Rough Glory

It's being a weird sort of December, with more rain than snow thus far. It's been grey, dank, windy, and not at all Christmassy, for all the house lights and decorations up and down the street. People are complaining about not "being able to get in the spirit of Christmas," a frame of mind strongly correlated with heavy spending. Seems we have to have the correct weather to "do" Christmas: ideally a blanket of the fluffy sort of snow and winter-blue skies, I suppose, so that everyone can think sleigh bells.

On the other hand, the week's been full of tiny miracles. Driving into the city, I saw a flock of geese headed south at the last migratory minute, and the slanting light from the southwest turned them into specks of pure silver, brilliant against the cloudy sky. On Thursday, as the weather swung wildly from rain to hail and back again, with a brief shower of ice pellets, there was a moment when the sun broke through and briefly the whole world shone.

We'd like life to be like a Canadian Christmassy landscape (without the cold, of course): clean, smooth, pure, and simple, full of warm fellow-feeling and happiness and smiling faces, because we've been brought up to believe that that's the way it should be. We're constantly bombarded with ideals that we cannot possibly meet --gorgeous spreads of food from which slim, handsome people rise without gaining an ounce, ideally happy families beaming warmly over mounds of perfect gifts that don't burden the credit cards, ornaments in rich good taste, "tradition" fulfilled without mess or stress. And of course none of it is real. Even as we know the "happy families" are only actors, we still long for what they represent.

However reasonable we try to be, a small part of us thinks that somewhere out there are "real" families that look just like the ones in the commercials, and our own households look so messed-up by comparison. Other people have it all together, we imagine; other people don't have to struggle the way we always seem to be struggling. Other families never quarrel at Christmas. Nobody but ourselves feels lonely and let down. There's the ideal, and we never seem to meet it. There's never enough stuff under the tree; there's never the perfect gift.

But the kingdom of God, as we know it in this life, is more like this untidy weather than that perfect Christmas. It's more a matter of roughness lit with sparks of glory, like those geese shining brilliant against a dull pewter sky, than it is like a prettily white Christmas. God came down to be among the roughness, to live with it and with us as we truly are; not to transform this world into something that might just possibly meet Martha Stewart's standards. God chose a rough cave to be born in, poor people as family, sinners as friends and companions. Whatever this world's standards are, God's are very, very different.

The landscape of the kingdom isn't a winter wonderland. Even when it's beautifully snowy, it's also got those other winter aspects that the cozy songs don't mention: raw winds that whip the warmth from your cheeks, slush and black ice--and those mysterious blue shadows at twilight, definitely beautiful but anything but comfortable. The journey in faith leads you not away from your humanity, but more and more deeply into it. The landscape of the kingdom is first and foremost *real*: it is this world, so grotty and full of pain, so imperfect and still so beautiful, that God chose for the miracle of the incarnation.

God is still incarnate in the mess and the ugliness as well as the sparks of glory that shine forth. Grace isn't gracious, in the gracious-living sense; it's something much, much stranger and wilder than that, involving serious wilderness time. It's hard for us to see that roughness as promising, because the whole culture tells us to turn away from it. Smooth and pretty is Good; rough and plain is Bad, and anyone who wants to break a leg wrestling with angels has got to be nuts.

Still, something of the God-ness of Christmas manages to leak out into the shopping malls, mostly (I think) through the lights and the music: whatever Santa's doing with Mommy, Christmas is still intrinsically about the birth of a baby, God's child: the magnificent strangeness of the Incarnation, with silence and the unknowable at its still centre. And there is still a breath of mystery, wherever it hasn't been supplanted either by greed or by magic; it's woven through the quiet music. It's in the lights on the tree that we stare at, half bewitched and longing for something, we don't know what. God leaks into that other landscape, the one of eggnog and mistletoe and hearty traditions, and spices them with a strangeness. Maybe it's that particular pang that people so long for, and don't know how to reach. They don't know to look for the fullness of it in God's rough country.

As I drove downtown to the bank yesterday, the sun broke free on the western horizon, while to the east were clouds so dark they looked like charcoal smudges above the horizon. At the creek's side by the downtown bridge, there are willow trees, now bare, of course. The sun struck them and turned them to sudden gold against the clouds. There it is again, if you're watching for it. I'd sooner have that moment than any tasteful ornamental Florentine Renaissance angel in antique gold.

But then, the God I believe in dwells in uncouth country, because that's where we need God most. That truly is where we meet the child: in poverty and bareness and poor estate. And that's where the mystery is deepest, richest, and most truly satisfying.

With joy approach, O Christian wight:
Do homage to thy king.
And highly praise this humble pomp
Which he from heaven doth bring.
         -- Robert Southwell

Copyright © 1999 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 18 Dec 1999
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