Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Three: Blessed Singularity

This fall I’ve been planting acorns. I foraged small pin oak acorns from a local nature preserve, gathered round swamp white oak acorns from the park where I do habitat work, and convinced one of our occasional birders to share a handful of impressive bur oak acorns from the centuries old tree growing in his yard.

Some of the acorns went into open areas of the park, some into a friend’s back yard, some into pots in my shed, where squirrels aren’t able to dig them up and eat them.

To me, acorns are both miracle and mystery. Amazing that the essence of a mighty tree can be captured in form small enough to hold in my hand. Amazing that, in time, an acorn can become home to multitudes of caterpillars and beetles, providing habitat and food for generations of birds, squirrels, and other creatures.

I wrote some weeks ago about particle and wave theory: the seemingly contradictory discovery that energy functions both as individual particles and undulating waves.

I plant my acorns and consider each as a single entity: a tiny world in its own hardened shell. Yet each is part of a wave of life, spreading back beyond human memory, reaching forward long past my own remaining future.

I turned sixty this week – my Facebook page had birthday greetings from Europe, Africa, a dozen or more states. People I’ve known since birth. Some I’ve known briefly, would like to know better. I marvel that my own small particle of life has somehow rippled over oceans, across six tenths of a century.

A friend gave birth to a daughter this week: a joyful reminder of the miracle of birth, a celebration on the way to greater celebration of the birth two thousand years ago.

The word I’ve been carrying with me this advent is “singularity.” How is it that on a planet full of people, each new child is unique?

How is it possible that each person is a gift, a singular treasure, that the expansive material and sweep of life gathers, again and again and again, into one living cell, then expands into a new human person whose influence ripples through families, communities, even nations?

Reading through the list of birthday greetings on my Facebook page, I find myself giving thanks for each person, their roles in my life: siblings, cousins, uncles, friends. Young people I knew when they were tiny children; elders who inspired me when I was young myself.

1. the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual
2. a point where all parallel lines meet
3. a point where a measured variable reaches unmeasurable or infinite value

Every human is a singularity, a point where parallel lines of generations intersect, where strands of DNA recombine into just one individual creature of unmeasurable or infinite value.

And each human, young and old, points toward what C. S. Lewis called “the central miracle asserted by Christians.... the Incarnation:
"Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.... It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about. …
 "By a miracle that passes human comprehension, the Creator entered his creation, the Eternal entered time, God became human—in order to die and rise again for the salvation of all people. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still ... (to) the womb ... down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him" (Miracles, Chapter 14). 
Rereading Luke’s story of that singular birth, I’m struck by the repetition of the word “blessing.” 

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898, France) 
Blessed are you.

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
That blessing ripples through Mary and her child to those who mourn, those who suffer, those who hunger and thirst, and beyond, to all nations, all peoples on earth.
Blessing (makários) describes a position of favor, but literally means “extend,” “make long, make large.”
The blessing of an acorn comes when it extends its roots and branches, reaches out beyond its protective shell, expands into beauty and grace for the multitudes of beetles, bugs and birds that find shelter in its shade.
The blessing of Christmas extends past the womb, the manger, the shelter of Mary’s embrace, to a world at war, a universe in pain. In Christ, we’re told, we receive forgiveness, freedom, mercy, grace.
In Christ we are drawn into fellowship with saints of the past, present, future, into fellowship with men and women of every race and tongue.
Into eternal song with angels and archangels.
I’ve posted before about binarythinking:
Friends/ Enemies
Universal / Particular
Large / Small
Momentary / Eternal
We want life to fall into easy categories: particle or wave.
And we want easy instructions: Hate your enemies. Love your friends.
We recoil from the idea of loving enemies.
We shake off the difficult sayings of Christ: “The first shall be last, the last shall be first.”
“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
The instruction manual for our current age is clear.

Keep it simple. 
Grab what you can.
Guard your back.
Build the walls high and watch out for your own.
Grace, forgiveness, compassion are archaic ideas that have no place in a dangerous world like ours.
In the dangerous, tumultuous days of Hitler’s rise to power, when Germany was caught in the grip of racial exclusion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the implications of Christ's birth in his classic “The Cost of Discipleship”: 
And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.  
Bonhoeffer died in opposition to Hitler's rule, a singular theologian whose reach continues on. 

And Christ’s blessed singularity extends through us as blessing for those most unlike us: Jew or Greek. Atheist or Muslim. Black Lives Matter or White Supremacist. Feminist or Fascist. 

Or that blessing dries up in us and dies, like discarded acorns that fail to grow. Leaving us brittle and small. 


Isolated fragments of an intended whole. 

As I move toward Christmas, I find myself grieving.

This is a dark time of the year.

A dark time in our political process.

A disturbingly dark time in our national narrative.

But light shines in the darkness.

The light of Christ’s love, that blessed singularity, shines in me, through me, taking root, growing strong. 

A radiant extension.

A brilliant beacon of hope and joy, not just for those most like me, but for all the nations and refugees on earth. 
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.