An American acquaintance christened his house ‘Love-in-the-ruins’. He has never vouchsafed precisely why.
Apparently, the phrase – in the form ‘love among the ruins’ – goes back to an 1855 poem of Robert Browning. It inspired a painting by Edward Burne-Jones, was the title of a novella by Evelyn Waugh, of a 1970s film starring Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier, of an album and song of a band called the 10,000 Maniacs, and more recently of a memoir by Harry Leslie Smith, a tale of love set in the ruins of 1945 Hamburg. Blessings on Wikipedia!
But I think ‘Love among the ruins’ also fits Christmas.
Artistically, it already has. Many late medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Nativity have as their setting a stable which is ruined, tumbledown, and in the heart of it the Child, Love incarnate. It’s a chosen juxtaposition.
In the Roman Liturgy for Christmas Day, the 1st reading from Isaiah includes the line: ‘Break into shouts of joy, you ruins of Jerusalem’ (Is 52:9). These words come from the 6th c. B. C. Behind them lies the most shattering experience ancient Israel endured, over which the Jews still annually grieve and fast: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B. C. Walls, houses, palaces, and most of all the Temple left in ruins. ‘The City where the Most High dwells’, the pride and joy of every Israelite’s heart, the goal of pilgrimage – in ruins. But in those words also lie all the energy and hope of the return from the Babylonian exile and the great endeavor of rebuilding Jerusalem. ‘Break into joy, you ruins of Jerusalem.’
In the New Testament, Christ presents himself and is presented as the divine agent for the definitive return from exile in its deepest sense, and as the one who initiates the rebuilding of the ruins, the new creation. ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The most classical version of the Christian story is that in the human nature of Christ the divine person of the Son enters our ruins, is even indeed reduced to ruin himself, only to be raised from the dead and become a new, indestructible, graced and wholesome ‘place’ for humanity. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’, dwelt in our ruins, and thereby made a new dwelling-place for us.
Christmas, the Child in the manger, is the beginning of this; in a certain sense the summation of it. Christmas is – to quote Karl Rahner – ‘God speaking his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word to the world: ‘I love you, man; I love you, world.’’.
And the presence of that love, even if only half-acknowledged, has a capacity to energise. It’s no coincidence that the first form it took was that of a child, of a fragile new start. What difference does Jesus make? It has been suggested that one aspect of it is rebellion against the idea that evil is normal. My father told me how, at the end of World War II, he stood among the ruins of the German Ruhr and thought to himself, this will never be rebuilt. And yet… If you visit the Museum of the Resistance in Warsaw, you can watch an aerial film of 1945 Warsaw made at the same time. It is a panorama of ruins. A city 85% destroyed. But consider it now. Whence this astonishing resilience? It is sober history that Europe’s rebuilding is not unconnected with this Child in the dilapidated stable.
I suppose we each have our own perception of the ruinous within and around us. Some do not have far to look: in his Christmas message two years ago, the Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar wrote, ‘Syria this Christmas best resembles a crib: an open stable, with no door, cold, deprived and so poor. The Child Jesus doesn’t lack companions in Syria. Thousands of children who have lost their homes are living in tents as poor as the crib of Bethlehem…In her difficulties, Mary is not alone anymore; unhappy mothers, less lucky than her, are living in extreme poverty and taking on family responsibilities alone without their husbands.’
Love among the ruins.
‘Love is best’, ends Browning’s poem. ‘Love is best’ says the protagonist as he waits for his beloved in the ruins. Love is better than the fallen grandeur the ruins evoke. Yes indeed, but this love – the love in the ruined stable of Bethlehem – is better still. This love has a strange en-couraging power of its own. It raises ruins. It restores. It rebuilds.
So let’s pray tonight that this Child’s secret energy, his power to inspire rebuilding, may rise up in us all. Man’s winter, God’s spring. Amen.