What Child is This? Coming to Terms with an Avoidant Advent

Let’s see if I can do this.

As we near the end of Advent, I find myself enmeshed in what has become a perennial bout; a fierce grappling between a primal force inside me and the wondrous onslaught of the season. Something must give.

I took our dog for a late afternoon walk last week, venturing into the already-dark Chicago chill. As we made our way onto the nearby campus, we passed through a dim corridor between the theater and art museum. My dog bounded back and forth straining against her leash, sniffing and scanning frantically for the rabbits she knows frequent these lawns and hedges, while I was enacting my own thrashing struggle, albeit an invisible one.

My soul was a gurgling cauldron of complaints: that overwhelming project, that unforeseen ordeal, that irreconcilable strife, my impenetrable mental fog, and the intolerable sense of being unknown and misunderstood in it all. Flapping in the wind.

They were mini tantrums, really: “It’s not fair!” And I was suddenly conscious of their juvenile quality. I walked further, through the nearly vacant quadrangles, and my meditations converged momentarily with Advent. I heard myself whisper, “What child is this?”

This surprised – no, intrigued me. It had the hallmarks of a divine encounter demanding my attention.

This phrase is, of course, a lyric from the William Chatterton Dix poem we have come to cherish in its eponymous carol form. For Dix, the child in question is none other than “Christ the King,” and it is our loving privilege to greet and guard, laud and lavish, own and enthrone. Or else, with Mary, gather this child to our laps, where he may rest and slumber. The child is holy and the child is lovely, and it is imperative to prepare him room. The child in question during my wintery ruminations was none other than me. Could an akin loving privilege be thus in order?

Advent startles us with the riddle “What child is this?” and, as I trekked through the windswept and solitary darkness, I was startled at the thought that Advent might have yet another child in view.

Pop psychology of the ’70s and ’80s introduced the idea of the “inner child” into our lexicon. Though the phrase was swept predictably into the disparagement reserved for such self-help terminology, it also contributed to development of trauma, reparenting, and internal family systems therapies. There was no denying this childlike figure, only how to rightly attend it.

It was Carl Jung who first proposed this child “lurking in every adult,” calling it “the eternal child” or even “the divine child”; an irrepressible child demanding “unceasing care, attention, and education.” Paul Simon referred to “the obvious child” and pled that we not deny it.

It is in desolate moments that this child becomes most obvious; it’s blaring squall no longer drown out.

The child, according to Jung, can be quite disruptive – incorrigible even! Paradoxically the child is both powerful and powerless (as most parents well know). The child holds the keys to our vitality, imagination, and wonder. The child is importunate and more than a little mischievous to the point of provoking this hallowed question in us all: “What child is this?” This question always has in tow an implicit concern, “What can this child need?”

The above picture was taken in 1979. It was the Christmas of my earliest recollection. I still recall the privilege of placing the star atop our tree, aided by the landing of our split-level Colorado home. The snow piled deep that Christmas, and I received the coveted Mattel “Shogun Warrior” Godzilla toy and a plush Snoopy to boot, both of which I still possess (in the case of Godzilla, only his projectile claw). I was 4 years-old and all was sublime wonder.

Less than one month later, my parents divorced.

Long before Jung, Jesus taught perplexing things about children. Once, amidst the self-important jockeying of his disciples, he “called a little child to him, and placed the child among them” and said,

Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me. (Mt. 18:3-5)

We must become like children, humble ourselves as children, and learn to gladly entertain all children in order to inhabit the kingdom.

Later, when his disciples barred children from his presence, Jesus became indignant, rebuking them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk. 10:14, Mt. 19:14, Lk. 18:16) As rendered in the King James, “Suffer the little children come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Many have sought definitive answers to Jesus’ meanings, ascribing all manner of virtue or essence to the young. These pronouncements usually ring hollow and conjectural to me. All I know for sure is that much takes place between what we call childhood and adulthood that makes us ever more closed off to this heavenly kingdom – dishonor, neglect, exclusion, or far worse. We are born helpless into a world swirling with curses. None go unscathed.

Singer-songwriter Michael David Rosenberg (known by his stage name Passenger) achingly captured this in his song “All the Little Lights”:

We’re born with millions
Of little lights shining in the dark
And they show us the way
One lights up, every time you feel love in your heart
One dies when it moves away

The song traces this wistful theme elegiacally,

Till we’re old and we’re cold
And we’re lying in the dark
‘Cause they’ll all burn out one day

While this is surely and sorely borne out in many a heart, Advent insists this needn’t be so! Advent places a divine child among us all that we might learn what to make of him, for the kingdom belongs to children; more so than it does to adults. Jesus says so plainly! We must refuse at all costs to drive children away, and nowhere is this more emphatic than in Bethlehem’s rustic manger.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

But aren’t we appalled at our childishness; loath to admit immaturity, brattiness, neediness, or gullibility? My therapist had a habit of asking me a question, “Does that part of you feel young?” It would always make me bristle. He was on to something.

We learn to disregard all childish commotion, preoccupying ourselves with much adulting, anesthetizing through many diversions, displaying the No Vacancy shingle prominently. But the child will always return, and Advent bids us honor this child; connects honoring this child with receiving the Christ child and his kingdom. By avoiding our own “divine child” we avoid the Divine Child in the manger. What are we to do?

To begin, we must “change and become like little children.” Whatever this may involve, it certainly entails reckoning with those events that became curses in us. After all, “He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” Our mini tantrums are distress signals; transmissions from still-cursed regions of our souls. We must go inhabit these discordant regions, faithfully publishing words of blessing and peace!

Many a curse is stealthily invoked against us throughout our childhood. Do we remember Herod’s chilling request? “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Mt. 2:8) Do we recall the Apocalypse of John, and how “the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born”? (Rev. 12:4) Having been thwarted, this relentless and cunning predator stalks the earth making war on all her children – even you and even me.

Every child constitutes a threat to dark regimes and, for this reason, every child pays a price. Advent will never deny this, but reminds us that our God is more relentless and cunning still!

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born. (Is. 9:2, 6a)

If you are reading this, the child remains alive, and the story is far from over. The curse can still be lifted. As Martin Luther attests in reflecting on Isaiah’s words:

For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born anew… To you is born and given this child… see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you. This will be the case if you believe, then you will repose in the lap of the virgin Mary and be her dear child.

If this requires belief then it also requires much humility. “Whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What can this mean? For my part, it means owning this child and refusing to deny or be embarrassed by juvenile me. There is nothing wrong with being a baby; never has been and never will be. Nor a toddler, nor a child, nor an adolescent, nor a “harassed and helpless” human adult.

Does not Advent meet us at our most uncouth – immature and bratty and needy and naive, bawling for help in countless registers? This – this! – is Advent’s discordant wail. We are not ok, not by a long shot. What child is this? The Savior child whose birth was announced to the shepherds on those dark Judean slopes. What child is this? The truest part of you and me crying incessantly for a Savior.

Could it be that the inward expanse of the kingdom is proportional to the tenderness we afford this precious child, and that our aggrandizements are mere clutter in the space that might contain eternal furnishings? Could it be that the repose of a dearly beloved child is nothing short of a miracle? It is certainly an act of resistance!

Paul appealed on behalf of the Ephesian saints that God, “out of his glorious riches, may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (Eph. 3:16) For what purpose did we need such supernatural internal strength?

…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19, emphasis added)

It’s hard to imagine anything more tantalizing and yet more terrifying than being flooded with such unalloyed love; our parched and shriveled inner beings cry for it with holy trepidation. We require an otherworldly strength and power to be on the receiving end of such love.

Attachment science suggests that all people develop attachment styles: neurologically-grooved reflexes for intimacy and connection. These can be secure, anxious, avoidant, or disordered. These styles determine our relationship to our neediness – the cries of our inner child – and constitute an educated wager as to how others might handle us in our needs. These styles are hedges against loss.

Of late, I’ve described me relationship to God as avoidant. If anything, Advent exacerbates this; all the pressure to feel it and get it right can be stifling. It has been, actually. This piece has been very hard to write. But I’ve been avoiding two Advent children all this time, the one in the manger and the one for whom the one in the manger came. Advent cannot acknowledge one with out the other; no child left behind. “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” I’m learning to accept that this “one such child” is oftentimes myself.

As mentioned earlier, Jung suggested our inner child required “unceasing care, attention, and education.” These three interplay in concert, I think, but Advent must always be a season of re-education. There is much to learn and unlearn!

What child is this? Of course Advent would have us exult, “This! This is Christ the King!” But Advent comes for the child in us also. Did not the child in Mary’s womb cause the child in Elizabeth’s womb to leap? Let us inhabit our childishness with Advent abandon, humble ourselves, and receive the heavenly kingdom by welcoming this child in Jesus’ name.

This is at least what I am attempting at present, if for no other reason than to honor the delight of that 4-year-old risking life and limb to place the Christmas star in it’s rightful place. He couldn’t know what all was coming, but I believe Advent came for him after all.

Advent means “to come,” does it not? May the child in you – no matter his or her manners – be permitted to come and be united with the Christ child; suffer them come together and never forbid them.

Amen.

Notes on a Resurrection: Motif

Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Ps. 94:17)

For you will not abandon my soul in the grave. (Ps. 16:10)

This is a story of life after death; one that is still being written. It is my story and, in fact, I suspect in the writing I may grope my way further out of the tomb – a lurching obedience to the voice of One standing in the daylight calling my name. A written renunciation of death, if you will. That is my hope. And I hope others may join this holy egress.

In 2016 I took a six-month sabbatical. I had been through what I considered at the time to be the most difficult period of my life. What I couldn’t have known then was that I was actually entering the most difficult period of my life. More to come on that.

In the lead-up to my sabbatical, I found myself mumbling under my breath, “I want to die.” It was a startling thing to hear myself say, and I’ll answer what I assume may be your pressing question as a reader. No, I wasn’t suicidal. These were the utterances of a soul in defeat. Needling prophecies, these inner complaints are for me. No, I wasn’t suicidal, but my soul was letting me know it was dying – it felt dead, and was saying so!

Eventually, I started to listen. Why, I wondered, is this the murmur of my soul?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer describes this as a state of burnout and attributes it to the “violation of one’s nature” even (especially) in noble pursuits. He explains,

Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

To find one’s self attempting to give what one does not possess suggests true possessions – true riches! – which one may in fact be withholding. While we offer the world a false self, our true self goes missing in action. To use Palmer’s words, I wasn’t “letting my life speak”; wasn’t listening until my self became adamant, “I want to die.”

My thoughts and meditations began eddying around the textured resurrection account of Lazarus from John 11 and 12. I intend to reflect extensively on this resurrection story in this series of posts, so I’ll simply mention that I understood myself to be in a tomb of sorts, and that Jesus Himself was beckoning me – me, the true me! – out to live and move freely in the world.

I emerged from sabbatical determined to figure this out; to live this out! However, my world, as our worlds are want to do, had contrary designs. Should we be surprised; inhabiting all of us this realm in bondage to decay? So here I am, some six years later, clawing my way toward the light and toward that authoritative voice that bids, “Come out!”

Here I must resist the urge to dump out the junk drawer. Trauma, I’ve learned, can be described as rupture, and this term is descriptive in many ways. For instance, a rupturing grocery bag keeps wanting to expel its contents out onto the ground and must be carried just so in order to avoid such messy incidents.

In a sense, this is how I am required to carry my own story presently – just so. Precious, fragile, holy cargo wanting to spill out, needing to spill out, yet also needing not to be damaged nor despised; not strewn over the asphalt. Our stories are holy collections, no matter their disarray, and deserve to be unpacked with care and arrayed with honor. And of course our stories are never exclusively our stories, so we must hear the words of Hippocrates: primum non nocere – “do no harm.”

What I want to put down are some notes about coming into the open – into full view – in the hopes of bringing about something new and living. I want to try to “write my way out” of entombment.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this is much more easily said than done. Point of fact, it isn’t even easily said; that is conveyed through language. Many aspects of what goes on within us obstinately refuse the convention of words. “Words,” Augustine wrote, “have gained an altogether dominant role among humans in signifying the ideas conceived by the mind that a person wants to reveal.” What happens when, as the adage goes, words fail?

It so happens that trauma does just that: causes words to fail. Trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kolk explains the way neuroimaging reveals trauma’s deactivation of the “Broca’s area” of the brain; a region of the brain that translates image into speech, such that “you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words.” Words fail.

In her book Unpeakable, Sarah Travis writes, “Trauma changes one’s relationship to language.” Travis’s succinct statement is nearly axiomatic within trauma theory. Psychologist Annie Rogers goes so far as to say “trauma has its own language – the language of the ‘unsayable.’” Both Van der Kolk and Sheila Wise Rowe recount stories of those who have encountered horrors exclaiming, “I have no words.”

Theologian Shelly Rambo puts this quite starkly: “Trauma is described as an encounter with death… a radical event or events that shatter all that one knows about the world.” (emphasis mine) Certainly, in my own experience and the accounts I’ve heard, trauma shatters our capacity to interpret what we know; to form cohesive meaning. It is truly “the silence of death.”

Overwhelming distress is a brush with death, and one way to understand the aftermath (often termed PTSD or C-PTSD) is that important parts of us become buried in the rubble. “The cords of death entangled me,”the psalmist writes, “the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow.” (Ps. 116:3)

Such encounters with death require an encounter with the Resurrection.

Resurrection is a motif so common in Scripture that it could escape our notice. Indeed, it is a leitmotif. Again and again we find the idea in the Psalms, (“You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.” 30:3) So too, the prophets draw upon this image. Who can forget Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones? (chp. 37)

“Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (v. 3)

Both Elijah and Elisha raised young men to life (1 Kings 17:17-22 and 2 Kings 4:18-37 respectively). A man even sprung back to life when his corpse was thrown onto Elisha’s dead body in the grave! (2 Kings 13:20, 21)

Jesus is recorded as raising three people, including Lazarus. And Matthew mentions an astounding occurrence that took place after Jesus’ death: “the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Mt. 27:52) These unnamed saints walked around Jerusalem and appeared to many! The tombs broke open!

Of course the disciples also raised the dead to life. Peter raised the young girl Tabitha, (Acts 9:36-42) and Paul raised a man named Eutychus, who fell out of a window and died after dozing off during Paul’s long-winded sermon! Paul proceeded to finish his sermon after the resurrection took place. (Acts 20:7-12)

Paul actually presents resurrection as the reality of the Christian life in his letter to the Ephesians, praying that “the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened” and they would grasp God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…” (1:19, 20) His power for us who believe is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, yet somehow we must become ever more aware of it lest it fail to be fully appropriated.

Chapter 2 of Ephesians contains Paul’s well known death-to-life exposition, whereby we are met in our spiritual death then, dramatically and on account of God’s great love, “made alive with Christ” (v. 4) – reanimated in Christ for a life of good purposes! (v. 10)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul states emphatically, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (8:11) If God’s Spirit dwells in you, get ready for resurrection!

And we must call to mind Jesus’ marvelous declaration to his grief-stricken friend Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn. 11:25) Resurrection is knit to the very identity of Jesus, for he is the Author of life! (Acts 3:15)

I’m merely wanting to make a case for you and me that this image of resurrection is neither fanciful nor forced. My theological scruples simply won’t allow me to traipse off some rabbit trail of wish-fulfillment. Scripture is quite plain on the matter of resurrection as a hallmark of the Christian faith; not only a heavenly resurrection but a here-and-now actuality – raised to new life! It is a motif in which we are meant take up residence.

Again, Paul:

For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (Col. 2:12)

NT Wright stated this clearly and well,

Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.

Leave the tomb. Leave behind all the brokenness and incompleteness of the age. Follow Jesus into the new world he was thrown open before us! Who knew something so sweet upon the ears could prove so bitter an ordeal in the outworking? This is why Scripture must drum this home, for its pages were meant to drum us all home.

One must ponder how and in what ways the cords of death maintain their stranglehold on our souls, and how and in what ways the emergence of life might take place. That is the nature of these meditations I intend to set forth, should God grant me the strength and courage to do so.

I would be glad to have some witness-companions, for there are bound to be scoffers and worse. Would that we might revel together in our Savior’s most glorious gloat,

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
(1 Cor 15:55)

Selah

The Life of the Beloved

Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash

I’ve recently added a liturgical calendar to my phone; even turning on notifications. Even though I grew up Presbyterian and have been influenced deeply by many writers from liturgical traditions, I’ve never fully appreciated liturgy or the liturgical calendar.

Not until I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary that the liturgical calendar was how the church kept time did I ever pause to think about if and how my time was ordered. How did I know what time it was? If the Solomon tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecc. 3:1) was there a way to not only know the time but the rightful activity?

As I have written elsewhere, these past few years have been very turbulent for me. The distress and disappointments of this season of my life has created for me a crisis of order; a crisis of understanding how my previous season has disordered me and what a season of reordering might involve. This has set me to learning all types of things about how the mind and body interact (or refuse to), attachments styles, and somatic approaches to healing from trauma (EMDR, yoga, swimming). It has also heightened my sense of the importance of time and routine; the way we know our beats and rhythms in this dance of life.

This is why I’ve downloaded this calendar to my phone. I am probably the least routinized person I know; spontaneity and authenticity are some of my highest values! But my need for order feels more urgent than ever. Within the lingering internal aftereffects of a season of scary chaos, my threshold for external disorder has plummeted. Ordered rhythms without enable me to maintain something ordered within. And I suck at this!

All that to say, now I know today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and I know where my thoughts must go.

It’s interesting that this liturgical day marks the beginning of Ordinary Time – the periods between major liturgical events, with this one ending at Lent – because there is something of the baptism of Jesus that answers the fundamental question of how his every moment might be spent: the life of the Beloved.

I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from a Henri Nouwen book. It could actually probably be the title of every Henri Nouwen book. The book in question pursues the theme of being beloved over and against the dark power of self-rejection. Nouwen writes, “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (31) The use of the word trap is key, for it is in our self-rejection that our susceptibility is most pronounced. And nowhere is this clearer than in the baptism of Jesus.

Matthew records this in punchy succession. At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, he goes to his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. We read that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened. John saw – saw! – “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (3:16) And then a voice from heaven made the following declaration:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” (3:17)

I’ve often thought about how Jesus lived the most important life and did the most important work in the history of the world and what might have been the most obvious questions in play during these inaugurating moments: “Where to begin?” or “What are my objectives?” or “What’s the plan?”

Instead, we are met with the issue of who — of identity. “This is who you are!”

And if we accept Nouwen’s conclusions regarding the trap of self-rejection, we appreciate the importance of this. The nature of Jesus’ ordinary days was to be paramount! Would he be in the world with generosity or neediness; love or insecurity; with nothing or everything to prove?

“This is my beloved Son,” announced the voice of the Father, “with whom I am well pleased!” In a world of gaping insecurity – a world in which “all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Ecc. 4:4) – Jesus was to live from this declaration: beloved and the object of true pleasure.

The life of the Beloved.

Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1) And what there transpired? Only an all out assault upon the certainty and significance of this pronouncement, “If you are the Son of God,” hissed the devil, “prove it.” It was a snare!

If there had been even a hint of self-rejection in Jesus – the smallest diminution of the Father’s grand pronouncement – the devil might have had his quarry. But, in transcendent departure from the entire human family, Jesus did not take the bait.

Jesus essentially responded, “I have nothing to prove.” The pronouncement had been made and unreservedly received. More than that, Jesus demonstrated the surpassing value of this pronouncement, for even “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8) could in no way be compared to the bounty of being the Beloved.

Having endured this assault, Jesus began his ministry of love – costly love! – entering the world with nothing to prove and everything to give. Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit.” (4:14) The Spirit of belovedness had triumphed over all other rivals. It is impossible to miss the spiritual power of Jesus’ life. Our world tells all time by it!

But what is more profound still is that the life of the beloved is ours to live also!

I’m resisting the urge to sermonizing, except to mention that this is utterly biblical! This is the Good News!

In Christ we are adopted and sealed with the selfsame Spirit, “By whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:13) The selfsame Spirit was poured as God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children! (Rom. 8:15-16) Jesus is the firstborn of many siblings! (Rom. 8:29)

There is a reason beloved is most common pronoun for believers in the New Testament. Ours is to be the corporate life of the beloved.

Let us accept the phrasing John – “the beloved disciple” – offers as the defining feature of the believer: we are those who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 Jn. 4:16)

In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen portrays the entire Christian life as a faltering journey home from distant and loveless lands to the belovedness of the Father. “[L]eaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way home is long and arduous.” (51) The return is “full of ambiguities.” We may be “traveling in the right directions, but what confusion.” (52) It is a hemming and hawing odyssey; at times we are found coming to our senses, other times we are found losing our minds!

When we lose living contact with the Father’s love – and our identity as the beloved – Nouwen warns, we “embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of [our] Father.” (107)

In such seasons, Noewen notes, “The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul.” (47) I can relate. Maybe you can too?

So on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as we prepare to exit Advent and embark upon Ordinary Time, let us feast the way our Savior did, upon the love and pleasure of the Father. May it nourish us through the wilderness and beyond. May it multiply in us, that we might part ways with our scarcity, our stinginess, and our greed, going forth generously.

“Freely you have received!” Jesus declared, “Freely give!” (Mt. 10:8)

Can you – will you – hear the Father’s warm and booming voice? “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!” Is this not the most fitting celebration of our Savior’s baptism?

“This is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.”

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn. 3:1)

Hallelujah!

A small Advent reflection

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

It’s Advent; a season of marvel and awe. A time of rekindled devotion to Jesus, this Child conceived of the Holy Spirit, born to young and faithful Mary, swaddled in a Bethlehem manger, the light of the world.

Advent has a habit of rousing and lifting me, like Ezekiel, to glimpses of unspeakable beauty; of quickening my pace through the darkness.

But not this year.

Two years ago saw the anti-climax of a period of utter darkness and sorrow for me, a terrifying and depleting escape out of a crushing period of my life. I was shattered and afraid and fighting desperately for my own viability and that of my vulnerable family. If this were the footprints vignette, there would have been but one set of prints in the sand. I wrote nothing for Advent. That was 2019.

I began 2020 with a daunting task of healing, beginning a new work, picking up pieces and reinventing myself. I was 44, venturing off with my own fragile family and my own fragile soul.

Then the pandemic.

I was sitting at lunch with a friend in March 2020 and I was reeling. “If the world shuts down,” I told her, “I will take it as an invitation from God to prioritize my healing.” Days later, the world shut down.

I found solace in yoga, longer periods of morning reflection, spiritual direction, helping my kids with e-learning, and dodging the spotlight. It was no small comfort to have the whole world cast back on its heels during a time when I was in such disarray.

I was in such disarray.

Our world was falling into such disarray, or maybe the disarray was merely announcing itself – “the world, in sin and error pining.” Wasn’t 2020 so brutal?

However, as Advent 2020 approached, I began experiencing a renewed wonder. I had been reading Dorothy Sayers’ BBC play The Man Born to Be King, and knew – months ahead – that my Advent reflections were to gather around the magi and their gifts. My spirit began to stir. I began to gather my thoughts. As the Advent season approached, I was writing! Maybe with a bit of additional labor, but I was back – like some movie character feared dead, now coughing to consciousness.

But in rolled the darkness once more.

Each successive Advent reflection became more difficult; the inspirations and logics and structures all breaking apart. (Though, as I go back and read them, they are not so bad.) The effort of holding these elements together was a faltering function of holding my own self together.

I was working with a communications coach in those days. I had asked her to help me develop my communication strength, especially writing, and she encouraged me to utilize this strength in order to deliver bolstering messages back to myself that might be liberating and clarifying. As I sat down to work these out, the darkness became absorbent – “a darkness that could be felt.” It was, as I discovered, my own subconscious shame and self-loathing that were fracturing these efforts. To address myself – to see myself – was to recoil. Any and all “physician heal thyself” attempts were detonating in my face.

It was like having a spiritual autoimmune disease. I felt powerless. It was trauma work.

I’ll not dive into the trauma piece here, except to say that when you’ve had persistent voices in your life that portray you negatively, indict your motives, question your ability to discern reality, and resort to scorn and spite, it gets coded in – important pieces of our source-code get corrupted. More than that, as I’ve learned, the actual logic-board (“the hardware”) can be damaged through trauma as well. It can be repaired, but it does take work – and time. Triggers are real, C-PTSD is real, the mental disordering is real – disrupting the self in ways words cannot fully reach.

I have spent the better part of 2021 doing “trauma work.” It’s not as fun as it sounds!

Nevertheless, as Advent 2021 approached, I was experiencing that familiar flicker. An Advent series came into view: reflections on the four angelic announcements, each containing a version of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” I began gathering my thoughts around these four episodes – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, respectively – even creating cool header images. And I began to write!

But – wouldn’t you know it? – the fear overtook me!

Fear of what, exactly? I wish I knew. In fact, I’d hoped writing these reflections might dislodge some of that fear. Instead, these pieces will be shelved for now. And I’m still waiting – “how long, O Lord?” – with dozens of writing projects weathering behind my home like a salvage yard. Does it make me sad? Yes. Does it exacerbate the shame and self-loathing. It does.

The story does not end here.

I promised a small Advent reflection, and here it is. In the rubble days of rebuilding Jerusalem, the consoling prophet Zechariah urged, “Do not despise the day of small things.” (4:10) The word small could be translated insignificant, and of course we are tempted to show contempt for such things, especially when we’ve invested such vigorous effort with so little to show. “These feeble Jews!” the onlookers gawked, “If even a fox stepped up on that wall, it would fall over!”

They ridiculed, “Will they restore things? Will they worship? Will they bring these scorched stones back to life?”

Yes.

This is Advent.

By the time of our Savior’s birth, Palestine had devolved into sectarian intrigue. The day of small things had become decades; then centuries of smallness. Now an occupying force debased this tertiary territory. Rome! Rome was significant! People had taken to calling it “The Eternal City.” Wasn’t that supposed to be Zion? What a joke!

So there was intrigue in those days. Herod (“The Great”) was busy making a name for himself. Sadducees affixed themselves to power, Pharisees postured as the true caretakers of faithfulness, Essenes withdrew into mystic asceticism, Zealots pined for the next insurgency. Most folks were trying to scratch out a living, scarcely disturbed by the elongated murmur of insignificance.

And a little baby – one of a multitude – was born in an insignificant structure of an insignificant town. A little baby conceived under a pall of embarrassment.

It was a day of small things; the Day. More despised than opposed. Who would bother about such insignificance, let alone marvel?

Well, some. They were the stubborn ones or, if you prefer, hopeful.

There was Simeon, who’d been awaiting the consolation of Israel. The octogenarian widow Anna, who never missed a day at the Temple. There were the mysterious magi, caravanning westward with their evocative gifts. These had been waiting – at the ready!

In the scuttling buzz surrounding his birth, the hopeful flames of others leapt to life. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. One must imagine little Bethlehem, whom Micah named saying, “though you are insignificant, from you shall come forth a ruler,” (5:2) caught up in the small commotion.

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Eventually, it became enough to disturb Herod and all Jerusalem too. And John describes to us the spiritual realm where a fearsome dragon lurked hungrily at the site of this birthing event. Yet the beast would depart unfulfilled. No earthly nor heavenly power could consume this small thing. And though we’re told this dragon has gone to make war on fragile ones such as we are, the darkness of his gaping mouth has never yet overcome the light.

In our elongated days of restless intrigue, what is being conceived? Who knows? But may we be found among the stubborn, or, if you prefer, hopeful. It is an exceedingly rare company and a peculiar one at that. But this entails setting aside the intrigues, both grand and petty, in order to attend small things without contempt. They may seem insignificant but are they holy? They are.

Aren’t we all transporting so much fragile cargo over this uneven terrain? I certainly am. Space can scarcely contain the manifest. It is, all of it, holy, and Advent implores that we despise none of it.

Above all, it means attending to this fragile and holy Life, knowing he arrives for all things fragile. This is Advent.

I am learning as much, while I attentively wait. As I write from the rubble, fending off the voice of contempt. As I imperfectly honor small things. As I prepare to press publish on this piece; the delicate and hoarse whisper, “I believe.”

For unto us a Child was born! Amen.

Patrick, the Saint We Need Most

We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.

Saint Patrick’s day is upon us and, with it, the usual barrage: green clothes and beers and rivers, shamrocks and Guinness and leprechauns, corned-beef and cabbage, kiss mes and pinches. That is to say, the consumerist gaud festooning most holidays, making them ever less holy days.

Yet there is a holy treasure for those who dig deeper; a pot of gold, so to speak, at the end of the rainbow.

Pinches and kisses have been known to awaken, and I would suggest we awaken to the person of Saint Patrick, for he is a most needed saint for our day.

Did you know Patrick was not Irish? It’s true. He was Welsh-Briton.1 The circumstances surrounding his arrival in fifth-century Ireland are harrowing, to say the least. The circumstances surrounding his return and patron sainthood of that rugged island, awe inspiring.

In his Confession, Patrick recalls his kidnapping at the hands of Irish raiders. Abducted at the age of sixteen from the his mild Christian home, he was trafficked across what is now called the Irish Sea to a harsh and brutal land where his “littleness” was to be “placed among strangers.” Though reared in a devout family, yet his own faith had not yet taken root; he admitted,”I did not know the true God.”2

However, shortly after his Irish enslavement began, Patrick spoke of being “converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection.” His faith became real!

The Ireland of that era was savage; an ever-shifting violent and pagan collection of warring tuatha — kinship clans, which, according to historian Richard Fletcher, “were constantly on the move, splitting, fusing, splitting again”3 with little sense of enduring order.

Patrick would spend the next six years in slave labor on the island, praying in desperation “many times times a day” — hundreds of prayers each day and hundreds more each night. Often sleeping outdoors in woods and on mountain slopes, working in dangerous and frigid conditions, yet, as he prayed, “the love of God and His fear” came to Patrick more and more. This was his daily existence, until the events of his dramatic escape. (Confession, 16)

One night Patrick had a vision; a voice saying, “Soon you will go to your own country. See your ship is ready.” Patrick stole to the nearest port town, some two-hundred miles away, found a ship in harbor and asked to be taken aboard. After initially being rebuffed he was afforded a spot in their crew for what would become a treacherous and death-defying odyssey over sea and land.

After a brief sojourn in Gaul, he made his return to his family in Britain — safe at last!

Meanwhile, in North Africa, Augustine of Hippo was laboring on his masterwork The City of God, for this same era witnessed the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Alaric had crossed the frozen Rhine and sacked the Eternal City — Augustine and many others were attempting to make sense of this unwelcome new order.

The Christian historian Paulus Orosius was recording his own account of the cataclysms taking place, and in his History Against the Pagans, he would openly grieve the loss of “ubiquitous Christianity.” Four centuries later, a scribe in Britain would attempt to translate this phrase and the reality Orosius had eulogized into the English language.

This anonymous scribe would coin the term, “Christendom.”4

Patrick, having powerfully encountered the love, protection, consolation, and eventual deliverance of God during his horrific ordeal in Ireland, now sought to consecrate himself to priestly service. Yet his divine visions and dreams persisted. An unthinkable development was in the works.

One night Patrick had a vision of a man coming to him from Ireland bearing “countless letters.” The visitor, named Victoricus, handed him the first letter titled, “The Voice of the Irish.” As Patrick began to read, a chorus of voices from the region where he had once been held captive cried out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us!”

“I was broken-hearted,” Patrick would recount, “and could not read on.” He woke up. (23)

A few nights later a mysterious voice came to him in a dream saying, “He that has laid down His life for you, it is He that speaketh in you!” Patrick awoke filled with joy. Yes, joy! He knew God was calling him back to Ireland. (24) When he announced his intent to the elders, he was met with derision and scorn — even having the sins of his personal history dredged up and slung at him. But he would not be deterred. (26)

Patrick’s Confession was in fact a defense of his actions; a recounting of what would transpire over the next thirty years and a vindication of the call of God.

Fletcher presents Patrick’s decision quite starkly,

Patrick’s originality was that no one within western Christendom had thought such thoughts as these before, had ever previously been possessed by such convictions. As far as our evidence goes, he was the first person in Christian history to take up the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.6

Even Augustine had no such vision but wished the barbarians repelled by sword. This was not the way of Patrick.

And to think, this was a man recovering from great distress and great trauma — a survivor of human trafficking — returning in joy to the place, and the people, and, as it would turn out, the perpetrator of his cruel captivity. Moreover, in the midst of a declining empire, Patrick had little interest in the waning ecclesial trappings and perks available to him. In the face of much resistance by recalcitrant church folk, Patrick did the unthinkable: he returned to Ireland.

“Now, it would be tedious to give a detailed account of all my labors or even part of them,” Patrick would write. “Let me tell you briefly.” (35) Yet even a brief telling is breathtaking.

Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord? (41)

Legend has it that Patrick went immediately back to his former master, Milchu, not only to share the message of Christ but also to pay the price due for his own ransom from slavery. A son of Milchu would eventually become an Irish bishop.

What is known with greater certainty is that Patrick began seeing converts among Irish women; noble princesses and destitute widows alike joining him in the mission. He even worked among sex-slaves — “those enduring terror and threats” — and, despite persecution, they began to “follow Christ bravely.” (43)

Patrick was an unpopular and vexing figure. People would say of him, “Why does. this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?” (46) Reflecting upon the grace he experienced in such peculiar efforts, he would admonish, “Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is the glory of his father.” (47) His folly was proven magnificent wisdom from God.

Through tireless and ranging efforts, Patrick would come to baptize thousands across Ireland — searching out secluded, dangerous districts “where nobody had ever come to baptize.” He was constantly threatened, often put in chains, and experienced more than a few miraculous escapes.

“With the grace of the Lord,” Patrick testified, “I did everything lovingly and gladly for your salvation.” (51)

Patrick would go on to establish church stations in every corner of the island. Although there were no civitates (city centers) in those times, and thus no civic life or structures into which he could integrate his churches, nevertheless Patrick did situate his outposts near centers of clan authority. But he did so for the purpose of mission and humane influence; both of which were realized. Historian Thomas Cahill writes,”He succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.”7

Cahill says later of Patrick, he was “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” It would be thirteen centuries more before abolitionism would emerge in earnest.

In his later years, Britain’s own civilization began to collapse, and Patrick found himself vying vigorously against the self-same practice of slave raiding now being inflicted upon Ireland by British marauders! Christians in Britain were loath to support him because they not only deemed the Irish substandard Christians but, in a form of proto-racialism, also not fully human; having never been citizens of Rome. The superior undertones which had caused Patrick such turmoil in his initial designs to reach the Irish were now expressing themselves in full-blown cruelty.

Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was succumbing to the Dark Ages: a five-hundred year period of social and cultural deterioration and chaos.

Patrick’s Ireland, on the other hand, was being utterly transfigured, inhabited by what he would come to call his “warrior children” — “seizing everlasting kingdoms” rather than the pillaging seizures of yesteryear. Patrick’s redemptive imagination knew no bounds! The terrifying, ravenous pagan gods were driven out like the snakes of legend; new, benign acts associated with pleasing God were henceforth “absorbed completely into the New Imagination.” No longer “a shifting world of darkness,” Ireland was quick becoming a “solid world of light.”9

But the story didn’t stop there. Not remotely. As Cahill carefully argues, the Irish, in fact, “saved civilization.”10

He summarizes in dramatic fashion,11

As the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.

These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed …

Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization… the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one.

“I am,” confessed Patrick, “countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future.” Indeed, he could never have anticipated the future importance of his labor of love. Patrick’s legacy was not only the saving of an island but the saving of a civilization.

He was self-conscious about his lack of learning — the ripe years of his formal education lost to bondage and servitude. Historians and translators can confirm that his Latin is rough and limited. For this reason, he will likely never hold the prominence of an Augustine or Aquinas in the eyes of Western Christians. Yet it could be argued that his significance rivals any figure in Christian history.

I suggest, as much as any other saint, Patrick is most needed for our times.

Patrick said of himself, “I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God.”12 Fletcher notes, “The exile was quite literally dis-integrated from the protective and emotional fabric in which he had been cocooned and turned into a defenceless individual.”13

Self-deprived, “on account of the love of God,” of familial, tribal, and even imperial possessions, Patrick could fearlessly cross cultural and geographical boundaries for the sake of a global and everlasting kingdom.

Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped. (61)

Fletcher wrote of Patrick, “A church which looked to Patrick as its founder would come to set a high value upon foreign missionary enterprise.”14 And I would end by having us, too, “look to Patrick” as a model for our times.

Four features of his life stand out.

1. Patrick was neither constrained by his traumatic past nor his imperial privilege

The trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved as a young boy cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that Patrick’s life in Ireland was a succession of hardships from which he ached to escape. Yet he somehow allowed God to write surpassingly beautiful second and third acts.16 Patrick was not dominated or held captive by his trauma, but he most certainly drew from its wells. His glimpse of Irish horrors and human plight awakened in him a fathomless compassion and determination to unseat the reign of darkness. He did not become embittered but rather empowered, and that to an unrivaled degree.

Even more, Patrick forsook the trappings of what would come to be called Christendom; voluntarily and in great joy. When he did so, he was derided and slandered. Can we not see the the beauty of Patrick’s life in contrast to the deformities of what Fletcher described as “the moral tradition which had corralled Christianity safely inside the city wall of the empire”? 17

How we must look to this saint who could walk in such liberation from those crippling forces of terror and control which dominate and darken our own world!

2. Patrick had a conciliatory spirit

As we recall, when Patrick heard the voice of the Irish, his heart was broken. When he perceived Christ’s call to return, his heart was overjoyed. I have written elsewhere about this, but the scope of what forgiveness and conciliation introduce into to our world is incalculable. When they are broadly withheld, we can sense their gangrene. When extended, they are exponentially regenerative. Forgiveness and conciliation hold cosmic power.

It is impossible to imagine Patrick having never worked out his forgiveness for the Irish in general and particular ways. His experience did not devolve, as one might expect, into racial hostility nor even calloused indifference. He saw, as we all must see, beyond the barbarism and violence to the “harassed and helpless” condition of the Irish people. Where we might have expected malice, instead emerged a munificent love — the love of Christ in him.

“If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.” (13)

3. Patrick loved barbarians

The word barbarian was a pejorative term for “the other.” Imagine a group of people sitting around ridiculing another group and making crude caricatures of their idiotic ways of speaking, and thinking, and acting. This is the idea behind barbarianism. No one thinks of themselves as a barbarian, yet this “bar-bar-bar!” form of caustic portrayal is how we barbarianize others. Most Roman Christians had come to have their moral lens warped by this inhumane othering.

But Patrick loved them. God Almighty, he loved them! While Roman Christians recoiled against the hordes of Visigoths stampeding across the frozen waters of the Rhine to trample their precious civilization, Patrick was boarding a vessel to cross over to them. In fact, Cahill suspects it was his fearless love that conquered the hearts of the fearsome Irish.

“We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage — his refusal to be afraid of them.” And we remember the words of John, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18)

It is easy to see the attractiveness of this love in the mission of Patrick, but we must also see the grotesqueness in the attitudes of those who hated barbarians. When Patrick decided to return to Ireland, the resistance was stiff. We might chalk this up to run-of-the-mill concern or the lull of “the comfort zone.” But, within Patrick’s lifetime, when savage British chieftains began filling the vacuum left by the departed Roman legions and took to raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the Irish coastline, the cruelty of these Romanized Christians was thrown into troubling relief. Their resistance to Patrick’s Irish endeavors were only an expression of their pervasive and Christ-dishonoring disregard for the Irish.

Our inability to love barbarians is merely an expression of our own barbarism.

4. Patrick creatively transformed chaos into order

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that Patrick’s tireless efforts brought about great order. This is part of loving barbarians: you see and call forth the imago Dei concealed within barbaric behaviors. This is a plain Biblical anthropology.

Space cannot permit, but Patrick was also a master of cultural synthesis.

Patrick made an “amazing connection… between the Gospel story and Irish life.” Among all the Irish, both low and high, he “raised their status and dignity as human beings.” This cultural synthesis is seen in Patrick’s famous Breastplate poem, in which Patrick arrises each day in great strength through his confidence in “the Creator of creation.”17

This heritage can be seen in the words of Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett18:

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree

Cahill puts it thus,

[T]here were aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to heart and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage, which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them the world was holy — all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe.

This is Cahill’s description of “how the Irish became Christian,” yet I would suggest Patrick offers us a pattern for how we might all become Christian — and civilization savers in kind.

We must be liberated from both the afflictions and infatuations of empire, we must be driven by a conciliatory spirit, we must love barbarians, and, through creative and holy forms of embrace, visit renewal upon the culture.

Hear Saint Patrick’s attestation,

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet He inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end. (13)


Notes

  1. Patrick’s birth name was Maewyn Succat.
  2. “Patrick Confession” from John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History I, 16th ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004) 221. Parenthesis indicate chapter henceforth.
  3. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, N.Y.: Henry Hold and Company, Inc., 1997), 89.
  4. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 305.
  5. The Barbarian Conversion, 86.
  6. Ibid. In Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, this point is affirmed: “What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries.” (107)
  7. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 110.
  8. Ibid, 112.
  9. Ibid, 143-144.
  10. It is worth mentioning that Cahill certainly means “Western Civilization,” specifically the European traditions informed by Classical Greek thought, Roman civil order, and a Christian moral imagination. As Lesslie Newbigin observed in his book Proper Confidence, “It was this [Christian] story that shaped those barbarian tribes into the cultural and spiritual entity that made Europe something other than simply a peninsula of Asia.”
  11. How the Irish Saved Civilization, 3-4.
  12. From “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
  13. The Barbarian Conversion, 93.
  14. Ibid, 86.
  15. Ibid, 33.
  16. Patrick was 15 or 16 when he was kidnapped, in his early 20s when he arrived back in Britain after his escape, and in his early 40s when he returned to Ireland. Patrick died in his early 70s in Ireland, where he was buried. (See this timeline.)
  17. Quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 116-119.
  18. “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 132-133.

Advent IV | Myrrh

When I was six years old, my mom and I stopped at one of those self-serve car washes. You know the ones with the big octo-arm vacuum stations and the bank of carports rigged with power-washers? They’re a dying breed.

We’d begun at the vacuums, and my mom had removed all the floor mats and sundries. With coins loaded, she yanked and stretched the noisy hose into the interior coves of our Honda Civic. I was waiting next to the cylindrical vacuum housing when I saw something curious resting on its concrete base.

It was a small, oddly-shaped nail. I picked it up and examined it; fiddling with it in my small hands. We had just been in the mountains hiking (ergo, the carwash), and I had brought home an interesting rock. Flecked with shimmering quartz and pyrite; it was about the size of a large avocado.

I decided to use it to pound the nail into the concrete. I grasped the peculiar nail between my left thumb and middle finger, positioned it up and down, then took the rock in my right hand and commenced hammering.

Tink!

Tink!

BANG!

The object exploded between my fingers. It had not been a nail at all. It was a bullet. My hand was covered in blood. I began screaming.

My mom set me quickly in the car and we zoomed away, leaving behind much jetsam. Off we rushed to the nearest emergency room, which happened to be at the hospital where I was born.

By the time we arrived, I had gone into shock. Though crying, I was no longer hysterical. We were ushered quickly into the emergency bay. Surrounded by scrub-blue curtains, doctors and nurses began attending my hand. One doctor had a brief consultation with my mom, then turned to me and he said he was going to have to start cleaning it out.

He began daubing away the blood, then rinsing around the wound. Finally, he retrieved a liquid and looked at me. “This is going to sting.” The moment the antiseptic made contact with the wound, there was a jolt of pain – far exceeding that of the explosion itself.

Advent hits the wounds of our world like lightning. At least it should. The jolt tells you it’s working.

So the magi arrived with their strange gift of myrrh. Myrrh? An embalming ointment, for an infant? What dark humor is this?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian may be the most irreverent movie ever made. It traces the life events of the hapless and reprobate title character, as his biography parallels that of Jesus; from Bethlehem to a Roman cross, upon which he is found whistling and singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” It is surreal. But, like most surrealism, the creative ploy is juxtaposition.

We may think Life of Brian a crass and unnecessary piece of sacrilege, yet it merely juxtaposes human folly against the divine folly of the incarnation itself. Only by emphasis does it offer anything more ludicrousness than Advent. Even then.

In his darting little book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner insists laughter must accompany the Gospel:

Where does the laughter come from? It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed.

Advent is as sublime as it is ridiculous; a juxtaposition breaching fountainheads of all manner of tears. It is indeed a sort of comedy. But what sort? I would argue it is improv, whose governing tenet is “yes, and.” Improv is built from games and scenes and forms, yet the magic steals in through the doorway of availability.

There’s an improv game called, “What’s in the box?” One player approaches another and holds out an invisible box. The other player then asks, “What’s in the box?” Regardless of the answer, the response must conclude the phrase, “That’s great, because…”

If it isn’t quite obvious, all the players of Advent are improvising.

When the magi arrive during the opening sequence of Life of Brian, his mom Mandy begins shooing them away, before discovering they’ve come bearing gifts. Yet the myrrh leaves her nonplussed. Upon collecting the gifts, she unceremoniously bids them depart saying, “If you’re dropping by again, do pop in. Thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but . . . don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time.” How cheeky.

Yet Advent demands something more brash: “yes, and.” Life of Brian, ridiculous though it be, is still sketch comedy; scripted from the outrageous instincts of a surrealist troupe. The improv of Advent permits no rejected offerings. The proper term for this is accepting – or overaccepting – in contrast to blocking or rejecting.

The Anglican ethicist, Sam Wells writes,

There’s this notion of overaccepting, where you fit the smaller story that has come your way – which often you didn’t invite or go looking for – into the larger story of what God’s doing with the world.

And so we find Mary and Joseph overaccepting again and again and again – these strange offerings within God’s staggering story. When offered myrrh, they eclipse the surrealism even of “the Pythons” through acceptance. And so too must we. Myrrh may be unbidden, but let us accept this gift as members of the holy family.

The word for myrrh is a derivative of the Arabic murr – bitter. Like frankincense, myrrh is a resin; extracted from a tree’s protective bark through “repeated wounding.” Its fragrance is rich and plumb-like yet also etheric and medicinal – even disturbing. It can be burned as incense however, more traditionally, it is distilled to an antiseptic balm. If gold signaled royalty and frankincense worship, myrrh imported a mood of mortality.

Thus we sing,

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
    Breathes a life of gathering gloom

What can it mean to accept this gift? Mary had already heard tell something of a sword that was to pierce her soul. Any soul found pilgriming through this world is bound to endure many a sword’s plunge.

“Myrrh? That’s great, because…”

As I type, periodically I stop to rub my left thumb against its adjacent middle finger; still creased across its print from the bullet’s rupture. In a sense, they embalmed my hand; wrapped it in gauze like the hand of a mummy. I spent the next week at school with a mummified hand. As I type, other scars prick my notice: loss and betrayal, failure and fear alike zig-zagging my own soul. I know you have them also. They are inevitable.

To accept myrrh must mean accepting its ongoing necessity; the bitter strike our wounds require. To overaccept it means something more macabre and more mysterious.

In TS Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” he imagines an aged magi “setting down” Advent recollections.

This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

The myrrh alerts us that Advent is as much about birth as death. “Had thought they were different,” but now aren’t so sure. Elliot’s magi continue,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The death rate remains 100% among our race. Eventually something overtakes us all. No amount of myrrh will will heal or preserve your body indefinitely, let alone your soul. And here comes Advent’s jolt.

Buechner puts it this way, “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” The gathering gloom of Advent’s myrrh holds a precipitous stroke. Something deeper than death’s deep, dark, and hoary hex.

God’s own availability has begat something unforeseeable!

Who can forget Aslan’s words to Susan and Lucy upon return from his death by the Witch’s blade?

Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.

Advent beckons us gaze further into the stillness and the darkness – “the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed” – and to behold the arrival of One who would make good on the words of Hosea:

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?

This birth, like all others, was to include a death. But, unlike any other, it was to become the death of Death itself. Elliot’s magi were right, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

After what was thought to be the bitterest end, more myrrh was brought by those who loved Jesus most, yet they truly needn’t have worried about it. The only things to be found were a stone rolled away, grave clothes, and a few strips of linen gauze – oh, and an angel with a very wry question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It was the equivalent of an improv player saying “scene” – the Advent form in brilliant denouement .

The myrrh was returned to its place that day; an ornament of Advent fulfilled.

Advent III | Gold

In AD 1324, the West African Mansa (king) Musa began his legendary hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey would reconfigure the imaginations and economies of the region for centuries. At that point, the kingdom of Mali was the wealthiest center of civilization on earth.

In addition to the unimaginable gold deposits being extracted from mines of Mali, Musa had established trade to North Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Musa was indisputably the most wealthy person in the history of the world – so opulent that scholars cannot begin to estimate his riches.

Musa’s Arabia-bound entourage was composed of over 60,000 fellow pilgrims and dozens of camels each burdened with 300 pounds of gold. As they made their way north through the Bedouin trade routes then eastward toward Mecca they dispensed with such vast quantities of gold via commerce and largess that the currencies of the entire region were decimated; such sums of wealth were disgorged during their sojourn in Cairo that Egyptian markets required over a decade to fully recover.

Never before and never since has such worldly wealth been conflated in sacred enterprise. The medieval world was left bedazzled.

The grandiosity with which we populate our rhetoric of worship is so often belied by the miserliness of our own pilgrimage through this world. Can Advent birth in us an extravagant generosity? I must believe so. But it does something more. Advent conceives in us extravagant wealth. This is Advent’s miracle.

For the prophet Isaiah announces a mystery that eludes us even still,

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
 Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.

Can it be that this royal child would be born unto us? Might Mary’s joyful awe be ours as well? Should we too come to bear something holy, sovereign, and everlasting within our very selves? Could we, with Mary, each be theotokos; “bearers of God”?

Let us listen along with the faith-filled Virgin to the words of the archangel, “Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God.” What a pregnant phrase! Found favor with God. Favor is the same word for generosity. Like an unwary prospector, she had struck unfathomable riches.

We’re told of Mary, that she “treasured up these things in her heart,” therefore we find her exulting,

My soul praises the Lord’s greatness!
My spirit finds its joy in God, my Savior,
because he has looked favorably on me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will call me blessed

Her soul praises because her spirit had found its joy. Her joy was in God her Savior. And where was her Savior found? Gestating within her. Many will call her blessed for many will be swept into her blessedness. To quote Tiny Tim, “God bless us! Every one!”

Let us hear with Joseph also, “Do not be afraid!

We are forced to ponder, “Is not fear the centerpiece of my stinginess?” For myself, I must answer yes. I am so often a “bearer” of Scrooge.

Dickens’ Scrooge was meant to embody of a generation made stingy. Of course, his character is introduced amidst prosperity, yet without the capacity for generosity. In Dickens’ imagination, Scrooge had grown up in squalor, beset by the austerity of the Napoleonic wars, the uncertainty of civil unrest, the brutal inequalities of an industrialized England, and, yes, epidemics. Scrooge had emerged with wealth, yet remained shackled to the terrors of scarcity.

Having read the latest parliamentary report detailing the heart-wrenching conditions of the poor, Dickens set forth “to write something that would strike a sledgehammer blow twenty thousand times the force of a government pamphlet” on their behalf. His publishers thought it an uncouth Christmas work and rejected it. Dickens was forced to publish it himself, which he did on December 19, 1843. Copies sold faster than could be printed.

A friend described the success,

It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.

Advent arrives impolitely to address our stinginess for, in actuality, it addresses our neatly concealed dread.

As magi we journey to find. We journey to find a Child of royal estate. We, “the people walking in darkness,” journey toward a dim light in the fainting hope that this royal Child be also born even unto us!

It isn’t impossible to think that these magi journeyed with fragments of Isaiah’s prophecy clutched to their breasts; studying them by firelight each night.

Like Mansa Musa they brought gifts of gold, though not in economy-unraveling quantities. And as we travel with them, we bring with us our gold; our wealth, our privilege, and also our dread. Can these all be laid down at once? This is Advent’s query.

When, later in his life, this Child of Advent encountered the wealthy, it was with mixed results. During one of his journeys, a rich man chased him down, knelt before him, and asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It began with such promise, until they arrived at the topic of his wealth.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” we read, “then said, ‘Sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'” The man became “deeply dismayed by these words and went away grieving for he had great wealth.” Or did he?

Jesus had invited this man out of a life of dread and scarcity. The invitation had issued from love. Yet this man’s material riches occasioned a pilgrimage away from Jesus; a pilgrimage back to earth-drawn wealth and to scarcity and dread.

As the magi made their way through the Jerusalem of Herod the Great, there was much vexation. And we recall the words playwright Dorothy Sayers put in Herod’s mouth for these magi,

You cannot rule men by love. When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.

There can be no mistaking that this is nearly always the case. Nearly, but not always.

So we find Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena, exiled and debased, marveling at Advent’s Child,

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force.
Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.

The gold of the magi must pose for us a simple question: what shall govern you? Will it be scarcity and fear expressing themselves through Scroogelikeness, or a superabundance of love expressing itself through generosity?

For the pilgrimage of Advent must be seen for what I really is; not a pilgrimage whereby our wealth is dispersed in dazzling display. It is a pilgrimage whereby God’s wealth bedazzles by the gift of his very Son.

St. Paul summarized it’s message respledently,

For you know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Napoleon alludes to this, and Advent makes it plain: an empire founded upon love – a perfect love, which drives out fear and scarcity. The largess of Advent does not deflate the currencies of the world but annuls them altogether by ravaging their very standards. God has given us nothing less than Himself.

In the company of the magi, as we open up our treasuries and lay their contents before the royal Child, we are, as it were, unburdening ourselves from their cruel reign of terror.

“Do not be afraid!” Advent announces. You have found the mother lode of God. “Unto us a Child is born!”

Advent II | Frankincense

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air

While walking through the campus near our house a few months ago, a breeze wafted a scent across my path that positively transported me. Without warning, I found myself riding a bike along a dirt road in the foothills of my boyhood home of Colorado Springs. The smell was stinging and nutty. As I passed through more such wind-borne parcels, I was transported again to a homeward walk down the ridge above my neighborhood of Pleasant Valley on a hot, dry Colorado afternoon.

Weaving my way through the planters and gardens, I discovered the source: a berm running along a neo-Gothic hall planted thick with Prairie dropseed. The sun’s warmth had released its sharp bouquet upon the winds and had removed me from time and place; evoking memories and emotions without consent!

The anatomy of the brain endows our sense of smell with with a set of keys; each unlocking treasuries of memory. This has been called involuntary memory or a Proustian moment. “I quivered,” we read in Proust’s In Search of a Lost Time, “attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”

Life is aromatic this way. Not only cartoon characters are lifted from their feet by its sensory provocations. Advent is nothing if not provocative.

Thus we find ourselves among travelers: journeymen and journeywomen, traversing toward a musty manger. Magi all, panniers stuffed with frankincense. Try as one might, there is no keeping its woody citric aroma confined. Clothing and sundries and provisions alike, all fogged through with the scent. Why carry such cargo?

In a word: worship.

The temples and shrines and alters of the ancient world billowed with the smoke of frankincense. A resin that bleeds from the sides of the rare Boswellia Sacra tree, it was both familiar and mysterious. Mysterious, in that lore and legend attended its origins. Familiar, in that its scent was synonymous with veneration.

Frankincense was also to be offered daily within the Hebrew Tabernacle; its furnishings festooned with censers and bowls and acacia wood altars for the burning. It was mingled with all grain offerings and was a perfuming ingredient in the Aaronic anointing oil, which was forbidden in common use.

As the magi traveled west, it could never have been far from their olfaction that theirs was an errand of worship. The resin’s pervasive scent eliciting involuntary reminiscence of manifold venerations while, simultaneously, piquing holy anticipation for One long awaited.

Thus we sing,

Frankincense to offer have I,
    Incense owns a Deity nigh:

and thus Isaiah foretold,

Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your rising.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

The journey of Advent ought to be a redolent affair, with transportation upon each gust of wind.

In such fashion, the magi made their odiferous descent into Jerusalem as a worshipful plume, occasioning much vexation upon their arrival. Are we not aware of the unseemliness of worship in our world? I’m not referring to the performance of religious activities, but of the fervor and sincerity which lingers on the lives of the converted. I’ll be frank (pun inevitable), such earnestness can be quite disturbing to me. I am so often playing games. Is this the case for you also? It is the problem Advent arrives to address!

We’re told the magi made their earnestness immediately plain,

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?
For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.

What of their reception?

When Herod the king heard this, he was disturbed,
and all Jerusalem with him.

Let us pause to remember that this was no “Holiday Season” in Jerusalem; only another day. They were eating and drinking, working and playing, going through their mundane motions. The verisimilitude and vocabulary of worship was no doubt littered through their lives like resinous tears, yet kept mostly apart from any heat by which otherworldly fumes might awake. (Even as I write, I admit there are always exceptions.)

In his lecture, “A Slip of the Tongue,” CS Lewis recounts a misspoken prayer,

I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal;
I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.

“What I had inadvertently said,” Lewis confesses, “very nearly expressed something I had really wished.” And so we find Jerusalem. And so we often find ourselves as well. Passing through Advent’s eternal fragrances so as not to lose the temporal.

The worshipful perfume of the magi’s procession became in Jerusalem and in the house of Herod a stench; portending divine disruption. He assembled together an otherwise lackadaisical collection of priests and teachers, who confirmed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The client king then began imagining a decidedly darker delegation fit for the occasion.

Decades later, St. Paul would discuss this stark disparity regarding the “aroma of Christ,” which is the selfsame aroma of Advent:

To one a fragrance from death to death, 
to the other a fragrance from life to life.

To the earth-bound, Advent reeks of decay – disgruntling them over the transience of their terrestrial horizons. “Vanity! Vanity!” it nags. “A chasing after the wind!” It is in this spirit that our contemporary consumerist holiday has been realized, which commodifies sacred melodies of Christ’s mass, relegating them to background murmur within an excited consumptive mode.

Yet, among the pilgrim-hearted, Advent is a fragrance from life to life; rousing us from misdirected sleepwalks; reminding us that these consumptive lands can never be our final satisfaction. Lewis infers, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The beleaguered hymnodist Edmund Sears penned “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In a later work titled Foregleams and Foreshadows of Immortality, he wrote,

Let the instinct of home be destroyed, and man would be utterly demoralized, or hopelessly insane. His life becomes aimless, and he wanters in spiritual vagabondism, he knows not whither or for what.

In mysterious affect, the aroma of Advent awakes homing instincts for a place we’ve never yet been, and we must, in the words of Proust, “attend to the extraordinary things happening within.”

“Descend into your heart,” Sears admonished, “and you will find there a deep and unquenchable instinct which belongs to the spiritual nature. It is the instinct for home.”

Frederick Buechner concluded his essay “The Longing for Home” with these words,

I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. The home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is.

Jerusalem was, for the magi, a mistaken way-station; the wrong city of David. Not the bustling city of David’s complicated kingship, but the quieter hamlet of David’s pastoral childhood.

They’d been guided by the star but were briefly misguided by suppositions. During one of his customary conversational sermons, the Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardenal discussed this with his parishioners. A young man named Adán speculated,

The Gospel says later when they left they saw the star again. That means that when they reached Jerusalem the star wasn’t guiding them. They’d lost it.

The path of Advent is notoriously easy to lose. It doesn’t always lead where we expect. There are times when our sense of smell must compensate for our failing sight.

We know by now that one loses one’s sense of smell at great peril. This is true in more ways than one. We carry the frankincense with us on the journey of Advent in the same way one ties a string around one’s finger; to remind ourselves that this is about finding a place of worship.

As mentioned previously, the magi were an unnumbered band; not likely the fabled “three kings.” Nevertheless, these portrayals have become means by which rich meditations have emerged.

Dorothy Sayers notably wrote a gospel play for a 1941 BBC broadcast, in which the characters of the “three kings” appear. Upon their departure, Herod mocks their claim that this king will reign through love. “You cannot rule men through love,” he scoffs. “When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.”

The Jerusalem of Herod did not pass the smell test, and onward they traversed.

Sayers places the gift of frankincense in the possession of Caspar, whom she portrays as a wizened old noble preoccupied with worship and wisdom. Upon entering their low-slung abode, he remarks,

No place is too lowly to kneel in.
There is more holiness here than in King Herod’s Temple.

The Scriptures tell us the magi proceeded “overjoyed” into Bethlehem and, upon entering the house, “bowed down and worshipped him.” It was an Advent consummation!

They then “opened their treasuries” and presented the holy Child with three gifts, frankincense among them. May the frankincense be for us an aromatic atlas; an interior treasury transporting us to Emmanuel, which not only means “God with us” but also “us with God.”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21)

Advent I | Pilgrimage

On the morning of February 14, 2001, I awoke to find my Subaru Impreza encased in a half-inch of ice. The sidewalks and roads were iced over, and snow fell steadily, swirling and drifting in a driving wind.

I spent the better part of 15 minutes chipping and scraping, until I could pry open the driver’s side door, start the car, and run the defrost. I tore a windshield wiper blade during the ordeal.

On most such days I would not have hazarded the roads, but this was not any day.

I loaded my car and trekked across town to a Jiffy Lube, where the fluids could be changed, the wiper blades replaced, and the remaining iced thawed from the vehicle. I made my way up the street to a florist, where they charged me $10 for a single long-stem rose. I did not bat an eye.

I then embarked on what would be a 7-hour westward journey over an icy and perilous Interstate 80. I was departing Kearney, Nebraska. My destination was, Lord willing, Ft. Collins, CO. For the uninitiated, I-80 is a veritable cavalcade of 18-wheelers, with grooved, undulating lanes. Under ideal conditions, it isn’t a pleasant roadway. These conditions were far from ideal.

Knuckles white and breaths filled alternately with prayers and curses, I drove like man possessed.

That Valentine’s Day marked my first opportunity to be in-person with my girlfriend of just over one month, and no act of heaven or earth was to prevent the reunion. (Ten months hence, she would become my wife.) We’re prone to forget St. Valentine was a martyr.

Upon reflection, I see that all journeys are acts of worship. Whether an errand for milk, or a road trip to the Grand Canyon; all travels attach themselves to worth. Is it any wonder Advent reads like a travelogue?

The word advent is, unsurprisingly, of the same stock as adventure: something unusual, exciting, daring and oftentimes hazardous. A “venture toward,” whose destination merits the costs.

For this reason, our intrigue is drawn to the mysterious magi; noble mystics hazarding their own westward journey. “Bearing gifts,” we sing, they “traverse afar.”

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star

They are the “three kings,” the “three wise men,” and yet nowhere are we told there were three of them. We’re not even told they were all men! Scripture tells us only of magi; astrologically-attuned Eastern pilgrims, come, as it were, to worship.

Lore surrounding the “three wise men” owes itself to the fact that these pilgrims indeed bore three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet I might even say this catalogue falls at least one gift short. For these star-struck travelers actually offered a more significant gift: themselves. Put differently, they offered the gift of presence by way of journey.

The particulars of these characters has been augmented through much apocrypha, including three places of origin: Persia, Arabia, India. Even more, the tellings construct these characters in trifold specificity, imparting the names Melchior (Persia, gold), Balthazar (Arabia, myrrh), and Gaspar (India, frankincense). Rich as such traditions become, they tend to affect an evicting of the Everyman – the Every-magi – from the narrative. That is to say, they might evict you and me.

Advent is a story of worshipful journey – of pilgrimage – and, like all great stories, has its own magical way of sweeping us into the drama. The word magi is, after all, the base of our word magic.

As I write, I am aware of a set of mental negotiations taking place within me regarding magic, for its place in Scripture and in Christian regard is not uncomplicated. Frederick Buechner wrote, “If security’s what you’re after, try magic. If adventure is what you’re after, try religion.” But he would go on to add, “The line between them is notoriously fuzzy.”

In Advent, the line between magic and religion and many other things does become fuzzy, for here we have magi – astrologers – who, in their watchfulness, “observed his star at its rising.” (Mt. 2:2) Whose star? “The Child who has been born king!”

This places the emphasis of Advent squarely upon alacrity; a brisk and joyful readiness to embark.

Here was a community of Eastern star-gazers who, from time immemorial, had awaited an astral event denoting the birth of a foreign king. These had inherited a tradition of searching the skies. Likely, they had found camaraderie around this peculiar preoccupation. Why? We can’t be entirely sure.

But we know they spent their time on the lookout. Was it something to do with clues of God’s ongoing terrestrial involvement? We can be certain their lands did not lack for gods and demigods; likely many and varied. But each night they were found beneath the stars. The theological term for this is prevenient grace; the notion that God is everywhere at work in human hearts. St. Augustine described it thus, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Were they restless? Are we?

So they journeyed. Packed up their baggage and provisions, bid their loved ones goodbye, and securely stowed away their treasuries. Their journey would have taken a matter of weeks; an Advent season in whole. By the time they arrived, the nativity was no longer staged in a stable. Let us linger with them in their trip, even as we commence our own in these days.

Many of us have been confined in space in these days: physically, yes, but also spiritually. We’ve forgotten how to look for his star on the rise and our yearnings no longer drift to pilgrimage. Little wonder God’s first question to humanity was, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) Where are you?

The Sons of Korah wrote, “Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” (Ps. 84:5) They continue by saying that, though they may pass through many a sad and arid landscape, “They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” (v. 7)

Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light

Thy perfect light! The blessed exist within a life of pilgrimage, with Zion fixed in their hearts. Elsewhere, the psalmist Asaph called Zion, “the perfection of beauty,” the place from which “God shines forth.” (50:2)

The perfection of beauty. This is the destination of Advent. The journey is often made by unexpected peoples from unexpected places, and what – or rather Who – they encounter defies expectations also.

When the star began to rise, so did the magi’s hearts. It was for them a divine overture and it must be for us also!

You may remember the Disney film Finding Nemo. It’s the one where a little clown fish is captured and made to live in a dentist’s office aquarium. He had given up hope of ever being liberated and reunited with his father, until the day a pelican arrives at the window and regales the aquarium-dwellers with the love-inspired exploits of his father – and Nemo’s yearnings are rekindled!

Advent is a story of worshipful journey; of journey predicated on worth. Yet, above all, the journey is God’s. The gift is His presence, and all is hazarded in the hope of reunion. Your life is the worth.

Therefore we sing,

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Advent is God’s journey to us, which might become our journey to him. Advent is a journey of one to another, and it is a journey to be made with a company of star-gazers.

Oh that its magic might gather us together and set us on the highways to Zion for worship!

dimension zero

Fog has a fascinating way of demarcating; revealing distance through gradated silhouettes; converting the world into an enormous pop-up book. Have you ever noticed that? Generally speaking, novel conditions have a way of enforcing themselves on perspective—insisting we take notice of things previously undetected.

We’re in such a novel condition. Our whole world mostly is. The effects of this pandemic are expressing themselves in countless ways, and no one can definitely speak to the duration or true meaning of this time. Yet, as the condition’s name suggests, it is pandemic—of all people. Thus it is common.

For me, as with fog, this has brought into stark relief what we call dimensions: our relationship to space and time themselves. I’m going to try to write four posts, each tied to the dimensions of reality. These are mere reflections; a humble prompt for inspection. May they offer you something helpful, should you read them.

Dimension 0 | A Point

Technically speaking, a point is actually no place at all; a null set. It derives its value, its meaning, its space only insofar as it connects to other points. It is the dimension of zero. The dot in the i of Jeremy Bearimy.  There are two symbols for the null set: the slashed zero (Ø) and the empty “curly brackets” ({}). (Yes, I just put curly brackets into parenthetical brackets.) Within the zero dimension we are bracketed thus with curls.

I’ve already written a piece about the present elusiveness of meaning, but, as this moment protracts, this seems even more the case. Yes there is value or, one could say, “values” available. Kindness and patience retain value, reaching out to others within the digital landscape while remaining present to those within our newly-shrunk society, prayer and mindfulness, physical activity and meditation on Scripture, care for self; all these are values within the nebula. And no, this time has not dissolved ultimate meaning; not tossed God from His throne nor totaled the vehicle of Truth. It’s more like we simply cannot find the place on the map reading, “You Are Here.” This type of meaning evades what bible students call “the interpretation” and scientists term “conclusion.” It has the distinct feel of chasing after the wind; literally, “an attempt to herd wind.” “The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind…” (Ecc. 1:6)

This point in space is both a dimension and no dimension at all, which is to say it is a paradox—a mystery. I find that people range from tepid to cold when it comes to mystery. Mystery: a “mouth-shutting-ness.” Forrest Gump has up and stopped running, and we’re left shouting, “Now what are we supposed to do?!” The emphasis is certainly upon the word “now,” a strange track set on repeat.

Days all feel vaguely the same. If you live in Chicago, you have spring, winter, summer, and fall all in one week. We’ve lost track of all of the yearly rituals that have vaporized into the ether: Opening Day and March Madness, Spring Break trips and Proms, weddings and funerals, Holy Week. It is a point whose point escapes us. Tomorrow promises to be much the same. And it is disorienting, no two ways about it, as we discover ourselves scraping and searching for bearings, groping desperately in darkness. Don’t we perceive this pent up energy? Have you been wondering what it’s about?

In the null set we are getting far too much time with ourselves, aren’t we? You are the one self with whom social distancing is regrettably futile, and you’ve become too close for comfort! It was the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who portrayed hell as an eternity in which people are their own tormentors—left alone with the abrasion of their own relentless self-critiques—in his aptly titled play, No ExitThe alarming question appears early, “how shall I endure my own company?”

Doesn’t that question speak to a torment we are all presently enduring? One of the characters in Sartre’s play finds herself wondering when the tormentors will arrive, and the valet asks her how she would recognize one. Her answer? “They look frightened.” This amuses hell’s valet, “Of whom would they be afraid? Their victims?”

“Laugh away,” she replies, “but I know what I’m talking about. I’ve often watched my face in the glass.” This character, Inez, knows inherently that fear is at the center of all torment, and it is alluded that the victim and tormentor shall be one and the same. But why?

Journalist Judith Shulevitz addressed this in her 2003 New York Times Magazine essay, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” bemoaning our “machinery of self-censorship” and the arduousness of “stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.” Our activity, it would seem, performs an unacknowledged function; it is a noise machine to muffle this irritating murmur, whose droning has largely been eliminated without our consent. (In CS Lewis’s  The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape informs his demonic protégé Wormwood of hell’s intent, “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth.” Yes they have.)

This condition is what theologians call “ontological lightness”—the perceived weightlessness of our self. As the late Brent Curtis put it, “the reality that when I stop ‘doing’ and simply listen to my heart, I am not anchored to anything substantive. I become aware that my very identity is synonymous with activity.” The discomfort, it turns out, is an existential crisis over which we skate precariously. The calls are coming from inside the house!

So we are all versions of Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly striving desperately against the disappearance of his world and very self. It is both terrifying and amusing. It is our corporate plot line. “As soon as they stop performing,” Curtis observes of our culture, “their identities—and ours—disappear.”

Are we the null set? God forbid! Constructed entirely of our doing? Or is there a self beneath it all; one with which we may be at rest, even apart from its productivity, even in naked stillness or newfound ineptitude in performing and producing? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve never stuck around long enough to find out. 

Faced with her own crisis of self, my friend Kendra penned a poem that is both deeply honest and deeply wise,

Would your dove ever descend on me and say you are well pleased?
I’m not even a son but a daughter, so the quote doesn’t even fit
You speak a foreign language when you say I’m loved apart from what I do
What clothes, skin, and bones do I have apart from my endeavors?

She continues later,

If you unraveled my performance you’d keep going going going
Is there a core it wraps around or simply the end of the string
If it’s just the string God don’t unravel it
I’ll exist no more

The poem ends with a gut-level plea that says so much,

Do you like these words? Will you put them in a book?
Good, then it was worth it. I don’t have to do the real work.
My heart can remain unchanged; just tell me, “wow your heart’s so real!”
Tell me, tell me, tell me so I do not have to feel.

Can the love and pleasure of God actually rest upon those whose ledger of merit reads zilch? Can there be a being with value beneath the yarn once it is all unspooled? Can we avoid having this conversation a little longer? Please? We discover in times like this just how much our lives are a mad scramble to cobble together our sense of self.

The one thing I know is that the “You” in “You Are Here” is precisely where the now has brought us; inescapably so. Are you coming to see how ontologically light you really are? Have you any answer your auto-torment—your own frightened face in the glass? If not, can you re-enter the world with anything but fear and renewed desperation? Or will the you who you are re-enter with greater rest and an enlarged capacity for generosity?

“You have made us for Yourself,” observed the great bishop of Hippo, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The you who are here,  are made in the very image and likeness of the Creator, and, before a work hour was complete, were beheld to be “very good.” The Dove descended upon Jesus, and, before a single sermon or miracle, the Father’s voice pronounced love and great pleasure; the type of love that defines the object as beloved. And he became “a life-giving spirit.”

You are here.

And, to quote my friend’s poem, “the real work” is before you; to name your noise and restlessness; to claim your silent rest—or at least a taste of it!

Wendell Berry spoke so simply and so poignantly about this “real work” in his poem “Our Real Work”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

In his Noise-lauding letter, Screwtape quotes George MacDonald’s “sickening” description of heaven, “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence.”

“You Are Here,” and here you may remain until the you who is here comes to rest with your self, as defined apart from all of its noise and accolades; to rest in the goodness of your being and belovedness. The “Where” of “You Are Here” may only disclose itself by way of this real work, and although it may remain murky, you will be allowed to orient yourself by the unfamiliar sounds of music and singing—issuing from within, of all places!

As this happens, you will actually have something new to offer; something to give. And you will say along with another poet, Walt Whitman, “When I give I give myself.”