I returned from a retreat in Pensacola a few days before Christmas and opened my e-mail to find the gift of a poem sent by our Sister Margaret Byrne. The poem is “Messenger,”* by Mary Oliver. “My work,” she begins, “is loving the world”:
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Pensacola is yet another hurricane-ravaged city, still recovering from Ivan which hit in 2004. More than two years later, the devastation is still visible in some neighborhoods. Many trees are dead or nearly defoliated. The house Sister Rosalie and I stayed in was heavily damaged by the storm, but has been recently repaired. The two houses on either side of us there on the bay were virtually destroyed. One is being rebuilt from the ground up. The other is best described by the reaction of a deliveryman who came to our door and exclaimed,
“That house is nothing but garbage!”
This is true, the house is mostly rubble, flanked by huge piles of debris. The deliveryman was astonished, but not, I imagine, in the way Oliver intends in her poem — with rejoicing and gratitude.
What do we do with the sorrows and horrors of the world as we stand before the manger this Christmas season? Can we stand still and learn to be astonished? And what do we make of our astonishment when faced with storms, war, poverty, cruelty, disease, and death? Or is it possible that we are no longer capable of astonishment, either at suffering or at the numinous, when the song of the angels is so regularly drowned out by news reports of violence and corruption or by bombardments of the terminally trivial?
It is tempting to forget that the cross is always implicit in the nativity scene. The gifts of the Magi, for example, are more than a welcome source of revenue for a young couple with a baby. Gold was the kingly gift; frankincense an offering for God; and myrrh… ah, there’s the rub. Myrrh was used for embalming. This kingly, godly child was going to die — like every child born into the world, but with a difference. His death would be an execution, premature, shameful, and expressing the love of God who emptied himself for us.
Nevertheless, if the cross seems to hang over the manger, as it does in this woodcut of the Nativity by Durer, so does the promise of the Resurrection. Since we know the rest of the story, we also know that Jesus was raised from the dead and brings us into his own divine life.
Our work, like the work of the poet, like the work of Jesus Christ, is “loving the world” (see John 3:16). So this Christmas season, fidgety and distracted though I am, I try to stand still before the mystery of the Incarnation and let myself be astonished:
astonished at the mercy shown me in God become flesh; and astonished at the mercy I am called to show others;
astonished at the presence of God — Emmanuel, “God-with-us” — in the most ordinary parts of life: “The phoebe, the delphinium / The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture” (Oliver, “Messenger”) — and in the birth of a baby in the midst of the pain and rubble of human existence;
astonished at all I don’t understand about life, human or divine (or human and divine);
astonished at my own powerlessness; and astonished to hear God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9);
astonished at the evil that seems to triumph in our world; and astonished that despite all appearances to the contrary, goodness is victorious.
*”Messenger,” from Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)