Sermon: Time Beings and Epiphany

26 01 2014

A couple of weeks ago I read a novel that I found gripping, enlightening, distressing and while ultimately unsatisfactory, an occasion for gratitude. It was Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’.  Its title put me in mind of W.H. Auden’s ‘For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio’ (written in the 1940s) but I could find no reference to Auden in this book which is set both on the West coast of Canada and in Japan. Indeed I now realise that the phrase ‘time being’ means quite different things in the two cases.

In Ozeki’s novel the central character, called Nao, says,

“… I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Auden’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ on the other hand the concern is with ‘the time being’ which is the time in which we live as theologically defined – that is between the first coming and the second coming of Christ: the time between the two advents.  Living in this time, as we knowingly do, means that  we live on the cusp between ‘before’, from which we have come, and ‘after’ to which we are going. Living in this moment with faith means making a choice – a choice about the kind of interpretation and use we are going to make of the present moment. How we are going to live.

I appreciate that not everyone who has come to this cathedral today would have been expecting to have such heavy thoughts to deal with on the day after Burns Night. Rather than Auden at his most theological, you might have been hoping for some echoes of Caledonian romance.  But my intention here is not render you ‘poor wee panic sticken beasties’, but to get a bit closer to that part of you which is anxious and insecure and a bit muddled about things like the past, the present and the future. I want to address you as a time being – in Orzeki’s sense, who happens to live in the time being, in Auden’s sense.

Let me clarify one thing about being a time being during the time being. It’s not much to do with the clock. Auden is very clear about this.  ‘The clock on the mantelpiece / has nothing to recommend’.  The calendar is more help to us, and this sermon is indeed timed for the epiphany season – we will shortly be in the company of the wise men.

But first the Shepherds. In his poem, Auden has the shepherd’s take on the role of the humble but not acquiescent poor. They do not seek to control, but neither do they accept being taken for granted. They refuse ‘to behave like a cogwheel / when one knows one is no such thing’. Nonetheless, they say, ‘what is real / about us all is that each of us is waiting’ … The shepherds have no ‘art’: ‘you should not take our conversation / too seriously, nor read too  much / into our songs; / Their purpose is mainly to keep us / from watching the clock all the time.’

But the shepherds know that one day something will happen … ‘But one day or /The next we shall hear the Good news.’

And of course they do.  A chorus of angels appears and this is what Auden has them say – rephrasing the words of Isaiah which our first lesson this morning (Isaiah 9.1-4) was building up to:

Unto you a Child,
A Son is given
Praising, proclaiming
The ingression of Love,
Earth’s darkness invents
The blaze of Heaven,
And frigid silence
Mediates a song;
For great joy has filled
The narrow and the sad,
While the emphasis
Of the rough and big,
The abiding crag
And wandering wave,
Is on forgiveness:
Sing Glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them,
Run to Bethlehem.

In response the Shepherds say in chorus:

‘Let us run to learn / How to love and run; / Let us run to Love’.

We are used to the contrast between the poor shepherds and the rich wise men from Christmas carols, medieval mystery plays and contemporary school nativities.  Auden works with the distinction and makes of it a different contrast and so frames for us a more vivid challenge. In Ozeki’s sense the question put to us is, ‘what sort of time being should I be?’  For the shepherd and the wise man in Auden’s vision live time quite differently.

The shepherds reflect an Arcadian temperament. They have never left their birthplace, have ‘no future’ but harbour a ‘sullen wish to go back to the womb’. Beset by trials they have considered suicide. They reject it but don’t really have a clear or profound reason for doing so – ‘I don’t know why, /But I’m glad I’m here.’ You can almost see the shoulders shrug. Nothing about purpose, destiny, duty, achievement or the desire to leave a legacy. No, just ‘I’m glad I’m here, and here I am and that’s that’.

The wise men, on the other hand, are men with a mission – to understand, to control, to lead, to rule.  These are Utopians who want to make the world a better place and who are prepared to put themselves and everyone else to a great deal of trouble to do so. Their great journey is a symbol of this. These are men who will stop at nothing and for nothing. Onwards and upwards they go, civilising, improving, bowing to no one and driving things forward. These are men of such raw intelligence, native wit and ambition for success, that they effectively have no relevant past.  They are, my friends, management consultants, or people who go into politics with no life experience.  If you prefer to get your metaphors from the great Toy Story movies Auden’s wise men are Buzz Light Year in a business suit. (And the shepherds are Mr and Mrs Potato Head.)

The genius of Auden’s poem is the same as the genius of a good nativity and a good carol service which draw together Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s magi so that we can choose with whom we most easily identify … and then brings them both and us into the presence of the baby in the manger in the stable.

What happens?

To the Shepherds who live habituated and unreflected lives without purpose  but with  growing cynicism and not much love – the child has the power to sweep away ‘the filth of habit from our hearts’.  They know what they see in the manger and they cry ‘O here and now our endless journey starts’.

The restless, journeying magi with their sights on the future respond very differently, and on seeing what is in the manger cry out, ‘O here and now our endless journey stops’.  Their stopping reflects the stopping of the star in the sky ‘over the place where the young child was’.  If you are ever reading this passage in public can I invite you to mirror the words and leave a little tiny pause at that point. It’s important to stop. This is the message to the magi: it’s time now to give up the restlessness and accept, honour and worship. It’s time to offer your gifts, your talents, your time to the God in child in the manger.

Having looked at this aspect of Auden’s poem we can see a new shaft of sunlight fall onto the familiar story of the call of the disciples which we heard in the gospel reading.  The fishermen, like the shepherds, are Arcadians. They are in the family business and intend to live life our in the traditional way. The call of Jesus changes that – as it has for millions of young people growing up in agrarian, working class and traditional communities ever since. Christian calling and ordination-m training or teacher-training has often been the engine of social mobility – that was the original vocation of the Colleges of St Hild and St Bede here in Durham – and I can testify it to being part of my own life.

But the point of this social mobility is not that some people can get educated into mobile middle-class-ness. It is that they have seen something of the God who calls some and settles others and in fact both settles and disturbs all of us in new ways on new occasions.

And this brings me to the final chorus at the end of Auden’s poem, which is a valediction to those who have seen the glory of God in the face of the infant Christ and who now must live differently.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I was greatly helped in the preparation of this semon by an online article by Alan Jacobs which is available here: .