From Dust

The splendour of the world in rags

Resplendent darkness hides.  And light

I see the mystery of heaven

That human flesh decays in humble

Waste. A sacred sacrilege

To muck and filth, it burns

With thunder, resounds with fire,

And rages all the more with silent

Wind. Did he lay the foundation

Of earth, a giving grave of life?

Magnum Mysterium (Great Mystery)

For your convenience I have provided an interlinear translation of the text below.  Please enjoy this acceptably dignified and sensitive performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as Paul Salamunovich directs them on Morten Lauridsen’s well-known setting:

Source: youtube.com

O magnum mysterium,

Great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,

And sacrament wondrous

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

That animals would see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.

Lain low in a manger.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera

O blessed virgin, whose womb

meruerunt portare

Became worthy to carry

Dominum Christum.

Christ the Lord.

Alleluia.

Alleluia.

 

Note: some overeager grammarians and Catholic theologians may take umbrage over the fact that I have translated meruerunt as an ingressive.  To all such people I offer my most humble and sincere apologies for this liberty.

The Poetic Optimism of Christmas

Some three or four years ago, I and three others had a discussion on the existence of God and whether, if God exists, he is anything like the God we find in the Christian Bible.  That particular discussion was between two Christians, myself included, and two atheists or agnostics.  At a moment in the discussion that, to this day, stands as an exceptionally vivid recollection in my mind, one of the non-christian gentleman asked of a particular doctrine, ‘but what’s the point of that?’, as if to say that the notion was unpleasant or inconvenient, to which the other offered the corrective reply, ‘No, it isn’t a matter of practicality, they actually believe it’s true’.

What was so memorable for me about this moment, and what should be so significant about it for others, is the way it blatantly uncovered a fundamental misunderstanding that many non-christians have about Christianity: we Christians do, as my friend said, actually believe in what we read in the Bible.  This seems, to most Christians, like it should be obvious, but from outside the tradition looking inward, it’s not.  Outside of Christianity, allover the world, people believe in things not because they are necessarily convinced of their truth, but because they want to.  In the common model, human comfort and happiness precedes, and is even the essential purpose of, human reasoning and philosophy, and philosophy is built around what is pleasant and practical; it is a rationalisation of that which is easiest to believe.

This pattern of human behaviour likely stretches all the way back to the beginning of mankind’s existence, ruling the human mind ever since we left the Garden of Eden, but I can at least vouch for its continued existence and dominance since antiquity.  This is significant because it means that even since the very birth of Christianity, there has been friction between the rest of the world and this very different kind of tradition—a kind of tradition in which, among other things, the sacred text is believed to be absolutely true.

At large, the pagan traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans centred their doctrines around the magnificent works of the epic poets, such as Homer and Vergil, among the which are the yet extant Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and also many others we have since lost, all of which likely derived from an oral tradition predating the time of Homer around the seventh or eight century BC.  The tales of these epics were called μύθοι (transliteration: muthoi) by the Greeks, from which we get our English word, myth.  This is why the vast body of pagan religious literature in which those works are included is called ‘mythology’ in modern times.  Today, one of the primary meanings of the word ‘myth’ is ‘a false story’, but to the ancient Greeks, a μῦθος was, first and foremost, a story.  Hence, the word itself did not denote these tales as necessarily false, but even in ancient Greece, the word was also used for fables and professed works of fiction.  So, even for the ancient Greeks, as I would argue, there was a looming undertone of falsehood in the connotation of the word.

This semi-modern usage of the word myth is what makes the world of Indian religions, and many similar traditions, go round.  Indian religion is of interest because it is comparable to ancient Greek traditions in this respect.  Just as in ancient Greek mythology, there are many formulations of the same myths, and each one is considered valuable in its own right, though, to account for the contradictions, none of them need be true.  They are myths, didactic fables that have significance in the moral and philosophical principles they present, but not necessarily in their histories.

This is the same sort of religious scene into which a very different kind of story, the true story of Christ, entered some two-thousand years ago.  In principle, Christianity should not have been dramatically different from what preceded it.  We can find the idea of a reversed hierarchy, in which the God of the universe is made to be born, a man, in the humblest of circumstances—we can find something very similar to such a concept in Odysseus’ return to his family as a beggar instead of a hero, after his rightful place as head of the house has been usurped by suitors, just as Christ’s rightful sovereignty was held by the Roman empire.  And the idea of self-sacrifice is all over ancient tales of battle and κλέος, epic glory.  But these things were principles and philosophic ideals that were thought of with a kind of dreamy romanticism; they were the way things ought to be.˚

On the other hand, the radical proposition of Christianity that such stories could be historical fact, and indeed, could be the singular story of God Himself, is something all together unprecedented in human history.  In this way, Christ’s birth is the epitome of what I have called ‘poetic optimism’ in my last post.  Just as Catullus takes the vulgar understanding of love and humanity and transforms it into something better, so does Christ’s birth transform pagan mythology.

As I pointed out in my last post, our word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris, meaning ‘common’, or ‘that which belongs to the vulgus, the common people’.  This is the way we might describe pagan mythology before Christ.  It was something common, and even, occasionally, something vulgar.  In Greek and Roman mythology, references to love are really references to Venus, sexuality and lust.  But Christmas presents a fresh ideal of love, a transformation of this common thing into something far more weighty and worthy.  It’s the story not of a god falling in love with or lusting over a human, but of the God displaying His sacrificial love that He has born for humanity since He first conceived of her.

_____________________

˚ On a less serious note, I’d like to point out that the Greeks even mocked the ridiculousness of their own mythology, with one of my favourite examples being a line from Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds: Heracles addresses Poseidon, “Just hold on a minute there, Poseidon, by god!  Do we really want to fight a war over a single woman?  That’s ridiculous!”  I would make a footnote explaining the humour of this line for those of you who may not get it, but this is already a footnote, and right now, making a footnote to a footnote is a little too silly even for me.

The Great Rebellion

Here’s my Christmas post for this year.

When playing a musical instrument in an orchestra, it is not uncommon that the director give you and your fellow musicians one piece of criticism and follow it immediately with a critique that seems directly opposite.  He might, for example, say that he wants the trumpets to play louder, and the very next moment, he’ll be upset with them for overpowering the strings.  In these sorts of situations, it is understood by good ensemble musicians that the director is in the right, and it is almost implied that the trumpets have done something very insensitive even though they were just trying to follow his orders.  What he really wants is not for one particular section to mindlessly play louder or softer throughout the whole piece, but for all the players to balance and blend, which is something much more complicated than a single adjustment in volume.  Instead, good balance requires sensitive musicianship and a profound understanding of the nuances of the piece.

While he is trying to communicate this delicate concept, an orchestra director also has to be mindful of accessibility.  He is usually dealing with an overwhelming sum of people, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have different philosophies of music.  So he is compelled to use the simplest language possible in order to effectively communicate what he wants the group to do.  This is what makes him seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder at times–his task is very difficult.  Indeed, if one is to attempt to explain musicianship to a large group of people in concrete, layman’s terms, he is almost doomed to come very near to contradicting himself.  This is not because the art is incoherent, but because it is complicated.

Now suppose someone were to try to explain the meaning of life to the entire world in a way that would serve as its model for ages to come.  Imagine, if you will, that within a single culture, the very structure of reality was to be explained for all peoples.  I don’t suppose there is a more arduous endeavour that could be dreamt of by the human mind.  And yet, this is the very undertaking that we find being fulfilled in God’s Holy Word.  God Himself is explained to us in simple, universal terms. An infinite fractal of the highest order of infinity is embodied in mere words.

It is no surprise, of course, that we find this text to be very much like the frustrating orchestra conductor.  One part tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, another part tells us to not throw our pearls to the dogs.  In one part, we see the Israelites stoning adulteresses by order of God himself, and in another part, we see Jesus turning the crowd away from such a convict because they themselves are sinners.  For some, this abundance of scriptural inconsistencies can be almost detrimental to the rhetoric of the text.  But as for myself, I find that these seemingly conflicting imperatives make the sacred book all the more powerful and all the more effective.  Life is complicated, and Reality is fractal.  It is utterly unthinkable that a model of Reality could be single dimensional.  As we have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the Omnipotent has a number of necessary qualities: He must be Good because He is categorical, He must be Rational because reason cannot exist by irrational cause, He must be Just because He is Good and Rational, and He must be Loving because He is coherent with His own creation.  However, these qualities present a paradox.  How could God be infinitely Loving and infinitely Just?

The answer is Redemption.  Redemption is a logical necessity to any explanation of Reality, and even people who do not understand the formal proof seem to know this intuitively.  No other religion in the wold besides Christianity has Redemption in it, and yet followers of all religions and anti-religions cannot escape the notion.  They try to sneak it into their doctrines, searching endlessly for a tiny foothold amongst their tightly packed creeds in which they might slide something to fulfil their need for this belief.  However, when the ungrounded rhetoric subsides, it becomes evident that only in Christianity may one find a God of Grace, which is the very thing for which the world so desperately craves.

But how could a single text explain Redemption, this absurd reconciliation of Justice and Love, to the every human being that would ever live?  Well, God does it with a great rebellion.  For ages, He set aside the Israelites as His chosen people, instilling in them a strict system of morals.  He had them kill anyone caught violating one of His rules.  This is how seriously He takes morality.  However, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.  Soon men and women would not use this rule system as a means to please God, but as a tool to persecute each other and bring themselves power.  So God had to tear down His own temple, and make a mockery of the very system He had instilled (see “The Mockery”).

That’s exactly what He does in the person of Christ.  The powerful Pharisees sat like tyrannical dictators on thrones of self-righteousness, looking down in scorn at the common mass below.  They believed that they were the favoured of God.  They knew His law better than anyone and followed it to the very letter.  But they had entirely missed the point just as the trumpets did when the orchestra director told them to play louder.  God didn’t want robots that simply obeyed rules anymore than the director did.  He wanted human beings with hearts that were filled with His spirit.  So just as the director spurns his players for blindly following orders, so does God his people.  He gave Himself to the world not as a Pharisee of Pharisees, but as a lowly servant–a servant that would overturn all the rules.  He would spit in the ground on the sabbath to heal a blind man, spend his time with unworthy sinners, speak to a Samaritan women at a well, turn over tables in the house of worship, touch a leper, forgive sins, and have the temple curtain torn in half.  When God became man, He undermined His whole hierarchy.  Suddenly, religion wasn’t just for the circumcised Pharisees who sat around contemplating rules, it was for all people.  Jesus was for the dirty prostitutes on the streets–the sinners that had lost all hope of heaven long ago.  He overthrew their sin and overcame the world.

This is how God told us about Grace in a language that all of humanity can understand.  Grace could never have existed without both Justice and Love, because Justice is the very faculty upon which Grace acts, and love the means by which it does so.

Merry Christmas.