Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Don’t tell my brother, but I’m reading the book I’m giving him for Christmas.

How could I resist? Let’s begin with the title, and oh, what a title: “National Geographic London Book of Lists: The City's Best, Worst, Oldest, Greatest, and Quirkiest.” And just in case that title doesn’t light up every factoid receptor in your brain, they added a second sub-title: “Fascinating Facts, Little-Known Oddities & Unique Places to Visit.” The book practically screams “read me”—even if it’s not mine to read.

So how is it a Christmas book? Aside from the fact that it will appear under the tree in a few short hours, the topic of the big day comes up from time to time, most particularly in the section called “Menu Items at a Medieval Royal Feast.” The section begins “somewhere between the food orgies of the Romans and the all-you-can-eat buffets of Las Vegas stand the gluttonous feasts of Henry VIII and other late medieval monarchs.” (p. 58)

Roasted meats (beef, lamb, venison) consumed without vegetables (considered too lower-class); peacock, feathers plucked then replaced after cooking; roasted swan, or baby swan pie; various sea creatures, from herring to eel and even whale; and of course, offal, that aptly named ingredient that appears in various recipes. And if you want all the ick minus the bits, you could simply select blood sausage, a perennial holiday favourite.

But it was the medieval showstopper that everyone waited for, the star of the meal (especially if peacocks were in short supply): the head of a wild boar. Elaborately garnished, he (or she) was given pride of place at the centre of the table. It may be too late now to find the boar’s head needed to complete the family meal, but there is always next year. “Siri, where can I find the head of a wild boar?”

If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because the other night you set aside Die Hard (1988) and all the other well-known Christmas movies and switched over to TVO to see Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas. Listen to the teaser: “Ruth, Peter and Tom...make Tudor decorations, engage in festive [revelry] and prepare feasting delights such as boar's head, shred pies and Christmas pudding.” There’s that boar’s head again.

Near the end of the episode we meet Dr. Ronald Hutton, to explain the medieval tradition of the “lord of misrule.” Selected at random, often with a dried pea hidden in some cake, the lord of misrule would take over from the actual lord for the evening, ordering people around, directing the party, and generally subverting the social order. It may have been based on a Roman tradition, or some other source, but it remained popular throughout the age: in the manor, in monasteries, and even in the royal court.

Some have argued that it functioned as a bit of a release valve, reversing the social order to correct whatever build-up tension existed between master and serf. Others saw it as a reminder that the social hierarchy that exists in this world is temporary, and all will be equal in the next. Whatever the purpose, it certainly underlined the world-altering nature of Christmas, when God arrives in our midst in the most vulnerable form possible, and earthly kings kneel to adore him.

But I think the image goes further: The Christ-child becomes the Lord of Misrule when we reflect on the words of Mary we heard just a few short days ago:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

These are the words of a revolutionary, a “subversive element” they might say in some of the troubled places in our world. Mary understands that God is doing a new thing, refusing to bless the existing order and practising misrule instead. Simeon the prophet said the same thing when Jesus was dedicated in the Temple: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many people.”

So what is the exact nature of this misrule, aside from making a baby the Lord of All? As we’ve already noted, some of the changes will be political. When the author of love and the source of mercy becomes the Lord of All, it becomes an immediate commentary on anyone who holds power in our world. Getting and keeping power will no longer justify itself, it must reflect the compassion and grace revealed in Jesus.

And then there is the manifesto of misrule, when Jesus called “blessed” the least and the last in his time and ours: blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who persecuted in the pursuit of righteousness.

And finally, there is the handbook of misrule, when the Son of Man gathers the nations and separates the sheep from the goats. To the sheep he says “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: I was hungry and you have me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick or in prison and you visited me.” The quizzical sheep respond, asking ‘when did we do these things?’ And the answer? “When you did them for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it also for me.”

So we have the politics of misrule, and a manifesto of misrule, and even a handbook of misrule, but how do we make it personal, how do we make it local? One way is to look back at the year that was. We did all the things we are known for, housing vulnerable seniors, feeding the hungry, offering support and two community spaces for people to gather. We did all these things together, but we also did something that seems counter to the what the world (or at least Fox News) might have us do: we got involved in refugee sponsorship.

On the topic of refugees, worldly voices might say ‘it’s not our problem, or we have our own problems’ (without ever really addressing them). They might say ‘how can we know it’s safe?‘ or ‘they’re not even Christian—why would a church do that?‘ The answer is misrule, doing the opposite of what the world might do because the compassionate example of Jesus demands we do it.

So let me conclude with a story, fitting—I think—for the week of baby Adam’s birth. Months ago, at one of our gatherings, one of our dear volunteers asked Suheir if she knew what she was having. And without missing a beat, Suheir said “We’re having a Canadian.”

Each birth is sign of hope, of new beginnings and a fresh start. And on this night, it’s also a sign of misrule, where we set aside the way things are, and lift up the way things could be. Tonight may you sleep and dream in heavenly peace, dreaming of a world made new. Amen.


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