Afraid in the Dark
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 1, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
The interesting thing about having Christmas fall on a Sunday was how fast most of the world moved on from the Christmas celebration. Monday happened fast, and Christmas for the most part, for most of the world was over. The radio stations had already moved on, sure they’d started playing Christmas music way back in October, some of them, but sure enough Monday came and the regular programming had returned. I saw people already taking decorations down. . . some even on Christmas day itself. I saw a friend of mine on Facebook giving the business to a church who was already taking down their Christmas festives Sunday afternoon. . . I guess they were doing it while they were there, so they didn’t have to come back that week to do so. . . he was giving them the business for not knowing that Christmas is a season, and that the twelve days of Christmas actually happen after Christmas Day, making Christmas a season, one that lingers for twelve days until the next Church Holiday of Epiphany, which is on January 6. Christmas should linger. . . and it does as a religious holiday, the secular world moves on, but we here in church should try to linger in Bethlehem. . . and not because we Need More Christmas. . . because of course we do. . . but the real reason we need to linger is that the story continues, and it continues in one of the saddest darkest stories of the Bible, and it is one that we cannot forget, should not forget. . . for it represents some of the darkness that human sin, fear, and frailty just can’t seem to escape from, at our peril. . . the Murder of the Innocents. . . which is detailed in the reading for today, Matthew 2: 13-23:
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Of course that story is tragic, but it also echoes some other stories from the Bible, especially that of the beginning of Exodus, where the Pharaoh, there in Egypt seeks to kill all of the first born of his Hebrew slaves because they have been promised a deliverer. . . and of course Moses escapes by being put into the basket, set afloat on the Nile to be rescued and raised within the royal palace. Yes it is a repeated pattern, and we can certainly see the parallels between Jesus the Redeemer and Moses the Deliverer. . . but what I want to look at this morning because perhaps it contains the warnings of history, at least the warning signs, is the parallels between Herod and Pharaoh. . . because their motivation is the same, I think, and it touches on one of our greatest fears. . . change. . . revolutionary change. . . challenges to our comfort. . . our status quo. . . our routines. . . out beliefs. . . what we hold dear. . . even the evils we have grown used to bearing, because even the hope of a change from darkness is terrifying. . . Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed” and Shakespeare through the voicing of Hamlet puts it this way, that we would rather “bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of.” Yes the fear of the unknown in the future often makes us grab hold and tightly to what we can. . . and this happens to all of us, but with those who have more to lose, more wealth, more power, more status, more seeming control, more ability to fight against the tides of change, more reach. . . can truly do a lot of damage when their control is threatened. . . even by a rumor, a promise, a legend, and the whispers of the wind. . . the more control becomes fleeting the harder we seek to control that space. . . such is what happens to Herod and Pharaoh. . . and my favorite writing on the character of Herod comes from the pen of WH Auden. It puts this situation in such great perspective. . . Let me read and to put some explanation to it as I go. !`
Because I am bewildered, because I must decide, because my decision must be in conformity with Nature and Necessity, let me honour those through whom my nature is by necessity what it is.
To Fortune--that I have become Tetrarch, that I have escaped assassination, that at sixty my head is clear and my digestion sound.
To my Father--f or the means to gratify my love of travel and study.
To my Mother--for a straight nose.
To Eva, my coloured nurse--for regular habits.
To my brother, Sandy, who married a trapeze-artist and died of drink--for so refuting the position of the Hedonists.
To Mr. Stewart, nicknamed: The Carp, who instructed me in the elements of geometry through which I came to perceive the errors of the tragic poets.
To Professor Lighthouse--for his lectures on The Peloponnesian War.
To the stranger on the boat to Sicily--for recommending to me Brown on Resolution.
To my secretary, Miss Button--for admitting that my speeches were inaudible.
There is no visible disorder. No crime what could be more innocent than the birth of an artisan's child? Today has been one of those perfect winter days, cold, brilliant, and utterly still, when the bark of a shepherd's dog carries for miles, and the great wild mountains come up quite close to the city walls, and the mind feels intensely awake, and this evening as I stand at this window high up in the citadel there is nothing in the whole magnificent panorama of plain and mountains to indicate that the Empire is threatened by a danger more dreadful than any invasion of Tartars on racing camels or conspiracy of the Praetorian Guard.
Barges are unloading soil fertiliser at the river wharves. Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices. Allotment gardening has become popular. The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans. There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun. Yes, in twenty years I have managed to do a little. Not enough, of course. There are villages only a few miles from here where they still believe in witches. There isn't a single town where a good bookshop would pay. One could count on the fingers of one hand the people capable of solving the problem of Achilles and the Tortoise. Still it is a beginning. In twenty years the darkness has been pushed back a few inches. And what, after all, is the whole Empire, with its few thousand square miles on which it is possible to lead the Rational Life, but a tiny patch of light compared with those immense areas of barbaric night that surround it on all sides, that incoherent wilderness of rage and terror, where Mongolian idiots are regarded as sacred and mothers who give birth to twins are instantly put to death, where malaria is treated by yelling, where warriors of superb courage obey the commands of hysterical female impersonators, where the best cuts of meat are reserved for the dead, where, if a white blackbird has been seen, no more work may be done that day, where it is firmly believed that the world was created by a giant with three heads or that the motions of the stars are controlled from the liver of a rogue elephant?
Yet even inside this little civilised patch itself, where, at the cost of heaven knows how much grief and bloodshed, it has been made unnecessary for anyone over the age of twelve to believe in fairies or that First Causes reside in mortal and finite objects, so many are still homesick for that disorder wherein every passion formerly enjoyed a frantic licence. Caesar flies to his hunting lodge pursued by ennui; in the faubourgs of the Capital, Society grows savage, corrupted by silks and scents, softened by sugar and hot water, made insolent by theatres and attractive slaves; and everywhere, including this province, new prophets spring up every day to sound the old barbaric note.
I have tried everything. I have prohibited the sale of crystals and ouija-boards; I have slapped a heavy tax on playing cards; the courts are empowered to sentence alchemists to hard labour in the mines; it is a statutory offence to turn tables or feel bumps. But nothing is really effective. How can I expect the masses to be sensible when, for instance, to my certain knowledge, the captain of my own guard wears an amulet against the Evil Eye, and the richest merchant in the city consults a medium over every important transaction?
Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: "O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves."
Reason is helpless, and now even the Poetic Compromise no longer works, all those lovely fairy tales in which Zeus, disguising himself as a swan or a bull or a shower of rain or what-have-you, lay with some beautiful woman and begot a hero. For the Public has grown too sophisticated. Under all the charming metaphors and symbols, it detects the stern command, "Be and act heroically"; behind the myth of divine origin, it senses the real human excellence that is a reproach to its own baseness. So, with a bellow of rage, it kicks Poetry downstairs and sends for Prophecy. "Your sister has just insulted me. I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing difficult things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognise immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I'm sick of waiting."
Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. "God has been born," they cried, "we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters."
One needn't be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver teapots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear. Why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is, And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it could only mean this; that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? Tve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
- WH Auden, from "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio"
Afraid of the dark, afraid in the dark. . . this is what Herod is, and this is what Pharaoh was, and this is what we are at times. We stand on the precipice of the future, and this is never more apparent than on days like today, where we start a new year. What will 2017 hold? We just don’t know. I don’t think if we jumped back in time to this day a year ago, when 2016 was fresh and new, would we be able to picture the world that we are living in today. . . It is more in our face on days like today, but the truth is that it is the same on all days. We stand in the present looking ahead of us to a future filled with mystery. . . but also promise. There is darkness, but Christmas shows us that there is a light shining in that darkness. . . The difficult task we have then is to allow the coming of the light to loosen or grip, to open our eyes to a new morning, and to be shaped by the coming moments rather than trying to shape them. . .