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Has Christmas Failed Us?

‘..The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings’, words taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘God’s Grandeur’.

    I am not sure if he was thinking of Christmas when he wrote them, but they seem to me to be most fitting for the Christmas we are currently experiencing, with their implicit reference to the maternal in God, the ‘brooding’ over a world that seems in so many ways to have been bent out of shape by Covid. The world is out of kilter with the divine whose coming we often forget, or count as irrelevant, and especially irrelevant to the collective and personal trauma of the Covid pandemic.

    Christmas has failed us with its sentimentality. We need something more, something that can hold the pain for us.

When we suffer, we tend to protect our pain, to not allow it to be touched, even by the kindest of hands or voices. We soldier on, presenting a confidence we rarely feel. Soldiering on emotionally, as well as physically, makes it hard for others to touch our pain, to allow them to see how frail and vulnerable we are, how truly afraid we are in the dark watches of the night, afraid of losing someone we love, or of losing our own lives or livelihoods to this pandemic. I think it is best to be honest about this fear, to admit, even, that anxiety levels are such that it is often impossible to pray. There is plenty of advice out there on how to cope with depression and anxiety, but nothing is ever said about prayer, either because people are afraid of it or deem it irrelevant.

What makes prayer difficult right now is that in order to pray, one has to let go of something, whatever it is that takes up most of our inner space, the space within us that God inhabits, whether we are aware of his presence, or not. God never vacates that space. There is no question of God saying “I’ll come back some other time when you’re less troubled and anxious.” God simply allows the turbulence but is not driven out by it. It is God whose abiding Spirit prays in us, rather than the other way round.

This is what made me think of the ‘bright wings’ in Hopkins’s poem, perhaps because Christmas is traditionally the season for wings, usually angelic ones, but not the season for the Holy Spirit, which is odd because Mary conceives the Christ child through the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit who ‘broods’ over us. The essence of Christmas has to do with this close brooding presence. I like the fact that God is also vaguely likened to a hen, a creature of little brain but of massive instincts for the care and protection of its own.

But this is perhaps to mix the images a little too much. Right now, what we have is an over-arching Presence that is entirely constituted in love. Such a thing is hard to imagine and yet we see glimpses of it in the myriad acts of kindness and sacrificial living going on around us. Each, in its way, is a manifestation of the over-arching love and strength of God at work, gently straightening what has become crooked and bent, holding the pain of sickness and death, and all the unspoken pain and sickness of heart and spirit that we carry within us right now.

    So it helps to see these graced moments as God’s gift to us, something to be taken in when prayer, as we normally conceive of it, is difficult or impossible. We can do this ‘taking in’ at the end of the day, by just remembering the graced moments we have experienced and allowing them to touch, with infinite gentleness, our particular experience of suffering.

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