Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass, Epiphany 2012

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

In my spare time over Christmas I’ve been reading WH Auden’s long poem, “For the Time Being”, subtitled “A Christmas Oratorio”. He wrote it in America in 1942, while the world was at war, filled with anxiety, uncertain of the future; while the powers which seemed to be controlling events were all too certain of the kind of future they wanted.
Against this background Auden explored the stories of the different characters in the Nativity. All of them, in one way or another, are forced to face the challenge that the Christ Child represents to the certainties and securities of the world they know.
Caesar, Herod and the army that massacred the innocents carry on regardless, rejecting any other way of doing things than the settled order. After all, they had a world order which worked, and kept things stable and controlled. Progress was sure. Everyone knew where they were. A God who presumes to intrude into finite, vulnerable space, being born as a human baby, makes everyone vulnerable. We can’t have that.
The Wise Men respond differently. Auden presents them as sophisticated and intelligent, vastly knowledgeable. Today they could be professors presenting television programmes, or pundits on Newsnight. And the Star summons them to follow, in haunting lines which promise only that they will lose their certainty and sense of direction:
Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
The first Wise Man is presented as a scientist, who has tormented nature to get ever more precise answers, pinning down ever more facts. But he realises that truth, in spite of all the facts, has eluded him. For him,
To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.
The second is a philosopher, whose abstract speculations about existence are undermined when he realises that his theories have all been strategies to avoid the present and the real:
With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.
The third, a utilitarian philanthropist, has used his intelligence to study, dispassionately, how to improve the general lot of mankind and achieve the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number, but discovers that he had:
Left no time for affection,
Laughter, kisses, squeezing, smiles:
And I learned why the learned are as despised as they are.
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star.
They conclude in chorus:
At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.
Truth, life and love have eluded them. The star points the way. But it is a way which is to seem like darkness and horror and loss, for they must leave behind all they have known. Their journey is the journey into faith. For them, and for Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds, as Auden relates their story, the response of faith means leaving behind all certainty and security.
All of Auden’s characters live in the middle of a brave new world of knowledge and control and order, a world which is continually convincing everyone that it is all that anyone needs. It might be mediocre and dull, it might be sustained by fear, but it is safe. Your identity is defined by your place in the system, so don’t upset the system.
What Auden does is to uncover this as idolatry. Certainty, security, being safe in the system, are attempts to seek the truth of who we are where it is not to be found. It is easy to accept the off-the-peg, ready made false “self” that the world system offers, easier by far than to admit that we do not create ourselves and cannot control our destinies, that our existence is a mystery even to ourselves.
To come to faith is to acknowledge that we are created, and that is scary because it means that our entire existence depends on the will of someone else, the one who has called us into being. But to come to faith is also to come to love.
The revelation of God in the Christ Child shows us that God is love. Perhaps up till now humanity had feared that the First Cause which causes us to be was some terrifying vast cosmic principle, unseeing and unfeeling, or, worse, capricious, anarchic, unjust. Who would venture to draw too close to what might prove to be ultimately horrific? Better not to know. And so the First Cause came to us, came among us, finally touched our world and our lives, in the entirely contingent, and vulnerable, and lovable. In a baby. A baby come to live and die, to show what love is.
When Herod heard that the Child had come, the Gospel tells us, he was perturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. This Child, even before he can speak, disturbs the established order. Love has slipped in under the radar, destabilising the thrones of all the idols that tell us we create ourselves and determine our existence. Love whispers to us that we are loved, that we can let go of our fear and our control and our little mediocre safety zone. Love invites us to love.
But Herod demands that the wise men “find out all about the Child, and when you have found him let me know”. Knowledge is power, isn’t it? Perhaps this so threatening love can be controlled, brought into subjection, sacrificed to the idols of the status quo. Perhaps we can be kept safe from love, if we know enough about it to pin it down.
But love cannot be pinned down, even when love allows himself to be nailed to a cross, allows himself to become the sacrifice the idols demand. For love is both the creator and the redeemer. The resurrection is love triumphant over all our attempts to avoid the truth of our creation.
The idols of control and self determination are as powerful today as they were in the days of Herod. This week in the news we had a group of people called experts saying that terminally ill people should be allowed to ask their doctors to kill them with lethal drugs. And we had Stephen Hawking on the Today Programme insisting that the human race must colonise other planets against the time when this one will become uninhabitable. What are these but denials of the basic truth of our humanity, attempts to flee in terror from the possibility that we are not created in love?
But faith tells us that we are. The journey into faith is the journey in which we leave behind our certainties and securities and all our vain attempts at self creation and self control. But it is the journey in which we discover love. It is the journey in which we discover our true selves in God who loves us. It is the journey in which we discover, finally, how to be human. 

No comments: