Advent Week Four

good-shepherd-3 catacomb-of-priscilla_orig
Good Shepherd in catacomb of Priscilla (Second half of the 3rd century)

What is extraordinary about the Nativity story is how ordinary it is – leaving aside the host of angels and the visit of the Three Kings which we can take as being symbolic add-ons. They symbolise, though, just how wonderful is this new member of the human species –  one of those who justify our calling ourselves homo sapiens. But the wonder glows in the ordinary, like Christmas tree lights when you walk into a darkened living-room

Jesus did not come from a poverty-stricken family but an artisan class, not a royal prince or part of any elite. Not finding a room at an inn when there is a big conference in town has happened to many others. He was born in a manger, which could mean a ‘place for sheep’. Later authors described it as a cave. Caves are ancient symbols of an encounter with God. Origen thought it might have been a cave where sheep were kept, perhaps on an old site of the god Tammuz, patron of shepherds. Whatever the facts, shepherds are strongly in the symbolic picture. Jesus later called himself the ‘good shepherd’ and the oldest artistic representation of him is as a young shepherd carrying the lost sheep (actually a goat) over his shoulders. Although in ancient Israel, when they were nomads, shepherds had a good public image, by the time of Jesus they had become a despised class.  From the circumstances of his birth, all this suggests, Jesus was equally able to handle the rich and powerful but was preferentially turned towards the poor and the marginalised.

The eternal Word that became flesh in a cave in Bethlehem also forms and takes shape in us through our daily lives. Everything we do, think, say, everything that just happens to us and evokes a response, consciously or otherwise, has an influence on this formation. St Paul, as a spiritual guide to his communities, experienced the pains of childbirth as ‘Christ is formed in you’ (Gal 4:19). It is a birthing, an embodiment of the Selfhood of God, that takes place in the deepest part of us; and yet it is felt by those with whom we live, especially those who have a special concern for us – as we for them. This is the experience both of personal intimacy and of community.

Br Lawrence, a Carmelite lay brother in a busy monastery in Paris in the 17th century, was renowned for his depth of experience of God’s presence. It radiated from him and he led others to awaken to it. He had to go to the market every day and haggle over the price of the groceries and then supervise a busy kitchen. He said he felt the presence more strongly there than in church. The continuous sense of the presence of Christ is the goal of meditation and of Advent which now culminates in the season of Christmas. 

The message is, don’t become too pious, too self-conscious, too artificially elitist about your mindful living in the birth of the Word. Brother Lawrence understood the amazing revelation of God in the ordinary and that it doesn’t mean we have to become special holy looking people, just our true selves:  ‘We should apply ourselves unceasingly to this one end, to so rule all our actions that they may be little acts of communion with God; but they must not be studied, they must come naturally, from the purity & simplicity of the heart.’

As the Word becomes flesh in our bodies, minds, feelings and all our relationships, more and more of who I am becomes embodied in the Word. Which is, of course the main reason we say ‘happy Christmas’ not just ‘happy holidays’.  Happy Christmas!

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