Presentation of Jesus in the temple by Rembrandt

Perhaps one of my favorite Christmas stories actually takes place sometime after the manger scene. It is found in Luke's nativity narrative when Mary and Joseph make their way to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate their first son to the Lord, according to Jewish law. There they are met by Simeon, a devout Israelite, who takes the child in his hands and breaks into ecstatic prayer. He is joined by Anna, a prophetess, who adds her praise and also informs the astonished passers-by of the significance of this child.

Yesterday, the priest who gave the homily based on this scripture reading, mentioned that this startling event happens in the course of Mary and Joseph fulfilling the normal obligations of any young parents in their culture. It is precisely when they are doing what the traditions of their faith prescribe, that God once again breaks on the scene with new revelation.

Earlier in the morning I had read a poem by W. H. Auden, posted on Better Living Through Beowulf, which, as regular readers know, is a rich mine of literature and commentary by my friend, Robin Bates. (You can read the entire post here.) In the poem, a segment from a larger work entitled "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," Auden muses on how to fill the time between Christmas and Lent, this "ordinary time,' when "The Christmas feast is already a fading memory" and the passion and power of Good Friday is still months away. 

Auden concludes by affirming the work of the Spirit, even during the quiet times, who is busy "practicing his scales of rejoicing" while the will of God continues to move forward. The final chorus exhorts the faithful with these stirring words:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

This has been the story so far of Mary and Joseph, navigating between the "ordinary" and transcendent. They continue to move forward with what they know to do, obediently and maybe even with a sense of expectation; it has been, after all, an amazing 9 months. Who knows what God has in store? 

And what of us, who commit to walk the path laid out in front of us, seeking to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life? Could be that the ordinary will suddenly burst into flame, transmuted from iron to gold? Might we see rare beasts and have unique adventures? It is a distinct possibility! Certainly we are on our way to a city that is expecting our return, and a marriage feast in which all of us shall dance for joy.

I've been preoccupied with wedding plans of late. So many details and decisions have put my mind on overload, like an electrical grid struggling to support a plethora of air conditioning units in their battle against the summer heat. Thankfully, it hasn't been so humid here, since that also slows my brain down, and our air conditioning is quite adequate to the task of keeping our house comfortable.

My mom happened to mention during her last visit that she rarely uses her air conditioning; opening the windows at night, closing them in the morning and a judicious use of her curtains keeps her quite comfortable during the Indiana summers. While applauding her frugality, my husband mentioned that she might still want to use the air conditioning upon occasion as it would help to keep the moving parts lubricated.

It occurs to me that it's easy to let my own juices congeal. Even as I think and write about choosing joy, I can get so preoccupied with solving problems and living in my head that I don't allow the beauty of the moment to refresh my soul (not to mention my body). One of my favorite bloggers, Robin Bates, posted this poem over at Better Living Through Beowulf. I love the play on words; you wouldn't, for instance, expect that indulging your senses is the "sensible" thing to do. And "succumb" should describe someone who's been overcome by their senses, not one who has successfully resisted their allure. No, in this case, it is the rational argument that needs to be defeated - the pressures of delight that need to be endured and embraced. Imagine someone who has lived in black and white all their life entering suddenly into a world of color. The assault upon the rods and cones of the eye tempt a retreat into the familiar sepia, but oh, the loss! The solution may be to start small, one plum at a time.

I also like the marriage of mind and body that flows from this poem, the suggestion that happiness works its way to your mind through your body. "Joy is a taste before it is anything else" says Mary Oliver. While I don't know if I totally agree with that sentiment, I do believe we need to become integrated selves. Someone who lives totally in the physical realm misses the relational or intellectual joys that are also available. But those of us who live in our heads or become unnecessarily preoccupied with the busyness of life run the risk of dehydrated souls, while rivers of delight pass us by every day.

This poem encourages me to take the time to lounge - to devour (!) the beauty that comes to me through my sense (those five rivers that flow inward). And to recognize that these are, indeed, important moments.

The Plum Trees

by Mary Oliver

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

Artwork by Christian Berentz found at the Web Gallery of Art
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

A beautiful Easter poem by George Herbert is posted over at Better Living Through Beowulf, the blog I mentioned on Friday. I appreciate Robin's comment that Christ has always gone before us. First into human life, then into death, now into the new life that stretches before us. I also love the invitation for the Spirit to join us as we respond.

Good Friday Gamble

“If nothing is greater than love,”
My friend replies,
“Then it’s worth risking all for it.”

Of course he’s right -
For what is life bereft of love
But an eternity of emptiness?
And love, that priceless pearl,
Demands you sell it all.

Still what long odds!
As when rough hands take up the dice,
Await the spit, then shake and splay them out
on rocky ground.
For who can know what numbers
Will turn up
Or if the robe will pass on by?

Observe his shaken followers:
Those burly men, now cowed and stricken,
Slink into the night.
And women, pale and spent,
(whose tears and hair, with blood and dust
Their own anointing make) have
Stumbled from the hill.

What happens now as darkness falls,
As tremors cease,
And silence jars their broken hearts?

Unanswered in the night
The question hangs

Sue Schmidt, 2011

My friend, Robin Bates, blogs at "Better Living Through Beowulf".
Our conversation on one of the posts led to the comment above.