December 8th: Immaculate (re)Conceptions

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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.

Just better.

December 7th: The Ancient Alchemy of Waiting and Muzzling

Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.

Or, so I’ve been told.

This bit of sophistry that parades around as “wisdom” doesn’t know Advent, the time of idleness and waiting. It doesn’t see the beauty in meditation and stillness. This bit of fake bumper-sticker sloganism smacks of consumerism and the idol of a meritocracy, not the holiness of idleness.

There is a bit of Celtic wisdom that we need for today, a wisdom that understands that for life to spring from the earth there must be certain things that happen: the sun must shine on it…which takes time; the water must nourish it…which takes time and a good bit of chance; and the soil, itself, must be healthy and rich…which happens over time, with a good bit of fallowness.

Irish theologian and poet Padraig O’Tuama notes in his book _In the Shelter_ that historically humans have had trouble giving powerful things a name because in naming anything you are asserting a kind of control over it. This is why, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the name for God is not a name at all, but a gap-toothed acronym.

He goes on to point out that Chaos, too, is called many things in the scriptures. Pellmell is a common one, literally translated as “yonder and far” or “hither and thither.”

Jesus, though, the one who is named in the scriptures, indicating that the Divine is assenting to be known in some form or fashion, offers a different sort of approach.

When Jesus met chaos, often symbolized in the scriptures by a storm, he didn’t name the storm, but rather invited it (sometimes rather forcefully!) to be quiet. Or, as O’Tuama translates the Greek, “to be muzzled.”

“The storm,” he goes on to say, “is like an angry dog or a demon, a force that cannot be put down, only contained. ‘Be muzzled’ is what Jesus says. It is muzzled so it cannot bite.” (p, 20)

This, Beloved, is what Advent is for our world, for our insanely active heads, for our continually torn hearts: an invitation (rather forcefully placed on us in the busiest time of the year!) to be muzzled.

The waiting of Advent is a kind of alchemy, a hidden swirling of subtlety that works on us.

Be muzzled to have a chance for the sun to shine on our souls a bit. Be muzzled to absorb the waters of wisdom in these days. Be muzzled to lay fallow for a while and be enriched by the silence.

Idol hands distract, Beloved. Idle hands absorb.

Add to your Advent playlist The Fray’s “Be Still” and follow the lyrics to the very end. They’ll hold you in their hand as you finally let go a bit.

December 6th: Saint Nicholas and the Magic of Need

We celebrate St. Nicholas Day in our home.

On the night before December 6th, the boys will line up one pair of shoes near the fireplace, hoping St. Nicholas will stop by and put some goodies in it. And every year he does: an orange (a traditional Christmas delicacy), some candies, and chocolate coins.

The coins represent the ancient dowry that St. Nicholas, who would become a 4th Century Bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey), paid on behalf of three young maidens in his town whose father could not afford a dowry. The story goes that St. Nicholas, a rather short fellow with dark skin characteristic of his residence in the world, snuck by the house at night and threw the coins in the window. He repeated this pattern for two more nights, providing the needed monies to preserve the honor of the family.

How this short, brown Bishop was transformed into a larger-than-life white elf with rotund belly and red suit is no small mystery. This is what humans do with things: we mold them into the dominant image, usually for commercial gain.

I am not against the fat elf, mind you. We like Santa Claus in our home, and his enduring presence in our very human celebration stories speaks to his being more than mere legend. We attempt, I think, to make sense of generosity through this mythic story.

But we may try too hard.

Because the root of the story is so much better than the myth.

We don’t need flying reindeer or a chimney-crawling gift-giver to make sense of generosity. We just need a simple soul, in this case a slight guy in ancient Turkey, who saw a family in desperate need and decided that was absolutely unacceptable.

Generosity does not need magic to happen, but when it does happen, Beloved, we certainly find magic.

Every year when I was in the parish I would read a quote by a contemporary of St. Nicholas: St. Ambrose. The quote always came as a bit of a shock, especially because the scenario he paints happens daily here and now.

“The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds–and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor…There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”

Ambrose cuts to the quick, but I believe his words are magic. They are the kind of gospel magic that happens when our illusions are peeled away from our eyes and we see things in real time, at their root.

Advent starts with these calls from prophets and these apocalyptic readings in churches (“apocalypse,” by the way, is a fancy word for “unveiling”). And it does so to break the spells that are cast upon us by living in a world that is a bit too comfortable, a bit too commercial, a bit too Santa and not enough Saint.

Where is the need, Beloved?

Perhaps in this pandemic the dowry we can offer those on the verge of desperation is simply to watch a few more commercialized Hallmark movies every night.

I’m dead serious. Stay home. Give a gift to front-line workers.

The veritable coins through the windows of humanity this Advent is to hunker down and in, offering life to those struggling in these months.

And, of course, there are acts of generosity, and lovely presents to give out of love.

But there are presents we can give out of need, too. The magical present of non-presence. Of not showing up. It’s the most saintly thing we can do right now.

As you practice showing-up for the needy by staying in, know that you’re giving the best gift of all right now: love. Add St. George of the Harrison’s beautiful song “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” to your Advent playlist.

And then do your best to usher in peace by, right now, doing nothing, by God.

December 5th: A Posse of Clever Maids

Put a candle in the window
‘Cause I feel I’ve got to move
I’m gone, gone…but I’ll be comin’ home soon
As long as I can see the light.

Today’s Advent playlist suggestion is one of my favorites from one of my favorite bands. Creedence Clearwater Revivals’ “Long As I Can See the Light” is an Advent tune if there ever was one.

If I were still a parish pastor, I’d probably cue this up to be sung, this Advent especially. The lyrics are evocative of that story of the wise maidens who keep their “lamps trimmed and burning” as the spiritual goes. Those maidens aren’t just waiting in a general way; they’re waiting with expectation.

Waiting with expectation means, I think, knowing that something is going to happen…even if you don’t know what it is. You’re prepped to receive whatever comes your way. It harkens back to yesterday’s post about a kind of hope that doesn’t cling to a specific outcome, and yet knows that good can be made of whatever outcome produces itself.

As I walk through my neighborhood on these darkening days I’m seeing so many houses with candles in every window. It’s an ancient practice, you know. It comes from those days when travelers would journey deep into the night, and a light in the window meant the house was safe to stop in for food or a bed.

The candle in the window was a signal of safe harbor, even if you didn’t know who might need it, when they might show up, or what was on the other side of the door.

I guess what I mean is that the candle in the window is a symbol of expectant waiting.

For Christians it’s a symbol of waiting for Christ to show up (though, if you trust the idea of the incarnation then Christ shows up in many and various ways again and again…we just miss it more often than not).

But even for those who don’t find themselves in a faith community, this kind of symbol of expectant waiting has some meaning, I think. After all, we’ve all been in the position of searching in the dark night of the soul, longing for some sort of harbor. The trick in such a circumstance is to keep going, of course. The metaphor of a night traveler is appropriate. If they stop, no candle will appear, so stepping one foot in front of the other until it does appear is necessary.

It’s necessary to keep going.

Advent is the time of the year where we practice this plodding gait. Where we practice both putting candles in our windows and keeping a look out for them, learning to see where the safe harbors are in the world, preparing our own beings to become safe harbors for those who need one.

Like maidens who know the bridal party can arrive at any moment, we become wise when we do this.

T. J. O’Gorman’s poem is appropriate for this day, and this song:

Face to face with our limits,
Blinking before the frightful
Stare of our frailty,
Promise rises
Like a posse of clever maids
Who do not fear the dark
Because their readiness
Lights the search.
Their oil
Becomes the measure of their love,
Their ability to wait–
An indication of their
Capacity to trust and take a chance.
Without the caution or predictability
Of knowing day or hour,
They fall back on that only
Of which they can be sure:
Love precedes them,
Before it
No door will ever close.

Oh, and give CCR’s “Long As I Can See the Light” a spot on your Advent playlist…

December 4th: A Little More on Hope and a Good Bit on Mystery

Yesterday’s ponderings may have left you a bit…curious. Particularly that part about “hope” and the way I dissected it.

When I first heard of that Buddhist notion to let go of the particularities we often ascribe to “hope,” I was pretty flustered, too. The Buddhist teacher I learned it from, Pema Chodron, had been helping me (through her writings, not in any personal way) get through a tough transition period in my life.

Her discourse on hope deflated me a bit, if I’m quite honest.

But that was until I realized that I have, indeed, been basing much of my notion of “hope” on very specific hopes, which I’ve come to see goes against the great promise in the idea of hope.

Hope, like the Gospel, cannot just be a good thing for me. It must be universal. And so many of my hopes and dreams were (are?) me-centered.

Advent, this season of hope, is not the season where we believe “anything is possible.” Reserve that notion for the Hallmark Channel, Beloved.

Advent is rather an invitation to sit and wait patiently at the footstep of the unknown to pray, tell stories, sing with “joy and wonder” as the hymn goes, light a candle, and become ever-growingly confident that what will emerge from that shadow will be a tool for good.

I am certainly not saying that you can’t hope, wish, and dream for particular goods for you and your family. I am saying, though, that Advent is not a season that invites you to do that particular thing. Rather, Advent is the season where we trust that the spinning cosmos are barreling toward beauty and not chaos, and we invite ourselves to imagine how that can happen, is happening, will happen, by God.

Today’s song to add to your Advent playlist is actually a hymn to the tune St. Helena, “Unexpected and Mysterious.” I’ve linked a choir singing it (a lovely, if a bit slow for my taste, performance). But the words, oh the words, they’re what invite your attention today, Beloved…especially that last verse:

We are called to ponder myst’ry
And await the coming Christ
to embody God’s compassion
for each fragile human life.
God is with us in our longing
to bring healing to the earth,
while we watch with joy and wonder
for the promised Savior’s birth.

As a final bit of beauty, check out the story behind the writing of this hymn.

December 3rd- No Going Back, Beloved, and No Mapping Out a Specific Future

The Advent song for your playlist today starts like this:

When my blood runs warm with the warm red wine
I miss the life that I left behind
But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry
I know I left in the nick of time

Peter Bradley Adams has a beautiful way with words, I’m finding. They do what I think good lyrics should do: they invite you into something more, if for just a moment.

Advent, like good lyrics, invites us into something more, a “time overlaid on time” if you will. It’s why congregations around the world offer an additional moment of worship, usually midweek, in these dusk-early days. This addition notes that this time is special, unique, something different.

The problem with most of our Advent-Christmas time, though, is that it usually invites most people backward, not forward. Holidays and holy-days have a way of cementing themselves in our nostalgia receptors, and so if we grew up with a wonderful Christmas (as I did!) we can sometimes dabble a little too much in what we theologians call “repristination.”

Repristination is a fancy word for “play it again” or “replay.”

In fact, lots of religion unfortunately peddles repristination as some sort of ideal to strive for, a rewind of progress to times where beliefs were simple and widely held and widely regulated by religious and civic authorities.

In the universe of our heads, though, repristination will take us back to the times of our childhood, or “that one Christmas” that felt so perfect, and every subsequent year has been some sort of valiant effort to replay that memory, now. It’s a fool’s errand.

Advent is not an invitation to the past, but an invitation to ponder the present and the future in light of the past. What does it mean to wait faithfully for a future that’s not yet realized? In my mind, I’m also wondering what present beauties we miss as we pine for the past…there are certainly some, yes?

Buddhists have this idea that “hope” is actually a bad thing. Now, before you write it off, let me explain a bit. In the Buddhist sense of “hope” what is meant is “an attachment to a particular outcome.” So, it doesn’t mean a generalized “hope” in a better tomorrow, but rather those very specific hopes that we harbor in our souls, usually born out of advantage or particular proclivities.

That attachment does, indeed, create pain…which is rough.

Our attachments to the past, and our possible attachments to very particular futures, all distract us from being rooted in the uniqueness of this “time overlaid by time.” Are you attached to either?

I know I am.

But, as Peter Bradley Adams notes, we left those pasts in “the nick of time.” By that, I mean, it’s gone, and that’s ok, and we can remember it fondly but certainly cannot replay it.

Change happens. Shift happens. Advent invites us to ponder what that shift might be…but don’t become too attached, Beloved. Dream a bit. Imagine the steps to make a wonderful world emerge from this one, but know that there is always a path, always a way, always plans B, C, and D.

That is hope.

I mean, Christians honor this time to ponder how God stole across the cosmos to be born in a no-name place to no-name people, which would certainly not be any of our plan A’s, right?

Good thing we’re not ultimately running this joint…if it’s being “run” at all.

Take a listen to Peter Bradley Adams’ “The Longer I Run.” In it you might just finding something new this Advent: a reflection of your own running, whether to the past or too far into the future, and an invitation to simply sit in the present for a bit.

December 2nd: Advent is Blue

In some traditions the color for Advent is purple. This is generally thought to be an older-version of the liturgical color wheel. When it was first formally instituted, Advent was a mirror to the liturgical season of Lent, and therefore that color purple (standing for “royalty” and “penitence”) made sense.

But things change. All things change. And as our conception of the season adjusted (more rightly so, I’d say) our practices changed, too. Whereas Lent is more of a “house cleaning,” Advent is a “house warming.” To reflect this theological and rhythmic shift, many shifted the color from purple to a deep blue, symbolizing expectation and preparation.

But I like this alternative coloring for another reason, too, and that is because, well, for some Advent is “blue.” It can be a tough time, especially in the wake of tragedy or heartache.

If it’s your first Christmas without a loved one, and in this pandemic that possibility is quite real, it’s a tough season. Hell, it’s tough even if it’s your tenth Christmas without that loved one.

If you struggle with fertility, the stories that weave their way through Advent can be a bit painful. Why does Elizabeth, in her old age, get pregnant while so many couples can’t? Why does Mary, who doesn’t even seem to want to be pregnant, miraculously conceive when so many people have trouble conceiving?

And can we talk about miscarriage? This wide-spread but secretive topic sits in so many hearts, compounding the trouble of the season.

It’s important at the outset here to be honest about the fact that, for many, Advent is blue.

And here’s the interesting truth: acknowledging that fact, whether you find yourself blue in this season or not, helps everyone. It’s amazing how, when we hug the cactus of grief, it doesn’t hurt as bad anymore.

For your Advent playlist, try on this blues song by one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine, “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue.” It’s not a sad song per se, but it sings a deep truth in that old blues tradition that carries reality for so many.

Weatherman says it’s miserable
But the snow is so beautiful
All I ever get for Christmas is blue

It would take a miracle
To get me out to a shopping mall
All I really want for Christmas is you…”

December 1st: Fresh

The wisdom of the mystics Christian’s call Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers is continually relevant, I’m finding. These sages lived often extreme lives, but their solitude and piety produced acute wisdom.

There is a saying that I’m taking to heart today, early on in this Advent season. It reads, “Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.”

Beloved, would anyone write that about you and your life? That every day you “made a fresh beginning?”

I do not think it would be said about mine…at least, not yet.

Day to day I carry too much baggage with me: the things I left undone, or the things I did that I should not have done. Worries that chase me in my dreams. Concerns that dog my footsteps.

And yet, I love the idea of making every day a fresh beginning. I’d love to try it on, you know, just to see how it feels.

Perhaps I will.

Advent is a season of waiting; this is true. But sometimes something so good can’t wait. Sometimes Advent can be a season where we put off waiting and live into a new reality, just to see.

Just to see.

Try to make a fresh beginning each morning, Beloved, and wait for that “old you” with the cares and concerns to get the picture and stop showing up in the mirror at sunrise.

For your Advent playlist today, add “Wonderful World” to the rotation…but not the Armstrong version (though, it is amazing). Instead, try on this arrangement by Kina Grannis…you know, for something fresh.

November 30th: In the Shadow

I feel bad for St. Andrew. He’s kind of like the B-side of the record.

In the lore of the church, not much is known about Andrew other than he was the brother of St. Peter…about whom much is known.

Imagine being known only in relation to your sibling to whom you’re always being compared. I imagine some of you don’t have to imagine too hard…this happens. Lots of people live in the long shadow of someone else.

But St. Andrew gets a bit of the historical last laugh. His feast day, November 30th, is the day by which the church sets the Advent calendar every year: the Sunday that falls closest to St. Andrew’s day is always the first Sunday of Advent.

Author and erstwhile theologian, Frank Schaeffer knows a bit about growing up in a long shadow. His fundamentalist pastor of a father, going by the same name, was a leading crusader in the early movement of the Religious Right. The younger Schaeffer has spent a lifetime coming to terms with that heritage, rejecting it, and finding his own voice.

Stumbling headlong into a kind of atheism (or, perhaps, “a/theism” as metaphysicist Peter Rollins would say), Schaeffer has been a prolific writer and voice in a kind of “in-between-belief” system that walks the fine line of faith and doubt. His book, _Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God_ is a wonderful reflection on the struggle to make sense of life in the shadow of religion.

“A/theism,” by the way, is a term coined by philosopher Peter Rollins to describe someone who believes in God but isn’t sure quite *what* to believe about God. They question what they’ve been taught about the Divine.

Advent is a season where we get to dip our toe into a bit of a/theism, a bit of “not-yet” when it comes to Divine promises being fulfilled and the whole notion of certainty.

Advent, with it’s focus on “hope,” is about not being certain, after all.

Advent is about clinging to bits and pieces of hope when there aren’t many to be found, repeating the promises of old again and again until you start to believe them, by God.

Or not.

I wonder if St. Andrew believed them, in all honesty. We know Peter doubted…but Andrew? He’s historically silent on the matter, except to say that he gets to usher us into this season of candle-lit waiting, wondering, and uncertainty.

Artist Joshua Radin’s hauntingly beautiful “Winter” kind of embodies the feeling of lostness and longing that St. Andrew’s day fills me with. Radin’s notion of a “name like a splinter” being lodged in his being is evocative of this wrestling with faith and straddling the line of belief and doubt.

Could God’s name be a splinter in us that is hard to get rid of? Is this why we’re continually drawn back to matters of the spirit and the heart?

Add the song to your Advent playlist, and ponder along with St. Andrew, with Schaeffer, with Radin, and with me.

November 29th: Day-dream

The ancient Celts understood all time as having meaning. The time of year helped you know how to behave, how to organize your activities, how to live and love and move in the world.

We’ve lost some of this, what with our inability to unplug and our unwillingness to turn off the lights when it gets dark. There is something special, human even, in living with the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars. The closest I ever got to this kind of rhythm was when I was a camp counselor and, due to the rustic nature of our setting, when the sun went down, we went down. When the sun rose, we would rise.

It was a different way of being in the world.

I find the church season of Advent to be an invitation back into that kind of orientation in spirit, if not in our body. The reading for today from the Gospel of Mark sets the scene:

“In those days, after that suffering, 
 the sun will be darkened,
  and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24)

Indeed the readings that the church provides to start off the season of Advent all begin in chaos, with sun and moon failing and flailing. It’s not surprising, though, when you think about it: for the church Advent is about “beginning” and “birth,” so it makes sense to start in the swirling chaos of the cosmos.

Advent starts in the shadows, Beloved, because most all of light starts in the shadows: the enclosed womb, the enclosed tomb, the seed deep under ground, the miring muck out of which life first crawled…it’s all in the shadows.

So, today, at the outset we have the opportunity to daydream in the shadows. We get to daydream about what kind of world can be birthed if we all take a step back (and, perhaps we have in this pandemic!) to take stock and think a bit.

Coincidentally, the first Sunday of Advent this year is also the feast day of St. Dorothy Day, known to befriend the poor and the outcast. In her daydream, Dorothy saw a world where the distinction between poor and wealthy, “in” and “out,” mentally-ill and mentally-well, were erased.

In the swirling chaotic shadows of this pandemic Advent, could we imagine such a world? Could we live in the rhythm of such a world? Could we orient our lives around such permeable lines of boundless love? Could Dorothy Day’s dream become our reality?

A good addition to your Advent playlist might be this unusual choice from the 60’s, Spanky and Our Gang’s “Give a Damn.” The lyrics feel ever-green to me…

If you’d take the train with me
Uptown, thru the misery
Of ghetto streets in morning light
It’s always night
Take a window seat, put down your Times
You can read between the lines
Just meet the faces that you meet
Beyond the window’s pane

And it might begin to teach you
How to give a damn about your fellow man
And it might begin to teach you
How to give a damn about your fellow man

As the sun decides to set a bit early tonight, take a moment to daydream about what this world could be if you…if all of us…just gave a damn.