Thursday, December 24, 2015

All That Way

Christmas, 2015

he voice of the wise man speaking in T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” says,

…set down
This set down
This:  were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?...

            Christmas is about the hardest time of year to preach the gospel.  You’d think it would be about the easiest.  But nearly everyone comes to church pretty much knowing a story.  Each of us imagines that the story that we know is indeed the Christmas story.  And why not?  There it is, all over the place:  on greeting cards and magazine covers; in commercials and on television; in carols blaring at us in shopping malls and in lovely concert settings with choruses singing “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” To be sure, all of those things have something perhaps to do with the gospel, even in a clumsy way.  But the core of Christmas is well buried beneath the presents under the tree.  Eliot, wise man that he was, knew the mysterious question that lies in the manger all wrapped up in its own swaddling clothes:  birth or death?  Which is it that we celebrate?

            About the last thing on anyone’s Christmas wish list is to come to a Christmas Eve midnight mass to hear a sermon about death.  I once got myself roundly chastised by an appalled parishioner, a mother of young adult daughters, one of whom came to church on Christmas and of all things found herself in tears at a true story I told about a Santa Claus in a children’s cancer ward who stayed with a little boy during his last hours, fulfilling the kid’s wishes while inadvertently incarnating the very Presence of Jesus, which is what I thought Christmas might be about.  Christmas, she scolded, was not the time for social action sermons, least of all those that make us cry.  This is the season of joy, or unbridled merriment, of jingling bells and spicy smells and poinsettias all in a row.  And I don’t want to spoil that for you, I really don’t.  But this might be my last crack at actually saying something truthful about Christmas before I leave parish ministry after 44 years, and I hope you’ll cut me a little homiletical slack to depart ever so slightly from the conventional romantic, if not jolly, script.

            The minute Jesus was conceived, he became subject to everything that any human being has both to enjoy and to contend with simply by being a body in this world.  I have no way of knowing what Mary thought about her little infant.  I imagine she was, like most young mothers of firstborn children, maybe nervous about nursing, concerned that there be enough dry swaddling clothes, perhaps wondering about the economics of a third stomach to feed in the months and years to come.  I suspect she was not as prone as some modern parents might be to look on this tiny being, squalling in the manger, all red from the birth canal, and to compliment herself on having such a fine baby, who just might one day become President.  Living as she did in an age where children rarely survived the first few years of life, it might have passed her mind that this baby was indeed mortal, and subject to death.  She might even have prayed that he be spared early death.  There was no getting around it:  to be born was to die.  And that still is the case.  Being divine, if that is what you want to call it, was no insurance whatsoever that your mortal body was anything but mortal. 

Somebody was to jeer at him a few decades later, jeer at him pinned to his rude cross:  “If you are the Messiah, come down from the cross.”  Skip out on death.  Prove that gods and saviors don’t have to die.  And he wouldn’t of course.  He couldn’t.  He had made a pact by that time that mortal he was and mortal he would be, and thus would have to do what mortals least want to but must do eventually:  face mortality.  Die.   That is the lynchpin of this whole project of incarnation.  It is about nothing less than embracing mortality.  One of the oldest Christian hymns we have goes like this: 

            though he was in the form of God,
            he did not regard equality with God
            as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
            taking the form of a slave,
            being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.[1]

Ironically the Church has a piece of good news here, but in my experience we rarely hear it and even more rarely believe it.  The good news is that it is a fine thing to be mortal.  It is a very wonderful thing to be a body.  Millions, billions of years have gone into the evolving human frame; and for all their aches and pains and vicissitudes, these bodies are not junk to be jettisoned on the last day, but temples of the Spirit that indwelt Jesus, warehouses of creativity, bearers of the resurrection life, the flesh that is transformed by the divine life who gives himself to us to be quite literally ingested as bread and wine.  And we get to enjoy many of the fruits and sweets of bodily life not exactly without charge, but generally without having to pay anything like what our senses, for example, are truly worth.  The kicker is that none of this means what it could mean until we fully embrace it.  And fully to embrace bodily life means that you have to get over being afraid of dying. 

            Now you think, I’m sure, that I am talking about fear of physical death.  To some extent I am.  But that is only a secondary fear, subordinate to other, more formidable, fears.  Humans are hard-wired for connection, and the truth is that nothing scares us quite so much as the prospect of being disconnected or unconnected from others, especially those on whom we are physically or emotionally dependent in some way.  And so we invest huge amounts of energy in trying to be lovable, trying to be accepted, trying to be approved, even when some of our behavior sabotages us.  We carry around loads of shame—shame that turns into cold fear that we’ll somehow be at the end of our tether some day and no one will notice or care.  Beside that, death is hardly anything to fear at all.  The dying that we most have to do is letting go—getting out of the way.  Or, to put it in the vocabulary that Jesus himself used, we can choose “to become as little children,” honest, direct, simple, playful, receptive, trusting.  That kind of outlook does not happen automatically.  Even little children sometimes have to learn to let go.  Much more so do adolescents who generally play to audiences that they hope will accept and not ostracize them.  Even more so do adults who continue to believe that our true measure is what we earn, accomplish, do, rather than how vulnerable—open—we are willing to be. 

            It is exactly at this point where Eliot’s mage’s question is most poignant—and helpful.  “Were we led all that way for birth or death?”  He goes on to say that he had seen birth and death and had thought they were very different.  This birth, though, the birth of Christ, was hard and bitter agony for him and his companions, like Death, their death.  So they returned, those wise men did, to their old kingdoms.  But no longer could they go about life quite so easily as they once had.  And that is the heart of why the Birth of Christ feels so much like Death to anyone who gets it.  All the old stuff that used to mean so much just doesn’t work so well any more.  The old dispensation, the old literalism, the old cop-outs, the refusals to give oneself over to loving passionately beginning with one’s body itself, the self-protection programs designed to make us look good under scrutiny:  all those things are like so many little household gods that are supposed to work like charms—crystals and talismans, and also orthodox ideas and sacred formulas—none of it matters once you’ve actually laid eyes on Being itself lying in a manger ready to become food at any instant.  Somewhat like the raised Lazarus in Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, once you have been dead and raised by Christ, living in the old world with those who don’t get it pushes one into feeling, well, dead to all that is untrue, and alive to all that is true.  And the worst part about it is there is no way to explain it to those who insist on a rational, predictable formula that will work for everyone the same way.  Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body that incarnation is a good bit like reincarnation.[2]  It is not just Christ who is born.  It is we who are born all over again once his life touches ours.  And it is that being born all over again that feels so much like Death, because that is exactly what it is.

            If any of this frustrates the hell out of you, well, just say goodbye to the hell and let it go. There is simply no way to work this stuff out in your head so that you can come to a place of believing it and then get about the business of living it out.  It doesn’t work that way, because, you may have noticed, life itself does not work that way.  You enter life the way Jesus did, kicking, puking, muling, screaming.  Much later you start figuring out what your life is all about.  Same thing is true for the New Life that you and Eliot’s Wise Man begin when you encounter Christ’s New Birth.  You are changed.  All you can do is laisser les bons temps rouler, as they say in New Orleans.  “Let the good times roll.” 

Live!  James Broughton, poet of Big Joy, who, in my opinion grasped the dazzling beauty of the incarnation and was overjoyed with it as much as any priest or prophet, wrote in his poem, “Song of the Godbody,”

I engender all the women of men
I engender the men of all women
I love you in every man’s body
I live you in every man’s lover

Trust that I know my own business
Cherish your fact and your fettle
Respect your perpetual motion
Relish your frisky divinity

You are my ripening godling
You are my fidgety angel
You are my immortal shenanigan
You are my eroding monument

I am ever your lifelong bodyguard
I am always your marathon dancer
Let your feet itch with my glory
Dance all the way to your death[3]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015





[1] Philippians 2:6-8.
[2] Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1966), pp. 201-202.
[3] “Song of the Godbody,” in “Mysteries of the Godbody,” Ecstasies:  Poems 1975-1983 (Mill Valley, CA:  Syzygy Press, 1983),  pp. 58-59.

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