shows the value of courage, and sacrifice, and how important it can be to stand up to power for the sake of love.


So: is the Bible political? And was Jesus political? Of course. Herod, who was a consummate politician, knew that Jesus’ birth was not ONLY religious, as if one’s beliefs could really be isolated from everything else. On the other hand, is our message ONLY political? No. Neither that. There’s lots of love and grace and salvation and justification and personal development in there too. But one side of our faith doesn’t take away from the other. How do we grow in holiness? By standing up for others. How do we find the peace that passes understanding? By looking where there is no peace. How do we greet the Messiah? By finding Christ in the face of those who are poorest and most oppressed.


This week, as we clean up after the celebration of the baby who lives, may we reflect on Matthew’s story of the babies who died. May we find in the holy birth of Jesus, the Messiah, a decision point and reason for our own faith. And may the story of the refugee who was the child of God inspire us to look in all such faces, on the roads we travel this year and those we may be called to travel, for the Christ yet to be born in and with us,

An Ice-Storm Christmas

snow removal Santa

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow. Snow on snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I remember the church service we had here in Montreal in the middle of the ice storm – the other ice storm, the one back in 1998. No one was sure there was even going to BE worship. But in the end the people of Christ the Redeemer decided to try. All the bridges were closed because of falling guillotines of ice off of the signs, so I decided to risk the metro (which actually shut down completely about two hours after my return trip). Then eventually I caught a ride. When finally I got to the building, it was cold. There were only a few others, but all present seemed happy to be participating. We sang the hymns heartily and accapella; the organ couldn’t make a sound. Everyone wore their coats in the sanctuary, and some people held the worship books with gloves. After church, Ivar Traa, a big booming Norwegian who has since passed from us, brought his gas camp stove, and – making sure we had fresh oxygen supply – made tea and coffee and hot chocolate for everyone and reminisced about Christmases back in Norway where they had no power.

It’s odd – that day, almost none of the things that we normally associate with a good worship gathering were there – there was no majestic organ, no warm lights, no crowded pews. But, of that year, that is the one service that I remember clearly. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe because that hard experience connected in a whole NEW way with the message that we preach and teach and share and sing.

Everyone knows that the first Christmas, whatever it was, was not comfortable. We can argue over whether Jesus was born in a cowshed or a cave, in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, in the year 6 BC or 0 or some other time, in the winter or spring or summer. But one thing is clear. Whatever else it was, when the Word became flesh it was an unexpected birth, marked by difficulty, scandal and trouble, in the middle of a tough situation.

Which makes it all the more amazing that every year we spend so much time and energy and money trying to do the opposite, to find the “sweet spot” in marking an event that had no sweet spot. Completely unlike the few things we can assume about the first Christmas, in our time we want to find the deepest, most comfortable rut that runs through our memories, and crawl in there to hibernate in sugar, real and metaphorical, for a few, hopefully magical, weeks. The smell of baking. The hot chocolate or eggnog. The candles and smell of evergreen in our houses. The fires, the puula, the stollen, the songs. The wreaths, the gifts, the carols, the smell of cinnamon. We ALL do it, instinctively. I almost never eat herring throughout the year. But every Christmas I buy a jar and eat herring. Why? It’s a childhood memory from growing up in a Scandinavian home. It’s a sweet spot urge. We’re like children who want to put our stuffed animals (that is, our memories) in a very specific order around us as we cuddle into the long cold night that is winter.

That’s not always a bad thing. We NEED comfort, of course. Especially in winter. Nothing is more wonderful than holding someone precious, surrounded by lovely smells and warmth and love. But maybe, nice as that is, we shouldn’t mistake it for the only kind of holiness there is. Especially we shouldn’t do that when we have a faith that somehow always leads us back to the foot of a grave. There is more of ice storms from our God than we usually care to admit, and the spirit that spoke to the Baptist and called to Mary is often a cold wind that leaves us shivering and uncomfortable.

Ice storms, like the storm that has left so many tens of thousands in the dark right now all over central and eastern Canada, are a reminder of the fragility of all of our comforts. And they’re a reminder of the fragility of our security and safety in an environment that seems to be kicking back at us so-called “masters of creation” for our idolatrous beliefs that somehow we’re in charge.  I remember – as some of you must too – lying in bed in the quiet darkness and listening to the alarming sounds of tree limbs hitting the roof as they snapped and broke. There are lots of people living that right now, even though this time, here in Montreal, we’ve been spared.

A good friend of mine in a part of Ontario without power, posting on FaceBook, wrote “I’m not having fun yet” about her Christmas. She’s not the only one. So what can we learn from an not-fun, ice-storm, Christmas?

We can learn that there’s more growth in hardship than in comfort, almost always. None of us like them, but the hard times of life are often the most memorable. And instructive. If we survive, we come out stronger, despite our wounds. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

We can also learn, deeper to that, what theologians and mystics call “the theology of the cross”, and the mystery of celebrating Jesus’ birth so close to the longest night of the year. It is when things are at their darkest, as Luther said, that the hidden God is closest. It is when there is no room in the Inn that the wondrous birth takes place among the animals and outcasts. It is when the darkness is deepest that we learn patience and hope, what to grasp onto and what we should let go, what is real and what is shadow. It is on the coldest of nights that we might hear angels singing strange and terrible songs that make us afraid and yet move us seek the child of promise in unusual places.

The good thing about sweet spots is, ironically, also the bad thing: they’re so good they keep us immobilized. When I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the annunciation and asked the gathering how a thirteen or fourteen year old Mary might react these days to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, a jaded father in the back row pretended he was texting and had no time for the angel. We are a comfortable people, and that is a huge problem. The light came into the world, and the world came into being through that light, but the world did not recognize it. When you re-tune a guitar to play in a different string configuration, there is always a period of awkwardness and disharmony, before the new tones are established. Ice storms, of all sorts, are those awkward, disharmonius times, that we pray God will use to play in us a song the world would otherwise never have heard.

It’s easy for me to talk about these things this year. When I wrote this, I had fruitcake at hand, and I’d put some water with cinnamon sticks on the stove to give the apartment some more humidity. I actually managed to get a tree up, despite everything.

But I know, from experience, that this is not the only Christmas, or perhaps the best. Certainly not the most memorable. Christ was – and IS – born far from the sweet spots of life. We pray for those who are suffering hardship because of cold and lack of power right now. When heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World”, it will be a challenge to go out, into the cold, where they are, and where the restless, birthing God awaits.

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riots (a story)

garbage walk Nov 2013

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot

Matthew Anderson

I heard a story once – I don’t know if it’s true – about a Toronto bank president and the famous Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot. I’m sure you remember reading about that riot in the papers. It happened…when?….in the late 90’s sometime. A while ago now. The story is about the president of one of the big banks, but don’t ask me which one. I couldn’t tell you.

Apparently, this man was some major Chief-Executive-Officer-type. He was pulling down millions, sitting on more corporate boards than you or I own pairs of shoes. Connected to everybody. A real player. Fingers in everything – politics, business, you name it. When he wasn’t in a limo he drove a Porsche SUV, because his bank figured he needed to be one step up on his neighbours, who all had BMW SUV’s. Perfect car, perfect holidays, perfect clothes, perfect life. His house was in Rosedale, looking, during the holidays, like something from the front of a greeting card.

This guy didn’t have to worry about the Hydro bill. Look at it that way.

But late one night near Christmas when he couldn’t sleep – insomnia was a side-effect of his high-octane life –  this CEO happened to be flipping channels when he saw a news special, one of those topical pieces they always come out with in mid-December. This one was called “A Squatters’ Christmas” and it was on the plight of the squatters near the Don Valley Parkway. There were a bunch of them back then, encamped on that patch of land you see when you take the Don Valley south, right between the highway and the bluffs. A TV reporter had gone out with a camera and taken some footage. Those folks had a real little village set up, out of the way, not bothering anyone.

Somehow, by some miracle, that one little program changed this bank president’s life. He saw people he’d never really thought much about before – people without running water, people who had addictions to alcohol or crack or something else, prostitutes and pushers and folks with mental-health problems. People whom the world had forgotten. What was worse, the city was threatening to bring the bulldozers in and smash up the few things they DID have.

So this bank president, whose heart had been touched, decided to check it out for himself. He sent his assistant to Value Village to buy the rattiest clothes the assistant could find. He let his beard grow until he had two days’ worth of stubble. Then he parked his Porsche at the top of the hill, and clambered down through the trees, just a couple of days before Christmas, with a Canadian Tire tent on his back and a few cans of tuna. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, because he really wanted to make this HIS thing. He didn’t want half the company showing up to save him, or worse yet, showing up to try to help. This was his thing. So, apart from his wallet, he left EVERYTHING – even his Blackberry – in the Porsche.

Oddly enough, when the CEO found the squatters’ settlement, there was no place for him. What he hadn’t realized was, the squatters were a community, with a sense of who they liked and who they didn’t. He might have been dressed down, but he was still a stranger. What’s more, he was still himself. Used to taking charge. So he tried ordering them around, but who was he, to them? Just another pushy outsider. And anyway, it was like herding cats.

“You can protect yourselves,” he told them, “It’s not that hard! I know what’s coming! Organize like this.” But they didn’t listen. “You don’t need your addictions,” he told them. “There’s a better way”. Of course, that made him an outsider in another way. “You know what? I can help you,” he told them. At THAT they just laughed. After all, what did he look like to them? Some white bread would-be squatter. And with his tent and tuna, not even a particularly smart squatter. Some folks listened to him. Some thought had no street sense. Most just ignored him. One more crazy.

The bulldozers had been lined up and parked by the city right outside the squatters’ settlement, a big yellow line of destruction waiting for the go-ahead. Construction crews had come through and put eviction notices on the trees. The squatters had decorated one tree like a Christmas tree, and there was even an eviction notice on that one. The CEO, who knew the mayor personally, knew that the mayor was just waiting for a time when the public was distracted by the holidays, to move in and break up the illegal settlement. So as the hours ticked by, the CEO got more and more frustrated.

“Why won’t you just listen to me?” he cried out in frustration. There was a small group of squatters that did – but only a dozen or so. “Who do you think I am?” he asked them. “A loonie” said one of the group, “but a nice one.” “A social worker,” said another. And you? he asked the leader of his group. “You really are a bank president,” came the answer. “Then follow me,” the man said “We’ll go up the hill to my Porsche and I’ll call the mayor and he’ll meet you and we’ll settle this whole thing.” So the little group – half of them laughing –  all trudged up the hill after the CEO, and when they got to the spot where he’d parked his Porsche, there was nothing there.

“We KNEW it!” they told him, “you’re just one of us.” The bank president thought about his assistant, and about how he could recover his stolen car. That was when they heard the diesel motors on the bulldozers starting up. Everyone went running, pell-mell, back down the hill.

At the camp it was mayhem. The police were shouting through loudspeakers to clear out. In the falling darkness people were running everywhere through the trees, trying to grab their things, or just get out of the way. The CEO tried to keep his little band together…maybe he could find the chief of police, he thought. Explain everything.

And that’s when the first canisters of pepper spray hit. The squatters began coughing and wheezing, choking and tearing up. The CEO couldn’t see a thing. Some of the squatters picked up tree branches to try and protect themselves. All of a sudden the riot police were everywhere, and in all the yelling and screaming and crying, someone hit the CEO, hard. He went down.

When he came to, there was a very large man in a uniform above him holding a riot club. He couldn’t see very well, so he wiped his eye. It came away all bloody. “Get up, ya friggin drunk!” yelled the cop. The CEO tried to get up, but was having trouble, and put his hand on the cop’s leg. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” said the big man, and the CEO felt the truncheon hit him on the side of his face again.

And then what happened? Well, witnesses say the CEO reached into his pocket for his wallet, to prove who he really is. And that’s when the story gets strange.

Because I’ve heard two very different versions of the ending of the Don Valley Christmas Riot story.

The first is this: when the CEO reached into his pocket, the cop standing there thought he was dealing with a man who was going for a gun. And the first version of the story ends, more or less, there. Terribly. According to this version the CEO died, that day. On Christmas Eve.

But the second version of the story – the one I like better – is that the cop’s second blow hit the CEO so hard he lost his memory. And eventually, in all the confusion of the riot, the CEO just up and drifted away, like so many of the other squatters, back into the darkest blocks of downtown.

According to this version of the story, the next day the city crews found the wallet. So now they knew there’d actually been a bank president among the squatters that night in the Don Valley Riot. But they didn’t know which bum he was. Or more to the point: which bum he IS.

Because he’s still out there somewhere. So ever since that one Christmas Eve, the police – and not just the police – have had to treat every drunk they meet, every half-crazy person with mental health problems, every bum and panhandler and street-person, as if they just might turn out to be Mr. Connected…someone with rights. Someone with very good friends in high places.

And so, to everyone’s surprise, what the CEO couldn’t do by teaching the squatters, he did anyway. Just by still being out there. What I heard is that the authorities are trying to find him. But in the meantime, one can never be certain. And since even homeless people move around from city to city, every street person you or I meet has this – what would you call it? Consequence. All because of that one Christmas Eve not long ago, and the Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot.

That’s what I heard, anyway. Mind you, some people say it’s just a story.

Could be. But I like it.