There is a Hole in Christmas
Christmas Meditation, 2010
Leander S. Harding
There is always a hole in Christmas. The word in English can be spelled two ways. It can be spelled “hole”—meaning an excavation, a space which has been left behind when something has been removed. It can be spelled “whole”—meaning a fullness, something entire and complete. These two words are almost exact opposites of each other. They sound the same and it is impossible to utter one without thinking of the other. They are a joined pair and both members of the pair are present at Christmas. There is a hole in Christmas. Spell it either way and you will be entirely correct.
Much homiletic hay is made out of the materialism of the Christmas season—all the shopping, all the overdone and extravagant gift-giving, little children worked up to a frenzy of desire then left stunned with a surfeit of things they can’t take in. I say let it run and take off all the brakes on the desires of the human heart for young and for old. You can’t really restrain such things. Each Christmas season there are always censorious voices both religious and secular who protest the excess. The sound of these voices and their impotence are part of the tradition of the season. The excesses of the season are far from all bad. It is not all bad to really want something and want it badly, to really long and ache for it.
The objects of our desires may be fleeting and temporary and our desires may well be, indeed are for the most part disordered. Desires can be trained. They can be reordered. It is one of the chief purposes of Christian liturgy and worship to reorder our desires, to tune our hearts for heaven. This is a hard business, the reordering of desires. It is the central discipline of the Christian life. It is what is meant by daily dying with Him that we might rise with Him. The goal of the Christian life is not detachment—indifference—an austerity of wanting. It is to have desire reformed. It is to die to the things we once wanted but not to wanting. It is to be reborn to wanting what He wants, the honor of His Father and the good, the salvation of His brothers and sisters.
The materialistic, secular, religiously nude shopping Christmas allows people who are often deadened by the demands of robotic production to really feel the depth of their desires—to plumb the depth of the hole in the human heart. People get in touch at Christmastime not only with their longing for things but with the longing that things cannot satisfy—the longing for dignity, enduring meaning and purpose. There is also awakened a desire to genuinely please others—to bring delight to a spouse, a friend or a child—to be an agent of the wellbeing of others.
It is of the nature of gifts to disappoint. Even the best ones never live up to their promise or if they do they break or wear out. If they don’t break or wear out our fascination with them wears out. The gift-giving inevitably disappoints as well. Rarely does the gift giver provoke the imagined result in full. It is of the nature of the Christmas season as it is celebrated even in the crassest cultural forms to bring pleasure and delight and at the same time knowledge of the inadequacies of all pleasures and delights, even the delight of doing for others. The good old materialist, secular celebration of Christmas awakens the depths of the human heart and knowledge of the hole in the heart that aches for wholeness and even holiness. A heart thus awakened is a heart prepared for that other celebration of Christmas, the one which centers on the birth of the Saviour.
The by turn generous, extravagant, sentimental, irresponsible and cranky celebrants of the excesses of Christmas need to be met with great tenderness. As the old pop song goes, they are looking for love in all the wrong places. But looking they are, keenly searching. What they need and we all need is not scorn or condemnation but a taste of the love wherewith God has loved us and a word about that which has been left behind and which has left a hole and about the wholeness and holiness to which the hole gives both testimony and promise, this wholeness and holiness which is not our own but God’s gift to us in the Word made flesh. A word spoken about these things will be a word in season. Thank God for the season.
There has been the sad story in the news about the damage done by vandals to the Glastonbury Thorn. Here is a piece that I wrote some time ago.
The Thorn That Blooms at
This night I would like to tell you a story. This story is not from Scripture but from the folkways of our Anglican Tradition. It is one of those stories that are impossible to verify. It is not, as they say, one of those things necessary to salvation. But it is a story that has warmed the hearts of the faithful for generations and I want to share it with you. It is a story about someone you would not ordinarily associate with Christmas: St. Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph of Arimathea is remembered as the person who donated the expensive garden tomb in which the body of Jesus was laid after being taken down from the cross. St. Joseph was, according to tradition, a wealthy man and a trader. Some ancient authorities believe he was related to Jesus, perhaps his uncle. There is a charming English legend, quite unverifiable but stoutly believed in Cornwall, that Joseph of Arimathea was involved in the tin trade and sent ships to the tin mines in Cornwall. Britain was then at the edge of the Roman Empire and represented one of the boundaries of the known world. And the story goes that his uncle sent the boy Jesus on one of his ships to visit England and that the young Jesus walked upon the fields of Cornwall. There is even a Hymn about all of this in the English Hymnal, “And did those feet tread upon that green and pleasant land.”
During the life of Jesus, we catch glimpses of Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels. He appears to be like Nicodemus, one of a small number of the Pharisees and the ruling body of the Sanhedrin who sympathized with Jesus and who came in secret to hear him speak. We know that Joseph must have been present at the trial of Jesus and that, out of fear for his own safety, he did not intervene on behalf of Jesus.
Joseph seems to have come to himself after the Crucifixion and to have come forward boldly to claim the body of Jesus from Pilate. Joseph then has the body of Christ laid in his own expensive tomb and arranges for half a hundredweight of expensive spices for the funeral. (The funeral industry seldom uses high-pressure sales techniques. It merely offers choices. Guilt does the rest.) The story I want to tell you tonight comes many years later. Joseph of Arimathea has become a witness to the Resurrection and a great missionary. Finally, near the end of his life and weary from his great travels on behalf of the Gospel, he decides to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth—to Britain. He travels to a place called Glastonbury. According to the legend, St. Joseph brought with him the Chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and in the cup, some of the precious blood of the Lord gathered from His broken body. This Chalice was the Holy Grail that was the object of the quest of King Arthur and his knights. Another legend tells that Glastonbury is the site of Camelot and that Arthur is buried there.
The legend of St. Joseph says that when he got off the boat he was so weary that he planted his staff into the ground in order to be able to rest his whole weight upon it. The staff rooted to the spot and burst into flower. This plant blooms each year at Christmas time. It is called the Glastonbury Thorn. This much of the story is certain. There is such a plant in Glastonbury, especially on the grounds of the Cathedral there. The plant is something like a Hawthorn and it does flower each year around Christmas. In the seventeenth century, the troops of Oliver Cromwell, in a fit of Puritan zeal, tried to cut down the Glastonbury Thorn. The effect was to spread it around. The plant survives and thrives to this day.
I like this story about Joseph of Arimathea. It is comforting. Christmas is more complicated than the simple cheer of the greeting cards. The Joseph who goes to claim the body of the Lord from Pilate is a man full of grief and guilt over lost opportunities. Many of us, I think, come to Christmas this way, with some guilt about what we have let pass us by and some guilt about what is gone and cannot be gotten back. We have guilt about the time we should have spent with spouse or children, with parents or siblings or friends. Now we are separated by distance or death, and we miss our missed chances. Or perhaps it is some part of ourselves that we miss, something that was so alive once upon a Christmas time and which has become lost and inaccessible. We are looking for something inside and we cannot find it. Even for children there is sometimes sadness and weariness mixed in with the genuine joy and celebration of Christmas. The heart, after all, can carry more than one tune at a time and they are not necessarily in the same mood.
I, at any rate, identify with Joseph of Arimathea and perhaps at least some of you here tonight do as well. But the story goes on. This man, wearied by the secret weight of his guilt and grief, this man who both cares and is care worn, becomes a witness to the new life whose birthday is tonight. Into the hands of such a one as this (and the Saints in their beginnings are never particularly admirable or heroic—they get changed—that’s the whole point), into the hands of such a one as this, God places the precious blood of His love poured out for the life of the world. This person, who has been wearied with grief and guilt, becomes weary spreading the good news of God’s life-giving love which has been born into our midst this night. From the hands of such a one as this new life flowers forth, life which cannot for long be cut back, but which blossoms again and again.
Now in a moment you will each make a journey down this road to Bethlehem where you will receive the Word of God’s love made flesh. As He did with St. Joseph of Arimathea, God will place in your hands His broken body and will entrust to you His precious blood, and your life, which perhaps is touched by sadness and regret, will carry—as St. Joseph carried the Grail—the secret treasure of God’s healing love which has overcome even death and the grave. Do not be surprised if under your hand in the midst of life’s care, at the limit of your strength, something unexpectedly flowers forth. It will not be the first time nor the last. It has happened before. It will happen again. Have faith in Christmas. Put your whole weight upon it. Amen
BISHOP SPONG: RESURRECTION AND MIRACLES
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
In this last of our series on John Spong’s critique of credal Christianity we are taking up thesis number 5 and thesis number 7 in the Spong manifesto. Thesis 5 is:The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity. Thesis 7 is: Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
A Sermon Preached In St. John’s Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut,
On Easter Sunday, April 10, 2004
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
Christian Faith is faith in the Crucified and Risen Lord. The preaching of the Apostles is without exception Resurrection preaching. In the reading that we have from the Acts of the Apostles today, St. Peter tells us what it is to be an Apostle and he tells us the message the Apostles bring, that Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the saviour king, promised by the Jewish prophets, has come. God has anointed Him not with oil like the Kings of old but with the Holy Spirit and power. In Him, as St. John tells us, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He was rejected by His own people. He was condemned and crucified. God has raised Him from the dead and He is Lord of all, the king of everything. Early Greek-speaking Christians called Him the Pantokrator, the ruler of the cosmos. If the witness of the Apostles is true, if Christ is really Risen and Lord of all, the Resurrection is the single most important event in human history. It is, as the church has always taught, the beginning of a new history, a new creation in which there is a new way of being human in a new community formed by the New Testament, that is the New Covenant in Christ which is marked by the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are two sources of belief in the Resurrection. There are the reports of the original witnesses in the Gospels, the Book of Acts and the Letters of the Apostles, and there is the church’s experience throughout two millennia of the continuing presence and activity of the Risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, in her preaching, her sacraments, her fellowship and her service to the world both in the lives of the great saints and the most ordinary Christians.
These two witnesses are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The historical evidence alone is very compelling to anyone who will approach the texts without prejudice. The first witnesses are the women. Not the way you would write it given the status of women in the ancient world, unless it was the way it happened. The Apostles tell us through the Gospels that when the chips were down they all fled and that after the crucifixion they were all hiding because they were afraid. How unlike any other religious text I know is this honest self-portrait of a frail humanity. You instinctively trust the honesty of a reporter who reports honestly about himself. C.S. Lewis, the agnostic Oxford don and professor of English literature, who was converted to Christianity at mid-life and who went on to become one of the greatest Christian writers in the Twentieth Century, said this upon encountering the Gospels in a serious way as an adult, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that none of them is like this.”
The skeptical, secular historian has an insurmountable problem in explaining the origins of Christianity apart from an objective and supernatural resurrection. How to explain the conversion of this frightened and defeated band into those men of whom their opponents complain in the Book of Acts 17:6, “ these who have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”
Michael Ramsey, the late Twentieth Century Archbishop of Canterbury, said in his justly famous book on the Resurrection, “The present writer would ask sympathy for two very modest presuppositions. The one is that the biblical belief in the living God, creator, redeemer, transcendent, is true. The other is that the events must be such as account for the Gospel which the Apostles preached and by which the first Christians lived.” Skeptical presuppositions aside, the events as recorded by the original witnesses account for the origins of the faith and the church far more adequately than any of the speculations of doubters.
The reports of the original witnesses are twofold. They report that the Tomb was empty and that they saw the Risen Lord. Both of these things together are important, so important that the meaning of their union has been immortalized in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The proclamation of the Apostles is that Jesus has been raised bodily and that in Him we shall likewise be raised. The point is that the resurrection faith is not about the survival of some aspect or part of us beyond death. The proclamation of the resurrection is not a proclamation of survival, that the soul or spirit survives death but a proclamation that everything relating to the humanity of Jesus, that our entire human nature, body and soul, our psychosomatic unity has been recreated in Him through His sacrifice of love. It was not some part of Him that survived but all of Him was raised from the grave, the first example of a new humanity in a new creation, destined to be the elder brother of many siblings in a new race. Because He shared our lives of sin and death, He has the power to give us the gift of sharing in His new and Risen Life which is a life in which everything pertaining to our human existence is transfigured and made new. Even now, through the power of the Holy Spirit He begins to recreate those who come to Him in faith. This is the meaning of the church’s teaching that in Holy Baptism we are regenerated, born again, made new.
This desire to be made new, to be made over is very deep in the human heart. There is a current reality TV show that plays upon this profound human longing to be a new person. The show is called, “Extreme Makeover.” It is a show about plastic surgery and people are chosen for a free extreme makeover. The plastic surgeons do their best from head to foot. The promise of the show is not only that the people will look better but that they will also feel better, have better lives in every way and especially in their relationships with other people. The promise is that those getting the extreme makeover will feel better about themselves and that other people will change their opinion of them as well. In other words, change the outside and the insides will change, there will be a complete and positive change in identity and in reality. Like so many of the shows on television just now, this is a show about salvation.
There is some truth in the premise. Someone has bad teeth and they don’t smile, fix the teeth and the smile and it does change things. There is also truth in the intuition that ultimately, if you are really going to be a new person, you must have a new body and that there is a connection between the body and our relationship with others. What the surgeons can deliver of course is only a temporary fix.
There is only one physician who can deliver on the promise of extreme makeover. He works not from the outside in but from the inside out. He works with sacrificial love and He transfuses us with His life and with His recreated humanity and we really become different in every dimension of our lives. We really do have a different relationship with God, with each other, forgiven and forgiving. We have a different relationship to our own faults and failings. We know we are not alone but have access to a power greater than ourselves, the Holy Spirit that the Risen Lord breathes into His people. We have new friends and we find fellowship and a new solidarity with others in praising and serving God. We have a new relationship to God’s good creation which we believe also will mysteriously in Christ be raised. We have a new relationship with the suffering world as the place from which the Crucified and Risen one calls to us to serve Him in His distressing disguise. He changes everything about us and there is no aspect of our humanity, including our bodies, that is not touched by His recreating work until He has made over into His image which includes giving us a body like His.
The Resurrection of Christ is something that is all ready but not yet. He is Risen and He is raising us and His Resurrection in us is something that is all ready and not yet. The Resurrection is something which we know about from the witness of the scripture and something which we experience as we immerse ourselves in the life of the church. Even this thing of the recreating work of the resurrection on our bodies is something which can be seen to be all ready and not yet.
Recently there was a celebration in Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa. It is one of the steps in the Roman Church on the way to sainthood. At the end of the impressive ceremony there was unveiled a portrait of a very old, very frail, very wrinkled, very used up little woman. It was the portrait of a very beautiful face, a face changed, made over from the inside out. It was a portrait of something invisible breaking through to the visible. So St. Paul says in the 15th chapter of the First Letter To The Corinthians, “this mortal must put on immortality” and “it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” Here St. Paul says we get a down payment of the life of the world to come. In the face of the saint perhaps we catch a glimpse of the beauty of the body that the grave cannot hold.
It is one of the great privileges that I have as a parish priest to see people change as they grow in the life of faith and they don’t just change their thinking, they change their being and their look and I tell you I can see people become more beautiful in the Lord. It is often an extreme makeover and not a temporary one but a token of even more radical and complete changes to come.
I trust the original witnesses and I trust the reported experience of the church through the ages. I trust my own Christian experience. I believe in the Resurrection of the body.
As you come to make your Easter communion, bring this deep desire of the human heart for an extreme makeover, this longing to be made new, to be beautiful, inside and out. Ask God for the grace to open your heart and life so that you might receive the new human life the Risen Lord brings us at the price of the cross and in the power of the Spirit, that life which begins now and which the grave cannot hold, that life which makes it possible for us to say with confidence, “ I believe in the Resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Amen.
This is a repost of a piece I originally wrote for a God Play newsletter.
The Passion Of Jesus Christ
And The Passion Of Parenthood
The sacrifice of Christ is pondered in endless books and hymns and works of art. It is a “big story” generating much wonder and wondering. There is at least one part of it that I think I understand. I believe that at the heart of the sacrifice of Jesus is the suffering of rejected love, which the saviour meets with an unswerving passion.
Many years ago I watched a documentary on television about the famous school for emotionally disturbed children run by the now discredited psychiatrist, Bruno Bettleheim. What is not in dispute is that some very sick children went to his school and got better with the help of the young and dedicated therapeutic teachers employed there. The documentary found some of these children now successful as adults and interviewed them and the teachers about their past. I was struck by one story. The man, now a successful broker on Wall Street, recalled how he had been sent to the school because he had as a seven year old tried to kill his mother and sister with a knife. The film cut to a middle-aged woman remembering being a young teacher who read to the children each night before they were to go to bed. One night as she was reading she felt the air stir by her face and looked up in time to see a knife whiz by her at eye level and stick into the wall next to her. She looked across the room and saw a seven year old boy, the boy she knew had been admitted for trying to kill his mother and sister with a knife standing poised by an open window, ready to jump out. “What did you do?” The interviewer asked. “I didn’t know what to do, so I picked him up and held him. I held him while I finished reading to the group. I held him so tightly it made my arms hurt. I held him while I put the rest of the children to bed and I continued to hold him until we both fell asleep. I continued to hold him for most of the next several days except when it was absolutely impossible for either of us.”
The scene shifts to the stockbroker. “What where you going to do?” I was going to jump out of the window and kill myself.” “What was the effect of being held?” “I can’t remember what I thought but I know it was then that things began to change for me. There is a direct line from that night to my life now, even if I can’t explain it.”
There is a kind of holding that changes things. It is the holding power of love even when love is rejected, even when love is met with hostility. The cross of Jesus Christ is a mystery of unfathomable richness. It is at least this. It is the price of the persevering love of God, of God’s holding of the human race that changes everything. God holds us even though we are God’s enemies and even though we resist God’s love and push the saviour out of our lives and onto the cross. Even so God does not let go and in Christ God hangs onto us even though it costs the saviour the cross. Let us allow ourselves to be grasped by this Passion that we may hold out this love to the children given into our care. Amen.