There is a huge chestnut tree 50 yards from my study. Chestnut trees make a lot of mess – shedding their conkers, spiky shells and leaves that are tricky to compost – but on the other hand, we have the tree to thank for two great shows: the first lasts for a moment in the spring when flowers seem to march up its canopy like an army of fecund little warriors; the second lasts the winter because the mature and perfectly developed crown of the tree – when leafless and therefore visible – is a marvel to behold. It seems almost to be worshipping God, lifting its mighty twisting boughs to the heavens.
On 21 December, the sun rises more or less behind the worshipping chestnut tree above the hedge on our southern boundary. It havers limply, before dipping back down further along the same hedge just about half a dozen hours later. I have cut a dip in the central section of the southern hedge so that even when there is such a slim solar offering it is still possible to put one’s face in the sun (provided it is clear). By contrast, on 21 June, the sun rises well off to the East and sets beyond the cherry tree avenue that runs like a spine through our garden.
On the equinoxes – and this is the satisfying part – the sun sets more or less over the cairn at the end of the avenue turning it essentially into a yardarm, making sense of the garden’s position in time and space, giving it a greater sense of place.
This is a time of year when many of our forebears would have been looking towards the sure and stealing pains that accompanied the hungry gap in the calendar. After the great midwinter festival, humanity looked its collective vulnerability in the eye and those without winter stores shuddered. You might think this is a time to remind ourselves of our strength and cleverness, to pat ourselves on the back for mechanised agriculture and for landing on the Moon. But the Church points us towards the little Christ child swaddled, dependent entirely on the best efforts of His mother and father. Here, in this moment of maximum vulnerability, is where God chooses to break into our existence.
Mother Teresa said, “the child is the beauty of God present in the world, that greatest gift to a family”. My wife and I have always maintained that “a baby in the house is a great blessing”. It is, but not merely to the household or family itself – it is a great blessing to humanity, what ultimately encourages us to look beyond ourselves. Babies make us look to the future, they make us stewards, they give all of us (parents or otherwise) purpose. In those little mews of a newborn we see what it is to be human, if it is anything at all.
From a Catholic perspective I would suggest Christmas is a time to ponder the economy of Heaven which seems to work in the opposite direction to the worldly economy of the everyday. The great deposit was of course made in mighty triumph on the Cross. The coffers are filled as the poor are fed and treated. Heavenly funds are transferred with a friendly glance, a trusting thought or a hurried prayer. They whistle across the wires as each exhausted mother rises in the night. Perhaps one important difference between our economy and the economy of Heaven is that there is no fixed money supply in Heaven and therefore no inflation. Unlike central bankers, God can always shove more cash harmlessly out the door. When blockages do happen, they happen at our end. CS Lewis wrote of a man who was so determined to hold onto all the presents he had ever been given that he carried them around with him in a great pile. The trouble was it left no room for God to add another.
I often think at this time of year what a wonder it would have been to visit early medieval Catholic churches in England when they were festooned with warmth and colour. I wonder about all those monasteries, friaries and parish churches. How the pleasure of visiting would have depended, at least in part, on the warmth of celebration and worship. Why must our worship be entirely internal, why can’t we bring the material things of the universe into worship? We can see in the cosmos a song of glory to the Lord or so much meaningless noise. There is no shuffle, it is a mighty all-encompassing dance – yes, even right down to the tips of the branches of my chestnut Tree.
Charlie Hart is the author of No Fear Gardening: How To Think Like a Gardener (Constable)
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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