A Bleak Midwinter, Indeed

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
He’s the Good Shepherd, He is the Lamb
He is all Wisdom, He does my part
All I have for Him is my black, sin-filled heart


Ephraim Syrus on “Holy Adultery”

For Thy sake women sought after men. Tamar desired him that was widowed, and Ruth loved a man that was old, yea, that Rahab, that led men captive, was captivated by Thee.

Tamar went forth, and in the darkness stole the Light, and in uncleanness stole the Holy One, and by uncovering her nakedness she went in and stole Thee, O glorious One, that bringest the pure out of the impure.

Satan saw her and trembled, and hasted to trouble her. He brought the judgment to her mind, and she feared not; stoning and the sword, and she trembled not. He that teacheth adultery hindered adultery, because he was a hinderer of Thee.

For holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Thy sake. Thee it was she thirsted after, O pure Fountain. Judah defrauded her of drinking Thee. The thirsty womb stole a dew-draught of Thee from the spring thereof.

She was a widow for Thy sake. Thee did she long for, she hasted and was also an harlot for Thy sake. Thee did she vehemently desire, and was sanctified in that it was Thee she loved.

May Tamar rejoice that her Lord hath come and hath made her name known for the son of her adultery! Surely the name she gave him was calling unto Thee to come to her.

For Thee honorable women shamed themselves, Thou that givest chastity to all! Thee she stole away in the midst of the ways, who pavest the way into the kingdom! Because it was life that she stole, the sword was not able to put her to death. [Hymn VII on the Nativity]


Thoughts On Advent 4, or Christmas Supper in the House of the God who has everything

What do you get for the God who has everything?
Perhaps a sheep, or some gold,
A flask of incense or some burial spices?
If not, there is a certain sentimental strain in all of us
That thinks that drummer boys have it right:
Just do your best and He will smile from the arms of His mother

What can I give Him?
I’ll give Him my heart.
Do you consider that something to give Him?
As poor and black and rotten as it is?
No, that will never do,
Trying to make a body for Him
From all these silly, little bits and pieces
Life and memories and interstices
We’ve forgotten more of our sins than we’ve ever wanted forgiven

No, sacrifices and offerings and worship are all so much dust
The little piles of rocks and sand that we’ve long mistaken for gold and precious things
The God who has everything does not want your best, your most talented, your perfect compositions
Your tap-tap-tapping on your little broken drum
He has a thousand thousand of them already
He has a billion sheep on a thousand hills and more
Dozens of dancing lords, and gaggles of geese a-laying, and multitudes upon multitudes of angels
Hiding their burning eyes behind burnished six-wings
Six strings, six shots,
Six circles of hell! He has golden rings coming out His ears
What does He want with another?

The God who has everything lacked only a single thing
And He had to make it for Himself, in that little backyard shop in Nazareth
A body–only this, this alone, has not existed for all eternity, before eternity, when
(damned time-words)
there was no before or after or eternity at all

–Actually, two things, now that I think of it
The body, yes, but also the only other thing you have that He does not
Sin; all of it, He wants it all
Those eyes, the lusting ones
Those words, the kind with gossip spit all over them
Those hands (He has a ball with empty boxes)
Those colds, and cancers, and colonoscopies
Even your death (now that’s something He can use!)
And, okay, yes, even your heart–He has a nice collection of dead things
He’s buying it all for His only Son
Who never had a proper Christmas

And so the God who has everything gave up on broken wills and promises,
Covenants that only hold enough water for dumping into the shallow end of the Jordan
After all those thousands of years
He does not will any of it:
No pleasure, no happiness, not Infants smiling at the best and brightest
Of the dimmest
And worse than the most blasphemous piece of cloth Isaiah could imagine
His will–only this, this alone, is to give Himself something He never had, and then give it to you

You will not build a house for Him; what need has He of houses?
You will not give a heart to Him; what need has He of hearts?
The Lord God made them all, hearts and houses alike

So He will make you a house, O David
He will give you a heart, O Ezekiel
He will make a body for Himself
And then the single offering He wills,
All the blood and all the sin and all your hearts and all your houses
Burned to the ground once for all

Not because He hates you
(Though it can feel a little like that)
But because He hates the little you love and the little you want to have, thinking it is all the world
He hates the death you want to keep for life
He hates the little, petty idols you want to put on His altar
He doesn’t want the bodies you think are humming along in perfect health,
Surprised to find they will not run forever
Though you know it better than you know anything else in this whole shit-faced world
O David, O Jacob, He hates it all
Because you want to put it where it does not belong
You want to block out the sun with your hand
And hold back hell with your foot

And then you want to buy with your bad forgeries something for the God who has everything

He has bought it all already, you and this and that and all of it are His
Stop, just stop–it is all too much and all too little
–By the way, He got you something
You, the man who has nothing
A body and some blood
He is laughing like your father, when he’s had just enough wine
Putting the plate right in front of your face,
To make sure you’ve caught the scent
Slopping the cup all over your lips:
Drink, drink, drink!
Eat up, why are you so timid? So halting? Timorous and diffident?
So self-conscious!
Forget your self, it’s worth as much as your heart
Here, try this, best I ever made

You Prepared a Body For Me

“You have prepared a body for me.”
Not out of nothing,
Though nearly so
Spirit hovering over enwombed waters

Spoken into existence from flesh and blood, a word
not unlike the very first word, begotten from eternity

“Let it be so.” You said, and it was
And it was very good, though small
This limitless power wrapped so tightly
That, at first, the Unseen remained so.

“So let it be.” She said, and
You prepared a body for me.

Black & White & Gray

Some people take refuge in the cold steel
Of a perfectly formed idea
In its right angles and sharp edges
In its immovability, immutable and austere.

Chalk it up to a lack of structure in the home,
Or a simple love of order,
Or to being the first-born

But watch, then, how they can make that motionless metal
Undulate and oscillate, shifting the blacks and whites
Until you see them in all their paletted color

And some just can’t see it, or won’t
They like the lack of terra firma
Over which they want uncertainty to walk beside them
All the way—as long as she holds their hands
And won’t let go

See, though, how that limpid ambiguity
Shifting like the late-afternoon light
Through shutters and fluttering leaves
Is always being hardened into photographs
Or paintings, or whatever can hold them still
Enough for pinning to the wall or filing in the drawer

First Snow

Snow is always unexpected–
Like picking up my eldest daughter
to carry her to bed
And finding that she is almost as tall as I am
Or so it seems,
with her half-asleep feet knocking against my shins–

White everywhere
Leveling all the dirty, brown
Ditches of our towns
Raising up the low and trodden-down paths
of my daily walk through the back yard to the church
And humbling any plant that decided to venture out
that one warm week in November

Now every stone and living thing is prepared to cry out before it sleeps
All things made new,
Though only until the plow comes
Shredding the blanket into confetti,
Great piles of it that block my driveway

I, and the world around me,
with all the cars and work schedules and economic worries,
try to make this snow a nuisance to be endured
Like we do with Advent, or repentance, or the long, ongoing work of love

But none of it has succeeded yet
In bleeding from me the inexplicable
Joy, a smile I cannot suppress,
Even an eight-year old’s exuberance,
At a few, quiet snowflakes falling
In perfect symmetry under a streetlight

In a Dream

In a black amphitheater, ringing with the voice of God
And of His maidservant;el-grece-saint-joseph-web
Ringing like the inside of a velvet box
Where the crystal sphere of that Message had exploded,
Embedding its slivers so succinctly
That the heavens will forever declare His glory
And the midnight sky His handiwork

For only a moment I doubted—or, perhaps, for two—
Until the messenger’s shadowy voice came also to me.
Under the same sky, still reverberating with that explosion’s echo,
He pierced my sleeping ears with two of the fine fragments,
Which reflected in their mirrored surfaces
The feathered filaments of an inconceivable fatherhood


Seriously, what is our problem?  We just have to explain it, don’t we?  We just have to blame something or someone, don’t we?  We cannot help ourselves.  We blame guns, or video games, or movies, or psychology, or no prayer in schools, and we think ascribing blame will somehow accomplish something?  We think that will help the next time?  We think we can somehow slap some superficial band-aid on a gushing artery, and then we’ll all feel safe again?  How many times does some some “horrible,” “terrible,” “unthinkable,” “worst” “tragedy” have to happen before we’ll realize we can’t fix what’s wrong with people?  A new law won’t do it; more police won’t do it; more counseling won’t do it; school-sponsored religion won’t do it.  Are we really this stupid?  How long will we deny the evil that is in all our hearts?  How long will we pretend we don’t all sing in the black soul choir?  “Well, this was a ‘soulless monster’; I would never do that.”  That’s the kind of denial that perpetuates this garbage.

Really.  If you’re not praying with the Advent Church, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus;” if you’re not looking into your own black heart in repentance; if you’re not praying the peace and mercy of Christ’s resurrection for the families of those who died today, you’re just missing the point.  Dear God, how stupid and ignorant can we be?  Repent, hear the Word of the Savior who absorbed all violence into His own wounds, and pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  Anything else is naive, idiotic, or worse.


I Love Advent

…but I hate Christmas.  (Listen, if you’re going to be all “I love Christmas!  I love Christmas music!  I love decorations!  I love….,” you can take it elsewhere.  I’m ranting here.)  Actually, I don’t hate Christmas, but I hate everything that goes along with it.  (Yes, “hate” is a strong word; no, I don’t want to tone it down.)  I realize I’m going to personally offend some of you, and impersonally offend others of you.  But what is the internet for, if not to personally offend people I’ve never personally met?  So if you like sappy Christmas movies about how family is the greatest gift, and Christmas muzak that has been recorded so many times that there could be entire radio stations devoted to “O Holy Night” and “Last Christmas,” and if you like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, you may just want to skip this and go back to your regularly scheduled Christmas spirit(s).  (Shut up!  I am telling you how I really feel!)

I hate every single song that has ever been written about Santa Claus.  Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus; there is only St. Nicholas, who gave Arius the ass-whupping he deserved (“temporal and eternal punishment”).  The only redeeming thing about those songs is this video for the Bob Dylan song “It Must Be Santa.”  I hate most decorations, except real pine trees and garlands.  I hate blow-up Santas and reindeer.  I want to shoot them.

Okay, more soberly: This is not about a “war on Christmas” or whatever nonsense we talk when we get upset about stores stocking stockings on All Hallows’ Eve Eve; I don’t care what the world does.  If Christians are upset about it, don’t buy stuff.  If you don’t like Walmart being open on Thanksgiving, don’t go there.  (Me, I got a nice little Blu-ray player for cheap).  They aren’t going to open if people don’t buy stuff.  Why is it their fault?  “Walmart” is not a Christian.  It is a business.  They make money.  That’s what they do.  If you don’t like them making money, don’t shop there.  (I do think you’ll have a hard time finding a store that doesn’t contribute to some cause or thing you find objectionable.)

And I find it highly ironic that Christians complain about hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about taking Nativity scenes out of public places, and then they want their churches decorated for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving.  Spare me your piety.  Either keep Christmas where it belongs, and actually have the “Mass” on “Christ-mass,” or don’t complain about “the holidays.”

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed.  The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent.  But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent… Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). [William Stringfellow]

I want Advent.  I want Advent to stay Advent.  Churches don’t want Advent, in spite of protestations to the contrary.  We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  We want exactly what the world wants: nice feelings and emotional titillation from shiny things.  Let’s not pretend we’re above it all, and then invite it up to the altar.  If we wanted Advent, we wouldn’t “make the church look festive” until the actual festival.  It’s not a coincidence that we don’t fast before the feast anymore.  We want it all now, now, NOW.  What, me wait?  Not when I can buy it all on credit now (and yes, I sometimes buy on credit).

We cannot sustain the emotion we think we want.  I am not against emotion and feelings.  They come along with all great human experiences.  I am against sentimentality.  I hate sentimentality, because it is the attempted manufacture of feelings, when they wouldn’t otherwise come on their own.  Sentimentality is what stores and muzak do.  Churches, qua Christian churches, don’t do sentimentality, because feelings come and go.  Only the Word manet in aeturnam.  Otherwise, when the manufactured feelings go, the thing itself goes (like in this King of the Hill episode [Season 2, Episode 8] where Hank tells Bobby not to get caught up in fads surrounding Jesus, because when the fad goes into the cardboard storage box, Jesus might, too).

And what if you can’t quite muster the feelings, even with all the trappings of the “season”?  What if you’re dying, or depressed, or destitute?  What is left for you then?  You’ll find no place in the modern Christmas conjurings.  But Advent!  Advent seeks out the dying, depressed, destitute and all the rest, and says, “Lift up your heads, your redemption draweth nigh.”  Advent prays the prayer of all of those who have no family with whom to celebrate, no good health, no festive meal, no decorations, no presents, no blow-up Santas and reindeer: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Advent is for those in hospital beds, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.  Advent is not for the self-satisfied, the complacent, the full-up, the always-happy, the Joel Osteen-smilers.  Or, rather, it is for them also: because Advent means death to my ancient Adam.  It means a clear-cutting and carpet-bombing preparation by the Lord’s Messenger for the Lord Himself.  Advent is all about death before life, and it will be meaningless to those who think they are alive and well.

So am I surprised that Advent is all but gone from most churches?  No.  But I suggest that if you keep pushing “Christmas” into Advent (which makes you no different from the stores you like to blame), you will soon not have Christmas either.  Not the real Christmas.  Not Christ in the Mass, because that might offend the people who fill the church to make it “feel like Christmas.”

I know this all sounds harsh, and it probably is, because my misanthropy seems to ramp up this time of year.  I’m tired, and small things set me off.  But I don’t want to hear any more Christians complaining about taking Jesus out of Christmas, when they want to take Advent out of the Church Year.  Do your decorating, etc. in your own house, and leave the Church Year alone. [\rant]

Ah, forget it.  You probably think it’s all an overreaction.  Never mind.  I told you not to read this.


Totally Not Christmas Muzak

I can’t stand most holiday music.  It’s too gimicky or cheesy or just unimaginative.  Do we really need 86 more covers of Joy to the World and Silent Night?  I think not.  All such renditions manage to do is dull the actual message and make the sacred of one piece with the secular: Santa Claus is Coming to Town alongside O Come All Ye Faithful?  Why not?  It becomes background noise, elevator music to fill up the blank space because it gives you that special holiday glow (or maybe that’s just the chunks of ice that the Northern Minnesota wind is blowing against my cheeks).

I hate sentimentality.  Keep it in the stores where you’re trying to get rid of a few more dollars (I don’t like the music there either, but at least it fits the materialistic mood).  I have my own nostalgia for Christmases past, but it really has nothing to do with the Nativity of our Lord.  If nostalgia is the only reason for the candlelight on Christmas Eve, you can keep it; I’ll have the Eucharist instead.

Nevertheless, there is good Christmas music out there; you just have to look hard, or have it fall without warning into your lap (let it fall, let it fall, let it fall).  The following albums manage to make songs and hymns sound as if you hadn’t heard them 8,000 times, and, at their best, they preserve some of the terror of the Incarnation (think: “Good Christian, fear; for sinners here/The silent Word is pleading” (Lutheran Service Book 370:2).  In no particular order:

I also recommend Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels (get it with Darkest Night here), but not everything on there is as good as everything else (“Here it is” and “We’re Gonna Pull Through” are worth the price alone).

Down with muzak!