Do you have hope for the future? someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end. Yes, and even for the past, he replied, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was, something we can accept, mistakes made by the selves we had to be—not able to be, perhaps, what we had wished or, what looking back half the time it seems we easily could have been, or ought to have been … The future, yes, and even for the past, that it will be something we can bear.
— David Ray, Sam’s Book (Wesleyan, 1987)
Happy New Year, one and all!! And thank you, dear reader, for all the times you dropped by to read and reflect and respond over the past twelve months. I am grateful for your thoughtful attention, and for your supportive sharing of the posts that move you. Thus does our circle of thought grow wider.
As we prepare for the turning of the year, let me pass on to you two gifts for the occasion from John Burnside’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2020). The first is a story from Ireland:
One night, around a campfire, a band of Celtic warriors begin to debate what might constitute the finest music in the world. One man says it is ‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ while others jump in to suggest ‘the top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield’ … ‘No, it’s the bellowing of a stag across a lake’ … ‘It’s the song of a lark’ … ‘It’s the laugh of a gleeful girl.’ Finally, they turn to their chief, Fionn, and ask him what he would choose, to which he replies: ‘The music of what happens. That is the finest music in the world.’
The second New Year’s gift is Burnside’s translation from the Ninth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The “once and no more” need not be a denial of resurrection (we are, I believe, more than “earthly”), but it is a candid reminder to savor the gift of every moment and every face.
A time for everything, but only once. Once and no more. And we too, only once. Never again. But to have been here this once, even if only once: to have been earthly, this cannot be revoked.
And if you’d like to revisit some past New Year’s Eve reflections on our dance with time, click the links below. May 2023 be a year of grace for you and those you love. Great joy to the New!
There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal.
It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.
At year’s end, I sometimes lapse into a retrospective melancholy, thinking of people, moments, experiences and places that have come and gone in my life, some for the last time. My sense of future will revive at midnight, when we will go outside to bang gongs, beat drums and blow kazoos and whistles to welcome the New. But until then, impermanence shall be my partner in the year’s last dance.
With the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I draw inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”
Merry Christmas, dear reader. May you find your heart’s desire in the stable tonight. Although we may stammer before such a Mystery, we are grateful for the writers who have bravely attempted to put it into words. One of my favorites is Frederick Buechner, who departed this life last summer on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Here is what he preached to students many years ago:
The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.
For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that. God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon. It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering that we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves. Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.
Buechner’s complete sermon was published in The Hungering Dark, and later in Secrets in the Dark. You can also find it here.
Gaudete! Gaudete! Christus est natus Ex Maria Virgine. Gaudete!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary. Rejoice!
So goes the joyful refrain of a late medieval carol, and even though the celebration of the Divine Birth is still two weeks away, the note of rejoicing (Gaudete! Gaudete!) is already beginning to dispute the wintry gloom in our Scripture readings, our hymns, and our expectant hearts.
For many centuries, the Third Sunday of Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday—Rejoice Sunday. In the Advent wreath, the somber blue is replaced by a brighter, warmer shade of rose. Churches lucky enough to have rose vestments will be using them today. And in the Common Lectionary cycle of readings, the word “rejoice” turns up in each of the three years.
In Year C, the prophet Zephaniah exhorts his disheartened people, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem” (Zephaniah 3:14). And St. Paul, overflowing with the Spirit, urges the first Christians to make joy a constant spiritual practice: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he said. “Again I will say, Rejoice (Philippians 4:4)
In Year B, Isaiah tells us, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10), while Mary’s heart pours out the Magnificat’s ode to joy: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:47).
And now, in Year A, Isaiah promises that even the most barren and forsaken places will become a paradise in God’s future: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” he assures us. “God’s ransomed exiles shall return …Gladness and joy shall come upon them, while sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
Such hopeful refrains lift up our hearts and light a bright candle in the dark. But we also heed the voice of St. James, who curbs our enthusiasm with his “Not so fast! The Kingdom doesn’t come all at once. We’ve got to be patient” (James 5:7).
And we know he’s right. We still abide in a severely damaged history which seems to repeat itself rather than make real progress toward the horizon of God’s future. We have been shocked in recent years to see such seemingly outdated sins as overt racism and anti-Semitism come roaring back, like the alarming return of “conquered” diseases like polio and measles.
The French thinker Jean Baudrillard wrote about the myth of human progress just before the Millennium, critiquing the optimistic talk of a New World Order by reminding us that humanity continues to have a serious waste disposal problem (theologians would call this Original Sin, the persistent flaw that burdens and bedevils every human endeavor).
As Baudrillard put it, “The problem becomes one of waste. It is not just material substances, including nuclear ones, which pose a waste problem but also the defunct ideologies, bygone utopias, dead concepts and fossilized ideas which continue to pollute our mental space. Historical and intellectual refuse pose an even more serious problem than industrial waste. Who will rid us of the sediment of centuries of stupidity?” [i]
I ask that question every day when I see the news! But the genius of Advent is its ability to perform the difficult dance of honesty and hope. It doesn’t deny the darkness, but it also refuses to accept the black hole of unredeemed history as an inescapable fate. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” we pray, “and put on the armor of light”—not just in some distant utopian future, but “now, in the time of this mortal life.”
Now, now, now. But also not yet. Gaudete, but also Kyrie eleison. Rowan Williams, borrowing an image from Diadochus, a fifth-century bishop, describes Advent spirituality as the practice of “looking east in winter.”
“Looking east in winter we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at the phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our faces; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured.” [ii]
The next time there is a sunny morning, go stand somewhere on our island’s eastern shore. Feel the chill at your back, and the warming sunlight on your face. Do it without words. Let those contrary sensations of cold and warmth be your Advent prayer.
Not every morning brings a bright sun, of course. Sometimes the warmth of hope is a matter of faith, not immediate experience. Yet even when we can’t feel it, God is redeeming the time and preparing the dawn. And when we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us,” the Holy One is listening.
“Stir up your power” is such a striking prayer, a bold cry of the heart to the One who saves. [iii] And because it is always the Collect-prayer for this day, Gaudete Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday. But what do we mean when we call upon divine power? What does the power of God look like in the world we inhabit?
Well, it looks a lot like what happened when Jesus arrived: “The blind see, the lame dance, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news” (Matthew 11:5). It’s not a violent head-on clash with the powers of this world—meeting them on their own bloody terms—but the liberation of the faithful into a new form of being, enabling the friends of God to “plant the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [iv]
In Roberto Rossellini’s film, Europe ‘51 (1952), Ingrid Bergman plays a wealthy woman who gives up all her privilege to serve the poor and vulnerable. Rossellini, who had made a joyful film about St. Francis two years earlier, wanted to explore what would happen if someone behaved like St. Francis in the contemporary world. As it turns out in Europe ‘51, Irene (Bergman’s character) is judged to be insane by her husband, her social class, her doctors, and her Church, and the film ends with her locked away in an asylum. The powers-that-be have decided that there is no place in the world for the impracticality of unconditional love.
But even as Irene suffers this sad fate, we see her continue to be who she is, embodying God’s compassion for her fellow inmates. Like the incarnate God enclosed within the finite space of the Virgin’s womb, she can still practice heaven within the confines of the asylum. As she comforts a despairing woman who has tried to commit suicide, we see Irene, in a close-up reminiscent of an icon, speaking the words of Christ: “You are not alone. Don’t worry. I am with you. I will not leave you.” She becomes, in that moment, what we are all invited to become: an image of Christ for others.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. But God’s idea of “great might” is not the way the world understands it. No lightning bolts. No legions of angels. Just a babe in a manger, a tortured man on a cross, a disciple locked in an asylum. As W. H. Auden said in the Advent portion of his Christmas Oratorio: “The Real is what will strike you as really absurd.” Or as an old carol puts it, “Weakness shall the strong confound.” [v]
In another of his poems, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden suggests that poetry operates much like divine power. Poetry “makes nothing happen,” he says. In other words, poetry doesn’t force its will upon the world, but in offering an alternate perspective for engaging reality, it makes the world different nonetheless. Auden describes poetry as if it were a stream, making its own way through the landscape.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.
In his analysis of this poem, John Burnside notes that poetry’s work is “to survive—not in some dogged but enfeebled fashion, hanging on, though barely noticed, in an indifferent world, but actively, on its own terms—that is, ‘in the valley of its own making.’” The ‘executives’—the powers-that-be—take no notice. It means nothing to them. But “poetry flows on, through and away from ‘the busy griefs’ and the ‘raw towns that we believe in and die in,’ its business is more fundamental, its true nature more elemental” than the ‘executives’ can imagine.[vi]
And just so does the power of God flow through the world. Not to force anything to happen in a blunt cause-and-effect way, but to exist, like the waters of baptism, as an inviting and life-giving reality: “It survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
We find this same image of the flowing, living water in today’s passage from Isaiah: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sands shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:6-7).
The concluding words of Auden’s stanza, “a mouth,” may strike our ears jarringly after the metaphor of a quietly flowing stream, but both poetry and God are given to speech: In the beginning was the Word.
And in the same way that the “Stir up” prayer beseeches the God who saves, Auden’s poem, written on the eve of World War II, calls upon the poet to speak a word against all the dark sorrows of the world:
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate …
Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice … [vii]
There’s that word again: rejoice. We have prayed for a word of power today, and what we are given is: Gaudete! Rejoice! God’s power will never compel us to rejoice, or to hope, or to love. But it will always seek to persuade us, until the end of time.
[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 26
[ii] Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter:Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 8.
[iii] The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”
[iv] I can’t locate the source of this quote from an old homily, but it may be from either Paul Evdokimov or Olivier Clément.
[v] Auden’s line is from “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (Collected Poems, Random House, 1976, p. 274). The carol line is from Gabriel’s Message (trans. J. M. Neale). Like Gaudete, it is in the famous Piae Cantiones collection of 1582.
[vi] John Burnside, The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 23.
[vii] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (Collected Poems, 197-198).