Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent Reflection (In the Driveway)

The girls played in the yard in their bathing suits again today. They took turns with the garden hose, "washing" Daddy's car - and each other - while I sat in the shade on the driveway with a shirtless baby on my lap who was trying to read my book instead of me, and me admiring the gummy-with-leftover-pancake-syrup creases in his neck.

This time of year, we Floridians reap the rewards of enduring the long hot summer. Outside, it's balmy. It's perfect. Buffered by distance, noises float to you over the air - lawnmowers, traffic, a yapping dog - that almost sound like music. You can watch the edges of the shade shifting in the breeze and with a great happy calm in your heart, drift right off to sleep...if you aren't supervising children.

As soon as my baby pattered off to chase his sisters, I picked up my book again, Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI.) It's a rich text; I can only read a little at a time. "Now is the time of joy," he writes. Why is this the time of joy? Because the Kingdom of God has been proclaimed to us. What is the Kingdom of God? It is God's kingship, the active reality of his reign over nature and history. It is in the midst of us. It is the very person of Christ. I leaned back and thought about this, while the yellow palm clusters waved against the sky.

It is extraordinary - the hiddeness of God's Dominion. "Surely you are a God who hides himself," the psalmist says. Like a seed, he has planted his Kingdom in our midst; it takes root in darkness and sprouts secretly. The story of mankind from God's perspective is the growth of this seed. The events of our history books are immaterial; they record the rise and fall of worldly kingdoms. God's record is of the fact of his kingship in our world. His is an entire domain that can only be seen by those who desire to enter it - and the story of this domain is the whole point of the history of man, a point that is completely missed in the glare of worldly power. We can impugn God, I suppose, for making himself invisible, but by doing so, he has ensured that the only way to him is by the mechanism of Love. (Ratzinger, p. 37) By those who seek him, he can be found. But there is no one who is not free to seek something else instead.

Sitting in the driveway, I thought for the first time that I might be in this Kingdom now, by faith, through His body and blood, and that perhaps it is beside the point whether I live or die, whether America rises or falls, or in what way I suffer. Because suffering, dying, living, America rising, America falling, we his people are already under the rule of another reality. Our swords have been beaten into plowshares. The wolf and lamb are lying down together. On all this holy mountain, there is no harming or destroying. This is not yet a thing that you can touch with your hands. But it is real. As the Holy Father says, this means that no matter what terrible things may happen to us, there is nothing terrible that can happen to us. On a day like today, it wasn't even hard for me to believe it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Circle of Light

It's that time of year - twinkle lights are up, Christmas music's on - when children get excited. I always did - not just for the gifts I'd get but those I'd give: bought or (more likely) made - usually, in our case, all through the night from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning. But I think even more I anticipated the Occasion, the Family Event of the year when I knew by our particular rituals, more than at any other time, that I belonged to a clan.

It's the time of year, though, too, that grown-ups can get the blues. I find that I usually do, a little. It's lonely to not be a child at Christmas. Now I'm the one creating the customs, and it can even make me shudder: on the one side I see my new little family around our own little hearth, on the other side Night, and between the two just Shep and me, rubbing sticks together to make a circle of light. There's no illusion here.

This year, though, it occurs to me, maybe it's not inappropriate to feel a little grieved. We await, after all, a haunting mystery brought forth in the dark of the year: a baby born to die. It takes your breath away - the generosity, the humility, the love, the grim necessity (since we'd be doomed without it) - and it makes your heart thud, to anticipate Beauty himself, defaced.

What's more, even as we prepare to commemorate that the Light has come, here we are still waiting in the dark, for the Light to come again, at last, for good. We're standing brave against the night. So maybe it's not too outrageous to mourn a little, to feel a little pathos now, even if it flies in the face of jingle bells and snowmen and reindeer and santa clauses. Those are the only illusions, really - just the jingles of the merchandise. Christmas is about what's real.

Advent is the beginning of the church calendar, and it makes sense to me for the year to begin this way, with the first rumblings of war: God made flesh, dropped down into the territory of his one ancient enemy. In the end, he'll emerge victorious, but not before that darkest dark day of shaking earth, blackened sun, bloody moon. After that he'll break out, and there's not a sad thought then on Resurrection Day, only triumph and the groundswell of spring. But here we are at the beginning, in cold silence in the dark of the year. It seems you can't understand any part of this plot-line apart from the whole: it all leads up to Easter. Right now, you have a tiny, tender baby, peerless in perfection. It gives you goose-bumps and joy and hope and awe, and longing and grief and wonder and suspense. Not the trivial spiel of a commercial Christmas, it's better, wrought with all emotions, the Story Unsurpassed. Embracing this, I don't feel so melancholy. I begin to take great satisfaction in rubbing these sticks together. I find they do make quite a glow.