Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28: The Holy Innocents

I hope you had a great Christmas, full of peace, joy, and enough baked goods to clog an artery.  After all, that's what Christmas is supposed to be about--families gathered around fireplaces, toasting marshmallows, and singing "Away in the Manger" or "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," depending upon your spiritual inclinations.  Really, Christmas is a time to celebrate and reflect upon all the blessings in your life.  I believe most people don't do this enough.

But there's another side to Christmas, and today's feast is a reflection of it.  Today, the church celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents.  It's a day that's meant to honor all of the babies who were killed in Bethlehem by Herod's soldiers after the birth of Christ.  In the whole Christmas narrative, this portion of the story doesn't get dwelled on too much.  It's ugly, brutal, bloody, and sorrowful.  It doesn't fit into the modern image of Christmas.  Now, some historians and archaeologists will say that, outside of the gospels, there is not physical, verifiable proof that Herod's slaughter of the innocents ever took place.  My response to that:  it doesn't matter.  This part of the story is as important a matter of faith as the donkeys, angels, shepherds, and kings.

This year, I was reminded over and over that Christmas wasn't meant for the "perfect" families and people of the world.  It was meant for people who, like the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem, are dealing with inconceivable loss and pain.  One family I know is dealing with the sudden death of its father/grandfather/husband.  His loss came on the day we were supposed to celebrate the church's Sunday School Christmas program.  When I showed up for worship December 24, I found out that the father of one of our choir members had died just an hour-and-a-half earlier.  It was a heavy night.

Myself, I've been struggling to maintain my yuletide spirit, as well.  As a worship leader, I kept losing musicians and singers through Advent.  Some moved.  Some had other commitments.  On December 22, I lost my main guitarist.  Band members kept dropping out like Republicans at a universal health care convention.  It wasn't pretty.  On Christmas day, I was trying to extricate one of my daughter's new toys from its box.  In the process of sawing through a plastic clip with a serrated knife, I stabbed myself in the wrist.  The knife sank in, came out, and the blood started pumping.  A LOT of blood.  So I ended up at the local ER, getting stitches and feeling like a stupid ass.  My mashed potatoes got burned for dinner that night, filling the kitchen with smoke.  On the following evening, a shelf collapsed in my mother's kitchen cupboards, sending all of the Corelle plates and bowls crashing down on top of me.  I found myself standing in my stocking feet in a pile of glass shards.  Later, as I was leaving to go home, I put on my brand new, L&L Bean winter coat and tried to zip it up.  The zipper broke.

By December 27, I was ready to heave my tree out the window and shred the Christmas cards I'd received.  I know Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, but all I'm celebrating right now is the half bottle of Baileys Irish Cream in my cupboard at home.  I'm ready to join George Bailey on that bridge.

That's what Christmas was for me this year.  Death.  Disappointment.  Self-mutilation.  Destruction.  I felt more kinship to the wailing mothers and fathers of Bethlehem than the shepherds or magi.  In some ways, I think that's really appropriate. 

Christ didn't come into the world to save the "perfect" people.  He came into the world to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, as a friend likes to remind me.  He came into the world for dumbasses with serrated knives.

Christmas is about the music of angel choirs in the heavens.

But Christmas is also about the weeping of the heartbroken in cold, dark streets.

Friday, December 24, 2010

December 24: All the Holy Ancestors of Jesus Christ

I have always felt a particular kinship to the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. To be precise, when the Lion is in the Haunted Forest, trooping to the Wicked Witch’s castle to get her broom, he witnesses the Tin Man lifted by a ghostly force and thrown like a chew toy. The Lion squeezes his eyes shut, cowers, and chants over and over, “I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.” I’m not as big a coward as the Lion, although I do avoid walking past a house in my neighborhood that’s supposedly haunted by the specter of a little boy. Like my furry, Oz counterpart, I have a healthy respect for the power of the unseen. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

As a child, my respect for all things ghostly was more of an obsession. Saturday afternoons would find me in front of the TV, watching the latest offering from Sir Graves Ghastly, host of a local creature feature. Sir Graves was a middle-aged man with a goatee who rose from a casket at the beginning of his show and spoke with a bad Bela Lugosi accent. His movies ranged from Boris Karloff courting Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein to the 1950s sci-fi flick Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. My favorite offerings were released in the 1960s by the Hammer Film Studios of England. These movies invariably featured a lot of blood, copious dismembered body parts, and plenty of zaftig women in flowing white gowns who wanted to attach their mouths to men’s necks. The combination of horror and gore and sex was enough to drive my pre-pubescent mind wild.

Eventually, I graduated to the slasher movies of the ‘80s. Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Friday the 13ths. As a teen, these films had just the right amount of thrill, spill, and kill to satisfy my cravings for a good scare, plus there were always horny teens sneaking off to go skinny-dipping in Crystal Lake together. By the beginning of the 1990s, my taste for celluloid screams waned. Now, as a father of a nine-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, I’m appalled by the Goosebumps TV show. I refuse to let my children view episodes simply because, to be quite honest, they scare me. I’d like to say that my tastes have matured, that I find vampires and werewolves, zombies and ghosts childish. But when The Exorcist was re-released in the year 2000, I went to see it with a friend. I slept with lights on for two weeks afterward. I’ve become Don Knotts from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

I even find most of the current movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a bit too much. Dickens, aside from creating the stereotypical image of the white, Currier and Ives Christmas, also inaugurated the tradition of telling ghost stories during the holidays. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is just one of many Christmas ghost stories Dickens published. For Dickens, if you heard a noise in the living room on Christmas Eve, it was more likely to be long-dead Great Grandpa T paying a visit than a jolly, fat elf in red fur. And Great Grandpa T wasn’t usually having a great night.

The recent crop from Hollywood based on A Christmas Carol takes full advantage of computer-generated horrors. Marley’s ghost has a jaw that falls open to gargoyle proportions. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a terrifying wraith in black with the hands of a skeleton and hell-red eyes. Watching these films, I slip into full Cowardly Lion mode, peering at the TV through laced fingers, waiting for Marley to don Freddy Krueger gloves and carve up Scrooge like a Christmas goose. I much prefer Waldorf and Stadler as the heckling Marley brothers in A Muppet Christmas Carol. That’s more my speed now.

But it makes sense to me, this focus on ghosts at Christmas time. Even in the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Bible, there are moments of sheer terror. Every time an angel appears to someone, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are not, “Do these wings make me look fat?” The first words, without fail, are, “Fear not,” which leads me to believe that angels are pretty scary-looking creatures, not like Connie Stevens, sporting dove wings and singing “You Can Fly.” No, angels inspire horror at first, not awe. So Charles Dickens was just following the lead of the writers of the gospels when he wrote Christmas ghost stories. Plus, at Christmas time, people tend to put a little more stock in the possibility of unseen powers. The veil between reality and possibility is just a little more transparent. Angels and ghosts are not just figments of fiction. They’re as real as snow, ice, and i-Pads.

Kids, in particular, are more open to such possibilities. In fact, I believe young children have a vision for the unseen that adults either ignore or completely lack. I’ve been creeped out on more than one occasion by my daughter and toddler son suddenly going still in the middle of play and staring into an empty room as if they’ve just caught sight of Santa Claus. My five-year-old nephew once told me, “You know, Uncle Marty, when I get older, I won’t be able to see the angels any more, and that will make me sad.”

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—my wife and I came home from a midnight candlelight church service. Our daughter was sleeping the sleep of childhood Christmas, deep as a Robert Frost winter woods. Our son was in his crib, for once still and calm. We sent the babysitter home and prepared for bed. Pajamas. Toilet. Teeth brushing. I went through the house, turning off lights. I paused for a moment in front of the tree. The living room glowed a muted red, green, white, and blue, full of the sort of warmth you find in a hand-stitched quilt. I reached down and unplugged the Christmas tree.

As I prepared to climb over my wife into bed, I heard my son make a mewling sound, which usually meant he had lost his pacifier. I sighed, craving the comfort of pillow and blanket, but I turned and went to his crib in the next room to avoid an all-out session of screams and tears from him. I was tired, but I still felt the peace of the candlelit church, “Silent Night” fluting out of the pipe organ. I looked down at my son in his crib.

He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling with eyes as big, round, and dark as tree ornaments. The pacifier was still between his lips, and, behind it, he was smiling the way he did when I washed his feet during baths, all gums and delight. He didn’t look at me, didn’t seem to notice I was there. His gaze never shifted from a place on the ceiling, directly above him. His stare was focused, full of some kind of knowledge.

I felt my Cowardly Lion self stir in the depths of my chest. I imagined Linda Blair levitating above her bed, the girl from Poltergeist standing in front of a snowy TV screen, chiming, “They’re baaaaaaa-aaack.” I slowly looked up at the ceiling.

Nothing. Just empty, white ceiling. I was half-tempted to mutter, “Humbug,” but, somehow, I knew the sound of my voice would violate the air, cause it to fracture like ice on a mud puddle. I looked down at my son.

He’d started to slowly suck on his pacifier, as if he was working over some great, complicated calculus problem in his head. His gaze remained fixed on the ceiling above him.

After a few minutes of standing beside him, waiting for an alien to burst from his chest or him to start speaking fluent ancient Greek in a guttural drawl, I went back to my bed and climbed in beside my wife.

In the dark, I listened to the still house, half-expecting to hear the clink of chains or disembodied footsteps in the attic. Instead, my son started to make noises, soft, quiet, musical sounds, as if he were talking with some unseen spook or singing with a distant angel choir.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22: Saint Chaeremon

I owe my readers a huge apology for my prolonged absence from my blog.  My list of excuses is long and really unimpressive:
  1. I got caught up with end-of-semester teaching and grading.
  2. I got caught up with holiday preparations and responsibilities.
  3. I  got caught up with other projects, including teaching a spiritual journaling workshop and writing my annual Christmas poem.
  4. I got caught up with my duties as a church musician and worship leader.
Are you buying it yet?  Am I forgiven?  If not, I'll add one more excuse to the above list.  While my other excuses were true, the following one cuts closer to the real reason I haven't blogged in over a month:

     5.  I got caught up with being lazy.

Especially with writing, it becomes very easy to find other, more "important" tasks to accomplish.  I can think my way out of any writing situation.  My line of reasoning usually follows this pattern:

I really need to sit down and write a post for my blog.  It's been way too long.  But first, since I'm at the computer, I should check my e-mail to see if anyone is trying to get hold of me.  Hey, look at how cheap Kindles are now.  I should go to Amazon.com and see about ordering one.  Wow, they're offering free, 2-day shipping for Christmas.  I wonder if the stuff I ordered on Monday has been delivered yet.  I should track my package.  It's out on the UPS truck right now.  It'll probably be there when I get home from work.  I should check to see if my syllabus needs to be updated for next semester.  I should...

You get the idea.  I could go on and on about the shiny objects that distracted me from the business of writing.  It's easy to become distracted  because, despite the pleasure I derive from writing, writing is hard, time-consuming work.  And it's lonely.  When I write and post blogs, I know there are people reading them.  For the most part, however, it feels like I'm stuffing notes in bottles and tossing them in the ocean.  The conversation, for the most part, is pretty one-way.

Again, I am making pretty lame excuses for my lack of communication in the past month or so.  So, I will just say I'm sorry.  I am not dead.  Or ill.  Or angry.  Or in rehab.  I just fell out of the habit of writing, and now I have to teach myself to love writing again.

In some ways, my relationship with writing is sort of like my relationship with Christianity.  I get lazy.  I start making excuses.  I get tired.  Cranky.  Worn out.  I become distracted by shiny objects--books I want to read instead of devotions, movies I want to watch instead of worship videos, naps I want to take instead of praying.  I'm easily distracted from two of the things that are very important in my life:  my faith and my writing.  I'm not proud of that character flaw, but I know it exists.  And admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

I'm in recovery right now.  Even as I write these words, I'm thinking of all the things I need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.  Shiny objects abound.

So, I'm trying to get back into blogging on a regular basis.  It's a struggle right now, as I've said.  I feel unfocused, uncreative, and uninspired.  Granted, I can't always wait for inspiration in order to write something.  If I did that, I might as well burn my journal, donate my fountain pen to some poetry half-way house, and start watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie.  Inspiration is actually a small component of the writing process, maybe 4%.  The other 96% is all hard work and dedication.

Chaeremon, today's patron, was Bishop of Nilopolis during a time in the third century when Christians were being hunted, killed, and driven into hiding.  Chaeremon, who was a "very old man," fled into the mountains with a friend and was never seen again, despite extended searches by fellow followers of Christ.  Chaeremon simply vanished.

This saint's story is not quite as gruesome as other martyr's stories.  He wasn't burned alive or drawn-and-quartered.  He wasn't decapitated or fed to hungry bears.  He just disappeared.  My guess about most saints is that the majority of their accomplishments are the result of 4% divine inspiration (visions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary; prophetic dreams; levitation; miraculous healing) and 96% hard work (climbing mountains; building churches and schools; begging for food for the poor; being tortured).  In other words, it's just like writing.

Sometimes grace will guide what you do.  Most of the time, you just have to disappear into the mountains and hope some bright star appears to light your way.

I'm looking up, waiting for my star to appear.  I haven't vanished into a cave.  I have my pen.  I have my paper.  Just add water and inspiration.  I'm heading down the mountainside, one rock, one crater, one cliff at a time.