A few years ago my father, in an attempt to bring Christmas alive for his grandkids, created a nativity scene in our barn. There had been an unseasonable birth – a few Christmas lambs. We started at the house, bundled up against sub-zero temperatures, following the star (a flashlight attached to a long pole) as we sang “We Three Kings.” Arriving at the stable, we peeked through the door to find my sister-in-law cradling her baby, a lamb at her feet. A ewe and her lamb and one or two of our tamer cattle rustled in stalls nearby as we sang “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” It was a holy moment.
What I remember most clearly, is the frail light of the flashlight illuminating our path and the faint glow from the stable window spilling out across the snow.
I was struck, as I read these two chapters of Chittister, by her description of the ancient hope for light: “light is more elusive than we like to remember. When the ancients observed the winter solstice, it was with thousands of years of fear that once gone, the light might not come back. It might not, this time, return to warm the earth or grow the seeds or prod the harvests upon which they depended for life” (p. 86). Today we are cut off from that fear. Our scientific knowledge assures us that the earth will tilt back toward the sun as it orbits, and that the days will get longer: that spring will inexorably follow winter; that summer will follow spring.
But imagine. Imagine the days getting shorter and shorter. Imagine watching the plants around you stop producing as the light fades. Imagine struggling to find feed for your livestock. Imagine watching your food supply dwindle.
Now imagine the first day you realize the day is a little longer. The first day you realize that the hold darkness seemed to have on the earth has been loosened by the tiniest sliver of light.
That is the celebration of Christmas. Our lives depend on it – on that tiniest sliver of light that we call the Bright Morning Star. The star that appears when night is at its darkest. The star that heralds the dawn.
I am amazed by the death and resurrection. It brings me to my knees. But I am left with my mouth gaping and my legs shaking at the thought that God – God almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing – considered it within his character to step down into the goodness of his creation, and into the darkness we made of it.
The feast of Christmas is not just a merry time to celebrate with friends and family. It is a realization of light. “Christmas is not meant to leave us with nothing more than a child’s perception of what it means to see a baby in a manger scene. It is meant to take us to the level of spiritual maturity where we are capable of seeing in a manger the meaning of an empty tomb. It is meant to enable us to see through the dark days of life to the stars beyond them” (p.88).
It is the frail light of a star, the faint glow from a stable window, that shatters the darkness that surrounds us: then, now, each year, and forever.
This is a lovely reflection, personal and encouraging. Thank you.
I bought the book, The Liturgical Year, and had a chance to read it on two long train journeys over the past week. I love it! I have no theological training and am unlikely to have come across a book like this, let alone read it, had I not been sent a link to your blog. But I found myself reading each chapter twice to savour Joan Chittister’s wonderful “historical instruction, Christian mentoring and gentle wisdom”. Her metaphors give me a glimpse of how she understands and experiences the Kingdom of Heaven. I begin to understand that the Liturgical Year carries me into the heartbeat of the Kingdom so that my life can be what it is meant to be: the love of God fully alive in me (page 22).
Sister Joan is no dreamer. Because of who she is, I know that she walks the path she shows me. To be part of the mystery I have to pray my way into it, think my way into it and live my way into it (page 21). “The secret lies in coming to understand the Christian year so that it might work its cosmic dimensions of what it means to be alive right into the fiber of our daily lives” (page 7).
I am thrilled to be on this spiraling adventure of the spiritual life. Thank you for recognising the value of Joan Chittister’s writing and making it accessible to a wide audience.
I’m so glad that you’ve enjoyed the book, and that it has drawn you more deeply into the life of Christ. I’m enjoying the slow pull of the Spirit in this as well. Chittister is a gentle speaker of deep truths – and definitely a good companion for the journey.
Beautifully written, Stacey; thankyou for using your immense skills to bring out the message of these chapters in all its wondrous, world-shaking delight.
On a more prosaic note, I can’t help but raise a question that occurs to me repeatedly as I read and re-read Chittister’s meditation on the Christmas season(s).
Why is it, how is it, that we Protestants have allowed ourselves to become strangers to the prolonged, multi-faceted feast season that Chittister celebrates so fulsomely?
Surely there must be a link between this estrangement on the one hand, and our reduction of Christmas to a kiddies’ playtime of uncertain theological import on the other?
The more important question, of course, is how we can encourage one another to return to full and energetic celebration of the coming of the Magi, of Mary’s frail yet boldly open humanity, of the holy family, of Jesus’ baptism – of all those other feasts that could expand our vision of a rich, Trinitarian God in hope-stirring condescension to our poor and misguided world?
I wonder if it has something to do with our pre-celebration of Christmas. By the time we arrive, we’ve already been there – so we leave as quickly as possible. I’m drawn to the richness of celebration that Chittister portrays, and especially to her explanation of how each feast corrects a potentially faulty view of what is happening at Christmas until finally, when all the feasts are completed, we understand fully who Jesus is. I honestly don’t know how we encourage one another to return to this full expression of Christmas celebration. In a world that is consumer-mad we are driven at break-neck speed toward Christmas, and then steered away toward Boxing Day Sales before we have a chance to catch our breath. Family events and Christmas parties leave us so tired and over-fed by the 27th that we no longer want to do anything but sit on the couch and eat salad. No one wants another feast. We should slow everything right down; say “no” to more events; start celebrating Christmas later; and allow it to linger in feast after feast. But how.
I think you’re onto something there, Stace.
Having a small family anyway, and being largely out of the work/friends party loop this year, I was able to savour Advent for the first time, right up until 23/12. I was truly puzzled to find colleagues in full ‘Christmas’ mode when even in late December, I was still mentally in Advent! All of this meant I’ve had far more stamina than usual for Christmas feasts.
Part of that stamina, however, results from re-defining ‘feast’ away from buying/eating/partying and towards a ‘feast’ for the soul and liturgical senses. It has simply meant allowing subsequent Sundays (and my home group’s discussions, which are based on the upcoming Sunday service readings) to linger thematically on incarnational themes. No extra work, no extra purchases. But also, no instant switch to a ‘new year sermon series’.
The downside is that by the time we were done with these special Sundays, there were only about 4 Sundays of Ordinary Time before we hit Lent. Hardly time to linger long over Jesus’ life and our own ordinary lives, is it?
But Lent is a long season, so maybe there’s time for lingering once there, instead…