A Christmas letter came from an esteemed parishioner. His wife told him not to “be boastful, smug or complacent.” He continued – there was nothing to boast about, because they had not done anything all year; in their country cottage, where they spent most of the lockdown, they were content to admit to being snug of not smug. And, as a couple of a certain age, being complacent, he said, was a synonym for being alive! Brilliant, I hooted with laughter, and it did me no end of good.
Being alive at the end of this year, gallows humour apart, is a thing, and right to celebrate at Christmas.
The angel of the Lord terrorises the poor shepherds on the Judaean hillside. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
Twitter’s usp is to get you to condense statements to 280 characters, a pithy, punchy word of self-publicity. The Romans knew all about this. They called them evangelions. Headline news, broadcast by dictat. – Roman General quells uprising – Marauding Northern tribes beyond the Rhine cast back. You get the sort of thing. That was an Evangelion. A Roman Tweet of 2000 years ago. What does Evangelion mean? Quite simply Good News. It has a verb “to give good news” “evangelizomai – “I GIVE GOOD NEWS”. And what does the Angel say to these poor so and sos on the hillside evangelizomai: “I GIVE GOOD NEWS”.
It is earth shattering – no heaven shattering actually, because it as if the heavens are torn open at the seams and the atmosphere is thronging with the heavenly host. It’s just like Dr Who, but two millenia earlier – the crack in space and time continuum.
What is so brilliant in this account is that the world’s understanding of GOOD NEWS is toppled on its head. Propaganda, the fiction of government is replaced by the REALLY good news that a baby is born – fully alive. And he is the Messiah, not the unspeakable Herod in his gaudy magnificence, or Caeser across sea. This real King is alive, fragile and in a manger, but alive, and he will bring the only true vision of peace that will ever be known.
Here we are at the end of one of the strangest years of our lives but we are alive and making sense of what that means. We may have suffered, may have sacrificed much, but we are here. Can I suggest three things to continue to ponder?
We have breath in our lungs. The shocking dying words of George Floyd “I can’t breathe” early in the pandemic encapsulated the injustice and fear this virus wreaked and exposed. Breath, the very essence of life, shapes the Biblical narrative of salvation. The spirit of God is breathed out over the face of the deep at creation, and breathed into Adam’s lungs. Our Lord at his death, gives up the ghost, breathes his last, day turns to night. The Spirit returns with might at Pentecost to inspire the Church. The breath of God shapes creation. We are deprived of singing, thank God we have a choir to articulate our praises – while we feebly struggle, they in glory shine! Losing singing in worship, that particular focusing of the breath, to utter praise is one of many privations; it symbolizes how much has been sacrificed.
Value, we have learned whole new values in this time, and the world cannot and must not unlearn what value must be ascribed to those who care. I don’t know if you have heard Mark Carney’s sobering Reith lectures, Credit, Climate and Covid. They have underlined this most strikingly; the need for a complete social climate change could not be more needed.
Breath; Value – (third word) YES.
Might I commend the most beautiful book published in 2019 if you do not know it, by Hisham Matar. It is called A Month in Sienna. Matar is a secular Muslim, of Libyan dissident parentage. A refugee, having fled following the rendition of his father from Egypt to certain death at the hands of the Gaddafi regime.
Precisely what happened to his father remains unsolved 35 years later.
As a young student, Matar became absorbed by the collection of 12th-14th c Sienese paintings in the National Gallery. They have remained a source of inspiration to him.
He resolved, after researching a book about how and why his father disappeared, to spend in a month in Sienna as balm. His book is an entry to a moment of art history which straddles the period of the Black Death of 1348. Writing before the current pandemic, he explores the significance of Plague in mediaeval Europe presciently. He ponders Lorrenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Palazzo Publico in the city:
The French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson had once described taking a photograph as saying ‘yes’, not the yes of approval, but that of acknowledgement. In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? Asked if he was a pessimist, the English playwright Edward Bond replied: “Why am I talking to you, if it is not a gesture of hope?” Lorenzetti’s Allegory and indeed the entire history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect with the beloved, to see the world through her eyes, to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended this not in order to advocate a position, but rather to be truly seen, to be recognised, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable by those who know us the best.
Christmas is surely the celebration of this truth for all humanity. That God decides to say His yes to and for us by taking on our nature and proving that He is Emmanuel GOD WITH US.
Breath, value, yes: we are alive, thank God.