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The Greatest Gift of all

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The Greatest Gift of All

On display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hangs a fourteenth century chasuble1 depicting images of the Annunciation, of the Adoration of the Magi, and of Saints Peter and Paul, Andrew and James. With colored silks, threads of gilded silver, and pearls on red velvet, it is one of the finest surviving examples of Opus Anglicanum. The needle work of medieval English craftsmen, with its intricate patterns of woven silver, was so masterful and so famous across Europe that it was simply known as English work. Such treasured gifts were prized by popes and kings. 


Like a master medieval embroiderer, God has woven luminous strands of glory into the fabric of existence, strands that bind and sanctify, that consecrate all of existence as a sacred mystery. There is more to the cosmos than the common eye commonly sees. One of the characteristics of sacred mystery is that it permeates and thus manifests at a variety of levels. One such mystery is sacred presence: the sacred presence of God to us, individually and corporately; of us to God; and even of us to each other. Christmas is a time to remember sacred presence and perhaps even a better time to practice it. 


“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, 

and they shall name him Emmanuel,” 

which means, “God is with us. 2 


Christmas break is upon us; most are on holiday. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity for parents to practice sacred presence with one another and with their children. Part of such practice will surely involve calling attention to the story of the Christ Child. We sing and hear the story of Christmas; we retell and quietly think upon the story of Christmas.  We give thanks for the story and remember God present with us. This is as it should be. 


But there is more. Parents have a special opportunity to be present to their children. American parents are not particularly skilled at this. They may care greatly, provide well, and serve diligently, and still not be very good at offering sacred presence. Christmas is an optimal time for father and mother to be with their children in a very real presence. Just as children were made to live in the light of God’s sacred presence, so they were made to live in the sacred light of dad and mom’s presence. Ideally, parental presence establishes the neurological and psychological scaffolding that makes easy the apprehension of the Divine presence. Absent a sacred parental presence, adult children generally find it much more difficult to apprehend God’s presence. In other words, for children, Christmas always starts with dad and mom. 


As we practice being present, here are some things to remember: 


  • Each of us has an attention light. Think of it as a flashlight shining from the pre-frontal cortex (the very front of the brain) through the forehead and out onto some object in the world. I am only present to you when my attention light shines on you, you receive it and reciprocate.  


  • Generally, we follow the eyes to detect the direction of another’s attention light, but “eyes on” is not enough. Sacred presence requires genuine interest in another, what he or she is thinking, feeling, and doing. Take a moment to imagine a time when someone was truly interested in you. What were the kinds of things he or she said, the kinds of questions he or she asked? What were the facial expressions? How did those expressions change over the course of the conversation? What would it be like for you to give this same kind of attention to your spouse, to your children, and to others? 


  • It is possible to be a sacred presence in either a focused or a casual way. When you give me the gift of focused presence, your attention light shines on me. I know it shines on me because you are all attention for me. You are interested in me. Your questions, your retelling of what I have said, your comments on how my words and deeds touch you, all say you are with me and for me. I hear it in your words and see it in your face. Spouses and children long for this kind of presence. It is balm for the soul, water for a parched land. Most of us are not very good at this, particularly us men. But we can practice, and Christmas is a good time to practice. 


  • When we share the gift of sacred presence in a casual way, we both turn our attention light onto the same worthy object or task. At regular intervals, we shift our attention from the object or task to each other, sharing thoughts and feelings, commenting or speculating, celebrating or censuring. I am interested in what you think and feel about what is happening. You are interested in what I think and feel about what is happening. 


  • Electronic media (television, game consoles, handheld devices, and the like) so powerfully seduce our attention, like light into a black hole, that they make shared presence virtually impossible. While there are exceptions—some games may support an anemic form of collegiality—in the great majority of cases, if I am focused on a screen, I really am not paying any attention to you. If sacred presence of the casual kind is the gift I wish to give, it is far better to share board games, puzzles, crafts, a nature walk, the cooking of a meal or the meal’s cleanup; to throw a baseball or snowballs; to build a tree house; or to build a Lego city.


  • Two of the most powerful means of offering casual, sacred presence are the sharing of a meal and the sharing of a good book. In the genuine sharing of a meal, more time is spent looking into the eyes of those around the table than looking at the food, mouths are open more often for conversation than for consumption. In the sharing of books, there is a periodic pausing among pages inviting communal response. What do you think of what just happened? What do you think will happen next? Let us laugh together, rejoice together, be angry together, or even cry together. 


It is Christmas. Consider giving the greatest gift of all, your sacred presence. In a mysterious way, the giving of sacred presence to another; the true selfless giving of benevolent presence, is a participation in God’s giving of His presence to us, at Christmas and every day. 


From all of us at Ambleside Schools, may yours be a blessed Christmas. 


[1] The chasuble is the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Eucharist in Western-tradition Christian churches that use full vestments, primarily in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. 

[2] Matthew 1:23 (NRSV)