I’ve never said these words before but: the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas sermon is excellent, and well worth a read. Here’s the paragraph that struck the deepest chord for me:
The most pressing question we now face, we might well say, is who and where we are as a society. Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost. Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.
Apart from that, he talks as much about Jesus as one would rightfully expect from Christian clergy in a Christmas speech, and in at least one part he’s a bit arrogant about how much his Church really gets to represent and reflect today’s very diverse and rather irreligious Britain. So why, you might ask, would a pro-multiculturalism heathen like me like it so much? Well, I read most religious discourse as though every mention of Gods and their manifestations are coded references to a much broader, less well-defined Divine Ineffable. I hope this isn’t too offensive to people who do believe in the specific God[s] being referenced, but it means that many scriptures—especially the passages about how people should treat each other—still speak to me in powerful ways even though I don’t share the underlying belief systems. I don’t normally bother spelling the substitutions out explicitly, but here’s another particularly good section from the Archbishop’s sermon by way of example:
The life that lives in [or: the story of] Jesus, the everlasting divine agency that is uniquely [uniquely within Christian texts] embodied in him, is like something that is said – a word addressed to us. Because, like any word addressed to us, it demands a response. And the gospel goes on at once to tell us that the expected response was not forthcoming. Before we have even got to Christmas in the words of the gospel we are taken to Good Friday, and to the painful truth that the coming of Jesus splits the world into those who respond and those who don’t [or the painful truth that those who would give their lives to fixing the world are often severely punished for it]. Once the word is spoken in the world, there is no way back. Your response to it, says the gospel again and again, is what shows who and what you really are, what is deepest in you, what means most. What we say or do in our response to Jesus [any inspiring example] is our way of discovering for ourselves and showing to one another what is real in and for us.
I don’t have to share the speaker’s beliefs for the story to be meaningful to me. As for why I need the religious imagery at all, this speech addressed that point more sharply than I’ve been able to do myself [I’ll stop with the interpolated notes because you probably get the idea already]:
Finding words to respond to the Word made flesh is and has always been one of the most demanding things human beings can do. Don’t believe for a moment that religious language is easier or vaguer than the rest of our language. It’s more like the exact opposite: think of St John writing his gospel, crafting the slow, sometimes repetitive pace of a narrative that allows Jesus to change the perspective inch by inch as a conversation unfolds. Or of St Paul, losing his way in his sentences, floundering in metaphors as he struggles to find the words for something so new that there are no precedents for talking about it. Or any number of the great poets and contemplatives of the Christian centuries. It isn’t surprising if we need other people’s words a lot of the time; and it’s of great importance that we have words to hand that have been used by others in lives that obviously have depth and integrity. That’s where the language of our shared worship becomes so important.
Meanwhile, this is one of those years when Hanuka coincides with Christmas. I always like it when it does, even though this happening is a major contributor to US culture treating Hanuka like a far more major festival than it really is. If you really want to show your Jewish friends that you’re interested in their culture and respect it, wish them well over the important festivals: Passover, when we celebrate that unlike our ancestors we don’t have to be slaves, and Yom Kippur, when we face up to a reckoning with God [traditional], or own consciences [doing that substitution to fit my own beliefs again]. All the other landmarks of the year pale into insignifance next to those two.
But even though Hannuka basically gets an inflated status in popular culture as a kind of Christmas consolation prize, I still like it when it coincides with Christmas, because I get to do some observation of both. Though my in-laws have never been religious, they celebrate Christmas in the traditional secular sense, and I enjoy joining in. At the same time, much of the meaning that is attached to Hanuka for me is about lighting the candles as an outward reminder that there is a line to be trod carefully between integration and forgetting who we are and where we came from, and it feels more poignant to do that at the same time as celebrating someone else’s holiday, without reservations or contradictions on either side. It’s a reminder that yes, I am still a Jew, and while I don’t have to fight for that right like Yehuda Hamakabi had to, it may one day be necessary again, and we mustn’t shrink from that possibility if the need arises, because if no-one had taken up that fight then there would be no me today (arguably, there wouldn’t have been monotheism left to inspire Jesus and Mohammed, but that gets into eternally-arguable alternative history territory).
And there are still things we need to fight for today. For as much as this is about staking a claim to my own identity, it’s also a powerful story about the simple right to be different. We have never seen a large, interconnected society in which everyone had the unchallenged right to be different in each of their ways. Today it’s not the Jews where I live, but in the West it’s the Muslims; in most of the Muslim world it’s non-Muslims and/or women who wish to have agency in their lives; scattered across much of the world it’s homosexuals, and so on. I don’t know if we ever will see this “fixed” completely, but it’s a goal worth working towards, however we can, and every step towards it is a reduction of evil in the world.
The other day, I listened to a fascinating podcast about Yehuda Hamakabi and the revolt he led, treating it as a historical account with a critical eye. The unsurprising consensus of the guests was that the the First Book of Maccabees is a fairly accurate account, while the second is full of propaganda and has suffered from repeated embellishment. More interestingly, they filled in more context for why the rebellion happened than I had been given in Hebrew classes.
The most startling part of this, to me, was the evidence that Antiochus’s persecution of the Jews—the provocation that started the Maccabee Revolt—was a metastasis of something that started out as an effort to adjudicate an internal dispute between groups of Jews. There are many lessons to be learned from that, but it’s a more complex and more interesting story than the simplistic version I was taught, or the very quick skimmed history given in I Maccabees ch. 1.
This difference is a lesson in itself: a reminder that while scripture is often beautiful and often useful, it’s very limited as a set of a history books, and has often been massively simplified to serve the purposes of its authors. We must pick and choose carefully, even as we find others’ words helpful, if we are to tell our own stories right.