When I can no longer say thank you for this new day and the waking into it, for the cold scrape of the kitchen chair and the ticking of the space heater glowing orange as it warms the floor near my feet, I know it is because I’ve been fooled again by the selfish, unruly man who lives in me and believes he deserves only safety and comfort. But if I pause as I do now, and watch the streetlights outside winking off one by one like old men closing their cloudy eyes, if I listen to my tired neighbors slamming car doors hard against the morning and see the steaming coffee in their mugs kissing their chapped lips as they sip and exhale each of their worries white into the icy air around their faces—then I can remember this one life is a gift each of us was handed and told to open: Untie the bow and tear off the paper, look inside and be grateful for whatever you find even if it is only the scent of a tangerine that lingers on the fingers long after you’ve finished eating it. ~James Crews, “Winter Morning” from How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope
I close my eyes, savor a wafer of sacred cake on my tongue and try to taste my mother, to discern the message she baked in these loaves when she was too ill to eat them:
I love you. It will end. Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world. ~Anna Belle Kaufman “Cold Solace”
Each day, even now, brings something new and special to my life, for which I am so grateful; I peel it carefully to find what hides inside, all the while inhaling its fragrance then carefully, slowly, gently lifting it to my mouth to savor it, knowing only love, only loving, only the gift of sacrifice could taste this sweet.
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.
May the wind always be in her hair May the sky always be wide with hope above her And may all the hills be an exhilaration the trials but a trail, all the stones but stairs to God.
May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts… ~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”
“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….” ~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager
Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night twenty eight years ago, but no labor came as it should. A week overdue post-Christmas, you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready. Then the wind blew more wicked and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts, the roads becoming impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.
So your dad and I tried, worried about being stranded on the farm far from town. Our little car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness, our tires spinning, whining against the snow. A nearby neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom. You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.
Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard, we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital. You slept, your heartbeat checked out steady. I slept not at all.
Morning sun glistened off sculptured snow outside our window, and your heart ominously slowed when they checked. We both were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed. You beat even more slowly, letting loose your tenuous grip on life.
The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble. The doctor, grim faced, announced delivery must happen quickly, taking you now, hoping we were not too late. I was rolled, numbed, stunned, clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes, not wanting to see the bustle around me, trying not to hear the shouted orders, the tension in the voices, the quiet at the moment of opening when it was unknown what would be found.
And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry, a welcomed song. Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb, to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room, your first vocal solo brought applause from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin, your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight, then blinking open, wondering and wondrous, emerging saved from the storm within and without.
You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly, your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery. I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.
If no snow storm had come, you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb, no longer nurtured by my aging placenta, cut off from what you needed to stay alive. There would have been only our soft weeping, knowing what could have been if we had only known, if God provided a sign to go for help.
Saved by a storm and dug out from a drift: I celebrate each time I hear your voice singing, knowing you are a thread born to knit and meant to mend hearts.
My annual reminder of a remarkable day when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a snow and wind storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. This year she became Lea Lozano, married to her true love Brian who is another gift from the Lord.
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.”
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: A Doubter’s Dictionary
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.
[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
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.
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum. Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio: Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum Alleluia
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!
In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world? just to hear his sister promise, An unfinished wing of heaven, just to hear his brother say, A house inside a house, but most of all to hear his mother answer, One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess the question finds its beginning in the answer long growing inside the one who asked, that restless boy, the night’s darling?
Later, a man lying awake, he might ask it again, just to hear the silence charge him, This night arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself out of what little earth and duration, out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart, before so strange and wild a guest as God approaches. ~Li Young Lee “Nativity Poem”
As alone as we may feel during this odd time without the comfort of ones we love now near, as separate as it is without shared meals and laughter, there is one thing a virus can’t take from us:
we are the shelter for God comes newborn we are the womb He seeks we are the safe place hidden from the storms of the world and He grows here in our hearts – invited and wild and strange – so nurtured and so nurturing.
No presents, no candy, no treat No stockings hung by the fire No parties, no family to greet No angel’s heavenly choirs
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight
No doorways, no windows, no walls No shelter here on the ground No standing and no safe place to fall Just the promise of this distant sound
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight
Wherever you’re walking tonight Whoever you’re waiting for Somehow by the stable’s faint light Peace in your heart is restored
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight ~Mary Chapin Carpenter
When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee? ~William Blake from “The Tyger”
His birth was attended by tears: The stars wept, knowing what gift had been given Shepherds wept, hearing the heavenly host proclaim, His mother and father wept, knowing Who lay innocent in the manger, they to be entrusted to raise Him to save the world.
A meek Lamb becomes both protector and sacrifice, forgiving the hand that wields the knife that slays Him.
The Lamb shares His name with us so we answer His call ~ we are His sheep we are His flock
He who made the Lamb made us and we answer weeping, knowing the cost.
Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Gave thee life, and bid thee feed, By the stream and o’er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing woolly, bright; Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice? Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee, Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee: He is callèd by thy name, For He calls Himself a Lamb. He is meek, and He is mild: He became a little child. I a child, and thou a lamb, We are callèd by His name. Little Lamb, God bless thee! Little Lamb, God bless thee ~William Blake “Little Lamb”
I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.
I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. ~Annie Dillardfrom Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Too much of the time I fixate on what I think I can control in life~ what I see, hear, taste, feel
Instead – how must I appear to my Maker as I begin each day? -my utter astonishment at waking up, -my true gratitude for each breathless moment, -my pealing resonance when struck senseless by life.
I stop the car along the pasture edge, gather up bags of corncobs from the back, and get out. Two whistles, one for each, and familiar sounds draw close in darkness— cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland, twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared. They come deepened and muscular movements conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent heavy with earth, simple beyond communion, beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly take corncobs, pulling away as I hold until the mid-points snap. They are careful of my fingers, offering that animal-knowledge, the respect which is due to strangers; and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars, the entire, outer light of the world here. ~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.
I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.
I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.
When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.
It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.
The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.
There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.
What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?
Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.
We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.
Night and day seize the day, also the night — a handful of water to grasp. The moon shines off the mountain snow where grizzlies look for a place for the winter’s sleep and birth. I just ate the year’s last tomato in the year’s fatal whirl. This is mid-October, apple time. I picked them for years. One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking out the windows at birds, making dinner, a life to live day after day, a life of dogs and children and the far wide country out by rivers, rumpled by mountains. So far the days keep coming. Seize the day gently as if you loved her. ~Jim Harrison, from “Carpe Diem” from Dead Man’s Float.
Forty some years later, the days keep coming, a life to live day after day after day. I try not to take a single one for granted, each morning a gift to be seized gently and embraced with reverent gratitude.
Even knowing I am meant to cherish this gift, I squander it. I grumble, I grouse, I can be tough to live alongside. I know better than to give into an impulse toward discontent, yet still it happens. Something inside me whispers that things could be better than they are — more of this, less of that — I tend to dwell on whatever my heart yearns for rather than the riches right in front of me.
I’m not the first one to struggle with this nor will I be the last. It turned out rather badly when those before me gave into their discontent and took what was not theirs to have.
We are still living out the consequences of that fall from grace.
Yet, even in our state of disgrace, despite our grumbling and groaning, we have been seized – gently and without hesitation – and held closely by One who loves us at our most unloveable.
Though my troubles and yearnings may continue, I will be content in that embrace, knowing even if I loosen my grip, I will not be let go.