The mystery of Christmas transcends rational explanation
There is no rational explanation of the mystery of Christmas: we are simply invited to dwell in its midst and to bow in reverent awe.
Special to The Seattle Times
Christmas beckons the Christians to awe and silence. It invites the faithful to contemplate the mystery of the Word made flesh, God with us.
In a cave on the edge of Bethlehem, protected at the entrance by a stable, a child is born. Our senses of sight, smell and sound are alive with the lowing of animals, the sight of a tender child, the pungent smell of dung and straw, the weariness and joy of Joseph and Mary. The entire scene draws us deeper into the mystery of God dwelling among us. Our hearts burn within us.
The poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) in her poem "Incarnation" explores this mystery. She exposes our own inner brokenness in facing the divine and captures this moment of the incarnation when the divine Word became flesh. She develops the theme that "It's when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do ... that awe cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart."
It is in these stark moments when we realize our human fragility that God "entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word." To believe in Christ is to believe in humanity because the Word has become flesh. And therein lies the challenge.
In another poem she contemplates with no hint of irony the fragility of God and asks whether humans can protect God's vulnerability. Can humans shield this defenseless lamb?
Levertov spent her last eight years in Seattle at a time when her poetry led her deeper and more profoundly into the mystery of God as human and divine. She was inspired by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his playful embodiment of "inscape" or the indwelling divine essence of a thing.
In a new biography entitled "Denise Levertov: a Poet's Life" (University of Illinois Press 2012), Dana Greene explains that throughout her life Levertov carried within herself a dual awareness of her Welsh mother's poetry and her Russian Jewish father's Hasidic tradition. She walked the strand of blessedness and failure, of joy and sorrow, of grace and sinfulness.
Greene describes how, faced with a serious illness, Levertov desired to deepen her spiritual life. She found a resource for this in the Jesuit-run St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill in Seattle. There she encountered splendid music, good liturgy, intelligent sermons, and a congregation committed to social justice. She admired the Catholic effort to marry contemplation with social justice.
In the early part of 1994 she made the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius, under the direction of the elderly Jesuit Father Lee Kapfur, whom she described as authentic and humble. In this monthlong retreat, she resonated with how St. Ignatius invites the retreatant to use her imagination and her senses to conjure Gospel events, placing herself in the scene as well.
This savoring of the scene enabled her to enter fully into the life of Jesus and to have a felt-sense of God's love for her and simultaneously to realize her own failings, how she had poorly raised her son and how she felt she had neglected her elderly mother.
What she garnered was an appreciation of a mystical church within the visible, institution church. She wrote, "If I look at my own life I immediately feel the love of God, who has brought me safely so far."
In another earlier poem "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus," Levertov explores the Benedictus of the Mass and concludes with an affirmation of hope: "the Word/chose to become/flesh. In the blur of flesh/we bow, baffled."
There is no rational explanation of the mystery of Christmas; we are simply invited to dwell in its midst and to bow in reverent awe.
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com