image of jerusalem 2013

The Stillness of Christmas in the Holy Land
The Holy Land is in mourning! With all the tensions, confrontations, injuries and deaths of the past three months, there is a discernible sense of gloom in the air...

23 December   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Most of the Christmas ‘celebrations’ in Bethlehem as much as elsewhere in Palestine have been cancelled for this year. What was meant to be a veritable pageantry of different shows that would have concluded the Jubilee year has now become muted and noiseless. Most people are too sad, pre-occupied, jobless or bereft of hope, to indulge in the merriment that had become a seasonal trade mark of this land - just like any other land elsewhere in the world.

However, in the midst of all this overwhelming uncertainty, it is important for people to recall that Christmas is not a pagan celebration that manifests itself only with all manner of loud things such as geese, shepherds, drums, camels, crackers, the colours red and gold, angels, choirs, kings and pillar boxes. It is true that the consumerist mind associates Christmas with bells pealing, children shouting, the turkey sizzling, corks popping from bottles of wine, dogs barking, wassailers singing, and somewhere above in the empyrean the angelic zithers and trumpets going full tilt! But is that truly how we should understand Christmas? Can the spiritual and religious significance of this day be swapped for short-term commercial satisfaction? And besides, what does Christmas say about Peace? And more to the point, what does it say about Stillness?

Let me share with you all a thirteenth-century carol that has been one of my all-time favourites:

He came all so still
There his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass
He came all so still
There his mother lay
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.

I believe that the mystery of Christmas has been elegantly captured in this carol. It is one of stillness! Yet, a paradoxical stillness, a stillness that confounds us and sneaks up on us, even when we think we have never made so much noise. Every year, when everything is more or less done, that stillness will descend on us. We may easily imagine that something else has caused it. Perhaps the snow is muffling all sound. Perhaps our own bone-tiredness, or even the absence of our neighbours, is creating the stillness. But it is not imagination that makes the silence of Christmas night and Christmas morning so peculiarly pregnant and deep. This stillness is a signal not of absence, but rather one of presence. Mind you, such stillness may not last long. After all, it is not peace! It is the silent announcement of a miracle about to happen, with our hearts being prepared for it. Emmanuel, God with us. Just like the dew falling in fact. Or, as people used to say when a sudden stillness fell in the middle of a conversation, like an angel passing, with his trumpet mute.

But the stillness of that special moment at Christmas invariably points the way to the Mystery of the Incarnation. And devoid of all trappings, it is the Incarnation that alone uplifts that stillness into a miracle.

Let me share with you one illustration! In his Confessions, St Augustine explains why only the Incarnation gives satisfaction. During his spiritual journey, he writes, he was greatly attracted by the philosophy of the Platonists. Studying their books, he found there much that was close in substance to the Christian Gospel. They seemed to know, without saying it as such, that ‘in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. They understood that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. They believed in the immaterial soul. But that God, the Word, ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us’ - that he did not find in their books.

Again, St Augustine wrote, the Platonists accepted that the Word ‘was born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’. But they did not say that ‘he came unto his own, and his own received him not’. Nor that ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, to them he gave power to become children of God’. That would have been too earthly for these philosophical idealists. They were, St Augustine wrote, like people who ‘from some wooded mountain-top see the land of peace, without being able to find the way there’.

Indeed, we need the revelation to find the way. We cannot do it by ourselves. We can reach only the point where we ‘see the land of peace, without being able to find a way there’. Especially in a post-modernist age, Enlightenment values will not take us. Nothing but the Incarnation, as St Augustine discovered, will do.

Folk religion or New Age philosophy will not take us there either. At the end of the path, the revelation when it comes is incredible yet utterly familiar. We can point to a baby lying in a manger and say, “That is God. That is what God is like.” God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. This is the end of all our longing, the fulfilment of our dreams. This is an answer to our dearest wish. Hope is possible. And yes, love is possible too.

As we all draw inexorably nearer to the miracle of the Nativity, it might do us well to pause for a few minutes and to listen to that stillness made manifest in the Mystery of the Incarnation. A miracle is taking place, and we are part of that miracle! As such, we can perhaps deprive ourselves for one moment of all the worldly signs of rejoicing - tinsels, crackers and all - and seek instead an inner wholeness that meets its ultimate truth in the stillness of that one memorable night in Bethlehem.

I wish you all a Holy Christmas: May its Incarnational Stillness Inspire Your Lives

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   23 December


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