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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Be Born in us Today

One of our wedding presents we still use is a leather-bound visitors’ book. It’s much battered now, after forty five years; but it is a precious record of guests whom we have welcomed into our home – family, friends, strangers, and who knows, perhaps even angels entertained unawares. The shifting patterns of our personal relationships are traced through its pages: people we have worked with; people we were once close to; people who have died; people we have grown to love increasingly over the years. 

In our book, there are four entries from 1977 to 1983.  Those guests couldn't write their own names, so we did it for them when they crossed our threshold for the first time, long expected and already much loved. I needn’t tell you that they are our four children. The book brings it all back: the long months of waiting, the careful preparations, the sense of expectancy - joyful, but tinged with anxiety in case things should not be exactly right, or we might not be good enough parents, or we might not have enough love to give to this infinitely fragile creature who will be so dependent on us. There is nothing you would not do to welcome a child. And if that child does not arrive, or the visit is cut short, the pain would be unbearable. There is no loss like the loss of a child.

Each year in our churches and homes we prepare the crib to receive its honoured guest. It is an act of love, for there is nothing you would not do for this Child who comes to visit us. And like the preparations you make for any birth in the family, it is not just that we want everything to be outwardly right, though that matters. We want everything to be inwardly right too. The crib becomes a picture of our own lives being put back together, made beautiful for Christ.  St Teresa of Avila talked of the Interior Castle of our lives; but she might have spoken of the Interior Crib, with the heart as the manger-throne to receive the King of kings. 

How do we prepare this inward crib of ours? I said that there is no loss in life like the loss of a child. Yet our society has, in a way, lost a child, and Christmas brings it home with particular force. Who is this child we have lost?  I think it’s the child within us capable of expectation and wonder, happiness and delight.  Once upon a time, those qualities were in full flower in us.  We call it innocence, which perhaps means the capacity to be open the world in all its beauty and generosity and see into the life of things.  It’s a capacity that in many of us grown-ups tends to unripen until it is has shrivelled to a bud.  
I think I know 
Where all children come from but the puzzle
To me is, as they grow up, where they go.
Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or to some piper's tune vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

This year I have felt it again, the way Christmas erodes to the tired, tinselled routine, a thousand miles away from the simplicity and mystery of this wonderful festival.  Perhaps only the very young, the very poor, the very lonely and the very hurt understand Christmas: they have nothing to get in the way.  So what does it mean to say that Christmas is a time for children.  How do we acknowledge that in us all is an infant crying for the light? Don’t we yearn for that child to emerge from the dark and start playing? Don’t we ache to feel what we feel as we gaze as if for the first time on the ox and ass and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the baby?  

If someone said, on Christmas Eve
‘Come, see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
We can hear this as nostalgia.  I see it more as a longing for meaning, the kind of meaning that children more easily grasp than adults.  Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.  And what is that but to rediscover not only the lost child in ourselves but the holy Child of Bethlehem.  If only we could find him again!  But Christmas says he is not far from any one of us, the one who brings truth and love into our world.  He comes as the stranger we do not recognise, yet he is the friend who cares about us.  He comes as the sovereign of the universe, yet he is the humblest of subjects.  He comes as the almighty creator, yet he is the slave who empties himself to be among us as one who serves. He is nearer to us than our own souls.  He asks for house-room in our crib.  He stands at the door and knocks, and waits to see what we will do with him.  
The fourteenth century mystical theologian Meister Eckhart said: “We must all become God’s mothers, for God desires to be born in each of us.” A poem a friend wrote a few years ago for her Christmas card captures beautifully the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of Christmas, the three life-changing questions we put to the nativity and the nativity puts to us. 

How should I best prepare?  Coming at you
with a running jump I might easily
just miss you altogether; land instead
where earth’s turn must face me with a shadow.

What if I lose the way, arriving late
to bend my knee; will all the food be gone,
leaving scattered embers and camel dung?

Where shall a baby safely lay his head
and not be overlooked or trampled on?

‘Within the manger of your heart,’ he said.


The first text quoted is from Charles Causley’s poem ‘School at Four O'Clock’.  The second is from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’.  The final poem is by Sheila Bryer, ‘Advent’ (© S Bryer 2007, used with permission).

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