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: A Baby Sleeps But God Does Not

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Unexpected God, 
your advent alarms us. 
Wake us from drowsy worship, 
from the sleep that neglects love, 
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. 
Awaken us now to your coming, 
and bend our angers into your peace. 
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
This is no gentle bedtime story: Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt, immigrants seeking asylum,  fleeing that fate for their only Son.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured, hung on a cross until he gave up his spirit.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant to be sacrificed, to die and rise again, to return again as King of all nations.  No signal flares needed.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God who is not dead and never sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” and should “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

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.

 

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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!

An Advent Paradox: In From Out

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Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

 

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The Lord brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
~1 Samuel 2: 6 from the Song of Hannah

 

 

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Hannah’s prayer describes the Lord in all His paradox of reversals:
the strong are broken
those who stumble strengthened,
the satisfied end up working for food
the hungry become filled,
the barren woman bears children
the mother of many pines away,
the poor and needy are lifted up to sit with princes.

He humbles and exalts–we have read the stories of how the Lord uses such reversals to instruct and inspire His people.

Yet nothing Hannah says is as radical and unprecedented as being brought down to the grave and then raised up, the Lord causing death and making alive.   This makes no sense.  Once in the grave, there is no escape.  Death cannot be reversed like the weak becoming strong, the hungry filled, the barren fertile, the poor enriched.

Hannah sings that this will indeed happen, just as the other reversals happened.  It would take centuries, but her prayer is fulfilled in the child born to Mary, who lives and dies and lives again in the greatest reversal of all.

There can be no greater mystery than a God who chooses to walk the earth as a man among the poor, the needy, the helpless, the sick, the blind, the lame, the wicked, the barren, the hungry, the weak.

There can be no greater reversal than God Himself dying–put away down into the grave– and then rising up, glorious, in the ultimate defeat of darkness and death.

Hannah already knew this as a barren woman made full through the blessing of the Lord, choosing to empty herself by giving her son back to God.

Mary knew this as a virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, choosing to empty herself by bearing, raising and giving her Son back to the Father.

The angels knew this, welcoming the Son of God to a throne in a manger as He is born to bring light to the darkness, and peace to a torn and ruptured world.

We know this too.   We are the weak, the hungry, the poor, the dying filled completely through the love and sacrifice of the Triune God, and so give ourselves up to Him.

In from out, from down to up.  It can be done.  And He has done it.

 

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Have you heard the sound of the angel voices
ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear?
Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?

Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness,
like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night.
He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.

He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth’.

He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations,
when he comes to reign in purity and love.

Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming.
Let the heavens answer with a joyful morn:
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
~John Rutter “Angels’ Carol”

 

An Advent Paradox: Hands Too Small

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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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As the universe expands around us,  our faith, in response, spirals inward.
The Hands that flung the stars and planets into their places now reach inside us to grip and hold our hearts.

It’s the little things that feed our faith:
there are so many to remember during this month of waiting.

And it begins with the paradox of small Hands.

 

 

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The Paradox of Already But Not Yet

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If ever you find yourself in the midst of paradox,
you can be sure you stand on the edge of truth.

~Diana Gabaldon from An Echo in the Bone

 

 

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Tomorrow we begin the season of Advent: the greatest time of year for great mystery and paradox.

One who never left us, came to us, did not leave us hopeless,  yet will come again.
Already, but not yet.

This is the ultimate paradox of our times:
Our Creator God pierces through the veil of humankind to become us, His Image Man;
He comes to live among us to live in us and for us and through us,
to die for us and rise to life again so that we may not die but live.

He has come, He never left, yet He will come again.

When we feel ourselves in the midst of paradox, we find we are on the verge of Truth.
Perhaps enough paradox for one day — standing on the edge of Truth feels a tad overwhelming.

More to come…

 

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Known Autumn Too Long

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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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