At this time of the year, we gather around probably the most familiar of all Christian narratives, the Nativity Story – the way made straight by John in the desert, song of angels, gold and myrrh, flying star, king of kings. It’s time to rekindle joy, to find hope when hope is lacking. It’s instilled in carols, in the Christmas feeling, it’s in the mistletoe. It can be found in the stories we tell and gather around, words with values we share, that call us into covenant one with another. Call us into a shared language, a shared dream, a shared Meeting House, with breadth and depth, and warmth and growth. One of the oddities of thinking about the coming of Jesus, baby meek and mild, is that within orthodox Christianity it immediately brings to mind the death of Jesus. For Jesus is imbued with cosmic purpose. He may just be a man, but through the inherited narrative we have received, through the central role he takes within our religious story, he becomes more. He’s given symbolic importance well beyond himself. As Cliff puts it in his credo, there is truth in myth, a truth that rises above the mere facts to the point where the facts become, in effect, irrelevant. The historicity of anything in the New Testament has no bearing on my faith. Facts and rationalizations cut against the absurdity of what Jesus represents, and it’s the absurdity which is to be embraced. ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and we will call him Immanuel.’ It’s obviously absurd. The lamb being imbued with divine significance: it’s absurd. The crucifixion: the highest being meets nakedness, torture, and death. This is the surely the pinnacle of absurdity.
Over the last few weeks we have been journeying through Advent, thinking about opening up space in our lives for the sacred. We began by thinking about this process, and how it’s not always comfortable or nice; it doesn’t always leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling. Then we thought about the in-between space, the place between who we are and who we would like to be, our lived and unlived lives, and then last week, for Bodhi Sunday, we thought about what it might mean to inhabit that in-between space, to get past our conflicted selves, to empty our heads of all our ‘what ifs’ and ‘what cans’ – and simply be. The common theme to all this has been the ‘absurd’. The absurdity of simply ‘being’ in a world which constantly demands ‘doing’. The absurdity of embracing the in-between, the uncertainty, the confusion. The absurdity embraced: no, it’s not always comfortable or nice.
Dark Poet, a maid's breast
Embittered poet, life seethes
And life burns,
And the sky reabsorbs itself in rain,
Your pen scratches at the heart of life.
Forest, forest, alive with your eyes,
On multiple pinions;
With storm-bound hair,
The poets mount horses, dogs.
Eyes fume, tongues stir,
The heavens surge into our senses
Like blue mother's milk;
Women, harsh vinegar hearts,
I hang suspended from your mouths.
The ‘Dark Poet’ By Antonin Artaud (Umbilical Limbo 1926).
It’s shocking and confuses us. ‘What does that mean?’ we ask. It is not to be understood – it exists to rupture meaning, to break against convention. It not unlike hitting someone in the face with a fish while doing a silly dance. It is where the highest meets the lowest. Virgin child, divine lamb, death of God.
Mythologically speaking, in the birth of Jesus God is born among us, God lives among us, God is crucified among us. In that moment he is neither highest or lowest, for in the crucifixion the highest crashes into the lowest. In that place, everything fails to make sense, everything is turned on its head. Here in enters chaos and unknowing. In our own lives, then, as we experience the unsettling in-between, the Dukkah of life, the impermanent anxiety of all this, that is when we can identify most closely with God. The place where you experience and carry the absurdity of life, is where you encounter God, where you carry the cross. To explain this all away then in more rationalistic terms, like ‘Jesus was just a good chap, with some good moral ideas’, which is kind of the liberal religious impulse, robs the narrative of its absurdity. It makes it reasonable and respectable. Far better, I think, to view the Christian narrative in all its theatrical, apocalyptic, and cosmic glory. At Christmas God leaves heaven, he comes to earth to die. God is crucified on the cross, and the spirit of God is reborn within us, within his people, when we embrace the absurdity of life, when we embrace the in-between.
‘Gospel’ means good news. The Gospels are the first four books in the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - called as such because they are the books which tell us the good news. What the central Gospel message of the Bible is, however, has been debated for centuries, and understood in many ways. In Christianity at its most radical, the Gospel message, the good news, is that on the cross God has died, left the Heavens, and opened himself up to oblivion. And as such, we are wholly liberated into the in-between. This is what Jesus in a manger points us towards. So, it is both absurd, uncomfortable, and yet when lived out – or lived into – a joyful reality. For God is no longer hanging over us, no longer the arbitrator, no longer the guarantor of meaning. Each of us is liberated to find our true expression, to discover how the spirit moves within us individually and collectively. There is no blue-print anymore. No pre-trodden path. Which is all my long, and rather roundabout way of saying, that only Atheists can see God.