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Archive for December, 2006

Happy New Year 2007 from Outer Space

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Anyway – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered
Love them anyway

If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives
Do good anyway

If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies
Succeed anyway

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow
Do good anyway

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable
Be honest and transparent anyway

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight
Build anyway

People who really want help may attack you if you help them
Help them anyway

Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt
Give the world your best anyway

“Hound of Heaven”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
“All things betray thee, who betrays Me.”

“Alas, you knew not
How little worthy of any love you are!
Whom will you find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from you I did but take,
Not for your harms,
But just that you might seek it in My arms.
All which the child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for you at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom you seek!
You dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

by Francis Thomson

Come…

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Come…, originally uploaded by emptybelly.

Come, now is the time to worship!
Come, now is the time to give your heart!
Come, just as you are to worship!
Come, just as you are before your God!
Come!

One day every tongue will confess You are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose You now!
Come!

Come, now is the time to worship!
Come, now is the time to give your heart!
Come, just as you are to worship!
Come, just as you are before your God!
Come!

One day every tongue will confess You are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose You now!
Come!

Come, now is the time to worship
Come, now is the time to give your heart
Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God
Come! Come! Come!

© 1998 Vineyard Songs

Hope Joy Peace Love

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Hope Joy Peace Love, originally uploaded by emptybelly.

are what I hope for you this Christmas…

Please do click here to view large on black

Food Offered To Idols – 1 Corinthians 8-10

Introduction


In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul responds to a situation regarding meat offered to idols. What strategies did Paul suggest and how can these suggestions be applied to Christians in twenty first century Britain?


1. Context

(1a) Corinth

Corinth was a large city located on the Peloponnesian peninsula, which gave it importance as a major trade route between Africa, Asia and Europe1. It has a two stage history. Firstly as a major Greek city before being destroyed by the Romans in 146BC and secondly as a Roman colony rebuilt by Caesar in 44BC, when it was probably the capital of the Achaia province, due to its militarily strategic location2. Corinth was also wealthy due to the imposition of taxes and tariffs. Subsequently, Corinth was multicultural, pluralistic and rife with immorality. Aphrodite was worshipped devotedly with temple prostitutes and slaves, dedicated to her.3 Apparently due to the predominant immorality, the word ‘korinthiazesthai’ was created to describe their reputed behaviour4. With emperor-cult worship probably being the fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire, a new temple was built in Corinth to tower over other pagan temples5. The social strata including people from slaves to wealthy citizens, Jews and Greeks (1Cor. 12v13). It is noted by Philo as part of the Jewish Diaspora6.

(1b) Corinthian Church, Paul and 1 Corinthians


It was in this context that Paul preached the Gospel and the church in Corinth started (1 Cor.4vv14-15). It was this city, that Paul based himself for eighteen months (Acts 18v11). Prior hypothesises rightly, that Paul found Corinth “uniquely awesome” due to this multiplicity of “races, creeds, languages and cultures”.7 Paul frequented the local synagogue, to persuade Jews and Greeks about Jesus. Erastus, probably a city treasurer, was one of Paul’s Corinthian converts8. The church met in houses for worship and fellowship, probably including a house belonging to Priscilla and Aquilla9. Christiasn could not meet in synagogues, as these were out of bounds, due to Christianity not being an unofficial religion. Paul (whose authorship is not disputed), wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus sometime between 51AD to 55AD. This is probably one of four letters that Paul wrote to them, including 2 Corinthians and 2 non-extant documents.10 As Fee rightly notes, Paul had two main difficulties in composing this epistle. Firstly that he need to assert his diminished apostolic authority, whilst using servant-hood as paradigmatic leadership (1Cor.3vv5-9; 4vv1-5) and secondly to persuade them to alter their thinking and actions to conform to his as he followed Christ11.


(1c) Place of 1 Corinthians 8-10 within the letter – One of the major foci of 1 Corinthians is on keeping the church united and not fractured (1v10; 3v1-3; 4v14, 16; 5vv4-8; 6:1-20; 8vv9-13; 10v14 11vv33-34; 12v14). Bracketed by 1 Corinthians 6:20b and 1 Corinthians 11:1, whereby he issues commands to follow him in honouring God and imitating Jesus, Paul answers the queries set for him in their latest correspondence to him. 1 Corinthians 7 sees Paul tackling the issue of sexual immorality and marriage, where Corinthian-type attitudes to sex had infiltrated the church.


2. Analysis


In chapter 8, Paul turns to the no small matter of whether Christians can eat tōn eidōlothutōn (food offered to idols). It was not a problem unique to Corinth, as it is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 15vv20, 29; Romans 14; Revelation 2vv14-17, 20). Christian converts from paganism faced two problems. Firstly the uniqueness of Christianity that demanded undivided loyalty to Christ alone, in a society where syncretism was endemic. Secondly, whilst avoiding overt idolatrous worship, they were not sure what they were to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols, if it was served to them when with family, friends or business associates. With animal sacrifices to idols integral to Corinthian culture, these questions naturally arose within the church.


(2a) Meat offered to idols

Chapter 8: That the meat was offered to idols is not disputed. The argument arises over whether the food was from the marketplace or from the temple’s cultic meals. Fee, decides that Paul refers only to cultic meals, on the basis that they were a ritualistic part of pagan life in the first century.12 However, Gill insists that Paul refers to meat bought from the macellum, based on archaeological evidence.13 However a more balanced viewing is that both are equally correct insomuch that meat, resultant from pagan sacrifices, was either eaten in temple restaurants and feasts or sold in the marketplace (macellum). Either way, it was meat sacrificed to idols. Paul further on, talks about meals in private homes, so ergo, macellum meat (10vv25-27). Horrell, correctly states that idolatrous temple feasts and private meals can “hardly be separated” due to “the impossibility of dividing sacred and secular contexts”.14


Meat could be purchased either at a normal market at a high price or at one the temples for a a lower price and where meat was readily available after a sacrifice had been conducted. Garland suggests several ways in which sacrificed food maybe proffered to a Christian to eat: civic life, trade unions or social clubs, party invitations and being a guest in the home of a non-Christian15. The ‘strong’, realizing that the meat was not contaminated by the idols, ate this meat without qualm or bother to conscience because they knew that idols do not actually exist (8vv4-6). Whilst their synopsis was indeed correct, their application of it was not, because they did not exhibit love to those who they caused to stumble. This was somewhat of a discouragement to those of a ‘weak’ conscience who had not yet come to know this fact (8v7,9,11-12). They thought they were being encouraged to eat this meat sacrificed to idols, and therefore go against their conscience by those who were ‘strong’. To not partake in meals was seen as anti-social and depraved – it was not the done thing!16 So for the ‘weak’, it was a challenge: to go against their conscience and weaken their faith, or risk social and/or civil ostracism. Paul, however, called such blatant ignorance by the ‘strong’, founded on knowledge and rights, sin against God and the ‘weak’. To do so, was not encouragement built on love, but a discouraging arrogance and pride (8v1). True knowledge in the Christian realm, is not some form of quasi-intellectualism, but rather a “profound insight into what one’s neighbour wants.”17


For Paul, faith was the obedient response of gratefulness to the calling of God into fellowship with Christ, rather than mere knowledge. Paul is less concerned about what the strong have become, than he is about what they are to do, which is to show Christ’s love to all purported ‘weak’ members of the Corinthian church.


Chapter 9: In order to bolster his argument, Paul now reflects upon his own choice to finance himself whilst living amongst them. The Corinth church accepted his apostleship (9v1-2), whilst others denigrated him for not using his right to fiscal and material support (9vv13-14). Paul appears to contradict what Jesus has commanded “that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel “ (9v14). Dunn, quite rightly says that Paul “ignores the Lord’s command.”18 This was due to his mission of promoting the Gospel, where Paul states he had given up his apostolic privileges, so that some may be saved through his sacrificial actions (9vv15-18). Paul goes furthers and says that “I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible.” (9v19 CEV).Why does Paul do this? So the Gospel may progress unhindered, and that the prize may be won. (9v23-27). Galloway rightly asserts that Paul sought “work as a way of establishing his freedom and declaring that the gospel is not for sale”.19 Paul’s rewards was also in ensuring the Gospel was free (9v18). For Paul, he knew he had rights, both as an apostle and as a Roman. As a Roman, he ensured he used those rights only when expedient (Acts 16vv37-39; 22v29). In expressing what his rights are, he also shows that occasionally the right the thing to do is to not claim your rights, and to reflect upon the Gospel and the demands it makes.20 In talking about his apostleship, Paul extinguishes his own rights so that the Gospel can go forward. In so doing, he becomes weak to the weak, and that having rights does not necessarily mean using them so as to be a stumbling block to others. Paul’s message was that to become the person God intends, will involve sacrifice of rights in order to be obedient.


Chapter 10: Paul now turns to a warning – that if they pursue knowledge and freedom at the expense of love, they are on the road to destruction just as Israel was in the desert (10v10). The examples of Israel and the golden calf, sacrificing to Moabite gods or grumbling were all examples of idolatrous behaviour. They were supreme examples of “apostasy and opposition to God.”21 Rosner, rightly stipulates that 10v22b shows God’s jealousy will “lead him to take stern action” against the Corinthian believers without mentioning what that action might be22. As Clement so succinctly stated “Those who take advantage of everything that is lawful rapidly deteriorate into doing what is not lawful.”23 Paul states that nobody should boast about their own spirituality in case they fall (10v12). God however, is always wise and merciful, and provides a means of escape should anybody be tempted to sin in this manner. God called them into fellowship with Himself through Jesus and will guard them against unbearable tests of faith, whereby God’s faithfulness is a guarantee that Paul’s own words are dependable24. Paul writes, “Everything is permissible” (10v23) but overall, the community’s betterment as a whole overrides the rights of an individual. Paul goes further and states “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.“ (10v24) In so doing, the body is built up and encouraged. Paul’s own maxim seems to be as Prior puts it “I am prepared to do what others believe to be right if that will ensure that their edification is not impeded.”25


Paul is quite clear that faithful people withstand temptation due to God’s supreme faithfulness. The one assurance they have, is that God is always faithful, and shouldn’t trust ”their own super-spirituality”.26 Ergo, there is no reason not to show love to others at the expense of conceited knowledge (10v13). As an example, Paul retakes hold of the idol and food issue. When at a meal, writes Paul, don’t ask where the food came from, just eat it (10v27) for the earth’s entirety belongs to God (Psalm 24). If however, the food was a result of a sacrifice, then it is best not to partake (10v28). Paul, finally reminds the Corinthians that he does all for the glory of God, and they should too (10v31). Paul is guided not by his own rights and needs but by the Spirit. How is God glorified? When Christ is imitated and held as an example, just as Paul endeavours to do (11v1).


Much discussion continues to take place on various issues regarding 1 Corinthians 8-10. Garland highlights the conjecture surrounding the question Paul was actually answering: Was the question “Can we eat idol food?” or “Why can’t we eat idol food?”.27 Sumney discusses whether 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, actually fits into this section28. There has also been some discussion as to whether or not Paul is specifying particular groups of people or not. Paul does not raise any titles or group names himself, but speculation continues as to whether the two groups were ‘Jew and Gentile’ or ‘Gnostics and non-Gnostics’.


However for the purposes of this paper, there will be concentration on just the one area of concern; what was Paul’s solution?


2b. What was Paul’s Solution

What solution does Paul offer the Corinthians, in relation to eating food offered to idols? Fee suggests that they not inhabit the temple for meals at all, based on that it is not showing love to others and that it is demonic fellowship(10vv21-22)29. Bultmann however disagrees and states that Paul “declares the eating of food offered to idols permitted as far as any principle is concerned” based on his summation that as idolatry is “parenthetically among other vices a practice that is out of the question for a Christian… it simply belongs in the past”.30 However this view patently contradicts scripture, which forbids idolatry of any kind.(1 Cor.10v14; Gal.5v20; Col3v5). Still takes a differing point of view and says that “some temple meals were not necessarily idolatrous in character”31 In this section, Paul commands that they run from idolatry (10v14) and that idol food is demonic. Just as the communion meal is sacred, creating a bond within participatory believers, idolatrous food feasts symbolise what Garland calls “the realm of the demonic”.32 Those who sit at the Christian Love feast (the communion), cannot simultaneously partake in demonic pagan feasts. There can be no flirtatious juxtaposition between the two, as the Israelites did in the wilderness. For demons, Wright rightly argues, “twist and distort God’s world and God’s image bearing human children”.33 Was the food itself the problem? No, for as Wright states aright “The place is off limits, the food isn’t”.34


Paul in essence pleads for believers to love one another; glorify God; put others needs above self; and not to be so wrapped up in their own salvation, to the detriment of others in causing them to stumble. Believers lives should not be governed by anything else but by “being in Christ and their belonging to Him.”35 Above all, writes Paul “imitate Christ” (11v1). For this, “is Christian freedom – being free from ourselves to glorify God by being like Christ”.36 As long as idolatry is not involved, Christian can freely accept “God’s created gifts with relaxed openness”.37 As Christ is imitated, His cross becomes the focus, and the Gospel an imperative over supposed rights or privileges. In so doing, the Church may not have uniformity of ideas, but it will have unity of purpose – the glorification of God through imitating Christ. This supreme example, gives the Church an “indelible character by its conformity to Christ”.38 Paul calls for the church to “respect its dignity as God’s ransomed community” in order that it can fulfil its explicit calling to be a holy people.39


3. Application

Currently in the United Kingdom we may not face persecution or ostracism due our not eating of particular foods which result from pagan animal sacrifices. What does this passage have to say to us, in twenty-first century Britain, and how we apply it? Should Christians refrain from drinking alcohol, in a country which has a seemingly inherent problem with alcohol, in order to show that alcohol is not necessary to live life to the full?

The question posed, polarises opinion. Some would say, there is no problem because alcohol in and of itself is not the problem, and it is an individual’s choice whether or not they regularly imbibe without getting inebriation. This of course is true. However, the problem may arise when a Christian brother who has turned from alcoholism, sees his fellow Christians freely drinking alcohol, and reverts once more back to an alcoholic lifestyle. As Christians, we are free to drink alcohol in public houses or in private, that is our right. However, if we are to take the application from 1 Corinthians 8-10, it would be better for us not to partake of what is euphemistically called ‘the demon drink’, in order that some may be saved. Whilst drinking alcohol in itself is not a sin, it may causes others to sin.

That is not to say, Christians should not frequent public houses or other places where alcohol is imbibed, but rather by drinking non-alcoholic drinks, he or she may be asked as to why they do not drink alcohol, and then be able to give an answer in accordance with 1 Peter 3v15.

It may well be that by giving up this right, that some may be saved. There is a tension that exists between loving others and an individual’s personal rights, and it is how we deal with it, and are lead through the quagmire of issues that if we seek to glorify God, “the community as a whole should make it possible to extend justice and peace to more and more people who may thus be drawn into the reign of God”.40


Conclusion


We have seen in this passage, Paul give an exposition regarding rights, freedom, encouragement and loving of others. As twenty first century Christians, we need to forego what we perceive are our rights, in order that the body is built up and that our Lord is glorified through our imitation of Him. In so doing, the church can be a bright light in a dark, secular world.



Bibliography



Baird, W., ‘1 Corinthians 10:1-13’ in in “Interpretation” Volume XLIV Number 3 July 1990, Richmond: Union Theological Seminary, 1990

Bray, G (Ed.)., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture – New Testament Volume VII 1-2 Corinthians, Downers Grove: IVP, 1999

Bultmann, R., Theology Of The New Testament Volume 1, London: SCM Press, 1952

Crocker, CC., Reading 1 Corinthians In The Twenty-First Century, London: T&T Clark, 2004

Dunn, JDG., 1 Corinthians, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995

Evans, CA & Porter, SE. (Eds), Dictionary Of New Testament Background, Leicester: IVP, 2000

Fee, GD., The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987

Furnish, VP., ‘Belonging to Christ’ in “Interpretation” Volume XLIV Number 2 April 1990, Richmond: Union Theological Seminary, 1990

Garland, D., ‘The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed To Idols’ in “Perspectives in Religious Studies” Volume 30 (2003), Waco: National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, 2003

Gill, DWJ., “The Meat Market At Corinth” in Tyndale Bulletin 43.2 November 1992, Cambridge: Tyndale Press

Guthrie, D., New Testament Theology, Leicester: IVP, 1981

Hawthorne, GF & Martin, RP. (Eds), Dictionary Of Paul And His Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1993

Hays, RB., First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox Press. 1997

Horrell, DG., The Social Ethos Of The Corinthian Correspondence, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996

Martin, RP., Word Biblical Themes – 1, 2 Corinthians, London: Word Publishing, 1988

Murphy-O’Connor, J., 1 Corinthians, Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 1997

Prior, D., The Message Of 1 Corinthians, Leicester: Carlisle, 1985

Rosner, BS., “’Stronger Than He?’ The Strength Of 1 Corinthians 10:22b” in Tyndale Bulletin 43.1 May 1992, Cambridge: Tyndale Press

Soards, ML., 1 Corinthians, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999

Stambaugh, JF., The Social World Of The First Christians, London: SPCK, 1986

Still III, EC., ‘Paul’s Aims Regarding ΕІΔΩΛΟΘΥΤΑ’ in “Novum Testamentum“ Volume XLIV Number 4, 2002, Leiden : Brill Academic, 2002

Sumney, JL., ‘The Place Of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 In Paul’s Argument’ in “Journal of Biblical Literature“ 119/02 2000, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000

Wright, NT., Paul: Fresh Perspectives, London: SPCK, 2005

Wright, T., Paul for Everyone 1 Corinthians, London: SPCK, 2003






1McRay, JR., Dictionary of New Testament Background, p.228

2Horrell, DG., The Social Ethos Of The Corinthian Correspondence, p.64-65

3Stambaugh, JE., The Social World Of The First Christians, p.158

4Fee, GD., The First Epistle To The Corinthians, p.2

5Wright, NT., Fresh Perspectives on Paul, p.64-65

6Hafemann, ST., Dictionary of Paul & His Letters, p.173

7Prior, D., The Message Of 1 Corinthians, p.12

8McRay, J., Dictionary of New Testament Background, p.229

9ibid, p.229

10Hafemann, ST., Dictionary of Paul & His Letters, p.164

11Fee, GD., The First Epistle To The Corinthians, p.7

12Fee, GD., The First Epistle To The Corinthians, p.360

13Gill, DJ., The Meat Market At Corinth, p.389

14Horrell, DG., The Social Ethos Of The Corinthian Correspondence, p.146

15Garland, D., The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed To Idols, p.174-177

16Garland, D., The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed To Idols, p.185

17Murphy-O’Connor, JM., 1 Corinthians, p.87

18Dunn, JG., 1 Corinthians, p.99

19Galloway, LE., Preaching Freedom To The Corinthians, p.21

20Wright, T., Paul for Everyone 1 Corinthians, p.107

21Baird, W., 1Corinthians 10:13, p.289

22Rosner, BS., ‘Stronger Than He?’, p.178

23Cited in Bray, G., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Volume VII 1-2 Corinthians, p.100

24Guthrie, D., New Testament Theology, p.109

25Prior, D., The Message of 1 Corinthians, p.176

26Soards, ML., 1 Corinthians, p.205

27Garland, DE, The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed To Idols, p.184

28Sumney, JL., The Place Of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 In Paul’s Argument, p.329-333

29Fee, GD., The First Epistle To The Corinthians, p.472

30Bultmann, R., Theology of the New Testament Volume 1, p.99

31Still III, EC., Paul’s Aims Regarding ΕІΔΩΛΟΘΥΤΑ, p.336

32Garland, DE, The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed To Idols, p.193

33Wright, T., Paul for Everyone 1 Corinthians, p.132

34Wright, T., Paul for Everyone 1 Corinthians, p.137

35Furnish, D., Belonging To Christ, p.155

36Prior, D., The Message Of 1 Corinthians, p.177

37Hays, RB., First Corinthians, p.180

38Hays, RB., First Corinthians, p.181

39Martin, RP., Word Biblical Themes 1 & 2 Corinthians, p.107

40Crocker, CC., Reading 1 Corinthians In The Twenty-First Century, p.105

This Christmas…

remember that not everybody is as blessed as us…


This Christmas…
Originally uploaded by emptybelly.

A nation in two minds about Christmas

Later this week, I will be hosting a lunch for those upon whose work I depend in my role as Archbishop. After a hearty sing, we shall sit down to a hearty dinner, which I would have spent the morning preparing and cooking.

Christmas celebrations are among the best, because they remind us that Christmas is in many ways an RSVP from God, inviting us to the party of our lives. At Christmas, each of us is reminded anew of that most marvellous and astounding of invitations from God and that our Maker is not only looking for us, but actually desires the pleasure of our company.

A poll this week, carried out for the think tank Theos, suggested that 86 per cent of people said spending time with family and friends was the best thing about Christmas, compared with seven per cent who said time off work, three per cent who said food and drink and only two per cent who said presents. Despite the rejection of materialism that this poll suggests, the commercialised pressure to spend, spend, spend, means that, for almost half of those questioned, it is the financial strains that are cited as the worst thing about Christmas.

The figures for our national spend in the run-up to Christmas are staggering. According to a report by Credit Action, total spending in the United Kingdom is predicted to reach £51.6 billion during this month. Festive spending on plastic is set to reach £31.8 billion (which is an 11.6 per cent increase on last December). In the 10 weeks to Christmas, some 25 million people are expected to spend £7 billion online — £4 million every hour day and night. The average adult will spend £863 on Christmas. This includes £378 on presents, £163 on food and drink. The rest is spent on wrapping paper, cards and postage (£53); Christmas tree and decorations (£64); socialising (£121) and travel (£84).


Little wonder that, according to the credit reference agency Experian, three in four Britons admit to worrying about financial pressures during the festive season. The festive season is turning into “Stressmas”, because 20 per cent of people are still paying off their Christmas spend up to six months later.


As a nation, it seems we are expressing a double-mindedness about Christmas that is reflected in our wider lives. While the Theos poll suggests that eight out of 10 people think that celebrating the birth of Christ is still an important part of Christmas, British Airways spends the “season of good peace and goodwill” trying to work out how it can accommodate Nadia Eweida, whose desire is to express her faith through the wearing of a Cross barely the size of a 5p piece in the way other employees have been allowed to express their faith.


Spiritual values become subject to commercial decisions, the desire to express faith compromised by the desire to maintain a brand. Questions about the most important aspect of our existence become secondary to questions of health and safety, and potential legal challenges from druids claiming discrimination.


As leading brands invest in new forms of neurological scanning in order to see how best our brains react to brands and brand loyalty, the spiritual values that many people rightly acknowledge at the heart of Christmas are subjected to an assault of materialism.


As the actress Imogen Stubbs noted: “What will happen when, tired of accruing facts, jargon, logos, trivia, soundbites and cool material trophies, our children dare to stop and reflect and ask us: ‘If life is only about getting from now until death as lucratively and divertingly as possible — what is the point? Why didn’t you prepare us for the questions of life?’ ” The monk and writer Thomas Merton put it another way: “If you want to know who I am, don’t ask me where I live and what I do, but rather ask me what I am living for and ask me in very small particulars why I am doing so little about it.”


Those things that we believe to be most valuable are subjugated to those less important things that come to dominate. Our proper desire to provide for ourselves and our families spills over to the less helpful desire to spend more than we need. In discovering the joys of living simply, we can use our resources to ensure that others may simply live.


God’s pattern is different to ours. The gift given to us comes struggling to escape from the tinsel and wrapping that disguises its coming and is the gift of Hope. It comes simply, in the form of a child, born into stark poverty, without a glimmer of material excess. Here is the very heart of the Christian faith: not a threat, but an invitation. God coming to us as a baby to do for us that which we could not do for ourselves. Offering us his very life of love and justice.


To appreciate fully the Christmas story, we need to rediscover the child of Hope that is within each of us. To throw away our mantles of cynicism does not require us to remove our brains and accept unquestioningly. An open mind, like an open heart, requires us to remove the hurt and bitterness born of disappointment and failure, and replace it with the child-like hope that we once possessed and are forever trying to fill with things. We are wonderfully and fearfully made. Nothing can fill the void but God alone.


The self-sacrificing love of God for his creation places an infinite value on everyone’s head. There are no exceptions. Five young women, savagely slaughtered in Suffolk this month, were and are beloved of God. Soldiers, citizens and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and people on all sides in the Sudan and especially Darfur, are equally valued.


As we gaze intently into the manger this Christmas, we must leave room alongside ourselves for unexpected companions. We may have to make our peace with them. We can only be sure that we ourselves are prized if we know God has no favourites. If God is in pursuit of us, then to encounter God we simply have to stop running away and turn round. Then we are likely to find the unexpected God in unexpected places.


This Christmas, people will be worshipping in Darfur and Beijing and Islamabad, as well as New York and London and Rome. Some will join together with thousands of voices to sing familiar hymns to usher in the birth of the Christ-child, others will be obliged to worship furtively in lands where singing a Christmas carol can lead to imprisonment or torture.


There will also be near-believers or those who would describe themselves as “flickering somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer”, as Jeff Randall did in these pages a week or two ago. All are welcome and all are invited to the feast.


May God grant us all a restful, joyful and peace-filled Christmas.


by Dr
John Sentamu – Archbishop of York

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