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The Rector The Revd Rob Farmer writes:
“Birds of a feather flock together” is a well known saying. We often have this little bias towards people who remind us in some way of ourselves (there’s even a word for it, homophily), and I wonder how this can potentially affect the Church?
We should always remember that we live in a world of difference and diversity, and more worryingly so, a world of oppression and consumer driven societies that encourage us to spend, spend, spend, especially at this time of year. As a Church, we should always be careful not to build a bubble to exist in where we isolate ourselves from what is going on in our world.
In the Church calendar Advent and Christmas remain remarkable seasons, but amongst the sometimes seasonal sentimentality an often overlooked dimension is ‘exile’. As we travel through these seasons and hear those familiar readings we can engage again and again with voices seeking God’s truth in and through exile, and a longing to return ‘home’.
From the voices of Isaiah that cry out for justice and comfort, through to the nativity texts themselves, we hear the longing of God’s people for salvation, homecoming and comfort.
The English word ‘exile’ has more than one origin. One is French, in which ‘exile’ means ‘banishment’ or ‘a banished person’. So an exile here, then, is someone who is under penalty or punishment. Further back, the Greek word ostrakismos gives us another dimension of exile: being ‘ostracised’ or cast out.
God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, have a long and telling history in exile. But of course it is Jesus Christ and his coming incarnation who is central to our story, and by acknowledging the importance of exile in the story, we can appreciate the power of his birth in fresh ways.
In Luke’s nativity we are reminded that the Jewish people were under occupation. Mary and Joseph were forced to leave Nazareth and register in Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem, and so we are reminded that Jesus was born as an internally displaced person. In short, God’s people felt like strangers in their own land, internally exiled and ruled by those who barely respected their way of life.
Jesus - as the very embodiment of God’s love and grace - enters this world of exile in the most ironic way. For, rather than coming as an all-powerful king, or a warrior to drive out the oppressors, he is born a peasant amongst peasants. His parents are nobodies. No palace, only a manger in a dirty stable. Yet, as God, he is the one who comes in answer to the exile’s cry. The helpless babe comes to help the helpless. He comes to model welcome rather than hostility.
We only have to look at the news to see that we still live in a world where people are in exile or ostracised for whatever reason. How can the Church help to transform the lives of some of these people? How do we show the grace and hospitality that Jesus came to bring to others?
One organisation I came across recently is Social Enterprise UK who work with many government agencies, the NHS and well known businesses to promote a more equal and inclusive society, a fair world, and aim to help protect the planet. They have a great Christmas gift guide where you can buy ‘presents with a purpose’. https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/christmas
They say, “Every single one of the gifts have a real social or environmental impact on everything from luxury soap creating jobs for the blind, to socks (a classic gift) tackling issues such as homelessness, gender equality, access to clean water, education and child health. There is jewellery supporting women who have escaped exploitation, bags funding education projects in India, chocolates employing adults with autism, homewares providing opportunities for those suffering with mental illness, coffee that empowers the homeless to become professional barristers, and yoga gear that funds business courses for women in rural India.
If we are going to spend, spend, spend, then let it be on something like this that makes a difference, that transforms a life, and brings a person one step closer to home from exile.
If we allow Christmas and Advent to be merely festivals of tinsel and self-indulgence, we fail to be faithful to Christ. We run the risk of generating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality where only like-minded ‘birds’ flock together.
Our God is a God of transformation and hospitality. The challenge for us is to be alive to the way of the One who comes into a world of exile, longing for home, hope and love.
I do hope that you will be able to join us over the coming season as we explore some of these themes - a warm welcome awaits you. Wherever you are or whatever you are doing over the coming weeks, can I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas.
With every blessing,
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