Small

The time of the long dark has passed, as the Winter Solstice (derived somewhat poetically from sol ‘sun’ and sistere ‘to stand still’ ) pauses the drumbeat of the year’s turning for one near-endless night. The light creeps up the clean blade of the horizon, floods the new day with the miracle of birdsong. They know, you can hear it in the hopeful tremble in their throats. Everything returns.

We are days from the Nativity. Those who know me well know my Christianity has always had one foot firmly in the green roots of its history here. The decapitated Saints, who bear their talking heads like Old Ones of this island, and the holy springs where their skulls fell still surrounded by the ancient trees, adorned with strips of coloured cloth, roots watered with wine. My crosses are alive with knotwork or entwined with ivy, they belong to an era of seaside monasteries with cells like skeps. The ancient trimmings of a young faith whose customs live still. Grab a Tudor history book and read about Henry VIII riding out to bring in the May, go and do it yourself next year in any rural town.

It is Midwinter, and lo, here comes the light of the world. The sun returns. The Son returns. The King is Dead, Long Live the King.

Yet, I’ve always found it hard to imagine the Christ Child. Christ in His Passion? Yes. Christ in his revolutionary ministry? A thousand times, Christ Resurrected? No problem, because I’ve seen some weird shit, kiddlywinks. But Christ as a baby, as the collapsed point of bright consciousness that is a brand new human being, brought down into the dust of the world? Christ in his first few hours breathing our atmosphere, tufts of fuzzy infant hair sodden with Mother’s blood, Christ tasting milk, Christ falling, sated, into the unfathomable dreams of the newly born. Christ’s tender ears hearing Aramaic lullabies. God so small. Why is that so hard, I wonder. Perhaps because God among us as a 33 year-old firebrand turning the establishment on its head is easy to imagine, to admire. God among us as a helpless child requires more understanding and, perhaps, mercy, than we are wont to give.

Because of course the great revelation of the Nativity is how Christ came to belong here with us, in a place where he too was outcast, with others who weren’t wanted. And as he clothes himself later in the flesh of our suffering, we too have all been as he is about to be. Helpless and soft and mewling in the depths of the long dark. In need of the most immediate care to fulfill our destinies. Such a small, needy body in such a big, heedless world.

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And everybody you have ever met was once the same, every body. Isn’t it easy, somehow, to forget that. Much easier to focus on the Memento Mori of the spiritual life, that to dust we shall return. The admonitions of the dead are chiselled in centuries-old letters up and down the land: Oh weary traveller gazing upon this stone, as I am now, so shall you be. Harder, somehow, to remember the squalling babies we all once were, especially those who need the most and so somehow engender the most derision. Remember the crib that housed the homeless. The pristine flesh of the baby addict. The prisoner’s bottle. The refugee’s booties. All pushed over the same threshold, all torn from the Mysteries and baptised in hot blood to become Incarnate here, only to fall into exile and condemnation and death. Do you ever think about Christ’s fingerprints as Mary marvelled at his tiny hands? I do. Those same hands riven by the executioner’s nails, between two thieves, some thirty three years later.

Now I myself am about to be thirty three, and those years have washed up on the beach of me full of things that are raw and creeping; bleached wood and bones in your stocking this year, young lady. People tell me that when you search through the wreckage of the past you will find treasure, well I have picked through the crab-shelled remains of those years and found nothing. The gold sleeps at the bottom of the sea and all of the sailors are drowned. Only I remain, alone on the familiar shore of strangeness. Only I remain, to watch the sun come up and collect that twisted wood for the fire. Whatever you cast away upon the tide returns to you transformed. Everything returns.

I too have been small, but rather than grow deep-rooted and strong-boned, tall and eager for the sun on my leaves, I have remained there all my life. I have been so afraid of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, being the wrong thing, that I have whittled myself down to nothing. I am the invisible woman. I am the smell of candle smoke in church although you can see no flame, I am a mouse that creeps past your lively dinner table unnoticed. I am the book with the drab, dusty spine that nobody ever takes down. That, I’m afraid, is just the consequence of growing up in the shadow of a Herod you must placate at all costs. That, I thought, was the fate of a child in exile. Here comes the Son, to say it isn’t so.

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This, I think, is what I am taking with me into 2019. The tiny beginnings of big things, better things. I have had what may politely be termed a hard year, culminating in an early winter of the soul. It picked me clean until I was too cold to touch, until it almost killed me. But I, too, have returned from the dark. To bear witness to that great mystery – that salvation doesn’t come when all is well, but when the inn is full. Listen to the birds, now time is made anew, now the light returns when it is needed most.

Everything returns.

Racing With the Rising Tide to my Father’s Door

In my dream, because odd, mystical little pockets of my subconscious are the one consistent thing in my life, I’m up to my waist in the sway of the sea. I can feel my legs fighting the sweep to and fro as the waves race each other to break their hearts on the shore; it reminds me again how powerful, how full of nature’s raw force, is something as clear and soft and submissive as water.

Christ wades in, the ocean moving like silk around him. I smile even in sleep because I remember how this man is no stranger to the sea and wonder why he doesn’t simply stand upon the surface as it whispers and shushes around us, then I think of baptism and purifying baths from time and temples immemorial and remember that in some ways we must be like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and I imagine he enjoys playing in the sea as much as the next wayward kid. He is wearing a plain robe that must have once been white, some kind of flax or rough linen, now rusty with red dust. We both look at the horizon, a long line of indigo melting into a strangely coloured sky that isn’t day or night.

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A silence that is not silence blooms; that feeling you get when you are with a dear friend and there’s no need to communicate with something as clumsy as words when a smile, a raised brow, the click of the kettle’s switch will do. Christ and I rarely talk in these strange little visions of mine, but that doesn’t mean nothing is said. The keening, echoing cry of the gulls comes, arcing across the water like dry ice.

He tells me in the silence that I will have to be brave, that I cannot be afraid of emptiness, and I feel rage bubbling up like lava in my gullet because I am done being brave, I have spent years in the exile of emptiness, I have wasted my life treading water in this lonely ocean and I will not crawl any further on bleeding knees, I will not come to you with wounds weeping vinegar, I will not be broken I will not I will not Thou shalt not…

He says nothing, merely watches the water, but I think he understands.

The tide turns. Now the pull is back to the sea and I feel my legs protest against being dragged out into that roiling void where monsters propel themselves through the black canyons at crushing depth. I stand firm with the rough tongue of the the sand against my soles and turn to look at the man beside me but Christ has gone, as quietly and unobtrusively as a feather falling to earth. The water whispers its ceaseless, primordial lullaby, the sky has darkened to the violet glaze of perpetual sunset.

Above my head, the gulls laugh.