Monday, December 28, 2009

Lights and Stables

This season I've had the opportunity to sit for a few minutes at least a couple of times and just stare at the lights. On the eighth night of Hanukkah we turned out all of the electric lights and watched the candles burn down and our big activity was trying to guess which candle would last the longest. Mostly we just watched the flames flicker. If you are nearsighted and take off your glasses, there is a lovely light blur.

Both on the solstice and on Christmas eve after the service, I plugged in the lights on the Christmas tree and just sat and looked at the tree. I don't have blinking lights, but I do have some shiny ornaments so there is a glow around the tree. Each ornament on the tree has a story, but on these occasions I was mindful of my need for light and peace. When the days are short, we need the light, because it gives us hope.

And one night when I woke in the middle of the night or early morning and looked out the window, there was the light of the moon on new fallen snow—that is the oldest of the lights of the season. There is a glow of moonlight on snow that is unlike any other, except it reminded me of the first line of one of my new (to me) favorite Christmas hymns that uses the text of the poem by Richard Wilbur. Two years ago, my friend Marty who is a midwife was preaching on Herod's killing of the boy children on the Sunday after Christmas and I added a verse 2, and sang it as the offertory anthem, using the setting by David Hurd. I'm going to suggest that that this be included in next year's Christmas Eve service, as I've just found two lovely choral settings of the text, by David Hurd and by Michael Larkin.

A Christmas Hymn ~Richard Wilbur

A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky;

the stars shall bend their voices,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

and straw like gold shall shine;

a barn shall harbor heaven,

a stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by;

the palm shall strew its branches,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

though heavy, dull, and dumb,

and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken and yielded up to die;

the sky shall groan and darken,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

for stony hearts of men:

God’s blood upon the spearhead,

God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,

the low is lifted high;

the stars shall bend their voices,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry in praises of the child

by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.

[for the Sunday after Christmas, insert/add as v. 2 ~my text, not Richard Wilbur's]

In dreams Love sends a warning;

to Egypt they will fly.

The dark shall hide their passage,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

when children die for fear of power lost or broken:

The hope of justice near.

On Christmas eve, I got to read this verse in our service of music and word:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

That, along with the poem, started me thinking about the words stable (noun) and stable (adjective), and how a stable is not the beautiful, pristine place that artists have depicted over the centuries for the birth of Jesus, but how having stability, being stable, is something that we need and don't find when we airbrush over the realities of the stable, its smell of manure and hay, its dirt and the implications of the poverty that caused it to be used as a nursery for a human baby. This of course does not even consider the cries and groans and blood and mess that go with giving birth. (Listen to Labor of Love for a wonderful musical depiction.)

Being stable means being grounded, standing firm, and enduring over time. I think that our glossing over the dirt is akin to our inflated and often disappointed expectations of the season. This year I was so aware of many friends and people confronting loss and grief and pain and suffering and even death, and how we bump up against the reality of unhappy family dynamics and a world where joy, peace and love just are not always evident, despite our desires and greetings of the season.

Yet in the stable, with the smell of fresh hay, we can also remember the summer day when the hay was cut, the green straw and the flowers that were bound together and dried. My brother raises hay, and the best hay will keep most of that life-giving essence to nourish the animals through the winter. Most gardeners will be delighted to have composted manure because it will promote life and growth. So the stable with its smells of hay and manure can, if we just let it, bring us into touch with our own stability and the cycle of life, light and hope. Like light, what the stable brings is hope.

As I was contemplating this verse again I noticed, of course, that the word stable is not there, but only implied. So, I backtracked and looked up the Greek for this verse.

The Greek word for manger, transliterated as phatne, like its English counterpart, derived from the French and Latin, comes from the root "to eat." The Italian command, "mangia!" (eat!) comes to mind. No wonder the hospitality of the table is so prominent in Jesus' teaching. He absorbed it from a very young age.

The Greek word that we translate as "inn," transliterated as kataluma, is defined as "an inn, lodging place, an eating room or dining room." In the two other places that it appears in the New Testament, it is translated as "guest room," and those refer to the room where Jesus ate his last supper with the disciples.

A little further research suggests that perhaps the manger where Jesus was laid was perhaps not in a barn, like we would envision, but one possibility is that the place where travelers stopped and untied the burdens from their animals (kata means "down from" and luma means "loose or untie") was a cave on the edge of town.

When I traveled to China to adopt my daughter, we drove out into the country and visited a peasant farm, as a way to understand where it was likely that she might have been born. All of the rooms had dirt floors. Next to the kitchen, which is a loose description of the small square room with the clay oven and a brazier for cooking, there was a room where the animals lived, and on this prosperous farm there was an enormous hog. A similar possibility, some archeologists suggest, for the location of the manger where Jesus was placed, was in a situation where the animals were kept on the ground floor of a house, while the family lived on the second floor. If there were many other guests or elder family members in the guest room (kataluma) above, then space was made near where the animals ate and were kept below.

Today, as I think about that manger and stable, however it may have been configured, I pray that we can be stable, standing firm and grounded in the hope and light of the child whose birth and life that Christians celebrate. May the hope and light of the stable bring you to the knowledge of God's stable, steadfast, and enduring love.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bells for Peace and a Silent Center

On the first Sunday of Advent this year, my church choir had the pleasure and privilege of being/singing the prelude for one performance of the Huntington Theater's production of A Civil War Christmas, and then we got to stay for the show.

The show, which closed this weekend, featured music of the period, including a musical setting of the poem by Cambridge, MA poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that he wrote in reaction to the Civil War: Christmas Bells. Nowadays hymnals leave out the verses about the cannons of the Civil War, and I had not heard the whole of the poem in context, so I looked up a collection of Longfellow's poems. The irony of this poem about bells ringing the songs of peace on earth was pointed out in the play, because in the South during the Civil War bells no longer rang out in carols of peace from churches and town halls because the bells had been melted down to become cannon balls.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!
While I had heard the tune that they used, it was less familiar to me and somehow more haunting than the one I first learned, and it has stayed with me these past few weeks. I found versions by Harry Belafonte and Sarah MacLachlan that I liked, although neither of these captured quite the pure despair and simplicity and hope, that I had heard in the play.

Unlike Longfellow, the bells that I've been hearing lately have mostly been ringers in front of a Salvation Army kettle, not so loud and deep, but jangling, not singing of peace, but of need.

So, peace on earth has been in my thoughts in recent weeks and the ironies continue. The President of the United States announced that he was escalating the war in Afghanistan on December 1—I listened to the last of his speech on my way home from a service that I participated in for World AIDS Day. Hm, what if we took the money we're using for war and devoted it to medicine for the millions dying of AIDS? Did you know that AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for women worldwide? (Interesting side note: both Belafonte and McLachlan use some of their artistic work toward the health of women and children in Africa, including fighting against AIDS.)

Then the irony was heightened as President Obama went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace prize. He noted in his speech, "But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." You think?

I didn't hear him live and I had to search hard to find the text of his speech to read it because on Thursday I was busy helping a loved one check into the hospital because she suffers from a disease that may in fact be a perfect example of the mockery of peace on earth. Crohn's is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body or doesn't protect the body correctly when something else attacks the body, or sometimes both, at once. The increase in such diseases is attributed partially to the increasing amount of environmental toxins we create and spread and ingest, and her flare-ups, though this was a more extreme one, are almost always related to periods of high stress.

She is Jewish and we virtually lit the first candles of Hanukkah while she has been in the hospital (virtually meaning no flame—too many people on oxygen). So then my thinking of peace took a personal and a Jewish turn. The Hebrew word, shalom, while usually translated as peace in English, really has a broader meaning, more like holy wholeness. Hospitals, in contrast, really are about sickness, not about health or wholeness. Hospitals are about care, often and maybe usually intrusively and noisily provided, not about rest or quiet. Saturday, after my third day of just visiting her in the hospital, I was so jangled I came home absent my own quiet center, my own piece of peace on earth.

And in despair, I bowed my head: 'There is no peace on earth,' I said.

On Sunday morning as we began choir rehearsal our choir director began with a prayer as he always does, but today after he said, "let us pray," he paused. He held that pause until it became pure silence, and in that moment before spoken prayer, not measurable in time by clocks, but only by the sense of the Spirit moving among us. As I sat surrounded by friends and people of faith and preparing to sing and to worship, I was both surrounded by and filled with peace.

God is not dead, nor does God sleep.

May we each find our way, through prayer, through music or poetry, or through your own path, into peace and wholeness and centeredness, especially in this season where the bells are not always singing the songs of peace on earth.