“Within Reach of Our Full Personhood”

Nativity scene, Christmas star on blue sky and birth of Jesus, illustration
The Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019

As I near the end of Advent 2019, I am contemplating what these Advent days have taught me. Am I closer to God in deep relationship? Have I spent time in contemplation and prayer? Was I so preoccupied with my surgery and recovery to even think about Advent? Did I experience Advent as a time of waiting, expectation, preparation and hope in the coming of the Christ Child? Did I experience Advent at all?

You might ask yourself questions similar to these. They are questions all of us would do well to answer. As for me, I fully resonate with the statement in Ann Weems’ poem: “we are on our knees, where we are within reach of our full personhood.” Isn’t that part of what Christ’s coming was about — to place before us the hope of reaching our full personhood?

As you contemplate that, read a part of Ann Weems’ poem, “The Church Year.”

For no matter how long the darkness,
God will send the light.
In spite of cursing and violence and the massacring
of human dignity,
we will dance in the streets of Bethlehem,
for He will be born!

We search for something more.
And — of all unlikely places
in a stable
the Deity appears.

The borning of our Lord
bursts in upon our ordinary lives
like fireworks in the snow.
Only God would send a little baby King,
and we are on our knees,
where we are within reach of our full personhood.

— Ann Weems

What else can be said on this Eve of Christmas? We sit with a miracle story, an event marked by angels and the brilliance of an unusual star. We gather together in churches around the world, where we sit together in candlelight and contemplate the birth of the Christ Child, the One who came for us, the One who “became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.“ (John 1:14)

I wonder why we gather for candlelight services on Christmas Eve. I think it’s because we want to experience the holy; we want to contemplate the mystery of a young girl who gives birth to the Christ Child; we want to hear the singing of angels and see the sparkling beam of an unusual star in the night sky;  we want to be together in community because, in our heart of hearts, we truly believe that it is here, together, we will be “within reach of our full personhood.”

It is God’s holy mystery, and we are invited to enter and to see the Christ Child as if it were our very first time; to hear angel song as if it were our first time; to gaze upon Bethlehem’s star as if we had never seen it before. That is the mystery: that Christ is born unto us again and again — God Incarnate, the hope of all nations and hope for our hearts. My gift to you is a video of a beautiful Christmas carol, “Candlelight Carol” written by John Rutter. Particularly if you, like me, are unable to attend a Christmas Eve service, this lovely carol might speak to your spirit and give you peace. After the lyrics, you will find the video. Happy Christmas Eve to you all

How do you capture the wind
On the water?
How do you count all the stars
In the sky?
How can you measure the love
Of a mother?
Or how can you write down
A baby’s first cry?

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis dear
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 Savior
But Mary will hold him, and sing him to sleep

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born

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

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.

“My Soul Felt Its Worth”

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The Twenty-Third Day of Advent

December 23, 2019

I think Advent may be asking me to take stock of my soul. Advent may also be beckoning to me, calling me to listen to my life. The fact is I don’t have to listen so intently these days because my life is shouting at me. Life is urging me to live in sacred space, at least for a few moments every day. Life is challenging me to contemplative prayer and times of meditation that will give me strength — to heal, to thrive, to let go of my worries, to attend to my soul, to rest in my sacred worth, to enjoy a deeper faith and to live into hope.

The thing is: I am not really experiencing Advent very deeply, and I am not listening to my life. I often feel as if I’m on a merry-go-round searching for a way to get off safely and land in a good place. I am completely preoccupied with life things, those overwhelming tasks and thoughts and worries and hopes. I could list them: 

recovery from my kidney transplant

concern about my son’s illness and his hospitalization last night
and the fact that they released him with no solutions

hopes that my grandchildren are growing up healthy and happy
and the pain of living so many miles from them

hoping that the new year will bring good tidings to us all

longing for the world to sing, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all!”
and really mean it.

I wonder what Mary worried about on that dark night in Bethlehem. Was she able to look above while this extraordinary, frightening thing was happening to her? Could she look above while she was in labor, in pain? Did she weep — tears of joy or maybe tears of anxiety? Did she despair of being in a strange place in a cold stable? As a young girl of devout faith, did she manage take a few moments to look up into the starlit darkness and see that brightest star shining on the stable? Did she hear, did she listen, to the singing of the angels? Did she listen to her life?

Listening to one’s life may well be the best thing we could do for ourselves. I have a suspicion that most of us don’t do that kind of deep listening, listening that opens us to holy possibilities. There is a beloved song that we have probably heard every year at Christmas. In its verses we find two very profound lines. The hymn writer wrote unforgettable words that made it seem as if he knew well how hard life can be.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

—- “O, Holy Night,” Writer, Adolphe Charles Adam, who wrote this Christmas carol Minuit, chrétiens! (1844), later set to different English lyrics and widely sung as “O Holy Night” (1847).

The soul felt its worth! What a thought to aspire to and eventually to know that my soul can feel its worth. I have a feeling that Advent might be calling me to listen to my life, to open myself to the song of angels and the light of Bethlehem’s star, and that in listening, my soul would begin to feel its worth.

Theologian, Fredrick Buechner, says it like this:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because, in the last analysis, all moments are hidden moments and life itself is grace.

It would indeed be a precious Christmas gift for my heart to know that “life itself is grace,” and that in life’s grace that God gives, I would know beyond all knowing that my soul feels its worth.

Amen.

My Place at the Stable

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In this detail from de la Tour’s moving portrayal of the birth of Jesus, we see Joseph’s hand tenderly guiding the candle’s light to illuminate the Christ-child’s face. 
In the Isaiah passage for this day, the prophet foretells the coming of Christ with the language, “Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In this peaceful painting, Joseph’s first gesture tells of his own fatherly love.
Georges de la Tour, painting in France in the early 17th century, was deeply affected by a religious revival based upon the teachings of the 12th century mystic, Francis of Assisi.  

— Art in the Christian Tradition, Vanderbilt

The Seventeenth Day of Advent
December 17, 2019

I have been thinking throughout this Advent season about my place at the stable. On the idea that many people gathered around the stable took various positions — some in the front or at the back, some directly facing the manger, some viewing the Child from a point farther away, angels hovering above — I wonder where my place might have been or, more importantly, where do I stand around the stable today?

Joseph, it seems, is often seen standing at the back of the stable, non- obtrusive, taking a back seat to Mary and the Christ Child. Ann Weems writes about Joseph standing at the back of the stable:

GETTING TO THE FRONT OF THE STABLE

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man, Joseph, was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.

This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Emmanuel.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of a stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings. . .

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed
the Christ Child.

As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child
who brought us life.

— Ann Weems

Not much more can be said about Joseph’s place at the stable, for indeed, he was the man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph managed his own emotions about Mary’s extraordinary and unexpected pregnancy with the help of an angel. He moved beyond his fears, his bewilderment, his concerns, perhaps even his mistrust or anger towards Mary and, certainly, his shattered reputation and his need to maintain his morality and his righteousness.

After pondering the angel’s visit, and his options, a slightly confused Joseph took a God-risk and moved into that bewildering relationship. He did it with courage and because of his trust in God’s word brought by an angel. And then he embraced his relationship with Mary, took her to Bethlehem, created a sheltering place, attended the birth of the Infant Christ and waited by faith for another angel message, or a star, or whatever else might burst into their lives.

Joseph’s story is a bit like ours — our stories of bewilderment, confusion, reluctance and, finally, our holy resolve to accept God’s plan for our lives and follow the journey God lays before us. And isn’t that a picture of Advent’s journey? Where is our place at the stable?Don’t we need to find our place near the Child this Advent and for all Advents to come? Doesn’t this season lead us steadily through the sacred path that leads us to the holy Child of Bethlehem . . .

So that we can, once again, experience the joy of his birth?

So that we can feel more deeply the emotions of Mary and Joseph?

So that we can, once again, hear angel voices?

So that Bethlehem’s star seems so near that we can almost touch it?B3E09502-8AB9-46F0-BB97-2C135F651B24

And so that our destinies will be fulfilled and our lives will be highly favored by God?

For all of these graces of Advent,
thanks be to God. Amen.