Today, on the fourth day of Christmas, we stand in liturgical time between the birth of Jesus and the naming of Jesus on the Feast of the Holy Name, which falls every year on New Year’s Day. The shepherds have returned to the fields. The angels have returned to heaven. Perhaps the census has been taken and Bethlehem is thinning out. It’s too soon for Mary to travel back home, so she and Joseph remain in the cave, bonding with their newborn. Tiny and defenseless, the newborn demonstrates a mighty set of lungs when he wants something. But most of the time, he sleeps, and in those moments Mary and Joseph stare upon him in wonder, love and praise.
If you’ve ever seen a sleeping newborn, whether it be human, feline or canine, you know the kind of quiet that descends upon the soul. True, we may be cooing and purring our appreciation for the new life in front of us, but our souls have become still and quiet before the mystery we are experiencing. We are moved beyond what words can express.
To be honest with you, I don’t think I have the words to express the mystery of the Incarnation. Perhaps you share my uncertainty. How can the God who created the observable universe, (a concept already so overwhelming I hesitate to imagine the unobserved universe), how can this God have become a tiny sleeping defenseless newborn? How can Jesus be both God and human? Why did he do this “for us”? How can I ever find the words to talk about it?
And yet, at some fundamental level, we get it, don’t we? Deep in our bones, in our cells, God becoming human, makes sense. We understand what it means, even if we don’t have the words to express it.
I think this deep knowing, this meaning beyond words, is what John might mean when he talks about the Word, or the Logos. John states that this Logos was with God before creation. Not only was the Logos with God, but the Logos was God. We affirm this every Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed (which I’ve adapted slightly in order to make my point): “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, of one Being with [God]. Through [Logos], all things were made.”
Then, something even more mysterious happens: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld the glory….” The Logos incarnates. The abstract becomes concrete. The eternal becomes subject to time and space.
It is a mystery so profound that it compels many of us to bow each time we recite these words in the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation, [the Logos] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, [the Logos] became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made [human].”
Today, the word salvation has a heroic meaning, perhaps underscored by the media we consume. It has come to mean being rescued or saved, usually with guns a-blazing. In the early church, the sense of salvation was of healing, of a salve applied to a wound, especially the wounds to our nature brought about by our misuse of freedom.
In the book Inner River, the author records his spiritual mentor, Fr. Maximos, as saying: “the healing of fallen humanity presupposes a return to our natural state, the way we were originally created by God. Adam and Eve in Paradise were in constant contemplation of God. That was the sole activity of their hearts and minds. They lived in a state of uninterrupted memory and awareness of their Creator. This meant that humanity in its pre-fallen state had a continuous communion with God’s Grace…”
Is it possible that the Christmas image of a newborn is used by God to draw us into this original contemplation? When we look upon a newborn, does not the newborn become “the sole activity of our hearts and minds”?
At home, I have an icon of the Nativity. The newborn Jesus is in the center, lying in a cave. In the foreground, Mary and Joseph adore the child, while in the background are scenes from the Christmas story: the angel talking to the shepherds, the heavenly host, the three magi. All of the figures in the icon have their eyes on Jesus. Jesus looks directly at us. He invites us to remember when we ourselves were newborns, when we too were innocent. He invites us to fall in love with him, just as we would a newborn. He offers himself as the salve to heal the wound of distortion which draws our focus to our status as sinners instead of our status as children of God. He invites us to remember our true selves: not born into original sin, but born into original grace.
St. Francis, the man who popularized the image of the newborn in the Christmas crèche, is quoted as saying: “We should seek not so much to pray but to become prayer.” By saying this, Francis seems to point us to original grace by asking us get out of our heads and into our hearts. If you’ve been alive for any amount of time, you are probably aware that the mind never ceases to work. The mind is like a mill that never stops turning, constantly turning out thoughts like an endless stream of flour. If the flour is good, then the bread made from it is good. If the flour is bad, then the bread made from it is bad.
You’ve probably also noticed that when you know something “by heart”, such as a song, or a prayer, a poem, or even the Nicene Creed, you don’t use your mind as much as you use your being. When reciting or singing something from the heart, we bypass the mind and encounter the divine. Sometimes, we may even feel like we become the song or prayer or poem. In fact, the thing that will usually make us forget our place in something we know by heart is when we begin to think about it. Almost always, we’ll stumble on the words.
As we approach the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus this week, I invite you to practice moving into the heart by entering into an ancient Christian practice known as the Prayer of the Heart, or the Jesus prayer. I’ve modified it a bit by reducing it to its essence: only the word “Jesus”, the Holy Name.
In the next week, whenever you discover that the mill of your mind is churning out worry, anxiety, fear, hatred, bitterness or regret, simply begin repeating the word “Jesus” to yourself, silently or aloud. Eventually, you will find your awareness moving from the noisy factory of your mind into the quiet nursery of your heart. Imagine there the newborn Jesus, shining in the darkness. He invites you to enter his cave and contemplate the glory of the icon that dwells within: Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us.