This is the second year now I’ve bought a poinsettia from a student fundraising for a school trip.
This is the second year I’ve put that poinsettia on the little table in my church office, unable to bring the thing home, poisonous as it apparently is to cats.
This is the second year the poinsettia has looked sad and wilted on top, and dry and crusty in the middle, by the second week of Advent.
It’s not really a surprise. I’m pretty bad at remembering to water things, and when I do, I usually water them too much. And maybe there’s something about this office, with its dry air and its fluctuating temperatures between day and night, that just isn’t suited for a poinsettia.
But as I sit at my desk, staring at my sad little plant this week before Christmas, I can’t help but feel like it’s a pretty good image for where I – and many people I know – are at in this Advent and Christmas season. A little droopy. A little tired. Trying to hold on to our bright, colourful leaves, but feeling a little wilted, and a little crusty underneath.
On Monday night our church hosted a funeral for an eighteen-year-old member of our sister church in Waterloo, who died last week after a 10-year journey with cancer. Eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t die of cancer. A sanctuary shouldn’t be full of high school and college students come to say goodbye to a friend. The service concluded with “Joy to the World,” this young woman’s favourite Christmas carol. The hundreds gathered sang with gusto through the tears – bright leaves, but wilting.
A mom in my congregation started a new trial treatment for her own cancer on Monday. The side effects of the treatment are brutal, but she’s hopeful they’ll abate in time to enjoy Christmas with her family. Bright leaves, but fragile.
Two of our members lost elderly parents this month. As often happens as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, some bodies seem to decide their time is done, as well.
Our church is nearing the end of the Next Steps Discernment Process regarding the Human Sexuality Report and decisions of Synod 2022 and 2023. We’ve had one council workshop, paused for Advent and Christmas, and will regroup in January to see if we can determine a way forward in a congregation full of diverse opinions. I think we’ve all been grateful for the breathing room around the holidays, but I know I’m already anxious about what’s to come in the new year.
In January I’m heading to Northern Ireland to learn about peacemaking and reconciliation and its relation to worship. We were supposed to be going to Israel and Palestine, but instead spent time this week on our pre-trip zoom call lamenting the incredible violence and destruction happening in that part of the world. And we named the tension – the deep, deep tension – experienced by worship leaders and pastors all over as they walk congregations through Advent texts saturated with imagery of the land, of God restoring Israel, of a Saviour coming out of Bethlehem.
We sing our carols, and hear the story, and watch the pageants, and attend the concerts, and fill our homes with soft light, and it all just feels a bit incongruous. We want to be bright, leafy poinsettias. But our colourful leaves are wilting, and our supporting branches feel dry and fragile.
It’s not lost on me that today is the shortest day of the year. At 10:30 tonight, the northern hemisphere will reach its maximum tilt away from the sun. In Southern Ontario we will experience just nine hours of sunlight today. In other parts of the world the day will be completely dark.
In preparation for this darkest day I’ve turned to Fleming Rutledge’s December 21, 2016 sermon, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” from her magnificent collection of sermons and writings in Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. As she does in many of her advent sermons, Rutledge quotes W. H. Auden’s long poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. One stanza reads:
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible;
We who must die demand a miracle.
“Auden,” writes Rutledge, “is audaciously describing the central mystery of Christmas – the moment when the impossibility of the human condition (“we who must die”) is met by the possibility of God – the miracle” (p. 372).
“Nothing can save us that is possible.” There is only so much we can do. I can light a candle today, but I cannot turn the earth closer to the sun. I can water my poinsettia, but in doing so I will knock dry and fragile leaves to the ground. I can sit next to someone in their grief, but I cannot restore to them the one they lost.
“We who must die demand a miracle.”
In the Anglican church, December 21 is the feast day of St. Thomas. Thomas, confronted by a miracle, demanded proof. Jesus offered himself, his hands, his side.
Today we, surrounded by the proof of darkness, demand a miracle. And a miracle we have received – the infinite became a finite fact, with hands that would be pierced through, and a side from which blood would flow. The very Son of God, wilted and fragile.
But whose fragility proves our strength; whose death assures us of life.
“Nothing can save us that is possible.”
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”