Make Your House Fair as You are Able

One of my current favorite Advent/Christmas songs is People, Look East. I’ve been trying to learn all the words and so have been singing it over and over and over again.

The funny thing is I used to think it was a dumb song because all I heard were the final lines of each stanza: “Love, the Bird, is on the way” etc. Sappy and silly, I thought. But then I started paying attention to the actual verses. Here, I’ll just give you the whole song:

1. People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

I may still think that “Love, the bird” sounds a bit silly; but I choke up every time I come to the lines “Birds, though you long have ceased to build, / Guard the nest that must be filled. / Even the hour when wings are frozen / God for fledging time has chosen.”

Likewise, I get a bit teary with the lines about the furrows giving of their strength to nourish the seed in the season of bare earth.

Right now my heart feels like a rather cold, bare place. It’s kind of hard to imagine a great Love flourishing there. But I have experience—four times now—with the way life can cling tenaciously, growing even when I feel sick and empty.

The thing about motherhood is that it is about death to self. Dying over and over and over again. And those deaths aren’t always pretty. Growth hurts. As Eliot points out so eloquently in The Wasteland, April is cruel because new life, new growth is uncomfortable. We’d rather sleep snug, hibernate in a cave. We fear the change, the radical conversion that Christ calls us to. And so time and again I find that Advent is a time when I realize how very poor my offering is.

The song says “Make your house fair as you are able”. This year, once again, I don’t feel very able. Four kids who are a net drain on my ability to keep a neat house, to plan for special baking and crafting and decorating and really anything beyond just getting through the basics of day to day living. Sure, we’ve got a tree and some decorations. But the house is the usual mess and chaos it always is. The floors haven’t been vacuumed since right after we brought the tree home last Monday and somehow I feel those dirty floors are emblematic of both the state of my soul and the human condition into which the Christ child came. He was born in a stable. The floors there were doubtless much less clean than my floors here. He was born to save us from ourselves. If we were able to prepare a fit home on our own, then we wouldn’t need him. The lesson of Advent this year and perhaps every year is exactly how much I need Him. 

Once I’ve done my feeble best to prepare a space where such a mighty Guest may come, I then wait for Him to get down to the real business of house cleaning, which was his ultimate purpose in coming.

Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay. The world groans in expectation and sighs in anticipation, longing for the freedom which only you can bring.

I can’t find a really great video, but this one isn’t too bad.

10 Responses to Make Your House Fair as You are Able

  1. Melanie Bettinelli December 26, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Charlotte, I totally agree. I can’t imagine taking our kids to Midnight Mass at my parents’ parish in Austin which is standing room only out the doors as well. I do think that Midnight Mass seems much more popular in Texas than round here.

    Parishes round here do the early vigil thing too. Ours has two 4pm Masses. One in the church and an overflow Mass in the school gym. And a 6pm vigil too. And one 10am on Christmas day, which is a terrible time for us. That’s actually one reason we decided to try the Midnight Mass last year, with Ben’s nap schedule he was almost guaranteed to have a meltdown at the Christmas morning Mass. He was more likely to be sleepy but happy to cuddle at Midnight Mass.

    I love the readings for the Mass at Dawn too. My parents’ parish in Austin used to have that one. They probably still do.

    I do understand your desire to gripe. I think we’re incredibly lucky that Midnight Mass works for us; but if it didn’t I’d be joining you for sure. 

    Bearing, Agreed. For us the timing is easier. There is no way I would take our kids to the Vigil Mass for Christmas. Though we did do a 5pm Mass recently for a special occasion, it was very hard on them. Being at the cathedral and having a sense of adventure made it tolerable. Being packed in with other cranky kids at our parish would definitely be a no-go. The dinner hour makes things tough and that tends to be when tempers are short.

    Merry Christmas to you both!

  2. Charlotte December 26, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Well, in my grumpy sleep deprived state I did forget to mention that we have found a Mass that works well for us. Since I really hate a crowded Christmas Mass the least crowded one we could find is our regular 9am Mass at the Abbey. Since most of the regular attendees there go to the Midnight Mass, their morning Mass is probably only 1/3 to 1/2 the crowd it usually is at a regular Sunday Mass. It’s so quiet and peaceful! I don’t have to worry about the crowds triggering a panic attack the way that some overcrowded vigils have. Oh, and the monks are a hoot to chat with afterwards since they have only had a few hours of sleep. Fr. Robert was gleefully passing around the sampler bag of Ghiradelli chocolates we gave him saying, “It’s authentic San Francisco chocolate!” One of the younger priests was telling us how he planned to go back to his room and fall asleep in his chair. Then it didn’t count as a nap!

    I didn’t care for the vigil times either when my kid were younger but I found that altering their meal schedule was easier to do than altering their sleep schedule which taking them to Midnight Mass would have done. I guess my kids were such difficult sleepers anyway that nothing could have convinced me to disturb them.

  3. Melanie Bettinelli December 26, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Oh Mass at the Abbey sounds like a lovely way to celebrate Christmas. I love the monks!

    My kids aren’t the best sleepers; but right now Ben is a better sleeper than he is eater. Yesterday he ate two tiny bites of a peanut butter and jelly tortilla at breakfast time and a couple of bites of chocolate and that was it for the day until Theresa finally coaxed him to eat some strawberries and bread and butter at about 5 last night.

    When my kids are in unusual situations they often just don’t eat. Bella is finally getting to the point where she will eat a good meal when visiting family. She had a plate of crackers and a plate of ham before she had dessert and she told me she was balancing her protein and her grains. A major breakthrough with her.

    It really is crucial to know your own kids and know where you can more easily make changes and when you have to cling to the schedule for dear life.

  4. Charlotte December 26, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Absolutely agreed! Happy Feast of St. Stephen!

    And I still wish someone would offer a Christmas Mass at Dawn! : )

  5. Maggie December 26, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I’m so glad you wrote this! Last year we took my son to Midnight Mass but he was only 3 months old so he pretty much snoozed the whole time. This year I was very unsure if we should take him or not. I asked for advice on my blog and my facebook page, and while I did get a lot of positive responses there was one woman who said I was crazy for even considering waking him up and taking him to Mass. I felt like I was being selfish for wanting to take him to Midnight Mass! But we took him and it went just fine! grin

  6. Charlotte December 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    I think it does matter what your parish atmosphere is and your children’s temperaments. At both the Abbey and our local parish Midnight Mass is jam packed, standing room only, actually three rows deep standing!  Maybe because our temperatures are not usually as frigid as yours, Midnight Mass is actually very popular with all different kinds of people, not just the older crowds.

    Also, a few of my children are incredibly deep sleepers. Trying to wake them up and get dressed would be a nightmare and could possibly even trigger nightmares or night terrors. Not a great combination, obviously.

    I think it’s wonderful that you have made this a Christmas tradition for your family. I wish there were more options available for families on Christmas. Most places around here offer you option after option for the vigil, one Midnight Mass (some which start at 8pm, some at 10pm, some start at midnight) and then one Mass on the day. They just assume that everyone wants to attend the vigil. We’d love to attend the Mass at Dawn otherwise known as the Shepherd’s Mass. It’s such a beautiful liturgy! The readings are my favorite but I’ve never found one offered anywhere! I’ll stop griping now. I’m just tired. Merry Christmas, Melanie!

  7. Bearing December 26, 2011 at 6:29 am #

    Frankly, I think midnight Mass is a lot easier than, say, a 4:30 pm vigil Mass.  Something about the hours between 3 and 7 … Too close to the dinner hour, I think.  Or maybe it is just that I am really tired at that time of day.  Or maybe it is all the extra kids in the church—that afternoon vigil is designated the “children’s Mass” in the parish we are visiting—who are not used to going to church at all.

  8. Melanie Bettinelli December 27, 2011 at 1:20 am #

    Maggie, I do think that it is so hard to get good advice because everyone’s kids are so different and handle Mass in such different ways and because Midnight Mass can look so very different from one parish to another. I’m glad it worked for you guys. I really don’t think it is selfish to want to share something we love with our kids. But it can be hard to determine what the best course of action is when there are so many unknown variables.

  9. Ann Marie January 1, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    Melanie,

    Just to let you know I think you are correct that midnight Mass is rather popular in Texas.  We typically celebrate with my mom’s side of the family (Italian) and then go to midnight Mass.  The choir always begins singing at 11:30pm and it is just beautiful. 

    We go to St. Anthony’s Cathedral Basilica and the bishop always celebrates Mass with other priests in attendance.  I’m commenting here because I thought you might like to know that we had a special blessing this year – four of the altar servers were first year seminarians from the University of Dallas!

    Hope you keep writing,

    Ann

  10. nancyo January 8, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    I’ve just spent a lovely half-hour reading your posts from the Christmas season, Melanie.  This one is so beautiful; I love the way you can see past the inevitable meltdowns to the deep lessons you are teaching your children.

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