"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Advent 4: The Coming of Christ the Tiger

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Carrying the theme from last year onward….

Advent 4 Year C Preached 20 Dec 15 at SJE Edmonton, Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Luke 1:39-55 (The Magnificat)

We are here at the last feast day in our march to the celebration of Christ’s nativity.  We stand on the precipice of an event that literally reordered the entire creation, the coming of the Christ.  It is easy, particularly in this western world of plenty, to see the coming of Christmas as just another routine part of celebrating how great life is as a Canadian.  Christmas becomes an opportunity to fill ourselves up with ever more “good” things, stuffing an already overflowing bag with even more.  It is also easy to fall into the routine of the cycle of days…oh yes, it is once again Christmas (or Easter), where is my to-do list?

It is important to recognize the lesson of our church calendar in seasons such as this, as the sequence of the days carries a teaching.  Immediately after the Feast of the Nativity, we have the feast day of St Stephen, a martyr for the faith.  Shortly thereafter we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents, marking the death of the baby boys in Bethlehem at the hand of Herod.  This tension between joy and despair, light and darkness is intentional.  Even our Psalm today contains a very un-Christmassy “he will feed them the bread of tears”.  The reason for this tension is because this is the story of our lives, and if you’ve lived for more than a few years you have probably learned that after each episode of joy there is one of sadness.  The Scriptures reflect the reality of our lives in this broken world.  This too is missed if you are not attentive to the cycle of the days.

By contrast, the call of Advent is the call to become empty to the noise of this world, so that we can be prepared for the in-filling that the coming of Christ brings to each of us.  As long as our hands are already full, God cannot fill them with the things he has for us (CS Lewis, The Problem with Pain).  The invitation in each holy season is to come and encounter the Messiah anew, again.  Each holy season a bidding to walk the path of personal renewal and re-conversion.  People sometimes speak of their conversion moment, when they became a Christian…but rather than a moment, our lives are a series of re-conversions, with each moment conforming you more to Christ.  Faith is not an event, but a process.

An old Christian tradition in the last part of Advent are known as the ‘O Antiphons’, a series of phrases naming the coming Messiah brought out of the words of the Prophet Isaiah.  These sayings would be used in response to the reading of The Magnificat.  In response to Mary’s canticle of joy all God’s people respond with the promises foretelling the coming of Christ.  Since we’ve read the Magnificat today, we will walk through the antiphons as we consider the mystery of this holy season.

O Wisdom, Which camest forth out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (Wisdom 8:1, 9:4, 9, 10; Proverbs 8:22; Hebrews 1:1; John 1:3; Ecclesiasticus 34:3)

(I’ve included a link to the Wikipedia entry for this poem…which is not always helpful.  Most of the religious criticism in that article I think entirely incorrect, because of the profound theology reflected in the text.  You can hear Eliot read the poem on youtube here.)

I preached this same Sunday last year, and closed with TS Eliot’s poem, Gerontion, which I will use as an opening for this year:

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 […]

 

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

Think at last.  We have not reached conclusion when I

Stiffen in a rented house.

Eliot’s words circle around an analysis of the impact of the coming of Christ, and he brings out the contrary wisdom of God: ‘the Word within a Word, unable to speak a word.’  This is the wisdom that God brings to convert the cosmos, not a mighty angel army or even a voice in a burning bush, but rather this non-threatening and powerless form, a baby.  A baby, yes, but a baby that was present at the creation of the cosmos.  God seeks to renew the entirety of creation in the person of a baby: ‘the Word’, that is the Logos of God, incarnate within the Word that is Jesus the Christ, yet unable to speak a word, dependent on his parents to care, cloth and feed him.

That ‘word within a word’, in some short period of time, will be fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Fleeing the might of empire, in the person of Herod, fearful and grasping at power that was never really his.  For after the happy sounds of Christmas, we are almost immediately drawn into Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem, the panicked response of empire faced with a greater power.  The power of empire is in reality a façade, for behind the curtain there is no real power, just the might of human will.  A power that exists only in ‘a rented house’ that will be taken away someday soon.  For in the end, Herod along with Pilate and Caesars far and wide all only wield transient power given to them from far beyond.  This is the Wisdom that comes to save us.  What is left, in the end, when empire falls, is Christ the tiger, continuing his devouring work on us.

O Lord and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who appearedst unto Moses in a flame of fire in the bush, and gavest unto him the Law in Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.  (Acts 7:30, 28; Hebrews 12:18-21, 10:16.)

What then are we to make of this Advent of our Lord?  We who are faced daily with weakening and fractured bones, the slowing of thought, the quieting of breath, as the arrow of time and entropy carries us irreversibly forward toward that inevitable end point.  That place where instead of gathering around the casket to mourn, we are instead gathered around and mourned.  It seems like such an ending, and the committal to the earth, the flames or the sea brings such finality.  Particularly those bearing the grief of recent loss this holy season, it seems like such an ending.  What I loved before is now gone, and I am left bereft.  What does that tiger have for me but more sadness, more empty nights?

The answer comes partly through the canticle, the song of joy of another sufferer, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist who had never been able to have a child.  And then, by God’s hand the miracle of a son…but what a son.  John is the ring master announcing the coming of the ultimate circus spectacle, Christ the tiger, who came not to perform, but to transform all who are willing to enter that tent and dwell.  While our mortal flesh may fail, the redemption of Christ carries with it something eternal, something everlasting.  Elizabeth’s own song of joy announces what we are to make of the Advent of that tiger:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[g] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1: 42-45)

O Root of Jesse, Who standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom kings shall shut their mouths, unto Whom the Gentiles shall pray: Come and deliver us, and tarry not. (Isaiah 9:1, 10, lii, 15; Romans i. 3; Matthew xxviii. 19, 20)

Israel had been waiting for a king from the line of David, from the root of Jesse.  And what came was a king, but not a king in the way that Pilate would understand, or in the way that the world would understand.  It is the coming of Christ the tiger from the root of Jesse, who comes with but one purpose: to devour us, in the instant that we devour him.  Augustine’s message about the Eucharist: behold what you are, become what you receive, reflects that reality.  As we devour the bread and wine each week here at the Lord’s table, Christ in turn devours us, consuming all that we are, and transforming it into something more Christ-like with every year.  We are unable to break this bread, unless we ourselves have been broken (Malcolm Guite, O Sapientia), as Christ was broken.

These images set our hearts aflutter, partly with fear, partly with expectation.  I don’t want to be consumed…I want to remain as I am, self-determined, “happy” in my freedom to direct my life as I wish.  Consumption is what I will on the good things around me, the fruits of the earth, but I am not a thing to be consumed and so my first response to this message of Advent is fear.  My first-world power means that I get to be the consumer of worlds, as is my birthright.  Close on the heels of fear comes expectation, as my wondering ears hear the message of salvation in a fresh way, and my wondering heart asks if this could possibly be true?  But the expectation is often a still and small voice against the bright lights and noises that draw me into more consumption.

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, Thou that openest and no one shutteth, and shuttest and no one openeth: Come, and loose the prisoner from the prison-house, and him that sitteth in darkness from the shadow of death. (Isaiah xxii. 22, xlii. 7; Revelation iii. 7; Luke i. 32; Mark ii. 10; Matthew xxviii. 18, xvi. 18, 19)

I am not a thing to be consumed, and yet each week as I draw near to receive the body and blood, I am in turn consumed further by Christ the tiger.  A tiger who lays in waiting for me to open the door but a crack, to issue even a half-hearted and half-witted invitation.  With the turning of the door handle the tiger begins his crouch, and as we open the door a crack to peer fearfully outside, the tiger leaps, forcing the door wide and bowling us and our certain dispensations over, knocking asunder all that we have come to believe is certain and sure.  He reminds us again that we live only in a rented house, and that our life in that house, even as it ends, is but beginning anew in the belly of that tiger.

Why is it granted to any of us that our Lord should come to us?  Yet he leaps, continually, continuously, toward all those who utter the name of the Lord, or think of the name of the Lord, or lean even slightly toward the Lord.  And yet, we know that Elizabeth’s joy would be coloured by the trials of John the Baptizer, who wandered in the wilds preaching the Gospel of repentance while wearing strange clothes and shouting, “You brood of vipers” to all those who knew in the certainty of power they were righteous.  John, who Jesus said was Elijah come again in power, but John who self-identified as not worthy to tie up the laces of Christ’s sandals.  We too dwell in this place of tension, between surrendering ourselves to Christ, or remaining under the fallacy of control where we fool ourselves into thinking that we are the ones driving this bus, and that we decided the when and where of all our endings.  So as joy comes to all God’s people, it brings also the knowledge that there are times when joy will depart, and we become a people of sackcloth and ashes.

O Orient, Brightness of the Eternal Light, and Sun of Righteousness: Come, and lighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. (Luke i. 78, 79; Malachi iv. 2; Wisdom vii. 26; Hebrews i. 3; John i. 4, 5; Titus iii. 4; Luke vii. 22; Ephesians v. 8-14.)

Jesus comes into a dark world to bring the light, the light of an only son of the Lord, to lighten we who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.  This sets the stage for the glorious song of Mary, the Magnificat, which even today leaves me stumbling.  Mary sets out the full summary of what the Advent of our Lord means.  In a world that is full of those fleeing empire’s wrath, and a world that is full of destruction and shootings and death, we have this young woman visited by Gabriel, who responds to Elizabeth’s joy with her own proclamation about what this Advent of our Lord means.  Listen to the words again, not as a comfortable westerner in a sort-of comfortable pew, but as a refugee, or someone mourning the loss of a loved one, or suffering the aftermath of a terrorist act, or in continued grief over the fracturing of family, listen to Mary’s answer to all those things and make it your song too:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.+
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Amen.

O King of the Gentiles, and their Desire, the Corner-stone, Who madest both one: Come and save man, whom Thou hast formed out of the dust of the earth. (Acts xvii. 26; Ephesians ii. 14; Isaiah xlv. 22; Psalm cxiii. 6-8; xlvii. 9)

The kings of the earth answer Mary’s message with indifference, as if disbelief could somehow hold back the leap of that tiger, the coming of Aslan the good but by no means tame or safe lion.  And so powers and principalities rage furiously together, believing that they will be the ones to finally bring a utopia to earth…through science, or through fundamentalism, or through the might of arms, or through any one of a thousand grand schemes of humankind that have all ended the same way…toppled by the word within a word, unable to speak a word.  And God shatters all these powers and principalities with a rod of iron, at the same time he is rebuilding our shattered lives as we turn to Him once again.

And so we arrive at the final stanza in our antiphons:

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (Isaiah vii. 14, viii. 8, xxxii. 1; Psalm lxxii; Genesis xlix. 10; Haggai ii. 7; Luke i. 71, 74, 75)

Our hope rests in the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.  If we learn nothing else from this Advent journey – know this, that it is only in accepting the King and Lawgiver that we are saved, and it is only when we admit that we are unable to do this on our own, that God is really able to bring us His new life.  God calls us to the stable, as he calls us to the Place of the Skull, bringing us new life in all the places where we are compassed about by death.

Malcolm Guite sums up this cycle beautifully in his concluding poem on the antiphons, O Emmanuel:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands. (Malcolm Guite)

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

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Written by sameo416

December 19, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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