Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

Inviting Epiphany

December 30, 2008

Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson

I’m working on a reflection for the gospel lection for Epiphany, but in the meantime, I offer you this festive trio to get the celebration under way. Wise Women Also Came was one of the first collages I did when I started to discover, many years ago, that there was an artist lurking in me. I created this as my Epiphany (i.e., belated Christmas) card the year I graduated from seminary. I made it out of plain construction paper; this was before I had discovered the wondrous world of art papers. (A trip to The Japanese Paper Place, now simply called The Paper Place, while visiting my sister in Toronto changed all that; you could say that walking into its stunning space was, well, an epiphany.)

These wise women made their way onto the cover of my first book, which I was writing during the same time that I was getting to know my inner artist. They also made an appearance in Night Visions, my first book to wed my writing and my artwork. This time a poem accompanied the women:

Wise Women Also Came

Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
would open
under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
no permission
from any king.
They came
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came,
and they brought
useful gifts:
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.

Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.

Next week, in the wake of an intense season of travels and other endeavors, I’ll resume working on a new book. It’s something of a sequel to Sacred Journeys, the book I was writing when these wise women took shape. Though I rarely find writing easy (when folks ask me if I enjoy writing, I usually say, “I enjoy having written”), I’m looking forward to reentering the rhythm of working on a book in a focused fashion. It seems an opportune time to revisit these wise women as I seek a blessing for the path, and the book, ahead. I wonder who will show up this time, and what epiphanies they will have in store.

Who have been the wise women in your life? What epiphanies have they instigated? Here at the ending of the year, what wisdom do you want to gather up from the past twelve months and take with you into the coming year? What blessing, what gifts, do you need to receive for the path ahead? What gifts do you need to offer, that only you can give?

Peace to you in this time of turning.

[To use this image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Merry (Continued) Christmas!

December 26, 2008

Presentation the Temple © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas 1: Luke 2.22-40

A blessed Feast of St. Stephen and a Happy Boxing Day to you! Advent tends to be such an intense season for me that this year I find myself particularly grateful that Christmas is not just one day, concluding at midnight last night (at which point the radio station I was listening to abruptly ceased its Christmas music) but rather a period of twelve days. There’s some variation as to when the Twelve Days of Christmas begin; some say Christmas night, others begin counting on December 26; regardless, it’s finished by Epiphany on January 6. The point, however, is that Christmas invites us to not wrap up our celebration of the Incarnation too quickly.

This period offers us several feast days that add texture to the season. Two of them commemorate folks who were important in the life of the early church; today is the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr), and tomorrow is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (to whom the fourth gospel is attributed). December 28 offers us the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which bids us remember Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem. This feast in particular calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of Christmas and to be mindful of our call to relieve the suffering that persists even amid the joy of the Incarnation.

This year, as I recover from the blessed intensities of the Advent season, I’m giving particular thought to how I might linger in my celebration of Christmas, how I might find some festive rest in these days. In this period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, are there any practices I might take on that would help me savor this season? Might those practices become new traditions in my own observance of the fullness of Christmas?

In the spirit of seeking some rest in this time, my reflection on the lectionary this week will be abbreviated. This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Luke 2.22-40 for our gospel reading. Luke tells us of how Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, which, according to the law, would have occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth. They went not only to present Jesus but also for Mary to go through the prescribed rituals of purification following a birth. In the Temple they meet the prophets Simeon and Anna, who have long waited for this moment.

When I created a mixed media series called The Advent Hours a few years ago, I included a depiction of this moment in the Temple; it’s the image above (somewhat cropped for my purposes here). In creating it, I borrowed from medieval artists who rendered this scene, particularly the artists whose illuminated prayerbooks inspired this series. This is what I wrote to accompany my version of the Presentation in the Temple:

A light for revelation, Simeon says of Jesus when Mary and Joseph go to the temple to engage in the rituals required after the birth of a child. Medieval artists sometimes conflated the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision of Jesus, which would have happened several weeks previously. Although Simeon wouldn’t have actually held the knife, as these medieval artists sometimes depict, he has cutting words nonetheless: And a sword will pierce your own soul, too, he says to Mary. Then the prophet Anna arrives, and she sings of redemption, and perhaps Mary remembers: A light, he said; a light for revelation. A luminous Word.

So how might these Christmas days invite you to linger with the luminous Word whose birth we are not done celebrating? Where do you find yourself in the wake of December 25th? What were the gifts of Advent? What were the challenges? What do you need now? How will you get it?

December 26 finds me feeling both sentimental and expectant. Not to mention tired. But recovering. In the wee hours of yesterday morning, I posted my final reflection for this year’s journey toward Christmas at The Advent Door. As with last year, publishing my Christmas reflection, and ending the Advent pilgrimage, offered a poignant mix of relief and regret. Intense as they are—and in part because of their very intensity—I love the days of Advent, love diving into their richness and finding what new words and images they have yet to offer me. I’m always a little sorry to see those days go. But—they’ll come around again next year, inviting us once again to find new gifts in the ancient story of the Word that came, and comes still, as light and life.

If you didn’t make it all the way through The Advent Door, I invite you to pay a visit there as we move through these lingering days of Christmas. Until Advent rolls around again next year, I look forward to finding what the coming months have to offer and exploring that here at The Painted Prayerbook. I am grateful beyond measure for your presence on the path.

Merry (Twelve Days of) Christmas to you, and a wondrous new year ahead!

For What Binds Us

August 31, 2008

For What Binds Us © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 18/Ordinary 23/Pentecost +12: Matthew 18.15-20

If you have arrived here via The Text This Week, welcome! For my new reflection on this passage, please visit Where Two, Where Three.

Writing this, I’m sitting on the porch of a house on an island off Savannah, Georgia. Inside the house are the women with whom I spend each Labor Day weekend. From time to time I can hear their voices from where I sit; they are in the kitchen fixing dinner, or watching the game on TV, or talking at the table. These women are some of my closest friends from seminary. I have loved them nearly half my life. The seven of us are scattered across the Southeast: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. We cross paths rarely during the rest of the year, but, in a tradition that began while we were still in school nearly two decades ago, we gather annually for several days of talking and eating and talking and eating and reading and napping and eating and did I mention talking?

Each of us is engaged in some kind of ministry. Most of us serve in settings beyond the local church, but all of us are connected with a congregation. And so, whenever we’re together, much of our talking has to do with church, and with all that comes from being part of a community still learning to be the body of Christ. Our stories reveal our awareness of the possibilities and painfulness that come with those relationships. We know how these communities can both call forth and stir up all that we are capable of as humans; we have seen the glory and the gore that come in attempting to be the church.

In our gospel lection for this Sunday, Jesus speaks to the challenge and the wonder of being in community. He recognizes that being his follower, being part of his body, will not relieve us of brokenness. Jesus is clear that being Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, and that discord should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire body. He lays out a plan that requires his followers to engage a brother or sister who has done harm. His plan is one that seeks to preserve the dignity of the one perceived to have done wrong and to restore his or her relationship with the community.

Jesus’ blueprint for dealing with conflict is an ambitious one. It places a lot of trust in a church’s ability to discern what constitutes a sin and to deal with one another in ways that are both forthright and loving. I appreciate that he thought his followers could be this mature.

We Christians haven’t always been so good at this. In the presence of brokenness among the body, we have often either avoided making a direct response, or we have inflicted punishment that precludes ongoing relationship.

To engage one another in the way that Jesus describes in our gospel lection poses challenges on several fronts, not least of which is that we don’t always agree on what constitutes a sin. For another, we each have our own sins to reckon with, and times when we act out of our brokenness rather than our lovingness. It’s often so much easier to point toward what we see as sinful in another’s life than to deal with the ways that we ourselves bring harm to the body of Christ. Jesus knows this, too. It wasn’t so many chapters ago that he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3)

Dealing with the sources of conflict in the church requires such profound humility on our part. We find this kind of humility in this story of Abba Moses, a desert father who spent much of his earlier life as a robber:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)

Being people of humility and forgiveness doesn’t mean doing away with discernment; after all, Abba Moses also cautioned, “Do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour.” The health of the community requires us to be vigilant about rooting out the sources of harm. Yet Christ calls us to do so with a spirit that acknowledges our own brokenness and shortcomings and seeks to restore relationships wherever possible.

Engaging one another around the most difficult challenges of living together means that we have to know each other. It compels us to see one another with a clarity by which we not only recognize one another’s shortcomings but also know each other’s stories. This clarity grows elusive in a culture where face-to-face connections are becoming more difficult to form and maintain. It requires effort and intention to seek and sustain such seeing. My days with the women of this Labor Day group remind me how much the effort is worth. These women call me to remember what is possible among people who know one another this well, who know the questions to ask, who know how to challenge and sustain and accompany and love one another into being.

Jesus recognized the power of this kind of knowing. For all the challenges of conflict in a community, the power of concord is stronger. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where we find a place of connection amid conflict, where we gather in the name of the one who calls us to be his body, where we give ourselves to knowing one another: that is not only astounding, it is a miracle that moves heaven and earth.

Jesus underscores this by telling his followers what he has recently told Peter: that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus’ phrase about binding and loosing come from the rabbinic tradition, in which rabbis had the power to discern whether a questionable action would be permitted under the law. Yet in the context of this passage about our life together as followers of Christ, his words about binding and loosing prompt me to ponder what connects us, those threads that seem so strong and slack by turns. I think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “For What Binds Us,” how she describes the scars that grow from our loving of one another, how those scars become cords that create “a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend.”

So, on this September day, what binds you? What holds you together with others? What do you fashion from the scars you carry? What do you long for in your relationships? What are you willing to do to find or create it? Who can help?

In your binding and loosing, in the conflict and concord that come in your loving: blessings.

[To use the “For What Binds Us” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Postscript to Pentecost

May 11, 2008

Happy Pentecost to you! On this occasion of Pentecost’s unusual confluence with Mother’s Day, I’ve found myself thinking about the frequency with which Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears front and center in artful depictions of Pentecost. In the first chapter of Acts, the author makes a point of noting that “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus,” were among those who gathered in the upper room, devoting themselves to prayer. The text implies her prayerful presence at Pentecost, and artists across the centuries highlighted her among the gathered assembly. Because of her presence and leadership among the disciples, along with her role as the mother of Christ, Mary became known as Queen of the Apostles as well as Mother of the Church.

The artful images of the Pentecostal Mary illuminate an intriguing resonance with the story of the Annunciation. In Luke’s gospel, we read of how the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. As with the Annunciation, paintings of Pentecost, such as this one in the St Albans Psalter, typically depict a woman open to the Spirit who appears—as so often in Christian iconography—in the form of a dove.

In much the same way that many medieval artists portrayed Mary reading at the Annunciation, they often depicted her in a similar fashion at Pentecost, as in this page from a 15th-century French Book of Hours. Another French Book of Hours depicts Mary kneeling at a prie-dieu as she reads, a motif that often appeared in artwork of the Annunciation.

As a blissfully incurable lover of books, I take great delight in these images of the literary, Pentecostal Mary who remained steeped in the Word throughout her life. These images also challenge me to ponder how I’m opening myself to the God who comes to us as both Word and Spirit. What do they stir in you?

On this day and all the days to come, may the Spirit breathe through the mothers and others who care for the children of the world.

(Artwork: Annunciation to Mary [detail] from The Advent Hours © Jan L. Richardson.)

The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery

January 6, 2008

Magi and Mystery
Magi and Mystery © Jan L. Richardson

Merry Epiphany to you! I preached at First United Methodist Church of Winter Park this morning; here’s an approximation of what I shared.

Magi and Mystery
Matthew 2.1-12

We’ve seen them everywhere over the holidays: three regal men, sometimes depicted with camels, bearing gifts that they have traveled hundreds of miles to offer to Jesus. Although their story, which appears in the Gospel of Matthew, is distinct from the nativity story in Luke’s Gospel, and although it’s likely that they didn’t reach Mary, Joseph, and Jesus until Jesus was a couple of years old, these wise travelers are almost always depicted along with the shepherds and others who inhabit the story of the birth of Christ. Christmas cards and nativity sets vividly bring together the stories that Matthew and Luke offer. In the manger scene in my parents’ home, the wise men join not only the shepherds and the traditional cow and donkey who welcome Christ into the world; owing to my mom’s great sense of whimsy, they stand also alongside such creatures as a dinosaur, a moose, and a giraffe. Kind of a “Noah’s Ark meets the Nativity” sort of thing.

We have these really familiar images of these wise men who come to welcome the Christ and lavish him with gifts, but the truth is that Matthew’s Gospel tells us very little about them. Matthew refers to them as “magi,” a word that means wise men or astrologers. We’re not certain where they came from; possibly Persia, about a thousand miles away, where there was a class of priestly folk who were referred to as magi. We’re not sure how many of them there were. Because they offered three gifts, tradition has often assumed there were three wise men (one gift per wise man, please!), but estimates across the centuries have ranged from two to twelve. We don’t even know their names, though legend has called them Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

The wise men are sometimes referred to as the three kings, a designation that comes not from Matthew’s Gospel but from passages in the Hebrew scriptures that refer to kings who come bearing gifts for a great new ruler.

All this is to say that the magi are shrouded in mystery. In the midst of Matthew’s relative lack of information, we do know these things: they possessed the ability to read the heavens, they felt compelled to follow a star, they traveled a vast distance to welcome and pay homage to Jesus, and they brought him amazing presents.

I’m intrigued by the fact that Matthew, who is so fuzzy on certain details regarding the magi, is very specific about the gifts they brought. This suggests that the gifts are part of Matthew’s whole point in telling the tale of Jesus’ birth. The first hearers and readers of Matthew’s story would have understood the significance of the wise men’s offerings, but, as we ponder the story two millennia later, it’s good to remind ourselves of what these gifts would have meant.

In Jesus’ day, the first gift, gold, had lots of the same connotations that it does for us. It’s precious. It’s lavish. It’s a gift fit for a king. In the Bible, gold is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as royalty. Isaiah and the Psalms refer to kings who bring gold to honor a great ruler. For the wise men, the gift of gold was a way of acknowledging Jesus as a king.

It is, perhaps, a little harder for us to grasp the value of frankincense and myrrh. Both frankincense and myrrh come from the aromatic resin of trees. More bluntly put, they are dried tree sap. What a gift for a child! But in Jesus’ time, they were costly, myrrh especially so. Frankincense was typically used in religious rituals. In Exodus 30, God tells Moses to make an incense that includes frankincense, for use in the tent of meeting, where God meets with the priests; God tells Moses, “It shall be for you most holy.” The wise men’s gift of frankincense symbolizes that God has come in the person of Christ, that Christ himself has become the place of meeting between divinity and humanity.

Myrrh seems like perhaps the strangest gift of all. In Jesus’ time, it was especially associated with funerals and was used in the process of preparing a body for burial. In the New Testament, the only mentions of myrrh, besides today’s reading, are in the gospels of Mark and John, in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion and death. This seems a curious gift for a young child, and I have to wonder if this gift haunted Jesus a bit. Though it carries some foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus, I think the magi intended it not as a morbid gift but rather as a reminder to Jesus that, even for him, earthly life is brief, and we are called to use it well.

On this day of Epiphany, as we set off into the new year, I want to invite us to think of the wise men’s gifts to Jesus as gifts for us as well. These gifts, rich with symbolism, have invitations for us who seek to follow Christ, who are the body of Christ. I want to suggest that within these gifts, so rich with significance and symbolism, are questions that can accompany us into this new year.

The gift of gold, the gift that recognized Jesus was as a king, invites us to consider the question: Who were you born to be? This is perhaps the most crucial and most complicated question of our lives. Some of the most interesting people I know are those who, well along in their journey, are actively discerning who God has called them to be. When I was in seminary, half of my classmates were what we call “second career students,” folks who had been doing some other work in the world before discerning a call that involved theological training. I entered seminary straight out of college, very wet behind the ears, and it was a wonderfully rich experience to be in classes with folks in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They were a great reminder that this process of becoming who we were born to be is a lifelong adventure. That’s true even for those of us who carry a strong sense of what we’re called to do. I tend to be really focused—I sometimes think of it as Attention Surplus Disorder—and have always had some sense of what I’ve wanted to do. What I wanted to do went through some changes before I discerned a call to ordained ministry, but I can see the common thread linking those vocations I was interested in. Even now, in a vocation that has taken me deeply into who I believe I was born to be, I’m still growing into my understanding of that call.

The gift of frankincense, the gift that recognized Jesus as the one who is a meeting place of humanity and divinity, invites us to ponder the question: How do you want to encounter God? This kind of question is at the core of the Connect theme that we’re living with at First Church. As we set out into this new year, how might you seek to stay connected with God, within and beyond this congregation?

The gift of myrrh, the gift that recognized that even for Jesus, earthly life is brief, a twinkling of an eye, invites us to reflect on the question, What is your relationship with time? How do you enter into your days in a way that helps you discern who you are and helps you seek God? Annie Dillard writes that “how we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives.” She also writes, “Live every day as if it were your last and then someday you’ll be right.”

So, a trinity of questions for this new year:

Who were you born to be?

How do you want to encounter God?

What is your relationship with time?

Carrying the crucial questions can be uncomfortable. It’s not always easy to live with mystery, but I’ve found that a good question can carry me a long way. It invites me to rely on God to show me the path, rather than thinking I should always rely on myself to know everything and do everything.

The magi didn’t show up with maps; they brought gifts that helped Jesus know who he was. Like the wise men, who had to travel by another road when they left Jesus, we may find ourselves on some strange and unfamiliar and mapless paths when we seek to follow Christ. But in his company, we will, like those wise travelers, find our way home.

[To use this image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A New Blog for the Holidays (I resisted naming it The Yule Blog)…

December 2, 2007

Happy Advent! During these weeks that lead us to Christmas, I’ll be posting primarily from a new blog I’ve created for the season. I welcome you to stop by The Advent Door for some peace and quiet in these days!

Music and Mystery

November 30, 2007


Like lots of folks, I rely on music to help me cross into the holiday season and to navigate its terrain. During Advent and Christmas we anticipate and celebrate the incarnation, the Word who became flesh, but sometimes it takes more than words alone to evoke and enter into the mysteries of the story of the God who came to be with us.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone in search of Christmas music that takes my ears beyond the customary holiday fare. Although there are some contemporary songs in my stack of holiday CDs, my collection leans pretty heavily toward music that reaches backward in time. This is music that draws the listener deep into the layers of stories and legends surrounding the birth of Christ, music that echoes with the ancient human longing for light and celebration in a dark time. These are songs of signs and wonders, with words and melodies that beckon us to enter into the audacious, mysterious, hopeful, and wild tales they have to tell.

Here’s some of what I’ll be listening to as this holy season begins.

Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols
Legends of St. Nicholas
On Yoolis Night

Anonymous 4

The women of Anonymous 4 are masters of reaching into the treasures of centuries past to offer sustenance in the present. These three CDs are now available in a boxed set titled Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas; the set also includes the CD A Star in the East, a collection of medieval chant from Hungary. (As a single CD, A Star in the East is now available under the somewhat more mundane title Christmas Music From Medieval Hungary).

La Bela Naissença: Christmas Carols from Provence
Patrick Vaillant, et al.

Ooohhh, I really love this one; it’s one of the newest in my collection and is among my all-time favorites. I first heard excerpts from it on Harmonia, the splendid radio show that features early music and offers archived shows on its web site. “La Fugida en Egipte” (The Flight into Egypt), with its wry alleluia, is worth the price of the CD, and Patrick Vaillant’s liner notes are a big slab of icing (chocolate) on this Christmas cake. He writes,

the Nativity is not just a series of images. A whole imaginary world is stirring behind them, and it is this that carries the entire story and all its little meanders, giving a bit of legend here and a measure of familiarity there to the whole mystery. The music is there to reveal, to unfold the tale, to give these images their dimension in sound….Christmas carols are witnesses.

The Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains

A great CD with a big dose of Irish flair. Here the Chieftains mix it up with such folks as Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, and Marianne Faithfull, plus Jackson Browne with his song “The Rebel Jesus,” which should be part of the Christmas carol canon.

Bruce Cockburn

One of the first CDs I purchased when I started searching for nontraditional fare. It’s actually very traditional, in the sense that it draws on lots of old carols, including the haunting “Iesus Ahatonnia” (The Huron Carol, written by a Jesuit missionary in the early 1600s; Cockburn says it’s the first Canadian Christmas carol) and “Down In Yon Forest” (of which Cockburn writes, “If there were a contest for the title of the spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”). Though filled with traditional fare, the Canadian Cockburn puts a spin on it that makes it feel like a different animal entirely.

Christmas Through the Ages
Various artists; the composers include Arcangelo Corelli (how could he not have written Christmas music, with a name like that?), Benjamin Britten, and John Rutter

Aside from the tasty Christmas fare this contains, I couldn’t resist having a CD with a cover that features a fantastic depiction of the wise men wearing what look like particolored stockings, from a 6th century mosaic in the basilica of San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Here’s a link to a photo of the spiffy magi.)

The Black Madonna: Pilgrim Songs from the Monastery of Montserrat
Ensemble Unicorn

This isn’t specifically a Christmas CD, but this wondrous collection of medieval pilgrim songs from Spain begins with a song about the Annunciation to Mary and ends with a Catalan round that makes mention of the magi. Sandwiched in between is a festive array of songs that tell some of the stories and miracles of the mother of Christ. The CD includes a couple of selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, an enormous collection of 13th-century songs in praise of the Virgin Mary. Written in Galician-Portuguese during the reign of King Alfonso X, known as “El Sabio” (“The Wise”), a number of the songs are attributed to El Sabio himself. The interaction of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions often exerted an intriguing influence on the culture of medieval Spain. The songs included in The Black Madonna bear witness to this; they convey the sense that something very ancient and complex is at work in them.

Mistletoe and Wine
Mediaeval Baebes

Baebes indeed. This CD gathers up songs from a couple of their previous holiday CDs and includes “There Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu” and “The Coventry Carol.”

To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Loreena McKennitt

Containing a couple of original songs from this distinctive Canadian singer-composer, this CD primarily features traditional Christmas music from England, Ireland, and Scotland.

A Winter’s Solstice III
Windham Hill Artists

For sentimental reasons. This is one of the oldest in my collection of cool Christmas CDs. I still particularly delight in Pierce Pettis’ take on “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Barbara Higbie’s “Lullay, Lully.”

The Night of Heaven & Earth
Gary Doles

I’ve been saving the best for last. This CD makes me think of a passage from the Book of Isaiah, where God says these words through the prophet: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3, NRSV). Gary (also known as Garrison) Doles is an award-winning singer-songwriter who has entered into the dark and secret places of the Advent and Christmas seasons and has found the riches there. With this treasure trove of utterly original songs, Gary invites us to come and find the delights and the challenges of the God who put on flesh and came to be with us. He also happens to be my sweetheart, and my enthusiasm about this CD isn’t merely a girlfriend’s bias; it’s this kind of amazing stuff that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Check out The Night of Heaven and Earth at CD Baby.

All this talk of Christmas music, I may not be able to wait until Advent to start listening, after all…

May your ears find many delights to draw you into the mysteries of the coming season.

Ho-ho-hold on a minute…

November 27, 2007


At the church where I worshiped last Sunday, the leaders of the service had decided to get a jump on the Advent season. I understand the impulse. Oftentimes, Advent begins on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and particularly given that the marketplace has had us awash in Christmasy stuff since before Halloween, it’s not too surprising that some folks are raring to get their Advent on, even though the season doesn’t begin until this coming Sunday.

Surprising, no, but a little disappointing.

I try not to get too crabby or soapboxy about the commercialism of Christmas, and how it seems to begin earlier every year. I figure it’s probably not going to change anytime soon, and so instead of griping about it, I work at discerning what I can offer in the midst of it: words, images, spaces in which folks can pause and ponder for a few moments before heading back into the holiday fray.

Still, my liturgical self is casting a vote in favor of church being a place, perhaps the last place, where Advent and Christmas come in their own good time. This sacred season of anticipation, preparation, and waiting is precisely a season that invites and challenges us not to be grabby with time. Jesus, the flesh-wearing God, took a full nine months (and untold millennia) to get here.

I think we can wait a few more days to start the party.

Having said all that, I definitely don’t feel a need to be a Christmas fascist; I won’t listen at your door to see if you’ve already listening to carols on the radio. God knows that most of us could use a good celebration. It’s practically December, we’ve got Thanksgiving (literally) under our belts, and I think it’s a fine and wondrous thing to be getting into the holiday spirit. Moving into Advent, though, is more than that. The season, which prepares us for Christmas but is not the same thing as Christmas, invites us to hear beyond the holiday hype; it challenges us to listen beneath and between and around the copious external stimuli, so that we can begin to discern and welcome the God who is seeking to be born in our midst and in our very own selves.

These last few days before Advent are also the final days of the year, liturgically speaking. In the cycle of Christian time, Advent marks the beginning of a new year. So this week is a threshold, an in-between space that invites us to ponder the year past and to look toward the year to come. As we cross this threshold, what would you like to carry with you from this nearly finished year? What do you want to leave behind? As we lean into the season and the year to come, what do you desire for the days ahead? What will you give your energy to? Where will you look for the God who is yet to be born?

Happy almost Advent to you.

Cover Girl

November 25, 2007


Okay, maybe it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think it’s fair to say that at a literal level, if we’re talking about actual books and not metaphorically applying the aphorism to people, a compelling face often provides a good suggestion about what the inside holds. A comely cover, or sometimes just an appealing spine, is almost always the first thing that prompts me to pull an unfamiliar book off the shelf. While a “good cover-to-good contents” correlation may not always hold true, I’ve learned it’s a better than decent bet that if the face of a book catches my attention, its innards will be worth a gander as well.

I’m posting this from my parents’ home, where books—and a supply of intriguing book covers—abound. I’ve been hanging out here over the Thanksgiving weekend. This holiday is always a big reunion time for the Richardson relations. These past few days of paddling around the gene pool have included the annual Thanksgiving feast that nearly everyone in our hometown comes to, along with lots of out-of-town folks who come back for the festivities. We normally have our noontime chowdown in the community park, but this year, for only the second time in the feast’s half-century history, we got rained out of the park. Fortuitously, the local United Methodist congregation completed the construction of a fellowship hall earlier this year (its first building project in almost 100 years), and, while eating pecan pie isn’t quite the same indoors as under sunny skies, it was another splendid gathering.

I’ve lingered with my folks in Gainesville, grateful for the chance to spend more time with family and friends over the weekend and to catch up on my sleep. I’ve been poking around my parents’ bookshelves while I’ve been here. Many of the books were part of the landscape when I was growing up; I imagine lots of them arrived in the magical book boxes I wrote about previously. This weekend I pulled out some books whose spines had caught my eye on earlier visits. They contain collections of poems by Ogden Nash, the 20th century poet known for his agile handling of light verse. I first became acquainted with him through some of his short poems that I’ve heard my Dad recite, such as his “Reflection on Babies.” (“A bit of talcum/Is always walcum.”) Nash also brought us “Further Reflection on Parsley” (“Parsley/Is Garsley.”) and “The Cow” (“The cow is of the bovine ilk; One end is moo, the other, milk.”) If you know only one Ogden Nash poem, it’s probably this one, which occasionally gets attributed to Dorothy Parker:

Reflections on Ice-Breaking

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

The Nash books on my parents’ shelf were first published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and there’s something about their simply designed covers that my eye finds really pleasing. Even their spines, cozied up together on the shelf, form an appealing line. When I pulled out one of the volumes on this visit, I was intrigued to see that the jackets were designed by Maurice Sendak. It was one of those occasions where I could see it once I knew it; the images are pretty different from his other work such as we find in his famous book Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s certainly kin.

I haven’t spent enough time with the appealingly attired Ogden Nash books to know whether they bear out my general rule that a good cover suggests good innards (although they did provide some enjoyable recitation and conversation at the dinner table tonight). But I’ve enjoyed this confirmation of what good covers can do for good books (and sometimes not-so-good ones), and how books are more than just words slapped on pages sandwiched between two boards. Some books are presences over time, part of the landscape that helps orient us in this world; they offer a visual feast that can sustain us even if we only infrequently partake of what they contain.

This holiday weekend, I give thanks for that.

Could You Become a U.S. Citizen?

November 12, 2007


Gary and I had dinner at the home of a couple of friends this past weekend. One of them teaches at a local college. As part of a project, one of her students brought a copy of the list of sample questions that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may ask of someone who is taking the exam to become a citizen of the United States. We went through many of the questions ourselves, which prompted a lively conversation around the dinner table (and a visit to Google).

For you folks who were born into U.S. citizenship, how many of these sample questions can you answer? (The numbering is from the list of questions; the answers are below.)

19. How many changes, or amendments, are there to the Constitution?

26. For how long do we elect each [U.S.] Senator?

27. Name two senators from your state.

28. How many voting members are in the [U.S.] House of Representatives?

29. For how long do we elect each member of the House of Representatives?

35. What is the Bill of Rights?

39. Who is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

40. What were the original 13 states?

63. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

75. Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

80. Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

89. What kind of government does the United States have?


19. Twenty-seven amendments

26. 6 years

27. The answer to this question depends on where you live. [In Florida: Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson.] [Visit the U.S. Senate website]

28. There are 435 voting members in the House of Representatives. [This number is figured proportionally based on state population.] [Visit the U.S. House of Representatives website]

29. For 2 years

35. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution

39. John G. Roberts, Jr. [Visit the U.S. Supreme Court website]

40. Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Georgia

63. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

75. All people living in the United States

80. The rights of freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and to petition the Government

89. A Republic

I paid a visit to the website of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services this morning. Ever had occasion to wonder what you’d need to do to become a citizen of the U.S., or apply for a green card, or what you’d do if you were a refugee or seeking asylum? Check out the “How Do I?” section at the USCIS site.

On this Veterans Day, I’m offering a prayer for all those who have come to the U.S., for those involved in making hugely complex decisions about immigration, and for our relationships with the wider world. A blessing upon the veterans who have given themselves to helping make this a place that people yearn to call home.