December 21, 2012

"Such a light such dark did span..."

The other day, for a post honoring the victims of the Newtown shooting, I quoted some lines by an anonymous poet, one that I knew from a magnificent piece of Christmas music, Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The poem comes from a heartachingly beautiful chorus near the end, and when I went back and listened to it, I realized that I kind of wanted to quote the second verse, too.

No sad thought his soul affright;
Sleep it is that maketh night;
Let no murmur nor rude wind
To his slumbers prove unkind;
But a quire of angels make
His dreams of heaven, and let him wake
To as many joys as can
In this world befall a man.

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.

I've written about how the holidays can be complicated for an agnostic family living in an overwhelmingly Christian society; I feel I write about it every year, actually. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also for the pangs of envy that come from watching others receive comfort and warmth from something that has meaning to them. I don't imagine the Rummel-Hudsons will ever become Christians, and certainly not just so we'll have a nicer time at Christmas. The challenge for us comes from searching for meaning in the world that we DO believe in, a world based not on the divinity of Christ and the community of believers, but on other things, smaller things, perhaps. Sometimes as small as a child.

Even for a non-Christian, there is still something powerful about the image of a newborn child during the holidays. It sounds treacly, bordering on cliché, but children really are promise, and in believing in the promise of a child, we find ourselves renewed. For me, from the shabby, sometimes wrecked perspective of middle age, that sense of renewal becomes especially important. When I went back and listened to the music that inspired that quote, I found myself catching my breath at the line declaring that this promise and this joy would break the chains of evil from mankind. The text is referencing the birth of a particular child, of course. And yet, it's important to remember, always remember, that no matter how happy and bright and shining our Christmas celebrations may aspire to be, there's always the end of that story to look forward to. In every Christmas, there is some Easter waiting.

In our simple joy, there is bittersweet sacrifice waiting.

This season feels different from holidays past. It seems harder somehow. In a larger sense, there's no mystery why, and I suspect that there are a great many homes feeling this. Newtown has darkened the holidays in a way that's not easily shaken off. It's too big; no amount of merry thoughts can dispel the mental images we've been trying to push out of our heads, or the heartbreak we've felt, over and over, unrelenting, as we meet the families and learn more about those who have been lost to us. How do we break those chains?

Even so, in the months before Newtown, the world had felt grey to me. The internet had seemed meaner, the real world conversations more terse. And Schuyler was facing the same things on a younger but hardly smaller scale, from girls her age who had already discovered the easy thrill of ostracization. She did so while stubbornly fighting her own unwinnable battle, the one where she believed that if she just tried hard enough, no one would care about her disability or even notice it. Before the world darkened at Newtown, it was already feeling like a stonier place than before.

I wish I had a "But then..." to go to, where I could share something that changed that, made it all better somehow, but I don't. I can only say that I haven't stopped looking for the light. I guess I feel I owe it to her not to miss it if it's there. My agnosticism is nothing like atheism. I haven't closed myself off to the promise latent in this universe to surprise or to elevate.

I don't believe in a holy Christ child, but I do believe in the possibilities of our young ones. I don't believe that Jesus will bring us salvation, but I haven't ruled out the possibility that we might be saved just the same.


Solitary Diner said...

Beautiful post Rob. As an atheist in a Christian family, I can understand the conflicted feelings that the holidays can bring. (I've even written about it: Here's hoping you find some good sources of light over the holidays.

Kate J said...

I admire your honesty and sincerity in finding truth where truth may be found. Happy Holidays.

Lycka said...

Beautiful post, Rob, as always.

As an Atheist, however, I am confused by these last two parts:

"My agnosticism is nothing like atheism. I haven't closed myself off to the promise latent in this universe to surprise or to elevate.

I don't believe in a holy Christ child, but I do believe in the possibilities of our young ones. I don't believe that Jesus will bring us salvation, but I haven't ruled out the possibility that we might be saved just the same."

What is your image of an atheist? What is your image of atheism? These seem to suggest that it is one of pessimism, bleakness and, perhaps, bitterness.

All "Atheism" means is a lack of belief in God. It says nothing of one's morals, humanity or non-religious philosophy. To me, the concept of God is simply no different than any other; I do not see a logical reason for it to be held to different standards. Thus, I am not inclined to accept its existence without evidence any more than I would accept the existence of unicorns, fairies, the cure for cancer or Leprechauns without evidence. As there is no evidence, I see no reason to believe. In other words, I simply follow the logical rule that the burden of proof must always lie on the person making the positive claim (ie, X is true), as proving a negative claim (ie, X is not true) is more or less logically impossible. My Atheism, in and of itself, means nothing more and nothing less.

Does that, to you, suggest that I am "closed off" to the promises of world? Does it suggest, to you, that I see no promise in our young ones? Does that suggest, to you, that I believe that we damned to hopelessness?

I am sure there are some Atheists that believe that -- just as I am sure there are Agnostics, Christians, Buddhists and Jews who believe that -- but they do not believe it by nature of being an Atheist. Likewise, someone doesn't not follow such a belief by nature of being an Atheist. Atheism cannot tell you anything about a person other than they do not believe in God.

Just because I do not believe in God, does not mean I do not believe in this world. It does not mean that I do not see beauty, and joy, and opportunity within it. It does not mean I do not see the immense good that people are capable of. It does not mean I do not see the potential of our youngest. It does not mean I do not have hope that we will one day come to see each other as we are -- social creatures that are all part of the same species, the same pack -- and act accordingly. Because I believe, see, and hope for all of those things.

Tracey said...

Atheism does suggest being closed off to the belief of a God which is all that (I think) was being said here.

The second sentence does not go along with the first one. They are seperate thoughts. One is a simple statement about his potential for belief in a God. The other goes on to describe thoughts that could easily be shared by agnostics, atheists, and anyone else.