The penguin escalator has come round again. 27 years after our oldest son was so fascinated by it that we had to dash out on Christmas Eve to buy it as a present. This year Oliver is presented one by his partner. It is such a happy toy. Is that because of our memories of family Christmases? Is it because it reminds us of our childhood dash to get back up to the top of the slide? Is it that the penguins make fun out of life’s constant round? Or do we just like penguins?
Between optimism and hope there is a huge credibility gap. Optimism can be foolish or a realistic prediction based on evidence. Is life getting any better? There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism depending on your point of view – but a well rounded maturity would find it difficult to call one way or another because the evidence is so complex. The folly of liberal optimism shows itself in the advent of Holocaust and economic meltdown. The only ground for optimism seems to be forgetfulness – when we forget our history and our nature: or arrogance, when we think of ourselves superior to either.
Optimism trusts human progress. The opposite of optimism isn’t pessimism but hope. Miroslav Volf (in Against the Tide: love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities) reminds his readers of Moltmann’s wonderful work on helping us to think about “hope”. Moltmann distinguished between two ways in which the future is related to us. There are two Latin words for “future” – futurum and adventus. “Future in the sense of futurum developes out of the past and present inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming and are “pregnant with future”.” But future, expressed as adventus is the future “that comes not form the realm of what is or what was, but from the realm of what is not yet, from outside, from God.”
Advent is about the future that bursts in on our darkness. There is nothing in the data of our existence that gives us grounds for optimism. It is just faith. There is no optimism in W H Auden’s Christmas Oratorio “For the Time Being”. There is no sense of “what shall we get for Christmas?” that we have to endure in the commercialised Christmas. How could there be? Auden was writing in the 40’s where the overwhelming “grinning evidence” is that the “Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss”. There is only one option left for us “who must die”. Auden writes:
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
the Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die, demand a miracle.
And Volf writes:
“Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: “The people who wlaked in darkness haveseen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) This is what Christmas is all about – something radically new that cannot be gernerated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes…. God promises it”
Today is Epiphany – January 6th. Twelfth Night – down with that tree and away with that tinsel. Highlight of the season has been reading The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. This has given spiritual direction for this wonderful season. Borg and Crossan describe the birth stories of Matthew and Luke’s gospels as “parabolic overtures” for their whole gospel of joy and conflict – personal and political.
Today, Epiphany, focus is on the story of the visit of the Magi who travel one road and then return by another road. The road they travel is to the palace of Jerusalem. Of course, they would go that way. The way of the worldy wise is to the palace and the court. They discover how wrong they are. In Breugemann’s phrase, they finish “9 miles wide”, and discover their journey’s end (and their beginning – TS Eliot) to be not at the court of Herod but in the outbuildings of an inn in Bethlehem. Their return “by another road” signifies repentance – a change of mind – demanded by the Jesus of the Gospel. “They no longer walked the same path, but followed another way.”
Messrs Borg and Crossan wonder whether I am “like the Magi who follow the light and refuse to comply with the ruler’s plot to destroy it.” Or whether I am like Herod “filled with fear and willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain power, even violence and slaughter.” Am I among those “who yearn for the coming of the kingdom of justice and peace, who seek peace through justice”, or am I among those “advocates of imperial theology who seek peace through victory?”
Borg and Crossan refer to the three tenses of Christmas. Past, present and future – as retold by Charles Dickens in the Christmas Carol. Of the future tense they refer to three different understandings:
One is called “interventionist eschatology” – in which only God can bring about the new world.
The second is called “participatory eschatology” in which we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas.
The third involves letting go of eschatology altogether in which Christian hope is not about the transformation of this world.
Only the second is affirmed by Borg and Crossan – thankfully. “We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories.” They quote Augustine’s aphorism: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”
Christmas is not about tinsel and mistletoe or even ornaments and presents, but aabout what means we will use toward the end of a peace from heaven upon our earth. Or is “peace on earth” but a Christmas ornament taken each year from attic or basement and returned there as soon as possible?
Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas reviewed here. Borg and Crossan underline the subversion of the Christmas stories – subverting the political cultures of Roman imperial power. Both Jesus and Caesar share many titles – among them “Lord” and “Son of God” and both have a vision for peace on earth. The difference is that one is “peace through victory” and the other is “peace through justice” – and Borg and Crossan remark (what we all know)
“the terrible truth is that our world has never established peace trhough victory. Victory establishes not peace but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before.”
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Meister Eckhart (14th century)
Everyone seems very excited about the prospect of Hallelujah being the Christmas number 1 – with X Factor winner Alexandra – or is Hallelujah going to be number 1 and 2. It is if the campaign of the facebook Jeff Buckley for Xmas No 1 (backed by Edith Bowman and Colin Murray) works.
It is indeed a beautiful song. Opinion seems to be going with John Cale’s version and Jeff Buckley’s being the best, but I like Allison Crowe’s as well. Leonard’s own version too is brilliant but has taken on a life of its own.
What is not clear is what the song means. For me, it’s definitely not a straight “praise” song inspite of all the “Hallelujahs”. That it seemed such an appropriate end to the X Factor series – and an appropriate “victory song” for Alexandra to sing back up what I see Leonard Cohen alluding to. Using Old Testament references to David, Bathsehba and Delilah, Cohen puts the praise response of Hallelujah on the lips and loin of pleasure – as well the hearts and minds of worship, and that when we come face to face with God we will have to trust that he will accept our “broken hallelujahs”.
Here are the lyrics anyway – see what you think.
Homecomings [for the Christmas holidays], whether they are to church or family households, can be filled with expectation and met with disappointment. Cynthia Jarvis touches on these painful places in the human heart, “conditions … made acute by the culture’s merriment: the relationships severed, the addictions hidden, the violence barely domesticated, the depression denied, the affair raging, the self-loathing cut deep into the flesh, the greed, the hatred, the fear.”
from Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds
>I’m trying to keep Christmas out of Advent – but here’s the world’s first Beach Hut Advent Calendar where Christmas is very much part of Advent.
Advent is a time of waiting and hope. The trouble is that we forget that it’s the Kingdom of God we are waiting for and not Christmas. And it’s a long wait because God takes his time. The reading yesterday was one that I had never really taken in before.
Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8)
God’s not going to take any short cuts. If he did he would undermine his merciful nature and break his promise to his people. For the mean time he gives us his Spirit to encourage, strengthen and comfort us – to give good time in the bad times of waiting for wrongs to be righted and for kingdom come.
>Red is the colour of Christmas.
I was supposed to have assembled an advent wreath for my wife’s school last night. It comes to her going this morning – no advent wreath, and the search for candles begins. “You need red candles” says I. “Why?” says she. Because …. the holly (crown of thorns) bears a berry as red as any blood thinks I as I hastily assemble the case for RED. And then there’s the robin’s red breast of the Christmas card, the poinsettias – and the awareness that Chrismas marks a time – let’s run the two words together – forgiving.
Miroslav Volf tells the story of his parents’ forgiveness for the soldier and the childminder who caused the death of Miroslav’s five year old brother, Daniel. He had slipped out under the nanny’s guard to go and play with the real soldiers of the nearby barracks. The bored soldiers welcoomed the diversion of their playmate. One of them put Daniel on a horse drawn bread wagon. As they went through a gate on a bumpy cobblestone road, Daniel leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the gatepost and the wagon. Daniel died on the way to hospital. Both parents forgave the child minder and the soldier. Why? “Because the Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us, and so we decided to forgive” said his parents. Human history is adorned by heroes like these people who say that enough is enough, and who, inspired by Jesus’s forgiveness, find themselves able to forgive. Miroslav’s father said: “why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because of the loss of her son, a good boy, but careless in a crucial moment …?”
Red is the colour of a time forgiving.