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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Making Meaning: Remembering who and whose we are

This meditation by the Very Rev'd Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, President and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA strikes deep cords of resonance in me about the meaning of ritual and liturgy and the making of meaning.

I haven't yet started decorating the house for Christmas, but I will this coming Sunday afternoon. 

I want to say, "I haven't had the time," but that wouldn't be exactly right.  What I mean is that I haven't had the time to do it 'right'.  Well, not 'right' but being intentional about taking the time to do it with intention.

That's because decorating the house for Christmas is not just a task.  It's much more than a simple annual ritual - although there's no denying, it is all that. We humans are nothing if not creatures of habit and ritual. 

As for me and my house, decorating for Christmas has become, of sorts, a little 'domestic liturgy'.

Yes, the tree goes up and the lights go on.  That's a task and a chore.  But then, the decorations go up.  They're not just decorations, see?  Each one has a memory.

Like the woodcarving ornaments of every one of our children's names which we got when the oldest ones had become, as they used to say, "double digit midgets" - reached their first decade of life. That is suddenly, alarmingly, many more decades ago than I care to admit.

I love touching these ornaments and feeling them.  As I run my fingers over each letter of every name,  I can hear the faint sound of their childhood laughter, like the delicate tinkling of Christmas sleigh bells in the distance.

I can remember the way their curls used to dance on their foreheads.  I can see the way this one pursed her mouth in concentration or the way that one's crooked little smile moved across his face like the one on the snowman in our front yard. I can see the light shining in their eyes as they hung up their own 'name ornament'.

There are other ornaments - gifts from special people or places - some we've had since before the kids were born.  Each one has to be taken out and hung in its own very special place.

Then, there are the picture frame stocking holders that sit on the mantle of the fireplace.  Each one has a baby picture of each person in the family (now with the sons and daughters in law and the Grandbeauties, we almost don't have enough room) from which hangs a stocking with their name on it.

There is an order to the 'procession' - oldest to youngest.  It takes time to look at each one and pause as memories find their way through the passage of time, into the deep recesses of my memory.

Occasionally, strangely, magically, one of those memories will liquefy as it surfaces, and roll down my face in silent tears of joy.

There are garlands to hang around doorways and a big stuffed Santa to sit in the chair by the fireplace and a silly Singing Mickey Mouse Village to assemble. 

That delightful bit of Disney consumerism contains one big Swiss Villa sort of house (which really houses the musical mechanism) and four little houses where four different Disney Characters - Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto - live.

When you flip the switch of the Villa,  the door of each little house swings open in time to the music and the characters come out of their houses, each to sing their note in a 'barbershop quartet' version of one of twelve Christmas Carols. 

At least, I think there are twelve.  We rarely get past the first one.  It gets way too annoying after awhile.   But, if I didn't put that silly thing together and put it out on the table, the wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth would be heard all the way in Kalamazoo.

I'm sure God doesn't mind if I skip a piece of the liturgy, but the children of God who hang around here this time of year most certainly will.

See what I mean?  It's a holy, sacred task.  As holy as Advent itself.  It can't be rushed.  It must be done with intention and care, just like the lighting of each candle of the Advent wreath. You can't light them all at once. It has to be done slowly, intentionally, and with prayer.

It's part of how I know who I am in this wonderful family that Norman Rockwell might never have painted.  Even if he had, you would never have found us on the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Never mind.  We are no less a family for our public invisibility.  And, we know that, in part, because of this little domestic liturgy in late Advent.

It's about the power of memory and the power of Love. It's about how the common can be made holy. It's about the mystery of how connecting to the vulnerable places in our hearts and minds can make us strong.

It's part of the preparation of making room for the Infant Messiah.  It's about making meaning out of the chaos of our lives by remembering who we are and whose we are - both in our families of origin, our families of choice and the family of God.

We do all that one Christmas ornament, one Christmas decoration, one Christmas memory, one Christmas prayer at a time.

Update: Let's file this "Story of the Day" from StoryPeople under Synchronicity (AKA "The Holy Spirit." AKA "Angels of Mercy.")
Angels of Mercy

Most people don't know
there are angels
whose only job is
to make sure you
don't get too comfortable
& fall asleep
& miss your life.


Doug said...

Lovely. Thank you.

Unfortunately, the word verification is "hyper." Maybe you have helped take a little hyper out of our Advent season.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, perhaps, but I think 'hyper' is an integral part of the domestic liturgy of Advent for some. God blesses that, too.

Bill said...

My tree is up but not decorated. It comes with the lights attached so at least that much is done. Last year was the first time in five years that I even had a tree up or decorated; too much pain. So even though the tree is up I still have to face the daunting task of decorating and that means hanging all those memories. All those memories with the sharp and painful edges.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

@ Bill: Yup. I think it's the sharp and painful edges of some memories that make us weep.

See you at the 'Blue Christmas' Service on Saturday at 5 PM?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, and I'm going to swing to the other side of the pendulum here, as the "no tree, no decorations, just an Advent wreath" person.

This is the time of the year I secretly hope no one comes in the house b/c I don't want to explain that I'm not depressed and there's nothing wrong with me.

It's just that I had to clean out a lot of old bad memories; tinsel and hoo-haa reminds me too much of them. The good memories, I have in my heart, and they are not going anywhere.

I made a decision several years ago that this season was to become a "live in the now, as much as I can," season for me.

I realize this only works for a small minority of people, but wow, it works for me. Oddly enough, it allows me to read your post and feel warm and happy about what decorating means to YOU, and I can rejoice in it better! It seems strange, but it's so very real!

suzanne said...

Thank you for your post this morning, Elizabeth. It shot me out of my doldrums, and I'm now in the midst of decorating my Charlie Brown replacement tree. I brought CB down from the attic on a rainy Sunday, threw some "stuff on it and immediately disliked what I had done.

But the remembering is good for me, so I went for another tree and have just finished putting the lights on and the first ornament I picked up was a fish that had belonged to my grandmother. Wow!!

So Thank You from my weepy heart.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Makes perfect sense to me, Kirke. As Dean Ragsdale notes, there's no right or wrong way to do Advent. There's just your way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think memory is one of the most important gifts we humans have been given - they can be painful as well as joyful - but always, always reveal something important about being human.