Visual Meditation: Attending the Mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas

How do you picture the birth of Christ? Do you think of a little Nativity scene like the one sold in stores, Mary kneeling in adoration beside the Baby Jesus, with the protective Joseph standing with staff in hand? Are there angels, shepherds, and wise men? Who or what do they represent? A historical moment or an ongoing spiritual mystery?

For people of Eastern Christian heritage, Christ’s Nativity is recalled using a highly symbolic picture, called a sacred icon. (“Icon” is the Greek word for “image.”) This image is created in such a way to act as a sacramental window into deeper spiritual truths. The icon below is a modern example of a Nativity icon.

Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.
Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. http://www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.

Religious icons are not only beautiful works of art, but more importantly, created as a instrument for pondering the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. One meditates on the works of God by beholding the various truths represented in the icon and “pondering all these things” in one’s heart.

In the icon above, the various bible stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah are portrayed around the central figure of Mary and the Christ Child. Many events are portrayed, but each little picture relates to what is at the center, the birth of Christ. In this manner, we are reminded that, as Christians, Christ is to be the center focus of our lives.

Most of us can readily pick out the three wise men, angels, and shepherds in this icon. But if you go a little deeper, you will see the wise men are of differing ages, proving that God’s wisdom can dwell in people of any age. Two angels have their hands in the ancient open position of prayer, their “job” being to glorify God (something we are also to do). The other angel is descending from the heavens, to bring the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds on earth (bringing good news of Christ to others is something we are to do, too!).

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--MidwivesIn the lower righthand corner, midwives wash the newborn Babe, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, the strips of cloth used for ordinary newborns of the time. This story of the midwives, told ancient written sources, reminds us that Christ was not only divine, but also truly human. (The direct line from the star at the top reminds us of Christ’s divine nature, and that he came to dwell in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--JosephJoseph’s posture, with his back to Mary & the child, startles me.  Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky explains that the figure next to Joseph is the devil disguised as a shepherd, who is tempting Joseph to doubt in the miracle of Virgin Birth. (Remember how Joseph doubted Mary’s word about the angel at first?) Despite this, his halo reminds us that he was a holy man, redeemed by Christ and loved by God.

Returning to the central focus of the icon, Mary gives birth to the Christ Child, placing him in a manger box that also symbolizes the church and tomb.  Christ is born in a dark cave–he enters into the “darkness” of this world in order to overcome sin, evil, and death. (The golden light in icons is a symbol for God, the unapproachable Light, who nevertheless choses to enter into our earthly reality.)

With so much suffering in the world, the Nativity icon reminds us that no matter who we are–wise scholars or simple shepherds, young virgins or doubting Josephs–Christ comes to free us from sin, to re-create us into adopted sons and daughters of God. No matter what we have done or failed to do in the past, God reaches out to us now, in this and every moment, with unfailing divine love.

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--Mother & Child

This is reason for Christmas joy.

Until next time, Amen!

Note: Many thanks to The Printery House for help with information and the image for this blog post. Read more or purchase this icon at www.printeryhouse.org (click here)

Ode to Orange–A Poem

Earlier this summer I attended the Summer Institute in Spirituality and the Arts at United Seminary. This year’s workshops explored freeing your voice, creativity and spirituality, performance and spirituality, and experimenting with art as a springboard for writing poems.

United Seminary Chapel, Minnesota (click on to enlarge)–
photo by Julie McCarty–2012

Four days packed with the interplay of spirituality, art, and writing–three of my favorite things. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

One of the activities involved writing a poem focused on the wonder of a particular color. I love many colors and color combinations, but I decided to stretch myself by choosing orange, my least favorite color (no offence, orange-lovers!).

After playing with orange paint, I surprised myself by writing this poem:

Ode to Orange 

My least favorite color—
purple’s shadow side—
nonetheless captivates me
in autumn’s luminosity
of sparkling maple leaves,
pregnant pumpkins,
and shining haystacks
on an Amish farm.

Then, too, the heady smell
of a Phoenix February:
orange blossom perfume,
Mom’s orange cake, and Tang,
the inflatable drink of astronauts. . .

How unusual the first time
I traveled through
peach painted deserts,
rusty red-orange cliffs
or Santa Fe hills dressed
in piňon pine polka-dots
(sprinkled just so by Mother Nature)!

When angled sun shines
at the end of the day,
orange speaks to me–
pinkish adobe homes
turn yellow-orange,
set-aglow, illuminated:
God exhaling spirit
into our oh-so-earthy reality.

Santa Fe hills–photo by Aysha Griffin

                  

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

What is your least favorite color and why?  Try this: See if you can think of things you like that are that color. At the end, give thanks to God for all colors.

Sunrise through Winter Frost: Reflecting Divine Light

Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” –John 8:12.

Not much snow in Minnesota this winter, but the frost patterns have been lovely. Here’s a photo I took one morning of sunrise, looking through our window and the frost on the storm window:

Sunrise through Winter Frost–by Julie McCarty– (click on photo to enlarge)
 
The sparkles you see in this photo are reflections of the sun (camera flash was off). We often think of all the sin and darkness in our world, but this picture reminds me of the beauty of human souls reflecting the light of God. When we open our hearts to God, when we act in ways of love, we become reflections and conduits of God’s light in the world. So often, we are swimming in this light of God without even thinking about it.
 
Spiritual writer Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda put the following quote on her Facebook page today, and I share it here because I think it goes well with the above photo:
 

“We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As you take another breath (right now!) it means that God is choosing your existence now, and now, and again now…Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence. The full contemplative is not just aware of the Presence, but trusts, allows, and delights inside of an active and experienced Union.” ~Fr. Richard Rohr in “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.”

We are always in the presence of God, but we forget God is with us. Like each little “snowflake” of frost in the photo, we are already in the presence of the God. All we have to do is open our hearts and absorb the light of God’s presence. And, in so doing, our souls are capable of reflecting that light of love to others, who in turn reflect God’s light to still others… a ripple effect of light and love.
 
Until next time, Amen!
 

Holy Vulnerability

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully.  –St. John Chrysostom*

click on image to enlarge

I was surprised the other day when this lovely bird sitting by the grassy path did not fly away as I approached. He (she?) even allowed me to stand only a few feet away, taking photos.

I don’t know if it was the closeness or the filtered sunlight, but the bird appeared to me the most exquisite, beautiful living thing. (I would later find out it was an ordinary fledgling robin!)

From the bird’s behavior, I thought it was either sick or wounded–indeed, it was no longer living when I passed by it on my return trek. I was saddened, but grateful that in its vulnerable state, I had been able to see the details of its gorgeous feathers.

This experience made me think how God wants to be close to us, but often we fly away, just out of reach. God is always with us, of course, but sometimes we just don’t want to get too up-close-and-personal with God.

I am not sure why this is. We may be afraid because of having been exposed to harsh, wrathful images of God when we were young. Perhaps we are afraid God will ask us to change our ways or take on a new calling. Maybe we are just too busy to spend time with God. 

I think for some of us, it is when we are most vulnerable, like the little bird, that we allow God to come close. When we are suffering prolonged illness, failing relationships, job loss, or grieving, we may cry out to God in our anguish. In our vulnerability, God determines we are ready to receive spiritual growth, new callings, or deeper experiences of being loved.

St. John Chrysostom, an early church father known for his preaching, observed that God uses our vulnerability to draw us to himself. Chrysostom writes that Jesus did not call Matthew at the same time he called Peter and John because Christ knew Matthew was not yet prepared to accept the calling. He notes that others, too, like Paul, were called at various times because it was only when they were finally vulnerable they could really respond fully to the good news. (I wonder, did Paul’s vulnerability cause him to fall off the horse, or did the great fall cause his vulnerability? Ha ha ha ha…)

God knows the best timing for spiritual growth in each unique person. As Chrysostom explains:

click on image to enlarge

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully. Therefore he did not call them [the apostles] all together at the beginning, when Matthew was still in a hardened condition. Rather, only after countless miracles, after his fame was spread abroad, did he call Matthew. He knew Matthew had been softened for full responsiveness. *

When we have an attitude of openness and “holy vulnerability” before the Lord, we can really listen to what the Spirit desires for our lives. This attitude of vulnerability does not mean cowering in our shoes or belittling ourselves, but rather being open to whatever God has in store for us. Holy vulnerability allows God to draw close, like the little bird allowed me to share in his last few moments of life.

Until next time, Amen!

~~~~~~~~~~

*Quotes and concepts based upon St. John Chrysostom’s The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 30.1, quoted in Give Us This Day (Sept 2011, pp. 219-220). Give Us This Day is a new monthly publication from Liturgical Press centered around the Roman Catholic lectionary (daily Mass readings) with morning and evening prayer. I highly recommend this insightful and convenient daily prayer guide. For more info click here.

New Beginnings

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”–Revelations 21:5

Click to enlarge--Butterfly near fountain at Eagan's Central Park--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011 All rights reserved.

The other day I was walking at Eagan’s Central Park and stopped to take pictures of this butterfly in front of the fountain. We had a little dance going: she would move her wings, I would, quick-snap-the-picture, while in the meantime she moved before the picture was complete. After awhile I tried to predict her next move, but I was mostly one step behind the lovely flying creature. 

Butterflies always remind me of new life, new opportunities, new chances to try to be something different or become a better person. How the caterpillar goes from one stage to the next inside its cocoon is certainly mysterious–and so it is with us humans, although we often miss the many ways we grow and change, even as adults.

In the book of Revelations, John has a vision of a new heavens and earth. He is told by God, “Behold, I make all things new.” Although this passage is about the coming kingdom at the end of time, it is also true that God brings about newness in our own lives, our own time–if only we let him. When we say “thy kingdom come,” we mean not only in some distant future in heaven, but also in the sense of bringing God’s will and compassion to life in the here and now.

School will be starting soon–or has already begun–in many places throughout the country. Sometimes I think that the starting of a new school year is more of a “new year” than January 1. New teachers, new books, new clothes, new classes–a new start on life. Even if you are not in school, many activities that were set aside for summer come to life once again in September.

What newness of life does God want for me, for you, at this particular point in our lives? What concrete steps might we take to cooperate with God’s desire for our lives? What single choice might I make this day to bring about a better world, at least in my little corner of it, just for today?

Click to enlarge--Open Butterfly--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011. All rights reserved.

The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

Living Water, Holy Spirit, and Solitude at an Iowa Stream

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now he said this about the Spirit which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.  (John 7:37-39)

Wolf Creek--photo by Julie McCarty--Note: click on photo to enlarge

Flowing water fascinates me. When I was a little girl, my best friend had a house with a creek flowing near her house, and we would play for hours within and around the water.

Jesus tells us that he is the living water that satisfies all our deepest longings. The Spirit is flowing in Christ, flowing through him to everyone around him.

What surprises me when I read this passage today is the part about the water of the Spirit flowing out of those who believe in Christ. In all the times I heard this passage proclaimed at church, I never noticed that part. Here’s what the footnote in my bible says:

Jesus is the true water of life, who turns the symbol into reality. . . Believers become channels of life to others, through Christ’s Spirit given at Pentecost after he was glorified (crucified, risen, ascended).    –From the Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV.

Not only was Christ both human and divine, his human side was a channel of the Holy Spirit–and we, too, are called to be channels of the Holy Spirit, flowing out to give to others in abundance.

Today I am offering you a gift that relates to this meditation: a 2 minute escape from your present work into the environment of a flowing, modern day stream named Wolf Creek. This is a very short video I took on a recent trip to our favorite country getaway in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, the “Morning Mist Cabin” owned by Larry and Jo Thein. (Thanks to them for letting us share it, and thanks to my husband Terry for his techie expertise in getting it setup on YouTube.)

As you watch this video, you might want to just enjoy the ability to getaway for a moment from the busyness of daily life, taking in the sights and sounds of God’s creation in nature. You might consider Jesus, the Living Water, and how the Spirit is the water that flows through you to others. Or maybe you just want to wait and see what the Spirit might inspire in you this day.

Note: You can enlarge the picture using the little box with four arrows in the bottom right of the picture to enhance the experience of “getting away from it all,” but just be aware that the picture won’t be as sharp. Move your mouse to see how to reduce it again. 

Until next time, Amen!