Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deep Thoughts for Christmas

I heard Fr. Peter Steele, SJ, a Jesuit poet from Australia (above), give the following homily today. Though the occasion was the 4th Sunday of Advent, the themes fit really well with Christmas, too. Thought you might enjoy it.
No More Homeless, No More Orphans

One feature of the vernacular in Australia is that it is possible, and indeed customary, to use the word ‘bastard’ affectionately. ‘How are you, you old bastard?’, while not the peak of civility, can be quite without animus: and ‘the poor bastard’ approximates to ‘the poor wretch’, or ‘the poor devil’ – it is in effect, if anything, an expression of solidarity.

But this is not the whole story, in Australia, or elsewhere. To call someone a bastard can be to discredit him – or her. And even though one thing for which none of us can have responsibility is who begot us, and when and where and how, a taint continues to attach to the name.

Consider three instances of this. First: on the occasion of the first atomic explosion (very ironically called ‘Trinity’), one of those present, Kenneth Bainbridge, said, ‘Now we are all bastards’. I don’t know just how deeply he thought the implications of that to be, but nobody could think that it was good news. Second, the profoundly unattractive Jean Paul Sartre, although in the conventional sense a legitimate and accepted child, chose bastardy, in the sense that he saw himself as unfathered in the world – saw us all as such, if only we would be authentic about the matter. And thirdly, the idea of the ‘gaucho’, under its romantic overlay of boldness and energy, is the idea of bastardy – of having no legitimacy in respectable society, and perhaps none in the world.

Each of these three figures – Bainbridge, Sartre, the gaucho – is distant in time or in place, but the notion of bastardy (or if you wish to be gentler about it, of orphandom) is not. ‘I a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made’, A. E. Housman wrote, and the notion expands, easily, into ‘In a world which nobody made’, and certainly nobody cares for.

It is a commonplace notion that much modern thought and art hinges on the supposition that, fatherless and motherless as we all are, neither this nor any world can ever truly be a home to us. And even if one rejects the proposition as a proposition, one may for any number of reasons come to sense life as being, essentially, pathos: as being in no happy sense ‘pathetic’. Illness can do this: poverty can do it: anxiety can do it: wealth can do it: absence of people can do it: presence of people can foster it: and so on. Nobody may call us this as long as we live, but a voice at three o’clock in the morning can tell us that we are homeless, and bastards, and that this will never change.

The feast of Christmas, and the season of Advent-expectation, is a retort against all such thinking. In the first of our readings today, we have the Lord God saying to King David, in effect, ‘Wherever you have gone, I have been with you: I have bit by bit been establishing you in the world: I have been the maker of your ‘house’ all the time, and I shall continue to be so: I have been a father to you, and when you die, I will be a father to your son Solomon’. This is a vision of the Lord as home-maker, as maker-of-us-at-home. It has not been, and it will not be, without struggle and challenge: it will certainly not be stress-free. But there is a world of difference between battling on, even heroically, in a deserted cosmos, and living hopefully and generously in a milieu which is at once fatherly, sacred, and accompanied. This is what is held up before David, and this, both Judaism and Christianity say, is what is held up before us.

The gospel passage today is the inexhaustibly rich account of Mary’s being promised that the ‘Son of the Most High’ will be housed first in her, and then through her, housed among us for ever. ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ The bringing of this good news, good news for her, and good news for us, has always to be portrayed as taking place somewhere.

It may, as in the great Van Eyck ‘Annunciation’ here in the National Gallery, be seen as occurring in a church, which would of course have been impossible: but it is dead right for Van Eyck to be seeing the Church as a great germinal home. It may be seen as in more open-ended, casual circumstances. But whatever the scene, it is a scene of God’s coming home to his own world, and in so doing, making it definitely a home for us too. And it is as it were a scene of the Father’s re-uttering his fatherly heart among us and for us. It is the abolition of homelessness: it is the abolition of bastardry.

And in so being, it presents us with a challenge, at this of all seasons of the year, to be hospitable to a degree which we have not so far managed, and to brother and to sister as we may so far have been afraid to do. ‘Welcome home once more’, the Father says to us: and, in giving us his Son, ‘open the door of your heart some more’. All this is said, as it will be done, through the Father, and the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.

-- Peter Steele SJ

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