Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Collective Breath

Christmas Eve is here!  Complete with snow on the ground, making the White Christmas I sing about happily true this year.  The presents are wrapped with brightly colored paper, completed with sparkly shiny bows.  Cards expressing Christmas wishes to all are nearly ready to be given (my theory is that as long as they go out before the New Year it’s all good).  Soon, the house will be filled with the smell of Christmas Eve chili, lemon pie and a mixture of other goodies; complimented by the sounds of children, friends and family. 

The special time of Christmas is not something that is made up of all these wonderful things, though these are exceptionally lovely things to include.  It is a yearly instance where the world seems to take a collective breath and inhale the sweet newness of an infant in a manger; the feeling we get when we hold a tiny new life that is only minutes, days or weeks old.  Thrust into our arms, the baby’s weight is slight, but it fills us with the weight of love and responsibility. 

The pause of peace that occurs around this time of year is reflected in traditions, spontaneous declarations and heartbreakingly wistful wants of peace throughout history and the world.  The town of Turku, Finland, has declared a Christmas peace since the Middle Ages.  The holly and mistletoe, respectively the kissing plant and the plant of peace, are reminiscent of the kiss of peace monarchs would give and receive from their nobles.  The old history of many carols can be traced to the need of peace that only this new life a baby could bring.  In much more modern history, a desire for peace came out again in the Civil War, even amidst Christmas day skirmishes.  The soldiers’ hearts craved that peace should be the order of the day and reflected it in their letters and songs.  After the capture of Savannah, some northern soldiers delivered several wagons full of food and other supplies to the people who were caught in a land desolated by a bitter war.  In World War I, an impromptu peace broke out in several places as men in opposing trenches exchanged songs, a few gifts, and rallied their impromptu football (a.k.a soccer) teams with cheering, ringing foreign sounds of peace through no-man’s-land.  Much more recent is in war-torn Nigeria; a few Muslim and Christian neighbors have declared this very Christmas a time of peace to celebrate together. 

Beyond the kindness to strangers we many witness at this time, these days have a convention of people drawing in a breath and catching in a singular air of the divine.  I think it is more than just sweet traditions and customs that has brought about these singular moments that we know of, and the thousands we do not know of.  I think it is the celebration of an earthly birth of a heavenly king.  The peace our minds and bodies crave catch a whisper from the spirit, quiet amongst the sounds of wrapping, caroling, sledding, shopping, visiting, and cooking; barely heard and yet keenly felt.  It is the whisper that offers peace, the peace of the spirit.  The peace we have so long wanted is rested in our arms as a new born baby, Jesus.  The emptiness in the longing is filled with the hope of peace.  But, I think that it is not just the baby that impacts in such a tremendous way, it is the man as well.  The man that died for us, died for us out of love and returned to us out of love, to offer peace. 

In the hectic moments the next few days presents, I wish you a merry and peace filled Christmas.  That you will draw in a breath and catch a faint hint of the smell of a new baby in a manger, of a man on a cross, of the promise of peace in love. 

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

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

 And in despair I bowed my head:

 'There is no peace on earth,' I said
 'For hate is strong, and mocks the song
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.'

 Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
 'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
 The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
 With peace on earth, good will to men.'

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

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Monday, December 9, 2013

Anthem of Joy

The Christmas musical And On Earth, Peace has finished.  Months of practice, planning, rehearsal, and preparation culminated into two nights of performance.  Then, it is over and we are left with stories, memories, and the tunes stuck in our head.

The musical score, each song that has been practiced over and over (and over) are hushed now from the formal performance.  But, these anthems of praise, anthems of joy, are not merely the music written for the performance.  It is the laughter and giggles, and at time chortles and guffaws, that have filled the stage – these are a theme in the anthem of joy.  Each of the carefully prepared devotions, led and given with leading questions are pointing out phrases.  The whip of flags provides a soft rhythm in the song; while the practices and performance of the angel color guard continue to add a momentum of building tempos.  The sound of little shepherd feet running to their places is a percussive vibrato accented by the quiet counterpoint of a whisper of wheelchairs and walkers and feet spilled with candlelight.  The hands on the sound board, the lights, and computer are all subtle in movement.  But, they are such an important part of the musical line, part of the joyous hymn.  A new baby’s sleepy sigh, a touch point in a phrase that is complex with many parts melding into time changes and key change, rings out into the smallness of the rafters and the largeness of the heart.  It is sensed in the feet of children dancing on their parents’ laps without conscious thought, simply with the need to join the celebration.  Whispered instructions from flashlight wielding stage crews add a new instrumental line; one so subtle that many do not notice, unless it would suddenly not be there.  The audience reaches out to meet the joy, and shares it back with applause, smiles, and warm wishes.

The music comes to a silence, but the anthem of joy does not end.  This time is merely another change of pace before moving to a new musical line.  Another key change, a new bridge, and a series of fermatas, then pause for breath before speed finds its new metronomic pace.  The anthem continues in the well wishes of Christmas, the wide-eyed wonder of the child who can twirl and experience wonder in helping place the nativity.  It is experienced in the feel of the clean crisp quietness belonging to the first snow.  The smells of cookies delivered to neighbors strike gentle glissandos, while the delivery of a blanket to one who is cold heralds joy like a perfectly struck chime.  Bells break in as Christmas carolers visit others.  Shared meals with harmony, dissonance, and resolution revolve in the bond of family.  Delicate soprano notes play as little ones don costumes and take their places on stages to win hearts and steal shows.  New chords are tried as new memories are made and old familiar chords blend in with sweet traditions.

The program ends, And On Earth, Peace.  The lights have come back on, and people eventually filtered back out into the dark and snowy night. But, the anthem of joy does not end.  It is the eternal anthem of the joy of the Lord, one of complexity and styles that has stretched for thousands of years of music.  And yet, though with different instrumental focuses, the same theme repeats.  Come, join in the anthem, it is the joy of the Lord.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heralding in the Season

The holiday season has started upon us, and has already been busy with wonderful visits, activities, and meals.  On this weekend of Thanksgiving, I have so enjoyed reading and hearing about the thankfulness of others.  Thanksgiving for me is a herald of the holiday season, an announcement of the anniversary celebrated in the days to come.  While this herald may conjure up images of turkeys and sweet potato casserole among many, I am actually quite content with a ham sandwich for my meal.  The food, though tasty, is not Thanksgiving.  This last Thanksgiving, just a few days past, is one where I paused and stood a moment; a split second to take in the sound of little feet running and trailing giggles, in-depth discussions over recipes, wonderfully tantalizing smells, and feel of many crowding into the heart of a home. 

Yes, I am thankful.  And, at this crazily busy time of year, I love to have this reminder and chance to participate as a society to pause and be thankful together.  Not to pretend our difficulties do not exist, but to at least momentarily be reminded to move through them holding the hopes that are bright, like the Christmas lights being put up.  Hope in the very faithfulness of God.  That gratitude refreshed on this long weekend, is not dependent upon a holiday.  But, I am thankful for the holidays as a sweet reminder of gratitude for God’s hope.

That gratitude was mixing yesterday with a sweet melancholy sentiment as I started to put up ornaments on the tree.  I love Christmas!  The lights, the music, my favorite smells of pine, and the very feeling of the clean chill air.  Carefully holding an ornament, choosing the perfect place on the tree, and placing it on the branch; it is placing little moments of memories of years’ past.  My heart, full of joy and thanksgiving is also slightly tugged on.  The memories of Christmas past, those who are loved and miles away, or have gone on to be with God, these dear people make up memories of layers of Christmas past.  Not as waves of sadness, but the delicate layers of sentiment and memory that leads my mind to jump from year to year and will be added to this year.

 This season has been officially brought in with praises, intentional thankfulness, and deep rooted memories that tug and bring up joy.  But, most of all the season has begun, the celebration of hope – eternal and human, a baby and a man, death and life – the season of the Nativity!