- Pilgrimage to nowhere
There has long been an ambivalence about the man who was both the ultimate betrayer and the means by which God’s plan was fulfilled. The author of a new book visits the lonely place where the renegade apostle took his own life
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Megan Hodder, who was received into the Catholic Church this year, begins our series of articles by people for whom this Christmas will be dramatically different from every previous one: for the new Catholic, the new parent, the newly ordained priest or the young man recently made homeless, the familiar Nativity story and the festivities going on around it take on new and deeper meaning.
I was baptised and confirmed into the Catholic Church at Pentecost. One of my sharpest memories from that day is the moment it occurred to me that, for all the splendour of my surroundings - I was received at the Brompton Oratory in London – the sacraments which introduced me into the life of grace were formed of nothing more elaborate than water, oil and words.
Catholicism, as I've learnt, invites us to find the extraordinary in the everyday, and grace in unlikely places - and nothing reminds us more forcefully of that than Christmas, where the good news we proclaim is not something airy and abstract, but the bare and astounding fact that God became man, and dwelt amongst us.
I was raised an atheist, and considered Christmas simply to be a welcome pause before the new year, an opportunity to spend time with loved ones and reflect. We didn’t go to a church service or observe any even ostensibly religious custom. My Christmas was about love, gratitude, and hope, and I resented the notion that Christianity claimed any monopoly over these universal human goods.
I wasn’t entirely sure what a Christian Christmas would involve, but it sounded unnecessarily complex compared to our straightforward celebration of life’s goodness - its harmless message obscured by superstition, tales of gods who were men and mothers who were virgins. But Christmas, like everything else in life, can’t help but be theological - whether we’re willing to recognise it or not.
I’d assumed that the values of my atheist Christmas were a world removed from Christianity's supernatural waffle. But what the Incarnation tells us is that the gift of grace comes to us through the ordinary, the human and the everyday – just as salvation came through the child of a lowly young woman from Galilee with the faith to say “yes” to God. In some ways, my view of Christmas hasn’t changed greatly: it is still about family and friends, love, gratitude, and hope.
What has changed is that this year I understand that these are not things which exist without a higher meaning, but which come from and point us back towards God, the Word made flesh. My ability, long before my baptism, to recognise and appreciate the goodness at work in my life came down, as all things do, to the grace of the God who took a human face. Because at heart, and despite what I’d previously assumed, Christianity is actually very simple: it is that child in a manger, a child who is both human and divine, who is calling us to eternal life with Him. From the outside, not much will appear to have changed for me this Christmas - apart from when I slip away to attend Mass on my own. But through it all I will remember that God came to us out of His abundant love, so that we may know that love: that’s what matters, and what makes everything matter.