Sunday, December 21, 2008

Annunciation Blues

Today was the official Sunday to remember Mary being told by an Angel that she was going to become the mother of the Messiah, and that this was going to be a miraculous rather than human conception. Officially within the church this is called the “Annunciation”. Old technical term, but that’s the church for you. You can read the full story in Luke 1:26-38.

But I love the whole story in Luke 1, because it puts Jesus’ conception and birth in to a family context. The first person Mary tells is not (perhaps understandably) Joseph, but her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who has also miraculously fallen pregnant (though by her husband, the even more elderly priest, and recently dumbstruck Zechariah). In fact, Elizabeth’s baby (who will become John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus’ ministry) recognises that Mary is carrying the Messiah and kicks out in Elizabeth’s womb.

Two ordinary women, sharing the joys and fears of imminent motherhood, as women do the world over. Yet in that sharing, they realise that they are at the centre of something amazing that God is doing. And that God breaks in to such mundane and ordinary lives in such unexpected ways is truly amazing. There is another side to this as well; God being born as man to an ordinary, teenage peasant girl in a backwater town in a disregarded edge of empire province seems the most bizarre way to bring about the work of salvation of mankind. Surely it requires a palace, great signs in the heavens, kings and leaders from all over the world coming to acknowledge the birt?. Actually, we see that in Matthew’s account, but much more low key – the travellers who find Jesus were actually Zoroastrian Priests (Magi) and astrologers following celestial signs, not kings. And they have to slip out under cover of darkness to avoid giving the game away to a tyrant and mass murderer. Luke tells us that the first to greet Jesus were shepherds – people on the outskirts of society – one step removed from vagabonds and beggars. Hardly an upbeat, glorious heralding of the King of Kings, born in a barn.

But in such a humble birth, Jesus lifts up the humble, and in being born naturally, with all the blood, pain, indignity and mess of human childbirth, He lifts up the value of women and mothers too. In this arrival, Jesus shows us the value of all our arrivals, the dignity and value of all our births.

Which is why this passage gives me pause. Because at the same time we remember this miraculous pregnancy and birth and the value God places on each life brought in to the world, and each mother who brings that life forth, thousands of women the world over are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Poverty, lack of proper facilities and care, poor diet, war, disease – all contribute to an appalling daily death toll of women and their babies. In Niger, 1 in 7 women will die in childbirth. In Sweden that’s one in 30,000. That is enough to give pause for thought. It is even more worrying when you consider that the nations of the world in 2000 agreed universally to reduce this terrible toll by two thirds by the year 2015. It is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. And it is the one goal that is least likely to be met – in fact if anything the toll is worsening in many countries, and barely improving in many others. It seems that, while God values women, children, pregnancy and motherhood, we do not. Almost all of those deaths are avoidable – it is our negligence and lack of will that is letting this hidden holocaust go on.

Mary’s prayer when she visits Elizabeth is known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – and talks of rulers being brought down, the humble and poor being lifted up, filling the hungry with good food, yet turning away the rich and unjust. She saw then that the child she carried was going to turn the world upside down.

Will we be the rich and powerful who are turned away from His Kingdom because we neglected justice?

Monday, December 15, 2008

An Advent Poem.

Fascinating poem - drawing on Old Testament prophecy, the gospel narratives and many other allusions with beautiful imagery (in both word and video images) - grasps the heart of Christmas, and the future hope of Advent perfectly.

Check out http://www.theworkofthepeople.com for more

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Human Dignity

It is probably no coincidence that the Vatican has released a long treatise on the dignity of the human person (“Dignitas Personae”) in the same week that we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two in many ways go hand in hand, and it is no surprise that I am involved with the selection panel for an award to Christian doctors and other health workers involved in the response to HIV & AIDS known as the Dignity & Right to Health Awards. Health and human dignity hold together - especially when we understand health as wholeness of being (health and wholeness and holiness all share the same Anglo-Saxon root - and parallel the Hebrew word "shalom" meaning a state of right relationships and well being).

The aim of the Vatican's three-part instruction 'is to provide responses from the Church to new bioethical questions that didn’t exist when the Church released her last biomedical document in 1987. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) the document is the result of six years of study and deliberation on the most recent developments in the field of bio-technology. The document seeks “both to contribute ‘to the formation of conscience’ and to encourage biomedical research respectful of the dignity of every human being and of procreation.”' Catholic News Agency

And there is no doubt that the rapid acceleration of modern medical technology is out pacing our ethical thinking. At both ends of life and (increasingly) in the middle, we are seeing the boundaries shifted - from regenerative medicine based around stem cells, to pushing back the boundaries on pre-term survival of infants. This is increasingly complex moral and clinical territory. An intelligent input in to the debates from a Christian perspective is to be welcomed, and Dignitas Personae gives that input eloquently.

I have become increasingly challenged and fascinated by the Catholic approach to a 'consistent ethic of life', as it holds together the traditional, conservative Christian concerns over abortion, euthanasia and experimentation on human embryos, with the traditional liberal concerns for social justice, care for the poor, and opposition to war and militarism. Holding together these two areas, usually associated respectively with the conservative right and liberal left is, I believe, deeply Biblical, and represents a continuum rather than a clash of interests.

Justice for the child in poverty, exploited as a child soldier, trafficked into the sex industry, or left to die of cholera or AIDS holds hand with a concern for the unborn and an opposition to abortion on demand. A concern to prevent legalised killing of the very ill or disabled goes hand in hand with true compassion and care for the sick, disabled and dying. Not that there are always clear cut answers to these questions - but our responses to them must be couched in compassion rather than judgementalism, in seeking understanding and dialogue rather than pushing our own views as the only way.

Nevertheless, this strong sense of human dignity and the right to life and health is why the early church used to scandalise Roman society by going out in the streets to bring in the poor, the homeless, the sick and the dying, including babies left outside the city gates ("exposed") because they were unwanted or deemed 'imperfect'. One wonders if in a 100 years time our societies' increasing acquiescence to abortion on demand and euthanasia, as well as our fondness for war as a tool of diplomacy and our general inertia in ending the scandal of extreme poverty in the developing world, will be seen as barbaric as the Roman practice of exposing unwanted infants or casting out the disabled and elderly?

But at the heart of all of this is not these emotive issues themselves, but something more basic and more wonderful. Human life has something essentially of value and dignity - so much so that we should declare human rights a global priority, and that we should stress, in the face of advances in medical technology, or the spread of tyranny and human trafficking, the importance and value of each and every human life. For me, the central reason for that dignity is simple - not only are we made in God's image, but also that God took on human flesh, that he grew in the womb as we do, that he was born as we are - vulnerable, naked, dependant on human parents. That he grew and lived, and ultimately died as we live and die, and in so doing lifted our ordinary human existence to the divine. This message is deeply resonant, especially as we approach Christmas.

Once you see all humanity in that light, then everyone you meet, tweet or otherwise interact with is worthy of the utmost value and respect, because there is something of the image of God in them. It impels us to care for the vulnerable and fight for justice for the poor, and not for the sake of a quiet life acquiesce to a culture of comfort that turns a blind eye to the suffering of others

That, perhaps, is one of the greatest messages of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zechariah & The Christmas Culture Wars

For our regular office devotions this Advent I set the readings from Zechariah. This often overlooked prophetic book is full of intriguing visions, many of which point to the coming of Messiah, the crucifixion, the final judgement and the coming kingdom of heaven, and of all the nations flowing together to worship the same Lord. It is the fourth most quoted book in the New Testament after Isaiah, Psalms and Deuteronomy - especially in the passion narratives of all four gospels and the book of Revelation. Looking forward to both the coming of Jesus and His return it is perhaps an ideal book to focus on during the season of preparation that is Advent.

This morning's reading was from Zechariah 7 – and it jumped out at me. In particular verses 5 & 6:

"When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?"

I am in the midst of a busy time helping my wife to prepare for Christmas, which we are hosting this year. The logistical planning is almost military in its detail and complexity – and it is so easy in the midst of all of this to forget that Advent is the season of prayer and penitence as we look forward and prepare for the return of Jesus. And when we get to Christmas, will we be focussing on "the Word becoming flesh", or will it be on the food and presents, and getting everything ready in time for the Queen's Speech at 3, or making sure we are ready to go off to visit the extended family on Boxing Day? Or will be focussing on the miracle of God taking frail, vulnerable humanity and what that means for us here and now? In fact, it brought me up short about all our festivities – because in Keeping with Isaiah 1:17 and Isaiah 58, it is all too easy to be religious without concern for others, for justice and fairness as well.

"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'" [v9-10]

But it also struck me that these were admonishments for God's people, not the nations that did not know Yahweh. So I find it hard to hear the constant whine we make as we see a secular world ignoring the spiritual core of Christmas, and focussing so much on the food, fun and excessive expenditure (in times of recession we are told, it is our patriotic duty to go out and spend, spend, spend, even if it means more unsupportable debt, just to keep the economy going - as if that isn't what caused the problem in the first place!!).

Maybe we should be living our Christmas so differently, so focussed on justice, on compassion and mercy (and not on spend, spend, spend) and ultimately so focussed on Jesus, that the World takes note. Are we out there in the homeless shelters this Christmas, or supporting developing countries through living gift schemes, or in a myriad of other ways approaching Christmas in a different sprit to the world? And let's stop having a go at the secular society for ignoring the spiritual root of Christmas – it does not make them more aware of God, it just entrenches us deeper in these pointlessly petty culture wars we indulge in at the expense of God's Kingdom. Let's rather live out the Kingdom first, and be salt and light rather than shrill noise.


Monday, December 01, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008 - Looking to the Future

This year is the 20th World AIDS Day - and as such is a time to give us pause for thought. At one level it seem like we are loosing the war - HIV infections are increasing, with no sign globally of a slow down, deaths from AIDS related illnesses remain alarmingly high, and so many of the world's poorest people have no access to treatment, care or education on how to avoid infection.

But we have also seen in the last five years one of the biggest mobilisations of resources in human history to reverse this trend, an have seen some countries where rates of new infection are in decline, numbers on treatment climb rapidly, and mortality rates drop dramatically. So, in the midst of gloom there are an increasing number of pockets of light.

But we are now in the early stages of what will probably prove to be a major and possibly prolonged global recession - so the worry inevitably is, can this response even be sustained, let alone scaled up so that the few good news stories become many? That may be the biggest cause for concern in the next two to five years. And even if we can keep the scale up of AIDS related funding, what will happen to other areas of development funding to aid poverty reduction and improvement of basic medical and educational services? Services that are going to be essential in seeing the up-scaling of AIDS funding actually having an impact on the ground.

How can equity and justice be maintained in the midst of economic turmoil? - that will be the key question in the coming year - and the answers we find and put in to practice could be the difference between life and death for millions.

The Churches have a role to play here - speaking up for justice and equity for the poor communities where they are based and minister, mobilising resources independently of governments and major donors, setting up models of best practice in care, treatment and prevention through church hospitals, local clinics, church schools, community projects and the like. Church leaders are speaking out this year in an increasingly high profile manner - but more needs to be done. Churches are being encouraged to see HIV as a spiritual and practical challenge that we are called to respond to by God. But more can be done to empower and envision churches. Leadership is the key, and the principle theme for this year's World AIDS Day.

So let this 20th Anniversary World AIDS Day be the point where we stop, reflect on what we have learned from the past, then put all our energies in to finding a result for the future.