Monday, 26 December 2016

St Stephen -- 26 December

Readings: Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59; Psalm 31; Matthew 10:17-22

 In The Stolen Child, one of the early poems of W.B.Yeats, we find the following refrain:

'Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.'

It is a sinister poem, beautiful and evocative. It is about the seductiveness of the mystical and the draw of the preternatural. The angelic, the philosophical, any natural religion: these things are powerful and attractive. As a young man Yeats himself was very involved in esoteric, pseudo-mystical, spiritualism. The human child stolen by the fairies, seduced into their world, will live forever but it will not be a human life. The price he must pay is to give up all properly human experience of the world. No more will he enjoy sensual pleasures in the way human beings do. Nor will he suffer in the way human beings do. Leaving ordinary pain, sorrow and desolation, in pursuit of excitement, distraction and company, he finds himself rather in a twilight world, disembodied, free from the bind of time and space, but empty, drifting, pointless. The world loses its colours and its smells, its taste, and feel, and sounds.

The commercialisation of Christmas is so vulgar and explicit that it poses no serious threat to the real meaning of the Christian feast. It is clearly not it. More dangerous is the sentimentalisation of Christmas, turning it into something sweet and emotional that can be mistaken for the real thing. Is this not what it is about, the birth of a baby in the darkness of winter? Ahh! Yes, provided we say a lot more about the baby and the darkness he has come to scatter. The celebration of St Stephen's martyrdom hot on the heels of Christmas saves us from too much sentimentality.

The Infant Christ is born into this real world with its troubles and anxieties, its weeping and fighting, its depressions and disappointments and betrayals, with its talk of wars and its aggression, with its forgetfulness of God and of the poor, with its worship of idols and its peddling of myths. Come away, human children, to the waters and the wild, with the fairies, hand in hand. There is too much weeping, too much sorrow, too much pain. Is this not what religion is supposed to be about, comfort in sorrow, consolation in distress, security for the psychologically needy? The great escape.

Jesus prepares his disciples for situations where they will be hated by all. Stephen is faced with people infuriated and grinding their teeth. Those who seek to be faithful to Jesus and to his teaching will be handed over to courts, scourged in synagogues, dragged before governments and rulers. They will be courted and dismissed, rejected and disliked, played with and feared. In such circumstances it is tempting to translate the whole thing into something 'spiritual', perhaps even 'mystical'. Not political, or physical, or historical. Nice, elevated, stepping back from murky stuff, rather than ugly, immersed, and involved in the nitty-gritty. People criticise the Church for being too detached from the 'real' world and they criticise it for being too involved in the 'real' world. It needs to be more relevant. It needs to keep its nose out of things.

The death of Stephen, hot on the heels of Christmas, saves us from the faery worlds of sentimentality, fake spirituality, and pseudo-mysticism. The Prince of Peace has been born into a world that is forever at war. His presence shifts the terms of that war onto another plane for he has come with a sword, bringing fire. The fire is the Spirit possessing the human child and leading him, not away to fairyland, but deeper into the human world, further into its complexities and distress, to the bottom of the cup drained by the Son of Man, the place of bitterness and tears, the place of love and of the fulness of human life. For the Spirit is the Spirit of truth and so of life, justice and dignity.

You will find here another homily for today's feast.

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