A Christmas Paradox: Fresh Born and Cross-Blessed

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As once a Child was planted in a womb
(and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross)
one year we dug a hole to plant a tree.
Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine,
pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip
touched with a red as deep as human blood.
It rooted well, and every year it grows
more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud
into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine.
Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark
speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark.
Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine
radiant, and each cross-blessed,
as if all love and loveliness has been compressed
into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s
new-born presence, a life only just begun.

The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall,
their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls,
each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible.
The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root,
speaks pain and life and love compressed
and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible
that now all Eucharists in our year suggest
the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from 
Eye of the Beholder

 

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God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger

 

 

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Today we celebrate the paradox of Christ, the Son of God, coming to the world through the womb of a woman, born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.

The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now,
already here but not yet.

We, the children of the Very God of Very God,
are cross-blessed to know He is found, fresh-born, beside us.
We have only to look, listen and taste.

 

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An Advent Paradox: He Who Was Rich Became Poor

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No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything,
look down on others, those who have no need even of God
– for them there will be no Christmas.

Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
~ Oscar Romero

 

 

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We overflow with abundance when we acknowledge our poverty of spirit ~
only filled by One rich beyond measure, but who became poor for us.

He became poor so we recognize our true need for Him.
We who are rich in so many material ways still hunger and thirst –
floundering, not flourishing.

For love’s sake He chooses poverty, humility and suffering.
He chooses us and we’re poor no longer.

 

 

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Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee. 
~Frank Houghton

 

 

An Advent Paradox: Power Abandoned to Powerlessness

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Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath,
when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second,
and the Word, who had called it all into being,
went with all his love into the womb of a young girl,
and the universe started to breathe again,and the ancient harmonies resumed their song,
and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power. Greater power than we can imagine,
abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child,
still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid,
unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.
Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose,
slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough,
and it is time for birth.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity,
Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes,
willingly and lovingly leaving all that power
and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years
to show us what we ought to be and could be.
Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine,
to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.
~Madeline L’Engle from Bright Evening Star

 

 

 

It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

 

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There is no longer a void or darkness upon the face of the deep.  The stars need no longer to hold their breath.

There is unfathomed power in the powerlessness of this gift to us.

Grace has come in the face of Jesus the Son, through God the Father who moves among us, His Spirit changing everything, now and always.

Do not be afraid.
You are not alone in the dark
though wounded, though scarred.
You are loved, never forgotten.
Don’t forget.

 

 

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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.

 

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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: Filled Because I’m Emptied

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“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be as you have said.”
Luke 1: 38

 

…to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.
~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”

 

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The Annunciation by Henry Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

I want it to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel abandoned and completely emptied.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled. How am I to respond to such a paradox?

In my work in a University Health Center, I see this struggle in the lives of young adults: a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the waves that crash and overwhelm. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is to panic, facing uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self-medicate in any way easily accessible: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is compounded and descends into deepening depression.

The sadness and hopelessness, even anger –is a discouragement stemming from the lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out, being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else knows the depth of the pain.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my forty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty.
You are there to plug the bleeding hole and fill me.

So I sing through my fear, through my weariness, through my tears.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

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Matthias Stomer’s Annunciation

 

 

 

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

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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