Last chapels, whether at the end of Michaelmas Term or at the end of the school year, are rather poignant times. This year our last chapel services seem somewhat anticlimactic coming after the Advent Christmas Services of Lessons and Psalms owing to the shift from exams to classes. Yet they provide an opportunity to think more deeply about the great Advent pageant of Word coming to us in the Service of Nine Lessons.
All of the readings were prefaced by introductory phrases that give an explicitly Christian meaning to the service. The two lessons from Genesis, the three lessons from Isaiah, and the lesson from Micah are all seen in terms of their fulfilment in the story of Christ illustrated by Luke’s account of the Annunciation, Matthew’s account of the birth in Bethlehem, and John’s prologue about the Word made flesh. The readings form a narrative arc going from the story of the Fall to the Word made flesh, from separation to restoration.
Though explicitly Christian, the readings are not exclusively so since they really belong to a long and profound tradition of reading and thinking about God as Word, logos. In other words, the service is logos-centric, something which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have in common in terms of their indebtedness to logos, word or reason, as coming out of the Greek and Hellenic traditions of philosophical reflection. Advent is profoundly philosophical.
That is signified through the great questions of Advent which open us to the truth of God ever present and ever coming towards us in the ways of our endeavours to understand that which is greater than ourselves. In our last Chapel service for the 11s, we read the story of the Annunciation with Mary’s question, “How shall this be?”. It is a question of genuine intellectual interest belonging to the desire to know. It leads to her great response, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” a phrase which speaks to the educational project of being defined by ideas conveyed by words coming to us. We also read at the last Chapel service for the 12s the great Christmas Gospel, the last reading in the Pageant from John’s Prologue, about “the Word made flesh”. Augustine famously noted that he already knew about the Word which was “in the beginning”, the Word which “was God”, and the Word which “was God”, words that mark the beginning of that Gospel, from the libri platonici, the books of the Platonists. This looks back to Plato and forwards to his heirs in the Neoplatonisms of Augustine’s own time. The Word is the intellectual-principle, the principle of the being and knowing of all things in God. Thus the Advent Christmas Pageant of Word has a universal dimension and scope.
This is seen as well in the reading at the last chapels for the Junior School and the 10s. “Art thou he that should come?” John the Baptist in prison asks Jesus via two of his disciples. This reading from Matthew’s Gospel is not read in the Pageant and yet is intrinsic to it. The question forms one of the refrains, for instance, in the Matin Responsory of Palestrina, “Tell us, art thou he that should come?”, that framed our services. And Jesus’ response to the disciples of John is explicitly referenced in the great Bidding Prayer: “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the Gospel preached to them”.
The entire pageant of the Advent season is about Word as truth awakening us to its presence and its meaning in our lives. Thus the pageant speaks to three crises in our times: the crisis of the self, the crisis of reading, and the crisis of learning. The crisis of the self is the myth of the autonomous self, the idea of the abstract individual, complete in itself. One might think that the Covid-19 pandemic corrects such an assumption by demonstrating just how interdependent we are upon one another, for good or for ill. The point of the Advent pageant is that we are not complete in ourselves. Our wholeness is found not in the isolation of ourselves in ourselves but in God and in our lives with one another. Such are the things we “do hear and see”.
The crisis of reading is captured best in the metaphors which define our contemporary culture. The crisis is about the loss of deep reading (well attested by a multitude of authors, such as Maryanne Wolf in ‘Reader, Come Home’). The metaphors for us are surfing, skimming, scanning, browsing. They are all about the surface. They are all shallow and stand in contrast to older metaphors about the depth of understanding. The Law is not just out there on tablets of stone as an external authority and an oppressive limit. As the prophet Ezekiel proclaims, the Law is to be inscribed on our hearts. Even more, God bids him eat the Torah, the scroll of the Law. That is to take the ideas conveyed by words into your very being.
These images about deep reading are wonderfully expressed in Cranmer’s famous words seen in the window in the Chapel. “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”, he writes in a famous prayer. He is responding in that prayer to Paul’s point that the Scriptures are “written for our learning”. They are meant to be taken into us to shape and form us. Sir Francis Bacon extends the metaphors to all forms of learning.
Such is the real nature of education, of learning. The crisis in our times is whether learning is, in fact, possible. From the standpoint of the autonomous self what is there to know? And what does it mean to know? How can you find what you are seeking if in some sense you don’t already know it? But how can you seek for what you already know? This is known as Meno’s dilemma in Plato’s dialogue by that name. It negates the possibility of learning, of knowing, of education; it is sophistic and nihilistic. It overlooks the idea of learning about that which is greater than yourself which is presupposed but not completely grasped and never can be. Truth possesses us; we do not possess the truth. Advent is the awakening to the joy and peace of God’s truth coming to us in the Word made flesh. It is about what is greater than ourselves.
May the joy of the child Christ be with you and yours this Christmastide.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy