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Yes and Amen
Finding Hope in the Promises of God
Embraced by Promises
Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation; it's a waiting game. But it is the kind of waiting that is designed to make us check our hearts rather than our watches. This is the kind of waiting that is insulated by the patience of hope and covered over with several thick coats of faith. We are waiting on our redemption, the end of our salvation, the fullness of the promise. Soon it will come. But for now we must wait.
But this waiting is not like sitting on a curb and waiting for a ride. We are not to be idle. We occupy till it comes. This waiting is a bit more like waiting on tables until the big promotion comes. Faith trims the lamps and keeps them burning. Faith checks the window often to see if the Bridegroom is headed towards the door. Faith busily awaits the promise.
Faith, however timid and tremulous, reaches out to lay hold upon that which is just beyond human comprehension. Though it cannot yet grasp it, it is able to brush across it with its finger tips. Faith knows it's there. Faith is the evidence of that which lies just beyond the horizons of present perception. And so we we crane our necks, crack our knuckles, and reach toward the heavens.
Something extraordinary happens when our faith reaches out to touch the promises of God—we are embraced by them. They lay hold upon us and refuse to let us go. They bind us with covenantal cords and draw us on until we are close enough to hear them whisper to us, "yes and amen." Advent calls us to wait, with arms outstretched, until we are finally seized by the faithful God of promises.
That is what I think about whenever I see picture below. Eve, the Mother of All the Living, becomes the instrument of death for all those who issue from her. Then God, in grace, makes a promise. The Dragon would lick the dust at the feet of her seed and would eventually be trodden underfoot (Gen. 3:15). But the presence of a promise necessarily means that she would have to wait in faith; this was Advent east of Eden. Even though her faith was frail, it was firmly fixed. This picture portrays Promise rushing back to embrace her and assure her that the words of God are indeed faithful and true.
Here are a few lines I jotted down as something of a redemptive-historical commentary on the portrait:
Ashen cheeks blistered red,
In shame, she clutches bitter root.
Her womb a tomb for future dead;
In hope, she clings to Blessed Fruit.
Serpentine tooth and tail,
Enslaves all future steps and sons.
But Mary’s Seed shall last prevail,
Releasing captive chosen ones.
A naked soul adorned,
With new robes of ancient promise,
Soon Eden’s gates will be restored,
Greatly widened in the process.
Our Father is no cheapskate, no tightwad, no penny-pincher. He is no number-crunching miser. When it comes to giving, He has never behaved as though He were broke. Even when God “re-gifts,” the recipient is overwhelmed by the sheer opulence of it all. In fact, His hand-me-down promises are worth more than gold.
The Hand of God, much like His heart, is always full. Blessings are never meted out in niggardly fashion. Christmas was no exception to that rule. Grace was not dispensed with a thimble, it was poured forth like a mighty ocean without a shore. Grace heaped upon grace. And from His fulness have we all received.
The inflexible law, written by the Finger of God, borne on the wings of angels, delivered to the greatest of prophets, was itself a gracious expression of divine love and mercy. The Holiness of the Ineffable Name fueled the Refiner’s Fire. That Light marked the bounds of righteousness—establishing the lines of demarcation between the holy and the profane—thus granting sinful men the ability to approximate some veiled nearness to the Unapproachable Luminosity of the Divine Presence. That the Mosaic legislation was so detailed, so complete, so all-encompassing, evidence its merciful character. With the Law came the exact knowledge of liberty; and the wisdom to know the limits of creaturely freedom.
So when Omniscient Wisdom deigned to join the Glory of His Presence to the immutable Law and so pitch them in a Tabernacle of Flesh, it should not have been unexpected. Unbelievable—but not unexpected. As St. John says, “For the Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). This is not some strange coalescence of contrarieties; this is simply the distillation of every redemptive word and act in one place—yea, in one Person. “For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen…” (2 Cor. 2:20). But not only promises, precepts also. And just so, Presence.
The Invisible Glory of God’s Radiance was made manifest in Christ, the Express Image of His Person. The invisible principles of His sacred statutes were written upon the fleshly tables of the heart of our Incarnate Lord. Jesus Christ—a conscious Temple, walked among the disparate tribes of Israel, and proclaimed the surprising news that God had returned to dwell amid His people. Behold your God!
Wrapped in swaddling bands and tucked soundly in a manger lay the countless seed of Abraham; the thunderings of Sinai; the manna in the wilderness; Aaron’s blossoming rod,; the brazen altar; the lights of the world; the mercy seat where Holiness sits enthroned; the twin pillars of fire and smoke; the last temple; the Branch flowering from the stump of Jesse; the Sure Mercies of David; the melody of every inspired psalmist; the anticipated hopes of the prophets; the wisdom of the sages; the passionate heart of the Song of Songs Isaiah’s True Vine, the Virgin’s Sign, and the rightful occupant of the Leper-King’s Throne; the Son of Man who disturbed Daniel’s sleepless nights; the swift moving tide of Ezekiel’s living waters; Malachi’s Sun breaking in the East; rising with healing in His wings; the strength of the Maccabees; the nightmare of pretending princes; the terror of kings; the end of every tyrannical empire; the desire of nations; the hope of the world.
On the first Christmas, every good and perfect gift was concentrated into one lavish expression of divine extravagance—one “Unspeakable Gift.” This is the Charis of God whom we have been privileged to call by His proper name: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation has appeared to all men…” (Tit. 2:11); “And thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
God wrapped His Presence as a gift to the world and left the Present to do the opening. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Jn. 1:18). This Jesus, says St. John, has brought the Hidden God out into the open. And in so doing, has opened our eyes, our hearts, and the very gates of Paradise. So thank God for hand-me-down promises.
The Beginning of Time
For W.H. Auden, there are two general ways of thinking of time—either history inevitably repeats itself, locking events into an established cycle where “time turns round itself in an obedient circle,” or history is made up of ordered times, of a regiment of generations marching toward a goal, of a string of events that are being purposefully directed toward an appointed end. It is only the second view that allows for the possibility surprise; the arrival of the unexpected. Only a linear scheme of time allows for the hope of its own deliverance.
Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio ushers us into the world of antiquity, an age caught in the spokes of the wheel of time, in order for us to understanding something of that gift which has been made known to us as the present. Among Auden’s concerns is demonstrating how something as seemingly insignificant as a moment can break the shackles of cyclical repetitions; how past exists as a point of no return, and yet stretches forth its fingers so as to carve its initials into both the Now and the Not Yet. In such a time as this, as Auden delineates, the world is free and choices matter. Or rather, the world just is free because choices matter. His is a poetic polemic against the Sisyphean nightmare in which Tomorrow is always crushed beneath the weight of Yesterday. This he does by bringing his considerable powers to bear upon a specific time stamp that upset the world of antiquity by breaking history into pieces—the Incarnation of God.
For those ancients whose hopes were ever wounded by the “outrageous slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune,” the thought of liberation from the Fates and the Furies should have come as good news. One might even say gospel. But it would require the abandonment of everything they believed about the world; a great change of mind, a metanoia. “How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact?” Ah! This was all just so much foolishness to the Greeks, and to the rest of pagan antiquity, a rock of offense. But the desire for deliverance from the despotism of destiny is a strong one, leading Auden’s seekers to cry out, “Nothing can save us that is possible, / We who must die demand a miracle.”
Fortunately for these inquirers, God only deals in impossibilities. The poet, exercising his anachronistic license, has a ragtag band of shepherds and wise men on set when the miraculous occurs. As they behold the mystery, their thoughts, too, turn to the subject of time:
Shepherds: Our sullen wish to go back to the womb,
Wise Men: To have no past.
Shepherds: No future,
Tutti: Is refused.
That red-faced babe, nestled at a virgin’s breast, shattered for them the tyranny of Time. At once, they came to know that history could not be cyclical because it had a point. And seeing the face of God in creaturely form, the sharp end of history pierced their astonished hearts. What they witnessed in that hallowed hour so ruptured the world that from that point on there could only be something called before and after.
Auden’s Oratorio presents us with the possibility of a new way of being in time. The Incarnation of God gives rise to the incarnation of the gospel in the lives of those who hear and receive it. Seeing the face of God in flesh inevitably leads to seeing His image in those whom He has made. Echoing Hopkins, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces.” Just so, Auden’s Simeon gives voice to other-oriented focus of the Christ-stricken vision:
By Him is illuminated the time in which we execute those choices through which our freedom is realized or prevented, for the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each loves God and through Him his neighbor.
For Auden, the Incarnation was not only a transformation of time in the world, but also a transformation of all those who are privy to the wonder of it. Hear again his startled shepherds:
Tonight for the first time the prison gates
First Shepherd: Music and sudden light
Second Shepherd: Have interrupted our routine tonight,
Third Shepherd: And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.
The Three Shepherds: O here and now our endless journey starts.
Here the reader sees a marvelous example of what Tolkien called eucatastrophe; a neologism meaning “good destruction.” But unlike a catastrophe, these moments of “unmaking” are for the express purpose of “remaking.” It is what the biblical writers would refer to as “New Creation.”
Note the ways in which the poet unmakes and remakes the character’s perception of time, the world, and there place in it. Pay close attention to the “time” words. The Third Shepherd viewed his existence as a prison; but “tonight” the iron bars have opened to him “for the first time.” The First Shepherd speaks of “sudden” light. The Second Shepherd joins antiphonally with his own admission that the heavenly visitation has “interrupted our routine tonight.” The Third Shepherd rejoins with his talk of long held “habits.” Then the three together exult in the freedom of their God-oriented futures, “here” and “now” our “endless journey starts.”
Their joyous anticipation is almost contagious. Gazing into the cherubic face of the Christ, the nature choices and choosing is finally revealed to them. Singular moments can make a difference. In fact, they are all that ever have. “Time is our choice of How to love and Why.” Liberated from the icy grasp of Fate and endowed with hearts of flesh by the God Made Flesh, they set forth on a journey to redeem the time—and the rest of the world along with it.
There is much more that could be said about Auden’s Oratorio; the ways in which he contemporizes the past so that we can appreciate the pressure it exerts; its awareness of the constant seduction of the cyclical view of history ever tugging on our hearts, tempting us to return to the false freedom of nihilism; the subtle reminder of our tendency to confuse the quotidian with the meaningless; and of course, an eye towards the struggle of living in the present as though every second matters here in “The Time Being.”
Even so, it is ultimately a series of love poems: Love of God; love of neighbor; love of living. Auden implicitly reminds us that with the proper order of procession within this trinity these three are one. We can legitimately call this love poetry because it bespeaks a promise born of a Love that was ancient, even before the beginning of time.
Save Tolkien’s Home
Support the campaign to save J.R.R. Tolkien’s home and establish a literary center. 20 Northmoor Road is his former home in Oxford where he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
As the Internet Archive digitizes an increasing amount of material from seminary libraries, future church leaders are using modern technology to easily access ancient teachings.
Claremont School of Theology, Hope International University, Evangelical Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary have all recently donated portions of their library collections to the Internet Archive or are working with the Internet Archive to digitize their materials. The scanned books and periodicals will be available freely online at archive.org to anyone who wants to check them out one item at a time through Controlled Digital Lending.
…like Dickens I also distrust the revolutionary instinct and the revolutionary case against kindness — though it has taken me a while in life to get there. My Left-wing political antennae has been broken, probably for good. I still accept the Marxist analysis, but not the Marxist solution. And the emerging Tory in me is rediscovering something of that spirit of Dickensian benevolence that has done so much to inform our understanding of Christmas.
Jonathan’s contribution to public discussion and public intelligence in the U.K. was immense. But I shall miss him as a friend whose positive energy and intellectual confidence were always enlivening and enriching. We shared a good deal, from joint sessions answering questions in London high schools to an unforgettable pilgrimage to Auschwitz. We shared meals, conversations, journeys, frustrations with the internal divisions within our own communities, and ultimately a pervasive sense of joy in the God who keeps promises. Jonathan may not have entirely transformed the face of Anglicanism with his Lambeth address; but he did give us a taste of that joy, so confident and forceful in Jonathan’s personality. I thank God for him and commend him to the God of the spirits of all flesh.
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