A dear friend just returned from a five-day retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge (Mass.) and she brought me a copy of the brothers’ Christmas CD. It’s called “In Quiet Silence,” which at first I thought was a redundancy but then remembered the source, the beautiful, poetic antiphon for the First Sunday after Christmas (the Sunday on which the Prologue from St John is always read):
While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of its swift course, your almighty Word, O Lord, leapt down from your royal throne, Alleluia.
The program notes describe the monks’ observances of Advent and Christmas:
Christmas at a monastery is strikingly different from the surrounding cultural and commercial norms, in which the “Christmas season” begins sometime near the end of October. In a monastery, no carol is heard and not a sprig of holly or a bough of pine is to be found before the evening of December 24. And then the caroling continues as the greens stay hanging for twelve full days of feasting, long after the secular world has moved on to its next commercial venture.
This is the way I grew up observing Advent and celebrating Christmas. Advent was serious. It was (and still is) quite possible to do all the Christmas-rush preparations at home, at work, and in the stores, while at the same time observing a true Advent in the church–if, that is, your church does it right (it’s getting harder and harder, but some still do). That’s the way it was in my family. My sister and I both have fond remembrances of Christmas Eve: our father putting up the tree, bringing in pine boughs to deck the halls, and getting out the Christmas lights from their boxes. Looking back, I realize that our decorations were very simple–although our mother made exquisite arrangements of magnolia, holly, and nandina berries–but it all seemed like the most exciting thing in the world. Our mother said, “Christmas should come in a burst.” The preacher this morning at Christ Church Greenwich, Dane Boston, preaching on the angel’s startling word to Joseph in Matthew’s narrative (1:20), said that “Christmas is the Great Interruption.” What a marvelous coinage! The incarnate Word, according to the lovely carol “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” comes into such a world as this. That simple phrase, “such a world as this,” speaks volumes about our condition. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone can think this world is not in need of being saved from violence, degradation, and oppression.
I don’t bother to read Bishop Spong’s never-ending, self-congratulatory utterances, but some excerpts from his latest were thrust upon me. In his new book about the Gospel of John, he declares that the milieu of the Gospel is not Hellenistic, but Jewish–as if he had personally discovered what has been common knowledge in biblical scholarship for at least sixty years. What struck me especially, though, was his repetition of the same ideas that he has been pushing for decades (with some degree of success, much to the annoyance of those of us who wish we had his genius for marketing). He is out to exterminate “salvation theology” and “atonement theology.” He does not believe the human race and the creation need to be saved from anything. I am only slightly exaggerating in saying that he thinks the traditional apostolic faith is dangerous for our self-esteem. No one ever sought esteem more ravenously than Bishop Spong; he is famous for it. One wag said that his career did not belong to the history of theological inquiry; it belonged, like the career of the Sitwells, to the “history of publicity.” In that regard, Spong has done a very effective job. My friend reported that during her retreat at the SSJE, one of the visiting participants burst out with a diatribe against “atonement theology.”
Can it be that anyone could think this world is not in need of saving? Last week I saw a photo of a Syrian man holding the body of his little son, killed in a bomb blast. The father was howling. Howling. Yesterday the New York Times published a very impressive piece of investigative journalism about the abysmal and inhumane conditions in the garment factories of Bangladesh where–get this–the US government pays megamillions (billions probably) to have clothes made for the Park Service, the Marine Corps, the Capitol security guards….all this evil done in our name and for our benefit, on the backs of poor, voiceless people in a distant country about which we know and care little.
A friend who writes pretty good poetry sent me a poem yesterday. I can’t find it right now in the flurry of boxes, cards, decorations, etc. but it was something like this: “Lord, I don’t feel like a great sinner, a little person with my little doings….” I think a lot of people feel that way, and it prevents us from understanding the seriousness of the larger human predicament. “Into such a world as this” the Son of God became incarnate.
Isaiah writes, “We have been in our sins a long time; and shall we be saved?” (64:5) The message of Christmas is that, in the words of aged Simeon, “mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:30). If that be “salvation history,” make the most of it.
And by the way, the painting of the song of Simeon by Rembrandt is at the Frick Gallery right now with the Girl With the Pearl Earring. For me, it is the Rembrandt that meant the most.