At the end of this week in Chapel, we have come full circle, as it were, and are now readying ourselves for the three Advent/Christmas Carol services at the school. The Junior School service will be next Friday, December 1st, at 2:15 pm in the Chapel. There is limited space for up to twenty parents or grandparents. The Grade 12 class service will be on Sunday evening, December 3rd, at 7 pm in the Chapel followed by a reception in Stanfield Hall. Parents and grandparents are invited to the service and the reception. The service for the Grade 10s and 11s will be in the Chapel on Monday, December 4th at 2:30 pm.
These services are an adaptation of the Service of Nine Lessons with Carols devised in 1918 and used in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, just after the devastations of the First World War. A wonderful pageant of word and song, the service speaks of hope and peace in the face of the darkness of human violence and despair in every age, including our own.
But with God’s great question to Job, “where were you?” from The Book of Job read on Thursday and Friday of this week, we are reminded of God’s first question to our humanity in Genesis: “Where are you?” Beginnings and endings, it seems, which somehow speak to our present. T.S. Eliot’s second poem, East Coker, in his Four Quartets, opens with “in my beginning is my end” and concludes with “in my end is my beginning.” That paradox is very much at the heart of the Chapel program of spiritual reflections that are really about a constant going forth and returning to God as the principle of all things, a kind of circling around and into the mystery of God. I love the questions of God in Genesis and the return to those questions over and over again in different registers throughout the Scriptures such as Jesus’ own question about John the Baptist which ultimately points to himself. “What went ye out for to see?” What are we seeking? What do we desire? Ultimately, all our desiring is not simply for this or that thing but for God, the absolute in whom we find the truth of our being and living and the truth of everything. Left to ourselves our desires are incomplete and partial, divided and in disarray.
God’s question to Job is really God’s answer to Job about the purpose and nature of creation and our place within its order. It is a check on human pride and presumption that seeks to reduce God and the world to mere instruments or things to be used by us. As if we are gods! Such are the delusions of our technocratic world which assumes that technology is the solution to all our problems, seemingly unaware of its ambiguities that make it just as much a problem. This is not new. We have forgotten what Neil Postman observed decades ago in Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. As he puts it, “The human dilemma is as it has always been, and it is a delusion to believe that the technological changes of our era have rendered irrelevant the wisdom of the ages and the sages.” Chapel, in part, seeks to awaken us to the wisdom which is more than knowledge and information. God’s rhetorical question reminds Job and us that the order of creation and the Law belongs to something far greater than us and yet as that in which we participate and find our good.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? “God asks, and adds “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The litany of questions in Chapters 38 and 39 awaken us to the grandeur of God in creation and to a larger view of reality than what belongs to the desires of our own hearts and the projects of our own devising. The questions have inspired the poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he writes, despite our blindness and indifference that contribute to the human follies and miseries that mar the world. “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” It is a nice litany that aptly though rather gently points to the forms of our disconnect from creation, an echo of the story of the Fall. Yet, as with God’s response to Job, the poem is not simply negative but awakens us to that greater grandeur of God in creation itself. As Hopkins puts it, and in ways that reflect what God reminds Job about creation, “For all this, nature is never spent;/ Their lives the dearest freshness deep down things; / And though the last lights off the black West went/ Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs - /Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
We are awakened to the grandeur of God in which we find our joy and delight, even a joy and delight in one another. This is the counter to all our discontent, the counter to the divisive animosities and self-delusions that mar and harm our social lives. The questions of God belong to the educational project which constantly calls us to account. Such are the ethical teachings that are set before us in the spiritual pilgrimage of our souls to God. They signal the redemption of our desires and awaken us to hope and joy. The questions of God bring light to our darkness. The last lesson in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is from the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Gospel traditionally read on Christmas Eve. The first five verses were read at the first Chapel services in September, highlighting the idea of God as Word, Life, and Light in which all things were made and are known. But we shall also hear that “the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness overcame it not;” the light which is greater than the darkness of our “bent world.”
The theme of light in the darkness is a significant feature of many religions and philosophies, such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which was celebrated this year on November 12th, just after the sombre remembrances of the darkness of war on Remembrance Day. The spiritual theme in these various festivals signals the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, and of knowledge over ignorance. Regardless of one’s personal faith or non-faith, my hope is that the words, images, and ideas explored in Chapel and in the Advent/Christmas Pageants will challenge and comfort us in the face of the current distresses of our world.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy