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.

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