I prepared for Christmas this year by going with my family to the Wintershall Nativity Play. Wintershall is the evocative name of a country estate whose owners have turned their property, and their life’s purpose, over to the Gospel by drawing together a community of people who act out the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life. As well as the Nativity, they perform a Life of Christ cycle in the summer at Wintershall, and a Passion play, a version of which has also been staged in Trafalgar Square annually on Good Friday for several years now.
In a large field on a hillside in rural Surrey stands an old barn. Here the scenes of the Nativity story from Luke and Matthew’s Gospels are represented by a cast of volunteer actors. This is not theatre, but evangelisation. The whole mesmerising performance breathes a spirit of reverence and fidelity to the Gospel and yet is, in the best sense, earthy.
To stand in the dark field on a frosty, starlit night hearing the angel’s announcement to the shepherds as one’s breath condenses in the air, and to sit in a barn with the smell of straw and hear the beasts rustling and lowing, and hear the cries of a real baby, provokes deep contemplation. Significantly, this is because one is coming out of one’s head and back into one’s body, the place of incarnation. Contemplation is not the mind imposing meaning on the reality of God; it is the apprehension of God as the reality in which I live and move and have my being. It is allowing myself, my body, to rest in the presence of God – not just my thoughts.
Watching the play, I was moved to a new appreciation of the humility of the Incarnation. The awe-inspiring descent of the Divine Word was into the world of earth and elements, into the matter of His own Creation, made possible because of the historical consent of Our Lady, the woman chosen like Eve long before her, to be a mother. By coming to the humus, the earth, Jesus transformed that earth with the divine, tearing down any boundary between nature and grace so that, just as sin reigned in the flesh, it might be overcome in that same flesh. Gone is the Gnostic chasm between the earthiness of man and his divine destiny. The flesh is the hinge of salvation.
When I preach about the “drama” of the Incarnation, I need to remember that, rather than being an interpretation of reality, the Incarnation is drama in the true sense of the Greek word: it gives form to something; it is a making into act the truth that God so loved the world – this created world – that he gave his only Son. Not only does the Incarnation point to something beyond itself – to the Unseen Father – but the “something beyond itself” to which it points is present in the act, the form. “To see me is to have seen the Father,” Jesus will explain patiently at the Last Supper, but this is equally true in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and therefore in the Most Holy Eucharist.
Thus it is not an act of the imagination which allows the Christian to see God in the crib or the Real Presence. It can come only from faith in the revelation of the Gospels as handed on by the Church. Just as a Nativity play which sought to re-tell, rather than re-present the Gospel would be far less effective, since it would merely be seeking to impose a meaning from outside the original, so the Church continues to teach an unchanging faith, but such faith becomes personal when I accept that the “meaning” of God can only come from God and not from within human experience, that it is something to be received with humility, that like Our Lady I must consent to be a receiver of the communicatio I believed impossible, one which both constitutes and fulfils the desire for an experience of God which is greater than my ability to conceive God.
This is the human drama made vivid and real on the dark hillside and in the lighted barn: that only in a world created and loved by God can people and things bear a significance which is infinitely greater than they themselves are. We best celebrate the Incarnation by a contemplation that Paul Claudel calls the attunement to what is greater than man: “The voice of God manifest in a hushed whisper, glory in the vulnerability of a baby.”
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)