In Dazzling Darkness

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Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year,
Wake, O earth, awake,
Out of the hills a star appears,
Here lies the way for pilgrim kings,
Three magi on an ancient path,
Black hours begin their journeyings.

Their star has risen in our hearts,
Empty thrones, abandoning fears,
Out on the hills their journey starts,
In dazzling darkness God appears.
~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”

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…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas

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Unclench your fists

Hold out your hands.

Take mine.

Let us hold each other.

Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

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The Christmas season is a wrap, put away for another year.
However, our hearts are not so easily boxed up and stored as the decorations and ornaments of the season.

Our troubles and concerns go on; our frailty a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks, but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about light and birth and joy to the world.
It is about how swaddling clothes became a shroud that wrapped Him tight.
There is not one without the other.

God came to be with us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
To leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Christmas:  an unwrapping that frees us forever.
Epiphany: the evidence the Seed has taken root in our hearts.

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That Still Room

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The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to,
for sifting through the things we have done
and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who,
for better or worse, we are becoming.

We cling to the present out of wariness of the past.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—
to enter that still room within us all
where the past lives on as a part of the present,
where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.

The name of the room is Remember—
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
~Frederick Buechner

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In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

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Preparing the Heart: What is Coming Behind the Crocus

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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”

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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.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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You, who are beyond our understanding,
have made yourself understandable to us in Jesus Christ.
You, who are the uncreated God,
have made yourself a creature for us.
You, who are the untouchable One,
have made yourself touchable to us.
You, who are most high,
make us capable of understanding your amazing love
and the wonderful things you have done for us.
Make us able to understand the mystery of your incarnation,
the mystery of your life, example and doctrine,
the mystery of your cross and passion,
the mystery of your resurrection and ascension.
~Angela of Foligno (1248-1309)– prayer

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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: Fighting the Long Defeat

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He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

 

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It is only 10 days before we bid farewell to autumn and accept the arrival of the winter solstice signaling the long slow climb back to daylight. This giving-way to the darkness has felt like a defeat we may never recover from.

Yet the sunset becomes a startling send-off for fall, coloring Mt. Baker and surrounding an almost full moon with purple in the eastern sky. Our farm, for a deceptive few minutes, appears rosy and warm in crisp subfreezing weather. Then all becomes gray again, and within an hour we are shrouded in thick fog which ices the asphalt as darkness fell.  It becomes a challenge to avoid the deep ditches along our country roads, with the white fog line being the critical marker preventing potential disaster.

The ever present evening fog this time of year cloaks and smothers in the darkness, not unlike the respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses that have hit many households hard this week. Plenty of people have been vomiting, feverish, coughing and snuffling, unable to leave the bathroom or see past the ends of their swollen noses, as if the fog descended upon them in an impenetrable gray cloud. It is an unwelcome reminder of our vulnerability to microscopic organisms that can defeat us and lay us low in a matter of hours, just as a sudden freezing fog can lure us to the ditch. We are forced to stay put, our immune systems fighting back at a time when there are dozens of responsibilities vying for attention in preparation for the holidays. Little gets accomplished other than our slow wait for healing and clarity–at some point the viral fog will dissipate and we can try climbing back into life and navigating without needing the fog lines as guides.

Ditches have been very deep for some folks recently, with the diagnosis of cancers and devastating surgeries swallowing up their light and joy. Despite profound losses and pain, people courageously continue to fight, climbing their way out of the darkness to the light.

The day’s transition to night becomes bittersweet: these bright flames of color herald our uneasy future sleep after fighting the long defeat on this soil.

The sun “settles” upon the earth and so must we.

Be at ease, be comforted, put down the heavy burden and rest. We can celebrate, with chorus and gifts, the arrival of brilliant light in our lives. Instead of darkness overcoming us, our lives become illuminated in glory and grace.

The Son has settled among us.

 

Sure on this shining night of star-made shadows round,
kindness must watch for me this side the ground,
on this shining night, this shining night

The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
hearts all whole
The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth, hearts all whole
Sure on this shining night,
sure on this shining, shining night

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars
Sure on this shining night, this shining night
On this shining night, this shining night
Sure on this shining night
~from James Agee’s poem

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio:
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

 

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As Eyes Open

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A flower needs to be this size
to conceal the winter window,
and this color, the red
of a Fiat with the top down,

to impress us, dull as we’ve grown.

Months ago the gigantic onion of a bulb
half above the soil
stuck out its green tongue
and slowly, day by day,

the flower itself entered our world,

closed, like hands that captured a moth,
then open, as eyes open,
and the amaryllis, seeing us,
was somehow undiscouraged.

It stands before us now

as we eat our soup;
you pour a little of your drinking water
into its saucer, and a few crumbs
of fragrant earth fall
onto the tabletop.
~Connie Wanek “Amaryllis”
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It came home with me over a month ago,
a non-descript bulb with a green sword-blade shoot
emerging shyly from the top.

Its care and feeding
was a lot of “watch and wait”
and just a little water.
It was our December morning entertainment
as we munched down cereal,
gauging how many centimeters
it rose over night.

It took over the dining table~
two tall stalks topped with tight-fisted buds
which opened oh-so-slowly over several days
like a drowsy student on Christmas break,
not yet ready to meet and greet the world
but once the commitment to wake is made,
there is no other blossoming quite like it anywhere.

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The Work of Christmas Begins

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When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

 

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All the Advent anticipation is spent, Christmas and New Years are past and I find my energy waning just as the work of Christmas is beginning.

Instead of the Twelve Days of Christmas it should be the Twelve Weeks, or better yet, Twelve Months– maybe the lights should stay up until St. Patrick’s Day at least, just to keep us out of the shadows, inertia and doldrums of winter.

As I sweep up the last of the fir needles that dropped to the floor from this lovely tree that I watered faithfully in the house for over two weeks, I too have been drying up, parts of me left behind for others to sweep up.   There has been the excitement of family brought together from far away,  friends gathering for meals and games,  special church services, but now, some quiet time is sorely needed.   The party simply can’t be sustained.  The lights have to go off and be pulled down, and the eyes have to close.

The real work of Christmas lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not always the fun stuff of the last month, but badly needed in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

I walk into a winter replete with the startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead,  the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud and need it.

And I am readied to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality of the labor to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a blinking star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

As I take down lights and ornaments, the memory of Christmas pulls me up from the doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Every day. Twelve months. Life long.

And I’m ready.

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