I saw my grandfather forty years after he died. I loved him with all my heart, not because he gave me toys, bought me ice cream or took me to the funfair, but because he loved me so much. I was only eight years old when he died of a heart attack and I cried myself to sleep. The next day my mother told me that he loved me very specially, so much so that he made special plans for me and so I should always pray for him each day when I said my Morning Prayers. That is why I felt so guilty when I saw him again forty years later. The truth of the matter is I had forgotten to pray for him as often as my mother wanted me to. It was Christmas Eve when I saw him. I usually shaved in the morning, but as I was going to midnight Mass I thought I better make myself a little more presentable. I had removed all the shaving cream from my face apart from a white moustache under my nose, about the same size as the white moustache my grandfather always wore that tickled when he kissed me. I never thought I looked like him, but there he was looking at me from the bathroom mirror. Oh, yes, it was him all right, but he did not look as kind or as loving as the man I remembered.
When my mother died thirty or more years after he did, I was devastated. I not only missed her more than I could say, but I particularly missed her help and encouragement when I was going through the most difficult period in my life. I not only felt spiritually bereft, but I was physically bereft too, without a home to call my own. It was then that my grandfather came to the rescue. When my mother said that he loved me very specially I knew what she told me was true because I had felt his love, but what she said about his plans for me meant nothing at all, at least until a letter arrived. It came from the family solicitors with news about which I knew nothing. He had left all his money directly to me. My mother only held the capital for her lifetime so she could live off the interest, which in those fairy tale days was considerable. Now everything came to me. At last I was safe and secure; at last I could have a home to call my own, but what was even more important, I felt loved, even though those who loved me were dead. Their love lived on and I could now live on to begin a new life. Thanks to them, to their tangible love for me, all went well, better than I could ever have hoped, so well in fact that self-absorption and self-satisfaction had made me forget those who loved me most, and what they did for me. That is why the face that looked back at me from the mirror that Christmas Eve might have looked like my grandfather, but it was covered with a guilt that I never saw on his face.
When I went to midnight Mass it was to realize that I had forgotten someone else too. Just as my grandfather had given me all he could to show his love for me, God had done the same. He had not shown how much he cared for me by the money he left me, but by the love he left me – his own personal love made flesh and blood for me in Jesus who was born on the first Christmas day. This enabled God to do through Jesus what he was never able to do before. God’s infinite love which was in the past too powerful to enter into finite human beings could do so in the future, thanks to the birth of Jesus. Once his human being was filled to overflowing with God’s infinite loving, it was transposed into human loving, enabling all human beings to receive God’s infinite loving through him. That is why Christmas is such a sublime and inspiring feast, because in the baby in the crib we see the beginnings of God’s plan for us that was brought to completion on the first Pentecost Day. It was then that for the first time on earth his human nature became radio-active with the infinite loving mercy of his Father, so that on that day and on every day, he can pour that loving mercy out, onto and into all who are open to receive it. For the first time in my life I began to realise, not just with my head, but with my heart just how much God has done for me and I resolved to make sure that I gave due thanks to God in future in my daily prayer.
However, it was the following Christmas that I came to see and understand a deeper reason for giving thanks to God. Making a formal act of thanksgiving to him each day had made me realise that we are all quick enough to storm the gates of heaven when we are in trouble or when we need something, but we are not so quick when it comes to saying thank you. It is in saying thank you as we should, that we are led into the sort of prayer that can change our lives permanently for the better. It is not enough just to thank God for what he has done for us, and continually does for us, but we need to thank him for something further, as I discovered for myself that Christmas. Instead of Christmas crackers the parish priest bought Christian crackers for the parish party. So instead of wearing paper hats everyone wore paper haloes instead and received miniature plastic saints, and instead of side-splitting jokes they had to meditate on mind-bending religious epigrams. Mine not only bent my mind, it tied it in knots for weeks trying to work out what on earth it meant. It was ascribed to a certain H Smith (circa 1630) and went something like this, “He is not thankful before God who only thanks him for his benefits.”
I do not think I would ever have fully unravelled its meaning had I not been to a retreat given by Archbishop Anthony Bloom three weeks later. At the end of the retreat the sister in charge said, “I not only want to thank you for what you have given us, but to thank you for being you.” It was a popular religious cliché at the time that usually made me squirm, especially when the said sister, not only thanked me for unblocking the convent drains the day before, but added the, “Thank you for being you,” bit at the end of it. However, when applied to Archbishop Anthony Bloom it certainly made sense, and gave sense to the religious epigram that had been tying my mind in knots ever since the parish party. The Archbishop had given us a lot to think about in his talks, but he gave us far more by just being who he was, a remarkable embodiment of the man in whose name he preached. It was silly to thank me for being me, just because I unblocked the convent drains, but it was not silly to thank him for being who he was. Who he was, was far more important than what he said, though what he said moved me more than any other preacher before or since. Now I could see what Mr H or Ms H Smith meant. If we only thank God for what we manage to get out of him or for what he has done for us, then we have hardly begun to thank him as we should. He should be thanked for being God, for being goodness, justice, truth and beauty, for displaying his inner glory in the glory of creation that surrounds us. He should be thanked too for entering into our world as a little baby over two thousand years ago to grow into the Lord and King of all creation to take us back with him back into his world to share in his glory to all eternity.
Thanking God for being God leads into the heights of prayer where thanksgiving leads to praise, and praise to glorifying God. Glorifying God leads to adoration, when we just want to gaze upon him with a profound reverence and awe that takes us out of ourselves if only for a time into brief moments of bliss. In these moments we come to know by experience what one great mystic meant when he said, “To adore means to lose oneself in the unfathomable, to plunge into the inexhaustible, to find peace in the incorruptible, to be absorbed into the immeasurable, and to give one’s deepest to the One whose depth has no end.” When we lose ourselves, in doing this then we become our true selves for as St Francis said, “it is in giving that we receive,” and it is in giving our all to him that he gives his all to us, so that Christ can be born again in each one of us.