Christmas is a time of year when reports about the human search for meaning and purpose have a turn in the media. Two recent pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald, one on December 21st (see here), the other on December 24th (see here), are examples.
On December 21st, Barney Zwartz, former Religion Editor for The Age, wrote an article with the headline ‘A hunger for the spiritual: the Australians finding new meaning in Christmas’. In this piece he explores what the spiritual quest is for many in contemporary Australia (note, for example, the emphasis on the surge of meditation practice currently underway in Australia). As it has been in many Western countries for some time, more and more people on this quest are not turning to Institutional Religion for answers to their questions, hungers, and restlessness. Institutional Religion is still seen as too rigid, too fixed in doctrinaire ways for many to risk their search within stiff ‘old school’ structures. Today’s quest is more generally human than this. Many are seeking outside Religion what Zwartz and others in his article name as the transcendent experience: an experience of going somehow “beyond ourselves”, “beyond the material”, for something (ultimately Divinity) which is “beyond the material world.”
But is this transcendent experience that many seek so far removed from the material? Do we really have to shrug off the ‘yoke’ of what we can touch, taste and see to have a real experience of the transcendent? Towards the end of his article Zwartz, perhaps unknowingly, hints at the answer no in his look at beauty and in his treatment of the cartoonist Leunig’s approach to transcendence. Leunig prescribes going “down towards what is truly grounded, in slowness, in small things, in peace rather than stimulus, small elements of beauty rather than great excellence, to do what is possible and not to overreach”. In this article it is Leunig who speaks to perhaps what the Christmas story is most profoundly about: God, the Divine, personally and fully in the ordinary and the common of human life. It is precisely there where humbling experiences of transcendence can be had. We don’t have to leave the material, to leave it unvalued, to experience the immaterial, the spiritual. The reverse is true.
Ross Douthat’s December 24th piece ‘Seeking a glimmer of hope in the manger’ (originally published in The New York Times) names this ordinary dynamic of Christmas-inspired transcendence very well. He emphasises the Christmas image of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus all in the stable as pointing human life and psyche directly to the transcendent and transcendence experience “in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.” Douthat questions whether specialists in Religion, Science, and Philosophy, at least on their own, can point us to this reality in the low of life.
Like Douthat and Leunig, Christian Spirituality affirms that transcendence, this ‘moving beyond’, happens when we ‘move into’ the stuff of life. This is the great paradox of an incarnational spirituality like Christianity – transcendence of life and transcendent experience is about engagement with life, all of life. Any experience of the immaterial is simply not possible without the material.
We may know of the Christmas story, whether it be front and centre or echoing dimly. What we may not know is that a manger is where domesticated animals go to feed, and that the messy and painful event of Mary’s giving birth happened not in a stable as we may know it today, so much as a space out the back where animals were often kept in mess and filth. Christianity has Jesus being born into offensive mess, into a reality not ideal. What does this tell us? That Divinity is with us, completely and fully, in the reality of our messy and far from ideal lives – especially in those spaces and places within and around us that we would prefer to avoid and/or reject. It is often those very places and spaces we reject and repress that stop us from living. Divinity so wants to be with us, the whole of us, loving us completely, wanting to see our human and divine destiny’s fulfilled, that this Divinity, in Jesus, has become one of us that we may experience something of what being human really means, discovering and experiencing our own incarnate transcendence in the ordinary stuff of life.
The band Midnight Oil has always struck me as a group of rock musicians keenly aware of the ways in which we are challenged to grow in love and compassion for creation and each other. Their song ‘Tell Me The Truth About You’ is no exception. For me their music has often resonated with the mind and intentions of God. Their music, so regularly ‘muddy and bloody’, and speaking to what being human is about, is wonderfully incarnate. It speaks to me often in the same way that Christmas can – as a vehicle for a deeper truth fully with us, challenging me to be ready for authentic experiences of other-centred transcendence amid the stuff of life.
So could this be the truth about us: that we are human beings becoming divinised, that is, being transformed over the course of life by Divine Love to embody and become this Love in the world, and that transcendent experience is somehow part of this? Christian spirituality says yes. Christmas says yes. Being made divine is simply the way of becoming love. Divinity became human to guide and enable us into our own unique expressions of embodied divinity. Divinity is our human destiny. God affirms this and makes this possible in Jesus.