Shadow of the Holy Spirit

‘Excitement and joy flow out from Tom and Rhianna whenever they talk about the pregnancy. Their delight is infectious but more striking is their sense of privilege – to be having this baby is wondrous gift. Together they’ve opened up a heightened awareness of the miracle, hope, promise of this one new life, a recognition of the holiness, fragility and wonder of this baby, their baby. There is a new stillness in them, as if each is gracing the other in a growing mindfulness about what they have created.’

Tom’s grandmother Margaret wrote about her wonder at the growing dynamic of love between the two young lovers – innocent, vulnerable and scared – as Rhianna swells to the divine and beautiful mystery of motherhood, and as Tom speaks to, listens to and touches the mystery of what is alive and moving inside his wife’s body. And then, after a heart-stopping delay, the text: ‘Grandma, it’s a boy. Mum’s fine. I can’t stop crying.’

In our Advent meditations do we miss the full-blooded imagery of a young couple in their excitement, fear and doubt? Does the perennial focus on a serene virgin conception tend to air-brush away the essential intensity of this most human of occasions? Unlike Rhianna and Tom’s whole-hearted story, the Advent account can seem too heavenly to be an authentic earthly experience. In terms of normal human birthing something vital and essential, something raw and messy is missing.

While the orthodox teaching of the virgin birth rightly lies at the core of so many Roman Catholic doctrines, the actual reality of the mystery would also reveal a frightened, sensitive scene, untidy and unrehearsed. Maybe we need images of a bawling bloody baby struggling to find its breath, squeezing its eyes against a new light. The challenge here is to keep the sublime doctrinal meaning in balance with the nurturing, visceral experiences of the heart and gut.

As human beings we need experiences that touch and move our inner souls, that are carried by the senses. Trusting their own special moment, and in their own way, Tom and Rhianna were divining what theologian Walter Burghardt SJ wrote; ‘ . . . you must live this moment – really live it, not just endure it – because this very moment, for all its imperfections and frustration, because of its imperfections and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.’

Astonishing stories are told about what can happen in the unique context of giving birth. A lifelong friend was recently telling me about the time her daughter asked her for details around her birth and baptism. In her reply the mother wrote: ‘I believed that you had come to me from the Father who had always known you. To me, you were well and truly his child, baptised in my blood, in the pain and effort of giving birth to you and in the wish and longing of my heart . . .’

Why, people sometimes ask, should one of the most intense, tender and poignant experiences of a mother and father in the mystery of creating new human life not be faithfully imagined and celebrated in our Advent spirituality and devotions? And how profoundly the recent Marriage Synod in Rome must have missed recourse to a very real Bethlehem moment of turmoil, tension and hope – thus somehow inspiring other struggling couples and maybe urging rootless, broken young people, to seek an ideal in love rather than in hatred. This is Pope Francis’ way of understanding and experiencing an incarnate God.

When loving couples have a baby they become as vulnerable and precarious as the baby of their love. The beauty they have created shatters their former sense of security. Love reaches below the tinsel of the superficial and above the coldness of a doctrine. This unique experience nourishes what is authentically human in their awakening hearts. This is the place of grace, the sacrament of mutual trust and truth. It is from this human seed, even in the face of weakness and failure, that the fullness of divine presence will grow and transform families and communities.

‘The Jewish Bride’ is on display at the National Gallery’s current exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works. It is a painting of a middle-aged couple, now identified as Isaac and Rebecca. By all accounts it is transforming countless hearts. The art-critics enthuse about it; Vincent van Gogh was overcome by it; historian Simon Schama declared ‘This is the painting of love’.

Is not Advent the key moment for revealing something of God’s astonishingly beautiful vision of human love and its potential for creating new, divine life?  Is it not the special season for meditating on the unique interdependence of raw, fleshy humanity and sublime, infinite divinity? Is it not a time of paradox when a God becomes a baby in the way of all babies, when the divinity of true earthly affection is revealed, when human blood, flesh and seed are consecrated as the raw material for the birth of a God?

However we may explore the mystery – and we must keep trying – the truth is that within and beyond the perennial devotions and artefacts of Advent the sublime grace of a profound love and meaning is always waiting to be revealed. God and Mary, Creator and creation, holy shadow and human substance, spirit and flesh – all are forever in the intimate embrace of an everlasting, inseparable covenant of love.

Advent is the season of God’s desire for humanity. The story of Mary is the story of all of us.  Our own frail hearts are captivated by that divine yearning. And we can trust it. It is God’s shadow covering us, too. It will bring us to a deeper place than all our own efforts to understand the mystery, all our religious importance, all our weird and wonderful certainties; it will draw us down into that spacious and silent simplicity that waits at the core of our Being.