The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace, I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side Of this old wood, where happy birds abide, And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill, Utters wild music when the rest are still. Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean, As o’er the path in rich disorder lean Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils, Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils. The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play; And often stand the stranger’s steps at bay, Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white, Strong scented with the summer’s warm delight. ~John Clare “Beans in Blossom”
Walking, thinking and paying attention to one’s surroundings all at the same time requires a slower pace than the recommended 3x a week standard cardiovascular work-out.
So, even if it isn’t getting my heart rate up, I’m trying out sauntering. Ambling. Meandering. Strolling. Dilly-dallying. Lingering.
As my feet move more slowly, my brain stays busy, even as my muscles aren’t so much. Musing. Cogitating. Contemplating. Reflecting. Pondering. Ruminating. Appreciating.
What takes place is a perplexing paradox: I empty out while filling up:
letting go of worry, doubt, fear, anxiety, grief, self-absorption allowing room for praise, contentment, grace, gratitude, worship
As once a Child was planted in a womb (and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross) one year we dug a hole to plant a tree. Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine, pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip touched with a red as deep as human blood. It rooted well, and every year it grows more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine. Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark. Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine radiant, and each cross-blessed, as if all love and loveliness has been compressed into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s new-born presence, a life only just begun.
The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall, their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls, each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible. The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root, speaks pain and life and love compressed and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible that now all Eucharists in our year suggest the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder
God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger
Today we celebrate the paradox of Christ, the Son of God, coming to the world through the womb of a woman, born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.
The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now,
already here but not yet.
We, the children of the Very God of Very God,
are cross-blessed to know He is found, fresh-born, beside us.
We have only to look, listen and taste.
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything,
look down on others, those who have no need even of God
– for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. ~ Oscar Romero
We overflow with abundance when we acknowledge our poverty of spirit ~
only filled by One rich beyond measure, but who became poor for us.
He became poor so we recognize our true need for Him.
We who are rich in so many material ways still hunger and thirst –
floundering, not flourishing.
For love’s sake He chooses poverty, humility and suffering.
He chooses us and we’re poor no longer.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, All for love’s sake becamest poor; Thrones for a manger didst surrender, Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor. Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, All for love’s sake becomes poor.
Thou who art God beyond all praising, All for love’s sake becamest man; Stooping so low, but sinners raising Heavenwards by thine eternal plan. Thou who art God beyond all praising, All for love’s sake becamest man.
Thou who art love beyond all telling, Saviour and King, we worship thee. Emmanuel, within us dwelling, Make us what thou wouldst have us be. Thou who art love beyond all telling, Saviour and King, we worship thee. ~Frank Houghton
Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again,and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?
Power. Greater power than we can imagine,
abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child,
still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid,
unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.
Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose,
slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough,
and it is time for birth.
Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity,
Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes,
willingly and lovingly leaving all that power
and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years
to show us what we ought to be and could be.
Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine,
to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.
~Madeline L’Engle from Bright Evening Star
It’s the season of grace coming out of the void Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance It’s the season of possible miracle cures Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown Where time begins to fade And age is welcome home
It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise And holding fast with sharp realization It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention You are safe here you know now
Don’t forget Don’t forget I love I love I love you
It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart Of feeling the full weight of our burdens It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind And knowing we are not alone in fear Not alone in the dark
Don’t forget Don’t forget I love I love I love you ~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”
There is no longer a void or darkness upon the face of the deep. The stars need no longer to hold their breath.
There is unfathomed power in the powerlessness of this gift to us.
Grace has come in the face of Jesus the Son, through God the Father who moves among us, His Spirit changing everything, now and always.
Do not be afraid.
You are not alone in the dark
though wounded, though scarred.
You are loved, never forgotten.
There fared a mother driven forth Out of an inn to roam; In the place where she was homeless All men are at home.
A Child in a foul stable, Where the beasts feed and foam, Only where He was homeless Are you and I at home;
To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home. ~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)
If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the grocery store check-out racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween just past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beaten to a “best ever holiday” pulp.
All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying helpless and homeless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs – it is home for them. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.
The shepherds in the hills that night were starving and homeless too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them and the invitation to “home”, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.
His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”.
Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.
Now I too am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times homeless, hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: He offers us a home within his homelessness, a treasure to be shared plain and simple, and nurture without end.
Who needs Christmas cookies, fancy toys and the latest fads to fill the empty spot deep inside?
Instead, you are invited home to eat your fill – just look to the manger.
O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in præsepio.
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 Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. ~1 Samuel 2: 6 from the Song of Hannah
Hannah’s prayer describes the Lord in all His paradox of reversals:
the strong are broken
those who stumble strengthened,
the satisfied end up working for food
the hungry become filled,
the barren woman bears children
the mother of many pines away,
the poor and needy are lifted up to sit with princes.
He humbles and exalts–we have read the stories of how the Lord uses such reversals to instruct and inspire His people.
Yet nothing Hannah says is as radical and unprecedented as being brought down to the grave and then raised up, the Lord causing death and making alive. This makes no sense. Once in the grave, there is no escape. Death cannot be reversed like the weak becoming strong, the hungry filled, the barren fertile, the poor enriched.
Hannah sings that this will indeed happen, just as the other reversals happened. It would take centuries, but her prayer is fulfilled in the child born to Mary, who lives and dies and lives again in the greatest reversal of all.
There can be no greater mystery than a God who chooses to walk the earth as a man among the poor, the needy, the helpless, the sick, the blind, the lame, the wicked, the barren, the hungry, the weak.
There can be no greater reversal than God Himself dying–put away down into the grave– and then rising up, glorious, in the ultimate defeat of darkness and death.
Hannah already knew this as a barren woman made full through the blessing of the Lord, choosing to empty herself by giving her son back to God.
Mary knew this as a virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, choosing to empty herself by bearing, raising and giving her Son back to the Father.
The angels knew this, welcoming the Son of God to a throne in a manger as He is born to bring light to the darkness, and peace to a torn and ruptured world.
We know this too. We are the weak, the hungry, the poor, the dying filled completely through the love and sacrifice of the Triune God, and so give ourselves up to Him.
In from out, from down to up. It can be done. And He has done it.
Have you heard the sound of the angel voices ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear? Have you seen the star shining out so brightly as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?
Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven to the humble shepherds who have waited long? Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo! Hear the angels sing their joyful song.
He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness, like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night. He is come in joy, like the sun at morning, filling all the world with radiance and with light.
He is come in love as the child of Mary. In a simple stable we have seen his birth. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo! Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth’.
He will bring new light to a world in darkness, like a bright star shining in the skies above. He will bring new hope to the waiting nations, when he comes to reign in purity and love.
Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming. Let the heavens answer with a joyful morn: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo! Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’ Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
~John Rutter “Angels’ Carol”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be as you have said.” Luke 1: 38
…to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power – in narrow flesh, the sum of light.
Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love –
but who was God. ~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”
I want it to be the way I want it: my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.
And then life happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel abandoned and completely emptied.
Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled. How am I to respond to such a paradox?
In my work in a University Health Center, I see this struggle in the lives of young adults: a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the waves that crash and overwhelm. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is to panic, facing uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self-medicate in any way easily accessible: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is compounded and descends into deepening depression.
The sadness and hopelessness, even anger –is a discouragement stemming from the lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out, being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else knows the depth of the pain.
There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my forty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.
In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.
She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.
Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles: may it be to me as you say.
May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty.
You are there to plug the bleeding hole and fill me.
So I sing through my fear, through my weariness, through my tears.
“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.” ~Kathleen Norrisfrom God With Us
Everything inside me cries for order Everything inside me wants to hide Is this shadow an angel or a warrior? If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified? Someone tell me I am only dreaming Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes And before my head agrees, My heart is on its knees Holy is He. Blessed am I.
Be born in me Be born in me Trembling heart, somehow I believe That You chose me I’ll hold you in the beginning You will hold me in the end Every moment in the middle, Make my heart your Bethlehem Be born in me
All this time we’ve waited for the promise All this time You’ve waited for my arms Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected So we might know that Love would go that far?
Be born in me Be born in me Trembling heart, somehow I believe That You chose me I’ll hold you in the beginning You will hold me in the end Every moment in the middle, Make my heart your Bethlehem Be born in me
I am not brave I’ll never be The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy I’m just a girl Nothing more But I am willing, I am Yours Be born in me Be born in me Trembling heart, somehow I believe That You chose me I’ll hold you in the beginning You will hold me in the end Every moment in the middle, Make my heart your Bethlehem Be born in me
If ever you find yourself in the midst of paradox,
you can be sure you stand on the edge of truth. ~Diana Gabaldon from An Echo in the Bone
Tomorrow we begin the season of Advent: the greatest time of year for great mystery and paradox.
One who never left us, came to us, did not leave us hopeless, yet will come again.
Already, but not yet.
This is the ultimate paradox of our times:
Our Creator God pierces through the veil of humankind to become us, His Image Man;
He comes to live among us to live in us and for us and through us,
to die for us and rise to life again so that we may not die but live.
He has come, He never left, yet He will come again.
When we feel ourselves in the midst of paradox, we find we are on the verge of Truth.
Perhaps enough paradox for one day — standing on the edge of Truth feels a tad overwhelming.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be? My God, no hymn for Thee? My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace Enriching all the place. Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers Outsing the daylight hours. Then will we chide the sun for letting night Take up his place and right: We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should Himself the candle hold. I will go searching, till I find a sun Shall stay, till we have done; A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly, As frost-nipped suns look sadly. Then will we sing, and shine all our own day, And one another pay: His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine, Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
~George Herbert “Christmas II”
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…
I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest…
It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.
~ G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: not to a flower, not to a dolphin, to no innocent form but to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God (out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word. ~Denise Levertov “The Mystery of the Incarnation”