Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Clothes For Christmas: A Sermon

Preached at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, on the First Sunday of Christmas, 27 December 2015

Texts for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2: 41-52

 As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Col 3:12)


I hope you didn’t find this under your tree!  Unless, of course, you like this sort of thing.

Many of us feel the need to dress to celebrate Christmas.  “Don we now our gay apparel” says the old carol, and many people do just that, even if it is with tongue firmly planted in cheek.   Some wear santa hats and Christmas ties to work.  Others put red noses on their cars and trucks.  At the military base where I work, one can even see grizzled sergeants wearing reindeer antlers. The Value Village off Wellington Street even had a sign up advertising tacky Christmas sweaters, which can be fun to wear at parties, even if you don’t want to find them under the Christmas tree.

At the same time, do any of us really want to find a tacky sweater under our Christmas tree?   And is there any kind of Christmas present more prone to hazard than clothing?  Really, giving clothes is fraught with peril.    What if our gift doesn't fit?  What if the the recipient doesn’t like the clothes we buy them because they’re not fashionable enough, or the wrong cut or colur?  At the same time, none of us want to be that boring aunt or uncle who always gives yet another pair of socks at Christmas.  We pity the poor dad who gets yet another ugly tie, and we laugh at the hapless husband who buys something flimsy and quite impracticable for his wife.


So as a thought experiment, let’s imagine what it would be like if God’s Christmas present to us was new clothing?  What if there was nothing tacky or wrong with this gift?  What if these clothes were stylish and comfortable?  What if these were clothes we would want to wear everywhere we go?


Our reading from Colossians tells us to put on new clothes as part of our new life in Christ.  Of course the author of Colossians (who may or may not be Paul) is using a figure of speech.  He is using clothing as an image of how our relationship with Jesus has the power to change us and the way we live with and treat others.


“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”.


There are two things I’d like to focus on in this verse.  Both of them, I hope, will shed light on the Christmas mystery that we have just celebrated.


The first is that God has reached out to us.  Colossians calls us “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”.  Those words help us understand why Gabriel came to Mary and why the baby in the manger came to be born.   God reached out to us, stood with us, because he cares for and loves those who he created. Nobody was expecting this.  In the ancient world, the gods were lofty beings, sometimes cruel and uncaring, who had little to do with the physical world.  Even Israel, which had been chosen by Yahweh the living God, could not imagine that he would come to earth this way.  


Peter Wehner, an ethicist and former politician, wrote in the New York Times this week that Christmas was a revolution in human existence because it gave humans a dignity that they did not give one another.  “Christmas teaches us that human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears.”   When you think about, this explains the preaching of someone like Pope Francis.  If God loves us, he loves everybody - you, me, the poor, the homeless, the refugee.  And if God loves all of us, how can we not love one another?   And if we love one another, how can we not care for one another?


The second thing I wish to point out is that we can care for one another because God has changed us.  Colossians not only calls us “God’s chosen ones” but it also says that we are “holy”.  How did we get to be holy?  Was it because we did something to impress God?  Well, no.  Someone once said that God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbour does.  The gift of Christmas is also the gift of a new way of living that makes it possible to love our neighbour as much as ourselves.


One of the main ideas in Colossians is the idea of the new life in Christ.  Col 3:9-10 says that as followers of Jesus we have “stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self”.  This is the same idea that we hear in our baptism service.   In our passage today, Colossians goes on to describe some of the things that make up our new self, our new identity as Christians.  It would take too long to go through each of them, but let me point one thing about the new identity behind this figure of speech of new clothes.  


“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  These are all social virtues.  By that I mean that you don’t practice compassion in solitude.  You don’t go off to a private to be kind and humble.   These are all things we do around other people.  We are compassionate and kind to those who are in need.  We are modest because arrogant and proud people think of their own needs way ahead of the needs of others.  We are patient with other people because, sometimes, other people take up our time and energy.    


So, if compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience are the Christmas clothes we find under the tree, then they are clothes that are meant for wearing wearing in public.   We are kind to others.  We are humble and meek with others.  We are patient with others.  These are clothes to wear wherever we go, whatever we do. They are work clothes, lounging around the house clothes, Sunday best clothes.  And, in a very real sense, they are a kind of Christian uniform, because its wearing these clothes, acting this way, that others see our faith.


Frankly, people need to see and to benefit from how we live out our faith.


This Christmas Eve, an American psychiatrist and blogger named Scott Alexander posted an essay called “How Bad Are Things?”  He was reflecting on the human misery he saw in his practice, and he got to wondering, how many people out there have the problems I see? Is it just that only the most miserable people see psychiatrists, or is that many many people are miserable and only tell their troubles to psychiatrists because nobody else cares?


As an experiment, Alexander studied the probability that people might have a problem that would make their life miserable, including but not limited to poverty, mental illness, abuse, or imprisonment, and then ran the numbers.  He concluded that our of every 20 people, 11 out of 20 have some problem that would make their life miserable.  That figure does not count all conditions that might make for misery, or the many people too shut in, poor or isolated to ever seek help.  Alexander’s conclusion was that “ The world is almost certainly a much worse place than any of us want to admit. And that’s before you’ve even left America.”  


As Alexander puts it, if you accept that things are this bad, then you can either ignore this reality, despair, or (his choice) embrace charity and philanthropy.  And this is from a man who isn’t (as far as I can tell) arguing from a religious point of view.   However, as Christians, we can get behind his conclusion.  Alexander’s argument reminds us, as Christians, that the incarnation is a gift for each generation of the faithful  to take up every Christmas.   We are all chosen.  We are all holy.  live the gospel together.   We are called to be part of a community of the faithful that is kind and compassionate, not just to our fellow believers, but to all those around us.  As Trinity Church considers its future, we need to ask ourselves, what misery is there around us?  How many people are hidden, isolated, hurting?  How can we in our Christian lives reach them?


Let me finish with a final thought about Christmas clothes.  In my family the classic Christmas film was A Christmas Carol, the black and white classic with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  In the opening scenes Scrooge is in black, sombre clothing, like the undertaker he sees waiting for his lonely, miserable death in the vision shown to him by the third spirit.  At the end, as Scrooge is a changed man, reentering the world, we see him pay a visit to his nephew’s house, and it’s a shock and a joy to see Scrooge in warm, festive clothing, and to realize he’s been transformed into a Victorian dandy.  It’s a visual way of showing Scrooge’s return to society and his discovery of the importance of human life.  


The same is true of the Christian clothing given to us.  If you look under the tree you won’t find a tacky Christmas sweater.  You’ll find beautiful, comfortable, festive  clothing, far more costly than any designer label would be, clothing that will be a delight to us and to those around us.   So, on this First Sunday of Christmas, let us consider the gift of new life that God has given us.  Let’s put on this new life, wear it with pride, and show it to others who need that new life.  Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

First Christmas In The Trenches: Remembering Anglican Chaplaincy in the Great War

This post copies an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, the body of Anglican chaplains serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.  It is part of an ongoing centennial retrospective of Anglican military chaplaincy in the First World War.   Last Christmas, I posted here about the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first Christmas of the war, when they were waiting to go over from England to France.  By Christmas 1915, the Corps had suffered brutal baptisms of fire at places such as Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy, and were well on their way to becoming professional soldiers.  


By Padre Michael Peterson



To make the centennial of the First World War, the AMO Newsletter continues a series of vignettes of Canada’s Anglican chaplains and their ministry throughout that conflict.  Each instalment in the series will recall a time one hundred years prior to the date of each Newsletter.


During the second half of 1915, Canada’s Army and its Chaplaincy had both matured.   The Canadian Corps, now with two divisions in the line, had suffered its baptism of fire in the spring at Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy.   By the winter the Corps’ strength had reached ninety-five thousand, and it held a line in Belgium south of Ypres and north of Messines, between the villages of St. Eloi and Wulverghem.   While the positions were static, the British high command expected all units to carry out trench raids under cover of darkness in order to improve combat skills, gather prisoners and intelligence, and to maintain the troops’ fighting spirit.


These orders were more easily given than executed.   The historian of the Second Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment), described the Flanders rains that winter as “like no other that had ever fallen on earth”.


There was no escape from it. The trenches, which were nothing more than sandbagged breastworks, simply dissolved. The earth within the sandbags liquefied and oozed out. Everything collapsed. Every indentation of the ground filled with water, and, to make things worse, the enemy, being on higher ground, delighted in draining his trenches  across No Man's Land into those occupied by the Canadians.


Those in damp billets and flooded dugouts fared little better, and as there was not sufficient waterproof clothing, particularly rubber waders, troops suffered from influenza and a new ailment known as “trench foot”.


Canadian troops in Flanders, Winter 1915

(Natl. Archives of Canada)


While the Canadian Chaplain Service had been formally established in August 1915, it suffered from the divisive leadership of its first Director, Col. Richard Steacy.  His partiality  towards Anglicans and Orange Lodge factionalism meant that many Catholic and other Protestant chaplains were kept out of the line, and as Corps numbers increased, so did the number of padre vacancies.


Chaplains in the rear areas found opportunities to enhance morale.  Some set up sports events and libraries, while others worked with the Red Cross and church groups in Canada to distribute comforts to the troops.  Arthur McGreer, an Anglican priest (Trinity College 1910) assigned to Third Field Ambulance, was tasked with setting up a concert troupe which became wildly popular.  By the end of the war there were some thirty such concert troupes entertaining Canadian soldiers in Europe, the most famous being the Dumbells.  


Three of the Dumbells. Their founder, Capt. Merv Plunkett, is in the centre.


Through the second half of 1915, padres had earned greater freedoms to pursue their frontline ministries.  Canon Scott wrote that “Chaplains were being looked upon more as parish priests to their battalions.  They could be visited freely by the men, and could also have meals with the men when they saw fit”.  During the sodden winter of 1915-1916, some found that maintaining morale could be difficult.  Even the diligent Canon Scott discovered this challenge when he met a unit, “wet and muddy”, coming out of the line.


I stood by the bridge watching them pass and, thinking it was the right and conventional thing to do, wished them all a Merry Christmas. My intentions were of the best, but I was afterwards told that it sounded to the men like the voice of one mocking them in their misery.


Christmas 1915 was a varied experience for Canadian troops.  If they were in the front line, it might pass with scant celebration.  The 10th BN (Calgary Rifles) spent Christmas in the trenches, supporting the engineers with working parties day and night.  The 10th’s war diary states tersely: “No notice of Christmas Season other than issue of plum puddings and gifts of cigars and fruit at midday meal”.  However the men of the 7th BN (British Columbia Regiment) found time to publish a Christmas edition of their regimental newspaper, “The Listening Post”, with an image of a stern Father Christmas and wishes “To one and all of our Fellow Countrymen at home in Canada, and to our many friends and relatives where ‘ere they be … a right MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR”.


Pte. Alan Manderson with the 49th BN (Edmonton Regiment) wrote to his mother to describe a fine Christmas dinner of chicken, plum pudding and beer served by the sergeants.


We got a Christmas sock from the people of Canada for the Canadians in France.  Mine came from a lady in the east end of Toronto.  I may write and thank her for it.  At seven we had supper - just custard and figs.  Then followed the concert — a pantomime, “The Babes in the Wood”.  It was great.  The actors were all soldiers in camp here, but I’ve seen worse shows in Toronto lots of times.


For those troops in the front lines, however, war and danger were ever present.  Canon Scott was summoned on Christmas Eve by a sergeant “who told me he had some men to be buried”.  After prayers over their graves with the burial party, he set up in a barn “which for some reason or other, although it was in sight of the enemy, had not been demolished and was used as a billet” and celebrated a midnight Eucharist with the men of the 16th BN (Canadian Scottish).  This candlelit barn, with empty biscuit tins as an altar, was a far cry from Scott’s previous Christmas, celebrated in the lovely English parish of St. Mary and Melor, Amesbury.



St. Quentin Cabaret Commonwealth Cemetery

Somewhere near here, Canon Scott celebrated the Eucharist on Christmas Eve, 1915

The Highlanders assembled in two rows and I handed out hymn books. There were many candles in the building so the men were able to read. It was wonderful to hear in such a place and on such an occasion, the beautiful old hymns, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The men sang them lustily and many and varied were the memories of past Christmases that welled up in their thoughts at that time.   


Christmas 1915 also saw one of the famous informal soldier’s truces.  For some Canadian troops, the memories of the gas attack at Second Ypres left them feeling too uncharitable for such a gesture.  The CEF official history notes that “front-line battalions were instructed that any attempt by the enemy ‘to bring about a temporary cessation of hostilities’ must be met by rifle, and if necessary artillery fire”.  However, in Canon Scott’s part of the line, all was peaceful.  To the Canon’s “astonishment”, German and Canadian soldiers strolled in plain view of one another, and bottles of beer were exchanged as gifts.  Miraculously the rain had stopped.  “Christmas parcels had arrived and the men were making merry with their friends, and enjoying the soft spring-like air, and the warm sunshine”. 

The unofficial soldiers’ truces of Christmas 1915 earned

significant media attention.


Later that day Scott celebrated Eucharist with another battalion, “in the cellar of a ruined building” and “down some broken steps”.  He would later write that “We had two more war Christmases in France, but I always look back upon that first one as something unique in its beauty and simplicity”.  


No Canadian soldier that Christmas could imagine that three more years of war, each more terrible than the last, lay ahead of them.

Blessings to you and yours this Christmas.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Anglican Military Ordinariate Advent 2015 Newsletter

The Anglican Military Ordinariate is formed of clergy of the Anglican Church of Canada serving as chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces.  Our Advent/Christmas 2015 Newsletter may be found here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

On The Profession Of Arms And The Importance Of Reading

A somewhat pompous title, I grant you.  Perhaps the formal tone is because I've been reading Jane Austen lately, which is always time well spent.

Speaking of reading, I was at a training review meeting several weeks ago and we were talking about how soldiers learn what's important.   For some things simple direction (e.g., wear your helmet) is direction enough, and for others the actual performance of a task, learning by doing, suffices.   But how do soldiers learn values and accept, even embrace, the military ethos?

This topic allowed me to mount my personal hobbyhorse and bemoan the absence in the Canadian Armed Forces of the commander's reading list.  There is an official CAF-published reading list from 2009, a substantial volume in its own right giving members a comprehensive list of resources on a wide variety of subjects for their own professional education.  Such a guide is well and good, but I would like something both more current, and more influential in the sense that the list comes from the boss.

If you google "Chief of Defence Staff Reading List" you will find a page published by the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.   Australia's Army Chief published a reading list in 2012
and the US military's service chiefs each have a list published by the National Defence University.  The US Marine Corps, and this may surprise some, is apparently an intellectual hothouse and boasts six of its own reading lists.  Canada also has a Chief of Defence Staff, but I searched in vain for a reading list published by a senior Canadian officer in the last ten years, up to and including the CDS.

Besides the official military reading lists, there are a wealth of reliable guides to good books for soldiers.  Tom Ricks, one of the best defence journalists in the business today, published this list of lists in 2012 which will keep anyone going for years.   There are other such lists out there.

Returning to my original point, a senior commander's reading list, assuming that the boss has actually done the reading and has not simply delegated the task to a staff officer, is a way of signalling what he or she thinks is important.  The military ethos is built on emulation.  Junior officers will read whatever their senior officers, up to and including service chiefs, are reading. Everyone wants to be like the boss, because everyone hopes their career will also lead them upwards.  Thus, junior ranks will read whatever their sergeant majors, and especially their command sergeant majors, are reading.  In a military like my own, where that intellectual example and curiousity doesn't seem to be happening, that's a concern.

I missed an opportunity recently, when Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, General Vance, came to CFB Borden where I worked.  General Vance is a good soldier and a busy man, and he gave the assembled audience a lot of time and as much candour as he could.   I now regret that I didn't stand up and ask, "Sir, what three books have you read this year that you would recommend we all read?"

General Vance, sir, if you happen to be reading this, please leave the answer in the comments and I'll post it.

What about you, readers?  What books should we in uniform be reading?


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Military Picture of the Week

 This image from a New Yorker article entitled “Japan’s Cute Army” features anime-style nose art on two helicopters belonging to the Japanese Self-Defence Force.  

The article, by a Tokyo-based writer and translator named Matt Alt, notes how the endearing pop culture art style known as kawaiii reflects a deep-seated tension in Japanese culture over its present day military and its militaristic past.   As Alt writes:  
“In Japan, where indirect communication is highly valued, cute illustrations have long played the role of tension-breakers and mediators in situations of conflict.  Thus kawaii mascots, whether miniskirted girls or bunny-rabbit decoy launchers, are both a reflection of pop-culture trends and a way to defuse the very touchy issues surrounding the military’s undeniable presence.   Put another way, the time to get worried is when the branches of the Japanese military abandon their kawaii trappings, because that would signal that citizens and soldiers had made their peace with the subject."
A fascinating article.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive