From tender stem hath sprung

Advent is swiftly approaching. Ordinary Time is coming to a close – how fantastic that it is called that, truly. I suppose officially there are two more weeks till Advent begins, but I am notoriously a person who needs quite a bit of time to transition, and better to do it now, early, than to miss the first two weeks of a season, trying to wrench my heart into gear.

The irony is that my heart need not be wrenched this year. It’s waiting at the door. I am waiting, anxiously, for Advent, where I will wait some more. I am, thoroughly, the girl who listens to Christmas music well before thanksgiving, who smiles at the store displays and old-fashioned tinsel snowflakes affixed to streetlights in small towns and big cities alike, the first hint of a bough of holly. I love special things, and Christmas is a special thing that everyone seems to agree on. But, beyond all the trappings, Advent is where my heart has been living for some time, without my asking it to, without any sort of tinsel, without the prompting of any sort of liturgy or black friday sale. The truth is that I was living my life in Ordinary Time, not entirely unhappily. But, like angel song, Advent just started happening to me and has gone on happening. I’ve been writing about it, I’ve been thinking about it, can’t stop thinking about it. I could tell you that everything has changed, but I think you already know that. I could tell you that a life, like a calendar year, like a church calendar year, has seasons, each season designed to nourish the soul in a different way, with varying intensities and focuses and sorrows, but you surely already know that too.

I take the church calendar seriously, or try to at least. My blossoming Anglicanism in college taught me to care about these things, to seek to invite them into my consciousness and muscle memory, illuminated the beauty of tradition, of certain colors at certain times, of keeping track, of letting reality be framed by something historical and a little bit impossible. It’s the project of practice, of ritual, of repetition to let something become habit. I’m learning more everyday how to let these rituals become postures for my heart, things to wake and sleep with, to carry around within, more than a thing to think on, words to say, a color to wear, a place to be. I’m learning more every day how to notice which season my soul stands in, both in and out of time. In chronos, chronological time, my soul is on the cusp of Advent, 2017, marveling at Wisconsin snowfall and Chicago store awnings sporting pine boughs, delighting in twinkle lights taking over. In kairos, God’s time, the time that holds everything, all at once, my soul is standing bewildered and strong in Annunciation, my soul is saying, irrationally, “here I am! send me”, my soul is scouring the sky for angels, my soul is carrying an impossible baby, in pain, in wonder, no place to stay, nowhere to go. My soul, wild, following a star. 

All at once, the other day, I remembered a book I picked up a year ago but never finished. Madeleine L’Engle’s 
The Irrational Season, where she, adopted godmother to my soul, writes warmly and honestly about the church calendar, about the very same things my heart keeps turning over and over. So I bought it used on amazon for $5 and it came without the first nine pages. Typical. I was sad about it for a moment, but then I snapped into action, deciding to find the book on Google Books, where the first chapter was completely intact and waiting to be received! (And where you too can read the first chapter, which is about Advent, if you’d like!) I sat and transcribed the first nine pages, typing each word, ingesting it a little differently than I would if I were simply rereading it again, one year later. In a way, it almost felt like I was writing it myself, fingers flying to keys to record a phrase held right at the front of my brain, moving on to the next thought before even considering everything, everything about the thing that came before. 

The next day, as I, for the first time in a long time, read some of the archives of my personal blog (which I’ve been sorely neglecting), I came to an essay I wrote just about this time last year. And, oh my soul. One year, and so much has changed. One year, and so many prayers answered, so many things written and strangely, with mystery, fulfilled. I was astonished to read my own words, so true and tremulous, so different from anything I would write today — and yet still so present, so poignant for me, even still. I am that woman still, astonished at all I must be missing, full of hope and faith for things not seen, desperate to be actually carried with everlasting arms, unaware of the signs and wonders on the way. Strange prophesy, the way I stood right on the edge of a new season without knowing it and lamented all that had come before, all the years waiting, all the knowing but not knowing. And now, what more do I know? Not much. But enough for everything to have changed. Enough that, somehow I’ve gone from feeling left out of the story entirely to standing smack in the middle of it. And that, I suppose, is a change complete. That, I suppose is a new season. The night, half spent, closer, somehow, to dawn. Lo, how a rose e’re blooming, see the bud? From tender stem, mine. Yours.

I am republishing last year’s advent essay in full below. In so many ways, it seems like I’ve hardly moved. I’m still sitting with The Irrational Season beside me on the desk. I’m still finishing up quilted things, still needing to run out to get more thread. Still looking for Jesus, still considering Mary every day, and yet, and yet. Everything is different. I live in the woods instead of the city. My heart has traveled miles on miles. I’ve seen, somehow, the angels — they’ve come for me with messages. I’ve glimpsed just enough, touched just enough of the edge of Jesus’ hem to know that I am right in the center of something unfolding all around me, within and without time and space. Advent, mine entirely. Yours too, with the end of time and the beginning all folded together into an impossible baby placed in our human arms for safekeeping. What has this irrational year taught me? That I am right in the center of God’s good will. That I don’t get to sleep through the night of Jesus’ birth. That the pain will be great but the star shines above. That though I am small, an angel found me still. That Jesus is, somehow, mine to carry. That though nothing makes sense at all, underneath are the everlasting arms. I still know nothing at all, but somehow I know these things, in all their wildness, all their IRRATIONALITY. I can’t question them anymore, I just have to figure out how to carry it all forward. I’m living there, in irrational advent, on my island of madness, a woman bereft and blessed. And somehow, I am so much more myself than I’ve ever been before. 

{first published on Red Speckled White, November 27, 2016}

Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season is sitting beside me on the desk. I’ve just finished sewing up some quilted coasters, a task that was delayed because I ran out of thread and needed to make my way to Jo Anne for some more. It has come to my attention that it is the first Sunday of Advent. I suppose I would have known that sooner if I had gone to church this morning, but Isaiah and I are having to adjust our schedules lately and a few things have gotten shuffled around. Like sleep.

Half spent was the night.

An annunciation! Oh yes, this! The Christ child! I remember now! He’s coming! He’s come? Where is he now?

In Washington? In Sheol? At the right hand of the Father? In Chicago, with me?

I’ve been thinking of Mary. I learn more about her all the time as I seep into my womanhood, as I shuffle, slumpingly, toward Bethlehem myself. Mary, most revered, most confused, most misunderstood. Mary, with only one task to do. Mary, so inflated, so remembered, full of grace, maybe, maybe. Mary, blue. Always in blue. Mary, interrupted. Mary, iconned, inflated. Mary, woman of a million faces, art’s darling, beautifully stretched. Mary, mother. Mary.

None of us know her at all.

I just think about how she held him when he was a baby. Quiet, the simplest thing in the world. No queen of heaven, not yet. Just a mother. He was a baby. Not a super baby, a human baby. She cuddled him, she loved him when he couldn’t do anything at all, when he was a ball of pudge, when he cooed and his eyes darted about and he didn’t know how to smile yet. Hers was the first face he saw on earth, I’m sure. For a little while, at least, he belonged to her. How did that feel? I want to know how that feels.

I don’t know what my place is, especially now in this world of harshness. I wish I had a job to do, some task for the Christ child. I’m no Mary, no chosen one. I’m no shepherd even, with an unmissable invitation to come to the manger. No, I’m a townsperson, asleep in my bed, eyes shut tight in the face of a blinding star and angel song. Over and over I wonder about angels, but what if they’ve danced above me while I was staring at Instagram? What if I’ve missed them?

Or what if I have no job to do at all? What if no angel is coming for me?

It would have been different, I guess, if Mary had expected an angel to come, if she knew what was happening before it happened. That would have been weird. That would have messed all of it up, probably. She wasn’t looking and it happened. She just listened and knew that she couldn’t say no. Knew that the world was at a tipping point, that angels don’t just touch down every day. That the only choice was to keep going, to lose her whole life but keep walking, to give up everything she thought the world was about for a baby. Amazing how often that happens to people. Amazing how hard it is to do. Amazing how that’s how much and how little God asks of us. Just everything. Just everything.

It’s harder without an angel song, that’s all. It’s harder to sing Magnificat without the impetus, without the arrival of a visitor, with no annunciation. I try to write poems, but they don’t flow. I try to sing praises, say yes to things, but no one has asked me. I try to get there, to suspend my disbelief, to let the beauty of the hymns, the gorgeousness of this faith remind me that all this swirling beauty can’t be for nothing, that I do carry it around within, that none of this is for nothing. I know it’s not nothing, I do.

I’m just angry. I’m confused. I need an angel, something. Is it crazy to want to be invited to the real event? Right into the center of it, to God’s own heart, to the gold shiny clearness of it? Is it stupid of me to even say these things when I know the paradox of everything I’m saying, when my brain keeps reminding me that, of course, I’ve been invited already? Is it wrong for me to want to be invited bigger? Is it wrong of me to feel jaded by the whole thing of it right now, the outskirts we live in, the American church and its bad recent choices? The things I don’t wish to be associated with, the recklessness, the misunderstanding? I want to be invited, by an angel or some such grandness, to something more beautiful, something more something, the ground shining like sapphires, because following the ragtag parade of modern evangelicalism is exhausting and also often underwhelming.

But it seems I’ve already been invited to all that there is to be invited to. What’s happening right now is what there is. I live in America. We, somehow, are the church, the president is the president, and we work with what we’ve got. We buy the communion wine, we bake bread, try to be honest, we hope for the best. I’m not going to stop, no, because abandoning the church feels like the absolute worst thing to do at such a time as this, but I’ll just admit that I’m tired and I don’t know who to listen to. I’ll admit that I find it hard to even confess my faith right now, that I feel that old tug of shameful embarrassment in the face of all that has happened, the feeling we all know too well but pretend we don’t. I’ll admit that I’m thinking through the friends and strangers, both, that may read this and think, “Oh. I see. That’s what you think.”

So, I’ll be honest. I’m not standing in disbelief or doubt, though I’ve stood there before. No, right now I’m standing in disappointment.

I feel like none of us know anything at all, that we never have. Not me, not anyone. I wish we all admitted that more.

So I’ll sit with Madeleine L’Engle and read her words about Advent because I do like to listen to her. Her stirrings, her feelings of being poked and prodded and reminded through the relentless rhythm of the church calendar like me. This year, Christmas feels too early. I’m ready for the sweets and the lights and the fun and the family, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to carry the weight of the Christ child, imagining my way through, showing up even though, no, I don’t feel invited. I’m not sure that I’m ready to walk the long and windy road to Bethlehem with other disappointing pilgrims, doing it all again because December has returned. I’m not sure that I’m ready to wait all month long with no angel song, no star, no bright, earth-shaking reminder that he’s coming, he came. I’m not sure that I’m ready, but I’ll do it all just the same. Because that’s the thing with Advent, with babies. You can’t ignore them. They’re too luminous.


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