More years ago than I care to remember, when I was living in rural Lesotho, some American missionaries, who had attached themselves to the parish I went to suggested that the parish have a “Carols by Candlelight” service for Christmas. The suggestion was dismissed with virtually no discussion by the other members of the parish. “We have spent our whole lives trying to get away from candles”, they said, “Why on earth would we want to use them at Christmas!?”
The New Testament is replete with vignettes on the theme of the partiality of God towards the poor. The God of the New Testament appears to show, at the very least, what seems to be a surprising and extraordinary bias. It is bewildering. It is unfair. It is not cricket. And there seems to be ample evidence for it. The God of the Bible has a bias away from the rich and towards the poor.
There are indications of this bias on virtually every page. Jesus is born in anything but salubrious circumstances. His life is hardly that of a bling-seeker. He seems to deliberately choose the company of the outcasts, the heretics, the untouchables, the pariahs. He seems to enjoy the level of distaste which these extremely public displays of bias and unfairness evoke.
And when he is not deliberately provoking the religious orthodox, he is challenging the state. Even his death seems to have been engineered to some extent – down to passwords about donkeys and masters needing them and verbal displays of deliberate provocation to the ruling authorities. The Gospels are at pains to show that he “knew” his death was impending. It was no surprise. It was a fate he was prepared to meet. It was a fate he appears almost prepared to ensure.
The circumstances of his death, similarly, appear designed to cause a degree of solidarity with the criminals and murderers of his society. The lowest of the low. The most despised of any society. These are the people Jesus dies amongst. And seemingly, if the Gospel accounts are to be believed, he could have chosen otherwise. Judas might have betrayed him in the pursuit of his particular plan, but the plan of Jesus was already set.
And even the resurrection narratives are a bit disappointing, if it is pyrotechnics one is looking for. Yes, in Matthew, the graves do open and one or two apocalyptic things seem to happen in Jerusalem, but in general what do you have? A couple of second-class citizens seeing an empty grave and concluding that something miraculous, rather than sinister had occurred.
And then the group is on the run. In hiding, the leaders are in an upstairs room. It is there, in that situation that they encounter him again. Others are walking along a road, dejected and beaten. It is there that they encounter him again. In those less than grand circumstances. And that encounter is apparently so profound, so essential, so complete, that from that moment on, they are entirely changed – and so is the world.
And we must know – because that is what the stories mean - that in so far as we are different from that, so, most likely, is the measure of our encounter with the divine. There is no account of the rich and the powerful rejoicing at the news of the resurrection.
I am not saying that it is impossible for someone to have such an encounter in a Herbert Baker building with a wonderful choir, a superb organ and attention to detail in the liturgy. I am not saying that the generous incense and multiple candles do not serve an enabling function. But I am saying this: I am saying that camels go through needle’s eyes with a fair amount of difficulty. And it is difficult for me not to wonder what it is that the poor, the marginalised and the outcasts have, that God seems so terribly partial to