On December 17th the Church begins counting down the days until Christmas with earnest.
From now on the Church will call out one of the great names for the Messiah (they’re called the O Antiphons), reminding itself what exactly all this waiting has been for.
It’s an interesting practice, I think, this whole “reminding one’s self” thing. It’s interesting because, well, I do it a lot, too.
I remember doing it as a Middle Schooler. As the new kid in school, I was picked on pretty heavily after we moved from Ohio to North Carolina. Every night I found myself telling myself some stories to bolster my spirits, stories that went something like, “Here are the good things that happened today. Here are the people that you know who like you and support you. You are a good person.”
Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but I found it necessary if I was going to get up the next morning.
We’re almost at the Solstice, Beloved, and these are some of the most shadowy days. In fact, the church has called these the “Ember Days,” because it’s when light is most scarce.
In the Ember Days of December, and in the Ember Days of life, we adopt the practice of telling ourselves stories again.
Today’s O Antiphon is “O Wisdom.” We sing, “Come O Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh…“
When the light is almost out, when there are just embers left in your soul, remind yourself of the stories, both personal and cosmic, that will breathe some life on those embers and cause them to spark up again.
It’s what the church does in these days. It’s what I do some days. I commend it to you, too.
And as you’re doing that story-telling, listen to the wisdom that the Ember Days of life have to impart. It’s wisdom that comes from trials, but also wisdom the reminds you that the ember remains and is never, truly snuffed out.
Throw on “I Heard the Bells,” a musical setting of Longfellow’s grand old poem. But don’t do the hymn setting of the song, do this one by John Gorka. I learned it as a kid, and it’s still my favorite version of this piece.
One of the things I try to talk to my boys about is that there is no such thing as “away.”
Trash that we “throw away” goes somewhere, and we have to be mindful of where that is and what we do with it.
Even when you flush the toilet, that doesn’t really “go away.” It goes somewhere, and we must think hard about how we steward our planet so that we don’t poison anything.
The same is true about our inner lives, Beloved. There is no such thing as “away” when it comes to those things working in our heads and our hearts.
Oh, there’s numbing…for sure. Mindless TV. Addictions of all stripes. Adventures that “take our mind” off things.
But, truthfully, the work of therapists and the work of good clergy and the work of good social workers is the work of helping us all wrap our heads, hearts, and hands around the idea that there is no “away.”
A phrase I like to use is, “We must hug the cactus” of our issues, our past, our guilts, our foibles. In doing so, they hurt less…even though the act of doing it can be painful.
It’s interesting to talk about hugging the cactus of our issues in this season of Advent, a season of hope, joy, peace, and love, right? Usually we save that sort of stuff for Lent, right?
But let’s be honest: the increasing night hours, the forced holiday cheer, and particularly this year, this pandemic may absolutely be bringing people to a tougher place, it may be bringing up “old scratch” as we say in the South. I thought maybe I’d just name that, in case it’s the right thing to name, rather than give you another devotion that’s just really a vapid Lifetime movie about a dentist from the big city who goes home and ends up marrying a poor Christmas tree farmer in small-town Indiana.
I mean, at least I’m offering something that’s potentially real, right?
But just because there is no “away” doesn’t mean there’s no “better,” Beloved. In fact, if there’s one thing I know to be very true it is that better arrives sooner or later. It’s sometimes late to the party, but it usually brings a great side-dish in the form of a warmed heart.
It arrives…it just takes a while.
Christmas arrives, Beloved, it just takes awhile, right? At least four weeks. Sometimes longer.
Spend some time today with the things you wish were “away.” Listen to their fears. Learn from them. And then quietly, slowly, embrace them and see if you don’t find yourself in a place that’s, well, better.
Oh, and St. Elton of the John’s is quite right when he says, “Sad songs say so much…” In light of that simple truth, spin Joni Mitchell’s “River” today and see if she doesn’t speak at least a piece of your heart there.
The poet Nayyirah Waheed has broken me many times. Her work has, over the course of a few years, served as a meditation many mornings.
Like, this one:
stay soft. it looks beautiful on you. (from her book, Salt.)
One of the things I love about the rhythm of the church year is that it keeps me soft. Nimble. Pliable.
When we get too stuck in our ways, too embedded in our walled-off routines, we become rigid. So much of religion has become rigid in the hands of hard people who have obeyed dogmas not like one takes opportunities, but like one might follow a written recipe that is so complex no chef has mastered it.
Rigidity is brittle. A rigid faith breaks in time.
Advent is, like I say above, an opportunity to practice plasticity in the faith. With so much mystery sewn into the fabric of these short-sunned days, we are encouraged to dream a bit, to wonder and let our hearts wander (perhaps that’s where the old carol got its title?) and become soft again.
To melt, if you will, like you do when you pick up a newborn.
I remember one time taking my newborn son to visit our oldest parishioner. My son, only a few months old, was strapped to my chest in our carrier. The old woman, in her 90’s, asked if she could touch him. I bent myself over as she reached out her hand, and I guided her fingers to his little head (as her eyesight was failing).
I marveled at how both the oldest person I knew, and the youngest, felt the same in my hands: tender skin, soft skin, pliable skin.
It was a moment; eternity reaching out to touch at both ends.
She died not long after that visit…
That encounter made my heart pliable. Soft. It was beautiful.
Like the aged Elizabeth holding her son, perhaps, a story told in these middle days.
What is keeping you soft in these middle days, Beloved?
While you ponder that, throw on “Blood Oranges in the Snow” by Over the Rhine. It’s a song about memories, about expectation, about holding babies, and about staying soft in these cold, icy December days.
Blessed is the Lord God, ruler of the universe, for you have kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this holy season…
The above is the principal story told in this relatively minor festival (that has only become secularly “major” in response to the Christmas flood in the end of December).
Think, Beloved, about the stories you’ve been grafted into.
Family stories. Heritage stories of the ancestors.
Contemporary stories around work, around this pandemic and how you have (or have not) dealt with it.
Marriage stories. Divorce stories. Birth stories. Death stories.
In these Middle Days of Advent we ponder the stories that have shaped us, by choice or by chance, and dissect them a bit. For some of these stories, we give thanks. In reflecting on some of these stories we adopt the posture of our holy Jewish siblings and give thanks that God has brought us through and now we’re on the other side, in a new story altogether.
But whether we like them or not, whether we retell them with joy or as a cautionary tale, the stories of our lives have shaped us.
The Hanukkah story is one of my favorites, and a story that Christians would know well (if we did our homework). It’s about how the light in the temple didn’t go out despite the fact that the oil should have run its course. But it didn’t…it stayed lit for eight extra nights, providing for the people the hope and fire needed to go on.
Beloved, if you’re reading this, you’re still here. Your oil may be low, but it has not run out, by God.
That’s part of your story, too…
For your Advent playlist put on the quiet and haunting tune by Novo Amor, “Carry You.“
And, well, let it carry you into the night on this new story…
In Scandinavian homes this morning a little girl with candles in her hair may have brought morning rolls to still-sleeping parents. Or, in a home without any little girls, perhaps a Star Boy with halo and star wand did the delivering.
The Feast Day of Santa Lucia is an odd day on the face of it, especially when you take into account that this Italian martyr’s memory somehow made its way to the Northern Europe and his held sacred there.
Saint Lucy is a young girl who died in the 3rd Century, supposedly by burning or, maybe, having her eyes gouged out in the Diocletian Persecution of Christians (that last torture appears to be a late addition to the lore).
Her visage is now a young maiden adorned with candles, representing the “light in her eyes.”
Saint Lucy’s memory is a reminder for me, and maybe can be for you, not of her gruesome death, but as an invitation to contemplate how we live life.
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay has this wonderfully brief condemnation on a contemporary view of work-life balance:
My candle burns at both ends: it will not last the night: but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– it gives a lovely light!
In years past my candle would be burning at both ends in these Advent days, both as a parish pastor and as a parent who loves this season.
But not this year.
This year my pace is slower, both because of this pandemic and because, well, I’m finding it’s a better way to be in the world, Beloved. In many ways I love the hectic festivity of these days…but it can be too much, yes?
Sometimes we all fall martyr to the expectations of Christmas, my friends.
And don’t take me saying that as some sort of chastisement or call for “remembering the true meaning of Christmas.” This season has many meanings, and has throughout human history.
I merely note it as an invitation, at least some years, to light the candle at just one end in these dark December days, and just wait a bit. Watch a bit. Have a sweet roll, in honor of Saint Lucy, and rediscover the slow joy of a softer, but more consistent, light.
For your Advent playlist, cue up “Let it Fall” by Over the Rhine. This powerful ballad is all about taking stock of how we let our candle burn at both ends and, though it is sometimes a “lovely light,” it doesn’t last, Beloved…
Have you been trying too hard Have you been holding too tight Have you been worrying too much lately All night Whatever we’ve lost I think we’re gonna let it go Let it fall Like snow
In December of 1531 Juan Diego, a peasant in Mexico, recounted four miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary, coming to him at random times and in random places. In these visions Mary was speaking to Juan Diego in his native indigenous tongue, Nahuatl. She pleaded with him to build a church there, and repeated this plea with each visit.
Now, visions and “holy” glimpses like these four dot the religious timeline, even perhaps all the way back to Moses and the bush that refused to be consumed in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus.
But what made this particular visit notable, and why I bring it up on this day when many Christians around the world honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, is because I think the best thing about this account isn’t the visitation itself, but the way it happened.
Mary, in these visions, spoke to Juan Diego not in the popular Spanish of the day, the language of the dominating empire, and not in the formal Latin of the church.
Mary didn’t even speak to Juan Diego in her own native tongue, Aramaic!
No. She spoke to him in the language of his heart, his mother tongue, his (oppressed and silenced) native voice: Nahuatl.
Now, whether you believe he actually saw anything at all or not, it’s worth lifting up the power of believing that the Divine speaks in your oppressed voice and not in the voice of your oppressor. Those who venerate Mary on this day do so not chiefly because she came from God to see them, but because she came and stood with them against the oppressive voices of the conquering soldiers and, yes, the conquering church of those days.
She was on the picket-line with them.
She was in the paddy-wagon with them, arrested for being who they are.
She was screaming “I can’t breathe!” with them in the streets of Minneapolis.
Do you see?
In the middle-days of Advent the church honors the coming Christ, yes. But through this unique festival the church offers a preview of how this Divine-one will show up again: not in the clouds with might, but in a gush of blood and water to stand with those who are made up of mostly blood and water against the forces of the world who parade around as Divine themselves.
Faith, I’ve found…my faith…is more earthy than heavenly. I wonder if that’s how the Divine intended it.
Beloved, what is the language of your heart? Can you hear the emissaries of the Divine speaking to you in that voice, using those words? Can you, in your quieted pandemic days, in your Advent waiting, see the vision of a God who shows up with humanity, not just for it?
Add Leigh Nash’s “Maybe this Christmas” to your Advent playlist as she ponders that, perhaps this Christmas (and we need it this year!) we might hear the Divine calling to us in a new way, perhaps even in a new, yet familiar, voice.
The difference between worry and anticipation is, I think, a matter of posture.
They both do the same thing, right? They both wait in expectation for that *thing* to arrive, whatever it may be. One posture, back straight with dread, brow furrowed, is defensive. The other, back straight with alertness, brow flat because the eyes are squinting into the horizon looking for what’s next…a welcoming stance.
Advent is a season where we try out anticipation for a little while as our dominant posture. And, yes, I realize that in this pandemic year all kinds of worry has probably devolved into despair and depression rather than pensive fret. But, if there’s still a bit of worry left in your body, perhaps allow your body to adjust a bit, and see if your heart doesn’t follow.
Squint, Beloved, and see the hope on the horizon.
A vaccine? Yes. Sure. But more than that.
Hope, that this Advent will usher in a change that has eluded you (all of us?) in years prior, because though we talk about wanting to “get back to normal,” we get to decide what parts of our former normalcy we bring with us in a post-pandemic world.
And that’s beautiful.
For Christians the coming of Christ (continually arriving if you trust the incarnation) is an ushering in of a new way of being. Not just a “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), but more-so “the rocky ways will be made accessible” and “the pits of despair will be filled with blessing” (Isaiah 40).
And this Advent we might actually have a little shot of seeing it, by God.
Mary Oliver, my favorite spiritual agnostic who is undoubtedly closer to the Divine than most followers of religion, has some thoughts on the posture of worry in her little poem (appropriately titled) “I Worried.”
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang.
So sing, Beloved.
Sing, “O come, O come Emmanuel” and then squint to look for it!
And while you’re singing, add Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing” to your Advent playlist. Take a listen, breathe, and anticipate.
On December 10th the church remembers blessed Thomas Merton, and Kentucky monk who, when you read him, sounds much more philosophically Eastern than Western. He noted that his time spent amongst the ancient Buddha statues in Asia was perhaps his most formative religious experience. Indeed, his whole career as a writer, theologian, and scholar of comparative religion was directed at traversing boundaries both within Christianity and outside of the faith.
As a mystical theologian, one of what Fr. Richard Rohr would call the “perennial tradition,” he doesn’t fit nicely in any category. Rather, he seems to expand every category.
If Lent is a time for the pious, Advent is when the mystics have their day, Beloved.
Mystics are those theologians (and, I think I find myself in this category) that are found in every religious tradition but permeate the borders of them all with their notion that the oneness of everything is the deepest truth, and we’ve merely forgetten it.
The mystics in the Celtic tradition have this thought that the “original sin” (if you want to call it that) of humanity was not disobeying God, but rather forgetting their oneness with God and one another. In learning the difference between good and evil they started to draw boundaries in the world, false boundaries to organize people into the “in group” and the “out group.”
Humans were better than all the rest of creation, rather than a part of it.
Men were better than women.
The Divine was outside of the world, rather than in it.
I’m right, you’re wrong.
These boundaries cause harm and separation and conflict…and that’s where we go wrong.
This does not, of course, try to eliminate differences. By no means! Any path that tries to erase differences is a path of ignorance. “We all bleed red blood” is just an excuse some use to ignore the uncomfortable conflicts that happen when we live in close proximity to difference.
Mystics, rather, embrace difference as all part of the same beauty and don’t erase them, but rather erase the status-making game that humans attempt to play when encountering difference.
Merton, and the mystical tradition, meditate on the idea that “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “in and out,” and all these other comfy compartments we use to organize our spiritual and secular lives are unhelpful in the end. In fact, the idea that there is a “spiritual life” and a “secular life” is a false dichotomy, we’d say!
Dualisms, our penchant for making things “this or that” is the primary sin of humanity.
All is one.
Merton has this lovely quote about Advent, saying, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” (_Seasons of Celebration_ by Merton)
For him, “Christ” was not the historical Jesus bound to a faith tradition, but rather the Cosmic Divine Presence the permeates all things (if you look at the Epistle of Ephesians you get glimpses of this expansive idea of the Christ). Advent, then, is that time when we wait for the transformation of everything, all things, into an embodiment of God’s presence. An embodiment that time cannot hold, but yet somehow does in fits and spurts.
We wait for everything to be resolved, in other words.
Sometimes we forget that the ongoing process of turning and changing everything back into our oneness is happening…but it is. Mystics like Merton trust this.
Another poem of Merton’s, a poem about Christmas, starts out like this:
“Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited…” (Room in the Inn)
A world full of compartments and containers doesn’t leave any room for Christ, and so Christ comes uninvited to break down the barriers, Beloved, between (as Paul would say) “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free…” (Galatians 3:28).
Advent is the time of year when we remind ourselves of this, again, and wait, watch, and wonder at how it happens, slowly but surely, in these shadowed days.
For your Advent playlist, throw on one of the most mystical bands out there, Coldplay, and spin “Fix You.” It’s a song about perceived failures and how, from the inside out, you (and me) are being made whole again.
My own has morphed substantially, even in just the last ten years. This is undeniable, and I’ve stopped running from it. In fact, I’m feeling more congruous than ever at the moment when it comes to the mobius strip of my being: my insides matching my outsides.
But I also wonder about the Christian faith in particular. What the hell has happened?
Advent, with this beautiful story of Mary and Joseph being forced to travel to Bethlehem for political reasons found resonance with me when I traveled to Tucson back in 2008. There, as we walked through the desert in a passage often traversed by people immigrating without papers, we found a little pink backpack.
A little girl’s backpack.
We were setting out water jugs there in the desert so that, should a traveler happen upon it, they’d at least have some water in some of the most parched earth of North America.
We found something else out there, too: a water jug slashed all to pieces, the water long gone in the sands. Someone didn’t want a traveler to drink…
Now, I don’t know the particular faith background of whomever did that slashing, but just a few years ago when it was exposed that the government was keeping children in cages, forcibly separating them from their parents, I heard people of faith (people I know and love!) say, “Well, it’s their parent’s fault. They shouldn’t have brought them here…”
Pregnant Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem for political reasons, and (if you trust the Matthew account), had to flee to Egypt due to violence and unrest…
I mean, look, this is Maria and Jose having to bring their children with them, forced by politics and persecution, to towns and over unfamiliar borders, and Christians shrugged when they were put in cages.
Defended the cages, not the people.
Saw the “faithful” response as guilting the people, not condemning the cages.
Saw the “faithful” response as defending anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, and not looking at the people fleeing political strife and persecution.
This is the damn story we’re woven into, and we don’t recognize it because we’ve divorced ourselves from the narrative.
In this season of watching, wondering, and waiting, I’m wondering a lot about my faith, and about the faith.
Beloved, what do you think happened?
I ask this as one would ask a good question around a campfire, late at night when the best conversations happen. Advent is a season for asking nighttime questions. I think it’s a safe season to do so because in this kind of nighttime we are unafraid, what with candles lighting our way and hope in our heart.
I have hope for the faith, Beloved; don’t mistake my questions for abandoning anything.
But I can hold hope and concern at the same time…
Today’s song to add to your Advent playlist is Over the Rhine’s “New Redemption Song.” Give it a listen:
Lord, we need a new redemption song Lord, we’ve tried, it just seems to come out wrong Won’t You help us please, help us just to sing along A new redemption song, a new redemption song
On December 8th many Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Many mistake this feast for the day when Mary supposedly conceived the Christ in an immaculate way, but that’s not it at all.
The Immaculate Conception honored on December 8th by many Christians is not the conception by Mary, but of Mary. The lore goes that this is the day her mother, St. Anne, conceived Mary by immaculate means.
There is much to unpack here (theologically, biologically, sexually), and that unpacking doesn’t fit nicely in a devotional space.
But I wonder, if we can for just a bit, examine the deep root of all this talk about “the immaculate” for a moment.
Why does everything have to be perfect? Why do we desire that?
Why is religion obsessed with the spotless and blameless? I ask this question because I think that, when religion is at its best, it helps people make sense of the muck of life, in the muck of life. There’s nothing spotless about that at all!
I don’t need a spotless Jesus, and I certainly don’t need a spotless Mary.
What I need is a way to sort through the muck of the world. And the path doesn’t have to be perfect (what is perfect?); it doesn’t have to be immaculate in the least.
I just need it to be accessible.
And for someone (like me) who is not immaculate, all this immaculate talk doesn’t do that, Beloved. It doesn’t do that at all…
The bald and beautiful mystical teacher, Father Richard Rohr, says this about so-called perfection, “The great mystics tend to recognize that Whoever God Is, he or she does not need our protection or perfect understanding…All our words, dogmas, and rituals are like children playing in a sandbox before Infinite Mystery and Wonderment.”
This Advent I’m not waiting for the Divine to make things immaculate; I’ll happily settle for better.
But one of the things that I do like about the idea of the Immaculate Conception is this notion that from someone, and in this case a young woman, amazing things can happen, the journey to “better” can be kickstarted.
And that I’ll sign on to every damn time.
As we wait, watch, and wonder in this pandemic Advent, add New Republic’s “Better Days” to your playlist. We don’t need it to be immaculate, Beloved, just better.