An “Immanuel” moment, a year ago

The calendar says it’s nearly Christmas. For me, however, it’s unlikely that anything that occurs in the coming week — no family gathering, no preacher’s words — will surpass the “Immanuel” moment of nearly 13 months ago.

My spouse and I were amid the fields of rural Waterloo County when we got a phone call that our first grandchild was about to be born.

Like shepherds who had just been visited by an angelic host, we looked at each other in awe and excitation. Our adrenalin was pumping; our pulses racing. And after a night of restless sleep followed by a day of work-related obligations, we began our pilgrimage.

Born last November, she is now just over a year old.

The little baby is now just over a year old.

There were no hills and craggy trails along our journey; only a mildly congested highway. No tax collectors, livestock or dusty feet, although there were inns, crowds, shops and the bustle of a busy Toronto neighbourhood on a Saturday night.

We climbed the front porch and rang the bell. Our son answered. He led us up the stair, around a corner and toward the street-facing bedroom, where, despite the large bay window, the light of day was now nearly gone.

And there, against the slate-grey walls, white trim and yellowish incandescent light, was a modern-day crèche: a tiny, perfect baby swaddled in a white blanket adorned with brightly coloured diamonds, in the arms of her enervated but radiant mother. Beside the bed sat a time-honoured family cradle. In the background, the family’s Polish lowland sheepdog bellowed her excitement and approval.

I couldn’t help but pause for a few moments at the foot of bed — the very spot where just a day earlier a young woman, great with child, had given birth — to take in the mystical tableau. It was the end of a long anticipation; the culmination of a very personal season of advent.

It was a deeply moving moment. Not that there was any particular cosmic or historic significance in the birth of the little cherub — after all, she was only one of about 100 babies born in the city that day and one of a half million born worldwide.

But in that instant, long before I held her in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the nativity of old, which is celebrated at Christmas but around which circles the language of God’s immanence and presence among humankind.

Specifically, I recalled the ancient Hebrew word “Immanuel,” a symbolic name to be given to a child foretold by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, and referenced again some 600 years later by an anonymous, genealogy-obsessed writer in his curation of the recollections of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples. The word means, “God is with us.” Us, as in humankind.

Seasonal lights may twinkle and congested shopping malls may cough up gifts for under the tree. But above all else, Christmas is about the fact that there exists a spiritual connectedness between humans of all creeds and cultures and the eternal presence or consciousness that pervades the universe, which many of us simply call God. God is with us. God is among us.

The birth of a baby — the coming into existence of a human life where, minutes earlier, none had existed — is the perfect symbol for such a spiritual notion. Ancient prophets and writers understood its metaphorical power and it still communicates today.

Christmas, however, is about something else too; something expressed by the Christian season of Advent, which ends at the stroke of midnight tonight. It is the fact that the eternal, the sacred, the profoundly spiritual cannot be fully encountered without expectation, preparation or effort.

The baby in the cradle is merely the end point, the destination. Christmas is about undertaking the journey, making the trek, climbing the stair toward the discovery of God’s immanence, whether it is across town, across the street or just to the front door and finding God there, whether in the guise of an infant, a neighbour, an old friend, a co-worker, a parent, a child.

The old saying, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” has been attributed to a variety of authors. The pilgrimage toward the nativity is no different.

Christmas invites us to undertake our pilgrimage through life with courage, and to discover the sacred and eternal along its rocky trails and open thoroughfares — but especially within ourselves and the fellow travellers we meet along the way.

(This blog post is based on a column published in The London Free Press on Dec. 24, 2011.)

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