What's the point of Jesus? — Advent 2. Let there be no child who comes into the world without some hope, some joy in him

Nativity scene on the Cambridge manse mantelpiece
Readings: Luke 2:12

"This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

From the Fourth Eclogue by Virgil (trans. J. B. Greenough)

Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh, dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove! See how it totters—the world's orbed might,earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound,
all, see, enraptured of the coming time!


Today's address is not, quite, the promised second part of last week's even though they both share a number of themes. I'll try and finish "part two" for next week.

But the reason for not finishing it for today and producing this one instead is, I think, legitimate. As you heard in the notices, yesterday I was honoured to receive a Christmas Card from the Bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Church which contained a verse from Luke and also a few lines from Virgil's fourth Eclogue. These lines of Virgil have, since Constantine's times, been understood within Christian circles as a "pagan" pre-echoing of the Christian tidings which centre on the Christ-child.

But they are not, of course, really a pre-echoing of the Christian story at all, instead they simply reveal how widespread was, and is, the idea that one day there will come to us some saviour who will bring peace on earth, goodwill to all and usher in a new and golden age.

Now, when I eventually sat down on Saturday afternoon to begin writing my address I simply couldn't get those two texts out of my mind. This was primarily because, on opening the card, I had immediately pulled off my shelves, not only C. Day Lewis' well-known but fairly straightforward 1963 translation of the text but also David R. Slavitt's much more adventurous and, I believe, relevant interpretation of 1970:

Virgil: Fourth Eclogue (trans. David R. Slavitt, 1970)

The ages of the world will not turn back. 
The iron rusts and will not shine again 
like silver, will not be silver, and the gold . . .
Who believes that? Still there are golden dawns, 
springs with their promises. 

   We try to believe 
as we do with a deadbeat debtor relative, 
forgetting the smog of evenings, the brown of August, 
the whining stalls that we shall hear again. 
And yet we believe, we lend, we lend belief. 
At the birth of a baby, then, who can resist 
that act of faith? Springs, sunrises lie, 
but he has not lied. Not yet. He has not promised 
falsely or at all. And if his yowl 
demands the whole world, who is to say 
he has not the right? Someone must come along 
to get us an out of this mess, to make it right, 
to save us from what we have been, from what we are. 
And so, at the baby's birth, Virgil dreams 
of in the rough places smoothed to match the brow 
of that tiny creature, all the crooked, flabby 
hearts made taut and tight as that new heart 
in the delicate chest beneath those flexible ribs. 
We will have miracles! Promises will be 
kept, even this—that the cradle itself will sprout 
ivy, foxglove, acanthus. He dreams of the time 
we all yearn for, like men in a desert who yearn
so much for water they see it. 

   No ploughs, 
but the earth will offer up crops. No ships on the sea 
risking the savage storms, but every land 
will produce all things. No tints and dyes for wool, 
but sheep will be blue and purple and yellow and green. 
The dreams are familiar, but then the need is familiar 
and always with us. 

   It was all supposed to begin 
in Virgil's time, with Pollio, his friend, 
as consul, presiding over the new beginning. 
And the baby . . .  

   But Virgil had to cheat on that. 
The trouble is, with these poems, that they take time, 
and he had to write it before the baby was born. 
And the baby cheated him. 

   Marc Antony lost 
in the struggle with Octavian, and from his loins 
came daughters, daughters of daughters, and then Nero.
Octavian, the other possible father, 
also had a child at the right time, 
the child that could have been the expected one—
but it was a daughter, Julia, who grew up to be 
the notorious whore Tiberius had to banish. 
    The babies were wrong, but the longing for a baby, 
for health, for innocence, for the freshness of starting, 
beginning again with nothing yet gone awry, 
continued, continues. 

   Later, the poet of Naples 
gave Virgil into the hands of St. Paul. And Dante 
took Virgil with him. The dreams were close enough—
a new beginning. 

  But the sheep are not yet blue 
nor any of those colours. And ships and planes 
scurry and wreck. Ploughs wound the ground 
and a field smells of sweat and diesel fuel . . .

"Oh, if my life could only be longer!" he wrote, 
but what would he have seen? What was there new 
or better or different? Only his own poem, 
itself another promise, another assurance, 
beautiful, false, false and still beautiful 
as the smile of that little Julia. 

   The poem ends: 
“Begin, then, child. Recognize your mother, 
give her a smile, a sign . . .”

   The sex was wrong, 
the baby was wrong, it was all wrong hut the hoping, 
and we must always hope. 
  Let there be no child 
who comes into the world without some hope, 
some joy in him. And we shall have begun . . . 

I got to know and admire Slavitt's work, firstly through a translation of some of the Psalms and then, through his glorious 2008 translation of Lucretius' poem, De Rerum Natura, "On the Nature of Things". What particularly appeals to me about Slavitt is that, because he openly acknowledges how easy it is for virtue and worth of some of the classics wholly to pass us by - especially when they are translated too literally - he takes great pains (some would say liberties) to make them available to us in a way that allows them to resonate meaningfully in our own time and condition. Here's Slavitt speaking of Virgil in general:

"To read Virgil is to experience a deadly feeling of overwhelming virtue. It is like brushing one's teeth after a great meal, for all the tastes of the repast yield to the bland bite of the dentrifice. Or to be less fancifully metaphorical, in reading Virgil - even voluntarily - one has the notion that one is fulfilling an assignment, if only because Virgil is mostly read that way by unwilling boys in secondary school" (Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil pp. 13-14).

And, in relation to the business of translating the Eclogues themselves Slavitt says:

"Virgil's Eclogues looked to be every bit as bad as [Robert] Graves had said they were. . . . The poems made almost no sense. They were a babble of unconvincing shepherds. . . . It was only perversity on my part and sheer willfulness that kept me at this unpromising business. Finally, I worked out a desperate kind of attack, which was to ask of each Eclogue: If you were ever a living breathing poem, what could you conceivably have been about?" (ibid. p. 14).

It strikes me that in so many ways, for all their obvious familiar beauty, the Christmas stories (at least as we have been taught to receive them by Christianity) also, today, really make almost no sense and they too, like the Eclogues, have their contingent of unconvincing shepherds. In our own, modern, critical and skeptical age, there inevitably now hangs over them (and the festival they accompany) the same question that hangs over the Eclogues - "What could they conceivably have been about?" A failure convincingly to answer this must, in part, explain why as a religious festival Christmas has less and less appeal to so many people today.

Slavitt, who is very much a poet of our modern world, openly acknowledges the connection to be made with Christianity when he notes that:

Later, the poet of Naples 
gave Virgil into the hands of St. Paul. And Dante 
took Virgil with him. The dreams were close enough—
a new beginning. 

I think it is fair to say that Slavitt's presentation of the Fourth Eclogue is as much about our culture's problematic relationship with the hopes of Christianity as it is a translation of Virgil's poem with its own hopes about Rome.

In so many ways our own contemporary culture has come to feel that the baby Jesus, at least as the baby Jesus has been presented to us by the Christian Church for two millennia, has, like Virgil's baby, cheated us. After all, the Christian promises of a new beginning in Christ in which the rough places have finally been smoothed to match the brow of the tiny child, in which all crooked and flabby hearts have been made taut and tight as that child's new heart, and in which there is no need even for tints and dyes for wool because the sheep will themselves be blue and purple and yellow and green, has simply not come to pass. Far, far from it for, as we know, over the centuries and in the name of the Christ-Child there have been committed at least as many crimes as Nero and the Roman Republic and Empire ever did.

In making the small child in manger God, very God of very God, Christianity was, like Virgil, holding itself hostage to fortune, and fortune has not been kind either to Virgil or to Christianity. Believing that child in the manger was God was wrong, all wrong and it has led human kind into some dreadful and dark places. This is why as a radical religious tradition we have always insisted that Jesus was not very God of very God but a natural, human being, like you and me.

But, for all this, as Slavitt notes, even though such a divine conception of a baby was wrong (pun intended) "the longing for such a baby, for health, for innocence, for freshness of starting, beginning again with nothing yet gone awry, continued, continues." As he says at the end, "it was all wrong but the hoping, and we must always hope."

I became a member of a Unitarian and Free Christian church, and  then became one of its ministers, because it was made clear to me that within such a community, the Christ-child in the crib for whom we awaited at Advent and whose birth we celebrated at Christmas stood as a placeholder for the hope and divinity that we can see in every new born child and in every golden dawn and spring. As we will sing in our final hymn written by a Unitarian minister called John Andrew Storey (who was an inspiration to many of us considering entering into the ministry during the late 1980s and early 1990s) "Each time a girl or boy is born, incarnate deity we find" and that because of this we desire to proclaim with united voice "The miracle of every birth." (The full text of this hymn and a link to a book of his writings can be found at the end of this post).

Storey is, of course, here consciously echoing the leading nineteenth-century Unitarian James Martineau's oft quoted words that:

"The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine" (cited in J. E. Carpenter, "James Martineau", Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

In this liberal Christian community we continue to celebrate Christmas and it's stories because we feel they help us to proclaim, hopefully and powerfully, as Slavitt so beautifully put it:

 Let there be no child 
who comes into the world without some hope, 
some joy in him. And we shall have begun . . .


THE UNIVERSAL INCARNATION by John Andrew Storey (1935-1997)

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

You can download a copy of a selection of John Andrew Storey's writing at the following link:
The COMMON QUEST Selected writings of John Andrew Storey