Second Thursday: please open the curtains

please open the curtains, she says.

that’s the last line from a play named 4.48 Psychosis by a playwright named Sarah Kane. It’s not so much about depression as it is words from the inside of it.

It’s subjective and brutal, as most of Kane’s plays are. It’s hard to read if you’re easily triggered by strong emotions and talk of suicide (so this is your trigger warning). It drags you through the entrails and clinical lists and bloody remains of Kane’s brain as she scoops them out and smears them across the page in twenty four sections, driving you through corridors that narrow rapidly with rage and grief and agony. It reads like a full-blown experience of highly lucid anguish and loss. It circles death and longing and the intensity of light and dark and the voices of the Bible and the tongues of medical professionals in the same thick red pen that is a knife dragged through skin and I read it because how can I not?

How can I not? This is the language of Advent, too. This is the language of longing at its most brutal, at its least hopeful and most despairing. This is the hard language of Advent when you know you’re lost, where hunger is a vacuum that aches and claws at the insides without cessation. It’s a deep aching for rest, for an end to pain, for silence, for peace. This kind of hunger says come back soon, cries help me, says please open the curtains with absolutely no belief that the curtains aren’t nailed to the window-frame, that the curtains have anything to open onto. And yet it still craves, impossibly, desperately, wanting despite everything. It hungers with its whole self, knowing even as it asks that no-one will open the curtains, that there is no-one there to open the curtains, that the curtains don’t open and yet it still asks.

what are we to do with this kind of longing? what are we to do with this kind of language?

please open the curtains, Kane says. It’s the last line of the play. To me, it sounds a little bit like Jesus come back soon in that both are ways of saying help me, do something, except that we’re not entirely sure who Kane is addressing. I’m not entirely sure Kane knew who she was addressing either. Us, maybe. The audience. But this is her last play and she never saw it performed. As one critic says, it’s a 75 minute suicide note.

I don’t really know how to talk about any of this, except to say that I don’t think there are many desires more desperate, more stripped of illusions of sufficiency than this. There are few other longings that truly acknowledge where we are.

See, I know that Advent is where we talk about how Jesus came to be with us, how he came to live among us in order to answer that hunger with the bread that is himself, in order to rip that curtain wide open to let the light flood in. I know we speak of how he’ll come back again and how the bright wind will throw apart all our windows and doors with feasting and dancing and rejoicing, spilling laughter through the streets of a new city. But between these two true things we’re here, stumbling through this vast and patchy dark and crying out, wordless and anguished, craving so fiercely these things we can’t understand, knowing only the lack of them in our bodies. Here, where Christ’s Spirit cries out within us and yet we still feel so much like orphans, abandoned and bereft. Here, where we want so much, and yet sometimes are given so little.

I do honestly believe we are met in this space of wanting. I do believe there is rest and healing and tenderness and answer, even in this doorway between the going and coming back of Jesus who is ours, who became ours for the sake of our hunger and thirst. I have seen his Spirit welling up like quiet water in the gaps and cracks, because even here between his rebirth and ours we are given green fields and cool water and silence, kind hands and a sky so wide you could lose yourself in it, flecked with the impossible floating of birds. Rest, even here.

But even given the perfecting work of a Triune God, the good gift of the Father that is the absent presence of his beloved Son, whose loving Spirit comforts and transforms us into his likeness, this kind of pain and hunger is something we cannot, should not, avoid or ignore. It’s something we cannot forget or have easy answers for. Because we were answered. It was finished. And yet here we still are, hurting.

So I’m going to leave you with this song by Andrew Peterson.

Or silence. Sometimes silence works too.

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First Tuesday: I had thought they were different.

‘A cold coming we had of it,’ says T.S. Eliot’s magus. ‘Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey’. His grumbling sticks in my head on sharp days, alongside the quiet despair of Judas in James Wright’s sonnet. But it’s Advent now, not Lent (even if birth and death blur when held up close in this kingdom), so come and read Eliot’s poem with me.

I couldn't resist. It's a participatory journey, yes? Image courtesy of, apparently, Amazing Mazes for Kids by Steve and Becky Miller, copyright© 1998 and published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR.

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

.

.

How are we to read something like this?

‘I had seen birth and death,’ the old man says, ‘but had thought they were different’. That’s the problem with this kingdom. This birth we’re called to witness, this birth we celebrate and wait for, the Christ-Child wet and bloody and crying in the night, cradled by stars and crooning angels and the soft, deflated belly of Mary – O come, O come Emmanuel, we chorus, and we are carolling for our death.

Ransom captive Israel. Come back soonCome, Lord Jesus. We forget, we forget so very easily in the warm smell of cinnamon and the spangling trees and the safe, worn face of the nativity baby that we are asking for death, our own personal Death who comes to take us carefully and inexorably apart, to crush our illusions and set us on fire and drown us until the old Adam ceases, finally, to swim.

That summons to take up our own instrument of torture is not offered lightly. We are compared to seeds dying, our burial is casually discussed and has anybody else noticed that when we talk about the Spirit as setting our hearts on fire, we’re talking about a substance that destroys what it burns? Burning, the last time I checked, hurts.

When we welcome in the Christ-Child, when we long for his return, we welcome and long for the destruction of who we are, that slow loss and irreparable change of everything we’ve known ourselves to be. Creation and destruction are the same bloody coin in this kingdom. Transformation is another word for death here, even if it’s the everyday kind of death that we learn (reluctantly, eventually, with much complaining and the provoking work of the Spirit) to want. And it’s with this new life here amid the crowding of angels and the heavy wet smell of cows that our dying begins, because this was where his began. So here is where our rebirth begins too, even before the rattle of silver and the six hands throwing dice, the God-man wet and bloody and crying in the afternoon.

So yes, Eliot’s magus is correct. It’s a hard and bitter agony for everyone involved in this strange birth, because resurrection unfortunately requires one to die first. And it’s such a long journey, and the weather is ghastly, and the road potholed and the circumstances hostile and the days unfriendly, and we do a hell of a lot of grumbling and regretting along the way. But new life begins here all the same, when the God who was born as one of us welcomed in his own death for the sake of our birth, a birth which comes for us on the other side of his dying. And look, we too are invited by his Spirit into that same dying, and for that same end, which is not so much an end as it is a beginning.

First Monday: the Annunciation

I was thinking today about miraculous births.

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Sarah. Hannah. Rachel. Rebekah. Elizabeth. Manoah’s wifeThe Shunammite woman. Scholars like to point out the recurring trope of the barren wife in the Bible, which goes something like this:

  1. A woman is barren!
  2. Somebody prays for a child.
  3. Lo, God opens the woman’s womb and a very special baby is conceived and birthed! It’s a son (of course it’s a son) who will grow up to lead or save the people of God.

More often than not, it’s a narrative nod when you see a barren woman in the Bible. It’s a sign. With this trope the story is saying, “Listen up. With God involved in a miracle birth, her son’s going to be someone very great for the nation indeed.” Thus Hannah, whose Samuel was a prophet intensely faithful to the word of the Lord, a man who brought Israel’s kings into the world like little foreshadows of a greater King. And Rebekah, whose Jacob was one of the nation’s patriarchs, a man who could never forget God because wherever he walked, he limped. And Elizabeth, whose John was the voice in the wilderness, the Advent voice calling us even now to repentance and returning.

Look closer, though. It gets really interesting when stories break the trope. Look at Rachel, who begins as a classic barren wife, right down to being the favourite out of multiple wives. She’s perfectly set up for an annunciation. Rachel, however, doesn’t involve God in this at all- she demands that Jacob gives her a son or she’ll die, and Jacob, furious, goes “am I God?”

That. That’s the narrative referencing the ways this story hasn’t followed the typical miraculous-birth scene, and literary scholar Robert Alter calls this ominous for a reason. While Rachel’s miraculous boy-child Joseph is certainly a saviour in Israel’s time of need, in the end the future kings of Israel come not from Rachel but her rival sister, and Rachel’s second pregnancy ends in her death. Twist one aspect of the way things are supposed to go, and everything else twists too, for good or for ill.

So where does this leave us when a virgin, who in all probability wasn’t praying for a child quite yet, miraculously conceives by the Spirit of God and gives birth to a son? That’s a smashing of tropes if I’ve ever seen one. What does this even begin to say about the kind of saviour her child will be? Is this even the same scene anymore?

Well. There are some similarities to the barren wife trope, if you squint. Let’s see. She’s a virgin, which is somewhat childlessly similar to being barren, except that there’s no sex involved with its potential for conception. And she’s betrothed, which is somewhat relationally similar to being a wife, except that there’s no sex involved with its potential for conception. The key differences between Mary’s story and the other women’s scenes, then, appear to be ‘no sex’ and ‘no potential for conception’, also known as ‘none of the possible first century ways in which humans were made were occurring’.

So if the married, presumably-having-sex, barren wives of this trope found it impossible to have children without the miraculous intervention of God, then for Mary with her double narrative emphasis on ‘not capable of reproduction’, it was extra impossible. The narrative is basically announcing, with trumpets, that the birth of Jesus is outside of human expectation and utterly unachievable by human effort, desire or willpower. Salvation, in the form of a squalling manger-baby, is completely and impossibly divine in its initiation; it’s an unasked for, unexpected gift that looks a whole lot like trouble and pain and probably death (see: high likelihood of shame, divorce and being killed with rocks, in addition to childbirth conditions in first century Palestine).** In subverting the barren wife theme, then, this story of a wholly Spirit-initiated birth has the clearest implications for the kind of child that’ll be born to save and lead the people of God.

Funnily enough, this story has clear implications for the way we’re born, too. Or reborn. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions with a little bit of John.

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12-13

First Sunday

I am so very unprepared for Advent.

image borrowed from http://weheartit.com/entry/group/156259 because it's lovely. It’s 11:51pm on Advent Sunday, I’m out of tea and I have fourno, five different websites crowding my tabs with Advent resources, stuffing bright faces and busy words through the gaps in my skull (also known as my eyes). I don’t know where to begin. I’m too scattered and frantic for this. There’s too little time. It’s like everybody except me has gotten ready for a party we’ve all been catapulted into, ready or not, time dragging us through daylight and evenings and the giddy whirl of a sun spinning like a top, paying no attention to whether we’d rather stop, breathe, take a moment to reflect.

Advent is, traditionally, a time to stop, breathe and take a moment to reflect on the once-and-future coming of Christ before Christmas actually happens. It’s 11:58pm on the first Sunday in Advent, and I’m running out of time to stop, let alone this breathing nonsense. Reflecting? Can you even do such a thing in a hurry? In a minute? In a minute it’ll be too late.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. It’s 12:00am on the first of December and I’ve messed Advent up already. I’ve begun it all wrong. I’ve dropped my lamp and the oil’s spilled everywhere, if there was oil in it to begin with. 12:01am. O it’s the gnashing of teeth and the outer darkness for me, underdressed and giftless for the Christ-Child, locked out of the feast by bouncers with flaming swords.

Come Lord Jesus, even to us, the unprepared. The foolish. The tealess and the desperate, the constantly-failing and the stumbling-over-days, the people walking in darkness who have seen a great light and wonder blearily whether they’ve reached the drive-through for the nearest McDonalds. Advent is our season, in our desperation and longing, in our mess and our foolishness, in the empty lamps and the shut doors and the sickness, time used badly, life used badly, things begun wrong. We live in the space between leaving home and coming home, the threshholds where we wait and whine and batter against doors that won’t open and answers that don’t come, where we grieve and long and light candles and put them out again, throwing shadows across all the things we’ve broken.

Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless, and it was for us and for this that you came to live among us, and for us and for this you will come again. And you sit with us even now in this season of unbearable groaning, in the voice and crying of your Spirit in the wilderness between then and now, between now and not yet, crying out with us and for us, hurting with a birth that is also our death. Come, Jesus. Come back soon. We prepare for your coming with grief and joy and impatience, with pain and with rejoicing, always at a loss, always on the wrong foot, always wanting. Never enough, never complete, and it is for us and for this that you came, and still come, and will come again in glory. The people living in darkness have seen a great light, and we who live in the valley of the shadow of death with our empty mugs and not-done laundry, dropped lamps and heretical metaphors, our bad beginnings and our worser endings- upon us, on us is the dawn.