English poet Christina Rossetti was looking through the lens of Incarnation when she prayed:
Lord, purge our eyes to see,
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
God is now fleshed. To perceive the world in Christmas light is to discern the hidden depths of everything, the astonishing possibilities in all that happens, the extraordinary mystery abiding within the ordinary. This Christian revelation of an incarnate God is alone among the religions of the world.
One Christmas Eve in my last parish, before tending to the liturgies soon to follow, I dashed into town just to savour the flavour of the rush and buzz of the season, the flash of red gloves and scarves against the swirling snow, the colour and the music that never fail to bring a tingle of childhood delight.
What struck me most were people’s faces – expressions of many moods from eager expectation to sheer exhaustion. Their eyes were full of memories of warm wonder and lost dreams, of a magic innocence and broken hopes. Their stories, told in the shops and cafes, around the market-stalls, in the hospital, surgeries, and the post-office queues, were painfully real and delightfully earthy.
I sat on a bench in the town square reflecting that tonight many of these people will be at Midnight Mass. How can I share with them something of the meaning of Incarnation, recover for them its lost secret? How do I explain that Christmas reveals the holiness of every single moment of their difficult, beautiful lives whether on this brisk festive morning, or over the whole span of their existence; that it is called the Feast of Light because it celebrates the invisible light that shines from all people, from all creation, from all time?
One afternoon, after a time of judging the religion-less people of Louisville as less graced, less enlightened than his brothers in the nearby monastery, monk and mystic Thomas Merton was blessed with a corrective epiphany regarding the true meaning of Christmas. He, too, sat on a bench in the town square. It was a sacramental moment of stunning insight from which all of us have benefitted.
‘It is a glorious destiny’ he suddenly realised, ‘to be a member of the human race though it makes many terrible mistakes . . . and yet God Himself glories in becoming a member of it . . . it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts where neither sin nor shadow can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. Who will tell them that they are all walking around, shining like the sun?’
In my brief homily tonight maybe I should try to do this. ‘Sisters and brothers’, I could say, ‘your lives are already full of God. You do not need to go anywhere special to find God. God is at your fingertips when you do the work you are called to do – in the office or at home, when you feed and dress your children, forgive them and read them to sleep. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whether you know it or not, God is always already there.’
We need to be reminded every Christmas morning, every Sunday morning, that there are no longer two parallel lives in our existence – on the one hand the so-called spiritual life and on the other, the so-called secular. Every moment of authentic experience is the felt propinquity of divine grace. To become more aware of God’s incarnate presence all we need do is to look more intensely, listen more carefully, think more imaginatively, see more deeply, feel more attentively. The senses have it.
Poet Jacopone Benedetti knew this. He found it impossible to escape the presence of the fleshed God. For him, incarnate mystery revealed the inescapable occupation by God of all elements of life. In an excerpt from ‘How the Soul through the Senses finds God in all Creatures’ he wrote:
From five sides you move against me,
Hearing, sight, taste, touch and scent.
To come out is to be caught; I cannot hide from you . . .
The Mass tonight will affirm, validate and confirm this beautiful, ancient ‘catholic imagination’. In the bread and wine the whole range of experiences of all people will be gathered up. So will the story of the earth, of evolution, of all creation. There is nothing, in fact – no pain, no loss, no darkness, no death – that is not included. And then, over the plate and the cup, the voice of God will be expressed – ‘This is my Body. This is my Blood’. The true adult meaning of Christmas is again echoing across the heart of the universe and the universe of the human heart.
This is how poet and priest John O’Donohue puts it:
We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.
Christmas reveals that heaven is not another place but this place clearly seen. God is already inscribed in nature, the very DNA of each one of us. Love, from the beginning, with its necessary suffering and death, is the very physical structure of an inexorably evolving universe.
It is important, therefore, to remember, in this graced perception, that nothing is changed, adjusted. God’s first creation needs no correction. At Incarnation nothing new is added. Nothing – except the sublime new meaning of the familiar, the infinite depth of all that already is. We now know that God has always been the shape and substance of everything. Only the light has changed.
In “Christmas” Oxford University poet Bernard O’Donoghue offers a glimpse of this redeeming insight:
Despite the forecast’s promise,
It didn’t snow that night;
But in the morning, flakes began
To glide all right.
Not enough to cover the roads
Or even the grass;
But enough to change the light.