Thursday, December 25, 2014

It's a boy!

The morning of Christmas Day, not too early. I climb into my car and head east, down my street, Klickitat. For the first two blocks, there’s a houseless greenway with scattered trees on my left, beyond which the hills and mountains of the state of Washington are visible across the mighty Columbia River. I drive on, still eastward, now passing houses on both sides of the street, all very quiet, no signs of life inside or out. People must be at peace, at home, together. It’s a holiday, the holiday. Christ’s birthday. Christmas.

After a half mile or so, the street turns a sharp, house-lined corner, and heads south, parallel to a major roadway, twenty feet below on the other side of a safety barrier. After serving a block of homes on the western edge of the bluff, the street pours into the side of the major roadway, and in my car I follow it. Like a Sunday morning when I drive the same route on the way to church, the roadway is nearly empty, the avenue is silent, little activity visible anywhere, just traffic lights changing for paltry traffic.

But today isn’t Sunday morning. This year Christmas falls on Thursday. The strange quiet that follows this holiday wherever it goes has transformed the world to a place of silence and repose. The cloud cover with nascent rain paints a picture of soft, winter gray, a comforting sight, for the world, my world, and anyone’s, needs to be comforted. The heat of anxious thought and thoughtless action that disturbs the tranquility of our lives in the workaday world must needs be dampened, sometimes.

This is what the ‘day of rest,’ the Sabbath, used to be like in years gone by. Once there was a day, usually Sunday, but in some places Saturday, when the world just stopped. No, not like ‘the day the earth stood still’ or anything like that, but a day when all unnecessary human activity halted, so that people could, along with the Creator, rest from their labors. Everything public was closed, except in an emergency, and only for known people. Only the church or Christian meeting hall was open, but not for business.

Only to glorify God, who alone gives increase, though we strive our hardest to succeed, often failing. After divine worship, or worshipful silence for those of the inner light, we had the rest of the day to ourselves, but even then, in some places, we still couldn’t engage in sports, or travel beyond the family circle. Today, the Thursday of the first day of Christmas, is probably the last reminder of a world that man once shared with God, giving back to Him what He has forever been giving to us. Rest.

After motoring south I turn left at the second traffic signal to continue my journey east. I am ‘heading home for the holidays.’ Home, to be with my family, even though I don’t know most of them very well, yet. The road is still nearly untraveled, reminding me of the line from the poet, ‘and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ Yes, it has made all the difference. The church, nestled among homes on the forested hills at the eastern edge of town, is my destination.

There, to glorify the birth of the Son of God, with the brethren. At last my drive comes to an end in a U-turn in front of the temple, as I park by the roadside. Inside the doors, I buy two candles to light as an offering for me and a friend, kiss the ikon of Saint George, and turn aside to make way for a young couple carrying a newborn infant, as they step forward to the entrance of the nave. I realize what I have walked into unexpectedly. It is a forty-day blessing. I cannot see if the infant is a baby boy or girl.

Moving to the back to let others in closer as they gather around, some wielding flashless camera phones, I am too distracted to listen carefully to what Father Alban is saying. I still don’t know if the baby is a boy or a girl. The prayers and blessing finish. The priest takes the babe in his hands and lifting it heavenward chants, ‘The child of God is churched in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ as he advances to the altar. There, without going in, he raises the newborn in dedication before the ikons.

‘Ah, so it must be a girl,’ I think to myself, ‘otherwise he would have taken it inside the altar and circumambulate the holy table.’ Few priests are willing to break with tradition, like Father John does, who takes all infants into the altar, regardless of gender. I look about for a place to stand for the service and slide into an empty pew on the right of the main aisle, opposite where I usually stand. ‘My guardian angel,’ I wonder, ‘will he know where I am?’ remembering a saying of Mother Gavrilía.

The quiet of the outside world gives way to the music of divine service, and I ponder the twin gifts of silence and of praise. The holy Child, being rushed to birth in an unlikely place, a shepherd’s cave, through the hustle and bustle and noise of a market town, was anything but quiet. It was even noisy, at first. Then, as the holy family went down, off the beaten track to find the caves, the coolness and silence of the coming night ushered them to the place of birth-giving, its poverty hiding it from the world.

Truth never changes, but we do. Things look different to us at their beginning and at their ending. The passage of time adds weight to what at first seemed light, or reveals to be nearly nothing what once we thought glorious and grand. Initial happiness can sour, but heart-breaking losses can prepare us for more than we ever thought possible. Swept as dust before a whirlwind, we lose our balance and fall, and blinded by our passions lose our way. Belief, faith, and trust are keys that open a door to life.

Though she knew beforehand, and the man selected to be her husband also, what must be His name, and others who came seeking a king, His gender and office, the shepherds instructed by angels in unforgettable tones the nature of God’s purposes still cried out when they found Him, ‘It’s a boy!’ as they gathered around, glad eyes reflecting a light that illuminated people who had walked, forever it seemed, in darkness. And a new silence, that of the Kingdom without end, befell the world.

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