An Advent Paradox: Eternal Yet Not a Day Old

 

 

O child, Creator of all! 
How humbly you lie in the manger.
You who rule powerfully in heaven!

There the heaven of heavens cannot contain you;  here, however, you are held in the narrowest manger.

There, in the beginning of the world, you decorated the earth with green grasses that produced seed, with fruit-bearing trees that produced fruit, you ornamented the heavens with the sun, the moon, and the stars, the sky with winged birds, the waters with fish, you filled the land with reptiles, draft animals, and beasts; here, however, in the end of the world, you are wrapped in swaddling clothes!

O majesty! O lowness!
O sublimity! O humility!
O immense, eternal, and Ancient of Days!
O small, temporal infant whose life is not yet one day upon the earth!

~Adam of Dryburgh from  The Roads from Bethlehem

 

 

 

There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.
John Calvin

 

 

 

 

We are blinded to the Glory given to us in a narrow manger if we allow ourselves to perceive it as something routine and commonplace.  There is nothing commonplace about the gifts of Creation or the gift of His Son as Savior.

I can’t remember the last time I celebrated even a blade of grass,  given how focused I am in mowing it into conformity and submission.  Or the fruit of the trees, the birds of the air, the fish of the seas, the beasts of burden who work for us. Too often I’m not up early enough to witness the pink sunrise or I’m too busy to take time to watch the sun paint the sky red as it sets.

I miss opportunities to rejoice innumerable times a day.  It takes only a moment of recognition and appreciation to feel joy, and for that moment time stands still.  Life stretches a little longer when I stop to acknowledge the intention of creation and sending the Son of God to earth as an endless reservoir of rejoicing.

If a blade of grass, if a palette of color, if all this is made for joy, then the coming of Jesus into the world means I was made for joy as well.

Even small temporal commonplace me.

 

An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

An Advent Paradox: Holding In What Cannot Be Contained

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What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

 

 

lupinepods

 

Advent is blessed with God’s promises, which constitute the hidden happiness of this time. These promises kindle the light in our hearts.

Being shattered, being awakened – these are necessary for Advent.

In the bitterness of awakening,
in the helplessness of “coming to,”
in the wretchedness of realizing our limitations,
the golden threads that pass between heaven and earth reach us.
These threads give the world a taste of the abundance it can have.

~Alfred Delp

 

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A seed contains all the life and loveliness of the flower, but it contains it in a little hard black pip of  a thing which even the glorious sun will  not enliven unless it is buried under the earth.  There must be a period of gestation before anything can flower.

If only those who suffer would be patient with their earthly humiliations and realize that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give place to a splendor of peace.  
~Caryll Houselander, from The Reed of God

 

 

nigellapod

 

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us in half
so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

 

 

 

 

.
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
Glory to God! Now let your praises swell!
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
2.
Angels did say, “O shepherds come and see,
Born in Bethlehem, a blessed Lamb for thee.”
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
3.
In the manger bed, the shepherds found the child;
Joseph was there, and the Mother Mary mild.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
4.
Soon came the kings from following the star,
Bearing costly gifts from Eastern lands afar.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
5.
Brought to Him gold and incense of great price;
Then the stable bare resembled Paradise.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

 

 

 

1 Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

2 In the grave they laid Him, Love who had been slain,
Thinking that He never would awake again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

3 Forth He came at Easter, like the risen grain,
Jesus who for three days in the grave had lain;
Quick from the dead the risen One is seen:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

4 When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

 

 

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An Advent Paradox: Where God is Homeless, We’re at Home

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There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam,
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)

 

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If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the grocery store check-out racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween just past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beaten to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying helpless and homeless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs – it is home for them. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving and homeless too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them and the invitation to “home”, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”.

Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I too am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times homeless, hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: He offers us a home within his homelessness, a treasure to be shared plain and simple, and nurture without end.

Who needs Christmas cookies, fancy toys and the latest fads to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Instead, you are invited home to eat your fill – just look to the manger.

 

homelights

 

 

 

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in præsepio.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Christum, Alleluia!

Translation:

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

Known Autumn Too Long

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sunset11232

 

A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too,
have known autumn too long.
~e.e. cummings

 

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No matter how stripped down I feel~
how “autumned” I’ve become:
defenseless, uncovered, barren,
soaked through by the rains
and chilled by the winds of the coming winter

I once was ablaze, alive, vibrant,
burning with color and passion,
and will be again.
Autumn is never the end of my story.

 

 

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A Clinging Mist

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My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.
~Robert Frost “My November Guest”

 

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November,
this month of deepening darkening,
transforms itself
to a recounting of gratitude
of daily thanksgiving and blessings~~

it is good to dwell on our gifts,
even so,
it is right to invite Sorrow
to sit in silence with us,
her tears blending with ours.

These dark-dwelled days
of bare stripped branches
feed our growing need
for the covering grace,
the shrouding
of His coming Light.

 

 

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We Will See What We Can Do

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pranksterhammer

 

 

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

 

pranksterhose

 

I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty three years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I haven’t forgotten.

 

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