Christmas, and not lying about the world

Ghouta chemical attack.jpg

Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)


I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

Simeon’s Song

Rembrandt - Simeon With Christ ChildMalcolm Gordon, a dear friend of mine and the engine behind the very exciting One Voice Project, wrote and recorded a new song last night based on Luke 2.25–31. It’s called ‘Simeon’s Song’, and about which he writes:

‘I wrote it for the youth group who are having a worship night tonight and wanted to reflect on this story as a turning point between anticipation and celebration. I’ll probably play it at the midnight Christmas Eve service at St Peters too, hence the night/darkness themes’.

I thought it was worth sharing here too; so, with Malcs’ permission, here ‘tis:

Rembrandt - Simeon's Song Of Praise 1661I’m just an old man
With an ancient conviction
That God is troubled by our pain

I have no wisdom
Just a fool’s expectation
That God will come to our aid

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

I’m just a lone voice
Frail in the darkness
But the night can only last so long

I’m just a watchmen
Eyes to the distance
Waiting for heaven’s light to show

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

He’s just a small child
From nowhere special
But something tells me, this is it

My heart’s desire
My world’s salvation
A candle in this darkness has been lit

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not changed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

God can I go to sleep now
I’ve stayed awake to the sunrise
With my failing eyes
I see through Love’s disguise
In my arms I hold the world.

Note: Malcolm has made the link to the song downloadable so if folk want to use it (or one of the other songs available here) for a church service, or for personal reflection, it’s there to be had. Share the love!

‘The Second Coming’, by W. B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats on his deathbed, 1939 by Georgie Hyde-LeesTurning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

– W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’, in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Vol. 1: The Poems (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 187.

[Notes: Penned 1919, in the aftermath of WWI, ‘The Second Coming’ was originally titled ‘The Second Birth’. The image, taken by Yeats’s wife Georgie Hyde-Lees, depicts Yeats on his deathbed in 1939.]

advent: two poems

‘Advent’, by Donald Hall

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
     Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
     At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
     Horror vacui.

– Donald Hall, ‘Advent’, in The Back Chamber: Poems (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 22.

‘A Praise in Advent’, by Arnold Kenseth

See, as we stumble in the Advent snows,
God comes to fathom us. He sends his Son,
A gentleness by whom our fear’s undone,
A jubilance who overcomes our woes.

At first, we hold him in the ancient picture:
Skoaled by great angels, crooned by watching beasts,
Thick-footed shepherds by his side, deep frosts;
Love’s history: for you and me hope’s texture.

Now he is with us, at our village stones,
Fingering the mortar, testing. His mirth
Assaults our streets, and daily he goes forth
Troubling our elegant houses with unknowns

That were and are before whatever is
Began to be. By him was made the air,
Sparrows, eagles, Asias, the sweet despair
Of the free mind. All honest things are his.

He is the holy one we waited for, the Word
Who speaks to us who stammer back, the plot
Against the rich and poor, the Gordian knot
Our wit cannot untie. He is time’s Lord.

Thus, shall we sing him well these Christmas days
And at his birth-feast practice with him praise.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘A Praise in Advent’, in The Ritual Year: Christmas, Winter, and Other Seasons: Poems (Amherst: Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993), 90.

More Advent Resources

AdventThis year, the Centre for Theology and Ministry has produced a resource to ‘assist individuals, households and small groups in their journey through Advent’. The booklet, which combines ‘individual daily reflections comprising a suggested Scripture reading, some words of reflection and a short prayer’, plus ‘ideas that can be used in the household or multi-age contexts’, can be downloaded here.

Also, a few years back, I posted some advent reflections. These can be accessed via hereherehere and here.

Advent Reflections: 2011–12


You can also access previous year’s reflections here: 20072009 and 2010.

The Advent caption competition winner announced

advent.jpgWith so many worthy entries, it was a tough gig indeed to decide on a winner for this year’s Advent Caption Competition. But after much anguish and discussion, and with some sortition and bribery, I am delighted to announce that this year’s winner is Brad Guderian with his caption, ‘What’s it mean when there’s a little cross on this thingy?’ Brad gets to choose one of the following titles:

Thanks to all who participated, and may I take this opportunity too to wish all readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem a very merry Christmas.

[If Brad could contact me via email with his choice of book and a postal address that he would like the book sent to I’d be delighted to get his prize into the post as soon as possible].

There is a place

lamentBack in 1996, after the horror that was unleashed on a wee school in Dunblane, Scotland (and which led to sensible people creating meaningful firearms legislation in the UK), John Bell and Graham Maule penned the hymn ‘There is a place’ (it appears on the album The Last Journey: Songs for the Time of Grieving, and is also available via iTunes). Of course, for many who are surviving under the almost unspeakable burden of grieving the loss of a child – whether in Apia, Ramallah, Baghdad, Christchurch or Newtown – it may well feel like the time for singing is no more, and indeed that even to imagine that such a time might yet dawn is to contemplate the most unimaginable and disrespectful of hopes. (For such as these, I really hope that this post brings no additional pain.) For others, however, and hopefully too one day for those who for now wander in the shadows of death, I wanted to share Bell and Maule’s words of lament and of hope birthed in the good and extra-ordinary news that despite all that Marx and Freud and Feuerbach wish to decry Advent bids us to wait for:

There is a place prepared for little children
Those we once lived for, those we deeply mourn,
Those who from play, from learning and from laughter
Cruelly were torn.

There is a place where hands which held ours tightly
Now are released beyond all hurt and fear
Healed by that love which also feels our sorrow
Tear after tear.

There is a place where all the lost potential
Yields its full promise, finds its lost intent;
Silenced no more, young voices echo freely
As they were meant.

There is a place where God will hear our questions,
Suffer our anger, share our speechless grief.
Gently repair the innocence of loving
And of belief.

Jesus, who bids us to be like little children
Shields those our arms are yearning to embrace,
God will ensure that all are reunited;
There is a place.

Of course, Christians believe that the ‘place’ spoken of here refers not to a geographical location (whether beyond the clouds or elsewhere) but to a person; namely, to Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, whose geographical location, if you like, is in the bosom of the Father, where we too live, where all distance between the living and the dead has been and is being overcome, and where all abruptly cut off life ‘finds its lost intent’.

[Image: Fikri]

‘A Reflection on Advent’, by Rowan Williams

pregnant mary‘I suppose if you did one of those word association tests on “Advent”, the other word you’d come up with straight away would be “calendar”. That’s all that most people these days are really aware of where Advent is concerned. Advent is a time when you have calendars, and the Advent calendar is a countdown to Christmas, and it means daily sweets and chocolates.

It’s a slightly thin and rather inadequate account of what has for a long time been one of the most important and significant times in the Church’s year – a time of waiting, we sometimes say. But once we’ve said waiting, of course that’s not a very attractive word. We’re not a culture that’s very used to waiting. “Take waiting out of wanting” – that’s a slogan that was very popular some decades ago – and it still governs a great deal of the way we behave. We’d quite like to have things when we decide we want them. And so waiting seems negative, waiting seems perhaps passive, unexciting, the boring bit before we get to the exciting bit. So if there is a period of waiting, getting ready for Christmas, we pad it out with the daily chocolate, to make sure that we’re not feeling too miserable.

Well it’s that kind of waiting that Advent is about. We remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and we remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us – as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophecies of Isaiah; metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.

So during this four weeks before Christmas, that’s what Christians are reflecting on. When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made. But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.

It’s been said so often it hardly needs saying again, but it is rather a pity that for a few weeks before Christmas we are saturated with Christmas carols. We don’t have quite the sort of quiet we need to think, “Well what would it be if Jesus really came as if for the first time into my life? What would it be for the good news really to change me?” Because for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away; all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis: all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom. It is a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time when we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.

It’s a time, as I’ve said, for going back to the prophecies, the foreshadowings of Jesus’ comings that we find in the Bible, and a time when two figures above all are representative of how we’re thinking and how we’re feeling. In the New Testament those two figures who are there right from the start of the Gospel story are

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. John the Baptist, you might say, sums up the whole drive, the whole story of the Bible so far. “Yes,” says John the Baptist, “something is about to happen and you’ve very little idea what it is and you’ve no idea how radical and how complete a change it will involve.” So John the Baptist can say when the Promised One arrives, “I won’t be worthy even to untie his shoe. He belongs in a different world; a different league.” So John the Baptist is pointing forward and saying, “Everything you’ve always hoped for, everything you’ve longed for, the change, the freedom, the peace, is about to come. It will be a shock coping with that. Get yourself ready. Make straight the Lord’s path”, says John, quoting the old prophecies. And Mary, who in many icons of ancient Christian art stands on the other side of Jesus from John the Baptist, the two of them flanking the figure of Jesus – Mary is the one who quietly receives into herself, into her body, heart and mind, the full reality of what’s coming. She receives it so deeply that the promise becomes real, physically real, in her; it becomes the child that’s going to be Jesus. And she has to wait with the long nine months of pregnancy, faithfully, quietly, waiting to see what comes, ready to be changed as every mother is changed by the birth of a child.

These are the two figures that Christians think about a lot in Advent. When you light Advent wreaths in churches, two of the candles represent Mary and John the Baptist. In Advent, Christians have for centuries thought about death and judgement, about heaven and hell. They’ve thought about the way in which, when we’re up against the truth for the first time, when we really see what the reality of God is like, it will be a shock to the system. It may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgement, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that, even with the pain and the risk. Or, God forbid, we say no, we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, “Can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?”

During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth – the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth, as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for’.

– Rowan Williams, ‘A Reflection on Advent’ in Darkness Yielding: Liturgies, Prayers and Reflections for Advent, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter (London: Canterbury Press/Cairns Publications, 2009), 6–9.

Advent as learning something of God’s own simultaneous ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

ambiguity‘Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God that is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the ‘desire of all nations’; in the cycle of the great Advent antiphons that begin with O Sapientia on 16 December, the phrase come twice, in the sixth and seventh texts: O Rex gentium, ‘O King of nations and their salvation’. Christmas is the moment of recognition, the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.

In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness …

We long to know we are addressed. And this is where the ambiguity comes in: we fantasize about what such an address might be; we project on to the empty space before us the voices we need to hear. Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a haunting fiction – a story of extra-terrestrial visitation in which the ‘aliens’ turn out to have the ghostly shapes and faces of our lost childhood. The menacing stranger is, after all, only our forgotten innocence. It is a striking secular parody of the Christmas story, and one that points up the questionableness of our desire. What if our longing to hear a word spoken to us from beyond simply generates a loud echo of our need to be told we are all right, we have never fundamentally gone astray, we have never really left an undifferentiated Paradise? …

Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralysing unhappiness and anxiety. And these longings are also fraught with the danger of illusion, the making of idols to meet our needs. The Israelites pour their treasures into a mould and out comes the Golden Calf; as if surprised, they cry, “Here is God”, as if they had not themselves determined the shape of the outcome.

“In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats.” For the people of God in Jewish scripture, loyalty to the covenant meant above all the forsaking of idols: the task is not to make sense of the world, beginning with unaided human resource, but to let ourselves be given sense purely by the summons of God. This was Israel’s own story: being led out of slavery and given shape and solidarity by the unexpected presence and pressure of God. Israel’s hostility to idols is a measure of the recognition that what I make to meet my needs cannot set me free, cannot give me a new and assured reality. The eyes of the idol are my own, looking back at me; I am still incommunicado …

The Christian, in the Advent season above all, must learn something of God’s own simultaneous “yes” and “no” to all religious aspiration and expectation. God, say the mystics, is innominabile and omninominable, the one for whom no name is adequate, the one of whom all true words speak. Only the newness of a new turn of history, the specific newness of new words, acts and relations, can show the God who will not allow himself to be caught in the circle of ideas alone, and so can show the God who exceeds both the fiercest longing and the profoundest speculation of creatures. Because Advent tells us to look for mystery, absolute grace, and freedom, in a fleshly human face, within the mobile form of our shared history, it brings our idolatry – philosophical and methodological alike – to judgement. Our hunger is met, we are talked and touched into new and everlasting life, our desire is answered; but only insofar as we have lived in an Advent of the religious imagination, struggling to let God be God; casting our idols of silver and gold to the moles and bats, “for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty”, longing simply for our God to show himself as God in the “total and presuppositionless love” of his incarnate speech to us.”’

– Rowan Williams, ‘Advent: A University Sermon’, in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. [HT: Kent Eilers]

Advent: a caption competition

It’s been some time since I ran a competition here at PCaL, and I reckon that this image – which was last year’s billboard from St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland – is just begging (still) for a caption:


[I’ll let the competition run until Christmas. And, as usual, the winner – who will receive a book of their choice from a selected list – will be decided by a combination of the ancient and biblical practice of casting lots and the modern more reliable practice of what I judge to be the best caption.]

‘Advent Stanzas’ by Robert Cording

four crowsI.
Are we always creating you, as Rilke said,
Trying, on our best days,
To make possible your coming-into-existence?

Or are you merely a story told in the dark,
A child’s drawing of barn and star?

Each year you are born again. It is no remedy

For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.

Here I am again, huddled in hope. For what
Do I wait? – I know you only as something missing,
And loved beyond reason.

As a word in my mouth I cannot embody.

On the snow-dusted field this morning – an etching
Of mouse tracks declares the frenzy of its hunger.

The plodding dawn sun rises to another day’s
One warm hour. I’m walking to the iced-in local pond

Where my neighbors have sat through the night
Waiting for something to find their jigged lure.

The sky is paste white. Each bush and tree keeps
Its cold counsel. I’m walking head-on into a wind

That forces my breath back into my mouth.
Like rags of black cloth, crows drape a dead oak.

When I pass under them, their cries rip a seam
In the morning. Last week a life long friend told me,

There’s no such thing as happiness. It’s ten years
Since he found his son, then a nineteen-year old

Of extraordinary grace and goodness, curled up
In his dormitory room, unable to rise, to free

Himself of a division that made him manic and
Depressed, and still his son struggles from day to day,

The one partial remedy a dismal haze of drugs.
My friend hopes these days for very little – a stretch of

Hours, a string of a few days when nothing in his son’s life
Goes terribly wrong. This is the season of sad stories:

The crippling accident, the layoffs at the factory,
The family without a car, without a house, without money

For presents. The sadder the human drama, the greater
Our hope, or so the television news makes it seem

With its soap-opera stories of tragedy followed up
With ones of good will – images of Santas’ pots filling up

At the malls, truckloads of presents collected for the shelters,
Or the family posed with their special-needs child

In front of a fully equipped van given by the local dealership.
This is the season to keep the less fortunate in sight,

To believe that generosity will be generously repaid.
We’ve strung colored lights on our houses and trees,

And lit candles in the windows to hold back the dark.
For what do we hope? – That our candles will lead you

To our needs? That your gift of light will light
These darkest nights of the year? That our belief

In our own righteousness will be vindicated?
The prophet Amos knew the burden of our coming.

The day of the Lord is darkness, he said, darkness, not light,
As if someone went into a house and rested a hand against a wall,

And was bitten by a snake. Amos knew the shame of
What we fail, over and over, to do, the always burning

Image of what might be. Saint Paul, too, saw
The whole creation groaning for redemption.
And will you intercede with sighs too deep for words
Because you love us in our weakness, because

You love always, suddenly and completely, what is
In front of you, whether it is a lake or leper.

Because you come again and again to destroy the God
We keep making in our own image. Will we learn

To pray: May our hearts be broken open. Will we learn
To prepare a space in which you might come forth,
In which, like a bolt of winter solstice light,
You might enter the opening in the stones, lighting

Our dark tumulus from beginning to end?

All last night the tatter of sleet, ice descending,
Each tree sheathed in ice, and then, deeper
Into the night, the shattering cracks and fall
Of branches being pruned by gusts of wind.

It is the first morning after the longest night,
Dawn colorless, the sun still cloud-silvered.
Four crows break the early stillness, an apocalypse
Of raucous squawks. My miniature four horsemen

Take and eat whatever they can in the field
Outside my door: a deer’s leg my dog has dragged
Home. Above them, the flinty sun has at last fired
A blue patch of sky, and suddenly each ice-transfigured

Trees shines. Each needle of pine, each branch
Of ash, throws off sparks of light. Once,
A rabbi saw a spark of goodness trapped inside
Each evil, the very source of life for that evil –

A contradiction not to be understood, but suffered,
The rabbi explained, though the one who prays
And studies Torah will be able to release that spark,
And evil, having lost its life-giving source, will cease.

When I finally open my door and walk out
Into the field, every inch of my skin seems touched
By light. So much light cannot be looked at:
My eyelids slam down like a blind.

All morning I drag limbs into a pile. By noon,
The trees and field have lost their shine. I douse
The pile of wood with gas, and set it aflame,
Watching the sparks disappear in the sky.

This is the night we have given for your birth.

After the cherished hymns, the prayers, the story
Of the one who will become peacemaker,
Healer of the sick, the one who feeds
The hungry and raises the dead,

We light small candles and stand in the dark

Of the church, hoping for the peace
A child knows, hoping to forget career, mortgage,
Money, hoping even to turn quietly away

From the blind, reductive selves inside us.

We are a picture a child might draw
As we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.
Yet, while each of us tries to inhabit the moment
That is passing, you seem to live in-between
The words we fill with our longing.

The time has come
To admit I believe in the simple astonishment
Of a newborn.

And also to say plainly, as Pascal knew, that you will live
In agony even to the end of the world,

Your will failing to be done on earth
As it is in heaven.

Come, o come Emmanuel,

I am a ghost waiting to be made flesh by love
I am too imperfect to bear.

– Robert Cording, ‘Advent Stanzas’, in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (ed. Philip Zaleski; Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 18–22.

Advent triptych

For the benefit of those readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem whose minds at this time of year are somewhat unlubricated, or on whom my subtleties more often than not simply carry through to the keeper, the previous three posts – poems by RS Thomas‘The Word’‘The Empty Church’ and ‘The Coming’ – form a triptych of Advent movement that I thought worked nicely together during this last week of Advent.

‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
……        ………..On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

– RS Thomas, ‘The Coming’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 234.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, ‘Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple’

Rembrandt, 'Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple', c. 1666-69.

How light he lies
in these ancient arms.
The infant’s eyes open
to meet the old man’s
as they close.

I have seen his eyesight fade.
I have wept some days to watch
his long waiting, sonorous mumbling
prayer trailing into sleep. For many
months he has wished to be
dismissed in peace.

Now, holding this child,
he can let go.

Glad for his good release, I mourn
the mother’s pain, the child’s plight,
the loss that comes
for me in this: no longer to see him
on the temple steps, old eyes glittering
with hope, always ready to retell
the ancient tales while doves coo
in the courtyard and chattering housewives
pass in the street and within
the drone of prayer turns story into song.

What darkness comes with this light
burden he bears now, gurgling
his brief contentment. Glory of Israel,
Revelation to the Gentiles, this little gift
of God will cost us all we know. I see
the sword in his mother’s heart,
and in his own – and mine, too,
as the old man, his log watch ended,
speaks his fateful benediction.

– Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, ‘Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple’, in Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt’s Religious Paintings (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 37–8.


As if until that moment
nothing real
had happened since Creation

As if outside the world were empty
so that she and he were all
there was — he mover, she moved upon

As if her submission were the most
dynamic of all works: as if
no one had ever said Yes like that

As if that day the sun had no place
in all the universe to pour its gold
but her small room

– Luci Shaw, ‘Virgin’ in Accompanied By Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 15.

Advent poem: ‘Eleven’

Her growing stomach struck me as grotesque.
Some other seed than mine engendered this:
Some stolen love, some alien, wretched bliss
Raped all integrity, all trust suppressed.
To consummate my pledge, by honor pressed,
Would violate that honor, transform kiss
To custom, love to duty, prove remiss
In truth, and make of joy a jest.

Exhausted by despair’s fatigue, I slept
The torment of the God-forsaken dead.
I tossed and turned, or when I woke, I wept,
Until an angel stilled my fears, and said:

“Abandon doubt, and take this quiet boast:
The child she bears is by the Holy Ghost.”

– D.A. Carson, ‘Eleven’ in Holy Sonnets of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids/Nottingham: Baker/Crossway, 1994), 27.

Advent Reflections: 2010

Advent I: On Matthew 11.25–27

Advent II: ‘The Waiting’, by RS Thomas

Advent III: ‘Advent Calendar’, by Rowan Williams

Advent IV: ‘The process of Your coming’, by Karl Rahner

Advent V: ‘The sign of God is powerlessness in the world’

Advent VI: ‘Gift’ by Marion Armstrong

Advent VII: ‘The Man Who Was a Lamp’, by John Shea

Advent VIII: ‘Advent’, by Trygve David Johnson

Advent IX: Somebody’s out to get me

Advent IX: Somebody’s out to get me

Few books have left their mark on me as deeply as Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai. One of the oft-recounted ‘episodes’ in the book concerns Donovan’s ‘conversion’ by a Masai elder who unmasked Donovan’s very Western (enlightenment) notion of faith as predominantly intellectual assent, ‘to agree to’. ‘“To believe” like that’, the elder said, ‘was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word’. He continued: ‘for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is’.

Donovan’s response? Silence, and amazement: ‘Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being’. But the Masai elder had not finished speaking to Donovan:

‘We did not search you out, Padri … We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God’. (p. 51)

Does this not go to the heart – and challenge some of our misconceptions – of Advent wherein we celebrate the coming of God, the lion – or, if you prefer Francis Thompson’s image, ‘the hound’ – of heaven among us? For all the time that we are focussed on our waiting, the lion is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us, love’s victim. Clearly, Advent is his waiting too.

It was this lion, of course – this lion from whose generous bounty we live, gift after gift after gift; this lion who is the glory of the Father – who pounced on Mary, pulled her to himself, and made her part of himself. And it is Mary, perhaps more than any other biblical figure, who gifts us with how one lives under and inside a lion; i.e., who gifts us with how one lives the other side of our death. So her Magnificat, as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer:

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Time to reflect: Here’s the ‘Magnificat’ by Arvo Pärt, set to Cal Jones’ (Director and Producer) and Ralph Lopatin’s (Cinematographer) ‘Miracle on the Delaware’:

[Image: Gary Cutri]