As advent draws to a close...

This will sound naive - even inconsequential to some - but over the years the way we have come to embrace and celebrate Christmas has shifted.  Once, as a child of the 50s and 60s, I was all about BIG gifts. I wanted THINGS and the more things the better the holiday.  And cooking up a big feast was important to me, too.

I can remember being at my parents' home in Charlotte, NC one Christmas - this is where I learned the glitzy side of the holiday - and the house was a-buzz with frenzied activity.  We had our historically ugly and over decorated tree with tons of tinsel and colored lights.  And my mother insisted on yet another of the staged faux impromptu family pictures in front of the fireplace drinking mugs of eggnog. 

At some point it all became too much for me so my brother and I scooted out to take a long drive.  We opened the car windows and let the cold air blow around us as we drove through Charlotte listening to Christmas radio. After about 20 minutes a calm descended on us both and "The Little Drummer Boy" was playing. Away from the chaos, this song felt like an aural oasis because there was no going to worship in those days.  (My parents, like so many, had their feelings hurt when no one noticed their absence during one of my mother's regular illnesses and injuries. Of course, they didn't notify the pastor.  They just nourished their grudge and stayed away.)


We drove home about an hour later and the house was quiet for the night.  So we went to bed.  The next morning there was more chaos and frenzy for about 20 minutes of gift giving - and then it was over. I immediately headed up the stairs and crawled back into bed thinking, "There has GOT to be something more..." but I had no idea what it might be; so I fell into a disgruntled sleep before enduring yet another Christmas dinner fraught with tension and disappointment. Man, was I glad to go to work at the gas station that night when 10 pm rolled around.

Sad thing is, however, that I carried those crazy habits with me into my adult life.  I always spent more than I had, ached for some new thing and seemed to need a bit of drama to make the day complete. I had hoped to give my children an alternative celebration but didn't really do a very good job of making it happen. Even in my early days of being a pastor I found all the busyness simultaneously exciting and exhausting.  And I would create my own disappointments over how the family Advent ceremonies were not spiritual or mystical enough for my tastes given my addiction to drama.  Poor, poor pitiful me: everything was wrong... and I was not a person anyone wanted to be around as Christmas Eve drew nigh.

Today I understand that many of us bring our childhood angst with us
into our adult holidays - there is nothing special or unique about my experience - and no matter how hard we try, it follows us like a shadow. What I've had to accept, therefore, is the only way out of this morass involves gently giving-up the old, unsatisfying ways and habits and spending quiet time with the emptiness they create.  It is like standing beside an empty grave before lowering the casket; it is quiet mourning and surrender. Only when I can place the old ways in their grave is there space to celebrate a new Christmas that is soothing and nourishing.  

Christmas Eve worship is now mostly carols and readings rather than another tortured sermon.  It is candle light and Holy Communion in the light of the sacred story. And both before and afterwards, there is precious little frenzy.  We send e-cards to loved ones - and write letters to others after the buzz has worn off the week following Christmas. We get out of town after Christmas Eve, too, for a week of quiet and unstructured time together.  We connect with our kids and then go into retreat mode.  And mostly we don't buy a lot of stuff - some books and music, some feasting and a couple of Dianne's home made scarves - and saturate our home with a lot of candle light and quiet.

This morning, Fr. Richard Rohr's reflection on nourishing the mind of the mystic spoke to me of our personal shift from busyness to quiet. The blessings of Christmas - and all of the liturgical holidays - are gifts that come to us from God and cannot be controlled, created or purchased. So now the invitation and challenge is to rest and wait and welcome the grace as it arrives in unexpected ways. Yesterday, for example, three different people gave us parking lot gifts - they had one or two hours left on their receipt they didn't need - so they passed them to us saying, "Have fun. Merry Christmas!"


Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173)wrote that humanity was given three sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first set of eyes were the eyes of the flesh (thought orsight), the second set of eyes were the eyes of reason (meditation orreflection), and the third set of eyes were the eyes of true understanding (contemplation). They represent the last era of broad or formal teaching of the contemplative mind in the West, although St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)and Francisco de Osuna (1492-1542) are some rare examples who carry it into the following centuries. But for the most part, the formal teaching of the contemplative mind, even in the monasteries, winds down by the beginning of the fourteenth century. No wonder we so badly needed some reformations by the sixteenth century. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the loss of the contemplative mind is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal versus conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.
Today I'll clean the house a bit (the kids from Brooklyn are coming up on Monday) and print out a few things for worship tomorrow.  I'll run through the jazz charts with my music director after worship, too and then wrap some gifts. Probably walk with the puppy in the field behind our house at some point and listen to a few tunes.  More than likely I'll pop in "A Charlie Brown's Christmas" DVD and savor that before calling it a day.

Loving and embracing Christmas with a mystic's quiet heart would never have come for me if I kept up my childhood habits.  What's more they wouldn't have slowly ripened in an organic way for me as an adult without first letting the old ways die and resting in the emptiness that followed.  That's part of what Advent has come to mean - waiting and resting in the darkness for a new and more healing presence - trusting that God's grace is on the horizon if I am open to receive it.  Brian Wren wrote an Advent hymn that speaks to all of this in me:

God of many Names
gathered into One,
in your glory come and meet us,
Moving, endlessly Becoming;
God of Hovering Wings,
Womb and Birth of time,
joyfully we sing your praises,
Breath of life in every people -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!
God of Jewish faith,
Exodus and Law,
in your glory come and meet us,
joy of Miriam and Moses;
God of Jesus Christ,
Rabbi of the poor,
joyfully we sing your praises,
crucified, alive for ever -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!

God of Wounded Hands,
Web and Loom of love
in your glory come and meet us,
Carpenter of new creation;
God of many Names
gathered into One,
joyfully we sing your praises,
Moving, endlessly Becoming -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!

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