Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

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Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified,
even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.
His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but
the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that,
where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.

~John Donne –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

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It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

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Preparing the Heart: Came Down from Heaven

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The Nativity by Le Nain, Antoine and Louis (d.1648) & Mathieu (1607-77)

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

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Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
 
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 6-8

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[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which,
rushing up on the flat beach,
runs out, even thinner and more transparent,
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

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 Among Us: Opening Heart and Hands

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…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Matthew 1:20-22,24

 

I see the hands of Joseph.
Back and forth along bare wood they move.
There is worry in those working hands,
sorting out confusing thoughts with every stroke.
“How can this be, my beautiful Mary now with child?” 
Rough with deep splinters, these hands,
small, painful splinters like tiny crosses
embedded deeply in this choice to stay with her.
He could have closed his hands to her,
said, “No” and let her go to stoning.
But, dear Joseph opened both his heart and hands
to this mother and her child.
Preparing in these days before
with working hands
and wood pressed tight between them.
It is these rough hands that will open
and be the first to hold the Child.
~Catherine Alder from “Advent Hands”

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In these weeks of Advent waiting,
we are stretched beyond what we ever thought possible:
to change our plans to God’s plan,
to accept what is unacceptable,
to include the excluded,
to grasp understanding of the incomprehensible,
to open closed heart and hands
and let the Christ Child in
so we can hold Him as Joseph did that night.
If Joseph could do it,
despite all he’d been taught,
despite the derision–
if he could still trust,
and obey,
and believe,
how can we not?
~EPG

 

Go to sleep my Son
This manger for your bed
You have a long road before You
Rest Your little head

Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Or does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?

Go to sleep my Son
Go and chase Your dreams
This world can wait for one more moment
Go and sleep in peace

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child

Go to sleep my Son
Baby, close Your eyes
Soon enough You’ll save the day
But for now, dear Child of mine
Oh my Jesus, Sleep tight

He was her man, she was his wife
And late one winter night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child,
It wasn’t his child

Yet still he took him as his own
And as he watched him grow
It brought him joy
But it wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
His son was different from the rest
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

And when the boy became a man
He took his father’s hand
And soon the world
Would all know why
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
He grew up with his hands in wood
And he died with his hands in wood
He was God’s child,
He was God’s child

He was her man
She was his wife
And late one night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child
It was God’s child

 

How could it be
This baby in my arms,
Sleeping now, so peacefully?
“The Son of God,” the angel said,
How could it be?

Lord I know, He’s not my own
Not of my flesh, not of my bone.
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love.

Chorus
Father show me where I fit into this plan of Yours,
How can a man be father to the Son of God?
Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter,
How can I raise a King, How can I raise a King?

He looks so small, His face and hands so fair,
And when He cries the sun just seems to disappear.
But when He laughs, it shines again,
How could it be?
~Michael Card

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The Hand That Hurled the World

The Holy Night by Carlo Maratta
The Holy Night by Carlo Maratta

Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.
~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur

 

A Canticle for Advent: Sun’s First Dawning Ray

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Oh little child it’s Christmas night
And the sky is filled with glorious light
Lay your soft head so gently down
It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.

Chorus:
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king.

Sleep while the shepherds find their way
As they kneel before you in the golden hay
For they have brought you a woolly lamb
On Christmas night in Bethlehem.

Sleep till you wake at the break of day
With the sun’s first dawning ray
You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown
On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.

Alleluia
~Lori Pappajohn

A Common Nativity

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.
It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left.
It is the nativity of our common Adam.

–  Charles Lamb  

We come to this new year
naked as dormant branches
in the freezing night.

Mere potential is barely budded,
nothing covered up,
no hiding in shame.

A shared and common birthday,
a still life nativity in a winter garden,
another chance to make it right.

Christmas Sings: Joy Bursts Us Open

Altodorfer Nativity painted in 1511
Altdorfer Nativity painted in 1513

Joy abides with God
and it comes down from God
and embraces spirit, soul, and body;
and where this joy has seized a person,
there it spreads,
there it carries one away,
there it bursts closed doors.

A sort of joy exists
that knows nothing at all
of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread;
it does not last,
it can only numb a person for the moment.

The joy of God
the poverty of the manger
and the agony of the cross;
that is why it is invincible,
irrefutable.

Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final circular letter
to his friends in November 1942, before his imprisonment and execution by the Nazis

Bonhoeffer also wrote about this particular nativity painting by Albrecht Altdorfer:
The Altdorfer Nativity, which portrays the Holy Family at the manger amidst the ruins of a dilapidated house – whatever made him do that 400 years ago, against all tradition? – is especially on my mind these days. Perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us, “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.”


There is nothing attractive or sweet about Altdorfer’s 500 year old portrayal of the nativity scene.  It expresses the stark truth of the Savior’s coming to us: we are in ruins and He was born within our shattered shell.   We cannot be more broken, more fragile than we are in this moment.  He is born into that unwelcoming falling down mess, bringing to us irrefutable joy.

This is joy that bursts outside the boundaries of our misery.
This is incomparable invincible joy to rebuild us from the inside.

This is Christmas celebrated within our broken hearts:  joy amidst the ruins.