Longing for Hestia

The holiday season doesn’t typically bring the pantheon of Greek gods to mind, but the goddess Hestia has something to teach us about the heart of our celebrations. Hestia isn’t as well known as the other Olympians, as we don’t have stories of her exploits, and she was rarely represented as a human figure.  Instead, she was identified with the hearth fire of a home or temple. When the fire was lit she was understood to be present, and tending her flame was a sacred duty.

 

 

Hestia offers wisdom for creating and maintaining the social structures of family, community, and state that sustain human life. The sense of warmth and comfort we feel at a fireside is her gift. On a larger scale, her influence yields a society that provides peace and security for its members. Hestia’s presence is quiet; Hestia’s absence is devastating.

We’re in the midst of a season when the longing for Hestia colors the activity all around us. The Greeks showed restraint from trying to define her in terms of human characteristics, but our culture doesn’t hesitate to offer specific images for capturing her spirit in our individual lives. Advertisements encourage us to invoke Hestia’s presence not by kindling her fire in the hearth, but by presenting gifts or meals or décor or events. All of these things can be lovely, but when we believe they are necessary—or worse, that they are sufficient for a joyful holiday, we are misled.

The holiday season places home and family at the heart of what we celebrate, idealize, and long for. Over the next few weeks we’ll be subject to thousands of images promising to satisfy our desire for peace and connection. But a longing as deep as the one we bring to the season isn’t met by anything out there in the world, or even by the home and family that can be such blessings.

Addressing the longing for Hestia happens in our own hearts. Her hearth fire is kindled inside, with loving acceptance of ourselves and of life as it is. From that centered place we can lovingly embrace others, bring out the best in them, and create an environment in which to flourish. Invoking the presence of Hestia brings a different kind of perfection, joyful and satisfying. And in the warmth of her light, everything else we bring to the holidays glows as well.

 

 

Hope

One of the things we need most as we move into this new year is Hope. Not an expectation of wishes coming true, or anticipation of ease, but the indwelling of life energy that refuses to check out in the face of adversity.

A friend recently shared Jan Richardson’s new meditations on hope for this year’s “Women’s Christmas” retreat. (Women’s Christmas is an Irish tradition of Epiphany as a day for women to take a break from family and domestic obligations, gathering to relax and celebrate together.)  Richardson’s insightful observations are a testament to the journey through grief and faith she has walked for the past few years.

True hope beckons us to do more than wish or want or wait for someone to take action. It asks us to be the one who acts. It calls us to discern what lives beneath our wishes, to discover the longings beneath our longings, to dig down to the place where our deepest yearning and God’s deepest yearning are the same. When we find that, when we uncover those deepest desires, hope invites and impels us to participate in bringing about those things for which we most keenly long.  – Jan Richardson

Our deep and true longings are placed within as a gift. They are a spark of the divine that urges toward what will bring us into health and wholeness. It is painful when what we love or value is taken away, yet the longing for what we know is good continues to call us into life. This energy that pulls us forward is cause for Hope.

Hope has work for us to do. It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us or beyond us is falling apart. In the height of despair, in the deepest darkness, hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, that we might engage the world when it breaks our hearts. Hope goes with us, step by step, offering to us the manna it holds. – Jan Richardson

Trust is a close relative of Hope. When we don’t know how to make things better, when the way forward is dark, being able to trust that we’ll be given what we need allows us to keep going. It helps to remember times in the past when our needs have been met and we have been led forward. We can recall events from our individual lives or from our collective life together.

Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when the world falls apart around us or within us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, into this day, where God waits for us to work toward a more whole world now.  – Jan Richardson

Hope is a kind of strength, though not a strength that we have to cultivate alone. As we share our disappointments and longings, honoring the authentic yearning of our hearts, we hold space for the new life that wants to come through us and be born into the world. The energy of that life force will not be denied. When we experience its flow we cannot help but dwell in hope.

 

Echoes of Advent in the New Year

Despite my best plans it’s not until now, when we’re on the quiet side of the holidays, that I can fully appreciate Advent. I meant to spend those weeks leading up to Christmas with Kathleen Wiley’s wonderful book, New Life: Symbolic Meditations on the Birth of Christ Within. A good idea, but Christmas gains speed in December and my contemplative intentions scattered.

Ideally, Advent is a season of quiet waiting, preparing for the birth of God into the world and the birth of our highest self into being. The four weeks leading up to Christmas focus on hope, love, joy, and peace as we invite the divine child to be born in our hearts and in our midst. But it’s only now, in the silent nights following the holidays, that there’s time to reflect on how to claim those gifts and live them out in the new year.

Hope, love, joy, and peace speak to the deepest needs of our soul. We need them so much that we’re almost afraid to ask for them, much less trust that our longing will be fulfilled. Yet the message of Christmas is that our hearts’ desires will be met if we allow it. Grace truly abounds, if we can let ourselves be open to it. This is what we are trying to show our children through the gifts we place under the tree. But we forget that grace is ours as well. The tree itself is there to remind us of life’s evergreen gifts and the light of hope, love, joy, and peace.

Back in December, as the solar calendar wound down toward the longest night and the social calendar filled up with holiday festivities, the church calendar brought us through four weeks of meditation on these gifts of the Spirit. Now as the days slowly grow longer and the sun begins its return from the far point on the horizon, I’m ready to retrace the steps through those four weeks. We’ve turned from the innermost point of the spiral, and as we wind outward again into a new year, those mediations await like a trail of breadcrumbs. The challenge is to stay in touch with how these gifts are manifest in our lives, and to find a way to give them expression.

Hope, love, joy, and peace are ours. We don’t have to create them or earn them. We don’t have to craft them or bake them or buy them. They aren’t the result for a perfectly executed holiday, they are the gifts that make our imperfect celebrations beautiful. They aren’t a reward for a perfectly lived life, they are the compass that orients us in how to live. For the next few weeks, I hope to rewind my way through the lessons of Advent and consider how to carry its gifts forward into a year in which we desperately need them. I’ll be listening for the echo of those longings shouted into the canyon of Advent, as they reverberate through these quiet days and carry us into the new year.

Making Space in the Holiday Season

The vase where I keep my pens is a pleasure to use. Not only is it beautiful, it reminds me of the friend from whom it was a gift. And it keeps my pens from rolling away, or being buried under papers and books.

Vase of Pens

Yet I recently found myself finished using one of my favorite pens and placing it beside rather than in the vase, hoping it wouldn’t roll off the tabletop. The vase was jammed with writing implements I never use—pens with dried or blotchy ink that won’t improve with time—and there was no room for the one I truly cared about finding again when I needed it. It was a lot like having no pen holder at all.

It’s easy not to notice as trivial items encroach on limited space.  Because the change is gradual, it’s almost invisible. The same thing happens as our days, our conversations, our thoughts, grow cramped from holding too many unimportant things. Noticing that feeling of constriction is the first step in making a change. We need breathing room, space for something that would better serve.

I’m thinking about that welcome (and welcoming) space as the holidays draw near. I look forward to traditions that mark these days as special, set apart. Yet some years are so filled with events and obligations to wedge into the holiday calendar there’s scarcely time to simply enjoy the season.

Our lives are already full, and when we add in the seasonal celebrations it’s easy to jettison the things we need most—the chance to relax, have a conversation, take a walk, read something inspiring, make something beautiful, enjoy good music, to name a few—can be harder than ever to fit into the day.

For a variety of reasons, this holiday season will be different for my family from years past. Change is unsettling, but it also brings a sense of spaciousness. I want to be able to appreciate this particular year, this celebration, without imposing too many expectations from holidays past. Our psyches can become so crowded with old expectations we can hardly be present to what actually shows up.

Now, before the season begins, it’s a good time to consider what aspects of our celebrations we really care about, what helps us connect with something greater than ourselves, how we can best show our love, what gives this season meaning, and where in it we find beauty and light. Maybe it’s possible to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves to produce wonder and delight, and be more open to the real experience of it.

The darkness in the world weighs on all of us. We need the restoration, the healing, the renewal, that the holidays—the holy days—can bring. The best chance of experiencing those gifts is if we make room for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Light at Christmas

The reasons to grow jaded about Christmas are all around. The world seems as troubled as ever for these two thousand years, and the demands of the holiday season itself can feel more like pressure and stress than comfort and joy.

Fontanini Nativity

Yet we keep telling this story of a birth in a stable, the angels and shepherds, a star in the heavens and wise men bearing gifts from afar. We know the story from childhood, but it’s more than a children’s tale. This familiar scene pulls at us because it holds something we need to remember.

Heaven and earth meet in the Christmas story. They come together in the physicality of childbirth and the visitation of angels, the earthiness of the stable and the portent of the star.

A young mother bears a child and God is born into the world. In wisdom we recognize the sign set in the heavens, and in wonder we heed the message that comes to us in the fields. Human life is infused with the divine. The dark world is visited by angels of light. There is more to this life than we can sometimes see.

Nativity Angels

Our celebrations hold the desire to echo that story, to make love and good will manifest in the world. We look to our traditions for embodying that spirit, sometimes to the point of serving the traditions themselves more than the spirit they are meant to convey. But being with people we love and enjoying the things that make life good are at the heart of our preparations.

Christmas Story Nativity

When the night is longest and we need it most, the Christmas story draws the curtain aside. It reminds us that heaven and earth are closer together than we think. During Advent we light candles for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, which banish the dark.

May that light shine out from the heart of all our celebrations.

 

Making Room for Joy

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for Joy. This is the meditation I wrote to read in worship this morning.

At the hour before sunrise, in the subtle turn from night to day, the world that was cloaked in darkness  gradually comes into view. Forms in the distance are hardly recognizable, then silhouettes gain definition: a mountain, a tree, a ship on the horizon. The stars begin to fade in that gray light—a loss, yes, though necessary if we’re to greet a new day. Soon even the brightest planets give way, but in the half-light of early dawn we keep watching, waiting, for something more. Then the sky begins to warm, the rosy color rising from the East until it brings life to everything it touches, from the dome of the heavens above to the glow of our own skin. Morning. The golden sun. Joy.

Joy is not ours to command. We watch for it, make room for it, and feel gratitude when it arrives—a heart-opening presence, a gift from God. It can color the world like the sky at sunrise, or condense to the flame of a single candle that sees us through the night. Joy can feel like the most natural thing in the world, or the most elusive. Its light shines out in a shared laugh or a thoughtful gesture. We know joy in the experience of beauty, or when we offer our best and find that it pulls us into the flow of life.

The angels heralding Christ’s birth bring to us, even now, tidings of great joy. They have amazing news of how much we matter, how near God is, and how blessed life can be. May we turn toward those glad tidings, asking that God prepare our hearts and our lives to receive God’s life-giving joy.

Susan Christerson Brown

 

Reflecting the Season’s Light

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

The most recent place I heard this question asked was in a department store, appropriately enough. It’s a conversation opener this time of year, a December version of “How are you doing?” Behind the question looms a checklist of things to accomplish for the celebration to be complete.

A friend with three children looked at her calendar a few days ago and realized that her family had so many scheduled activities there were only two nights free between now and Christmas. She wasn’t complaining, just gearing up for the pace set by the intersection of family and holidays.

Here in the Northern hemisphere the days have grown short, night falls early, and we try to keep too busy to notice. We lean into our Christmas celebrations like plants growing toward the sun. We’re drawn to outdoor displays of light, Christmas trees twinkling, and candles glowing. Ornaments and wrappings made to reflect the light shine out from every corner.

Of course we’re drawn toward warmth, light, and joy. We look forward to the gatherings, performances, and rituals of the season. They dispel the dark. We follow the star this time of year, keenly aware of our need for the Light of the World.

The liturgical year sets aside these weeks leading up to Christmas and gives the season its own name—Advent. It is a season of anticipation.

Advent is not about creating Christmas, it’s a time of preparing for something beyond our ability to bring about. In the darkest time of the year comes a new birth, the renewal of life and of light. We honor it with our celebrations, but that spirit of new beginnings is more powerful than anything we can make. It’s the gift of life and growth, which begins in the depths beneath the surface of the earth, or of our lives.

Our celebrations are like the ornaments reflecting light. We can make the world brighter, better, even more merry. But it’s not up to us to generate the light. It’s good to remember that we only have to reflect Christmas; it’s not our job to create it. Knowing that makes it easier to lighten up.

What brings the season’s light to you?