Christmas Story

Mother Nature has flexed her muscles once again and humbled the Winter Solstice with an astonishing energy and power. And so it is with the final days of Advent edging towards the celebration of Christmas: the enigma of real life events unfolding all around us and the incongruence of a holiday bursting with a brilliant joy. And there, slipping through the hours towards Christmas Eve, recalling the meaning of the night, allows lingering with the realization that we are not alone in the journey. There are those who have walked before us and their stories, in so many ways, can empower and strengthen and encourage. Remembering the stories is part of following the star.

Steeped in centuries of tradition, holiday celebrations easily overwhelm the startlingly simple story of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus and the symbolism of the Magi’s seeking him out. This year, that simple story speaks stirring truth about the complexity of the human and the gifts of the divine. There is fragility, connection, challenge and the incredible. All are so much a part of this 21st century world. Like a classic piece of literature, there is timelessness; like the self-help genre, there is basic wisdom wedged into the details.

Fragility, vulnerability, is visible in every figure. Uncertain and puzzled, there is Joseph, a caretaker betrothed and shocked. There is Mary, pregnant and young, and both of them subject to the demands of the government census. They are tossed about by the process in the same way succeeding generations under other governments in later centuries struggle. People without power yet part of a greater whole…fragile and vulnerable to the unwelcoming landscape of a changing world. So it is with our world, our lives.

Still, there are connections: between Mary and Joseph, with the innkeeper and then the shepherds and even the Magi. Aware of it or not, we live within webs of connections and networks. At times, they profoundly influence and enhance sense of purpose and positive growth; at other times, they are sources of searing grief and seemingly impossible challenge. Like a mirror, the Christmas story reflects the reality of connections and what that means in each person’s life. Kindness of strangers, the unanticipated moments, have been happening forever just as they happen now. Christmas is an invitation to realize that others have navigated waters like these before us and somehow survived. Hope nestles in each part of the story and invites us to allow ourselves that luxury in even the darkest moments and to celebrate it especially in the best of times.

Challenges both large and small abound in our world. Morality and ethics, truth and honesty, love and respect, all have elements and facets of struggle in choices and decisions, Considering carefully the options, the impact of choices, and fidelity to what really matters is the daily work that makes us who we are. Mary and Joseph faced all that. The lack of detail in their story leaves room to realize that there is always room for the patterns of our own lives. There are no magic responses or unfailingly easy paths. So it was. So it has been. So it is. Their story enables and empowers us to see there is a way. Finding that midnight path is crucial for each of us.

Finally, their story notes the majesty and mysteries of the sky, the wonder of divine intervention. In so doing, it affords us the ability to allow ourselves to step beyond jaded cynicism, to dare to pause in the midst of frantic activity to simply be. Be alive to the moment, attentive to the circumstance, to cherish both the tangible and intangible and to trust in something, someone, far greater than self. Maybe it is actually the most relevant story of all. Maybe the Christmas story is actually our story.

Divine Spark

The wafting aroma of holiday baking in the warmth of glittering lights are brightnesses in the midst of the cold uncertainties of winter’s chilly arrival. But the thought of all that, the Hanukkah lights and the Nativity sets, leads straight to the possibility of miracles. Miracles somehow embrace our deepest fears and fondest hopes and shape realities we could not have envisioned. They are not delivered in big vans blazing with emblems, and they do not come with crafted wrapping or satin ribbons, and most of the time, they do not appear on those big holidays. Miracles are the tiniest and the most gigantic all at once; they are swift and slow, strong and gentle. Miracles are what happens between and among humans.

Miracles are the moments David Whyte alludes to in The TrueLove, that singular moment when the hand of another fits perfectly in yours, when what was not even anticipated or hoped for somehow becomes a reality, a knowledge within that is incontrovertible. Miracles rest on moments of being loved and loving; they convert the ordinary circumstances of living into the extraordinary experience of loving. They happen in the smallest of instances and linger in the larger ones as well; they are there for acknowledgment and for human experience and they are not confined to any shape or size or package. Miracles draw the best from us and share the best of us. They defy the smallness of jealousies and insecurity, resist the temptation to deceive or decry, negate or punish. Miracles, small and large, are the real twinkling lights of life and they are not tied to the dark of winter but to the nature of human beings and the ways we think and interact and become more and better than we were before.

On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, a year when Advent stretches through all four weeks, the message is not about charity or being unworthy or undeserving. It is all about being more than than that. There is the Old Testament promise of Emmanuel and the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. Tucked in between the two readings is the piece from Paul’s Letter to the Romans which ends with “grace and peace to you…” In combination, these are the stories of human beings connecting to one another, trusting in a promise and honestly, respectfully, daring to share treasured thoughts and ideas. Emmanuel, God with us, is the subtle and gentle miracle framing all other miracles. It rests on the gloriously unearned gift of God, and it is communicated carefully, compassionately, from one human being to others. It is the beginning of a chain of kindnesses that gently inserts miracles into ordinary days and lives.

To be able to see that is a gift in and of itself. To be able to look into the eyes of another and find there acceptance, understanding and compassion, makes all the difference. To be able to give that, to receive that, is to share the divine spark that transcends all division and difference, all stress and tension, all misgivings and all fears. It is, most surely, another miracle.

Of stars

Magic whispers from the flight of every twinkling light, a flight of fancy in the cold darkness of New England’s winter. There are a fight of holidays tightly condensed into the days of Advent, granting so many cultures a moments pause within the all-encompassing preparation for Christmas. And so, somehow, this third Sunday of Advent becomes one of those moments to begin to find the “more”. The theme is joy, and it is echoed in so many traditions of the human family. The readings of the day are a call to patience, a reassurance of comfort, and an attentiveness to the moment. They are each a reminder that all of us, each of us, the old and the young, the infirm and the heartbroken, the gentle and the strong, the kind and the heartless, we are all part of this one world, this universe of being. None of us exists fully without the other. And yet, there are those among us who have the unique possibility of gifting others with transformation.

Those moments are the tenderest ones and they glide into ordinary days with a decidedly unexpected impact. They are to be known and explored, recalled in each detail with the grace of gratitude and the strength of meaning. Think for just a moment: the unanticipated kindness, the trill of a doorbell, the helping hand, the welcome but unanticipated cup of coffee delivered on a cold evening. But there is more…the gentle hand on a shoulder bent with worry, the glance of understanding spilling out in conflict, the deep silences of special conversations. It is there, in the fullness of what is most ordinary, that the extraordinary slips into days and nights. It is where the traditions and beliefs of so many cultures collide into the deepest of all truths.

Love matters far more than cynicisms and mistrust. But what matters is where it comes from. The Zen master, Hanh, points out that a wounded soul can wound others in its attempts to love. And to love demands the best of ourselves. the healthiest parts, the self-awareness to resist self-aggrandizement and to be fully attentive to other. The words “I love you” can bear carry the desires and demands of “I” rather than the focus, care and understanding of “you”. There is a selflessness in love that does not deny self-care or allow for self-abnegation. Instead, there is the clear recognition that to be able to love means accepting and understanding, knowing and trusting oneself. While that seems a near paradox, instead it is the ultimate sense of what this season is actually about.

The gift of Christmas is the truth that there is a God who dares to love us just as we are, flawed and with foibles, mistakes and triumphs, always ready to ride on in the relationship. It is ongoing throughout the mysteries of life, the accidents and the successes, the challenges and the losses. It is a love that simply exists; there is no earning it and no deserving it. It is simply always there. It is the affirmation, as Hanh says, that, “You are part of the Universe. You are made of stars.” And so there it is, the joy of the Third Candle of Advent and the ability to see that others among us are made of stars, too…..and the Universe awaits.

A Second Candle

Cold and rain engulf New England today, yet the glimmer of a second candle soothes and cradles and comforts. Advent is the opening of newness for young and old, the patient instruction of what it is to become human. In large and small ways, we constantly assist one another with that reality and possibility. There is never a moment when we are all we can be and never a moment when we, just as we are, are not enough. Advent is the reassurance that the paradox that is life can be ours, become complete, with attention to the art of living and faithfulness to becoming.

Last year at this time, we gathered at an outdoor memorial service for a young man who died in a car accident. His was a life barely begun, and yet as his father eulogized him, he spoke of his chid’s life as “complete”. The chill washed over us all that night, and what stayed with us was the “completeness”. Life is short no matter how it is measured in years. Life is meaningful no matter how frustrated, disappointed or disillusioned we become. And Advent is the reminder that there are multiple pathways to that sense of completion, multiple ways to live and honor who we are and who others are to us, to respect the gift of hours and minutes, of days and nights, of dawns and dusks. There is a way in which the mystery of all that, the measure of sadness and the sense of completion reside side by side in Advent. There is sadness for what each stage of life invites us to let go of, and there is hope in the promise of each year and decade to come. Hope for completion, for having lived out each gift received and for somehow leaving the world and the people in it somehow better for our having crossed this way.

It is too easy, perhaps, to hide from the truths that surface within us, to assess and remember with dishonesty only that which we prefer. It is too easy to live in the harbor of the familiar. But Advent invites us to much more. The flickering flames refute the darkness and disappointment. They flirt instead with respect and purpose. They fuel the vision of truth and honesty weaving a pattern of respect, reciprocity and honor. They invite us to embrace the real truth of who we are and what we are about, to run with that and to remember that is all we can do. Most importantly, those flickering flames whisper through the darkness that there is far more to who we are and to the human journey than we ever suspected. In companionship, in community, all that becomes so much more clear.

Advent is actually all about becoming real, becoming more than who we have been and better than we are at being human. And so the second flame dances and we move steadily in its glow, meandering towards completion.