Thursday, December 08, 2011

Barking at Angels III

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for Him whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Julian of Norwich understands the importance of the word 'behold'. Her Revelation of Divine Love is an explication of this single word. 'Behold' is profoundly theological. It describes a reciprocal holding in being, the humility of God sharing the divine nature with what it creates. God, the creator of all, God who is beyond being, in humility allows us, created beings, to hold God in being in space and time, even as God is sustaining us in existence and holding us in eternity.

Behold. Behold the God who is infinitely more humble than those who pray to him, more stripped, more emptied, more self-outpouring—and we need to remember that humility is not aware of injury or humiliation; humility and humiliation are mutually exclusive. Humility knows only love, and God is love. The scandal of the Incarnation is not that we are naked before Emmanuel, God with us, but that God is named before us and, in utter silence, given over into our hands and hearts. And it is in the depths of this beholding, in the silence of the loving heart of God, that the divine exchange takes place most fully, where each of us in our uniqueness and strangeness is transfigured into the divine life. And it is for this that God comes to us, the Word made flesh, stable-born and crucified.

And there is something else in this beholding: the great commandment tells us that this seamless love applies equally to our neighbour as to God. It invites us to abandon our very limited perspectives and ideas, making many aspects of life in community that are difficult not so much easier as irrelevant, to the point of not being noticed.

This living beneath the level of personality unfolds without denying or wasting any of the richness of the human person; it brings us, in our entirety, warts and all, to fullness. To behold God in everything is the antidote to frenetic activity, to stress and busyness. It enables us to live from, continually return to, and dwell in the depth of silent communion with God. And as this is something God does in us, we have only to allow it, to cease our striving and behold.

It might be helpful to realise that we are already, by virtue of the divine indwelling, in that stillness, and it is the thoughts and distractions that drag us away from it. This stillness is the very stillness of the heart of God, which lies in the realm of beholding in itself. We bring everything to it, and we draw everything from it. As we come to the manger, high and low, rich and poor, each brings a gift. Gospel accounts and legends recount a multitude of gifts, but there is one that we share in common, without exception, which each of us bears to the radiant child, and that is suffering: the devastated suffering of those shattered by war; the sorrowful suffering of those who mourn; the anguished suffering of the abused; the hungry suffering of the poor; the hollow suffering of the rich; the interior suffering that is the simple longing that burns for God.

Behold! he is coming with the clouds and everyone shall see him. Behold! the Lamb of God. Behold! the hour comes. Behold! I bring you good tidings. Behold! the Lion of Judah. Behold! I lay in Zion a stumbling block. Behold! I am sending a messenger. Behold! the bridegroom comes. Behold! lift up your eyes. Behold! I show you a mystery. Behold! the tabernacle of God is within you.

Behold! in that dark cave the radiance of the Child; behold! and in that beholding, in the light of his radiance, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay, all our sin and guilt. We bring the gift of suffering, and in receiving it, he takes it from us, transfiguring, giving in return new life, the joy that no one, and nothing, can take from us.

Behold! you shall conceive. It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives and we also. It is in this self-forgetful beholding, this eternity of love gazing on Love, of Love holding love in being, that all salvation history occurs. The words that come after 'behold' in the angel's announcement are for those who do not behold, who are still chained by the imperious noise of those who wield power and control by means of the fear of death. The Word yearns with the promises of God if only we will turn and behold, and in that beholding, be healed.

Behold: behold, and all the rest will be added unto you. 'Behold,' says the angel. It is in the consent to behold, the fiat that our fear is transmuted into love.

The beholdings that irrupt as annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to the shepherds, to Mary, to First Isaiah, or to us. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances. When we realise that something beyond our knowing has happened, we may be at first incredulous or even embarrassed. But when we realise that we no longer can dismiss the evidence—the traces left from an encounter hidden even from our selves—we are filled with awe.

Annunciations leave us with a sense of strangeness for we cannot wrap our minds round what has happened. They cannot be circumscribed by concept or by the self-reflexive interpretation we call 'experience'. They are too wonderful, they are beyond what we can ask or imagine, and in their wake life never again will be the same. Yet by welcoming this homely strangeness of God in beholding we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbour and, indeed, the strangeness of our selves.

If we choose not to ignore these annunciations—and we ignore them at our peril—we come finally to dread, to a forced choice: to remain in this state of alienation, to seek anaesthesia, or to plunge deeper into faith, into unknowing, relinquishing every preconception, every idea, image, notion we have, including those about God, about our selves, so that these annunciations may change and integrate us.

God, and the fathomless vision that God longs to give, will never fail. It requires only the opening of our hearts for God to purify with the fire of love; God whose thoughts and ways are not ours. Christ's peace is utterly simple, a simplicity that can never be comprehended, only received, and through it we are drawn into the mystery of God's own self-outpouring, into speechless wonder and ineffable joy.

Therefore in this world's night, let us enter more deeply into stillness so that we may behold the herald angels. Let us so plunge into this beholding that its silence and light will radiate even through our own darkness to illumine all the darkness and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him,
Give my heart.


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