Faith Works 12-15-12
Spicing up our Advent preparations
You may know the Christmas carol that begins "Angels from the realms of glory."
It has a later verse which begins "Sages, leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar: seek the great Desire of Nations; ye have seen his natal star."
When I was very young and low to the pew backs, with plenty of time to doodle on the margins of the bulletins and contemplate the mysteries of hymn lyrics, that line puzzled me.
"Sages, leave your contemplations…"
The word jumped out at me: my mom had a rack of spices, green capped ampules filled with various herbs and seasonings, hanging next to the stove. They were older than I was, and some were near to gone (oregano) and others still full and seemingly untouched (cumin). Others were, over the years, knocked off the counter and broken, to be replaced by off-band small bottles that fit the rack (celery seed).
It was the kitchen equivalent of the Crayola 64 colors box, with the many and mysterious names to read and marvel at: cornflower blue, burnt sienna, forest green.
The spice rack included a foretaste of folk music to come: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Sage was there, in a sans serif type I can still see in my mind's eye. Just one word, four letters, a regularly if not frequently used spice (unlike chili powder or white pepper).
So in this Christmas carol, a flavor is being invoked, my youthful mind reflected. Sages, more than one type of sage, or perhaps multiple containers of the same, should stop with their, um, contemplations? Then the lyric went on into vision and seeking and seeing. I didn't know what a sage was, even though I had some sage at home in the kitchen.
Truth be told there's much about any Christmas, traditionally observed or spontaneously put together, that we enjoy more than we understand. Even when we purport to get it, we're probably missing something, like when the family we married into does the gift exchange, and someone opens up a wrapped . . . pineapple, and everyone laughs uproariously. Uh, yeah, funny. Five minutes later, they're still laughing, and you're acutely aware that you are laughing, too, and have no idea why (and make a note to ask your spouse later "what's the gag with the pineapple?").
Later that night, you ask about the family tradition about the gag gift. "What gag gift?" "You know, the one about the pineapple." "Oh, well, that's Uncle Ted." "Right, I see, Uncle Ted – but what's the joke?"
They can't tell you. It's been so long, and the joke is . . . look, it's just funny, okay?
So it is for some who stumble, perhaps drug by their family, into a worship service where we give thanks for a homeless couple, a baby with uncertain paternity, visits from seasonal migrant workers who claim to have had a hallucinogenic experience out in fields by night ("I'll bet they have" thinks the Christmas Eve guest), and then run into foreign dignitaries who are into astrology on their way out of a cave heading out of town.
And from all this, you get good news from God for all the earth?
Sometimes, we end up doing the religious version of "look, it's just funny, okay?" to people. We get it, or think we get it, because we're used to it. But in fact the oddity of the whole Christmas story, when taken seriously as a narrative, is itself part of the point. God's love doesn't work according to Robert's Rules of Order, or by resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. This kind of love shows up on the margins first, and is told to us by those least likely to have made it up, whatever you think they were up to out in those cold and windy fields.
The carol continues, from those sages leaving their spice racks and recipes and contemplations, singing with us, telling us to "Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the new-born king."
Do we know what that really means? Probably not, but we can start to understand by pulling up a chair, asking some questions, and singing along when the conversations reach a puzzled end. Sometimes, the answer is right there in the song if you give it a few more verses.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him your Christmas spice favorites at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.