It was going to be a quiet Saturday. I had planned to spend it in the kitchen baking and making toffee with Christmas carols accompanying me as I measured and stirred and kneaded.
Only a text pinged at 7:30 and the phone rang again not much later with the news of first one and then another death of ones dear to us in our congregation.
And so, I did the very least of what needed doing before heading out to sit with grieving ones who were then still in the bewildering place which is ours to share whenever we find ourselves where they do today. Piecing the story together. Finding words. Seeking understanding.
And I thought as I drove from one to another about what a mystery life is at both its beginning and its end. In particular, though, at least it is for me in those countless times when I have stood nearby and watched precious breath cease and leave and wondered to myself where one so uniquely made could possibly have ‘gone.’ I’m no scientist, of course, but even so, you can explain the biology of all of it to me over and over again and while I take it in, even understanding, it doesn’t touch the questions I always hold.
And I thought this, too, of course, as I know you did, you do as well whenever we come to such as this just a few short days from what is surely a time of holy celebration, how these two families will likely limp through this holiday, doing what they can, but their hearts will turn and turn again to those so very loved, not to mention the funerals which will now wait until after. Indeed, I thought this too, of how these who loved so much had watched and listened so closely these last days for signs of change, for slowing of breath, and of how one who was nearby to one of those who died, sensed the stillness and knew. How all their senses were leaning into love.
And though it is not the same, of course it’s not, I find myself thinking of the shepherds now and of how tuned in their senses, too, must always have been to both opportunity and danger. For their own sakes, yes, but more and always for the sake of the sheep in their care. Those they were called to protect at least in part for the sake of those they loved at home, no doubt.
Indeed, I stepped outside a few weeks ago now into an unseasonably warm December afternoon. I had found a place with trees and gently flowing river and a walking path, and I spent an hour trying to still myself enough to pay attention to the sounds, the sights, the smells. And as I walked, I thought of the Christmas shepherds then and of how much of their lives were spent outside and of how little of mine is. And I wondered about them in a way I’m not sure I ever had before — at how they were surely accustomed to watching the horizon for threat of storm, to listening in the night for the sound of predators, to sensing whatever might threaten those in their care. Oh, while those shepherds have been thought of as part of the miracle of Christmas in that they were included at all, being such ‘lowly’ ones, I found I did not think of them in this way then.
- Rather, I found, I find myself wondering if maybe they were simply instead the most able to receive the powerful gifts of God that night in angel’s song.
- Yes, I wonder if they felt the electricity in the air making their hair stand on end before the heavens filled with a host of angels announcing such good news.
- Or maybe, as a friend suggested over lunch the other day when we pondered this together — maybe (probably?) the sheep sensed it first — and the sudden stirring in the flock had the shepherds on high alert!
Oh, this time through I am quite certain of it. A whole host of angels filled the sky and sang God’s promises to shepherds that holy night because the shepherds were those who were paying attention, whose senses were tuned in to such as this and more.
Because the shepherds could hear and see and did just that.
As for our precious ones who grieve this week — and there are many — both here and with you, too, I know. I pray for them and for you wherever and however you may be, that given what they have experienced so deeply now that their senses might be open, also, to not only their obvious heartache, but hope and wonder and peace as well. All those gifts of God of which the angels sang. For I have known that such times which break our hearts wide open also somehow open us to all that is also so powerfully good. Oh, may those singing angels might break through, break in that we might see them, hear them, sing along with them… And with those shepherds make our way to Bethlehem as well.
For while the world will say and say again, that Christmas is for the glad hearted I am more and more convinced that the gifts of these holy days are even more for those who know heartache. And the wonder is — it is they — it is we who join them there — who perhaps can most surely receive all that God coming to us in human flesh means.
Because our hearts — our eyes, our ears, all that is within us which meets the world — have already been broken open by love.
Not unlike those Christmas shepherds so long ago.
- My take on the shepherds is a bit different than it has been in other years. How have you, how do you now find yourself thinking of them?
- It is my experience that when my heart has been broken, I am also somehow able to receive amazing gifts as well. Something opens up in me then. Has this been your experience in any way?
- I am thinking now of a world which has been ‘broken wide open’ by so very much. Might this also make the world more ‘open’ to the promises of the angels’ song? What do you think?
Thank you so much for your words every week. I was thinking exactly what you were while I sat by my mother’s bedside for one month watching and waiting for her to die. Over and over I wondered what was she thinking and where was she going. I have to say I find myself doubting some times. However, your words bring me some clarity and I pass them ion to friends and family. I want to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and blessed new year. May God blessed new year.
It’s good to hear from you Anne Marie. May God Bless you at Christmas and in the New Year!
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