Richard Beck, in Experimental Theology, quotes William James:
“I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.” William James
Richard Beck’s blog is well worth following. He has helpfully organised his blog into series of posts. One of them is A Walk with William James. Richard regards James as one who anticipated the leading ideas of the emergent church movement as well as the “greatest American psychologist”.
I am increasingly struck by the big significance of the small, and the tiny significance of the big. The large institutions are increasingly seen as disappointing. It is the tiniest interactions which constitute nature and these are becoming our trusted teachers. This subversion was already realised in Jesus. His subjects included a mustard seed, a small child, a raven. His relationships were in the margins of the alienating big society.
Richard Beck refers to the two carols, It came upon the midnight clear and O Holy Night as “resistance literature”. The subversive words tend to get buried under the sentimentality that is so often Christmas, but they spell out the redemptive good news of the Christmas gospel. Both were written in the late 1840’s. It came upon the midnight clear is based on a poem written by Edmund Sears in 1849. O Holy Night was composed by Adolphe Adam two years earlier than that. This was at a time of great turbulence. The American Civil War was not far away, and slaves were on their way to emancipation. (The Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863). It is easy to get carried away by a good tune and miss the political and redemptive meaning of both these lovely carols, and the Christmas story.
So we sing from It came upon the midnight clear:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.
In O Holy Night we sing:
Truly he taught us to love one another;
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our bother;
and in his name shall all oppression shall cease.
Richard Beck points out that the theme of emancipation is even stronger in the original French poem, where those four lines are rendered:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron has chained.
The theme of redemption is the essential Good News of Christmas. Hope and longing constitute the spirit of Christmas which promises a world turned upside down: where freedom is proclaimed to prisoners, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free. It is such a subversive message that gets shrouded in sentimentality. We get carried away by a good tune. Do we know that they are redemption songs?
The Antiphons are one of the cool features of Advent prayer as Christians look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God. There are seven Antiphons. They all begin with “O”, which is then followed by a title or attribute of Christ. There is one antiphon for each day of the week from December 17th. The Christian faith is spelled out in the initials of the Latin titles in the antiphons. Each title is drawn from Isaiah’s prophecy. Here’s the list (thank you wikipedia), together with reference to Isaiah:
- December 17th: O Sapientia (O Wisdom) – Isaiah 11:2f; 28:29
- December 18th: O Adonai (O Lord) – Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22
- December 19th: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) – Isaiah 11:1 and 10
- December 20th: O Clavis David (O Key of David) – Isaiah 22:22, 9:7 and 42:7
- December 21st: O Oriens (O Dayspring) – Isaiah 9:2
- December 22nd: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations) – Isaiah 9:6 ; 2:4
- December 23rd: O Emmanuel (O God who is with us) – Isaiah :14
The initials read backwards from the 7th to the 1st antiphon. They spell out ERO CRAS which means “Tomorrow, I will be there.” This faith in tomorrow is borne out of the compassionate response to the realities of the present tense/tensions which are rightly seen as lamentable. Richard Beck, in an Advent meditation, describes Advent as “sort of like a lament. Advent is being the slave in Egypt, sitting with the experience of exile. Advent is about looking for God and hoping for God in a situation where God’s promises are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled.” In a world where everything is “now”, we sometimes lose patience and sight of the fact that now was never intended to be the time, when our churches were to be full, when kingdom was to come in all its fullness. Now is a time of exile, a time of alienation, a time for not being at home in the world, a time of waiting for tomorrow, a time of lament, a time for hope.
Enya captures the spirit of waiting and the hope of tomorrow as she sings the 7th of the antiphons – part of the hymn O come, O come Emmanuel .which paraphrases the seven antiphons.
You may be interested to read about the long now.
How far skims the stone on the water?
big bounces, many bounces,
each stone weighed with outstretched arm
for howls of laughter
for cries of pain.
How deep gashes the body with violent pelt?
Turning stones on the one hand
to the other
turns random stones
from arsenal to cairn no stone unturned
Richard Beck posts a quote from a recent interview given by Sr Joan Chittister for the Jackson Free Press. The question was:
“So, as a woman of faith, as a monastic, how do you see your role and the role of other people of faith in the world?”
Sister Joan’s reply:
It’s a simple one: To see injustice and say so, to find the truth and proclaim it, to allow no stone to be unturned when it is a stone that will be cast at anyone else. It’s just that simple. There is nothing institutional, organizational, political about it. It says: “Where I am, you may not harm these people. You may not deride them; you may not reject them; you may not sneer at them, and you certainly cannot blame them for their own existence.”
Photos by Keith Bloomfield and Don Shall