Only a week after celebrating the Incarnation at Christmas—the singular mystery of God entering into His own creation as a human child—we come to another holiday that marks beginnings: New Year’s Day. Like Christmas, each New Year’s Day is symbolized by a baby, but one destined to grow old and be replaced only 365 days later as the next year supercedes the one before. As any of us who have ever made resolutions know, there is really not that much “new” to the turning of the year, and the way we find ourselves making the same resolutions over and over again suggests that most of what passes for novelty in the world actually has a well-rehearsed and cyclic character more than a feeling of radical departure from the past.
Indeed, despite our technological advancement, our yearly calendars remain tied to the movements of celestial bodies, whether to the course of the moon around the earth or to the course of the earth around the sun. And putting the point above in a slightly more positive way, such naturalistic calendars serve to assure us of the dependability of the background rhythms of the physical world, against a foreground that often seems disconcertingly unpredictable and chaotic. But looking only to the material, such calendars can only give shape to the tension between our competing experiences of earthly time as something that is relentlessly marching forward, but also as something that is ever the same and ultimately futile, devoid now of the sense of wonder and mystery that the sun, moon and stars evoked in our forebears.
Yet attention to the natural rhythms and processes of the material world does not necessitate a belief that the sun and moon (or oscillating crystals) are, in fact, the only measures by which we can mark time, nor does it mean the material world really has been disenchanted by our inspection of it at scales both large and small. Unlike each imaginary “Baby New Year,” the babe born in Bethlehem does not cede His place each year, much less only a week after Christmas, but lays claim to all of time and the world as His own, forever, insisting that mystery and paradox remain at the heart of what is true about the cosmos: this includes that the material world isgood and speaks of Him who made it, and that humanity occupies a peculiar place at the intersection of the material and the spiritual. Rather than demystify or “explain” who we are in strictly material terms, the past year’s worth of essays, papers, paintings and poems on this site demonstrates that looking deep into the fabric of the universe and our own human bodies via science, yet through the lens of Christ, heightens our awareness of the mystery of being human. Our accounting of human identity, of what it means to be made in the image of God, need not avoid attention to the sometimes-ordinary aspects of the material “how,” so long as we resolutely keep our eyes fixed on the “why” and “who,” as well.
Continuing this link between images of babies, childbirth and beginnings, and the problem of seeing the world in disenchanted terms, Suzanne Rhodes’s poem “Appointment” makes explicit the tension between the “ordinary” scientific and medical aspects of human pregnancy and birth and the intrinsically extraordinary fact that what is being knit together is a human person—a being capable of knowing itself and its Creator, and of being known and cherished, itself. Rhodes models a faithful tension between the material and the spiritual by first establishing a running point/counterpoint between the medical information she hears from her doctors (“facts”) and her own sense of the wisdom and meaning of the life taking shape within her (“mystery”). Despite our extensive clinical knowledge of what is happening at each stage of an average pregnancy, and even our ability (illustrated by a first snapshot of my own third son, above) to peer inside “so dark a place,” Rhodes insists that what is happening has cosmic significance, that the process moves to “music steep as stars.”
Yet notice, too, that the poet is not removing the earthy truth from the human experience—not seeking to distance the miraculous from the ordinary context in which it comes to be. Rather, it is the very physicality, the specificity, the sacrificial quality of what bringing about a new life entails that makes that life a treasured “pearl” (as we’ve discussed elsewhere, an emblem of the coming Kingdom). Technical knowledge need not, cannot, replace wonder, nor erase the import of what we can now recognize as an echo of the incarnation in each birth. Like Mary’s answer to the angel at the Annunciation of Christ, Rhodes’ last lines are an acquiescence to and affirmation of the outworking of God’s plans through the most ordinary of means, a recognition that He speaks when we are rendered mute. And finally (and perhaps most apropos a discussion of calendars and beginnings and new years), throughout Rhodes’ poem is the implication that what we can see and measure and claim as the start of something new, God has already been working on in advance of our knowledge, much less participation.
If we see only mindless futility in the natural world and its cycles, or even more in its relentless march forward, we have little choice but to despair that all our beginnings will amount to nothing. But if we understand our task as joining into what has already begun and trust that the Lord intends renewal for us and creation rather than merely novelty (or stasis, for that matter), then we can look back over the past and forward to the future with renewed hope. Further, we can commit to continuing our exploration of the world with confidence that our concerns over “how” will always be allayed by our knowledge of the “who,” that what is “new” to us is no surprise to the Creator of heaven and earth, and that even things that seem like the “quake of birth” will, in the end, leave us speaking poems of praise and thanksgiving for what the Lord has done and will yet do.
by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
Tomorrow they will tell me what I know.
After tools and taps they will talk in facts
of mystery, of the flame in so dark
a place you want to look and see God
shaping the hands and face.
They will call it by other names
but I will be hearing
blood and bones sliding in place
to music steep as stars.
while the doctor feels clay
and schedules birth on a chart unreal.
As the earthen womb sings,
making its pearl,
I allow everything:
quake of birth that will leave
the poem of dust in my mouth.