Merry Christmas! God is with us!

Gaudete! Christus natus est! Alleluia!

Tonight God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled.

Nativity reredos painting edited

Detail of reredos in Nativity Chapel, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. Photo by the author, who is not too proud to admit this.

I love this gaudily-colored painting from the reredos of one of the side-chapels in my church. Christ is born, and everybody, human and otherwise, has shown up to celebrate! I’m reminded of a phrase from the requiem Mass (quoting from the Psalms): Ad te omnis caro veniet—“To you all flesh shall come.” As many Christmas carols—and the Bible itself—remind us, it’s not inappropriate for the mind to turn to death on this holy night. Christ’s death was inscribed into his birth:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  Luke 2.34-35

And yet, isn’t that true of us, too?

In becoming human, God the Son destined himself to die. This is no surprise if you take the Incarnation seriously: all living creatures eventually die. Through his death, however, Christ made his divine eternal life available to all flesh. No surprise, then, that “to you all flesh shall come!”

His birth, life, death, and resurrection, however, were not a “plan B” contingency for human sin, but rather the very purpose of creation: by doing the impossible and becoming a creature, the Creator, having loved creation out into existence has loved it back to Godself. St. Ireneus put it this way:

“…it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Human DNA is now in the Godhead. That is the radical truth of Christmas. Tonight (paraphrasing Ireneus), God became human so that humans may become divine.

All flesh is involved, too, because all flesh is related. By uniting creatureliness and uncreated Creator in his Person, Christ saves a cosmos that, of its own power, would tend toward extinction. Think of it as a rescue or a salvage operation; either way, creation was not meant to be disposable.

“You hate nothing you have made…” – BCP Collect for Ash Wednesday

It’s a miracle that anything other than God should exist at all. It’s a far greater miracle that God should enter creation. Again, this is no contingency plan. It was the point all along. God made us because God wanted to be with us, and God is with us, forever, in Christ.

Merry Christmas.

“O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”
– BCP Collect for Christmas

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On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

The Spirit of Detroit and Christian Hope

Photo by the author

Statue informally known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” by Marshall Fredericks. The sculpture sits outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at Woodward and Jefferson Aves. Photo by the author.

The Detroit city motto has become better known in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of books—about the city’s history, and, yes, about the ruins, by authors who live in the Metro Area and love the city—and of merchandise such as bookbags, t-shirts, postcards, and other items you might find at City Bird, the Detroit Merchantile Company, Pure Detroit, various Eastern Market vendors, pop-ups, or other local boutiques. Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes. These words were penned by Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest and a major figure in Detroit and Michigan history, after fire destroyed the city in 1805.

What does it mean to “hope for better things”? Is it the same kind of hope as when children hope for a snow day, or when you hope your favorite team will win the game?

I think the fact that it was written by a priest in the context of city-wide disaster suggests that Fr. Richard was thinking more along the lines of Christian hope, which I would define as the confidence we have in virtue of our trust in God, whom we know to be trustworthy. That’s a very different kind of hope.

Which is well and good and quite encouraging, really, for Christians, and perhaps for other religious theists. But in today’s pluralistic context, even in a predominately Christian city like Detroit, I think it’s important to find where a similar kind of hope is accessible to all.

Confidence from trusting in that which is trustworthy—where can we find that today? Not in City Hall, not in Kevyn Orr or Gov. Rick Snyder, not in Dan Gilbert or the Ilich family; not in the economy, certainly not in the strength of the U.S. Dollar. Not even in the ideal of democracy, which is so clearly broken. I would suggest we find that secular version of confident hope in the people of Detroit: in its people of good will, whose civic identity and spirit, I think, is characterized by strength, loyalty, pride, and resilience. “Detroit hustles harder,” as they say.

The religious meaning of hope is, I think, primary; but it’s important even for those of us who consciously place our trust in God to also discriminate among those objectives vying for our hope in the world around us. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we place our trust in God, and also place it in an earthly savior, such as a corporate benefactor or a politician. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness” but also chase after economic security before all else. But for people of faith, hoping in God is always done in community, as community. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are people of covenant. We believe God calls peoples into covenant with Godself, and so we simply cannot fully trust in God without each other. To trust in the human spirit—in this case, the spirit of Detroit—requires civic engagement, concern for one’s neighbor, and holding virtues like charity, commitment, and forgiveness above the shiny distraction of money. It requires creativity, sharing, peacemaking, and hard work—but not just the individualistic hard work of earning one’s own living. It is entirely congruent, I think, with trust in God, because God’s dwelling is among the people. (If you don’t believe me, go read James Cone or Jim Perkinson, or any of the Liberation Theologians.) If we are to trust in one another, though, we must work, as a people, to be trustworthy—to be worthy of this confident hope. Thankfully, we bear this task together.What kind of city do we want to build? What Detroit do we want to be?

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal, also at city hall (visible on the upper left in the image above). Photo by the author.

The LORD brings the will of the nations to naught;
he thwarts the designs of the peoples.

But the LORD’S will stands fast for ever,
and the designs of his heart from age to age.

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD!
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven,
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death,
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.

(Psalm 33:10-22, BCP)