“My Strength Lies Not in Man At All”

Happy New Year!!!

Today I baked a loaf of bread, cleaned the kids room, did half a dozen loads of laundry, vacuumed, caught up on my blog reading, made black-eyed pea dip for dinner (to go with the tortilla soup Dom made). It feels good to start the new year with some cleaning. I couldn’t do too much though before my pregnant body began protesting and I had to sit down and rest. I’m getting to that point where when I overdo it the Braxton-Hicks kick in and my abdomen suddenly feels tight like a drum and I feel like I can’t breathe. The nesting ambition is high but suddenly everything seems harder even though I don’t really feel huge, I can’t bend over so well or reach into tight corners. Ungainly. That’s me.

I’m beginning to hit that wall of I can’t and starting to think of the weeks ahead after the c-section when I really won’t be able to do most anything except sit and cuddle with baby Anthony. And it’s kind of a terrifying place to be where I am so helpless and dependent on others to care for my children and tend to my housekeeping.

So to turn my mind from morose brooding about surgery and helplessness, I’ll give you a guided tour of what I’ve been reading and pondering recently.

New Beginnings?

In a sentiment I’ve seen echoed around the internet, Katherine at Having Left the Altar complains that the new year doesn’t really feel like much of a beginning:

Today is the beginning of a new year. … of sorts.

For Catholics the new year began in November. Welcome back to the A Cycle!
For the Chinese, the new year will begin on February 3rd and we will begin the year of the Rabbit.
For Jews the year begins and ends in September.

The beginning of a new year is a bit arbitrary depending on which way you choose to view the year. I always had trouble myself viewing January 1st as anything other than the day after December 31st and an occasion for me to err in writing the date for a few months.

I don’t feel the same way exactly, but I understand her point. Does everything really feel new or is it just another day?

Enjambment

Yesterday Sally Thomas offered some thoughts on the changing of the year:

Though the year is turning, the season has not, yet. It’s still Christmas:  the seventh day, a kind of mid-season Sabbath, especially if you consider that the six geese of yesterday are meant to suggest the six days during which God worked at the business of Creation. Today, the seven swans a-swimming stand for the seven sacraments, the gifts of grace.

Anyway, the way the liturgical year drapes itself over the edge of the calendar year makes me think of an enjambment in poetry. The line breaks, but the syntax overrides the interruption.

Enjambment seems to me to be a perfect simile. Something new begins; but the pressure of momentum, of completing the thought, keeps us from pausing. I’ve been pondering that and will continue to do so.

The First Day, the Eighth Day

Today, the first day of the new year is also the eighth day of Christmas. As Katherine reminds us, it’s the day the Orthodox Church celebrates the circumcision of Christ:

It�s the eighth day of Nativity and on it we commemorate the Circumcision of Our Lord. Because if you�re in any way tempted to doubt that the Word became Flesh, really and truly flesh, just consider what this feast signifies, flesh cut and blood let. The Incarnation is no illusion, but real God-Flesh already being shed just eight days after that holy night.

The Old Covenant ritual of circumcision makes way for the Mystery of Baptism, but we Orthodox still keep the tradition of naming our children on the eighth day after birth. It was on the eighth day after His Birth that our Lord received the name JESUS, the Name declared by the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

And now, our reckoning of time is a matter of the Eighth Day, the octave. His Resurrection transformed the first day of the week into the eighth, the day of a new creation. The transept of time. Linear giving way to the crossbeam of eternity and the eternal now of Today, the moment without end.

Eight Is the Number of Infinity

Katherine’s thought about the eighth day, about the crossbeam of eternity, ties in neatly with this beautiful little Chanukah song by Hasidic Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu that several of my friends have shared recently:

My favorite lines:

“Bound to stumble and fall; but my strength comes not from man at all…”

And the bit about “Eight is the number of infinity/ One more than what you know how to be / This is the light of festivity / When your broken heart yearns to be free.”

Seven is the number of perfection, completion. The seventh day is the day of rest, the Sabbath, when God contemplated the world that He had made. But eight is the number of infinity. This Jewish blogger says it well:

If seven represents the perfecting of things in the natural order the miracle of Chanukah must be something beyond this perfection. There was something supernatural that drove the Maccabees to take on the Greeks who far outnumbered them. They were driven by their faith, their desire to maintain our relationship with HaShem, their desire to maintain the perfected natural order that the menorah represents. Because of this, the Hasmonean warriors merited something higher, something beyond the natural state of perfection, which is what the eight flames of Chanukah represent.

For us Christians, the eighth day is the first day of the new creation. The day of resurrection. The day when earth and heaven are united in a new covenant, sealed by the shed blood of the very God made flesh. So it seems especially appropriate that on today, the eighth day we also celebrate the first day of the new calendar year and thus we in the Latin Rite also honor Mary, the Mother of God, the ark of the new covenant.

Mary the Mother of God

Here as in many places today was not a holy day of obligation and so there were no extra Masses offered. In fact, for some reason I’m not clear on the usual Saturday morning Mass wasn’t on the schedule for this week. Charlotte says it better than I could have:

I can’t tell you how frustrating it was yesterday to try to find a Mass for today, fully understanding that the obligation was abrogated but wanting to attend a Mass in honor of the Solemnity anyway!

[. . .]

I understand if the bishops want to remove the pain of sin associated with not fulfilling an obligation to attend Mass. What I don’t get is ignoring the voluntary aspect. Why can’t they abrogate the obligation if they deem it necessary, but in the same breath encourage those who can attend to try to attend, along with encouraging priests to offer enough Masses as to reasonably accommodate those who want to attend?

And so except for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, I’m afraid that for me today’s celebration got swept away with my housecleaning. I wish I could have offered my dear Mother so much more on her feast day.

But speaking of Mary, I’m reminded that I meant to share this video and haven’t got around to it yet: 

Bound to Stumble and Fall

But now I want to return for a moment to my other favorite line from that Matisyahu song: “Bound to stumble and fall / But my strength comes not from Man at all…”

Both Calah and Abby have me thinking about human frailty and the expectations we all sometimes place on Christmas. How it can feel like we have to get it right, make it perfect. Perfectly peaceful and Christ-centered and prayerful. And how depressing it can be when we fail…and how, being human, we are bound to fail.

Abby writes:

But by 10 AM on Christmas morning I was in tears because the day was so crummy. The kids got too many presents from their grandparents. They became agitated, started fighting with one another, and demanded immediate assistance to assemble all their barrage of gifts. I mediated fights between my father and my brother over differing film criticism of “Lawrence of Arabia”. All I wanted to do was take my sweet future nun back to church on Christmas but that became impossible because it didn’t fit the agenda of the day.

So I didn’t go to church. I didn’t feed a hot Christmas dinner to the homeless. I didn’t sing Christmas carols to the elderly in my late grandfather’s nursing home. I didn’t pray my Daily Office.

Calah laments:

We ruined Christmas because we put ourselves ahead of Christ. It’s His day, after all. The day when we should remember His birth, His life, and His death. The day when we should remember the hope and peace and joy that He brings. The day when we should revel in those gifts which He has given us; the gift of Himself above all, but also the gift of each other. The gift of our marriage and our children. The gift of our wonderful families. But instead, we thought only of ourselves, and not just when we were fighting. The morning was wonderful, but instead of setting aside time to read the story of the Nativity or to talk about Christ, we just dove right into a pile of presents. It was fun, but it wasn’t Christmas.

And I’ve been pondering how blessed we are that Christmas is really a whole octave and the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany. And how if we keep Advent as a season of preparation and celebrate Christmas as a season of festivity, then that takes some of the pressure off of getting everything perfect on Dec 25.

In my perfect Christmas we’d get up and go to Mass. We’d read the Nativity story and place baby Jesus in the manger and contemplate the meaning of Christmas before we opened our presents. We’d sing songs together and have a quiet day, peaceful and joyful. I’d leave visiting extended family for a different day because joyful as that is, it drains me and by the time we leave the kids are also exhausted and cranky. We pay for it for days.

But none of those things happened and I’m having to let go of my ideal and live in the real. And so I remind myself that we went to Midnight Mass and that was beautiful and holy and an amazing accomplishment with three children under five. So it really is unnecessary to go to Mass again on Christmas morning. It would be something I’d enjoy but not at all required. I remind myself of how many times we read the nativity story during Advent and how many times we’ve read it in the past few days after Christmas. It would have been nice to read it on Christmas day but I remind myself that having forgotten it does not mean that somehow the whole meaning of the day was lost.

Certainly it would be nice if we could make Dec 25 the best of all the days of the Christmas season; but we’re human and we goof up. Happily, we have many more days of second and third and fourth chances. And really isn’t giving us second chances what Christ’s coming is all about? He came to heal the sick and the lame, to give sight to the blind. His strength is what I rely on when I stumble and fall.

Holding on to the Story

I listen to the girls singing Silent Night and watch them moving St Joseph and Holy Mary and the Angel Gabriel around, telling themselves the story of Christmas. I sing to Ben again and again the story of the Little Drummer Boy who gave baby Jesus the one gift he had, his humble best. I think of what Idoya says about the gift of the story, and I know that though I have stumbled and fallen many times, though we didn’t have a Mass to attend to celebrate today’s solemnity, though I lost my temper when Sophie pulled the Christmas tree down, though inside and outside things feel chaotic, messy, unfinished, imperfect… still, we are doing our best to keep the story of Christmas here in our home.

It is such a familiar story. Almost too familiar. How can I hear it again with new ears? How can I see it again for the first time? Hearing and seeing the children’s retelling helps me a bit to recapture that first time wonder.

Eucharisteo

Finally, Elizabeth Foss writes in a similar vein about Eucharist, about seeking and finding grace and joy in the new year:

The homilist on Christmas had asked the congregation to look around at all the teenaged girls. He reminded everyone how egocentric teenagers are. The adults in the crowd nodded in agreement. Even the sweetest teenaged girl is naturally more than a little egocentric. Then the priest asked the crowd to look at the mothers and the grandmothers in the group and to think for moment about what they’d been doing for the past few weeks. Isn’t it a Christmas miracle that somehow that egocentric girl grows into a woman who gives everything she has to give for the privilege of serving joy to her family?

I’ve been thinking about that miracle incessantly these last few days. I’ve been thinking about the “good Christmas” my family assures me it has been. I’ve been thinking about how hard I worked to arrive here on the crest of this new year. How hard I work year ‘round, really, to bring joy to my family and to live out my vocation with interior joy.  And, longtime readers know, I’m all about being aware of the joy in life and articulating it to others.

[. . .]

Eucharisteo. Grace and joy coursing through my veins, powering my life. That is my earnest desire. That is my need, my want, my call. To live this word in this year, I must live His Word. I know this. I know how to pray the psalms with the Church, to make the rhythm of God’s voice the rhythm of my life. I know this is where I will find both grace and joy. And I know that word: Eucharisteo. I know it is available, real, and present and tangible in the quiet of the Church, in the every day (Every day? He’s there! And waiting. Every single day!) miracle of Christ’s body, offered to us.

To me.

To the self-centered teenaged girl I am and to the grace-filled bearer of joy I am called to be.

In Which I Fail to Conclude Anything

I don’t have any words to finish this, to tie it into a neat package. I wanted to say something more. Something about new creation and new beginnings. But suddenly my mind is a blank and I just want to stare at the twinkling lights.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, of Christ’s manifestation of his kingship and his divinity to all the nations. Following the custom of my childhood, there will be gifts to open. A small token from us for each of the kids and then lots of lovely packages from my parents that have arrived in the last few days.

I always feel this tension between celebrating on the liturgical date, which is moved to the Sunday, and wanting to celebrate on the customary date of January 6th, Twelfth Night. But the presents are here and we will have the Mass and readings tomorrow. So we might as well celebrate. There you are, stumbling along as best I can, trying to keep the seasons in small, imperfect ways that are not quite satisfactory. I guess I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets. It seems at least not inappropriate.

The Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

You can hear a recording of Eliot reading it here.

5 Responses to “My Strength Lies Not in Man At All”

  1. Kathy January 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I remember one Christmas when I was so disappointed because I *didn’t* get any books.  Or at least any reading (as opposed to reference or cookbooks).  It’s so nice to be able to “play with” something on Christmas afternoon, and clothes or practical-things-for-the-house just don’t cut it…

  2. Rachel January 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    There was a year in college when my mommy was in Japan, and she sent me cash instead of a book. I actually cried. It was the first birthday/Christmas in 19 years she hadn’t given me a book. I KNOW that I could’ve bought several books with the cash, but obviously that wasn’t the point.

  3. Katherine January 3, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    My mom generally buys for my children from their Amazon wish lists. When it comes to birthdays or Christmas, I try to make sure there is 1 or 2 toys, but the vast majority of what they get is books. The only exception was Elizabeth this year for Christmas, partially because I am running out of room for board books. I’ve already filled one children’s bookcase and a large basket on the floor. We definitely have enough toys but I think it would be much harder to have too many books. I’m hoping I can figure out another way to store the board books rather than accumulating baskets all around the bookcase but fortunately her birthday isn’t for a while yet. smile

    My girls know they will get mostly books and they look forward to them. We struggle to find places to put them, but they are always welcome at our house.

  4. Kate Wicker January 3, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    “I do think that consistency is the key. If something happens over and over again, even two or three times can be enough, children come to expect it. Give books at every gift giving occasion and it will seem normal, expected, even eagerly anticipated.”

    Amen!  It wouldn’t seem like a holiday in our home if we didn’t each get some books!

  5. priest's wife January 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    We find it a special treat to get books at Christmas- usually we focus on library books, so it is nice to have books that get to stay

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