He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is he Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety,
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh,
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
These three stanzas from W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio have been a prominent landmark in my soulscape for almost exactly thirty years. I read them first in the late spring of 1981. Deborah’s wedding gift to me in 1983 was to cross-stitch these nine lines of poetry and put them in a frame. And over the years, the words have themselves become a frame – a way of reading part of John 14, one of the series of “I am” illuminations that characterize the Fourth Gospel.
The places through and in which we follow, seek and love Jesus are, I think, just the ones that Auden identifies. In the Land of Unlikeness, through which Auden invites us to follow Jesus, we discover Jesus as the One whose love mediates the many unlikenesses that could easily (and so often do) become the basis for suspicion, hostility, fear and violence. Rare beasts indeed, including the rare beast that appears out of our own unlikeness in the eyes of others. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to suggest that unless we can follow the mediating One through this otherwise terrifying land, we cannot offer the world a gospel alternative to its tribal defaults, and we will continue to demonize the unlikeness of others, and remain blind to our own.
The Kingdom of Anxiety, in which Auden invites us to seek Jesus, is a kingdom of real apprehension about the future. It is hard to live in history without being touched and affected by that apprehension, that anxiety. But it is precisely in the midst of that anxious kingdom that Jesus offers an alternative to the kingdom driven by anxiety. In the midst of a world of multiplying fears and self-defeating remedies, Jesus proclaims and embodies the ethic of a Kingdom governed instead by love. The truth of such a kingdom radiates out from the One we seek as an invitation to live unafraid in the world God loves.
And the World of the Flesh – that’s where we are to love Jesus. That’s where Jesus eats and washes feet, and says, “This is my body, for you.” And it’s where, with our bodies, we “do this in memory”. We offer our bodies in prayer and kindness, in bending to serve and in clamouring for justice, in the close intimacies of life-long friendship and in the passing courtesies of strangers. Maybe sometimes churches have seemed to disdain the body. But bodies are the honest truth about our lives. What we do is what our bodies do – including how we love or fail to love. Our bodies are the bread and wine we offer to God at the table.
The Land of Unlikeness, the Kingdom of Anxiety, the World of the Flesh. That’s where we follow Jesus the Way, seek Jesus the Truth, and love Jesus the Life.