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The thin places where God speaks.

The chirping was unusually loud; the robins were flying closer to the house than we had seen in past springs. We didn't think too much of it until one afternoon when I was keeping my weekly appointment with the lawnmower. I was pushing the mower out of the garage and up around the small deck off our living room. Under the deck, I had stored an aluminum ladder on its side. The robins had wedged a nest between the legs of the ladder. The nearer I came, the louder the robins got--and the closer they came to my head. I kept a respectful distance. Then, a few days later, I saw them: small, powder-blue eggs in the clutch of sticks and leaves. Then, slowly, over several more days, three little heads appeared.

Ann and I would approach the backyard with great care and quiet over the next four weeks. The parent robins kept guard day and night from the branch of an old maple tree overlooking the deck. (Who knew robins could be so menacing?) Something exciting and new was taking place under our deck. As much as we would like to have done something to help, we could only watch with wonder.

Though we never used the word, we both had a sense of holiness.

The little house of twigs under our deck was a sacred place. The boys who live across the street, as energetic and mischievous as 6- and 7-year-old boys should be, came over to look with their mom. They instinctively knew to approach the hatchlings with quiet respect and care. "Look, Mom! They're so small! Shh! I can hear them chirping! Listen! Look, Owen!"

Four weeks later, the fledgling robins had gone on to the next chapter of their lives.

It was a small thing, to be sure. Three robins entered the world under our deck. But in its unexpected simplicity and natural beauty, our household and neighborhood felt the presence of God. All who came to see what was taking place (under the wary eye of the birds' protective parents) came away with a sense of wonder and joy.

In this season, it is tempting to see the nest of robins under our deck as a metaphor of the Christmas Gospel, but to be so literal makes a mockery of both. But I sense in this small event something deeper being revealed. Christian faith is centered on the mystery of incarnation--God becoming "enfleshed" in order to sanctify humanity and re-create it in his life and love. But God's Christ comes to open our eyes and hearts to behold God constantly in all the Advents of our lives. Christmas is the realization that all of these isolated moments of life, of creation, of birth are part of God's ongoing incarnation in our midst. As Christians, we profess that God is in our midst in every act of compassion, every healing moment of forgiveness, every stand for what is right and just and ethical. We recognize God's hand in every moment and molecule of creation--and so we see every moment of time and atom in the cosmos as sacred.

The Celtic saints speak of "thin places": locations in time and space where the things of heaven seem to touch the things of earth. To be in a "thin place" is to be in the real, present world we know that somehow, at the same time, sees or touches the world of God. Christmas is the ultimate thin place: God touches human history in the birth of a child. But Christmas calls us to behold the thin places in our own Bethlehems and Nazareths and Jersualems. Emmanuel--"God is with us": in the manger of a soup kitchen, where compassionate volunteers feed the poor; in the night watch of an exhausted son or daughter by the bedside of a sick child or a dying parent; in the nativity of every child of every place; in the epiphany of hope and compassion experienced by every shepherd and king.

A family of robins under a New England deck is one more thin place where God speaks in the chirp of his most vulnerable creation.

In the 1990s, a community of Trappist monks in Algeria was a thin place for a largely Muslim village terrorized by the violence of war As recounted in the extraordinary film "Of Gods and Men," terrorists break into the small Trappist monastery of Tibhirine on Christmas Eve. The horror of the bloody war had come to this oasis of peace and compassion. After the encounter, Brother Christian, the monastery's prior, sees the monks' continued presence as the work of Incarnation. As the monks continue their daily life of prayer, work and charity, Christian tells his brothers, "each of us discovered that to which Jesus beckons us. It is to be born. Our identities [as brothers in community} go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we'll each end up bringing the world the child of God that we are. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity"

In Christmas, the boundary between heaven and earth is at least blurred, if not breached, forever. In Christmas, God is reborn in the midst of every loving home and compassionate heart. In Christmas, stubborn hope illuminates our darkest, most terrifying nights.

[Jay Cormier teaches communications and humanities at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and edits the homiletics resource Connections.]
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Author:Cormier, Jay
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 7, 2012
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