Monday, 21 December 2009


On Christmas Eve the eyes of many Christians will turn to Bethlehem as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ our Saviour and Lord. I had the privilege of visiting Bethlehem during Advent last year and so the place and the inhabitants are very much in my thoughts and prayers at this time.

One of my fellow pilgrims journeying to Bethlehem was Revd Dr Andrew Mayes. Andrew is now Course Director at St George’s College, Jerusalem and leads others in reflecting on the places and people in the Land of the Holy One. I have found Andrew’s recent meditation on Bethlehem both helpful and challenging and I’ve illustrated some of his comments with a few of the pictures I took:

manger square At this time of year, hundreds come to Bethlehem to visit the Basilica of the Nativity. It is a fortress of a church, built by Justinian in the sixth century on Constantinian foundations. It is an awesome place. The pilgrims enter by a low door, requiring them to bend low in humility (though the original purpose of the low door was to prevent people riding the horses in!) One enters the mighty nave, with its stunning fourth century mosaics and soaring marble pillars. The church is built over the cave of thsite of Christ's birthe nativity, where a silver star marks the traditional birthplace of Christ. Pilgrims descend steep steps to enter the grotto, as if going into the depths of the earth, where they get on their knees to kiss the star and to touch the rock….

In Christianity the Holy Places developed after the Emperor Constantine's conversion in the forth century and the visit to his mother Helena to this land to identify the Holy Places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Splendid Byzantine churches marked these out as places of worship and pilgrimage, not least at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is an unbroken tradition of prayer and pilgrimage at this site where it is Christmas everyday! The place of the Nativity speaks powerfully about the Incachurch of the nativityrnation, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:18). It speaks of what has been called the "scandal of particularity" – that is – for God to take on humanity and human nature for the sake of the whole world, there had to be one specific time and one concrete place where that took place. That place is Bethlehem, and here Christians ponder the wonder of God taking on human flesh and blood from Mary and being born our Brother in Jesus. We would indeed bend low….the holy God was laid in the dirt and dust here in Bethlehem's stable…now the grotto of a magnificent adorned church where the famous Christmas Midnight Mass will be celebrated.

But there is another side to Bethlehem and another answer to the question – what is holy? Where can we find God? Where should we be looking for God? Where is God to be encountered today? Bethlehem is hemmed in by the Wall, the Separation Barrier or Security Barrier which here is a concrete wall almost 30 feet in height. This has become a stranglehold and Bethlehem wallnoose around the people of the West Bank. While pilgrims and tourists may pass Bethlehem's military checkpoint at the Wall fairly freely, for Bethlehemites it is often a humiliating ordeal to pass in or out, only possible with the right ID or with special permits, not easily obtained. Many in Bethlehem are separated from their families and relatives in nearby Jerusalem. They can only with immense difficulty worship in Jerusalem, whether at the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque or Christian Church of the Resurrection.

The statistics tell their own story. In 1947 Bethlehem was 80% Christian and 20% Muslim. Today it is the other way around, due to increasing rates of emigration of Christians in recent years. They are leaving in their droves, in search of a better life, in the US and elsewhere. The local population of Bethlehem, both Christian and Muslim, are prisoners in their own homes, living in the captivity of the West Bank occupied territories….

Where do we find God? Where should we be looking for Christ? Can it be that we can encounter him, not only in holy rocks and grottos but also in the broken lives of the oppressed?……

The life of Jesus redefines holiness. The incarnation redefines the holy. Now we touch the holy God in his incarnate life in Jesus. We see the Holy, in Jesus, in the dust and dirt of a Bethlehem stable, in the simplicity and poverty of Galilee, in the heartache and longing of his tears on the Mount of Olives, in the pain and isolation of Calvary, in the mystery of Easter – there, in these 'Holy places' God's presence is to be discovered and welcomed……

Our God is a God of surprises. He waits to reveal himself in surprising locations and in surprising people. That, perhaps, is the message of Bethlehem. And the question of Bethlehem is for every time and place: What is holy? Where is God to be found?

Please pray for Bethlehem and all its inhabitants this Christmas time.

My account of the visit to Bethlehem can be found here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

UKBA Christmas Card – part 2

I recently blogged about the appalling UK Border Agency Christmas e-card which has generated an extraordinary amount of web traffic. One of the questions I raised concerned how the card was produced and so I thought I’d do a bit of investigating. I haven’t yet tracked whether the card was designed internally or by an outside agency, however, I did discover the company that has produced a series of posters and leaflets for the UK Border Agency.

The agency is Studio Republic who have posted about the commission on their website. Ironically they have titled their announcement Doors Open with the UK Border Agency; witty little pun but not so funny for the many who find the doors of our borders firmly closed. In their announcement the agency says the following:

We designed and produced as series of posters and leaflets for the service that will be displayed nationwide – the only downside we can see to this is that you need to be a very bad boy or girl to get to see enjoy them! Mind you it’s not everyday that you get a captive audience to look at your work.

In all seriousness thank you to all concerned it was a pleasure working with yUKBA logoou.

Well I’m glad they found it so amusing and no doubt made a tidy profit while having such fun.

Now consider the assumption made in the statement, you ‘need to be a very bad boy or girl’ to see the posters. The 35 or so children in Yarl’s Wood are not bad, they aren’t criminals and nor are their families; they are children who are being damaged by our government’s policy of locking up children caught in the asylum and immigration system. In June this year there were some 470 children locked up in the UK immigration detention centres.

Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Church leaders are encouraging people to send Christmas cards to Phil Woolas MP, the Minister responsible for the UK Border Agency, calling for an end to the detention of children in the asylum system. You can find more information about the campaign here.

This is what Dr Rosalyn Proops, Officer for Child Protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said;

We are very concerned about the health and welfare of children in immigration detention. These children are among the most vulnerable in our communities and detention causes unnecessary harm to their physical and mental health. The current situation is unacceptable and we urge the Government to develop alternatives to detention without delay.

No doubt the staff at studiorepublic and the UK Border Agency apparatchiks will have a great time at their Christmas dinners this year; I doubt the children who will have to look at their posters and leaflets while locked up will be enjoying their Christmas.

H/T Annamdrew at the Methodist Church for the information about The most important card you’ll send this Christmas.

UPDATE: Thanks to Martin Beckford for finding out that the UK Border Agency claims it designed the e-card itself and sent it to 'stakeholders'. They have declined to comment on the language used in the card.

Ekklesia have now posted an alternative UK Border Agency e-card.

David Keen has also posted The Arrest on the Flight to Egypt.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ryan Giggs – SPOTY 2009

At least there was one thing for a Manchester Utd fan to cheer this weekend with Ryan Giggs receiving the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. The award was unexpected as Giggs had been ranked as an outsider and he seemed genuinely shocked to have won; not surprising given the modesty of the man who continues to perform at the highest levels at the age of 36.


There are those who would question the choice of Giggs as winner but just consider for a moment his record:

  • Over 820 appearances for Man Utd so far
  • 151 Goals
  • 11 Premier League Titles
  • 4 FA Cups
  • 3 Football League Cups
  • 2 UEFA Champions League Cups
  • 1 UEFA Super Cup
  • 1 Intercontinental Cup
  • 1 FIFA Club World Cup
  • PFA Player of the Year 2009
  • PFA Young Player of the Year 1992, 1993
  • BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year, 1996, 2009
  • Goal of the Season 1999
  • 64 Caps for Wales
  • 12 International Goal

Giggs is also a UNICEF ambassador and there is an excellent piece in The Times about his trip to Sierra Leone in November.

And if you still question the brilliance of the man check out Ryan Giggs’ goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

sign of the times (8) – UKBA Christmas Card

When I saw this Christmas card yesterday I hoped it was a joke but it isn’t. The card is produced by the UK Border Agency, a department of the Home Office and it is a work beyond parody.


This card is wrong on so many levels:

Who thought it a good idea to hi-jack a Christian Festival simply to promote a political message? I know it happens, however, this is just shameless.

The irony is that if the Holy Family had fled to England under Herod’s persecution today, then this is the agency that would have locked them up until they could be fast tracked back across our borders. David Keen has written more about this on his blog.

It speaks volumes about the state of the asylum and immigration debate in our country. Our politicians are involved in a pissing contest to show the public who can be tougher and harder on this issue. I am sick of hearing Phil Woolas, Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, bragging about how tough he is and the other party spokespeople trying to out do him. The truth is that the weakest and most vulnerable seem to be removed from our shores with a complete lack of compassion and in a deliberately callous manner. People like Elizabeth Rushamba and her two children Hilary-Marie and John.

Recently the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre refused to allow St Nicholas to deliver Christmas presents to the estimated 35 children held in the centre; presents that had been donated by London churches. What a great way to celebrate Christmas and how reassuring that our government and its agencies seem so determined to re-enact Dickens’s Christmas Carol (well, the first part anyway). Read more here.

How much did this card cost to produce and distribute? I hope someone will be able to find out because this misuse of tax payers' money is a scandal. In a week when the government offered its pre-budget report setting out its spending priorities, I trust this sort of rubbish will be axed; sadly its more likely that the budget for asylum seekers will be cut.

At least the card says Season’s Greetings rather than Happy or Merry Christmas, because there is nothing joyful or Christian about this obnoxious piece of nonsense.

Update: I have posted a follow up blog here.

There is a video of St Nicholas trying to deliver his presents to Yarl's Wood on the Church Times blog here.

H/T @Jon_Bartley and Ekklesia

Friday, 11 December 2009


This evening marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Hanukka – the eight day festival of lights. The celebration traces its origins back over 2,000 years to when the Seleucid leader, Antiochus IV, invaded Israel and attempted to force the Jews to assimilate into his empire and to renounce their religion and culture. Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee the Jews revolted and eventually drove out the Seleucid armies.

Golden Menorah The Hanukkah celebration of lighting the menorah traces its origin to a miracle that occurred after the victory of the Maccabees. The Temple in Jerusalem had been defiled by the invading Seleucid army. It was traditional to light a special lamp in the Temple, called a menorah, with olive oil, but all of the vials of oil were made impure, with the exception of one. According to Hanukkah history, the one vial of oil burned for eight days until pure oil could be obtained for the Temple. In gratitude, the Jews began lighting small menorahs in their homes to commemorate this miracle and the victory.

This morning on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about Hanukka and went on to say this:

But there's a beautiful law in Judaism, and it applies to a day like today, Friday. On the Friday of Hanukkah we light two kinds of lights, for the festival and for the Sabbath, both of which begin at nightfall. What if we only have one candle? What do we light it as: a Hanukkah light or a Sabbath light? It can't be both.

The answer is: we light it as a Sabbath light, because the Sabbath light symbolizes peace in the home. And in Judaism, even the smallest fragment of peace takes precedence over even the greatest victory in war.


The first picture above is of a replica of the 7 branch Menorah from the second Temple which stands in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The second Menorah is the traditional 9 branch Menorah used to celebrate Hanukkah.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

the Christmas tale

Excellent poetic telling of the nativity story with the unpleasant bits left in. The video is produced by UCCF who suggest: Play this video as a spicy little extra at Christmas events to get people thinking about the Christmas story.

There are some great resources around for Christmas this year and this is another one which picks up on some of the themes explored in Nick Baines’s book Why wish you a Merry Christmas?

h/t Quaerentia

the Twurch of England

Yesterday the latest ecclesiastical Twitter project went live with the launch of the Twurch of England website. The site gives a live feed of tweets from clergy in the Church of England and is the brainchild of the Church Mouse and cyber wizard Revd Peter Ould. For those of you who still question the value of Twitter then check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s inaugural guest blog on Why I Tweet.

twitter The Twurch of England is supported by the Church of England with the message: "The Church of England is happy that this site is available as a hub for people seeking to engage with the church and its various tweeters." I gave my own explanation for using twitter here and look forward to seeing how the Twurch of England develops. The site also offers a widget for adding a live feed on other blogs and a list of known clergy members of the Twurch.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

art and Christianity meme

I’ve been tagged by Jonathan and Paul with the following meme:

To list an artwork, drama, piece of music, novel, and poem that you think each express something of the essence of Christianity and for each one explain why. Then tag five other people.

1. Artwork: Christ carrying the Cross – Stanley Spencer.

Christ & Cross I’m fascinated by what Spencer was trying to do in his paintings. In this work a diminutive Christ is shown carrying his cross through Cookham High Street and for me it suggests Jesus going about his work, fulfilling his vocation, surrounded by others going about their work. Some of Spencer’s work is seen as controversial because of the way he portrays Christ, but I think he is identifying something of the essence of the incarnation.

2. Drama: Babette’s Feast – Gabriel Axel

A wonderful film exploring both the dangers and the glory of the Christian faith. The film portrays the impact of grace on individuals and community with a beauty and richness I haven’t seen equalled in any other drama. A remote community has become desiccated by its commitment to a faith which is austere, ritualistic, legalistic and devoid of the love that should be at its heart. Into their midst comes a refugee who through an act of amazing generosity brings them back to the joy and wonder which should be the essence of the gospel. (Best watched in the original language with subtitles).

3. Music: Grace – U2

Some of U2’s best work has an edginess and ambiguity that forces one to reflect on the tensions and struggles of life and faith. At other times Bono’s lyrics play it straight as he sings in an open confessional style that some find embarrassing, perhaps because people are uncomfortable with the challenge. A recurring theme for Bono is the contrast between Karma and Grace and this song moves towards the essence of grace in a style reminiscent of Old Testament Wisdom literature.

4. Novel: Quarantine – Jim Crace

quarantine This was the most difficult part of the meme and in the end I went for a book that I found disturbing, challenging and yet with the possibility of hope and redemption. The story is about a small group of people living two thousand years ago who for various reasons enter the Judean desert to fast and pray. In the desert they meet a Satan character and the range of human depravation is exposed in the searing heat of the wilderness. However, in the distance is another character, a Galilean healer fasting for forty days. Crace is an atheist who wrote this for to introduce his book to an American audience:

It would be a simple matter. Take a venerated Bible story (Christ’s Judean fast), add a pinch of hard-nosed fact (nobody going without food and drink could survive for anything like forty days) and watch the scripture take a beating. Quarantine with Science as its sword would kill Christ after only thirty days in the wilderness. There’d be no Ministry or Crucifixion. The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium.

Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. That’s why they’re fun to write. Science does not triumph unambiguously in the book. Faith is not destroyed by Doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely. Rather than having to endure the wrath of Christians, as I expected, I found that Quarantine had been received by many British readers as a spiritual and scriptural text, an enrichment rather than a challenge to their faith. What’s going on?

Crace remains an atheist, yet he hits on something important. Like much of the best Christian art, Christ is not presented as central but on the periphery and his significance is explored through the impact of his presence on others. Writing this meme reminds me that I need to go back and read Quarantine again.

5. Poem: Love (III) – George Herbert

I came across this poem in the middle of my finals paper on Theology and Literature. I’d never read it before and I had to contrast it with a poem on love by W. H. Auden. I kept reading Love through and then suddenly remembered that I had to get something down on paper. The poem is another example of art suffused with the theme of grace and like Babette’s Feast the image of a meal is central.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

Well this meme was a real challenge and I’m sure that if I did it again in a year’s time it would come out quite differently.

I tag David Keen, David Lewis, Maggi Dawn and anyone else who would like to have a go.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

bottling it

I wish I’d heard about this before recycling the bottles from my wife’s birthday party at the weekend. Revd Jairo Lopez is a catholic priest serving in Texas, but he is also a mosaic artist who creates stunning pieces out of used beer bottles as well as other materials. Based in Marble Falls where he works from a garage studio in his free time, many but not all of Lopez’s creations have a religious theme and his work is becoming much sought after. lopez

López, who attended seminary in Colombia, completed his master's degree in theology at the St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Florida. He was ordained in 1994, and his first assignment was San Jose Catholic Church in Austin. He also worked in Killeen, Round Rock and Mexia before he landed in Marble Falls in 2000. In 1999 he began his mosaic art, he studied for a time at the Mosaic Art School in Ravenna, Italy and gradually his work as a priest and his art came together. Lopez says:

‘It's become part of my prayer life, my spirituality.’ ‘When you meditate, you see the beauty of God in the materials, the colors and textures.’ ‘The colors, textures and materials of a mosaic, that's my parishioners. They are all of different styles, sizes and cultures. The community is one big mosaic. Without one piece, the image isn't finished.’

The mosaic work is now something of a family business as Lopez has been joined by his family from Colombia and the art has helped them to settle in unfamiliar surroundings:

annunciation ‘The art is good therapy for everyone’ says Jairo López. ‘It keeps everyone busy. I know that when my father and I deliver a piece to someone, he gets great joy of seeing a finished piece. He's very proud.’

Surprisingly, Lopez is colourblind, particularly to green and red, yet he is able to produce the most vivid images with the help of his family who pick out the appropriate colours for him.

I love the idea of someone taking discarded rubbish and turning it into something beautiful in praise of God.

H/T Luke Coppen

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

sign of the times (7) – cafe nero

cafe nero

Something about this sign wound me up when I saw it in Chelmsford yesterday. Just another advert for one of the many coffee shops in the high street, yet what stood out were the words at the bottom: ‘Fill yourself with joy’. Perhaps it is the appeal to self indulgence, not giving joy to someone else but giving yourself joy that seems to me to be the negation of the Christmas message. It’s part of a particular trend in advertising, what I call the ‘because you're worth it’ approach.

Christmas is an invitation to be filled with joy; joy at receiving the gift of God freely given in his son Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

advent calendar – poem by rowan williams

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

The Poems of Rowan Williams, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Mar 2004)

Other Advent Calendars:

Why we are waiting by The Church of England

Advent Calendar for your web home page by Damaris

Sister Janet’s Christmas Stocking from Premier Radio

Radio 4 Advent Calendar

Alternative Advent a great list of resources from David Keen