The story goes that the young John Wayne was playing the part of the centurion at the crucifixion in one of those Hollywood biblical epics. “Surely, this was the Son of God” was his line. But the director became increasingly exasperated with Wayne’s flat, matter-of-fact delivery. “Say it with awe, John, say it with awe”, he pleaded. So on the next take Wayne came out with “Aw, surely this was the Son of God”.
Awe is that combination of wonder and fearfulness we can feel in the presence of whatever takes our breath away; a sense of sheer amazement that in the midst of the ordinary there could be something so extraordinary that catches us up and gives us an intuition of something grander and altogether more profound at the heart of our experience of life.
Paul Simon sang “these are the days of miracle and wonder”, though he was referring only to rapid technological change, which is dazzling enough. The Christmas adverts on T.V. have cottoned on to our desire for wonder at this time of year – though the magic and sparkle is all about what we hope to consume by way of lovely presents.
As you fight your way through yet another queue of increasingly bad-tempered shoppers it can be hard at feel any sense of awe and wonder at the heart of our annual celebration. Exhaustion, a diminishing bank balance and palates jaded from festive feasting long before Christmas arrives can all take their toll. The cellist Pablo Casals wrote of how for eighty years he began each day by going to the piano and playing some Bach. He said it was a way of rediscovering the world in which he had the joy of being a part. It filled him with an awareness of the wonder of life, a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human. How many of us can wake up on Christmas morning with that sort of feeling uppermost in our thoughts?
Christmas is nothing less than the wonder of God doing something utterly new to express who and what he is. It is a love story in which God declares his love for the whole human race – indeed the whole of creation. It is a declaration that – as in all the best love stories – he loves and values us so much that he can give us no greater gift than himself, entire, with nothing held back. His self-disclosure is what we call the incarnation, the Word made flesh, and it is simply mind-blowing in its implications for us. This self-portrait is at once as ordinary as a baby born into poverty, and as extraordinary as the way this child reveals what every human being is capable of becoming: the Christ-like image of the invisible God. Through it we glimpse what lies at the heart of creation.
The poet W.H. Auden talked about primary and secondary imagination. By primary imagination he meant that which is within us which recognises a sense of awe and a need to respond. By secondary imagination he meant that which gives form to our awareness, which gives it flesh, incarnates it in words and images. For Christians, the man Jesus of Nazareth is acknowledged as God’s way of giving us the very essence of himself, given in a costly act of love. And in so doing he reduces us to a kind of silent wonder in the face of a truth we had not known before, a truth about the human condition we had not understood.
We lose this sense of wonder when we take things for granted, or when we are taken in by the grasping and manipulative attitudes of the world. We can become indifferent to even the most familiar things – Christmas included. It is our job, our work, in Advent especially, to cultivate that sense of awe and wonder, so that Christmas Day can truly be that most amazing of days.