Of Presents and Presence

Summer 2010 #3

“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him into his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair, and bring him to the place where he spends most of the day with therapeutic exercises”.  At the height of his career, author Henri Nouwen moved from his post at Harvard University to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto, to take on the daily, mundane chores related above.  He ministered not to intellectuals but to a young man who is considered by many a vegetable, a useless person who should not have been born.  Yet up to the time of his death Nouwen insisted that he, not Adam was the chief beneficiary in this strange, miss-fitted relationship.   

This is my favourite passage from author Phillip Yancey*; and essential reading at this topsy-turvy time of year when the world goes mad.  Cynicism is one of my greater failings, and I can feel a Yuletide relapse coming on fast!  Christmas could be – should be – the richest and best moment in our calendar.  Our carols are songs of gratitude, reconciliation and spiritual depth; and yet Christmas Bells no longer ring from cathedral spire or even from reindeer’s bridle, indeed the modern peal is heard from the cash-register alone.  Somehow the season of Peace & Goodwill has been lessened to merely Loud & Mercenary.

Just today a friend pondered the strange compulsion many of us feel to have the windows washed, the bathrooms spotless, garden’s weeded, and the dog clipped and groomed for Christmas lunch.  Why this frenetic, illusory craving for Utopia?  It gets worse when the guests arrive: not only must our home and table sparkle like the star atop the tree; but every friendship and family bond glistens with a rapidly applied layer of unsullied purity.   Crikey!  No wonder some folks are looking for a side serve of Valium with the ham. 

The New Testament (strangely sidelined) has more than a little to say on the subject of Christmas.  It speaks a narrative not of fulfilment but of yielding; it tells of a day when all was given, and nothing received; a day of poverty and humility; a day that had more in common with the ordinary weeks of ordinary people than with the curious rites of December 25th

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2).

A fair bit has changed in my world since I wrote “Christmassed!”, my 2009 Yuletide rant.   It’s easy enough to criticise the outside world, but it’s my own soul that needs work.  I’m looking for an inner Christmas, an incarnation.  This Christmas, for me, is an opportunity to embrace the frailty of life.  It’s about becoming flesh, surrendering my deeply held notions of invincibility; adapting myself to the obvious realities of mortality.  It is also about accepting the God-given humanity of my commonplace world.   Not grasping for that which is lovely, but embracing those whom I love.  The story of Nouwen and Adam is a parable of Christmas:

From the time spent with Adam, Nouwen said, he gained an inner peace so fulfilling that it made most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast.  Early on, as he sat beside that silent, slow-breathing child-man, he realized how violent and marked with rivalry and competition, how obsessive, was his prior drive toward success in academia and Christian ministry.  From Adam he learned that “what makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.  Whoever speaks about Adam as a vegetable or animal-like creature misses the sacred mystery that Adam is fully capable of receiving and giving love.”  From Adam, Henri Nouwen learned – gradually, painfully, shamefully – that the way up is down.  The gospels repeat one saying of Jesus more than any other: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Truly, the way up is down.



* Yancey, Philip.  I was Just Wondering.  2003, Sydney, Strand.

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