There is a special poignancy in our Irish Christmas this year. In some way it links aptly with this no less poignant famous picture of Joseph helping Mary and her unborn child along the road to Bethlehem, just over two thousand years ago.
It is Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, from the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
In it, The Guardian newspaper (believe it or not), tells us that we see Mary and Joseph who are on their way to Bethlehem through a rocky landscape. She has climbed down from the donkey, perhaps afraid of riding down such a perilous, ankle-breaking slope. Joseph, grizzled and weary, is helping her along with all his loving kindness, his actions (rather than her physical appearance) suggesting just how pregnant she is. He is doing everything he can, as husband and prospective new father, to protect his little family from hardship and danger.
In Ireland the unborn have now lost the protection of the State. The fatal decision was made by a majority of the Irish people last May. That they did so, many still find very hard to come to terms with. Legislatures, at one remove from the will of the people, pass laws like this – but that a people should directly ask it legislature to do so is in some way harder to comprehend. But comprehend it we must.
The antiphon to the second Psalm, a substantial portion of which constitutes part of the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah, proclaims:
“His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. “
These lines challenge us, challenge our faith in the word of God. When I look around me at our crazy world and my apostate nation, I have the temerity to question these words as so much self-delusion. I’m inclined to say, “Really? Serve and obey? Will they really? You must be joking.”
Credibly enough, the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Quare fremuérunt gentes, et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?” Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? Indeed the more direct translation, “thinking up inanities” might be better.
Tumult certainly; useless also; even self-negating – all that self-grandising posturing which we call identity politics, signifying nothing; hang-ups over ‘diversity’ to the point where the world is becoming a new Tower of Babel.
And the political classes, left, right and center? They also fit into this picture, personified by the royalty of a former age:
“They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed. They shout, ‘Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.’”
There is certainly a great deal of that around. How else are we to interpret the abuse piled on those who dare to defend the rights of medical professionals whose consciences are being trampled on by their own elected representatives? For our “rulers” conscience is now a fetter, a yoke to be cast off.
“Carol Nolan TD (a member of the Irish Parliament) has received a lot vitriol abuse from fellow TD’S for opposing the abortion bill,” we were reminded courtesy of Facebook a few weeks ago.
But then comes an even harder bit for the beleaguered remnants of Israel to take on board.
“He who sits in the heavens”, we are told, “ laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage. It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
But where is he, we ask, as the division bell rings in the Irish parliament and “the kings of the earth”, the “princes”, troop to the lobby to pass death sentence on thousands of unborn children? The estimate is that close to 10000 Irish babies will perish next year under the legislation now passing through the two Houses of Parliament – with only a few brave voices offering resistance.
We look around and see a crumbling civilization. I walk through the campus of a famous university; I pick up a student newspaper – free because it is printed with money from taxpayers, in the name of education. What do I find in it? Very little that is not advocating licentious hedonism. Irony of ironies, this university was dedicated to the Most Blessed Trinity over four hundred years ago. If I were an advocate of “safe spaces” for young people I would certainly not be recommending this university campus, my alma mater, as one of them.
But then, in the midst of all these temptations to doubt the sacred texts, we remember the crumbling of Christ’s cohort of followers. Just four are left at the foot of the Cross, while faithful Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus face up to the powers-that-be and prepare to take him down from the gibbet to lay him in the tomb prepared by one of them. That makes six out of all those who, less than a week before, the were hailing him as the Son of David.
Then we hear the psalmist say with utmost confidence:
“I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.’”
And the reckoning?
“‘With a rod of iron you shall break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar.’ Now, O kings, understand; take warning, rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage.
Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze.”
Can all that really be balderdash? No. These words have been sung and believed in for more, much more probably, than three thousand years. They have also been scoffed at by kings, princes and peoples who delude themselves with “useless murmuring”. These words have been at the heart of the Christian transformation of the world foretold in the Old Testament and announced in the New. Strip away all that has come to us from these words and we will be left with a nasty and brutal world dominated by superstition and fatalistic myth, ruled by fools who think they can mold human nature into whatever shape they dream up or desire.
The final line of the psalm proclaims, “Blessed are they who put their trust in the Lord.” So, with those words, all doubt melts away – if trust in the Lord is the condition for Blessedness what more is there to say. If we were to value anything in the world over this then we make ourselves nothing more than useless murmurers and lackeys of the “kings of the earth”.
That trust, that Blessedness, will still be as real three thousand years from now, as real as it is today, as real as it was in the souls of Mary and Joseph as they struggled towards Bethlehem with the unborn child who is the saviour of mankind; and as real as it was three thousand years ago – in spite of the world’s Herods, dictators, pseudo-democrats and all the other varieties of rulers it offers us.