Saturday, December 30, 2006


One of the most galling stupidities of the American churches is their ability to endlessly repeat things without thinking about them, and to select what they say to the point that they miss the point of their text entirely. Nowhere is this clearer than at Christmas.

Bach set the tune of the hymn "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" [an early Reformation setting of Bernard of Clairvaux' words] into the music of his Christmas oratorio, and indeed there would be no need to celebrate Christmas were it not for the fact that this particular babe, lying in a manger, grows into a particular man who is abandoned, abused, and killed before an audience of his scoffing enemies.

And in case we didn't get the message on Christmas, the church has celebrated the first day after as the memorial of St. Stephen, the first martyr, stoned to death outside the gates of Jerusalem, and the third day after as the memorial of the innocents Herod slaughtered in his anger over the Magi's mistrust of his professed intentions. These are not Kodak moments.

If America's churches still held to the calendar, they might think. But instead we sing the first half of Handel's "Messiah" without ever planning to return for the half that awaits us after "intermission." And how does the second half open?

Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
[John 1:29]

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
[Isaiah 53:3]

He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: he hid not his face from shame and spitting.
[Isaiah 50:6]

Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him.
[Isaiah 53:4-5]

And with his stripes we are healed.
[Isaiah 53:5]

All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
[Isaiah 53:4-5]

All they that see him, laugh him to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying: He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.
[Psalm 22:7-8]
One of the weirder things about the "Messiah," which probably shows its roots in Italian opera rather than German chorale music, is the fact that this terrible text is set to one of the most delightful tunes in the entire piece. It was only after I sat down with the text one day that I realized that this and "All We Like Sheep" (which my waggish elder brother treated as a complete declarative sentence) are texts far from cheerful. But nothing like the ones that follow:

Thy rebuke hath broken his heart; he is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him.
[Psalm 69:21]

Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow!
[Lamentations 1:12]

Maybe I'm stupid, but I have always felt that gay men had a particular reason to identify with Christ, or better, perhaps, to understand that he indeed is with us in the depth of our suffering and anguish.

For myself, what I cannot erase is the knowledge of the suffering I have caused others in seeking my own truth. How is this in any way different from the cult of self and intellect that I shed like a skin upon accepting Christ into my life over thirty years ago? There is no single satisfying answer.

My path and my tongue led me to the point where there was no other choice, and everything else follows from that necessity. But to see the results of my choice reflected in the faces of those I love is a hard thing to bear. Having to live with the knowledge of what I have caused, which I can only label "sin," is a high price for "liberation." It is probably always the cost of spiritual adulthood.

Who said that freedom would bear such a cost? And yet, who can be surprised, where life itself is at stake?

Well, as John A.T. Robinson said, "truth is a two-edged sword."

It is foolish to believe that resurrection is possible without some power exacting the price of action and speech: death in apparent isolation and degradation. [The unmistakable lifting up of those things so eagerly forgotten is perhaps some kind of excuse for Mel Gibson's pornographic rendering of the scourging and death of Christ.] And with the departure of my children, and the temptation to sink into bitterness at many things, not least the brevity of their visit, I know a depth of spiritual isolation and degradation that makes the awareness of that terrible question inescapable:

Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow!
[Lamentations 1:12]

I have to say there is not, to me at least. Of course, as a Christian I am bold to proclaim that the crucifixion is not the end. But it is what the world sees as the end, and it is up to faith, the fabled "hope of things unseen," to proclaim that it is the Psalm begun on the cross whose ending foretells the true end.

Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall be chang'd, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:


[1 Corinthians 15:51-54]

Well, the last trumpet is some time away.
And in the interim in which we live, Death stares out at me at every turn.
I await new life with all the thread-bare hope I can muster.
So pray for me, my brothers.

1 comment:

  1. My goodness. I stumbled upon this post while Googling for the text of Messiah so I could more accurately label my MP3s. Food for thought; I sing Messiah every year and on the all too rare occasions when I actually think about what I'm singing I am often given pause. It's a beautiful piece but it is odd that it's given so much play at Christmas without much thought to the second half.

    Have you listened to Ralph Vaughan William's Hodie? It's beautiful (if you like that kind of thing) and again a thought-provoking interpretation of the Christmas story.

    Now off to read some more of your posts!