Several years before his death, a remarkable rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, suffered a near-fatal heart attack. His closest male friend was at his bedside. Heschel was so weak he was only able to whisper: “Sam, I feel only gratitude for my life, for every moment I have lived. I am ready to go. I have seen so many miracles during my lifetime.” The old rabbi was exhausted by his effort to speak. After a long pause, he said, “Sam, never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me. – Brennan Manning
I don’t know when it happens, just that it does.
John Killinger, the professor of preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School for so many years, says that he once saw an angel, “bright as the sun, diaphanous as a movie projector… there was no question about its reality… the vision was a gift.” But then he says, he grew up, and “the world began to wean me away from belief in angels,” with the result that “the enthusiasm, the fire that had burned inside me, was artfully damped… the living flame became a hidden coal.” And that’s what I lament – how the “living flame” of faith gets reduced to “hidden coals.”
Take this test: sit down in a quiet place and read the first and second chapters of the gospel of Luke, it won’t take long. And as you read, check yourself, your inner reactions. As you read these account of angel visitants, miraculous births, and singing, lots and lots of singing, are you left skeptical or enthralled? Do you find yourself thinking – stuff like this doesn’t really happen, or, do you find yourself pulled into the story so that you get a visit too, share in the miraculous and wind up joining in the singing?
Right after what he wrote about Abraham Heschel and wonder, Brennan Manning, in his own indomitable style, went on to observe: “A Philistine will stand before a Claude Monet painting and pick his nose; a person filled with wonder will stand there fighting back tears.” Along the way I was actually told that the very best way for me to talk about angels was by “plucking their feathers.” “Strip them of mystery,” I was told. “Clip their wings,” “ground them,” “reduce them to the symbols that they are.”
One of the theologians I read in seminary talked about the way that the stories that the Bible tells and the beliefs that we form from them are like glass jars that hold the real content of faith. He said that it is the content and not the containers that really matter, and so we shouldn’t worry too much should the containers break under the close scrutiny of critical examination (The question of whether or not the containers can actually stand up to the close scrutiny of critical examination is another conversation for another time). If the containers shatter because they can’t stand up to close scientific and historical examination, don’t worry about it too much that theologian said because the containers were never the point, what they contained is. And it wasn’t a very big step for many of my colleagues and peers from the suspicion and skepticism that this approach to the stories of faith fosters to thinking that it was somehow their job to go around with their little balpene hammers smashing people’s containers. As John Killinger explained, his encounter with that angel in his childhood was gradually discredited by an educational system that strictly divided “objective and subjective phenomena,” highly prizing the one and disdainfully dismissing the other. “I learned to speak the language of its jaunty secularism and self-assurance. I submitted to its subtle way of psychologizing everything about me – my dreams, my loves, even my beliefs.”
I suspect that John Killinger would readily identify with the lament that James Pike once voiced to Francis Schaeffer – “When I turned from being agnostic, I went to Union Theological Seminary eager for and expecting bread; but when I graduated, all that it left me was a handful of pebbles.” As I heard another theologian say at a gathering of preachers one spring a long time ago, “Since we know that the resurrection didn’t really happen, what should we preach at Easter?” Pebbles… a handful of pebbles. And without wonder, Christmas gets reduced to a pile of them too.
Well, John Killinger got to the point where he’d had enough. After warming himself at the “hidden coal” of his “artfully damped” flame of faith for the longest time, John Killinger finally decided that he needed it to “flame out again, to burn freely, wildly, and joyously… to consume him again.” And his path back to it was the way of wonder. He began to see “that life – the world, the big picture – is not so rationally determined as he had been led to believe.” He observed, “the order is less orderly, the rules are less regular, the certainty is less certain… mystery is the true order of things.” And once he crossed this line, a whole new way of seeing things opened up to him.
It is the way that the novelist and poet Madelene L’Engle wrote about in her book “The Irrational Season.” “How dull the world would be if we limited ourselves to the possible,” she explained. “The only God who seems to me to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand, and therefore He teaches us through the impossible.” And then she took on those who would pluck the feathers of the Christmas angels and trim their wings. “I sense a wish in some professional religion-mongers to make God possible, to make Him comprehensible to the naked intellect, domesticate Him so that He’s easy to believe in. Every century the Church makes a fresh attempt to make Christianity acceptable. But an acceptable Christianity is not Christian; a comprehensible God is no more than an idol.” This is important to keep in mind, and in heart, at Christmas, the most “wonder-full” time of the year.
In his essay “It is that time of Year,” Fr. Michael Massouth, an Orthodox priest, wrote about a critical thinker he had known and his appreciation for wonder –
I remember a lecture that an emeritus professor of mathematics gave. Dr. Elbert Clark was reputed to be one of the first mathematicians to understand the theories and implications of Albert Einstein’s work. He was a legend on the small liberal arts campus (Hiram College – a Disciples of Christ school!), and as juniors some of us decided to invite him to speak to us at a student sponsored dinner. The dinner was a way to repay the faculty who had been so kind to us over the year, being available for endless questions about ourselves and the cosmos, inviting us to their homes or apartments for tea or for dinner, and just being supportive. Each junior was to invite his or her favorite professor and pay for themselves and their guest’s dinner. At this high affair it was felt that it should end with sherry and a talk from one of the faculty. What better choice than Dr. Clarke.
Dr. Clarke was tall and lanky with long white hair. He stooped, perhaps more from a lifetime of leaning over to hear students than from old age. His eyes darted from one person to another. No one, not even the organizers, knew what his topic was going to be. We had asked him to make appropriate remarks for such an occasion. He began by thanking us for the dinner and for the conversations, and then in more of a conversational tone than in a formal lecture style he began to speak of wonder.
Wonder, he said, was the thing that kept him young. As much as he had read and studied, and as much as he had thought about the world, the heavens, the theories of the universe, and about people, he was struck by the wonder of it all. He asked us to maintain always a place for wonder in our lives. There were matters that were still unknown in science and mathematics and about the physical world. As far as human beings were concerned, not much was known at all. And of the things that were known, it was amazing to discover the relationships and interrelationships that existed. The order of the universe, the relationship of elements, the ways of the seasons, the biological adaptations — all of these were wonders, suggesting the unknown, some mystery of life.
And in concluding his essay, Fr. Massouth turned his attention to wonder and the Christmas story –
Wonderful, being full of wonder. In our day to day world there is very little time to be full of wonder. Being full of wonder is no way to get the daily job and chores done, or to get ahead. So, we suspend our sense of wonder, it’s not realistic, it’s not grown-up. We bury our sense of the unknown, of the mystery of life, to get through the day, the week, the month, and the year. But, at the end of the year when we cannot bear to deny the sense of wonder any longer, we have an acceptable rationale to be young at heart, to be kids again, to be innocent, to engage in fantasy, in mystery. At the beginning of winter, during the shortest days of the year when the nights are the longest, when it is cold and dark, when the tax year ends, when we are at our wits end, we have a reason to celebrate, to unwind, to forget our cares and woes, to suspend the rules of the daily game. And so we watch the Nutcracker, the Christmas stories, the Santa shows, and listen to Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Ahmal and the Night Visitors, and all other stories that promise a sense of adventure, of fantasy, of disbelief, and of caring.
Adults say all this is for the kids. But, I wonder. It is as much for the grown-ups as it is for the kids. At what other time of year can one decorate the house, or the office, or have parties, and exchange gifts without having to explain why one is spending money foolishly? At what other time of year can one be kind to another person without everyone wondering what’s up? At what other time of year are mistakes and slip-ups overlooked?
Yes, there is a sense of wonder, as Dr. Clarke said. that requires exercise. We need wonder like we need food and drink. It is a part of being human. But, where do we look for the wonder? In man-made stories and fantasies? Are they satisfying? I am reminded of St. Paul addressing the Athenians about their monument to an unknown god. The Athenians believed there was an unknown god in addition to all the other ones that they knew. It was St. Paul who pointed out to them that this unknown god was the creator of the universe and the Maker of all things, including the Athenians. And, further that His Son, the Christ, was born of a Virgin, crucified, and rose from the dead. Christ is the reason for the Season.
Speak about wonder? One of His names is Wonderful! Another is Counselor. Think about it, is it not a wonder that God gave us mortals His only begotten Son to teach us about caring for each other and to know that God is Our Father? Have you ever wondered where would we be as modern people if that event had not taken place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago? Still in a state of confusion wondering about which Greek god to appease and attempting to satisfy all of them? We would possess the Ten Commandments to guide us, but no Sermon on the Mount, no parables. How discouraging and hopeless. So, Christ coming into the world has made a positive and hopeful difference.
The stories of Creation, of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are real wonders and mysteries. They are the basis for fantasies of the Christmas season. They are true. Why do we look to man-made stories for inspiration and for indulging our need for wonder? What repels us from looking to the Father as the source of all wonder not just at Christmas time, but throughout the entire year?
Why expect a Santa to fulfill all desires, and to hope that reindeer fly? Why engage in thoughts about a talking snowman or a red nosed reindeer, when the wonders of God are as near as our hearts? When guardian angels and the seraphim and cherubim watch over all of us? Why do we deny the reality of the Christ child, but accept and hope that a Santa visits each house once a year?
It’s that time of year when the world falls in love. Shall we think of falling in love with God and having Christmas throughout the year? Would it not be a better world if we put into practice our suspension of the rules at Christmas time each day of the year? Think about it. It’s that time of year to wonder. DBS+
Evely, Louis. Our Prayer. Herder and Herder. 1970.
Killinger, John. Bread for the Wilderness; Bread for the Journey. Word Books. 1976.
L’Engle, Madeleine. The Irrational Season. The Seabury Press. 1979.
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Multnomah Publishers. 1990.
Massouth, Michael. “It is that time of Year.” http://www.antiochian.org)