OF SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
CHRISTMAS DAY 2013
Biblical scholar N.T. or Tom Wright in a now famous sermon from 2007 challenged his listeners to rediscover their inner child at Christmas time. Citing that other Tom, T.S. Eliot’s enigmatic line ‘There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt,’ Wright correctly in my opinion sees the two great festivals of the Christian calendar to be intrinsically entwined, life and death and in each case so much more, and to know that both these festivals do not genuflect to but critique the short-sighted analysis of human rational thought. The Magi of Eliot’s poem entwine Christmas and Easter perhaps because they have grown old and the tendrils of dementia are tangling their memory banks, but perhaps also because there is and can always be no birth without death, no death without birth, and each is a tentative step into the miracles of God and of God’s universe.
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The magi, at the end of their lives, remember a transition, effected by an encounter with something beyond even or especially the comprehension of the wise of the powerful, and know that their lives were changed irreversibly, confusingly, bewilderingly, but irreversibly.It is de rigueur to sneer at simplicity. Not, paradoxically at simplicity of visual art, where a simple transept of lines or indeed an interconnection of wiggles can evoke deep analysis and awe-inspired reverence in an art display, but simplicity of faith and thought. The awe of a child at Christmas is seen to be cringeworthy, surpassed only by the silliness of adults who continue to believe six impossible things before breakfast. The birth of a child from a peasant girl’s womb, or the mysterious transcendence of that other inescapable Tomb on Easter morning, these are seen to be the things of ridicule. Not least clergy and theologians back away from any sense that God might break out of human expectation, transcend our myopia, and in one mysterious solitary life two thousand years ago permit the mysteries of eternity to be incarnate in the mundanity and sometimes sheer tedium of human being.
Theologians and clergy will sneer, too, at simplicity, losing sight of its profundity in their satisfaction with their own erudition. It is popular to sneer for example at the gentle wisdom of the Romantic Centuries’ telling of the Incarnation in the carols of Christmas: no one is pretending, really, that the birth of Jesus was quite as the carols suggest, but that most of these have been useful if sometimes flawed vehicles of the unpretentious awe and mystery of a God who invades and transforms human existence. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Even the folksy tale of the Little Drummer Boy, considered infradig by religious purists, and made famous originally by the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame in the 1950s, points to a profound truth: what is the best from our poor lives that we can give as appreciation to the God who draws near to us in Christ?
We can’t intellectualize our way to faith. Paul referred to faith as foolishness to the wise, and we like to see ourselves as wise. Indeed we as adults have so lost touch with the inner child that we have taught our children not to be children. With deft and determined strokes of the sociological pen we have forced then to grow up too fast in a myriad of ways, some more deeply demonic than others. In doing so we have been stripping from them and ultimately from ourselves the awe inspired by a God who draws near, touches, transforms human lives.
Can I explain all this? The magi of Eliot’s poem flounder: ‘were we lead all that way for / Birth or Death?’ I suggest we cannot encounter the resurrection hope of Christ until we allow ourselves to learn awe and mystery and awe once more: was this a birth, or a death? The answer is “yes”. The God who infiltrated the womb of Mary, who transcended the Tomb of Joseph of Aramathea, and who still enters and transforms willing human lives can turn both birth and death into a God-filled, sacred journey into fullness of existence: the onus is on us to discover again the childlike, un-cynical expectation that says “Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray”