Advent: Waiting

I wrote this six years ago when I was pregnant with Margaret.

talk to me about the waiting…

mostly I crouch, head bowed, eyes closed
against the soft black, safe in liquid suspense.
but even in the nothing there are constant somethings:
a fluid symphony, simmering, rolling, rushing past;
a metronome beating out the time,
world without end—and a voice:
hushed murmur, burbling laugh,
distant yet irresistible.

and then, at certain times,
I am bathed in thirsty, throaty songs:
o come, o come,
long-expected one;
rejoice, rejoice,
prepare the way;
comfort, comfort,
alleluia, amen.
and these reverberations of hope
shake the cradle that holds me,
and I stretch the kinks out of kneeling legs,
raise my arms in praise,
then bow and wait, again,
for that time when we will sing
To the World!

Let’s Argue about Advent/Christmas Music Again

(Prepare away, but a little "Away in the Manger" never hurt anybody either.)

I got a comment yesterday on a post I wrote a year ago defending Christmas carols in Advent. Wow! These posts really do hang around forever.

I looked at them again and mostly stand by what I wrote. Here is the whole string of posts:

First, I detected a genuine longing for Christmas, beyond some grabby-greedy-gimme kind of consumerist thing, and wondered if other people were feeling that too. (For what it’s worth, I don’t feel that same urgency for the Christmas message that I did last year at this time… you?)

Next, I unpacked some of the tensions between Advent and Christmas hymns and mounted a theological defense for singing Christmas carols in December.

Finally, I looked at some non-theological reasons for the same… some of them more substantive than others.


Actually, you guys argue—I have a book to finish.

And if you’d like a soundtrack for your discussion, may I recommend Peter Mayer’s Midwinter—beautiful Adventy stuff there, with a bit of Christmas thrown in. These are all original songs—no chestnuts roasting on an open fire here.

Indeed, his song “Where is the Light?” is a perfect example of an Adventish song that has a celebratory, upbeat tone—which is something I talk about in my second post.


Several years ago I wrote a series of poems inspired by verses of Christmas carols. Since I won’t be blogging this weekend, I’ve set these to post every so often instead. Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

This one was inspired by “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and a VERY foggy day we had that year.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

the heavenly music floats high, high enough
to catch sunlight,
its pure white patches—
distant through naked trees—
puffed and fat with trumpets,
or combed into pianissimo wisps.

and it came to pass
that the weary world reached up,
snagged the misty amens,
clutched them close
until puffs of angel song
pooled in the valleys of chill,
got tangled in gnarled branches
making the weary wonderful,
a suburb sublime.

you couldn’t see the fog all around you
but you knew you must be in it
because it rested like a lead apron, a comfort
as you gulped down each damp chord
thinking yes, this is what we begged for.

Love All—A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Love All” is the final theme of the four-week Advent Conspiracy study. It’s been an interesting challenge to connect those themes with the lectionary texts each week. This is how I did it today.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 19, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:18-25

Love All

For many long nights he had tossed and turned, gripped by his dilemma. The truth was, he loved Mary. He didn’t understand what had happened; she was such a level-headed young woman, but this… this story, about an angel and the Holy Spirit and a pregnancy. It would have been easier if she had just said there was another man.

It was an agonizing situation. He dared not tell anyone, instead going about his work as a carpenter. You know—to get his mind off this nightmare. Just keep working on nice tangible things. A table. A chair. Sturdy, concrete things. But it at night, his plight loomed once again, and there was no escaping it.

There were two options that Joseph could see. Well, three.

His first option was to report Mary. Make it public. If he did that, she could be stoned to death. That’s what the letter of the law would suggest. She was pregnant, the child wasn’t his, it was an open and shut case.

…It was warm this time of year, but he shuddered under the wool blanket to think of it.

The second option was to quietly call off the engagement. Mary’s life would be spared, but their life together would be over. Other men had done it. Other men had realized that the letter of the law was cruel and bloodthirsty. Other men had quietly dismissed their wives or fiancées for adultery. It was a lesser punishment than death but still serious. And he would be free to marry another and live a nice, comfortable life in obscurity once he’d put that whole mess behind him.

The third option was to go ahead and marry her… but that wasn’t really an option at all. Joseph was righteous. It would have been a disgrace to his honor to go on as if nothing had happened. And if, by some slim chance, Mary’s story was true, well, what kind of life would that be? No, God didn’t need Joseph. God could find some other way of bringing the Messiah into the world. God would find another way.

For many nights he turned over the options. Option 1, stoning, was unthinkable; Option 3, marrying the girl, unpalatable. It had to be Option 2, dismissing her quietly. But still, he wasn’t sure.

Joseph was a righteous man, and so he prayed for guidance. He prayed that God would give him a sign. Something, some little nudge. He didn’t need the burning bush that Moses had received. The still small voice that had whispered in Elijah’s ear would suffice. Just something, anything.

But there was no sign. Night after night, nothing. He was on his own.

But when the decision finally came to him, he was at peace. It was a relief to have a way forward. He made up his mind to go to Mary the very next morning and tell her that she could have her life, but their engagement was broken, their relationship severed. He rehearsed the conversation, planned what he would say, began to picture life after this decision: A new bride, someday. Children. His own children. A whole houseful! Several strapping sons to learn the carpentry trade. He drifted off to sleep with this image clear in his mind, and it brought him comfort.

This was the right decision. He was certain of it.

But that night, his certainty dissolved… his comfort whisked away on the wisp of an angel wing, his decision evaporated in a whiff of a dream. Mary… wife. Child… Holy Spirit. Save the people. Fear not.

He woke up, disoriented. Where was he? What time was it? Was he just given a message to do the exact opposite thing he’d already decided to do?

In the fog between sleep and wakefulness, he was irritated. The decision was made, for heaven’s sake. Where had God been during all those agonizing nights of indecision? And only now, once the decision had been made, does God make it clear what Joseph is supposed to do? What kind of crazy timing is this?

And do not be afraid? OK, that part just made him mad. He wasn’t afraid. He was a righteous man. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced, that’s all. He was trying to do the right thing. The good thing. Where does this angel get off calling him afraid?

*    *    *

Now, it’s possible that it didn’t happen this way.

It’s possible that Joseph woke up the next morning fresh as a daisy, stretched, wiped the sleep from his eyes, scratched his beard contentedly and said, “Whew, what a relief. I was going to have a nice comfortable anonymous life, but now I get to raise an illegitimate child as my own, who is apparently the son of God. Bring it on, Yahweh.”

But I doubt he turned on a dime. Because he’d made his decision. The deal was sealed. He had resolved, he had determined how his life would go, he had everything all worked out before that angel invaded his dreams and took one look at all his well-laid plans and said “Not. So. Much.”

It’s one thing to be visited by God when you’re in the throes of a decision, still trying to discern which way to go. But for God to intervene when everything’s all nice and settled—well, it’s just downright rude, isn’t it?

In any case, Joseph took Mary for his wife. Whether he did the angel’s bidding without a second thought, or whether he dragged his feet and stammered out a protest, I guess we’ll never know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he shook his fist at God and the future God had planned for him.

Because we know other things:

We know that Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Period. It was so out of the question that the mere idea of being pregnant made Sarah laugh so hard that she almost fell over.

We know that Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, was once so discouraged that he prayed for death and laid down in the middle of the wilderness to die.

We know that Jonah had made up his mind, no ifs, ands, or buts—he was not going to go to Nineveh like God commanded, and he was so committed to that course that he bought a ticket on a ship bound for the other direction.

And we know that Paul—called Saul—was so convinced of the danger of the Jesus movement that he was having Christ’s followers tortured and put to death.

In each and every case, like Joseph, they had resolved what they would do. And in each and every case, God confounded their expectations. You think you’re so smart? You think you know how this is going down? Watch what I’m going to do next.

And Sarah… had a child.

Elijah lived.

Jonah went to Nineveh and the city was transformed.

And Saul became Paul, a titan of the early church, who would suffer the same torture and imprisonment that he had perpetrated against the followers of Jesus.

Each of them had carved out a path for themselves—had resolved, like Joseph, to follow a certain path. And each of them was shown the expansive, explosive grace and purposes of God, which disrupted all their best-laid plans and thrust them into a bold new future. And in Joseph’s case, that wondrous future would mean the liberation and salvation of the world.

But no, strictly speaking, we don’t know if Joseph had a “you’ve got to be kidding” moment. But if he did, he is in excellent company.

Because the gospel is full of “You’ve got to be kidding” moments.

Turn the other cheek?

Sell all we have?

Sin no more?

Deny ourselves?

Take up our cross?

You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to give to the poor in a down economy? You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to show hospitality to the immigrant?

You want me to love Barack Obama?

You want me to pray for John Boehner?

You want me to treat the Muslim as a child of God?

the gay man?

the woman with the sign on the corner?

the mentally ill cousin who ruins Christmas dinner?

the obnoxious dolt at the office? Child of God? Child of God? Child of God?

Love All? Really, All?

What Joseph, and Abraham and Sarah, and Elijah, and Jonah, and Paul, all come to realize, is that God’s always bursting things open for us, moving us in the direction of inclusiveness. There is a kind of reckless grace to the whole thing. We know it when we see it. It’s like going off the map, into something wilder and deeper and more interesting than we ever could have planned ourselves.

*    *    *

It’s a story on every TV channel at this time of year, about a man named George Bailey. George has an adventurous spirit, and his life is filled with great decision and ambitious plans to get himself out of the tiny hamlet of Bedford Falls—but these plans get thwarted every step of the way. He’s all packed for college when his father has a stroke and George must take over the family building and loan. His brother comes home from college with a new wife and a promising job, and again George’s plans and dreams take a backseat. He gets married and is on his way to the honeymoon when there’s a run on the bank and he and his bride must use their honeymoon money to help out the building and loan’s clients. At every turn, George has resolved to do big things, grand things, but it is never meant to be. And yet, as he discovers with the help of an angel named Clarence, he is deeply loved, and he’s had an impact way beyond what he could have imagined. He realizes, as we do, that It’s a Wonderful Life.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

That’s the testimony of Joseph, and George Bailey, and anyone who’s come to realize that stepping into God’s future is scary and wonderful and terrible and life-giving in ways we never would have imagined without God. That’s the good news of Christmas that we’re waiting for, yearning for: that God is coming into the world, reconciling all things, shaking things up, offering crazy abundant life.

I realized something for the first time this year. In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a character up in ‘heaven’ that is sort of in charge of all the angels. Clarence talks to him from time to time when he gets stuck on how to help George.

His name is Joseph.

Now… I sure don’t want to make too much of this. But I have to think that if anyone was going to understand George Bailey, it’s Joseph. If ever there was someone who knew what it meant to let go of one’s resolutions and plans and decisions in order to embrace a more life-giving path, it would be Joseph, the father of Jesus—who didn’t quite live the life he planned to live, but who became a hero of our faith by stepping into the incredible drama of God.

Lessons and Carols

I’m putting together the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service at Tiny Church. Most of the readings will be straightforward, but I’m working with a couple of readers on some choral readings of the scripture. I wrote these a few years ago…

THIRD LESSON Isaiah 11:1-9
Voice 1:         A shoot shall come out!
Voice 2:         A shoot!
Voice 3:         A shoot!
Voice 1:         A shoot shall come out!
Voice 2:         A shoot!…
Voice 3:         …shall come out!
Voice 1&2:         of the stump of Jesse!
Voice 3:         A branch shall grow out of his roots.
Voice 1:         The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
Voice 2:         the spirit:
Voice 1:         of wisdom, understanding,
Voice 3:         of counsel, of might,
Voice 2:         of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Voice 1:         His delight is in the fear of the Lord.
Voice 3:         He shall not judge by what the eyes see,
Voice 2:         or by what the ears hear; but with righteousness
Voice 1:         he shall judge the poor,
Voice 3:         the meek.
Voice 2:         The wolf shall live
Voice 3:         with the lamb.
Voice 1:         the leopard,
Voice 2:         the kid,
Voice 3:         the calf,
Voice 1:         the lion,
Voice 2:         the fatling,
Voice 3:         the cow,
Voice 1:         the bear,
Voice 2:         and the child,
Voice 3:         the child,
Voice 1:         the child shall lead them.
Voice 2:         They will not hurt,
Voice 3:         They will not destroy.
Voice 1:         And the earth will be full
Voice 2:         of the knowledge of God
Voice 3:         as waters cover the sea.

FOURTH LESSON BASED ON Luke 1:26-35, 38; Matthew 1:18-21 (DANA AND CHEVAL)

Voice 1:         Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
Voice 2:         An angel was sent…
Voice 1:         An angel was sent…
Voice 2:         to Mary,
Voice 1:         to Joseph,
Voice 2:         saying, “Greetings, favored one!”
Voice 1:         saying, “Joseph, son of David!”
Voices 1&2:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 2:         “The Lord is with you.”
Voice 1:         The angel appeared in a dream.
Voice 2:         But Mary was perplexed, and pondered the greeting.
Voice 1:         The angel spoke…
Voice 2:         “Mary, you have found favor with God.”
Voice 1:         “Joseph, Son of David!”
Voice 2:         “You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Voice 1:         “She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Voice 2:         “He will be great, the Son of the Most High,”
Voice 1:         “He will save his people from their sins;”
Voice 2:         “and his kingdom will never end.”
Voice 1:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 2:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 1:         While they were engaged, Mary was found to be with child.
Voice 2:         Mary said, “How can this be?”…
Voice 1:         …While her husband planned to dismiss her quietly.
Voice 2:         The angel said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you”
Voice 1:         “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,”
Voice 2:         “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;”
Voice 1:         “the child is conceived from the Holy Spirit.”
Voice 2:         “the child will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Voice 2:         Then Mary said,
Voice 1:         Then Joseph awoke…
Voice 2:         “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”
Voice 1:         And he took her for his wife,
Voice 2:         “let it be with me according to your word.”
Voice 1:         And she bore a son,
Voice 2:         and he named him—
Voice 1:         Jesus.
Voice 2:         Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

Image: The choir at King’s College, Cambridge, who put on a pretty respectable Lessons and Carols service

Reverb #6: Make

Prompt: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

We’re making a lot of our Christmas gifts this year, and buying less stuff. So I have made a lot of different things in the past week or so, but I can’t say what any of them are because gift recipients read this blog. But here are a few materials we have used:

  • butter
  • acrylic paint
  • sharpie
  • wrapping paper
  • nutmeg
  • laptop

Slight digression: We’ve been studying the Advent Conspiracy at church, and yesterday the topic was “give more,” which emphasizes “relational gifts” rather than the easy and impersonal sweater or gift card. Back when Robert and I were newly married, we did the Hundred-Dollar Holiday for several years. I’ve loved Bill McKibben’s stuff for years and wish we were related; I suppose we are if you go back far enough.

We didn’t stick to $100 strictly, but we bought very little other than supplies for whatever we were making. We did it because we resonated with the concept of simplicity and spending less, particularly at Christmas. We also did it because we had more time than money back then. Now the exact opposite is true—it’s time that’s scarce, and the time we have is measured in little fragments between piano lessons and dinner, or kid bedtime and adult bedtime. So it feels more sacrificial, in a way, to make things. The Advent Conspiracy folks are really big on making gifts ultra-personal: thinking about each specific person, what he or she means to you, and what would make the person feel loved. We’re not really doing that, but I like the place we’re standing nonetheless.

Back to reverb: one thing I want to finish is a shawl/poncho that I started a year ago and have worked on in fits and starts. It’s been a bit of a disaster, as much of my knitting turns out to be. It’s a little short in the torso—the pattern in the book had a mistake in it, and the correction makes everything a bit more compressed (it’s a lace pattern). I have no idea what I’m going to do about that so I’ve been in this sort of perfectionistic denial about the whole thing. I really need to just finish it already and figure out what to do.

I’m thinking fringe. Fringe makes everything better.

Reasons to Sing Christmas Carols during Advent

I’ve already written here and here with some theological reflections on celebrating Christmas in the midst of Advent. Here are some less lofty reasons, but ones I find compelling in their own way:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason (I just made that up): Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, I like to think of the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas ripens over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December, so why not musically too?

So on Advent 1 we sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones—this year it’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” because it fits my sermon. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with an “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. On Advent 4, we might do one Advent Hymn and the rest Christmas. That said, this year I might back off on that slightly, since Advent 4 is on the 19th, still several days before Christmas.

2. The numerical reason: Advent is twice as long as the Christmas season, and yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the PCUSA hymnal). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind your back.

3. The pedagogical reason: In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I remember this clearly from my childhood. Actually, what I remember most clearly is the time we had a Jewish girl in our class and she taught us the dreidel song. The fact that that experience was so memorable 30 years later suggests that the rest of the time, we were singing songs from my tradition as a default.

Unlike some people, I don’t pine for those days. However, the shift in our culture means that it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” They aren’t going to to get that immersion if we limit Christmas carols to Christmastide. (Also, many of our families are traveling during winter break, and while they will attend Christmas Eve services, attending Sunday services while on vacation is not as certain, to say the least. So kids may not get exposed to some of these hymns in worship at all.)

4. The musical reason: As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason: This one probably doesn’t need to be discussed, but: Life is difficult, for a great many people. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people really appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and if only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do! Because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words are powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace”? Goose bumps, baby!

In short, it is not kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Silver Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Until then, I’m going to say that three verses of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” IS counter-cultural, even on December 12.)

6. The evangelistic reason: December is a pretty well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It is a good time to be attentive to visitors. As such, it is an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darnit, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but, whew!, they can join in on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

OK… I’m ready to hear your counter-arguments.

Image: I mean, just look at Snap, Crackle and Pop in that picture. Do you think they’d look so joyful if they were singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?