Off the western coast of Scotland sets a tiny, remote, windswept place called The Isle of Iona. It’s a skinny little island, only about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, but it’s the destination of hundreds of people each year who brave a long journey involving trains, boats, busses, and more boats all so they can make a spiritual pilgrimage.
Upon arrival though it’s hard to see why it is revered as a spiritual mecca. Sure, it’s a quiet place where you can get away from the sounds of civilization—only about a hundred people live on the island. But it’s also a place where the rain and wind off the North Sea can drive right through you no matter how good your rain gear might be.
Still though, there in that remote location you find a beautiful place with emerald green grass, old stone buildings, and a landscape dotted with sheep that far outnumber the people.
Soon people begin to discover how there’s something mystical about Iona— the place where Saint Columba landed sometime in the sixth century and established a monastic community.
The old, 12th-century abbey still stands on the east coast of the isle, acting as a sentinel of the island’s past. It was there the monks welcomed visitors who came to the island, searching for something missing in their souls. And they came because they knew the reputation of the place as what the native Celts called a “thin place.”
The Celts believed heaven and earth are separated by only three feet, however there are places where the distance is even less—where Heaven and Earth almost meet.
When you are in one, it is said you are in a thin place. And a thin place becomes a holy and sacred space where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. These places aren’t perceived with the five senses. Experiencing them goes beyond those limits.
Most people think of Heaven as far removed from Earth. But when we consider the “thin places”, it can be rather comforting to think of Heaven and Earth only being three feet apart.
Then, to think it can be closer— close enough for those on Earth to get a glimpse of the glory of Heaven—well that can take us to a new level of connection, of hope, of peace, of joy, of love.
The Celts believed that Iona was (and still is by many) a place where people could feel that thinness and experience the kind of revelations and sacredness one might have when so close to the holy. They believed that was true of other places as well, usually places far away from crowds and wrapped in both mist and mystery.
The famous 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, “Thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, we just don’t see them. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. The only thing is we don’t let ourselves see it. We miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth, which is ironic given the fact that Jesus taught us to pray that we might see the kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ But if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we will find the thin places all around us.”
It is hard to see the thin places all around us. And one of the most significant thin places we miss on a regular basis is in our celebration of Christmas.
In the midst of all the preparations for Christmas it can become easy to get caught up in thinking this is just another Christmas season, with the same traditions and myriad of obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all our attention.
And in doing so, we miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider, and step into, the thinnest place the world has ever seen— not a remote island, but a manger; and not a feeling, but a person, in whom Heaven and Earth both fully dwell.
The first Christmas was the thinnest of thin places—where Heaven and Earth actually came together. And each year, no matter where we are, we have the opportunity to step into that thin space…if we choose.
The prophet Micah called the people of Judah to focus on finding a thin place in the midst of the thick and foreboding threat of foreign invasion. Like a raging storm, the Assyrian invaders were bearing down on them—a fate they would dodge, only to succumb later to the Babylonian invasion.
As a result, like so many of us when we feel God has abandoned us, the people of Judah made the mistake of putting up a thick wall of apostasy as a way of holding God at a distance. But God would break through, and their walls, both literally and figuratively, would come tumbling down.
And there, in the midst of all this destruction and pain and loss, God offers a word of hope through the prophet Micah, promising to create a new thin place for God’s people—a remote, out of the way place that, like Iona, populated with only a few shepherd families and a lot of sheep.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Bethlehem, a place few expected, was going to bring together Heaven and Earth in a very unexpected and very thin ways.
Bethlehem was, of course, King David’s hometown, and it was there David was chosen as the unlikely successor to King Saul, who was Israel’s idea of what a king should look like.
God, of course, had a very different idea.
The shepherd-boy David was anointed and would rule Israel successfully until his own moral downfall—but even then God continued to honor the promise God made to David, that one of the king’s descendants would rule Israel.
Despite all that was about to happen to the remnants of David’s kingdom in Micah’s day, the prophet assures the people God was not going to abandon the promise that a king was coming from David’s hometown to rule Israel, one “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).
In the meantime, God would give up God’s people to exile until that king would be born. Then that shepherd-king will, says Micah, “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”
All of that would happen in the thin place God created in Bethlehem; in a feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.
Interestingly enough, if you visit Bethlehem today, you’ll find it doesn’t have the same kind of reverent, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place like it once did. There’s jostling and bumping; long lines of pilgrims waiting to get into the Church of the Nativity; monks yelling instructions to be quiet; cameras flashing; security officers mulling about— all as people seek to touch the star in the cave below the church that marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.
Bethlehem is more hectic than holy on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom the idea of a “Silent Night.”
But on this day before the day before Christmas Eve, it’s not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel we need to make a pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus’ birth. We can take a pilgrimage right where we are. And we can do so, if, as Thomas Merton told us moments ago, “…if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we will find the thin places all around us”—we will find the obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between Heaven and Earth.
If we abandon ourselves and our lists, our grudges, our preconceived notions that this is just another Christmas, and take a few moments to slow down, pause, sit with gratitude for those in our lives—current and past—we might just see we are, as Merton says, “living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”
God is shining through in the place where the hungry are fed. In the nursing home where a visitor shows up. In the phone call finally made. In the message finally sent. In the forgiveness finally given.
God is shining through all the time. We need only let ourselves, and others, see it.
We don’t worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world. In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between God and humanity by becoming one of us.
This is a God we can know because this God, our God, has a human face and in that human face we see Heaven and Earth come together to show us what is possible for us and for the world.
So, as you finish preparing for Christmas, perhaps the best preparation is to take some time to go on a pilgrimage to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away.
Go to a quiet place and mediate on the fact that the Savior of the world is quite near and his kingdom is at hand.
Go to a quiet place and allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus.
Go to a quiet place during this spiritual pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas, and read it again as if you’re seeing it for the first time.
Then, for having done so, go and bring peace and presence, healing and kindness, joy and love—to yourself too others. Let the goodness that will surely come from that pilgrimage find a way to be released into the world.
For in taking such a pilgrimage—and offering such holiness to others—you will have found, and given, a very thin Christmas—a Christmas where Heaven and Earth, once again, touch. Amen.