The Rose that is Forever in its Advent

                 last rose of summer  We are on the threshold of Advent, and yet in the heartland flowers are still blooming. We are having a very long Indian summer. The impatiens are leggy, but still have color, and the petunia, who will last even when the snow falls upon them, have turned their faces, yellow, orange, purple, violet, to the rising sun each morning. The roses rival the autumn leaves who have gone from their vibrant reds and oranges to a dull russet while the rose bush continues to bloom. That flower associated as the penultimate symbol of love flowers on beyond its appointed season. If you wanted to name a perfect flower it would well the rose.

I am thinking of Advent differently this year, with St. Paul’s letters in mind. It seems to me that Paul brought another kind of Advent, the coming of Jesus as the Christ into the world and into our awareness.  Paul brought to awareness the living presence of Christ Jesus to a whole new sector of the Mediterranean population. Paul’s main theme is that we are brought to new life, a new birth, in faith in Christ. Christ becomes the highest and most perfect symbol of all that is human and sacred. His living, dying and rising makes that god-life available to us, not in some distant future, but now. For Paul it was always now. In Christ God’s life is born in us now, not as a baby in a manger, but in the manger of our hearts. One adult to another. One fully human and sacred Person to another human person who has within him/her the possibility of bringing the sacred reality that we are to the fullness of life, into full bloom. For Paul it was the coming of whatever vision or sensibility that came to him that inaugurated the advent of the Christ. The incarnate God ever available to us now in Him.

In Advent as we put on Christ, we put on the undying, timeless, perfect rose. Who continues to bloom even in the midst of winter’s darkest days, amidst the snow, in spite of the cold, the rose reminding us too of the life-blood that flowed from him onto the earth to mark it forever with his beauty, grace, life and love.

 

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The Birth of the Word in the Soul – Part VII

The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Word is one of the metaphors in St. John’s gospel that speaks to Jesus’ identity. The Word was in the beginning of the unfolding universe. For King Solomon, Wisdom, the divine Sophia, danced with the Creator as he spoke the world into existence. In the unfolding drama of Jesus’ birth, the Word become flesh is once more empowered by a woman, amidst the ordinariness of life, to a struggling nation, in an obscure town, where those to whom he first comes impart to Jesus his heritage, his longing and his mission to Israel, soon to become captive to another empire that would take his message and put its stamp upon it, for better or for worse.

The sword that would pierce Mary’s heart is the sword that would pierce her son’s side, their hearts the saving symbol of the heart of God intent upon loving the world from the manger to the altar of the cross, where worship is no longer a mother’s song but the very body and being of her son. Mary’s first prayer will be Jesus’ last. As he prays to his heavenly Father in the garden at Gethsemane before his death, Jesus utters let it be as you would have it. As Mary accepted his life, he too will accept his death, from mother to son, the faithful surrender to God’s design for their lives. As Jesus takes his last breath, a lone centurion stands beneath him, recognizing his true identity, his first Roman follower, worshiping him in the place where a voice has gone silent. No ideology can embrace this moment.

            This is the moment that brings us to true compassion, a compassion that continues to transform the world today. From the heart of the manger in Bethlehem we are fed; our hearts filled with praise springing forth in song, where the worship of God becomes the artistry of our lives just as it did in the people of Luke’s narrative. There it is real, human, enfleshed, ordinary, giving birth and giving witness to Jesus in the world. In this we are with them, with him, in the purpose and passion of his life, to his God and Father, our God and Father as well.

            A whole nation stands in an old couple and one young girl who said let it be. It is Luke’s way of saying what was will be saved, transformed by what is to come. For Luke, it is the good news placed in the story of the improbable advent of a savior. The old embracing the new, rejoicing, blessing Yahweh with their lives. The Lucan Jesus is welcomed into the world by devout people, whose lives of adoration became the manger in which he is set. His beginnings are humble. His end seemingly a humiliation. Though dedicated to the simple habit of their ritual, waiting for the promise to be kept, the story of Jesus’ beginning, like his life, is clearly a narrative of paradox and reversal. For those who first touch Jesus, the very ordinariness into which he comes admits Yahweh’s extraordinary new deed into their midst; into a world waiting for Yahweh to take them in his arms once more and keep his promise to them.

            They hoped for what they could not see, what they could only envision: the restoration of Israel. They stand in the empty Temple of Yahweh, in the gracious space of his presence, his promise to them their only adornment, age-weary prayers an incense rising, carrying their hopes to the unseen God. Silent for generations, now abandoning the laws of nature to grace, giving the world his only begotten, a small hope vested with great promise.

This promise is God’s spirit moving upon the body of the earth, bringing substance from the void, a child from the womb of a virgin, life from the tomb, the cross an empty manger once more. A soldier stands beneath the cross looking up. He blesses the son of God and another advent begins. A small hope grown in a lifetime, experienced, followed, loved, blessed with a woman’s life, a life of joy and a life of sorrow. A life that followed him from the moment of his conception until he stood in another garden, another Mary searches now not for knowledge but for love. He stands beside her and beckons her to rise. Just as Mary rose up to greet Elizabeth−women bearing Christ to one another, he bears himself to this other Mary, who will bear witness to his return−come back to a woman, as he once originated by the power of the spirit from his mother’s womb, then leaving the world an empty manger once more, where with each season we await the improbably advent of his return.

©2014 Cathie Horrell.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

Birth of the Word in the Soul Part V

Mary’s response to this miracle of birth is simple and concise. Let it be. In the moment of her assent, assured of its possibility, Mary’s faith shatters the seeming limitations of this world, so the fullness of God can find its expression in the fullness of humanity. Mary’s fidelity to her heritage and to Yahweh inaugurates the renewal of the kingdom, God’s reign as the place of promise, now realized in her son. As the Spirit of Yahweh enters into the mother of Jesus, the place of promise is no longer only a land, but a way of being, the ever-abiding-yet-to-come kingdom of God in the human heart, begun under the heart of a woman.

Mary’s let it be is the life-affirming response running through all of scripture. From a woman who considers herself a handmaid, by her assent, Mary becomes co-creator with Yahweh, open, responsive and receptive to the sacred spirit that overarches human finitude to bring about that which is no longer bound by time. Be it child or image, painting or poem, or the life lived authentically in response to the spirit hovering over the waters of this world, we, like Mary, give worship to that same spirit in each new day, in each new creation we bring forth, ever open and attendant to its advent.

As we sift through the gospels in order to make a response to the question Jesus put to his disciples and to us, who do you say that I am, we do well to look first to his mother. What she was, he will become. His first lessons came from her; his last instructions are for her care. She is present from the beginning of her son’s life until its end. From Bethlehem to Calvary, from the manager-cave of his birth to the rock-hewn cave where his body is placed after his death, Mary will watch Jesus grow and she will watch him die. The first place Jesus goes when he comes out of the tomb is to his family in Galilee. For a few brief moments a mother will hold her son again. After he goes to his Father, Mary is present at Pentecost when the spirit of her risen son is poured out upon her and the disciples, giving birth to the community of believers, just as it conceived her son in the temple of her belief.

The angel tells Mary that her kinswoman Elizabeth is also going to have a child.  As soon as the angel departs, Mary is off to share her news with Elizabeth, who is overcome with joy at Mary’s greeting.  At this greeting, John, the babe in her womb, leaps for joy. This leap of recognition spills from his mother as she cries out Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Elizabeth’s happy words to Mary come from the song of Deborah and Barak when Israel triumphed over Canaan. As these two women stand at the threshold of their lives, Luke uses the triumphal events of Israel’s past to telegraph the triumph their sons will have over foreign rule and foreign hearts, to bring their people safely home to Yahweh.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s jubilant song also springs from within her. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. From the depths of her soul she reaches back to the sacred writings of Israel, to the poetry of the woman Hannah who took a similar path to the one Mary is about to embark upon. Her song magnifies the wondrous deeds of the Lord God of Israel, wrapping her unborn son in the blanket of his destiny. She knows she is blessed. She knows she will give to the world the man who will magnify the same Lord with his life, so much so that he can call him Abba, Father, and tell us that to see him is to see the Father.

 Mary’s Magnificat is taken from the ancient canticle of Hannah, as Hannah surrenders her son, Samuel to Yahweh in service in the Temple. Like her kinswoman, Elizabeth, Hannah was beyond child-bearing age and was mocked because she was barren. She prayed to Yahweh for a son who would, as Elizabeth intones, take away her humiliation. And Yahweh gave her Samuel. And she gives Samuel back to Yahweh, just as Mary and Elizabeth give their sons who, like Samuel, will rescue Israel from her enemies and go on to be great leaders.

In the Magnificat the voice of Yahweh resounds again, echoing from Malachi, reiterating that the covenant made with Abraham has not been dashed upon the rocks of their oppression, but lives in the flesh and blood of two infants whose destinies could not have been foretold or imagined. One will be the unlikely messenger of the promise; the other the embodiment of that promise.

There is an irony here not to be missed. When he became their leader, the people pressured Samuel for a king but Samuel repeatedly refused. Eventually, however, he relented. In the end he had been right to refuse them, for the choosing of King Saul was the beginning of the end for the nation. The twelve tribes would shatter. When John and Jesus come on the scene, the Jews living in Judea are no longer the unified tribes of Israel but rather divided into often quarreling sects under Roman occupation. Once more they want a king. A powerful militaristic leader like David who will save them from their oppressors. But Jesus, like Samuel, refuses to take to himself the mantle of kingship. In the four gospels Jesus speaks more of himself as a shepherd than a king. He saw what the people did not. The shepherds who came to the manger were a sign in themselves. Their presence announced that a shepherd-leader had come among them. It is part of the paradox of his life that King of the Jews became the title that mocks Jesus’ death, though his death would not deter the advance of the kingdom he came to bring about.

©2014 Cathie Horrell.  All Rights Reserved.

Birth of the Word in the Soul Part III

Luke weaves the events surrounding Jesus’ birth with the unbreakable thread of the history of the Hebrew people. Their story shaped their identity and it will shape Jesus’ as well. It is the touchstone around which his life takes its meaning. Their story will mark this Jewish man just as it marked the Jewish nation before him. He will come to know it well, to wrest it from misunderstanding, to reclaim and restore the living reality of its meaning for his people.

As Luke’s gospel unfolds, the infant Jesus is seen laying in a cave-like stable, near the outskirts of a town teeming with people arriving for the census, his parents and simple shepherds his first followers. But the shepherds are not the first to herald Jesus’ arrival and rejoice at his advent. Luke’s good news is carried first on the lips of a few old people and one young Jewish girl. They are the faithful anawim, the remnant of Israel, scrupulously observing the rituals and customs of their faith. Their faith will make possible what the world deemed impossible. The faithful habit of their daily ritual the welcoming dawn inviting into the world the possibility of God.

They are Israel now. They carry the prayers and longings of their people in their lives of fidelity and service to Yahweh. From the first, they recognize in these unlikely births the nearness of God. His Spirit will inaugurate a new age, the new age Luke writes about as if in code, like hieroglyphics on a rock face, the words and events of his infancy narrative taken from Israel’s sacred writings, writings his audience would recognize like a star pointing its way to a manger. Throughout is the confluence of what has gone before with what is to come. Luke binds the strong yet subtle thread of the infancy narrative to the history of the Hebrew people, evocative of the spirit hovering over the waters of Genesis, tracing the trajectory of the infancy narrative with the full sweep of biblical touchstones.

©2014 Cathie Horrell. All Rights Reserved.

We are the Manger

winter_scene  Out of the infinite blue vastness we call God, the Word was breathed forth into the reality we call time. The stuff of God came to be, a small brown seed planted in the universe of matter and humankind.  I   am the stuff of God, God is the stuff of me. And it would seem that Paul, once so intent on destroying that seed, would experience the fullness of it possibility that came to us in a manger in Bethlehem, on a road as out of the way, dirty and dusty, as the stable in which Jesus was born.

The infancy narratives of Jesus are stories fraught with the symbols and the message of faith, in order to bring others to the belief in the Word become flesh. The image of Jesus as an infant is the image of what all babies are: infinite possibilities. Each child comes fresh from its mother, bringing with it all that it might be and become in the world. This Christ child represents for us the Christ-self that is present as all possibility planted in us at conception and coming to be in the world at our births.

It is this hidden self that is the Christ-self within each of us that Paul prays will be strong – come to its full potential and realization within us. Our lives and our very being, ourselves, are the manger in which Christ comes. Surrounded by angel songs and the lowest of shepherds and most notable kings, come the stories of the improbable advent of life, the hope of Israel, lying in a manger.  A manger – a feeding trough for animals. The infinite possibility of the God-life is housed incarnate in a plain, wood-hewn manger, a sign for celestial beings, the simple and the greatly adorned. Into the ordinariness of life he came.

As I watched the television last evening, I wanted to turn it off at one point. Numb finally to what seems like the ultimate rejection and devaluing of human life. I kept saying over and over: No. Why? Please? We are in the hard ground of winter. These days are truly dark. Herod is about for destruction. At some point I just had to let it all go. I had to become an empty manger. Even as I watched the gospels making a path through the world, I had to wait. Helpless, dependent, just as the Christ-self chose to come into the world and remained…this is hard. This is another kind of fear and trembling.

Yet. We are the manger into which this new life, the Christ-life, has come and will come. I need to believe that. I need to be carved out, a place from which love can come to feed the world. A child will lead us. The Christ-self, the part of me that is open, receptive, will love and lead.

Rilke’s words from his Letter to a Young Poet once again come to mind: Celebrate Christmas…in this devout feeling, that perhaps He needs this very fear of life from you in order to begin; these very days of your transition are perhaps the time when everything in you is working in him…be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come.

And so, we are manger and we are ground as well; softened so that the small brown seed might push its way through to a new Spring. The poets words give me hope: We can begin him. We can await his becoming in us and in the world. Our hearts can be the waiting mangers set upon the softened  ground of the self even in this seemingly intractable heart of winter.