On November 30th, I departed Ohio with a group of 20 others for the island of Puerto Rico. It wasn’t a place I expected to find myself. I’m a medical student and in the middle of interview season for residency, which is a process that has been consuming most of my thoughts and energy for the past several months. On a Sunday morning about a month prior, my pastor announced the trip and asked for volunteers to go, and I was immediately weighted with the need to participate.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Advent
My father died on a cold gloomy Advent day like this; well, this day exactly, senior year.Read More
Krampus is having a moment—he’s acquired a Los Angeles fan club with a pretty spiffy web page, he’s been featured on the Colbert Report, and he’s even starring in a film. This half-goat-half-devil Austrian folk creature dates back, most believe, to Norse mythology. He’s St. Nicholas’ other half—he handles the kids who’ve been nicht so gut.
He’s horrific, yet Austrians seem to view him rather fondly. They send kitschy cards stamped with “Gruß Vom Krampus!" (Greetings from Krampus), and host Krampuslauf (Krampus runs) in which hoards of young men don devil-goat costumes and drunkenly run the streets on the eve of St. Nicholas’ visit.
It feels a bit goofy to ascribe deep symbolism to Krampus, a character dreamed up largely to terrify children into behaving. If we’re looking for meaning though, it seems obvious that Krampus and St. Nicholas act as foils—the evil preceding the good. As Mental Floss puts it, they form a “Christmassy Yin and Yang.” Krampus reminds us there is darkness as well as light in the holiday season.
North Americans generally prefer their holidays free of ancient goat devils. Our classic tales, even the really good ones (think Charlie Brown or Miracle on 34th Street) involve only one horror—a lack of the holiday spirit. (Die Hard, it should be noted, is a refreshing exception to this rule.)
I assumed the movie Krampus would be different, but in the film, Krampus is summoned when a boy loses faith in the season and tears up his letter to Santa. Our narrative, “be merry or die trying,” runs deep.
If you, like me, feel sick of this storyline, please consider as antidote this Youtube footage of an Austrian Krampuslauf. It’s pretty grim. I only made it three minutes in, right to the part where one of the thousand Krampuses rips a little child from his mother’s arms and hisses in his face. I was cowering in fear at my laptop screen, but the kid? The little dude smiles. Tough as nails. He was probably brought up on a steady diet of horrifying Bavarian folk tales.
Yes, the Krampuslauf seems awfully brutal for the holiday season. But there's a villain in the nativity story, too—Herod. And he isn’t stealing a roast beast or shouting “Bah Humbug.” He is committing infant genocide. Lurking right outside the glow of the manger is a madman, thirsting for power and control.
I’m not saying we all need to sub out our shiny family photo Christmas cards for Krampuskarten. But it is problematic to remove all darkness from every Christmas story we tell. That’s like editing John 1:5 down to just “The Light shines.” So what?
The holidays can seem like a very small light in a very dark world. Christmas comes in the midst of war, in the wake of tragedy, mass shootings, devastating personal loss, systemic injustice. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
With that in mind, our obsession with cheer for cheer’s sake feels just as bizarre, and maybe more pointless, than any Krampuslauf.
So Merry Christmas. And "Gruß Vom Krampus," too.
My brother-in-law died on Thanksgiving. His death took him away from a suffering that began, in truth, the day his wife died suddenly nine years ago. His wife’s death did not mark a tragic beginning. It was a bookend holding up decades pressed against the day his father drowned trying to save his life in the Spring River.
The news about Mike stunned me for a moment, and then I breathed a little easier. Mike was free. The cancer didn’t get him. That was our biggest fear. Pneumonia eased him into a greater life unburdened by softball-sized tumors and excruciating pain. If vices exist in heaven, he can now drink without becoming an alcoholic. He can smoke without getting cancer. He is made whole. This is what I am to believe as a Christian. That’s good news in my tradition.
Here’s the problem. Now that he’s been relieved of his pain and angst, I’d like him returned back to us, whole and renewed. He’s been dead for over a week. That’s plenty of time to rest. In my book, he’s had a decent break from this messed up world and his broken body.
I never knew Mike before his wife died. I’m told he was a pillar of his community. I don’t need him to be a pillar. I wouldn’t mind if he returned in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I just want to see him restored, free of pain long buried in a riverbed. I need his stories, his expressions, his laughter, and music. I need him to be a brother to my husband and a father to my niece and an uncle to my husband’s children.
When my husband was fighting for his own life in a Seattle hospital a few years ago, I talked Mike out of driving 2,200 miles to break his brother out of ICU. I don’t doubt Mike’s conviction that his little brother was better off in his hands. Now my husband and I are released from our worries. We will no longer wonder about Mike’s mental and physical health. This trade-off feels like a bum deal.
The shape of my husband’s family is made by the endings of family members gone too soon.
I’ve known about death in the pot since I was little. My parents never shielded it from me. Mike’s death is different. It’s uncomfortably fresh. I feel such relief that he is no longer afflicted that I forget he’s dead. And then I remember. And it’s stunning.
A sharp December wind strikes my face as I walk to church on this second Sunday in Advent. I am supposed to be preparing, literally and spiritually. I put my Advent wreath out a week late, and the center candle is missing. I can’t find it anywhere. I should be writing about snow globes and, instead, all I can think of is this ridiculous arrangement I’m forced to consent to. Mike is dead and will not return.
Each year, I celebrate the birth of Jesus without fail. I try, with little success, to block the holiday ads and treacle songs. I try to focus on the raw story of Mary and Joseph and a messy birth in a barn. I imagine what it must have been like to be part of such wonder. It’s hard for me to focus on newborn Jesus right now. I light two candles of my incomplete wreath. At least it has some greenery, I think. I feel selfish. I’m more focused on Mike and his body and spirit made whole so far from our reach.
I know this is magical thinking, wanting Mike to come back as if he’s been away at a cosmic rehab center. But it’s Advent. This is the time of waiting for the unexpected, the miraculous. I am trying my best to prepare, but I can’t even find the dang center candle on Amazon.com. Logic dictates Mike is not returning. This means we will never go fishing on his beloved St. Francis River, nor will he and my husband drink a tallboy in a backwater bar.
Maybe I don’t want what I’ve been taught, at least not right now. He is in a better place. True. That doesn’t change the gaping hole left in our family. It doesn’t alter the fact that my husband lost his only sibling. I don’t want tidy expressions of grief. They are too much like the holiday ads. I need the freedom to be messy in our tangled loss. I’ve got no choice but to wait in the muck and long for impossible things until the longing becomes part of an unforeseeable making. I need permission to want Mike back. He was my husband’s brother.
I find a broken white taper at the bottom of a moving box. It’ll do.
Joy Williams’ recent release, VENUS, received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone claimed Williams’ voice couldn’t “hold the space" of her orchestration. NPR, not unkindly, labeled the album “Lilith Fair 90s'."
I can see where they’re coming from. But I’m still into it. It’s music that makes me want to scale a mountain in a glittery sports bra brandishing a fist and shouting “Womanhood!”
Or, you know, fold a giant pile of laundry on a Saturday morning.
I’d rolled about half my mountain of socks when I realized something was off. Spotify was shuffling through all of Joy Williams’ records, and not just VENUS.
That explained the Prozac-fueled ballad (“It’s all good/ask me to explain it and I could/ I’ve got the love of my Lord and I could/it’s all good”) next to the warbled lament (“I’m gonna stand here in the ache / until the levee of my heart breaks”).
On shuffle, Joy Williams’ canon is…unnerving. It’s odd to hear her so giddily sure of herself and then immediately so devastated. It made me think of the Psalms.
Her album covers reflect this tonal shift. Her three early albums all feature a toothy blond in a cute sweater, squinting at the camera through sun-rays. On VENUS? A naked brunette, hunched over and in shadow, face obscured.
Williams herself, of course, is aware of the changes. She left a blossoming career as a Christian artist because of its limiting nature. In 2009, she said, “Everyone sees life through a grid. Part of my grid is faith. When I was in CCM, I was just singing about the grid. I’ve come to a point where I want to sing about what I see through the grid. In CCM, I was always pushed to sing about faith from a “victorious” angle, when I feel like so much of faith is wrestling through questions.”
In Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright echoes this, saying when we “invent non-Psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, we risk being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”
Clearly, Williams knows her early records would benefit from a more emotional honesty. I’d argue, however, that she might have “filled that space” better in VENUS if she’d balanced those emotions with one less lament.
Balance is hard. Just a glance at Williams’ album covers show they are packaged to sell an image. Shorthand for “Christian artist” seems to be is soft-focus grinning blond who will breathily assure you that “it’s all good.”
This is a frustrating image to every Christian woman I know, but especially to artists. It’s natural to want distance from that. But I also know (from experience) that if my art is only created as a reaction against that “it’s all good” girl, I quickly veers into melodrama and navel-gazing.
Wright reminds us that the Psalms encourage us not only to write out of the “truthful, sincere outpourings of who and what we are” but also to “trust that we will be remade". This Advent, I’ll be reading them through again as a reminder that high highs and low lows—hatred and the contrition and ecstasy and shame—can all exist together, as sacred text no less.
. . . But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband— that is quite another matter. —C.S. Lewis, Miracles
Christmas: God breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics to snatch the cosmos from its ultimate decay. In other words, a miracle of upward mobility. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity teems with the theology and symbolism of this upswirl, this “redemption of the universe:” the ascending pull of light over the landscape; the bright celestials straddling the razor edge between time and eternity; the ethnic diversity of the Magi, God’s redemptive scope encompassing all peoples and all creation. And in the postures of Mary and Joseph we see the full gamut of human response to this event that couldn’t happen, yet did.
Here the figure of the Virgin is appropriately spacious and central. Mary casts her eyes not toward the babe but away from this one whose swaddling clothes and cradle resemble grave wrappings and a sarcophagus. Her restraint is a reminder, for who can look upon the face of God and live? Yet any minute Mary will pick up that normal looking baby and stare into omnipotent holiness, her soul taut with paradox. Mary’s power of belief is organic to who she is, a chemical and spiritual grace.
Yet in the figure of Joseph the Betrothed in the lower left we witness the other effect of miracle, the Church’s concession to the difficulty of grappling with blissfully mangled universal laws. A study in body language, Joseph slumps in the throes of mental torment, questioning the baby’s alleged origins. He’s under direct assault from Satan, come to once again sow his tedious doubts, this time in the guise of an aging shepherd. The shepherd’s short tunic and rigid profile symbolize duplicity and gross inadequacy—this father of lies who would keep Joseph’s eyes in the dust with no reference to the divine. (See: “Becoming Two-Eyed”)
In the battle to make peace with mystery, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to see blank sky where in fact shines a sight-giving star. The downward drag of psychic inertia is ever present here among the shambles of the Second Law. Yet though God may approach with “infinite speed,” his home is no longer a manger, but our embrace.
Lo, how a rose e'er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse's lineage coming, As men of old have sung; It came, a flow'ret bright, Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.
This hymn has always been a favorite of mine, even when I was far too young to understand the symbolism and history behind the lyrics. It seemed to carry a certain gravity shared by few hymns I know; the hush that fell over the congregation before they opened their mouths in song seemed more sacred, the circle of musicians that played it seemed an echo of Renaissance counterparts in an ancient church. Still, years later, I imagine the same scene when I hear the song—a clear, bitterly cold night; the world silent under a blanket of snow; a red rose blooming deep in the woods, lit by the moon. It’s a vivid image I’ve seen clearly since I was a child.
Only recently did I dig back into the song’s history. The hymn we call “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” was originally “Es is ein Ros entsprungen,” a hymn written in Germany sometime in the late 16th century. Its interpretation—not in terms of words, but of intent—is a subject of some debate. Catholics assert it is a Marian hymn; Protestants believe it references Jesus himself. Whichever the song’s theme, I love the legend behind it—the story goes that a monk was walking through the forest late one winter night and found a rose. Inspired by its beauty, he placed the flower at an altar to the Virgin.
Whatever its origins or meaning, many musicians and interpreters have been struck by the hymn’s simple beauty. There are several widely-known translations of the hymn from people of different theologies, and many versions of the tune have been played by artists both Christian and secular. It’s played in churches’ vaulted sanctuaries and on music systems in shopping malls alike.
The rose in the hymn has endured far longer than the song’s author or the thousands of people who have sung about it. The carol has sparked many debates about its interpretation over the last several hundred years, and musicians have continued to be inspired by the image of the rose, just as the monk was inspired by a rose so many centuries ago. However you consider “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”—either as an ancient Marian hymn, as a description of Jesus Christ, or as the poetry of an inspired monk—let the image of the rose’s stillness in the cold midwinter remind you of the still beauty of advent and the hush of expectancy as we celebrate Christ’s birth.
In the bleak mid-winter, Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone.
– Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”
The raging, fertile excesses of summer are long gone and the world lies deep in Advent, this wending of the human heart in prayer and penance before the Nativity of Christ. In the spare gray-gold light of these mornings just shy of the winter solstice, we might sit where we sit each day to “meet with God,” our Bibles, rosaries, or prayer books at the ready. Outside, bare branches clatter against a wide, windy pewter sky, nature’s brittle resonance with the bewilderment and hardness of heart toward God many of us feel, hardly knowing where to begin to find his presence amidst the external noise that seems to increase around Christmas time.
We worry about having God’s presence, like it’s something to own. And in Advent, adventus, the season of coming and arrival, shouldn’t I expect even more of this presence, like a sparkling early Christmas gift sliding into my hands? We are consumers and we gotta have that presence, just like we gotta have a bunch of other things to feel significant and successful. But what about God’s absence? This Advent, I’m considering that Christ’s perceived absence is as much a gift as presence is. In his heartbreaking and passionate meditations on God and prayer, Prayers by the Lake, the Serbian bishop Nikolai Velimirovich says this about God’s absence: “You promised, and I bear the seal of Your promise in my soul. If You have not come yet, it is not Your fault, but mine. You are tender and compassionate, and would not wish to make me ashamed of my unpreparedness. Therefore, you approach slowly, and continuously announce Your coming.”
Relinquishment to God’s perceived absence seems to have very much to do with the nature of Advent itself. The natural world lies in faded dormancy, its glory stripped until spring. We too can accept dormancy, until in God’s good time the manger of our hearts is filled with the holy One who will make us fit for heaven.
I will anoint them with oil to give them gladness instead of sorrow. ~ Isaiah 61:3
With bleakness as its backdrop, the absurdity of Waiting For Godot exists in its dialog riddled with non sequitur and its circular structure where almost nothing changes though time appears to pass. Those are the fixed elements. But as with any production the pathos, or meaning, has to be communicated through the performances of the actors. And while actors do not manifest meaning, they are nevertheless its agents and must be strong enough in character to deliver the play's potential.
Beckett was famous for not saying what Godot was about. The New Yorker printed two of his letters in response to producers' queries you can read here (if you have a NY account). By not doing so, he created a space for libraries of commentary on the play that might never have been ventured if he'd said anything definitive. It allows its mysterious questions to be newly engaged with each viewing.
But actors need a little more help.
Director Stephanie Courtney: “Mostly I invoke the removal of the observer in my student's pretty little heads. They are in love with observation—and judgment—rather than being in love with action. They want to be the object and the observer.”
Director David Fox: “In working with actors, I do try to be specific with what they're playing and why. Actors need some concrete answers to questions. Ambiguity, however, is part of the Beckett experience, so telling an audience what the play is ‘about’ is far less important to me than saturating them with a deeply felt experience. Perfectly appropriate for spectators to emerge from Beckett with more questions than answers.”
And then, there's the comedy. Once, in a kind of type-casting for the Theater of the Absurd, Steve Martin and Robin Williams starred together in a production of Waiting For Godot. Martin, who trained in theater and philosophy in his earlier years, sagely said, “The language of the play takes care of itself. The structure of the play takes care of itself. But the comedy must be delivered.”
Comedy is the stealth cloak. It is the spoonful of sugar. And sometimes it is the message, all by itself. David Misch (his bio is a gut buster) was a writer for Mork and Mindy and many other projects. In his book Funny: The Book is a chapter titled “Comedy vs. The Universe:”
If you don't think the bleakness of life can be funny, talk to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. (Beckett got the name Godot from a Keaton movie). Or Laurel and Hardy—actor Michael McKean points out that all their films are about them failing: “We know they're doomed, and that's why they're we're laughing.”
Are we cruel to laugh? No. We relive, and relieve, the delightful horror, the agonizing hilarity of being in a similar fix.
It's Advent. For Christians, it is the time between God's first and second coming during which He is withholding judgment and watching the play. In Waiting For Godot, Godot never comes. Is this the ultimate joke? Is it the exclamation point on a life sentence of misery? Or is it something else—a clue to life staged in the only way we could see it—life as a kind of tragic drama replete with absurdity in which our part is to deliver the comedy?
Whether one's worldview affirms the existentialism of Godot or rejects it from rationalism, it is impossible to ignore the richness portrayed in lives of little means. The players make something practiced of the dust. A craft that arrives on its own terms as laughter through tears.
He seems to say that only... amid God’s paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached... Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void. ~ Richard Ellman
A family viewing of Waiting For Godot is not a traditional fixture of Advent, but its careful observation may offer a light to examine our modern traditions for the season in both critical and affirming ways. I invite you to watch this version of the play recommended to me by Stephanie Courtney, a theater director in Dublin, Ireland, for its fidelity to authentic Irish humor.
A native of Ireland, author Samuel Beckett lived during the early 20th century and wrote Waiting For Godot in mid-career. In the course of his early life, Beckett saw the emergence of the Irish Republic, became a scholar, and served in World War II. His writing was often charged with the particular misery of common people subject to the futility of European upheaval. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 “for his writing, in which—in new forms for the novel and drama—the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
Several people cautioned me as I set out to write about Godot, especially on maintaining a strict objectivity and to try to avoid judging the play from a particular worldview. This was hard. Ms. Courtney helped by giving Godot an essentially Irish context. “I don't think Americans are able to understand futility the way the Europeans can,” she says. “When I walk to work, I travel through a city more than 1,000 years old. I walk along a street that was cobbled before the Vikings invaded Dublin—and I work in a theater built in 1662. Those stones will be walked on for another thousand years after I'm dead. I'm merely passing through and that comes across in my experience of the people here, too. There is less pressure here to leave a mark. You make the most of your time and then you die.”
The set of Godot is minimal and desolate. As with several of Beckett's plays, it is space, sound, bodies and movement. Here are the first lines as Beckett writes:
A country road. A tree.
Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.
He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
(giving up again). Nothing to be done.
(advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.
Some of the play's biggest themes are set in those few words. Over its course there is night and day and very little changes. The men are friends of fifty years and speak a language so particular to them that the whole of the play sounds like nonsense. They flit from complaint to levity in a blink and move easily between imagined and real worlds. Critics of the day referred to Godot (as well as other plays in the genre) as Theater of the Absurd due largely to the departure from the realist forms. But the absurdity is like a Petri dish that allows the questions of Beckett's isolated culture to grow.
As the play progresses, a lightness emerges in the bleakness. It is located in the only place it can be—in the complex relationship of the characters and their conundrum. David Fox is a professor and theater director at Wheaton College. He says Beckett's genius lies in his marriage of vaudeville and existentialism. “Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but the combination creates all of the dynamic contrasts [in the play], and presents life as the tragicomic experience we all love and fear. The clowning element infuses his work with tremendous humanity.”
Last Saturday I interviewed a friend with expertise in Heidegger's concept of being as dasein, or, “being in the world”, that I thought would be helpful in articulating what I thought I saw in Godot. I wanted to be sure I understood the nuance of “concern” for the world extant in the term. We grabbed an outdoor table at a local watering hole in an eclectic part of town. It's a convivial place on a busy street. A man I'd characterize as homeless took the table next to ours. He talked freely to everyone and himself. His words were mostly unintelligible and over-dramatized but the subjects of his conversations seemed parroted from media talking points as exhibited in his own circumstances. He'd have sounded just like us, with better clothes and without the alcoholic slur. As he was, he was evidenced as a fool or ignored. Estragon's line was ringing in my ear like a taunt.
Great theater has a winsome way of making its point with a light hand and, if given space, never runs short on commentary. It makes a place to befriend the darkest places of humanity and allows for light that shines on the real cost of beauty. If we can just withhold the easy judgments. Perhaps that is a tradition worth making.