Sorry friends. This Advent post is late cause I’ve been down all week with the crud. I don’t feel particularly inspired to write about Joy this week. My parents have been living with me since Thanksgiving, my husband always gets slammed at work before break and then I’m sick on top of it all. I’m not particularly in the mood for Joy. I’m not particularly in the mood for Christmas.
But Joy isn’t necessitated by comfort or even happiness. It’s possible to be joyful in the shadows. Music can do that for us. One of the greatest books I read this year was Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Cain’s impetus for writing the book was her curiosity around why sad songs were so pleasurable for her. Why do most of us revel in things that awaken longing in us? Cain’s answer is in her title, it connects us with our full humanity.
I think this is what the story of Jesus’ birth does for us, it awakens us to our deep longing. I’ve been doing some reflection around Jesus’ birth this Advent that includes some reimagining, and the questions that come up in this time have expanded my vision of the story. First, as I lingered on all the people that followed the stars to find the Messiah new born and sleeping in a manger I thought, “what did they see in this gurgling baby?” It wasn’t like he was glowing-radio-active baby Jesus. Or he started talking and acting like an adult as if he was a Jewish Chucky doll. No, I think they lowered their heads and offered him gifts not because he was any different than any other baby, but because they were different. They were marked with a longing for things to be different. A longing for freedom and justice and renewal. They wanted the system that they felt trapped in to be subverted and they believed, they hoped, that this baby would grow up to be their savior.
When we listen to protest songs, this longing is awakened in us. The longing for communal salvation. Political. Spiritual. All of it. Last week I talked about how Mary’s Magnificat is an Advent protest song. I kinda think all Christmas carols should be songs of protest, songs of longing. And lots of them are.
And they fill His churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in Him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if anyone of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There's a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus
I adore this song by Jackson Browne. It’s one of those criticize-what-you-love songs. Not super uplifting but man, I think there’s Joy there. He sings with love and grace and truth. He holds a mirror up to us not saying that we’re bad, but saying we can do better. We can be more like Jesus. Like this song says,
Gather us together. Bring this world back. Back to the simplicity. Back to the kindness. Back to the mercy. Back to the humility. Back to the manger.
-Back to the Manger, Rob Mathes
This is one of my favorite Christmas albums, only topped by Rob’s live Christmas album called “Christmas is Coming” which is out of print. You can find it on ebay sometimes.
Rob is a musical genius composer, arranger, musical director who has worked with pretty much every major recording artist around. But the awesome vision he has of Christmas always awakens the longing in me. Listen to William the Angel, a story about an angel who desperately wants to save one last soul before returning to heaven. William’s story becomes a narrative in the album. Rob’s voice and William’s merge as William sings Good News and One Small Glimpse. Like in Marie Howe’s poetry or a Madeline L’Engle tesseract, time is dissolved between old and new narratives. William starts out sitting on a yellow line in the middle of the street picked up by a police officer, but ends bearing witness to the birth of Christ.
The longing then is the same as the longing now. It is what makes us human. It’s what makes Joy possible. It’s what makes incarnational reality possible. This morning Richard Rohr’s daily meditation entitled The Fullness of Our Humanity is an excerpt from Fr. Greg Boyle’s The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. Father Greg Boyle is the Founder of Homeboy Industries, which offers jobs, services, and dignity to former gang members.
“This is how we find this other kind of stride and joyful engagement in our cherished reality. The holy rests in every single thing. Yes, it hovers, over our crazy asses. . . .
I always liked that Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s name “Tekakwitha” means “she who bumps into things.” What if holiness is a contact sport and we are meant to bump into things? This is what it means to embrace a contemplative, mystical way of seeing wholeness. It gives a window into complexity and keeps us from judging and scapegoating and demonizing. If we allow ourselves to “bump into things,” then we quit measuring. We cease to Bubble-Wrap ourselves against reality. We stop trying to “homeschool” our way through the world so that the world won’t touch us. Hard to embrace the world . . . if we are so protective and defensively shielded from it.
Yet God is inviting us to inhabit the fullness of our humanity. God holds out wholeness to us. Let’s not settle for just spiritual. We are sacramental to our core when we think that everything is holy. The holy not just found in the supernatural but in the Incarnational here and now. The truth is that sacraments are happening all the time if we have the eyes to see. . . .
The point of the Incarnation is that Jesus is one of us in the ordinary. Jesus is God’s declaration that the Infinite is present in it all. . . .
Our mystical “diving in” is at the heart of the Incarnation. Jesus ONLY referred to himself as the Son of Man, which means the Human One. It must be important. It shows up eighty-seven times in the Bible. “Never say it’s not God,” if it’s human, in the flesh, and ever-present.”
Jesus is God’s declaration that the Infinite is present in it all..
My favorite song of Rob’s is not on the Christmas album though he sang it at his Christmas concert. I love it for a lot of reasons. First because he wrote it after seeing August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars. This scene in particular was the inspiration.
How astoundingly beautiful is that scene?
I asked him, “How?” He say, “Listen.” I didn’t hear her. But I learned it and I used to sit and play and try to hear her. Once. Maybe. Almost.
The longing to hear our mothers pray again. Rooting for their voices. When Hedley plays his one string instrument to summon the prayers of his ancestors it’s the Holy, as Fr. Greg writes, the sacramental happening all the time if we have eyes to see or ears to hear.
A Collection of Stories
Another one of my imaginings this Advent was around the actual birth of Jesus. Here in my meditation I placed myself in service to Mary as she travelled to Bethlehem for the census:
I walk behind a donkey that Mary lies over. The pains are coming quicker. Joseph walks up to the Inn. “Busy but not full.” The Innkeeper hears Mary’s cry of pain and quickly changes his mind. Joseph starts to argue but behind the Innkeeper, his wife peeks out pushing him aside.
“I have a better idea,” she says.
She sends the men to clear out the barn and sends her daughter to get blankets.
As I help Mary to the barn which is big and warm and private enough for her screams, the women from the Inn come in to set the scene. They bring candle light and comfort.
The men wait outside.
Inside, I hold Mary in my arms and let her squeeze my hand. Between her legs the Innkeeper’s wife guides the baby’s head. Someone else is wiping Mary’s face. Another woman is singing softly. Jesus is born into a room full of women. As he cries for the first time, it is women who hear and comfort him. These women who at once erupt into tears and laughter and celebration because every child born is worth celebrating. It is a woman who wipes off the blood and cuts the cord. The Innkeeper’s daughter wraps Jesus in one of her old dresses, swaddling him and laying him on his mother’s chest where he roots for her breast and all she has to give him.
Why isn’t this scene in the story?
Probably because if a man wasn’t there it didn’t happen. No wonder the women mystics were given to visions. Teresa her castle. Julian her hazelnut. Hildegard her illuminations.
To get to the heart of the narrative, the Joy at the heart of the story, all we need to do is close our eyes and listen and once..maybe… almost we hear the beating of our own longing and bow our heads in the presence of the child.
Well friends, this is my third year installment for Substack at Christmas! Two years I’ve been writing and it has been really joyful to connect with you in this way. Most of you know that substack is a paid subscription platform. And while someday I may announce I will start offering subscriptions, today is not that day. BUT - substack does have a new feature which allows you to pledge a subscription which means you can tell me that IF I were to start offering subscriptions, you’d be game for buying one. Just good information and affirmation for me. 🥰
So if you’d like to let me know that this newsletter has been a source of goodness to you, I’d love it if you’d think about pledging a subscription.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and may you all find Hope, Peace, Love and Joy this Holiday season.
Also, I can't find where to pledge a subscription, but if you ever do start offering them, sign me up.
Reading this was like opening a chest full of treasure. The readings and your reflection are beautiful, and I can't wait to listen to all the music. Thank you for gifting all this. I have definitely felt longing this Christmas and these help me put voice to that.