As we move toward the already-and-not-yet of Advent, we celebrate Christ's birth so long ago even as we know that Christ must be born in us again and again. Countless artists over the centuries have portrayed Advent themes and scenes; these block prints by Mary Allison Cates weave together the personal and the political with scenes of destruction and turmoil, juxtaposed with the image of a pregnant woman looking on as her child grows within her.
The quote from James Agee ties the images together: "In every child who is born, the potentiality of the human race is born again, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward life, and the utmost idea of God."
According to the artist, "New life happens, even in the face of global warming, war, poverty, and interpersonal conflict. May our saving Lord Jesus Christ be born in us again this Advent season, so that we may respond to our broken world by creating a way of peace."
I am a pastor and am also a mother of two delightful girls. Most days I can make those two professions work together pretty well, some days - not so much. My main coping mechanisms are coffee and humor. My main ally in this endeavor is my husband of 10 years. We are fairly relaxed parents. You know the type: We are the ones whose toddler eats right off the floor, while not wearing any socks. We are the ones whose six-year-old is wearing a pink paisley shirt, with a turquoise butterfly pattern skirt, pink polka dot socks and fancy fake high heels (‘high’ shoes is what we call them around here), despite the Wisconsin winter temperatures dipping into the low double digits.
This relaxed attitude about parenting has made my balancing act of life a little easier. I think this attitude started when my first born began attending school with me. I was a full-time student three and a half years into a four year M.Div. program when Meg was born (just in time to be baby Jesus in the Festival of Lessons and Carols). I took two weeks off completely and then finished the semester taking my exams and writing papers. Since I couldn’t imagine taking the whole next semester off, when February rolled around and classes started, I popped Meg into a sling and off we went. She slept and nursed and got passed around a lot. I often left her in one person’s arms and returned later to find she was ten sets of arms down the row.
Six degrees of separation. Some of you may be familiar with this phrase from a movie with that title. Some of you may have played the “Six degrees of separation” game. The game challenges you to figure out if you are 6 degrees or less away from Kevin Bacon! This means you and Kevin are linked through friends . . . and friends of friends. So if you and Kevin were to compare lists of friends and acquaintances, before long you’d be connected: just a few people between you and Mr. Bacon himself. Kinda spooky.
We live in a world in which we are just six handshakes away from anyone else. Chances are that you don’t personally know any Australian police officers, the Chancellor of Germany, or a member of the English Parliament. But! Maybe you know someone whose cousin studied abroad in Australia and had a run-in with the police. Or maybe you know a German professor here who knows someone who’s related to someone whose friend works for the German government. You get the idea. Basically, many believe that every person on the planet is separated from everyone else by a chain of about six people.
Picture, if you will, a group of buddies preparing to go out and raise a glass to celebrate the holiday of your choice. One of the more responsible friends asks, “So, who's going to be the designated driver?” And then...silence sweeps away the talking and laughter as each person looks at the others, trying to decide whose turn it is to take on this necessary holiday role.
Flip to a scene of Thanksgiving or Christmas festivities with family and friends gathered around, laughing and joking, preparing to finally chow down on turkey and stuffing and pie, until one lone person raises the question: “So, who's going to say grace?” And the entire room falls silent in an attempt to de-volunteer. Another holiday role emerges, less public but just as valuable: the designated pray-er.
For twenty-five years, my Christmas Eves remained much the same from year to year. My parents, siblings, assorted other relatives, and I would gather to consume a massive feast. We would sing Christmas carols in harmony. We would eat more food, and open piles of presents. The house would be bright with colored lights and sparkling tinsel, and loud with laughter and music. We would go to bed late and awake early for the opening of even more gifts, and of course more food.
My Christmas Eves are a little different these days. I generally spend the day in front of my computer, finishing the sermon I’ll preach for the biggest crowd of the year. No pressure, of course. As my family digs into dinner, I pass candles around a church 1,500 miles away. After leading the last worship service, I meander back to my dog and a darkened house - because I usually haven’t had time to hang up lights or other Christmas decorations during the rush of Advent; it’s a very good year if I manage a tree. I heat up some leftovers, pour a glass of wine, pop in a movie, and collapse on the couch. Then I wake up on Christmas Day and...go back to sleep as long as possible.
You may have noticed that the Young Clergy Women Project, which publishes Fidelia's Sisters, claims to be powered by "verve, faith, chocolate, and really great shoes." Some have asked, "Why shoes?" Well, I can't speak for all young clergy women. I can, however, speak for myself.
For a long time, in my mind, pointe shoes were the only shoes that mattered. In high school, I tried brand after brand, make after make, looking for something that would flatter my woefully flat arches. I finally found Freeds of London. I religiously ordered shoes from a particular cobbler, whose mark was stamped on the bottom of my sole. That brand and make of shoes accompanied me through hours of class, rehearsals, and performances. I spent a lot of time breaking them in and keeping them in good shape. They transformed me into Sleeping Beauty; they turned me into the Dew Drop Fairy. They were my most important material possession. Oddly, my attitude towards all other shoes was as indifferent as my attitude towards pointe shoes was obsessive. In high school and college, I wore the same old school vans day in and day out (Hey, it was the 90s; don't judge me). The object was comfort and little else.
The silence of my prayer was replaced with the noise of the narthex. The hymns were sung. The people were blessed. And now, it was time to share in the joy of being together as the congregation participates in the exodus from the sanctuary to the promise of the Parish Hall.
Babies wake up from the sermon, and the silence fades. The squeals of the children just released from Sunday School nearly drown out the mutterings of “good sermon” and “thank you for worship.” Familiar faces sojourn to coffee hour while insisting I must remember their names. My laughter mixes with the hesitant laughter of visitors. Hands are held. Hugs linger too long. Shoulders are touched. The silence disappears.
Only for a moment, the silence disappears. Only for a moment, there is a clamor of giggling children and a racket of slurping adults. The clatter continues until the Parish Hall empties and I am left to lock the doors.
And then it becomes silent and still once again. My distress grows worse, and my heart becomes hot with me as the silence returns. This silence is not like the stillness of prayer. Those are moments that I crave. I need that respite from the insistence of so many demands screaming incessantly. I need that sacred time to be still and know that God is in the silence. This is precious silence. It is not the same silence that greets me with the click of the lock in the church doors.
I love Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her books, loosely autobiographical—about a young girl who explored the West with her pioneer family—were the basis for games my friends would play during every 2nd and 3rd grade recess. We fought over who got to play Laura, her blind older sister Mary, or the darling younger sister Carrie. We made boys pretend to be wolves and guarded our “homes” against them.
We never got so involved in
the game that we developed costumes, but if we had, this women’s clergy
blouse from Wippell
would have served the purpose nicely.