Christmas - 25th December 2023
Community Christmas Card 2023
On Christmas Day at Lauds we sing the beautiful antiphon:
While gentle silence enveloped all things and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, your royal throne, alleluia, alleluia.
I love the gentle atmosphere that surrounds this antiphon, the way that it evokes the coming of the all-powerful Word as a tiny baby born in obscurity, in the quiet of an uneventful night. It was only a few weeks ago that I realised the context of this text – whilst reading from the Wisdom of Solomon at the liturgy I saw it on the facing page & was startled by what followed:
…your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command, and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth. [Wisdom of Solomon 18:15-16]
It was set in the midst of a long description of the Passover night and the woes visited upon the people of Egypt. I have been left struggling through Advent with this text and the fate of the Egyptian first-born. Why did the liberation of the people of Israel have to involve such violence and destruction? Is this not playing straight into the hands of those who would destroy those who threaten them rather than seeking to build peace? We are seeing this acted out so graphically in Israel-Palestine at this time by both sides in the conflict. The same in the continuing conflict in Ukraine. And both conflicts at least partly motived by religious motifs. In the face of this, how do we pray with such a Scripture text? It takes us right to the heart of the human condition, and our longing to be saved from bad things, from the evil, that threatens us.
I realise, as Fr John Behr said, that we must learn from the early Christians who read outwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, reaching into the Old Testament texts to find patterns and language to express their experience of the Word made Flesh. The early Christians through their relationship with the risen Christ experienced liberation from the fear of death and from the power of sin in their lives. The Passover story with its theme of liberation from slavery was an obvious one to turn to to find words for describing what had happened in Jesus Christ.
Melito of Sardis in his wonderful text ‘On Pascha’1 found Christ in the lambs that were slain rather than in the destroying angel of the text from which our antiphon comes. These two different ways of finding Christ in the Passover story subverts any tendency towards a single literal reading and is an example of the way of using the Old Testament as a rich source of imagery with which we can engage imaginatively. I know I am particularly prone to reading things literally and I can get very stuck. The early Christians played with texts in a way that can seem very loose to us but I think it is important for us to have such a creative relationship with our formative texts. Surely it is the only way to get away from genocidal literal readings.
Whoever first associated the text from the Wisdom of Solomon with the coming of Christ was dramatically re-interpreting it. Jesus Christ can indeed be seen as a mighty warrior carrying the ‘sharp sword’ of God’s ‘authentic command’. But the death he dealt was to the transpersonal powers of evil rather than to the people who were acting in the grip of those powers. He did that by willingly going to his own death at the hands of those possessed by evil forces, so overcoming death and rising to eternal life.
Death is inevitable for each one of us and suffering is woven into the fabric of our lives. We like to think that if we live good lives then bad things won’t happen to us. But that is clearly not true, and it is a mystery that is being wrestled with throughout the Bible. We want to think that the destroying angel will kill those who do bad things but in fact the fault line between good & evil lies within each of our hearts. The battle against evil is one each one of us must fight in our own lives rather than projecting it out onto others whom we must then kill (if only metaphorically).
We have to face the fact that this physical world is the way it is, suffering and death are inevitable and our basic needs put us in conflict with one another. But I believe that God calls human beings to transfigure this world by embracing willingly the circumstances of our lives, and in offering ourselves to whatever life brings, to bring to birth the self-giving love that is poured out on us in Jesus. Living out this kenotic love is what we are here for and all that is broken in this world forms a crucible in which this love grows.
Jesus Christ, the all-powerful Word, is the only one that can empower us to walk this way. He came in simplicity and humility to show us the way and to give us power to become children of God. As the gentle silence of Christmas night envelops us may this Word come to birth afresh in each of our hearts.
Mother Anne - 25th December 2023
1Peri Pascha (English title On the Pascha) is a 2nd-century homily of Melito of Sardis written between A.D.160 and 170 in Asia Minor. It was discovered last century and first published in 1940. It describes Christian doctrine on the Paschal mystery in a classical rhetorical style and was probably recited at the Paschal Vigil. [From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peri_Pascha]