Visiting Hours: Sojourning with the Sacred, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Dec


There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.  Madeleine L’Engle

Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint. Colin Morris

Holy work in the world has always been like this: messy, earthy, physical, touchable. Catherine McNiel

We are the creators, and our mission is to detach from all the chains we imposed upon ourselves and create a bridge to the infinite self. Journey back to where we started. Ana O’Malley

Do not have so much fear of this world that it will ruin the next incarnation. Dada Bhagwan

This is the first day of Hanukkah, the first full day of winter, and just three days from Christmas.  Like many of our places of employment and engagement, the UN has wound down the bulk of its activities for the year. Unlike some of these other places, however, the UN is now licking its wounds from recent failures to reach a climate agreement sufficient to the magnitude of the current threat and, in the Security Council, the shameful inability to reauthorize the “cross-border mechanism” which most everyone believes is essential to keeping Syrian civilians alive as Special Envoy Pedersen pursues a long-awaited political settlement.

Due in part to the fact that I am not always well in my head, these discouraging policy failures actually led me to think more this week about “incarnation,” a seminal attribute of this season for Christians but one which tends to vanish from interest once the bills of the season have been paid and the images of the baby sleeping in the cold have given way to how we (at least in the northern climes) are going to cope with our unrelenting and mostly colorless winter.

I believe it would be better for all of us if we could hold on to incarnation a while longer.

According to the dictionary, what is “incarnate” is that which has been made manifest or comprehensible; something that has been made clearer to us; a veil that has been lifted; blinders that have been removed from our eyes, allowing us to see a fuller reality beyond our preconceptions and prejudices. This notion of incarnation has ramifications for Christians at Christmas of course – the baby in the hay that somehow represents the “goodness and light” that had been promised and which has seemingly remained more elusive than we might otherwise have wished.

But there are many other veils that surely need to be lifted, other blind spots to which we have become a bit too comfortable, logs in our own eyes that prevent us from seeing the “specks” that are in the eyes of others.  To be able and, even more, to be willing to see all that is constantly being made “manifest and comprehensible” to us is a great gift to ourselves, to those around us, and especially to all we seek to serve.

And there are other meanings to this incarnation season that we would also do well to consider further.

One of these is fully present in the manger scene but also at the core of some of our most cherished rituals – the mystery associated with turning items from a common to a sacred use:  the common barn that housed an infant savior; the common candles of Hanukkah mysteriously burning in a temple for days instead of hours, the common waters that somehow become the conduit for sacred baptisms. This “re-purposing” is also part of incarnation, also part of how we recognize and appreciate the mystery within the commonplace, the divine within the profane.

And it is not only in the religious realm where this re-purposing takes place.   Many of our Global Action colleagues (Green Map and others) are doing their part of the “messy, holy work” that we need so much of in these times, investing what might otherwise be considered common and easily-disposed resources with fresh value and meaning.  For several years, Lin Evola’s Peace Angels Project has been our own re-purposing guidestar, an effort across cities and cultures, collecting weapons, melting them down, and then turning these instruments of death and criminality into sculptures of beauty and inspiration. Especially in this season of incarnation, we honor all of this work, all these reminders that “there is nothing so secular” that it cannot also be re-purposed for the greater benefit of people and planet.

Finally, there is the dimension of incarnation that we are perhaps most prone to forget, or at least to overlook – the depth of commitment which such incarnation implies.  The child in the manger represents no mere visitation, no temporary port of call, no visceral drive-by, no stop on a longer tour.  The manger is, instead, a symbol of enduring presence, of a commitment to help us through our most difficult times, to accompany us as we attempt to detach from our self-imposed chains and get back in touch with our truer natures, to overcome the fears that inhibit the freedom of our movements that is indispensable to rebuilding those bridges to our “infinite selves.”

Incarnation has little relation to the material things and personal relationships that we have been “trained” to use for a short season and then discard; nor does it represent a short, seasonal distraction from the habits embedded in our personal calendars.  Indeed it is the key to calendars with a genuine human future.

The three dimensions of incarnation noted here all have important implications for both our personal lives and our policy choices. They represent a call to lift the veils that prevent our clarity of vision; to accept the duty to re-purpose, thereby creating sacred space where there is now only (sometimes quite vulgar) material interest; to seize on the value of accompaniment, making ourselves reliable advocates for people who are themselves reliable in their pursuit of a truth worth keeping; people who can help us re-purpose the material plane which is now burying us in plastic and cynicism; people for whom “visiting hours” has no closing time.

The sacred texts that define this season of incarnation make clear that action takes precedence over speech, that how we act in response to the clarity and permanence promised during this season means more to the world than what we say (or write).  The world that we seek to inspire and heal needs this incarnation moment; it needs us to witness more reliably to the sacred in our midst, to do our part to create new sacred spaces and deeper relationships, and to renew the commitment to see our own re-purposing projects to their very end.

Do you hear what I hear?  Do you see what I see?  The season of incarnation is upon us.  May it never leave.

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