Earlier this week I read a blog that set me thinking. Written by Kristjan Kristjansson, the Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, it considered the concept of awe. Using personal examples, he suggested that awe could be characterised thus:
‘The subject of awe is the person experiencing it. The feeling of awe is intense and predominantly pleasant although it may be slightly tainted with a sense of impending terror. The object of awe is captured by the cognition that the subject is experiencing or has experienced an instantiation of a truly great ideal that is mystifying or even ineffable in transcending ordinary human experiences.’
I read that on the day that Tim Peake set off on his journey to the International Space Station and I identified with it straight away, for a number of reasons. I was still at primary school when Neil Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, but I can remember my feeling of awe as if it were yesterday. Watching a fellow human being walking on the moon for the first time definitely transcended ordinary human experience. Tim Peake grew up just along the coast from where I live so I know the schools that he attended. I couldn’t help but wonder whether his teachers ever noticed anything exceptional about him. In addition to his technical skill, physical prowess and commitment, did they see a sense of awe in him? Did he experience awe and wonder through their teaching?
A lot has been claimed by both the government and the media about the power of this space trip to inspire children to study STEM subjects, to become technically skilled and perhaps even to become astronauts. Little has been said about the awe of space travel, or the wonder of its future. Maybe children will need to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens to transcend the target driven measurement culture of their contemporary education.
It’s a time of year, too, to experience the awe of Christmas. Do we just celebrate the birth of a baby called Jesus? Or do we ponder in wordless awe on the mystery of how God became human? What did it really mean for Jesus to lay aside his majesty to live here on earth? The prophet Isaiah, foretelling Christ’s birth nearly 750 years before it happened, said that he would be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah also said that:
‘Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness’ (verse 7).
As we listen to the news of a world full of conflict, cruelty and war, we long for the time when there will be no end to peace. But peace begins within each one of us, so as you celebrate, rest and enjoy the awe and wonder of Christmas, think about how your life can be ‘a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’ (2 Corinthians 3:3).
I hope your Christmas break is full of rest, fun and friendship, and that 2016 starts peacefully for you all. It’s been a privilege to meet and work with many of you during 2015. I’m sure 2016 will bring its own challenges as we seek to become letters from Christ, as we engage in the challenge to retain a space for the expression of our distinctive faith in the public square of education and as we work with the amazing children and young people that are in our care.
So, see you next year. Until then, may you experience the awe and wonder of the Christmas miracle.