A few weeks ago, when my husband returned home from a work trip with COVID, I found myself on an unexpected stay in the coastal town of York, Maine. York is one of those quaint towns in Southern Maine that is sleepy in the winter and undoubtedly bustling with vacationers in the summer.
I was staying in a small hotel with an unobstructed view of the ocean. In fact, for the two nights that I stayed in York, the patio door was open so that I could hear the surf – even though the curtain was closed to keep out the sound.
What was most remarkable about this quick sojourn in Maine, though, were the sunrises over the ocean.
Fo a bit of context, where we live on the North Shore of Massachusetts is less than a mile from the ocean – and a gorgeous stretch of beach that I have walked at all times day and night and in every season and every conceivable weather pattern (at least those fit for humans to be outside), so I have some sense of what sunrises over the northern Atlantic are like, though usually it is at quite a distance.
The sunrise on my first morning in Maine was glorious. It was one of those not a cloud in the sky sunrises where a big ball of light and heat comes up the horizon warming everything it touches. Even though the air temperatures were near freezing, sitting in my room with the sun blazing in, it felt like any tropical beach in the middle of the summer. Warming. Inviting. Wonderful.
The next morning, I was anticipating what might be the follow-up. Half an hour or so before sunrise, I noticed a small band of clouds. My first thought was utter joy! Maybe there will be just enough clouds to light up with the sunrise.
It was not to be. By the time that sunrise neared, I could tell that there was a thick layer of heavy gray clouds – the sort that will block out the sunrise. However, rather than lament, in a moment, I made a decision.
I drove with haste to a lighthouse that was a few miles away. Not knowing what I would find there, but wanting to discover what I could nevertheless.
As I pulled into the park overlooking the small island on which the lighthouse stood, there were places in the clouds that were not as thick. The sunrise was shimmering through. Once I got out of the car, however, I was greeted with harsh conditions – cold air whipping around. The spray of the ocean filling the air with dampness that cut through several layers of clothing.
But I continued to take photos.
In one, I captured a glorious scene of this lighthouse and the sunrise.
As I looked back at that photo, a lesson became clear – that beauty exists even in harsh conditions.
Today in the Christian tradition, we celebrate Christmas – the birth of Jesus – the Incarnation of God in human time, in the fullness of the human condition. And this celebration does not just appear out of nowhere, for we have been preparing for it in the weeks of Advent.
In this celebration, it’s helpful to recall the themes of Advent – waiting; experiencing time differently; standing firm, repairing the past; being healed and being instruments of healing; being caught up, held in love; giving birth to something new. Really immersing ourselves in these themes is not easy. And the conditions in which we live today does not make it any easier. It is a struggle, to say the least.
And we are not the first to struggle. The readings that the lectionary cycle offer for Christmas are full of struggle: the struggle of a people being sent into exile, the struggle of a fledgling community living in times of persecution, the struggle of people trying to do the right thing living in times of occupation.
The conditions out of which something new arises are not easy. They are never easy.
This seems so deeply connected to an Op-ed piece by Ross Douthat that was published in the New York Times this past week entitled, The Americanization of Religion. In this piece, Douthat reflects on the state of religion – Chrisitanity in particular – in America today. And he notes that there are so many heresies at play in popular religious culture (on both sides of the cultural divide) that we have lost the ability to even recognize them as heretical.
In the final analysis Douthat recognizes the shift in religion and spirituality in America that is happening – that has been happening and continues to happen. And in my mind this shift points to at least two things – first, that people are hungry for something new, something deeper. People may in fact be so hungry that they’re not even aware of being the slightest bit peckish. And second, that there is a possibility arising. There is an invitation arising. Not to re-order what has been, but to come in as “rupture, renewal, rebirth”, to quote Douthat.
Denise Levertov’s poem The Annunciation comes to mind. In it, Levertov holds up the divine freedom granted to Mary – the sacred regard of the Holy One – in making an offer to Mary that she was free to refuse. And free to accept. Free to say no. And free to consent. And the same is true for us. We too, regardless of gender, are free “to bear in our wombs infinite weight and lightness.” And thus, we are free to give birth to something new.
Even given the starkness of our times, there is also beauty. There is beauty despite the conditions of our times and there is beauty in the context of the conditions of our times. Either way, consenting to bearing Christ – saying yes to birthing God’s Holy Presence in us and through us remains an invitation and a possibility.