I am polishing The Fire Trail for final submission to my publisher. It is an appropriate effort to take on in the holy seasons of Advent and Christmas, seasons in which the Word, the expression of God in human flesh, is anticipated and fulfilled.
Our own words, our bits and scraps of language we sew together to somehow make sense of our lives, express our own selves as well, words spoken and words written. Our words are an extension of who we are.
As a kind of preface to the story of Christmas, Scripture relates the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah. She is old and barren, but the Angel Gabriel announces to her husband Zachariah, a priest in the temple, that she will bear a son and his name will be called John. Zachariah doubts the angel and is struck dumb for nine months, until the birth of John the Baptist.
Zachariah has lost his ability to express himself. And so the first infancy narrative – the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah and the Angel Gabriel – is a story of wordlessness. Incapacity to express. Silence. Much like our world today, as Christianity’s public expression is silenced.
But this silence and wordlessness in early Advent is slowly filled with words during the days and weeks to come, as we wait for the birth of the Word, the light shining in the darkness, returning our speech. We hear prophecy of the coming, prophecy that will be fulfilled. We hear words of hope, of healing, of penitence, of forgiveness, of joy, of love, of glory to come. Words ride on the melodies of carols as we tell the story of the birth of the Son of God, the Word, in song and praise.
Words find home in symbol and sacrament as we live inside the rituals of Christmas – the Advent wreathe and candles, the evergreen tree alight with decorations holding symbols of the Word made flesh, the crèche figures worshiping a baby in a manger, stars and angels and heavenly hosts praising God. It is a rich season in which all of these expressions of the inexpressible – God become man, his great love for us – jostle for our attention. Bells jingle and carolers sing the Good News, Our Lord has come, Emmanuel, God with us. The words of the prophets are fulfilled! Ring the bells! It came upon a midnight clear… Away in the manger… Hark the herald angels sing… Joy to the world… Silent night…
All art serves this story of the Word among us. Paintings, sculpture, drama, every means of man’s expression tells the story. Even the commercialization of Christ’s birth urges us to give not only of our treasure but of our time and our love. We are prompted to think of others – how can we share Christmas with them? What would they like to be given? We make gift lists, expressions of our desire to love one another better.
And children make their own lists. Saint Nicholas in his many forms is still red and jolly and bearded and all-knowing. He is, in, many respects, a child’s early vision of God the Father, a loving powerful being who gives gifts. When a child hands Santa his list, she is practicing a prayer of petition, a precursor to intercessory prayer, confession, and praise. While there seems to be some debate about store windows and the words Merry Christmas, children still wait in line to meet Saint Nicholas, who listens and notes their petitions. And as children lose their faith in Santa, they are given faith in their Father in Heaven, the greatest gift of all. Santa Claus is real.
And so with my little novel I add my own words to the many already on paper and screen, my attempt to express the deepest desires of mankind, how we are meant to live and love, how our broken hearts may be healed. In today’s Epistle for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah prophesizes the coming of the Word made flesh:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all that mourn… to give unto them the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”
For indeed, hearts are broken and we mourn our dead throughout the world. We desperately need good tidings for all peoples. We cannot afford today, like Zachariah, to be silenced by doubt. We must express the Good News, use our words to tell the good tidings, without fear. My characters, in different degrees and ways, search for those good tidings. They have been hurt and desire healing. They search for truth, beauty, and goodness, and they crave their heart’s desire.
Each year Christian culture celebrates Christmas, the birth of Christ, the Son of God, and in the very celebration we find the Word living. In our words Our Lord lives, for he is the first Word blown over the waters of creation, separating the heavens and the earth. He is the logos, and he lives within each of us, prompting us to love as he loves. He is the expression of life sent from Heaven to Earth on a miraculous night two thousand years ago.
It is satisfying to read in Scripture that an old man named Simeon and an old lady named Anna have their prayers answered, their hearts’ desires fulfilled when they see the baby Jesus, their messiah. In our Office of Evening Prayer, we repeat Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…” The story of Christmas has been bracketed by Zachariah’s silence and Simeon’s speech still spoken today.
And today’s Collect, the opening prayer for the Second Sunday after Christmas reflects the joy of this holy season:
“Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”