I recently made a flying visit to Dublin for some meetings, but it was too brief and too soon after my leaving of Dublin to make any impact as a real “going back”. However, it did spark off previous memories of going back to places that had played an important part in my life’s journey and what that experience was like.
One of those was during my first stint in St. Mungo’s, just after ordination, when, in 1986, I was invited to preach a parish mission in St. Simon’s in Partick, the parish in which I was born and raised, and where I had served on the altar for six years before the family moved to Drumchapel. If St. Mungo’s is the most beautiful church in Glasgow, which of course it is, then I would suggest that St. Simon’s is a close second. In more recent years it has become associated with the Polish community but back in my childhood it was a thriving church serving a largely Irish immigrant community, with three good priests who, each in their own different way, helped give me a solid grounding in the faith.
In going back to St. Simon’s, I was struck by a number of things that in my childhood years seemed very big, but when viewed as an adult seemed very small. The first of these was the church itself. Apart from serving on the altar, I used to go over to the church with my father and then, after his untimely death, with my uncle, who used to tend to the church boiler. While they were busy I would sit in the semi-darkness, gazing on the tabernacle and on the red glow from the sanctuary lamp, which instilled in me a sense of awe and wonder, and of divine presence, that has never left me. In my smallness, the church seemed vast, but in fact, returning as an adult, the church is in reality very small.
Across from the church there was a playground where many happy childhood hours were spent. Apart from the more conventional entertainments of swings, roundabouts and see-saws, there were two little flat roofed buildings in a far corner, with a spiked railing running in between them. As a “dare” we would jump from one building to the other, risking impalement on the railings below if we missed. As little children we felt we were jumping the equivalent of the Grand Canyon; as an adult I could see it was nothing more than a tiny step.
While we, and all my mother’s side of the family, lived in Partick, on the north side of the River Clyde, my father’s side of the family all lived in Govan, on the south side. As my mother was afraid to go on the Underground, having been trapped in a tunnel on a broken-down subway train in her own childhood, we regularly walked down the Ferry Road to catch the Govan Ferry over to visit our relatives. Once again, with the legs of a little child, that walk down the Ferry Road seemed like a very long walk but, returning as an adult, I realised that it was a very short walk indeed.
In this Advent season, when I think of big things becoming small things, I simply marvel at how our great, big and infinite God, became incarnate in the tiny, fragile, and finite human skin of a little baby, so as to share in our weak human nature; so that we would know that God knows what it’s like to be human; so that we would know that God, in his Incarnate Son, has experienced all that is part of our own human experience, so that, whatever we are going through as human beings, we can know that God understands, and that God is in there with us. I like these words on Advent by Madeleine Engle:
"Don't try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God's limitless love, enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine."