Incarnate Wonder


Some churches I have known have had dolls for the baby Jesus that are vanishingly small – one, I swear in North Carolina that was just over two centimetres long. In terms of worship size meant nothing, of course. When I carried in procession tiny dolls on large cushions, the people felt just as drawn to adore the infant Christ as if it were life-size.

The baby Jesus and the wafer-bread for Eucharist are such tiny symbols for such a large action of God: they point to God’s generosity in bringing himself down to the created order. The great wonder of love that we call the Incarnation is represented in tiny symbols.

I love church at Christmas. The joy of children at a Christmas Eve telling of the Nativity, however chaotic, the quiet carols and communion at Midnight Mass, the bustling crowds of Christmas Day. But this year, like the several past, I have not been able to attend any service, let alone the full bill that I enjoyed when I was working as a priest.

This year, I didn’t even try to get to church. The decision to travel to Perth and to be part of our grandchildren’s Christmas came first; and their Christmas is celebrated far from church. I knew I couldn’t even contemplate managing church in addition to the travel and the family feasting.

My body inconveniences me. But I am learning that I should not feel remorse or disappointment at missing the joy of church worship. For what is my body if it is not also a symbol of the Incarnation of God? Like a two-centimetre doll or a wafer weighed in micrograms, my body is a tiny symbol of incarnation!

But Christmas still recalls the Incarnation to me. Christ is the Incarnate God; our humanity is an instant of the Incarnation. It serves me well to remember that my body may just be a tiny instant of incarnation, but I must learn to avoid letting my body be a distraction from the wonder of incarnation. It lets me down. It keeps me at home when the good part of me wants to be at least one Christmas service. But God created my body, and the writer of Genesis emphasises how good creation is, my body included. I must manage the pain and immobility, true, but I must continue to allow God to work through my body by being present in people’s lives. Sometimes that means a card or an email, sometimes it means a visit. Sometimes it means a short story without any apparent Christian message, sometimes it means a homiletic blog like this.

I thank God that the fingers of my body make the physical language of the piece. I know as a pianist how complex and how strategic the anatomy of the wrist, hand and fingers are – they are a wonder. I thank God that the neurons in my brain fire to initiate the thoughts of my writing. 86 billion of them! And there’s a mystery beyond the neurons, somewhere between incarnation and Spirit, and that is what the mind-brain actually is. My brain is a wonder.

I thank God I can see people and be seen, touch people and be touched. Yesterday at the beach-front, I arrived in my wheelchair. Grand-daughter Aurora from 20 metres away opened her arms, ran to me, jumped on my knee and we hugged. Our wonderful is that incarnation!

It may be that I miss the liturgical re-tellings of stars guiding, shepherds running and wise men discerning when it comes to celebrating the Incarnation, but I am certainly not missing out!

 

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, John 1

Advertisements

The Fascinator: A sonnet for Christmas


The Fascinator

Tell the wild tale with vim and with panache
Chorus line of shepherds; veiled discerning
Mystics bringing gifts while earth’s cultures clash
To a baby: He our whole life’s learning.

Ring the bells, all people, stop! Now attend
to whispers of angels, meditations
Of mystics, fresh wisdom to us commend,
kindness of giving, godly fascinations.

Light the candle, we illuminati
with peace, earning goodwill to God’s masses,
Minding the child (He the celebrity)
with lambs and cows and companion asses.

All creation whispers the tale with awe,
All souls are responsive to His divine draw.

  • Ted Witham 2016

Sonnets for the Wedding at Cana


1

Wedding at Cana

Press the infinity loop, the Moebius strip,
Christ’s incarnation, two become one, yes,
alloy of connubial companionship,
Wife and spouse bless each other’s tenderness.

Six large pitchers to purify the night –
How much purity do bride and husband need?
No! Throw out the rules of restricting rite,
let newly-weds on love’s infinity feed.

The love of lovers cannot be pegged or clipped.
It flows like cabernet through crypted cellars,
Flooding, spreading like a tide over-tipped,
Baffling gift of Bible’s story-tellers.

Each gives all, receives all, sets each other free,
Bridegroom, Lover, Bride in Holy Trinity.

  • Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, John 2-1-11
  • Ted Witham

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2

Cana 2

Mary’s there, Jesus’ mother – and his friends,
(called disciples in pious prophecy.)
There’re some servants whom Jesus sends
With transformed water for the maître-d’.

The maître-d’ drinks deep and calls the host,
The bashful bridegroom takes the praise to heart.
It seems a full cast for the wedding: most
strangely the groom has mislaid his sweetheart.

Good wine, once it’s started, must be consumed,
So starts a party now and for always.
And the Bride herself is forced to be assumed
The attentive Reader prayerfully obeys.

So, dear Reader, put on your wedding gown and ring,
And go to Jesus your spouse, and with him dance and sing!

Ted Witham

the-wedding-feast-at-cana-detail-1304-1306

Christ’s Body is my body


Poem by Symeon the New Theologian(949-1022), Hymn 15 in his Hymns of Divine Love

We awaken in Christ’’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.

Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
— Then open your heart to him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.

 

Quoted by Richard Rohr, pp. 219-20 in Things Hidden

Christmas in a broken land


Those were the days when the heat’s fitful haze
turned the blue distant ranges to grey oceans,
and the sun’s morning light in spindling beacons bright
shone yolk yellow and all was stilled motion.

The bricks held their heat, shamed by defeat
they could no longer supply cool shelter;
Children ran slow and heard a bleak crow
caw listlessly over carrion with no one to tell it to

celebrate the arrival of God’s survival –
a new child in the bush down under:
not a plaster saint with blue robes faint,
but a battler, a beauty, God’s wonder.

Not a victory march through a triumphal arch,
but a nail-biter, to get there God’s struggling.
In today’s Australia, God appears a failure,
but God hangs on, power in long-suffering.

Maybe that’s why in the hot and the dry
we remember as kids God’s birthing;
nothing fancy or fussy, just a cowshed and mussy –
God’s total commitment to earthing.

–          Ted Witham, Advent 2013

No Sex, Please: We Might be Sore


SEX AND PAIN
Definition of sexuality:
“Being so attentive to another that you tend to merge with that other.”
Those words, with capital ‘O’s, could equally be a definition of spirituality.
“Being so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.”
For some mystics, sexuality and spirituality are aspects of the same reality: the purpose of human life is to “get out of oneself” and merge with the larger Reality. Saint John of the Cross, for example, lusciously described his prayer life as sexual pursuit and mutual seduction.

The Bible regards human beings as in-breathed bodies, that is, spiritual bodies: not spirits AND bodies, nor flesh AND soul, but just one united package. In classical Christian thought, no division can be made between body, mind and spirit. To emphasise one aspect (say, the spiritual) over another aspect (say, the physical) depreciates the essential wholeness of the human person. So for Christians, having sex is never purely physical, because the human beings engaged in sex are spiritual, emotional, thinking (etc!) bodies. Having sex should be making love. If it is not, the act is expressing hate, or showing indifference. The physical act is inextricably linked to the greater human reality.

For those in pain, sex may be painful. Doctors today even recognise this. In the 20 years following my major operation, sexuality didn’t appear to exist for pain sufferers. Doctors paid attention to the effects pain and pills had on every other function of your body/mind, but avoided mentioning the major impacts pain has on your sex life.

Nowadays, there are questions on pain questionnaires which ask you to rate the obstacle your pain causes for your enjoyment of sex, but I have not yet met a doctor willing to actually discuss the questionnaire results, which in my case document the additional pain of having sex and the decrease of enjoyment of sex. A doctor prepared to discuss sex and pain with me would be a bonus.

For those in pain, it can feel as though the physical pain is taking away the emotional and spiritual joy of making love. But that is not all. Not only is the pain a turn-off, but also body image,
disappointment and lack of control contribute to a diminished sex life.
The pain itself lessens the enjoyment of sex. The person in pain then sees their body as being less than it should be, and their body image becomes yet another barrier to full enjoyment of the other.

Faulty body image means not that something is wrong with the body, but with a person’s picture of their body. A faulty body image arises in chronic pain from not looking at the whole body. A person with chronic pain who looks carefully at their body, however, will find more that is right than is wrong. Looking attentively at what is really there is not only a spiritual act, but also a healing one.

Disappointed with their body’s betrayal, they withdraw from sexual activity, fearing more disappointment. Pills, the pain and one’s partner’s reaction to the medicalising of our lives all reduce one’s sexual response. Sometimes I’m aroused, but at other times, not. This loss of control adds to the spiralling decrease in sexual interest.
It’s easy to give up, or to give in to anger and resentment. But there are genuinely positive ways of responding.

1. Talk about these things to your partner.
Researchers have noted how difficult it is for even loving couples to talk about sex. It may be that your pain and the challenges it brings is a gift to your sex life. It can oblige you how to talk together about sex. The aim is to make love. The agenda of your conversation is how do we make love given the physical and emotional obstacles pain causes?
hold-hands-cropped1
2. Fall in love all over again by realising how precious touch is; all touch, and not just sexual touch.
So hold hands. Gently brush your partner’s skin as you pass. Kiss when you wake up and kiss when you get ready for sleep. A sexual relationship is not restricted to 20 minutes in bed. Its joy is its anticipation of the constant presence of your lover.
Touch, too, is the precursor to massage. I am one of those who dislike massage. But a gentle touch relaxes my muscles and can reduce pain.
On the principle that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, share the touching and be attentive more to your partner than to your pain.

3. Keep your bedroom a bower for intimacy (and sleeping!), and stop it looking like a hospital.
Take pills off the bedside table; put medical equipment in the cupboard; take pain diaries and exercise charts down from the walls and put them out of sight, preferably out of the bedroom. Cover hospital pillows with a quilt or colourful slips.

4. Be tolerant of your mind’s nocturnal fantasies.
Sexual dreams involving others are not necessarily temptations to infidelity. They may just be your mind working out ways of maximising your physical and emotional enjoyment of life under restricted circumstances. Learn to welcome your unconscious mind’s attempts to link physical sexuality with emotional and spiritual love. Your mind knows how important it is for you to love your body and with your body.

In all things, be attentive and open to the love of the Other. As other human beings do, make love as best you can within the limitations of what you are given.

In times of temporary or ongoing celibacy with chronic pain, the two-way definition of loving the other/Other still applies: “Be so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.” In the 13th century Franciscan theologian Dun Scotus taught that every creature is a little Word of God: an instance of Incarnation. Every person or being to which one gives one’s loving and respectful attention draws us closer into union with God.

For those of us in continuing pain, this knowledge is a beacon of hope. We do have the ability to look beyond our preoccupation with ourselves and our pain, and look into the face of God. That’s sexy. That’s the ultimate in spirituality.