This past summer my family visited friends in Italy. We spent three weeks touring around mostly the southern half of mainland Italy — Naples and the Amalfi Coast especially. In this region in summer, the weather is tropical. Palm trees, humid air, full sun and temperatures soaring. We wore shorts and sandals, t-shirts and hats the entire time.
One of our highlights was visiting the Green, or Emerald, grotto near Positano on the Amalfi Coast. We had to take an elevator down from the snaking roadway to the water line. Then, we entered small boats for a tour around the cave.
The grotto was named “Emerald” for the incredible colours that filter from an underground opening and fill the cave with intense nuances of green. The inside of the cavern is filled with stalagmites, stalactites and beautiful works of art created by time and nature.
Near the end of the tour when the boat was paddled close to a wall of the cave, our tour guide asked us to look down into the sparkling, luminescent water on the one side of the boat. “What do you see?” he prompted us. For the longest time, I could see nothing, just the rippling waters.
Then, as the light continued to play on the currents swirling some ten feet underneath us, I saw it:
The grotto is home to an underwater nativity scene, made by a ceramics artisan from nearby Vietri in 1956. Since that time, divers from all over Italy come to pay a visit to the Holy Family at Christmas. But it wasn’t Christmas.
For me, the traditional nativity set felt out of place – a kitsch decoration in a natural, marine setting in a tropical paradise. From my Canadian perspective, it felt all wrong. This didn’t belong here.
It was the least-expected time and place to be reminded of Christmas. Christmas in July, where temperatures were well into the 30 degree celsius range, far away from home on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. On vacation. Christmas was the farthest thing from my mind!
In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.
It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who are thankful for the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows who are “so generous to share their place” by the side of the manger. She concludes:
No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)
This children’s book makes a deep, theological point! The problem: We don’t see that God is there. We only expect to see God in certain places, at certain times:
Only at Christmas once a year in a crowded, decorated church;
Only in warm, comfortable stables where clean sheets and cutesy animals surround a quiet baby lying in the arms of a domicile Mary;
Only when good times roll with egg nog at the hearth of a roaring fire sitting in your favourite chair;
Only when choristers sing your favourite carols;
Or, only when everything is perfect.
We’ve locked God into the proverbial box.
The good news: God blows all our contrived and constricted expectations. God comes to us in all times and places, especially when we least expect it, even when we are not thinking about it, or planning for it.
While the dominant Christmas culture depends on our planning and organizing and ‘setting it up’, God comes to us despite all our fussing and fretting.
In truth, God is already there, just beneath the surface, out of the reach of the light, in the shadows where no one is looking or even caring.
Our job is not to make God happen by all our toiling and efforts to create the best Christmas ever. We don’t achieve God’s presence. Our job is simply to recognize where God is already present. Our job, simple though not easy, is to surrender to God who is already there. And this takes practice and intention.
So, this Christmas holiday, take a walk downtown where street people continue to ask for money. This Christmas holiday, search out an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken for a long time. This Christmas holiday, do something that you normally would not do, for the common good. This Christmas holiday, recognize the gifts you already have, not just in those presents packed under the tree.
Give thanks for the gifts you enjoy every day of the year — friends, family, love, community — the blessings that come from learning to want what you have instead of having what you want. Exercise the skill of seeing where and what many will not.
The joy of Christmas be with you. The gift of life and love in Jesus is born anew in our very lives. Today. And no matter where you are and whatever the circumstance of your life. God is already with you, waiting to be seen.
(1) – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)