Christmas Eve, for the first 37 years of my life, was filled with music and candlelight. My dad would do one of his “singing sermons,” and the songs echo in my mind and heart still.
“No room, only a manger of hay. No room, He is a stranger today… Angels in Heaven up yonder, watch with amazement and wonder, to see the Son of the Highest treated so!” No room.
I’d like to think I would have opened the door for Joseph and Mary that night. I’d like to believe I would have looked at the heavily pregnant, tired, young woman, and her worried husband, and invited them in. Maybe I would have given them my own bed.
However, as much as I would like to believe that I would have made room for these weary travelers, I can also believe that I may not have done it. Like everyone else in that crowded, tired town, I may have closed the door on the Messiah.
The Irish, historically, have placed a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The candle represented a welcome to Joseph and Mary; and indicated, especially to the poor, that they may find an offering of food within this house.
The season begins with a welcome, and a candle in the window.
A long time ago, perhaps so long ago that few people remember, it was a tradition in Ireland to open the back door on New Year’s Eve – to let the old year out. And then at midnight, it was the practice to open the front door and let the New Year in. On this day we have a chance to start again (honestly, we can start again any day, every day).
On New Year’s Eve it seems appropriate to exclaim, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18).
Paul says, “He died for all, that those who live would no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15) We are given the ministry of reconciliation. We are the hands, and heart, of God in the world.
This week began, on Christmas Eve, with a candle in the window, welcoming the traveler. And on this night, New Year’s Eve, in Ireland they might set an extra place at the table. It is a way to honor and remember those who have died throughout the year.
They might leave the door unlatched, so their loved one can come in and join them at their meal. They wait in expectation, and remember their loved ones in conversation, and shared memories. I like this.
As Christ’s ambassadors in the world, as ministers of reconciliation, let us go into the New Year with the candle lit to welcome in the stranger. And may we always have an extra seat set at the table – remembering, not just those who have died, but those around us who need to be invited in.
Open the back door and let the old year out (it’s not too late). Open the front door (and your heart, and a space at your table), and welcome the New Year in.
These past months have been intense and full. Some days I manage that well, and other days, honestly, I don’t.
I decided to start work on a second Masters degree. And I’m currently less than three weeks away from going to the States for four months – which means preparing my house for someone else to stay, organizing the travel I will do while I am away, seeing people “one more time,” working out many details. That’s just part of it.
It is a well-established fact within my family that I am the worst at packing and throwing stuff away.
I’m really good at a lot of things – parallel parking, growing carrots, baking cookies, teaching…
But there are dark corners of my house where things are hidden – and I need to face them. Someone else will be living here while I’m gone and I want it to be a welcoming, calming, usable space for her.
So. Sometimes I cry.
Have I said enough? Do you understand?
All of that to say, that for the past few months I’ve been thinking about Moses. (I’m sure you see the connection there?)
Several months ago, a friend made this comment to me, “When God met Moses at the burning bush, and asked him to remove his sandals… I can’t help but think that perhaps God wanted Moses to feel grounded and connected through the feeling of bare feet on soil.”*
(You can read the whole story in Exodus 3:1-4:13.)
These words have changed the whole story for me. And in these weeks of feeling a bit overwhelmed, I keep going back to it.
Born into a society that wanted to kill him, Moses was saved by the courage of midwives who disobeyed the command of Pharaoh. Found on the water by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was sent back to his biological mother to be cared for until he was probably 3 or 4 years old. Though his biological mother raised him, he was the adopted child of Pharaoh’s daughter and she paid for his care.
Among the Hebrews, he was a person of privilege. Among the Egyptians, he was the adopted Hebrew child. As a grown man, he settled in the land of Midian, separated from the people of his heritage and the land that had been his home. He began a life there: an ordinary, everyday, working life, caring his father-in-law’s sheep.
On one of these ordinary days, “…the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not burned up.” (Exodus 3:1-2, NRSV)
Moses “turned aside to see.” God calls Moses by name, “Moses, Moses!” (This is called a “repetition of endearment.” In ancient Semitic culture, to speak a name twice was a way of expressing affection and friendship.
God has come to speak to Moses, and Moses would have known that he was being addressed by someone who loved and cared for him.
“When the Lord saw that <Moses> had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:4.5, NRSV)
I have heard this story many, many times. Moreover, I have heard different explanations for the instruction found in v. 5, that Moses must stop moving closer and take off his sandals. These explanations have centered most often on God’s holiness, and Moses’ unworthiness, God’s power, and Moses’ weakness, and God’s purity and Moses’ impurity.
But what if it was something more intimate? What if God is inviting Moses into intimacy with God’s self; that in taking off his sandals Moses is invited to feel the presence of God in that place?
In the act of removing his shoes, the man who has always been an outsider is joined to God’s presence. The physical touch of bare feet on the earth is grounding and personal and connects Moses to the burning bush that in that moment contains the physical manifestation of the presence of God.
Have you felt this?
I have experienced the intimacy of connection to God through the earth. And these days I find myself needing to be grounded in creation. There have been other times that this connection has felt like the only real thing in the world; especially as I have walked through dark seasons of grief.
I have sometimes been surprised by the joy of dirt on my hands and under my nails and the pleasure of preparing the earth for growing things. I have felt my spirit filled and healed by the connection to God through the ground beneath my feet. And sometimes, I just have to walk away from what overwhelms me and step out into fresh air and earth.
Whether you are standing barefoot on a hillside, lying in the grass watching clouds drift by, allowing sand to run through your fingers, or digging in the garden with bare hands, the feel of the earth is a form of communion with creation and Creator. The sounds of the wind, or waves, or birdsong – or the sound of flames burning a bush that is not consumed – are potent means of connection to the One who speaks each one of us into being and sustains us.
A conversation that starts with the endearment (“Moses, Moses!”) will move naturally to an invitation to intimacy, presence, and constancy, involving all of the senses.
Moses removed his sandals, and he felt God’s presence and power. He heard the love, concern, and friendship in the voice of God and knew that his own life and spirit would be forever connected to this holy ground moment and the intimate friendship of God.
At the end of Moses’ life, it was written, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
You are invited to take off your sandals and stand on holy ground in the presence of God. Hear God call your name. Twice. Allow yourself to feel the connection to the Creator through creation. Allow that connection to inform and form your relationship with God for the rest of your days.
You are standing on holy ground.
That’s what I would have said ...
 Stuart, D. K. Exodus (Vol. 2). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006, p. 113-114.
*This brilliant, original thought came from my friend, Kate Bowen-Evans, MTh.
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught.
But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing.
She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I’ve been sitting with Mary and Martha. They sit facing me, each holding one of my hands. Their faces are serene and kind. They are older, in my mind’s eye, than these stories.
They have been friends of Jesus… and I can see this in their faces. Joy and sorrow. Peace and pain. It is all there.
They hold my hands and look into my eyes and I feel that here are the two parts of who I am.
(I know this may sound a little strange. I’m in the midst of an Ignatian Prayer Retreat. I am guided each week through scripture and encouraged to try different prayer practices. One of these is the “Application of the Senses” – to immerse myself in the scene, to talk to the individuals present, to imagine the sounds and smells, to PRAY with the participants of the story… and so I sit with Martha and Mary.)
Jesus came to their house and was like no one they had ever known. They had heard him and heard of him, and he came to their house, with his whole crowd.
Martha sprang into action. She wanted to esteem Jesus with the best meal and experience she could create, even as he honoured them by coming into their home.
Mary had never heard anyone speak like Jesus. She knew that Martha wanted her help, but she couldn’t tear herself away. She wanted to hear the conversation. She didn’t want to miss any part of it. She sat at Jesus feet, in the position of a disciple, and Jesus did not send her away.
In the story, Martha comes to Jesus “worried and upset about many things”. I expect Martha has been trying to get Mary’s attention.
She has dropped subtle and less subtle hints. She has sighed loudly, and banged a few pots. She has asked pointed questions like, “Mary, where did you put that thing that I need and could you come and show me?”
She taps her foot… She sends her youngest in to ask Aunt Mary to count the guests so that she can know just how many guests to set the table for (and how very much work there is to do).
And Mary, fully aware of what her sister is “doing”, remains at Jesus feet… hanging on every word.
“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I sit, looking into the faces of Martha and Mary. They each have hold of one of my hands. As I read this story they look slightly amused, smiling and joyous, gracious and forgiving.
They are able to laugh at their younger selves. They are able to remember those women, with affection.
They have learned to be generous and gracious with each other.
And I see myself in both of them.
I get up in the morning and think, “I need to pray. I need to write. I need to prepare a sermon. I need to think of ways to celebrate Easter when we cannot meet together. I need to connect with people and encourage them.”
And I look up and the sun hits the shelf in front of me and I think, “I need to dust that. I need to vacuum the hallway. I need to clear off the kitchen counter and clean all the way to the back. I need to hang up the laundry that is sitting in the washer. I need to clear up the pile of stuff on the guest bed…”
And – “I should write thank you notes. I should write a newsletter. I should do something about my social work credentials. I should study more…”
I want to paint the garden fence.
I am Mary. I want to sit and walk and talk with Jesus.
I am Martha. How can I sit down and enjoy contemplation if the kitchen isn’t clean? If the sunlight shows me the dust on the furniture?
These women smile at me, and at one another. They say to me, “It’s okay.”
Martha has learned to sit down at the table and enjoy the conversation. She has learned that when the conversation ends, she can go into the kitchen and clean up – and Mary will go with her.
Mary loves Martha. And she knows that cleaning the kitchen means that Martha will be able to sleep, and wake up in the morning feeling peaceful and quiet in her soul – without resentment.
Mary accepts that for Martha, a sink full of dishes is noisy. The dishes will shout at Martha until they are washed.
Mary doesn’t say to Martha “The dishes will still be there in the morning…” As if that is a consolation… as if that is a reason to relax.
Martha doesn’t say to Mary “You aren’t doing anything important. Come and help me!” As if thoughtful pursuits have no value, no power to feed the soul.
We know more about Mary and Martha than this story. We know that their brother was sick, and they sent for Jesus. And Jesus – who loved their brother – stayed where he was for two more days.
Lazarus died. They grieved for him. They buried him.
When Jesus finally came, Lazarus had been in the grave four days.
Mary and Martha both asked Jesus “Where were you? If you had been here our brother would not have died!” (John 11: 21 and 32)
He wept for “the one that he loved” who had died. He wept for his friends who were grieving. He wept because his soul was “troubled”. They still did not understand that He came to bring life…
And Jesus called Lazarus out of the cave, out of death.
Jesus said to Martha,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha and Mary hold my hands and say to me, “It’s okay.”
They have learned the secret of what is important. They have learned that there is more to the story.
They have learned that even in the face of death, Jesus came to bring life.
And so they have learned to be gentle with each other. And are teaching me…
And I don’t have to choose to be one or the other. I can integrate Martha, and my need to wash the dishes before I go to bed so that I can breathe in the morning…
And I can integrate Mary, and my need to listen to the Holy Spirit in the sounds of the garden, and colours in nature, and to ALWAYS have flowers in my house.
I can look into their faces and see what they have learned – that there is always more to the story. There is always “four days in the grave and Jesus comes and weeps, and calls forth life from death”.
The meal is important, and the chores are important… and I will get to those. And sitting at Jesus’ feet is important. And walking out the door into the daylight is important. Hanging up the laundry is important.
And all of those “many things” are important… and I will get to them. Or not. And Martha and Mary tell me that this is okay.
And I will be gracious with myself. And I will laugh at myself. And I will do the one more thing, and trust that Jesus will come and bring life, even when I don’t expect it.
Both of these women are part of me (and you). And they teach me that my story doesn’t end with this day.
Look into their eyes. They are older and wiser than they were when we met them. They have seen death and life. They have learned to love their differences – and to live with them.
And they knew Jesus. And knowing Jesus changed them in beautiful ways.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time when the world is waiting and longing for light in the darkness, for healing and hope.
Long ago, Irish farm families would clean and whitewash every building on the farm in December. The buildings were covered with white paint or lime wash to symbolically purify them for the coming of the Saviour.