Monty the Penguin and the Christmas Truce

Christmas TriceAs ever in the run up to Christmas the major retailers have released their Christmas ad. These ads have become something of an art form, a genre and are eagerly anticipated.  John Lewis which led the way with Christmas ad came up this year with that well known festive character – the penguin! Still,  the ad seems to me to do a very good job of creating that sentimental feeling about the family Christmas, and connects with our desire to give something to someone that fits with who they are and what they might want.

Of all the ads I watched though the one that for me captured the atmosphere in the run up to this Christmas, was the one from Sainsbury’s, based on the Christmas truce of 1914. Why did this capture this Christmas for me? Well I guess because instead of sentimental, and frankly unrealistic pictures of family bliss at Christmas, we have a more earthy and real picture of Christmas in the midst of war, violence and death.  The same day that I saw this advert news came in of 132 children and 9 teachers being shot to death, at random, by terrorists in Peshawar. Christmas celebrations have been cancelled, or considerably muted in Peshawar this year as the Christian community there responds to what has happened in their city. Christmas celebrations have also been cancelled in Sierra Leone where all energies and resources are being spent fighting the Ebola virus, and many are in mourning.  And there will be no Christmas celebrations in in the ancient city of Ninevah in Iraq, where there had been a Christian community for over 1800 years – because there are no Christians left – all have fled at the threat of death from Islamic State.

And on that same day someone sent me a text responding to the news from Peshawar. In the text she despaired at the evil of that appalling act. And then she said – and where was God? Why doesn’t he intervene?

Why not indeed? And I cannot give an answer that will seem anything except trite and feeble in the face of such suffering and violence. But any answer I would try to give would have to include Christmas. Not the sentimental, romantic nonsense of Monty the Penguin – but the raw, earthy, bloody, risky, violent and messy version of Christmas which is found in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.  1st century Palestine was far more like the western front than the soft snug living room that Monty’s new ‘friend’ emerges into. Israel was a place of hardship and mess. It was a place where the use of violence by one superpower (the Romans) was changing the world forever.  Death, lots of it, was the Romans means of establishing power. And the census, which a poor young married couple get caught up in, was another way of enforcing it.

And into this particular place of death and violence – God intervenes. Not in a far off, thunderbolt-from-heaven kind of way, but in a far more risky and earthy kind of way. God himself comes. Not as power. Not as violence. Not as one bigger better weapon against all the other weapons. But rather as a child.

‘He will come, will come

Will come like crying in the night,

Like blood, like breaking,

As the earth writhes to toss him free.

He will come like child.’ (Rowan Williams)

God has intervened into a world of violence, terrorism, pointless and futile death. He has intervened in the child Jesus.  OK, great.  What is a vulnerable, crying child, kicking his little legs in a manger in a small village in Israel, going to do about all this violence and death? In what way is this the Prince of Peace?! A choir of angels singing ‘peace on earth’ feels  a bit like a game of football on no-man’s land, a wonderful moment of peace and goodwill, but everyone knew it wasn’t going to last.

Well what the angels knew, and the shepherd’s, kings, Mary & Joseph could only wonder at was that this Jesus was God starting a process of peace, leading the way by sending himself. The Sainsbury’s advert portrays the beginning of the Christmas truce not as the agreement between commanding officers then played out by the troops. No – the Christmas truce is thought to have begun when one man, hearing the sound of the German’s singing Silent Night, a carol that the British solider then joined in with in their trenches – one man, took the courage, risked his life to walk out of the trench and stand in the gap, in the no man’s land between the trenches.  Others followed his lead and so the truce (unofficial but put up with by higher command) was begun.

The Christian story, that begins with the story of Christmas, is that God has stepped into the gap for us. He has not intervened from afar in our mess of violence and death.  He has become one of us and then stepped into the gap for us. He walked voluntarily into the power of violence and death, receiving all the pain and suffering that the Roman Empire could throw at him with its torture and murder weapon of choice – the cross of crucifixion.  One young soldier on Christmas Day 1914, to the surprise of everyone around him, does not get immediately shot. Jesus, to the surprise of everyone around him, disciples and authorities alike, does not get snuffed out by crucifixion. He comes back from the grave and the first word he utters to his disciples is the same word sung by the angels – peace.  ‘Peace be with you.’ A movement of peace begins that day when Jesus walks out of the grave and announces that peace has come.

I believe that God has intervened, for all time, in the mess and violence of the world. And when this child Jesus grows into a man and steps into the public frame he says to people over and over again ‘come follow me.’ That soldier venturing into no-man’s land perhaps turned to beckon his fellow soldiers. So the actions of one man became a short-lived but powerful movement that day. So too Jesus who walks into the face of death and out the other side beckons you and me to follow him, to create a movement of peace – a movement that Isaiah called ‘his government’ and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. What does the Kingdom of God mean? Well I guess it means following Jesus into the sorts of places where he would go now. The no-man’s lands, the gaps, the places of need in our world today. Frederick Beuchner said ‘the world is a manger’. The world is now the place where God is being born, God is intervening and does so, more than any other way, by followers of Christ standing in the gap, walking into no-man’s land and beckoning others to follow.

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Tweeting from the monastery

Worth Abbey

I’ve just returned from a few days at a Benedictine monastery. As I headed there on the train I decided it would good to inform my many Twitter followers, all no doubt waiting poised with their smart phones to receive my latest tweet, that I would be absent from Twitter for a few days. Naturally the culture of Twitter encouraged me to discover whether Worth Abbey, where I was headed had a Twitter account. It did not.

Nor, I found when I arrived, did it have a reliable mobile signal. Without heading out of my room to the top of the car park I was cut off from the world. This, as many of us will likely agree, is a state of acute anxiety.

Resigned to this reality however, with an air of spiritual piety, I declined the offer of a Wifi code and settled into off-grid life in the company of a dozen or so elderly monks. Life at the monastery is a rhythm of prayer, silence and meals (also in silence). 5 times a day the community assemble in the Abbey church to chant the psalms, read Scripture and pray. In the gaps between these services they are often required to pray privately. I looked at the packed timetable and wondered where on earth I was going to get time to do any of the reading and writing I had brought with me to do.

However as this rhythm embraced me, and I embraced it, free from the constant distractions and lazy industry of social media and email, I began to discover that there was a vast amount of time to be enjoyed. The services and meals, rather than filling up time, seemed to free up time to be used wisely, greedily, lovingly, instead of blandly and reactively in a blur of tweets, texts and updates. I focussed on what I had brought to do with a clear intensity I rarely do. Creativity welled up within in this atmosphere of limited distraction. I felt bourn restfully along by a gentle undertow of prayer and timelessness.

Monks have been living by the rhythm of Rule of Benedictine life for over 1500 years. Their lives of insignificance, commitment, apparent irrelevance can be easily dismissed as outdated, dusty, unenlightened. We use the language of time and history to sneer at the ancient, in contradiction to the present, the new, all that is future. We have lost our value for wisdom, for the kinds of lives that are proved valuable over centuries rather than the minutes between one trending hashtag and the next. We would do well to follow these faithful monks, somehow integrating this great wisdom into our time starved lives. We will not however be able to follow them on Twitter, which, for their sake I am grateful.