Driving into the city for an appointment, under a clear cold sky: there is no snow yet, and the landscape looked stripped down, bare naked. The leaves are long since gone, of course, and the scrub woods stand without softening or protection. They still show all the damage from the ice storm almost two years ago: snapped tops and trunks, broken limbs, young trees bent permanently into graceful, wholly unnatural curves, doubled over from that horrible heavy beauty. The light has a biting clarity, like the lights in a clothes-store fitting room, the ones that reveal you to yourself without any kindness whatsoever.
It isn't a beautiful landscape. Where there's no snow, few Canadian winter landscapes can stand much close examination. Maybe the Rockies look good under these conditions, but not the land hereabouts. Not under this light, anyway. We need snow to veil the irregularities, the dun colours and scruffiness of this land in winter.
I've been reading the parables recently, and one thing that struck me is how often in them the Kingdom of God often looks so plain from the outside. Oh sure, there's glory too but it's glory mostly hidden, the treasure buried in a field, the coin lurking somewhere in the house, being searched for. Instead (says Christ) the kingdom is like a weedy field, or seed struggling to grow or a trough of bread dough, or a plain weedy mustard bush. The kingdom, from the outside, is scruffy and ordinary. The life within the seed that we can't see from here--that's where the promise lies.
We have been told about the inner glory of the kingdom, or we simply sense that it's there: the pearl for which you go and sell everything you own. And so we keep trying in our human way to translate it into something that we can hear, smell, taste, feel, see. That's why medieval artists painted the Virgin and Child in glory, using ground-up lapis lazuli for her cloak and true gold foil for their haloes: to put on the page the splendour that the soul knows is lurking, and to honour God in ways that the world understands.
Even if we're not sure about God and religion and stuff like that, we want something of what they had, and we're apt to find it at Christmas. We want lush seasonal music. (It occurred to me, thinking about this, that Christmas is really the only time the unchurched get to wallow in good church music, or to sing out loud without inhibition.) We want the scent of pine like incense, rich decorations, plenty of food and drink, a party, but a party with real richness and solemnity. I'm not exempt. You should see my Christmas tree....
People are thirsting for the spiritual, we hear, but they're also thirsting for this richness, this soul-satisfying beauty. God knows, end-of-the-century life tends to be shorn of opportunities for good old-fashioned grandeur. The really rich used to commission elaborate pieces from goldsmiths, employ private orchestras, and swish around in gold-embroidered taffeta, providing a certain amount of public pomp. Now they go for privacy and a a severely elegant style. Where there's opulence, it tends to be vulgar. Nobody "does" glory any more--except at Christmas.
Christmas gives people more than the artwork and the music and the sense of celebration; it gives them a chance to experience and express a range of emotions on which this world frowns: sentimentality, yes; but also tenderness and mystery, sincerity, kindness, generosity --qualities and emotions we've lost much use for in the current bull market. At Christmas, it's not in terminal poor taste to accept a bit of Uplift--say, from a performance of _Messiah_. Even a Margaret Thatcher may feel her eyes prickle when the radio plays some particularly gentle, touching Christmas lullaby. It's always been permissible to get a bit emotional about babies, if you can stand the critters in the first place.
So the stores are full of rich-looking stuff, lots of it with medieval or Renaissance overtones, and the CBC is playing wonderful choral music, and acquaintances are hugging each other, and we're all feeling wonderfully warm and fuzzy (unless we're depressed or fighting with our family) .... and out there, past the malls and the Christmas lights, there is still that barren forlorn-looking landscape, bereft of snow, dun-coloured and full of broken trees.
Myself, I think I'd rather have my plain on the outside and my glory within than have it the other way around. There may be aesthetic and (perhaps) emotional satisfaction in pictures of polychrome angels--and I am not, for a moment, knocking beauty for its own sweet sake. Merely, I don't know how well it will carry you through the wilderness.
What would happen if, instead of turning from this poor workaday world in search of glory, we turned and looked for glory in this dun, plain landscape? Could we see Mary in a single mother struggling to juggle the bills and being forced to turn to the food bank at the end of the month? Could we see shepherds in the good ol' boys down by the truck stop, or in the crazy homeless and the street addicts? Could we see one of the Magi in a tired, over-driven parish priest, struggling to write a sermon that makes some sort of sense in a world that seems so senseless? Could our own particular angels be singing to us, exactly where we are?
Whatever the glory and beauty of Christmas at its best, Christ still drew his first breath in a humble place, not a palace. God comes down to this landscape, to this greybrown utterly unspecial land with its broken trees, not to some special place of great beauty. God chose to be born in a spare, plain place, no palace. His parents may or may not have been poor, but they certainly weren't rich. His mother Mary's cloak may or may not have been blue, but not the rich blue of the illustrations, and her dress was definitely not gold brocade.
If we're so moved by the tenderness and quiet glory of this season, what could happen to this poor plain world if we followed God's good example, turning that tenderness towards it and looking in it for quiet glory? It is, after all, where he chose to dwell with us.
Thanks be to God.