For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
– John 3.16
Lots of us seem to get a little irritated about the “commercialisation of Christmas”, the sense that the festival has lost its real meaning and turned into just another excuse for consumption, for shopping, for mindlessness. Christian folk are inclined, usually, to adopt a “Jesus is the reason for the season” approach – to remind each other and whoever will listen that Christmas (as the name implies) is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ – the great self-giving of God in the Second Person of the Trinity. That act of divine generosity naturally ought to inspire our own generosity, hence food, family, gifts.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
– Luke 2:1-7
The touchstone for many Christians is the nativity story. Mary and Joseph returning to Bethlehem, finding no lodging and having to stay in a stable, where Mary gives birth. Shepherds, angels, eventually the Magi all come to bear witness to the birth of the Christ-child. In the wake of a hundred years or so of historical inquiry into the Bible stories, we often get drawn into questions about literal history: was Mary really a virgin, was there really a stable, were there three wise men and so on.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
– John 1:1-3
Unlike the three synoptics, the Gospel of John doesn’t contain a literal nativity story. It begins with the Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word…” Scholarship suggests that beautiful fragment of text has lived an interesting history of its own, but by the fourth century it unambiguously referred to the pre-existence of the Son, His existence with the Father at the beginning of all things. Trying to work all this out rationally tends to break the head – what pre-existed? What did Mary give birth to? How many natures did Jesus have? How were they related? This is all the stuff of the great controversies of the Ecumenical Councils that led to various schisms and excommunications. But perhaps “making sense of it” isn’t what we’re invited to do. Maybe these stories are there to invite us to consider a Mystery. The ways in which the Divine shows up in our experience.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. – John 14:20
This quote from John 14 is another expression of that Mystery, signalled at the least by its geometrical implausibility. This forms a scriptural anchor for a doctrine known as Divine Indwelling – the experientially-grounded idea that one place in which God may be sought and ultimately found is in our deepest self. Rather than imagining God to be in a far off heaven, distant and possibly disinterested, accessed only by fervent prayer and the intercessions of the saints, we can look within and notice That which has been there all along.
God is the newest thing there is; the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and if we are united to him we become new again.
– Meister Eckhart
Meister Eckhart draws out one of the qualities of this encounter so delightfully and playfully. Our expectation of God is of someone ancient, powerful, sombre, majestic and the Divine is certainly all those things. But Eckhart’s statement also opens us to the idea that God is also fresh, playful, newborn in each and every moment. When you get beyond the sentimental response to the image of the Christ child and see the image of infinite potential, of total freshness, of someone radically unexpected – then you see something of the direct experience of the Indwelling.
When tradition tells us about Christ dwelling in every heart, perhaps this is what they mean.
We awaken in Christ’s bodyas Christ awakens our bodies,and my poor hand is Christ, He entersmy foot, and is infinitely me.I move my hand, and wonderfullymy hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him(for God is indivisiblywhole, seamless in His Godhood).I move my foot, and at onceHe appears like a flash of lightning.Do my words seem blasphemous? — Thenopen your heart to Himand let yourself receive the onewho is opening to you so deeply.For if we genuinely love Him,we wake up inside Christ’s bodywhere 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, everythingthat seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,maimed, ugly, irreparablydamaged, is in Him transformedand recognized as whole, as lovely,and radiant in His lighthe awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
I know my body is not always a welcome place to be. I have aches, I get sick and tired, I get distracted with impulses which aren’t always welcome, my memory fails me at crucial moments, I’m not as open-hearted as I’d like. But my body is who I am in the world, I live as my body in this manifest existence. It is what I have. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. It reminds me in a way of the stable where Mary and Joseph took shelter, where Mary gave birth to Jesus. In a nativity play, the manger is always set right in the center, in the heart of the stable and Christ lays there, at the heart of the scene in the humblest place imaginable.
Do you think it might be that the Christmas story, if we acknowledge its value as a literal story and then lay that aside, might be telling us something more immediate and direct about our relationship to God? Perhaps it’s not just a memorial to an event in Zero AD in Palestine, perhaps it’s something happening right now.
This body, this soul, this heart that you are right now, this is the birthplace of Christ who awakens in your deepest self. This is the beginning of Eternal Life.
Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
– Luke 1:38
Not the beginning of your journey of course, just as this wasn’t the beginning for Mary. Mary’s journey began (one might imagine) nine months earlier. She received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who announced that she was to bear the Son of God. After a remarkably swift recovery from fairly shocking news, Mary responded very simply, “let it be with me according to your word” (fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum). Fr. Thomas Keating (though he’s not the first) notes that Mary’s journey begins with consent – Fiat – Let it be. He would argue and I would agree that every person’s spiritual journey begins in earnest with consent, with agreeing to God’s presence in your life, in the heart of your very being.
That consent might be through intercessory prayer, through contemplative prayer, through Lectio Divina – all of which acknowledge the presence of the Divine as deeply involved in your life in different ways – all of which are a kind of consent. It might be as simple as facing your life and saying, “Yes.” Treating each trial, trouble, difficulty, success and blessing as a sacrament in the present moment – an opportunity for transformation, for liberation.
Regardless, it all begins with consent to God’s Presence, just as it did for Mary.
So, this Christmas, I invite you say “Yes” – to open your heart to your family and friends, to those in need and in trouble, to those you dislike and those who oppose you. I invite you to take the next step, whatever it might be for you into your own Bethlehem to witness the birth of the Logos in the stable of your deepest self, to honour that birth with the gift of your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength.
May you have a Happy and Ho Ho Holy Christmas.