Monday, December 01, 2008

Barking at Angels

Great Tew Combined Benefice
Advent Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some years ago, the Bodleian Library published a Christmas card that shows one of the miniatures from the Vernon manuscript. Even given the wonders of medieval illumination, this vignette is remarkable and amusing. It depicts the Annunciation to the Shepherds, or rather to one shepherd on a hillside, who is shielding his eyes from the glory of the herald angel. Beside him, his cheeky dog is doing what good sheep dogs do: barking at the strange intruder. It is not difficult to imagine the poor shepherd, terrified at the vision, trying nonetheless to get the dog to shut up long enough to hear what the messenger is saying.

I often wonder if all the fretful, frenetic activity in our lives, especially in the run-up to Christmas, isn’t a human way of barking at angels, of trying to drive away the signs that are everywhere around us, calling us to stop, to wake up, to receive a new and larger perspective, to pay attention to what is most important in life, to behold the face of God in every ordinary moment. These signs press on us most insistently at the turning of the year, when earthly light drains from our lives and we are left wondering in the dark.

The church from ancient times recognized the spiritual value of this winter span of darkness and created in its liturgy what we might think of as a three-months-long Night Office, beginning with the Feast of All Saints on the first of November and ending with Candlemas on February second. This season is a vast parabola of prophecy and vision, a liturgical arcing of eternity through the world’s midnight. It begins and ends with the ordinary: Christ in ordinary, as the genealogies point out, Christ descended from harlots, brigands and kings; the glorious Christ in his saints, the ineffable Christ the King, the humble Christ in the manger, the compassionate Christ manifest to the Gentiles.

The Advent readings—particularly those from Isaiah and Revelation—do their best to subvert our perceptions of time and space in order to plunge us into the great stillness at the heart of things, the stillness necessary to make space for what is “ever ancient and ever new” to break through the clamor of our minds, to open our hearts to the Beloved, to annunciation, and to fruition if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to welcome. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” cry the seraphs, their voices shaking the foundations even as their ineffable wings fold us into the stillness of God.

For it is only in this stillness can we know that eyes are being opened and ears unstopped; that the lame are leaping like deer and those once silenced are singing for joy; that water is springing in the parched wilderness of our pain. Only as we are immersed in the depths of this obscure stillness can we know, each of us in our own way, the wonderful and terrible openings of the seals and the book; the rain of the Just One; the heavens rent by angels ascending and descending; the opening of graves and gifts, of hell and the side of Christ.

Behold, he is coming with the clouds and everyone shall see him! Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold, the hour comes! Behold, I bring you good tidings! Behold, the Lion of Judah! Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling block! Behold, I am sending a messenger! Behold, the bridegroom comes! Behold, lift up your eyes! Behold, I show you a mystery! Behold, the tabernacle of God—and his manger—is within you!

Behold, thou shalt conceive! It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives, and we also. It is in this self-forgetful beholding, this eternity of love gazing on Love, of Love holding love in being, that we and Mary realize the fruit of our essential virginity through which all salvation history occurs. The words that come after "behold" in the angel's message are explication for those who do not behold, who are still chained by the imperious noise of the world, chained to those who wield power and control by means of noise and the fear of death. The Word yearns with the promises of God if only we will turn and behold, and in that beholding, be healed.

But annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to First Isaiah, to Mary, to the shepherds, or to us. As today's gospel tells us, there is no knowing when they might appear or what form they will take. Sometimes they manifest in our ordinary lives as the insights we all have now and again that make nonsense of the world as we have constructed it for ourselves. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances, and from the most unexpected sources. We may at first be incredulous; we may be shocked; we may be embarrassed. But when we finally realize that we cannot dismiss what has happened, when we realize that we can no longer ignore the evidence of the traces left from an encounter hidden even from our selves—we are filled with dread.

Annunciations leave us with a sense of strangeness, for we cannot get our minds around what has happened. They cannot be circumscribed by concept or by the self-reflexive interpretation we call “experience.” They are too wonderful, they are beyond what we can ask or imagine, and in their wake life will never again be the same.

Annunciations present us with forced choices: to choose whether we will flee in fear back into the old familiar prison-house of pain, walled in by dearly-held stereotypes and conceptual structures; or whether we will welcome the new birth in us, conceived by the Spirit, that will change our lives. By choosing to welcome this homely stranger, born of God in beholding, we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbour and, indeed, the strangeness of the unfolding truth of our selves. It is in this consent to behold that our fear is transmuted into love.

As we come to the manger, we bring gifts. Gospel accounts and legends recount a multitude of them. But there is one gift that all of us—high and low, rich and poor—share in common, one infinitely more precious to the Babe than gold or frankincense or myrrh; and that is suffering: the devastated suffering of those shattered by war; the sorrowful suffering of those who mourn; the anguished suffering of the abused; the hungry suffering of the poor and those who know their need of God; the hollow suffering of the rich; the interior suffering that is the simple longing that burns with beholding.

Behold in that dark cave the radiance of the Child; behold, and in that beholding, in that gentle, dazzling light, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay, all our sin and guilt. We bring the gift of suffering and he takes it from us, transfigures it, giving us in return new life, the joy that no one, and nothing, can take from us.

Therefore in this, the world’s midnight, let us enter more deeply into stillness so that we may behold the herald angels. Let us be undistracted even if the sheepdog continues to bark at our side. Let us so plunge into this beholding that its silence and light will radiate even through our own darkness to illumine all the shadows and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Dfish said...

Got to print some to muse over.As always, thank you for the consistent call for kenosis.

1:58 am, December 02, 2008  
Blogger Raven~ said...

Thank you, Ma'am. As ever, your words recall me, gently; let me offer these memories to the Holy One, and settle down into stillness ;-)

Yesterday was hard ... for both JohnBear and me, so many memories, so many friends who now dance with the angels ...

6:00 pm, December 02, 2008  

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