The hard, frozen ground protects them so they can be the first to pop out.”
My father was definitively credible in my young eyes. Likely more credible than most any other source of information in my life, but this confounded my trust. The Nebraska ground was covered with inches of snow and ice and cold and the tulip bulbs that outlined the garden were a distant memory.
Decades later, I have an annual renewal of doubt that there will be a spring thaw. In the outside world, and in the interior one. On Ash Wednesday, I was confident that Easter conversion was just 40 days away. Fervor, confidence and commitment showered me with trust in the process. In the middle of the journey, it seems less clear. Like those tulip bulbs that I doubted were being nourished below the concreted layer of rock solid soil, there is a gravitational pull to discard the resolve and yield to complacency.
Melting the frozen layer takes time – the layer that has gotten less alarmed with the daily reports of violence – the layer that expects inaction from those with the power to make change – the layer that expects less personal connection in the midst of more digital contact – the layer that waits for God to act like the tooth fairy instead of empowering the human race to be more human – the layer that prefers to binge-watch instead of determining the next right step.
Melting the frozen layer takes time, but Lent removes the layers. I discover the twinge of knowing that something else is required of me. As the thaw takes shape, I see the disparity between what I value and what I do – and I know that those tulip bulbs will never pop through the soil, nourished and done with fallow time, — unless I shovel the snow.
This week, I notice the thaw of the heart and the awakening of my thinking. For me, it is the simple act of the next right choice – and to trust what I cannot see.
We had a big snow last week – not enough to invalidate the snow day calculator, but enough to delay, disturb and discourage the daffodils. As I walked along the driveway – I was reminded of the magical feeling I had on Christmas Eve as a few brave souls and a few good friends gathered in for midnight mass in the midst of a snowstorm. In December, it was magical – in March, it is something closer to misery.
Beautiful misery, but nonetheless – discouragement as the buds of spring are waiting to pop and the hibernation of all forms of the animal kingdom has nearly worn out its welcome. I was pondering all this while counting my steps on a trek through the building when a fourth grader stopped me with his piercing question, “I have a good idea for Lent.” “What’s that?” I posed as he joined me on my walk.
“Why don’t you tell all the adults to stop all the shooting and the shouting. For Lent. I think it would be a good idea and I think God would be much happier” he suggested with both clarity and definitive expectation.
It stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t sure which topic to approach first – violence and his understanding of the world condition – or the fact that he had the misperception that I had any influence large enough to stop the war and start the healing.
I looked at him for a second before he darted off with a quick, “Thanks Sr. Bearss. See you at lunch.”
That was it – I was left with the prophet having appeared from the fourth grade and the challenges of March Misery-Madness haven been deflated with truth.
Lent offers us truth, but demands action. It is not enough to hear the challenges of the Gospel – they require something of me. I may not be able to stop the violence that plagues our cities and threatens our harbors of safety, but I can do something about the wars within my own heart. It is all about the eyes with which I see the situations that challenge me. From magical snows of Christmas miracles to the misery of what I don’t want to see in March. It is the eyes with which I see that creates the difference.
This week, for me, is about seeing differently – and being called to action.
Let us each be the one, like the Samaritan woman from the Sunday Gospel, who steps outside the box of conformity and expectation and dares to reach beyond convention to right action. Each of us will have the chance this week to fill the jar of someone who stands on the “other side” of the well – the only question will be if we have eyes to see beyond the constraints of our expectations
It was all very clear at first — the unmistakable experience of Presence — the angel, the message and the path. The obstacles were overshadowed with the Grace that made walking into the night seem like simply the price to be paid for living from the inside out.
It’s the joy of engagement, the passion of the inspiration to give your life to defend freedom, the pursuit of peace through the Corps, the inspiration that leads to the first words of the book, the delight in the new position that is just joy shrouded with difference-making. Such is the stuff of invitation, where we each discover the unmistakable desire that defines the decisions. For each of our lives, like the couple who headed to Bethlehem, there is something so definitive that we set ourselves on a journey with the courage of the indomitable and the heart of love.
The real work, though — the real decision — the one that requires a refuse to despair, a release of the desire to control and the commitment to walking a path of real joy…happens from the depth of night. This joy, grounded in the gift given in the first days of the fervent “yes” becomes unlike the Hallmark commercial and more like the pathway of those who have walked the same pathway on the way to their own Bethlehem — confident in the promise given by God that in the manger, where your presence has been counted as one who believes, the manger holds the miracle…but it requires the first step.
The real work of Advent is not in the whimsical days of putting up the sparkling lights or rushing through the Thanksgiving dishes to see if Black Friday really holds the deal. The real work of Advent is not in the ornaments, the gifts wrapped and ready to be ripped or the Morman Tabernacle Choir hitting the historical notes that enliven the thirst for beauty. The real work of Advent is not checking the “Giving Tree” off the list of things to do so that our abundance can yield some relief to another’s scarcity. No…the real work of Advent happens deep in the night — when, on the road to Bethlehem, while “not a creature is stirring, not event a mouse” — we find ourselves gripped with the doubt of our earlier certitude.
This is where Advent begins — Emmanuel “God with us” — in those gripping moments when I recall again the truth that I live, “my mind is a dangerous neightborhood that no one should go into alone…especially at night.” When, in the middle of night — in the middle of things — when things are messy and unclear and the strategic plan objectives have not been met and the young love has greyed into an empty nest and the sparkling lights have become dulled with disillusionment. This, is where Advent happens. It’s the moment that you get back on the donkey because you believe — even in what you cannot see or feel. It is to face into the unknown Bethlehem and refuse to let cynicism, fake news and fear be the stars that guide your action. Advent happens when we turn off the phone and light those candles and dispel the darkness. Advent happens when it’s messy — in the middle of things — when we are too far away from where we started and very far from where we are going. Then, in the middle of the darkness, as the road winds through one more hairpin turn that you think you just can’t do — and around the bend, through the darkness that leaves you wanting to quit and forget about the whole thing…..
You see the star. It hasn’t been there before — or has it.
Was it that you were looking down at the ground
and gripped by the black hole you refused to look up.
Was it that the clouds hid the piercing light
and so you have been gripped in the fog of your own dim hope
Was it that you refused to see that the light
has been the magnet leading you through the darkness
Or did it just appear
It’s Advent — in the middle of things
Look — your star has been waiting for you
Last night, the only conversation was about the storm. The number of inches of snow, the treacherous driving, the interruptions being made to our “very important schedules” and the inconvenience that the storm we had been hearing about for days was making in each of our lives.
Since it takes me about three minutes to get home, I stayed with the children whose parent’s lives were being ravaged by the traffic that kept them stuck where they didn’t want to be. Three of us sat together and peered out the big glass windows and began to weave the tale from inside the snow globe we imagined we were in as we watched the snow pelt down and we all wondered if a “SNOW DAY” was ahead of us.
Today, in the piercing sun of an exceptional crisp winter Michigan day — the kind where the snow and the blue light of sky seem to meld into a Norman Rockwell view of the definition of December. With twinkling lights behind me and expansive rolling hills of snow out the same window where we created the snow globe story, I watched four deer frolic in the snow as though nothing could be closer to heaven than snow to adorn your antlers.
From problem to grace. Beneath the frozen ground, I know what is happening. My father described it every year as he dug up the “children” of his retirement — the hybrid roses –whose tender spring grafts would be nourished into wholeness by the frozen ground. He dug each one up as if it was his own creation while reminding me that he was just the gardener who tended to the vulnerable that it might grow strong with thorns and whole with color. Then, a same-sized plot was dug as he buried each in a vault of leaves that had been chosen for the occasion, like a shroud expecting resurrection.
“The rose,” he would pronounce with authority, “depends on the frozen ground above it to protect it so that the vulnerable wound becomes the rose.” At the moment, I was more focused on the number of rose ditches that I needed to dig, rather than the teaching that awakens Advent in me.
Grace springs from the vulnerable and strengthens it into fierce beauty. Not the beauty of spring seedlings, but the beauty seasoned by waiting for the long winter to nourish and to reveal the change — not the repeat of what has been, but the revelation of what is in process. Advent is the time of celebrating from problem to grace. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem amidst the fallow time of problems, pain and discomfort — where even though more pain is possible…there is a new rose that arises from the grafted stem.
It is Advent love; where mistletoe unites and music softens the heart
It is Advent love; where for a moment television commercials speak of kindness rather than campaign resolutions never to be fulfilled
It is Advent love; where ornaments on trees that have no purpose make us feel a homecoming to our own being that makes it feel like all might be right with the world
It is Advent love; where we dare to think of others first and realize that nothing else really matters
It is Advent love; where we choose to follow the light through the darkness because we know that inside of each of us is a manger awaiting new life
It is Advent love; where we decide — just for today — to be real and turn off the device and bake cookies that take time and forget to answer the text
It is Advent love; where we just do today — take the next step on the road to Bethlehem because the star is there, and everything else will follow.
It is Advent love.