First Sunday after Christmas
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
–Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”
Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.
–Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
The appointed texts for this week are filled with such unqualified praise as befits Christmastide. Isaiah, whose language has been oft borrowed by the Church, rejoices at the prospect of Jerusalem’s restoration as a light to the nations; he eagerly anticipates the time when “her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch,” when God’s people “shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”
The psalmist exhorts all Creation – from angels to sea monsters to fruit trees to kings to everyone and everything in between – to join a hymn of exaltation, celebrating God’s gracious splendor and his raising up for Israel a horn of salvation.
Paul, using language more reserved but no less definitive, celebrates the incarnation, which has effected the salvation of humankind and the adoption of the Gentiles as children of God who can now call upon the Lord as “Abba! Father!”
And the Gospel lesson from Luke tells of the prophets Simeon and Anna in the Temple at Jerusalem, who recognize the infant Jesus as God’s Messiah and the savior of Creation. They offer praise to God for the salvation and the redemption of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, with Simeon declaring to God that he is at last at peace, knowing the truth of God’s longstanding promise of redemption. Isaac Watt’s great Christmas hymn sums up the sentiment of these texts very nicely: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!
As I read these passages, I found it difficult to embrace their fervor without reservation. My difficulty was and is less a matter of my being a dyspeptic cuss with a longstanding aversion to what Christmas has become than one of simply feeling overwhelmed by the deep brokenness of the world. How can one be so naively joyful in such seemingly horrible times? This is a matter of faith, certainly, or more properly its relative absence, but also one of perspective. It’s not just that the world doesn’t look much like the peaceable reign of God; these days, it often doesn’t even look that much like the world. This disconnect, between the world of the lectionary and the world we currently inhabit, may be why as I thought about these verses I found them tumbling around in my mind with the refrain of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”
Zagajewski was born in the weeks following the end of World War II in Europe, and while he was still an infant his family was forcibly relocated further west when the region where they lived was commandeered and made part of the Ukraine by the Soviet Union. He grew up in difficult times, and while much of his early poetry was activist, protesting the oppressive communist regime of that day, his later work broadened in scope, locating ephemeral glimpses of beauty and joy in the midst of difficulty and tragedy. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” was written in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and published in the September 24 issue of The New Yorker. The poem’s power comes from the juxtaposition of its refrain, “praise the mutilated world,” with frank acknowledgments of difficult realities and recollected sublimities. With each repetition, the refrain shifts subtly: It appears first as encouragement – “Try to praise the mutilated world”; then as admonition – “You must praise the mutilated world”; then as encouragement – “You should praise the mutilated world”; and finally, as a straightforward call, not entirely unlike the first line of this week’s Psalm – “Praise the mutilated world.”
It is the refrain’s final expression, along with the concluding tercet that follows it, that helps me make theological sense of the lectionary texts by reminding me that Christmas is not simply an annual celebration of a once-and-done fait accompli, but the culmination of an annual season of preparation. That season (Advent) has two horizons; it awaits two arrivals. Yes, long-expected Jesus has come, God’s light has shined in the darkness, and in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection the outcome of history and the redemption of Creation have been secured. Yet even as glimpses of God’s reign of shalōm continue to abound for those who know where to look, the world is pervaded by the deep darknesses of division, hatred, violence, sickness, and want.
It is often nearly impossible to find cause for praise in so mutilated a world, apart from this: Creation has been promised a second Advent, one made indelibly certain by the first. The Jesus born to Mary in that barn in Bethlehem; who proclaimed God’s peaceable reign; who gathered disciples; who taught and healed and cast out malevolent spirits; who feasted with sinners; who challenged corrupt power and was crucified for doing so; whom God raised from death on the third day; this same Jesus will in the fullness of time return and consummate the work of redemption. The light will return, and will once and for all overcome the darkness. Despair will fall away, and praise will flow freely from the mouths of every living being.
Until then, let us “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” For yes, the world is mutilated, and at times the extent of that mutilation seems so vast as to prompt despair. The light seems often simply to have vanished. And yet, there are occasions for joy, and the promise that the light will return.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.