“Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. Indeed he said nothing to them except in parables. This was to fulfil the words spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables. I will expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.’”
Last Monday evening I was thrilled to watch University Challenge when our University, pitted against the much larger Birkbeck, held its opponents to a draw. That’s quite rare and exciting in University Challenge. York was only defeated by five points after a tie-break. Commiserations on the narrow defeat and many congratulations to the brilliant and entertaining York team.
So here is your starter for ten. Which 20th century U.S.president did not swear his inauguration oath on the Bible?
The answer is Lyndon B. Johnson, who swore the oath of office on the afternoon of 22nd November, 1963, aboard Air Force One, two hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy, as we all know, was a Roman Catholic. So, naturally, Air Force One did not carry aBible. The new president, a staunch Protestant, swore his oath of office on the St Joseph Sunday Missal!
Notoriously, everyone could remember what they were doing when they heard news of Kennedy’s assassination. My mother told me she was doing the ironing. I was ten weeks old. The students of the University of York (all 216 of them) were in the seventh week of term. Every one of them was a Fresher. It was the first term of the University of York’s existence.
News of the shooting overshadowed two other significant deaths that took place that same day. The writers Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both also died on 22nd November, 1963.
Presidents and Prime Ministers direct the course of history, but it is writers and artists who help us understand it. Huxley and Lewis were two of the most prophetic writers of their time, by which I do not mean they foresaw the future (although in some ways, I think they did precisely that), but that they could read, better than most, the spirit of their age.
This evening I would like to invoke these two writers’ assistance to help answer a question many people have been asking this year. “Should we be celebrating Christmas when the world is tearing itself apart, especially in the land where Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, was born?” Are we right to be holding this service? Should we be here at all?
I can understand why people are asking the question. But I think it would be profoundly mistaken to cancel Christmas.
Of course, if people think that Christmas is nothing other than a winter festival with origins in pagan mythology, intended to get us through the dark days of the winter in the northern hemisphere; if we really think that Christmas is little more than an excuse to take time off and have a good time at the coldest time of the year; then perhaps, it would be the right thing, even the just thing, in solidarity with those who are suffering, to deny ourselves a celebration in the present circumstances.
But if we were to do that this year, why celebrate Christmas in any year? To be sure, the fact that there is warfare and violence in the land of Christ’s birth adds particular poignancy to Christmas today; but we do have to ask, “When was there ever a time when there was not warfare and violence and pain and suffering in our broken world?” Has not every year, since the foundation of the world, been a time when it might have been thought inappropriate to celebrate because somebody, somewhere, was in pain?
For Christians, Christmas is not the gift we give ourselves of a good time in the dark days. It is a celebration of the gift that Christ isto us, and that is something quite different.
Christianity has always understood there to be a profound connection between the wood of the Manger and the wood of the Cross, between the joy in the midst of sorrow that is the real meaning of Christmas, and the sorrow that is brought to an end by the conquest of death which is the meaning of Easter.
Christ was born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, in the so-called Golden Age, all the world being at peace. But it was a peace bought at the cost of brutal military power. He was born in the deepest poverty, outcast and rejected; there was no room for him in the inn; and the infant Lord was soon taken into exile, a refugee from the abuse of political power and from the ethnic cleansing that was the Massacre of the Innocents. He was not born into a comfortable world; neither are we.
The words of this Christmas hymn are not often sung these days, perhaps because they make the real meaning of Christmas uncomfortably clear:
Sleep, holy babe! Ah, take thy brief repose.
Too quickly will thy slumbers break,
And thou to lenghten’d pains awake,
That death alone shall close.
Christ himself was no stranger to warfare and violence and pain and suffering; and he comes, purposefully, into an afflicted world. Hecomes with gifts, though not always, at least not at first, with the gift of peace. He knew that both he and his message were destined to be despised and rejected. He himself proclaimed that he came not to bring peace but a sword.But he did come with the gift of hope which is a cause for celebration whatever our circumstances may be.
When the Pevensie children fell through the back of that wardrobe into Narnia they arrived in a land where it was “always winter andnever Christmas”. That was C.S. Lewis’s powerful metaphor for a land without hope.
If we cancel Christmas, if we cancel Christ, then we are in real danger of condemning ourselves to a life without hope, to a world where it would be “always winter and never Christmas”. We would not just be condemning ourselves. We would be condemning other cultures and individuals to hopelessness, individuals whose pain and suffering, and whose need for hope, is almost certainly still greater than our own.
In his dystopian novel, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a world in which pain and suffering have been overcome by means of government sponsored technology in the interest of social control. Huxley’s vision of the future was far more accurate than George Orwell’s vision of 1984.The totalitarian states that Orwell so rightly feared are (on the whole) no more, though it may be they are threatening to return. But what we do have is, perhaps, more sinister and more dangerous. A perceptive critic has written of both Brave New World and 1984:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. [Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1984]
Who would not suspect that this scenario is at least a danger for the world today, if it is not, in fact, already a reality? If the relentless pursuit of pleasure is just a way of avoiding pain we would be right to reject it; in much the same way that if Christmas really is no more than a pleasant way of getting through the cold and darkness of winter, then we would be right to cancel it in solidarity with suffering.
But the Christian faith takes another view, a view that Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both endorse, in different but complementary ways.
Since we live in a world where anguish cannot be eliminated by human ingenuity alone, then while we must continue to make all possible efforts to minimise pain, we must also seek out some way of finding meaning within suffering and hope beyond it, since we will never be entirely without it.
In Brave New World, Huxley’s world controller believes that through therapeutic drugs one can achieve “All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconvenience.” ButJohn, the Savage, the novel’s non-conformist character, refuses to fit into the brave new world of an illusionary, drug-induced facsimile of peace. He rejects the new world order. He does not want comfort. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin. I'm claiming the right to be unhappy.” John is twenty years old with all the enthusiasm that implies!
In spite of, perhaps because of his age, John understands that coming to terms with a world in which pleasure and pain coexist is part of what it is to be human; that pain relief is not what we ultimately need; analgesia is not a genuine cure nor a long-term solution to illness or to our problems. What we truly require is to find meaning, and to make sense of the world in which we live; and we need a genuine hope that beyond this world there is some kind of ultimate justice and goodness.
Huxley’s answer (and John’s) is to look to culture, to Shakespeare and (interestingly for me) to Cardinal Newman. His appeal is to theHumanities, for the preservation of traditional, liberal culture in a world of modernity. But if it is “ultimate goodness” that human beings really crave – and I believe it is - then it is not to culture alone that we must look, but to Philosophy and yes (deep breath here) to Theology and Religion.
In the autumn of 1939, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon before the University of Oxford to a congregation of students and academics shortly tobe called upon fight a global war. The sermon was later published under the title “Learning in Wartime”.
In his address, Lewis attempted to answer this question:“What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?”
When the world is advancing to heaven or hell, when the liberties of Europe hang in the balance, how can it be right for students to spend time on what seem to be trivialities in comparison with the suffering of the world?
People were asking the same questions then that they are asking now, in circumstances that were, if anything, even worse.
But Lewis’s larger concern was not just for learning inwar-time, but for learning at any time, especially when our eternal destiny isat stake. The title of the sermon suggests its basic intention. We should notstop learning during war-time or at any time. If, in the course ofcivilisation, humanity had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty untilall life was secure for everyone, the search would never even have begun. Therehas never been a time when there were no crises, no alarms, no difficulties, noemergencies.
It is this search for knowledge, for beauty, and for meaning that is the task of the university, students, teachers and alumni alike. The pursuit of truth must continue, whatever the circumstances may be.
Before concluding I would like to visit Narnia one last time, to find an example C.S. Lewis’s theological account of what St Paul calls “the reason for the hope that is in you”. This example is one of many places in his writing where Lewis addresses the problem of pain - the mystery of continued suffering in a world we believe to be created by a God who is good.
Digory is one of the main characters in The Magician’s Nephew. His mother is dying of cancer. (Lewis was writing here from experience.His own mother died when he was a small child.) The Lion – Aslan – stands, of course, for Christ.
“‘But please, please – won’t you – can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?'”
Up till then [Digory] had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face.What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. [C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, 1955]
Suffering will always be with us. But the meaning of Christmas is that our God is not distant or apathetic. The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth wrote, “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there - the person of Jesus Christ.”
Our so-nearly victorious students in University Challenge were thrillingly able to answer questions on physics, mathematics, biology, popular music and art and so provide us with an inspiring image for what a university is and should be.
Universities are places where vaccines can be researched and produced at speed to meet an urgent need; places like the University York, where research into nuclear fusion power can hold out real hope for sustainable energy. They are also places where people engaged in this kind of work can encounter those whose work explores the deeper, more spiritual meaning of our lives through culture, philosophy and theology - and to carry on doing this no matter how hopeless things around us may appear to be. Critical engagement with the world, the pursuit of truth for its own sake, brings hope to what often seems to be a hopeless world.
Presidents and Prime Ministers come and go. Whatever happens, the river of history flows on. Meanwhile, writers and artists, students, teachers, and researchers, look for meaning and continue, in good times and in bad, with the pursuit of truth for its own sake. We thank God that the University of York has been doing that for sixty years.
We need prophets. We need, dare I say it, priests, people who can speak to the world in parables that are rich in meaning and hope. No amount of artificial intelligence can replace them. We need real intelligence, embodied intelligence, men and women, made in the image and likeness of God, inspired and filled with his Spirit, to point to a better city, to reveal the gift of hope that may seem to be hidden now and which has too often seemed to be hidden since the foundation of the world.
We must not cancel learning, discussion and free debate; we must not cancel Christmas; we must not cancel Christ; we must not cancel hope.