The Word Made Flesh

Feast of the Epiphany, 2019

Anne and I spent this holiday season in the most holy of ways – with a house joyously filled with our son and his wife, our daughter, and, for the first time, our grandson Ryan, all visiting from the north. We planned a coming out party of sorts for baby Ryan the Friday after Christmas – the 28th, as it happened to be. My mother, sister, nephews and family, and priest were all invited to come over for a viewing. As it turned out, the guest of honor was, sadly, off limits. What we thought at first was simply post-travel crankiness turned out to be the flu, nothing to sneeze at for a five-month old. Thanks be to God, after an anxious morning in the emergency room, and a satchel-full of medications, he was back to himself within thirty-six hours or so.

In any event, rocking a sick baby at 3:30 in the morning leads one to ruminate a bit, and my thoughts wandered to something our priest Laurie McKim talked about in her Christmas sermon. The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by the Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks in 1868. Brooks at the time was the rector of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, and, while enormously popular and effective, went through something like a spiritual breakdown in the aftermath of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. (Brooks preached the homily at Lincoln’s funeral, which tells us something about the esteem in which he was held.) Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land in the months after the funeral and found himself in the basilica in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. That experience provided the inspiration for the hymn.

The first verse ends with the haunting “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Certainly, the final days of 1865 would have been full of both hopes and fears for all Americans. Likewise, celebrating the arrival of one’s grandson, then seeing him listless and burning up with the flu, and then – there is no other word – miraculously on the mend in a few hours is a tour from hope to fear and back again (with whistle stops at doubt, distress, impatience, and exhaustion.) Think, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph, entrusted with the One in whom all of humanity’s hopes rested, fighting off the everyday fears of a parent with the special horrors of Roman occupation and Herodian cruelty working in the background. (The fact that we planned our open house on Holy Innocents Day only occurred to me after the fact.)

Count me among those who both find a strong political undertone to the Gospels and think a lot about the similarities between that day and ours. One way to look at our current politics, in fact, would be to think about whether hope or fear are in the ascendency. When we allow fear to predominate, we end up with catastrophes such as our current rate of incarceration or our abominable treatment of refugees. On the other hand, when we take the “something will turn up” approach to public policy, we forget that there really are problems that need our attention and go through something like the great crash of 2008. (Mr. Micawber is unmistakably decent, but I’m not sure I’d want him running the Federal Reserve System.)

The same thing goes for our legal system. Too much fear makes us look for punitive solutions to problems, and we come up with long prison terms for non-violent offenders. Too much blind hope, on the other hand, makes us apathetic to those problems, and we give probation to habitual drunk drivers. While Christian hope will not fail in the long run, in the short run bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with bad behavior. This is, I think, part of the point Oliver O’Donovan was making, which I alluded to in my last post: it is not enough to hope for the Kingdom, we have to work for it. C. S. Lewis says:

Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Panthiest can say “If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.” The Christian replies. “Don’t talk damned nonsense.” For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God “made up out of His head” as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.

And we have this from Descartes:

When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency or confidence. And when we are certain that what we desire will come to pass, even though we go on wanting it to come to pass, we nonetheless cease to be agitated by the passion of desire which caused us to look forward to the outcome with anxiety. Likewise, when fear is so extreme that it leaves no room at all for hope, it is transformed into despair; and this despair, representing the thing as impossible, extinguishes desire altogether, for desire bears only on possible things.

“Eschew complacency and despair,” Descartes advises us. We’re not likely to see that on many bumper stickers. All the same, as newly elected legislators and judges and aldermen across the country get to work, and, as we celebrate the day when three pagan wise men, the height of Gentile learning, met the Word made flesh (and played a trick on Herod the Great (Fox) in the bargain), we would all do well to follow that advice.

For more about Phillips Brooks, look here.

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