Christus Paradox, IV: The Everlasting Instant
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth. —John 1:14
Sung to the tune PICARDY
(“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”)
Text written by United Church of Canada
pastor and hymn-writer Sylvia Dunstan,
who says she was inspired by the writings
of Søren Kierkegaard.
You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd,
You, Lord, are both prince and slave
You, peacemaker and sword bringer,
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You, whom we both scorn and crave.
Clothed in light upon the mountain,
Stripped of might upon the cross,
Shining in eternal glory,
Beggared by a soldier’s toss,
You, the everlasting instant,
You, who are both gift and cost!
You, who walk each day beside us,
Sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
Have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our pilgrim guide.
Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and victory.
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You the everlasting instant
You, who are our death and life. Alleluia!
Jesus of Nazareth lived such an extraordinary life that it strained the imaginations of those who knew him and wanted to codify his memory for posterity.
A friend of mine put it so elegantly. He said that Jesus’ life is so beautiful that it bankrupts language. Jesus breaks the bank of language. In the bank of words, there are insufficient funds to draft a description of Jesus.
And so to capture the meaning of his existence, scripture piles up a plethora of pictures to describe him. And often these metaphors are mutually contradictory.
When you place these scriptural images next to each other as Sylvia Dunstan does in her hymn Christus Paradox, they look like oxymorons.
Jesus is lamb and shepherd, prince and slave, defeat and victory, peace and strife.
The paradox Sylvia Dunstan repeats most frequently in her hymn Christus Paradox is “the everlasting instant.” She says it four times. It is a paradox: a moment that lasts forever. The everlasting instant.
But what Ms. Dunstan is trying to say, I think, is that in an instant, in a life which was really no more than the blink of an eye, a scant 30 years, the vast span of eternity stretched out before us.
He had a name. He had a face. He had a birthday and a hometown. He wore work boots and a tool belt. He laughed and he cried and he lived and he died.
To look at him you’d never guess there was anything extraordinary about him. Just a common everyday carpenter.
But to hear him speak, to feel his touch, to watch over his shoulder as he went to war with all the powers that threatened to crush the lost, lonely, little people, you knew that in that very concrete, very specific life, in that scant instant, you were gazing into the very heart of God.
“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Thirty years. Just a fleeting moment. The blink of an eye, yet in it, we glimpsed the infinite. The abstract, says John, became concrete. Spirit became flesh, the ineffable, material; the metaphysical, physical.
It is a story so local it’s universal. Who’s read R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder, or seen the recent film—Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson? One of those rare occasions when the film is as good as the book. Wonder is about ten-year-old Augie, whose facial deformity turns fifth grade into a terrifying adventure.
My favorite part of Wonder is the high school play. Remember the high school play? Augie’s older sister Via plays Emily Gibbs in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Greatest American play ever—Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Our Town? Discuss.
Since it was written in 1938, Our Town has never, ever, once gone on hiatus. Pulitzer Prize, 1938. Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, might be the most famous town in America that never existed.
It’s so local it’s universal. The Webbs live next door to the Gibbs. Are there any names more American than Gibbs and Webb?
George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who knew them? Nobody. And Everybody. In Our Town, says one drama critic, Thornton Wilder “finds eternal truth in a brief moment of time and space.” He shows us the “the Alpha and the Omega of human existence in Grover’s Corners.” The Stage Manager tells the audience: “This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying, in our living, and in our dying.”
It helped me understand what happened when God sent Jesus to show us who God is. That’s what Jesus is: “eternal truth in a brief moment of time and space.” His life was “the Alpha and the Omega of human existence.” An Everlasting Instant.
Isn’t Christmas the Everlasting Instant for you and your family? “O little town of Bethlehem...the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Barbara Brown Taylor says that Christmas is a time machine. “Christmas Eve,’ she says, “takes us back to every other Christmas Eve we have spent on this earth.” That’s why it never changes.
Every year it’s the same old thing. It has to be. Bing Crosby and White Christmas. Burl Ives and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Linus reading “and they were sore afraid” in A Charlie Brown Christmas. How many times have we heard it?
It’s a time machine. “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my heart,” we sing. Wistful. Isn’t that the right word? Isn’t that what we are every Christmas Eve—wistful, longing for a lost past that we strive every single year to recapture?
Even children, who have so little past to live off of, are wistful at Christmas. One Saturday morning during Advent when my daughter was ten, my wife and I were sitting at the kitchen table. My daughter was in the family room next to the Christmas Tree, concentrating intensely. She was writing up her list of all the traditions we have to observe at my house at Christmas. Every practive must be honored; it’s obligatory.
- Drive an hour through the Connecticut countryside, over the river and through the woods, for a hay ride and Christmas Tree harvest. Check.
- Decorate the tree with all 24 Snoopy ornaments. Check.
- Listen to John Denver and the Muppets. Every day. All the time. Without cease. John Denver and Rowf the Dog singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Check.
- Listen to Andy Williams. Isn’t Andy Williams dead? Why do my children listen to the same music I listened to in 1965?
- Watch Home Alone after church on Christmas Eve. I will not go to bed till 4 in the morning on Christmas morning. But it has to be done.
I’ve never seen her concentrate so intensely. She was writing a script, a business plan, a Christmas agenda, so that not one thing would be left out. Unmindfully, quietly, she was singing “Silent Night,” with John Denver and Kermit and Gonzo and Scooter, and my wife says, “That’s so cute,” and she begins to weep, and the memories of the past and the dreams for the future prism into rainbow, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in an everlasting instant. Don’t you know?
I haven’t told you anything about who Sylvia Dunstan is, have I? I’ve told you that she is from Canada, but have I told you that she was born in 1955, and that she was raised in the Salvation Army, and that she studied music with the Catholic nuns in the local convent?
She was educated in Toronto, and ordained to the Christian ministry by the United Church of Canada. She was a prison chaplain. Maybe that’s where she got the inspiration for that vivid language: “Shining in eternal glory, beggared by a soldier’s toss.” She served gay and lesbian congregations. She was, they say, kind and compassionate, especially to the needy. In March of 1993, she found that she had cancer, the worst kind, cancer of the liver. Four months later, she was dead. She was 37 years old, or just a little older than Jesus was when he died.
Life is so short. He came to show us how to live it. He came to tell us how to fill our brief span of days with eternity, with an overflowing plenitude of eternal significance. He came so that we would know how to make our fleeting instant everlasting. He came to show us that the meaning of our lives does not begin with our birth and does not end with our death, but that life goes on and on and on, held close and dear and precious next to the heart of God, who created time in the first place.
And so this Christmas, my hope for you is that you will have just one moment when you hear your child singing “Silent Night,” and the only proper response is to weep, just one everlasting instant, a joy beyond the walls of this world more poignant than grief.
Slightly adapted from Donald H. Wolfe, “In an Ordinary Place, a Playwright Found the Eternal,” The New York Times, December 1, 2002.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 21.