I write an ‘Alternative Advent’ email series every year, this year I’m going to post the text of the emails here two or three at a time, in case you miss any or simply don’t want to sign up. If you want future emails in your inbox, you should go here.

I suppose we’re all used to the Christmas story now, if you live in the UK then by the time you’re an adult you’re likely to have heard it dozens of times, hundreds perhaps. This familiarity leaves us almost immune to the bizarre and jarring details of the story. For a start we tend to combine the different gospel accounts to make one story, ignoring the fact that they are quite different – contradictory even. They are certainly written with different audiences in mind, so it’s reasonable to think that the writers are trying to make different points.

To tell the truth the whole of Christmas is pretty weird, long-time subscribers will know that I’ve tended to call it absurd. We celebrate it by bringing a tree into our house, for pity’s sake. Then, because of course trees themselves are famously ‘a bit plain’ we chuck a load of shiny things on them, sometimes we even put an angel on the top, or a fairy, which seems like an uncomfortable thing when you think about it.

One of the weird or absurd aspects of the Christmas story is the whole thing of Jesus’ miraculous birth. It has become an article of faith for certain strands of Christianity which won’t brook any talk of the Christ having been born by natural means. So the miraculous birth is a key part of the tradition of Christmas weirdness. Even a claim to uniqueness in certain quarters. But there are many stories of miraculous births or miracle children from around the world. Over the period of Advent I’m going to tell a short version of a handful of them. It’s an Advent-ure that will take us around the world and across long spells of time. Think of it as one of the less exciting Doctor Who episodes, one where the Doctor just goes around hearing about miracle births over and over again and wondering what they can tell us about our contemporary world. Because there is something, perhaps more than one thing, that we can take from it all. But there’s no Daleks. I’ll try and finish each day with a thing or two to think about or talk about with… I dunno, whoever you talk to – so for today: What does the idea of the virgin birth mean to you? How important do you think it is for Christians (no assumptions from me about whether you are one or not) to believe in the ‘reality’ of a virgin birth?

The birth of Qi

It’s quite common for a people group to have a founding myth – a story that tells them about themselves, why they are here, and how they are fundamentally different to other people. These stories need to have an origin point, where did we all come from? If you’re particularly unfortunate you may have read something I wrote about this on the subject of Green Men. I might return to Green Men later in this series, you never know your luck. Anyway, there are other creation myths, like the story of the birth of Hou Ji.

Hou Ji’s mother was Jiang Yuan, a consort of an Emperor called Ku. This was in what is now China by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed. The story dates back to around about 2400 BCE. Ish. According to the hymn ‘Birth of our people’ the virgin Jiang Yuan ‘trod in a toe-print’ made by God and became pregnant as a consequence. It was one of ‘those births’ “no bursting, nor rending, no injury, no hurt…” Hou Ji is also known as Qi, which, I understand, also means ‘abandoned’. This makes sense in the context of the hymn which also tells us that the miracle baby was cared for by sheep and oxen, and then visited by kindly wood cutters. Hmmm… sounds a bit familiar. Eventually he grew up to be a miracle worker. Pretty cool, but haven’t I heard this story somewhere else?

Hou Ji is understood both to be of the lineage of the Yellow Emperor, aka Huangdi Neijing a mytho-historical figure (in other words he is probably partly historic, partly mythological, like… I dunno, King David?) And he was also a divine figure. Again, not an altogether unfamiliar idea to those of us who have read other stories of miracle births perhaps. It makes you think though… What do you think when you hear stories like this which don’t belong to your tradition? How do the sacred stories of other cultures fit into your understanding of the way that the world works? What other founding myths do you know?

The birth of Mars

Second only to Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon is Mars, the god of chocolate. No! The god of war! Except he wasn’t always the god of war, but we’ll come back to that. Mars’ mum was Juno, the queen of the gods of course, anyway, one day Juno was touched by a magic plant (could happen to anyone) and ended up giving birth to Mars. It’s an everyday tale of divine folk.

In case you’re a bit rusty on your Roman gods, Juno was the daughter of Saturn and the wife of Jupiter. The top female deity really. She was also the protector of Rome, so pretty hardcore you might say. But Juno is a complex figure, which is the least you’d expect of a deity really, and like all these gods of classical antiquity it is what she represents that is important. Ultimately Juno is the god of fertility, in our culture fertility has become a privatised thing I suppose, but then of course it was much more of a social concern, because fertility was about wealth. Juno then is the god, or goddess, of wealth. Her first born, Mars, was conceived by a plant and therefore was the god of crops and harvests. I perceive a link…

But as time wore on Roman wealth became about something more martial than planting beans and such. It was about empire, and with that move, Mars changed role too, becoming the god of war. Juno is pretty fierce too by the way. What purpose do these deities serve in the Roman world? They stand for the things that society holds dear – the fertility of humans, animals and plants, the protection of a people, and the ability to take stuff from others by force. These gods aren’t just strange deities that sit on a mountain top, they embody the values of the cultures who worshipped them. When or how are we guilty too of making gods in our own image? How do our concepts of what is ultimately important change through our lives? What is your instinctive reaction to the idea of those classical gods?

A cartoon image of Joseph and Mary outside a refugee support centre.

Ever got fed up with the usual schmaltz on your Christmas cards?

Ever thought about the fact that the Christmas story is also a refugee story?

Its tough to celebrate one refugee refugee story while ignoring thousands of others though, isn’t it.

As part of my Alternative Advent project for this year I’ve commissioned some ‘alternative’ Christmas card images, to remind us of the blood and guts in the original story and to raise some cash for refugee charities.

So if you send Christmas cards, get your hands on these limited edition prints of original artworks that I’ve made into very special Christmas cards, each of which reflects something of the real Christmas story.

Artwork is courtesy of Dean Rankine (Simpsons comics), Steve Beckett (The Beano), Stu McLellan (book illustrator) and Siku (The Manga Bible), and profits will be handed over to Safe Passage, a charity which works with refugee children.

There are about 80 million “displaced people” around the world today, and the United Nations say that more than half of all the world’s refugees are children. That’s a huge number however you choose to look at it, it works out around one percent of the entire world population.

Christmas is a refugee story, and Jesus was a refugee. His family fled when they knew that soldiers were on their way to kill him, it’s an experience that too many (any is too many, but in this case we’re talking millions) children and their families continue to have.

Meadow flowers (Creative Commons) GospelMessage on Morguefile.com

It took some time for the Christian canon to be agreed, but eventually it was – sort of. Except that it wasn’t. Different branches of Christianity ended up with slightly diverging sets of texts, but there were some key similarities – in particular there were the gospels.

Four short books, each of them on the same subject, each with the same (or very similar) set of characters, and crucially with the same central story arc. There’s really only one problem with these four texts – they’re all different.

The gospels somehow reflect the wider Bible in microcosm, written for different audiences, from different perspectives at different times and in different places – of course they were going to diverge. Of course. Duh.

This is the pattern of Christianity, indeed its the pattern of the Abrahamic religions more generally, they are multiplicitous. They are multivocal. These are people of story – people caught up in something that draws them towards a greater goal. They don’t need to agree on the details, they are travellers on the same road.

When I started to think about the “Liturgy in a Dangerous Time” project, I knew that if we did it, it would have to represent that truth somehow. In a very small and very imperfect way, it would need to acknowledge that there are various points of view, even in one small corner of Christianity. So it was important straightaway to try and ensure that a range of voices were included, not to represent different ‘sections’ of the church as if one person could hope to speak for thousands of others, but to be honest about the fact that we don’t all agree on everything, and no more should we. As a former chief Rabbi once put it, “in heaven there is truth, on earth there are truths.”

This can make it difficult to curate, you have to avoid placing jarring perspectives too closely without thinking carefully about them, and it remains important to not try to qualify or edit people’s contributions, let them stand, so that people can hear them from their perspectives.

After all, the gospel writers didn’t agree on everything, there are clear differences (from my perspective at least) in the way that they understood Jesus, how they wrote about him, and what they expected to happen next. And we, the readers, some 2000+ years later don’t agree on how they saw things, after all, it would be extraordinary if we all agreed on much beyond the absolute basics. And lets be honest, we don’t even agree on them.

While the lockdown has been on, here in the UK, some groups have begun to argue with each other about their sacred beliefs, is a Eucharist performed at a kitchen table valid? Should priests be going into church to pray? Is the church in retreat, or is it entering a new era? Of course people have different views about this, people disagree about everything – everything! Important things and unimportant things. We even disagree on whether things are important or not.

The point is not to try and achieve a homogenous set of views, as if we will all arrive at a place of consensus on these issues given time (we can’t even agree on what should or shouldn’t be in the Bible, never mind what the words mean), rather we should accept that our views are plural, and in so doing, celebrate it. We are one people, but people is plural. We have many voices, we have many perspectives, this is to be welcomed. Many of the greatest evils in history have been accomplished because of a wish to remove plurality, to get rid of difference, and to enforce a single point of view.

By engaging positively with our plurality* we begin to recognise it’s beauty, we come to see that we can see much more if we look at things from a variety of perspectives. As long as it continues, Liturgy in a Dangerous Time will try to include various perspectives and approaches, from conservative to progressive, from protestant to catholic, from kitchen table to high altar. Because that’s who we are, and that’s what we’re like.

*I’m not unaware of the fact that the very pluralism of this approach is itself indicative of a particular stance, but at least it’s a generous and accepting stance, one that welcomes the wisdom and insight of others, and gently asks them to recognise that others have important things to say too.

Created with GIMP

Image result for #meetooA recent article doing the rounds concerning the sexualised nature of the the violence Jesus experienced at his crucifixion, the controversy surrounding the gender identity of the first Gentile convert to Christianity, and a brief reminder of the possible implications of Mark 14:51, have reminded me of one of the most obvious pointers towards progressive sexual politics in the Gospels. The #MeToo women in Jesus’ genealogy.

Generally speaking ancient genealogies don’t include women, they are a tool of patriarchy. But something interesting occurs in the genealogy of Jesus found in the New Testament book of Matthew.

There are five women in “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Of these, four were definitely what we might now consider to have been sexually exploited.

Tamar, was a widow in a very precarious social and economic condition (no status or inheritance and in danger of remaining unmarried) and at the mercy of her father in law, Judah. The patriarch was reluctant to let his third son Shelah marry his twice widowed daughter in law (She’d already been done out of conception by her second husband the now infamous ‘Onan’). Without any other obvious means of survival, Tamar tricks her father in law into impregnating her by posing as a prostitute.  The self-righteous Judah at first condemns Tamar, but when he realises that he is publicly on the hook for her condition relents and acknowledges his paternity. One might say that Tamar is hardly a ‘victim’, she was clever enough to trap Judah after all, but she lived at a time when women were little more than property, what choice did she really have? (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38)

Rahab “the harlot,” who assisted with Joshua’s invasion of the promised-land. Rahab was a ‘genuine’ prostitute, a foreigner living in Jericho, a woman who used what little she had to try and get by. I don’t imagine she grew up looking forward to a life of selling sexual services in order to survive, but she had a family to care for, and she was certainly keen to escape from Jericho when she eventually got the chance. Needless to say the male Hebrew spies took advantage of her ‘hospitality’ when visiting the city. (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2)

Then there’s Ruth, another gentile and another widow, who was desperate to find a way to survive. Her route to survival was to effectively seduce her future husband (Rahab’s son), Boaz. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and eventually proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her, but not before uttering some tell tale phrases: “Stay here for the night” and “No one must know…” (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3).

Then there’s the woman who is not even named in her own right: “Uriah’s Wife” aka Bathsheba, the victim of sexual assault or coercion by King David who then arranged for the death of her husband. There’s a weirdly distorted view of the power dynamic in the day to day reading of this story, poor old King David, just lost control of himself when he ‘saw’ her bathing on another roof,and then ‘they committed adultery’, as if she were complicit. Yeah right. In reality the most powerful man in the country saw a woman having a bath, summoned her to his house, had sex with her and got her pregnant, and then killed her husband. Then we victim blamed.  (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).

The final woman in Jesus’ genealogy is his mother Mary, a young woman, probably only a girl by our standards who was betrothed (not yet married) when she found herself pregnant. What message we are supposed to extract from her inclusion in this #MeToo list, one can only speculate on. For whatever reason, Jesus often found himself referred to as ‘Mary’s son’ – in a patriarchal society there’s something odd about that…

 

Starting on Easter Monday (2nd April 2018) my new ‘Email Meditations’ series. Weekdays only, maximum of three paragraphs each day, on some sort of thought provoking topic. Sign up here (it’s free) if you fancy coming on the journey with me.