canvas tarnished like old silver
charcoal branches pierce fog,
wait for birdsong
Last month I opened my small 2015 calendar book and began entering appointments and commitments already made. I like that part of beginning a new year with fresh calendar pages. It is popular now to do this calendar recording on phones and other electronic devices, but I like handwriting little reminders of place and time. By the first week of
February, I already had a number of dates marked with plans leading up to Lent and Easter, a happy time and typically a very busy time for our family.
And then, a week ago, I ruptured an Achillles tendon and began the changes which would clear almost everything already on the calendar and replace commitments for choir and handbells and meetings with appointments for doctors, an MRI, and surgery. I was not only in severe pain, but crestfallen, disappointed. Of course I did not welcome this interrruption and the extra work it creates for my husband and our busy family, but I realized that I was not only reacting to the physical discomfort and limitation, I needed some heart work. The weeks ahead of surgery and limited mobility closely parallel the weeks of Lent, Perhaps I could consider this time of being still and healing in that light.
At the suggestion of my friend and pastor, I have registered for an online Lenten retreat which begins a few days after my repair surgery which considers the questions: Why am I here? What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? It is a matter of the heart. I have put it on my calendar.
If you should be interested in learning more:
This folk art crèche from Mexico was given to us as a 25th wedding anniversary present. We lived then in Indonesia, and many of our friends were expats who had lived around the world. The couple who gave it had names similar to ours and the gift tag read “A Mary and Joe from Mary and Joe to Mary and Joe!’
Thinking of Mary and gentle Joseph as simple Joe and Mary somehow gives another dimension to these little nativity figures. seeing my sweet granddaughters as they laugh and cry and run to hug me helps me give flesh to Mary , too. In her innocence, trust, and willingness to say yes to what seemed impossible, she modeled for me the miraculous outcome of being surprised by God. This touches me in a way that none of the Madonna masterpieces in all of art history.
Yes, we have seen the studies, sepia strokes
across yellowed parchment, the fine detail
of hand and breast and the fall of cloth –
Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian, El Greco, Rouault – each complex madonna plotted at last
on canvas, layered with pigment, like the final
draft of a poem after thirty-nine roughs.
But Mary, virgin, had no sittings, no chance
to pose her piety, no novitiate for body or
for heart. The moment was on her unaware;
the Angel in the room, the impossible demand,
the response without reflection. Only one
word of curiosity, echoing Zechariah’s How?
The teen head tilted in light, the hand
trembling a little at the throat the candid
eyes, wide with acquiescence to shame and glory –
“Be it unto me as you have said.”
from Accompanied by Angels, Poems of the Incarnationn, by Luci Shaw
Outside my dining room window we planted Holly. The plants were no more than large bushes when they went into the ground almost 10 years ago, but now they have surpassed their intended purpose, which was to grow tall and branch out and give us a lovely green screen in front of our fence . Each year, they produce enough holly branches and red berries to decorate the whole neighborhood with fresh holly. But the berries are unformed in the beginning, then small green nubs which swell. Around Thanksgiving, or our first colder weather,I begin looking out the window to watch as the berries take on a blush, deepening to a burnt orange, before finally glowing Christmas red. As I wait and watch, the right time comes to bring some branches and berries inside for our own “hanging of the green.”
Advent’s theme involves waiting and watching while preparing for the coming Christ. As I wake and greet God’s new mercies each morning during Advent, the color in this ancient story deepens. As I wait and watch and reach, the time grows nearer for me to gather the brilliant mystery once again and celebrate.
The above photo is not a picture of my current home, or any we have had for that matter. When we lived in Indonesia, when those who were originally from that country asked for your address or where you lived, the question would usually be “Where are you staying?” Advent asks of us not so much where we are staying, but what we are allowing to stay in us. What dwells within me? Do I show that I welcome and offer hospitality for what God brings?
Mary set this example for us in her willingness to say yes to the physical growth within her of the indescribable gift of God’s son. Advent calls me to that kind of willingness, for Christ to be dwell within me. If I allow my list of special things I feel urged to accomplish before December 25th to drive me, I may become so strained and frazzled one might believe I have lost the whole point.
“What if instead of doing something, we were to be something special?Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.” ~ Loretta Ross-Gotta, as quoted in Watch for the Light, Readings for Advent and Christmas.
Another way of counting Advent days is the use of an Advent wreath with a candle to light and add each Sunday during Advent. For our Advent candles at home, we do not use the same arrangement every year, and often do not use traditional colors (3 purple, 1 pink, and a white candle for the center candle, the Christ candle). I use the same candles from the year before when possible. Here, the first candle, lit last Sunday, burns brightly – the candle of Hope. Of course the candles lit in the beginning burn down the furthest, If all the candles were new, all of them would be the same height in the beginning. This candle may be the tallest now, but will wind up being the shortest in the last week of Advent.
I recently learned about a little known Advent tradition of using an Advent log, instead of a wreath. It has a candle hole for each day of Advent, plus one for Christmas day. Here is a poem that refers to this lovely tradition:
Prayer at the Advent Log
The small lights steady
against the dark
Your flame is touching ours.
Today is the fifth day.
It is a safe fire,
the candles still tall
against the brittle wood
of the birch, the air
damp and chill.
But the days will draw us
And again we’ll stand
in the crackling air,
the first day’s flames
licking the log
with their shortened lives,
the length of it threatened
by Your fire,
Your love dazzling our eyes,
And O Christ,
searing our nakedness.
~Jean Janzen as quoted in A Widening Light, edited by Luci Shaw.
My young granddaughters and I made this painting project together last week. As I laid out cardboard under a blank canvas and handed out a tube of paint and paintbrushes, 6-year-old Jordann said she didn’t want black, that she likes different colors. I explained our first step was to paint the white canvas completely black. As I spoke, I was reminded of the words of an artist who painted many sunlit landscapes and night scenes where light shone from windows. He said that he must paint the darkness first in order for light to glow in the way that made him famous.
So they painted all black and waited as paint dried. Later I painted words and added tiny lights. Everyone loves this simple illustration of a favorite Christmas song. I love, too, that it illustrates hope – the coming of light to darkness, the very image of Advent.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2
” …this is indeed a season of lights shining in darkness- candles in windows, colored lights on nighttime trees, a lantern glow in a stable, a star shining high in the heavens. Help me follow the light of these images to the unquenchable ligt of Your real presence.” ~ in Christ the Light of the World by Thomas Kinkade, Anne Christian Buchanan, and Debra K. Klingsporn
Magnolia seeds are covered with a red waxy coat. Birds love them, but propagation of the tree from seed is difficult because of the process of extracting the seeds and preserving them. A row of Magnolia trees grew along the edge of the schoolyard that adjoined the yard of the house where I grew up. As a little girl I admired the beauty and fragrance of their blooms and played with the glossy leaves and brown suede cones, delighting in those red-coated seeds. There were always so many, and more would come the following year. I never thought to ask why there were no trees that sprouted from all those seeds.
In a similar fashion, we are surrounded by words as Advent begins and the calendar counts down to Christmas. Beyond the noise urging us to commercialize and socialize and make our list of things to do, there are words that can help us to be quiet and still, to reflect, to simply be. It is these words I would like to extract and preserve as Advent begins.