I felt very blessed to share the Eucharist and a potluck with some friends on the final Sunday in Advent. Since St Uriel’s started, we’ve usually celebrated a Christmas liturgy a few days before Christmas so that regulars can share the Eucharist with each other before returning to their families for Christmas day. It means we have the sense of starting Christmas a few days early and it’s pretty relaxed, but I also love it because it’s the one time of year where everyone knows the tunes for the hymns, so we can sing.
In this last year, I’ve revived a practice from the early days of our community, before I was ordained, which I call a “Circle Homily”. It’s a simple idea – rather than having me deliver a sermon as a lecture, I start by giving a few thoughts and offering some questions about the readings; then each person has a minute or two to offer their observations or interpretations or ideas; I try to draw out some themes and wrap up things up at the end. We’re a small community, so this doesn’t tend to drag on and people get the idea that it’s good to be concise. I’ve found it a wonderful practice – the diversity and depth of perspectives always brings the themes of the week to life and offers me a different way to see things. I hope it lets us all see each other more richly as well.
This week the readings were all about the Nativity and the circle was particularly rich. What leapt out for me from the conversation was the image of God’s vulnerability – the Logos incarnate as a tiny child, needing care and love and protection – not the image of Christ the World-Maker or Christ the King, but the fragility of the Divine. The second aspect of the nativity story that draws attention is the incarnational focus – God becoming a flesh and blood human being – not by stepping into a meatsuit like a spaceman, or by taking on the image of humanity but staying unincarnate, but by actually being born to a human woman in extremely humble circumstances. The third thread for me was the sense in which the birth of the Divine in our own selves, the indwelling of God, has this fragile, vulnerable character.
In my last letter, I noted that adventus refers to the physical arrival of an important person and in the outer, literal sense offered by the nativity tale in Luke’s gospel we see the physical arrival of the Logos as a human being in Bet Leḥem. The three threads from our conversation on Sunday night point to another, inner, more personal meaning of the story. Perhaps the story reminds us that the Divine is eternally born within each of us – given birth by our own pure, virginal spirit, in the humble surrounds of our own life. At first, the flickering spark of God might seem fragile, tentative, tiny and yet with love and care the gospel story offers us the possibility that it grows to be a world-changing fire, transforming everything.
For many of us, contact with the Divine is an inward experience of vision or light, but the suggestion of the tradition – implied by the word “advent” is that the Logos also arrives in us physically, transforming not just mind and heart but body as well. This is certainly the vision of many of the Fathers and Mothers in the eastern traditions, like St Symeon – whose (perhaps over-quoted) poem I’ll include at the end.
May this Christmas time grant you the grace to witness your own inmost nature and, even without the benefit of angels tipping you off, recognise that tiny spark for Who it is wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in the manger of what might seem like a very ordinary life. May you raise your sights and see all around you other virgin spirits nursing the very same Child. May you guard it with your life until the world is afire.
We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ.
He enters my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him?.
I move my foot, and at once He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?
Then open your heart to him,
and let yourself receive the one who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him, and He makes us, utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us
dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged,
is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely.
And radiant in His light, we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body.
– St Symeon the New