Tag Archives: Advent

Advent Manna 4: The Promise

Advent Manna – Short Takes on the Themes of Advent

The Promise

Christ tells us that here is where we are to linger, to stay awake, to wait
and be ready – here in the bleak and barren heart of our need.

How long can you carry a secret, a gift of saving love, before giving birth to it? How long can you ponder in your heart and sit on the stone path in the sun? After a while it becomes obvious that something is up your sleeve, or under your tunic. Someone’s delight is in you and is growing bigger every day.

What is it? Who is it? How is this done? We are each alone here. There were no witnesses when Gabriel came. One or two may understand, who are strong when we are weak, who have hope when we have despair, who have faith when we have none. For the most part we must face rejection, fears, doubts, and devils alone.

And then, suddenly in the night, comes the sharp all-encompassing pain of labor – so much more painful than we had ever imagined it could be.

It may not look like all that much, your child and your offering of yourself as a mother of redemption. It may seem a small thing compared to Mary’s child. The child you bear may be nothing more (or less) than the courage to get through a bad day, or a shred of hope you cling to like a broken raft in the midst of a churning sea.

Waiting, waiting – how did she keep the promise alive, the hope, the word which was spoken to her, through all the days and nights while she walked the rocky paths? What good could come out of Nazareth? How can this be?  I have no husband. I have no money. I have no hope. I have no skill… But he said, Nothing is impossible with God.

A secret between her and the angel, a child growing in a hostile environment and stillness at dusk when the light slides under the horizon leaving a golden smear of hushed anticipation.

She was like a tiny flame in a sea of  darkness.

___________________________________________
Advent Manna are short pieces taken from my writing over the years on the themes of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. This post is an edited excerpt from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000. Chapter 34, p 179. 

A blessed Christmas to you all. Keep your flame lit. May you be entrusted with a task to match the largeness of your soul.

Holy Ground – Quarterly Reflection on the Contemplative Life. See the summer issue here: Summer 2018 Holy Ground x
Subscribe to Holy Ground here. It makes a great Christmas gift for a friend!
Advertisements

Sighs Too Deep – Like a Cat

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

                                                                                                         Romans 8:26

Like a cat

on soft pawsSeal on lap
you come
turning
settling.
The weight
of you
silences me.
Words scatter
fall apart
crumbling leaves
at my feet.

The refrigerator hums.
We breathe.

 

I find I am increasingly drawn into silence in response to the latest outrage, injustice, violence, or suffering, which lifts its terror, anger, and sorrow for a day or two, until it is drowned out by other cries, other horrors.

This silence, like a cat, is neither retreat, nor numbness. It is not denial, nor shrinking fear. Rather, it is a persistent and irresistible summons.

The silence owns me, abides in me, and will have its way with me. So I consent. I stop trying to be efficient and productive. I stop trying to understand, to explain, or defend.

I surrender.
I hold silence.

 

Perhaps you will find yourself similarly drawn and join me in holding silence in this season of waiting and hope. Some of us need to do this. That kitten is just waiting for you to sit down.

The Father spoke one Word,
which was his Son,christ-icon-mt-athos
and this Word
he speaks
always in eternal silence,
and in silence
must it be heard
by the soul.

–  St. John of the Cross

Word – Eventide Psalm of Longing Love

The Father spoke one word, which was his Son,
and this word he speaks always in eternal silence.
 St. John of the Cross.

Sundown

At the woods’ edge I wait for you
to come heal the violence in me.

I look and look at the trees,
scrawled limbs
framing the plum stained sky.

I look and look at the fawn in the clearing,
the cedar with blue berries,
the red sun sliding under the horizon.
I look and look at the dark
creeping over the countryside.

At vespers you
peer in windows,
meow at the door,
home into my heart.
I cannot get enough
of you 
filling my senses
with sweet awareness. 

You, the Word
in whom our wordiness dissolves,*
silence us.

As leaves loosen and float to the earth,
we tumble over, lay our bodies upon the path.
You come, finger over your lips – Hush, be still –
to take back territories in our souls,
lands occupied by greed, fear, envy.

It is 5:28 pm, and I am weary of words,
the fury of opinions, righteous indignation,
and ideas clanking in the mind like heavy coins.

The vain prattle cannot muffle the murmur
of Herods plotting to kill innocents,
nor the hiss of evil waiting under every rock.

Yet I do believe that all we say and do
counts as nothing next to you,
inexorable Word,
bearing down
into us from on high.

His father opened his mouth
spoke mercy
out came Jesus.
Jeshua. Hush! 

His mother squatted over cold stones,
pushed, out came an infant
wailing, wrinkled.
Hush!

The child gazes into our faces.
A hand reaches toward us.
You – absorb our isolation,
sponge up our misery –
a soft warm cheek
to hold against the dark.

image

*The phrase, Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves, appears in the poem, Without Ceremony by Vassar Miller.

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birthddddxxxxx CDC zf
to redemption in your time and place.

Part Two – Conceiving the Inconceivable

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

Mary takes hold of,
seizes
the inconceivable.

The purity and faith of the virgin
penetrate the illusion and falsity
that surround her,
and she offers her whole being –

intellect, imagination, heart, and body-

to deliver redemption into her world.

She claims her power
as the mother of redemption
and joins with God in a dance of saving love.

That same dance has the power to transform Cousin Carl in his fake angel costume and Aunt Edith with her hair in curlers into the heavenly hosts,

and you and me into bearers of Christ.

Do you see the mutuality in this exchange of love
between a mortal and the Holy One?

The prophet Zephaniah calls Israel to rejoice
because God is in her midst;
he further proclaims that this God in her midst is rejoicing over her with gladness (3: 14-18).

Israel rejoices over God.
God rejoices over Israel.
God chooses Mary.
Mary chooses God.
We long for peace and wholeness.
God longs to give us peace and wholeness.

What prevents more of this dancing in our lives and world?
A significant impediment must be our fear.

In the story of Christ’s birth several of the players are exhorted not to fear – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. The gospel writers over twenty times show Jesus admonishing others not to fear.

Fear may be seen as one of the indicators of the presence of God. Fear of God, which is the human response to God’s overpowering majesty, glory, and power, is an appropriate and desired reaction. In contrast, fear of the world, fear of self and others is seen as counterproductive to God’s action in our lives.

Beatrice Bruteau writes of faith as an attitude of the consciousness that is participating in divine activity, God’s creative work in the world. Faith is “the disposition which Jesus declared to be a condition for the realization of his works. The doer of the work had to have faith, and the receiver of the work had to have faith.”

Brutear considers faith as “not only the consent of the intellect to the reality of something that does not appear immediately to the sense, but it is the consent of the imagination and the affective faculties attached to the imagination.”
– Beatrice Bruteau, Prayer: Insight and Manifestation, in Contemplative Review, Fall 1983

Thus, the new thing God is doing enters this world –

as we agree something better is possible,

as we are able to vividly envision the new thing,

as we feel in our hearts the joy and delight of that yet unborn promise,

as we persevere in that vision in the face of fear and threats,

and as we live expectantly as if the vision is accomplished.

Fear keeps us stuck in the present reality, constricted and paralyzed by the very thing God is setting about to redeem. Fear distracts us from watching and waiting eagerly for the in breaking of God’s promises into the world. Fear turns our eyes away from the coming bridegroom to become mesmerized by the horror of a realm that does not know God.

Fear, then may be seen as faith in your enemy.

The danger, as Ian Matthews writes, “is of folding in on oneself. Pain does that, and the temptation is to look for a both/and:

both staying with the new setting, and feeding on nostalgia for the old one.

Unhappily this both/and tends to backfire. We cannot both indulge self-pity and make the most of a new situation.”
– Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Simply put, our faith, as does Mary’s consent, allows Christ to enter the world.

Think for a moment.
How do you feel when someone expresses faith in you?
When another trusts you and has faith in your gifts, are you not enlarged, empowered, and more willing to offer your gifts?

Perhaps the reason why Jesus urges his followers to have faith, why he shakes his head in dismay at the disciples doubts and fear, is that their faith in Jesus empowered Jesus.

So, as Annie Dillard writes: “Faith, crucially, is not assenting intellectually to a series of doctrinal propositions; it is living in conscious and rededicated relationship with God.” Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.

Further, faith is not a vague and wispy sense that God is out there somewhere looking on us with a benevolent eye, nor is it an exercise of philosophical proofs.

Faith is the means by which God enters and changes our reality.

Faith is an interactive experience, a dance of mutual love between a mortal and God in which both parties are needed, affected, and changed for the benefit of the whole world.

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem.

The Lord has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
Zephaniah 3:14-18 (CEB)

Adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birth
to redemption in your time and place.

Part One – Mary and Cousin Carl

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

Most every epiphany or showing of God in scriptures is met with fear. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying,  “Rejoice, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary does not break out in ecstatic bliss. Instead she is greatly troubled at the saying. As Luke tells it, she considers in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And well she might. It was probably not the first time some itinerant ladies’ man claiming to be an angel had come on to her.

The angels in the Bible get some of the worst lines. They are hard to pull off with any authenticity. Enter one angel Gabriel with a flourish of wings and heavenly splendor who must make believable both his incredible presence and the words: “Rejoice, O favored one.”  Smile, God loves you. This is your lucky day! Any virgin with an ounce of sense might consider in her mind, “Right sweetie. Have I ever heard that one before.”

The immensity of the heavens is about to invade Mary in a mysterious and awesome conception that will defy rational explanation and accomplish an incarnation that ushers in the redemption of the world. Yet before Christ is born, Mary must face her fear and make a choice. And so it is with us. When God’s cheery messenger meets us with the news that we will conceive and bring forth the fruit of salvation, fear rather than joy is likely to be our first response.

A-Annunciation_da_MessinaMessengers sent by God to announce God’s saving love often wear camouflage. They have a hundred disguises. Can we trust that they are who they say they are? This seed of hope they want to place within us, dare we believe it, receive it? What if we are mistaken and this is all a dream or a product of our own egotistical imaginations? What arrogance makes you think you can bear sacred saving gifts into the world? This is no angel, but Cousin Carl dressed up in Aunt Edith’s chenille bathrobe with some tinfoil wings and a halo made out of a pie pan!

In real life angels rarely look like the ones in paintings. And yet, does it matter if the angel really is Cousin Carl? To me, what matters is that we believe that holiness and salvation are afoot, whatever ridiculous disguises they wear.

Prior to the advent of God’s redeeming love in our lives and world comes a courageous act of faith. The birth of Christ is contingent on the belief of a young girl with an imagination creative enough to envision the impossible and a sense of her worth strong enough to defy fear and anxiety. She places her whole being in jeopardy as she lays out her life and all that she holds dear on the gamble that there is a God in the heaven who might have some business to do with her.

We are to rely on faith rather than evidence, Ian Matthews writes in his interpretation of St. John of the Cross. Yet, here’s the kicker: the danger St. John warns of “is not so much that we shall trust in the wrong thing, but that we shall stop trusting at all; that, while we may never say it in so many words, we shall cease to believe that we are factor in God’s life.”

Matthews continues:
Survival demands a certain skepticism. We are trained to cope as social beings by keeping our desires within realistic limits. But where God is concerned, the problem lies in our desiring too little, and growing means expanding our expectations; or rather, making [God’s] generosity, not our poverty, the measure of our expectations.  – Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Mary, sizing up her heavenly visitor, is moving from the rather safe place of conventional norms into a new realm where few of the old rules will make much sense. No one else can judge for her the validity of that grinning angel holding out joy like Aunt Edith’s peanut brittle. Should she take a bite? She hasn’t forgotten that incident in the garden with the serpent. What is truth? How can she be sure this is an invitation from God?

There are no books she can read, no wise men and women she can consult. She alone must determine and act on her own truth. How will Joseph or her village ever believe what is happening to her? Yet what others will think is not her ultimate concern. Her concern is obedience to the living God, to hope, to the possibility of wonder that lies beyond what the eye can see.

Joseph and the others must come to their own conclusions. They, along with the rest of us, are given that freedom. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, Joseph says to Gabriel:

All I ask is one important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
Gabriel responds:
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.

Weighing the odds, Mary asks one question, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”

“No problem,” guarantees the angel. And citing the case of barren Elizabeth, he assures her that with God nothing is impossible. Mary’s question raises a far from minor point. The participation of a male is a basic ingredient for conception. When God sends a divine messenger to us announcing that we have been chosen to bring forth some saving work, it may appear that some major components for success have been omitted. How shall this be since I have no money? Since I have no work? Since I have no education?

“No worry, it’ll be a cinch,” says Cousin Carl, snapping his fingers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

Finally it is up to Mary. The redemption of the cosmos is resting on the consent, the free choice of this mortal woman to have faith, to believe that what she is experiencing is true, and to claim and live out her experience of that truth by conceiving the fruit of salvation.

What will be your answer to Cousin Carl?

 

A_Annunciation_Collier

_______________________

 To be continued ~ watch for part two of this two part series. Will Mary say yes?  And what’s faith got to do with it?

This post is adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

It Begins with a Howl – Redux

shepherds 001blue

It begins with a howl

a muffled sob at midnight
a “Help me!” filling the dark alley
with terror
a fist banging on the door
a blank stare and a hand clenching
a ball of tissue
a sudden lurch and collapse, face down in the open field.

This is how it begins, what we call Christmas.
Salvation is summoned by its negation.

The raw expression of the creation’s need calls out its savior –

the scream
that rises from the soul shattering collision

of what is with what should be.

Christmas begins when God hears

And God heard the voice of the boy… Genesis 21:17

I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Exodus 3:7

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:13

Christmas begins when God sees

 I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.  Exodus 3:7

My tears will flow without ceasing, without respite until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees. Lamentations 3: 49-50

She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!”

“Yes, he saw me; then I saw him!”
That’s how the desert spring got named God-Alive-Sees-Me Spring. Genesis 16: 13-14

Christmas begins when the earth turns,
writhes, and convulses in its lamentation.

When the protest of the human heart joins its sorrow
with the heart of the One acquainted with grief,

Holiness steps out of the forest
into the clearing

“Here,” bending over our
our small shaking bodies
our hopeless cynicism
our little hands grasping at straws

“Here is my answer,” Holiness says,
and places in those hands
a child
wet and wild.

“And the name of the child shall be Love.”

This post is an edited version of a post which was first published
November 29, 1011.

This post is an edited version of a post which was first published
November 29, 1011.

When Hope Fails – Redux

Hope is what gets a lot of people through the Christmas season. And the failure of hope is what leaves some souls shipwrecked on the treacherous rocks of the sin and imperfection of this world.

What is it for you this year? Death of a loved one? Spouse in Afghanistan? Unemployed? House foreclosed? Cancer?

Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression.  It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.           Rubem Alves
 

She was fourteen. She sat next to me as we drove home after the Christmas Eve service. Lights sparkled from distant homes across the snow-covered fields. Shattered with pain and trying not to show it, I tried to focus on driving. After a while she spoke out of the darkness, “Mom, things aren’t ever going to be the same, are they?”

That year, our family had been struck by a blow from which we would never fully recover. In spite of  brave efforts, prayer, and sacrifice we could not put back together what was broken and, perhaps, fatally flawed.

During that season of suffering, hope became nearly eclipsed by fear, anger, shame, and pain. Each evening I turned briefly from my grief in defiance of “the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression,” and lit a candle for hope. Even though I felt no hope, I let the candle hold my hope for hope.

In those days I clung to the verse of scripture the minister preached at our wedding. Remember thy word to thy servant in which thou hast made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that thy word gives me life. Psalm 119: 49-50

What an odd text for a wedding, you may think. Yet as the years unfolded it became more and more meaningful. I prayed it, holding God accountable to the goodness promised to me in scripture and whispered to my soul. God’s promise of joy, peace, and love comforted me and gave me the ability to keep breathing in my affliction.

Carmelite writer Constance Fitzgerald writes about the movement in our spiritual journey from “naïve hope to theological hope.”

Through experiences of loss and suffering, naïve hope in a Santa Claus god and other illusions nurtured by our egos and culture give way to a different, richer kind of hope.

We let go of placing our hope in our own efforts, our own goodness, our own “luck” or worthiness. We let go of our “right” to ourselves and our way. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we numbly watch our way wrenched from our grasp. We face our helplessness and the truth that we are not in control. Hope in oneself and one’s little plans and projects dies on the cross of our life experience.

It is there in that stillness of a drive back home on the worst Christmas Eve in one’s life, while a child’s heartbreaking question hangs in the air, that hope in God is born.

You may miss it at first, especially if the pain is choking you.
But refuse to let the last word be the brutality of facts.
Go ahead and light that tiny candle.
Defy the darkness.
And pay attention.
A baby is on its way.
Something fragile and new and unimaginably sweet
is making its way into your consciousness.

I tell my daughter, “Yes, honey, things will not be the same. But I believe somehow or other, things will be all right.”

And they were.


Special thanks to artist Anne Emmons for her permission to use “Hope” in this blog. You can reach Anne at anneemmons_8@msn.com or on Facebook.

Here is Anne’s story about this painting:  I was trying to think of one moment in the Biblical narrative which captures the theme of hope.  Each year I have made a new image for Christmas since 1997, and in 2000, I was struck by the idea of hope as the source of light. The images in this series reflect the thought that Christ came, the Light of the world, into darkness. So I was thinking about one single moment in the story and I realized the moment Mary heard the announcement from the Archangel Gabriel must be the moment hope found a form, in her face. At the time, my daughter was almost 14, the estimated age of the Virgin Mary, and I suddenly connected with the story in a particular way. I kept her home from school that morning to have her sit for the painting. What struck me, and this has since been confirmed from other sources, most recently Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, was that the Incarnation was possible only through God’s will in union with the “yes” of the young Mary, who became the bearer of the Uncontainable God. Just after I painted this I saw the Pontormo Annuciation in a small side chapel in Florence, and Mary had the same sort of look of wonder I tried to catch.  Now my daughter Claire has a two year old son, Theodore. She is a single mother who said yes to the birth of this child, whose name she chose, not knowing it means “gift of God.”

This is a previously published post (December 2009)  with some light editing.