There is a multitude of the heavenly host on my living room bookcase, singing, blowing trumpets, and playing harps. I suppose even the stars are singing.If you come to visit and step closer, you'll discover the tiny creche at the center of this scene. Someone in the household compared the sizes of the creche and the angels and declared, "That must be why the first angels say is always 'Fear not."
Our daughter, Beth, made this creche years ago from Sculpey clay, in a period where she was having great fun with miniatures. We're still enjoying it.
The ordinary table match in the background is there to give a sense of how tiny these figures are. My favorite is the kneeling camel, though the cat beside the manger and the pair of sheep also make me smile.
I've been musing on emptiness today.
This grows out of some recent conversations, as well as my Advent reading. I've been dipping into A Child in Winter, a collection of excerpts from the writings of Caryll Houselander, as well as Caryll's book of meditations on Mary, The Reed of God. Caryll was a lay Catholic Englishwoman, a mystic, artist and poet who did much of her writing during the challenges of World War II Britain.
Here's one from her on emptiness:
The law of growth is rest. We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the long bleak season in which we experience nothing whatever of the sweetness or realization of the Divine Presence, believing the truth, that these seasons which seem to be the most empty are the most pregnant with life. Child in Winter, p 29
Caryll was intrigued with the pre-Advent emptiness of Mary:
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 the bird's nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird. Reed of God, p 21
At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the hard blocks and congestions; not necessarily to discard all his interests forever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and interests other than Love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had just come from God's hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being, and of what material we are made...
Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us, is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfil the work of giving Christ life in us? Reed of God, p 24
What shape is your emptiness? Where are you pregnant with life? How is Christ being birthed through you?
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.
_The picture above is Henry Ossawa Tanner's 1898 painting of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel's appearance to Mary. I find my gaze repeatedly returning to that angel of light, and to Mary's face and hands.
This morning I was working with the story of Gabriel's visit to Mary in Luke 1: 26 - 38, in preparation for some gatherings later this week, and my attention was caught by the word "overshadow" in verse 35. The power of the Most High will overshadow you...
Overshadow: To cast a shadow over, to darken or obscure.
The same word shows up in the various gospel accounts of the transfiguration, the glory that comes over Jesus on the mountain, as he talks with Moses and Elijah. A cloud -- or in Matthew's version, a bright cloud -- comes and overshadows the three disciples who are watching.
This "bright cloud" is a reference to the Shekinah, the cloud that filled the temple when it was first built, which is experienced as both thick darkness and as the radiant glory of God, a sign of the in-dwelling of God in that place.
So what kind of shadow does a bright cloud cast?
What light shines when we reflect that radiant glory?
Here's a mix of cloud and light and shadow and reflections, an image received at the end of October, near the Goshen dam.
"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.