Last revised: January 17, 2021
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2ND SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS (A,B,C)
RCL: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18
RoCa: Sirach 24:1-4, 8-12; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18; John 1:1-18
A link for those who substitute the Epiphany (January 6) readings for this Sunday.
Opening Reflections: Elements of a New Reformation
My thoughts on this passage begin with questions: How is it that a guy is executed by the State — dying horribly on the Roman instrument of torture and death — and then, within 50 years of this disgraceful ending, his followers are placing him at the beginning of time as the Creator of the universe? Executed on a cross . . . the Creator of all things. How does that transformation happen? I mean, really? These are such familiar ideas to our Christian faith. But have you ever really pondered how such a far-fetched transformation could ever take place? That someone duly and shamefully punished by death could become identified with the Creator of the universe?
It signals a massive initiation of transformation — New Creation — most of all, for us. If we believe Paul in Romans 8, the children of God have a crucial role in leading the transformation of Creation. And the fulcrum in our transformation is the redemption of our religion, our spirituality. What leads the way is the renewal of our relationship with God. Once again, James Alison is amongst the best of guides to help us understand this process of transformation. If one chooses to preach on these themes, I highly recommend reading his discussion of “Creation in Christ” (excerpt from Raising Abel) on NT passages like John 1:1-3, as an excellent introduction to the shape of that transformation.
The 2014 sermon, “Testifying to the Light,” is one that I would put in a collection of representative sermons that articulate my faith perspective — which is fitting since it keys on John’s theme of personal testimony (see Exegetical Note #1 below). The sermon begins with the questions above with which I began these reflections, and then gives my personal testimony in three movements. The first involves the role Twelve Step spirituality has played in my life because of growing up in an alcoholic family, and the second the impact of a long-time colleague, Pastor Walter Hermanns, who had died of M.S. a month before. But the third is the heart of who I am because of having encountered Girard’s Mimetic Theory 20+ years ago. My personal testimony in my calling as a pastor, as a religious leader is this: “If we come to believe that God’s power of life is beginning to transform everything, to transform even all the powers of death into life, then that also includes our religion.” The irony of being a Christian religious leader is to help disciples of Jesus understand how he came to redeem religion. In fact: “My testimony is this: God coming to redeem our religion is the key to everything.”
As I said above, Romans 8 portrays the children of God as having a special role in bringing about the New Creation. And I believe that a proper reading of Romans would be to show that Paul’s struggle to understand the Law (nomos in Greek; Torah in Paul’s own Hebrew tongue) is precisely one of coming to understand the importance of religion in need of redemption as the key to a new humanity.
In John 1 we glimpse this dynamic in verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The law of Moses represents the very best of human religion as it had evolved before Christ. John 1:17 contrasts this in a startling manner with the grace and truth that comes through the revelation of Jesus Christ. It’s a verse I wanted to comment on further in my sermon but didn’t because of choices a preacher has to make due to time constraints and overall ‘listenability.’ It raises issues that are crucial but perhaps too complex for a sermon.
Perhaps most crucial is how this verse can be used to serve an anti-Semitic perspective: “The Jews have it wrong with their law of Moses; we Christians have the real truth with Jesus.” Such Christian anti-Semitism, however, is proof that we Christians have gotten it colossally wrong by falling right back into the same dynamics of our original sin, which intimately involves the origin of our species through the evolution of culture — with religion of the Sacred at the heart of it. The flaw of all human religion comes through the knowledge of good and evil that we think gives us the right to divide the human family between various versions of good and evil. In my sermon, I talk about worshiping the power to wield death toward those we deem as evil. John 1 makes it clear that God is always and only about life, and never death. Christian history has shown our unfaithfulness to that testimony to the light. We have become just as fascinated with the power to wield death as a force against the “unbelievers” — with Jesus’ own Jewish people as one of our favorite historical targets. Jesus comes to redeem all our religions, including Christianity to the extent that it backslides into worshiping the power of death over that of life.
A further complication in understanding our own history is how the Gospel is behind the transition to our true religions, which are now secular. In this “Secular Age” of Western culture, we think we get around the downfalls of traditional religion by making our most cherished transcendent realities a function of the State, in separation from traditionally recognized religions. We have essentially replaced ‘old-time religion’ with secular religions. If I were to attempt the same jolt of John 1:17 in our contemporary American context, I might translate it as: “Economics indeed was given through Adam Smith and the founders of Free Market Capitalism; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” In my sermon, this perspective is represented in one question I raise: “What would it mean to our politics and economics if first in our priorities were something like making sure no one dies homeless and hungry on our streets? In other words, until we come to know a God in Jesus who is always about life and against death, will we ever clearly testify to knowing this God in our lives?” (Excellent on raising this question is Jim Wallis’ new book Christ in Crisis, in chapter 9, “The Discipleship Question,” which centers on Matthew 25:31-46.)
In early 2014, the book I was highly recommending was Jean-Pierre Dupuy‘s The Mark of the Sacred. In it, he takes up our secular religions — science, politics, and economics — and shows how they still bear the mark of the Sacred as all religions before them. They are every bit in need of redemption as the law of Moses and the Christian religion. In fact, we are to the point that our survival depends on it, since these new secular religions have given us the ability to destroy ourselves. Like I said, “My testimony is this: God coming to redeem our religion is the key to everything.”
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Brian McLaren‘s book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. He shows us the fatal flaw of religion as identity formation that always involves hostility toward some Other. Then, the larger portion of the book paints a picture of what the Christian religion can become as redeemed to undertake an identity formation based on hospitality to the Other. An incredibly important book to the vocation of being a religious leader.
One further note: In 2005, the world’s attention was understandably focused on the horrific tsunami in South Asia. Many of the reflections below revolve around that tragic event in history, which also address a question possibly raised by my 2014 sermon: if God’s power of life was present from the beginning of Creation, then why is there still so much death? I offer an answer in Reflection #4 below (vintage 2005). Today I might answer more in the language of presence and absence, and recommend another favorite book, Brian Robinette‘s Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence. Death is not truly a power. It is a form of the absence of God’s power of life. Because God does not use force, God doesn’t force the divine presence on Creation. The process of Creation is the process of God becoming more fully present in all Creation. Paul proclaims the promise of Easter in 1 Cor. 15 as God someday becoming all-in-all — in other words, fully present. Another way to put it is that heaven will become fully integrated with earth. God’s presence will fill the earth. In that day, there will be no more death. But the mystery of Love is that it never forces itself, and thus the elusiveness of God’s presence until that day of fulfillment. As children of God, however, our openness to and reflection of Love helps us to live increasingly for life.
1. martyreō, to testify, give witness to. “He came as a witness to testify to the light.” John doubles up with both the noun, “witness,” and verb, “testify,” of the martyr- word group. In fact, John’s Gospel could be said to be the Gospel of giving testimony. For the verb, Matthew and Luke each use it once, Mark not at all, and John 33 times! The noun is similar: Mark 3 times, Luke once, Matthew none, and John 14 times. So combined: Matthew once, Mark 3 times, Luke twice, and John 47 times. When one has a message of such extraordinary transformative power, one needs to give testimony to it! What is this message? James Alison‘s work, more than any other, has keyed me into the fact that it is this: God is always and only about life, and never about death. God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all. From the beginning of homo sapiens, the power that has fascinated us is the power of death. We find out in Jesus Christ that this is no power at all, in the final analysis. It is only the absence of God’s power of life. But Easter brings the promise that someday God’s power of life will be all-in-all, it will be ever-present in all things. And believing in Jesus, and giving testimony to him, means that that age of life begins now for all who believe.
2. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” It’s worth calling attention to John’s use of the word life here, in light of the more familiar term “eternal life.” Here, for example, is an insightful commentary by Brian McLaren, in The Secret Message of Jesus:
Interestingly, John almost never uses the term “kingdom of God” (which is at the heart of Jesus’ message for Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are two exceptions, both of which occur in this unique conversation [with Nicodemus in John 3]. Instead, John normally translates “kingdom of God” into another phrase that is notoriously hard to render in English. Most commonly, John’s translation of Jesus’ original phrase is rendered “eternal life” in English. Unfortunately, the phrase eternal life is often misinterpreted to mean “life in heaven after you die” — as are kingdom of God and its synonym, kingdom of heaven — so I think we need to find a better rendering.
If “eternal life” doesn’t mean “life after death,” what does it mean? Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus reduces the phrase simply to “life,” or “life to the full.” Near the end of John’s account, Jesus makes a particularly fascinating statement in a prayer, and it is as close as we get to a definition: “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God has] sent” (John 17:3). So here, “eternal life” means knowing, and knowing means an interactive relationship. In other words, “This is eternal life, to have an interactive relationship with the only true God and with Jesus Christ, his messenger.” Interestingly, that’s what a kingdom is too: an interactive relationship one has with a king, the king’s other subjects, and so on.
The Greek phrase John uses for “eternal life” literally means “life of the ages,” as opposed, I think we could say, to “life as people are living it these days.” So John’s related phrases — eternal life, life to the full, and simply life — give us a unique angle on what Jesus meant by “kingdom of God”: a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” (pp. 36-37)
McLaren is following recent New Testament scholarship on this rendering — preeminently N.T. Wright, especially in his books The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope. He offers the translation of “eternal life” in his The Kingdom New Testament, as “the life of the coming age.” His best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias involves what zoe aionias might be translating from the Hebrew in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
“God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, Book II, Ch. 4, “The Logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of John” (pp. 263-280). I give the last word to Girard in the essay “René Girard: The Anthropology of the Cross as Alternative to Post-Modern Literary Criticism” from this chapter of Things Hidden. Here is an excerpt from that essay:
But how do we know, a post-modern disciple of Derrida might ask, that this version of “light” and “darkness” is not just another binary opposition of yet another version of logocentric theory? The question, as I would like to re-pose it in this essay, involves whether or not we let our collective horror at human violence in this post-Holocaust age become the impulse to perform yet another violent expulsion, this time of the truth most pertinent here, namely, the truth about human violence. Or perhaps we re-veil the truth about our violence under a new cloud of mystification called the text, never being able to offer a theory of violence, only the violence of theories. Girard is bold enough in this post-modern context to offer a theory of violence. In the face of the post-modern anxiety over theories, let me give the last word to Girard. In Part Two of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Girard demonstrates a “non-sacrificial” reading of the Gospel, one which makes clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is about our need for sacrificial violence which we project as God’s need. Human beings are the ones who, through our false idols, demand sacrifice, not God. Girard’s next chapter relates how historical Christianity has lapsed back into a sacrificial reading of the Gospel in order once again to justify our violence. He concludes Part Two with a chapter that draws a dramatic distinction between the Heraclitean Logos of Violence and the Johannine Logos of Love. The Prologue of John (John 1:1-18) is about how the former is continually trying to expel the latter. I leave the reader with the posing of a universal truth which I do not think could be seen as imperialistic. Girard writes:
The Johannine Logos is foreign to any kind of violence; it is therefore forever expelled, an absent Logos that never has had any direct, determining influence over human cultures. These cultures are based on the Heraclitean Logos, the Logos of expulsion, the Logos of violence, which, if it is not recognized, can provide the foundation of a culture. The Johannine Logos discloses the truth of violence by having itself expelled. First and foremost, John’s Prologue undoubtedly refers to the Passion. But in a more general way, the misrecognition of the Logos and mankind’s expulsion of it disclose one of the fundamental principles of human society.. . .This revelation comes from the Logos itself. In Christianity, it is expelled once again by the sacrificial reading, which amounts to a return to the Logos of violence. All the same, the Logos is still in the process of revealing itself; if it tolerates being concealed yet another time, this is to put off for just a short while the fullness of its revelation.
The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence. But its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion, and by the same process the Logos of violence is revealed as what can only exist by expelling the true Logos and feeding upon it in one way or another. (Things Hidden, pp. 271, 274)
It is my hope that such a theory of violence, which comes to light only when the truth about human violence lets itself be expelled by such violence, can begin to ease the post-modern anxiety about “logocentric” theories leading to violence. It is my faith that, in the light of the Victim raised as forgiveness, we can begin to follow the traces of an expelled human victim, not just the traces of an expelled gramme. In God’s love, we would then become children of the Creator who learn to model the divine agape, increasingly leaving our violence behind. Is not this the goal worthy of the post-Holocaust age, rather than learning simply to identify violence everywhere in our texts?
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 13, “Where Are the Philosophers Now?” Bailie expands a bit on Girard’s comparison of Heraclitus and John. Here is a brief summary of why Heraclitus is important to mimetic theory:
Heraclitus offered a theory of cultural origins strikingly different from the myths of creation that were a familiar feature of the pagan cults and the mystery religions of his time. For him, the “world” did not originate with the conniving schemes of Gaia, Uranus, Cronus, and their peevish, incestuous, and parricidal Olympian intrigues. It began with human violence, albeit a violence structured by some mysterious organizing principle. Heraclitus sensed that violence behaved in accord with an enigmatic logic of its own, which he called its logos. This logos or logic of violence made it possible for violence to both create and destroy. Heraclitus wrote:
War [polemos] is the father and king of all things; he has shown some to be gods and some mortals, he has made some slaves and others free . . . . Everything originates in strife . . . . Strife is justice; and all things both come to pass and perish through strife.
For Heraclitus, the logos of violence was an ordering principle that was generated by disorder itself. Once in play, this logos turned chaotic and destructive violence into socially stable and hierarchically differentiated social systems. Heraclitus saw that however random and lawless it is, collective violence nevertheless develops according to certain recognizable patterns, patterns that could not be traced to any cause or any conscious intent on the part of those participating in the violence. Furthermore, he appears to have seen that it is violence of the most lawless and random kind that is the most likely to conform to the mysterious ordering principle he termed the logos. (Violence Unveiled, pages 241-242)
Heraclitus is almost an early version of mimetic theory — not the whole thing, of course, but significant bits of it in his aphorisms — bits that have been important to latter day philosophers like Heidegger. What these philosophers haven’t seen is the way in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and its logos of agape, is God’s answer to the human logos of polemos. And so they also miss that there is an alternative to the logos of violence, tending to go from the descriptive to at least an implied normative. In short, the assumption that violence is behind everything receives an endorsement to use it wisely. Bailie’s chapter is an excellent account of how philosophy comes up short.
3. Within philosophy itself Derrida’s deconstructionist movement is largely about uncovering the violence embedded within philosophy. Andrew McKenna‘s book, Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction, is a brilliant analysis of how Derrida comes so close and yet how the philosophical method ultimately comes up short compared to the anthropological hypotheses of mimetic theory.
4. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #1. Bailie’s commentary on the Johannine Prologue is interspersed with comments on T.S. Eliot poetry and combined with Girardian insights into John 8. John 8:44 — “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — expresses Heraclitus’ logos of violence. For a full bibliography on John 8, see Reformation Day.
5. James Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 204-210.
6. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 49-56: his discussion of “Creation in Christ” (excerpt) elaborates on NT passages like John 1:1-3.
7. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. Alison cites this passage at several points in Part 1, ch. 3, “The search for a soteriology.” This chapter unfurls “the intelligence of the victim,” which is the insight gained by the apostles in the wake of Jesus’ Resurrection. Alison says, for example:
What was unique was the way in which, after Jesus’ death they began to be able to tell the story of this life and death not from their own viewpoint, as muddled hangers-on, but from the viewpoint of the dead man, of the one who had become the victim. It is not as though they had invented a profound new insight into Judaism to honor the memory of a dead teacher. Rather they were now able to see clearly the inner unity of the interpretation of Judaism which their teacher had been explaining to them as with reference to himself. They were able to see his life through his own eyes: that is, tell the story of the lynch from the viewpoint of the victim’s own understanding of what was going on, before the lynch, leading up to, and during it. (p. 80)
What the disciples became aware of after the resurrection was that the person whose consciousness is constituted in rivalry and survival by victimization does not possess the intelligence of the victim. The beginning of the perception of the intelligence of the victim is already an alteration in what constitutes human consciousness, permitting us to see things from the viewpoint of the victim, and from the point of gratuitous self-donation. (p. 81)
“Gratuitous self-donation” becomes an important theme in Alison’s Girardian framing of the Gospel. The place that John’s Prologue plays in this is that of placing the self-giving back to the beginning:
John takes the final step of tracing back explicitly the gratuitous self-giving of this man into God. In his Prologue John shows the self-giving as prior to the rejection, and in the Passion narrative he shows God giving a victim into the hands of men that is far more than any of the cultic victims which the figures of the Old Testament sought to offer to God. (pp. 82-83)
This chapter in JBW also includes a more expansive discussion of the “Creation in Christ” material cited above in Raising Abel. Alison suggests that “creation ex nihilo” is a product of the Resurrection and expands the discussion into that of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example:
It is already clear that John alludes to creation in his account of the first day of the Resurrection. This becomes even clearer in his prologue, which can be seen, as can the whole of the Johannine re-casting of God, as the consequence of the shift in perception permitted by the intelligence of the victim. The resurrection of Jesus made it possible to see that the same self-giving towards victimization present in the life of Jesus was the perfect image and imitation of the Father, revealing the Father as he really is, fount of all self-giving. The self-giving of Jesus was then the Word, the Logos, the full self-revelation of the Father. Furthermore, the self-giving of Jesus exactly reflects (but does not exhaust) the self-giving of the Father, and this means that the relation of gratuity anterior to all that is, is common to both of them, Father and Son. (p. 99)
Finally, Alison has an important interpretation of related text 1 John 1:5 (“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”):
In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing now cursing (see Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies. (p. 108)
What do you think? What does it mean to say that in God “is no darkness at all”? Does 1 John 1:5 support the Girardian tactic that all violence and death is of the human realm and not of God’s? Is all talk of violence and death in connection with God a projection?
8. James Alison, a video homily for Christmas 2; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies.
9. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2012, “The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2005 the world’s heart and attention turned toward South Asia and the earthquake/tsunamis epicentered at Banda Aceh, Indonesia. William Loader was early with very poignant reflections from the perspective of the Christian faith. On the beach in Perth, Western Australia, last Sunday, he actually experienced a quick rising of the water level followed by a dramatic recession (but not a tsunami). His thoughts on “Tsunami and God” are well worthwhile reading.
2. An apropos passage for reflecting on tsunami is Psalm 69:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3)
This is also a crucial passage for mimetic theory as the experience of going under the waves is tied directly to that of being the scapegoat:
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore? O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you. Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord GOD of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel. It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me. (Psalm 69:4-12)
Yet there remains faith in God to rescue, both from the waters and being the victim:
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. (Psalm 69:13-16)
This is the same faith of John the Evangelist, except he changes the metaphor to the light not being overwhelmed by the darkness:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)
3. What might be poignant literary sources to help with this tragic human experience? On NPR, the novel The Big Wave, by Pearl Buck, was mentioned — the story of a tsunami hitting a fishing village in Japan. But a preacher with mimetic theory in mind might consider Virginia Woolf‘s incredible novel The Waves. Written in experimental style, it expresses the nihilism of post-modernity many years before its time. There are no chapters, only nine unnumbered parts which each begin with an italicized description of the sun’s movement across the sky over a coastal landscape, with the last one featuring the waves. There’s also no plot to speak of. In between the italicized landscapes are the soliloquies of six characters — Bernard (thought to be Virginia Woolf’s stand-in), Louis (thought to be a T. S. Eliot figure), Neville, Susan, Rhoda, and Jinny — with references to each other, and to one major ‘non-speaking’ character, Percival, but there’s no real dialogue. Finally, the ninth and final part gives way to one last, long soliloquy (pages 238-297 in my edition) to an unknown, unnamed person, which begins: “Now to sum up,” said Bernard. “Now to explain to you the meaning of my life” (p. 238). He is trying desperately to distinguish his life from the others: “‘Therefore,’ I said, ‘I am myself, not Neville,’ a wonderful discovery” (p. 240). But he’s doing a bad job of it:
“The tree alone resisted our eternal flux. For I changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shelley, was the hero, whose name I now forget, of a novel by Dostoevsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron chiefly. For many weeks at a time it was my part to stride into rooms and fling gloves and coat on the back of chairs, scowling slightly. I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific. Therefore, I let fly my tremendous battery of phrases upon somebody quite inappropriate — a girl now married, now buried; every book, every window-seat was littered with the sheets of my unfinished letters to the woman who made me Byron. For it is difficult to finish a letter in somebody else’s style.” (pp. 249-250)
Is he like a wave, rising to a peak and then melting back into undistinction? He wonders, “Should this be the end of the story? a kind of sigh? a last ripple of the wave? A trickle of water to some gutter where, burbling, it dies away?” (p 267).
Finally, Bernard begins to realize that he is failing altogether:
“Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known — it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am — Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.” (p. 276)
He describes himself as wandering aimlessly with his thoughts stretching toward despair:
“The woods had vanished; the earth was aq waste of shadow. No sound broke the silence of the wintry landscape. No cock crowed; no smoke rose; no train moved. A man without a self, I said. A heavy body leaning on a gate. A dead man.” (p. 285)
He imagines himself as each of his friends, finishing with Rhoda, who killed herself: “I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt” (p. 289).
When the restaurant he is sitting in closes, he at last must get up, and the book ends thus:
“But now the head waiter, who has finished his own meal, appears and frowns; he takes his muffler from his pocket and ostentatiously makes ready to go. They must go; must put up the shutters, must fold the tablecloths, and give one brush with a wet mop under the tables.”Curse you then. However beat and done with it all I am, I must haul myself up, and find the particular coat that belongs to me; must push my arms into the sleeves; must muffle myself up against the night air and be off. I, I, I, tired as I am, spent as I am, and almost worn out with all this rubbing of my nose along the surfaces of things, even I, an elderly man who is getting rather heavy and dislikes exertion must take myself off and catch some last train.
“Again I see before me the usual street. The canopy of civilisation is burnt out. The sky is dark as polished whale-bone. But there is a kindling in the sky whether of lamplight or of dawn. There is a stir of some sort — sparrows on plane trees somewhere chirping. There is a sense of the break of day. I will not call it dawn. What is dawn in the city to an elderly man standing in the street looking up rather dizzily at the sky? Dawn is some sort of whitening of the sky; some sort of renewal. Another day; another Friday; another twentieth of March, January, or September. Another general awakening. The stars draw back and are extinguished. The bars deepen themselves between the waves. The film of mist thickens on the fields. A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window. A bird chirps. Cottagers light their early candles. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.
“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”
The waves broke on the shore.
In the post-modern world, such dramatically deadly waves as hit South Asia can compound the absence of meaning. Can there really be a God behind such waves? Or do even such big, dramatic waves simply brake upon the shore and dissolve into nothingness? No meaning behind them?
In his reflection named above, William Loader also gives the other extreme, namely, those who who must find meaning by postulating a God who is completely in control of everything. But then how do we reconcile such a God with the one we see in the cross of Christ?
Virginia Woolf was fascinated by a character like Louis, a T. S. Eliot who somehow found meaning in the Christian faith, but she finally rejected such truth through her own stand-in, Bernard:
“Let a man get up and say, ‘Behold, this is the truth,’ [as Jesus did before Pilate?] and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say. So Neville, at school, in the dim chapel, raged at the sight of the doctor’s crucifix. I, who am always distracted, whether by a cat or by a bee buzzing round the bouquet that Lady Hampton keeps so diligently pressed to her nose, at once make up a story and so obliterate the angles of the crucifix. I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found that story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?” (p. 187)
We are those who claim that story of the one who stood before Pilate, proclaiming the truth as he was about to let himself become the sacrificial victim. It was that same one who let himself be swallowed up in the deep waters of Death with faith in God’s power of life to vanquish. This is the One whom we must continue to proclaim in the face of such deadly waves that swallowed up so many lives December 26, 2004.
4. But why? Why let such deadly waters swallow up lives? Precisely because the God of Jesus is one who does not control everything. Seeking to control everything is our way, the way of forceful imposition of will. The God of Jesus Christ is the God who is Love, and thus the God who relinquishes control over creation so that the creature made in the divine image, capable of returning God’s love, may freely choose to do so. If God were to control everything, most especially our acceptance of God’s loving grace, then God would not be Love. For Love never forces itself.
But neither does Love ever stop creating until the Creation returns that love in abundant, harmonious life. This is the Love in which Jesus Christ put his faith. It is the Love in which we can put our faith, trusting that Death will never have the last word as long as this is the Love that has abided in Creation since the beginning. It is a Light which the darkness cannot overcome.
5. On a completely different note (from 2004): The congregation I was serving didn’t have a Christmas Day service, so I was able to go and worship in a congregation and to reflect on, with the help of the preacher, this same text for the Second Sunday after Christmas (assigned by the lectionary to Christmas Day, too).
There is the temptation these days to lament the political correctness around the holidays. The schools have “holiday concerts,” even if they do religious numbers — though Silent Night is rapidly being replaced by Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer. But the preacher correctly moved deftly instead to lamenting how easy it is for even people of faith to get as fully caught up in the secularization. It is generally more appropriate to see how we are part of the “we” rather than an “us vs. them.”
This is especially the case if one, aided by the insights of mimetic theory, sees how much the Gospel is behind the process of secularization, in the first place. (One of the best places to read about such an argument is in the work of philosopher Gianni Vattimo, especially his little book Belief.) Secularization is the process of desacralizing the violence of Christendom, of finding oneself increasingly in solidarity with the victims of Christendom’s sacred violence. While the Religious Right may be trying to revive the “last bastion of Christian imperialism” (a term I recently heard from Douglas John Hall), we might ask: Is our plight in the “mainstream” church that we are, at heart, in sympathy with secularization, at least to the extent that it hails the end of Christendom’s oppressive, imperialistic ways?
The preacher this morning (Christmas 2004) seemed to grasp this in looking back over his own history. He began by recalling his high school Christmas concerts at the public high school in Billings, MT — unabashedly Christian in its content. Yet he also brought in the episodes a few years later of frightening anti-Semitism against Billings’ few Jewish citizens. The response of the churches in the community was to encourage its members to all display menorahs in their front windows in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors. Today’s churches are increasingly aware of the cost of waning Christendom. Past tendencies of majority Christian communities to ignore the religious minorities had so often yielded to active persecution. Thus, sensitivity to such persecutions calls into question past tendencies to ignore — even if that means a seemingly watered-down “Happy Holiday” in lieu of “Merry Christmas.” The sensitivity of such “political correctness” is for good reason: insensitivity has too often given way to brutality. More than that, mimetic theory helps us to realize that human community itself is built on the foundation of a privileged majority whose very privilege is achieved at the expense of those on the fringe who are constantly under the threat of being expelled. “Political correctness,” at its best, represents efforts to be inclusive of those normally on the fringes. (At its worst, PC can become acts of expelling the expellers, of sacrificing the sacrificers — which is why proponents of mimetic theory are also critical of it.)
Part of the argument of mimetic theory is that such secularization coincides with the work of the Gospel. In Johannine language it coincides with the Word that came into this world and always finds its place with the rejected, the expelled. It is the work, in essence, of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who is the Defender of the Accused, and thus the opposite of “the Satan,” the Accuser. (For more on the Paraclete, see the page “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.“)