I first saw the Christmas Star in a college planetarium when I attended a special program, most likely for extra credit. It was a lecture designed to show what the Wise Men saw, and what they followed, pieced together by ancient and modern knowledge of the movement of the heavens. I was taking astronomy that fall semester, and was particularly dedicated to it, which was odd, because such dedication meant I had to climb the big hill to the Thompson Science Complex several times a week to sit in the dark and learn all the constellations for each season.

The planetarium was open for study sessions only in the afternoons and evenings and that I would willingly make this trek on darkening autumn afternoons is also odd, because I was a lazy student and thought all formal learning should stop before lunch.

Our final would require us to sit in the pitch-black room with a pointer in our hand. We would be instructed to close our eyes while they spun the sky around, mostly so we wouldn’t get sick, and then we were to begin, by looking up and saying,

“This is the summer sky. The major constellations are Cassiopeia the Queen,” while passing the pointer over all her stars, and then “This is Cygnus the Swan, Ursa Major…” and so on until we had properly named and pointed out the required constellations. Then they spun the sky again.

My roommate had the same class and we often went together to study the stars. But lots of times I went alone. I think what I liked about those afternoons was the solitude they provided, the cool dark of an empty auditorium, soft cushioned chairs circled beneath a dome of stars. I could think and breathe. Or simply breathe, and wonder a little about a universe too impossible to understand. To feel small, insignificant, and getting that this is just about exactly right.

There is a peace to be found in knowledge like that.

This week the Christmas Star returned, or what scientists have come to believe may have been the Christmas Star. And yet, it isn’t a star at all, but two planets aligned just so to blaze for a time as one brilliant light. I gazed over a field on the outskirts of town with strangers and waited until the orange flame of sunset fled the horizon. Staring at a place a little to the right of a waxing gibbous moon, the sky was dark, and dark, and darker still.

And then it wasn’t.

Hanging halfway between the moon and the horizon, Saturn and Jupiter met in a great conjunction, so close it appears not a fifth of our moon would fit between them. And they blazed as one to the naked eye, separating only when viewed through binoculars. It isn’t difficult to see how the Magi saw in it a sign, these stars as steady as a lantern, held aloft, come from out of nowhere to cast a beckoning light.

In this fourth week of Advent, we focus our minds on peace and the Wise Men are good stewards of that word. No frantic shepherds, these fellows, no boisterous and exuberant angels with trumpets and noisemakers, their scanty sashes blowing in a whirlwind of their own making. We see the three kings in profile, atop their camels, calmly traversing the deserts and plains. They approach slowly, serenely, peacefully, in every nativity play, in every imagining of their arrival.

They are the pure essence of peace and goodwill.

Thinking of the Christmas star, and the wise kings, while watching in a field with others called by a star, or what looks like a star, I was happy at our good fortune with a clear Kentucky night. The Ohio River Valley so often robs us of astronomical delights with cloudy skies or haze.

It is good to be reminded that expectation and hope and joy culminate in peace. In this quiet week, in this year of such sorrow, we can reach for peace and walk slowly with it, bearing it as a wise man might, with dignity and certainty and goodwill–which is another word for love.

the joy of small things

This third week of Advent celebrates joy, and it even has its own special candle, pink, but it’s not mandatory the candle you light this week be pink. But maybe it helps.

Because what are we to make of joy in this brittle season? Where might we find it, this kind of happiness that is more than happiness? Deeper, more intense than happiness is joy, and in the stillness we are to be cogitating on joy, and it is a heavy lift.

We are weary, we are sad, we have strung lights and decorated our homes before Thanksgiving, just to feel a little bit of it, joy. Sitting here on a cold and grey afternoon, I wonder when the corners grew so dark, and why I have been so lazy in getting my tree up, for surely those little lights might cheer me. I put on Christmas music to tide me over.

I’m not in the mood for chestnuts or sleigh bells so I dial up Gregorian Christmas chants and what was I thinking? They are beautiful, yes, but also mysterious and weighty and maybe a little creepy in a certain mood. Not always, but they fall hard on my ear just now, this year, in this season.

Handel’s “Messiah” might be a better choice since I sang it in high school when the choral society was short on altos. But no, not that, either. So I’m back to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and that suits me just fine. You can almost hear the horses’ hooves thundering across the steppes, the words and music Christmasy, but with a rasping icy urgency from the North, complete with a Cossack kicker and Mother Russia at her loom, weaving each and every song, each and every arrangement.

Which is all the more remarkable because they are Americans.

But still, the music is big. It’s bold. A little rough around the edges. And through it runs a sincerity, an abandon that sounds very much like joy. And I feel joy, imagining these musicians creating moving Christmas music as if they are shouting lyrics at their mics ten feet away, while they flail at guitars, keyboards, drums, all heavy rock and sweating.

Not tinkly Christmasy, but then, oh, so Christmasy.

I drag the Christmas tree stand in from the garage, clear the corner for the tree. I buy a proper tree skirt because every year I have to listen to another Douglas fir moan and groan about the sheet I wrap around its feet, while I try to convince it the sheet is snow.

Each year I set up my tree and recall the evening I invited my younger brother and sister to help me decorate it after work. I approached the task with great joy, all happy and bright, while they sat on their rumps, eating all my food, entertaining each other with bad jokes and adolescent humor—though they were in their twenties— and neither one touching a single ornament.

It didn’t matter. We remember that night every Christmas and laugh and long for the comfort and joy we felt in each other’s presence then, grown, but not grown, adults being kids, or maybe the other way around, in a little upstairs apartment, windows rattling in the wind.

This long hard season has tried to teach us the joy of little things. We shopped at nurseries and garden centers for seed and mulch, rediscovered our backyards, had time to finally hear the birds that nest in our trees, learn which ones peck the ground for food. We’ve knelt in the dirt, grime under our nails, not cared. We’ve had nowhere to be and no rush to get out of our comfy clothes.

We discovered ZOOM, and loved it, then hated it, then loved it again. We see our families, our book groups, our buddies. Without thinking too hard I count six new friends I’ve made via ZOOM, through classes and seminars. I couldn’t tell you how tall they are, or what they look like in profile, whether their hands are warm or cold, but I could be awakened by a call at 3:00 a.m. and I would know the voice. And this is a joy. And a mercy. And a gift.

We await the joy to the world, but we are most apt to recognize it if we sharpen our senses to the little joys before us. And they are there. Right there. I think I see them. No farther away than my arm is long.


On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, it seemed, to enter.

I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 15th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior. And it was cool in there, with only the faintest rays of sunlight making their way through the stained glass windows. It was mostly quiet, punctuated now and then by the organist’s practicing.

I wasn’t alone.

From my place in the back I watched an elderly man with heavy plastic bags of groceries swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door. He sat for a moment, then gathered his things, stood to settle the ballast of his bags, and left through the side door opposite the one he came in by. It was as if St. Moritz were a regular stop on his rounds, a throughway, a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.

A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm a fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it. She slumped just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion.

Minutes passed, I lost track of time. From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face. Some deep trouble had come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, without seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place. Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

For in that moment—a twinkling, really— I knew I was meant to see her, bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.

I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in seven centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. I’ve read that in Great Britain, millennials are returning to church, not always as believers, not always for the formal services of Mass and Easter Vigil.

They fill the pews for events like evensong and often stop by churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have some place quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.

They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them. They come because they seek the sacred. Cathedrals are built with just such intention, these great sacred conduits that open up a space for the divine. We feel it, even if we can’t name it, don’t fully understand it.

In such places, tears often come.

It’s unsettling at first, as we feel that tender place within, a big place or a little one, where lurks a question, a grief, some uncertainty or fear. We are in need of some mending. We are missing something, and we think here we might find it.

For that is what hope is, isn’t it? An awaiting, an expectation of some desire to be fulfilled, even if we cannot name it yet, this thing we long for. We hope for resolution, or clarity or rest. In sanctuary is always the hope of deliverance.

In this second week of Advent, we light a candle and look into the flame, we contemplate love and hope, and like our young friends who sit for a while at evensong, we don’t have to know exactly what it all means. We just have to sit still. Crack open our hearts, just a sliver. Breathe.

In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it. Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Seek out the heavy door on any place of sanctuary—a church, nature, a friend. Find one open to you.

Go in.

The end and the advent

I write this on the first day of the last month of the end of the decade that is, as you know, a difficult one to name. Wait, you may be thinking. The new decade has already begun, but no, not really. 2020 is the last year of the decade, the tenth year.

There is something about those zeros at the end of any year that makes New Year’s Eve parties lose their minds, and we love those nice round digits, too. They are pretty and festive and so we ring out old decades, old centuries and millennia when we see zeros.

But we have it wrong. It is esthetically pleasing, but still, wrong.

Not that it matters in the larger scheme of things, but this year it seems especially apt that we recognize the ending of something, the awaiting of something else. For once it feels accurate to use the word “everyone” to describe who has been disrupted by the pandemic and who has been aggrieved by it. We can use the word “everyone” to describe who is waiting, please, please, for an end to the fear and uncertainty.

We are waiting, of course, so, too, Canada and Mexico, and so are my friends in the Czech Republic, and also those in small villages in the Carpathians, and those in Asia and Africa and in places we can’t pronounce or locate on a map.

The observance of Advent is not a part of my tradition. I was raised a carol-singing little Baptist, all gussied up in my freshly starched white cape of a choir robe, big red bow at the throat. In Mary Janes and white anklets I sang my heart out at the Christmas program with my brother and other children, equally gussied up and caped.

We heard about crowded inns and shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus on Sundays, but during the week we waited for Santa Claus. There was the tree, you see, and it was tall and sparkly and captured most of our attention the month of December. I thought Advent calendars, once I came to know of them, were just the warm-up act for all that loot come Christmas Day, with those little pieces of candy behind each door.

Surely the primary purpose was to mark time and take the edge off until the main event.

But no, that is not the purpose of Advent, as I have come to understand.
Advent is mysterious and purposeful, a time of waiting and preparation and hopeful expectation. An exercise in faith and patience.

I have a small ceramic Advent wreath from Central Europe, a gift from friends, with instructions to weave greenery in and around the four small candle holders. It usually lives in the back of a drawer because while I admire it, I don’t quite know what to do with it. This year, as my friends talk about their Advent lessons, their observances, I have rescued my Advent wreath from its dark corner and have found it a Christmas home.

I started with a devotion that I dutifully read and worked to contemplate upon, but really, nothing. So I went in search of another. And another, until I found a series of daily readings and contemplations that resonated. In these early days of Advent I am working to establish a routine to light the candle, settle down and settle in, and open up to words and prophesies both ancient and new.

We await so much this Christmas season. The dying of the light, and then its return. The end of suffering and fear and sorrow around a virus we cannot see and don’t fully understand. The return of time with loved ones. We await a vaccine. A sense of safety that allows us to touch each other again. We await the ability to make plans, to travel, to get on with our lives.

Perhaps my daily Advent ritual will not measure up to a proper observance of the season. And maybe that is beside the point. My natural inclination is to be cheerful and optimistic, and I am those things. But these require a looking out, a scanning of the horizon and some outward action of good will.

But for now, in these last days of a decade, in this time, in this season of Advent, I will wait and watch as the days shorten, the dark deepens. I will take a slow look inward. I will walk with the mysterious.