For all of us, I suspect, the world feels a different place this Christmas from the way it did this time last year. The events of September 11th in America – and all that has arisen from them since, and whatever may yet arise – these have changed our perception of how things are. That may be what brings some people, perhaps some of you, to church this year in contrast to previous years. A longing to get a handle on things. A longing to be able to make sense of them.
Certainly that phrase – making sense – has been a recurring one these past three months. ‘How do I make sense of this?’ ‘It just doesn’t seem to make sense.’ ‘What possible sense does any of it make?
There are no quick fix or easy answers to such questions or comments. The very form in which they are posed in fact makes that plain. My old friend and colleague Don Cupitt points out repeatedly how our everyday language, of which we’re frequently unaware, gives away what we really believe about things. So in this case, and whatever we might imagine we believe, we see that sense is not something that can be provided for us by authorities other than ourselves; whether those be sacred scriptures, or preachers, or television commentators or whatever. Sense is not a given. It is something that we have to fashion for ourselves, something we must make – that we create out of the raw material of our encounters with life as it is.
In that, making sense is one with all human endeavour, and, I suppose, that which seeks to draw it all together. Living is always making. We make war and we make peace. We make music. We make money. We make people happy and we make people sad. We create discord, and we create harmony. We make love, not simply as sexual lovemaking with our chosen partner, but in one situation or another with the whole fibre of our being, in any setting of human interconnectedness: by our attending to one another, caring for one another, listening to one another, touching one another. We either make love, or else we do not make love; in which case we instead make rivalry, enmity hatred, violence, strife.
We are makers all of the time. And although the word itself and the phrases linked to it can trip quite lightly off the tongue, all of this making require skill, and attention and time. Making things well – even making evil things well we now realise – involves constant effort and attentiveness.
On the inside front cover of your order of service tonight I’ve printed a poem I first heard read at a TCPC conference in America a couple of summers back. The conference brought together for four days people of open Christian understanding, together with a whole variety of artists. Artists of all types, some christian, some from other faith communities, several from none. The conference was about meeting, and attending to one another, and learning together. It had as its title ‘Risking Art, Risking Faith’.
George Ella Lyon’s poem “Growing Light” was read as a prologue to one of our worship sessions together. I share it with you now:
I write this poem
out of darkness
who are also in darkness
because our lives demand it.
This poem is a hand on your shoulder
a bone touch to go with you
through the hard birth of vision.
In other words, love
shapes this poem
is the fist that holds the chisel,
muscle that drags marble
and burns with the weight
of believing a face
lives in the stone
a breathing word in the body.
I tell you
though the darkness
has been ours
words will give us
give our eyes, opened in promise
a growing light.
The poem can be read as being about many things. It’s plainly about artistic creativity, and the struggle of the artist, giving birth whether in words or in sculpture, realising the potential both of herself and of the medium in which she works. But such struggle, such birthing, is in reality a part of every human’s life, and so should not be limited to those who carry the title of artist. The poem is about us all.
Then it’s about befriending, supporting, comforting. Even in an area of human endeavour where so much is done alone, and as individual, it is still possible to journey with others and to have solidarity with them. ‘This poem is a hand on your shoulder, a bone touch to go with you.’ Hence it is also about love, compassion, feeling for people in the profoundest sense. That love-making of which I have spoken. ‘In other words, love shapes this poem’; and about faith as a part of love. Love which ‘burns with the weight of believing a face lives in the stone, a breathing word in the body.’
And in its issue, it is also about hope. ‘Though the darkness had been ours, words will give us, give our eyes, opened in promise a growing light.’
Yet the beginning for all this is darkness. ‘I write this poem out of darkness to you, who are also in darkness, because our lives demand it.’ In that sense, it sounds a rather different note from the way in which this Christmas festival has so often been understood, though a way which perhaps resonates with the particular world we now find ourselves in. For Christmas is frequently read as an explosion of light. The glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds in that passage from Luke I read just now. Isaiah in prophecy speaks of a great light shining upon all. So often Jesus is depicted as an all-conquering banisher of darkness, making all well, putting all right.
Yet I wonder whether this may not be what makes christian faith difficult for many people. That it does not appear to ring true with, make sense of, the world they actually inhabit. A world where, as now, darkness is so very apparent, whether in the headlines or in personal experience. But more than that, a world in which, however oddly, darkness can so often be what enables our creativity – ‘I must do something with this and make sense of it’ – and so realises our nobler and fullest selves. ‘A hand on your shoulder, a bone touch to go with you.’
If we actually look at him whose birthday we celebrate today, he inhabited a no less difficult world. Neither in his birth, nor in his living did he impact greatly on the public stage. In reality his life touched individuals rather than peoples and nations. His influence, profound though it was on those who encountered him, was generally through the equivalent of a hand on the shoulder – a woman healed and affirmed, a man invited to follow, an outcast made to feel a welcome guest. He walked none of the corridors of power. But with his own eyes opened in promise to a vision of the commonwealth of God, he gave others hope of a growing light, of fresh possibility.
Such growing light, I believe, properly counts for much more than any number of celestial fireworks. Jesus’ actual birth in obscurity, as the child of Mary and of Joseph, is what makes him cause for continuing hope for us now, 2000 years later. Because he could from the darkness fashion so much, we are emboldened to follow him. But not for quick fixes, but in a lifetime’s discipleship.
George Ella Lyon’s poem might also, perhaps, in some way be about God. For God’s role as creator – not out of nothing, but through struggle – is central to jewish-christian understanding. And the birth of Jesus has often been read as the beginning of a new creation. The bringing into being of a face alive in stone, a breathing word in a body – images which for me resonate strongly with that fabulous sculpture on the front of your service book – might almost be a metaphor for that new humanity which Jesus initiates. A humanity new not in terms of sudden glory, but of authenticity.
Jesus is the gift of God to show us what can be fashioned from our common darkness. The poem is of his life, shaped by love (the love which is God, love made and mediated to him through Mary and Joseph) and so issuing in love. It draws us into it, and invites us to write it anew in our own lives. It offers us hope, even sense, but not passively on a plate, but as something for which we must take up the chisel, and drag the marble if we are to free the face from the stone. It does indeed set before our eyes a growing light; but the promise to release that must be ours.
Christmas invites us to take that step afresh, and to give ourselves to that kind of making sense.
‘Son of God, child of Mary and Joseph, may we now birth your love and your vision.’