About that baby in the manger…

difficult gospel“If Jesus’ whole life to us is God’s word to us, then he is God’s word not only when he is intelligible, not only when he makes clear sense – not only when he is graspable and useable by us.  He is also God’s word when he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  [Rowan] Williams notes our temptation to make the ‘tightly swaddled baby’ of the Christmas stories into ‘a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm (the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay)’ – ‘little Lord Jesus, like Little Lord Fauntelroy, who generates in us such good and warm feelings that we know we can’t be wrong’.  Williams reminds us just how strange this view is:

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes / But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’  Every parent in Christendom must have blinked with incredulous envy at this miracle:  never mind the angels and the star, a baby who doesn’t cry when surrounded by a herd of hungry cows is much more of a prodigy!  Babies, in fact, may be wordless and dependent, but they are not, as a rule silent, nor are they passive.  They make their presence felt, they alter lives; their dependence is a matter of fingers clutching at ours when we’d like to be getting on with something; broken nights, hungry mouths at the breast; the need to be taught and watched and entertained, brought into the world of human speech and relation.  If God is with us as a child – a real child – he is not after all so tidily gift-wrapped, so functional.  If God is with us as a child, he is certainly with us as one who calls out our tenderness and compassion; but he does so by an insistent presence without shame or restraint, crying and clutching.  He is the God who, in St. Augustine’s unforgettable words, penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying . . . . . So far from the divine child being a cipher, the tool of our schemes and systems, he confronts us with the alarming, mysterious, shattering strangeness of God.’

That Jesus is also God’s word to us when he is this child reminds us that God is not simply there to meet our needs, and that our language about and understanding of God – which tries to wrap him up, tie him down, and place him silent in the manger – needs interrupting, needs to be made aware  of its deafness.  We are too prone to relish the success of our language about God, to think that we have understood – that our smooth, neatly interlocking concepts allow us to grasp all that really needs to be said about God.  Williams takes the disturbing, interrupting, uncontrollable nature of a child’s crying as a sign of the wildly prolific, difficult, messy, uncontrollable, inelegant, disturbing nature of the language about God that we find in our Bible and in the testimonies of obstinate believers who refuse to see things in quite the way we do, and therefore as a sign of the ways in which God escapes all our language.

[T]here is a terrible aptness, a rhetorical rightness, in a God who speaks in a child’s cry.  And it is so cruelly hard – for believer and unbeliever alike – to face the possibility that silence, stumbling aparent crudity, tell you more of God than the language of would-be adult sophistication.  As if the best theology were the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.

It is God himself who lobs rocks into the smooth pond of our language about God, shattering our complacency – and only so can he keep us from preferring the idols which our words construct.  ‘[W]e must be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God,’ Williams says, ‘if we are to be kept from idols.’  ‘God himself is the great “negative theologian”, who shatters all our images by addressing us in the cross of Jesus.’

When we think about God, there is always an extent to which we end up fitting him into our world, as one element in it among others.  We simply can’t think God’s absolute difference from the world, and God’s absolute intimacy to it; we can only gesture towards an understanding with inadequate pictures and images.  We need constantly to be reminded that the reality towards which even our best words gesture transcends them and exceeds them – that, however much they are appropriate ingredients in the process by which we are drawn into the life of God, and weaned from self-serving idols, all our words fail radically to grasp God.  The God we can think, the God we fit into our mental schemas, the God we can put on a list of things we understand, is not not God.”

Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel – The Theology of Rowan Williams, p.50-52

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