Slouching towards Bethlehem
A final festive Payneful reflection at the end of a disconcerting year. (See below for what to expect over the Christmas holidays.)
Just when we thought we were mooching towards a passably standard Christmas, we find ourselves once more (in my part of the world) in a state of covid anxiety. Will we be allowed to gather for Christmas services? Will Christmas lunch go ahead? Will we ever see our relatives again?
There is some cause for hope. For example, will we ever see our relatives again?
But the general mood of weariness and dislocation sends Christmas preachers and commentators off to rummage through their kitbag of cliches. Everything is ‘unprecedented’; plans have been ‘thrown into disarray’; ‘things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.
That final over-used phrase has been wheeled out more than once during this crazy, disconcerting 2020. It comes from one of the most rummaged-through poems of the 20th century, The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.
Written in the aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, it speaks of a disintegrating world, where innocence has been drowned in blood and anarchy, and where any pretence that Western culture has an authoritative voice to guide it is now abandoned.
Here is the famous first stanza.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Like a wheeling falcon now out of reach of its falconer’s voice, the world seems to have lost connection with its authoritative centre, and everything is falling apart. The best know that there is nothing any more to be sure of; the worst gleam with a fierce-eyed intensity to impose their will on the chaos.
Rarely has a year felt more like this than 2020.
The less well-known second stanza looks with dread on what might be coming to fill the void—a Second Coming, not of Christ, but of a nameless beast, stepping out of the apocalyptic visions of the Old Testament:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What dread future did Yeats see coming? Was it the rise of National Socialism, or of Communism, or of the juggernaut of modern hi-tech capitalism? We tend to read our own worst nightmares into the figure of that pitiless beast, making its inexorable, slouching way towards the centre of our culture—the place that Bethlehem once had.
Like all really great poems, The Second Coming names something that is true in our experience in words that somehow say more than they say.
It captures the emptiness at the centre of modern life and politics and culture. We no longer hear an authoritative voice. The best of us wearily resign ourselves to making what we can of a world without a central guiding truth. The worst of us rush to occupy the void for our own exploitative ends.
In some ways, the sentimental, consumerist emptiness of the modern Christmas only reminds us of what has been lost. Instead of celebrating the birth of a king, sent from outside to save and to rule, we celebrate ourselves and our families and our insatiable capacity for getting and spending.
Interestingly, though, the sense of loss in Yeats’s poem is very passive.
It hardly seems the falcon’s fault that its ever-widening spirals take it beyond the reach of its master’s voice. No-one seems to be culpable for the breakdown of the centre. Things just fall apart. Anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide ‘are loosed’; innocence ‘is drowned’. The voice of the verbs is as passive as the falconer, standing and calling, impotent to reach the falcon.
In common with many other modern and post-modern observers who wistfully notice the loss of a Christian centre in Western culture, Yeats is unwilling to admit culpability. He glides past the conscious and relentless rejection of the Christian revelation by Western society over the previous two centuries.
It is not that the falconer’s voice has become distant and dim, left behind by the glorious progress of the falcon. It’s that we have closed our ears to his voice, and flatly refused to acknowledge that the lion of Judah has already come, and is seated on his throne.
For Yeats, there seems to be no going back.
But going back—or repentance, as it is otherwise known—is the only valid response, if the Son of God has indeed come, and lived and died and risen, and been appointed as Lord and Saviour of all.
Frustratingly for those of us who have put our trust in this Lord, turning back to Christ is a door that Western culture now considers closed.
Yet he knocks at the door, and will come in some time soon to judge and to save. And when the Lion of Judah does come again, he will come looking like a lamb that was slain (Rev 5:5-6). He gaze will not be blank and pitiless, but piercing and merciful, full of justice and forgiveness.
And if that seems like an impossibly strange image of our future—a fierce and regal lion coming with the look of a lamb that was slain—it is no more incongruous than the stunning contrast we remember at this time of year.
Born of a woman. Born as a man. God in a manger.
As a good Anglican, I am full of ‘most humble and hearty thanks’ for God’s goodness and kindness in this past year, and in particular for all that he has done through your kindness and support for The Payneful Truth. I am very grateful for everyone who has signed up to the list, everyone who has emailed and commented, and particularly everyone who has become a ‘Payneful partner’ and supported the whole venture financially.
(And if you’d like to start doing that, it’s not very hard! Just click on the button and follow the options.)
I think we all deserve a break for a couple of weeks—me from writing, and you from my writing. So, here’s what to expect over the next little while:
Later this week, before I clock off for the year, I’ll send around to the partner list a very-close-to-final draft of the revised Two ways to live outline that I’ve been working on. Many of you have already given very useful feedback—any final comments or thoughts will be gratefully received.
Then, after a short break, I’ll start rolling out a little series of light-hearted holiday-reading articles on the first Tuesday in January (taken from some dusty old pieces I found lying in the vault). They may or may not have something to do with golf, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them nevertheless. (These will go out free to everyone on the list—it’s Christmas time after all.)
And then I’ll be back in earnest on January 26 with the first proper edition of 2021.
Until then, may God bless you with rest and rejoicing as we remember the coming of his Son.