Sometimes a familiar Bible passage strikes you afresh, for all its familiarity suddenly it speaks in a new way. It is as if, although you have read it many times, that you are reading it for the first time.
An early morning Eucharist, in the week leading up to Christmas, and the Gospel reading is from Matthew chapter 11. Messengers come from the imprisoned John the Baptist to ask Jesus if he is the One who is to come or is there another still to come. Jesus speaks of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and the dead coming to life. Each act in its own right a sign of miraculous power and so surely a sign that Jesus is the Expected One, enough surely to reassure John of Jesus’ credentials?
But then Jesus adds one final sign of his ministry, “and the poor have good news brought to them”. And these are the words that struck home as if for the first time.
What is good news for the poor? And what is it in the gospel preached by the Church today that makes it good news for the poor? And in particular at this Christmas season, what is it that reveals good news for the poor?
The obvious answer is the Church’s engagement with foodbanks, the accommodation offered to rough sleepers and the meals organised for the lonely. Each of these have become tragically essential and the demand for such services is continuing to grow. But without detracting in any way form the excellent and impressive work being done in delivering such services, is this really Good News? Is this really the lifting up of the lowly of which Mary sings?
The unequal impact of austerity post-banking crisis, the voices, too long silent, that finally were heard in the referendum campaign and the horror of Grenfell Tower burning in the richest borough in the land, finally shattered the liberal delusion that Britain is fundamentally a just and equal land. For too long Good News for the poor has been thin gruel.
Foodbanks, homeless shelters and the like are symptoms not solutions in a land of inequality. In the county in which I sit in comfort writing this there is a twelve year disparity in how long residents will live depending where they live in this one small geographical area. The poor have not had good news brought to them.
Christmas and an expectant mother for whom there is no room, a new born for whom the only bed is a cattle trough. The first visitors, herdsmen, cold from sleeping on the hillside. Then Magi who for all their generous gifts, are still aliens in a foreign land, who must flee in the face of political violence. And when this child is grown up, it is with the sick and outcast he will spend much of his time, preferring the company of prostitutes and quisling tax-collectors rather than the religious elite. He will die the victim of an unjust trial. A messiah is only a messiah if there is good news for the poor.
The stable has become poverty-chic and the scandal of a homeless God is hidden behind tinsel and glitter, countless fairy lights distract from the true Light that is coming into the world. Church services with rich music and fine words may seek to speak of the awe, the mystery of God in human form, but where is the sign that any of this is good news for the poor?
We have been told that the task of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but the preacher who follows that dictum at this season of the year will be thought a party-pooper. However it is only when the likes of me have less and those who currently have less, have more, that Christmas really will be Christmas.
Perhaps Scrooge was right after all and our keeping of Christmas really is humbug. At least he learnt from his encounter with Want and Ignorance. His first act was to make a generous donation to the poor fund (including several years of back payments), he changed the working conditions of his clerk and did all he could for Tiny Tim.
When foodbanks close due to lack of customers and the homeless hostel’s beds are no longer required, then Christmas truly will be Christmas. Until then remember that one of the signs of the Kingdom of God must be that the poor have heard good news. They are still waiting.