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At the still point of the turning world

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This article from the MB Herald archives was originally published Nov. 27, 1987.

MadonnaThe hectic Christmas season is upon us. It’s a season of contradictions: canned music blares sentimentally on the most awesome of themes, the incarnation of God; we seek for gifts to celebrate love – the reality is push and shove and worry to spend scanty funds shopping among harried and testy crowds doing the same. It’s difficult to remember that the gifts which give meaning to our lives – faith, hope and love – are beyond our purchasing power.

And somehow we must grasp the relevance of a birth that occurred 2000 years ago, which T.S. Eliot called: “the still point of the turning world.”

Perhaps our busyness reaches a crescendo at this time of year because we’re perilously near the centre of the mystery itself. While near that centre and at that “still point”, we can’t help but ask the question that would point out the futility of our harried lives: behind the masks we wear, we reveal how empty we really are, and how very far we are from anchoring on that rock that never moves.

I have a confession to make: I never attended a Christmas service last year. Oh, I know that some find the babe amidst the rush and clamour, thank God! I couldn’t. I fear that our Christmas services mostly mirror the bustle and noise that we find everywhere at this time of year.

In the wordiness of it all, the mystery is lost.

In the rush and glitter, the simplicity is buried.

In the sentiment and trite phrases, the awe and blasphemy disappear.

In the familiarity and tradition, the newness and sacredness are missed,

But listen, world! The fairy tale is true! The pauper is a king! The starmaker is a baby! The Word is silent! Down is up and rich is poor and death is life!

Oh, how this silent Word speaks if we will listen!

Augustine put it like this:

“Maker of the sun, He is made under the sun
Disposer of all ages in the bosom of the Father,
He consecrated this day in the womb of His mother;
In Him He remains, from her He goes forth.

Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven,
Unspeakably wise, He is Wisely speechless:
Filling the world, He lies in a manner:
Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom.

He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.”

Our task is not to clutter up the incarnation with sentiment and symbolism, with more religious busyness and words, but to allow it to speak to us in our humanness and need. The rush and clutter that adorn Christmas speak more of our fear that perhaps it isn’t really relevant or true at all.

We are afraid to stop and listen, for fear that the silence will mirror our unbelief rather than allow the Word to speak. But we must be still to allow God to give to us the gift which Jesus is in full measure: our Peace! Come aside with me a moment then, and listen.

“Where reason cannot wade, there faith can swim.”

So said the Puritan Thomas Watson. Nowhere in theology do we encounter a mystery so great as God becoming man.

This is not a place to dwell with churning minds, therefore; it is a place to bow with hearts full of praise!

It is a place to gaze with awe and wonder, as did the shepherds on that long ago night.

It is a place to reflect on the love of God, and the need of man.

It is a place to reflect on his faithfulness and longsuffering.

It is a place to know his sovereignty and to discover that reality is in fact something we could not have guessed.

Thus, it is a place to know ourselves, to rest in God’s provision in humility and quietness.

It is God who takes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, God who descends to be among us, to suffer with us and ultimately to die for us, God and man are reconciled. We reach up our human hands to God, and he stretches out his divine arms to us, embracing both in his Person, T.S. Eliot wrote that “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint” (“The Dry Salvages”). Jesus is God encountering us in history, breaking into our world, God does not remain at a safe distance from us but comes alongside us, knowing complete solidarity with us. He does not speak a word into our darkness from outside it but offers us a word of hope while himself experiencing the darkness.

Thus knowing this solidarity with us, Jesus is God made vulnerable.

There is really only this one answer to suffering in the world: he has borne it all. There is no pain that we can know that he has not known greater, whether physical or psychological. He has known complete abandonment and alienation, the loss of a fellowship so complete that we have no categories with which to compare it – the turning away of the Father’s face. In all things he has gone before us (Heb. 2:10–18).

Jesus is God made poor (II Cor. 8), that we might be rich.

All our human desires for glory and power are confronted by the incarnation, While we strive for glory, Jesus is content to be a man. All our selfish and surface desires are frustrated at the moment when our deepest dreams are fulfilled. Being human is the height of our calling, and our hope is finding his strength in our weakness.

We must ask ourselves what is at the root of our compulsive and hectic lifestyles. The answer is quite simple: our sense of self is at stake, The false self is fabricated by social compulsions, pointing to the need for continued affirmation.

Our society defines busyness as a good thing – I must be busy.

Having money is a good thing – I must pursue it.

Knowing many people is a good thing – I must be popular.

This activism does not offer true identity, however, for our identity lies out, side our acts. The love of God offers us rest precisely because his love can only be received as a gift. The struggle, therefore, is to die to this false self.

For each of us, this death begins in the encounter with a baby in Bethlehem, where amidst the “drafts and stench of cow manure, the squalls of Christ, Creator sound”. Herein lies the mystery and beauty of Christmas, where a child holds the secret of our identity wrapped in the folds of his flesh.

The gift of God to man is incarnate on that silent and holy night.

The peace of God can never be earned or taken; it is always only a gift, and our religious services no less than our lives must reflect this, God communicated his peace to us in the most concrete of terms. Our ability to be peacemakers, reconciling men to God and to one another, depends on our willingness to suffer in the flesh for others, to be weak for their sakes and to reject the temptation to remain at a distance where we are in control and simply judge them.

In a rationalistic age, it is becoming difficult to value mystery; in an age when knowledge is power, it is becoming difficult to value worship and simplicity. The still point at the centre of Christmas is the Word made flesh for us. Being peacemakers begins with knowing God’s peace personally, escaping the busyness and compulsiveness that our culture promotes.

By encountering the baby of Bethlehem, truly, in the quiet spaces of our own lives, we will discover our true identity as loved and forgiven and in turn be enabled to offer God’s peace to the world.

[Len Hjalmarson

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