Re-telling the Christmas Story inwardly. An Ignatian Practice
I often do not know what to do with Advent, the season of walking towards Christmas. In this time of hustle and bustle we sometimes want to walk away from it. But this year, since we are regularly at the Jesuit School of Philosophy, I accepted an invitation to participate in Jesuit Exercises for Advent. The founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, designed these exercises as a way to open the imagination and heart to God's Spirit. They are adapted in a variety of ways for different settings, and for this Advent each person was invited to reflect on a particular scripture passage each day of a week, and also to meet with a Jesuit director each day to "discern the spirits" of one's reflection.
For me, this meant reflecting in turn on the Nicodemus story, on Psalm 23, on the road to Emmaus, on the birth of Jesus and the manger scene, and on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. For each day a different story. To do the reflection, one first settles into a time of devotion with a small ritual (a prayer, a candle, what seems right for you). Then one reads the story slowly. Now comes a time of creative imagination: one projects oneself into the story. One can be Nicodemus, or just a spectator, or hover over the scene like a dreamer. But one must get close. Smell the smells, feel the dust in one's nostrils, be the shepherd and bring a lamb, see the ways the hands move and the eyes glance, ask a question of, or say something to, someone in the story. And when one is struck by something -- joyful, afraid, disgusted, sad -- then one comes close to that thing to discover why. Finally, after this immersion in the story, one ends with a closing ritual.
Then in the meeting with the director, one retells the story and what one saw and felt, and together you construct its meaning for your path.
I have been deeply moved by these experiences and I recommend them to you. So in this busy, even frantic, time of celebration, I invite you to take half an hour to practice the story that has become so familiar. Put yourself there, smell the smells, see the small details, and ask why those details appear to you now, ask what they have to say to you.
Here is a poem from last christmas that Almut wrote while we were at St, John's Abbey in MN. She has done just this practice: Sat in front of the stable scene, and spoken with Mary. And she heard an answer.
I wish for you a similar experience:
Through the Eyes of a Child
by Almut Furchert
I asked Mary if I could hold her baby.
She nodded kindly.
Jesus baby was small, much smaller
than the babies I've held before.
Carefully I picked him up
from the crib of straw
bundled in clean linen.
Holding the Jesus baby
gives me a shiver
"Don't touch the holy child!"
Some voice in me said
and I anxiously looked up to see
if some one might run up and
slap my fingers
like a child touching things
too valuable to touch.
"But it is the Jesus baby," I say
cradling it in my arms
like any other child.
I love to hold the smallest babies
Love to breathe their freshness
to feel their warmth
And listen to their quiet breathing
re-telling the story of eternity.
Wasn't the Jesus baby a baby too?
And wasn't Mary the young mother giving birth to a -- child?
Maybe I should hold Jesus a bit longer
so Mary can take a nap.
Maybe I should make her a tea?
Maybe Joseph needs a nap, too?
Or chicken soup perhaps?
Why had I never before thought
to ask Mary to hold her baby?
Usually I pass nativity scenes quickly
like other Christmas kitsch:
badly staged and oddly dressed children
on crowded Christmas eves
With their parents holding up smartphones near by.
in this empty church
In the stillness of the night
I find myself drawn to the scene
A few candles shed light on the figures
made from stony material
wrapped in rustic clothing, artful but plain.
I sit down in the straw
where the baby lay.
The stone beneath the straw is cold
as I gaze into the eyes of the shepherds
kneeling down there quietly.
I bend down with them to get a glimpse of what they see.
I glance in the eyes of Joseph who embraces Mary,
And on Mary who in turn looks back to me.
At eye level of a child,
I want to touch the Jesus baby,
to feel the clothes and the straw.
Is it not too cold for Jesus baby?
Why is it laying there on straw?
Why are the shepherds kneeling?
And why is it so small?
Birthing the holy
starts with child questions,
questions not afraid
to take the Jesus baby out of its crib
and cradle it under the heart.
Look, it is a baby
just like those I held before;
a bundle of new life
Received by wonder and awe
in the virgin womb
of each courageous women
to the higher powers
from whom she receives the gift.
A holy gift
we can neither make nor keep.
We can only birth it in its time.
In a silent night.
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht -----