These days following Christmas Day have some sharp edges to them. If we are tempted to think of Christmas as a time of saccharin sweetness and one of overindulgence then these days bring the hangover to end all hangovers; they bring us up short very quickly. The day we call Boxing Day is also known as the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He brings with him the reminder that following this newborn baby lying in the manger can be costly, often is. It brings us into conflict with vested interests, those who don’t like the boat being rocked and certainly don’t like their power being challenged. Any preacher who ventures into the realm of political or social comment will quickly learn that some will tell us to keep politics out of the pulpit. These days that follow tell us that it belongs firmly in the pulpit and in the pew and outside it. Faith touches the whole of our life or it touches nothing at all.
Then on Friday we were given St John, the apostle and either the author of the Fourth Gospel or one on whom much of its information rests. This is the Gospel that tells us the eternal Word, the Wisdom and very purpose of God, chose to be enfleshed among us, to be incarnate. Why did he do this, well our epistle told us it was that through doing this he became subject to death so that he can destroy death (Hebrews 2:10-end). As fans of the comedian Reginald D Hunter will know, if you want to defeat something you have to become it, so Christ takes on our humanity so that he can be subject to our mortality, die and rise; he can become death in order to destroy it. It’s a profound piece of motivational thinking. By entering deeply into the very thing that oppresses us we can destroy its fear and therefore its hold on us.
This is inspirational leadership. The leaders who inspire us most are those who are grounded in the reality of the situation they seek to manage. Bishops who have been parish priests tick a box for me which those who haven’t just fail to master. At a profound level they get it: the pressures, the struggles and the all comsuming commitment required. Politicians who have done a day job, and not just been political researchers and the like, command a respect which the others fail to achieve. One of the problems with the House of Commons at the moment is too many of those in it haven’t done what I’d call a proper job. The same goes for clergy too. The ones who have a former career tend to command a respect that those who haven’t don’t for its rooting and ground in the daily grind. In the prison service trainee governors have to spend time as an officer on the wings first. They have to have walked the landings to be able to understand what the real issues are and to gain the respect of the officers. The same goes for Education. How can you lead schools if you haven’t taught in a class and preferably in one of the more challenging places?
Jesus is not a remote vision of God, but one among us, sharing our joys and griefs, the trials and achievements we all have. And in this the final trial we all face, that of death itself. This is the God who not only understands but shows he does. That matters when the chips are down and we are struggling with the rawest experiences and emotions we can face.
Our gospel reading today, was also the one for yesterday when we recalled the brutal murder of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-end). Kind Herod, worried for his grip on power and despotic control, ordered the murder of all of the baby boys in the Bethlehem area under the age of 2. I don’t know how many children that was, but we count each child as special and to every parent each child is irreplaceable. So this is a dark day in our calendar. But it is a day that provides a space for parents who have lost children to find their story in the Christmas story. It means that they are not shut out from these celebrations, even if partying is furthest from their minds. It is also a day for everyone who has been abused as a child, and those who as adults continue to struggle with this. As a senior police officer dealing with the Jimmy Savile cases said, there is no such thing as historic abuse. For those who endured it the nightmare is always with them and it haunts.
For Joseph, he knew that only when the threat had disappeared, when Herod was dead, would it be safe to return from Egypt. Even then he found that he couldn’t go back to where they had previously been, he had to settle anew in a place some distance away. Psychological distance can be important for those who have endured significant trauma. If we are going to rebuild we have to feel safe to do it. Egypt was an ironic place to go for safety because it was there that Pharaoh had tried to kill all the Hebrew boys leading to Moses being hidden by his mother in the reeds. It shows that places do not remain dangerous for ever. Previous places of danger can become a place of safety, of asylum.
Today is also the day we remember the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Another king, Heny II, out to remove political opponents, saw violence as the solution to his problems. Whether he intended it or it was overambitious barons, with their own axes to grind, who went too far, we will probably never know. Becket has local connections here in Peterborough because the roof of our Cathedral is probably modeled on what Canterbury Cathedral would have looked like at the time. Some of his relics where also displayed here which is why we have the Becket Chapel.
Becket is a strange one. He brings the compromised position of church power and privilege. He died for separate courts to deal with misbehaving clergy. It was a view that the church needed its political independence to be able to do its job – prophetic and pastoral. On one level I like the Royal Navy chaplaincy model of clergy taking the rank of the person they are talking to. That enables a conversation of equals and that assists honesty because no one has to keep face. It requires a high degree of confidentiality and while not tested by the courts, it is recognized as a good thing. But everyone needs to be accountable and we have seen far too many cases where protection of the vulnerable has been given second place to protection of the institution, which is really a false protection because it is no protection at all when the truth comes out. True protection lies in behaving appropriately in the first place and with a transparency of justice.
Becket though, stands for the need to speak the uncomfortable truths to power. Hugh of Lincoln, depicted in our windows and reredos with his pet swan, who consecrated the cathedral 900 years ago, was a contemporary, and he seems to have been better at it – at least he kept his head, but may have benefited from the furore that erupted after Becket’s murder, and pushing his luck accordingly.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th December 2013