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Written by:
Trinity Hall
26 May 2020

Here is a poem by the English poet, Geoffrey Hill.

Christmas Trees

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet,
We hear too late or not too late.

We know about this. Bonhoeffer in his cell, beautiful writings. The Christmas trees – hundreds of phosphorus flares hanging in the sky, messengers of thousands of deaths, incinerated or vaporised. Behind them millions unknown, anonymous, meaningless. We remember officially, it’s seventy five years. We’ve known it all for years. It doesn’t touch us, much.

Now we have The Virus. It’s tough. Thousands die in our own country. But we are still there. It’s tough, and we’re stuck in the house and garden, Tesco’s online delivery. There’s YouTube and Netflix, Joe Wicks – if we’re not too ancient, Hasfit if we are. Daily walk, no car trips. Lockdown. Zoom or silence. No touching please.

And if that’s not enough, people look at the state of the political world today, and that seems almost worse. Is democracy dying? Hungary and Poland, Russia and China, the very stable genius in the United States. Last year they worried about the state of Europe . How will things look now, with pandemic on top of it all?

Some lurch into despair, no acceptable future. A few turn to the philosophers for a global solution, some to religion in its weirdest manifestations. Some see only a passing phase, with a return to normal in a couple of years. Whose normal, whose future? And beneath all the froth, millions in poor countries will surely die, deprived of resources, not always quietly but most often unseen.

Lux in tenebris? In his narrative John, the mystical evangelist, suggests that we are in a universe simultaneously within and beyond empirical observation. Somewhere, not in the known unknown but in the unknown unknown, a decisive event has taken place, a new beginning with direct consequences for our immediate environment. Isolation, crucifixion, light in darkness. The mystery remains mystery. Its shape is cosmic compassion.

Of course I’m still obsessed by the non-arrival of the honey mustard with our online delivery, sobbing in a corner actually. But there may be a bigger picture.

The Revd Professor George Newlands FRSE is Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Glasgow and a former Dean of Trinity Hall.