Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sufjan Stevens, "Christmas Tube Socks"

Christmas was a time of terrible expectation, during which, for one week prior to the fateful day, our family was confined to the claustrophobia of our winterized home, forced to “spend time together”. For a family who mixed like vinegar and baking soda, this was a cosmic blooper. My siblings and I were out of school for two weeks, but, unlike summer vacation, (with the various distractions of summer camp and summer jobs), during Christmas break, we were snowed in on all sides, cooped up in small, poorly insulated rooms, and forced, by our father, into the manual labor of household chores: hauling wood, sweeping the stairs, picking fleas from our dog Sarah. This was his version of Family Time.

My father survived the holidays through work, taking on multiple jobs, double shifts, or implementing odd, complicated, time-consuming chores around the house, such as shoveling two-lane walkways in the snow in the yard, and an escape route to the creek out back, in case of an emergency. He joined civic clubs, became a volunteer fireman, attended multiple self-help groups, anything to keep his mind away from the notion that his family was, in fact, a messy, fussy, dysfunctional menagerie of misfits. As for his children, confined inside, breathing recycled air – we fought all day. My sisters, having more prep time in the bathroom in the mornings, hissed and yelled over hair gels and curing irons. “Did you eat my lipstick?” “Did you break my nail file?” My older brother and I would find ourselves writhing, biting, and wrestling under the Christmas tree, overturning bookcases, TV stands and sofa chairs. My father would jump in, separate us, give us a slap on the face and ask: “What are you fighting about?” We could never remember.

Each year, our mother carried the impossible burden of making Christmas “spectacular”, and this often threw her into a psychological state of mind one could describe, in medical terms, as temporary insanity. She spent money she didn’t have, lots of money, imaginary money, money based on speculation, future jobs, hopes and dreams, the kind of money promised by lottery tickets and Amway. Her motives, perhaps, were good: who could blame a mother’s desire to make Christmas perfect for an otherwise imperfect family. But the results, over time, were incriminating. Credit cards engorged and then ignored, bounced checks, money borrowed from distant relatives, great grandfathers, next-door neighbors, train sets and suit coats and wool vests from J. C. Penney put on lay-away, sometimes for years. She brought home elaborate Christmas wreaths, scented candle sets, music boxes, decorative Christmas plates with Elvis, Gene Kelly, and Winona Ryder, designer snow suits, a family toboggan, a Saint Bernard, a Jeep Cherokee. Each item brought home, whether big or small, ignited, between our parents, complicated, colossal disputes as epic as the battles of the Odyssey or the Iliad, Often resulting in egg salad smeared all over the bay window or pots and pans thrown about the kitchen with the pageantry of a Texas high school marching band. In the most heated of arguments, our mother would run to the tree, grab an inconsequential gift (breath mints, a paper kite, a gift certificate), and throw it in the wood stove – an impulsive, spiteful, and (most likely) cathartic gesture. She would stand over the flames like a high priest making a sacrifice, counting down backwards, from ten to one, breathing deeply between each number, ruminating on the incineration of an unopened present. It must have been metaphor for something deeper. But what?

And this is where I began to really hate Christmas. One year, when it snowed 72 inches in two days, and my sister started her period, and my mother brought home sixteen pounds of discount jumbo shrimp from Wal-Mart, and my father reminded her that he was allergic to shellfish and his face would swell up, and our dog chewed up the Encyclopedia Britannica, and our cousin called and said that Aunt Josie had died in her sleep and my mother started to cry and declared Christmas was cancelled. Then she stomped over to the tree, grabbed the first gift she could find and threw it in the wood stove with a quick flick of her wrist, like swatting a fly.

“There, it’s done,” she said. “I feel much better.” But the gift she chose happened to be a six-pack of ordinary tube socks, wrapped in plastic. Which I had bought as a peace offering for my brother. (The week before, I’d cut the toes to all of his socks – using my mother’s good sewing scissors – after he’d told all my friends at school that I still sucked my thumb and slept with a Care Bear.)

“I paid good money for those!” I told her.

“Oh dear,” my mother said, stepping back from the stove. But it was too late. They were cheap, acrylic, dollar-store tube socks, manufactured in China, spun out of pliable man-made materials, synthetic fibers, which, when burned, began to melt, ooze, liquefy, and bubble over, triggered, perhaps, by some extraordinary and complicated chemical reaction. The smell was harrowing – a dense, bold, toxic aroma, the Smell of Death (as we later called it) which, when metabolized in the gloomy atmosphere of our home, spread from room to room in a noxious smoky haze, lilting under doorways and air vents with the speed and agility of hot lava. We were being suffocated in our own house. My mother ran out the front door; I found the nearest window.

“What is that smell?” My sister screamed from her bedroom. “The Smell of Death!”

It forced everyone else in the house to immediately abandon his or her particular private tasks (for my sister, it was nail polish remover, for my brother, a home-made fire bomb he’d been building under his bed) and seek immediate egress outdoors. We met in the winter maze of the driveway, feet stamping, shoulders shuddering, tsk tsking each other, inhaling the icy air of a blizzard, watching our father leap around inside, leveraging windows, propping doors, fanning the smoke and fumes with a folded newspaper.

“Good going!” my sister rolled her eyes.

“Next time, buy cotton,” my mother suggested.

“Why is this my fault?” I wondered.

“Because you’re a cheap-o,” my brother said, jabbing my collarbone. I kicked snow in his face and he punched my ear and my sister screamed because she lost an earring and my mother started counting backwards from ten to one, mumbling prayers under her breath.

It took forty-five minutes for the air to clear, and even then, after we’d returned to the chilly reaches of our rooms, there was the faint smell of burnt tube socks lurking between the walls, behind doors, nestled in the window curtains and in the bath towels and in the hair on our heads. It stuck around for weeks, months, years; perhaps it never left us. Even today, whether I’m at home in Brooklyn or in some distant East Asian country, Christmas still leaves a plastic taste in my mouth, a toxic residue that reminds me of tube socks.

Is it any wonder then, that after years of enduring the Stevens Family Christmas Crisis, I grew to despise the Holidays with the kind of deep antipathy one usually reserves for things like racism and terrorism and corporate fraud? The sight of Santa Claus at shopping malls, the scent of candy canes, the insipid singing of carols – these things roused in me a silent, sardonic, patronizing judgment against all of Western Civilization. At some point, perhaps my second year in college, Philosophy 101, I decided that Christmas was a social construct, along with dating, fast food, and the Super Bowl. I made a point of not coming home for the Holidays. I would have Christmas on my own, entrenched in my reading: Rumi poems, Descartes, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Ayn Rand. My first Christmas alone was in a dorm room. My second Christmas alone was at a Holiday Inn. My third Christmas alone was spent in a dirty little apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a turkey pot pie in the microwave, Jeopardy re-runs on TV, Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo. I am a Rock. I am an Island.

My sister called to say, “Why aren’t you coming home anymore?”

Because, I told her, our mother is a Christmas Pirate and our father puts duct tape on his slippers, and the Siamese cat throwing up pine needles all over Grandma’s gingerbread house is not my idea of a family tradition. Because if I have to carry another load of wood up those stairs I will file a child labor lawsuit. Because Christmas is for sentimental psychopaths and if we continue celebrating it we will all spend our golden years in a mental hospital eating canned peas with a spork.

My sister told me I was irrational and deluded, but very imaginative and perhaps I should write a novel. That was a good idea, I told her. So I tried. And failed. And tried and failed. “Revenge of the Christmas Pirate,” by Sufjan Stevens. “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever,” by Sufjan Stevens. I read some of it out loud to my sister, over the phone.
“I like the part about the dead squirrel wrapped in tissue paper that Dad gave as a stocking stuffer,” she said. “But you know that never actually happened.”
“Yes it did,” I insisted. “Everything’s one-hundred percent accurate.”
“You need therapy,” my sister said. “Or a girlfriend.”

But what I really needed was time – the slow, immeasurable convalescence that comes with getting older, wiser, more mature, and to withstand the intellectual conditioning of college and graduate, the automation of office jobs, numerous cubicles, desk-top publishing, the morning commute, failed romantic relationships, a nervous breakdown, a death in the family, a root canal, unemployment, a recurring cold sore, weekends slouched over the classifieds, wondering how I would pay off my credit card debt. Over time, in the midst of everyday life, I completely forgot all about Christmas and how I hated it.

And this is how I came to love Christmas. Through the regular household task of making pancakes. It was a time in my life in which all extraordinary privileges had been rigorously swept away, leaving behind nothing more than the naked underlay of loneliness. I was unemployed, unshaven, living in a closet in a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, delinquent on my student loans, eating day-old potato bread, Ramen noodles, and on this particularly apathetic morning in dearly December, I was ruminating on the dietary constituents of Aunt Jemima pancakes – the cheapest of morning breakfasts (you just add water!). I had accidentally left a spatula on the stove with the burner on high, and, within seconds, the whole thing went up in flames with a dripping, oozing, pungent, chemical eruption like a bad high school science project. I hustled to the rescue, dousing the flames with a nearby glass of milk, suffocating what was left of the spatula with a dirty dishrag (oh the trials of bachelorhood). But the residual smell (a plastic, toxic, peppery aftertaste) was irrefutable and all too familiar – the smell of burnt tube socks. And, for some odd reason, this singular smell sent me into a tragic-comic-sentimental shock that was simultaneously mundane and supernatural. I was having an epiphany.

I did not jump up in with ecstatic salutations, shout “Eureka!” or levitate like a phantom ghost. But I was overcome with what I can only describe as That Creepy Christmas Feeling. This pertains to that prolonged, numbing, out-of-body experience you often encounter after weeks consuming egg nog, mild chocolate candies, fruit salad, cranberry sauce, entertaining family and friends, attending Christmas mass, trailblazing superstores for discount appliances, regurgitating small talk to second cousins, deconstructing the rhyme schemes on holiday greeting cards, cutting out coupons, watching animated Christmas cartoons on TV, having an allergic reaction to pine cones, breaking out in hives, and spending New Years Day in the emergency room with everyone too hung over to visit you. The muddy plastic malodor from a melted spatula (prompting that consequential memory of tube socks) induced all of this at once – like a drug overdose. They say that smells persuade memory more vividly than pictures or sound, that our olfactory system carries with it a catalog of sensory data that can, when stimulated, call to mind entire memories, histories, events, all kinds of valuable information once thought forgotten. What came over me was not just the inconsequential stench of footwear thrown in the fire, but a complete recollection of important events in my life, the good and the bad, the blessings and misfortunes, and inventory of calamities and a register of lucky breaks, fist fights, bear hugs, overturned Advent candles, digital wrist watches, chimney fires, ruby earrings, blue jeans, tennis shoes, mistletoe, my first kiss. And with all these things I came to comprehend the formation of genealogies, family histories, a genetic superstructure that could be used describe – in microcosmic terms – the order of the universe.

And at the very center of the universe I saw the Christ Child, an infant baby, helplessly crying, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger, trembling and suckling and cooing and burping and crying and laughing and giggling and spitting up breast milk all over the place. This was the mysterious incarnation of God, who came to Planet Earth not as a Divine Warrior or a Supernatural Sorcerer or an Army of Alien Androids, but as a helpless newborn baby, probably not much bigger than a six pack of acrylic tube socks. Or maybe a twelve pack.

jellema / petersen / rilke / l'engle / Klug | joseph & mary

He could squint along forty foot beams
And catch the gentlest wayward drift toward a curve
That no one else saw. His calloused, pitch stained hands
Would tenderly stroke the flush seams of a perfect joint.
We used to see him astride his unwavering rafters,
Tall as the echoing blows of his worshipping arms,
Looking with pride on the loving work of his mitred,
Four square world. He always looked sharply to see
If some sinning board in somebody's house were off square,
And longed to redeem it with the righteous tongue of his plane.

She looks at me, pale and ghostly, even
though she stands full in the evening light
outside my shop door. The hammer
in my hand drops to the ground,
she fills me with such terror:
the innocent delight of her eyes gone out,
those gentle hands which she could hold
the world in wring and twist
over her stomach in the folds of her dress,
and the delicately proud line of her body—
where has it gone, stooped as if spent
from a sickness?

Her eyes drift to the ground
where earth-shaking news takes shape
in the carpet of splintered wood and nails.


MARY: Please listen and hear me out,

JOSEPH: her voice
that has so many times quickened my heart
with the lightness of a star, so heavy now.
Mary, what—
She takes my hand, draws me closer
and places my callused palm
over a bulge in her stomach.
Is it—

MARY: You must believe—

JOSEPH: How did this—

--what I need to say…
then do what you will.

My face flushes to feel this growing
in her. I try to sit, and stumble
against a pile of boards that fall
in a clattering heap,
repeating the shattering announcement
down the streets, through the open windows
and doors of the torpid town; women and
children passing by glance in bewilderment,
Reuben the blacksmith stops his clanging
three doors down.
I beg her to come inside,
my throat tight, so dry I cannot speak.
I try to think, to bring substance
to the dizzying rush
of incomprehension in my skull.
Your trip south, was it then? I ask,
That you met… that it happened?

MARY: I haven’t slept with anyone.

JOSEPH: Just tell me who.

It wasn’t that way.
An angel came to me—

JOSEPH: An angel came to you!

MARY: Joseph…

JOSEPH: Go! Get out!
That night in bed I stare into the dark,
do not sleep, her voice that was not her own,
her words haunting me, my Mary,
visions of her betrayal mocking me:
strange hands in her dark, velvet hair,
her skin so tender against his,
her warm breath
on his face, lips, limbs merging—
Was it awkward, timid?
or yearning and confident?
I try to cry but cannot,
the wound too deep, and burning,
twisting, knotting.

SONG: You've Got To Hide Your Love Away

ANGEL. And the angel, taking due pains, told
the man who clenched his fists:
But can't you see in her robe's every fold
that she is cool as the Lord's morning mists?
But the other, gazing gloomily, just murmured:

JOSEPH. What is it has wrought this change in her?

ANGEL. Then cried the angel to him:
Carpenter, can't you see that God is acting here?
Because you plane the planks, in your pride would
you really make the Lord God answerable
who unpretentiously from the same wood
makes the leaves burst forth, the young buds swell?

JOSEPH. He understood that.

ANGEL. And now as he raised
his frightened glance toward the angel who
was gone already...


It was from Joseph first I learned
Of love. Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
Me from his house; but, unafraid,
He put me not away from him
(O God sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.

The Child's first cry came like a bell:
God's Word aloud, God's Word in deed.
The angel spoke: so it befell,
And Joseph with me in my need.
O Child whose father came from heaven,
To you another gift was given,
Your earthly father chosen well.

With Joseph I was always warmed
And cherished. Even in the stable
I knew that I would not be harmed.
And, though above the angels swarmed,
Man's love it was that made me able
To bear God's Love, wild, formidable,
To bear God's Will, through me performed.

Sleep now, little one.
I will watch while you and your mother sleep.
I wish I could do more.
This straw is not good enough for you.
Back in Nazareth I'll make a proper bed for you
of seasoned wood, smooth, strong, well‑pegged.
A bed fit for a carpenter's son.

Just wait till we get back to Nazareth.
I'll teach you everything I know.
You'll learn to choose the cedarwood, eucalyptus, and fir.
You'll learn to use the drawshave, ax, and saw.
Your arms will grow strong, your hands rough ‑‑ like these.
You will bear the pungent smell of new wood
and wear shavings and sawdust in your hair.

You'll be a man whose life centers
on hammer and nails and wood.
But for now,
sleep, little Jesus, sleep.

SONG: Golden Slumbers

assembled from excerpts from the following (in order of appearance);
Four-Square, by Roderick Jellema
Joseph's Night Watch, by Karl Petersen
Joseph's Suspicion, by Rainer Maria Rilke
O Sapientia, by Madeleine L'Engle
Joseph's Lullaby, by Ron Klug

Thursday, December 14, 2006

David Kossoff, "Seth"

My father and my grandfather were shepherds. It is a thing that runs in families. My sons own their own farms and their own sheep, but that is progress. I always looked after other people's sheep. That was not unusual when I was younger. We were looked down on, I suppose, for often we had to work every day, ignoring the sabbath, and with so many priests among the people, we were often told we were breaking the law. Though where the priests would have got their perfect lambs for sacrifice without us I don't know. They could be very rude the priests especially the young silly ones. It's the same today, and not just with priests: people speak before they think. That's one good thing about looking after sheep: you get into the habit of keeping quiet. If you have to use words, you take your time to get them right. Words are important.

People often tell me that mine was a dull life. Well, maybe. I like to watch the night sky, the moon and the stars. Once I saw, at night, a sight that very few have seen. Just once, but once was enough for any man. If a priest is rude to me, I always say to myself, It doesn't matter. I had that night, and you didn't.

I was about nineteen at the time, and although it's now about fifty years ago, I remember it like yesterday. On this night I'm talking about, we'd met up where we usually did, on the side of quite a big hill. We'd had a bite to eat and drink and were sitting talking. Around us our hundreds of sheep. All normal and usual and quiet. Very restful and quiet, those talks at night. It was a dark night.

Then there was a sort of stillness and a feeling of change, of difference. We all felt it. I had a friend called Simon, and he first noticed what the change was. It was the light. There was a sort of paleness. It was a dark night, but suddenly it wasn't so dark. We began to see each others faces very clearly in a sort of silvery, shimmering light. We seemed surrounded and enclosed in a great glow. It was the purest light I ever saw. The sheep were white as snow. Then as our eyes began to ache with it, just farther up the hill from us the glow seemed to intensify and take shape, and we saw a man. Like us but not like us. Taller, stiller. Though we were still enough, God knows.

He looked at us and we looked at him. We waited for him to speak. It didn't seem right we all felt it for any of us to speak first. He took his time as though to find the right words and then he began to tell us what he called good news of great joy. Of a new born baby, born in David's town. A baby sent by God to save the world, to change things, to make things better. He told us where to go and find the baby and how to recognise him. And to tell other people the good news. His own pleasure in telling us filled us with joy: we shared his pleasure, if you follow me. Then he stopped speaking and became two. Then four, then eight, and in a second there seemed to be a million like him. Right up the hill and on up into the sky. A million. And they sang to us. Glory to God, they sang, And on earth peace to all men. It was wonderful. It came to an end and then they were gone. EVery single one, and we felt lonely and lost.

Then Samuel, who was the eldest of us, said "Come, let us go and find the baby. David's town, the angel said: Bethlehem. In a manger. In swaddling clothes. And off we went. We ran, we sang, we shouted, we were important, we'd been chosen. We were special. We were on a search. We had to find a baby.

And we did find him. We were led there. There was no searching, we were led, and we saw for ourselves. Not much to see, perhaps. A young mother and her husband and a newly born baby. Born in a stable because all the inns were full. Poor people they were. The man was a carpenter.

Well, we did as we'd been told. We spread the word, and people did get excited. But not for long. Nothing lasts. We shepherds were heroes for a while, but then everyone knew the story. It was old news. Soon we were just shepherds again, doing a dull job. But we were different from all the rest: we'd had that night. I don't talk about it much any more, but it keeps me warm. I was there.

by David Kossoff,
from The Book Of Witnesses

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frederick Buechner, "Gabriel"

She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. "You mustn't be afraid, Mary," he said.

As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.

Frederick Buechner, "Emmanuel"

Christmas is not just Mr. Pickwick dancing a reel with the old lady at Dingley Dell or Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm.

On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell. Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for "God with us." That's where the problem lies.

The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place "the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity" came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy. Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. A dream as old as time. If it is true, it is the chief of all truths. If it is not true, it is of all truths the one that people would most have be true if they could make it so.

Maybe it is that longing to have it be true that is at the bottom even of the whole vast Christmas industry the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the plastic figures kneeling on the floodlit lawns of poorly attended churches. The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.

Emmanuel. We all must decide for ourselves whether it is true. Certainly the grounds on which to dismiss it are not hard to find. Christmas is commercialism. It is a pain in the neck. It is sentimentality.

It is wishful thinking. The shepherds. The star. The three wise men. Make believe.

Yet it is never as easy to get rid of as all this makes it sound. To dismiss Christmas is for most of us to dismiss part of ourselves. It is to dismiss one of the most fragile yet enduring visions of our own childhood and of the child that continues to exist in all of us. The sense of mystery and wonderment. The sense that on this one day each year two plus two adds up not to four but to a million.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

Emmanuel. Emmanuel.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

David Kossoff, "Shem"

I'm not a religious man, you understand, and I didn't have much in the way of an education, but I'm not young and I've travelled a lot and listened a lot and you learn, you know, you learn. I was born in Samaria in the same year that Herod became King. Herod the Great he was called. Well, maybe he was great. He didn't do much for us in Samaria. All right, we are a mixed lot but we are not lepers. Our law is based on the same rules as the rest of Israel. The Law of Moses. One of those Laws is that the children shouldn't suffer for the sins of the fathers. That's a joke. All my life I've suffered for some nonsense generations ago about my people wanting to help in the rebuilding of the Great Temple and being refused because our religion wasn't holy enough. You'd have thought a few extra gods and idols would have made it more religious. And Samaritans are good builders. My family have been joiners and carpenters for a long time. I think that's what first drew me to Joseph.

I'm a journeyman; I work anywhere. My tools are my luggage. When I first met Joseph and his little family in Bethlehem it was the first time I'd ever been there and I've worked all over; Phoenicia, Syria, Parthia, Egypt. Not a big place, Bethlehem. One big inn, a decent synagogue, a meeting hall. Anyway, this inn had been damaged by some sort of religious demonstration. There'd been crowds of people who'd broken things off for souvenirs. A lot of the timber in the stables needed replacing. I heard about it and was taken on. I found a room on the edge of the town. And met Joseph, who lived next door. When he told me he was also a joiner, I told him about the inn and he smiled and said he'd like to help with the repairs. So I put in a word for him and we worked together.

Very quiet man he was. His wife was younger. Her name was Mary. They had a baby boy. Joseph and I worked together for some weeks before I told him I was a Samaritan.
"Oh," he said. "I've never been in Samaria. Will you eat with us this evening?"

One night I got in very late. It was pay night and I like a drink. The street was quiet and dark. As I got ready for bed, Joseph knocked on my door.
"Can you help us?" he said. "We have to leave right away."
We went next door. Mary was packing and the baby was fast asleep in his crib.
"We have been told by God to go down to Egypt. Right away. Tonight. We know nothing of long journeys. Please help us."

I went next door and packed my tools. We were out of the place in an hour. We joined a trade caravan of merchants and we kept to ourselves. If people got too inquisitive I used rough talk and said loudly I was a Samaritan. That got rid of them. Sins of the fathers can be very useful sometimes.

Now you might ask why did I go with them. Well, there was nothing heroic in it. I've moved around working in different places all my life. And Joseph had hardly been out of his town. Also we were both joiners, and carpenters can pick up work anywhere if you know the way. Another thing, as I told you, I'm a Samaritan, which at that time, thirty five years ago, just before Great Herod died, was the same as being a leper nearly. No one had a good word for you. You walked by yourself. Well, Joseph was an orthodox Jew and he accepted me like a brother and so did Mary. Even the baby liked me. I was one of the family. Of course I went with them. I looked after them.

We stayed with no one long, for Joseph and Mary were afraid. My gentle friend, who never raised his voice, was a wanted man. Mad King herod himself was after him. Well, not him so much as the baby. I don't know all the ins and outs of it even now, but somehow or other Joseph and Mary had got an early warning that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys under two in Bethlehem. They were not hysterical people, and when they went I went with with them, but I didn't really believe such a thing would happen. But it did. We heard about it. Mary wept for days, and Joseph was quieter even than usual.

We didn't go deep into Egypt. We stayed this side of the great delta of the Nile and found a little house in a village. There was enough work round about and the village people were used to travellers. Joseph never spoke much. Once, when I said I'd no idea how he knew about the order to kill the babies, he said, "I didn't know. I was told in a dream by an angel of God to leave immediately. My little son was given to Mary by God. I did as I was told." He was quite serious. I made a sort of joke, I remember. I said, "Well, when the angel tells us to go back home, let me know I'm not too fond of Egypt." Joseph laughed.

I forget now exactly how long we lived in the village but one morning I came down and Joseph had the little boy on his knee. Mary was my the stove, Joseph smiled.
"Good morning," he said. "We can go home."
"Another angel?" I said.
"Same one.' said Joseph. "Herod is dead. It is safe now."

Well, it wasn't so safe really. There'd been riots and disturbances and mass executions, so he would not go back to Bethlehem, but farther north to Galilee, where it was more peaceful. He knew Galilee, he came from Nazareth, and that is where we finished up.

I went with them and helped them find a place and get it fixed up, but then I moved on. Nazareth was a very religious, very orthodox place. Joseph fitted in well, me not at all. I was sorry to go. I saw them from time to time. Then I worked in Syria and Cyprus for a long time and lost touch. But I think of that time often.

by David Kossoff
from The Book Of Witnesses

Rudi Krause, "unforeseen"

angels incognito
step from the airplane
unnoticed they ride taxis
into town

they have come
to take over
our daily paper

and we think
they reside
in our attics

rudi krause

Rudi Krause, "one way"

minutes before the Son
caught the outgoing
one-way transport to Bethlehem
one of the angels slipped
a receiver into his inner ear

after the shepherds had stumbled
back out into the night
Jesus heard the whispered query:

whatever made you choose
a place like that?

heard, but didn’t hear
he had already forgotten
the language of the angels

rudi krause

Robert Farrar Capon, "Advent"

Advent is the church's annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for "blessed") of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favour: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer's fingernails. But no, it isn't any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he's got the package and we've got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers.

What we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

by Robert Farrar Capon,
from The Parables of Judgment, Chapter 12

Monday, December 11, 2006

Richard Osler, Advent poems (2006)

She Was Asked
(After Wilde )

In other stories the god comes
himself. Disguised as a shower
of gold, a swan. He takes
without asking. Then
he is gone. Mary was asked.
By an angel. With flowers.
Lilies. Bold, wide open.
Wouldn't anyone be flabbergasted
by such as he was. Preposterous.
Pregnant without intercourse, a son -
of God. Human and eternal. Three
in one. She was the one who
had to choose, blind to the final
outcome. We have always
Known her answer. She did not.

Richard Osler, Advent I, December 3rd 2006


Come O Come Emmanuel

Carrying God was she
Overshadowed with joy or dread? Or
Maybe she thought it just a dream.
Even so, she might still have wondered

Or, at least

Calculated the days until
Overcome with obvious signs
Mary remembered everything;
Even her acceptance of impossibility:

Mystery living in her.
Mary, mother-child
Now of what she chose
Under her heart –
Emmanuel – God With Us,
Love, living in darkness.

Richard Osler, Advent II, December 10th 2006


Troubled – Luke 1, Verse 29

You hear a voice telling you to risk everything,
even you’re your one carefully constructed life.
Sometimes it is like Mary carrying a promise

someone else has made and it lives inside you
as if it were yours but first you must claim it.
Will you welcome this angel whatever it is

that comes in the dark and talks against
all your thoughtful plans? Will you say ”yes?”
If you do there will be a journey, a difficult one,

a birth surrounded by strangers, and signs.
A baby to be honoured by kings. Such hope
wrapped up in something just that small.

Richard Osler, Advent III, December 17 2006


Puer Natus Est
(After Raine)

Power that comes
Undone on
Revolving round its star.

At his mother’s breast
Tugging against eternity

Even now, as
Star-maker, star-made within

Richard Osler, Advent IV, December 24th 2006

Annie Dillard, "Feast Days"

Let me mention
one or two things about Christmas.
Of course you've all heard
that the animals talk
at midnight:a particular elk, for instance,
kneeling at night to drink, leaning tall to pull leaves
with his soft lips, says, alleluia.

That the soil and fresh water lakes
also rejoice,
as do products
such as sweaters
(nor are plastics excluded from grace),
is less well known.
Further:the reason for some silly looking fishes,
for the bizarre mating
of certain adult insects,
or the sprouting, say
in a snow tire
of a Rocky Mountain grass,
is that the universal
loves the particular,
that freedom loves to live
and live fleshed full,
and in detail.

God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking wherever there is motion.

from Tickets For A Prayer Wheel
by Annie Dillard

Frederick Buechner, "The Annunciation"

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary," and that is the beginning of a story – a time, a place, a set of characters, and the implied promise, which is common to all stories, that something is coming, something interesting or significant or exciting is about to happen. And I would like to start out by reminding you that this is what Christianity is. If we whittle away long enough, it is a story that we come to at last. And if we take even the fanciest and most metaphysical kind of theologian or preacher and keep on questioning him far enough – Why is this so? All right, but why is thatso? Yes, but how do we know that it's so? – even he is forced finally to take off his spectacles and push his books off to one side and say, "Once upon a time there was...," and then everybody leans forward a little and starts to listen.

We want to know what is coming next. There was a young woman named Mary, and an agnel came to her from God, and what did he say? And what did she say? And then how did it all turn out in the end?

The story Christianity tells is one that can be so siimply told that we can get the whole thing really on a very small Christmas card or into two crossed pieces of wood. Yet in another sense it is so vast and complex that the whole Bible can only hint at it, a story beyond time altogether.

Yet it is also in time, the story of the love between God and man. There is a time when it begins, and therefore there is a time before it begins, when it is coming but not yet here, and this is the time Mary was in when Gabriel came to her. It is Advent: the time just before the adventure begins, when everybody is leaning forward to hear what will happen even though they already know what will happen and what will not happen, when they listen hard for meaning, their meaning, and begin to hear, only faintly at first, the beating of unseen wings.

from The Magnificent Defeat
by Frederick Buechner

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Christ Climbed Down"

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit / and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagon sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

William Nicholson, "Christmas Drinks Party"

RILEY. What I resent about Christmas is the general presumption of good will. I feel no good will towards my fellow men. I feel ill will.

LEWIS. It's got nothing to do with how you feel, Christopher. Feelings are far too unreliable.

RILEY. Maybe so, Jack, but they're very close to me. I'm very attached to my feelings. I won't hear a word against them. They're easily hurt.

HARRINGTON. I'm afraid Christmas is something of a lost cause, Jack.

LEWIS. That depends on how it's presented. If you tell people it's about peace in the world, and being kind to the poor and needy, then naturally nobody listens.

RILEY. Aha, the archcommunicator in action! Give us the sales pitch, Jack.

LEWIS. "Virgin Has Sex with Omnipotent Alien – Gives Birth To God."

RILEY. I've always thought the incarnation proves that God has a severely limited intellect. Who'd choose, voluntarily, to be human, when you have the option of staying safely divine?

LEWIS. Think of the magic, Christopher. The birth of a helpless, squealing creature who is also God. An all-powerful baby. Doesn't that satisfy your taste for the peculiar? It's the coming of new life in the heart of winter, when all the land is dead. The snow falls, and the trees are bare. All but one tree, which bears fruit. That's real magic.

from "Shadowlands"
by William Nicholson

Ron Reed, "Clay" (2005)

I've been feeling funny this year. Funny bad. Unsettled. It took Advent to show me what it was. To reveal my heart to me.

Something's been going on in me, something I don't like. It seems absurd to say so: in many ways it's been one of the best and most privileged years of my life. Who am I to say something's wrong? All I know is, a life is a big place, a human heart a complex one, and things can be great and not so great all at the same time. And underneath the fertile landscape of my life this year there's been running something subterranean, an underground stream of... Of what? Unease? A groundwater of disquiet?


When I was a kid we moved to a house on what was then the bare and distant outskirts of Calgary, shoebox houses clad in black tarpaper and wire mesh awaiting stucco. To the south, a dirt track that eventually evolved into Southland Drive; beyond that, open fields and gophers; beyond that, eventually, Montana. Our yard was made of the same stuff as the road: dirt, dry and hard-packed. Clay, I suppose.

But in the mind of my do-it-yourself father, a vision of oasis in that prairie wilderness, green shoots springing forth from a dry and dusty land where there was no water. Suburban Eden. But first, topsoil. But before topsoil...

I got paid twenty-five cents an hour – might not sound like much, but that was two DC comics and a Double Bubble every hour on the hour! – to stand outside, in faith, garden hose in hand, and water the lawn-to-be. To soak that clay until it gave way. Run the water over a patch of back yard for long enough and, wonder of wonders, it would begin to sink! To settle. To cave in, opening sometimes vast Grand Canyons of khaki-brown clay. Run water around the edges for long enough, and layer after layer of cliffside would sheer off and plummet to the muddy depths below.

Some of those crevasses were more than a mile deep, if I remember correctly. Of course, it was hard to get an accurate perspective, being only seven years old and finding myself piloting a helicopter above the Grand Canyon, the last hope in the universe to bring destruction upon invading hordes of giant ants, blood-crazed apaches and Nazi invaders, battling against time itself to bring to naught their nefarious plans by utilizing the only weapons available to me, my wits, my dedication, and deft and omnipowerful command of rivers and floods.

The best part? Sometimes, somehow the water would move under the earth, two or three feet below the surface, until another hole would begin to collapse on the other side of the yard. The earth would seem less firm, there would be an almost imperceptible depression, a pucker, and eventually that satisfying implosion.

Under the clay were air pockets. Caves, caverns, vast and empty chambers of subterranean darkness. How my dad knew of the hard earth and its secrets I've no idea, but he knew. He was an adult: in those days, grown-ups knew these things. That there was unsoundness there, a lack of integrity, and that if we didn't flush it out now, it would subvert us later: our fresh green lawn would suddenly open at our feet some day after a prairie downpour, or maybe Dianne and Bradley would be frolicking in the sprinkler when the earth would swallow them whole, Woolco bathing suits, bucolic innocence and all, a terrible swift judgement on the cheap grace of an over-hasty foliation. Sure the wilderness break forth, but only in due time: it is a foolish builder who neglects the earthy foundation on which he builds his Kentucky bluegrass dreams.


What's true of the earth is true of us who are made of it, spit and clay, and in these latter days I begin to wonder how badly I've neglected the ground of my soul, which lately seems to fall out from under my feet every once in a while. I find myself in a sudden muddy caved-in hole, peering out befuddled at fresh green grass all around, maybe some lovely pansies and prairie snapdragons at eye level, and my head peering up from a cold clay bunker that wasn't there ten seconds ago. "What on earth?" I'm going along fine, cheerfully cutting the grass or sipping sodas in a lazy lawnchair, then I'm in this hole. Guess I left the water running.

Crawling out of the fissures, I could dig up reasons for even for such unreasonable, unexpected, precipitous pitfalls. I spent four months straight this summer writing, I'm not used to the isolation, I got twisted in on myself. I was doing a new thing, an uncertain thing, and old dogs can panic when they can't rely on their old tricks. I would begin to count words and look at lists of films unwritten about and begin to realize I wouldn't have a book at the end of my time, and that such times are hard to come by, and so I'd never have a book, and it was all futile. (Paranoid writers....)

Once I'd lose my footing for those perfectly good reasons, I'd find myself plummeting into something yet deeper, hollowed out by the fact that my eldest daughter was on the antipodean other side of the planet, YWAMming her heart out downunder and I wouldn't see her again until Christmas. I knew it was for a limited time, but I was living what I'd dreaded since she was born: the day one of my girls would move away and leave a terrible gaping hole in me.

And that wasn't all. Those caves opened into caverns, the ground underfoot kept on sinking away. Because all this year, ever since that bloody HOTEL RWANDA, I've been thinking about Africa, an entire continent twisted in agony like a prisoner under torture. My other daughter went to South Africa and came back with the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped because the only way to get rid of AIDS is to have sex with a virgin, and then not being able to walk far enough to get the treatment she can't afford to stave off the flesh-eating, dignity-collapsing disease that now lives inside her. And I'm hearing this from my seventeen-year-old daughter, who ought to be thinking about grad dresses and boyfriends and shopping. And I can't even be bothered to fax off the occasional Amnesty Internation letter.

It's gotten to the point where I don't even dare look Jesus in the eye anymore. Ever since I met the guy as a teenager - I was the teenager - I've known He loves me regardless, Jesus doesn't expect me to measure up to any basic required levels of excellence for entry into his seminar, He knows that He's God and I'm not and He's not going to set Himself up for disappointment by expecting me to be the first human to walk on His green earth who deserves to.

But still. This year I've entered a time where that just doesn't wash any more. It's the foundation I've built on, it's always been the solid earth beneath my feet, this inescapable, ineluctible, unconditional grace. But lately my constant refrain of grace, grace, grace is starting to ring tinny, to sound cheap: that familiar ground doesn't always feel like it'll hold me up. Because where's that grace in the gospels? I can hardly read the damn things any more. If gentle Jesus meek and mild is in there someplace, I can't find him: I start to read and all I find is this tough bastard who figures the dead can bury their own dead, who despises comfort and prosperity, who throws in his lot with sick people and hookers. When's the last time I healed anybody, or even helped them die? How many streetwalkers have I hung with, or street people in general? What's any of that got to do with my middle class cosiness? In what single way does this life I've built for myself resemble the one that Jesus lived? If I met him face to face out on my driveway, What Would Jesus Do? He'd puke.

So I stand on one side of my green suburban lawn and way over on the other side stands the fifteen-year-old me who stumbled onto the gospels and found something more radical than Abbie Hoffman or Chairman Mao, he gazes across at me and shakes his head. Between us, this great, yawning chasm, a muddy clay pit where the bottom dropped out beneath my sweet-smelling, fresh-mown lawn, and off to the side the eight year old me, holding the garden hose and watching the satisfying muddy collapse of all that clay.


I'm not sure I would have connected any of this up together – the writing angst, the loneliness of a half-empty nest, the guilt about middle-aged compromise, this sudden personality change in my old buddy Jesus – if it weren't for Christmas, which is coming. (Like Jesus. "And boy is he pissed!")

I love Christmas with all my heart, I throw myself into it with a full and hungry heart year after year. The Spirit of the season strides out onto the stage of the year as a holy hypnotist, and I'm scrambling out of my seat to volunteer, and he always picks me: he can tell I'm one of the suggestible ones, a snap of his fingers and I'll be hanging stockings on chimneys and gorging myself on chocolates and turkey and over-priced oranges and planting trees in my living room.

This year there was an edge on it. Knowing about the subterranean sloshings of my soul that came before, I'm sure you can see why. Something mysterious and dark deep inside me knows I need Christmas this year. Not just want it, but really need it. Really really. Because of that mysterious thing going on way down inside there that I can't really name.

Except that Advent named it for me.


A few weeks back I'm driving down the road listening to a Christmas CD a friend made for me, and there's this one tune, more Advent than Christmas, an ear-catching and off-kilter Over The Rhinish rearrangement of "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." Fact is, I'd begun to obsess on it, as if something in me knew there was something in there for me. Simple resonant guitar sound and the gorgeous, healing directness of this woman's voice, and then my eyes are stinging and my throat's tight and I wonder if I should pull over. "Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee..." And then the Fender Rhodes spashes in something like bells, Rick's brushes breathe into the song like a whispered "Amen," and I know the angel's in the car with me, giving me a name for what's been eroding the earth beneath my feet.


Somehow this year I got scared. Oh, my nerve held out – you'd never know on the surface, hell, I never knew. But fear got hold of me somehow, and it's been eating holes in me way down inside there. Fear that my daughter is gone forever, fear that her sister will be gone soon, too. Fear that I write in vain, fear that I live in vain. Fear for the people in Africa who live in dark, dark fear. Fear of the darkness in men's hearts that inflicts that fear, and fear that it lives in my own. Fear that my Jesus looks at me in disgust, or at the very least disappointment. Fear that the ground will fall out from under my feet.

It's a dangerous world, and I'm afraid.

And then comes Carolyn Arends' inspired, divinely inspired, song. With that refrain, over and over like it is in the narratives of Jesus' birth, "Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, Love has found its way to you, do not be afraid."

Why not, I wonder? But it's not a question there's an answer for, or it's not the right question, or it's already been answered. And I know I don't need it answered: I need only hear what I'm being told, and to try to heed. "Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, Love have found its way to you, do not be afraid."

And in my mind's ear I hear Carolyn's voice, winsome, confident, wise and confiding, winking through that childlike, quasi-goofy little rhyme;
"Shepherds watch their flocks by night guarding against danger
Suddenly there was a blinding light and then things got even stranger..."

And then the shock of that next rhyme that trips you up because it isn't one;
"Angels in the sky far as the eye could see
Singing "Christ is born, oh and one more thing...
Do not be afraid..."

The angels spoke, and I intend to obey.

It doesn't give me answers to my questions. Is it just fine that my comfy middle class life bears no discernible resemblance to the one Jesus led, or do things have to change? I don't know. Is it enough that I write my book, put on my little plays, paint my icons while fearsome Tartar hordes burn it all down around me? I don't know. What are those holes in me that lately seem to want to cave in? What's the water that caves them? I don't know. Will my book ever be finished? Will anyone publish it, will anyone read it, does it matter at all? I don't know. How will I go on when my daughters go? Will all the rest of it seem like ash, and mud pits? I don't know.

But this much I do know. God sent an angel to speak to my fear, a choir of them to sing it to me, that much I do know. I'm not supposed to be afraid.

So for now, I'm going to just sit here for a while beside this manger and watch the little baby they put in it. Maybe when Christmas is over, something in me needs to change, or to continue the changing that's begun: maybe a baby Jesus faith has to grow up into a man Jesus faith: maybe there's a costlier discipleship ahead. Or maybe nothing needs to change, that was just fear speaking. It may well be that all grace after all. I just don't know.

But what I do know is, tonight, in this barn here, I'm not supposed to be afraid. The angel came – to Mary, to the hillside, into my car – to announce that perfect love has come. And perfect love, as we all know, casteth out fear.

by Ron Reed (December 2005)