your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder
at heaven touching earth….”
Common Worship, Additional Collect for Christmas day.
Throughout Advent we remember and celebrate that ways in which God has reached out with love to an estranged and troubled earth: the patriarchs and matriarchs in their growing self-understanding as God’s beloved people as they found signs of God’s blessing in the journey as well as in the places where they made a home; the prophets in their tireless exploration of justice and mercy, and the beacon of hope and meaning that they held for God’s people in dark times; John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets, whose whole life expressed the vocation to ‘witness to the light’ and to draw wayward people back to the simplicity of reconciliation with God; and Mary, whose joyful, hopeful, and wise assent to the angel opened the door to heaven and let God in, and in whose very body God incarnate fearfully and wonderfully came into the world.
God has always reached out to us. Heaven has always touched the earth. But we do not always perceive it. The whole universe is held in God’s mighty and gentle hand, and yet we often experience the world as estranged and distant from its creator. Into a world that struggled to recognised itself as beloved of God, God came, as one of us, to be with us, Emmanuel.
In the image of the Madonna and child, we see what it looks like when the creator becomes part of creation.
We see the bare floor, and the straw, and a God who would, in the words of the Magnificat, ‘cast the mighty from their thrones’ leading the way, and in humility becoming something small and fragile, weak and vulnerable, in order that all the humble might be exalted. This is heaven touching earth.
In the image we see the ultimate paradox. In Mary’s embrace, heaven and earth are held together as perhaps never before: the hand that flung stars into space, years before it is surrendered to cruel nails, reaches out to bless; the One who holds everything is held; the sustainer of all things is nourished; the Word who has existed since before the foundation of the world is newborn and unable to speak.
In the image we see a mother’s embrace, and her breastful of milk sustaining and warming a tiny body, and a tiny hand reaching out to bless that mother’s heart. This is heaven touching earth, and earth embracing heaven.
In the image we see a moment of timeless stillness, after the trauma of the journey and the birth, but before the chaos of hurriedly arriving shepherds, and long before the fear and cruelty of the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. In a dark and troubled world, full of danger and difficulty, violence and injustice, fear and hatred, this moment gives us a glimpse of what it means to love and be loved.
And so we pray for peace, for goodwill among humanity, and above all for the grace to perceive and cherish the ways in which heaven is already touching earth, and to open our own lives to that heavenly embrace, that we may reveal something of the abounding love of God in Christ Jesus, this Christmas and always.
Revd Ally Barrett is Chaplain of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. You can find more of her paintings at http://www.reverendally.org/art.