THE FIRST NOEL:
INSTEAD OF THIS, THAT
INSTEAD OF THIS, THAT
And so this is Christmas. The First Day of Christmas, that is. So don't throw out your tree quite yet. We have twelve more days, culminating on Twelfth Night with bonfires, dancing, much merriment, and the customary 12th Night belching competitions! That's a Shakespeare joke. Pay some serious coin to take my Shakespeare course, and I will interpret the mystery for you.
Today, the feast day of the Nativity of the Son of God, we ponder the gifts of life and love and, especially, a brown bird with a round body and short tail in a fruit tree. I hope you feasted. But not on partridge. Too greasy. And besides, you wouldn't eat five gold rings would you? Or twelve drummers drumming?
So. So. So. Let's catch our breath.
We waited and waited and waited throughout Advent for the coming of the One for whom we were waiting. We longed. We listened. We hoped. We prayed. We sang in a minor key. Most of us probably said at some point, (in the words of an old friend of mine), all this hoping is really exhausting. And then we decided we were just gonna buy that tacky tree, join Lucy and the kids at the dance, and forget about ol' Linus and the true meaning of Christmas.
But now Christmas has come. The waiting is over. Kind of. Christ has come we proclaim, although, as I've mentioned more times than I should have had to if you people would just pay better attention, there's still a certain well, don't get too excited because what we really meant was that at some point in the unknown future He will come like THAT and then . . . well, then things will really start changing around here! So be it. Charlie Brown gives Linus the look at this point and sighs.
OK, well that's the chief irony in Ironic Advent and, to me, it's a frustrating inescapable part of the whole thing. But, still, despite all that, let's let ourselves cut loose and do some serious pondering. I mean, what DO we have here, in the manger, in Bethlehem? What is THIS?
An amazing gift. No, more amazing than I can say and than you are thinking right now. Really. A fantastic story in the original sense of that word. In fact, I'd say a shocking, rather strange view of God emerges from the story (even if it's just a story) or, more specifically, from the barn in Bethlehem if we "believe" the story (and, one of these days, I want to talk more about what that word believe might mean in the context of such an outlandish narrative).
But let's "believe" it together, for at least a minute (which, let's be honest, would be a miracle in itself). Here, we have a deity come to live among messy us, messily. Sleeping with the beasts, born of and now nurtured by the body of a woman, first revealed to ragged shepherds who were routinely scanning the hills taking count of their sheep not eagerly watching the skies or scriptural prophecies for news of any coming miraculous births. Not Duke PhD's I'm saying.
And I could say more, but won't right now. Just this, then: the entire ironic "coming in humility, emptying himself of all but love, his only weapon the cross, etc." problem of Advent (with all its apparent promises of a coming king who would rule with power and justice and cause all oppression to cease and wars to end forever and ever, amen) is anticipated in this strange birth. Which we were believing in a moment ago, remember? Or, if you couldn't get there with me, and you were just following along for argument's sake, we can still agree that the story of this birth sort of flows into the story of the rather humble, strange, some might say even disappointing "kingdom" of the Son of Man (as he was said to call himself).
Instead of that. This.
Months ago I had a great notion. Sometimes I have those, Irene. It was this. November 22nd, the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, an author with whom I disagree often but whom I love unconditionally (as they always say on those horrible television programs), a memorial to Lewis would be dedicated in Westminster Abbey. I won't, now, go into my long and continuing encounter with the person and work of C. S. Lewis; just trust me that it is personal, literary, religious, and critical. Yes, yes, I've been to the places and seen the things and done the stuff; I said trust me. And I know my way around over there.
So I contacted a group of other friends who shared my passion (four-fold as described above) and said, basically, "We have GOT to be there." To some degree, we are the prime movers of a series of Lewis sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies every year in Kalamazoo. And so, we started planning, and even arranging some funding.
Plans went well, for most of us. And some of my best friends of the world were, indeed, there for the symposium on Lewis on November 21 (led by other, English, friends of mine with whom I've worked in the past) and the dedication service on November 22. I had really really looked forward to that.
Unfortunately, I was not there. In fact, the whole C. S. Lewis thing pretty much never crossed my mind those days. I think I remember, one time, somebody said something about JFK who had died on the same die as Lewis.
That was in reference to another death, that of my brother, Noel.
We were waiting with him all day on November 22, as his blood pressure went lower and lower, eventually hitting ridiculous numbers that made us think the doctors had been wrong all along for not doing some procedures because, they said, his heart couldn't take it. This boy, our own miracle Christmas baby, now fading away, was a very strong man. No, stronger than you are thinking right now. People can't stay alive with the blood pressure numbers he had. But. . . .
Somewhere late that night, early the morning of the 23rd, I said, he's going to outlast the night. Four of us were with him for I don't remember how many hours. It had been six earlier on the 22nd. Ten or twelve earlier than that. Now it was four of us. Joann, Missy, Gordon, and me. We touched him, sang to him, watched him, prayed for him, kissed him, told him we loved him and were proud of him and marveled at the great strength in weakness.
The sun game up. Outside the Intensive Care window, it reflected off the skyscrapers on the New Jersey side (Noel's side), and it shone on the Hudson River which flowed exactly as it always does regardless of what's happening on either side. At about seven, Noel stopped breathing.
I was planning on and waiting for an amazing trip. A kind of closure to a life-long encounter with someone I consider to be a great (though flawed) fellow mammal.
So be it. I got this, instead of that. During and after (and still) we who shared this talked together about the intensity of those days. It was liminal, out there, somewhere in the high country as they say, supercharged, gut-wrenching, sacred.
I can honestly, now, start to feel a little regret for missing the Lewis thing as we called it in the waiting and planning stage. Noel wouldn't mind, I'm pretty sure. But I witnessed something and witnessed someone and now witness to something and someone that I will never forget, as long my brain is functioning as a mind. And maybe longer.
And I'll write about that some more. There are twelve songs of Noel, this is just the first. I especially don't want to draw false morals from things or force what happened (at Bethlehem or at New York Presbyterian) into some pre-determined grid. These are just the reflections I feel like singing tonight. I have a sense of how weakness can be strength. Of the power, if that's the right word, emerging from watching or witnessing love and goodness even when it appears to be losing the last battle.
I'm sure C. S. Lewis said something worth quoting about that somewhere. Well, actually, I know he did because I gave a paper on his book A Grief Observed at Kalamazoo last spring. You can look that up if you want. This is my story. This is my song. And Noel's.