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

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Parish Bulletin, Christmas 2012

As I write the second TV series Merlin is currently showing on Saturdays. Its retelling of Arthurian myth has both ancient and modern elements; set in a world of magic, mystery and high adventure, it uses this backdrop to explore issues of our own time: pluralism, belonging, the place of the individual in society. But something is missing from the tale: faith. There are plenty of references to the “old religion” of magic and druidism and the spirits of nature, but none to any “new” religion. There is no church or cross or image of a saint anywhere in sight, nor any mention of any belief system other than the forbidden arts of magicians. The BBC’s Camelot, it seems, is a secular realm in which faith has been sidelined and the spiritual is mistrusted, a metaphor perhaps for our own age whose inchoate spiritual longings seem at odds with any too confident public expression of faith. 

The Arthurian myths became popular, formulated into epic poems, in the high middle ages and then, too, explored issues of their own time. In retelling the stories of a past golden age these poems were commentaries on their contemporary society, but unlike Merlin are rich in Christian symbolism and insight. In an age of violence and aggression, it is Christ and the saints who inspire the best actions of the characters, and the chivalry of the knights, which could have been a violent ‘code of honour’, is reinterpreted as the heroic quest for the Christian virtues. And yet, alongside these, is a world of pre-Christian belief, of magic and ‘faerie’, of wizards and nature spirits who somehow seem to have carried on existing in this Christian narrative.

The mediaeval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the great stories of Arthurian myth. It begins with the celebration of Christmas at Camelot. There is feasting and merriment:

For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days,
with all meats and all mirth that men could devise,
such gladness and gaiety as was glorious to hear…
With all the bliss of the world they abode together,
the knights most renowned after the name of Christ,
and the ladies most lovely that ever life enjoyed.
(From JRR Tolkien’s translation, Unwin, 1975.)

But, too, there is Christian worship, the very reason for the feast:

When the king was there come with his courtiers to the hall,
and the chanting of the choir in the chapel had ended,
with loud clamour and cries both clerks and laymen
Noel announced anew, and named it full often.

Into this scene comes the Green Knight, an extraordinary apparition, with green skin, green beard, green clothes and on a green horse. He sets a challenge to the knights, taken up by Sir Gawain, who then has to seek out the Green Knight a year later, in his ‘green chapel’ in the forest. His quest sets him many challenges rich in Christian meaning and symbolism.

The Green Knight is almost certainly the ‘Green Man’, a mysterious figure, half man, half tree, found carved in many mediaeval churches. He is probably a survival of a pre-Christian nature deity, a symbol of rebirth, herald of the return of spring and new growth. His appearance in churches, and in Christian-framed narratives such as Sir Gawain, has puzzled some. Should he really be there? Nor is he the only reminder of a pre-Christian age. Across our country, customs such as well dressing and maypoles remind us of folk history and instinctive beliefs that go back long before the coming of Christianity.

The feast of Christmas was instituted by the Church around the fourth century to mark the birth of Christ, but it builds on a pre-Christian celebration. December 25 was chosen to mark the birth of Christ as this was already a day of feasting marking the winter solstice, “Yule” as it was known in northern Europe. This celebration in the depths of winter of the imminent return of the sun and new life was deemed appropriate for the birth of the Son of God, the light of the world and the creator of life. But many of the customs of Yule continued. Holly and ivy, evergreen in the midst of winter, and representing masculine and feminine principles, were revered by the Celts; and were later given a Christian symbolism in carols. They are still used to decorate our homes and places of worship at the time of the solstice.

The old Yule had celebrated creation and the insight that this was a divine gift. But it did not say much about what the ‘divine’ might actually be like. The fear that the gods might turn out to be cruel, capricious or uncaring still lingered.  But in the birth of Jesus a new light shone into the world: God dwelling among us as a vulnerable child, showing that God is love by enacting that love in a human life. In WH Auden’s long poem For the Time Being the angels, announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, sing:

After today 
The children of men 
May be certain that 
The Father Abyss 
Is affectionate 
To all Its creatures, 
All, all, all of them.

St Paul, speaking to the philosophers of Athens in Acts chapter 17, asserts that God is not far from anyone, for “in him we live and move and have our being”. That insight seems to be common to all times and cultures. But in the birth of Jesus we see so much more.  His coming into the world is God’s revelation of himself, what we could not have known with certainty from nature alone: that God is personal, that he loves us, and has created us so that we can share in his divine nature forever in heaven. 

Jesus, born for us in our world, is both the face of God turned towards humanity and the face of humanity turned towards God. He is the meeting place, where earth touches heaven, where human lives touch their ultimate meaning; and he shows that the nature of that meeting is love.

This is what the poets of the old Arthurian myths knew, but the modern scriptwriters of Merlin seem to have forgotten. The old insights and mysteries and celebrations of pre-Christian days are not annulled by the coming of Christ, but find their place in a larger picture and a greater light. The gift of creation, as it were, turns out to have a gift tag on it, and it reads: “from your Father, with love”.

So, this Christmas, enjoy that gift: food and wine, feasting and merriment, friends and family. Enjoy the crisp frost under foot of a walk in the countryside or through a park, and look out for a Green Man if you happen to be visiting any old churches. Enjoy the long dark nights, knowing they will soon give way to the growing light and springtime in the cycle of the seasons, of death and rebirth. But I hope you will also celebrate the birth of Christ, the light of the world, the Word of the Father through whom all things were made, born in time in substance of our flesh, Jesus, the Redeemer and Lord of all creation. 

My very best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all.

Father Matthew

No comments: