Adolescent patient quoted by Dr Michael Piechowski
Three times, the Apostle, says he cried, yet three times denied: within his side the unnamed thorn remained. To fester? To infect? No, to be the site of grace,
for only this reply came: My grace is sufficient; in your weakness will my power be complete. And when He said weakness He meant all the foibles and flaws you could name, the whole litany of human frailty - all the deal that He assumed when He was flesh and frail like us.
And so we hope, and like naked ones in the cold crave to be clothed. I for one shiver with shame when laid bare by how stabbing thoughts and fears betray me, how I wince within, without, at every twinge that divides us, every failed aim at peace.
Though I long for numbness, or the certainty of some, I turn in naked longing and set the beating of an unquiet mind to the slow, steady peace at the heart of Christ, to the quiet words of the Word Made Flesh: All shall be well. All this shall be well. You too shall be well.
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
And here we arrive at the point that the children’s bibles are always leading: Jonah leaving the fish for dry land and “making good” what he has “vowed”. Yet there’s something quite curious about this moment in the story that we miss when we know it too well: the juxtaposition of salvation and vomit. It sounds sacrilegious, but there it is in the Bible. Jonah declares that salvation comes from the Lord, and then God commands the fish to vomit him up. If anything, in this moment of scripture vomit is the way in which salvation occurs: God saves Jonah from death inside the fish by being vomited up.
The fact that we might be squeamish at the idea, that discussions of vomit do not fit neatly inside our theology, says two things. First, it shows that we are uncomfortable with our own bodies, a fact that points both to the vomit-free glory that we instinctively feel we deserve. If our bodies as they are, inclined towards all kinds of abject and unpleasant fluids and the like, are all that humanity has ever or will ever know, then our discomfort seems odd. I have Philip Yancey and C.S. Lewis to thank for pointing this out to me. But secondly it also shows that we really don’t understand just how physical and visceral God’s saving work for us is. God gets down in the mud to make Adam. God breaths into Adam’s nostrils. God walks in the garden to find Adam naked and ashamed. God enters a womb and spends nine months drinking amnioitic fluid and kicking against his mother’s stomach before entering the world kicking, screaming, covered in blood and vernix. God spends thirty-three years as a man, experiencing all the glories and indignities that this entails, including the particularly awkward teenage years. And then God is nailed onto a cross, with scars that He still bears into eternity, has to heave Himself up and down, up and down, for hours in the body’s desperate bid to keep breathing, and then, as He dies, a soldier stabs Him in the side and blood and water flow from Him out onto the ground. The story of scripture is physical, earthy and messy. So yes, vomit and salvation go together, because God is not afraid of our mess.
But there’s another curious thing about this verse and a half that relates again to this word “vomit”. The Hebrew word qow is used only a handful of times in the Old Testament, unsurprisingly. Most of the times that it is used, it’s metaphorical: a figure of speech to describe land rejecting people from its midst. These three uses from Leviticus will show you what I mean:
Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Lev 18:25)
And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Lev 18:28)
Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Lev 20:22)
In these three verses we see a story of God rejecting the people who lived in the land before Israel because of their sins, and the warning that He will do the same if they fail to follow His commands. And the image that God uses here is of the land vomiting out the people.
Well, here Jonah – a prophet of Israel – is vomited out, not as rejection, but as salvation. Jonah disobeyed God, but he has returned to Him and so the fish vomits Jonah out onto land – but significantly, not onto Israel’s land, but onto land near Nineveh, the capital city of his worst enemies. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and He chooses whom to save and how.
Yet this fact is as uncomfortable for us as reading about vomit: we do not want to confront what it means for salvation to be entirely on God’s terms, not ours. And Jonah, sad to say, still doesn’t get it, as he washes the fish vomit from his clothes and sets foot once more on dry land, determined now to do the right thing.
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
Jonah’s prayer inside the fish is one of the most overlooked parts of this book. Often it seems like nothing more than a poetic interlude and we want to keep moving to the next part of the story, to the drama of Jonah being vomited onto dry ground. But I am a poet so I love poetic interludes, and I’m also curious about much that features in this prayer. First, it’s essentially a collage of other biblical prayers, full of references to the Psalms which Jonah draws on to have words for this otherwise unprecedented experience. But it’s also curious in the story it tells: a story in which God seemingly answers Jonah’s distress by sending him into the deep and making a giant fish swallow him. Neither of these circumstances are how I would typically want God to deliver me from a storm at sea. Yet God is delivering him from more than the storm; He’s delivering him from all the things that have made him run from God. To do this work in Jonah, God isn’t simply going to spare Jonah any trial. Instead, He is going to send Jonah right into darkness in order to teach him about God’s light.
I’ve often been frustrated by how Southern hemisphere summers detract from Advent’s symbolism of longing for the coming of the light. When it’s daylight until 9pm, I rarely find myself longing for light. Here again I need Jonah to remind me: sometimes the best way to encounter God’s light is to open up the dark spaces inside ourselves. Jonah’s dark spaces were his tribalist hatred of neighbour and his transactional view of God’s mercy. Mine are a sense of resentment when God’s mercy does not accord me the comforts and affirmation I think that I need. In an Australian summer, on the brink of Christmas, it can be all too easy to ignore those dark emotions until they get the better of us. Yet God often calls us to enter them with Him – and this is expressed in no better way than the life of Jesus: entering the darkness of the womb for nine months, the darkness of imperial infanticide at the time of his birth, the darkness of poverty and oppression, the darkness of persecution, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the tomb.
Jesus told those asking for a sign that He would only give them the sign of Jonah. Like Jonah, He entered deepest darkness for three days. Yet He was not overwhelmed by the darkness; even there He is strong, stronger than death. And so we, like Jonah, can encounter Him in the dark. Like Jonah, we might even be taken into the dark to save us from our own hidden darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised if that happens; it was the very thing that Jesus came to earth to do.
As well as being the day when my true love sent me three French hens, the third day of Christmas traditionally remembers St John the Evangelist, who contrasts with Stephen the martyr for being the only one of the apostles not be martyred. He also saw the glories ahead revealed to him when imprisoned for following Jesus, and was perhaps the best theologian of the Incarnation in the New Testament. Today’s poem takes as its inspiration an old Gregorian chant for the Feast of St John, as well as the reading for the day, 1 John 1:1-4.
On the Lord’s Day, in rapture,
the beloved disciple
beheld Him in glory
who once walked beside Him.
And did he recognise Him,
that beloved disciple?
So changed into glory
was this one like a brother.
Now a glorious saviour,
that disciple’s Beloved
called the prisoned to rapture,
in renewing of all things.
Did he think of the meals shared,
that beloved disciple?
Did he think of the dust and
the waters of washing?
Remember the glories,
O beloved disciples,
When walking where Christ trod,
When fading, no rapture.
the eyes that beheld Him.
Await His swift coming;
tune ears to His feet.
So now: as we wait in rapt expectancy,
will we unwrap our dreams? Our loves?
Or unravel with the pressure,
the hallowed table proving to be full of holes.
When the day and its gestures disappoint,
what will tell us, You matter?
Frantic to complete the list,
we quickly pass the simple scene:
a teenage mother tending her child,
tired from the journey to the in-laws’ town.
Too pressed for time with time-pressing matters,
we miss the divine entrance into our smelly matter.
Our lunchtime squabbles and fights over gifts
are themselves the stage He chose to walk.
The chance to be changed lies within rudest details:
a makeshift crib; soil and straw;
an angry heart with limited room.
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
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?
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;
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)
He comes near, able to touch, to be touched,
and be wounded, to kiss and to be kissed:
the grateful kiss, the sleepy child dismiss-
ing himself to sleep; the mother’s kiss, a smudge
on freshly-bathed cheek; the plotter’s grudge
expressed in the curl of doubled lips,
the final, false farewell, the fatal tryst.
He comes to feel the touch of friend and judge.
He comes to raise His hand to touch the world,
to put together Jacob’s broken hip,
to be the salve on Adam’s missing rib,
to gather in His family, unfurled,
and show that God’s love isn’t scared to feel
the pain of touch to make all new, to heal.
…the astonishment of the Angels: for it is not in them (pure spirits), but in the human race, that God unites himself, and the Son of God incarnate “is not ashamed to call us his brothers.”
Flames of fire, yet only servants. They long
to look into what we hold as child:
God-made-flesh. Not all the heavenly throng
are called “brothers”, but we are: reconciled,
dust transformed, while they only herald.
Do they marvel, or rival? One envied,
and fell beneath us. Unparalleled,
the Son chooses depths, yet uplifts, died
yet gives life. Let the angels adore Him;
let them fall before His throne ablaze in
the glory of Him and Father Elohim.
Yet how should something so glorious begin
so small, so timid? No fire, no thunder,
just angels and shepherds gazing in wonder.