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The "Times" Draws Nearer

Last year's "Christmas Editorial" in The New York Times "famously" located the heart of the Christmas Narrative in "shepherds abiding." This year notable progress has been recorded. They write:

It would be wonderful, too, to be woken in the earliest hours of the morning by the heralding of angels proclaiming peace on earth.

Still no mention of the three central figures of the Feast; but we're inching closer. As my mother would piously declaim: "Thank God for all little blessings!"However, to be fair (as columnists are wont to say -- in small print -- as a sign of their ability to discern a multi-sided reality), the Book Review features a splendid reflection by Marilynne Robinson on "What Literature Owes the Bible." She concludes her discussion of the great concluding sermon of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury with these words:

The sermon interprets Benjys wordless first chapter, a tale told as passionate memory of gentleness and love, Faulkner interceding to evoke for Benjy thoughts that are too deep for the words of any writer but one who is generous and also great. Everyone knows that life is profaned when such thoughts are neglected, as they so often are. As a statement about human consciousness and the reality that contains us, this vision is always familiar and never easier to accept. Paul quotes an ancient hymn in his letter to the Philippians that says Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And this recalls the servant described in the book of Isaiah, one from whom men hide their faces, who was despised, and we esteemed him not. In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life, the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our civilization.

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I'm afraid that from recent times on, the credentialed intelligentia will be divorced from establishment religion. That "multi-sided reality" is their highest truth. Maybe eventually they'll once again find their home in the shelter of academic cloisters, content with praising one another's cleverness in obscurity, out of the public light. At the moment, though, in the confusion of these transitional times, the public hang on their words, believing them wise men and prophets. As we grow up, hopefully, they'll grow down.Merry Christmas.

"A good sermon changes even known truth into profound realization" Marilynne Robinson remarks in her Times piece. And yesterday morning after returning from church we settled in to a good breakfast, opted for Christmas Music from King's in lieu of Meet the Press as background, and browsed the Times over our coffee. Joe handed me the Book Review and said I should read the coverpiece. We agreed it was a good sermon in Robinson's terms, and a far better Christmas sermon than the one we had heard at Mass.

On the other hand, avoidance of the Holy Family, and of Christ, might speak to an excessive piety of avoidance. Christians, even otherwise "orthodox" believers, have been known for avoiding the sacraments for months or years on end, sitting in the rear of churches, muttering about an "unworthiness" that seems not to extend to occasional relations to other sinners.I'd be more inclined to worry if St Mark had decided to focus over much on the hillside dwellers. That said, one of our parish priests did spend much of his homily focusing on shepherds. To be fair, the music ministry had his back, as it were. We focused on Christ and sherpherds didn't get a mention till Communion time at Midnight Mass.

Todd,The way I was taught it was that the reason we receive Communion is *because* we're sinners and need the grace of Jesus' presence. This is why I'm inclined to think that the restrictions on who may receive Communion ought to be loosened drastically. Surely the Lord would not refuse a meal with even a great sinner who longed for His presence.

As someone who sparred with Bob Imbelli and other critics of last year's Times Christmas editorial, I read this one with a bit of trepidation. By and large, it does embrace the Christmas story in order to stir a vision of peace, equity, tolerance, stewardship of natural resources, an end to the hatred and violence that "we seem to spawn so prolifically as a species," the recognition instead of our common humanity, and good will and the deeds that "create and embody" it. Yet I wondered about what followed, an insistence that "no matter how we might wish for these things, they must all be done by us alone." Although "the message may be divine ... the work ... is wholly human, wholly our own." Is it? This can be a simple call to responsibility. Or something more aggressive. It all depends, I suppose, on how forcefully one emphasizes that "alone" and that twice-mentioned "wholly."

Having sparred with Peter Steinfels over last year's Times Christmas editorial, I awaited his comment on this year's post with a bit of trepidation.Happily we seem much closer this year. And I suspect that we are at one in our enthusiasm for Ms Robinson's piece.

ISTM that what this editorial shows is a complete lack of understanding of the order of grace. It gets Original Sin, for sure. But surely the editors must wonder sometimes 'why the exception?', 'why are some people saints'? Physics doesn't answer that.Part of the problem might be that the churches don't seem to be very interested in preaching about what grace is, its varied forms, and how it can is of our lives, including the lives of "anonymous Christians". Granted, it's a thoroughly non-empirical, totally abstract topic, the sort that this culture seems to reject almost automatically. Except for the New Agers, God bless them, but they do include some real kooks. Sometimes I think that the great gift of Protestants to Christianity is the realization of some of them that God is present in this world as a force for good, a presence that is sometimes intuited by Protestant mystics. (Except for Thomas Merton, I don't know of any Catholic mystics who speak of their awareness of God in the world like this.) I just discoveed this testimonh of that extraordinary Quaker James Nayler which he spoke on his deathbed. Would that the NYT editors realized that events such as Nayler describes might also be real:"There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to avenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other: if it be betrayed, it bears it; for its ground and spring are the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief, and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens, and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection, and eternal holy life."Source: William Sewell, The History of the Rise, Increase and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers (New York, 1844), pp. 202, 203.http://www.qis.net/~daruma/naylor1.html

Okay. Let me get a little more serious.First, Ann, I would agree with you on the importance of the sacraments.Second, I think Ms Robinson's essay is a much better reflection than the unnamed editor's. When Bob Hovda or whomever advocated preaching with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other, I don't think he implied we need to take the editorial page as fifth gospel or anything."Is it? This can be a simple call to responsibility."That's how I would take it, lacking a conversation with the person who wrote it. Teresa of Avila said mostly the same thing about whose hands, feet, etc. were Christ's. Though I doubt the NYT editor would be aware of that reference.Far be it from me to act like the usual run-of-the-mill conservative critic of the NYT, but is a Christmas editorial from a secular organ really all that significant? Do non-believers really pay attention to it? We have enough evangelization troubles without worrying how the Times comes down on Jesus of not. I think that any half-decent homily heard at church will stick with a believer more than this quickie piece.

Todd --Maybe the reason the Times is important to us believers is because other than its coverage of religion (which leaves out so much that is religiously important) it is such a fine newspaper. We want its good opinion but obviously don't have it. And, given its influence, its indifference is a bad thing for religion. Oh, well, at least it hasn't gone whooshy. Or hasn't it? Look how much attention it gives to food, sports, and automobiles, among other minor whooshy subjects. (I can't help but think that for its editorial staff, Sundays must be a hard day. What do they read? Not the Times. They already know what it's saying.)

Ann, if the success or failure of religion in this country is hinging on the how the Times treats it, God help us all.The Times' benign neglect is far less damaging than these - Christian: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/us/battling-anew-over-the-place-of-rel... Jewish: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/world/middleeast/israeli-girl-at-cente... lets not forget The One True Church: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/us/for-bishops-a-battle-over-whose-rig...

Jimmy --I'm quite sure the Times doesn't set out to neglect what shouldn't be neglected, viz., the churches. (NOte: it's not just the Catholic Church that the Times neglects.) But when the respected media ignore religion, they give tacit approval to people who are inclined to do so when they perhaps know better. So the papers are important by the absence of such news.What the Times doesn't seem to realize is that there is a readership for news about the churches and religion, and I don't just mean sex scandals.. Just look how the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. It has expanded enormously since it began. At first it was just a dinky little blog. I know because I was then one of the loud-mouths there. But it was the brainchild of Sally Quinn (wife of Ben Bradlee a great editor there) and a pious Anglican editor named Meacham. She said recently that she now calls herself an "ex-atheist", and attributes her opened mind to what she has learned editing the blog. She seems to know everyone on Earth who is important and has gotten all sorts of people to be contributors. This has generated a lot of interest, no doubt, if only because people are interested in celebrities. But she often gets people who really know what they're talking about, and the blog is very successful. My point is that the Times might help its circulation (which is in trouble) if it developed an interest in religion and churches. And it might help others, like Sally, who have no faith but whose minds have been opened by reading a newspaper.

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.