Sunday, 19 December 2010

Two Songs, One Christmas Message

Then Hannah prayed and said: "My heart exults in the Lord, my pride has been raised through the Lord, my mouth is opened wide against my antagonists, for I rejoice in Your salvation. There is none as holy as the Lord, for there is none besides You, and there is no Rock like our God. The bow of the mighty is broken, while the foundering are girded with strength, the sated ones are hired out for bread, while the hungry ones cease to be so. The Lord brings death and gives life, He lowers to the grave and raises up, the Lord impoverishes and makes rich, He humbles and He elevates. He raises the needy from the dirt, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute, to seat them with nobles and to endow them with a seat of honour, for the Lord's are the pillars of the earth, and upon them He set the world" 1 Samuel 2:1-9

There is an interesting similarity between Hannah and Mary. Both women gave birth to children whose names would become known down the ages, Samuel and Jesus, and both would respond to this with a song of praise to the Almighty that would be deemed worthy of inclusion in Biblical cannon. (I personally think that Mary's song most likely was inspired by Hannah's and then attributed to the mother of Jesus by the writer of the Gospel of Luke). These are not the only Biblical songs attributed to women, a fact that perhaps can be understood by the emotional maturity and emotional awareness of the fairer sex, that lend themselves to such profound words, so beautifully expressed.

Hannah in her song paints an awe inspiring and broad picture of the Divine. In her composition God is not limited to some "bearded bloke in the sky" but is revealed to encompass wide and seemingly contradictory phenomena. Even at a time of great personal joy she is nevertheless cognisant of the Almighty's role in bringing death and impoverishment, humbling human arrogance while elevating the lowered. Other nations recognising these same realities, and being unable to understand them as the works of a single mind, attributed them to multiple deities or as in the case of Zoroastrians, to two supernal powers. Here Hannah says that God and only God is the source for all we see, He exists in a unique holiness, unique because nothing in creation bears any similarity to His essence, and yet this Divine Majesty, this unfathomable Mystery, this ever present Reality, is also her and our personal God, who cares for the needy and destitute and who answered her prayers and sent her the child she longed for.

For those who simply cannot except the reality of a personal God, then let this idea if nothing else teach them, that no matter how important, how grandiose a person or his status is, he should always lower himself to the pit, if necessary, in order to raise his disadvantaged fellow man to improved heights. Nothing is below oneself, when the goal is the honour and benefit of others.

I however do believe in a personal God, and if the report I read in today's Sunday Telegraph, regarding the growth in Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal and Baptist congregations is correct, so do a growing number of Britons.

The God of Hannah and Mary is what we all, like it or not, accept it or not, have in common with each-other. My Creator is your Creator however He is understood/misunderstood by you or I. A friend of mine sent me an essay he wrote on Sikhism and Judaism in which he writes how God's Unity is seen by Sikhs as a unifying force for humanity. He wrote:

This concept of “Oneness” developed from Guru Nanak in the 15th Century CE. Guru Nanak said: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, God is only one”. Asserting this monotheistic concept whilst respecting all faiths and embracing them as one, is what I particularly admire about the Sikh religion. Caste then, is, by implication, eradicated as is the religious tension between religions of differing or even similar beliefs. In the Gurdwara, (a Sikh Temple), all are given prasād, a sweet tasting, buttery food, as a reminder that all are welcome, all are one, everyone’s God is embraced as One, and is One.

That too is the message of Unitarian Christianity.

Christmas is soon upon us, one can almost feel the excitement in the air as the advent candles reach their end, and advent calendars leave only a few windows to be opened (and emptied of their yummy chocolates). Mince pies and mulled wine send up their festive aromas into many a home, and sweet carols and laughter drift through our streets, which this year are to my great joy bedecked with snow, (apologies to those who hate the white stuff). A spirit of good-will fills many a heart and propels those heroes of our society out into the world to provide sustenance and happiness to the lonely and infirm. And yes of course not to forget, there are also the usual voices decrying the lack of that "true spirit of Christmas" that wasn't always found even amongst our Victorian forebears who pretty much invented Christmas as we now know it, but still taking all things into account I think it fair to say, thank God for Christmas.

Unitarians have had a mixed relationship with Christmas over the years. A minority, exemplified by Rupert Potter (the father of Peter Rabbit's creator) were and are of the opinion that Christmas should be a day like all others. For them there was little merit in Yuletide observances, much to the disappointment it has to be said of Beatrix Potter who relished visiting her friends' homes, were Christmas was observed in all its Victorian splendour. Other Unitarians, such as Dickens himself, were and are great lovers of the Feast of the Nativity and even composed some of the carols that are still sung today. I personally think that Christmas can be a deeply meaningful celebration for Unitarian Christians, and one that should be embraced.

I have great sympathy with those who feel that they cannot sincerely embrace a festival that is based around what is viewed by them as a myth. Yes Jesus was born, but all the mangers, angels singing on high, shepherds and visiting Magi were pure inventions, or so goes this argument. I know of this argument because it is my argument!

I remain completely unconvinced (as were many of the earliest Christians) about the nativity narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and see them, massive contradictions and all, as retrospective stories designed to impute extra importance and mystery around the birth of a man whose importance in life and especially after his death cannot easily be exaggerated. I find Matthew and Luke's clumsy attempt to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem unconvincing. (Why did Joseph have no relatives in Bethlehem with which he could stay if it was his ancestral town? Why would the Romans create chaos by asking people to return to their ancestral towns when surely for purposes of tax it is better to know where they are now not where they came from?) I find the accounts of heralding angels and guiding stars pretty but unconvincing. (Why would everybody, even Jesus' own mother quickly forget the angels heralding the birth of the Messiah, and display such scepticism of the adult Jesus' actions? Why did Jesus' nation not remember he was the Messiah whose birth was announced with such splendour that even foreign dignitaries knew about it?) And I think it goes without saying that I cannot accept notions of God becoming human to "share our sufferings". To some Christians, Christmas without the Nativity story and especially without the incarnation is not only a horrific heresy, but also a festival not worth the tinsel used to celebrate it. But why should this be so? The nativity story can still be treasured and loved for its heart-warming narrative and symbolic meaning. One can focus one's celebration on thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus, whose example and teachings provide one with a source, that when drunk from will never again allow for thirst. And why not in the manner of our deliverer's mother, direct our thanksgiving towards He who bestowed on Mary and Joseph a son, just as He did for Hannah and Elkanah.

And Mary said:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant, for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy.
Luke 1:46-54

Just like Hannah, Mary sings about God's Majesty but also His concern to raise the lowly and needy. This at heart is the same idea behind the incarnation doctrine that inspires faith in the hearts of our Trinitarian brethren. The only difference is that Mary, Hannah, myself and many others, celebrate God's nearness to us, without subscribing to that particular "Orthodox" doctrine. The Rabbis of Israel (also not known for their dedication to the doctrine of the incarnation), found ample inspiration and evidence of "God among us", in the scriptures:

"Rabbi Yochonon said "Wherever you find mention of the Holy One's, Blessed be He, greatness there you will also find mention of His humility. This is written in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.

The birth of a child is always a time of great celebration and the hopes and dreams of parents and friends are focused on the child, peacefully sleeping in the arms of its mother. A newborn child represents potential for a future that while unknown is hoped to be glorious. Hindsight is better than foresight, and we know what Mary could not know at the moment she gave birth to her son. We know that while his life would be short in length, but sadly not short of hardship, he would serve as the vehicle for perhaps the greatest transformation human society has ever known and that he would fundamentally change empires. We also know that his importance would be such, that two millennia later little children in villages in the heart of England would dress up with tea-towels on their heads to recollect that event, I bet Mary never envisioned that! Now while Christmas commemorates that birth all those years ago, it can still be seen like all births as a time of potential for now, which if properly actualised can lead to a hopeful future so beautifully expressed in the song "Do you hear what I hear." To me the fact that countless individuals give up so much of their time and money in country after country to devote themselves to the needs of others because of a dedication to the example and teaching of Jesus, is reason enough to celebrate that birth and to be hopeful for the future and to deepen my love for the heavenly Father whose will set it all in motion.

Well now has come the time to wish all those of you who have taken time to read my musings, which I began back when skies were sunnier and you could walk on pavements without slipping, a very happy and meaningful Christmas. May God shine countless blessings upon you and your families, and may He guide you in His ways. May your celebrations be filled with family, joy, good food and love, (and not to worry if you get a bit tipsy or your waistline expands over the festive season, after all was not Jesus himself accused of liking food and wine a little too much? Matthew 11:19)

I shall end my last post before Christmas with the words of our teacher when he was asked what one should do to inherit eternal life:

(Asked Jesus) "What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?
So he answered and said "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind" and "your neighbour as yourself"
And he (Jesus) said to him "You have answered rightly, do this and you will live"
Luke 10:26-28

Let us dedicate ourselves to this teaching during this Noel and may it stay in our hearts and minds deep into the year to come.

Merry Christmas.

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