Christmas 10: Sit at my right hand

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Caravaggio, “Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence”, 1609.

“The LORD says to my Lord…” (Psalm 110:1). These are surely some of the more mysterious words to appear in the Bible. Who is the second Lord to whom the writer, King David, is referring? Who could even be understood to be David’s Lord apart from God, the LORD? David, after all, was king of all Israel; no-one beside God was higher than him. And yet he looks to another Lord who will be made king over everything and who, mysteriously, will also be a priest forever too. In Jesus, the mystery is, if not resolved, at least given flesh so we can behold it.

Today’s piece is Vivaldi’s powerful setting of Psalm 110, entitled “Dixit Dominus” (“The LORD says”) after the first two Latin words in the psalm. I’ve chosen Caravaggio’s strange Nativity scene, which anachronistically features Saints Francis and Lawrence, to help us to reflect on the wonder that this mighty king chose to come as a tiny baby. Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro lighting manages to hihglight Jesus’ face without resorting to the artistic cliches of his day. The presence of two saints known for their love of the poor seems fitting for this simple, peasant scene into which the king of all creation chose to come to earth.

Sit at my right hand

All earth is your footstool;
soon so will your enemies be too.
Yet You sit at our feet, minuscule, helpless,
Creator on the floor of creation,
infinite made finite,
the dew of your youth around you on the hay.

Judge of the nations: the nations come
to see your defenseless form, to catch
the future glory in your minute moment.
Where is your sceptre? You drink
from your mother’s breast; cannot
yet lift your head, nor fight.

Await the voice: “Sit at my right hand.”
But first you will cry, “I thirst”,
and, “It is finished,” and, “My God,
my God, why?” Heaven surrounds you,
but first the sword and the nails.
First the manger, this moment in eternity’s grasp.

Poetic Translations: The King and the Maiden

One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
 

You ask me how God might be teacher
 	and saviour;
you ask how His love might drive Him to teach.
You ask how His Love could love over vast distance
as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love?

Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden –

	No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff?
		A fairy tale? Where
	is the systematic doctrine?
		Don’t patronise
			with tales…

Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke
of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles;
I wish I could only speak of such trifles,
for we all, from birth, understand food and drink
(and the need to see doctors)
and the high ways of kings are so often removed
from the eating and drinking of mere men.

But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck.
A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that.
And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight
with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he
loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen),
and he loved her without the High Rule of a king.

His courtiers said, What a favour the king
will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick.
They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love.
He would love her, this maiden, 
      such that she’d never see
a high, lofty patron, 
      a detached, distant king.

Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You
are the king! 		Overshadow her 
with your king’s grandeur!
Make her feel lowly! 	Unworthy! 	You’re king!

How can Love straddle
 the high and low 	yet
not overshadow the low 	into their grave?

Love must become
like the lowly it loves.

The teacher must be like the student;
 	the king
must make Himself low	
	
	like the maiden.

(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)

Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

“A catholic taste,” she said

and I nodded,
not knowing at all what she meant, for I
was not, nor have ever been, Catholic.
How then, I wondered, was my reading taste catholic?
The word, at the time, meant Mary and popes,
not expansive, far-reaching, inclusive. Now I
give my old teacher’s words new meaning:
yes, catholic in reading, in writing, because 
bodies matter, and ritual
and beauty are core;
catholic because
bread and wine, and brokenness,
sacrament, liturgy,
should inhabit the fibre of the Christian page.
Faith is not, should never be, prose.
So Mauriac and Merton, Marion and Nouwen
shall show me the way to paint Christ
in rich praise.

“With pen in hand”

The fact that a work of such unperturbed objectivity and such deep, radiating peace could grow from a life which, far from being untroubled, consumed itself in strife, gives us an insight into the special quality of the man.
(Josef Pieper, The Silence of St Thomas)

The branch is not the root system.
When you see the grandness of the oak,
the stateur of the pine, the fir, do you
also know the deep
tangling that grows beneath?
And rhizomes too
defy our linear longings
to simply be a trunk, a branch.
They entwine, enfold, arise in grace, out of abyss,
of mire.

Aquinas, it is said, was never
led by spirit but by thought.
“He contemplates…with pen in hand”*,
as though the pen were like a fence-post
constraining the grace of higher thought.
When, twenty-three, I took graceless aim
at shots fired over tea against my faith,
my sparring partner only said,
You know what you remind me of?
The scholastic period. The scholastics, man.
An insult? Perhaps. I did not speak
of the nights I’d spent in faithless fear.
All I am, and was, is straw. Yet pen
takes roots beneath the page,
and rhizomes grow within the nib.
Only grace that minds can ever take wings;
grace that pens can gather thought.
All grace that straw can speak.

*Adrienne von Speyr, The Book of All Saints

Damascus Road: Breach

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For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness.
(Pope John Paul II, May 2001)

I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
(Nicene Creed)

The year the towers fell, John Paul
set foot where he was not welcome.
A Polish pope stretched out his hand,
though age had made him weak in grasp,
and held the breach, deep into past,
and said that it was wrong.

How far are spirits breached? How long
must souls be searched to find the start?
A silent prayer in Umayyad
cuts back to Hagar, Ishmael.
The God-who-sees hears whispered prayers
and knows how nations fell.

If we don’t speak of Cyprus now,
if East and West still cannot meet,
if schism is a constant truth
and where Saint Paul walked stands a wall:
thank God for arms that span the breach
and bear our coffin nails.

We cannot see al-Assad now
beside the pope and hope that he
will bring the peace we long to see;
the breach stands still, is deeper now,
yet Spirit moans for unity,
for being Three-In-One.

Damascus Road: Cradle, Body, Light

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Your garments glisten, my brethren, as snow;—and fair is your shining in the likeness of Angels.
(St Ephraim the Syrian, “Hymn for the Baptised”)

You are the light of the world;
you are the body of Life.
The persecutor kicked you;
you kick within yourself,
yet you remain – kept, preserved;
you cannot be hidden.

You are the beaten body.
Yet the body shines more for being broken;
more like the Head with every thorn,
you live because your foes assault you.
Hold up the Body by the crown
and it will radiate before all men.

Glisten with water, with blood,
Child of God.
Your cradle is pillaged;
the persecutor walks your roads again.
Over seas, the body binds itself,
strikes and licks its wounds,
kicks its own goads.
Yet you are the child.

Glisten and radiate –
let the earth see and know.
Your roads stood firm beneath the Zealot’s feet;
your foes became your brothers. Shine:
though the cradle may fall, the life remains.

Shine, broken body, and stand.