“Exactly one year ago today I published this website for the first time” was something that suddenly occurred to me on yesterday´s morning walk. Although I´d been preparing the site for a few weeks before, it wasn´t my intention to´go live´ on that particular day. But a significant experience in a church that I´d wandered into, on the island of Fuerteventura, changed all that and gave me the impetus I needed to write and publish my first post; Love is like a Lighthouse:
That memory made me reflect on how significant the church (both the buildings themselves and the people I´ve found inside them) has become in my life in the last 12 months. And then the title of today´s blog post, which first popped into my head on another morning walk at the end of November last year, came to mind…and finally began to make sense.
My experience of the Nativity period this year (the whole of Advent, Christmas itself and the week that followed it) has been like no other Christmas experience before. It felt like the culmination of a year of personal revelations and it´s changed the way that I´ll be celebrating Christmases in future…I believe.
As I´m currently living in a church hostel I attend Mass daily, because I love the rhythm that it brings to my life and because I often hear things (either in the Gospel itself, or in the sermons that the priests give after the readings) that speak directly to my heart. One of the gifts of this practice, I now realise looking back, is that it´s given me an appreciation of the whole Nativity story´s meaning, and its timeless significance, that I´ve never really had before.
From the beginning of the Advent period (when four candles were placed in front of the altar) I began to learn things about the traditions I´ve followed at Christmas time, habitually or just because they felt important and right, without ever understanding the inspiring messages behind them. As an adult, I´ve continued the Christmas practice of making an Advenz Kranz, which I remember from my childhood home, but it was only here that I learned what the four candles symbolise and the significance of that symbolism, which can be used as a guiding light in the journey of life.
The first candle symbolises Hope, the second Faith, the third Joy, and the fourth candle Peace.
Each Mass began, on the four Sundays of advent, with a young boy from the congregation ascending the large altar step and lighting the next candle in the countdown to Christmas; and the meaning of each candle was then used as the focus in that week´s church bulletin and in community prayer. The light of awareness, of how important hope, faith, joy and peace are in living positive, constructive, creative and compassionate lives in community with others, was the underlying message; powerful in its potential but delivered in a traditional, understated and gentle way.
As we entered the second half of December a special service was held to share The Peace Light of Bethlehem; a light that´s been lit each year, since 1989, from an oil lamp that hangs in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is then transported and shared with communities who welcome it, throughout Europe and beyond. The light symbolises the approaching light of the birth of Jesus as a focal point for faith, hope, joy and love which, when unified in our own lives and used as the basis of our relationships with others, helps us to discover and create inner and outer peace.
At the service, individual votive candles were lit from the Bethlehem flame that came to the church, and were handed out to parishioners who were then free to take them home and pass them on to other family members and friends. The significance of this ´passing on of light´ from one person to another, especially at this time when so many are feeling the darkness of fear and uncertainty about the present and the future, touched something deep inside me.
As Christmas Day came and went the services and symbolism continued, infusing the whole Nativity period with spiritual meaning and offering me insights that I´d been oblivious to before. Amongst those Catholic Feast Days was La Fiesta de La Sagrada Familia (the Feast of the Holy Family) when the role models of Mary and Joseph as parents were highlighted, and the strong and healing power of mutual family love and respect were expressed.
When Epiphany/Twelfth Night approached I finally grasped why the Spanish have always used this as their official ´present-giving´ date, as opposed to the wider and now largely-secular Western practice of giving presents on Christmas day. It reflects the giving of gifts by the Magi (Wise Kings) to honour the birth of Jesus; as the presence of Divine Love in Human Form. When I returned home from my morning walk on that day, I found these presents on my doorstep with a message telling me they were left on behalf of The Kings, who´d heard of my kindness to others in the year before. And the significance of those small expressions of human love, given in the things I´d done for others and reciprocated in the gifts left on my doorstep, became clear.
Which brings me to…the baby and the bath water…
In the Catholic church the Nativity period officially comes to an end on the Sunday after Epiphany, with a Mass that celebrates´The Baptism of Jesus´. On the face of it this may seem a little strange, bearing in mind that Jesus was baptised, in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, the age of 30. But, in the Christian Church, baptism symbolises an inviting of the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, in hope and faith that it will fill us with the light of God´s Love.
At this Sunday Mass the parish priest made the point that most of us, probably baptised as babies and infants, were unable to make decisions about our own faith at the time, and that our parents will have made this decision for us and selected Godparents to speak on our behalf. As adults, we´re now capable of choosing for ourselves if we want to live lives infused with hope, faith, joy and peace and whether we want to share this way of living – spreading this light – to others.
Sunday´s Mass gave all of us the opportunity to bring this awareness to mind and to choose for ourselves if we wanted to say again the words of commitment (to a life based on an active faith in the love of God) that our Godparents spoke for us, all those years before. They were words that I was happy to speak and to feel in my heart because I now see that, when I decided as a teenager I wanted no further involvement with organised religion or with anything that it stood for, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
The bathwater was all the human-made religious rules, judgements, restrictions, contradictions, dogmatic opinions and hypocrisy that I´d observed as a child and associated with traditional religion. The baby was what Jesus represented, and what I´ve seen manifested here in a traditional Catholic community; the pure light of divine love in human form, actively seeking to be seen, heard, felt and shared with others.
After a lifetime of rejecting ´the ultimate Christmas present´ that my parents gave me, in deciding to have me baptised, I now understand that I´ve spent 56 years ripping up the wrapping paper and pulling apart the packaging and that they were never meant to be the focus of my attention. They were just ways of presenting and preserving the message of divine love that they held…and continue to hold…within them.