Atop the mantel of our fireplace is a creche made of tin by our granddaughter, Rumi, and myself a few years ago. There it will stay through Epiphany, January 6, the day set aside to remember the visit of the three wise men from the east who were the first Gentiles to witness the incarnation of the Christ.
The primary activity of all the figures, and maybe even for the baby, can be summed up in one word: looking. Not just "looking", but "just looking".
My daily mindful prayer practice aims at the same experience.
And for me, it's easier said than done. Because most of the time I'm not just looking. If I'm looking at all, I'm looking for something. Looking up something. Looking into something. Most of my looking has preconditions, prejudices, assumptions. There's something I want, and I'm using my senses to find it.
Looking without preconditions, looking without the intention of seeing any particular thing, looking only for the sake of looking - that's a very different thing.
In the Hollywood hills on weekdays, and out in the wilderness on weekends, I walk with the intention of being as mindful as possible, aiming to take a God's-eye-view of all that is present within and around me. In a recent hike up the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, I looked at my way of looking. I love rocks, fossils, native plants, grand vistas. I find myself looking for these things along the steep trail. And that quest has its own charms and satisfactions. But far greater and deeper is the satisfaction of observing this impulse to "look for", letting it go, and then focusing on "just looking". Looking without any purpose or goal or aim. Just observing what is, as it is, in the moment that it is, then moving on and just looking at what is next, as it is, in the moment that it is. Without naming or describing or presuming anything about what is. And then being aware that the One within me who looks is beyond observation, liberated from temporality and judgment and opinion and evaluation and description. This kind of looking leads to awe and wonder and discovery: it's the wellspring of creativity. It makes it possible for us to see human needs that might otherwise have escaped our everyday attention. After a while of practicing this way of looking, I began to appreciate what I was seeing on its own terms, not just my own. The beauty of the landscape around me, as a whole and in its particulars, was amplified.
Such is the looking of the figures in the creche scene at the birth of Jesus. It is a window into the eternal quality of the now, an icon of the divine point of view. It is slack-jawed, timeless, aimless, free, worshipful Awe that is Love that is God. Maybe the wise men came to Bethlehem looking for the newborn King. But when they got there, and laid down their gifts, I like to think that they ended that quest and just looked at a little baby lying in the hay. Without believing anything about him, without assuming anything about him, without defining him. Just looking with full attention, total presence, pure love.
So, too, the shepherds looked. They had been "keeping watch" over their sheep. Then they were "keeping watch" over Jesus. Just looking.
So it was with the angels who were present in the myth of Christmas. The biblical Greek word for angel means "messenger". Somebody who reports on what is, as it is. Not on what is supposed to be. Not on what we wish it was. Angels "watch over": they just look, and then report what they see. The Greek word for "gospel" is related: "euangelion" or "good message". The gospel is what we see when we just look at what is, as it is, when and where it is, without filters or interpretations or preconceptions.
It's an epiphany - the biblical Greek word for a sudden appearance or manifestation - to discover the difference between "looking for" and "just looking". When I'm "just looking", I see incarnations of God that I might miss when I'm "looking for".