Christmas Eve / Year C
I want to share with you a wonderful memory which happened over 25 years ago. I was driving on a two-lane state highway in late September with nothing but time on my hands. I had a convertible at the time and on this sun-splashed fall afternoon I had the top down and not a single care in the world. As I made my way north out of town a school bus pulled in front of me. Now this was in Iowa, were the only fate worse than being stuck behind a school bus is being trapped behind a hog-hauler! But it was such a beautiful day and I was not in any particular hurry to reach my destination, so I was not upset at the intrusion to my travels.
After about two miles the school bus began to slow down for what would be its one and only stop before turning off the road and getting out of my way. In the distance, sitting in the grass, I could see a mother and a dog waiting. The dog (one of those whippet breeds) spotted the bus approaching and came to life. It spun in circles, wagged its tail, leapt in the air wildly, and barked with joyful anticipation. As the bus came to a stop the excited canine inched as close to the vehicle as it dared, while the mother sat ten yards back on a grassy hillside.
A little girl about kindergarten age emerged–complete with book bag, coat, and other paraphernalia–and made her way toward her mother. The dog, who obviously had not yet adjusted to having the girl be away at school after a long summer of perpetual togetherness and play, ran up to her, jumped all around her, and gave her the biggest, wettest lick on the face you could ever imagine. Then the two of them ran side by side to the mother who received the little girl into her arms with the kind of hug that could melt away any and all cares. Arm in arm they began to walk down the long drive that led to their home; the dog beside them, a frenzy contained in a skin of fur.
With that the bus pulled away (and I with it), but the scene played out before me has stayed with me all these years as vivid in my mind’s eye as the day it occurred. It seemed to me those few seconds from the time the bus approached to the time the girl ran into her mother’s embrace were as perfect as any could be. For one instance there was nothing but joy and happiness and peace and love. In that moment I felt as if I had received a foretaste of heaven because it was so pure and good and it was everything we wish life could be all of the time and everywhere.
The poet T.S. Elliot described an experience like this as being an intersection of the timeless with time where the particularity of place opens onto infinity. In Elliot’s words, we perceive this kind of event only in momentary “hints and guesses,” and not through the ordinary methods of rational knowledge or sensory perception. In order to grasp the significance of moments like these for what they truly are, he says we need to rely upon our deeper spiritual nature. Elliot called these experiences “unattended moments,” and they come to us as surprise, as gift, and as grace.
In 1976, the writer Michael Paffard published a book titled The Unattended Moment. It is an anthology of writings by people who had what he describes as “brief flashes of experience... so out of the ordinary... they do not seem to fit into our ordinary pattern of experience.” Like my experience, he says unattended moments are brief, but intense. Paffard goes on to say,
The unattended moment may come when we are travelling in a train, ill in bed, reading a book or washing the dishes; in the most humdrum surroundings we may be ‘surprised by joy’... If we have an unattended moment at a concert or in a picture gallery or while reading a poem we are likely to think of it as an intense aesthetic experience. Similarly, if the moment comes in a Cathedral or at some religious ceremony we shall probably think of it as religious experience.
I think T.S. Elliot would have said the birth of Jesus was an unattended moment where the finite world opens to the Infinite. There in the manger lay the infant human God. Could there be a clearer sign indicating in this world there is goodness; there is beauty; there is joy; there is love? Have innocence and wisdom, vulnerably and power, ever met so perfectly? Has there ever been an event which has inspired the human spirit as dramatically? Has there ever been a moment as fleeting as this one that has touched the world as deeply or affected the course of history as significantly?
The Nativity is a sign indicating good will triumph over evil and light will shine in the darkness; in our lives, in our community, throughout the world, and all of history. Its message says we are loved so deeply no pain, no wrong, no evil, nothing imposed upon us by others and nothing imposed on us by ourselves, can separate us from God’s gentle but true love.
I pondered just how many unattended moments I have experienced in my life, but I can’t seem to figure out if it is many or if it is but a few. T.S. Eliot lamented “we had the experience, but missed the meaning.” I am confident the Infinite breaks into the finite all the time all around us. We are always in the midst of God’s presence and activity, but often fail to recognize it.
It took an angelic choir to get a few shepherds to investigate the Incarnation and it took a celestial light to garner the attention of a group of magi. Other than this handful of people, everyone else in Bethlehem missed the meaning of the birth of a child in an animal stall. It is easy – far too easy – to do.
One final thought about the little girl and the school bus... The rational part of me informs my romantic side the blissful scene I witnessed between a mother and her daughter was in no way indicative of the entirety of their home life. Surely they have their share of hardships, fights and unhappiness. But none of that mattered during the brief respite of bliss I witnessed on that fall afternoon.
Though it was in no way as significant as the Nativity, the two are similar in one narrow sense. Both impress upon me what a line from Eucharist Prayer B attempts to describe: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation.” Praise God for such epiphanies, and praise God for this night! My Christmas prayer for you is this season and all your life will be filled with unattended moments.