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Happy New Year

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I’m four days late wishing my Christian friends a happy new year.  Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, marking the beginning of the liturgical year, as we look forward once again to Christ’s coming into the world.  The liturgical color for this season is blue, which signifies hope.  It is a season of waiting.

The waiting on the surface level is the waiting for Christmas which, in contrast to the secular season, only begins on December 25.  Children’s advent calendars mark the days with little doors to open on each day, until the door for December 25 reveals a manger scene.

There is a deeper level to advent waiting for which there is no calendar.  We do not know “the day or the hour” for Christ’s return.  Many people still expect a physical return, in spite of nearly 2,000 years in which it has not happened.  Others speak of Christ coming into our hearts and lives.  I tend to think of growing into Christness, rather than Christ coming to me.  Different metaphors work for different folks.

We had a splendid sunrise on December 1, which makes a good image for advent and new beginnings.  The rising sun is received by the cloud in brilliant color.  As the sun rises, the cloud blocks it.  We tend to be less aware, less appreciative of the sun when the clouds are really thick.  But it is there, making what was night into day, too powerful to be fully obscured.

December Sunrise

December Sunrise

Advent Hope: Images of Emmanuel

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The most popular advent hymn is probably “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  I wish we would sing it every Sunday in Advent, since it is only appropriate on those four Sundays.  There are as many as eight verses, depending on your tradition.  These verses are a compendium of metaphors, different images added one to another to try to convey the qualities and importance of the Awaited One, the savior and healer who is to come.

To emphasize this abundance I am numbering the themes, although they do not appear in all versions in the same order.

1.  In the first verse, also often sung at the end, Emmanual will ransom Israel, which mourns in lonely exile.  This echoes both the Exodus from Egypt and the return of the Israelites from Babylon.  It can also remind us, in our present time, that mourning feels like exile.

2.  Emmanuel is “Wisdom from on high.”  Wisdom is sometimes presented as an assistant to God.  Here Wisdom will teach us.

3.  Emmanuel is the mighty Lord who gave Israel the law.  He is thus the God who will judge all.

4. Emmanuel is the Branch (or Rod depending on the version) of Jesse.  Jesse is the father of David and therefore Emmanuel is in the line of Israelite kings.  This Branch will rescue people and “give them victory over the grave.”

5.  Some traditions also have a verse describing Emmanuel as the Root of Jesse’s tree.  This suggests that the Awaited One is in the lineage of David and at the same time was before David. (As described in one of Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees in the gospels.)

6.  As Key of David, Emmanuel opens the way to heaven and closes the path to misery. Though no door is mentioned, the image is of an actual key which can lock and unlock.

7.  Emmanuel is the Dayspring, which is to say the sun, which disperses the clouds of night.  This is in turn a metaphor for removing the dark shadow of death.

8.  As King of nations, Emmanuel will restore what is broken, bringing peace.

9.  This King is also called Cornerstone, the stone which binds a building into one.

The original combiner of these metaphors, back in the eleventh or twelfth century, knew the scriptures well.  All of these images circle around the hope for healing, for safety and for peace, that very human longing which is the underlying theme of Advent.

Seasonal Work and a Poem

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The shipping companies are looking for workers this month because an increase in internet orders means an increase in deliveries.  For wives and mothers the seasonal work of this time has another dimension.  A set of extra tasks are added to an already full schedule.   Shopping to do, packages to wrap and mail, cards to prepare, all this has to be fitted in.

For me, the most important seasonal task is baking.  The other tasks will get done, but cookies mark the progress of advent..  I stock special ingredients to make certain special cookies, the recipes all handed down from somewhere.  For a time, when our boys were young, I was baking three different kinds of cookies; the recipes came from my family, my husband’s family, and their favorite babysitter.  These days I only do one or two – all the recipes are so large there aren’t enough people around to eat all I can make.

While setting out molasses, flour, spices and so on for the German cookies from my mother’s family today, I remembered how baking works as a metaphor for other kinds of creativity.  The combination of elements becomes something more than the sum of the ingredients.  The following poem uses the image of a pie rather than cookies.  I don’t make many pies during December, but I must not forget the Christmas breakfast coffee cake!

Baking

The fingers that curl
around my pencil
knead butter in a bowl:
flour sprays onto the counter.

Butter’s a better
conductor than graphite.
Words slide down
the greased slope.  Rolling pin
presses them in.  I crimp
the edge in even meter.

When I give you a slice
of this pie, you will be
eating my words.

“Baking” was first published in Rockhurst Review # 23, Spring 2010.

Happy New Year

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Light a Candle for Advent

Light a Candle for Advent

The cycle of the year turns and we come to another new year, this one in the Christian liturgical calendar.  November 25 was Christ the King Sunday, the end of the old year. December 2 is the first Sunday in Advent.  We switch to a different gospel for our readings as a sign that we are at a new beginning.  I heard a church member ask, “What is Advent, anyway” last Sunday.  All he knew was advent calendars, the ones with little doors to open that help a child wait for Christmas.

Advent means “Coming.”  Advent is a season of preparation, but not just for Christmas.  Coming has a double meaning.  It refers to the coming of the Christ Child.  It also refers to the last days, the “second coming” of Christ at the end of time.

It’s a lot easier to get ready for Christmas than to ponder the end.  Appropriately, ideas about the end time have a complex name: they are called “Eschatology.”  Perhaps it is part of the wisdom of the early church to remind us of the end when we are thinking of the beginning, because it is easier to bear that way.  More likely, the coming of Christ was understood as a breaking into history that was the beginning of the end.  There is a piece of Lutheran liturgy which includes the phrase, relating to the appearance of Christ, “at this end of all the ages.”  It is now 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus.  2,000 years is a lot longer than early Christians like Paul believed we would be waiting, but it’s not so long measured against the great scale of the earth’s existence.

Eschaton is Greek for end.  Advent is Latin for coming.  The church has gathered its language and its customs from all over.  In early centuries the Christian church was very savvy about absorbing and combining the religious practices of peoples.  That, as you probably know, is why Christmas is set for December 25, four days after the solstice.  It plays into all the “pagan” holidays of light at the turning of the year from growing darkness to increasing light.

I have a pendant I wear during Advent.  A simple candle, the primary symbol of Advent, light shining in the darkness (“and the darkness has not overcome it,” John wrote).  On the back of the pendant is written: “to give light you must endure burning.”  That is Advent for me: a time to recognize that there is nothing simple about the birth of a baby.