Friday, December 26, 2008

Mundane Magic

This year I spent all of Christmas trying to help my sister-in-law while she was in labor: supervising the nephews’ opening of presents while her contractions were already nine hours in the making, taking walks and counting the increased contractions after the boys had been shipped to Gram & Grampa’s, walking up and down stairs at the birthing center, and being the delivery-room errand-girl. I feel like after watching a baby boy being born on Christmas Day, I’m supposed to have some inspirational words, maybe imagining doing that in a stable, or maybe musings about the humanity of Christ. I don’t know how Christmasy my thoughts are, but I’ll give it a try.

* * *

My oldest nephew once came and spent the night with me at my cottage when he was three. Among the activities I planned for him was popping popcorn on the stove. I heated the oil, added the kernels, and put on a glass lid that allowed us to watch the process. When small, hard, brown seeds suddenly transformed into large, puffy, white popcorn, my nephew exclaimed,

“Aunty Em, is that magic?”

Slightly amused, I nevertheless maintained my commitment to answer his questions honestly. “No, it’s not magic; it’s just he way God made it.”

But my nephew’s face grew more intense and awestruck at this response. He asked more earnestly, “God made magic in the world?!”

I was tongue-tied for a second, but finally determined the most honest answer to his question. “Yes... yes he did.”

* * *

After all, what else did I witness over the course of the past nine months that clamaxed yesterday when from my sister-in-law’s agony emerged a beautiful child whom no one had seen before (what beauty does not come from agony, after all?), who was made from half pieces of her and half those of my brother? Does our knowledge of some of the gears of that magic trick make it less magical?

Does it with any of the magic God made in the world? Is a rainbow any less magical because we know that light carries in it the entire spectrum of visible color that glass and water may unpackage for us? I know light does, but why should it? With the best of our rationality (another miracle; where did we get that from?), we can eventually learn some of the nuts-and-bolts of how things happen, but the question of why approaches the miraculous.

So yesterday I watched the climax of another daily, regular, run-of-the-mill miracle. And it was on Christmas day, no less, a day we associate with the magic of miracles, and suddenly the question of whether or not I believe in the virgin birth or the physical incarnation of God seems ridiculous. Of course I do. I’m a scholar, after all, and many of my dear friends are scientists. We should know that there are miracles written into the workings of the world; we observe them every day. If these mundane miracles happen by the truck-load every day, of course there may be greater ones.

And the miracle of redeeming the broken places of my soul, the miracle of healing the broken places of the world... perhaps I may be slowly coming to believe in those as well.

God rest ye merry, on this second day of Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

...all in the waiting

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
-T. S. Eliot
One interesting thing about trying to submit the rhythm of ones soul to the Church calendar is watching it be thwarted. This year, for example, I’ve already written about God pouring out Alleluias on my Lent, and about an illusive Easter that never seemed to arrive. When my spirit is in a posture of repentance, perhaps I am more able to hear surprising news of God’s favor.

And now, as I begin the second Church year with this listening-blog, as I try to catch up with Advent after a month filled with papers and grading and trips, I’m realizing that my season of waiting and longing that I am normally so good at is being thwarted. This year, the triumph of Christ the King Sunday has stayed with me through Advent, and redemption feels so tangible I can’t help but believe it has become incarnate.

Maybe Advent isn’t only about waiting and longing; maybe it is also about expectation, as if all of creation, “the angle choir of matter,” stands “poised as if to sing” (to use phrases from one of Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets). Maybe I always missed that piece of the puzzle as the posture of my soul seemed naturally inclined toward long, enduring waiting. Maybe waiting for a God who takes delight in saturating gratuitous beauty into the laws of creation, who reverses entropy and makes everything fall together, is by definition an expectant...even joyful...wait.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her;
the appointed time has come.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gratuitous Beauty

Last night I walked out of my parents’ house in the country with my little sister, and saw a magnificent canopy of stars... getting less magnificent every year as the city encroaches closer on the horizon, but magnificent nonetheless.

“Thank you, God!” she shouted to the cold, clear December sky on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. “What a great present!”

I smiled, and joined the applause. It was a gratuitous display of beauty, there for the two of us to enjoy, but there whether or not we enjoyed it.

* * *

Last week I was driving down the interstate, returning home on a three-and-a-half-hour drive to visit my grandmother. I was just in the process of noticing the lovely beginnings of a golden sunset in the southwest when it started to rain above me. Knowing what happens when sunlight and rain converge, I stole a quick glance behind me.

The rainbow was amazing. It covered the whole northeastern sky in a giant semicircle, beginning itself again right below.

For a moment, I connected to the promise to Noah made in Genesis. Apart from the issue of worldwide floods that scholars may argue about, the rainbow spoke of goodness, beauty painted across the heavens just for the hell of it. God gives us light like a wrapped present that the particles of water unwrap into colored brilliance, for no apparent reason other than that he likes it that way.

I immediately turned on my turn-signal so I could pull over and admire the masterpiece, but the rain stopped as suddenly as it began, and the rainbow was gone.

Another gratuitous display of beauty, only there for a moment.

* * *

And I sit here and try to articulate what this beauty does in my soul, what it would do to my theology if I let it in there, but I can’t get much farther than my little sister’s exclamation. What can be said of a God who integrates beauty into the intricacies of his handiwork, who can make gargantuan balls of burning gas glorious or bent light in the rain gorgeous? Just that he did a good job of it, I suppose.

Yay God! Bravo!