There’s a story of a woman sitting by the hospital bedside of her very sick husband. Time ticks very slowly by and nothing seems to change. She feels the despair well up within her and looks out of the window into the midnight darkness. The woman needs to move, to walk, to get out of the room for a bit and wanders off through the eerily silent corridors of the hospital wards. As she walks the deep reality of her grief hits her and though it is quiet and she alone, she heads for the lifts. Riding up and down, the tears flow in the silent privacy that enfolds her. Suddenly there is the telling ping of the lift signalling it stopping at a floor. In this dark and desperate place, where peace and pain comingle, an elderly gentleman enters the lift. He presses the button for his floor and then silently stands to the side. There has only been the gentle nod of acknowledgement and she hopes her tears have been quickly hidden as she wiped them with the back of her hand. She continues to look down. After a moment he gently removes a neatly folded handkerchief and, with a kind and knowing smile, passes it to her. She looks up into his understanding eyes, the kindness and compassion radiating from there and offers a nod and sad smile back.
When the lift pings for a second time, he looks up then nods to her and quietly walks from the lift. There was something in his manner, his calm embrace of her pain in his gentle mannerisms, kind smile and a compassionate, understanding act that touched her and gave her a sense of peace in the midst of her pain. As she rode the lift back up and emerged onto her husband’s floor, she felt calmly embraced by the presence of God and knew that whatever happened over the next hours, she would be okay. She would be okay!
She sat back by her husband’s side and felt the peace and grace of the moment. In her darkness, in this place of despair and pain, this woman encountered God! In the darkness of night there was a gentle light that radiated through her and lit her world with a renewed hope, love and life – even in the midst of her sadness and the precarious nature of her husband’s health.
Sometimes the journey into ‘light’ comes unexpectedly such as in this story. Sometimes the light shines before us and leads us into the unfolding experience of wonder, awe and life. This is much as we experienced last year in our visit to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (of which I’ve written before). It was a journey in which we were drawn, finally, into this place of deep spiritual wonder and significance, a place where God’s presence is very real. I discovered some of this feeling in my first visit to Ebenezer Church, out past Wilberforce. It is the oldest continually used Church in Australia – 210 years this year. I wandered from the simple car park and saw the church, a simple sandstone structure. I walked through past it and the old ‘Schoolmaster’s Cottage’ and the whole site opened up. It slopes gently down to the Hawkesbury River and the wonder of the whole place struck me in an instant! It is impossible to really convey the sense of awe and spiritual presence that exists at Ebenezer Church. Pilgrims come from far and wide to sit and ponder, to experience and feel the Presence. Some have a name and understanding, and others only know that it is real, and they feel renewed and alive in this place. It is what the Celtic Christians would call a ‘Thin Place’, a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin and we feel the very Presence of the Divine, of Love, of grace. For some who venture to Ebenezer Church, it is a pilgrimage where they are drawn and are expectant. Others stumble onto the site and discover its wonder.
Sometimes we find our journey into enlightenment and wonder one in which we are drawn by a ‘seductive light’, something that lures us, promises something or demands our attention. Other times we stumble through darkness and are surprised by wonder. Often enlightenment and grace are found in very ordinary places that are imbued with Divine Presence and wonder. Other times we find ourselves before true beauty or magnificence and it fills our being to overflowing with delight and awe. I have had breathtaking and wondrous moments of awe walking along a simple track and seeing a tree, a simple but profound tree – or a flower or even the black snake I saw off the track the other day slithering with grace and delicacy. The call of the birds – shrill of cockatoos, screech of parrots or the distinctive call of bellbirds. The cuddle of the dog and his gentle lick as he looks into your eyes and seeks reassurance he is loved and safe. A simple meal shared in love and grace or a conversation in which we are real and open. The delight of music and a special song or piece that cuts through my being and moves me. A story of courage and love, life and hope, justice and peace. All these things and more are moments in which to behold the Presence of the Divine in, around and through me and the world – the gracious Presence of God!
This week we conclude the season of Christmas on Sunday, with its story of Magi (aka ‘Wise men’) who visit the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). They are astrologers and read into the stars the birth of a new king and following a particular star end up off course in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Foreign wise people may well expect a king to be born in a Holy City, a big city but they were wrong. In a conversation with the local king, who consults his Jewish wise leaders, they are directed towards the insignificant, lowly village of Bethlehem. King Herod was a local tyrant, jealous and vicious. He asked them to come and report back after they found the king – he had evil intentions to murder his new rival! They go and arrive at a house in the town where an infant lives with his parents and they bow before him, acknowledging that they are in the Presence of Divine wonder and awe. They present gifts. They then leave by another route, warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod goes onto threaten all the male children in the region and the Holy Family flee as refugees into Egypt (as their ancestors did centuries earlier under another Joseph).
In this story the Magi discover wonder, awe and Divine Presence in an ordinary, lowly place. It is an unanticipated place because it has little worth in the world’s eyes. The humble family who become refugees are the antithesis of what we expect in a ‘royal family,’ or where we expect to find the Presence of God. The Magi’s quest takes them away from power, privilege and into the lowly places where the presence of God takes form in the unrecognisable, the unimaginable and the vulnerable – a baby of poor parents in a backward place. Whatever it is they were seeking, they find what they want and need in this One in whom the Presence of God is revealed most deeply – and in vulnerable powerlessness.
May we seek wisdom, life and enlightenment in the simple and profound places of our world, expecting the unexpected God to be revealed in surprising and wondrous ways and forms – even when we least expect it. For those who have eyes to see there will be light!