Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ending A Long Silence

I have been silent for some time now but I think it's time to speak again. In the last two to three months life confronted me with its own imperatives and I seemed to have been wandering some strange psychic territory for a while. I had toyed for a while with writing a post on mania and writing but I will keep that for another time, perhaps.

Through over half of this month I had been kept busy with work, which ended two weeks ago. And then the Christmas season gave further opportunities for busyness. I've been housesitting this festive season and so was able to host a small family Christmas gathering. The housesitting has also given me a time of solitude which I think I needed. Actually, I know I needed it.

In between work and Christmas, I have been doing a lot of reading. A lot of it has been light reading, short stories, crime fiction, ghost stories, that sort of thing. Also some history. And some theoretical work, in particular the Slavoj Zizek and John Millbank dialogue, The Monstrosity of Christ. I have major problems with both but the book is worth reading. Zizek seems to think that real Christianity is the same as Luther's reading of Paul or at least is only rediscovered with Luther and the Reformers. And then comes Hegel. Or so runs Zizek's trajectory. I have of course simplified it, but the one striking feature of his trajectory is that it is all male. Millbank too is pretty much male focused in his own Christian trajectories. He is one of the Radical Orthodox school in the UK, a tendency I have a certain sympathy with as it is much more Catholic in its approach. But Millbank's Orthodoxy seemed to have outweighed any Radicalism far too much for my taste. And, like Zizek, Millbank is completely male focused in his presentation of Christianity. Zizek ends up in some strange ethical terrain, I think in large part because of his masculinist trajectory, while I couldn't help but think that Millbank really just wants to swim the Tiber.

I much preferred a much shorter book I've just finished by Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, which is a collection of essays and interviews. In places it touches on parts of the Zizek/Millbank terrain but I found much more compassion and, dare I say generosity, than Zizek or Millbank. I was particularly surprised by her very positive evaluation of the late JP2. I can see where she's coming from and I'm prepared to acknowledge some of her points but I will still hold that JP2's pontificate was a disaster in so many ways for the Roman communion. Need stands a rereading or two and I will be writing a review eventually so I will say more on the book at a later stage here. But for now I'm struck by what she has to say on maternal passion/dispassion and sublimation. Elsewhere she stresses the kenotic nature of the Christian God in the suffering and death of Christ. I can't help but think that this kenotic quality, which applies to the Incarnation itself as much as to the Passion and the Cross, is in some sense a partaker in the maternal passion that Kristeva describes: "mothers can transform their hold over their child into a subliminatory cycle resembling that of a witticism, and thereby encourage the pleasure of thought" Maternal kenosis, recognised by many medievals such as Julian of Norwich, who would call Jesus Mother. (Zizek's Christ reminds me too much of Mel Gibson's macho Christ, that Jesus of USAn exceptionalist (imperialist) desire, decked out in pseudo-Catholic trappings).

But for this feast of the Nativity, I want to point you first to this post by Polycarp aka Joel, Christmas the Time for Feminism. He says he's no feminist but all the same he invites his readers to 'think about Mary, for a minute'. He has some interesting stuff to say which sort of fits with what I've been musing about re kenosis, maternity and Christ. Here's some of it:

Christ came not dependent upon man, or independent of any, but dependent upon His mother. Just as any child, he would had fed of His mother, being nurtured in a way to protect His life. In as much, He never dismissed a woman for being a woman, but pressed them, or was pressed by them, to a point that a great spiritual truth was manifested for the entire world. First, it was the prophetess Anna (Luke 2.38) which announced just a short time after His birth, that He was to bring redemption. It was His mother who in Cana pressed Christ to start His ministry. It was the prostitute in Jerusalem (John 8 – yes, I know) where Christ showed what forgiveness under Grace would be. Further it was the Greek (Gentile) woman in Mark 7 that pressed Christ to shed His grace beyond that of Israel, to the Gentiles. Finally (perhaps not), it was Mary Magdalen which announced Christ Risen to the cowering disciples.

It it these voices which we hear when we mediate upon Mary. Imagine being in the shoes of that young girl who had just been given the Blessing of Abraham, the Inheritance of the Faithful, the Word of God. She most likely would have had nothing to her name – her husband having given her ransom to her parents – yet she had suddenly become the richest woman in all the world, and indeed, the most hated and hunted. Yet is was her who was considered the most blessed among women (Luke 1.42).

What's more Polycarp/Joel links back to and quotes from an old Christmas post by J K Gayle back two years ago, Incarnation. Indeed he quotes Gayle's rather wonderful translation of Matthew's account, sort of, of the Incarnation. Matthew's account puts Joseph front and centre; Mary doesn't get a chance to speak. But let me too quote Gayle's wonderful translation for you by way of encouraging to to check out the rest of his post:

18 τοῦ δὲ ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ μαρίας τῶ ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.
This is the birth of the Anointed, Joshua. His mother Miriam was engaged to Josef; before they came together she held in her womb a child who came by the Breath of the Special One.

19 ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.
Josef, her man, her husband, a just person who didn't wish to make a show of her, counseled secretly to release her from himself.

20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ᾽ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῶ λέγων,
ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου·
These inner passions of his were angst. See. An announcer of the Master, in a dream, appeared to him to state:
"Josef, son of David, don't be afraid to take beside you Miriam, your woman, your wife; the baby birthed in her, in fact, is by the Breath of the Special One.

21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.
She will deliver a son, and you will call his name Joshua; he will, in fact, save his people from their wrongdoings."

22 τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,
These events were born out entirely so that the things spoken by the Master would be fulfilled through the Prophet who stated:

23 ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐμμανουήλ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός.
"See, the young virgin will hold in her womb a child, and will bear a son, and will call his name Emmanouel," which is translated "With us is God."

24 ἐγερθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῶ ὁ ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ·
When Josef got up from his sleep, he did what the announcer of the Master told him, and he took beside himself his woman, his wife.

25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὖ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἰησοῦν.
And he did not know her until after she delivered her son; and he called his name Joshua.

And for this season, I will provide another account, not from the New Testament but from a text that has served as an unofficial and unacknowledged colouring or weight of gravity on the orbits of both New Testament Infancy narratives, I refer of course to the Proto-Evangelion of James, a text I think should at least be appendixed to the New Testament and certainly included in readings at Christmas. This is from the translation by M R James but I would love to see J K Gayle work his magic on some of this text:

XVII. 1 Now there went out a decree from Augustus the king that all that were in Bethlehem of Judaea should be recorded. And Joseph said: I will record my sons: but this child, what shall I do with her ? how shall I record her ? as my wife ? nay, I am ashamed. Or as my daughter? but all the children of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord shall do as the Lord willeth. 2 And he saddled the she-ass, and set her upon it, and his son led it and Joseph followed after. And they drew near (unto Bethlehem) within three miles: and Joseph turned himself about and saw her of a sad countenance and said within himself: Peradventure that which is within her paineth her. And again Joseph turned himself about and saw her laughing, and said unto her: Mary, what aileth thee that I see thy face at one time laughing and at another time sad ? And Mary said unto Joseph: It is because I behold two peoples with mine eyes, the one weeping and lamenting and the other rejoicing and exulting.

8 And they came to the midst of the way, and Mary said unto him: Take me down from the ass, for that which is within me presseth me, to come forth. And he took her down from the ass and said unto her: Whither shall I take thee to hide thy shame ? for the place is desert.

XVIII. I And he found a cave there and brought her into it, and set his sons by her: and he went forth and sought for a midwife of the Hebrews in the country of Bethlehem.

2 Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course.

XIX. I And behold a woman coming down from the hillcountry, and she said to me: Man, whither goest thou ? And I said: I seek a midwife of the Hebrews. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel ? And I said unto her: Yea. And she said: And who is she that bringeth forth in the cave ? And I said: She that is betrothed unto me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was nurtured up in the temple of the Lord: and I received her to wife by lot: and she is not my wife, but she hath conception by the Holy Ghost.

And the midwife said unto him: Is this the truth? And Joseph said unto her: Come hither and see. And the midwife went with him.

2 And they stood in the place of the cave: and behold a bright cloud overshadowing the cave. And the midwife said: My soul is magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen marvellous things: for salvation is born unto Israel. And immediately the cloud withdrew itself out of the cave, and a great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And by little and little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary.

And the midwife cried aloud and said: Great unto me to-day is this day, in that I have seen this new sight.

And here is the Incarnation/Nativity according to Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon as translated by James Charlesworth. I personally think the Odes of Solomon should be put into the New Testament. The imagery and poetry of the Odes are simply stunning and in this instance there is a quite remarkable gender bending, which again highlights the Maternal Divine

  1. A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness.
  2. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
  3. Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
  4. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
  5. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
  6. The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
  7. So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
  8. And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
  9. And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life.
  10. She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power.
  11. And she loved with redemption, and guarded with kindness, and declared with grandeur.

And finally something sent me by my friend Linda in Canberra. It's from Jeanette Winterson. I like it and I hope you do too. And again it's a sample of a longer post which I recommend you check out

"And the spiritual? We know that the Church took over Pagan festivals, and that while there is no clear date for the birth of Jesus, locating it near to the old Saturnalia, and the winter Solstice on December 21st, held the newer religious story in close contact with earlier reverential worship.
The winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, is a dark time, and was traditionally a fire festival – a way of lighting the dark, which is what the Church understood the birth of Jesus to be – a way of lighting the dark.
I never look to the Bible for literal factual truth – the Jews have always understood that the Scriptures are neither a geography nor a history, but a developing emotional and imaginative revelation, which is why, in Torah, the commentary is as important as the text, and each generation must add its own commentary – in other words, scripture isn’t relevant because it is unchanging – a fixed point in a moving world, but because it is strong enough, central enough and eternal enough to change its interpretation, without losing its message. Not rigidity but a breathing living daily experience.
I realise that Fundamentalists of all faiths cannot accept this.

At Christmas I read the story in Matthew and Luke (the accounts are very different) and in the right spirit, I write my own version, which is what THE LION THE UNICORN AND ME really is.

At Christmas, which should be a pause, and which should have nothing to do with how much you can spend and eat and drink, there is a little crack in time for meditation and contemplation, to be with friends and to be alone – yes always to be alone, for only in that alone space can we drop down to deepest peace. It is not about being lonely, and it isn’t about being a hermit, but time with yourself is time with past present and future, and Christmas is about all time being present, and perhaps above the surface of our minds, when usually we are sunk in it – time passing but not being noticed as time, only as events in time, but time itself, when felt, is mysterious. It can only be felt alone

It is only the 6th day of Christmas (Gregorian calendar) with another 6 more days to go and so I can still wish all of you out there reading this.