“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people.”1
Who knows what angels look like? In my imagination they are twenty feet tall, as solid as brass, beautiful enough to cause awe. The wings are an afterthought, purely symbolic, a nice touch to disguise the fact that an angel can materialize next to you without a sound, every feather in place. They don’t travel — they appear.
In the gospels, angels create fear in people, but they don’t mean to. We know this because the first thing the angel says in the Gospel of Luke is,“Be not afraid.” The angel says this to everyone it visits: to Joseph, to Zechariah, to the shepherds, and of course to Mary.
Unintentional fear. It would charge the space between angel and human like an electric grid. It would block the angel’s greeting before it could be uttered. The angel would begin, a half-smile on its face. Then raise a hand in sympathy. Do not be afraid, it would say. Please. I have good news. There is great joy coming for the whole people.
Can we command someone not to be afraid? Fear always has an object, fixed at a point in time, a location that can be, must be, triangulated urgently. A person is afraid of snakes or bombs or the ocean. Only rarely are we afraid of fear and then only because we’re afraid to name its shape. Or we whistle in the dark, saying, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
We remember what we fear, but more to the point, we fear what we remember. Simple then: just forget.
Yet, what rings in my head on my predawn walks in this winter of our discontent are verses from Psalm 137:
“How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither away;
let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.” (Ps 137:4-6 NEB)
There is much about the year 2020 that I would like to forget, but the things I would like to forget have been the fears of many this past year. They will be remembered as a way to honor those who suffered them. I will remember them as wildfires in our sojourn through this alien land.
Children in cages. An administration contemptuous of science. A constant assault on democratic ideals and constitutional requirements. The destruction of truth. Lying as a form of discourse. The continued grinding down of the human dignity of people of color, of women. Needless deaths in the thousands; individual deaths without justice. A fascination with the bizarre. The cult of a false messiah. A form of Christianity that embraces ruthless power and nationalism.
The stone in our shoe is how much remembrance of the past will shape our future. How much should we remember? Do we carry these filthy rags with us? Do we forget our losses and press ahead or should there be an accounting before we move on?
The past is nailed to memory, the future is susceptible to fear — but no less open to hope. If that is so, should the last four years be stripped off and tossed to one side like a dirty garment? If remembering is a form of knowing, what have we learned?
While we cannot change the past, the future is open but costly, agonizingly bought at the price of lives. Yet, knowledge is not all that is needed to create a future. Surely there must be wisdom entwined with passion. How shall we remember Zion? How shall we sing the Lord’s song?
Because of Advent, because of the Incarnation, at the brink of a new year we are invited to “be not afraid.” Afraid of Covid and its insidious reach. Afraid of sudden unemployment, eviction, illness without adequate medical coverage. Or any coverage at all.
Fear of crowds, fear of other people, fear of isolation and loneliness. Fear of desertion.
Fear for the millions who are sick, dying, or working to keep others from dying. Fear for the children whose meals are as uncertain as where they will sleep tonight. Fear for the asylum seeker, locked in her detention cell, waiting for Covid without medical help.
Fear of those who are callous, indifferent, and powerful enough to spin your life into an abyss you’ll never get out of. Fear for this country: caught in traps of its own making, gnawing its own flesh, struggling to tear itself free.
“Be not afraid,” says the angel. “I bring good news, and great joy for all the people.” We are those people, some of the many. What the angel announces is a new source of joy. It is no longer tied to a place, as holy as Jerusalem and the temple was, but to a person, an experience, and a community. It becomes portable, carried within us and shared with each other.
It is a joy as quiet as it is enduring. It is an undercurrent, rather than a ripple across the surface. It survives drought and flood, rising as blessing in the midst of adversity. Though it pierced the heart of Mary it topped up the heart of Simeon, an old man who could die joyfully, having lived to see the promised One. At times, through tears, it causes us to cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ At other times we walk in silence.
“It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable,” said Abraham Heschel.2 It draws us to the beating heart of the Spirit through whom we are brought near, no longer strangers clutching our alien gods.
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.”1
This was the year I was surprised by joy.
It was also the year in which my perceptions of the world ranged from bewilderment to sorrow, and finally, to disgust. I have never been so dumbfounded by partisan fury, so aghast at the abyss between facts and folly, so disheartened by callousness and cruelty.
But I also had occasion for humility when my prejudice outran the reported experience of others with whom I was at odds. I was given opportunity, not so much to rethink my position, as to allow that others felt as passionately as I did across the ideological divide. Bracketing my own logic, I tried—within my considerable limitations—to enter into ‘fellow-feeling’ with those whose outlook and attitude were almost entirely alien to mine. I say ‘almost’, because I continue to believe that on the spectra of communication available to humans, there are colors which, though invisible to the eye, are nevertheless there. We must evolve to see them.
I’m a user and an observer of religion. If my faith is to have any practical value, it should help me in situations like that. It should—and it does—open my eyes to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that surround me through the wellsprings of history. I haven’t been able to shake off a life-long interest in world religions. I’ve peered at it through the eyes of sociologists of religion such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Peter Berger. Others, like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, opened up their own journeys into (and out of) the religions with a candor that is exhilarating. Augustine and Thomas Merton have been guides and companions for many years as have more recently, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.
Helen and Mike Pearson, British friends and mentors, nudged me into reading Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mark Oakley, Chaplain at Cambridge, who led me to Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, and then to Malcolm Guite, Eamon Duffy, and John V. Taylor. These poet-priests and scholars have tilled the fields of the Lord with a beguiling celebration of the arts in worship and spiritual meditation.
Oakley and Mayne, especially, acknowledged and quoted so many poets whose works I had not read, that I began to read their books with a finger inserted in the notes and bibliography pages.
Earlier in the year, my good friend and mentor, Lyn Bartlett, gifted me a copy of Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, a chronicle of Dreher’s family crises as diagnosed through an intensive reading of Dante’s Commedia. That book, poignant and inspiring in its own right, got me back into Dante.
Thanks to Penny and Murray Mahon, friends of almost fifty years, the Collected Poems of R. S. Thomas, Welsh priest, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, became one of my constant wellsprings. Add to that the poems and writings of Mary Oliver, Ursula LeGuin, Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and especially, Seamus Heaney, and I began to walk this year in the rhythms of the poets.
This was part of my joy, the pouring of poetry into my life and the discovery of how essential it has become for my spiritual well-being.
Christians of all stripes are fond of saying that God is love. We report it as a claim that millions have experienced as bone-marrow true over thousands of years. That humans can make such claims and present their dizzying, disparate, and sometimes desperate lives as evidence is reason enough for awe.
We repeat it because it is a standard-issue declaration about God from the religious organizations we belong to. But more truthfully, we revel in it because, while it is there for anyone to discover, on rising to it personally it is like the shock of seeing the Pacific Ocean panoramically from cliffside after living in Iowa all your life.
But I was surprised by joy—and to realize that makes me wonder how I missed it all these years. How could my gaze, directed toward Jesus and the transcendent in life, be off by a fraction of a degree—enough that God’s love could appear as contractual and mine to be dutiful? Such are the surprises in life, in themselves revelatory of the sublime in the mundane.
I’ve always felt closer to Jesus than to God—which is fortunate since God for us is known through Jesus. I see Jesus, as real as breath, in my imagination. I try to place myself within the parables or in the crowd listening to them. This year the pouring of Christ into our form, and the offering up of Christ to God became real to me, because it means that we, too, are lifted up to God. This is joy, which C. S. Lewis described as “the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it.
We know ourselves as we are in others, not just as we are in ourselves. Those who have influenced us have, in a sense, entered into us—we are indebted to them. The authors I mentioned have changed me in ways that are unique to our relationship, as one-sided as it is. With other authors there would be yet other differences. Austin Farrar’s question startles: “But have you reflected that Jesus is Jesus because of Mary and Joseph and the village rabbi . . . Above all because of the disciples to whom he gave himself and the poor people to whose need he ministered? But for these people he would have been another Jesus.”2
That ‘God loves us’ has been for me an hypothesis neither fully accepted nor tested. You can live a long time, apparently, without unwrapping that particular gift. Maybe I was afraid of how it would change me. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century English mystic, the first woman to write in English, handed me that gift this year and stood there until I opened it. Her Revelations of Love, a book which she worked on for twenty years, is the recounting of a series of visions which she was given within twenty-four hours as she lay close to death.
Julian’s sturdy and direct prose drew me in immediately. There are several excellent translations of her work—she was a contemporary of Chaucer and both need translating for our benefit. It is a book of eighty-six short and compressed chapters which should be lived with over time to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, an attentive reading yields riches to sustain us on our journeys. Here are two of them.
A major theme in the sixteen ‘shewings’ is the nature and consequences of sin. Julian understands that Adam’s original sin was an accident, not a deliberate act of wrongdoing. It arose from Adam’s desire to please God, misguided though it was. God’s response, according to Julian, was to regard Adam with tenderness and pity. There were consequences, of course, but they were not punishments from God: they were the natural result of actions that contort our nature as God designed it.
The poignancy of the Fall, and the confusion it casts upon us she captures well: “All of us who shall be saved have, during this lifetime, an amazing mixture of good and ill within us. We have within us Jesus, our risen Lord. We have within us the misery of the mischief of Adam’s fall and dying . . . And so we live in these mixed feelings all the days of our life” (Ch. 52).3
While we may be confused and bewildered by sin, even to the point that we lose sight of God, God never loses sight of us. Even when we are in the depths of sin of our own making, God’s love for us never flags.
She has no time for theology that asserts we are naturally rotten to the core. For her, it’s sin that’s unnatural. “We shall truly see that sin is, in truth, viler and more painful than hell . . . for it is against our fair nature. For as truly as sin is unclean, just as truly it is unnatural” (Ch. 63).
Julian believes that all of us are deeply implicated in sin, but to her surprise she reports that “I did not see sin. For I believe it has no substance or manner of being, but is only known by the pain it causes” (Ch. 27).
Though we are constantly confronted with sin, Julian sees the good within us. “I saw and understood that in every soul . . . there is a godly will that never assented to sin, nor ever shall. This will is so good that it can never will any evil. But always and forever it wills good, and does good, in the sight of God.” This is paralleled in Hebrews, channeling Jeremiah: “I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds. I will never call their sins to mind, or their offences.”4
A second major theme is Julian’s vision of the cross, which occupied her all her life. It was the centerpiece of the ‘shewings’ and it begins with joy. Before she visualizes Christ’s physical sufferings on the cross, “suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of joy. And I understood that this is how it will be in heaven without end for those who come there” (Ch. 4).
Her theology of the crucifixion and atonement was for me a crucial shift of kind—not just degree. Jesus on the cross is not shielding us from a furious God who demands his pound of flesh: he is God in the flesh and he is us. Like Paul, Julian wants to be at the cross with Mary and John (the only disciple courageous enough to stay, she says) to stand in love and solidarity with Jesus. The cross, as Jesus shows her in vision, is a flashpoint of joy because God-in-Christ willed to take it up for us.
This is what swept away my anger and discomfort at the whole forensic view of the cross and atonement. “And I, seeing all this through his grace, saw that the love he has for our soul is so strong that he sought our soul with great longing, and willingly suffered for it—and paid for it in full” (Ch. 20). We cannot compel Jesus to die for us; he goes there willingly, for through it he defeats the powers that be.
What we see through Julian’s eyes is that Christ became one of us so that God could know the evil we suffer from the inside—and change our lives. As Sheila Upjohn comments: “There is no place so dark and painful that God has not been there before us and stays there with us. And the fact of the resurrection means that there is no evil so bad that he cannot turn it into good.”5
There is a kind of joy that catches in the throat; it may well up in the eyes and quiver in the heart. There is glory to be gleaned where the Lord is passing by.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Hurrahing in Harvest” in A Hopkins Reader edited with an introduction by John Pick. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Image Books edition, 1966, p. 51. ↩
Quoted in Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 237. ↩
All quoted translations are from Upjohn, Sheila. Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1997. ↩