We are list-lovers. You may know this already from the exhaustive, for us often exhausting, directories of online church resources we maintain. Lists help to bring order out of what is otherwise usually chaotic information, tohu bohu in situ; they represent visually in a useful hierarchy what we know from research of various kinds. Sometimes we come across a parish that can not be made to fit in our diocesan or state/provincial directories, but most of the time we try to find a way to sort things out.* List-making is one of the things we find helpful and satisfying in our wider lives, too. Accomplishing a task, however mundane, and crossing it off a list is gratifying to the point of real meaningfulness, a little pleasure to feel each day we choose to know it.
We suspect that Advent and Christmastide are seasons of many lists for many of us, even more than times with no connection to the Nativity. There are of course the lists of who is naughty and who is nice, with many names appearing on both rosters. Then there are lists of people who sent Christmas cards last year, to whom we must send Christmas cards this year. (If you haven't gotten yours, we promise they will be postmarked before Christmas is over—that's a good week and a half away still.) There are lists of gifts to make or buy. There are shopping lists of the endless ingredients that go into Christmas breakfast or Christmas dinner. In addition to this, there are the normal to-do lists we make and attack each day.
Whether anticipated with childlike eagerness or as the Most Dreaded Feast, Christmas on the horizon beckons us to get ready quick—I'm almost there. This year we realized afresh that it always takes us by surprise, no matter how well prepared we think we are, no matter how good our many lists seem in charting well-intentioned plans. Four weeks of Advent always precede Christmastide—but where do they go? How does one week run into the next, and to where does dear December fly? When the 24th and 25th (all the Christmas most people permit themselves, alas) are over, what have our lists and busyness brought about? If we're lucky, there is some time between Christmas and Epiphany for some quiet under the night sky or in an empty church, time where Christ can be born in the stillness and silence that mark the reign of the Prince of Peace.
Yet we found ourselves this morning, on the third day of Christmas, St John's Day, with a to-do list that looks not unlike every to-do list we've made for a decade of Sundays:
Whether our personal, internal Christmases are inflected most by overtones of David Sedaris, Charles Dickens, G.F. Handel, Dylan Thomas, St Luke, or Bing Crosby, this 'trivial round, the common task' will always persist in Christmas, too. If we will see it, this is part of the glorious mystery of the Incarnation—that God, in joining us in Bethlehem, has been content to squirm in hay, to make delivery and umbilical blood and nursing holy, to sanctify sweat, and mess, and changing, and tears, and sleep, and the disruption of sleep.
If all of this mixed up ancient story is true—and we believe it is, including the shepherds abiding in the field, the kings from the east, the flight into Egypt, the bad deeds of impious Herod, etc.—then Christ has also hallowed our daily to-do lists with their strange routines and shorthand. As we care for ourselves and those around us through these lists, we need not look forward in an attitude of unending preparation or expectation to an always-receding horizon. Christmas does and will surprise us in its inevitable arrival, maugre our readiness. Emmanuel will always astonish us in his messy coming to be with us, God with us in to-do lists. This is very good news for busy people, and, to be sure, part of the Good News for all people that the holy child of Bethlehem brings anew each year.
See you next week, on the tenth day of Christmas, with ten lords a-leaping, or whatever else is on your list. We're crossing this week's AO letter off of ours just now, and heading off to three French hens.
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