Some years ago I heard a conversation between two young women about a friend of theirs. The young woman they were discussing had just got married to a young man. The two speakers didn’t think he was very attractive! But their friend, it seemed, had seen something invisible to their eyes. ‘She must love him,’ said one to the other. ‘She can’t have married him for his looks!’
It’s not unusual for people to be puzzled by other people’s taste in partners. 'I don’t know what x sees in y.' 'They’re like chalk and cheese,' we say. Of course, sometimes outsiders can see what participants in relationships cannot see and before long, partners in a relationship discover what onlookers had seen all along. And there’s an ending. But that is not always the case. Sometimes the most unlikely people seem to make a success of a partnership defying all the relationship pundits. Why?
I think it is often explained by my mother's oft-repeated words: ‘All relationships have their secrets.’ There are things people see, know or understand about each other that others fail to see, know or understand. There are dynamics at work which only the two people involved recognise – but nobody else does. It’s why we say things like, “(S)he ‘gets’ me”.
To be ‘got’ to be ‘understood’ in this way, however imperfectly, can be a lasting basis for human love. But it’s a rare experience A mysterious knowing on which so much more can be built.
Secrets and mysteries are at the heart of mutual human love. How much more then, of God’s love for people? It’s that mystery that I want to take time to contemplate this Christmas and always. The ‘withness’ of Emmanuel – God with us. Actually I don’t believe that God said, ‘We’ll create people and if they go wrong we will go down and save them’. I believe that from Eden and before, God’s plan was always to be with us and live with us. The incarnation was not Plan B. How could that be? What could God see in his creation – marred out of all recognition? It's a mystery.
It certainly isn’t obvious what God found so lovable in the smelly shepherds, the hypocritical religious types or the power-crazed fishermen among whom Jesus came to live – and yet, he ‘found’ them. He ‘knew’ them. And now? How can God love the shopping focused individualists of the 21st century – we who hardly have time to lift our eyes from our screens to see each other, let alone God. And what about the power-focused religious bigots of our time? What might God’s ‘withness’ look like for me in the 21st century? Where might I find it? How might I experience it?
For what they’re worth – here are some of my 21st century Christmas signposts to that experience:
To cultivate an inner life which makes room – which moves from ‘wilfulness to willingness’. (Gerald May)
To lift my eyes from my screens and look around me at the unspectacular kindness of some of the everyday people I meet. Many of them offer insights into what Jesus did in his many obscure years in Nazareth.
To raise my awareness (without sentimentality) of the needs of the sort of displaced or marginal families in which Jesus lived for the early part of his life. That’s where He lives today.
To recognise that a lot of the life of faith is lived unremarkably and invisibly in families and among ‘friends’ where there is genuine mutual devotion but also misunderstanding and sibling rivalry.
Finally, as a Christian who wants to know the love of God, I must learn to be ‘with’ people in as full a sense as I can manage and wait for God’s surprises. I’ll never understand the mystery. But, once again this Christmas, I’m delighted to be invited into it.