In Human Hands

One of the pleasant, even hopeful, illusions about Christmas is that everything else takes a back seat.

My childhood memories, fuelled by nostalgia, are my mother reading a mixture of Gospel stories and Christmas fantasy to us on Christmas Eve, as everything else was set aside. We had critical rituals for the season, marking it as separate from every other day. Christmas itself was early morning worship, followed by presents and family meals; nothing else intruded.

I imagine that this is an accurate reflection of Christmas for many other people; however, it has had many incarnations since I was a child. People we love have died, others we love have become part of our Christmas community, and we have moved – almost all of us – around the state, even around the world. As have most families. Like many others, I work over Christmas.

Our Christmas illusion is simply that, and our celebrations need to happen in the midst of everything else.

Our imagined Christmas, hermetically sealed from reality, is precisely not what Matthew and Luke are describing, as Mary conceives and Joseph begins to comprehend. The tinsellated version some of us like to tell is nice and neat and tidy, where even the mob of sheep is well behaved.

That’s not the story, though.

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the shadow of what could happen hovers over Mary’s pregnancy and we witness the reaction of Joseph, then the community, followed by strangers from the East, and then Herod.

The wonder of Luke’s account is far too astonishing to fit neatly anywhere, as a tiny baby is born while the whole Roman empire is counted and angel armies appear in the sky.

Jesus appears in the midst of everything – empires and despots and foreign sages, a census of the known world and a family drawn into social chaos and divine intention. The angels rejoice and stock workers are wondrously overwhelmed as God turns up.

And the sign of this God, our God, the God of all the ages and all creation, is a baby. Jesus Christ, at risk, among us.

This is why Christmas, told as Matthew and Luke tell us, makes sense. This is why Emmanuel, God with us, is absolutely vital. Jesus is in the midst of it all.

The humanity of Jesus – that he can be held in human hands – embraces and implicates everyone.

This embrace is for communities where drought is crippling, for those struggling with addiction, and for those who will be fearful of violence in their own homes this Christmas. This embrace is for those who are imprisoned, or punished for seeking refuge, and the implication is for our voices to speak and our hands to act.

Jesus’ complete humanity is about all of us. As our church has affirmed a larger understanding of marriage, we declare that our own humanity – gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender or intersex – is valued in the eyes of God. This is our discipleship to Jesus Christ, compelling us to follow, as an extraordinary community in service to an extraordinary God.

And God turns up. Certainly in the joy of a shared meal, as friends are made welcome and strangers become friends.

Even more certainly when someone who believes they are not worth God’s attention is reminded, by our invitation and embrace, that God invites shepherds to bear witness, before anyone else, to the birth of Christ.

Emmanuel becomes tangible when people spend money in rural communities to support them, and to let them know that are remembered and valued.

God is with those who suffer the injustice of violence, in their homes, from government, or from the church. We will not be silent: we will speak and act and pray and proclaim for those who are bound in silence.

The hope and wonder of Christmas, as Jesus breaks into the world, is that God gets in our way. Whether Jesus interferes with our “neat and tidy”, or sits with us in our silence, Emmanuel declares that we are worth all of God’s passionate involvement.

God with all of us.

If The War Goes On | Iona Community

This has been written, and rewritten several times by the Iona Community. I first encountered it when the United States led coalition entered Iraq in 2003. At the time, the composers wrote

“it has since been revised and also, sadly, become relevant yet again, due to the current sabre-rattling by the Bush & Blair cliques, in the face of opposition to their stance from majorities in both their countries.

Please feel free to reproduce this in worship and other non-commercial situations, on condition that the copyright acknowledgement is also shown.”

If the war goes on
and the children die of hunger,
and the old men weep
for the young men are no more,
and the women learn
how to dance without a partner
who will keep the score?

If the war goes on
and the truth is taken hostage;
and new horrors lead
to the need to euphemise,
when the calls for peace
are declared unpatriotic,
who’ll expose the lies?

If the war goes on
and the daily bread is terror,
and the voiceless poor
take the road as refugees;
when a nation’s pride
destines millions to be homeless,
who will heed their pleas?

If the war goes on
and the rich increase their fortunes,
as the arms sales soar
as new weapons are displayed,
when a fertile field
turns to no-man’s-land tomorrow,
who’ll approve such trade?

If the war goes on
will we close the doors to heaven,
if the war goes on,
will we breach the gates of hell;
if the war goes on
will we ever be forgiven
if the war goes on… and on… and on…

Armistice | Andrew Motion

Now one thousand five hundred and sixty-four days end
every hour hand of every watch on the face of the earth
snaps to attention a fraction shy of the number eleven.
Their minute hands are still quivering with the effort
to complete the circle and therefore give the signal.
Whenever has machinery fine-tuned or otherwise
been able to refute with such a passionate precision
the idea that the body of time might flow like a river
and reveal it instead as a wide continuous landscape
a block universe where the sudden spotlight moon
introducing her face between cloud-curtains alight
now on one man dead already and now on one dying
while the scattered hinterland suffers its consequences
or delivers its warnings all connected but unavailable.


Then the minute hand in a spasm seals its promise
while penny whistles shriek and church bells clamour
while whizzbangs and 59s complete their trajectories
while long-faced telegram boys prop their bicycles
on lampposts and front gates and for the last time
press forward to deliver their dreadful condolences
and lark music like a distillation of daylight itself
which a moment before was neither here nor there
sweetens as it escapes the pulsing throat of the bird
and rain also accustomed to no discernable voice
patters and pounds and performs on barren ground
and a very simple breath of wind entirely fills the air
and everyday clouds performing manifold contortions
saunter off and dissolve in the horizon of their origin.


Soon rolling out plans from their corridors and offices
highly efficient angels of the resurrection will descend
to align with names they went by in their earthly lives
nine million or thereabouts bodies and body-fragments.
What is the duration of individual grieving they allow
beyond an agreed upper limit of sixty-six characters.
Think of Private Roy Douglas Harvey who was killed
a reserved and thoughtful schoolboy from Hillhead
leaving behind among other valuable relics a diary
completed up to the evening before his dawn attack
along with a much-thumbed Collins Gem dictionary
from the pages of which rose and will continue rising
these words as time and space maintain their relation
my task accomplished and the long day done.

Aftermath | Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) wrote at the time of the War in 1914-18, in which he served and was decorated. As we continue to promise, a century later, never to forget, Sassoon invites us to remember more truly what the story of service and sacrifice entails.

Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember the hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

In A Field | Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and several other poets were asked to compose pieces in response to some of the older poetry arising from the First World War.

And there I was in the middle of a field,
The furrows once called “scores’ still with their gloss,
The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone
Snarling at an unexpected speed
Out on the road. Last of the jobs,
The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned
Three ply or four round each of the four sides
Of the breathing land, to mark it off
And out. Within that boundary now
Step the fleshy earth and follow
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
To stumble from the windings’ magic ring
And take me by a hand to lead me back
Through the same old gate into the yard
Where everyone has suddenly appeared,
All standing waiting.

The Wound in Time | Carol Ann Duffy

As we move towards Remembrance Day, I was thinking about how we remember, as we now hold only others’ stories, with no personal memory of that first global carnage.

There has been some searching poetry composed in recent years, in reflection on the centenary of the First World War. This is a recent, wrenching piece by Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate.

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapnelled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.