Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Barking at Angels

Some years ago during Advent, 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.

The 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. Eternity is our dwelling place even in time 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.

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 plunged into the depths of this obscure stillness can we know 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 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 all salvation history occurs. The words that come after "behold" in the angel's announcement are explication for all 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 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.

Annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to the shepherds, to Mary, to First Isaiah, or to us. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances. When we realize that something beyond our knowing has happened, we may at first be incredulous or even embarrassed. But when we realize that we can no longer dismiss the evidence—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. Yet by welcoming this homely strangeness of God in beholding we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbor and, indeed, the strangeness of our selves.

Therefore in this 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 darkness and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.


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