28th December 2022
Ancient Christianity, including our own heritage of the Celtic Church, would have traditionally celebrated “the feast of Christmas” for 12 days – from Christmas Day through to Epiphany, this year on 6 January. Advent was a time of reflection, of waiting, of journeying towards Christmas. Now these 12 days are a time to celebrate, to rest, to rejoice. So we continue our blog series with this final piece from our team member Jon Timms. We hope it helps you to more fully celebrate and enter into all that Christmas represents.
Earlier this year I embarked on a pilgrimage on the St Cuthbert’s Way in Northumberland. This path begins in Melrose in the Scottish Borders and finishes with crossing the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
My time frame for the trip did not permit me enough time to walk the route, so I decided to give bike-packing a go and cycle it. How hard can it be, right? Surely if you can walk a route you can cycle it and, at worst, push a bike? Oh, how foolish I was!
The route threw much at me as I navigated hills, forests, rivers and uncountable fences and styles to lift the bike over. In the true spirit of pilgrimage, the essence of this trip was its unfolding nature. I had little expectation as I began this endeavour. I have learned from previous experience that to grip too tightly to a forced agenda or fixed expectations is to miss the beauty of the road and all the things that surface within you and around you as you journey.
Any spiritual quest will involve moments of hard work, doubts, the need for resilience and quiet resolve. But it will also include moments of transcendent joy and peaceful awareness of a beauty-filled world. A willing pilgrim accepts the invitation to ‘go’, without the comfort or assurance that it will go smoothly.
Sometimes the reason for the pilgrimage isn’t even realised before one embarks. There are the motivations that drive the desire, but how we meet God on the path is often the surprise. We often find that the questions we began with aren’t the questions we end up asking or even need to ask. Pilgrimage is entering into the art of discovery, not about manufacturing an experience; it’s finding the rhythm of the path and saying yes to what God may present along the way as the both physical and spiritual journey unfolds.
The Advent story unfolds with such drama and beauty. The road ahead for Mary, Joseph and the baby Yeshua has been foretold by prophets in time past, yet can’t be fully understood in the moment they’re living in. The story ebbs and flows between fear and rejoicing, trepidation and courage. Our sojourn through life is much the same. When our gaze is fixed just a short way ahead we can miss the two places God’s presence is most tangible – for God exists mainly in the present and the eternal. Pilgrimage travels the liminal space between present and eternal, aware of immediate beauty around, noticing the presence of God in the epic and in the details, for “to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work ” (Mary Oliver). And then we transcend and fix our gaze on the eternal, for God is God and we rejoice and trust in His Holiness, Love and Otherness.
Maybe our Christmas time could be like that of Mary and others in this story. The Advent narrative is full of noticing moments, moments that happen in the present yet lift the focus heavenward. I wonder if wonder could be a theme of our Christmas season? If in the midst of family celebration, feasting and laughter, we pay attention enough to stop, just for a micro-second, and are able to notice, realise and acknowledge… God is here! I wonder if our gaze will move up to the eternal and maybe, like Mary, we’ll treasure these things deep in our hearts, remembered as moments when we glimpsed the road pointing home.
There’s a point on every journey that medieval writers used to call mons gaudium, ‘Hill of Joy’. This is the place where the pilgrim gets their first view of the final destination. Life is filled with such moments in the present, often simple and everyday moments that wake us up, then transcend us. These are the thin places, moments that happen when we’re paying attention in the present that lead us into the eternal, the Holy Other.
May your Christmas season be full of these moments, in the noise and in the quiet, in the chaos and in the stillness ; when you notice the burning bush, smile a knowing smile, and find yourself glimpsing home.