Picture attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMenologion_of_Basil_037.jpg
Archives for December 2015
Bill Countryman Good Shepherd, Berkeley
CHRISTMAS EVE, 2015
Year C: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
One might feel that there’s a bit of a disconnect between reading the newspaper this morning and celebrating Christmas this evening. The world at large seems particularly stricken with hatred and destruction as the Year of our Lord 2015 slips away. And yet, here we are singing about glory in the highest and peace on earth.
You could think of it—I’m sure some people do think of it—as a bit of escapism, a retreat from reality into a candle-lit fantasy of better times. And maybe there is a bit of that in it for most of us. And why not? A little escapism from time to time, a chance to draw your breath before turning back around to face reality, helps us get through otherwise difficult times. But that’s not the main thing Christmas is about.
And what is it about? It’s about the whole big story of the universe and of us in it. And it’s a completely outrageous version of that story. Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? What other sort of story could measure up to this great, improbable, rich, sumptuous, many-colored world of which we are a part? Yes, there are great sorrows and dangers. And, yes, the wonder of it all—of day and night, rain and sun, winter and summer, plants, animals, people— the wonder of it all is still beyond telling.
The story begins with God creating this universe—not because God had any need of it, but rather as an immense and outrageously splendid work of art. And the story goes on to tell that God created, in this world, some beings that, we are told, share God’s image and likeness. Why would God want such odd creatures? There can be only one reason. God wanted creatures who could respond to God as friends. Of course, they also had to be creatures who could refuse God’s friendship because you can’t choose something that you aren’t free to reject.
Some of us have chosen that friendship. I think of Abraham, who was called “God’s friend.” Some of us have worked hard to keep clear of it. Most of us are probably somewhere in between. And mostly, I suspect, we just try to avoid thinking about it because, after all, it is so outrageous that God should even be asking for friendship with us. Us?
And, after all, we do have other things to be concerned about. Just keeping one’s head above water is enough to occupy most of our time and attention. Do we have the energy to care whether the One who unleashed all this wonderful but perplexing world on us is also trying to be friends?
But the Creator doesn’t give up easily. Knowing that we finite, mortal creatures have a hard time raising our sights to the wonder that lies in and around and under this world we live in, the Creator does what a friend would do: God comes to see us, comes live among us as one of us.
Not just to see the sights. It’s not a visit to the zoo or the botanical garden. It’s not like the old gods who would sometimes roam around among the peasantry just for the fun of it, perhaps dealing out some blessings here, playing some pranks there. No, this is God sharing our lives, taking on all our weaknesses, our uncertainties, our mortality. This is serious friendship.
And that’s the meaning of this strange event in Bethlehem:
Here comes to birth
the One who birthed us all.
Here lies the Upholder of all,
too weak to raise his head,
God, choosing helplessness instead,
has left the throne of deep tranquillity
to live in human poverty—
has come to earth.
Outrageous nonsense! Makes no sense at all! Why would anyone take it seriously?
Well, it sounds very much like the God who made this outrageous universe to start with. An outrageous God will do outrageous things. And the outrageousness of Bethlehem has about it the peculiar logic of immortal, unfailing friendship, seeking friendship in return.
And so we celebrate it, even in a time when the newspapers are full of dark things, of hatred and harm. We celebrate it because the outrageous One is here, with us, to share the risks.
I’ll shortly begin adding to this blog some sonnets I’ve written for St. Mary. Advent, with Christmas quickly approaching, is a good time to reflect on her—on Mary of Nazareth, the Blessed Virgin, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God, Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven or by whatever title you know her. She has been a bone of contention, of course, between Roman Catholics and Protestants, with Anglicans caught, as often, somewhat uncomfortably in the middle. I find myself drawn to the long tradition of honoring her while also put off by many aspects of it. The problem, for me, is that her exaltation long ago seems to have passed the point where she could still seem authentically human.
The tradition certainly does recognize her human emotions of joy and sorrow. But what about our human capacity for uncertainty? Like other saints, Mary has been magnified into a paragon of dedication and commitment—one who mastered faith, hope, and love from the get-go. She had never a shadow of doubt, we are led to think—no questioning as to whether all this was really true, whether she had comprehended it correctly, whether God was really involved with her life in a way so completely unimaginable.
I took it as a gift, then, when, a few years ago, Nancy Kerr and I, in our ongoing project of reading Greek together, took up St. Romanos’s great kontakion (verse sermon) on Mary at the Cross. Romanos, a sixth-century deacon in Constantinople and a brilliant poet, was deeply devoted to Mary, but that created no difficulty to him in portraying her uncertainty and fear. In his poetry, she is the focus of the greatest mystery in all of creation, the incarnation. In her womb, God and humanity have become indissolubly united. She is a figure beyond our common humanity by virtue of this link which she was instrumental in creating. At the same, she is one with the rest of us in her inability to know the future or to enjoy a level of certainty that is in fact beyond our finite human condition.
It is this finite, even sometimes anxious Mary who is, at the same time, the sanctuary of God’s incarnate mystery that moves me mostly deeply. And I have tried to capture bits and pieces of her portrait in this series of sonnets addressed to her. They’ll be appearing at intervals on this blog over the next couple of months; and since they don’t represent quite the conventional approach to the saint, I thought this brief introduction might be useful to those interested enough to listen to them.
[For those who are interested, the kontakion I mentioned is no. 19 in the edition by Karl Maas and my teacher C. A. Trypanis. It begins To;n di j hJma'” staurwqevnta deu’te pavnte” uJmnhvswmen, “Come, let us all hymn the one crucified for us . . . ” In the Sources Chrétiennes edition, it is volume 4, number 35.]
I read Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope long ago—probably in my late teens—but remembered it positively enough that, a few months ago, I decided to read my way through the whole series of novels that Trollope set in the same imaginary rural English shire. I have come away with happy memories and enormous respect for Trollope as a writer.
The series begins with The Warden, whose protagonist, an Anglican priest named Septimus Harding, reappears in less central roles in the succeeding novels. He serves, less by any formal teaching than by his generosity of spirit, as a kind of moral and spiritual center of gravity for the people whose lives touch on his. He is not any sort of rigid moralist, in contrast to Mrs. Bishop Proudie, the other pervasive figure in these tales. His clergy associates sometimes think of him as week and lacking in ambition, but his character not infrequently makes them conscious of their own short-comings.
Barchester Towers sets up much of the basic conflict that underlies the remaining novels. On the one hand, there are ecclesiastical tensions occasioned by the arrival of a new bishop (Proudie) who is an Evangelical (in contrast to the old “high and dry” tradition that had hitherto characterized the diocese). What is more, Mrs. Proudie, who dominates her husband, is decidedly aggressive in her advocacy of Evangelical ways, which has the unintended consequence of driving her opponents further than they might otherwise have gone toward the newer high churchmanship of the Oxford Movement.
The books also explore the problems of the country gentry, whose wealth is in land and who sometimes find themselves in financial diistress. The consequences fall particularly on the younger generation, as they come tof marriageable age and become the focus of their families’ need for infusions of new money.
None of the novels, however, is simply an exploration of social change. They are studies of how various, quite individual characters navigate unexpected challenges in their lives: some well, some clumsily, some in ways that the reader will have difficulty sympathizing with.
The third novel, Doctor Thorne, focuses particularly on issues of marriage. Thorne himself emerges as a person of great practical intelligence and integrity. One gets the sense that he is one of Trollope’s own favorite creations. But he has to confront and overcome some of his own prejudices when he takes his deceased brother’s illegitimate daughter under his wing—as does the family of gentry into which she will eventually marry.
Framley Parsonage highlights the interaction of the two worlds of clergy and country gentry (plus a few noble families that are still firmly grounded in their estates and have not yielded to the temptations of metropolitan high society). The interest focuses partly on ways in which a more sophisticated and unscrupulous segment of the urban culture threatens the welfare of these rural folk. Yet, it also introduces Martha Dunstable, the generous and unconventional heiress of an ointment manufacturer, who confutes any notion that “new money” from the mercantile world is necessarily an evil. Indeed, she is recognized as bringing new life to her surroundings.
The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset together explore at greater length the ways in which a handful of characters, new and old, adapt or fail to adapt to the challenges in their worlds. The Last Chronicle, in particular, is a masterly juggling act of several different story strands. Perhaps the key word is one that Trollope introduces here: “cross-grainedness.” Some of the characters set themselves at cross purposes with one another or with their own situations and find it difficult to negotiate peaceful and fruitful solutions to their difficulties. The word is first used in reference is to a particular duo of father and son; but it describes some of the female characters of the books equally well.
And what does it all come down to? Certainly there is an element of historical fascination for the modern reader trying to comprehend the rural England of the 1860s. But the characters engage with their lives in ways that we can still recognize in ourselves and our world, even if our challenges are different in detail. Trollope gives us exactly the kind of intelligent rumination on humanity that one can get only from a wise and very observant friend.