Glancing back over the Christmas photos I’ve posted in the last few days, the contrast struck me last night: how very pretty they all were and how very messy the rest of life is, the stuff the photos don’t show: the pine needles on the floor, the candy wrappers, the dirty carpet, the cobwebs in the corners, the unwashed laundry, the dirty dishes and icky sink, the actual filth behind my toilet. Oh I know it’s become very popular, almost de rigeur in some circles, to apologize for the gap between the pretty face that blogs present to the world and the messy underbelly that they don’t reveal. Alternately, some bloggers feel a need to revel in the mess and to be all rough edges and uncouth edginess.
Me, I don’t like following either trend. I try to blog about my life here in a way that is real, to record the things I want to remember when I look back on these years. I want to remember the beauty and the joy, the wonderful blessing that my family is. But I don’t want to forget how very hard this season of life is, either. How I can make wonderful Christmas memories for all of us, children and adults alike, of going to Midnight Mass, making sugar cookies, trimming the tree and reading piles of Christmas books and singing hymns and carols; but everything is a tradeoff. Opportunity cost: for everything I do, something else is left undone.
I don’t want to forget that every time I sit down to read a book to a crowd of children that means I’m not doing the dishes or changing the laundry. When we bake cookies dinner is delayed and so is bedtime and everyone gets a bit cranky. Midnight Mass leads to several days of recovery, children who don’t bounce back so easily. Our Christmas feasting is definitely worth it; but by St Stephen’s day the cupboards were empty, the fridge almost bare and after dropping Dom’s car off at the shop we had to go food shopping. Real life amid the celebration. It’s the give and take, the way the mess threatens to overwhelm the celebration, the chaos to mar the magic.
The way the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it not. The darkness doesn’t overcome the light. The darkness cannot understand the light. But the Light comes to us in the mess, in the midst of the ugliness of our lives. The way I can go from listening to a beautiful carol to snapping at the squabbling children who interrupt it. The things left undone: advent calendar with the last few days shut, advent chains still intact except for the first week’s links. The Nativity scene wasn’t put out until Monday. The stockings were rounded up after the kids were in bed on Christmas eve. The Christmas cookies still haven’t been baked. The house looks like a hurricane hit it. And yet the candles glow and so does the tree. We sing, we pray. There is an air of festivity.
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On Saturday Bella made her second confession. I really had meant to make it to confession myself earlier in Advent; but things kept slipping: next week. Next week. Then it was the last chance and I might have even let it slip away if it hadn’t been for a little seven year old girl who asked to be taken. And so we went, she and I together. She skipped into the confessional as soon as we got there. She skipped out again a few minutes later, light and happy. When I took my turn the priest, who is pastor at a neighboring parish, asked if she was my daughter. When I said she was he told me she was very cute. Very wiggly, he said, unable to sit still. Oh, he assured me, she did everything perfectly. Just with extra wiggles.
And I confessed my sins and felt a weight lift, as if a physical burden had been lifted from me. And then we went to the store to buy something or other and went home for dinner. And that’s how it is: the dear Christ enters in to our mess. He comes to lift our burdens. Not to clean the house or to help set the table, but to refresh the tired spirit, tired of sinning, tired of running and hiding. I hope Bella never struggles with confession the way I do. I hope she always skips in and skips out without the extra burden of dread that I’m carrying (I know it’s nonsensical, but that doesn’t really make it go away, now does it? It just makes it seem an even sillier burden.)
I hope that my children will remember the carols and not the yelling, the cookies and not the late dinner, the magic of getting up in the middle of the night for Mass and not the crankiness afterward, the love and laughter and not the dirt in the corners. And I hope they will know the real meaning, the heart of this season is not the presents under the tree nor even the love we feel for each other. That the greatest gift is the clean heart, the light spirit that I had leaving that confessional. Wanting to skip with Bella: doesn’t it feel so good?
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How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
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John, the apostle and evangelist, a virgin chosen by the Lord, was loved by the Lord above the others.*
To the virgin John, Christ, dying on the cross, entrusted his virgin mother.*
The disciple whom Jesus loved cried out: It is the Lord, alleluia.*
Today is the feast of St John the Evangelist, the apostle who leaned on Christ’s breast at the last supper, who stood at the foot of the cross. Who in his Gospel refers to himself as the Beloved Disciple. That title can seem a bit full of itself: “Jesus loves me best.” But this morning as I was listening to Morning Prayer and making breakfast, it occurred to me that John isn’t bragging, not even a little bit. He’s far too humble. Suddenly I heard it said in a voice of awed wonder: “He chose me? He gave his most precious Mother to me! He must love me.” And the unspoken but surely there, How can that be? Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to dwell with me and call me Son?
He was the apostle to whom the vision of heaven, which he recorded in the Book of Revelation, was entrusted. He was the apostle who wrote:
This is what we proclaim to you:
what was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked upon,
and our hands have touched–
we speak of the word of life.
(This life became visible;
we have seen and bear witness to it,
and we proclaim to you the eternal life
that was present to the Father
and became visible to us.)
What we have seen and heard
we proclaim in turn to you
so that you may share life with us.
–from the First Letter of St John, from today’s Office of Readings
He saw and heard and touched. And believed that the man who he saw and heard and touched was also the eternal Word made flesh, life made visible. Truly he was beloved by God for he saw more clearly than any of the others. He watched Jesus die on the cross, he heard those last words with his own ears. He surely touched that dead body with his own hands. And he heard, he saw, he touched, the resurrected body.
And here we are again at the cross, the blood, the suffering. Yesterday St Stephen, today St John. Tomorrow the Holy Innocents. Into the mess, the pain, the suffering, the dear Christ enters in. There is no answer to the cry of Why?! that rages in our hearts. There is only this: He came and suffered too. That we might not bear the burden alone. He came to be with us in the mess and the dirt and the pain. He came to dwell with us. Emmanuel.
*antiphons from today’s Morning Prayer
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In her article Blood on the Straw Michelle Arnold ponders the death and blood that the Church serves up during the liturgical Christmas season:
The arrangement of the Church’s liturgical calendar is not always intended to be in chronological order. Sometimes feast days are arranged by theological significance.
There are a slew of feast days right after Christmas that emphasize the fact that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual suffering, death, and Resurrection. On December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple who stood at the foot of the Cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own Mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas à Becket, bishop and martyr. In the midst of this is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.
And specifically speculates on the meaning of the infant Jesus’ circumcision:
This blog post cannot delve into all of the history and meaning behind circumcision as practiced by the Jewish people. Suffice to say here that it was a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Since the covenant was patriarchal, it was fitting that the sign involve the male generative organ. But perhaps Christians might speculate further, and wonder if there is special significance to Jesus having undergone the rite.
Think about it. Two pious, saintly Jews—one immaculately conceived and the other a just man who recoiled at causing a grown woman pain, never mind a newborn child (cf. Matt. 1:19)—would never have deliberately done anything to cause injury to their child. Unless. . . . Unless it was commanded of them by the tenets of their religion. Unless God himself required it of them and their people through the covenant he had made with their forefathers.
Because Jesus was circumcised, the Infant Jesus suffered and bled. His blood was mingled with all of the seemingly senseless shedding of blood by innocents down through the centuries to follow. The shedding of innocent blood, even by those unaware of the meaning of their sacrifice, can have value because of the innocent blood shed by God the Newborn Babe.
Of course, it also prefigured the definitive sacrifice Christ made upon the cross. As Bishop Fulton Sheen pointed out, Jesus Christ was the only man in human history who was born to die. He did not come into this world to live as do all other men; he specifically came to die so that all other men might have eternal life.
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Something else to ponder: There Is No Other Christmas by Cay Gibson
Most believe Christmas is over.
Our Church and its people know otherwise.
Christmas is just beginning.
There are twelve days of Christmas celebration, beginning on Christmas Day and continuing to the feast of the Epiphany, but the world seems to hush on December 26 and Christians, still wanting to rejoice, takes this offensively, as though the world has turned away from what is good and holy. Rejoicing should be loud and merry, full of exclamation points and pomp and commotion.
Or should it? Must it always?
We can still rejoice, but it is a quiet rejoicing. It’s the rejoicing known by mothers and fathers who have gazed shoulder to shoulder over the face of their newborn infant. We, as Christians, are left to gaze upon something good and holy; something that does not need bells and whistles and parties and pomp and commotion to herald its completion because…
…because it is complete. It is reverent awe.
The Holy Father tells us that in view of the infant in the manger:
“There is no other Christmas.”
Our rejoicing comes in fullness on Christmas Day. There is only us and our Savior.
There is no need for anything else. No more food, no more parties, no more festivities, no more decoration, no more presents.
“There is no other Christmas.”
There is only us and a manger and the stillness of poverty that lies in the aftermath of society’s commercialism and consumerism.
“There is no other Christmas.”
Virgin Mary, all that the prophets foretold of Christ has been fulfilled through you: as a virgin, you conceived, and after you gave birth, a virgin you remained.
–Antiphon from today’s Magnificat
The third day of Christmas. Nine more to go.