There are normally a lot of different thoughts jumbling around my head, and occasionally they knock together in ways that are sort-of interconnected, but the lines don’t quite flow through yet. A part of what I do when I write is to try to explore those lines, because as I write I start to understand what I’m thinking (Oftentimes, I don’t actually understand how people have coherent thoughts without working them out by writing them down - they must be able to visualise words in mid-air Sherlock-style and be much much smarter than me). Sometimes this doesn’t really make for starting revelations or great insight, but it does reveal a vein of concern or interest in my little corner of the world - or something of me or the me I am becoming.
Anyway, here are three things that have been bumping off each other in my head in the last few days,
(1) I was at a packed out carol service last week - there was a queue to get in nearly half an hour before the doors opened. My church’s theme for this christmas is ‘Capture the Wonder’ - which has had its evocative moments. Thing that captured me in this service was how fresh some of the carols felt, and how certain lines hit me in a way beyond the music and the singing.
He came down to earth from heaven / Who is God and Lord of all / And His shelter was a stable / And His cradle was a stall: / With the poor, and mean, and lowly / Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
For He is our childhood’s pattern; / Day by day, like us, He grew; / He was little, weak, and helpless, / Tears and smiles, like us He knew …
Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight. For Christ is born of Mary / And gathered all above / While mortals sleep, the angels keep / Their watch of wondering love /O morning stars together / Proclaim the holy birth / And praises sing to God the King / And Peace to men on earth …
(2) In yesterday’s Guardian Polly Toynbee and Giles Fraser had a conversation about Christmas which I quite enjoyed - particularly this exchange:
PT: I sometimes go, and I love the carols, but just as you think, “I can go along with this”, you’re drawn up short by the extraordinary nature of the theology. And you think, “This is extraordinary garbage!” [Opens a hymn book.] Here we go: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’ incarnate Deity!”
GF: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” is a heresy. The idea that the flesh was some kind of covering, and he was God inside, is a heresy, because what Christianity says is that Christ is both fully God and fully human.
What I really appreciate about Fraser’s comment is not so much the term heresy (which can get us down all kinds of nasty rabbit holes) as the honesty about the limits our human understanding of what God is, and what Christmas is, and the limits of our ability to be able to express that in language. We know, in our heads - we’re taught - that Christ is fully God and fully human, but the closest we can come to expressing it is that line in O Come All Ye Faithful: a line that barely begins to grasp at it.
Fraser followed this up with two other comments:
That’s why Christmas is theologically so radical… If you want to imagine what God looks like, it’s not some bloke with a beard. The most important thing you can think of looks like this very vulnerable child.
I think what you have with Christianity is a sense that there is something more, something still to be discovered. Theology will always end in rubbish because you’re making raids on the unspeakable. Poetry does it, great music does it, and I think theology is of that order. It’s not an attempt to describe the world in a scientific way. It’s puzzling over the nature of things, and the best description I’ve come across is the Christian story, and particularly the story of Christmas.
The former of which chimed pretty clearly with the way Christmas Carols have been echoing with me this year, and the latter of which catches at one of the things that I occasionally hit problems with when talking with people who don’t believe in God: this idea that some people have (and I mean, just some - but I also don’t think that these some are primarily confirmed atheists) that all Christians believe all of the time and are willing and able (if not actually able coherently… ahem) to put forward a theological explanation for this. My experience is mostly of being confused and uncertain most of the time - up to and including about the existence of God. And yet I’m more confused and uncertain, and also, yes, scared and generally not-in-favour-of the non-existence of God. I love Fraser’s comparison of theology with poetry and music as a way of making sense of the world - especially as I’ve been listening to The Messiah a bunch recently, which is great music, poetry and theology all at once.
And (3) - I went to see The Hobbit again. I very much enjoy it (I am, after all, it’s target audience). I especially enjoy Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and how half of his time is spent urgently shouting at his companions to RUN!, while the other half is spent dispensing wisdom (and exposition). I also enjoyed Gandalf and Galadriel’s flirting (oh, come on, it so was…) - and this exchange:
Galadriel: Mithrandir, why the Hafling?
Gandalf: Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That’s because I am afraid and it gives me courage.
And really, that’s what Christmas is remembering - especially this Christmas, for me. The Messiah didn’t come to sweep away the Romans in great power as so many thought He would. He came and lived - and died - in the most human way possible. And yet somehow was God. And right now, the only way that I can understand how that even works is through music, because that, somehow, stretches my comprehension in my soul, if not in my head. Maybe that’s why the Angels sang.