Thursday, 26 December 2019
Two letters, to a friend
Jesus was born of a virgin. If we take this literally, Joseph must have felt pretty useless, like in the cartoon above. But if we take it deeply, virgin birth applies to us too. Do we dare accept this?
As many as receive him, he gives power to become children of God, born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:12).
Born of a virgin means a spiritual Self contains a body/mind, even if it makes you feel physically useless. There is a healing power in uselessness. We should be, in a certain sense, useless, to return to the joy which is our true nature, where we do not need to struggle with the world, or try to force happiness to occur.
None of us see this with our physical eyes, hear it with our ears, feel it with our hands, taste it with our tongue, yet here it is, in the depths of the atomic structure prior to all our sense impressions, at the heart of the universe. That is Jesus’ nature, and ours.
Jesus 'born of a virgin' also means not belligerent or defensive or anxious for power. You may or may not know, many in his time were said to have been born of a virgin. Alexander the great, who lived 300 years before him, and the man who was emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus, Augustus, were said to have had a virgin birth.
Modern people don’t realise it, but Jesus born of a virgin is a political claim – he is our leader, not someone who needs to dominate. Not one full of pride and purpose, but peace and healing. Not one born to divide conquer and rule, but born to unify human and divine.
So, Jesus born of a virgin, and Mary was happy to allow it, because we need to be, in order to know the wisdom of God made flesh, not just in Jesus, not just in the flesh of the universe at the beginning, at the Big Bang, not just in my flesh, but yours, because wherever we touch reality, we touch God, relating to us in the most intimate way.
Here is no needy tyrant demanding a sacrifice, but original goodness through a human body, as helpless as a baby, emptying itself into our human nature and plight, if we are empty enough to receive it.
As St Gregory of Nazianzus said: “The very Son of God, older than the ages, invisible, incomprehensible, incorporeal, beginning of beginning, light of light, fountain of life and immortality … perfect likeness … he it is who comes to his own image, and takes our nature, for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like ... he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty … so that I [who am also empty] may share in his fullness".
Rather than have emotional expectations of others, we can embrace what actually is. The reason it is OK to be useless is because it reveals this non-anxious presence. This healing is then picked up by others, despite the life and death pressures of this world. Here is an example, written by a doctor, initially very sceptical about this.
“I was a lifelong atheist, from a family where the parents read their children the shorter essays of Bertrand Russell while others were telling Bible stories. As a medical student, I was inclined to bracket chaplains in the same category as homeopaths – they might make a few people feel better, but we’d get along just fine without them. In other words, useless.
Years of medical practice have done nothing to alter my lack of religious conviction, and the compatibility of a benevolent deity with appalling human suffering is not an issue to address in this short letter, but on the matter of chaplains I am happy to acknowledge I was completely, 100 per cent wrong. I still have no idea what their official duties comprise of or how they spend their time but time and again I have watched them step in and provide a service no one else could offer.
In my foundation year 2, I called the priest at 4am for an older woman who was bleeding to death from her upper GI cancer. The medical team, myself included, were fussing ineffectually about, wondering if there was any point giving a transfusion and whether it was too late to try cryoprecipitate.
The chaplain stayed discreetly in the background while there was any chance that our efforts might succeed but as the futility of our interventions became apparent, he stepped quietly forward and began to recite the prayers for the dying, the patient joining him in a whisper whenever she felt strong enough.
The contrast between our frantic bustle and the calm of those extraordinary words ‘Go forth, Christian soul, from this world…’ has stayed with me ever since. In some hospitals a number of different chaplains, each representing different faiths, can be found.
That was far from the only time I saw chaplains prove their worth. From keeping a lonely old man company during a long admission to reassuring a nervous teenager before surgery, to that most poignant of all sacraments, the emergency baptism for a dying child, I have been impressed by their ability to help where all our efforts are useless.
The most unusual service I ever saw a chaplain provide was on an intensive care unit where a particular consultant tended to get more and more agitated and sharp-tongued whenever we were especially busy, to the considerable discomfort of his team. On the very worst days, when we’d all missed lunch and stress levels were approaching critical, the chaplain would appear as if by magic and discreetly slip him a bar of chocolate.
It never failed to improve matters and everyone on the unit breathed a sigh of relief. We never discovered how the chaplain knew there was a problem or worked out how to fix it. Perhaps that’s what they mean by God working in a mysterious way”.
So, I commend to you the healing power of uselessness, a spiritual Self containing a body/mind, it is true of you, even if it makes you feel useless. You are in God’s image, get behind the light that casts this image into your soul, it is full of healing, potential, and power, to make you, like Mary, a channel of God’s peace, pregnant with bliss, grace, consciousness, and truth.
Before I sign off, one more letter, this time from a Friar, written to a perplexed person in 1513. People in 2019 may not believe in angels, but we do believe in messages, and angels are messengers. (And remember too - “I am” is actually God’s name).
“I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is very much, that, while I cannot give, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace!
The gloom of the world is a shadow. Behind it, within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. To see, we have only to look. I beseech you, look! Life is so generous a giver.
We, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering-you will find beneath it a living splendour woven of love by wisdom with power.
Welcome it. Grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there because the gift is there. The wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as mere joys. They, conceal diviner gifts.
Life, beneath its covering, is so full of meaning, purpose, and beauty that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all you need! But courage you have, and the knowledge, knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through an unknown country, but on our way home”.