The Meaning of History

The Meaning of History

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

January 4, 2009

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” — Matthew 2:2

The stars themselves announced the birth of Jesus and summoned those who could read their celestial language to worship him. Shepherds and their sheep, angels and their song, scholars, scientists and their gifts, all extolled the supreme significance of his birth. Ever since the time of Constantine (4th century AD) we have counted our calendar from this event and lived anno domini, “in the year of the Lord.” All this means that we Christians give immense meaning to history. History is made up of the years of the Lord Jesus, and we live in his time suffused by his grace, sustained in hope, and always open to the risk of love. Annually we live the events of his life from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent, and Easter and Pentecost, and Advent again. These are the years of the Lord Jesus and his Spirit is the substance of their time.

I turned 70 last December 26th and so I feel the need to tell you what those years have meant to me. I ask your indulgence, When one reaches threescore and ten years one has ended ones biblical allotment of time. Listen to the Psalm. “The years of our life are threescore and ten, / or even by reason of strength fourscore;/ yet their pride is but toil and trouble;/ they are soon gone and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). I like the realism of that “Their pride is toil and trouble,” a fact we prefer to cover up with fantasy. Most of us are survivors, no one gets out of life free – no such card in the community chest -, indeed no one gets out of life at all; but in another sense one might ask, “What have I gotten, what do I get, out of life?”

Well, shining like a star of celebration over all the good things and better people of my life, and slowly moving through the dark times, the half remembered anguish and the anxiety that weighed like a stone, is the simple fact that God gave me to know who this baby really is. So 70 years come down to this; God gave me life and then God gave me the grace to live it, and that precious gift is wrapped in the flesh of this child, whom God allowed me to know and adore. So the significance in my history is simple and strong: He has been the companion of all my days, and that is enough. If once you have experienced the grace of a human companionship you will understand how much more a divine companion fills all history with significance and contentment. So the event of this holy birth is the basis of the meaning of my life.

It is because meaning happens for us Christians, is an event not a theory, that history is such an important category of understanding. History is made up of events and historiography is the guide to what relative value to assign to events. Christian theology is, therefore, an historiography that assigns prime interpretive value to the birth of Jesus. This event is the touchstone by which all other events are meaningfully arranged and allotted their importance. Last month I was at the famous Ecole Normal Superieur in Paris, alma mater of Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, and many other luminaries. Over the main entrance to the school stands the announcement that it was founded in the year III, obviously counted by the new calendar of the French Revolution. It was a moment of pause for me, to notice that quaint number and to wonder when last anyone had measured the time of his life from Maximilian Robespierre.

“Significance in history ” therefore, is another way of saying “meaning of life.” We believe that life, both personal and communal is not just a march of trivial events, ‘one damned thing after another,’ not what Shakespeare, that sublime realist, through the mouth of Macbeth says it is, “…a petty pace of days, …a stage where only actors strut and fret, … a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing…” which sentiment William Faulkner so effectively deployed in a novel named “The Sound and the Fury.”

To be sure in these words Shakespeare depicts the last despair of a moral monster, and that tells us of one major way we have traditionally given life meaning, namely morality. We have assumed for a very long time that history is moral and that the wicked destroy themselves and the virtuous prosper. True, this is hard to maintain before the smirking face of Bernie Madoff, but even in that polluted air we catch a whiff of morality in that many he robbed got their money in the first place by efforts not innocent of chicanery, and were in any case inordinately rich, and thus are reaping what they sowed. This leads to the further question whether the collapse of mutual confidence in the current markets is not also a moral nemesis as well as the temporary failure of honor among thieves. Perhaps it is an instance of the proverbial wisdom that while you can fool some of the people some of the time you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. There are epiphanies of the true state of things once in a while and those apparitions freeze people with fear.

In truth the world gave up the moral meaning of history long ago. I knew for certain that we were beyond morality when my youngest son told me in all sincerity, that what was wrong in the fact that a friend of his was caught stealing from his fellow students at school was that he got caught – a tiny, belated, piece of evidence that what once was called the providential view of history is as dead as the Dodo. So we have for some time been in the cynical or pragmatic view of history, by which Stalin when he was reminded that the Pope would oppose his policies, asks, “How many divisions does he have?” by the anti-morality of “might makes right,” ” a sucker is born every day,” and “nice guys finish last,” that shapes attitude.

The unofficial dogma of our sedulously godless culture is that chance happens and Lady Luck is the phantom of the operation. This is the fundamental cultural attitude but we humans cannot live without the deep assumption that reality is orderly, and history predictable. The latest pathetic instance of this self-deception is the mathematics that modeled the risk factors in the financial markets. Ironically, the truth is what that famous liar Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged when he shrugged off the plunder of Bagdad with “Stuff happens.” It is the case then that ever since the biblical book of Job we have not been able to sustain a simple moral meaning to history, only time and chance befall us and all is vanity and the vanity of vanities? I remind you that this bleak analysis is from the Bible (Job and Ecclesiastes) as much as is the shallow assumption of moralism. It is the Bible’s criticism of its own easy moralism, a view to be affirmed not rejected. Life is like that: lots of vanity and the pursuit of wind, time and chance befalling all, and gratitude for the present the only truth. It is indeed the true view of life in this world and it leads straight to Jesus who alone is the meaning of history. Think of him; think of him crucified; that is the meaning of life in this world.

He was born outside the pale of privilege, never even had the chance to deal with the Bernie Madoff’s of this world. He was persecuted by the politicians while still a baby, and fled into exile to escape Herod’s homicide. He lived in total opposition to the lies and murder that give structure to this world. He spoke the truth and turned the other cheek, and so, because we could not corrupt him, we killed him. We tortured him to death when he was only 32.

This sorry, sublime story is the meaning of history. It is a story of love that casts out fear. Make it your story too and you will find the meaning of history as well as the meanings in history. It is important to keep these two meanings clear in ones mind – “meaning of” and “meaning in”. We do not live the meaning of history as a whole, but we do live the little meanings that appear in our history, little epiphanies of an immense love, brief glimpses of an eternal passion. These are not theories, not explanations, not philosophies, they are events, history not philosophy, and they demand not agreement or assent, but the response of love. The meaning of history is a baby in your arms, not a message in your inbox.
“For since in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God, and the meaning of history” (Corinthians 1:21-4).

I know that this seems to be foolish; the relationship with a young Jew who was tortured to death two millennia ago the meaning of history? Well let me tell you, it’s either that or nothing. Try it, and try the alternatives and judge for yourself. If you don’t want to take all that trouble, take my word. You will be pleased you did as you live the New Year in the faith, hope and love Jesus brings to us.