"Let us go straight to Bethlehem . . ." — Luke 2:15 When the angel appeared, the shepherds were in the hills, the dogs circling the flocks, the men tending the fire. Then the eldest stood watch for the drowsing others under the stars. There was nothing out there they couldn't handle. They were solid, made of the ground they walked upon, easily moved by song and poem, scornful of city folk, calloused in hand, sparing of speech. The angel shot the night wide open in an instant, towered in flame before their hooded eyes, flooded their ground with a sounding brightness. (O smallest you, how will you survive the baptism of this fiery purity?) There were directions: a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. They left the sheep with the oldest one — setting deference aside — to run breathless into the night. They found the place alright, animal instinct tracking lightly and sure. Gods and angels: what did they know of such? This child's holy fire burned so deep that closed eyes saw it all entire for nights and days and memory of years.
". . .all generations will count me blessed." — Luke 1:48 She threw her head back, this girl, and sang out a song of fierce joy, of thrones overturned, vast armies conquered, the least of these upthrust and upheld, this cry of triumph leaping up from her throat into the smoky air. She saw herself in a dance she would later dream about. Astonished, she opened her heart, this girls, and the song poured forth. It was a spring gushing up, water of life flowing, breaking rods and chains like branches in the wind, a scirocco in the wilderness, a tempest over Galilee. It is an arrow to the heart, the heart, in time, pierced through and through. Silence at windows, dead embers raked. Honor and reverence and mute memory. But now, here, this moment: all is glory.
There in the Annuciation she is preserved as in a jeweled box with lilies, a dove of discreet geometric glory in a radial symmetry above her, the vanishing point precisely configured beyond the angel, touching down in a Tuscan town. Now she is at the bus stop, chewing a fingernail, glancing at her phone as the bus rolls up, all compressed air and scrolling LEDs. The doors hiss open, the cool air drapes like a shawl around her shoulders. She has a rolling pack, chooses a window seat, gazes as the streets turn into lanes, fields, then forests, cliffs of fall and gorges, night slipping down the flanks of mountains, blades of dawn up over the plains, to a cattle gate and a house far up the drive. The bus will rumble off, dust feathering away. She will turn to walk, her heart quickening. There will be a figure waving, then running, graying hair and parchment skin, a woman exultant, a leap of joy within her womb.
The year descends, drops behind the moon, cold in the night and aflame with stars. Now we warm ourselves with ancient stories of stars on the move, not contained by powers or tribes, crossing borders. There was a first Advent — against the odds. It was promised. We believed so fervently we did not see the One who came, crossing borders without a sound. It's not that certainty is wrong, but there is imagination. And hope. Everything else is blind experience or gossip. There is a wilderness inside us, a desert wilderness. Promises as cold as contracts, despair feeding the cosseted self. Hope burns. In the last age it flames up against the wind, fuels the Advent promise, the one yet to come.
Job's friends come for a visit. He has nothing to offer them: no tea, no coffee, no bread fresh from the oven. Nothing. They sit in silence, all of them, four old men and a brimming youth. Job sighs and shifts on his ash heap; the afternoon plows on. In the courts of the sky a cloud roars up in the east. It boils with demons, locusts, frogs — Job gets to his feet, eye wide, swaying. "Why will He not regard me?" He staggers, then shouts: "He is not in the east; I cannot find Him in the west; I do not see Him in the north. And you can forget finding Him anywhere south of here." Now Job is bent like a fishhook. His hands clasp his knees. He has knuckles like walnuts. "I will not be reduced to silence," he whispers. "This dark mystery will not break me." God walks the streets of His holy city, pauses in the slow, slanted light of the afternoon. Lucifer waits on the corner, silent in fury, shielding his eyes against the light. "You will never have him," God says. "His anger is pure. It is a prayer that answers itself." He tosses a whirlwind from hand to hand.
"What is your name? 'Legion,' he replied." — Luke 8:30 Let me have your abyss, I said, let me have your fear. Give me the voices in your head that sobs will not dislodge. Give me the irons that tear your wrists, the rocks you drag, the devils without number. I will turn you inside out, I said. We know who you are, the demons shrieked. They swarmed — a locust cloud — around him. He tore at his throat; I saw inside him then, a broken vessel, the rotten seeds of death clustered in his heart. The whole village turned out to see him clothed and in his true mind. Beaming, but bruised, he was an innocent, inviting all to share his joy, swinging his chains into the sea under the bright sky. Leave us! they cried to me. What have we to do with you? We saw Lucifer fall like lightning from the sky; we do not know what havoc you've unleashed.
Maybe "Star Trek" is heaven. No war, no disease, no poverty, endless exploration, curiosity the passport to the far reaches of the universe. There is conflict, right against might. We save our firepower for protection. We do not interfere. There is a good deal of luck involved. We meet the strange and marvelous beings who find us odd, but amusing. There are worlds not found as yet within the stellar dust. The technology works — until it doesn't, and then we make do, as always, leaning on one another. We beam down with a message for those on the planet's surface: "Behold, we bring you great joy! Do not be afraid!"
Most of us think there must be something God hates about us. We are lost, down by the docks where the gulls wheel overhead like kites. We cannot understand why we are punished, how we come to be trapped in our ways. Our nature is to be suspicious. There is fire in the clouds; the earth is restless. Our shadows turn and writhe behind us. But yet, a grief is assuaged: A woman passes through a crowded room, her fingers trailing mercy; an old man ascends the stairs, each step a breath of prayer; a sky of stars hovers over mother and child far out to sea; a boy answers, 'Here am I,' into the sheltering darkness. A word is accepted by one who could not forgive; the giver bows his head in gratitude. A question is asked of us. It will take our lives to answer it. Spirit breathes within the spaces between us. There are reasons to think we are wrong about the hating.
Is this how we learn? The sun comes up, the moon goes down, the wind turns the corner with a smile. We go on. One chance each moment together makes the present. I buried a yesterday friend. Our lives from sixty years gone. We are changed. The tide has taken some, the waves have thrown others up on the sand, adrift these long years. God is silent, but not without promise. Within each grain of sand, the future memories of a pearl will bloom. We create with what's at hand. Do not cast away the silence of your grief and grace, the sun dropping behind the hills, light cooling on your shoulders, the stillness of the night spreading out like a blanket under the trees, teaching you the words you will learn by speaking.
It was bound to happen: we all go through that narrow door which swings wide for us. My friend got there first, a little out of breath, surprised, no doubt, how easily it opened.
I had hoped to catch him, having glimpsed him in the crowd ahead. “Friend!” I called out, as the traffic clattered past, but he was farther up the hill and would not have known my voice
from sixty years and a continent’s divide. As in a dream I saw him move, but I could not move. As in a dream I called out, but I could not make a sound.
We change from moment to moment, but not that we can see. Green leaf to brown while we are not looking. Then winter’s pale light and bare ruined choirs.
We see that door in front of us, our hand raised to knock. We hear the footsteps coming up. A voice behind the door calls out our name. We are home.