Expired · 26th December 2010
The most obvious is always the last to be discovered. This is an essential idea expressed by the famous 20th century poet T.S. Eliot in the Little Gidding section of his poem, Four Quartets. "And we shall not cease from exploration," he wrote. "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." The same insight is echoed by Canada's media guru, Marshall McLuhan, when he noted that fish would be the very last to discover water. Indeed, the undiscerned obvious is the elusive quest that gives Zen its enigmatic quality.
So for a Christmas season of thankfulness, generosity and giving, the most obvious is somehow forgotten. We gather together as families and friends, we illuminate our homes in defiance of the dark, we eat and drink in a gesture of hopefulness, and we exchange gifts in the festive appreciation of abundance. But we don't usually notice the fundamental source of these daily essentials. Without the steady solidity of earth, the magic elixir of water and the deep clarity of sky, we could not celebrate anything. Christmas – or more accurately, "Christ's Mass" – directs our attention upward and outward when we should also be giving our attention to downward and inward.
Christ's Mass causes us to miss an obvious part of the sacred. Even though the winter's snows may fall "deep and crisp and even", as described in Good King Wenceslas, they still fall on the reliability of solid ground. Even though the season's nights may be long and dark, they inevitably yield to the lengthening days of spring. The coldness and severity of winter is eventually supplanted by the warmth of summer and the generosity of autumn. And all the food we eat and all the gifts we exchange inevitably come from the substance of Earth, from that primal and essential place that supplies the rich ingredients of life. The environment that surrounds and contains us is such an essential part of being alive that we usually fail to notice that a Christ's Mass is also an "Earth's Mass".
But some recognition and veneration of this special place is evident in the Christian story – if we take the care to discern it. The Christ Child sanctifies Earth by blessing it with his birth and life. He is born amid the elemental surroundings of animals, dung and straw. The ordinary is elevated and hallowed by the story. The gifts brought by the fabled Wise Men are rarities from nature. Indeed, the "Father" of the Child is also the Creator of nature ‹ of the manger's straw where the Child slept, of the animals who were present with the Holy Family, of the still land where the shepherds grazed their flocks, of the cold water that the creatures must have drank, and of the clear air that allowed the shining star to cast its guiding light. As the Child was deemed perfect, so too was Creation.
This notion of perfection raises an interesting question about the gifts of Christmas. What did the Christ Child really want or need? Surely it wasn't gold or frankincense or myrrh. The gifts, however well intended, were unnecessary. Silent veneration and abject wonder would have been more profound and appropriate. Like the Christmas night, nothing could have been added to make the event more perfect. The birth and the place were a complete event, each affirming the rightness of the other.
So Christ's Mass and Earth's Mass are the same story just perceived from a slightly different perspective. The stage of the Christmas story occurs on the ground of Earth, as special and miraculous as anything imagination can conceive. Both Christ and Earth on that Silent Night, that Holy Night, were balanced together in an eternal moment of divine harmony. Just as the Child needed nothing to be complete, so Earth needed nothing to be complete. As that special event affirmed, each was, and is, and will be, perfect in its own way.
If we feel compelled to shower the Child with gifts – and, by extension, to symbolically give Christmas gifts to each other – then what gifts are appropriate for Earth? Doesn't it also deserve a gesture of respect for its part in the divine story?
Earth, of course, needs nothing. Just as the gold and frankincense and myrrh did nothing to improve the Christ Child, whatever we give to Earth cannot enhance the miracle that it is. Indeed, the best we can do for it is to let it be itself. It has the diversity and vitality to continually nourish and constantly amaze us. The less we interfere with it, the more vibrant and more beautiful it becomes.
Every year, for a short time, the rituals and enthusiasms of Christ's Mass occupy the attention of Christian cultures. But this leaves the rest of the year to attend to the divine miracle that reaches from the very beginning of Creation to the present, and then stretches from each passing moment into an unforeseeable future. This is the Earth's Mass, a celebration of the undiscerned obvious that we are always discovering and constantly forgetting.