When you were a child, you ventured out into the yard, and there discovered, amidst the puny grasses and vain rose bushes, an apple tree, tall and strong. It rose, almost out of your sight, into the sky. At first, you feared approaching it, feeling young and insignificant, but with a friendly wave summoned by the breeze, the tree welcomed you, beckoned you, and you reached out, touching it with your fingertips, and felt safe.
After not too long, you grasped a lower branch with your young, strong arms, and pulled yourself into the tree’s embrace. Then, daring, you grasped another limb, then another, each day climbing higher than the previous, and each branch held, each foothold secure. Knots and buds and bark and twigs placed as if destined to guide your ascent, themselves sprouting from a bole anchored to the earth through invisible roots. Each day you reached out, higher and higher.
And finally, on an unexpected day, you reached out and felt – nothing. There were no more branches, for you had reached the top. And so you stopped climbing, stopped striving, stopped reaching, and sat on the uppermost branch and looked out. And the view was amazing! You could see everything! The whole of creation spread out before you in wonderful clarity, so immediate that you could reach out and touch it. You reached out, extending your hand and fingers just so, stretching and stretching, until at last you could touch the hand of God, and see him smile upon you. You laughed together, there, at the top of the world.
And even though you had eventually to descend, to put foot on the ground and food in the tummy, you climbed again and again, over and over, day after day, in surety and confidence. And each day God greeted you and took you by the hand.
But, again on an unexpected day, just as you reached up for that last branch, the apple tree quivered. It moaned. It swayed. It vibrated and with a shriek, it broke. The branch disengaged; the bark shriveled; the twig faltered, and you fell. Crashing and plummeting, wanting to fly but able only to fall, you spiraled down through the agonizing tree, a leaf too heavy for the wind to sway, until you met the earth – hard – and bled in frustration.
How could this be? How could this happen? The tree was so strong. It had held you up for so long. Through red tears you looked upon the grounded remains, the scattered branches and the severed limbs; the pulverized fruit and the sanguineous sap, and there it was. As plain as day now even as it had been hidden for so long. Grimacing at you, ghoulish and grey, lay the rotted insides of the mighty tree. Year after year the worm had eaten away the core; stained it and strained it; hollowed it and harrowed it until the faithful rings could bear no more. Shocked, the scene of dismemberment before you brought to mind Yeats, and his prophetic poem:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So you think: is this then it? Hope is merely on the exterior? You embrace despair, for now, how will you ever reach out and touch the hand of God again? How will you ever climb up again to greet the Creator? If you cannot go up, then the only way to go is down, down, down, to the place where bruises are made, and fire is cold.
And then, on the precipice, God does something so miraculous it must be true. In the midst of despair and the absence of hope, when you can no longer go up, God comes down.
God rises from his mighty throne.
God descends from the golden dais.
God removes his jeweled crown.
God discards his gilded scepter.
God sheds his magnificent robes.
God diminishes himself until he is no more than the size of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
In wonder and awe, you approach the creche and peer into the cradle. God is perfect. You recognize him. You’ve seen him before. He smiles upon you, and you smile back. There is, however, just one more thing, one more thing you must do together. Mother Mary, who knows all hearts, reaches into the cradle and loosens the cloths. The liberated child wiggles, and squirms, and reaches out – to you. You reach out, extending your hand and fingers just so, stretching and stretching, until at last you touch the tiny, perfect hand of God. And the darkness of Yeats is overcome by the light of the prophet:
“The grass withers, and the tree falls,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”