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The Helplessness of the God of Christmas

When I read this way back in September, I just knew I needed to come back to it for Christmas. This is from W.H. Vanstone’s Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, a short reflection by the late English theologian-priest on the nature of God’s love. You can’t talk about God’s love becoming knowable without talking about Christmas, which is why Vanstone tells this simple story. What becomes clear though, is how this depiction of God’s love—which looks discomfortingly like helplessness—is evacuated from our usual understandings of Christmas. In the story, Vanstone is closing up the church in preparation for services the following day, and there meets a disruption to his pretty Christmas picture.

The Word of God discloses to us at Christmas the helplessness of love at the hands of its own creatures—the fact that it is in their hands, vulnerable to their hands, dependent upon their hands for its own triumphant or tragic issue. But the disclosure is made graciously, in the form and presence of a Child. The helplessness of a child is a manageable helplessness, about which we know what we may do, by which our heart and our will are touched. It is not a harrowing helplessness, before which one who saw it might stand appalled. The same truth, the tragic possibility of the love of God, might have been exposed to us in harrowing and appalling form.

On a certain night, shortly before Christmas, I stood in the beautiful church which, in due time, rose beside the commonplace building where, at the first, the people of a new community had worshipped. The Church was ready for Christmas; and the quiet light of candles enhanced its tranquility and beauty. It was very late: but the beauty of Christmas and of its symbols seemed peculiarly intense that night; and I was glad to receive it while I might. I was disturbed by a noise behind me—a dull thud: and I saw, against the glass door, a face pressed, and grotesquely distorted by the pressure. A man was half slumped, half kneeling against the door. He was drunk; and when we talked and he gradually became more sober, it was clear that, though he was quite young, he was already an alcoholic. His experience of life was nothing but the experience of conflict and squalor: and at Christmas he expected nothing different. When at last I retired to sleep my mind must have dwelt on the tragic and distorted face which had, so to speak, invaded the beauty of Christmas. For I dreamed: and in my dream a rubbish-collector came to me and told me that he had been clearing up after a riot; and I myself saw a huge pile of stones and cans and waste paper and scrap metal which he had collected. Then the man touched my arm and said, ‘But what am I to do? For deep within the pile, buried at the bottom of it, I have seen a living face.’ Though my own eyes did not see a face, I knew in my dream that it must be the face of God.

A few hours later, when I preached in Church, I was compelled to speak of my dream. For it seemed to suggest a different way in which the truth of Christmas might have been disclosed—a harrowing and appalling way. It made one newly sensitive to, and grateful for, the graciousness of the way in which the truth of Christmas is in fact disclosed to us. But, in substance, it was the same truth. It was the truth of a God Who, in love, is totally expended for the being of His creation—so that He is helpless under its weight and barely survives for its everlasting support; so that, in the tragedies of creation, in its waste and rubbish, God Himself is exposed to tragedy: so that the creation is sustained at the cost of the agony of the One Who is buried and almost wholly submerged within the depths of it.

Mary Definitely Knew

Mary Definitely Knew

They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One outfit. Four pre-made bottles. A handful of diapers. A package of wipes. And a packet of papers that offered no definitive judgment on the proper pronunciation of her name. “I think it’s…” the social worker said. “I’m pretty sure.” A […]

A Son Is Born

A Son Is Born

WARNING: Spoilers for the film A Star Is Born ahead. Read at your own risk, while remembering this movie has been made four times so if you don’t already know the ending then that’s really on you. In the beginning of the film A Star Is Born, just after Jackson’s raucous opening number, he sits […]

A Fictional Non-Eulogy on What Faith Really Means, by Robert Farrar Capon

A Fictional Non-Eulogy on What Faith Really Means, by Robert Farrar Capon

The following snippet comes from Exit 36: A Fictional Chronicle, by Robert Farrar Capon. Detailing a tumultuous month in the life of a parish priest, this mystical novel disentangles the most crucial of themes: death, romance, mystery, and redemption. Here, our narrator Father William Jansson reflects on ‘faith’, following the passing of his dear friend, […]

As Advent Approaches: Evil Is Well Organized

As Advent Approaches: Evil Is Well Organized

Last week at 3:00am, I sat straight up in bed and muttered the name “Jamal Khashoggi.” I do not watch the news. I was by no means following the story. Had you asked me the name of the journalist who was murdered in the Saudi consulate I would not have been able to tell you. […]

The Straight Road Out of a Buried World

The Straight Road Out of a Buried World

November 11 came and went as unexceptionally as any Sunday ever does, a day living under the permanent shadow of Monday, almost exclusively spent hoping against hope to recuperate before the work week resumes. Most Sundays, however, don’t mark one hundred years since the armistice that halted the First World War and gave the day […]

To Dissolve the Line Between Man and Machine: Reflections on Cyberpunk and Suffering in the Meatspace

To Dissolve the Line Between Man and Machine: Reflections on Cyberpunk and Suffering in the Meatspace

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” ​(Neuromancer, pg. 3) If I self-reflect on how geeky my hobbies are, I’m nothing if not consistent. For the past year or so, some friends and I have been meeting in a basement after work and playing a fantastic Dungeons […]

The Difference Between Despair and Dependence

The Difference Between Despair and Dependence

Regular readers know the high esteem in which we hold Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman, and how much inspiration we’ve drawn from his writing, especially over the past couple of years. If it’s true that God often speaks to us through unexpected vessels and out of our blindspots, then he represents something of that for […]

You (and Kirk Cousins) Are Going to Die

You (and Kirk Cousins) Are Going to Die

Kirk Cousins, the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, has a sculpture outside his house with an odd purpose: it’s intended to remind him that he’s going to die. Well, sort of. Planning to live to 90, the quarterback has a jar of 720 stones (one for each month he intends to live) at his home. […]

Fear and the Reality of Horror, Part 1

Fear and the Reality of Horror, Part 1

Is there a place for fear in Christianity? And if there is, what value does the horror genre bring to the Christian life? To answer these questions we must uncover what sort of world it is we inhabit, and we mustn’t be too hasty in presuming to already know. For if the world is a […]

Now Available! Exit 36: A Fictional Chronicle, by Robert Farrar Capon

A priest’s suicide. A lover’s confession. A web of mysteries. The latest installment in Mockingbird’s Robert Farrar Capon series is available today! Exit 36: A Fictional Chronicle explores the secret life of a clergyman and the ultimate mystery of redemption.

In our discussions about Exit 36, Valerie Capon used one word repeatedly: “mystical.” She was adamant the book should have a colorful cover that could reflect the unique otherworldliness of this particular work. To me, her insight did not at first square with what appeared to be a coarse, noir-tinged novel about a suicide. “The suicide is the hook,” Valerie said. “Robert wasn’t really writing about that.”

So what was he writing about?

The Rev. Mark Strobel, our friend in Fargo, ND, says this book reads like one of Jesus’ parables. Brooding, humorous, a little outrageous, Exit 36 tells the story of Father William Jansson, an Episcopal priest with an unruly libido who receives an urgent phone call from a woman who knew the suicide victim (intimately). In her grief she turns to Jansson, who falls backwards into the four themes of eschatology: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. It’s undoubtedly one of Robert’s earthier works—grungy, sultry—but, as Valerie suggested, the persistent promise of the resurrection glows under its surface. The climactic sequence left me stunned.

This new edition of Exit 36 is the fourth entry in Mockingbird’s Capon collection and features a brand-new, deeply moving foreword by our friend Chad Bird. You can now find Exit 36 in our online bookstore and on Amazon, along with Mockingbird editions of Robert’s other works. As always, we welcome your help in spreading the word!

Happy reading,

CJG, editor

“Capon looks directly at the agony of a fallen world through the mystery of the reconciliation of everything and everybody in Christ. Whatever scandals one might find in this book, however, the scandal of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus triumphs over it all. Capon’s voice is needed now as much as it ever has been.”

—The Very Revd Mark Strobel, Fargo, ND

“Running parallel to the good old-fashioned mystery is a long look at our deepest anxieties about death, sin, forgiveness when forgiveness is outrageous and impossible, and love. The romance of love is dealt with unabashedly. But the humanity of love – the Jesus who lives in us all and frees us from sin — is revealed by our narrator’s own searching thoughts, bold self-examination, frank dialogue with parishioners and quietly stunning acts of compassion.”

—Laura E. Bondarchuk, East Marion, NY

You can find Exit 36 in our online store and on Amazon!

You can also find Mockingbird editions of Robert’s other books: More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, The Man Who Met God in a Bar, and Bed & Board.

All the Lonely People

All the Lonely People

A mom who doesn’t feel any freedom to be honest about how difficult motherhood is for her. A college freshman who turns to boys and alcohol because she knows she’s too much, because she knows she’ll never be enough. A man who is interviewing for a new job, hoping this will be the one that […]