Emmanuel (Here Comes the Sun)

My Dear Children,

What a year we have had. Wave upon wave of nothing but highs and lows. A year ago we surprised you with plane tickets to the beach. Every day for a week we plunged into the surf and battled the ocean with nothing but joy. I’d leave you in bed sleeping each morning to go watch the sunrise in stillness, finding the place I needed for cleansing tears over old griefs. The year just passed had brought me face to face with demons, and I was grasping for hope that I could ever be made whole. I was finding it, too: finding it in you, in the life growing in my womb, finding it in the beauty of the sand and the sky and the power of the water. “Here comes the sun” became my mantra as I practiced hope. (It is a practice and a skill.)

A year later and it occurs to me that those wild waves we danced in during the first days of this year were a good image for every day that has followed. Wild, wild, wild. Now as I sit by the window of our new house listening to Lessons & Carols from Kings, I’m meditating on the stable and the manger; on Mary’s surprise pregnancy and horribly-timed travel plans. This was the setting for the coming of the Sun. I’m thinking about our Christmas this year, upended by everything — from the ear infection that has wrecked my hearing this first year of directing a live choir, to the last-minute travel plans that have split the six of us in half for the week so Daddy can help his sister’s family make it through Cancer Christmas. We finally finished moving in the day before I lost my hearing. And now Maya is crawling and needing avocado and sweet potato forever wiped out of her chubby fingers. What a year.

This week we are looking ahead to 2022: an empty calendar reserved for us to simply breathe. Maybe our luck will turn in the weeks ahead. Lumber prices and water heaters and pandemic policies could lie behind us, and ahead of us our new city, the cozy home we’ve made, work we love, freedom to “school” you however it suits us day by day for one last term, our fleet of bicycles, the prospect of new friendships.

There aren’t a lot of tangible gifts under our Christmas tree this year, and your stockings hang thin and light. Tomorrow I’ll fill them with vouchers for time and attention and connection and exploration, because it’s all we can afford after the year we’ve had. I bought myself a print of Mary & Eve, but otherwise I’m cataloging my Christmas presents as already accrued: a diploma recital that still makes me shudder with the memory of the happiness; Sweet Little Maya Caroline; my very own home and even the 10,000 pounds of construction trash hauled off the postage stamp backyard last week; the day this summer when we received the sacraments together surrounded by family-of-choice at St. John’s; the best jogger/bike-trailer money can buy, found used and funded by wedding gigs.

There was also our day three weeks ago at Notre Dame when Patrick’s choir premiered the anthem they commissioned from me at the Basilica during the Vigil Mass. As we drove north that morning listening to Advent tunes I’ve been singing along to for twenty years, I was astonished by the love and the happiness of the scene: The six of us living exactly the life we want to live. It feels rather impossible to have a life this happy and whole – too good to be true. We’ve arrived here via a steep and winding road. The climb has been exhausting at best, harrowing often. We’ll tell you that story as you get older.

The last few years as I’ve tackled grad school, and the pandemic has up-ended our vocations, we’ve barely had bandwidth for merry-making when the holidays have come around. And now here I am, wrestling with the complicated and exhausting landscape of Maya’s first Christmas. We’ll celebrate next week when we’re together. But I find the ice over my heart thawing these last couple weeks as I encounter the season’s texts for the 35th time. Thawing despite the professional pressure they hold for me this year. Thawing as if to finish the work I began by the ocean a year ago. “It’s alright.”

The truth is, we’ve dragged ourselves to this finish line bruised and deflated. We hardly possess the spirit for celebration. And this is the heart of my meditations on the Christmas story today. If ever there was a Christmas for our family, this is the one. This was an entire Year of Christmas – the year of Emmanuel: from New Years’ Day sunrise to Maya’s Mother’s Day arrival; from each simple moment of love we’ve managed to grasp amidst the parade of chaos and calamities, to December 27 when we will wake up together in our own beds with nowhere to be but here. Our gifts have been many and God has been with us.

Christ, my dear sister Laura reminds me, was born to a genuine mess: a barn of all places, with animals and the mess animals make. O Magnum Mysterium. What better year than this one for the six of us to know Christ born in our hearts again? Christ born to traveling parents at the worst moment. Christ bringing love. Love and hope and peace and light to us and to the whole cosmos. Heaven come to earth for real and forever.

So Merry Christmas, my loves. We are here, and Christ is with us. That is everything.

“Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly,

fill you with peace and goodwill,

and make you partakers of the divine nature;

and the blessing of God Almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

be amongst you and remain with you always.

Amen.”

Christ’s Companionship: Lenten Thoughts on Transfiguration Sunday

I remember a professor in seminary impressing on us over and over again “Heaven is wherever Jesus is.”

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration. How desperately we need that story! Nor do we want to come down the mountain at the end. If only we could secure ourselves in Jesus’ divine presence permanently!

Here is a glad wonder, though: our access to Christ is not, in a way, as limited as Peter, James, and John’s. We have the whole story unfolded. And yet they were allowed his earthly body, a fellowship of human friendship not so easily conjured up from our vantage point. We would not be wrong to crave what they had.

As Lent approaches this year, the need for healing has been foremost in my mind. Every one of us needs healing of some kind. But more than that, isn’t our greatest need simply Christ’s companionship? In fact, is it possible Christ’s companionship is the essence of healing? We need to be in his company.

In this posture of desire and dependence we are ready for the journey of Lent. We call on Christ to come and take up his throne in our hearts; we seek for him to be our teacher so that we might learn how our hearts can be a place he may more easily belong; so that we may more steadily apprehend his presence; so that we may offer him true hospitality–the kind that makes its guest comfortable. This is the project of Lenten discipline.

We do not presume that Christ is in need of this hospitality. But we are, because in that comfort–in that apprehension–every Lenten day of this earthly journey may be its own Transfiguration. And I suspect Christ will not answer us as he answered Peter if, in this transfiguration, we were to say, like Peter did on that mountain, that it is good for us to be here.

It is in Christ’s companionship that we may make our pilgrimage without being overwhelmed by the things which grieve or shake us. Indeed, this companionship is the only thing we need. Christ’s company is enough. To have his presence is life and health and peace.

It is strength, too; we can in fact journey through anything if Christ is our companion, no less surely than Peter could walk on water. Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to convey by his claim: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”