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Tidings of joy

Donald Nicholl

The joy of which the angels sing is a gift that no one can take away from us - if we can recognise it. Professor Nicholl, formerly rector of Tantur ecumenical institute near Bethlehem, is the author of Holiness and The Testing of Hearts.

The mid-1930s were a dark time, especially perhaps for a youngster like myself who was too precociously aware of the cruelty and injustice of the capitalist and imperialist systems under which we lived. So it was that one night, in the weeks before Christmas, I found myself sunk in gloom and des-pondency. The only person in the house, apart from myself, was my mother. I could hear her stirring in bed, in the room just above my head where we all slept. She was ill and had just said she thought she was dying.

Finding it difficult to keep my mind on my homework, I turned on the wireless. Within a few seconds of doing so, as if by a miracle, I heard the sound of a voice of heavenly quality proclaiming, "I know that my Redeemer liveth". Even now, nearly 50 years later, I can still hear those notes as dis-tinctly as ever, as though every one of them had been cast into the air separately, each still continuing to shine with a radiance of its own. Indeed, I imagine that they continue to vibrate to this day in that noosphere which envelops us human beings just as the atmos-phere envelops the earth. For the joy of that moment remains as fresh in me as the moment I first heard such a proclamation of redemption.

Ever since that night I have always held that the note of pure joy is an authentic sign of the truth of Christianity and of hope for all humanity. And the sense of that truth grows more strong within me every year as the season of Christmas draws near. Because then I know that together we shall sing many of those carols which Christian folk over a thousand and more years have sung and in which the irrepressible note of joy is itself witness to the truth of the words being sung.

So it was a shock to me last year when I turned on the television to watch a pro-gramme in which a panel of litterateurs was discussing the novels that had been listed for the Booker Prize. They were at that point considering George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time.

One member of the panel seemed mildly pleased with the book, though recognising that its genre (to quote an in-word) was rather old-fashioned. A second member of the panel was distinctly snooty, however. And then Tom Paulin, whilst agreeing with some of the reservations expressed, con-fessed that none the less, by the end of the story, he was left with a feeling of joy.

At which the chairwoman of the panel jumped like a scalded cat and exclaimed, "Joy!" as though Paulin had uttered an inde-cent word. I was so taken aback by the woman's fierce reaction that I have since found myself ruminating at odd times on the incident and asking myself whether joy real-ly is regarded nowadays as rather indecent, or as a sign of immaturity.

I can see, of course, that the Britain we now live in is incapable of celebrating the joy of Christmas. Any society which routinely kills its own children in the womb can hardly celebrate the feast of the threatened Christ-child with a clean heart. I also realise how difficult it is for any joy whatsoever to reach our hearts in face of the media that we have now landed ourselves with. Unless we are blessed with extremely powerful filtering The chairwoman of the panel jumped like a scalded cat and exclaimed 'Joy!' as though Torn Paulin had uttered an indecent word.

mechanisms, we are likely to find our inner channels of grace becoming blocked up with the cynicism, the soi-disant satire, the con-sumerism and — from "comedians" — the filth that led my friend Nikolai Fyodorov to coin the term "pornocracy" to describe the kind of society he saw emerging. Fortunately, the majority of people are able to survive the mess that the media make of Christmas with their decency intact — but the expenditure of unconscious energy required to do so tends to leave them depressed.

Sadly, the elite of British opinion-formers have never been a great help to the homme moyen sensuel in the matter of joy, because by tradition their own religion has not been Christianity, but rather a heroic stoicism on to which they have fallen back after the first spring of Christianity in the early Middle Ages. Perhaps that fall-away was the expres-sion of a failure of nerve once pin-pointed for me my my old chief, Professor Richard Pares.

I visited Pares one day when he was already in the later stages of motor neurone disease, to find him working his way painful-ly through the nine volumes of A. J. Toyn-bee's Study of History. That required him to turn each page by a movement of his head to which a sort of extended claw was attached that could grip the pages. In answer to my question as to why he was undertaking such an onerous task, he smiled and replied, "Well, everybody goes on talking about Toynbee so I thought someone ought actual-ly to read him..." and then, "The trouble with Toynbee is that he is frightened of waking up one morning and finding that some German professor has disproved the Resurrection."

It would be unreal to imagine that those of us who belong to Christian congregations could remain unaffected by such failure of nerve, and the cynicism and consumerism which drive joy out of our society. And so, in preparation for Christmas, I have been try-ing to call to mind what events in my own life have enabled me, in spite of my constant unfaithfulness, to retain the hope of a joy-filled Christmas.

The first event was one which, I dare say, many people would look upon askance. It was the "instruction" in the Catholic faith given to me by my beloved Dominican friend Richard Kehoe, a Scripture scholar of genius. The word "instruction" has to be placed in inverted commas because not even on one single occasion did I sit in Blackfriars parlour facing my instructor with a cate-chism laid on the table between us. Instead, week in and week out, Richard walked with me through the parks and meadows of Oxford and along the banks of the rivers, encouraging me to catch glimpses of the new heaven and new earth spoken of in the Apocalypse — the situation where God has his dwelling amongst us, for we are his peo-ple and he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be an end to death and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away.

My reception into the Church took place on a lovely May morning, after which I wan-dered off on my own into the Parks and lay on the grass for an hour or two watching the cricket — the university were playing York-shire. It was the perfect setting in which to reflect on and absorb Richard's final instruc-tion. That was: "Never lose the freshness of this moment." Nor have I, by God's grace.

A second event for which I have reason to be for ever grateful happened soon after-wards, when I met a man who has been companion ever since, who has touched me more than any other historical figure of the last thousand years, namely, St Seraphim of Sarov. It was Seraphim's custom to greet all who came to him with the words, "Radost moya! Christos voskreser , "My joy, Christ is risen!". And I felt he had greeted me with the very same words when I met him in the pages of Julia de Beausobre's Flame in the Snow. Himself the embodiment of Christian joy, Seraphim has since convinced me that "nothing so blocks the work of the Holy Spir-it as gloom and despondency" — which inevitably lead to a narrowing of our vision. In addition, he said, when trying to explain why so many people in his day were falling away from the faith: "under the pretext of education we have now reached such dark-ness of ignorance that events recorded in Scripture are incomprehensible to them." But, he continues, "this failure to under-stand comes about because we have wan-dered far from the spacious vision of the early Christians."

Seraphim's words about the spacious vision of the early Christians set in train a process of searching within my own mind which revealed a further motive for joy which I wish to tell of.

Over the years I have come to realise how confining those categories have often been in terms of which the European Church has envisaged Jesus of Nazareth, his life and message. Happily, however, during the course of this century we have come to acknowledge that Jesus was fully a Jew and can only be understood in the context of the Middle East. Further than that, the vision is extending wider and deeper and is enabling us to see Jesus in the context of the world's religions. More slowly yet, an awareness is beginning to dawn that the incarnation of Jesus, in some still obscure fashion, has to be seen as embracing all life upon the earth.

There remains, however, one final step to be taken if we are to abandon talk of God "breaking into" the story of the universe, which implies that God is in some sense out-side the universe (or inside it for that mat-ter), failing to recognise that God is not sub-ject to location whether in space or in time. Only then can we recapture "the spacious vision of the early Christians" as expressed, for instance, in the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, where it is asserted that Jesus was chosen before the foundation of the world to be the redeemer and that in his own person he recapitulates the stages of redemption that have been transforming the universe since space and time were created.

In the story of the universe as revealed in recent times by natural science, and bril-liantly summarised by Thomas Berry and Brian Schwimme', we can now perceive some of the features of redemption which Jesus recapitulated. For instance: creation itself always involves taking a risk that things will go wrong. And often they do go wrong, throwing the order of the universe into chaos. But when it seems as though all is lost, a tiny minority of beings — or even just one tiny being — takes the risk of sacrificing him-self, going through the eye of a needle in the (Die, et Y19 6149 know IAA t it AtaiS .!.)

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