Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart

This, or something very like it, will be this happy morn's address. A very happy Christmas to you all.

For those of us who have become profoundly sceptical about the historicity and ultimate worth of the Christmas stories one of the simplest ways to enter fully and creatively into the spirit of the day is to remember that they (and indeed most religious stories) were not written to tell us anything factual about the world. It really is important to realise this and to understand that they are, in no way, pseudo-scientific in their aims. Instead they were written because their authors had experienced 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which, to quote William James from his 'Varieties of Religious Experience', allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). The authors then tried to communicate this whole experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images'; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

The trouble is that it is has always been so easy to lose the sense of semblance and to allow one's thinking and pondering about these aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism. A necessary element of our spiritual practice must be, then, to renew and cultivate our 'sense of semblance' by trying to recover, through quiet reflection and meditation, something of the conditions in which the minds of stories' writers were set 'in motion towards the idea of a corresponding inner state' (McGhee p.126). I'm aware that this might sound a little obscure so, very briefly, I'll turn to a well known poetic example from the beginning of Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey':

. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.

Michael McGhee insightfully observes that the point:

. . . is not that the steep and lofty cliffs should stimulate the idea of a more deep seclusion than the greatest that can be imagined' but that 'the scenery speaks for, is correspondent with, the possibility of a state of mind and it is that which, if it achieves reality, becomes the object of further comparison . . . It beckons towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the words: indeed we discover the source of the resonance that beckoned' (p. 126 - his emphasis)

We may use McGhee's train of thought in a similar way in relation to the Christmas story. What presents itself to us and what the authors hope will set our minds in motion are, not secluded 'steep and lofty cliffs', but a new-born child. What stimulates them is not a deeper seclusion than that which they have hitherto known or imagined but a deeper and infinitely larger life present before them in the life of a human being.

The question that always remains, for the reader of Wordsworth's poem as much as for the reader of the Christmas stories, is whether or not the words continue to resonate in similar fashion with us, remain capable of setting our minds in motion and stimulating such an idea and which, in turn, can help us in some way move towards an ever deeper experience of the source of that resonance?

Now I simply cannot answer this question for you - just as I cannot answer the question of whether the steep and lofty cliffs around Tintern Abbey will do as Wordsworth hoped.

But, because both my personal experience and that of the Christian tradition as a whole (that is when and wherever it has not descended into a naive theological literalism) continues to find it helpful to the deepening and fulfilling of human life, what I can do is encourage you of the value of attending to these stories meditatively simply seeing what possible, but previously unimaginable, enlarged states of mind come into view. In a moment we will hear our Christmas Day reading from Luke 2 and at the end of it we will hear that, after all her experiences surrounding the birth of her son Jesus, Mary simply keeps them all and ponders them in her heart (Lu 2:19). I think Mary's response is key and if we wish to enter the story appropriately we need to understand that we, too, must simply keep these things and and ponder them ourselves.

What this will mean for you will only be answerable to the extent that you allow your own mind to resonate with it as you seek - not any formal institutional religious answers - but the very source of that resonance itself which is nothing less than the deepest experience of life any of us can hope to achieve.

Happy Christmas.
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