Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I'm So Glad Christmas is a Season

As I pondered writing about this today, it dawned on me that I wrote some reflections two years ago that never found their way here. These reflections are part of others I've written over the years that may (or may not) make it into my Advent and Christmas poetry collection one day.

I wrote this back on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 2011, hence some of the dated references. I hope you'll find something here worth pondering on this blessed seventh day of Christmas in 2013.


This morning I took the trash out – two big bags worth, detritus leftover from yesterday’s Christmas celebration. Although this year I did not pile the wrapping paper scraps into the trash. My environmentally conscious nine year old, bless her, made me put it all in a box to take the borough paper recycling dumpster later.

Since we live over a warehouse in a building that belongs to the lumber yard next door, our trash dumpster is also in the lumber yard. Among other things, this means I get serenaded every time I take the trash out by the PA system that blares radio music left on for the lumber yard workers to hear while they pile wood and confer with customers and drive fork lifts.

The lumber yard was open this morning, though almost deserted. Either the workers were all inside having one more Monday morning after the holiday cup of coffee, or some of them had taken the day off. Certainly no customers were in sight, and no trucks moving about. But the office and store lights were on and the gate was open, so I shouldered my plastic bags like Santa and hoisted them into the dumpster.

The music on the PA system brought me up sharply. During most of the year, what plays on the radio doesn’t register with me when I take the trash out, especially if it’s advertising. I’m forty-three; I’ve gotten very good at tuning out commercials, one of the biggest wastes of brain energy ever encountered. Usually I am working out a story or musing on a poem or looking at the sky – or on more prosaic days (and they happen) – planning what to cook for dinner or thinking through my next language arts lesson with my daughter. I only pay attention to the sounds of the radio station if they’re playing music, and then often only if they’re playing a song I know and particularly like.

The couple of weeks or so before Christmas are different. The lumber yard tunes to one of the “oldies” stations that plays Christmas music all the time up until and through Christmas day. During cold, dark December days, I get used to trudging to the dumpster to tunes like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or (if I’m really blessed) “The First Noel.” (Yes, our oldies station will occasionally still throw an actual Christmas carol onto the playlist.)

So today I went trudging into the lumber yard, December 26, the second day of Christmas – and what do I hear? An old rock song from the 80’s. Not a Christmas carol. Not even a so-called secular Christmas anthem. Nothing Christmassy at all. And it slams home to me once more how the culture really doesn’t get Christmas.

It happens every year, but every year I forget it. Decorations come down swiftly, the stores sweep a few Christmas items onto sales shelves prelude to decking for Valentine’s Day, the radios stop playing Christmas music, even the bland songs that hardly feel like Christmas but at least pay minor lip-service to the time of year. People get back to work, most of them tired from staying up too late, some of them secretly glad the whole crazy holiday time is just “over” for another year. And I want to say “People? Seriously? We’re just getting started!”

There’s a reason there’s a whole Christmas season. The church, in its wisdom, has given us twelve whole wondrous days to celebrate the birth of Jesus – and we pack that calendar full of other celebrations and commemorations while we’re at it. On the 26th (today) we get the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on the 27th we celebrate St. John, the apostle and evangelist, on the 28th we remember the Holy Innocents who died at the hand of Herod. On January 1 we celebrate Holy Name day, remembering the day Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and named (and were met by prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna, who sang and spoke over the holy child). And of course on the 6th, traditionally known as 12th night, it all culminates in Epiphany, when we remember the Wise Men who came from the East, following the star, and how they worshipped the young child who they knew to be the King of the Jews.

It makes such perfect sense that we continue to celebrate the unfolding story – not just of Jesus’ birth and the events that took place in the days and months after it – but the unfolding story of those who would follow after him in years to come. If this birth is what we say it is – the birth that changed everything, the birth of the only one who could come to save and rescue us, the coming of Almighty God into the world of space and time and skin – then everything changes. It’s not something we can sing about and shout about for one day, and then just sweep it all away and go back to business as usual. This birth changes everything.

I wonder sometimes if even people who really don’t have an understanding of the season – who aren’t sure why they celebrate Christmas except that it seems to be a culturally acceptable time to give and receive gifts and go to parties and take time off work (and listen to Christmas themed songs on the radio) – don’t feel the acute disappointment and strangeness of the swiftness of the workaday, everyday world’s return following the celebration. Even in dim culturally bound echoes, the Christmas season can burn so brightly. The festive foods, the time spent with family that you might not see any other time of year, the chance to give help to people who are truly in need, the brightly wrapped gifts, the lights on the trees (or the streetlamps or town gazebos). The scent of evergreen and ginger, plastic nativity scenes on lawns, bright flags flapping on porches, scarlet poinsettia plants gracing front halls.  Even in dim echoes, the celebration can sometimes stun us with beauty and moments of heart-rending heartache, like we’re seeing something out of the corner of our eye that takes our breath and calls us home.

I wonder too if we can’t take a clue from our ordinary, lived experience – the kind of ordinary, everyday, lived experience that God entered and forever hallowed in Jesus – and look at how we celebrate “ordinary” human birth and feel its aftermath. If you’ve ever given birth to a child, or welcomed a child into your family by adoption, you know how it feels in the weeks and months leading up to the grand event. You know the exhaustion and exhilaration of hard labor to bring that child into the world, or the anxious waiting to welcome that little one into your arms. You know that the day that baby is born, or brought home, is one of the most memorable, mountain-top experiences of your life. You could never, ever forget the way it feels. But you also come to know, through days, weeks, months, and years of parenting and learning to be a family, that the day was just the beginning. It stands out like a shining crystal, never to be forgotten, but it was just the beginning, the start of something beautiful and deep, a whole journey of learning to love that little person and make them part of your life.

Would it make sense to give birth to a baby, celebrate the fact giddily and gratefully for twenty-four hours, then say “Wow, that was great! Let’s do it again next year?” and go on living just the way you did before the baby was born, as though the event never happened? To not care for, cherish, and nourish the new life we’ve been given, to enfold that life and its rhythms and the way it shapes us into our ordinary everyday?

Of course not. Nor does it make any sense to prepare for weeks leading up to Christmas, celebrate it in giddy joy for twenty-four hours, then cart all the leftover detritus to the dumpster to workaday music and try to get back to being just who you were before the grand event.

Not if the event means what we say it means. Because every year we celebrate Christ’s birth, his coming into the world, we remind ourselves that because he has come, our lives are forever changed. Because he has come, he still comes – every day, in new ways, in the hearts and lives of those who know him as Savior and Lord. And he is coming again, one day, in great glory and power and majesty, to judge the living and the dead and to make all things brand new. So brand new that even the brightest, most sincerely beautiful and reverent of Christmas celebrations, or even that mountain-top moment you held your precious baby in your arms for the first time – are going to pale in comparison to the amazing glory that will be revealed.

O Come, Let Us Adore Him is not just a call for one day of the year.  Really each Christmas prepares us just a little bit more for the celebration of forever living in his presence. And we’re being prepared not just for a season of love, but an eternity of it. A time when the glorious music that sings his praise will never fade, and the candles that echo his vast and glorious light will never be put out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

St. John the Evangelist

I always love that the feast day of St. John the Evangelist falls on December 27. It seems so wholly (and holy!) fitting that the beloved apostle who wrote most profoundly of the incarnation should be celebrated during the Christmas season.

I spent some time this morning meditating on the prologue to the gospel of John. If you've never read it in The Message (Eugene Peterson's Scripture paraphrase) you might enjoy pondering it afresh that way today. I especially love the lines "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" and "We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift."

1-2 The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
    God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
    in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
    nothing—not one thing!—
    came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.
6-8 There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
9-13 The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
    not blood-begotten,
    not flesh-begotten,
    not sex-begotten.
14 The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
15 John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”
16-18 We all live off his generous bounty,
        gift after gift after gift.
    We got the basics from Moses,
        and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
    This endless knowing and understanding—
        all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
    No one has ever seen God,
        not so much as a glimpse.
    This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
        who exists at the very heart of the Father,
        has made him plain as day.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How Quietly the Morning Dawns (A Christmas Hymn)

For my annual advent poem this year, I decided to write a Christmas hymn. A blessed, happy, holy Christmas to you and all you love!

How quietly the morning dawns! Gold streams across the sky,
And in the stable Mary sleeps, her baby sleeps nearby.
And Joseph drowses by the door to guard his family dear,
While echoes of angelic song remind them Love’s drawn near.

How quickly did the Light arrive in the middle of the night,
How bright and beautiful the Babe who’s come to give us sight.
We wandered in the cold and dark, all alone and so afraid,
But now we marvel at this child; he’s just as God had said.

The promise spoke by prophets bold in days so long ago,
Kept alive for all these years is now fulfilled in Mary’s son.
We’ve wept and waited, watched and prayed, to see his strength and might;
Now in the still and wakening day, we’re given brand new sight.

Our understanding dawns like gold, like sun across a cloud,
To the weak and poor he humbly came and not unto the proud.
This tiny baby wrapped in rags and slumbering in the morn
Has changed us all and all the world. Rejoice that He is born!

~EMP, Advent 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christina Rossetti: Love Came Down at Christmas

Christina Rossetti is clearly one of my favorite Christmas poets. I was just about to post her poem Christmas Eve, when I realized I did that on this day last year!

So instead I thought I would post this beautiful gem, also by Rossetti.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Many blessings to you and your loved ones this Christmas! 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Pageant Day

Christmas Pageant day has become one of the holiest and most hectic days I know each year. By the time we get through the final rehearsal, I’m usually tired and a tiny bit worried (at least in a small part of me) that something huge and Herdmanesque is going to happen this year. Then God reminds me that he shines everywhere, and gently nudges me about how important it is to laugh a lot while we sojourn on this earth. He also reminds me that…oh yes, he came as a baby and that this story, big and beautiful and profound and life-changing as it is, is a story that little ones can and should enter into wholeheartedly, and that when they enter it, they bring the hearts of the older generation with them into it. And God does amazing things in that mix.

This year was full of its usual crazy beauties, the kinds of moments that make me so thankful that it is our real, human, messy lives that God enters. There was the little girl who sweetly decided she wanted to be Mary, only to realize she was too shy to do it, and another little girl, not quite five and a half, who bravely stepped into the role. There was the little boy who wanted to be a sheep until he saw the older boy dressed as a soldier (we had a scene with the Wise Men and Herod this year). In fact, all the boys pretty much wanted swords and shields so they could be soldiers too. (We let the little one be a smaller soldier, but then he decided what he really wanted to be was a king!) There was the little boy who was so very little that I had to pull his wooly sheep’s costume over his head while he insisted on holding his sippy cup…we normally don’t have kids quite that young in the performance.

There was our almost 9 year old Joseph, who’s very verbal and articulate, coming up to me to say plaintively, “I don’t understand why my part is so important when I don’t even have any lines.” (A sentiment I wonder if the real Joseph might not have understood; his has always seemed like such an important and yet quietly supportive role.) I tried to explain to him how strong Joseph was, and how special since God chose him to care for Mary and the baby. His eyes widened and he said, “well, sometimes I’m strong!”

There was the second announcing angel, who stepped in to take on another speaking role as the king’s scribe (at the last minute, when we realized we didn’t have anyone else to play it). There was my own sweet eleven year old playing the lead announcing angel, skipping with joy and singing “Joy to the World” as she left the shepherd’s field…the only angel who remembered to sing. The sweet girl also did a tremendous job of being my right-hand girl in helping the little ones get ready. She often struggles with the chaos that reigns pre-pageant, as everyone is getting dressed and we’re running last minute lines, but she showed so much grace and maturity this year that it made my heart want to sing too.

There were the shepherds who forgot where to go and kept milling around the manger when it was time for them to leave proclaiming the good news, and who finally wandered on down the aisle forgetting to say anything at all but beaming at the audience as they carried their wrapping paper roll crooks. There was the little girl who played both a rejoicing angel and the innkeeper who was supposed to take pity on tired Mary and lead her to the stable, only she forgot she was supposed to lead her to the stable and just scrabbled over to the manger, reached under it for the baby (not yet born) and plunked him into the hay. Joseph hurriedly rectified that situation, proving once again what an important role he has in this story!

Then there was the eighth grade girl, playing one of the Wise Men, who burst into tears during the opening worship set (we had the kids already dressed and upstairs during the singing that begins the service, as the pageant takes the place of the sermon after the Scripture lessons). I gently led her to the back of the room to ask what was wrong, thinking someone had made her upset or she had a case of nerves, and all she could do was keep crying and tell me, in a precious not fully articulate way, “that the songs just sometimes make me feel sad and funny.” So I just patted her gently on the shoulder and told her that sometimes God uses the songs to move our hearts. I just love the fact that while I was busy thinking about entrances, exits, and line prompts, God was moving hearts in worship.

Another pageant day. Another lesson in holy flexibility, laughter, and grace.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Reading: Love Came Down

I usually try to post something about my Advent reading each year. I love it when people recommend good books for this season! And here we are in the third week already. I'm later than usual, but I thought I'd share what I'm reading this year and post some links to some of my older recommendations.

This year I'm enjoying the meditations in Love Came Down,  a collection of readings compiled by Christopher L. Webber. An Anglican clergy friend recommended this book, which is subtitled "Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas." It's a good collection, running the gamut of a lot of years (from Hugh Latimer on up to roughly present day) though I keep stumbling over the fact that Lewis isn't in the collection. And while I appreciate that Madeleine L'Engle is, I'm not sure why some other more contemporary Anglicans didn't make the cut.

The compiler has a love for the early and middle years of Anglicanism. So you get Andrewes, Donne, Keble, Pusey, Law, and Taylor, among others. He has a bit of a high church bent (likes Caroline Divines and Oxford Movement)  but does include some "broad church" folks like Maurice and Brooks (and no, he doesn't include Brooks' "O little town of Bethlehem," rather some excerpts from his sermons, surprisingly chew-worthy). He's clearly not fond of evangelicals. So you'll find no Wesleys, either John or Charles -- and how one can include Anglican advent poems and hymnody and not include Charles Wesley, who penned some of the very best, just baffles me. But every collection bears the particular stamp of its collector.

One of the elements that makes this book both rich and challenging is that it really focuses on traditional Advent themes -- namely heaven, hell, the second coming, the "last things." Many Advent books focus almost solely on the first coming of Jesus and forgot some of those other traditional themes. This one delves deep into "last things" for a good bit of the text, then moves into deeper reflection upon the incarnation and nativity especially in the final week of Advent and the Christmas season to follow  (readings begin with November 28 and move up through January 6, Epiphany). 

I'm adding this to my list of previously recommended books for Advent, which include (in no particular order): The Irrational Season, WinterSong, The Vigil, God With Us, and God is in the Manger. I posted here about most of these a few years ago.

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Marmee Through the Window"

I have an essay published at Literary Mama this week. I hope you'll check it out and enjoy my reflections on one of the ways that motherhood has changed my perspective as a reader!

This piece was a real labor of love for me. If you have thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them here. Or you could even post a response to the writing prompt they've put up to accompany the piece.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rudolph Revisited

Last night, we brought out one of our family favorites and watched Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer during dinner. This Rankin and Bass claymation classic premiered on television 49 years ago (yes, folks, gear up – the 50th anniversary of Rudolph draweth nigh) which means it’s been on the planet longer than I have. It still holds up as a delicious bunch of corny, sentimental fun, even when you’ve seen it over and over as every one of us (even our 11 year old) has.

I don’t know what was in our tacos, but all three of us were in a silly, snarky mood as we watched. The end result was that we found ourselves pondering some of these age-old questions. Here they are, in no particular order.

1)      How did they make Rudolph’s nose glow the way they did?
2)      What’s wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys?
3)      Does Rudolph actually know what a dentist is?
4)      Why does Hermy the elf have hair when all the rest of the boy elves don’t?
5)      Did they pattern the tall elf with glasses after Richard Deacon (on the Dick Van Dyke show)?
6)      How did Rudolph know Santa’s name before they’d been formally introduced? Is this an instinctual thing, something that flying reindeer are just born knowing?
7)      Does it occur to NO ONE that Rudolph’s nose might come in handy someday?
8)      When Santa says “too bad, he had a nice take-off too” – does he truly believe that a glowing nose will adversely affect Rudolph’s flying ability?
9)      Is there anyone who doesn’t laugh when Burl Ives quotes Donner as saying “No, this is man’s work!”?
10)  How did a poodle get the job of pulling Yukon Cornelius’ sleigh?
11)  Does Yukon really think he can taste silver and gold? Does he not worry that he will cut his tongue every time he licks his pick-ax?
12)  When Yukon and the Bumble go over the cliff, why can’t Rudolph and his friends see him when they look over? They act like they’ve completely disappeared. If the Bumble bounces, wouldn’t they hit and just bounce back up? (Unless it’s a really, really high drop.)
13)  What is IN the all-purple food that Mrs. Claus feeds Santa, enabling him to gain about a hundred pounds in just a few minutes?
14)  How does Rudolph suddenly learn how to magically control his nose (at the end, when he pulls Santa’s sleigh) when before it seemed to turn on and off without him being able to control it?
15)  Why does Rudolph leave the door open when he sneaks out of the house late at night to go off on his own? Wouldn’t Yukon and Hermy have frozen in that weather?
16)  If King Moonracer flies all over the place looking for toys to bring to his island, why can’t he just zoom over to Christmas Town and ask Santa to help them himself?
17)  Did they create Clarice’s tears out of glue?
18)  And last but not least, at the end when they throw the misfit toys out of Santa’s sleigh, how did the poor bird learn to fly? He was a misfit because he could only swim, not fly. But they don’t give him an umbrella, and one can only imagine the poor creature plummeting to his death.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Glorify the Lord, Ye Snow

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold,
drops of dew and flakes of snow.
Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
(~From the Book of Common Prayer) 

 Wilson“Snowflake” Bentley is one of my artist/scientist heroes. He spent a lifetime paying attention to something hardly anyone else ever paid attention to – snowflakes. (He was also fascinated with other tiny bits of creation, like raindrops and dew.) He spent years developing a technique to photograph snowflakes, in a day and age when that seemed impossibly hard. His creativity and patience seemed to know no bounds.

So when I see something like this article, posted by two of my dear nieces on FB, I find myself smiling with gratitude but also recognition. The work of this photographer, Alexy Kljatov, is beautiful and amazing, and clearly still takes innovation and patience (see his blog post, here, on his photographic techniques) but you realize too how much easier it is using the photographic equipment we have today, and how much he stands on the shoulders of a pioneering giant like Bentley. Perhaps that’s truer than we know for most artistic and scientific endeavor, though we don’t always remember it.

I also smiled over the opening line from the commentator who posted the pictures of Kljatov’s work, calling attention to the “impossibly perfect” design of snowflakes. She writes: “One of the true wonders of the world are snowflakes, tiny designs made of ice that are so individually unique, so detailed, and so spectacular it's hard to comprehend that they happen naturally and aren't pulled from the depths of our own imaginations.”

Uh-huh. Might it not indicate, perhaps, that the depths of our own imaginations, wonderful as they are, are themselves the creation of someone whose imagination is far deeper and vaster than our own? I love that God creates snowflakes, which in our puny understanding don’t need to be so incredibly beautiful (considering their size and transience) and yet just are. They are stunning, unique, intricately pattered. They are clearly exercises in artistic delight. And they appear to “happen naturally” (you’ve got to smile over the hint of casualness the word “happen” evokes) because he has placed this kind of beauty into the very ordinary unfolding fabric of the world. Praise Him!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Moveable Feasts and Holy Flexibility

I think this may have been the longest unintended hiatus I've ever taken from this blog. It's not been for lack of anything to say -- in fact, I've had ideas for probably a dozen posts during the past few weeks. It's just been a very busy season. Illness and travel colored the first part, and a great deal of work has colored the second. Not to mention entry into the wonderful Advent season, always a blessed time!

I was delighted that we got to travel to see family in Virginia for Thanksgiving, another very blessed time. However, it meant that I was without internet access for a few days (not a bad thing in and of itself) including on November 29, what I like to call the Literary Day of Days. Every year I try to celebrate the mutual birthdays of Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, three amazing writers who have influenced my life in some very deep ways. I find it beautifully serendipitous that they share a birth date. Though I was sorry to not be able to publicly celebrate the trio this year, it felt comforting to know that other people were. There was a lot of celebration around Lewis this year in particular because it was the 50th anniversary of his death (his feast day just a few days before his birthday) and that too felt comforting.

The church, in its wisdom, sometimes moves holy feasts out of practical necessity. I love that -- it reminds me that it's not the date in and of itself that is sacred, but the person or event we celebrate, and that can happen at any time. We can learn a lot from holy flexibility, even with our more "secular" feasts (though the older I get, the less I feel that anything worth celebrating with joy and gratitude to God is secular). I remembered that this year when our typical Thanksgiving plans had to change to accommodate the needs of our aging parents. The sweet girl, who struggles so mightily with change, briefly had a hard time with the notion that things were going to be "different" this year, but in the end, it all worked beautifully. We practiced holy flexibility (you're picturing monks doing yoga now, right?) and I think we were blessed for, by, and through it.