Sunday, December 30, 2012

The wisest man brought myrrh

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I was all set to write a jolly article suitable for Christmas festivities when the news came through about the tragedy in Connecticut. So much doesn't seem appropriate any more, even though, in a cynical sense, there is nothing new about what has happened. One of the things that I have most come to believe over the last several years is that God is never in “the drama”. That is, whenever there is a conscious desire to attract attention – to 'glamourise' in other words – there is also a turning away from God, a turning away from that same source of life and vitality. Consider a previous act of slaughter, the attacks of 9/11 in the United States. These were the very definition of a spectacle, and yet – despite what was claimed – I cannot believe that God was behind the spectacle, in the sense of desiring it, or having his purposes accomplished through it.

There is something of a truism here – that evil is banal and repetitive, whereas it is only goodness that is creative and capable of bringing something new into existence. When a soul is turned away from the living source of life and vitality it often seeks to artificially induce that vitality through a quest for stimulation, like Frankenstein charging his monster from the storm. So we have the epic spectacles of terrorism and slaughter where the monsters inside people are unleashed upon the world.

There is a passage in one of my favourite works of Christian spirituality – Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet' – which says this: “Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.” Souls turn to the darkness when the light which they crave is denied to them; and sometimes, which I take as the definition of evil, that darkness is embraced, justified and celebrated. The sorrow of our society is that we have become a place which has lost an awareness of the distinction between the light and the dark.

How are we to try and understand this, to regain an appreciation of the light, in order that we may, as a community, move back towards the light? One aspect is, I believe, to recognise that there is such a thing as evil and to accept that we will never be able to achieve a society which has banished sin and suffering, no matter how many well-intentioned programmes are undertaken. We need to have a greater sense of realism about the world that we live in, not to become cynical, but to recognise the cost of pursuing goodness, and the inevitable element of tragedy in human existence.

Which is, after all, the hidden side of the Christmas story. After all, we see and hear the story through the prism of two thousand years of telling; consequently, many of the most substantial elements can be missed. The point about a new king being born amongst the animals, resting in the trough, where there is no room in the inn – this is the very 'anti-drama' that is the sign of God's presence. I sometimes have the sense in reading these classic stories that the original writers could not be content with God's choice to be born as a nobody from a nothing town, and so all the elements of angelic messengers and visits from kings had to be imported to try and dignify God's activity with human hyperbole. It is too staggering for our imaginations to believe that God might just simply be present as a naked and mewling infant.

An infant, of course, who would one day be slaughtered by the state for being inconvenient to the projects of power. This is an aspect to the story that is present from the start – the cost of standing for life and truth when the established powers are bent on a course in opposition to such life and truth. A few days after Christmas, a few days after Jesus was born, the order was sent out to slaughter the innocents – those who had done nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Holy Innocents and all who loved them bore the pain at that time, yet Jesus himself was destined for pain, humiliation and death himself. It was the wisest man who brought the myrrh – the ointment used for preparing bodies for burial, the sign of Jesus' own fate. Right at the beginning, amidst the cherubs, nestled in the arms of his mother, the undertone of pain and suffering was present.

There is so much to be thankful for, and to rejoice in, through the Christmas season, most especially for those who have much – much family, much friendship, much good cheer and wealth to celebrate. Yet there is this hidden side of Christmas, where the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. The story of Christmas is that the Lord came to be with those who have nothing – those who can find no place of shelter, those who hunger, those who are lonely and bereaved – those who bear the cost of tragedy in human life. For those of us who suffer – and, if truth be told, I believe that we all suffer in our different ways, we each have our own cross to bear – the message of Christmas is that God is with us. Despite all the ways in which our world distresses us, despite all the ways in which we fall short of our own hopes and desires and each other's expectations, despite all the ways in which we are most conscious of not becoming the people that God intends us to be – the message is that God has not abandoned us, and that, mysterious though it is, the way through our vale of suffering can be found by hearing the story of a baby boy, born out of wedlock and shunted into the stables two thousand years ago. May the light and peace of the Christ-child be with you and all whom you love this Christmas time.

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