Sunday, December 25, 2011

the worlds are reconciled

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high.
The stars shall bend their voices
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.
(Richard Wilbur)

I’ve been trying to translate this beautiful poem by Richard Wilbur called “A Christmas Hymn” into Italian recently for the libretto of these upcoming concerts in Italy. I consulted an Italian woman who is a translator and an Italian teacher first got a hold of it and when it came back the last lines read “per la cui discesa tra noi il mondo avrà pace”––which to my mind means, “the world will have peace,” instead of “the worlds are reconciled.” So I sent it off to one of our Italian confreres, and I said, “Shouldn’t this really be ‘…i mondi sono riconciliati’” literally, “the worlds are reconciled.” He wrote back, “…il mondo avrà pace––the world will have peace.” Now, sometimes I ask questions for which I already know the answer I want, and I just keep asking until I get that answer. So I called our confrere, Fr. Thomas, in Berkeley who is an expert in translating and many other things, and I laid my dilemma out to him. And he launched into a brilliant argument about biblical exegesis, Hindu Tantra, philology and the secularization of the Italian language among other things, until I finally, impatiently, interrupted and said, “So what should the translation be?!” And he said, “…i mondi sono riconciliati.” Ah! Finally! So I asked him, “Why couldn’t they just say that?” And he answered something like, “Because they, like most people, have no concept for this. We don’t even know what it means for the ‘worlds to be reconciled,’ and so we resort to something they do understand––‘the world will have peace.’”

Now that might be a little harsh on the other translators, but it got me thinking about how bland, even generic, this message of peace can be for us at Christmas time, because we don’t have any categories for the real thing. The peaceful images of a newborn baby and snowfall and domesticated animals conjure up all kinds of tranquil images that are such a balm in a tumultuous world and our crazy lives. But the peace we are speaking about, and the peace that the angels thunder about from heaven in the story from the Gospel of Luke––a heavenly host saying ‘Glory to God and peace on earth’!!––is of a whole different order. It is not a peace that can be brought about by any kind of social order or economic system, capitalism or democracy any more than socialism. Anything any of these could bring about would be fragile at best until the next stronger somebody comes along and breaks through the shields and armor of self-defense. No, the peace we are speaking about here can only come about from the worlds being reconciled.

And what worlds are we talking about? Simply put, it’s realms of heaven and earth, one might say the spiritual and the material––what Hinduism calls Purusha and prakriti––consciousness and matter, and Buddhism calls samsara and nirvana. We believe that in this child these are reconciled. We hear so much bridal imagery in the last days of Advent, and rightly so, because the bridegroom is coming to consummate the marriage with the bride. The bridegroom is the Divine, and the bride is the whole created universe. And this child is the result of that procreative love.

People stumble all the time over the uniqueness of Christ, the necessity of Jesus, and the idea of redemption coming from Jesus Christ. Maybe we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time trying to prove that––it’s like a sacrament, only seen through the eyes of faith. But if there’s nothing else we claim, I think we should stick to this: that something unique happens in this person that makes him not just a person, but an event. It’s the high point in our evolution as a race, what we were/are meant to be all along. And the event is that in this child, we believe the worlds are reconciled. St Paul’s clearest cleanest description of Christology in the letter to the Colossians: in him the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily. But this child is also like yeast in the dough––the whole batch gets leavened by that fullness. This child is like salt in the earth––everything is flavored by it. And he will also be like the seed that falls into the ground and dies, and so will yield a rich harvest. And the harvest of course is what St Paul adds right after he speaks about Jesus––that you may come to fullness in him. That we may become yeast in the dough, salt for the earth, seeds that fall into the ground and die.

According to me, that's our redemption. We learn that our very bodies and this world are the place it happens, not something to be “cast off like a banana peel.” If this whole story is true, then not only are our bodies vehicles and instruments, but the events of his life will show us that it is those very bodies that get transformed, in the transfiguration, the resurrection, in the ascension. That’s how we are redeemed. We get ourselves back––that which we thought we had to leave behind to pursue holiness––but we get them back divinized, that we may come to fullness through him, in him, and with him. The worlds are reconciled! And with us, all of creation, Paul tells us, that has been groaning and in agony while we have awaited this redemption of our bodies. Everything is holy now. The worlds have been reconciled. Samsara is nirvana; the marriage of Purusha and prakriti has not ended in divorce: instead it is consummated.

This is the real peace that the angels are shouting about. The Hebrew notion of shalom, like salaam in Arabic, is not simply the absence of war or violence. It means a fullness, a wholeness, a right relationship with God, a reconciliation, a relationship that can only come about when the worlds are reconciled.

The other thing about this line in that Wilbur poem that strikes me is its tense: not that the worlds were reconciled; not the worlds have been reconciled; not the worlds will be reconciled––the worlds are reconciled. This is something real and active and already accomplished, but something that is yet to be realized––because we are not aware of it; it is not yet real for us. And this feast makes us want to realize it––that the worlds are reconciled.

There was one other phrase I was trying to translate that had a similar problem. It was from the song “Compassionate and Wise,” Heng Sure’s version of the Buddhist Metta Sutta: “…because our hearts are one / this world of pain turns into paradise” it says in English. And again both of the Italians sent it back saying, “Se i nostri cuori diventano uno,” which to my mind means “If our hearts become one.” And again I asked Thomas, “Can this not be expressed in Italian? I would have thought you could say it literally––Poichè i nostri cuori sono uno.” Again he said, “Of course you can say that in Italian, but we most of us have no categories for this concept either.” Because our hearts are one, already one in some marvelous way when the worlds are reconciled. This is not just a Buddhist concept! When we gaze at this child in whom the worlds are reconciled we see all of humanity. Just as we say that the resurrection and ascension are a triumph for all flesh, so too this incarnation is a triumph for humanity, because we are one body. St Augustine taught in one of his sermons:
All human beings are one human being in Christ, and the unity of the Christians constitutes but one human being. And this human being is all human beings, all humans are this human; for all are one, since Christ is one.

This too is the reconciliation. In this one human being we are all one human being. What would it mean to realize this?! That all human beings are meant to share the fullness––grace upon grace, that all human beings are meant to share in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity, meant to participate in the divine nature. This is something that needs to be realized, that we need to become aware of, and in becoming aware of it, it becomes real: because our hearts are one. As the Buddhists teach, if we were to attain this wisdom it would give birth to great compassion. If we were to realize this, this world of pain would indeed turn into paradise.

What has happened in this child? The worlds are reconciled! Our hearts are one––in Christ all people are one person. This Christmas may we realize this––may we become aware of it in a new way so as to make it real in our lives, and in our world. Then we would know and bring about the peace––the real peace––that the angels are thundering about.