Pulling Down Christmas

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What went up must come down.  It isn’t just a law of physics.  It is the reality of Christmas.

True,  some houses have multicolored lights strung along their gutters year round, just not illuminated.  And I’ve known some people’s artificial trees to stay up until Valentine’s Day or longer.   But most of us dismantle what we so lovingly strung up, trimmed and decorated only a month or so ago.  It is a sad day taking down Christmas.

As a child I was so reluctant to see the tree come down that I’d cut a sprig of evergreen branch,  complete with tinsel, and would put it in a vase of water in my bedroom in order for a small part of Christmas to linger a little longer.  By April it would be crispy dry and forgotten and my mother would sneak in and toss it out, without my even missing it.

All the anticipation is spent and our energy wanes.  Winter has only begun and now we’re boxing up the twinkling lights and putting away the ribbons and bows.  All the fun stuff is tucked away for another year in the garage and attic.   Maybe we have the timing of this celebration all wrong.  Instead of the Twelve Days of Christmas it should be the Twelve Weeks–the lights should stay up until St. Patrick’s Day at least, just to keep us out of the shadows and doldrums of winter.

Today, as I swept up the last of the fir needles that had dropped to the floor, I knew, like the tree that I watered faithfully in the house for over two weeks, I too have been drying up and parts of me  left behind for others to sweep up.    There had been the excitement of family brought together from all ends of the earth,  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 the eyes have to close.

So we will now 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 need it.

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.

Instead of us pulling down Christmas, Christmas pulls us up from the doldrums, alive to possibility.

Every day. Year round. And we hold our breath, listening and waiting.

 

A perfect description of the persistence of Advent and Christmas comes from one of my favorite writers and theologians Frederick Buechner:

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin b​ows are poised. The conductor has raised the baton.

In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.

You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.

But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of yourself somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.
~originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words

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Sudden Ends of Time

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These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time.
~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner

I’m not paying close enough attention if  I’m too busy looking for kleenex.  It seems the last couple weeks I have had more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next, and I’m loading my pockets with kleenex, just in case.

It mostly has to do with welcoming our children, their spouses and their friends back home for the holidays to become a full out noisy messy chaotic household again, with lots of music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again, as we begin to do a few hours from now and, to gather them in for the hug and then unclasping and letting go, urging and encouraging them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be.  I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I knew to set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this farm, this marriage, this family, this work, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I live long enough to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I should go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me.   They release the fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spilling down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.  No kleenex needed.  Let it flow.

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Between Two Rooms


In 1959, our family moved from an older 2 story farm house in a rural community north of Seattle, to a rambler style home on seven acres just outside the city limits of Olympia, Washington.  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 on fewer acres.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had side by side mirror image rooms as the 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 which was shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate the Christmas tree, so it was partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilling 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, containing the only carpeting in the house and our “best” furniture,  was sacrosanct by parental decree.  To keep our two matching sectional sofas,  an upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was off-limits unless we had company or for some very specific reason, like practicing the piano that sat in one corner.    The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pets 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 where our family gathered, talked loudly, laughed much or roughhoused on the floor.  This was not a room for arguments or games and certainly not for toys. For most of the year, the “living” room was not lived in at all. 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 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.  Only on Christmas morning, it was our privilege to “mess” up the living room with wrapping paper, ribbons and us.

It was as if the Christmas tree itself symbolized a house divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where daily “living” was actually taking place.  Our tree straddled more than just the two rooms.  Every year the tree’s branches tried to reach out to shelter a family that was slowly and imperceptibly falling apart, much like the drying fir needles falling to the floor, only to be swept away.

Dismissed in Peace

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Seventy two years ago this week, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t a typical wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so it must have been love.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death six years ago, their letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together, reside now in a box in my bedroom. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that beyond those realities, things could go sour after reuniting.

The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver.  After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality.  When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.

And so too there must have been expectations of happiness in the barn on that first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. Those challenges mounted up quickly: there was to be no room for them, there was a baby to deliver without assistance from anyone, and the threat of Herod’s murder of innocents eventually drove them from their home country.

When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon,  to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world.  He prays to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash the reality to come. It would have been easy to do so– simply mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as the rejection, anguish and suffering that He would experience. Not only that, but the pain is not His alone but will be His parents’ to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.

Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces our living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.

My parents, such young idealistic adults 72 years ago, now servants dismissed from this life in peace. As I peer at their faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes, then unaware of what was to come,  now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.

Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt

Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt

Celebrating His Arrival: Out of the Shadows Into the Light

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…the point is that God is with us,
not beyond us,
in suffering.
Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls
around individual human suffering,
that Christ’s compassion
makes extreme human compassion
—to the point of death even—possible.
Human love can reach right into death,
then, but not if it is merely human love.

~Christian Wiman

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There is nothing I can give you
Which you have not;
But there is much that,
While I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us
Unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future
Which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so, at this Christmastime,
I greet you with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513

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I Will Comfort You

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little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see          i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look          the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”
by e.e. cummings [little tree]
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Awaiting His Arrival: From Darkness to Flame

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 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
John 1: 1-9

 

Like a candle flame
Flickering small in our darkness
Uncreated light
Shines through infant eyes

God is with us, alleluia
God is with us, alleluia
Come to save us, alleluia
Come to save us
Alleluia!

Stars and angels sing
Yet the earth sleeps in shadows
Can this tiny spark
Set a world on fire?

Yet his light shall shine
From our lives, Spirit blazing
As we touch the flame
Of his holy fire
~Graham Kendrick