" To perceive the world in Christmas light is to discern the hidden depths of everything, the astonishing possibilities in all that happens, the exra-ordinary mystery abiding within the ordinary. This Christian revelation of an incarnate God is alone among the religions of the world".
Is it alone among the world religions to see the presence of God in all things and to recognise the spiritual at the heart of the material? I'm well aware of the danger in making simple comparisons between religious doctrines that on the surface appear very similar. Hinduism for example has a belief in avatars or incarnations of God who take on an eathly form, either animal or human, to rescue human beings from evil or disaster. These figures are not historical and many of the stories surrounding them are myth. This does not mean they are a fabrication, rather they are stories which reveal a spiritual truth. And the truth is that God is to found in our ordinary lives to help and sustain us when things get tough. This is of course different from the Christian belief that Jesus embodies God and to compare the different meanings of incarnation is not helpful but it might show a religious intuition which is similar.
Perhaps it's in the ancient Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads that the intuition of the divine at the heart of life is seen most clearly. There we read of Svetaketu who is searching for the meaning of life. His father uses a series of simple examples to show him that just as the pot cannot be separated from the clay so too the universe cannot be separated from God. Svetaketu's father sends him to put some salt in water and then asks what he can taste and of course what he tastes is salt which cannot now be separated from the water. 'That you are Svetaketu', he's told - just as there's no separation between the salt and the water so there's no separation between the divine and the human. The divine resides in the human and the material.
Indian religions warn us against dualism - that we should not think in terms of either/or but both/and. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, not to take things at their surface level but to look deeply and see their relatedness to all that exists. He doesn't talk in terms of God or the divine but he does talk in terms of nothing existing in itself but only in relation to every other thing on which it depends. If we have eyes to see we can look deeply into a flower, he says, and see sunshine, rain, clouds, the earth. It's as though the whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest itself. Because of this it has no separate identity and to recognise this is to understand reality. Hence there is conventional truth, that is how things appear and ultimate truth, that is how things really are.
Christmas is teaching Christians something similar. This is the meaning of incarnation - that there is nothing ordinary. That underneath the convenional truth of the mundane there is an ultimate truth that is the presence of God, if only we can look deeply enough, if only we can see the dearest freshness deep down things as Gerald Manley Hopkins would say. Everything is holy and sacred. And Daniel O'Leary tells us that "to become more aware of God's incarnate presence, all we need to to do is look more intensely, listen more carefully, think more imaginatively, see more deeply, feel more attentively." Can we do it?