In the Christian mystic tradition, and indeed in the broader tradition Christian more broadly, the spiritual life is all about attentiveness or awareness: being alert to the presence of the divine. This awareness changes the way we think about life, the priorities we have, the decisions we make. It changes the value we place on the beauty of life around us. It affects how much we truly value love and forgiveness and all other qualities of the Spirit. Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, put it bluntly, saying, “Wake Up!” De Mello wrote extensively about the spiritual life in the ‘70s and ‘80s and led countless retreats in both India and the US. What he meant was, “Wake up from the nonsense we spend our lives pursuing and pay attention to the mystical presence at the heart of the universe.”
Christmas is all about this juxtaposition of the awareness of the transcendent, the beautiful mystical experience of there being something more to life, something beautiful and magnificent, a spiritual reality to the Universe which is truly beyond any words, with the ordinary humdrum of daily existence, which is sometimes tedious, sometimes arduous, sometimes really difficult. John captures this meeting of the transcendent with the ordinary in the stunning beginning to his Gospel: the transcendent Word, the Wisdom of God, present at the very beginning with God, before creation, then becomes incarnate, one of us (John 1: 1–14). The transcendent wisdom of God joins us in this life, in all its beauty and all its messiness.
A true gift of Christianity, to those who are open to it, is to say that beautiful mystery at the heart of the Universe is not remote – this mystery, revealed in our tradition as God, is incarnate, good, and loving. As a result of the incarnation, as a result of God’s goodness and love, God is intrinsically interested in us; in the midst of our human condition, God is interested in our struggles. So, this mystery at the heart of the universe is not remote. The transcendent is both utterly mysterious and ethereally beautiful and intensely personal and remarkably kind.
We have expressions of precisely this meeting of the transcendent and the incarnate in the ancient prophecies, perhaps none more striking than Isaiah’s.: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7: 15). The prophets called the people to wake up, to look for signs of God. When Jesus of Nazareth then burst on to the scene in the midst of a once proud nation, struggling under the might of a foreign and ruthless Empire, his mother, even the mysterious eastern magi present at his birth, and then his followers, were awakened to the presence of God. The ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. The heavens themselves had alerted the eastern sages and pointed the way. The promised child had been born. The transcendent had become present in the world.
This revelation in the person of the Christ-child was in keeping with the Jewish tradition, was a fulfilment of the prophecies, but was fundamentally different from the Roman and other cultures around them. Their gods were not seen as necessarily good or kind; indeed, they were capricious, self-serving and inconsistent. The Jewish message, though, which found fulfilment in Jesus, was fundamentally different. God was good and kind. God could be relied on.
In the chaos of our world, noting that chaos can often be fertile and creative – it’s not necessarily bad – but in that world, God is present, the still voice we hear if we take the time to listen, the gentle calm we when we still ourselves. That presence can be felt in the simplest things, the beauty of sunlight catching the steam from my morning coffee – a particularly beautiful thing!
The beauty of knowing we are loved in this life and the next, as we experience the joy of celebrating the Christ-child: the promised God, God with us.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall