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ACNS3250 Christmas Day Meditation 2002 by the Archbishop of
"Anglican Communion News Service" <email@example.com>
Fri, 3 Jan 2003 11:46:50 -0000
ACNS 3250 | LAMBETH PALACE | 3 JANUARY 2003
Christmas Day Meditation 2002 by the Archbishop of Canterbury
Wednesday 25 December 2002
The low vault was full of lamps and the air close and still. Silver bells
announced the coming of the three bearded, vested monks, who like the kings
of old now prostrated themselves before the altar. So the long liturgy
Helena knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words nor anywhere
near the immediate scene. She forgot everything except the swaddled child
long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.
'This is my day,' she thought, 'and these are my kind.'
Helena is speaking some seventeen hundred years ago; she is the Empress
Helena, mother of Constantine the Great in Evelyn Waugh's 1950 novel named
for her. Late in life, she has discovered the new faith of Christianity, and
sets off to the Holy Land to anchor her new belief in the sheer physical
facts of history and geography - because what is different about
Christianity is that it identifies the mystery of God with a set of prosaic
happenings in a specific place. God is just there for all, not locked up in
technical language or mystical speculation, but, as Helena has said earlier
in the novel, the answer to a child's question: when? Where? How do you
But Helena, longing for this simple vision, is still caught up in the
bitter, devious world of politics. Her son the Emperor, confused and anxious
at his own extraordinary success in subduing the Roman World, gets more and
more embroiled in palace intrigue, in espionage and assassinations, in black
magic, in the hall of mirrors that is the daily life of the powerful.
Helena, brisk and honest though she is, can't completely avoid getting
caught up in this too; feeling trapped in Constantine's world of plots and
fantastic visions of a new world order, she sets off for Jerusalem to find
the remains of the cross of Jesus.
So here she is in church at Bethlehem, tired and puzzled. And suddenly, as
the priests process solemnly to begin the service, the story of the three
wise men makes sense to her of some of what she's experienced. These
so-called wise men were her sort of people, the people she was used to:
clever, devious, complicated, nervous; the late arrivals on the scene.
'Like me,' she said to them, 'you were late in coming. The shepherds were
here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels
before you were on your way...
'How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the
shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what
outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
'You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star
stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod.
Deadly exchange of compliments in which began that unended war of mobs and
magistrates against the innocent!'
Even on their way to Christ, the wise men create the typical havoc that
complicated people create; telling Herod about the Christ child, they
provoke the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. It's as if, in Helena's
eyes, the wise, the devious and resourceful, can't help making the most
immense mistakes of all. The strategists who know all the possible
ramifications of politics, miss the huge and obvious things and create yet
more havoc and suffering. After all, centuries after Helena, here we still
are, tangled in the same net, knowing more and more, stepping deeper and
deeper into tragedy. Communications are more effective than ever in human
history; analysis of national and international situations becomes ever more
subtle; intelligence and surveillance provide more and more material. We
have endless theoretical perspectives on human behaviour, individual and
collective. And still the innocent are killed.
Yet - here is the miracle - the three wise men are welcome. You might expect
that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities, the child, the
cattle, the barefoot shepherds, would have no place for the wise men in
their massive foolishness. But, thinks Helena -
'You came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger.
Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for
they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come
to life, there was room for you too.'
Coming to the Christ child isn't always simple. It just is the case that
people come by roundabout routes, with complex histories, sin and muddle and
false perceptions and wrong starts. It's no good saying to them, 'You must
become simple and wholehearted,' as if this could be done just by wishing
it. The real question is, 'Can you take all your complicated history with
you on a journey towards the manger? Can you at least refuse to settle down
in the hall of mirrors, and go on asking where truth really lies? Can you
stop hanging on to the complex and the devious for their own sake, as a
theatre for your skills and recognise where the map of the heavens points?'
'You are my especial patrons,' said Helena, 'and patrons of all late-comers,
of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are
confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make
themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their
'Dear cousins, pray for me,' said Helena, 'and for my poor overloaded son.
May he, too, before the end find kneeling space in the straw. Pray for the
great, lest they perish utterly.'
So: don't deny the tangle and the talents, the varied web of what has made
you who you are. Every step is part of the journey; on this journey, even
the false starts are part of the journey, experience that moves you on
towards truth. It won't do to think of Christianity as a faith that demands
of you an embarrassed pretence of a simplicity that has no connection with
reality; isn't this what so often leads people not to take Christianity
seriously? As though you had to leave the full range of human experience
outside the door (the stable door), while the innocent alone entered without
Helena's answer is worth pondering. Bring what has made you who you are and
bring it, neither in pride nor in embarrassment, but in order to offer it as
a gift. It's possible to say to God, 'Use what my experience and my mistakes
and false starts have made me in order to let your transfiguring love show
through.' It's true that the Christmas event is precisely the answer to the
simplest of human questions, to the 'When? Where? How do you know?' demands
of the child. It's true that those who are least well-defended by
sophistication and self-reflection get there first. They have fewer
deceptions to shed, fewer ways of holding God at arms' length, while so many
of us have a lifetime's expertise in this. From them we learn where to look;
we know how much we long for that sheer presence and accessibility of God,
the bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery
laid open. But we come as we are; room is made for us, healing is promised
for us, even usefulness given to us if we are ready to make an offering of
what W.H.Auden called our crooked heart. Evelyn Waugh knew something about
this himself - like so many writers: he knew what it was for imagination to
twist round on itself like a snake, he knew about the gaps that open between
work and life, how a work finished and beautiful in its own terms emerges
out of a human background of failure and confusion. He had no illusions
about himself, recognising the melancholy, anger and hypersensitivity that
shadowed his life. His Helena is praying for her literary creator; the
writing is a prayer for absolution.
In the straw of the stable, the humble and the complicated are able to kneel
together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw, the
answer to a child's question, that means he is there in naked simplicity for
the sophisticated and troubled as well, those who have had long and tortuous
journeys, cold comings, to the stable. Yes, we are told to become like
children, faced with the invitation to believe and trust in the God of
Bethlehem. But that is not the same as saying, as we all too often do,
'Christmas is a time for the children', meaning that it has nothing to say
to grown-ups, who indulge the pretty fantasy for a short while, but stay
firmly outside the stable door.
Helena knows better. The childlike response of longing and delight can come
even from a heart that has grown old and tired; and when such a response
arises, let no-one think that they are too compromised, too entangled to be
welcome. Waughs novel depicts a whole world grown old in intrigue and
violence, cynicism, despair and false hope, and says that there is true hope
in spite of all, in the indestructible fact of a cradle and a bit of stained
old timber that once carried a human body in its death agonies, the cross
that Helena finds in Jerusalem. Space has been made in this world, the real
world of politics and struggle, for God to make himself at home, and to
welcome all of us and use whatever we bring him.
So Helena prays for the late-comers, the confused, the gifted, the powerful
who have so little power and freedom, the civilised and sensible who find
too late that they have stood by and endorsed cruelty or corruption, those
who have grown old and used to cynicism. The wise men stand at the cradle
with a clear job to do for us, and Helena addresses them, unforgettably:
'For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the
learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the
Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.'
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