Seasoned readers of this blog know that every now and then I share with you a homily of Father Alexander Tefft, who I think is one of the truly great preachers of our age. Father Alexander serves the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, London, U.K., (the parish founded by the late Father Michael Harper). His homilies are uniquely powerful, both in their expression and their spiritual impact. Father Alexander comes from Toronto, Canada, and has lived in London for over ten years. He is the Assistant to the Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and Ireland, the Theological Advisor to its Ordination Committee, and Chaplain of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge.
WRITTEN IN RED (based on Matthew 2.13-23 & 21.33-42) was preached last Sunday, 27th December, 2015
This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance (Matthew 21.38).
Red on gold, gold on white. Silver tinsel strews the floor. Slipping over scraps of tartan red, burnt gold, and soiled white wrapping, a Brussels sprout boiled spongy-grey slides into a pile of discarded cards. Wishbone of a turkey carcass, paper-dry glob of gristle. A chunk of lard and a crushed cranberry cling to cracked glass. Shard from a star, half-broken, swept from the floor. Placed wobbling, atop a tree. ‘Never mind’, you say. Setting red ink to gold bond. ‘Thanks ever so much, Olivia, for the lovely hyacinth blue lip gloss’. Never mind the tear in her little girl’s eye, her mother placing her in front of the dinner guests: ‘Bad girl, a bad, bad girl. No gifts from Father Christmas this year’. Behind her, barely visible, shadow of a small boy’s face. All caked with dirt. ‘Thank you, so much, dear Nigel, for the Pure Chronos DAB digital radio’. Never mind the fluffy bundle out by the bin. A puppy’s neck twisted, curly hairs wet with leaves and mud. A lesson to teach him to be good. Almost invisible, an armless figure, neck twisted, overshadows the sobbing boy. Gold ink on bond, you scribble a third note. ‘Dear Jack, many thanks for the Max Mara silk mikado dress’. Never mind that twelve year old girl, wriggling under his gropings below the mistletoe. Shadow of a child, spine snapped, resting a tiny hand on her shoulder. ‘Never mind. Never mind’, you repeat, straining to read red letters on white. Shut your eyes. It will all go away.
Grinding your teeth, stopping your ears, you force a chilly grin across a stiff jaw. ‘Christmas peace and joy, joy and peace. Our inheritance. Above all, at Christmastime. If to keep that one must sometimes look away …’ But for every tear from every tortured child ignored …
Out of a memory repressed rises another child’s shadow. Above all, at Christmastime.
What is Christmas to you? Tinsel and tassels, punch and pine? No winter’s wild laments, no cruel frost blazing its trail across the night sky. Leaving the moon fiery clear. Too clear. Our customary Christmas, you ponder, our inheritance. A soft, misty vapour hanging heavy over a village green. Creeping cosy-quiet into the nooks and crannies of an old stone church in the square. Snowy surplice atop a red cassock, a boy soprano’s note wafts woolly on the breeze … and you are in Royal David’s City. What do you see? Horse-and-cart, clambering over the bridge, waving cheerfully to the blue-eyed boy in the stable? On the hill, a legionary draws a short sword. First one, then another. Soon, dark-eyed women run in from the fields around Bethlehem. Bundles in arms. Hidden in the earthenware jar, a two year old’s face caked in dirt. A newborn’s neck twisted, curly hair wet with rain leaves and mud. Tossed off a rooftop, a spine soft and snapped. The small dimpled body left bleeding, arms pruned at the root. The women bite at soldiers’ wrists … and blades rise up from cradles, wet with blood. Do you see? Or look away? Stop your ears, shut your eyes. Hum a harmonious carol to your anaesthetised heart. Then every child shamed, scarred, abused politely disappears.
Only Rachel still weeps for her children. Every child-martyr, reaching out its hands to you.
Slipping over scraps of discarded dogmas, paper-dry sermons on how to ‘be good’, and the red-white banners at the country Christmas fair, a Christianity boiled spongy-grey slides into oblivion. A gospel of tinsel and trivia, of discretion – that is, denial. Eyes foggy in the mists of candles can make out the holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Not the Child who stands evergreen amid the biting snow. Ears dulled by the cackle of carollers only hear the gossip of the dinner guests. Not a child’s pitiful cry. Heard by the Child in the cave. The Heir himself, as helpless as they. He who is born at this time to claim his inheritance …
Not in glittering gold or wondrous white – but in the red of a martyr’s blood.
Blood rushing, hearts pounding, they hear him out. Crafty, cold eye, chilly grin of irony. Grey beards of the synagogue, soiled with gristle and gossip. When they argue, mists of memory rise up from vapid ponds. Evasive answers, vain formulas well-rehearsed. When he argues, fire burns bright. Too bright. Bright as a seraph’s wings. Paid witnesses testify: ‘This young man speaks against the custom of our forefathers, our inheritance!’ ‘Brethren and fathers’, says the young man dressed in white. ‘Did not Abraham leave the old customs behind and go to a land of new promise? Have you kept the promise? When the Transcendent sent us prophets to challenge you, did you not beat one, kill another, stone a third? And when God sent his Heir, did you not kill him – and claim his inheritance? You stiff-necked, stiff-jawed, grinning cowards, how long will you look away?’ Grinding teeth, stopping up ears (as pious folk are wont to do), one picks up a rock. One, then another. Under a hail of stones, fervent Stephen shouts: ‘I see the heavens opening and at the right hand of God, the Son of Man!’ As the last stone cracks his brow, he raises his eyes. ‘Lord Jesus’, the dying martyr gasps, ‘lay not this terrible sin against them’. His last gaze fixes on the ringleader, that young rabbi from Tarsus, whose eyes shine furious and confused … but never look away.
A fierce young fanatic named Saul. Who will change his name. And his life.
Beloved in Christ: setting red ink to gold as you sign a thank you note, mutter your mindless ‘never mind’ – if the only peace that you seek is old Herod’s peace. Purchased at the price of a cradle, dripping with milk and blood. Mumble ‘never mind’ – if the only joy that you dare to expect is chilly nostalgia and icy denial. Shut your eyes and block your ears – if Christmas means no more than hiding from whatever pinches a nerve or pierces a heart. But if a Child, born in the cave of his death, is Life himself …
Then dance with the martyrs on the Feast of Stephen.
Bright moon, cruel frost, and winter’s rage will not freeze your blood, if your heart can break with every child tortured and every martyr crowned. The Dayspring from on high dawns, cloudless and clear. If red blood spilt for the sake of a newborn Child waters the gardens of our God. A closed ear cannot hear the crackle of your fiery footprints in the white. A closed eye cannot make out the word ‘Peace’, inscribed on spotless ice and crisp, clean snow.
Little wonder. It is written in red.
Holy First Martyr Stephen and all ye innocent children of Bethlehem, pray to God for us!