This is the paradox of [Christmas]; that henceforth the highest thing can only work from below. Royalty can only return to its own by a sort of rebellion… Olympus still occupied the sky like a motionless cloud molded into many mighty forms; philosophy still sat in the high places and even on the thrones of the kings, when Christ was born in the cave and Christianity in the catacombs.
“The God in the Cave” from The Everlasting Man
When I was growing up, the “Christmas spirit” meant something very specific to me. Sure, I believed in Santa like most kids, but that part of the holiday was never the source of my enchantment with it; when I learned that St. Nick was really my parents (gasp!), I didn’t feel any real sense of loss.
What made Christmas so compelling to me was the inherent mystery and even melancholy that seemed embodied in carols like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” – this sense I couldn’t shake of the cosmos coming to a standstill, the eyes of higher beings turning to witness an event hidden in the lowest corners of the Earth. Michael W. Smith’s instrumental “Hope of Israel” had much the same effect; in fact, I was obsessed with that song for years as a kid, always trying to learn a better version of it on the piano. It spoke to me in a way I couldn’t quite express.
I didn’t realize then that what captured and quieted my spirit each year was really Advent – the season of waiting and expectation, of hope bleeding at the edges of a promise long left unfulfilled. Over time, the paradox of the Incarnation became more acute to me: the implications of God willingly adopting our vulnerabilities, sufferings, and limitations as human beings, and choosing to live as one of us.
A line from an old Chris Rice song still sticks with me: “Wrap our injured flesh around you / Breathe our air and walk our sod.” When the divine walked the Earth with the feet of the created, an unfathomably wide gap was bridged in silence.
The idea of the Incarnation still sounds so preposterous to many, and downright blasphemous to others. It’s an idea that threatens to swallow all other conceptions of God whole. The God that people are typically comfortable with tends to be a safe being, a higher power that is cleanly removed from our affairs: a watchmaker who has better things to do than to observe every tick and quiver of the system he created.
Because what God would meddle in our painfully ordinary lives? What God would care?
Some would argue that believing in a meddlesome God reeks of human arrogance. After all, why should we assume an all-powerful being would have any interest in the affairs of one wayward species on a tiny planet out of trillions in the known universe?
But when it comes to characterizing God, I’ve found there’s an odd logic in simply looking at myself. If humans are indeed the product of a higher mind – however far back in biological history that genesis occurred, and whatever that mind’s methods were – it stands to reason that I couldn’t be given characteristics that God did not already possess.
I am self-aware. I feel. I love. I have five senses that allow me to enjoy the world instead of merely existing in it. I recognize beauty. I am moved to tears by any number of irrational things. I burn with anger when I am confronted with injustice. These are elemental human traits, the common ground we all share. Where does it come from? Can the chemical impulses in my brain really be called the source of such things, or are those same chemical reactions merely the physical evidence of my consciousness working through the matter of my brain – of my spirit giving life to my flesh? Of the image of God in me?
Whether I am looking at people or animals, I see the spark of the divine behind their eyes, and I cannot ignore it.
When I moved to Colorado in 2010, I was excited about a lot of things: the chance to start fresh, a new job, the opportunity to explore and spread my wings more than I ever felt like I could in California. But the most visceral change was the weather, and I loved it. During our first year, I keenly remember the excitement and awe I felt watching each season transition into the next. And when the snow fell, it was an Event with a capital E. It still is.
Snow soundproofs the world, and the glow it gives the sky in the dead of night is surreal. When I wake up at some ungodly hour and see that glow coming through our bedroom windows, it’s hard to resist the urge to leap up and peek through the closed blinds – no matter how tired I am.
Whatever the ancient church’s reasons were for adopting Winter Solstice as the celebration of Christ’s birth, winter so perfectly matches the aesthetics of Christmas that I am content with it. The Incarnation feels most real to me in silence and stillness, and snowfall is that magic moment when the physical world matches the inner life. The winter quiet gives my thoughts a chance to hunker down and settle into a simpler rhythm.
In Hebrew, the word for spirit is the same word for breath: ruah. Many people contend that YHWH (Yahweh), the name of God, is the sound of breathing when each syllable is spoken. In that sense, every time I inhale and exhale, I am speaking the name of the Infinite. I do it without thinking.
And yet, how often do I let the sound of my breathing – the sound of God’s name – get drowned out by the noise of the world?
I always seem to arrive at the end of the year disappointed by all the things I didn’t accomplish. It’s a tough feeling to shake. This Christmas, I’m trying to remember how important it is to simply be present in every moment I’m given. I’ve wasted too many todays worrying about yesterday and tomorrow.
When December 25th hits, I’ll be in Oklahoma spending the holiday with Luke’s family, who have been a huge blessing in my life for many years now. But I’ll miss my own family fiercely. So many little things about this season spark countless memories of all the beautiful Christmases I’ve spent at home, and in Carmel-by-the-Sea with my grandparents. I don’t know what I did to deserve my amazing parents and brothers, such a kindred spirit in my husband, and all of the other people in my life… but I’m humbled every time I think about them, and I can only strive to be as much of a blessing in their lives as they’ve been in mine.
Which reminds me of my favorite line from Les Misérables*:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
Merry Christmas, everyone – and Happy 2013. Thank God for new beginnings.
*Out of many. Yes, I’m excited to see the film. Actually, that’s a tremendous understatement.