When Darkness Dazzles


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”

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…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

birchgold

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

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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.


…I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

futuremapletree3

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.

And that was the Father’s stare.
~Joseph Brodsky “Star of the Nativity”

“The Eye of God” Nebula

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.

bakersteaming

Came Down

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: 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.

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

[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

Turning Darkness into Light: Not of this World

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
from Christmas Bells

Unexpected God, 
your 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 First Sunday of Advent

During Advent there are times when I am guilty of blithely invoking the gentle bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a hay-filled manger, His devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: a teenage mother giving birth in a smelly stable, with no alternative but to lay her baby in a rough feed trough.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to shepherds – the lowest of the low in society – shouting and singing glories leaving them “sore afraid.” That means: terrified.
This is no gentle bedtime story: Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he sought out to kill a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt as immigrants seeking asylum so their son would not be yet another victim of Herod.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   the life Jesus eventually led during His ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by His own people, betrayed by His disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured, hung on a cross until He gave up his spirit.

Yet Jesus understood He was not of this world; He knew the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant lying in an unforgiving wood trough.

He would be sacrificed on rough unforgiving wood,
He would die and rise again,
He would return again as King of all nations,
He is not of this world yet comes to save this world.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week admitting we are a desperate people seeking rescue.  We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, shame, guilt and self-doubt to confront the reality of an all-knowing God who is not dead and who never ever sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” to “bend our anger” into His peace.

Yet be not afraid:
the wrong shall fail
the Right prevail.

The walls of a stable are not worthy of a king.
You come, little one,
borne on the songs of angels,
the echoes of prophets,
and the light of a strange star.
Do not cry, though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood.
You will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
Being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.
Though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood,
you will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
These walls are not worthy of a king, little one,
but your kingdom is not of this world.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Turning Darkness Into Light: Word Became Flesh

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

For me it is the virgin birth,
the Incarnation,
the resurrection
which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical.
Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.
I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body.
It is not the soul she says that will rise
but the body, glorified.

~Flannery O’Connor in a letter written in 1955

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
~Brian Wren Good is the Flesh: Body, Soul, and Christian Faith

The Word was made flesh.
This one verse in John is the crux,
the heart, the center point of the Gospel.
Without God putting on flesh to become like us,
He is not one of us.  He is fully God and fully man — both.

He comes from the body of a mother,
born a baby frail and weak, just like us.
He hurts, He thirsts, He hungers, He stumbles, He falls, He weeps.
And He dies as we do.

Yet this God, our God, rises again to walk, speak, eat, and be touched so that we too may rise as He does.
The Word was made flesh so our flesh,
weak and frail though we are,  becomes His body glorified.

The word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
We beheld the glory of the Father, full of grace and truth.
In the beginning was the Word, The Word was with God.
In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.
He came to his own, and his own received him not.

Now All Breathless

 

Two days of an icy prairie fog
and every blade of grass, and twig,
and branch, and every stretch
of wire, barb, post and staple,
is a knot or a threat in a lace
of the purest white. To walk
is like finding your way through a wedding dress, the sky
inside it cold and satiny; 
no past, no future, just the now
all breathless. Then a red bird,
like a pinprick, changes everything.
~ Ted Kooser, “Hoarfrost” in Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems 

 

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When the landscape emerges in the morning light frost-bitten, all iced up and white-crisp, I yearn for color, any color, to reappear with the day’s thawing out. My breath hangs like a cloud in the dry air as I crunch my way to the barn, living proof that I breathe for another day even though too many others right now can not.

We are a breathless people, wondering what comes next, feeling frozen and suspended in a pandemic and smoke-filled burning world.

We are a breathless people, wondering who or what will choke our life from us.

We are a breathless people, dressed as a bride in frosted satin, waiting at the altar for the Groom who bleeds red to save us from our fate.

And that alone changes everything.

Exists to be Lost

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing” from Alive Together

Each one of us is like a swelling bud hanging heavy and waiting on the stem — already but not quite yet.

Such is the late afternoon light of an October day.
There is an air of mystery in a honeyed moment of illumination
knowing something more is coming.

Not just the inevitable darkness when we all must sleep.
Not just opening wide to what we cannot yet understand.
No more peering through a glass darkly.

Breaking into blossom means losing what exists now,
this momentary glow of full ripeness,
to become part of the light itself.

Leaves and Lives Falling Away

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays—
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.


Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.


Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,


leaves and lives
falling away, the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.
~Grace Butcher, “Learning from Trees” from Poetry of Presence

If I were to die as a leaf,
I would want to change my clothes just bit by bit,
overnight oozing gradually to scarlet,
bleeding into the green a little bit more,
until I’m so unrecognizable,
I’ll seem brand new.

That would be ideal.

The reality is a fading to grey and brown,
my edges withered and torn,
bug-bitten with holes and weather-beaten bruised,
dangling and fearful of letting go
and so forgotten.

So I remember:
no one, not one, falls
without its Maker knowing.
No one, not one, dies
without being made brand new.

Spines at the Ready

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it’s been severed
by breadknife or shovel
—two popular methods
employed by the desperate—
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons’ teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.
~Maxine Kumin “Why There Will Always Be Thistle” from The Long Marriage. 

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

~Ted Hughes “Thistles”

Reluctantly the summer goes
In a cloud of thistledown.
~Beverly Ashour from “September”

It is armored, it is deeply rooted, it is relentless.
Highly ambitious, it produces downy tasty dancing seeds ready to soar far. Generation after generation of thistles persist due to this delicate ballerinas’ flight to the next horizon.

I should be strive to be as persistent, as rooted, as determined, yet as fluffy and tender under my defensive prickles and spines.

And then, may I softly dance in the journey to the next life.

We Shall All Be Changed

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Behold, I show you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye;
at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed,
For this corruptible must put on immortality

1Corinthians 15:51-53

In a matter of minutes this morning,
mere clouds changed above the rising sun;
its fire started low, sparked into dazzling flames,
then became a beacon, lit from within and without
and all around thus transformed.

So we are spared from our destiny with ashes
by such Light.

So Christ, becoming man
and rising — as He did,
and risen as He is,
changes us forever,
in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.



A Foot in the Door

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air. 

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make roo
m.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth. 
Our foot’s in the door.
~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”

This overnight overture into the light,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower.
As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile,
they sprout three inch stalks
still stretching at dawn,
topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.

Nearly translucent as glass,
already curling at the edges in the morning light,
by noon melting into ooze
by evening complete deliquescence,
withered and curling back
into the humus
which birthed them hours before.

It shall be repeated
again and again,
this birth from unworthy soil,
this brief and shining life in the sun,
this folding, curling and collapse
to die back to dust and dung.

Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible,
they rise beautiful
and worthy
as is the way of things
that never give up
once a foot’s in the door.