Friday, December 9, 2016
Sitting in the dark, talkin' 'bout the light
Growing up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, during the 1950's, the Christmas season began when the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived. It was the liturgical book of the season without peer. We pored over its pages and then wrote our prayers to Santa Claus, who knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake, but who still relied on the USPS to receive our prayers. In the Baptist church, Christmas was the birthday of Jesus. There was no christology that I ever noticed. There was a cantata and a pageant. I had my first beard as Joseph in the pageant one year. It was glued on.
Over the years I sort of forgot about the church and such things. Christmas was still a lot of fun. Trees and music and gifts. When I was married, we always had a life tree which we put up on Santa Lucia's Day, because it was also my wife's birthday, and planted on Christmas day. Everyone else slept while I took down the decorations as I watched a ballet on NBC. Then we planted it.
Later, I discovered that there was more to Christianity than Jezebel and Ahab, who had been the subject of nearly all the sermons of my youth, and that there was more to prayer than sending a wish list off to an old man, wherever he lived. I discovered other liturgical books than the Sears Christmas Catalogue. And I discovered Anglicanism, which has had about the best prayers one can find. I use the past perfect tense intentionally. One of the best is this jewel:
'ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.'
That prayer is the Anglican collect for the First Sunday in Advent, 'to be said throughout Advent'. It was newly written by Thomas Cranmer to replace the Sarum Collect, which had been one of the 'Stir up's':
'Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come, that we may be accounted worthy to be rescued by thy protection from the threatening dangers of our sins to be set free by Thy deliverance'
The changes are not, I think, insignificant. I think it shows Cranmer in a quite anti-Lutheran mood. Our rising to immortality needs us to do things. But even more important is that it seems to recognize that things in this mortal life are not only not as they seem, but not as they should be. The Sarum collect suggests that things are not as they seem, but that the Lord will come and see them rightly,
Both recognize a significant awareness that had been dawning on the church of a very long time. The Christ had not restored everything to any easily recognized good and perfect order, and that he didn't seem to be coming back soon.
Cranmer was writing at a time when the even the idea of Christendom, headed in the west by the Pope of Rome, was crumbling. He published his first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Ninety-nine years later, at Utrecht, the crumbs would be sorted out.
Advent has pretty well fallen out of the public consciousness, even though many DIY churches are beginning to 'observe' it again. The Roman church no longer even has standards for Advent fasting. Only the Orthodox, with St. Phillip's Fast, or the old hold outs for St. Martin's Fast in the West keep the fast that traditionally was the precursor to a feast.
But I think it is worth considering what Advent suggests, even though we might not like it. It suggests that the Nativity was a failure. Yup. We will sing Watt's big hymn, 'Joy to the World', and talk about the 'real meaning of Christmas'. This is of course bullshit. The real meaning of Christmas is buying stuff at Macy's. We might keep the pretence until the 2ND of January, the conclusion of one of the few Octaves left on our calendar. But, sins and sorrows will once more grow, thorns will infest the ground, and the idea that 'the nations prove the glories of his righteousness' is a joke at best, despite the best efforts of Cranmer and the Twdors, even despite the best efforts of Elizabeth of Windsor.
This Advent, do we, do the church, do anyone, really believe that Christ will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. I seriously doubt it. So, we play at Christmas. Which has some problems. If we take it seriously as history, as the story is told, Jesus came to accomplish a bunch of stuff which he mostly doesn't accomplish--I mean, 500 or 5000 people being fed once hasn't much helped the folks who have starved since. Then he scoots back up into the sky and sits down a the right hand of the Father.
Playing at Christmas probably isn't such a bad thing if one thinks of the whole cycle of the
Christian year and its many feasts and symbolisms, but we threw that away when we left the farm. Having a yearly cycle is just that. A cycle. Shit happens. It gets cleaned up. But we can't rest, because it will happen again.
The Second Advent is a different sort of thing entirely. It is a deus ex machina about which we have little control. Cranmer's collect suggested a way of preparing for it that had been missing in the previous collect. But it is still beyond our control. Jesus knew this when he refused to be played with the crowd in Jerusalem who wanted him to be their king. His idea of a kingdom was famously within, independent of Jerusalem. But ideas about Jesus have always been more central to Christianity than has Jesus.
Unfortunately, there have been plenty of men much less wise than Jesus who have been quite happy to play the role of deus ex machina, to be king.
I can, I think, do no better than to quote Yeats:
'Turning 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 the 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 century 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?'
And, being an old jouster with windmills, I will conclude with the short form of Cranmer's collect, with the caveat that one should always be careful what one prays for:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.