I still remember the day, back in 1953, when Mt. Everest was conquered. At the time there was great rejoicing, as Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing set the first human footsteps upon the virgin snows of the mountain’s peak. It was many years later that I heard the story of how differently the two climbers had reacted to their achievement: how Hilary had planted the flag of conquest at the summit and how Tensing had knelt in the snow to beg the mountain’s forgiveness for disturbing her peace.
And I remember the day of the first moon landinga memory indelibly imprinted on the psyche of all who were alive to witness Neil Armstrong’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Then too a flag was placed as a statement of conquest, and great rejoicing broke out, at least in the Western world and especially in the United States. And a new mood was awakened. Later, Edgar Mitchell would call us all to a deeper level of reflective awareness and collective responsibility, as he described his emotions on seeing the earth for the first time from outer space: Gazing through 240,000 miles of space towards the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving and harmonious. My view of the planet was a glimpse of divinity.
Moments out of time. Moments when humankind glimpsed divinity. When we glimpse divinity, however momentarily, we are forever changed by the encounter.
Very soon our planet will once again be recalling a defining moment in the unfolding story of the love affair between humanity and divinity. We speak traditionally of how in God’s incarnation the light conquers the darkness, yet conquest is hardly an adequate or appropriate description of the silent emerging of a radically new vision for the future of life on earth. Nor does it capture the quiet summons to discover and embrace a new mind and a new heart. Quite the reverse. God’s self-revelation in the birth of Jesus fundamentally challenges all our notions of conquest and achievement and invites us instead to explore our poverty, our emptiness and our need.
We have plenty of reminders at this season, at least in my part of the world, of God’s preference for emptiness and poverty. The trees are bare now, bereft of their October glory. The holiday rentals go empty, and the Vacancies boards are evident everywhere. Even the sun has withdrawn to just a few hours’ appearance each day. Growth has gone underground for the winter, to the invisible realm where transformation happens.
Yet vacancy is the very thing God is looking for in God’s continuing journey to Bethlehem in search of a place to come to birth. Our fullness, real or imagined, is of no more use to God than is the overflowing inn with no space left for God to enter and be born. Our well-ordered lives and carefully constructed systems are found, in the end, to be incapable of receiving the seed of eternity. Instead, God seeks out the sheds and the stables and the neglected outbuildings of our lives and lies down right there in the mud and the mess and the muddle of our living, to call us into the labor of love that will give birth in the fullness of time to all that we can become.
But there are two problems with this plan. First, we will do almost anything to cover up the mess and the muddle and to fill up the emptiness within us. Second, we are extremely unwilling to wait for the fullness of time. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if, when it came time to sow our seeds in spring or plant our potatoes, we refused to do so because of all the dirt involved, or if, as the seeds and tubers began to grow, we would dig them up because they were taking too long. Patience does not rank very high in the list of Western values.
God thinks otherwise. God actively chooses our empty holes and grime-encrusted corners for the beginnings of a new birth in our hearts. God waits for as long as it takes for our growing and ripening, all the while tending that growth with personal love and care. All that is asked of us is our Yes! Let it be done in me as you dream it shall be.
As we prepare our gifts for the season of light, let us also ask for the grace to look with God’s eyes a little more deeply into the places within that we would rather cover and to open the empty, aching spaces inside us to the God who stands poised to keep on planting the seed of life precisely there.
A story is told of a children’s Nativity play. The teacher had rehearsed the scenes thoroughly over the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on the big night the parents assembled in the school hall in proud anticipation as their small angels and shepherds took the stage. Then the diminutive Mary and Joseph took the limelight and knocked at the door of the inn. At this point the six-year-old inn-keeper changed the script.
"Please can we have a room for the night," he was asked.
"Sorry there is no room in the inn," came the response.
But at that point the little innkeeper had second thoughts of his own. "Hang on," he added. "Don’t go away. You can have my room."
Can he have my room - in all its chaos and confusion? Can he have yours?