Monday, December 24, 2007

We almost miss the manger

I'll give you better words than mine this Christmas Eve. Here is a fine memory that Frederick Buechner relates in "Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary":

The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they're about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor's sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There's a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed -- as a matter of cold, hard fact -- all it's cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ... who for us and for our salvation," as the Nicene Creed puts it, "came down from heaven."

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Language no barrier to feeling at home

I had the great good fortune to attend a Jewish wedding last night and be reminded again of the beauty of that faith's services. Could anything touch the heart more deeply than the chanted prayers? Although I do not know Hebrew, language was no barrier to understanding. They spoke straight to my soul. I could gladly have listened to the prayers all night, even though the dessert table was beckoning.

One topic of conversation after the service was how everyone was connected to the couple. One woman described how she came to join their congregation. "My kids went to services first," she said, "and they came back and told me that it felt like home. So I went, too, and they were right."

It felt like home. Yes. That is exactly how the Jewish prayers had felt to me. It is the same feeling I have known at my own church's Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve services -- and also in a silent, dark room with only a single candle. Home.

Isn't that what so many of us seek in a church or temple or mosque? Home. A place of warmth and welcome. A place that draws out the best in us, that connects us to God and one another, that points us toward meaning. A place where we can be our true selves, where we belong. A place where we can learn to love.

In this season when Christians celebrate a baby born far from the familiar comforts of home, my wish for all people, of all faiths, is this: No matter where your journey takes you, may you find that home awaits you there.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Recapturing the wonder

Nick wrote after the last post, "I hope to recapture more wonder this Christmas." I suspect that's a common yearning.

We see wonder in the eyes of children as they experience the magic of Santa's bounty. We can imagine the quiet wonder of Mary as she gazed into the eyes of her newborn son or the awed wonder of shepherds hearing "Glory to God in the highest." If we're lucky, we remember our own times of wonder, when grace shook us from complacent comfort and the impossible became real.

So we leave the door open for wonder. We invite it with candlelit services and familiar carols, with sparkling lights and piles of presents. And still it comes where and when we least expect it. In a stable, not an inn. In a baby, not a king.

I wrote a column published Dec. 23, 1987, about wonder taking me by surprise. Here's that story again:

A day with a difference

Eyes opened slowly, reluctantly in the gray light of a winter morning. Another day. Another choice: to hop out of bed and get ready for work or to snuggle deeper into the electric blanket. I rolled over, cherishing the warmth, hiding in the pillow’s soft darkness. Just a few minutes more. . . .

Another day. I began to take a sluggish inventory of the day’s schedule: Nothing planned except work. I ought to be at the newsroom by about 2 p.m. and would be lucky to leave by midnight. Same as always. Another day.

Waking has never come easily to me, but this day seemed harder than most. Hadn’t I been out late the night before? A melody drifted through my mind, picking up words along the way. Silent night, holy night…

Oh. That’s right. Last night I had gone to a midnight Christmas Eve service - not at my church, though; that service started too early for me to get there from work. This church was not even of the same denomination, but the liturgy was lovely, the music uplifting. Afterwards I lit a candle and listened to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s "Ceremony of Carols," as I do every Christmas Eve.

Eyes opened again, more conscious this time. Christmas Eve. That meant today must be Christmas.

The awareness sank into my mind with a dull thud. So it's Christmas. Just another day, except that all the restaurants are closed.

I still had to work, which meant I couldn’t drive four hours to be with my family. News doesn’t stop for holidays; even if it does, people expect a paper full of stories anyway. I had worked every Christmas since leaving college.

No relatives lived anywhere near. No one was coming to visit. I hadn’t bothered to decorate for the holidays; it hardly seemed worth the effort.

Faint noises came from the living room. My roommate Julie was already up, of course. She had to work today, too, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. Of course, she was Jewish. Christmas to her was … well, just another day. Just like for me. Only I wanted it to be so much more.

I pulled the covers higher, still not eager to face the day, but my cats were jumping onto the bed and yowling, ready for breakfast. They didn’t care what day it was, but they cared greatly if their food was late. With a sigh, I rose, threw on a robe and stumbled out of my bedroom … into Christmas.

My largest houseplant, bedecked with brightly colored bows, was surrounded by a multitude of small, cheerfully wrapped packages. Julie sat at one side, holding out a cup of hot, spiced tea. "Merry Christmas!" she said.

And it was.

Did she realize how totally shocked and delighted I was, how full of wonder? I don’t remember being so excited since Santa’s mystique faded. But Mr. Claus, apparently, was alive and well -- and still had a few tricks up his red sleeve.

Slowly, savoring the moment, I unwrapped the presents. They were small, inexpensive items, but I felt richer than kings. Not even the cats were forgotten; there were little treats just for them, although they were content lazily attacking stray ribbons.

Driving to work a few hours later, I joyfully sang carols at full voice. The day, I noticed, was much brighter. The sun had appeared. Or had it been out all along?

Julie’s gift outlasted that Christmas of a few years ago, because what she gave was not only one happy morning but an enduring memory. And not only a memory, but a hopeful awareness that glorious surprises lie in wait around every dark corner of my life. And not only a memory, but a calling to reach out in small ways to the people around me -- to make their days special and full of love.

When I am asked now about my favorite yuletide ever, I don’t think of the holidays of my childhood, however full of family fun and special gifts. I think of a gray winter morning that started out as just another day -- but through the kindness of a friend became truly Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Holidays put flesh on mystery

You're standing in a long line of impatient shoppers, listening to "Winter Wonderland" for the 15th time that day and holding a credit card that should have been locked away a dozen charges ago. Who would blame you for wondering: What's the point? Why celebrate Christmas anyway? It's not as though Dec. 25 is really the birthday of Jesus. It's just another day.

And if you're feeling particularly grouchy, you might wonder why we celebrate religious festivals at all. Why Hanukkah? Why Easter? Why Eid al-Fitr?

Well, part of the reason, of course, is that everyone loves a party. Everyone loves a feast. Holidays break up the year, giving workers a reason to rest and families an excuse to gather.

But these festivals feed our souls, not just our bodies. They remind us of the great mysteries of faith -- and more, they invite us to relive them, to enter the story, to make it real in us.

In Hanukkah, which was celebrated earlier this month, observant Jews do not merely remember the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. They light candles on the menorah and experience the illumination themselves.

There's something about engaging the story with our own flesh -- whether it's lighting the menorah or taking part in a Nativity pageant -- that makes spiritual truth come alive.

(By the way, Hanukkah is not the most significant Jewish holiday. It has been blown up in importance in this country by its proximity to Christmas. As the Judaism 101 site says, "It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar." Christians who decry the secularization of Christmas sympathize.)

Do religious rituals or festivals help you to enter the mystery of your faith?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

At the crossroad of joy and loss

Everyone warned me the holidays would be difficult this year. Friends who had lost loved ones said the sights and sounds of Christmas would stir painful, lovely memories of my husband and the many holidays we celebrated together before his death.

The blow didn't fall, though, until I came across an old videotape that we shot at Christmastime 15 years ago. It was easy to smile as the camera zoomed in on familiar old ornaments that were then shiny and new. It was delightful to see my son, now a senior in high school, be once again a wide-eyed toddler. And then a clear, sweet tenor voice began to sing:

O come, o come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
who mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel will come to thee, o Israel.

We used to sing that ancient chant every night as we lit the Advent candles -- a cry of yearning, of hope, of wildest dreams coming true at long last.

The intersection of joy and loss was almost unbearable.

And yet, that aching crossroad brought me closer to Christmas than any trip to the tinsel-bedecked malls could. It reminded me that the coming of the Christ child, like any baby's birth, involved both pain and hope. The pain of labor passes, but the hope endures because new life has been born, full of possibility. Here and now are transformed by the eternal.

"Emmanuel" means "God with us." With us in the craziness of December. In the emptiness of loss. In the agony of birth. In the fading videos of memory and the boxes of dusty ornaments waiting to be hung on a newly cut tree.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Questioning candidates about faith

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave an interesting speech today about the intersection of religion and politics, prompted by evangelical Christians' apparent unease with his Mormon faith. These sentences jumped out at me:

"Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: Does he share these American values – the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They’re the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."

I appreciate Romney's attempt to identify common ground in America's ideals. But is "Do you share American values?" really the most important question to ask "a person of faith who seeks a political office"? It would be more revealing to hear the answers to these:

How has your faith shaped who you are?

What effect does your faith have on your actions? What have you done out of commitment to God that you would not have done otherwise?

Does your faith change how you see other people, other nations, other religions?

What is your image of God?

How do you pray?

Yes, these questions are nosy and personal, and the chance of getting honest answers of any depth would be approximately zero. But wouldn't it be fascinating to know...

What would you ask?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wait? Who has time for that?

Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, the Christian season of waiting.

But who has time to wait? Our motto is gotta-have-it-now, with overnight shipping, next-day delivery or immediate download.

We're more likely to demand immediate satisfaction than to wait with expectant hope. Sure, we may admit that certain things can't be rushed -- pregnancy, for instance, or a teenager's maturity -- but that doesn't stop us from frowning and pacing and fretting.

No wonder we have trouble being still. No wonder we can't be at peace. No wonder we become so caught up in the whirlwind of "Christmas" that we forget to breathe.

One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Nouwen, the French writer and priest who learned patience in part from living with disabled adults:

"To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy or prediction."

What new things are being born in you this Advent? Are finding it hard to wait for their arrival?