Sunday, 18 December 2011

Rosewindow No 106

Having been laid low with flu, and having to let the world pass by with inactivity, I came across this "Rosewindow" article from The Winchester Churchman by John V Taylor, who was then Bishop of Winchester. In a world of incessant activity, when the pace of life seems ever more frantic and frenetic, John Taylor's writing strikes quite a different note. As he notes, the infant and the geriatric are literally in other peoples hands; and so too, are those who are ill, who have to rest and let others help them.

Limitation and helplessness are not how people tend to think of God. John Taylor, however, shows how such a counter-intuitive view can provide far more depth and resonance with our human condition than Olympian images of power.

Rosewindow No 106: December 1983
by John V Taylor

Christmas Presents

Of all the various presents that may be given to any of us, at Christmas or any other time, the ones that mean most are those which have actually belonged to the person who gives them. It may be an heirloom from a godmother's jewellery box or a favourite dinky car from a small boy's collection: the fact of its having been owned and loved by the giver adds a value that money cannot buy. There is a difference between giving and handing over.

Most of our presents could come to us on order straight from the shop. They say much more when they have been personally wrapped by the friend who chose them. But something quite different is being offered when the gift actually changes owners and changes hands.

Christ "handed over" in Birth

It was just such a handing over as this that took place in the Incarnation. "He that spared not his own Son but delivered him up, or handed him over, for us all how shall he not also with him freely give us all things, how can he fail to lavish upon us all he has to give" In the birth of Jesus that which was most precious to God, his only-begotten Son, his very self, changed hands and was given up.

Christ "handed over" in His Passion

The handing over of the Son of God is a central theme of the Gospels and a turning point in the story. "The Son of Man", says Jesus in St. Mark, "shall be handed over, delivered up, to the chief priests and scribes and they shall condemn him and shall hand him over to the Gentiles." And later in the same Gospel St. Mark tells how they bound Jesus and handed him over to Pilate, and Pilate, when he had scourged him, handed him over to be crucified. Tied up like a parcel and passed from hand to cruel hand - that is what it meant to be handed over. Christ knew what he was talking about when he said to Peter after the Resurrection, "When you were young you fastened your belt and walked where you chose but when you are old a stranger will bind you fast and carry you where you have no wish to go."

The men who wrote the Gospels used this word `handed over' so often in their story of the passion of Jesus that it clearly had for them a strong theological significance. We too use it at every Eucharist to introduce the solemn words of institution:, "In the same night in which he was handed over, he took bread." It means something far wider and more mysterious than the betrayal by Judas Iscariot; that was on the beginning of a complete transposition of Jesus out of his own freedom and initiative and intense activity, and into the grasp and compulsion and will of others. "'God spared not his own Son but handed him over for us all."

Why am I speaking of the passion - the passivity - of Christ at this Christmas season? Because the very beginning of any human life has this in common with the very end - you are carried. Things are done to you. The infant and the geriatric are literally in other people's hands. So Christmas night may also be described as "the same night in which he was handed over." This is the paradox of the Incarnation: that the Maker of all things is constricted in a crib, the Eternal Word has not yet learned to talk, and he who holds us in existence must be carried and kept safe.

Here too we see the transfer of the Son of God from pure freedom to constraint, from creative energy to passivity, from initiative to waiting. "God spared not his own Son but handed him over for us all."

Jesus' Sonship

But what does it mean, this talk about God's own Son? We distort the true faith and miss the point if we allow ourselves to imagine anything like three Gods. Whatever we say about the Son of God we are saying it about God. The Son of God is God being obedient to his own nature. The Son of God is God under the constraints he has set for himself. The Son of God is God eternally tying his own hands with love and handing himself over for us all. The handing over of the Son of God was not a brief unique incident lasting from about 5 B.C. to 30 A.D. It is an eternal truth about God, but we should never have guessed it if we had not seen his overwhelming glory in the helplessness of Bethlehem and the helplessness of the judgement hall and the cross.

Passing from Power to Dependence

The living God passes our understanding and stretches like a horizon beyond our newest, clearest thought of him. But this we know: he is like an artist and he is like a lover, and both are bound and handed over.

W. H. Vanstone, whose book, "The Stature of Waiting", throws so much light on this theme, has pointed out in a further unpublished paper that the artist, in choosing to express himself in something that is not himself, but stone or sound or colour, has committed himself to an activity which cannot be the smooth unfolding of a pre-meditated plan but must inevitably involve coming to terms with the materials he has chosen, getting things right as he goes along, and an inexhaustible patience and resourcefulness, struggle and cost. The lover, unless his love is false, has by the act of loving, given to some other being the power to disappoint him infinitely. Both the lover and the artist have tied their own hands. They have passed over from power to dependence, from doing to being done to, from achievement to waiting. And precisely by letting that happen to them their true nature, their glory, is revealed. As artist or as lover they have handed themselves over, made a present of themselves and let the most essential, precious thing that is theirs change hands.

That is what God has been doing from before the foundation of the world. "He that spared not his own Son, his own self, but handed himself over for us all, how can he fail to lavish upon us all he has to give?"

Man's Response

No. he cannot help but give and give again, and wait and wait for our response. And what is that response to be when we have at last understood? Not a busy programme of service and achievement. Why should our agenda be so different from his? He who is waiting for the world's response asks above all else that we share the waiting. "Could you not watch with me one hour?" He who entered into his glory when he passed from splendid doing into shameful being-done-to calls us to stand by him in his silence and inaction. If we do so we shall find ourselves in a large company today.

And our prayer will grow more like the spontaneous movements of those who watch a sculptor at work and tense their own muscles in sympathy with his concentration, or like those who hold their breath to see whether the mail includes the letter their friend has been waiting for. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done" is that kind of prayer.

So, during these last weeks before Christmas, the best present we can prepare to hand over to him, the one that most evidently belongs to us and is typical of us, is the unfulfilled but even invincible longing that we share with him. So many of the familiar carols express it: "O that we were there?" Let us stay, then, in the posture of Advent, waiting upon the eternally patient God with the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 comment:

Alane Wallace said...

That's the most beautiful explanation I've ever heard.