Folk Art Creche at Holy Cross Monastery
Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
RCL - Christmas I - Sunday 27 Dec 2009
In the year 627, Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, that is to say, the land on the eastern side of Britain north of the River Humber and stretching into what is now southern Scotland, called a meeting of his advisors. They met in the sort of hall you may remember from Beowulf: a large wooden structure that served for official ceremonies, eating, mead-drinking, giving gifts and telling stories and singing long narrative poems and boasting and carousing and sleeping. The gables were open at either end, for fresh air, and so were the doors on either side, and there was a roaring fire for heat. Edwin had called this meeting because he had decided to become a Christian and needed to carry his kingdom along with him. The counselors could see which way the wind was blowing. Counselors always do. They were in favor.
According to the account by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as the king’s counselors spoke they gave two main reasons why Christianity might be better than what they had been practicing (HE II.13). The first, given by the chief pagan priest, is that the cults he had been practicing just didn’t work very well, at least for him:
“None of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for any thing, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them without any delay.”
This motivation is not unknown among religious professionals in any age.
But the second reason is what detains me this morning. A more thoughtful thane stood up and made what is perhaps the classic conversion speech in our tradition:
"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."
Bede was a pretty sophisticated theologian, and here we can detect, in narrative form, the two main reasons why people in his age, or indeed, in any age, might consider changing their religion: power and knowledge. Natural human religion always looks to the divine for benefit: health, prosperity, victory in war, safety in childbirth, some exemption from the disasters always attendant on human life, a little glory. That is what Edwin’s religious professional wants. Considered as bargaining with God, this is fairly low on the scale of praiseworthy motivation. But is it such an awful thing for people to do, considering how fragile life can be?
But the thoughtful thane has deeper questions: That heart-stopping image of the sparrow flying through the hall is in fact our own life. What can we know of the world we have been put into? The part we see at least can be lit and warm, and we can describe it in our own language and our own terms of reference. But what about the eternities of time before and after us? What about what we cannot see? We don’t have concepts, let alone words, adequate for them.
For people with such questions, the narrative of the life of Christ is not going to be enough. And that is why the Church in her wisdom has placed the prologue of the Gospel of John on the Sunday which falls between Christmas and Epiphany, between the sweet stories of the manger, the animals, and the shepherds at one end and the wise men and their gifts at the other. For some, the stories will suffice. But for others, the question remains: What does this child, this person, mean?
John’s language is about as far from Edwin’s mead-hall as you can get, and yet the questions it addresses are the very questions that the bright thane raised: What came before us? What will come after us? What is the nature of the world? What is the light we sparrows rejoice so briefly in? And in precise, philosophical Greek, John tells us:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The thane’s questions are our questions: So much of the world is unknown to us, dark, inaccessible to our present experience. Is that world a problem? Is it of God or is it alien? Should we be afraid of it?
John’s answer is No. Everything that is, is of God, because it came into being through the Word of God, and so it was, is and always will be formed in its very essence by the Word. There is darkness, but it cannot overcome the light, which is always shining. The light of God will always show the way. The Word of God was, is and always will be the forming element of reality.
We live in an age when even what we think we see is something else, when light itself, and the act of seeing and comprehending are beginning to be understood in utterly new ways, when the human will is itself increasingly coming under scientific scrutiny, when biochemistry and new paradigms of physics and genetic determinism and brain sciences daily open new vistas to us about the world, and about ourselves. We are not what we thought we were. And so where there seemed to be light it seems there may be a new darkness. As we come to a better understanding of the immensity of the universe in its unimaginably vast distances, and as we come to understand more and more the infinitely intricate complexities of the subatomic particle worlds of which the least part of us is made, we may stand with that thoughtful thane and ask, Can this faith help us to know?
We know more and more. Human knowledge increases day by day. Does each new discovery push God farther and farther from the center? This is in fact the question John addresses, forthrightly and at the very beginning of his Gospel. What is, is of God. Every truthful understanding is an understanding in and of the Word because the very universe itself is in and of the Word. Far from being alien to God, the universe is God’s project, grounded in the Word through which it was made. The progress of knowledge is holiness because it brings us closer to the Word of God. And that Word is no mere abstraction, but is also one of us, in whose words and deeds we may find the incarnate Word itself.
It is probably no accident that Bede’s last scholarly act, still in progress on his deathbed, was a translation of the Gospel of John into Anglo Saxon. He died, after all, only 108 years after that thoughtful thane, the ancestor in the faith of so many adult questioners in our tradition, made his unforgettable speech. Bede knew what that thane needed, and those like him, those intelligent Christian seekers for ages to come. Praise God for them. Praise God for the Word of creation. Praise God for the Word made flesh.