by Richard van Duyvendyk
My bride put another stick in the fire, while outside those jumbo-sized flakes of snow began to fall from a windless gray sky. One giant snowflake lands on my sleeve reminding me that, though we are many we are all uniquely created. Earlier that Sunday morning, we ventured across the frozen pond on thin ice so clear that you could see weeds rhythmically slow-dancing below the mirror of glass. This miracle of nature only happens once in a while when the cold comes unaccompanied with snow. A loud crack breaks the silence and reminds us that life is fragile. Life is a thin veneer, a gift precariously situated on the surface of a planet so alone in the universe no one but the Creator knows we’re here. I follow the star with the magi seeking incarnations of the sacred. This place surely is one of these miracles and wonders. Our natural world and its inner significance must come together for there to be any oneness. The result is both deep joy and a resounding sense of beauty.
The swamp (or the hotdog forest as our children affectionately called it) is a sea of cattails with a river of ice filling the creek bed flowing through it. This forms a meandering gateway to a distant forest. Is this the river that Joni Mitchell sings about? It is for us.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
It was to this forest and its young balsam trees that we were headed, to find this year’s Christmas tree. We’re not sure yet which one it will be but, like some distant relative we are meeting at the airport, we know we will recognize the tree when we see it, or she’ll recognize us. My bride doesn’t want a manicured tree, but prefers a natural tree with sparser branches. Many times we have made this trek, often with children and dogs bounding along, but this would be the first time that we would come home and be the only ones to see the tree all adorned and positioned by the living room window. If a small tree is cut down in a forest, will anyone know it’s gone? We will and the tree will. We will be home alone at Christmas, as many of you will be. We’ve invited a small spruce to join us and she’s graciously agreed. She is so beautiful.
In summer, the swamp acts as a no-man’s-land between our place and the woods beyond. We can only get to the forest in winter. As we walked on the ice, I thought of that surreal Christmas story from WW1 in 1915 where soldiers from both sides left the safety of their trenches and ventured into no-man’s land. This was a brave and trusting action in the midst of a raging war. They were all so far away from their loved ones. They all felt alone, cold, and desperate. They sang songs of joy and peace while exchanging gifts of chocolates and cigarettes with their enemy. “Love your enemies.” They were a picture of the incarnation, the unity of body and spirit, as beautiful as a babe born in a manger, or a starry night.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How lovely are thy branches!
The unique Christmas story line has always been incarnation. The story is about how the Spirit nature of reality (the spiritual, the immaterial, the formless) and the material nature of reality (the physical, the human, that which we can see and touch) are one. (Richard Rohr). That the Christ child was both physical and spiritual in a special way is true for all of us.
Those who love and experience nature know that matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew.
We all can see incarnation in the everyday experiences of life. Its while walking our dogs, who are aware of every scent, or crossing an icy pond, that the unity of the physical and the spiritual world blossoms into the incarnation we experience. The struggle of life with its sorrows and joys is universally understood. What is true and felt on a frozen pond becomes universal and ends up being true everywhere.
For those of us who will spend Christmas alone this can be a difficult and a lonely time. For those of us who have wounds in our families, this may be the time to be brave and come out of the trenches, to sing and to forgive our enemies. For those of us who know of people who will be alone, this would be the time to reach out as best we can during these troubled times. Christmas always brings out the cracks in our imperfect realities. It also brings the light we so badly need.
“There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. (Leonard Cohen)
Hopefully the true gifts of love, life, hope, generosity, and patience will be unwrapped from under our Tannenbaums.