Archive for December 24th, 2012

Christmas eve 084Light and Darkness, Bless the Lord! (Daniel 3: 72)
Every Sunday at morning prayer we recite the Song of Daniel — as do Catholic religious and clergy around the world. It’s a piece of poetry that celebrates the prophet Daniel’s deliverance from the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar; and if Daniel’s joy seems to be a little over the top, you can scarcely blame him. Saunas are one thing; but a white-hot furnace is quite another. Even in Minnesota, in the dead of winter, we’ll shy away from that.

Daniel begins his song with praise for the God who has done such great things for him and for his three young friends. But then he gets down to business and invites virtually all of creation to join in his hymn. In a list that roughly approximates the order of creation in Genesis, he summons the angels, and the heavens, and the waters above the heavens. He invites the sun and moon and all of the stars. He calls on the showers and dew, the rivers and the mountains and the hills. Dolphins and all water creatures and the birds of the air get their due, followed by the entire roster of God’s creatures. Thankfully, Daniel must have run out of parchment, or he might have gone on endlessly.

Mary greets Elizabeth

Mary greets Elizabeth

Most of the items on the list seem chosen at random, but there are a few pairings that stick out noticeably. “Fire and heat” immediately precede “cold and chill” and “ice and snow.” “Nights and days” are there as well, as are “light and darkness.” Why in the world would Daniel put these polar opposites together? Could it be that God sees the world differently than do we? Could it be that God ordered all creation as a continuum of good, while we like to force things into rigid contrasts? Is our perspective on life really that different?

One of the running jokes I have with one of my confreres has to do with the proverbial glass that is either half empty or half full. He’s of the school that naturally sees the cloud but can’t imagine any sort of silver lining. So in his eyes the glass is getting half-emptier all the time. I point out that for him things are getting worse and worse, and they have been since the moment of creation. Could life be an endless spiral into the great black hole that will swallow us all someday? Probably.

Reading the Gospel: Mary greets Elizabeth

Reading the Gospel: Mary greets Elizabeth

I, on the other hand, am the inveterate optimist, though I do temper my outlook with some nagging worries. I have been making silk purses out of sows’ ears for most of my life, and I have a drawerful of well-worn rose-colored glasses. For me the glass is half full and getting fuller all the time. And my chief worry is that the glass may not have the capacity to hold all the water that is bound to flow in sooner or later. I’ll admit that this view leaves me vulnerable to the inevitable disappointments that crop up. But this is my prism for interpreting life, and on most days it works well enough.

Christmas eve 028Given the different perspectives on life that we all bring to the table, you can begin to appreciate why December provides such a stark contrast — at least for Christians living in the northern hemisphere. Just as the landscape lies dormant, as if in death, the Advent wreath comes to life with its greens. Just as the days get shorter and darker, the candles gather their force to pierce the darkness. And so, as we reach the darkest day of the year, the fourth candle of Advent flickers to life. All four shine out in the void, as a reminder that there is still more to our story. God’s light is about to waken us and lead us through winter’s gloom.

There are dark days at any time of the year, but these darkest of nights can nurture depression and sadness in some of us. In tandem with the headlines and our own personal setbacks, it’s easy to conclude that evil can and will overwhelm us. It’s then a small step to giving up hope, and that’s when it’s easiest to dismiss much or most of humanity as evil or wrong-headed. And that’s why we light candles. Together those candles remind us that God sees things differently, and so should we. That’s when we need to join with all creation in the Song of Daniel.

Christmas eve 102On Christmas day we turn on all the lights, and we pull out all the stops to celebrate the creativity and goodness of God. And though there will still be lots of days when our glass may seem completely drained, Christmas reminds us that God always returns to replenish us. Our water glasses are works in progress, and on the bleakest of nights God will be there to fill us up again.

Christmas is a reminder that God will never abandon us to the darkness, nor will God ever really be done with us. God insists that we carry the candle out of darkness and into the light of Christmas day. And the really good news is that God will help to carry our candle.

Boat house on Lake Sagatagan

Boat house on Lake Sagatagan

+Abbey Notes

On December 18th the chapter of the Abbey, (those monks in solemn vows), voted to welcome Fr. Michael Peterson and Brother Efrain Rosado into the community. Each begins a period of probation before they can petition for full membership in Saint John’s Abbey.

Father Michael is originally from Morris, MN, and he attended the University of Minnesota at Morris. He then became a monk at Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, SD, and he later attended seminary at the School of Theology at Saint John’s. Sadly, Blue Cloud Abbey closed this last summer due to the declining number of vocations in the community. Father Michael was the youngest member of the community there, and he returns to Saint John’s as a very familiar and welcome face.

Brother Efrain was born in Mexico City, and in college he received his degree in civil engineering. After some time working for the city department of public works, he entered the Abbey of Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. Saint John’s has had a long relationship with that abbey, since our monks founded it in 1948. Brother Efrain later studied at the School of Theology at Saint John’s, and he has now petitioned to transfer his solemn vows to Saint John’s.

Christmas eve 018+On December 19th I concelebrated at the funeral Mass for University alumnus Kevin DeVaan, who died suddenly from a heart attack. I had met Kevin through his service on the Alumni Board of the University, and he seemed to have boundless energy and an army of friends. The services took place in the Abbey church, and his ashes will rest in the columbarium in the Abbey cemetery.

+As the enclosed pictures indicate, we will most definitely celebrate a white Christmas at Saint John’s this year — much to my own delight. The snows came early this winter, but not until one major task had already been completed. That task was the the installation of the Christmas tree in The Great Hall. This is no mean feat, as it involves the careful selection of the tree from the Abbey forest, and its cutting and transport to the center of campus. Then the work begins, as the enclosed video outlines. Once in place, the tree becomes the centerpiece of an array of concerts, receptions and dinners, as well as the goal of gawkers who stand in awe at its majesty.

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