Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Midnight: Humility and Awe

Christmas Midnight

The problem with the word ‘Awe’ is that in the modern West we tend to precede it with two other words, ‘Shock and...’ ‘Shock and awe’ has become the phrase used by Western military commanders to describe a way of waging war on a country they expect to be completely unprepared and unable to defend itself against the onslaught.  It has become a tactic of overwhelming force that treats another country with contempt. But I want to suggest to you that this is the wrong way of understanding awe. This is to put ‘awe’ in terms of human power and maybe arrogance. If we are going to properly understand Christmas we have to put away the phrase ‘shock and awe’ and replace it with ‘humility and awe.’

To comprehend the miracle of what has taken place we need to look first at ourselves and understand something of what we are. So I’d like you to hold your hands wide open and facing each other about 5 or 6 inches apart.  In the space between it is possible to fit your human brain, that spongy, fragile, blancmange like thing which is the place where most of your conscious mind resides. I say, ‘Most of’ because the scientific jury is still out on whether the rest of your body may also have contributions to make to that sense of ‘Me’ that we all have.  Certainly those of us who do any form of meditative exercise know that it’s possible to move your sense of awareness around the body. But to all intents and purposes that lump of matter that can sit between your hands, to put it colloquially, ‘That’s you, that is.’ It’s not much really is it. Yet it is an outstanding piece of biological complexity.

Within your brain you have some 86 billion neurons, those are the nerves that do the thinking. Something like a quarter of the energy you generate from the food you eat goes into running the brain. Yet the numbers become more astounding as we go. On average each neuron connects with seven thousand other neurons.  That means you have something like one to five hundred trillion connections in your brain. It’s no wonder that we haven’t yet been able to duplicate it with silicon chips or quantum computing. You are an amazing thing, 140-200 pounds of self-aware animal. It is an astoundingly wonderful thing to be human, to feel alive, simply to be.

But if we’re not careful we can lapse into solipsism, that sense of self-importance that semi-defines western culture. Sometimes we need to gaze out of the train window at the houses going past, or at the drivers and passengers alongside us or coming towards us on the motorway, or at the airliner flying over our heads and remember that every single one of them is an ‘I’.  They all ‘exist’ same as you. They all have their loves and fears. They all have their hopes and ambitions. Every one of them is a part of the same lineage that we all share, trailing back to some distant African ‘Eve’, and we are all different yet all the same in our experiences of ‘I am I’. And there are not thousands; we could get our head around that.  We’re not even millions; we are billions, billions of individuals all around at the same time, all being aware of who we are. The numbers begin to mount up beyond our capacity to imagine, and then we need to think that every thought you have, every thought they have, every hope and dream is known and cared about by the one we call God and who calls himself ‘I am’ who is being itself.

I don’t even know all my own thoughts, let alone any of yours, and yet in his later life the one whose birth we celebrate tonight says that not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without God knowing about it. In order to get our heads around this and feel the appropriate awe we need to come back to that mental image of our brains held between our hands.  That’s it; that’s all that you are. The reason you can’t get your heads around God knowing all that God knows is because we can’t do that. We are so very limited. Even with all of those connections in our brains, we are so little, so tiny, and we have such hyper-inflated ideas of ourselves that we can scarcely begin to comprehend the magnitude of this God who we worship.

We cannot imagine a God knowing as much as that because we can’t do it, and because we can’t do it, we assume that he can’t, and thus, atheism, it seems to me, is born from a rational arrogance.  Yet when you look down at an ant crawling around on the floor, do you wonder if it’s interested in Eastenders? Do you ponder its ability to comprehend quantum physics? Of course not. We accept the difference between the ant and the human to be so vast that understanding is not possible. Yet we rarely scale up from ourselves to think big, to think really big. Maybe awe frightens us.  Yet humility and awe are such a part of Christmas that, unless we start thinking about the size of God in comparison to our minuscule nature, and recognise it for what it is, we are not going to be able to recognise what has taken place here in our tiny world.

You see an awareness of the number of humans is only the start of it. Once we start upscaling we can start thinking of the number of stars in our galaxy, which is between two and four hundred billion, many of whom we know to have planetary systems.  And scaling up from there we begin to think in terms of two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, each containing, on average, a similar number of stars to our own. We can’t get our heads around the number of individual human stories in our county, let alone the nation or the world, and yet there is a mindblowingly large universe out there with billions upon billions of planets, many of which may also support self aware life.

And we, in this tiny corner, have the audacity to say that one being created all that; that one being is fully aware of all of that. It’s no wonder that people think Christians are nuts, irrational, contemptible and stupid. Yet I want to suggest that to adopt such a position is an arrogant one, one which forgets that, try as we might, we are actually very little, vanishingly small creatures.

How could we possibly comprehend how one vast Being manages to create, sustain and be aware of it? Of course we can’t, and that’s the whole point of awe. It is an emotional gift which says, ‘I cannot get my head around this purely because it is not possible for a human to really take this all in. Yet it might still be possible.’

And at Christmas that has to be our starting place because only then can we begin to imagine what it must take, what it must have meant, how incredibly, unbelievably important it must have been for the mighty creator to allow the part of God's self that is named the Son, or the Word to be emptied of all that power and ultra-awareness and to be born a human birth with a tiny little brain, initially too small to be able to knit together a coherent divine thought.

That’s the true miracle of what we’re celebrating tonight. It doesn’t matter whether you start with a question of how he did it, whether Mary was a virgin, whether all the Gospels tell it how it actually happened. What is truly important is that it did happen. And only once we can comprehend the magnitude of what God accomplished in that emptying out of himself can we ask the question, ‘Why?’

The only force capable of making that kind of emptying out possible is the love of a Creator whose experience of reality transcends anything we can begin to imagine, who was willing to do that in order that we can be in relationship, that we can speak the same language and realise that we are wanted, each and every individual one of us, we are desired by God more for who we are as people than we can take in.

So did it happen? I believe so. 
And humility and awe are the only two emotions than can make sense of it for us.
Merry Christmas

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