Monday, December 26, 2011

Those bloody days after Christmas

The martyrdom of St Stephen

It is not unusual for priests who celebrate Mass every day to find the Octave of Christmas a chilling reality, for, while most of the people are enjoying a well deserved holiday break with their families, we and a handful of stalwarts are back at the altar immersed in a remarkably bloody week.

Today we honour St Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. He was the deacon, full of the Holy Spirit and full of love for the people, who was stoned to death for his witness to Jesus. (Not forgetting, of course, the 10th century Duke Wenceslaus who went out “on the feast of Stephen,” and was martyred by his own brother.)

On Wednesday we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those little boys under two years of age who were slaughtered by the deranged King Herod in his desperation to kill Jesus. I, personally, find it hard to stand at the altar on Holy Innocents’ Day and not hear the wails of the mothers, or see the blood running in the back streets of Bethlehem.

Then on Thursday we celebrate St Thomas Becket, the tough-nosed 12th century ecclesiastical bureaurocrat who became Archbishop, had a real conversion to the Lord, and was subsequently martyred in Canterbury Cathedral.

But we mustn’t think of all that suffering as something that contrasts with the essence of Christmas. It is the REAL world that God wants to save. It is REAL people - sinful, selfish, flawed in character, full of conplexes and contradictions - whom he wants to heal and restore. He loves us, sinful as we are, with all of our problems, and our propensity to hurt one another and cause pain.

This baby, God in human flesh, came to reveal the unconditional love with which we are loved. And that love cost him everything. He came to die for us.

From one end of the Bible to the other, the tapestry of God’s revelation is held together by a bloodied thread. Let’s never forget that. Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die, and – in the words of Balthasar - not just to die, but to experience the hell of God-forsakenness, before being resurrected from the abyss and exalted to the right hand of the Father WITH and FOR us, transforming all things – you and me included - with his suffering love. This is the mystery at the heart of our salvation; this is the mystery at the heart of the Church. This is the mystery that can reconcile families, communities and even nations if only we will stop pushing God away from us.

The blood of this strange week reminds us of the blood of the martyrs flowing down through the Christian centuries.

It reminds us, too, that even in our day, the most astonishing signs of the presence of Jesus are in the midst of extreme suffering. Nowhere is this more so than in Iraq, where Canon Andrew White, the (Anglican) Vicar of Baghdad, and his people are a healing and reconciling presence in that suffering city. You can do a google search and find all kinds of articles on the love of God incarnated in that ministry.

But perhaps the most moving is this 30 minute clip which gives us a bird’s eye view of the ministry of St George's Baghdad and Canon Andrew White.

If you would like to add that work to your regular intercessions, you could sign up to Canon Andrew White’s Facebook page.

During this week, our emotions are stretched between the polarities of the joy of the manger, the crib, the angels singing, memories of Christmasses past, family celebrations, the happiness of the children . . . and on the other hand the sobbing, tears and pain, not just of the martyrs, but of their loved ones, and all who suffer illness, loneliness, forsakenness and even despair. As we look forward to a new year, may all church communities – and each of us in our daily lives – allow the Lord Jesus to use us to touch and bless the bloodied world into which he came that first Christmas.


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