Firstly, apologies for ages with no posts.  On top of the busy-ness of church and study, we have moved house, so life has been a bit hectic!  But I hope to get back to blogging again now, and by way of a start here is my latest contribution to the Beverley Guardian.

This weekend we celebrate Easter, when Christians remember the death of Jesus Christ.  It is one of two Christian festivals which are observed in some way by people outside the church: shops will shut, time will be taken off work, and lots of chocolate will be eaten.

The other festival is of course Christmas, which is the larger occasion for most people, but for the church it is, or should be, Easter which is the main festival.  It has been argued that you can’t have Easter without Christmas – Jesus couldn’t die unless he was first born.  But I would suggest that without Easter there is no need for Christmas.  If he wasn’t going to die there would be no point in Jesus having been born.

The events in the life of Jesus which took place over the first Easter weekend make for unpleasant reading.  An innocent man stripped of his dignity, betrayed, tortured, beaten, subjected to a mock trial and condemned to death in a miscarriage of justice that would not look out of place in the most corrupt of dictatorships.  There is nothing uncommon about political executions or people dying for their religious beliefs.  It has happened in our own country in the past and sadly still occurs almost daily around the world today.  But we don’t remember the names of most of the victims even two years later, never mind 2000.  So what makes Jesus different?

For Christians, the answer is that the death of Jesus was not just the result of a plot between authoritarian religious leaders and the occupying Roman political power.  It was the willing act of a man who claimed that he was God and that his death would achieve something.  On the first Good Friday, Jesus died the death that was due to each of us, as rebels and outcasts, so that we no longer have to die in that way.  The story doesn’t end on Good Friday, and Jesus coming back to life on Easter Sunday shows the new life which is now available to each of us through what he has done.

This is why the events of Easter are the biggest festival in the Christian calendar.  They were the most important events in the life of Jesus, and indeed in the history of the world.  In one weekend God did everything that was necessary to deal with evil, suffering, and death, and offer a new way of life lived in him and through him.  So yes, Christmas is important, but for me Easter will always be the most meaningful weekend of the year.


Christmas (already!)

Last week was my turn to write a column for the Beverley Guardian again.  Here is what I submitted.

Have you started your Christmas shopping yet?  I confess that I tend to be rather last minute.  But back in October I was listening to a radio phone-in where some claimed to have already bought everything.

The church has a time of preparation for Christmas, Advent, which begins 4 Sundays before Christmas Day, this year November 29th.  But in our modern world this seems a little late to start preparing, as the Christmas goods appear in the shops straight after Halloween if not earlier.

I understand the desire to be prepared, to reduce the stress of the season, and the need for some to spread the cost.  But I wonder if the early start to Christmas has a knock-on effect at the other end too.

Last year I felt like I didn’t have Christmas.  Our baby arrived a few days before, and due to the uncertainty of arrival times for children I was not formally involved in any Christmas activities, and didn’t even get to a Carol service.  On Christmas Eve it finally felt like I could focus on the festivities, and in the afternoon out I went to buy replacement bulbs for our failed Christmas lights.  I could find none, they had all been cleared away, and Christmas displays were fast being replaced by posters advertising the Boxing Day sales.  It felt like Christmas was over even before it begun, perhaps because it had already been going on so long there didn’t seem need to prolong it any further.

Traditionally Christmas was a twelve day festival (hence the song) leading up to the celebration on 6th January of Epiphany, and the visit of the Wise Men.  Christmas Day was not the end of the season, but the beginning.

Because Christmas celebrates a birth, the beginning of a new life, the life of Jesus of Nazareth, born in a Bethlehem cave around 2000 years ago.  A life that does not end on Christmas Day, or Epiphany, but 33 years later on a Roman cross.  A life that Christians affirm was taken up again 3 days later, transformed and renewed, and which Jesus is still living today, though not on this earth.

Christmas is the beginning of a 2000 year old story, the story of the church, God’s people on earth.  A story that is far from perfect, but which shows God’s loving faithfulness to people throughout the world and across the generations.  A story in which he invites each of us to play our part.

So don’t let the early rush to buy presents mean you are burnt out long before December 25th rolls round.  And don’t be in too much of a rush to tidy away those Christmas decorations and push life back to normal.  Take time this Christmas to enjoy the celebrations, but most importantly to consider the greatest present of all, God’s gift of himself, and the opportunity that gives for this Christmas to be just the start of something special.

In the paper

As this week’s Beverley Guardian is out I feel I can now blog the text of my piece for last week’s edition.  This is the full text I sent in, which was edited slightly for publication.

All of us will be aware of the crisis that has been unfolding over recent weeks across Europe as thousands of refugees from war in Syria and parts of Africa have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean and get to Europe.

The first response of many has been to help, and I know some of you will have dug deep to donate to charities working on the ground, or given of your time or expertise.

But there has also been an opposite reaction, which distresses me, which says that we can’t help or we shouldn’t help. Claims that these people aren’t really refugees, that they are Isis agents in disguise, or that even if they are genuine it is not our problem. Views I have sadly heard expressed on the streets of our town, on the Beverley Facebook Group, and by our elected representatives. Some of you may have seen the man collecting signatures in Hull for a petition entitled “Hull is Full.”

I confess that I struggle to understand the mindset that acts only in my own narrow interests with seemingly no empathy with those in distress. Empathy is at the heart of who we should be as human beings, because it is at the heart of who God is. God was so determined to identify with us that he took the radical step of entering our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived the full human experience including suffering and death.

Jesus was once asked to summarise how people should live, and his response was “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself”. Asked, “Who is my neighbour?” he told a story about a man who was mugged and left for dead on a country road. Religious and political leaders passed by and ignored him and it was a hated foreigner who eventually stopped to help.

The story has a twist in the application. Jesus does not finish by saying that the mugged man was the neighbour of the foreigner and therefore he should have stopped to help. But rather that the foreigner had been a neighbour to the man in need, thereby demonstrating a common humanity that transcended racial, cultural, and religious boundaries. Even the one of a different race and culture, hated and feared, can be the one who will help us in our hour of deepest need. This is the significance of the “as yourself” in the command, which shows that in order to truly love someone we have to able to imagine ourselves in their position, to ask how we would want them to respond to us if the roles were reversed.

Jesus’s final comment to his questioner pushes the point home, “Go and do likewise.” So as we see on our TV screens and in our newspapers those who have lost everything and have nowhere to go, as human beings and particularly for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, there is only one question: not whether we should help, but how.