God Was Here: Till Breaking of Dawn

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I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

 To wait is a hard sweet paradox in the Christian life.  It is hard not yet having what we know will be coming.  But it is sweet to have certainty it is coming because of what we have already been given.  Like the labor of childbirth, we groan knowing what it will take to get there, and we are full to brimming already.

The waiting won’t be easy; it will often be painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function.  Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for.  We must not wait like Herod waits, with dread and suspicion, willing to destroy what he cannot control.

Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.

This is the meaning of Advent: we are a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the breaking dawn of morning.

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:24-25

 

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How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

 

 

 

God Was Here: Come to Set Us Free

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“Be patient and without bitterness, and realize that the least we can do is to make coming into existence no more difficult for Him than the earth does for spring when it wants to come.”
~Rainier Marie Rilke

Like the birds of the air flying free, we too were created to sing.  Yet too often we choose to be grounded — grousing and grumbling.

Many of us know nothing of anticipation of the coming of Christ, some of us might care if we knew, but plenty of us are ready for the whole Christmas thing to be over yesterday.

Whether we care or not does not alter that Christ dwells with us, just as the coming of spring is not stopped by a slumbering disinterested earth.

Like Mary, we say: “Let it be”, not “no, not me, not now.”

We are set free to fly and sing!
He has come on our behalf: a simple, but oh so difficult faith, like the shoot that must break through the crust of frozen earth to reach the sun, in order to bloom.

 

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A star rose in the sky
and glory from on high
did fill the night with splendor.
Came birds with joyful voice
to carol and rejoice with
songs so sweet and tender.

The eagle then did rise,
went flying through the skies,
to tell the wondrous story,
sang: Jesus, born is he,
who comes to set us free,
he brings us joy and glory.

The sparrow with delight
said: This is Christmas night,
our happiness revealing.
The sky with praises rang,
as finch and robin sang
their songs of glad rejoicing.

The lark upon the wing
said: Now it seems like spring,
no more is winter pressing;
for now a flower is born
whose fragrance on this morn
to earth brings heaven’s blessing.

Sang magpie, thrush, and jay,
It seems the month of May
in answer to our yearning.
The trees again are green
and blossoms now are seen,
it is the spring returning!

The cuckoo sang: Come, come,
And celebrate the dawn
this glorious aurora.
The raven from his throat
then trilled a festive note
to the unexcelled Señora.

The partridge then confessed,
I want to build my nest
beneath that very gable
where I may see the Child
and watch whene’er he smiles
with Mary in that stable.
~translation from Catalonian of “Carol of the Birds”

 

 

 

 

Whence comes this rush of wings afar
Following straight the Noel star
Birds from the woods in wondrous flight
Bethlehem seek this holy night

Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here?
Into this stable, poor and drear?
Hasting to see the new born King
And all our sweetest musics bring

Hark! How the winged finch bears his part
Philomel, too with tender heart:
Chants from her leafy dark retreat,
“Re, me, fa, sol” in accents sweet

Angels, and shepherds, birds of the sky
Come where the Son of God doth lie
Christ from the earth and man doth dwell
Come join in the shout, “Noel, Noel, Noel.”
~Carol of the Birds (traditional Catalonian carol)

 

God Was Here: My Soul to Thrive

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But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 
And I could tell 
What form my dreaming was about to take. 
For I have had too much 
Of apple-picking: I am overtired 
Of the great harvest I myself desired. 
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 
For all 
That struck the earth, 
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 
Went surely to the cider-apple heap 
As of no worth. 
One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep.
~Robert Frost from “After Apple-Picking”
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This fall I picked up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from Someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the Giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this gift of sweetness, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and how we receive it makes all the difference.

 

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1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.
~Elizabeth Poston From Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs,
compiled by Joshua Smith, New Hampshire, 1784

 

 

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God Was Here: A Flower of Grace

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Here God lives, burrowing among
the petals, cross-
pollinating. Here is Christ’s mind
juiced, joined, fleshed, celled.
Here is the clash,
the roil, an invasion, not gentle
as dew; the rose is unfurled
violently until the scent explodes
and detonates in the air
And oh, it trembles—
thousands of seeds ripen in it as
it reels in the wind
~Luci Shaw  from “Flower head”
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It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.  After all, there was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death, but pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received a bit more than we bargained for.

We continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — indeed every day there is more bloodletting.

So a rose was sent to adorn the thorns and even then we chose thorns to make Him bleed and still do to this day.

Yes, a fragrant flower of grace blooms beautiful,
bleeding amid the thorns,
and will to the endless day
that ever was and ever shall be.

 

 

 

There is a flower sprung from a tree,
The root thereof is called Jesse,
A flower of great worth;
There is no other such in paradise.

This flower is fair and fresh of hue;
It fades never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch where this flower grew
Was Mary mild who bore Jesu —
A flower of grace,
Against all sorrow it is solace.

The seed thereof was of God’s sending,
Which God himself sowed with his hand;
In Bethlehem, in that holy land,
Within her garden he found her there.
This blessed flower
Sprang never but in Mary’s bower.

When Gabriel this maiden met,
With “Ave, Maria,” he her greeted
Between them two this flower was set,
And was kept, no man should know it,
Until one day
In Bethlehem, it began to spread and spray.

When that flower began to spread,
And his blossom to bud,
Rich and poor of every seed, 
They marvelled how this flower might spread,
Until kings three
That blessed flower came to see.

Angels there came out of their tower
To look upon this fresh flower —
How fair he was in his colour,
And how sweet in his savour —
And to behold
How such a flower might spring amid the cold.

Of lily, of rose on branch,
Of primrose, and of fleur-de-lys,
Of all the flowers I can think of,
That flower of Jesse yet bears the prize,
As the best remedy
To ease our sorrows in every part. 

I pray you, flowers of this country,
Wherever ye go, wherever ye be,
Hold up the flower of good Jesse,
Above your freshness and your beauty,
As fairest of all,
Which ever was and ever shall be.
~John Audelay 15th century priest (translated from old English)

 

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God Was Here: I Greet Him

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I am soft sift 
In an hourglass—at the wall 
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift, 
And it crowds and it combs to the fall; 
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane, 
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall 
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein 
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift. 
I kiss my hand 
To the stars, lovely-asunder 
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and 
Glow, glory in thunder; 
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west: 
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder, 
His mystery must be instressed, stressed; 
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand. 
It dates from day 
Of his going in Galilee; 
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey; 
Manger, maiden’s knee; 
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat; 
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be, 
Though felt before, though in high flood yet— 
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from The Wreck of the Deutschland
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Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. 
1Timothy 3:16

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back, again and again, to read the story.  He visited us and never left.  We greet Him then and now — we who are nothing but soft sift in an hourglass.

How can this be?  God appearing on earth first to animals, and then to the most humble of humans.

How can He be?  Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit, the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

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O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
Alleluia!

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

God Was Here: Visited

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Annunciation by Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

…we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. . . . Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet. We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
~J.B. Phillips  from Watch for the Light

 

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Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ by Govert Flinck

 

I want to be like Mary, awed yet accepting, as the angel interrupts her daily routine with an incredible announcement.

I want to be like the shepherds, silenced and aghast, flattened with so much fear that I need to be reminded “do not be afraid.”

I want to be like Joseph whose life is never to be the same again, as my self-sufficiency and sense of “how things should be” is shot through and leaking dry.

Only then my heart will be ready to receive this visitor.  Only then.

 

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The Dream of Saint Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1773

1. This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

2. The first thing which I do relate,
Is That God did man create
The next thing which to you I tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

3. Then after this was God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise,
There to remain from evil free
Except they eat of such a tree.

4. But they did eat, which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin —
Ruin’d themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.

5. Thus we were as heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by His Son.
~the Herefordshire Carol

Collected by E. M. Williams from 
Mr. W. Jenkins, Kings Pyon, Herefordshire, July, 1909. Music Noted by R. Vaughan William

 

 

 

This Restless Heart

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The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain
Loveliness.
~John Updike from “A Child’s Calendar”
 
 
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Yea, I have looked, and seen November there;
The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness too great for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity,
In whose void patience how can these have part,
These outstretched feverish hands, this restless heart?
~William Morris, “November”
 
 

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Even as worn and wrinkly I feel these days,
I know there still is beauty hidden within
as I look into your eyes that remember,
your eyes that saw me young
once so smooth and fresh and soft,
in yielding to fit you before we fall
together, beautifully in bloom.

 

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