The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: O Great Mystery

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years!

Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,“
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,
”I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.

Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.

~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem” from Goodness and Light

The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B.  “The Stable”

Beholding his glory is only half our job. 
In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; 
we are not really Christians till that has been done. 
A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited 
by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice—
animals which take up a lot of room 
and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. 
And it is there between them, pushing them out, 
that Christ must be born 
and in their very manger he must be laid—
and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. 
Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals 
than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
~Evelyn Underhill
“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light

Growing up on my childhood farm,
remembering the magic of Christmas eve night,
I bundled myself up to stay warm
in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
speaking words we could all understand,
to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town,
in a barn, long ago in a far away land.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
the blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.

My trips to the barn were always too late,
our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep,
our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate,
in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.

But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again!
They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace
in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens,
in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.

Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve,
in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time.
Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe
in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near,
that tells me the time I hope for is now,
they will drop to their knees without any fear
in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.

I wonder anew at God’s immense trust
for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night –
the mystery of why of all places, His Son must
begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right.
~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Latin text
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.

A weary journey one winter’s night;
No hope of shelter, no rest in sight.
Who was the creature that bore Mary?
A simple donkey.

And when they came into Beth’lem Town
They found a stable to lay them down;
For their companions that Christmas night,
An ox and an ass.

And then an angel came down to earth
To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth;
The first to marvel were shepherds poor,
And sheep with their lambs.

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.
John Rutter

Jesus our brother, strong and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, strong and good
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town”
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I gave him my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head”
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn”
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high
“I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I”
“I, ” said the dove from rafters high
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Room At All

For outlandish creatures like us,
on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage,
Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass
if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it –
because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it –
his place is with those others who do not belong,
who are rejected because they are regarded as weak…
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
He is mysteriously present in those for whom
there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light

As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.

1. Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain

2. To the manger came the Wise Men.
Bringing from hin and yon,
For the mother and the father,
And the blessed little Son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks
And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Kindled and Consumed

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Luke 12:49

It is difficult to undo our own damage…
It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind.
The very holy mountains are keeping mum.
We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it;
we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. 

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

When I drink in the stars and upward sink
into the theater your words have wrought,
I touch unfelt immensity and think—
like Grandma used to pause in patient thought
before an ordinary flower, awed
by intricacies hidden in plain view,
then say, You didn’t have to do that, God!—
Surely a smaller universe would do!

But you have walled us in with open seas
unconquerable, wild with distant shores
whose raging dawns are but your filigree
across our vaulted skies. This art of yours,
what Grandma held and I behold, these flames,
frame truth which awes us more: You know our names.

~Michael Stalcup “The Shallows”

I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
the kindled fire that illuminates
even the darkest day and never dies away.

We are invited by name,
by no less than God Himself,
through the burning bush that is never consumed
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the bright and burning dawn,
even when it is the darkest midnight,
even when it is a babe in a manger
lighting a fire in each one of us.

Only then,
only then
can I say:
“Here I am! Consume me!”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago
and people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Longest Shining Night

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground. 
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. 
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night

I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
~James Agee

He who has come to men
dwells where we cannot tell
nor sight reveal him,
until the hour has struck
when the small heart does break
with hunger for him;

those who do merit least,
those whom no tongue does praise
the first to know him,
and on the face of the earth
the poorest village street
blossoming for him.
~Jane Tyson Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

In the somber dark
of this blustery solstice morning,
when there seems no hope for sun or warmth,
I hunger for comfort, knowing
there is solace only He can bring.

He calls me forth from where I have hidden,
buried face down in the troubles of the world,
hiding amid my quilt and pillows,
fearing the news of the day.

Only God can glue together
what evil shatters.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

If I grab hold His offered hand,
I’m lifted,
my emptiness filling
in the light,
reaching for a new day
bursting fully
into blossom.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Heaven Flings Wide Its Gates

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned,
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
~Christina Rossetti “Sunday Before Advent”

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognized the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the color that the dark of Hell had hidden.
~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29

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

God brings forth Light through His Word, not once but at least three times:
 
In the beginning, He creates the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls. 

In the stable He comes to light the world from below as well as from above so our darkened hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

In the tomb, He rolls back the stone, allowing the sun to penetrate the ultimate night – raising His Son from the dead, in an ultimate defeat of darkness.

He flings open the gates of heaven to the likes of me and in response, I fling my heart through, following the Light.

Showered with the cleansing dew of His light,  I am lit by the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as vulnerable 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 my heart now,  as I am lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deep the darkness that oppresses on the outside.

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

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

1. Hail the blest morn! when the great Mediator
Down from the mansions of glory descends;
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.

Chorus:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning.

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
Star in the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall:
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining;
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall. Chorus

3. Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountains, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine? Chorus

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. Chorus

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Wake Us From Drowsy Worship

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are
children playing
on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Being a Christian during a pandemic is nothing new in the history of the world. We’ve been through this again and again, on the frontlines caring for others during the Black Death, dying while serving unselfishly through plague after plague, and most recently during the killing influenza of the early 20th century.

Somehow the last two years of COVID-time feel different …

No one is happy that congregational singing takes place through masks. There are fewer handshakes and hugs and some of us feel safer worshiping while streaming a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship with any restrictions and opt to stay away or move to churches with no such rules. Yet Christians are called to come together to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving despite potential health risks and physical inconvenience.

We are to love one another when we are most unloveable.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

photo by Barb Hoelle

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Frankincense of Fragrant Fir

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Rose Among the Thorns

…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

<The ground> will produce thorns and thistles for you.
Genesis 3:18

Perched on the high end of its
spinal stalk the brain blooms
like a pink cabbage rose
Peel back the blunt bone like a bud—
it will be meaty to touch, the
corolla folding in, folding in to echo
within the sepal skull
a blink of light, logarithms, a view
of ships in harbor, a word just now
rescued by memory, clipped arbor vitae
how it smells—spiced
Here God lives, burrowing among
the petals, cross-
pollinating. Here is Christ’s mind
juiced, joined, fleshed, celled.
Here is the clash,
the roil, an invasion, not gentle
as dew; the rose is unfurled
violently until the scent explodes
and detonates in the air
And oh, it trembles—
thousands of seeds ripen in it as
it reels in the wind
~Luci Shaw “Flower head”  

Christ … is a thorn in the brain. 
Christ is God crying I am here, 
and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, 
but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, 
here in what activates and exacerbates

all that you would call not-God. 
To walk through the fog of God 
toward the clarity of Christ is difficult 
because of how unlovely, 
how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
~Christian Wiman from Image Journal essay “Varieties of Quiet”

It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.  After all, there was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death, but pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received a bit more than we bargained for.

We continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — indeed every day there is more bloodletting.

So a rose was sent to adorn the thorns and even then we chose thorns to make Him bleed. Yes, a fragrant rose blooms beautiful, bleeding amid the thorns, and will to the endless day.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

1. Maria walks amid the thorn,
Kyrie eleison.
Maria walks amid the thorn,
Which seven years no leaf has born.
Jesus and Maria.

2. What ‘neath her heart doth Mary bear?
Kyrie eleison.
A little child doth Mary bear,
Beneath her heart He nestles there.
Jesus and Maria.

3. And as the two are passing near,
Kyrie eleison,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear.
Jesus and Maria.

A spotless Rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter; and in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing, whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing in Mary, purest Maid;
For, through our God’s great love and might,
The blessed Babe she bare us in a cold, cold winter’s night.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendour the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us, and lightens every load.

O Jesus, by being born out of this vale of tears,
Let Thy help guide us to the hall of joy In your father’s kingdom,
As we praise You eternally; O God, give us that.

When Jesus Christ was yet a child
He had a garden small and wild
Where-in he cherished roses fair
And wove them into garlands there

Now as the summertime drew nigh
There came a troop of children by
And seeing roses on the tree
With shouts they plucked them merrily

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”

They cried in scorn to Jesus there
The boy said humbly “Take I pray
All but the naked thorns away”

Then of the thorns they made a crown
And with rough fingers pressed it down
Till on his forehead fair and young
Red drops of blood like roses sprung
~Plechtcheev, melody by Tchaikovsky

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Came Down and Disappeared Into Us

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which,
rushing up on the flat beach,
runs out, even thinner and more transparent,
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

The Word became flesh.
Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed.

Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.


Agonized laboring led to it,
vast upheavals of intergalactic space,

time split apart,
a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.
You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of 
how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals,
then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
Alleluia!

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin
whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Heavens Will Drop Their Dew

The seed will grow well,
the vine will yield its fruit,
the ground will produce its crops,
and the heavens will drop their dew.
I will give all these things as an inheritance
to the remnant of this people.
Zechariah 8:12

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
    hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2

He hath abolished the old drouth,
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew.
The words are old, the purport new,
And taught my lips to quote this word
That I shall live, I shall not die

But I shall when the shocks are stored
See the salvation of the Lord.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “He hath abolished the old drouth”

To God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land, there is great hope in the possibility of words and teaching coming from heaven.  The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.

Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us. 

Like dew, He becomes flesh
at no cost to us,
to be among us freely,
coming in the night,
into the darkness,
as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying,
to refresh,
to restore,
to soften,
to make what was withered fruitful once again. 

We live again because this Word of flesh quickens within us. 

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Drop down ye heavens from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness.
Come comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
My salvation shall not tarry.
I have blotted out as a thick cloud,
Thy transgressions:
Fear not, for I will save thee;
For I am the Lord thy God,
The holy one of Israel, thy redeemer.

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