Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Given the fondness for details about Mary, Joseph, baby, ox, ass, manger etc., the lessons that the Book of Common Prayer appoints for Christmas Day are interestingly, austerely theological. The Gospel is John's famous `In the beginning was the Word . . . '. The Epistle is the beginning of Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. It ends with the words: `And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.' A strong case could be made that these two readings are the best examples of English prose ever written. The sentence just quoted seems to me to have perfect balance: it knows when to flow on, and when to stop. It also has a symmetry which is not tiresomely exact, so that the first half closes with '. . . thou remainest', and is echoed and amplified in the second. Then there is the contrast between the immense difficulty of what, conceptually, is being said, and the clarity of the words used to say it. What more precise image of orderly divine power could there be than `as a vesture shalt thou fold them up'? And yet what is to be folded up is creation itself. I cannot read or hear the words without them having a physical effect, as when, driving fast over a bridge, one feels one's stomach being sucked out and then, as one drives on, put back in.

Actually, the sentence is even more complicated than it at first seems because of who is speaking. It is, as far as I can understand it, Paul quoting God the Father speaking to God the Son. The contrast is between what God says to his angels and what he says to his own offspring. The angels are merely ministers, the Son is the thing itself. And he is above the angels because, says Paul, `he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they'. So the apostle clearly endorses the hereditary principle in the divine dispensation, although the Virgin Birth surely means that no Garter King of Arms could permit the title of the Lord God to be inherited bv his son.

I do love Christmas when it comes, but it is an awful lon time cominz. Perhaps the preparatory period is a commercial simulacrum of the biblical image of the whole of creation groaning in travail. One problem is that Advent as a particular season has disappeared. Its role was once quite like that of Lent - a long period of fast in order to prepare for a really good feast. In my family this survives only in not eating much on Christmas Eve, not putting up the Christmas decorations until that day and not taking them down till Twelfth Night. It would be more emotionally literate to revert to the old custom and make the 12 days of Christmas one long party. Advent is supposed to be the time for reflection on the Four Last Things -- Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Four Last Things, by the way, would be a good name for a rock band.

Looking too keenly for a `news angle' and being inherently suspicious of peace prizes, I unintentionally prevented the Daily Telegraph from paying enough heed last week to what David Trimble actually said in Oslo. His speech was explicitly Burkean, and implicitly anti-Hume, Burke being Ireland's great philosopher-statesman and Hume being no philosopher at all but Trimble's fellow Nobel laureate. He rejected the idea that people should treat Northern Ireland as a `political laboratory' which could produce scientific, generally applicable remedies for conflicts anywhere. …

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