My great uncle found himself in hell during the First World War. He was trapped in a shell hole made by enemy artillery. He was cold, hungry and half submerged in more than a foot of mud for almost twenty-four hours. He could not raise himself more than a few inches or he would have been caught in the crossfire between the two warring armies. The bullets that passed to and fro between the armies symbolised the hatred that set them apart. In this hell he thought of heaven, the heaven that had been his home before leaving for the front. He dreamed about the warm, cosy security of bathing in his parents’ love when he was a child. He remembered that when he was ill his mother would gather him in her arms and take him back to bed with her, where he was placed between her and his father. It was here, experiencing the mutual love that bonded his parents together, that he felt safe and secure and loved. That love that had conceived him in the first place made him happier than in any other place since.
From reflecting on what was but the shadow of true and perfect loving, he began to reflect on the reality. It made him think of heaven, the place of perfect loving where we have all been conceived and to where we would all be going. It made him think of how the love, in whom and through whom we have all been conceived by God, was made flesh and blood in the Jesus whom he had first come to see and love in the crib at Christmas. The power of love unleashed on that first Christmas day was so great that on its celebration only a few weeks before, both warring factions had laid down their arms and greeted each other as friends, if not as brothers, and even played football together. “If only we could live on every day as we do on Christmas day,” a German soldier had said to my uncle when they parted to resume hostilities.
My uncle said that he thought more about what matters in his hell hole than at any time before or since. The German soldier was right; Christmas isn’t just a feast to remind us of what happened on one day, but what is happening on every day. It is meant to remind us that the Jesus once born to be a king in our world, has grown up into a king who now reigns from God’s world. The love that radiated from him on the first Christmas day, now radiates from him on every day.
Christianity is the only religion that is founded on love. However, not as St John insisted, on our love of God, but firstly on his love of us, for without his love we have no power to do anything, not even love him. The question asked therefore by the Fathers of the Church and the great saints and mystics to whom we look for guidance, is not, “How do we love God?” but rather, “How do we turn and open ourselves to receive his love?” Sheathed within God’s love, as electricity is sheathed in lightening, is all the grace, all the power, all the supernatural energy we need to enable us to be refashioned and reformed into other Christs, so that we can become the means through which God can continually channel his love to a world that is lost without it. This is the love that can make all things possible that are quite impossible without it?
St Bonaventure once said, “Contemplation is first learned at the mother’s breast.” That is where Jesus first began to grow in human loving, as his human nature began to receive the love of God through his mother’s love. The security that he received through his mother, enabled him to contemplate his heavenly Father through his divine nature, and so receive in his human nature that same love transformed into human loving. It is this loving that now radiates from him, drawing us up into him where we lose ourselves forever in loving the Father.
What will continue in heaven where we were all first conceived, began on earth on the first Christmas day. Each year when we celebrate this feast we are reminded of what we were conceived for in the first place – to welcome into our lives the only love that can do in us, and through us, what God created us for in the beginning. By saying, “Yes,” to God as Mary did, the Holy Spirit can bring Christ to birth again within each one of us. Then, like Mary, we too might give him to the world, that his Kingdom of justice and peace may reign where injustice and anarchy ruled before.
First Published in The Catholic Universe for the fourth week in Advent