Thirteen years ago, just as advent began, my wife and I were battling a difficult pregnancy. After years of infertility, the joyful adoption of our eldest daughter Lily, years more struggles to get pregnant, we were finally awaiting the birth of our second daughter. But about halfway into the pregnancy we got bad news. The ultrasound technician seemed to be taking a lot longer than we thought it should take. And she was being a little too evasive in her answers to us. We waited. The doctor came in and told us our daughter had a serious heart condition–treatable with open heart surgery within a few months after her birth, but very serious. We took in that sobering news with a lot of prayer and mutual support. Then we found ourselves in the hospital a couple of times with our daughter’s heart rate plummeting and my wife having contractions–months too early for any of that. We were bracing for losing our daughter. But she hung in there. And so did my wife. Then in early December things again turned worse. We rushed to the hospital. For a moment things calmed a bit, but given the serious nature of the situation we were sent to a better equipped hospital in another city thinking we were going to wait it out a bit longer. But again things quickly turned worse and the doctors performed an emergency c-section. Our daughter Coco Madalena was born on December 7th, the date of both my grandfather’s and godson’s birthday, the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a month before her due date. And she was beautiful.

Heart scans indicated that she immediately needed a less invasive heart valve operation to help her survive until the major heart surgery she would need in a few months. Naturally we agreed to the surgery. It seemed to go well. The doctors were happy. All looked good. But then she had a heart attack. Emergency procedures were done. She pulled through. But then she began to struggle. During either the operation, or more likely the emergency procedures from the heart attack, she got a rare form of meningitis. The meningitis attacked her brain, and in only one month’s time she died in my arms. She never left the hospital.

All during that Christmas season my wife and I lived in a kind of limbo. My wife was at the hospital every day. I came many days, but was also juggling work. Our oldest daughter was just old enough to be both super excited to get a sister and to know something serious was going on. Family and friends all helped as they could. Many people were praying. And when Coco died our community gave us great support.

Yes, this was a big tragedy for us. A very hard time. But, the truth is, God also came so close to us. It is hard to describe, and even harder to convey. Through all the struggle, all the tears, all the difficult days and nights, We felt God’s presence. God was with us. Often I so desperately wish our girl was with us now. I think of her a lot. I also know of God’s love in the midst of trials. The journey for me was about going from head knowledge to heart knowledge, from my mind to my soul. I would never wish suffering on another, but I do believe suffering may be the only way or, ironically, the best way to come closer to God because in suffering God comes closer to us. The cross gives us a picture of this most profoundly.

We live in a hard and harsh world. So much evil, so much suffering. And that doesn’t stop just because Christmas is here. But God is with us. Christ came as a light into the darkness. Someday He will return in the awesome fullness of His glory. For now we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, we have the Church, we have fellowship, we have the poor and needy all around us, and we have the communion of saints. In these ways God is with us even now.

Perhaps I have always known that, but I know it better because of the gift God gave my wife and I of our daughter Coco. In that difficult time I came to know Advent a little bit better.

Advent Prayer

advent candles

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours. Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord who enlists me in God’s own work for justice.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a hunger for peace: peace in the world, peace in my home, peace in myself.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father’s joy. I seek His will so I can serve with gladness, singing and love.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me the joy and love and peace it is right to bring to the manger of my Lord. Raise in me, too, sober reverence for the God who acted there, hearty gratitude for the life begun there, and spirited resolution to serve the Father and Son.

I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, whose advent I hail. Amen.

In The Bleak Midwinter

A poem by Christina Rossetti, written circa 1872, later made into a Christmas carol.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother1
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

>Merry Christmas

>Today Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem. Today He who knows no beginning now begins to be, and the Word is made flesh. The powers of heaven greatly rejoice, and the earth with mankind makes glad. The Magi offer gifts, the shepherd proclaim the marvel, and we cry aloud without ceasing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.

(From the Festal Menaion of the Orthodox Church; hymns from the Third Hour and Matins.)

Nativity, by Andre Rublev (or a follower of Rublev?)
Moscow School, early 15th century.
From Zvenigorod. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 71 x 53 cm.

The following description by Alexander Boguslawski of this painting  is taken from here.

This icon is interesting for several reasons. Some scholars attribute it to Andrei Rublev or one of his close followers. That immediately makes us pay attention to the excellence of the icon’s composition and to the depth of the message conveyed by the author. Moreover, while the figures and actions are depicted clearly (elements of monumentality) there is also complexity in the number of figures and diversity of actions. At the same time, this complexity is carefully controlled and does not detract from certain important, spiritual ideas represented in the icon. One of these ideas seems to be the miraculous power of God and the perfection — the completion — of His divine will on earth. The painter succeeded in showing this “simplicity through complexity” by making each auxiliary scene reflect a reaction to, a consequence of or an event connected with the birth of Jesus. In this way his birth acts as a unifying force in this icon, as it has been for many believers around the world; these considerations add to the icon’s symbolic power.

Another interesting facet of this icon is that although Mary is the largest figure, she does not seem to be its most important (though perhaps she is the most visually noticeable) feature. Though one’s eyes may be drawn to her immediately, the entire composition of the icon reveals that it is what Mary represents – the power, mercy, and fulfillment of God’s will – that is given the most emphasis, not the woman herself.

The colors are warm and, by their complimentary nature, contribute to the unity of the whole. Touches of white are used to highlight both the cliffs and the clothing of almost all the figures – a notable exception would be that Mary’s clothes lack any such highlighting and, in consequence, appear very flat. Though this lack of highlights may be due to the state of preservation of the icon, observations of most, if not all, Russian Nativity scenes will reveal that Mary’s figure is usually depicted in an especially immaterial, “spiritual” way. Perhaps this was done to ensure that her presence, her very physical state of having just given birth, are both portrayed with fidelity to the spiritual reality of what has just occurred as opposed to the portrayals of the auxiliary figures, which are perhaps closer to physical reality.

This icon is quite faithful to the traditional iconography established for the Nativity of Christ. Important features of this composition include:

  • Mary (usually disproportionately large) as the central figure, resting on a bier
  • Joseph, usually tempted by the devil (an old man with a cane), but sometimes facing a shepherd
  • Baby Jesus swaddled in his cradle, shown in a cave
  • Two servant women preparing to wash or washing the baby
  • Angels, the messengers of God
  • The Magi bearing gifts
  • The shepherds, announcing the good news
  • A few farm animals. [C.B.]

© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2000

Harke, despair away

Nativity, Marc Chagall, 1950. Galerie Art Chrudim.

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth heare. Though windes and waves assault my keel, He doth preserve it: he doth steer, Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel. Storms are the triumph of his art: Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart. Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di’d? Then let me tell thee a strange storie. The God of power, as he did ride In his majestic robes of glorie, Reserv’d to light; and so one day He did descend, undressing all the way. The starres his tire of light and rings obtain’d, The cloud his bow, the fire his spear, The sky his azure mantle gain’d. And when they ask’d, what he would wear; He smil’d and said as he did go,He had new clothes a making here below. When he was come, as travellers are wont, He did repair unto an inne. Both then, and after, many a brunt He did endure to cancell sinne: And having giv’n the rest before,Here he gave up his life to pay our score. But as he was returning, there came one That ran upon him with a spear. He, who came hither all alone, Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear, Receiv’d the blow upon his side,And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d, If ye have any thing to send or write, I have no bag, but here is room: Unto my Fathers hands and sight, Beleeve me, it shall safely come. That I shall minde, what you impart;Look, you may put it very neare my heart. Or if hereafter any of my friends Will use me in this kinde, the doore Shall still be open; what he sends I will present, and somewhat more, Not to his hurt.  Sighs will conveyAny thing to me.  Harke, Despair away.

– “The Bag” from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert

To sing of it we’re bound

The Second Shepherd’s Play Scene 8 
(Medieval mystery play, 15th century)

The stable or manger in Bethlehem The shepherds enter and kneel before the Virgin and Child.

First Shepherd

Hail, comely and clean, hail, young child. Hail Maker as I mean, born of maiden so mild! Thou hast banned I deem the devil so wild. The evil beguiler now goes beguiled.

(pointing to the Child)

Lo, Merry He is! Lo, he laughts, my sweeting, A welcome greeting!

(offering the Child some cherries)


Second Shepherd

Hail, sovereign Savior, for Thou hast us sought! Hail Nursling, leaf and flower, that all things hath wrought! Hail, full of favor, that made all of nought!

(offering a bird)

Hail, I kneel and I cower-A bird have I brought. Without mar. Hail, little tiny mop, Of our creed thou art the crop; I would drink from thy cup, Little day-star.

Third Shepherd

Hail darling dear, full of godhead! I pray The be near when that I have need. Hail! Sweet is Thy cheer! And my heart must bleed To see Thee sit here clothed so poor indeed, With no pennies. Hail! Thy hand put forth to us all—I bring thee but a ball; take and play with it withall, And go to the tennis.

The Virgin Mary

The father of heaven, God omnipotent, That set all aright, his son has He sent. My name He chose forth, and on me his light spent; And I conceived Him forthwith through His might as God meant; And now is the Child born, May He keep you from woe! I shall pray him so. Till the glad news as ye go, And remember this morn.

The First Shepherd

Farewell, Lady, so fair to behold. With thy child on thy knee.

Second Shepherd

But he lies full cold Lord it is well with me! Now we go as ye behold.

Third Shepherd

In truth already it seems to be told Full oft—

First Shepherd

What grace we have found.

Second Shepherd

Come forth! Now we are won!

Third Shepherd

To sing of it we’re bound: Let us sing aloft!

(they leave the stable singing)

-Source:pp.123-127. Medieval and Tudor Drama, ed. John Gassner, Bantam 1963. Found online here.

Annunciation by Denise Levertov


‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

*painting Virgin of the Annunciation, Antonello da Messina (c. 1470’s)