“Now I can die,” said Simeon, holding the baby high up in the air. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
Harburg, Germany, as some of you might know, is a suburb of Hamburg. In a public square in Harburg, near the S-Bahn station, there’s a monument titled “The Monument against Fascism”. Or maybe I should say that there USED to be a monument there. Or maybe I should say that if you go there, there still is a monument, KIND OF. Except that it was once there and now it’s gone. Or it’s still there. But you just can’t see it anymore. Or something.
When this monument was first created in 1986 it was 12 metres tall and 1 metre square, a tall rectangular pillar covered in lead. That’s big.
But it was also a performance piece. Most monuments are built to last centuries. “We will forever remember…” – this or that battle, or sacrifice, or person, or whatever. The typical statue, for me, is some bronze bearded guy on a horse high up in the sky with a bayonet in the air. You can see a beautiful example of that down on the corner of Rene Levesque and Peel.
But the statue in Harburg is very, very different. It was built precisely so that it would disappear. So that it would bury itself. Two artists, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shavez were responsible for the idea. Like I said, the column was (or is, depending on how you look at it) huge: 12 metres tall, one metre square, and covered in lead. Germans especially, but also people from all over the world were invited to sign their names on the monument, as a sign of their commitment to the ongoing struggle against Fascism. It was also supposed to represent their memory of what the past held, especially in Hamburg, where after the war everything was rebuilt as if those terrible years had not existed.
The artists provided two steel pencils so that people could mark whatever they want onto the obelisk – their names, their commitments against fascism, their losses, their hopes and dreams and their struggle against the forces that take away our humanity. It was supposed to be about memory and commitment. As it sunk, it was also supposed to be about how much of something we let go, or SHOULD let go, or not, and how much is permanently with us, or should be.
So here we are, barely three days after Christmas and where a few short days ago you couldn’t find a place ANYWHERE to get away from Christmas carols and songs, now you can’t hear them anywhere. We’re busy burying Christmas right now. If you’re like me, you’re thankful that recycling day is right after Christmas because it’s perfect – you can just get all that paper and cardboard right out of the house, pronto, and make everything clean again.
It’s amazing to me sometimes how big we make Christmas, and then how quickly after December 25th such a massive celebration sinks right out of sight. This is one of those times where the difference between secular society and the teachings of the church are the most glaring. In the church, I always feel like we’re saying: “not yet, not yet, not yet” BEFORE Christmas when all the ads are on TV and they’re having the Christmas parades in early November and cutting trees in October and putting up angels before the snow has even hit the ground. And then from December 26th on, when everyone else is rapidly forgetting the whole thing like it was some kind of overindulgent party, here in the church, we’re saying “wait, Christmas is not over yet!”. Hold on for January 6! The gifts are barely out of the wrapping before everything gets packed up again and the world is talking about New Year’s Eve and Retrospectives of 2014.
FORGET Christmas. That’s where most of our world is right now. But you and I are still being invited to gather around the cradle in Bethlehem.
When I read the Song of Simeon, or I think about the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and I think about the statue in Hamburg, it’s hard not to think that there is an unhelpful way for Christmas to disappear, but maybe also a faithful way to let Christmas go.
The unhelpful way is to to turn away in disgust from the commercialism and all the debt and buying and overindulging and to say: thank God we’re done with that. Or at least: thank God until we all go crazy again next December. Learning from Simeon, the faithful, grace-filled way to remember the Nativity would be to let it enter us in a more permanent way.
That image of that statue of lead sinking into the earth is extremely powerful. I remember a woman from one of my former churches telling me once how she accidentally stepped on a pin, and never had it taken out immediately. Over time it sort of healed over, and now for years it’s been embedded permanently in her foot.
For me, that’s what the Hamburg memorial represents. A needle in the flesh of the earth. It’s not really gone. That’s what the artists wanted. It’s there – and we can either forget it, or not. It’s a memorial beyond fading, because it forms part of the very fabric of the earth that we walk on.
And I think that’s what CAN happen, also, to the good news the angels sang. For some Christmas can just sink out of sight. But if take some time – in and even AFTER this season, to remember the Baby, and Simeon, to think about how life and death and justice are wrapped up in this story, then it can become more like that Memorial. Maybe it can sink into the unconscious working out, day by day, of our faith, no matter who we meet or where we go in 2015.
Simeon was content to witness the good news and then let it sink into him. “Master, let your servant now depart in peace,” he says, “for my eyes have seen this amazing salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” And he knew it wouldn’t be easy, either, for the people around Jesus. Why else would Luke have him turn to Mary and say, “and a sword will pierce your own soul also”?
Whatever else you can say about a baby, anyone who’s ever been close to one knows that once they arrive, whether you are a mother or a father, a grandparent or an aunt or uncle, the family is never the same again.
And Jesus, in particular, was to be a life that would forever change the world. Starting with the babies the Gospel of Matthew says were slaughtered by Herod, Jesus would turn out to be the kind of new life that resulted both in violence AND peace.
From the time it was first created in 1986, because of the incredible weight of all of that lead, and also because of the location the two artists chose, the Monument Against Fascism began sinking into the earth. This was what the artists wanted. You can see the thing on the internet, and see how it lost height every year as it sank into the earth. By 1993, seven years after it was built, the last of the signatures and the graffitti at the top of the column sunk below the surface. Apparently, if you go by that square in Harburg now, you will only find a plaque with a text in seven languages, reminding visitors of what was once there.
There is a text that the two artists put at the very top of that 12 metre column, and now it’s the only text you can read on a sign by where the statue USED to be. It says this: “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”
We ourselves. You and I are in a world that would now like to forget the Nativity and move on. And in that context we are the living monument, the ones who have signed this remembrance and must now keep it alive. May the child born in swaddling clothes, the God made flesh, and the Word who came to his own even though his own knew him not, help us to live out the true message of Christmas. May we, as we should, become LIVING Christmases, embodying, as did the Messiah, God’s love in our lives.