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A guest post from Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, on a Christmas theme:

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Tim Steele

When in 2008 the BBC asked choirmasters in the United Kingdom and United States to name their favorite Christmas carol, Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” topped their list. The poem first appeared in 1872 in a holiday issue of Scribner’s Monthly, which had asked Rossetti for a contribution appropriate to the season. Though she never collected the poem in a book, her brother William included it in the edition of her Poetical Works that he published in 1904, ten years after her death. The poetry-loving Gustav Holst recognized the poem’s choral possibilities and in 1906 did a setting of it that some prefer to Darke’s, which dates from 1911.

rosetti1

She was troubled. (Photo: Lewis Carroll)

For all its lovely directness, “In the Bleak Midwinter” reflects Rossetti’s troubled religious faith. An Anglo-Catholic influenced by Calvinism and Adventism, she found God the Father terrifying and remote but identified with the humanity and suffering of Jesus. In describing the nativity, she mentions the attendant celestial spirits but stresses the earthier elements of the scene—the tangible milk and love that Mary gives her child and the comforting companionship of the animals in the stable. This attraction to natural manifestations of divinity may remind us of Emily Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s nearly exact contemporary and of whose work Rossetti was an early champion. (Both poets were born in the bleak, midwintery December of 1830—Rossetti on the 5th, Dickinson on the 10th—though Dickinson died in 1886, eight years before Rossetti.)

Below is the text of Rossetti’s carol, plus a performance of it in Darke’s setting.

“A Christmas Carol”

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter,
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

– Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Lessons and Carols

lessonscarols

 

 Anthem – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Lesson One

 

 

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel
That into exile drear is gone,
Far from the face of God’s dear Son.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, thou Branch of Jesse! draw1
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell, thy people save.

3. O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.

4. O Come, thou Lord of David’s Key!2
The royal door fling wide and free;3
Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death’s abode.

5. O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From that high mountain clothed in awe,4
Gavest thy folk the elder Law.

Isaiah 9:2-6a

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you

For the yoke of their burden,and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian. For a child has been born for us, a child given to us;

 

Those Who Saw the Star by Julia Esquivel

The Word became Light,

The Word became History.

The Word became Conflict,

The Word became Indomitable Spirit,

and sowed its seeds …

and those-of-good-will, heard the angels sing.

Tired knees were strengthened, trembling hands were stilled, and the people who wandered in darkness saw the light!

Then,

The Word became flesh in a nation-pregnant-with-freedom,

The Spirit strengthened the arms which forged Hope,

The Verb became flesh in the people who perceived a new day…

 

The Word became the seed-of-justice and we conceived peace.

The Word made justice to rain and peace came forth from the furrows in the land.

Grace and Truth celebrated together in the laughter of the children rescued by life.

And the Word shall continue sowing futures in the furrows of Hope.

And on the horizon the Word made light invited us to relive a thousand dawns

toward the Kin-dom that comes…

Gabriel’s Message –  Lesson Two

 

Most Highly Favored Lady 

Gloria. Gloria.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;

“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,

Most highly favored lady.” Gloria.

“For know a blessed mother thou shalt be.”

“All generations laud and honor thee.”

“Thy son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,

Most highly favored lady.” Gloria.  Gloria.

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,

“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said.

“My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name.”

Most highly favored lady. Gloria.

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born

In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,

And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say,

“Most highly favored lady. Gloria!”

Gloria. Gloria.

 

Luke 1:26-31

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The woman’s name was Mary. And Gabriel came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! Our God is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by these words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus.

 

People of Ceaseless Hope by Walter Burghardt

[We] must be [people] of ceaseless hope…Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means [we] must be [people] of the present, [we] must live this moment – really live it, not just endure it – because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love.

A Child is Born – Lesson Three

 

What Child Is This – arr. Parker/Shaw

What Child is this who, laid to rest

On Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;

Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

 

Why lies He in such mean estate,

Where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christians, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

 

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,

Come peasant, king to own Him;

The King of kings salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,

The virgin sings her lullaby.

Joy, joy for Christ is born,

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

 

Matthew 1:18-21

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of God appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a child, whom you are to name Jesus, for your child will save God’s people.

 

First Coming  by Madeleine L’Engle

God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.

God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.

God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait

Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.

God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Born in a Manger – Lesson Four

 

The Wexford Carol – arr. Rutter

Good people all, this Christmas-time,

Consider well and bear in mind

What our good God for us has done

In sending his beloved Son.

With Mary holy we should pray

To God with love this Christmas day;

In Bethlehem upon that morn

There was a blessed Messiah born.

 

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep

Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;

To whom God’s angels did appear,

Which put the shepherds in great fear.

‘Prepare and go,’ the angels said.

‘To Bethlehem, be not afraid:

For there you’ll find, this happy morn,

A princely babe, sweet Jesus born.

 

With thankful heart and joyful mind,

The shepherds went the babe to find.

And as God’s angel had foretold,

They did our saviour Christ behold.

Within a manger he was laid,

And by his side the virgin maid,

Attending on the Lord of life,

Who came on earth to end all strife.

 

Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn child, wrapped the child in bands of cloth, and laid the child in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

In the Middle of the Night by Dom Helder Camara

Then you chose to come.

God’s resplendent first-born sent to make us one.

The voices of doom protest:

“All these words about justice, love and peace—

All these naïve words will buckle beneath the weight

of a reality which is brutal and bitter, ever more bitter.”

It is true, Lord, it is midnight upon the earth,

moonless night and starved of stars.

But can we forget that You, the son of God, chose to be born

precisely at midnight?

The Messiah as Foretold – Lesson Five

 

Lo, How a Rose 

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as seers of old have sung.

It came, a blossom bright, amid the cold of winter,

When half spent was the night.

 

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;

With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.

To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,

When half spent was the night.

 

O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,

Dispel with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;

True Man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us,

And lighten every load.

 

Luke 2:8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

 

Aztec Story of the Nativity

The angels came down from the sky like birds. Their voices were bells. They sounded like flutes.

“Praise God in heaven Alleluia!” They came flying out of the sky, singing, “Peace on earth, alleluia!”

Sweet smelling song flowers were scattering everywhere, falling to earth in a golden rain.

“Let’s scatter these golden flowers, alleluia!” The flowers are heavy like dew, and the dew is filled with light, shining like jewels in Bethlehem. “Alleluia!”

Heart flowers , plumlike bell flowers, red cup flowers.

They’re beaming with dawn light, they’re shining like gold. “Alleluia!”

Emeralds, pearls, and red crystals are glowing. They’re glistening. It’s dawn.

“Alleluia!” Jewels are spilling in Bethlehem, falling to earth, “Alleluia!”

The Star Reveals the Mystery – Lesson Six

 

                             

Anthem – O Magnum Mysterium – Lauridsen

O magnum mysterium

O great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum

and wondrous sacrament

ut animalia viderent Dominum

that animals should see the Lord

natum, jacentem in praesepio.

born, lying in a manger.

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

meruerunt portare

was worthy to bear the

Dominum Christum. Alleluia!

Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

 

Matthew 2: 1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw this One’s star in the east and have come to worship this child.”

 

In Choosing to Be Born  by Peter Chrysologus, 5th Century

In choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us. God therefore reveals God’s own self in this way, in order that this great sacrament of love may not be an occasion for us of great misunderstanding. Today the Magi find, crying in a manger, the one they have followed, shining in the sky. Today the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited, laying hidden among the stars. Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, humanity in God, God in humanity, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body.

…. They did not recognize him…
Layer by layer, strip me bare to the core of my existence for there You dwell.
Beneath my hopes, my fears, my joys, my sadness You are there.
Just let go, let go for You are there.
Within the blessed light of emptiness You are there.
And let me in this blissful state of communion dwell, until I can emerge more You than me.
For it will be then that I can recognize Your loving presence in this world.

Becky Lisy

The Shepherds and Wise Men Came- Lesson Seven

 

 

The First Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.

This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took it rest,
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay.

Then entered in those wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee,
and offered there in his presence
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense.

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought

Luke 2:8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

Wide, Wide, in the Rose’s Side – Martinson

Wide, wide in the rose’s side

Sleeps a child without sin.

And any man who loves in this world

Stands here on guard over him.

He Brings Hope for the Poor and Suffering – Lesson Eight

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter – Gustav Holst.
words by Christina Rossetti, 1872

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart

Isaiah 9:6   For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Prayer in dark September – Kathleen McCoy

for the little ones with furrowed brows
for those slowed by stiffness and disbelief
for those who ran out of time or just in time
for those ground down to powder
for those whose feet have gone groundless
for those who loathe all who are unlike themselves
for those whose losses howl in the heart
for those who time how long it takes to heal
for those who time the kill
for those who want revenge on strangers
for those who charge into flames for strangers
for those who’ve scraped the dark’s knife-edge
for those who lead and light the way
for those who pray in black and white
for those whose prayer is dim or blocked

let the muscles of their brows unknit
let disbelief be illumined by possibility
let the ashes mix with water
let them cleanse the crying ground
let groundlessness become a memory
let loathing’s crouching corners fill with light
let the jagged wounds of loss be healed
let flames of hatred sputter and utterly die
let love quench the endless thirst for blood

that the terrible rendings may cease
that no one ever again would be to us a stranger
that our voices would swell to gorgeous song
that our bodies would fill with light
that our lives might be a prayer

 

He brings Love and Peace – Lesson Nine

 

 

Once in royal David’s city, Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a Mother laid her baby In a manger for his bed;
Mary was that Mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable, And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor and mean and lowly Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

And through all his wondrous childhood He would honour and obey,

Love and watch the lowly maiden In whose gentle arms he lay;                        Christian children all must be Mild, obedient, good as he

For he is our childhood’s pattern: Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak and helpless, Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness, And he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him Through his own redeeming love,
For that Child, so dear and gentle, Is our Lord in heaven above;
And he leads his children on To the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor, lowly stable With the oxen standing by
We shall see him, but in heaven, Set at God’s right hand on high, When, like stars, his children, crowned, All in white shall wait around.

John 3:16   For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  

John 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts  be troubled and do not be afraid.

 

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

By Dr. Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

Benediction – Ave Maria

 

 

 

Postlude Selection

 

 

 

 

OCTARIUM

No More Lying About Mary

Advent 4 - Fra-Angelico-Annunciation-DetailIt’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.

The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has been harmful to millionsAnnunication Dante Gabriel Rosetti B_FourthSundayofAdvent of women over many centuries.

Hiding within the wonder of Christmas are a thousand years of doctrinal female subjugation, doctrines that, like tinsel, are dripped all over the season of Christmas. In the midst of the celebration of Wonderful Life, these malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered, invited to be strong, and urged by God to imagine new ways t live, as Mary of Nazareth did, who mothered God’s redemption of the human world.

Luke’s is the only gospel in which Mary’s story appears, and in his account there is nothing submissive nor immature about her.  According to Luke, the Angel approached her with words of great honor: Hail Mary, full of grace. Many artists paint the angel kneeling, in recognition of the honor given to her. The angel is explicit; the honor is for the grace that is distinctly hers. This is a courtship scene. the angel is wooing her, on bended knee, a suitor – not a constable bringing a decree.

It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions – courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. Not submissive meekness.  Grace is not submission.  And the power of God is never meek.

Yes, she is startled by the presence of the angel.  So were Gideon, Jacob, Jonah, and the shepherds of Bethlehem, to name a few, they who, like Mary, questioned the angel in wonder, doubt, and even resistance.  They are noted for their reluctance.  Why not she?  What sort of greeting is this? she asked. And the angel obliged her with an explanation. Later, she challenged the angel: How shall this happen to me, when I have no husband? God chose a spunky woman.

advent 1 Angel  Edward Burne-JonesMany women in biblical stories appear in domestic settings.  Sarah is in her tent, baking cakes.  Rachel is drawing water at the well.  Bathsheba is taking a bath.  Martha is fussing around in the kitchen.  The woman who lost a coin is sweeping the house.  But with Mary, there is no evidence of any domestic work on her part.  We never find her cooking, cleaning, washing up.  The evidence offered us is her love of adventure.  What we find her doing, over and over, is traveling, in journeys that involve risks and an element of danger.

Her recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy.

None of this gibes with the idea that she is a young teenage girl.  The Greek word Luke uses for virgin is an unusual one, a very specific word that means she has not yet born a child.  Its precise meaning does not indicate  sexual innocence. So let’s be clear:  the focus is on her uterus.  The state of her hymen is not at issue here.Christmas 2014  St Stanislaus College, Tullaberg Ireland by Evie Hone.

Luke does not assign her a specific age. And to insist she is under sixteen is to ascribe to God a pedophilic attraction to underage women. Such details  twist Mary’s story and burden Christian women with a sense of selfishness if they postpone childbearing, a psychic demand to put childbearing first in their hearts, for God who seems to want nothing from them but pregnancy.

Mary is unmarried when the angel comes. The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission of clergy – or her parents – to become pregnant.  God knows Mary owns her own body.  And there is no shame in her decision. Mary is good news for unwed mothers everywhere.

Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.  This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty.

Christmas 2014  Taddeo Gaddi 1325Traveling alone, like every prophet before her, she sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to declare her agenda.  There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified.

She gives birth in a barn, lies down animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.

We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born. – Meister Eckart, 13th c. German mystic.
_________________________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations:
1. Annuciation. by Fra Angelico. Detail. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Annunciation, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  Vanderbilt Divinity school Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Angel, by Edward Burne-Jones. Vanderbilt Divinity school Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4.  Nativity, by Brian Kershisnik.  Utah Museum of Fine Arts.  Note:  The stable is crowded with sheep/angels, who surround Mary and her child.
5. Nativity, by Taddeo Gaddi, 1325, Florence, Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

1. Chor
Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
1. Chorus
My soul magnifies the Lord.
2. Arie S II
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
2. Aria S II
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
3. Arie S I
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent
3. Aria S I
For He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.
Behold, from henceforth, I will be called blessed
4. Chor
omnes generationes.
4. Chorus
by all generations.
5. Arie B
Quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius.
5. Aria B
For the Mighty One has done
great things for me, and holy is His name.
6. Arie (Duett) A T
Et misericordia a progenie in progenies,
timentibus eum.
6. Aria (Duet) A T
His mercy is for those who fear Him
from generation to generation.
7. Chor
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
7. Chor
He has shown strength with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
8. Arie T
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.
8. Aria T
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
9. Arie A
Esurientes implevit bonis,
et divites dimisit inanes.
9. Aria A
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
10. Terzett SI, SII, A
Suscepit Israel puerum suum
recordatus misericordie suae.
10. Trio SI, SII, A
He has helped His servant Israel
in remembrance of His mercy.
11. Chor
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
11. Chorus
According to the promise He made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to His descendants forever..
12. Chor
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto,
sicut erat in principio
et nunc et in saecula saeculorum,
Amen.
12. Chorus
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and for ever and ever,
Amen.

The World’s End

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like today’s gospel: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11.My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God.This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary. The very first reading of the season begins with a prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.

[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (http://adventdoor.com/2012/11/25/advent-1-drawing-near)

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory