24. December 2017

From Christmas to Calvary

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‘…He will reign on David’s Throne and over His Kingdom…’ (Isaiah 9, 7).

One of the most evocative pieces of writing concerning the events surrounding the first Christmas is T.S. Eliot’s, ‘The Journey of the Magi’. Whilst it tells the story simply and straightforwardly, very matter of fact, it is packed full of imagery that demands the reader give it much thought concerning its meaning…and so the line, ‘And Three Trees on the Low Sky’. It may well have been just that, but one is bound to recognise the obvious parallel with ‘Three Crosses on a Hill’. Indeed, what looked like trees may well have been crosses. The occupying power that was Rome used crucifixion randomly and routinely both to punish and to deter. No doubt as the Magi made their way to Bethlehem they would have seen many crosses, and not all empty. Th poet wants us to understand that the Jesus whom they were to visit, to make sense of His birth, one has to set it within the wider context of His life, & His death. We do not understand the Incarnation if we regard Christmas as an event in itself; self-contained, all wrapped up in its own distinctive wrapping paper. And then in the latter part of the poem the writer makes it personal…

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had 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…

Sharing Communion at the heart of Christmas celebrations is the perfect way to ensure that we do not lose sight of the whole story. More than to realise that the very fact that was Jesus born into the world, thereby setting in motion a sequence of events that would culminate in the Cross. This was bound to upset an otherwise ordered world, to disturb otherwise ordered lives and lifestyles. Herod realised this, hence his response, one of savage butchery beyond our imagining – the slaughter of the innocents – in a desperate attempt to end it before it had barely begun. The Magi knew it too. Matthew tells us that they went back to their own country, ‘another way’, not just by a different route, but now to a different way of living, whether they liked it or not. To witness the birth of Jesus necessarily demanded of them that they put to death all that they otherwise held dear. The ‘Old Dispensation’ was being displaced; no longer could live ‘at ease’ amongst it. Now what had previously been so familiar to them has become alien to their experience, the old gods confined to an idolatrous past, and for them, there was no future, hence their being glad of ‘another death’, but we know the story – the crucifying effect of the Incarnation is overwhelmed by resurrection power, that which heralds a new dispensation as the ‘Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ’ – the clarion call of Advent - ’The old has passed away behold the new has come’. But this is but a foretaste of what is yet to be; something of the tension that exists between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’: we live in the ‘now’ yet all the while are blessed with a faith that dares us to believe in the ‘not yet’. It is no good living as if that which is ‘not yet’ really is ‘now’ for then faith would be redundant and we would be left as was the narrator of Eliot’s poem with nothing to live for other than our impending death. Advent confronts such a realisation by daring us to believe that because the ‘now’ is but a portent of the not yet’ we do in fact have everything to live for

“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.” (Deitrich Bonhoeffer; ‘God is in the Manger).

And so we celebrate Communion at Christmas, to remind ourselves that whilst there is that of God which is ‘not yet’, that of God which we are yet to experience, that of God which is yet to be revealed to us, shared with us, received by us; yet God in Christ is really present with us in the ‘now’, a real presence that is represented for us in bread and wine, a real presence far more profound than just a mere transubstantiating of the elements

“In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbour, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.” (Deitrich Bonhoeffer: ‘God is in the Manger’).

So, here we are, face to face with Jesus ‘God in the Manger’ and He demands of us a response; that response will depend very much on what we see when we see Jesus? We need to see ourselves reflected back to us; this is how we are, but more than that, to see ourselves as God sees us; to realise who we are in the light of God’s presence – the light which shines in the darkness, which the darkness has not overcome. We need too, to see everyman, everywoman, anyone and everyone and to realise that in God’s loving the world in Jesus, God’s giving of Himself to the world in Jesus, if we are to be the people God would wish us to be, then we too have to give of ourselves in love to the world for the sake of Jesus alone.