It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.
The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.
Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.
There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.
Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.
With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.
The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14
God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:
Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35
The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.
He has created us to do so:
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5
So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?
That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.
Let us love one another. We were made for this.
*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
December, always the quickest month, has flown by with even greater speed than usual this year. Suddenly, our daughter is home, half-way through her third year at the University of Virginia. We’re wrapping presents. And it’s Christmas Eve.
Kiko, as usual*, has positioned himself squarely in the center of it all. (He’s the Milford Plaza of dogs.) Evidently, he suspects something very good is brewing. If only he could stay awake But the pull of sleep is strong and inviting. His head nods, and his body sways as he attempts to resist.
Sleep wins out.
Rolls of decorative paper make a comfy pillow on a sun-drenched carpet. I finish the wrapping, walking carefully around him. Soon I’ll wake him up and we’ll head over to the live nativity at our church. And that means it’s really, truly Christmas Eve.
*See the post from last December: Holiday Advice from Kiko: Just Chill
On this Veterans Day, on the Main Streets of small towns across our country, banners honoring currently serving military men and women continue to fly from flag-decked lamp posts. Typically, these hometown hero banners wave from May to November. In the charming Eerie Canal village of Spencerport, New York, they had been newly installed when we visited family over Memorial Day. As the leaves fell, the weather cooled and the time changed, I wondered if the banners were still in place. My sister-in-law Julie told me that they were indeed there along Union Street, and she sent some pictures.
Spring and summer have come and gone. Fall has all but made its exit. In upstate New York, as Thanksgiving approaches, a gray icy chill descends. Snow, and lots of it, is likely on the way. And still the soldiers gaze down on the streets of the towns they call home. They’re mostly young. They wear their dress uniforms. What’s in their expressions? Hope, apprehension, dread, determination, courage, trepidation, resolve, regret?
Here in Northern Virginia, Kiko and I spent some time in a small cemetery near our home on this unseasonably warm Veterans’ Day. The customary sounds of a suburban autumn–the leaf-blowing, tree-trimming, power-washing, and traffic–they’d fallen silent for a while. Kiko surprised me by not insisting on trying to venture out into the street beyond. Instead, he settled on a hill. Beside him, flags decorated several graves, as did one little pumpkin. Except for the occasional rustling of a falling leaf, the stillness around us was deep and comforting, like a blanket.
Veterans Day here in America evolved from Britain’s Armistice Day, first observed on November 11, 1919, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in World War I, which had occurred a year to the day before. It has come to be known as Remembrance Day in Britain. President Eisenhower changed the name of the US holiday to Veterans Day in 1954, designating it as a time to honor all our military men and women, including those who fought in World War II and Korea.
Veterans Day serves as a reminder of the very human cost of war. May we be resolute in our honor of those who have served and now serve in every branch of our military. May we remember that, as the seasons change, our soldiers yet remain far from home, in remote and inhospitable locales, often perceived as the enemy even when their mission is dubbed a peacekeeping one. Many hometown heroes banners are likely to be removed soon to make way for Christmas and holiday decorations. Let us not forget the ongoing sacrifice when those bright young faces no longer look down on us from Main Street flagpoles. And may we use the power of our vote to demand that we reflect on the past and learn from mistakes. May we elect representatives who seek to comprehend, and when possible, avoid, the truly inestimable cost of war.
For my Memorial Day post from Spencerport, see here.
Last year, Slim and the pack managed to fit in a quick road trip to Charlottesville on Halloween afternoon to mix with the University of Virginia community during Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn. This year, due to the threat of severe thunderstorms, the event was postponed until November 1. While the Skeleton Crew wasn’t in attendance, our daughter was, and she sent some photos.
The evening was clear, chilly and gorgeous in the wake of the previous night’s heavy rain. It attracted a big crowd from the university and the town.
Since the 1980s, the University has invited Charlottesville families to bring their children to trick or treat at each of the rooms on the Lawn and the West Range. These are the historic student accommodations dating from Jefferson’s original plan for his University’s Academical Village. Candy is donated by many student organizations.
The Rotunda, glowing like a lantern in the dusk.
Our daughter and a friend.
The moon rises. Twilight deepens. Time for little ghouls and goblins to head home. If my college experience counts for anything, I’ll assume that, for the students, Halloweekend festivities were only beginning.
For last year’s post on Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn, see here.
On Halloween night, the storm held off here until our last trick-or-treater had come and gone. The torrential rain and howling wind that followed only heightened Slim’s jubilant mood. He gleefully deemed it perfect Halloween weather. Well, it was too hot, he admitted, but that just made it feel more eerie.
When Friday arrived with a crisp chill and glorious sunshine, Slim was equally bubbly. “Now this is fall!,” he exclaimed. “Feels like October! Or November!” And when my husband presented him with a Washington Nationals cap, he had yet another cause for celebration.
Slim was thrilled to be out and about during such an unprecedented sporting event. Did I know Slim had some amazing baseball stories? Including some involving a few of his buddies who happened to play with the Senators during their greatest year in 1924? I do now.
He and the gang had been in a deep sleep in May of 2018 during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, so this home team win was all the more precious. When Slim learned that the Caps were playing in DC on Sunday night, with the triumphant and festive Nationals in attendance, he caught yet another wave of enthusiasm. Soon he was outfitted in a combo of Caps and Nats gear. He pleaded and cajoled to try on my husband’s hockey skates, but H, accommodating though he may be, had to deny the request. He’s picky about blade maintenance. Our daughter’s were off limits for the same reason. I volunteered my figure skates, but Slim kindly said no thanks.
Slim’s many talents do not include hockey, but he has been a superb skater, in the Hans Brinker style. Some of his favorite memories involve skating on the frozen river, with my maternal grandparents, in Kentucky when they were teens. One year it got so cold that they could skate from Bradfordsville to Louisville. Oh, the bonfires along the banks! Oh, how Slim (and Sam, my grandfather) impressed the pretty girls with their style and speed!
Slim hadn’t seen a hockey game in decades, and the nonstop action had him on the edge of his seat. He made us promise that, come spring, if the Capitals are in the playoffs, we must wake him up!
From Slim and the pack:
Congrats Nats! Fight finished! And belatedly, congrats, Caps! Rock the Red!
Halloween dawned gray, warm and humid. Slim studied the forecast with a practiced eye. He consulted the experts at the Capital Weather Gang. Stepping outside, he remarked ominously, “Feels like tornado weather.” But then, with a flippant wave of his elegantly bony hand, “I tend to exaggerate. We’ll be fine.” Much like my dear late father, whom he adored, Slim believes firmly in keeping on the sunny side of life.
Yet with rain most certainly on the way, he summoned the pack for their annual Halloween joyride a bit earlier than usual. “Let’s get a move on for a morning ride, friends! And Kiko, old man, how bout you drive? I wanna sit up high and feel the wind in my face!” Kiko obliged and settled into the driver’s seat, where he typically feels most comfortable.
But Slim had to go back inside to search for his ball cap. “Wish it were a red Nats cap!,” he mused. Having stayed up late the previous night to watch the historic World Series win by the Nationals, he was in a particularly buoyant mood. Seated in the back of the VW, he remarked, “Hey look, we’re in the championship parade! I’m Rendon! No, I’m Strasburg! No, I’m Kendrick!” The pack looked up admiringly, delighted to bask in Slim’s glory. Golly, they all felt like champions. Slim has that effect on those around him. That’s one reason we all love him so. And why he reminds me of my father.
But after our morning walk, Kiko was a tired champion. He was already asleep.
Of course, there’s no raining on Slim’s parade. There would be a Halloween joyride. And it would be exhilarating.
May your Halloween be merry and bright, come rain or come shine!
Like clockwork, every year on October 1, our old friend Slim and his pack of loyal pups emerge from a state of semi-hibernation in the peaceful subterranean depths of my mother’s basement. After eleven months of repose, they traipse back, a bit unsteadily, into the light. Gradually they ready themselves for Halloween, their Big Night. Slim typically spends the first few days roaming the various rooms of our two houses. He reacquaints himself with the familiar and notes even the most minimal changes in décor. The old photos on the desk in Mama’s living room prompted him to hold forth with a wealth of amusing reminiscences. He’s known our family for decades, and his memory is unfailingly sharp. Slim’s a sentimental sort, but his keen wit keeps him from waxing maudlin.
After their long period of introspection and slumber, the dogs take a renewed interest in neighborhood activity. Champ, Elfrida and Rocky keep watch at their favorite front-window perch.
Little Ruth has claimed a perfectly chihuahua-sized chair for her lookout post at the front door.
Slim was so surprised at the mildness of the weather that he thought his dependable internal clock may need winding. The gang enjoys the shade of our back porch on a particularly balmy afternoon.
The pack is poised for the chase. Squirrels, cats and all intruders, beware!
Slim and the gang love mixing with the kids of the community and handing out candy at our church’s annual Trunk or Treat. This year they had the pleasure of hanging with a friendly T-Rex. . .
and swapping tales of patriotic heroism with a young George Washington.
Following a leisurely meal, Slim is persuaded to recount some of his favorite anecdotes of Halloweens past.
And now, on this Halloween Eve, time to kick back for a few winks before the festivities begin!
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
May our country continue to uphold and live by these words, as powerful today as when they were composed in 1776.
Let there be liberty and justice for all!