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Storied Wonder

Christmas Day, 2022

C. Partridge

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…. – Hebrews 1:1

Good morning, St. Aidan’s friends. As many of you know, earlier this year I had a long planned sabbatical. Among the projects I worked on during that time was an ongoing one researching a branch of my family’s history. For years, at least a decade, I have been storing boxes given into my keeping by a cousin of my parent’s generation. Some boxes contain old photographs. I had looked at them before, more than once. Another, a shoe box, was labeled “Old Mel Letters.” I had peered in years before but had always gotten overwhelmed. One day in September I put a clean cloth on the dining room table and opened the box. I organized the letters by date, writer, or recipient. The letters went as far back as the late 1850s and as recent as one or two from the 1960s. Almost all were in English, but with a smattering of French, as a significant portion of these ancestors had originally come to San Francisco from France in the early 1850s. Another smaller group had come from Ohio around the same time. Sitting at the dining table, I had an overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of stories, of ancestral voices—a veritable cacophony of them. It was as if they were all sounding at once, branching off from one another, layering on top of one another, full of possibility and hope, struggle, longing, resilience, fortitude. Christmas itself was a notable theme among them. A group who shifted to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1870s, my great, great grandparents and their nine children, clearly loved Christmas. One faded blue paper with penciled handwriting from Christmas Eve of 1885 is labeled “The Santa Letter” across the top, signaling how the letter itself had become a cherished family keepsake along the way. “Dear Old Santa Claus,” it begins, “It is raining so hard that you must cover your wagon with a rubber cloth so that the presents will not get wet. Our parlor chimney is so small that you will have to come down the dining room one – but you must be very careful how you do it – for the chimney is cracked – Do not forget that.”[1] It goes on to share what the children and parents hoped Santa might bring them, joking gently about the likelihood of some wishes being fulfilled given the tight budget. My Great Great Aunt Marian, youngest of the nine, born a few years after the Old Santa Letter, later wrote vividly of her Christmas in that same house. She describes a large tree cut from the surrounding forest, finally revealed to the youngest children on Christmas Morning in its fully decorated glory, covered with lit candles: “there never was anything like the smell of those candles, mingled with the smell of the tree itself.” She describes stockings with small items—two marbles, animal crackers, raisins, hard candy, a chocolate mouse, and “in the toe a small soft orange, with a wrinkled skin – the Christmas orange.” Soon, she continues, “the air, warm now, added the smell of orange skins to that of the candles and greens.”[2]

Among the layers upon layers of stories in that shoebox, the Christmas ones express something especially deep, an intentionality of spiritual practice even when the imagery is mainly of Santa and not of the baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. There is a practice of collective nourishment, of delight, of joy, and particularly of wonder. It is that wonder that strikes me almost 140 years later, on this particular Christmas. Wonder can have a unique capacity for holding the multiplicity of emotions and experiences, the stories we each we bring to this beautiful, central feast of the Christian Church year.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,” we hear from the letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 1:1). The opening Greek words here, Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως, “many parts” or “portions” and “many manners” or “many turns,” were also used to describe Odysseus in the Odyssey, the famous ancient epic poem.[3] As Homer had spoken of the poem’s namesake wending his way home through multiple twists and turns, God had spoken through the sharp, hopeful voices of the prophets to untold generations before us. “But in these last days,” the letter to the Hebrews continues, God “has spoken to us by a Son, whom [God] appointed heir of all things, through whom [God] also created the worlds. [That Son] is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” The writer of this letter – later attributed to the apostle Paul – speaks of the twists and turns, the multiple manners through which God spoke to God’s people, the multiplicity through which God storied creation into being, if you will. In later days—"these last days”, as the letter puts it – God speaks to us through a Son. I hear narrative multiplicity being held, refracted, offered to us anew in that Son. It is as if the storied layers of creation are being made visible from a new angle—not unlike when layers of ancient sedimentary rock are revealed in the dramatic upsurge of a California hill. In that gloriously visible rendering, creation is opened up to us anew in its fragility and wonder.

In the beginning was the Word, we hear in today’s gospel passage from John. We could render it, “in the beginning was the story.” In the beginning were we created in and for love. In the new beginning, that love came among us in the form of a baby, born of God and humanity to bring us back to the One who made us, to re-weave us as we fray, to call us deeper into relationship with one another, with all creatures, with this beautiful, vulnerable earth. In the beginning was wonder, a capacity for awe at all that God has done, is doing, will do. In wonder too there is a certain holding capacity to gently contain our stories, allowing them to flow among one another, to be in all their twisting and turning, even as we make new meanings of them in subsequent years or generations. Wonder can hold Christmases past in all their complex range, from joy and delight to melancholy and struggle, to humor and glee. Wonder reminds us of the Mystery of God who sustains all things by the powerful divine Word, a Word who does not linger above the fray but has joined us in the fragile flesh of a human baby, born into our midst, gloriously illumining and redeeming the stories of humankind, of creature-kind, of all creation.

On this Christmas, thanks be to God for the anchoring, generative power of story. Thanks be to God for those who came before us in all their humanity and frailty, who made mistakes and offered gifts, for the family and community they sought to weave among and beyond one another, for the wonder they cultivated. Thanks be to God for you, St. Aidan’s friends, for all the stories you carry, for the community and family you cultivate, for the power and wonder of your love. Merry Christmas.

[1] Henry Mel (1844-1918), “The Santa Claus Letter,” Fontenay, Christmas Eve, 1885. [2] Marian Louise Mel (1890-1984), “Christmas When I Was a Little Girl,” 1965. [3] Rev. Dr. Ellen Aitken, Lecture on the Letter to the Hebrews, Harvard Divinity School, January 2002. This same connection has been made more recently here as well:

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