In one of her striking reflections Annie Dillard described how we would behave at Mass if we understood its full impact. We would strap ourselves to our seats, wear protective headgear, and be utterly attentive to the earth-shaking import of what was happening around us.
We have many ways, she was pointing out, of avoiding what we would rather not face. And so we argue over translations, rubrics and rites. We distract ourselves with the non-essentials, thus escaping the awesome risk of surrendering to the shocking mystery of incarnation and transubstantiation, of being crucified into the cross-pattern of eucharistic living. But most of all, of grappling with God’s astonishingly unexpected way of becoming present to us.
Something similar happens at Christmas. Eucharist and Incarnation tell the same stunning story about divinity in the most ordinary realities – bread, wine, a baby. The shock-waves of the Bethlehem truth still reverberate across the universe – but, as with the Mass, we do not pause to ponder the mystery. We have the experience but we miss the meaning. The profound simplicity of it all is too much for us. We would rather concentrate on something else. And there are many counter attractions.
But for those who do wish to explore the mystery, how do we get our heads and hearts around the Christian truth that God stole into our world in the same shape as we all started off with? How do we cope with the ensuing belief that the divinity of all of us is now revealed? And how do we make any sense of the consequent expectation that we must therefore embrace our enemies, even die to restore dignity to a dishonoured earth? On such personal decisions and moments depend the salvation of the world.
Mill Hill Missionary Fr Chris told me about the experience of his friend Fr Gerard in a black township in South Africa. The weary parish priest forced himself to attend the last part of a school play during the final week of Advent. This is how he tells the story. ‘After the wise men had come and gone I noticed the arrival of three more strange characters – one was dressed in rags, hobbling along with the aid of a stick. The second was naked except for a tattered pair of shorts and was bound in chains. The third was the most weird. He had a whitened face, wore an unkempt grey wig and an Afro shirt.
As they approached a chorus of men and women cried out, “Close the door, Joseph, they are thieves and vagabonds coming to steal all we have.” But Joseph said, “Everyone has a right to this child – the poor, the rich, the unhappy, the untrustworthy. We cannot keep this child for ourselves. Let them enter.”
The men entered and stood staring at the child. Joseph picked up the presents the wise men had left. To the first strange man he said, “You are poor: take this gold and buy what you need. We will not go hungry.” To the second he said, “You are in chains and I don’t know how to release you. Take this myrrh; it will heal the wounds on your wrists and ankles.” To the third he said, “Your mind is in anguish. I cannot heal you. Maybe the aroma of this frankincense will soothe your troubled soul.”
Then the first man spoke to Joseph. “Do not give me this gift. Anyone who finds me with this gold will think I have stolen it. And sadly, in a few years, this child will end up as a criminal too.” The second man said, “Do not give me this ointment. Keep it for the child. One day he will be wearing chains like these.” The third man said, “I am lost. I have no faith at all. In the country of my mind there is no God. Let the child keep the incense. He will lose his faith in his Father too.”
While Mary and Joseph covered their faces the three men addressed the child. “Little one, you are not from the land of gold and frankincense. You belong to the country of want and disease. You belong to our world. Let us share our things with you.” The first man took off his ragged shirt. “Take these rags. One day you will need them when they tear the garments off your back and you will walk naked.”
The second man said, “When I remove these chains I will put them at your side. One day you will wear them – and then you will really know the pain of humanity.” The third man said, “I give you my depression, my loss of faith in God and in everything. I can carry it all no longer. Carry my grief and loss with your own.”
The three men then walked back out into the night. But the darkness was different. Something had happened in the stable. Their blind pain was diminishing. There had been a kind of epiphany. They were noticing the stars now.
The script of the performance was written by a man from Central Africa. Because his vision was extraordinarily true he told his story well. The unwelcome visitors now knew that God was somehow present in an innocent child who was already destined to be one like them – in all their poverty, pain, depravity and sin. And they also began to believe, what we perennially resist, that this human mess was the manger of hope – for themselves and for the world.
Christmas reveals that there is a light within the darkness, a love within the Cross, a life within each death. Our sins and certainties, our wayward compulsions, our despair and desperation, the wars and poverty we collude in – all are redeemed, all are taken care of. And often, it is from precisely there, and maybe only from there, that the redemption of creation begins. And all because the baby was utterly human.
Above all, Christmas reminds us, as it did the unwelcome visitors, that the most extraordinary things happen in the most ordinary moments. Sr Hilary Lyons, a Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary working in West Africa, writes about a painting of the Annunciation in Futru parish church in Cameroon. ‘Mary is preparing a fire for cooking. Behind her the firewood is stacked. She is turning to add a stick to the fire when a luminous presence surrounds her.’ Heavenly intimacy in a human kitchen.
God’s secrets are strewn extravagantly around us. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. Nothing has ever been written by theologians about God’s beautiful presence that hasn’t been better traced in the crystal calligraphy of a frosty morning. Nothing has ever been preached by saints about divine intimacy that hasn’t been better sung by the summer wind in the roadside trees.
Nothing has ever been taught by scholars about indwelling joy that hasn’t been better danced to the music of a heartbeat or the rhythm of the spheres. And nothing has ever been created by artists about incarnate love that hasn’t been more poignantly revealed in the sleepy eyes of a new baby.
(Unmasking God pp122-124)