An Advent Tapestry–I Should Be Glad of Another Death

Journey of the Magi--James Tissot

Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

An Advent Tapestry–What is Coming Behind the Crocus

“This is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise.

…To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that.  Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale.  A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’  in the same spirit in which he says ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’

Because we know what is coming behind the crocus.

The spring comes slowly down the way, but the great thing is that the corner has been turned.  There is, of course, this difference that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not.

We can.  We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on…to which He is calling us.

It remains with us whether to follow or not,  to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.”

—C. S. Lewis from “God in the Dock”

Cleaning Up The Mess

Maria mit Jesuskind by Carlo Dolci

For the month of Advent I’ve been studying old masters who portrayed the Nativity in hundreds of different ways, all based upon their individual cultural contexts, the style of art at the time, and their own penchant for symbolism within their work.  As beautiful as the paintings are to gaze at, I strongly suspect none of them come even close to the reality of that first Christmas Eve.  None of these artists could illustrate the dark dirtiness of a cave-like barn and still expect to attract viewers to a gallery wall 500 years later.

The significance of where this birth takes place is lost in the romanticism of the nativity scenes where cherubic angels fly above, obedient animals stand as witnesses, and the shepherds are clean and washed as they peer into the manger.  Many of these paintings make the setting look positively royal with ornate architecture, and the people wearing finery fit for a banquet.    We have to remind ourselves there were no halos, no rose petals, no lace swaddling blankets.   Instead, there was the ambiance of a place where animals were kept.

Barns reek of manure and urine.  They are dusty, have cobwebs, and are inhabited with unwelcome critters along with the ones that are meant to be housed there.  People who have been traveling by foot or on a donkey for several days are not going to be wearing beautiful robes, their hair beautifully brushed and skin pure and white.  Shepherds who spend weeks tending flocks of sheep in the hills don’t bathe regularly, nor get their clothes mended or cleaned.  They would have walked in smelling like the animals they cared for.

What a setting to have a baby.

What a place for God to take His first human breath.

So Jesus was born in the midst of a very earthly mess.   Yet, in the stable, they found safety, they found shelter, they found privacy, and there was warmth from the bodies of the animals.  It became sanctuary for two people who had nowhere else to go and were grateful for even the most primitive accomodations.

And it remains a sanctuary for me.

Every day as I clean stalls, haul manure to the pile, bring in fresh shavings for the bedding, pour clean water and loosen new hay, I think of the fact that God chose a barn of all places, chose animals to be the first witnesses, and chose to announce the birth to the poorest smelliest people around.   It makes my barn cleaning work seem somehow relevant.

You never know when a manger somewhere may be needed again for a grander purpose.

I want to be sure it is ready.

I want to be sure I’m ready.

An Advent Tapestry–To Be Consoled and Confirmed

Gerrit van Honthorst "L'adoration des bergers"

”Look upon the baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify us. Inexpressible majesty will crush us. That is why Christ took on our humanity…that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.” Martin Luther

detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Shepherds

An Advent Tapestry–Straw Almost as Sharp as the Thorns

Detail from "Descent from the Cross" by Rogier van der Weyden

“The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.”
opening words by John Donne in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

An Advent Tapestry–The Paradox

Scene of Peace by Rembrandt

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…

I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest…

It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.

– G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man