Light of the World

From the Godly Play Large story of Holy Baptism at Trinity Church Wall Street

A homily preached on Christmas Eve 2021 at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, Washington

When I was six years old, I came home from church on Christmas Eve, made my little brother put on his bathrobe, plopped a dish towel on top of his head, and brought him into the living room, where I draped a lacy crocheted afghan over my own head and shoulders, tightly swaddled my doll Tabitha in a flannel receiving blanket, and directed my first nativity pageant. The story we tell every year on this night, the one that so vividly lives in our hearts and imaginations, is about the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but it is also deeply and truly, a story about us.

You may know the story of the day you were born. You may hold the story of the birth of your child, or a sibling. When you were born, stars danced and angels sang. Every birth is a miracle, and every child is holy. How do I know? Let me tell you another story:

 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters… And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

The very first thing that God spoke into being was light. And in this story, every time God makes something, God looks at it and calls it good. God creates us—humans—in God’s own image and calls us good. We carry within us the light of our creator. We are light bearers, all of us.

During the Christmas pageant at Saint Mark’s, when we get to the part where Jesus is born, the manger glows. Mary and Joseph wear golden haloes that catch and reflect the light. Here’s a secret about Baby Marilee, who played Jesus on Tuesday night: she glows, too. And so does her sister Esmé, and so do her parents, who played Mary and Joseph. So do you.

Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes just like I swaddled my doll, just like my mother swaddled my brother and me, because babies love to be swaddled, they are calmed and soothed by the snugness of the cloth wrapped around them. There was no room for them in the inn because the busy inn was no place to deliver a baby. Mary needed privacy, quiet and warmth, perhaps in the room on the ground floor, where the most important animals—the cow, the ox, and the donkey—would be brought in at night for safekeeping. The manger may have been a hollow in the floor, with fresh, sweet-smelling hay, the perfect spot for a baby to snuggle down. Jesus, God’s own child, was born in this simple, ordinary way. God comes to us in the messy, everyday miracles of life and love.

One Godly Play story begins like this: “There once was someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people just had to ask him who he was. Once when they asked him, he said, ‘I am the light…’”

Another time, Jesus told the ones listening to his stories, “You are the light of the world.” The light shines in each of us. By this light, we see God in each other: in family, friends, and strangers. Through small acts of kindness and courage, the light grows and spreads. Everyone glows with the light of God’s love. Everyone is holy.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

Gifts of joy and wonder 2021

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

… Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308

Whatever the season or reason for gift-giving, these words from the Episcopal prayer for the newly baptized encourage a different mindset, a way of thinking about giving gifts that will be truly nurturing. While not all of these suggestions are overtly religious, some invite the connection to God and the Holy; others ask us to be a part of God’s transforming work in the world.

An inquiring and discerning heart:

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington (DC) has created three card decks, one for children, one for youth, and one for adults, for lively conversations about five spiritual practices of discipleship: Pray, Learn, Serve, Give, and Share. These can be used intergenerationally, at gatherings, around the dinner table, or before bed.

What is God Like? by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner (2021) is a beautifully illustrated picture book that uses images of God in scripture to show us glimpses of God’s expansive love for all people, everywhere.

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu (2021) is a final book of essays by this beloved progressive Christian author, with essentially the same message as her children’s book—simply, that God’s love is without limits, conditions, or rules. Highly recommended for high school youth through adults.

The courage to will and to persevere:

Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar — whether or not you have read the wonderful book of the same name by Daneen Akers, you’ll appreciate this vibrant wall calendar for all ages. Highlighting the lives of twelve holy troublemakers of different faiths who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the calendar also includes “important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.”

You Are Revolutionary by Cindy Wang Brandt (2021) and Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman (2021) are two inspiring picture books for kids who are ready to change the world right now.

If there is one new book to give adults who can handle truth when it’s told with wit and grace, it’s No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler (2021).

A spirit to know and to love you:

These olive wood holding crosses fit comfortably within the palm of an adult’s hand, and are smooth and sturdy enough for a baby to chew on.

A finger labyrinth is just the thing to center yourself wherever you are. This one is pocket-sized.

My favorite new music to stir the spirit is They’re Calling Me Home by Rhiannon Giddens (2021).

The gift of joy and wonder in all your works:

This Box of Natural Wonders is filled with unusual items to touch and see, and can be enjoyed by all ages.

The Seasons: A Year of Nature Journaling is a downloadable set of guided nature journals and a supporting curriculum that’s a wonderful way to connect to God’s creation through the seasons.

Dimming the Day: Evening Meditations for Quiet Wonder (2021) by Jennifer Grant invites youth and adults alike into contemplation and awe through the natural world, from hummingbirds to humpback whales.

Bird feeders bring joy and wonder as close as your window! This one is from the company my husband the birder says is the gold standard, but a simple one like this can be hung anywhere.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

‘Twas the Season of Advent by Glenys Nellist

Cover illustration by Elena Selivanova

Glenys Nellist recounts the timeless story of the Incarnation–God coming into the world as Jesus, born of Mary–through a gentle retelling of scripture from the Old and New Testaments over twenty-five days in her newest book, Twas the Season of Advent. Beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Elena Selivanova, the stories, which begin with a rhyme following the style of the beloved Christmas poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and include the scripture citation, are meant to be read one each day from December 1 through Christmas Day. Each ends with a simple prayer. A downloadable activity pack is available to help families deepen and further the conversation. A wonderful addition to the rich treasury of Advent and Christmas stories, ‘Twas the Season of Advent may become a new tradition to add to your holiday devotions or bedtime ritual.

Laura Alary’s Breathe, Look! and Make Room: Guides through the church year

I am so lucky to have made a friend of Laura Alary, a gifted theologian, author, and educator. Laura’s newest book, Breathe: A Child’s Guide to to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time is the most recent addition to her series of lovely liturgical guides which include Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas and Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter.

Each of these books takes us through a season or two of the church year, with vibrant and colorful scenes from scripture, nature, and a child’s daily life. Mystery, wonder, and celebrations large and small are woven throughout. The connections between church and home, scripture and our own stories are beautifully made, and you’ll find simple, meaningful ideas and practices to try.

In the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year, we are reminded

It is all here. Everything we need. For every beginning there is an ending, and for every ending there is a beginning. It goes on and on. Forever and ever.

Jerome Berryman

Wherever we find ourselves in the circle, we have companions on the way who help us follow Jesus. Laura Alary and her guides are wonderful companions.

Laura has many other books you’ll want to add to your library. Learn more about her and them here.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

Christmas very much at home

Perhaps you had other plans for the holidays this year. I certainly did–for the first time since my son’s first Christmas, I had hoped we’d spend Christmas in California visiting my mother, since I am no longer in parish ministry, with all the attendant seasonal responsibilities. However, my husband, our 17-year-old and I are in Brooklyn, in our tiny apartment (“It’s so cozy!” my Texas nephew, then 9, exclaimed on his first visit). It’s possible that we are getting on each other’s nerves a bit after 9 months at home.

How will we get in the spirit?

Some days I make a simmer pot to make the whole house smell Christmassy, with whatever I’ve got on hand: cranberries, orange halves or even orange peels, apple cores, fresh rosemary sprigs or pine trimmings, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and star anise, or a tablespoon of pumpkin pie spice. Toss these things into a large pot, fill with water, and simmer all day long.

My husband gave me an early gift of comfortable ear buds so that I can listen to my favorite carols whenever I like without annoying him or distracting our high school senior. On December 24th, we will listen, with millions of others around the globe, to the annual radio broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge. This beloved tradition dates to 1918, and what a winter that must have been. The bidding prayer is always poignant, and the words “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice
with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light” will hold a deeper resonance this year.

I will also at some point watch my favorite Christmas Eve service ever, the 2016 Family Eucharist and Giant Puppet Nativity Parade at Trinity Church Wall Street, and you can, too. Being able to commission these puppets, designed and built by the very talented Lavinia Roberts and Cecilia Roberts, was such a privilege for me, and the entire service is a delight, with beautiful music from the Trinity Youth Chorus and a sweet homily by Hershey Mallette Stephens. If you just want to see the giant puppets and hear me narrate the Christmas story as told by Jerome Berryman in A Children’s Liturgy for Christmas Eve, that happens around the 10 minute 40 second mark. Trinity is a progressive, inclusive Episcopal church in the heart of lower Manhattan with a diverse congregation, a strong commitment to social justice, and a rich history. It’s also famous for being the hiding place of National Treasure as well as the burial places of Alexander Hamilton and Peter Parker in Into the Spider-Verse. When all this is over, come visit and I will happily give you a tour.

Cooking and eating seem to be what we mostly do for fun right now, and to show our love and care for one another. I’m baking and filling treat bags to share with friends and neighbors: snowflake-stamped cookies, honeycomb, chocolate cookies dipped in crunchy pearl sugar. While my husband will make a delicious dinner for Christmas Eve, I am responsible for and excited about brunch and a late afternoon tea on Christmas Day. Clearly, we are going to need to take plenty of walks. Walks are another way to feel connected–to each other, to our fellow humans, to nature, to God. We are lucky to live close to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and one day between Christmas and New Year’s we’ve lined up a Zipcar so we can go further afield, to see the city “dressed in holiday style”, or take a drive to the countryside to walk in the snow. For our family, neighborhood evening walks also work well. Tonight we are excited to see the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn that will be visible shortly after sunset, which may be the “star of wonder” that inspired the journey of the magi so long ago.

Right now I am profoundly grateful for the technology that will allow us to visit our loved ones and interact with our church community from a safe distance. I’m looking forward to a scavenger hunt over Zoom with my niece and nephew, video chats with my parents, Zoom Lessons and Carols (yes! another one!) and a Christmas movie watch party, assuming we can reach consensus on a Christmas movie. I’m thinking the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas might be just the ticket. Still, I am hoping Ella Fitzgerald had it right:

Next year all our troubles will be

Miles away

Once again as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Will be near to us once more

Someday soon, we all will be together

If the Fates allow

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane

Whatever happens, Christmas will come just the same, needing no ribbons or wrappings, nothing shiny or bright, just our hearts preparing room for God-with-us. Wishing you peace and a measure of joy, lovies…

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas giftperhaps this year in particular.

Advent at home

Photo by Gabby K from Pexels

Here’s what I want for us, lovies: let’s be gentle with ourselves and others. Let’s take joy where we find it. It’s okay to feel sad and out-of-sorts. Do what you need to do. Listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Have some cookies with that coffee. Put up the tree early, or on December 24th. Please remember: Jesus is coming, is with us now, and will be with us again. We can’t screw that up, no matter what.

If you are looking for some inspiration for the holidays, I am glad to share what I’ve found. Traci Smith’s new book, Faithful Families for Advent and Christmas: 100 Ways to Make the Season Sacred is brimming over with wonderful, simple ideas, and here’s the best part: you are not supposed to try them all. I promise. Traci suggests choosing three. I’m definitely trying the Hot Chocolate Gratitude Party next weekend, which if my family gets through the college application process intact, we’ll certainly need. We are also looking forward to the Silent Night Star Walk, which might be Christmas Eve or Christmas Night. I am especially thankful for the chapter on Difficult Moments, because even without a worldwide pandemic, these are an inevitable part of our holiday experience, and being able to acknowledge them helps us accept them and honor what they teach us.

You may know from my earlier Advent post that reading one seasonal picture book each night leading up to Christmas Eve is a tradition beloved from Peter’s childhood. Matthew Paul Turner has a new picture book with illustrations by Gillian Gamble, All the Colors of Christmas, with not only the bright familiar red and green, but gold and blue and white and brown–yes, brown: “It’s God within a baby’s skin.” The final color is “…You! It’s your own unique hue.” I love this part best, when Matthew reminds us that through our being and doing, we are “part of the story, the joy and the glory.”

Another sweet picture book is Little Mole’s Christmas Gift, by Glenys Nellist, illustrated by Sally Garland, a charming companion to the spring-themed Little Mole Finds Hope. This book, without any religious language at all, carries a message of kindness and generosity that speaks to the heart.

My devotional recommendation for adults and youth is Keep Watch with Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers by Claire Brown and Michael McRay with daily reflections from a wonderfully diverse (in every sense of the word) group of contributors. Each reflection is accompanied by a scripture verse, a prayer and a practice. One of the prayers seems just right for me, and perhaps for you, in this time.

God of the unfolding story, draw us into friendship with our Divine Discontent as a gift of your Spirit. Give us the strength to keep longing for your Kingdom Come, to keep returning to our communities and our peacemaking in gratitude for your guidance toward the world you imagine for your creation. Amen.

Claire Brown, Keep Watch with Me, p. 95

In the practice that follows this prayer, Claire speaks of “the gap between the present moment and the holy imagination” and invites us to “sit with whatever comes.” That I can do. That I will do. With some carols on in the background and my messy life and apartment in the foreground, holding on to the promise and the reality of God-with-us.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas gift, perhaps this year in particular.