Sunday after Christmas, 4
Eph 1.3-14; John 1.10-18
He has made known to us the mystery of his will (Eph 1.9)
Passing through St Pancras Station at the end of November, I was fortunate to see the trailer for the new Paddington Bear film. I am a fan of bears in children’s literature in general and of Paddington in particular - and the trailer was thoroughly successful in stirring up in me a longing to see the whole film. I suppose all of us are familiar with Winnie the Pooh; some may even remember Mary Plain - who lived with the Owl Man and the FurCoat Lady and came from the bear pits in Bern, or, of course, Rupert Bear. Winnie the Pooh is unmistakably a teddy bear, sharing life with other more ‘regular’ animals like Wol and Rabbit, whilst all of them appeared to have acquired certain human characteristics like speech and emotion and reflective capacity. Mary Plain is a real bear (no dressing up in duffle coats or any of that nonsense) and her perception of the world is deliberately less than fully human (although it might correspond with some childlike responses, as in the name, Owl Man - so called because his horn-rimmed spectacles make his face owl-like). Rupert is something of a transitional figure: there are many undeniably human features but his bearness is correspondingly somewhat muted.
Paddington, however, is in an entirely different league. Paddington is much more nearly a type of two-natured being. He is, like Mary Plain, a real bear. But he is also, disconcertingly, a real human young person. Humanness and bearness are conjoined in one hypostasis. Like all good illustrations, you mustn’t press it too far: the union of humanity and divinity in the Word made flesh is the sole example of such hypostatic union, the only instance of this mystery of two natures perfectly united in the one Lord Jesus Christ. However, it is, in part, the power of this mystery which is the inspiration for so many of the part-animal, part-human characters who populate the pages of myth, legend and story. Yet none, it seems to me, is as potent as Paddington in reminding us of some of the strangeness of the Word made flesh, or the unspeakable gift of love and grace that God has offered us in the Incarnation of the Son.
The letter to the Ephesians, although a bit contorted in parts and obscure in others, does carry conviction in its reflections on the revelation of God in Christ - and nowhere more than in verse nine: ‘he has made known to us the mystery of his will.’ St Benedict is in no doubt but that the major obstacle to growth in the monastic life - indeed in the Christian life - is the powerful grip of self-will. Again and again he calls us to renounce self-will and to embrace obedience to the will of God. Again and again we find ourselves struggling. We may want to be free of the insidious chains of self-will but it is not so easy to say what it would mean to do the will of God. It is easy to claim that something is the will of God, only to find a bit later on that we were deluded.
On this second Sunday of Christmas, as we continue to adore the mystery of love, the miracle of the Incarnation, the letter to the Ephesians invites us to consider the Word made flesh as just this: the manifestation of the will of God - not in the sense that the only explanation can be that God willed it (true though that is) but in the sense that in Jesus we encounter the mystery of God’s will.
This, in turn, has two parts: first, we, by coming to know the Lord Jesus, come to understand and perceive a little more what the will of God consists in; what it means to say of someone ‘they are doing the will of God’- for that is, we know, always true of Jesus. Secondly (and much more daringly), it invites us to wonder at the action of grace that puts those who are baptised into Christ into a like relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit. We are made children by adoption and grace. The Spirit is poured into our hearts, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father...” - and so we too become channels of the divine will, not by effort or conniving on our part but by the Lord’s gift and grace.
It is this second dimension that seems to me illustrated by the sinless Paddington. Well, no, that isn’t quite right. Paddington is, like us, undoubtedly a sinner but a key part of the stories is that he stands in a different relationship to sin and its consequences from most of us. He is an extraordinary example of a bear under grace, in whom redemption is seen at work again and again. Indeed, more than a model of two-nature Christology, Paddington is a wonderfully inspiring model of the redeemed. Because he has so simply and completely handed himself over, given himself to his vocation, he experiences the freedom and life of grace as disaster after disaster is turned to glory. He is a singular encouragement to us to live out the promises of our baptism.
In all this, he points us to something which we are to practise and ask to be given: to learn, like the Lord himself, to entrust ourselves to the Father. This is a lifetime’s work, learned in many ways - of which the monastic tradition is a key part. It requires a significant element of habituation, turning consciously to the Father in the way that echoes Jesus’ own unselfconscious union with the Father.
Again, Paddington has endearing habits which reinforce and renew his fundamental desire to do and to be good. Jeremy Taylor famously took the vesting prayers of the Priest before Mass and created equivalents for getting dressed in the morning. This is the kind of shaping, habit-forming behaviour that can help hold our gaze on the Father. Jeremy Taylor’s example is particularly potent because of the way in which it makes a deliberate connection between the entirely mundane business of dressing for the day and the sacrament of new life through the Incarnation.
may we take heart. As the disciples say to the blind man in the gospel, “Take
heart; get up, he is calling you!”. Tthe call of the Incarnation is not to
admire a wonder-worker, now far distant from us but to respond with joy and
astonishment at the invitation to participation. We are called to be sons, sons
and daughters, children in the Son, by adoption and grace that the will of the
Father may be done. “He has made known to us the mystery of his will”.
Peter Allan CR