Hints of Heaven

It was dark and I was taking the washing off my line. The lights streamed into the darkness from the kitchen, where my three girls were sitting around the table, cups of tea in hand, chatting about their day. I watched the interaction between them, saw their animated discussion and knew that there, right in the heart of my home, God was too. A beautiful presence that set the place into radiance’.

Paula, a friend, recognised the incarnate Presence in a glance into her own home. In one ordinary domestic moment she realised that the Christmas mystery is revealed through a kitchen window.   Yet of all the revelations of Christianity, Incarnation must surely remain one of the least understood.

Incarnation urges us to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again, until we recognise the divine light glimmering deeply within. In Haloes writer John Shea remembers a woman busy at the Christmas table. ‘I looked up and caught a rim of radiance etching her face. I noticed the curves of light sliding along her shape. She out-glowed the candles. I did not get excited. I allowed love to be renewed.’

As Christians, these momentary epiphanies do not leave us unchanged. They return to us, unbidden, at the most unlikely times, and, as W.B. Yeats put it, we ‘hear (them) in the deep heart’s core’.  Shea ends his beautiful Christmas memory, ‘ . . . they recede, as Gabriel departed Mary, leaving us pregnant’.

In The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of this pregnancy in terms of the ‘New Nazareths’ and ‘New Bethlems’ conceived within us all. God’s infinity is ‘dwindled to infancy’ in Mary’s womb – and so in ours. In this miracle, Hopkins explains that Christ,

Who, born so, comes to be

New self and nobler me

In each one and each one

More makes, when all is done,

Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Theologians clarify that incarnation itself emerges from within the cradle of creation, not from outside it. The seed of God was in the womb of humanity from the very beginning. In the Christmas Preface III (old translation) we read, ‘Your eternal Word has taken upon himself our human weakness, giving our mortal nature immortal value.’ This immortal value was bestowed in the first act of creation, and, pace Adam and Eve, it has never been retracted.

To help us understand this dimension of Christmas more profoundly, the Church Fathers compared Jesus to a singer with a great voice and perfect pitch who joins a discordant choir and completely transforms it from within. ‘It is not’, theologian Richard McBrien explains, ‘that Jesus gave us a completely different set of songs to sing. He helped us understand, enhance and perform our standard repertoire in an entirely new and beautiful way.’

The Bethlehem baby reveals and completes what Gaudium et Spes (1965) calls ‘the mystery of our humanity’. God’s grace, Pope John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Missio (1990), ‘is secretly at work within all human hearts’ where it will, as Hopkins put it, ‘perfect, not alter (them)’.

Cardinal Avery Dulles provides an image of this understanding of Incarnation. ‘Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition’, he wrote. ‘It gives us a drill to burrow into the heart of everything that is, and there, find it already shimmering with divinity.’ Flesh is inspirited and spirit is enfleshed.

The deadly dualism between heaven and earth collapsed at the Incarnation. Nature and grace are now forever intertwined. They became inseparable in Jesus. That, in fact, is what the Church and sacraments are really for – to teach us how to recognise the every-day God who comes to us disguised as the shadow and light of our lives, to keep reminding us of the closeness of a God whose home is always here.

Theologian Karl Rahner hears God whispering to us on the night before Christmas. ‘I am your life. I am your time. Tell that to everything that exists, everything that you are. Say only that one thing, and then it is Christmas for you. Say only “You are here”. That is enough’.

And like metal to a magnet it is this Franciscan spirituality of Incarnation, this sacramental vision that is already drawing the world to Pope Francis. And why is this? It is because with confident hands he is once again parting the veils of the temple for us, and we glimpse the miracle of what reality is, and who we ourselves are – flawed but immortal diamonds reflecting the beauty of God.

Stripped of its distracting tinsel, Christmas celebrates the definitive consecration of all time and of every place, of the majestic cosmos and its evolution, but also, closer to home, of all people everywhere going about their business – on buses and in bars, in take-aways and in temples, at work and at play, in their sins and in their graces. A baby crawls through the stable-door of Incarnation and transforms the fields and faces of Creation.

This revelation, this ‘mysticism of ordinary life’ is about how to see rather than what to see. This work of imagination is an attuned presence, a practiced, contemplative awareness. Hints of heaven happen when, as Jack Mahoney SJ put it, ‘we make experience-sense of faith and faith-sense of experience’. With courage and perseverance this radical grace becomes like second nature to us.

Yet why do most of us resist and refuse this free perennial offer that can transform our lives, our pain – and our faith? We do not know. But this we do know. There is a touching vulnerability at the heart of Incarnation.  In Making, poet R.S. Thomas pictures God pausing, on the fifth day, while creating the world. Something beautiful is still missing. Beyond obedient creation, divine love must finally risk making a creature who is free to return the love – or not.

 . . . Yet an absence

Disturbed me. I slept and dreamed

Of a likeness, fashioning it

When I woke, to a slow

Music; in love with it

For itself, giving it freedom

To love me, risking the disappointment.