Saturday, 22 December 2018

Oh, Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree...

The Christmas tree at our home is up and decorated. Hallelujah!

This is not some little chore – it deserves a fist-bumping Hallelujah, especially when the tree (artificial) and ornaments are stored in the three-foot crawl space under the house, and our knees don’t work as well as they used to. In fact, for a brief moment, following the example of some friends of similar age, we considered leaving it down there this season. But eventually, the RS made the heroic journey and resurrected the tree from its dormant resting place. Now it stands decorated in all its glory in the corner of our living room.

And yes, I know: artificial trees are Bad with a capital B, made out of Plastic with a capital P, which is harms the environment. Someday, it will be tossed into the landfill, there to live for umpteen thousand years without deteriorating. I do know that. But our tree is a rescue tree: we rescued it from the thrift store so it would not suffer the above-mentioned fate. We treat it well. It’s found a good home. We’ll pass it on to someone else when we are done with it, when our knees no longer can make the trip into the crawl space.  (Let’s agree to disagree about the politics of plastic vs. real, shall we? This is the season of peace and goodwill.)

The decorated tree is a tradition associated with the Christmas season, which sets me to wondering: why? I do some digging, and find more than I’ll ever want to know at

The bottom line is that evergreens have always, since the mists of time, had extra meaning at this season of the year. We are in the season of the winter Solstice, when it’s dark, when the ground is hard and cold and it appears that life and light have disappeared forever. The lively needles of the evergreen and the bright decorative lights tell us there is hope and light and a resurrection of life to come. So yes, even if it's just to affirm its significance to us, it’s worth the effort to set up the tree. Hallelujah! The tree is up.

We should really name our Christmas tree the Memory Tree, because most of the decorations call forth big memories. There’s an old, beat up ornament that used to hang on the family tree when I was a child. I have a vivid memory of Christmas Eve, 1955 – a measles epidemic had swept through the town, and my sister and I spent much of December in bed, deathly ill. But we were recovering by Christmas Eve, and so Dad and Mom carried us in their arms into the living room to show us a surprise: a lighted tree sparkling with tinsel in the darkened room. Hallelujah: the tree is up – and so were we. There was a lot of rejoicing that evening.

Another ornament on our tree is a tarnished clip-on golden bird, the first decoration Al and I bought for our first Christmas as a married couple. It has survived all those years, as have these very tacky felt-and-pipe-cleaner angels, made by our kids 35 years ago.

On our tree also hang kids’ ornaments hand-painted by a talented auntie – we’ve tried to give them back so they can use them on their own tree now that they are grown and have their own trees to decorate, but they like seeing them on our tree; so do we.

And now the grandchildren have added their ornaments: salt clay gingerbread people, a beaded wreath, and this year, a digitally-designed, laser-printed nativity. This is not a tree that will ever make an appearance in the Martha Stewart Tree Decorator’s Hall of Fame with its uncoordinated colours and lack of theme. But it’s the most beautiful tree in the world for us.

There are many, many ornaments we have collected on our travels – a luminaria from New Mexico, a scallop shell from the Camino in Spain, a painted egg from Hungary, a lighthouse from Nova Scotia, for instance.

And other ornaments that are gifts from friends, like this scrabble rack from a cousin’s wife with whom I played on-line word games. Hallelujah, the tree is up, calling forth so many wonderful memories to light up this dark time of the year.

But that’s not the end of the story. Here’s an ornament made of traditional Delft pottery, a gift from Mom and Dad who are no longer with us.

Granddaughter Grace, shows me an ornament on her tree, a baby’s face nestled in blankets. “This is for baby Farrah, my sister who died,” she says seriously, and pauses for a moment of silence. It’s given me an idea for next year’s tree (the knees cooperating): finding ornaments to remind ourselves of the people we miss especially at this time of year: a shovel for my dad, who loved gardening, a tractor for my two farming uncles for instance. They are gone, yet live on in the fabric of our lives, and for that we are grateful. Hallelujah, the tree is up, and we can remember those who brought light and love into our lives.

As we enter these last days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we also acknowledge the pain and sadness that is inevitable, mingled with the joy and gladness of the season. We are missing loved ones who can’t share this time with us; we are grieving illnesses and dark times, we are feeling the stress of separation or conflict within our circle of friends and family, we are mourning the millions of people who are perishing every day because of war, famine, and disease. This is reality, too, as real as the delightful memories that warm our hearts. Without the darkness, we would not know how to appreciate the light.

The Christmas tree: a tree of memory, a tree of honouring, a tree to remind us that in the darkest times, there is a promise of new life and light.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Looking for the Light

This past week was the first week of Advent, a season in the church calendar that leads to Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Church...Christians – aye, there’s the rub. Those are not very popular words these days in our culture. Unfortunately, the sins committed by the church and by those who call themselves Christians has too often dimmed the light that should be burning brightly in a dark world. Christ is all about the rule of love; there is no greater thing. Yet Christians have too often been judgmental, cruel, more interested in power than in serving others in love.

Sadly, the darkness casts shadows on all the light that has been given to the world, and cold hearts too often cancel out the warm gifts the church and Christians do offer.

I’ve been a Christian all of my life. When I was young, I had no choice. My family was devout and had deep roots in the soil of Christian beliefs and practices.  “We do not choose to have roots; we accept those that we’ve grown out of,” says Gilles Cusson, SJ, and developmental psychologists agree. Our spiritual life grows out of the seeds planted in childhood. Bible Reading and prayer every day, church twice on Sundays, being generous to others, caring for those who needed it...these were teachings that became the foundation of my life.

When I was older, I needed to make a choice about my spirituality: to accept these roots, or to spread my wings and look elsewhere. I chose to accept. It’s been quite a journey over the last 70 years; the road has had its valleys and hilltops. Sometimes, the road was nothing more than a disappearing track in the darkness, and other times it was a broad highway bathed in sunshine. Sometimes I just stood by and watched others march by, singing their victory songs loudly – they looked so strong and confident, while I was full of doubts. Sometimes I took side trips, exploring other spiritual pathways – and always, those pathways led me back, enriched by what I’d learned. So yes, I call myself a Christian, a doubtful, hesitant, joyful, tearful, searching, wandering, questioning, tip-toeing, stumbling, dancing, backward-glancing, laughing follower of Jesus, who is “love with skin on”, whose birth we wait to celebrate. Advent means something to me.

Normally, on the first Sunday of Advent, which was last week Sunday, I would be in church. I would participate in the liturgy, I would watch as the first candle of the advent wreath was lit, and I would be glad that I was part of a larger family who celebrated Advent with me.

But on the first Sunday of this advent season, we were spending a weekend at a hotel in Vancouver and had plans to attend a concert later in the day. The morning was unscheduled, an unusual freedom. I turned on the cell phone and checked out my email, and found my morning meditation there, written by Richard Rohr. This is how I would begin my first Sunday in Advent.

Rohr, a Franciscan priest, believes Creation is all about God pouring out infinite love into visible form. The vast universe with its planets and stars, the earth and all things in it, is all about God’s love made visible. Christmas, too, is a pouring out of love into visible form, love incarnate, love divine. That love is everywhere around us. “What if we’ve missed the point of who Christ is, what Christ is, and where Christ is?” he wrote. What if Christ is all around us, as part of Creation?

“I believe that a Christian is simply one who has learned to see Christ everywhere,” he wrote. The words tugged at my heart. What would happen if for the rest of the day I acted like Rohr’s kind of Christian, one who chose to see Christ everywhere?

And so I did. When I walked with the resident sweetie in the sunshine along the shores of English Bay, “Christ” was everywhere – jogging, biking, strolling; Christ was a child playing in the sand. Christ was the little old lady in bright yellow sneakers pushing a walker.

Christ was a family of three, walking hand in hand; Christ was in the ducks, paddling in the water, in the crows in the trees, in the flowers still blooming, in the waves lapping up on the shore.

 Later that day, at a glorious concert featuring an orchestra and four choirs (including the children’s choir our grandgirls sing in), I heard the voice of Christ – love made visible – in the harmony of the singers, in the cymbals and the piccolo, in the people leaning forward,  listening in rapt attention. The whole day reminded me of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil...” 

There are days like that, aren’t there? But often we are too busy, too battered, too scattered and cynical to see it all around us.

Of course it’s not so difficult, on a beautiful day full of beautiful things, to imagine that Love surrounds us and permeates every part of Creation. Quite another thing when we are stuck in traffic and arguing about which road will lead to the ferry for which we are already late. (You can fill in that equivalent from your own life!) It’s not so easy to see Love when our life is painful, when the world is in disarray, when we are filled with anger or dismay, when hope feels far away. And there's a lot of that going around.

And yet...and yet...I have to believe in Love, in sparkles of divine love flaming out in the darkness, like shining from shook foil. It’s there, if we but turn our eyes just a little and look for it.

May you, too, see the Light in the darkness in this Advent season.