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January 3rd, 2015
This year’s Christmas episode of Call the Midwife begins, as it does in every episode, with a prologue from its central character and memoirist, Jenny–her older self played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave. The season set apart invites her reflection on its deeper meanings:
Christmas comes at the closing of the year. It is a time for reaching out, looking back, finding comfort in the magic of the season that endures. ‘Tis when we take stock, when we measure joy–and pain. It is when we say this is who we are, what we have now become, and when we acknowledge what we cherish most of all.
We sought to take stock of things during Advent, tracing out the contours of the Incarnation’s deeper significance. We said that through God’s coming to earth as one of us we find the “shape” of things–of God, of ourselves, of sorrow and sympathy. And also of redemption.
Redemption comes in the shape of consolation. As our bodies grow old and decay, or when they become afflicted and degrade at a rate more accelerated than most, the rumor of redemption from loss and death shores up a sinking soul. It enables us to bear up under the weight of decline, or to strengthen one in the same condition. Even as the redemption promise to restore what’s lost, it’s the promise of redemption that delivers us from ourselves until the time when we shall regain our full selves. Listen to the humbled words of one who found themselves by losing themselves for one whose life was being stolen by disease.
Redemption comes in the shape of repentance, too. Jesus shows us what God is like, how much He is for both holiness and mercy; and how therefore He can be so against what enslaves us that He would die to rescue us while be so entirely for us that He would willingly die for us. It’s in seeing what He died for that we see what’s not worth dying for, what’s become a substitute for Him. Rod Dreher wrote candidly in recent weeks about how entrenched were his lesser loves, and what it took to see them disentangled from his heart.
Finally, redemption comes in the shape of beauty. Until the time when redemption shall reach its fulness we cling to that which anticipates its dawning by how it prefigures it. Beauty is like a window into timeless, incorruptible, blessedness. And the Incarnation is the most vivid expression of that beauty in how it inaugurates the restoration yet to come. The Incarnation has inspired innumerable expressions of beauty, some more noteworthy than others. I’ll share two.
One, which I shared with you at the beginning of Advent (HT: Dan McCartney), has an even more sublime quality than I first knew. With a little help from Andy Crouch, the majesty of the work is as much in the lyrics themselves.
The medieval text “O magnum mysterium” begins conventionally though beautifully enough: O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum
but then comes one of the gentlest surprises in all of devotional poetry. What is this “great mystery” and “marvelous sacrament”?
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesipio
“that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger.” That little word “animalia,” so unexpected, captures exactly the homeliness and humility in Luke’s Christmas story. And as you meditate on this text, you begin to see with the medieval imagination that indeed, it is the animals, gazing benignly on the little baby as they munch their hay, that make the Incarnation such a great wonder.
Here’s a live performance of it (and here’s another which, its sound quality issues notwithstanding, is visually spare but just as beautiful).
The other is from Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man. It’s entitled “Benedictus” and it is a most fitting conclusion to Advent. Numerous versions of this piece can be found online. But this one may be the simplest, most unpretentious–and therefore most sublime.
We’ve just bridged the season from Advent into Christmastide. Richard Rohr has a word that applied to Advent, but applies now, here still in the Twelve Days, applicable to what we’re about to turn our attention to here in the new year.
There are worse prayers than, “O Sapientia, venite!” A bigger mind is what we’re seeking as we turn to Proverbs in the New Year. Along the way to Lent, we’ll look at several themes from the Proverbs in search of wisdom: (our plans, our words, our friendships, our angers, our diligence, and our concern for the poor). And we’ll let a character from literature we’re already familiar with introduce us to the need for wisdom. Proverbs 1:1-19 is this Sunday’s text.
James calls the wisdom we need that which is “from above.” If it originates from there, than who are we to think it can be appropriated by sermon alone. Hear Richard Rohr’s suggested prayer request again, “O Sapientia, venite.”
Wisdom, like Gandalf, calls us to make good use of the time given to us. God operates within time, but exists in some ineffable sense outside it–beyond it, unconstrained by it. While people can only exist within time, Christian people are called to live both within and beyond it–resolutely present both to what is at hand and to what is yet to come. A new year is upon us. What would it be like to live this year as if it were the world’s last year?
Two community items of note:
1. We’ll renew our time of corporate prayer Sunday night, January 11th, 6-8p at the home of Nathan and Virginia Vandermeer. We’ll listen to the words of wisdom and pray for wisdom to make its way into our large and small concerns. Come pray with us for wisdom.
2. Why should one formally join a church? Listen for a moment to Francis Spufford.
Being a member of a church community for whatever reason clearly enrolls you in a kind of very valuable school for the heart, where the practice, the doing part of the shared Christian life, can build up over time into a powerful, wordless understanding.
To those who’ve visited CtK for a long or short time, we’d like to invite you to consider membership. You may have several questions about the shape of membership–or perhaps even the rationale for it. We’d like to begin an answer for you. On Saturday, January 24th, from 10a-3p we’d like you to join us for a series of frank conversations about membership in CtK, all of which will derive from some brief reading material we’ll ask you to complete prior to attending. Lunch will be served and childcare will be available. To register (or just for more information), email our administrative assistant, Imelda Ottmers. Registration closes Wednesday, January, 21st. The Saturday sit-down doesn’t obligate you to become a member, but it is a prerequisite for membership.
Jesus didn’t die for a voluntary organization. He died for His body, His bride. We belong to Him. It’s a glorious thing to be a church member. (Thabiti Anyabwile)
Hear in the infancy of 2015 a prayer from John Wesley rings true. How will God answer this prayer for us by the next time we mark the change of a year?
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.