Christmas Sings: Joy Bursts Us Open

Altodorfer Nativity painted in 1511
Altdorfer Nativity painted in 1513

Joy abides with God
and it comes down from God
and embraces spirit, soul, and body;
and where this joy has seized a person,
there it spreads,
there it carries one away,
there it bursts closed doors.

A sort of joy exists
that knows nothing at all
of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread;
it does not last,
it can only numb a person for the moment.

The joy of God
the poverty of the manger
and the agony of the cross;
that is why it is invincible,

Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final circular letter
to his friends in November 1942, before his imprisonment and execution by the Nazis

Bonhoeffer also wrote about this particular nativity painting by Albrecht Altdorfer:
The Altdorfer Nativity, which portrays the Holy Family at the manger amidst the ruins of a dilapidated house – whatever made him do that 400 years ago, against all tradition? – is especially on my mind these days. Perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us, “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.”

There is nothing attractive or sweet about Altdorfer’s 500 year old portrayal of the nativity scene.  It expresses the stark truth of the Savior’s coming to us: we are in ruins and He was born within our shattered shell.   We cannot be more broken, more fragile than we are in this moment.  He is born into that unwelcoming falling down mess, bringing to us irrefutable joy.

This is joy that bursts outside the boundaries of our misery.
This is incomparable invincible joy to rebuild us from the inside.

This is Christmas celebrated within our broken hearts:  joy amidst the ruins.

We enjoy this movie every Christmas Eve, again and again and again.



ZuZu’s Petals
Lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Our sons had to be convinced
Watching black and white movies
Was worthwhile
This old tale and its characters
Caught them up right away
From steadfast George to evil Mr. Potter
They resonate in our hearts

What surprised me most
Was their response to Donna Reed’s Mary
As “hot”–where can we find one like her?
Her loyalty and love unequaled
Never wavering

I want to be like her for you
When things go sour
I won’t forget what brought us together
In the first place
I’m warmth in the middle-of-the-night storm
When you need shelter
I’m ZuZu’s petals in your pocket
When you are trying to find your way home.

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Advent Sings: A Light Reveals All

Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt
Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt

…my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

Luke 2: 30-35 from the Song of Simeon

Simeon had waited and waited for this promised moment of meeting the Son of God face to face, not knowing when or how, not knowing he would be able to hold him fast in his arms, not knowing he would be able to personally bless the parents of this holy child.  He certainly could not know this child would be the cause of so much joy and sorrow for all those who love Him deeply.

That sword of painful truth pierces into our soul, opening us with the precision of a surgeon under high beam lights in the operating room where nothing is left unilluminated.  We are, by the birth of Jesus, bared completely, our darkness thrust into dawn, our hearts revealed as never before, no matter who we are, our place of origin, our faith or lack thereof.  This is an equal opportunity surgery.

It is terrifying.   And it should be, given what we are, every one of us.

Yet this is what we too wait for, longing and hungry for peace.  We are tired, as in Eliot’s poem below, too tired to continue to hide within the darkness and conflict of our sin.  We, like Simeon, are desperate for the peace of His appearance among us, dwelling with us, when we can gather Him into our arms, when all becomes known and understood and forgiven.

His birth is the end of our death, the beginning of the outward radiance of His peace, open to all who are open to Him.

…Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow. According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
From T.S. Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon”

Advent Sings: Departing in Peace

And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word..”
Luke 2: 26-29 from the Song of Simeon

In my clinical work and in my personal life, I’ve kept vigil while patients or loved ones are dying.  It is quite common that even those who are so ill as to be unresponsive will seem to wait to take their final breath until an absent family member makes it to the bedside.    They seem to be waiting, even unconsciously, for the fulfillment of family around them, a need for the fullness of their life to be acknowledged and celebrated before they depart.   At that point, they can let go and move on.

So Simeon was waiting patiently, day after day, to see the Savior.   He was ready to let go of this life, but not until he knew that salvation was at hand.

The scene in the temple that day must have been touching to witness.
An old man searching the eyes of everyone who entered, wondering which might be the long awaited and expected Messiah.
A father and mother with baby in arms coming in for a customary blessing, carrying a humble sacrifice of two doves.   There was nothing obvious to distinguish them from hundreds of other families.
The old man struck by the Spirit, given incredible words to say and sing, approaches the mother and asks to hold her child, this particular child, just for a minute.
Mary gives Jesus over, as she will, again and again, during His life and death.
Simeon, with the Son of God held fast in his arms, sings his beautiful song, as he cradles the fulfillment of the promise made to him.
Simeon, old and ready for death, sings of the fullness of his life,
the fullness of the rich blessing of promises made and kept,
the fullness of a father and mother willing to share their child,
the fullness of being in the presence of the glory of the Lord.

Simeon in faith meets the Messiah he has longed for.
We wait as well for the next Advent of His coming, not to cradle as Simeon did, but to be cradled.
When it is our time to depart in peace, it will be straight to the arms of Jesus.
And we, like Simeon, will sing as never before.

Advent is a time of waiting.  Our whole life, however if Advent — that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”  Learn to wait, because he has promised to come.  “I stand at the door…”   We however call to him:  “yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!”  Amen.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Advent Sings: Let the Light Shine

Adoration of the Child by Gerrit van Honthorst
Adoration of the Child by Gerrit van Honthorst

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

On this morning after the longest night of the year, I look out the window eagerly seeking a post-solstice reprieve from interminable darkness.  I seek that promise of being led back into the light, even if it will take months to get there.  It is a promise that keeps me going even if I can barely perceive the few minutes of extra daylight today.  It is from the simple knowledge that things are changing, getting lighter and brighter, that I harvest hope.

God made light through His Word, not once but twice.  In the beginning, He created the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls.  In the stable He came to light the world from below as well as from above so those hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

I am showered with His light even on the longest night of the year and forever more,  lit from the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God.  Let the dark days come as they certainly will.  They cannot overwhelm me now,  lit from within no matter how deeply the darkness oppresses.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

Advent Sings: Wondering

The Adoration Of The Shepherds. Giovanni Andrea De Ferrari
The Adoration Of The Shepherds. Giovanni Andrea De Ferrari

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
Luke 2: 15-18

There is no specific “song of the shepherds” recorded in scripture.  They were unlikely people to be inspired to use flowery words and memorable turns of phrase.   Scripture says simply they looked at each other and agreed to get to Bethlehem as fast as possible and see for themselves what they had been told by God.   There was no time to waste singing out praises and thanksgiving;  they “went with haste.”

Witnessing an appearance of the heavenly host followed by seeing for themselves the incarnation of the living God in a manger must have been overwhelming to those who otherwise spent much time alone and in silence.  They must have been simply bubbling over with everything they had heard and been shown.  At least scripture does tell us the effect the shepherds’ witnessing words had on others: “and all who heard it wondered…”

I don’t think people wondered if the shepherds were embroidering the story, or had a group hallucination, or were flat out fabricating for reasons of their own.  I suspect Mary and Joseph and the townspeople who heard what the shepherds had to say were flabbergasted at the passion and excitement being shared about what had just taken place.  Seeing became believing and all could see how completely the shepherds believed by how enthusiastically they shared everything they knew.

We know what the shepherds had to say, minimalist conversationalists that they are.   So we too should respond with wonder at what they have told us all.

And believe as they do.

Advent Sings: Glory to God

painting by Daniel
painting by Daniel Bonnell

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2: 13-14

Glory comes first, first before anything else.  Glory is God reaching down: it emanates from God, is the essence of God, is our hope and joy to witness through God coming to earth to dwell among us.   We too easily forget that His glory is the reason for which we and everything else was created, that we God breathed his glory into us with that first breath we take.

The world will know no peace, man can know no good will until we glorify God first and foremost.  We are here because he created us in his image to reflect that bright and shining light.   Our stubborn choices, our faults and sins sully that reflection.  We fail to respond with gratitude to the grace we are given, we are self-centered, less humble and forgiving than he designed us to be, we defy his intentions by denying our existence has a glorifying purpose.  We are in sore need of a savior to set us straight again to reflect his glory, to breathe it in and sing it out with every word we utter.

The heavenly host makes it overwhelmingly clear:  we are to glorify God first, first before anything else.   Then all else good and wonderful will come to pass.

And to think the shepherds got a peek of what he looked like that night in a manger.  A glorious plan.  A glorious God.