The voice of the prophet Isaiah rings across the generations; generation upon generations, now countless in number:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– upon them light has shined.
This is a prophecy that speaks across time of the transgenerational message that is God’s vision for humanity. It is a vision that we are not able to fully comprehend. For in our 21st century we are even more reliant upon our senses; that which we can hear, feel, smell, touch or see to form our picture of reality. Our senses provide crucial information about the world around us, allowing us to navigate our way through the world of objects and states without coming to grief.
Our modern reliance, particularly on what we can physically see, or through scientific instruments now detect and thus, verify as an instrumental extension of our eyes has led to an increasing impoverishment of the eye of imagination.
When I say that the transgenerational vision of God rings down through the collective imagination of generation upon generations, I may seem to open myself to the admission that faith is only make-believe, something imagined. For as moderns, what cannot be observed or measured does not exist. We deny a reality to things that cannot be verified through the senses, or their instrumental extension. We consign to the domain of make-belief, to the imagined, anything that we can’t see the evidence for in the day-to-day round of life.
Isaiah and the other great prophets of Israel transmitted and retransmitted the vision of God for humanity. This was a vision they saw no evidence for as they viewed the state of things around them. Throughout the weeks of Advent that have prepared us for this great moment of celebration, I have drawn a sharp distinction a number of times between hope and optimism. What I mean is that the prophetic perception of the transgenerational vision did not derive from a sense of optimism as the prophets looked out with their eyes upon the world they inhabited. On the contrary, the sounding of the transgenerational vision seems to have been strongest during times of crisis and actual, or looming catastrophe.
Do we not live in a time when increasingly we feel consumed by a sense of looming catastrophe? Our whole economic order rests upon the whim of perception, and thus communicates a fragility to us rooted in its very unpredictability. The period of the pax Americana is now giving way to a period of fearful uncertainty as the most powerful nation on the planet falls into the grip of fearfulness and the reactions fueled by paranoia.
What we seem to be most afraid of is the real content of our collective imagination. So let’s not poopoo faith as imaginary when actually the whole of our lives are lived in the grip of imagination, fearful imagination. We don’t recognize this because we are now so estranged from the creative and prophetic power of imagination, which is not at all the same thing as shaking off the delusions of imagination. Our tendency to react to imagined fear as if it is real evidence of the truth of this, of the impoverishment of our modern imagination.
Isaiah’s words proclaimed words of hope, words of faith, words of encouragement to trust to a longer-term unfolding of the transgenerational vision, a vision so contrary to his day-to-day experience. Our day-to-day experience continues to run contrary to God’s vision for humanity and so our response is to doubt the vision, rather than entrust ourselves to it. We see the articulation of God’s vision as an artifact of fanciful religious imagination, a colourful remnant of a prescientific time when imagination coloured reality.
Yet, the power of imagination still colours reality for us, we just don’t admit to it.The prophets coloured their reality with the hues of a hopeful vision while we uncritically colour our experience of the world around us with the dark hues of fearful imagination? The imagination can work in two directions. It can connect us to hope or it can consign us to fear. This is perhaps why we distrust it so. All the more reason to return to trust and faith which banish fear. This is a process to be negotiated within our renewed appreciation of the power of imagination to set direction, to firmly establish rather than to destroy a deeper, wider, higher purpose in our lives.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
In the Gospel for Christmas Eve, Luke imagines the event of the Incarnation in the imagery of the Nativity – the birth of Jesus. The philosopher Charles Taylor refers to this use of imagination and an example of enchantment. Luke’s birth narrative took deep root not only in the enchantered imagination of Medieval Europe but of one man in particular, St Francis of Assisi. The manger or crib scene, now a standard fixture of our church and domestic commemoration of Christmas is the fruit not simply of Luke’s imaginative genius, but Francis’ deep rapport with the universe as shot through with divine enchantment. Taylor identifies the age of enchantment as a world in which the divine was omnipresent in objects, places, and through events, a world that came to an end with the Enlightenment. For Taylor the Enlightenment is the beginning of our current era, one he refers to as the age of disenchantment.
Three centuries into the age of disenchantment, the shape of our collective imagination is changed. No longer the locus through which Western minds connect with an experience of the world shot through with the presence of God, modern imagination has lost its capacity for creativity. Increasingly imagination has become a shrunken place populated no longer with our hopes and dreams, but only with our fears.
The Gospel for Christmas Day replaces Luke with John. In place of a birth narrative with the qualities of a classic fairy tale, John offers us a more cosmic set of images, in some ways more in tune with our modern mindset. John’s vision has sci-fi intimations of the broadest sweep of space-time in which the creator, preexistent, becomes embodied within the conditions of the created, becoming subject to the laws and limitations of the space-time continuum of the three-dimensional universe.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all peoples.
Both Luke’s and John’s visions reconnect us with Isaiah’s prophetic proclamation, a proclamation of the coming both of God in the form of a child and as the light that banishes our darkness. We are a people who find ourselves increasingly dwelling in darkness. We need the vibrancy of the prophetic imagination through which God makes God’s vision for humanity plain.
What might it be that God seeks to make plain?
- Being born as a human infant reveals the full extent to which God cherishes vulnerability. Our sense of vulnerability only grows in a world in which strength, wealth, privilege and success are once again calling the shots. Vulnerability is the doorway through which God breaks into our otherwise impregnable egos.
- The coming of God as the Babe of Bethlehem is witnessed not by the strong and the privileged but by the ordinary, the outcast, and the poor of this world. This is not simply a reminder that social values are reversed in the Kingdom of God, but that being vulnerable, feeling outcaset or rejected, fearing our own spiritual and emotional poverty are internal experiences we all must contend with.
- The coming of the Word, the communicative aspect of the divine community that is God, brings light into our darkness. More specifically the light of hope, faith, and love, irradiating imaginations increasingly dominated by fear and disenchantment.
The Christmas narrative is where nativity is the route incarnation takes to bring about the next stage in the transmission of God’s timeless vision of hope for and fulfilment for humanity. Some may ask: can we afford to jettison our brittle rationality and instead trust that imaginative narrative to provide a richer and more fuliflling framework for puposeful living? I would suggest that the more urgent question is: can we afford not to?
The joy and hope of all humanity be yours this night and in the days to come.