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Look and learn from the periphery

18 December 2015

Redemption can be found by putting others centre-stage, suggests Paul Vallely

I HAVE always wondered why Pontius Pilate gets a mention in the Creed. He is the only person who does, apart from Mary and Christ himself. Someone once told me that it was to locate Jesus in history, but it seems odd that Pilate is the individual chosen to do that.

My long-unanswered question came to mind again this Advent, with the reading from Luke on the second Sunday, in which, by way of prelude to the coming of John the Baptist, there is another piece of historical location. It begins: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herodtetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene. . .”

Why are all these individuals named, my parish priest asked in his homily. But the answer he gave was rather different. They are the powers of the day, the men of consequence who stand in contrast to John, who is the voice crying in the wilderness. They are the contemporary equivalent of our parliamentarians, who had just voted that we should bomb in Syria, the priest observed.

And yet, in the Gospels, the truth turns out not to be with the people of power, who are dignified with grand titles, but with the rough wild man, with his coat of camel hair and his food of locusts and honey. His are the words that will lead humankind to see the salvation of God. The priest did not labour the point, but it was clear that he did not exactly see the bombing as consonant with the Christmas story.

There was another interesting Advent corrective from the pulpit at the school carol concert. The Vicar produced as a visual aid one of those selfie sticks that tourists carry around to extend the range of their arms when taking self-portraits on their mobile phones. Their virtue, apparently, is that they allow the snapper to place himself or herself in the foreground of some significant sightseeing spot.

Their downside is that they underscore the tendency of our individualistic age to place ourselves at the centre of events: me in front of the Pyramids; me at the edge of the Grand Canyon; me and the Mona Lisa. Small wonder that one wag renamed them Narcissus sticks.

In contrast, the message of the carols, the Vicar said, is that we are not centre-stage in the Christmas story: the Christ-child is. This is a time for us to stand on the periphery, and to look on in wonder. It is a time to turn our self-focused gaze outwards. It is a time to look to the other.

The voice in the wilderness is the voice of one who is on the periphery, and intends himself to be so. It is to the peripheries — a phrase that is a favourite of Pope Francis — that the comfortably religious must go to preach effectively the gospel of mercy. The message of Jesus is that if we put others first, then we will experience the redemption of discovering our true selves. Happy Christmas.

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