Wednesday 13 January 2021

‘I’m only human’

Today is the Octave of the Epiphany. Though of course in the new Calendar, it is no longer observed as such. Which is rather a pity, since to do so would help us to keep in mind the significance of this wonderful feast of the manifestation of Christ to the world, a manifestation in which we are privileged to share, because we have been called to be the Light of the World in which we live.

Of course, we fall far short of being like the Epiphany star — emitting an uncertain light at times, or allowing that light to be obscured by the clouds of our moods or the fog of our vacillating faith, thrown off kilter by circumstance, the pressures of life and, yes, our sins. There are moments, long periods even, when we are not what we should be, and there are even times when we are not much bothered by this. We might freely admit that we are not always radiating the light of Christ, that we fail to heed Our Lord’s words: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.’ (Matt. 5:16)

Each of us is different. One may be able to light a candle while another switches on a powerful floodlight, yet neither of these would make much impact in a sun-drenched landscape. That doesn’t really matter. We are all of us, despite our differing degrees of dimness and darkness, called to be light. Sometimes, when we fail to shine, or fail in any virtue of Christian living, we attempt to justify ourselves, saying, Well, I’m only human, which while it is true, seems an odd appeal to make. We are not angels, but men and women, called by grace to know, love and serve God.

From time to time we do fail to live up to our Christian calling, and our consciousness of this unpalatable truth about ourselves — that we are imperfect beings — can make us give up trying, because the effort required seems too great or because we imagine that we have been set up to fail. Or else, it can encourage us to try again and try harder, because to fail once does not make us a failure.

Many seem to see God as the eternal headmaster, or foreman, surveying the field of our endeavours from a lofty platform, cracking the whip, watching us flail around as we sink in failure, judging and condemning us. This way of thinking does the Lord a great disservice, because, on the contrary, He is there, working alongside us, energising us and acting with us. This makes me think of something Dame Julian of Norwich wrote: ‘When you shall meet your fair sweet Lord, you will laugh to see how you mistook Him.’

Our contribution, while it may seem quite puny to us (and our co-workers), is of infinite value to the Lord who has invited us and given a share in His great work.

The excuse I’m only human doesn’t really wash. It is precisely because we are human that we have been called by our Lord. And by his grace, we are enabled to become more fully human — the men and women we are meant to be. This requires total trust and the courage to press on and to trade with the talents God has given us and not to give in to fear and, paralysed, do nothing.

I’ve always had a fondness for the Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem, in which the poet exhorts his readers to soldier on, bearing in mind that our little human contribution may yet prove to be decisive and of tremendous significance.

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.