"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Advent 4: The Coming of the Tiger, Christ (brace yourselves!)

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Some of the inspiration for the sermon content.  I’m always astounded what pops up in the sermon prep process, except to say with thanks that God is a grace-filled muse.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem Von guten Mächten (By loving forces), and the related hymn auf deutsche sung by Siegfried Fietz.

TS Eliot (himself) reading The Journey of the Magi and Gerontion on YouTube...”A cold time we had of it…”

Here’s the links for The Journey and Gerontion in text form if you wish to print and ponder.

William Blake’s The Tyger read by Tom O’Bedlam.  This poem was the actual starting point last month, but never made it into the final draft.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

CS Lewis (just a pinch) from the sermon, The Weight of Glory.

The rest is all personal synthesis, accepting that I’ve probably stolen tons of stuff from better writers than I, and forgotten where it came from.

As a late edit, I had a mention of Auden’s grand Christmas poem For the Time Being, which I had never encountered (thanks J for that word!).  So much to read, and so little time.  Here’s a snip:

Simeon: And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our
redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and
everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from
our anxiety into His peace.

+ + + + + + +

Advent 4 Year B Preached 21 Dec 14 at SJE Edmonton

May all of my words be only the words of Christ, and all of our thoughts be only the thoughts of Christ, for now and for ever. Amen.

We are, today, on the precipice of an event that re-ordered and inverted the entire reality of the cosmos, I am speaking of the Feast of the Nativity, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. The birth of God as man was a fundamental game-changer, as his ministry and death brought a number of key shifts in our reality: the end of death as the final word, the death of sin in its power over us, and the opening of a path to righteousness, not won on our merits or sweat, but on the merits of He who came to save us. This Advent walk each year, is a call to us to re-enter this event, and to ask the question: how does this change the way I live? What is God’s call to me?

This is when it all started – and in as much as we Gentiles can look toward the calling of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10) as the start of the Gentile church, the Nativity would not and could not have happened without there first being a willingness on behalf of a young girl named Mary. Today, as we sit between these readings, we are on the precipice of the event that changed it all – the willingness of a young Jewish girl to accept God’s invitation to proceed on a path that ends, well, a path that ends (in the words of Simeon), with a sword piercing Mary’s own soul.

The first two chapters of Luke are full of wondrous proclamations – if you want a renewed perspective on the radical impact of these world-changing things read through the first two chapters of Luke – you see the birth of John the Baptist from a mother who was said to be barren, proclaimed by his father Zechariah: “BLESSED be the Lord God of Israel; / for he hath visited and redeemed his people; And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David.”

We hear also the first recognition of who Jesus was in the words of Simeon, “LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, / according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, / which thou has prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, / and to be the glory of thy people Israel.” In the ancient tradition of daily prayer, a Christian would recite these dramatic discourses along with the Magnificat every day, because these statements are key in marking the central importance of the event in our faith. We are on the bedrock of the faith here.

God calls us, as he did Mary, to a path of transformation. God is not happy with only a portion of our being, but demands from us all we are. It all began with the willingness of a young Jewish girl to walk an unknown path when called. Sometimes it seems as if we wise moderns look on Mary as quaint, and maybe a little naïve, but this doesn’t hold up to the text. At the time of Gabriel’s visitation, you might be able to argue that she didn’t really know what she was getting herself into. But, moments later, Mary arrives at the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who was now about six months pregnant. In response to Elizabeth’s greeting, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary utters these highly radical words about the impact of the coming of her son-to-be, showing that she understands exactly what she was getting herself in to: “MY soul doth magnify the Lord, / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded / the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth / all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me; / and holy is his Name.”

If you were a ruler, and heard one of your subjects uttering these words, this would be a cause for some consternation…for Jesus comes not just to defeat death, but to invert the well-established world order: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” These are powerful words, words that would be appropriate on the lips of a revolutionary leader, perhaps holding an AK-47 in one hand and waving a black banner with the other, as we’ve seen so often in other contexts to often this decade. These readings underline for us that this approaching moment is the seminal event; the pivot upon which all of God’s plans for the creation turns; the catalyst that completes the reaction that God started in the desert with his people Israel; this is it. After this, everything changes.

I’m attempting to describe this day, and the coming storm, as best I can in our limited language. What this all means is probably better brought out through the poet’s writing – for it stretches the language to hold some of these cosmic images. TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi is one such piece. Eliot offers us a retelling of the journey following a star to arrive at the manger, told by one of the Magi in terms of how the journey changed him. It’s a profound retelling, reflected on nicely by Steve Bell in his song Old Sage, which has this wonderful line: “cause when you’re following a star, you have to walk at night, sounds crazy even now”. The poem retells the journey of the Magi following an idea, a seemingly foolish journey into a distant unknown, following that star, without even the benefit of a map. Traveling at night with the “voices singing in our ears saying that this is all folly”. The Magi arrive just in time, and find a birth that they say was satisfactory. After they return home the Magi telling the tale relates the aftermath:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down this,
set down this: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

How is it that these learned men, scholars, sages, astronomers, priests perhaps, who have seen and experienced so much, are left thinking only about death, after witnessing this not-so-unusual birth in a not-so-unusual place? Like our baptism, and the call to die into Christ that we struggle with in our faith walks, these unusual men came all that way to find that the true result of their Christ-encounter was nothing less than the death of themselves. In a large rumbling world full of more glamorous and weighty things, the Magi return to their good lives in their comfortable palaces…but it all seems somehow thin and unsatisfactory because there was something about that baby in Bethlehem. They were no longer at ease in these old places, these old dispensations, with an alien people clutching their (false) gods, and would welcome another death.

Make no mistake about it, our call as Christians, our shared vocation in Christ is to embrace this call to die into Christ. Our baptism itself was or will be a call to our death in water and sin and re-birth into the new life of the redeemed. This is what I mean when I say that God will not be satisfied with just a little bit of us – maybe the three hours we carve from our lives most Sunday mornings – but God demands it all. Our baptism literally immerses us in the Holy Spirit – not even a heel is left out of that sanctifying action. We dwell, by choice, in the midst of an alien people clutching at the false gods of this world, and ourselves aliens as a result. The totality of the call asks for everything we are, all of our loves and hates, all of our strengths and weaknesses, our lives here and most assuredly out there in the world, our employment, our vocation as parents, siblings and children, our hopes and dreams…God demands it all from us. // Is that frightening?

If I’m being honest it really scares the stuffing out of me – because truth be told I’m happy giving God the bit that I’m comfortable giving up, and preserving the remainder under the broad title of “self-determination”, that is, the things over which I demand complete control. But, just as with Mary’s active ascent, “Let it be as you have said.” opening the way for the apocalypse of Christ, so too our individual profession of faith opens us up for what we might call the apocalypse of our selves. That personal apocalypse will almost invariably be joyous, but it is equally certain that it will also involve that “hard and bitter agony” of the transformation of our entire being, and the loss of our old, comfortable dispensations. While God is always loving and just, His touch is nothing less than burning (Reynolds Price)

Those comfortable dispensations usually (at least in me) include the pernicious lie provided by our secular philosophies that the good of man is to be found on the earth…that this earth may (if we can only get it right) turn into heaven…as if we believe that the arrow of time or the second law of thermodynamics will be suddenly reversed because of human goodness. (Lewis: The Weight of Glory). The reason that God will not be satisfied with part of us, is because of our ability to cling to these lies, to do the things that we wish not to do, and left undone the things which we ought to do. That God is not satisfied with half-measures and calls us out of even our horrors was part of the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A long time ago, in the Advent of 1943, Bonhoeffer was sitting in a German military prison and wrote this about the advent of our Lord (From Letters and Papers from Prison):

…misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for him this is truly good news.

The prisoner understands why it is important that this God of all turns particularly into the places that the rest of us avoid. Our God is not a God of comfortable dispensations, but rather a God that lifts up the weak and unseats the mighty. The coming of the Redeemer does not avoid the places that we avoid – including the secrets of our own hearts. Rather God boldly steps into all of the corners of this sometimes dismal world, including the parts of ourselves we believe we’re holding secret from God, and fills those places with the light of Christ. God boldly turns toward the places from which we turn away. That this presence comes in particular in times of suffering was marked by other words of Bonhoeffer’s, written a year later in Advent 1944 from a Gestapo prison, the poem, Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben, in English: By loving forces silently surrounded.

And when you pass to us the bitter chalice
of suffering, filled to the brim and more,
we take it, full of thanks and trembling not,
from this, your caring and beloved hand. …

By loving forces wonderfully sheltered,
we are awaiting fearlessly what comes.
God is with us at dusk and in the morning
and most assuredly on ev’ry day.

Those are profound words, made even more so by the knowledge that Bonhoeffer was executed a few months later. So even while we bridle under the call for the death of all we are, Bonhoeffer’s own tribulation reminds us of another truth, that even in the midst of suffering God is there, and especially there.

The coming of Christ at Christmas fills our minds with pastoral scenes: a beautiful baby laying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Our modern minds edit out the unpleasant bits: the smell of a barnyard, animal droppings in the hay, the smell of unwashed shepherds coming in from the fields, the exhaustion of Mary, the uncertain cleanliness of those manger swaddling clothes, and the already-present expectation of a painful death on the tree of wrath. We’re left with the plastic beauty of an Italian nativity set: clinical in cleanliness and perfection, safe to take out but once per year for a few short days, and then locked away where it’s can’t remind us of that for which it stands, to preserve our own false sense of peace.

All this self-deception helps our minds to hide from what Bonhoeffer and Eliot are both trying to tell us: this babe in the manger is in fact the birth of the Tiger Christ who has come to the world, not meek and mild, but with a sword, cutting through the lies that bind the world, and the lies that bind us…turning to another Eliot poem, Gerontion,

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

Think. Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.

Christ springs in the new year, with his only goal the complete consumption of all we are: Christ, the tiger, springs in the new year. Us he devours. Eliot critic Grover Smith explained this imagery in powerful terms, “Christ came not to send peace, but a sword; the Panther of the bestiaries…is also the Tiger of destruction. And so, ‘the tiger springs in the new year,’ devouring us who have devoured Him.” We draw this journey to a conclusion, ending with Augustine’s words about the communion bread and wine: behold what you are, and become what you receive. By our profession of faith we are the body of Christ, through our consumption of the body of Christ in communion, we enter further in to being that body of Christ. Our consumption of Christ, in turn results in us being consumed. That transformation calls us to live and breathe as a people called and redeemed, a people remade to be a people set apart. And today, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child let us again prepare ourselves to be consumed anew.

And a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel which means, God with us. Amen.


Written by sameo416

December 20, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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