The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)

“A Christmas Carol”

Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), Rembrandt 1646

On this holy Eve, I wish you, dear reader, a most blessed and festive Christmas.
I will publish my Christmas sermon tomorrow,
but for now, as we hurry to Bethlehem,
take a moment to savor the imagery of Robert Herrick,
the 17th century poet-priest whose poem, “A Christmas Carol,”
was sung today to the music of John Rutter,
at the Kings College Lessons and Carols in Cambridge.

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn
Thus on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:

‘Tis he is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,
To heaven and the under-earth.
We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him, to welcome him.
The nobler part of all the house here, is the heart,
Which we will give him: and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath
To do him honor, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Small Trees (1487)

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road, pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.
My time is so close.”

 Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ,
taking birth forever.

 –– St. John of the Cross

 

The story we celebrate on Christmas Eve isn’t just about a long-ago wonder. It describes something that is still going on, as the divine “takes birth forever” in mortal flesh and human stories. The infinite God, the Creator of time and space and matter, the Source and Sustainer of all existence, yearns to be born in us, to express the life-giving Word in the vocabulary of human flesh. Your life, my life, our common life as the body of Christ––these are God’s Bethlehem tonight.

In other words, the Nativity isn’t just something we remember. It’s something we do, something we become.  As St. Paul said, “all of us . . . are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” In other words, we are destined to become God-like.

But what does that mean––“God-like?” It doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. Look at Jesus. His life tells you what God-like means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

To let the divine be born in us, then, means simply this: to let our humanity achieve its true fullness by allowing divine Love to have its way with us. A 13th-century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, put it like this:

“When are we like God? I will tell you.
Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly,
to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator
who practices these things ceaselessly.”

O come, let us adore Christ. But not only that. O come, let us imitate Christ. Let God’s life be born in us. And when the divine is born in us, when the divine takes place in us, we will not be the only ones changed by it. Everyone we meet will be changed. And perhaps one day, the whole world will be changed––into “brighter and brighter glory.”

I think it all comes down to this: What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.
It goes out into all the world, to all people, all places, now and forever.
And nothing will ever be the same again.

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Dear reader, thank you for taking the time to consider these posts. You are a writer’s best gift. I wish you a most happy and luminous Christmastide. May your own encounter with the embodied God––whatever form it may take––bless and empower you in the days to come.

The Village That Should Be

Morris dancers lead “Lord of the Dance” at the Puget Sound Christmas Revels (Photo: Puget Sound Revels)

“Everyone who ends up going to the Revels and loving it wants to say to the people who missed it, ‘You have got to see this!’ They don’t sit their friends down and try to explain this amazing thing. They just want them to experience it. And that’s why we all want to take people who haven’t been before. That’s why I started the Revels in Puget Sound. I wanted people to feel it, right to their core, because that’s where it ultimately touches us, and all the talking in the world about what is a Revels and what isn’t, or you’ll like this about it or this is how it’s woven together – it isn’t the same as experiencing it. What I do say to people is: it’s not a concert, it’s not a play, it’s a kaleidoscope of music and dance and drama that all create a sense of a celebrating community.”

–   Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels

 

Imagine yourself in a village square or a great hall in a culture where the community gathers every December to contradict the dark and the cold with high-spirited celebrations of life, warmth, and hope for renewal. Tuneful voices are raised to “joy, health, love and peace.” Dancers circle and leap their defiance of winter’s immobilizing spell. Playful mummers depict the dying of the old and the rising of the new. As you watch and listen, you find your own deepest impulses awakened and expressed, and before you know it, you too are singing and dancing along with everyone else.

Such elemental festivity is nearly impossible in the United States, where ritual traditions have been so fragmented, thinned and trivialized, and communal public life verges on extinction. But the Christmas Revels returns us to that celebrating village, that magically inclusive hall where the songs are sung and the dances are danced and the shadow of death is turned into morning.

When the late John Langstaff staged the first Christmas Revels in New York City in 1957, he was trying to recapture and share the communal joy of the caroling parties given by his music-loving family during his childhood. As he later wrote:

“My love of the carols and traditional music I grew up with eventually broadened into a fascination with folk material of every sort – rituals, music, dancing and drama. All have become essential elements in Revels. Revels’ focus on active audience involvement grew out of those same roots, and especially out of my awareness that few things bond people as powerfully as singing together.”

In 1971, Langstaff began to make the Revels an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and over the years it has spread to nine other American communities on the West and East coasts as well as Texas and Colorado. Here in the Northwest, the Christmas Revels has been celebrated in both Puget Sound and Portland since 1994.

Each local Revels group chooses its particular theme for the year. It might be medieval, Celtic, American (Appalachian, African-American, Shaker), Scandinavian, Victorian, or the Italian Renaissance.. At the local Revels I’ll be attending this week at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater near Seattle, the subject will be the storied pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

The Christmas Revels always imagines a world better than the one we know, where high and low, rich and poor, find the distinctions between them blurred or even subverted, as the commonness of a shared humanity blends strangers and adversaries into a harmonious whole. This vision of true community is implicit in the way that all classes, ages and types of people sing and dance together. But it is also revealed in the gentle mocking of anything that divides us. A king might learn wisdom from the lowly fool, or the rich might discover the poverty of their isolation from a world of sharing.

Such bridging of divides can be more than fictional. I remember a California Revels in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. Toward the close of the evening, an ensemble of Russian dancers joined hands with the American cast for a circle dance during the Shaker hymn, “I Will Bow and Be Simple.” I noted the rapt attention of the young children around me in the audience, and it struck me that the very first fact they were learning about Russians was that they were people who danced with us.

Traditional celebrations usually contain an element of chaos and “misrule,” unleashing the energies from which new possibilities are born. In sword dances, mummer’s plays, and traditional dances and games, the Revels are deeply playful. But even as you are entertained, you are reminded of your mortality––and your longing.

Solstice rituals have always included mock battles, where a symbolic figure dies and rises again, like the earth in its seasons or the sun in its celestial journey. No matter how comic, these contests speak powerfully to our own anxieties when the dark and the cold are upon us.

In one production, during the feasting and celebration of a medieval court, the king was confronted by an intruder. It was Death, in the form of a giant puppet made of dark translucent gauze. The antagonists crossed swords, and the king was defeated. Only the lowly royal Fool remained as the last line of defense between Life and Oblivion.

Following the King’s death, the Fool entered to find the royal throne occupied by a motionless skeleton. After some tentative stabs at interaction, the Fool took the skeleton in his arms and danced around the stage with it. The daring incongruity of this image was quite funny, but it was also breathtaking––life winning after all, not with weapons but with dancing. “I am the Dance and I still go on.”

Finally, the Fool danced into the wings with the skeleton, and when he returned, he carried the skull in his palm as a trophy, and Death’s disjointed bones were now harmless playthings held by the laughing children who followed after.

“Revels came out of human community in a way we all can feel,” says Mary Lynn, founder and producer of the Puget Sound Revels. “It came out of celebration, it came out of mourning, it came out of birth and death and hope, it came out of all the things that are part of our lives. No matter how different ‘the village’ is, we face all those things, in every time and place.”

Although the confrontation with darkness and death is a pivotal point in every Revels, allowing us ritually to release our anxieties about human fate in a time of darkness, the overall tone of a Revels is the very opposite of somber. Good cheer rules every performance. A fluid spectacle of characters, costumes and staging engages both mind and sense. The energy of dancers and mummers is irrepressible and often hilarious. And the music is the heart of Revels magic. Spanning a wide range of seasonal songs and instrumentals, it is always beautifully performed.

Sometimes there are stunning solo voices in a Revels performance, like Appalachian balladeer Jean Ritchie, or the Irish “sean-nos” singer Sean Williams. But the essence of Revels lies in the choruses of adults and children, whose harmonious diversity of voices images the very nature of community.

The audience is always invited to enter that community––not just as witnesses, but as participants. Singing is the principal bridge between spectators and cast. Everyone joins in on familiar carols and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and the Revels finale is a stirring mass rendition of the “Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” whose lyrics pour seasonal blessing on everything in sight.

The miracle of Revels is that for a couple of hours an audience of strangers believe themselves to be part of something larger than their atomized private realities. They are ushered into a world of wonders, nourished by the food of human community, and sent back into the streets with smiling faces.

As Mary Lynn observes, Revels does something special to those who come: “Revels is about community, and feeling a part of that village on stage.” She is quick to point out that it’s not the village we live in now, nor is it a village from an idealized past. It’s a ritualized image of a human future, with the power to attract us toward a truer embodiment of community. “It’s the village that should be,” she says. “And at some point, you find yourself invited into that village, onto the stage.”

This point comes at the end of the first half of every Revels. A singer intones Sydney Carter’s song, “Lord of the Dance,” as white-clad Morris dancers, with their bells and red handkerchiefs, leap and dance around him. Meanwhile, other cast members move among the audience, inviting them to leave their seats for a line dance that goes up and down the aisles and spirals around the stage, as all repeat the chorus,

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

It’s a moment that many of us live for each year. For a few minutes, cast and audience are utterly one, dancing, dancing, wherever we may be. My sister Marilyn, who introduced me to the Revels many years ago, always races downstairs from her balcony seat at the California Revels in order to join the dancers moving toward the stage. There are so many people on their feet for the dance, you never know if you’ll reach the stage before the music ends. Marilyn always calls me later to report on the success of her quest. “I wondered whether I would make it to the stage this year, now that I’m 80,” she told me yesterday. “But I did it!”

Susan Cooper wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day,” recited at every Revels. She imagines all the generations who preceded us, burning their “beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.” She hears their joyful voices echoing down from their time into ours:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Because the Revels are so unique, they are hard to describe. Most of the already initiated don’t even try. They merely tell their friends to trust them and come along. “You just have to experience it!” is the common cry. It’s like trying to tell someone what it’s like to be in love.

Debbie Birkey, a publicist for the Puget Sound event, moved and performed in local folk music circles for years without ever hearing of Revels. In the late nineties her husband took her to her first performance, and it was a revelation. “It’s incredible that I was here in Tacoma and this fabulous thing was going on and I didn’t know about it,” she says. “Then we came to the Revels and after about five minutes of being swept away, I turned to my husband and said, ‘These are my people!’ And it’s just swept me up ever since. So I’ve been in about eight or nine shows, and then I started helping with publicity. Here is this amazing thing going on in Tacoma and people don’t know about it, and I can’t imagine why that is. So I feel that it’s my mission to change that.”

Revels seems to inspire this kind of fervor. A typical audience will include some who were drawn by the publicity, but the majority are either loyal regulars who come year after year, or first-timers who have been dragged there by friends, because Revels is something you want to give to everyone you love.

Sharing Revels can be an obsession, and I myself confess to it. 2017 will mark my twenty-ninth Revels (10 in Oakland, 19 in Tacoma). I never go without bringing others along. And this year, as always, we will join hearts and hands and voices with all the other revelers, no longer strangers in “the village that should be.”

 

 

 

The Puget Sound Revels, focusing on the Camino de Santiago, has two remaining performances at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma, WA: December 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m. While some of the nationwide Revels have completed their run, you can still get to performances in Portland (OR), Santa Barbara (CA) and Boulder (CO). For a list of all ten Revels sites: https://www.revels.org/revels-nationwide/

A version of this piece originally appeared in Victory Review, a Northwest folk music journal, in 2005.

Our Revels Now Are Ended

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Old Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
great joy to the new.

– Welsh carol

For now the time of gifts is gone­–
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill–
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…

– Louis MacNeice[i]

Christmas ends tonight. That may surprise those who thought it done by December 26th, or with the final New Year’s game. I do get funny looks when I utter “Merry Christmas on days 2 thourgh 11. But for those who keep the traditional Feast of the Incarnation, it is best when savored the full twelve days. With the gathering, gifting and communal celebrations mostly behind us, the last days of Christmas can be a peaceful inbreathing of wonder before ordinary time resumes. The angels have returned to heaven, but the starry nights are no less radiant. The shepherds have returned to their flock, but we still linger in the stable, desiring to adore the newborn Mystery just a little longer.

Poet Mary Oliver, experiencing an intuition of charged significance at a New England pond, wrote, “oh, what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?”[ii]– Her question perfectly expresses our devotional response to the Nativity. The event itself is but a moment, but its meaning generates a lifetime of reflection and adoration. So in these last days of Christmas I have continued to carol with guitar, bowed psaltery and hammered dulcimer, read the poems of Incarnation, contemplated the crèche by the light of the decorated evergreen, and gazed in attentive silence at our candlelit icon of Madonna and Child. Oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?

 But tonight, it’s all about to end. A few savvy churches may observe the playful but largely forgotten Twelfth Night revels tonight, and tomorrow we will make some fuss about the arrival of the Magi to worship the holy Child, but then our retreat into festive space/time will be over and done. The Holy Family’s Christmas concluded that way: abruptly, with a quick exit to escape Herod’s swords. So too will ours, as we resume not only our private travails but also the current dismal prospects of our public life, so well described by W. H. Auden in his “Christmas Oratorio”:

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear …

There’s no escaping history. We can’t stay dreaming forever in holy and silent nights. “Well, so that is that,” Auden wrote. “Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes … The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory…”

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

As for the Christmas revelation of Incarnate Love, will it also fade away in the glare of the everyday, after being too briefly entertained as only “an agreeable possibility?”[iii]

Joseph Pieper, writing about the way we wish each other well at Christmas, says that “the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.”[iv]

Renewal. Transformation. Rebirth. Were these among the gifts you received this Christmas? And if so, what are you going to do with them? How will your life be different, now that you have seen the Child of Bethlehem? How will your world be different?

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Thirty-five years ago, on the Ninth Day of Christmas, I was running on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when I saw four young men standing along the shore, gazing out at the vast Pacific. They wore sweatshirts printed with their school name: IOWA. They had come west for the Rose Bowl, held the previous day. Their team had lost to Washington, 28-0, but now they were discovering the real reason for their journey: the sea.  It was perhaps the first time they had ever seen it. They were standing quite still, not talking, transfixed by its boundless liquid infinity. Wonder shone from their faces.

Earth and sky had been washed clean by a pre-dawn storm. Cumulus billows erupted along the horizon, while the morning sun, having won its battle with the longest nights, blazed above us in a pure blue heaven. It was one of those days when the world seemed freshly made.

I continued running down the beach, but when I returned twenty minutes later, the Iowans were still there, staring at the sea, taking all the time they needed to absorb so much wonder.

I thought to myself: When they return to Iowa, will they carry that bright ocean with them? Would we someday hear about puzzled farmers who swore they’d heard waves roaring in their cornfields?

And when you leave Christmas behind, heading home to your Nazareths, or fleeing to distant Egypts, will you carry its bright immensity with you? Will the people you encounter ever hear its roar?

 

[i] “Twelfth Night,” q. in William Sansom, The Book of Christmas (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 187

[ii] Mary Oliver, “At Blackwater Pond,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 226

[iii] W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976): “The evil and armed” is in Advent section, 272; the rest is in “The Flight into Egypt,” 307

[iv] Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 30-31

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

The free animal has its decrease perpetually behind it,
and God in front.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

150 years ago, German immigrants in Philadelphia fired guns out their windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Murdering the old year,” they called it. At the end of such a crazy and dispiriting year, we may envy them. Preparing for our own New Year, we abandon the wreckage of 2016 with little regret. But is there any appetite for what lies ahead in a country poised on the brink of insanity and ruin? The Zero card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana provides a vivid image of our situation, but take note: the Fool himself does not share our fear.

He is festively attired, holding a bright flower beneath a happy sun. The precipice holds no terror. The abyss seems not even to exist for him. His attention is instead on the open sky, and his expression is calmly expectant. He walks in trust as a child of the Light. In the eyes of the world he is indeed a fool, advancing heedlessly toward nonexistence. But to people of faith his foolishness is the wisdom of Christ, who has been defying gravity ever since the resurrection.

We too would do well not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end. I realize that is a big claim in the face of history’s unspeakable horrors, and I do not mean to trivialize their enormity, but the alternative is nihilism or despair. If we belong to a story of life not death, then we must insist on its narrative truth, even in our darkest hour.

No one can say exactly where and how the divine work of repairing the world will manifest itself in 2017, but I have already seen it coming to birth in a widely shared desire to get involved in the work of resisting evil, protecting the vulnerable, and advancing the common good. Yesterday’s Episcopal prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents states our agenda perfectly: to “frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish [God’s] rule of justice, love, and peace.”

May we all, boldly and joyfully, do that holy dance, even on the edge of the precipice, not in terror of the abyss, but trusting in the love that enfolds us in every moment. What better way to celebrate and embody the Christmas feast, which declares the generative power of God pouring itself into the particulars of human experience? As Thomas Merton reminds us, “we exist solely for this: to be the place God has chosen for his Presence. If once we begin to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”

As we adore the great mystery of Incarnation–“the signature of God upon our being,”–let the beauty of this primal truth be the Star that guides us out of the old year into the new.

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At year’s end, allow me to thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to reflect on the writings posted here, and for sharing them with others. Your attention, comments and supportive sharing are deeply nourishing and greatly appreciated. My New Year’s prayer for you is expressed in these lines from Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century priest:

God ripen you more and more. Each day is a day of growth.
God says to you. “Open thy mouth and I will fill it.”
Only long…the parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself
for the rain from heaven and invites it.
The parched soil cries out to the living God.

Oh then long and long and long, and God will fill thee.
More love, more love, more love.

Caroling in the Dark: A Christmas Meditation

"And a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6)

“And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herod then with fear was filled.
(Medieval carol)

The first Christmas Eve, in the old legends, was “so hallowed and so gracious” a time that flowers bloomed in the Bethlehem snow, kindly beasts knelt to warm the Child with hay-scented breath, the birds of dawning sang all night long, and angels bent near the earth to sing of peace.

Oh that it were so again! Desperate to exit the gloom and foreboding of the present time, “we too would thither bend our joyful footsteps”–to see the birth of New Possibility, to welcome the marriage of heaven and earth, to recover hope for what we might become. But the Christmas story is not about escaping this broken world. It is about repairing it.

The Incarnation began with unconditional acceptance of the human condition. To know our griefs and carry our sorrows, God began mortal life as a refugee from political violence and ended it as a victim of torture and capital punishment. Risk and violence were not confined to the latter days of Jesus. They were there from the start.

That is why, only a few days after singing “Silent Night” at the holy manger, the Christian calendar insists that we take time to remember Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. We are allowed no illusions about how the story goes: Love is born into the world, and the powers try to kill it.

Only Matthew’s gospel records Herod’s monstrous act. Its clear parallel to the Exodus story, where Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew children fails to eliminate the child of destiny, suggests some narrative invention. There are no other historical accounts to corroborate Matthew’s tale. But who cannot testify to the truth it contains? The powers will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. That, too, is part of the Christmas story.

Julia Hartwig, a Polish poet, gives a harrowing account of the massacre. It seems haunted by memories of Auschwitz, but reading it today I think of Aleppo.

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces

But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown this
and not the monstrous uproar on a street drenched with blood
the wild screams of mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soldiers
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm with milk

Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescue
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful numbness of despair

At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place…[1]

And the good news? The coming of God means the shaking of the powers. Even as a baby, the incarnate God struck fear into the hearts of rulers and oppressors. And when Jesus grew up and began to bear witness to the purposes of God, he made it impossible for the powers of this world to claim divine sanction for their monstrous behavior. They still try. Even “pious” rulers can do terrible things, as we know all too well. But the incarnate God has torn the mask from power’s face. By dying at its hands, like all the other victims of hatred, violence, and abuse, the Word made flesh has made absolutely clear which side God is on.

Like the women of Bethlehem weeping for her children, we are not easily consoled in the face of so much human suffering. And yet, even in the worst of times, we must never forget the kind of story we are in. It is, ultimately, a story of mercy and possibility:

I am going to tell of God’s kindness to the people of Israel… All of God’s deeds of mercy… All of God’s many acts of faithful love. (Isaiah 63:7)

Isaiah wrote these encouraging words in his own darkest hour. His people were in exile from the land of promise. Hope was dead and gone; their story had reached its bitter end. And yet, said the prophet, it is precisely in the place of desolation and loss that we are called to make our song. It is how we resist.

Sixty-three years ago, such a song was composed on a scrap of paper in a Soviet labor camp by a Latvian prisoner, one of 50,000 Latvians condemned to exile and imprisonment in Siberia under Joseph Stalin, a twentieth-century Herod, after the Second World War.

When the Kings College choir was touring Latvia in the summer of 2007, singer Emma Disley spotted the carol, scrawled on its original piece of paper, in a museum. She transcribed it and brought it back to England, where it was arranged for four-part choir and sung, in Latvian, in that year’s worldwide Christmas Eve broadcast.

The text was by a Latvian writer in exile, Valda Mora. As for the woman who composed the tune, we know neither her name nor her fate. All we do know is that she wrote it down on a scrap of paper as a handmade Christmas card for a fellow prisoner, Marta Zalaiskalnson, on Christmas Day 1953. Marta, who had been in the labor camp since 1945, sewed the paper into the lining of her dress so that her Soviet guards wouldn’t find it.[2]

The history of this carol has a lot to teach us about faith and hope. Born in a time of terrible darkness, it concedes nothing to the powers. Instead, calmly and assuredly, it sings of only one thing: the Light which has come into the world, a Light which the darkness can never extinguish.

On this holy night earth and heaven shine,
On this night the heart and stars commune,
And enmity fades, each loves the other,
And o’er the stillness warm wings hover.

On this night your footsteps glimmer;
This night transfigures doubt to hope;
This night must banish every sorrow,
And teach you to forgive and love.

On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other;
On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other.

On this night the gates of heaven open,
Above earth’s darkness arc the burning stars,
And softly on each person’s head this night
The Lord in blessing lays His loving hand.

 

 

 

 

Photograph adapted from an uncredited image of a demonstration against an Islamophobic national registry. Source: MoveOn.org email 12.22/2016.

[1] “Who Says,” by Julia Hartwig, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

[2] Translation by Mara Kalnins. The carol was arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The 2007 Lessons and Carols bulletin is at http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapel/festival-nine-lessons-2007.pdf