Monday 25 December 2023
Who loves longest? ©Suzanne Grimmett
The Risk of Birth, (Christmas 1973)
by Madeleine L’Engle
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled to scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make His home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Certainly “an earth betrayed by war and hate” rings true this year in so many different contexts, whether we speak of the groaning of the planet or the vengeful conflicts that rage across the globe from Sudan to Ukraine to the Holy Land.
When is it time for love?
Time may creep on in its regular pace, measured in the rhythmic turning of sunrise to sunset, and the methodical ticking of each second of our days, but it is impossible to measure what matters most in a similar methodical fashion. Sometimes historians or novelists are motivated by this desire to objectively spread events in sequence and causality, making meaning from the story they narrate.
Richard Flanagan’s new book, Question 7, is a fascinating reflection on the butterfly effect of history, tracing a love affair between the writers H.G Wells and Rebecca West which led to Wells writing a book that inspired physicist Leo Szilard to conceive of a nuclear chain reaction… which led to the creation of the atom bomb.
The book is named after a parody of a school test problem penned by Anton Chekhov in an essay titled “Questions Posed by a Mad Mathematician.” Amongst many other questions which satirize our methodologies and measures is this question, which is picked up by Flanagan in his book;
Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm.
Who loves longer, a man or a woman?
Who loves longer, and how, indeed, across our eons of time and space, matter and particle, fission and fusion, can love ever be measured?
Flanagan describes Rebecca West writing to H.G Wells and asserting that “Christianity lacked dignity- and by implication was pathetic- not because Christ was crucified, but because his love for the world was unrequited.” Love had been weighed on the scales and had been found wanting. The risk of love’s birth, at least in West’s thinking at that moment, was ultimately foolish.
When I worked as a school Chaplain, the principal of the school seeking feedback on the performance of the teaching and curriculum, asked questions of parents about what mattered most to them about their children’s schooling. It was with some humorous disgust that the principal waved generally in my direction and said, “what they want is all her stuff- hope, peace, compassion, kindness…love! All the stuff we can’t measure!”
The immeasurability of love will defeat our evaluations at every turn, and yet it feels like everything else is but noise and fury whose meaning will elude us without the power of its presence.
Love, after all, is a risky business. And the presence of love eludes time because it is found in the instant moments of aliveness when we are fully attentive and present. It is in those moments when time stops; holding a grieving friend’s hand, in a father seeing the teenager come through the door, (home late but safe!), in the shared laughter of utter understanding at the dinner table, in the eye contact between a mother and her new baby nursing at her breast. These moments are holy, and can feel, when we are in them, like the only thing that is real. In those moments we can say, now, I have known love- I hope you may experience such moments on this Christmas Day. As we share these experiences that open our hearts and stop time, we begin to understand that the power lies not in what we make of ourselves in this world, but in a persistent giving of ourselves to that which we discern beneath it all, to be real and true and holy.
Christmas Day reminds us of the glory and wonder of one point in time. That there was a moment when a mother laboured and a first cry was heard…when all the heavens stopped in wonder and awe at a moment that was both infinitesimally small and insignificant and yet of universal and cosmic meaning. This day reminds us of a love so persistent that it would take the long road of incarnation…enclosing divinity in flesh and breathing Spirit upon the earth in the particularity and place of humanity’s own limitations of finitude and weakness.
There is so much that is concealed in the way we live our lives. So much persistence is required if we are to find and live the truth of what we believe to be most real. Richard Flanagan’s book is in many ways a loving tribute to his parents who moved through their lives, navigating events in the world that ricocheted into other events causing unexpected and unintended consequences. All the time they asserted, in Flanagan’s words, ‘the illusion their lives might mean something in the endless tumult of this meaningless universe’ because for them to live meant ‘that love had to exist, the love they valued above all things….they fought for that love and defended that love. With the passing of time, this illusion became their hard-won truth.’
Who loves longest?
The pain of the world is great. It is no time for love to be born when the world is full of war and hate. But because of the vulnerability of love, it can never, through domination or control, create the conditions for peace. The only way love can appear is through presence, and the risky revealing of the self to another over and over again in the persistence that makes real the truth of what matters most. This is incarnation- the persistent, risky revealing of God’s very being in embodied presence, gracing this world with the light of holiness. With the passing of time, in moment built upon moment of divine self-giving to the world, even unto death, the passionate persistence of God’s love is revealed. These moments are not the domino-like causation of events in history, but rather the deep thrum of joy at the heart of all time and creation and, in the end, the only thing that is real. What may seem in the risk of swaddling divinity in an animals’ feeding trough, to be a foolish and pathetic hope, makes real down the ages the hard-won truth that love…lives… longest.
May we know this truth as we celebrate this day of time stopping, the divine in-breaking and the eternal reality revealed that God is with us and love never ends.
 Anton Chekhov, as quoted in Flanagan, Richard, Question 7, Penguin Random House. Australia, 2023, p 24
 Flanagan, Richard, Question 7, Penguin Random House. Australia, 2023, p 77
 Flanagan, Richard, Question 7, Penguin Random House. Australia, 2023, p 186