Christmas: The Eternal Now
Most of us love Christmas. We all have so many joyful memories of Christmases past, hopes for Christmas this year, and for years to come, God willing. We delight in so much—or most of us may take delight in these things: cold, fresh air; snow that blankets and quiets the earth; bright stars twinkling—or dancing if we drank some nog—in the icy-cold December sky; sleigh bells and Christmas carols; trees and homes decorated with lovely lights; children’s faces aglow with expectation and wonder; Santa traveling far and wide in a single night or two (for the Orthodox, he comes for Epiphany in early January); scented candles, cookies and breads baking; delicious dinners lovingly prepared and eaten among family and friends; a baby waiting for milk and loving hugs. And Mary and Joseph, now in humble statue form, surrounded by their resting creature-friends, receiving with sheer delight the infant Jesus; and the shepherds, the poor of the land, hastening to the stable to behold the Savior who will be “great joy for all peoples.” And for more than 1500 years now, Christmas has been for Christians the Mass of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, humankind’s Savior.
Christmas is all of this, and more: more than words can readily or well express, but which we may feel, or sense, because the More is always pressing in on us. As T. S. Eliot put it so well in his poetic masterpiece, “The Four Quartets”: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” Not only the Incarnation of God the Word as Jesus of Nazareth, but the process of Incarnation in every moment: God infusing human beings with his divine presence. This process is at least as old as recorded human history, for the awareness of this process forms the decisive spiritual experience of millions of human beings over many centuries and in highly diverse cultures. The ways to express the inbreathing of God into human consciousness vary highly, but the fundamental experience is what it always was. And what is this experience that we celebrate on Christmas, and at every Mass, and in so many prayers and meditations throughout the world?
The Apostle Paul expressed the fundamental experience of divine Incarnation very well: “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” A human being who can embrace and do evil is also capable of receiving God into his heart and mind. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?” Jesus asks his disciple, Philip. Mystics throughout the ages, and mystical philosophers, have spent hours in silent meditation to experience and then to share in words, in literature, or in art, the incarnational reality: “I AM with you.”
The birth of Jesus by no means exhausts the meaning and gift of Christmas. Rather, in Jesus we see the fullness of what every human being is and can be. We see humankind in the light of divine reality: here, now, in every moment, “I AM with you to deliver you.” Our hearts can take renewed hope, our spirits soar with joy, because the LORD God is dwelling in and with His people. What has been true for centuries, now reaches fulfillment and bursts into God’s promise for each and for all. The senselessness of life apart from God is overcome, as God enters into the life of every human being—even in the unbeliever, the “infidel,” the unworthy, the unscrupulous, the “untouchable,” the “unredeemable.” God has taken into himself every human being, from the moment of conception through death, into eternity. “God loves us, not because we are good, but because He IS.” The lover and the beloved become one in Incarnation. This sacred marriage of God and human being is what we celebrate, not only on Christmas, but in every breath we take—whether consciously or not.
Our thoughts return to the manger—the scene first described by the evangelist Luke, then made physical for us in the crèche introduced by St. Francis of Assisi—a man in whom God’s presence could be seen, heard, touched—a man whom animals loved to be near, because they, too, know their LORD: O magnum mysterium: “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear our Savior, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!”
Merry Christmas, and God bless and fill us, everyone!
Advent: Ready or Not
As soon as Thanksgiving is past, we all know that Christmas is near at hand, and then New Year’s. These special celebrations all flow together in our minds in what we call “the holiday season,” probably forgetting that “holiday” comes from “holy day.” Most of us are probably too caught up in time to be mindful of what is genuinely holy, and what is merely passing away, or “secular,” “profane.” Now it is December, and the Church would have us celebrate the season of Advent, the season of waiting for the “Coming of God.” God comes and does not come. Advent is here now, and will be gone in a few rapidly fleeting weeks. And we may wonder, “Where was God?”
As time flies by, and Christmas draws near, the prayers and Scripture readings at Mass tell us to wait in patience “for the Coming of the Lord,” to wait in prayer, to wait in silence. Nature itself tells us to be silent and still, as we in the Northern Hemisphere are in the darkest eight weeks of the year. But our consumer culture, our families, our duties, our habits tell us not to be quiet or still, but to enter into constant busyness and “celebrations.” We probably do not even consciously feel this tension: be still and wait in silence; get hyper-busy shopping, celebrating, drinking, eating…. Time just keeps flowing, carrying all things in its wake. Quoting from Eliot’s “Four Quartets:” “When is there an end to it, the withering of withered flowers?” “Ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after…”
We cannot stop the flow of time, although some foolishly try to do so by wishes, dreams, and sundry magic acts. Time is not our enemy, or evil. For Time brings ever new possibilities; yes, and in time every moment and every thing passes away. Time leaves one little time for consciousness, just time to rush around in a dizzying flurry. How can one break through the passing of time? Not in time, not in the world—“not in this twittering world.” How can one become conscious, and live a more wakeful life? How does a human being break through the chains of bondage to time and passing away? How does one on his or her way to death enter into life? These are the great questions of human spiritual life, and they are implicitly raised in Advent, but rarely addressed carefully. For even the prayers and celebrations of Advent pass away too quickly, leaving but a few fleeting moments for consciousness—if we dare to attend at all. In the familiar words of St. John of the Cross, “Muero porque no muero.” “I die because I do not die.”
Letting the waves pass over one’s head, sitting in silence, is the way to die well before dying. Only by choosing not to attend to the fleeting grindings of time, does one become conscious, awake. There is no other way. Or is there? Pain can be so intense that one has no choice but to have one’s consciousness filled up with pain. Agony does this: it rips one’s mind to mind nothing but the overwhelming agony. And certain mind-altering drugs have the same effect: they fill one’s consciousness with imagined realities, and make all of the real world seem dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable. I wish neither pain, grief, nor drugged realities on anyone. There is a far better way to be ready, to enter into life, even as the body ages in time. It is a way that celebrations alone, however sacred, cannot do for us. Not even the most beautiful Advent and Christmas Masses can wake us up, as long as we do not learn to sit still in the emptiness of silence, awake and alert.