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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Advent 4 And is it true?


Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1: 26-38;

Dunedin residents and readers of the ODT (Otago Daily Times) will recall the recent spat over the Christmas Tree in the Octagon and the new message that accompanied it: ‘Happy Holidays’.  I had someone ring me to ask that I complain: this was someone who sounded sane and benign but was plainly upset at the deliberate sidelining of the religious origins of the festival.  What can one say? ‘Happy Holidays’ was not in itself offensive.  On the contrary it was a benign sentiment, calculatedly inclusive and politically correct, (aspirationally commendable) except that it notionally excluded all for whom the so-called ‘holiday’ acknowledges a holy day, Christmas.

To be fair, this is nothing new; in one form or another  the issue of the holiness of the day rears its head uncomfortably as we think about the season.  Most of us indulge in the happy rituals of Christmas, - presents, tree, St Nicholas aka Santa, and like a few carols – it is a time for families and general good will – but it is also a time when we don’t want anything too serious, too solemn, let alone ‘holy’.  The thought of the latter can send a frisson of panic along the spine of the casual, carefree, ‘I’m OK with Christmas’, Christian.

Let me give you an example:  In a poem, simply titled ‘Christmas’, the poet John Betjeman celebrated the sentimental pull of the season - a time when ‘girls in slacks remember Dad/ and oafish louts remember Mum’ only to then abruptly ask a terrifying question, “And is it true”?
And is it true? And is it true,
this most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
                A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

And is it true?  For if it is,              
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
                The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

For me the poem works because the poet picks out the familiar details of the Christmas rituals and the stubborn pull of affections in family and friends, good and charming things as they are; only to then set everything and every endeavour against the great and incredible mystery of the Incarnation: (Nothing) “can with this single truth compare - That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.

This truth of the Incarnation is almost impossible to conceptually grasp and that difficulty is the nub of Betjeman’s point.   If we embrace that truth, the consequences are annihilating.  We see ourselves, our world and our place in it, in an entirely different light.  From here on the ordinary is seen differently.  Reality as we understand it shimmers with immeasurable possibilities; all things become luminous with divine presence and purpose.  Our options for how we live are no longer quite our own, because to live now means to live ‘In Christ’.

This is why we can talk about the scandal of the incarnation: intellectually and conceptually it seems “a bridge too far”.  All theological concepts of God seem at odds with the God who takes on human form – no, more than that, the God who is truly and utterly human.  Philosophers and theologians, Christian and of other faiths, seem stumped on this issue.  As Leonardo Boff expresses it (read my Note from the Dean in this week’s pew sheet): “Once Christianity affirms that a man is at the same time God, it stands alone in the world. We are obliged to say it: This is a scandal to…all the religions and pious peoples of yesterday and today who venerate and adore a transcendent God: one that is totally other, who cannot be objectified, a God beyond this world, infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, and above everything that human beings can be and know.”

“And is it true?”  We keep coming back to Betjeman’s question.  On the one hand we hold affectionately to the Christmases we have celebrated over the years and the place those memories hold in our hearts.  Yet on the other hand, we are less than comfortable with the implications of the mystery – of the Holy amongst us – and of the call that places on us. In these moments of wrapping presents does the weight of an overwhelming reality press upon us and draw us into another way of being, into a deeper structure of reality?  And is it true?

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.


This morning we come to the Eucharist with that question in our minds and on our hearts “And is it true?”
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