Friday, 31 December 2010

Two Thousand and Eleven?

Tonight, lots of people will make resolutions for the New Year, look back on the old with regret, satisfaction or a combination of the two and look towards the seemingly boundless possibilities of twelve brand spanking new months to live through.

For my part, I have only one hope. It is something that I looked forward to this time last year, but which did not then materialise. It is not particularly earth-shattering, but it does make me nervous about going outside or turning on the TV tomorrow.

It has now been ten years since the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, we had been accustomed to describe our years as two sets of double digits (nineteen eighty-nine, eighteen fifteen, etc.), but the moment the millenium hit, it seemed most sensible to describe the year as a single number; to wit, the Year Two Thousand and so on. Last year, I looked forward with some excitement to the end of this pattern. It would again become fashionable to have double digit years. Twenty-ten was about to arrive.

Alas, it didn't happen. Throughout the past year, invariably and with very few exceptions, everybody has gone on saying 'two thousand and ten' despite the superfluous two syllables this added to the obvious alternative.

But this year- this year I'm certain will be the year for this important cultural language shift. People would have to be mad to say 'two thousand and eleven' rather than the much shorter 'twenty-eleven', wouldn't they?

Wouldn't they?!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

St Thomas Becket

An excerpt from the Christmas sermon given by Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot's play 'Murder in the Cathedral'.

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saturday, 25 December 2010


A relative, reading my last post, challenged me to stop whinging and do something positive to re-emphasise the mystery of the Incarnation. So I wrote this piece- about a week ago, but it seems most appropriate to post it today. I had intended it to have a kind of zooming/panning effect- from outside in the town to inside the creche to the Child in the manger and then to Him in His Mother's arms, but I fear some of the metaphors may have inhibited the effect. On their own, I think the stanzas work, but I'm not sure if the thing works as a whole also. Anyway, feedback is welcome. Merry Christmas to all!

A west wind blows, bleak chill forlorn,
Like icy oceans' rising tides,
And past is the time for wheat and corn
But the House of Bread abides;
And in its midst, amid the rush
Of census-driv'n humanity,
Unseen, unnoticed, is a hush
In the place of God's humility.

All men may seek the comfortable
And shy away from any pain;
The mighty and the miserable
Alike reach for perceivèd gain,
But inches above a dirty floor
Where few but animals have trod,
The thin and prickly ends of straw
Scratch the new-born skin of God.

Strong wine is drunk in palaces.
Though bureaucrats prefer it thin,
Kings laugh and talk, as callous as
A killer on the cusp of sin.
But Jews enjoy their Sabbath rest,
Recalling their commandments ten,
And at a Jewish woman's breast
Tonight God drinks the milk of men.

Most mothers, having given birth,
Have idolised their newborn child
And, overcome with joy and mirth,
To former pain were reconciled;
But She whose pain is yet to be
Is silent, and with feet unshod
Contemplates this mystery:
The human face of God.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Burying the Lead

Why do we Christians shy away from the big selling points of our religion?

Last night I was helping out at the Combined Churches' 'Carols in the Park' at Warragamba, in which my parents' church is heavily involved (my minimal contribution was to assist, in an ecumenical gesture, some of the young people from my brother's Anglican church down the road, who had set up a balloon animal stall for the children). Now one would think, given that it is Advent and Christmas is on the horizon, that this would be the logical time to talk about the Incarnation.

But no.

In between carols and musical items, there was a very well done puppet show put on by a Christian group, very professional and amusing and the children lapped it up, but the puppet talked about Jesus as King, and urged the kids to 'make Him your king'. All well and good, you might say, and fair enough. Then there was a short speech/sermon by the local Anglican minister, and he consistently spoke of Jesus as 'Son of God', but never as 'God'. Nothing truly objectionable there, either, you might say, and I can't really argue with that. No one expects you to use all of Jesus' titles in a short presentation.

But the fact is there was nothing said during the whole night that couldn't have been very easily accepted by an Arian. And this bothers me.

I mean, why would we shy away from the Incarnation? Surely this is Christianity's biggest selling point? What other religion is based on the idea that God (not 'a god' from a pantheon but 'the God') became human? Nobody else has anything like that! This is a word worth preaching. So why are we reluctant to talk explicitly about it?

On the face of it, you would imagine that the more gung-ho and evangelistic of Christians would see the attractive potential of this doctrine and make it the centre-piece of their evangelistic pitch. But it almost never happens. And then we're shocked and annoyed when, at Easter, some fired-up atheist on the radio deplores Christianity's belief in 'divine child abuse'. It never occurs to us that we've left ourselves wide open to the charge by talking about Jesus the way we do.

Nor is the Incarnation the only central doctrine we tend to sideline in public. I've recently been reading this book, which restates the classic Christian ideas about eschatology and shows how far we've drifted from them in the way we tend to talk about the afterlife and the end times. Too many Christians have believed for too long in a kind of Platonic afterlife with some Christian features, and the authentically Christian endgame (the General Resurrection) has all but fallen off the map. Last night provided another example of this when our Lord's resurrection was briefly mentioned thus : "Then on Easter Sunday, Jesus came back from the dead. So, if you believe in Him, when you die, you can go to be with Him forever." I cringed at that, and imagined N. T. Wright appearing and turning over tables and chairs a la Our Lord in the Temple.

Why don't we make more of these doctrines? They are, after all, utterly unique in terms of world religions and distinctively Christian. They are also unusual in their own right and attention-grabbing. And they have some shock value, particularly in a secular Western culture that still thinks it knows all it needs to about Christianity even though it has forgotten most of what it used to know. Idiots that we are, we've put the letters page (or maybe the cartoons?) on the front page and left the lead story for page six.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Loan words are curious animals. Most of them are harmless enough. Kimono means more or less the same in English as it does in Japanese. But now and again, you come across an unusual specimen that has come to mean something quite different in its new environment from what it meant in its original tongue.

I recall, for instance, the surprise on both sides when, living in France a number of years ago, I happened to remark upon an instance of déjàvu. I naturally assumed that, since the word was French (literally meaning 'already seen'), I could simply lift it back across the linguistic divide with no harmful side effects. To my surprise, my French interlocutors had no idea what I was talking about. Was it my accent? I tried a few more times in as un-English a way as I could. Incomprehension persisted. Eventually, I had to explain the concept to them, which they immediately understood. It turned out the French don't describe déjàvu as déjàvu; only English-speakers do that.

I have recently come across another linguistic borrowing in the same vein, but exported from English rather than imported this time . I speak of the use speakers of Asian languages make of the word "fighting". It tends to be used alone as a kind of exclamation and its meaning seems to be located, as far as I can gather, somewhere between, "Chin up!", "Go for it!" and "Hang in there!". I first met it in a Korean TV show called Full House (unrelated to the 80s American sitcom) in which the heroine would say it frequently when facing a difficult situation or trying to encourage someone. I have since heard it on the lips of a number of my students when facing exams or when their course workload is weighing heavily on them.

What interests and amuses me not a little about all this is that they expect me to understand what they mean because, of course, it's an English word. Which I do, but only because I have some acquaintance with Asian people and Asian culture. It doesn't occur to them that an Australian wouldn't pat his mate on the back if he'd had a bad day or was facing some difficulty and say in a bracing tone, "Fighting! Fighting!" just as it never occurred to me that the French wouldn't describe déjàvu as déjàvu.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

As Advent Begins

There is something wonderfully accessible about Advent.

Perhaps part of it is the long lack of focus that tends to obtain during Ordinary Time. That is certainly true for me, wherefore I have been looking forward to the season for quite some time. But I think that mostly Advent is accessible for much the same reason that Dante's Purgatorio is the most accessible part of the Divine Comedy- it's where we are.

Who is not acquainted with longing? Who does not know the desire for something just out of reach? Who has not felt the thrill and sweet pain of awaiting something promised but not yet received? The spring in the step as one embarks upon a long journey, the accelerated heartbeat as the plane takes off on its way to a foreign country, the joy of anticipated reunion- sehnsucht is part of the universal human experience. "How long, O Lord?", we ask in eager anticipation.

Or it can have its darker side. Orwell speaks in 1984 of the way in which pain drives out principles until all one desires is simply for it to stop. Many of us, young, affluent and comfortable, are insulated from such an experience, but myriad others are not. Persecutions and injustices and bloodshed go on, and those in the middle of them cry out, "How long, O Lord?" in agony and desperation.

Advent is where all of us are. If we allow ourselves to be free of our distractions long enough (or even, sometimes, if we don't) we are aware that all is not right in the cosmos. There is a lack. There are problems. There are atrocities and petty selfishnesses and parasitic wasps. We know within ourselves that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Much closer to home, we know that we are not as we are supposed to be. At a most basic human level, we sense our alienation and dislocation.

Some of us know that that for which we long, that for which we hope, is Christ. He Who will put all to rights, the universe's rightful sovereign, is coming. We try to strengthen in ourselves the desire for Him. He, cure of our miseries, better than our hopes, will not delay.

He came once before, and we know His face. We had the opportunity to get to know Him. And He has left behind Him, for our sake, the Church which bears witness to Him, and the Spirit through Whom it speaks and which sanctifies its members.

But He has not come back yet.

And so we Christians wait, knowing Him for Whom we wait. Knowing Him, Who brings into focus our hopes, desires and longings, our distresses, difficulties and failures, knowing that He will fulfill them all and bring them to their predestined end.