Merry Christmas everyone! For folks who have been following this Advent blog, you know that today is the day we have been waiting for. Waiting quite literally, as Advent is a season of waiting for the miracle that is on its way to us (remember that it is from the Latin adventus, and means “coming”)?
For those of you who landed here in search of our annual family holiday letter, welcome! You’re in the right place, and I’m so glad you’re here! Please read along (and maybe even visit some of the previous posts)! Everyone will also find some Srajek family 2010 moments over at: www.srajek.wordpress.com.
The title of today’s post comes from a quotation by Theodore Roethke: “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” Advent is called “the season of light,” and writing this blog [one post and one poem (not by me!) for each day of Advent] has, from the beginning, been a way to draw attention away from the typical experience of winter darkness, and towards the light, whatever form that light may take.
In a recent post, I shared a quotation from the Scottish minister Oswald Chambers, best known for the book My Utmost for His Highest. Bear with me as I share with you the passage that quotation came from, because it encapsulates many of the themes of Advent, and because it is reassuring advice to everyone who is engaged in the spiritual practice of simply being human:
“At times God puts us through the discipline of darkness to teach us to heed Him. Song birds are taught to sing in the dark, and we are put into the shadow of God’s hand until we learn to hear Him…Are you in the dark just now in your circumstances, or in your life with God? …When you are in the dark, listen, and God will give you a very personal message for someone else when you get into the light.”
The promise of Advent, the one God makes good on on Christmas day is this: “to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow dark as death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). I have been continually amazed these last four weeks, as I’ve been writing and reflecting, and as some of you have written in to share your experiences, at the tug of war between dark and light, hope and despair, homelessness and belonging, and just a general sense of not-okayness vs. feeling okay in the world.
And isn’t this just the simple truth about what it means to be human? We are always somewhere on the spectrum of that struggle, or if “struggle” is too negative a word, that simple state of being. No one place is better than another (though some are infinitely more comfortable than others), and no one place is more “right” than another. Anywhere we are, between the darkness and the light, between sickness and health, fear and love, is where we are, and that’s just how it is.
But we’ve also found that there are reminders of protection, belonging, reassurance and love everywhere we look. And even more than that, that darkness, in whatever form it takes, has meaning, not necessarily, or not just for us as individuals, but for others as well. All of our experiences mean something, not to us alone, but to us as a human among humans. The line in the Oswald Chambers quote: “When you are in the dark, listen, and God will give you a very personal message for someone else when you get into the light,” has often struck me as just weird, because when I’m in the dark, I’m looking for the way out for me. I’m not particularly interested in other people.
But what an extraordinary reminder this is: that it is not necessary to be filled with light and love to be of use to others. We can be stumbling around in the dark, in our imperfect, human ways, and we can still be of use. We still have value. A few days ago my friend Elizabeth said, “It’s not like we get our coffee from Panera and say, when the server asks us how we are, “Well, I wanted to kill my husband this morning, my best friend has two little kids and breast cancer, and I might lose my job. How are you?” Then she said, “But maybe we should. Maybe that would make us all feel more real.”
Maybe we would feel more real, but what I hope we feel is that we can matter, we always matter, even, perhaps especially, when we are just ourselves, regardless of the state we are in. We all belong. We are never alone. And whatever we bring to the table is welcome.
And as Maya Angelou writes, “Our passages have been paid.” If you are Christian you believe that someone has already paid for your sins, the someone whose birth we celebrate at this time of year. This is how Anne Lamott’s priest friend describes it in Traveling Mercies: “I guess it’s like discovering you’re on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, ‘I’ll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.'”
The important thing to notice about all of this is that God is nudging us along, giving us reminders left and right to not be afraid, that we are not alone, that there is a path of light through the dark, and it would be a really, really GOOD IDEA to stop worrying about whether we are good enough, and start paying attention to what we are really meant to do in the world: Love one another; wake up, do some good. And step on it. God as a Jewish (or Italian) mother: “How many times do I have to tell you…???”
My absolute favorite passage of the Christmas story is this one from Luke: “An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people” (Luke 2:9-10).
That’s the promise that’s fulfilled today. I grew up as a Catholic, complete with 12 years of Catholic school. And, like my son Noah, came out the other side feeling distinctly non-spiritual. This changed over the years, though I have struggled with the use of “churchy language” in my writing. But writing this Advent blog, and knowing that you were there, on your side of the screen, reading along, has taken that passage above and lifted it out of being just a Bible story, spread it wide open like the enormous wings of the angel, and let it protect and encompass all of my human experience, all of our human experience. This is what I hope to share with you at this moment, and what I hope we have shared as we’ve been waiting together.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, the warmest wishes, and more love and gratitude than I can possibly express. Blessings, blessings, blessings. Come on back, and if you’re here for the first time and want to join in, just click on the gray “sign me up!” box on the top right. It would truly be an honor to have you here.
The tradition is to end each post with a poem. This one that I’m going to leave you with today is sneaky, tricky, crafty. One might even say subversive. On top of that, it’s by a 10th century Christian mystic. Be warned–it does a lot more than you think it’s doing. But trust me; give it a try. It’s worth it.
Awaken As The Beloved
by St. Symeon the Theologian
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
he appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? – Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
as radiant in His light
we awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
(translated by Stephen Mitchell )