We lit our fourth Advent candle yesterday at breakfast. At church we spoke of Mary's visit to her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, six months pregnant with a babe who will grow up to be John the Baptist. The seven-months pregnant woman in our fellowship shared of hearing that passage in a new way, as the child in her own womb leaped while she listened.
Like the topsy-turvy, non-chronological time of lectionary passages, where one week John is urging the crowds to prepare the way of the Lord and the next he is not even a glint in his father's eye, I've been reflecting on Mary this Advent season -- Mary expectantly waiting, Mary perplexed and pondering Gabriel's "Greetings, favored one!", Mary willing to believe that nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary, a young woman, a virgin, in the days before Gabriel brings his greeting.
In Night Visions, Jan Richardson writes:
She told me that virgin really means a woman unto herself, a whole woman, a soul mother. What a shift from thinking that a virgin is what you are until you are made complete by a man. They still argue, Mary, about whether you were a virgin. Maybe it's never bothered me because something deep inside me knew the truth: that you were whole, that you were a woman unto yourself, that you chose freely, that you were a soul mother, a spirit catcher, a God bearer even before you consented to open your womb.
And in her 1944 meditation, The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander writes of "that virginal quality which, for what of a better word, I call emptiness."
It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.
It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper's breath and to utter the song that is in his heart. It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine. It is emptiness like that of the bird's nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.
She writes of the trivialities and busy-ness that crowd out our purposeful emptiness and of the need to prepare the way, to be still and make space, to ponder the question: In what way are we to fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?
And so our Advent wreath this year includes Houselander's images -- a Masai angel playing a pipe, a finch's nest found on campus, a chalice made for summer Bible school participants years ago. And there's another set in the room where I do spiritual direction: another finch's nest, a reed pipe likely from Haiti, a chalice from Palestine. They invite me to take a deep breath, to pause in this busy season, to make enough space to notice the ways the Spirit is already at work in the world, and to ponder: Am I a reed, a nest, a chalice? How am I invited to carry Christ in this world, and to give birth to the holy?
And what about you?
It's the barren season, so when I set out yesterday with my camera, I didn't expect I'd find much besides the usual dry prairie plants. There can be interesting lines and patterns there, but I was ready for something new, and doubtful that there was much to be found.
I was wrong. The first surprise was on the trees outside the Rec-Fitness center. There was a curious rustling sound as I passed and when I looked more closely, I saw the trees were abundantly covered with clumps of tiny dry maple keys, dancing in the breeze and catching the light in interesting ways.
I mused on abundance -- in the seed-heads of the prairie plantings, on these maple trees, and on the crabapple trees along the bike path. I had admired the crop on the tree below earlier in the year. Now the apples are turning soft -- and there is an abundance of birds to enjoy them. This little house finch blended right in (see him in the lower middle? If not, see the close up below).
It must be an attractive perch. A sparrow flew in and chased the finch away, and then happily got to work pecking at the same crabapple.
There was an abundance of wild life to be seen that day -- as I headed home past the sidewalk from the dorms to the library, this red-tail hawk was perching on the lamp-post, not at all concerned about passing students or photographers. Just behind him, on the far side of the tree, one of the black squirrels was hiding by freezing -- while complaining vigorously. And as I passed the prairie plantings north of the dorms another redtail hawk -- or possibly the same one -- was perched on the siren, watching the field where the finch find some of those abundant seed-heads and milkweed down.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"