On a Twitter Detox

In some respects, my decision this Christmas to avoid using Twitter for a few days has come to feel a little like dealing with a personal and collective addiction. The readiness with which people turn to their phones on first waking and in all the subsequent gaps of their day is a commonplace, our twitchiness for the comforting phone readily observable in trains, shops, and on the streets. Even though I am now abstaining from Twitter, I still find myself holding on to the phone after the alarm is silenced, before remembering that it is no longer allowed to give me any sense of connectedness to the world-beyond-the-physically-present, or the immense hit of self-delight that comes from seeing some flash banality liked or re-tweeted by a follower, or a follower’s follower.

I also miss hugely the opportunity of joining in a conversation about the news (‘snarking about current affairs’, as it was recently described), and the immense fun of trying to guess what the news is, simply by reading the Tweets. I enjoy approaching explosion-point, filling with a highly flammable mixture of dudgeon and disbelief, until deflated by a visit to the BBC news app for the sad confirmation that This was not said at all. This was not it at all.

The advice to carry out a periodic social media detox came, inevitably, in a tweet — from no less an authority than the Revd Richard Coles, himself the epitome of the successfully tweeting #simple country parson and, with his 92,0i00 followers, the undisputed cynosure of every Revd Tweep. So his was advice I was very happy to take seriously: #knows his onions.

I was in any case beginning to tire of some aspects of the medium, notably the experience of drowning in words and images, and the attendant fear of ignoring them, just in case any of them turned out to be really important (#chance would be a fine thing). So I have acquired an anxious guilt about subjects-not-addressed and knowledge-not-acquired, while languishing on study-shelves are hundreds of neglected books. You remember them: beautiful things, produced by genuine experts after a long process of education, reflection and peer review. #Sorely missed.

There have also been some specifically clerical issues I’ve had to deal with. Twitter seems particularly adept at bringing out the worst in the clergy; in me certainly. Now, I quite understand that much of the unpalatable boasting, somewhat formulaic listing of our day’s engagements, and painfully forced optimism is driven entirely by insecurity in our X-Factor C of E, and the need to show the talent-pool-attendants that someone’s omission from its bracing waters is sheer madness; but, oh, it gets tiresome.

The problem is that it’s all too easy. Armed with a laptop and a smartphone, we are all now a one-man, one-woman publishing-house, binding every homily in virtual calfskin and depositing it in the stack of every virtual library across the globe, its profound riches ready to save the day when the darkness finally falls. (Even I do this, and I’ve never written sermons down or encouraged people to read them. “If you’ve got time to read sermons, don’t read me; read Chrysostom!” has always been my line. But Twitter and the blog awaken the irresistible hope of discovering that I am, in fact, Timothy Radcliffe locked inside the wrong body; and so I entertain this damn foolishness, as fond and flimsy a thing as imagining my feckless Mog to be one of the Talking Beasts of Narnia.)

To make matters seriously worse, we are also now our own recording studio, broadcasting organisation and publicity machine. We can issue our own New Year messages with our amusing yet sincere pieces-to-camera shot against a tasteful background of books or trees or family snaps. After all, the bishops all do it. And who knows? It just has to fall into the hands of the right talent-scout and we too will be plucked from hateful obscurity, set aside for stardom, for the utterance, one day, of the immortal words, “Good morning, John. Good morning, Sarah.”

In avoiding Twitter, I miss none of this. Neither do I miss for a second the other oddnesses of St Tweet’s: the improbable flirting and ill-advised swearing (even with the neutralising safety-catch of inverted commas); I don’t miss the endless references to alcohol (complete with photographs), which I imagine the archdeacons to be noting in the back of an old exercise-book ready for next year’s appraisal. I don’t miss the peculiar camp giggle of formerly sensible evangelicals who seem to have become enamoured of the very worst sort of high church rococo, getting all frisky at one flash of a missal-ribbon or ring of charcoal.

But who am I kidding? For, you see, with all Twitter’s faults, I’ve missed the company these past twelve days, and have already been drawn to an occasional key-hole or to listen at a side-door. Twitter is, you see, another strange expression of our peculiar common life, one more body for critical belonging-to. Social media are exactly what they say they are: ways and means of interacting with people. And if the interactions are in some ways problematic, then we need to receive and exercise in the virtual world the same grace we rely on in the real world.  We need to learn to operate in a social medium without getting too vexed or involved. We need to see our friends’ wonderful deposits of suggested reading without coveting or anxiety. We need to get in a good stock of salt to scatter a pinch every time some apparently smug leader with perfect teeth makes a movie or preaches to a multitude or takes possession of a wonderful new ‘worship centre’. We need, in short, to relax a bit. Yes, I’m sure you have just written a wonderfully interactive liturgy for the immuring of an anchorite or the exorcism of an intranet, but such things are way too rich for my blood, so I’ll take a rain check if that’s okay. #simple matins boy

So, I’ll be glad to be back, catching up on who’s in, who’s out; and enjoying the wry humour of those with enough faith and confidence not to need to pretend each day is sunny. I’ll wander round with a mug of tea and a couple of Bakewell slices, bumping into lovely people for a couple of minutes’ chat. And I will remember that the best medicine for soul and body is gratitude for all God’s blessings; for family and friends, my parish and school, even this challenging town and nation. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground, and if I am conscious of the immensity of that, it will take more than the odd twitter irritation ‘to pull me off / The great perch of my contentment.’

Richard Coles was right: even a short detox is a great idea and a necessary corrective, flushing away the poison and renewing one’s whole vision. I can certainly recommend it, if only because it’ll spare you the sight of me for a while. Happy tweeting; and have a good new year!

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A Homily for Epiphany 2016

Moses Renewed; Rome rejected

 

“Where is he, born King of the Jews?”  As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their instructive volume The First Christmas (SPCK, 2008; those who have read it will recognise my indebtedness to them in what follows), the most telling thing about the question put by the Magi on their arrival in Jerusalem is that it is quite unnecessary. As we read, they had been guided by a star that was bright, mobile and accurate: a sort of celestial sat-nav that brings them all the way to Bethlehem, stopping exactly over the house where the infant Christ is now living. And so to ask King Herod, “Where is he, born King of the Jews?” is not so much a request for information, but rather a device by which the author can move the story onward and communicate the points uppermost in his mind.

Principal among these is his desire to establish a parallel or pairing between Moses and Jesus; Matthew wants to present Jesus as God’s Agent, the Saviour and Liberator of humankind; in short, a Moses renewed. In order to do this, it is convenient to cast Herod in the role of Pharaoh renewed, slaughtering an updated batch of innocent baby boys in the forlorn hope that he will thereby prevent the survival of a predestined hero and preserve his own power unchallenged. (If, incidentally, you are thinking that Exodus does not indicate that Pharaoh knew in advance either the impending birth of Moses or his future significance, you would be right. But this is how later Jewish preaching and teaching, the so-called targums and midrash, had come to interpret that story, wishing to avoid the alternative in which either Moses’ parents decide to marry and reproduce despite a potential death sentence hanging over their offspring; or in which the birth of Moses just happens to coincide with Pharaoh’s decision to decimate the Hebrew boys: a case of bad judgement or even worse luck.)

Whether King Herod did in fact slaughter the Holy Innocents is unclear. He was certainly single-minded and ruthless enough to do so, having murdered two of his own sons when he suspected them of plotting to kill him. But Josephus makes no mention of the event and, as Fr Green CR remarks in his Commentary, he habitually “lost no opportunity of recording the crimes of the Herods.” Besides, the main dramatic purpose of the slaughter (apart from introducing the quotation from Jeremiah) is to move the Holy Family to Egypt, triggering the quotation from Hosea 11. This is another of 5 prophecy-fulfilment quotations which, together with 5 dreams, suggest Matthew’s intention of presenting the first two chapters of his gospel as the overture to a gospel proper in which the division of his material into 5 main sections or ‘books’ (on Law, Mission, Parable, Community and the Eschaton) suggests that he conceives of his gospel as a new Pentateuch for his new Moses. It does not matter that the escape of Moses was out of Egypt and that the escape of Christ was ostensibly into Egypt: insofar as Egypt always symbolises death, Christ will not be truly and finally delivered from it until the resurrection, when, in the Father’s mighty raising of the Son, the dark landscape of hell will be searched for lost souls who are brought by the hand of this new Saviour into the Promised Land of God’s eternal banquet.

Matthew draws our attention now to these final events of Christ’s earthly life by giving to the Magi the phrase “King of the Jews”. It is clear that the initial effect of this formula is to act as a powerful stimulant on Herod, who had been granted that title by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate in 40BC; he had had to fight to rid his land of enemies before he could assume his kingship three years later; and he had had to exercise constant vigilance against attack and remain alert and prudent in his ongoing relationship with Rome (especially with Octavian after his champion’s demise following the Battle of Actium in 31BC). To have these exotic Gentile visitors arrive and blithely refer to the existence of a new pretender to his hard-won throne was understandably galling. But Matthew is also using the phrase “King of the Jews” in order to direct our attention to the three other uses of the phrase in his gospel. These are all in chapter 27: Pontius Pilate asks Jesus at the beginning of his trial whether he is the King of the Jews; the soldiers who beat and humiliate Jesus perform mock obeisance, intoning “Hail! King of the Jews!” And when the inscription is placed upon the cross for passers-by to read, it simply states: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Matthew is therefore clear that when we hear the Magi asking their unnecessary question about the whereabouts of the “King of the Jews”, we should know precisely who it is that they refer to, and whose salvific life is now beginning in Bethlehem. Indeed, this is the only occasion in any of the four Gospels when the phrase “King of the Jews” is used other than during the Passion story. The Magi are as clear as we about the Messiah who has come, and what manner of life he shall live. As we saw in the lections for Christmas morning, the peace that Christ brings is peace through justice, with swords beaten into ploughshares and incorporation of the Gentiles into God’s peace through Feast rather than Armageddon). This is very different from the Roman model of a peace that always requires subjugation through crushing military victory. As we consider which of the two Kings of the Jews is sought by the questing Magi, we clarify also what sort of kingship is his, and how his rule is profoundly different from and an unequivocal challenge to the rule of Rome. From the day of his birth, therefore, there is intrinsic antagonism between the nonviolent way of Christ and the violent ways of the Empire. We who are baptised must know under whose banner we stand and in whose way we walk.

 

“We have seen his star in the East.”  On one level, the shining of a star is a perfectly straightforward sign of the birth of a man whose life turns out to be extraordinary, indicating a uniqueness or a particular greatness. Literature records the shining of stars on the birth of a host of such individuals, including Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great and the Emperor Nero. But there is more to stars than this advertising of auspicious births. We see in Hebrew and classical literature reference to stars which denote both the raising up of the Messiah and the establishment of the power of Rome. In his final Oracle in Numbers 24, Balaam speaks of a star that shall “come out of Jacob, crushing the forehead of Moab and breaking down all the sons of Sheth (Numbers 24.17). And in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, father Anchisees prays omnipotent Jupiter for a sign that even amidst these smoking ruins the sons of Troy should be favoured: whereupon,

Out of the sky

Through depths of night a star fell trailing flame

And glided on turning the night to day.

Aeneas and his family followed westward; and where the star stood still, there Rome was founded.

But the star that the Magi are following is more than a global positioning device. It shines not with its own bright aura, but with the borrowed light of the one whose birth it signifies. Just as in the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 6) Kings shall be drawn to the light of the glory of God seen in the restored Temple following the trauma of Exile and return, so these Gentile mystics are conscious of the glory of God made visible in the Christ who tabernacles now among the children of earth.

“And have come to worship him.” The worship consequently offered by these eastern potentates, though similar to the deep obeisance offered to the mighty by those who honour them with homage, “shades off into the adoration due to a divine figure” (Fr Green CR), due in no small part to the offering of the gift of incense. This, as every nativity play reminds us, shows that the baby is Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the same way, the gift of gold alludes to the Kingship of Christ; while the gift of myrrh denotes either the healing offered by Christ or the fact that he will die to save the world from sin. Such a traditional reading depends on our understanding of the Magi as a priestly class of Persian astrologers and diviners, attuned to the invisible mysteries of life, and consequently accorded great honour in society. And this reading will serve us very well, as it has for many a long century. But there is a further reading that may help us today as we also come to Bethlehem to worship the one who has come among us. For “some time before Matthew wrote, ‘magi’ had acquired the more general and pejorative connotation of magicians or sorcerers” (HB Green: New Clarendon Commentary, 1975), and in the offering of the gifts we might usefully see “the stock in trade of ‘magi’ — incense and myrrh being used to accompany their incantations, and gold standing for the money they made by them — all of which are now surrendered and laid at the feet of the child-king.” These wise men have already been given a novel twist: in making them recipients (with Joseph) of divine communication through dreams, Matthew has placed them, though Gentiles, firmly on the side of God’s people Israel, and although Herod looks to them to fulfil the classic role of royal advisers and assist in interpreting the news of this threatening new king, they are presented to us as those who know firmly which side they are on. And in the opening of their treasures, we see that from which we can most urgently learn in our own life of worship and service: the offering to Christ for his exclusive use whatever it is that we value most and hold dearest in our lives. This will include those things that are generally regarded as treasure: among them, money, time, relationships, and the service of our intellect, will and attention. But our treasure will also be those things which are known to us alone and to which we hold on more tightly than is good for us, certainly too tightly for those whose hands are to be held open in generosity and raised high in prayer. This treasure also must be opened and offered to Christ our King for his transformative blessing.

It is in this act of offering to Christ all that we have and all that we are that we will fulfil the last great command and commission of Matthew’s Gospel. If we are to be those who draw outsiders into the discipleship of Christ as unerringly as the star that drew the Magi, then first we must be drawn afresh to him, learning afresh to know him and to love him, to seek and to find him in all his guises, homes and hiding places. Like the Magi of TS Eliot’s poem, we will risk no longer being ‘at ease in the old dispensation’ of our sinful and half-hearted service. But we need not fear: the one whom the Magi worship as God-with-us has himself promised to be with us to the ending of the age. From those who turn to him, he does not turn away. So come: we have seen his star and are here to worship him, opening to him the treasury of our whole lives. Let us do so now in gladness, for his gift to us is abundant and eternal life, and in his service there is perfect freedom. To him be the glory for ever.