The sign of the newborn baby

December 19th, 2018

"This is a sign for you," the Lord's angel tells the glory-transfixed shepherds. "You will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger." The baby is the sign of the reality of what God is doing. The snug wrapped newborn is the sign of the savior's birth in David's city, the birth of Christ the Lord.

But surely the newborn baby in the manger is not just a sign. Surely the newborn baby is the savior, is Christ the Lord — as the angel has in fact already specified. How can the newborn baby be both the sign and the reality to which the sign points? How can a thing be, at one and the same time, both the sign and the signified?

In unfolding this mystery of the newborn baby who is at once sign and signified reality, I'm going to point us to how it matters for our practice of silent contemplative prayer.

Strange as it sounds, Jesus' humanity, including his human birth, is a sign of something else. It reveals something else, something else which is the divine ground of all things, and which we can encounter in our souls, in the darkness of unknowing, in contemplative prayer.

As Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) puts it in one of his own Christmas sermons, "Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature."* For Eckhart as for a whole chorus of Christian contemplatives, preachers, and theologians down through the centuries, Jesus Christ's birth in the flesh signifies the eternal generation of the Word/Son in the life of the triune LORD. The key moments of history become sacramental signs of eternal reality.

But that's not all. For Eckhart and many Christian contemplatives since, this is keenly personal too: a sign in history that turns us inward, turns us toward the divine ground of being. So Eckhart immediately goes on to quote Augustine (though the words that follow are actually Origen's): "What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters." That's to say, to claim (as the grammar of Christian thinking does) that the fully-divine Word is generated from God the Father eternally is to claim that, from our standpoint in time, it is always happening in the present, even as it has always already happened fully. It is, in fact, the necessary eternal condition for every present temporal moment, for every fresh-generated change in the ever-morphing world. But Eckhart quotes Augustine/Origen to claim even more than this. Eckhart's concern is that one seek enlightenment from this eternal divine birth, which is faintly yet richly mirrored in our Christmas scriptures and liturgies, in oneself. We seek it in our "secret depth."

Where, precisely, is this secret depth? Where is this place in one's soul? Here's the kind of thing Eckhart will say: "in the essence of the soul which is the soul's most secret part. There is the silent "middle," for no creature ever entered there and no image, nor has the soul there either activity or understanding. Therefore, she is not aware of any image, whether of herself or of any other creature."

This hidden ground or center of the soul is, for Eckhart, a secret locale which may not be entered by our understanding. Its mystery is not unraveled by any activity of our mind. Nothing in our imagination can adequately depict it — which is perhaps why Eckhart uses language creatively to try to gesture at this hidden source or center of the self. As contemporary contemplative writer Martin Laird might point out, this is the vanishing point of the self "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

We come nearest to attending to this hidden center of ourselves when we wait on God in silent, imageless, thoughtless prayer. And, indeed, it is worth the wait, for the eternal treasure it contains.

For in this hidden place, Eckhart teaches, an interior and joyful celebration of Christmas (!) is always going on — no matter how we're feeling or what we're thinking on any given day!

"[H]ere is nothing but rest and celebration for this [eternal] birth, this act, that God the Father may speak his word there, for this is by nature receptive to nothing save the divine essence, without mediation. Here God enters the soul with his all, not merely with a part. God enters here the ground of the soul. None can touch the ground of the soul but God alone. No creature can enter the soul's ground, but must stop outside.... Therefore, she has no way of knowing herself, for images all enter through the senses, and hence she can have no image of herself. And so she [the soul] knows all other things, but not herself."

In the hidden, humanly inaccessible depths of the self, the triune LORD is, from all eternity, being. The Word is being generated in the hidden center of each instant, in the fathomless abyss of each soul's night depth... and thus, for Eckhart and for us, if we will — it is always Christmas!

May we so wait in silent contemplation at the end of this Advent and the birth of this Christmas, that we're enlightened by you, Trinity, eternal light beyond all sight and eternal truth beyond all knowing.

Merry Christmas, dear Ministry Matters reader. May the snug-wrapped newborn in the manger be a sign for you.

*Quotations from Eckhart in this post come from Sermon 101, printed in Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: The Modern Library, 2006), 412-20.

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