Preparing the Heart: Overcome by Light

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Rather than “we shall overcome”, today is the day we shall be overcome by the Light in the darkness of the world.

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Nativity by N.C. Wyeth

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
~Christina Rossetti “Christmas Eve”

 

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Illustration by Linda Richardson of “Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti

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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12

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…the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us.
In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming;
when we are lost, when our world has come undone,
when we cannot see the next step on the path;
in all the darkness that attends our life,
whether hopeful darkness or horrendous,
God meets us.
God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it.
~Jan Richardson

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Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

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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.

~John Donne –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

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It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

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Preparing the Heart: Faith and Paradox

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The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.

The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
~George Herbert “Christmas II”

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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

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Adoration of the Shepherds by Nicolaes Maes

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.
~Denise Levertov “The Mystery of the Incarnation”

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson

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Preparing the Heart: All Crying Will Be Stilled

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“…Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon to a church in Havana, Cuba December 21, 1930

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when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
— Jan Richardson (author of Circle of Grace)

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For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

On this morning after the longest night of the year, I look out the window eagerly seeking a post-solstice reprieve from interminable darkness.  I seek that promise of being led back into the light, even if it will take months to get there.  It is a promise that keeps me going even if I can barely perceive the few minutes of extra daylight today.  It is from the simple knowledge that things are changing, getting lighter and brighter, that I harvest hope.

God made light through His Word, not once but twice.  In the beginning, He created the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls.  In the stable He came to light the world from below as well as from above so those hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

I am showered with His light even on the longest night of the year and forever more,  lit from the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God.  Let the dark days come as they certainly will.  They cannot overwhelm me now,  lit from within no matter how deeply the darkness oppresses.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

 

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Preparing the Heart: In the Shadow of Death

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Rachel weeping by Salvador Dali

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping;
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are not…
Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18

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And the slaughters continue…

There is no consolation for the families of the lost.
Their arms aching with emptiness,
beds and pillows lying cold and unused,
laughter and smiles and hugs
that never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could horrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so easily washed away
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind continues to embrace it.
Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

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the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

 

Preparing the Heart: When the Stars Held Their Breath

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Adoration of the Shepherds by Charles Lebrun 1689

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath,
when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second,
and the Word, who had called it all into being,
went with all his love into the womb of a young girl,
and the universe started to breathe again,and the ancient harmonies resumed their song,
and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power. Greater power than we can imagine,
abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child,
still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid,
unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.
Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose,
slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough,
and it is time for birth.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity,
Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes,
willingly and lovingly leaving all that power
and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years
to show us what we ought to be and could be.
Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine,
to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.
~Madeline L’Engle from Bright Evening Star

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It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

 

There is no longer a void or darkness upon the face of the deep.  The stars need no longer to hold their breath.

Instead Grace has come in the face of Jesus the Son, through God the Father who moves among us, His Spirit changing everything, now and always.

Do not be afraid.
You are not alone in the dark.
You are loved.
Don’t forget.

 

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Preparing the Heart: Knit to Man’s Nature

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There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

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Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
I would my true love did so chance, to see
the legend of my play to call my true love to dance

Chorus:
Song Oh my love, oh my love, my love, my love
This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure
of her I took fleshly substance,
thus was I knit to man’s nature

To call my true love to my dance.

(Chorus)

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor lamb
To call my true love to my dance.

(Chorus)

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

(Chorus)

Sing O my love, O my love___
This have I done for my true love.
~Traditional English Carol

I danced in the morning when the world was young
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth

Chorus: Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees
They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t follow me
I danced for the fishermen James and John
They came with me so the dance went on

Chorus

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame
They ripped, they stripped, they hung me high
Left me there on the cross to die

Chorus

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on

Chorus

They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the life that will never, never die
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me
I am the Lord of the dance, said he

Chorus
~Sydney Carter

Chorus: Dance and sing this happy day,
Christ is born the Son of Mary
Dance and sing all care away,
Let us all our homage pay.

Born today of David’s line
To the earth our Saviour cometh
Shepherds see the angel’s sign
Born today is the Child Divine

Chorus

Christ is come to set us free
From the curse of sin’s dominion,
From the yoke of tyranny
He is come our Lord to be.

Chorus

Ox and ass before Him fall,
With the shepherds humbly kneeling
There before the lowly stall,
There before the Lord of all.

Chorus

Hail, thou wondrous star so bright,
In the winter sky appearing,
Leading on with steadfast light
Eastern monarchs thro’ the night.
Chorus

Come, thou long expected Son,
Springing from the stem of Jesse,
Come thou ever blessed One,
Here on earth Thy will be done.

Chorus

~Traditional French Carol (Il Est Ne)