Nativity Among the Ruins

Posted on December 23, 2021

I have been blessed this year by the book, The Mystery of Holy Night, a compilation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons on the Incarnation interspersed with art on the subject.  The opening page quotes a letter he wrote from prison on the first Sunday in Advent, 1943, where he was imprisoned for his stand against the Nazis.  Here is what he wrote to his parents:

I don’t have to tell you how greatly I long for freedom, and for all of you.  But for decades you gave us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my grateful memory of them is strong enough to outshine even this rather dark one.  It is times like these that show what it really means to have a past and an inner legacy independent of the change of times and conditions. The awareness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that lasts for decades gives one a strong sense of security in the face of all transitory distress…

As we light our Advent candles, prepare gifts for our families and friends, attend services, live in the music of the season, read poetry and stories, decorate our homes, prepare foods worthy of a feast, and gather with those we love, we cannot underestimate the power of the memories being instilled in all of us, especially in children, that we will be able to savor in difficult times.  All of these actions of celebration are worthy of commemorating the Incarnation--the interruption of history with the miracle of God.

Bonhoeffer, however, goes on to say more about Christmases that cannot be celebrated in such festive light:

From the Christian point of view, spending Christmas in a prison doesn’t pose any special problem.  Most likely, a more meaningful and authentic Christmas is celebrated here by many people than in places where only the name of the feast remains.  Misery, pain, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt have an altogether different meaning in God’s eyes than in the judgment of men.  God turns toward the very places from which humans tend to turn away.  Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him at the inn:  A prisoner can understand all this better than other people.  It’s truly good news for him; in believing it, he knows he has been made a part of the Christian community that breaks down all spatial and temporal frontiers, and the walls of prison lose their meaning. 

Christmas, whether celebrated in full style, or remembered from a place of sorrow and constraint, unites us all at the stable.  

I remember years ago when my brother was dying, we had, in my memory, a profoundly difficult Christmas.  I tried to rearrange our small house so that all the relatives that joined us could sit at one big table.  We set up the table in the living room, and it made the space awkward for gathering before and after the meal.  We had moved a comfortable living room chair into the kitchen so that my brother could be part of the preparatory activity.  

I remember the jar that held his special vegetable juice (that he depended on for nutrition) falling out of the fridge and shattering onto the floor-- and the following frustration of losing one person who returned to his house to make more juice, two to clean up the mess, and even fewer to get the feast on the table.  

An aunt and cousin were upstairs desperately trying to finish wrapping presents, and the rush was on because my brother only had the energy for either dessert or presents, which brought about a lot of negotiating dialogue.  Children had expectations.  Parents had expectations.  And we were all painfully aware of wanting to celebrate with my brother for what was most likely his last Christmas.  Somehow, in the middle of it all, one of my sons crouched patiently under the table to insert a whoopie cushion under the seat of a highly proper New England relative.  The ensuing explosive result brought gales of laughter from those of us who have adjusted to an inevitable coarseness living with a houseful of boys, but uncomfortable silence from the southern relatives.  For me, it was a welcome stress valve release created by the new generation being mischievously unaware of the gravity of the day.

A few years later I was flipping through our Christmas Memory book and saw my brother’s handwriting.  Evidently, he had picked up that book on his last Christmas in our flurry of stress and fretting and written: “We came to a delicious late afternoon celebration…In the midst of a daily battle I’m facing with cancer, the Lord made this one of the most special times we’ve ever had. Thank you so much, everyone, for a blessed Christmas Day with all the memories.  With all our love!”

My brother had lived in the real Christmas that day while we were trying so hard to make a Christmas memory.  He was grateful to be alive, aware of Christ in the midst of a failing body. I wish I could have been more able to be present to Jesus that day and the wonder of His coming to us in the midst of sorrow and hurry.  Because of his suffering, my brother had the opportunity to apprehend the true meaning of Christmas. And he welcomed the opportunity.

The painting at the beginning of this post is the one Bonhoeffer reflects on: “The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538).  Against all tradition, Altdorfer painted a Nativity among the ruins.…Christ comes in media res, in the middle of things, right where we are.  The circumstances around Jesus’ birth were chaotic-- a Roman occupation, Mary away from family and all that is familiar, a sense of transience and uncertainty, finding accommodations with relatives she did not know at a vulnerable time.  And right there, among the animals and strangers, in troubled times, the Light of the World, the Savior of the World, labors into the world.

Whether your Christmas will be celebrated this year in the ruins of loss and disappointment or in a glorious festive cozy home, all of us have reasons to be surprised by joy.  Christ came for such a time as this, and he is quite comfortable among the ruins.  It may be that as we draw near to him even in a prison of sorts, like Bonhoeffer or my brother, the circumstances actually make space for the comfort of “God with us,” and the deep consolation of those who fellowship with us.

With God dwells joy, and down from God it comes, seizing mind, soul, and body; and where this joy has grasped a human being, it spreads, it carries away, it bursts through closed doors.”

        -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Confined with Ourselves

Posted on May 01, 2020

Easter Vigil by ourselves (and Deacon Aunt Margie and cousins Charlotte and Josiah)

My uncle used to joke at the end of an evening, “We enjoyed ourselves…that’s about all we enjoyed…”  Here at home quarantined with ourselves I find we are enjoying ourselves... some of the time;  we are also disappointed in ourselves or bored with ourselves a lot of the time.  

In “The Wise Woman,” by George MacDonald, the mystical Wise Woman, in order to affect change in a selfish girl, confines her in a home where she must labor day after day at mundane chores.  With another self absorbed young girl, she encloses her in a bubble in which she must see herself in mirrors from all sides.  I feel that this “shelter-at-home” has this agency of transformation behind it--forcing us to be with ourselves as we go about mundane, repetitive labors, some of which we don’t even know how to do.

I know that I had big plans for this time cloistered at home with my children.  I gained twenty hours a week simply by not doing carpools, shuttling to activities, and engaging in active church ministry.  In the return for the deep loss of engagement with friends, life giving activities, and all the preparation for a Holy Week that we live for every year, I thought life at home would provide a kind of sabbath;  I would be productive;  we would have the chance to read books we have not had time to read, learn games that are still in their shrink wrap on the shelf, play music, sip coffee, make food that we enjoy, FaceTime with family and friends overseas, watch some documentaries.

Even as I look at that list, I realize we have done some of all of those things.  My meals have been more interesting because I am at home during meal prep time;  I have skimmed a Marie Kondo organizing book and organized my closet and drawers and the board games (whoopee); my boys played eight hours of Monopoly; we have had daily walks and more regular family prayer; we have had meaningful Zoom calls with family and friends, the kids have strung hammocks four high, and we have read out loud to each other and watched an interesting movie series.

But the feeling I have is restlessness and disappointment.  Screens are necessary for school and engagement with others. My husband has been on Zoom calls for work sometimes eight hours straight, and my older children are scattered throughout the house on computers for E-learning. It is a disconcerting disconnect to be so embodied with ourselves while being completely disembodied from others. And it is a strange “sabbath” to be away from Church and Communion.  The regularity of the news feed of fear looms large in our conversation, and our daily decisions about contact with extended family or others feel disorienting.

In this atmosphere of restlessness, I have watched us all go through a level of de-tox, of slowing down, of accepting limitations. Not having the normal hurry that jerks us out of our homes and gives us a brief escape into activity, not having the rush of careening toward lights out, forces us to be with our thoughts and our emotions, to be reminded of our choices. It is almost as if being able just to be with ourselves has affected an important work of awakening in us a discontentment with life, a longing for something more.

What if the success of this time is not once again measured by productivity or even creativity, but by personal growth in gratitude, hope, faith, and love?  By shifting our expectations of life? And is it possible that this is achieved simply by being with our own emerging thoughts, reactions, fears, and expectations, and having time to see them as they are?  And then to find that God is opening a window into an eternal space? 

At the end of each day, I do an Ignatian Examen, which involves rehearsing the day from four vantage points.  This has formalized a self-examination that has helped me articulate what is emerging in myself.  This first involves asking Jesus to be present with me as I look back over my day to reveal what I need to see in the light of his love.

The first is Gratitude:  this is a chance to allow the events, conversations, faces of the day to go before me, and to see the hidden mercies, graces, joys of the day.  The monopoly game on the living room floor for three days was an irritation, but two older brothers included a younger brother who often feels excluded, and he held his own.  I become present to that hidden small miracle and grateful for the seeds of something transformational. We stood and observed an unusual hawk in our backyard and identified him as a Cooper’s hawk.  To help our family with gratitude, we have a gratitude journal on a stand on the table encouraging everyone to write moments of gratitude throughout the day.

The second is Thoughts: this is an opportunity to examine my thoughts of the day--this is where I end up spending a lot of time. Where did my thoughts lead to faith, hope, and love?  Where was I caught up in a desolate cycle of thought?  Dialoguing with God about these thoughts and having him shine his light on them, has been an important aspect of the shelter-at-home for me.  Where are my disappointments catalytic for re-evaluation and change?  Where are my disappointments simply an acknowledgement of living this side of heaven? My fears of how this whole Covid-19 experience will change our world have had to be challenged with the faith for how this whole Covid-19 experience could change our world!  

The third is Words: this is an invitation to rehearse my words of the day.  I often find that I neglected to use words that could bless others and encourage them.  Instead, I was reactive or critical.  But I can also hear God’s, “Well done,” when I engaged in a conversation where I listened and was a vehicle for blessing in my words.

The fourth is Deeds: this is a chance to pause and examine actions of the day.  Where were they self serving? Self-sacrificing? Pointless and wasteful? Enriching and engaging?  Where did my deeds match with God’s purposes for my day or where was I drawn into the expectation of others or the misplaced desire to please others?

This simple exercise (which I actually do the following morning, looking back on the day before) has helped me be “with myself,” but in the transforming presence of God.

I am adjusting my expectations of this Coronavirus Confinement.  I have ceased to expect that I will accomplish a lot or that I will have bursts of creative energy and artistic output.  It will be more like the planting and weeding of a garden--totally unspectacular, laborious, with little to show for it at the end of the day, but evident in the breaking forth of a new season.  In actuality, weeding and tending and planting is full of the small actions of hope and expectation. So helping a child with math, listening more intently, making food, sitting down together to eat it, going on countless walks, being willing to navigate the feelings of fear and frustration with an awareness of God’s presence is sowing transformational rewards. 

In short, being with ourselves as we actually are, increases the capacity for us to be with God and others as they really are and find joy in it.  And when this confinement is over, I believe we will look back and see the creativity that emerged, the changes that were sown in the hiddenness of this time, and the longing for God and true community.  This is the faith I am engaging for how our world will be different after Corona...we will be different.  And this unleashes eternal possibilities.  

I better go cut some boys’ hair right now, a labor I do not relish. Wish me joy.

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