December 25th approaches closer and closer, a day much of the world celebrates as Christmas. For many of us, however, Christmas is a tough one. By the time it is over, who isn’t burned out on the whole thing? It’s not hard to see why.
Our world doesn’t “do” depth well. On the one hand, we are flooded in all directions (earlier every year) by tinsel and commercials. On the other hand, attempts to restore the ‘reason for the season’ so often rest on surface interpretations of the old stories supported by dogmatic religious trappings. Those of us seeking the radical re-enchantment of our daily lives are not satisfied with surface tellings or interpretations of any tradition or any story, least of all our holy stories.
But just as we refuse to be satisfied with a dogmatic acceptance of holy stories, neither are we satisfied with the opposite: a knee-jerk rejection of those holy stories, a rejection which, in its own way, is just as dogmatic.
No, you and I like to follow a path of deepest affirmation, and we like to go deeper and truer into the heart and root of things in search of real insight, real medicine, real magic. In light of this, in this month’s Lunar Letter, I offer you a retelling of the traditional Christmas story, as I have received it from my own family and as I have struggled with it in my own life of soulful seeking and understanding.
And so now let us begin. Curl up, snuggle down, read the tale quietly or out loud to your best beloveds. Our story begins not once upon a time but once upon all time – then, now, always…
First, imagine the moonlight.
And the moonlight on the sand and how sand can feel so cold, colder than ice, colder than snow, when you are alone, in the desert, in the dead of winter.
This is the story of the time I found myself walking on a wild, untrammeled road. I followed no one’s footsteps along this road. For when it comes to the one unique path we all must sooner or later travel, the one we must bear sometimes and somehow in fear and trembling, what footsteps can we follow? Indeed we follow the path our deepest hearts reveal to us, no matter where it leads. There is no other way.
My footsteps fell hard and heavy on that cold moonlit sand. At first, I could think of nothing but the moment we had received word from our dear cousin, a word that the tyrant – that greedy madman – would soon arrive to destroy us and our new life. We had to flee at once, flee or die. There would be no time for goodbyes. We needed to move in the dead of night to escape detection by the tyrant’s many spies. So we swiftly gathered our belongings, just enough to sling over the donkey without weighing it down too much, and we were out the door.
An old story, as old as the sand that I walked on, but it’s also in today’s news. Look and you will see. I held my breath for many miles, though my heart hammered wildly in my chest. One foot in front of the other, into that dark night we fled, endangered, unwanted, refugees.
And we didn’t look back.
As it turns out, one foot in front of the other is not exactly exciting.
You easily get the hang of it. The hardest part is trying to keep the fear and the boredom behind you. But after trudging in the cold with my unborn baby and my beloved companion, the fear finally caught up with us, freezing the surface of our hearts like a frozen pond I had seen once long ago as a little girl. I began to wonder if it was all only a dream — the fire within, the angel’s iridescent rainbow wings, the call falling like life-giving rain. I began to long for rest, for the deep dreamless sleep. Then I realized something had changed in the air.
“Wait! Is that smoke?” I asked my companion, deliriously. “Do you smell it too?”
“Yes!” he said. “Yes, oh yes!”
The cold desert wind carried the sweet scent of wood smoke. Where there is wood smoke, there is fire, we reasoned. And where there is fire, there could be a human being, and, hopefully, a human heart. And sure enough, off in the distance, we saw a faint yet shimmering light, a light which was indeed a fire, a fire in a dwelling.
Our spirits mounted the sky and soared with hope. We clapped our hands. Would there be words of welcome on the other end of that fire? As we grew closer, we could see that the dwelling was made of earth and wood, and through the cracks of several shuddered windows, firelight glowed. The rich scent of cooking food, fat sizzling in flame, made my head spin with delight. At first, the door opened a crack. And then the crack widened, and a burly man appeared, heavily bearded, with a fur thrown over himself to protect against the cold. His cheeks were red from honey-flavored wine. Beyond him, inside, we thought we saw several figures moving quickly around, disappearing out of sight.
“Excuse us, sir,” we asked, in one voice. “Is there a place here. A place to rest, to lay down, our heads, to bring new life forward?
I thought with rosy cheeks like his, he would surely have said “yes”. But the man’s small eyes looked down at my belly, and then they fearfully darted to the left and to the right. He shook his head and muttered something of which I couldn’t make out because he spoke a different tongue. But just as quickly as he opened it, the heavy oaken door slammed shut, answering our question, leaving us to the desolate wastes outside. My beloved companion’s face became the color of ash and his brow darkened with rage and contempt.
“No! Don’t you do it,” I said, suddenly, discerning at once what he was about to do, and I gripped his hand, which was reaching for a sharp implement. “Don’t you dare. You think you are showing strength that way? Think again.”
“But how can he do that?” he said, jutting his jaw, grinding his teeth. “How can he just shut the door on us that way? I’ll kill the bastard.”
“You can’t understand it,” I said. “You can try, but it is dark fact of our nature. But I will tell you something, dear beloved, something I know for certain now. It is true we are now exiles, refugees, in this land. But I know one thing: I know how unbeatable the spirit within is. We are in truth built for rough terrain, you and I. For where else but in rough terrain might we expect to find sacred heart?”
My companion sighed, and the light returned to his face, and he looked into my eyes finally. It was the familiar look of my constant companion, the man who refused to flee when so many others did.
“Where indeed!” he said, placing an arm around me. “Then come, we must keep moving.”
In later times I would be known as Blessed Mother, Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, She Who Carries The Light Of The World. But when I think back to that time, all of those grand puffed-up names make me chuckle a little.
No light tip-toeing demurely for this gal, who walked over rugged hills and sprawling seas of sand that seem to go on forever under moon and starlight. This girl didn’t walk on air, like a floating cloud, as I would be depicted in those marvelous Florentine paintings. No, she walked on her feet – her blistered, swollen, carrying a nine month pregnant belly, feet. And where was my golden royal train? Even though I was huge, heavy with child, and all of the discomforts that come with the ninth month of pregnancy, in truth I was very small with the scent of sweat, exhaustion, the sour smell of rejection, and fear. But underneath all of that, there was still the lingering scent of faith, of certainty, of energy and action.
Do you know I finally laughed, when we stepped into the barn? I did! Even after all we had gone through, I never expected it would be here that the sacred heart would come into the world. I always thought there would be a shining palace, marbled, with stately grandeur, perfume-scented water running through the aqueduct-fed pipes and canals. Even the trees and birds outside would bear the imprimatur of a stately cosmic royalty.
No, in fact, what we had was rather ripe, rather smelly, by contrast! Here was a tiny building, dark and dusty, with sleeping, shuffling animal sounds, scented to be sure with sweet hay, warm milk, smooth fur, but mostly surrounded by lots of very rich manure. As we bedded down in the corner of the barn, I saw the soft, drowsy, eyes of horse, cow, sheep, and goat, eyes that sparkled like stars. It makes me blush and laugh again to say it now, but I heard the animals talking that night. And in this laughter, you know, that crazed tyrant who pursued us, who threatened to destroy us, that tyrant Fear Itself, was long-faded and long gone, utterly chased away.
Feeling the safety and the comradeship, the donkey immediately felt at home and nuzzled against the milk cow, whispering as it did so into her velvety ear.
“You know, dear cow, something very special will happen before this night is through. This one is a holy woman! You can tell. Look at her feet and hands!”
And the milk cow, nodding head up and down, lowed into the cold air.
“Yes, you are right. Oh, how wonderful. Here let us help her, she can lean against my side when the worst of the pain takes her and I can be solid and steady for her.”
Draught horse blew air out through his fuzzy, soft lips, and with eyes blinking, stomped impatiently.
“A child! A child! A living child! How special, how wonderful, we do not see enough children. I can stand still and strong so that she might grip my mane when the pain is at its hardest. I have heard the women folk say that pulling and stretching and pushing is what birth giving is all about.”
And the lady animals in the barn all nodded sagely and agreed that this was very true. The pig, with its very intelligent eyes and oh, so sensitive snout, began to push the leavings out of its manger and carried one mouthful of clean straw at a time to create a soft bed.
“I will let the new child have my manger as a place to rest its little head, on this soft straw that smells rich and sweet, in the exact same way we cuddle up our newborn babies to keep them warm and clean.”
A golden-eyed cock and a line of fluffy hens that surrounded him with contented clucks raised up their heads.
“We will crow and cluck the news of the sweet child’s birth to the highest heavens! It will be the sweetest crowing and clucking you ever did hear!”
A goat stomped and butted her head, not wishing to be left out of the fun.
“I will share my rich milk with the new child and his parents, for they carry exhaustion in their bones and this will revive them.”
And a small lamb raised what sounded like a plaintive baa baa, but was actually saying,
“I will go out into the fields and find my mother the ewe and tell her so that she might tell the others and they might tell the shepherds to come and help us celebrate.”
The doves that lived in the rafters cooed to one another knowingly.
“We are in for a long night of it, let us make sweet and soothing music to aid these people in the work that is to come.”
And so it was that I heard each animal working out amongst themselves what part they would each play. And as the first wave of agony rolled through my belly and gripped my spine, I nodded my head, for I had a role to play as well.
I hear that now we are taught that women forget the worst of their labor because of hormones or gooey baby gazes. I’m not sure about all of that, all I know is that I slept it off, falling into a deep and delicious sleep as soon as the Little Light of the World arrived and was put to suckle at my breast. When I finally awoke, I smiled and nodded, gesturing to the faithful grey donkey, the solid milk cow, the strong draught horse, the intelligent pig, bright eyed rooster and chickens, enthusiastic goat, devoted lamb, and gentle doves.
“Look, Yossef! We are surrounded by angels as soon as we entered the stable, they surround us still!” I said to my beloved companion. He laughed and clapped his hands at my words. Then his look became somber.
“Miryam, there are several strangers outside who’d like to see you and the little one. They look familiar yet different. I’m afraid they…well, should I allow them?”
“Really, my love? After all, we’ve been through? Of course.” I shook my head. When will he ever learn?”
When they stepped into the stable, it was clear that none of them spoke our native Hebrew. One of them sounded like a delighted goose when he talked. The other sounded like chirruping cicadas high in the trees at summer’s zenith, and the third sound like soft bells tinkling. I didn’t need to know exactly what they said. I could see it in their faces and eyes, and we recognized each other at once, all struck with wonder.
During our journey, we had stopped at three places before finally, blessedly, arriving at the barn with the animals. We had been rejected and turned away three times by three men. Now those same men stood before me. And with tears in his eyes, the first – you know, the burly one – held in his outstretched hand’s gifts to us and in honor of the new child.
“I am sorry,” his eyes said. “We have wronged you. I know that now. Please accept our humble gifts for you and this shining baby.” Yossef and I stared in amazement at the man, at the fact that so closed and frozen a heart had melted in this way.
“Yossef, wisdom has descended upon these men,” I said, gesturing to all three. “They allowed their hearts to be pierced. Please make them a seat next to me.”
Now, most stories say the gifts were frankincense, myrrh, and gold. But those would come later when the wonderful and wise magi who traveled from afar arrived. But I will tell you now, that the gifts of these wise men were not only the most meaningful, but they would prove most useful to us in the years to come.
What did they give us? Vanilla, and two foreign spices I can no longer live without. They called them “chile” and “chocolate”. Have you heard of them? The vanilla was for warmth and compassion, but the chile was for spice and adventure, and the chocolate for the sweetness that lives hand in hand with the bitter. Let me tell you, in the days and years to come, we would need a lot of vanilla, chile and, most of all, chocolate.
And so it was early, early in the quiet desert morning, moon gone to nothing, a few stalwart stars still shining bright in the just-coming-into-dawn sky. What better place than this, I ask you, could sacred heart come into the world? Coming into being, breathing in first blessed breath, among all of us together – creatures, companions, and friends.
This, then, was how, one foot in front of the other, sacred heart is born. Then. Now. Always.