A Year of Creating Dangerously, 355: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 4

 

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The Nativity Scene – A ubiquitous part of our Christmas lore, a common decoration and motif in and outside our homes, a source of controversy at times, and an undeniably sweet and homey image that never fails to draw us into the spirit of the season. We recreate them as live scenes, we satirize them in memes, we see them everywhere in the days leading up to December 25.

Today in part 4 of my series of Christmas in masterpieces, we take a look at two very different scenes of the most famous stable in history. The first is The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco (1612-1614) and the second is Dream of Joseph by Rembrandt (1645).

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El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612-1614

The Spanish master El Greco was known for his elongated figures and dramatic use of shadow and light. His lines are on the move in this painting, making the whole piece pulsate with life. I am struck by the ragged look of the shepherds, barefoot with beat up items of clothing to cover them, looking very much like the lower-rungs of society that they were in Jesus’ day. The shepherds have become such a cutesy part of our Nativity scenes and Christmas plays that we’ve forgotten the scandal of angels coming to them first – first! – with the news of the birth of the God King. These were people considered the trash of their times, uneducated, crass, poor and dirty. Yet they are chosen to be the human heralds of the beginning of the Good News:

When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. – Luke 2: 17-18

The power of this work comes, however, from the explosion of light off the Christ child. We are used to images of Jesus kind of glowing in our Christmas artwork, but here he is fairly blasting light, illuminating what would presumably be a very dark place with his own radiance. Mary shines brightest in this light, of course, but every other figure is given shape and form because of it too, including the strange, little naked cupids floating above.

There is enough of the common imagery of Nativity for us to recognize this scene, but also plenty of elements that remove it from a feeling of the commonplace. That is not altogether a bad thing, of course. We have often made our Nativity scenes so pop culture that we forget the foundation of divinity and miracle that gives it gravitas and a sense of the eternal. This may not be my favorite Nativity scene, but it still serves its purpose to remind me of the power of God becoming a human, of the forever becoming temporal, of the Word becoming flesh.

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Rembrandt, Dream of Joseph, 1645

There is much of the ways of the flesh in Rembrandt’s Christmas masterpiece, that is, in the need we all have for sleep, especially after exhausting experiences. In this scene, an angel is coming to Joseph to give him specific instructions, following on the heels of the visit by the Magi:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until the I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” – Matthew 2: 13

The man in question was King Herod, the puppet king set up by the Romans to rule Palestine. When the Magi came to him in Jerusalem, expecting to find there the answer to the star that told them of a newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s own wise men had pointed them to Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth in prophecy. Since they had left, the shrewd king had stewed in jealous rage, waiting for them to return with news of where to find this child. Whereas the Magi had adoration in their minds, Herod had infanticide in his seething brain.

An angel had told the Magi to go back home on a different route, with no stops at Herod’s place along the way. Then he went to Joseph and the scene depicted here by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.

In the Christmas story, Joseph receives two angel visits in dreams on two separate occasions. The first was back when he discovered that Mary was pregnant before their wedding. Then the angel told a distraught Joseph the news that the Holy Spirit was responsible for her being with child, and to continue with his plans to marry her. The dream pictured here is clearly the second dream, as the surroundings suggest the stable, with the newborn child sleeping, wrapped in those swaddling clothes, lying in manger, with Mary’s comforting embrace around him.

This is a very delightful painting, warm and human as Rembrandt so often communicated his subject matter. He pulls that off despite the presence of an obvious supernatural visitor. You can almost feel the coziness of the place, smell the hay and animal smells, hear the snoring of Joseph, the gentle breathing of a contented but exhausted Mary. To me his stable comes across as the most real and comforting Christmas stable ever depicted in art. It isn’t a frightening, dark place like El Greco’s stable, and it isn’t too otherworldly or artificial, it is just the kind of place you’d imagine these people could bed down in for the night.

Art history is full of images of a radiant Christ child, an adoringly attentive and aging Joseph, and a Mary shining with divine grace. Rembrandt gives us a distinctly earthy Holy Family, a pair of rustic and lower class people grabbing much needed sleep after the birth of their child in extraordinary circumstances. To me, this is a refreshing image that draws me in and makes me want to curl up for some sleep myself, after giving that jovial cow on the right a good pat on the head or two.

Christmas is about so many things that glow from this painting, but the treasure here is the recapturing of the serene and silent moment in time that would one day become spectacle.

Tomorrow is the final day of this series of Christmas in masterpieces, we’ll finish not with glory but with danger and death. If that doesn’t seem very Christmas-like to you, then you’ve not read the Christmas story to its shocking end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 354: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 3

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Three Wise Men? How about Thirty-three? My series on the Christmas story in masterpieces continues today with Part 3, featuring those most famous Magi.

It is, of course, well known now that these men were the scientists/magicians of their day, not so much Wise as Learned, the scholars and star-gazers who came from a long distance away led by the most famous of all Stars. Most biblical scholars agree, as well, that the Magi likely came to Bethlehem long after the birth of Christ, perhaps even two or three years after the first Christmas. They have traditionally been included in our Nativity scenes and Christmas cards but it is likely they were not around when the shepherds found Mary, Joseph and the baby, lying in a manger. Most likely they gave their extravagant gifts to a toddler instead (which is an even more precious scene, if you think about it).

The two masterpieces I’d like to share with you today have the Wise Men in common but not much else. The first is The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461) and the second is The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (1609-1610).

Gozzoli_magi

Though not a household name to us today, Gozzoli was prominent enough in his time to be commissioned by the wealthy and influential Medici family to create this fresco for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Italy. We see again a biblical story portrayed for a contemporary audience that would have recognized the clothing, hairstyles, architecture and landscape as very familiar. They might also recognize the faces of the entire Medici clan. As was often the case, the artist put the images of his patrons right into the artwork. In this painting that means not three Magi but thirty-three Magi coming to adore the Christ child. How many verses would the “We Thirty-Three Kings” Christmas carol contain, do you think?

I imagine this inclusion of the Medici clan into the artwork as the Magi made them feel honored and respected, as well as giving them that taste of immortality rich people seem to like, putting their names to arenas and hotels and skyscrapers and other edifices in our day. It was meant to flatter and give praise to the ones who put up the moolah for the painting in the first place. Artists sometimes turned that into a subversive form of protest but here it seems Gozzoli is content to give adoration to the Medici’s as they proceed on their way to the Adoration.

All that aside, there is something about this artwork that reminds me of a fantasy world, some kind of Elf-like realm from The Lord of the Rings perhaps. There is, of course, an ascension that is going on here, as the Magi make their way up to the city where, presumably, the Child King awaits. In fact, just about everything in this painting points up or flows up, giving the viewer the impression of being lifted up themselves. I believe that Gozzoli was attempting to make this entire work an act of adoration, not to the Medici clan, but to God, giving the viewer a chance to ascend in praise. In a way, he’s made his patrons prominent and up front but still made us all, the rich and poor alike, drawn up to the Divine.

Part of the message of the Magi as included in the Christmas narrative is the fact of all nations, all peoples, coming to bow down to Jesus, offering their gifts, whatever that means based on their station in life. This painting welcomes the poor, too, to ascend to meet Christ, the pauper-King, the homeless-at-home in people’s hearts.

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Muscular, powerful, detailed and rich, Peter Paul Rubens knew how to blow the viewer away like few other artists before or since. This composition is like an avalanche of adoration directed at the tiny, shimmering Christ Child. Everything directs your attention to the baby, even the smoke from the torches and the posture of the horses. The animals’ eyes glowing in the light is a favorite detail of mine, especially in the eyes of the camels peering over the crowd. You can almost imagine Rubens laughing out of sheer joy as he added this feature.

Rubens has pictured the Magi in a much more traditional way, at least to Western culture sensibilities. There are three of them and each is given a different ethnicity to emphasize the “all nations” aspect of coming to adore the King of Kings. As I look at it I imagine this image alone must have had a lot to do with our popular idea of the Wise Men. The three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are the only reason we’ve come up with the number three. It could’ve been 3, it could’ve been 13, or even thirty-three for all we know.

A fascinating fact about this painting is its role in reconciliation. The town council of Antwerp commissioned Rubens to paint this in 1609, but the piece was given to the Spanish ambassador at the end of a twelve-year war in 1612 as a peace offering.  Later it was acquired by Philip IV of Spain. It seems very appropriate that a painting of the powerful and wealthy coming to adore the humble Prince of Peace should function as a symbol to the end of conflict. It brings to mind one of the most familiar passages read at Christmastime:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”Luke 2: 14

Those words were spoken to the shepherds in the hills outside of Bethlehem, of course. Tomorrow, in part 3 of this series, we’ll include those caretakers of sheep in the Christmas story in masterpieces.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 353: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 2

 

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Our own contemporary lens has given us images of Bethlehem and the Nativity that lead us to believe that they looked a certain way. We have that image of the little town of Jesus’ birth, all small block-like homes silhouetted against a night sky, a tiny stable illuminated in the foreground by a predominant and unlikely perfect pointed star. Our nativities are usually pictured as neat groupings of different Christmas characters, mostly looking sweet and children’s story friendly. Really, nobody knows what these looked like and our imagination depends so much on the way others have chosen to envision the scenes.

Today I want to give you Part 2 of Christmas in masterpieces, two paintings that give a distinctly unique perspective on some familiar images of the season. The first is The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel (1566) and the second is Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio (1609).

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566

On first viewing this painting appears to be a landscape of a European town from centuries ago. That interpretation would be correct but wouldn’t tell the whole story as just off center at the bottom of the painting is a familiar Christmas sight: Joseph leading a donkey with his wife Mary sitting on it. This is Bethlehem as seen through the eyes of Pieter Bruegel. The artist was known to depict biblical events in his own contemporary settings and this painting is no exception.

In some ways you could play a game of Where’s Waldo with this painting (only rename it something like Do You See What I See? to make it Christmas-friendly). There are so many wonderful things going on in this painting that you just want to take a few minutes to check them all out. There is of course the congestion of the census-taking locale, where Joseph has to navigate his donkey between some huge barrels on wagons. There are chickens feeding, people making food, people walking across a frozen river and on a frozen pond (even what looks like a crude form of hockey happening in the bottom right of the painting). There are people doing who-knows-what in the center – Is it work? Is it play? Is it some strange form of dancing done in Flanders?

All I know is that this painting is a blast and a half. It also shows Bethlehem exactly how it likely was in spirit – A gathering of a bunch of humans doing human things like work and play and waiting and arguing and cooking and who-knows-what, barely taking notice of a man leading his pregnant wife on a donkey. This was the scene of the first Christmas – no fanfare by any stretch but plenty of day-by-day going on.

To me, Bruegel’s painting centers the story of the birth of Christ squarely in the flesh, that is, in the human side of the account. And that is very refreshing and real.

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Carvaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, 1609

Dramatic and unforgettable, Carvaggio‘s  Nativity scene is a powerful piece of art in its own right, apart from the subject matter.  Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio was known for a dynamic use of dark to bring out the light, making his images resonate on a deeply emotional level. He breaks with traditional imagery here in having the Christ child only partially illuminated, not the source of the light, and not a halo to be found anywhere. This is one of my favorite depictions of Mary, as she appears very likely as she was: A young woman of humble birth, taken with the exhaustion of child-birth, with a look of melancholy as she gazes at her son.

How did St. Francis and St. Lawrence make it into a Nativity scene anyway? Can you imagine those pieces being available for your own Nativity set you put up on your mantle every Christmas? “Ah, yes… Mary, Joseph, Jesus… the shepherds and that one lamb (not much of a flock)… a cow… the wise men… angels… and, of course, a couple of saints born hundreds of years after this happened!” In other words, don’t get upset if your child puts his Iron Man and Wonder Woman action figures in with the Nativity set – It’s all been done before.

An interesting side-note of art history: This painting was stolen in 1969 in what authorities believe was a Mafia heist. The masterpiece has disappeared and its whereabouts unknown, leading some to think it was destroyed. That adds an extra note of emotion to a piece already heavy with it.

Regardless of the ode to a couple of Saints and to it possibly no longer being with us, to me in his painting Carvaggio has captured the emotional core of the Christmas story: The wonder at the birth of the Son of God and the sorrow that will bring, to Mary, to all that loved him. There is as much of the Cross in this artwork as there is the manger.

Tomorrow will be part 3 of this series of Christmas in masterpieces in which those wise guys from the East, the Magi, will play a prominent role.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 352: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 1

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One role of art for hundreds of years was to illustrate Bible stories for the illiterate masses who came to church. Artists could make a lot of money gaining a Catholic Church contract and so competition was great. This led to the creation of some amazing works of art in Western culture.

For this week, I want to share with you the Christmas story in masterpieces, two paintings a day for five days. I’ll share with you my take on these works but, hopefully, you’ll also linger with them for a moment. We often can look back on history with a patronizing eye or with a sense of our own advanced superiority. If we take the time to really look and attempt to understand the vision of the Christmas story told from times past, it is amazing how revealing it can be about us and how our human story remains consistent, despite the gap of ages, eras and cultures.

The first two paintings I’ll share today are The Annunciation by Botticelli (1489) and Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem by Hugo van der Goes (1475)

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Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, 1489

Botticelli is best known for his Birth of Venus which is considered his masterwork. The fine details and flowing shapes of The Annunciation are very indicative of his painting. The message he sends through this image is striking. The angel Gabriel is bowing down on one knee to deliver his message to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. The look on his face is one of concern and sympathy, giving his phrase “Do not be afraid” a whole different meaning from how it is often interpreted. Mary’s face is particularly beautiful but also shows the emotional sense of resignation and obedience to God.

Botticelli has painted an Italian countryside out the window. This seems only natural as he likely had no idea what the Palestinian countryside would look like. It also causes the viewer of the time to be able to find themselves in the story. Like our modern takes on Shakespearean plays, the contemporary context draws people in and helps them relate it to their own time and place.

My favorite aspect of this painting is the outreached hands, fingertips just inches apart from each other, seemingly soon to touch. That sense of imminent contact creates a tension between the two figures but also a direct connection. It sums up the scene so perfectly in that way; a scene that would have been deeply emotional, joyful but also sad and frightening.

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Hugo van der Goes, Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, 1475

I must admit to absolutely loving this piece, which is part of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted by Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes. The landscape and the animals are as much a part of this scene as Mary and Joseph, the typical donkey is followed by a just-visible cow making its way around the large rock formation. The artist has done a wonderful job picturing a concerned Joseph carefully helping his pregnant wife down a slope. She’s presumably not on the donkey because he feels its safer to help her down himself. It is such a beautiful image of care and concern without being overstated.

The colors of this piece are so warm and earthy, again making it easy for the viewer to enter into the scene. I’m not sure if he meant it this way, but the predominance of the large rock formation draws my mind immediately to all the references in scripture of God and Jesus as the Rock:

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. – Psalm 18: 1-2

The idea of God as protection, the image of Joseph giving loving care to Mary, the warmth of this whole piece of art radiates so much of the heart of the Christmas message.

Tomorrow, Part 2 of this series that will feature a unique take on the little town of Bethlehem and a dramatic and dynamic Nativity scene.

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 351: Sunday God Quote – Jan Richardson

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Image: Gabriel and Mary © Jan Richardson

What was Gabriel’s experience of the Annunciation? This is the intriguing question posed by artist and poet Jan Richardson. We so often see angels as an ancient, bright and shiny version of sending someone a Tweet (however, a Divine Tweet) – A message often devoid of the flesh and blood person of the messenger. It is easy to forget that these beings clearly have personality, individuality and very distinct roles in scripture. The poem I share today by Richardson delves into the mindset of the angel called to deliver perhaps the most famous message of all time.

I would strongly encourage you to visit Jan Richardson’s blog, adventdoor.com, for more readings and artwork. Her work will greatly help anyone seeking to find the grounding of truth that gives meaning during the days leading up to Christmas.

Gabriel’s Annunciation

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

– Jan Richardson

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 350: Saturday Life Quotes – Christmas!

Our Christmas Stockings, 2014

Ronald Kok, Our Christmas Stockings 2014, Colored pencil drawing

“At Christmas
A man is at his finest towards the finish of the year;
He is almost what he should be when the Christmas season’s here;
Then he’s thinking more of others than he’s thought the months before,
And the laughter of his children is a joy worth toiling for.
He is less a selfish creature than at any other time;
When the Christmas spirit rules him he comes close to the sublime.”
― Edgar A. Guest

Christmas Day is creeping ever closer. Each of us, truth be told, is somewhere on the Scrooge-to-Will-Ferrell’s-Elf scale when it comes to our feelings about the holiday.  More than any other celebration in the Western world, it brings out the greatest melange of joy, sadness, nostalgia, regret, love, bitterness, peace and conflict. For some, it is indeed the most wonderful time of the year, for others – “Bah! Humbug!”

Today I share an assortment of quotes that include the sublime, the ridiculous, the spiritual, the carnal, the profound and the funny takes on Christmas. Some of these had me laughing out loud, others forced me to think about important things. That, perhaps, sums up my take on Christmas. Enjoy.

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.” ― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

“The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live.”
― George Carlin

CALVIN: “This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn’t make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery? If the guy exists why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it?
And if he doesn’t exist what’s the meaning of all this?
HOBBES: “I dunno. Isn’t this a religious holiday?”
CALVIN: “Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.”
― Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
― Steve MaraboliUnapologetically You

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder

“In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it ‘Christmas’ and went to church; the Jews called it ‘Hanukkah’ and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah!’ or (to the atheists) ‘Look out for the wall!”
― Dave Barry

“The reality of loving God is loving him like he’s a Superhero who actually saved you from stuff rather than a Santa Claus who merely gave you some stuff.”
― Criss JamiKillosophy

“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.” ― Jay Leno

“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
― Calvin Coolidge

“Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.” ― Philip Yancey

“Money’s scarce
Times are hard
Here’s your f#*king
Xmas card”
― Phyllis Diller

“What kind of Christmas present would Jesus ask Santa for?”
― Salman RushdieFury

“Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”
― Graham GreeneTravels With My Aunt

“Were I a philosopher, I should write a philosophy of toys, showing that nothing else in life need to be taken seriously, and that Christmas Day in the company of children is one of the few occasions on which men become entirely alive.”
― Robert Lynd

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
― G.K. ChestertonBrave New Family

“Ever since the Christmas of ’53, I have felt that the yuletide is a special hell for those families who have suffered any loss or who must admit to any imperfection; the so-called spirit of giving can be as greedy as receiving–Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.”
― John IrvingA Prayer for Owen Meany

“It struck him that how you spent Christmas was a message to the world about where you were in life, some indication of how deep a hole you had managed to burrow for yourself.”  ― Nick HornbyAbout a Boy

“O Christmas Sun! What holy task is thine!
To fold a world in the embrace of God!”
― Guy Wetmore Carryl
“If your Birthday is on Christmas day and you’re not Jesus, you should start telling people your birthday is on June 9 or something. Just read up on the traits of a Gemini. Suddenly you’re a multitasker who loves the color yellow. Because not only do you get stuck with the combo gift, you get the combo song. “We wish you a merry Christmas – and happy birthday, Terry – we wish you a merry Christmas – happy birthday, Terry – we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Ye – Birthday, Terry!”
― Ellen DeGeneresSeriously… I’m Kidding
“I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.” ― Harlan Miller
“To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year.”
― E.B. White
“Except the Christ be born again tonight
In dreams of all men, saints and sons of shame,
The world will never see his kingdom bright.”
― Vachel Lindsay

“There has been only one Christmas — the rest are anniversaries.”
― W.J. Cameron

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 348: Earth Discovered Heaven

eath-discovered-heaven

A poem I wrote for Christmas 2016…

Earth Discovered Heaven: a Christmas Psalm

 by Ronald Kok

 

The sun rises each and every day

It shines and daily gives its life light

Yet darkness dominates our way

We stumble, eyes bereft of sight

 

We think we know the road, the path

Yet we repeat the past, we fail

To grasp, living in gasps, in wrath

Despite light given, we rant, we wail

 

Climbing, striving, to reach the divine

Hoping our toil will bring us peace

Slipping, falling, aching for a sign

We see life as pain with no reprieve

 

We are alone, it can be easy to think

Around us is war, hunger, lies, abyss

Darkness drags us to the very brink

Life laughs at us, betrays with a kiss

 

But there is a Birth, a baby’s eyes

There is a song of vulnerable might

A silver note that splits dark skies

Revealing hope to drive out the night

 

A Grace that takes the hardest road

Down to dust, sin, heartache, death

A Grace lifting Pilgrim’s awful load

Giving all true Life and Peace, Breath

 

The Divine in human life, human sighs

Striving, aching, to reach each and all

Climbing, toiling, the Glory laying by

Lifting us all to glory in his fall

 

No expectation on us was there

To find a way to the Throne above

His plan, purpose, passion was here

In the Way called Grace, Peace, Love

 

The struggle to find truth supreme

Is no struggle, no task, no chore

Truth in person, Truth that beams

God’s Gift is given forever and more

 

This is the Life that laughs, that sings

The Life that death could not waste

Life whose Grace-dance around us rings

Giving us of dust heaven’s wondrous taste

 

It shines in darkness, shatters gloom

This Gift is precious and glows real

In our life’s pain and threat of doom

Nothing can dispel the Grace that heals

 

The Way we seek, the Truth we find

Is met in the Life of Glory given

Seekers lost have been found, in kind

And we on earth discovered heaven

A poem I wrote for Christmas 2016…

 

Earth Discovered Heaven: a Christmas Psalm

The sun rises each and every day

It shines and daily gives its life light

Yet darkness dominates our way

We stumble, eyes bereft of sight

 

We think we know the road, the path

Yet we repeat the past, we fail

To grasp, living in gasps, in wrath

Despite light given, we rant, we wail

 

Climbing, striving, to reach the divine

Hoping our toil will bring us peace

Slipping, falling, aching for a sign

We see life as pain with no reprieve

 

We are alone, it can be easy to think

Around us is war, hunger, lies, abyss

Darkness drags us to the very brink

Life laughs at us, betrays with a kiss

 

But there is a Birth, a baby’s eyes

There is a song of vulnerable might

A silver note that splits dark skies

Revealing hope to drive out the night

 

A Grace that takes the hardest road

Down to dust, sin, heartache, death

A Grace lifting Pilgrim’s awful load

Giving all true Life and Peace, Breath

 

The Divine in human life, human sighs

Striving, aching, to reach each and all

Climbing, toiling, the Glory laying by

Lifting us all to glory in his fall

 

No expectation on us was there

To find a way to the Throne above

His plan, purpose, passion was here

In the Way called Grace, Peace, Love

 

The struggle to find truth supreme

Is no struggle, no task, no chore

Truth in person, Truth that beams

God’s Gift is given forever and more

 

This is the Life that laughs, that sings

The Life that death could not waste

Life whose Grace-dance around us rings

Giving us of dust heaven’s wondrous taste

 

It shines in darkness, shatters gloom

This Gift is precious and glows real

In our life’s pain and threat of doom

Nothing can dispel the Grace that heals

 

The Way we seek, the Truth we find

Is met in the Life of Glory given

Seekers lost have been found, in kind

And we on earth discovered heaven

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 347: Christmas Bells

civil war

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Written with the backdrop of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, the American Civil War, “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is far more than a seasonal carol. He published these words in 1863, just two years after his wife had died tragically in a fire, and just a month after he received the news that his son was severely wounded in the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. It is a poem of hope under intense duress; a shaken belief of peace on earth when all around was devastation, both literal and figurative. But he emerges from that dark place brought on by the “thunder” from each “black accursed mouth” into the light of a trust in a God more powerful than hate or violence or anything else that would attempt to destroy what is good.

The world I look out on and experience internally is not so different from what confronted Longfellow. I am grateful for these words that he penned so long ago for their power in the here and now, for my Christmas season and yours that comes at the end of a bitter 2017.

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 346: A Coffee-less Christmas

 

 

Grief

Ronald Kok, Grief, 2013, painted paper mosaic

Christmas season is many things to many people. Regardless of the cheer and seeming goodwill that is as much a part of the lore of the season as carols and cranberry sauce, many people suffer deeply during the holidays. Those in pain, in grief, fighting an internal battle, or struggling through a life full of tremendous challenges have a much harder time when all around them is bouncy, jingly music and bright, twinkling lights.

My brother-in-law died of leukemia a little over a year ago.  My sister and their three 20-something children had to say good-bye to a much loved husband and father. His youngest child, my nephew Eric, composed a poem to express his feelings during this Advent season. I asked him if I could publish that poem here on this blog and he graciously said yes.

Below is his brief intro to the poem and then the poem itself…

Every year I try to do some writing around Christmas and share it, despite its quality…I have a lot of emotions attached to this time of year, most of them not terribly positive.

As in all things, there are many stories to be told, many alternatives to the “Christmas cheer” narrative. My friends in loss, in hardship, those with different stories I see you and hear you, you are not alone.

———–

The coffee maker stopped working
and we were left wondering
how you celebrate Christmas day without
coffee and baileys.

For us, coffee is a sacred ritual
a routine that binds us
with perfectly soaked grounds
and radiant ceramic that warms something
beneath your skin.

A coffee-less Christmas, then,
would mark a holiday apart,
missing something,
without.

Before the problem solving brain
had time to intervene,
one without, caffeinated the other
and the loss of one sacred ritual
highlighted another gained:
a funeral,
a celebration of life
a life lost to us –
missing something.

Watching your father wash away
in blood and saline
chemo and fentanyl
over eight months until
the man you knew,
who loved you well,
with whom you fought and cried,
is watered down like
oversaturated coffee…
kissing the tepid forehead
of this once-father
still father anew
fucks you up:

Like losing a two months
of memories
with the exception of
a broken coffee maker
a broken family
…broken.

Each year I find myself
deepening into advent
into messy, desperate longing
for hope
for home
for warmth that soothes something
beneath my skin
for living water that might
soothe my caffeine cravings for not yet.

Though it may seem that we are dwelling in grief
you’ve seen nothing but the foyer.
Grief made a home amongst us –
as tangible as the coarse branches of your PVC
Christmas tree on soft skin.

You are welcome here,
come in.
Just know that we are still learning
how to fit
the fragments of grief
between the trimmings,
finding room for it
at the table,
shifting storage
to stow away the boxes
still to be unpacked
contents unknown
or known too well.

There is now a new coffee maker –
one sacred ritual renewed,
under new management.
The taste is different
yet there we gather as a new family –
one with an empty chair
a lit candle,
and a now familiar weight.

And now I rest into advent
and the sounds of Julien Baker:
“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right
And I know that it’s not,
but I have to believe that it is.”
desperate longing
stubborn hope
a joy beyond cheer
a visceral Immanuel declaration.
– Eric Van Giessen