The clouds cleared enough in the late afternoon that we were able to catch some glimpses of the last sunset of 2011, seen at various points on campus -- glimpses of light through all the paraphernalia of the ordinary.
And to close off 2011, this closing blessing from Philip Newell's Celtic Treasure:
The blessings of heaven,
the blessings of earth,
the blessings of sea and of sky.
On those we love this day
and on every human family
the gifts of heaven,
the gifts of earth,
the gifts of sea and of sky.
I'm still reading Philip Newell, this time in Christ of the Celts, and this passage caught my eye:
One of the most ancient symbols of Christ in the Celtic world is the salmon. We find it in the earliest strands of Celtic Christian art and poetry. Even in the pre-Christian Celtic world, it is a favorite image, associated especially with true knowledge and wisdom. Of course, the fish had been a symbol of Christ in the earliest centuries of the church, but in the Celtic world, it specifically became a salmon. So the ancient symbolism for wisdom merges with the Christian symbolism for love, and love and its longings are viewed as the deepest expression of wisdom. p.90
Musing on the fish imagery, I'm reminded of an O Antiphon I worked on at a writing retreat last year. Traditionally, the O Antiphons are a series of Advent songs, or verses, that call on Christ with a title from the Old Testament. If you are familiar with O Come, O Come Emmanuel, you'll recognize the pattern.
We were working with a variation on this, based on a collection of invocations written by Richard Skinner, Calling on the God in All, from the Celtic-based community on Iona. These O Antiphons begin by addressing God as revealed in some aspect of creation -- the first line beginning O (fill in the blank), four lines describing the thing seen, a line naming the facet of God that has been illuminated, and then a line or two of petition.
This particular antiphon was inspired by a recurring event that happened as I sat scribbling on a pier by the lake. I've worked on it a couple different times over the past year, and I'm not sure it has settled yet, but here it is. I enjoyed looking at it again with this image of Christ the Salmon.
O Splash –
sound and spurt of water in a silver lake,
brief backwash ringing outwards into ripples,
shimmering moment that draws my eye
to seek the silent fish below,
you are the tangible trace of unseen action:
come, sound in the waters of our lives,
alert us to the Spirit, rising.
Today some of the details on "barren branches" caught my eye -- a fascinating mix of buds and berries at various stages. I especially liked the water berries above. When the temperature drops below freezing tonight, will there be little ice berries on this tree?
Light came streaming into the living room today, highlighting a few of the ornaments on the tree, like my Danish glass reindeer. And Rudolph's nose was a bright cherry-red spark.
And outdoors an evergreen on campus had its own sunlit ornaments.
Doesn't look much like Goshen in the winter, does it? It's not. In this morning's sermon, Carmen Horst shared some of her fond memories of darkness, including Christmas time in her childhood home of the Argentinian chaco. She talked of the beauty and scent of the night-blooming cereus, the cactus whose flowers open once a year, for a single night.
This night-blooming cereus was in the little backyard laundry area at Casa Goshen, in Costa Rica. It bloomed, hugely, soon after we got there in 1992. For a sense of the size, each bloom was about a hand's width across.
While acknowledging the many biblical passages that use the image of darkness to talk of trouble, sin and death, Carmen also named some of the positive passages, like Isaiah 45:3:
I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
The night-blooming cereus certainly counts as one of the treasures to be found in darkness.
Carmen's sermon wasn't just on darkness and possible gifts to be found there. Our Advent theme has been "Darkness is cradle for the dawning," and her sermon title was "Celebrating the Dawn." She reminded us that the dawn is not the same as sunrise, especially not this time of year. Dawn begins with the first lightening of the sky, and we wait and watch, wondering what the day will be, just as we wait and watch with a newborn child.
I've been up before dawn the last day or two -- it's not much of a challenge here in midwinter. Yesterday I stood in the wondrous luminosity of a clear sky, shortly before sunrise, and felt surrounded by light. Not something to capture with a photo, but simply to be enjoyed.
The clear sky held all day, so in the afternoon, John and I made a quick trip to the Defries Calendar Garden south of town.
Light and color, even on a cold December day in northern Indiana.
And there were even a few open blossoms, though on a much smaller scale than the night-blooming cereus. I don't know what bush this was, but the flower clusters were only about the size of a quarter. Large or small, midwinter or midsummer, day or night -- this world holds much beauty and many wonders to be discovered.
Many moments of light on this sunny day, like a by-chance breakfast with old family friends, and this sunshine highlighting our Costa Rican nativity scene, and an afternoon visit to the calendar gardens, and the candle dance at the Christmas Eve soup supper at church this evening, and sitting with John, watching the flames flicker in the fireplace.
We ended our worship service this evening sitting in the glow of many small candles, singing "Silent night, holy night." And the third verse shimmered for me, and seems an appropriate one to repeat here this Christmas eve:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, Love's pure light,
radiant, beams from thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Winter solstice -- last night was the longest night, so we're beginning the slow climb of gradually longer days and the sun's return, and this sun on my sister's porch, with its messages of believe, relax, life, warmth, grow, plant, breathe, daydream, love, feel, create, and laugh seems like a good way to celebrate.
I went out midday in search of glory. In The Book of Creation, Philip Newell quotes George MacLeod as saying in one of his prayers, "Show to us the glory in the grey." He describes this as looking for the light of God in the most ordinary, and even dullest, of contexts. I decided that an overcast northern Indiana winter day, without snow, qualified.
And this water retention area on the edge of campus, with the industrial park in the background, full of dead and dry plants, seemed like a prime candidate for the ordinary in the midst of everyday life.
And there were intriguing shapes and bursts of light, in the midst of the grey and papery brown.
And even in the midst of dried stems and grasses, there was new life and color, growing greenly on a south-facing slope.
Winter solstice. The turning of the year. The shortest day, the longest night.
I'm pondering invisible light. Not darkness, not the absence of light, but invisible light. The light that is at the heart of all life, the light of God.
In The Book of Creation: an introduction to Celtic Spirituality, Philip Newell writes:
Nothing has life apart from this light. It dapples through the whole of creation. It is within the brilliance of the morning sun and the whiteness of the moon at night. It issues forth in all that grows from the ground and in the life that shines from the eyes of any living creature. This is not to pretend that there are not also terrible darknesses deep within us and in the whole of creation. Rather it is to say that the light is deeper still and that it emanates from the love of God.
This 'first day' light is something other than sun, moon, stars, which aren't created until the fourth day. They come forth from that light, but so do the earth, and the waters and all of creation. For Celtic Christianity, all life is woven through with this light of God, which is dark inaccessible mystery, invisible, divine darkness, the dazzling dark, the invisible fiery light.
Perhaps it is the darkness and the light that the psalmist wrote of, in Psalm 139:11-12:
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
From that inaccessible light of God all life comes forth, whether that be the morning light of the burning sun, the yellow brilliance of a sunflower growing from the dark ground or the glow of a starfish emerging in the depths of the sea. It is the light within all life, or as George MacLeod says, the 'Sun behind all suns.' Our eyes cannot see it, not can human thought nor imagination grasp it.
We may not be able to see it, or comprehend it, but perhaps the 'eyes of our heart' might catch a glimpse as we ponder the sparks of light that we do see. So here, from the archives, is a sunrise, a sunflower and a star, each in its own way a mix of dark and light.
* Image Credit: NASA/Swift Science Team/Stefan Immler
(I wanted a photo that hinted at some of the astronomical background for the solstice, and chose this one primarily because it's beautiful -- but then I read the accompanying explanatory note below, and was struck by the juxtaposition of worldviews wrestling with mystery and beginnings.)
The Triangulum Galaxy is located nearly 3 million light years from Earth. And, in a study that pushes the limits of observations currently possible from Earth, a team of NASA and European scientists recorded the "fingerprints" of mystery molecules in the Triangulum Galaxy, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy.
Figuring out exactly which molecules are leaving these clues, known as "diffuse interstellar bands" (DIBs), is a puzzle that initially seemed straightforward but has gone unsolved for nearly a hundred years. The answer is expected to help explain how stars, planets and life form.
I'm reading The Book of Creation by Philip Newell, and found this prayer from the Celtic tradition, one that was said or chanted with the lighting of the morning fire:
I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven. . .
I don't light a fire each day in this house with its central heating, but there is a band of angels keeping watch on my piano these weeks of Advent, and each wintry Sunday evening at Faith House Fellowship we kindle a fire.
The prayer continues:
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbour,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all. . .
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.
A flame of love. Perhaps it is like the flames I was looking at last night, discovering that through the light of one flame I could see the light of another. A flame of love for my neighbor, foe, friend. . . for all living things and for the One whose fire of love holds us all.
Last Sunday evening we kindled our weekly fire at Faith House Fellowship, and sang "When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire" and "Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away," both Taize songs.
What might it be like, to pray that prayer each morning, and to sing one of those songs each night?
I'm thinking about shadows today. Since there wasn't much sun showing through the clouds, there weren't many shadows. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there was one large shadow, cast by the thick layer of clouds overhead, so that everything was more or less an even gray.
At the risk of repeating myself, it is much harder to find photographic sparks of light on an overcast day.
I was musing on this at supper, and on the shadow I saw in the center of the flame I carried into the Advent spiral Saturday. John questioned whether it was actually a shadow. "The light isn't being blocked, it's just thinner at the base of the flame."
We peered at the flames of the Advent candles burning for our centerpiece. There's the blue at the edge of the base, and then a part with not much light. Squinching up one eye, and looking through the thin area, I could see the edge of the cranberry red candle behind it.
Indeed. There is a thin place there (but not the sort of thin place the Celtic Christians wrote of, those places where heaven seems closer than normal to earth).
Then I discovered that when I looked at a second flame through the first flame, I saw some intriguing effects. I could see the second flame through the first even beyond the thin part.
Here are three candles in a row, with the back two flames much smaller than the first.
Still, you can see something of what I saw. Here we are looking at the back two candle flames through the first flame. And when I moved so that all three were in a line, I could see the second through the first and the third through the first two.
Light a few candles and see what you see.
_Before we get too far past Sunday's lectionary reading from Luke, I want to return to the angel's message to Mary in verse 1:35, and spend a little more time with another kind of shadow.
The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
A few days ago my musings on this passage took me to the bright cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration, which overshadowed the disciples. Today I'm thinking about the golden statues of cherubim in the temple "overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings" and to all those psalms that have references to being sheltered in the shadow of God's wings, like 36:7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings, or 63:5 7: My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
The English word "overshadow" can feel heavy, like an overcast Indiana day, or a submissive Mary being overpowered by the dominant "Most High." Shadow feels like negative space. But what if shadow is a place of refuge, a place where we can sing for joy? A place -- a thin place, perhaps -- that gives birth to holy new life.
"Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"
I've taken on a prayer practice of looking for the moments of light in each day, whether actual or metaphorical, and then writing or posting photos of what I find.