For the Time Being, 2014 part 2

A nearer Christmas. More (all the rest of what I’ll share) from this year’s reading of Auden’s For the Time Being.


The weather has been awful,
The countryside is dreary,
Marsh, jungle, rock; and echoes mock,
Calling our hope unlawful;
But a silly song can help along
Yours ever and sincerely:
At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.

* * * * *

Instead of building temples, we build laboratories;
Instead of offering sacrifices, we perform experiments;
Instead of reciting prayers, we note pointer-readings;
Our lives are no longer erratic but efficient.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fourth was the Kingdom of Credit Exchange:
Last night it was Tit-for-Tat, tonight it is C.O.D.;
When we have a surplus, we need not meet someone with a deficit;
When we have a deficit, we need not meet someone with a surplus;
Instead of heavy treasures, there are paper symbols of value;
Instead of Pay at Once, there is Pay when you can;
Instead of My Neighbour, there is Our Customers;
Instead of Country Fair, there is World Market
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

* * * * *


SIMEON: As long as there were any roads to amnesia and anaesthesia still to be explored, any rare wine or curiosity of cuisine as yet untested, any erotic variation as yet unimagined or unrealised, any method of torture as yet undevised, any style of conspicuous waste as yet unindulged, any eccentricity of mania or disease as yet unrepresented, there was still a hope that man had not been poisoned but transformed, that Paradise was not an eternal state from which he had been forever expelled, but a childish state which he had permanently outgrown, that the Fall had occurred by necessity.

SIMEON: By the event of this birth the true significance of all other events is defined, for of every other occasion it can be said that it could have been different, but of this birth it is the case that it could in no way be other than it is. And by the existence of this Child, the proper value of all other existences is given, for of every other creature it can be said that it has extrinsic importance but of this Child it is the case that He is in no sense a symbol.

* * * * *


Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: “O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.”

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear. Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is, And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it could only mean this; that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

* * * * *


He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

A Very Unsentimental Christmas Poem

This little Babe so few days old, is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake, though He Himself with cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise the gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babyish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib His trench, haystacks His stakes; of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound, the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ, join thou in fight; stick to the tents that He hath pight.
Within His crib is surest ward; this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil they foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Robert Southwell, 16th Century. Benjamin Britten brilliantly set this to properly martial music.

This is the Babe a few decades later, Christ Pantocrator (the All-Conquering):


The Logic of the Incarnation

I was talking this week to someone who formerly had a socially respectable degree of Christian faith, but seems to have lost it to a socially acceptable degree now. He was patiently alluding, for the benefit of the folks he knew were more robustly religious and needed an analogy to raise their consciousness, to the equal absurdity of all religions:

We laugh at the idea of Joseph Smith finding stainless steel plates and translating them with special glasses and angelic assistance, but a virgin getting pregnant and bearing the Savior of the world seems perfectly logical to us.

Well, actually, no. It doesn’t seem logical at all. The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is more scandalous than logical, and is at best a major paradox:

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;
the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!

Bah! Humbug! That sort of thing offendeds just about everyone who heards of it. God is god and humanity is humanity and never the twain shall meet in actual history. Everybody knows that. We really prefer it that way. There’s probably even something in the Constitution about it. It’s related to the ease with which we “evicted Him from public schools,” isn’t it?

The earliest pan-heresy, Gnosticism, tried in various ways to make Jesus’ incarnation logical – to take off the rough edges. The Proto-heretic Arius cleaned it up by making Jesus Christ a (mere) creature. Thomas Jefferson made his own spiffy little Bible that took out that parts that offended him.

That’s probably how most heresies start: trying to make things logical, as if we understood God well enough to tidy up after Him. (I owe that insight to Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon.)

So if you think that the event we Christians are celebrating today is logical, you’re probably celebrating some distorted and sanitized version. But if you think it’s shocking, you might just be onto something.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

… and nobody came?

What if they gave a Church service and nobody came?

To 10% of Protestant Churches, the answer is “preemptively cancel if you think that will happen.” That’s what’s happening this Sunday, as Christmas inconveniently falls on Sunday: Sunday yields to the commercial bacchanalia (“cherished domestic traditions” if you prefer sentimentalist delusion).

This is related to the tension between two Christmas calendars, the shopping mall calendar and the ecclesiastic calendar. The former officially starts on “Black Friday,” but may be creeping backward, the latter on December 25 (anticipated by Advent in the West, the Nativity Fast in the East).

… Washington Post scribe Hank Stuever, author of that snarky but fine book called “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present[]” … told me that, while he was researching that book, he decided that big event is the day that the National Retail Federation releases it’s first official forecast of precisely how many billions of dollars Americans will be spend during any particular Holiday marketing season. Once that press release hits reporters’ email in-boxes, he said, “there’s no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you’re ready or not.”

And what about the other Christmas, the supposedly religious one?

The problem on the religion side of this equation these days is that the overwhelming majority of American churches — especially the so-called megachurches of evangelicalism — are essentially doing Christmas according to the shopping-mall calendar, not the calendar of the church year.

Stuever thinks that’s the truth, and so does the dean of the School of Theology at the very, very conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Pause and roll that duo over in your mind for a moment.

Moore told me:

Many evangelicals fear the “cold formalism” that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is “no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all.” Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

(Terry Mattingly, emphasis added.) If the shopping mall calendar says that the morning of December 25 is for gift giving and cookies, well how dare the Bride of Christ a mere church say otherwise?

I guess canceling church makes perfect sense once Church becomes theater. No audience, no show, right?

But what if Church isn’t theater? What if it’s Liturgy and Eucharist? What if there’s always a great cloud of witnesses waiting for us to join them? I reflected on this early in the life of this blog, and it seems like a good time to reprise it.

Merry Christmas. Hope your Church is open. If not, mine is.

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Standing advice on enduring themes.

Merry Culture Wars

I appreciate Mark Shea’s thoughts on the culture wars this time of year:

Since I acknowledge that there is indeed hostility to Christmas, then what’s wrong with complaining about the War on Christmas?

Answer: Culture warfare is not spiritual warfare.  The devil is the ape of God.  He constantly offers us counterfeits.  So magic looks like miracles, divination looks like prophecy, and seance looks like prayer to the saint.  In the same way, culture warfare looks like spiritual warfare, but it’s not.  It’s a politicized counterfeit of spiritual warfare.  Culture warfare takes Christian things and subtly fills them with pagan content. The worship of some creature such as “America” or “traditional values” or “Xmas” or “the good old days” gets all balled up with the worship of Jesus and replaces it like stone replacing bone in a fossil … Demagogues manipulate pious Christians into defending … idols with the weapons of this world (especially anger and resentment against the ideological enemies of the demagogue) often while thinking we are defending Christ with the weapons of the Spirit. How can we tell when this is happening?  When we stop, take our pulse, and realize that we are speaking about Christmas with anger and resentment at its enemies far more than we are speaking of the Incarnation of our Lord with joy.

Conversely, spiritual warfare takes created things and fills them with Christian content.  It takes a glass half full approach by letting grace build on nature instead of teaching us to sullenly regard the imperfect as the enemy of the gospel.  Does somebody wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”?  They at least recognize something sacred about the season …  The Christian faith dares to be merry in a world full of grievances and petty tribal enmities.

Putting “Christ” in “Black Friday.”

Social conservatives will soon be “trying to take Christmas back” or to “put Christ in Christmas.” Perhaps they’ll be calling, again, for boycotts of stores that don’t say “Merry Christmas.”

I’ll not be joining them. Because it isn’t “the Christmas season.” Continue reading “Putting “Christ” in “Black Friday.””