"We who must die demand a miracle."
IT IS always a risk trying to find contemporary resonance with biblical stories. An attempt to contextualise the Christmas story for a modern high street last year led one retailer to construct a nativity scene out of Henry vacuum cleaners. A contemporary rendition of the song of the angels can easily end up as a Lennon tribute — “Give peace a chance” (or, as I saw in a hummus shop recently, “Give peas a chance”, which at least lends a suitably Middle Eastern flavour).
Theologically, too, this contextualising is a challenge, as the power of the incarnation is that it is scandalously particular. Incarnation makes sense only if it is located in a particular place and time, a person, a family. In a historical religion, none of these elements are dispensable.
The irreducibly Jewish context of the events and dramatis personae are important, too, as Christians give proper honour to our elder-sister religion. Having said this, if we take seriously the movement of the Spirit at Pentecost and beyond, it must be possible to find echoes of these particular stories in a contemporary gospel proclaimed all around us.
W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas oratorio, first published in 1944, expresses his thoughts on what might be called “stations” of the nativity (just like the Stations of the Cross), a theme subsequently developed by others, including Raymond Chapman (Stations of the Nativity: Meditations on the incarnation of Christ).
The power of the incarnation story at Christmas depends on our understanding the universal themes of occupied and militarised societies, the actions of frightened politicians, the fearful travelling of a family in danger, and the miraculous joy in the midst of it all. The message that Auden imagines an Advent people giving to God is the line with which we begin: “We who must die demand a miracle.”
And a miracle is exactly what happens next.
1 Annunciation: Mary and Gabriel
TRADITION has it that Mary was visited by Gabriel when she was at the well: a place of ordinary daily chores, in the street. And the conversation between this young Jewish betrothed girl and her mysterious messenger stands in a long tradition of such meetings: Jacob and Rachel fell in love at a well; and, later, Mary’s son would meet a Samaritan woman at one, too, in a lively exchange that extends his mission and expands his reach.
Love and forgiveness are announced here, in this annunciation. The Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, from Venezuela, are often one such annunciation for the people who see them play — as they did in the UK in 2015. Young people from the poorest homes in Venezuela learn that the sophisticated, exuberant beauty of classical music is for them to interpret in their own way. While the politics are complicated, the vivaciousness and freedom with which they play open a fissure in the fabric of life through which Love itself is irrevocably announced and joyously present.
2 Joseph’s dream
JOSEPH, not unreasonably, assumes that Mary has betrayed his trust. His assumption of adultery is perfectly natural: he cannot imagine anything else. Years later, Jesus will overturn the expectations of the mob, who drag before him a woman caught in adultery, testing his reaction.
The tagline of the website Ashley Madison, hacked in July 2015 to expose nearly 40 million users, was “Life is short. Have an affair.” As life expectancy increases, and consensus about the desirability of chastity before marriage recedes, tolerance of adultery in the West is now much more publicly obvious than in the shame-ridden environment of first-century Judaea.
The rejection of societal violence in reaction to adultery has to be a good thing, but the innate violence of adultery itself can be its own punishment. The impulse to cheat on a partner is very often rooted in the desire to avoid the reality of who we are ourselves, as revealed to us by another. We want a break from the commitment we have made, in order to do something that will make us “feel alive again”. We want to disguise what we suspect to be the more prosaic truth of who we are with the thrill of newness, and the significant expending of energy, money, and time which an affair requires.
This is a violence done to our partner, and probably to ourselves; breaking a promise takes considerable effort and emotional violence. In Joseph’s dream, even though he does not ultimately understand, the astonishing alternative laid out for him is a path of deepening trust, and the unknown consequences of staying.
3 The birth of Jesus
AT THE centre of the Christmas story is a birth of light into darkness; the birth of love into hatred; the birth of peace into war. A birth in dangerous circumstances; a new birth of Love into the world. Just days after the Paris attacks in November 2015, one of the bereaved relatives, Antoine Leiris, wrote an open letter to the killers of his wife. Mr Leiris wanted to communicate somehow with the gunmen who had murdered Hélène Muyal in the Bataclan concert hall. She was 35.
“On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred. . . If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart. Us two, my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world. I cannot waste any more time on you as I must go back to [my son] who has just woken from his sleep. He is only just 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack just like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day, and all his life this little boy will be happy and free. Because you will never have his hatred either.”
There are no words for this grief and this love. There are no words for the birth we celebrate at Christmas except his tiny body: the Word made flesh. The symbolism of Christmas is much more than a sense of a light shining in a darkness: it is divine hope, which fractures the brittle power of death, and which, in the end, is “stronger than any army in the world”.
4 Shepherds watching in the fields
IN APRIL 2015, a survey just before the General Election revealed that proposed policies regarding the care system would be influential in just six per cent of voters’ decisions. With an ageing population and stretched public resources, the regime of 15-minute visits by carers to elderly people who have no choice but to wait means that there is an endemic loneliness and isolation among the increasing numbers of people who spend 30 or 40 years in retirement.
Waiting is a way of life. And, for those who live into old age, the loss of autonomy, and the challenge of becoming one who receives help rather than gives it, are almost more than we can bear. Writers such as W. H. Vanstone and W. H. Auden find meaning in the passivity of waiting, and insist that there is profound learning in the necessity of dependence. Auden writes that “each of us is waiting”, which “is why we are able to bear Ready-made clothes, second-hand art and opinions And being washed and ordered about”; but, for those who have not chosen this, it is a hard teaching to believe.
It is a deeply counter-cultural lesson that we learn from the shepherds, who watch and wait all night; but perhaps, in this passivity, they become acutely receptive to the astonishing message they hear.
5 And there appeared a heavenly host
ONE of the most effective ways tof telling stories or spreading messages is now in short films. The launch of YouTube on St Valentine’s Day 2005 has revolutionised the way we communicate what is important to us. The prevalence of the internet in the lives of most of us now has also spawned the term IRL (“in real life”). Several artistic projects try to bring “RL” vividly into short films, conducting social experiments in public, and publishing the results.
One such company is Action Productions. In a film on YouTube, made in our parish in September, a young woman wearing only underwear and a blindfold stands on a busy city street with a sign: “I’m standing for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder or self-esteem issue like me. To support self-acceptance, draw a heart on my body.”
Passers-by are, by turns, embarrassed, tentative, admiring, and inspired; by the end, a huge number of hearts have been drawn on the young woman’s body. The looks on the faces of some of the passers-by are indicative of their response to this brave and exposing visit from a stranger.
In scripture and the Christian tradition, angels are messengers. They appear as visitors, as to Abraham; as overwhelming creatures, as in Revelation; and, in the Christmas story, as the ones who announce the new and timeless messages of glory and peace.
This they do in ordinary settings, with a variety of people. By their presence, they invite others into a new understanding, a new set of assumptions, a new way of seeing themselves and the world around. They invite them to come closer to God.
The YouTube video does not pretend to do anything other than raise the issues of body image in a body-obsessive environment — the West End of London. But, as an announcement of profound good news in a hostile environment, requiring courage from all involved, it is for me a life-giving message from an unexpected messenger.
6 The visit of the Magi
THIS summer, on the south bank of the Thames, in London, close to Lambeth Palace, the tops of the heads of four huge stone statues were visible just above the water.
The installation, by the British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, was called The Rising Tide. Four life-sized shire horses carried four people, all of whom had their eyes shut. The horses’ heads were replaced by the so-called “horse head” of an oil-well pump. For most of the time they were under water, emerging twice a day only to be covered again by the tide that rose over their heads.
DeCaires Taylor said about his work: “The suited figures are ambivalent to their situation. I wanted to create this striking image of a politician in front of the Houses of Parliament, ignoring the world as the water rises around him.”
Auden comments that the star the Magi followed on their visit to Christ is that “most dreaded by the wise”, because it would inevitably lead them to places where they would come up against the fact that they could not rely on their knowledge alone.
As 2015 draws to a close, the Paris summit has been attempting to avert damaging climate change. It is partly the human hubristic impulse to colonise, commodify, and over-exploit the gifts of creation that have necessitated this.
Not least in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, itself pre-figured by the long-term work done by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, the ecological crisis is described as a spiritual crisis as well as a political one.
That knowledge is not the same as wisdom is a commonplace, but the precipitous places into which we are led by following the star of Bethlehem will mean that fundamental lifestyle changes are ahead. There is a wisdom deeper than the knowledge on which it rests, and to travel towards it is, to say the least, a challenge to the way we live now.
7 The escape to Egypt
THE language of the debate describing the mass movement of people from Syria and other war-torn places across the borders of Europe has been fiercely contested in 2015. What shall we say? Are migrants the same as refugees? What kind of limits do we want to set on net immigration, and how should we judge between the flight from persecution and the seeking of a better life?
The verbs used by politicians were under scrutiny, too: swarming, deluging, flooding — all implied perilous consequences for those into whose countries refugees were arriving. But the reality has been that thousands have drowned in the Aegean Sea, while a co-ordinated response from European governments has been slow in coming.
In the UK, Christian projects such as Housing Justice were overwhelmed with offers of help; a church was built in “The Jungle” in Calais; and the residents of Munich handed out sweets to newly arrived Syrian families. It is a crisis in which the very best and the very worst of humanity have been on display.
8 Massacre of the innocents
THE impulse to totalitarianism straddles every continent, century, religion, and philosophy in the history of humankind. The news from Nigeria this year was that children were massacred because they could not run fast enough from Boko Haram. Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, massacred children who did not observe Ramadan to their satisfaction; and child-soldiers were brutalised and killed in the Central African Republic.
Children were trafficked as sex slaves in Europe; in India, children worked in coal mines; and in Brazil they worked on rubbish heaps. In the UK, the NSPCC estimates that eight times the official figure of 50,000 children need protection from adults who abuse and hurt them.
In the time of Jesus, children were some of the most marginalised members of society, with little education and no social power to influence the circumstances of their lives. And, while we can all be easily horrified at cruelty towards children elsewhere, sometimes the justification of children’s lives’ becoming “collateral damage” in the service of a greater plan can be an unintended but no less devastating consequence of what starts off as a reasonable chain of thought.
9 The return from Egypt: going home
”. . .the kingdom of Heaven may come, not in our present
And not in our future, but in the Fullness of Time.”
W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being”
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, London.
For the Time Being: A Christmas oratorio by W. H. Auden is published by Princeton University Press at £13.95 (CT Bookshop £12.55).