Thank God for grace, Ye who weep only! —look up! those tears will run Soon in long rivers down the lifted face, And leave the vision clear for stars and sun. ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Tears”
Grief is a river you wade in until you get to the other side. But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting around my ankles, moving downstream over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot, move on. Instead, I’m going to stay here in the shallows with my sorrow… It’s mine. …I’m going to stand here, growing colder, until every inch of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over. Then you really will be gone. ~Barbara Crooker from “Grief”
A river of tears flows with the untimely loss of a young person, a child of our church. Sorrow at such a loss fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as I do. The family is numb, swallowed up by their grief.
We can never understand why such infinite sadness should befall good and gracious people. We are once again reminded – there can be profound darkness that descends into the human heart, stealing away lives too soon.
Be assured you do not weep alone. Your grief is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a friend, a God who cried out when asked to endure the unendurable.
There is comfort in knowing He understands and overcomes all peril to come to the rescue when we become stuck fast in the middle of our grief, too numb to move on. He will fill the hole left behind as only He can.
You who grieve: you are not abandoned. Your sadness is His, your sorrow is ours. You are loved with a love so deep and high and broad, it will somehow carry you through.
Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year, Wake, O earth, awake, Out of the hills a star appears, Here lies the way for pilgrim kings, Three magi on an ancient path, Black hours begin their journeyings.
Their star has risen in our hearts, Empty thrones, abandoning fears, Out on the hills their journey starts, In dazzling darkness God appears. ~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”
…the scent of frankincense and myrrh arrives on the wind, and I long to breathe deeply, to divine its trail. But I know their uses and cannot bring myself to breathe deeply enough to know whether what comes is the fragrant welcoming of birth or simply covers the stench of death. These hands coming toward me, is it swaddling they carry or shroud? ~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas
Unclench your fists Hold out your hands. Take mine. Let us hold each other. Thus is his Glory Manifest. ~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”
All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded Immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one. ~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” translated from Russian by Seamus Heaney
In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain, a child was born in a cave in order to save the world; it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.
To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar. He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.
Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away— from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star was looking into the cave.
The Christmas season is now a wrap, the lights put away for another year. Yet our hearts are not so easily packed and stored.
Our troubles and concerns go on; the pandemic numbers soar, our frailty a daily reality. We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks, but our time here slips away ever more quickly.
The Christmas story is not just about light and birth and joy to the world, magi following a star to discover they are reborn in Light themselves.
It is about how His swaddling clothes became a shroud that wrapped Him tight for only three days. There is not a birth without His death; even when we try to store Him away, neatly wrapped to pull out in another year.
Christ does not stay on the closet shelf.
God came to be with and among us; Delivered so He could deliver. Planted on and in the earth. Born so He could die in our place and leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.
Advent: an interminable wait in the darkness Christmas: an unwrapping of the ultimate gift of life Epiphany: the Father watches us from afar to see how the Seed He sent takes root in our hearts, dazzling our darkness.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. John 1:9-10
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
“Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great Shadow has departed…”
And is it true? And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue, A Baby in an ox’s stall? The Maker of the stars and sea Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things, Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells, No caroling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare – That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine. ~John Betjeman from “Christmas”
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us O long-sought With-ness for a world without, O secret seed, O hidden spring of light. Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame, O quickened little wick so tightly curled, Be folded with us into time and place, Unfold for us the mystery of grace And make a womb of all this wounded world. O heart of heaven beating in the earth, O tiny hope within our hopelessness Come to be born, to bear us to our birth, To touch a dying world with new-made hands And make these rags of time our swaddling bands. ~Malcolm Guite “O Emmanuel”
The holiest of all holidays are those Kept by ourselves in silence and apart; The secret anniversaries of the heart, When the full river of feeling overflows;— The happy days unclouded to their close; The sudden joys that out of darkness start As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart Like swallows singing down each wind that blows! ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Holidays”
And is it true?
Is it possible the darkness is set aside by His Light?
His flame springs from ashes, His wick quickened, the shadows banished.
It is true. It is true. The full river of grace overflows.
He is the Truth.
One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense Four for the angels that watch over his bedside Blue for the robe of the sweet Virgin Mary White for the dawn of the first Christmas day Red for the blood that he shed for us all on Good Friday Black for the tomb where he rested ‘till Easter
Lullaby, see Jesus asleep. Angels and shepherds their watch on him keep Lullaby he soon will awake for the oxen are stirring and morning with break
One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense Four for the angels that watch over his bedside And one for the heart, one for the heart, One for the heart that I give as my offering to Jesus!
…Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon to a church in Havana, Cuba December 21, 1930
when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see.
This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn. — Jan Richardson (author of Circle of Grace)
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” ~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings when Samwise Gamgee wakes to find his friends all around him
“The answer is yes. And the answer of the Bible is yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.” ~Pastor Tim Keller’s response in a sermon given in an ecumenical prayer service memorial in Lower Manhattan on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.
In our minds, we want to rewind and replay the events of a tragedy in a way that would prevent it from happening in the first place. We want to bring the dead and injured back to health again. The pandemic virus fizzles out on its own, the devastating earthquake becomes a mere tremor, the flooding tsunami is only one foot, not thirty feet tall, the terrorist hijackers are prevented from ever boarding a plane, the shooter changes his mind at the last minute, lays down his arms, disables his booby trap bombs and calls someone for help with his distress and anger.
We want so badly for it all to be untrue, especially the events of this year. The bitter reality of horrendous suffering and sadness daily all over the earth is too much for us to absorb. We plead for relief, beg for a better day.
Our minds may play mental tricks like this, but God does not play tricks. He knows and feels what we do. He too wants to see it rewound and replayed differently. He has known grief and sadness, He has wept, He has suffered, He too died. And because of this, because of a God who came to dwell with us, was broken, died and then rose again whole and holy, we are assured, in His time, everything sad is going to come untrue.
Our tears will be dried, our grief turned to joy, our pain nonexistent, not even a memory. It will be a new day, a better day–as it is written, trustworthy and true.
May it come.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. Revelation 21: 4-5
If we want Advent to transform us – our homes and hearts, and even nations – then the great question for us is whether we will come out of the convulsions of our time with this determination: Yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep. A waking up must begin somewhere. It is time to put things back where God intended them. ~Alfred Delp from When the Time Was Fulfilled
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Isaiah 60:1
Light and dark are part of the interwoven tapestry of advent. We stumble in the dark to the uttermost ends of the earth, groping for a foot and hand hold to keep ourselves from falling off the abyss.
Then His glory lifts us, illuminates, covers and surrounds us so we can find our path and walk with confidence.
Grace that brings us to our knees, especially when we are mired in trouble.
Drink deeply of this.
Hold it, savor it and know that to witness His Light is to see the face of God.
Our Light has come, unexpected, shining in an infant’s smile, from the depths of darkness within a manger.
God is with us. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. The people that dwell in the shadow of death, upon them the light has shined. For unto us a child is born, for unto us a son is given, God is with us, And the government shall be upon his shoulder, And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, God is with us, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth: God is with us, Christ is born. ~John Tavener (adapted from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve)
What is coming upon the world is the Light of the World. It is Christ. That is the comfort of it. The challenge of it is that it has not come yet. Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it. In the meantime we are in the dark, and the dark, God knows, is also in us. We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us, to liberate us from the dark. Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises. It is like the hazy ring around the winter moon that means the coming of snow which will turn the night to silver. Soon. But for the time being, our time, darkness is where we are. ~Frederick Buechner from The Clown in the Belfry
Darkness is not where we will dwell forever.
We are promised this in the Word: “and night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light… Revelation 22:5.
Somewhere between the Word in the beginning and the Word that becomes flesh and the Word thriving in our hearts and hands, there is the sacred silent Light of God come to earth.
This Advent is a time of quiet stillness, awaiting the Light brought by His Word; He is a flint struck to our wick, the Darkness abolished by the eternal glow of His illuminating Word.
when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see.
This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn. — Jan Richardson (author of Circle of Grace)
…the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. ~Jan Richardson
When things feel like they can’t get any darker, we are joined by a living breathing God walking beside us on the road to Emmaus. He feeds us from His word, making us hunger for even more, our hearts burning within us.
Jesus makes plain how He Himself addresses my most basic needs: He is the bread of life so I am fed. He is the living water so I no longer thirst. He is the light so I am never left in darkness. He shares my yoke so my burden is easier. He clothes me with righteousness so I am never naked. He cleanses me when I am at my most soiled and repugnant. He is the open door–always welcoming, with a room prepared for me – even me, the poor ornery person I am.
So when I encounter Him along the road of my life, I need to recognize him, listen, invite Him in to stay, share whatever I have with Him. When He breaks bread and hands me my share, I want to accept it with open eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself, my forever Companion who leads me out of darkness into the Light.
Somewhere along the road Someone waits for me Beyond these present storms that blow Waiting patiently No secrets held in an open heart A spirit that soars over mountains Somewhere along the road Someone waits for me
Somehow a guiding light Always shows the way To those who lose their way by night Searching for the day A day away from happiness Tomorrow will bring a new sunrise Somewhere along the road Someone waits for me
Sometime when winds are still Unexpectedly Perhaps beyond this silent hill A voice will call to me Raise your eyes to see my world Raise your voice and sing out Somewhere along the road Someone waits for me
We were familiar with the night. We knew its favourite colours, its sullen silence and its small, disturbing sounds, its unprovoked rages, its savage dreams.
We slept by turns, attentive to the flock. We said little. Night after night, there was little to say. But sometimes one of us, skilled in that way, would pipe a tune of how things were for us.
They say that once, almost before time, the stars with shining voices serenaded the new born world. The night could not contain their boundless praise.
We thought that just a poem — until the night a song of solar glory, unutterable, unearthly, eclipsed the luminaries of the night, as though the world were exorcised of dark and, coming to itself, began again.
Later we returned to the flock. The night was ominously black. The stars were silent as the sheep. Nights pass, year on year. We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold. Our aging piper’s fumbling fingers play, night after night, an earthly echo of the song that banished dark. It has stayed with us. ~Richard Bauckham “Song of the Shepherds”
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.
We stood on the hills, Lady, Our day’s work done, Watching the frosted meadows That winter had won.
The evening was calm, Lady, The air so still, Silence more lovely than music Folded the hill.
There was a star, Lady, Shone in the night, Larger than Venus it was And bright, so bright.
Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady, It seemed to us then Telling of God being born In the world of men.
And so we have come, Lady, Our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. ~Bob Chillcott “The Shepherd’s Carol”
Listen, you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. 2 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
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
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… ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “He Hath Abolished”
We are God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land. To us, there is great hope in the possibility of moisture coming from heaven as the bountiful gift Moses describes in an analogy for his words and teaching. 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 of this Word of flesh quickens the light within our darkness.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just One.
Latin lyrics: Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.
I tell you… if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” ~Luke 19: 39-40
A stable-lamp is lighted Whose glow shall wake the sky; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, And straw like gold shall shine; A barn shall harbor heaven, A stall become a shrine.
This child through David’s city Shall ride in triumph by; The palm shall strew its branches, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, Though heavy, dull, and dumb, And lie within the roadway To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken, And yielded up to die; The sky shall groan and darken, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry For stony hearts of men: God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.
But now, as at the ending, The low is lifted high; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry In praises of the child By whose descent among us The worlds are reconciled. ~Richard Wilbur “A Christmas Hymn”
Feeling heavy, dull and dumb, I am convinced I’m no better than a simple rock, inconsequential and immobile, trod upon and paved over, forgettable and forgotten.
I could believe there exists no pulse in my stony heart, incapable of love if I turn away from a God who has come to walk with me on this humble ground .
Yet the low are lifted high by His descent– every stone, even the dumb and lifeless, shall cry out in community with Him, even the silent will find a voice to praise.
Even my own voice, meager and anemic, shall be heard.
Even a barn can harbor heaven, straw a bed of spun gold, a stall becomes a shrine, as a glow shall wake the sky.
I am no longer forgotten. In fact, never have been forgotten. So hard to reconcile: if the stones and barn and stalls have known Him all along, so should I.