My middle son called us this morning to wish his parents, baby brother, and grandparents a Merry Christmas. “There’s ice on the deck and frost on the ground. It’s 34 degrees and the dogs are grumpy about it.” We were sitting poolside, drinking our first coffee of the morning at my parents’ new house while he was describing the scene back home.
It’s noon on Christmas. My mother has decorated THOROOUGHLY. (This is a woman who understands the power of a good theme.) My brother should be here any minute. My daughter’s flight comes in tonight. I am looking forward to the week altogether.
It doesn’t look anything like any of the Christmases I’ve celebrated before, though. And that is unexpectedly more challenging for me than I expected it to be. It’s not bad, though. Just different.
What hasn’t changed is our love for one another, a good meal, and laughter. We have all of that in abundance here. And that is a beautiful thing.
However you are taking in this day, be blessed. Good will to all!
I have had a VERY long drive for Thinking All The Thoughts. Among the things I’ve been musing on is the New Testament reading for this Sunday—Hebrews 10.
The unnamed author of Hebrews (I like to agree with those who have suggested that it was penned by Paul’s companion Priscilla) begins the chapter by noting that all scripture is merely a shadow of the good things to come. She admonishes us for sticking with scripture and ritual sacrifice when the coming of Christ IS the good thing the scripture foretells. Christ, not the rituals, brings forgiveness and redemption.
She’s calling us out for CHOOSING TO STAY IN THE DARK when the Light of the World is here.
Well, dang. That sheds a whole different sort of light on things. (See what I just did there?)
I am certain that some of my struggles are real battles with darkness. They are. Still, there is something for me to poke at here.
Where in my life am I clinging to promises that have already been fulfilled? Are my rituals ineffectual? Worse, are they an affront to the Creator? Am I stubbornly refusing to step into the light? Preferring instead to stick to the dark places I have come to know?
Welcome to Kristenmas! Kristen’s birthday was December 17. When her youngest was in his early years of school and had just learned about Hanukkah, he declared the 8 days between her birthday and Christmas to be Kristenmas. (She claims his goal was to get his own holiday with fried foods and presents.) In honor of Kristenmas we’re going to post a sign of hope every day, because–well, because we need it.
I have been traveling, delivering my folks’ their new truck to their home in Florida. Of course, the truck was in New Hampshire, so, yeah. LOTS of time in the truck traveling the east coast of this fine nation. Anyhow, because of the road trip, I have had limited access to the interwebs. This was supposed to be posted on Saturday. It is still relevant today, though. Trust me.
After Mary’s beautiful post about battling depression this Advent, I was inspired to share some of the work of the blogger who inspired me to enter the blogosphere–Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess. She is smart, kind, and extraordinarily funny. She also has been very public about her battle with depression, writing (and joking) about it regularly. Check her out. You will not regret it. You can search her archives for all her writing about depression, but I am going to leave this recent post with you, because I laughed until I cried reading this.
Welcome to Kristenmas! Krirsten’s birthday was December 17. When her youngest was in his early years of school and had just learned about Hanukkah, he declared the 8 days between her birthday and Christmas to be Kristenmas. (She claims his goal was to get his own holiday with fried foods and presents.) In honor of Kristenmas we’re going to post a sign of hope every day, because–well, because we need it.
This morning Mary posted the story about those gorgeous missions that are illuminated in such stunning fashion during the solstice. Well, once the sun goes down, there is the full moon, Mercury, and the Ursid meteor shower. For the darkest night of the year, it is pretty lit.
Among the efforts I have been making this Advent has been reading through Suzanne M. Lewis’ Living In Joyful Hope Advent and Christmas Meditations. I was familiar with her writing, and even participated in an online advent retreat of sorts with her last year, that used readings from this book. Then I got to meet Suzanne, spending the weekend with her at Convivium’s Terra Incognita literary conference last month. Immediately, I found myself drawn to her. She is a beautiful, deeply kind soul who seems comfortable in the dark, because she is sure of the light of the spirit that illuminates her way.
I want that surety.
I have spent too much of my life cursing the dark. I have exhausted myself trying to open more windows, light more candles, illuminate every corner. I wanted my life lit up. I had never even considered that maybe being in the dark could be okay.
I want what Suzanne has. I want to be able to stand in the dark, confident that even a tiny flicker of light is sufficient to guide me along.
Now that I have met her, I find that when I am reading Suzanne’s meditations, I hear them in her soft, but passionate voice. What a difference that has made for me! The traditional Advent scriptures that I have read dozens, if not hundreds, of times have taken on a new shine. I find that I am seeking a lens angle shift, so that I can see the prophecies, the experiences of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary’s story through the eyes of wonder and love.
This weekend, I realized that something in me is beginning to shift.
Inspired by Suzanne’s meditations, and my own spiritual needs, all Advent I have been musing on the precept “God is love.” I have long thought of myself as a loving person. I am sure of the love I have for my children, and for my husband. I know I love my other family members, and that they love me, but it’s complicated. A big part of my spiritual trouble is that I wrestle with whether or not I can honestly say I love Jesus. I have most definitely struggled lately with believing that God is a loving god.
It just occurred to me that I think of these different relationships as different kinds of love. That I carry different definitions and different expectations from these relationships. What if I have it wrong?
This is not yet a fully formed thought, but I have a post deadline, so you are getting what I have so far, which is this: Presume that “God is Love” is true. Then all love is holy. All love is of God. All love IS God.
My love for my three children is the manifestation of God on earth. My love for my husband is the manifestation of God on earth. My love for my students, my love for my co-teachers, my love for my friends, my love for their children, my love for my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, in-laws… all God on earth.
I already told you that I do not have this all thought through yet. I am falling down a rabbit hole of contemplation here. I have so many more questions to think and pray about.
What I have always thought of as my love for animals, and flowers, and mountains, and trees, and oceans, rivers, and lakes–that’s God, too? My love for music and dance and painting and poetry and film? God?
If God is eternal and God is love, then love, as the scripture says, is everlasting, yes? What about the romantic relationships I had that ended? The friendships that were betrayed and broken? The people I came to love through my work in social services, but haven’t stayed in my life? The people who loved me, but I didn’t stay in their lives?
What about my LGBTQ+ friends? Isn’t God there, too?
What about the really messy bits? What about the complicated relationships with folks I love, and love me, but can’t express it well, so that it doesn’t always look like or feel like love? What about the abuses in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in our government? How can a perfect God manifest love so imperfectly?
So. Many. Questions.
I’m fumbling around in the dark here. It’s not completely dark, though, and I find that I am not afraid.
In the wondrous, mysterious way these things work, I kept finding myself in situations this weekend where I was confronted with challenges to my understanding of love and of God, pointing me towards viewing God as love. There were several things I did this weekend out of a sense of duty. I was dreading them. To my great surprise, they ended up being wonderful, and it was entirely because I was able to love and be loved, however imperfectly, by the people involved. The engagements I had that I expected to be good, like a long overdue dinner with old friends, baking cookies with my cousins’ sons, and filling a stocking with gifts for a child I never met, were joy-filled, divine encounters. I wasn’t even surprised that my best friend was home when I dropped by unannounced. Of course she was, arms open to wrap me in a bear hug. By the time I crossed paths with a former colleague this afternoon, my heart was full to overflowing. I feel like I am aglow from the inside out with love.
This still isn’t a Cable Network Holiday Movie. I haven’t found The Answer. This isn’t the Happy Ending. I am still struggling to find my way through the dark of the messy bits of my relationships. I am still unable to bring myself to a church service on a Sunday morning. I am still soul sick from watching the evening news. These different experiences of love this weekend have acted like a flashlight helping me see my way along some of the rough section of dark trail.
I think I am stumbling along in the right direction.
Immaculate Conception painting by Miki de Goodaboom, 2010
I don’t get Mary.
I mean, yes, I recognize that of all the women that ever lived, the peasant girl Mary was singled out to be the host womb for the human birth of Jesus Christ. There was that terrifying visit from the archangel Gabriel to tell her all about it and everything. I understand that Mary is a critically important character in the story.
I guess what I don’t get is how Mary’s story unfolds.
I don’t get why she wasn’t yet married to Joseph at the time, and instead had to go through the trauma of hoping he, their families, and the entire community, would believe her impossible story. I don’t get why she was forced to travel to Bethlehem at the end of her pregnancy. Surely our omniscient Creator could have timed either the pregnancy or the census differently. I don’t get why she gave birth, alone, in a stable far from any familiar supports. I don’t get why shepherds, not rabbis or governors, were the first to pay honor to the Lord of Lords upon his human birth.
Unlike my cradle Catholic sisterfriend, Mary, I have spent most of my life engaged in expressions of Christianity that are decidely non-Catholic. Marian devotion is not at all widespread beyond Catholicism. Mary only tends to come up around Christmas, and while she is super important to the story, teachings I have had about her make it clear that she is a supporting character.
My understanding is that the Almighty chose this scenario for Jesus’ birth in order to blow the minds of the folks who were expecting their King of Kings to arrive in a of blaze of glory. The Jews wanted some sort of warrior king to bring them salvation from an oppressive government. The Jesus they got was a whole other kind of Savior. The King of the Jews, who would save them–and all humankind– not from a government, but from death and sin, started his earthly life as an infant in a carpenter’s family. Mary’s humble stature, her extreme ordinariness, is meant to highlight that point.
No preacher I have heard, no devotional I have read has suffiently explained why it was so brutal an experience for Mary, though.
I have little understanding of the Catholic teachings about Mary’s own miraculous birth without original sin, for living the remainder of her life perpetually a virgin, and for then ascending into heaven without first dying a natural death. I have many, many questions.
For today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I have learned that I am far from alone in my misunderstandings of this feast day. This is not about Jesus’ conception, but rather about Mary’s. This is the day that commemorates Mary’s conception as the moment that she was set apart to one day be the mother of Jesus.
Catholics believe that at the moment of Mary’s conception, the Creator marked her, exempting her from Original Sin. “Sin” has gotten a bum rap, becoming synonymous with “wrong,” “breaking rules,” or being “bad.” If one understands sin as “separted from God,” though, it gives Mary’s story a whole new lens angle.
Can you imagine this? At the moment of Mary’s conception, she was protected from the inevitable separation from God with which all humankind since Adam and Eve have had to contend. What must that have been like to have always known, really known, your Creator? How different would life be, knowing that God is with you?
So it begins. My Advent is off to a rather inauspicious start.
Last year, inspired by my studies of Celtic Christianity, and some blossoming friendships with women who are far more crafty than I am, I made an Advent wreath out of evergreen clippings from my garden. It was a small project that I found to be quietly meaningful.
I thought I would do the same thing this year.
It was with a happy heart that I took my clippers and 5-gallon pail out into my yard yesterday. I gathered holly, juniper, yew, boxwood, and winterberry. I spread most of the juniper and yew on my mantle and bookcases, as an evergreen backdrop for my collections of nutcrackers and nativity scenes. I also filled a tin bucket used for collecting maple sap with some holly and the winterberry to bring some holiday cheer into my bedroom.
Now, I was ready to put my Advent wreath together.
I pulled out the nifty swirled glass dish that a former student gifted me. I lined it with juniper, filled the edges with holly and holly berries, and covered the gaps with boxwood. Now for the candles. I head to the closet where I store the candles. I can only find three candle holders, and no taper candles. Sigh.
I grab my coat and head to the dollar store. They have no candle holders suitable for tapers, and while they have dozens of candles, the only tapers they have are brown or sickly yellow. I head next door to the discount store. No luck.
I try another store today, and again I strike out. Plenty of candles. No tapers. Who would have thought that taper candles were out of fashion?!
I was increasingly upset, because it’s the start of Advent, and I dared say to you all that I would write about my experiences through this season, and here I am having not gone to church this morning, and now I cannot even find candles for my Advent wreath, and one day in I am already failing, and…
I fled to our home office and began puttering (and pouting). A while later I was called downstairs. My husband, knowing just what to do for me, had put up the Christmas tree, strung it with lights, and set the angel on top. Around the base of the tree, he wrapped the beautiful, hand-quilted tree skirt his sister made for us when we first got married. He pulled out the boxes of ornaments, grinned at me, and simply said, “Your turn.” I decorated our Christmas tree with the antique glass bulbs that were his grandparents’, and the handcrafted ornaments our children made when they were tinies, and the oddball collection of decorations that we have been accumulating over the past thirty years together. Each one a memory. Each one a blessing. Each one a prayer.
And then I was ready to come back to my Advent wreath. Bucking traditions and protocols, I used what I had. I put a white pillar candle in the center. It is surrounded by 3 forest green votive candles and one white votive candle that I got during the trip I made to the Yankee Candle Village the morning Mary first came to my home to meet me in person. They smell wonderful, and they remind me of the truly delightful visit we shared. To complete my wreath, I added a truly lovely blown-glass bird. I have a thing about birds. For me, they represent freedom and lightness and now, here in my wreath, the Holy Spirit.
It doesn’t look anything like the Advent wreaths I’ve known. It doesn’t even look anything like the Advent wreath I intended to create. I find that it feels like one, though. As I lit the first candle—and the center, “Jesus candle,” because, well, I’ve already thrown tradition out the window, and figured inviting Jesus to my meditations could not be a bad thing—I was filled with a lightness I did not expect after getting everything wrong.
When it came down to it, I ended up where I was supposed to be, quiet and contemplative. My preparations did not look like I expected or wanted them to, but they still made the way—and isn’t that the point of Advent?
The name of our blog came about from a conversation Mary and I were sharing with some writer friends a year ago, as they were discussing their Advent practices. Most of the folks in the discussion were enthusiastic about the season and the celebrations for Christmas. Several had suffered catastrophic illnesses and losses, so were struggling, but still looked forward to the joys the season has always brought them.
Mary noted that for a whole host of reasons, including mothering children who rely upon consistent routine to get through their days, the holiday season has become something she endures, rather than truly celebrates. She quipped, “I guess I’m just made for Ordinary Time.”
To my surprise, I realized that I agreed with her.
See, I absolutely love the trappings of Advent and Christmas—the traditions, decorations, the cookies, the eggnog, the celebrations… I am one caroling-party away from being a character in a Cable Network Christmas Movie. Underneath all the trimmings, though, I have to confess that I am always let down by the season. The extra demands on my time and attention exacerbate my health problems for starters. More critically, though, is my ongoing wrestling with the Almighty to hang onto my faith. Advent forces you to contemplate your beliefs, ideally in expectation of rejoicing in birth of the Savior, and in the promise of the Second Coming. When you wake up on Christmas morning not sure of who or what you believe in, well, it’s a bit dark, eh?
I would like to say that this year, here in this public forum, I will finally figure it all out. I’d like to believe that this year, someone—perhaps a charming-kid-next-door type with an adorable dog—will come into Mary’s life and show her and her family the Meaning of Christmas so powerfully that their hardwired anxieties will be overcome in an hour-minus-commercial-breaks.
This is no holiday television special. That’s not how any of this life business works. We know. So, for this Advent, we share a more modest goal:
Find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate.
We invite you to join us as we struggle along the way in the dark together.