Friday, 23 December 2011

O Emmanuel - The Eye of the Storm

The 'O Antiphons' are sung according to tradition, during the evening liturgy on the last days of Advent. Each one is a named attribute of The Christ, to whose coming the church looks forward with eager and in these latter days, heightened expectation

'They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, 
and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God 
among the trees of the garden.'

The writer John Steinbeck, most famous for his novels such as East of Eden and Of Mice and Men also wrote an account of a fascinating road trip he took with his French Poodle Charlie, to check out the state of the heart of America in the early 1960's. In 'Travels with Charlie' he describes the passing of a hurricane over his coastal residence, in itself a terrifying occurrence - but what he finds almost more disturbing is the eerie silence as the Eye passes directly over where he is holed up.

As we listen to the  familiar story of the infancy narrative these next few days I guess we will hear the words 'God with us' - "This" is all about 'God with us' we will no doubt be told and Unambiguously told 'This is Good News!'. Except it isn't. One must practise a kind of myopia to read the Scriptures and especially those elements which speak of the Presence of God to see the promise of "God with us" in terms we would gladly endorse as Good! 

The phrase comes from the prophet Isaiah in the seventh chapter and here the message is without doubt ambiguous - you may wish to read it for yourself - but instead you may well wish to imagine yourself in Palestine at the time of the census - the lives of many thrown into disorder so that anxious Imperial orderliness may be imposed. The anxiety of the Emperor spreading anxiety abroad, literally and so many thousands of hours of anxious toil disturb the world. Imagining that, imagine again someone coming up to you in the streets of Bethlehem and declaring 'God is with us!' - Good News eh?

There are it seems to me, two ways in which this narrative is read - one popular and one less so. In the popular version of events, Christ is born into the world almost accidentally and just happens to get caught up in the Census. He is thrust into the midst of the ambiguity, anxiety and storm of the world's circumstances as it is - God with us in the storm. He takes on human flesh and so knows what we are going through. And I guess many who hear this will think, well that's very nice . . . and nothing will change.

Another less comfortable reading puts it like this. God creates the storm - he troubles Caesar with anxiety, pretty much as he had so troubled King David many years before. An anxiety which cannot rest until things are Ordered and the people counted like so many beads on an abacus. So the storm rages and at its eye is Peace, the Prince of Peace, disinterested Love incarnate. Borne by the one who has Surrendered "let it be to me according to your Word" -  'God with us', the heart of the Storm its Still Energy.

As with all paradoxical dualities, both are true and Steinbeck's experience of the hurricane illustrates this well. He cannot experience the terrifying eye before he passes through the storm, as John cannot fall to his face as one dead before he is exiled in Patmos, as one cannot be born again lest one awaken to one's own death - you have to pass through the storm, to know the Eye, to Know the Peace that passes understanding. Having passed through the Eye, Steinbeck is less troubled as the Storm hits once more - the Silence at the heart had created within him a new consciousness. The wind of course now hit from the other side, the winds of a Hurricane rotating around the eye, it is as if he has turned around.

A couple of days ago I referred to some teaching of Richard Rohr about Conversion and how we in the West in our affluence we have opted to put the Comfort of God ahead of his Discomfort and thus our peace is not Peace. He says that we must be Challenged by the Word and Converted by the Word before we can truly be Comforted by the Word - we cling to comfort without the Storm of Challenge and Conversion. And so in the end we do not know the true Comfort. The Good News is never heard among us as such.

Now there was a great wind, 
so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord
but the Lord was not in the wind; 
and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 
and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; 
and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, 
the hope of the nations and their Saviour: 
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel

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