This month, Dr. Woolf talks about why he, and a famous Nazarene, tend to go missing at Christmas and how students bring with them, in January, on their study abroad adventures, the brightest lights of the year.
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When students go abroad to study they are enacting (just like the rest of us) two simultaneous movements: they are, certainly, going towards something – to discover new places, perspectives and identities. They are also going away from something. When we pack our battered old suitcases and set out we all engage, on one level at least, in an act of liberation. The accumulated and complex interaction of identities that we inhabit at home is, for a time at least, left there and we are free to re-invent ourselves. Students are also, therefore, moving away from environments and roles that they may or may not miss. Because students are mostly young and optimistic, curious and engaged, what they are going towards is, more often than not, the prime motivation: a magnet. They are not running from, but running to.
Photo: Christmas lights in London by James Petts
As one gets older, more disgruntled, grey and mumbling, irascible, you (I, I mean) the primary motive becomes more frequently reversed. Old guys like me like to get away, to escape the “festivities”, or, as my niece acidly puts it, “go missing at Christmas”:
"Every year, when we all get together, you’re missing, holed up in some – probably seedy – hotel, somewhere in some god forsaken corner of Europe. Up to God knows what! Reading bad books! Scribbling stuff no one wants to read.”
This is broadly true. But, I am not the only one in my family who goes missing at this god-forsaken time of the year. I’ve slunk away from London at Christmas for a number of years now, certainly since my sons have grown. They too have taken to slinking away from about Christmas Eve to the beginning of the January Sales.
I am also aware that this time of the year has some tenuous connection with the birth of a Nazarene in a stable. I do not have very much in common with Jesus of Nazareth beyond some rather obscure familial parallels. We are both Jews who left their religious affiliations behind. We both spent, for example, some of our childhoods with orthodox Jews. Our paths diverged. He went on to do some remarkable and impressive things (like raise the dead, walk on water, change the world) while I slumped into sterile agnosticism -- mainly because worship is so boring-- and then fiddled anxiously at the edge of meaning over many marginally productive years.
The other thing that we have in common is that he too goes missing at Christmas.
Photo: Christmas in London by Chris Beckett
We are introducing a course on religion in 2015 and I hope that we’ll take a look at the birth of Christ, not as a prelude to the January Sales or as an occasion to eat dead birds, but as one of the most important poetic metaphors in the history of humanity; that is not to suggest that it is, or isn’t historically verifiable but merely that, for me, it doesn’t really matter whether it happened or not. What matters is the poetry and the intensity of messages portrayed in the images. We read the Christmas text through the lens of dramatic irony with an awful knowledge of death and of the bloody, barbaric ending, but with meanings lost, obscured amidst the tinsel, holly and mistletoe.
You don’t have to be a Christian to understand the importance of those lost messages: homelessness, poverty, squalor – transformed; a moment when Kings worship in hovels; when to be impoverished came close to a state of grace. The weak, dispossessed and tired, are closer to the light of goodness than Kings, Queens, Bankers, Journalists and Barons of Commerce. This resonates with the paradox described by Charles Montagu Doughty: “The Semites are like a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch heaven.”
On the floor of a stable, a revolutionary and a poet, who was to throw the money lenders out of the Temple, was born. The poetry that followed reached startling heights of rhetorical power: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5: 3 and 5). The language proposes nothing short of a revolution in sensibilities. The powerless and the pariahs have value beyond Caesars, Rabbis, Priests, Imams, and Pharisees. This is an audacious and disruptive vision that inverts conventional notions of order.
Photo: London's Carnaby Street at Christmas by Pavlina Jane
The Nazarene was also a great actor, a poet of action. The tableau of Mary Magdalene drying his feet with her hair represents an act of profound physical and spiritual intimacy; there is a persistent erotic undercurrent expressed in the use of her hair for such an act of bodily contact. At some level of meaning, this also asserts the paradoxical holiness of Mary Magdalene, sometimes depicted in some sources as a reformed prostitute. There is great powerful drama elsewhere, not least in John 11: 43, 44 when Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave: “And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth…”
This poetry and drama profoundly challenges our sense of both the natural and the social order. The power of the dramatic rhetoric is even more poignant when perceived through dramatic irony, with our awareness that the poetic, radical voice was destined to become a blood sacrifice: a doomed scapegoat condemned to carry the burden of the sins of humanity.
So how do we choose to recall and commemorate the symbolic power of these words and images? The Barons of Commerce deck the halls with crowds of folly; we shop, eat and sing nineteenth century songs of cloying sentimentality: (Oh come all ye faithful - get your turkeys here – Mistletoe! 5 bucks a throw!) We wallow in an orgy of consumption to celebrate, paradoxically, the spiritual power of poverty. Maybe that’s why Jesus of Nazareth also goes missing at Christmas.
Photo: London's Oxford Street at Christmas by Cristiano Betta
I usually return to London in early January. In the mid-winter gloom, amidst the turkey bones, pulled crackers, rotting meat, I can sometimes reconnect, not alas with the good man of Nazareth, but with some semblance of a world less mired in dust. And then students arrive and there is more illumination and hope in their laughter than in all the seasonal lights of Oxford Street, Times Square or Jerusalem, or any of those other cities scrupulously avoided by Jesus at around this time of year.
I’m not at all a religious person but somewhere, sometimes, something like a prayer, something like this, reverberates in my head:
Our Father or Mother if thou art in that place that some call heaven, forgive us our cruelties, casual and intentional; forgive us our stupidities; forgive us our amnesia for we have forgotten what the birth of the Nazarene taught us. Help us remember and teach the meaning of those memories to our children, and to our students.
God grant us grace.