Advent into Christmas

This week we light the fourth Advent candle, and prepare for the celebration of Christmas on Friday. In the early centuries of the Church, a mass would be celebrated at night in Bethlehem, at the cave of the nativity. In the 5th century, the tradition was brought to Rome, but was celebrated on Christmas Eve. The Pope would begin at night in a small chapel (St. Mary Major). The Gospel was from Luke about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

At dawn the Pope would celebrate in a Greek community in Rome (St. Anastasia) before proceeding to St. Peter’s for the Mass during the day. It was from this experience that we have the traditional three Masses of Christmas – at night, at dawn, and in the day. Each Mass reflects upon the birth of Christ in a slightly different way, with different scriptural texts.  “It is impossible to encompass and express in only one liturgy the richness and complexity of the mystery that it celebrates.” – Days of the Lord

Week Four – Surprise

My family loves hummingbirds. Every spring we put a red hummingbird feeder on the window in our family room and wait for the emerald green birds to return. And every year they do.

Hummingbirds are a wonder of speed and flight. Their wings beat over 50 times per second, and the tiny birds can hover and zoom at amazing angles. Hummingbirds can even fly backwards! Their hearts – the size of a grain of rice – beat more than 1000 times per minute. The hummingbird is also almost a ghost – something you hardly ever can get near to. Any hint of movement, and they flash away into the trees.

But last summer we did get near to one.  I was working at my desk when my sons came running into me calling, “Dad! Dad! There is a hummingbird stuck in the garage!” We had the door open, and she couldn’t find her away out because she kept flying into the space between the ceiling and the door. We tried to chase her out, but it wasn’t working. Time was of the essence, because hummingbirds need to eat every 10 – 15 minutes or they will dehydrate.  Finally, I rigged a fishing net on a long pole, and after many ridiculous moments of waving it about, I was able to trap her in corner. She flayed out her wings, exhausted, trying to make herself look bigger than she was. And then she was still.

I moved my hand under the net and gently slipped my fingers beneath the hummingbird. She didn’t move at all, and made no sound. My boys watched, wide-eyed and quiet. Then she stood, resting on the palm of my hand. Except for the slight prick of her sharp feet, it was like she wasn’t there. She was completely weightless, like holding a small glimmering flame. I have never walked so carefully, with all of my concentration focused. We stepped out into the sunlight, and I moved away the net.

For one moment, she sat there, the untouchable amazing creation of this bird nested in my hand. And then in she was gone, a flash of green into the trees.

I can’t even remember what I was working on that day… but I will never forget that little bird. I was given such a gift – for a moment to be in contact with the wonder that is this world. To be aware of it. God is constantly working to surprise us – to wake us up – to break in on us - to help us to see the miracle of love that is happening in our lives.

From Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk, 20th Century

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.

The Magnificat - translation from The Message by Eugene Peterson

(This is Mary’s prayer when she greets Elizabeth)

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

From The Color Purple by Alice Walker. In this scene Shug talks with Celie about God, trying to get her to move from seeing God as “an old white man in the sky” to seeing God as that love which creates all that is beautiful – even herself.

Listen, God love everything you love — and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.

Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

Well us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I have been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feel like a fool.

The Visitation – by James B Janknegt, 2007, oil on canvas


This lovely painting by James Janknegt offers us an imaginative illustration of the Gospel story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Mary came into her home, the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. And she speaks the beautiful words of surprise and joy: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  We see – in sort of a magical ultra sound – the two wondrous children. John the Baptist is leaping for joy within his mother, and Jesus is shown with a crown, revealing already his destiny and identity. Note also the two fathers in the background – Zechariah with his board (for he has lost his voice for doubting the angel), and Joseph, an older man, with a suitcase in hand, the father carrying the luggage. It is a picture of the joy of birth, of new life, and of celebrating the coming of Christ into the world.