Second Sunday of Christmas 2016, Year C
Ben Sirah 24:1-12
Heaven and Earth woven together
‘you never just . . .’
‘Oh, I don’t know about you, but I’m caroled out . . .’ – a not untypical complaint at this time of year, not least because we treat Advent as if it were Christmas, indeed we were still in Advent when I heard this complaint this year. I suppose that I’d put it a little differently – ‘there are some carols which if I never sing them again it will be too soon, yet there are others for which e’en eternity’s too short to sing and to ponder.
Insofar as I can draw a line between the two, I’d say it lay between ‘Modern’ carols and ‘Pre-modern’ carols. By ‘Modern’ I do not mean contemporary carols. Rather I mean ‘Modern’ in the sense that they are carols written from a philosophically ‘Modern’ understanding of the world ( a way of looking at the world which is, by the way, several hundred years old ) – that is, they are only interested in ‘the facts’. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, there she has a baby, whom the angels tell the shepherds is ‘Christ the Lord’, so they rush off to Bethlehem and find him wrapped in swaddling bands, lying in a manger, or whatever the latest theory is, and then some astrologers come from far to the east following a star etc.etc.etc. Put another way, ‘Modern’ can only be sung at or with reference to Christmas – yet many carols are not like this. They may reference ‘the facts’ but they do so to open a door to a much denser reality than ‘Modernity’ will allow. They suggest that Carols can be for Life – not just for Christmas . . .
I suppose one way of telling them apart is ‘can you pray this carol? Does it sound as if the writer was caught up in something bigger when they were writing – struggling to find words – using words that led beyond words?’ As I heard someone say in a sermon ‘you never Just pray . . .’ When we pray something happens, we are making a deeper connection, there is more to our life than ‘the facts’, something has been and is being woven together . . .
For we Christians, a good example of how ‘Modern’ thinking trapped us would be over the Eucharist. ‘Modern thinking can be traced back to the C14 when the doctrine of transubstantiation was first taught – that the bread and wine were Changed to be the flesh and blood of Jesus. The Reformation, a largely ‘Modern’ movement, said ‘No!’ The Bread ad Wine are Bread and Wine, but they help us think of the flesh and blood of Jesus. They are purely ‘Symbols’. ‘Modern’ thought might stretch to a symbol – but never to the heart of the Eucharist which is a Sacrament. Not a symbolizing or referential reality – but a weaving together of the physical and spiritual – or better, a weaving together of heaven and Earth. Like green and red threads in a Christmas decoration – maintaining their difference, but at the same time not the same without each other
So ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ A good example of a pre-modern carol – The Holly bears the crown – The holly bears a berry as red as any blood – a bark as bitter as any gall. A ‘pre-modern’, a sacramental vision of Creation sees – the blood of Jesus in all things red, the mixedness of the Kingdom in the Holly and the Ivy growing up together – understands the bitterness of the gall offered to Jesus where it encounters bitterness in Creation. Truly an Incarnational vision – which in the Word made flesh understands heaven and Earth to be woven together in Jesus.
The message of Christmas is ‘never just’ that God in Christ has come to be with us . . . it is that in the Incarnation the realm of heaven and Earth are woven together, and that all Creations speaks of Christ. In the Incarnation of the Word, the immaterial adopts materiality, that the Created may take on the Uncreated – the immortal takes on mortality, that the mortal may take on immortality – and that Seeing the Kingdom of God is losing the sense of separation. That we cannot look at the Created things without Seeing the Creator – through whom they are created. They bear Him to us. The heart of the understanding of an Ikon – Everything becomes in some sense an Ikon
A simple analogy [in its pre-modern sense] is that of marriage, where ‘the two become one flesh’, and so now one cannot truly think of the wife without thinking of the husband or Vice versa – and we See this reality of marriage in children who are the embodiment of that One Flesh – each a One flesh from one flesh – a weaving together of the two – the created revealing its maker one might say. As I said at midnight, how can one look into the eyes of a child and not see countless generations woven together – ultimately how can one not see the True Source of their Life, the Word made flesh – present.
Ultimately the ‘Modern’ account of reality with its insistence on ‘facts’, on ‘this is this and not that’ is one devoid of the possibility of Life, of the participation in Life together which we spoke of as we thought of St John the Evangelist last week – of that profound Koinonia, Fellowship, Participation and sharing in Life. It is perhaps true that the ‘Modern’ age is one where to Share is perhaps the most un-natural thing to do – rather it is a world of facts, of rights of responsibilities of choices – as if none of our lives were in any sense sharing in anything together. ‘Heaven’ being for afterwards – when you die – it is a philosophy of Death. Its carols quickly weary our imaginations
But . . . in our Waking to the Life of the Word made flesh, of Jesus – Wisdom coming to seek a home – we find a door opened to the eternal participation in the heavenly realm – and concepts such as materiality, space and time take on a Deep Quality.
St Paul knows of this reality – he tells us, ‘the mystery of God’s will [is] . . . to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things in earth’ Christ Jesus – the one in whom all things earthly and heavenly are woven together – from the redness of the berry, to the redness of his blood. All things, to the praise of his glory